Cold Characters, Dead Copy

How do you entice readers to care about your protagonist? To care enough to sit down and read your story? To take time away from other activities or tasks to read your story to its ending?

Readers have innumerable alternatives to occupy their leisure time, even if it’s just checking their phones for new text messages. There’s no incentive for them to read fiction unless they’re intrigued by a story’s premise or they bond with a protagonist.

Which brings me back to my opening question:  how is that bond established and how is it maintained?

Several elements factor into successful character design, but the detail that functions best in bringing a character alive and thereby catching reader attention is that character’s feelings.

Emotions make all the difference.

Consider this example:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke sized him up, taking note of the crazed desperation in the man’s eyes. Luke hesitated a moment, then smiled. “Dude, you should be careful with that.”

Luke may be smiling, but a reader won’t know if he’s baring his teeth in nervous fear or if he’s even crazier than Purple Hoodie. His emotional reaction is odd, incomprehensible, and on the surface. We experience no perceptions or internalizations from Luke’s viewpoint. It’s hard, if not impossible, to care about him.

Let’s try again:

The man in the shapeless purple hoodie drew an enormous knife–somewhat bigger than a bowie, almost machete sized.

Luke’s breath stilled in his throat. He knew better than to freeze, much less show any fear, but time seemed to slow around him. He noticed everything, from the tremors in Purple Hoodie’s hands to the twitching of the man’s mouth. Luke shifted his weight imperceptibly to the balls of his feet, gauging his chances of survival if the guy went berserk and attacked. Over and over, Luke told himself to stay calm, to keep thinking, to ignore the strangling sensation knotting his windpipe. His palms were sweating, and the air seemed to have left the room.

“Dude,” he whispered, trying without success to sound confident, “you should be careful with that.”

In Version 2, we don’t know much about Luke beyond his fear and how he’s trying not to panic. But his emotion has put some life into him. Version 2 is more interesting than Version 1.

Here’s another example:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Swearing, Jeff dropped to the ground, then pushed himself back onto his feet. He kicked at his assailant’s shins, but with a laugh the attacker spun around and ran into the dark alley.

Gee, Jeff just received a blow that knocked him off his feet, but it doesn’t slow him down a moment. Does Jeff have super-human powers? Why doesn’t he feel any pain? A writer of this kind of superficial copy might believe readers will imagine what’s left out. Instead, readers will feel indifference and very little sympathy.

Let’s try again:

The baseball bat swung at Jeff in a blur, cracking across his forearm before he could react. Agony flared from his wrist to his shoulder. Jeff cried out, even as he lost his balance and fell. Hitting the ground jolted his arm, bringing another wave of pain that sent chills through his body. His forehead beaded with sweat. Gasping for breath, he curled himself around his injured arm and tried not to whimper. Another blow thudded into his shoulder, then his hip.

Jeff swore under his breath, feeling like he might throw up. His arm had to be broken. But if he continued lying here, he would probably be beaten to a pulp. As soon as he could catch his breath, he rolled over and pushed himself to his knees. He slapped the next blow aside, deflecting it, although the smack of wood against his palm stung hard.

Version 2 is running much longer, isn’t it? I haven’t even gotten Jeff back on his feet, much less fighting back enough to send the assailant running into the shadows.

But do you see how the internalized reactions, emotions, and physical sensations have brought Jeff to life? In Version 1, he’s a cartoon figure. His lack of reaction to a forceful blow creates a sense of unreality. The disconnection between being struck and feeling anything from it overrides any potential excitement in the action.

Without Jeff’s feelings, readers are detached from what’s happening. And if they’re detached, how can they care?

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Chapter Structure

Long ago in the far away of my writer’s training, I was taught to focus on my plot, write it according to valid story principles, and relax in the knowledge that chapters would take care of themselves.

But although this Zen approach works for me, I’m asked about chapters enough to realize that not everyone understands what chapters are, what they do, why they’re structured as they are, and what their purpose is.

Now I haven’t bothered to research the history of chapters or when they first came about in the musty tomes of past literature, but my guess is that they were devised to aid readability, just as the Bible was divided into chapters and verses at some point. If the family gathered around the light of a candle in the evening and listened to someone reading aloud, chapter breaks were useful in providing a stopping point so that weary folks could go to bed.

Modern authors have put a different spin on this by building in hooks and plot twists to make it difficult for a reader to stop at the end of a chapter. We want readers to remain enthralled, unable to put the book down.

So what, then, is the structure?

I might as well say now that there are no particular rules about what makes up a chapter, much less how long it should be. For example, my favorite chapter of all time occurs in Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. It consists of one sentence:  “And nothing else happened for the rest of the night.”

Most chapters, though, run longer than that. If you’ve read a LOT, then you should have a pretty good idea of how material is grouped together. Some writers make a chapter of each scene. That worked pretty well a couple of decades ago, when scenes were long and thorough, running perhaps 10-12 manuscript pages. But today, scenes tend to be shorter and tighter. We have authors who specialize in what I call scene fragments, where they hit the heart of the conflict and break away quickly to some other portion of the plot. (John Sandford is a master of the scene fragment, although he doesn’t write all of his Prey thrillers that way.)

These days, scenes and chapters alike are growing shorter. Why? We live at a faster clip. We are inundated with more and more information–valid and useful, or not–and much of what we encounter is telegraphic to fit tweets and sound bytes.

This reduction within chapters has happened gradually during the 21st century. Although I’ve known about the trend, I hadn’t really noticed the difference until I recently started converting some of my backlist titles to digital versions for Kindle’s platform. (Then I saw how long my scenes used to be, and how my book chapters usually featured at least two scenes bridged by a sequel.)

Feeling confused yet?

Okay. Let’s simplify the topic. Don’t worry about whether you have a one-scene chapter, a one-sequel chapter, or a combination of the two types of dramatic units.

Instead, think about a chapter as a division of story that opens with a grab for the reader’s attention and builds to a hook at its conclusion.

The chapter’s content should span a single event that’s written as a scene of conflict. Or it should span a series of incidents related in narrative summary where the protagonist is pursuing some objective.

For example:  Let’s say Paul Protagonist wants his mother to loan him her house in the Hamptons so he can throw a big party.

He calls her. No answer. He texts her. No answer. He drops by her Park Avenue apartment, but she’s not at home. The manservant tells him that she’s at her favorite spa, getting a facial. So he goes there and finally tracks her down. Coated in mud and up to her neck in a boiling hot tub, Mom peels the cucumber slice off one eye and glares at him.

“Are you nuts?” she asks. “Of course you can’t borrow my house to throw a party. The last time your friends were in there, you let an elephant knock down the kitchen walls.”

“I didn’t bring the elephant,” Paul assures her. “I won’t invite the guy who did.”

“Absolutely not,” Mom replies, sticking the cucumber slice back in place. “Go hire a house if you want a party.”

“Hire one? Hire one? It will cost me a fortune, and I have to pay for caterers and booze.”

“The people next door are renting their place for events. Cheaply, I understand. Try them.”

“But they’re Russian vampires.”

“I know, darling. Such tacky people. How they ever got into our gated community, I don’t know. They keep trying to join the country club. So tiresome, but try them anyway. Now leave me alone.”

Okay, this is admittedly a very silly example, but it demonstrates how Paul has pursued his objective in several ways through scene and narrative clustered around the common goal of finding his mother.

Now, because she won’t cooperate, he must form a new objective and decide whether he’s going to approach the vampire neighbors or do something else. But that should fall into a new chapter.

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Goin’ Steady

Ever wonder how some novelists are so darned prolific? HOW do they write book after book after book? HOW do they write so fast? What is their secret? Are they paying pixies to do it while they sleep? Are they taking daily doses of the vitamin “Fizzywrite?” Are they just geniuses?

Various writers have various methods. For example, Jim Butcher uses the BIC (butt-in-chair) approach. Brandon Sanderson claims it’s all about consistent writing, day in and day out. Stephen King writes daily, taking off only his birthday and Christmas. Jack Bickham assigned himself a 50-page per week quota. Mel Odom writes between a dozen and twenty books a year. Somerset Maugham sat down to work at 9 a.m. every day.

Do you see a pattern here?

Among these admittedly different authors, there’s a steady methodology of consistent work habits–writing daily, writing weekly, writing habitually. None of these writers admits to the binge method of procrastinating for weeks and then typing furiously around the clock like the Mad Hatter on deadline.

You don’t get books written by just sitting and thinking about them. You don’t achieve a substantial body of work through dreaming it. You don’t succeed in typing “The End” by wishing it.

You can only accomplish it by writing steadily on a regular schedule that works realistically for you. Set a daily time and keep it as you would an appointment. Set an achievable page quota–a minimum that you must hit before you can leave the keyboard. One page a day isn’t so intimidating. And even at your least inspired, surely you can type one page of character dialogue or a passage of description when your protagonist Irmentrude enters the ballroom. Anything you write beyond your minimum quota deserves a reward.

For example, Jack Bickham attempted to write ten pages daily so he could take the weekend off. If he failed to create his self-assigned fifty pages by Friday, then he wrote on the weekends to stay on track.

One of the worst things you can do for your story is to write irregularly. If you only write when you can find the time, you won’t be consistent. Your story will suffer more from distractions. You’ll tend to forget important details that you meant to include but didn’t. You’ll lose touch with your protagonist’s emotions and motivations. Sadly, you may even lose heart and interest in what probably would have been a solid plotline.

And when you’ve given up and abandoned the story because it isn’t working, why not be honest and answer the question: is it the story that’s not working, or is it you that’s not working?

If you’re stuck and can’t get your story out of a corner, spend your writing time sketching out a thorough character dossier. Do you really know what makes your protagonist tick? Have you ever considered your antagonist’s motivations? Or maybe you should think about that plot hole you’ve been avoiding. Then write that minimum one page of copy, even if you hate every word of it.

It doesn’t take long to form good writing habits, once you put in the effort to establish them. Pretty soon, you’ll realize that your imagination is automatically clicking on at the designated time. You’ve trained it, and by golly it’s starting to cooperate!

Writing rituals can also help establish habitual working methods. What works for you? A certain type of music playing in the background? Making a cup of tea before you get started? Putting two cookies on a plate next to your keyboard … but you can’t eat them until you’ve written your quota? Turning off your cell phone or leaving the phone in another room?

Just sitting down and powering up your computer can be a sufficient ritual. My dog–the one I call The Spook–spent this summer making it his job to stare at me every morning at 10 a.m. before heading off into my office and curling up under the desk next to the computer tower. If I dawdled, just the sight of him faithfully curled up, waiting to “help” me work, was enough to make me feel guilty. And it would be BIC for me.

A ritual I don’t recommend, however, is checking your email before you start writing. You may possess the discipline of steel to take a quick glance before you open that Word file, but I doubt it. Instead, deal with your mail after you finish writing for the day. It will keep your priorities in the right order, and you won’t be distracted from writing an epic love scene by thoughts of the car insurance reminder floating in your computer’s inbox.

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Creative Gold

I always think of October as “the golden month,” probably because of the quality of sunlight. It changes to a mellow radiance that, combined with the wide blue skies of the prairie, makes me very happy. Some of you are lucky enough to live where the trees are turning color. Here, where we probably won’t have a frost for another month, when a tree turns yellow in October we have to wonder, is it turning … or dying from heat and drought?

I grew up in a southern state with bounteous rainfall. I had woods to play in as a child, and my favorite trees in autumn were hickories because they turned bright yellow and white oaks because their leaves turned scarlet. Then there were the little pops of orange from sassafras saplings–how I loved to snap off a twig and chew on the flavorful bark–and the bright red of sumac.
Tennessee river

fall landscape3

Around here, I get my fall tree fix from driving through some of the older neighborhoods where folks have planted non-indigenous trees and nourished/pampered them through sometimes brutal climate into stately monarchs of the boulevard. Instead of hickory trees, there are ginkos to provide bright yellow. Instead of white oaks, there are the massive, spreading shumard oaks that offer a dark, rich crimson. Good enough!

My biggest regret about October is that I miss so many days outdoors due to being locked inside at work. (And, no, my boss doesn’t incarcerate me. It just feels that way!) Still, there are evenings and weekends to savor as much of the glory as I can.

The cooler temps bring on the last big flush from the roses and raise my energy level. I can’t help but see my surroundings with fresh eyes.

Jefferson rose

front rose

The weather change also starts my creative juices flowing. My brain is teeming with book ideas–at least six on the burner right now, ready for me to choose one and start developing a plot from it.

I’m also fired up about landscaping. There’s the barren spot left behind by my beloved Linda Campbell rose bush. I want to plant spring bulbs, but it’s too early here. November is the best time for me to plant tulips since at present the ground is still too warm. (It’s always a gray day in late November, when the wind is howling at near-gale force, my nose is frozen, and I ask myself with every jab of my trowel what was I thinking to order an extra bag of daffodils.)

Still, while I wait for colder weather, I can’t resist doing something in the dirt. Yesterday I bought pansies and coneflowers. Anything at this point to take the space away from the milkweed and dock that persist in claiming Linda C’s spot.

pansies

Beyond my ideas for gardening and decorating the front porch–yes, I’m searching for a grand but cheap pumpkin–I’m thinking ahead to Christmas. It’s time to pull out the tubs containing all the stuff I bought last year at 90 percent off and create those garlands I saw in a magazine. Yesterday I found white wreaths at Michael’s, which means I don’t have to buy a green one and spray paint it white. Hurray! I want it to make a 4th of July wreath for next summer. As for Halloween, which is fast approaching, somewhere I’ve stashed a handful of craft paint bottles–their colors carefully chosen for painting a plaster skull in hues of mold and decay. Granted, I could have spent $5 and purchased a Styrofoam skull already looking grungy and creepy, but it’s not as much fun as painting one myself. If only I could find the paint! And where is that dratted skull? Probably tucked away in a box in the guest room.

skull craft

About three years ago, I stumbled upon a vast architectural table at a garage sale, managed to drag it home in a borrowed pickup, and installed it in my garage to use as a work table for sewing and creative projects. Of course, in my home any horizontal surface becomes piled with all sorts of objects–including stacks and heaps of books. At the moment, there isn’t even a corner of this table clear for use. But I need it, which means either holding a garage sale of my own or scrounging boxes and filling them up. Because, besides painting, scattering glitter, and sniping florist wire, I need to make curtain valances for several of my windows and this surface is large enough for cutting out fabric.

How many years have I now lived in this house, and the windows still aren’t dressed beyond utilitarian blinds?

If all of this sounds deranged, it’s only the way creative minds work. The process of making something is so appealing that it’s easy to forget a simpler, quicker solution is waiting in a store to be purchased, slapped in place, and done.

But what’s the fun in that?

However, by the time I tackle even a fourth of all these projects–realistically perhaps only an eighth of them–when will there be time to write?

Ah … but you see, these wonderful projects–from landscaping to sewing–are simply ways to allow my imagination free rein. It needs to play so that it will willingly serve up good ideas for the manuscript page. I know writers who make collages or dabble in mixed-media art for the same purpose. When creative juices are flowing elsewhere than the computer keyboard, the imagination blossoms. And then you can channel it productively once more toward plot ideas and lively characters.

Which means there’s a good chance that the plastic tubs holding my Christmas garland-making supplies will probably stay where they are for yet another year. But ssh! We won’t let my imagination know that yet.

roses morning glories

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I’m Back!

Greetings, all!
Thanks for your patience as I wrapped up the fantasy textbook and did, indeed, meet deadline.

Whew!

There were a few frustrating moments as I struggled to make Excel obey me in creating some illustrative charts. And it looked like my elderly computer might crash during submission, but although wheezing the machine held together.

All I can tell you at this point is that the book will cover nuts and bolts writing techniques used principally in fantasy novels, with some amendments for short stories. So if you’ve been wanting to experience my novel-writing course but can’t attend the University of Oklahoma, this will be the next best thing.

Now the manuscript enters the production process with Manchester University Press. If all goes smoothly, it should be published in late fall 2015. Meanwhile, I’ll be taking on the challenge of learning how to make a book index.

The working title is THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA.

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Still in the Trenches

For every writer who claims that writing nonfiction is easier than fiction, I have to say — not for me!

I am still slaving away on the countless small details of revision, proofreading, wrestling with spiny, difficult creations otherwise known as Excel, and fending off the typical bouts of self-doubt, second thoughts, and the occasional desire to run screaming into the night. But such things are typical of any book project in the closing moments before DEADLINE lands — boom — on the doorstep.

I’m hesitant to make any claims or proclamations at this stage, lest I jinx something, but I think I have only to proofread one final document file, and the entire thing will be done … as done as I can make it at this point.

My brain is fried. My eyes hurt. My shoulders burn. My dog is faithfully “helping” me by staying curled up against the computer tower beneath my desk, and I never have the heart to make him move. Therefore, my knees are aching with the need to stretch out my legs, but I don’t because the Spook believes — with all of his dear doggy heart — that he’s contributing to this project.

And so he is.

The how-to book on fantasy writing is almost done. I cannot wait to send it off and get it out of my head for the time being. I am anxious to return to fiction.

Meanwhile, regular blogs will resume soon. Just not quite yet!

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Eaten by Setting

Are you writing in a genre that requires considerable time and attention lavished on the setting? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, western, and historical fiction come immediately to mind. And although many thrillers rely heavily on action, their sometimes-exotic locales can require author research.

All that’s fine. In some stories, setting is so important it can be called a character.

When an author establishes a vivid sense of place or locale it enhances the reading experience. I love the research. I love inserting those sparkling jewels of information or detail that can make the setting come alive for me as well as my readers.

However, if unchecked, setting can swell into a monster that engulfs the writing project.

It can so absorb writer attention that the actual writing of story is forgotten or set aside in favor of digging out more research, more details, more obscure pieces of information, more maps, more, more, more!

It can mesmerize writers into abandoning their plot outline. Instead, they change portions of their story to accommodate a fabulous setting that simply has to be crammed into the plot — whether it belongs or not.

And it can grow out of proportion, taking prominence in a story instead of the characters and plot.

These are all danger signals that a careful writer should heed. You don’t have to kill the setting. You don’t have to cut it all away. Just make sure it’s part of the backdrop where it belongs, secondary to the plot action and protagonist.

Let’s compare setting to the morning glory vine. The flowers that bloom all summer, every morning, despite heat, drought, and blazing sun, are lovely. Most varieties come in some shade of blue or purple, or maybe white with blue streaks, and there aren’t many blue-blooming flowers that can handle the merciless prairie climate.

Two homes ago, I tried and tried to grow morning glories. Their seeds are notoriously challenging to start. You have to soak them in water overnight and use a nail file to nick a groove in their hard surfaces. I used to do all of that, and maybe would succeed in sprouting one feeble plant. I tried buying morning glory plants already started at the farmer’s market. I planted them in pots, envisioning them spilling in lush abundance over a stone wall bordering my patio. The vines were puny and feeble. They barely bloomed.

One home ago, I tried again with slightly better success. And then the potted vine managed to seed itself in the ground of my front flowerbed, and suddenly I was pulling morning glory sprouts everywhere.

I moved away to my present home, grateful to have escaped a vine that was threatening to grow larger and larger. Little did I know that the seeds evidently had fallen into my potted roses, and when I transplanted those roses into my flowerbeds, the morning glories took off. Then they took over. Now I feel like I’m constantly fighting the house-sized Crinoid monster from a Dr. Who episode. My rose bushes vanish during the summers, press-ganged into serving as structural support for a vine gone mad. Yes, morning glory blooms are lovely, but I would like to know if my antique rose, Souvenir de la Malmaison, is still alive under that throttling mat of vine and flower.

Last year, I tried to pull down the vines, only to discover that the mockingbirds had built nests within them. I couldn’t disturb their habitat or harm the baby birds, so I left things alone. Now the vines are even bigger and more vigorous. I live with a monster — beautiful, yes — but out of control.

My roses, the intended focal point of my backyard garden, have been engulfed, eclipsed, and visually eaten by a force of nature that just won’t go away.

The vine and its beauty have a place, but only if it behaves. The same principle applies to your setting. If it behaves, and stays where it belongs, and doesn’t seduce you or distract you from your responsibilities to your plot, characters, and pacing, then by all means make it as lovely or as gripping or as gruesome as you desire.

Just don’t let it get away from you.

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