November is Nearly Here: Time for the NaNoWriMo Challenge

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I would like to take a moment now and encourage everybody who’s been writing a novel, or even thinking about writing a novel, to consider taking this year’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge.

Here are the rules, regulations, and rewards:

1. Write a draft of a novel, at least 50,000 words long, during the month of November.

2. You may begin at midnight, November 1st, local time.

3. You must finish before midnight, December 1st, local time.  (They have you register as writing from a specific area, so they know when your time is up, wherever you live).

4. If you register officially, you will get many, many emails asking for donations (because nothing good is really free, right?), but also cool pep talks from successful writers to help you along your way.

5. You must start a new project with the contest.  (No building on something you’ve already written allowed).

6. You may plan out your writing as much as you want ahead of time, as long as you don’t write down anything you’re actually going to use in the draft.

7. If you reach 50 thousand words by midnight on the last day, but your draft isn’t finished, you are still a “winner.”

8.  If you win, they send you a certificate that you can print out, or not, but of course, your accomplishment itself is the greatest reward by far.

You may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned this challenge sooner, on a writing blog like this.  This is because, unfortunately, I will not be able to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.  However, lest you accuse me of not having the guts to practice what I preach here, let me just say that I did participate last year, and technically, I won, by producing 50,004 new words worth of complete garbage that I don’t even allow myself to look at anymore.  Of course, the NaNoWriMo people could argue that I didn’t really win, because I had actually written parts of that story already, but I didn’t put those parts in the same document.  I just wrote a new 50,000 word draft with deliberate gaps in it where I knew the stuff I’d already written could go after the contest.  Maybe that’s bending the rules a little bit, but so be it.  It still worked for me.

My inability to participate in the contest this year is not a case of my being lazy and claiming I’m “too busy.”  I’ve already made a choice that completely, totally excludes writing during the month of November as a possibility this year, and I don’t regret it.  Contrary to how it may look on here, I do believe that some things in life are more important than writing, and starting very soon it will be time for me to let one of those things take the front seat for a while.  There will be other NaNoWriMos for me to win, but not this year.

But for those of you who do have the opportunity to take the challenge this year, I’ll just share a few fun facts from my own experience with NaNo:

1. My favorite NaNoWriMo pep talk of all time was by Lemony Snicket of the Series of Unfortunate Events, who explained in very simple terms why we novelists must all stop writing at once, and thereby help me to realize exactly what it is that gives us all our “delusion” that writing is important in the first place.  And since his pep talk is not from this year, everybody, NaNoWriMo registered or not, can read it here.

2. One of the questions that I saw on the NaNoWriMo site asked for the “weirdest” place we’ve ever written for the challenge.  I don’t think I answered it there myself, but I will here.  It would definitely have to be when I was backstage during the filming of the Chinese reality show, Jiangsu’s got foreign talent, while waiting for my group’s turn to perform.  If you want to see the final result of that adventure, here’s a link to a video of it.  Be warned though, the sound quality is poor, there’s a gap in the middle, nobody is speaking English, and yes, the singers in white did not coordinate their routine with the dancers in red at all, so it all looks just a little bit weird.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out which of the nervous looking people in the white costumes was me.

3. I got to start and finish NaNoWriMo half a day before the other participants, thanks to my being in in China.

4. I actually “gave up” on the contest more than once throughout the course of the month, but in the end I did come back to it and pull through.

5. I learned the Chinese word for time travel just so I could discuss my story with my Chinese writing teacher.  It’s shi-kong lu-xing (时空旅行 in Chinese simplified characters).  Shi-kong means “time” within the context of relativity.  Lu-xing means journey.  It was hard, jumping between TV prep, school assignments, and my novel, but somehow I made it through that month alive.

6. Finally, I would never have done NaNoWriMo if one of my roommates at the time (who was also a writer) hadn’t encouraged me to try in the first place, which is why I’m passing on this encouragement now.  Try NaNoWriMo!  It will make you happy.  It will make your frustrated.  It will make you crazy.  But you can do it!  Even if you’re in China trying to learn one of the world’s hardest languages, or whatever it is that’s keeping you super busy at the moment, really, it is possible.  I know, because I did it.

Writing Believable Dialogue

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Speech Bubbles

For me, one of the trickiest parts of writing is dealing with dialogue.  It’s not that I haven’t read the standard dialogue tips.  I have.  I know that you’re supposed to use “said” almost all the time, rather than “exclaimed” (despite my high school English textbook, which told me to vary my dialogue tags).  I also know that you need to be careful not to go over the top with dialects.  I know that it’s best to find ways to skip over the formalities, “Hello” and “How are you,” and cut to the important parts of the conversation.  And I know that, if you can, you really should be paying attention to how different people talk in real life, so you can give all your characters their own expressions and they’ll read like different people.

But when it comes to figuring out what my characters are actually going to say, I start running into trouble.  I don’t really enjoy writing what I know, since I prefer writing about things that aren’t even possible, but the downside of this is that, when my characters run into situations that would never happen to me, I have to figure out by myself what would be the most realistic thing for them to do or say to each other, and that’s not easy.

Also, the trouble with dialogue in general is that it’s so easy to use it to convey more than it should.  Ever since third person omniscient narration has gone out of style, writers feel the need to stick to one character’s head at a time, but also to hint at the other characters’ motivations for what they’re doing, so the story continues to make sense.  But you can’t expect all these motivations to show up in the dialogue, because in real life, people seldom say everything they think, especially when they’re in the middle of a power struggle, and good fiction is all about power struggles.

Also, if your characters are true to life, then almost every scene will have undercurrents which all the characters are aware of, but which don’t show up in the dialogue. Two characters can have the exact same conversation, word for word, but depending on the their underlying relationship and the tone of voice they use, the meaning could be entirely different.  The actual dialogue between the characters is only important as it relates to what they’re really feeling inside.  And what they’re actually feeling inside isn’t something they’re going to talk about in most cases, even to themselves.  It’s something you have to figure out based on context.

This is why some people say that you should never begin a story with dialogue.  It’s not because there’s something about hearing your characters speak that turns people off; it’s just that most of the time the kind of things that people actually say to each other just aren’t opening sentence material.  If the characters are worried about their friend Jimmy who’s out at see in an open boat in the middle of a storm and have a conversation in which they decide to take another boat out and rescue him, they may or may not actually say anything profound during that conversation.   It may just be a discussion of the weather, and then, “Should we take a boat out?” with the risk they’re taking for their friend being something understood but not spoken.  But if you’re opening sentence is, “Should we take a boat out?” or, “The wind is picking up,” it usually just becomes wasted words, because at the time we read it we can’t understand it for what it really means to the characters.  But on the other hand, if you start of with someone saying what’s really going on, like, “Jimmy could die out there.  Now are we going to try to save him, or not?” it can sound a bit theatrical.

So, I’m finding that the more I write, the more I need to rely on other things besides dialogue to get my points across.  Dialogue has a place, but unless the main goal of your character is to improve his speaking skills or to persuade somebody to do something, it’s not the most important thing going on.  What’s important is the goals your characters have and the decisions they’re all making every moment as they try to figure out what will bring them to those goals faster.  Those decisions are sometimes reflected in the dialogue, or influenced by what characters hear each other say, but the dialogue is only a tool, not an end in itself.

My Twin from Another Language

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French language McDonald's door sign

French language McDonald’s door sign (Photo credit: mechanikat)

When I started this blog, the first site name I tried for was mgiroux.wordpress.com, but they said it was already in use, so M. Giroux Stories had to do.  Now that I’ve set up the blog, I think the name I ended up with might have been the better choice anyway though, since this blog is much more about stories than it is about me anyway.  But recently when I was on my dashboard it occurred to me that I still didn’t know what lucky person had already grabbed the M. Giroux without stories domain name, so I decided to look it up.

Unfortunately, that particular blog was not found.  I guess the author deleted it, which is sad.  But in the “Are you sure you didn’t mean something else instead?” category they had a site called ngiroux.wordpress.com, which I clicked on.

In case you haven’t guessed, the name Giroux is French.  I’m not French myself, but one of my great grandfathers was.  My father went to France and learned French as an adult, so I studied French in high school, but after moving on to college I moved on to other languages instead.  However, after seeing N. Giroux’s blog, which happens to actually be in French, I realized once again how much I really miss studying French, and how much easier French is to study than Chinese or Korean.  I haven’t really studied French in years but I could still understand a least half of what I read on there.  That’s not how it is with Chinese.  If you stop studying Chinese for a few months you forget how to read almost everything.

N. Giroux is a blog about books.  Books, books, and more books.  Books in French, critiqued in French.  Not very many science fiction or fantasy books though, unfortunately for me, but still, it was really cool to look at.  I love languages so much.

I once joked with one of my roommates that I treat languages like love interests.  French was my high school crush.  Then I had a more serious relationship with Chinese that involved actually going to China (interrupted only by a very brief fling with Spanish), and now I’m beginning what’s going to be an even more serious relationship with Korean.  But I don’t want to forget French.  French was my first love.  Someday, I’ve got to come back to French.

So how to you feel about foreign languages?  Which language (other than your native tongue) is your favorite?

Writing a Human-Friendly Universe: An Extraordinary World for Ordinary People

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English: Harry Potter fans wearing Hogwarts un...

Harry Potter fans wearing Hogwarts uniform’s robes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I posted on one of the potential problems of writing about characters that are super human, using the Harry Potter books as an example.  To read the whole post, you can click here, but just to reiterate, the basic problem with a story world in which some people are “special” and others aren’t is that it’s only fun to live in that kind of world if you happen to be one of the special people.  If you’re not, it kind of stinks.

So the question is, if you’re going to pick favorites among your characters by creating a superior race or group, how do you make life tolerable for members of the inferior races as well?  How do you make life a little bit more fair to the non-special people, so readers don’t see some characters flying by while everyone else suffers?  Here are a few different suggestions, and examples.

Idea One: Show that being superhuman comes with it’s own problems.  As I mentioned before in my post about flight and invisibility, flying around can be fun, but only until other people noticed you could do it and became jealous.  The truth is, it’s kind of lonely being the only superhuman on the block, or on the planet, as the case may be.  To complicate life further, as Spider man once put it, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  Someone who can do more than other people really ought to use his powers to make the world a better place, but that does take effort

And, unfortunately, most superhuman characters in fiction still share human nature, which means they have a tendency to beat up those weaker than themselves.  Power corrupts.  So, if you want to be a good superhero, not only do you constantly have to battle your own selfish tendencies, but you have to fight back against the superhuman bullies, which, chances are, won’t make you very popular among your “peers”.  There are good reasons that lots of “special” characters in fiction sometimes wish they were normal.

Pros: This idea mirrors true life.  Most people have known what it’s like to be better at something than other people, and maybe even felt like they were misunderstood because of it.  Smart people, or people with wealthy parents, often feel a sense of pressure to do something important with their lives, because when life has given them so much it would be a crime to waste it all.

Cons: This has to be done carefully.  If your characters genuinely want to be good, this isn’t so bad, but if they use their powers selfishly a lot and then gripe about the “problems of being special” when they get in trouble, they’re just going to be annoying.  After all, the comment, “Having super power is as tough for me as not having any power is for you,” in the ears of an un-super character sounds a lot like the idea of white man’s burden.

Idea Two: Compensate for strengths with weaknesses.  It doesn’t seem fair to give other races special capabilities that humans miss out on, but if you compensate by making other things harder for them than for us, so that we can’t tell for sure what the most desirable race is, then the whole story becomes much more interesting.  Maybe your fairies have wings and magic powers, but are so tiny that we humans make them feel a bit uncomfortable, or your virtually immortal race is incapable of feeling emotion.

Pros: When done well, this method becomes an excellent way to explore the strengths and weaknesses of humanity and human nature.  Also, it’s always fun to imagine members of what we would consider to be a “magical” race, looking at us in awe because we can do something that they can’t.

Cons: This method works well if you deal with different races, but in other cases, such as when all the characters are human, but somehow certain “powers” always go with corresponding “disabilities,” it can seem a little contrived   Also, since we’re used to being human, it’s hard for us to think of anything we can do as being a “super power.” The thing that makes us really special among other living things is our minds, but in many ways, our minds are also what makes us worth reading about.  So sometimes it’s hard to imagine a race of creatures that’s clearly inferior to us in some way, but is still believable and is intelligent enough for us to consider it’s members to be “characters.”

Idea Three: Remember that “Pride goeth before destruction.”  Sometimes a “superior race” gets so complacent about its powers that in the end a biologically inferior race that works harder happens to gain advantages over it.  The Harry Potter universe follows this pattern.  It it, the wizards know they are superior the the muggles, so for the most part, they ignore us, and view whatever technologies we use as mere “compensations” for our disability.  However, as most Harry Potter fans are aware, real world muggle technology doesn’t just make up for our lack of magic; it actually surpasses magic (or at least, magic the way the wizards currently use it) in a lot of different scenarios

In fact, thanks to the internet and other new technology, we’ve reached a point where people can actually have a debate about who would win a worldwide wizards vs. muggles war.  Obviously, a fight between one wizard and one muggle with all other things being equal would be no contest, but not only do we outnumber the wizards, we know how to use technology in ways that sometimes work better/faster their methods.  So, (assuming that both sides knew the war was going on and the wizards weren’t just slaughtering people and making it look like natural disasters after the fact) we muggles might have a chance.

Pros: This situation also rings true to real life.  As a real example, China has been a lot more advanced than Western Europe for much of history.  Most of the technologies we like to think of as major breakthroughs at the end of the middle ages were actually thought up centuries earlier by the Chinese.  However, when Europe finally caught up to China technologically, the Chinese Emperor refused contact with some of the Europeans because he felt we still had “nothing” that he needed.  This kind of thinking led to China’s falling behind the west, being persecuted by other nations, and then having to try desperately throughout the twentieth century to catch up.

Cons: While this fatal underestimation of the “inferior” group is realistic if you’re dealing with cultures distant from each other, the more integrated the different groups are into each other’s worlds, the less easy this is to pull off.  One of the flaws in the Harry Potter universe, actually, is that given the number of muggle-borns at Hogwarts, one would think that wizards in general would be more aware of muggle technology and some of it’s advantages.  They’re not all muggle hating purebloods, after all.

Idea four: Suggest that the difference between the “superior” and “inferior” has more to do with peoples’ perceptions and temporary circumstances than with the people being fundamentally different.  An example of this is the Star Trek episode Plato’s Step Children.  This episode is centered around the theme of human equality, not just because it contains the first televised kiss between a white man and a black woman, but because it shows the Enterprise crew members interacting with members of an apparently superior race, who aren’t particularly nice to them.  In fact, if you want to see what I believe a universe like Harry Potter’s would have looked like in real life, this is the episode to watch. Be warned though, it’s not pretty.

However, near the end of the Episode, the crew learns that their tormentors are not really as superior as they believe themselves to be, but are merely benefiting from chemicals in the local food.  After injecting themselves with the magic chemicals, the crew becomes equal to the other race.  The inherent “superiority” of their captors was a myth all along.

Pros: This is my personal favorite method for dealing with inequality, because, being an optimistic person, I like to think that people really aren’t as different from one another as they sometimes appear, and that, given the right opportunities, we’re all capable of a lot more than what we give ourselves credit for.  This connection to reality and/or my own wishful thinking make this plot development really appealing to me.

Cons: Of course, the trouble with suggesting that everybody can be “super” is that, “When everyone is super, no one will be,” as Syndrome stated it in “The Incredibles.” Having everybody be special kind of defeats the point of a “special person” story altogether in the minds of some people.  Personally, I kind of liked Syndrome’s statement about making everyone super (not that it redeemed him from his villainy), but just like the audience of “The Incredibles,” people like the idea of superheros in a normal world.  It appeals to their pride to fantasize about being exceptionally good at something, and if the superheros aren’t really so exceptional after all, that dims the fantasy somewhat.

In a way, the “inequality is more in perceptions than ultimate reality” method is actually the reverse of the superhero fantasy.  It’s the fantasy of an underdog who triumphs.   It’s the fantasy of a “superhero” who didn’t start out as a superhero at all, but thanks to his determination, in the end, it didn’t matter.

Writing Past the Passion of “True Love’s Kiss”: A Tale of Two Edwards

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Today I’ll be discussing the qualities that make a happily ever after romantic relationship believable to readers.  Sometimes the romantic relationships in stories are all physical attraction without any real substance behind them.  These are fun sometimes, but it’s better if, in addition to the infatuation, you can help your characters find true love.

The difference between true love and mere infatuation is like the difference between the twilight fan teams Edward and Jacob.  I started out closer to team Jacob than Edward myself, and while I found myself to be in the minority at first, over the past few years there’s been a sort of mass migration from Team Edward to Team Jacob, because Jacob’s love for Bella rings truer to more experienced readers.  It’s easier to believe that it will last.

Like Bella, the heroine Giselle of Disney’s Enchanted also faces a choice between a standard fairy tale romance, based purely on initial infatuation, and her slightly more realistic relationship with Robert, a real world lawyer.  At the end, she ditches her shallow relationship with her fiance, who, incidentally, was also named Edward, and goes for the real world guy instead.  And despite Edward’s being a prince, I think she’s better off that way, because her solid relationship with Robert has a greater chance of holding up in the long run.

So the topic of the day is this: How do you make a story romance realistic enough to convince your readers, and yourself, that it’ll last even after the story is over?  Based on these two story examples, here are some suggestions:

1. Make sure your characters have spent a significant amount of time together by the end of the story.  In one scene of Enchanted, Giselle sings about some of the signs a girl can use to pick up on whether a guy really loves her, but ironically, we can guess that Edward hasn’t performed some of her suggested activities with her, because she’s only known him for one day.  A true relationship takes time to build, and the more time the characters have invested in the relationship to get to the romantic high they’re now at, the easier it is to believe they’ll stick by each other later.

2. Your characters should be building a strong friendship along with their attraction for each other.  Whether or not they can do this is strong evidence for how long their relationship will hold up, because in real life, the feeling of being in love wears off after a couple of years, and we need to know that their friendship will take over when the obsessive hormonal attraction stops.  In twilight, Jacob Black was able to actually have fun with Bella.  Edward couldn’t really.  In fact, when he tried to have a normal conversation with Bella once during the first book, it was pretty awkward.  He was much better at talking about how to be a vampire.

“Enchanted” Edward had the same problem.  When Giselle, inspired by our real world customs, asked him to take her out and spend time with her, he clearly wasn’t very comfortable doing so.  He knew how to declare his undying love for her and how to kiss, but that was about it.  Their lives would have gotten boring very fast.

3. Make sure both characters bring something to the table.  In Twilight, Bella didn’t really get this part right in either one of her relationships, but in Enchanted, Giselle and Robert are a pretty good example of a relationship of equals.  At least, as good as you can get in a Disney movie.  Giselle needs Robert’s help at first in order to survive New York City, but she enriches Robert’s life by helping him believe in romance again, and in magic. By contrast, back in Andalasia, her love was all about Edward saving her and sweeping her off to his palace.  He was contributing much more to their relationship than she was, and he knew it too, which made him just a little bit conceited.

One sided relationships may work out alright in the short term, but unless you show how your characters are going to balance things out, readers will sense that a bad end is coming.  Whoever does the most work is going to get frustrated eventually.  Not that true love can’t last through frustration (we see people care for their injured spouses all the time), but that’s not the kind of thing readers are looking for when they read romantic fiction.

4. Last but not least, don’t name your hero Edward.

And finally, if anybody saw my first edit of this post, I am so sorry.  That was a complete accident, and I had to salvage the text from leftover html coding, so it took a while to fix.  Pictures don’t always work out the way I want them to.  Thus, no more pictures in this edit.  Sorry.

Dumbledore’s Idealism vs. Dumbledore’s Reality: The Problems of an Unequal Fantasy

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Harry Potter

Several posts ago I discussed the appeal of the “changeling” fantasy, where seemingly normal person finds out that they are royalty, or non-human, or in some other way special.  I mentioned at the time that while this kind of fantasy is fun to read, it does often create one problem: a fundamental inequality between the special and the non-special people.

The best example of this is the Harry Potter series.  In it, Harry and most of the other characters we run into are wizards.  They do magic.  But since Harry still lives in our universe with a twist, the majority of people in his world are “muggles,” the “non-magic people.”  As far as the story shows, and in the minds of all the characters, there is no middle ground between being a muggle and a wizard.  You’re either one or other, and that’s determined from the moment you’re born.  If you’re lucky, you happen to be magical, but if not, then too bad, you will never be able to do magic no matter how hard you try.  Though wizards and muggles often come from the same families, in terms of the individual they might as well be two different species, one of which is significantly, and indisputably, better than the other.

There aren’t very many muggles that figure into the Harry Potter story, and I can see why.  In Harry’s world, being a muggle is like being genetically disabled.  It’s sad.  Fortunately though, Rowling usually doesn’t let us see just how sad.  We don’t get to see the pain of growing up as a squib in an all wizard family, or even as a regular muggle in a mixed family, of which I’m sure there are many.  Hermione Granger is an only child for a reason, because nobody really wants to imagine what it would be like to grow up as one of her siblings.

To keep us from being too sad for the muggles, Rowling insures that the ones we see the most often look like they deserve to be non-magical.  The Dursleys are just mean.  Filch the squib is mean.  Mrs. Figg is a somewhat silly older woman who likes her cats a bit too much.  The owner of the camping ground near the Quidditch World cup is an inconvenient landlord who must constantly be given memory charms to prevent his knowing what’s really going on.  Unless they’re squibs, prime ministers, or someone in their family turns out to have powers, the muggles are never allowed to know what’s really going on.  They’re just “confunded” and then ignored.

Naturally, some of the meaner wizards look down on muggles, but Dumbledore, one of the better characters in the stories, does not.  He says at the end of the second book, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”  That is a wonderful statement, and in our world, I believe it to be true.  But unfortunately, in Dumbledore’s world, it actually isn’t.

People might say the inequality of Harry Potter is no different from what we experience in everyday life.  Some of us are smarter than others.  Some of us have the bodies to become Olympic athletes and some don’t.  But the difference is that in real life we aren’t permanently divided into sharp categories of ability that our choices can’t move us out of.  People with dyslexia have difficulty reading, but with time and effort, most of them do learn to read.  There are no “non-reading people.”  Short people in general have a harder time playing basketball than tall people, but if they develop their skills enough, many of them can outscore taller players.  There are no “non-basketball playing people.”  So to me the idea of a universe in which there are magic people and some people who are “non-magic” with no “if”s, “and”s or “but”s, is, in fact, tragic.

The greatest hint we get at this tragedy in the Harry Potter series is near the end when [very minor spoiler alert] Harry learns something we’d already begun to suspect, that his Aunt’s hatred for magic didn’t start out as such.  We get a glimpse, a very brief glimpse, of how much she’d originally wanted to be a witch.  We hear that she wrote to Dumbledore himself begging him to let her come to Hogwarts too.  We didn’t get to hear the actual contents of Dumbledore’s return letter, but I bet the message of it went something like this: Petunia, I’m sorry, but you were never meant to be a witch.  Your sister was.  It is not your choices that show me what you are, Petunia.  It is your abilities.  You can never do magic.”

Life is not fair.  We all know that.  Most of us want to make it fairer though.  Which is why I find it paradoxical that sometimes our fantasies are even more unfair than our reality.  So this post is just to say, for all those of us who write about supermen, may we remember our muggles.

What Did Stephanie Meyer Do Right?

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English: Twilight Saga Español: Saga Crepúsculo

English: Twilight Saga Español: Saga Crepúsculo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The twilight saga is poorly written.  Everybody says so.  Even the non-writers are aware of this.  The movie versions have yet to come to an end, but the books are already becoming a joke, as awkward, weird, or creepy stories we find online draw the comment, “Well, it’s still a better story than twilight!

Yet somehow, in spite of everybody agreeing on how bad they were, those books managed to top the bestseller lists for quite a while.  Edward and Bella were a hit.  And although the novelty of the series has faded somewhat now, it was big enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if someday cultural historians used it to help define these past few years.  But the question remains, if these books are really so very bad, then how did the “twilight phenomenon” ever happen?

I know for a fact that it’s NOT just Edward and Bella’s obsessive love for each other, like some people think it is.  When I read the first twilight book, I was slightly older than Meyer’s target audience, and even at my worst, I’d never been a gushy, romantic teenager who expected to faint in a guy’s arms.  Consequently, I never did fall in love with Edward.  I had a hard time picturing someone who had circles under his eyes all the time but was still attractive, so I found him a little weird.  Also, he seemed kind of distant at first, not particularly romantic.  Then I found out he was stalking Bella, and that was weird.  Then his conversations morphed into discussions of vampire back story, and that was also weird.  Then Bella almost died, and I was glad she didn’t, and then she told Edward she wanted to be a vampire, and I thought, “Are you crazy?  No you don’t.”

But in spite of being aware at the time of some of some flaws in the book I was reading, I could not put it down.  I read the entire book nearly in one sitting, only stopping when my relatives I almost never see came over (I was on vacation at the time) and maybe once to get some food.  And after I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  During the next week I stayed at a sort of camp, so I had plenty of fun and distractions, but whenever I was walking to or from somewhere, I was thinking about twilight.  Half the songs I heard made me think of twilight.  I scarcely thought about my own stories at all, only how I would have re-written the ending of twilight.  I kept thinking how this one girl in my group looked like she might be a vampire.  I felt like a twilight zombie.

At the end of the week I came back to my relatives’ house.  They also had New Moon.

It was the same story all over again.  I saw flaws in the story.  I saw inconsistencies between books two and one.  I was convinced by the end that Bella’s relationship with Edward didn’t make nearly as much sense as the one she now had with Jacob.  By the time I finished it, I was getting pretty sick of being obsessed with vampires, so I didn’t dare read the first chapter for Eclipse because I knew if I did I’d read the whole thing.

It took me a while to completely purge my system of twilight, before I was safely back into my own stories again rather than trying to figure out ways they could make Edward back into a human.  I even thought that maybe he should kill himself so she could forget him and be happy with Jacob, because he’d at least had it figured out at one point that she’d be better of with someone else.

Looking back on this time of my life, I’m amazed at how someone like me, who was not the type to swoon, could still so swept in by such a poorly plotted story.  How did that happen to me, and to everybody else who read those books?  And how was it that years later, when I picked up Meyer’s spinoff novela, which had a much more gruesome and twisted plot than the other stories I’d read, I still couldn’t put it down?  I read through nearly all of it and skimmed to the end in one sitting, and then felt thoroughly disgusted with myself because I’d just read almost two hundred pages from the perspective of a vampire serial killer who even killed during the story.  That wasn’t like me.  I don’t even like vampires.  So how did that happen?

The only conclusion I could come to was that, along with all the other things Stephanie Meyer had done “wrong” that I could point out, she must have done something else very right.  Whatever it takes to write the addictive story, she had it in there, and it didn’t matter how much else she messed up on, we readers were hooked.

Someday I will read twilight again.  I will go through it and see if I can figure out what it was that didn’t let me stop reading, so that as a writer, I can learn from it.  My current theory, not having read the series in a while, is that Meyers did it by reminding us that Bella didn’t know what would happen next.  If I had one word to describe Bella at the beginning of her story, it would be “unsettled.”  She didn’t know what living with her dad would be like, or what her new high school would be like, and she worried about it.   She anticipated what would happen next, and a part of me just needed find out whether she was right.

That need lasted throughout the entire story.  When she began thinking Edward was different, she didn’t know what would happen next.  When she went into the woods alone with him, she didn’t know what would happen next.  And although at the time I was thinking, “Wait, what are you doing.  If this doesn’t work out, you do realize you’ll be DEAD, right?” I had to go into the woods along with her.  I had to see what would happen next.

So, that’s my current belief about what makes twilight so popular.  But if anybody else would be willing to share other ideas for what made twilight so addictive, I’d appreciate that very much, because I’m still trying to figure it out myself.

It’s All in the Details: Why True Description is So Much More Than a Boring Paragraph

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Flowers 3

Flowers 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my weaknesses as a fiction writer is that I have a hard time fitting in descriptions of my setting, all those little sensory details that supposedly enrich my story world.  My lazy writer’s mind tends to be skeptical of the need to fill in details.  I find myself thinking, “Wait, you mean I really have to figure out what my story would look like?  Who cares what it looks like?  I just want to know what happens in it.”  It doesn’t help that I’ve read plenty of books that I felt had too much description, long paragraphs of description that I usually skip over.

But in the back of my mind, I know that descriptive details can go a long way towards making fiction, especially the kind of fiction I write, feel real.  Recently one of the blogs I follow brought this fact home to me.  Author M. B. Weston seems to be good at sensory details, and she’s stressed their importance in a few of her posts since I’ve started following her.  At first, I felt that she was giving these details a bit too much importance.  They’re just details after all, I thought.  Isn’t it so much more useful to talk about plot elements, like I do?  Then two days ago she came out with a post that humbled me and showed me how important these details can be.  She was discussing details and their role in helping readers suspend their disbelief over fantastic elements, and how she had used these details while writing her own stories.  During the post, she quoted three sentences from her own book, A Prophecy Forgotten, as examples of sensory details.

I had never read any of her books before.  I hadn’t thought about doing so.  But reading those three sentences and their context piqued my interest in her story, much more so than if I’d just read the blurb on her site.  I won’t actually quote her sentences here (you’ll have to read her original post for that) but the main impression I got from reading these sentences was, “Wow.  These characters are angels, but they’re also people.  They feel cold sometimes.  They feel wet and uncomfortable.  When they get scared, the feathers on their wings stand straight up.  Ooh.  I bet that’s not fun for them.  Of course, they’re not really like me.  They can fly.  But they’re people.”

This reminded me of the difference between boring description and real description in fiction.  Boring description is any random details you can throw into the story hoping to make your world feel more realistic, but real description helps you see what it’s actually like for the characters to live in the story would.  The writing advice book Wired for Story explains this concept really well.  If you say it’s sunny, then that sun should make your character happy, or beat down on him as he wanders around looking for shelter, or something.  If it rains, somebody’s clothes should get wet.

The point is to create a lot of details for your setting that all tie in to what your character is experiencing at the moment.   Readers want to know, not just that the little things of your story world exist, but that they affect your characters just as much as they would affect us.  Then we get the feeling that these characters actually pass through their lives instead of just showing up to fulfill their roles at major plot points.  It helps us feel that your characters are worth caring about, because you cared enough about them to create all of their story, not just the things they did to save the world, but how it felt for them to do it.

What are your favorite fiction writers who describe things well?  How do you feel about Tolkien’s description? Who are the other good describers?

Harry Potter, King Arthur and the “Changeling” Myth: The Meaning of “Specialness” in Fiction

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Cover of "The Sword in the Stone (Disney ...

Cover via Amazon

A good portion of fantasy revolves around the idea that some people stand out from the rest.  In the Harry potter universe, normal humans stand on the sidelines while only the special “wizards” and “witches” get to take their place among the other “magic” creatures: goblins, dragons, centaurs, etc.  In Eragon, the dragon riders get to fly around and communicate telepathically with shining dragons, while other people kind of miss out on that opportunity.   In Lord of the Rings, the elves get to live pretty much forever if they’re careful and the humans… don’t.

A lot popular fantasy stories both now and throughout the ages also highlight one main character who learns he has been “chosen” by destiny to do something amazing.  Often this “choice of destiny” has something to do with who his parents were, like in the legends of King Arthur.  According to the myth, Arthur didn’t know during his younger years that he would be king.  Some of the older stories suggest he truly thought himself to be a member of the family who raised him, while more modern takes like Disney’s Sword in the Stone suggest he had a childhood similar to poor young Harry Potter, until he pulled what he thought was a random sword out of a stone, and then Merlin finally lets him know, “You’re a King, Wart.”

In fact, the the sentence, “You’re a [insert really cool sounding thing that most people aren’t here], [insert name of main character here] is a staple of popular fiction.  If Main Character is male, usually it’s some older, wiser male guide who shows up to bring him the news, but if Main Character is a she, then it’s usually some slightly older and extremely attractive male guide who shows up to bring her the news, becoming both her escort into the new world she now belongs to and her love interest all at the same time.  Wow.  There’s nothing medieval or sexist about that at all, is there?  A lot of girls must like it though, or I wouldn’t see any female writers using it.

So what is it that makes the tale of the “special” chosen one so appealing to readers? I think it’s because it has such a strong emotional resonance with our lives.  None of us really know for sure, unless we become scientists and perform DNA testing on ourselves, that we are the children of our actual parents and not of some royalty somewhere, so in a way, the “changeling” fantasy of an otherworldly person being dumped on a human doorstep as a baby really appeals to us all in a kind of, “It could have happened to you.  Well, not really, but then again you never KNOW, do you?” way.

On a deeper level, I think the idea that we could be something more that meets the eye to most people, or even to ourselves, resonates deeply with our emotions.  Maybe our life isn’t really so bad.  Maybe we don’t sleep in a closet every night and get beaten up by our overweight cousin.  But we’ve all dealt with people who looked down on us.  We’ve all had days when we wondered if the bullies might be right and we were worthless.  We’ve all felt like we were different in some way from people around us, and wondered if that was okay.  The fantasy of finding out you’re something special – whether it’s a changeling from the fairies, or the son of a king, or a wizard, or a princess – is that fantasy of having proof that the bullies were wrong, that we really are better than what we sometimes see in ourselves, that we CAN save the world if we try.  It’s the fantasy of having something to fix our confidence on beyond our own dreams or what our parents told us, the fantasy of being able to tell our selves, “I am worth it because I am this special thing, and nothing can take that away from me.”

However, the trouble with “special” races and “chosen ones” in fantasy is that they make being a normal human look pretty bad by comparison.  I know girls who fantasized around the time they were eleven years old that they’d get a letter from someplace called Hogwarts telling them to go off to boarding school and practice becoming a witch.  Since I didn’t read Harry Potter till later in life myself, I missed out on that particular childhood dream, and finding out that so many of my friends had had it disturbed me for a couple of different reasons, one of which was that, as anybody who reads the books would know, American witches DO NOT go to Hogwarts.  Probably most of them wind up in tacky American wizard schools that aren’t even boarding schools.  The other issue was that they were, after all, fantasizing about finding out they were witches, something that I don’t think their parents had in mind when they let them read the books.

But that’s a story for another day.  My main question here is this: Is it good for us to keep creating fantasy worlds in which some people have all the cool powers and everybody else just loses out?  This drastic inequality isn’t something we want to promote in real life, so should we be promoting it in fiction?  I plan to explore this problem further in future posts, but in the meantime, what do any of you think about “specialness” in fantasy?

Fiction Writing Advice: Good, Bad, or Stupid?

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Save a cat or dog

Save a cat or dog (Photo credit: rikkis_refuge)

At the bottom of one of the related posts that I linked to my last entry, I found an interesting comment thread in which the author and others debated the pros and cons of Save the Cat.  In this thread the author, The Living Notebook, said something to the effect that some writing advice books like Save the Cat can turn into marketing scams, because: 1. The authors over-simplify things to make it sound like their way is the only way, 2. The authors may or may not be any good at writing fiction themselves, and 3. The readers want to pretend that reading these advice books is the one thing they need to become a better writer, when the real way to become a better writer is to actually write stuff.

This got me thinking about writing advice in general.  How helpful is writing advice to potential writers, really?  Of course, it’s hard for me personally to be objective about this, since I put a whole lot of writing advice on my blog, and determining that my advice was actually harmful to writers would hurt my ego.  But really, is the vast library of writing advice we have out there now good or bad for writing?

Well, first of all, not all writing advice is created equal, as anybody who tries to use the internet to find out about writing will tell you.  If you obtain your advice the good old fashioned way by reading it off a physical page that you found on a physical shelf in a physical location, you can be pretty sure that it’s a least good enough for more than one person to stand behind it (otherwise it wouldn’t have been printed), but online you don’t have that confidence.  Anybody can go online and say anything they want to about writing, but that says absolutely nothing about whether they know what they’re talking about.

Case and point: This blog, M. Giroux Stories.  There’s nothing on here to prove that I know what I’m talking about.  I never said that I had any degree in writing that made me worth listening to, and readers just have to take my word for it that I do actually write fiction.  I might be good at writing or I might be an idiot with thirty poorly written, unpublishable novels my basement.  You don’t know.

The only way you have to evaluate my advice, or most other advice that you find online, is to look at the advice itself.  Am I consistent?  Do I make sense?  Do I sound as if I’ve put some thought into what I wrote instead of just gushing my raw emotions out into the blog-o-sphere?  How does what I say match up with other advice out there that seems to be good?  That’s how people figure out whether it’s a good idea to listen to me.

Second of all, the sad thing about good writing advice is that the people who need it the most aren’t the kind of people who are going to end up finding it.  The people who crank out ridiculously bad fiction aren’t reading writing advice, or if they are, they’re getting it from the first few websites they find online or the one book they read, and then they stick to it, good, bad or ugly.  On the other hand, the “writing perfectionists,” who are really concerned about writing fiction well, sometimes read so many pieces of advice that they get bogged down worrying about creating “perfect” fiction and can’t have any fun with their work.

But I don’t think writers, even good writers, should stop seeking out writing advice entirely, because fiction is so diverse.  One writing advice book, one writing blog, or one writing method can’t possibly tell you everything about writing that would be useful.  Rather, there are plenty of good writing websites, books and programs that all have something different to offer.  Good writers understand this, and that’s why some of them fill their shelves with books on writing.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But these writers also need to remember that: 1. Reading more and more writing advice will not actually put any words onto your page.  Even my blog, as great as I might think it is, cannot move your personal work in progress forward.  You need to do that yourself.  2. You will never know everything there is to know about writing well.  3. Some writing advice, even good writing advice, can actually hurt you if you follow it to the extreme.  There’s a time and a place in writing for everything, a time to “show” and a time to “tell,” a time to describe your setting and a time to write nothing but action, a time to use active voice and a time when passive voice must be used, times not to use adverbs and plenty of times when you should… okay, you get the point by now.  The more simplistic a piece of advice is, the more likely it is that somebody will follow it when they shouldn’t.

RSPCA cat & mouse

It’s like that “Save the Cat” tip that The Living Notebook was griping about in his original post.  Not being that into film studies myself, I’m glad that I personally read that tip, because I agree that it’s nice to make your hero likable, and people who do nice things are likable.  But I also understand that you have to look at the individual story and not just mindlessly toss the standard “do-gooder” scene into it.  Let’s face it; there are plenty of really great main characters out there who just aren’t the kind of people who save cats.  Maybe your character is one of them.  But if YOU like your character, surely you can find a way to show your audience whatever aspects of your character you happen to like.  Maybe then they’ll like him too.

So my advice on writing advice is to read writing advice – with a grain of salt.  Read, think, write, and repeat.  Love your story and love the people who want to help you make it better, but learn how to say no when something someone suggests isn’t right for you, even if it’s something you found on this blog.  I think my advice is good, but I’m not perfect, so it’s very possible that some of my advice is BAD.  The same goes for anybody else out there.  Give us some consideration, listen to the good parts and learn from our mistakes.  That’s how to LEARN how to become a good writer.  Actually becoming a good writer involves actually writing though, so on that note, let’s all go write!