Author Archive

I’ve heard beginning writers say, “You keep telling me to show how the character feels, rather than tell about it. So, how am I supposed to do that?” And, if I’m being honest, that was me just a few years ago.

The best writers make it easy for us to see what’s happening on the page. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to do. There are two different methods that work well.

The first is to let your reader get inside the character. When this is done well, the reader feels like they are inside the character’s head, watching what is happening through the character’s eyes, feeling the character’s emotions, experiencing the character’s thoughts.

The other method allows the reader to feel like they are standing right next to the character, watching what is happening to the character, seeing how the character reacts to what is going on around them. This type of writing can allow the reader to watch the story unfold like a movie inside their head.

Clear as mud, right? Still doesn’t tell you HOW to do it. It’s actually far easier to see how to do it than it is to have it explained to you.

First, let’s talk being inside the character. This can be done in first or third person.   Here’s a third person example: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

This gives you two important pieces of information: 1) Brady just saw something; and 2) What he saw upset him. This is exactly how many beginning writers ‘tell’ the reader about what the character is experiencing.

There are two problems with this, (well there’s probably more than two, but I’m going to concentrate on two for now). Problem one – We have no idea just how upset Brady really is. And to compensate for this, beginning writers will frequently tell the reader how upset the character is. For example: Brady was furious at (shocked by, disgusted with) what he’d just seen.

And there’s the second problem. Writing like that does get the point across. But it’s just not that interesting.

It’s much more effective for the writer to allow the reader to experience the character’s mental and, as my friend Ruth likes to say, visceral reactions. This allows the writer to ‘show’ the character. This also gives the reader a better understanding of the intensity of the character’s reaction (e.g. on a scale from slightly miffed to violently angry). I have a few quick examples below. (I would normally spend more time polishing them up during the editing process, but they’ll work for now.)

Remember, the following statements replace: Brady was upset by what he’d just seen.

Brady closed his eyes to block the sight while his stomach twisted and rolled, and his palms began to sweat. (There’s no need to write: Brady felt sick by what he’d just seen.)

Note – The reactions above are visceral reactions. They include any type of internal reaction that is beyond the character’s control – pounding heart, nausea, sweating, dizziness, etc.

Or

Brady scowled and shook his head at the sight before him. Then he turned and began the long walk back to the car.  Alone.

Or

Brady cursed as he raced forward, ignoring the shooting pain in his calves and the stitch in his side. He couldn’t take his eyes off the sight in front of him, nor could he bring himself to stop. Even though he would be far too late.

Including internal mental and visceral reactions also works well in first person. For example:

I wanted to shout at them to be quiet, though I could barely hear the rumble of their words over the buzzing in my ears. What I’d just seen wouldn’t settle into place. The images kept twisting and writhing in my head.

Those are all ways to let the reader inside your character. The other method a writer can use is to let the reader watch how the character feels through their physical reactions – basically, watching the action from outside of the character. For the purpose of this exercise, assume Jenny asked Brady a question and Brady responded with excitement.

Have you ever read something like: “Yes,” Brady answered Jenny, excitedly.

I’ve again told you two important things. 1) Brady has answered a question from Jenny; and 2) Brady’s excited about it. But this doesn’t let us know how excited Brady feels. And I’ll be the first to admit, Brady seems pretty boring here. So how can I show the reader how Brady feels with physical reactions? Here’s a few examples:

Bouncing from one foot to the other, Brady answered Jenny before she even had a chance to finish the question. “Yes. The answer is definitely yes.”

Or

“Yes!” Brady’s shout had everyone’s head turning, so they all had a clear view when he grabbed Jenny and swung her around in a dizzying circle.

Or

Brady gave each of us a high five before turning to Jenny. “Absolutely!”

What about in first person? Yes, you are inside the character’s head, but you can still show physical reactions.

I did a quick happy dance. That was probably answer enough for Jenny. But just in case…”Yes!”

Hopefully, this makes the difference between showing and telling a little clearer than mud. It takes a lot more effort to provide descriptions, and it’s often tempting to just stick an adjective on the end of a dialog tag (e.g. …Brady said, excited).

I used to struggle with this. What are the authentic physical and visceral reactions to the numerous situations we put our characters into? Unless this comes naturally to you, it’s not realistic to plan to stop writing in order to scare yourself, or to remember something painful, to experience genuine reactions that you can describe for your character. However, I’ve found something very helpful, and I recommend it for anyone who has trouble ‘showing’ how their characters feel. While there are a number of good reference books, I have one that I always keep on the table when I write at home. I also have an electronic copy on my phone that I can use if I’m writing somewhere else. It’s called The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression, by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. It provides physical, mental, and visceral descriptions for a wide variety of emotions.

It should be noted that the descriptions I used in this post all came out of my head, and The Emotion Thesaurus is in no way to blame!

I like many types of fiction.  SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, even Horror.

          A couple members of the Stonehenge Writer’s Group write some excellent horror.  That’s a genre that’s incredibly difficult to pull off without being cheesy or letting down your readers at the end of the story.  Kudos to those who do it well!

          I believe horror can be roughly divided into two main groups.  The first: Grab the reader’s attention by drowning them in blood and gore.  The second: Rub the reader’s nerves raw, slowly, agonizingly, with an ever increasing application of tension — knowing something bad is about to happen, perhaps when you turn the very next page…

          Okay, reading that back I guess it’s obvious which type of horror I prefer.  Not that I mind well done blood and gore.  I just prefer to have it as a climax to a great story, not the only reason for the story.  That’s just my preference.  I know there are many who will vehemently disagree.  So for this post, let’s agree to disagree.  For me, the best is incredibly creepy OMG-is-it-going-to-get-me-NOW horror.

          So, what do you find horrifyingly creepy?  Something realistic?  Ghostly?  Monsterous?  Something tangible, like a phone call with no one there?  Or the intangible, like the glimpse of a shadow where it doesn’t belong?

          Is it worse to be with a group of people and know one of them can’t be trusted?    

          Or is being completely and utterly alone what makes it truly creepy? 

          How about finding your things moved, cleaned up and put away, when no one but you has a key to your home?  Would you tell yourself you must have done it and forgotten about it?

          Or the sounds of whispered conversations in your house that stop when you enter the room, even when you’re the only one there?  Would you tell yourself you’re just imagining things?

          Maybe it’s receiving a ‘love’ note from someone anonymous, who claims to have been watching you for weeks and thinks it’s nearly time for you to meet.   Would you report it to the police?  What if they said there’s nothing they can do?

          Perhaps it’s a sudden explosive shattering of glass from somewhere downstairs?  Would you go down, alone, to check it out?

          Is it worse if you’re woken from a dead sleep, barely dressed, half awake?  Would you call someone else?  Wake them up?  When it’s probably nothing…

          What if you glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a shadow move past your dark bedroom doorway?  Would you tell yourself that was nothing?

          Or hear unexplained footsteps in the hall, right outside your door?  Would you pull the covers over your head and pray it goes away? 

          How about a ‘scritching’ sound, like fingernails would make, coming from the window that you can’t see behind closed curtains?  Would you get up to open those curtains?  To see what’s out there?

          I’d be interested in hearing if any of these push your creepy button.  Or do you have others?

          What is it about a horror story that makes you say, “That was awesome!”

Footsteps…

Posted: March 20, 2013 by K D Blakely in Karen's Words

For me, part of what makes a book interesting is being able to feel as if I am right there in each scene.  What helps me most  is a well crafted description.  The environment is the easiest, biggest, most in-your-face part of a description.   I want to know if:

I can feel the sun beating down on my head.

My nose is turning red with the chill in the air.

It is sunny, rainy, snowing, foggy.

Those factors can help to quickly put you in the scene.

But there are far more subtle descriptions that, if done well, can make a scene really come alive for me.

Take footsteps.

What is it about the sound of footsteps that make them so recognizable?

1) Tennis shoes on a basketball court.

2) Hiking boots on gravel.

3) Cowboy boots on a wooden floor.

4)  Leather dress shoes on concrete.

5) Rubber soles on wet grass.

If someone were to play a soundtrack of each of those footsteps, most of us would immediately recognize which we were hearing.

As a writer, getting those details on paper so someone can recall a specific sound can be incredibly frustrating.  Too much description will have the reader rolling his/her eyes and skipping ahead.  Too little description, and the reader won’t be able to hear those footsteps in their head.

There are probably a dozen ways to describe each of those sounds.  Here’s some quick examples:

1)      The high-pitched squeak of tennis shoes on a basketball court.

2)      The crunch of gravel under hiking boots.

3)      The rhythmic thunk-tap of boots striking wood.

4)      The scrape of leather shoes on concrete.

5)      Rubber soles squelching across wet grass.

Do you like it when an author describes sounds?  If so, do you have a favorite description?

I think smells are even harder.   How would you describe a scent to someone who has never smelled it?  For example:

The scent of warm buttery crescent rolls fresh from the oven.

Hot apple pie, thickly layered with brown sugar and cinnamon.

But how do you describe the smell of gooey melted chocolate, roasted garlic or eucalyptus?  Fresh mown grass?  Or something not quite so pleasant, like liver and onions, or the scent of coffee overheated too long?

I grew up near the ocean in Southern California and spent a lot of time on the beach near the Santa Monica pier.  You could smell that briny ocean scent a couple blocks away.  More than twenty-three years later, that scent is still instantly recognizable to me.

But I had someone who’d never been to the beach read my ‘briny’ description and they were shocked.  They’d always assumed the beach smelled fresh and clean.

I think she was disappointed to know the truth.

And I wondered, do most readers like to have descriptions of sounds or scents?  Obviously a detailed description won’t add value to every scene.  And sometimes, just calling it fresh mown grass can provide enough description.  So how important is a more specific description?

I know what I like, but what do you think?

I guess the real question is – does a more detailed description of sounds and smells really help other readers get into a scene?   If so, then the incredibly frustrating process of describing the nearly indescribable seems well worth it.

The Value of the Written Word

Posted: February 20, 2013 by K D Blakely in Karen's Words

Only a few hundred years ago, information had to be passed by word of mouth. Most people could not read, even if they had access to books. And most did not. Books were rare and valuable. They had to be copied out by hand; an extremely tedious and time consuming process.

So I believe the printing press was one of the defining inventions that literally changed the world.

I would go so far as to suggest that it changed the world even more than the industrial revolution, or the light bulb, or electricity. I believe it was the abiity to share complex ideas through the written word that allowed us to get where we are today. (I know some would argue that is not necessarily such a good thing, but that’s a different subject for discussion.)

It is our ability to share knowledge that keeps fueling new finds in science and technology. (Remember, we’re not going to get into whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing here.) As a writer, computers and the internet are two of my favorite things. And as a sci fi/fantasy writer, new science and technology provide ever expanding scenarios for stories…

I’d take this one step further. I believe it is the books of sci fi/fantasy writers (and in the past 80 years, films based on a written script) that have driven some of our current technology. Writers like Jules Verne dreamed of nuclear submarines and rockets to the moon. People at the time may have enjoyed reading his books, but most believed, “That could never happen!” However, after the next few generations grew up with the ideas in those books, that thought became, “How could that be done?”

When I watched 2001:A Space Odyssy in the theaters when it came out in 1968, people were amazed by some of the ‘2001’ technology shown in the film. Remember, this was the year before the first landing on the moon. Some of it hasn’t come true (we don’t routinely take trips to other planets and space stations – yet), but some of the smaller ideas (that people thought of as highly unlikely) actually exist. Talking computers and webcams are a normal part of our life. There are companies that are now into the space rocket business. And we do have a space station.

Need more examples?

Flip phones always make me think of Star Trek communicators.

To give comics their due, there’s talk of creating a wrist phone (lovers of old comics will immediately think of Dick Tracy) in the near future.

And as I saw on television the other day, they are working on a flying car (it may not fly high, and it may not drive faster than 35 MPH, but we’re still talking a FLYING CAR) that should be ready for sale in the next few years. Writers have used flying cars in sci fi/fantasy novels for years!

I’ve heard people claim that sci fi/fantasy writers are just dreamers who’s crazy ideas add no practical value to the world. Of course, science tells us entertainment can be relaxing and help lower blood pressure. And teachers tell us reading expands vocabulary and the ability to think abstractly. I think those have practical value. But even more practical than that, I think the dreamers of today help produce the innovators of tomorrow.

What other ideas have writers dreamt of that will come to pass in the future because someone read about it (or watched it in a movie, or saw it in a comic)? An idea that will spark a desire in someone to make it a reality. Someone who will stop saying “That could never happen!” and start asking,”How could that be done?”

That is the value of the written word.

Motivation

Posted: January 16, 2013 by K D Blakely in Karen's Words

So, I’ve seen a number of posts lately asking how to keep yourself motivated as a writer, and thought I’d share what has worked for me.

The famous (infamous?) “THEY” like to say writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  There are times when it feels closer to 5%/95%.  I think we all live for that 5%-10%.  When inspriation hits, your fingers seem to dance over the keys.  No matter how long you type, you don’t feel aches in your arms or shoulders.  Words flow, and you can feel the scene/chapter/book, taking shape under your hands.  It’s like you could write forever.  I call it a writer’s high.  It makes you want to kick up your heels:

yellowstone 0055

Sadly, inspiration doesn’t come very often.

Since inspiration is rare, motivation is what you need to keep yourself going.

So how do you get it?

For me, there’s two types of motivation (though I’m sure others could add several more):

1) The first draft

There are terrifying days/weeks when the creativity muse goes on vacation, and you sit staring at the computer. I swear you can actually hear your cursor taunting you. “See?  See?  You’re not a writer.  You got nothing.  You’re a waste of computer space.  Why don’t you go do something constructive, like clean the cat box.”  It’s like a horror movie – the cursor is becoming a thing of evil, growing larger and more cruel by the minute.  (Maybe there’s a story there…)

Your brain feels paralyzed.  Your fingers feel like lead weights at the end of your arms.  The blank page stares back at you accusingly.

Okay, some of that may be overly dramatic…

But you do feel totally blocked:

p yellowstone 2058

So what do you do when that happens?  I’ve found one thing that works for me.

I write.

I don’t worry about full sentences or punctuation.  I don’t worry about complete thoughts.  I don’t worry about the words I use.  I just start putting something story related on the page.  I find it’s usually (not always, but often enough) like priming a pump.  Once words start going on the page, the cursor shrinks back to normal and ideas start to come in fits and starts.  It’s not like when you’re inspired – you have to work at it, but usually ideas will come.

Also, I find it often helps when I listen to music that fits with the scene I’m trying to write.

2) SECOND, Third, fourth… tenth… … … Drafts

I find that the re-write process can make you wonder if you are suffering from a multiple personality disorder.  Sometimes, you start working on a section and suddenly you know how to fix a stumbling block in the plot, or a way to really bring your character to life.  Your fingers fly as you make corrections and tweaks and even major changes, and you know in every fiber of your being that  It  Is  Going  To  Work!   (Good thing I live alone.  No one questions when I let out a giddy burst of relieved laughter.)

Unfortunately, most of the rewrite process is Tedious.  That’s capital T – Tedious, as in:

Technical (punctuation, grammer, checking details to make sure you haven’t changed someone’s shirt or hair color in the middle of a scene, etc.)

Frustrating (“You mean I have to delete that whole %$&#*@! chapter?  Are you kidding me?”)   –  Yes, writing can make you argue with yourself.

Dull (“I’ve re-done this part five times already.  It’s just not working!”)

I could keep going, but you get the idea.  Sometimes a re-write is a fight from start to finish:

yellowstone 0062

So, how can you make yourself keep (voluntarily, knowingly, willingly) sitting down and torturing yourself?  The only thing that has worked for me is to establish a strict timeline once the first draft is done.

I start with the date I’d like to publish the book (or the date you want to submit your book for you non-indie writers).  Make it reasonable but something that will require you to push yourself.  Then work backwards.  For example:  2 weeks back to start the final draft, 4 weeks back from that to give it to beta readers, 3 weeks back from that for each draft numbered 3 or higher, 6 weeks back from that to start your second draft…

Better get started, you’re going to publish/submit it in 15 (+/-) weeks!  (By the way, those are my numbers.  Depending on the number of words in your book, how much time you can spend writing, and how fast you type, you’ll need to adjust the number of weeks in each phase to best suit you.)

The key is not to treat those as soft dates.

Don’t make them “I’ll try to get it done” dates.  Or “I’ll try my best to make it work” dates.  You must channel your inner Yoda:  Do or do not.  There is no try.

If necessary, design a penalty you will not like for every day you miss a deadline.  And tell people you know who will make you stick to your word if you do miss any of your deadlines.  That way you won’t be tempted to cheat when it gets hard.

Because when there’s a hard and fast deadline staring you in the face, and you really want to get your book out there, and you’ve got some nasty penalty planned if you don’t make your deadline, you will be far more motivated than you ever thought possible.

Mind you, I cursed, bitched, and moaned most of the time I spent in re-writes.  My fingers got sore because I was pounding on the keys in frustration as I typed (thank you ASUS for your excellent computer construction).  I sometimes got a headache from grinding my teeth (my dentist is not going to be happy).  I sometimes had to say no to things I wanted to do, because I’d procrastinated and was in danger of missing a deadline.  And some days, I had to stay up really late to stay on schedule.

But I stuck to it.

And I published my book on the date I set on my timeline!

I know me – I’d still be talking about writing my book if I hadn’t set those deadlines…

 

So, have you found ways to help keep yourself motivated?  Let us know.