Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Metaphysical Marketing, or “Wait, What?”

By Kelley Lindberg


My friend and author Sydney Salter recently returned from a trip to Japan, and she brought me a Japanese treat to try – a banana-filled pastry (think Twinkie shaped like a small banana, made with rice flour and real banana filling). Produced by a company called Tokyo Banana, the pastry was incredibly light and tasty.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this small delicacy was its packaging. Each pastry was wrapped individually, with lots of Japanese labeling all over it – presumably ingredients, a telephone number, a bullet list of who-knows-what information. The only English on the entire package is a small logo that says “From Tokyo to All Over the Country Since 1991” and some extremely fine print on the front that says:
“People gather to TOKYO from here and there with memories of their home. And then, TOKYO gets everyone’s home town.”
 So that’s the only English on the whole package. Not something that might say – I’m just brainstorming here – “Banana-filled cake” or even “Cake being of like to a banana” (assuming it was translated by Google Translate). No, not that. Instead, it’s apparently a lot more important to warn you that TOKYO is going to steal your home town. Or something. I’m still not quite sure what it means. But it sounds vaguely sinister, doesn’t it? Not really the sort of slogan that’s going to make a lot of English-speaking tourists plunk down a fistful of yen when they’re hankerin’ for a snack.

Or maybe it is. Maybe the Tokyo Banana company has hit on a marketing goldmine. Perhaps what our own country needs is a lot more food that ignores the fact that it’s food, and focuses instead on deep meaningful concepts like memories and territorial disputes.

After all, Sydney bought the banana-cake, and I happily ate it. And, heaven help me, I’d eat another one if I stumbled across it somewhere. Even if it's in my home town. Call me a traitor.

Just imagine if all our marketing messages were metaphysical in nature. Instead of wasting time printing “breaded chicken tenders” on a package that obviously contains breaded chicken tenders, perhaps the manufacturer should say “Stars flash and sparkle, and then die in a magnetic rainbow of pulsing energy, creating new memories.” Or how about “Everyone sings happy songs to shame small birds to greater glory.” No wait, I’ve got it: “Limitations drift away like dandelion seeds meant for the neighbor’s pristine yard. Deal with it.”

Metaphysical marketing slogans – a whole new career field for writers. And remember, “dreams, like skateboards, can injure you with fun.”

 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Are Your Settings Stuck In a Rut?

by Kelley Lindberg


As humans, we often fall into ruts. We go to the same place for lunch more than we should admit. We read the same types of books and watch the same types of TV shows. We shop at the same stores and rotate through the same recipes for dinner every week.
 
As writers, we fall into ruts, too. If our protagonist is a teenager, we’re probably going to put them in the usual slate of teenage-appropriate settings, like the mall, the school, and a big party at someone’s house. If we’re writing a traditional fantasy, there’s probably going to be a castle, a long journey with at least one stop at a road-side inn filled with menacing-looking customers, and some dark woods. An urban tale will involve several scenes at a coffee shop and maybe a poetry slam. A contemporary mystery will no doubt include a back alley, a police station, a slick-looking office building, and an ordinary-looking suburban house thrown in for that “everyman” feel.
 
What’s more, once we’ve written one scene in one of those locations, we generally find our character returning to that same location over and over throughout the story.
 
But is that really the best choice?
 
Can something as simple as changing the locale breathe new life into a scene? It just might. And it might do more than just give your story a fresh background – by changing the setting, you can enrich the atmosphere, strengthen obstacles, deepen tensions, or even enhance the characters and their motivations.
 
For example, imagine if you moved your awkward first kiss scene in your contemporary YA novel from the front seat of a beat-up Camry (ordinary) to the catwalk over the high school stage during a performance of Spamalot (a little more unusual). How did they get there? The chances of them getting caught in a fairly spectacular way just went up significantly – does that heighten the tension?
 
Or let’s move your urban werewolf out of his typical nightclub hangout (been there, done that) and into an evening class called “The Secrets of Sushi” being taught at the local community college. His goal is still the same – nab the curvaceous beauty in the red dress – but the obstacles he has to overcome have just changed in a refreshing departure from the usual “denizen of the night” stalking sort of way. Maybe you needed an element of comedy (the werewolf must elude campus parking enforcers), irony (he really wants to like sushi, but raw fish just doesn’t satisfy his cravings like raw human meat does), or a more humanizing aspect (he just wants to take classes at the college like a normal person for once).
 
Whether you’re just planning your story or you’ve already completed a draft, making a list of potential settings you haven’t considered can be a very interesting exercise. It’s especially helpful if you find your character inhabiting what you consider “typical” locales or if your character returns to the same locale for multiple scenes.
 
If you’ve already started outlining or drafting your story, make a list of all the locations you have used so far. Are they primarily “typical” settings? Are there repeats that don’t have to be repeats? Some repeats are necessary – returning to the scene of a crime, for example – but if your hero and his partner are discussing aspects of the crime, do they always have to be in the car or at the police station? Can they be in the back row of the movie theater while the hero’s kid watches the latest Disney movie? Can that simple change reveal something about the crime that the hero hasn’t considered yet (say, the nearly-hidden projection booth gives him an idea of how the villain escaped)?
 
The setting shouldn’t just be novel for the sake of novelty, however. Like everything else in your story, it should also work towards revealing character and/or increasing tension (preferably both).
 
Now forget about the locations you’ve already used. Make a new list of all the possible places this character might go. Try to come up with at least 30 different places (bonus points for more!). Start with the commonplace (school, grocery store, work, park, mall), but then move on to more unusual places that would still be reasonable for this character to go to (indie movie theater, arts festival, announcer’s booth in a football stadium, hiking trail, top of a skyscraper, cave, historic battlefield, zip line, etc.).
 
Next, see if you can move any of your scenes to one of those non-ordinary places. How will the emotions of the scene change? What can the new setting do for your characters or for their obstacles? Does the new setting enrich the scene or detract from it? Evaluate each one carefully. Not sure? Draft the scene multiple times, using a different setting each time. One will begin to call to you.
 
Then take a deep breath, leave the ruts behind, and blaze a refreshingly new trail for your story.

 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Choosing Character Names

By Kelley Lindberg


Choosing a name for your character is every bit as important – and sometimes as difficult – as choosing a name for your child.

There are plenty of criteria for choosing the right name. You want the name to be memorable, for one. It should also be easy to say (or read). Giving your alien sidekick the name Skzgx14sky may look cool, but it’s awfully hard to pronounce, even in your head. And it’s a pain to type – keep that in mind if you’re going to be referring to this character a lot in your novel.

Some other things to keep in mind when choosing a name include whether it’s time-period appropriate (“Starshine” probably wasn’t a common name in the Civil War), and characteristic of your character’s ethnic or geographic background. There are websites that list common names for various languages or cultures if you need ideas for authentic names. If the name is for an alien or fantasy character, would it be pronounceable with the alien’s facial (or other sound-producing) features?

Does your character’s name start with the same letter as another major character’s name in the story? I hate reading stories where there’s a John, a James, a Joan, and a Jean – I’m constantly confusing the characters. Avoid using the same first letter more than once, even if you think the names are pretty different from each other. In other words, even though Sarah and Samantha have a different number of syllables, our brains are still going to lump them together because of the initial “S” sound (and especially because they both end in “a”). Change one to Roberta or Kristin, pretty please! Just that single change goes a long way towards eliminating confusion.

Are there meanings or connotations you want the character’s name to represent – or avoid? Pick up a “Baby Names” book (or search baby name websites) to see the meanings of thousands of names. Some might surprise you. (For example, “Kelley” means “brave warrior.” That right there is what you might call irony. I’d be the first casualty in any battle scene, easy.)

Think about the sound of the name – harder vowels and consonants may sound stronger, more abrupt, harsher. A powerful bad guy is going to sound tougher with the name Kyle Trent than with the name Leonard Memmon. Softer, more melodious names will match softer, more melodious characters. On the other hand, giving a bad guy a softer name might be just the extra little red herring you were looking for.

A recent study at the University of Chicago (and described in the San Francisco Chronicle:Parents’ Baby Name Choices Linked to Political Leanings”), suggests that conservatives prefer baby names that start with those stronger, hard consonants like K, T, B, and D, and well-educated conservatives go with traditional names like Mary or Elizabeth. On the other hand, liberals choose names that start with softer sounds like L and often end in A sounds (like Sophia and Laura), and well-educated liberals go with more unusual, but established names. Less-educated parents often choose alternate spellings or make up entirely new names. So you might even want to take your character’s political leanings and educational background into account when you give him or her a name.

A well-chosen name can telegraph a lot of information about your character. The trick is making sure it’s the information you intended. But all of that information telegraphing is moot if you end up with a name you’re not fond of. The name must fit your character and feel completely natural to you. Don’t hesitate to try out several names until you find the one you love. The Search and Replace feature in word processing software is our friend.

 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Words, Ideas, Fireworks, and Other Powerful Forces

By Kelley Lindberg

 
Today we’re celebrating the 4th of July. Usually, if we spend any time at all considering why we are celebrating this holiday, we think of the Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence.
 
But this year, July 4 falls the day after the 150th anniversary of the Union victory at the horrific Battle of Gettysburg, the event generally considered to be the major turning point in the Civil War that eventually led to the re-solidifying of both the United States and the concept of democracy.
 
Four and a half months after this crucial battle at the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which left between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers dead (from both sides) and effectively halted Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North, President Abraham Lincoln gave a short speech at a dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the dead Union soldiers.
 
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is often considered one of the greatest American speeches ever given. He gave his address after a speech by Edward Everett, whose two-hour oration was supposed to have been the official “Gettysburg Address.” By contrast, Lincoln’s speech was listed on the program as merely “Dedication Remarks, by the President of the United States.” But while no one remembers or even recognizes Everett’s lengthy speech, every American can at least recite the first few words of Lincoln’s short, ten-sentence speech: “Four score and seven years ago…”
 
There are at least five different versions of Lincoln’s speech, all with slight variations (writers never stop tinkering), and at the time his words were greeted with widely different responses from different newspapers and critics. Some thought it was succinct and poignant. Others thought it was simply too short to have been any good.
 
But after reading his speech again yesterday, for the first time in years, I am struck by the sheer brilliance of his ideas, his intent, and his emotions, and I’m astounded at his ability to sum up a war, its devastation, and its meaning for the future of our country and humanity with so few words.
 
It’s said that the ability to read and write well help develop a higher level of thinking. The more command we have over language, the more penetrating and rich our ideas can become. Language paves the way for creativity and higher-order ideas. Lincoln’s speech demonstrates how the two go hand-in-hand.
 
In an era when the bulk of our communications seem to consist of emoticons and abbreviations (LOL), are we abbreviating our ideas and emotions, too? When was the last time we penned an email in which we carefully analyzed our thoughts and expressed them so carefully that others were moved by them, instead of just forwarding the latest sound-bite pithy slogan designed merely to inflame or amuse, but not really to inform or – heaven forbid – call to explore more deeply? When we write well, we order our thoughts and ideas into logical progressions. By doing that, we may notice the gaps we’re ignoring that require new thinking. Or perhaps we see where our own arguments break down, and we make space for alternate ideas. Or maybe we see the pieces slide together into a perfect whole, and we can express those ideas in new ways that will cast them in a new, more thoughtful light.
 
But if we let a generation of students move away from in-depth writing and reading, what does that bode for our own future? Will higher-level thinking wither as the ability to order our thoughts into effective written arguments is de-valued? Are we headed into a new Dark Age?
 
The courageous ideas of Abraham Lincoln, expressed in a handful of passionate, deeply-felt words, helped pull a country out of its Dark Age once. Our world could use a few more thinkers like him right now.
 
Here is the entire text for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (from the Bliss version of the text, to which he signed his name, although there are slight variations from other versions):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.