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The Dynamics of Time Travel in Fiction

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Back to the Future - Novel Conclusions Writing Blog - Literary Blog - Time Travel

Back to the Future Day via Google Images

Today is a red-letter date in the history of time travel stories – the day Marty and Doc went to the future!  In honor of Back to the Future Day, we are going to explore the basic dynamics of time travel in fiction.  What are the consequences for your characters of the possible rules of time travel?

Each fictional universe works with different time travel rules, but the basic rules fall into 3 categories:

  • Changeable Timeline
  • Resistant Timeline
  • Predetermined Timeline

Changeable

A changeable timeline gives the characters much more freedom – and much more ability to screw things up.  Examples of a changeable timeline include stories like Ken Grimwood’s Replay and, of course, the Back to the Future series.

Although the mechanics are different, both of these stories offer characters the chance to change the future.  In Replay, Jeff and Pamela play out their lives over and over and keep waking up after death at age 18 in 1963.  They make different choices in each lifetime to unravel a mystery they are trying to solve.  In Back to the Future, Marty and Doc are working to rectify their accidental changes to the timeline and change the future back to what it should have been.

Resistant

A resistant timeline, such as in Stephen King’s 11-22-63 or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, offers the author a very interesting framework for the plot.  11-22-63’s narrator Jake Epping, in an effort to change history, tells us again and again, “The past is obdurate.”  Stephen King uses the obdurate past as an antagonist.  Diana Gabaldon in Outlander, meanwhile, uses the resistant past as sometimes good (e.g. I can’t do too much harm) and sometimes bad (e.g. what if I accidentally prevent someone important to me from being born?).

Predetermined

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both provide great examples of a predetermined timeline.  A predetermined timeline sneaks up on our characters; they may know what is coming and have no way to change it.  Or perhaps they know they have to do something but must figure out how to do it.

In the Time Traveler’s Wife, part of the sneakiness of the plot lies in how sometimes Claire knows what’s coming and sometimes Henry does.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione only realize just in time what they need to do to save their friends – and they have to figure out on the spot how to do it.

Each of these approaches comes with its own positives and pitfalls.  Which is your favorite?  Which dynamics of time travel did I leave out?  What are other examples of great time travel stories?

Awesome Moms in YA Fiction

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones - Cassandra Clare - Lily Collins - Lena Headey - Jocelyn Fray - Clary Fray - Novel Conclusions writing blog

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones movie poster via Google Images

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to 3 awesome moms in fiction.  Especially in YA fiction, moms with really deep connections to the heart of the story seem to be everywhere.  We frequently run across loving, intelligent mom characters (although sometimes they are not – that’s a different blog post), but what makes them integral to the story?

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mom Mrs. Murry is brilliant and understanding and cooks dinner on her Bunsen burner.  Although Mrs. Murry is not a main character by any stretch of the imagination, her presence in the story is a constant reminder to the characters, while lost on their journey, that they have something to come home to, something to strive for.  The mother character plays a key role in thematically representing home.

In the Harry Potter series, JK Rowling masterfully uses Harry’s mother Lily to evoke certain emotions in him.  We know very early on (so I don’t consider this a spoiler) that Lily died to protect Harry.  As we get further into the series, we learn more bits and pieces about Harry’s mother as Harry learns them.  Lily gradually becomes a more well-rounded character, and she comes to strongly represent love, something Professor Dumbledore is always bringing to Harry’s (reluctant) attention.  Lily’s love for Harry becomes the key that helps him to unlock a variety of things that I won’t get into because they would involve spoilers.  I would like to note that this is, of course, much clearer in the books than in the movies.

In Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (soon to be a super fun movie!), main character Clary finds out in short order that her mom, Jocelyn, was keeping some intense secrets – and that she was keeping some of those secrets to protect Clary from a seriously unpleasant fate.  Though Jocelyn has quite a bit more going on, story-wise, than the moms mentioned above, she wants to protect Clary above all else.  Even as a secondary character, her relationship with Clary helps drive the plot.  Her guardedness about her past acts as a foil to Clary’s openness and naiveté about the Shadowhunter world.  In addition to this, despite all the secrets, Clary still loves her mother dearly, and her mother still represents home to her in this new existence.

To sum up, what makes these awesome moms integral to their respective stories?  These moms help create some fantastic thematic depth to each of these stories.  Now, done poorly, mommy characters can be flat as Kansas, but done well, mother characters help their kiddos to shine as main characters.

What are some other well-written mom characters you’ve come across?  How did they affect their kids story-wise?

Facebook’s Most Read Books of 2012… and the Giveaway Winner!

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I may be a bit behind the curve on this super cool infographic (perhaps you saw this around the new year), but it was so interesting that I just had to share it.  In the past, I shared a list of the most read books in the past 50 years; below, you’ll find something slightly narrower in scope but also fascinating nonetheless, Facebook’s Most Read Books of 2012.

Most Read Books 2012 infographic - Novel Conclusions - literary blog - writing blog - Christi Gerstle

Facebook’s 2012 Most Read Books of the Year via facebookstories.com

I was most surprised by The Great Gatsby’s appearance on the list.  Although the source of this infographic doesn’t philosophize on why some books might be on the list, I wonder if Gatsby made it due to the publicity for the upcoming movie, English teachers hitting it a little more than normal, or just that the book is one of those that sticks.

Giveaway Winner

DRUMROLL…

Random.org gave me the gorgeously round number 575.  This makes Tracy Cembor, with the number 500, the winner of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess!  Congrats Tracy!  You can check out her blog over at tracycembor.com.

Should I Really Read the Classics? AND a Giveaway

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MacBeth apparition - why read classic literature - enjoying the classics - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

MacBeth: the Apparition of the Kings by Théodore Chassériau, via Wikimedia Commons

There comes a certain point in your time as a reader, at least for more serious readers, when you decide you should read some classics.  When I was a kid, I wanted to read the classics because it was the smart thing to do (and smart was cool, in my lexicon as a middle schooler – although that lexicon also involved lots of ugly baggy 90s shirts, but whatevs…).  Other people read the classics because they’re curious or because someone recommended a certain book or even just because they have to for school.

When I was at the book signing week before last, I was talking with a couple teenage girls there, and they said they hadn’t really read any classics, that they really preferred girly YA books.  And there’s nothing wrong with girly YA books!  I love me some adventurous, booty-kicking YA heroines.  So why read classics?

For a few reasons:

  1. You can more fully understand the fun books you’ve been reading this whole time.  How is this?  Well, most authors are very well-read and tend to incorporate that into their work.  Take JK Rowling as an example – the Harry Potter series is filled with allusions to works like the Iliad, MacBeth, the Canterbury Tales, and the Bible.  The characters even have a discussion about the meaning of I Corinthians 15:26 (“And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”), among other things, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Other examples of this are the frequent allusions to Tennyson’s poetry and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series and Suzanne Collins’s abundance of allusions to the Roman Empire and to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in The Hunger Games trilogy.
  2. It makes you part of a unique group. Not everybody reads classics.  You get to be part of the “in jokes,” so to speak, in the literature and book publishing arena whenever people allude to the books you’ve read (and no worries – no one has ready every classical book out there).
  3. It gives you a broader perspective of the world in general.  When could a broader perspective ever be truly bad?  Broader perspectives lead to things like the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.
  4. It’s fun.  Some classics are just as fun to read as books written in the current era.  See below for a short list.

Easier Classics
A small sampling:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – basically a romantic comedy.  Who doesn’t love Elizabeth and Darcy?
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – love in wartime.  It’s a little sad, though, so advance warning.
  • Candide by Voltaire – a French comedy with adventure, love, pirates, and Turkish chain gangs.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oliver Wilde – a mistaken identity comedy.
  • The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – a hilariously gossipy comedy, with character names like Lady Sneerwell, Sir Backbite, and Snake.
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare – get the edition that has explanations on every other page, makes all those Shakespearean insults more understandable (and therefore funnier).
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – dystopian fiction from long before The Hunger Games.

NOW FOR THE GIVEAWAY

As promised last week…  If you’d like to be entered into the giveaway for a signed copy of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, here’s what you do:

  1. You need to already live in the US or Canada (sorry, international folks, postage is expensive for huge hardcovers).
  2. Comment below with a number between 1 and 1000 by next Sunday, April 7, at 9 pm Pacific Time.
  3. In your comment, if you like, answer this question: what’s your favorite classic book and why?  And if you don’t have a favorite classic, what’s one you’d like to read?

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Punching Up That Theme

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Holes - Louis Sachar - YA Books - theme - writing tips - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle

Louis Sachar’s Holes via Google Images

So you’ve gotten past the first draft, perhaps past the fifth draft, and you’re starting to hone in on bigger picture ideas like theme.  But what are the themes in your story?  And how do you make sure they don’t come across as forced morals?

Since I have trouble with this in my writing, I thought we could examine how the experts have done it.  In this case, those experts are JK Rowling and Louis Sachar.  Both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Holes explore the theme of the importance of true friendship, and both of these books do it in a way that is real, warm, and absorbing, despite some crazy circumstances.

In Louis Sachar’s Holes, our “cursed” protagonist Stanley Yelnats has gotten himself into quite a pickle.  Accused of a crime he didn’t commit, he’s sent to a juvenile detention camp in the middle of the desert with a bunch of much less innocent delinquents.  Stanley makes friends with another outcast, a kid named Zero.  Inevitably, they get into some much more serious trouble (I won’t spoil it too much here), and they end up saving each other’s lives.  For the first time in as long as he can remember, Stanley has a real friend.  When he and Zero are still mired in craziness, Stanley is the happiest he’s ever been because he has someone he can depend on:

As Stanley stared at the glittering night sky, he thought there was no place he would rather be.  He was glad Zero put the shoes on the parked car.  He was glad they fell from the overpass and hit him on the head.

With some fantastic showing instead of telling, Sachar explores this theme of the importance of true friendship without getting preachy.  We know, through Sachar’s spare, straightforward storytelling, that Stanley and Zero needed each other.  The theme is an integral part of the plot, and it gives the story depth.

Rowling explores this same theme in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone), the first book in the series.  She knew (though we as readers did not) that the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione had to hold strong for an entire series and had to ring true.

Harry winning their friendship.  JK Rowling was so adamant about the importance of this scene that she had to convince her editor it was worth keeping.  On her old website, she explained, “Hermione is so very annoying in the early part of Philosopher’s Stone that I really felt it needed something (literally) huge to bring her together with Harry and Ron.”

What can we learn from these expert authors?  What questions can we ask ourselves while revising?

  • Which themes exist already in my story?
  • Which of these themes is most integral to my plot?
  • What can I do to make this idea clearer?

What do you all think?  How do you approach theme when writing?

DRM or Do I Really Own My E-Books?

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via Google Images

Yes, it’s easy to download e-books lickety-split, and yes, they’re great to read on trains, planes, and big ol’ public transit (although I still get car sick reading anything in the car).  However, do we really own our e-books?  And what are the implications of owning or not owning said e-books?

For some of y’all, this info is old hat.  You already know that when you buy a new book from Amazon (unless it’s in the public domain), that you’re essentially renting the book.  Why is this?  The reason for this is DRM (Digital Rights Management).  It’s certainly more difficult to lend your bestie your whole e-collection of Janet Evanovich or JK Rowling without actually lending her the reading device itself.

The eerie censorship quirks of DRM became a bit more common knowledge with the Orwell debacle in 2009 when Amazon remotely erased from many Kindles copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm (highly ironic that 1984 was erased, don’t you think?).  Back in October, Norwegian IT Consultant Linn Nygaard had her Kindle account randomly deleted by Amazon (with all 30-something books attached to it) for reasons unknown to her.  She tried multiple times to get her account reinstated, and Amazon would not reinstate her account and would not tell her why.

This is not just the case with the Kindle.  Other issues can happen with the Nook and other proprietary e-readers.  Barnes and Noble can withhold access to your e-books if your credit card on file is expired even though you have already paid for your books.

There are also some pretty cool things to come from this Big-Brother-esque e-reader technology, like whether people read a book straight through, how long it takes them, and if they finish it at all.  For example, the WSJ tells us, “It takes the average reader just seven hours” to finish Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games book.  As literati Nathan Bransford put it on his blog back in November, “Your E-Reader is Watching You.”

There are lots of pros and cons here.  What do you all think?  Does DRM make you want to buy hard copy books?  Or is it just one of those things we have to deal with since e-books are so incredibly handy?  Or do you have a different take altogether?

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The Art of Naming Your Characters

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Katniss - Hunger Games - Novel Conclusions - Writing Blog - Christi Gerstle

Katniss via Google Images

What are the most important things to remember when naming your characters?

Recently, io9 talked about character names that should be banned, and and it got me thinking about naming characters in general.  I don’t necessarily agree that you should never use the name Katherine (as the author suggests, among other things), but I do think that there are important things that need to be taken into consideration so as not to distract the reader from the story.  Whenever the reader gets pulled out of the story by something jarring (like an ill-fitting character name), they are more likely to put that book down.  And the reader putting your book down is bad, right?  I thought so, too.

Every writer has their own opinion about naming characters in their stories, but I personally subscribe to the screenwriter method.  This method is pretty clearly outlined in William M. Akers’ Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 ways to make it great (crazy title, awesome book – I highly recommend it for anyone writing any type of fiction).  One of the main tenets of this method is trying your best to not give characters names that start with the same letter or rhyme.  This can be easily accomplished by listing the letters A to Z and not using more than one name for each letter (and if you have more than 26 main characters, that’s a whole different issue).

You can also go a little further and give characters names that mean something, that say something about their character.  Dickens and Shakespeare were big on this.  In more recent years, JK Rowling gave quite a few of her Harry Potter characters Latinate names that hinted something (for example, Dumbledore comes from the Latin word for “bumblebee”), and many of her characters were named after stars/characters from mythology (Sirius, Bellatrix, Regulus, Merope, etc.).  Frequently her nods at mythology related directly to the character, as in the case of Remus Lupin being a werewolf (Remus, in mythology, was one of the twins who founded Rome and was raised by a wolf).  You’ve got to be careful with this, though, or you might fall into accidental parody territory, which would generally be bad times.

One thing that really bugs me is popular names that are spelled in crazy irritating ways, like Kaiyleigh, Ashli, Jaydenn, Jessikah (aaahhh, I can’t even write any more of these horrible names), unless of course your characters actually live in a trailer park.  If you must name your character a popular current name, for goodness sake, please spell it in a way that doesn’t burn your readers’ retinas (Kailey, Ashley, Jaden, Jessica, etc.).

Some science fiction and fantasy books can get away with unusual names, like Game of Thrones or Hunger Games, but even then, it’s helpful to keep the names as pronounceable as possible.  In Game of Thrones, we can all pronounce Cersei, Sansa, and Tyrion even though we’ve never seen those names before.  In Hunger Games, Katniss, Peeta, and Prim are all names that we can pronounce.  Capiche?

What tips and tricks do you use when naming characters?  Or do you just use names that “feel right”?

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