Writing Tips

If characters don't come alive on the page with emotion, actions, and reactions, the book dies a slow and painful death.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Characters Need to Talk to You


Last weekend cj and I attended Carolyn Haines’s Daddy’s Girl Weekend for writers and readers. From pirate costumed participants, ghost tours, and treasure hunts to serious discussions of the art of writing, not a minute of the weekend was wasted. Carolyn's new cookbook to benefit Good Fortune Farm Refuge is jam-packed with wonderful recipes which we tasted throughout the weekend. Buy one and save an animal.

I made new friends and had the privilege of hanging out with some well-published authors, an agent, and several publishers. My head is still reeling with new ideas I want to incorporate into my writing.

I was especially thrilled when my belief that characters are the key to the story was supported repeatedly. While I know that is self-aggrandizement at its height, it’s what I believe and teach in my character development classes.

Holly McClure, well-known agent with Sullivan & Maxx Literary Agency, pointed out that characters need to talk to the author. We need to know our characters better than we know ourselves to bring them to life on the page.

Listening to the authors who have successful book series (proof positive they created good characters) and others with numerous publications under their belt — Carolyn Haines, Dean James, Sue Walker, Holly McClure, John Floyd, David Sheffield, Cynthia Walker—it was obvious that characters and a reader’s connection to them is pivotal to the success of a book.

The bottom line: take the time to develop your characters. Dig out those character sheets you got at a conference or read about in a book on character development and fill them out. That will get you started. Then bring them to life with psychological and sociological information.

I teach my creative writing students that a character is developed through profiling: physical, psychological, and sociological. We are all the sum of our experiences, our looks, our surroundings. Our personalities develop through our experiences/choices/ desires/decisions.

Think your characters are blah?
Create something they hate or love: people, place, or thing, then expose them to it.

Give them a tic. Who can forget Inspector Jacques Clouseau in Pink Panther movies? His clumsiness kept us laughing. Add to that the eye tic of the commissioner when Clouseau created  another disaster and you have memorable characters. Want to go to the dark side? Hannibal Lecter and his fetishes will take you there. Check out R. B. Chesterton’s The Darkling.

Make them vulnerable. How will your characters get what they want or need from where they are starting? Examples: True Grit (youth). Rocky (loser). Argo (impossible). Steel Magnolias (disease). Great Expectations (poor). The Language of Flowers (stranded).

The most fully developed, deeply motivated characters are always the most compelling, no matter how ordinary they might be. Think Mrs. Dalloway, Jane Eyre, A Gathering of Old Men.

Flesh them out now, and your readers will thank you later.

Kudos to cj who sat on the mystery writers panel!  Mahala 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Creativity is Paramount

Beginning today, I am returning to my habit of writing every Friday, and because I like to hear what you're thinking, I'm calling it the Friday Forum. I knew you would like it.
As a nurse, I knew it was always important to follow the rules when administering medications: right medication, right dose, right time. To deviate from that could put your patient at risk. Of course, there were lists of rules for everything we did, commonly called policies and procedures. Need to give a bed bath, follow this one. Need to start and IV, follow this one and so forth. So when I turned my attention to writing fiction, it was no surprise that I looked for the rules, and to you writers, it is no surprise that I found rules and then more rules.

I learned quickly that writing had so many rules, I couldn’t let go and get what I wanted to say on the page. This new list of rules didn’t even take into consideration the basic grammar, structure, and punctuation learned from the first grade through college. I dived in, reading and highlighting and taking classes. I wrote very little.

Thankfully, one of the books I read was If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, and it showed me a new way of thinking. Nursing is science. Writing is art.  

I had to force myself to write around the rules to get my story on paper or give up. I began to transcribe the stacks of notebooks I had written stories in for years, and the light turned on.

I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. An editor in both the nursing world and the writing world, it drove me nuts at first. At times, I found myself editing more than writing and had to have what I call ‘a come to Jesus meeting’ with myself. It wasn’t long before I was writing repetitiously, piling adjectives and adverbs on top of each other, and telling more than showing. The words and my imagination soared.

Always a dutiful rule follower and a bit on the task-oriented side, an amazing thing happened during my transition, I began to question the rules of writing, really look at them seriously. About this same time, I realized that the debut novels I read were taking bold steps in structure, grammar, punctuation, POV, and telling a lot.

So, for twelve consecutive months, I read debut novels to see what was selling and why. My findings may be no surprise to you avid readers. The books hitting the bestseller lists, winning the national and international awards, winding their way into well-known book reviews predominantly broke all of the rules of writing and elements of grammar and punctuation. Most telling, readers loved them.

Those writers are the visionaries among us, those who take artistic license to dare the impossible, those who (shudder) break the rules. Before you delete this with the idea that I’m a tad too avant garde, read on.

I once worked with a hospital chief of finance who shattered everyone’s illusions that the money man was a stickler for the rules. His philosophy was the budget was a guideline. When unexpected issues arose, the prudent move was to rearrange the budget to solve the problem, the ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’ rule many people use in personal budgets. Obviously, this principle has limits or both Peter and Paul will come looking for you.

After I applied our CFOs logic to my writing, my eyes opened to the possibilities.
1.     Sentences are not all equal.
2.     Exposition does not have to be laborious.
3.     Telling is sometimes more expeditious.
4.     Backstory has a purpose.
5.     Editing as I write isn’t necessary.
6.     Revision is about the rules.
7.     Rules are important to clarity.

Don’t throw out the English and writing reference books. They are the tie breakers when you’re beating your head against the wall trying to figure out why a sentence, paragraph, or scene isn’t making sense.

Takeaway: Rules are important. Creativity is paramount.

Do  you break the rules? Do you get bogged down in the minutiae?      Mahala