Glimmer Train Fall 2014: “Stowaways,” by Joseph Chavez

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Our first story from the Fall 2014 collection deals with an old WWII veteran, named Marshall (and holy shit, I just got the pun there). Marshall finds a body that fell from the sky in his backyard. It’s later revealed that this was the body of an airplane stowaway, who fell out of the plane when the landing gear opened. Marshall’s wife, Miko, is losing her mind to old age. She’s also a stowaway, and the story’s end draws a parallel between her and the dead Arab boy.

Stowaways is dearly written in the small bits, particularly with similes. Chavez knows how to utilize them well, whether he’s describing a “hunger that presses into his stomach like a jagged stone,” (Chavez, 16) or aging “as if life is pushing him out of the door, prying his fingers one by one from their grip on the doorjamb” (Chavez, 7). But sentence clarity here is undercut by the weird dispensing of information. Marshall and his son get in a fight in a flashback, and the fight is never described. One paragraph is the son saying something insensitive and stupid, another paragraph is a description of the son, and the third describes nurses pulling the two men apart. The narrator ignores a pivotal moment in one of Marshall’s key relationships.

I also can’t shake the feeling that the narrator is focusing on the wrong things. The dead stowaway is spewing blood when Marshall discovers him, but that’s the last description of the Arab boy in a list of comparatively trivial details. It reminds me of the Dungeon Master that describes in loving detail the insignias on the treasure, the oppressive warmth in the cavern, the holy energy emitting from the centerpiece jewel, and forgets to mention until the last minute that oh yeah, there’s a huge-ass dragon sitting in the middle of it. Spewing blood should be first in the list of things described because it would naturally catch Marshall’s eye first. Chavez passes over describing the stowaway’s unique clothes to instead spend a paragraph describing Arabic bills. These bills don’t affect the plot and don’t come back to the story in a meaningful way. The narrator is distant from Marshall, granted; the story starts with the narrator knowing something that Marshall doesn’t. But what does the narrator mean to do by separating itself from the main character’s point of view? I can’t say we learn much about this narrator, although more imaginative readers than I might gain something from the occasional vague subtitle in the story.

This isn’t a bad read. It’s just not as developed as it should be.

Interested in this story? Buy it and many others here!

A Comprehensive List For Knowing Everything About Your Character (Part 2)

If you’ll recall from last time, I walked you through the first section of what I write down to make a character. But there’s still a ways to go on the list, so let’s keep it coming!

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This is a list for more realistic fiction. You’ll have to find another source for your Disney movie.

LOOKS LIKE: Broadly speaking, whom does your character look like? Could be a movie star, someone you know, or whatever defining features will be noticed first by other characters. If you can acquire a picture of your inspiration, pin it to your writing notebook.

VOICE: You can put in this section something like “nasally” or “confident,” but I like to treat this section like “looks like.” Maybe your characters sounds like or has the same verbal tics as your Uncle Bruce, or Skeletor.

POSTURE: Does your character stand up straight? How does he or she present his or her self?

FAVORITE FOOD: With this answer, you should also give a brief note to your character’s eating habits. I’ve mentioned this before, but how your character prepares, consumes, and stores food is a great example of personality in action.

HOPES: Have you ever had wild prayers about the future? Something that may be out of your control, but that you wish for anyways? Well, your character has that too, and it’s good to jot those hopes down.

WHAT JOKES DOES (S)HE NOT GET: Again, touched on before. Essentially, asking yourself this question makes you envision an active character, a person reacting to something. This question also distances you from your creation, since you’re not likely to see yourself as the person who “doesn’t get” certain types of humor. This category also helps define what your character is not.

SELF OR WORLD: If your character had to choose between saving themselves or saving the world, which option would they pick? Why?

PERCIEVED AS: How do other people view your character? Can be anywhere from completely accurate to completely wrong.

PERCEPTION OF WORLD: How does your character see the world? Is it an optimistic, pessimistic, or balanced view? Basically, when your character’s talking about an unspecified “they,” who are “they”?

TRUSTING OF OTHERS?: Pretty straightforward: does your character tend to trust other people?

TONE/CERTAINTY IN DECISION: Remember when I talked about voice and said I preferred not to put in that category something like “smooth” or “on the verge of crying”? This is the section where such answers belong. “Certainty in Decision” is related to Tone, but separate. It’s also simpler than it sounds— is your character certain in everything they say? Or do they fill their speech with “wells” and “umms” and “you know, if you’d like to”s?

(S)HE’S THE PART OF US THAT: How will your character connect to a reader on an emotional level? To explain this section, let’s say I was designing Donald Trump as a character for a conservative audience. I’d put down in this section, “the part of us that wants to fight back the bullies, real or imagined.” Without meaning to make this blog any more political than it needs to be, I’d say that’s the reason why people like Trump: he speaks to a part of conservative psyche. If your character speaks for a mental or psychological part of the audience, like “the part that wants to talk back to teachers” or “the part that just wants to live their own life,” it’ll likely receive as much attention from your readers as the actual Trump.

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Like I said before, this list may not work with your Disney Movie about chipmunks.

BASELINE EMOTION EXPERIENCED: I talked about having your character not always responding to everything with the same characteristic. But there can be a default emotional state, such as “angry” or “cheery” that motivates your character to accomplish their goals. You character does X because she feels Y. This works in tandem with…

BASELINE EMOTION GIVEN TO AUDIENCE: What do you want your audience to feel when this character is mentioned or encountered? If you know what you want your audience to feel, than you can give your character direction. Pairing up the two “baseline emotion” sections is a good starting point for character design. The Joker likely has “giddiness” as Baseline Emotion Experienced (BEE), and “terror” as Baseline Emotion Given To Audience (BEGTA). The Joker’s goal, from a writing perspective, is now set: he’s going to make the audience shit their pants, but while remaining funny at least to himself. Try other pairings for your own characters. A happy character than invokes dread! A character that fears everything around her almost as much as we fear her!

Also, I owe credit for BEE and BEGTA to Rich Burlew, though he used different words than me.

EMPATHY FOR: Who is your character empathetic towards? This will say a lot about them. And try avoiding writing down here, “Nobody, his is a LONER and COOL.”

EYE COLOR: Yeah, it’s cliché description, but people will ask.

GOOD WITH KIDS?: I like this question because no one really asks it, and yet it’s so good. It’s got all the true-nature-revealed quality of “Do dogs like her?” combined with an actual scene that can be written. Imagine your character surrounded by toddlers. If she’s developed enough, this scene can write itself!

BESERK BUTTON/ INSECURITY: These two are as tight together as a stomach and its stomach lining. What topic will get your character raving mad at the mere mention of it? Comedies tend to have sillier, more-beserkier reactions, but even Lord Varys might get upset if you call him a mermaid or something, even if he doesn’t show his anger in raging and screaming.

VIEWS ON: What does your character believe? Here are some topics regarding what your character might muse on during those late-night philosophical conversations with tired friends. Answer them all:

  • Religion
  • Love
  • Justice
  • Self
  • Humanity
  • Fate
  • Good
  • Evil
  • Death
  • Time

Preface all these buzzwords with “What is” and have your character answer them in their own voice if possible. Answers can be as complex as a whole treatise, can be as simple as “Good is when Bob don’t hit my fence with his tractor.”

NOTE: Views on Humanity is different from Perception of World. Humans may be bastards in your character’s eye, but maybe nature, science, or something outside of people get valued differently by your character.

WHAT’S GOING ON THIS WEEK?: We’re not all set in stone, though we wish we were, ‘cause a stone’s not affected by bad weather or drama at work or finding someone’s wallet on the sidewalk. What just happened to your character before the story starts that slightly affects their mood by the time we first see them?

RELATIONSHIP TO ESTABLISHED CHARACTER: Make your guy a friend or brother or sex slave of one of your other characters! Start a literary universe! Even if it breaks the continuity of the other character like a wooden plank at a dojo, it’ll be worth it, ‘cause now you’re writing the karate master!

REPLACES CLICHÉS WITH: Clichés comes from subcultures like baseball or superhero clubs or holodeck adventures. What’s your character’s frame of reference? Instead of writing “a stone’s throw away,” maybe she can say “a racetrack away” if she’s really into car racing. WARNING: THIS CAN BE OVERDONE. USERS SHOULD TAKE CUATION AND HOLD THEIR HIPPOGRIFFS BEFORE OVERINDULGING IN THIS PRACTICE. NOTE HOW I USED CLICHÉS IN THIS POST WITHOUT COMPARING EVERYTHING TO STAR WARS OR SHAKESPEARE.

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McGonagall disapproves.

When you’re writing a lot of details like this, it’s easy to forget a character’s core. In fact, overdesigning is a problem that happens to me a lot. Make your character a real person first, and then start adding in the weird and quirky.

 

Part 3 of this list will be much shorter, but will cover arguably the most important point: your character’s history and expert knowledge! See you then!

 

EDIT: Part 3 is up!

Glimmer Train Reviews: Introduction

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So I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but there’s this short story magazine out there called Glimmer Train. It’s good, you should subscribe to it. When you look for it online, a lot of people are bemoaning how hard it is to get a story accepted by them. But what there isn’t a lot of is descriptions of the stories themselves: how good they are, where they falter, what their inclusion in this magazine says about them as a whole. Glimmer Train is favorable to new writers, holding writing competitions for people who have never been published before. And if I’m going to get into this magazine, I’ll have to see what they like. I’ve been subscribed to them for a while, but have been so busy that I haven’t finished their… oh jeez, their Fall 2014 issue. Well, I guess that’s a place to begin.

Whenever I read a Glimmer Train Story, I’ll post a review under this category. Then, once I finish that magazine, I’ll summarize what I learned about it for the benefit of anyone hoping to get accepted by them. But, if everything goes right, I’ll get accepted before you do :).

IT’S OUR ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY!!!

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Oh boy oh boy oh boy! It’s been quite a fruitful year for Word Salad Spinner. My goal for this blog is to present 1,250 words per week. After 52 weeks, that means I’ve submitted a minimum of 65,000 words for the site, and calculated that 35,000 of them were for original content instead of old stories or skits! Consider that the average NaNoWriMo submission is 50,000 words. This blog is essentially my own personal NaNoWriMo, although it should be called Nick’s Blog Writing Year, Yo! (aka NiBloWri, Yo!) Here’s a quick look back at what I brought to my project.

BEST: I think the best post I wrote (and certainly the most popular one) was On Writing With Depression, which discussed how my mental illness influences my writing and my views. I found a way to bare my soul while remaining logical, clear, and informative. And if I were to brand myself for this blog, I suppose it would be “thoughtful soul-digging about writing.” It’s definitely my best work here, and the one I’ll try to emulate going forward.

WORST: New Caveton Part 1. Let me let you guys in on a little secret. Sometimes I get exhausted or busy or for whatever reason can’t write something for the blog. That’s when I put up a skit, or a play, or part of a short story. Usually, I put up a work that I’m not sure how to improve on at the time. Works like “The Lost Day” or “The Son, The Son, and The Son” went through many edits before they got featured on the blog. New Caveton was still a work in progress, even now after I’ve finished the entire screenplay. I want to publish the best work I can here, not my junk drawer, not my drafts. It’s one of the few times I feel like I let my readers down.

MOST SURPRISING: People really seem to like it when I fuck up and do some introspection. Whether it’s getting fired from a P.R. internship or getting booted from a feminist club, those moments garner a decent amount of sympathy and views. I guess this is my “You really do like me!” moment. Fair enough, I suppose. This’ll be all the motivation I need to go out there and try more experiences, and maybe fail a bit more. I’d make some snarky comment about you all enjoying my pain, but I like you too much.

BIGGEST LESSON LEARNED: I’ve gotten a bit better at blogging since I started, using tags and engaging with my audience and what not. But when it comes to my own writing, I’ve really learned to pucker up and KISS— keep it simple, stupid. I’ve let non-fiction, non-literary sources inspire many weird metaphors and odd turns-of-phrase in my work, and I’d say that’s enough of that for now. I’ll work to be more down-to-earth in my prose, letting my ideas and my characters speak for themselves instead of hiding behind flowery language.

WEIRDEST TIDBIT: I think my Star Wars Episode VIII: Dark Force Rising post was ok. But for some reason, every week there’s someone checking in on it. If you’re out there, people who go to that post every week, I must ask you: what about it do you dig so much? What’s the thing I did there that you’d like to see more of? I’m a tad confused.

PLANNED CHANGES TO THE BLOG

  • Look, I know I’m not going to magically stop procrastinating. Some may even argue that procrastinating is healthy for the creative process. But under the current system, I end up publishing a mega-upload every Saturday. That needs to change. So while I’ll still keep to the 1,250 words per week, the end of the Word Salad Spinner Week is officially Tuesday. If I post on Tuesday, you’ll know I’ll be cutting it close, but I’ll be cutting it close on a day that’ll get me more views.
  • I’ll also focus on doing more and smaller updates instead of weekend binges. This should be easier for me in the long run, plus more entertaining for you.
  • This site is also going to become more goal oriented. I see the first year of Word Salad Spinner as the getting-to-know-you phase, where I show how I’m starting out as a writer. But I began this blog with three goals in mind, the first being to get published. I’ll still talk about writing experiences and do reviews, but the new focus will be on documenting my progress in getting published. Will this happen this year? Who knows. But whether I do or whether I don’t, this blog will tell you why.
  • Since I’ll be more goal-oriented, my Twitter page will document my progress on said goals. This’ll likely be in the form of “Project X is Q% done!” in addition to the usual updates whenever I post something. If you’re eager for news on my progress, check it out here at @wrdsaladspinner. I’ll also retweet funny stuff and give my thoughts on what I’m reading at the moment.

What will I be recording progress on?

UPCOMING PROJECTS

  • More Progress on Let’s Get Cracked! I’ve decided on the topic (The Subculture of Magic: The Gathering) and have begun research by printing out someone’s 100+ page thesis on the subject! You’ll be seeing the pitch relatively soon, I reckon!
  • Glimmer Train Reviews! I’ll go more into detail on this in another post, but here’s the skinny on it. Glimmer Train is a short story magazine friendly to never-before-published writers. I want to be published on Glimmer Train. I have a ton of their short story magazines I still need to read through. So I’ll be posting reviews of each of the short stories from every magazine starting with Fall 2014. After I finish each issue, I’ll recap and state what I’ve learned about Glimmer Train’s tastes and how that’ll improve my chances of getting published there. Do I have something I might want to submit there? Funny you should ask…
  • New fiction! After considering what I’ve learned for fiction writing, I’ve been hard-pressed to find an old story of mine that I’m inclined to re-read. I’m actually a little ashamed of my old stuff. I have one I like, however, and I’m 12% of the way through editing it. I’ll post it on this site when I’m satisfied with it, and then take you through my process of trying to get it published! What’s the story about? Let’s just say I was inspired by one of the posts I linked to on this update…
  • The rest of the Comprehensive Character Guide! Complete with downloadable template and an example of a character I’ve created with said template!

 

A big thank you to anyone that liked, shared, or commented on this project of mine! I’m grateful for my followers, and can’t wait to provide them with more entertainment and wisdom each week! Here’s to another great year!

A Comprehensive List For Knowing Everything About Your Character (Part 1)

When I first started writing characters, I drew information from lists online to see what details I should record. I hope that, one day, an aspiring writer will use this list as a template too. Although said aspiring writer may run into the same problem I do, where they’re intimidated by how comprehensive and long this list is. I tend to think I’m good at characters, and part of that feeling comes from this character sheet I lay before you (or will provide a template for when I’m done typing it all up). I’ll walk you though it step by step, but feel free to leave out some of these if this looks like too much in one go. At any rate, here’s what I fill out when I’m making a character!

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Not many stats in this character creation. Get a DnD sheet if that means that much to you! No, seriously, that’s not a bad accompaniment to this process.

NAME: I use Behind the Name and Behind the Surname to find names for my characters. For example, I’m often tempted to name female characters “Perdita” because it’s based on the Latin perditus, meaning, “lost.” Isn’t that such a great starting point for a character, being lost? Try the same thing: define your character through an object or attribute or allusion, and then look for it on this site.

BOOK: What story you’re going to put this character in.

GENDER, AGE: Self-Explanatory. Try to fill this in after you do traits and details— don’t’ let these two limit your character!

GOAL: The endgame of all your character’s plans. What’s their dream? What will they get if everything goes their way?

NEEDS RIGHT NOW: Everyone has goals, but sometimes they’re too lofty or abstract or big for one story. You may have goals, but do you spend every waking moment pursuing them? No— you go after what you need right now. A way to pay rent, news on their sick friend, a hug. If you look at a character’s overall life, you can tell what their goal is. But in microcosm, characters are motivated by their most pressing need, not want.

5 LIKES, 5 DISLIKES, 5 BOTH: Your character will eventually have more than 5, of course, but these are the important ones. Try to go for a variety of things: vehicles, fonts, locations, media, animals, whatever are their favorite and least favorite things. If stuck, just look around your room, find objects, and ask, “Would she like this? Would he dislike that? Or maybe be neutral towards because I’m looking at a fucking water bottle?” Though I put this on the first page, I tend to leave this item for last. Just happens that way.

But what do I mean by ‘both’? I mean both like and dislike. Guilty pleasures, hat to loves and love to hates, the its complicateds, that kind of stuff. Say your character loves fedoras but hates iguanas— how would she feel about an iguana wearing a fedora? You put it in the ‘both’ category! But that’s a silly example. If you put, say, Bill Cosby in your character’s ‘both’ category, your character may be a champion fighting against rape culture that also loves friendly-family comedy. Or even feel the reverse! Give your character more options than “yay!” or “boo!”

5 GOOD HABITS, 5 BAD HABITS, 5 QUIRKS: Dog-gonnit, Nick, just say ‘characteristics’ like our momma taught us! No. Characters are not algorithms, always outputting the same angry or panicked reaction to everything. You can put “loudmouth” or “clean” under either characteristics or habits. But when you say ‘habits,’ it’s a reminder that character is in constant motion, and that everyone has a breaking point. He wasn’t born ‘clean,’ he learned it from an uncle that got him to sweep the floor to the rhythm of a beautiful classical waltz, and in college it became a ritual to keep him calm in stressful situations. And she may be a loudmouth around most people, but when the jerk coworker who belittles her gets promoted to her boss? Her fear wins out, and in those situations she keeps quiet. It’s never “she always says the loudmouth-type thing.” It’s “without enough resistance or pressure, she will be a loudmouth.” Character is habit, your highness— anyone who says different is selling you something.

I don’t have much new to say on quirks other than they should convey something about the character visually.

When choosing these 5, pick one of each to be the defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk. This is called “the cheater’s guide to building characters.” It’s also handy to remember if you want to keep your character simpler in your head. But yes, if you need a good character in 5 seconds, or just a starting point, go with the first defining strength, defining weakness, and defining quirk to come in your head.

FEAR OF: Can be existential or simple, old age or spiders. Be wary of going too off-the-wall with this, such as a fear of old spiders.

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You know what, this is actually kind of scary.

MOTIVATION: Why is your character pursuing that goal of theirs? Don’t be afraid to be simple here. A lot of geniuses and leaders, I imagine, can be traced back to a want of power or a need of love. Occasionally, I need a reminder like this. This is the spear that nudges your character forward when they’re at the crossroads, or standing in the middle of nowhere.

DEFINING CHARACTER TRAIT: I’ll teach this the way I was taught it. We all think Hermione’s a good character, right? There’s a lot to her: her refusal to believe in superstitions in a magical world, her involvement in elf-rights campaigns, skilled while still being naïve. Oh, and also that she’s badass. But if I asked you to summarize her personality in one word, what would you say? Likely, you’d say “brainiac.” Saying that doesn’t get rid of all of those other character traits, but they all support each other. And that’s what you should do with your characters: trim them down to a couple of words that will be their core, then use the complex stuff for everything revolving around that core. Don’t go into this all like, “My character is Everything and Nothing, The Moon and The Sun, SO COMPLEX YOU GUYS.” If you want your character to stand out, first you must find out what they’re standing out in comparison to. Hermione’s unique compared to other brainiacs, and yours will be too if you keep to everything on the list.

HAPPY WHERE (S)HE IS?: Is your character satisfied with their current predicament? Why?

CHANGE SITUATION?: Could you character change their predicament? Will they? Why?

WHAT (S)HE WANTS TO BE: This is similar to your character’s goal, but more concrete. If your character’s goal is to take over the world, then being a loved politician or respected general would fit well under this category. Basically, who is your character in their dreams?

WILL (S)HE GET THIS: How confident is your character in achieving this goal? Maybe they’re lazy, or fearful of their own potential, or believing that what they want is bad for them. Maybe not. Having a goal is one thing; how your character pursues it is another.

STAND FOR: If your character’s allegorical in a way— representing liberal feminism or Republicans or whatnot— then make a note here. If not, get a sense of your character’s symbolic worth in this section, even if it’s as simple as “the spirit of courage.”

CREATE OR PREVENT CHAOS: When your character enters a situation, is he or she likely to make things more chaotic or less? Is this intentional on their part?

ENDS JUSTIFY MEANS: Does your character believe that the ends justify the means?

TEACHER: Which non-parental authority figure taught your character the most? You don’t need to go into too much detail on the teacher, just what was learned.

ENEMIES: Who’s against your character? Is it big and general (the Goblin Army) or specific and small (the guy in front of her in class who never showers)? Give your character someone to complain about. And yes, putting “herself” in this slot is very clever, now try harder.

FRIENDS: What are his friends like? How does he influence them? How do they influence him? What do they all have in common? What do they go out and do together?

HYPOCRISY: I touched on this subject before, but this is why you say “habits,” not “characteristics.” Everyone has that little secret, the time they’re two-faced and refuse to show their face. If your character’s religious, and preaches for that religion, did they not troll online every Friday, or eat bacon cheeseburgers when no one’s looking? And if they have none of these, well, that’s rather suspicious, isn’t it? This is why you don’t put ‘herself’ down for enemies: here’s where you create tangible, real conflict. Everyone has themselves as an enemy.

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And destiny… leads to suffering!

And this post only covers ¼ of the pages I create when I make a character. Can you believe it? Don’t worry, the next few sections will be shorter. This list will not be incomplete for long! Until next time, fair reader!

And now it’s next time!