Last month, I wrote about some of the more interesting places I’ve recently visited for research purposes. Well, I’ve been at it again, this time starting with “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself into Print” by Renni Browne and Dave King. This gem of a book was hiding in full sight among the1200 or so volumes currently eating my Kindle alive. (Note to Self: Serious Housecleaning Needed ASAP.)
Once I started the Browne/King book, I literally couldn’t put it down. The advice is so well presented that all 300± pages flew by, even with copious note-taking and highlighting. Yesterday, the Kindle edition was a bit pricey at $9.78, at the time of this writing it was a steal at $3.99, although by the time of this blog being published the price had increased again to $10.99 (Hint: Place it on your Amazon Wishlist and you will receive notification when the price changes). Although, even at the higher price, if you’re preparing a major edit, this instruction manual by two seasoned professional editors is worth every penny.
Although the entire book was valuable, the chapters on Internal Monologue, Dialogue, and Proportion were zingers for me. Consider this from the Dialogue chapter:
“Check to see whether some of your internal monologue is actually dialogue description in disguise. Are you using internal monologue to show things that should be told?” This is an interesting reverse twist on the Show vs. Tell call to arms we’re all so familiar with.
Or this, from the chapter titled Dialogue Mechanics:
“If you don’t pay meticulous attention to the people you’re writing about, their voices can seem interchangeable….Reading aloud consecutively all the passages written from each major character’s point of view can help you spot any places where a character’s voice doesn’t fit the character.”
Okay, I know this sounds obvious, but is it? How many of us pay “meticulous attention” to every word of every major character, painstakingly finding even the smallest utterance and reading the results aloud sequentially over and over and over again until everything rings absolutely true? Hmmm.
And then there’s this, shortened and paraphrased:
Check your characters’ dialogue for explanations. Then, mark every instance when an emotion is used outside of the dialogue. Finally, excise all the explanations and read the dialogue without them.
Wow. What a dynamite exercise. In at least one character’s dialogue, my writing is crisper, much more to the point and less confusing. Time well spent.
In all, I highlighted 144 passages in the book and could easily have tagged more. Some things I already knew (but needed reminding of), some I didn’t, but the presentation is so lucid throughout the book that virtually all of the techniques discussed have come into much clearer focus.
My next step was to go back to the character interviews I previously conducted (and raved about in my last post). I had a suspicion that they really weren’t as great as I’d originally cracked them up to be, and sure enough, they were, for the most part, passionless. In reading over the answers, I could see the problem wasn’t my characters per se, so much as it was the questions I was asking them and the venue in which they were being asked. I’d lazily culled most of my questions from various writerly sites and, on re-read, both questions and answers put me to sleep.
“What one item, person, or achievement would you sacrifice virtually anything for?” or “What defining life event made you a better person?” just weren’t jump-starting my characters. (In fairness, many writers do benefit from these kinds of questions. If you’re one of them, you might want to check out Holly Lisle’s “Character Pre-plan” sheets at http://www.howtothinksideways.com.)
In a pinch, I invariably turn to Alicia Rasley, who always seems to have just the thing. This time it was her one-page “Quick Character Motivation Exercise,” which has fill-in-the-blanks (love those, so spontaneous) and brief questions that tease out internal and external motivations. Like this:
“(Name’s) __________________ central strength is ________________. This is brought out in the external plot because ____________________. Some problems that come along with this are________________________.”
Nice and straightforward, yet it makes you dig into your characters in an unusual and surprisingly effective way. Here’s the web page where you can download this and many more of Ms. Rasley’s writing/editing aids: http://www.aliciarasley.com/artquick.htm
Two other sites and another book deserve mention for help with character development.
First, I stumbled upon this bit in Michael Crichton’s “Lost World:”
“The velociraptor was six feet tall and dark green. Poised to attack, it hissed loudly, its muscular neck thrust forward, jaws wide. Tim, one of the modelers, said, ‘What do you think, Dr. Malcolm?’
“‘No menace,’ Malcolm said, walking by. He was in the back wing of the biology department, on his way to his office.
“‘No menace?’ Tim said.
“’They never stand like this, flatfooted on two feet. Give him a book’—he grabbed a notebook from a desk, and placed it in the forearms of the animal—’and he might be singing a Christmas carol.’
“’Gee,’ Tim said. ‘I didn’t think it was that bad.’
“’Bad?’ Malcolm said. ‘This is an insult to a great predator. We should feel his speed and menace and power. Widen the jaws. Get the neck down. Tense the muscles, tighten the skin. And get that leg up. Remember, raptors don’t attack with their jaws—they use their toe-claws,’ Malcolm said. ‘I want to see the claw raised up, ready to slash down and tear the guts out of its prey.
“’…. another thing: change that hissing sound. It sounds like somebody taking a pee. Give this animal a snarl. Give a great predator his due.’”
Now, that’s a bio. You can feel the menace of the dinosaur exactly the way Malcolm – and Crichton – want you to. Then there’s this kicker:
“’Gee,’ Tim said, ‘I didn’t know you had such personal feelings about it.’
“‘It should be accurate,’ Malcolm said. ‘You know, there is such a thing as accurate and inaccurate. Irrespective of whatever your feelings are.’”
Important advice for writers in those lines.
Dr. O’Gara says:
“Rubies are for a dark moment in your character’s past.
“Diamonds are for shining moments.
“Emeralds hide secrets in their depths.
“Sapphires are the wisdom a character acquires because of the other gemstones.
“Together,” she tells us, “the gemstones provide a simple way to create characters who will play off each other the way gemstones enhance each other in a ring or crown.”
I love this quick means of evaluating my characters for the riches hidden in their hearts, motivations – and secrets. See the full article at http://www.savvyauthors.com/blog/index.php/diamonds-rubies-emeralds-and-sapphires-for-characters-by-mary-ogara-ph-d-cvacc/
This is a lengthy, insightful excerpt from a workshop by the same name. In it, the author discusses the four things she believes predict people’s personalities: birth order, enneagrams (9 basic personality types), mind/body/heart, and jungian scales.
It’s all a bit much for this post, but if you’re trying to turn your characters inside out, this monograph and its accompanying handouts (well worth a site visit alone) are great to throw into the mix. You can get them here: http://www.booklaurie.com/workshops_psych.php
All these sites were terrific but I have to say the biggest single change I made in investigating my characters (drum roll, please) was to define individual venues in which I interviewed them. Before, I questioned them in a vacuum. Now, I pose questions to each major character within a specific frame of reference.
For instance, Robyn is a fashion designer who’s poised to break into the major leagues.
She’s just had a feeler from a Very Big Name in Milan couture, but “Fashion Week Panama,” the regional show on which her reputation and future will ride, is only days away. She’s also just learned of two terrible murders that have occurred in her love interest’s family (and threats to the rest of the family, including the love of her life).
In the midst of getting her collection ready for the most important show of her career, coming to grips with two horrible deaths, and receiving word of a possible life-changing opportunity half a world away, she’s scheduled for an interview with “Women’s Wear Daily,” the single most influential magazine in the fashion industry.
Now, having built a “scene” for the interview, with tension swirling around in all directions, I can zero in on Robyn with my questions (wearing my hat as a WWD reporter) and, hopefully, elicit answers that will provide a store of insight into how she thinks and reacts under pressure. (I also want to know if she’s going to accept that job offer in Italy!)
To obtain information that’s more personal, I’ve upped the ante by booking her for a back-to-back interview with “La Prensa,” a major newspaper in Panama.
In addition to being fun, I’m expecting a lot out of these interviews. Stay tuned.
I knew his motivation stone-cold. I knew his background. But I still didn’t feel confident of his inner monologue.
That led me to create a new facet to his personality – a drinking problem. And this in turn allowed me to develop a “Hi, I’m Joe and I’m powerless” tell-all in an AA meeting, followed by a searing group interview in another therapy setting. It was amazing what came out of this guy’s mouth the moment I put him in the right environment!
Try this experiment with one of your characters: first, give him/her a unique environment in which to be questioned. For example, if you have a protagonist businessman, you can’t go wrong with an interview by Forbes – or the Board of Directors.
Second, ramp up the tension by setting the interview in a stressful time. Say the evening before the interview your character is pulled over for a suspected DUI and interrogated by a hard-faced state trooper.
Then, add in even more pressure – another interview without breathing space in between. In this case, your character’s spouse, with whom he’s been having “issues” (coincidentally related to his drinking), phones just as the character is being asked to take a sobriety test. Yikes! Definitely want to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
I hope these sources and techniques will help you as they’ve helped me. If so, I’d love to hear about it. And, as always, if you have other sites to recommend, we’re all ears.
Next time: My (continuing) efforts to improve mood and setting.