Guest Barista, Andrew McDowell on Writer’s Resources

Check out this guest post I did for the Go Dog Go Cafe! Many thanks to Stephen and his associates for this opportunity!

Go Dog Go Café

Writers must read and conduct research to build their stories. No matter the genre, writers need to build plot and characters to create something that will appeal to readers, and there are many books offering tips and insights into these elements. I will discuss those titles I have listed for my own recommended resources and why I think they’re helpful.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of the most well-known and influential books in the world. It draws upon many myths, identifying common characteristics and story elements to form what we know as the hero’s journey. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Campbell’s influence is with George Lucas when he created Star Wars. There’s a reason why this book is helpful to writers: the hero’s journey appeals to people. It’s been depicted in many different ways, and stories do deviate at certain points (Frodo…

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Love is in the Words

Romance has long been considered an important component of literature and drama. It draws them in, including me. People love to praise those who make huge sacrifices for love. Readers like to see it blossom and endure amid great trials and hardships, to see it conquer all. Unfortunately, sometimes fans can get so obsessed with notions of romance that they can lose their hold of reality.

Modern adaptations of classic stories alter characters for the sake of romance. Helen of Troy has been portrayed as falling genuinely in love with Paris rather than being under a spell, as she was originally in The Iliad. In some adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod and Katrina are in love, with Ichabod as a noble hero, whereas in the original story his motives are anything but honorable, and it’s implied Katrina, who was rather vane, merely used him to make Brom Bones jealous. Even villains like Dracula, who originally had no qualms over their actions, have become “humanized” and anti-heroic via romance. Romance appeals to people.

Within fandoms and fanfiction, I’ve seen “shippers” when there’s a love triangle and even with characters who either didn’t end up together or weren’t in love. Margaret Mitchell was hounded by Gone with the Wind fans wanting to know if Rhett and Scarlett reunited. She never gave them a definitive answer, because that wasn’t the point of the story. It’s been suggested some (but not all) fans don’t care about reason, wanting a romantic ending no matter how much it defies logic.

So is there a danger when writers incorporate romance into stories? Yes. There have been articles and books discussing how reading romance novels can be dangerous for one’s physical and psychological health, because in searching for love in real life, readers may aspire to an idealized image found only in fiction. Some try to play it out, thinking it’ll end like in stories. The result is grave disappointment, because in real life nothing is perfect. In Sense and Sensibility, the romantic Marianne falls for the handsome, dashing Willoughby and wears her heart on her sleeve. When he leaves her and marries for money (after being disinherited for abandoning another girl he got pregnant), Marianne wallows in grief, to the point where she endangers her health and nearly dies.

So what can writers do? Recognize the power stories have to shape readers’ views on love. Perhaps aim to show love isn’t perfect, with fights and disagreements, but still satisfy readers. Marianne finds love in Colonel Brandon and gets a happy ending, but she matures and sees the error of her past conduct. Another thing to bear in mind is that sometimes relationships don’t work out. Seldom is a first love everlasting, especially with teenagers. At other times, there isn’t a happy ending but hope for a better future.

I don’t dismiss the power and importance of romance. It’s needed in some (but not all) stories. But writers and readers alike need to understand genuine romance is gradual, with ups and downs. As Shakespeare says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And as I learned in church, love is an umbrella term used for many situations that aren’t identical. Furthermore, what may appear to be love isn’t necessarily love. They say love is blind; so is obsession. Love not built on a solid foundation of friendship, mutual trust, and respect, is the easiest—and fastest—to crumble.

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’re 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 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.

The Importance of Names (Video)

Watch my talk on the importance of names for characters, settings, and things at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA if you haven’t yet:

This was my first talk geared specifically towards writers. I had a wonderful turnout that evening, and I’ve been informed that some of those who attended used what they learned in their own writing.

Here’s the handout from the event:

Importance of Names Handout

Do elements of my talk sound familiar? Read these old blog posts from which it draws upon:

Many thanks to all of you who purchased Mystical Greenwood! If you haven’t yet, please do so! Plus it’s now available in Nook! Remember, books make great gifts! If you enjoy it, and I hope you do, please post a review! Help spread the word!

US$:  Amazon  |  B&N  |  BAM!  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Believe in Your Writing, and Yourself

My latest guest appearance on the blog of the amazing author Sharon Ledwith, where I discuss the importance of self-confidence for writers, and dealing with self-doubt:

Believe in Your Writing, and Yourself

Many thanks to Sharon for this opportunity! I highly recommend her blog for all you writers and readers out there.

Gryphons and Dragons and Unicorns!

Gryphons and dragons and unicorns, oh my! Yeah I couldn’t resist. Mystical Greenwood features these three mythical creatures, as was revealed in the book trailer created by Mockingbird Lane Press. So this month I thought I’d discuss their history a little, as well as the personal fascination that led me to include them in my story.

GRYPHONS

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When it came to choosing the “main” mythical species for Mystical Greenwood, from the beginning I wanted one a little more unique than dragons or unicorns. I first truly became acquainted with gryphons while reading about them in the Harry Potter book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There was something about them that struck a chord with me. I knew right away this was the creature I wanted for my story.

Gryphons represent courage, boldness, majesty, and nobility, and true love since they were said to mate for life, and only once. Their name can be spelled differently too, as I mentioned before when discussing names in general which is what led me to choose the spelling I did. I also read their nests were reputed to contain emeralds, which I felt would fit well with the “Gaelic” atmosphere I was striving for.

DRAGONS

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When reading about knights in shining armor and dreaming of being one as a child, I read about dragons. There’s that common story line of a knight slaying one, like St. George. They’re undoubtedly the quintessential fantasy creature. Western dragons are often depicted greedily guarding treasure, like Smaug in The Hobbit or the dragon in Beowulf. They’ll embark on rampages when a single item is stolen from their hoard. They’re linked with power and magic, like the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen.

Dragons come in many colors, all of which can be interpreted symbolically. The fight between Wales and England has been embodied by red and white dragons  (the same colored dragons a young Merlin realized wrecked Vortigern’s castle from constantly battling in an underground pool). They can fly, breathe air or fire, dwell on land or in water. There are so many possibilities with dragons!

While living in Japan, I became acquainted with a dragon different from the Western one. The Eastern dragon is often wingless, benevolent, and worshiped. I once thought about having both in my story, but it would’ve been a world-building dilemma so I didn’t (which is also why I used “feline” instead of “lion” for gryphons). Because of the Western dragon’s association with greed, those in Mystical Greenwood are villains. Nevertheless, maybe I can somehow introduce good dragons in the sequels. There’s also the possibility of sea dragons. Maybe I can combine the two. We’ll see.

UNICORNS

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Unicorns represent purity and goodness. In the first Harry Potter novel, drinking their blood extends life, but that life becomes cursed for slaying such a pure creature. Their horns were said to be made of a substance called alicorn, which possessed healing capabilities. Narwhal tusks were once believed to be unicorn horns. Like dragons and gryphons, something about them draws me. Perhaps in my childhood fantasies about being a knight I dreamed of riding one (though whenever I imagined myself on an actual horse, it was white).

I’m considering introducing a few other mythical creatures in the sequels, but I am glad I chose these three for Mystical Greenwood. Please don’t forget to purchase your copy and post your review!

Further Reading
  1. Mythic Creatures: The Griffin at Sarah Sawyer
  2. What’s in a Name? at The Gryphon Pages
  3. Dragon Colors at The Circle of the Dragon
  4. Draconika Dragons
  5. All About Unicorns

Distinguishable Characters

My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.

via GP: Distinguishable characters by Andrew McDowell

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.