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Archive for January, 2010

In addition to being the shiny silver stuff you use in cooking, or the verb meaning to thwart, there is a literary term called a foil. It refers to a secondary character that contrasts with one of the main characters in order to highlight certain qualities of that person.

Often a foil is the opposite in personality or attitude, but there can also be a contrast in appearance. If one character is self-confident and attractive, the foil may be timid and plain. A person who is logical and pragmatic may have a partner who is impulsive and daring.

Foils tend to emphasize the main characters’ good qualities, and can help give readers a better understanding of them as they interact with those who are their opposites.

Sidekicks, a term referring to close friends who accompany the main character on adventures or activities, are an example of foils. Famous ones I can think of off-hand are Batman and Robin, or Lone Ranger and Tonto. For 3 Stooges fans, Larry and Curly might be considered foils for Moe; or is Moe a foil for Curly? (I love Curly!)

What are some other famous foils or sidekicks? Do you use foils in your stories?

 

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Flash fiction is shorter than a traditional short story. There doesn’t seem to be a universal definition of the length, but it’s generally considered to be stories that are less than 1,000 words. Some definitions say it’s stories less than 1,500, words, and a few places mention it’s under 2,000 words. There are even subcategories of flash fiction, such as drabble, which is a story that is exactly 100 words. If you plan to write and submit flash fiction, be sure to check the publication’s guidelines to find out which length they are interested in receiving.

Just like all stories, flash fiction needs a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. These stories drop the reader into the action, which often takes place in one scene, with very little backstory. There isn’t room for much character development, and the tension must build quickly. Since there isn’t time to gradually build up to a climax, twist endings are common.

Flash fiction has been around for years, but has become more popular with the growth of online magazines. The pay for these stories isn’t usually a lot, and the market is highly competitive, but selling them to reputable magazines may help beef up your author’s bio on a query.  

Here are a few sites I think are helpful:

http://www.fictionfactor.com/guests/flashfiction.html Gives tips for writing flash fiction

http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/flash.shtml Describes flash fiction

http://www.statemaster.com/encyclopedia/Flash-fiction  Explains the term and gives a history of flash fiction

Do you write flash fiction? Is it easier or harder for you than writing a typical short story?

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Writing fiction is hard. I can’t make my characters do what I want. They keep coming up with their own ideas and messing up my plot, and I’m getting pretty tired of it. I’m having to re-write a whole bunch of scenes because they didn’t like what I told them to do.

If anyone else told me that, I’d think they were nuts. How can characters talk? How can they do anything at all when they aren’t real? I know that, yet I still get mad at the way they behave. It’s like I’ve gotten to know them well enough that I know what they would do in a situation, but it isn’t what I want them to do. I gave them certain personalities when we started this story, and don’t you know they went and changed!

They can’t be allowed to do things that don’t fit their personalities, or the story won’t be believable. Yet, the changes were necessary to develop the plot. So now the plot doesn’t fit the characters anymore.

This is frustrating. I did not want to write a romance. This is supposed to be a suspense novel. Somebody needs to be punished for this and I think it’s going to be the main character. She has it way too easy, and the guys just love her. It’s not that I’m jealous or anything. Lorraine is though, and I’m going to whisper something into her ear that will really make her hate Danni.

Oh, sorry. Here I am rambling about my characters when you haven’t met them and probably don’t care about them. But you’re supposed to care about the characters in a novel. If readers don’t care, they stop reading. And giving them problems and making them dislike each other, or love each other, or fight each other, builds tension and conflict.

No one wants to read about perfect people, unless it’s to see them get tormented and brought down a peg. Peg! That’s another character in my story. It’s a conspiracy. They want to take over my mind and keep me typing this story forever. They want to live forever and ever, and all I want them to do is go:

To sleep—perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub!
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause—there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

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Do your characters take on a distinct personality? Do they change as the story progresses, or are they the same at the end as they were in the beginning? Do you enjoy stories where the characters are perfect, or do you prefer flawed characters? Aren’t you glad we don’t talk like they did in Shakespeare’s time?

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Today I’ll be working on my submission for the Editor Unleashed “Why I Write” contest. Remember, if you’re entering, the deadline is January 31. Let me know if you post an entry so I can make sure I read it. Rankings will take place in February.

Also, anyone interested in voting for a story in the Reader’s Choice Poll on the Mad Utopia blog, polls close on January 23.

Since I don’t have the time (or mabybe it’s lack of motivation?) to write a blog post today, I’m sharing one of my favorite songs with you instead. This is “Seize the Day,” by Carolyn Arends. Its message is worth remembering.

 

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What dreams are you working towards? What songs motivate you to strive for your goals? What does “seize the day” mean to you?

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Today’s post will be short because I have an important business meeting tomorrow and I need to cut my hair and do my nails. I also want to look over last year’s contract so I’ll be able to recognize any changes the management might try to slip into the new one. Not that there’s anything I can actually do about it. The guy in charge makes his decisions based on what he thinks is best for his company, and who he personally likes or dislikes.

So why do I bother thinking about my looks and doing research? Because I know my competition and want to make the best impression I can; because I know my appearance reflects the type of person I am; because I can’t know if signing a contract is the best decision for me if I don’t have a basis for comparison. I represent my business, and its success or failure depends on how I handle the opportunities I’m given.

Those principles apply to writing, too.

1. We need to know our audience and our competition.

If there’s no market for what we’re writing, we have little hope of selling it. If the market is flooded with similar stories, we have little hope of interesting an agent or publisher in ours. If we’re writing strictly for our own enjoyment, we don’t need to worry about what other people think.

2. We need to be (or at least appear) professional and competent.

It’s human nature to favor the people who impress us with their looks, skills, talents, or whatever it is we’re using as a criteria for choosing one over another. Our queries and manuscripts represent us (which is probably why so many writers take a rejection personally), so we need to make them as attractive as possible before we send them out. That means they should be properly formatted, free of grammatical errors, concise, yet thorough.

3. We need to do our research.

Sending a query to agents or publishers who don’t represent the type of writing we do, or failing to follow the guidelines they give, is not showing we are professionals. It’s a waste of their time and ours. If they accept our work and we later find out we aren’t getting what we thought out of the deal, we’ll have to live with the consequences. Maybe we can break the contract, maybe we can re-negotiate the terms, maybe we’ll get out of it without damaging our career. We’ll be gaining experience but wasting time.

Are you writing strictly for pleasure, working towards a career in writing, or somewhere in the middle? Do you research the market before starting a project, or do the writing first and the research later?  Would my use of semi-colons in the second paragraph be considered a grammatical error, or a stylistic choice?

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My friend Jon Strother over at the Mad Utopia blog is compiling an anthology of the best flash fiction stories from participants in the #fridayflash group he sponsors. Every Friday people post a piece of fiction of less than 1,000 words on their blog, and Jon gathers the links to each of them and lists them on his own blog. There’s a wide range of genres represented, and I enjoy browsing them each week for something quick to read.

Seven stories were nominated by readers who haven’t submitted anything to the anthology, and the story that receives the most votes will be honored with The Reader’s Choice Award. Anyone can vote, and there is nothing to sign up for or join. It’s simply an attempt to recognize some authors whose stories have made an impact on readers.

If you would like to read these 7 stories and help select the best of the group, go to Jon’s blog: http://jmstrother.com/MadUtopia/?p=535 and vote for your favorite.

Full disclosure: I don’t participate in #fridayflash and don’t have a story in this contest, but I did nominate one that I loved. Whether or not that author wins doesn’t affect me as I don’t know the person and don’t get anything for promoting the contest.

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I didn’t make any resolutions for 2010, but I’ve set a goal of writing and submitting at least one story or article each month this year. That sounds attainable, and it’s a lot more than I submitted last year. I’ve already started thinking of ideas and decided I’d share some of the thought-provoking sites I found so that those of you who struggle for new topics to write about can benefit, too.

I’m fascinated by the variety of celebrations and observances there are to choose from every month. While I haven’t intentionally participated, according to one site I’ve been supporting National Oatmeal Month, Hot Tea Month, Fiber Focus Month, Soup Month, Get Organized Month, Eye Care Month, and Family Fit Lifestyle Month already this year. I’m looking forward to January 20, which is Penguin Awareness Day, and I may try to write a story with penguins for this month’s writing goal.

Though I’ll probably change my mind, I’m considering using the following observances for story ideas to meet my monthly goals:

January: Penguin Awareness Day, or Squirrel Appreciation Day

February: Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month, or Wave Your Fingers Day

March: National Noodle Month

April: National Pet First Aid Awareness Month

May: Hug Your Cat Day, or Return of the Slugs Day (it’s on my birthday!)

June: National Older Americans Month, or Adopt a Shelter Cat Month

July: Dad and Daughter Take a Walk Day

August: National Lighthouse Day

September: Be Late for Something Day

October: Roller Skating Month

November: Native American Heritage Month, or Sandwich Day

December: National Stress-Free Family Holidays Month

Here are some of the sites that generated story or article ideas for me:

http://www.emotionscards.com/locations.html Dates, Info, and Trivia

http://www.sldirectory.com/cal.html  a guide to locating events

http://www.tipton-county.com/Health/National%20Observances.htm National Observances

http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/equalopportunity/Training/DiversityObservances.htm Diversity observances

http://www.healthfinder.gov/nho/nho.asp  Health related observances by month

 

 

Where do you look for new ideas to include in your writing? Do you actually participate in some of the less-known celebrations? If so, which ones do you think are worthy of recognizing?

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This weekend I made a beautiful snow angel and took a picture to show you how perfect it was. What do you think of it?

 

 

Yeah, the lighting is a little off, but it was cloudy out and I didn’t know how to adjust the focus on the camera. And I suppose it would be easier to see if I did something to make it stand out a little more—white on white doesn’t really show up very well. But trust me, it’s awesome.

Whoops, I forgot to photoshop out those dead leaves on her left wing before posting my picture. I centered it pretty good, though. And the part at the bottom looks like it might be the bottom of her dress billowing out instead of a mess-up. (It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to jump straight up without help like I used to 20 years ago, but I don’t think it’s too obvious that I had to crawl to level ground before I could get up. In fact, I think it looks better this way. ;) )  

Ok, in all seriousness, the snow angel is a lot like my novel. I jumped into it without thinking about how it would end, didn’t prepare myself to deal with the problems with the premise—despite the fact they were so obvious that my children pointed them out to me. There are some minor flaws in an otherwise terrific story, and it will be a tricky job to get rid of them. But it is still an awesome story, at least in my mind. On paper, I’m not so sure.

However, there are a few things I DO know:

1. I need to fix little things that will distract readers, like poor grammar; inconsistencies in the plot, setting, or characters; “dead leaves” that don’t move the story forward or add to it in a significant way.

2. Trying to disguise a mess-up instead of fixing it is not going to improve my story. To look perfect, it must be perfect—or as close as I’m capable of making it.

3. Thinking ahead, doing a little research before writing about a subject I’m not already familiar with, and asking for help when I need it will make things easier and save me time in the long run.

4. To get anyone to read my manuscript, I’m going to have to showcase it to make it appear attractive and interesting. That means it must be properly formatted, professional in tone, and include a query letter that captures the awesomeness of the story.

5. Agents and editors don’t have the time or inclination to figure out what’s wrong with my story. That’s my job.

6. When it’s done, it will be as beautiful as a snow angel.

 

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What metaphor would fit your work-in-progress? When’s the last time you made a snow angel?

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Whether you use an outline to keep your story on track, or write the story and fix the inconsistencies or plot problems later, you should know a few basics before you begin.

1. What genre do you intend the story to fit into?

Genres have some specific characteristics that separate them from other types of stories. Even if there are some features of your story that cross into more than one genre, you’ll need to know where it will fit on a bookstore shelf.

2. Who is your target audience?

You need to know the age group, education level, and gender of your potential readers. While a broad audience may end up liking the story, writing for a general audience may require different language, plot ideas, and vocabulary than a story targeted to a particular group.  

3. When does the story take place?

Readers need to have a frame of reference for what is going on, and clarifying the time period can help. Some stories occur over a few hours or days, others span generations. The time period may be in the future or the past, but a reader will have expectations about what could occur in that period, and they’ll not accept story devices that don’t seem believable.

4. Where does the story take place?

The setting doesn’t have to be a recognizable location, but it must be clearly defined. Your audience will want to know more than the basics, such as urban vs. rural, small town vs. big city, or Earth vs. Pluto. They should be able to follow the characters through the story without being distracted by things such as inconsistencies in street names, the location of the rooms in the protagonist’s home, or the number of moons that circle the planet. Setting can be a vital element of a story even though it isn’t taking an active part in what happens.

5. Why are you writing this particular story?

Your motivation for writing a story can be varied: to entertain, educate, inspire, or otherwise affect the emotions of your readers. But why is the particular story you’re writing the right one to accomplish that goal? Is it important, believable, saleable—is it worth the time it takes to write it?

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How much planning do you do before starting a story? Which story element do you think is most important? Which one is hardest for you to write?

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 Conflict is a key component in a good story. It may be internal, meaning the character faces a mental or emotional dilemma, or external, meaning there are obstacles the character must deal with. Often there is more than one conflict, and the character must overcome them to move the story forward. These conflicts create “rising action,” and lead the character towards the climax of the story.

A story without conflict won’t stimulate growth in the characters, and won’t hold a reader’s interest. Conflict increases suspense, heightens tension, and reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the characters.

The type of conflict appropriate for a story depends on several things, including the target audience, the genre, the purpose of the story, and the requirements of the publication you’re sending it to. If your target audience is Christian women, the story will need a different type of conflict than if the audience is adult men or young children. If you’re writing a thriller, the main conflict will probably involve violence; if it’s a romance, the conflict will affect the relationship between the main characters.

No matter what type of story you’re writing, the reader will expect the conflicts to be believable. They’ll also want them to be important. Few people will care about the minor conflicts facing a character—such as what to wear, where to eat lunch, or what brand of toothpaste to buy. Those types of things don’t move the story along and don’t help the characters grow.

Dump the characters into the middle of a dilemma or event that makes them struggle, help them figure out how to get through it, and then pile on more conflict. Use layering to fill in the background information and clarify the cause and effect relationship of what’s happening. Keep the tension building and the action rising toward the story’s climax. After the climax, the falling action will culminate in the resolution of the loose ends.  

There is an excellent article on conflict and plot at:

http://www.sff.net/people/Alicia/10prob.htm

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Do you think a story can have too much conflict? Can a story still be interesting without any major conflict?

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