Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

7:00 AM Laurel Garver
Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.

And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.

Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.

Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.

I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.

The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.

Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.

Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).

I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.

The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?

As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.

What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
What symbols best illustrate my theme?
What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?

How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase? 

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?
7:00 AM Laurel Garver
I'd intended to blog once I got back from Florida, where I was helping my mother prepare to move from independent to assisted living in her retirement community. What I didn't anticipate was arriving there with a toothache that turned out to be an abscessed molar. Fortunately, mom's dentist put me on an antibiotic, and we had so much to do that tasks rather than pain occupied most of my thoughts. But I kind of crashed when I got home. A root canal has alleviated the worst pain, and I'm slowly returning to normal.

Photo credit: sideshowmom from morguefile.com 
The primary task while in Florida was to help my mom choose a small portion of her copious belongings to move to her new studio apartment. Oddly enough, most of the purging process was pretty painless, because Mom hadn't even looked at some of her belongings in a decade, or realized she had no use for some items in her "new life" in which all meals are served in a dining room--no more meal prep or clean-up.


For over a year, she had resisted making the move, even though she was painfully lonely and isolated, because she falsely believed she needed a bigger apartment. All this stuff was holding her back from moving ahead, being in a better environment.

The whole experience got me thinking deeply about my relationship to not only stuff, but also ideas that can keep a person stuck. To extend my moving-prep metaphor, first step to overcoming the junk crammed in the closets is to open the door and actually look at it.

Here are a handful of ideas that can limit you, keep you stuck.

  • No one cares what I have to say; I'm a nobody.
  • No one else is writing about ___, so it must be a stupid idea.
  • Everyone is writing in __ genre, so I should, too.
  • That's way too complicated.
  • If I try this new thing, it will be such a time-suck, I'll go under.
  • I can't build a new routine, it's just too hard.
  • I can't afford ___ (to attend a conference, a pro editor, a computer that doesn't crash). 
  • This technique worked for me in the past.
  • All the experts say ___ will guarantee me success.
  • I'm scared of ___ (rejection, public speaking, not having a steady income).
  • My family needs X, Y, Z from me.
  • I can't ask so-and-so to pitch in, they'll just say no and make me resentful. 
  • My one experience doing ___ was so bad, no way will I try it again.
  • I can't approach X or Y, they are way too busy.
  • I don't have a head for ____ (marketing, social media, business).
  • What if I do this new thing at the wrong time and it flops?
  • What if people read my work and think I'm ____ (weird, unhinged, a heretic, a bad parent)?
  • I didn't do such-and-such perfectly the first time, so I might as well quit now.
  • This is really hard, therefore I must not have any natural talent and should quit.

Wow, that was kind of frightening, wasn't it? But I've had a lot of these thoughts, or heard them in some form from writer friends.

I don't have a quick fix for self-sabotage. But I know for sure that remaining in denial isn't going to resolve the problem any more than refusing to see the doctor about that weird mole will prevent you from having skin cancer.

So take the time to open that metaphorical dark cabinet where you've stuffed your worries and fears. Bring them into the light, examine them. Then consider how they might be false and need to be trashed, pronto. Or perhaps they seem true, but tell only part of the story. The unwritten part might involve a creative work-around, a challenge you just need to contemplate for a while, and a solution will come in time.

Do you ever emotionally "clean house"? What negative thoughts plague you that you'd like to jettison?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?
12:22 PM Laurel Garver
Image: TubeRadioLand.com
A trip yesterday to the Philadelphia History Museum got me thinking once again about people and their stuff. The museum is a small one, focused on Philadelphia's "material culture"--an archeology term that means physical evidence of a culture in the physical objects and architecture they make or have made. It's a study of objects to see what stories they tell us about people.

For instance, what does it tell us about an era to know it made horrid iron harness devices with a bell to be worn by enslaved people as punishment (as if being enslaved weren't punishment enough)?  What value did people in the 1940s place on radio, that they housed the ugly tubes and wires in mahogany cases called "cathedral style"?

If you write about historic eras or other worlds of the imagination, you have to think through these overarching, meta-level relationships between people and the objects in their environment in order to recreate the past or to create a compelling story world.

But how people relate to their belongings is significant on an individual level too. I'm perhaps more steeped in this aspect at the moment.

A character in my work-in-progress is someone who hoards aspirationally. He fills his home with things he thinks will enhance his image. But he's not wealthy enough to collect macho sports cars or hire marble sculptors to enshrine him in stone, so his collections are more modest but just as unable to satiate his underlying emotional need.

Next week I head south to help my mother purge belongings and pack for a move from independent to assisted living--going from six rooms, six closets to two rooms, two closets. It's not the physical work of packing I dread most, it's the emotional minefield I'll have to navigate as Mom contemplates parting with stuff she doesn't need but nonetheless can't imagine not having. Some deep ties will have to be severed so she has room to move in her new home.

We develop strong ties with objects over the course of a lifetime. Those ties in a sense can define our character. Perhaps it is a childhood toy that seems to hold all the magic of innocent, happy times (Rosebud in the film Citizen Kane comes to mind). Perhaps it's an inherited tool that confers familial blessing on an endeavor, like a pastry chef who relies on her great-grandma's rolling pin to create award-winning pastries. Perhaps it is a long-coveted object that once possessed gives one a sense of having "arrived" in the land of success, like a gold Rolex watch.

As you develop your story world, both large scale and small, consider the power of material culture to build and enhance your characterization.

What special objects in your life hold significance for you? Have you used significant objects in your writing to illuminate a culture or a person?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com
9:01 AM Laurel Garver
We hear again and again that without conflict, you have no story. So what kind of conflict should you have? How will it arise? One obvious way is to toss in a bad guy and mean girl or two and let them make trouble. Alas, bad guys and mean girls can become cliched and cardboard, sucking away energy and tension rather than adding it.

Who really wants to write generic bad guys, let alone read them? Ya-awn. And who says you really need a traditional villain anyway?

Here's another concept, from Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters: "...you don't actually have to have a villain in your story at all. Many novels flourish without any bad guys. The conflict in these books comes from wrongheadedness, moral muddles, human confusion and incompatible goals of basically sympathetic characters."

What you might have instead of villains are simply characters who play an antagonistic role, blocking your character, causing her doubt and anxiety, influencing her to do out-of-character risky things. We all have people in our own lives like this. Here are a passel of traits that can make some of your characters become causers of conflict.

Good at 101 things your protagonist is not
This is the shiny, perfect person who makes your otherwise competent protagonist become a babbling idiot. And if the good-at-everything person is also humble and nice, all the better for highlighting your protagonist's neuroses and insecurities.

Curious to the point of being nosy
Whether it's the neighbor who logs your protagonist's comings and goings, or the geeky guy who stalks your teen MC or that annoying little kid who can't hesitate asking "whatcha doin', mister?" every time your lead tinkers with his car, a nosy antagonist can quickly change your protagonist's habits and behaviors to avoid the scrutiny.

Em, they're watching. Go on, do it. Prove how cool we are.
Acceptance obsessed
It's good to have friends, but when social climbing becomes a ruling passion, watch out! This kind of antagonist might drag your MC into some strange new worlds he'd never normally go near in the endless quest to get close to the "right people." The acceptance hound also might drop your MC at the moment of greatest need because he's "not cool" anymore. And this behavior is certainly not limited to the under-22 set (though it's perhaps overdone in YA).

Ambitious to an extreme
On the job, he's "the yes man" who everyone thinks is "so nice," until he betrays co-worker after co-worker on his climb to the top. In school, she's the girl who is so determined to have "leadership quality" singing all through her transcript that she joins every club and pulls strings to get officer positions. The trick of making ambitious antagonists not become bland is to make their motivation for success complex and fraught with inner tension. Some of their reasons should be noble.

Invasive and clingy
These Velcro types don't have clear boundaries about where they end and another begins. Clingy folks like this love in a smothering way. They need to be needed. They take unprecedented pride in their beloved's accomplishments and take it as a personal attach when their beloved doesn't mind read and live up to their unspoken expectations. When your protagonist attempts to get needed distance, the clinger just pursues and clings even more. When a Velcro-type is in the picture, every outside relationship suddenly becomes a tug of war for the protagonist's attention.

Change averse
When inertia rules for a key player in your protagonist's life, it will require a lot more than bribes or whining for your protagonist to get to her goal. She'll have to evade and work around the stuck antagonist's habits. To make any major change that includes this person--a move, job change, having kids, getting an education--will require mustering every resource the protagonist has at her disposal. Change-averse types can be very charming in their stuckness, if you can overlook the wardrobe that's 40 years out of date.

True believer
A character who is certain of his moral rightness can become a fearsome opponent to your protagonist. When this antagonist's cause is just, but blocking or hindering your protagonist's goal, it can lead your protagonist to doubt and founder. Proselytizing is common from this type too, though the cause may be ecology or veganism or Marxism rather than religion.

Addict
Whether it's an alcoholic, workaholic or shopaholic, the addicted antagonist is often in the grips of a drive she can't control with willpower. She'll desert your protagonist, take away resources, and in some cases, add chaos to your protagonist's life. Yet addictions are often a kind of mental illness that need treatment, adding a layer of guilt when your protagonist gets fed up.

What kinds antagonists are making life difficult for your protagonist?
 What other traits would you add to the list?

Photo credit: taylorschlades from morguefile.com

Monday, June 15, 2015

Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?
12:03 PM Laurel Garver
Every season comes with special challenges for writers. In summer, it's often kids home from school, friends and family visiting, and time away for family vacation that can destroy your writing routine.

But what if time away from the keyboard could be as useful to your craft as the hours of "butt in chair"? The hours you spend out in the world can indeed be a creative gift to you, putting you in new places with access to new experiences. In particular, you have wonderful access to the laboratory of human emotion. You just have to pay attention.

People-watching is the best way to gain an understanding of how real people express their feelings. Observe and record, and you'll never be at a loss for how to represent your characters in your fiction-- without resorting to tired cliches.

Do this haphazardly, however, and it won't be as useful an exercise. Organization is truly key.

With these issues in mind, I created a tool that writers of any genre can use to develop their own "emotions bible" in their own authorial voice. It is based on an exercise used by method actors: observing and journaling expression, gesture, carriage, stance, motion in order to better embody it on stage.

Emotions in the Wild: A Writer's Observational Journal contains over 200 pages of guided journaling exercises to help you record your observations of how real people express thirty nine different emotions. Once completed, the journal can serve as your go-to source for creating realistic dialogue and facial and body language that is uniquely yours.  You can use it again and again on any fiction project.

Tuck the journal in your bag and make use of any and every opportunity to observe emotion, whether you're stuck in line at the grocery store, waiting for your child at swim lessons, sitting in a doctor's waiting room, or lounging on the beach or at the pool. Watch your emotional vocabulary grow, you productivity soar, and your reliance on cliches fade away,

Add it on Goodreads
Purchase the paperback from CreateSpace / Amazon (US) / Amazon (UK)

Where will summer take you? How might your writing benefit from observation research?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?
12:47 PM Laurel Garver
While your real-life name is something you inherit and have to live into, up to, or out of, a fictional character's name is a tool for its creator to communicate something about the person. Juliet's contention that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" has not been borne out by the research. Names shape our perception. They form mental pictures for readers.

Naming characters is one of my great joys as a writer. Finding the right name can happen almost instinctively, though I enjoy deliberating about it as part of the character development process.
I write realistic fiction, so the issues I consider below will be most applicable for stories set in contemporary or historic real-life settings. Still, SciFi and fantasy writers might want to consider at least some of the issues I ponder when deciding upon a character's name.

Generational fit

How old is the character? Does his name fit in as contemporary within his peer group or stand out as either old-timey or fashion-forward?

Reader perception is influenced by their own experiences, so they will naturally imagine your character's age based on generational fit. Name three female characters Jeanie, Susan, and Hannah, readers won't picture three teens, they'll picture three generations: a grandmother, mother, and teen.

One of the first steps I take when picking character names is determining their ages and birth years. There's a bit of number crunching involved. Using the protagonist as my reference point, I also calculate the ages of parents, siblings, and other extended family who will appear in the story.

Next, I hit my go-to resource for name trends: the Social Security Administration's name database. They track each year's 1,000 most popular names, and their data goes back all the way back to 1880. This provides me with a pretty good starter list. Any name I choose off the top of the list will communicate trendiness or "typical specimen of this generation." Names in the 75th to 150th position both fit in and stand out. They seem like individuals, but not of the extreme oddball variety. Names down in the 600s or 700s will seem like weirdos, oddballs, or even outcasts.

Sometimes you want a name to stand out for thematic reasons. I named my protagonist's Gen-X mother Grace, which would be perceived as a "grandma" sort of name in her generation. It sticks out more than if I'd named her, say, Deborah, popular for her generation and a better pairing with sibling David (alliterative and also Hebrew in origin). The oddness is a clue to readers that there's a story behind the name, especially when Grace repeatedly behaves ungraciously.

Ethnicity

Another consideration is the characters' ethnicity and their relationship to it. There's no such thing as a nonethnic name, unless you call your characters X or H or V like values in an algebraic formula. Every human has some kind of ethnic background, even John and Jane Doe, who certainly couldn't just melt into the background were they walking the streets of Tashkent or Yaoundé.

In American contexts, the names of your characters can communicate a sense of place as much as describing a setting in detail. A mill town peopled with characters named Tony diFrancesco and Lucia Vincenzo will be a palpably different place than one with characters named Gordon MacElroy and Bonnie Fergus. Urban settings reflect their diversity most convincingly when peopled with folks from a variety of backgrounds. Of course, your urban character may very well live in an ethnically insular "ghetto." The character names should reflect that reality. Likewise, you say a lot about a character when his closest allies have names reflecting an ethnic diversity that isn't the norm for his community.

In contexts where a character goes to a different environment, names of the people she meets there will help ground the setting. Much of my novel Never Gone occurs in England, so it was important that the British characters be distinguishable from the Americans. I chose names more fashionable across the pond, including Graham, Oliver, Reggie, Gemma, Elliott, Hugh, Cecily, Eliza, and Jane. Online regional magazines and phone directories can be helpful for finding appropriate surnames for an area.

Characters that attempt to suppress their ethnicity communicate an ambivalent relationship with their heritage, or even an outright rejection of it. Consider how the title character in The Great Gatsby hides his Jewish heritage by changing his name from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby.

Associations

To whom or to what is this character linked? Who is he most like (or unlike) in my fictional universe? What myths, stories, literature resonate with her story arc?

Creating a legacy name that is shared by a long line of characters, for instance George Sr., George Jr. George III, will link the men for good or ill. So will the Jewish practice of using the same initial letter to honor a dead relative: Chelsea to honor grandpa Chaim, for example. Namesakes always have a bit of unspoken expectation laid on them--to follow an example or redeem a tragedy.

Names can also be allusive, bringing outside stories to bear on your work, resonating within it. Name a girl Pandora, and readers will expect her to set some terrible chain of events into motion, like the woman in Greek mythology. For this reason, it pays to read up on literary uses of a name before you settle on it.

Family dynamics

What do I want to communicate about the name-giver (parent, family of origin)?

My husband attended grad school with a classmate named Lovechild. You can picture the parents from that one fact, can't you? Hippies in fringe and beads and daisy-chain crowns who are all about peace, love and power to the people. And how about the guy who named his daughters Portia, Marina, and Cordelia? Probably a Shakespeare aficionado.

My protagonist in Never Gone, Danielle Renee, has a name that reflects French ancestry on her mother's side of the family. Here, the ethnic name speaks of Dani's mother desire to connect with her French relatives.

Families that give all the children alliterative names value cohesion. Trend-followers worry most about fitting in with their community. Those who choose classic names value tradition. Lovers of offbeat names value individual expression. Odd spellings can signal parents who are subliterate.

Likability

Psychology researchers have found that people tend to perceive people as more trustworthy who have an easily pronounceable name.

Other research has found that the texture of a name, especially the number of syllables, leads to certain impressions. The more syllables in a female name, the more she will be perceived as ultra-feminine, sensitive, delicate. The name book Beyond Jennifer and Jason categorizes names along a spectrum: no-frills, feminine, feminissa for girls, with the names Alexa, Alexis, Alexandra  and Alice, Alicia, Alyssa given as examples.

For guys, short names connote strength but also lack of ethics; longer names are less fun but more successful. Brock is more likely to lead a hostile takeover, while Sebastian might build a new venture from the ground up. Nicknames say fun-loving, but not necessarily a rock on whom you can depend in a crisis.

Do enjoy naming characters or find it difficult? Why?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?
4:40 PM Laurel Garver
Photo credit: GaborfromHungary from morguefile.com 
You've found the perfect expert to chat with about a topic that's integral to your novel's plot or your protagonist's characterization. Once you get your expert to agree to meet, what should you do next?

Prepare!

Here's a checklist to help you make the most of your interview with any expert.

(Not convinced interviewing is useful? Check out my posts "The Limits of Google Research" and "Expertise is Everywhere: Why and How to Use Interviews to Research Fiction")

Research the topic

Spend some time reading up a bit on the topic you hope to ask your expert about. This will help you get a rudimentary grasp of key concepts and enable you to focus your questions most effectively.

Prepare your goals ahead of time

It’s helpful to have a general purpose planned ahead—-a sense of what you want to get out of the interview. This will help you develop the most relevant questions and keep you on topic. But don’t hold so tightly to your preconceptions about an interviewee’s knowledge base that you miss the opportunity to get great insider information you had no idea existed.

Develop questions

The best questions are open-ended, conversation starters that encourage expansive answers. They begin with “How?” “What?” “Where?” “When?” “Why?”  Try the Starburst technique discussed in THIS post, paired with your research, to develop questions that will get you the information you need.

Keep in mind that short questions are better than long, multi-part ones. The latter are likely to cause the interviewee to only partially answer.

Overprepare

It’s a good idea to prepare roughly twice as many questions as you expect to need, just in case the interviewee is a quick talker or claims ignorance about a topic (or refers you elsewhere for an answer). Having too many questions will also to give you added confidence that you’ll never be at a loss for topics.

Organize your questions from most important to least so that if the interview is cut short due to an interruption, you’ll get the most essential answers first.

Find a good location

Avoid noisy coffee shops (unless you’re interviewing the shop owner or a barista). Try instead to interview in a place that has some relevance to your story or your subject, like their home, workplace or place where they use their expertise. You’ll gain a further sense of context, and your expert will likely feel more comfortable (and open) in a familiar place.

Test your equipment

It’s a good idea to make an audio recording. Your notes are never going to be 100 percent accurate. Neither is your memory. And recording frees you up to have a more natural conversation. If anything the subject says raises questions you hadn’t thought of, you’re more able to follow up than if you’re busy scribbling everything the person says.

That said, be sure to rehearse with your recording device before you meet up with your interviewee. Figure out how close the mic needs to be to pick up both voices, and ensure the device has adequate power or batteries to last the entire time.

(Ready to go? Tips on conducting fiction interviews are available HERE)

What kind of expertise would help you with your current project?