Tempus Fugit

Time is a curious thing. I’ve found when we focus on time, it seems to drag on at a snail’s pace. Yet when we do not pay attention to it, it flies right past. When it comes to fiction, time can play an interesting function. Stories and novels can take place from anywhere to the course of a single day (or less) with a few characters, to several years, decades even, covering generations of people. At other times, a story can seem to go by slower or faster than it really does. Simply put, in stories, as in life, time and how much we pay attention to it can affect how things play out.

A story that takes place in a short amount of time by drawing it out, such as chapters and sections being either specified by time (like a subtitle) or within the text (such as a character mentioning the time). The constant mention of time helps to make the shorter time feel longer. With a story set out over a long period of time, I usually have found there isn’t as many references to the time, which can make the time go faster. Interesting paradox, isn’t it?

I also want to talk about time in a different sense. Perhaps all writers think about what shall become of their work as time goes on. This became more apparent to me because I recently learned that my novel’s publisher, Mockingbird Lane Press, has sadly had to close. No doubt writers want their work to outlive them, to still be read and assessed long after they’re gone. It does seem that any work defined as a literary classic these days is one that has withstood the test of time, to still be printed and sold years, centuries, after it was first published. There are many writers who are remembered for a single thing out of their entire literary output.

Sometimes I think writers wish they could see where their work goes in the future, similar to how in an episode of the Spanish TV drama El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time), a cynical and suicidal Miguel de Cervantes was shown by the protagonists the impact Don Quixote would have on Spain and the world in the centuries after his time (their goal was to ensure its publication, as they’d faced a threat it might not be, thus changing the course of history and literature). Their efforts gave Cervantes the courage and drive to finish Don Quixote (specifically the first half, as the book was actually in two parts with more than a decade in between being published), and go on with his life, thus ensuring he and his magnum opus would make history. In the end, I suppose, what matters is hope: hope that something creative will someday reach that level.

Time is indeed a curious thing. But it keeps going on, as must we. And don’t worry, I do intend to republish my novel.

Marie Sinadjan Interview

Many thanks to singer, songwriter, and fellow fantasy author Marie Sinadjan for the opportunity to be interviewed on her blog:

Author Spotlight: Andrew McDowell

P.S. I’ll be giving my Importance of Names presentation once more, at the Cumberland Chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association on the 20th at 7:00 PM EST via Zoom. If you haven’t seen it yet and still want to, register online! It’s on Facebook, too! It will also be a hybrid meeting for those who want to be at the chapter in person (my Events page has the address). Though I will be on Zoom, I hope to see you all there either way!

The Hero’s Journey: Departure

Anyone who’s an ardent Star Wars fan will know of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and how it influenced George Lucas. He outlines similar steps within what is known as the hero’s journey, which has been found in ancient myths, folktales, and modern fantasy/science-fiction stories. I received my copy one Christmas and poured over it, understanding these points. It’s among my recommended reads for writers! Whilst editing Mystical Greenwood, I tried thinking of the plot I was forming in terms of what Campbell outlined. In the end, I came to see the book as the Departure Phase, which consists of the Call to Adventure, Rejecting the Call, the Threshold Crossing, and the Belly of the Whale.

In my own observations of other fantasy works, I’ve seen two kinds of heroes who receive the Call to Adventure. The first is the protagonist dissatisfied with life and yearning for something more. The other is essentially the opposite, perfectly content. When creating the two brothers at the heart of this story I tried envisioning them as such. But in the end, I had to pick one to be the central hero, and that was Dermot, the one who was dissatisfied with life.

Often the mentor in fantasy is an old wizard with a long beard. Early on, I felt such a mentor at the beginning giving them the Call might be too much of a cliché, so I had that character appearing not until three quarters of the way into the book. The teenage characters instead traveled on their own and chose to do so, though there was a character who did in a way give them the Call to Adventure. But later on, I realized that scenario was not going to work. A mentor figure was needed in order for the hero and his allies to survive and be properly introduced to their world’s magic and their abilities. So that original herald was vastly reworked, evolving into the true initial mentor figure instead of my wizard.

What made me go ahead without risking cliché was that this mentor was going to be a woman. I sought to have her be an embodiment of Mother Nature, who is associated with three stages of womanhood, each of which I gave her attributes: maiden (her face), mother (her personality) and crone (her age/hair). This deviation, if you really want to call it that, shows a story doesn’t need to follow the Hero’s Journey to the letter, such as when Frodo fails the final temptation at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Changes from tradition can make the story stand out and give readers a nice twist.

I hope to continue with the Hero’s Journey in the rest of the One with Nature series, with the next book being the Initiation Phase. This month marks four years since the paperback first came out (April will be the Kindle anniversary). Please read and rate/review if you haven’t yet!

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Further Reading
  1. Winkle, Chris. The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.

Readers’ Wants

Back when I did my first blog post, I talked about what I called the “Misery Complex” (in reference to Stephen King’s famous novel), and how writers’ and readers’ wants can clash. Granted, not all fans are crazy and obsessive about authors and fictional characters, like Annie Wilkes, but there is no denying that once a story is out there, it can touch so many people in individual ways in that they feel a special connection. And as they become attached to fictional characters, it’s still important to consider their feelings. Or isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this especially in drama and TV shows, like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, with fans theorizing and predicting where the story and subplots will go or could’ve gone, along with characters, and expressing their upset when things don’t happen in a certain way. The latter is especially true when characters die, don’t end up together, or character growth just vanishes. To be fair, with killing characters, writers cannot always be hated and blamed the way they have been, especially in drama, when actors decide they want to leave and pursue other projects. It’s not always easy to explain a character’s absence once the actor leaves. There may not be actors in books, but still, it’s easier to put unwarranted blame on writers.

It’s true not everyone has a happy ending, and sometimes one bad turn can in the end lead to a good one, but is there a line that ought not to be crossed? I certainly cannot argue how upsetting it is when a story seems to building something or someone up only to not lead there at the end. When there’s an anticlimax to anything from a story line to a character arc to a romance, it is usually disappointing. I sometimes find myself imagining (not always in great detail) where things could’ve gone in a story where I felt writing was lazy. That’s what’s lead to a number of fans writing fanfiction.

But at least there’s one point on which writers and readers can agree: stories and characters matter, as does what happens to them. Nevertheless, they originate with the writers. I said in my importance of names presentation characters are the children of an author’s imagination. Well, the same can be said of stories as a whole: an author sires them, and then they venture out into the world. That’s why I firmly feel the author should have the final say in what happens in his or her work, and I’d hope readers would respect that.

But I’m not unfeeling towards readers. After all, writers seek out the opinions of others in beta readers and critique groups while they are developing the story. So yes, readers can have input, and sometimes fans’ suggestions can ignite a spark in the writer’s imagination when they can’t figure out where to take the story next (even if it isn’t what readers specifically want), especially within a series. So, in conclusion, they both matter. Readers’ opinions should be considered, but the final decision belongs to the writer alone.

P.S. I want to apologize for the inconvenience for those who saw this post in advance a few days ago. I meant to schedule it at a different time and clicked the wrong button. This was not intentional, but given the post’s subject matter, I can’t help but feel the irony. Happy Holidays!

Dusting Off Stories From History

Many thanks to historical novelist Anne Clare for this opportunity to discuss my feelings on using historical fiction to shed light on lesser known events in history!

Guest Post By Andrew McDowell: Dusting Off Stories From History

These are feelings I hope to follow when I venture into historical fiction someday!

Writing vs. Marketing—Balancing the Scales

It seems that there are two sides to the coin of being a writer. The first side is writing process and everything related to the it, such as conducting research, sharing drafts with beta readers and critique groups, and editing. The second side is marketing. Writers need to build a network and an online presence so that potential readers will know of the writer and their creative output.

When I started writing as a kid, I didn’t give much thought to marketing. Perhaps I thought the publishers would do all of that, or it would magically take off. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I had to learn that without marketing, people outside of my family and friends would never hear of my work. If the general public isn’t aware of a book’s existence and if they don’t leave reviews, there will be no sales. Fortunately, I was able to get started on building a network once I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association and attended their conferences. I also began to build my digital platform.

I started to do a lot more online marketing as a result of the pandemic, especially by following certain hashtags on Twitter, eager to create as much exposure for my blog and books as possible. I’ve referred to WordPress, Facebook, and Twitter as the Big Three, with LinkedIn and Tumblr coming in next. Now, I am glad for the learning experience as well as for the genuine connections that I have made within my network, with people who’ve been kind and supportive. But at the same time, I feel as if I hit a roadblock—I’m not writing as much as I used to. Some writers I know had a massive creative output during the shutdown. I didn’t. Lately I’ve come to realize a simple truth: I’ve been spending too much time online, and not necessarily in a good way.

It’s easy to be tempted to check various social media accounts to the point where it becomes a habit, just like how I was creating exposure on Twitter but often scarcely interacting with other people. There’s that famous quote of how being a good writer is 3% talent and 97% not being distracted by the internet. That has never been clearer to me than now. In the past, long before I’d had all these social media accounts, I got distracted from writing by a number of things. I had schoolwork that took precedence, and once I entered the workforce, that too has taken up a lot of my time. Free time, it seems, has been taken up by the Internet and social media. In other words, the balance scales were tipped too far in one direction.

So how to find a balance? Well, I’ve started off by limiting how many times I login to each social media account to three or fewer a day, with each at different intervals (morning, afternoon, evening). It’s a start, to keep me from desiring to checking all the time but not checking enough. But I know I need to do more. I need to mind the time and online activity, and make it more meaningful. And I need to train my mind more to focus on writing when I do have time that isn’t devoted to work, social media, etc.

Now, I need to work on trying to have some output each day, whether in my journal (which I haven’t been diligent with) or editing or story work. I cannot just write when I’m in the mood, but at the same time I feel if I’m not enthusiastic, it won’t be good. Many successful writers became so from diligent, constant effort. I’m on a quest, you could say, to find that balance again and beat this writer’s block. Hopefully soon, the words will start flowing again.

Verse: Rhyme or Free?

Anyone who has watched Dead Poets Society remembers the viewpoint Robin Williams’s character John Keating gave regarding poetry, and how it cannot be measured. It was a very touching scene, and so I thought I’d talk about my own experiences with poetry, this being National Poetry Month.

I first began writing poetry when I was a teenager. Back then, one could say I was rather rigid. I didn’t experiment a whole lot, typically using a simple rhyme scheme, unless of course if I was writing a sonnet. I would write sonnets because I was (and still am) a huge fan of Shakespeare. I had even recited Sonnet XVIII (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?) at a Poetry Out Loud contest in high school, in which I won third place. But then again, I was rigid there too, because I’d only written sonnets in the Shakespearean format. In a way, looking back, perhaps I was afraid of breaking into new ground.

My rigidness continued for a while at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where I was introduced at a poetry club reading by the club leader as a more traditional poet compared to other members. The professor of an advanced poetry workshop class later made the observation that I liked to express a theme or idea at the end of each of my poems. However, it was through both that class and another poetry class at St. Mary’s that I began to break free and experiment with poetry.

I discovered new different forms that I had to write in as part of my assignments in those classes. More importantly, over the years I’ve broken free of form alone and began to not worry about syllables and rhymes. I’ve realized how poetry provides a way to really experiment with words and phrases, more so perhaps than fiction. I continued to express themes in my poetry, but also turned to showing and portraying emotions and feelings.

Among the blogs I follow are poets who use their sites to share their work, which is amazingly diverse and wonderfully done. I myself read three poems during an open mic at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA:

Here’s another reading I did online for The And I Thought Ladies:

And another at the Annapolis MWA:

Poetry expresses what’s in the heart and mind. For any poet, and every writer, their work evolves over time, and through experimentation, gets better.

Resources
  1. Community of Literary Magazines and Presses Directory.
  2. Brewer, Robert Lee. List of 86 Poetic Forms for Poets.
  3. Guildford, Chuck. Stanza Breaks.
  4. Hess, Gary R. 55 Types of Poetry Forms.

Establishing Characters’ Motives

It’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself before when writing, and certainly one you must answer: what drives your characters? They all want something, just as people in real life want something. It can be love, hatred, power, wealth, knowledge, patriotism, disillusionment, honor, or something else. To help bring characters to life, good and bad, they need to have at least one thing that drives them, which can later on change, but ultimately helps bring the character to life as much as their individual personality traits.

You can begin with basic human emotions or desires and build them into one of many possibilities. As an example, if a character seeks knowledge, it could be knowledge of something or someone or oneself. It’s important for villains to have motivations as well as heroes. In Beowulf the titular hero seeks everlasting glory, while each of the monsters is driven by a dark desire: Grendel by envy (of the Danes celebrating, which links him to his Biblical ancestor, Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy), Grendel’s mother by anger (for the death of her son), and the dragon by greed (a single golden cup was stolen from his treasure hoard).

When characters are driven to commit crimes, they have simple motivations, which have different versions. Sometimes characters with similar motivations act differently upon them, or the other way around. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Danglars wants Edmond’s captaincy while Mondego wants Edmond’s fiancé. So they conspire to frame him for conspiring to help Napoleon Bonaparte. For Danglars it’s a crime of profit; for Mondego it’s one of passion. Villefort realizes there actually is a conspiracy to help the deposed emperor, not involving Edmond but his own father, which would hurt his political ambitions if revealed. So he has imprisoned Edmond without trial to protect himself. Edmond is therefore motivated to enact revenge upon them all.

Often motives can be influenced by characters’ backgrounds and circumstances. One well-known stereotype is the evil twin, who is the protagonist’s mirror image (though sometimes evil twins have facial hair or scars). But in many stories, there are simply siblings—not necessarily twins—where one’s good and one’s evil. When the younger is evil, (s)he tends to be envious at not being the oldest and thus the heir. But when the older is evil (not to say (s)he can’t be jealous of the younger sibling), (s)he is proud of being the oldest and heir, to the point of narcissism and arrogance. When there’s more than one sibling, it can lead to middle child syndrome, where the second child feels unloved and/or like an outcast because the third is the “baby” and the first is the heir.

Then there’s the notion of a character foil: someone who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. Foils can be villains like evil twins, but they can be good too. They are similar in one or two ways to a protagonist but in every other way aren’t. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft shares his amazing power of deduction and more, but doesn’t use it to earn a living since, as Sherlock puts it, he lacks ambition and energy, and hates fieldwork.

As I said earlier, motivation can change, especially if a character isn’t sure at the start what drives him or her. Perhaps they are searching for what it is they want out of life. In every case, having motivation drives characters, and thus readers’ investment in them.

Further Reading
  1. Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters.
  2. Marie, Katie. Character motivations and why they are so important.

Happy Veterans’ Day! Many thanks to all who served!

Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they are already published and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but also explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Author Interview with M. J. Patrick

If you haven’t yet, check out my interview with fellow author and MWA member M. J. Patrick! Many thanks, M. J., for this opportunity!

via Indie Author Spotlight: Andrew McDowell