Tag Archives: writing

Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

Just an update on the forthcoming books. I have finished preliminary edits on both my new book on plotting and its companion workbook of drills and exercises. I have both manuscripts in for another round of proofreading, and then I’ll be busy with cover design and other marketing details.

Although these projects have gone more slowly than expected, I hope to have them available within the next few weeks.

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Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

 

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Quote for the Day

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

— Mark Twain

 

How simple is that? How wise? Because he was absolutely right. Too often, people allow themselves to be intimidated when it comes to writing, or even starting a manuscript of any length.

I see twenty-year-old students afraid to write because they might do it wrong.

I meet seventy-year-olds afraid to write because they think it’s too late.

I chat with thirty-year-old moms afraid to write because it’s been so long since they took a writing course and now that their children are starting school and they finally have some spare time, they believe they are too rusty to try it.

I deal with fifty-year-old divorcees afraid to write because although they’ve always wanted to they no longer believe in themselves or in reaching for their dreams.

And I coach myself every time I’m about to start a new project, talking myself past being afraid to write it because I know I can do it if I’ll only try.

Early in my career as a novelist, I wrote books that I’m proud of and books that are quick, disposable reads that paid the bills. Either way, I wrote a lot of them and they were published. When I look back over my publication record, I am sometimes astonished at what I accomplished. But when I was a starry-eyed kid of nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, getting my first agent and my first publishing contract, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.

And that’s the spirit we have to carry within us every day. We can’t know–or think about–what we cannot do.

We just have to set our sights on our objective . . . and start.

 

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The Censorship of Sensitivity

After a summer spent working on a new book on plotting, I am ready to begin a fiction project. I have been weighing the merits of writing a western versus a science fiction story. Not so much one instead of the other, but more of which one to begin first.

The western idea presently is developed more than the SF, largely because I plotted it at the beginning of my summer break, and it’s more ready to go. However, I set it aside in May to do the nonfiction manuscript. Now, especially in light of recent controversies and riots, I find myself pausing. Is my proposed manuscript insensitive to anyone? Is my story premise going to offend anyone? I don’t want to denigrate a person, a gender, or an ethnicity. I want people to enjoy my stories, not be hurt by them.

So I’ve begun to second-guess my idea. And now I’m second-guessing my second-guessing. My artistic temperament has flared up. I feel constricted and rebellious. Instead of concentrating on my characters and story events, here I am wondering if I’m going to hurt some random reader’s feelings by something a character does or says.

After all, a western has a historical setting. Behavior toward minorities was anything but sensitive in the 1870s.  Consequently, now there yawns before me the chasm of indecision. Do I stick with historical accuracy? Or do I sanitize history lest the wrath of someone come down on my head?

In a day and age so crazy-sensitive that some people think it’s wrong for a Caucasian to cook a burrito, here I am, in effect, censoring myself. I can ditch my western and just write the SF story instead, but does that make me a coward? I can toss my plot and start over, but does that do justice to a solid premise? I can jettison accuracy or omit an ethnicity altogether, but does that respect the setting?

And so I find myself tied in a Gordian knot of indecision and dithering.

When I was in high school, my Civics class taught us that our individual freedoms ended where another’s began. In other words, I have the right to say what I please, unless my words hurt another individual deliberately. I have the right to walk where I wish, unless I trespass on another person’s property. An individual has the right to criticize town property, but not destroy what taxpayers have paid for. A person has the right to conduct a civic protest, but not smash windows.

There is a quote in my campus office that says, “Closing books shuts out ideas.” It was issued in support of banned books and celebrating the freedom to read.

But if writers are shut down at the source, unsure or too timid to write what grips their imaginations, will there even be books to ban?

My mind goes to HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. This book has stirred controversy through much of the twentieth century. Yet was Twain trying to be insensitive? I don’t think so. His focus was elsewhere. His words, dialects, dialogue, and comments reflected the times in which he wrote. They were accurate to the era. They mirrored the general attitudes of the culture and place Twain knew. Does that hurt some readers today? Yes it does. Should the book be banned? Should we say, “Twain never should have written this racist book” and hate him because he did? No we shouldn’t. We don’t have to force anyone to read it, but neither do we have to avoid facing the hurt it has engendered or avoid discussing that openly.

When did the public become so weak that it cannot bear to face the mistakes and wrongness of the past? When did the public become so fearful that it cannot accept any opinion but its own? When did the public become so spineless that it allows suppression of expression and wants only carefully edited history lest anyone be embarrassed or offended?

If I decided that I wanted to write about the Mississippi River delta in the nineteenth-century, what would I mention? What would I leave out? Must I tiptoe past so-called trigger words or omit them altogether?

Writers of modern children’s fiction are facing such issues daily. They want to include diverse characters, yet they must avoid descriptive racial tags. Are there ways to do this? Somewhat, of course, but it’s challenging to say the least.

Writers of women’s fiction might long to address the topic of weight and body image, yet will they inadvertently generate fat shame if they do so? It’s a statistical fact that Americans are becoming increasingly overweight–to the endangerment of their health–yet no one is allowed today to criticize another individual regarding obesity. While fat shame can spawn extreme reactions such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, is it such a terrible thing if it keeps a mother from allowing her child to overeat and emulate Honey Boo-Boo?

How suppressed should writers be in the cause of sensitivity? I remember a time when people said what they thought and everyone rolled with the punch. Should writers be more sensitive, or should readers be less?

I know; I know–it’s all about balance. Which seems to be in short supply these days.

Meanwhile, I have a western to sanitize.

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Creating

In our quest to be better writers, dedicated writers, and productive writers, we can sometimes forget that not only do we have to feed the muse but we should also take care to refresh our imagination.

From time to time, it’s helpful to move away from the keyboard and indulge in other types of creativity. Some writers craft mixed-media collages. Others play music. Still others garden or design landscapes. We all have hobbies and activities that give us joy and rejuvenation. The question then becomes, have we brushed those fun, creative pastimes aside? Are we too busy to be creative?

For the past five years, I have been in a whirlwind of responsibilities, work, writing, and errands. At times the whirl is so intense that I feel overwhelmed and overburdened. Neither of those feelings is conducive to writing. A crowded, over-scheduled mind is one that never finds time to process, invert, or synthesize–and without that mental process writing quickly stalls.

Therefore, as much as possible, I am trying to fend off the stress by resurrecting old hobbies and making time for them. Because somewhere along the way, the responsibilities have swarmed me like Bermuda-grass runners overtaking a flowerbed, and restorative hobbies have been crowded out by the weeds of life.

For example, a decade ago, I took up the hobby of quilting–or at least quilt-piecing. I found that when I came home from my day job, I could sew a few bits of fabric together while supper cooked, and my pent-up stress melted away. Two decades ago, I alleviated stress by tending my rose garden. Just walking among the fragrant bushes with pruners in hand, deadheading the plants of their spent blooms, was incredibly restorative. And long before I purchased a house and had a yard for roses, I took up needlework. Before that, I collected rocks gleaned from the New Mexico desert. And before that, I tended horses that I thought I couldn’t live without.

Well, my beloved horse from my teen years has long gone to his rest. I no longer have access to my beloved corner of the desert and must content myself with the rocks I found so long ago. In recent years, vision problems have made needlework more challenging. The horrid rose virus, my mold allergy, and a doctor’s ban against digging holes have pretty much ended my rose garden. I am down to a few scraggly specimens that do not inspire. And when I moved to my present home, I lost my sewing space and put all my piecing projects away.

Small wonder the weeds crept in and took over.

But writers are not like other people. We cannot trudge along in the drudgery of errands and mundane chores of everyday life without relief. We are not made that way. Mopping the floor becomes an outlet for the imagination to plot how our beleaguered heroine will escape the wizard’s citadel. We burn dinner and run four-way-stop intersections while we’re mulling over which viewpoint to use next. And if too many interruptions thwart us from working on our stories, we grow sour and bitter.

And yet, we cannot spend all our time writing either. Writing the well dry without replenishing it is dangerous to creative productivity.

So this summer, to fuel my writing and fend off the weeds, I have taken up a new activity in painting. Choosing a new color is tremendously exciting. Burnt Umber versus Amsterdam Green. Greek Blue versus Raindrop. The names alone conjure up old Venetian houses, mysterious shadows, and all sorts of dreamscapes.  I have become like an eight-year-old stalled in front of a candy display, unable sometimes to choose because it’s all so tempting. Besides color, there are the tools:  who knew buying a new brush could open a door to so many brush shapes and specialties? Rounded bristles, pointed, narrow, wide, taklon, nylon, natural boar, etc. How many can I have, please, please, please?

But I am no minimalist. In my worldview, more is more. One hobby is not enough.

As a result, today I happened to be driving near a large quilt fabric store on a different errand altogether. Although the weeds’ voices were saying, “No, no, no; you don’t have time; you’ll spend money you shouldn’t,” my hungry imagination rebelled. It was shouting, “Go for it! Let’s play!”

I told the weeds to shut up, and I pulled into the parking lot. Inside the store, I found visual delight in all directions. Colors, patterns, fine cottons plus woolens to make little projects like pumpkins and squirrel-shaped pin cushions, quilts hanging from the ceiling, cute displays, adorable baby toys, small projects and large, wonders on all sides.

The weeds whispered, “You can only look for twenty minutes tops. Hurry! Then you must leave.” I ignored them and roamed from one display to the next. The potential to create, to choose and mix, to even contemplate sampling this feast was beyond delicious. Best of all, the checkout line was long and slow.

Clutching a quilt-themed birthday card for a friend, I got in line. But as I stood waiting, I spotted yet another feature I had to explore–and touch. Out of line I dropped, to wander here and there. I picked up another item that stayed in my hand. Back in line, only to notice something else I’d passed by. More wandering. More thinking. More temptations reaching out, calling my name on all sides.

Should I make another flannel throw like the one I sewed for my mother several years ago? What about these darling baby fabrics? Do I know anyone expecting a child? No, perhaps not. Oh, here are the Halloween designs, and do I like the Edgar Allen Poe quotes swirling around skulls and ravens better than the gray little ghosts that are almost mid-century abstracts? But here are the Christmas bolts of soft, dreamy colors, or trendy gray and red patterns, or traditional reds and greens. Look! That woman is buying yards and yards of buffalo-check red and black while chattering about her Harley-loving nephew. But wait … I’ve found the Civil War-era reproduction fabrics–all so Victorian from their deep jewel tones to the pale shirtings for contrast. And hurray! Here are the 1930s and 1940s retro fabrics in bright pastels and cheerful little prints that I love so much. Can I resist the tiny Scotties wearing Santa hats–available in either a green background colorway or a red one? No I cannot resist, and thus find myself requesting yardage for a project that doesn’t exist. I’ll figure something out for it, I assure myself. See the dinosaur toy! Isn’t it precious? Didn’t I just walk past a bolt of orange in a tiny rectangular print that could imply scales? Would a dinosaur look cuter in orange fabric or green? Did dinosaurs have scales? Probably not, but don’t I have a dragon-toy pattern stashed somewhere? Forget dragons; focus on dinosaurs right now. Oh, phooey, the store is out of the dinosaur pattern. Get back in the checkout line and stay there.

Eventually it came my turn at checkout. As I was handing over my credit card, a weed sprouted–all nasty and spiky, covered in burrs, and stinky with disapproval. “What’s wrong with you? When will you have time to make these projects? You don’t even have a corner to set up your sewing machine. Why are you doing this?”

But my imagination was happy and shining from all the eye candy. It sliced off the weed, and I contentedly brought my purchases home.

Today’s feast was more than worth the expense. As for time, could I afford to spend over an hour in that store? No I couldn’t.

Do I begrudge it? Certainly not. My writing will be better tomorrow because of having played with fabric today, and that is priceless.

Whether I sew anything from this outing doesn’t matter. My imagination has dined well on joy.

 

 

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The Allure of Disappointment

When you’re constructing scenes, do you allow your protagonist to succeed or do you thwart her plan?

Common reasoning may convince you that your protagonist should succeed. After all, how else can she continue toward victory in the story climax?

However, if she prevails against every obstacle and challenge thrown her way, she will be mighty indeed but she will not experience an arc of change; she will not hold reader attention for long; and she will know only a hollow, phony type of victory at the end.

It seems counter-intuitive to thwart your protagonist at the ending of scenes, doesn’t it? Isn’t it wrong  somehow that she should fail them? After all, how can she convince readers that she’s clever, resourceful, and admirable if she’s not getting anywhere? Won’t she come across as a loser?

That depends.

She won’t be perceived as a doofus if her opposition is stronger and trickier than expected and if she doesn’t whine about it. A loss makes her more of an underdog, and consequently she gains reader sympathy. As the antagonist stops her, outmaneuvers her, cheats her, betrays her, and corners her, reader sympathy for her should increase. Even better, dramatically speaking, the climax will loom ahead as a bigger threat or obstacle as the story outcome in her favor grows less likely.

However, if she fails in scenes because she makes too many mistakes, or she doesn’t plan well, or she does dumb things like chasing the villain down a dark alley while forgetting to carry her gun, then yes she will come across as unsympathetic, less than bright, and a loser.

Are you frowning over this? Are you thinking, but how will she ever win if she always loses her scenes?

The true purpose of scene-ending setbacks is to force her to take a bigger risk in her next attempt. After all, when things are going smoothly for us, why change our methods? When everything is fine, we don’t learn. We don’t dig deeper. We don’t challenge ourselves. We don’t grow.

And pushing your protagonist through an arc of change in behavior, beliefs, attitude, or personal growth is really what stories are all about. Not how many vampires she can destroy in an hour.

Therefore, if you’ve been writing scenes where your protagonist always succeeds, pause and re-evaluate your plotting. Consider what would happen if your protagonist lost the encounter.

“But, but, but,” you might sputter, “if that happens, Roxie will be fanged by a vampire!”

My response is simply, “So? What then?”

“But she can’t become a vampire. She’s trying to hunt them. She hates them. They killed her mother, and she wants to destroy them all.”

Understood. But consider how much better your story will become if Roxie is bitten, or grazed. She might then escape the predator’s clutches, and perhaps she even destroys her opponent, but now her situation is uncertain, potentially dire. She will experience the terror of believing she’s been turned. Could there be anything worse in Roxie’s world than becoming the very type of monster she’s sworn to obliterate? Consider the angst she’ll go through. And maybe she won’t know for certain right away, which means you can spin out the suspense and anticipation even more.

From a writer’s standpoint, that’s delicious. See how Roxie has become more interesting?

Never be afraid to disappoint your protagonist. Never fear to make her situation worse. Never lose an opportunity to test her to her limits and beyond to see what she’s made of.

I want to know how Roxie will handle this development. Don’t you?

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