Tag Archives: character

NaNo Update and PoV

I actually stayed up late last night and wrote! I didn’t quite hit my 2,000 word goal, but I got close (1818). I fleshed out my outline while waiting for trick-or-treaters on Monday night and I’m feeling pretty good about the overall structure of my novel.

While opndering my outline, I was reading through some articles that Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files, The Codex Aleria) put on his LiveJournal a few years ago and it got me thinking. I love the Dreseden Files (urban fantasy) with a consuming passion, but I was way less enthusiastic about the Codex Aleria (fantasy). I think part of the difference in my reaction is about genre – I’m out of the fantasy mood the last few years, even though for the bulk of my life it’s been my preferred genre. But as I ponder these books with a writing eye, I realzed that it’s more about HOW the two series are written.

Each series shows Butcher’s characteristic complex plotting – multiple story lines, insurmountable odds, everything coming together at the last possible minute when the hero grasps victory. But the Dresden Files is first person and the Codex Aleria is third… And I think that’s my issue.

The character if Harry Dresden is engrossing. He’s witty, irreverent, sarcastic, and kind of a jerk. But he’s still a hero. And he makes heroic choices at great personal cost. And that’s just so attractive! And from a first person perspective, I feel like I really get to know him through the books and so I’ve really invested. But in the Codex Aleria, there are multiple points of view and I don’t think I ever really commit to any of them. By the second book there’s a clear “main” character, and I like him and his story, but Butcher switches back and forth between him and his story line and a handful of other characters and I just don’t care about them enough to sustain my interest. So I found myself skimming through those sections and that’s never good.

So, I started thinking about my other favorite books and I realized that many of them are first person – or at least, third person limited. And I write in first person (I started my current project in third, but every time I went back to re-read I discovered that I’d slipped back into first person. So I gave up). So clearly I’ve got an ingrained preference. But I think it’s a good observation about reader investment and splitting that investment between too many characters. I feel like my interest is totally focused in the Dresden Files – I like the other characters but they aren’t fighting over my affections. In the Codex, my affections are split too many ways and so I never love any of them enough to really commit. So, I guess I’m a literary monogamist.

That being said, I still bought all the Codex Aleria books. I guess my love of Jim Butcher is focused enough to sustain me through books I’m lukewarm about. Another lesson on reader loyalty? Good for you, Jim Butcher.

2 Comments

Filed under NaNoWriMo, Reflection, Writing Craft

A Tantalizing Opening

You know how you meet someone and then you can’t remember their name later? And you keep meaning to ask, but eventually it’s too late and you’re too embarrassed to admit that you can’t remember? That’s how I feel about this blog. I got distracted and stopped posting and when I finally remembered that I HAD a blog, I realized that to start posting again meant admitting that I’d stopped in the first place. So I’m sucking it up and admitting it. Here goes:

Sorry, I got really distracted… But it was for good reasons, I promise. Reasons like a new novel. And a 4th birthday (I got carried away with the fairy theme). And my daughter’s daycare getting shut down unexpectedly. Lame. I feel especially bad about my timing as I had joined a blogfest thing and completely chumped out on it.

I went to this great conference, I got all these ideas, I decided to scrap my (mostly) completed manuscript (that I got critiqued and actually pitched and everything), and I spent a ton of time researching and fleshing out this idea for an urban fantasy that I am so, so, SO pleased with. The planets have totally aligned with this idea and I just can’t stop thinking about it. Unfortunately, with my eldest daughter NOT in school two days a week and some major teething going on with the baby, I haven’t had as much time to write as I’d like. On either my project OR the blog (obviously).

So here’s a random topic that is marginally related to both my new project and to the RMFW conference. Sara Megibow from Nelson Literary Agency said that she wants to see the genre within the first few paragraphs of a novel. And I though, dang. That’s tough, especially for an urban fantasy where I want to introduce the creepy stuff slowly. I’m working on it, though – I’m trying some intimations of creepy in preparation for the actual creepy. But as I was thinking about this problem, I finally got to have a date with my husband.

You see, I have these two little kids and no baby sitters. But my mom came to visit for the aforementioned birthday party and my husband and I took the opportunity to go see a movie. Now, I know many writers are rabidly opposed to using movies as models for novels, but I feel like structure is structure. I think there’s something to be learned from any artistic genre – movies, tv, music, art, whatever. They’re all trying to communicate a story, right?

So anyway, we finally got to see “Cowboys and Aliens”, which I found delightful. And that opening scene was so perfectly aligned with Megibow’s discussion of the first pages of a novel, which I’d been thinking about anyway – a perfect storm of circumstances. I’m pretty sure the opening was in the trailer, so hopefully I’m not spoiling anything here:

The camera pans across a western landscape, complete with dusty scrub and towering orange mesas (sets location). A man sits up suddenly, dressed in grubby 19th century western clothes – complete with bloody patches (inciting incident – sets time period, characterization, and intimates the circumstances). He looks around, confused, noticing a big, weird looking metal cuff on his wrist (sets sci-fi genre – obviously there’s something more than a western going on here). Then he sees a photo of a woman in the dirt next to him and you can tell that he doesn’t know who she is. Then he kicks the butt of three mounted, armed ruffians (intriguing action). This is, what? The first minute of the movie? Amazing.

Now, I understand that you can’t convey information this quickly in a novel. It takes a lot longer to create this kind of setting in writing than in a visual medium. But still, dang. I was so impressed at how quickly the movie established everything you could want in the opening of a story – everything Sara Megibow wanted, in fact. Genre, inciting incident, setting, time frame, character, mystery, action… Again, amazing.

So the take away is about details. The judicious allocation of pertinent details can immediately submerge your reader in your world – details can establish your character, your motivations, your setting, etc. Not too many or there’s overload and tedium and slow pacing. Not too few or your reader has no connection or investment. But just enough and just the right details can set everything up while still leaving the mystery intact. Tantalizing. That’s what you want, right? Tantalizing while still building expectations for your reader.

I like the word tantalizing. It’s underutilized. And doubly appropriate when talking about Daniel Craig.

1 Comment

Filed under Bloging, Conferences, Genre, Manuscript, Reflection, Writing Craft

RIP WIP

Whew! I’ve been so busy working since I got back from the conference that I totally forgot to update here – I also missed the first writing challenge for the Platform Builder’s Campaign so I hope any visitors from that will forgive me.

So the RMFW conference was totally awesome. As with all such conferences, some sessions were better than others but I got a ton of inspiration/ideas/confirmations/exposure and I’m feeling re-invigorated and ready to work. But there was one unexpected ramification: I have decided to scrap my current project.

I’ve been working on this project for three years or so. I took two years off in the middle and when I came back to it, I just didn’t love it any more. I still think it’s a cool story and, with some of the plot revisions I’ve been working on over the last several months, I think it could still be a viable project. But I have to admit that my characters are just a touch boring. It’s not that they aren’t three-dimensional… they just aren’t that cool. You know those characters that are vibrant and sexy and you just can’t wait to read more about them? My characters aren’t like that. I really liked them when I first wrote the book but they just haven’t stayed with me like I wanted. So I am going to shelve it and start on the urban fantasy that has been nagging at me for the last month. It’s based on Russian folk lore and I found some serendipitous history that turned my cool idea into a bad-ass world-concept that I just can’t get over. I love it so very, very much. But I have so much research to do…

When I wrote my first book it was based on science and politics that I already had in my head. I went back after the fact and fixed/added in details, of course, but it didn’t stop my writing. My research was primarily after-market. But this project is different. I just don’t know that much about Russia. Or russian-american settlement. Or US Geography. Or Russian geography. Or… I studied russian for four years in college so I know enough to get started with research but I need so much background information before I can start. And it’s a testament to how excited I am that I’ve spend four days doing fairly boring statistical research without getting discouraged or loosing steam. I’ve got a really neat historical context for my family, I’ve got basic character sketches done for everyone, I’ve got a basic premise for my antagonist (she is going to be SO cool!), I’ve got an outline for a modified medieval marriage ceremony, and I just decided on a location for my family estate (dang, that took forever). So I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot, but I have so much more to do!

I promise I’ll write up some reflections on the better sessions I took at the conference (an agent session on the first 30 pages; designing deliberate secondary plots, characters, and villains; publishing research for profit; building a brand/website; and writing a pitch). It’ll help me crystalize my impressions, anyway, but I need to loose my new-idea-high first.

I will say that I had a group critique session that went really well – I got a lot out of critiquing the other five projects and listening to the editor who was running the session, but I got very few criticisms. There was only one small suggestion from the editor and, while two people in the group had criticisms, everyone else disagreed with them. So that was nice! Even though I’ve decided to shelve that project, it’s reassuring to have such positive feedback. It means that my writing, itself, is on the right track. I also had a pitch with a New York agent (who was the most adorable person) and, while she did agree to look at my first two chapters, she seemed far more excited about my russian project. I just need to get a move on with writing it! She actually told me I was a tease for telling her such a great idea without having a book for her to read! So, a good weekend for my ego. And I feel so good to have finally admitted that I don’t want to finish the thriller. I’ve been fighting with myself for months – thinking that I just didn’t want to do the re-write because it was hard or it wasn’t as exciting as a shiny new project… but I feel really good about switching projects. It’s better for me and, conveniently, it’s better for the market right now. And much as I love the process of writing, I also want to sell a book. Shocking, right?.

3 Comments

Filed under Conferences, Manuscript, Reflection, Research, Workshops, Writing Craft

I took the plunge…

… and started my revision. After only, what, two years? I’ve decided on a couple of plot changes and I really need to tighten up my characters. But the first step is the hardest and I made it through chapter one yesterday. And even though I know I’ve gone  through that chapter a dozen times or more, there was so much expository chaff left to delete. I think it will really strengthen my main character to be ruthless about the rumination. I thought of something else to adjust while I was trying to sleep last night, so maybe I’ll work on that today.

I need to send out a one page summary and my first ten pages for my conference critique and I only have a week before the due date so I really need to get those pages dealt with. I have a new version of my synopsis from my class, but it’s a page and a half and, while I suspect it’s fine for querying, it’s too long for the critique session.

I also need a new title. And I’m totally stymied. I like my working title, but I suspect it’s too pretentious for the genre. I’m just a little uncomfortable with it, but I can’t think of anything better and I’m getting frustrated. I have awesome titles for my next two projects so why can’t I think of one for my current project?

1 Comment

Filed under Manuscript, Revision

Baking and Character Motivation

My daughter talked me into making cookies for a playdate she had yesterday and it made me think of writing. And no, I don’t mean the obvious metaphor of how a story has ingredients and they have to be mixed in the right proportions, blah, blah, blah. It reminded me of the scene in Anne of Avonlea (I think?) where Anne tries to publish her first story.

Anne gets a rejection and then confides her very dramatic disappointment to Diana Barry. Diana asks to read the manuscript and then complains because the heroine (who is appropriately fancy and hoity-toity, just like Anne likes) bakes a cake a the end. Anne is defensive, saying that the heroine (I think her name is Cordelia?) is trying to show her domestic side. Diana, trying very hard to be a good friend and NOT a critique partner, just smiles and nods. Later Diana re-writes the cake scene and there is a very funny scene where the story wins a flour competition and Anne gets very offended that her work has been used for.. gasp!… profit.

So that made me think about this book I’m reading on developing characters and how you have to create a back story for your character so that you can figure out a natural and understandable way for the character to react to things. If they react in an incongruous way, then your reader will be taken away from the narrative. And I think the important part is that it doesn’t matter if YOU think it makes sense for the character to behave in a certain way – your READER has to think so, too. If they sense that you are just making the character do things to further your plot without being respectful of the character, itself, then the reader will stop trusting you as a writer and become less invested in the character and plot. I can think of a few places in my WiP that have this issue – I know why the characters are doing whatever it is they are doing, but I’m not sure I’ve set it up thoroughly enough to convince a reader.

2 Comments

Filed under Manuscript, Revision

Plot vs Charachter

I’ve been kind of busy the last month or so and my writing plan has suffered a little. But I really have still been working – I promise!

I finished my scene book that, while somewhat helpful, was mostly really obvious. There was some really good advice about scene structure and flow that I think will be helpful for revision, but I can’t imagine trying to purposely write with all these little rules in mind. A bit stifling, I would think. There was even a pedantic bit at the end that listed all different ways to begin and end a scene and the exercises suggested that you try each one. Really?

I’ve just started another one, though, that I think will be really helpful. It’s called “Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction” by Jeff Gerke. His basic premise is that writers are either “plot-first” or “character-first” writers. “Plot-first” writers have solid, exciting plots and 2-dimentional, poorly developed characters whereas “character-first” writers have riveting, deeply moving characters who don’t do anything. To me, this seems like the perfect distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. His idea is that you can use the tools of plot to create better characters and vice versa, depending on where your strengths lie.

I definitely connect with this distinction and I’ve found myself automatically going through my list of favorite books in my head and deciding which ones are which. It quickly became obvious that I prefer reading (and re-reading) plot-first books. And with some brief introspection I am a plot-first writer. My characters aren’t completely two-dimensional, but they certainly aren’t as well developed as they could be.

Gerke starts the character development section of his book with idea that a character should be as close to a real person as you can get. Thus, he begins with psychology – he uses the Myers-Briggs personality profile method to identify his character’s “core” personality and then builds them up in terms of appearance, background, education, etc. It seems so obvious… When I started my master’s degree, one of the first things we did was a personality test called “True Colors”. This test divided people into four colors – Gold is the responsible civil-servant type, orange is fun-loving, blue is emotional and empathetic, and green is intellectual and logical (guess which one(s) I am?). The point for us was to identify what you were and then how you might interact with your multi-colored students. The most useful part for me was that the color profiles discussed not just how each color thought and behaved, but how each color could be taken to excess: greens can become condescending, blues can become emotional wrecks, golds can become officious and bossy, and oranges become irresponsible and flighty. So, if I know that my character is green and blue, not only can I predict how she will react in a normal situation, I can predict how she will act in duress – how she can be pushed from sympathetic to hateful. I can then do that on purpose or be aware of it and keep her from going so far that my audience won’t respond to her anymore.

The Myers-Briggs is a more detailed version (I think my husband and I used this system during our pre-marriage counseling) of the above. Gerke includes a pared-down synopsis of the 16 major types and recommends identifying one of these 16 types for each major character as a first step. I did this for my main characters and was surprised at how internally consistent they were with each other – for example, my main character and her father are very similar but the one major difference according to this system makes for a significant difference in personality. I was also gratified to discover that none of my main characters were the same type as me – or my husband. Gerke says that often plot-first writers make all the characters based on themselves without realizing it – I am glad to have avoided that!

Gerke goes on to put the characters through a worksheet of “set-dressing” exercises to flesh them out. I think that this process is valuable but it also seems a bit cumbersome. He recommends doing exhaustive character sketches prior to writing (which I can’t do as I’ve already finished the book). However, I think I could do a scaled-down version of his process and then use it for revision. And I can see it being a good starting place for future projects. Maybe. And I was pleased that as I read through his development steps, I could quickly answer most of his questions about my main characters. So maybe I did a better job with them that I initially thought! But I know that I need to make my two main characters more sympathetic, so maybe this will help. I also need to re-name my narrator, which is only peripherally related.

Anyway, I will be starting my 4-week workshop on synopses and query letters a week from Monday and I’ve very excited about that. I have also found several talks at the library and at the bi-monthly meetings of a local writing group that I plan on attending. I also decided to find some writing contests to enter. Mostly I’m finding short story competitions, so I am going to try my hand at that genre – luckily I had a cool dream a few months ago that should make an interesting short story. I have found a few full novel contests so far, but I need to do my re-write first. I’m looking at it as motivation since these contests have deadlines!

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing Craft

Reflection on the Anti-Hero

Several weeks ago, a friend mentioned that she missed good, old-fashioned heroes. And I thought, “Bleh. How boring”. I love the anti-hero. Malcolm Reynolds. Harry Dresden. Lazarus Long. Captain Kirk. I love them because they are flawed and complicated. And thrilling. And compelling.

When I was a kid, I read children’s books. I still love many of those stories, but as an adult I can see how two-dimensional those characters are. The Pevensy children aren’t perfect, but their flaws exist to demonstrate the moral lesson. Laura Ingalls may be jealous of her sister’s golden curls, but she still milks the cows every day. They have no capacity for real wickedness. This is, of course, totally appropriate for a children’s story – simple cause and effect. The character is faced with the consequences of a poor choice and learns their lesson.

In later elementary school I had a mythology phase. Cataloging and cross-referencing the gods and goddesses of different cultures appealed to my love of categorizing, but there were also inspiring heroes with good triumphing over evil. But even then I felt a mild dissatisfaction with those heroes. Arthur was so predictable and, in the end, a bit pathetic. And Thor always fell for Loki’s tricks. And who likes whiny Luke who is so obviously going to do the right thing? Especially compared to Han, who might just take off with that bounty money and never come back. With Han, you get the suspense, the delicious indecision, and the eventual relief when he does make the right decision – because you weren’t really sure he would.

And so I choose Buckaroo Bonzai over Flash Gordon. I choose the complicated, conflicted, unlikely and exasperated hero over the one who is so clearly and obviously good. As Anne Shirley says, “I could never love someone who was truly wicked. But I’d like it if he could be wicked and wouldn’t”.

But as a writer, how do you keep the anti-hero attractive? Francis Crawford is so repulsive and degenerate that it took me three tries to finish his first book, even with the endorsement of my mother and grandmother. But when I finally got to the part where his good side is revealed, I spent five hours in the bathtub because I couldn’t stop experiencing his transformation. And over the next 5 books, he kept me in suspense – he would be so bad that I was always on the point of giving up on him and just at the moment of utter disgust he would reveal that all his bad behavior had all been part of the plan. Or that the bad behavior was rooted in some deep psychosis that made him hopelessly attractive. I am constantly amazed at the perfect timing of the author (Dorothy Dunnett) as she tantalizes the reader with Crawford’s true motives and personality. She kept me engaged with him for over 6,000 pages.

I think the trick is that the anti-hero must understand his choices and their consequences. He has to demonstrate that, while he may skate around the edges of morality, he will eventually choose the greater good. Maybe not in the minutiae, but in the bigger picture. As Mal says, he doesn’t have to be a great man. Or even a good man. He just has to be all right – at the right time. And he must understand the difference.

The anti-hero must make his decisions transparently. He must own the harm he’s done, he must feel the suffering he inflicts and he must consciously choose to cause that damage as part of the sacrifice for doing the “right thing”. A “hero” sees right and wrong. An “anti-hero” sees a trail of bodies in either direction. And more, he understands and accepts that one of those bodies might be his.

2 Comments

Filed under Reflection, Writing Craft