Doubt

Learning to write well is a road of peaks and valleys. At the moment, I am plunging into a valley. My story is unraveling in front of my very eyes. The cause? Too many characters.

ofphtMy critique partners all say the same thing. The work is too confusing, and the characters have essentially become talking heads in their minds. At first, I brushed the comment aside as coming from a partner unfamiliar with the fantasy genre. I thought of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, a fantasy close to bursting at the seam with bodies. I thought of Tolkien, King, and Rice, and the league of imaginary men, women, and children littering their stories. But, since other people stepped up commenting on the overabundance of people in the sentences I’d strung together, I had to face the truth.

Old Souls is a novel narrated by Lucien Navarro; the content is 100% limited to his perspective: the world as he sees it and the characters he encounters. Maneuvering the story through his narrowed view is a challenge. It’s not like television or the movies, where other cast members can simply linger in the background of an important conversation while throwing in the occasional line. This is a book, a hallucination I’m luring my readers to imagine in their brains. The reality is, if the characters in the background of a scene are not referred to often enough, they will, in effect, disappear.

So, how do other authors get away with their plethora of players? Usually, with an omniscient point of view, where the narrator is a god able to dip in and out of the consciousness and histories of any character they wish, building scenes which focus on various cast members independently.

My book won’t work like that. The only solution? Seek and destroy.

ofq59I’m finding the cuts to be hard, to put it mildly. I know these people. I made them.

In addition to the surplus of characters, I also have to gut and revise my first three chapters, and that’s hard, too. I also have to change the way the political system works, and THAT’S EFFING HARD TOO, okay? Sometimes writing comes easy, and sometimes it doesn’t, it’s one of the rules of the game. In the past I have spent months away from my book, trying to rally the willpower to tackle it again. Right now, I am doing my best to avoid another spell *shudder* not writing.

i-dont-know-how-she-does-it_104921-1024x768The reasons to put on the brakes are piling up. My house needs a deep clean. My children are off school. My husband could use some support while tackling his new career, which actually brings in a paycheck.

Added to all of that is the ever present, first-time-author doubt that my book will suck, nobody will buy it, and all of my work will have been for nothing.

But, my book doesn’t suck. It’s pretty good, actually, and after a couple more rounds of edits, it’s going to be pretty freaking great. And that’s what I have to keep telling myself. If you’re struggling, that’s what you have to tell yourself. Not giving up in this stage of the game is what’s going to separate me from the millions of authors who attempted the very same thing I’m trying to accomplish right now.

Getting the bloody thing finished.

(Which I will do, after this short break.)

Cheating

If there’s anything you should know about how I write, it’s that I am a cheater. I have cheat sheets. Loads and loads of cheat sheets. You might be surprised when I say this, but learning to write (well) is almost like learning another language. The language of capturing EXACTLY what you mean.

Whatever I’ve learned about writing has been from studying books and blogs, and with the help of the variously aspiring and successful authors in my critique groups. I had an idea for a book I couldn’t get out of my head, and have been trying to teach myself to write it. I didn’t go to university. I travelled. I bartended in Australia. I lived the life I wanted to, and then became the stay-at-home matriarch to a tribe of blonde-haired little hellions CHERUBS, the youngest of which will be starting kindergarten *gasp* this fall. oa8fe

Because I didn’t go to university, my cheat sheets have become my text books, my writing bibles. In fact, I’m whipping up a new sheet today based on a critique I received for Chapter 17 of my upcoming book. This new addition to my bible is all about emotion.

My problem with describing the emotional reactions of my characters is this: I tell. I’m a tattle-tell. Saying that your characters are sad or scared is just so EASY. But, a large chunk of writing actually lies in the things you don’t write. Readers like to figure out what’s happening on their own. In real life your mom usually doesn’t tell you she’s sad she’s got to catch a flight back to Winnipeg. You don’t get that play-by-play. But, you’ll see it in the slump of her shoulders while she’s washing out your children’s sippy cups just before she goes.

Let me elaborate. Wherever possible, I like active writing. Active writing means you have to use active words instead of passive ones. Example:

Sarah was given her diploma by her professor.

Fix:

Sarah’s professor gave her the diploma.

This put me into a bit of a fix as far as writing emotions. It’s so easy to say:

Sarah was proud.

But, that’s passive. My (wrong) solution to the dilemma is something I have seen in other people’s work as well.

Pride welled in Sarah’s chest.

See? The was is gone. I activated the sentence. Problem solved, right? Wrong. Don’t do that. The emotion is not welling in Sarah’s chest. The reaction does not rule her body. Don’t NAME THE EMOTION. That’s telling. Show.

Sarah accepted the diploma, beaming, her heart pounding.

Your readers will then be able to understand Sarah’s pride all on their own. Not just that, they will connect with her. They will identify with her racing heart, they will picture the wide smile on her face. Simply announcing her pride will, in effect, distance your readers from feeling the emotion themselves. And, isn’t that why people read fiction in the first place?

Dan Alatorre (best selling author/figurative kicker of my writing as#) wrote a great post about describing his character’s emotional reactions in his blog.

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One thing I’m constantly telling new writers is to show what’s happening to the reader, don’t just tell the reader it happened. That’s what people mean when they say “show, don’t tell.” When it comes to emotions, that’s harder, so I ask them: How does this physically manifest itself?

If you’re scared, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Put your hands to your face

Raise your eyebrows

Back away

Hold your breath

If you’re angry, what do you do physically, that can be described?

Clench your fists

Clench your teeth

Hold your breath

Stomp your foot

Turn red in the face

Look at those neck muscles. Wow. Tense.

Maybe a vein starts to stick out…

(Google an image of a person expressing that emotion and write down what you see. We’re visual beings, so we understand what we see. If we read it, we visualize it. Same thing.)


He has some other really great bits of advice on the subject too, so go check it out.

In time, hinting at these emotions without NAMING them will come more naturally. When I began to practice actively writing my story, my brain hurt. I had to take breaks after just an hour or so. Although I haven’t mastered it, I’m a lot better than I was. I’ll get better at this, too.

So how did I write out my cheat sheet?

Like this:

Happiness: Smile, laugh, hug, dance, hum, giggle, swing arms and twirl Julie Andrews style.

Grief: Slumped shoulders, cry, sob, cover face with hands, stare at the wall, tremble, hard swallows.

I’ve added roughly forty various emotions and a wide range of reactions which register for me. I think each writer experiencing difficulty conveying their character’s emotions should do the same. We all see the world differently. And, it is that perspective that makes the “voice” of various authors so interesting. What they notice about human behavior that their readers haven’t.

Do you make cheat sheets?

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Building Character

I have never loved a character quite as hard as I loved Lestat de Lioncourt when I was fourteen.

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The Brat Prince had me swooning from the moment Louis began lamenting to his interviewer about just how very hard it is to be a vampire. Anne Rice created a world in her books that I could not get enough of, built with a cast of the most interesting characters imaginable. (Don’t argue with me, this is my blog, okay?)  As a teenager, I read her books over and over just to spend time with them. This love of character is why I write today.

When I began to write Old Souls, I developed my characters first. I printed index cards outlining their physical characteristics and personality traits. And, these characters have become . . . disturbingly real to me.

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Different writers handle their characters in different ways. Some writers, like Charlotte Bronte, hardly delve into the physical attributes of their characters at all, allowing readers the freedom to picture the cast in their own way.  While I appreciate that style of writing, and loved Jane Eyre to the book’s very core, that’s just not my jam.

Now, while writing index cards outlining a character’s appearance and sorted quirks is one thing, weaving these qualities into a story is another beast altogether. Many new writers will stop the flow of their story completely to describe their players.

nzhyeOne of my favorite characters in Old Souls is named Iris. In my index cards, she’s a crazy looking older woman with bleached blonde hair and too much makeup. But that’s not how I describe her in the book. Here’s a snippet of the first chapter to show you what I mean:

The woman arguing with Marly sat at the bar, her back toward me. A tangle of bleached blonde hair extended past her hunched shoulders from her much darker roots. The smell of the cigarette smoke polluting her tattered clothing wafted through the air as I descended the steps to the main floor. 

She spoke to Marly in a scattered slur. “I said I want a drink, you snappy little twit. I’m a paying customer, you know. Doesn’t that count for anything anymore?”

“And, I said I’m not serving you. It’s time for you to go.” Marly waved upward, directing the woman’s attention to me.

I placed my hand firmly on her thin shoulder. She looked up. She was older than I’d anticipated, closer to seventy than fifty if one was to believe the lines running rampant on her face. A thick layer of mascara coated her eyelashes, her cheeks heavily caked with makeup. As she stood, I realized the woman was only a few inches shorter than me.

Her eyes widened–so lightly blue her irises were almost clear–and then narrowed as she considered me.

I hooked my arm around the woman’s back, trying to usher her from the pub. “Marly’s right. It’s time for you to go.”

The woman stayed her ground, seeming suddenly, strangely sober. She laid her hand on my chest.

“Lucien?”

I looked at Marly, wondering if she’d told the woman my name. The blonde bartender stepped back with her hands raised, seemingly absolving herself from the situation. I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought that because I was schizophrenic, I knew everyone else who seemed a little crazy too.

“Do we know each other?” I asked the woman, for Marly‘s benefit.

“It is you.” A smudged, red-lipped smile spread across the older woman’s face.

I examined her again, noting her bronze, wrinkled skin and filthy clothing. In truth, there was something familiar about the woman‘s face, though I couldn‘t place it. Maybe I knew her after all.

“The Mother is looking for you, Lucien. Even after all these years. She’ll be sorry when she sees you like this, though.” Reaching out to poke the excess weight of my stomach with a twisted, arthritic finger, the woman grinned mischievously. “My, haven’t you gotten fat?”

Now, I could have stopped the story completely to tell the reader: she had dark roots and long blonde hair and a hunched back. Her fingers were twisted and arthritic. She smelled like cigarettes, wore too much makeup, and spoke like she was drunk. Her clothes were wrinkled and her skin was bronze.

But, I know which way I like better. The key is to keep your descriptions in motion. Words like ‘had’ and ‘was’ ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS. Action is. If your character has brown hair, point that out to your readers by having that brown hair wave in the breeze, or fall over their face while they laugh.

Don’t tell me she had twisted arthritic fingers. Have her jab my stomach with her twisted, arthritic fingers. Don’t tell me her eyes were so lightly blue they were almost clear, have her look at me with eyes so lightly blue they were almost clear.

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Good! But, this is a skill that will take some time to develop. If, like me, you’ve decided to teach yourself to write by diving into the novel writing world, you will find that by the time you’re ready to attack that second draft these descriptions will come relatively easy in comparison to when you began. Building your cast of likeable/detestable characters is one of the most important aspects of writing a great book. Spend time getting to know them, getting to love them, and your readers will love them too.

This is one of my favorite descriptions from Interview with the Vampire:

“It was as if when I looked into his eyes I was standing alone on the edge of the world…on a windswept ocean beach. There was nothing but the soft roar of the waves.”

Can you think of a better way to say ‘he had blue eyes?’ How do you keep your descriptions in motion?

 

The Value of A (Good) Critique Partner

Showing your work to someone else can be very scary.

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It’s something I know better than anyone. Showing your work to other people is . . . painful. But, coming out of the closet to find the right critique partner is one of the most valuable steps an aspiring author can take to improve their work.

To illustrate, I’d like to show you a long abandoned draft of the (deleted) prologue to my upcoming novel, Old Souls. Even though this prologue was something I worked on WAY too long, I knew it wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t until I found a great critique partner that I realized my writing left a lot of room for improvement. But, this critique partner did what all great partners will do, encouraged me to KEEP GOING.

Jenny,

Very good work. The story is engrossing and you’ve brought life to the page. I like the character’s internal voice and his situation is interesting. You’re on the mark overall with what you’re doing. You do have some writing problems/weaknesses, but if you focus, you’ll be able to correct them easily. Or maybe not easily–what’s easy? But you’ll be able to correct yourself. I like the project. Stick with it.

She then proceeded to rip the work into shreds. Below, my original work is in bold, and her notes are italics:

I would like you to know right from the beginning, that I do not (DON’T –GO FOR CONTRACTIONS –WHY ARE YOU USING STEPHEN KING’S LANGUAGE?) enter into the writing of this story lightly. Because you see, as far fetched (FARFETCHED) as you may come to believe it, it is (IT’S) my story. I can only hope that on your part, you will not (WON’T –ETC–CONTRACTIONS ARE MORE NATURAL) enter into the reading of it lightly either.

During the course of the last month or so, I have begun and discarded [its] (THE)  first chapters several times, trying simply to decide where to begin. There is (WEAK SENTENCE OPENING–WHAT DOES `THERE IS’ MEAN? –IT’S A PLACEHOLDER) just so much to say. I have since decided that writing it (WHAT IS THE `IT’? USE A WORD)  from it’s (ITS)  beginning would make for a book which (THAT–LOOK UP `WHICH VERSUS THAT’) would be, in it‘s (ITS –THIS MEANS `IT IS’ –GET OVER THIS HABIT) thoroughness, entirely to (TOO) long to be read by even the most curious members of the fast-paced culture that we live in today.

And, I want my story to be read.

Besides all of that, if I were to start the tale at it’s (FIX) beginning, much of it would take place long before I was born, and[,] although that part of my history is coming back to me more and more every day, I’ll admit to you openly, here and now (COMMA) that I still do not remember much of it.

I had (CONTRACTIONS) thought for some time that I could simply start on the day that I was born, and relay to you all of the things that, over the years, Vi has told me about myself as I was then. Or (I MIGHT GET UNDERWAY –OR WHATEVER –IF YOU LET THE WORK REST AND THEN READ, YOU’LL FIND YOURSELF GOING `HUH’ JUST AS A READER MIGHT) on the afternoon that I killed the only boy in my school who had ever been nice to me. And then I considered beginning by describing the weather on the morning that I was committed to the J.L. (GENERALLY A SPACE BETWEEN INITIALS) Doucette Psychiatric Hospital of Nova Scotia, and follow up with all of the horrors that I endured during the eight insufferable years that I was locked behind it’s FIX solid, red oak doors. I even wrote a few drafts that began on the day that I was released, and while walking aimlessly around the hospital gardens for the last time, realized that despite serving my sentence – (DO YOU KNOW HOW TO CREATE A DASH? NO SPACE ON EITHER SIDE AND TWO HYPHENS OR `INSERT SYMBOL’ AND INSERT AN EM DASH) though it had never been called that, I would never be free of the burden of guilt that clutched my heart.

But I am (CONTRACTIONS) not going bore you with all of that. I might, should the whim arise, tell you briefly about one or perhaps even all of these things, but I certainly will not (WON’T) start there. Because I want to begin at the exact moment that I woke up to the world around me and the jigsaw pieces of my life, jumbled as they had been, began to come together. So that you, dear reader, will have the best chance of believing me, when I tell you that I am not crazy.

And we can begin (YOU REPEAT THE `BEGIN’ VERB A LOT–VARY WHEN YOU CAN) our revolution.

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Now, when I read her notes I was embarrassed–but I also felt like my world opened up. My writing needed work, but it was worth saving. In one fell swoop, my critique partner highlighted several weaknesses that I could easily address to improve the quality of my writing.

In a five hundred word piece, I learned:

  • Writing with contractions dramatically improves the flow of first person narration
  • Its is the possessive form of ‘it’
  • The difference between an EM dash and an EN dash, and when to use them
  • To watch for word repetition, highlighted here with the repeated use of begin
  • Not to begin a sentence with: ‘there were,’ and ‘it was’ (these are filler words, which don’t mean anything)
  • Generally, a space is required between initials
  • Farfetched is one word

Now, many of these points are obvious (in retrospect) and a couple are not. But, whether you are a writer who is just starting out, or one who has been published with shining 5 star reviews, chances are your writing leaves some room for improvement too. In my mind, you will never learn as fast in the closet as you will with a great critique partner.

In turn, you will have to offer suggestions to benefit your partner’s work. Sometimes you will find yourself looking up grammar and punctuation rules to ensure you’re right before passing out advice. This will help your writing too. If you don’t feel comfortable examining the technical aspects of other people’s writing, you can focus on their plot, plot holes, and pace.

If you’re just dipping your toe in the writing waters, find a writing circle that works for you. And, if your partners don’t encourage you, if they don’t add fuel to your fire and offer helpful suggestions, dump them and find replacements.