Saturday, May 9

Troubleshooting: Cal and Emily

So. I did promise to write a post mortem on that old short story of mine. When I decided to write a novel for real earlier this year ('s somehow on hold...sigh), I bought a significant number of books on writing. Some are seriously helpful and excellent, and some are just long-winded and boring. What I would recommend are these:
  1. How Not to Write a Novel, Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman, Collins 2008
  2. Stein on Writing, Sol Stein, St Martin's Griffin 1995
  3. How to Grow a Novel, Sol Stein, St Martin's Griffin 1999
  4. Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, Writer's Digest Books 2001
  5. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, Meg Leder, Jack Heffron et al, Writer's Digest Books 2002
Well, there are other books somewhere in my room, but I'm just too lazy and tired to go upstairs to retrieve them. But I do recommend the books I've listed above. Maybe I'll do a book review on them. Maybe. I'm not going to say I've improved after reading those books. Improving takes practice and experience. But what I have gained is knowledge on how to approach fiction. As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, I've not received a formal education in Creative Writing, other than a semester of Creative Writing English back in uni, where a small group of us wrote short stories as assignments and read them in class. Sorta. It was a new, experimental class, and I refused to take Scientific English. I never learned how to write prose or poetry. I do not know what iambic pentameter means, other than it sounding cool. I simply wrote for the love of writing as well as a means to express myself. So, the books are an eye-opener for me. I've learned how to write with more impact, and pitfalls to avoid. But, as Tita told me, I took everything under advice, but not necessarily using them all. Along the way I have discovered my own style of writing, which is a blessing, as I've read that not many beginner writers have their own style. But, to be honest, Tita's the one who discovered my style. She would say, "This is Fadz," or "I don't feel you in this story," or "this could be improved to be more you." And she has never met me in person. Figure that. As usual, I'm rambling instead of writing what my title suggests. Moving on. Problems in General Doesn't the story feel contrived, like an episode out of 90210, or the OC, or even The Hills? Well, maybe not The Hills, but you get what I mean. Hot but untouchable boy meets hot but troubled girl. Boy reaches out for girl. Boy meets accident. Girl lives on with renewed strength. Conflicts? The groping scene at the diner and the accident, both fairly weak in execution. We'll get into specifics later. Character development? Got meh? The story's set as if somewhere in the US. Partly because I watch English series and dramas and I don't even pretend to watch Malay dramas. Partly because I used to find it funny to have Malaysian characters conversing and thinking in English. Which is ironic, because my inner voice speaks almost exclusively in English. I kid you not. It's been like this since I was small. Maybe that's why I can't write Malay literature.
I've more or less cured of that notion. The improbability of Malaysian characters in English stories. I can't do anything about my inner voice, so get off my back already. Well, quite a number of experienced editors and writers do not recommend writing set in places you're not familiar with, especially in contemporary stories. This is not necessarily true. A lot of novels were (and are) written with the authors only having researched the place used as the setting, not having the funds to actually go there. Or even the clearance to, say, check out a war submarine. So how do we write good stories set in places we've never physically experienced? Research is the answer. Some do extensive research, taking up weeks and even months. Some spend minutes to hours Googling what they want. What's most important is credibility. There may be discrepancies, and sometimes actual locals may voice out their outrage, but what's important is your setting, your imagery, must be solid enough to be believable. And you have the responsibility to be consistent, to lend credibility. Take a lot of Malay dramas for instance. Specifically, hospital scenes. As a doctor, I know what they portray is blatantly unresearched and baseless. But even people outside the health field know how fake the settings are. Or office scenes. Do people actually line up and bow like they're Japanese when the boss arrives? A little time (and when needed, resource) spent on research goes a long way to make your stories believable. And consistency is important for the readers to trust you, to assure them the stories you spin are possible, and to a certain extent, true. This is especially important in speculative fiction (sci-fi and fantasy). Authors weave fantastic worlds into existence, but master storytellers make as if the worlds do exist. As if the futuristic scenes may one day come to pass. If the sky is green, make sure it's still green at the end of the story. Unless, of course, the sun explodes in a supernova and the sky turns to fire.
Oh. One more thing. I've you've chosen to use US English, maintain it throughout the story. If UK English, then stick with it. In Malaysia, we learn using UK English. I personally prefer US English, simply to be unconventional. Hehehe. On to plot and character. Some argue that a story is driven by plot. Some say stories are character-driven. So what is this fuss all about? Most commercial fiction, like the James Bond series, rely fully on plot. An antagonist is bent on destroying/taking over the world, and it is up the protagonist to save the world, and shag a few beautiful ladies in the process. James Bond and his archenemies are paperdolls. An archetype of Good, who's flawless and can do practically anything (other than getting pregnant himself), against an antagonist who's clearly Evil. Bond remains the same person throughout the novels/movies. He's not changed. It's the plot that moves the story.
So what is plot? It's the storyline, where you have a conflict, or a series of conflicts, which propels the story forward towards a climax or conclusion. Basically, a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It's all about action and reaction, reaching for conflict resolution. In short stories, conflict is limited to one, or maybe two. In novels, there's also room for subplots, conflicts that may or may not be related to the main storyline, which should get resolved along the way.
A lot of literary and genre fictions depend on character development. As the story progresses, the main characters change, some for the better, some worse off. How the change happens is the story. Some stories don't even have strong plotlines. But in involving the readers to feel empathy towards the characters, plot becomes secondary. If the character is alive in the reader's head, then the author has done well. My opinion is to look for a balance. Quite a number of stories have strong, believable (and evolving) characters, with gripping plots. Jurassic Park, Melanie Rawn's The Sunrunner Series, Dune, Love Story, and The DaVinci Code come to mind. I give examples of what I've read. People with literary course backgrounds may cite Moby-Dick, The Old Man and The Sea, How to Kill a Mockingbird, and even Jane Eyre. The problem with short stories is that they are limited by wordcount. So how do you portray character development? How do you write a complex plot? Sometimes you can't. Tighten your story to a few scenes if you're limited to, say, 1000-2000 words. Sometimes it's hard to show the process of change, of character development. What's important is by the end of the story, your protagonist is affected by the chain of events. But if possible, please try to avoid literally spelling it out, like "It was a learning experience for Ronald. He was now a changed man." Which brings me to my next point, showing against telling. Exposition, or narrative summary, is when the writer describes entire events in a few paragraph. Cal & Emily is especially rich with narrative summaries. Well, I was new at short stories. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Excuses. Anyway, here's an example of that narrative summary:
And so it came to be that Emily had found a true friend in Cal. He drove her daily to school and back – which was a major surprise to everyone, knowing full well that he had never let anyone touch his precious car. Cal also stayed true to his promise and helped Emily in her studies, sometimes at his house, sometimes at hers, and sometimes elsewhere. Emily, knowledge-hungry, paid full attention, and that fact alone made Cal happy. Not many girls as alluring as Emily would spend time in libraries and parks studying. He also enjoyed taking her siblings out to the parks during the weekends. Being the only child of two successful lawyers, Cal's parents seldom had time to spend with him. He grew up a lonely and moody child. Somehow, being with Emily's family had melted his sombre mood away. Soon they became fast friends, and Emily found out how different Cal could be from other guys. She was deeply grateful for that.
See how entire scenes were compacted into one paragraph? This is telling. The author (or, in most cases, the narrator), explains what's happening instead of developing the story into entire scenes. In the example above, I could've created scenes to show the development of their friendship, instead of just writing down "and so it came to be that Emily had found a true friend in Cal." I could also have elaborated "he also enjoyed taking her siblings out to the parks during the weekends" or even "being the only child of two successful lawyers, Cal's parents seldom had time to spend with him". One particular line that could have strengthened the story if developed into a scene is "somehow, being with Emily's family had melted his sombre mood away." But if I had made them all into scenes, the story would've turned into a long-short or a novella. Throw in a few more plotlines, I could even turn it into a Young Adult novel, which usually amounts to 50k-60k words. Sometimes we don't have a choice. Expositions Narrative summaries become a necessity, especially in short stories. But be sparing. So, what is exactly showing and telling? Let me show you an example.
  1. "Look at that! A shooting star," she said excitedly.
  2. "Look!" she exclaimed. "A shooting star!" she added enthusiastically.
  3. "Look, look," she said, grabbing his windbreaker. She was jumping up and down, jerking him in the process. She didn't seem to notice. Her forefinger was pointing heavenward. "A shooting star!"
Okay, not exactly from Cal & Emily, but what the hey. In the first example, it's a simple telling. Watch out for modifiers, especially adverbs, that end with -ly. Quickly, excitedly, angrily, madly, lovingly. You're telling the readers what the characters are experiencing, instead of involving them, letting them make the conclusions themselves. In a way, you're detaching the readers from the story. People read fiction to escape to another world, another life. They want to experience that Great Adventure without leaving their seats. You're robbing them of that chance. People call using adverbs sheer laziness. In the second example, a punctuation is used (the exclamation mark), but reinforced with "she exclaimed." Which is redundant. And totally unnecessary. Some look at this as the author's insecurity. He wants to show that excitement, but in case the message doesn't come across, he added the description. And again, the presence of that evil adverb. The third example is the longest of the three. It doesn't literally say how excited she was. But the reader can imagine her jumping. Highly creative minds can even see her hair flying about, and the mist of her breath in the cold night. Her cheeks would be flushed red, and her voice an octave higher. The reader makes the conclusion that she's excited. This is how you involve the reader. By showing them the character's excitement and letting them make their own conclusion of what the character's feeling. You give the reader a good description, but not to the extent that it stops the story. You let their imagination fill the gaps. You let them draw conclusions. Whether the execution is successful or not, that's where the challenge is. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, novels were rich with expositions, narrative summaries, and elaborate descriptions. Authors, using a narrator within the story, explained everything to the most minute detail. A reader would feel led throughout the story. There's no room for their own imagination. Lord of the Rings is a good example. When reading the book, I felt like an especially slow kid being told a story by a grandfather who had too much time to spare. Descriptions put the story on hold, which (when used correctly) is good for pacing. Writers use descriptions to create a leisurely pace; in fast-moving, tense scenes, descriptions are kept to a minimum. Too much, and your story becomes boring. Too little, it will seem flat and lifeless.
The development of modern-day movies has produced a more impatient audience. Moviemakers have to pack a whole lot within the span of 2 to 3 hours. It's all about instant gratification. In a way, this has affected written fictions as well. People opt for minimalism. Where flowery language was expected of writers of olden times, direct and compact language, as well as immediate scenes instead of expositions and narrative summaries are expected. Readers want to be shown scenes and conversations, and have a lower tolerance towards narrative summaries.
Which comes to one of the most important element in writing. Dialogue. If it's all important, it should've been way up there instead of here. Well, this is actually to show my appreciation to anyone who's gotten this far. :). Okay. Immediate scenes. This is where a particular scene is being shown to take place, just like a scene in a movie. And, like movie scenes, scenes in writing should be rich with dialogue. For one, dialogues, especially short ones, create white space on the page, making it seem to move fast. Dialogues also can be used to convey information, hence avoiding narrative summaries. As it is a conversation, we try to imitate actual conversations without sticking strictly to them. "Hi," he said. "Hi," she replied. "How are you doing?" "Fine," she answered. "Do you remember your mother, who's staying in the old folks' home, whose husband passed away earlier this year?" he inquired. "Yes. Anyway, I bought coffee for you. I know you like yours black, with two cubes of sugar." "I do believe that is so. Thank you for your kind gesture." I tried to include as many avoidable pitfalls as I could in this example. First, although the earlier part of conversation is common in conversation, it's boring in fiction. Try to avoid mundane, no-one-gives-a-damn dialogues, unless you intentionally use it to spring a surprise or something. Secondly, a lot of writers hate using 'he said' over and over again. So they get creative, using 'answered', 'exclaimed', 'growled', or even worse, 'jumped', 'cringed', or whatever action that's not physically possible to be done in speech. Stop. Don't do this. I did the same mistake back then. 'Said' is more than good enough, as it is almost invisible, hence not distracting. And in a conversation involving two people only, you can use 'said' occasionally, and not in every line.
If you want to convey information in a dialogue, do not write down things that the characters already know, even if you think it's for the reader's benefit. Think of your characters as living people. Have them tell things you already know. You find it fake and highly annoying, right? And people rarely use complete sentences in speech. Sometimes they're not even grammatically correct. This is where a writer shines. They take note of the character's education level, style of speech, mannerisms, and characteristics. Each character should talk differently, even if only subtly. But avoid using weird spellings to convey dialects. This is obsolete, as it distracts the readers from the story. They concentrate more on making sense of what your hillbilly is trying to say. Have I lost you or am I still making sense?
Here's a recap of what I've covered (in general, hey):
  1. Setting - research and credibility
  2. Basic plot
  3. Character development
  4. Showing vs Telling
  5. Narrative summary and expositions
  6. Dialogue
I'm going to stop here, and continue in the next tutorial session. I'll be using the points I've mentioned to dissect Ca and share with you where I've gone wrong.