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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Les Misérables: Dissecting a Masterpiece

Writing Tips from Les Misérables

Some stories withstand the test of time. They’re unforgettable. They change individuals and move a people. They influence us, deeply, and leave an emotional imprint on our souls. And they work on multiple levels. Les Misérables is one of those stories. And I’m dissecting it to get a good look at its innards.

Evokes Strong Emotions

Strong stories affect our emotions, significantly. David Farland, in his book Million Dollar Outlines, says that strong stories score high on the “Emotional Richter Scale.” For example, if you’re writing a comedy, it shouldn’t just make people chuckle; it should give them a split in their sides from laughing their heads off.

The best stories draw us in, make us emotionally invested, in the characters and conflicts so that we feel as if we are living the narrative ourselves. Les Misérables takes us through people’s hopes and dreams as well as their hardships, deaths, and disappointments. Few viewers and readers get through the story with a dry eye. The film hit me right in the chest.

Les Misérables not just sad, it’s tragic. Sure, it’s sad that Fantine loses her job, but it’s tragic she has to live in the gutters, compromise her self-worth, and give up her dreams on behalf of her daughter, who lives in shocking conditions herself. Likewise, viewers aren’t just happy that Valjean finds salvation, they are overwhelmed and euphoric, to the point that they’re crying.

This is what we want to recreate in our own stories. Look for opportunities in your narrative to ramp up emotion. Is there a way to make a scene more devastating? More peaceful? More romantic? While still staying true to the story?

Evoking strong emotion is important in storytelling because it’s in that moment the story has the most power to leave an indelible mark on the audience.

Contains Powerful Themes

Great stories do more than stir emotion. They change us. Les Misérables is rich with striking themes. Every time I experience it, I leave promising myself to be a better person.

The story has themes of love with Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Eponine; sacrifice with Fantine and the revolutionaries; redemption with Valjean; innocence (or the loss of it) with Cosette and Gavroche; and adversity with most the cast; but the strongest theme I see involves mercy.

Les Misérables teaches that mercy is more powerful than justice.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Little Publishing Stories: Mused

I have more good news. Two more of my poems got published! "Amelia Jane" and "The Hunt" were both picked up by the Mused literary journal. And guess what? They were published online so you can read them right here.

"Amelia Jane" was inspired by an interview I watched of J.K. Rowling. When Rowling was talking about love, she said, "When a person dies, love isn’t turned-off like a...faucet," and that comparison really stuck with me. I wanted to put my reaction to that sentence in a poem. I'm happy with how the piece came together.

Over a year ago, my mind was stuck on Easter egg hunts. I was putting together a short story that started with one. . .and then I was having a difficult time deciding what direction to take it. I wrote "The Hunt" around that time to capture some of the images in my head.

You can learn more about Mused at their website. And again, you can read the current issue here.

Monday, March 18, 2013

5 Types of Nonverbal Communication for Characters' Conversations

Lately I've been talking a little about dialogue, but you know what? Almost ALL of communication is nonverbal. Another writer, John Harper wrote this article on nonverbal communication in response to my blog post. If you haven't invested much time into thinking about body language in your writing, hopefully you will after you read this:

93% of all communication is not spoken. It is in the hand gestures, the facial expressions, and the body position where most communication happens.

Just think about this for a moment. 93%. If you spoke seven sentences you would have communicated 93 times through other forms. That is a lot. That is almost all of it. In fact, in some circumstances in fiction, dialogue may not be needed at all to convey character emotion and thoughts. More than likely, however, the verbal communication will instead be backed up by a host of nonverbal communication.

So what does that mean for us writers? Well if you aren't writing about the nonverbal communication then you are ignoring 93% of the information available, and giving the reader only 7% of what is 'happening' in the conversation. Obviously you are not going to write every single piece of nonverbal communication that occurs in a conversation, but ignoring it completely will be at your peril. You should be providing enough detail to allow the reader to gauge the emotion of the conversationalists.

Consider a party: lots of people, lots of conversation, but only 7% of information is being conveyed through spoken words - the content of the conversation. How it was delivered, how the person feels about what they are saying, this is all communication that people can see and pick up on, but it is all nonverbal. It provides subtext by reinforcing what the person is saying or acting as juxtaposition, showing they don't believe what they are saying. It also conveys the relationship between the conversationalists (e.g. alpha male, domineering boss, secret lover, etc).

Nonverbal communication is often subconscious. We do it without thinking. It just happens, an autonomous response to stimuli. Often we try to control our nonverbal communication, e.g. by hiding our surprise or anger. But hiding a response is a conscious decision. Reacting to a stimulus is subconscious, so even if you try to cover up your reaction you will more than likely have a brief flash of true communication before you smother it with something else. Body language is all the movements we make as well as involuntary reactions that show our reactions when we communicate. It is a large part of nonverbal communication and can be separated into the following groups:

1) Communication by Touch

Touching can often occur during conversation. Touch may be friendly, coercive or dominating. It can communicate understanding, comfort, encouragement, flirtation, pleasure, threats, manipulations and assault.

Some people touch frequently, like kids and older people. Those that have been abused are very anti-touch and will likely have strong physical reactions to being touched.

What is your character's background? Why do they touch (or not)? Will the reader understand the touch or misconstrue it?

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Gift of Awareness

When we talk about improving on our talents and pursuing our goals, there’s a topic I often see overlooked. Awareness. If we don't have it, we won't get far. Awareness is vital to success.

George can be a guy who is ambitious and hardworking, but he won’t reach his goal if he isn’t aware of what he needs to improve on. George can write all day, every day, but if he isn’t aware of what his story is doing (or not doing), he can’t improve on his craft. If Claire puts on her ballet shoes and dances around her house every week, she can’t improve on her technique if she’s not aware of what her weaknesses are.

So, we should strive to be aware. If we’re writing, we should pay attention to what our words, descriptions, dialogue, and punctuation are doing for our reader. Are they doing what we intended? Do we have control over all of these elements? If not, we need to improve on them.

Obviously, we can’t always tell when we aren’t aware of something. But I do believe we can teach ourselves to become more aware. Sometimes we just aren’t aware because we aren’t paying attention or we aren’t used to looking at every aspect of our work. We might have minds that drift, focus in too much, or turn a blind eye to elements we don’t like.

In other scenarios, we can rely on others to critique our work and help us. George’s writing group can mention the weak points in his writing. Claire’s dance teacher can point out her poor posture in plié. This is where the ability to take criticism well becomes really important.

While motivation and effort go a long way, don’t forget to be aware of what you are doing! Strive to be more conscious of whatever you are pursuing. Try to find your blind spots and weaknesses, and improve on them without sabotaging yourself.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Science Fiction Writer Diann T. Read

“In the past, when I considered important women writers of military science fiction, three names have stood out most prominently: C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Elizabeth Moon. Now I will add Diann Thornley Read to my list. With each novel, it becomes more and more evident just how important she has become to this field.”
—Dave Wolverton, New York Times best-selling author of The Courtship of Princess Leia and, as David Farland, The Runelords series.

For this post, I'm spotlighting Diann T. Read and her science-fiction books. I met Diann last year at one of David Farland's workshops and was excited to see her again a few weeks ago at LTUE, where she instructed and advised other writers. What I like about Diann is that she always has a positive attitude when I talk to her. I've heard our well-read mentor praise her work first hand. And if you're into straight up military science-fiction, you might want to consider reading her work.

About Diann T. Read and Her Book

Originally from northern Utah, Diann Thornley wrote her first story at the age of five and never stopped writing. She taught herself to type—with two fingers—on her father’s ancient manual typewriter at the age of six because it was faster than pushing a pencil. After winning a statewide writing contest, junior high division, at the age of fourteen, she began her first novel, which was based on the Arthurian legends. This endeavor filled most of her high school years and freshman year of college, until a handful of friends introduced her to science fiction by “kidnapping” her to go see an obscure little movie called Star Wars. The rest, as they say, is history.

Ganwold’s Child, first book of the The Sergey Chronicles, took seven years to complete, due to completing college and entering the U.S. Air Force. Following a year-long tour of duty in the Republic of Korea, Diann finished Ganwold’s Child while stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton, Ohio. Echoes of Issel and Dominion’s Reach, the second and third books in the Sergey trilogy, were also written in Ohio.

Diann transitioned into the Air Force Reserves following Desert Storm, but her military career spanned 23 years and included deployments to Bosnia and Iraq. In December 2000 she married Jon Read, NASA rocket scientist and martial artist, and moved to Texas. Diann retired from the Air Force in June 2009 to return to her writing career and spend more time with Jon.

The Sergey Chronicles

When Tor Books originally published this trilogy in the late 1990s it was called The Saga of the Unified Worlds. It would have been more accurate to call it The Sergey Chronicles because it is, more than anything else, the story of one warrior family—Admiral Lujan Ansellic Sergey, his combat surgeon wife Captain Darcie Dartmuth, and their teenage son, Tristan Sergey—who become caught at the fulcrum of interstellar politics and the demands of their military duty. Wrenched apart and scattered across the galaxy by the brutalities of war, they face captivity, torture, coercion, and epic space battles to be reunited. Only then do their most devastating challenges begin. Having been separated by decades of time as well as lightyears of distance, each of them must confront his or her internal demons to make their family truly whole again, and to defeat a new and more insidious threat to their civilization. Between deadly special operations missions and scenes of deep-cover political intrigue runs a thread that proves how much one family can accomplish with patience, forgiveness, trust, dedication, and unity of purpose.

The Sergey Chronicles are all available on Kindle here and will be available on Nook here.