Clarity

Gotta love ambiguity.  I was reading one of my genealogy blogs this morning, and there was a ‘news’ segment that gave links to other articles.  The title of one was:  “Digital Panopticon: London convicts database project”.

My first reaction was, ‘Why?  What did they do wrong?’  The problem arose from the word ‘convicts’.  There is a noun and a verb form of that word, with different meanings.  In this instance, the article is referring to ‘London convicts’ (noun), aka criminals.  But my reading the word in its verb form suggested that Digital Panopticon had been found guilty of some wrongdoing and were to be punished.

Words are beautiful things, but they can also be tricky.  In this case, the headline didn’t make sense to me (I couldn’t think of what a digitization project might be guilty of), so I reconsidered and realized my misinterpretation.  But that isn’t always the case with readers.  Often they merely take the words at face value, with whatever meaning they initially perceive.  Only if someone challenges them on it do they give the matter more thought.

That can make a difference in our writing.  We want our readers to understand what we are saying (and what we mean to say), and so we have to choose our words carefully.  That is one of the reasons writers are often counseled to have a trusted friend or beta reader go over their manuscript.  New eyes may see things that were missed because we knew what we meant.

While there may be times when you as the writer, or a character in your story, wants to obfuscate words or meanings, most of the time that isn’t so.  Clearly clarity is needed.

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Say What?

I worked with someone once who did not have strong English/vocabulary skills.  Our boss would dictate memos about his client meetings, and she or I would transcribe the tape.  (Yes, ‘in the old days’ people dictated stuff onto tapes that got transcribed.  Imagine that.)  The problem was, our boss had an excellent vocabulary and used it when he spoke, but she couldn’t always recognize the word he was using.  When she heard a word unfamiliar to her, she would take her best guess at how it was spelled and let the computer ‘suggest’ possibilities.  But the computer was limited – it had no way of knowing the context or what word was wanted, so it just offered anything spelled similarly.  She would choose one at random, assuming it was correct.

When she would type up tapes for him, I always proofread them before they got filed, to hopefully correct any errors.  She would get so mad at me for laughing, but truly some of the word substitutions were hilarious.  Could you not laugh at “historical performance” being transformed into “hysterical performance”?

People are fond of relying on their computers to catch mistakes of spelling and grammar, and over the years the machines have become better at the job.  Even so, they don’t know what you mean to say, only what you seem to be saying.  Then they give you a ‘best guess’.  As the writer, it is your job to know you are using the correct words.  If you have any doubt whatsoever, look it up.  Does the definition given match what you meant?  If it doesn’t, then possibly you have a word that sounds or is spelled similarly, but not the word you mean.

Try variations of spellings until you find the one that matches.

You can also look at synonyms to sometimes find alternative words that more closely describe what you intend.  Just be careful, since not all synonyms are created equal.  They are ‘similar’ in meaning, but not necessarily identical.  You may need to check the meaning of the synonym before you use it, to be sure it expresses what you want.

Good luck, and may your next hysterical drama…er, historical drama be a bestseller.

Write What You Know, or Knew, or Find Out

You may have heard the writing advice ‘write what you know’, and you may have heard arguments for and against that idea.  But, perhaps, we need to look at the advice with a more inclusive eye.

Most writers are at least 18 years old before they fully start ‘working’ at writing.  They may have dabbled with it before then, but as they grew to adulthood, they began to realize that it was something that was a part of them, and that they wanted to be an active part of their lives.  That being the case, they have had 18 years (or more) of experiences in their lives.  Of course, not all are remembered, but many are.

This doesn’t mean just the experiences they personally had, but also the ones they witnessed.  Why is this important?  Those experiences can provide fodder for the writer’s story.  Some experiences can be plucked from our history ‘as is’ and presented as belonging to a character.  Some will require tweaking to make them fit into our story scenario.  Either way, they can provide nuance to a character, and make them a little more real.  This doesn’t mean write about yourself or pretend the character is you.  The character just happens to have an experience that you’ve had, making it easier to describe how the events play out and what the character feels before, during and after it happens.

Many people have been in a romantic relationship, and many have broken up with someone – or been broken up with by another person.  That helps give the writer perspective on the deep feelings and thoughts a person has at a time like that.  It wasn’t the same for every single couple who broke up, so it shouldn’t be the same every single time you write it in a story.

Similarly, we can get ideas for creative events to include in stories.  A writer can always use activities in their stories that every other writer also uses, but why?  If none of us are living exactly the same life as the billions of other people on this planet, then why should our characters?

Are you really into video games, but you also are an avid gardener?  Use that.  It can give your character more depth.

Did you once have a mouse die in the wall of your home, and the smell drove you nuts for over a week until the problem could be found and resolved?  Use that.

As a child, did you or your brother or sister decide to cut your own hair, to less than spectacular results?  How did the adults/your parents react?

Did you see someone fall asleep in class and witness the embarrassment when the teacher awoke them?

Did you try to fly home for Thanksgiving one year, but end up spending the entire holiday stuck in the airport without ever making it home?  Did you go on a long-planned trip to Disney World only to be sick the entire time and unable to enjoy it?  Did your weekend of planned sun and fun at the beach involve gray skies, high surf and a steady rain?

Don’t know much about 6-year-old kids?  Look around you and find some to observe (not in a creepy way – we don’t want to get you arrested).  How do they talk – how well has their vocabulary developed?  How do they move – what are they physically able/unable to do at that age?  How do they think/perceive – do they ask questions when told to do something, though you think the instructions were clear?  If you’re, say, at a park, and there are parents with those kids, talk to them and ask them questions.  Most parents enjoy talking about (or venting about) their kids.  Reading about 6-year-olds online as research can be useful, but even better is to actually see examples in person.  Many times research gives you generalities about things, not the specific details you might want.

Look at your past for stories or incidents that happened to you or someone else.  Then start looking around you at other people.  Notice physical traits (hairstyle, a limp, a mole on their cheek, their build), notice what they do and how they behave, study the way they move or talk, watch the choices they make.  There are people everywhere – on the street, in stores, in the car next to us on the road, on the train, at school, at work, sitting in the doctor’s waiting area, in elevators.  If the opportunity presents itself, maybe strike up a short conversation and learn a little more about them, or what you are seeing them do (maybe a teenage girl is sitting in the doctor’s waiting area and knitting – why?).

Depending on what you write, not all of it will be of use to you as source material, but you might find unexpected nuggets of gold if you keep sifting.  Just because you aren’t sitting at your computer/desk doesn’t mean you can’t work on your writing.

How To Be Inspired When Writing

  1. Try to go to bed
  2. Be incredibly busy with other stuff that must be done
  3. Need to go to school/work right now
  4. Be driving in your car so that you are unable to write anything down
  5. Decide to write on something other than your WIP (work in progress) [to get inspiration for your WIP]
  6. Plan to spend the entire day with family or friends
  7. Be trying to ‘sleep in’ on the weekend or a day off

See?  Easy.  Whenever it’s inconvenient, inspiration comes.

Kindle Scout, fyi

Blogger Mladen Reljanović, on his Writer to Writers blog, posted an interesting article today about the Kindle Scout program.  For those of you who publish, or hope to publish, you may find it of interest:  http://writertowriters.com/kindle-scout-kindle-publishing-option/

NOTE:  I have no personal knowledge of Kindle Scout, so I can offer no encouragement or warning with regards to it, only make you aware of it if you weren’t already.

Do You Only Write About the ‘Big’ Stuff?

The world, and most movies, turn on big events.  Events that are important or painful or epic (whatever that means) or profound in some way.  But the big events are not the heart of most stories.  It is the small events taking place around the big events that connect the reader to what is happening.  If you see/read about an entire city being utterly destroyed, it has an impact on you.  But how much greater is that impact if you see/read about people fleeing for their lives, trying to get out before it happens?  How much greater is your grief when you see parents saving their children while sacrificing their own lives?  How much more touching is it to see people rise to the best in themselves and risk their lives to help total strangers, when it would be easier to flee?  Those tiny things make that big event so much more meaningful.

Now, that is an extreme example.  Not all stories have such a huge, devastating event in them.  Even so, the small tidbits surrounding your main storyline can support it.  Seeing your big, battle-hardened warrior interacting with a child strengthens your story later when you have him fall in love and decide maybe he does want kids of his own after all.  Seeing evidence of your villain doing cruel or nasty things to others in small things helps build the image of him/her as a mean person (think of our introduction to Gru in Despicable Me), so when they do something really heinous, the reader saw it coming.  And if they manage to break out of that cycle and turn down a better path, we cheer all the more loudly that they overcame habits and tendencies they’ve had for most of their lives.

I’ve mentioned before that I write fan fiction.  While I do write longer stories, I have a ‘series’ going that involves a lot of one-shots.  These are more ‘episodes in the life of’ than anything else.  But they build on the series, and add some dimension to a character or characters in the series.  In one story, it focuses on a child cutting her own hair and involves the reaction by each parent to the event, and the perspective of the child as to why she did it.  It was a small thing, but even so young, and even such an insignificant event in her life bolstered who her character was for the entire series.  Would the series have been fine without that story?  Yes, certainly.  But such a small thing allowed an exploration into the thoughts and sensibilities of three main characters, and in ways that couldn’t necessarily be done in many other ways.

Was it critical to the Harry Potter series that Dobby developed such an obsessive liking for clothes?  Not at all, but it endeared the character to us even more so that we cared more deeply what happened to him in the course of the remaining books.  If we had met him in Book 2 and then not seen him again until Book 7, with very little mention of him, we would not care nearly so much about the outcome.

Details, even seemingly small and insignificant ones, can make a difference.

May the Best Man Win!?

The story I just wrote was interesting.  Usually, the characters behave themselves and do what they are supposed to do.  In this case, the protagonist’s sidekick kept hogging the limelight.  To a certain extent, he was meant to, but he…got carried away.  I got carried away with him.  I liked the character and he was fun to write, but he was overshadowing the protagonist to the point that I knew readers would question why the love interest didn’t go for the sidekick instead of the protagonist.

Fortunately, I recognized that fairly early in the story and was able to dampen his role and bump up the protagonist so that he “made sense” as the lead.  The sidekick didn’t disappear entirely, but he became less present on the page and the protagonist was able to step forward and take his rightful place.

It is easy to fall in love with a character so much that we get carried away in making use of them, but if it isn’t their story, it won’t work.  Be sure people are doing what they need to do in order for the story to make sense.  If they aren’t, then maybe you aren’t telling the right story.

If X is the hero, let him, even make him, be the hero.  It may mean rewriting a lot of what you already have written down, but it is the only way for the story to work.  And, if you discover a more interesting story surfaces among the characters, then make the entire story shape around that.  Trying to force disparate elements together (character vs. story) just never works.  It confuses the reader and doesn’t accomplish your purpose.

Whatever you write, let the best man (or woman, or child, or creature) win.

Who is Your Character?

I mostly write fan fiction, and therefore have read quite a bit of it.

In the Harry Potter universe, Draco Malfoy is well-known as Harry’s nemesis through most of his school years.  Only much later in the books does he really reveal any redeeming qualities at all.  The problem, though, is that he was represented in film by Tom Felton.  Many girls developed a crush on the actor, and so when they turned to writing fan fiction in the HP world, they wanted to include Draco and they wanted him to be “good”.  Now, I can deal with someone writing a storyline that drifts from what the author originally wrote, but if they are going to change the nature of the characters to any appreciable extent, they need to provide a valid reason for the change.  We have seen Draco be nothing but arrogant, snotty, rude and even downright mean, particularly toward Harry and his friends.  If you want me to believe that they are all now “best buds”, then you need to show me a compelling reason for that change.  Why did Draco turn away from all that bad behavior and become someone who could be friends with the Trio?  Or did the Trio have a compelling reason to give up being good and go join Draco in being bad?

Why does this matter?  It’s part of staying true to the character.  It isn’t a bad thing for a character to change over the course of time and events, but show that change happening, show what is causing it to happen.  Few people make a drastic personality change on a whim for no discernible reason.  J.K. Rowling understood that, and changes in Draco were incremental through the course of the book, so that toward the end, you understood a little of how and why he regained respectability.  These fan fiction authors don’t ‘get it’, and they make a complete turnaround in behavior happen in the blink of an eye for no reason at all.

What about your characters?  Do they stay true to how you wrote them?  Do they make logical changes over time, based on things that happen to or around them?  Spoiled and petulant teenage girls don’t become the Duchess of Cambridge without a lot of work happening in between the two.  Muscle-bound bullies don’t become champions of the weak without a compelling reason.  Gangbangers don’t suddenly beome priests without some defining event altering their perception.

When you write each character, you must first begin with knowing who they are.  Then as you go along, ask yourself how they would react in each new situation they face.  Yes, sometimes they can do something surprising – perhaps even to themselves – but there still should be a reason.  Maybe they rose to the occasion and finally stopped whining, complaining and avoiding doing what was right.  Maybe something happened earlier that affected them more than they realized or acknowledged, and not until this moment does it strike a chord in them.  An example would be the Black Panther in the Avengers: Civil War movie.  [spoilers]

His father is killed, sending him off on a vendetta to kill the person responsible.  For a long time, he is pursuing the wrong person (who has been framed for the crime).  Then when he finally comes face to face with the true culprit and sees how this man was so broken by his own loss of family that HE went on a revenge vendetta, he realizes that killing him won’t bring back Black Panther’s father or make him feel any better.  He sees himself in his enemy and changes his actions.  But we have seen him come to this point, and we aren’t particularly surprised by his choice.

So look at your characters closely.  Know them.  Know how they think and act and react.  Keep them true to that, no matter what.  And, if you want them to change, introduce catalysts for that change – some spark.  Would Black Widow be seen crying?  Would Steve Rogers disembowel someone just because he could and didn’t happen to like the person?  I’m sure you can think of many other characters in books or on tv and movies, and you know how you expect them to act based on the character you have been shown.  You know what you would find very odd about their behavior or language.  We see it all the time, whether voiced by others or ourselves.  A movie is made of a book we’ve read and loved.  Immediately a howl goes up:  That’s not who that person is!  That’s not how they would act!  You got them completely wrong!

Many Lord of the Rings book fan were outraged by Faramir’s treatment in the Peter Jackson’s movies.  In the books, he was completely honorable and never once came close to succumbing to the Ring’s power.  He gave the Hobbits aid and sent them on their way.  Instead, in the movie, we see him dragging them with him to Minas Tirith, with dreams of glory put in his thoughts by the Ring.  Only much later does he come to his senses (and not for an entirely clear reason) and let them go.  Suddenly it looks like mental illness runs rampant in the entire line of Stewards: father, older son and younger son, with each succumbing all or in part to Sauron’s evil.  Lost are the important differences in motivation and reason for their actions, and completely lost is Faramir’s utter integrity and strength of will that he didn’t succumb.

Peter Jackson’s problem was in changing the nature of someone’s character, a person known and beloved from the books.  Had his movie been an original story, that person acting in that way would not have elicited such a strong response.  But Lord of the Rings (book) fans knew who that character was, and it wasn’t the man they saw portrayed on the screen.  That disconnect affected their enjoyment of the movie.  That detail jarred the viewer out of the story.  And the last thing you want to do is lose your reader/viewer because you derailed them.

Know your characters.  Keep them true.

An Infestation of Weasel (Words)

And here I thought I was better than this!

I noticed in my most recent work that two ‘weasel words’ had snuck in (a word that steals its way into your writing repeatedly), and carefully combed through the story to ferret them out.  (Sorry, bad pun.)  Fan fiction posts online by chapter, so fortunately I am only 3 chapters in, since I just noticed 4 more weasel words that need ruthless culling.

Weasels are sneaky creatures.  In and of themselves, the word is good, and probably you even used it correctly.  The problem arises when you use it (or some variation of it) over and over and over.  This is another reason for reading your finished story straight through from beginning to end – you are more apt to see such things so they can be fixed.  Well, most of the time.

If you notice you’ve used the same word three times, it might be a good idea to do a search for it.  And not just the exact word (unless it is very specific).  In my case, I have been using words that have ‘variations’ – for example:  consider/consideration, express/expression, press/impress/impression.  You get the idea.  In those cases, I can either search each variation separately, or  search a portion of the word that will pick up most of the different forms (such as ‘consider’, ‘impress’ or even just ‘press’ to pick up many more).

Time to get the pest control in order.  Weed out those rascally weasels.  Don’t let them infest your stories.

Move!

Because they are visual mediums, tv and movies of necessity have ‘action’ taking place.  Would you enjoy a movie where two people simply sat or stood and talked excessively about the details of the story?  No, of course not.  You want to see it ‘acted out’.  People tend to do things while they are talking.  In the movie Field of Dreams the lead character, Ray, is talking with his wife, Annie, in their kitchen.  The scene would have been rather dull if they simply stood or sat holding the conversation, but instead, Ray is getting himself a glass of water, and Annie is getting things out of the refrigerator, preparing food and putting things in the oven as they talk.  The scene moves, and it feels completely natural because that is how people behave in ‘real life’.

Similarly, we need movement in our stories.  Don’t simply have two people talking at one another (at least not all the time).  Depending on the setting, maybe one of them is grooming a horse while the other hangs over the stall door, occasionally handing them grooming tools.  A woman could be knitting while she is talking with a friend.  In more modern settings, in a group of people sitting around, there is usually at least one of them playing with their cell phone or checking emails.  Have the characters move and ‘act naturally’ in whatever setting they exist.  That will bring them to life more, and help the reader envision the scene.  If they just talk, I can’t ‘see’ what they are doing or what is happening around them (others moving in the background or crossing the sidewalk in front of them).

Bring your story alive with movement.