Tuesday, August 30, 2011

10 things NOT to do when building characters

I'm obsessing over characters these days. Like, what can I do to make mine more likable? What can I do to make them leap off the page? What can I do to make them memorable? So I dug up some answers. This time, the tips are from Noah Lukeman, author of THE FIRST FIVE PAGES. Don't have it yet? It's amazing. Here are ten things Lukeman says we should avoid when building characters:
  1. "Switching between first and last names." If we're going to call our main character Ryan, we should stick with that. Not Ryan in paragraph one, Mr. Reynolds in another, and Hunky Beefcake in another.
  2. "The use of stock, cliche, or overly exotic names." John and Mary might be boring names (my husband John objects!), but we also want to avoid names that are so original that they're hard to read and distract from the story.
  3. "Launching into the story without stopping to establish any of the characters." Readers want to meet our main character and care about him before Hunky Beefcake rescues the aging author from the train tracks (ahem).
  4. "The presence of stock or cliche characters and/or character traits." The dumb bodybuilder, the smart nerd, etc. We can do better than that, can't we?
  5. "The introduction of too many characters at once." If there are too many hunky beefcakes thrown in at the beginning, how will the reader know which one to follow? Add those beefcakes in slowly.
  6. "Confusion over who the protagonist is." Whose story is it? Readers should know up front who they're investing their time in. (Hint: the hunky beefcake rescuing the writer)
  7. "The presence of extraneous characters." Does the guy cleaning the bathrooms at the train station matter to the story? If not, don't add him and definitely don't give him a name.
  8. "Generic character description." We want our characters to stand out, right? So let's give that aging writer who's tied to the train tracks a unique description. Maybe she wears 20's clothing, has a mole above her lip--Cindy Crawford style, and golden curls--Taylor Swift style (yes? yes.)
  9. "Characters we don't care about." Why should we care about the hunky beefcake who tries to save the aging writer? Maybe his dad said he was a loser and wasn't worth anything. Now we hope he saves the writer because hey, we want him to prove his dad wrong.
  10. "The unsympathetic protagonist." Even if he's a bad guy, he should be likable. Hunky Beefcake might be cocky, but he's willing to rumple his pristine clothes to save the writer. He can't be all bad, right?
Have I made these mistakes? Um, yes, which is why I'm reading up on the subject. How about you?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Catastrophe of Success

I recently read the essay The Catastrophe of Success by Tennessee Williams, which is located before the opening pages of his play, The Glass Menagerie (you can read the full essay here). He wrote about how success had changed him for the worse, making him cynical, distrustful, and lazy. He pointed out that a struggling writer, one who is hungry for wisdom and artistic release, is better off than a successful writer who no longer cared about the world around him.

He wrote, "Security is a kind of death, I think, and it can come to you in a storm of royalty checks beside a kidney-shaped pool in Beverly Hills or anywhere at all that is removed from the conditions that made you an artist, if that's what you are or were or intended to be."

It got me thinking about the outside factors that influence our writing. If a writer has faced extreme hardships, they can bleed those experiences onto the page. If a writer has only experienced a cushy, happy life, does their writing lack the same depth? I don't know.

Williams ends with, "Then what is good? The obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction, that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that's dynamic and expressive--that's what's good for you if you're at all serious in your aims."

From where I sit right now, success and royalty checks sound pretty darn good. I know I'll never have to worry about growing bored with five star hotels or kidney-shaped pools in Beverly Hills, but still. It reminded me that sometimes we strive for success without considering the flip side. Maybe it's a case of "be careful what you wish for."

Have you read this essay? And what's your impression of the above quotes?

And in case you missed it, I was a guest blogger over at the amazing Adventures in Children's Publishing, where I wrote about the power of going for it. I hope you'll stop by for a visit!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Three ways to give your characters True Grit

So I've been thinking a lot about characters lately, and studying ways to strengthen them. I dove back in to Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell, and was reminded of his summary of three characteristics that make great characters, the first one being grit.

He says the first unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction is No Wimps! Characters can start out as wimps, but early on they must develop grit and do something. Grit must be shown in action.

If our story is dragging, Bell suggests looking at the heart of our main character. Is she acting like a wimp? Is she "taking it" without doing anything about it? Courage bonds us with lead characters, so here are some ways Bell suggests we put some fight into the people we've created:
  1. "Think up a scene early in your novel where your characters must show inner courage." One example is she could come to someone else's defense by confronting a bully at school. Stiffening her spine early on will foreshadow a greater display of courage later in the book.
  2. "Or the above character can back down, setting up the necessity for growth." Maybe she sees a victim being bullied and wants to come to the rescue but backs down out of fear. Or perhaps she's pushed toward bullying herself, in order to fit in. She knows it's wrong but does it anyway.
  3. "Play up your character's inner battle at the time of challenge." When our main characters struggle with inner fears it adds depth to our work. As Bell says, "No one except James Bond goes into battle without fear."
If you need help getting to know your characters better, Jody Hedlund's character worksheet is a great place to start.

Do your main characters have grit? Or do they start out wimpy and grow from there? I'd love to hear about them.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Generous Writing Community

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see. -- Mark Twain

As many of you know, WriteOnCon, the free writing conference, took place this past week. I'm still trying to absorb the vast amount of information that was handed to us on a silver platter. My head may explode, or I might become mushy with gratitude, so keep some tissues nearby.

First of all, I'm amazed at the brilliant concept. Writers, agents, and editors spent their time sharing valuable information with kid lit writers around the globe who sat in jammies and bunny slippers, gobbling it all up.

We learned about queries, synopses, revision, marketing, online etiquette, and so much more. I've only absorbed half of the information, and will spend time in the next few days reviewing the transcripts. Which is another clever idea...keeping the information up, blog style, for all time.

For writers who don't have the cash or opportunity to attend national conferences, this is such a fun way to collect advice and inspiration. And what amazes me is that each of these industry pros donated their time and expertise. Wow.

From the moment I set off on my writing journey, I've noticed how generous people in this community are. Whether their genre is kid lit, sci fi, romance, or nonfiction, each person shares what they know and helps others.

And talk about supportive--this community is like a comforting hug when writers need it, and a crazy mosh pit of excitement when someone shares good news.

So I'll use this blog post to plant a squishy wet kiss on your cheek, send a HUGE thank you to the creators of and contributors to WriteOnCon, and a big fat drunken "I love you man" to all you writers out there.

Were you able to attend WriteOnCon? What was your biggest takeaway from it? And what's your opinion of the generous writing community? Feel free to share your love in the comments.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Writing lessons learned from HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET

This book wasn't just an amazing read--it was an experience. The main characters and their tangled lives are still simmering in my mind. What a beautiful, enduring love story. *Sigh*

HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford spins a tale of a 12-year-old Chinese boy, Henry, who becomes best friends and falls in love with an American-born Japanese girl during WWII, when persons of Japanese ancestry were sent to internment camps.

Of course I learned so many great writing lesson from this book, and here are a few:
  1. Choose a captivating title. From the moment I saw this title, I knew this was a book I must read. To me, the title emotes melancholy, conflict, and promise. And it didn't disappoint. For help with titles, agent Rachelle Gardner wrote a great post about how to title your book.
  2. Choose a unique point of view from a familiar time period. I'm fascinated by stories from the WWII era, and I've read many. But never had I read about the existing conflict between Chinese and Japanese Americans during that time. And this POV switched between Henry at 12-years-old, and Henry as an older man in 1986. Fascinating.
  3. Include a tangible representation of something special. In this case, the symbol was an original recording of a 1942 jazz song. This elusive record appears throughout the book, and represents a special time in the main characters' lives.
  4. Readers don't have to be banged over the head with conflict. Instead of a hammer of conflict, the troubles Henry faced were woven into a beautiful tapestry of honor and loyalty.
  5. Tap in to common feelings. Affection, longing, regret. Perhaps most people have wondered about the road not taken, and this author tapped into those feelings with soothing words about characters you can't help but love.
We've all read books we wished we'd written, and this was one of those books for me. Sara Guen, author of Water for Elephants, called it "Mesmerizing and evocative, a tale of conflicted loyalties and timeless devotion."

I couldn't have said it better myself. Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Or is this type of book not your style?

And WriteOnCon starts today! Will I see you there?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Why a messy first draft is a great thing

My home is a hive of activity. A revolving door of kids and friends. Non-stop action in the kitchen (three boys...'nuff said). A mountain of laundry that might dwindle, but never disappears. A pile of "to do" stuff stacked on my kitchen island.

Grumble. Grumble. Grumble.

One day, while grumbling, I had an epiphany. Be thankful for this hive of activity, because that means your home is active, bustling, and full. Our kids are already growing up too fast, and soon all this activity will move on. A messy, crazy home means it's lived in.

I likened it to writing. When pounding out that first draft, our minds are buzzing with activity. Our thoughts might be scattered, and our mountain of ideas demands attention. And the end product? If your first drafts are anything like mine, they're a mess. But here's the good thing:

A messy first draft means you've finished a book.

You didn't just dream about it, or talk about it. You did it. You accomplished something that many people wish they could do. No matter where our writing journeys take us, this alone is worth celebrating. The mess, whether it's minor or major, can be cleaned up. Remember the great advice we've all heard--"First get it written, then get it right," and "You can't revise a blank page."

Would I like to have a perfectly clean and calm home? No, because that would mean our kids are grown and gone.

Would I like a perfect first draft? It would be nice, but it's not possible. In my opinion, the only perfect books are the ones in our heads, not yet written. It's the sitting down and writing, the finishing, and the revision, that separates the wishers from the doers.

Hopefully we can all appreciate our messy houses, and messy manuscripts. Activity, whether in our homes or in our minds, is a great thing.

Do you think it's ok to have a messy first draft, because that means you've finished a book? And if you haven't finished a manuscript, what's holding you back? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Final question--is your laundry mountain always present, or is that just mine?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Do you ever wish for greener grass?

This older post held special meaning for me, and I hope it helps you too!

The grass is always greener on the other side, even in the writing world. We look at other writers and think, I wish I was there already.

Those working on their first drafts wish their wips were polished
Those with polished manuscripts wish their queries were perfect
The unagented wish they had agents
The agented wish they had a book deal
The published wish they had higher sales
Best-selling authors wish they had a movie deal
Round and round it goes

With the right attitude, this can work in our favor. It gives us something to strive for while we're pecking away on the keyboard. Without the proper perspective, this could bring us down, making us feel as if we don't measure up.

I read somewhere that goals are dreams with deadlines. I think it's okay to look past where we are and work our tails off to get to the other side. As long as we understand there are weeds in that greener grass, because there are. In case you missed it, Nathan Bransford wrote an interesting post about When Dreams Become Expectations.

Am I where I want to be with my writing career? I'm getting there. And even though the grass I'm standing on has a few weeds here and there, it feels pretty good under my feet. How about you?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Writers, YOU are courageous!

This was originally posted last summer, but I thought we could all use a reminder!

Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.~Mary Anne Radmacher

I've learned that writers are courageous people.
  • If you've taken an idea, fleshed it out, then put it on paper, you're courageous
  • If you've poured your heart and soul into a story, you're courageous
  • If you've finished a manuscript, you're courageous
  • If you've offered up your work for review and critique, you're courageous
  • If you've typed a query letter and clicked send, you're courageous
  • If you've dropped a manuscript in the mail, you're courageous
  • If you've received rejections, yet continued to have faith in and submit your work, you're courageous
Is there anything you'd like to add to the list?

In the words of John Wayne, "Courage is being scared to death...and saddling up anyway."

You, my writer friends, are very brave indeed!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

5 ways to keep our writing brains active

My family is preparing for a camping & water skiing trip, and even though I'll be gone, my writer hat will still be firmly planted on my head. Writers have a difficult time shutting off their writer brains, and here are some ways we can remain engaged in writing, even though we're on a trip:
  1. Add words to a current w.i.p.--if writers have a laptop, they can continue plugging away on their manuscript. And if they don't have a laptop, they can continue writing by longhand and transcribe those words when they return home.
  2. Plotting--writers can bring spiral notebooks or index cards and plot during down times. I plan on bringing a notebook, along with my favorite craft book, and will continue with plot ideas.
  3. Character study--as I wrote in this post, when we're out and about we can collect character details from unsuspecting vacationers. Perhaps the hunky lifeguard with the "mom" tattoo or the hairy guy wearing the yellow Speedo deserves a spot in a book.
  4. Audio books--if the vacation includes lots of driving, audio books are a great way to pass the time. My son has to read FEED this summer, and his teacher gave us the green light to use the audio version. I've never read this book, and look forward to joining my son as he listens to it on the long drive to our destination.
  5. Read a print book--there's nothing quite like opening a print book and turning the dampened, worn pages. Even though reading great books is relaxing entertainment, it still keeps our writing brains engaged.
When all else fails, writers can just let it all go and enjoy the trip. Sometimes our over-active minds deserve a break!

Is there anything you'd like to add to the list? And do you use vacation time to accomplish writerly tasks, or do you stop the presses and push writing to the back of your mind?