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An Ode to Charlotte

This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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Of all the children’s books I have ever read, Charlotte’s Web is one of the best.

It teaches about death and birth. friendship, loyalty and doing the right thing.  There are talking animals and carnivals with candy floss and caramel apples and Ferris wheels.  It is elegantly simple, well written and heart breaking in both it’s happiness and sadness.

Of all the characters I have ever read, Charlotte is the best.

She is smart, artistic, brave, self-sacrificing and has a take-charge sort of spirit.  She’s a good, loyal friend and ultimately a hero.  She also taught a generation of children not to fear spiders, but to respect them and admire them for their inherent wisdom, patience and perseverance.

So what makes a Charlotte a good character?  Not just a good character, but the kind of character that stays with you throughout the years, long after you’ve put down the book?

Voice:  Charlotte’s voice is strong and unique.  It’s the first thing Wilbur hears when he’s alone in the dark and it immediately jumps out at you as a well defined character.  She’s all there from the very first word: Salutations.

Wit & Wisdom:  Although not essential to good character building, Charlotte’s quick wit and thoughtful wisdom make her stand out.  I’m not sure how much sitting around and thinking I did when I was a kid, so the concept was foreign to me.  But when Charlotte went into her deep reverie and came out with a solution to save Wilbur, I was inspired.  Now sitting around and thinking is one of my favorite pursuits.

Serious Charm:  Charlotte was a serious lady.  She didn’t fuck around.  She loved Wilbur deeply, but didn’t coddle him and that was fascinating to me.  As a kid, surrounded by people talking in baby voices to me and telling me I was cute, the fact that Charlotte took Wilbur so seriously and talked to him like an adult was a revelation.  She had a serious charm about her that has stayed with me.  To this day I try to avoid talking to kids in the baby voice, because I know how mind blowing it can be to be spoken to like an adult.  With dogs though, all bets are off.

Death: (Spoiler alert) Charlotte dies.  It still makes me cry when I read it.  She sacrificed so much for Wilbur and she died far away from home.  It’s sad as hell, but her death makes her memorable.  Like all the great artists who rise to fame after they die, it’s a strange effect death has on us as humans.  The impact of life becomes greater when it’s gone and for Charlotte it was no different.

New Life:  Charlotte leaves behind babies who, in some small way remind us of her.  Their voices are all unique and different, but they still sound like her, occupy a space in our hearts near where her memory lingers.  Death sucks, but Charlotte’s voice lives on in her children and in a way, that’s a small consolation.  I’m not one for having kids, but I can see the appeal of a certain type of immortality through procreation.

Charlotte’s my favorite.

Who’s yours?

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The Plague of Backstory

I shudder when I hear the term ‘world building’.

It makes me think of people sitting there for weeks, months, years, plotting every minute detail of their story universe and the thought of it just makes me itchy.

I know it’s integral to a lot of speculative fiction writing, but whenever people talk about it I wanna grab an umbrella to prepare for a deluge of backstory.

I’m not saying backstory is bad by any means, but I am most certainly the kind of person who gets bored of it really easily.  The Silmarillion, for example, has been sitting on my shelf for ages, half read because I just can’t bring myself to trudge through it.  Tolkien’s writing is stunning sometimes, but the backstory reads like a text book and I left school long ago.

So you want to write a story that’s full of backstory and myth and history?  I get it, some people like that kind of thing.  Maybe I’m not your ideal reader and that’s cool, but if you want your book to appeal to a wider swath of speculative fiction fans (or people like me who get bored of detailed histories) I can offer my thoughts on backstory and how to keep it from spreading like the plague that rocked your fantasy world thirteen centuries ago and caused lasting devastation.

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Sprinkle don’t pour

The info dump is my worst enemy.  Thick, meaty paragraphs of history about the world with no break for action or dialogue.  I’m here for the story, not the history lesson.  Please keep it minimal, sprinkle, don’t pour.

In the beginning

In the beginning you want to keep it especially light because I want to head right into the story and learn about the backstory once I’m invested.  If I don’t have a reason to care and you dump backstory on me, it’s likely I’ll just cut my losses and leave your book on the shelf next to The Silmarillion.

No info dumps in dialogue

Usually people don’t sit around and tell each other tales of history (unless it’s a bard and then it’d better be funny).  They don’t spew out whole massive stories in one breath and even if they do, people don’t really want to listen.  Keep your dialogue minimal and realistic and save the backstory for small sprinkles in the text.

Choose carefully

Is it really relevant that nine hundred years ago there was a battle between two warring tribes somewhere on a far continent?  Do we really need to know every detail about the invention of the laser guns that are so prolific in your world?  You’ve worked hard on all the details, but that doesn’t mean that they are all relevant, or even interesting.  I want to know what I need to know for the story’s sake or for character building, not much more.

It’s about character & present story

Ultimately your story is about your characters and what happens to them.  Sometimes that may include a little context or history, but overall it should be present and future, not past or ancient history.

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It’s your world, you’ve poured all your blood, sweat and tears into it.  It’s awesome you’re having a good time, but at some point it’s time to administer the drugs and stop the plague of backstory before it takes over the entire universe.  Backstory and history are great things to add in sprinkles, but more than that and you’ve lost me.

Agree and have more tips on keeping it simple?

Hate me for saying you should cut down on your favorite part of writing?

Let me know!

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The Importance of Words

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I love words.

I fucking love words.

Isn’t it wonderful how the two sentences above mean exactly the same thing but feel so different?  It’s all thanks to one word.  Just the addition of one little word can make a sentence feel different, it can tell us something about the writer and change our entire perspective.  It’s a bit like magic, isn’t it?  By adding the word ‘fucking’ to my love of words, I’ve increased the boldness, maybe added a little shock and told you I’m not afraid of using words some people might find offensive or distasteful.  That’s a lot of information crammed into seven letters.

Here’s some examples of more words that change meaning:

Murder vs. Slaughter  

I love the word slaughter.  I think it’s so evocative and tells us something more specific about the death in question.  Murder is almost mundane, it’s the tame sibling of slaughter.  Murder is broad and sweeping, less perverse and savage.  To me, slaughter evokes images of a killing floor, a sociopathic, willful and gruesome act.  It adds to the gravity of the death and makes it something more than it would be if it was simply murder.

Making Love vs. Having Sex vs. Fucking

This is an exciting trio because each choice can say so much about the individual.  If you have two people and one refers to sex as making love, while the other calls it fucking, you immediately learn about both personalities and even the status of the relationship.  The dynamic possibilities are so rich despite the brevity of the terms.

Dirt vs. Earth

Earth is epic.  It’s vast, elemental and evocative. Dirt is small, local and simple.

“I can’t” vs. “I can not”

Words can also make a massive difference when it comes to dialogue.  The difference between an abbreviation and two separate words can tell us so many things about the speaker.  Perhaps it’s education or social status, maybe it’s time period or situation.  The choices we make for our character’s speech patterns can vastly restructure their personalities based on the smallest tweaks.

I fucking love words.  They are so important that just one (or the lack of one) can change the entire meaning of a story.

Tell me how you feel about words.

What are your favorites?

How do you use words to change meaning and character?