February 17, 2020, 10:01:35 AM

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Re: The Periphery - a MC No-man's Land?
If you're suggesting something more that what I've gleaned, please respond and expound on exactly what you're seeking to accomplish and how it differs from the classic examples I provided.  I may or may not have something constructive to add but I'll be happy to give you my thoughts for whatever they're worth.

Allow me to improve my poor description of things. So in your example of Watson and Holmes, their story is the central story, and they never encounter other characters involved in other things, their own stories, so to speak, to which Watson and Sherlock would be peripheral.

I don't believe this is true of Watson and Holmes, or fiction in general other than special examples such as, say, The Old Man and the Sea where the case is very limited.  There are a large number of clients introduced, all of whom have a problem that is extremely significant to them and all of whom are seeking Holmes' assistance in solving them.  A few of them are central to the main plot, many are just background characters and the amount of information we're giving concerning their particular problem and its resolution varies widely.

I am talking about Watson and Holmes busily solving their murder, and encountering another character along the way who is busily doing something else - preparing England for WWI for example. She's stockpiling medical supplies and developing treatments for shrapnel wounds, etc.

The intent is to show a bigger world by hinting/indicating (not necessarily showing) peripheral characters doing things in the background while my MC does his thing. My concern is will this be too distracting?

This is part of world building.  The phrase has (at least) two meanings.  One is the background work of creating a secondary world - inventing it's history and cultures and inhabitants.  The other is the act of incorporating the fictional background world (whether it's a secondary world or a version of our real world at some point in time) into the story to make the story real and three dimensional.  If I'm understanding you correctly, you're talking about how much background for secondary and tertiary characters you can include in your story without bogging it down.

Assuming that's correct, there's no easy or simple answer to that.  It depends on a great many things.

What sort of story are you telling?  Obviously, you have much more room for detail in a novel as opposed to a shorter work.  But novels vary widely.  Adding lots of background detail for non-main-characters is generally counter productive for plot-driven stories.  If you're trying to keep suspense and tension high, you generally want to trim, trim, trim everything that detracts from the focus of your plot.  A lot of speculative fiction (though by no means all) falls into this category.

Character driven fiction, however, generally has a slower pace and much more room for exploration.  If you've read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, for example, there's a huge amount of background and character development of minor characters.  But as a result, there is a significant number of people who complain the novel is slow and boring.  Only you can decide if that's acceptable.

Note that even if you are writing a plot-driven, faster-paced novel, you can still include back ground characters with their own lives and their own agendas.  You simply have to work them into the plot and compact the information to avoid slowing down the story.  Suppose your protagonist jumps in a taxi but he's unsure if the driver is a plant and/or if he's being followed.  So he's trying to act normal and hide his anxiety while peeping through the rear view mirror to see if he can spot a tail.  Perhaps he's trying to unobtrusively cast a spell to determine if the driver is human.  Meanwhile, the driver is chattering on about how he's only driving a taxi while saving up money to start a restaurant and he almost has enough money but the recently passed bill which increases the cost of a business license has set him back and ....  The taxi driver is (or at least may be) a real person with real goals and dreams and plans which don't involve the protagonist at all.  And the contrast between the driver's ordinary concerns and the hero's conflict with a group of demons who are slowly replacing the human leadership of the city with doppelgangers actually ratchets up the tension.


April 17, 2017, 07:05:14 PM
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Re: Is this PG or PG13? I'm not really sure what you're asking here.  PG and PG13 are MPAA movie ratings.  They're recommendations to parents on who should view a movie based on how suitable the material is to a given age group.  I'm assuming that you're asking what age group the snippet is appropriate for but there's really no direct correlation between movie ratings and fiction in my opinion.

There's nothing in that snippet that would make a movie unsuitable for a pre-teen from my perspective.  There's some slight suggestion but it's almost certain to fly over the head of a child.  If that were a scene in a movie, I'd have no problem taking my child to see it if the rest of the movie were also appropriate and there was nothing else to give me pause, such as the camera zooming in on her "shallow blouse" as she curtsied.  So in that sense, I'd vote PG.

Movies are often written to appeal to multiple age groups.  Disney and Pixar and Dreamworks and the rest intentionally add things to appeal to older audiences.  In fiction, however, books are usually read independently.  Parents read to children who are too young to read to themselves, but the books aren't written to amuse the parents. It's not unheard of for parents to read aloud to older children but generally books beyond pre-school are written and published with the intent of being read by an individual.  As such, they're approximately grouped by the age of their intended audience.  There are no hard and fast rules about the age groupings but most publishers tend to divide their books into middle-grade, which is generally pre-teen, and YA, or Young Adult, which is from early teens to somewhere around college age.  Middle-grade would probably align best with PG and YA with PG-13. 

But middle-grade and YA are concerned not so much with what's appropriate in terms of the maturity of the content but with what aligns with the interest of the age group.  Middle-grade readers are generally not interested in romance and boy/girl relationships that extend beyond friendship.  The Harry Potter books started as middle-grade and progressed into YA as the series continued.  The relationships between the male and female characters changed as those characters themselves and the readers who were growing up along with the characters likewise changed.

The scene you posted would probably be fine in a YA book but it would almost certainly not be acceptable to the editor/publisher in a middle-grade book because that's not what the readers of those books want to see.  So in that sense, I'd vote PG-13.


April 18, 2017, 06:48:06 PM
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Re: Writer's Complaint of the Day
Once, just once, I'd like to get the "even better if" idea BEFORE I write two and half scenes that are inconsistent with it.

I can't speak for anyone but myself but it's the writing of the two and a half scenes that leads to the better idea.  That writing is the work that I put in to generate the better idea.  I'm almost entirely a pantser.  I have only the vaguest idea of where a story is going when I start to write.  I usually have a main character and a couple of supporting characters reasonably well fleshed out and have some sort of goal the character is trying to achieve and I start writing.  That's how I develop my ideas.  So I'm never going to get the better idea first.  My brain just doesn't work that way. 

April 18, 2017, 06:53:53 PM
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Re: Writer's Block This probably isn't very helpful but - it depends.   ::)  Even if you love writing, it's work.  Sometimes, hard work.   There are times I don't want to put in the work and my brain starts finding all sorts of excuses not to sit in the chair and put my hands on the keyboards.  When that's the issue, I find that if I just buckle down and force myself that after a bit I'll usually get into the flow and then away I go.  But there are also times that a particular piece just isn't ready to be born.  I always give my self permission to leave one story alone and work on another so long as I'm writing something.  Sometimes I'll leave something, work on another project for fifteen or twenty minutes and then come back to the first piece and find I'm able to make progress.  Just don't give up and do keep pushing yourself.  If it was easy, it wouldn't be rewarding.
April 23, 2017, 10:13:14 PM
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Re: A question of motivation To put it simply, the size of the motivation must be reasonably proportional to the difficulty and danger of the action.  If you're reading contemporary fiction, the motivation is usually mundane.  The detective in the murder mystery wants to solve the murder because it's his job.  The heroine of a romance wants to find love and happiness.  The everyman in a piece of literature wants to make friends and be a normal member of society.

Although there are exceptions, fantasy is often concerned with much greater stakes and much greater difficulties.  Frodo is willing to take on the burden of the One Ring because he knows that Middle Earth will be subjugated and effectively destroyed if he does not.  Running a marathon or climbing Everest are difficult but they aren't carry-the-one-ring-to-Mount-Doom-and-oppose-Sauron difficult.


April 27, 2017, 12:37:53 AM
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Re: Is this just completely ridiculous? There's no such thing as a good or bad idea.  Ideas are common, plentiful and worthless.  What matters is execution.  Read a brief synopsis of a China Mieville or Jeff VanderMeer novel.  They are often absolutely, completely off-the-charts ridiculous.  And they succeed incredibly well because of the implementation.  They're well written, with fascinating characters.  If the idea excites you, write it.
May 05, 2017, 08:20:48 PM
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Re: Writing Civilisations, renaming without changing? (Use this one) Turning the topic back from politically correct sanitization to fantasy world building, it would strike me as distinctly odd to use a historical name in a second world without some sort of justification.  If you're writing alternate history, then certainly you can use historical names.  If there is contact between our world and that world, then you may be able to justify it.  Perhaps a group of Romans crossed over and founded a new empire, naming their capital New Rome.  If the "New" gets dropped over time and the city becomes just "Rome," I'd have no issue with that assuming that was apparent from the text.  But if you referred to a city as Rome and it wasn't some version of our world's Rome and no justification other than a similarity of culture was given, I'd find that distracting at least.

Whether you choose to use terms like elves and dwarves or make up your own appellations, is entirely up to you.  Known terms come with attached contexts that may make your job easier or harder.  If your dwarves are short, stocky and spend their lives in caves mining for precious stones, you can use the term dwarf and not have to bother explaining all of that to the reader.  On the other hand, if they lack any those key features, using the term dwarf may require you to spend more time establishing what they're not than it would take to use a different term and describe what they are.

Elves and dwarves are mythological creatures.  They have some reasonably standard attributes that most readers expect but they're also widely varied in the literature.  An elf can be anything from a six inch tall shoe (or cookie) maker to a tall, willowy archer.  Regardless of what attributes your elves possess, no one can legitimately tell you that you're wrong.  (Yes, some readers may try to tell you that forest elves use bows and your elves are clearly high elves, and so should use swords.  There's little to do in those cases but smile, nod and thank them for their input, then get on with your writing.)  Rome, however, is a real place.  It's used as an archetype but it is in fact a singular city with real attributes and a real history.  Readers can (and will) call you out on mistakes unless you clearly establish the reason for the deviation from reality.  Why set yourself up for that unless your story is actually situated in some version of our Rome?

June 13, 2017, 05:57:47 PM
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Re: Sublime words in writing I'm really not sure what you mean by "sublime" or "extraordinary" words. The examples you gave are fairly ordinary English words.

But generally speaking, you should match your vocabulary to your voice in that particular work. If your viewpoint character is an orphaned street urchin, then I'd use much simpler language as compared to having a viewpoint character who's a literary professor. The language you use as a writer strongly influences the voice of the work, and if the voice and the characters are at odds, it may discombobulate your reader.

Even if you're writing in third person and are not actually quoting your character, the words you use an an author shape and influence the perception of your characters. And the narrator is always a character in your work. What sort of person speaks with the cadence and style you use to tell the story? An erudite, sophisticated narrator gives a very different effect than does a simple, plain-spoken one.

You also need to be aware of truly rare words - words like "discombobulate" or "pulchritude" or "sesquipedalian" - words that most of your readers will not know without looking them up or gleaning their meaning from context. I think very few readers of this site needed to lookup  "desolation", "exalted", "courteous" or "transcendent." They may or may not be part of their speaking vocabulary, but they're very likely part of their reading vocabulary.  On the other hand, I suspect most readers would need to lookup at least one of the example words I used. Used too frequently, they can make it difficult or impossible to ascertain your meaning. Used sparingly, however, particularly in ways where the meaning can be ascertained without having to pause and actually look up the word, they can elevate your writing.  Gene Wolfe uses this to great effect.

That being said, there are pitfalls and negatives with using an expanded vocabulary, particularly if it is not done well or correctly. You should rarely use a thesaurus as a writer. (There are some who will undoubtedly disagree with that, and that's fine. You're entitled to your own opinion. This response is mine.) If a word is not part of your writing vocabulary, it is very easy to use it slightly incorrectly. Mark Twain said "The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” You do not want "almost right" words in your writing. They will destroy your credibility with your reader.

Even if you use a word correctly, large words can come across as wordy and pompous. They can make you sound like you're trying to impress the reader, and the effect of that is precisely the opposite. There's a study from Princeton entitled "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."  If your writing sounds like the first half of that sentence, you have issues.  (If you're interested, the paper is freely available online and goes into this subject much deeper than I can here.)

In summary, use language you're comfortable with and understand. Don't use big words for the sake of using big words, but don't hesitate to use a larger word if it more precisely fits your meaning. Use a vocabulary that is appropriate for the voice of the piece, and be aware of how that voice will affect your reader's perceptions of the story.

The final bit of advice I'd give is do not necessarily rely on your own ear, at least not until you have enough writing under your belt to be confident of your voice. Use writing groups or beta readers and specifically ask for feedback on your voice and your vocabulary. It may also help to read your works aloud to yourself. (Speaking from personal experience, it may be advisable to find an isolated location to put that plan into effect.)

Keep writing.

November 26, 2018, 05:35:08 PM
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Re: Fantastic lines from books
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” - Neuromancer

That's one of my favorite lines as well but its effectiveness is dying.  To grasp it, you need to know what a CRT television looked like when there was no signal coming in.  Modern flat panels don't have that appearance. To a constantly increasingly portion of the reading audience, that line is meaningless.

**Ninja'd by Skip.  Should have read the whole thread before responding.

December 12, 2018, 01:28:24 PM
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Re: "I want to write a story in which..." There appear to be two different questions being asked here.

The first concerns the nature of fiction. Certainly it's true that boiling a story down to it's essential conflict leaves a bare bone with very little flesh in which to sink your teeth. Plot is the skeleton of a story and skeletons are generally of interest only to paleontologists. Stories aren't about plot. A plot does not make or break a story. What determines the worth of a story is the characters and the details that flesh out the skeleton. Hemingway can write an entire novel about an old man catching a fish and it still resonates over 50 years later. There are plenty of books with wildly inventive plots that sound incredibly interesting but fail miserably when you attempt to read them. Any conflict can be used as the basis of a story if there are interesting characters and sufficient detail that the readers cares about the outcome. Readers can become invested in a character saving the universe from utter annihilation or a character attempting to deal with the impact of having an uncaring parent or anything in between. There is no such thing as a bad story idea. An uninteresting story is the result of a poor implementation of the idea, not the idea itself.

The second question is how an author approaches constructing a story that will interest the reader. I think there are about as many answers to this question as there are (aspiring) authors. For me, almost every story I've ever planned or written starts with a character and their motivation. That's because it's people and their struggles that interests me, that inspires me, that motivates me. I create a character in my head and I want to explore that character and expose them to the world. That doesn't mean that YOU should start with a character. Some writers are inspired by plot. They have an idea for something that happens and they fill in the people and details that are required to bring those events to pass. Others might be inspired by a setting. They envision a world and want to describe that world and the things that happen inside it. Yet another person might have an idea, such as an invention or a magic system, and want to explore how that idea impacts the world. (This is especially common in various types of speculative fiction.)

Orson Scott Card calls this the MICE quotient - Milieu, Idea, Character, Event. Mary Robinette Kowal has also written extensively on this topic. You can google lots of articles on it if you'd like to dig deeper.

My question to you would be: why do you want to write? What makes you want to sit down and pound on a keyboard to put your thoughts in front of other people? What is the goal - not of the story - but of you as a writer? You may not be able to give a simple, succinct answer to that question but thinking about it will inform how you approach idea generation and story creation. Write about what excites you. Get feedback on what you write and improve your technique so you can communicate that excitement to the reader. The rest will take care of itself.

November 05, 2019, 03:36:15 PM
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