Saturday, July 28, 2012

First 250 Words Smash! #4

Most Wonderful Author: Kendra || Hintsloveswords @ tumblr
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah

The keep was burning.

House Morier, the most powerful house in the kingdom besides Marlow itself, had fallen.
The true culprit of the act will never be determined, but anyone with any mind knew that Syson was behind it. Syson, the man who made it very clear that he hated his brother, King Rogan, and wanted the throne for himself.

It was well known to the people of the kingdom that House Morier was very close with House Marlow. Why, the young prince himself was betrothed to Morier's infant daughter. It was really no surprise that Syson chose Morier as his first victim.

The screams of the dying could be heard for miles. All of the servants and minor nobility who lived in Keep Morier were burned alive. Lord Raffin and Lady Tara were already dead, of course, killed by Syson's assassins before the fire. Their three children, two adolescent sons and one very young daughter, were said to have been forced to watch their murder, and then killed themselves.

This was not certain, however. There was much confusion that night, and the next morning the keep was silent. Smoke drifted from the blackened ruin of the once magnificent structure like fingers reaching for the sky. The nobility wanted nothing to do with the place, and the lower class kept well clear of it.

Only one strange old woman approached the fallen keep that day, drawn by the weak, pitiful crying of a child.

Strong Points
Your technical skills are good and solid. Your sentence variation builds up tension, and this is a skill that often takes time to build up naturally and lyrically, so it seems like you have a natural eye for that.

I see some promise in your prose with phrases like “Smoke drifted from the blackened ruin … like fingers reaching for the sky.” I want to see you push that, and I have a feeling if you take my advice below, I’ll see more of it. Either way, I’d still like to see you push it harder, because I can see you’ve got it in you.

Some Tips
Firstly, you almost had me at the opening, except for one minor detail: passive voice. While passive voice can often work in narrative, it’s always good to double-check with a non-passive variation and see if that’s not stronger.

“The keep was burning” versus “The keep burned” (or smoldered or blazed or what have you).

I do like the pow of the first sentence, and I’m always fond of brevity and an opening line that’s its own paragraph, but after that, you fall into the trap that many opening manuscripts of the epic fantasy quality have: the submergence of exposition. I used to do the same because it felt like a great and epic way to start off an epic story, but it isn’t. A great and epic way to start off an epic story is to start with the story. History lessons should not be lead-ins. Your story doesn’t need a history lesson in the beginning to create intrigue or make sense. Start exactly where the story begins, or where the “conflict” begins with your main character(s).

I critiqued a piece once that had the same problem, and after she took in the advice from me and other readers, she did much better. I’m going to make the same suggestion: throw out this entire opening. Start with your main character (which I presume must be the source of the wailing) at the point in which the story actually begins. All the history can be unloaded organically through the action and dialogue of your story instead of spoon-fed.

I’d even recommend (the same recommendation that I also gave the aforementioned writer) that you abstain from the epic omniscient flair in your narrative, such as “Why, the young prince himself…” and “This was not certain, however.” This can fall into the category of gimmicks to create that epic fantastical feeling, but you don’t need that.

Also, in what tense are you intending to write your perspective from? Past? Present? Future? Because you’ve got a little bit of everything in there: “The true culprit of the act will never be determined”, “It was well known…” and “were said to have been forced…” are examples of all different perspectives.

Would I Keep Reading?

Not yet. I’m sensing that this is a prologue, and personally I put down any novel that begins with a prologue or some sort of preface. Here’s why. (The writer of that particular blog entry is a very respectable agent at a big lit agency as well, and anytime I critique someone with a prologue, I send them thataway.)

If you do decide to take this advice, I would love to see a redo of your opening. I feel like this isn’t a proper demonstration of your skill as a writer, so I hope you do resubmit!

Good luck! ♥

Sunday, July 22, 2012

First 250 Words Smash! #3

Most Wonderful Author: M.A.B. || Writers of Yore
Most Evil Critique Master: Sarah
Working Title: Wayfarer

“What exactly did you say to her?”  
I glance up to find Jed hovering at my shoulder, an air of near palpable nervousness hanging off of him. “Nothing of any great importance,” I admit and turn back to my workbook. “What did you get for problem number four? I got x equals seven but Mart is insisting that— Ah...”  
Jed snatches the workbook from my hands and promptly sits on it. He takes his time to settle into the chair in front of me, then turns and folds his hands on top of my desk. “Cameron.” I know he is serious because he never calls me by my full name. “What did you say to Marlene?”
My fingers drum against the surface of my desk and wait to see if he'll give me back my workbook. When he doesn't, I sigh and roll my eyes. “I told her to leave you alone.” 
“She says you threatened her.” 
I scoff, taking the time to inspect my nails. “I did no such thing. I just told her that if she didn't stop spreading nasty rumors about you, then she may or may not end up in the nurse's office with a bloody nose.” 
Jed groans and buries his face in his arms. “Rin! You're a girl! Girls don't threaten to punch other girls in the nose!” 
“I didn't say I'd punch her in the nose. I just said that she'd end up with a bloody one. [...]”

Strong Points
HAH. I loved the ‘I didn’t threaten her, I just threatened her.’ And I like that we see straightaway what sort of character Rin is, and that you used dialogue to show that she’s in fact a ‘she’ and what sort of character she is. So far, I like her wit, and I like her attitude. She don’t take no one’s bull.

Jed is also a strong character, and I love that I already have mixed feelings about him. He SITS on her WORKBOOK. I mean, come on. He’s also a character that says he ain’t takin’ no bull, and the sparks between him and Cameron are strong. The ‘Girls don’t threaten to punch other girls in the nose!’ part is also a clear hint at his character (and also what gives me my mixed feelings—which is a good thing, of course).

Some Tips
I see nothing wrong with starting a book with dialogue, although I’ve heard others very passionately preach against it. I think it can be a great tool to engage in conflict, which is what an opening should always do.

But! With my first read, I did get confused. My second read was much better, because then I went, “Oh, okay, now I see what’s happening here.” I had to think about what was causing me this issue, and it took me a while longer to apply my thoughts cohesively, but here’s what I came up with:

Dialogue with minor stage direction moves fast. Very fast. Opening a story at the speed of light is good, but you introduce five different names, and names are something that the reader knows they have to keep track of. I grasped that Jed was one of the main speakers, but because Cameron is also Rin while I’m trying to remember both Mart and Marlene (two ‘M’ names), I feel like I’m caught in a bit of a whirlwind.

Now, I had Victoria read this, and she didn’t have a problem like I did. She’s also a whole lot better at memorizing things than I am (she can pinpoint what scene happened in what chapter of my own stories when I…can’t), and this is probably why she’s a lot faster at reading too. So, not everyone will have my problem.

For readers like me, I’d recommend you either forgo Mart entirely for now and also save the ‘Cameron/Rin’ differentiating until later, OR slow down the pacing of your dialogue by adding little points of description that key in to our setting without taking away from the conversation (and I’m more keen on the latter). All I know so far is Jed and Cameron, modern names, a chair, a desk, and a workbook that is now Jed’s seat cushion. Judging by what I have, I have to assume that this is a modern day YA (young adult) contemporary novel set in high school.

Would I Keep Reading?

I’d keep reading because I enjoy Cameron and Jed’s dynamic. It feels very natural and organic, it’s very easy to fall into, and I want to know what their relationship is. I also want to know what kinds of mean things Marlene is spreading.

My advice is that you can afford to slow things down just a bit, let your reader absorb what’s going on and take a little more time to allow your intro to soak into your readers’ brains. I stopped reading a very popular YA series for the same exact reason: too many characters at once and vague descriptions all bogged down the action/premise (which was a really awesome premise too). I got a few pages in to see if it would get better, and it didn’t, so I’d at least give this the same benefit.

Hope this helps! Good luck ♥

Thursday, July 12, 2012

First 250 Words Smash! #2x2

Word Smash is back! With a vengeance! Did you guys miss this? No? But we missed you!

Brave Author: Ambar Fernandez
Blarghblargh Editor: Victoria

You guys'll remember Miss Ambar's first submission here. I won't repost all of the love and terrible things I did to her, but at the very least I will give you the original first 250 words she gave us, so that your memories may be refreshed.

So, here it is, the original.

Rudolf James Bach, or my birth name Rudolf James Lin. After my mother and supposed “father” died in that accident the truth came out and it just so happened my mother had an affair with her first husband, thus I came into the picture. Very complicated, but that’s how it is.  
The man I grew up with was called Henry Lin. He was of Chinese descent and well if you haven’t noticed; my mom is of German descent. My father never knew about me not being his kid, what he thought till the end of his days was that my mom’s genes must have been super strong for me not to have had any Chinese traits. 
Enough about that let me tell you how I got here, to live in this house with Melody. I was five when my mother’s best friend I guess I could say “inherited”me. My mom had no family, the only family she had died the year before of old age, my grandmother. And since my real father, Ansgar Bach, didn’t know I existed, well I had nowhere to go; to top it off Henry’s family hated me because I was “half” German. Two weeks in foster care, I was finally handed over to Jennifer, she has been a great substitute mother, and to be honest a better mother than mine ever was. You see, my mother was always working, the only time I ever saw her was during the weekends.

Well, Ambar took out advice and resubmitted, as any of you are welcome to do, so here's round two!

I should have known something bad was going to happen that day. What should have made it snap was when my dad called, Ansgar Bach. Being his illegitimate child from his first marriage and all he doesn’t speak to me, due to his appearance, but here I am sitting in the waiting room of his stupid company. Why am I here again? Oh right Jennifer, the woman who has raised me since the accident, told me to come. The things I do to make her smile, honestly. 
The secretary looked up at me and smiled her, I’m innocent, smile. When we all know she is more than likely sleeping with my father, but whatever I don’t care it’s his life not mine. She picked up the phone and spoke for a bit, giggled then hung up and stood. “Rudolf.” 
I stood from my seat and smiled, trying not to seem like such a jack ass. “Yes?” 
“Mr. Bach, will see you now.” She opened the door and nodded for me to go in. 
I took my backpack and walked in and turned to see the door shut behind me. I turned over to my father who finished talking on the phone, something about a new line, and he hung up. He leaned back into his chair and smiled. 
His hair has gotten a bit more platinum since the last time I saw him, also his physique was still built for his age. My father, the owner of Bach Industries.

Strong Points: Already so much better! Now we're in a scene. Already we're right into what's happening, which is a huge improvement over last time. And you've woven background information into the action  fairly seamlessly. So much better than outright telling us. Now you can play with that way of delivering exposition, instead of dropping it on us like a heavy anvil all at once.

Also we get a much bigger sense of Rudolf's voice. Putting him in this situation has allowed him to flourish, and allowed us to see that he sort of is an ass.

Which is cool. I like asses. Sarah's aptly used Jason is an ass. So don't ever think characters who aren't very nice won't be liked, because that's not true

That aside, more of his voice is better in the beginning. It gives us a quick dive into his character and we know who we're dealing with sooner. Now, does he have a reason to be such an ass toward dad? Is he just feeling neglected? Rejected? Did dad do something to him? This raises all sorts of questions! And questions will keep me reading!

I also like the bit of description in there at the end with regards to dad, but I want more of Rudolf's voice in it. If he dislikes dad so much, I want to feel just a little bit of that when he looks at him. As it is, though, I do get a pretty clear picture of dad.

Some Tips: On that note, perhaps some more details. What does the secretary look like? What does the office and the waiting room look like? Is it swanky? Or is it a dump? I don't know, and that alone would give us a huge clue as to what kind of company Bach Industries is, and what kind of guy dad really is, both through Rudolf's biased goggles and without them.

You have some tense issues with verbs, but that's mere grammar and nothing some polishing and further editing can't fix. Just try to keep track of whether or not this is present or past.

You could probably just make the secretary smile an innocent smile, instead of the 'I'm innocent' in there. It's less wordy, more to the point and therefore it packs a more powerful punch to your reader, and it's less awkward to read. You can still make it snarky on Rudy's part, just not like that.

Try livening this up with some more powerful verbs. Instead of 'walked' in, let us know just how he walked in, or how he 'took' his backpack or exactly what Rudy is doing to 'try' and not seem like a jackass. These paint better pictures for your readers and help us understand your character more without you outright telling us.

Would I keep reading?

I am happy to say I would! You really, really improved, and I'm so glad you took the critique like a champ instead of sobbing about it in a closet like I would have. Now I have a scene, now I have an idea of what's going on, and the questions you've left me asking are good driving forces. Why does Rudy hate dad? What does dad do? Why did dad call Rudy out?

You've made me proud, Ambar! I look forward to another Word Smash from you!

And you still get hearts, of course.

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Strategies to Create Believable Characters (with illustrations -- kinda)

Recently I’ve noticed a lot of questions regarding how to build a believable character. It’s easy to look up the fundamental equation:

Name + Appearance + Background + Strengths + Weaknesses + Desire(s) + Conflicts = Character

More or less.

But we’re not creating a product of a calculation: we’re creating a person. As predictable as some scientists might say people are, there’s one wild tangent that equations can’t provide for – change. If your story flourishes the way it should, your character will come out the other end different, whether they grow or shrink or become enlightened or crumble. It can be either progressive or regressive, but your character will represent and embody every event that occurs in those pages that you write.

To get there, however, you must know who your character is from the very beginning, page one, first word.

As an example, let’s use Jason.

This is Jason. He’s sixteen (almost seventeen), a Virgo, a native of Pittsburgh (a much different Pittsburgh than we know today), and he’s a character in a story of mine that I wrote when I was sixteen (and then rewrote at nineteen, and am presently rewriting again at twenty-four). I know this guy so well that I could slap him clear across the face and then feel his own shock of adrenaline (he’s never had a girl slap him either, so that would be mildly startling).

His appearance changes throughout the books, but for the most part, he looks like this:

His main driving force is answers. He hates not having an answer to something, the way someone with mild OCD must check and double-check locks or stove knobs, etc. (Actually, he also does have OCD ritual tendencies.)

He’s slender, lanky, awkward with his body, and in a cast that includes several supernaturally strong characters, he’s pretty much flabby.

He’s lived in the same house with his single well-to-do mother in the same bubble of a borough all his life.

He’s extremely acute, strong in the subjects of history and politics and military strategies, and he’s like one of those scientists who would tell you that people are predictable. He understands facts, not emotions, so don’t expect him to understand feelings.

So, there’s Jason.

Be quiet, Jason. The adults are speaking now.

Anyway. Is this really enough to make a character? It’s a good start, but it’s only a start. This guy is so complex, which is why he’s up there scowling at me.

Next, we need layers. We need to flesh him out. It’s important that, if someone asks particular questions of your character, you know the answer. I like to choose particularly fun questions:

What pisses off your character most? How does your character take out his or her anger? Eating? Shopping? Ranting at anything within a span of ten feet? Fifty feet? The moon?

What’s your character’s living situation? Does your character live with their parents? Siblings? Pets? Does your character like their parents, siblings, pets? Does your character’s parents, siblings, pets like your character?

What’s your character like behind the wheel? (Even if your character is in a fantasy world without cars, the way someone drives and the car they might drive says A LOT about them.)

If your character had a blog, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc., what sort of crap would they post or pin or reblog? (No, really, THIS IS CRUCIAL.)

If you open up your character’s wardrobe, what would you find? Is it organized? Is it in disarray? What sorts of colors and textures do you see?

Thinking of these things before you start writing will help add that third dimension to your character, but if you’ve read anywhere on the internet about writing, or if you’ve taken a class, you know already to SHOW these things, and not TELL them. This is a difficult technique, and it’ll take practice to do it naturally and make it effortless.

Instead of saying “Jason was angry”, I might show it in one of these ways:
  • When he’s upset, he tends to haul it inside and sulk far away from people. He doesn’t know how to deal with his own emotions either, and at sixteen, even if he denies it, he’s got plenty emotions to deal with.
  • He might lash out with words and not think about the aftershocks, or the aftershock’s aftershocks. He might be intelligent, but he sucks in social situations.
  • If I were to write in his perspective, I show “I was angry” by having him mentally rant about whatever pissed him off, and his rants would be particularly scathing.
  • He might appear wound up tight – fists, a clenched jaw, tightness around the eyes, a twitch in his eyebrow, and a really red face. I mean like PURPLE. (For additional suggestions, check out this awesome body language chart via this awesome blog.)

I regret nothing.

So, start thinking about your characters all the time. When you’re caught in a conundrum, like another car cutting you off on the road and then slamming on their brakes, how would your characters react? (This also might be beneficial because it’ll keep you from raging and seeking revenge on said driver – which is not something I do, of course, no, never.) When you’re at the grocery store and you’re trying to decide between butter and omg-I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-butter or whatever it is, think about what your characters would do. And then stand there for hours, so that one of the employees comes up behind you and says, “…..It’s not that tough.” And then you can think of what your characters would do in that situation as well.

If you’re thinking about your characters all the time, if you’re talking to your friends about these characters like they’re real people, you’re doing it right.

If your characters are talking to you and someone refers to your character as a “character” and you get pissed off and say, “They’re real people, okay? And they have a name,” then you’re doing it best.

I’m serious.

In order to sink your fingers into the lives of your characters, they’re going to sink their fingers into your life as well.

Now where did he go? I think he’s off to sulk. I’ll go find him and give him a noogie.
Some tips:
  • Balance. Between strengths and weaknesses, there must be an even balance to make a character intriguing. Jason has Sherlockian tendencies in that he’s able to put things together to find answers, and he’s especially intelligent with strategy. To counter that, emotions, especially the type that fluctuate, often elude him. He’s also physically weak, has a bit of a temper, addictive habits, is a social reject, awkward with weapons, and cannot function without structure.
  • Character voice. Colloquialisms. Personal dictionary. Your character will speak like him or herself, not like any other character. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I can tell the difference between identical twins because of the way they talk, and also with—
  • Gestures, mannerisms, ticks, or the way the character holds him or herself. Not every character will roll their eyes or slap their palm to their faces or do a pee dance when they’re trying to hold it in.
  • Your characters might surprise you. I’m an outliner, and I often know my characters well enough that I can plan for most of their choices. Sometimes, they take me off guard and change their minds. If this happens, let it happen. It’s organic. It’s your character talking to you and saying “STFU, I’m taking over now.” So let them.
  • What else can you think of?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Where did that hiatus come from?

Sorry about the long absence, everyone. The past few months of school nearly did me in and we needed to take a serious break from any commitments. (Otherwise I was going to take my bio book, fry it up in some soy sauce, and eat it with a glass of merlot if I wasn't allergic to alcohol. And, just in case anyone was wondering, I got a B in that class. My first B in my college career. I turned all sorts of purple that day.)

Anyway, we'll get started on some new posts soon, and we owe some word smashes to a couple extremely patient submitters, so expect those in the near future as well.

Also, I'm totally going to have to replace some images here with different URLS because my photobucket bandwidth expired. AGAIN. I'm not even sure how it managed to do it this time, but it did, AGAIN. Don't worry, we're divorcing, and currently debating custody. It's an ugly battle.

If we're quiet here, chances are we're pretty active on our tumblr account. (Currently on the menu is a lot of art stuff, Korra, Loki and some Avengers but mostly Loki, feminism, and politics, not necessarily in that order.)

Look forward to a post on creating realistic characters!