Writing Tip: Names versus Pronouns

My guess is I don’t need to tell you what doesn’t work about this passage:

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “John, have you seen my camera?” Mary’s hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it, Mary.” John scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time Mary had forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Mary, where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table, John.” Mary huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

John retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost John a fortune, but Mary had insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. John emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain Mary would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here, Mary.”

“Oh, crap, John!” Mary stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Did you notice all the Mary’s and John’s?

If you didn’t, trust me that after a few pages you’d be pretty tired of Mary and John. When I’d started writing, my publisher made me go through my manuscript and edit out first names whenever they weren’t needed. Here’s why…

1. Pronouns create a tighter POV.

Generally, we want a tight POV because it draws the reader deeper into a character’s experience.

Whether we’re writing in 1st or 3rd person (except omniscient), we’re sitting inside the POV character’s head, looking through her eyes, hearing what she hears, feeling her emotions, living out a scene from his/her perspective. Authors work hard to achieve the immediacy of a tight POV.  When clarity isn’t at stake, POV character’s will always refer to themselves with pronouns.

This is easiest to see in 1st person books where the POV character always refers to him/herself as “I.” Another way to think of this is in your daily life. When you’re hanging around the house you don’t refer to yourself by your name. I don’t say to my husband, “Diana’s going to make tea; do you want some?” That would be weird. I use a pronoun. “I’m going to make tea…”

3rd Person is subtler, but the same reasoning applies. We’re still sitting inside a character’s head, viewing the world through their perspective. Though the pronoun in this convention is a “he” or “she,” it’s still a pronoun. POV characters wouldn’t naturally refer to themselves by their names.

2. We don’t talk that way.

Next time you’re in for the evening with one other person, pay attention to the conversation or record yourselves for a short time. If names are used at all, it’s with purpose – primarily to get someone’s attention (“Hey, Randy, have you seen my keys?”) or for emphasis (“Listen, Randy. You lost them, you better find them!”). Do the same with a group of people and you’ll notice more first names, but still surprisingly few.

When are names necessary?

The answer is pretty obvious – to avoid confusion. And it’s easy to identify those situations:

  • When starting a new scene
  • When there are more than two characters in a scene and the dialog and action is jumping around
  • When two characters are talking about another character(s).
  • When two characters are the same gender.

Now, like anything in writing, this “rule” is meant to be broken, and broken for all kinds of reasons: reminders to the reader, to get a break from all those pronouns, sentence pacing, etc. This is simply something to be aware of when crafting your prose.

Here’s that paragraph all cleaned up.

Mary rifled through the suitcase that John dropped on the bed. “Have you seen my camera?” Her hands flew to her hips and she scowled.

“I’m certain you packed it.” He scratched his head. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d forgotten to pack something important. “I’ll check our carry-on. Where did you leave it?”

“Other room, on the table.” She huffed and began stuffing shirts back into the bag.

He retreated to the sitting area of the luxury suite. The place had cost him a fortune, but she’d insisted on a room with a sunset view, specifically for taking photos. He emptied the carry-on and sighed, certain she would have a fit and accuse the airline of stealing. “I checked and it’s not here.”

“Oh, crap!” She stomped into the room. “The airline must have stolen it.”

Why writing a book is like planning a dinner party

I’m hanging out with Esme at The Recipe Hunter today. Stop by for a little excursion into the joys of “research.”

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It’s a delight to be over here on Esme’s blog, and I’m going with the cooking theme. But since I can’t cook, this will be a half-baked analogy.

If you’re having a group of important people (like potential readers) over for dinner, it’s a good idea to have a handle on what you’re cooking up. Reading recipes and browsing images on the internet is a great first step, but it probably makes sense to check out the recipe yourself before you serve it to others.

Well, writing is the same way. Authors can collect amazing information online, and to be honest, there’s often no way around it, but trying things out ourselves provides invaluable inside knowledge that we can’t always get in other ways. I’d argue that the dish of details from first-hand experience is what deepens and enlivens our writing, and it’s the tasty meal that we want to serve up to our readers.

Julia Cameron, in her book The Artist’s Way, calls these experience-collecting excursions “Artist’s Dates.” Basically, you make a weekly date with yourself to expand your horizons, culinary or otherwise. I’ve taken the advice to heart on several occasions:

Three books of the Dragon Soul Saga take place on old sailing ships, and sailing around the lake on a sunfish as a kid didn’t cut it. So, I packed up my husband and dragged him off for a tall ship sailing adventure. While the rest of the passengers were drinking rum and listening to pirate stories,…

(Continue Reading… The Recipe Hunter)

Worldbuilding Part 4

Back in December, I finished up a world-building series at The Story Reading Ape. Then the holidays invaded and things got a little crazy! I’m delighted to finally share Part 4 here. I hope you enjoy. Happy Writing!

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Many thanks to Chris for letting me chat about world-building. It’s been a pleasure to hang out, and in this final post of the series, I want to share thought-starters for each of the major systems that make up a world.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, in a discussion about world-building, stated that writers don’t need to completely change every major system in a world. Pick a few big elements that are linked to the plot and then dabble with the details on the rest. Let your imagination run wild.

The Environment

Whether designing a natural or human-made world, give it personality – strengths, weaknesses and quirks, and a complex diversity of elements that both support and sabotage the characters’ efforts. Don’t forget to account for food, water, air, and shelter, and to employ all the senses in descriptions. Think outside the box. You may have longer or shorter days, worlds without seasons, animals or plants capable of communicating, a parallel spirit realm. Your world may exist only in dreams.

Create a map, for your reference, at least. Maps physically “ground” the world by establishing terrains, distances, and regional resources, locating population centers and geopolitical borders. Not building a planet? Map your city or space station.

History

If you look at our current “real” world, ancient history still has a huge impact on identity and choices. Robert Jordan went back about 3000 years in his world-building – a long time, I know. But going back 300 to 1000 years isn’t uncommon, particularly if there’s been ongoing tension between groups or a common past that has splintered.

Create a time line. In the distant past, simply outline major events. As the timeline moves closer to the present story, increase the level of detail and shorten the gaps. Consequential events may occur daily in the last months or weeks before your book actually begins.

Government

Even a gang has a government. Someone is calling the shots….

Continue Reading:  World-building: Thought Starters – Guest Post by Diana Peach…

World-building: Common Mistakes in Speculative Fiction – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

Just in case you didn’t get your fill of World-building, I’m over at The Story Reading Ape’s blog with another installment. Swing on by if you want to learn about what can go wrong! Happy November!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

World-building is a balancing act between alien complexity and Earth’s familiarity. If authors make characters and settings too alien, they risk confusing readers and interrupting the reading experience. But the other side of the coin – applying Earth qualities, standards, and cultural norms to non-Earth planets and societies – isn’t any better.

We’re so used to Earth and the way we live and behave, our customs, values, and social rules that they become invisible to us. They become the “givens” of human life, and often, we attribute them to other non-Earth worlds and cultures. Our ways of life are rooted in thousands of years of history. Other planets have different historical trajectories that produce alternate ways of life that feel normal to the characters.

Here are seven things to look out for when world-building:

Your society doesn’t “function”

Did you ever read a book where none of the characters work…

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World-building: Settings for all Genres – Guest Post by, Diana Peach…

I had the great pleasure of guest-posting with Chris, The Story Reading Ape on the writerly topic of world-building – something I can talk about until I’m plumb out of breath. 🙂 Hop over if you’re interested. Happy Weekend!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

As a fantasy/science-fiction writer, I’ve stacked up a bit of experience with world-building that I’ve wanted to share, and The Story-Reading Ape’s blog is the perfect venue.

Now don’t run away if you don’t write speculative fiction. Clearly, world-building is a key part of bringing fantasy and science-fiction stories to life, but it plays a role in all fiction, and in some non-fiction as well.

Setting as Character

Most of us probably agree that the physical places within our stories need to feel authentic. But if we create them as mere backdrops to the action, we’re missing an opportunity to enrich our readers’ experiences. In great fiction, setting plays a role in the story. It’s changeable, a help, a hindrance, a metaphor, a mood, possibly even a character in the drama.

Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is a proponent of the idea of setting-as-character and builds a “character profile” of the…

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Writers’ Critique Groups

I just had the great pleasure of visiting my old writer’s critique group, a few people who became dear friends over the five years I was part of the group. It seems a good time to revisit the importance of peer feedback:

My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. Then I sent my newborn tome to agents and publishers, certain they’d coo with delight and sign me up with a fat advance. The result: Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…

“What went wrong?” silly, starry-eyed me asked, a clueless look on my face. Little did I know (literally).

I discovered the answer to that question when I joined a writers’ critique group. With tender support and pointed criticism, my peers taught me that my baby was far from beautiful. Apparently, I was determined to describe every character’s point of view in every scene. Among other lame verbs, I found “was” extremely handy. I overwrote with reams of tedious detail; I could sink an insomniac into a coma. This embarrassing confession encompasses only a teeny-weeny sliver of my writing transgressions, but you get the idea. My baby was a toad.

The good news? After two years with my critique group, the toddler emerged transformed. I landed a publisher and the rest is history. I know now that well-informed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining my craft, and joining a critique group was the smartest step I took in my writing career. Without hesitation, I advise all new writers to find one or start your own.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike and finding the right group is like finding the right therapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow. Some groups are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to write in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer in a group of military sci-fi writers.
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged or angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

Structure varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I’m a strong proponent of in-person feedback where it’s easy to elaborate on comments, ask/answer questions, and take advantage of group brainstorming and discussion.

However a group is structured, there will be norms related to timing, length of submissions, and how critiques are returned to the authors. My critique group met twice a month for approximately three hours. We emailed submissions and received critiques between meetings. During our meetings, we elaborated on our critiques and answered questions for the author. (Set time limits if meetings run over. Don’t skip someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking.” Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns in for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A critique of an early draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, and believability of action and emotion. For a later draft, the critique may focus on word choice, phrasing, grammar, and/or punctuation. Remember, a critique group does not eliminate the need for careful editing prior to submission or publication.

Giving Feedback

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. Critique groups, on the other hand, should offer a balance of support and criticism. Writing is personal, and when a writer shares his work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

When we critique another person’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. We are cognizant of our personal preferences and writing style and separate these from our critiques. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective, and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly-crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths they can build on.

A note of encouragement: When I joined my critique group, none of us were published. Five years later, we all were! Happy Writing!

Creating Magic Systems

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Writers of speculative fiction—whether fantasy, paranormal, superhero, or science fiction—are dealing with supernatural or hyper-scientific systems that stretch our reality and knowledge of the known.

As writers, our job is to create realities where these systems are understood by the reader and feel natural and integrated into the speculative world. A reader’s immersion requires that our systems are cohesive, logical, and well explained.

Brandon Sanderson (Elantris, Mistborn) refers to these systems, regardless of whether they are fantasy or science fiction, as “magic systems.” Both adhere to the same storytelling principles in order to bring the magic/technology to life.

He distinguishes between “soft magic” and “hard magic” and suggests that they lie on a continuum.

The far end of the soft magic continuum is full of “wonder” and has few rules. The magic users have mysterious abilities and can do whatever they wish with little limitation. Wizards and gods are good examples of characters that tend toward softer magic though they will often be subject to some rules. Rarely is someone with soft magic a main character or they’d simply wave their wands through every obstacle.

Hard magic lies on the other end of the spectrum, and here is where the rules come into play. In this case, the magic becomes an integral plot device in the story. According to Sanderson, an author’s “ability to solve problems with magic in a satisfying way for the reader depends directly on how well the reader understands the magic.”

So what does the “hard” end of the magic system need for reader understanding?

  1. Origin – What is the source of the magic? Where did it come from? If people have different powers, why?
  1. Simplicity – Some of the best magical systems have very little complexity but a great deal of depth. Magic users have to work to make the system fit their needs.
  1. Limitations – What exactly can the magic do and what can’t it do? Be specific.
  1. Flaws/weaknesses – These are the holes in the magic. What is its foil? When doesn’t it work? Is there a cost to the user?
  1. Tools/Activators – What does the magic need to function? Does it need a special item, something ingested, an initiation, a mutation?
  1. Early introduction – Establish the magic parameters early and foreshadow any change in abilities. Beware of adding magic just when it’s convenient (deux ex machina), especially near the end.

Remember that when crafting a magic system, the limitations and flaws are usually more interesting than the strengths (no different than crafting interesting characters). What the system can’t do is more intriguing than what it can, and it’s the system’s deficiencies that create the challenges and obstacles for the characters.

The number of rules an author employs is what slides the magic system along the continuum. But that’s not the only way soft and hard magic can be blended. Some stories will use hard magic to drive the story, but add little elements of soft magic to increase the sense of wonder.

Magic is no small matter! It will have an impact on the world, nations, cultures, governments, and religions. It will impact power hierarchies, livelihood, family, self-esteem, danger and destiny. Take some time to think about how the presence of magic impacts the overall world. The more your magic system is woven into your world-building, the more real it will feel to the reader.

Happy Writing!