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NaNoWriMo diary part 4: trust the process

So the usual thing has happened to me in NaNoWriMo. I made it to 50,000 words—which is always a great feeling—but I didn’t make it to the end of the story. My first couple of years, it took me six extra days to reach “The End.” After that, I don’t really remember but I know I’ve never finished a novel by November 30th. But that’s ok. Every year I have a great time doing it and I learn a lot about novel-craft.

Nothing teaches you how to do something better than actually doing it.

This year, I’ve learned enough to figure that I probably have another 20 to 25 thousand words left before reaching the end. Part of what the past five NaNoWriMos have taught me is a sense for that sort of thing. My first year, I had absolutely no clue how much story I could fit into 50,000 words. That was quite an eye opener. This year, I’m about two-thirds done, and I know it. That’s progress.

So what did I learn in the last week of speed novelling?

Trust the process

Ok, so if that isn’t the most hackneyed cliche in all of the arts, I don’t know what is. But it wouldn’t be a cliche if it weren’t true. For example, this past week my story moved on to a new part of the plot where I got to start writing for a new minor character. In my notes, I’d never picked a name for him, only referring to him as “Sidekick.” Yeah, yeah, I know. But hey, if Neal Stephenson can get away with naming a character Hiro Protagonist in his actual novel, I should be able to call a guy “sidekick” in my notes, right?

Anyway, the point here is that while I had some sketchy notes about Sidekick ahead of time, I didn’t really know who he was. As I’ve confessed in prior diary entries, I didn’t put as much work into planning this novel as I’d have liked. But I’ve been thinking about him all month, so when he showed up he was at least vaguely familiar to me. His voice was there.

The other thing about Sidekick is that later (I’ll probably get to this part today), he has to do a Bad Thing to Anna. It’s necessary for the plot, but I hadn’t ever put much thought into why he did it. But in listening to his dialogue, he has revealed to me his own goals and ambitions. Those, then, made it obvious not only why he would do this Bad Thing, but further, why he had even volunteered for Sidekick duty in the first place. The two dovetail together. When he discovers that sidekicking isn’t in fact going to advance his ultimate goals, he turns from ally to enemy.

Sidekick’s voice, his goals, his motivations, it’s all hanging together nicely now. I could have fussed and fretted over it while planning the novel, and come up with something that works. No doubt. But this works too, I didn’t have to stress over it, and best of all it has an organic feel to it. It just feels right.

That’s the process. That’s what it means to discover your story as you write it. The part of the process you have to trust in is your own storytelling instincts. Follow them where they lead, especially when you’re not sure where the story is going to go, because usually it’s someplace pretty good.

Anna

My main character continues to reveal herself, page by page. Earlier on, I said I wasn’t sure if her tough exterior reflects a similarly tough interior, or whether it’s mostly a facade. This new part of the plot I’m in involves her traveling from the United States—from her home town—to Moscow, Russia. It’s very fish-out-of-water. And it turns out that she’s much nicer, much more deferential and careful about how she approaches people and conversation than she was back home.

On one level, it’s nice simply to resolve that question about her tough exterior. I’m glad to know that. But more importantly, that knowledge becomes another tool I can use. As she finishes out the Russia segment of the plot, I can show her gaining confidence and growing comfortable with being in a foreign land by letting elements of her exterior toughness creep back in.

Of course, that means she’s going to have to learn to swear in Russian. But that’ll be fun, too.

Motivation

The last thing I want to talk about is the psychological part of novel writing for the novelist. It’s all about motivation. Writing a novel is hard work. To keep yourself going, I highly encourage you to grab hold of every possible source of motivation you can find.

Almost nothing beats having a specific, measurable goal to work towards. In NaNoWriMo’s case, it’s word count, and the reward is Winner status and the attendant bragging rights that come with it. The lucky writers among us get to work towards real deadlines, with money—and bragging rights—attached. Those objectively-measurable goals are great, because every day you see the tangible results of your efforts. If you stay on pace with NaNoWriMo’s stated goals, every day equals 3.33% of a novel. That ain’t bad. The lucky writers can cross off days on a calendar to mark their progress.

Numeric goals can be tough in the beginning, because three percent isn’t much different than zero, but after a week when you see that you’re 20% of the way there, you perk up. As those milestones pass, your motivation level rises because you can see the end in sight. You can feel it coming, and you want the reward that waits for you at the end. This year, getting to 40,000 words felt unusually hard. But once I hit that milestone, the last 10,000 just flew right by. It was great.

If numeric goals aren’t available, or aren’t enough, reach out for additional sources of motivation. For example, I used to post my daily writing during NaNoWriMo to my LiveJournal page. That first year, I had one friend who was avidly reading each day’s installment, and knowing that she’ d e-mail me with “Where’s today’s installment! I want to know what happens next!” if I didn’t have it posted for her was hugely motivational. Just knowing that somebody besides me cared what happened made an enormous difference.

Wherever you are in your life or in your writing career, I guarantee you can find something to motivate you to keep cranking out those pages. Whatever it is, whatever it takes, find it and grab hold.

November 30, 2009 19:36 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, motivation, process

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Steinbeck was wrong


John Steinbeck

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”

Steinbeck said that, but I think he’s wrong. You’ll have way more than a dozen.

Sometimes people ask me where I get ideas for my novels. I’m not always sure where they’re going with the question. Are they looking for a recipe for getting ideas of their own? Or just curious about my “muse"?

Happily, there’s no real magic to it.

I think a lot of people who have never written a novel, or who have tried but haven’t succeeded to their satisfaction, have this misapprehension about the process of coming up with ideas. Like we writers sit around in our offices, or take long thoughtful walks, or sit in Starbucks swilling chai lattes, waiting for lightning to strike. Like ideas for great stories are some sort of gift that you have to wait and hope and pray for, that they come from some mysterious external source.

The source of these ideas is often external. I’ll grant you that. But it’s nothing mysterious. It just a matter of paying attention to what’s going on around you. It’s a matter of learning to see the world through a storyteller’s eyes. It’s a matter of looking at people and events, and asking yourself if there’s a great premise lurking somewhere in there.

I didn’t always get that. I used to believe there was a recipe for it. That writers sat down and worked through some sort of secret process that generated story ideas.

I thought that until the first time I tried to create a story idea that way. It was going to be a spy story, because I have a soft spot Tom Clancy style espionage thrillers. I worked at it for a couple of weeks, until I realized that I absolutely hated the storyline I’d come up with.

The first successful novel writing experience I had was in 2005, during NaNoWriMo. I decided very late in October to try it. With no time to work out anything new, and out of desperation, I wrote a fantasy novel based on a piece of backstory I’d created for a role playing game some years prior. Roll your eyes if you will, but hey, at least it was something I already knew, and had a certain geeky enthusiasm for.

One year, an idea came to me while I was at the bookstore. I saw a book sitting out on one of the half-off tables. It was a history of the Pony Express. It just sort of jumped off the table into my hands. By then I had a storyteller’s eye, and it said to me “Dude, that’s a great setting!” I wondered to myself why I couldn’t think of a single book or movie that takes place there. I walked out of the store with that book, instead of the one I’d come for. I read it, it was absolutely fascinating, and when I was done I had in my head a young adult coming-of-age story set there in the wilds of what is now Wyoming.

One year, a story came to me in a dream. No, I’m not kidding. Well, it was more of a nightmare. I woke from the dream with just fragments of it in my mind, but vivid ones. Rather than just shaking it off and trying to go back to sleep, my storyteller’s eye said “Wow, cool sci-fi premise.”

My current work in progress came from a blog post I wrote a while back about backstory. In the part where I was talking about characters with interesting quirks, I wrote something about maybe having a character who collects Soviet-era comic books. I had no intention of that turning into anything, it was simply the quirkiest thing I could think of on the spur of the moment. But my storyteller’s eye said “Hey, remember that spy story you tried to write? The one that sucked so much? Well, what if spies hid secret messages inside the comic books?”

There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up. — Stephen King, On Writing

Together, Steinbeck and King have it about right. That first idea may be tricky for you. It might have to come in a flash of inspiration, or desperation. But once you’ve developed that storyteller’s eye, you’ll see them coming at you all the time. One time, you may get a premise. Another time, a setting or a detail about a character. Whatever it is, it hints at the rest. That’s where stories come from.

Ideas are everywhere. See them. Grab hold of the good ones. Don’t let them go.

November 25, 2009 22:01 UTC

Tags: writing, ideas, premise, setting, stories, Stephen King, John Steinbeck

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How to show character through dialogue

A long time ago, I wrote a pair of articles about dialogue: one about the importance of realistic dialogue, and one with techniques for creating distinctive dialogue. This, then, is part three: techniques for revealing details about your character through dialogue.

Dialogue is all about nuance. After all, there are almost limitless ways to say any particular thing you want to say, but each one carries its own flavor. Showing character through dialogue is all about being sensitive to the nuances of these different flavors, and picking the one that best matches the traits of the character saying the line.

Consider, just for example, the difference between “Would you mind fixing me a ham sandwich?” and “I’d like a ham sandwich,” and even “fix me a ham sandwich.”

Attitude towards others

Speaking of ham sandwiches, that example shows clearly some differences in attitude towards others. Respect versus disrespect. The part to clue in on is the grammatical nature of the sentence. The question is the most respectful. It gives the listener the opportunity, at least on the surface, to say no. It expresses the speaker’s wishes without being too pushy about it. The simple declarative sentence is pretty neutral. Context would indicate whether it’s a request or just a wish. The imperative sentence, a literal command, is the least respectful as it leaves no linguistic room for the listener to say no. It attempts to impose the speaker’s will on the listener.

When attempting to convey nuances of respect or disrespect, look to questions, statements, and commands as your tools. And remember, respect and disrespect factor into all sorts of personality traits. For example, simple arrogance—a character who always feels he knows better than everyone else—can manifest as a tendency towards issuing commands rather than stating his opinions declaratively. He would say “You don’t want to do that,” rather than “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Command versus declaration.

This is also a useful tool for underscoring relationships between characters where there is a difference in social power. For example, an employee/boss relationship, a soldier/commander relationship, et cetera. The person in the higher position of power can get away with using the less respectful forms, while the person in the lower position will tend towards the more respectful forms. And if you have a character intentionally break the pattern, watch the sparks fly: Employees and soldiers don’t issue commands to their bosses and those of higher rank.

Mood

Dialogue is a wonderful way of showing moods and emotional states. The underlying axis here is not respect-to-disrespect, but rather, calmness-to-agitation. And the tool for revealing it is grammatical correctness.

A character who is calm and collected will naturally speak in sentences that are more complete and more correct than one who is agitated. When a character totally freaks out, it’s natural for them to stutter and splutter, speak in sentence fragments, re-start sentences or switch to a new sentence half-way through the old one, and generally exhibit all manner of verbal tics.

This is not to say that a calm character should always speak in flawless King’s English. No. Of course real people speak in ways that are very different than written English, even when they’re calm. But the more agitated someone is, the farther they tend to stray from the strict rules of grammar.

Personality

Another core character trait that dialogue excels at showing is the scale from introversion to extroversion. Is the character shy or outgoing? Cool towards others, or engaging and warm? The tool for doing this is simple word count: Expansiveness versus brevity.

Shy people don’t tend to talk as much. When they do, they choose their words carefully. Outgoing people tend to talk more. They’re more likely to gab, to expand on a thought with tangents and side-thoughts, and so forth.

Let’s say a patron walks into a library and asks where to find a book on Detroit muscle cars of the 1950s. One librarian says “Those are in the 629s,” and points you towards a particular shelf. Another librarian, given the same question, says “Oh, yes! All the stuff about cars is in the 629s. Here, let me show you.” She comes out from behind her desk to lead you to the right shelf.

One is all business, she says the minimum necessary to end the conversation. The other is happy and personable, and attempts to make a connection with the patron. Nobody expects the conversation to end with an invitation to a weekend bar-b-que or anything, but still, she’s striving in that brief encounter to make a relationship. As a reader, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that one is more shy and the other more outgoing.

Going further

Those are just three character attributes you can play with. But you can take this technique much further. Most personality traits have an opposite. That is, there’s a spectrum for that attribute, just as with the three I’ve covered here. Greedy is the opposite of generous. Kind is the opposite of cruel. There’s always an opposite, which means there’s a spectrum.

Take that ham sandwich line—or the particular line you’re struggling with—and ask yourself how someone from each end of the spectrum would say the line. For example, the greedy person would say “where’s my ham sandwich,” the use of possessive grammar indicating a focus on what belongs to him. The generous person might not ask at all, but might instead suggest a trade, “Boy, I’d give you the keys to my car for a ham sandwich right about now.”

Those are extremes, but considering the extremes can be very instructive. Once you have a handle on the spectrum you’re working with, you’ll have a better sense for where to pitch your specific character’s line of dialogue.

November 20, 2009 21:05 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, attitude, respect, mood, personality, introverted, extroverted

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NaNoWriMo diary part 3: writing is work

I’ve reached the nominal half-way point of NaNoWriMo, twenty-five thousand words. Part of the brilliance of NaNoWriMo is establishing these milestones, because honestly, it does feel good to reach them.

Sometimes, though, I just wish they didn’t come up so fast. It seems like one hardly has time to savor twenty-thousand before, next thing you know, you’re supposed to have reached 30. Which, for anyone who is keeping score, should be tomorrow.

Writing is work

There’s no doubt about that. If you’re at all serious about this whole noveling thing, you have to work at it. A blogger friend of mine wrote a guest post aptly titled The Myth of Being in the Zone. There’s a lot of truth to what she says. Sometimes writing is an exhilarating, joyous burst of creative freedom.

But most of the time it’s work.

For me, the zeal of starting a new project usually lasts to about 10,000 words. After that, the work sets in. Which is not to say that it isn’t still enjoyable. But it’s a whole different experience to glance down at your word count after an arduous hour of work to see that you’ve managed to eke out 300 words, than it is when you’re “in the zone” and that same hour nets you 1,500.

This is also about when the procrastination kicks in. You’ll notice that I’m blogging at the moment instead of working on my novel. I’m a little blocked at the moment, in the middle of a scene that I’m not quite sure how to progress from point A to point B.

I could jump into it and grind it out, but I’ve found that usually it’s just better if I let these things sit for a while. If I come back to it fresh, the solution usually presents itself. Stressing out over OMG Must Advance Word Count! rarely helps. But, your mileage may vary.

Pacing is work

In my last NaNoWriMo diary, I was fretting over how much exposition I had to get through to uncover the story’s core mystery. I’ve done that, but I’ve been surprised to discover how scary that can be. I don’t recall having felt this way on prior novels, but I have here. I’ve spent all this time creating various mysteries, and resolving them is just a little bit frightening. I worry that what follows this first round of mysteries won’t hold the reader’s interest as well.

Of course I have the opposite concern, too: for 25,000 words, now, I’ve been piling and piling the mysteries on top of one another. At times I’ve felt like it’s too much. That I need to throw the reader some kind of bones, let them come to the answers to something, before they get frustrated with me.

Pacing is all about walking the right line between those competing fears, and honestly, I think it’s one of the harder facets of good novel writing to learn.

Showing character through dialogue

Quite some time ago, I wrote an article on how to un-clone your characters with distinctive dialogue. For Lapochka, much more than any other novel I’ve written, I’m finding myself using those techniques explicitly not just to make the characters distinct from one another, but to convey to the reader those characters’ personalities. I suspect the reason has to do with writing in the first-person POV, as opposed to my usual third-person limited POV.

We get plenty of Anna’s voice through the first-person narrative itself. She’s telling us the story in her own words. Her snarky sarcasm, her ironic sense of humor, her bleakly wry observations all have plenty of opportunities to show themselves. But the minor characters don’t get that. All they get are a few lines of dialogue here and there, so each one has to count.

I’ve got one supporting character named Steve who is basically a manipulative jerk. He likes to be in control. He likes it when other people are acting as pleases him. His dialogue reflects that with a lot of imperative-voice sentences. I don’t find him saying “Oh, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” which is ordinary active voice. Rather, he’ll say “No, you don’t want to do that.” Grammatically, it’s in the imperative voice. It’s a command. Colloquially, everyone understands that these are two different styles of presenting one’s opinions. But the difference in tone between the simple statement and the command is important. One is neutral, and respectful of the listener’s own opinions. The other is pushy and disrespectful, however much it’s disguised behind smiles and a cheerful tone of voice.

I have another character, Alex, who is a Russian Studies professor and himself a Russian expatriate. His speech reflects this through techniques of dialect, which I also addressed in that earlier article. I’ve known a few Russian speakers of English over the years, so it’s not too difficult to emulate their grammatical idiosyncrasies for Alex. The pleasant discovery with him has been that the broken-ness of his English also serves as a useful tool for convey his emotional state. When he’s calm and collected, his English is better. When he’s upset, it slips back towards native Russian patterns.

Ok. Enough procrastinating. I’ve got a word count to advance!

November 17, 2009 22:02 UTC

Tags: character, dialogue, pacing, writing, imperative voice, Lapochka, NaNoWriMo

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Do your characters' flaws work on more than one level?

This weekend I came across a fine article at Men with Pens about why it’s a good idea to give your characters flaws: Because flaws make your characters believable, and make readers care about the characters.

It’s good advice, but it doesn’t go far enough.

To really make your story come alive, you’ll also do well to give your characters flaws which enhance the story’s underlying drama. It’s all well and good to have a character who is afraid of the color yellow, or who simply cannot remember anybody’s name until the third time he hears it. But does it really help your story?

Most novels rely heavily on the strength of the story’s central conflict, that thing which drives the whole plot forward towards the climax. The reader’s perception of drama and tension comes from that conflict, and from the degree of challenge the protagonist faces in addressing that conflict. This is where your character flaws come in.

Pick a flaw that makes the job harder.

One thing experienced writers do very well is to make the elements of their novels work on two levels. By itself, a character flaw works on one level. It makes the character more believable and sympathetic. You can make it work on a second level as well by choosing a flaw that directly impedes the protagonist from addressing that central conflict.

When looking for a good flaw, I like to brainstorm around two aspects of the story. One is the details of the plot, settings, clues, and specific events in the outer story arc. The other is the protagonist’s personal attributes, his or her age, occupation, socio-economic status, and all-around situation within society.

Story arc flaws

Working from the perspective of story arc and plot elements, let’s say you’ve got a murder mystery where you know that the climactic scene is going to happen in a disused subway tunnel deep under Manhattan. In fact, many of the book’s clues will be found in the pipes and tunnels beneath the Big Apple. No problem! Make your detective be afraid of going underground. This requires some backstory, so let’s say that your detective and his brother used to go caving when they were kids. Only, the brother died when the two accidentally triggered a cave-in. So now he’s terrified of being underground. The memory of his brother creates a suffocating, claustrophobic fear of the millions of tons of soil and rock overhead.

Now you have a flaw that directly impedes the detective’s job of investigating the crime scenes and catching the killer. You also have a fun reversal in the fact that despite the detective’s experience in operating underground, which ought to serve him well, his phobia blocks him from putting that experience to use.

Protagonist’s personal attributes

Working from the perspective of the protagonist’s general qualities, let’s say you have a story set in a high school, with a sophomore girl as your protagonist. The story’s central conflict revolves around some sort of garden-variety misunderstanding between her and another student, of the kind that happen all the time between teenagers. The misunderstanding spins totally out of control into a huge rift that divides the student body into two camps. In the climactic scene, where the core of the misunderstanding is finally brought into the open, the resolution will depend a lot on how the rest of the students feel about your protagonist and antagonist. High school is nothing if not intensely political. It’s an environment where reputation is everything, so why not give the girl a flaw that undermines her reputation? Maybe she’s basically a good kid, honest about stuff that matters, but she tends to exaggerate the little stuff or embellish events to her own advantage.

When the big climax comes around this flaw can come back to bite her. People will be a lot less likely to believe her version of events—even if it’s true—because of her reputation as a fibber.

Both options raise the drama and tension

These two different sources of character flaws are different in an interesting way: In one the character is obviously aware of his flaw, whereas in the other the character may be blind to it. Yet, both options create drama.

In one, we can watch the detective fight against his phobia, wondering with each new scene whether he’ll be able to summon the nerve to step underground. A succession of failures, perhaps with increasing consequences from each, pushes the drama higher and higher.

In the other, we can watch the protagonist create a situation where her self-image is increasingly different from how others perceive her. That serves to raise the tension because as readers we know that eventually this will come back to haunt her. A series of lies and fibs that she believes she’s gotten away with raises the tension as we wait for her house of cards to come crashing down.

Be smart about the flaws you pick

Both of these character flaws work because they turn the characters against themselves. Each becomes his or her own obstacle, which serves to heighten the reader’s perception of drama and tension. These flaws also work because they tie the outer story arc to the inner character arc: addressing the story’s central conflict becomes an exercise in character growth.

So give your characters flaws. Do it to make your characters believable and sympathetic. But be smart about it. Find a flaw that works on two levels. Think about your plot, and think about your protagonist. Somewhere in there you will find a flaw which enhances your overall story by raising the drama and tension of the central conflict.

November 16, 2009 20:24 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, flaws, inner character arc, outer character arc, outer plot, drama, conflict, tension, traits

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Character Corner: "Return Policy" by Michael Snyder

First, let’s keep the FTC’s new blogger disclosure monitor people happy: I got a free copy of Return Policy from a book giveaway on K.M. Weiland’s blog. Neither of these fine folks expected me to review it at all. (But note, you can find them as “@snydermanwrites” and “@KMWeiland” on Twitter.)

Ok. I finished reading Return Policy a couple of weeks ago. It was a solid midlist novel. Entertaining. Very funny in spots, very moving and compelling in others, but here and there I felt the plot was weak. At a couple of critical spots, characters both major and minor fail to do obvious things that, had they done them, would have avoided a lot of trouble that Snyder obviously wanted create for his poor characters. Snyder may be an author to watch, but this isn’t likely to be his breakout book. I give it three stars.

On to the characters. Snyder has three principal characters in this book, and each one is told from the first person POV. That’s a bold choice, because it demands a very high level of craft to keep the characters distinct. It’s the right choice for this book, because first person POV allows him to clearly convey each character’s different opinions and attitudes towards one another and their different interpretations of the book’s plot events. Much of the story’s nuance hinges on the types of miscommunications that can arise from people’s different opinions and interpretations, so going with first person was effective for that.

Snyder structured the book as a sequence of scenes that switch round-robin among the POV characters. But judging by the number of times I found myself confused in the middle of dialogue as to who was saying what, or having to backtrack to remember which character ‘owned’ the scene, I’d say Snyder has some work to do in making the characters distinctive in their details. Their broad strokes are clearly different, but down in the nitty-gritty of words on the page, at times I found them running together.

Wally

Wally Finneran is the book’s central character. He’s a divorced guy with a pretty bleak outlook on life, but given his backstory (which I won’t spoil) you can hardly blame him. One thing I found interesting about Wally is that he’s a writer. I know, cliche alert, right? How many times have we seen writers take “write what you know” a little too seriously and write about characters who are writers? But in this case Snyder makes it work because Wally is not exactly a fan of his own stuff. In fact, he thinks he’s crap, which ends up being pretty amusing. [Update: having recently re-read something I wrote 3 years, ago, I know exactly how Wally feels.]

My main problem with Wally is that overall, he’s too passive. Wally spends way too much of the book letting events push him around, before he finally grows a pair and exerts some sort of influence over his destiny. While his backstory makes this believable, I still ended up feeling sorry for him more than I actually rooted for him. To be fair, I think much of the point of the book was to force Wally not to be so passive. There’s nothing wrong with that as a character arc. This may be a matter of my own tastes as much as anything, it didn’t really grab me.

Shaq

Shaq is a mentally ill dude who lives at a homeless shelter. For my money, Shaq was the most interesting character in the book, and he’s where Snyder really shines. Snyder did a great job of portraying Shaq’s particular variety of crazy-slash-incapacitated in a way that was both believable and at the same time didn’t reduce him to another pitiable wretch of a character. For all of Shaq’s problems and hardships, he left the man with his share of dignity.

But here’s the twist: Snyder also used Shaq’s mental problems to drive some of the book’s central and most compelling mysteries. And he did it really, really well. Read Return Policy for that if nothing else, and pay attention. It’s a marvelous example of using character flaws to drive mystery.

Ozena

Ozena is a telephone service representative for an espresso machine company. She is in many ways the book’s emotional heart, its source of warmth and compassion. She is perhaps the character I empathized with the most, because Snyder did a very nice job conveying her mixture of unfailing love for her very high-maintenance, special needs son. I know how hard it is raising normal kids; they’re high maintenance enough. I can’t even imagine the toll that year after year of caring for her little Leroy Jr. would take, knowing that he’ll never grow up like other kids. But she loves him anyway, and Snyder’s portrayal of this whole package—the emotional and logistical complications of Ozena’s life—was very genuine and tender. I liked Ozena.

Summary

As I said, I got a free copy of the book, which probably biases me in some inevitable fashion towards it. But despite the book’s plot weaknesses, I wouldn’t have been sorry had I paid list price for it. In the end, it is a portrait of three people, each in their own ways coping with tragedy. Snyder does yeoman work in making three people’s very different reactions to tragedy all feel believable. I like books about characters (no surprise there), and this book has three good ones. If you’re like me in that regard, give it a try.

November 13, 2009 00:30 UTC

Tags: character corner, Michael Snyder, passivity, dialogue, distinctive

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Three ways relationships can reveal your characters

Characters are never alone. You ever notice that? Abbot had Costello, Lucy had Ricky, Holmes had Watson, and Gilligan had The Skipper. Why is this? Psychologically it’s because people are social creatures. We go better together. Some part of us needs to be able to share our thoughts and feelings with others. But as writers, we create sidekicks and foils because relationships are a marvelous tool for revealing your characters.

Even characters who seem alone, aren’t. There’s always a sidekick, even if it isn’t human. Tom Hanks, in Cast Away, had his volleyball. Bruce Dern’s character in the Sci-Fi classic Silent Running had three cute little robots with him. And of course, Keir Dullea’s murderous computer nemesis in 2001: A Space Odyssey needs no explanation at all. Those characters’ sidekicks weren’t people, but they still provided a relationship that revealed a lot about the character.

You could probably write a whole book on this, but let me instead just give three highlights, three quick methods for using relationships to show what kind of people your characters are.

Use shared or borrowed goals

Any time you have one character seeking to enter the good graces of another, it can work well to have that character adopt as his own something that is a goal for the other character. You might have your love-struck hero take up volunteering at an animal shelter, because he learns that the girl he’s sweet on has a soft spot for homeless animals. He might even adopt a sad, mangy dog, despite his own allergies (they’ve got pills for that, right?) just to impress her.

Although this technique is particularly apt for unrequited love, it works for other situations too. Not long ago, I finished Michael Snyder’s book Return Policy, in which there’s a sub-plot about one character seeking to land a promotion by voluntarily taking on a tedious, boring data entry job that everyone else in her office has been avoiding. It means longer hours, time away from her son, but she knows it will make her manager look good and hopes it will tip the scales toward her.

Let relationships reveal deeper motivations

Relationships always have levels to them. For example, you might have a character who is always creating little competitions between himself and his friends. His notion is that he’s creating opportunities for fun and that this will make people like him. How he reacts says a lot: is he gracious in victory and defeat, or obnoxious in victory and a sore loser to boot? How his friends react should be very telling, too: are they in fact having fun, or are they annoyed? It’s this interaction between the characters that is your vehicle for showing the primary character’s competitive streak. How the relationship plays out on the page says everything.

Or going back to the love-struck mangy dog owner, while that behavior may seem sweet and fawning at first, there’s a darker side lurking underneath. It is ultimately selfish: he doesn’t actually care about the dog, except to the extent that the dog can help win him the girl. And how disrespectful he must be of her, if he thinks she’s dumb enough to be manipulated in that way, or that she won’t see right through him. Does he even actually love her for herself? If he’s so willing to alter his outward image—and mask his inward nature—to impress her, perhaps he is more attracted to his outward image of her than to the person she is underneath.

The levels inherent in any relationship are a great source of surprises. Affection can mask selfishness. Competition can mask self-importance. Actions that seem driven by one motive can, in fact, be hiding a deeper and completely opposite motive. Revealing those deeper motives can make for wonderful dramatic reversals. It’s the best way to surprise a reader, by letting them learn something new about your characters that they didn’t necessarily expect.

Show multiple points of view

Finally, as I wrote last month, nobody sees themselves the same as other people see them. If your story has multiple POV characters, you can readily exploit this to show the contrast. For example, the competitive boy sees his competitive habit as an attempt to create fun between himself and his friends. But his friends, who have grown weary of seeing who can throw a crumpled napkin into the trash can from the farthest away, see it as something else: annoying egotism.

There’s an opportunity with multiple POVs, though, that goes deeper than simply showing a contrast between some character’s self-opinion and how others see him, and it’s one you shouldn’t miss out on. Try to show the contrast in a way that creates mystery rather than solves it. That is to say, when you’re done showing both parties’ view of the situation, have you left the reader wondering who is right?

If so, you have a wonderful opportunity to also create a great dramatic reversal: Solve the mystery a few chapters later by springing yet another layer on the reader, revealing that nobody is right! Reveal that he’s not as fun-loving as he thinks he is, but neither is he as egotistic as his friends think. Rather, they’re both wrong: deep down he’s just insecure. Beyond the fun-and-games facade, underneath the ego, he creates all these competitive situations because really he’s struggling to reassure himself of his own abilities.

It’s not a meaningless reversal, of course. It’s not there just to keep the reader guessing. To really work, it had better be part of a meaningful character arc. But I hope that at least gives you gives a taste of how these strategies—just like people—go better together than alone.

November 09, 2009 21:50 UTC

Tags: character, relationships, Michael Snyder, goals, reversals

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NaNoWriMo diary part 2: the serendipity begins

After 5 days of writing, I’m 10,000 words in. I’m quite enjoying the process of watching this book unfold, but I have to say that some days have been a lot harder than others. Part of that may be unavoidable. I know that there’s a bunch of stuff I need Anna to discover before the plot can logically move forward. I know better than to just infodump it into the narrative, which means I’ve got to actually show Anna learning this stuff.

Frankly, it’s hard work coming up with interesting ways for Anna to discover a whole bunch of stuff about her father that she never knew, but which also supports the mysteries Anna will then set out to unravel. It would be all too easy to end up sabotaging the choices I need her to make by revealing the information in the wrong ways. So that takes time.

I also made a decision to write this book in first person POV, which is a departure for me. I’ve always been somewhat afraid of trying that, but something about this premise and the character of Anna made me feel like I ought to try it. I think partly I knew that some significant parts of this book were going to hinge on internal conflicts and Anna working out the ramifications of the identity crisis I threw at her in chapter 1, for which first-person is a natural choice. The alternative, doing it in limited third person with a whole lot of inner monologue, somehow wasn’t as appealing to me.

It’s going ok, I suppose. I’m happy with what I’ve written so far, even though I don’t yet feel qualified to write Anna in that way. I don’t really know her well enough yet that I feel I ought to be allowed to put words in her mouth and thoughts in her head like that. I expect that by the time I get to the end of the book, I’ll have a much clearer and stronger feel for Anna’s voice, which means I’ll have to go back and re-write the beginning to make it match. But that’s ok. It will be worth the work.

Still, I’ve had some fun surprises along the way. Like I said last time, the stuff that comes to you while you’re writing is almost always better than what you could ever think of ahead of time, and that’s been true for me a couple of times already.

Anna

The biggest surprise has been to find Anna suspecting her mother of having murdered her father. That was a good one, because with the set of information she has at hand, it’s actually not a bad theory. It can be made to fit a whole bunch of other stuff Anna is wondering about, too. So I had to run with that for a while. It was a fun digression, and I suspect I’ll probably end up keeping it in the final draft, but ultimately it wasn’t too difficult for Anna to spot the places where that theory doesn’t hold up.

I haven’t learned yet whether Anna swears a lot because she’s actually tough and brassy, or because it’s a defense mechanism. That one’s still up in the air. What I have learned about her is kind of interesting, though. She’s impulsive. We knew that already. But the curious part is that although she knows she’s that way, she can sense it, she nevertheless lets herself give in to her impulses anyway. This may well get her into trouble someday. We’ll see.

Peter

Peter is Anna’s father. He isn’t personally in the novel, having disappeared some fifteen years prior. But he is definitely taking on a persona of his own through the material artifacts he left behind. Anna was only five years old when he left, so she is becoming re-acquainted with him by going through his stuff, at the same time as I’m learning about him at all.

He’s an interesting guy. He was a huge Roy Rogers fan as a kid, and as it turns out Roy Rogers is what got him started collecting comic books. Comic books are a central theme in the novel, and while I’d always had that as part of the premise, I had never given much thought to how, exactly, Peter got started on collecting them. Turns out that the King of the Cowboys had a comic book series back in the day, and so those were his “gateway drug” into the larger world of superhero comic books of the late 50s and early 60s.

The other fun thing about Peter is that he wasn’t the kind of guy who would just tell you what he thought. He would, rather, ask you rhetorical questions that had only one possible answer. Like, he wouldn’t say “ew, that looks disgusting,” he’d say “oh, you’re not really going to eat that, are you?” This has been helpful, because even though Peter himself is not around in any of the scenes, Anna does have a picture of him that she talks to. And sometimes, in her head, the picture talks back. Not literally—she’s not crazy, she knows it’s just her imagining what he would say—but still it has become a useful device for creating some interaction, for building an emotional relationship, between someone who is there and someone who isn’t.

That’s not something I ever planned, but boy am I glad that picture turned up when it did.

November 06, 2009 19:25 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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What's in a name?

You want to know what I hate about the process of writing novels?

Coming up with names.

Judging by the number of “Help me name my character!” threads on the NaNoWriMo forums, I’m not the only one.

Seriously. What a chore. That is hands-down my least favorite part. On the one hand names are irrelevant to the story, so inventing them feels like make-work. But while a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, your characters’ names must sound right or you’ll lose the reader.

Well, most of the time they’re irrelevant to the plot. One book I read recently jumps to mind as a great counter-example where the author built a significant reversal about the character into the revelation of what the character’s name means. It’s is enough of a spoiler that I’d ruin the book for you simply by telling you its name, so I won’t.

Setting the occasional counter example aside, usually names are nothing more than labels to hang on the characters so we can keep the players straight. For example, there’s no reason why J.K. Rowling had to give Harry Potter that particular name. She could have called him “Alan Smithson” and made it work just fine, too.

Names do have to sound right, though. That is, they must fit with readers’ preconceived notions about names for people with similar backstories. At the very least they must not clash with the backstory too severely, unless you explain why. For example, absent a good reason for doing so, you wouldn’t give your lovable Irish priest character a name like Boris Solyarin, because that doesn’t sound at all Irish. It sounds Slavic. Or, you wouldn’t give your Femme Fatale a cartoon character name like Jessica Rabbit unless, well, unless she actually is a cartoon character.

I didn’t grow up in Dublin or Belfast, and I didn’t grow up in Toon Town, so for me it’s difficult to think of names that match the backstories of characters who did. Or, frankly, characters with any backstory different from my own broad socio-economic background. Thus, names become tedious research which doesn’t help me advance the story. Goodness knows any book involves enough research just to satisfy the plot; I don’t need name research dumped on me as well!

I end up wanting to name all my characters “Bob” and just be done with it. Of course, I don’t. Here’s what I do:

Don’t sweat it too much

Honestly, if you have as much trouble with character names as I do, the best single piece of advice I can probably give you is just to relax. Once you start stressing over the perfect name for your sexy Brazilian Women’s Volleyball team captain, you’re going to find that everything you think of doesn’t match up to what you want. Everything ends up sounding stupid. But that’s just to you, because you’re the one stressed out about it. Readers are much less likely to think the name sounds stupid so long as the name is plausibly Brazilian, and plausibly female.

Just google for “Brazilian Girls Names” and pick the first thing you find that you don’t absolutely hate. Odds are it will be just fine.

Have fun with it

One thing you can do is pick a name that bears some relationship to the traits of the character in question. This can be fun, because it turns the name into a private joke between you and anyone else who is word-wise enough to get it. For instance, in the novel I’m writing this month, I have a minor character who’s a Russian woman. Her backstory involves having done some very difficult things in her past, things that were necessary. While googling “Russian girls names” I happened upon “Darya,” which at least according to that one website, comes from the Russian word for “strong.” To me, that fits. So that’s what I picked.

Take care, though. It’s easy to go overboard with this. For example, (paging Dan Brown, paging Dan Brown...) naming your red-herring character “Arringarosa,” which literally means “red herring,” is taking things just a bit far. On the other hand, Neal Stephenson made that trick work just fine in Snow Crash with the sublimely named “Hiro Protagonist,” so as always, there’s proof that you can violate any rule of writing so long as it works.

Have faith

If it helps, pick a name as above but make yourself a deal: if you really and truly believe that the perfect name is out there somewhere, just waiting to be found, then give yourself permission to change the character’s name later. Pick something so you can get going, but let it be nothing more than a placeholder until the One True Name comes along. If there is some perfect right name for the character, then you have to have faith that it’ll come to you eventually. When it does, great! Search-and-replace is your friend. But if it doesn’t, then there probably wasn’t, and again your placeholder name is just fine.

Still, a rose is a rose is a rose

The name may be invested with all manner of emotional weight for you, the writer, because you are in the intense emotional throes of writing the book. But for the reader, the name just has to satisfy two simple criteria: it has to readily identify the character, and it has to sound right enough that it doesn’t blow the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief in your story.

Compared to writing a whole novel, that’s not a tall order. So pick a name and move on. You’ve got a story to write!

November 05, 2009 00:20 UTC

Tags: character, names, backstory, J.K. Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Dan Brown, NaNoWriMo

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NaNoWriMo diary, part 1: This is the fun part.

Ah, November. There’s a chill in the air. The leaves are dropping from the trees. And thousands of insane writers all over the world are banging out first drafts of new novels. Yes, I’m one of the NaNoWriMo faithful. This is my fifth year doing it. My “logline” this year is:

A young woman searches for her missing father through clues hidden in underground comic books from Soviet Russia.

I decided to do a NaNoWriMo diary because frankly, I’ve been blogging about novel writing and character development in the abstract for a while now, and I thought it would be a good idea to share a concrete example of how I actually put those principles into practice.

Today, what’s foremost in my mind is the truth of something that you hear writers say more often than not: no book ever turns out like you think it’s going to. You always discover new things in the process of writing that you could never have thought of ahead of time. And in my experience, these little jewels of serendipity are much better than the stuff I did think of ahead of time.

After just two days and a mere 3800 words of crappy first draft, I’ve discovered some interesting stuff about my characters. Writers say that great characters really jump off the page and take on a life of their own. They end up saying things you’d never imagine. So far, after what is probably only 5% of what the finished story will be, I’m finding that to be the case.

Anna Schoeffer

My main character is Anna, the young woman in question. She’s 20. It’s July, and she’s working a summer job to save money for college. Nothing especially uncommon there, which is basically intentional. I much prefer writing about ordinary people. But already Anna is taking on a life of her own. I’ve discovered two things about her:

First, wow does she have a potty-mouth! This girl swears a lot. I’m not sure quite what it means yet. It might mean she’s this really tough, brassy chick. But I have a feeling it might all be for show. She may swear and act all tough as a defense, whereas inside she’s not really so self-assured. We’ll see.

Second, she has a pretty short fuse. In chapter one, she ended up socking her step-brother in the jaw. Ok, he definitely had it coming, but still. She just up and did it. Not in a calculating way, but as a reaction to something he did. I’m not quite sure what to do with that. I mean, in real life I’m a total pacifist. I don’t condone violence as a solution to one’s problems. But at least in that one situation for Anna, it felt like what she’d do. Part of me wants to punish her for that, because again I don’t believe in acting that way. But for now I’m going to reserve judgment, wait a while and see how it plays out. It’s early yet and my gut feeling is that if I try to impose any particular moral viewpoint on the story that I’ll just screw it up.

Christopher

Christopher is Anna’s step brother, the recipient of the punch. But again, he was way out of line and totally deserved it. I knew this about him going in—didn’t expect him to get punched, but I knew he was going to do the things he did. But what I discovered was that underneath his socially inappropriate behavior, he’s actually kind of a chicken. He shies away from confrontations, and for all his bravado, he backs down easily. He is ultimately a minor character who won’t be in most of the book, but I wonder how far he might actually push it with Anna?

Betty

Betty is Anna’s mom. She’s kind of a mess, actually. Anna’s father vanished 15 years prior, leaving her to raise Anna alone, which she didn’t do so well. She provided food and shelter, but not much in the way of emotional support. Betty is now on her fourth marriage, to Christopher’s father. This was all what I planned out.

What I didn’t plan is that she’s actually kind of crazy. All the years of coping while Anna’s father was missing, before she had him declared legally dead so she could remarry, left her in a pattern of seeing the world in ways that support her own self-pity, rather than seeing things for how they actually are. She’s not clinically crazy, not really, she’s just unreliable because she willfully ignores or misinterprets anything that doesn’t support her own narrative. I hadn’t intended this, but it works. It helps set the stage for some important stuff that happens at the end of chapter one.

I like this new discovery about Betty, but for all that, I’m still not totally happy with her as a character. She’s just as minor a character as Christopher, but her relationship to Anna is so much more important that I know she really has to “pop” as a character, and she isn’t yet. I have some work to do with Betty. Maybe she’ll come to life tomorrow and make it easy on me. Or maybe not, and I’ll just have to out-think her when I revise later.

To explore new words

Plot-wise, things are about where I expected them to be. I got the inciting incident—an identity crisis—out of the way and tomorrow, I’ll tackle revealing the story’s central mystery. That’s all good, and I know this isn’t the time to stress about Betty’s present one-dimensionality or Anna’s potential violent tendencies. That can come later.

But this, this is the time of the first draft. This is the time for discovery. This is the fun part.

If you want to follow my progress or read the first few thousand words of the book (warning: I meant it about crappy first drafts), you can do so here.

November 02, 2009 23:17 UTC

Tags: NaNoWriMo, character, discovery, Lapochka

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