Saturday, July 30, 2011

Fiction Writing Lesson #4 : Characters

At this point of our classes, we will spend more time writing and discussing the merits of our works so there is less theory to share moving forward.

Yesterday, we studied how to create believable fictional characters and once again we were introduced to two concepts, that of an archetype versus a stereotype. Once again, my engineering instincts kicked in and produced an equation to make understanding fiction much easier for us Techies type.

Archetype = Stereotype - Exaggeration

An example of an archetype commonly found in fiction is the The Artist, someone who is cast as somewhat eccentric, angsty and wants to bring something from his internal world into an external representation like a book or a piece of sculpture. Some experts claim that there are about 45 standard archetypes in literature and fiction writing.

Archetypes makes characters more believable.

A stereotype is an archetype on steroids. Add exaggeration to an archetype and you will get a stereotype. The character loses his political correctness and becomes more unbelievable. imagine a story of multicultural Singapore where Chinese gamble, Indians drink and Malays take drugs, and you catch the drift.

The best value from the course comes from the idea that a character becomes much more interesting if you introduce contradictions into his character.

Instead of a starving artist, perhaps the Artist in the story is a vulgar drill sergeant who imposes a life of strict regimentation his recruits who actually secretly paints in his spare time. Once an author finds a way to twist a character, the character becomes much more memorable.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fiction writing lesson #3 : Plot, Reversals, Recognition and Beats

Yesterday we got into a detailed discussion on how to construct a plot.

Stories can be plot-driven or character driven. A plot-driven story is somewhat like Transformer 3, a lot of things happen, but the author has to intervene and make the entire plot gel using a series of contrivances or coincidences. Plot-driven stories may have logical loopholes and tend to disrupt the suspension of disbelief. In Avatar, nature has to wake up just when the humans are about to destroy the Na'vi.

Stories can also be character driven. These stories are more carefully crafted and often are told from a person's point of view. The strength of this approach is that causation for the events are clearly spelled out so there is usually stronger logical consistency. The weakness is that character driven plots can be boring. I just read a Dance with Dragons and it's a very character driven fantasy series. In book 5, there is so much stream of consciousness writing that nothing much happens for thousands of pages until the author decided to fuck this shit and started killing the key characters in the story.

The best stories should a combination of both.

Then the lesson starts getting interesting. Due to my engineering inclinations, I can summarize storytelling into a simple equation.

Beat = Reversal + Recognition

Imagine a set of scenes as programmable objects that you use to develop a story otherwise called a beat. Fundamental in a good story is that the protagonist encounters an obstacle (reversal) and then experiences a personal change (recognition).

Chaining these beats allow you to methodically build your story into a climax.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Fiction Writing Lesson #2 : Show, don't tell.

Show, don't Tell is one of those basic fiction writing concepts which have been something I've been trying to wrap my head around for ages. In fiction writing, the aim is not tell the writer of someone's feelings but to show it. This allows the reader to infer for himself what's really going on around the story.

Lesson 2's exercise is powerful and I find myself able to apply it to some of my electronic products almost immediately once I get around to rewriting some of the narratives in my fantasy RPG.

Original prose - He had never been so angry in his life.

After my refinement - His brows tightened as his face turned beet red. With a clenched fist raised to the sky, the teenager's voice thundered across the room.

I was not even sure if tightening brows signified anger but I'm still an amateur at this.

Some paragraphs later, I decided to go ape-shit with this concept.

Original Prose - She could not imagine how her precious baby had grown up into such a rebellious, defiant teenager with no qualms about saying untrue things.

After my refinement - The babe that used to suckle at her teats has now become a raging tornado of bullshit, threatening to despoil the truth with it's swirling nuggets of filth.

The flair for drama aside, I just recalled my good instructor reminding us not to mix our metaphors.

All in all, a good lesson not just in fiction writing, but also in good corporate communications. You can increase your persuasiveness by using metaphors in your speech and by using concrete images to sway your audience.

Now to "weaponise" this discovery for my friends who are still in the dating circuit.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Fiction Writing Lesson #1 : Joys of discomfort.

Yesterday marks my first fiction writing lesson under Felix Cheong, who conducts a brilliant course on fiction writing with NUS extension. While I'm not a new as a student of Felix, having attended an earlier session on feature writing, this first lesson was a particularly useful one, because I found it a little uncomfortable.

For years, I have stayed within comfortable boundaries and leveraged my classes based on my strengths. Classes in finance and IT played on my traditional strengths of Analysis, Input and Intellection. For the first time in my life in a class, I had no strength or talent to draw from. All I have is the idea that with enough deliberate practice, I can take on fiction writing just like folks like George R R Martin and J K Rowling.

It felt funny being below average in class. Almost like taking Mandarin classes all over again.

I'm just going to highlight some of the high points of this class. I think many exercises cannot be done buy reading a book on fiction writing. You've got to sign up with Felix to experience it yourself.

a) Creatively generating multiple uses of an everyday object.

Felix took a water bottle and made the class think up alternative uses for it. I said that it can become a weapon for self-defense, another student said that it can function as a book-end. After a few rounds, conventional ideas started to run out and we began brainstorm some really zany ideas for the water bottle. Most of my ideas are X-rated in nature so I had to suppress sharing with the class how the bottle can be used for colonic irrigation or acting as a temporary storage on the way to the sperm bank.

b) Predicting someone's personality by looking at their belongings.

In the second exercise, we were made to read someone's personality by looking at four of their items. I had an unfair advantage for this exercise because I employed the OCEAN personality framework to create a fairly accurate profile of someone. The dude showed me an Economist magazine (turned to the pages on ETFs) and a bible, so using the framework I painted an agreeable, introverted and very conscientious personality profile of my target. One student wanted to offer me a job after my display, but it's really the framework in use that should be credited for it.

c) Generating a story by listening to a song.

This is the highlight of the evening. We listened to two songs and we then were made to come out with a story-line idea after the song ends. This exercise was way over my head. The songs were very alternative and the best i could do is visualize a scene which was spontaneously being generated in my head. I was unable to construct a setup, conflict and conclusion by listening to one song. But the amazing thing is, the rest of the class did! One lady who is in advertising came out with so much concrete detail it includes a twist in the plot of each tale, the specific locations where action is taking place and the the countries the characters come from. How so much information could be squeezed out of a song with lyrics that are barely audible baffles me.

To close this article, I think a fiction writing class can benefit technology professionals or suits. Felix taught me that people tended to frame their experiences in two ways. A Paradigmatic approach normally used by engineers in an attempt to bring order out of chaos is my bread and butter in my daily work. But the other approach is the Narrative approach which I am now trying to master. Crafting a story, enriching it with metaphors and symbols, is a rare skill in the Tech world.

We should heed the useful lessons of the liberal arts to advance our technical careers.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

10,000 hours of deliberate practice : Maybe its time to realize my Fiction Writing ambitions.

The Golden Point awards submission closed on Thursday this week, and I have, a month earlier, submitted an entry for the English short story category. Perhaps after the announcement of the results, I can share my, as yet, amateur writings on this blog.

For the past 8 years or so, I took the easier road in writing and publication. Writing non-fiction does not really differ from project management. Simply start with a table of contents, break down the work structure until you can complete a section per sitting and start writing about 500 words a day. Rinse and repeat the cycle.

The tough part comes in after the manuscript is complete. As Singaporeans are not avid readers, you need to in-source a lot of functions like formatting and cover design to keep your costs at a bare minimum, by my third book, my cost per copy became as low as $3.80 a copy.

With the invention of the Kindle, authors now get direct exposure to international markets. While marketing remains a consistent problem for me, publishing a book priced at $0.99 can break even within a week. The Kindle based role-playing game I wrote actually sells about 15 copies a month.

Now it's time to move into the territory that I've been eyeing for years. Fiction writing is a big money loser in Singapore, and that's for our greatest literary talents. My distributor is always warning me about the perils of writing poetry in our business meetings, but I think the economics for Singapore fiction writing has changed, a short story can be floated on Kindle and if about 5 fans pick up a copy because of marketing over your blog, you can say that you've broken even. If you write a novel and can sell it for $2.99, your profit margin climbs up to 70%.

No paper publisher can offer terms like that.

Anyway, this years Golden point begins a fresh new cycle of deliberate practice for me in fiction writing. I can now say authoritatively that writing fiction is very hard and yield much lower rewards than non-fiction writing. But the process is psychically rewarding and you enter the state of flow much more easily.

Beginning next week, I will apprentice myself to a master wordsmith, Felix Cheong, who will smoothen some of my edges and, hopefully, make me a competent fiction writer who doesn't churn out drivel.

In the months that follow, I will share my vision for my fantasy fictional world of elite Singaporean secondary schools struggling for dominance in a Harry Potter cum Game of Thrones like setting.

I hope to target this product for teens as I now have a daughter to share my writings with in the future.