Home of Ane Ryan Walker, Teller of Tall Tales, Writer of Short Stories

Tag: Romance Writers of America (Page 2 of 8)

Defining Characters

There are a lot of questions you’ll be asking about developing any character. Some writers like to sit down and “interview” the characters they’ll be working with over the course of a story.

I am not one of those writers.

Is is wrong to interview characters? Yes, and no. If you use this method to delay writing, yes. If you really want to get to know the character before you leave on the story journey, then no. It matters only if you use the interview, or the excuse of the interview, as a delaying tactic to put off working on the story. If the character interview is working on the story, then knock yourself out.

Some of the things you’ll need to know, or will want to ask those characters are what motivates them. In other words, why do they do what they do? In your story, each and every character has a reason for their behavior. That reason is motivation, commonly referred to as the cause and effect of the story. This is part of the conflict that drives your story forward. Characters, no matter how well crafted, are not believable without the proper motivation. For example, the work obsessed tycoon, who is ruthless in business dealings may come from a background of poverty, in which he never knew if he would get another meal. The background of extreme poverty of this type might cause a person to be judgmental of those who waste anything.

If you start out interviewing the character and find the process difficult, just hang in there. It becomes easier as the character takes root in your subconscious

Keep in mind, when the interview ends, the information is for the writer to use as needed. It should not be disposed of in an”information dump” on unsuspecting readers. This interview provides the background that allows you to show us, rather than tell us how a character grew into his role for this story. Like an iceberg, if we see the tip, we know the danger is there without having to view the 80% of the danger which remains hidden.

Gimme a Hero…

As soon as you open your novel, on the very first page, in the very first line…what your character does and says will make or break him/her –and by association, you–as a writer.

You only get this one chance to gimme a hero. He/she must be unique but ordinary, courageous but  vulnerable, strong and weak at the same time. This is the hat trick of writing a great opener. You need to show me and to tell your readers in so few words, the hero who can be real and storybook perfect even while flawed. Get it? Not many writers do. Those that do get it, find themselves in great company and consistently on the coveted “lists”. You know, the NYT, USA Today, and in line for prestigious awards, consistently.

We want the characters we love to be “real”, and what we mean is for them to be just like us. Ordinary people with whom we can identify. But we also need them to be heroes. The fictional characters who allow us to believe that we can step outside the box of “ordinary” and become the guy who saves the life, the child, the day.

So really, what we want is for you to make your characters, less and more at the same time.

Got it?

The most important thing for you to remember now, is that human beings hard-wired to resist change, even when it is for their own good. Your story, if you really have one, is about change.  Change is what brings conflict you cannot avoid. Sounds like a catch-22, doesn’t it? No, its story perfection at its best. It is everything you need to make your story great.

As humans we don’t like change and we don’t like conflict. But for story people, the well-rounded characters that induce others to read your books, conflict and change is excitement. It’s the adventure we seek without having to leave the safety of our living room, reading nook, or our comfy bed.

Again, it is conflict that drives your story forward.

Because the hero needs to grow, to change, to evolve he needs an arc. Show your reader how he meets the challenges your story provides, overcomes the obstacles, or recovers from his defeats, and grows in spite of his hardships and shortcomings. We grow when we win and when we lose.

Conflict

Conflict is the promise we make to our readers. Once we set the stage, bring the reader into our characters ordinary world, it is conflict that keeps him reading our story.

But first, you need to get your readers attention. Building a character that is sympathetic, someone we and the readers can identify with, someone they want to read about. If your hero isn’t likeable, why would anyone want to read your story?

So you open with a likeable character, an ordinary guy, who’s having an ordinary day, when all of a sudden…BAM! things change, and that’s the important part, the conflict. Internal or External conflict you ask? Doesn’t matter. Internal conflict will grab your reader by the guts, and is therefore extremely effective. But if it’s done right, external conflict is just as compelling.

Prologues, often used in suspense or thriller fiction, in which someone usually dies, are effective. It doesn’t have to introduce your main character, but it must be action and connect to the main story. Even when the time-lapse between prologue and first chapter is years, they two still must connect. The prologue should provide conflict (sometimes a death, or another tragedy) that connecst to the main story.

Plot may be the framework, the bones if you will, your story hangs, but conflict is the power that drives story. Think of your heart, pumping life sustaining blood throughout your body, nourish organs, muscles, tendons, etc.

That bears repeating: conflict is the power which drives your story forward to its ultimate conclusion, the resolution of the conflict. In the end, your hero will win, or lose, or walk away. The only choices, but the story that takes him to the ultimate conclusion is driven solely by conflict.

Conflict is the reason your hero leaves his ordinary world. Without a disruption of the characters “normal” there is no story. Conflict is the opportunity for your hero to choose his path in life (story). The choices he makes and the expected results–especially when they are not met–are a powerful drive that keep your reader reading. The main conflict named in the beginning of your story must escalate, in order to keep your reader engaged. Each chapter, each scene, and sometimes every paragraph must demonstrate an escalation of the conflict. Rising tension is the pattern which allows you to engage your readers and bring them back for the next story.

The essence of good conflict is setting your hero up to want something…and then denying him his desire. Beyond that, not only can he not have his desire, but his choice to pursue it should cost him. His situation gets worse, and your reader will vow, “one more chapter” before they consent to leave your story world.

What’s it all about?

There are people who want to tell you how to organize your story. Sadly, writers are individuals. Every writer has, or will have, their own method for telling a story. But two things are essential to storytelling. Plot and structure.

First of all let me tell you that you can take this statement to the bank. Writers are rarely born, writing can be taught, and truly, most writers simply evolve. This evolution is known in the common language as “learning the craft”. Storytelling, like writing, is a craft. Most of us work hard to learn the craft. Of course, every story needs a start. So start with the basics, Plot and Structure.

Plot is simple: P is for the plan, what is going to happen in your story. Don’t start a story without a plan. L is for the lead, the character who will take the lead in your story. O is for objective, the thing your character most desires, what he/she believes that they cannot survive without. T is for the termination, since every story must come to an end. You need to know the end of your story since you will want to have a goal to aim for, like a dock when your ship is adrift. It’s a place you will want to go. Agents and editors want to know if you know the end of your story. Make sure it is satisfying.

Some critics will tell you a story is Plot Driven or Character Driven. While in their minds, or on the surface, this may seem to be true, I will tell you to tread carefully here. Plot is not enough to carry a story without a dynamic character. By the same token dynamic characters who operate without a goal, are people adrift like those who live under a bridge begging for scraps. They go nowhere, and are uninteresting.

Structure is the framework that holds your plot together, with the characters, their emotions and interactions–their growth, if you will–comprising scenes, sequels and the overall story structure such as the three acts, which will effectively show us your story worthy characters and their foray into literary life.

Each of us, writer or not is familiar with three act structure. The beginning, middle and end. The structure is not only simple in its elegance, but solid in its strength. A character is presented with a problem, he/she struggles with it, and finally is either defeated or defeats the problem.

Mythic structure is also a popular template for storytelling. Joseph Campbell explains (and many others have contributed to) the template which provides specific patterns for the course of any story. Be advised, even this mythic structure is based on a three act template.

Just remember, whether you use simple three act structure or mythic journey for your story, the engine that drives it forward is conflict.

Next time: Conflict.

 

 

Hooking your reader

I knew you wouldn’t listen to my advice, you just wanted to start writing, and you know you want to keep those readers reading. So you have to take a look at the hook. You certainly can’t open a story without a hook. You need one, at least one, to capture the initial interest of your readers.

Good news. Hooking a reader with a great opening is a skill you can learn. There are a host of tomes dedicated to the art of the opening hook. I’m even going to list them for you at the end of the blog. Along with several other sites where you might be able to pick up some much-needed craft tips. How do I know they’re good places to go? Because I’ve used them myself.

But for now, let’s address the nature of the hook.

The ability to consistently and productively hook your reader is a difficult lesson for some of us, and comes naturally to others. What doesn’t come naturally, again–can be learned. When and if you are the type of writer who looks to your favorite novels to study the craft, remember tone of the novel and writers voice influence opening choices. Not only must you choose a hook for your opening line, but the opening paragraph,opening scene, and opening page.

But the first sentence is usually the one that seals the deal.

“The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.”

Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

“You better not never tell nobody but God.”

—Alice Walker, The Color Purple

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

“They shoot the white girl first.”

—Toni Morrison, Paradise

“The time has come.”

—Dr. Seuss, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now!

“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms.”

—Victor LaValle, Big Machine

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

—Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

“The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida.”

—Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”

“In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.”

—Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness

Each and every one of these opening lines serves the purpose of grabbing the reader’s attention. Above and beyond getting the reader’s attention, we need to work hard to keep that attention focused on the story we want to tell.

Intelligent readers identify right away when the hook is set that there is more to the story. This is what keeps them reading. To open a story with summary is to dump the backstory in the most unappealing fashion possible. Also, it’s telling–the cardinal sin of good fiction writing. But that’s a subject for another time.

The top ten things you need for a killer opening are:

  1. set up for the story question
  2. story worthy problem
  3. the inciting incident
  4. initial surface problem
  5. Killer opening sentence
  6. a TINY amount of backstory
  7. introduction to character
  8. a glimpse at the setting
  9. excellent word choices
  10. foreshadowing

http://www.darcypattison.com/ read her book, Six Winning Steps Towards A Compelling Opening Line, Scene and Chapter.

http://lesedgerton.net/ Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go

http://sherrysoule.blogspot.com/p/author-bio.html How to Craft a Gripping First Chapter: Learn How to Create a Riveting and Compelling Opening Scene (Fiction Writing Tools Book 1)

http://jamigold.com/ No actual single book at present, but a gold mine (no pun intended) of information for writers, from guest blogs to beat sheets.

Some food for thought, and a few sites to try out, or try on for size.

What Writers Do

Writer’s write. This is what I’ve been told since the first day I declared my intention to tell the stories inside me.

It sounded so simple. You have a story, and you should tell it. Just sit down and write. Simple and straight forward. If only it were that easy. But it’s not. Whether you write for a living or simply to still the small voices inside you which compel you share the story you know, it is never easy.

The worst part, always, is knowing where to start. Most of us don’t know where the story begins with any more certainty than you do where every story begins. That being said, let me assure you every story is unique. There is no right or wrong answer about where to start.

Regardless of the advice you read, and the opinions are numerous, where the story begins is a matter of choice and style. You will learn how to choose what works for you as a writer, and style develops over time. I’ve heard it said you need to write a million words before you find your voice.

No matter what type of fiction you choose, writing a salable compelling novel is difficult. The fiction market is  highly competitive, and to succeed in the marketplace, even if you choose self publishing, you will need to know the fundamentals of good writing.

What you need to demonstrate is a good hook to engage your reader and compelling plot points to keep them engaged in the story. Then you will need to write sharp and tight to keep your story appealing to the audience.

Developing the opening hook is as simple as writing a sentence and as difficult as summing up the entire premise of the story in a few short words. Great opening lines create a question in the readers mind that needs to be answered. That need is what keeps them reading. The need to find out how the characters arrived at this moment and what happened to them. But more importantly what will happen next?

Hooks are also used to close scenes and chapters. These scene and chapter endings being the opportunities for a reader to take a break and put your book down. If you don’t want that to happen, then ensure that you’ve posed and important question as to what happens next?

Don’t worry about spending too much time on that opening, because for the most part, other than writing, most writers re-write. And it is not only likely, but highly probable, that re-writing is in your future.  If you don’t master the opening on the first pass (And I bet you won’t) you will have plenty of opportunities to re-write then opening into a fine tuned and lethal hook. Because the thing most writers spend their time on is re-writing and editing.

Where do I start?

I’ll be the first one to say, in spite of the excitement which accompanies starting a new project or a new book, there is also an element of fear.

Fear is the one thing which diverts our attention from a project which we anticipated, and causes us to doubt if the endeavor will be successful. In fact, fear is the number one thing that can hold us back in many areas of our lives, including our stories.

When the time comes to begin a new project, no matter how vested I find myself in “the story idea”, I have a process I use to ensure there is in fact enough story to fill out the form to completion. The process is simple.

First, make sure the idea of story is engaging. What that means is, do you have a good place to start?

Knowing where to start is tricky. Some will say you must first set the stage for your story. Others will assure you that the story begins when the characters ordinary world changes. Only the author can decide how much stage setting is required. I like to combine the small glance at the hero or heroine’s ordinary world at the moment change tempts her to action.

So the real trick is then, how can I best show the hero/heroine’s ordinary world at the moment of change?

This is the point at which talent challenges endurance, when you write at least four to five rough draft story starts.

But before you ever set out on this path, it’s important to know what you’re writing for. Sounds odd, doesn’t it? Really, this is the most crucial step. Is writing a hobby you use to pass extra time? Or is writing a business endeavor that might support you in the long run? Now is the time to decide. You must make this decision before you start.

Approach to a task will tell whether or not success is at the end of the road. If you write for your own pleasure, have at it. You need no further advice or direction from me or anyone else. Just sit down and start writing. Don’t let anything or anyone deter you. Writing is, for many of us, pure joy. It allows us to search through and examine the minutiae of our very souls.  This type of writing can bring insight, inspiration and sanity to an otherwise overwhelming areas of our lives.

If however, you write with the intention to be successful, then you must define for yourself what success means.

For some writers success is simply seeing their work in print or ebook. For others the feeling of success comes from recognition by others, such as “making the list” whether it is the NYT or USA Today. Other writers seek simpler affirmations of success such as monetary gain. No problem there. We all like to be compensated for the work that we do, and estimated by an hourly wage, writing income is low unless you enjoy best seller status where advance money is high.

If you determine success by income from writing, let’s say self-publishing and ebook sales, then you should first determine an amount of income that meets your specific needs. Next you should formulate a plan that will ensure the income you desire. This will require further work on your part to determine what the most saleable type of book you can write, and how you should promote it for maximum return on the time investment you make. The investment is made by every writer on the front end.  Only with advanced success will you be able to hire out or delegate the time and effort necessary to promote your book to success.

Apologies & Introducing a New Book

For the past several weeks I’ve been offline. Yeah, computer problems. Everyone has them and most of us suffer in silence, or just moan and whine a little but press on when the problems are resolved.

I won’t do that. I have decided this is an opportunity to strike off in a new direction and share a new start with all of you.

First things first. I will take you through how a novel is structured, how the idea seeds are planted and how the book is brought to full growth. A lot goes into planning and executing a novel and I will tell you exactly how to get started.

Week by week I will share how to structure the story, how to build a solid foundation and how to deal with the twists and turns that present themselves along the way. You will choose how your story will start and end, and also decide how much to write.

I hope that these step by step suggestions and guidelines will answer some of the many questions I receive about where ideas come from and how to recognize the fertility in the good ones.

So please don’t abandon me, because I certainly didn’t abandon you, and I will be sharing information you might find useful.

Thanks for reading.

Trust

We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone – but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy.”

― Walter Anderson

This post speaks to the issue of sharing your work with others. I know, I know. You write for the satisfaction of having created something from the sheer fabric of imagination. You want to see what materializes from the vapor of pure imagination, and if the story burning in your heart and mind can be told, understood, and shared.

Unless you take the leap of faith and share your story with others you will never know. Remember, it is a leap of faith. As creators of fiction we are timid in sharing our story for fear of our “baby” being deemed ugly. And keep in mind, not every one will love your story. Some may even dislike it. But the stories we write are not for others, but rather for ourselves and those who can identify with the story we need to tell.

Sometimes the most difficult people to trust with a story is our family and friends, who may feel compelled to tell us  our  stories are wonderful.   The people we love, and who love us, often feel compelled not to criticize, even in a constructive way. They don’t want to hurt our feelings when we truly desire to hear their thoughts in hope of finding our way onto the path of success. So who do we turn to?

Sometimes we need to approach and engage strangers to help us judge the merits of our work. We need to be selective in the approach, seeking out readers who will and can give constructive feedback.  This method will more likely ensure assistance in a forward motion rather than annihilate our hopes and dreams.

Beyond that we need to listen. Often, authors who are overly sensitive complain of being unfairly criticized. “They just didn’t get me.” “No one understands what I’m trying to say.”  Do we stop to consider that we, as writers, aren’t making our intentions clear? That editing, and possibly re-writes are in order?

Not every writer is fortunate enough to have a mentor. Not every writer can approach a critic–and every potential reader is a critic–and find the help her/she requires. We have to trust sometimes that the criticism we hear, especially commonly repeated criticisms, are true. When these criticisms are repeated, we need to assume they may be true. Trust your judgement.

 

Opinion vs. Reality

   “Don’t let someone else’s opinion of you become your reality.”

― Les Brown

 

Do you sometimes put too much stock in what others say? Spend too much time worrying what other think? These are the two foremost traits of the dreaded internal editor. They are deadly to the pursuit of a writing career.

I’ll be the first one to say we all need a little help from our friends. Critique partners, mentors, like minded aspiring writers, Beta readers, and of course the professional editor whom we hire to help us make our work …better. That is the end goal, a story that is just better. and that’s a good thing, right?

But there sometimes is just too much of a good thing. So we have to know when to say no.

You know you can do it.  Say it with me now. I appreciate your input, I honestly value the time and thought you gave to this, but I just don’t agree. But make sure you know the reason why you don’t agree and that the reason is justified.

Anyone can correct my grammar. Almost everyone does, because sometimes it’s necessary. I have a thought, and not being the best typist, it goes down hard and fast. Mostly hard, and often incorrect. In spite of that, I sometimes don’t take well-meant advice if I feel it interferes with “voice”.

You are always allowed to say no, even though many times you shouldn’t.  There are those writers who come seeking advice and encouragement who want you to approve their choices. And that is not always possible. When the writer refuses to listen to the reason for changes, they don’t approach– and are certainly not receptive to– improving their writing.

The opinion most authors have of aspiring writers who fail to follow advice is often quite low. If you don’t understand the reason for the suggested changes, ask. Listen carefully, sometimes it is simply a matter of structure or placement, not big changes in the grand scheme of things.

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