Guest Appearance at Shortprose!

Check out my latest guest appearance, where I discuss the origins of what first inspired me to become a writer! Many thanks to my friend Gabriela, who blogs at shortprose.blog, for this wonderful opportunity!

via Meet a young author: Andrew McDowell #guest post

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Questions of Narrative and Tense

One has a story in mind, and wants to tell it well. It then becomes a question of how you want to tell it. I’ve learned there’s more than one way to write a novel. In fact there are many, and like all details run the risk of being overthought or overdone. Sometimes one can get so worried about them it leads to writer’s block and one cannot move forward, sort of like when when choosing a book title or character name. These are among the first details to choose at the beginning. Yet at other times, they seem to manifest themselves and/or change in the process.

One of the first questions that comes to mind is whether to write in first person or third. I find it often depends on the type of story being told. When writing Mystical Greenwood, I chose to write in third person as I felt it was the right way to tell a fantasy story set in an imaginary world no reader would have personally lived in, but could still observe and imagine. But there are many subdivisions of third person, and that was not so easily defined for me.

I flirted between third person limited and subjective. Subjective is trying to convey more than one characters’ thoughts and feelings at the same time, whereas limited focuses on chiefly one character. After sending Mystical Greenwood to Mockingbird Lane Press, at my editor’s request I made it third person limited throughout because there were originally some scenes with slight POV shifts that caused confusion. While some chapters and scenes are told from the perspective of characters other than Dermot, and there are scene breaks and a change to another character’s POV in others, I still tried to limit it to one character at a time.

I could’ve written in third person objective, but that would’ve left out every character’s feelings and thoughts, which I felt could detach readers from the narrative. Third person omniscient is often used for high and epic fantasy, where all character’s thoughts and feelings are presented. That can sometimes make it hard for readers to attach themselves to the story, as there would be too many characters to choose from to bond with while reading. But that certainly doesn’t mean it can’t work.

I’m presently trying I-narrative with the neglected pets story. I feel first person works best with realistic fiction (as it’s a setting readers and writers live in and understand), mysteries, and thrillers. I would like to try an epistolary format (telling a story in the form of diary entries and letters), perhaps for historical fiction. Some authors have alternated between third and first within the same book (using the latter for their protagonist), which I might also try. News articles could also be used in epistolary stories, and be another way to alternate. Other writers have changed narrative within a series, like the late Stephen J. Cannell did with the Shane Scully books.

With first person, one can also make it plural or use an unreliable narrator. Some novels try to replicate the thought-process, or stream of conscious – third or first could work, but I personally find it hard to follow. Some classic books have had chapters or scenes written in the format of plays; another thing I could try.

I should also mention second person narrative: “You”. It’s rarer in literature, as is writing in future tense. Most stories are in past tense, but some have been written in present, just like plays and screenplays. But there have been some well-told stories written using one or both, most famously perhaps Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. It’s always good to experiment and try new things with writing. Writer should use whatever they feel is best for your story.

Further Reading
  1. Writing in Third Person Omniscient vs Third Person Limited.
  2. Aldridge, Ally. Point of View.
  3. Wolf, Kalesjha H. First Person vs. Third Person.

Count your Lucky Length

Often when works of fiction are discussed, word and/or page count comes up. When you see books on a shelf, one of the first things you’ll notice, apart from the author’s name and book title on the spine, is how thick or thin they are compared to each other. Some people like J. R. R. Tolkien enjoy reading long stories. Others prefer shorter works. What is it about length? Does it matter?

Often when you look at a book’s title page, there will often be a subtitle saying “A Novel” or something similar. “A Novella” and “A Novelette” appear to be less common. Instead perhaps you might see “A Short Novel”. Furthermore, when it comes to defining types of writers we have novelist, poet, essayist, playwright, short story writer, and screenwriter. There are no set terms that I’m aware of for writers of novellas or novelettes. I sometimes feel novel is an umbrella term under which any fictional work longer than a short story can be labeled. Often, it seems word count is what it really comes down to, as I’ve seen so many sets of word count ranges that are used to define these works. Or is it?

In my senior year at St. Mary’s College, I took a high level creative writing class called “The Novella”. Some of the books we read felt like novels or long short stories. We each had to write a novella, and I started writing that story about neglected pets. It fit into a novella word count range. However, my classmates and the professor felt it should be expanded into a novel. I admit before that class, I’d first imagined it as a novel. Perhaps a work of fiction is what the author believes it to be, and subsequently calls it.

Writing for the stage and screen can be more restrictive, though it’s by page count rather than words. Once at a meeting of the MWA Annapolis chapter it was stated a page of a screenplay equals a minute of screen time. Thus an ideal film script should be 100-120 pages. A TV episode script would be 50-60 pages. Plays too it seems have page count limits these days. Audiences I can understand would rather not sit in a theater all day.

Some classic plays and films are long. Hamlet is usually abridged when staged or filmed. The 1996 unabridged film version lasted over four hours. Sometimes I wonder what Hamlet’s stage and screen history would’ve been like had Shakespeare written it as two plays, as he did with Henry IV (which has appeared onscreen only as TV films). I also wonder what the movie Gettysburg would’ve been like had it been a TV miniseries as initially planned.

Charles Dickens’s works were first published as a serial (like novelettes or novellas) before being printed as complete books. The serial versions were cheaper, making his novels available to the masses, whom, with a cliffhanger, would be enticed to buy the next installment. The novels of the Brontë sisters were published in “volumes” – but like Dickens’s books they’re are only published as complete works nowadays. Some people feel novellas and novelettes have difficulty getting published these days, and if they do they are usually combined with similar works.

In the end, it all comes down to the writer. It’s up to the author whether they want to define their work as novels, novellas, novelettes, short novels, or short stories. Length is applied in the public consciousness, but maybe it doesn’t have to. Does length and its description on the title page affect the customers decision to purchase or pass?  What do you think?

Further Reading
  1. Meer, Syed Hunbbel. Differences Between a Short Story, Novelette, Novella, & a Novel.
  2. Playwriting 101. Chapter 1: The Play’s the Thing.

Edit, Revise, Rewrite

Any writer who takes their craft seriously will have edited their work many times over. I can pretty much guarantee that any bestselling novel or literary classic you take off the shelf is not in its first draft. Novels go through several drafts before they are published. It can be said of any form of creative writing too, really.  It can even feel at times while you write that you are editing too, and the editing takes over the writing process. Some say to not edit at all with the first draft, to just write it and get it done. Also, others will say that you eventually have to stop editing and move on, otherwise you never will. Both of those sentiments make total sense, but editing is still a vital stage of the writing process.

Perhaps you remember from writing school papers the concept of rough drafts and final copies. Editing enables you to polish a rough draft so that you have a final copy. It is the same with novels. So what chance does a work have without being edited, or without at least one other pair of eyes not your own offering critical feedback? Taking feedback is never easy, but it should be constructive, so you can see it as a way to ask yourself what can be done better.

Going beyond grammar and spelling, the book itself goes through many drafts. Plot points are altered. New ones come in. Old ones are eliminated. It’s same with characters, names, and the elements and rules of world-building. Plot holes are identified, along with anything that does not fit. The problem is tackled, usually more than once. It might be necessary to start over from scratch, using the old draft for reference. Format can change too: chapter titles come and go, length can be altered, and the format of chapter numbers (word numbers, Roman numerals, number numbers) can change.

With Mystical Greenwood, I’ve learned the power and importance of editing. It’s always beneficial to have another pair of eyes look at what you wrote, so you might see what potential readers might say. Whether they’re beta readers, critique group members, or professional editors, their opinions will go a long way. At a time when I thought Mystical Greenwood was good and the plot solid, an insightful and encouraging critique from author John DeDakis showed me that more work still needed to be done. To quote Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer, I came to think of it as a case where “all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” Some scenes were moved around and rewoven together as a result.

Originally I had around half as many chapters that were twice as long, but then I started to wonder if they were too long. I’ve read books with really long chapters and found it to be frustrating finding a place to stop before bed. So about two thirds through a draft, I split those I had in two (excepting the prologue). I also switched from word numbers to number numbers. I once had chapter titles, but grew to dislike them, and after failing to think of new ones, I discarded them altogether. I felt they had become unnecessary.

The main reason I approached Mockingbird Lane Press was its founder, Regina Riney-Williams, has a great reputation as an editor. Over the course of two rounds of editing, I have found her insights and opinions invaluable. She has been constructive and encouraging, and I’m very grateful for her feedback as much as her willingness to take my book on. I’ve learned not only that so much can change through editing, but as a writer to never stop with one draft. To be a good writer, one must seek and accept feedback, subsequently editing, revising, and often rewriting, which must continue with every novel to come.

Nom de Plume

Nom de Plume, pseudonym, pen name, whichever term you prefer to use, several writers have used one instead of their real names. Like fictional characters, a pen name in itself is a persona created in the writer’s imagination.

Your real name can in essence become a pen name, or what I like to call a “writer’s name” where nothing is made up (otherwise it’s a pen name). There are many options beyond your first and last names. You can include your middle initial, go with your full name, or use initials. If you prefer your middle name, you can use it alone or also include your first initial. If you go by a nickname, have a suffix, more than one middle name, and/or a maiden name, you have even more possibilities. Try saying them out loud, so you can hear how they sound.

There are many sources from which you can create a pen name. You can of course use part of your real name. You could pay tribute to relatives, friends or other people, places real or fictional, something special to you, or maybe it could be an anagram. Samuel Clemens came up with “Mark Twain” from working on the Mississippi River (from a phrase indicating the water to be two fathoms deep). Charles Lutwidge Dodgson took the Latin versions of his first and middle names, anglicized the spellings and swapped them to create “Lewis Carroll”. It could even be one name. Charles Dickens initially used the pseudonym “Boz”.

Usually, a pseudonym is used if a writer feels that he or she has a specific need for one. Some sought to distinguish themselves from someone well-known with a similar name. Others wanted to reflect their chosen genre. It can become a character within the story, like Daniel Handler and William Goldman did respectively with “Lemony Snicket” and “S. Morgenstern”. A writer with multiple works coming out simultaneously might publish some under a pen name and the rest under their real one, which Stephen King did for a while with “Richard Bachman”. If you simply desire privacy, probably your best option then would be something that doesn’t stand out, and even better, isn’t an obvious tribute to anyone or anything special to you.

Perhaps one of the most frequent historical cases has been female authors using male or gender-neutral pseudonyms to give their work a higher chance of success. Some continue to be used, like “George Eliot” (real name Mary Ann Evans). Others no longer are. The novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë appear today under their real names. However the sisters first published them respectively as “Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell”. Sadly this trend still seems to continue. Joanne Rowling‘s publisher apparently did not feel the target audience for Harry Potter (teenage boys) would be inclined to read books written by a woman. Rowling subsequently came up with “J. K. Rowling”, when in fact she does not have a middle name (she chose K in honor of her grandmother, Kathleen).

Often, writers become better known by their pen names. A friend who’s a teacher told me of a time when he asked his students if any of them knew who Theodor Geisel was, and no one could answer him. Had he used Geisel’s most frequent pen name (Geisel did use more than one, which you can certainly do), “Dr. Seuss”, they could have answered him right away.

At times I’ve thought about using a pen name. I came up with several possibilities (much like Eric Blair did before he settled on “George Orwell”). I also thought about how my own name could be written in various ways. In the end, I settled for my first and last name, which suits me fine. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that I might still use a pseudonym for something someday. Whether you use your name or a nom de plume is entirely your choice. If you haven’t decided yet, try not to take too long. Always remember, your creative work is your first and foremost concern.

Pronunciation

From infancy onward we learn how to pronounce words by hearing others talk and from reading books. When it comes to literature, often we find words invented by the author or ones that weren’t but we don’t frequently hear. They are often the names of people, places and things, but not always. In all cases, we are prone to mispronouncing them, out loud or just in our heads.

Names and words can be spelled the same but pronounced differently depending upon where and from whom you hear them. For example, the name Guy in French is “GEE” (not “JEE”) as opposed to the English “GIE”. In Ireland, Saoirse is most commonly “SEER-shuh” but in certain regions “SAIR-shuh” is more popular. How you say Cairo depends on whether you’re referring to the city in Egypt (“KIE-roh”) or Illinois (“KAY-roh”).

Some names have been anglicized in how they sound if not their spelling. For instance, Brian and Dylan, which respectively originate in Irish and Welsh myth, were “BREE-in” and “DULL-in” but have since been anglicized as “BRIE-in” and “DILL-in”. Ethnic background however doesn’t always guarantee a specific pronunciation. It ultimately rests with personal preferences. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas used the anglicized version of his first name. Actress Saoirse Ronan prefers “SUR-shuh”.

Not every name or word is pronounced how it’s spelled either, which many Irish, and Old Irish, names demonstrate. To use one example, a letter combination (known as a diphthong) of MH or BH sounds like either a W or a V; the name Siobhan is “SHIH-vawn” and the festival Samhain (which helped create modern Halloween) is “SOW-in”. Some Welsh names beginning with an I pronounce it like a Y. The examples go on.

Yet sometimes, a mispronunciation has with time become the correct one. Jekyll in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde today is “JECK-uhl” but was originally “JEEK-uhl”. The T in Voldemort was meant to be silent, but it was pronounced in the Harry Potter films. The surname of Dr. Seuss was supposed to be “ZOICE,” but after people kept saying “SOOSE” he gave up trying to correct them.

Mispronouncing a word when reading is nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all been there, including me. This quote/image has been shared frequently on social media:

mispronounce

For us writers, there are steps we can take to help readers pronounce words correctly. Here are some personal recommendations. First, make sure you know the proper (or your preferred) pronunciation, especially if you think people will likely mispronounce it. If you have several names and/or words you believe will be hard to pronounce (such as within fantasy or science-fiction), it might be a good idea to include a pronunciation guide. With works where there are fewer such words, an easier method could be incorporating the pronunciations into the text or dialogue (if you’re writing for the stage or screen, actors will be enabled to pronounce them for you – just make sure you let them know how you want them said). That way, incorrect pronunciations don’t become correct ones.

Pronunciation Sites
Irish Pronunciation Sites

Building Worlds

Writers create more than stories and characters. They create places, sometimes within the world of today or the past. There are also places, and whole worlds that never existed, except within the imagination.

I find the key to worldbuilding is how believable it feels. A good setting, however fantastical, must feel real to the writer and reader (with satire and comedy you can get away with this). A few times on the British sitcom Are You Being Served? when the characters would put on theatrical pageants, senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe was going to (or wanted to) play a character far younger than herself. Someone would remark that it was “make-believe” to which there were responses of “We’re going to have to stretch our imaginations” and (to Mrs. Slocombe’s chagrin) “Not to the point of incredibility.”

Many considerations are necessary. Every detail must harmonize with the story, style, and themes. Otherwise that sense of reality will shatter. The reader will be left questioning why a certain little thing is the way it is rather than enjoying the story. The Writer’s Circle once posted this list to their Facebook page:

World Building (Writer's Circle)

A contemporary setting, whether fictional or not, is usually pretty easy. With a historical backdrop, I recommend doing research into what life was like back then. Or perhaps the world is science-fiction, set several years in the future like Star Trek, or like Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away. There I suggest looking at the present; not just science and technology but the whole world. Imagine where it could all go in the future. Or it could be an alternate reality: what it would the world like had the past been different?

In fantasy, where the greatest amount of world-building undoubtedly occurs, I find it best to begin by looking at history, or even mythology. Suppose your world could have existed. Where and when would it be? Perhaps there’s more than one possibility. If so, perhaps you can merge them. J. R. R. Tolkien drew on myth, religion, and his own life experiences, from childhood and World War I, to create his stories.

Early on I envisioned my story as an epic adventure that would’ve taken place long, long ago. As a child I’d always been fascinated with knights. So I researched medieval life and society. However when it came to symbolism, names, and other details, initially I didn’t pay as much attention. It was a mix from various sources.

With new drafts of course came changes and the need to make everything fit together. As I mentioned before, I renamed characters, places, and things to strengthen my story’s feeling of “Gaelicness” which came out of a lifelong love for nature. I added details and symbols inspired by Ancient Celtic life and Irish myth. But I was careful not to take them too far so they didn’t feel out of place with what I already had. I looked again to history and symbolism to help refine the “map” of my world. It is at present no longer a purely medieval setting but a mixture of different periods, which thereby makes it more its own unique world.

When it came to magic, rituals, and beliefs, I looked at myth and folklore, as well as numerous books and articles on Wicca, Neopaganism, Neo-Druidism, natural magic and spirituality. This research helped me reinforce the atmosphere I wanted. I’ve found that bridging ideas and sentiments from the modern world with ones from the old helps readers connect with themselves more.

When it came to the environment, I ultimately looked to the flora and fauna of Ireland and Britain. Brian Jacques, the late author of the Redwall saga, once said that he chose creatures native to his homeland for his anthropomorphic characters, rather than trying to use every animal in the zoo. I considered the latter once, until I realized many would never survive outside of a habitat not their own, and it would be too crowded. One or two exceptions won’t hurt. Still, they shouldn’t be too out of place. Herbs were researched for medicinal purposes. Some were later discarded as they were either not native to those lands if not found in a temperate climate. Many trees were chosen for being sacred to the Celts.

In addition to real creatures, I tried cramming in mythical ones too. Earlier drafts of my book included gryphons, unicorns, dragons, elves, dwarves and centaurs. The latter three were dropped as it again was a problem of overcrowding. With too many details, places and characters, a story becomes lost in itself. As a writer, you have to know when to stop.

If you write a series of books with an imaginary setting, I strongly advise you do NOT map out the entire world at the very beginning. Otherwise you’ll be trapping your story (and yourself) in a box from which if you try to expand out of could lead to contradiction or dead ends. Without a complete box/map, you can add newer details with much more freedom. I found it very relieving, as I was able to concentrate more on my plot. Thus the world and characters could grow in conjunction with it.

I will continue to build this fantasy world I’ve created as the trilogy progresses. Other, completely different worlds will no doubt follow with future projects. As in all aspects of writing, worldbuilding is undertaken with trial, error, patience, passion, and dedication. It is all part of a writer’s evolution.

Prologues

The novel I’m trying to publish includes a prologue, which I recently read at an open mic. Prologues I’ve discovered are tricky. It would seem they are generally discouraged in publishing. However, I’ve seen books, including bestsellers, which have them. Even in movies you’ll find them. There are different kinds of prologues too. Lital Talmor and Louise Lilley have created lists of different categories, good and bad (see Further Reading below) .

This particular prologue I have furiously tried to keep as many beta readers and fellow writers in critique groups (all of whom shall remain anonymous) gave their opinion of it and the rest of the manuscript. Why you might ask did I want to keep it so much? Was it even worth it?

I’ve learned if a prologue is going to be written, it must have a specific purpose. In order to draw readers in, the first few pages, with or without one, must hook them. If the prologue doesn’t do that, it ought to be discarded. At the beginning, what I wanted mine to do was show what is at the heart of the story, which is the beauty and importance of Nature. Throughout the manuscript and especially the prologue, when it came to Nature imagery I got a bit poetic, which at the time was what I wanted.

One of my first beta readers liked it for the juxtaposition of Nature’s beauty with its destruction, which shows what is at stake. However, as I would later learn from other readers, that was not enough. In the earliest drafts of my novel, the entire prologue was a dream sequence. However I soon learned that was a big no-no. Furthermore, it was, as Maeve Maddox (see Further Reading below) would point out, largely atmosphere. Lilley herself advises against such a prologue. Maddox says if your prologue feels “boring” then readers will want to go straight to Chapter 1. Those who read my earliest version felt it was too “detached” from the plot, and the style “wordy”. Clearly then if changes were not made it would have to go, or at least be broken up within the main plot somehow. Maddox herself offers that solution in the case of backstory.

So in an attempt to keep my prologue, I made only the second half a dream sequence, with the protagonist describing it as he was looking back on past events. So I sort of made it a cross between what Talmor calls “background” prologue and a “future protagonist” one (the idea had come around because I have considered an epilogue at the end of the trilogy where he is a young man reflecting on the story’s events). I chose to withhold his name, hoping to make readers wonder who he was and want to read more to find out. Even then, critique group members still felt it was too detached from the story.

I found inspiration from the first Iron Man film. It has a “prologue” showing Tony Stark attacked and wounded, then after the movie title shifts back to 36 hours prior. So instead of having my protagonist years later, I had it set in the main plot, with Chapter 1 beginning some days before the prologue’s events and the early pages build up to that moment, which occurs before the first quarter mark. I added dialogue between the protagonist and another character, so it would not be mere atmosphere anymore, but still there are no names included. One beta reader who read this version liked it and described it as “intriguing”. While even acknowledging publishers do not always like prologues, she felt mine “worked”. So perhaps I am on the right track. I also believe that beginning with Chapter 1 as it is now, it would feel too sudden a start.

Some still thought it too wordy, and I have continued to try to find a balance. Recently, listening to myself reading it out loud helped me simplify it even more. In the end, I am reminded of my father’s advice: the important thing is to tell a story and tell it well. He has also told me less is more, especially with writing. In the end I have come to finally accept that I maybe I did get carried away with the “poetic” feel, and it certainly could get in the way of delivering the message and drawing in readers. So perhaps a poetic style was not the right fit for a young adult audience after all.

Will this prologue be discarded before publication? Will it become something different than it is now? I cannot say. I can say not every book I write will have a prologue, nor need one, but I’d like to try it a few more times, perhaps using Talmor’s categories. If the day comes that I try screenwriting, it will be the same. But I will make sure I want it in a story, and that it will serve a purpose, or I won’t have one at all.

Watch my reading of my prologue here:

Further Reading
  1. Lilley, Louise. 6 Prologues I’m Tired of Reading.
  2. Maddox, Maeve. 3 Reasons to Ditch Your Novel’s Prologue at Daily Writing Tips.
  3. Talmor, Lital. Where to Begin? When, Where and How to Write a Prologue at Writing-World.com.