Narrative Focus

No matter how great or creative an author is, there is one trait about their writing styles that is very hard to shake off, and will determine the kinds of stories they write, and that is the things they deem important.

As an author, you’ve probably created a vast number of characters of all different sorts: male and female, strong and weak, but if you look back at your own characters and compare them with other people, you may find that it’s still easy to tell which characters were created by you and which were by others, because certain aspects of the characters are viewed as more important. For example, some person may emphasise a lot on appearance, and puts a lot of focus on defining his characters’ looks — aquiline nose, big eyes, and write a lot of detail into his clothing. Another person may believe that everyone in this world is always out to grab every opportunity that life throws at them, and therefore all his characters are successful in some way — they take charge of their lives, they seize opportunities that come their way.

A good author is supposed to be able to observe the people around him and use them as source material for his stories, but the fact remains that we see the world in our own eyes, with our own values and biases. Even as we observe a person’s actions, we justify them using our own reasoning, and dismiss the things we don’t understand. My stories touch very lightly, if at all, on technical details and logical processes, because I am bad at technical stuff and don’t know a lot of the terms. It’s not that I wish to leave that part out, but I just cannot think of how to do it convincingly.

Of course, this is what authors consider their “niche”. If you suck at writing about real life, stick to science fiction. That is all well and good, but you’ll find that even in your sci-fi stories your characters are different from other science fiction stories. Your characters may say snarkier things because that’s how you view the world, or they may not talk at all because you wouldn’t talk if you were in their situation. Our characters are a lot more like us than we think, and even if we try not to, we do sub-consciously make them act like how we would act. It is just a matter of us having incomplete understanding of the world.

And this is fascinating to me. It’s fascinating how far our empathy for other people can extend. Does the ability to make varied characters make us a more empathetic person, better able to step into the shoes of others? If we make a character that’s supposed to be just like ourselves, how similar will he be to what others perceive of others? In a way, stories are like us seeking an alternative life, and can tell a lot about the person himself, even if he tries not to make the character like him.

Temeraire

Recently I finished the seventh book in the ongoing Temeraire series. I forgot if I talked about it before, but perhaps not in much detail. In any case, I shall talk a bit about the series and what I think of it. The eighth book was out last year and the ninth book is due in 2015, so I’m not that far behind.

The series is historical fantasy, which will immediately make you think of Pride & Prejudice & Werewolves (well that is for some reason the first book that came to my mind). The creative twist to this is that it follows quite closely the events of the First World War, when England was fighting against France and Napoleon’s forces, but this time their “aerial forces” are dragons. The Air Force ride dragons in combat, with different dragons bred specially for certain properties. To add a personal touch, each dragon bonds with a captain for life — the first human it sees when it gets out of its egg, pretty much. And dragons learn languages when they’re in the shell, so if the egg has been transported from England to the Netherlands on an Indian cruiser, the dragon hatches being fluent in English, Dutch and Tamil/Hindi (I mean of course it depends on what dialect those Indians speak).

I like how she lays out her dragon mechanics in a very unique way. She explains the bonding between dragon and captain, their language fluency, is consistent over different dragon breeds and what they can and cannot do (the Longwings, quite cutely, accept only female captains, which is why women are secretly in the Corps as well). You’re really immersed in the believable and well thought out world. I mean, it’s got to require a lot of planning and explaining to fit dragons into an entire war history. Plus, dragons all have a distinct personality in that they like hoarding treasure such as gold and jewels, and have a distinct outlook of life (they’re quite incredibly selfish, for one, and are constantly finding ways and means to show off their captains). It also brings to mind just what we as humans assume about the world, and how we sometimes trap ourselves with social rules and conventions.

Not only that, Naomi Novik, the author, also challenges herself in 2 other ways. First, throughout the book, all the characters speak in an excellent old British sort of way. They say things like “By God, you will apologize, or for halfpence I will have you flogged through the streets.” You know, the old Jane Austen sort of way? Except it’s written by a modern-day author, and I believe she must have proofread the language over and over again to ensure its accuracy.

Secondly, which is really the highlight of the series, is that each book talks about a particular country’s way of regarding its dragons. I find it very impressive that she has captured the essence of each region and incorporated it believably into dragon culture. For example, England regards dragons as mere fighting machines, whereas China regards them like people, and hatchlings are sent to school and educated. In South America, the Incan regions, dragons are the heads of tribes, and each dragon has an ayllu, or a bunch of humans, under its charge. This is like a complete role reversal, where dragons are the ruling parties over humans. The characters travel to different parts of the world, and each part is fleshed out interestingly.

The dragons themselves are also interesting, particularly Iskierka, the dragon you just love to hate. She is loud-mouthed, unruly and materialistic, and yet so lovable because of it. She is the character who is imperfect and yet because of that she makes the story even more colourful. I hate her, and yet I cannot bring myself to hate her that much. Fortunately, the main dragon, Temeraire, is much more decent and is indeed lovable for the right reasons.

So, yep, this is a pretty different take on conventional dragon tales. If you like historical fiction with a dash of fantasy elements, have a look!

Hanging From A Cliff

Some weeks ago I talked about endings, and in there I promised to write about cliffhangers someday. Well, this is it.

Cliffhanger endings tend to be less common in books than in movies and TV shows. I guess in writing, even if something ends in a cliffhanger, it is still written in a conclusive tone (it’s not as if one can end off mid-sentence, after all) and still feels like some kind of resolution has been reached, even if questions have been left unanswered. Among the cliffhangers found in books, most exist in those in a series — where there is guaranteed to be a sequel resolving it — or in horror stories. It is hard to find a cliffhanger in a regular story. If Inception were a book (and it may well be now, since popular movies do end up adapted in books), how would the ending have been written?

I guess the biggest difficulty about writing a cliffhanger is to make it such that readers recognise it is a cliffhanger. It can be unexpectedly hard to write a cliffhanger, because there are so many ways to end a story well, and so much fewer ways to end it with an air of suspense. Of course the ideal is to use a cliffhanger only when the story calls for it, and not just whenever you feel like.

Cliffhangers are ideally used to evoke a negative tone, because a story lacking a sense of completion isn’t going to make your readers happy. Cliffhangers should be open to the possibility of a positive outcome, but mainly give the readers a sense of helplessness. Something is going on that can lead to various possible consequences. They don’t know what will happen in the end, but they cannot do anything about it. They cannot read on and hope something good occurs. In fact, they aren’t even privy to the fate of the character now. The lack of knowledge can be a haunting feeling, and authors can make use of it well if they want to connote a sad, helpless feeling.

Another incidental benefit to cliffhangers is that fans will jump in to write a myriad of possible endings for you, thus sparking off fan activity and leaving a legacy to your story. In a too-completed story like Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, there isn’t much to write about if J K Rowling explicitly says “all is well”. However, if your character is still (literally) hanging by a cliff, with his secret mission yet unsolved and not committed to any love interest yet, your fans can go wild writing up a storm of fanfiction, inciting discussion and adding a lot of fun to your story. This is where readers can shake off that feeling of helplessness and wield the power to turn the wheel of fate.

News Reports and Press Releases

Seeing as my exam tomorrow is on Media Writing, it seems fitting here to talk about writing news reports and press releases. Well the first thing you have to know is that they are necessarily boring. It is a totally different experience writing them as compared to writing imaginative fiction, where anything can happen. Over here, only the truth happens.

That said, the reading process doesn’t need to be boring at all. Reporters of news reports have the liberty to add what we call “colour” to their writing, by describing a crime in dramatic (but accurate) fashion, using similes or metaphors, that kind of thing. Press releases are more limited in that they have to represent the company, so the writer cannot go off on their own tangent. News reports, at least, can be sensationalised to some extent.

However, colour forms a very small part of the writing. The main thing that has been drilled into us is simplicity and clarity. The lead must comprise about 30 to 35 words and be 1 sentence only, and it must answer all the questions of the story, the 5Ws and 1H, basically. Imagine trying to squeeze all the details of the article into that one sentence! This is all because readers rarely read to the end of an article, so the lead must be detailed enough to entice them to read further, or to at least explain the story if they choose to skip it. How journalists toil for the sake of their fastidious readers! And subsequent paragraphs also have to be 1 or 2 sentences in length. Basically the point of news reports and press releases are that sentences have to be short and understandable.

By the way, some of you may be wondering what I mean by press releases. Well, they are the articles that PR executives send to journalists, hoping for them to take up their story. For instance, say a company has just released a new product. How will the journalists know if the PR people doesn’t tell them? And how will they know whether the product is news-worthy if the PR person doesn’t write an article out for them? So in a way, some of the articles you see in newspapers weren’t written by the journalists themselves, but by PR people in a company, painting their company in a good light. And press releases are also highly competitive — perhaps even moreso than news reports — because a journalist receives hundreds of press releases a day, and only chooses 10% of them to publish each day, while the remainder go straight into the trash. Press releases have to be really enticing to be chosen, and a journalist has a much more critical eye than the common reader.

So writing news reports and press releases is a very businesslike task. All the important information go to the top, and everything is kept compact and short. You may add colour, context (why the reader should care, because most of the time, they don’t) and transitions to smooth out the story, but the use of the word “story” is still very different from narratives. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, but fact still must be woven and packaged into a palatable form before it can compete with fiction for readers’ eyeballs and attention.

Light Novels

Light novels are the new “in” thing in Japanese pop culture, ever since hit anime like Sword Art Online, Haruhi Suzumiya and Kara no Kyoukai. But some of us (the less hardcore ones, that is) may not know just what precisely is a light novel. Are they novels? If they aren’t, then how do they differ with ordinary manga?

Well, light novels are akin to pulp fiction, in a sense. It mainly targets young adults (middle to high school students) and rarely exceed 200 pages — making them a novella by US standards. The text are often serialised in anthology magazines, much like how manga stories begin. A collection of chapters will then be collated into books, published by labels like Famitsu Bunko or Media Works Bunko. Like manga, light novels are often published as a series, also with quite a tight publishing schedule.

The main difference is that light novels are said to have more text but with accompanying illustrations, so not fully telling a story in comic form. Other than that, there’s nothing much separating them from manga nowadays. They are sold as cheap paperbacks most of the time. Most of these stories come from competitions where cash prizes are given to winning stories, and of course fame and the chance to see your light novel developed into an anime, if it becomes a bestseller!

And now light novels have really broken into the anime scene. Not only are more light novels being turned into anime, it is sometimes the other way around. Popular anime like Death Note and Fate/Zero have light novel adaptations, as part of the companies’ efforts to go “mixed media” in this era. Basically every successful franchise should have manga, light novels, anime and games to draw in all types of crowds.

Currently I have found no difference in the anime that result from light novels and those from manga, maybe because light novels tend to be written with a certain target audience in mind (cough the word chuunibyou comes to mind). However, perhaps things like Natsume Yuujinchou more obviously come from light novels (it has, to me, a certain literary flair).

The demand for light novels has increased outside of Japan. English publishers like Tokyopop and Viz publish light novels translated into English. Not many have travelled to Singapore yet, but I know many Singaporeans who have read light novels of Sword Art Online and Mahouka Koukou no Rettosei, so this shows that there is a consumer base — just that they have found their channels on the internet. I do hope to see more light novels in Comics Connection though. The idea of reading your favourite anime fantasies in words should be a novel experience!

How To Write An Ending

I don’t often talk about endings, mainly because they’re the hardest to get to. Some stories stop halfway, so there is never an ending to speak of. Others drag on so long that the end is never in sight (I’m looking at certain manga and comics right now). And if you think about it, the ending is really the least important part of a story, right? If you can’t even nail the beginning and the middle right, readers won’t be bothered to read through to the fantastic end.

I agree entirely with that argument (it is my own argument after all). However, there’s what they call the divide between the good and the great. Good stories have a good beginning, conflict, climax, etcetera. Great stories follow that up with a good resolution.

Resolutions can be really hard to write. You may think that your tale has ended, but how do you express it to your readers? Traditional fairytales use “and they lived happily ever after” as a cue to close the book. J K Rowling used “His scar had not hurt for nineteen years. All is well,” the well-known ending that finished off right at the corner of the last page and left readers flipping bemusedly expecting more. Sure, no doubt that small confusion over the ending did nothing to lower the quality of the smashing Harry Potter series. 1 sentence can’t erase 7 books’ worth of goodness. But what if your story isn’t as popular or well-written as Harry Potter, and then you end off this way?

Anne Tyler, my favourite author ever, was interviewed before on when her stories ended, since she writes realistic fiction and real life doesn’t always have a very clear full stop, does it? She said that she ends a story when she feels that her characters are able to get by on their own now without her. In a sense throughout the book she had been hand-holding her characters, telling them what to do next, and the end comes when the characters are able to face life on their own, when she can imagine how their life will turn out without needing to intervene.

I’m writing this entry for 2 reasons. First, I’ve just written a roleplay post that kinda sorta ends off a big chapter of the story — the remaining portion is more of an epilogue than anything. However, I didn’t think that I ended it perfectly, though I was conscious of making it look like a resolution. And this is important; many stories have endings that don’t seem like convincing endings at all. You almost wonder if the author’s going to plan a sequel.

Second, I was learning about life narratives in Personality Psychology, and endings is one element of our life narrative — the way we weave events in our life into a coherent narrative and make meaning of them. Our life narrative may be characterised by a redemptive sequence, meaning that past negative experiences are re-constructed into positive lessons where we derive meaning in our lives. It can be simplified as the “it was all for the best, as it turns out” line. Redemptive narratives are also powerful in writing, because they show a character’s maturity, and help all the events in the conflict and climax fall into place.

I think the simplest element of a good ending is that something has got to visibly change. It could be the character’s life, or some aspects of his personality, or his worldview. It could be for the better or for the worse (in the case of tragedies). Of course, if you intend to write a cliffhanger, that is another skill entirely which I may go into in a future entry.

Ironically, I spent a few moments pondering how to end off this blog entry. Maybe I should just go with something like…

“The End”.

Sherlock Holmes’ Return

Sherlock Holmes was the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 1800’s. His memory lives on to this day, even in Hollywood movies, but the undeniable fact was that the detective, together with his author, have perished a good many decades ago. Or has he?

It seems that Sherlock Holmes will be back, in a new book, on the 23rd of October! Anthony Horowitz, who had been commissioned by the Conan Doyle estate to write a new Sherlock Holmes story 3 years ago, and who had produced “The House of Silk”, where an aged Dr Watson recounted a Holmes adventure, is writing a new book. It’s called “Moriarty”, and is set after Holmes and his evil nemesis plunged to their deaths in the Reichenbach Falls.

Holmes doesn’t appear in the story right from the start, though, it seems. Rather, Horowitz delights in adding the other characters in the world of Holmes, such as “all the policemen Holmes ever met”, and Holmes only appears at the end. Of course, Horowitz has large shoes to fill. People have liked Holmes’ tales (liked is an understatement for many) for the suspenseful set-ups, followed by logical deductions that unravel every thread of the mystery satisfactorily. I personally do not find it the case, but I’m well aware I belong in the minority in this.

More background info, Horowitz is the guy who wrote the Alex Rider series, about a teenage spy. I suppose it’s not that much different to Sherlock Holmes. Maybe.

Sherlock Holmes is, essentially, a series for male readers. Female readers will probably swoon at the handsome looks, intelligence, charm and physical prowess of Holmes, but the cases themselves are very male-oriented. There is a lot of action, exaggerated dangers and scheming villains. I just dislike the “international super-spy intrigue” feeling that the books sometimes go for. I’m a minimalist reader after all, and unrealistic exaggerations are not my cup of tea.

That, and I find that Conan Doyle doesn’t write very good emotional stories at all. His stories are devoid of emotional implications, and Holmes is one of those cold over-rational, over-analytical bachelors who annoy me most. I read a few of his short stories — and I dislike short stories too — and I find some of the explanations pretty far-fetched and stuck-up anyway.

But yes, enough of my gripes. If you like Sherlock Holmes, it’ll be cool to re-visit the 19th century with Moriarty, and explore a possible epilogue to the 4 decades of Holmes.

National Poetry Month

All bad poets try

at one point or another

to make a haiku

– Exalted Salvation

~~~

So April marks National Poetry Month. Unfortunately, it’s not my nation, but everything celebrated in America is celebrated in the rest of the world anyway. I know budding poets are out there eager to take this chance to write and showcase their stellar masterpiece. Being a bad poet, as referred to above, I’m not sure if 1 month is perhaps too long to make a poem, but from what I hear from serious poets, real poems need plenty of time for mood, inspirations and then revisions before the final piece is nailed down. So while the point of NaNoWriMo is about writing the longest novel ever, the point of NaPoWriMo (and yes, there is a NaPoWriMo) is totally different. Length is never the point in poetry.

Or if you’re really an on-the-spot kind of poet, there are plenty of poetry slam events to take part in. Poetry slams prioritise fun over any type of quality, and trying to think on your feet while creating a poem sounds like a really fun game to me.

Or if you’re like me, and know nuts about poetry, celebrate the occasion by giving it a chance and picking up some neat poetry collections. There are anthologies sorted by theme (such as, apparently, poems that make grown men cry) or by author, and some poets are so good that all their poems are guaranteed of quality.

Many people complain that it’s difficult to see the allure of poetry. How do you tell a good poem from a bad one, when they have so few words and can be so obscure at times, not being in complete sentences for example? I think that poetry is like a song (except the song has a tune and vocals to distract you from the unintelligibility of its lyrics) and it can only be fully appreciated when you are in the same mood as the poem. A poem about existentialism should be read when you wonder about your purpose in life, for example. So it’s not so much that poems are deep, or that only soppy people like them, but that said soppy people are the ones most likely to be in tune with their own emotions, and know when they need a literary pick-me-up in the form of a poem that best expresses their feelings, even if they do so in a disjointed chunk of text.

I must admit, though, that the poems hardest to get right are by far the most common ones, like haikus. Or even free verse, because people think they can just write whatever and it’ll work. Limericks are actually much easier to write effectively, because if you do manage to follow its stringent rhyming patterns the result is always amusing and witty. But of course most of the time you can’t find those words. And maybe that’s why limericks are good, because the bad ones know to give up.

I talk so much about poetry that I really ought to actually read one, oughtn’t I? I don’t think I can sustain any more entries on poetry with such limited exposure to the craft. Time to actually find an interested friend.

Why Don’t I Ever Finish A Story?

In most of my blog entries, I’ve tended to answer the questions that I posed, but for this one, I’m going to say upfront that I have no idea whatsoever. And this is a concern for me, for a number of reasons.

First, I like the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with ending a story. The idea that you’ve set right what went wrong in the conflict (though most times I couldn’t even reach the conflict). It’s like watching a TV show or reading a book to its end; it’s strange to stop halfway without a resolution. All I feel when I stop writing halfway is a feeling of disappointment that I didn’t let my characters develop in the way I wanted them to.

Second, I want to show off what I’ve written to the public, and it’s difficult to present something that isn’t complete. And you can’t get feedback and perform a second round of edits, all those things that professional authors do. Most importantly, you can’t submit your work for competitions. You wouldn’t call yourself an author without a portfolio to prove it.

Third, it’s really annoying to start a new story whenever you feel like writing. Most of the time in my planning stage, I pretty much establish all my character features and mark out the beginning, ending and such. This process can take days, and all comes to naught when I don’t write it out. And the next time I must spend days puzzling out a new story again.

Some of you may wonder by now why I can’t just compel myself to keep writing, rather than flail helplessly when work after work vanishes into dust. I wonder that too, honestly, but there’re times when I’m so busy or stressed that I can’t write anything good, and then it takes me months before my writing mojo comes back, in which time I end up wondering how I ever thought that tale was workable.

Well, follow the advice of some authors then, you may say. Just keep writing even if you don’t feel like it. I have also tried that, but it ended up piling so much stress on me and taking so much time that I really felt much more relaxed after stopping. Perhaps I’m not a persistent or perseverant person. In that case, this is indeed a flaw I must work on. If I can finish assignments and tasks, stories should not get me down!

If anyone has ways to help me get my stories completed, or if you share the same experience and I am not alone, tell me! I would love to be able to write on top of my busy schedule.

For some reason I think the reason I stop writing is because writing exhausts me. I guess that in psychological terms, writing is not my flow. I don’t feel deeply energised or engrossed when writing. However, this makes it harder but not impossible! Someday I aim to balance both writing quantity and quality, that is, I can deliver long stories that are also good. Currently it looks like a time investment, and a commitment to focus on only that 1 story at a time. Would that be the solution? How do I prevent from falling out of love with my own stories?

Prisoners Will Not Be Able To Read?

The Ministry of Justice of the United Kingdom has recently banned prisoners from receiving small items from their families, including books. Authors have raised criticism of this, calling it “barbaric”, “nasty”, “bizarre”, among other names, and have created a petition to allow prisoners access to books from outside.

I must agree that I can’t think of the reason the government wouldn’t let prisoners receive small items and books from their families. Are they afraid their families will hand them disguised bombs, or poison? I suppose if one thinks about the legend of the mooncake, soldiers and civilians exchanged secret messages by hiding them inside mooncakes, and it’s not unthinkable that many tiny items have been the source of secret messages over the years, perhaps allowing the prisoners to make planned getaways. And yet nobody is going to be satisfied with such a hypothetical contingency. Has there been an escape attempt in the UK or anywhere else lately spurring such an action? If not, what is the rationale of this act?

The article mentioned that prisoners are kept in their cells for hours, and their cells don’t afford much space to do much. Reading may be the best, most interesting thing prisoners can do. And who knows, if they’re that engrossed with a book, they may be distracted from thoughts of escaping. After all, an idle mind is the devil’s workshop, right?

I’m imagining a romantic scenario here where a prisoner is so eager to read some lengthy book series (like the Babysitters Club, which goes on for I believe 135 books or some such) that he is reluctant to break out of jail, for fear that he won’t be able to catch up with reading while on the run.

Jokes aside, there have been many books (hurr) and movies emphasising the importance of reading freedom. The Cultural Revolution in China has shown that banning books is not going to help society in the long run. Sure, there mayn’t be any foreseeable severe drawbacks to forbidding prisoners from reading, but there aren’t any benefits either. And in the case of no win or loss on your side, I find it decent to then consider the viewpoint of the prisoner. I know just how destructive prolonged boredom can be to a person’s psyche.

It’s not as if letting them read would entice more people to commit crimes, so that they can be clapped in jail and have more time to read or something.

Though I really do need more time myself; I haven’t been catching up on my reading list very well…

Alternatively, maybe the idea is that removing every single benefit of prison would make it even less attractive to potential criminals. I don’t think that is the true intent, though, because jail itself should already be a deterrent, and yet most criminals continue to commit crime because they think they wouldn’t be caught, not because prison is a cosy place for a year-long vacation.

What is your stand on prisoners being permitted to receive books? Read the full article below.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/24/mark-haddon-online-petition-prison-ban-books