Posted by: Jodi | October 1, 2014

The Tragic Backstory – When is it too much?

doctor-who-doctors-1-11-50th

The other night hubby and I were debating over Doctor Who’s tragic backstory.  Hubby believes that having the Doctor be the last of a murdered species is over the top and unnecessary.  Having there be a possibility that there might be other Time Lords out there is a much more interesting prospect and would give the Doctor more dimension.

I believe, however, that his backstory is fine as it is.  Having the Doctor be the last of his species is poignant and makes everything he does more noble.  There is nothing compelling him to continue governing time and that he still continues to do so adds a lot of unseen strength to his character. If there were the possibility of there being other Time Lords it would reason that many of the episodes would revolve around him trying to find them instead of embarking on new adventures.

Daleks_2005_and_2010Our debate raised another question that hopefully one of you can answer.  It’s clear that the Doctor can reincarnate when he dies, seeing as he already has done so on numerous occasions.  Why didn’t the other Time Lords reincarnate?  It stands to reason that because of this unique ability there very well may be other Time Lords out there simply because they just keep coming back.  My best guess as to why this isn’t so is that the Daleks kill in such a way that it prevents the reincarnation process, but I could be totally wrong.  I’m still only in series one and there might be a better explanation when Doctor 9 becomes Doctor 10 at the end of the season.

Back to Tragic backstory.   Many of our favorite characters have tragic backstories.  Harry Potter’s parents were murdered in front of him when he was a baby and he was raised by the horrible Dursleys.  Luke Skywalker’s mother died in childbirth and his uncle and aunt were slaughtered by the Imperial forces.  In Wreck It Ralph they hang a red flag on Sergeant Calhoun’s tragic wedding where her fiancee is eaten in front of her because she didn’t perform a perimeter check.  In almost all Disney movies the main character’s mother is dead, think about it, the only one I can find where the family hasn’t already been ripped apart is The Incredibles.

Most tragic backstories start with the main characters family enduring a crises where some of them die.  Usually it is a parent but the death of a sibling can also be very scarring. Then, depending on the needs of the story, there are a series of other events that add to the depth of the character which include but aren’t limited to: slavery, abusive relationships, physical disability, mental illness, crime, confusing magic powers,  imprisonment, and more death.

When is it too much? Each story has a tone, some are serious and somber; some are lighthearted and funny.  Serious stories lend themselves to a more tragic backstories where a lighthearted story would be weighed down by more than a few unfortunate events.

And the truth is none of it matters.  I’ve seen characters with minor tragic events turn them into these massive stumbling blocks all because the reader is exposed to the characters huge internal turmoil.  Everything that the character must overcome is measured against this one painful event.

Then there are characters who walk on the page with so much baggage that it seems impossible for them to bear it. Their families have been murdered, their home burned, everything has gone wrong for them, but regardless of everything that has happened to them they are still grimly working towards their goals.  They’ve buried their pasts so they can survive the present.

Now, writer be warned.  There is such thing as making a character so tragic that they actually become funny.  If this is your goal go for it.  Otherwise, keep the tragic events to exactly what’s needed to make your character realistic and interesting.

It all comes down to the personality of the character.  There is no requirement for any character to have a tragic backstory, but history shows that readers empathize with characters who have struggled and still struggle with their past.  If anything, it makes them more relatable to real people.  No one likes a character who has had it too easy in their life.

So, there it is.  Doctor Who has a tragic past because it makes him more interesting, more personable, and more noble.  Whether his past is considered too tragic is up to the viewer.

dr_oz_320_wktv

Poor Dr. Oz got himself into trouble a while back because he shifted his focus from real medicine and health issues to promoting unproven weight loss supplements.  His reason? He was trying to engage his audience.  There’s no doubt that having a highly reknowned medical authority come out on national television and tell about a new “magic” cure to the obesity crisis would lead to higher ratings and therefore more cash for the network.  But, when those products aren’t proven or regulated, it’s not the best idea to back them with your mouth or your money.

Even then, I was nearly convinced to try a few of the so called miracle pills to shrink off my stubborn belly roll. Everytime I see the chocolate covered acai berries I want to buy them, and have bought them, because perhaps it will help. Note to self: chocolate covered anything will not lead to weight loss, duh.

One of the most sensitive topics for people these days is their weight.  It’s sad, but true.  The American lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to a trim midsection by any stretch of the imagination. Anything that talks about weight loss is a guaranteed success, whether it be a TV show, book, or even this blog.

What got Dr. Oz in trouble is that he was standing in the role of a medical doctor and using that to legitimize the products he was promoting and he did it because he knew that people were hungry to hear about it.

You can engage your audience without stepping into this trap.  For those of you who use social media, what was the last thing you clicked through to read while on Facebook or Twitter? For those of you who don’t, what was the last thing that caught your attention, that made you want to read more?

Some things are universally engaging, human interest stories, cute puppies, and celebrities doing naughty things tend to catch our attention. For sports fans it might be news about the last big game, or perhaps an in-depth feature of a favorite player. For writers it can be links about how to better our prose or find a publisher. The point is you can find interesting things that are engaging to write about whether it be in a piece of fiction or a blog post.  The trick is to identify those things that you are interested in and would want to read about and then put your own spin on it.

What will you do to engage your audience?

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This post was inspired by the always funny John Oliver on the Last Week Tonight Show, when he tackled the Dr. Oz issue. Here’s the video if you want to see it:

Posted by: Jodi | September 17, 2014

Writerly Quote of the Day – Asimov

Asimov quote“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers” – Isaac Asimov

In Hamlet, Shakespeare said “brevity is the soul of wit.” Today, and quite possibly for the next unforeseen future, I will be brief. It turns out that blogging, especially when you are working hard to create new and unique material on a regular basis, takes hoards of time.  That’s time that I don’t have, and to be honest, haven’t had from the beginning.  I will continue to post here on Wednesdays but the posts are going to be shorter for the most part. (I am a novelist at heart, writing short can be a challenge).

Why the change? It keeps being pointed out to me that I spend more time on the blog than on my fiction. If I put the same effort into my novel it might actually get finished.  Also, cue the happy dance, I received my first official acceptance letter telling me that one of my short fiction pieces won a place in the 2015 Fantasy Anthology by Xchyler Publishing. Receiving this validation has kickstarted me out of the rut that I’ve been stuck in and now it’s time to get out there and get the work done.

Posted by: Jodi | September 10, 2014

The Science of Creepy

Musee_de_la_bible_et_Terre_Sainte_001I saw this terrific Youtube video about creepiness and thought it was perfect to share, especially now that Halloween decorations have hit the shelves and submissions for scary stories are coming due.  If you have a WIP you are trying to make scarier then this is required watching!  Should you be so inclined, you can also check out the random horror story I wrote a while ago for the Deadly Love, Be Mine anthology (You’ll have to scroll down to find it, dang pdf).

Related post:

The Uncanny Valley

 

Posted by: Jodi | September 3, 2014

What is your Culture?

Culture can be fascinating!  Image from http://all-free-downloads.com

Culture can be fascinating!
Image from http://all-free-downloads.com

(This is the post that was eaten by the goblins lurking within the system at WordPress last week.  Hopefully it reads as well as my first try because it was super awesome.)

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about culture is something that you grow in a petri dish, and I’m pretty sure that those microbes aren’t avid readers.  When it comes to your writing culture, we are talking about your audience. Understanding your audience and their interests and likes is a huge help when it comes time to attract attention among the screaming crowd.

A culture is defined as a group of people with similar beliefs and practices.  In broad terms a culture can include an entire country, such as U.S. culture.  Although the citizens of the United States are all very unique, they all share many things in common because they live in the same country.  In more narrow terms, a culture can be as specific as a fan group.  These are sometimes called subcultures.

People who adore Doctor Who are a subculture, they share many similarities.  They tend to be intellectual, the nature of the program requires reasoning skills beyond your basic sitcom. They also have a penchant for collecting memorabilia such as sonic screwdrivers and clever reincarnations of the TARDIS.  Chances are they also like other speculative fiction as well.

The people who you think would like your book are your culture.  If you are writing fantasy you want to first attract people who like to read fantasy.  This is a no brainer.  But, what does it mean?  It means that if you use a blog, or twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media to promote your work, you should post things that fantasy readers would be attracted to.

And this is where I’ve fallen short.  My poor blog meant to attract readers for my future books has not been tailored to attract readers of epic fantasy.  At most it has attracted readers from this blog and then a random smattering of people interested in various things such as Spongebob. This is not helpful to my goals.

I’ve failed to cater to my culture and this needs to change.  I made my first attempt at catering to my culture last Friday when I stated my intention of becoming a Doctor Who fan. It sounds like fun and there are tons of awesome people out there who love Doctor Who.  That post received more attention its first day than any other post I’ve written, except for when I accidentally attracted the Alfie Boe fan club with a post that compared him to my main character.  Although cool, that didn’t help me win fans either.

Over the next several weeks and months I hope to do more to attract my culture, that is readers of epic fantasy, over at my other blog.  This will include reviews of other epic fantasy books, fantasy movies, and yes, Doctor Who.  I can’t promise anything, but there might also be some fun cosplay in there as well.

What are you doing to attract your culture? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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The August Giveaway is over and a winner has been selected.  Everyone who liked or commented on posts during the month of August were entered in a drawing to receive a free critique of the first 20 pages of a current work in progress, or of their query letter.

The winner is:  OntyrePassages!  Congrats to you!  I sent you a PM on your FaceBook writer page with the details.

Posted by: Jodi | August 27, 2014

Dang it WordPress!

I just finished a really great post about creating culture and finding an audience using the WordPress new post writing page.  I had the picture, I had everything tagged, the only thing left to do was a quick double-check using the proofreader (aka spellcheck).

The new posting page doesn’t have a proofreader.

I clicked the handy link that tells me if I miss the classic post writing page I can switch back to the one that has the spellchecker.

Poof – the post is gone.

Before, the posts were automatically saved whenever any of the post’s sidebar settings were changed so I didn’t think to save before clicking.

My mistake. I tried everything to retrieve it – and trust me I’m pretty good at finding lost things.  It’s gone.

I’m seriously crying right now, it was an awesome post.

***

On a different note, today’s the last day to enter in the August giveaway for a free critique of the first 20 pages of a work in progress or of a query letter.  To enter all you have to do is “like” this post.  For a second entry, leave a comment.  All likes and comments for any post during the month of August will be counted.

Posted by: Jodi | August 20, 2014

Problems with being a Pantser

cartoon-pants-8There are two camps when it comes to first drafts, the planner camp and the pantser camp.  Planners have all the details of their story figured out before they start and pantsers start with one or two great ideas and then figure the rest out as they go along.  After many trial and error cycles I learned that I’m a pantser at heart and probably always will be.  The problem with this is that longer books need some sort of plan to help guide the story from the beginning to the end.

One of the reasons that this book is taking so long to write is that from the beginning I didn’t understand the story.  The other three reasons are wrestling in the other room over who gets to play with what toy. When I started this whole process of taking an idea from concept to completed story I thought that the only way to do it was to create an outline and then follow it.  At this point I didn’t know about story structure or pacing or scene and sequel and I was hugely frustrated because even as I created the story it didn’t feel like it worked. Frankly, it sucked.

I pushed along anyway following my faulty and utterly incomplete outline.  Those were the days when I was convinced that I would be finished and presenting my work to agents in less than a year.  I even blogged about how I was planning on doing this and now looking back I realize just how naïve I was.

The more I wrote the more I realized just how much the outline was missing and how little I understood my world or my characters.  I didn’t have my magic system worked out, or the setting, or the climax, or anything that I needed to make a great story.

Each time I came up against a problem I would have to stop and figure things out and backtrack to plug-in the changes.  I think I revised the opening ten chapters well over twenty times, all the while thinking that with this change everything would then flow smoothly to the end of the book.  It never did because within a few pages I would realize that I needed to make another change.  I spent almost an entire year trying to fix things this way and assumed that this was just how the process was supposed to work.

When I realized that half of my fixes were counteracting other fixes I was forced to make a hard decision – give up or stop backtracking and just push through to the end.  At this point the story had strayed so far from the outline that I no longer had an ending, not that the original ending made any sense in the first place. While I was working through all these different problems the story had taken several unexpected turns. These turns were so much better than what was planned that they had to stay.

When I finally finished that draft I felt like I had finished a marathon. I was completely spent. It had huge problems, the front half needed an extensive overhaul so that the story flowed into the back half.  Those issues were so daunting that I put off editing and revising the manuscript for over a year.  That, and with the birth of my third child my whole life was thrown into chaos.

Last fall I buckled down and started the long process of rewriting the front half of the story.  With the writing skills that I had acquired over the last few years it seemed easier to find what needed to be added and taken away.  That’s not to say that reinventing scene after scene was easy, there were still some tricky plot problems that needed to be solved.  In solving those problems I uncovered some really cool ideas that make this story even better.

There’s still a lot of work to do to finish this edit.  With the kids in school I’m hoping that I’ll find the time and patience to keep plugging through until it’s done.  For the first time in this process I finally feel like I’m getting close!

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Just a reminder – For the month of August I am offering a free critique of a query letter or the first 20 pages of a manuscript.  To enter all you have to do is click the “like” button.  For a second entry, leave a comment!  The winner will be notified at the end of the month.

Posted by: Jodi | August 13, 2014

Odd Writer Terminology: Mawkish and Maudlin

If only it was this easy.  Image courtesy of http://www.Freedigitaldownloads.net "Laugh Cry Smile Keys" by Stuart Miles

If only it was this easy. Image courtesy of http://www.Freedigitaldownloads.net “Laugh Cry Smile Keys” by Stuart Miles

This installment of Odd Writer Terminology is inspired by a recent David Farland Writing Tip about writing emotions. If you haven’t subscribed to his daily emails, I highly recommend it.  He provides insights not only into the vast writing universe, but also weighs in on current happenings in the publishing world. His post about emotions talks about avoiding both mawkish and maudlin prose and I would like to expound on the meanings of these two words.

Mawkish is defined as being “sickly or puerilely sentimental” or in a more archaic use “having an insipid often unpleasant taste” and stems from the Germanic word mawk meaning maggot.  Even though it sounds like the word mock, being mawkish has nothing to do with making fun of the way people act or talk.

When it comes to writing in a mawkish way it means that the emotion has been so laden with adjectives and modifiers that it becomes extremely exaggerated and even embarrassing.  The author has gone to extremes to try to elicit an emotional response from the reader by creating overly dramatic and unrealistic sequences for the sole purpose of arousing strong emotions.

The crushing weight of realization forced Jessie to her skinny knees and it felt as if there was an immense elephant stepping on her chest. She fought to breathe and could only manage small noisy gasps. The yellow stained linoleum burned with cold against her pale skin. She read the cruel note once more, “Brian never wants to see your ugly face again,” before crumpling the tear-stained paper to her heaving chest.  

This example has had as many modifiers added as possible to make a point.  It is heavy and dense and will get tiring to read after a page or so.  There are times when the prose should slow down and showing extreme emotion is one of them, however an entire work written like this is a quick way to turn readers away.

Maudlin, on the other hand, is more simple and is defined as “showing or expressing too much emotion especially in a foolish or annoying way” and has roots in Latin and old French.  The original image alludes to pictures of Mary Magdalen weeping. Magdalen evolved to maudlin.  When used in real life is it usually referring to someone who is sloppy drunk and weepy.

In writing it refers to when the characters themselves are overly emotional all the time and seem to be crying at every page turn. As with mawkish writing this should be avoided. It is tiring to have a character crying all the time.  More importantly, when a character openly cries all over the page it actually lessens the reader’s emotional response.  This isn’t to say that a character should never cry.  There are situations that it would be unnatural if the character didn’t cry, like if someone close to them dies. When a character cries it has to be over something worth crying for.

 

There are many ways to inject emotion into a story.  However, using mawkish and maudlin writing aren’t one of them. If anything they lessen the impact of an otherwise powerful moment by making it comical or trite. It all comes back to balance and seeking honest and accurate ways of  describing what is happening in the story.  When this balance and honesty is found the story has the power to lift and transport readers to new places.

Happy Writing!

***

Other installments in the Odd Writer Terminology series:

Character Foils

Deus ex Machina

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For the month of August I am offering a free critique of a query letter or the first 20 pages of a manuscript.  To enter all you have to do is click the “like” button.  For a second entry, leave a comment!  The winner will be notified at the end of the month.

Posted by: Jodi | August 6, 2014

The Dark Night of the Soul

lotr-pinball

In the hero’s journey there is a point where the hero is fighting his last battle when all will seem lost.  He is pushed to his limits, he is tired, he already feels defeated and he wonders if it is worth it to go on.  The strength he relies on to defeat his foe is gone and he is forced to face the truth that this fight might cost him his life.  At this point one of two things have to happen. He must decide if he will continue the fight and he must remember some hidden power or strength or secret that will bring victory.

Depending on which monomyth text you’re reading, this moment is referred to as the dark night of the soul, the inmost cave, or the resurrection of the hero. It happens in every story.  Sometimes the villain is an internal problem that must be solved. Sometimes our hero is overdramatic and the crisis is something minor, like a lost earring.

Here are a few famous examples:

Lord of the Rings: Frodo and Sam have finally reached Mount Doom and Frodo must decide to part with the precious one ring.

Frozen: Anna must choose between a kiss from Kristoff or saving Elsa from Han’s sword.

Titanic: Jack knows he can’t survive if he stays in the water but sacrifices himself to give Rose a chance at life.

The reason these stories are so compelling is because there is that chance of failure and of extreme loss. The characters have everything at stake and they must weigh themselves against the odds and make the right choice.  Everything in the story has built up to this crucial moment and the audience understands the significance of what might happen should the hero succeed or fail.

The other reason these stories are so compelling is because they are a reflection of real life.  They resonate with us. Who hasn’t had a moment where they feel like everything is lost and yet somehow they pull through?  Ask a teenager, this happens daily.  Reading or watching a story where the character must face hard decisions against all odds and still pull through gives the reader or watcher the inspiration and courage to face their own battles.  When the hero comes through with grace and dignity, we are inspired to do the same.

Happy Writing!

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For the month of August I am offering a free critique of a query letter or the first 20 pages of a manuscript.  To enter all you have to do is click the “like” button.  For a second entry, leave a comment!  The winner will be notified at the end of the month.

 

 

Posted by: Jodi | July 30, 2014

Odd Writer Terminology: Deus ex Machina

This installment of Odd Writer Terminology comes from a literary device that’s as old as the ancient Greek tragedies, deus ex machina.  This is when a problem in a story is solved by improbable means.  In modern writing it is viewed as a huge don’t and something to be avoided.

Peleus+ThetisThe Latin phrase deus ex machina is defined as “a device, a scaffolding, an artifice” and is borrowed from a Greek expression meaning “god from the machine”. It originated with Greek theater when an actor would be lowered into the scene via a crane (the machine) or raised through a trapdoor.  These characters would have the power to solve whatever problem the characters on stage were experiencing.  Even in ancient times many were critical of the practice saying that the solutions to the plot should come as a result of the plot itself and not from an improbable surprise.

Here are a few made up examples:

Jake and Mindy have been trapped in a pit by the evil overlord Vance. Suddenly, Jake discovers that he has magic powers that will transport them out of the pit and to safety.

Because we hadn’t seen Jake having magic before it makes this solution a deus ex machina.  Had Jake shown that he had these powers earlier then the solution would have been probable.

Alexander’s army is thirsty for the blood of the Prussian army.  As they face each other on the battlefield the goddess of peace appears and pleads with them to lay down their weapons and return to their homes.  They agree and peace is restored.

Anytime a deity shows up to solve a problem it will be considered deus ex machina.  The only way it wouldn’t be is if that deity had been a solid presence throughout the story and her coming was a possibility before hand.

Sir Issac has been sentenced to death for his crimes. As he is walked to the gallows a messenger arrives.  The kind and benevolent king has decided to grant Sir Issac a pardon.

Again we see a higher power intervene and save the character from a dark fate. Had a large part of the story been about Sir Issac seeking pardon for a false conviction then it wouldn’t be deus ex machina.

In these examples each problem was solved by a power greater than the characters possessed entering the scene.  Usually these greater powers come in the form of magic, gods, or kings, but they can be anything that is beyond what the character can do.

To avoid deus ex machina it is important to introduce all the needed elements to solve the plot problems earlier in the story.  This way, when it comes time to save the day nothing will come as an unexpected or improbable surprise.

Happy writing!

 

Resources:

http://literary-devices.com/content/deus-ex-machina

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deus_ex_machina

 

Other installments in the Odd Writer Terminology series:

Character Foils

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