Do your novel’s characters seem bland? A bit too average? Nothing setting them apart from anyone else you have walking around in your pages?

Want to work on that?  Here’s how.

The trick here (and for novices it is tricky) is to come at this problem backwards.

Don’t say to yourself, Humm, I need to make this gal or guy more quirky.  They just do the same old things everyone does. How can they be more I don’t know, better? This character needs more—umph!

Instead, work from what you know.

Don’t think of your characters at all yet. Just think of things you know about people.

What do you know about boys, girls, men, or women?

Not what we all know – that general stuff, those are just clichés that society knows about people.

I’m talking about what you’ve personally experienced in your life about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

These are the bits of knowledge that bring your writing up a notch, and bring your characters to life.

The tricky part is that what you know is applied randomly.

So don’t ask yourself  What do I know about private investigators, or single dads, or bad boyfriends?

That’s coming at things head on.

We’re trying for tricky here – and what needs tricking is your preconceived notions of what you think you know about boys, classmates, brothers, girls, cousins, men, nieces, women, or ex’s.

For instance: I know that an old friend of mine, when he cooked, would talk to himself in a low voice all though the prep; lovingly narrating every move he made.

That quirk of self-talk in the kitchen is something unique that I can take from my actual life knowledge and use as a character’s quirk— in any of my novels. Luckily, it could be used differently on any PI, or a single dad, or a bad boyfriend character I write.

Drawing on character knowledge of this sort will work far better than those societal clichés we all assume we know about people. He is a silent type. She can be a harridan. Teens are disgruntled or sullen.

Those things are rather abstract. The act of self-talk in a character is a bit more concrete.

Now, if you feel you’re not a novice, perhaps you’re a 2nd Tier writer, there is even more you can do.

Ask yourself how this character’s quirk would differ from character to character? That is refining uniqueness for the needs of your story. It also exercises refinement of how you might use the character trait in your character.

How can it be applied on that investigator? How can it be switched up so that it’s nothing as how it would be used for a single dad, or a bad boyfriend? How can you do some serious writing to find what’s uniquely characteristic about your characters?

If all three of these characters are in your story, and you run this exercise for all three of them, one will work a lot better than the others and that is who you’ll give this quirky habit to.

To find that out you’ll need to put that found quirk into a unique circumstance or scene. It doesn’t have to do with your plot (though that’s good if it does); it is there to heighten your characters’ uniqueness so that the reader sees him as real.

Example:

Private investigatorhe’s contemplating going to AA and the self-talk he does waiting in his car while on a case is his way hearing what he’ll sound like if he ever gets up the courage to go to a meeting.

 Single dadHe’s outside the kid’s room, in the hallway, and overhears his two sons mimicking that self-talk Dad does and in a flash, realizes he’s doing okay by them after all, no matter what anyone says.

 Bad boyfriendHe’s there on the couch after a fight, doing that self-talk thing again. But this time your character hears him running baby names options, mixing them with his last name, then a hyphenated version of the FMC’s and his. For one moment in your story, this person is more than a clichéd version of all those other bad boyfriends.

Here’s the final tip of the day:

This is what the experts mean when they tell you that you need to write what you know.

My Call for Submissions for your 200 word excerpts is still open.

Click the link to find out about it.

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A Hint Will Do

May 18, 2013

Novices sometimes fall into shorter lines that only tell where their characters are standing. They only tell the reader ways that characters are moving. It’s all very stage direction-ish. These underwritten shorter lines don’t help tell the story.

There are conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet & so), and there are punctuation marks (commas and semi-colons) that you can use to make a simple sentence more robust.  These revision helpers bring more story to your stories. Read the rest of this entry »

My Life’s Work

May 6, 2013

Attention, Sweden, Netherlands and Finland readers,

 In the last 30 days, my blog’s received 36 views from your countries. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

For the interest, and the return hits. I work often with international clients.

Feel free to contact me for coaching and story-editing services.

Now, on to today’s post:

In my opinion, I’m reading too many self-published novels that could have used some editing before their authors let their work out in public.

When we’re the only arbiter of what is ready for print we can allow our less than best efforts to be published. I think the problem is we don’t look hard enough at our own work. It may be the fact that self-publishing novice writers are in too much of a hurry to think beyond ‘getting it out there’.

Unfortunately, the whole idea about writing novels isn’t getting it out there – it’s writing something that won’t disappoint your readers with its level of craft or skill.

Look at these blog reviews for my short story collection, Claiming One:

What struck me first about the writing is the narrative voice.  It is distinct, commanding, and engaging… The triumph of their stories was due in part to the writers’ craftsmanship and vision, but also to the honesty of the narrative which grounded the fictive worlds deeply in reality.

–         Roof Beam Reader blog

 They were all hard hitting in their own way, each of the characters touching and affecting, which I loved about the book.  The writing was very tight, not overly descriptive, but each of the stories painted a picture in my head that stuck with me.

–         Indie Reviews blog

 The stories in this collection are intimate and reflective. They will leave you with a sense of wonder when you finish each one. As with all short stories, there is a sense that you’ve been left to ponder that there is more than what is on the page. The characters came alive in most of the stories… I usually only read “The Greatest American Short Stories” and “The Greatest American Mystery Short Stories,” so she had a very high bar.

–         Book End Babes blog

To receive reviews like this you need to do the work. You need to not settle for just good enough, common effort. Are you doing that extra work with your writing?

I don’t like having book purchases disappoint me so often. I want every great story idea that the book blurb promises delivered between the covers. I want to see great writing.  This is why I coach 1-on-1 and offer story-editing services.

Aside from being a writer myself, I also want to stop and engage each new writer long enough to help clean up their manuscripts.  To be over-romantic about it, it’s my life’s work; helping new writers to be better than what I now see offered in the self-published fiction and memoir market.

 Novices have great ideas, they want to build wondrous worlds, and accomplish their brave plans, I know I do. But not everyone has enough practice to recognize when their stories have too much summary narration. When there is clunky dialogue on the page. When their overuse of cliches is ruining those great ideas, and brave plans.

That’s what story editors are for. That’s what you learn from coaching. That’s why I want to help.

My blog posts here, and my website with the 52 lessons, are a start. But 1-on-1 work is also offered. I’ve worked well with writers in the US and internationally.   Contact me, don’t let your potential readers down.

 

I coach novice writers, offer services in story editing (content – not proofreading). And though folks like these posts just fine, I could use more clients.  Here’s what I teach new writers in my 1-on-1 coaching, and what I  offer as editing suggestions in my manuscript editing.

Anyone can write first drafts:

Jeri sat at the bar’s table, and picked up the drink. She paused for a second. The smell was awful. But she drank it down, hating the taste.
Laughing was heard behind her, as she sat with eyes closed. Opening them, she gave a look at her companion who was chortling to himself.

Tom teased her about the drink. And it made her defensive.
“It is…offensive,” Jeri  the android replied. Since she’d been discharged and graduated from the Group home, she found still she had trouble eating and drinking.

This is a writer telling the reader things. It’s a great start because the writer got some words down on the page. But it’s only story facts being told to the reader, so far. Very little is shown; we see almost nothing physical, visual, visceral. We can’t see much of what this bar, android, or her friend looks like or feels ‘in-scene’. We can’t hear the sounds in this bar. She must feel how her body is reacting to that drink, she must feel something about being laughed at, and a reaction might be in order because of that laughter.

You write well when you look at the first draft and then try showing a reader that stuff by making edits. And the best edits use senses to show more.

Take a look at the First round edits in the paragraph below. Again, like with most writing advice— This topic is aimed at Showing and not Telling: Telling is saying your character is in a seedy bar, having a drink she doesn’t want. And further, that she is not used to solid foods or drink for that matter. Everything in these paragraphs tells right now, and with the five senses they can show us instead.
IF you show it with senses then the extra words can be removed, which leads to a faster, tighter read: right now, these words tell but they are not visual words that show.

First round edits. Trying to show more:

Jeri sat down at a table in the dim bar, picked up the drink before her and took a deep breath. She paused for a second once it reached her lips, already able to smell it. Gathering herself she tipped it down her throat, baulking at the taste.
The sound of laughter filtered through to her as she realized she had scrunched her eyes shut in disgust. Opening them she shot a withering look at her companion who stood chortling to himself.
“That is their mildest drink, and still you can’t hack it,” noted Tom with a shake of the head.
“It is…offensive,” Jeri replied, looking at her glass. It was nearly a year since she’d been discharged and graduated to human interactions from the Android Group home and still she had trouble with simple things like eating and drinking.

Can this be made even more visual, physical and visceral? Here is a sample list of the senses.

Visual – What does this place we are in look like? Colors, textures, shadows, light. Mix it into the narrative – be sparse in this but show it to us in small ways and do that right up front, don’t keep us waiting. Use the senses to show the reader dimness, or silence, or the feel of residue of old, past spilled drinks on the table or the glasses. The time of day.

Smells – the same as above, is someone taking a drink? Don’t tell us that, “Jeri took a drink.”— have the character smell that drink: not in words like acrid, show us the reaction of acrid. Also, smell that ‘seedy bar’. The sweat of the unwashed patrons – machine oil and welding fumes. The amber lights, that conceal in their shadows – what?

Touch – Is a fan blowing? The air still? Is the glass in her hand cool? The bar none to clean? The bar or table where they sit – is it still damp from a rag carelessly swiped before she sat down?

Tastes – not in words “The drink tasted awful.”— in motion — Show us the reaction of the word acrid. Mime to yourself drinking and hating it. Pushing that swallow down. Then write that for us. What did your body do as it mimed? Put this in new ways. Not the tried and true [acrid stench] but in your words for a mouthful of something you’d rather spit out. Write that feeling. Show us. (Remember your verb exercises.)

Sounds – Did ice tinkle when her friend laughed? Did she slam her drink down in disgust? Did her strength of her grip make the glass squeak as she shuddered from the taste? Did she stifle a noise? Is there music playing, have they heard that song before? Is the music from this galaxy or from back home? Have they heard this song 50 times before, this month alone? Make this place come alive. Then do this for every instance when we are now in a new location of your story. Show it to us.
Second round edits. Writing for senses:

Jeri sat down at a table in the dim bar, her shoulder blades meeting tightly as she hunched, she picked up the unwanted drink before her and took a deep breath. She paused for a second once it reached her lips, already able to smell its inevitable stench, like some caustic chemical stored in drums in the mechanic’s bay. Gathering herself she tipped it down her throat, her shuddering intake of breath bringing its fumes into her sinuses, so that the torture lingered.
The sound of laughter filtered through to her as the noises in the bar bounced and magnified, mingling with the jukebox tunes; the rough scuffing of stools and the angry click of pool cues on ivory. She realized she had scrunched her eyes shut in disgust. Opening them she shot a withering look at her companion who chortled to himself.
“That is their mildest drink, and still you can’t hack it,” noted Tom with a shake of the head, his eyes on his own sweaty drink.
The burning sensation had reached an area just behind her sternum. “It is…offensive,” Jeri replied, looking disdainfully down at her glass, her elbows tight at her sides. It was nearly a year since she’d been discharged and graduated to human interactions from
the Android Group home and still she had trouble with simple things like eating and drinking.

 

What can you do with your own paragraphs? Give it a try, rewrite it using senses and showing verbs. Do it quickly and with the best word choices you can. Don’t be heavy handed with it. If you come up with five ideas for each sense, select the best of the 25 ideas and add those to your first round edit.

Worried that you need a second opinion for your work? Contact me. My rates are low.

We added maybe 80 words or so to our example, but in the final expansion, we also showed much more of this world via senses in the writing that weren’t there in the first draft.

Take any one of your own paragraphs and try this exercise. Make additions that will show us what you see when you visualize your story in your head. The goal is never just MORE WORDS.

If you think coaching will help, I can walk you though these steps in real time.

You’ve been at the grocery store. And something funny happened there, so funny that you want to tell your friends about it. It was so funny, it might be a story you tell to a lot of people. You may even use it in your novel.

So you sit around the lounge at your dorm, or the lunchroom where you work, or some other place you gather at regularly, getting ready to entertain everyone with telling this story. Your friends always like your stories, you’re a person who tells things well, people always listen because they can see you’re a storyteller.

This story from the grocery store has to do with a lady and her four-year-old. It’s hilarious.

Do you start the story like this:

 Standing in the check outline waiting for her turn to be rung up, this lady leans against her cart wearing her old work out clothes. A washed out, pale pink crop T-shirt, her midnight blue workout pants rolled down to show her stomach. Her simple white socks, extend up her ankles, in contrast to the black hair scrunchie which holds her blond bangs away from her forehead. She’s holding her son’s hand, He’s got red hair. And he’s dressed in little, brown Oshkosh bib overalls, with a yellow cowboy belt, along with black baby Nike shoes. Finally her turn at the register arrives…

 

Probably not.

There’s nothing hilarious about what they had on. The funny part was….

Novice writers open their novels with something like this example all the time. With what someone wore. Not why there are being introduced. Not the reason the character is there in the scene, doing something. No reaction from the character to some action for us to see or imagine. No purpose of their existence being illustrated. Just a presentation of the color of their hair, and sixty or more words about what they are wearing.

Novices,

if you see you’ve fallen into this default type of opening to your novel, try to re-vision your opening scene to give us why your character is there in that scene. Or what they are doing there. At the least, illustrate them so we feel we know something about their character, based on your descriptions.

Unless those workout pants and the cowboy belt are part of the hilarity of your scene, save those details, pepper them (lightly) into the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us ‘in scene’.

Use the detail of your characters’ dress or hair color because it reveals something about them– do they consider themselves a fashion plate? That’s a perfect reason to detail their outfit.

Are they proud or vain? Okay, they show them reacting to how they feel about being dressed to the nines.

Wearing something because they just got paid and could now afford it? Did they run out to buy this thing they wear? Show us the purchase, and their feelings about ownership— don’t start and stop with the item, disclose what the purchase means to them.

Is their blonde hair jet black because they hate their parents this week? Does their makeup or nail polish show something about them beyond how they look?

Look at this example here, a few lines about sixteen year-old Cinda:

Cinda’s black bangs nearly covered her plucked eyebrows. The cap on her un-nerving black dyed hair read ‘Cin’ in red embroidered script.  She scratched at her ankle with short bitten nails painted a glossy shade of bruise purple.  A small, neat tattoo peeked out from under her busy fingertips: a tiny green frog. Her toenails were painted the same battered shade as her fingers.

This is nearly the same word count as the example above, but here, aside from seeing someone, we’re also given hints in her actions, in the verbs and adjectives used, about who this girl might be and how she might be acting. Along with getting how she wears her hair, eyebrows, and nails.

Do a search in your work – find those less than storytelling descriptions of clothes and hair color you’re telling us about.  Revise for the action, reactions, motivations, or emotions of the story you’re showing us.

One of the NaNo participants and I worked on critiquing an excerpt of hers. She had a good start, a good story and a nice voice in telling it. So my only feedback had to do with “telling”, where she could be “showing” in her excerpt.

Once she had my feedback many follow-up questions came up.

She wrote:

Phew. I’ve never had anything critiqued before and I had no idea what to expect. Your positive comments really make me feel better about my ability as a writer, so thank you for that. I do have some questions, though. I hope I don’t come off as being stubborn or defensive. It’s not my intention.

In the first paragraph, I’m not sure why the things you mentioned need work. Maybe I’m just misunderstanding, but you seem to be saying that I shouldn’t have the descriptions in there. I thought that describing was important.

So we went back and forth several times, until finally. I showed her what I meant with a physical edit of her original version.

We started with her work- I gave the feedback right in the body of her work:

Before: with a bit too much info-dumping of the bits of story you want to get across to the reader. Look at the bits I call out in the feedback.

“I’m sorry, stepmother. I couldn’t sleep, so I came here to read, but I must have been more tired than I thought.” Genevieve said. <<Good work here, clean and storytelling in how you put this.
“Well, a volume of our victories is certainly one way to cure insomnia.” Lydia smiled at her stepdaughter sympathetically.

“It’s actually very interesting. Telling this for the reader>> [It tells of how our kingdom was born and the seven champions  who founded it all those centuries ago.”] Genevieve said, perking up and forgetting her bad dream. “I only wish I could find out more about who they were and what they did before founding this country. Especially the grand lady who became the first queen More telling things to the reader here>>[of  Catranonia alongside Rudolphus, the first king.] He loved her so much, he even named the Shire after her–”

Lydia put up a hand to stop Genevieve and laughed lightly.

“Yes, I know. I had to learn all of these things before your father would marry me, after all.”

“Oh, of course.” Genevieve looked away sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

After: where the info is not lost, but now it’s incorporated into the storytelling, so it feels less reader-feeder-ish.

“I’m sorry, stepmother. I couldn’t sleep, so I came here to read,” Genevieve said, “but I must have been more tired than I thought.”

Queen Lydia smiled at her stepdaughter sympathetically, as Genevieve rushed on,
“It’s actually very interesting, how our kingdom was born.” She said, perking up and forgetting her bad dream. “I only wish I could find out who they were all those centuries ago, the seven champions. What they did before founding this country. Especially Catranonia, the grand lady, becoming the first queen alongside king Rudolphus… He loved her so much, even naming the Shire afte–”

Lydia put up a hand to stop Genevieve and laughed lightly. “Yes, I know. I had to learn all these things before your father would marry me, after all.”

“Oh, of course.” Genevieve looked away sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”

***********************************************************

These of course are the smallest of changes. And a majority of the original text was retained. Editing doesn’t have to mean re-writing a scene from scratch when you get feedback saying you work has too much info dumping, and not enough storytelling.

The novice I worked with wrote this once she saw the two versions side by side:

Ok, now that I’ve read your edited version, I do think I understand what you meant. Instead of separating the majority of description and such into its own clumps, I should be including it with the actions & as dialogue. Also, it should be more spread out through the scene instead of just  together in one place. I guess that’s what they call an “info dump”? I thought you were telling me to get rid of it all, but I thought I must be misunderstanding because that didn’t make sense.

The things I showed her with my feedback, calling out narration and description and such in the story, were the mixing of telling with showing in the story first.
The really good stories show us the story with less telling.
Which is why I was able to call those bits out to her attention. Because they came across as telling, and not mixed into in scene writing, and she really did have a good story going here.

How about your work. After reading these two examples of before and after clean-ups, can you see ways to bring your story’s information bits into its narration & dialogue?

Want to reach me for 1-on-1 coaching or edits to your manuscript? See my contact info to the right >>

Here’s the big secret:  It’s about writing in scene, and not telling the reader things so that they know what your story is going to be about.

That’s all there is to it.

But saying that means nothing unless you see what I mean: much like your story – it needs to seen, not told to your reader.

Some novices write their first drafts and feel pretty good about them, and then some feedback comes in suggesting they tightening the writing. And  so the novice asks questions, and rightfully, about what they thought was stuff put in for all the right reasons: to inform the reader. Read the rest of this entry »

Writers get this question all the time.

Mainly it’s asked by non-writers; those folks who can’t imagine someone making things up and capturing things on the page.

But, if you are very good at writing, making things up comes in often. Doing it usually makes a story better than any truth you could have told word-for-word as it really did happen.

Very few of us have lives worth writing down. And those of us who are that interesting are usually writing Biography. Not Fiction.

If, so far, you are still a bit wobbly at your writing, you might be relying on the truth a bit too much.  Your stories might be soaked in truth as you saw it happen in your life.

Or in a truth as you need to believe it, about something you’ve experienced.

Try to get yourself out of that. Try taking any portion of your real life you’re tempted to write about, and stop yourself from telling that truth.

Take a risk and write about a new, twisted way truth. Make your original truth something new and interesting by looking at your reality and then putting it away.

Reality is really only good for one thing. To give you ideas.

Here’s a link to one of my stories>> The Giant Rubber Gorilla. Click on the ‘Look Inside’ to read this.

And here’s a post of mine – where I talk about what went into writing that short stories: Writing: The Giant Rubber Gorilla

 The Reality:

I was sitting in the backseat when two other folks got out of the car.

We did drive down the beach that day.

I did see both a bail-bonds place and later a giant rubber gorilla.

What Was Made Up:

All the things that gave the story its problems for each character.

All the conflicts between these three women.

How a can of soda got in the way of things.

All the events that gave the story an ending where something changes for the MC.

So use reality for the right reasons: To kick off things you want to make up. Imagine and move away from the full on truth.

Let your readers be the ones who can’t imagine someone making things up and capturing them on the page.

So many novices offer critiques to other novices about form and style. And often they both miss the fact that fiction isn’t, and shouldn’t be gone about as, essay writing.

They are two different animals.

I read a long time ago that what’s going on while characters say things is just as good writing as using a tag to tell the reader how something was said.

Here’s an example of what I mean. This excerpt below shows a school counselor taking to a girl who’s had a bit of a meltdown in welding class.

Read the rest of this entry »

The End of A Story

December 8, 2012

I’m still posting to the 2012 NaNo forum boards,

And a participant asked this question about first drafts; not the after NaNo editing itself but, a deeper question about when can you tell a novel is done:

 “If you have written all the way through to the end of your story, how can you tell if you’ve really finished? Surely there could always be more character development or other scenes or other scenarios. How do you know when to stop adding and that your novel is complete? I’m really struggling!”

NaNo planning endI thought about that a bit and I thought about all the novels I’ve wanted to continuing writing because I was in love with the characters, when, really, I had finished what needed to be written.

So I thought about what made it ‘The End” and how it was clear to me that I was done writing. I broke down my process and thought about the craft elements that go into a finished work. And after I posted this response, I went over it and added a few things – Here it is for you guys:

You have to know what you want the story to be about. And that has to be a finite thing – the story isn’t about a character.
It’s about what the character will do in a set amount of time.
So you need to decide: What set amount of time are you writing about?
Because anything beyond that story’s set amount of time is just another story about your characters.

A set time for a story might be a summer. It might be a school year. It might be the time it takes a young girl to follow her dream across the world to be part of the famous motion picture industry, but it has to be a set amount of time.

So try to decide on that and then ask if you’ve set your story within those time/length parameters.

Characters have arcs
A boy is neglected and abused where he lives, he finds out he is special, he’s put into a new environment, he manages some deed, and finds a new sense of home.

That’s the end of that story about that boy. Even when there will be six more stories about this boy. That is the end of the arc of this single story. A novel is about a character’s story.

A series is about the continuing adventures of your character.

Scenes also have these arcs: the state of things for your character at the opening of the scene is different at the end of the scene. Or at least it should be.

Chapters are scenes strung together, and again there is an arc – the first scene through the last should show some shifts and changes for the character’s state of being –

  • A shift their way of thinking
  • A change to their circumstances
  • Some new appearance or presentation of their new opportunities

Think about these shifts in movement the writer has caused for the reader, the writer taking the reader someplace: going from the reader seeing him as a boy living under a staircase to the reader finding out he’s the ‘Boy who Lived’, whatever that may lead to.

Many chapters use all those scenes to string together all the Characters’ arcs in the entire book. Everyone has changes in some way due to the choices they made along the way.
One kid makes a new friend. One kid makes a life long enemy. Three kids become a team. A family must accept the changes one person makes to their ‘stable lives’. At the end, all these arcs have happened; they began and they ended.

You asked: Surely there could always be more character development or other scenes or other scenarios.
Yes, there always can be. However, the first story has an ending to it.
Something is achieved. Something is let go. Something is realized. And those things happen between the beginning and the end of the set amount of time.

So, any further character development or other scenes or other scenarios, are stories you write later.
Look for your arcs in what you have now. If you don’t find them, them go back and see where they can be added. This doesn’t mean tacking things onto the end of what you have now. It means fixing the interior of the story.
But– if they are there– then a single story for this character of yours has been told. And you are finished (for now).

Hope this helps you.
ej