Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Perfection Rejection

Repeat after me, "First drafts are not perfect. First drafts are not perfect. First drafts . . . "

I'm far from perfect. In fact, I'm lousy at perfect. But that doesn't keep me from trying. And falling flat on my face.

Why do I expect myself to write any different than I live the rest of my life?

I've read Bird by Bird, where one of my favorite non-suspense novelists, Anne Lamott, gives me permission to have low expectations of my first draft. I love her for trying to help. I've read On Writing where Stephen King does pretty much the same thing.

So what gives?

Maybe there's something else going on . . .

CR: The Best Revenge by Stephen White.

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Finding Character

Plot makes a story interesting and page-turning, but characters make readers care about that plot.

Suspense novelists need to set a fast paced story, and so to be successful at character development, we had better know how to nail them fast. This post isn't about character arcs where events alter our creations for better or worse, this is about beginning the story with fully formed, four-dimensional (at least), human beings. You can't take the time to "build" them, and your story is what changes them.

Think of the thought and planning a pilot needs to go through when landing on an aircraft carrier at sea. There's no room for error, and no way to mosey down the runway until he feels like stopping. And because he's gone over and over the process (backstory) he doesn't need to think much about why he's taking the various steps and making his decisions. Everything is automatic. Everything makes sense. Everything works.

In order to land on the "character" carrier sure-footed and ready to role out the plot, the novelist has got to know their characters intimately before introducing them to readers. What are some of the ways to do this?

Character charts abound. Most of them leave me feeling like I've created a cardboard cutout of some dull, predictable clod. Not even near as interesting as Flat Stanley. Occasionally I'll run into a question or two that opens doors for additional insight, but more often, they make me get bored with a character before I've even found a way to care about them. And these are my characters! Sheesh.

A young writer friend asked about character charts and I told her I didn't use them. And I told her why. But then later, it dawned on me that she writes paranormal, fantasy kinds of things, and builds a rather unique storyworld. So, for her, figuring out what her strange creature eats for breakfast might be kind of fun. Sometimes the minutiae can really get a writer juiced, as long as it's unique.

There are two things that work best for me (and I'd love to hear what works for you).

The first is writing a first person character study. Free-form. Just let myself go. What I'm looking for in the process are the defining moments (thanks, Dr. Phil) of my character's life. What made them the people they are today? This exercise lets me get into the skin of the person I'm writing about and keep them real and true to character.

The second thing sort of happens while I'm doing the free-form first person character study. I keep asking them questions. The main one is "Why?" It's kind of working backward. Rather than constructing a character, I'm deconstructing one. Let me get to the crux/core/heart of the matter.

When I think of favorite books, the plot might be a sharp point of remembrance, but it's the characters who invade my psyche and hold on that truly make a story memorable. That's what I strive for with every paragraph I write.


Most writers have pages on their websites for other writers. Many times, you can find character charts on those. Pick an author whose characters grab you, and see what they've got available.

Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins is an excellent book on character development.

Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card is one that comes highly recommended.

45 Master Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt is also one that is recommended.

Heroes & Heroines by Cowden, LaFever and Viders is another option.

Fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer's courage.

JF: Fire and Ice by J.A. Jance. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Look for it on sale July 21st.

CR: Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen. So far, this one isn't doing much for me. That's why I put it down for the Jance, but have picked it up again. I'm forever hopeful.

Next, I'm thinking I'd like to give J.D. Rhoades a try.

It's all better with friends.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Are you watching?

For those of you who are in bed by 9, or are so hooked on Medium you can't move, Castle is a new series on ABC Monday night, about a best selling author riding the tail of a police detective on whom he wants to develop his new series. If you're interested, you can see episodes on ABC's website.

Okay, the police procedure part might be a little off, and the ME role needs help from Doug Lyle, but I think it's a hoot. (This is where we get back to that old idea that it's fiction, and we need to let the story trump the facts.)

The character development is pretty decent, even early in the series. It surprises me to hear a number of people already dislike Detective Beckett and Castle's mom. I don't know enough about Beckett (even though we got some backstory a week ago), but I'm pretty sure Mom is a character with quite a few layers we get a glimpse of if we look past her flamboyant cover. I like her.

As a suspense novelist, there's not only some good humor there from Castle (and you've gotta love his relationship with his daughter), but there are also some nicely developed character arcs and plotlines.

It's worth an hour of your time to see for yourself.

CR: Pandora's Daughter by Iris Johansen.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Tiny Transgressions?

What makes you give up on a book? Or do you?

Somehow, I needed to be over 50 before I realized life was short. I can now pass on a book I've begun reading if it doesn't grab me. Before, I'd slog through the entire thing, probably turning into a major grump to everyone around me. Now, life is better when I can agree to allow myself a DNF when necessary. (Did Not Finish.)

Beyond writing and plot, there isn't a lot that will make me close the covers of a book. If the facts presented cause me to stretch my believability a bit, I can usually remind myself that this is fiction. As long as the story and characters are believable and intriguing, I can let a little tampering with facts slide.

But many readers can't. Or at least, think they shouldn't.

Recently, I read a very well written debut novel I agreed to review for Armchair Interviews. Dream House was a challenge to pigeon-hole to a genre—definitely not suspense, or mystery, or even crime (though a crime was committed). It was a book much more general in scope. I recommended it personally to a friend of mine who I know appreciates more general, even literary, fiction.

Was she expecting suspense since that's my usual fare? Maybe. To be truthful, I was too. So maybe, when in the very beginning, she had trouble with the way the crime scene is handled by the police and cleanup crew (believe me, this has very little to do with the story) she stopped reading. Period. And I think she missed out on a book she would have otherwise loved.

Whose loss was it?

Research is important. As a writer, I want to do my best to make sure a little thing like a bungled not-that-important scene to the story doesn't stop a reader cold. I even wrote about it here. But as a reader, who is looking for a compelling story, I can forgive the occasional flub.


"I'm always looking for the author who can lift me out of myself."

CR: In For the Kill by John Lutz.

It's all better with friends.

Friday, April 3, 2009

What's Your Love Language?

There's a wonderful book that was first published in 1992 called The Five Love Languages and sub-titled How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate. It was written by Gary Chapman.

I think understanding what our love language is can help us understand why we meet some goals and not others. Why we enjoy doing one activity more than another. And how to reach out to ourselves as well as others who impact our lives.

I'm ready to try anything that might help me meet that self-imposed finish line for my first draft.

The first time I read this book I had a revelation about my mom. Expressing love with words and hugs was hard for her. She wasn't a toucher. The few times she talked about how much she loved me, or how proud she was of me, it sounded like she was making a confession. It was almost painful to hear, and I wanted to stop her discomfort, so I helped her keep her words to a minimum.

The things I remember about my mom include great birthdays and Christmas's. Leading my Brownie troop (making cats out of empty pop bottles . . . back when they were glass). And cleaning my bedroom top to bottom when I was sick in bed. Somehow that would always make me feel better. My mom expressed her love through Acts of Service. Knowing that about her helped me understand that that was also the easiest way for her to receive love.

(OT: My mom is on my mind because my sister and I are together in Tucson, celebrating what would have been her 76th birthday (the 2nd) and marking what is the first year of her passing (the 5th).)

Here are the five languages of love: Quality Time; Words of Affirmation; Gifts; Acts of Service; Physcial Touch.

The titles Gary Chapman gave them are all pretty self-explanatory, but if you want more detail, get your hands on a copy of his book.

The idea is that your reward to yourself for achieving a goal should be based on your love language. Yeah . . . I love them all, don't you? Who wouldn't appreciate a thoughtful gift or a special embrace or a romantic dinner? But Words of Affirmation from my husband can make my heart soar. What I need to establish is a way for ME to give MYSELF some wonderful affirmations when I accomplish something. Like finishing that first draft.

What's your love language? What do you plan on giving yourself to express your own love for yourself when you meet a goal?

CR: Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C.J.Box

It's all better with friends.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book Review: DANIEL'S DEN by Brandt Dodson

Daniel Bond, a New Orleans based stock analyst, has found comfort in routine. He believes that the patterns he’s worked hard to form his life around will ensure his security—even happiness. He’s an ethical player in a business where others find temptation—creating his success through honest effort and doing the right thing.

Daniel is financially comfortable, physically fit, and totally committed to Elvis—his black lab.

And then, the unthinkable happens.

In a small community nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, Laura Traynor is anything but comfortable. A widow trying to care for her young son, and realize her husband’s dream (the only thing other than Andy and medical bills he left her) she is buried beneath a pile of debt and weary of wearing more hats than a three-headed monster.

And then, the unthinkable happens.

Brandt Dodson just keeps getting better. In Daniel’s Den, he delivers a compelling plot with interesting, believable characters, providing just enough technical information to lend authenticity.


CR: Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C.J. Box . . . on my Kindle!

It's all better with friends.