Tag Archive | books

Write Your Novel: Scenes and Sequels

What is a scene? It is a part of the story that contains action. Each scene in your novel should set up a conflict, preferably one that builds on the previous one, like a series of steps. Step one is the basic story problem. The second step builds on that and ups the ante. The third builds on those two, and so on until you reach the highest step – or climax – of the story.

A scene puts the reader in the here and now. The action unfolds as they read, not in the past, where backstory takes place. Scenes contain setting details so the reader knows where he or she is as well as what is happening. They also contain action that is usually shown through dialogue between two or more characters. A scene contains three parts: goal (something the main character needs or wants), conflict (why s/he can’t have it), and disaster (a new problem as a result of the conflict). Each of these elements is important to a scene. And it’s important to keep upping the ante (the disaster), but remember to give your reader some breathing room too – a sequel.

A sequel also contains three parts – reaction (to something that happened), dilemma, and decision(what to do next). You can think of sequels as standing on the step of the staircase just before you take the next step up. You build the tension and action up, then give the characters a little rest. Let them catch their breaths for a couple of pages, then go back into the action. Sequels contain emotions, retrospection, or analysis. They are where the character has to step back, look at what has happened, and make a decision what to do next.

One thing you don’t want to do is overdo the narration part of a sequel. Though it is introspective, it should not be long or boring. Often authors go into what’s called an “info dump” where they tell the reader what’s going on, what has happened in the past, or what is going to happen. Narration slows the action down, but you don’t want to slow it down so much the reader gets bored and stops reading.

By utilizing scene and sequel, you control the pace of your story. Pacing is the rate at which the story proceeds. In a romance, your hero and heroine need to occasionally get out of bed; in a murder mystery, the detective needs time to look at the clues and figure out his or her next step. Even the characters in an action/adventure novel need a little time to regroup and reload.

There are two important aspects to check when looking at your pacing. One is the use of flashbacks, the second is called an information dump.

A flashback, also known as backstory, is simply the character thinking or talking about something that happened previously, either before the book started or in a previous section of the work. Usually, it is a bit of background information that is necessary either to understand the character or situation. If it shows up on the first page, or even in the first chapter, you may find yourself losing readers. Backstory rarely contains any action or tension. It is information, period.

The transition between the “now” time of the story and the flashback needs to flow smoothly so that the reader isn’t jarred. If possible, use dialogue to introduce or present backstory information. Dialogue keeps the passage more immediate. But be careful you don’t “info dump”.

An information dump is when you’re using dialogue or prose to present information the reader should have in order to understand the character or action. Yes, giving vital information is good. Giving it all at once, in large gulps, isn’t. Go through your story. Do you have long paragraphs of nothing more than explanations? Get rid of them. Break the info up into smaller bites and scatter it through the scene(s). In that way, you’re still giving the reader the information but not a lecture.

 

Try answering the following questions to see if you’ve got your scene and sequels heading in the right direction:

  1. What is the event that sets off the rest of the action in the book?
  2. Where does the story start? Try to start in the middle of the action or with “ordinary world”, but with something happening. If you start too soon with filler, you’ve lost your readers before you’ve hooked them.
  3. Have you started the first chapter with a bang – something interesting and important that draws the reader on?
  4. Have you avoided overloading the beginning with back story?
  5. Will the reader care what happens to the hero/heroine? Why or why not? If the reader doesn’t care, s/he won’t read the book.
  6. Do the events in each scene lead logically from one to the next, like a chain?
  7. Is there variety to the scenes?
  8. What complications have you thrown in to make reaching their goals difficult?
  9. Where in the book does the reader know the hero/heroine will reach his or her goal? If too soon, you lose readers, if too late, scenes may need to be cut.
  10. Do you have something important happen every three or four chapters?
  11. Have you allowed for areas of downtime?
  12. Have you ended any chapters with someone going to sleep? (not a good thing)
  13. Have you used enough detail to let the reader know setting, character, events, etc. but not so much as to bore him?
  14. Do you establish the main character of each scene at the beginning of the scene?
  15. Have you wrapped up all loose ends by the end of the book without being too predictable?
  16. If a mystery or suspense, do the clues you’ve given throughout the story support the ending?
  17. Do you have a catchy or unique title that is appropriate for the story?
  18. What makes your story unique? What gives it an edge over other stories?
  19. Do you have more dialogue than narration? Dialogue keeps the reader with the characters.
  20. When you read your story out loud, are there areas you tend to skip over? If you find them boring, so will your readers.
  21. Have you varied the length of your sentences? Too many long ones slow down the action and too many short ones lead to choppy reading.
  22. How much “white space” do you have? If you have areas where paragraphs run a half page or longer, can you break them up? There needs to be a balance between short and long.
  23. Have your characters played Hamlet? If they are prone to long, windy speeches, break them up. Have something happen while they’re talking.
  24. Have you devoted the right amount of space relevant to the character’s importance? Major characters get more page space, minor characters get less.
  25. Does the opening introduce the main characters and setting without being an information dump?
  26. Are transitions from “now” to “then” (flashbacks) as smooth as possible? Do you make them feel as if they are happening now

Write Your Novel – back to work

Okay, the break is over. Time to get back to work. By now, you should have an idea of what you’re going to write, the characters, and the setting. You have your writing area set up – or know where you’re going to go to write. So it’s time to get to work. Writing.

That’s something I can’t teach you to do. It’s just plain hard work and something you need to do every day. Writing is a mostly solitary activity and you have to have the discipline to actually sit down and do the work. Don’t think you’re going to push out a full length novel in a few days. It’s not going to happen. To use a cliche, you’re in this for the long haul so don’t let it get to you. Just keep plugging away.

So what’s next on my agenda here? The next few weeks are going to be dedicated to what you do after you finish the book. That’s when the real work starts – the editing. Ugh. It’s not fun. It’s hard work, but it’s also necessary. So, here are the first steps for you to consider. I’ll post more each week.

The End.

Excuse me? I can see the raised eyebrows and hear the questions now. What are those two words doing here. I told you I was going to give you tips. And I am. “The End” is what you write when you have written the final sentence, but it doesn’t mean you are done. In most cases, when you write “The End”, you are actually at the beginning of the hardest part of the writing process – the editing. Oh, you think your agent or editor will take care of all the problems when they accept the manuscript? Don’t count on it. They will correct minor problems, but if you are an unpublished author – or even one who has been published multiple times – most agents and editors won’t look at your manuscript unless it’s as close to perfect as you can get it. They don’t have the time to correct multiple misspellings, grammar faux pas, or other mechanical errors. It won’t matter if it’s a great story – if there is an abundance of errors, you’ll get it back, along with a rejection letter.

Okay, before you go off and decide to catch up on missed sleep, give this a chance. You’re here for one reason – you’re a writer, as am I. We love words – the way they sound, the way they go together to make us laugh, cry, hope, despair, love, hate, or think deep thoughts – or shallow ones. It all depends on the way they’re put together.

When we put a bunch of words together in a more or less coherent semblance, it makes a sentence. Put together a number of sentences and you have a paragraph. Build on that and you have a chapter or a short story. Add more and you have a book. It’s a little like building a tiered cake. You start with the raw ingredients, put them together in a particular way, bake it, and build it.

The raw ingredients consist of plot, style, pacing, dialogue, sensory details, voice, point of view, facts, spelling, grammar, punctuation and word use. How you blend them together into a coherent recipe determines whether you end up with an edible creation, or something better fit for the garbage disposal.

Can I guarantee you’ll get published after you do all this? No. Nobody can do that unless you’re talking about a vanity press – but that’s an entirely different issue. The publishing business is too subjective for guarantees. But when you’ve finished, your writing will be tighter and have more impact, and you may even learn a thing or two that you can apply to your next manuscript. So good luck and get ready to get to work.

Tip #1: Put the book you’ve just finished writing away for at least a week, more is better. Watch movies, read other books, take long walks, relax. Or, better yet, start your next book. Do anything other than look at your manuscript. That way, you can come back to it with a fresh eye.

Note: Although I “cite” rules and “you should…”, remember, the novel is yours. If you want to break a rule, and have a good reason for doing so, then break it.

Homework this week: get to work writing. Or, if you’re done, put that manuscript away and start the next one. Then come back next week and we’ll work on editing for plot.

Write the novel: Sequels

This lesson will concentrate on sequels, which is nothing more than a transition that links two scenes, like a hallway between two rooms. It can be long or short, but, like a scene, it consists of three elements: reaction, problem, decision. It is an area of the story where the reader finds out what the character is thinking and trying to decide. It can also be the place for flashbacks (areas where the reader is let in on something that happened in the past that has an impact on what is currently happening.).

Sequels provide reasoning to your story. They let readers know WHY a character is doing what he’s doing, as well as how s/he reaches his/her decision. Sometimes, a character will decide something in a sequel, then do exactly the opposite. This can only work if we find out in the next sequel why he did what he did. It is a part of human nature to do what is contrary to what we should do, but there should be a valid reason. This is what is shown in a sequel. This can be powerful and dramatic, but the reasoning – the logic – has to be there. Sequel is aftermath. The state of affairs and the state of mind that shapes your character’s behavior AFTER disaster has knocked him down.

With sequels you can also control the pacing of your novel. Dwight Swain, in TECHNIQUES OF A SELLING WRITER, tells us that long scenes equal big interest and long sequels indicate strong plausibility. He also emphasizes that if your story tends to drag, you should strengthen and enlarge the scenes, add and build up the conflict. On the other hand, if it is moving too quickly, you can use sequel to back things off, give the characters, and the reader, a chance to breathe.

Jack Bickham (who was a student of Swain’s) wrote in SCENE & STRUCTURE some tricks you can play with in your sequels which will add to the reader’s pleasant discomfort:

  1. Set a clock ticking so the character has only so many minutes to reach a decision. Some other character may set this time limit, or the viewpoint character may set it himself.
  2. In the thought segment of the sequel, have the character realize whole new dimensions of the previous disaster and his present plight that he hadn’t thought of before.
  3. Consider having the character’s emotional reaction overwhelm him, so that he plunges back into the story battle with insufficient thought.
  4. Devise a way to insert a “roadblock” scene in the early stages of the action segment so that the viewpoint character must, in effect, have a sidebar fight of some kind to find his way back to the next scene which he sees as relating directly to his long-term story goal.
  5. Hold out on the new decision. Write something like, “Then she knew what she had to do.” But don’t tell the reader.
  6. Stage an interruption – an outside stimulus – which forces the character to “stop sequelizing” and meet the new threat.

Bickham says that you will find as you work more with dramatic narrative structure that some of the devices mentioned here can often be spotted in published stories. You’ll also notice how some authors “mix and match” their techniques, using a hint of one trick and parts of one or more others.

Homework: Look at your scenes from last week. Where do you need sequels? Be sure to include the three parts of a sequel: reaction, problem, decision.

REFERENCES:

Swain, Dwight, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, ISBN 0-8061-1191-7

Bickham, Jack M., SCENE & STRUCTURE, (Elements of Fiction Writing Series), Writer’s Digest Books, ISBN 978-0-89879-906-4

Write that novel: Scenes

Dwight Swain, in his popular book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, defines scene as a unit of conflict lived through by character and reader. He tells us the big moments in our stories should all be in scene form. If something important happens to your characters or if you want some incident or part of the story to loom large in your readers’ minds, they must be in the form of scenes.

A scene moves your story forward while providing something interesting for the reader to read. It is action. It’s not flashback or back story or reflection, it is something happening. It’s physical and immediate. It’s the hero saving the town. It’s not him sitting in a bar telling everyone what he did. It happens here and now, on the page, not offstage.

Scene structure is simple, according to Swain. It consists of three elements:

a. goal

b. conflict

c. disaster

Swain tells us that in every scene, the point-of-view (POV) character (the person through whom we are experiencing the scene) should have a goal. That goal should be one of three things. He should want possession of something, relief from something, or revenge for something. If the hero wants something, and it is easily given to him, there is no conflict. This makes for a boring story – which is not what you want. You want your readers to be engaged in your story. Thus whatever the character wants must be difficult to obtain (conflict) and something has to happen that will keep him from reaching his goal (disaster).

For instance, suppose our character wants to buy a house in town so he can tear it down and build a condo(goal). He could just go up to the owners and offer them a boatload of money and hope they bought, but what if the woman living there grew up there, it was a family home (conflict) and she didn’t want to sell, especially to him (disaster)?

A scene is made up of action, reaction, action, reaction revolving around one central character, though there may be other characters in the action with him. That’s the way to include dialogue and move the story forward faster. Plus, it’s a little difficult to have a fist fight with yourself. Adding other characters adds conflict and action. But the central problem of the scene should still be what the main character wants. It should be whomever has the most at stake, the most to lose. But it doesn’t have to be. Sometimes, it can be a quirky character who will give the reader a different, but more interesting perspective.

Just remember to end your scene with a disaster. According to Swain, this is a hook – “a device for catching, holding, sustaining, or pulling” the reader in. It puts your hero in jeopardy. Makes things worse. Ups the ante (okay, any more cliché’s here?). You get the idea. It upsets the hero and the reader and gives him a new goal to aim for.

Once you’ve figured out your scene, you start to write it and get bogged down. There are several ways a scene can fail:

  1. No focus character – your reader needs to know whose head he is in
  2. The goal is weak – there has to be a short-range goal and it has to be something important to the character
  3. The character is weak – if the goal is important enough, he has to be willing to fight for it
  4. There is no sense of urgency – a scene has to be immediate. There needs to be a time constraint (either real or imagined)
  5. The opposition is too vague – there has to be something for the hero to fight against
  6. The opposition is weak – like #2, there has to be something the villain is willing to fight for
  7. The scene is trivial, monotonous, or boring – there has to be trouble, and a lot of it

And now you know.

Homework:

Start writing down ideas for scenes – major events in your story. Don’t worry about sequels – we’ll fill them in later. Right now, just hit the high points.

 

For further reading, I recommend: “Techniques of the Selling Writer” by Dwight V. Swain. It’s an oldie, but a very goodie.

Write the Novel #9: Structure

There are three sections of a story: Beginning (Act I), Middle (Act II), and End (Act III). Many writing teachers have broken these down into other parts such as scene/sequel, and more, but the basic structure remains the same: three acts.

If you write fantasy, paranormal, or science fiction, do yourself a favor and get the book: “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. It is based on Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” and is a fabulous way to learn about novel structure. If you don’t write in these genres, get the book anyway, you won’t be sorry.

Here are the tips in a nutshell. And no, I won’t go into detail. Mr. Vogler deserves the honor of being the best source for this information and I will not undermine his sales. 🙂

Campbell and Vogler break each act down into different parts. I will concentrate on Vogler’s interpretation here. His sections include:

Act I: Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the first threshold

Act II: Tests, Allies, Enemies; Approach to the Inmost Cave; Ordeal; Reward

Act III: The road back, resurrection, return with the elixir

If you look at these through well-known stories, as he does, you can see where the breakdowns are. For instance, he uses the Star Wars movies as examples. We see Luke in his ordinary world with his uncle, he is called to adventure by Obi Wan, he refuses the call by insisting he has to help his aunt and uncle, he meets with his mentor (actually accepts that Obi Wan is his mentor) and crosses the first threshold by leaving the farm. He is tested, meets allies and enemies, goes through several ordeals, and gains the reward of being able to destroy the Death Star. He returns with his friends with new powers and a new life.

Simple, right?

Not exactly. It is simple when broken down to these basic units, but it can be decidedly difficult to write. However, by using Vogler’s approach, you may get a better grip on where things are going than if you just go forward with no plan at all.

You can also break the three act structure down into just scenes and sequels. A scene is nothing more than something that is happening. The sequel is what comes after that event. Each scene should contain a goal, a reason for that goal, and the conflict. What is happening in the scene? Why? What will happen if something goes wrong and your hero doesn’t achieve his/her goal in that scene? There has to be an event of some sort. It doesn’t have to be huge, it can be subtle and small, but there has to be a reason for it. The main character for that scene (does not have to be the main character of the story) should have to make a decision of some sort. What happens when s/he makes that decision? It should lead to consequences. This is your sequel. Then build from there. Each event should lead to the next and so on until the climax and end.

This is plotting.

For now, I’ll just leave you with these basics. I’ll go into more detail later on. But do yourself a favor and look for Vogler’s book. It is an excellent one.

Homework: Watch a movie. Or two or ten. Figure out the structure and apply it to the above. Can you figure out where each part happens?

 

Write the Novel #8: Conflict

This is one of the hardest things for an author to understand, yet it is a vital part of genre fiction. There has to be a problem for the hero and/or heroine to overcome and it has to be big enough that there is a distinct possibility for failure.

In a romance novel, conflict can be the difficulty that keeps the hero and heroine from getting together. In other genre fiction, it is the issue the hero or heroine fights against, whether internal or external.

Before I get into what conflict is, let’s look at what it is not:

  • Conflict is not a disagreement or argument. People can – and do – argue all the time without it ever being about something important
  • It is not a delay – just because there’s a flood or blizzard, unless the story is specifically about the flood or blizzard, there is not conflict.
  • Failure to communicate – having the heroine not tell the hero how she feels is not conflict.

There are two different types of conflict – internal and external. The easiest of these to do is external conflict. When you create your characters, you  have to give them a goal. Conflict comes when they can’t reach that goal. External conflicts are physical. Internal conflicts are emotional. The two should be related, but different. Conflict is the basis of your book. You need to put it into words before you type out the first word.

Conflict comes from characters. Plot comes from conflict. Once you know the problems your characters are up against, you’ll know what kinds of situations they have to face in order to overcome their conflicts. That is plot.

External conflict can be something as simple as wanting money to buy a house but not having a job. Internal conflict would be wanting a house because the character never had a stable home but putting down permanent roots scares her.

Plot points, also known as turning points, in your story happen because conflicts change. You character has a goal. She reaches that goal, but something happens to make things worse. This happens again, and again until you reach the climax, and the end. This is why you do character sketches and know your characters. What is it about their backgrounds that would lead to issues – either external or internal – that will cause problems in their lives? The worse the problem, or the harder to overcome, the better the conflict and the better the story.

Note: Conflict doesn’t have to be a life-or-death. Even small, seemingly unimportant conflicts can be fun. Think about an external conflict where two vain women are fighting over the last pair of shoes on sale. Or two men arguing the best fertilizers to use on their suburban lawns. Smaller conflicts arising from, or on a tangent to, larger ones can give readers a break from the angst of the larger ones.

A classic example of external conflict is one where the hero is a firefighter and the heroine is an arsonist. That’s conflict. Even more unusual would be where “she” is the firefighter and “he” is the arsonist. Why is s/he an arsonist? What is in his/her background that leads to this? For the perfect conflict, just remember, whatever one has to have has to be able to destroy the other. Both characters can’t get what they want.

Internal conflict is more complex. It’s what shapes your characters on the inside. It’s emotional, visceral, a need so deep they may not even know they need it. Internal conflict is personal and will most likely be different for each character (there may be similarities, but reasons will be different – or had better be!). It’s not enough to say that that your character is a loner. Why is s/he a loner? What is in his/her background that makes him/her untrusting of others?

Defining conflict is step one in writing the novel. External conflict shapes the plot. Internal conflict shapes the character’s actions and thoughts. Both together give you the story.

Homework:

Go back to your character sketches and determine what is in your characters’ backgrounds that may lead to problems for them. Note these down and brainstorm story ideas from these issues.

Write the Novel #7 – a Rant about the Craft

No lessons today. Today, I’m asking you to indulge me in a little rant – though the rant is definitely about writing. The rant concerns the technique of writing – not the storytelling, but the craft.

One of the hats I wear is as a reviewer for my own site, the bookstore where I work, and a couple of other places where my reviews get posted. I’ve been at this for twenty years so I have some experience. My reviews have appeared in magazines, online, and in multiple newsletters. In addition to this, I have a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in library science. I’ve also been a copy editor for various publishers for a dozen years, and a multi-published writer for fifteen. I give you this information so you know my background and know that I do know a little about this business.

So what’s the rant? Authors who don’t bother to learn the craft. They have no idea what good grammar is, mix up homophones, split infinitives, head hop, change tenses, misspell words, and more. Although I am not trying to downgrade any one aspect, I find this is especially true of self-published writers, but it also pertains to some of the “professionally” published books I’ve seen lately. I just finished reading a book for review that had the basics of a good story, but I could not finish it because the writing was so bad. The writer head-hopped all over the place, sometimes within the same paragraph, and once within the same sentence (basically, this means switching point of view too many times so the reader doesn’t know which character’s head she is in).  In addition, she constantly mixed up word usage, especially peek/peak/pique and other homophones. These are not the same words and do not have the same meaning. It was obvious, at least to me, that she used just a basic spell-check program. This would not pick these words up since they are spelled correctly, but they were definitely used incorrectly. It’s a shame the book came across so poorly because I think there was a kernel of a good story in there, but I could not in good conscience recommend it because of the writing (And no, I did not post a review. I wrote back to the author and gave her my opinions and suggested she find a good editor before she went forward, which she is doing.)

I’m not saying nobody makes mistakes. Typos happen. They happen to me all the time, especially when typing fast. So do other mistakes. And I’m horrendous at editing my own work. Most writers will tell you they have trouble editing their own work – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is always a good idea to have someone else read your manuscript before it gets sent out. A new set of eyes will pick up what you may have missed. But therein lies part of the problem. If you’re going to pick someone out to critique your manuscript, they should at least know the basics of grammar or they’re going to miss the problem issues as well.

So please, if you’re going to write a novel – or anything – learn how to spell, learn the definitions of words, learn punctuation and grammar, learn about point of view and continuity. In other words, learn the craft of writing. If you don’t care for these basics, or are too caught up in your own writing to care, then at least lay out the bucks and hire someone to take care of it for you. Your readers will thank you. And I will too.

Some books and/or links to look at for help:

The Chicago Manual of Style – THE book for all things grammar

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style – a classic that should be in every writer’s library

A good dictionary – Merriam Webster is a good place to start, but any good dictionary will do

Common Errors in the English Language

Random House dictionary

American Heritage dictionary

Getty Research Institute – for vocabulary

Grammar Girl

Grammar Now!

Etymology Dictionary

Purdue University Writing Lab

Urban Dictionary

Write that Novel #5: Setting

When you’re working on your characters, you need to keep in mind your setting. This is the where and when of your story. It can be as easy as your own living room, or as involved as a new world in a different universe. Wherever it is, it will form the background for your characters. In some stories, the setting can even be what the main character is fighting against – a man vs. nature type of story.

You should get to know your setting at least as well as you do your characters. Settings can be a fickle as characters – warm and spring-like one minute, freezing and snowy the next, just like in real life. You can use a real place as your setting, but if you do, be sure you really know the place. If you don’t readers who are from there will know and will let you know, and not nicely. You need to know what a “native” knows. Books and online research can give you some of this, but not the details you should have. Where do you go for a really good burger? Where should you not go after dark (or even in daylight)? If you’re going to create your own setting, you should have these facts as well.

To begin with, let’s work with setting that is in the real world, whether real or fictional, current or historical. Next week, we’ll work with other worlds that fit fantasy and science fiction settings. The first thing you need to realize is that you are going to have to do some research. Yes, I know. Boring. But actually, it can be fun and interesting. Even if you set your story in a place you’ve lived your entire life, there are still things you’ll need to check out, especially if they are places your character is going to have to use. Suggestion: have a notebook and a camera handy so you can take pictures (or download them) and make notes of street names and more.

Work through the question below to get a start on creating your setting:

General

  1. What is the year and/or time period of your story? Descriptions depend on when your story is set. If it is historical, you can’t have modern cars and jets. So what year does your story take place? Once you have this set, you can go on to the next.
  2. What time of year does the story take place? Think about seasons and weather. This will affect what your character wears and his or her activities. Does the story take place over a wide space of time or is it confined to a week or two?
  3. Where is your story set? What is the name of the city/state/country? Even if you’re making it up, your town will still need to have a name.
  4. What is the general topography of the place: mountains, seaside, river, island, etc. Potential for flooding? Blizzards? Tornadoes? Hurricanes?
  5. What is the general plant life of the area? The trees in New England are vastly different from the ones in Florida and this could impact your characters. Are there window boxes? Tree lined streets?
  6. What kind of wild animals are in the area? Even the middle of a huge city has some kind of animal life.
  7. What kind of housing is available? Single family houses? Farms? Urban apartments?
  8. What kind of transportation is available?
  9. What kinds of shops are there? Are there small bookstores, boutiques, bakery, Big Box stores etc?  Describe the local commerce.
  10. What are the buildings made of? How old are they? Is it a mixture of new and old? What style? Are businesses mixed with housing?
  11. What kinds of signs are there?
  12. What kind of lighting is around?
  13. What are the sensory impressions? Smells from a bakery? Or a sewer plant? Fresh winds off the ocean? Smog?
  14. What do you hear? Traffic from the freeway? Nothing? Cows?
  15. What are some landmarks?
  16. What is the population like? The median age of the locals?

Character Specific Details (main characters)

  1. What kind of place does s/he live in (apartment, ranch house, old Victorian)?
  2. What kind of furnishings does s/he have?
  3. What is the view from his/her place?
  4. What does s/he hear in the middle of the night?
  5. What are the neighbors like?
  6. What is his/her neighborhood like?
  7. If s/he needs something, where would s/he go to get it? (nearby stores, etc.)
  8. Where does s/he work?
  9. What is his/her workplace like?
  10. Where is his/her workplace in reference to where s/he lives? A long commute? Or just downstairs?

These are the basics. Like creating characters, you can get as detailed as you want. Just remember, you won’t use it all, but it will help when you get to writing to know what the background is so you can write it with ease.

Homework: Get your setting notebook ready and go for a roadtrip (even if it’s only online). Make notes on setting for your characters.

Write that novel #4: Characters

It’s time to create characters for your story. Characters bring your story to life. They are who the reader wants to read about. Pick up any newspaper – what catches your eye first? It’s usually a story about a person. Yes, there may be a fire or a flood or something else horrific happening, but it is the people the journalists write the story about. They focus on the people and how they are affected. This is what you need to do.

But how to make your characters come to life. Your reader needs to sympathize with your characters. They need to care about them – whether the emotion is love or hate, the reader needs to feel something for your characters. You have to do more than just give them a name and gender. In order to really understand your characters, and thus present them better on the page, you have to get to know the intimate details of your characters.

When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout. As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look? Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips? Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes? What about your heroes? Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which, of every one of the seven manuscripts I read, the heroine was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of oriental descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.

Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare? Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with gray eyes? Or even a redhead? In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism? Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk? Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone? Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle? How do they carry their packages? How do they move in relationship to other people? Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way? Does anybody stand out in the crowd? Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they? What do they do? Why are they acting the way they are? What are their other physical attributes? Do these add or detract from their personality? Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Let’s talk about names. Names are important. There are lots of places online where you can gather names for your characters, both first and last. What you need to remember when picking out names is: 1. Do not name multiple characters with similar sounding names or names that start with the same letter. 2. Pick names that are consistent with the era you are writing. 3. Pick names that are either appropriate for the character or, if you’re writing irony, something so different as to be a part of the character. To explain: Ethel and Walter were perfectly acceptable names in 1910. Today, not so much. Madison is a popular name for a girl today, but two hundred years ago? No. So if you are writing a historical, check the names for that era. Also, watch for stereotypes that cling to names. You can spend hours figuring out names for your characters and have fun with it.

If you’re having trouble with the names, maybe you need to visualize them and get to know more about your characters. Look at magazines and images online to get a picture of your character. Once you know what s/he looks like, you might be able to work better.

One way I like to find out about my characters is to “interview” them. Yes, you read that right. I “interview” them. To do this, I pull up a list of questions and answer them as my character would. You can also do this with a friend – having them pretend to be the character. This can be fun and give you different insights into the development of your character. The questions can be broken down into subsets: physical, emotional, history, ethics and so on. The following are some questions you can answer. As you go through them, you may come up with more. You don’t need to answer all of them, but the more you do, the better you will know your character. Remember, this doesn’t need to be done for all the characters, just the main one(s). Secondary characters should just have the basics.

 

Character’s Full Name:

Reason or meaning of name:

Nickname:                                    Reason for nickname:

 

PHYSICAL APPEARANCE:

Age:

How old does s/he appear?

Eye Color:

Glasses or contacts:

Hair Color:

Natural or dyed:

Length/style:

Weight:

Height:

Type of body/build:

Skin tone:

Skin type:

Shape of face:

Distinguishing Marks:

Predominant feature:

Looks like:

Is s/he healthy?

If not, why not:

 

FAVORITES:

Character’s favorite color:

Character’s least favorite color:

Why?

Favorite Music:

Least favorite Music:

Why?

Food:

Literature:

Expressions:

Expletives:

Daredevil or cautious?

Same when alone?

Favorite clothing:                                Why?

Least favorite clothing:                          Why?

What does s/he like to wear in public?

In private?

Does s/he wear any jewelry? What kind?

Other clothing accessories:

Kind of Car(s):

Where does character live?

Where does character want to live?

Most prized possession:                           Why?

 

 

HABITS:

Smokes:                                           What?

When and how much?

Drinks:                                           What?

When and how much?

Hobbies:

How does character spend a rainy day?

Spending habits (frugal, spendthrift, etc):       Why?

What does s/he do too much of?

Too little of?

 

BACKGROUND:

Hometown:

Type of childhood:

First memory:

Most important childhood event that still affects him/her:

Why?

Education:

Religion:

Finances:

 

FAMILY AND FRIENDS:

Mother:

Relationship with her:

Father:

Relationship with him:

Siblings:

How many?                                    Birth order:

Relationship with each:

Children of siblings:

Extended family?

Close?                                       Why or why not?

How does character relate to others?

How is s/he perceived by…

Strangers?

Friends?

Wife/Husband/Lover?

Hero/Heroine?

How does character view hero/heroine?

First impression:                            Why?

What happens to change this perception?

What do family/friends like most about character?

What do family/friends like least about character?

 

PERSONALITY:

Most at ease when:

Ill at ease when:

Priorities:

Philosophy:

How s/he feels about self:

Past failure s/he would be embarrassed to have people know about:      Why?

If granted one wish, what would it be?      Why?

Greatest source of strength in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not):

Greatest source of weakness in character’s personality (whether s/he sees it as such or not:

Character’s soft spot:

Is this soft spot obvious to others?

If not, how does character hide it?

Biggest vulnerability:

 

TRAITS:

Optimist or pessimist:                            Why?

Introvert or extrovert:                           Why?

Drives and motivations:

Talents:

Extremely skilled at:

Extremely unskilled at:

Good characteristics:

Character flaws:

Mannerisms:

Peculiarities:

Biggest regret:

Minor regrets:

Biggest accomplishment:

Minor accomplishments:

Character’s darkest secret:

Does anyone else know?

If yes, did character tell them?

If no, how did they find out?

 

SELF-PERCEPTION:

One word s/he would use to describe self:

One paragraph description of how s/he would describe self:

What does s/he consider best physical characteristic?

What does s/he consider worst physical characteristic?

Are these realistic assessments?      If not, why not?

How s/he thinks others perceive him/her:

What four things would s/he most like to change about self?       Why?

If change #1 was made, would character be as happy as s/he thinks?      If not, why not?

 

 

GENERAL:

Person character secretly admires:       Why?

Person character was most influenced by:      Why?

Most important person in character’s life before story starts:     Why?

How does character spend the week before the story starts?

Immediate goals:

Long range goals:

How does character plan to accomplish these goals?

How will other characters be affected?

How does character react in a crisis:

How does character face problems:

Kinds of problems character usually runs into:

How character reacts to NEW problems:

How character reacts to change:

 

 

Write Your Novel #3: What Do I Write?

What do I write?

You may be one of those lucky people who can sit down and just start writing and the words just flow – but there’s no adhesion. It’s just a bunch of words that have nothing behind them. Your characters don’t interact with each other, your timeline is all over the place, you have no clue what you’re writing about. You are stymied.

You can keep writing and hope something eventually comes out of all this, or you can come at it from a journalist’s perspective. Ask the questions that start with: who, what, where, when, how:

  •  WHO is my story about?
  • WHAT is my story about?
  • WHERE does my story take place?
  • WHEN does the story take place?
  • WHY should readers (i.e. editors and agents) read this story?
  • HOW is this story different from, and the same as, others in ‘my’ genre?

Let’s look at these a little more in depth. The first, WHO, refers to the characters. The people who populate your story. For right now, since we are at the very beginning of the story, just make notes on your main characters. There should be no more than two (three for a romance) – the protagonist(s), also known as the hero and/or heroine, and the antagonist or villain. Keep in mind that in some stories, the villain may not necessarily be a person. In some stories, the setting becomes the villain. These are usually ones where the hero is fighting something fierce like a storm or his/her environment. You can also jot down ideas for secondary characters. We’ll go into more depth on creating characters next week. For now, just write down some ideas.

WHAT is my story about? I’m going to throw out a scary word here – theme. Before you run screaming into a dark corner, let me explain. Theme is nothing more than what your story is about. Most themes are very basic – love, security, happiness, and so on. There are three main types of theme out of which all the minor ones grow: physical, mental, spiritual.

Physical themes include things like money, health, home, warmth…anything that gives physical comfort. Survival stories often revolve around this. Mental themes are emotional – happiness, love, companionship. Most romances are in this category. Vengeance also lies in this theme. The last one is spiritual – this is a little more esoteric, answering the questions like “what is the purpose of life?” “Why are we here?” and so on. These are often more literary stories, where the main character is trying to figure out a deeper meaning for his or her life.

So, when someone asks you what your story is about…Do you mumble something like: Well, it’s about this girl who runs away from home and gets caught in a storm and ends up in a strange place with weird people and…

“The Wizard of Oz” is about security, home, love, and acceptance. “There’s no place like home” is the perfect line to explain the theme of the story.

Think about what you want your story to be about and jot that down.

Before I go any further here, let me advise you to have a file folder or notebook or something useful that you can use to make notes and keep them all in one place (remember in the first lesson when I talked about organization?). You’re going to be glad you had this all set up.

Okay, back to our journalistic questions. WHERE and WHEN are similar in concept in that they both deal with setting. Whether you set the story in a real place or made up one, you’re going to need to make notes on where it takes place. What is unique about this place? What does it look like? We’ll do a lesson about world building later, but for now, just make notes on the location of your story. This can be as broad as just the name of a city or state, or as specific as an address. The “when” of the story is not just about year, but also season and time of day. You’ll need notes on these later for your timeline.

WHY should readers read your story? What makes your story unique? Different? Why should someone shell out their hard earned money for your book as opposed to someone else’s? Why are you the perfect person to write this story? Though you don’t really need this to write your story, it will become helpful later on when you do submissions or promos. HOW is similar to this and something you need to think about. HOW is your story similar to others in the genre and how is it different? These are important questions to answer, again for the purpose of submission and/or promos.

So here is your homework for the week:

Read a book.

  1. Look at the journalist’s questions and answer them as well as you can. This will be the basis of your story.
  2. Go for a walk, or if it’s too cold, go to a mall and study your surroundings and the people. Make notes of anything unusual or interesting that you might be able to use to enhance your story.