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

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Write What You Know

  “Both desire and imagination are stored in the mind of the individual and when stretched, both have the potential to position a person for greatness.”

― Eric Thomas

Storytellers who write what they know…what they have experienced, what they have observed in others, what they have lived through, and what they deal with on an ongoing basis are the people who write what they know.

You can tell as soon as you start reading, you’re engaged in the story. This person is someone who writes from their soul. Their grammar and punctuation need not be perfect, but still,  you get them. More importantly, they get you.

When, as writers we reach down to the core of who we truly are, we find the truth of our existence. What we call our core story. No matter how many ways we find to tell our story, successful writers never search for a theme. They know their core story and they are successful because they tell it over and over again.

So, how do we recognize our core story? We know it, instinctively from our formative years. Think about it. When you first became interested in story. As children, we all had our favorites. Stories, that is. We had one thing we couldn’t get enough of, a book or story or a type of story we would read over and over again and again.

For many mystery writers it was Nancy Drew, or the Hardy Boys. For me, it was Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. For writers who pursue adventure stories it was usually something like, Robin Hood. Our taste in reading is often a hint to our preference in writing–the type of story that we know and love to tell, over and over again.

Truth or Power?

  “All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche

So all the rules you can’t seem to help breaking today which will land you in plenty of hot water maybe perfectly acceptable tomorrow.  Just go with it. Things change. If you can wait around long enough.

When we begin our trip down the path to published author, we first need to learn the rules. Excellent advice. I cannot stress how important it is the know the rules before you break them. Only then can you justify the unique twist applied to individual voice.

My best advice is to go ahead and write through to the end. The end of the first (rough) draft.

Then, when the first draft is complete your real work begins. What do I mean by real work? Well, for starters, editing. What kind of editing you ask? Good question. Editing in and of itself, can be considered an art form.

There is Developmental editing. This editing looks at the overall story. How did you structure the story you wrote? Is it logical? Does it follow a linear timeline? Does it make sense? Does it have all the components of a good story, in a logical fashion which will most likely cause your readers to pick up your book, and keep reading through to the conclusion.

Developmental editing is very expensive, and it is not the kind of editing you can do for yourself. Often we ask critique partners to assist us with line editing, and Beta reads. Not your best choice. As far as critique partners go, they make great critique partners or we wouldn’t keep them as critique partners. Most writers–especially those who take themselves seriously–have beta readers lined up. Those are folks who 1) like to read, 2) will be honest about the material they read, 3)have some idea of what makes a good story. At least look for Beta readers who have a clue about what makes a story good and what make it fail story-wise.

Line editing is exactly as it reads. An editor, who you pay, or your publisher pays, goes through your manuscript line by line looking for typos, grammar errors, (such as their for they are, or where for wear, etc.)and other inconsistencies. A character who is short  in chapter one who towers over others in chapter three, or might have blue eyes for several chapters which mysteriously change to green eyes in the end of the book.

Copy editing is done by the truly anal retentive. A copy editor’s job is to make sure you adhere to the house style designated by your publisher. Check submission guidelines. Submission guidelines as laid out by the publisher, will commonly indicate “house style”. Often the Chicago Manual of Style is indicated as the standard. The copy editor is the one who will help you to “tighten” your story. They help you to remove the unnecessary words, those which drag your manuscript down, making it harder to read, or slower to read.

Acquisitions editor is the employee of the traditional publisher who sees your project (book) through to completion. They buy your book. Which means, they sold your book to the sales team and the editorial board,but that’s a story for another time, another blog.

That’s about it for now, unless you plan to use and editor for SEO. For those of you scratching your heads, Search Engine Optimization. Because, when someone goes looking for your book, you need to help them find it.

Secondary Characters

How important are secondary characters?

Very Important. Think for just a minute how you might see The Harry Potter series without Neville Longbottom. Or perhaps Pride and Prejudiced with Jane Bennett.

Not so interesting, huh?

Important to remember the names for secondary characters. They should not be similar to the hero or the heroines name. The first names of these character should never start with the same letters. Names that sound similar or start with the same letter can be confusing to your reader. You don’t want the reader to confuse Crissy the servant with Sissy the villain. That would not be good. Remember, sound alike–Katy, Kathy, Cody–can confuse as well.

Where some writers will provide a full interview to get to know their primary characters, it isn’t always necessary for secondary characters. Does that mean they are less important? Less well-developed? No.

While they may not require the same depth of development, secondary charterers require the same amount of attention to the in development. Supporting characters who are well-developed are those who provide the proper support for your hero and heroine. Their development provides depth for the story and layers of interest to your novel.

Secondary characters provide a unique perspective through which the main characters can be viewed. What they see, hear,  and think about your hero or heroine and the behavior gives additional insight to the main character.

Characters, like people, are often judged by the company they keep. If you wish to define a characters moral core, the companions they choose are a good gauge of moral compass.

Sometimes the secondary character allows us as readers to compare and contrast the desirable qualities between heroes and secondary characters.

Secondary characters can contribute to a story by the use of valuable dialogue. They will know–and so will your editor–which questions should be asked and which subjects the hero wishes to avoid, but shouldn’t. They hep to increase the conflict by introducing the taboo subject, and sometimes outrageous behavior.

Secondary characters are not held to the same high standards which we impose on our heroes. They do not benefit when they advance to primary status in follow-up stories. And be assured, romance readers love to see the secondary characters follow-up with their own story.

 

 

How About Characters who are Villains?

We spend a lot of time writing and rewriting the hero.  After all, everyone expects him to be perfect. Especially if you’re writing Romance.

Romance readers are a finicky group. They’ve earned the right to be by their support of the fiction market. Many genres include romance, i.e, romantic suspense, historical romance, paranormal romance, contemporary romance…you get the drift. The largest percentage of the fiction market is some type of romance.

But, regardless of what specific genre you write, you sooner or later have to write a villain to oppose your hero.Remember our discussion about conflict?..how it powers your story?… how it makes every story more interesting? Well, the well written villain is the way to go.

Villains are the heroes of their own stories.Their behavior–same as the hero–defines who they are for your story purposes. Your villain will be ruthless, calculating,merciless, and a natural leader. If he’s not a natural leader, who will follow him? So maybe he’s charismatic, too.

There are different shades of evil,the same way there are different types of heroes. His motives, match his traits, and are reflected in his actions. You must show your reader who he is. In order to depict a villain who is not merely melodramatic, you will be required to explore his nature and therefore the evil of his nature and the evils’ origin. We are, after all not born good or bad, but develop into who we are by our life experience.

Be even more careful with the villains backstory. There is no need to dump it onto the page, or into your story. Save it for the perfect moment, the revelation of who the villains truly is and why he wants what he’s striving 300+ pages to accomplish.

The evil nature of a villain has many components. Greed, corruption, domination, deviancy, these traits represent the shadow side of human nature. In other words, these traits are the things we would like to be–just once, or possibly on occasion, in our everyday lives. Tell the truth, sometimes don’t you desire revenge rather than justice? Especially when the hurt is fresh, or when we are angry with others. The wicked character, our villains, act on the desires we deny.

What’s in a Name?

New parents spend time and energy choosing the perfect name for tier offspring. Some writers spend a few hours choosing a character name, and rightfully so. This is a declension which can mean the difference between success and failure for your character, or maybe even your book.

You can choose a name that molds the characters personality, or reflects it, or based on physical traits. Old fashioned names in the modern age can and often do, reflect core strength, and character.  A name can instantly identify a characters ethnicity.

But every name has a meaning.

Consult the baby name books, online resources and even period reflective naming resources, if you happen to write historical or period set fiction. Using a name by its meaning to build your characters personality is an option, or naming him or her in contradiction to strengths is also an opportunity for additional conflict. Nicknames can also tell us quite a bit about a character, his background and his or her intentions.

I’ll cite the perfect contradiction, courtesy of Joss Whedon, the master of character development–a demon named Angel. ‘Nuf said. Conflict on a stick and arm candy to boot.

If you have the wicked twist of mind shared by some writers, you can even give a character the same name as a high-profile public figure, and let them endlessly try to explain, distance, or differentiate themselves. We all believe we’re individuals, right?

But when you sit down to create character, you can have fun with the name. Always remembers who is in charge. You create them and they are what your story needs. They are who you need them to be, in order to keep your readers engaged, and also dependent on what the plot you create requires.

Not only must you decide who they are, you must show us how they behave in terms of story. If you want us to believe your character is a workaholic, who consistently breaks promises to family and friends by choosing his his career over family commitments, then show us how he blows off those commitments, staying to work late when he should be home with his wife, tucking his baby into bed.

There are numerous volumes which will give you a step up in terms of starting to develop your characters. Remember every good trait has a downside, just like every blessing can also be a curse. Using an established method to define character is easily achieved by looking up Linda Goodman’s  Astrological signs, which will tell you the superficial positive traits and the negative traits, as well. It is a good place to start but you must always build your own unique characters.

Don’t use all the information right up front. Remember the 80-20 rule. You do not need to see the entire iceberg to know there’s trouble ahead. Naming a character can give a hint to potential backstory, and sometimes even make it more interesting.

How do I make that hero shine?

Interviewing the hero is a good start, if that works for you. If not, I’m going to give you some guidelines about what a hero should–and shouldn’t be, and how he might act.

Remember, writing doesn’t have a lot of “rules” per se, but if you want your hero to be likable, you will at least consider the following things:

  1. Heroes are strong people, not only physically, but emotionally. They don’t hold other people to blame for every misfortune in their lives, but they do hold the people in their lives accountable. So if your heroine makes a promise or a commitment to the hero, he expects the promise to be kept.
  2. Heroes have an excellent sense of humor. They do not make jokes in poor taste or at the expense of the weaker characters, but they often exercise a dry wit, and they know how and when to be able to laugh at themselves.
  3. During social encounters heroes are aware of their surroundings, and are not likely to be the center of attention, but are aware of the tensions in the room or situation. They are often the person who will diffuse a tense situation or control activities which have the potential to get “out of hand”.
  4. They do not wear flashy clothes or make odd or awkward fashion statements, but have a classic, quiet,  dignity which is always in style.
  5. While the hero is often aware of what others think of him, his actions, his choices, the opinion of others has no effect on the hero’s behavior.
  6. True heroes know the art of romance. They always treat women like ladies, regardless of age or station in life. This behavior towards women is what starts the ordinary man down the path to true hero.
  7. Heroes don’t typically seek out others to help them. They like to resolve their difficulties alone, but are strong and secure enough to ask for help when they need it.
  8. Heroes know how to say no. The have mastered the art of saying no rather than the art of apology. No means no.
  9. Heroes know what they want and are focused on getting what they want. They pursue their desires by doing what is necessary to achieve their goals.
  10. Heroes are decisive, not reactive. No knee jerk reactions. No panic. Again, heroes know what they want and focus on making their desires their reality.
  11. Heroes command respect. Others follow the hero because his is to be admired, not feared. He earns the respect of others by demonstrating the qualities of a true hero. Not by instilling fear into the weaker of the species.
  12. Heroes are problem solvers. The others in their social circle, friends and family know they can count on the hero in their time of need. Heroes are reliable.
  13. Heroes exhibit a calm and serene dignity. The trick to this is not to react, but rather to collect all the available information before making a decision, whether it is personal or advice to a friend or loved one. A calm and serene demeanor is the face a true hero shows the world.
  14. Heroes do not hesitate when a decision is needed. They assess the situation, and make a decision based on the need at that moment in time. They do not hesitate. They are not afraid of failure.
  15. Heroes command the attention of everyone when they enter a room. The exhibit excellent posture, make eye contact, give a firm handshake when introduced to others and always exhibit confidence. Their body language–confident, competent–tells everyone who they are as soon as they arrive in a room.
  16. Heroes know the secret of good communication. They speak less and listen more.
  17. Heroes assume the leaders role rather than wait for others to offer it to him. He is not a jerk, and is not aggressive, but he will stand up for what is right. Every time.

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.

 

 

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