Category Archives: Craft & Skills

Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters. I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!

 

Mistake Learning

Mistake learning can be interpreted a few ways: to mistake learning for something else, learning about mistakes, learning from mistakes, and I’m sure we could come up with others. I named my post ambiguously in honor of my most recent BIG foul-up. I’m a big believer in learning from other’s mistakes in order to diminish my own, so I’ll offer up my new number one writing rule for your evaluation; Never, EVER, submit a document within twelve hours after making ANY changes without carefully reviewing those changes.

Case in point; I thought my second sentence in my manuscript might sound better if I added in a short action phrase. So, “Greg stopped pacing across the living room carpet and threw up his hands.” Um…yeah. Initially, some people might think this sounds fine, like I did. I have to really watch myself, because I tend toward these types of phrases. Unfortunately, if you approach the words in the same way you can approach this blog title, you might imagine some kid barfing up appendage bits onto the living room carpet. My story just went from an urban fantasy to a fairly twisted and bizarre horror. And yes, I sent that to two prospective agents. No surprise-the rejections showed up in my email within days.

Other potential mistakes to watch for:

*Don’t take too seriously a review of your manuscript from someone who doesn’t read any of the same books as you-Take criticism, but use discernment.

*Be nice to everyone everywhere you go. I once met one of Baen’s acquiring editors in an elevator, but even when he told me he was an editor I didn’t realize he had so much clout. Thankfully, when I met him through an introduction the next day, I could mention having met in the elevator without embarrassment. I’d been nice, polite, and hadn’t tried to shove a manuscript into his hand.

*Don’t get drunk at a convention, at least not when you have a book to pitch. I watched a man trying to apologize the next day after his over-zealous, drunken pitch to an agent at the party the night before. She was gracious in accepting his apology, but I guarantee you his book didn’t stand much of a chance unless it was incredibly brilliant. He’d already left a bad first impression.

Of course, there are many more. Feel free to post comments and add to the list.

 

UBI’s: Current Reading: Paper- City of Bones by Cassandra Clare; Ipad- Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson; Educational-Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Upcoming events: LepreCon May 6-8 in Tempe, AZ http://leprecon.org/lep37/, WorldCon Aug. 17-21 in Reno, Nevada http://www.renovationsf.org/

www.colettevernon.com

 

It’s Okay to Talk to Yourself.

Don’t mind the stuttering, the staring. Forget everyone that’s around you. One of the biggest complaints I hear from aspiring writers or envious onlookers is that “there’s never enough time to write.”

Truth is, there’s always time to write. Especially if you think outside the glowing metal box. I had the honor of hearing Kevin J. Anderson speak, and that’s when I learned his dirty little secret.

Kevin talks to himself. So did Upton Sinclair. In Sinclair’s prime, he was turning out 8,000 words a day, seven days a week. That was enough for him to employ two stenographers full time while he dictated his stories. The ending to the sprawling epic “Wheel of Time” was dictated to eager ears and hungry tape recorders on Jordan’s death bed.

I never believed it could work. I tried several times, and after stuttering and stopping three words in, I said to myself: “Screw it.”

After six months of beating myself up because “the words just won’t come”, I decided that this needed to end. I had the whole of Golden Hills’ first draft written, the only thing I was missing had been this one niggling scene that was beginning to drive me insane. It was supposed to be the fun scene, the epic battle where the good guys win and the bad guys get ground into bonemeal. But, why wouldn’t it come to me?

I had been so wrapped up in perfectionism and staring at the blinking black cursor that it was giving me a headache. I’d sit down with every intention to write one word, maybe two. And so I would be there and slowly start typing: “This is my awesome ending.” Backspace, this isn’t good enough. So, I’d try again: “Your head will explode from how awesome this scene is.” Delete. Still not good enough.

And so it would go for days, weeks, six months at a time. It was terrible, all I’d do was wrestle with semantics. Nothing was good enough, nothing ever was.

Frustration really started to settle in. Around this time, there were discussions going on in a message board about Kevin’s dictation methods. Other writers were debating the usefulness, the awkwardness and all that good stuff. Figured I’d give it a go, jump on the band wagon. I dusted off my Sony digital recorder. And I spoke. To myself.

Much awkwardness ensued. “The round went high and wide.” Pause. Repeat. You sound stupid, try again. And so it went for about two weeks. I’d talk to myself in the car, get a few sentences in and feel even dumber than when I began. So I’d quit and go back to my music, my audiobook, flipping off the knucklehead that just cut me off, whatever.

Weeks became months and the frustration really started to amp up. I went back to talking to Kevin about camping and hiking. I’d talk to other friends about what was and wasn’t working on the draft. I came back and decided to rewrite a whole subplot, create a bunch more scenes that were unnecessary, and delete whole chapters. All for the first draft.

Finally, I said the heck with it. I went out into the swamp with my Reader and my digital tape recorder. I stopped at the river and reread the last chapter that I had written [it was the original first draft, with a scene I had since deleted] and something happened. I don’t know what. But something happened. I got that funky lightheaded feeling that only comes from perfect mental clarity.

And then I pushed record. As I rounded the ravine, stepped in some mud, and ruined a perfectly good pair of socks, I did not push stop. Except for when the trail took me under the interstate, and then I couldn’t hear myself think. Soon as I got through the bridge, I hit record again. An hour gave me a little over 4,000 words. Words that needed to be said. It didn’t matter how terrible they were, because there was no backspace key. There was only one way to go, and that was forward.

While orating is not my preferred style (Scrivener, Chai Lattes, and New Age Music, for those who were curious), I found that it works wonders when you need to knock the cobwebs out of your head.

Prior to finishing Golden Hills, I had come off a six month slump where I just couldn’t find the time, didn’t listen to the muse, whatever. You name it, I used it as an excuse.

But there’s a saying I learned which does not bear repeating in polite company [excuses are like a certain unnamed body part every living creature has] and once I wrapped my head around that and took a walk in the woods…I found out that my excuses were nothing more than simple excuses.

Or distractions.

But that’s a matter for another post.

Revisions ““ Discovering Those Great Plot Gaps

There’s no greater feeling than getting that first draft done! Celebrate, pat yourself on the back and then take a break. Yup, you heard me. Set it aside and walk away for a few weeks or a few months. Tackle another story, another novel, another writing project. This will accomplish two things – it’ll be easier to switch from being creative to editing and practice makes perfect so your improved skill level will help you revise.

My first revision always looks at plot gaps. There are several methods and each can be employed for their own reasons but the quickest and best one I’ve found is to write the dreaded synopsis. I use it for the same reasons editors do: to see if the plot makes sense, if it creates tension and if there is a story arc as well as main character arcs. Some would argue that the original outline can be used this way. I choose to write the synopsis because it’s a fresh approach to looking at the novel and I’ve got to write it at some point.

For the purpose of revision, my synopsis is about 2,500 words for every 80,000 words in draft. The reason for keeping it so short is because I want to focus only on key elements in the plot and character lines. Subplots and side stories/events are examined later with respect to how they support the key plot points. The synopsis is written in third person, present tense and in the style or voice the novel is written in (humorous, chatty, dramatic).

Before you write the synopsis, make a note of the basic story arc which starts with the inciting incident. The inciting incident is what motivates the character toward a goal such as conflict resolution, finding true love, solving a mystery, saving someone, to resist change, etc. Then there are the obstacles to reaching the goal, the climax wherein the goal may or may not be achieved and then the denouement.

Like every good book and book jacket blurb, a synopsis starts out with a good hook. This introduces the protagonist, her motivations, goals and the conflict which keeps her from her goal. A synopsis isn’t a simple listing of events but rather it show how the events affect people and what they do which in turn affects plot and outcomes. Now, weave in the story arc, the key points of your plot, with your character’s actions, reactions while showing how they are affected by the decisions they make or actions they take. Use this method through the crisis and denouement.

When I read over the synopsis, I ask the following questions with every plot event:

  • Given the protagonist’s motivations, are her reactions and actions believable? If she really wants to save her family from the villains, why is she enjoying a glass of wine on the beach?
  • Is there enough tension between the protagonist and the antagonist? Does it increase until the climax?
  • Does this feel like it’s naptime? Has something been resolved too quickly? Are more obstacles needed? Remember, if you’re bored so will the reader be.
  • Does it move the story forward in a way which is exciting and logical? Or does it feel contrived, flat and unimportant?
  • Was this the most reasonable reaction and action for the character? Why didn’t she react another way? These questions focus on the logic problems of a character’s actions. For example, why didn’t Jean simply kill Maggie by pushing her over the ship’s railing when no one was looking? Why did she choose to slowly poison her to death? As the writer, you may know why, but did you communicate it clearly?

A synopsis is a great tool, even in the middle of a novel to check how your plot and character arcs are evolving. Recently, I was completing the first draft of a novel and I just couldn’t finish writing the last three chapters. Something wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know what. After writing the synopsis I discovered a couple of logic holes in a character’s reaction which didn’t fit his goals plus there was a plot logic issue. With these now understood, the draft was completed to my satisfaction. And, I’ve got a great tool to refer to during the revision to make sure the scenes, plot and character arcs in the manuscript follow the synopsis. Better still, I have a draft synopsis which I can revise for my queries.