Friday, October 21, 2016

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Stories in a novel: What is a good balance?

A novel with only one story is too simplistic and therefore, plain and uninteresting. Moreover, it would be difficult to believe, as total isolation of events in real life is not frequent; the appearance of secondary characters implies secondary stories. It is necessary to control these sub-plots so that they do not get out of our hands or start telling by themselves stories that have little to do with the main theme (parasite stories). Sub-plots can reinforce the theme of the main plot, contradict it by adding another point of view, or generate secondary themes that will bring color and life to the environment of our story.

Each sub-plot shall have its story, its theme, its premise, its protagonist (one or several, which are generally secondary characters to the main plot), its plot and its resolution. Due to the way in which they affect the main plot, sub-plots can be collaborative (necessary, complementary, or opposed) or parallel. The first ones are minor plots that help in some way to the resolution of the main story, either by solving a necessary aspect, clarifying the action of a character, or providing some logical cause to a situation lived by the protagonist. Parallel sub-plots do not help the main plot, but they provide in some way different points of view on the subject-matter and they enrich the treatment we, as writers, want to give to the story. It is very important for parallel sub-plots not too difficult or dissolve attention on the advancement of the main plot. If that should be the case, it would be better to reduce them or simply cut them out of the novel. They may be a good idea for a future novel.

Once sub-plots are resolved, we will begin to organize their events inserting them in the middle of the main plot, without forgetting the principle of cause-effect and taking care that their inclusion is not affecting other sub-plots. This is a craftsmanship writing work, where our expertise in the creation of complex, yet coherent and believable novels, is shown.
The result of this mix of plot and sub-plots is finally the argument of our novel.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Story, plot and argument

When we come up with a new idea for a novel, we generally think about it as a summary of a story. It is a phrase that has the seed of what could be our next novel, and it is up to us to make it grow. To do so, we need to develop the story, complete it, and fill it with characters and details. The story is the basic way in which we organize the actions that make up a series of events: first this happens, then that, then something else, and so forth. It is a lineal, simple, and chronological form.

A base story for a novel is much like a journalistic report or a chapter of a study book. The facts take place, each one is a consequence of one or more previous ones, and at the end we reach an outcome which is logical (though not less surprising if we carry the story forward correctly). It is important to highlight the word consequence is this last sentence, as it is a principle that needs to be respected in each paragraph of our story. In the fiction narrative, causality rules, not coincidence. Everything has a prologue, a previous action, a cause, because if any of the actions of our characters or some scene is product of chance, the internal coherence of the story is broken, and as a result we lose credibility facing the reader.

The transformation of this base story into plot depends on two steps: select and order.

First, we have to select which parts of the story we are going to tell, as not all the facts are relevant or interesting from a narrative point of view to be part of our novel. When doing this selection, we will determine the method and duration of exposition of these chosen facts (for example if they will be scenes or summaries, if they will take a few lines or several pages). The second step is to order these relevant facts, giving them a place in our book. There are several ways to order the facts that make up our novel, the most basic one is the chronologic organization, in which events are narrated from the first to the last, in the natural order in which they take place. Our life goes by in chronological way and therefore it is easier to organize stories in the way in which we daily perceive the world.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The habit of writing

When we don’t have the habit of writing and want to write something, we are full of doubts about what the outcome will be. “I don’t know if it is a good idea, I can’t see the ending, I don’t know if it is an interesting story, I can’t think of anything else but the phrase at the beginning, I can’t think of anything…”, etc. Our fiercest critic – ourselves – won’t let us continue as he doesn’t miss any opportunity to point out that what we write does not meet our own expectations.

But the truth is that we all have an idea, it is only a matter of letting them out.

Later we will have the time to perfect what we are writing - to improve our narrative, our ability to synthesize, and our ideas, but first, we have to let the pen flow, or better yet, the keyboard.

Therefore, the solution is to stop thinking and doubting. That is why we must write without stopping.

Why fifteen minutes?

It is sufficient enough time to start and to create a habit. It is not too much time to get tired of this new exercise and it is also not too little.

And what should you write about in those fifteen minutes?

Here is the main part – in those fifteen minutes we will write about anything that comes to our mind.


And what if we can’t come up with anything to write about?

If we can’t think of anything then we write that: that we can’t think of anything. And afterward, we keep on writing about anything that we can come up with, because something interesting about the human’s mind is just that it is always coming up with something, no matter how small. We think about the weather, about what we feel, of memories, of people we know, about…

Here is an example of when I started doing this exercise a few years ago:

Ah, I forgot, at the beginning, you must not stop, not even to correct spelling mistakes – the important thing is to write and to write.

Those good old days in which there usually was no traffic in Bogota on a Saturday at 3pm!

It doesn’t matter what the topic is being written about, what is important is to first let the ideas and imagination out. To connect with our mind’s ability of constantly generating ideas.

Let’s go ahead then, let’s do the exercise. Every day, 15 minutes, WITHOUT STOPPING. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How to be polite in a review

This does not mean that we should become ruthless and insensitive. There are right ways to say all this without being gratuitously hurtful. As you can imagine not everybody is well suited for reviewing, especially well-founded review.  Some people take it personal, as a mistake that will not let them improve. There are other people, however, who see the review as help, who understand it. Those writers are the ones who take their work seriously and try to raise the quality of their writing. They are grateful for the reviews.

The moment your reviews reach this level of sincerity you will find people who will return the favor by reviewing your work the same way.  You will discover the weak points in your writing and you will be able to work in improving them.

I am not saying that technical text analysis is not useful or important but I think it is not a priority. The story should tell something in a way that it becomes worth reading it in the first place; after that you can change some words, add some commas and semicolons.

It is true that sincere reviewing is very hard to achieve and master. You always have to be careful not to let your own personal taste, style, egotism, envy, passion, and loyalty into your preferred genre.

What is really helpful is to have someone who just reviews your work like that. Even if that person is not a technical master. It will obviously be an opinion only and different people will tell you different things but to develop a criterion about how to react to reviews is an essential part of the process of becoming a good writer.

Of course it will hurt whenever anyone tells you that your story did not move them or they felt it was shallow. Just do not take it personal and consider whose opinion this is (and their intentions). I remember how frustrating it was when everybody was telling me that everything I wrote was (technically) perfect but I knew something was missing. Since I review I have become a better writer. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Sense of the words

A good way to review is to try finding out the sense of the words; what the writer wanted to do and how could we help him doing it better, always keeping in mind his own style and personality, not ours. It is necessary to tell the difference between efficient writing and writing that we simply enjoy.

By reading a lot we discover that, even when the teachings from the masters are essentially good, many books succeeded without following that path and many times openly going against their advice.

Even novels by authors known for their reflection about the writing process (like Stephen King and Elmore Leonard) break some of their own advices in their novels.  On the other hand many bestsellers seem to be badly written and edited. But they are very successful.

Where is he going with all this? You might be asking yourself. Simply to prove that our analysis and review criteria are not shared with everybody. To understand that even when the technical base is good enough to produce a review, the intuitive component (the one that makes us decide if it is good or bad writing but without knowing why) is very important.

We start being good critics when we analyze the work from every possible angle. When we lose the fear to tell the author exactly where we lost interest, which part we do not like, at what moment the story becomes confusing, the moment when it seems that something is missing or something is too much.