Across one of my bookshelves, there’s a line of fat white notebooks, each one bearing a zippy, call-to-action name: “How to Write Compelling Dialogue. “Building Blocks of Great Fiction.” “How to Create a Page Turner.” ”The Secrets of Deep POV.” Many readers will recognize these titles as courses offered by some of the best in the wordsmithing business — Pat Kaye, Virginia Kantra, Steve Alcorn, and Mary Buckham, among others. When I decided to transition from jack-of-all-trades writer to mystery author, I sopped up every drop of information these folks could give me. Now, as I’m headed for a massive manuscript revision, I thought I might revisit these courses to see if I could pick up some suggestions that would make my editing less tedious and more refined.
The sheer size of the notebooks gave me pause, however, and my eyes moved to the end of the row and two smallish volumes titled simply “On Writing – Miscellaneous.” Oh, I thought, the power of that word, “Miscellaneous,” and what it can conjure up — promises of romance, intrigue, passion, deception – or in this case, great tips for looking at a manuscript with a fresh eye.
With two POVs and various extended families populating my new WIP, I’m juggling lots of character-related issues. Happily, my “Miscellaneous” notebooks had the goods on developing memorable characters. Right off the bat, I found a Margie Lawson interview with Elizabeth Lyon, author of “Manuscript Makeover,” where Ms. Lawson asks how writers can check their work for inauthentic voice.
Elizabeth Lawson answers: “Assume you have written in a ‘faux-voice” because early drafts mostly spring from a writer’s mind, not gut.” Really? That was a surprise. Being half pantser, half plotter, I would have said the opposite. She went on:
“One way is to reread a draft slowly, intentionally putting yourself into the mind, body, emotions and spirit of your point-of-view character. As you read, pay attention to what reactions, viscerally and emotionally, you experience as that character. Chances are they aren’t on the page.” (emphasis added.)
Now that last bit made me sit up a bit straighter. Surely, my characters display deep and dramatic emotions. Still, I put Ms. Lyon’s suggestion to work, and dang if she wasn’t right. Take this, for instance:
“Blood was always disturbing, but it was her shaking that I found so profound.” Profound? Hmm.
Or this, which I originally thought was so evocative:
“For one awful second, I saw a head suspended in the air, then I watched, paralyzed, as streams of red spurted out in all directions.” Reading it aloud, slowly, I could see that I’d fallen short of creating the impact I was looking for.
Ms. Lyon suggests “harvesting the emotions” by “riffing,” a technique of playing off an emotion that comes up in a scene by writing stream of consciousness. I’ve done something like this in the past with positive results, so I decided to try it again using the words “blood” and “decapitation” together. Out of a long list of gory words, phrases, sentences and even paragraphs that resulted, three were strong enough for incorporation in the manuscript:
1. “At the last moment, she raised her arm, her forefinger stabbing like an arrow aimed at his chest. Her mouth opened, her eyes locked on his. She took another step, and disappeared into the twirling propeller blades.”
2. “As the battered arm finally tore away, it flew across the plane and thudded into the pilot’s window. The grisly propeller hiccuped, then returned to its hum-drum work. Thwup. Thwup. Thwup.”
3. “I swallowed hard, tasting the horror in the rise of bile at the top of my throat. I vomited the poisonous stuff onto the nearest plant.”
Well, it still needs work but I certainly have more dramatic elements to play with now than I did before.
Another tip that’s proving beneficial comes from romantic suspense author Camy Tang (“Mistletoe Kisses”). She suggests simultaneously using internal and external stimuli to create an atmosphere with emotional urgency. It’s the combination of the two that’s so interesting and stimulating. Ms. Tang recommends you select specific physical items that can summon either sadness or anger and place those items on your desk. The next step is to commit your psyche to a forbidding, dangerous, scary or sad place. She uses a crowded, noisy jail as an example. I envisioned a train carrying me off to a concentration camp. I couldn’t find any physical items to put on my desk so instead I drew boxes at the top of the page and labeled them:
And then, because my next door neighbor wants to erect a ghastly 100 foot communications tower RIGHT NEXT TO MY FENCE, I drew a picture of the offending tower in the final box.
According to Tang, the object of the exercise is to “write your voice with your whole body…. An opera singer or a screaming child uses his entire body to project his voice. It’s a comprehensive, total feat. A writer is the same…. The important thing is to discover your own all-encompassing combination of rhythm, force and music that is your voice…. Try to imagine what it’s like for you to write from your gut, from your toes, digging in with your shoulders, straining with your spine…. Make it an energetic feat, requiring force and strength, pulling in all aspects of your whole body. Then just do it – free-write.”
Whew. I tried it – using my boxes – and it’s definitely a powerful, exacting way to write. Some improved thoughts in the head of my protagonist:
“Now that I knew, I could understand – almost – why she’d done it. A life of torment stretching endlessly before her, a life of cages and rape, and most probably AIDS. What was an instant of pain at the hands of a propeller compared with the agony of a life without hope, a life of suffering, a life ending from a terrible disease? Who knows, I might have done it, too.”
You can hear echoes of the concentration camp in this passage. Ditto the suffering of abused animals, children, the elderly. The good people of Ukraine.
The horrible disease is what I hope happens to my neighbor with the tower (just kidding).
Before I leave Ms. Tang, I want to mention this nugget, which I used to improve a scene: “Take a lesson from children’s story-telling. When children tell stories, they improvise with things connected to their emotions, urgent and important to them at the moment. The duckie in their lap, the blue carpet, the stinky smell from the diaper bag, the lint under the table…. What makes their stories compelling is that it’s raw and free.” A great, valuable observation that helped me produce this draft paragraph:
“So you coast along to one of the dingy cantinas and you watch the locals. The government guy who packs and wears a Kevlar vest. The whores sizing up their tricks. The hard-looking types – narcos, maybe. The Indio selling his backyard version of hooch, fermented in a monkey’s stomach. The machete fights. The cockfights. The bare-knuckle fights. You watch and sip your beer and gauge your chances.”
More good advice, courtesy of “Miscellaneous,” emanates from Alicia Rasley, who, for my money, has the best treasure trove of tips on the web. I pulled out two this time around:
“Remember that the protagonist’s goal is not necessarily the story’s goal, and the achievement or failure to achieve that goal doesn’t mean the protagonist can’t achieve something else.”
Words that sped me back to my manuscript to see if I was struggling to make the protagonist’s goal equal the story goal. Sure enough, I’d gotten some motivations muddled up along the line. Fortunately, shifting a few scenes here and there and changing a bit of inner dialogue should correct the problem.
This led me to another invaluable Rasley tip on creating a strong protagonist. To build a central, heroic figure, she says, “requires providing the protagonist the need to change, the courage to change, the opportunity to change, and the motivation to change.” (emphasis added)
Wow. What a great summary. And then this zinger: “The purpose of the plot, in fact, is to challenge the protagonist to change, to become something new.” (emphasis added)
After reading that, I put my hero under a microscope again and looked at his story ARC. This time, I had more work to do. A secondary action ARC, which was hanging out in space, not knowing where to go, has become central to understanding what motivates my protagonist. Without Ms. Raisley’s astute observations, I might still be flailing away, not understanding what was happening to my character – or why. Instead my hero “breaks out” in the way that editor David Sims describes it at WriteatHome.com: “Heroes in the beginning of movies, in the World of the Common Day, are frequently defined by others, by external forces and situations – their parents, jobs, beliefs they’ve always carried about themselves. But by the end of the novel, they stand up and say “No, this is who I am. I define myself.”
Finally, my protagonist is doing just that.
And if I needed any reinforcement, I got it from Sims again, when he said this: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re writing about settings, characters or events. You’re writing about your Hero’s emotional reactions to settings, characters and events.” (emphasis added)
Got it. Got it. Got it.
A final tip comes from Hayley Sherman at Whoosh Editing. In a twist on the often laborious task of filling out a CV for each character, Ms. Sherman suggests interviewing them instead. I found this immensely helpful. One by one, my characters opened up in the interview format, not a few of them springing to well-rounded and much more interesting lives than before. (Who knew that a fashion designer would have a messy closet at home? Or that a jungle shaman secretly thinks aspirin is the best drug for 99% of illnesses? )
I started this post thinking that I was going to reference just a few sites that have helped my writing. They’re all what I think of as “little” sites in that, with the exception of Alicia Rasley and WriteatHome.com, they only rated a page or even a circled paragraph in my “Miscellaneous” notebooks. But each had something valuable to contribute and it’s always nice to give someone a plug.
Alicia Rasley’s site is different. If you haven’t visited it before, go prepared with lots of chocolate and a limitless pot of coffee because you’ll be there for some time. Reading Ms. Rasley is informative, eye-opening, and addictive. She’s thorough, expressive, well grounded in literature, and, like peanuts, one of her articles is never enough. You could learn everything you wanted to know about writing without ever visiting another site.
WriteatHome.com is similarly addictive but for totally different reasons. The site is ostensibly for high school and middle grade students but the articles about writing are geared to a higher level. Thus you have passages like this from David Sims:
“That’s the basis of the positive character arc, the gradual transformation of the Hero from Identity to Essence, the tug-of-war inside him being gradually won by Essence. A negative character arc, of course, would be the inverse progression.”
But while the articles are entertaining to read, it’s the Resource Library that really shines. Here you can find the indispensable “100 Ways to Say” series, “Myth Busters,” and an extensive Grammar and Usage section, including The Department of Redundancy,“A Non-Exhaustive List of Weasel Words,” as well as the definitive rules on octopi or octopusses, one less or one fewer, rise or raise, sneaked or snuck – and about a thousand more fun and important things to know.
So this is my list of “little” sites that have helped my writing. I hope some of them might help you, too. Do you have any favorites to add? If so, please feel free to post them here.
Camy Tang http://www.camytang.com (also http://storysensei.blogspot.com.html)
Margie Lawson http://www.margielawson.com/how-to-author-interviews
Alicia Raisley, and her deep bench of archived articles at http://www.aliciarasley.com/archive.htm
Good luck with your edit.