Literature vs Genre Fiction

I’m currently enrolled in a Fiction Writing Workshop class at Rowan University. Since this is a graduate-level class, the intent is that we will learn things that go beyond just plot and characterization and show, don’t tell. The professor described it as a more in-depth course where we will be refining our writing on multiple levels and in as much detail as possible.

One of the issues that was raised on the first day is “What is the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction?” The answers varied, but in the discussion that followed we basically defined Genre Fiction (whether it be fantasy, sci fi, romance, mystery, etc) as books that are designed just to tell a story. They have a plot with a beginning and an end, and they are written for the purpose of selling books. Many authors who write a sci fi adventure book probably don’t say that they’re trying to send some epic message about the human experience. They may just enjoy those types of stories and think that they have a good story to tell.

Literature, on the other hand, was defined as writing that has some deeper meaning or message that goes beyond the story. It tells us something about life, and resonates in a way that will carry with the reader long after the experience.

Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t have Sci Fi Literature. If you picture it as a Venn Diagram, you’d have some overlap between various genres and works of literature. Some stories, however, are just stories.

To give a basic run down, I’ll go over some of the books I’ve read so far this year. One was George Orwell’s Animal Farm. This is definitely Literature. The story wasn’t just a story about animals taking over the farm. Instead, it was a political commentary about how power can corrupt and governments can take advantage of the people.

Then I read Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars, about the war taking place in Wonderland where Alice has to overthrow the Queen of Hearts (in a darker and more action-oriented tale than the original Alice in Wonderland, in a similar vein as the 2010 Alice in Wonderland film). This book didn’t seem to have any important political message; the war in the book was simply the Queen of Hearts grabbing power and ruling the land with an iron fist. You don’t really need to dig much deeper than that to understand the conflict.

Some books, as I mentioned above, can fall into both categories. For example, while there might be some individual dispute on this, I’d consider the Hunger Games Trilogy to be both literature and sci fi/action-adventure. On the surface, the first book is a story about teenagers being forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the evil Capitol that rules over the various districts. However, there can be parallels made to many social issues: youth violence (such as school shootings), poverty, the misbalance between starving third world countries and lavish capitalist societies, and the way media will depict any kind of tragedy or violence on the air just to get higher ratings. The fact that these events are taking place in a futuristic high-tech society that has force fields and such is just a matter of setting.

The questions raised in my graduate class, about the difference between Literature and Genre Fiction, has made me have to sit down and consider my writing in a new way. I don’t have any aspirations to be considered a literary writer or have my work have some deeper meaning (though if I sat down to analyze my work from a neutral perspective, I could definitely list a variety of ways that Manifestation and Contamination are critiques on how our society reacts to acts of terrorism, and the way blame is passed to people who aren’t responsible for the attacks just because society views everyone of certain “groups” as being equally to blame). I sat down to write an urban fantasy story, and if people later decide to consider it literature, then hey, bonus.

However, even though I don’t consider myself a literary writer, this class will require me to produce works of literary fiction. I still plan to make it urban fantasy literature, but I need to think more deeply about my approach. My goal with the class is to work on more short stories to go alongside Radiance, Belladonna, and the other shorts I’m working on for release along with the rest of the series. I may end up writing several new short stories, or one long one (since the class is open to either possibility). But for the new stories I work on to count as “literature,” I need to make sure there is a deeper meaning.

Is there a deeper message in Radiance? I would say yes. On the surface level, it’s a story about a girl gaining a magical power. Yet on a deeper level, it’s about faith and belief (which are themes that run though all of my writing, since belief is a very powerful force in the Arcana Revived world). So I’m considering how to look at the types of themes and deeper messages I tend to work with, in order to consider how to focus more on those things in whatever I’m about to write this semester. I haven’t yet decided how to go about this, but the ideas of belief and faith are a good starting point. I think I can say a lot about the power of belief and the way your personal perspective can change reality around you.

On one level, these are concepts I’m familiar with from my Communication Studies education; there’s a principle called Symbolic Interactionism that explains how our understanding of reality is changed by communication. This is a subtle effect, but can have a real impact. A small example would be if your parents treat you like you’re stupid, and you end up unmotivated in school, resulting in low grades, thus proving your parents right. Yet if they encourage you and tell you that you can succeed, you’ll try harder, get better grades, and prove them right. Your success or failure in such a situation can be determined by what kind of communication takes place.

On another level, this idea can be applied to fantasy works when considering the effect magic can have on you. The way characters like Gabby Palladino and Maria Vasquez communicate about magic in their world has a very real impact on how it functions. I don’t want to go into more detail because of spoilers, but it is something you can see in Radiance if you pay close attention to Maria’s thought process during the story and watch the nonverbal communication between her and the other minor characters in the book. There are some deliberate moments where people’s reactions reflect their beliefs in a way that causes literal changes in the world. It’s Symbolic Interactionism meets Magic and Mystery.

So in order to write literary works in this class, I think I’m going to take these concepts and focus on them more than I have in the past. Hopefully the results will be something my classmates say has a deeper message or says something about faith, belief, and society.


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When You Haven’t Written Anything New

So if you read my blog posts on a regular basis, you’ve probably seen a lot of posts lately about critiques, revisions, and my general thoughts on writing. I’ve been focused primarily on two projects this past month: revisions for both Manifestation and for the short story Belladonna. Both are being critiqued right now, and revisions are mostly on hold waiting for people to give me their feedback.

Since I’ve been so focused on revisions, however, I haven’t written much of anything new. I have made some progress on Book 4, but it’s not a major priority right now; I only work on it when nothing else has my attention (and I probably won’t focus on it for awhile, since revising and publishing Book 1 needs to come before writing Book 4). I also haven’t written any new short stories, or really anything other than blog posts, since December.

I’m starting to feel like my creative juices are backing up. I noticed recently that I’m spending more time daydreaming. Which is especially strange since I had noticed I barely spend any time daydreaming for the last year and a half. I am very focused when I daydream; I actually plot out elaborate daydream story lines and play them out for days if not weeks until they reach a conclusion. It’s something I’ve done most of my life. Yet the more and more I worked on my new novels, the less often I found myself developing these elaborate daydream story lines. I figured it was because I was channeling all that creative energy into my novels, and the fact that I’m daydreaming more now tells me I may have been right.

I will probably start writing some new short stories soon. After Radiance and Belladonna, there will be many more stories to come. I have a long list of ideas in mind right now, including origin stories for several more important characters in the series, and an adventure story where some of the minor characters get their chance to shine in the spotlight. I’ve been letting these ideas simmer for awhile, but they’ll probably get written soon, just because I will need an outlet.

I wonder if anyone else gets this itch when they haven’t written anything in awhile. Do you ever feel like you’ve got too much creativity bottled up, and you need to let it out?

Research

Superbowl XLVIII took place on February 2nd, 2014, at the MetLife Stadium located in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Not being a sports fan, I don’t normally pay much attention to anything related to the Superbowl. However, this year, I happened to notice a series of tweets protesting the Superbowl and stating that it was taking place on Native American lands. My curiosity was piqued, and I decided to look a bit deeper into this subject. My preliminary searches brought up a few interesting points:

  • The National Congress of American Indians released an ad during Superbowl weekend, titled “Proud to Be.” As of February 6th 2014, the video on YouTube has already accumulated over one million hits since it was uploaded on January 27. The video speaks about the many names of different Native American tribes and the many diverse roles they have within their culture. It ends with a protest against the name “Redskins,” stating this is a name their people would never use.
  • The video includes a link to “ChangetheMascot.org,” a site devoted to urging the NFL to “end the use of the racial slur “redskins” as the mascot and name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C.
  • I also found some protests on Twitter, stating that East Rutherford, NJ, where the Superbowl was being held, is “occupied Native American land.” Some basic web searches brought me to the Rutherford Chamber of Commerce website. The brief history listed there confirms that the land was originally settled by the Lenape, long before European settlers moved here.
  • Some basic historical research reveals that the Lenape were exposed to smallpox in the early 1600s, along with a number of other diseases. Between disease and warfare, the Lenape population suffered greatly, and “by 1750 it is estimated that the Lenape lost almost 90% of their people.”
  • Many of the Lenape eventually relocated to Oklahoma and Canada, but after some further searching I found that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation still lives in New Jersey and the area around the Deleware Bay. Their headquarters is now located in Bridgeton, Cumberland County, New Jersey, about 120 miles from where the Superbowl was held.

All of this preliminary research shows me that there is a lot of ground to cover on this topic. In addition to the initial topic of the Superbowl and the protests against racism and oppression, there is also a lot of history and culture to be uncovered right here in New Jersey. I plan to apply this research to an article that may end up specifically focusing on the racial issues raised by the “Proud to Be” video, or instead focus on other local issues faced by the Lenape nation here in New Jersey, or possibly end up going in another direction as my research reveals more related topics. My initial plan is to gather as much information as I can, in order to narrow down a focal area that I can use as the main topic of the article I plan to write.

One of the obvious target publications if I focus on the Superbowl/Redskins name change angle is Sports Illustrated. A search of their website reveals a number of articles on the subject, including a recent one quoting Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner as saying that “nine out of ten Native Americans support the Redskins’ name.” The number of articles on the subject shows that there is an interest in this area, but I was unable to find any that specifically addressed more focused issues, such as the fact that the Superbowl took place on former Native American lands. The lack of previous articles on these more focused areas may mean that the magazine would be open to something new and fresh.

Another possibility is Native Peoples Magazine. This magazine is more specifically focused on Native American culture, including interviews with interesting Native American people. Their website specifically states that part of their mission is “to provide a ‘sensitive portrayal’ of the Native peoples of the Americas,” so it seems like an ideal place for an article that speaks on Native American culture and offers the viewpoints of Native Americans themselves on current social issues.

A less focused publication that publishes articles on general social issues is The Nation. They specifically seek articles related to civil liberties and civil rights, and a search of their online archives reveals several articles related to the debate surrounding the Redskins’ name change.

Research into this topic should be quite extensive. It’s a subject I’m not familiar with, considering that the only real experience I have with learning about Native American history and culture was what I learned in grade school. Since I’ll be going into this subject with nothing more than the general “common knowledge” level of understanding, I won’t have any preconceived ideas or biases and that should help me to explore this subject with an open mind. In addition, I’ve never engaged in deep research into this sort of social, cultural, and historical topic before. My primary research areas in the past have been related to communication studies and gender issues, so this will be new ground for me.

Furthermore, since the subject has both local areas of research (from the Lenape nation in South Jersey to the East Rutherford lands in North Jersey) and more far-reaching areas (since the Redskins’ name debate is a nationwide issue), there will be a lot of ground to cover. The fact that the Superbowl took place in New Jersey this year may even add a unique perspective to any research, since I may find more local issues and perspectives that can be related to the greater debate.

As I continue with this research, I’ll be posting my findings under a research category on the blog. Also, additional practice research and reflections on research methods themselves will be posted under a secondary category.

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Note: This post was originally a “page” before I figured out how to do some rearrangements that compiled all research posts into a single category listed as a menu item. In order to preserve the content when I took the “page” down, everything from that page was copied into a new post. Original comments are compiled below as screenshots since WordPress unfortunately deletes them along with the page, and there was no way to convert them. I didn’t want to lose the comments and the discussion that took place in them.

Research_Comment_1 Research_Comment_2 Research_Comment_3 Research_Comment_4 Research_Comment_5 Research_Comment_6 Research_Comment_7 Research_Comment_8 Research_Comment_9

Bull in a China Shop

What does a bull in a china shop have to do with writing a good novel? Read on to find out.

We’ve probably all heard the phrase “like a bull in a china shop” to refer to something chaotic and destructive. It brings to mind images of a bull rampaging around, smashing everything in sight, and creating a godawful mess.

Then the Mythbusters proved that a bull let lose among racks of china dances among them like he’s at the ballet, running around graceful and free, without causing any damage at all.

There are plenty of other common phrases similar to this one that have no grounding in reality. Just to name a few, you should be aware that ostriches do NOT actually bury their heads in the sand, Columbus did NOT prove the world was round, and despite what people claim, Alanis Morissette actually did use the word “ironic” correctly in her song (one of the definitions of “ironic” is simply something “unexpected,” and every example in the song fits that definition, despite what critics try to say).

So what does all of this have to do with writing? Glad you asked.

Sometimes, when people are writing a book, movie script, or what have you, they use phrases like those listed above incorrectly. Now, if it just falls in a character’s dialogue, it’s probably not a big deal. After all, if a character in a book or movie says “Columbus proved the Earth was round” it might just be because the character thinks that’s true, the same way most people do. However, the problem comes when a character is supposedly an expert in a certain topic or an otherwise intelligent figure and they’re repeating things that simply aren’t true. One example of this is Sybok quoting the Columbus myth in Star Trek V.

The worst way to screw this sort of thing up would be if you have a character who is a scientist or who has a PhD in their field. You might decide to have them quote some important “fact” as part of how you show their knowledge, but if that fact is just dead wrong, you may end up making your character (and yourself, as the writer) look like an idiot. It’s something that can be avoided pretty easily if you just do a little research. I frequently head to Google to read up on various topics that come up in my writing, just to make sure I get the facts straight. A good example of this is one of my main characters, Dr. Patricia Caldwell. She’s a psychiatrist with Medical Degree in Psychology, and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (I even extensively researched what kind of degrees she would need for her position, in order to make them as accurate as possible). Dr. Caldwell is the most intelligent and educated person in my books, and it usually falls on her to discuss anything scientific. Now, I get a certain amount of leeway in some things since my books involve a lot of magic, and with magic, I make the rules. But when anything medical or scientific comes up, I do as much research as I can to make sure it’s accurate. There might still be mistakes that slip through (after all, my degree is in the Writing Arts, not Psychology or Biochemistry), but I make sure to research my facts as much as I can.

There are some other ways getting the facts wrong could cause problems in your writing. A few simple examples are things like how cars will generally NOT explode if the gas tank gets shot or if the car falls off a cliff (Mythbusters busted both of those), a pressure breach in an airplane probably won’t suck people out the window (Mythbusters again), and getting shot doesn’t actually make you fly back five feet in the air (hey, Mythbusters did that one, too). Many of these things are used in movies because Hollywood likes to make things dramatic and exciting. Having such things happen in your book, however, might make people think you just didn’t get your facts straight before writing it.

It can be a good idea to have your critique partners or beta readers be on the look out for these things as well. When I critique a story for someone, I always point out anything that seems wrong or inaccurate to me. I also like it when someone brings those things to my attention in my own writing. Sometimes it’ll be something I didn’t realize at all before they mentioned it. Other times it’ll be a situation where I facepalm and realize I should have KNOWN better. In either case, however, it’s best to catch this sort of thing during revisions rather than letting it get printed on the page. Nobody is perfect, but a writer who takes the time to do the best research they can will be more successful than one who never pays attention to the mistakes they made.

Suspense Without Death

I’d like to talk about suspense.

I often hear people complaining about certain TV shows, movies, books, and comics by saying that there is “no suspense” because “the main characters can’t die.” This can apply to anything from a TV show like “24” (where everyone knew that Jack Bauer had to live or else the series would end), a book series like Harry Potter where the books are named after Harry so of course he has to live, or to a webcomic like The Order of the Stick, where people always complain in the website’s forums about there being no danger to the main cast because they have “plot armor” (as in, their lives are protected because they’re needed for the plot).

I touched on this subject before in a series I wrote about how to use magic in your writing (You can find that series in three posts: The first post discusses 1. How to make your magic unique and 2. How to make rules so your magic makes sense, the second post discusses  3. How to break your own rules (and do it right) and 4. How to make the main character “special” in a world filled with magic, and the third post discusses 5. How to create danger and suspense in a world where magic can solve everyone’s problems (Also known as “The Superman Dilemma”) and 6. How to decide on scale and power level (no one should be over 9000).  Specifically, “The Superman Dilemma” is an idea that a character’s powers can be so strong that there is no suspense, such as because Superman is rarely in danger and you KNOW Superman won’t die because he’s Superman. The way I discussed getting around this dilemma is by putting the suspense not in whether Superman lives or dies, but instead in whether he succeeds or fails.

So summarize the concept I went over in the post about “The Superman Dilemma,” it basically goes like this: suspense doesn’t just come in whether Superman will die. It comes in whether everyone ELSE will die. Can Superman save them all in time, or will he fail? In a scenario like this, the suspense comes not only from the loss of other lives, but also from the emotional strain Superman faces when he realizes he wasn’t strong enough to save everyone. Similar turmoils occur frequently in other shows and books as well. A good example is Doctor Who. Everyone KNOWS the Doctor can’t die, because if he does, he just regenerates. But the suspense comes in wondering whether he can save everyone else, and we see his pain and his turmoil every time he fails someone who was counting on him.

Now, the original post I wrote about this dilemma was focused on the magic angle of suspense; specifically, the way you use these ideas to create suspense when you have a character with extreme powers and abilities (whether they be Superman’s superhero powers or the Doctor’s intelligence and cunning). However, this concept can be taken to a different level. What about if you have a character with NO powers?

I’m currently reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t yet seen the movies and I plan on finishing the books before I do so. (Spoilers to follow, so don’t read on if you don’t want me giving away the plot of the book). Now, The Hunger Games has no real magic in it (though the Gamemakers technological ability to do things like summon a giant wall of fire could almost be magic from a literary perspective). The main character, Katniss Everdeen, has to survive the games through nothing but her skills, cunning, and perseverance. Of course, I know she CAN’T die in the first book, because a) there’s two more books and b) I’ve seen previews for the second movie, Catching Fire that show her as the victor. Does this take away the suspense?

No. And here’s why.

Katniss isn’t a superhero, so she’s not expected to save anyone. If she does save one of the other Tributes, she does so because she is pure of heart, not because she’s there to save them. So the idea of “failing to save people” (as with Superman) doesn’t really apply to her. We expect her to have to kill the others. So if we remove BOTH the suspense of her dying (since she can’t) and the suspense of her failing to save others (since she isn’t expected to do so), then what suspense is there?

The suspense of her maintaining her humanity.

I’m about halfway through the book. I just read a scene where Katniss and the younger girl, Rue, are both hiding in the trees, trying to escape the other Tributes. Rue warns Katniss about a hive of genetically engineered wasps, and in exchange, Katniss warns Rue to escape before she unleashes the wasps on the other Tributes down on the ground. Two Tributes die because of Katniss’s actions, but we see this as a victory, because they were trying to kill Katniss first. She wins and defeats her enemies.

However, there are two Tributes so far that are NOT Katniss’s enemies: Rue and Peeta. Peeta is in love with Katniss and saves her life, not only refusing to attack her when he has the chance but warning her when others are coming. So by this point in the book, both Rue and Peeta have proven themselves to be friends and potential allies for Katniss. She won’t want to kill them, even if she’ll willingly kill any of the other Tributes.

This creates suspense, because even knowing Katniss has to live, the reader wonders, Will she have to kill her friends? I don’t want Katniss to have to kill Rue. I like Rue, and I want her to live. But even if she dies, there is suspense because I don’t want Katniss to be the one who kills her. Maybe Rue will be killed by another Tribute. Maybe she will die of the dangers around her in the wilderness. Maybe she will heroically sacrifice herself to save Katniss. I don’t know what will happen, but not knowing creates suspense. More than anything, I don’t want to see Katniss suffer the pain of murdering someone she sees as a friend. That pain, the pain Katniss would feel over having to kill someone she doesn’t want to kill, would be worse than Superman’s pain when he fails to save a life.

So you see, there can be suspense in many forms. Sometimes it’s not a question of “Will the main character die?” Sometimes, it’s a question of “What will the main character have to do to survive?” She might lose something deeper, some part of her good nature. And if she turns into a murderer to save herself, isn’t that a bigger defeat than seeing her die?

How to Decide Which Story to Write First

If you’re like me, you’re usually juggling multiple projects at once. Often this leads to a question of which is the most important one to work on, and which can be put off. For the sake of this post I’ll set aside blog posts, school projects, paid assignments, and anything else with a deadline or schedule; those are things that “get done when and because they have to get done,” and therefore the decision is (theoretically) out of your hands).

Juggling multiple projects can come in a few different forms. Some people I know struggle between writing novels, television scripts, and plays. Others might have several novel ideas and aren’t sure which one to focus on. Or if you’re like me, you’ve got novels in revision, novels in writing, short stories, and poems. My personal “to do” list of writing currently includes the following:

  1. Finish revising Manifestation.
  2. Start Draft 2 of Contamination (and eventually also Draft 2 of Collapse).
  3. Continue writing Book 4 (untitled) of the Arcana Revived series.
  4. Continue revising Belladonna.
  5. Start revising any of the other 8 or 9 short stories I have in first draft form.
  6. Write new short stories.
  7. Revise poems for the second collection of The Poetry of Gabriella Palladino.
  8. Write new poems.
  9. Revise the musical novella Giapelli.

That’s a pretty hefty list. And that’s not counting blog posts, school projects, or anything that isn’t part of Arcana Revived.

So how to prioritize? Well, there’s probably tons of advice to be found. Googling “How to decide which writing project to work on” brought up 98,000,000 results for me. But rather than try to summarize any of that or rehash the advice of others, I’ll just go through my personal process.

First and foremost comes the question “What does my Muse want me to do?” Sometimes, she isn’t saying anything. Many Muses don’t follow YOUR schedule. They expect you to work until they’re ready to come along. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King said that he has to sit down and write every day, even if it means churning through without inspiration. Then, when his Muse is good and ready, he comes along and dabbles the inspiration. What this advice basically means is don’t wait for inspiration to come to you; work hard every day, and it’ll come when you least expect it (and hopefully it’ll come when you’re at the keyboard and not in the shower).

So if my Muse shows up and tells me to work on something, I listen, because who knows when she’ll be back? Sometimes that means I start writing a new short story despite having 9 other short stories that need revision still. It’s best to get down what I can while the inspiration is fresh, or else I risk losing it altogether.

But let’s say I’m not feeling any specific inspiration today. I therefore have a long list of things to do and I need to pick one. My decision making process basically goes like this:

  • Am I away from home? If so, I can’t revise because I don’t have Scrivener on the computers at school or on my phone. In this case, my solution is “Write a new (poem/short story/chapter of Book 4). When I write new, raw text I can do so on my phone’s Writer app, on my laptop, on a school computer, or whatever. Then I transfer the file back to my home computer afterwards. Polished, revised text, however, can’t just be worked on from any old device. I need my main computer (where I keep my primary files) for that. If I started using Cloud storage I might be able to work around this limitation, but even then, writing on my phone isn’t good for formatting and such. My phone’s app produces text files with no real formatting, so I need to copy those into a proper Word or Scrivener document to be cleaned up.
  • If I AM at home with access to Scrivener and my main WIP files, I prioritize revising over writing. After all, it doesn’t do me much good to finish writing Book 4 before Book 1 is released, now does it? The only reason I’ve made almost 20,000 words of progress on Book 4 so far is because I write on my phone (such as when it’s slow at work). I then come home, copy those words into my main document, and set the writing aside to focus on revisions for the rest of the night. This makes Manifestation the top priority.
  • If I’m home and plan to work on revisions, I might also ask myself “Do I need critiques/feedback before continuing this?” For example, I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts that I’m awaiting critiques on Manifestation. As a result, I’m working on revising Belladonna instead. Belladonna is a lesser priority, but I’ll work on that until I get the feedback I need. Likewise, later this week I’m probably going to ask for critiques on Belladonna. When I do so, I’ll probably work on a different short story or poem while awaiting those critiques. This can also be a good way to keep up with multiple projects at once: keep them on a rotation based on which you “can’t” work on right now and which you “can.”
  • Last, I’ll ask myself “Do I even know what to DO with this piece right now?” We’ve all been through this. You know you’re supposed to work on a certain project, but you stare at the screen, uncertain what to do with it. When I get like that, I switch to something else. While Belladonna is the primary short story I’m working on right now, if I were feeling blocked on it, I’d start working on Soldier of Light, Man of Faith, or Demons of the Mind instead, just to give myself something ELSE to do. That’s more productive than staring uselessly at the screen. And all of those stories are eventually going to join Radiance as individual ebooks, so they’re all important to work on.

So that’s basically it: Muse > Write New Stuff Away From Home > Revise At Home > Switch Gears When Blocked.

Anything I missed? What’s your process?

Characters

I’d like to talk about characters.

I’ve just finished reading The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to get into a full review of the entire novel (short version: great, imaginative story with stunning detail, but poor structure, plot holes, and problems with the prose), but one particular thing the book left me thinking about is the characters. I feel like the book had too many characters, and several of them came off as flat, undeveloped characters that didn’t serve a real role in the story.

How many characters does your story need? How much detail does each character need? How much do they need to be developed?

You could find thousands of different answers to those questions on various writing blogs. I’ve read a few before, and they all seem to approach the question from a different perspective. Some answer from the perspective of the role the character plays in the story: are they the protagonist, antagonist, love interest, sidekick, or something else? Others approach the questions from the point of view of character archetypes: the orphan hero, the mysterious traveler, the trickster, the wise sage, and so on.

I tend to approach this question from a slightly different point of view: are we being told this character’s story, or are they a minor player in someone else’s story?

Allow me to explain.

If you’re writing a novel from a single character’s point of view, then you’re writing their story. The Harry Potter novels are, when it comes down to it, Harry’s story. There are sporadic times when we see another character’s point of view, but it’s rare in those books to be taken away from Harry and see events going on elsewhere. He’s the central focus. In a situation like this, any other characters exist in roles relative to the main character.

You see this in movies all the time as well. Any superhero movie  tends to focus primarily on the hero. We see a great deal of Batman or Superman’s life, and very little of what is going on with anyone else. If we do see events taking place away from the character, it’s only based on how those events relate to the main character. For example, if we see what Lois Lane is up to on her own, it’s usually only to show the danger she’s about to get into so Superman can come and save her. That still makes it Superman’s story about how he rescued Lois Lane, not Lois Lane’s story about how she was rescued by Superman.

You can also have a central group point of view that functions the same way, if the characters remain together all the time. A movie like Saving Private Ryan is a good example. The entire movie follows six soldiers on a journey together. We’re never separated from those characters, and they’re on the same journey with the same goal the entire time. Other characters who appear serve a role in relation to them. The group encounters people who need to be rescued, but the focus remains on the soldiers doing the rescuing. They encounter other groups of soldiers, but only for as long as it takes to question them about where Private Ryan is. When the main group moves on, we never see these minor characters again.

So in the above examples, we have a single central point of view (whether it’s the point of view of a single person or of a unified group). Other characters exist only in relation to the main character(s). We never see more of those minor characters’ lives, so they don’t need much development. This is a good thing, because in a short book or movie, there’s only room for so much development.

But what if you have multiple POVs?

A lot of people say that for books around 50,000 words or so, you should stick with a single point of view (or maybe alternating between two points of view, such as between the two main characters in a romance novel as their relationship develops). This is because 50,000 words is only really enough time to get deeply into one or maybe two people’s lives. It’s better to focus your attention on them as much as possible so that they get the greatest amount of development. If you split such a novel up between 10 characters’ lives, we’d barely get the chance to know each of them.

Now, longer works are very different. Robert Jordon’s The Wheel of Time series, for example, has 15 books (14 + a prequel) totaling well over 4,400,000 words. There are no less than a dozen “primary” main characters who each have their own ongoing story throughout the series, and then hundreds of other supporting characters that end up tied to one of the main characters. In essence, by the later parts of the series, each main character develops a “team” of their own. Matrim Cauthon has the Band of the Red Hand, and multiple well-developed characters seen with him regularly throughout their many adventures. Perrin Aybara has the combined Two Rivers, Mayener, and Aiel forces he commands from book 6 onward, and his own team of supporting characters. Egwene Al’vere ends up leading the Aes Sedai with her own team of supporting characters.

So by thinking about a story like this, there ends up being several “tiers” of characters. When working on my own novels, I’ve developed four tiers that each character can be divided into. These go from the main characters, to their major supporting characters, to minor supporting members of their teams, to miscellaneous (often unnamed) characters.

An example of this setup would go like this:

Tier 1: Gabriella Palladino (Main Protagonist)
–Tier 2: Gabby’s major supporting characters: Her family (Mother, Father, older brothers Frankie and Anthony, older sister Adrianna, nephew Dante), plus her best friend Callia Gainsborough.
—-Tier 3: Gabby’s minor supporting characters: Classmates at her high school (Jacob, Rick, Charlie, Erica), her brother’s friend Matt.
——–Tier 4: Miscellaneous unnamed students, teachers, police officers, etc.

Based on that kind of breakdown, it would make sense that Gabby would get the most character development. She’s the one who is the central focus of her scenes, and we see supporting characters (such as her family) only as they relate to her point of view. We do not, for example, follow her dad to work and find out what his life is like away from his family. We do, however, follow Gabby to school and see parts of her life away from her family.

And that’s just one “team.” There’s also another team for Tock Zipporah, who has her own central story to follow. She also has major supporting characters, minor characters, and miscellaneous characters who are all a part of her ongoing story.

Here is also where the short stories I’m writing become fun. I mentioned recently that I’m working on a short story, Belladonna, which follows the story of Mae Southeby. Mae is a Tier 2 character in the main set of novels, which means she gets a lot of screen time and action, but we aren’t really reading her story; we’re reading Gabby and Tock’s story. Tier 2 characters can get tons of development, but they’re not the central focus. Writing a separate short story about that character gives them a chance to be Tier 1 in their own story. That’s also what I did with Radiance; Maria Vasquez becomes a Tier 2 character in Gabby’s team in the later books, but in Radiance, she’s Tier 1.

This is also how spinoffs work. The Sarah Jane Adventures gives the character Sarah Jane Smith, from Doctor Who, the chance to move from a supporting character to a main character. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does the same thing with characters from The Avengers. In each of those series, there will be a new set of major, minor, and miscellaneous supporting characters. Plus, if a character from the original series guest stars on them, they technically become Tier 2 since they’re only a guest on the spinoff.

So based on all this, the question isn’t really “How many characters do you need?” It’s a question of “How many Tier 1 MAIN characters do you need?” In a shorter book (50,000 words), there should only be one or two Tier 1 main characters. Each of them can have as many supporting characters as they need, so long as those characters remain tied to the main character. In a longer work (100k-150k), you can easily have three, four, or five Tier 1 main characters, each of which can have their own groups (family members, friends, coworkers, classmates, comrades in a military squad, etc). Just remember who the MAIN characters are, the ones who get the most central focus, and think of the other characters in terms of how they support the main characters’ stories.

Belladonna

So I mentioned the other day that I was shifting gears a bit. Manifestation is currently in the hands of four people who are reading it and preparing to offer me critiques. Meanwhile, I’m refocusing some of my efforts on another project, Belladonna.

Belladonna follows the origins of Maelyssa Southeby, or “Mae” for short. She’s a teenager living in San Lorien during the events of Manifestation. Like Maria Vasquez, the main character of Radiance, Mae undergoes an arcane change that unlocks a mysterious power like no one has ever seen. Throughout the course of the novels, Manifestation, Contamination, and Collapse, Mae becomes a major player in the events that unfold. Belladonna, however, shows how it all got started.

I originally wrote Belladonna back in September, when the Kickstarter for Radiance was still going on. I then left it to sit for awhile. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King suggests that after the first draft of a piece of writing is complete, you should stick it in a drawer somewhere and not look at it for like six weeks or more. That way, when you come back to it, you can look at it with fresh eyes. So that’s what I did with Belladonna, and I’ve just now started revising it.

I ended up getting some new ideas today, and as a result I added quite a bit of new material to the story. Belladonna has now been increased from 4500 words to over 10,000. That’s quite a bit longer than Radiance, which is about 3000 words. It’s possible Belladonna will be trimmed down a bit during revisions, but it’ll still be a nice long story, and a lot of action takes place in those pages.

I probably won’t be finished with revisions of Belladonna any time soon. I just finished Draft Two, but most of my stories get four, five or six drafts before they’re finished. I’ll probably work on Draft Three later this week. Then, by the time I finish that and get started on school next week, I’ll end up needing to get back to Manifestation. Then what will most likely happen is when Manifestation goes to my editor on March 6th, I’ll dive back in for a fourth revision of Belladonna. Then there’s a good chance the short story will be released (as an ebook) around the same time as Manifestation comes out. Maybe a bit sooner, since a 10,000 word short story takes far less time and effort to polish up than a 120,000 word novel.

I’ll keep you updated on the progress. It’ll be some time yet before the story is released, but when it is, I hope you love it.

Critique Partners, and Shifting Gears

So as of this morning, I’ve sent Manifestation out to four people for critiques. I made the decision late last night after going over the document a few more times. I ran through my entire stack of notes until they ran out. Some of the notes were about scenes that I’d already cut. Others were old notes about issues I’d already worked out without needing to consult the notes to remind myself. The rest of the issues in the notes I addressed, until I didn’t have a single note left to consult.

That left me sitting there, staring at the document, going, “Now what?”

I decided my lack of certainty about what to do next meant it was time for critiques. After all, I’ve already rearranged the chapters, done line edits, cut scenes, added more scenes in, rearranged some more chapters, split some scenes in half, cut stuff out of the middle, slid the pieces back together to fill in the gaps, and made sure that every chapter flows as best as possible from one into the next. I’ve done as thorough of a job as I can making sure the writing is solid, the grammar is clean, and the story is sound.

Which means I needed a fresh set of eyes on it to point out whatever I’ve missed. People call this “Author Blindness” or things to that effect. After working on this novel for almost a year and a half (off and on), I’m at the point that I can’t view it objectively. And NO ONE has read it yet. I have given a couple of chapters here and there to a few people, but no one has ever yet read the whole novel from beginning to end (not counting the first draft scenes that used to be on the blog).

Hopefully my CP’s will have some excellent suggestions for me to work out, so I can dive back into this project with full gusto. I’ve still got a March 6th deadline to get Manifestation to the editor I hired. That’s just about two months, minus whatever time it takes for my CP’s to finish reading and critiquing the story.

Meanwhile, I need something else to shift my efforts towards. I always have projects I need to work on, but there’s always a “central” project that I’m devoting most of my attention to. Part of my efforts will be classes at Rowan when the spring semester starts on Jan 12st. I’m also working on a literature review for my Graduate Assistant job. Then there’s the Goodreads Reading Challenge I’m participating in. But none of those are a core project for my personal writing career.

So what I’m going to do next is start revising a short story. If you haven’t heard yet, I’m self-publishing a series of short stories to go along with the Arcana Revived series. The first story in the series, Radiance, follows the origins of the character Maria Vasquez, who starts playing a major role in the third book in the series, Collapse. Originally, Maria’s entrance was supposed to be in the second book, Contamination, but that book ran longer in some parts than expected and certain events were pushed back to book three.

In addition to Radiance, I’ve written several other short stories set around the events in the series. Most of these are all in first draft form, but I plan to revise them all and get them ready for publication. The short stories are naturally pushed back behind the novels in terms of importance, so I’ve been focusing more on Manifestation first. However, since I’m on a short break from Manifestation, I decided it’s time to start some revisions of these stories.

The one I’ve decided to work on first is titled Belladonna. This story follows the origins of another major character in the series, Maelyssa Southeby. Mae is first introduced in Manifestation, then steps up into a major role in both Contamination and Collapse. Belladonna not only gives a closer glimpse at Mae’s individual life as a character, but it also serves to show the reader what else is happening in the world beyond what we see of Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, the two main characters of the series.

So today, I’m going to work on those revisions. Belladonna is currently about 4500 words, making it one of the longer short stories I’ve written (and longer than most individual chapters of Manifestation). I’m going to take it through at least a second or third draft before it, too, goes out for critiques. Then it’ll be polished up for publication, and will soon join Radiance as part of the Arcana Revived short story collection.