The Fictorians

Three Aliens Walk into a Writers Retreat

17 April 2014 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Travis Heermann.

SotRCover-tinyOne of the aliens sounds like William Shakespeare having an argument with Sylvia Plath. Another speaks in long expositions resembling Montaigne and Thoreau. And the third speaks like Willy Loman in a Michael Bay action movie….

The fiction writers hunched over their scribing tools snort with derision and go back into their own little worlds.

Except for one writer with a curious ear. To her, these babbling aliens at first sound like they’re speaking gibberish, but then she feels their groove, slides into it, and considers going along for the ride. She joins them at the bar, orders a round of Jagermeister shots, and pretty soon, she finds her mind expanding, new thoughts she might write down, new skills with cadence and alliteration she can’t wait to try.

The other writers, crabbed and snarling over their opus works, snort again with derision, now toward her. She smiles at them and–after the Jagermeister hangover–returns to her work with renewed vigor.

Those aliens represent other genres of literature and creativity—poetry, creative non-fiction, and plays for stage and screen.

Let’s try another metaphor.

Any yoga instructor, personal trainer, or fitness expert will tell you that you’re better off building core strength and large muscle groups than overemphasizing a single muscle. Although writers generally do not grace the cover of Muscle Head and Yoga Goddess magazines and find the word svelte a curiosity rather than a self-description, we can benefit from similar advice.

There are few things more frustrating to fiction writers than having an idea in your head for a story and being unable to pull it off in a way that feels like you did justice to the idea. We often finish something and wonder if we have somehow come up short, whether it be in terms of sentence structure, diction, poetic lyricism, organization, characterization–or in other words, all the multitude of disparate but related tools that we need to be successful as artists. Maybe our tool box needs a few more things in it.

This post can be summed up thusly: studying any genre of writing can make you a better fiction writer. The more genres you master, the more options in your toolbox.

When I say genre, I don’t mean urban fantasy versus historical romance. I’m talking about fiction versus poetry, creative non-fiction, plays for stage and screen, etc.

All of these different genres bring some specific skills to the fiction-writing game.

Poetry. You don’t have to love it all, any more than you have to love all kinds of novels or short stories. You’re free to take what you want and leave the rest. But nothing will flex the word, rhythm, and symbolism muscles like poetry. Some of it will make you groan and shake your head. Some of it you will seize upon and savor and squish around on your tongue like a mouthful of blackberries. Absorb enough of it, and it will make your prose sing out from the page without any music; it will make its own. It will show you connections and metaphors and plumb the depths of pathos like nothing else can. It’s also a crash course in economy of language.

Creative Non-fiction. A catch-all term for memoir, personal essay, narrative non-fiction, and the like, creative non-fiction can open internal doors. If you’re like me, you may not know exactly how you feel about something until you write about it. We can look at our own lives, current events, people who touch us. Creative non-fiction lets us examine who we are, flex that internal dialogue muscle, the one that lets us “get at something.” It also comes in a variety of amusing and experimental, innovative forms, as evidenced by writers like David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace respectively. In the Writing Excuses podcast, Brandon Sanderson and Mette Ivie Harrison discuss this topic at length.

Stage and Screenplays. Both formats force writers to focus on character and dialogue in ways that fiction sometimes lets slide. In fiction, you can write a paragraph of character introspection. Scripts do not allow this, forcing you to write only what is said and what can be seen. There is also little time to dally with dialogue. Most films have a limit of 120 pages (at one minute per page), so it is critical that dialogue does double- or triple-duty—advancing action, conveying character, and revealing subtext all at the same time. Study the best dialogue, and you’ll see subtext in action.

Likewise, your fiction writing skill cross-pollinates with these other genres. General baseline skills with grammar and spelling only improve with practice, no matter the genre in which you’re writing. So, branch out! Fill your tool box with as many wrenches, whatsits, whirlibobs as you can. Try your hand at poetry, or a stage play, or essays. You may find your fiction taking some surprising quantum leaps.

Plus, isn’t it more fun to be one of the aliens?

Guest Writer Bio:
HeermannPhotoFreelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of the Ronin TrilogyThe Wild Boysand Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Weird Tales, Historical Lovecraft, and Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and the MMORPG, EVE Online. He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.For interviews about the Writing Life, check out his Author Interview Series at the Ronin Writer: http://travisheermann.com/blog/

From an Artist’s Point of View

16 April 2014 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by Suzanne Helmigh.

CaldyraTwo Aliens walked into a bar,one an author and one an artist.The author alien makes his order:”Could you serve me a smooth but strong beverage that will burn like gentle oil from Neptune as it slides through my throat?” The artist alien orders, “I’d like that purple stuff with the bubbles, can I get it in one of those spiral glasses with the sugar coating?” 

Many of my artist friends and I share similar experiences when it comes to working with authors on their book covers. It seems like misunderstandings or misinterpretations are a common problem, because we simply have different ways of describing things. Both authors and artists are creative people, though one thinks in words and the other thinks in imagery.

Authors tend to over-detail their descriptions, but the artist simply needs a still/fraction of the story, as if putting a movie on pause. Often, the artist gets more information than needed, which can make their vision of the image cloudy.

An artist only needs 3 things.

  • The synopsis of your story.
  • A movie frame instance for the cover. (If it portrays a scene/keymoment.)
  • Physical description of the main object or person.

When you’ve worked on a story for a long time, it becomes dear to you. Artists make stories,too, yet they rarely get portrayed into words, so we understand how precious specific details can get. You’ve had times where you share a quick run of your story to a non-creative friend,but they drown in the details and enthusiasm of your world, loosing the plot line because they’re simply not experienced with keeping track of such things. It’s like explaining to my mother how Skype works; she’ll get parts of it, yet still tries to video-call me over Facebook.

My point with this: when you make your idea for the book cover clear to the artist, treat them like you would treat that non-creative friend or I would treat my mother about Skype. Spare them the copious amounts of detail and keep it limited to a simple synopsis, spoilers included (so a little different from the back blurb of a book.)

The next thing the artist needs is the “movieframe”.

Maybe it’s just me, as I’ve done film school and my first passion towards drawing came from wanting to become a story-boarder for films. Though most artists I know do seem to work with the same method, a simple list:

  • Who: (What object or character is the main element and or side elements.)
  • What: (What is going on??)
  • Where: (Where are they, small description of the environment.)
  • When: (This is needed for lighting; colors are different during sunset than at noon. If it’s an interior scene, simply describe what the light source is. candle light- neonlight… you see my point?)

Now the character portrayed or the object needs some description, too. We don’t need to know about the person’s history or the fact he/she is a bird lover, unless it clearly shows by all the feathers in their outfit. Let me show you a sample of a character we probably all know, and explain what’s relevant and what’s not.

  • Aragorn (Lord of the Rings.)
  • Middle aged. Rugged by living outdoors. Adventurer. Dark hair, blue eyes, Caucasian.
  • Carries sword and elvish necklace. Color scheme of clothing matches nature.
  • He’s a hero, traveler, calm and mysterious.

That’s all an artist needs. Even though we know Aragorn is actually 87 years of age, it has no relevance as he looks in his 40′s because he’s a Dunedine. Dunedine? The artist probably has no clue about any race/type/planet/order/organization names you mention, so simply don’t. He has the elvish necklace from Arwen which contains her immortality, not something of relevance for the image unless, of course, the image is a portrait of his head and shoulders and the necklace becomes a center piece. Though an image of Aragorn wielding his sword against a bunch of Orcs makes the source of the necklace far from relevant. The less items are shown in an image, the less we need to know about its details.

The big “Don’ts”.

Naming fictional elements such as races/types/planets/orders/organisations etc. When you say “Vera is a half Funderon and half human…” we have no idea how to image that. When you say, “Vera looks like a human but with rabbit ears and a flat rabbit- like face,” that brings us much closer to the visual appearance.

Don’t send the artist pages of the book unless they ask for it.Sometimes 1 page can be fine if it perfectly portrays the scene for the cover. Though, I’ve had entire chapters with highlighted portions before, and it’s one of those drown-in-the-details moments.Suddenly sneaking into a movie in the cinema midway through, and then leaving after 15 minutes, will make you very confused about the story.

Please don’t get too nit-picky about the tiniest points. The last thing an artist wants is to become a machine that loses their own vision and simply copies. The 3 different eye colors of the octo-alien in the distance really won’t be bigger than a pixel.

Another helpful thing: send the artist imagerythey can use. Maybe you fancy the look of a certain actor or you’ve seen a lasergun that really comes close to the style you’d like. Heck, you can even make a mood-board! It will only help the artist’s vision match yours better, presenting it to them in a form they understand.

I hope this will help you communicate with your artists. I’m curious to read your point of view as a writer so I can better understand you as well.

Suzanne HelmighSuzanne Helmigh Bio:

At 24 years old, Suzanne Helmigh is a professional artist who went from film to concept art and illustration. She always wrote stories as a hobby, but found her words get lost compared to her ability to create images.

Currently, she’s working on an Artbook titled Caldyra, which will show a story portrayed into illustrations and key element concept designs–a bit of a mix between a graphic novel without words and a concept art book for animation or games. You can have a look at her Facebook fan page and let her know what you think!

https://www.facebook.com/Caldyra

Understanding Accents

15 April 2014 | 3 Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Guy Anthony De Marco.

Cthulu peasant

Coming soon from Bear Paw Press, benefiting Fort Collins woman’s shelter.

A friend of mine, born and raised in Scotland, once complained about how the Scots are portrayed in books. “It’s not the characters, for the most part. It’s the way authors try to write with a brogue. To me, it makes Scotland look like a bunch of uneducated people mumbling under their breath.”

I never thought of it that way. I picked up some genre fiction that included heavy accents, and I had to agree.

In general, there are only two rules when portraying accents in literature. The first is the dialog must be done in a consistent manner. If a character says canna for can not, the words ‘can not’ shouldn’t appear when she talks. The only things that can change the way someone speaks is if there is some influence modifying the character, such as if the character is possessed, has multiple personalities, or, like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, they get training or adapt to the environment over a long period. Changing the way one speaks takes a lot of effort and time. I’m originally from Brooklyn, New York, and it took a few years to rid myself of the heavy Brooklyn accent. I still sometimes trip up and say “New Yawk” or “Gimme a cuppa cawfee, please.”

The second rule of accents, and one that tends to get bent, is the character must say things that the reader can translate. If it looks like the character accidently chewed up the words before spewing them, the reader may decide to pick up a different story to read. The line between legible and undecipherable can be thin, and it adjusts according to the reader. An author must balance the way a character speaks so the audience can extract the important elements necessary for the enjoyment of the story.

Some writers decide on a few words to give a particular character a recognizable speech characteristic. Others set up certain vowels or patterns to modify. Take, for example, Hagrid, from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, when he first tells the boy he’s a wizard:

“A wizard, o’ course,” said Hagrid, sitting back down on the sofa, which groaned and sank even lower, “an’ a thumpin’ good’un, I’d say, once yeh’ve been trained up a bit.”

In the example, Hagrid uses o’ for of, an’ for and, yeh for you, and words ending with ing are modified to in’. Ms. Rowling uses these speech patterns consistently, throughout all seven books. The rest of the words Hagrid speaks are spelled normally, in Standard English.

In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author uses accents to distinguish the characters and their class.

“Poor critturs! What made ‘em cruel?–and, if I give out, I shall get used to ‘t, and grow, little by little, just like ‘em! No, no, Missis! I’ve lost everything,–wife and children, and home, and a kind Mas’r,–and he would have set me free, if he’d only lived a week longer; I’ve lost everything in this world, and it’s clean gone, forever,–and now I can’t lose Heaven, too; no, I can’t get to be wicked, besides all!”

In this example, the author only uses a couple of dialog modifiers, but the effect is powerful, especially when compared to the way the slave owners speak. The sentences are stilted, but the reader can easily extract what the character is trying to say.

Look closely at both excerpts. Notice that the authors chose the most obvious speaking differences. The rest of the dialog appears ‘normal’. These speech characteristics give the characters flavor and life, and set them apart from the rest of the cast. Note that the respective authors did not try to force every spoken word to fit a particular speech pattern. Attempting to do so will result in inconsistencies and dialog that is difficult to comprehend, let alone translate.

One additional item to watch for is how the reader will react to your dialog. My Scottish friend refuses to read any novel that makes an accent look like an accident at the printing shop. An author should be aware of the sensibilities of the audience, especially beyond North American borders.

As my friend said, “It’s you Yanks who have the funny accents. We all talk normally in Edinburgh.”

 References: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; W.W. Norton, 1st Edition, ISBN 978-0393963038

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling; Bloomsbury Children’s, ISBN 978-0747571667

Guy Anthony De Marco Bio:
DeMarco_Web-5963Guy Anthony De Marco is a speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® finalist; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.

 

A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at WikipediaGuyAndTonya.com, and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

Writing What You’re Not

14 April 2014 | No Comments » | Tristan Brand

Laja followed Verl into the human bar, slithering closer to him than was polite, as she feared getting left behind more than the breach in etiquette. Inside, her eyestalks recoiled from the harsh fluorescent light. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the room was filled to the brim with the strange pasty-skinned creatures, crammed together eight to a table. So many sharing the same air! She ran a tentacle over her breathing apparatus, making sure it was secured. The human’s language, grunting linear syllabic expressions, made her ears hurt. Ugly / Stupid / Why are we here? she mind-sang to Verl, who, judging by the quivering of his own tentacles, was as horrified as she.

 

***

 

One of the great things about writing speculative fiction is we aren’t limited to telling stories only from a human’s perspective. Our characters can be dogs or dragons or golems or even aliens, like Laja and Verl from the passage above. Though often non-human characters play second-fiddle to a human protagonist, sometimes they take the stage themselves and we, as readers, can imagine what it might be like to walk (or slither) about as another species entirely.

Of course, writing from a non-human point of view presents its own set of challenges, as we writers are all too human (well, most of us, anyway.) Our experience is fundamentally different than that of a dog’s or a dragon’s. Still, this shouldn’t stop us – it’s not like all humans see the world the same. Writers must write characters of different genders, different ages, different cultures, and of different belief systems. Each time we have to stretch our imagination and try to understand the other. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for characters of different species.

I’ve always had a particular love for non-human characters. Aside from the fun of imagining what it might be like to have wings or a tail, they can add a lot to a story by giving us a radically different perspective on things we might find mundane. Take the passage about aliens at a bar from above. Most humans would find nothing odd about stepping into a crowded bar, but for a pair of aliens with totally different cultural and physical norms, the experience becomes a harrowing one. It gives us, as readers, an opportunity to imagine what we might look to beings who aren’t used to us or our behavior. I’ve found such shifts in perspective can lead to unexpected insights and add a great deal to a story.

The passage also demonstrates some of the techniques you can use in writing a non-human character. The physicality of the character is different. Laja doesn’t walk, she slithers. She doesn’t use her hands, she uses tentacles. She doesn’t have regular eyes but instead, eyestalks. Such details are critical in making her perspective believable.

There are key cultural differences too. Laja’s horror at how tightly the humans sit together, and her concern that following her companion too closely might be considered rude, show a fundamental difference in how she see’s personal space. Her reaction to their language and her own mind-song demonstrates major differences in communication and language.

There’s a trap here, where in our attempts to write a non-human character as believably as possible, we let the differences in their culture and physicality interfere with the story. I’m working on a novel right now from the perspective of a dog. A real dog probably spends an inordinate amount of time sorting through scents, but if I spent paragraph after paragraph simply describing what everything smelled like, no one would want to read past page two. It’s important to find the proper balance between keeping the perspective compelling and not letting it get in the way of the story.

One example of a very well done non-human point of view is Scriber from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Scriber is part of a race called the Tines, wolf-like creatures that live in packs governed by hive-minds. One subplot of the novel follows Scriber as he tries to save the lives of two human children stranded on his planet. Vinge paints a vivid picture of the Tines’ world, as well as what it might be like to be a being that has control of multiple individual bodies.

For those interested in reading more novels that feature non-human perspectives, here are a few more examples I recommend checking out:

  • TenSoon, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. TenSoon is a kandra, a being that can absorb a dead body of any other species and takes its form. In particular, I think Brandon does a wonderful job of creating a unique culture for the Kandra, who are bound by a contract that prevents them from doing violence.
  • Chet, from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn. A rare example from a non-speculative fiction genre, the novel is told from the point of view of Chet the dog, owned by a detective named Bernie.
  • Auron from Dragon Champion by E. E. Knight. As ubiquitous as dragons are in fantasy, novels where they get significant point-of-views seem rare. All of Knight’s novels in this series are told from the point of view of dragons born of the same clutch, who find themselves orphaned at a young age and forced to fend for themselves.

 

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