Posts Tagged ‘hard work’

HappySadTheatreMaskOur characters are people – real in our mind, real on the page, and real in our hearts. Make them as real to your readers as they are to you.

This is the most important part of a novel. We might have excellent plots that twist and turn with fresh surprises at every angle, or a beautiful, imaginative world that inspires us with awe. Maybe a fresh, fascinating story rarely told, or even masterful prose with transcendent knowledge and application of language. But take any book you love, replace the characters with flat shadows of people, and you are left only with empty, black ink.

From the first line of our story, invest the reader in the characters we create. Show us what they care about. It could be as important as saving the universe, or as small as caring for a single daisy. But if our characters care, our readers will care. So, how do we do this?

Real people have passions. If our character loves gardening, don’t tell us that she gardens everyday. Show us how warm she feels as the sun beats on her back, as her hands ache with the pressure of churning soil, how much she sweats as she labors away for hours, but show us her satisfaction of witnessing seeds of nothingness grow with time into delicious tomatoes, or red roses, or juicy watermelons. And she doesn’t have to be good at it. She just needs to be passionate about it.

Emotion is universal. Everybody can identify with it, so the stronger the emotion (well…this can be overdone), the stronger the connection. I recommend overstating emotion. In theatre, emotion is overstated, as it is in cinema and books. But the reader won’t be able to tell if you do it right. Exaggerated emotion is one of the keys to storytelling. This doesn’t mean our character runs around on a rampage shooting or slicing everyone up, neither does it mean our character should drive around crying everywhere after her boyfriend dumps her. Here’s what it can mean: Our character reacts internally after witnessing a herd of buffalo stampede over her freshly budded grove of plant life. Depending on what kind of person she is, she could scream, “NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!” (not recommended), or we can show her feeling the strong loss of creating something from nothing, then shoving down the exaggerated emotion, only to unleash it at a later time – directed at someone undeserving. Which is the more interesting story? Who do you identify with more? If your answer is the screaming psychopath, perhaps you should join Darth Vader and the Dark Side.

Point is, when readers identify with the characters, and when they have a stake in the story, we become invested. And when we become invested, we now have a stake in the story. We’ll flip the pages from cover to cover to see what happens next, unable to set the book down. We’ll feel both satisfied at the end, and disappointed there is nothing of the story left to read.

In the title, I also mentioned growth. In a great story, not only does our protagonist change, but our antagonist also changes. Many writers miss the latter point. This doesn’t necessarily mean our antagonist transforms into a saint, but it can mean they learn an important life lesson, or devolve into something even worse.

So, growth of our protagonists. (We can also show protagonists devolving.) What better way to show growth at the end, than flaws at the beginning. Real people have flaws, right? You have flaws, don’t you? I certainly have no flaws, but we all know you do, right? Right, where were we? Flaws, yeah. It’s okay for our characters to have flaws, especially if they’re universally identifiable. What makes a story interesting is how our characters deal with those flaws. Do they learn from their mistakes and get over hard-learned obstacles? Or do they fall to the Dark Side like our forever-friend Darth Vader? Show the story, don’t tell it. Make the reader a friend by showing our characters’ experiences as they endure them. Then leave that lasting impression by showing how far they’ve come. Key is to show our protagonists’ progression little at a time, then compound the growth with extreme experiences. But never leave them stagnant. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if our characters grow too much too quickly, they might lose that ever-so-important quality – reader identification.

Transformation also ties integrally with growth, the difference being, they are rarely recognizably the same person when comparing them at the beginning of the book to the final page. We need to be careful here. As advised above, if our characters grow too quickly, we will lose our audience. Want your characters to transform? Throw unique, interesting, and hard – very, very hard – decisions and obstacles in their paths. They need to make the emotional or logical choice for who they are at that time – which changes them forever. Then keep doing it again. But beware, always change the pace. If we have a non-stop, hard-hitting pace from start to finish, our readers will never be able to come up for air. And breathing is important for most of us.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into the differences between active, reactive, and proactive characters, and which are the most interesting in stories. Okay everyone, raise your hands. Active? Eh, might get a few hands in the air. Reactive? Hmm, probably only one or two. Okay, what about proactive? AHA! There they are! Raise them nice and high! Yep, you are right. Proactive characters are by far the most interesting, and here’s why.

Reactive characters only do what? That’s right – react! Our antagonists will likely be the most interesting characters in this type of character story because they are making everything happen. They are making the decisions for our protagonists – shaping them, forcing them to enact whatever evil plans our antagonists are concocting. Just about the only interesting thing our protagonist can do in this situation is react unexpectedly. But that’s a far cry from our other two types. Active characters are good. They will react, but will also push back. They will create tension, and exert a moving role to drive the story forward. Now, proactive characters take charge. Proactive characters don’t necessarily always know what they want, but they always make decisions (good or bad). This makes for a much more interesting story. It is highly common for the inciting incident in our novel to cause a reaction in our character that impels the story forward all the way to the last page. But if our protagonists are actively doing something in the beginning, and drive the story forward all on their own, that’s when we get caught staying up into the wee hours of the night reading that novel we just can’t put down. This is real tension – driven purely by our proactive characters.

Outlines. Some of us use them, some of us don’t. But I recommend everyone sketch out at least enough about our main characters to understand who they are. The worst thing we can do is think we know our characters, then make them do something they normally wouldn’t for the sake of the plot. If you want a good reference for an outline, here’s my advice. Make your own. There are numerous character outlines you can download off the net. Some are very detailed, some are vague. But, we all need to find that character outline that fits our story, then make it. It could be as little as describing their personalities, their likes/dislikes, tastes, experiences, and what they would do if held at gunpoint. Yes, many characters will never face that latter problem, but you need to know your characters. What better way than to consider what they would do in a life or death situation?

Want more outlining? Okay, write down how you want them to change throughout your novel. Who do they meet? How do they interact? Write down a few jokes they would tell, or physical tics or eccentricities. Show us their turning points and future moments of clarity. The list goes on and on. We should never put it all in our novel, but as writers, we need to know. Key is, stay organized, stay on track. And remember, sometimes when we write that novel, the outline flies out the window. Allow our characters to change, to experience life beyond the bounds we’ve set forth in an outline.

Any questions or comments? Feel free to express yourself. I want to hear your thoughts. I’ve found the above to be some of the best methods (that by the way work universally), but I always keep an open mind, and I’m always striving to learn and grow – to be better than I was yesterday. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments. Thanks!

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.

In the many Facebook wall posts, individual blog entries and Meet-up discussions I’ve seen in the short time since the New Year began, I’ve noticed a theme among all of them; “I need to start writing again” or  “I can’t find my motivation,” or “I just have to force myself to write.”

I too have felt the burning desire to get back to writing and, have also experienced the disappointment of not being able to get rolling the way I want to. Rather than disappoint myself into defeat by cracking the whip on my own back, or by setting unattainable goals, I decided to take a step back and just allow myself to grow naturally.

It all started with the first step – deciding which of the three stories that I am currently developing to start with. This in itself may not be an easy choice for some. I decided to work on the rewrite of my completed Erotic Romance novella. I had finished the first draft back in July and have recently received some feedback on the first two chapters from members of Stonehenge, my  Meet-upTM writer’s group, so I felt it was the story that I had the best chance of doing anything with successfully.

The second step was what many folk are having a difficult time with right now. Finding time. I found some time, one hour every morning where I had no distractions, no interruptions and a quiet atmosphere to work in. So I began the rewrite. It wasn’t a very large block of time, but it was something.

The first day I produced a paltry 374 words in that hour. Oh – whoopee! Atta-boy David! You’ve got a good first paragraph (exaggeration – it was really about 5 paragraphs). Needless to say, I was less than exuberant with my results. But then I just had to tell myself that it was a step forward. It was progress after all. Why berate myself on not being able to pen half a book in one hour? It was a success!

Day two was much better. In that one hour window, I had added to my initial 374 words to reach 1100.  Still not a big leap forward but forward progress nonetheless.

Day three I broke 1000 new words in one hour. That was a lot! I was quite proud of myself for the first time since I did 8000 words in one day when finishing the first draft. I looked forward to the next day’s hour with great expectations.

Day four – another 1000 word hour and the story was actually flowing nicely as well. Realizing that my efforts weren’t just creating dribble, that one thousand words in an hour made me feel very good about myself. Again, I looked forward to the next day.

Day five, six and seven have all seen 1000+ word days in that one hour window of opportunity. Something is happening. I’m writing! How can this be? I didn’t even feel stressed or hurried over the past week. I’ve actually got something on paper (well, pixels at least) and it wasn’t the drudgery that I thought it would be. I sort of forgot that I had to write and just wrote.

That’s the trick. Stop telling yourself that you have to write, like it’s a job. Most of us are still doing this as a “hobby” in conjunction with our real jobs, so why make it a task when it should be fun?

Taking that one step further – why feel the need to sit and write for hours on end? Write when it feels good and for as long as it feels good and the work flows. When you hit a hurdle, pause for a moment and try to think it through. If the answer doesn’t come immediately to you, put it down and go do something else. I have found that in working this way, I get through stumbling blocks much easier than I used to. When you are in the heat of the moment, and you come upon a problem, one part of your mind is saying “screw it! I have to get this other information down” while another part fights the first and says, “No! We must solve this problem first BEFORE we go on. The fate of the free world depends on it!”

Both are right to some degree, and if you can skip ahead and continue writing then come back to whatever is hanging you up, then go for it. I have the tendency to get marred down in trying to solve a problem, the result of which is I get frustrated, angry, disenchanted and begin second guessing everything about my story. I get stuck in other words. No one likes that feeling and it is probably why many of us find it difficult to get started after a break. We don’t want to feel that way.

The baby step approach I’ve been describing above has helped me find my groove. I work, not expecting much, but end up achieving a lot. When I feel good, I write. When I am stuck, I walk away and think about it. Usually, I can work through my problems and at the next one-hour writing window, I can implement changes and move on, many time still achieving a 1000 word hour. But the most important thing that helps me maintain this one-hour-a-day schedule is that I feel good and am looking forward to writing. If you can’t feel good about what you’re writing, or even look forward to your writing time with enthusiasm – what’s the point? There’s enough stress dumped on you by life, why dump more needlessly?

I don’t even pretend to assume this method will work for everyone, but it’s working for me right now. So much, in fact, that I’m inspired to share my workflow with the hope that I might be able to help or inspire someone who’s experiencing the same difficulties in finding their happy place.

If you find this has helped you, let me know. If you have a method you find helps you get through the muddy trail, share it here. You might just help me or someone else in the process.


Happy writing.

January 25th! This is the date I plan to have my beta copy of Eyes of the Eidolon out in print. No. Not “plan to.” Will.

Stonehenge has inspired me over the years to rewrite this manuscript several times over – each marked by significant improvement.TeethSmile At the end of each, I found myself asking, Is it good enough now?

The answer became apparent in the form of subsequent rewrites…

After finishing the first draft of this manuscript, I felt I was not yet a writer, but I didn’t know how to improve. I couldn’t understand the differences between my manuscript and the published works of those many professionals who spent years developing their craft. Fortunately, I found my critique group – Stonehenge. They massaged me with hot coals, diced me up with samurai swords, pounded me with meat hammers, but yet, they never left a bruise. Their honest words, kind encouragement, and realistic critiques allowed me to grow and understand those differences I lacked.

And so, the rewriting commenced. First draft, second draft, third draft, and fourth. Mind you, the original manuscript was 214,000 words. Fifth draft, sixth draft, and now seventh. I read books about writing, then wrote more. I listened to podcasts, then wrote again. I read books outside my succor, analyzed classic literature, studied genres of today, and learned through hard work, time, dedication, and by forcing my mind open to the thoughts of others. I attended writers conferences, met with agents, publishers, editors, and authors…

Now, I know my writing is publishable. The core story remains the same, but every aspect of this manuscript has changed for the better.

Why so many drafts? What was I thinking? I attribute this partially to my perfectionism, partially to my love of writing, and partially to the inspiration of my writers group and friends. But here’s the answer. After finishing the last words of every draft, I read the beginning and found myself saying, (aloud mind you), “Ugh, this is crap!”

Was it crap? I don’t know – I think the first few drafts were, but I continued believing this because I had learned so much over the course of rewriting each version. When I started rereading each, it was ridiculous to think this thing was publishable. Yes, I was down on myself and depressed. I tried to stay positive, but at times it proved nearly impossible. But the love of writing inspired me to continue my goal of perfection. And now I realize, writing is an art. It cannot be perfected. And I must say – as a perfectionist – this idea was very challenging to overcome.

Am I still improving? Yes! And always will! I will never be better than my potential, and this idea does not, nor ever will, depress me. It does not weigh me down. It thrills me. It testifies that I can always improve, that I can always be better than I am now.

But the acceleration of growth has reduced. I reread my last draft and thought to myself, This is pretty good! It’s not perfect, nor will it ever be, but for the first time, I am satisfied with it. I am satisfied with the writer I’ve grown into. I know my voice, have a definitive style, and understand so much more than I thought possible.

January 25th! Hold me to this promise. Bug me. Prick me with red pens until I turn black and blue. The paper copy of Eyes of the Eidolon will be available to my beta readers by this date. I look forward to your unique perspectives, inspiring views, careful hands, and final words. Thank you all for the gift of learning.