I’m a fan of whodunnits and crime procedurals with a special lust for a good series. It’s critical the mystery of the murder be compelling in some way—no anonymous muggings—and clues woven in with the chance to solve it, but I love that surprised frisson I get from a solution I hadn’t seen coming. It’s the characters though, that keep me coming back for more (or waiting for the next book which takes patience as a writer should be allowed some time).
It’s been said that good series characters become dear old friends; these are people you’d like to spend time with. I agree, sort of. I love Beckham’s Skelgill—what an odd and intriguing man—but I’m not sure I’d want him over for the holidays. I wouldn’t know what to say to Miss Marple. I would however, be thrilled to spend a weekend at the beach with Forster’s Finn O’Brien and Cori Anderson—they’d be a blast. Regardless, I love all my favorites simply because they are beautifully drawn characters who’s worlds are well worth sharing.
I’ve worked with several clients as they develop a series character and build a complex crime plot. It’s the NYT crossword of plot building. It’s hard work, which (as usual) means rewrite and after rewrite. It’s easy to play at though. That’s what I do when I’m waiting for the doctor or dentist—plot the murder of a fellow patient by another, build up motive and means and then the nurse calls my name. It passes the time more artfully than an ancient issue of People though I’ve been caught staring—awkward, so I’m good at a passive shrug and an innocent smile. But this morning—at 5 am to be precise—we had a real murder in the house.
A baffling, ferocious racket wakes us. My eyes fly open to meet Tom’s, one look enough to know we both know whatever it is, is in the house. Tom shoots up. I follow more cautiously into the living room to see my solid, sturdy couch rocking and pulsing like a thing possessed. A scruffy bit of fur whips frantically from beneath only to be pulled back in. A thumping commences and then a deathly silence, finally broken by the sickening crunch of breaking bone.
Hesitantly we upend the couch and Max, our maniacal Siamese, turns up triumphant blue eye and finishes the last bit of gopher, bones fur and all. In my house. In the structure of my couch. Is this murder? If you’re a gopher, yes. If you’re me, no. We have a horrible gopher problem and it’s Max’s job to sort it. But in the house? Sheesh. I contemplate killing Max.
So it’s not technically a murder. It isn’t even as good as an anonymous mugging. There is a series character though, only he’s the (serial) perp, not the detective and I like him so much he lives in my house. But there is a mystery: who didn’t lock Max’s cat door after sundown? Tom thinks it’s me but you and I dear reader, know otherwise.
Jenny Jensen is deep into a manuscript and unable to come up for air. We’re helping her out by posting one of her articles from our archives. Hope you enjoy it.
I love quotes. I collect them, especially quotes about writing from writers I particularly respect. Since I work with writers of all levels from beginners to veterans, I find that sometimes the perfect quote from an established writer is exactly what I need to reinforce a point – so I use my collection well.
I just took on a new client who sent an outline for her first novel. The outline included a précis of the plot, quick character sketches, a few narrative bits on action scenes and several options for an ending. Buried in these concepts were the seeds of a very fresh new voice. I’m excited; it’s the kind of challenge I relish. It’s the perfect opportunity to ask the right questions, provide possibilities and help guide the story to a solid structure – all of which greases the writer’s creative wheels – the give and take nudging them to the path they want for their story.
The problem was the writer didn’t want to write a draft; she wanted to work with me to get the story full blown in her head then sit down at the keyboard and spit out a finished novel. Oh dear. I imagine there are writers who can do that but they’re as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker. As Anne Lamott put it in her essay, Shitty First Drafts: “I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much.”
All first drafts suck. It’s a universal law. But it’s where you have to start. “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” (TY Terry Pratchett.) So give yourself permission to just spill it, write the most vapid dialog ever if that’s what comes out. It’s OK – it’s a draft. Just get the story out. If you find yourself using more adjectives than Danielle Steele and Judith Krantz combined then this is the place to do it. It’s a draft -no one will ever see it (except me but that’s all right ‘cuz I’ll never tell). Stewart Stafford hit the bull’s eye, “It’s okay to write a cliché in a first draft; it sets a marker that you can get far, far away from in the rewrites.”
That’s what a draft is for – the rewrites. Here’s where the painful process of filling the blank page becomes fun. You see the flaws and get to slash and revise, hear the perfect dialog over the noise of what you drafted, maybe see a new direction in the wreckage. I’ve encouraged my client to write a first draft. I’ll happily work with her from that, but I bet she goes over it first – who could resist? Draft one or draft two, I don’t care. I can’t wait to see it.
The creative process is a mystery to me. I like it that way. Not knowing how or why an author chooses a certain literary device makes every book I read a fresh experience. I’m not always wowed by the tale but I like to start with no bias. Just lately though, I can’t help wondering what drives so many of my clients to write in 1st person. I love a good tale told in 1st person but it’s the most difficult narrative voice to get right.
Up until the mid 20th century the lion’s share of novels were written in 3rd person. A quick glance of current literary prizewinners shows 30% written in 1st person (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games, The Martian etc.). Current genre and commercial fiction is more like 50%. Clearly, this is the age of 1st person and I think I know why—energy, immediacy and intimacy. While those three qualities attract us they’re also what makes 1st person hard to write well.
The narrator has to be interesting enough to carry the reader through 200 plus pages of story. Basically it’s the only voice we hear so it better be entertaining. The character can be droll, hysterically funny, bitingly snarky, painfully deluded, even seriously insightful—as long as the energy exuded is compelling. Sometimes the narrator exists to showcase the main character. Watson is a rather deluded and bumbling narrator but we become fond of him. It’s his subject, Holmes that keeps the reader riveted. We want to stay for the whole ride.
1st person is both immediate and intimate. The reader sees the action through the narrator’s eyes rather than from the outside. It’s close up and personal so the reader has a sense of being present as the action takes place. With a compelling narrator and interesting plot it’s easy for the reader to feel they have a stake in the story. 1st person reads like a journal or a personal letter. The reader sees, hears and knows what the narrator sees, hears and knows. There’s no distance between us—all the more reason to craft a compelling narrator. The narrator speaks directly to us. Well done, 1st person is more exciting, more emotionally engaging and more satisfying than the viral YouTubes of laughing babies and crazy critters caught on camera. No wonder we love it.
There is one cardinal sin when writing 1st person – filter words. They put a dampening distance between the reader and the action. Because we see, hear, smell, feel and know what the narrator does there is no room for distancing the reader.
“I even thought of doing something gossipy…”
Filter words removed:
“I considered something gossipy…”
I could hear…I thought…I felt…I saw…chop away the filter words and close the distance. Good first person narrative is always from behind the character’s eyes.
Having put these thoughts down I think I’m going to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Chbosky). I love a good first person story. Do you?
While she was out, we thought you would like to revisit one of her posts from our archives. Jenny will be back in June with a new post On Writing . . .
A good story is made up from a host of elements that when jumbled together and skillfully molded become a glorious whole – just like Dixie Jewett’s fabulous horse. Plot, setting, theme, writing style and characters all must blend to make the whole pleasing. Being an omnivorous reader (yes, even when I’m not editing) I am happy with a plot driven or an action driven story, but I am smitten by a character driven tale. Reading a character driven novel is like crashing a party and making the acquaintance of new and fascinating people.
The main characters always have some attraction otherwise they wouldn’t support the story and make the reader care. Who couldn’t be enthralled by bossy Elizabeth Bennet and the steely D’Arcy, or Scarlett and Rhett? And then there’s Hannibal Lector, the very pinnacle of evil yet more compelling than a ten-ton magnet. Depending on how the story is structured we can learn their history upfront, or it is revealed through out the narrative, but there is always enough time and story space to make that all-important emotional connection through, not just history, but mannerisms, speech patterns, and motivations.
It is the secondary characters – the extras, if you will – that are often the most colorful component of great novels. Dickens’ genteelly mad Miss Haversham, du Mauier’s chilling Mrs. Danvers. Creating a supporting cast that adds a glint of darkness, a spark of humor or a touch of humanity to a story. Beyond helping to create a personality in a novel, this supporting cast is also critical to fleshing out the setting – you know you’re in NYC when your hero is depressed and seeks the ever freely given advice of street smart Dominick De Luca at his World Famous Hotdog cart. You feel you’re in San Francisco when the hero hears the Powell Street cable car and hops on to her morning repartee with Phillip the droll veteran conductor.
Secondary characters can be tools to move the action forward. If your protagonist needs to be placed in a situation that is out of character for her, use a secondary character to get her there. For instance, the contrary but kind old Mr. Kronke is Mia’s downstairs neighbor to whom she can never say no. Too ill to act on his passion for the horses Mia agrees to deliver his bet to the shady off license where she stumbles into a handsome man and so meets the hero.
Finally, supporting characters make great sounding boards to help the main characters work out internal conflict. Think about the key role lively dialog with the saucy office receptionist might play, or a hip bartender. Dithering Aunt Renada, for instance, is far more compelling than your main character’s long internal dialogue.
Just remember that you, the author, are creating a whole world and you must populate it. Your cast of characters can be useful, colorful, thoughtful, wicked, wise or witty but they should never be boring. Look at the world around you, note all the people you come in contact with, and you will have all the inspiration you need to create fantastic and memorable characters.
A beloved aunt left me her jewelry not long ago. I don’t do a lot of bling so I carefully put most of it away. Except for the sapphire ring. I love that stone. The blue is so true, so deep you feel you could drown in it. It blazes with its own cool fire. Like a crow I covet it in secret. I love to look at it. Wearing the ring is out of the question—the setting looks as if it came from a box of Cracker Jacks. It is so lifeless it buries the stone in boredom. I don’t know where Aunt Bea got the jewel but given the racy facts of her life I bet it’s a helluva story.
Setting. It carries such an impact. Every writer learns early on that setting is a critical element of good writing. A badly defined setting diminishes a great story as much as that pot metal dulls my sapphire. I’m going to have it reset someday. First, I have to figure out what the perfect setting should be—Integral or Backdrop?
With an Integral setting the story’s environment affects the action and characters. The time and place influences every aspect of the story. A good setting conveys atmosphere and mood – Wuthering Heights could not have taken place anywhere else. I’m thinking my sapphire would be lonely in the Yorkshire moors.
An integral setting can convey so much more than a background for the action. The symbolism of your choice of setting can be powerful. To simply place the reader in an abandoned house is enough to know we’re not in the security and warmth of Grandma’s kitchen — we know it’s empty and holds none of the energy of life. The stage is set for all kinds of otherworldly possibilities from ghosts to demons to zombie politicians.
In all historical fiction an integral setting defines the characters. An aristocratic gentleman in Regency England is as defined by that period as is the beautiful housemaid working in his manner. The setting will mean something to each of these characters and therein lays the story. What does that setting mean to each character? Does each character change and view his or her setting differently? The tension and the action are defined by the period setting.
Fantasy and Sci-fi, any genre with world building, offers the possibility of a setting where the world not only affects the characters, it can interact with them. That’s when setting becomes a major character in itself. In addition to mood and atmosphere setting can be a good guy or a bad guy. World building offers the added component of changing the setting. Harry Potter opens in the ordinary world and moves to the incredible, interactive setting of Hogwarts.
All the rich possibilities of an integral setting would overwhelm my sapphire. Backdrop setting however, works for a story that could take place anywhere with no affect on the action or characters—The Emperor’s New Clothes or Winnie the Pooh or Waiting for Godot. All simple stories with a central message.
My sapphire is universally appealing. It is timeless. This sapphire is like a moral tale. It has a simple message: beauty. That makes a backdrop setting my best choice. I’m not looking for vague and general like many backdrop settings. I want it to be a clear, simple setting that anchors the message and then fades gracefully away to let the stone shine. I bet I can find at least 10 of those. Now if only I can get an appointment with VanCleef and Arpels…
The autumnal equinox is a celestial event that brings together harvest and celebration, symbolizes magick and transformation, and welcomes a balance of light and darkness. It’s a time when those who honor the changing seasons rest and reflect.
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