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

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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.

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.

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.

 

Learning the Craft

   “Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

― St. Francis of Assisi

In order to write that novel you always talk about, or dream of writing, you must start. I know you may not have the skills required to write the next great American novel. I get that, you know that, we all agree it’s not happening. But where do you start?

You just start.

Don’t stop by the Idea Store and purchase anything. Don’t ask your mother, father, girlfriend, boyfriend, or your best friend what they think. We all know they have opinions. Everyone has an opinion.Your opinion is what counts in the immediate moment.

A seasoned writer usually has developed a method for determining if they have enough idea to sustain a story, and what size of story (word count) the story idea can support. They have a good grasp of what it takes to make a story work, and this is why seasoned writers don’t always discuss their ideas until they’ve determined if the story has legs. Can it stand on its own?

For the beginning writer, there is no valuable advice –especially for a first novel–other than to start writing. That’s correct, just take a page from Nike, just do it.

You could of course, ignore this advice, and attend writing classes, make an outline, fill out character sheets or do character interviews, design a storyboard, ask for advice from other beginning writers and do any number of other things that only delay your writing. That’s correct delay your writing.

The number one reason unpublished authors experience a failure to launch, is basically simple; it’s a failure to write. We each have a certain amount of words we need to write before we can identify our own voice. Some experts say you won’t recognize your voice until you’ve written a million words. Now, I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know you need to start writing.

My first book was a fantasy novel, beautifully written with engaging descriptive backgrounds that made critique partners “see” the landscape of the novel. Yea for me! I’m good a world building. They told me the characters engaged the readers and all were anxious to see what would happen next. Yea for me, great character development. One critique partner described my passages as “liquid poetry”, and I was flattered, and amazed and felt so good about my writing. Except 400 pages into the story, the characters great adventure, no actual plot was found.

That’s right No Plot, BIG Problem.

I didn’t know what my weakness was until I started writing. Based on this experience, I never start a novel, novella, or short story without knowing the full plot. Every pinch point, every turning point, every reversal and big black moment is down on the sheet before the writing begins.

You have to determine what your own shortcomings are, and define your style, before you can learn the craft skills necessary to become successful. Once you have accomplished this, then the life long learning begins and you may have your feet firmly planted on the road to success.

 

 

 

Goal Setting

People with clear, written goals, accomplish far more in a shorter period of time than people without them could ever imagine.

― Brian Tracy

Happy New Year!

Time to make some resolutions, right? Wrong. We generally as a species don’t change things even when we plan to change. We are all, on some level, resistant to change.

It’s that time of the year when we need to reflect, reevaluate and sometimes even reinvent ourselves. So this year instead of wasting time and energy on making promises you are not likely to keep, why not reflect and reevaluate with a goal for the future that you might actually accomplish?

Reflect on your behavior, attitude and experience in 2014.

What did you learn?

Did you take a class? Perhaps you attended a conference? Read a “How To” book? Or maybe the opportunity to learn from life experience presented itself in one of life’s more awkward moments? This year I learned to practice what I preach the hard way. In one of those priceless lessons from the universe I slipped and fell at the gym and couldn’t return to working out or even get around very well for more than a month. This gave me the opportunity to slow down, and reflect.

What did you do?

Did you take a class or achieve an instructors level in a  life long subject you’re passionate about? I have two friends who each accomplished  life long goals of doing things for themselves. These women have spent many year nurturing others and at long last, they each achieved instructor level proficiency in subjects near and dear to their hearts. One became a Yoga teacher and the other a certified Padi diving instructor.

What is your big dream for 2015?

Most of us, at some point or another in our lives assemble a bucket list. The simple list of things we hope do not become a legacy of regret. The way to avoid regret is to spend your valuable time taking your dreams from the dream state into reality by making a plan. Planning your future is always a good thing. Make sure those benchmarks to achieving your dreams are measurable, specific, and realistic.

Well, mostly realistic.  Sometimes you need to go for the moon in order to reach the stars. Plan big.

 

Feeling Anxious?

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

― Charles Spurgeon

Hold that thought. Really, I mean literally, hold that thought. Sometimes we fail to realize how our environment affects us. The other really big thing we often ignore is how our attitude affects others.

Because as writers we are in the position of being “solitary” in our work, the social impact of workplace drama is often lost on us. As individuals, we lose the resonance of dealing with social groups on a daily basis. It certainly does not affect those who still remain at the day job, but for this purpose, as aspiring writers we suffer in our solitary confinement.

During our office/daytime hours we learn to deal with the interaction and drama of the group and to minimize (or not) the effect it has on us as individuals and as it relates to our work. When the drama quotient is high we learn to protect ourselves by mirroring or reflecting the temperament of others as is necessary to each situation. It is often referred to as survival instinct. Through this type of behavior we absorb the energy of others and often adopt the temperament of others in our shared situation. This is also possible when we interact with our writing groups.

In these shared situations we need to pay attention to how we are seen by the people around us who we influence with our words, our behavior and our actions. When the value we project is not consistent, the message we send is not only confusing but often misinterpreted.

When we take the time to “adjust” our attitude for the task at hand (writing /working) we have an opportunity to assess how we are perceived by others, and if the encounter is a positive or a negative to the others involved in the encounter. To do this affords us the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. The value here is simple, if you took the time to share a smile will it lighten someone elses dreary outlook? Will a reassuring pat on the hand be the touch that ignites a spark of kindness multiplied as it is passed on? We fail to realize that sometimes a simple word of encouragement can transform bitterness to hope.

That transformation is a writer’s gift.

 

 

Dreams and Disappointments

The size of your success is measured by the strength of your desire; the size of your dream; and how you handle disappointment along the way.

― Robert Kiyosaki

 

So NANO is finally over, and even if you didn’t win the 50,000 word challenge, you still may be able to count yourself a winner. Sounds odd, doesn’t it?  Well, I’m always telling you that how you view your life is important.  Now that ‘s more true than ever before.

The first year I signed up for the NANO challenge, I didn’t quite make it. Like so many other thing, even with planning, my attention got diverted. My schedule got really busy. Did you realize that Thanksgiving is right there in the third week (usually) of November? Oh, and the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sadly, the road to publishing and a career in writing is not paved at all. It is difficult terrain, which demands dedication and courage every day.

But I didn’t let that deter me the following year. Yup, that’s right, I signed up again. I bet you’re asking yourself, why? If I couldn’t see it through the first time what would ever make me think the next year would be any different. Did I think I was a year older and wiser? Older, yes but wiser, no.

What I did realize was that if I didn’t light a fire under my sorry A$$ I certainly wasn’t ever going to wake up younger and more successful at a writing career.

Was I disappointed that I didn’t finish what I’d started the year before? Yes.

Would it improve my experience, age or situation in any way, shape, or form if I just ignored my mistake from a year ago? No, it would not. What I decided to do was learn from the mistake I made.

The first year I was looking for perfection. Yes, that is correct, I had unrealistic goals. Foolishly I thought I could knock out 50,000 words, (I can) and they would be perfect (they won’t). I thought having accomplished the task of writing 50,000 words, I would have a novella at least to send off to a publisher who would be so enamored of my unique literary style that I could enjoy most of the eleven months preceding NANO, still publish a story a year and laugh all the way to the bank.

Are you done rolling around on the floor laughing yet? Let me know when you are, I can wait.

At this point in time you must understand that I really wanted to be a writer. I did not realize, because I wrote every day that I already was a writer.

When I sat down and applied myself to the task at hand, that’s when I became a professional writer.

Now, even if you didn’t finish NANO, here are some guidelines, and I mean guidelines, not rules.

  1. try to write every day
  2. stop beating yourself up if you don’t meet your goals, just try harder tomorrow
  3. make sure your goals are realistic
  4. ask for the support of people who really love you and want you to be happy
  5. write what you know, tell your own story
  6. make sure you have fun doing it

Follow your dreams and be sure that if your writing makes you happy, you are already successful.

 

 

Success

The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack in will.

― Vince Lombardi

I think he knows what he’s talking about. I had the will and I found a way, and YES! I succeeded at NANO! Count me in for the Winner’s Circle!

If you think I’m celebrating too early, you would be wrong!  I know it doesn’t end until the drop dead date of November 30th, but since I make my living at writing and I do write every day, I hit the 50,000 word count early.  But no worries, I’m still right here writing with you. The truth is for professional writers, we are never done. If I had three additional lifetimes I would still not have enough time to execute all my story ideas.

There is nothing like success to make you feel good about your self.  The joy of knowing you made a promise to yourself and you kept it.

The most important thing to remember is that choice, not circumstance, is what determines success. If you’ve stayed at it, if you continue to work hard you will finish, if not the book itself, at least then the 50,000 words.  And that’s a heck of a start in anyone’s estimation.

Hard work and determination should see you through this last week of writing.  I know, I know, sometimes you just think none of this makes any sense at all and why are you still here?  Because you made a commitment to yourself, and if you don’t keep the commitments you make to yourself, how in the world can anyone count on you to keep promises made to them?

You can do it! Just keep writing. Focus your full attention on what you want, (getting the novel first draft done) and head straight for the finish line.

I’ll be there waiting for you, with bells on.

Trust

Someone who thinks the world is always cheating him is right. He is missing that wonderful feeling of trust in someone or something.

― Eric Hoffer

Many of us have difficulty when it comes to taking a leap of faith. We inherently need reassurance, especially when we seek to make changes in our lives, such as career or personal choices. I get it. Change is hard. But trust is something we learn in early infancy. When we begin our journey through life we are totally dependent on others for food, shelter, physical protection, and human contact. Infants who are not nurtured fail to thrive, and beyond that typically do not survive into adulthood.

Once we become adults and take on responsibility for our lives, the choices, actions and the consequences of those actions, we have achieved maturity. More or less. This is where it becomes important for us to trust others, especially those who love and support us.

During NANO we chose to commit to daily writing in order to finish the rough draft of a novel we all (hopefully) would like to see in print someday.

That’s correct. At the end of the thirty days/ 50,000 words we are hopeful that the rough material will put us closer to our goal of a finished product. Because I am a realist, I know the editing process will bring major changes to the rough  draft of any novel. In fact, I expect it to happen.

Let’s talk for a minute about the guy who signs up for NANO and doesn’t make the word count on any given day. What happens to him? or Her?

This is where trust comes in. You have to trust yourself to make up the word counts you miss or work ahead if you’re not available to do word counts on any given day. For example, I do realize thanksgiving is a major holiday, with lots of relatives, partying, elaborate meals, and family visiting and travel taking place during the thirty days allotted to NANO. I have been doing this for several years now.

I also do the majority of the food preparation for the huge feast known as Thanksgiving Dinner.

How do I handle these responsibilities along with meeting the word counts I planned? I plan ahead. I organize my time, and sometimes I write in really small increments.

I start dinner early since I can count on things not going the way I planned, this is also known as “life experience”. I do a lot of the prep work ahead of time, on days when the word count came in over schedule or ahead of schedule. I’ve learned how to delegate (get someone else to do a few tasks for me) and to let things go that are not important. Someone could bring a side dish and YES, it won’t be exactly like mine, but they want to helps and I need help so it works out. I have learned to trust others not to disappoint me, and if they do?  Well, then I like to give them a second chance.

I trust myself to keep the promises I’ve made to myself, and so I need to trust others to keep their promises to me. This usually works.

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