Vin Dova

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Professional Small Boy. Also, a pilot--though these days, I mostly fly a desk in Washington, DC. (Google "world's largest office building")    

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Vin Dova Discussions
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A recent post about writing strong female characters got me to thinking. Not wanting to hijack that …
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  •  · There was a time when I thought I might write "The Great Las Vegas Novel" some day. Ha! Silly of stu…
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At the outset, my new WIP presented me with a curious dilemma when it came to representing dialogue.…
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  •  · Italics sound a bit grim, to be honest. I'd be put off by the sight of that, I think. If you're writ…
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This doesn't come up often in my writing (and should probably come up even less than it does) but no…
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  •  · I agree, Libby, when you say 'the signal highlights the mechanics of the narration and the author's …
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Yesterday, I went with my wife to a popular chain bookstore. Since I am pitching my current WIP to a…
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I know its trendy. I know its revolutionizing the business. I know that by refusing to embrace it, I…
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  •  · Blaine,Sure. I do many things but I guess for these purposes you can say I am the author of How to M…

That's an especially good example Roger. I think you get bonus points if you manage to communicate key attributes of a character's appearance without ever even using an adjective. Not always practical, but neat when it works out.  

Stepping aside from the perilous cultural debates referenced previously, I have come to believe it is best to be very careful and sparing with physical descriptions, and drop only a little piece at a time over the course of introducing a character. Being a portrait artist and cartoonist myself, I tend to analyze the hell out of everyone I see, and when I first started writing, I would vomit a lengthy and high-technical description of the geometric contours of their face, and every proportion of their body. You want to talk about "objectification?" Good Lord, but I objectified *everyone* -- like I was trying to describe an anatomy textbook to a blind person. Suffice to say, that was crap, and I stopped doing it. 

I still think a character's appearance can be incredibly important, but no reader is going to fully process a paragraph-long head-to-toe discussion of a person's appearance and magically come up with a mental image that exactly matches the one you were holding in your head when you wrote it. Furthermore, pausing a scene as a new character enters the room to describe every facet of their appearance and garb is one of the best ways of killing pace and flow. It's a sure tell of a newbie writer--and I say that from experience, having done so abundantly myself in the past.   

My current philosophy is to try to distill physical descriptions to two basic categories:

1. Singular attributes that are in some way remarkable or at least differentiate them from other characters who may be present in the same scene. 

2. Attributes that make a strong impression on the mind of the POV character, presented at the moment that the impression is made. This should be only one thing, maybe two, and be the sort of image that one might remember years later, long after every other detail of that person's appearance has faded from memory. 

Aside from that, it's probably best to just skip the rest and let the readers cast whomever they want in the "roles" you create on the page. No matter how you try to guide their imagination, they are probably going to do that anyway, so why waste your words? 

Just my two cents.  


Anyone here ever heard of this outfit? I have a hard time getting past my knee-jerk reaction against pure digital imprints as vanity presses and/or author mills, but that is probably just because I am hopelessly mired in the past. (No coincidence then that I predominantly write historical fiction!)

Of course, I'm only asking because I find their contest terms vaguely interesting. I'm booked solid for the next few years on other projects, but I happen to have an unsold five-part historical fiction series gathering virtual dust on my cloud service provider...   

Fascinating article, but I had to stop for a minute at this line: "The job requires finding books that match a client’s taste — a German publisher that wants historical fiction, a streaming service looking for strong female protagonists with a drinking problem — " If only that wasn't a hypothetical example! I happen to have a historical novel series featuring a strong female German protagonist with at least something of drinking problem. Book scouts--are you listening?  

On somewhat more serious note, if I were a publisher, I would be fairly concerned about securing myself from a ransomware attack. There isn't enough money in publishing books to motivate the really sophisticated technical groups out there, so staying safe is less a matter of technical means, and more a matter of security awareness among one's employees. And here, I would be far more worried about one my senior editors being caught by a phishing Email than my interns.

 As individual authors, the idea of having our prized WIP held hostage by some faceless goon on the Darkweb is surely the stuff of nightmares. Fortunately, it doesn't take all that much to keep your stuff secure from the sort of low-tier threats that go after individuals like us--especially because most of us don't make a well-publicized living with our writing. 

So if you throw a bunch of different snippets at this algorithm, it gives wildly divergent results between one type of scene and the next, but within a given type, it was 100% consistent. I'm pretty sure this says more about the algorithm than about my writing... 

Type of Scene / # of results / Author Match

Character introductions, scene-setting / x3 / Ernst Hemmingway 

Dialogue-driven /x3 / Agatha Christi

Action, heightened tension / x2 / Arthur C. Clark

Internal character narrative / x2 / Chuck Palahniuk (Author of Fight Club, Choke)


As I most write historical fiction, where most of my characters come with names pre-assigned, this thread would seem irrelevant to me at first brush. And yet... 

Maybe it's not. 

Much has been written about how people are impacted by the names that their parents give them. And when you know little about a character besides their name, that serves as an excellent starting point to delve into their personality.  

Case in point: I have a protagonist with the name Kätie Otersdorf. 

First off, those little dots over the "a" mean that her name suggests both the English word "cat" and the German word for same, "katze."  And yes, she is reliably "catty" in her behavior and moods. The image of a stray cat in particular comes to mind; men would like to tame her, and think they can do so by kind words and petting. In the right mood, she encourages this; but then will suddenly change her mind and become aloof. Just like a cat, she serves no master, needs no keeper, and is capable of taking care of herself. She does seek intimacy, if only skittishly, and on her own terms.

Then, there's the last name: Otersdorf. Frumpy and dour, that is. She got it from her father, whom she openly despises, and whom we are told is an odious, evil, powerful, scheming bureaucrat. The fact that her last name isn't exactly "pretty" also jives with her self image. Katie is not unattractive, but she is not a natural beauty either. Her perception is that she has to work harder than other, more naturally graceful girls, to project attractiveness. Sometimes she bothers, sometimes she doesn't. That fact that men come on to her anyway, she ascribes to their lecherousness and low standards, not her own physical beauty.

It is also true however that a person's real persona is reflected in what alternate names people call them. I would submit that most of us have multiple names--and corresponding identities that go along with them. 

There's the official one on our ID card, which we may or may not use, but probably carries the full baggage of our childhood because that is what your teacher read aloud during roll-call; there may be a professional title by which we are addressed in a work setting, which we associate with our responsibilities and obligations; then there are the various nicknames given to us by friends of varying levels or intimacy, family members, and loved ones. Add to that, whatever your children happen to call you if you are a parent. My point is, when writing a real-life character, you can deliberately use all those variations to shape how they are presented, how they perceive themselves, or how other characters perceive them. And all that can (and probably should) vary from scene-to-scene.

Going back to Kätie, here is what I have other people call her: 

She is "Kat" to men who desire some intimacy with her (trying to tame the alley cat)

She is "Nurse Katie" to her patients.

She is "Sister Katie" to her fellow nurses (to her face)

She is "Böse Kätie" (Nasty Katie), or "Herr General"  to her fellow nurses (behind her back)

She is "Nurse Otersdorf" or "Miss Otersdorf" to her superiors, who mostly view her as a challenging HR problem to be solved.

The only people that actually call her "Kätie" are her best friend, and her eventual lover (the co-protagonist of the series). The latter, however, only calls her by that name after a long period of awkwardly clinging to the more formal "Miss Otersdorf," which itself reflects his reluctance to acknowledge any intimacy with a woman who frequently and publicly challenges his authority.

I could go on, but I think I you get the point. Sorry for the long post, by the way, but I got up early (on my side of the pond) and have already drank ALOT of coffee.  Have a nice weekend!



 


   

Having learned from an early age to avoid contractions in formal writing, I unthinkingly obeyed that dictate for a long time when writing third-person narration in fiction. As a general rule, I guess I'd still recommend that practice. Over the years though, I've found myself getting less formal, less stodgy, and much more concerned about impact and rhythm. (A word, BTW, that I have never yet spelled correctly without assistance!) This often comes at the expense of obedience to the rules I was taught growing up, but this is not something that keeps me up at night.

Bottom line, I use contractions in narration whenever I feel like now. But it is always a deliberate choice--never a thoughtless error. Same goes with most other rules--both in art and life.  Breaking rules is always risky, but sometimes it's (it is?) worth the risk. Have a go at it, and see if it works. If it doesn't, someone will surely let you know. 

That being said, if the Grammar Police swing by my office and start asking questions about you, I'll disavow any knowledge of this conversation. I suggest you do the same for me. 

-Vin

Back in 2019, I legitimately thought I was very close to having a publishing deal for a series of books I had worked on (at that point) for 18+ years. I had an agent, some excellent reviews, and felt like things were picking up momentum. Flash forward to 2021, and I feel further away from the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow than I have in a long time. 

What happened? Well, factors beyond my control. I was told at one point "You do beautiful work, but it may just not be your year to get published" What I suspect she actually meant to say was it may not be my *decade* to get published--but that would have come off a bit too harsh, even if it's true. 

So yes, the goal posts move sometimes. That's life. The only thing you have any control over is the effort you put into making your own work better, day after day, year after year (or even decade after decade).  Personally, I have had to accept that playing the long game is the only possible avenue to success. To that end, I am still working to refine and improve that 5-book series that I've already spent two decades crafting, but I have also taken on a new and entirely different project that may I hope will have a broader market appeal. Even if that too fails to gain traction (due to the vagaries of the current literary marketplace) I am still enjoying the hell out of writing it; and I have a small contingent of readers clamoring for me to finish it. That just has to be good enough. And by-and-large, it is. 

Having accepted the dim odds that my work will ever sit on bookstore front table shelves, I am still finding motivation and internal reward in the act of creating. In some ways, it's actually been liberating. I have to remind myself that I am not writing to make money, or get famous, or have the ego-stroke of success at a highly competitive artistic field. I want all those things, of course; but I write because it is an inseparable part of who I am, and how I process my experience as a human being. 

If, miracle-of-miracles, my decades of obsessive effort ever really do pay off, affording me the option of writing exclusively for a living, I know that I will be far more grateful and appreciative of that success than I would have been had I "made it" in this business when I first started trying. 

At this point I'm like the kid in the back of the class that suddenly raises his hand and starts waving it back and forth enthusiastically. Call on me! Call on me! 

You see I think I have the ultimate "Try it out before you write it" story. In my early 20's I was an aspiring film writer/director getting by doing local TV commercials. I had also started working on a novelization of a screenplay I workshopped in film school about a certain famous fighter pilot. At the time, I had never flown a small plane, let alone done any aerobatics or dogfighting. I figured a little direct research would really help bring the flying scenes to life, but I didn't have the time/money for flight lessons. Then, 9/11 came along and all my ad contracts got cancelled. Long story short, I decided to take a quick "break" from the business, joined the first military branch that would let me into flight school, became a naval aviator . . . 19 years, and thousands of flight hours later, I know *just a little more* about flying. And even a little about getting shot at. I never meant to stay at it so long, so I must offer this as a cautionary tale: be careful what you choose to research for your book; it might end up completely changing the course of your life.

I'll sit down now. 



Speaking for my completed books, I can say that I am only vaguely aware of the themes during the initial plotting and drafting. The idea will definitely be there; I can *feel* it. But I am not yet ready to put it into words. Somewhere along the way, the themes start writing themselves in. I notice when that happens, and the consciously start to amplify it where I can. 

More to the point of your question, I am starting to see a few common themes emerging in my current work in progress that recall my previous books. I wouldn't go so far as to say that is intentional or deliberate. But its not purely by accident either. I think "inevitable" is the better term. 

I am reminded of a silly novella idea I've flirted with more than once of telling the life story of an old car, and the various owners it has over the years from the car's perspective. Cars tend to have a journey through the socio economic ladder that is different from a human life, and they are silent witness (or accomplice) to so many of life's little dramas. It would be interesting to tell this multi-decade, multi-generational human story through that lens. There would be some joyful speeding. An embarrassing fender-bender or two. Maybe even a bad crash that could have should have sent the car to a wrecking yard, but didn't; only to end with the car being restored to its originally glory by the original owner's kid or something. In the end, it is a human story, illuminated by a human artifact that takes on the characteristics and emotions of the people who interact and share moments in its presence. 

Eh, so many ideas, so little time.

Added a comment to Titles 

I tend to come up with titles about mid-way through the first draft, and typically it comes from a phrase or an image that keeps coming up like a refrain. I generally don't plan that part. But I keep an eye for it, and once I decide that I've found the Rosetta stone turn of phrase that ties it all together best, I work that into a title and continue to amplify it in the rest of the book, chapter, or short story every chance I get. That way, if anyone decides to change the title later on for marketing reasons, the savvy reader will at least subliminally know what I intended to call the book. 

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