Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable


Author G.B. Pool gives us the scoop on writing memorable characters. Visit Gayle's Author Page on Amazon!

Character Matters: Your Main Characters Attract Readers, Make Them Memorable


Aristotle wrote in The Poetics that stories are made up of 5 Elements in balance: Plot, Character, Setting, Dialogue, and the Meaning of the Piece. He thought plot was the most important element, but I wanted to talk about character in this blog.

As in most crime fiction, there is always a bad guy or gal. Some writers want to give the villain a good point like he loves dogs or his mother. I seldom bother. I paint him bad with no redeeming features unless there are extenuating circumstances and my bad guy isn’t so bad after all. In fact once or twice the bad guy has a soul. But usually in a story like that, he or she is actually the star of the piece.

But when I write a main character, I want him or her to be someone I would invite into my home. After all, I spend a lot of time with these characters while I am reading not only my own books but books by other writers. If I find them repulsive, mean, heartless, I really resent the time spent getting to know them. On more than one occasion the character has been written by a famous author and I frankly think the character stinks. That will also be the last time I read one of their books.

Aristotle mentioned that characters should have some redeeming quality. I do reserve those good qualities for the hero and other important characters. The bad guy can be bad to the bone as far as I am concerned.

Another thing Aristotle mentioned was that all the characters should be appropriate to their station in life. I am sure when he wrote The Poetics there was far more of a class system operating. Even in Downton Abbey, the folks living above stairs have a different attitude than the ones living below stairs. Not that this is right or wrong, it was just what society at that time and place was like. I’ll root for the rebel, but I would still be cognizant of the time period in which the story was being told.

There was a movie, The Admirable Crichton, where a shipwreck strands a bunch of aristocrats and their butler on a desert island. The resourceful butler saves everyone with his ingenuity. When the bunch is rescued, he reverts back to the butler and life went on.

But if the writer is true to the inherent abilities of his characters, the story will work. A housewife who miraculously knows everything about solving crime has been watching too much CSI. And a cop will tell you many of the procedures on those police shows are laughingly wrong.

Dick Francis will have his main character who is expert in some interesting thing like wine making or photography, use his skills to solve a crime. That I can believe. If he turns into a latter-day MacGyver and can make a nuclear weapon out of a box of matches and a can of hairspray, sorry, NO SALE.

Just keep your character consistent. If he hates height, make something payoff in the end that uses that fear of heights like Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo. I keep a character chart that lists when each was born, when certain things happened in his life, and even things that happened during that time in history just to know what people were exposed to.

  I started doing this while I was taking an acting class. What a great way to learn about a tight story structure, dialogue, and character. My teacher, Rudy Solari, had us write a mini-biography of our own character so we would know where the character came from and what motivated him or her before he or she set foot on the stage. We could glean some things from the script and make up the rest, but you sure know who you were when the scene started.

This works for writing characters, too. When I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook series I wrote out a bio for Johnny. Boy did I learn a lot about him. There were even some things that came out in the second book that even Johnny didn’t know. It made him more interesting.

Know your character. Character matters.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Writing Stuff - A Tough Project

Author Kate Thornton shares her thoughts about the process of bringing new life to old projects. Visit her Author's Page on Amazon!

WRITING STUFF - A TOUGH PROJECT


I finished a Christmas story last week and sent if off to a magazine that has a tracking application online. Of course, I check it daily. Five days in slush and still not read – I may have to volunteer as a slush reader to get it going.

I always write seasonal stories out of season - that way there is really no looming deadline and magazines really like to get their seasonal stuff lined up ahead of time. Writing short stories is not easy - they must be tight, have impact, be satisfying and, well, short.

But the really tough writing project I am working on is a novel I wrote in 1998. Back then, I thought I was a novelist and knocked out 3 or 4 long works - adventure/mysteries - that I thought were really good. Hah! Shows what little I knew! They needed a lot of work. So I shelved them (one was actually agented and had some interest from St. Martin's Press, only back then I didn't know enough about revisions to do the necessary rewrites.) The event that triggered this effort was lunch a while back with an old friend, a dear friend, who asked about that particular book and remembered it fondly. Bless my beta readers!

So I am re-reading it first (I have a copy printed on my old laser printer) then doing a page-by-page rewrite into my computer. I used to have this work on an ancient five-inch floppy disc, but who knows what happened to that and what I could use to extract the info anyway. Also, I think it was in one of the very first iterations of Word Perfect. Yes, I am old!

I once heard you must write a million words before you learn how to put them into the right order. I am sure this old effort was part of my first million, and therefore should just be counted as practice, not the real deal. But I want to salvage the basic story, change the main character to one I have been developing, and update the technology (both in the storyline and what I use to write with.)

Maybe it will be a successful project. If so, I have at least three more "Trunk Novels" that could get the same treatment, if they're worth it.

So, how about you? Do you save your old stuff and use it - or parts of it - later? I like the idea of doing this, but it sure is a lot of work. An author of my acquaintance recommends just ditching it all and writing something new. There is certainly a lot to be said for that approach. But there is also something about an old friend, a character you have created, coming home to the present and being with you again.


So, for now, I want to revisit this person and see if they can get used to the world as it is now. And I think maybe it will help me to accept the world of today as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

To Outline or Not to Outline...Is That the Question?


“Do you use an outline when you write?”

Every time I’ve gone to a writing seminar I hear this question, which puzzles me because I don’t believe it’s what the asker really wants to know. What is really being asked is if writers should use some system to structure their work, whether it’s an outline, software, poster board with index cards, or any other method. I asked several authors, including my co-WinRs, if and how they organize their writing.

Madeline Gornell doesn’t outline or use any formal system beyond a character list. “I ‘wing it,’ develop, build, and go back to fill in as I go.”

Andrea Hurst, author of The Guestbook, Always With You, and the soon-to-be-released Tea and Comfort (in addition to several works of non-fiction), varies her approach with each novel according to what she feels is needed.  “On my first book I knew the beginning and the end and did deep character and setting work. On my second book I knew only the very beginning and end and it just poured out. On my third and current book, I have outlined in detail the scene points and overall plot ahead of time and it seems to work well.”

Gayle Bartos Pool favors some organizing techniques, but adapts them to each project. “I have used an outline before and it worked fine, but I usually just write as I go. I do maintain a timeline to keep the action straight and it keeps the characters from bumping into each other unless I want them to do that. And I do write biographies for my main characters.”

Bonnie Schroeder works with ‘The Snowflake System’. Although she didn’t purchase the software, she follows the general approach. “You start with the germ of an idea and gradually flesh it out through several iterations, including detailed chapter and character summaries. The most valuable thing I got from this was the ‘Scene Spreadsheet’, which has really helped me see where everything happens and where there’s no conflict, etc.” For more details, go to: www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/snowflake-method/

Rowena Williamson juggles two historical fiction series – Castle Caorann and Ryan and the Redhead – and is working on a sequel to her popular YA book, Escape To The Highlands. Despite her substantial workload, Rowena doesn’t use any system. “I can’t really plot without getting feedback from my characters.”

“I outline my stories in my head and I always know where I’m going,” said Audrey Mackaman, author of two YA fiction series, Murder Most Magic and The Dream Cycle.

Jacqueline Vick always uses an outline. “With a mystery, there is too much backtracking to clean up clues etc. without one. And it's too easy to go off on tangents and get away from the plot.” She begins by taking notes and making up a style sheet – a quick reference tool for things she always needs to look up.  “It helps keep track of names, places, grammar problems that pop up for me personally, hard to spell words, etc.” Although this system has worked for her in the past, she is currently trying out Scrivener software. “I'm going to give that a shot with the next mystery I write. It's gotten good reviews!”  For more information about Scrivener, go to www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php   

I think it's very individual, this writing process,” said Heather Ames, whose publications include the romantic suspense All That Glitters, contemporary romance The Sweetest Song and Indelible, the first in her mystery/suspense series. She tried using an outline to give her writing group an idea of where Swift Justice (the sequel to Indelible) was going, but the story strayed in another direction. I've never used any of the writing programs. I'm a freewheeler.” 

What about me? I began writing my first novel with the idea of seeing if I could do it. I had no plan or outline, just a character, an incident, and a vague sense of the plot. I’m pleased with it now, but it took over a decade to finish. I’ve often thought outlines would speed up the writing process and now begin each book with a synopsis of the story, but I rarely stick to it. I rebel against micromanagement, even self-imposed. My second novel took only four years to complete, so I guess I’m getting faster.

From this small sampling, it appears there is no consensus. Some writers deem systems necessary to keep them on track. Others find them inhibiting; they prefer to let the story flow. Many hybridize the process; they use timelines and biographies to keep the details straight, or work with a beginning and an end, and let their creative instincts fill in the rest. And a few do whatever they find works best for a particular project. Maybe that’s what draws us to writing stories that appeal to us. We prefer having the freedom to follow our muse and only use organizational tools if we need help with our characters or plotting. Or as Rowena Williamson put it, “I couldn’t hold to a book-a-year schedule. My books would go downhill if I did that.”




Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I've run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn't catch it. The editor didn't catch it. Three proofreaders didn't catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was "just sloppy". I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn't thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn't leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren't going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I'll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I've discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn't smoke in another. He also says that he's never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn't hit his radar. I don't consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don't bother me is that they don't affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie's words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I've put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn't recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you'll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered "just sloppy"!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Men vs. Women Writers--They are Not Always Seeking the Same Audience

If someone said: "Nothing against women writers, but all of my favorite crime fiction authors happen to be men," how would you respond?

My response would be the same if I heard a woman say she preferred women writers to male ones. Read what you want. Some people like self-help books. Some like science fiction. Some like romance. Some people don’t read at all. My response to the latter would be hand-over-the-mouth screaming to myself: How can you not read? But, let’s face it, some people don’t read.

I can’t visualize a truck driver curled up reading a cozy, but I can see a woman reading a thriller. Women write thrillers. Men have written romance novels. But if someone, let’s say a man, says he won’t read a book – let’s say a thriller – written by a woman, then he has a problem living in the real world. If it’s a literary agent or publisher who says he or she won’t consider a thriller written by a woman then a lot more people have a problem. Many good writers won’t get published and subsequently enjoyed if that is the company policy. But it happens.

In the past twenty-five years women writers have gotten book deals writing cozies and chic-lit novels as well as standard detective novels and thrillers. The over-whelming majority of women writers I know write cozies. The reading public assumes that if you are female you will be writing that type of book just because of the vast number of those types of books on the shelves. Reviewers are going to think the same thing. They have seen years and years of top selling books, written by men, winning prizes. They will gravitate toward what is familiar and accepted when it comes time to reviewing books. Everybody wants to be around the popular kids in school or go see the hot new movie. But if our, meaning the females in the crowd, if our first response is to whine, then pardon me for saying this, but snap out of it, honey. Nobody owes you a review.

But there are things you can try.

Ladies, try sending a review of your book to women’s magazines and see if they will print it. Send them a copy of the book, too. You will have to write your own review. This is basically the Press Release you should already have in your press kit. Not every review in a publication is written by an impartial reviewer. Your review should be a short blurb about your book. It is roughly the synopsis you sent in your query letter minus the conclusion of the book. Include the log line-elevator pitch that you should have for every book you write. It will grab the reader.

I worked in a bookstore for a year and a half many moons ago (1979-1980). Our romance section was just as large as our mainline fiction section. We sold down to the wall in the romance section most months, not so for the fiction section. The mystery section was fairly small at the time. Obviously women were buying women’s books. I don’t remember hearing men whine about only females getting to write romance novels.

What women should try to do is get known in a smaller pond first. And remember, you drop a pebble in a pond and there is a ripple effect. You make enough splash and the folks in the big publishing yachts will take notice. Or even Hollywood.

Some men write Gothic romance novels under a pseudonym. A man’s name on the cover of a throbbing romance novel would probably be bad marketing. The same thing goes for a man’s name on a cozy novel, but occasionally it has been successfully done. Men can be held back just like women, but many of them consider the marketing aspect and use a female pen name.

I use my initials rather than my first name to obscure my sex. My books aren’t cozies nor are they dripping in blood. I thought initials made my pen name recognizable but it didn’t put me in a box. Agents and publishers actually thought a man wrote the Johnny Casino Casebooks. They read the book before they read my biography. That’s what I wanted.

Know the market where you want to sell the most books. If you are a niche mystery writer and write about knitting or cooking while solving a crime, try sending a copy of your book with a small review to a publication that features that hobby or skill. They might publish it. See if a local store will let you do a book signing. A knit shop might let you do an event if you are a local writer.

If you write a more traditional mystery and can’t get any traction, see if your local paper will run a small review or maybe they have a reporter who would like to interview you. Even if you are published by a large publishing house, you might have to do all the publicity yourself.

Let me introduce you to Anna Katharine Green. She started writing very intricate plots with clever details and sleuthing techniques. She wrote stories about a young debutante who solved crimes, a young man who analyzed a crime scene down to the lint in the victim’s pockets, and a spinster lady who helped out the local police in solving crimes. If this sounds a little too much like Nancy Drew or a young Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Marple, Anna Katharine Green was born in 1846. Her books predated these other great writers. She is considered the mother of the detective novel. Women weren't writing much more than poetry back then and there were very few male writers of fiction, much less mysteries. She had to discover new territories and did it unbelievably well. She did get reviews. In fact, the Pennsylvania Senate debated whether or not a woman could have actually have written her first book, The Leavenworth Case, her first success. 

She wrote it and 39 more stories!

 So write your book. Others did it and overcame some pretty big hurtles. Be creative in seeking out reviewers or venues for your work. And remember, nobody owes you a review, but you owe it to yourself to give it your best effort. And don’t whine. Men don’t.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

AN ALMOST PERFECT NOVEL

        
“As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.”

That’s not a Weight Watchers commercial: it’s a line midway through Margaret Mitchell’s magnificent historical novel, Gone with the Wind.

GWTW, as many abbreviate it, is one of my favorite novels, and I have plenty of company. According to a recent Harris poll, GWTW is second only to the Bible in popularity among Americans. And there are a lot of reasons for that: it’s a great story, an easily-digested history lesson, and, for writers, it’s like a master class in storytelling.

First off, consider the storyline and the clear, linear structure: it’s not just a story about a spoiled Southern Belle, or the devastation of war, or the hardships of Reconstruction after the Civil War, or a woman struggling to preserve her family’s legacy. It’s all that—and more.

GWTW carries a timeless theme. In Margaret Mitchell’s own words, "If the novel has a theme it is that of survival. What makes some people able to come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong and brave, go under? It happens in every upheaval. Some people survive; others don't. What qualities are in those who fight their way through triumphantly that are lacking in those who go under...? I only know that the survivors used to call that quality 'gumption.' So I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn't." 

And did she ever write about people with gumption! Not only that, she created a cast of complex, fascinating characters. When we first meet main character Scarlett O’Hara, we’re told right off the bat that she’s not beautiful, but “men seldom realized it when caught by her charm. . .” What a way to introduce a character! Scarlett is a study in contradictions: she’s vain, foolish and selfish, but she’s also smart, strong and brave.

Her counterpart, Rhett Butler, comes on the scene as a scalawag, a scoundrel and a cynic. However, as we get to know him, we learn he’s also an idealist, a romantic, and—who’d have guessed it?—a patriot.

GWTW is also a superb history lesson, and Ms. Mitchell delivers it in small, vivid bites, full of specific sensory detail. Writers are advised to “show, don’t tell,” and Ms. Mitchell demonstrates that repeatedly. Readers can almost feel the heat of the flames as Atlanta burns and the clench of starvation that Scarlett endures. The details feel authentic, and they probably are. Margaret Mitchell was born in 1900, and her family lived in Atlanta. Her parents and grandparents probably witnessed the Civil War firsthand and no doubt shared stories with young Margaret.

GWTW is also a spectacular model of what a love story can be. It doesn’t just have a romantic triangle; it has trapezoids and rectangles all over the place, and these are played out in a fascinating narrative.

GWTW is also the model for a modern ending. Not every complication is resolved and tied up with a tidy little bow. Ms. Mitchell left plenty of room for audience participation and interpretation. Did Rhett really not “give a damn?” Will Scarlett get him back? Theories abound.

The novel has a few flaws, of course. The language and style seem out of sync with today’s writing, and some of the dialogue is overblown and even clunky. When Sidney Howard wrote the screenplay, he shortened that famous line I quoted at the start; he removed two words, and Vivien Leigh vowed, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” Much more punch in that one.


But none of this detracts from the novel’s power to cast a spell. Almost 80 years later, people still care about the book and its characters, and the ambiguous ending sparks many a spirited discussion. What more could an author hope for?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Nine-Letter Word—Rewriting!




The Nine-Letter Word--Rewriting!


I thought I’d take my first opportunity to post on Writers in Residence to talk about rewriting—I know—boring, possibly even a turnoff. But it’s what I’m in the midst of right now, and how I feel about rewriting continues to evolve. I’ve even decided to call it a different name—Polishing—still nine letters but nicer sounding to my ear.

Some of the “things” I’ve heard other authors talk about, and do myself, under the rewriting banner are:

-         In-process rewriting of scenes, chapters, etc.,
-         Going back through and editing a completed first draft before or after editorial review
-         Final polishing before going to a reviewer or publisher.

Only recently have I realized how important rewriting is to my total writing experience and process—I'm no longer seeing rewriting as an activity separate from writing, but an essential ingredient. It is where all the bits and pieces actually come together. Where I tighten and refine my prose and story. Rewriting is now one of the good parts of writing. But it’s been a journey getting to this point.

Incorrect spelling, grammar, punctuation are one thing—but how could it be that my first written thoughts, ideas, characters, and story arc are not perfect? With my current project, I’m having to deal with a lot of missteps with character expositions and storytelling!

Sure, there have been many times when I kept looking for the perfect word—the one with just the right connotation—even if it feels like it’s taking forever. And if I can’t find the right word, or phrase? DELETE. Hard at first—easy now. And thinking back, what I’ve left out has always been for the better—sometimes that’s been pages, even a whole scene.

But DELETEing major sections, moving activities around, changing motivations—well, I’m doing it—hating at first—but feeling better about it now. Why? Because I’ve realized in the “polishing” adventure, I want my darn books to be the best they can possibly be. And that’s not a bad thing.

On a final philosophical note, polishing is one of the few times in life I can “take back” what I’ve said or done. Indeed, in the real-world, there have been soooo many times I’ve wished for that “do-over” capability!

Thoughts from Madeline (M.M. Gornell)...