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.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

To start: write without stopping

We have all faced the anguish of the blank page; both those who write every day as those who don’t.

One sits in front of the computer or in front a piece of paper, wanting to write a story, a tale or a short story and can’t come up with anything. Looking here and there inside the mind, catching an idea but believing it isn’t good enough, looking on the other side and finding nothing. One would think that finding something to write would be easy, but the blank page – with its immaculate color - says it isn’t so easy.

It happened to me many times before actually becoming better at writing. I would sit with the intention of writing a short story and anguish would gradually fill me over not finding any ideas.

After trying different paths, some years ago I found a way to make ideas flow on paper – by habit and by reading about writing.

The point is simple and it serves both those who want to start writing and for those who have been writing for some time and who sometimes stumble onto the problem of the blank page.

What is the recipe for projecting ideas on paper? How does one start to write? How does one make the blank page stop being blank?

It isn’t as hard as it may seem. 

You have to write for fifteen minutes a day, without stopping and without thinking about what is being written.

It may seem very simple, but a lot is achieved. It is a start, a valuable start. The hardest is the first step, but it is also the most important step - both when writing a paper in college, as well as when writing a story or something different.  

Benefits of reading

Hook the reader with your writing

As writers we have the power to alternate the lineal order of events to create intrigue, to generate expectations that hook the reader, or simply to delay that key scene that will serve as climax in our story. For their way to begin narration, non-lineal organization of plot can be divided in two groups:
There are books that begin with a fact that takes place in the middle of the story, with the characters already in the middle of the conflict, without previous explanations, nor introductions or presentations. This technique is known as In Medias Res, and it generates expectation and interrogation in the reader, who will have no more choice than to keep reading to know the characters and the development of the conflict. To tell the previous events, we shall go back in time with retrospections or flashbacks. The In Medias Res technique is really old (Homer used it in The Odyssey and The Iliad), but it is very active nowadays due to our audiovisual culture and its tendency to “start really up”.

The second way to begin narrations in non-lineal plots, is the technique called in extremis, in which the first scene we tell is the last one in the story. With this we intend to make the reader wonder which has been the path that led the character to this point. After this beginning, the facts in our story can be ordered in a chronological way from the beginning to the scene that opened the novel, which is called circular structure or racconto. On the contrary, if we decide to tell the facts in a non-lineal way, ordering them by their degree of intensity or importance, we will be using a homeric structure.

When we have structured our story in a synopsis, there is another step (there are several other steps actually) that we will need to complete in order to have our argument: incorporating sub-plots. As you may have guessed, sub-plots are practically the same as the main plot, but with a secondary importance and a usually shorter length.

What is a good review?

Good reviews do not mix the “this is not my favorite genre” with the “your story sucks”. They also know how to balance the negative with the positive comments.

Since texts by authors of all kinds are available in many online outlets, senseless reviews are plentiful. Nobody takes absolute criticism, trolling, well. Our brain registers this as an attack and the basic fight or flee reaction takes place.

Some pieces of advice on how to deal with unsolicited negative reviews:
1. Avoid sharing your work with those who do not understand how hard it is to create it in the first place.
2. Consider the source. Always take reviews with a grain of salt.
3. Reject review offers from openly hostile people. Make it clear that you are not after everybody’s opinion at this stage of your work.
4. If something feels like verbal abuse, do not reply. Nothing good comes out of it.
5. Take into account the problems the critic giving his opinion might have.

There are reasons that might explain that kind of destructive reviews:
a-  Feeling like an outsider or not fully understanding the work. If that is the case meet your critic and talk lengthy about your goals and intentions. He might change his views with more information.
b- Being a frustrated writer. He wants to write but is blocked, afraid or just lazy. Envy makes people aggressive. Discharging our frustrations on someone else is the easy part.
c- Being a narcissistic bully, a troll. This is unfixable. Writers are magnets for this kind of people. We pay attention, which they want and because of our lonely nature we become easy targets. This people will say anything to destroy our self-esteem. Remember that NOTHING a troll says has any value. Win a Booker Prize and you will hear “What, no Nobel?” They will never be satisfied no matter how hard you try because nothing makes them happier than their ability to make you miserable.

Good reviews are necessary in any art form but the negative kind, the derogatory and biased review is pure venom. 

Dealing with reviews

Dealing with reviews and people who criticize us is not easy. It can seriously affect our mood and make the process of writing less enjoyable.

For some reason the people who easily praises and cheers for a novel musician, painter or sculptor becomes much more hurtful and tough when reviewing the first works of a creative writer.

It is not easy to spot a compulsive critic, one of those who actually think their opinion is more important than the work they are reviewing. Maybe that behavior finds its origin in the school years when literature teachers would ask the class for their opinion on a text, which would be read out loud. This usually deviated into mean spirited, senseless and undeserved attacks.

Free reviews are usually baseless. We can laugh about it or dismiss it. It might be useful sometimes. An amateur opinion sometimes can unwillingly bring a different point of view.

A review that is openly derogatory, hostile and which totally lacks recognition towards the work of the author will undoubtedly put us in defensive mode. These kinds of opinions have less to do with your own story than with that of the supposed “critic”.

A surprisingly high number of people, even some beyond their teenage years, still think that negative opinions make them sound more intelligent. It is good to remember that anyone can look into a Picasso and say: “The pictures I made at kindergarten when I was three were better than that!” To appreciate something requires education.

We all need to know how good our writing is. If you do not have an editor or trusted beta readers find yourself a good peer review group, one focused on your own genre if possible. A good review is a priceless gift. You will appreciate it when you hear one. It will provide you with a moment of clarity that will allow you to improve your story.

Literary Analysis

Reading the works of the best literature masters is always helpful. Their words come from years of practice and mastery and provide a strong foundation to tell apart a good work from a bad one; this is mostly theoretical, however.

To review writers with which we share the same learning level and to let them review our work is a useful tool for improving our writing. This allows not only to get someone else’s opinion of our work (to find out how different is what we intended to say to what was understood can be very revealing) but also to see how other writers work, how they understand different concepts and apply different techniques. Noticing what works and what does not in other people’s writing is easier because that blindness that we suffer when reading once and again our own works is not present.

Reviewing other writers’ works is in fact one of the best ways to learn.

When we start reviewing other authors’ works we realize that reviewing is itself a skill that can be learned and improved with practice.

At first we focus on technical, grammar, spelling and syntax comments only. That is all very useful but it is not enough. Then we take a step forward towards style and content but being extremely cautious when evaluating scenes and ideas. We do not want to hurt feelings or egos and we make sure to make it clear that our opinion is absolutely subjective and personal.

Reviews and critics

There is an element in every writer’s life (it does not matter if he is an amateur, accomplished or any intermediate level writer) that can affect his work and emotions at the same time: The review.

There is no message without readers. To share his writing with the world is one of the basic purposes of any author; the alternative would be to write for oneself only, hiding our whole literary production inside a drawer. But the moment another person lays his eyes on those paragraphs that took so much work to be written (or that leave our feelings exposed) we are giving this other person the ability to encourage us or rip us apart with only a few words.

Since the moment we start trying writing we find out that this art form has a peculiar aspect: everybody thinks they are a critic. Everybody thinks they have the skills, knowledge and criteria to produce opinions, advises and corrections to what they read.  

As a writer you learn to pay attention to well documented reviews only, which is why we become more cautious when choosing who has access to our unfinished and new works. We also start receiving manuscripts from acquaintances and fellow writers who understand that we are well prepared enough as to evaluate some aspects of their work.

After reading enough we develop a literary sense of taste. The more pages we read the more any good writing becomes evident and we can identify a text that is not all that good as well. The hard part is to know exactly what is it that is not working and how to fix it.