Thursday, July 26, 2012

Behind the Story: Author Sadism

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

This week's topic:
Being Evil to Your Characters

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

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

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

Quotes About Being Tough on Your Characters

Editor, Cheryl Klein, Arthur A. Levine Books
Ten Ways to Create Compelling Characters
#6 Put the character in pain, danger, or jeopardy (anticipated pain)

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

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

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

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar:

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

Ari Susu-Mago at blog “A Fuzzy Mango With Wings”
Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)
“He makes likable, interesting, flawed, human characters. And then he makes their lives suck.”
“Moreover, note that not only does he make problems for them right at the beginning of the story, but he makes things get worse all the time. Rarely, if ever, do things get better. Plans go awry. People turn traitor. People get angry and say things they shouldn’t. People get killed. In general, more problems crop up. The result? A 800+ page book that flies by.”
Examples of Author Sadism:

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

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

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

The Way I Incorporate this Technique in My Own Writing

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

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

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

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

Writing Exercise:

Brainstorm a list:

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

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

Links Quoted in this Post:

Maggie Stiefvater, Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist

Maggie Stiefvater, Collection of Posts on Writing

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers

The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar

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

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

Sunday, July 22, 2012

2012 Francelia Butler Conference Winner

Each year at my graduate program, a conference is held to honor the work of the graduate students.  Students may submit work in each of the following categories: critical papers, creative stories, and original artwork to win one of three awards presented at the conference.

This was the first time I've ever entered any sort of writing contest.  The past two years I've simply attended this conference as an observer, and I did not enter anything in any of the categories.

There were 24 creative submissions this year, all from Hollins University MFA graduate students in Children's Literature.

Last week, I learned my entry was one of the creative submissions selected to be read at the conference, and that my piece would be one of five pieces to go on to be judged by outside judges for the final honor of Best Creative Submission.  The judges for this year's FBC conference were: Ashley Wolff (children's book author and illustrator), Bruce Coville (children's and YA author), and Michele Ebersole (Professor of Children's Literature at University of Hawaii).

And... as you may have guessed by the title of this post... I won!

I entered the first 12 pages (first 3,000 words) of a short story I wrote in my Fantasy Genre Study course last summer.  The current title is "Rebel Angel" and the story is about a rebellious guardian angel who is sent to Earth on her first mission where she must save a boy from being recruited by a gang.

Below are pictures of me reading my selection at the conference.  I was nervous to speak in front of a crowd of adults as opposed to 11-14 year olds.  But after a lot of practice, all went smoothly.  A few funny parts in my story even got some laughs from the audience!  :)

I was extremely honored to be recognized, especially knowing what talented writers are in my classes here at Hollins.  I only have one more week of classes left, and I think I can say that this summer has exceeded my expectations in almost every way.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Week 2 & 3 Grad Class Recap

I have had zero time to blog, which was quite unexpected.  Last summer I took three classes and it was really tough.  I am only taking two classes this summer, and I thought that would leave me with more time: to write, to blog, to read for pleasure.  But that has not been the case.

The culprits: Critique and Insane Weather

I really take critiquing my peers work seriously because I know how valuable feedback is to a writer.  And for some of my classmates who aren't a part of a writing group, this is the only feedback they get.  I also believe it's a give and take, people will spend more time on your work if you spend more time on theirs.  I'm taking two creative courses, and between both classes, I'm critiquing 16 people's work per week and between 120-160 pages.  Or roughly, it's been taking me 45 minutes to an hour per person.  So... I've been overwhelmed by critique.  Other than Saturdays and Sundays, I've had no time to write, much less blog or read for pleasure.  BUT!  I do think that being able to critique is a valuable skill.  And who knows... I'm not planning on teaching forever.  I could see myself enjoying being an editor someday...

And last weekend, here on the East Coast, we were hit by this thing called a "derecho."  Had never heard of it before, but it resulted in high winds (gusts up to 80 mph) that tore down trees, tore some of the roof off the University Library, and killed power throughout the region.  This was extra horrible because the temps have been over 100 degrees and without power... we had no air-conditioning.  The University was without power for about 36 hours which was much better than most other areas.  (I know people who are still without power... now 7 days later.  Ugh.)  Below are some pictures that illustrate how torn up campus was after the storm:

Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Caroline at ProseBeforeWoes for sharing her pictures!

Here's a brief summary of what we've been up to in my classes!!!  ^_^

Dystopian and Science Fiction:

We went over common elements of dystopian fiction.  Some elements we discussed are dehumanization, control of information, loss of freedom, focus on society.  We've been using Orson Scott Card's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy as a writing guide for our class.  It's been very helpful.  During one class, we discussed chapter 3 in the book and talked about four different ways to structure your narrative (MICE: Milieu story,  Idea story, Character story, or Event story).  I discovered that one of my stories is a character story because the story revolves around my protagonist's transformation.  Whereas, my dystopian story is an event story because the story revolves around the world making a transformation and being restructured from an event.

I also had a MAJOR revelation in regards to my dystopian WIP.  I've been frustrated because I didn't know how to end my story.  Dystopian novels typically end one of two ways: revolution or escape.  Either the society/government is upended due to rebellion, or the protagonist runs away from the society they've grown to detest.  I wanted to find a new/different way to end my story.  And I did it!  I came up with an absolutely fabulous plot twist!!!  I'm so freaking excited.  I haven't read any dystopian novel that does this, and I think I have something fresh on my hands.  And it allows for BRILLIANT sequel possibilities.

I also read Across the Universe for this class and will be posting a much delayed review of that this weekend as well.

Advanced Tutorial

My steampunk WIP for this class has been going much better than I expected.  I worried a little that the idea might be too strange and different.  But my class seems to be connecting with my characters really well.  They absolutely hate the characters I want them to hate and they love the characters I want them to love.  And they find my protagonist extremely sympathetic.  Yay!  I was also worried if I could pull off one of the settings... a factory... and have it make sense.  I haven't exactly worked in a factory.  But they said my world-building is fantastic, and there's been no confusion in how the factory is set up.  Double YAY!  And my pacing and plot are still strong.  As well as my "brushstroke" descriptions.  I don't do heavy description.  I try to pick no more than three details to bring a character or setting to life.  I never do more than three, and I think it forces me to pick the three details that are most revealing and important.

There are still some things I need to work on.  My protagonist thinks in a puzzle-solving, scientific, mathematical way, and that's hard for me to pull-off consistently because that's not how I think at all.  I also need to do a better job of including my protagonist's emotions and reactions to situations.  And I have my secondary characters down, but I need to add background people or tertiary characters to give my settings more vibrancy.  But I think for a first draft, I'm doing quite well.  And I sooooo appreciate both the constructive and positive feedback.  There is nothing more valuable to a writer than feedback!

I now have 10,620 words for my steampunk WIP.  Before the summer started I had sporadic key scenes and the first 1,600 words.  So I'm writing about 3,000 words a week which is great considering I've only had time to write on Saturdays and Sundays!  I trap myself in the library for 6-7 hours at a time and crank out the pages.  I've found I'm still doing a lot of research which slows me down a bit.  I'd love if I could hit 30,000 words before I leave for the summer.  We'll see!

I am so, so, so behind in reading blogs.  I'll read a post here and there on my iPhone when I'm stuck waiting somewhere, but it's depressing how behind I am.  I'm going to try to do some commenting this weekend, but I'm not going to make any promises  :(  I still have loads of schoolwork to do.  But I promise to catch up at some point!