Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique

Originally posted on another site on 5 April 2010.

Further to my post the other day entitled Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique I am pleased to say that I find this technique excellent.

This simple technique allowed me to get into the character’s head so completely, that I now have a thorough understanding of why she earned the love of a young man and then lost it. It wasn’t enough for me to know that she must of had qualities that endeared her to him, I had to know what made her turn nasty enough to do the things I’ll make her do in the story. I needed to know what those qualities were and what experiences changed her.

With this in mind, I opened a blank document and started typing. I did not pause to edit and I did not suppress my thoughts. I just let the words appear on the screen before me. The end result is a three page history of a woman that is to be the antagonist. The three pages gives me the answers to my questions – valid answers. I feel as if this character is no longer a drawing on a sheet of paper, but a real person standing before me.

Please meet Lonia Navra from Whispering Caves (this is the first three paragraphs only):

My name is Lonia Navra and my life has been filled with death, longing and outrage. My mother died shortly after I was born, from the birthing sickness, and my father never forgave me for that…or for the fact that I was a girl. One daughter was tolerable, but two was insufferable, especially when there was no longer a wife to produce a boy. By the time I was born, my older sister had already won my father’s love, but I was never to be as lucky.

When I was almost six, my sister died from Butterweed Fever and I’m not sure why that was also blamed on me, but it was. My father hated me wholeheartedly from the day he buried his precious Katryn. By then I had given up trying to win him over as, even at that young age I knew it wouldn’t happen.

Is it wrong to be glad when a parent dies? I don’t think it is a sign of good character, but I beseech you to understand that my father’s hatred of me was not restricted to harsh words. I often received the back of his hand across my face or the sting of a thick leather strap when I displeased him. And it pains me to admit that the torment didn’t stop there, the suffering I was subjected to during the long hours of night has left me terrified of the dark. I could never please him. Never! So, on the day I arrived home from tending the goats to find my father laying dead beneath a fallen tree — his skull cracked open — I couldn’t help but feel gratitude that the man would never again place a hand on me. I was nine summers old at the time.

I needed her to have deep routed reasons for her actions and now I have them. I want the reader to feel sorry for her, understand her misery, but condemn her reaction to what happens in the story. It comes down to morals, upbringing, experiences and knowledge. But in the end, she makes a choice. She can go either way. She can pick right or wrong. She is in control. Can she put bitterness behind her…?

I am so pleased with what has come out of a few hours writing today and I highly recommend that you try this method to give your characters realistic depth.

Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique

Originally posted on another site on 4 April 2010.

Deborah Woehr recently wrote a post on Character Development, Using the Voice Journal Writing Technique. The technique is a simple exercise but I feel it would open the doors for the author to see more than they, at first, could imagine.

I haven’t actually tried the technique yet, but I intend to give it a try later today. However, I have found myself thinking about some of the characters in a “journal” way instead of a “profile” way. Already, things about the characters are coming through that I didn’t intend to include, didn’t even consider including in their profile. I believe the reason for this is that when writing a journal type entry on a character, you need access to more information in order to bring them alive on the page. And…isn’t that exactly what all writers need for all their characters?! Of course it is.

Thank you, Deborah, for sharing your experience with your readers; I think you’ve given me a very useful tool. 😀

I’ll let you know how I go.

What would the reader do?

Originally posted on another site on 2 March 2010.

Have you ever read a book and not accepted the character’s actions? Have you ever declared aloud, “That’s stupid, no one would do that.” I have. And I’ve heard other people say it too. But in all honesty, how do you know how you’d really react if confronted with a axe-wielding maniac or if you unexpectedly found yourself in an unknown world. How do you know how you’d truly feel if a stranger snatched your child from your side and took off with him? How do you know what you’d instinctively do if a gun was held at your head. How would you know, unless you experienced it yourself.

Sitting comfortably in your lounge room reading about a character who experiences these things is not the same as facing the situation in real life. Yes, as you read, you might feel your heart quicken and you may even recognise a quiver of fear run up your spine, but that’s as far as it goes. You don’t have to rely on your legs to carry you to safety. You don’t have to hope your scream is loud enough to wake the neighbours. You don’t have to actually fear for your life or make a snap decision. And in that moment of terror, how do you know you’ll be capable of making a snap decision? You can’t know until you are in the situation.

I didn’t accept this until I reacted to the news of my son’s passing. Being such a practical, straight laced, focused person I never thought for a second that I would collapse in a heap on the floor. Yet that’s exactly what I did. I went down into the foetal position and sobbed. If anyone had suggested that I’d do such a thing, I would have smirked and said, “I don’t think so! That’s just not me.” And I would have meant it, but I would have been wrong.

It’s reasonable to say that you don’t think you’d react in the same way as the character, but you cannot say their reaction is totally wrong. Everyone reacts differently and that reaction can change due to their mental status at the time or the emotional investment they have in the situation or past experiences of a similar nature or just from shock. You might view the reaction of a character in a book as silly or stupid, you may even laugh, but if faced with the situation yourself you will soon discover that we don’t always react the way we think we will.

Many years ago, I wrote a rape scene. I have never been raped, but my instincts told me that I wouldn’t necessarily scream. I think I would, however, fight against the violation to the end and I guess I’d keep all my strength for that instead of wasting it on screaming. I hope I’m never in the situation to find out what I really would do. However, several critiquers told me that the scene was not realistic. They felt the lack of screaming flattened the scene and they urged me to do a rewrite. This brought to mind an incident when I was about 15 years old. I was sitting with my parents, watching a movie, when the loudest, most terrifying, scream penetrated our home and announced that someone was in desperate trouble. We rushed outside, as did a lot of our neighbours, to find a young woman running and screaming at the top of her lungs. The man chasing her quickly took off into the shadows, but was caught by police later. Upon seeing us, the woman made a bee line directly to my father and begged him to help her. She later told us that the man was waiting in the bushes near the bus stop and pounced on her as soon as the bus disappeared around the corner. Her wild screams saved her from events I would rather not think about.

Yet whilst I was thinking about the comments I received on my scene, I concluded that it wasn’t wrong. Just because the majority of readers felt they would scream bloody murder, it doesn’t mean I wrote the scene incorrectly. I decided to keep it as it was. Then…several days later I received an email from a critiquer who had read the scene but hadn’t offered her opinion, but she had seen what the others had said to me. She had taken several days to think about it and then she decided that for my sake (and for the sake of the scene) she had to speak up. She had been raped! She told me that reading the scene bought it all back – the emotion, the fear. She said that despite what everyone else thought, the scene (to her) was more realistic than any other she had ever read. Her experience was exactly like my scene. My words had connected with her on the deepest level and, although she was battling with past demons because of what she’d read, she needed me to know that my scene was good, that it didn’t need changing.

She understood that for me it was just a scene, but she opened up to me like I was another rape victim. My words connected us and she shared so much of her experience with me that saying I was grateful just didn’t feel right…or appropriate. I find myself wondering, all these years later, if she realised her emails boosted my confidence as a writer. If I could connect to one person in that way, perhaps I could connect to others…that thought drove me on.

But why have I brought this up today? On the train this morning I sat behind two young women discussing a book they had both finished reading recently. Unfortunately, I don’t know what book they were referring to, but what caught my interest was their conversation on how they felt the main character’s reactions were totally wrong. When I heard one of them say, “Yeah, but I wouldn’t react like that. Would you?”, it made me think of that rape scene. Surely readers don’t expect everyone to react in the exact same way they do. Do they? As a writer, I must chose carefully how I want my characters to react to the situations I put them in. Are they going to do what everyone expects of them, or are they going to react in the way befitting their personality? I will chose the reaction for their personality every time! To do anything else, just wouldn’t seem right.

To Plan or Not to Plan

Life has been busy and I haven’t had time to do much of anything lately, especially do the internet rounds and check up on my fellow writers. Today, however, I decided to correct that and have been doing the rounds.

The first stop was Benjamin Solah’s website. He’s getting ready to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo which means he’s planning the 50,000 words he has to endeavour to write in the month of November. Because of this Benjamin has written some very interesting, and inspiring, posts which I’d like to link to here. First, there is NaNoWriMo: How I Plot My Novel and then there is NaNoWriMo: How I Create Characters. As I’m very much a visual person, I love the idea of using gaming facilities such as Simms to build a character. Anyway, both of these posts made me thinking about my own writing, so if you need something to help you along, go and give them a read.

When I landed on Struggling Writer’s website, I was pleased to find a post that is in contract to Benjamin’s. Whilst Benjamin is planning, planning, planning, Struggling Writer (also participating in NaNoWriMo) is set on not planning! If you are not much of a planner, then his post Novel Planning for Pantsers might be of interest to you. Struggling Writer admits that this year he’s going to remain a pantser writer by doing a bare minimal amount of what some would call planning. He has included some links to some interesting writing resources too.

For me, it’s been an interesting and informative hour or so. My fellow writers are planning and not planning for the upcoming NaNoWriMo (which I won’t be participating in this year), but the ideas they share (as well as the links) are all worthwhile and inspiring. Personally, I’m a planner from way back, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find inspiration from a non-planner, because I have.

Thanks guys and good luck in November.

Difference between Protagonist, Antagonist and Contagonist

During the week, when I normally have little to no internet access, I found myself with a few minutes to spare and someone else’s computer to use. My website was offline (refer to My Domain Name Expired!) and I was feeling rather…cut off from the writing world. I guess this was the reason I typed a random writing related question into the search engine. Anyway, I found myself on a blog that was talking about the protagonist and contagonist in her work in progress.

Contagonist!? Never heard of it. How could that be so after all these years of writing and research? I was a little baffled, but the blog I was reading gave the impression that these two character types were almost the same…but not quite.

My few minutes came to an end, but I had questions rolling around in my mind that needed answers, so I quickly sent a question to a writer’s group I belong to: What is the difference between a protagonist and contagonist?

I was pleased to see, by the replies that came back, that I was not the only person who has never heard of the second one. But someone kindly shared a link that gives excellent examples and I discovered that what I thought to be correct was, in fact, wrong.

All writers should know what a protagonist is. It’s usually the main character of the story (but not always) who is having the problem. We usually pair the protagonist with the antagonist – the person who will do anything in their power to stop the main character solving the problem.

So where does the contagonist fit in? That’s what I wanted to know. It seems that the contagonist is a character who tries to sway the protagonist off course. From what I can gather, the antagonist and contagonist are not usually “in it” together and whilst the antagonist will stop at nothing to get his/her own way, the contagonist is more likely to be someone having a particularly hard day. For me, the only way that I can make sense of having two types of characters that are against the protagonist is to make the contagonist a bit of a mystery where the reader is concerned. Whose side is this person on? Is this person really evil or just having problems of their own? I think the contagonist should be a character who can be swayed over to eventually leave the protagonist alone or to even help them, in the end, once offered a solution to their own troubles.

So now the protagonist has to deal with three things: 1) the problem, 2) the antagonist, and 3) the contagonist. Life is never easy…especially when you’re the main character of a book.

If you want to know more about these terms, go to the relevant post at Writer Unboxed: Antagonist & Contagonist. It gives some great examples.

Using Index Cards

No Plot No ProblemLast night, I finished reading No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty. (I admit there was a long break between starting the book and finishing it, because I was extremely busy.)

There’s a section at the end of the book that gives tips on rewriting your NaNo manuscript if you think it’s got potential. There are six steps to the rewrite, and in summary, they are:

  • Read your manuscript through from first word to last and make a note of each scene on the manuscript itself in any colour pen except red (red is strictly for editing). At the beginning of each scene write down who is in the scene and a brief summary of what happens in the scene.
  • Transfer these notes onto index cards (or a spreadsheet) exactly as you wrote them. Now lay the cards out in the order they appear in the manuscript, using a vertical divider (Chris recommended a pencil for this) to group the scenes into chapters.
  • Scan the cards, removing any that don’t move the story forward. Check the remaining for characters that don’t seem to do anything or are doubles of other characters. If a character doesn’t have a reason to be in the story, get rid of them. However, if the character is needed but their story arc isn’t properly represented create new cards and place them where they should go. Ensure all characters are well developed on the cards before moving on to the next step.
  • Now shuffle the cards and place them down in alternate ways to ensure you have the best storyline possible; not forgetting to ensure you have the best pace and tension too. You may find you have to slice and dice some more scenes/characters when you finally decide on the best layout, so delete and create more cards if necessary.
  • Now return to your manuscript and cut and past the document so that the scenes are in the order you decided was best with the cards. Don’t edit! Just put everything in the right order. If you have added scenes, type in a place marker by writing four or five lines of a quick description of the scene. Remove the scenes that you no longer need.
  • Rewrite (or edit) your story – slowly and line by line.

This sounds like a good plan for my chapters books. I’ve written two, but I feel they need improving and I thought I could use the index cards I’ve already prepared and see what happens when I follow the steps (starting at step 2, of course).

Today, after returning home from a lovely morning out (we went to see the latest Harry Potter movie and had lunch), I decided that I’d start. However, my index cards were nowhere to be found. I pulled my bedroom apart (that’s where I normally write), but nothing. I then went into the computer room and ended up having a spring clean in there too, but still nothing. I don’t know what happened to them, but they are missing and I have a strong feeling I will not be finding them anytime soon. You know that “safe place” everyone has, well that’s where they must be and we all know no one knows where that place is.

I guess I’ll be doing the steps from the beginning, instead of cheating and starting at step 2 now. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

I just wish I knew what happened to those cards.

How to Plot Your Novel

I’ve been plotting novels and short stories for some years now, but that doesn’t mean I think I know everything that needs to be known on the subject. Because of this, I continually borrow books from the library, or purchase them if they are being sold at the right price, to ensure I’m not doing things the hard way, or I’m not forgetting to do something altogether.

I recently borrowed a book called How to Plot Your Novel by Jean Saunders. It’s a relatively old book, but in this case the content is still viable. I didn’t read the entire book (and rarely do with this type of book as I usually pick out the sections of interest to me), but I wanted to share – in point form – the main items I got from the book.

  • Find a theme you are passionate about.
  • Know the kind of book you want to write.
  • Keep the proposed length within publishing bounds and plot your novel to appeal to the widest audience.
  • Create good characters, who you know well, and who have real motivation and goals.
  • Learn how to ask yourself questions such as “What if…?”
  • Scenes and chapters should be linked together.
  • Throw the reader a curve now and then, without relying on coincidences.
  • Don’t allow your story to sag in the middle by sustaining pace and keeping control of your characters.
  • Dramatic scenes need their calming counterparts.
  • End your story without leaving loose ends, and leaving the reader feeling satisfied.

I believe the points outlined above are common sense, but should be reiterated often because it seems that many books being published these days are not paying attention to these important details. Hence, the quality of reading is lowered and the chance of the author becoming a best seller slim.

If you’re a writer and you can place a tick beside each of the above, then you’re off to a great start. Naturally, there are other items that could be put on the list too, but these are the essential ones, in my opinion.

Grouping Your Characters

Not all your characters are important. They cannot all have the starring role, or even the supporting role, but they should be important in their own way to the story. With this in mind, how do we sort the characters into groups in order to find out who should be there and who should not? To find out, we need to know what the different levels of significance are:

Level One:

These are the central characters – the main characters. These are the people the story is about, revolves around. There may only one main character or several – depending on the story. Usually short stories have a limit of one or two main characters, but novels can have several. However, each scene should focus on, or be from the point of view of, only one character.

Level Two:

These characters are essential to the story too. They often supply the conflict. This might be the third person in a love triangle or the detective in a mystery. These people can, and usually do, have a sub-plot of their own.

Level Three:

These characters are lesser characters who are shown throughout the story, but are in the background. They play a part in the story such as the murder victim or they might act as a catalyst which triggers events. They can create joy, sadness or tension, but they don’t remain for the duration of the story.

Lever Four:

These are the more incidental characters to the plot and only occur occasionally in the story. These people do things in the background to make the setting more realistic and descriptive. They are the drivers, the servants, the shopkeepers, etc and they don’t usually say much and don’t need a name.