Developing an Idea or Characters?

proper-conduct-01I’m in the middle of teaching my “Plotting from Character” workshop and what always happens is that folks get frustrated. Which is actually quite normal. Learning something new is hard, and most people don’t want to really spend the time to break old habits and to the work to learn (or relearn) new ways of doing things. It takes not just persistence but also patience–with yourself and with the process. A lot of times you just have to do something over and over and over again.

I was reminded of this the other day–I’m learning something new. I’m struggling to learn how to play the mandolin. Now, the fingerings are the same as for a violin, which I used to play. But you have double the strings–and you have to pick (not bow). And eight frigging strings means one of them is always going out of tune. Took me an hour to tune it, then I broke an E string and it took me another hour to change it. Patience and persistence got be back to where I could do some chord and scale practice. It’s going to take longer before I don’t suck at it.

And that’s where I think a lot of writers have trouble. It takes patience as well as persistence to develop characters. I’ve had a few characters just show up on the page ready to go. Most of them take time and repeated work to really get them fleshed out and figured out. I had that problem in Proper Conduct–the heroine just took forever to show up. She was a difficult character all the way along, but after 100 pages she finally settled down and I was able to get her onto the page.

That’s where I see writers with less experience struggling–they jump into an idea and develop the heck out of the idea. But the characters don’t get development. It’s too easy to fall in love with an idea and forget the story is really about your characters. A great story won’t carry a book. And that’s where you end up with good writing and weak stories–and I see a lot of that in contests where there is a lot of cleverness but the characters are what my mother used to call ‘unbaked cookie dough.’

Now it is possible to overdevelop the characters–to spend too much time on details and not enough time on the main conflict and story arc. I used to do that and my characters came out flat. I’d written the life out of them. So it does take a balance.

And a lot of patience to go along with the persistence.

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What’s Showing and What’s Telling?

cropped-top-bar.jpgI regularly teach Show and Tell: An Interactive Workshop and I’m about to start it again, and two things always come up:

1-Folks want just to learn to show more in their stories.

2-Folks don’t really know what is showing and what is telling.

Now both showing and telling have a place in any writer’s toolbox. However, what I’ve noticed is that writers just learning their craft haven’t figured out how to show more, and their telling is just awful–they haven’t learned that good narrative takes a lot of work.

I don’t think any writer is really lazy–the work is just to hard to attract someone who wants to take it easy. But writing is more than hard work. It also needs smart work.

So, quick tips here:

Showing means you SHOW the character in action. Action includes someone who is talking as well as doing things. Any actor knows this–an actor cannot just stand around spouting lines. An actor must express emotions by what they do–and that means they need bits of business. So the writer must become the actor for every character and think up how that character expresses emotion (and not just with cliches of shouting or thumping).

Telling means you TELL the reader what the character is feeling. This can be done with phrases like ‘he felt’ or ‘she was angry’. The trouble with telling the reader this information is the reader doesn’t get a chance to SEE the character–there is no reveal through actions. So the reader tends to feel cheated.

Now the confusion comes in that all of this showing and telling takes description–also, showing and telling are not absolutes. You can blend them. It’s a matter of balance. Too much telling will flatten a scene. Too much showing if you’re trying to do a transition (not a scene with emotion) makes the story drag. So you have to learn when you need to show more and when you need to tell better. And all this takes practice and awareness. It also take reading the work of others with awareness so you start to understand the techniques–if you don’t know your tools it’s hard to use them like a true master craftsman.

And a few acting classes can also help any writer better understand the need to get a character on the page by giving that character more bits of business to reveal the character’s inner nature and emotions.

Punching Dialogue

bamI judge a fair number of writing contests–my way of giving back since I learned a lot both from entering and judging. One thing almost always pops out–experienced writers know how to punch dialogue. And nothing marks a writer as a “beginner” as much as flat dialogue.

This November, I’m teaching my dialogue workshop for YRW, but there are a few tips that can help punch dialogue to take it from flat to fab.

First off, get the technical stuff clean and perfect enought to show you’re a professional who knows the craft. Commas in the wrong place, periods used when you need a comma, or vice versa, and quote marks incorrectly used will stop a reader. This distraction throws the reader out of your story–so just get a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, keep it by your computer and master you techniques.

Next, are you propping up the dialogue with tags? Does your heroine sigh words, does the hero say things angrily? If you’re putting in descriptive phrase  like that odds are the dialogue itself is weak. Instead of going for a crutch, tear out every description for the dialogue and look at the words coming out of the characters’ mouths.

Pretend you are writing a script for our favorite actors–and you want those actors to come to you and praise you for giving them wonderful words to say. Make the dialogue itself the star, not the descriptors.

When you do describe how someone is talking, make it vivid and detailed. Don’t settle for one word. If  the character trails off with a weak, squeaky gasp, be specific about what that really sounds like. If a character has a charming Scottish lilt and burr, describe that early on but don’t try to recreated it unless you have a really good ear for how to work this in.

Do an edit JUST on each major character’s voice. Does this person have a unique voice? Pet phrases? A regional shading to the words? Words that reveal the character’s education, experience and intelligence? Now look at the other major characters–are they all sounding alike?  Can the reader tell who is talking just by the words spoken? If not, it’s time to revise and give each character his or her own voice.

Read  your work aloud. There is no habit that will help you more. Do you stumble? If so, the reader will as well. Are there awkward sentences? Unclear thoughts? Yes, in ordinary life people cross-talk and talk nonsense, but this is fiction–the dialogue has to be better than real life.

Are the words right for the character and the era? If you’re writing a historical set in the 1940’s different words will be in use than a historical set in 1840, or 1640. Now, too much accuracy can throw a modern reader, but too much inaccuracy will also jar the reader from the story. Think, too, about not just how different a world would be in the past, but also the differences between classes, genders, and countries. These are subtle differences that can make your characters come to life–or leave them flat cardboard stereotypes.

Be picky–about the words chosen, about the tone in the words, about the voices your charcters have. Don’t settle for okay dialouge–give every character great words to say. Use dialogue to let your characters express emotion, negotiate for what they want, to lie and to try and get out of tight spots. Don’t just stuff plot explotion into a character’s mouth and call it good enough. It’s not.

Sometimes less is more–learn to edit and revise your work. Do multiple drafts. Do an edit just on dialouge. Do an edit just on action tags. Use actions to reaveal the truth and dialogue to hide the truth. Remember–we don’t just talk to tell someone something, we try to convince, to hide, persuade, passively get our own way, punish, lie, cover up, hide, and a million other things. Words aren’t just a writer’s tool, we all use them. So know what your charcters want in each scene and have them trying to get it–all within character. But what a character doesn’t say is often more important than anything else.

Let your characers be funny, witty–let them say the things you always wanted to say, or thought up an hour later. Again, fictional dialouge needs to be better than how we talk in reality. Punching means punching up to make words stronger and dialouge sharper.

There are some other tricks, but these  will get you going to make your dialouge stand out–and often it’s the dialogue that really sells a story.

 

 

The Best Question A Writer Can Ask…

…and Keep Asking!

It’s one little word, and yet it is vital.

WHY?

Why doairconditioneres my hero want this goal? Why does my heroine go into that haunted mansion? Why does the bad guy in the book want the hero dead? Why…why…why?

The answer to why is the motivation for a character to act. In fiction, the reader has to buy into that answer. Fictional characters have to make more sense than real people. Real people can do odd things for seemingly no reason–but readers want their fictional worlds to make more sense.

Now when you ask that why, don’t settle for the first thing that pops into your head. Anyone who reads a lot is going to go straight for a cliche–meaning a overused answer to why–for motivation.

Oh, the hero has commitment issues because his girlfriend dumped him (cliche).

Oh, the bad guy is just crazy (cliche).

Oh, the heroine goes into the haunted house because I really need  her in danger at this point in the story (cliche and contrived).

So you ask WHY? Then you ask again, and again, and again. About the fifth or sixth, or seventh or eighth time your brain will run out of cliches and you’ll start getting ideas that really connect to your specific character. That’s where the gold is–and you have to dig for it.

Which means next time your story is stuck, go back to WHY is she doing this? Or WHY is he acting this way? And keep asking WHY. It’s the most best question you can ask of your characters.

Likeable Characters

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. This holds true in a book, too—readers (all of us) want to spend time with folks we like.

This is a huge issue in any book—it was one I faced in A Cardros Ruby. Initially, the heroine started off as just too cranky and too hard to like. Now, she had her reasons for being that way—and she’s still a little touchy (she’s just seen her brother brought in unconscious, so she can be forgiven for being a little upset)—but I worked hard to make certain she didn’t put folks off.

Lady ScandalMy own experiences with this had taught me the hard way—the heroine of A Dangerous Compromise is a hard-to-like girl. She 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 cotton 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. Let’s face it, if your characters aren’t likeable, you’re going to have a hard time getting readers to settle down, buy the book and the world. That’s the voice of experience talking.

This is particularly true for series characters. I recently devoured the Phyrne Fisher mystery series by Kerry Greenwood. They’re fun, set in 1920’s Australia–but the important thing here is that Phyrne, while she has her flaws, is funny, sharp, and I’d love to sit down to dinner with her (particularly if she has her staff cooking). The books are a delight and I read all twenty because I wanted more time with Phyrne. Others have felt the same for the books have been made into an Australian TV series.

As a reader, I want characters I can root for, characters I can laugh with and cry with, characters with whom I sympathize. Kurt Vonnegut even notes in his Eight Rules to “give the reader one character to root for.” That’s good advice and if you break that rule you’d better have a good reason and even more talent.

But this 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:

Indiana_Jones_in_Raiders_of_the_Lost_ArkMad Skills – We tend to like folks we admire; we like people who are good at what they do. This is why 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, and she may do bad things, but she’s got really good reasons, as in Sarah Conner of The Terminator. We like folks even more when they do good thing. The guy who rescues a stray dog. 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. 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.

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).

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).

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. But think of Tony Stark in Iron Man–it’s his sense irony and his humor as much as his iron suit that makes him stand out in any crowd.

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.

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.

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. And 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. After all, even Hannibal Lecter had the admirable traits of being a cultured man—and very, very 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 for breaking up a beautiful friendship by betraying the reader’s trust. If any reader finds the main character too unlikeable, that book is going to be put down.

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—the character must be shown doing things that show off that character’s traits. (And 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.)

Above all remember that 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. At the very least–make sure you like them and find them fascinating.

Lady Chance – Nominated RONE Award

Lady Chance 01_smVoting is now open. All votes greatly appreciated!

The nice news came in that Lady Chance is  nominated for InD’tale Magazine’s 2016 RONE Award. This means the book was given a high review rating of 4 stars or better. Now it’s going to a voting phase.

In May–May 23-29–In’Dtale will open up voting for “Historical Post-Medieval” where Lady Chance is nominated. That’s when folks can vote for it to go onto the final round.

The finalists will then be read and judged for the RONE Award, that’s going to be handed out in my old stomping grounds of Bubank, CA on October 8. I don’t know that Lady Chance will make it that far–I’m terrible at promoting these sorts of thing. But if you’re online around that time, I’ll be sending out a reminder and votes are certainly appreciated. Or just read the book–that’s even better!


 

The Importance of Showing–and Telling

casI’m starting my Show and Tell workshop Monday and it always kicks off with everyone focused on showing more and better. Great stories do need great scenes with lots of showing, which has the characters on the page and expressing emotion. However, there’s a place for the narrative in any fiction–a writer needs both these tools.

(Oh, and, yes, Cas–our dog–will be  napping during the workshop in his favorite chair.)

Now, I like to say that what most writers really need to look at is how to tell better in the right places and show more of the character expressing emotion. It’s usually emotion that gets left off the page (and out of the scene). How do you do this?

There are some technical tricks that can help. (Cas doesn’t care about these, but he does like a good bone to chew on.)

1 – Tell when you need to get some quick information on the page—or to shorten what you need to convey to the writer. Telling is a great way to compress time, handle a transition to a new scene, or simply put some info that on the page that you need for the reader. Nothing is worse than exposition put into a character’s mouth. That makes your dialogue stiff and often makes the character sound stupid for stating what is probably obvious.

2- Show more by eliminating ‘telling’ dialogue tags. 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 your characters express emotion on the page—that’s where you need to show more.

3 – Use telling to alert the reader that the character is relatively unimportant. This is where a lot of writers get it wrong by telling too much about the main character, which makes that person seem unimportant. This sentence makes it clear that the cab driver is not a main character: The cab driver dropped her off at the train station. If you spend three paragraphs describing what that cab driver looks like, how he drives, and how he acts, you are showing that character is important. Keep things clear for reader—what you give pages to matters most.

4 – Show you character in action right away to get a reader’s interest and sympathy. This is key to creating likeable characters, or at least character that a reader is willing to settle down with for a few hours. If your main character is supposed to be smart, show that person doing something smart. If your main character is an ace magic user, show that character using that magic in an amazing way. A lot of writers feel like they have to show the character in a tough situation—that’s fine. But really look at what you have shown—is the situation all that tough or is the character just being stupid? You may get the reader’s scorn instead of sympathy.

5 – If you tell, you don’t need to show; if you show you don’t need to tell. This is about trusting your readers to ‘get it’. You do not need to hit the reader over the head. You don’t need to say: He was angry. And then show that character being angry. Repeating information can blunt the impact on the reader—your writing starts to feel dull and the scene sags. Sometimes repetition can be used for a certain impact, but use this technique carefully and with intent.

6 – Do remember to get the emotion onto the page—either show it or tell it but put it on the page. It’s easy when you’ve got a lot of action to get lost in getting that sorted out and forget that the reader really wants to know what the character is feeling. This is something I see a lot of in contest manuscripts. The writing is good, there’s plenty of action, but I have no emotional involvement because I have no idea if the character is frightened, amped up on adrenaline, angry, or covering up feelings. Know your characters, and get their emotions on the page!

7 – Cut the clichés in both your showing and your telling. Readers want a familiar read, but not a duplicate of something read a hundred times before—cliché actions and reactions flatten your story. Cut or change every cliché. 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. Put a fresh spin on every cliché—whether it is narrative or a reaction to a situation. To do this, you need to know every character and your character must react in character—this means no making character take actions to make a plot work.

Work on your telling so it’s tight, brilliant writing—no one’s going to tell you to cut writing that is wonderful, even if it’s all telling. And then in scenes get more emotion on the page by showing how your characters express emotion. It’s that simple—but simple is always hard work. (Harder than burying a bone, according to Cas.)

For more about this–and some great exercises, check out the workshop.