Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tropes in Literature

Tropes—when you're talking about movies or novels—are common themes, plot elements, or literary devices, so popular they've often become cliché.  Some people hate them.  Some editors will throw your manuscript in the trash the moment they see a trope they're tired of.  Others will reject it because it doesn't follow a popular pattern.   People like Terry Pratchett make an art of purposely employing too many tropes, to hilarious effect.  The thing is, clichés become clichés for a reason:  we, as a people, LOVE certain story elements, and don't mind if we see them over and over again.  Entire genres are built on well established tropes that readers not only tolerate, but expect.

My opinion:  be aware of the tropes of your genre, then go ahead and use the ones you like, the ones that serve your story, but play around with them.  Make them your own.  Mix them up.  It's true that, when you boil everything down, there aren't a whole lot of truly unique stories.  It's the way you tell it that makes it unique.   

I'll be featuring individual devices and plot elements here in my Literature Tropes series, but if you want to get lost for an hour or two, visit, where you'll discover tropes with creative names, like these, common in science fiction and fantasy:

Dark Lord on Life Support (A Bad Guy who's been wounded—often by the Hero—and needs a machine or a host body to survive.  Think Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Stargate's Goa'uld.)

E.T Gave Us Wi-Fi (Where some or all of our technology actually came from aliens somehow.  Useful for explaining why a human starship pilot, for example, can board an alien vessel and somehow figure out in two minutes how to control the ship.)

Clap Your Hands if You Believe (where the belief in something, such as magic, is what actually makes things happen.  Think Tinkerbell, or go back even further, to the Bible, where Simon Peter can walk on water until he starts to doubt.)

Conveniently an Orphan. (Let's be honest:  if someone up and answers the Call of Adventure, while leaving behind all family responsibility, he can come off as selfish, irresponsible, and unlikable.  The solution:  make him an orphan, so he has no family to leave behind.  Bilbo Baggins and many other heroes of fairy tales and fantasy fit this bill.)

Token Heroic Orc  (Where a member of a scary enemy species joins the—mostly human—good guys.  Think Worf and Seven of Nine on Star Trek, Angel on Buffy.)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Seventh Sanctum-- A Writer's Friend

I'm horrible at naming things.  For a writer, that's a problem.  Especially in fantasy.  I can name minor characters and unimportant towns, but when it comes to the big weighty things:  main characters, kingdoms, etc., I take forever.

I rearrange nice-sounding syllables.  I take obscure cities in the Czech Republic and twist the letters up.  I play with scrabble tiles.  And I browse online name generators.

If you've never been to Seventh Sanctum, you should try it out.  I don't think I've ever actually used a name from there, but I've used permutations and combinations and variations.  It's a great way to stimulate your linguistic imagination.

There are various online name generators out there, but Seventh Sanctum is unique in that it has special generators for magic items, corporations, spells, science fiction university course titles, etc.  It also categorizes types of names.  Need a dragon character?  Anime superhero?  Dark Minion?  Pirate ship?  Angel?  You can also generate quick story starters, detailed character descriptions, types of magic, etc.

Some are more comically suited to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett, but they're fun.  (Need to stun an enemy with the Lawful Fish's Dart of the Undead, for example?)  Some aren't even grammatical, but it's just a trove of inspiration, and some of the treasures generated could go right into the pages of your epic fantasy or sci fi thriller.

And even if you have have the knack of naming, Seventh Sanctum is still a fun way to procrastinate.    

Friday, April 12, 2013

"The Second Time We Met," by Leila Cobo

I picked up The Second Time We Met completely at random, from the library display shelf while I was waiting in line.  I love the anticipation of that type of book selection.  Will it be good?  Will I fall in love with the characters?  Will the story capture me?  Will I wonder why on earth it's published?  Much better than unwrapping a Christmas present.

The Second Time We Met, by Leila Cobo, begins in a humble village in Colombia, where protective fathers try to keep their daughters away from the handsome young guerillas encamped around town.  It doesn't work.

Years later, happy and well-adjusted young Asher faces a crisis in his life.  For the first time, he really begins to wonder about his birth mother.  

Thus begins the search.

It's a beautifully written book.  I didn't connect with Asher as well as I wanted, and it slowed at times, but I really felt I knew Rita and her life and Colombian surroundings.  

The very last page was a bit of a jar.  I actually turned the page expecting more.  The ending in general, however, was well done:  not everything tied up in perfect bows, but enough of a resolution to satisfy the reader.

My rating:  4

I would read more of Leila Cobo's work.  Click here to buy The Second Time We Met.       

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Page 99 Test

Here's a fun site for writers:  

The theory is that when people are thumbing through books at a book store or library, they often go to a spot around a hundred pages in, and then read an excerpt so see if they like the style and content.  This apparently is a natural place for your thumb to stop.  Savvy readers know that the first pages and cover blurb might not be the best indication of quality.  They're too reworked, too perfect, too aware of the need to hook the reader.  By page 99, the writer's true colors will appear.  

As Ford Maddox Ford said, "Open the book to page ninety-nine, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."  

What writers do here is upload their random page 99 (though some cheat, I think, and upload a page they particularly like, or even the first page).  Others then rate this on whether they'd turn the page and whether they'd buy the book.  You can also write specific comments.  This is very helpful feedback to writers.  It's also interesting for the rater:  you see if your opinions match others', and what particularly struck other people.

If you're a new writer, be prepared for some brutal honesty.  It'll help you get the thick skin needed if you ever want to reveal your work to the world at large.

Try it out for yourself.   You need to sign up for an account, but it's free.