Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Character Development

Creating sympathetic characters is a key element in novel construction. Readers need to empathize and care about the people they're reading about--otherwise, why bother?

One of my favorite ways is to do some "First Thought" writing about each major character. Write in first person, and--taking a page from Dr. Phil--let the defining moments flow. What were the events that altered the course her life was following up until then? I generally type 2-3 single-spaced pages. I'm usually always surprised.

Once that's done, answering the following questions is easy, and only rounds out the edges of my character. Don't worry. I'm not going to suggest you write down what she had for breakfast. But, in the end, that would be an easy--if mundane--question to answer.

(For the sake of brevity, I'm only asking some questions that I don't see on every Character Sheet, or that are very important to answer.)

1. How do they move?

2. What do they smell like?

3. Do they have any striking or identifying feature?

4. What secrets do they hide?

5. What is the trait they hate the most in themselves?

6. Where are their favorite places? Least favorite?

7. What do they fear?

8. What don't they fear, but should?

9. What sort of habits do they have?

10. Do they have any hobbies?

11. What is the most important thing in the world to them? Can you take that away?

I need to really think about my main characters. If I don't like them very much, no one else will either. Keep in mind the traits you're attracted to, and the ones you're not. It took me a while to go back and do rewrites (on an earlier effort) to make my protag less wimpy and more macho.

And don't forget to do this with your antagonist. I may have KNOWN that my current bad guy had a lot of layers, but I didn't know that "a quick whiff and Lawes smells like nice cologne. But if he gets too close you can smell a strange mix of honey and rotting meat." He also has a couple of unusual hobbies.

If you don't have time to do something right, where are you going to find the time to fix it? ~Stephen King

CR: The Sudoku Puzzle Murders by Parnell Hall.

It's all better with friends.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Writing Software

Almost fifteen years ago, my husband and I went to Russia. One of the highlights of that fabulous trip was a tour I went on (while my husband was in sessions) of Tolstoy's home.

There were a lot of fascinating anecdotes about the space he occupied, and the people who stopped by (Rachmaninoff, for one), but the room that held the most fascination for me was his study. There's something about the space where a person spends most of their time. Where they do the work of their heart. That's the space that seems to hold their essence long after they're gone from this earth.

Two things stood out in Tolstoy's writing studio. First, his chair seemed a little short for the desk it sat behind. And second, there was a music stand situated in front of a window at the other end of the room.

Turns out the famous writer was a bit vain. Rather than admitting he may have a need for glasses, he had the legs cut off his chair so he'd be closer to his work. I can relate.

The music stand? To provide a work area where he could take his manuscript and continue writing, catching the last light of the day.


I resisted investing in any writing software. I thought if Tolstoy could write by hand, using primarily available daylight and shortened chairs, I could stumble through with the incredible technology available to me. After all, I'd left the IBM Selectric behind years ago and moved on to even more modern advancements.

Can you imagine what Leo would have to say upon spying our current tools of the trade?

I stood staunchly by my decision to figure everything out on my own. With notebooks and stickies and 3 X 5 cards.

But a little while ago, I caved.

My first purchase was a nice little software program called New Novelist. It has some nice features, and I was able to tweak it a little bit to fit what I wanted. I think it's a great place to start, especially for new writers. It helps immensely with structure and pacing, and has some great questions for character development.

Even before I'd heard about New Novelist, I'd caught the raves surrounding a little software program for writers called Scrivener. The raves were coming from authors I respected. Whose work just seemed to be getting better and better.

The only problem? Scrivener was developed for Mac. I had been a PC girl from the early days . . . just this side of the Selectrics.

Colleen Coble had the most influence over my decision to step over to the Other Side and see what all the fuss was about.

I tend to be a plunger, married to a man who likes to indulge me whenever he can. My PC desktop is just fine--I still use it--but I wanted Scrivener and was curious about Mac. I now have both (thank you, honey) and I love them. I'm pretty sure, based on comments I've read, I'm not the only writer who got a Mac so she could have Scrivener.

Bottom line? If you're a Mac user and a writer, check out Scrivener. If you're a PC user and in the market for a new computer, check out both. If you're a PC user, not in the market for a new computer, but thinking about some software support, take a look at New Novelist.

Still reading Deadlock.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Abandonment Writing

I'm anal. I admit it. My spices are in alphabetical order. I rotate dishes as well as food--so it's first in, first out. I really don't see much of a problem with these things (in fact, I can grab a spice I need pretty darn fast) as long as it doesn't rule my life or impact things I want to do.

What I have to work on however, are the routines I've established with writing. I need to learn to write in slots of time if my days are busy. Writing away from my work area if it's more convenient to write somewhere else. Or even, heaven forbid, writing in longhand.

Without a candle lit. Or a glass or cup of something I can drink.

Told you I was anal.

But mostly, I need to banish the fear and indecision. Just Do It. Trust creativity--and trust that uncontrolled creativity isn't such a bad thing.

In Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, she describes how to develop what she calls "First Thoughts":

Set a timer. Choose the length of time I want and commit to do the following for the entire period:

1. Keep my hand or fingers moving. This means don't read what I've just written. That's my anal-ness again, trying to get control over whatever it is I think I'm trying to say and say it better, or at least put it in alphabetical order.

2. Don't cross out or delete. This is allowing my Internal Editor (who is even more anal than I am) the power she craves. Even if I write something I didn't meant to write, I need to leave it.

3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.

4. Lose control. Eeek!

5. Don't think. Don't get logical.

6. Go for the jugular. If something comes up that strikes fear or vulnerability in my heart, embrace it and keep on writing. It's probably pretty good stuff.

The idea is to push through social politeness and internal censors. To push through my need to control things that are better less controlled. To get to a place of greater truth.

To find energy.

Goldberg writes: Why are first thoughts so energizing? Because they have to do with freshness and inspiration. Inspiration means "breathing in." Breathing in God. You actually become larger than yourself, and first thoughts are present. . . . The present is imbued with tremendous energy.

CR: Deadlock by Iris Johansen

It's all better with friends.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The #1 Creativity Crusher

What is the one thing a majority of writers would agree stifles the creative flow?

(Hint: It has nothing to do with household chores or personal hygiene.)

Picture it: I'm sailing along and suddenly the thought occurs to me that I need to make sure what I'm writing Now matches up with something I wrote Way Back When. I stop. I go to the Way Back When page and search for the few key words that will either confirm I'm on the right path, or stop me from making some kind of horrible mistake.

Then, I notice a disjointed sentence. A verb that needs to be strengthened. Where did all this passive writing spring from? My Now page is quickly becoming a Later page while I attend to edits.

My Internal Editor has a full head of steam, and I'm too weak to stop her. While I rewrite (and I love this part of the process) what I've already created, I'm not creating anything new.

That's not good.

In Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, she shares this:

It is important to separate the creator and the editor or internal censor when you practice writing, so that the creator has free space to breathe, explore, and express. . . .

The more you clearly know the editor, the better you can ignore it. After a while, like the jabbering of an old drunk fool, it becomes just prattle in the background. . . .

Some ideas:

1. Realize this is your first draft. You can write it behind closed doors, nobody ever needs to see it, and there's no way it's going to be perfect. Let It Go.

2. Promise yourself that in a week, a month, or whenever, you'll give Missy Editor free rein to play. Just not today.

3. When you reach a spot that requires research of any kind, just change the color of your font, put it in brackets and caps, and understand you can come back later to find the [NAMEOFCOOLGUN] for that particular scene. Or [MENTIONTHISEARLIER], to flag a bit of revision for the next round.

4. DO NOT STOP. If you must go back and read, read quickly now and tweak later.

5. Don't judge the quality of your output. For those who participated in National Novel Writing Month, remember that exhilarating feeling of freedom because you knew it could stink and still would have written 20,000 or 30,000 or 50,000+ words. Some of them usable. Get back in touch with that place where the words were light as air and streaming onto the page. Let Yourself Go.

There's an old adage for writers worth remembering:

You cannot fix a blank page.

Just finished Night Kills by John Lutz. An excellent police procedural (without the "f-bombs") with quality characterization and just enough plot and twists to keep you turning the pages.

It's all better with friends.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rules Schmules

One of my critique partners, Kelly Irvin, has bucked and railed against most writing "rules" to which she's ever been guided.

With teenagers of her own, you would think she would behave better.

When I think about it though, I remember brave people from my life who have flaunted the rules and lived to tell about it. In junior high school, Becky batted her big blue eyes and smiled her enigmatic smile, and voila, everything tilted her way. Pretty much the same thing for Cherie (only I think now--as I pretty much knew even then--she hid some terrible secrets).

I was a "good girl" who harbored fantasies of rebellion to the 'nth degree. Yep, it's true.

There are rules and then there are rules. Some people know intuitively what they are, and that they don't apply to them. I've always thought of those individuals as courageous fools.

Some of us, more concerned with those rules, must first evaluate the crud out of them. I need to know what the rule is, why the rule exists and who has broken it before me and gotten away with it. Then, and only then, can I rise to the occasion and break it.

Unless I'm free-form writing, I'm what's known as a Writing Wuss. It doesn't matter how many life mistakes I make, I still want to be a "good girl."

It's a sickness.

I've been on this learning curve now for about as long as most college educations, albeit with a bit more leeway for life-necessity. I'm beginning to figure out when I can (safely) thumb my nose at a rule, and when I'd better stick to the straight and narrow.

By the way, Kelly "The Rebel" Irvin signed a contract for her first novel last year. You'll be hearing more about that later.

Sometimes it pays to forge your own path, wearing blinders to what the so-called experts have to say.

Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
~Motto of the Special Olympics

Still reading the John Lutz. This is a very good book and I wonder why I haven't heard more about this author. Did he follow the rules or break one too many?

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Endings that Should be Shot

I hardly ever remember endings . . . of books, movies, football games (at least those in which my home team is not involved).

I want to write endings that will be remembered. Hopefully for their twists and satisfying conclusions. "Job well done, Peg Brantley" is what I want to hear.

But I've read one or two (if only it could be so few) books where the ending just didn't work.

The following is taken from The Elements of Mystery Fiction by William G. Tapply.

Climactic resolutions to avoid:

1. Deus ex machina. This is where the meddling god (police/cavalry) swoops in to save the day. Other examples in this not to be believed divine intervention would include the lucky shot or bolt of lightning. Easy to write, hard for the reader to swallow.

2. The suddenly invincible hero or heroine. This is the "where did they learn to fly like that?" syndrome. The antagonist you've created is resourceful and desperate. But suddenly, the protagonist has a skill set, specific to saving the day, never before divulged.

3. The suddenly fallible villain. The antagonist who has eluded every force suddenly stumbles, allowing for capture. Puh-lease.

4. The conversion of the villain. At the critical confrontation, the antagonist who has murdered in cold blood, and may be threatening thousands, says, "Yep. You've got me. Take me in." Redemption is nice, but unless you've written this character to be morally complex and tortured, this is just too easy.

Writing effective and believable climactic scenes requires all of your creativity. There is no formula. Your story's resolution must follow logically from the strengths and abilities and personalities of the characters and from the events that have come before. And yet it must not seem preordained.

I want to write killer endings, not easy endings. There needs to be believable resolution, with some creativity kicked in.

I love this adventure of writing . . .

Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work, so most people don't recognize them. ~Ann Landers

CR: Night Kills by John Lutz. Man, is this a good book.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Belly Blahs - Those Sagging Middles

One of the things we're taught to watch out for as writers is a sagging middle. (Fingers plugging ears and singing, "nah, nah-nah-nah, nah.")

As a suspense novelist, I try to write a tremendous beginning, fraught with danger and tension and questions, because I know that's what will hook my readers. I also know that writing a killer ending is important to get that reader to want to pick up another book I've written.

But what about those middles? What causes a middle to drag? Here are a few thoughts that recently came up in a discussion:

* The map gets put down, and the writer gets lost. He veers away from the plot and follows a distracting route before finally coming back to the real story.

* The action is replaced by cerebral junk/boring legwork/mundane travel/basic reality.

* Action for action's sake.

* Important things are stalled. The protag's advancement toward the goal/the stakes/subplots. The pacing suffers when these things aren't propelling the story forward.

* Either there's no Central Crisis to create tension, or there's no organic connection between the Central Crisis and earlier challenges the protag encountered.

One suggestion was to use the middle of the story for character development while using the subplots to ramp up the action.

Another suggestion was to take Mary Buckham's online course for pacing. I checked, and it's being offered as a month long course through Writer University in March.

The way to succeed is never quit. That's it. But really be humble about it.
~Alex Haley

CR: Still reading the Koontz. It's definitely different from The Good Guy, but I'm withholding comment until I finish.

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Starbucks or Sludge?

Usually I'm pretty good at telling my Starbucks from my sludge. Which words are keepers and which ones should be tossed down the drain.

Feedback from moi comes after letting the words sit in the pot for a few days. If (after a cooling off period) I can pour myself a cuppa, and the aroma is evocative, I can fall in love with them all over again. If, however, there's a grungy film sticking to the side of my cup, they need some attention . . . or deletion.

Once everything's been filtered properly, I'll ask trusted critiquers to sample my brew.

But even then . . . I've been known to become unreasonably attached to a scene, a paragraph. Even a phrase or a word. Some things are worth fighting for. Some aren't. If something enhances the scene, or the plot, or a character, and without it a crucial element will be lost, I'll fight. If not, I'll stick it back in the pot to simmer a few more days . . . and usually dump it out.

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out. ~Ray Bradbury

Currently reading: Your Heart Belongs to Me by Dean Koontz.

It's all better with friends.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Strong Emotions

The very best deep POV experiences are . . . well, deep.

Gene Fowler said, "Writing is easy. All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead."

That blood on the forehead? It's the first step of deep POV. Terrible, but true. Deep POV requires turning yourself inside out, exposing raw nerves and deep wounds. Self-censorship is a killer when the story calls for something emotional.

When I used to write a taut scene, I blocked emotions and whisked through it, laying down the bare bones and calling it done. I trusted that readers would understand, and get what I meant without any superfluous words.

And then, in addition to my critique partners pushing for more, I started studying the writers I love. They don't use flowery, purple prose, but they do take each thought, each emotion, step by step. One word at a time. They draw out and prolong the incredible fear, or the ripping loss.

It's become easier now to fall into deep POV. I've learned I'll survive. But initially, I had to say a prayer and consciously move deeper into my own blocked psyche. I've come to consider it a wonderful kind of therapy—and it's free.

Balance is important. As much as I need fresh, sweet air, so do my readers. But I never let them catch their breaths for long . . .

And since it's the beginning of the year:

Goals can be energizing—when you win. But a vision is more powerful than a goal. A vision is enlivening, it's spirit-giving, it's the guiding force behind all great human endeavors. Vision is about shared energy, a sense of awe, a sense of possibility. ~ Benjamin Zander, Conductor, Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

Currently reading: I think I'll start the new Koontz tonight. I deserve it. Oh yeah, and a nice hot bath. Yeah.

Working On: Learning about this wonderful writing program for Macs . . . Scrivener. I think I could be falling in love.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Backstory and Koontz

I just finished reading a great book by Dean Koontz. The Good Guy maintains a driven pace. There are no flashbacks whatsoever, and you really only get a good dose of backstory at the very end of the book.

Wanting to know is one of the mysteries that keeps the book riveting.

Backstory is dangerous in unskilled hands. It interrupts the now-story. There isn't as much drama and tension with stuff that's already happened. The outcome is known. It's very tricky to build anxiety when everyone is still breathing, and you know there's no chance of that changing.

I'm wary of writing backstory. The only reason to use it is to help anchor the present situation. If I can show things about my character over time (like Koontz does in The Good Guy), rather than tell things about my character, I'm not only not interrupting the pace, but maybe I'm adding to it.

I treat backstory like a strong spice. Too much and the flavor I'm going for is ruined and there's nothing to do but start over. (Well, with writing I've got the Delete key. I love that key, don't you? It gives me such a sense of freedom.)

I wish all of you a remarkably wonderful 2009, filled with spiritual, personal and professional growth. A year that includes amazing-good reads, and contracts galore.

Currently reading: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg. (I know it's not a suspense, but we all need dimension in our lives. Plus, just seeing her name cracks me up.)

Working on: I asked for and received a Mac laptop for Christmas. I think I'm going to love it, but during this setup phase? Oy.

It's all better with friends.