My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Odds and Evens

Three Rings for the Elven-kings . . .
Seven for the Dwarf-lords . . .
Nine for Mortal Men . . .
One Ring to rule them all . . .
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

Ever wonder why cats have 9 lives? Or bad things come in 3s? Or why The Coasters sung about Charlie Brown on his knees, “yellin’ 7 come 11 down in the boys’ gym?”

In almost every culture, odd numbers especially those between 1 and 13, are thought to have magical powers.

A few decades ago, when I began seriously studying creative writing, my first writing teacher said, “Never stop with an even-numbered draft. Your second draft will be crap, and your fourth draft will have the life polished out of it. It you get as far as draft six, either you don’t have a good handle on your story or you’re telling the wrong story.”

At the time, I thought he was crazy. Why wouldn’t draft 2 be just as strong as 1? Or 4 just as enticing as 3? It was my story, and if I wanted to work it not just 6 times, but 8 or 14 or 22, what was the harm in that? But he was not only my teacher but my student advisor as well, and I wanted to graduate. I nodded, wrote what he said in my notebook, and got on with life.

Thirty years later, I’ll be doggoned if he wasn’t right.

For me, a draft is a completed story, written all the way from, “It was hot in Los Angeles. I was working the day watch out of robbery. The boss is Captain Gannon . . .” to “On September 15, a trial was held in Superior Court in the State of California . . .”

Writers have a multitude of ways of getting through the first draft. Some breeze straight ahead, building a skeleton from which they will hang the story in subsequent drafts. Some dog-paddle in circles through the chapters, returning to revise earlier material as they get a better grip on the tale by working through it. But there comes a day when that first daft is finished.

Why draft 2 is crap
The second draft is where I have to get over myself as a writer. Oh, my gosh, I’ve written an entire book! I hear Wordsworth’s intimations of immortality running through my head. This is going to be my break-out book, the Great Canadian Novel, the book where the world realizes my true worth as one of the literary giants of the age.

It’s also the place where I insist on carving square pegs so they fit round holes. I wrote the climax chase through a multi-level shopping mall. It’s not working. I carve, shove, write additional pages to mitigate the problems, and then write more pages to mitigate the mitigation. Kicking and screaming all the way, I finally ditch the shopping mall and take the chase to a park. Works much better.

Eventually, common sense sets in and a book becomes just a book again. That’s called draft 3. If draft one runs on pure creative energy, draft 3 gets it’s power from a rhythm I hear in my head, the feeling of “being in the zone.” It’s where the music of the story flows.

Why draft 4 is lifeless
By the fourth draft I am bone weary of this stupid story. I’ve worked on it far too long. The characters are cardboard. The dialog is flat. The story makes no sense. It’s all been done before by writers far, far more talented than I will ever be. This is where my husband looks at his watch and says, “Yep, the meltdown is happening right on time.”

Most times, for me, the draft 5 is the magical one. I’ve achieved as good a balance as I can between all the disparate elements. The characters are moving, talking, and acting like real people. The plot may actually hold one or two clever bits, and the story, as a whole, hangs together. I control the language, have sorted out the grammar and may have figured out where those pesky commas belong, though some commas are always a toss-up. Sigh.

If I’m not there by draft 5, there is something radically wrong with the story, just like my teacher told me would happen. Usually, what’s wrong is that I’m not risking enough. The stakes need to be higher, and the characters need to lose more. It’s time to seriously look at if this is a story I should be telling, and if it is, to cycle it back to the new draft 1 of a greatly revised story.

It’s almost enough to make me believe in the power of numbers.

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage when it is composed, an architectural one when it is built, and a textile one when it is woven. ~Walter Benjamin, critic and philosopher (1982-1940)

Next Tuesday, April 1, I hope to see you back for Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident. Why is today different from all other days?

No, it’s not because that will be April Fool’s Day. Think of us as your respite from silly jokes.

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Characters — Part 4, The Antagonist

Not all killers are villains. For that reason, I’m calling this kind of character antagonist, not villain. I’m not writing about psychotic serial killers or what I call accidental killers. “He fell and hit his head. I panicked.” The crime in the latter isn’t murder. It’s covering up a murder, which can in itself, make a good mystery, if there is sufficient motivation for the cover-up.

Some characters are forced by extraordinary circumstances into committing an extraordinary act.

Why people kill

“All the motives for murder are covered by four Ls: Love, Lust, Lucre, and Loathing.” ~ P.D. James, The Murder Room

If the four Ls aren’t enough motivation, try the medieval church. They had a good handle on motivation, called the seven deadly sins.

  • Extravagance, which interestingly enough mutated into lust. Originally intended to reflect a over-desire for everything material, we now think of it as applying primarily to sexual appetite.
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Pride

I think being the bad guy or gal boils down to hunger and hopelessness. At some point, antagonists realized they will never have enough—fill in the blank [money, power, prestige, sex, love, control]. The world as a zero-sum game: If you get, I lose, and vice versa. Not having enough is the hunger; playing a zero-sum game is the hopelessness.

Losing something provides more motivation than never having had it. If our protagonist fantasizes about booking the most expensive cabin on a cruise ship, but is actually traveling in a tiny inside cabin without even a porthole, she might daydream about miles of glass windows, a private balcony, and a jacuzzi. But if the man in the next cabin actually cruised in such luxury, but is now forced by circumstances into a similar tiny cabin, there are a lot more possibilities for deep-seated conflict.

Unless, of course, time is running out. If your lady in Cabin 24H has only a short time to live, and this is her absolutely last chance to experience the luxury suite, all bets are off. She might be desperate enough to kill to get an upgrade.

One among many
A classic mistake mystery writers make is to have one antagonist and several red herrings: characters who didn’t do it, but who will be investigated and proved innocent. If we start by knowing James is the killer, and as an afterthought decide, okay, maybe Ralph, Connie, and Marie might have done it, the reader is a lot more likely to figure out who did it. This is because we have applied more energy, invested more time in developing James than we have the other three characters. All potential suspects need to be developed with the same attention paid to the real killer.

Start by not knowing who did it. I might want James to be my killer, but I rather than say he is, I say he’s one of four characters who, along with Ralph, Carol, and Marie might have done it. Then I work through a short set of questions about all four of them.

The first things that swim by
“Big ideas are known as The First Things That Swim By. They swim by first because [popular culture] has cut such deep grooves in our consciousness that our imagination shoots down these grooves faster than dumped water down sluices. We must learn to not take the first thing that swims by. Piddle around with our passions and perceptions until we come up with a fresher idea. ~ Claudia Hunter Johnson, Crafting Short Screenplays that Connect

Books abound with antagonists who were abused as children; embarrassed at school; grew up in poverty, or conversely grew up in extreme wealth but without love; missed getting a promotion; or were threatened with losing their job, spouse, or business, etc. What will set my antagonist apart?

What this boils down to is not settling for easy answers to the questions below.

Defining Our Antagonist
Developing good antagonists should take at least an hour per character. It sounds like a lot of time, but the antagonist is half of our plot. Writers, as a whole, tend to spend a lot of time on heroes, but quickly skim through thinking about bad guys and gals. Who wants to dwell on badness? As writers, we have to.

If I have four potential antagonists, I try to spend at least four hours on their development, not necessarily all at one time. In fact, it works better for me if I do one character, let some time elapse, and then tackle the next character.

  • What was the first moment the character realized he/she would never have enough [fill in the blank]?
  • Why does the character see life as a zero-sum game? (Chances are it comes, at least in part, from something that happened in her childhood.)
  • What was the last straw moment when the character’s life changed? (It may happen in the book itself, or just before the book begins.)
  • It’s not socially acceptable to display openly the four Ls or the seven deadly sins. Chances are that the character has a cover story. She says, “I love shopping in second hand stores. Not only do I save money but I’ve found some great designer clothes.” In reality, she seethes with anger every time she walks into a second hand store.
  • How has the character built and maintained his/her cover? Is the cover story holding, or is the underside beginning to peak out?
  • What stakes are high enough that the character will narrow the funnel until murder is the only option?
  • How does this story happen from this character’s point of view?

“Plot from the murderer’s point of view and write from the detective’s point of view.” ~Earl Stanley Gardnier, mystery writer

Once in a great while, I’ll discover that I was wrong, that Carol makes a much better antagonist than James, but most times not. Our instincts are pretty good for knowing the bad person from the start. What will have happened, though, is that our red herrings have become a lot easier to write and a lot more complex and ambiguous. Ambiguity keeps the reader guessing, and that’s a good thing.

I hope to see you back for Thursday, March 27th. for Level Thinking: Odds and Evens. Why are second drafts and second books in trilogies often disasters? Why do first and third drafts or books work much better?

Next Tuesday on Write the Novel: The Inciting Incident. Why is today different from all other days?

Writer's life

Level Thinking: Listening to Stories

Once, in a short story, I read about a man who could not tell stories. Embarrassed at this lack of social skill, he practiced. Standing in front of a mirror, he rehearsed how to hold his head, his facial expressions, how to use his hands to illustrate the story’s climax, and when to raise or lower his voice. He became a hit at parties, but in the end he rehearsed one story too many. That was the story of witnessing his brother’s accidental death. When it came time to talk to the police, he had the details down too pat.

I’ve always like my stories more spontaneous. My friend Edward’s tale of hitchhiking from South America to the U.S./Mexican border, crossing through several countries, without a passport. What happened when my music teacher literally bumped into Queen Elizabeth while she was emptying used tea leaves into her flower bed at Balmoral Castle. How an acquaintance’s father was killed by cannibals in New Guinea.

We all know what makes a good story. Intrigue. Suspense. A breaking down of barriers. A touch of the exotic. Of course, timing is everything. Some stories should only be told in a cheap diner, over a plate of sizzling French fries, at two in the morning, after a night of partying. Others work better under a big pecan tree, in a circle of aunts, where clicking of knitting needles and ice tinkling in large tea glasses punctuate the details.

I suspect that writers—even young proto-writers—have natural antennae for stories. One of the first lessons we learn is not to interrupt. We might miss something if we did, or worse, the storyteller might be distracted and never come back to finish the tale. Another thing we become good at is listening to the same story more than once, because we’ve figured out that the same story is never really the same.

There’s always once nuisance, whether it be a small detail or the change in tone of voice, that suddenly reveals more about the story behind the story.

When I was about four years old, my father’s job kept him away from home for several days at a time. My mother didn’t like being at home alone with two small children, and she had a cousin, who also travelled in his work. She was quite glad for her cousin to stay in our spare bedroom when he came through town. One day, in the grocery store, my mother was talking about her cousin to a neighbor. I was having a hard time remembering who the cousin was and my mother reminded me he had an alarm clock that made a noise I found funny. “Oh,” I said loudly in the middle of the store, “You mean the man who comes to stay every time Daddy’s out of town.”

That was when I learned that some stories were sacred, or at least private.

“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” ~Eudora Welty, southern writer

2014/03/20 Update

This was our view from our balcony door as we greeted spring this morning.

Welcome Spring 2014

At least something in our apartment looks springlike.

At least something in our apartment looks springlike.

Welcome Spring 2014
Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Characters – Part 3, Enhancement

Last week I wrote about a starter kit for developing characters: 10 areas than can lead to quick and easy character creation. This week I’m enhancing what we can do with that starter kit.

 Eliminate orphaned characters

Get a big piece of paper. List major characters, leaving a lot of space among the names. Draw lines connecting the characters. If you’re familiar with the late Gabriele Lusser Rico’s Writing the Natural Way, you’ll recognize what we’re doing as clustering. What we’re looking for relates to jobs in the starter kit: not only why is this character in the book, but how characters connect to one another.


Chart produced on a MacIntosh, using Scapple

Pay particular attention to orphaned characters. Orphaned characters have only one job in the book. In the example above, Bob is an orphaned character. I need to either assign the role of Andrew’s boss to another character or find Bob more connections. He could side with Jon over Macy in their power struggle, or be Terry’s suitor, or both. Finding Bob at least two other jobs places him solidly in the story. Making those additional connections would also strengthen Terry’s and Jon’s roles, too.

 Enter the character

Introduce the character in media res; that is, smack dab in the middle of doing something doing something with a high physical and/or emotional content.

One mistake writers make is to introduce a character in the middle of normal life, so that the reader gets to see what they were like before the book started. Big mistake. For why, and how to correct that misconception, I strongly recommend Donald Maass’ The Fire in Fiction.

 Make each character stand out (or not)

Give each character unique ways of relating to the physical world. This includes their physical description, clothes, food, living spaces, possessions, and their relationship to each of these.

When a reader begins a book, she has no idea which characters are important, and which are there to smooth the way into the story, but will never be seen again. She pays the same amount of attention to every character until she figures out how who is important and who isn’t. Here are some things that authors do to help a reader find her way.

Background characters who make the first chapters flow — the doorman who opens the heroine’s car door or the dry cleaner who ruined her best dress can be used to set events in motion, but should be mentioned only in passing. The more details the reader learns — that the dry cleaner is named Moe, he’s fifty-five years old, he lives over the shop, and he speaks with a New York accent— the more the reader expects Moe to play a major part in the story.

A phrase can covers what’s needed to move the story along. “On Tuesday, the dry cleaner ruined my best dress. I was so upset I had three mocha lattes in a row. If I hadn’t been over-caffeinated when City Alderman Terrance O’Donnell showed up without an appointment, things might have been different.” Now the focus is on what the character’s reaction was to the ruined dress, and how that dress sets the story in motion.

 The Power of Three

A character doesn’t usually gel with a reader until they have been seen at least three times, in three different roles or relationships. It’s important to gel all major characters with the reader as soon as possible. There is no hard rule about this, but as a general guideline, all of the major characters should be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind by the end of chapter three. The only exception is the detective(s); it’s hard to have him or her show up before the first body is discovered. But then, there are endless discussions about needing a body by the end of chapter three as well.

If there is a need to hold a character in reserve past the first three chapters, at least make a general reference to them. When the heroine says, “The guys who really piss me off are the ones in thousand-dollar suits, with the look-at-me attitudes,” the reader expects a man, a suit, and an attitude eventually to show up.

 Place the Character in Context

This is a good place to go back and review the blog about the difference between context and backstory. Context is a big plus at the beginning of a book. Backstory isn’t.

The author contracts with the reader to provide an ah-ha moment where they recognize the character as someone they know in real life. ~Bouchercon 2003 panel

I hope to see you again on Thursday, March 20, for Level Thinking: Listening for Stories.

Next Tuesday, March 25, I’ll complete this four-part character series with a look at what makes a good villain.


Level Thinking: Creativity and Aging

Susan Perlstein is one of my favorite people. She founded Elders Share the Arts in New York City, and is the Founder Emeritus National Centre for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. Several videos of her speaking can be found on-line. Search for her name.

These are some things  I learned from  her about creativity and aging.

Creativity is scary as well as having a lot of positive values. The arts are deep play. Current brain research shows that as people age, both sides of the brain integrate. Younger people tend to be more right-brained or left-brained, but older people are whole-brained. One surprising thing that brain research has shown is that when the brain is stimulated with real creativity, brain tissue grows more dendrites, that is, the brain reserve gets larger. The immune system also grows stronger.

In North America, the shift from a negative, medical model of aging into what can older people offer has happened since 2000. Elders Share the Arts (New York City) started by collecting stories and transforming them into all art forms. This grew into the first landmark research on creativity and aging in the US. The research was carried out between 2001 and 2005. Since then every study done has added to the body of knowledge that show that the health of older people involved in creative artistic expression group improved significantly in all areas. They:

  • lived longer
  • visited the doctor less often
  • took fewer medications
  • incurred less health care costs
  • had fewer falls
  • increased their visual acuity, if they were engaged in visual arts
  • had more friends and social contacts
  • increased their sense of mastery and control over their lives, even in non-art areas
  • had increased confidence
  • increased their ability and willingness to problem-solve and locate and use resources
  • experienced less depression
  • appeared to have a deceased risk for entering long-term care

The National Center for Creative Aging also came out of that research. They continue to promote art projects for older people. The organization’s goal is to pair as many senior’s programs as possible to arts organizations on the local, state, and national level. They have wonderful on-line resources. If you are involved in any organization for older people, this is a great site to check out.

Total respect for life experiences is the base and heart of artistic programs for seniors. These are not “keep busy” projects. We are talking professional art instruction, public performances and art exhibits, and social integration into a multi-generational group.

Stop thinking of arts for older people as follow-the-dot kits, sing-alongs, etc. where all the person has to do is slap on some paint or try to remember the words to old songs. Real creativity starts with the blank page, the lump of clay, a drum, or an empty stage.

Stop using bland, non-controversial subjects, such as having older people paint a bunch of flowers on a table. Tap into the individual and cultural heritage that every older person has and allow art to grow out of the richness of that heritage.

Real artists deserve real working space, and real display space. Stop thinking of art for older people in terms of “Art Corners” furnished with second-hand furniture and third-hand, close-out-sale art supplies, where finished projects are Scotch-taped or pinned to a bulletin board with thumbtacks. Get artists into real art studios, real performance spaces. Mount the pictures, frame them, and display them in galleries. Put actors, poets, musicians, and writers on stage. Make CDs. Do desk top publishing. Organize living history festivals and present them in real venues.

Think partnerships. It’s not a matter of corporations or governments making a donation and walking away. Close the circle by taking the art back to those same organizations in the form of art displays, performances, etc.

Train people already working with older adults in the arts; train artists in working with older people.

Form intergenerational liaisons and projects whenever possible. Connect to local school curricula and build artist/school links, such as linking a seniors’ centre and a school in the same neighborhood.

If you want a look at some older people totally immersed in their art, I recommend both of these films, which I throughly enjoyed.

 Film: Do Not Go Gently: the power of imagination in aging

2007, 57 minutes, US production, narrated by Walter Cronkite. This film once had it’s own web site from which it could be ordered, but that site seems to have disappeared. The link is to the Internet Movie Data Base listing for this filem

Explores the thoughts of older artists and others involved in creative aging. How important is imagination to the experience of being human? What are the most inventive artists expressing at a very old age? And why? This is a very powerful film, featuring:

  • Arlonzia Pettaway, 84, quilter from Gees Bend, Alabama.
  • Frederick Franklin, 93 ballet artist, who’s still dancing and teaching younger dancers
  • Leo Ornstein, over 100, musical composer and pianist
  • Several groups around the US, which offer artistic programs for their senior members

 Film: Still Kicking

2006, 35 minutes, US production

Amy Gorman invited Frances Kandl to journey with her throughout the San Francisco Bay Area searching for female role models—very old women, still active artists, living with zest. While Amy chronicles their oral histories, Frances is inspired to compose songs for several of these women, many well past 90, culminating in concerts celebrating lives liberated by age. Artists featured:

  • Frances Catlett, 95, painter
  • Ann Davlin, 93, dance and piano teacher
  • Madeline Mason, 101, doll maker
  • Elsie Otaga, 91, ikebana artist
  • Grace Gildersleeve, 95, rug weaver
  • Lily Hearst, 108, pianist

“If you don’t have a sense of wonder, you can’t create. Wonder begins when you ask a question to which there is no clear answer. The question and answer must flow through one another. The question must be the answer and the answer must be the next question.” ~Ted Blodgett, City of Edmonton, Alberta poet laureate, 2008-2009

If you’re following my Tuesday series on Writing a Novel, I hope to see you back on Tuesday, March 18 for Character Development, Part 3 — Expanding the Starter Kit

Tips, Writing

Write the Novel: Character Starter Kit

I love role-playing games and have gamed in a lot of universes: cyber-punk, Cuthulian 1920s, science fiction, and my eventual favorite, what’s now called steam-punk. One of the reasons I came to love Space 1889 was that the characters were fast and dirty. I don’t mean that they lacked personal standards of either morality or cleanliness, but they were quick to create. To play, all I needed was to pick a primary career, a secondary career, and a handful of attributes. A few rolls of the dice, and I was ready to play.

In one of my first writing classes, my instructor gave us a list of 100 questions to ask our characters. Novice that I was, I went away and tried to go through the entire list with a couple of characters. At the rate that went, my character profiles would be longer than the book I intended to write.

Using the Space 1889 philosophy, I knew I needed a way to create quick and dirty characters, so I could jump into play, er, writing. Here’s the 10-point starter kit that I now use for my first attempt at character creation. Believe me, I didn’t think up all this good stuff by myself. Where I learned about something from a far better writer, I’ve given that person credit.

One: Dominant impression (Debra Dixon)

Two words—one adjective and one noun—that summarize the character. The noun is not the same thing as a profession, but may indicate a role similar to that profession. Or it might relate to something totally separate from what the person does for a living. For example, my character might run a corporation, but she’s also a woman who likes control. She has to be in charge, whether it’s at the office, or deciding what wine to order in a restaurant. When I describe her dominant impression is a stern boss, I’m referring to that need for control, not the fact that she occupies the CEO’s office.

Two: Tag line (Debra Dixon)

One sentence that describes the character’s main motivation. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s tag line was, “There’s no place like home.”  For E.T., the tag line was “phone home.” For Indiana Jones, it’s “Why does it always have to be snakes?” Though we try to avoid cliches in writing, this is one place that cliches are useful. A tag line of “party hearty,” would immediately give us a different impression of a woman than “nothing says loving like something from the oven.”

Three: Flawed life view (Liz Lounsbury, also writes as Liz Jarret) Sorry, I couldn’t find a site for her.

What has the character gotten wrong about life and/or relationships? Example: my protagonist thinks it’s great to encourage and protect other people, but he himself must not accept encouragement or protection.

Four: The line in the sand (Donald Maass)

What is the one thing the character is convinced he would never do? What would happen if she crossed that line? Example: She’ll never tell who really financed her college education and why. When she does tell, the police reopen a cold case, and her mother is suspected of murder. Here’s a hint, as soon as we set up the non-crossable line, it becomes our task to maneuver the character so he or she must cross that line.

Five: Jobs (Carolyn Wheat)

A job is not what the character does for a living; jobs are why characters are in a story. Ideally, each character should have at least 3 jobs.

Jordon is in this book because

  1. He’s the person who cooked the books at the modelling agency.
  2. He saw Carla on River Road last Friday night.
  3. He’s the second murder victim.

One-job characters are notoriously boring. They appear, deliver their clue or red herring, and disappear. Give that one job to another character and delete the one-job character.

Six: Dangerous secret(s)

What does the character know that is dangerous to another character? Sometimes it’s similar to, but different, from line in the sand. The line in the sand must involve a moral or ethical line the character firmly believes he/she will not cross. A dangerous secret may involve a moral or ethical line, but it doesn’t have to. A character might keep a secret out of fear, or a promise to another character, or because life would get very messy if that secret was out.

In many cases secrets provide the best red herrings because the character’s motivation can be misinterpreted. A classic example is the song Long Black Veil, ©1959 by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill. The guy in the song has a good reason for not telling the judge where he was when the murder was committed, and in the end, he pays for keeping his secret.

Seven: Emotional profile

  • Where does the character’s heart lie? Equally important, what does the character’s heart lie about, even to himself?
  • What does he value and why? Does he attempt to hide his values? Why or why not? What has it cost him to value this? What rewards have come from valuing this?
  • What’s more important to the character, hiding or expressing this emotion? Why
  • What emotions are most important?
  • How does having this emotional profile make her stronger? Make him weaker?

Eight: Defining moments (Donald Maass)

What were three utterly defining moments when the character’s world turned, and he could never go back to being what he’d been before? The first two moments can have happened any time in the character’s life; the third one should happen very close to the book’s beginning. It may happen in the early part of the book. This third defining moment is one answer to the question why now? What happened to set this book in motion?

Imagine a glass so full that it has a dome of liquid on top, held there by surface tension. Put one more drop into the glass. Of course, everything spills over the side. That’s what the third defining moment does to the character, and the spilling over the side forces the character into the story.

  1. When Vanessa was seven, and her sister was nine, they saved a man from a burning building. They were the youngest people in their city to ever be awarded lifesaving medals.
  2. Three years ago Vanessa’s sister moved away and adopted a new identity because life had gotten too much for her to handle. Only Vanessa knows where she is.
  3. This morning, the man whose life they saved years ago shows up in Vanessa’s office. He wants to start a Foundation to fund special projects for burn units,  but only if Vanessa and her sister agree to be the spokeswomen for the Foundation. Is Vanessa going to tell him where her sister is or not?

Nine: Defining ages

This one is highly culturally significant. What I say below is true for a character living in the last 100 years or so, usually with a European or North American background. If we write characters from other times and places, we need to research what turning points are important for people at that place and time, and use those ages as our markers.

In what year and what place, did the character turn 6, 15, 18?

  • At 6, most children enter school. It makes a huge difference to who the character is if she turned 6 in Austria, at the beginning of World War II, or turned 6 in Kansas in 1985.
  • At 15, a lot of cultural norms are laid down. It’s the music we hear at 15, the clothes we wear, or our favorite junk food that, almost always, marks the good old days.
  • At 18, a person faces career and education choices. Again, it would make a difference to how a teen-ager was shaped if he turned 18 in downtown Detroit in the summer of 1968, or in suburban Boston in 2004.

Ten: Just the facts, ma’am

  • Name: we talked about names in last week’s blog
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Racial background/heritage
  • Level of education
  • What activities fill a character’s day?
  • Sexual orientation? Relationships and how are they going?
  • Physical description: how does the character see himself/herself? How do other people see him/her?

Join me on Thursday for some thoughts on Level Thinking: Creativity and Aging (Here’s a hint: it’s a positive feedback loop.)

Next Tuesday, I’ll do Characters, Part 3 — Fleshing out the Starter Kit

My point of view, Writer's life, Writing

Level Thinking: Writing Myths

There are some pervasive myths out there about writers and writing.

Writer Myth #1: writers make good money

At least with mystery writers, the average time between when a writer decides get serious about writing and publishes her or his first book is eight to ten years. Advances — not great to begin with for the majority of writers — are shrinking, or in some cases, disappearing. Writers now pay for things, such as editing and marketing, once covered by publishers. In order to survive, many of us rely on day jobs, or have significant others who have day jobs.

Go the self-publishing route and make lots of money? These days, anyone can write and publish. The question is, can we market and distribute? For many writers, the answer is not well enough. The average self-published writer sells less than 100 copies per book.

Most of us aren’t in this out of the goodness of our hearts. We want to make more money on each book, and we also know doing that will be a long, hard slog. There is no way we could keep doing this alone, year after year.

Writer Myth #2: writers are lonely people

Yes, there are many solitary hours at the word processor. Yes, as deadlines approach we become testy. It’s a good idea for friends and family to go away for a while until we get over the testiness. Writing is tough. Writers need a support system.

Having both feet firmly in the mystery writers’ camp, and having at least a passing acquaintance with romance and speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) writers I know that most writers are warm, open, gregarious, generous people. We love to get together at conventions. We love to be part of critique groups. We love to have dinner, tea, a beer on a restaurant patio, or just plain conversation with other writers. We worry about one another and try to do whatever we can to smooth the way for each other.

On-line writing friends are great, but I encourage you also to seek out other locak writers who you can see, in person, once in a while. If possible, join a critique group. If you’re a mystery writer check out Sisters in Crime, and, if you live in Canada, also Crime Writers of Canada.  Both groups offer incredible personal support. For the guys, yes, SinC has both men and women as members. We sometimes speak fondly of our Sisters in Crime and our Brothers in Law.

Writer Myth #3: men and women have equal opportunity in the mystery/thriller market place

Sisters in Crime was founded in 1986 because of a real discrepancy in the way women were given access to reviews, shelf space, and awards. Have things improved? Somewhat. Late in 2005 Sisters in Crime has compiled a yearly review of parity between men and women in things like reviews in major review publications and awards. For the 2013 report, go here. Reports from 2005 to 2012 are available on-line also.

Sub-myths about the market place

Women write cats-and-tea-party mysteries; men write the real stuff. Wrong. Both men and women are writing the entire mystery spectrum from the traditional mystery (formerly known as cozies) to the mean-street noir, and beyond.

If women want the awards, they should write like the men. I beg your pardon, what century are you living in? What sells mysteries? Enticing characters, complex plots, and terrific writing. Neither gender has a lock on those three things.

You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down. ~Annie Dillard, writer and journal keeper

Writing is fun and messy and hard. Ignore the myths. Follow Annie Dillard  to the nearest cliff and jump.

Next Tuesday on Writing the Novel blog: Characters, Part 1 of 4 – The Character Starter Kit. Hope to see you there.

Tips, Writing

WTN: Character Names

Great character development makes or breaks a book. I mean that in both ways that sentence can be read. Readers will forgive some things, but they will never tolerate pale, wishy-washy, cardboard characters. Characters have to be great. Character development has to be strong.

This week I’m starting a four-part series on character development. We’re starting simple: those all-important character names.

Choose names very carefully. Pay attention to the meaning and the sound, and to connotations that people will give a name. ~Elizabeth George, mystery writer

Give each character a unique name

  • Our character list should contains a mixture of starting letters for both first and last names, sounds, number of syllables, and in some cases, ethnic origins.
  • Having characters named Brian, Ben, Betty, and Barbara in the same book will be confusing to the readers.
  • So will having Mr. Morgan, Ms. Michael, Mrs. Morton, and Dr. Maliche.
  • It’s not just first initials that trip readers. Similar endings such as four friends named Macy, Stacey, Tracie, and Dulce isn’t a good idea, either.
  • Tim, Bob, Sam, and Ann is not an inspired cast of characters.
  • Limit the number of names and titles referring to one character. For example, a character named William Smith, should not be referred to as William, Bill, Billy, Willy, Willy-Boy, Mr. Smith, the Boss, and Old Red-Face by different characters.

Names shouldn’t antagonize the reader

Sometimes references to physical characteristics are used for characters whose names aren’t known to the protagonists. Our heroine might notice that the man trying to shove her into a large black car has terrible breath. She refers to him as Halitosis. It’s a quick fix, and at least it gives a way to refer to the character, but be advised that some readers hate this.

If there is more than one character sharing the same descriptive title—several doctors, or priests, or detectives—give each character a unique character sketch so that Father Jones won’t be confused with Father Rafael or Father Whitcombe.

Unless dealing with a turning point, where a previously unknown connection between two characters is revealed—for example, when detective learns that a suspect’s maiden name is the same as a murder victim last name—make it clear immediately how characters with the same last name are related, or if using name confusion as a plot device, that they are not related but frequently confused.

Welcome the World

We are a multi-cultural society, and our character lists are growing more multi-cultural, too. Suppose I need to name a character who was born in Ghana. Searches for common ghanaian names and common ghanaian last names will at least give me a starting point. One of the sites said that Ghanaians popularly name their children with names related to the day of the week the child is born. From another site I found last names for prominent Ghanaians. From those two sites, I tentatively decide to name my character Abena Lartey.

Warning —Names on the Internet — There are a huge number of naming sites on the Internet. Many are a quick compilation, with absolutely no accuracy, and in some cases as fanciful as Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings names. Never use the Internet as your sole reference.

What I would do with my Ghanaian character is to find someone from Ghana and ask them if Abena Lartey was a reasonable name for a woman from Accra, the capital of Ghana? Have I accidentally named her after anyone famous or notorious from Ghana? Have I unintentionally violated a cultural taboo? Perhaps there is a reason that the Lartey family never name their children Abena. Names can be more complicated than you think.

Using real people as characters

Do a quick Internet search for each character name to make sure we haven’t inadvertently used a famous name. We may not recognize Colin Kaepernick, but readers who  know football will recognize the San Francisco 49er’s quarterback. Does that mean we can’t use Colin’s name? I’d have second thoughts about it if Colin was my killer or portrayed in a negative way. And it might be just as simple to change the character’s name to Charles Kaepernick.

While we’re at it, we also need to check out the name of any business we create. Delta Construction and Siding is a real Calgary company. If I’m writing a story set in Calgary, that matters. If I’m writing a story set in Cleveland, and there isn’t a similarly named company there, it matters less.

Does this mean we can’t use real people/businesses? They’re famous so anything goes is a myth. No matter what’s happening in the real world, that doesn’t translate to giving us permission to use a celebrity in any way we choose. Yes, we can use real people, but also yes, they can bring legal proceedings against us if they don’t like what we write.

Authors sometimes make friends or co-workers characters, or offer appearance in a book as a prize. Any time we intentionally use the name of a person we know, we must get written permission from them. And we need to give them an idea of how they will be represented. My best friend might be delighted to know she’s the perky owner of the coffee shop where my protagonist has breakfast every morning, but less thrilled to be portrayed as a homeless drug addict.

Don’t make more work for ourselves than absolutely necessary

As authors, we have to type characters’ names thousands of times. I wrote a character recently with the last name of Reid. Remember the old rule: i before e except after c? Clearly this name violated that rule. Every time I thought of that rule I misspelled the character’s name. Sometimes I misspelled it Reed. That short name gave me so much trouble that half-way through the book, I changed it.

First or last names ending with s are also difficult to manage when it comes to possessives, and the rules are changing. For my character James Snograss, it is James’ alibi or James’s alibi? Did Mr. Snograss’ boss or Mr. Snograss’s boss say he was in meetings all Tuesday? It will depend on which rules our eventual publisher wants us to use, so when I use names ending in s, I know ahead of time that I might have to edit the final manuscript to make it consistent with what my publisher wants.

It’s embarrassing when an author can’t pronounce the name of her characters. We need to look ahead to our public readings by saying each character’s name out loud to make sure that they all flow trippingly from our tongue. And also to make sure we haven’t inadvertently created a double-entendre name. Say Lotta Beaver aloud, and you’ll see what I mean.

Take Away

Start a character chart. I use five columns: first name, last name, age, birth year, and jobs. Hmm, I seem to already have two characters whose last name begins with P. Wonder if I should do something about that?

Sample of character chart

Sample of character chart

We’ll talk more about the importance of age, birth year, and jobs in later character development blogs. The first two columns are a good way to check for name similarity. I use a simple rule: no character first or last names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, unless that multiple-use has a significance. For example, it wouldn’t be unusual to have twins whose first names begin with the same letter.

On Thursday, March 6, I’ll bust some writing and writer myths.

Next Tuesday, March 11, Character Development, Part 1 — The Starter Kit

I hope to see you back for both.