Wednesday, 20 February 2013

What's in a name?

Am I the only writer who agonises over names for days on end?  I guess I find it difficult because I think names are so important in characterisation. They give the reader clues as to what kind of person they should expect. It may seem arbitrary as we are all given names by our parents - when they have no idea what sort of people we will eventually turn out to be.  Then again, many parents agonise over their children’s names too! We give children names and then hope their characters turn out to be what we would want for them. But in the world of fiction we try to choose names that suit the character we are trying to create.
For instance, age and era play a big part in my choices. A woman who was born early 19th century would not be called Rhianna or Stacy. Just doesn’t ring true, does it? But Arabella or Victoria does. The age of characters is also important in deciding names. I can easily imagine an older man called Hector or Jeremiah but not a young boy. I think most readers meeting a character with these names would automatically have in their mind’s eye and older man even before any physical description is given.
Whether your character is the antagonist or protagonist is also important in naming. Although sometimes one might want to increase surprise by giving an evil character an innocuous name… I think it depends on how you are trying to present your story. Male heroes names tend to be strong masculine names – they are not usually called Fred or Bert - but female heroines may also be strong ‘no nonsense’ names too. I wouldn’t choose a name like Ophelia or Primrose if I wanted my heroine to be seen as strong and capable. But then again, it is all a matter of personal choice… In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like Ophelia!!
When we are introduced to people in real life we may be told their names but it is not the only information we have of them. We can see how they behave, what they look like and hear them speak. We can make judgements about what sort of person they are (although we may turn out to be totally wrong, of course!)
But in writing fiction we have to give a strong first impression by words only to have the reader ‘see’ our character in their mind’s eye. I believe this is why names are so important.

How much importance do you give to naming your characters? Do you agonise or go with the story and change the name later to fit the character?


Saturday, 16 February 2013

Explosive Books - or Damp Squibs??

Hi everyone.
In todays post I'm looking at explosive story lines! Words like 'detonation', 'violent outbursts' and 'fireworks' also seem quite emotive terms but what do they actually mean in terms of story?
I have often wondered what the term ‘an explosive story’ actually meant when I've read it in a book review. Especially if the story never seems to quite live up to it's claims. So I guess it may sometimes just be a way to catch a reader’s attention. On the other hand it may mean it actually does have explosions in it!  Or it could simply mean a story is sensational. or outrageous in it's subject matter. 
But I have come to the conclusion that most people who use that word simply mean it to imply that something startling or shocking happens in a story. It could also suggest some kind of expose (especially if it is a ‘true-life’ type story).
Whatever the true meaning the term does have an ear catching ring to it and for those looking for a roller coaster thriller-type read, it meets the criteria for that kind of story.  However, it is disappointingly na├»ve to rely on these kinds of descriptions as the promise is not always delivered on.   But there again if it gets people to look at your story perhaps it is worth talking it up…
For me an ‘explosive story’ is one where the unexpected happens in a startlingly abrupt way. Sometimes, it is just such an action which turns a mundane story into an electrifying one. In other words a shocking, surprising development can make your story ‘explode into life’ and carry an impetus which will keep a reader gripped to the very end. Now that is a satisfyingly ‘explosive novel’!
So what do you think? Have you read many explosive novels?

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Secrets and the Nosiness of the Human Condition...

Secrets and things undisclosed is a quite fascinating subject. The very fact that some of us would go to great lengths to discover what someone else’s ‘secret’ is says it all - we hate to be kept in the dark about anything! For there is something about the human psyche that makes people want to make a secret un-secret! I guess it's about feeling that we are all operating on a level playing field (when actually, the reality is that we can never know everything!)

Whenever anyone says something is a secret there is a deep longing - on the part of most of us – to know what that something is. It is an almost irrepressible need to know – even when it is nothing to do with us. I suppose it must be something to do with the nosey nature of human beings… But the fact remains that calling something ‘secret’ gives it an allure all its own.
That is why many stories that centre around hitherto untold ‘secrets’ can be so successful. I once read an article in a writing magazine that stated that if you had the word secret in your title or back cover blurb you would be bound to get more sales! I don’t know if that’s true but I do know that many blurbs are written that hint at secrets waiting to be discovered in a book’s pages.  Readers love a good tale with a ‘secret’ expertly handled and told in a convincing way. And there is nothing more satisfying than finally discovering (often at the end of a good story) what that secret is.

A secret can also be a good tool to use to maintain suspense – especially if it’s hinted at the beginning but not stated – it leads to guessing games on the part of the reader. So if for no other reason the reader must read on to find out if they are right!  Or even when the reader knows the secret but the characters do not.

Secrets can be the main thread of a story or a titillating subplot but whichever way they intrigue and fascinate which is exactly what you need to keep readers turning pages!
Have you used a secret in your stories? Was it a big secret (as in a main plot) or a side issue?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

ISWG - Inspiration From Successful Writers

One of the things that makes me feel less insecure when I am struggling to stay positive is learning about how other famous authors struggled early in their careers and how they mostly just pushed on regardless... Enter the world of 'how to' books! During my own writing adventures I have gained great insight and been grateful for those (usually) famous authors who have shared their knowledge of craft to help other would-be thriller writers.
In the beginning I read these books for their insightful advice on developing all the usual writerly skills – this in the days before writers blogs took off. And it wasn’t as if I was ignorant about writing, I studied for a creative writing degree at University and went on numerous writing courses/conferences etc where I not only learnt from lecturers but could also talk to those who had written successfully.
But always I came back to my 'how to' books. After all ,that is the bedrock of our profession – books. When I look at my bookshelves I can see I have amassed quite a collection of writing books over the years – some good, some not so good. But the interesting thing for me is that they still provide me with inspiration! Whenever I feel a bit down – usually after a rejection or a fit of self doubt - I pull out one of my favourites and re-read. it always lifts me and fills me once again with a sense of enthusiasm. As does taking part in ISWG !
I also turn to my books when I am struggling with a particular issue like the setting, characters or editing and revising. In the planning stages of a book my approach has been different with each project, (taking advice from my how to books) but the plus side is I now know what works best for me. So here’s some of my gems:                                           
My all time favourite:
Stephen Kings ‘On Writing’
‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’  James N Frey.
‘The Key’, James N Frey.
‘How to Write a Damn good Thriller’, James N Frey.
‘How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction’ J.N Williamson.
‘Hooked’, Les Edgerton.
‘Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing’, David Morrell.
‘Writing the Breakout Novel’, Donald Maas.
‘Stein On Writing’, Sol Stein.
‘How Fiction Works’ Oakley Hall.
‘The Techniques of the Selling Writer’, Dwight Swain
And for a light-hearted read:
‘Wannabe a Writer’, Jane Wenham Jones.
So who are you favourite ‘how to’ authors?

Friday, 1 February 2013

Tick Tock... Time to Thrill...

Time to Thrill

 The ticking clock is a plot device that I love to use when outlining my novels. Not every time, I must admit but if it lends itself to the plot why not use it?
For one thing it gives urgency to a thriller plot line that adds to the suspense for the reader. For another it is quite a useful aid for the writer too as it can provide a kind of framework which helps to keep the plot on target. Thirdly for me it is quite exciting and indeed, fun to do…
There are as many different ways of adding the time element to a story as there are for actually writing the story. The time element may mean that a future event is driving the story line and readers know the story is heading there. But, most importantly, they will not know the twists and turns of the plot along the way and it maybe that there are penalties that are time linked. For instance, the use of the ‘what if’ element as in ‘what if a protagonist doesn’t get to the scene on time?’ or what if he can beat the odds and rescue something before….whatever hyappens.
Another way I have used the timeline is delineating chapters and passages to show that one plot action is happening at the same time as something else.  I find the use of switching from point of view helpful in using this one.
I think it is very important to keep mentioning time if it is a plot device in the story. It subliminally reminds the reader that time is important and the ticking clock is a great way to raise the stakes and keep suspense going page by page. In my own writing I try to use shorter sentences and paragraphs to try to keep the sense of urgency and as the story reaches towards the climax, it should be mostly action and little information giving, meandering or asides.  Short sharp plot points resolved as time tacks relentlessly by.
I guess, in its broadest sense, it is the pace of a story that counts but that does not always mean it should be at breakneck speed – just the pace to suit the timeline.
Do you work time elements into your stories?