Thursday, December 28, 2006

Happy Holly Days

I trust my readers are spending their time this holiday season thinking about and celebrating all that is good and wonderful in life.

There's no excuse not to celebrate with gusto! There's so much good in this world, so many opportunities, so many wonderful values to be gained — and that's what the holidays are all about to me.

So when I say, "Have a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year!", that is not a wish. It's a directive. Go get yourself some happy!

As for me, I'll be back to my regular (spotty) blogging in about a week. Cheers!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Keep Moving

When I asked for great plot stories or page turners from my readers, I purposefully meant to ignore certain other aspects of great stories, such as characterization, style, themes and premises, and so on. I didn't actually want great stories, but merely fun, exciting ones. Why? Because I thought that by reading a series of very basic page-turners in quick succession, I might see more clearly what makes a plot tick.

I went into this exercise assuming that even basic novels would employ techniques that the masters used (knowing that they might do so less artfully, of course). I assumed this because I know that A is A, which is to say that stories work as they do because of the nature of the reader and the medium.

Happily, now five novels into my stack, my bet may be paying dividends. I may have just discovered an indispensable technique for making a page-turner, well, a page-turner. Every exciting story appears to use it. Even Victor Hugo uses it.

I'm not going to try to teach it to you, because I can't. Suffice to say that it's about always keeping things moving. Even the descriptions have to feel like they're moving. Nothing ever stands still (or if it does, the writer uses such a moment for a specific effect).

Yes, yes, I know. Every one who has ever read a "how-to" book on writing knows about this technique already. Sure, I've read the same books. So why didn't I get it the first, second, or even third time that I read about it?

I suppose I didn't fully understand its value until I could really see it done so many different ways, by so many different authors. Or perhaps I only now need it enough for my mind to grapple with it and integrate it -- that is, to value it. I don't know why I couldn't see it clearly until now, except to say that now I can't not see it.

(There's something to be said here about the process of learning. It's definitely iterative. You have to cover the same ground over and over again until the pieces start to fit. But since I'm no education scientist, I'll let someone else dwell on this interesting epistemological issue.)

I have about ten more of these novels to read. What more will I learn? Well, I'm glad you asked. I'll answer that question in my next post.


Thursday, December 21, 2006

Generous Scholarship to Founder's College

The new Founder's College in Berry Hill, Virginia, is offering students up to $3,000,000 through a variety of scholarships, including The Victor Hugo Writing Scholarship.

According to their website, the scholarship is "open to all full-time incoming students, first year or transfer." To qualify, here's what applicants must do:
"Choose an actual person or fictional character. Identify three character traits about that individual that you most admire. Explain why you admire those traits. Submit a maximum 500-word essay, double-spaced, typed, and sealed in a 9" by 12" envelope. Send to: Founders College at Berry Hill, 3105 River Road, South Boston, VA 24592, Attn: Victor Hugo Essay."

Looking at the college's curriculum solely from the perspective of a would-be fiction writer, I must say that this college looks like it could be a great place to start. (Not for me, of course, but for younger students.) The true test will come when they announce their faculty in the spring.


Saturday, December 16, 2006

Comment Moderation

The spammers finally found my blog. It's like having rats move into your house. All they're good for is dropping you-know-what all over the place.

Well, since I can't exterminate the filthy rodents, I guess I'll just have to lock the door. In other words, comments will be moderated from now on.

Stupid spammers.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

On Naming Characters

As you can see from the length of this post, I have given the subject of naming characters a little more thought since it was discussed in the comments of a previous post. I've recorded here some of my preliminary recommendations for naming characters — subject to revision and addition, of course.

I mentioned earlier that Rowling does names well. My partner happens to be a devoted fan of the Harry Potter series, and he tells me that Rowling has been collecting names for years. It's one of her passions. Well, that explains things a bit. I'll take her cue and try to be more aware of the names I see and hear every day. That's my first rule of naming: collect them.

In general, I think that a name should not try to do too much. For example, had the hero of The Fountainhead been named, say, Remington Holloway VI, readers would assume that he is privileged, well-raised, well-educated, and driven by family to succeed. However, the theme of The Fountainhead demands that the hero make the name, not the other way around, so the name Howard works fine. It's neither distinctive nor mundane. We remember the name only because the character is so powerful.

Conversely, sometimes a name does in fact convey something about the character. The name Dumbledore, for example, perfectly conveys the gentle, paternalistic, maybe a little mysterious and unconventional head wizard in Harry Potter. Dumbledore lives up to his name; thus, the name aptly conveys the man. We could even say that the name itself helps to characterize him right from the start, and it does so very economically.

However, I think that overt connotations are best avoided. The word “Mal” and its variations, for example, have been used to death in Fantasy as the name of the Big Bad Dude. Because the word obviously comes directly from the Latin word for “bad”, this is just cheating. That's why George Lucas gets an “A” for coming up with such creative names as Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine but only a “C-” for Darth Maul. For the same reason, no architect should ever be named Steel, no hunter Remington, no teacher Miss Apple, and so on. Such obvious allusions work only in porn films—and even there I'm not sure they work.

Also, names shouldn't interfere with (or undercut) the story. For example, a hard-boiled detective could only be named Terrence if the writer wanted to undercut his character—unless of course the character goes by a more appropriate nickname most of the time, and so long as that nickname isn't Dirk.

There are some names, like Dirk or Hammer, that have been either used to the point of exhaustion or have become almost a franchise. No detective should ever be named Hammer again except in a parody. Likewise, no architect can be Howard. No villain can be Vader. No mouse can be Mickey, nor even Mick. To use these names is lazy and probably borders on copyright violation.

Also, watch out for runaway exoticism. (Ooh! What's that?!) I mean that a reader should never have to parse out some alien words as if he were reading a text book in a phonics class. The need for verisimilitude is not a license to create alien words that trip even the most imaginative reader.

Imagine, for example, that your alien pronounces the letter “X” the way we pronounce the letters “sh”. A name like “Xunxor” would make perfect sense in his world; it would be pronounced “Shun-shor”. However, how is the reader supposed to know this? He can't. Ten-to-one he'll read it as “Ex-un-ex-or”, which is a perfectly awful name even for an alien. That's why sf writers created the idea of “Galactic Standard” or some other common language. Best to stick with that convention as much as possible, or at the very least, honor your reader's phonetic expectations.

Which brings me to my next point: Foreign names, if you must use them, should be distinct and recognizable. In Star Wars, for example, there is only one Yoda and no Doda, Yoma, or Yamoda. There is only one Obi Wan Kenobe and no Obi Sonn, Abi Jan Jenoke, and so on.

I'll illustrate this problem with an anecdote from my life. My partner and I recently spent several weeks traveling around New Zealand. It so happens that many of Zealand's geographic features are named in Maori, and like many Polynesian-style languages, Maori uses a limited number of diphthongs and consonant-vowel combinations in a highly repetitive and sing-song way. Place names sounded something like “mapuoto”, “wapuana”, “mapuatu”, “wapuoto”, “wapuano” and so on.

You can see the problem. After a while, our Western ears could not distinguish among so many similar words. Part way through our trip, we realized that we could no longer remember any of the names of the places that we'd visited – except for the English place names or those that happened to be very distinct from other Maori names. I could imagine this same situation arising in a book that's chock full of alien names. They would all get mixed up.

So here's a summary guideline for naming characters:

  • Collect names from the real world.
  • Don't make the name do too much work for the character. Avoid overt allusions, in other words.
  • Don't undercut the character with the wrong connotation.
  • Be original, but not at the expense of using simple names.
  • Keep the phonetics close to the English language.
  • Keep every name reasonably distinct from other characters in the story.

[Edit: Minor improvements.]


Friday, December 08, 2006

WWF: Stephen King Slams Peter Keating

King flexes his integrity-biceps and slams down a successful, face-altering Double Axehandle Smash against his Keating-esque opponent in this excerpt from his book An Experiment in Criticism (Go King! Yah!!):

If you happen to be a science fiction fan, it's natural that you should want to write science fiction (and the more sf you've read, the less likely it is that you'll simply revisit the field's well-mined conventions, such as space opera and dystopian satire). If you're a mystery fan, you'll want to write mysteries, and if you enjoy romances, it's natural for you to want to write romances of your own. There's nothing wrong with writing any of these things. What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What's equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It's morally wonky, for one thing--the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story's web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn't work.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Status Update: Giant Creatures and Naming Characters

First the good news: If I'm not posting a lot on the blog, it's probably because most of my spare time is spent eating and sleeping. (In other words, I don't have much spare time.) Which means I'm either working on my current novel or reading and studying the plots of other novels (see my last post for more on this).

That leads me to the other good news: My current novel seems to be coming along quite nicely. I'm having a lot of fun with it. It has some fascinating heroes (yeah, more than one), some businessmen who make Bill Gates seem like small potatoes, big creatures, and lots of action (maybe too much; I'm not sure). Oh, and there's some space candy, too.

I have a broad vision for this story, but I'm trying very hard to keep it small. After exploring where I could go with it, I'm coming back to the one spot where the heat really gets turned up. I want this first novel to be about a narrow series of events in the main character's life. Some great backstory in the character's life gets skipped, which is hard to do, but I know that the story has to begin where the present conflict really takes off. Besides, I can't let it scale beyond my skills the way I did last time.

Oh, and I'm trying very hard to avoid flashbacks. That would be cheating.

One interesting challenge has been the naming of characters, especially the protagonist. It's a lot tougher than it sounds. How does Rowling do it, anyway? She makes it seem easy.

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