Thursday, January 31, 2013

Changin' It Up

We're doing things a little differently this week. Keep your eyes peeled for a linking post on Saturday when I'm at YAtopia:

Backstory - Bane or Bounty? Tips on how and when to include backstory.

See you there!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #6 - Lack and Compensation

We're getting close to winding up our character development series. But in my opinion, we've saved the most important questions for last.

Early on in this series we talked about human nature - dreams and goals. We also discussed the difference between how we (and our characters) see ourselves, versus how we believe others see us (and how both can be in conflict with how we actually appear).

Whether you've taken the time to go through the earlier questions and exercises or not, I'd challenge you to address this question for all your major characters. Because the answer will have a serious impact on your story:

Question #6 - How does your character see themselves as "lacking", and how do they over-compensate for it?

See, here's the thing: Everyone has goals (we'll get to that in the next question). But we also have self-inflicted boundaries or perceived flaws.

If your characters are like real people, each will see something in themselvest that they believe leaves them lacking. And because this issue is "big", they will do or say things to compensate for it. The problem is, in our humanity, we have a tendency not to gently balance out our flaws, but to rigidly and exuberantly over-compensate.

1. The short man believes his height leaves him potentially unattractive as a mate. So he picks fights, is overly sensitive about being "weak", and uses a booming voice to mark his presence in a room.

2. The woman who was bullied in high school finds it hard to believe anyone can truly like her. She overcompensates by giving extravegant gifts, being the "life of the party" in social situations, and always offering to help anyone who needs it, even at expense to herself.

3. The powerful guy believes no one can see (or care about) the real man behind his money and status. So he doesn't allow anyone to get close to him in case they prove to just be after his wealth or favors. He holds even the kindest friends at arm's length and refuses to trust anyone with his deepest feelings.

These examples are overly-simplified, but I wanted to make sure the theory is clear: Figure out what your characters believe to be their greatest weakness or flaw. Then figure out how that belief drives them in their day-to-day life. How has it shaped their personality? And how do they react out of that pain or weakness in relationships?

Next time you hit a hiccup in your manuscript, ask yourself whether that character's overcompensation should come into play. Or has the moment come for them to pull back the layers and lay themselves bare?

Your Turn: Any questions? Tell us about your protagonist's lack and overcompensation!


Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Watch Grass Grow

I've invited writer and short story-zine publisher, Emily Wenstrom, to guest post today. If you're struggling for focus or perserverance in your writing journey, you'll want to hear what she has to say:
Sometimes, as a writer—particularly an unpublished, aspiring writer—you get the feeling that you're not getting anywhere. You hustle, hustle, hustle, but never seem to make any real progress.
Writing can be slow work! I've been writing my manuscript for over two years, and still have a ways to go before it will be query-ready.
Authors who succeed know that persistence is one of the most critical elements to the writing process. But how do you keep from being discouraged?
Set bite-size goals. My goal? Simply to write 100 words a day. I'm a pretty slow writer. It used to frustrate me when I read author interviews about writers who get caught by an idea, write through the night, and resurface at the end with a complete first draft. I simply can't operate that way. But this small, reasonable goal keeps me steadily moving toward my completed manuscript. Every day I know I'm taking another baby step forward. Find your own comfortable pace, and then stick with it. Slow and steady wins the race.
Make it routine. I know that if I'm going to get to my manuscript every day, it's got to happen in the morning before other pressing needs demand my attention. So I wake up at 5 to make sure that I can. Pay attention to when you do your best work, and then arrange your schedule to take advantage of that time. Stick to it no matter what. It will get easier over time—habit is a powerful thing.
Celebrate the small victories. I have been know to dance in my bathrobe at 5:30 a.m. upon the completion of a chapter. Finding your own way to celebrate these small victories is critical to keeping up your morale and momentum. So go ahead, splurge on that fancy latte to celebrate a finished draft. Keep some dark chocolate on hand. Do what you gotta do.
Keep it fresh. For me, this takes many forms. It's as small as moving to a new scene when I get creatively blocked, and as big as taking occasional writing classes to sharpen my skills. I've built relationships with other writers with whom I trade critiques, and I've joined a writers group for additional support and community. These activities keep me focused, but more importantly, they keep me challenged and highly engaged.
Look back. When it feels like my best efforts barely make a dent toward reaching my goals, I look back and remember how far I've come. This includes checking my word count and thinking back to where I was a few months ago, reviewing earlier drafts to remind myself of how much my characters and plot have grown, etc. These flashbacks remind me that, even if it feels that I write slower than grass grows, my persistent efforts compile and DO in fact amount to something over time.
I've heard it said that writers are masochists—by our choice of hobby, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of agonizing hard work and long hours. But if you ask me, writers simply know better than most that some things are worth the hard work. Always keep an eye on the prize, and slowly but surely, you'll make your way there.

Lit addict, movie junkie, writer. Emily Wenstrom blogs about creativity in art and career at Creative Juicer. She is also the founder and editor of wordhaus, a short story zine built for the digital age and now seeking submissions.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #5 - Tagging Your Characters

Previous posts in this series include discussions on human nature, the impression your characters have of themselves, and how that may differ from the impression they give others, aligning character impressions with their roles in the plot and last week we covered one method of creating depth.

This week we're focusing on a practical way to help your readers envision and identify your characters. We're creating character "tags":

Question #5: What does your character have, say, or do, that is unique to them?

A character tag is a physical trait, speech inflection, way of moving, mannerism, mode of dress, etc, etc, etc - anything that is unique only to that character. It's a quick fall-back position for a writer to tell the reader this person is here, but more importantly, it's another layer of characterization.

By identifying character tags, you won't necessarily have to rely on physical descriptions to highlight the entrance of a character. And if you get really creative with it, you'll heighten the reader's understanding of the character.

There are several trains of thought about how to choose tags, but I'll give you mine: Wherever possible, make the tag a sensory experience.

Sure, it can be visual - I had a character whose supernatural heritage meant he was extremely tall and had unusually bright green eyes. It would be easy to fall back on the eyes as his tag, and at times I did. But more often, I tried to remind the reader of the physical space he inhabited. He loomed, he unfolded, he cast shadows and, to the heroine's point of view, he seemed to suck more air than the average man (because she always got a trifle breathless around him).

(Yeah, yeah, I know).


Visual tags are easy to use, and most of your characters will have them. But the best writers I know have a way of tagging their characters that offers more than just a physical trait.

For example:

- The guy whose clothes are always rumpled. It's a visual tag, but also offers impressions about how he cares for himself (or doesn't). Is there no one at home to take care of him? Or does he not care...?

- The woman whose voice sounds like a child's - which is either endearing, or irritating, depending on who she's talking to. That way, her tags are identifiable, but also colored by the perceptions of those she's dealing with. Also, she squeaks when she's surprised, and squeals when she's excited.

- The guy who always walks / stands like he has a poker stuck up his nether regions. As you can imagine, his tags include a certain detachment in his speech, and a rather stiff, upright posture. But the poker-in-your-jacksie cue says a lot more about him than whether or not he was raised as a military brat.

- The young woman who never appears in public without being coiffed and dressed to perfection. Her tags become words like "glossy", "sleek" and "plastic" because, you see, it isn't about the clothes or the hairstyle, it's what those things tell you about who she is.

I'm sure I've made my point. Now my advice would be this: Take the table you made a couple questions back and add a column. In that column, list three or four words or phrases to define that character's tags. As you're writing, you don't want to use the same words every time, but bring them into play any time that character enters a scene, or is referred to by other characters.

And remember: tags aren't necessarily about describing the character physically (though they can be). They are about creating an image for the reader that enhances or compliments the character's primary impression.


Your Turn: Any questions? What are some great tags you've seen used in books you love?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Next Big Thing? You Tell Me...

I've been tagged again. I thought it would be fun to take the blog-hop challenge again, but this time with my WIP.
You've probably come across The Next Big Thing before, so I won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say, it's a chance for writers to tell you about their books. Without further ado...
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
In Your Skin
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Placebo’s version of “Running Up That Hill”. For some reason I’d always listened to and sung along with that song from the point of view of someone being sacrificial – willing to trade places to save someone else from pain. But on really listening to the lyrics one day, I realized it was about someone who was in so much pain they wished they could trade places with the person who’d caused their hurt.
As soon as I got that image in my head of a high school girl whose boyfriend had dumped her and she wished she could trade places with him, my head jumped to her pleading with God to have his coldness and untouched attitude about it.
I knew that her boyfriend wouldn't be as unaffected as she thought. So then I thought, what if God chose to swap her body with her boyfriends so she'd learn what it was REALLY like to walk a mile in his shoes?
The idea wouldn’t leave me alone.
What genre does your book fall under?
Hmmmm… good question. Maybe magical realism? I’m not sure. This seems to be a common problem with my books…
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
This is always tough for me. I rarely see young actors that really impress me. To me, a good movie relies on an actor’s ability much more than how they look. So at a pinch I’d go with:
Dane Dehaan as Nick (if he put on some weight / muscle)
Ellen Page as Katie would be Ah.Maze.Ing (if this was getting made into a movie yesterday).
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Katie’s boyfriend dumps her and returns to his role as the school flirt, she pleads with God to make her as untouched by their break up as he was -- and wakes up the next morning in his body.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
You'll have to ask my agent when it's finished :)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Um… I haven’t actually finished this one yet. But I’m aiming for a three-month drafting process.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
At its core, this is a typical body-swap story you see coming out of Hollywood every couple years. But this time it’s between a guy and girl (with all the awkward body-related / gender-role humor that offers).
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I saw an Australian movie decades ago that did this on an adult level (though the two characters involved hated each other and the movie was a lot more crass than the treatment I’d give it). I always thought it was a premise rife with potential. But I’d never given it much thought for a book… until now.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Katie’s ex-boyfriend Nick lives in a physically abusive household. When Katie takes over Nick’s body, she has to figure out whether Nick’s coping mechanisms are smart, or just causing further pain. She faces some really difficult and frightening decisions.
So that's me. See you in a couple days for more character development shenanigans!

Your Turn: Do you want to be tagged in The Next Big Thing bloghop? If so, let me know in the comments. I'll tag you and link you from the blog! 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #4 - Creating Depth

Previous posts in this series include discussions on human nature, the impression your characters have of themselves, and how that may differ from the impression they give others. Last week we talked about aligning character impressions with their roles in the plot.

Now that we've firmly established the primary impression and role of your character, it's time to add depth. After all, if your hero's primary impression is kindness and all he ever does is act and react kindly, pretty soon readers are going to get bored, or feel like shoving the book down his throat.

This is where your knowledge of yourself and others around you will come in handy. Real people always give a first impression - but it's in peeling back the layers that we find out if someone is truly so cold, or so happy-go-lucky, or so disdainful all the time.

And the answer is always no.

The ice queen villain may use her chilled walls to keep people away and under control. But that's because she's frightened everyone's going to discover she's just as vulnerable as they are.

The loud and obnoxious life-of-the-party guy may use his social charm and humor to hide a fear of rejection. How does he react when a friend finds him at home with his drunk mother?

What about the uber-dignified hero, who always puts his noble causes ahead of his own selfish desires? He might be hiding a well of passion that scares him, so he keeps it under a tight leash, denying it at every turn.

You get the picture.

Now that you've established your character's dominant impression, it's time to ask yourself:

Question #4: What feeling, personality trait, or flaw does your character work to conceal? (consciously, or sub-consciously).

Often to determine this, you'll need to (at least in your head) place the character in their very own personal worst case scenario. It's often only under extreme crisis that we snap out of our 'acts' and reveal what truly lies beneath. So, if you're having trouble determining what your character is hiding from others, ask yourself, what is the one situation they'd do anything to avoid? And how would they act if that scenario occurred?

We're going to work on this flipside of our character's personalities for the next couple questions, so if you make any notes, keep them. They might come in handy for later questions.

Your Turn: Any questions? Or are there any aspects to a character's development your struggling with? Let me know in the comments so I can make sure and cover that aspect in this series.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Character Development Series: Question #3 and an Exercise - Aligning Impressions

We're back into the swing of things for 2013! I hope you had a good break over the Christmas / New Year period. If there's anything you're eager to find helpful blogposts for this year, let me know in the comments, or email me!

Late last year we started this series with discussions on human nature, the impression your characters have of themselves, and how that may differ from the impressions they give others.

Now it's time to use that information to make sure your character is properly fulfilling their role in your book.

Question #3: How does your character's primary trait work in favor of -- or against -- their role in your story?

You're approaching this question from the point of view of the reader. What impression do they gain from the character's first appearance? How does that personality trait work for / against their role in the story? What will the reader need from them to properly identify their role? And what will you, the writer, need to guard the reader against?

EXERCISE #2: Create a table with five columns.

In the first, list the main character's names (this will usually involve at least four, sometimes up to eight or even twelve characters - but make it easy for yourself to start with).

In the second, identify their roles (hero, heroine, villain, side-kick or supporting role, villain's henchmen / side kick, mentor, etc).

In the third list the primary impression you'll show the reader at that character's first appearance.

In the fourth, list how that impression can be used to develop each character's role (for the reader).

In the fifth, list how that impresson might work against the character's ultimate goal in the story (from the reader's perspective).


Socially insecure and often awkward or tries too hard socially.
The reader can relate to Stacy’s feelings of insecurity, and has probably shared at least some of her social experiences.
She’s hard to look up to. Readers probably won’t want to be like Stacy, at least initially. So her experience must have some emotional resonance for the reader.
Socially strong and confident. Generally kind.
Mark is a natural leader and physically strong. The reader will probably share Stacy’s attraction to him.
Mark’s softer nature and willingness to overlook flaws can come across as weak or blind. The reader will need to see plausible motivation from him in order to stay in love with him.
Clever, but may use those smarts to hurt others.
He’s the guy we all knew at school – attractive and sharp witted. It will be easy for the reader to identify what kind of person he is and thus naturally be wary of him.
There’s a risk that Finn will look like a “cookie-cutter” villain. The reader will need to see emotional layers in him, a depth, so that he feels like a real person.

Your Turn: Hopefully that's self-explanatory. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, or tell us about the tricky hindrances you have to look out for with your characters!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Will 2013 Be Different for You?

Okay, so I'm not one for New Year's resolutions. In my experience, they have a tendancy to remain firmly ensconced in the New Year. (They don't, after all, call them "Still Going in March" resolutions....).

But I do believe the new year is a great time to reflect and re-apply yourself.

If your writing life wasn't satisfying in 2012, here's a couple questions to ask yourself, and ways to approach the sticky problems of this writer life that might help you look back on 2013 with a better sense of achievement.

Read the rest at Yatopia...