Planning your novel with Janice Hardy

You may already be familiar with Janice Hardy from her Fiction University blog. If not, it’s certainly worth taking a look at.

This morning, I was able to attend a workshop that Janice hosted titled Planning Your Novel in 10 Easy Steps. I thought it would be worthwhile to post a mini-review for those of you who might be looking for novel-planning assistance.

Janice herself is friendly, level-headed and calm under pressure. I know this because I arrived early and got to watch her deal with the inevitable last-minute computer/projector issues that Murphy throws at every presenter. She had her act together, and got everything sorted out well before the workshop was to start without ever losing her cool.

Her delivery of her material—the workshop itself—was just as friendly. She was well-organized and approachable and did a good job fielding the off-the-cuff questions that the 65 attendees (that’s just my estimate… I did a quick count at one point) threw at her.

The content of the workshop (the “10 Easy Steps”) is drawn from her book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. As you would expect, the book goes into much more depth than she could cover in a two-hour workshop, but it is organized into 10 “workshops” (chapters) where each workshop is a combination of advice and practical exercises.

It’s been my experience that anything you don’t understand automatically seems complicated and, once you really understand something, it seems quite simple and you wonder why it seemed complicated before.  (I’m making a point; stick with me…)

When you read or listen to Janice’s material, you might come away with the feeling that it’s basic. I think it’s a testament to her that she’s able to make it basic. It seems to me that she pulls this off through a combination of:

  1. Not trying to cover everything in the universe of writing at one time.
  2. Being well-organized about what she does choose to cover.
  3. Really understanding what she’s talking about.

Bottom line: I recommend Janice’s material. She doesn’t pretend to cover all possible approaches, but she gives you an approach that is flexible enough for a wide variety of purposes and she presents it well.

(I took the water-garden picture above in Nha Trang, Vietnam. It seems like an appropriate analogy for novel-planning because you can see how they choose various elements and combined them in a way that makes them seem simple but beautiful.)

Why, when and how to use personification

If you write fiction for adults, you may heard this advice about personification: Don’t use it.

Personification has a justifiably bad reputation. It’s been used so badly, so often, that some readers (including some editors) have lost all taste for it. That means it’s out of fashion, and you use it at your own risk.

Still… maybe you’re not entirely ready to throw away a technique that has roots going back to pre-historic times. Or maybe, like me, you’re just a little suspicious of advice that’s completely open-and-shut.

I thought I’d dig a little deeper into this advice. After quite a bit of reading and discussion, this is what I’ve come up with. I’d be interested to know if you have a different perspective.

Why use personification?

You can express yourself without personification, so why use it? Because real people personify things. That’s it. You use it, and everyone you know uses it. It’s so easy to personify things that you do it without even thinking about it. Personification is just the natural human tendency to project our own feelings or characteristics onto non-living things.

When and How…

The problem is that personification in fiction is often forced, exaggerated and clumsy. The author is trying too hard to sound literary, or to come up with a new and different way of describing something. In real life, our use of personification is effortless and uncomplicated. It comes naturally out of the way we view the world.

If you decide you want to use personification in your fiction, here are some guidelines that should help you use it well:

In real life, the vast majority of personification is emotional. A typical example would be something like “Can you open this damn jar for me? It’s being stubborn.” There are exceptions, of course. A phrase like “Your office has been trying to reach you” is personifying the office even though it isn’t emotional.

Since it’s emotional, it has to come from a character. It should reflect the way that character responds to the world. This means that your reader will infer that your narrator has an emotional perspective if you have the narrator use personification. If you’re trying to convey that your narrative voice is objective and unbiased, then you’re giving us conflicting information if that voice uses personification.

Keep it simple. Real personification is immediate and direct. Your characters are not going to come up with elaborate forms of personification unless they’re poets, songwriters or comedians who are deliberately composing something. Always ask yourself if a real person would say this.

Don’t use it frequently. We all do it, but we don’t do it continuously. Even when we are doing it, we don’t always verbalize it, which is important to how personification is presented in fiction. Remember that stubborn jar? Your character doesn’t have to say out loud that the jar is being stubborn to personify it—he might just get mad at it and “punish” it by banging it on the counter.

Avoid clichés. In the name of all that’s holy, no one needs to read about waves dancing in the sun, or the sun dancing on the waves. No one wants to hear that your guns “bark” or “cough” when they’re fired. This should be a pretty easy guideline to follow if you stick to using personification the way that real people use it, since no one actually says things like that anyway.

Just for fun, here’s a 200-page academic study titled Recognition of personifications in fiction by non-expert readers that serious language nerds might find interesting. Among other things, it discusses the different types of personification.

(Seriously, what could better represent the topic of personification than a thinking statue? I took this picture in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen. This is The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin… one of the 28 castings of it that are scattered around the world.)

Making your own luck in publishing

Check out this great post by Kameron Hurley.

I haven’t been able to track down the origin of the phrase “you make your own luck.” Hemingway said it, and a bunch of other people have said essentially the same thing, but it’s easier to dispense sage advice than it is to apply it to your own life.

Kameron (we’ve never met, but I’m pretending that we’re on a first-name basis) is leading by example in this case, and it’s a lot more powerful to see someone walking the walk than just to hear them talking the talk.

Congratulations Kameron, and thank you.

(I took the photo above in the ruins of Chichen Itza. The persistence of the flowers growing in such a difficult place seemed reminiscent of Kameron’s lesson.)