IAM15 Guest Post…Writing Problem Characters

IAM 2015 - TopperAnyone who has been around Aside from Writing before may well recognise today’s guest author – Hazel West – from her visits to the blog in previous Indie Author Month events, or from our review of her novel On a Foreign Field (you can link to Hazel’s other features on the blog here).

So, we’re very happy to welcome back our regular visitor and see what she has to share about writing ‘problem’ characters. A little bit of Writing 101 for you today, along with meeting a lovely author.

Plus, as it’s the fourth of July, we thought it only proper that an American author take the centre stage today 🙂

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Writing Problem Characters

If you have not encountered a character who has given you problems at least once, then chances are you aren’t actually a writer. Something I always tell writers who are starting out is that characters are people too. This helps to form realistic characters but it also means they can take on a life of their own, and usually to the chagrin of the writer. These problems can either manifest as characters being unwilling to cooperate with you, refusing to do what you want them to, or even becoming completely different characters all together. I’ve had villains decide they were more anti-heroes by the time I get to the end of a first draft and have to go back and rewrite everything to accommodate their newfound generosity. It can definitely be troubling, but here are some tips to make dealing with problem characters easier.

First off, another thing I tell new writers is to just listen to your characters, because, yes, they do talk to you; no, you aren’t going crazy even though you hear those voices in your head when you’re trying to sleep at night. Usually if you just listen to your characters and let them run the story, even if it’s not anything like how you imagined it starting out, things should go smoothly. You can’t write characters out of character and expect your process to go well.

Sometimes it’s a little more complicated than that. If your character has decided they are not going to be the person you thought they were, they you may have quite a bit of decision making to do and things to figure out. In this case, you may—and likely will—have to change parts of the story itself to fit their new personality. If you haven’t realized it yet, characters are divas, and you do have to cater to them if you want your story to go well. Otherwise, they have a way of sabotaging stories if they don’t get their way. If your baddie decides to go good, you might have to create another villain to keep the story going, otherwise your readers will feel cheated and all thanks to your ex-baddie’s change of heart. Villains seem to be some of the most problematic characters to write. If they’re not leaving the dark side, they refuse to tell you their plans and why they are doing what they’re doing, which makes fun many long frustrating hours of trying to squeeze information from them all while attempting to construct a plot without any real reason behind it. Infuriating. Unfortunately, this is just one of those things that has to be worked out in time. There are really no good ways to get your villain to talk, although you can always try torture if you wish.

I have also found names to be a huge factor in character personalities. If it turns out a name really doesn’t fit the character, you may have a very hard time writing them and getting their voice correct. I usually play with names and spellings a long time before I start writing a book. I know there were certain times where I have had a hard time writing a character but after changing their name, it was super easy. Just another one of those weird tips that writers pick up.

Everyone has problem characters, it’s impossible not to, but don’t let it stop your writing process! I hope these tips might help a bit, or you might find other things that will help you more. Let me know some of your tips for wrangling those characters who just don’t want to cooperate.

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bloodtiescover copy In an Ireland that mixes high kings, faeries, and modern warriors who drive fast cars, Ciran, a descendant from the famous warrior Fionn Mac Cool, bands together with a company of young warriors to go on a quest to recover their missing family members who were captured on patrol by the Goblins during a shaky peace between the two kingdoms. Ciran and his companions must figure out not only how they are going to rescue the prisoners, but how they are going to complete their mission without killing each other. This first book in the new urban fantasy series by Hazel West is a story of brotherhood and friendship against all odds, that mixes the ancient Irish legends with a modern setting for an action-packed read.

(Coming Fall 2015)

Want to know more? Check out the links!

Hazel West lives in Florida and took up writing mostly as an excuse to stay out of the heat. Apart from being an Indie author, she also enjoys reading, drawing, drinking coffee, and knitting and crochet. Hazel is also a lover of all this historical and a good deal of folklore and mythology and enjoys seeing how those things can be written into stories. She currently shares her living space with a hedgehog named Horatio.

Hazel B West

Hazel B West

Blog: http://hazelwest.blogspot.com

Tales From a Modern Bard (short stories/fiction): http://talesfromamodernbard.blogspot.com

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/artfulscribbler

Pintrest: http://www.pinterest.com/artfulscribbler/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5289626.Hazel_B_West

You can find all my books here: http://hazelwest.blogspot.com/2013/03/purchase-links.html

Tony’s Writing Tips: Remember every scar

 

“A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” – Stephen King.

 

I was e-mailing an Antipodean writing friend the other day. I’d sent her the first page of my WIP and explaining a little where it came from, when that quote from Stephen King popped into my head.

A little backstory: The first page of my WIP has a character shoot someone. It’s a kicker of an opening, but what I was telling my friend was where it came from. I’ve never shot anyone in my life (You’ll be delighted to know), never even held a gun, loaded or otherwise. Air pistol and air rifle – shot at a few empty cans – but never a gun.

The shooting isn’t the important part, and not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about the person who did the shooting, which will – trust me on this – get me back to the quote at the top.

I have a not-seen-in-years cousin in the police. More years ago than I can date, he told me (or my dad while I was listening) that he’d had someone point a gun at him. At the time, he was as professional and calm as his training taught him. But he said after the incident, he was still shaking hours later.

So my character shoots someone, calmly and professionally, as they were taught. Then they realise what they’ve just done and the effects hit them.

Which brings me to my point (told ya!) and the quote above: Writers never forget anything.

We can, indeed, point to every scar and tell you its story. In detail.

Everything we’ve ever seen will probably end up in one of our stories somewhere; from the shop assistant who compulsively stretches her sweater cuff over her wrist (Eight Mile Island) from someone who loves rainstorms (Over the Mountain). Everything gets stored and sifted in a writers head and pulled out when we need it.

I’m very lucky in the regard that I have a pretty good memory. I do remember the most obscure occurrences years later – even if I can’t accurately date them. It’s not so useful for real life – I can’t remember how to fold bath towels for instance, which drives my wife mad every week.

But if you don’t recall things as well, then write it down. Or sketch it. Or scribble yourself a note when you come across something. Do whatever works so you remember it.

You never know when it’s going to be useful.

 

Tony’s Tips: Explain yourself!

When you write a story, at some point, you’ll probably have to step out of the narrative and tell your readers what a piece of equipment or technology is, or give them some backstory. In literal terms, this is exposition – “the portion of a story that introduces important background information to the audience.”

There are a couple of ways of doing this, some good and some to be avoided at all costs. Let’s start with the awful one.

Imagine your character at a red stop light, and have them explain to your passenger – a driver of twenty years – that you weren’t allowed to go until it went green.

 “As you know”

“So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him, and I pointed out the red light.

“As you know Arnold, the red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“By making you stop, Chris?”

“Yes, and giving the other traffic a chance to go. Celia said she would think about it.”

Ugh. Euch. Why is the character explaining things to Arnold if he already knows them? Why is Arnold replying like that? No one talks like this.

For a really bad example of this, there’s a scene in the middle of “North by Northwest” by Alfred Hitchcock where a character explains what’s going on…to a room full of people who already know it.

Also, there’s another really clumsy exposition device in there – the name of the other character in the dialogue:

“Hello, Adam,” said Bob.

“Hello, Bob,” said Adam.

Just….no. Find another way to give your reader your character’s name. Please.

Infodump

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light. The phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

“She said she’d think about it.”

That’s not that bad actually, but I’ve dumped a whole bunch of information right into the middle of the plot…it’s still a little clumsy and awkward. And imagine if this went on for more than a paragraph. Or a page…or two…or if the writer gave you a complete history of the traffic light system from antiquity. It has its place, but use it cautiously.

For an example, see Hitchcock again…watch the last act of “Psycho”, and there’s not much in there but a character giving an infodump on what made Norman crazy.

 Basil Exposition

This is the most common form of exposition, one we’re all familiar with, I think. James Bond (or Austin Powers) walks into his office and a man behind a desk tells him what he has to do. Bond goes off and does it.

It’s simple, and it gets the exposition out of the way fast. It works in more than Bond films as well. The first part of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after the boulder dash isn’t much more than US government guys telling Indy what they need.

In a literary sense, this is your prologue. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”) Prologues, though, have pretty much gone out of fashion in stories, and given way to exposition that goes on throughout, and throwing your characters and readers in at the deep end right at the start.

Another way of providing exposition is to provide a glossary. Although this is a little clumsy again, it does help. I read an Australian John Marsden book and didn’t know that a “ute” meant a pickup truck until I read the glossary, for instance.

 Bounce it off someone

This is a variation on the Basil Exposition, where Basil is new to the world of your character, and acts as a sounding board for the exposition…Dr Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example.

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt.

Arnold looked around him, puzzled. “Why did we stop?”

I pointed out the red light. “The red light is to allow better traffic flow. It gives a chance for other traffic streams to merge.”

“Oh. We stop on green on my planet.”

“Really? Anyway, Celia said she’d think about it.”

You can also make it more explicit in a first person story and have them break the fourth wall, speaking directly to the reader:

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. I should explain that the phased light system allowed better traffic flow and gave other traffic streams a chance to merge with our own by making us stop and giving them a chance to go.

Don’t do it at all

Let your readers figure it out – show them, don’t tell them. Tricky for new worlds and universes, but you might be able to get away with a variation like this:

 “So what did Celia say?”

I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt at a red light. When it turned green, I accelerated again.

“Celia said she’d think about it.”

 

As a last piece of advice, as much as possible, I would always put exposition when something else is going on:

 I decelerated smoothly and squeezed the brake until the car came to a halt. Arnold looked around him at the red light.

“Why did we stop? Celia is still behind us.”

“If we jump the light, we’ll hit the merging traffic for sure. We need the car in one piece. Better to wait for the green light and then punch it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Tips: How to write a great author bio

This caught my eye today on the BookBaby blog – a nice resource for authors on writing, publishing, marketing and much more. Anyway, if you’re thinking of revising your author bio – or even just want to check that you’re on the right track, this is a good little article to help you along the way.

http://blog.bookbaby.com/2014/03/how-to-write-a-great-author-bio/?utm_campaign=BB1510&utm_source=BBeNews&utm_medium=Email&spMailingID=48142534&spUserID=OTI1MTU2NjExMgS2&spJobID=640344388&spReportId=NjQwMzQ0Mzg4S0

Finding your voice…

During a random indie author (internet) cruise, I came across this post on David Estes’ author site. It’s a great piece on character voices, how hard it can be to get them right and also – for people to sound different. A little ‘Writing 101’ gift for any of you authors out there working on this lovely Tuesday lunchtime 🙂

http://davidestesbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/02/indie-author-advice-series-7-do-all.html

IAM Writing Tips…Pace Yourself

Guest Feature

Today Tony is with us to talk about the magic of pacing…

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Pacing in books is a bit of an odd thing. You’re reading at the same speed as you normally do, but suddenly the story is whipping by in a blur and you can’t stop reading.

How do writers do it?

It’s magic tricks actually, an illusion – and some simple illusions at that. Magicians aren’t supposed to tell you how it’s done, but what are we here for if not to share? And it’s not like you can’t Google this and get the answers anyway. 🙂

At first, I didn’t hear his movements in the trees behind me. The forest was beautiful this time of year, the naked trees clothed in ermine snow, nature reduced to a frozen slumber. As I breathed out, the condensation steamed up my glasses and the world turned momentarily foggy and blurred. My feet in the heavy boots crunched and squeaked through the unbroken snow, toes starting to freeze.

I twisted on the spot when the branch cracked behind me, scanning the frigid world as the hairs on the back of my neck rose and stretched.

That wasn’t a deer, I thought.

Nothing moved, but I knew he was watching me. Every shadow was suddenly malevolent and dangerous.

I heard the breathing first: Short, ragged gasps. Like a man running, from my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved. The way he stopped when I stopped.

It didn’t matter how much I hurried my pace. He always kept up with me. Mewling to myself, I turned my head, still seeing nothing, but hearing him breathing beside me, ever closer.

My nerve snapped and I gave up the pretence, taking to my heels and starting to run, pummelling the snow so the white clods flew from my heels, trying not to slip on the now treacherous ground, pouring my strength through my lungs and into my aching legs, the air cold-burning my throat as it cascaded into me, breath streaming back like a silent scream.

I urged my dying legs to push me faster, faster, until my lungs burned with the agony of it, the cold taste of steel in my throat like a blade pushed into my larynx.

It wasn’t until I felt the hand on my arm that I stopped, dragged off my feet by the powerful backwards tug. I spun, lashing with an arm, hand forming into a fist. He batted it away easily, the side of my hand smacking into nothing.

My brain struggled to catch up with what I wasn’t seeing, not having time to react as the all-too-visible knife flashed towards my heart, the last thing I ever saw.

 I heard his voice around the exhalation of his breath when he spoke, the last words I ever heard.

“So. The invisibility cloak works then.”

I’ll break it down into how it usually works.

  Approach.

 At first, I didn’t hear his movements in the trees behind me. The forest was beautiful this time of year, the naked trees clothed in ermine snow, nature reduced to a frozen slumber.

As I breathed out, the condensation steamed up my glasses and the world turned momentarily foggy and blurred. My feet in the heavy boots crunched and squeaked through the unbroken snow, toes starting to freeze.

The approach is the setup for what comes later. Take as much time as you want over this part – in some ways, the slower the better. A good example is a section of “The Shining” by Stephen King, where Danny knows something is going on in one of the haunted hotel rooms and investigates. King doesn’t put Danny in the bathroom where he wants him – he starts off with Danny outside the closed hotel room door and spends three pages on the approach.

Anticipation. 

I twisted on the spot when the branch cracked behind me, scanning the frigid world as the hairs on the back of my neck rose and stretched.

That wasn’t a deer, I thought.

Nothing moved, but I knew he was watching me. Every shadow was suddenly malevolent and dangerous.

I heard the breathing first: Short, ragged gasps. Like a man running. From my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved. The way he stopped when I stopped.

If you show an explosion, you get a bang for a second or two and nothing else. Show a countdown clock ticking down, and the tension can be kept as long as you like – countless movies have been made with nothing else driving the story but a countdown timer, after all. Anticipation is what keeps you reading and watching.

Also, notice what I’m doing here. The sentences and paragraphs are shorter – one of them only two words long – and the descriptions of the world around the character gone apart from describing the shadows. You read those 103 words faster than you read the 68 in the first segment. You didn’t have a choice.

Another way of speeding up the pace is a favourite of Dean Koontz. Have short, snappy dialogue without attributes that pull you down the page:

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“That breathing.”

“Creepy.”

“Just a little.”

Also, try changing your tense – past tense shifted to present works really well. Your character is reacting, not just remembering. Just remember to change it back when you’ve finished.

Trying not to show how freaked out I am, I turn away slowly and walk on. Faster now, though. Focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moves as I move. The way he stops when I stop.

My weapon of choice is more of a tumbling style though – run the sentences into one so they blur:

I heard the breathing next: Short, ragged gasps, like a man running, from my left somewhere.

Coming closer.

Trying not to show how freaked out I was, I turned away slowly and walked on. Faster now, though, focusing ahead and behind, trying to hear how he moved as I moved, the way he stopped when I stopped.

And you can combine them of course – tumbling sentences in present tense, whatever works the best.

 Reveal and Aftermath

My nerve snapped and I gave up the pretence, taking to my heels and starting to run, pummelling the snow so the white clods flew from my heels, trying not to slip on the now treacherous ground, pouring my strength through my lungs and into my aching legs, the air cold-burning my throat as it cascaded into me, breath streaming back like a silent scream.

I urged my dying legs to push me faster, faster, until my lungs burned with the agony of it, the cold taste of steel in my throat like a blade pushed into my larynx.

It wasn’t until I felt the hand on my arm that I stopped, dragged off my feet by the powerful backwards tug. I spun, lashing with an arm, hand forming into a fist. He batted it away easily, the side of my hand smacking into nothing.

My brain struggled to catch up with what I wasn’t seeing, not having time to react as the all-too-visible knife flashed towards my heart, the last thing I ever saw.

 I heard his voice around the exhalation of his breath when he spoke, the last words I ever heard. “So. The invisibility cloak works then.”

In terms of pacing, the running paragraph (My nerve snapped…) is one sentence of 66 words. There’s more internal world than external as well – no more looking at how wonderful the trees are; as readers we only care now if the ground will give up its traction, how cold that breath is.

Look how short it is. I spent 173 words getting this character freaked out enough to run for their life – I give them 66 words to describe it. The imagery has changed as well – from soft ermine snow at the start to the taste of steel now.

Your reveal can be a red-herring of course – this could be a deer following our character. Or it could be foreshadowing for a reveal later in the book and we never know at this point what it is.

In some ways, the reveal is the quickest part of the whole process. In the 407 words of this story, the reveal is 76 words and two paragraphs (It wasn’t until I felt the hand…), and one of those runs straight into the aftermath.

To go back to the example of “The Shining” – Once Danny is in the bathroom where a ghost waits for him, King only spends half-a-page describing it before going into the aftermath.

And don’t forget that aftermath by the way; give your readers some closure – or leave them hanging if this is the end of a chapter.

Tony’s Writing Tips: That’s what he said

I stumbled across a blog the other week. I won’t tell you who it belonged to, but they were giving a writing tip on ‘using alternatives to he said / she said’. They gave quite an impressive list of adjectives and managed not to include any adverbs (-ly ending words). It was well thought out and presented.

But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to tell you exactly the opposite:

He said – she said is absolutely fine.

Seriously – don’t worry about it and don’t look for anything else; most people are reading the dialogue and not overly wondering how your characters are saying it. Give them a context and they’ll be happy.

The only exception to this is rule I would suggest are asked and replied. Feel free to use those as much as you need.

Let’s do an example and see which one you think works the best:

 Adjectives

I sprinted to the boulder and dived behind it, so close to the stone that it radiated cold back against my cheeks. I waited a second longer, then when I didn’t hear anything, I dared raise an eye above the marbled edge of the rock. The S’loths hadn’t moved from the fire, not even stirring to look in our direction. So far so good.

I looked back over my shoulder. Jack still stood at the edge of the forest, hesitating. I waved him towards me, but it was another long minute before he sprinted towards me. He mistimed his dive and smacked into the boulder with far too much noise, not able to hold in a cry of pain.

“Quiet!” I hissed.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

I waved him to silence and peeked over the rock again. A S’loth yawned and stretched, but nothing else was moving.

“What do you see?” he inquired.

“They aren’t moving…just sitting there. We might be able to go around them,” I breathed.

Jack rose beside me, peering over my shoulder, his mouth a centimetre from my ear, his breath close enough to stir the hair. “Are you sure?” he wondered.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. Works, doesn’t it?

Yes, it works…but I think you’re over-egging the pudding. Give your readers some credit for their intelligence. The context tells them your two characters aren’t shouting, doesn’t it? They know when one of them has asked a question, don’t they?

He said – She said

I sprinted to the boulder and dived behind it, so close to the stone that it radiated cold back against my cheeks. I waited a second longer, then when I didn’t hear anything, I dared raise an eye above the marbled edge of the rock. The S’loths hadn’t moved from the fire, not even stirring to look in our direction. So far so good.

I looked back over my shoulder. Jack still stood at the edge of the forest, hesitating. I waved him towards me, but it was another long minute before he sprinted towards me. He mistimed his dive and smacked into the boulder with far too much noise, not able to hold in a cry of pain.

“Quiet!” I said.

“Sorry,” he replied.

I waved him to silence and peeked over the rock again. A S’loth yawned and stretched, but nothing else was moving.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“They aren’t moving…just sitting there. We might be able to go around them,” I said.

Jack rose beside me, peering over my shoulder, his mouth a centimetre from my ear, his breath close enough to stir the hair. “Are you sure?” he asked.

Just for another idea, here’s the way I would write it. Strip out the said and dialogue attributes as much as you can – fillet your dialogue down to the bone. This has the effect of speeding up the pace as well –the stripped dialogue drags you through the story.

Filleted

I sprinted to the boulder and dived behind it, so close to the stone that it radiated cold back against my cheeks. I waited a second longer, then when I didn’t hear anything, I dared raise an eye above the marbled edge of the rock. The S’loths hadn’t moved from the fire, not even stirring to look in our direction. So far so good.

I looked back over my shoulder. Jack still stood at the edge of the forest, hesitating. I waved him towards me, but it was another long minute before he sprinted towards me. He mistimed his dive and smacked into the boulder with far too much noise, not able to hold in a cry of pain.

“Quiet!”

“Sorry.”

I waved him to silence and peeked over the boulder again. A S’loth yawned and stretched, but nothing else was moving.

“What do you see?”

“They aren’t moving…just sitting there. We might be able to go around them.”

Jack moved close beside me, peering over my shoulder, his mouth a centimetre from my ear, his breath close enough to stir the hair. “Are you sure?”

Give your readers a clear enough scene and they’ll know who said Quiet! And who apologised for it – without you having to lead them through it.