A Peculiar Experience: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The first word that came to mind after seeing Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was peculiar. The movie is peculiar. I went into the film knowing next to nothing about it. I haven’t read the book, I think I may have seen a trailer at some point but don’t really remember it, and I hadn’t looked into the story at all. All I knew about the film was that it was directed by Tim Burton, it was based on a book, and it was about some kind of school for gifted kids.

I am a huge fan of fantasy films, and I love Tim Burton’s work, so I was super excited to see what this movie had in store for me. That being said, by the end of the film I couldn’t quite put my finger on how I felt about it, other than that one word I mentioned above—peculiar. The film is just peculiar. It’s beautifully shot, and the actors, especially Eva Green, do a wonderful job, but the film didn’t leave me feeling satisfied. It left me with a lot of questions, and a few complaints.

——————————SPOILERS BELOW—————————

Visuals and World

I like starting by talking about something I liked, and this film was visually beautiful. It had some great shots, and everything from the camera angles to the clothing was spot on for me. The style and artistic elements of Tim Burton’s films are always one of my favorite parts, and this film was no exception. The one thing that truly kept me hooked throughout was the visual element, and just the fact that I was enjoying looking at the film.

The other element I really liked was just the concept of the world. I loved the idea of Jake traveling through the time loops at the end, working his way back to the peculiars. I’m not sure I have a clear idea of how it would work, but I do think I got enough of a sense that it was believable. The details they gave at the end as well were just enough to create this sort of romanticized image of his journey back to the group without extending the final act unnecessarily, which was perfect.

The Conflict

I think the biggest downfall for me in the film was the fact that the real goal and conflict of the story took more than an hour to get to. I know because I looked at my watch when they finally started discussing Samuel L Jackson’s character and why they had to stop him. I don’t mind a long movie, and I don’t mind giving the plot time to build and unfold, but this film felt like it just took too long. Yes, the visual elements of the movie were stunning and wonderful, and it was a fascinating world to get lost in, but I wish we could have got lost in it while the plot was moving forward.

From the moment Jake first sees Samuel L Jackson’s character outside his grandfather’s house to the moment we finally learn he’s the antagonist almost an hour had passed. I usually have a good memory for details in a story, but by this point in the film I had almost forgotten that Jackson was in it and I was mostly just trying to figure out where the story was going. I feel like part of the problem that made the story seem like it was standing still was that Jake’s goal in the story initially was not to find out what happened to his grandfather, it was to see if his grandfather told the truth. The moment Jake arrives at Miss Peregrine’s we know that he was and then Jake has no real goal, no conflict. Yes, there’s still some information he can find, but he doesn’t actively seek it.

If there had been slight more focus on the thing that killed his grandfather, and more determination behind Jake’s search for answers, I think the time it took to get to the plot wouldn’t have been as bad, but it still went on too long. Getting lost in the world was great, but it felt like the plot paused for a short period of time while we got immersed in the world. Instead, entering the new world should have boosted the plot into action.

Plot Holes

The one thing that really surprised me about this film was that there were three big plot elements that I felt were too big to have been missed. The first is a simple one—Jake’s parents. I love Chris O’Dowd, but the parents disappear from the story when they’re there at all. I guess I could buy the whole impulsive trip across the world for the story, but once they get there the dad becomes almost a burden to the plot. Instead of being a smooth element in the story, a problem Jake has to work around to get where he wants to go, it feels like the dad is forced into the story in a clunky way that makes it completely obvious that he’s supposed to be in the way of Jake’s goal. It’s never more obvious that the dad doesn’t fit in the story then at the end—he doesn’t even get a proper wrap up of his plotline! While I think Chris O’Dowd played the role beautifully, and he always makes me laugh, his character never comes back into the story at all, making it feel like the whole plotline shouldn’t have been in the movie.

The second thing that surprised me is the reveal of the twin’s powers at the end. Throughout the film I wondered about the two of them as they were the only ones to not have their powers clearly shown or mentioned (unless I missed the first mention). At the end when their masks are lifted and the woman turns to stone, it immediately made me think two things. 1. Oh, that’s cool. 2. Wait, why didn’t they just do that to Samuel L Jackson in the house when he first came into the time loop? Their powers defeat the whole movie.

If we had learned about their powers earlier and there was some kind of explanation about why they couldn’t use them all the time—such as on Jackson’s character—it would have ruined the reveal, but it would have kept the sequence of events justifiable. By not having this, we got the cool reveal of their powers at the end, but it makes all the other characters look stupid. The twins could have dropped into the pit with all the evil people and turned them all to stone. They could have done it the first time they saw Jackson. They could have followed Jake downstairs when he goes to rescue the birds and done it then. Not justifying the lack of use of their powers creates a huge plot hole.

Final Notes

Overall, I did enjoy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children despite the flaws. As I said above, visually it’s just a fun movie to watch, and seeing Eva Green embody Miss Peregrine was fabulous. She really is wonderful in the role. The plot holes and issues mentioned above are just things that made the movie go from great to just okay for me. I’ll have to watch it again at some point to see if there’s something I missed regarding the twins or the father, but overall I think the first word that came to mind when watching the movie is the right one. It really is peculiar. It’s fascinating, and alluring, and I wanted to love it, but I just couldn’t get lost in it the way I wanted to no matter how hard I tried.


Weekly Writing Memo: Horror Inspiration

Weekly Writing MemoOne question I hear asked a lot to writers is, “where do you find your stories?” This question is sort of silly to me because stories are everywhere around you if you look. Every item you come across in your day has a story for how it became what it is, and got where it is. If you ask enough questions, eventually you’ll find some interesting element that you can turn into a compelling story if you try. I could go on for a long time about ways to find a story, so instead I decide, in honor of Halloween, to narrow the focus this week and discuss where to find inspiration for horror stories in particular.

For me, I really think horror stories have to either start with the protagonist or the “monster.” By monster, I mean whatever villain is in your story, be it a literal monster, a ghost, a serial killer, a psychological monster, a location, etc. I say this because the core of most horror stories is the conflict between these two entities — the protagonist and the monster — and I think starting with one of them can be the easiest way to start a horror story. If you start with the monster, you can ask yourself who would it go after and find your protagonist. If you start with the protagonist, you can ask yourself what type of monster would they encounter and go from there. Immediately either one can give you your story, but where do you find the protagonist or the monster?

Protagonists

If you want to start your horror story by coming up with your protagonist and you have no ideas in mind, you can go several directions:

  • Pick someone you know and turn them into a character by changing some of their traits to make them slightly different.
  • Pick a stranger on the street and create a character from them based on what you can infer from their appearance and behavior.
  • Pick a stereotype character and then do a free write or character sheet to turn them into something more and give them depth.
  • Pick an occupation and then create a character that fills that job role.

There are a ton of other ways to come up with a character, but these are a few of my favorite simple ones. Once you have a character in mind you can find your monster by asking yourself where would this character go to find trouble? Does it find them, or do they seek it out by going somewhere they shouldn’t? Do they have a friend that takes them to a haunted forest? Do they live near a mental asylum where a killer can escape? Do they work in a hospital where people die every day and ghosts may linger? Do they go swimming or camping in a secluded area where monsters could lurk in the shadows?

Think about all the places your character may go on a daily or weekly basis and think about what kinds of monsters they could encounter there. If none of these places is suitable, then think about what kind of friends your character has, and what kind of trouble those characters could get the protagonist into. Do they have a reckless friend who likes going into abandoned buildings? A crazy friend who sees things? A friend who picks up shady drifters and brings them home? Once you have the monster your character would most likely meet, you can start creating the plot between the monster and the protagonist and find your story.

Monsters

As I said earlier, when I use the term “monster” I don’t necessarily mean a literal monster, but rather I mean any type of antagonist your character will come up against in the story. Monsters can be anywhere, and if you’re prone to writing horror it’s a good idea to keep a list somewhere of various monster ideas whenever you come up with one. A few places that I generally find monster ideas include:

  • Reading about urban legends and mythical creatures. Those cheap tabloid papers have some great ones of these, as do those random lists of legends, myths, and creatures that are all over the internet. Pick one and make it your own, give it a setting, and see where it takes you.
  • Phobias. These are a great source for monster inspiration because once you pick a phobia you can use it to build your monster. Think of phobia that you like, or look up a list and pick one, and then ask yourself if your character has that fear what kind of monster would trigger it? Do they have a fear of being alone? Then how about you forget them in the middle of the ocean after a deep sea diving expedition (Open Water). Do they have a fear of the dark, well how about a monster that only appears in the darkness and can make the lights go out (Lights Out, Darkness Falls)? Whatever phobia you choose, ask yourself where or how your character can be forced to face it, and what kind of monster could cause them to. Sometimes it’s even the monster that has the fear (Lights Out) and it can be used as part of how the protagonist defeats them, so you can also try to create a monster from that angle as well.
  • True unsolved mysteries or famous oddities. These are a great source for horror because they’re true, unexplained, and usually, have just the right amount of creepiness to them that they can be twisted even further for the perfect horror story.

Any of the options above can work for finding a monster to create your horror story around, but they aren’t the only way. At the heart, the monster comes from the twisting of something that is somewhat normal to something threatening. Think about it. Cujo was a dog, a ghost is just a (dead) person, water is just water, etc, but all can be turned and twisted to become a monster. So if you can’t find some kind of monster from the ideas above, then try taking something random and asking how could it be dangerous? How could it be scary?

Once you have the “monster,” then ask yourself what kind of character would they either go after or accidentally encounter? Is the monster in a lake at a teen summer camp? Are they in a house that a nice young family has just moved into? Are they in a school where kids just want to go to prom? Once you know who your monster’s victims are, and where the monster hunts, then you have your story.


Weekly Writing Memo: Three Ways to use Parentheticals in Screenwriting

Weekly Writing MemoA question I hear a lot from beginning screenwriters is “How do I use a parenthetical?” To begin, let’s go over what it is. A parenthetical in screenwriting is the writing that comes in parenthesis after a character’s dialogue tag. It looks like this:

CHARACTER NAME

(whisper)

Help me!

The parenthetical is always in lower case unless it’s a proper noun. It can be located between a character’s name and the dialogue, or between two sections of dialogue for the same character spoken without interruption, like this:

CHARACTER NAME

Hey!

(whisper)

Come here.

Now that you can identify what a parenthetical looks like, let’s discuss when to use them. There are three main ways to use parentheticals.

How to speak it?

The first and most common use for parentheticals is to tell the actor how a piece of dialogue is spoken. Is it whispered or yelled? Is it sarcastic or serious? Is the character joking or being mean? It can be really easy to think you need to put these parentheticals on everything to mark how it is said, but don’t. Most of the time it’ll be really obvious how the line is supposed to be said so you won’t need to put anything in parentheticals, but whenever you have a line that could be confused you should use one to clarify. For example, if a character is saying a like “Thanks for that.” It could be sarcastic, genuine, or emotionless. Whichever way it is said could change the story, so clarifying how it is said would be useful.

Who to speak it to?

Another way that parentheticals can be used is to clarify who the character is speaking the line of dialogue to if there is a group. Say four people are arguing and the speaker wants to say something to person one without using person one’s name, then you could put person one’s name in a parenthetical to clarify this.

You can also use a parenthetical here to show that a person is speaking the line to themselves. If the speaker is home alone and there is an entire scene where they’re speaking to themselves, then I would use the parenthetical on the first bit of dialogue to show that is the case and not use it after unless another character enters the scene.

What to do while speaking?

The third main use for a parenthetical is to show what action the character is doing simultaneously as they speak. For example, if the character is pointing at someone, or walking away while talking, then using a parenthetical to indicate this can be useful. A lot of this can be shown in action before or after the dialogue, but when it is important that the speech and action happen simultaneously, then show it in a parenthetical.

Final note.

In general, the rule for parentheticals is to use them as sparingly as possible. Parentheticals are basically like stage directions to the actors. Use too many and it can seem like you’re micromanaging. Your writing should be clear enough that anyone reading your script knows how things should be said, but whenever there is a doubt that it will be clear, use a parenthetical.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: To Cliche, or not to Cliche

Weekly Writing MemoA writing friend and I got in a heated discussion the other day as to whether clichés in writing can ever be a good thing. He is an adamant believer that clichés should be actively hunted down and eliminated from all dialogue, as well as most other areas of writing when possible. I, on the other hand, have a more lenient approach. I think clichés can be useful in specific circumstances, and sometimes they’re the best choice for the job. So when are clichés a good thing?

Avoiding Awkward

Sometimes if you can’t find a simple way to reword or rework a scene to avoid the cliché, then you can end up making the writing convoluted and awkward, which is worse than just using the cliché. A cliché can be invisible in the story and the audience may not even notice it, but awkward writing will interrupt the flow and stand out to an audience. It can also become obvious that you’re trying to avoid the cliché, and that can be distracting as well.

A really easy example is the phrase “that’s classified.” If you wanted to you could avoid it in a lot of ways, but there has to be a limit to how far you’ll go to avoid a cliché, and how much space you want to use to do so. If you try to avoid “that’s classified,” you could end up with something convoluted like, “I can’t tell you that because you are not qualified to access that information.” Just reading it makes me roll my eyes because it’s incredibly obvious I’m avoiding the cliché. In fact, it reads like a convoluted way of saying “that’s above your pay grade.” Which is another cliché.

The point is, avoiding the cliché in this case is turning out awkward, and it’s becoming obvious to the audience that it is what I’m doing. You don’t want your audience to stop and think about the writing when they’re enjoying the story – unless they stop to go “DAMN, that was good!” That is always acceptable! You want the audience involved, and in a situation like this it’s easier to throw in the cliché to get the message across and keep the story moving, rather than finding some roundabout way to avoid it.

Simplicity

Sometimes the decision for me to use the cliché comes down to one thing – simplicity. Sure, there are a lot of ways to word things that may let me avoid a cliché, but sometimes the cliché is the easiest, clearest way to get whatever message I want across to the audience. If I can use a cliché and it only takes 2 words instead of 20, then I better have some big motivation as to why those 20 words are needed. I’m a firm believer that every word has to count in a story, and as I said above, sometimes the cliché is just the simplest way to go. Will there be better ways to say things, probably, but does that mean you need to change your wording? No.

Cliches aren’t inherently bad. They can be overused, and they can be used at bad times, but sometimes they’re the best way to go for the sake of keeping the story moving forward. So always consider how complicated the route to avoid the cliché is. Ask yourself, if I avoid this cliché, will I slow the story down? Will it waste space on the page? Does the cliché add or take away anything from the scene? If the answers to these don’t give you a reason to take out the cliché, then I say go with the simplest method of keeping it in.

Character Culture

The biggest argument I think there is for keeping a cliché is that in some character cultures, clichés are ingrained in the system. By character cultures I mean communities like police officers, military personnel, doctors, politicians, etc. These kind of cultures that are part of large organizations have certain things that are ingrained in them.

For example, cliché language is often used by the higher ups in these organizations because clichés are something that a huge group of people will all understand in the same way. Clichés also become ingrained in these organizations because they relay on training being passed down, and the clichés carry through. For example, police officers and military personnel are more likely to use phrases that they have been trained to use. Military men use things like “need to know” because it’s an easy way for higher ups to dismiss lower level employees without actually giving them any information, and those lower level employees generally have to listen because they don’t outrank anyone.

In these sorts of settings, clichés can be used by the higher ups as a very easy way to create a separation between those of different ranks. Think of all the cliché phrases you can for military and even police personnel and think of their purpose: Need to know, that’s classified, that’s above your pay grade, etc. They all serve to protect information, and to put someone lower down in their place. In politics, there is a similar thing going on. The cliché phrases are more about delivering a message without delivering specifics. They say “I will bring change” or “I have the experience to do [blah]” and so on without every really specific what their plan is or how they are qualified.

Similarly, in medical fields clichés exist to keep information vague or to deliver a clear message without getting into specifics. In medical fields you sometimes don’t have time to lay out all the information because of the life and death situation, so abbreviated phrases are used to get a message across to everyone in the room quickly.

In general, these kids of systemized or structural cultures have clichés ingrained in them because they help create structure, they are universally understood, they deliver information and meaning without specifics as needed, and these cultures often have similar situations happen over and over again which can lead to certain sequences of events becoming cliché. The point is, you don’t need these characters to use clichés all the time, but having them in these instances is more acceptable because the clichés are part of the culture and the training almost everyone goes through in these professions, so they are almost expected by an audience.

When to Cut the Cliché?

Now clearly clichés should be cut whenever you can cut them in a way that doesn’t involve the things I’ve mentioned above, but sometimes it can be hard to decide. If there is an easy way to avoid the cliché, then always use it. If the cliché makes the scene cheesy or eye-roll worthy, then definitely cut it. If your entire plot hinges on a cliché, again, think about changing it. The important thing is that the clichés you do use don’t interrupt the flow or come off as lazy. Use them because they’re the best tool for the job (cliché!), and use them because they serve the story. Don’t use them because you’re too lazy to think of something else.

If you aren’t sure, then get a second opinion and see if your beta reader finds it distracting. Ultimately, like anything else in writing it all depends on the specific situation. Clichés exist for a reason, just use them wisely!

 


Weekly Writing Memo: All About the Setup

Weekly Writing MemoOne of the most important elements of a story for it to work is for everything to be set up properly. Your plot, your characters, and your resolution all need to be set up in such a way that your audience can believe them. If the audience doesn’t believe it, or “buy in” as it’s often called, then they won’t enjoy your story and may not even continue it. So how do you properly set up everything in your story so it works?

What does your audience need to know?

Think about your plot, your characters, and your world before you start writing. What does your audience need to know about each of these in order for them to understand your story? If needed, make a list. Add to it anything that needs to happen in order for your plot to unfold, and decide in what order those things need to happen.

The things on this list are the things you need to set up in order for your audience to get into your story. Does your character have a mental problem? Then even if you don’t reveal it right away you need to show signs of it, foreshadowing what is to be revealed so when the reveal happens the audience believes it. Does your world involve superhuman mutants? Then again, this is something that needs to be set up in your story so your audience understands the world. Even if you don’t want to reveal the mutants, you need to reveal that there is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Think of all these sorts of elements that will be in your story before you get writing so you have a clear image in mind of what you need to do. You don’t have to make the elements obvious or spell it out blatantly, but do find ways to at least hint at these details so they don’t throw off your audience when they come into play later.

When do they need to know it?

The second part of setting up a story is know WHEN to reveal things. How much do you need to set up right away, and how much can you hold onto and reveal later? You don’t want all these details to come out in a list when you’re writing. They should come out in small doses as necessary. For example, your audience needs to know right away that your character has an enormous scar if it plays into how people react to him/her throughout the story. However, your audience doesn’t need to know right away how your character got the scar. In fact, the audience may never need to know how the character got the scar unless it plays an important part in the story for some reason.

The common mistake I see when people are setting up a story is mainly not mentioning something until it is needed to move the plot forward. For example, if your character needs to know complex mathematics, but your entire story she never once uses math, it’ll seem awfully convenient if the moment she needs it she busts out some calculus. Anything such as this that is key to moving the plot forward, or key to solving a problem, should be established in advance of when the character needs it. If it is something that is constant, then it should be established right from the beginning. If it’s something minor, then it just needs to be established a few scenes or so before it becomes relevant.

How can I show it?

So how do you show these minor things in your story without them coming off as listing or uninteresting? Something like the mathematics example would be boring if the character just said “I’m good at math.” Instead, you could simply have a short moment where your character does some impressive mental math for some reason, or even have something subtle like a math diploma on the wall someplace. These kinds of small details, or small moments, can be a way to establish important elements without taking too much story time.

For anything minor, the quicker you can establish it and move on, usually the better. Anything that is a key element of the story can be established by doing continual small touches throughout the story as it unfolds. For example, if you want to establish someone has anxiety about something, you can have them behave in increasingly anxious ways until their full anxiety is revealed.

Final Notes

Ultimately, there will be three stages of setting up your story. The first is the things you’ll know right off that you need to establish before you even begin writing. The second will be the things you discover as you are writing. When you come across these things in the second stage, it’s important to remember to not just throw them in when they come up. Take a moment to sit back and think about where that detail could naturally fit into the story. If you just put it in where you think of it, will it seem like something that conveniently pops up to solve the story conflict?

The final stage of setting up your story will come after you get feedback. Whoever you use as your beta reader should be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and you can use that as a sounding board for what in your story needs more setting up, and what you can do less on. No matter how obvious you think something is, people will always have different viewpoints so if you can find a subtle way to set it up a tad more, it’s probably a good idea to do so.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: Know Your Theme

Weekly Writing MemoEvery story, whether intentional or not, has a theme within it. A theme is not necessarily a moral or lesson, but rather it is what your story is about at its core. Finding the theme of your story can sometimes take some work, as can making the theme come through in your writing, but it’s not as hard as it might seem.

What is your theme?

To find your story’s theme, ask yourself what your story is about. Maybe you won’t be able to break it down into a neat answer, but as long as you can answer the question you have the first step to finding your theme.

For example, let’s say you’re writing Die Hard. Your story would be about a cop who travels to visit his wife out of town, and ends up having to stop a terrorist plot. So what is the theme of this story? Well, it can be broken down in a lot of ways if you think about what the general terms of the story are: good triumphing over evil (cop vs villains), one man against the world (John vs the terrorists), or even how greed can lead to your downfall (the terrorists refusing to give up even though they’re losing because they’re determined to get the money).

The key to figuring out your story’s theme is to think about the larger concepts and the plot of your story, then try to break them down into simple terms as shown above. These larger ideas are the core of your story, and they help tell your audience what type of story it is. If you’re doing this and you are having trouble deciding what the main theme from your options is, ask yourself which potential theme if removed would completely change the story. The one that can’t be removed, and the one that is the biggest overall concept of the story, is your main theme.

How to show your theme?

Showing your theme throughout your story should not be hard. In Die Hard the theme of good triumphing over evil happens consistently. John is determined to do what’s right and to stop the bad guys, and despite all the trouble and missteps that happen, he ultimately always comes through. Even when he loses, it’s just further motivation for him to come back at the bad guys with even more vehemence so he can win. So for your own story, think of what your theme is and how your main character can represent that theme in some way.

Other ways to show your theme is to use something called mirroring. This is when you show the theme through minor secondary characters throughout the story. Sticking with the Die Hard example, you can see some minor mirroring of the theme “one guy against the world” when you look at the local cop who is stuck outside the building and is trying to help John. This cop is fighting against all the others to get John help and is the lone voice in the crowd. By showing your theme through these small mirroring acts you are also adding another layer of plot to your story.

You don’t always have to have the minor characters experience the same outcome as your protagonist either. You can use minor characters to show what the other possible outcome of your theme could be for your protagonist. For example, if your theme is good triumphing over evil, you could have a minor character lose to the evil to show the consequences if your character fails.

Can you have multiple themes?

As is clear with the Die Hard example, there is always a potential for there to be multiple themes in your story. Of course there should be one main theme that is the core of your story, but there can also be some minor themes that help build up your story as well. Maybe good vs evil is your main theme, but then you have themes involving love or, like in Die Hard, greed. These kinds of minor themes can contribute to your plot, as well as help deepen your characters, and many of them will appear without you having to force them into the story. If you look at your subplots, you should be able to see some of the themes that are present in them and bring them out a bit more so they are stronger.

Final Note

In general, it’s a good idea to know what your theme is before you start your story so you can keep your writing consistent. Sometimes, however, the theme comes out and is discovered as you write the story. Alternatively, you can also start your story thinking the theme is one thing, but as you write you discover it is really something else. This is fine, and happens all the time, but if it happens this way make sure you go back once you’re finished writing and make sure everything is consistent throughout the story. The most important thing about the theme of your story is that you’re consistent, and the clearer the theme is in your mind when you start writing, the easier this will be to do.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: What’s in a Name

Weekly Writing MemoThrough all my conversations with other writers, I’ve learned that there seems to be two camps of people when it comes to naming characters, places, and things in stories. One group thinks that the names don’t matter, while the other spends hours finding just the right meaning for each name in their world. Personally, I think it depends on the story, as well as whatever it is you are naming. I do believe main characters should have names that mean something, or at the very  least, ‘fit’ the character’s story, but I don’t think everything in your story has to have deeper meaning. If you want to give the people, places, and things you name in your story special meaning, there are several ways you can go about it.

Origins

One of the main things I do look at when I am naming something is the origin of the name. What country is the name originally from? What language is it? Is it predominant in a specific religion, or culture? These kinds of details can help you pick names that have more history behind them to help with whatever you are naming. If you have a character that you want to have an Irish background, then a name with a touch of Irish history would be perfect. It doesn’t have to be a historical or cliché name, but it is an option. Another option is to research popular names in Ireland and pick one that way instead. You may end up with a name that isn’t classically Irish, but it will still have a connection to Ireland.

The point of this kind of research for the names you give in your stories is that it creates a built in history for what you are naming. Without telling the reader, you are hinting at where your character might come from and what their family connections are. Now of course people in real life are often given names with no connection to their roots, and you can use this in your story as well if you want, but by making a deliberate choice to either use the name or not you are making every element of your story count. So be deliberate, and if you decide to go against your characters origins, then make that part of the story as well even if it’s a minor part.

Preconceptions

Something else you can use to your advantage when naming a character, place, or thing in a novel are known preconceptions about the name you use. For example, if you use a name from a myth, many people will recognize it and have certain ideas about that character. Zeus is a mighty god with great power, who also happens to be a bit of a player, and a character named Zeus might be suspected of having some of those traits. There are all sorts of fables and legends out there from every different culture and time period, and even if you use one that doesn’t have meaning to the majority of the population it will still help deepen your character. The point is that it is another layer for a reader to find, and the ones that do will love the touch.

Beyond past myths, you can also use names from modern pop culture and such. Big names like Kanye or Justin are well known enough that they also have immediate pre-conceptions to them. Maybe in another 20 years they won’t have the same impact on your readers as pop culture changes, but for modern readers you can use names like those to paint a picture of who your character is. Big public names have personas around them, and if you’re writing a character with a similar attitude you can use those pre-existing ideas to help nudge your reader in a certain direction before they know anything else about your character.

Meanings

One of the final elements you can use when naming things in your stories is symbolism. There are all sorts of names and words that have deeper meaning beyond them besides the word itself. Most names have some alternate meaning to them when you research the original language they came from. These sorts of meanings can be used to speak to the type of person your character is going to be. If you have a surprisingly brave character, then choosing a name that secretly means bravery could be a subtle nod to readers who know that. These are the kind of details that won’t change anything in the story for the most part, but they can add another layer of meaning to your story. It can be especially useful when naming objects in fantasy worlds.

Final Notes

No matter your take on naming in stories, it’s important to consider what the minor details of naming can do for your story. The small touches can often give a story the extra boost to make it something special. As a reader, I know I enjoy the small details that I discover later on about a story, such as deeper meanings in names, and it only makes me enjoy the story more. If you do go the special naming route, however, I find it works best if you don’t go too obvious with the symbolism in the name. You want it to be a small touch, not a neon sign in your audience’s face. Ultimately, if you find a special name is something that will add to your story, then use it, if not, then don’t. It’s your story, so you have to decide what benefits it the most. Trust your instincts and you’ll be fine.


Weekly Writing Memo: Networking

Weekly Writing MemoSorry I have been missing the last few weeks. As you might have seen on  Author the World, I unexpectedly moved to Los Angeles and haven’t had a lot of time to do posts. This week’s post is all about networking. Networking is a major element of having a writing career, and it takes some practice to really learn the right and wrong ways to network.

The most important thing to remember when networking is that you shouldn’t be doing it to use people, and you shouldn’t be doing it to be selfish. Good networking is about being genuine. The best way to network is to approach each networking relationship you make with the attitude of how you can help each other, rather than focusing on how they can help you. The best kinds of networking relationships are mutually beneficial, and maintaining this kind of attitude helps these relationships stay healthy and fulfilling.

Building your Network

You can build your network literally anywhere, it’s all about meeting people and learning about them. If you know who people are, what they do, and what kinds of people they know, you can keep them in mind for later if something comes up they can help with. For writing, often times you can make networking connections in writing groups, classes, at conferences, or even in random places like coffee shops and hair salons. The important thing is to keep your eyes open for people you can help, and for people that may be able to help you. Remember, things need to go both ways, and sometimes the act of offering help to someone can lead to unexpected connections. Ultimately, all networking contacts break down into four different types that can each be beneficial in their own way.

The Introducer

The Introducer may not have any work for you, and may not be someone who is going to offer you advice, but they do know people you want to know and they will help you meet them. These kinds of contacts are always useful to maintain because they help broaden your network, and they can help introduce you to other parts of the writing world you may not be familiar with. One of the best way to meet new people is through a middle-man who can introduce you because it can cut out the awkward process of trying to force a meeting with a stranger. If you’re going to be the Introducer for someone else, remember to make sure you give each person’s name, and then try to share what they have in common or why you think they should talk so you can help jump start the conversation.

The Mentor

The mentor is someone who has been where you are and knows a lot about the business. They are the perfect sort of person who can offer you advice, and give you guidance that will make navigating the writing world easier. Maybe they won’t be able to get you a job, or introduce you to new people, but they will help you find answers to the random questions and issues you run into. Just make sure you don’t burden your mentor by asking too much of them, or wasting their time with easy questions that you could have found out anywhere. They may only have so much free time, so make sure to figure out how much help they are willing to give you and to stick within that range. If you are going to be a mentor, be clear up front what you are willing to do for the person you’re helping, but also try to remember what it was like when you were where they are.

The Helper

The Helper is someone who has an opportunity for you that could potentially help your career, whether it’s a job or an interview doesn’t matter, it’s someone that can put you in line for a job or a writing sale. These kinds of connections are incredibly valuable because they are what give your career a boost. The important thing to remember when meeting people who offer you these types of opportunities is to make the most of them, and to make sure you don’t misrepresent yourself to the person setting it up, because if you waste it or lie it could prevent the person from ever offering you another opportunity again.

The Teammate

In some ways, these are the most valuable networking connections you can make. The Teammate is someone who is going through the same stuff you are at the same time. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of, or trade writing with. They are on your side and you are mutually trying to help each other reach your goals. For writing, having people you can talk writing with is incredibly important, as is having people around who understand what you’re going through. If you are a teammate to someone, make sure the help isn’t going one way. If you find yourself asking too much and not doing anything in return, then try to find a balance.

Final Notes

Ultimately, networking is about broadening the connections you have in your industry, and maintaining those connections by trying to keep things mutually beneficial for all involved. Even if you can’t help someone the moment they help you, always try to keep them in mind and return the favor when you can. One of the most important elements of networking is that the people around you see that you are a part of the cycle of helping, and that you aren’t just a vacuum sucking up all the favors you can get without returning anything. People will quickly notice if you only ever seem to receive help, so the more you can be a part of the cycle the better.


Weekly Writing Memo: Overcoming the Blank Page

Weekly Writing MemoSometimes when it comes to writing, the hardest thing to overcome is the simplest. One such example of this is to overcome the intimidation of a blank page and to simply get started. Those first moments when you sit down in front of the page and tell yourself you’re going to write can be huge, and overwhelming. All sorts of thoughts can pass through your head that make putting the first words down on the page near impossible. Am I good enough? Do I have anything to say? How do I do this? Will anyone want to read it? Etc. These kinds of thoughts can stop your writing in its tracks before you even begin. Knowing how to overcome the blank page can be vital, and while there isn’t a method that works for everyone, there are several things that I find work well.

Free Write First

One of the easiest ways I find to get into writing is to simply allow myself to free write for a while. Even if I have a specific story idea in mind, I will sometimes think of my character or my setting and just write whatever comes to mind. It doesn’t always flow in a pretty way, or even make sense, but it does allow me to explore the characters or setting without restrictions and it gets me writing. Once I start putting words on the page, focusing them becomes easier. I also find that just getting started on the act of writing makes some of the tension around writing dissipate. So however you do it, get started by freewriting and getting words on the page. Even if you have to start by writing about your day or something, see where the freewriting takes you. Once you no longer have a blank page, it’s easier to focus on creating something cohesive that you can turn into a story.

Copy Someone Else

This is a method that has been around for a while, and was even used in the movie Finding Forrester. When you are just getting started writing and struggling, try grabbing a random book and copying down the first paragraph of it. As you are writing, let your mind wander, and when you’re comfortable, stop copying and start making it your own. Sometimes using someone else’s work to get you started writing can help you transition into your own work. Just remember to go back once you finish and to change the beginning so it is no longer copying the original author’s work. The key to this is that it gets words on the page, and in making what you write your own.

Make A Rough Outline

When I have a specific story idea in mind, but am struggling to get started, I find that writing down 3-5 bullet points of where I want the immediate section of story I’m working on to go helps. Usually I will do this when I start each chapter. I grab a piece of paper and jot down the 3-5 key moments of the chapter that form the arc of it, then when I write I have “goals” to write toward. It’s just enough outlining to keep the story focused while I’m writing, but not so much that people who hate outlining will feel like they’ve over planned anything.

It works for me because I prefer abbreviated outlines, and it allows me to discover how the characters get from one big moment to the next as I write. So take a few moments to create a small arc for what you want to write, and then let yourself write to those points. It’ll help you visualize what you’re planning to write, and it’ll give you points in the story to write toward. Just try not to make your bullet points too broad, or you can end up feeling lost as to where to start again.

Try a Different Medium

One of the last things I try when I’m struggling to write is to switch mediums. Sometimes I find that I just can’t write a certain story at the computer, and instead I end up writing with a notepad and pen. It seems silly, but just switching mediums like that can actually help get you started. Sometimes I think the notepad works better than the computer when I’m struggling because the notepad feels less permanent and professional. I’m just jotting down ideas! Not writing for real! Which isn’t true at all, but it feels that way. So allow yourself to try a different medium and see if it changes anything. At the very least, switching to something like a notepad where you can do things by hand can allow you to doodle and jot ideas to brainstorm while you are working on getting to the real writing. Which can be just as productive.

Final Notes:

The final thing to remember if you are stuck on the white page is that you don’t have to start by writing right away. If writing simply isn’t working, trying outlining or researching or brainstorming for your story. If you do those things, you’ll still be working on your story in some way, and maybe it’ll help you feel more confident so you can get started. Just remember, at some point you have to stop doing these things and get to the writing, so don’t procrastinate too long!


Weekly Writing Memo: A Matter of Time

Weekly Writing MemoSomething that almost every story deals with is the passing of time. It’s natural, and to be expected. What every writer needs to focus on is how to show the passing of time, and when to skip time in a story. These two things can be a huge pitfall in a story. If you tell too much of the story and don’t skip time when you need to, then the story can feel sluggish and boring. If you skip too much time the audience can feel like they’re missing things, and you can take away from the tension of the action. There’s a careful balance to time in every story, so the key is finding it for yours.

When to Skip Time

In general, you should skip time when nothing is happening in the story. Any time you have huge chunks of time passing with no conflict going on, you need to get the story moving and skip ahead if possible. There should always be some form of conflict going on in your story, so whenever it’s lacking you’ve either missed a plotline, started in the wrong place, or need to find a way to skip ahead. Look at this time period and see what happens in it that you absolutely need to show your reader, then find a way to show it elsewhere or to compress it down.

Sometimes you can also skip time when you are telling a story in a nonlinear way. Some stories work better if you can jump ahead and then go back to a flashback or something, so look at your conflict and see if it is best told linearly, or if skipping around in time can help you create more tension within the story. You want to maximize the tension and conflict, so if you can do this by telling the story in a new way, then you should try.

How to Skip Time

There are endless stories to use as reference for skipping time (Time Traveler’s Wife; Looper; Lord of the Rings). One of the key things to remember when skipping time is that you need to find a way to show that time has passed. In films, this is usually done with visual elements such as scenery changes, characters aging, seasons changing, etc. In fiction, this can be shown through some of those elements as well, but you can also use words that help show this. Mention the time passing, or use cueing phrases that help guide the reader (Ex – Months later; Kiera was 16 when she finally returned to the village…). Whatever you do, always find a way to show the time change unless you have a reason not to.

Sometimes in stories the writer will skip time by using a montage to show the key moments that happen during the transition, ending with the characters at the point in time where the story continues. Other times, the writer will just skip ahead and start the story at the point in the future where they want it to be. The method to use depends on what happens during the time skip. If something vital happens, then try to find a way to show it either in a flashback later, or before skipping time. As long as there is a key story element, then it needs to be shown. So figure out what matters to the story, and where the conflict is, and you’ll know which elements to show and which to skip.

Final Notes

Obviously there are a lot of moments in a story where exciting action isn’t happening that are still important, so don’t think that you need to skip all these. Those moments can still have character development and conflict. Internal conflict is just as important as external conflict, so make sure you aren’t skipping all that. If you find yourself skipping a lot of time in your story, it might also be time to look at if you’re starting in the right place. If you start your story later, can you still show all the information that you’re skipping over in some way? Usually the answer is yes. Whatever you decide, just remember that you can always ask for a second opinion if needed. Overall, just remember to consider the conflict, the character development, and how your story will change if you skip time. If you do those three things, you should be able to figure out what you need to do.