Thursday, 31 January 2013

How many friends is too many friends?

For a long time, I thought it odd that fictional characters almost never have more than two friends. The main character in Vampire Diaries (I'm talking the novel, not the TV series) is supposed to be the most popular girl in the school, but from memory, she only has two friends, and one of those leaves her within the first few chapters.

I used to lament that this whole portrayal of friendship was horrendously unrealistic, and that not everyone only has one friend and never talks to anyone else in their class, surely. But then I read Louise Rennison's Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series, and I understood why. Georgia Nicolson has so many friends that I have only ever managed to get my head around two of them. (A little research reveals that Georgia Nicholson only actually has five friends. Which just goes to show how few fictional characters I can cope with.)

The problem here is not actually with the number of characters in the work, but the number of characters who serve the same purpose. All of them just blur into one 'friend'. I'm sure they have distinguishing traits, but they don't really have distinguishing effects on the plot. I've been facing a similar problem while editing recently: not so much that I worry that readers will forget who my characters are, but that they will be bored by all the minor walk-on-walk-off characters, and although they might remember who they are, they won't actually care.

The answer to readers' lack of interest in who your myriad of characters are is, I believe, to merge them. And on that note, I offer some thoughts which will hopefully help you know when to start merging, and when to stop (before your work ends up with just one incredibly conflicted character).

  • Label your characters with those horribly stifling labels such as 'protagonist' and 'comic relief'. Look at characters who share a label, and work out if they provide some sort of contrast or conflict to each other. If you have two protagonists who never argue, both strive for the same goal and have similar personalities - well, why do you have two protagonists?
  • Find characters who serve the same purpose in terms of their actions within the story. If Alice and Bob are both there to provide support to the protagonist, although one does it in the role of love interest, and the other of comic relief, why not make the love interest more comic, and do away with Bob altogether?
  • Do two of your characters always appear as a pair? And when I say 'always appear as a pair' I mean that they are literally never on screen (or page) alone, and that they may as well be conjoined twins.If there's no reason why you have two of them rather than one, it may be better to just have one.
  • I often find myself with characters who are around for long enough that I start to feel awkward calling them 'the man in the hat', but not around for so long that I feel like I should give them a name and a backstory. If you have any characters that have reached this awkward stage, look out for characters who already have names and backstory, who aren't doing much at the moment and could fill their role instead.
  • At the end of the day, some characters are just really boring. In the first draft that I am currently editing, I had a major character - possibly the third-main character - who I just found really, really dull. She was instrumental in driving the early plot, and she took an active role in it, but she was also incredibly boring. So I took her role, and gave it to a very minor character who I really liked for no good reason. I now I have a major character who I like with good reason. Everybody wins!
As I wrote those dot-points, I became more and more aware that I sound like I'm subscribing to the delete-everything school of editing. The school which suggests that you should have as few words, as few characters and as short sentences as you can. So I add a disclaimer: I'm not saying that you should delete and merge characters based solely on these thoughts, just that if you feel like you have too many characters, and that it might be hard to keep track, these are things to consider. I hope someone finds them useful.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Three things that make me want to read a novel (and three that don't)

Recently, I've been snooping around the Blind Speed Dating Contest at Cupid's Literary Connection. While sadly one needs a completed manuscript and a query to enter - neither of which I yet have - I've had an excellent time reading other people's pitches. I'm far from an expert in knowing what agents or publishers are looking for in queries, but here's a list of what makes me keep reading, and what makes me put the book down in disgust, helped along by some lovely examples from the contest on the positive side, and some examples of my own on the other:

The Good

  1. Out-of-the-blue plots: "Finn Rackham is tired of being told that he's bound to end up just like his parents--behind bars.  Sure, his temper is a little toasty, but that doesn't make him a criminal.  But when he accidentally falls in with a band of pirates..." (The Lost Figurehead) Nobody saw those pirates coming. It actually makes me really happy when you start reading a book expecting one genre, and get something else - it means the book isn't just stuck in the rut of, say, 'paranormal romance'. It's welcome change from books that follow the conventions of their genre.

  2. Shameless awesomeness: On the topic of Finn Rackham - "But the men and women who sail under Captain Kelsey Dash are not the sword-swinging, pistol-wielding, treasure-hunting rapscallions he expects.  They're time travelers, and they just commandeered a ferry in New York Harbor." There are some things that just ought to exist. Time travelling pirates. Bishounen wizards. Magical boarding school. On the one hand, they could be described as shamelessly gratuitous. On the other hand - if you don't appreciate a good time-travelling pirate, I don't know what you're doing with your life.

  3. Unusual juxtapositions: There's nothing better than reading along and suddenly that the antagonist of your teen fiction is none other than "the legendary “once and future king”—King Arthur himself." (Broken in Blue I've often come across writing advice that suggests that to make an interesting character, you need to give them two conflicting or contrasting traits. For years I thought this was trite and unhelpful. But then someone (and I can't remember who) explained it with the example of a young girl who wants to pursue her interest in necromancy, but has to babysit her younger siblings. And everything made sense. Totally unexpected juxtapositions are what make original fiction. And of course, who can go past something billed as "LE MORTE D’ARTHUR meets GOSSIP GIRL"?
The Bad
  1. Vaguely atmospheric words: Stephenie Meyer apparently chose the title of Twilight from a list of 'atmospheric words' offered by her publisher. If the first sentence of a blurb contains lots of atmospheric words ("Elina's fate is wreathed in shadows...") and no actual content, chances are I'm going to put the book down.

  2. A main character who wants to be normal: The best way to introduce a novel, in my opinion, is to tell me the really exciting things that your main character wants to go out a do. "Jessie Warnes just wants to be normal..." immediately has me thinking that Jessie Warnes is going to be a relatively dull type of person. I want a main character who was wants to be part of the action.

  3. Fiery redheads: I think the world has a quota of fictional fiery redheads, and I think it has been reached. I am sick of them. If anyone says "a temper to match her hair" or tries to describes a character's personality by telling us their hair-colour I will put the book down. It's overdone, and it's lazy writing. I want a character with a personality, not a hair-colour.
A Fun Fact
  • If you don't know how to start writing your query, every single one goes like this: "<number>-year-old <name> is <unusual trait>. When <negative experience>, s/he must..."

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Word Master Challenge: How Not to Write a Novel Beginning

The challenge, from Misha Gericke's blog My First Book:
In less than 300 words, I want to see your idea of the WORST beginning you can possibly write. The funnier and more creative you are, the better. To make it easier for me, you have the WHOLE of January to enter, but you must please enter the SPECIFIC entry link into the linky list below.

My entry:
Ediana's Diary
Dear Diary,

I wrote as I stared fixedly out the window,

Today happened as usual, Princess Sarelihta woke us to bring her tea, we brought it as usual. Like I said, nothing interesting.

Princess Sarilehta makes us write diaries to check we like her. Naturally, we don’t write that we hate her. I am Princess Sarehlita’s maid, servant, slave, whatever. So are Sarihna, Gadkinalia, and Eve. Well, we’re slaves but she would never call us that.… Whatever. Back to the diary.

The day was the same as always. Routine.

I HATE ROUTINE!!!!! I don’t know why people invented it. The same thing, every day. BORING!!!!!!

I stared out the window. The view was the same as every other day. The stables, the forest the lake and far in the distance, the mountains. There’s also the town, Capiton, on the river. Further down there’re more towns, and then it goes up to the mountains. I thought about exploring it all, but I knew I would never escape from here.

I was taking the breakfast things down when I first saw him. I do that every morning. Bring Princess Sarelita her tea, prepare her bath, get the breakfast, and bring it down, all the boring stuff. And we also did whatever else she told us.

The drawbridge opened. A lad, who looked about sixteen, suddenly came in, Perhaps, I thought, he’s bringing interesting news. There could be something interesting happening…

He had onyx hair. “Do you know the way to the royal dining room?” he queried me.

“That way. I’m going there right now, but if you plan to go, I suggest you get out of your travelling clothes and have a bath, first. Her majesty can’t stand it if you come without washing yourself. I tried it once.”

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A Foray into Fanfiction

For a long time – although I have had a account since 2006 – I have been a bit wary of writing fanfiction in a serious way. When I read novel-length fanfictions, while I have the greatest respect for their authors, I find myself wondering: if you had the time and energy to write that much, and then make it into something decent which you would feel comfortable putting out to the world, couldn’t you write original fiction? It seems to me like a terrible waste of good writing to use it on someone else’s characters rather than your own.

Many writers out there who suggest using fanfiction as a way to improve your writing without having to worry about serious things like character development, or worldbuilding. I always figured – wrongly – that this was for people who wrote for completely different reasons to me. I love worldbuilding and creating characters, and so I thought it didn’t apply.

As it turns out, I was entirely wrong. As I have mentioned in the past, I’m in the process of editing the first draft of a 115,000 word novel-in-progress. I wrote a post last week detailing my methods, but honestly, I haven’t a clue how to go about it. I’ve been reading a lot of writing blogs and advice by published authors on how to edit in the hope that they will explain this to me. Things like how one should cut ALL the adverbs, never, ever use a dialogue tag other than ‘said’, and remove every sentence that doesn’t serve at least two purposes. I don’t know, at this point, whether any of these things are true. I don’t mind adverbs, but I know that I horribly overuse the word ‘suddenly’.  I read a fanfiction the other day in which someone ‘tsk’ed an entire line of dialogue, and I recognise this isn’t physically possible, but I’m sure words like ‘exclaimed’ and ‘whispered’ exist with good reason. And as for the last one, I just don’t think that I can.

Without any practise, I don’t know yet what works in writing, or what works for me. If I start on a 115,000 word monstrosity, it will take me a long time to work it out. What with the two-and-a-half years that it took me to write the thing, the year-and-a-half it’s taken me to start editing, the whole writing process isn’t going to make sense to me any time soon. On the other hand, if I start on a 300 word drabble, I’ll know have a mini snapshot of the writing process in a much shorter space of time.. And then I shall apply it to my novel-in-progress.

That is, at least, the plan.

(And guys, by the way, read my fanfiction. It’s an Eponine/Cosette fic, of sorts.)

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

How to Edit a Novel

After months of procrastination, I’ve finally decided to get back to editing my 100,000 word draft of what may one day become a legitimate novel. In honour of this venture, I’m writing a post on how I’ve been going about editing so far. The title is probably a misnomer, since I haven’t done enough to be sure if this is a definitive way to edit. I’ve also only covered how I’m going from draft one to draft two, which is very broad editing, rather than nit-picking prose. I figured I’d write down what I’ve done  anyway, in the hope that it will help someone out there to edit their own novel.

1. Read your novel
This step is deeply unnerving. It may make you cringe a lot. On the other hand, you’ll also hopefully discover your favourite parts of your novel, and remember what you like about it, in order to know what to keep. I also got my sister and a friend to read it and highlight the parts which they would be very sad if I deleted. I wrote a post a while ago about how I felt like in editing I was getting rid of all my favourite parts of the novel, so I thought this was a very important step to do. I also often feel like authors don’t realise what makes their work amazing, and so I think it’s good to get feedback on what you’re doing right before you change it.

2. List your scenes
This helps to get everything straight in your head, and to organise things on paper. I did it in an Excel spreadsheet under these headings:

  • Scene number
  • POV
  • Setting
  • Plot points (this one is good for pinpointing scenes that have no plot points, so you know to change them later)
  • Characters (I gave each character their own column, so I could tick of what scenes they were in, and make it easier to sort the spreadsheet and do step three)

3. Streamline your plot
I did this first of all by writing out the plot, as simply as I could, from the perspective of each of the main characters, not including anything which didn’t have an effect later on in the book. Doing it separately by character probably isn’t necessary for everyone, but I was writing a novel which was based on who knew what, and when, and it was getting horrendously inconsistent. It’s also handy for making sure your characters all have motivation.
After that, I wove together all my streamlined character-plots into one logical, coherent plot.

4. Write a new scene list
This step is pretty self explanatory. I modified my scene list to include the new scenes I needed to make the plot make sense, cut the old ones that weren’t relevant, and modified which needed modification. I was pretty harsh with cutting at this point, only keeping scenes in my list which were absolutely necessary. I think I came out with about a third of the scenes I originally had, but I’ve been adding more scenes in as I go along. At this step, though, I wanted it to be as clear and concise as possible.

5. Open a blank document
Copy in the scenes from your first draft that just need a bit of tweaking. Write in the new scenes that you need. These are the difficult part, on which I offer no advice. Good luck.