Character Flaws and Casts

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” ~Nietzsche

Yes, it’s true. No hype here. I broke my wrist. An avulsion fracture on my dominant side (if you’re going to do something might as well go whole hog, right?) So, typing has slowed down to a crawl. In fact I’m pretty sure the cast will be off before I finish typing this with my left hand.

But it comes with beautiful 6 year old artwork

But it comes with beautiful 6 year old artwork

On the upside, I’m learning to do so much more with my left hand. From full keyboard typing, to flipping eggs (onto the floor), to doing my hair, I’m learning to adapt. And not to lose what I’ve built I’m still going to the gym.

Through the trainers at the gym I’ve learned about a neat phenomenon. If you work out one side, it actually makes the other side stronger as well, just not as much. When you work out your left bicep, you brain sends out the message to send extra blood to both biceps and work on increasing growth there. Your brain doesn’t discriminate.

I tried it out and sure enough, I pushed my left arm with presses, and not only did it color from the extra blood flow and effort, but so did my casted right who did none of the presses. And so hope is restored that I won’t fall too far behind.

But this got me thinking about character generation. Creating three-dimensional characters that can overcome the trials we subject them to is tricky. The biggest trap I see in a lot of writing is making them too good, too perfect. For the general public “too good to be true” is just that… unbelievable. The passion and desire to see them succeed is born for the worry that they won’t.

It’s the Superman syndrome. Superman has some many powers and invincibilities the writers have to spend half their lives coming up with reasons for him to lose or weaken them to make the story suspenseful or enjoyable to read.

So, let your fireball throwing, too beautiful to be real succubus with a heart of gold be a klutz. Or your hard working single mom who takes care of everyone may always pick the wrong man. Make it real and make it have real effects on their life. Your audience will thank you for it as they root for the character to find new ways to overcome it.

Thus today I lift my cast to the box on my character sheets titled “Character Flaws and Wounds”. Those quirks that make their lives harder, more believable and more suspenseful. May those traits keep their lives always balanced on the head of a pin.

“To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength.” ― Criss Jami


Tilting at Emotional Windmills

Today is a selfish day, full of desires that are just for me.

I’m a geek. I admit it. I adore fandoms like Doctor Who, Batman, Harry Potter, Supernatural, Kim Harrison’s Hollows series, etc. I have sat around and discussed the emotional make up, journey and evolution of various characters and when on the screen, how those were portrayed.  I’ve spoken about these characters like real friends with probably more detail than I can with some of my actual friends. And I’m far from alone. The internet and world are full of people who are equally or more so immersed in these characters and worlds.

Me. Every time.

Me. Every time.

As writers, we create worlds and hope to fill them with true characters that our readers will feel real honest emotion about. I have seen it happen time and time again. Even with my own husband author J.P. Sloan. He gave some people a short story of his in the same week the last Harry Potter was released. One of those who read it had more of a reaction and shed tears for his characters more so than Harry Potter. I have had to put down books… okay okay, sometimes thrown down books, when a favorite character leaves us.

An honest emotional reaction. As story writers, isn’t that what we are truly aiming for? In fact, by the very definition of the thirds purpose of writing that fits fiction writers, to “entertain” doesn’t just mean to make someone laugh, it means to stir them to emotion in some fashion.

Thus, as I am wrapping up this belly of the beast and climax for my latest work in progress, let that be my windmill to aim at. I shall fight the good fight and hope to provide a character with enough dimensions that someone reading it will actually feel a true emotion for her.

“Now look, your grace,” said Sancho, “what you see over there aren’t giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone.”
“Obviously,” replied Don Quijote, “you don’t know much about adventures.”
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote


For the nerd in us all

May everyone have a great Pi Day!

Made for my family's celebration.

Made for my family’s celebration.

Time to Geek it up, baby!


Nerves and Writing

“The mind is a wonderful thing.  It starts working the minute you’re born and never stops until you get up to speak in public.” –Anonymous

As a teacher of both English and Communication, I am constantly impressed by my students. I have to ask them day-after-day to do things that scare them, sometimes to the point of near passing out, and they rise to the challenge and accomplish what they once thought impossible.

For example, my Public Speaking classes are more often than not filled with students who need a communication credit, but are terrified of getting up and speaking before an audience. This is not just a college student occurrence of course. Glossophobia, or speech anxiety, is the fear of public speaking, and the internet is filled with people who are willing to help you overcome this fear, no matter your age or experience. But these are students who just want a college credit. Approaching our first few assignments is a time full of questions and emails to me of why they can’t do it, asking if they should transfer out, and deer in headlight looks when they step up the first time. Yet they all survive it, which surprises the students most of all.

Do I really NEED to graduate anyway?

Do I really NEED to graduate anyway?

This week they had to do their second speech, impromptu. This adds a whole new level of fear to the mix, as they not only have to get up and speak, but they have to pick their topic out of a hat only minutes before. But to get my point across about just getting up there and commit to speaking not reading, I make sure the topics I choose help ease the tension.

“We are cannibals; convince us to eat your buddy first.”

“You are the President, announce to the country that we have made first contact but the aliens are not the brightest lights in the galaxy.”

“You’re Darth Vader. Make a more convincing argument as to why Luke should join the Empire.”

“Explain to Superman why he can’t be in the poker game anymore.”

Batman solved the problem with lead lined cards.

Batman solved the problem with lead lined cards.

Well, you get the idea. Usually, when I hold up the hat the first time I get exactly zero volunteers to start the party off. Then someone gets “volunteered”, pulls their topic and laughs. Everyone else’s interest is piqued. A laugh was not expected. Then they start speaking, and everyone gets it. People start lining up. In fact, one class this week, when they were done, volunteered to do another round for fun. People who were ready to pass out at the start of class have forgotten they were supposed to not be able to do this.

What surprises them even more is when I announce that I will never teach them to stop being nervous. But that’s why they’re there. That, and the grade, were the only things they wanted from me. But I explain scientifically what nerves do for us. They kinda get it. Then I tell them a story from Anthony Quinn.

This prolific actor of the 20th century was asked once if he still got nervous before performing. He responded that he did every time. Every single time. He explained, “If you ever stop being nervous, that’s the day you should quit.” The nerves prove you care. If you’re not nervous, you’ve stopped caring.

The same holds true for writing. I have found myself before, and right now in fact, too nervous to continue on a project. It’s not writers block. I know what I want to happen. But a scene or character has gotten too big in my mind, and I’m nervous that I cannot do them justice on the page. No matter what I write, it will not be as perfect and wonderful as what I’ve imagined in my mind. It is too pivotal to be trust to me, the author.

But that just means I care. I care that this scene needs to be encoded into written word well, so the audience can decode it just as well and experience the magic that I am seeing behind my eyes. I have to remind myself, that if I don’t do it, no one will even have the chance to. Just as my students did, I have to have the courage to commit myself to sharing my words and trust that everyone will get it.

And so with care and nerves, I shall plunge in and brave these pivotal words. See you on the other side of Act III.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


Writing in a Bubble

Teaching college level composition and other writing and communication classes I’ve begun to notice a disturbing trend. It’s been there all along, silently driving down people’s ability and desire to write. This stalking predator of words has driven students, young and old alike, into great terrified frenzies of self-doubt over the concept of putting their ideas to paper to share with the world. It drives classrooms to uncomfortable silences filled with the unmistakable desire of fight or flight.

This destroyer of creativity: writing in a bubble.

Image

As it was just recently put to me by a student, the idea is a student can either sit down and write a good paper by themselves the first time, or they are a bad writer. This student shared with me how the idea of a professional writer having to edit and edit their work was so, well, novel.

See, I had recently shared with my class one of my writing projects, a query letter. I showed them my first attempt; they read it and liked it. Then I showed them all my mark ups. They were amazed; there was more red than white on my paper, and I was okay with that. I showed them my next draft and its mark ups. And the next. And the next. Until I finally showed them my strengthened and concise letter. We then discussed the advantages of the last version to the first one they all liked in the beginning.

This made more of an impression than I had even intended. To see their teacher writing and re-writing, and talking to others, and getting feedback, and using the writing process I was teaching them was new. They thought from their high school days and earlier, that if you had to rewrite your work, obviously you were not a good writer and should be relegated to the dunce chair. Thus they were devastated every time they got marks back.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a4/Museum_of_Lincolnshire_Life%2C_Lincoln%2C_England_-_DSCF1724.JPG/256px-Museum_of_Lincolnshire_Life%2C_Lincoln%2C_England_-_DSCF1724.JPG

So, I’ve changed how I talk about this.

Even more than before, I’m stressing how “real writers” don’t need to write in a bubble. They have people look at their work, read their work, give them feedback, and they rewrite not because they aren’t good, but because they know it can be better. And don’t we all just want to show the world our best work as the reflection of the creativity of our soul.

I bring in examples of not only things that can help them and encourage them to work with and talk to one another about their writing (for some reason they thought that was cheating!), but I also show them how the writing world has been set up to do this. Now the classroom is a alive with conversation and sharing.

Perhaps this is one big difference that has been happening lately in the publishing world. With the now big five and even mid to large level publishers, the safety net of not writing in a bubble is built in. There are a slew of people to go over the work, edit it, market it, help with art, give feedback on everything, and protect you on a multitude of legal and creative fronts. But in self-publishing, you have to seek out and create this net, or chance it with writing in a bubble. This is not impossible, but it does take more work. I’ve seen even recent movers and shakers like Curiosity Quills, Spencer Hill and Angry Robot Books taking up arms to protect their authors while making their works even stronger for the commercial world, a feat thought impossible before for those not of the Big 5 ™.

In the end, no matter where we are writing, class, online, publishing, we need to remind ourselves that perfection is not about having to do everything right the first time, or even the seventh, but to end up with the best work we can using the resources around us. We are a writing community, and in the spirit of community, we need to realize, that sometimes it takes a village to raise a book.

Images courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Green Lane /CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Lucky 7

I wasn’t specifically tagged for this, but I’m going to take a lead from Liz Norris, whose novel UNRAVELING is coming out this month, and roll the Lucky 7 game on the good old blog.

Here’s the idea:

1. Go to the seventh or seventy-seventh page of our WIP.
2. Count down seven lines.
3. Copy the seven sentences that follow and post them.
4. Tag seven other authors.

I’m going to skip step #4, as I tend not to bother people when I can avoid it . Here’s the seven sentences from page seventy-seven:

He did the last thing she expected. He barked a full throated, head back laugh.

“Yeah, sure, Alex, take a seat. You’ve seen enough for this little lesson to benefit you.”

He motioned for a chair as he leaned back comfortably. She nodded and took the offered seat with only enough hesitation to convey that she did it because she wanted to, not because he told her to.

“So, you have yourselves quite a situation,” Jax started.

Come on in and join the Lucky 7. It’s a lot of fun.


Another Day, Another World

As my queries and partial live out in the world of agents for a while, I turn my attention to my next project. About halfway through revising BLACK SUN, an idea hit me for what I should write next. It is much more urban fantasy, taking our world only about a generation ahead of where we are now. The problems and forces affecting us now grow and change and make a recognizable both wholly different. Taking what’s happening now and pushing it forward with its own delicious paranormal twists.

For the last few months, I’ve let this new world germinate in my head. I’ve gotten research done (some of which I’m sure landed me interesting watch lists). I’ve written up shorts for people who will never be in the book but helped me determine what happened when everything went wrong. I’ve discovered and created political factions. Unlike Black Sun, this new world will be much deeper with a lot more characters interacting on a deeper level.

Taking a page from Kim Harrison’s highly successful playbook, I have also outlined 3 books. This way I not only know what my characters are doing and interacting, but where they are going and how they are changing as they get there. These will be working outlines that will of course grow and change as I write and revise, but knowing where my characters are headed has made me excited to jump into this world.

And jump I will. Now that the character sheets are done, scene worksheets and outlines are completed, and the GMC for all my main characters and the history are determined, I am ready to plunge into this urban fantasy head first.

Diving

Geronimo

So, my goal for the end of the week will be to send out the rest of my round one query agents and to put word to screen on my new work. An exciting week all around. Now to go for a run to get any last minute explosion of ideas.


Crafting a Lightning Rod: The Truth of Queries & Synopses

Many successful authors explain getting published similarly. They say to get published you must 1) write a stellar novel, 2) get lucky, 3) have lightning strike. With the hundreds of thousands of potentials out there, all hoping for the same bolt of lightning to strike them, it’s nerve wrecking. How can I change my charge from those around me to attract that electricity to my camp?

Big money, No Whammys. Hit me!

Taking this metaphor another level, apocryphally Ben Franklin gave the answer. A key of metal to act as a lightning rod will channel that power directly where we want it. So, we strap ourselves to a homemade lightning rod and brace for the blast that we hope will blow our socks off and change us forever.

But what is this homemade rod to glory? Our rusty metal key is the well-crafted query and synopsis. Those are the small articles we count on to change our overall charge from those around us and bring heaven to earth. Yet every other nut is out during the rainstorm crafting their own homemade rod.

And yes, I’m in the rainstorm too. For the last week I’ve spent time crafting my query until I have ten drafts that I’m reasonably happy with, even if I will never be fully done with it. Working on this, I have researched and studied what the success stories with their blasts have explained about their queries. Also, I’ve studied the weather itself and what agents have said and joked about what makes a query stand out and what makes it a dud. So, for the moment, the head of my key is completed.

Now the tail of the key cries for the same time and talent. Thus for the last few days, I have turned my attention to a synopsis. Why is summarizing 400 pages in 1-2 so difficult? The story is completed. It is all there. No more surprises to discover. So, why does this seem like a tougher task than writing the novel in the first place?

Going back over what I’ve written already, I have one thought on this. It is because I’m being asked to take all the edge and excitement that I’ve spent years crafting into the story out completely leaving only its bleached carcass to finish my lightning rod with. I’m not a science wiz, but I don’t think bone is a very good conductor.

Doing the same research I did for my query, I’ve come across an interesting phenomenon. Almost every agent and editor I’ve seen who’ve blogged or answered questions about synopses nearly unanimously say they hate reading a synopsis. They are boring and tough to get through. Authors who were successful in writing them almost all say they hate writing them because they are boring and tough to get through. So, why do we do this? If everyone hates them, how on earth do they attract any electricity for us?

Finally, doing research, I got a decent answer. They are only to prove the author knows how to craft a story and character development. That’s what is being looked for in a synopsis. That’s why they are important. I was wrong. It isn’t the bare bones we are getting them down to; it is the strong structural design. And that structure had better be strong straight steel. Now that’s a good lightning rod.

So, today and tomorrow I am redoing my synopsis with this new image in mind. I’m looking forward and am incredibly nervous about casting out my homemade lightning rod and standing out in the storm. Here’s a toast in hope of getting the blast of my life.

Picture by: Suvro Datta


Old Dog, Newest Trick

The more I think about it, the more in love with the assignment given by agent Brooks Sherman (@byobrooks) of FinePrint Literary Management in his query contest. The assignment in order to enter was this:

“Write a 100 word short story from the POV of your antagonist/villain.  It can be his/her/its perspective on an event that actually occurs in your story, but that’s not required.  Before, after, or an unseen event are fine, too.”

At first I was daunted by the 100 word limit. Whoa, that’s barely a paragraph. I outlined out a whole scene to show my villain in his full glory, then realized my outline with 67 words. So, time to put my short story writing to the test and condense everything into 100 words and still show my villain. Also, I wanted to get his GMC (Goal Motivation and Conflict) to come out in the short segment as well. After some hard work and repeated and repeated revision I came up with this entry.

“Never partner with an idiot, no matter how good a patsy they’d make. He had to deal with that psycho who was smuggling his brothers and sisters into this putrid hole, nothing like the home in the stars they deserved. The deep stations were theirs; the cattle just didn’t know it yet. Staring at their “meals” hung on the girders, he sneered at the smell of human blood. Once it had been his whole existence. Now he ate higher on the chain. Reassured for another shift, he put on his security uniform and Bio-Com to climb into the station proper. “

The best part about this is that I think he ended up sounding like a hero in his own head. Isn’t that the truth with many complex villains? I wish that I had done this first. This really let me get even deeper inside of him and know him more, as icky as that concept may be. It’s coming across like the elevator pitch for the individual character. It limits the wordiness that can be a battle. I had to stream-line and be extremely specific. And it was a blast to have the finished project.

Goal, Motivation and Conflict is so important to have three dimensional characters, and on common character sheets they are there for the protagonist. They are needed for all the main characters. Even if there is a main POV that the story is from, each character is experiencing their own story at the same time. In order for them to act as they should and not simply be a plot device, GMC is vital to guide their actions.

Let's look under the hood. What's seems to be your issues?

On top of that, this small exercise let me listen in on the character’s voice, even if it was only in his head. This would have made dialogue and actions so much easier to write if I’d had it from the beginning.

So, thank you, Brooks Sherman (@byobrooks) of FinePrint Literary Management and Emma Trevayne of Nailing Shadows to the Wall for hosting this contest. Through your great ideas, a new slot on my character sheets have been filled, and I look forward to the birth of deeper and more realistic characters.

Photo Credit: “Mechanics of People Mind”


Back and Hitting Overdrive

Wow, is it February already? A lot of work and news has happened. The Gothic Blue Book with Antidote for the Soul has been out for public consumption for months. I have even signed a few copies people have brought me. No matter who you are, when someone asks you to sign something you’ve published, a little voice inside you goes “SQUEEEE”. And mine certainly did.

Still Available in print or Kindle. SQUEE

Adding to that, I have also guest lectured classes on the writing process and creating worlds and characters for two separate classes. These were both outstanding experiences that I was much honored to be a part of these young writers’ journeys. Hearing their ideas and answering their questions allowed them to bring new ideas to my writing at the same time that I was trying to help them.  The most fun was hearing all the little details that they’d caught that I didn’t think anyone but me would get. Easter Eggs are fun for everyone.

In other news, I got word back from my wonderful and talented Beta Readers, and as of yesterday, I have applied the notes and finished the last draft of Black Sun. I’m really excited about these changes, and they couldn’t have happened without outstanding Beta Readers. I owe each and every one of them a drink of their choice.

Beyond that, I am gearing up to polish up an eye-catching query letter and synopsis for agents to peruse and, hopefully, fall in love with. In this pursuit, yesterday I was given an outstanding exercise. An agent was holding a contest for people to win a chance for him to go over their query letter. In order to win that opportunity, writers had to post a 100 word scene from the POV of their villain/antagonist. This was an outstanding exercise that I would recommend to every writer. I put an added challenge in mine, and made sure that my villain/anatagonist’s Goal, Motivation and Conflict were identifiable in those short 100 words. Whew, never knew 100 words could go by so fast. I’m already about four times that in this blog post alone. So it was daunting to get a coherent, engaging snippet from my darling villain and also convey his true goals with his reasonable motivation and the thwart to his overall plan. The funny thing is, he ended up sounding in his own POV like he was a hero. But then again, shouldn’t many villains seem themselves in the right? I was so intrigued by this that I’m going to write more on it in my next post.

For now, I am moving forward in as quick a pace as my day job will allow me. Time to get this bad boy packaged up for others in this world to see and l enjoy.


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