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It’s About Craft – Showing More, Telling Better

I’m teaching my Show & Tell Workshop for OCC Romance Writers this March. It’s a workshop with a lot of hands-on, because I believe that learning to show more and tell better is a vital part of any writer’s craft.

Now, I know the advice is usually “show, don’t tell”. However, narrative has it’s place in fiction. Writers need to know when to show more, and how to make the telling (or narrative) compelling. Some tips for writers;

1 – Show more by eliminating dialogue tags that tell everything. This means no more tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are telling the reader an emotion. You want to show how a character expresses emotion–readers want to see the characters in action.

Replace every telling dialogue tag with an action that better shows the character expressing an emotion. To do this, you must know your characters. How does your character pout? Does she stick out her lower lip, or bat her eyelashes? Does she fold her arm, or twirl a curl around her finger? How does your character leer? Does he overdo it, making it into a joke, or does his stare strip a woman bare? Show the emotion with actions.

2 – Show more, also, by eliminating places that simply tell the reader information. This is where you the author slip in to add a note.

For example, maybe you want to say something about a man’s grin, that it’s infectious, so you write: His grin widened and Sally found it infectious, so she smiled back.

This is you, the writer, are telling the reader the exact information instead of showing and letting the reader figure things out. Again, you have to know your characters—and this is where you show the grin being infectious, as in: His grin widened. Sally’s lips twitched, lifted; laughter rose like a bubble in her chest. Now you are showing Sally smiling back instead of telling the reader.

3 – Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blond, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of showing the enmity between these women. This is where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for information that shows these two women being bitchy with each other.

4 – Do remember to show; get the emotion onto the page. A lot of novice writers forget about this vital part of the story. This is where you’ve got action, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about all that action.

For example, maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story has jumped out to save a small boy from being hit by a car. She jumps out, grabs the boy. Great stuff. But…what’s she feeling? Is she frightened? Amped up on adrenaline? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go into the street after his baseball? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops should show emotion?

Again, you have to know your characters—and you have to give your readers a chance to get to know your characters, too, by putting in those emotions. Once you’ve finished the book (or any scene) go back and look to see if you wove in all those emotional reactions—or did you get just the action?

5 – If you show, don’t tell. Repetition shows insecurity—it means you are the master of your story. Trust the reader to get the information you’ve shown. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. Trust your readers to get what the actions mean.

6 – Cut the clichés. We’re back to needing to know your characters—and needing to know them as unique individuals who do not have cliché actions and reactions. You want to show who your characters are by having them reveal their personalities with their actions and reaction—if you go for cliché actions, the characters become walking clichés, too.

This means no stalking into the room like a panther. No gazing into a mirror and doing an inventory of hair, eyes, and the standard description. No women (or men) who had their hearts broken once and so that person has vowed never to love again.

7 – Show your character in action right away. This is vital. If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super right off. This is why a crazy cop has to do something crazy right off so that everyone “gets” this is one crazy dude.

Start off by showing your character’s strengths and weaknesses right away—get those onto the page. It’s no good saying your hero is a healer—you have to have the guy heal someone. And it’s no good saying the healing costs him some of his own life each time—you have to show him aging or losing strength each time he heals.

8 – Use narrative to slow the pace. Telling will slow the pace of any story, so it can be used to help you transition the reader into a new scene, or to convey passage of time, or it can be used to set a mood.

9 – Revise, revise, revise. Remember that if anything that is first draft (and sometimes even second) may be rough, and will lean on your own habits. Do you habitually overwrite–that means you need to cut. Or do you habitually underwrite–that means you need to flesh out your scenes.

10 – To quote Mark Twain: “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug in a jar.” This goes back to editing your work, and in particular your narrative passages. Is every word the right word? The right mood? The right meaning? And, yes, even the right spelling. Read your work aloud to catch errors, places where a reader will trip up, and just awkward spots.

More tips and tricks in the workshop, but these ten will help bump up your writing.

Wounds & Warriors Workshop

Early AmbulanceThe idea for a Wounds & Warriors workshop for writers after I became an EMT in New Mexico–because too often our characters get hurt and either recover ridiculously fast or have injuries that are just not plausible. What I realized was that most of us get our ideas from movies and TV–and boy do they get it wrong. Which means if a writer wants more accuracy it helps to know what are the common misconceptions and how do you go about better research.

In the Wounds & Warriors workshop I’m teaching in February for the Hearts Through History writers, we’re going to go over a lot of different information—and you’ll have a chance to ask about specific situations, including how your protagonist might care for himself or herself after something bad happens. But it’s good to know a few basics:

  • A person can bleed out quickly. The average person has about five liters of blood—loosing even one liter (one large soda bottle) of blood is bad. Confusion and weakness sets in. That person the bleeding to stop and fluids to be put back in.
  • Head traumas are dangerous—some of the most dangerous ones are those where the person feels fine but was unconscious. This can mean there is an internal bleed and that could kill within forty-eight hours.
  • Almost everything causes nausea—hit on the head, you wake up throwing up or wanting to throw up. Getting shot—your body tries to dump the stomach so it can focus on other things. This is never pretty and so gets skipped over in most fiction.
  • One issue can hide another—and people aren’t always honest about what is the real problem. As Dr. House said, “Everyone lies.” And not always intentionally. Sometimes folks just forget, and this is particularly true when stressed.
  • Children are not small adults—their bodies can’t compensate as well, so when they use up their physical resources, they’re going to crash fast. A sick kid is often a critical kid.
  • Extreme heat and extreme cold are deadly elements—and any injury makes them even more so. If you want to add more tension to a scene, use the weather.
  • CPR can and does save lives. Even more importantly it can mean the difference between someone coming back fully functional or with permanent damage. But a lot of folks are afraid to dive in and help—it take training to make sure you just do what you’ve trained to do.

Ultimately, you want to know what’s plausible for your situation—even if you’re writing about vampires and werewolves, know the rules so you can know how you can break them. Research your injuries before you write them and never assume. You’ll be able to get away from the cliché of that flesh wound in the shoulder that the protagonist survives or the knife fight that somehow ends up with no one disfigured or with permanent damage.

The other thing to keep in mind is for your own safety. What should YOU know (just in case)?

1-Document your medications and history (and get your loved ones to do this). Paper, phone, whatever—just have it written down (VialofLife.com)

2-Keep your document/medications handy! It is so hard in an emergency to make sure these are not forgotten.

3-Do an DNR if you do NOT want CPR or extreme life-saving measures.

4 –Wear a medical ID bracelet and/or necklace for those REALLY important things (as in allergic to penicillin).+

5-Put “ICE” in your phone—“In Case of Emergency” contact, just in case you are in an accident and cannot talk.

6-Educate yourself! Take a CPR class! Know how to stop a bleed. Keep children’s aspirin around if you’re not allergic. (1 in 20 deaths from stroke, heart attacks are the no 1 cause of death in the US, what do you do for allergic shock?) The life you save may be your own.

7-If you—or a loved one—is allergic to something (anything), keep an EPI pen on hand.

8-Keep a “survival/emergency” kit around and fresh! (www.ready.gov/sites/default/files/documents/files/checklist_1.pdf and http://www.redcrossstore.org/item/321406)

9-Remember your pets! They have emergencies, too, and in a disaster they’ll need water and food, and possibly first aid.

Writing Workshops 2020

UPDATE–2020 is almost full!

February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW

March 16 – April 12, 2020 Show & Tell: An Interactive Workshop, OCCRWA

May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW

June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA

August POV: It’s More Than a Point of View, YRW

September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA

October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW – NEW WORKSHOP!

There also might be a workshop coming for November!

I’m starting to plan writing workshops for 2020. It was nice to take a year off in 2019, but I find I miss the interaction of the workshops–it’s enjoyable to help other writers find their path.

So far, I have scheduled:

  • February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW
  • May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW
  • June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW

I’ll be adding a few more, but in the meantime, for anyone interested in taking a workshop, here are a few tips to get the most from any workshop:

Interact. This may seem obvious-and I’ve lurked in a few workshops, too–but I find that those who ask questions and post exercises get the most from the workshop. You may have to clear the decks to participate. It is hard to juggle too many things all at once, but it can give you better value for your time.

Don’t worry about your ideas. I’ve known many people who are paranoid about ideas being stolen. What I’ve found is that if you give the same idea to two writers, you’re going to have two different books. Don’t sweat the ideas. It is your voice that matters. And if you are still worried, do the exercises with made up stories–it might even spark a new book.

Make mistakes. A workshop is a great place to experiment and learn. I find many people, however, come in with the idea of ‘doing everything right.’ That actually won’t help you learn anything. Use workshops as a place to try new things, to push beyond your comfort zones, and to make mistakes. You’ll get more from the workshop by doing so.

Have fun. Many folks come into workshops with grim determination (this goes along with not making mistakes). Again, workshops are a safe place to let loose, try new things, and be creative. They are places to reconnect with experimentation, which can often get the creative juices flowing.

Use what works for you. In any workshop, if you come out with one great thing learned, that’s a positive. You will find that every writer has a different process–including you. This means what works for one writer may not work for another. This is okay. If something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to shoot down the idea–just don’t use it. Take what does work, and feel okay about abandoning the rest.

Try new things. If you’ve never written first person, try that. If you’ve never written third person, try that instead. Try out new techniques. This goes along with making mistakes. Yes, what you try may not work, but it may lead to new discoveries.

If you don’t post, do the exercises at home. I am a great believer in writing exercises. I’ve used them to discover my own comfort zone for what I want to write. I’ve used them to improve my viewpoint control, to work on dialogue, to do better narrative. Writing exercises to me are like warm-up for a dancer–they’re vital to improve technique. All my writing craft workshops include exercises–and the writers who get the most from the workshops do them and post them for feedback. However, even if you don’t post the exercises, you will learn a lot by doing them.

And that’s it–some tips on how to get more from an online workshop, particularly one that I might teach.

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.

Show More, Tell Better

“Writing well is the best revenge.” — Dorothy Parker

We’ve all heard “show, don’t tell” but I prefer to tell folks “show more, tell better.” This is something I use in every Show and Tell workshop I give (and I’m doing one for the RWA FF&P Chapter this July.) There’s a good reason for this. Narrative is actually vital in fiction—there are places where you need to smooth a transition or introduce a scene or a character and ‘telling’ or narrative works best. However, within a scene, it is vital to ‘show’ more of the character’s emotions through the character’s actions.

Like much of the craft of writing, you have to learn how to balance showing and telling by doing—meaning you have to write—and the amount of showing or telling you do varies by the story and the intent of the author.  This is part of your voice as a writer. However, there are some good guidelines that can help you with all of this:

– Where are we? A reader needs to be placed into the story and into every new scene. Do not throw your readers into the deep end without giving them some help, and that means use some narrative to set the story, and you can use narrative to set every scene. This is VERY important if you are writing a story that is set somewhere other than our own reality. The reality of your world must be woven into the story. Use vivid details, meaning weave in as many of the five senses as possible—smells, sounds, tastes, touch, and not just sights.

– When are we? This is just as important as where, and this does not mean not just the era. Think about the details of the time of the year. What’s the weather like? Is it day or night? Is it cold, warm, windy? What are the smells? All these details help the reader settle into the scene as if this moment in time really exists.

– Who is here? An introduction to the characters, particularly to the main characters for that scene and for the story, is important. I’m not talking a laundry list of descriptions, but the reader does need more than tall, dark and handsome. Think about what makes THAT character stand out. What is different about him or her? Is there a scar or a limp? How about height or weight? What about hair? What is the first thing that anyone would notice? Use unique features to start to make characters come to life for the reader. Think of your description as brush strokes of a watercolor that suggests images.

– Why are we here? This doesn’t have to be greatly detailed information, but you need enough background to make a reader care. It’s one of Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writers: “Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

As with all writing, you want to edit, polish, revise and make your narrative wonderful. Cut every extra word. Use active voice. Use the right words in the right way. Brilliant narrative is invisible—if a reader is noticing your writing, that reader has fallen out of the story.

Now all this needs to be woven together, stitched in with careful threads. Do not dump tons of narrative into the story—unless it really is brilliant. Narrative can also be woven in with a scene—in other words, it’s never show or tell. These two things can go together.

But what’s good ‘showing’ in a story?

– Punch your dialogue so it’s strong. Know that your dialogue is weak if you find yourself leaning on tags such as: he taunted, she exclaimed, he smirked, she pouted, he expounded, she tossed back, he leered, she sighed. All of these are TELLING the reader an emotion. You want to get your characters onto the page by showing how that person expresses emotion. That includes making the dialogue so good that the reader knows the emotion in the words without having to be told. Another way to think of this is to imagine you are writing a script for your favorite actors—give them great dialogue to speak.

Eliminating every “feel” or “felt”. That is a spot where you flat out told the reader the emotion. Let your characters take actions that express their emotions, and trust the reader to figure things out. This goes along with those tags being used to prop up dialogue. When you say, “He felt angry.” That’s weak to the reader because the reader has nothing to visualize. Every person gets angry in different ways—some folks bottle it up, some turn red, some go pale, some folks yell, some start to cry, some shout. Get your characters onto the page by having them express emotions. It takes more time and more words, but it makes the characters come to life for the reader.

– Keep asking ‘what am I showing the reader about this character’? If you want the reader to believe your character is a kick-ass vampire slayer that character has to slay a vampire right off. It’s no good telling the reader this information, you must show the character being what that character is supposed to be. This is why Superman has to be super. Readers will believe what you show a character doing, not what you tell the reader.

– Watch those lovely “writerly” phrases. Maybe you’ve come up with a clever line. The trouble is, if you’re deep into a character’s viewpoint and emotion, that clever line could throw the reader out of the scene. You have to look at the overall effect of the line—and you may need to cut it if you’re jumping out of character just to fit in the clever phrase.

For example, maybe you’ve described a woman as: Her honey-blonde hair floated around her, a golden nimbus, a heavenly aura. That’s a fine description—lovely telling. But if you’re in the viewpoint of another woman who actually hates this honey-blonde, you’ve gone for the clever phrase instead of SHOWING the enmity between these women. That’s where you save this clever phrase for another time and go for showing these two women being bitchy with each other.

– Do remember to get emotions onto the page. This is where characters are doing a lot of things, but the reader has no idea what the character feels about events. Maybe you’ve got an exciting moment where the heroine of the story jumps in to save a boy from zombies. Awesome! She grabs the boy and chops up the zombie with an ax. Great stuff. But what is she feeling? Is she frightened? Is she angry, furious because this is her son and she’s told him five times not to go out on his own? Is she shaking? Is she covering up her feelings by acting tough because she’s a cop and she thinks cops shouldn’t show emotion?

You have to know your characters to get this onto the page and to do so without resorting to telling the reader a flat “she felt angry that he hadn’t listened to her and had almost died.”

Above all else, if you show, you don’t need to tell. And if you tell, you don’t need to show. Repetition can be useful in places, but with showing and telling if you do both, it conveys to the reader that either you don’t really know what you are doing or you don’t think the reader is very smart. Readers do not like being hit over the head with endless repetition. You don’t have to show a guy slamming out the door and tell the reader in the next sentence: He was so angry he could spit nails. See—even me repeating just a little bit here starts to become boring. Trust your readers—they are actually very smart. And take to heart the phrase—show more, tell better.

What’s Not to Like?

HHRW-slider11I’m doing a workshop this June on Creating Likeable Characters for Hearts Through History.

The workshop came about because I kept seeing a classic mistakes that is often made. The writer gets caught up in creating a character with problems—with challenges. Yes, you want there to be some conflict and you want a flawed character. But go too far with that and the character comes across on the page as someone that’s not likeable. End result is that the reader bails on the story because the reader doesn’t want to identify with that character.

Why does this happen?

Look, if you have a choice, are you going to spend the evening with folks you like or with people who make you grind your teeth? I’m going to bet on the former unless you are being forced to be there by blood ties or a job. This holds true in a book, too. Readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

The Cardros RubyThis is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. In an early draft, the heroine came off as too cranky and hard-edged. She was not likeable. Now, she had her reasons for being how she was, but she wasn’t someone you wanted to root for. That meant she needed major work to bring in some things to make her likeable. I had learned about this when I wrote the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise.  She’s a spoilt girl who eventually redeems herself—or at least shows a good side—but that came too late in the story for many readers who just didn’t warm to her. And I can understand that.

If I’m going to pay money and spend my hours with some folks—even fictional folk—I want to have fun. I want to be with people I like. If your characters aren’t likeable, you’re not going to sell that book. That’s the voice of experience talking.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. I want to spend time with folks I like.

Which brings up the question—what is likeable?

This is where subjective opinion gets into it. Even the most beloved characters have their detractors. And good characters are like people, or they should be. This means not every character will be liked by every reader. However, there are some basic things you can do give a character a better chance of being someone that a reader wants to spend hours with, as in give your characters:

Mad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire. We like people who are good at what they do. This is why we like sports figures at the top of their game. We like to see folks doing amazing things. Think of Indiana Jones—we like him because right off, even if things don’t go his way, he’s shown to have extraordinary skills. This is something I use in The Cardros Ruby—the hero’s shown as being able to handle a tough situation right off.

Good Intentions/Actions – We tend to like folks who mean us (and the world in general) well. We like characters who have good reasons for what they’re doing—as in a mother who is out to protect her child. She may do bad things, but if she’s got really good reasons (as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator) we’re going to be on her side. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog is likeable. The woman who goes without movies for a month to buy her niece the prom dress the poor girl has been longing for and can’t afford is likeable. Little acts of kindness can mean a lot to a reader—and will put the reader on the character’s side. This is another one I use in The Cardros Ruby—even though the heroine’s heard bad things about the hero (and some of the gossip is deserved), she stands up for him because she recognizes she owes him and that helps put the reader on her side.

Underdog Status – We like characters that don’t start out with everything going their way—folks who are behind the eight ball and have had nothing but bad luck tend to stir our sympathy. If the main character has everything else stacked in his or her favor, that’s not someone who is earning our praise and sympathy. This is another one I use (and notice that you can layer these on—just don’t go heavy handed with this). However, the important thing is we want to see a strong underdog. That means someone being strong against overwhelming odds. Make your underdog whiny or weak and you’ll lose the reader’s sympathy—most folks just don’t like weaklings.

Grit – This could be called strong moral fiber—or even just stubbornness. These are folks who don’t quit when things get tough—characters who preserver, because it’s nice to see that works (even if only if fiction at times). This is a trait most admire. Again, don’t take it too far. If this turns into someone being stupid, you can lose the reader.

Humor – Let’s face it, we like folks who make us laugh. This is what keeps comedians in business. These are the witty types, folks we admire for having a fast mind and a way with words.  I actually try to have all my characters be funny and quick because I love people who are sharp—so that’s a personal choice. A wry wit has turned many a bad guy into someone we love (as in Loki in the Avenger movies).

Quirks – Every character needs some flaws. No one likes perfection. A few quirks and a character is both more memorable as well as more likeable. An odd physical trait—a scar, or a handicap overcome such as being very, very short. Or a metal quirk, as in Monk, the OCD detective. Again, if you go too far, the character may come across as just crazy, and most folks shy away from that. Even Monk has mad skills to balance out his oddities.

Empathy – Characters don’t exist in isolation. They need to be aware of the world around them. Characters who demonstrate empathy for others earn our empathy—we are prone to like these folks. This means you do not want a character who is all about me…me…me.

Now this is not to say that all characters must display all these traits. That would be too much for any reader to believe. But pick three or four things. Or even a couple. Demonstrate that your main characters—your protagonists—are likeable. This means you do not tell the reader others like this person, you SHOW the character DOING things that make the reader think this character is likeable.

Keep in mind that if a character is going to have to do bad or stupid things in the story, that character needs the reader on his or her side early and to a great degree. Even give some of these likeable traits to your antagonists. They need to earn the reader’s sympathy, too, if the conflict is going to be strong. Even Hannibal Lecter has the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and mad skills (emphasis on the mad there).

Let your readers get to know and like your characters before you start having your characters do terrible things—and then think long and hard about if a reader can forgive that character.

Think about making sure your character demonstrates he or she is likeable—it’s not enough to tell the reader these things. The character has to be shown doing things that are worthy of the reader. (If you’re not sure about this, read Dick Francis, he’s a master at making you like a character in less than a page.)

Use viewpoint to your advantage—not to your character’s disadvantage. If a character thinks about her long, raven hair, she comes across as vain. If a guy is eyeing another guy and thinking about that other guy’s muscles, the character comes across as gay. Now all of that is fine if you want the reader to believe one character is vain and another is gay, but KNOW what you are conveying to the reader with those internal thoughts. Don’t just stuff description into thoughts because it’s easy—you may be sending the wrong signals to the reader.

Above all, remember you’re asking a reader to spend time in your world. Make sure readers want to stay, want to root for your characters, and start to like them. It all starts off with creating characters you really like—and making sure they show up right off doing some admirable things.

Horse Sense

Horse Sense for Your Characters-OCCgraphic2I’m teaching a workshop for OCC RWA starting June 1 on Horse Sense, so it made sense to talk a little about my experiences with horses. This blog might also have been called ‘horse mad’ for as the family story goes, when I was two, and before I was doing much walking, I crawled over to my brother’s rocking horse, and Pony Gray instantly became my first horse.

Now, I’ve got the excuse it runs in the blood—my grandmother never forgave, or ever stopped talking about, my grandfather trading her good milk cow for a riding horse. Back then a plough horse was a different thing than a riding horse, so you had to make that distinction. Long after Grandpa Erickson was in his grave, grandma was still bemoaning this loss. It always seemed a good trade to me.

My first memory of being on a horse was somewhere around the age of four or five when we took a trip to visit relatives. My mother rode—she grew up in rural Utah—so she got on a half-broke young Appaloosa just in from winter pasture and we went for a gallop. I do remember loving it. Mother always said I kept saying to make it go faster—that part I don’t remember.

When I was seven, my parents deemed me old—and tall—enough to take riding lessons, so the weekly trips to the stables started up. I learned on a wonderful, patient old fellow named Sunny who had two speeds—stop and walk. I have vague memories of getting him up to a slow trot at one point, but I’ve always had a “slow” seat for horses, so Sunny mostly just helped me into the saddle.

drakeAll this means horses have always been part of my life. My aunt—also a horsewoman—taught me to ride side saddle. I went to England to get my riding instructor’s certificate and learned to drive carriage horses—and I got to hunt (meaning vast amounts of time standing about, then galloping to a new cover and more standing about, but it’s all on horseback, so not a bad time at all). I’ve shown hunters, jumpers, dressage, three-day, and did a year of western riding, and now only ride the trail for fun—my show days are behind me.

woodyI’ve also been bucked off, rubbed off on a tree, had a horse fall with me, dealt with barn sour, rearing horses, dirty stoppers, and a load of other problem horses. I’ve galloped race horses (and you really do have to get up all too early for that), and then I’ve had wonderful horses who would do anything for me–including the splendid Drake shown in the photo above (who hated to be left out and insisted on always having his stall door open so he could join in the fun), and the handsome Woody (the photo on the left) who was a perfect hunter, but never got the hang of fast turns in jumper classes.

But I finally have my ranch in New Mexico and horses in my backyard—my earliest dream come true. And I’m going to be teaching a workshop on horses for writers because these days most folks are more familiar with their automobile. The lack of a horse in your life to me is a terrible thing—I’ve always ridden, even if I had to beg or borrow the horse.

Now the subject of horses is a big one, going back thousands of years. But let’s hit a few highlights from the workshop:

Common Myths and Mistakes

  • Side saddles are uncomfortable and insecure so any woman would rather ride astride. Wrong. If you know how to ride aside, it’s comfortable and the preferred choice. I adore my grandmother’s western side saddle, and would rather have that for a day in the saddle any day.
  • It’s easy and safe ride double on a horse and the horse won’t care. Nope. Most horses have no ribs over the loins, meaning someone sitting there is not comfortable. The only way to really ride double is with two kids (or really skinny people), or on a really big horse.
  • A six foot tall man can ride an Arabian stallion. This one is a laughable mistake—picture his feet dragging the ground and you start to get the picture. This has ruined more stories for me.
  • A rider can grab an unsuspecting person on the ground and drag them up to be carried off. If you really, really practice this a lot, you can do this with someone who is ready and willing to be grabbed. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up on the ground yourself.
  • You can tie a horse by the reins to a stationary object. Some horses are taught to ground tie—you just drop the reins. Some horses will stand if you loop the reins over something—you’ll see this in Western movies all the time. However, most horses, if you give them the chance, will get themselves into trouble—meaning tug back on the reins, break them, get loose and wander off.
  • Stallions are the most dramatic and dangerous of all horses. Well, they are pretty, but you want tough and mean, pick a mare that has a bone to pick with you.
  • An experienced rider isn’t able to stop a runaway horse. Been there, done that. You put them in a circle and make them keep galloping. Do that once or twice and they stop running away with you. The only runaway that’s tough is the habitual one, who also will usually try to scrape you off under a tree.
  • You can kiss another rider while on horseback. There are a lot of You Tube videos of the ‘romantic’ wedding with the bride and groom on horseback—a sure recipe for trouble if these horses have not been through rehearsal about a thousand times. If the veil doesn’t spook the horse, something else will. And if that’s not enough, lean in for that kiss is an invitation for the horse to step the other way, leaving you dangling. Even Roy Rogers and Trigger didn’t go for this one—but Roy did let Trigger kiss him!
  • You can ride a horse and not come away smelling of eau de equine. If anyone’s ever managed this, I’d like to learn their secret.

And there is another of my favorite mistakes, the obvious one that horses aren’t cars. You can’t really park them and expect them to stay put—they tend to see grass and go for it. You can’t park them—again, they have their own mind about things and a bored horse is one looking for food. And you can’t drive them 24/7—they need food, water and rest, just like the rest of us.

For more horse tales, come and take the workshop. Or get yourself to a local stable and start having some horse fun for yourself.