Tag Archives: character

Guest Post: A House of Prose, and Don’t be The Lauren

Everyone’s a critic.

When you ask for an opinion from someone on something you’ve done, what you’re secretly asking is ‘do you like this?’ And you secretly want them to like what you’re showing them. It’s the author’s curse; we want to be published, but we need to write something that people can relate to enough to want to buy.

The underpinnings of our society dictate that we have to ‘get along’, ‘be liked’, and ‘hold approval.’ Popular people are who we hear about; unpopular people are spoken about derisively or with hatred sometimes.

Books and writing our expressions of our writer’s soul. It is the innermost child (..or occasional lurking adult) seeking the light of day and the likes of others.

We pick our genre, the one we feel the most at home with, and we decorate the house of our novel home with the things that belong there. A family of characters, or a single person looking out the windows. A bunch of good-natured or mean neighbors to challenge the family. And then there are the things that try and burn the house down or break in and steal their stuff.

I say it’s a house here because the analogy is apt to me; we ‘live’ in the space of our novel when it’s going good, and then when it’s done, we do our best to spruce it up and invite guests to come visit.

I’ve lived in a few places over the years; that first moment when someone new sees my new place they always look around. Form impressions. Some of them look at the things I have on the walls, some of them look at my knickknacks, some of them look at my furniture, and a few of them poke their head in the bedroom.

“Nice place.” they say. Whether they’re being polite or not, I don’t know. But then again, I live in a rental, so it’s not a house I can do a lot of decoration with. I’ve been in a few houses that I’ve said, ‘this is a gorgeous place.’ I have things that I want in my house, so when I see one of those things, I appreciate it.

Now apply that idea back to books again.

Some folks can write an amazing epic tale that grabs you from the get go; some folks write a ramshackle tale that barely holds itself together; you can see the holes in the plot like you notice crayon marks or holes in the walls.

It is not a reflection on the owner/author; it is all about the _everything_ in the house/novel, rather than the bits that you notice that stick out to you.

I’ve got a friend that I’ll call Lauren. She wanted to be a writer, because I was one. She participated in the NaNoWriMo, because I did, and people really liked my first novel.

When she read it, the first thing she asked was, “Is this about you? Is that character there me?”

(The answer was no and no. Because I am not a six foot tall efficiency expert who drives a convertible.)

Then she started poking holes in the novel. Pointing out typos, a half-finished sentence here and there, that sort of thing.

“I know.’ I said, defensively. “It’s a first draft. Thanks.”

When she won NaNo for the first time, she gave me her first effort at writing a full length novel. Asked me what I thought.

It was a pretty good tale, but she got lost in the weeds when she hit Week 3 and there were two very similar characters that I kept getting mixed up, and there was another point where she was missing parts of the description because she was in what I call ‘fugue state’ — you can see the action in your head, and it’s rushing fast, but she didn’t put it all down on the page.

“Did you want me to make edits or did you just want an opinion?”

“Just an opinion. I know my writing sucks.”

“I liked it. It had some good suspense elements, and your heroine is genuinely likable. Your supernatural elements are solid, too. And your writing does not suck.”

“Do you think I could get it published?”

“I think it needs some work before you can get there. There are some elements that need more details, and your ending is a bit rushed. I’d like to see more of the world, too.”

“You hate it.” she said.

“No, I don’t hate it. It’s good! It’s a first draft and I like what I see here. That’s the nature of the Nano — nobody ever produces a perfect first draft, but the Nano makes you actually finish that first draft. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have finished it.”

Later, I heard she’d shared it with some of her other friends, with the additional rider comment that she felt I didn’t like it, because I didn’t think it was good enough to get published. Of course, she was giving it to friends who liked her as a person, and since she had predetermined for them that she was looking for praise, not critique, by way of ‘Friend didn’t like it, I’m hoping you will’ — she was told what she wanted to hear, rather than the truth. And when one of her friends, who is usually bluntly honest, said that it was ‘scattered and disorganized’, Lauren was done showing people. The manuscript went somewhere dark and never saw the light of another person’s eyes again, for fear of disapproval.

She tried her hand at writing the sequel the next year, because like many first time successful novelists, they still have a story left to tell. And it’s easier to work within an existing world than it is to spin up a brand new one.

But she got sick the first week, and stopped writing, and because she was a week behind, she gave up. This was the same year I wrote 100K words in the month.

She hasn’t attempted the Nano since.

For me, the NaNoWriMo is one of my life’s passions. I’ve done it every year for the past twelve. I talk about it a lot. Whenever I’m with friends or family, and I bring up the idea of Nano and they like the idea and are impressed with someone who can write that much in that little time, none of them really ask, ‘Yes, but are they good novels?’ If they do, or they ask when I’m getting published, I just grin and say, “I’m still working on that part. It’s a first draft, and a story that needs to be told, and one of these years I’ll like something enough to edit it and try and get it published. But it’s great practice and a grand adventure that I willingly take every year.”

They are invariably encouraging.

Lauren, if she’s also present, frequently jumps into the conversation with the “Hey, I wrote for the Nano too…” (Subtext: I want some of the positive attention you’re getting.)

“Oh cool!” is the response. “What are you writing this year?”

“Oh, I’m not likely to. I did it once about six years ago.” she says. “I have a bunch of good ideas, but I don’t have the time.”

Predictably, that means the focus goes back to me shortly after, because I have Ideas and Advice and Encouragement That You Should Play This Year. Nano is my passion, and I believe everyone should play at least once — if not more than once — because everyone has that lurking story in the back of their heads, triumphs, troubles,tasks, thoughts, tribulations, trout that traversed the trawler’s tail temporarily, those things. Tall tales. Truth, too.

At the end of one of those days, Lauren asked, “How come they never acknowledge me as an author like they do you? Do I suck that badly?”

“You didn’t show them your work.” I said. “You can’t know that they won’t like it until you show them, and the people you showed all liked it.”

“You didn’t like it.” she said.

“I did. I’m sorry you don’t think I liked it because I offered constructive criticism.”

“Well, I’m not a writer anyway.” she said.

Don’t be the Lauren, ladies and gentlemen. Write because you want to. Write because you have an amazing idea that’s half-baked — and understand that it’s okay to write a story that goes awry in the first chapter, as long as you follow the prose wherever it goes.

Don’t write because you need to be loved vicariously through your writing. I’ve written some of my best work when I was miserable, because pain is a crazy good resource to write out of sometimes.

Do write because you have a world you want to share, no matter how big or how small the space is. Do write because you want to finish the story, or at least take it for a spin around the block. Or the galaxy.

You never publish what you never write.

Nobody will ever see the house that you’re afraid to invite them over to visit. And when you decorate the walls with your art, be it imitations of the Masters or kid macaroni art, when you get your furniture of gleaming chrome and exquisite silks, stuff you, personally, might never be able to afford, but your characters can?

Don’t expect everyone who visits to want to move in. It’s your house of prose. You wrote it. You made the installment payments of 50,000 words or more (or occasionally less). Maybe the back rooms aren’t done. Maybe the roof has leaks that you didn’t see. Maybe the patio door is hung upside down. But it’s your home, the home of the tale you had to build from the ground up, and you ought to be proud of it.

You can always redecorate later, but you’ve got to turn the key in the lock and drag the readers in, first.

Build your first story, and you have the beginnings of a homeworld that is uniquely yours.

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Secrets, Secrets, are No Fun…

I found myself yesterday trying to figure out how much a character would say about their past. To anyone, a stranger, or to someone they were very close with. How long would it take them to spill the beans about something important and personal to them?

Privacy is another factor that relegates how much is told about the character at one point, it’s what defines what other characters around them find out, and how they find out. It shapes the story, gives it more or less conflict, and puts a more obvious time stamp on what will be revealed when, and how.

It’s as simple as comfort, but if you take into consideration that some people feel the need to talk to others about heavy topics because they have no one else to talk to them about, it adds another dimension.

The inspiration for this comes from an experience where I was asked a bunch of more personal questions that I’d talk to a trusted friend about, and, they were someone I trusted and wanted to talk to about those things. Except, there was someone behind me who I didn’t care to let know anything about my life, personal or otherwise. When she found out certain things and started asking questions, I got prickly, and felt like walling up.

I noticed it was something I had a few of my heroes do before. You earn that trust, and the ability to know that information. Some are a little more lenient, though, deeming certain information able to be heard by others, some strangers, pending phrasing and vagueness.

So I guess the question then becomes about the trust issues the critters have.

And trust goes so much farther than just conversation, it is the basis of most actions and is why we do what we do most days. It builds into love, care, and affection, it’s a reason for effort and time spent, it’s what makes us want to go out of our way for others, to help.

Stepping back away from the psych side of things… I realize that another thing to consider is what they have to had. Whether it’s because they’re afraid of ridicule, or because they’d rather keep quiet than deal with reactions, good or bad. Maybe they’re tired of saying anything about it. After spending a day getting asked about an obvious injury, it’s not hard to imagine wanting to hide it so that the questions can finally stop.

Will something happen if they let the secret loose? It’s chaos in an instant, and suddenly the story is thrown for a loop and they’re trying to do damage control. Hah! But is that what you wanted all along? To find a way to get those secrets out in the first place, because the character is too walled up to let it out themselves?

Ultimately, it’s another side of them that makes them something more dynamic than just a vessel for a story to be told. They become easier to relate to,  to sympathize and empathize with both. Filling out their secrets and feeling out their boundaries is just another part to definition and development. A rather fun one, if you ask me.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Long Lost

One of the biggest go-to plot twists (and tropes) has been the “long-lost” sibling, parent, friend, etc. Your writing is going well, and then you stop and you wonder about what could spice things up, and all of a sudden you’re staring at the computer screen or notebook with wide eyes and your jaw dropped open, because having someone be introduced into their life that they should have known since the beginning is such a hard throw for anyone.

Some of these are easier than others depending on where you are in your story, and what kind of holes you’ve left open. Think about it before you jump though; what feels right for the character and their life? Another thing to consider is the execution of this. How are you going to introduce it, and does it help you do something else?

As an example: does the feel of the character having a long lost sibling make up for something else in their life and development, or do you feel like you should go back and write them as the youngest/oldest/middle of a group of children instead of alone?

Of course there’s another way to go about this as well: instead of a random interjection, make the person’s absence a conscious part of the hero’s life. The long lost brother who’s been missing or cut them out of his life for so long, who turns up unannounced one day.  Or the friend thought dead who gets spotted at a crime scene. Or, neither of them show up just yet; they lurk in the outskirts of the novel until you’re ready to bring them in, or you decide you didn’t want and or need them after all.

Some plot holes may support these newly thought characters, though, the ones who jump in at you at the last second and turn the story on its head. The ones who grin at you and wave and show you something that could work rather well.

Others may not work out at all.

The Long Lost ______ is an interesting dynamic, when you look at it: you’re putting someone in front of your hero who should have been in their life all along, thus throwing them for a loop and making them come up with countless questions. Confusion. Anger. Upset. Betrayal. In some cases, embarrassment.

It’s a quick way to spice things up, but it can also change the tone of the story, so be careful how you use it. Find what degree of focus you want to give it, or not give it, and run with it. The phrase is “the more the merrier” for a reason, right? 😉

-The Novice Wordsmith

Guest Post: Start Big or Start Small, But Where it is Becomes Your Call

(Meant for yesterday.)

Morning folks.  Whether you have 0 words or 500, if you’ve hit your first roadblock, or the wordcount just isn’t coming as fast as you’d like, it’s time to look at what you’ve got and seeing if you blew through the easy words in your rush to get rolling.

That first hour of writing on a blank canvas can be deceptive; you put down the first stuff that comes into your head and burn through your Big Idea, Premise, and Opening Lines pretty quick.  But once the initial framework is on the page, the inevitable ‘Now What?’ comes into play.

If you’re feeling a little uncertain where to go from here, there are two paths you can take today: (insert Phil Keoghan of The Amazing Race impression here): Stall, or Start Walking.

  • In Stall, you look back at what you’ve already written yesterday and add some details.   Add colors, sounds, smells, extra features, musings, impressions, extra dialogue to give your first characters in their first scene some more depth of focus.    For example, this year I started off with a brief sketch of a crime scene, and then pulled back a little to tease at the timeframe — the distant future.   I originally described the devastation of an explosion as simply ‘lots of bodies’, but when I doubled back, I added in damage to the building, the parking lot, and then described the era in more detail.    I actually described the main character as something more than a gender and ethnic background, and gave the secondary character some more lines so that he wasn’t introduced just to walk off and get coffee for my detective.
  • In Start Walking, you want to think ahead to what’s on the horizon,or, to wit, ‘where is your next scene going to take place?’    This is not a one man, one room play you’re writing here, odds on.   Whether you’re writing a Hero’s Journey or an Everyman/Everywoman slice of life tale, or a Superhero(ine) Saving the City, they’re not likely to be in the place they were when you wrote on Day 1.   Ask yourself, ‘where do I need to get the main character next?’   And start writing towards that direction.  Do they need to make any special preparations?  (An odd reverse example is Mr. Rogers, who fascinated me as a child by having the odd ritual of changing his shoes while talking to the audience after he came into the house.)    Do they tell anyone where they’re going?   Will any of the scene 1 characters be coming along, and are they opposed to doing so?

The point is that right now, today, Day 2, you are building potential. Potential energy, potential wordcount, and potential motion, along, of course, with potential plot.   Being able to lay tracks ahead of you or buy time to figure out where you want to be is still wordcount; the goal here is to breathe life into your novel by giving it enough detail and brea(d)th so that you want to keep writing in this space.

Eventually we’ll be setting things on fire (not necessarily literally) and maybe blowing stuff up, but it doesn’t have to be today.   Days 1 and 2 for me are usually reserved for either detailed worldbuilding, or meeting the main character, or setting up the stage where the main character will walk into any moment.    Or any combination of the three.

Hope this helps, and feel free to suggest a topic for a future guest post….

Out of Sync

Korielle sighed as she leaned back, running a hand through her hair and crossing one long, lean leg over the other in a show of seduction. “I guess I’ll just have to–

Crumple, erase, backspace until it’s gone. Sigh, stare at the screen or paper, purse of the lips. Wait. Think. Try again.

She looked out of the window with a forlorn expression, despite letting the jacket fall off her shoulders and showing long expanses of bare arms. “I’ll find a way,” she said. “I alwa–

“Dammit,” sigh, stand up, walk around, wait. Stare. Think. Wonder.

Being out of sync with your character or story is not only one of the most frustrating things you can encounter, but it’s hard to find where you are on the line that separates, “I should step back and wait,” and, “I need to hunker down and figure this out.” You know something is wrong, but how do you re-align yourself with your hero again to finally see what they really want to do?

Or… Is it more than that? Are they the ones acting out of character? Is there no other way for them to feel for this scene, where they want to jump the bones of another despite your wanting the scenario to go a different direction?

I’ve experienced both, really; where a character runs into a situation head on that I never expected, and it turns into something bigger than I could have imagined, and on the same token, I’ve created bad circumstance simply because I wasn’t so with it on that day. I’ve scrutinized a piece of writing over and over until I’ve felt it was right.

I’m reminded of a small piece of advice I learned, of little mistakes. “Just run with it.” It’s not so easy some times, though, when you have to be conscious of what’s better for the story or not. Smaller things can be passed off, but the bigger things take a lot of consideration, and some days, it’s harder to tell what lines up and what would make a better story.

As I’ve said I don’t know how many times, it’s difficult to take a step back. Forcing things often can make them worse, but letting things alone and just waiting for them to settle can take time and patience that even saints don’t have. Well, maybe not so much patience, but it does take a lot to be able to accept that you need to set your hands down, maybe watch a movie or play a game, do some other work, and just let your head reset for what you’ve been working on.

Seeing that you aren’t writing a character to par can be the first sign of that, too. Doubting yourself makes it worse, and then you keep digging and trying to make something work and it’s just frayed ends and bad wires. Don’t overwork it. Doing too much can make things worse, too.

Sometimes, after being able to find the voice of the character well enough, glancing back at what you were hedging on before might provide you with new ideas and an expansion to the one you had come up with when things weren’t all lined up.

One thing I’ve found that helped me recently was doing practice-writes, putting two characters together and just feeling out the scene without really intending to get anywhere. Such as Friday’s post said, don’t edit anything, no revisions, just write. If you need the practice, if you feel like you’re not getting the voice right, having a quick, easy scenario can sometimes be best for a writing-equivalent rough sketch.

The best part about being out of sync with your slew of characters is that it’s temporary. It just takes time away and some searching, but usually it doesn’t last too long and you’re back in the game. I’ve found that the best is not to force something that isn’t able to go te way you want it to.

– The Novice Wordsmith

“Nothing is Ever Good Enough”

Continuing on the sort of theme I’ve been on the past couple of days, I looked inward for another post. It’s been on my mind for a bit, but I was never sure how to breach the subject in a post.

One thing I see a lot in writing advice from time to time is that you will always find a flaw with your writing. There will never be a point in time where you’re simply finished with being critical of your work and instead entranced by all of what you turn out. Days will come and go where you don’t want to touch some of your writing, because you’re afraid of how bad it’ll turn out instead.

You will hate your work, and you will love it. Some of our best work in the eyes of our audience may be something we personally abhor.

You will turn out chapters and stories you are mystified and have the strongest sense of satisfaction about. You will be in love with the development and the strength of a character or a scene that you described.

The phrase “You are your own worst critic” is true, mostly because you can see the flaws, you can see where you want things to be stronger and better. Where the phrasing should have been different, or a character should have kissed someone instead of slapping them. Where you could have described the scenery better, or changed one word to better fit the situation.

In personal news, I see others play characters of mine, and sometimes, depending on who it is, I feel a pang of, “they’re better at this than I am. Why am I still writing this character? Why don’t I just give it to them?”

Worry, self-conscious thoughts, anxiety. It all ties in. It makes it worse, but I try to remember that I’m the one who created these characters. I’m the one who knows them best. I hold their voices, not someone else. Friends may catch on and see how they are very well, but they aren’t the proprietors, the voice wouldn’t sound the same under someone else’s writing.

The story itself would not be the same from someone else’s hand, either. Even the stories passed down from deceased authors to a new one with be different, sound different, because the same hand isn’t writing it. Everyone is different, style, tone, word choice, it’s all different. You wrote this character, you made the hero or the villain or the group of people or the plot itself with all of its twists and turns, for you, for how you write, and no one else.

So no matter how much you think it sucks, no matter how bad you might think it looks or how bulky or chunky or just unreadable it might be to you, keep going. Don’t stop, don’t hand it off, this is yours. These, every little element and tool and piece of the world, is yours, it’s everything you’ve put together, how many hours and how much effort you’ve gone through to make sure it’s how you envisioned it.

Don’t let anyone, or anything stop you. Least of all yourself.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Questionnaire and Questioning

I had been planning this post after the prompt about meeting characters, and then it just so happened that someone who follows me (and who I follow), made a post that coincides, and the results were entertaining.

One of the things I absolutely love about character development and finding the voice and personality of a character so strongly, is that if you had a set of questions in front of you to ask them, you could get answers back authentic to who they are. Jon has an excellent example, an onslaught of varied, unique and interesting questions that you may not have thought to ask before, but it helps flesh out the character well, in unexpected ways.

Friend took an approach similar to this one to figure out the dynamic of his characters he was going to write for for Camp in April and July, things about their greatest accomplishments, what they buy at the grocery store, what kind of character they’d play in a certain game.

It gives you a feel for them, and it helps give them a stronger voice, I think. I used to do these questionnaires when I was younger, for new characters, and for old ones, and just sunk into it on a rainy day. It really is one of my favorite things to do, but for being that, I haven’t done it much at all recently.

Regardless, I encourage it, at least give it a shot. Check out Jon’s blog, the link up above, and I think he has another set of questions in his blog somewhere, too, or just do a random search online. You can’t go wrong. Or, if you think of something random; what kind of coffee do they like, would they go to Starbucks? Do they like flowers, how do they feel about old, classic paintings?

On top of that, it manages to give them some more dimension, making them more human (or humanoid, or humanistic… err… depending if they’re aliens or not). I like what it brings to the forefront, more than just the things you would typically know from reading the novel or the stories, the questionnaires bring forward a lot of random little tidbits, showing off all edges.

I’m a fan of reading things like that, too. I have a friend whose blog is run about and “by” her character, and I see different prompts and questions about odd little things pop up every so often. Inappropriate thoughts or things being shouted, a particular phrase.

Maybe I’ll do one of these sooner than later, myself…

-The Novice Wordsmith

Guest Post: The Voice

(No, it has nothing to do with the reality show.)

Every character has a voice. I express this to Wordsmith a lot; I say that ‘strong characters have a strong voice.’ It’s a way — the _main_ way — a character interacts with the reader. When you can hear the character talking, they become less words on a page, thrown on like limp spaghetti, and more like a movie script being enacted.

It’s not just about an accent. It’s not just about aphorisms, or turns of phrase. It’s the way that you _hear_ them talking. They’re still just words, but you can hear the emotion, the pauses, the tenseness and sultryness, You won’t need to add artificial exclamation points and ellipsis. It’s like your character is good enough to improvise their own dialogue because you ‘know’ what they’re going to say in response to anything.

When I say that “I haven’t found the voice for a character yet”, it means they’re going to be a little slower to write. They’re actors still, coming into the scene to say their lines and then going back off. I don’t wonder if they’re tired, hungry, or peppy. I have to consider their situation, their surroundings, and make them observe more. They are the ones who lack the ‘pop’ of a living, breathing, character.

How do you give a character a voice?

You can’t.

They have to earn it. And learn it.

They have to be dragged from scene to scene, until they find that moment of awesome that you make for them, where, like any hero or heroine, they rise to that moment and it defines them. It doesn’t have to be action. It could be inaction, letting something go that will affect them later. It could be a call of bravery or a breakdown that lets you see them in full color for the first time. Until then, they’re just words defining a picture, and poorly at that sometimes.

Hijacking the ideas from titular show for a second as an example; picture if you will, each character coming onto a stage for the first time, where you can’t see them, only hear them. They have a purposefulness you don’t understand yet. They have motivations you haven’t come up with for them yet. All they have is their unique voice, and you are the one that has to pick them for potential development. When you turn and see them, and add them to your novel, you decide whether they’re good looking as they are, or if they need a makeover. But it’s their voice that has to make you turn about and let them work with you. You have to hear something in it. You have to believe that they can be more with your work.

But not all characters find that next level right away. Some of them get supplanted by breakout characters with bigger, better, brighter, badder voices. “Main characters” have voices you can relate to strongly, and that is why they get the best lines and most memorable monologues.

But only you can find the voice for each of your characters.

You are the narrator, director, and casting head for your novel. Each character that walks through the pages, onto the stage and scene, has some level of voice, or they’re just an extra. But main characters have to have that time to develop properly, and sometimes no amount of forcing ideas on them work. It doesn’t mean you have to give up on them; it just means you haven’t found their sound yet.

When you find yourself quoting or reminiscing on things a character has done with a smile, they’ve got their voice. But until that happens, you have to keep writing their dialogue until they step up and say, ‘Hey, I should say it THIS way.’

And then you’ll know.