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It’s the Characters!

tablettypeI’m just heading home from the California Dreamin’ Writers Conference, and as usual there was talk of craft and marketing, and much other stuff. Sylvia Day, of course, talked about writing the book you really, really have to write–the book you want to write. I find that best-selling writers often do that–they may be marketing smart, but they also don’t follow the market. They make it. They also write great characters, which I think is the real secret.

So how do you get great characters on the page. First, you need talent. But a few other things can help, and I’m going to cover this in detail in my Plotting from Character online workshop starting on April 1:

Twelve steps to create the story from the inside out.

  1. Start at the deepest point: for every character, find that person’s core internal need.
  2. When looking for motivations (the why) for a character’s core need, discard the first three or four ideas (those will be clichés). Internal motivations are strongest if tied to a specific event in the character’s formative years—create these scenes (you may use them in the story).
  3. Create one main external goal for the main character—needs to be tangible, so the reader knows if the character gets it or not. (There should be consequences for failing to achieve the goal—failure should be personally costly to the main character.)
  4. Look for the motivation for why the character needs this goal—this is strongest if it’s a specific event in the character’s formative years. (Theme will come from the main character’s needs and goals—that will be the heart of the story.) The WHY for the external goal should be WHY this person must do this and WHY now–as in most folks don’t suddenly decide to go out and catch a murderer without a strong reason WHY that person must do that and WHY they most do this NOW.
  5. Decide if your character recognizes his or her needs and motivations.
  6. Focus the story on one character’s specific growth. That is at the heart of the book and will relate to your theme.
  7. For a romance, set up a potential mate who can’t provide the main character’s need—and who has goals that are in conflict. (But make sure this person is fully developed.)
  8. Know each of your character’s sexual history.
  9. Layer strengths and weaknesses into each character–compliment and contrast.
  10. Create secondary characters around the main one, with clear needs, goals and motivations for every character. (These can be opposing goals for what the main character wants or needs–or the same, with approaches adding conflict, or conflict from only being able to reach the goal).
  11. Give every character a secret–maybe even one that stays hidden during this story.
  12. Leave room for characters to surprise you. And remember, even bad guys need love.

With all the above, play the “what if” game – what if this happens to this person? What would he or she do? Create many “what ifs” and use the “what ifs” that resonate most with you and that make life worse for the main character—test your characters.

Remember:  Character is revealed through obstacles and the character’s reaction to those obstacles as he or she tries to achieve his or her goal. That is story. Plot is the construction of the obstacles in any character’s path.

 

 

It’s in the Details

SummerFlowersRecently a discussion came up about the details in a book–the writer was changing them on the fly. This made for a confusing read, but it also got me thinking. Not about the need for copy or line edits, but about the details in any story. To me, it’s all about the details.

I’m a writer who needs to see a scene in my mind. I also need to have the smells vivid, and all the senses involved. Is it cold out, hot, windy, dry, damp? What are the background noises like? These are the things that make a story come alive for me–not just as a writer, but as a reader. It’s the stuff every writer needs to think about–and to weave into the story.

Now this isn’t about dumping a ton of details onto a reader. But think about a great painting. There’s thought behind the art–there is also contrasts of light and dark, there’s attention to what takes up space and what space is left empty. The same goes for a great movie–the details that surround not just the character but the settings are layered in with great attention.

Those details all pile up to mean something. Every detail should matter. What a character chooses to wear, to eat, to drive (or ride if it’s a historical) all matter. You don’t want to stuff your character into generic clothing–the colors, the textures, the styles all mean something. We show our personalities in what we choose to wear, in the jewelry we select, the tattoos we get, the hair styles we adopt. And our settings–the furniture, and how its cared for (or not)–all mean something about who we are as people.

InkonrocksSo, writers, pay attention to the details. Don’t go for the general–be specific. Be vivid. Don’t settle for black as a color. Is that a black really a deep brown which is visible in edges and tips? Or is it a deep black that reflects blue in the light? Or is it a flat, dull black like cheep hair dye? Does the wind have a cold bite that stings the skin or is it a soft warmth? Experience the world through a fresh set of senses and bring the reader with you by going for details that really create a strong scene. Weave in the tastes that travel in the air and linger on the tongue. Use sounds that jar or relax or add tension. Add the touch of the breath of the country-side which is different than in the city where it can press on the skin, heavy and hard. Describe the smells that evoke feelings of coming home (home-made bread) or feelings of unease (the stench of decay). And use the sights that your character drinks in–for what a character notices says a lot about that person.

Be vivid–and pay attention to your own stories. Make them better than real. That’s what we all want to read.

 

Dialogue and Subtext

lietomeI loved the show Lie to Me for its use of micro expressions–small facial ‘give aways’ that revealed the truth no matter how someone tried to stop it.  But what do these facial tics and bits of body language have to do with dialogue? Isn’t dialogue about putting down what someone is saying in your story?  Well yes–and no.

I’m doing a workshop on Dialogue for Outreach International Romance Writers starting this next Monday and I chose the title to be “Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean.” The title applies to a common mistake that many beginning writers make–the dialogue is too “on the nose.” That phrase is used to describe dialogue that is clumsy–it’s too specific and not the way anyone really talks.

This kind of dialogue crops up when a writer has a character explain his or her actions, give too much information about his or her past (with no motivation for providing all those details), or explain the plot to another character so the reader will catch up. Now, all of this can be done in character and brilliantly–but for most of us, the goal is to weave subtext and have characters not really say what they mean.

You want your characters to lie–and tell white lies. You want them to exaggerate. You want them to duck questions and change topics. Above all, you want emotion to drive most of what a character says. And this brings us back to those micro expressions and bits of body language–because what a character does while he or she is talking is a tip to the reader that something more is going on.

Do you really believe the story the wife is telling while she also fidgets with her wine glass and licks her lips and keeps looking away? Do you really think the guy likes his brother’s pal–even if the guy says he does–if the guy’s smile looks more like a grimace and he’s giving narrowed-eyed stares at the brother’s pal? Do you really think the little boy did not take the candy when he swears he didn’t if he hides chocolate-stained hands behind his back? Yes, those are all lies, but they’re also giving sub-text–more is going on underneath the dialogue than just the words that are spoken.

Now sometimes you do want your characters to be blunt–and honest. But even then, a character needs good reasons to be that blunt. Maybe it’s a habit. Maybe they’re fed up with the other person and want to drive them away. Those motivations have to be made clear to the reader.

Above all, a story must interest and keep a reader’s attention–and to do that you need dialogue that sparks with tension and conflict. It doesn’t have to be world-shattering conflict, but you want more going on underneath your words as characters work to get what they want in each scene. You want characters who don’t say what they mean, who go the long way around to get to a point, who offer indirect statements, and who sometimes never answer any questions. Always look for better ways to get more of your characters’ emotions on the page and less of their explanations.

And for more dialogue tips you’ll just have to take the workshop.

Testing Your Ideas

pencilOver the years I’ve learned that ideas need to be tested–you save yourself a lot of wasted writing time, dead ends, and massive frustration if you run a few simple tests over what seems like a brilliant idea. Here are ten easy tests/checks to help you:

Test 1 – The plausibility check. This test requires a partner. A plotting partner is a great help for any writer. I recommend having only a couple of these–too many writers really do spoil the story. You end up with a mess. Run your idea past your plot partner–ask flat out if it works. Is it plausible–meaning does it work as a basic idea.

Test 2 – The motivations checks? This is where a lot of stories fail. The writer figures out the hero’s motivations, and maybe the heroine’s–but the antagonist is neglected and the story fails because the bad guy is just stock character who does things because the plot demands it. Do yourself a favor and write out all motivations–check EVERY character. Why are your characters wanting what they want and doing what they do? Be very certain to check and double-check your antagonist. The rule that your protagonist is only as strong as your antagonist is a good one. If you want a strong protagonist, create a great antagonist to challenge that character.

Test 3 – The cliche check. This is where you must look for any cliches. Does your bad guy kidnap the heroine? Why–and why can’t he do something different and which makes more sense? Does the hero’s mistress or ex-lover make trouble? Look for every cliche–and look to cut these or put a fresh twist on them.

Test 5 – The locked room test. This is a test specifically for romance novels. Put your hero and heroine in a locked room, where they must sit down and talk. Does this talk make all the conflict between them worse? If so, you’ve got great conflict. If a forced talk would resolve everything, you’ve got misunderstandings instead of conflict and so your characters need work.

Test 6 – The exception check. This is where you  have to look at your idea and see if you must bend history, physics, or the rules of your own fantasy world to make the idea work. This isn’t so much of a problem if you’re writing alternate history–but this, too, must be worked out logically. Do you have to create exceptions to make your own story work? If so, you’re heading back to test 1 of plausibility.

Test 7 – The idiot test. This is a good one to look at. Must your hero or heroine behave like an idiot at some point to make the story idea work? Does the heroine have to leave the house in a nightgown with not so much as a flashlight to check on a mysterious sound? Does the hero have to believe in a man who has been lying to everyone during the entire book? Does the antagonist have to hire terminally stupid henchmen? This is closely related to cliches, but writers can always invent new ways for characters to be very dumb. Now, if your character is supposed to be dumb this is not an issue, but if the character is only supposed to be dumb to make a key plot point work, you’ve got problems with that idea.

Test 8 – The backstory check. If your idea requires the reader to first have several chapters of set up in order to understand the story, the setting, or this world’s history, you may want to look at how complicated you’re making things. Maybe you–the author–need to write these chapters–but can you cut them or find another way to get the information to the reader that doesn’t mean the story start is delayed or put off? We all fall in love with our backstory stuff–that’s great. But it doesn’t mean a reader really needs this stuff.

Test 9 – The skill test. This is one that many writers ignore. We all want to believe we have the skill to write the stories that come to us, but the truth is that sometimes our ideas are bigger than our abilities. You have to be honest with yourself to apply this test–and you want to err on the side of caution. It’s much better to have a simple story idea very well done than it is to have an amazing story idea that’s poorly realized. Opt for simple every time.

Test 10 – The butt test. This one is simple–but again it needs honesty. Can you keep your butt in a chair long enough to write this idea? Maybe you have an idea for an epic space fantasy–can you really write 300,000 words?  Or will you actually get a 25,000 word novella done? You want to look at your skills–and your ability to keep yourself focused. Nothing is more depressing than unfinished story after unfinished story. Give yourself a break and go hunting for doable ideas.

There you have it. Ten tests that could save you from wasting your time with ideas that are going to lead you down the garden path and into the brambles. Just remember–there are always more ideas. So go cherry pick the best ones!

 

 

 

Break it Down–to Put it Together

BellyDanceDarMaghreb 045I’m about to start my Show & Tell Workshop for the FF&P chapter of RWA, and as always I’ve started thinking about the workshop. Inevitably, questions come up that aren’t related to the workshop, and I really do try to keep folks focused just on the workshop. There’s a reason for this.

When I first got serious about writing one of the most frustrating things about it is that there are so many moving parts. There’s dialogue, pacing, getting your characters on the page, narrative, description, punctuation, grammar, action, active voice, viewpoint, plotting, theme, and the list goes on and on. It’s enough to make anyone crazy. Most of this stuff you learn because any writer starts out as an avid reader—and by reading you learn a lot about this stuff. But sometimes you have to break it down.

Breaking it down is something I learned from dance (belly dance specifically). In dance, you break down the moves so you can learn them not just one step at a time, but one body part at a time. Breaking it down with the writing lets you focus on not just trouble areas, but on getting a firm grip on some of the technical stuff. Why do this?

Getting the technical stuff out of the way:

1- Lets the characters and story shine—you really want the story and the characters to be front and center, not all the other stuff. To keep that other stuff invisible, you have to master it, so you can forget it.

2-Means less revision. You’re not constantly having to fix the typos—a little of that is not a lot of work, but many, many typos mean much, much work.

3-Lets you focus on bigger issues. Let’s face it, if you’re struggling with viewpoint control, or showing vs. telling, you’re probably going to be neglecting the bigger stuff—like did you really motivate your main character’s key choices, or did you really nail that dark moment, or do you have a strong grasp of what the book is really about. I’ve seen a lot of writers dig technical holes for themselves, and everything else suffers.

4-Can speed up your production. The stronger my technical skills have become, the smoother the writing, meaning fewer drafts, and faster production. This isn’t always true—other things (such as life) can step in to interfere with a project, but strong technical skills means you aren’t stuck trying to solve technical problems with the work.

5-Lets you have some more fun. Technical stuff is often a drag—it’s a lot of detail, so if you’re not a detail person this can seem like stuff you really don’t want to deal with. It’s actually the stuff you want to get so good at that it stops mattering. Then you can really fly.

6-Puts you on the path to art. We all go through stages of learning—and sometimes we’re blessed with stories that are gifts. But art really comes from a marriage of craft and passion. You may be born with the passion, but if the craft is lacking—the technique—expressing your passion can be held in check. So this is where you want to be so solid with your technical skills than you can actually forget them—and let something more take over.

7-Means that your technique is always there for you. Stuff happens. Passion can fade. And deadlines can bring stress that makes your muse hide. But your technical skills will be there no matter what. And it’s great to be able to fall back on that sometimes when you need to get work produced because that is your job.

So…don’t be afraid to break it down—to focus on one skill at a time. Pick an area where you know your skills are weak and just make that the thing you want to improve. Then you can figure out how to put it back together to get your story on track.

Giving Critiques

sleepyrideIt’s sometimes as hard to give another writer the truth about the work as it is to take it. Let’s face it, we all love our own babies. Even if they are ugly squalling brats, we want to see the good side. The trouble is, if you don’t go looking for the faults you can’t fix ‘em. Or to mix up the metaphor–if someone’s on a mule but asks you what do you think of their horse, it’s time to tell them that’s a fine mule but he’s never going to grow up into a horse. The truth has to come out then.

But I still struggle with it.

On one hand, I want to encourage other writers–it’s great to just be getting the words on the paper and who knows what kind of cool story could result. You may love taht mule you have! On the other, I can’t really encourage someone to head on down a rocky path without at least a warning–if someone really, really wants a horse, they should find out the differences between the two animals.

The warnings I give usually goes along the lines of you can do whatever you want, however…

It’s that ‘however’ that’s the kicker. The most common issue is that the story is going to disappoint readers or leave them utterly cold. I write for readers–I want folks to have fun with my stories. Yes, I’m the first reader I need to please, but I also figure if someone’s giving my work a few hours from their life, I owe them a good story. That means likeable characters, an entertaining tale well told, and a satisfying ending. I also figure other writers feel the same, but maybe they don’t. I do not think story telling is about me being really clever–it’s about me being true to my characters. I figure that’s enough to juggle without taking on major technical challenges, or trying to tackle epic themes with major point of view changes and a vast array of characters. I’ll leave that to the more ambitious and the more talented. But don’t all try to bite off too much at some point?

I’ve got several manuscripts locked away and a few more started and abandoned–stuff that I followed down that path to heartache because I was starting out and struggling and no one warned me. I thought I was riding horses every time, but turned out some of them were even donkeys. But I have to ask–would I have kept at it if someone had shot those ideas down? I think I would have–particularly if someone pointed out an easier or better way to get to a good story. Or had taught me how to look for the flaws. But I know we all have different levels of tolerance. What one person views as a challenge, another takes as a slapdown. We all have different skin thicknesses. But, ultimately, we also all have to find our own paths–a teacher can only point out different paths.

Which leaves me having to trust that truth is truth. Yes, it may be my truth–but you really have to be honest about the work. If I’m seeing a mule, and someone asks, I have to point out that’s a mule. If something is great, it’s time to give a thumbs up. But if that baby–or that mule–is going to give someone a world of misery, you have to point out the problems and hope to heck the writer has a thick enough hide to take the input and make something even more amazing.

After all, if you start telling lies to others, soon you may start telling them to yourself, too. And no writer can afford to do that.

Story Telling — or Just Telling

What do all these opening lines have in common?

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)

They’re all telling more than showing the reader anything. They also happen to intrigue the reader, show off the author’s voice, and be really compelling openings to strong books. So why does telling–the narrative voice–have such a bad rap?

Show and TellI think because it’s usually badly done.

These telling lines I’ve listed are all strong writing. The prose is clean. The authors clearly have something to say. I think a big reason why more writers are not told to “tell, don’t show” is because this would be viewed by many as an excuse for bad writing.

Strong narrative takes a lot of work. It takes revisions and edits and also it takes a strong voice–if you don’t have anything to say then telling can quickly become the written blah, blah, blah.

The second reason why I think the advice is usually “show, don’t tell” is that a lot of writers apply too much telling to emotional scenes. This is where the reader generally wants the writer to get out of the way–the reader wants to be with the characters. So in strong scenes, too much telling is like standing in front of the TV screen when the big love scene or action scene is taking place–you’re getting in the way.

I keep telling folks the advice should be “show more in your scenes and tell better in set ups and transitions” but that’s pretty wordy. But the world would have a lot more good books if folks listened to that advice.

NOTE: Show and Tell my book on stronger showing and better telling is available on Amazon.com.