Breaking the Restraints

A problem some writers have, is freeing their mind of restraints. Writing is a time to try new things. Just because you wouldn’t go mountain climbing, or scuba driving, or jump from a plane doesn’t mean your character wouldn’t do these things. Just because you wouldn’t murder someone, it doesn’t mean you can’t write the perfect murder story. And just because you know nothing of being a spy, or a magician, or an astronaut…doesn’t mean your characters can’t be experts at these things.

The key is research. Do the research and learn the terminology, and you can easily bluff your readers into believing you know what you’re talking about, and the feelings associated with it.

Some writers go that extra step with freeing themselves of restraints, and create eyebrows that talk (as in Grim Tuesday (Keys to the Kingdom, Book 2)). When you can do this, and it works, you know you’ve stepped out of the box and into the true writing arena. The box is safe and warm, so to take a risk by creating something quite unusual must be a bit scary. I’m not sure that I’m up to that test yet, but some writers find it easy. I admire them.

What’s the most “out of the box” thing you’ve written? How did you feel when you wrote the story? And…is it something you’d do again?

Asking Questions

As a writer you should know your characters so well that if someone asked you a question about them, you would not show yourself up by not knowing the answer, or having to think about it for a few moments first. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use all the knowledge you have on the characters, but it does make them more rounded in your own mind, which brings them to life on the page.

There’s nothing better than when an interested person asks questions. Who is the MC? What are they like? Did he/she have a disturbed childhood? Why did they commit the murder, run away from home, become a witch? The more questions asked, the more you learn.

However, most of us don’t have an interested person to ask us questions, so we have to do it ourselves. Yet we don’t always ask ourselves the right questions, so the character doesn’t grow to their real potential. This is a shame, but quite normal.

Here’s a list of questions to get you started. I love to ask myself “what if”. It’s a great way of twisting a simple idea into something mad and exciting. What’s your favourite question?

Getting it Right

I wrote this for the Writers Email Group and thought I’d put it here too.

I don’t swear…no, that’s not right, I rarely swear. If I do, people know I’m seriously angry…and run. Yet I know lots and lots of people, including women (and children), who swear on a daily basis (no matter what their emotional state). I work with all men, they swear…a lot. They try to control it when I’m around, but I hear much more than they think I do. In other words, I’m used to hearing swear words. And I’ll say now, that I don’t think less of a person if they do swear. It’s a part of life. A huge percentage of people swear in one form or another every, single day.

Right, what’s this got to do with “getting it right”.

I’m a reader. I read several genres. When I read horror, I expect to see some swearing because it’s part of the genre (as long as there isn’t too much), but with other genres (especially fantasy) I don’t like seeing swear words. I’ll put up with three or four times during the whole novel, but if it’s on every page or two then it annoys me. If it’s every paragraph, I’ll put the book down and will never read that author again.

Yet, swearing is a firm part of life and if a writer is “getting it right” doesn’t it mean that every sentence of dialogue will have a swear word in it? I accept it in life, but I don’t accept it in books.

I’m a writer, and it’s drummed into me to get the facts right, make it realistic. Yet, a manuscript filled with swear words will have a very narrow market. A young adult manuscript with the same number of swear words will find itselt out of the market altogether because part of the publisher’s marketing is to try and sell the book to schools. This brings them a huge revenue, so, if they think the book is not suitable for this market, this will make them look for a manuscript that does fit their requirements. Remember, it’s all about money.

This means that “getting it right” is only true when it suits the publishers and/or the critics, which leaves the writer in a bind, because it’s up to the writer to decide how much “getting it right” is the right thing to do.

Personally, although I know swearing is a normal part of our lives, I would prefer to escape from it in my reading adventures. Using those words when it’s appropriate is one thing, but I think showing your character’s anger without the use of certain words is the way a true writer gets the message across.

What do you think?

A Writer’s Soul

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
~Virginia Woolf

Whilst looking for inspiration from those who have gone before us, I came across the above quote by Virginia Woolf. It reminded me of a discussion on my message board about using yourself as a character and I thought I’d write about that and some other stuff I’ve been thinking about lately.

It’s true that every manuscript we write has a part of us in it. How could it not? As the author, we are using our own knowledge and thought patterns, and often our values, to get a point across. But have you ever used yourself in one of your stories?

I have.

However, the story was written by me, for me. It was not meant to be read by another set of eyes. It took me a long time to realise that, and I can tell you now that trying to take a person out of a story and replace them with a completely different person is hard to do. I tried it but the story lacked something essential…my soul was missing.

That story has been shelved and I’ve moved on, but I learned a lot during the rewrite of that manuscript. It’s only now that I realise that.

This brings me to the next part of this post. It’s a topic Deborah Woehr brought up a few days ago, and it made me think about writers, blogging and how we want people to perceive us.

This is my online diary. What is a diary? It’s a place to put your thoughts. A diary is never meant to be read by other people, so what does that mean? We censor our words. In writing a manuscript we hide behind words, but in writing a blog entry we censor them instead. Why can’t a writer just write what they feel? Be honest and open, and to hell with what the reader thinks? Some writers do, but no one can tell me that they never censore what they write. If I was told that, I wouldn’t believe it for a second because most of us care what people think. We don’t want the reader to think badly of us, and in the event that we might be published one day, we don’t want our words as an unpublished author to haunt us.

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the loneliness of writing. What I was truly thinking and feeling never made it to the screen. I read those words now and cringe – they mean nothing, they sound vague. However, if I had allowed myself to write the post I really wanted to write I would have hurt people. I don’t even know if those people read this blog – maybe they don’t, but I couldn’t take the chance and I’m left with a post that means nothing. Yet, the people I didn’t want to hurt have hurt me, so why do I care what they think?

Part of our soul is in every word we write, so make sure the words are worthy of reading.

Writing a Novel

Writing a novel is not an easy thing to do. You have put time and effort into your planning stages and built your character profiles, now it’s time to… write! Remembering what was said in Beginnings and Endings, let’s take a look at the middle.

Constructing a Scene

Every scene in a story has both a verbal and a nonverbal content. The verbal content is the storyline itself and the nonverbal content is the background you are creating. Every scene presents a problem of some kind for one or more characters, and shows us how the characters deal with that problem. That, in turn, shows us something about the characters and moves the story ahead.

A scene may be a paragraph or two, or it may take up 10 or 15 pages, whatever it takes to get the message across. When it ends, the reader should know more about the characters involved, and their problems should have increased.

Try not to make the scene too ‘busy’ with characters. The reader will loose track of who’s who and become quickly confused. Even if there are a lot of people in the scene, there’s no need to name each and every one of the them.

When writing you must try not to tell your reader what is happening but place an image into their imagination so that you are showing them. A scene cannot, and should not, be just words on a piece of paper. You should be conveying something that the reader can actually see in their own mind, and hopefully, they can even picture themselves in the crowd. You know you’ve succeeded when the reader feels that have experienced the hardship, courage, terror, love along with your character.

Some Simple Suggestions when Writing

  • Keep your writing simple and straightforward. Say what you want to say in the clearest and most direct fashion.
  • Avoid long words if shorter ones are available.
  • Avoid cluttering your work with too many adjectives, adverbs, metaphors and similes. Try not to overwhelm your narrative with descriptions.
  • Avoid cliches. Most readers find these very annoying.
  • Select the right tense for your story and be consistent. All verbs must agree with the chosen tense.
  • Repetition of a word or phrase can be highly effective when trying to emphasis something but try to avoid overdoing it.
  • Try to choose strong words as these words usually have more meaning.
  • Wherever possible, avoid the passive tense. Have your characters do something, rather than have something done to them.
  • Vary your writing. Contrast will highlight the strengths and don’t forget to vary sentence structure and length.
  • Good writing should be fluent. The easiest way to find out if your story is fluent is to read it out loud.

Conquer Writer’s Block

Someday you’ll face the dreaded affliction known as “writer’s block”. You may suffer this ‘afflication’ for a day, a week or a month (let’s not even consider the possibility of a full year!). All writers fall prey to writer’s block at some stage but you can do something about it. Here are some things to try that are sure to get your mind working and your fingers typing:

Start a Journal – Keeping a journal is one of the most effective ways of combating writer’s block. Write honestly about what you’re sensing or experiencing. Are you angry? Sad? Euphoric? Why? Be as specific and descriptive as possible. Don’t set limits on the frequency or length of your entries; instead, concentrate on consistently writing in your journal, whether it be daily, weekly or monthly. Remember – no one else will read this prose so it doesn’t matter how rough it is or whether the sentances are structured correctly. You can use your own thoughts later to get an idea moving.

Use your Powers of Observation – If you don’t watch people go about their daily affairs already, start doing it now. Begin by writing down expressions and mannerisms of members of the general public engaged in daily activity. Note any habits that could be used as an effective “tag” for your fictional characters. Carry a small notepad and record not only people’s characteristics or witticisms, but the surroundings, as well. People tend to behave differently depending on whether they’re attending church or attending a football game. Write down information about the flora and fauna of your hometown surroundings, as well as any areas you visit on vacation. Observe the similarities of people living in small towns, mid-sized cities or large, sprawling urban areas. Use these simples notes and observations as a springboard for setting in your next story.

Use Magazines and Newspapers – This might sound silly but it works. Cut pictures from magazines and newspapers. Anything that strikes your fancy. Use both people and objects, as well as beautiful scenery that inspires you. Pin the clippings on a cork board near your computer to give your mind a bit of a sick along. A mental image will form and then you can ask yourself who, what, why, where, when and how. Who is the little girl in the picture, and where are her parents? What is her hometown like, and how long has she lived there? When is she due home for dinner, and why is she happy/sad in the picture? Sometimes this is just enough to get your creative mind back on track.

Don’t Write! – That’s right… leave your computer and do something else for a while. Sometimes your body and your brain just needs a rest. So, go for a walk or do some gardening. Take the kids to the park or spoil yourself and go shopping. The key here is to relax. Stop trying to come up with the perfect idea that will sell a million copies in the first month of release. Leave your computer, relax and don’t write. When you do return to your computer it will probably be because the idea is already there and you just have to write it down… and keep on writing!

Charaters: Without them, there is no story!

Remember that your reader invests time and money into your story and it is important that your characters capture your reader’s attention, so that they will want to spend more time getting to know them. If the reader does not develop an interest or connection with the main characters from the beginning, chances are they will not feel compelled to finish reading your characters’ story. One of the best ways to make sure this does not happen is to make sure you develop plausible, complex characters. This is crucial to successful storytelling.

Your Main Characters

These characters are normally the people you introduce in the opening chapters of your story. Remember that your main characters must appear throughout the entire story. It is a good idea to do a “Character Profile” for each of your main characters which will cut out a lot of confusion when you are working on your story itself.

It is hard to remember everything that you have said about a character so building a character profile will eliminate any embarrassing errors (ie Mary had blond hair at the beginning of the a chapter but somehow ended up with auburn hair near the end).

Some people just work out the very basics such as how old they are and what colour hair they have. Are they tall, short? Can they be based on someone you know? And, naturally, what are their names? That sort of thing.

Others prefer to go to a lot of trouble and prepare cards with the necessary information written on them, or start data bases on their computers and some go as far as filling out large questionnaires.

It really depends on how complex your characters are but here’s a list of some of the questions you could be asking yourself:

  • Character’s Name
  • Age
  • Birthdate
  • Weight
  • Height and Build (example, 5″2′, petite slender build)
  • Gender
  • Religion or other beliefs
  • Hair Colour
  • Eye Colour
  • Does the character wear glasses or contacts?
  • Does the character have any health problems? (If so, explain)
  • Shape of face
  • Any distinguishing marks or scars?
  • Type of personality
  • Marital status
  • Does character have a current love interest?
  • If so, what is that person’s name & how long have they been together?
  • How did they meet?
  • Any children (If they do have children, list their names & ages)
  • Occupation
  • Mother’s Name
  • Father’s Name
  • Who raised the character as a child?
  • What was their childhood like? (Happy, tragic, lonely, etc)
  • Does the character have any brothers and sisters? (If yes, list their names and ages)
  • Where were they born?
  • Where are they living now?
  • Weaknesses
  • Strengths
  • Any bad habits? If so, what?
  • Character’s Best Friend(s)
  • Any enemies. Why?

I’m sure you could think of several others too.

When developing your characters, keep the following in mind:

  • Solid Background. Give the character a history. Describe their home, possessions, medical histories, tastes in furniture, political opinions.
  • Speech. The way your character speaks (both content and manner) also portrays their personality: are they shy and reticent, aggressive and frank, coy or humorous.
  • Behaviour. Always be consistent with the way your character acts. It’s all right for the character to grow throughout the story but you should never swap between two sets of behaviour as this confuses the reader and your character becomes less real.
  • Motivation. The characters should have good and sufficient reasons for their actions, and should carry those actions out with plausible skills. If we don’t believe characters would do what the author tells us they do, the story fails.
  • Change. As the story progresses your characters should respond to their experiences they are having by changing–or by working hard to avoid changing. It is only natural that the more we experience the more we grow and your characters are no different. If a character seems the same at the end of a story as at the beginning, the reader should know why the character didn’t change.

Your Other Characters

Think of the “Other Characters” like you would “extras” used in a movie. “Other Characters” should be used to advance your story, to teach your main character an important lesson, and/or give them information needed in order to advance your plot line. Although it is generally good to know a few facts about these characters, as it makes the storyline more realistic, normally a full character profile is not necessary. Often, these characters will not even have a name.

Choosing the Right Name

When selecting a name for your character, there are a couple of things that you should consider:

  • Personality – Consider the personality of your character’s parents; and the personality of the character you are trying to portray.
  • First Impression – Often your character’s name will portray an image to your reader. For example, if you are creating a story about a twenty-year-old heroine you may want to consider a name that was fashionable twenty-years-ago, not a more old-fashioned name such as Ethel, Bertha, Mabel, etc. Remember that there are exceptions to the rule as your character may have been named after a great grandparent, an aunt or uncle.
  • Era – Different names range in popularity in different time periods. For example, if your story was set in a fictional western frontier in the 1800’s you may not want to name your herione Skye or Summer. Although these are lovely names; and popular today, the names were not at the height of their popularity during the 1800’s. Names such as Mary, Elizabeth, Eleanor, etc would be more appropriate. A great way to find out what was popular during a specific time period is to consult old census reports, history books, or even to read novels written or set up in that particular time period.

Here are some places you can look to find names:

  • Baby Name Books
  • Census Reports
  • History Books
  • Telephone Books
  • Character Naming Sourcebooks (can be ordered from book clubs or found at local bookstores)
  • The Bible
  • Old Family Records
  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Soap Operas/Movies/TV
  • Library Books

However you decide to name your character and whatever you decide to name them, be sure to remember that the name you choose will convey an image of your character’s appearance to the reader.

Finally, enjoy creating your characters. You’ll be surprised how quickly they become part of you.

POV: Who’s telling your story?

Multiple viewpoints are very useful in any novel! In the third person, several viewpoint’s allow the reader wider access to knowledge and events not necessarily involving each character in the story. In addition, changing the viewpoint will often increase the pace of the story and can be used to create mystery and tension.

It is acceptable to use at least two Point of View characters yet four is a good number for most novels. If your story is long and stretches over a longer period of time, however, 6 to 8 is quite reasonable. You should only use main characters, NEVER tell a story from a minor characters Point of View, not even for one paragraph. The reader will automatically assume the character is important, and will wait for him to reappear in the story to do something crucial to the storyline.

It is important to remember, however, shifting viewpoints too often may irritate the reader and you should never change viewpoint within a paragraph or scene. Always swap viewpoints with a chapter or scene break, which is usually marked with three or four asterisks. The opening line of the new paragraph should immediately tell the reader whose viewpoint it is so that it is easier for the reader to follow the storyline.

Types of Point of View

  • First person – I go, ie. an eyewitness account
  • Third person – he/she goes, ie. narrator can be absent
  • Second person – you go, (used mainly in non fiction)
  • Third person plural – they go

Advantages, Disadvantages and Mistakes of Each View Point

First person

Advantages: Creates an intimacy between the reader and narrator. The reader experiences everything through the narrator’s perceptions, coloured by her motives, driven by her motivations.

Disadvantages: Character must be present during key scenes and the reader can only know what this character knows.

Mistakes: The character describes what is going through other characters’ minds rather than just her own.

Third person

Advantages: Allows the reader to see all the events occurring . Allows the author to mislead the readers without cheating.

Disadvantages: Doesn’t allow a strong identification with any one character and can take longer to impart information.

Mistakes: More likely to switch viewpoints by accident.

Your Voice

This should not be confused with Point of View. Here we are talking about our own trademark, what makes the story ours. Your voice is natural — like how you speak and think. But it changes as you change and depending on the tone of the piece you’re working on. A writer’s voice should be real, authentic and honest.

Some authors write to a ‘recipe’ and every book you pick up written by that person has the same formula. Sidney Sheldon comes to mind, his books are written to a particular formula and the reader can foresee what will happen because of this yet all the books I’ve read of his have kept me captivated to the very end.

Why? His stories keep moving along, he constantly throws in sub-plots and twists to keep things interesting. He doesn’t have a lot of description yet it isn’t necessary. He uses a chapter for one Point of View then the next chapter for another – usually telling a completely different story. The two stories finally come together at the climax and the book is wound up. He has written many books using this same formula and is a successful author. His ‘voice’ is apparent in his writing, this is his trademark (so to speak).

So when you write try to develop and cultivate your own ‘voice’. Something that a reader will recognise and know is you.

You Want to Write

Why do you want to write? Is it to escape the world in which you live, to entertain other people, because you want to see your name on a shelf in a bookshop or simply because you enjoy the craft. Whatever the reason, if you want to write… write! However, take the time to work out your storyline, to identify with your characters and know the industry, just to name a few very important issues.

I hope the information found on these pages will help you do this and will be a stepping stone to you reaching your goal. Click on “Writing” in the navigation bar at the top of the page to see the list of categories on writing.