Archive by Author

Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator?

26 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Stories told in first-person POV are enjoying great popularity at the moment. I myself write in first-person almost exclusively.  The benefits and limits of first person have been talked about on this blog and on others (first person is obviously a limited perspective, but it also allows you a deeper understanding of the character’s thoughts – see my POV post here) but I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about the reliability of the first-person narrator. After all, not everyone who tells you a story is telling you the truth.  Should we assume all first-person narrators are telling the truth?  Maybe an even better question for us as writers would be, “Should our first-person narrators always tell the truth?”

This blog has covered characterization from a lot of angles, and my colleagues here have given some great advice, such as in this post on contrarianism by Savannah, this great post about sassiness, also by Savannah, and this post about Mary Sues by Biljana.

But what about reliability?  Is the story your MC tells necessarily the “whole truth and nothing but the truth”?

First, it could be argued that no first-person narrator is telling the complete truth, because the story is filtered through the narrator’s perspective. That’s well understood. But what about the narrator who – due to willful deception or just a poor ability to understand events happening around her or him – just is not trustworthy?

Let’s look at some classic examples of unreliable narrators:

  • Holden Caufield, narrator of JD Salinger’s CATHER IN THE RYE:

Holden tells us a story of two days he spends in New York City after having been kicked out of yet another boarding school.  Holden is strongly opinionated, and rants about the “phonies” around him. But is he always being honest with the reader? No. Instead he’s secretive, a bit dodgy about the details, and frequently makes excuses for himself while holding others to a very high standard. As we read, we discover that we can’t assume that Holden’s side of the story is necessarily the way things really happened.

  • Humbert Humbert, narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA:

This might be the strongest example of an unreliable narrator I can think of personally. Humbert is a pedophile and a very dangerous man. But his story is directed to the “jury,” and that should be a tip that he cannot be trusted. He is a character attempting to justify heinous crimes, and so, despite his amazing eloquence, the reader must stay on his or her guard at all times. The narrator is trying to deceive you. The success of this device is one of the many things I love about this book.

  • Nick Carraway, narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

One of the unique qualities about THE GREAT GATSBY is that it is told in first person by someone other than the main character. In effect, it works to keep a lot of the hero’s secrets hidden, and also contributes to the mythical qualities of Gatsby.  However, unlike Holden Caufield or Humbert Humbert, I wouldn’t argue that Nick knowingly deceives the reader. He tells what he knows. However, what Nick is privy to is often limited to what Gatsby allows him to see and to know. In this case, Nick’s unreliability is more a reflection on Gatsby’s character than on Nick’s.

I hope that these examples give you some food for thought about unreliable narrators. Would this technique work for your story?

Here are some questions you might consider in deciding how reliable your narrator should or shouldn’t be:

  • Does the narrator see the situation of the story clearly, or is her or his perspective skewed by lack of experience, self-deception, pride, etc?
  • Is your character too flawless?  Is he or she infallible? Would suggesting that this character may at times be an unreliable narrator make the character more interesting?
  • Is your character unstable or delusional?  If so, and your story is told in first person, it would be almost necessary that your narrator be unreliable. An emotionally or mentally unstable character would rarely be able to tell a story from beginning to end without distorting the truth along the way.

As for me, I am currently examining the hero of my work-in-progress closely, in order to determine if I have made her more honest than circumstances would allow.

How about your own characters, or the characters in books you’ve read?  Any unreliable narrators among them? Please tell me about them in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter here.

Researching Your Story – A Four-Step Strategy

30 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Unless you’re writing a book about your own life, chances are you’ll have to do some sort of research before you can say your novel is finished. (Even if your book IS about your own life, you’ll probably have to refer to your family albums, at the very least!) Historical settings, legal proceedings, and medical conditions are just a few examples of story components that would require research. The object of this post is to suggest a strategy for research that will provide the authentic details you need without bogging you down in the process.

Step 1 – Make notes about the factual issues that you will need to research.

What will you need to learn to ensure that your story is authentic and appropriate for its genre? (I mention genre here because some genres have higher standards for accuracy than others. A “police procedural” mystery will require far more exacting details than would a contemporary fiction that includes an arrest in the plot.)

Once you’ve made a list of topics and facts you will need to research, divide it into two categories – “big picture” and “important details.”

“Big picture” knowledge is the information you need as you create the over-arching idea behind your novel and start your first draft. Examples would be:

  • In pre-Columbus North America, were horses a part of daily life?
  • Would a heart transplant be an option for a pregnant woman?
  • How long does DNA evidence last at a crime scene?

What qualifies an issue to be in the “big picture” category is the fact that it is at the heart of your story and essential for your concept to make sense. For instance, if your novel is about a crime that was committed aboard the Titanic, and how it is solved in the present day by the use of DNA evidence, you need to take the time to research these facts at the outset. What you learn about DNA evidence will have a huge impact on the course of your novel.

Step 2 – Attack the “big picture” issues and gain knowledge about the facts that will help form the spine of your story.

If you know that there is an area of study that is a major component to your plot, investigate that area as you form the seed of your story. If your story is set in Vietnam during the war, study up on the geography and the people. If your story is about an astronaut who makes an error that threatens to kill his entire crew, get an understanding of space missions and how they are structured and staffed.

Step 3 – Firm up your concept and dive into your first draft.

This is why you divided that list from Step 1 into two categories. The second category – “important details” – can be put aside for now. I’m not saying that you won’t have to look up those questions and answers eventually.  What I am saying is that you don’t need to know every detail of life in revolutionary France before getting started writing your rough draft. Authentic details will be required before you turn in your final draft, but you shouldn’t let research prevent you from getting started. If one of your characters lights a candle to read by, and you find out later that gas lamps had replaced candles ten years before your story takes place, that detail can be fixed in the revisions stage.

Step 4 – Firm up the details and make your revisions.

This step is where you need to add accuracy. What kind of gun would a pirate have used? Did matches exist or would the main character light a wick from the fireplace? How long did it take to travel from Glasgow to London by carriage in 1814?  Now that you have your first draft down, you can take the time to get the facts straight without interrupting the flow of your writing.

Do you do a lot of research for your writing? What process do you use? Do you have any ideas to add to the above? I look forward to reading your comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

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In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Dictate Your Story – An Unconventional Method of Completing A First Draft

13 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Each of us has a personal writing style when it comes to getting that first, rough draft down on paper. Some writers type rapidly and let their words pour onto the page in a stream of consciousness. These writers test their ideas easily, and tend to complete NaNoWriMo in two weeks or less. These writers are confident in their ability to revise, and aren’t afraid to put bad writing on paper in the quest to get that all important first draft down.

Alas, I am not one of these writers.

I am one of those other writers. The kind that types a sentence, reads it over, revises it, reads it again, deletes it, and starts the whole process over again. My ideas go down on paper slowly. I agonize over word choice, even when writing a scene I know will likely be cut when I revise. I go back and re-read constantly, interrupting the flow of my thoughts.

Maybe my first draft will need less revision because of my edit-while-I-write style. Maybe. But first I have to finish it. And truthfully, that first draft takes me a very long time.

Frustrated with my stagnating word count, I recently took a radical step to reduce my self-editing. I forced myself to dictate my first draft into a hand-held digital recorder.

Since beginning this experiment about a week ago, two things have happened. First, my writing has become much more rough and ugly. Second, my daily word count has more than tripled.

Both of these results are exactly what I needed. Yes, this first draft is full of messy transitions, horrible prose, and cringe-worthy dialogue, but isn’t that what a first draft is meant to be? This draft isn’t the book that will one day sit on a bookstore shelf. This draft is the idea that will be polished into that book. And at this rate, I’ll be polishing before I know it.

If you’re having difficulty letting go and just getting that rough draft down, consider dictating your story. Here are some tips that will help you get started:

• Don’t play back your dictation until you’re ready to transcribe. Don’t delete anything you say or go back and revise. I don’t even have headphones plugged into my recorder while I’m dictating. After all, the idea is to turn off the self editor while you draft.

•Don’t be afraid to sound silly. Don’t worry if you start every sentence with the words, “And then,” or if you repeat the same pronoun ten times in a paragraph. You’re going to revise later. Just talk. Tell your story. You can work on finding the right words later.

• Whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to edit while you transcribe. This can be extremely tempting, but it results in a loss of all the benefits that dictating is supposed to provide. It also takes too much time. I tried editing my words as I transcribed one night, and I didn’t get the day’s entire recording down on paper. Then the next day, I was confused about where I’d left off. Dictation allows you to cover a lot of ground in your story quickly. Transcribe just as quickly, or you’ll get bogged down.

• Ignore your voice. Don’t worry about your annoying accent or the nasally way you pronounce your vowels. You can work on your diction another time. Right now you’re writing the first draft of your novel.

• Have an idea of what happens in a scene before you start. You don’t have to have the entire book outlined, but you should know what action you need to describe when you press record. For me, it works best if I watch the scene in my head like a movie, and then dictate the action the way it just played out in my mind.

• Have fun. Do different voices for each character. Laugh when you catch yourself using the word “suddenly” for the third time in a scene. Realize that rough drafts are called “rough” for a reason.

• Let yourself write some horrible prose.

• Trust your ability to revise.

Think dictating might be for you? Tried it before? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Narrative Tension and the Ticking Clock

12 May

by Julie Eshbaugh

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“The ticking clock,” is a plot device that is used to constrain your story and put a time limit on your protagonist as he or she works to resolve a conflict. The concept is simple – a certain task must be completed by a certain deadline or the character will fail and suffer the consequences of that failure. An entire story can be a ticking clock (the film RUN LOLA RUN is a good example) or a ticking clock can be part of a single conflict within a larger story (such as the clock tower scene in BACK TO THE FUTURE.)

The addition of a ticking clock instantly creates increased tension. A challenge may feel relatively easy to overcome if time is not an issue. But take away the luxury of unlimited time and you immediately turn up the heat on your characters.

Let’s look at some real life examples. If you’re a student, consider the last paper you had to write. When did you feel the most tension – when you had two weeks to get it written, or 24 hours to hand it in? Writers under contract to a publisher know the reality of the ticking clock all too well when they are up against a deadline to turn in revisions. How about a football team, down by 10 points, at the two minute warning? We all run into ticking clocks in life, and we know the stress they can cause. Sometimes that kind of stress is just what your story needs to increase the pressure on your characters and make the action as compelling as it can be.

Although the ticking clock may feel like a device that is best suited to thrillers, it can be used in almost any kind of story. Below are a few examples taken from films. (I came up with a few from books I’ve read recently, but I was too concerned about spoilers to include them!)

RUN LOLA RUN – Lola (Franka Potente) has 20 minutes to deliver 100,000 German marks to save her boyfriend’s life.

TITANIC – In one scene, Rose (Kate Winslet) has to rescue Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) from a room below deck before it floods and he drowns.

SAY ANYTHING – Lloyd (John Cusack) has until the end of the summer to win the heart of Diane (Ione Skye) before she leaves for a new life in England.

ROMAN HOLIDAY – Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has just one day to experience all the joys of life as an anonymous citizen, including falling in love with an American reporter (Gregory Peck.)

BACK TO THE FUTURE – Doc (Christopher Lloyd) has until the moment lightning is destined to strike the clock tower to get the DeLorean time machine in position to send Marty (Michael J. Fox) back to 1985.

(While avoiding spoilers is too important to me to mention specific examples, I can at least say that I can think of examples of ticking clocks in all three of Suzanne Collins’s HUNGER GAMES books, as well as INCARCERON by Catherine Fisher, which I just finished and highly recommend.)

Tips on getting the most out of the Ticking Clock:

• It’s important to maintain the tension all the way up to the deadline. The device alone will increase the pressure on your hero, but the conflict still needs to escalate. As your hero runs out of time, the stakes need to stay high. Your protagonist can not accept missing the deadline as a viable solution.

• As the deadline approaches, the obstacles to succeeding should increase. In the eleventh hour, the plan that has been working smoothly should completely crumble. Don’t let your protagonist off the hook by allowing her to solve the problem too early.

• Don’t let your hero know how it turns out. It’s easy to imagine that a ticking clock could come across as a gimmick. This is most likely to occur when your hero doesn’t feel threatened by the deadline. Your hero must respect the danger of the ticking clock. Don’t let your hero become too confident.

In closing, I want to share the clock tower scene from BACK TO THE FUTURE. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, but I’d like to ask you to watch it for the example it gives of a perfectly executed ticking clock within the plot. (Also, watch for the two actual “ticking clocks” in the scene.) ENJOY!

What do you think of the ticking clock device? Have you ever used it? Do you think it’s something that you would like to try in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Got Writing Prompts?

4 May

by Julie Eshbaugh

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There seems to be an on-going debate about the existence of writer’s block. Whether you believe in writer’s block as a full-blown phenomenon or see it as another way of describing “writer’s fatigue” or “writer’s fear” or even “writer’s laziness,” there are a few established methods of treating it. One of those methods is writing from prompts.
Prompts give you a chance to write based on an assignment, so you can worry less about getting it “wrong.” With a prompt, you just write. At the very least, it gets you putting words on paper in a very non-threatening way. And if everything comes together and magic is in the air, the right prompt might stimulate the right ideas, and you might find the seed of your next novel hidden in that free-write.
So here are some fun prompts. Each one combines an image and a scenario. You can stick with the suggested situation, (if you want to become a more disciplined writer, perhaps,) or you can just let your imagination run wild. It’s up to you. Have fun. Stretch your creative muscles.  And if you feel particularly inspired, please share your ideas in the comments.

Ready? Set… write!

You drive home. The day has been uneventful. But when you reach your neighborhood, you find everyone outside, and they are all looking at something. Look at the photo below and tell the story.


(Photo from http://www.danheller.com)

You have just signed up for a cooking class. You arrive at your first lesson, only to find the teacher being taken away by police. Inside, you learn that during his arrest, the police failed to find some contraband that they were looking for. A classmate presents a small container the teacher entrusted to him just as the police arrived. Tell the story.

(Photo still from the Korean drama KING OF BAKING)

It is present day, 2011. A note is left in your front door from your new neighbor, inviting you to stop over and introduce yourself. You go to the house next door and enter the scene below. Tell the woman’s story.

(Photo by the Los Angeles Times)

And I’ll leave you with this one…

You are driving to the airport when your GPS begins to malfunction. After a few turns that are clearly wrong, you begin to try to find your way home, but the road grows narrower and narrower. Eventually, you find yourself in the scene below. What happens next?

(photo from http://www.berro.com)

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Coping with False Starts

25 Apr

 

by Julie Eshbaugh

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It happens to every writer.  An idea comes to you, and you are floating around the ceiling with inspiration.  For a day or two, or maybe even a week, you’re ecstatic with the beauty of this concept.  You write with an enthusiasm you rarely feel, until…  the good feeling is gone.  

 You can’t say why, but you know this idea has lost your fancy, at least for right now.  That initial spark might rekindle later, so you tuck the work you’ve done so far away somewhere, whether it’s in a folder on your desktop titled “Graveyard,” or a trunk at the foot of your bed full of partial manuscripts.

 What causes this phenomenon, and how can you avoid it?  I can only speak for myself, but here are some things I’ve learned by examining my own short-lived “false starts”:

 You don’t have a story as much as an “idea.”  An idea is a concept or a premise that sounds cool, but has nowhere to go.  “A girl is born with gills” is an idea, but not a story.  A story requires a goal, motivation, and conflict.  The best ideas in the world fizzle out quickly if there’s nothing for the characters to do.  (A good idea can become a good story, of course!  But the process of pulling the story elements together is often the task that reveals that your feelings toward this idea are just infatuation, not true love.)

 You have a story, but you don’t like the person it’s about.  You know that good friend who gets on your nerves so thoroughly, at times you wonder how you stand each other at all?  Generally it’s common experience and loyalty that will see that strained friendship through.  Unfortunately, those factors don’t exist if your characters get on your nerves.  You don’t have a history with your MC.  You can walk away at any time.  And sometimes, that’s exactly what you do.  I’ve gotten to a point with a character where I’ve said, “Why am I wasting my time with you?  I could delete you and create someone brand new!”  Unfortunately, the whole story usually dies with the main character.  A new MC generally takes the story in a whole new direction.

 You come to the sudden realization that you are rewriting your favorite book.  No one sets out to be derivative.  But your favorite (and not-so-favorite) stories have taken root deep in your subconscious mind – the very same place you are trying to coax that next idea from.  It’s possible you didn’t recognize Harry Potter because he was masquerading as a girl born with gills, but when it’s revealed that she is the only one to ever face the evil villain and come away alive, having been protected by a now-dead loved one, Harry can be glimpsed beneath the disguise.   And once you realize you are reinventing a very well worn wheel, you have to walk away.

You thought it was the real thing, but it turned out to be a passing phase.  If you’re going to write a novel, be ready to live with it every day for several years.  Committing to an idea is like committing to a romantic relationship – it’s not enough if you really like it most of the time, you need to (almost) never hate it.  You can get tired of it sometimes, and maybe other times you see that it has faults, but if you find that at times you loathe it, you should move on.  Bad feelings tend to snowball, and the things you don’t like about your story can overshadow its strengths rather quickly.  If you have doubts about a story early on, there’s a good chance you fell in love with the idea of a new idea, and not with the actual idea itself.

So what’s a writer to do?  Can the “false start” be prevented? 

I don’t think false starts can be prevented, because every idea needs to be tested.  In my experience, the best ideas and the ones that flame out quickly seem the same in the earliest stages.  It’s only after putting the idea on paper that I’m able to see if it has staying power.

More importantly, I don’t think false starts should be prevented.  Experimentation is vital to discovering new things.  Testing ideas is a big part of being a writer.  Sometimes, you look at what you’ve started and feel relieved that you haven’t shown it to anyone, but even your worst writing is writing.  You took a chance, and maybe you ultimately shelved the project, but somewhere in that experience,  you most likely learned something.  Something that will inform your next project.  Something that will make you a better writer. 

Writers write.  Not all of what we write will see publication.  Some of it will turn out to be practice.  Some of it will turn out to be false starts.  But none of it will turn out to be wasted.

What are your thoughts on false starts?  Do you think they have value, or do you think they only waste your time?  Please post your thoughts in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Fictional Time Travel That Won’t Make a Physicist Cringe

19 Apr

by Julie Eshbaugh

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A while back I discovered a fantastic article about time travel on Slate.com.  The author, Dave Goldberg, both a physicist and self-proclaimed science-fiction geek, wrote the post back in 2009 in anticipation of the film adaptation of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE by Audrey Niffenegger.  In the article, Goldberg takes a broad look at time travel in contemporary books and films, from BACK TO THE FUTURE to LOST to THE TERMINATOR.  Ultimately, Goldberg takes the position that, at least to a physicist, THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE gets the science the closest to what might be considered scientifically sound.

If you’re writing a time-travel story, I highly recommend a full read of Goldberg’s article.  It can be found by clicking this link.  Below, for a more general overview, I’ve shared the four rules Goldberg says are necessary for scientifically sound, fictional time travel.

1) This is the only universe you’ve got.

Most of us have heard of the major scientific breakthrough of the last century known as quantum physics.  One researcher in quantum physics, Hugh Everett, took the theories of quantum mechanics and imagined that perhaps the universe was constantly multiplying.  He proposed the theory that, as electrons and other particles moved, the universe made almost perfect copies of itself.  Since electrons and the like move constantly, these universes would be constantly multiplying, with no limit to the universes created.

This “many universes” theory lends itself well to the type of time travel depicted in BACK TO THE FUTURE, where characters travel between times and different realities are possible.  A change in behavior in the past can lead to a different future.  But according to Goldberg, this type of theory is at odds with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, the very theory that suggests that time travel may be possible in the first place.  Goldberg asserts that, to make your time travel fiction scientifically sound, you need to stay within the one universe you’ve been given.

2) You can’t visit any time before your time machine was built.

In Einstein’s universe, time and space are closely related to each other.  Therefore, time travel could be imagined as a trip through a tunnel in space – a tunnel that has a way in and a way out – an entrance/exit at each end.  The rule that follows, then, is that both ends of the tunnel need to be in a time when time travel exists.

If you think about it, the application of this rule would help explain why, if time travel is indeed possible and will one day be perfected, we don’t receive visitors who are time traveling back to us from the future.  Since time travel hasn’t been “invented” yet, time travelers from the future cannot come back to our time.  (I suppose it follows that, once it is invented, we can expect to meet people from the future as they come back to take a tour of our time.)

3) You can’t kill your own grandfather.

This rule concerns the consistency of history.  It looks at something known as the “grandfather paradox,” which goes something like this:

Imagine you possess a time machine.  You go back in time and decide to kill your own grandfather.  Now what?  Well, if you kill your grandfather, you will never be born, and if you are never born, you won’t exist to come back and kill your grandfather, which means you will be born.

In the mid-1980s, physicist Igor Novikov used quantum mechanics to develop the “self-consistency theorem,” which demonstrates that there is no actual possibility of changing history with a time machine.  The events of history cannot be altered, according to Novikov.  Even if you went back in time and tried to kill your own grandfather, you wouldn’t be able to, because the events of history are fixed.

4) You don’t have nearly as much free will as you think you do.

Novikov’s “self consistency theorem” can be frustrating and difficult to accept.  Don’t we all like to believe that we control our own destinies?

But what about the destiny of an inanimate object?  Instead of your grandfather’s life, what if we were dealing with the movement of pool balls?  Imagine a time machine set up so that a pool ball shot into the time machine came out a second earlier.  Shouldn’t it be possible to aim a shot so that, when the pool ball emerged from the time machine a second in the past, it blocked the original shot that sent the pool ball into the machine in the first place?

Kip Thorne and his students examined the paradox of the “impossible pool shot” and came up with a compromise. They propose that, no matter how hard you tried to line up the shot perfectly, there would be some unplanned angle to the original shot.  The ball would then come out of the machine at a slightly askew angle, thereby clipping the first ball just enough to send it into the time machine slightly askew, and the whole thing would continue in an endless perfect loop.

In other words, a physicist would argue that once you’ve seen your destiny by traveling to the future, there is nothing you can do to change it.

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What do you think of Goldberg’s four rules of time travel?  Do you think time travel fiction should follow rules?  Do you believe that writers of science fiction should keep the “science” in mind while plotting?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Ask Your Characters Some Tough Questions!

30 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Where does a writer start when he or she sets out to create a character?  There are COUNTLESS character worksheets available, and most of them will serve as a fairly good starting point when it comes to building a character.  But no single “fill in the blank” worksheet will create a character for you.  You may be able to answer questions about what color eyes your character has or how many brothers she grew up with or what his favorite class in school is, but I can answer those questions about a lot of people, and yet I wouldn’t undertake the task of writing a book about them.

What I’m trying to say is that, to really put your reader in your character’s head, you need to go there yourself first.  You need to know what makes your character think and act the way he or she does.  And to do that, you need to ask your characters the TOUGH questions.

What are the tough questions?  They’re the questions you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking your best friend.  Questions you yourself wouldn’t want to have to answer.  You have to ask about things that are private, things that are personal, things that are embarrassing.

Here’s a suggestion.   Sit down at the keyboard and start with a blank Word document.  At the top of the page, type a difficult question and the name of the character you are asking this question.  Then type out the answer as a stream-of-consciousness response.  You may be surprised by what your character “dictates” in his or her answer.

Here are a few ideas for questions to get you started.  You don’t have to use any of these.  Then again, you may want to use several.  The right questions to ask will depend a great deal on your story and its setting.  But here are a few I’ve used:

  • When you were growing up, did you ever suspect that one of your parents cheated on the other?  Did you ever suspect that one of your parents hit the other?  Which would have been worse?  Why?
  • What single act are you most ashamed of?  How did you happen to commit this act?  Who knows about it?
  • If you knew you could do something forbidden and get away with it without anyone ever knowing, what would it be?
  • Everyone has secrets.  What secret thing about you would most shock your closest friend?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would your friends be surprised by your answer?
  • If you could change one thing about your best friend, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would that person be surprised by your answer?
  • Have you ever purposefully caused suffering?  If so, why?  Would you do it again?
  • Everyone has disdain for something or someone.  Who or what do you consider yourself to be “above”?
  • What was your worst failure?  Do you ever think about it?  When do you think about it?  How do you feel about it now?
  • If you could achieve your greatest dream, but it would mean that your best friend would never achieve his or hers, would you take that deal?

Can you answer these questions about your characters?  Do you have others?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

Writing Tips for the Horrifically Over-Scheduled

16 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh

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In the last few weeks, things have gotten out of control as far as my personal schedule is concerned.  My “online presence” has really dwindled – I’m rarely on Twitter, the blogs, or even my own email – and it’s rare if I get a few quiet minutes in front of the computer.  Despite this epic time-crunch, I still consider myself to be “writing,” and I’m still making forward progress on my current story.  It’s definitely not easy to keep going when you find yourself having to choose between writing and sleeping, but there are other ways to keep up the momentum besides living like a sleep-deprived zombie.

Here are some tips for my fellow HOSWs (Horrifically Over-Scheduled Writers):

  • Remember that every month isn’t November.  Don’t live in the midst of a never-ending NaNoWriMo.  Don’t feel you have to add 50,000 words to your manuscript each month.  The key is to work on the manuscript.  One day you’ll add 2,000 words.  One day you’ll delete 1,000.  But even on the days when you edit out most of what you added the day before, you’re making progress!
  • Write in the shower.  Maybe you can’t take the laptop in with you, but you can brainstorm with (hopefully) minimal interruption.  Once you’ve dried off, take a minute or two to write down a few words that can act as memory triggers later.
  • Invest in a handheld digital recorder.  Hit the record button while you’re stuck in traffic and dictate your latest idea for a key plot twist or describe a character in depth. If you feel particularly frustrated with the traffic, describe how your characters deal with frustration.  Use the circumstances that threaten to prevent you from writing and turn them into writing prompts.
  • Don’t forget that handy-dandy notebook!  Carry a pocket notebook at all times and don’t preserve it for only your best, most notebook-worthy ideas.  Even a moleskine can handle your worst!  Give yourself permission to write down ideas that might embarrass you later.  Notebooks are also great places to sketch maps!
  • Keep in mind that writing is not a race!  Very little in life is improved by haste.  Write your book in the time it takes.  After the first one gets published, you’ll have plenty of publisher-imposed deadlines to meet.

Do you feel overwhelmed by an oppressive list of time-consuming obligations?  How do you make the most of the time you have?  Please share your ideas in the comments!

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.