IWSG: Intervention

InsecureWritersSupportGroupThanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh, I now have an excuse to expound upon my self-doubt without fear of reprisals! If you’d like to join us at the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, click on this linky, and prepare to meet some of the nicest writers on the web. We post on the first Wednesday of every month.

Today, I’m going to share something I’m worried I will never overcome. It’s this: I’m a horrible plotter, and even my characters are getting tired of my haphazard plotting. So fed up …well, how about I show you how fed up they are? Here’s how it went down …

***

Image courtesy of Emiliano Hernandez @ stock.xchng

My footsteps echo in the front hall of the Muse’s palace. “Muse?” I call. “You in here?”

“Over here.” His voice resounds on the stone walls. He’s in the library. Of course.

As I near the room, I hear whispered conversations, snatches of phrases like, “… tears of stars … walk in dreams … rock god …”

Then a loud ‘shhh.’

“What’s going on?” I ask as I enter. The lights come on.

Omigosh. The room is full of people I know, although I’ve never met them in real life. These are the people in my stories. Nick Moore from The Tempest’s Serenade stands near the front of the group, his arms crossed over his chest, watching my reaction with concern. On the opposite side of the group towers Teragus Swansong from The Whole of the Moon. The implacable steadiness of his golden eyes makes me shudder.

“Nick?” I ask, because he’s still the one I talk to most. “What’s going on?”

Image courtesy of 'miamiamia' @ stock.xchngNick takes a deep breath. The rest of the crowd has gone back to conversing amongst themselves. Rafael from Lost Wax, with Abigale wrapped in his arms, is exchanging Italian phrases with Noelle, the lithe ballet dancer from Constants, while Aiden, the numbers-addicted protagonist of the same story is immersed in conversation with Griffin of March, the gem collector and heir to the crown from Bridge of Light. Dr. Andria Morgan from my latest story–which doesn’t even have a proper title yet– looks forlorn as she stands off to the side. Despite the ill-fitting black Regulation uniform disguising her tiny frame, she has managed to attract the roving eye of Stuart Livingston.

“Who’s the new chick?” Stuart, Nick’s sidekick from Tempest’s Serenade, asks me.

Andria, with her as-yet-uncolored-eyes narrowed, faces him and answers, “I’m from her latest project— one that actually has a plot and an ending, I might add.”

“That’s what our Writer told me too when she started,” Rigel Mondryan from A Crown of Thorns sneers. “Just wait until she gets to the middle section. You’ll see. It’ll all fall apart just like it always does.”

Andria gives me a furtive look.“Hey, that can’t be true, our Writer has an outline this time—”

“Silence!” bellows Lord Swansong. He steps in front of the melee, his arms stretched wide. His son-in-law Rigel continues to bicker with Griffin of March until they come to some sort of agreement and break out in guffaws.

I spot the Muse sitting on a bookshelf high above the fray and hope he knew what he was doing when he put this gathering together. This many alpha males in one room can only lead to trouble.

Nick nods in acknowledgment as Teragus Swansong begins. “Writer, (because, to avoid confusion, all my characters simply call me Writer.) We’re here to stage an intervention.”Image courtesy of 'deafstar' @ stock.xchng

“An intervention?” I stammer. “For what? The hardest drug I do is coffee.”

I hear Stuart Livingston snicker. He jumps as his girlfriend elbows him in the gut.

Lord Swansong continues, “It has come to our attention that you are seriously deficient in the plotting department. We fear that you will never tell our stories properly.”

“I’m trying, really I am,” I reply. “I’m taking a revision course. I write every day. I read blogs.”

Rigel disentangles himself from his wife Cerule’s arms and stands. He’s wearing his crown, so I know I need to be careful what I say or he’ll be inside my head reading all my wicked thoughts. “Nick over there—” Rigel indicates the dark-haired, steely eyed protagonist of Tempest’s—  “Tells me you’ve been agonizing over his story for years now. Don’t you think it’s time you figure out how to get it right and get on with it?”

“I would if I could, but a novel is so big, it’s hard to keep track of everything. I’m doing my best. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a novelist— ”

Nick holds up his hand to stop Rigel from perturbing me any further. “I think she gets the point.”

Cerule Swansong, silent up to now, stands. She smiles at me. With her silver blonde hair and her graceful yet powerful motions, I can see why Rigel fell in love with her. “We only want to help you, Writer. It’s not just about us. It’s about you. We want to see you successful, perhaps even published.”

“That’s what everyone tells me.” I sink onto the chair that Nick has pulled next to me. “I just don’t know how to stop writing and plan something. You guys just spill out onto the page and I write and write and can’t stop–”

“Which is why we’re staging this intervention.” Libra Duvall, Nick’s mysterious Muse, has left her window seat to stand next to him. “We want to be read, Writer,” she says as Nick absent-mindedly strokes her long blonde hair. “It’s why we exist. But your stories need to make sense.”

Nick continues, “We have some ideas for you. To get you back on track.”

I scan the faces before me. Teragus, Rigel, Cerule, Stuart, Libra, Nick and all the rest stare back at me expectantly. Their fate lies in my hands. I feel so helpless.

41GtFMuVhWL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_“I don’t want to let you down,” I say. “But the only book about writing I’ve read is No Plot, No Problem.

“Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered,” Nick says. “We picked out a few craft books for you.”

Aiden chimes in and stands, holding a stack of paperback books. “Here are a few to get you started. Writing the Breakout Novel , Story Engineering,” He winks. “A personal favorite.”

“Well, you’re the numbers guy, after all,” I agree.41zE6Pp83tL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

“There’s more though,” Cerule says. “Techniques of the Selling Writer, Save the Cat.

41KYQst9aIL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_Abigale chimes in, “You’re going to love Bird by Bird!”

“And this one,” Rigel offers, “The Art of War for Writers. And Nail Your Novel. You loved Memories of My Future Life so I’m certain you’ll appreciate Roz Morris’s advice.

I hold the books in my hands, quite a stack, and see the concerned looks on their faces. “Wow, you guys are the best. I really hope I don’t let you down. Wish me luck.”

***

So, writers, any other suggestions to help me with my plotting woes? What’s your favorite writing craft book?

Images: rainbow of books courtesy of Emiliano Hernandez, talk bubbles courtesy of ‘miamiamia’, chairs courtesy of ‘deafstar’, all @ stock.xchng.

1967

Hi there. I haven’t forgotten about ye olde blogge, it’s just that I’m writing. A lot!

To prove it, here’s some of what’s been going on in the land of revision, where I converse early and often with the story’s main character, Nick Moore. In fact, something eerie and magical happened the other day while I was writing an outline and I was excited to tell him all about it …

“Something kind of cool happened last night,” I type, hoping Nick isn’t too far away to hear me.

Image courtesy of Cema Graphics @ stock.xchngHe stumbles out of the bathroom, sleepy-eyed and unshaven. “It’s early,” he says.

“These are morning words– they’re supposed to be early. And besides, it’s Saturday. This isn’t as early as I usually get up.”

He cracks his knuckles and yawns. “Yeah, I suppose, but still …”

“I’m going to look up knuckle cracking. If it’s bad for you, you’re going to have to stop,” I type.

He grins. “Make me.”

I’m beginning to have misgivings about making him more bad@ss. So far, though, I think I can manage him. “I was going to tell you the cool thing that happened last night.”

“I’m listening.” Nick leans against the door frame, stretching his arms in front of him with his fingers entwined. “But you’re taking an awfully long time to get to the point.”

“I know, but this is morning words, and the point, I think, is to get a lot of words in a short period of time. Besides this will make me laugh when I read it over later.”

“Well, I think you’ve got that down pat then.” He raises his upper lip in a smirk. “But you had a point?” He’s done stretching and is fiddling with the tie on his sweatpants. Libra is right. He never stands still.

“Yeah. I was working on my Editor Outline last night.”

Nick holds up his hand, palm towards me. “Wait. Isn’t that part of Lesson Eleven of How to Think Sideways? And aren’t you on Lesson Twenty-One of How to Revise Your Novel?”

“Yeah, but remember our story is full of holes …”

He grins again and chuckles. “Did you ever think I might be messing up your story just so I can stick around? To keep you from moving on to other stories?”

“Yeah, I’ve worried about losing you. But the thing is, as a writer, I can conjure you up long after the story is over. It’s like my own personal fan fiction. I will finish this course though, even if I keep getting sidetracked.”

“Speaking of sidetracked …” He glances out the window and I notice the hyacinths have blossomed in the yard. Image courtesy of Claudia Meyer @ stock.xchng“Pretty,” he observes.

“And I’m in here with you. Working on an Editor Outline because I think it’s fun. Crazy, I know. ”

“So, how’s that going?”

“Splendidly, actually,” I write as my adverb alert spikes into the red. “I’m starting to see exactly where the holes in my story are. Do you want me to tell you about them?”

“Not particularly, but I have a feeling I don’t have a choice in the matter.”

“No, you don’t, but I’m going to tell you about the cool thing first. I was tired last night—“

“You don’t say?” He rolls his eyes and finds a spot on the bed, then pulls his feet up and leans against the wall with his head resting against his hands.

“Could you stop interrupting me?”

“Sure, but could you get to the point?”

“I will. I was tired so I stopped where you and Libby are in the apartment and you’re about to take her to the Hacienda.”

Nick raises his eyebrows. “Why’d you stop there? That was the good part, I finally get to kiss her.” His eyes turn dreamy.

“I told you. I was tired.”

“Okay, I suppose.”

“But anyway, as I was closing Scrivener I glanced at the word count, and noticed that I had exactly 1,967 words.”Screenshot 1967 words

“So?” Nick eyebrows rise again.

“Well, let me read you the first sentences of my outline. They’re about you and Milo:

They called it the Summer of Love. 

In 1967, Nick Moore packed up his guitar and joined his buddy Milo Young on a trek to the west coast …

“Okay, that is cool,” he agrees.

“Sometimes, Nick, it feels as if a ghost is watching over my shoulder. A good ghost, but still something bigger than I am, something that speaks through my fingers and guides me to what needs to be written.”

He cracks his knuckles again. Suddenly I know why. “It’s because you don’t smoke anymore, isn’t it?”

“What?” It’s when he looks innocent that I love him most. 

“Cracking your knuckles. You always need to be inflicting pain upon yourself, whether you’re ingesting nicotine and tar into your lungs, or cracking the bones in your precious hands.”

He looks stricken and I feel wistful because I love that word and have decided I simply must use it in the next thing I write. “What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. It’s just that you know me so well, it scares me sometimes.”

Silly man. It’s because I wrote you.

Have you ever had weird coincidences happen in your writing? Do you have a hard time letting go of your characters?

And, is cracking your knuckles really bad for your hands?

Alarm clock courtesy of Cema Graphics, hyacinths courtesy of Claudia Meyer, both @ stock.xchng

Celebrating One Year of Insecurity

InsecureWritersSupportGroupSometimes it’s good to look back and acknowledge progress.

Take the case of my insecurity. I’ve been a member of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group for one year now, and I have made so much progress bigstock_first_birthday_cupcake_7328690that I can hardly believe it!

A year ago I was terrified of sharing my writing. In my first post ever for the IWSG, I wrote:

… insecurity seems a mild word for my symptoms. Any presentation of my writing affects me physically. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. My hands shake  … every time I send one of my stories out into the world, I feel like my heart will stop beating until I know for sure the world won’t hate it.

It’s been a whole year, but honestly I never thought I’d reach a point where I could let people, and especially other writers, read my words. Check out these ten, (count ’em ten!) chapters up for critique at Critique Circle:Screen shot 2013-02-03 at 10.44.36 AM

And thanks to this blog, and my classmates at HTRYN, I’ve begun exchanging manuscripts. What a great feeling it is to get feedback on my story, and to know that someone out there likes it!

Image courtesy of Lucy Clark @ Big StockI also discovered a cool side effect to sharing my work. I had reached a point where, though I know there are problems in my story, I didn’t know where to go with it anymore. My writer readers help push me towards a better solutions. They ask the hard questions, but ask in the nicest way possible. They make me think. My story grew, and is growing still.

It feels like I planted a tiny seed and ended up with a beanstalk that grew to the clouds.

To what do I attribute this achievement? Persistence. Determination. And the wonderful support of all the writers who came by to comment and encourage. It really does help to know that I am not alone in my fears. If I screw up I have this great cheering section to come back to.

So, now that I’m beginning to make progress in the area of sharing my stories, what’s my next challenge, hmmm?

For guidance I looked back to the rest of last year’s post:

Why not just leave the whole mess on my hard drive, and keep writing only to please myself?

… The answer wasn’t hard to find.

The inside of my head is dark and lonely, but now that I’ve populated it with worlds and characters, I want to invite other people to the party. If even a few people love my books and live in them, even for only a short while, I will have done something few can. I will have shared my dreams.

There is a lot of weird stuff on my hard drive that doesn’t fit into stories but that I stumble upon in the course of my journey. Odds and ends of scenes. More character interviews. Strange ideas. Cool quotes.

I’m afraid to share it. Maybe I need to start. This blog would be a great place to do that!

Thank you, all of you who come by every month to cheer me on! You have no idea how much that means to me.

If you want to check out the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, click on this link to join the indefatigable Alex J. Cavanaugh in his quest to free writers from insecurity and self-doubt. Thank you, Alex, for starting up this fantastic group!

What writing challenges have you overcome? What kind of weird stuff lurks on your hard drive?

Related posts: Psst … There’s A Story on My Hard Drive

Images courtesy of Lucy Clark and Ruth Black @ Big Stock

My Nameless New Friend

Have you ever been minding your own business, dragging the garbage to the curb, loading the dishwasher, folding the laundry, when, all of a sudden, the character you’ve been waiting to meet taps you on the shoulder?

BidI had such a moment. After auditioning all the existing characters for the lead role in the last book of my trilogy, I decided that none of them quite measured up. Their character arcs have closed. They’d said all they had to say and I was beginning to understand that I needed a new main character for the final story.

But that character had not made his entrance yet.

Today, as I was driving to the store, I caught a glimpse of a candidate for that spot in my mind’s eye. He was out hunting with his father, Rigel. He’s awfully young, not even twenty, but strong, like his dad. One word kept circling around him:

Fearless.

“Are you reckless?” I ask him as I ease into the slow lane to accommodate my distracted state of mind.

“Maybe.” His lips twitch and tease, and dare me to ask more.

“… Are you angry?”

“How would you feel if your mom could read your mind whenever she wanted to?”

Ouch. 

“Good point,” I reply, then add, “You’re kind of a hotshot, aren’t you?”

He looks at me with mischievous eyes. “Kinda.”Image courtesy of Aleksandra P. @ stock.xchng

“That could get you into trouble.”

“So?”

“I like you. Wanna be in my book?”

“Hell, yeah. When can we start?”

Soon, my nameless new friend, I think to myself. Only a few more holidays to go …

Happy New Year to all my blogging buddies! Have you met any new characters this year?

Images courtesy of  Marija Jure and Aleksandra P. @ stock.xchng

A Matter of Time

Today marks the halfway point in this marvelous adventure called NaNoWriMo, and I finally had some time to catch up on my correspondence. I found this letter among the many diversions in the Muse’s toy chest. My main character in The Whole of the Moon, this year’s NaNo novel, has responded to my letter from a few weeks ago. Here is what he wrote:

The Year of Our Mission: Three hundred and Thirty Six

Lunar Month: Lilac

Dear fair Lady Larke,

Though it is always a great pleasure to hear from you, I fail to understand your peculiar autumn ritual of writing a prodigious number of words in one month. Nevertheless I will stand at the ready should you need my assistance in this endeavor.

My misspent youth is not a source of pride to me, but as you have represented Rigel’s story fairly, I am optimistic that you will be as unequivocal in the narrative of mine as well.

My work on the DRAGNs was done out of necessity, and as they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Please don’t fail to emphasize Angelo’s involvement in the development of the early prototypes. Without him I may never have had the impetus to move forward with the designs, and the future of your planet might have turned out quite differently.

As far as my unexpected visit to you is concerned, that was not a hologram. I haven’t the technology to project the image such a large distance. It was actually me. There is a time loop that has not yet been closed, and I have also encountered this displaced younger version of myself on occasion. It is quite a chilling experience. As I have no memory of this incident, I sincerely hope that my younger self did not disturb you and carried himself with the decorum of a Lunar officer.

I apologize that I was not as forthcoming last year, and for the resulting rearrangement of the chronicle that you are in process of writing. I intend to make it up to you in my cooperation with your efforts this year.

Your Most Humble Servant,

.

Teragus Swansong

.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo, how is the writing going? Have you ever encountered a mysterious plot development only a time loop could solve?

 

Something Completely Different

And now for something completely different.

Dragons.

A steampunk Lunar colony.

A question of where the man ends and the machine begins.

In other words, my story for NaNoWriMo 2012.

As if I didn’t have enough on my plate, in my never-ending pursuit of literary abandon I’m going to shoot for writing 50,000 words in one month. Or even 100k. It happens.

In preparation, I’ve stocked up on coffee, hot chocolate, and frozen dinners. I’ve backed up my computer. Reorganized my scene cards. Made playlists, one for each day in November, labeled by date and mood.

And I composed a letter to my main character, Teragus Swansong, warning him of my impending assault on his story. Here is what I wrote:

October 28, 2012 The Eleventh Hour

Whispering Pines Writing Retreat

Dear esteemed Lord Swansong,

Though I know it is late, I am writing to request your assistance in chronicling the early years of the Luna colony, as well as your involvement in its development. You might recall that last year I made a similar entreaty as I prepared to write the story of your daughter and future son-in-law, and I am still in your debt with regards to your efforts. However, once again I find myself in the difficult position of attempting to write your entire story in the period of one month.

I must confess that I wish you had you been more forthcoming with your involvement in the emergence of the DRAGN technology so that I might have written your story first. Fortunately, though I have been able to reconfigure my story to put Cerule and Rigel’s story second in the trilogy.

I hope you are not overly concerned that I will be delving deeper into the story of how you came to meet Avery, and why you decided to return to Luna, despite Luna’s betrayal and subterfuge. I understand why you chose as you did and will be sure to represent the story fairly. As far as your dalliance with Daphne is concerned, now that you understand how sparing her life led to a bright future for the DRAGN transports, I’m sure you will have no objections about my revealing the details to my readers.

And was that a hologram of you I saw as I was walking in the park the other day? You seemed so real, though I was surprised you’d chosen to visit me covered with oil and wearing your grey jumpsuit. I saw your eyes for the first time, and I think you were as surprised to see me as I was to see you. I would almost swear it was really you, and not a hologram, except that you were much younger than you are now.

I am still working through the intricacies of your inventions, and am amazed and impressed by your achievements, especially given that you did much of your work underground away from the supervision of the Lunar regime. If you might further elucidate how you managed that I would be grateful.

I hope my missive finds you well, and that I am able to do your story justice in the coming month.

With my regards,

Lady Larke

 

Tune in next week for Lord Swansong’s reply!

And, how about you? Have you ever written your characters a letter or an email? What do you do to prepare for NaNoWriMo?

If It Makes You Happy …

He paces outside my morning words, his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, a scowl on his face. I dread confronting him, but now that morning words have been procrastinated into evening words, I venture inside and type my first question.

“Are you mad at me?”

He looks up, and the darkness doesn’t leave his face.

I knew it. I should never have let him out of my fingers. I should never have posted any of my chapters for anyone to see. He should have stayed exclusively mine.

“I’m sorry,” I sputter. “I shouldn’t have done that. I fluffed your lines and had you saying things no rock ‘n’ roller should ever say. I’ll fix it, I promise—pronto. I was wrong and you were right.”

“You thought I was mad about that?” His scowl splits into a grin. “Nah, I’m just wondering why it took you so long to get to these words today. What’s with watering the grass, and the blog posts, and that other writer who keeps asking for help?” He shrugs one of his all too frequent shrugs, and pulls his hands from his pockets to spread them wide in a gesture of dismay.

If he was the hugging type …

But I remember in time— he’s not. He’s a rocker.

“You bet I am, sister,” he agrees. “So don’t forget it next time.”

I breathe a huge sigh of relief, and settle into some normal typing. “I have questions for you.” Still the tentative writer, I add, “Would you mind?”

He shakes his head. “It’s about time, so fire away.”

“I liked your words last night,” I type. “Thanks for getting me going again. I was having a lot of doubts about that scene.”

He looks surprised and stares at me from behind the lock of hair that falls into his eyes. “Why? It’s just me, except before. Same guy, remember?”

“Yeah, I guess that’s the idea. But you look different, so I thought I might have to write you differently.”

He grins so that his eyes narrow with mirth. “Now you know what Libby feels like.”

“Are you going to call her Libby too?”

“Thought I’d try it out for size,” he says and shrugs again as I try to think of a new gesture besides shrugging for my dialogue beats.

“Sure, call her Libby then, if it makes you happy,” I type.

“My happiness isn’t what’s at stake here, you know.” He lets his gaze fall from mine as I turn back to my computer screen. “It’s the story that matters.”

“If you’re not happy there is no story, Nick. Happiness is what you want, and why you do what you do.”

“Isn’t that everyone’s need?”

“Depends,” I reply. “Some people are only happy when other people around them are miserable.”

“Lucky for you, that’s not what I’m about.”

He stops pacing to gaze out my window. I don’t know what he’s looking for since it’s twilight and too early for lightning bugs. “But you said you had questions for me?” he asks.

“I might not be able to continue your scene today. I’m going to put chapter four and maybe chapter five up for critique.”

“So?” he asks with a nonchalant smirk.

“I want to know what you think about that.”

He draws a heavy sigh. “Did you do your best with them?”

I’m biting my lips as I type. “I think I did. But I’m just not very good at this.”

“You’re getting better. I can tell.” By the sound of his voice, determined as waves crashing on the shore, strong as the tide in the moonlight, I’m forced to agree that at least I’m getting better at pleasing myself.

“You might be right,” I type.

“I know I’m right. When you read me back, sometimes you laugh out loud. I hear that you know.”

“And sometimes I want to cry …”

“But those are happy tears. I see them. I’m not here to make you sad.” He pauses. “Have I ever made you sad?”

Because I detect worry in his tone, I hasten to assure him, “Of all the people I’ve ever known, Nick, you must be the only one who has never made me sad.”

“See–” His stride lengthens to a strut, as if he’s preparing for a show. He stops look at the dark sky outside. “And writer?”

“What?”

“You kick ass.”

How about you? Do your characters pace outside your words? Do they approve of what you’re writing about them?

Five Stars? Really?

I was going to post a light-hearted character interview today, but got sidetracked by a post on Holly Lisle’s blog about Amazon reviews. Apparently, good reviews can be bought and paid for, and in fact John Locke, who sold one million ebooks in five months, did just that to achieve his rockin’ sales figures. The thing is, I was chuckling when I read the New York Times article that Holly kindly linked to in her post. While reviews-for-hire don’t surprise me in the least, cynic that I am, it seemed to me that authors are slugging it out for something that many readers don’t give a hoot about.

Would you read something by a new author simply because it sported a slew of four and five-star reviews?

Coincidentally, I’m a reader myself, so maybe I’ll use my own reading habits as an example of why Amazon reviews mean diddly-squat to some readers.

First of all, as a literary omnivore—I read everything from romance to hard sci-fi to classics—and a slow reader to boot, it doesn’t take all that many good books to keep me out of trouble. I’m not likely to go trolling through Amazon looking for random books, since if one genre seems bare, I’ll just switch to another. Meanwhile, if I’m not careful, friends will ply me with books they’ve read, asking my opinion of them. I also read a lot of blogs, and after I begin to connect with some of my cyber-buddies, I trust their judgement in terms of what sings and what stinks. (If you want some really insightful reviews and recommendations, armchairauthor at ‘Ink’ has got you covered.) Of course, I can always turn to tried and true established authors. If a book has the name ‘Neil Gaiman’ on the cover, I don’t care what people say about it, I’m going to read it. Last but not least, I take advantage of the ‘Look Inside’ feature. It only takes a few pages for me to recognize beautiful, concise writing, and clean storytelling. If I’m slogging through prologue number three by the time the preview ends, it’s probably a sign this one is not going to be for me. Literary omnivore or not.

But for those who do let Amazon reviews influence their buying decisions, I hope readers and writers see this as a sign that we need to review responsibly, or we destroy the credibility of the source. If readers are trying to connect with books they like to read, is a one-star review with the comment, “Lame. Blech.” going to do that for them? We need reviewer that writes, “Unlikable characters, inconsistent plotting, and a ‘deus ex machina’ conclusion,” and expounds upon the reasons why. In other words, don’t underestimate your readers.

How about you? Do you use Amazon or Goodreads reviews to help you choose what books to read? Do you write reviews? If so, what prompts you to write a review, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent?

And don’t worry, next week I’ll have that character interview for you!

Conjuring Up Characters

Buckle up, folks. This post got a little long on me!

But a fellow student at How to Think Sideways had a question about how writers might understand their characters better, and as I explored my answer, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was searching for a way to explain how my characters turned from nothing more than thought experiments into the companions, conspirators, and co-pilots of my novel-writing adventures.

Is there some sorcery involving a playlist, a handful of feathers, and a thousand words written under the light of the full moon that brings them to life? 

Probably not.

However, I think a part of me believes there’s sorcery involved. I call that part the Muse, and therein lies the key. My logical, rational self insists that I can’t possibly know what it is really like to be someone else, whether it’s a man or a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. (And I will leave it to my gentle readers to speculate upon the similarities between these two species!)

Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life.

I can hear the Muse already: “Boring!!”

(And, “What? I’m going to DIE?!)

In order to tap the well of experience, whether it’s my own forgotten memories, or some kind of conduit to a common human (or, heck, sentient) experience, the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.

All of my writing exercises are predicated on that premise. Especially in the beginning stages, characters are fragile as soap bubbles to me. If I try to look too closely I will shatter the illusion and they might start to do things that don’t make sense.

Hauling them in for questioning under an unflattering fluorescent bulb is unlikely to uncover much that is interesting. How would you react if some stranger walked up to you and asked what is missing in your life?                  

You’d probably say, “Whoa—do I know you?”

I suppose I could search through my character’s imaginary rap sheet, and look up where she was born, where she lives and what kind of grades she got in school. But I have a better idea.

After all, I’m a writer. I have wings!

In free write mode, I can watch my characters from afar. A few hundred words a day will do it. I like to do this in my morning words which comes to 750 words, but the most important thing to me is that there’s no pressure. I just let the Muse ‘tell’ me what’s going on with this person. What does she do when no one is watching? What makes this character worth writing? Who are the people she cares about?

If I’m starting with an artifact or a world I ask, “Who would be worthy of such an artifact? Who would bestow it upon him?” Or: “Who is the most interesting person in this world? Why is he important?”

I note down basic things. Is he neat and orderly? Well-dressed? Slovenly? Boisterous? Withdrawn?  Timid? Arrogant? Does she smile a lot? Is she graceful? Awkward? Forthcoming?

Whether I’m starting with my gifted but world-weary guitarist, my cynical warrior, a disenchanted dragon-builder, or the flower child’s ghost, all of them have a story to show me if I just let the Muse out of his cage to lead me to it.

After a while, when I have an idea of where the character likes to hang out, I put on my reporter hat and pay them an imaginary visit, in free writing mode again. I’ll catch up with them in the woods, in a noisy bar, a parking lot, or a coffee shop, but usually it’s somewhere ‘public’. Again, it keeps up the illusion that I’m dealing with a real person, since in real life I wouldn’t meet someone in a private place like a bedroom or their home if I hardly knew them. At least, not at first!

At this stage yes/no questions work just fine for me. Even something easy like: “Are you cold?” works. Sounds simple, right? But if I get inside someone’s head, by asking, “Why?” I can find all kinds of interesting stuff that leads up to my character’s answer.

For instance, if you were in my head today, you’d know that I shivered all day at work. But if you went deeper, you’d find more. I was cold because my boss likes to crank down the air conditioning, since he thinks it will make the employees more productive, and I don’t turn the thermostat up because the more things I ask him for the less likely it will be that I get a raise.

That’s a lot of stuff going on my head for a simple question. I’ll bet a character can give a long answer like that too.

Your character might be cold because it’s dawn and all he’s had to sleep under last night is a thin blanket. He gave the thick blanket to his little sister, in exchange for an extra potato in his soup.

Or take my marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. Absolute zero is really cold, and if only it could find a way to gather enough supernovas, it could build a cozy nebula and finally settle down and start a family!

If I let the Muse field these kinds of questions, suddenly I get all kinds of interesting answers—like what is missing in my character’s lives. Before I know it, I’m dealing with another story that cries out to be written.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? What kind of questions reveal the deepest recesses of your character’s psyche?

And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

Related posts:

Black Hair, Grey Eyes

Character Interview: Rigel Mondryan

Not Nicholas

Black Hair, Grey Eyes

Have you ever done those character profiles they give you for novel planning?

All those empty boxes–hair color, height, weight, scars, eye color, hobbies– used to leave me at a loss for words. How am I supposed to know how much my characters weigh? I don’t even know how much my coworkers weigh, and I see them every day! I don’t know if my character has a scar—I haven’t seen him naked yet! I haven’t spent enough time with him yet to know what his hobbies are!

How could I possibly know all this about a character when I haven’t written him yet?

So, I wrote him. Nick Moore is the main character in my revision-in-progress, ‘The Tempest’s Serenade,’ and here’s some of what I got:

Nicholas Dylan Aronsen Moore is blessed with a physique that balances square shoulders and a strong jaw line, but it is his eyes that draw you in. If you’re unsure of your intentions his stormy stare will make you shiver, because those slate-grey eyes don’t tolerate deception. Give them the truth they crave, and you’ll be rewarded with redemption.

Dark hair veils his classic features in what seems like its never-ending quest to cover those lovely eyes and sharp nose. He hides his face, keeping his reflections to himself, and allowing them instead to pour forth from his fingers as songs on his guitar. He wears an unassuming array of black t-shirts with various dark sentiments printed upon them, alternating brand names of his favorite musical equipment with the logos of vintage rock and roll bands.

When he’s not playing his guitar, he sits very still, as if waiting for the wind to tell him its intentions, always listening for the melody inside his head.

“What? I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening,” he will ask politely if I ask a question of him. Someday I want to eavesdrop on the symphony the surely plays behind those eyes. 

His voice is authoritative, but quiet, unwavering. His words come from deep in his soul as he speaks his truth. He demands that you answer without hesitation. If you’ve been where he has, you have no patience for head games.

His hands are rarely motionless. If he must hold them still, he hides them in his pockets, trapping them like mischievous rodents that need to be kept caged to stay out of trouble. When his fingers tire of the fretboard, the cigarettes keep his hands employed, as the lighting of the flame, the twist of the burning cigarette to deposit its ashes, and the quenching of the sputtering embers, conspire to hasten his inexorable destruction.

When he touches you, he does so lightly at first, letting his fingertips explore your skin, shrinking from your heat, afraid he might draw it out of you by touching you too deeply. Once he has confidence his touch won’t hurt you, he lets his hands grasp you firmly, like a drowning man would grab a life ring with no intention of letting go until he reaches the shore.

He doesn’t wear jewelry, and has no piercings. All that metal holds no interest for him. He doesn’t wear a watch since he’s not bound to a schedule. Morning is when the sun comes up, and nights last until his eyes fall closed with exhaustion. Many times he’s fallen asleep with his guitar on his lap, his arms stretched across it as if around the waist of a sleepy child. When he wakes, he picks up where he left off, and with weary fingers, plays the melody his soul spun while he slept.

He smiles easily when he’s around his many friends, but to find him alone when he thinks no one is watching is to see who he really is. Melancholy, vigilant, pensive. The smile is his defense against the past that plagues him. He doesn’t hide from himself, but hopes to conceal his dark secret from the world, to spare it the trouble.

Now, at last, I can fill in those empty boxes!

Hair: Black

Eyes: Grey

Hobbies: Music

Philosophy: I’m living on borrowed time. Let’s make it count.

How do you come upon your character’s physical attributes? Do you have to write your characters first? Or can you fill in those character profiles like a police detective with a hot lead on a suspect?