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Creating Believable Characters

I remember the day I faced reality – the day a reviewer of The Battle for Oz said my characters were two-dimensional and un-relatable. That both Alice and Dorothy were kind of weird, and that neither grew throughout the tale. My first response was, well, defensive. But after thinking it through, I had to agree. You see, I’m no master at creating believable characters. Believe me when I say, character development is my weakest spot. And knowing this, I’ve been trying to improve. But… how?

How does one create three-dimensional characters? How do we make them relatable, and help them grow? How can our characters move readers on an intimate level?

The thing about writing is this: despite the many resources, some things have to be learned through experience. And almost literally, character development is one of those things. Literally. You can read stacks of books, but if you don’t see it – feel it – your characters will remain flat on its pages. What do I mean by that? It’ll be easier to explain by telling you what I did, and am still doing.

Are you ready? Here’s the big reveal: my secret to creating believable characters is… Well, it’s really no secret. It is, however, something we may have overlooked – something so basic – something that is of us. It is… human psychology. Yes, the understanding of the human mind. I’ve come to discover that studying and observing human behaviour is the key to creating believable characters.

I first dived into this study out of curiosity – I wanted to be able to read people for fun. As an individual with a habit of watching others, being able to interpret expressions, gestures, and speech patterns was a bonus. So, I scoured the world wide web. And from what I’ve gathered, I can now spot attraction, notice physical habits, and I’m more aware of my own thoughts and actions. But how do these skills actually help with character building? It starts with the approach.

With this insight, I approach my characters not as their author but as a friend, parent, mentor, sibling, acquaintance, rival, and passerby. I also help my characters approach others via the same state of mind. Simply put, I present characters based on how other characters perceive them. I create an impression through the eyes of others. Because in reality, that’s what we do.

Science says it takes seven seconds for us to judge a person we’re meeting for the first time. We don’t do it on purpose, but we do it anyway. The way a person speaks, stands, and expresses emotion, tells us whether we like them or not. In seven seconds, we either have a foe or an ally. In seven seconds, we either come off as awesome… or not so awesome. Just by knowing this fact, isn’t it interesting to see how your characters fair with each other?

What did Thom think of Seanna on the road to Daysprings? By presenting first impressions, characters have more depth when they prove those impressions right… or wrong. And since they’re defined by another, it is our job to help them prove themselves. Which brings us to our next question: how do we do that without spelling things out? Ironically, readers don’t want to read a character – they want to discover a character. So how do we send readers on an expedition, while providing the exact coordinates to the treasure? The answer is in body language.

I had a fun time writing Trails of the Wind, specifically the scene where the antagonist entered stage. I’d set to fill his character with habits, he himself wasn’t aware of. Right off the bat, he taunted with false guffaws, slow claps, and finger snaps. He smirked when he contradicted himself. And, he rarely failed to announce his arrival either verbally or physically. I’m pretty sure you, with your innate ability to read character, don’t like him already. And just like that, you have a grasp of his personality – not a firm grasp, but a grasp nonetheless. My goal wasn’t to present his personality intrusively, but subtly. And body language is always subtle.

Personally, understanding human behaviour has helped me in creating believable characters. As I observe, discover, and challenge, I see and feel the world differently. And from my experiences, I’m able to translate ideas into depictions. The day you grasps the very nature of us beings, is the day your characters do the same. And guess what, you don’t need a master’s degree. You just need to pay a little more attention to those around you.

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Posted by on June 8, 2017 in Writing Journey

 

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100 Words, 6 Years Later

I wasn’t a good writer. I’m not a good writer now, either. But when I look back at my older works and cringe, I know I’ve come a long way. So if you feel like your writing isn’t great, I want you to know that you’ll get better. If you keep writing, you’ll improve. And it’s OK to admit that you suck. One cannot progress by already being the best.

To prove my point, let me show you the opening of my first novel and the opening of my most recent novel. Right off the bat, one seems more interesting than the other.

The Dreamer, 2011

Another day indoors. Tad sighed as he stared blankly at the book in front of him. He wanted very much to be out in the field playing ball with his brothers instead of reading a 500-page manual on “How to un-root an Energy Canister”, as though removing an Energy Canister was the job only for a highly professional engineer, if that was the case the world would have plenty of them. 

Tad shut the book forcefully and peered out the window. He could see his brothers being interrupted by his father in the middle of their game. He knew automatically that they were being ordered to get back to work. 

Trails of the Wind, 2017

Father is alive.

Those three words echoed in the depths of his cloudless mind. Standing before the wide glass window, he watched as day ended its shift. While night clocked in, the clear amber sky gracefully gave way to the moon. And in the peaceful arrival of darkness, the kingdom below lit with cheerful, vibrant lanterns – a reflection of the starry canvas above.

As the crackling logs in the fireplace warmed the bedchamber, Robb made up his mind. His heart was certain. And there were no more questions.

Father is alive.

Perhaps to you, I did a pretty decent job with The Dreamer. But if I handed you the entire book, I’m sure you’d change your mind. The Dreamer was self-published in 2011. It was my first ever novel, and I’m unashamed of it. I had to start somewhere, right? So I’ve left it in the world to be judged. Because at the end of the day, it’s the book that signifies the start of my adventure.

As for Trails of the Wind, I wrote it in 2015 but only finished editing in January. Currently, it’s being pitched to publishers. It’s part of a trilogy and I’m hoping someone would give it a shot. I know I would one day write better books than this. But for now, it’s the best I’ve written. Perhaps another six years down the road, I’d cringe again.

The great thing about writing is this: no one starts great. Sure, there are those who make headlines upon their debut. But what we don’t see are the years those authors spent on improving their skill. They could’ve been writing without a single soul knowing. Unfortunately, when they make their first appearance, many assume they’re literary geniuses. Many choose to compare themselves to a best-seller, without reading the backstory. And by doing so, many feel inadequate despite their potential.

Now, I’m not saying literary geniuses don’t exist – I think there are geniuses out there. But I doubt any success can come without constant devotion to one’s craft. Even geniuses have to put in work or their talent goes to waste. So stop comparing yourselves to others, and start comparing yourself to yourself.

The best gauge of improvement is through your own works. Acknowledging that some aren’t great isn’t a confession of incompetence, but a proof of determination. And determination is all you need to reach the finish line. You can be a great writer one day, dear reader. Today might not be that day, but that day would surely come if you don’t give up.

 
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Posted by on April 13, 2017 in Writing Journey

 

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The 7 Stages of ‘Writing’

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Or should I say, The 7 Stages of ‘What did I get myself into?’

Those who think writing a novel is a single phase operation, I believe it is my duty to inform you that it isn’t. Oh, how I wish it was. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Alas, this arduous truth should not be withheld. Hence, I’ve decided to write this post and share my 7 stages of writing.

Disclaimer: My process isn’t benched at 7. Often times I go beyond when working on a novel. Sometimes I go under when working on a short story. But as my standard guide, 7 is a wonderful number. Do note that these stages do not include planning, and most certainly excludes professional editing.

1. Word Vomit

Mean Girls, anyone? My first stage of writing is vomiting everything in my head onto a word document. It’s just me, getting the story out, while trying to be as creative as I can. However, creative writing isn’t my goal. This stage is about telling, or should I say ‘reporting’, the story as it is. I do build the universe, I do develop the characters, but only as much as it is required to complete the story. Then, once my head is figuratively empty, I move to stage 2.

2. Rewrite

This is where I get creative. I research, google, and expand my imagination to paint vivid worlds and mold believable characters. I endeavour to be as ‘literary’ as I can, one paragraph at a time. Yes, one paragraph at a time – I rewrite every single paragraph. And yes, I detest this stage. If I could skip it, I gladly would. But I can’t, of course. Nobody wants to read word vomit.

3. Line Edit

Once I’ve heaved a sigh of relief, after completing stage 2, it’s time for line editing. I read aloud, test the pacing, check for errors, and split lengthy sentences. I scour for problematic areas. And as an extra step, I send the manuscript to beta readers.

4. Rewrite… Again? Again.

There’ll be areas in my writing that bug me excessively. So in this phase, I rewrite those paragraphs, dialogues, and sentences that rob me of my sleep. I also catch repetitive words in each chapter and find alternatives for them. And while doing all of that, I request feedback from my beta readers.

5. Line Edit… Again? Again.

Since I rewrote, I need to re-line edit. It’s back to reading aloud, testing the flow and pacing, and making minor changes if required.

6. Proofing

Before proofing, I usually take a break. And by break, I mean working on another story (either a new one or an existing one – it doesn’t matter). I try my best to clean my palate of the current work, and only return to it a month or so later. Fingers-crossed, my brain wouldn’t default to autocorrect upon my proofing. Though, let’s be honest, there’ll be mistakes I’ll overlook. Hence, stage 7.

7. Audio Proofing

Depending on the work, I sometimes run audio proofing twice using different voices. I alternate between tssreader.com and speechninja.co. Audio proofing helps me catch what I’ve missed, while testing the tempo as if read by a reader. It’s not a full proof stage in cleaning a manuscript, but it does call out errors. Despite it taking a while, it’s worth the time.

So, there you have it – my 7 stages.

Like I said above, this is just a guide for me to follow. The Slave Prince has gone over 10 stages, with multiple rewrites. Trails of the Wind has been audio proofed 3 times. Whereas most of my stories below a 1.5k word count are only rewritten once.

Also, the stages differ from author to author. I know of authors whose stage 1 is carefully executed requiring fewer rewrites after, and of those who’ve lost count of their rounds. It depends on the individual. But, we can all agree on one thing: no story should be published straight from the head.

If you’re new to writing, I hope this doesn’t scare you. Draw strength from your passion and dream, and you’ll find yourself doing your very best. Writing may seem laborious, but if it’s what you love, you will do it. Heck, you have to do it. It’s your life! And you’ll embrace whatever it encompasses.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in Writing Journey

 

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Set A Quota, Meet The Quota

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Let’s be honest, I wouldn’t know what to kick start this year of blogging with if not for Zoey’s comment. Aside from my writing journey, Zoey has also asked about my writing process and how my average writing day looks like. Thank you for asking, Zoey! I’m more than happy to answer.

So, let me get right to it. When it comes to book projects, I go by the practice of ‘Set a quota, meet the quota‘. This is how I complete books within a set time frame. How do I go about it exactly? There are two ways.

The first is, A Book In A Month.

When I graduated from university, I spent the first month after graduation writing The Slave Prince. I told myself I would get a job after I was done. I gave myself 20 days to complete the book, and I did so by meeting the quota of one chapter a day.

My chapters for novels are a minimum of 2,500 words (more is welcomed, less is not). Without fail, I sat down in front of my laptop around 10pm every night and wrote until I met the word count. I didn’t go to sleep until I was done. I didn’t give myself an excuse to skip a day (unless it’s the weekend). And there was no such thing as a writer’s block, because I pushed through them. If I had to write a sucky chapter, I did it anyway – I knew I could edit it later. In 20 days, the novel was done.

These days, since having a day job, this isn’t something I can do unless I’m writing something short of a novel. My novellas and novelettes usually follow this A Book In A Month practice because of a shorter word quota, but not my novels. Which brings me to the second route: Two Chapters A Week.

Two Chapters A Week is exactly that. I write two chapters a week, usually on Tuesday and Friday. On Monday, I rough edit the chapter I wrote on the previous Friday. And on Thursday, I rough edit the chapter I wrote on Tuesday. Wednesday is kept empty just in case I haven’t prepped anything for this blog – sort of a last minute thing.

I would set the quota of 2,500 words or more and complete it before I go to bed. This was how I got Trails of the Wind (book one of my work-in-progress trilogy) done. I wrote Trails of the Wind between August to October last year, with a holiday break in Japan in between. Two Chapters A Week gets a novel done in around 3 months.

Again, there’s no such thing as a writer’s block. I MUST write on Tuesdays and Fridays. No excuses – fix horrible chapters later – just keep writing. I know that if I break my pattern, I risk never finishing the book, and that is something I will not do. It’s against my character to start something and not finish it. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t dropped books before – most of the time a result of not having a chapter list.

“What’s a chapter list?” you ask.

As a standard procedure prior to writing any book, no matter which direction I go, I spend a day or two mind-mapping and drafting out a chapter list (a.k.a a skeleton). I create a timeline where I write a few short sentences to describe each chapter. Most of the time, when I start writing, I deviate from the original plan. But I still create a chapter list, because it helps me to keep going. Should I feel lost in the middle of my writing, I can always look back at the chapter list and see if I should incorporate some of the ideas to push the story in the right direction. Since I impose no rule in following the chapter list by heart, it is simply there to keep me accountable – to help me finish the book. And there is no doubt that those short lines have been of great help.

So, there you have it! My writing process and how I go about it.

If you’re curious as to whether I participate in NaNoWriMo, my answer is ‘no’. My writing schedule always happens shortly before or after NaNoWriMo. With all the planning and writing, jumping on board would be too taxing. I also don’t want to hold on to an idea just for the sake of participating in NaNoWriMo. I prefer to write while inspiration is still fresh. Perhaps one day, my schedule will align and I’ll get to participate.

Now how about you? What is writing process like? Is your practice similar or do you have a different procedure? If you don’t have one, feel free to give my ‘Set a quota, meet the quota‘ a shot. It might work for you too 🙂

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I hope this post has been helpful. If there is something you would like me to write about, leave a comment below or send me an email. I’m not a writing prodigy nor do I have ample of experience, but I’m happy to share whatever niblets I own 🙂

Thank you for reading dear reader, and have a wonderful weekend. Oh, and to all who celebrates the Chinese (lunar) New Year, 新年快乐!

 
22 Comments

Posted by on February 4, 2016 in Writing Journey

 

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