Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 3

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing pacing and description as a writer.  For previous posts:
This week I’ll be giving you two more writing tips as well as two more exercises!
Pacing Tip #2: White Space and Description Between Dialogue
In terms of teens, white space is your friend.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed my classes a book or story or article and heard them groan when they are overwhelmed by the number of words on a page.  But you can have the opposite reaction if you pay attention to white space.  White space is the negative space where there are no words.  It’s an easy way to keep an eye on your pacing.  You can assume that readers move slowly through a page with little white space because they have a lot of words to read, but a page with a lot of white space will move much quicker.  The easiest way of increasing the amount of white space on a page is to add dialogue.  I’ve noticed that many of the more popular/mass market authors tend to not only write a lot of dialogue, but are also good at writing witty dialogue.  Bravo if that’s your strength!  But even if it’s not, a wisely placed bit of dialogue can break up the pacing of a slow scene.
Author, James Patterson and his Maximum Ride series has a ridiculous amount of white space in his books.  His books run roughly 400 pages, but I’d say at least a third to a half of the book is white space.  He uses an abundance of dialogue.  But what’s really sneaky is his chapters.  There are 134 chapters in the first book, and there are chapter breaks every 2-4 pages.  Picture the amount of white space that comes at the beginning and end of a chapter, and you can imagine how much white space a kid sees when flipping through his books when there’s 134 chapters. (I’ve also noticed that my students love the feeling of triumph in saying they read a 134 chapter book.)  I am not a fan of the Maximum Ride series and don’t find them to be especially well written.  But they are the most fast paced books I’ve seen out there, and I think it’s in large part due to James Patterson’s use of white space.
Writing Exercise #2
Look through your work in progress and see if you can find a section that is text heavy with very little white space.  See if you can insert a brief scene of dialogue to break up the text.

This may sound hard, but I did it for a scene I wrote on Monday!  I saw that I had a long paragraph, and figured out how to convey a lot of the same information through a conversation between two characters instead!
Pacing Tip #3: Sensory Details and Characters Interacting With the Setting
The easiest way to slip in setting without your reader noticing that you’re doing any description at all is by having you characters interact with the setting.  I added sensory details to this tip because those are easy ways to tell if you characters are interacting with the setting.  Does you character feel raindrops rolling down their face?  You just sneakily introduced that it was raining!  Does your character taste salt in the air?  You just told us we’re by the ocean!  Does your character hear the click-clacking of high heels on linoleum?  We must be inside a building, perhaps an official one where women where heels!  See how you can reveal setting through sensory details?  Below are some examples of characters interacting with the setting, often through sensory details.

Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square.  An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men–all wearing gas masks–as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can.  Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
Cinder, page 17

Here, the author, Marissa Meyer uses sensory details to show her character interacting with the setting.  You get an idea that this is an urban, secretive, and possibly dystopian setting from the sights, smells, and touch of the place through Cinder’s interactions.  (I absolutely love this sci-fi take on Cinderella and highly recommend it!)

But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived.  The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast.  Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself to the ground.
Leviathan, Page 57

Here, author, Scott Westerfeld informs you of several setting details while maintaining an action-packed narrative.  You learn the setting is up in the sky, during a powerful storm.  I think the pacing and action is heightened by his strong verbs in this section as well: hitting, dangling, coiled, pounding, spilled, and hurling.  There are also sensory details: cold drops and hitting her dangling feet.
Exercise #3

Choose a setting and write a paragraph introducing details about that setting through how your character interacts with the place.  Try to include two or three of the senses in your paragraph.

Repeat for two more different settings!  Bonus points if you include all five senses for a single setting!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on pacing and description!  Stay tuned next week for a post on emotion!

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

Last week I discussed how I learned to pay attention to pacing and why I believe pacing is so important.  For last week’s post, click here.  This week I’ll get into tips and tricks writers can use to take control of their pacing.
Brushstrokes, You Don’t Have to Paint the Picture All at Once
Guess what?  Most of us are writing a whole entire book.  Some of us, that will be 80,000 words.  You don’t need to give your reader every single detail up front.  We are often tempted to, because as the author, we feel like everything in our story is important.  But that’s not the case.  We can reveal things over time.  Do we need to know that the main character has red frizzy hair, freckles, green eyes, small bones, knobby knees, tiny ears, pale skin, a birthmark on her elbow… all in the first chapter?  No.  We don’t.  You can paint her with brushstrokes a little bit at a time.  We have the whole book to get to know her.  Think of it as dating… We don’t need to know everything up front.  A first date where all is revealed doesn’t leave us with anything to wonder about, and that intrigue, that mystery is lost.  You’ll want to start with a basic picture, the essential details, but then let it grow, brushstroke by brushstroke, as the story continues.  Which brings us to Tip #1:
Pacing Tip #1: The Rule of Three
I honestly don’t remember where I heard this tip.  I looked on the internet for some hint as to who I learned it from, but all I could get was that it is general belief.  
Wikipedia states:

“The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes.  Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.  The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.”

The way I’ve understood and employed the “rule of three” in terms of pacing and description: I don’t include more than three details about a person or place in my first description.  I think when I originally heard the “rule of three” I was told that a reader isn’t going to remember more than three details about a character.  Think of Harry Potter.  Three major physical details: Messy black hair, green eyes with glasses, lightning bolt scar.  Those are the three defining physical details everyone remembers.
Now, I’ll show you examples of the “Rule of Three” in action:
From my own WIP, a setting:

The first thing my aunt did upon returning from the funeral was take away my bedroom and force me into the small attic room above the boiler room.  The space could barely fit a bed, and there were crevices between the floorboards wide enough to stick your finger through.  The highlight of the room was a single grimy window.  

I only describe three things in Anne’s new bedroom: the small size, the floor, and the window.  All of which convey the sheer depressing nature of the room.  That’s all you need to know.  I definitely could have described more, but three things was enough.
From my WIP, a character:

“Oy!  Girlie!  You new?”  Pushing one of the screeching metal carts was a girl smaller than me.  Her brown hair was unbelievably short, cropped to her chin, but she wore a long gray skirt, so I knew she was a girl.

Again, I only describe three things: the girl’s small size, her short hair, and her skirt.  It’s enough for you to identify this girl in the future (the small girl with the cropped hair), you’ll remember it, and there’s plenty of space for her to grow as a character.
Here’s some examples from novels you might know:

“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said.  She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 105

J.K. Rowling describes three things about Hermione (voice, hair, and teeth) when we first meet her (though we later learn a great deal more).

The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Clary would have liked to draw–tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair.  Even at this distance Clary could see the red pendant around her throat.  It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
City of Bones, page 6

Cassandra Clare gives us three details about the girl: her body type, her hair, and her necklace.

Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
Uglies, page 27

This example does not stick to the rule of three, but I think Westerfeld still limited himself in terms of description.  A reason why I think he used four descriptors here is because he uses pairs effectively.  Shay is described in pairs of traits: one that is adequate (almost pretty) and one that is ugly.  This is important to the premise of his book, where the characters desire physical perfection more than anything else.  So the pairs were necessary for him, and he limited himself to two pairs and not more than that.  Six traits would have been too much at once, but four traits or two pairs was enough.
When is it okay to use longer description?
I think there are cases that warrant more description than the “Rule of Three” I present here.  I think particularly important characters often warrant more description.  For example, Dumbledore is described in much more than three traits in his first description on page 8 of Sorcerer’s Stone.  He was an incredibly important character across the entire series.  I’ve heard the rule that the length of a description should match the importance of a character or place (longer description = more important).  I generally agree with this rule, but often an author can be a little blind and think every detail is a little more important than it actually is.
I also think unusual settings warrant more description, and readers will be more patient with lengthier description of a strange setting because the strangeness intrigues them.  Readers aren’t bothered by descriptive paragraphs of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory because a secret candy factory is an intriguing and fabulous setting to read about.  I also think a setting that acts as a character, like Hogwarts, warrants a lengthier description.  Hogwarts isn’t just a place.  It has undiscovered secrets, presents challenges to the characters, and aids the characters in times of trouble.  Hogwarts, in order to become the living place that it is, required that kind of description.  A place that is ordinary, like a classroom or a schoolbus or a grocery store, probably shouldn’t be described in great detail, and I’d recommend the rule of three.  I’ve found the rule of three helps keep me in check and keeps the pace quick.  I can always go back and add more description if I need to.
Writing Exercise #1
Choose three characters and identify the three dominating physical traits of each character.  Then write a brief paragraph for each of them that introduces each character and their three physical traits.
And also, do three settings in your novel.  Choose three settings and identify three defining traits of that setting and write a brief paragraph introducing that setting and the three traits.
Stay tuned next week for my second quick pacing writing tip and another writing exercise!

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

One thing I am acutely aware of is pacing.  It is one of the first things I notice in any book that I read.  This wasn’t always how I read, and I pinpoint the moment I began to read this way on the day I began teaching middle school.
Whether we like it or not, technology has had an impact on the attention spans of our child readers.  Some children have shorter attention spans than others, but I do believe that technology has affected the majority of children in this way.  From thirty second TV commercials to the brevity of tweets to the under eight minute Youtube video, our society feeds on things that are quick.  Children are experiencing the world at a different pace than human beings of the past.  
This phenomena, this shorter attention span, has turned teaching into a unique challenge.  I discovered rather quickly that I had to be just as much an entertainer as an educator in order to hold my students’ attention.  I couldn’t rely on them to do a single activity for a full hour.  My class period had to be broken up into short chunks of different activities.  And when I had to decide on what reading material to use in my class, I had to pay attention to the text’s pacing.  I was teaching in a Title I school filled with hormonal, thirteen year-olds and for the sake of my classroom management, I could not afford for these kids to get bored.
So how does this connect to writing?  I believe we writers have to understand how to grab a kid’s attention, how to pace a book, and how to be sneaky with our description.
Back in the days before photographs and television and internet, as well as cars and trains and airplanes, lengthy description was something that audiences needed.  They wanted to be able to see people, places, and objects that they would never see or travel to.  Description was a way to offer the reader a photograph or to transport them to exotic locales.  And while I don’t mean to say that audiences today don’t need setting, they don’t need the same lengthy descriptions as those from the dusty volumes of yore.  Our current readers want things to be happening in the book at all times.  A whole page of description, to them, means nothing is happening.  And that’s why we writers have to be sneaky with our description.  It still needs to be there in order to ground the reader in a place or to provide a reader with an image, but we need to slip description in between action and dialogue so that we don’t lose our readers because “nothing is happening.”
Some of you may be thinking, “But I love writing beautiful descriptions!” or “Kids need to learn to pay attention and slow down!”  And yes, lots of writers do enjoy writing lyrical, lovely descriptions.  And yes, maybe kids do need to slow it down.  But this is the world we live in.  And I want kids to read my books, not put them down.  
Though, I’ve seen writing at both ends of the spectrum be successful.  Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver, Scorpio Races) is what I would consider a description heavy author, but she has become extremely successful.  I also enjoy her books despite the fact that I have a low tolerance for heavy description.  (I do have to get myself in the right mood to pick up her books, but I still love them.)  On the other end of the spectrum is James Patterson, particularly his Maximum Ride series.  If you haven’t read these books, they move at a ridiculously breakneck pace.  I actually feel as if I’m being jerked around.  He achieves this with extremely short chapters (literally 2-4 pages each) and high conflict.  I actually couldn’t read more than the first book in this series because the jerky pacing was too much for me.  I’m hoping the tips that I offer will help you find a happy medium between the extremes and will help you achieve a pacing that will satisfy both you as a writer as well as our child readers.
I wouldn’t say this is a writing trait I’ve struggled with because I did not start writing seriously until I was already teaching (and acutely aware of pacing).  When I began writing, I’d already begun studying author’s pacing methods and paying attention to what made a text move quickly.  This isn’t to say that, in a rough draft, I’ve never written a paragraph that comes off as setting info dump.  I think it’s one of the common mistakes of a first draft, to do a description info dump, because we, the authors, are figuring things out ourselves as we write.  But in critiques, I’ve pretty consistently gotten feedback that my writing is paced well, and I wanted to share some of the observations I’ve made on pacing that has helped me develop this writing trait.  And in my observations, lengthy description is one of the biggest culprits in slowing a text down. (The other culprit of slow pacing is a lack of conflict, for more on that topic, see my post: Author Sadism)
What Others Have Said on the Topic of Description
In the book Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (which is a fantastic resource, even for non-dummies) they use a water metaphor, sprinkling versus splashing, when talking about description.  They say it better than I could, so here you go: 

“Stopping your story to splash setting onto the page can be hazardous in teen fiction. Splashes can stop young readers cold.  Sometimes, yes, you may need to pause your plot work for some setting details — a little descriptive moment — either because it fits the overall style of your narrative voice or because, simply, it’s time for a breather. But in general, splashing means stopping, and stopping is rarely what writers want.  Instead, sprinkle.
Work in the setting here and there, as if flicking wet fingers at your pages instead of pouring water on them straight from the spout.  Even teens who aren’t intimidated by a few lines of description are likely to skip over big splashes in search of the story thread.  Providing details about time and place as you go keeps setting accessible and interesting to teen readers.”
Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, page 146

I think they make some great points, and I love the metaphor.  When it’s raining, you avoid going out in a downpour, but you’re likely to handle a light sprinkle.  I think it’s the same with readers.  Readers might avoid or skip a whole page of just description (or even put down the book), but they may not even notice description if you are able to embed it in action or keep description light.
So how do we do this thing called light description?  Next week I’ll share three tips and exercises that should lead the way to you becoming a description expert with no pacing problems.

Behind the Story: Author Sadism

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Being Evil to Your Characters

Why would you want to be evil to your own creations?

  • To provide challenges and conflict
  • To create compelling characters who grow over the course of the story through the challenges they face
  • For suspense and pacing
  • As a plotting tool

This is one of those pieces of advice or writing tips that I don’t remember where I heard it.  But it really resonated with me, and is one of the first things I do when plotting a section of a novel.  I think it is a really, really valuable technique if you struggle with pacing, plotting, or giving characters agency.

Quotes About Being Tough on Your Characters

Editor, Cheryl Klein, Arthur A. Levine Books

Ten Ways to Create Compelling Characters
#6 Put the character in pain, danger, or jeopardy (anticipated pain)

Author, Kurt Vonnegut

8 Basics of Creative Writing
#6: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Author, Maggie Stiefvater
Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist

“I have decided that in order to be a good writer, you have to be a sadist.”
“And that’s when I decided that I must have an inner sadist in there somewhere. Because although I love my characters dearly, I have to say, I also love to hurt them. I love to take away the stuff they need and the people they love and shove them outside their comfort zone without so much as a windbreaker. I like to make them uncomfortable, humiliate them, gun down their loved ones in cold blood, and give them pasts that will haunt them forever.”
“I think part of it is because of that saying: ‘Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they’re in hot water.’ Characters are like women which are like tea bags. You can learn a bit about them when things are going well, but it’s not until the proverbial poo hits the proverbial fan and plagues are raining down that you really see what sort of a person they are.”
“So I guess I figure that if a little pain and suffering will show me more about them, a lot of pain and suffering will do it even better. Basically, as soon as a character lets on what their worst fear is, it’s a pretty surefire sign that I am going to make them come face to face with it at some point in the novel. “
“I don’t think readers like it when you are nice to the characters. They think they want characters to be happy, but they don’t really. At least not until the characters have first been really miserable. I think a good writer finds their characters’ monsters and then resurrects them at the worst possible moment, and that we readers, like Jerry Springer audience members, love the angst and drama of it.”

Author, Janet Fitch

10 Rules for Writers
#10 Torture your protagonist.
 The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Ari Susu-Mago at blog “A Fuzzy Mango With Wings”
Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)

“He makes likable, interesting, flawed, human characters. And then he makes their lives suck.”
“Moreover, note that not only does he make problems for them right at the beginning of the story, but he makes things get worse all the time. Rarely, if ever, do things get better. Plans go awry. People turn traitor. People get angry and say things they shouldn’t. People get killed. In general, more problems crop up. The result? A 800+ page book that flies by.”

Examples of Author Sadism:

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling
How bad did JK Rowling make Harry’s aunt and uncle?
Rowling made them about as terrible as aunts/uncles can get.
How did the Dursleys keep Harry from his Hogwarts’ letter?
Rowling didn’t just hold Harry back from reading the letter, she took it to extreme levels by the Dursleys trying to hide on a rock in the middle of the sea.  By throwing so many obstacles in Harry’s path to reading the letter, it made us more invested in the story and increases suspense and tension.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Everytime Ender became comfortable, Card threw him into a new challenge or worse situation.
Ender makes friends in his launch group and starts to be successful at the Battle School.
But then he is moved to Salamander Army where he is the smallest and most inexperienced, and Bonzo won’t even let him practice.

Downton Abbey
They make the audience care…
Then very briefly give them a glimpse of what they want…
Then they ruin or take it away…
(Examples: Anna/Bates or Matthew/Mary)

The Way I Incorporate this Technique in My Own Writing

Usually at the start of a work (or at the start of a new setting) I brainstorm a list of things that could go wrong either in the story or in that particular setting.

The list forces me to think of things that could go wrong and sets my brain thinking in that direction.  And I have a resource to refer to later if I need to.

When I sit down to start writing, I try to begin a chapter by resolving a previous problem or setting the stage for a new problem.

I try to always end a chapter in the midst of a low point for the protagonist.  It can be a physical low point or an emotional low point.

Writing Exercise:

Brainstorm a list:

  • Of things that could get in your protagonist’s way of their goal.
  • Of terrible things that could happen to your protagonist.
  • Of characters your protagonist needs in their life, and how they could disappear.

Don’t worry about how your character will get out of it, or how they’ll overcome it.
Don’t worry about how it will fit into your plot.
Don’t worry about how extreme it might be.

Links Quoted in this Post:

Maggie Stiefvater, Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist

Maggie Stiefvater, Collection of Posts on Writing

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers

The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)

Ava Jae, of “Writablity: Tips, Tricks and Thoughts from One Writer to Cyberspace”

Behind the Story: Things Blow Up

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
When Your Story Blows Up

I was really struggling with what to post about this week for Behind the Story because, quite frankly, my work on my own story has been faltering this week.  So I’ll give you a recount of what issues I’ve come up against, and how I’m trying to go about solving them.

How a story goes kablooie (and how I’m striving to fix it):

  1. Comparing my own writing to published books: Kind of inevitable if you read a lot and dream of being published, but not productive at the stage I’m in with my current project.  Why?  Because it’s like comparing a newborn to a college grad.  My book baby is cute and exciting and full of possibilities, but right now all it’s doing is pooping, drooling, and crying.  We haven’t moved beyond the basics of life yet.  I’m just getting a grasp on the characters, setting, and plot.  A published book is like a college grad.  You’ve proved yourself.  You’ve mastered the basics plus things like theme and voice.  You went on to get accepted with your fancy query letter (college admission essay).  And you’ve been groomed by editors (college professors).  So I’ve been really cruel to myself and my project this week and have been comparing it to other great books and thinking about how under-developed it is.  I keep trying to reason with myself and telling myself if I keep working, it will get there.  But what I really need is a brilliant idea to dig me out of this hole I’m in for the week.
  2. Where to set my book: My game plan was to set my book in a setting of my own creation.  I even made a map of my city with different districts.  And drew geographical features surrounding the city.  And the city has a cool name.  But now I’m second guessing my decision because I had a plot idea to use real historical references in association with my villain and what her secret society had done in the past.  I really liked this idea, but I can’t see how my made-up city will mesh well with real historical references.  And so that’s where I’ve gotten stuck.  Someone suggested I read some “alternate history” books.  I think perhaps I need to finish Westerfeld’s Leviathan series.  He’s a genius at world-building and this series is an alternate history, so maybe it will help me figure out the logistics of what I’m trying to do. 
  3. Finding a purpose besides just “looking cool”: So for the sake of protecting my ideas, I’m going to use some substitutions here.  So, my main character is going to be creating something and the villain is after her creations.  Let’s say she’s making “GIANT OWLS.”  I kind of got the idea because I thought GIANT OWLS would be really cool in a story.  (If you haven’t caught on yet… my character is not really making giant owls.  I’d just like to keep a secret what she’s making.)  So, this week I got to thinking why the heck would my villain want her GIANT OWLS besides the fact they they are insanely cool and look awesome.  What does my villain want to do with these GIANT OWLS?  What could be sinister or powerful about them?  So far all I got is one kind of lame idea that conflicts with my setting again.  Darn you setting!  I chatted with my brother tonight and that kind of helped.  He had some better ideas, but I have to mull them over because they conflict with some plot details.
So my verdict from this week:
My story blew up.  It’s in pieces this week and I’m at a loss for how to put it back together and make some sort of sense.  But that’s why it’s so important as a writer to not get too attached to what you’re writing.  I realized that I am probably going to have to change how I originally saw my story going (whether it’s the setting or what my villain is after).  I still have pieces to work with, and hopefully whatever I come up with will be one step closer to an end product I can be proud of.

How do you overcome writer’s block?  What do you do when your story blows up?

Behind the Story: Choosing Character Names

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Choosing Character Names

In this week’s post, I’ll delve into how I go about choosing names for my characters.  There’s a lot of things to consider, and I definitely think certain authors have a gift for choosing the perfect names.  Two authors that come to mind are J.K. Rowling and Charles Dickens. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, but by no means am I an expert!

My own tips and tricks for choosing character names:

  1. Baby name websites: Best resource ever for finding character names.  My favorite website is Behind the Name.  You can browse or search for names, and each entry is organized much like a dictionary with pronunciation, origins, meaning, history, and popularity.  I love when my names have special meaning, and I’ve used this website more times than I can count!
  2. Using sounds to your advantage: Certain sounds have certain connotations, whether you are conscious of it or not.  A sharp sound is going to be more serious than sounds that long.  Sorry to keep using Harry Potter for my examples, but Rowling was a wiz with names.  Voldemort = Both the V and T sounds are sharp and bookend the name with their sharpness, plus the added meaning of mort as death.  Severus Snape = Both the V and P sounds are sharp, and the S sound makes his name slippery to say and perfect for a spy.  Whereas Neville Longbottom uses several sounds that are long and slow, particularly the O sound which is one of the slowest vowels.  And his name ending in the “UM” sound just makes the poor bloke sound unsure of himself just simply in his name.  I’m not an expert on this sound stuff, but as I become more aware of it, I’ve found it helps me in choosing the right names for my characters.  
  3. Coming up with a list for later reference: I like to have a list of stock names that I can grab from later if a new character announces its arrival.  Especially if I’m in a certain time period, I’ll make a list of names I like from that period, and make short notes regarding my own reactions to the name “evil” or “sounds strong.”  Usually our own first impressions come with our own subconscious connections to root meanings and sounds.  My lists so often come in handy when a character pops into my head fully-formed and needs a name, and usually one from my list will jump out at me.  It saves me the time of pouring through websites again, especially when I’m in the throws of writing and would rather not stop.
Some other sidenotes:
Surnames have been a lot harder for me to come up with than first names.  I’ve yet to find a single website that I love. Sometimes I have to search for surnames by time period or country in order to find what I’m looking for.
Knowing the time period of your novel is a must in choosing the right name.  But what to do when your novel is in the future?  When I was working on a dystopian/futuristic novel, I went with a sort of melting pot of sorts.  I found names, chopped up their syllables, and made new combinations using the sound connotations and roots I already knew.  It was actually great fun!
Don’t be afraid to change a name if your character grows and changes.  The point at which we assign a name, in a novel’s infancy, is often before we’ve discovered the core of the novel.  I’ve changed a character’s name more times than I can count when the name doesn’t feel right anymore.  It’s okay.  And it will always be good interview fodder for those blog tours down the line  😉
What authors do you think have great names for their characters?

Do you writers have any neat tips or tricks for choosing character names?

Behind the Story: Creating a Villain

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic.  Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic: 
Creating a Villain

Unless you’re writing a novel that revolves completely around an internal conflict or a natural disaster, chances are good that your story requires a villain.

Villain is the popular term.  The literary term is antagonist.  An antagonist is a person who actively opposes the protagonist.  (Protagonist being your leading character.)

There are lots of questions an author might ask themselves as they create their villain, but one of the most important ones is:

What is my villain’s motivation?

  • What do they want?
  • Why do they want it?
Villains can’t just be evil for the heck of it.  Well, they can, but then you’ll have a very flat and boring character on your hands.  The best villains have a reason behind their wicked ways: something they want and a reason they want it.
Let’s take a look at some particularly well-known and fabulous villains:
What he wants: to be all-powerful, immortal, and to kill some Muggles
Why he wants it: After learning his heritage, he loathes his Muggle father for abandoning his pureblood mother.  His solution to what his father did is to become all-powerful and live forever to squash Muggles and their ignorance.
Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker
What he wants: To prevent those he loves from dying
Why he wants it: After watching his mother die and dreaming of Padme’s death, Anakin promises to find a way to conquer death.  When Emperor Palpatine proposes that the Dark Side can offer him powers that will conquer death, Anakin turns to the darkside and lets his fear consume him.
Those are just two examples, but I bet if you look at some of your favorite book villains, you can identify some sort of motivation that goes beyond “I’m evil!  Let’s kill something!”
As I set out to craft a villain:
I initially was going to make my villain some sort of fire witch.  I wanted her to have some sort of association with fire because my protagonist is going to by pyrophobic (fear of fire).  But I never could get myself to fall in love with the idea of a fire witch.  I couldn’t define it.  I couldn’t get a strong image in my head.  I’d named her Hestia after the Greek goddess of the hearth.  So the name alluded to fire and sounded witchy.
But I wasn’t satisfied.
So I started to think about motivation.  A new idea formed that would replace fire witch.  I’m making use of a different character of magical lore which I’m not going to share here because I want it to stay mine.
But I will share the motivation I came up with.
What my villain wants: To manipulate men
Why she wants it: Throughout history she’s watched women be controlled by men.  She doesn’t want to be controlled.  She wants to do the controlling.  And she’s accompanied by an entire secret society of women who have been controlling men for the last three thousand years.
Think alternative history and hidden clues like DaVinci Code or National Treasure.
So much better than a fire witch.
And let’s just say that once I came up with my villain, my word counts have been higher.  What can I say?  Evil characters motivate me  🙂
What are your favorite villains and what motivates them?