Tag Archives: Writing Craft

Writing the Gender-Flipped Character

By Susan Spann

Good fiction requires both male and female characters, and every author needs to learn to write both types convincingly in order to put a compelling cast on the page.

Few authors have experience living as both a male and a female. Most of us are only dealt one hand of gender-cards. The trick, as an author, is learning to how to peek at what the other side is holding (pun intended). Successful authors, like successful gamblers, often cheat.

My shinobi mysteries features dual protagonists, neither of whom is female. However, I was born with "indoor plumbing" -- facts which, taken together, create a conundrum:

How can a woman write a book from a man's perspective? And, for other authors...How can a man see life through a woman’s eyes?

Pervasive gender stereotypes and snide remarks aside, it’s not only possible to write from the other gender’s perspective … authors can do it very well, with a little time and practice.

Here are some tips for writing from the “other plumbing’s POV":

1.  Character first, gender second. Trying to write “like a man" or to "sound like a woman” will get you in hot water, no matter which direction the gender flip is rolling. Instead, consider your characters as if they were real people. Learn as much about them as you can—personality, backstory (most which doesn’t make it into the novel), likes/dislikes, phobias--everything a "real" person needs to become a unique individual. The more well-rounded your characters become, the more convincing they’ll be—regardless of gender.

2. "The Ability to Speak Does Not Make You Intelligent.” (Bonus points for those who can identify the quote.) Dialogue is key to gender differentiation. Men and women speak differently. Many of those differences relate more to personality than to gender, though gender also plays a role. Men and women both speak referentially, but references differ according to gender, personality, personal preferences, and experience. An athlete doesn't sound like a stripper, and neither of them will sound like a ballet dancer, male OR female.

Statistically speaking, more men than women will recognize the quote that leads this paragraph* because the “sci-fi/gamer” contingency contains more men than women. That said, many of my female friends would know the quote immediately. That's the circle in which I run...and it points out another important facet of gender-swap in writing: don't let your preconceptions about gender control your writing. Investigate how the other half really lives. 

3. Tell Me About Your Feelings. Men and women often express emotion differently. My ninja detective, Hiro Hattori, considers his feelings only rarely, and almost never discusses them. By contrast, many of my female characters express emotion with less reserve. (Ironically, the era in which I write--medieval Japan--results in far less emotional display by both genders than you might see in a modern novel--once again, research trumps preconception.) Beware of stereotypes, and individuals do differ, but as a rule men spend less time discussing emotions, especially when talking with other men. Women (again...as a rule) relate better to emotional topics and tend to discuss them in more detail.

4. Observe. Listen. Take Notes. And Share it on Social Media. OK, maybe not the last bit, but the rest of this is important. Listen to conversations in public places. Watch how people interact. Pay special attention to the "other gender," especially when the people in question are similar to the characters you're writing. Watch the way they stand, the way they gesture, the way they move. Pay attention to word choice and rhythm when they speak. People act most naturally when they don’t think anyone is watching, so try to observe without being noticed...or arrested. Note: STALKING IS BAD, MMMKAY? Police mug shots look really bad on the inside cover of novels.

5. Cheat. Find a beta reader and a critique partner of the opposite gender. (Note: that's two different people, not just one.) The beta reader should simply read, without editing the manuscript, and tell you whether the characters of his or her gender sound like "real" people. Critique partners should read and also offer edits or suggestions. Both are important, because they will notice different things. Tell them you want to know if anything sounds wrong or out of place … and then pay attention to what they tell you.

My now-adult son acts as my alpha reader for every novel, and I also have a male critique partner. Trust me when I tell you that nothing—NOTHING—critiques your work as bluntly as a college-age male. (My critique partner is far more polite about telling me something's amiss.) However, I can rely on them both, and if Hiro or Father Mateo says or does something "wrong" I can count on one or both of them telling me: “No guy in his position would say that. EVER.”

Note taken. Revision made.

One of the most difficult parts of writing gender-flipped characters is avoiding stereotyping (it’s hard to do, even--or maybe especially--in posts like this). Knowing what men like, and how they act, helps woman write the male POV, and the opposite is true for males writing inside a female mind. (To whom I say...God help you all.)

What helps you write from the other gender's perspective?

Susan SpannSusan Spann is a California transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. She also writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, will release in July 2015. When not writing or practicing law, Susan raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her online at her website (http://www.SusanSpann.com), on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

The End: Bringing Your Novel to a Close

There’s a lot of emphasis put on story beginnings as well as its muddy middle, but what about the end? I think the topic deserves more consideration.

Every book has a beginning, a middle and an end. The beginning must be engaging enough to hook the reader, and the middle has to hold your audience’s attention until the end. It would be awful for a reader to stay with the story all the way through and then be disappointed by how it ended.

The goal is for your book to leave a lasting impression. We want readers to close our books with a sigh and jump online to search for another book we’ve written. How the story ends is a direct reflection on an author’s skills as a storyteller.

What do we know about endings? First off, we know there are four ways to end a story.

Happily Ever After – A happy ending fulfills the promise made by the author to a romance reader because that’s what’s expected. The audience has stayed with the hero and heroine for a few hundred pages, witnessed the couple’s trials and tribulations. The romance reader’s prize is the reward of a blissful union, possibly marriage or at least an allusion to one. That’s why they read romance. They want to see good things happen to good people they’ve come to care about.

Romance isn’t the only genre that works well with a happy ending. Many genres have stories about characters that grow and achieve their goals so they can be rewarded for their efforts. In a mystery, the bad guy is brought to justice. In women’s fiction and a lot of commercial mainstream fiction, the story concludes with happy characters that rejoice in the favorable outcome of their journey.

Satisfying Ending – This can also be considered the “happy for now” ending. When the story reaches the final page, it’s not all sunbeams and rainbows. The main character is relatively pleased with the outcome, at least for the time being. He may have had to sacrifice something to reach his goal. Maybe someone dies in order for another character to live, or the character had to lose his job or wealth or title to achieve his objective. It wasn’t what he wished for, but he knows it was inevitable for the greater good.

Any genre can have a satisfying ending that’s not necessarily “happy.” But plot problems have been resolved, all questions answered, and readers are left feeling hopeful that a better life for the character or characters is on the horizon.

Cliffhanger – You can expect a cliffhanger at the end of a serial or a series book, however the central story question has already been answered. A mystery is solved, a romance engaged, a war won, a world conquered, a throne claimed... But somewhere along the line a subplot came up that hasn’t been resolved by the last page. Hints are left at the end to let the reader know to expect something more in the next installment.

The important thing to remember about cliffhangers is that neither cliff or hanger suddenly appears on page 351 of a 352 page book. It’s an established plot line that came up earlier in the story. Maybe the king’s illegitimate son was kidnapped twenty years before the story ends, and the last chapter alludes to the boy’s return as usurper. Or what if, at the end of a romance, the hero’s brother comes home injured from his last tour in Afghanistan and hits it off with the heroine’s sister, who just enlisted in the military. We know something is bound to happen with these characters, and we hope to read about it in the next book.

Unresolved Ending – Or what I consider the ambiguous ending. Can you tell I’m not a fan? Some readers enjoy being left to ponder what might happen now that the story is officially over without a conclusion. It’s left up to their imagination.

I can see the literary appeal of this sort of ending. Maybe the final note is a shocking event the reader wasn’t expecting. Or it ends with no one getting what they wanted, or there’s no foreseeable future for any of the characters, or not only is justice not served, but the antagonist comes out the winner. This could also be referred to as the unhappy ending. It’s kind of like one of those write-your-own-ending type of stories. It makes me think the last chapter was accidentally, or purposely, left out of the book. Nope, not a fan.

Should you plan your ending before you start writing your book? I think it’s a good idea to know where your characters will end up by the last page because that can help you figure out the middle and plan your character arcs. Synopsis writing is helpful for this.

What type of ending is right for your story?

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Karen DuvallKaren Duvall is an award-winning author with 5 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing under the pen name Cory Dale, she released the first book in a new urban fantasy series, Demon Fare, in December 2014.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com/

http://www.karenduvall.blogspot.com

https://twitter.com/KarenDuvall

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/405199.Karen_Duvall

http://www.facebook.com/Karen.Duvall.Author

 

Your Character’s Loss is Your Gain

Let’s talk about character and plot for a minute, and how one can’t exist without the other. Everything that happens in the plot forces your character to react, and your character’s reaction impacts what goes on in the plot. This creates a connected string of events that lead to the story’s ultimate conclusion.

Action/reaction. Time and again. Do you think this constant interplay could get repetitive? It can if it’s strictly played out on the story’s surface. That’s why every good novel has two kinds of plots running parallel to each other. I’m not talking about secondary plots, which are also vital to a multi-layered story, but about the all-important A and B story-lines.

But let’s not call them A and B because it’s too easy to get them mixed up. An A plot in a mystery novel might be the B plot in a romance. So get rid of those labels right now and call them what they are: the External Plot (EP) and the Internal Plot (IP).

The EP—as you’ve already guessed—is the conceptual plot for your genre story. It’s catching the murderer in the mystery, taking down the drug cartel in a thriller, finding the secret talisman in the fantasy, saving planet Zignog from obliteration by asteroids in the science fiction novel, etc. Metaphorically speaking, it’s that giant rollercoaster the characters will ride for 400 pages. The external plot is the tactile, the visible, the elephant in the living room. It’s the plot that gets in your face.

The IP, on the other hand, is all about the character and his inner story, his inner drive. It’s the plot that focuses on what he has to lose if he doesn’t get what he wants from the EP. It’s not so much about him avoiding taking a bullet while in pursuit of the murderer, but about what’s personally and emotionally at stake for him if he doesn’t accomplish what he sets out to do. The IP is what drives the emotions in your character and in your readers. The IP is what compels your reader to turn the page. In fact, depending on your story, it might behoove you to put greater emphasis on the IP than the EP because on a subconscious level, that’s what readers really want anyway.

Let’s look at an example of what happens when the EP and IP are braided together starting from page one. There are many great novels like this, but a recent bestseller comes first to my mind because I just finished reading it: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. If you read it, you either think it’s brilliant or the most manipulative piece of crap on the planet, but the one thing it doesn’t fail to do is make you feel something. Passionately.

I, for one, adored this book. I loved the articulate writing and the honest voice, I thought the stylistic treatments were brilliant, and the unreliable narrator kept me on my toes. My point is that the entire book, love it or hate it, mashes the EP and IP so closely together that it’s hard to tell them apart.

Another book that might be a better example from a commercial fiction standpoint is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It’s a violent, emotionally gripping story that keeps the IP for Katniss completely meshed with the EP of the game and its puppet masters. A gripping read by many accounts, but again it’s something you either love or hate. There’s rarely a lukewarm consensus for a truly great novel.

The most common question asked of a story is: What does your character want and why can’t he have it? That’s a decent starting point, but if you really want to dig your heels into the guts of your story, ask your character what he has to lose. His answer is far more compelling to your reader. Braid this with your EP and I can almost guarantee you’ll end up with a better book.

So what books have you read that you feel have an equally compelling EP and IP?

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Karen Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series in 2011 and 2012, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing under the pen name Cory Dale, she recenly released the first book in a new urban fantasy series, Demon Fare.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com/
http://www.karenduvall.blogspot.com
https://twitter.com/KarenDuvall
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/405199.Karen_Duvall
http://www.facebook.com/Karen.Duvall.Author

 

Write Deliberate Dialogue

By Karen Duvall

We’re deliberate about everything we write, so why should dialogue be any different?

Here’s the thing: Remember when you wrote your first story? As soon as your characters started talking it became a “wow” moment. The words flew onto the page as if your fictional people had taken on a life of their own. They’d become like real people having real conversations. Writing dialogue was (and still is) fun and you considered it your strongest writing skill. Perhaps you still do.

Writing down those conversations was the easiest thing in the world, and we were damn good at it. How could we not be? We talk to our friends, our spouses, our kids, the neighbors, the clerk at the grocery store… We know how to talk because we talk all the time. So writing dialogue is the most natural skill ever.

And then we discover it’s not as easy as we thought.

There is a skill to writing dialogue and I think it’s one we improve with practice. Lots of practice. It’s not just about ditching the dreaded speaker tags, or using “beats” to create natural pauses and add character actions to conversations that bring them to life.

There’s also planning involved. Which is what I mean by deliberate.

Most of us started out writing by instinct, probably because we’ve read so much over the years that some aspects of the writing craft were absorbed by our subconscious. This could also be why we assume writing dialogue is so easy. It feels easy. Planning it, however, takes more thought.

I recall one of the first lessons in dialogue I ever learned was more about what not to do than what should be done. First rule: don’t be boring. In other words, don't write a conversation like this:

“Hi, Mary,” John said. “How are you today?”

“I’m fine,” Mary said. “How about yourself?”

“I have a cold,” John said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Mary said.

Yeah, pretty bad. But what makes it bad? Well, for one thing, their conversation isn’t going anywhere. It’s not adding anything of value to the scene and it’s not revealing anything about the characters other than John having a cold. Big woop. If it were Ebola, maybe we’d have something there, but even then, it’s the presentation of this bland conversation that gives it a D-. Point is, this is not the kind of dialogue you want in your story.

Let’s say it’s important to establish these two characters greeting each other. It’s pivotal to the plot. Things can’t progress without Mary and John saying hello and confirming he has a cold. It’s a short greeting that has purpose. So if the conversation is going to be boring, do we have to use it? What other choice do we have?

Here is where being deliberate comes in. There are two kinds of dialogue: direct and indirect. Most of the time you want to use direct dialogue to show the characters interacting. You want to see them in action, hear their voices. But when the action isn’t important, or the details are superfluous, you use indirect dialogue. Basically, it’s a summary of the conversation.

It seems like such a simple thing, but how often do we run our characters off at the mouth only to discover what they had to say wasn’t any big deal. The big deal was for them to speak to each other. The precise content of the conversation itself isn’t important.

We can do this one of two ways, either of which is far more interesting than a he said/she said conversation. With indirect dialogue, you summarize the conversation in narrative:

I saw John yesterday and he actually said hi to me. I couldn’t believe it. We hadn’t spoken in weeks, then suddenly it’s like the fight we’d had in the store never even happened. And you know what? He looked like crap. Said he had a cold. I hope it’s mono.

Now you’ve skipped the boring part, went straight to the meat of the conversation, and added character development to boot.

Your second choice is to summarize the dialogue within direct dialogue:

John curled his lip in a snarl. “Yeah, I saw Mary. She tried to ignore me, but I refuse to stoop to her level. I said hello. Sure, she said hello back, but in that snotty way of hers, acting all high and mighty. I may be sick as a dog, but at least I have manners. More than I can say for her.”

Boring? No. There’s conflict here. We didn’t need John and Mary to have a conversation on stage, though they could have had one, depending on the needs of the plot. Sometimes you have to move quickly from one scene to the next so that you can get to the important part. The tense greeting between Mary and John is the propellant that ignited whatever flame scorches the root of their conflict. That conflict is more important than the boring banter we skipped to get to the juicy bits.

So be deliberate with your dialogue. Make decisions about what needs details and what can be summed up in fewer words. Then have fun writing it.

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Karen DuvallKaren Duvall is an award-winning author with 4 published novels and 2 novellas. Harlequin Luna published her Knight’s Curse series last year, and her post apocalyptic novella, Sun Storm, was released in Luna’s ‘Til The World Ends anthology in January 2013.

Karen lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and four incredibly spoiled pets. Writing as Cory Dale, Karen's latest urban fantasy, DEMON FARE, will release December 15, 2014.

http://www.karenduvallauthor.com

Beware of the False Hook

By Tiffany Lawson Inman

What do most writing craft books say about openings?

A lot of don’ts and dos.

Am I right?

  • Don’t use a lot of description.
  • Don’t open with back story.
  • Do try and start with action.
  • Do introduce the story theme and problem.
  • Do establish character and setting.
  • Do excite your reader.
  • Do show the promise of your novel in the first sentence, in the first paragraph.
  • Oh yeah…and DO hook your reader.

Hook your reader.

Hook your reader, HOOK YOUR READER!

All are true. All are dangerous. Why? Because everything rests on the HOOK!

E V E R Y T H I N G. Writers work their butts off on the beginning of their novels!

Or they should.

What happens after the first hook line? There should be a hooking paragraph. A hooking chapter. But that is not always the case.

How many of you have read a false hook? Loved the first line or paragraph, and then the book goes downhill. Such a disappointment. We don’t want a bunch of marketing tactics drawing your reader in for one bite, when the rest of the meal tastes less than good. It sullies our reputation as storytellers.

Writers should be hooking their readers through the entire novel. Raising questions. Little and big. Keep them turning the pages.

How to avoid the false hook? Look at more than what you are saying. Also look at how you are saying it. The tone.

You need to show the promise of your novel with what is going to happen and how the story will be told. They go hand in hand. The how is your needle, the what is your thread. Can’t have one without the other. Readers don’t want a great story that is written poorly. Nor do readers want a crappy story that was written beautifully.

Let’s look at how NY Times Bestselling author, Harlan Coben uses his needle and thread. Below are his first two of paragraphs of Tell No One in either the right order, or the wrong order.

Which one is the first paragraph? Does one have more or less promise than the other? **********You better not cheat. Don’t run and get your copy, or look on your Kindle.

Look at his writing.

Tone

Quality

What else?

The third piece to a solid hook: Reader questions. There are questions on top of questions on top of questions. Egging the reader to turn the first page and melt into this man’s world.

Paragraph A :

There should have been a dark whisper in the wind. Or maybe a deep chill in the bone. Something. An ethereal song only Elizabeth or I could hear. A tightness in the air. Some textbook premonition. There are misfortunes we almost expect in life—what happened to my parents, for example—and then there are other dark moments, moments of sudden violence, that alter everything. There was my life before the tragedy. There is my life now. The two have painfully little in common.

Paragraph B :

Elizabeth was quiet for our anniversary drive, but that was hardly unusual. Even as a young girl, she’d possessed this unpredictable melancholy streak. She’d go quiet and drift into either deep contemplation of a deep funk, I never knew which. Part of the mystery, I guess, but for the first time, I could feel a chasm between us. Our relationship had survived so much. I wondered if it could survive the truth. Or for that matter, the unspoken lies.

OOOOh I got the chills!

Are you turning the page for more? Yes you are.

He has given us over 20 questions in 163 words. And his tone? The intensity of his tone is one wave after another moving us further into his story.

It is always taught in speech writing classes: you tell the audience the same information three times in the course of an informational speech. It takes three times for your reading audience to really get what you are saying. Well. Harlan does it 20 times in the first two paragraphs. He wants us to listen and keep listening.

What is the difference between Harlan Coben’s novels and an unknown suspense thriller that has just been passed over in the submission pile? He uses the what, and the how, very well. And the tone he uses is a question in itself.

But, the biggest difference: Harlan keeps his answers close to his heart. He lets go of information in a deliciously suspenseful way.

A crumb here, a morsel there.

And he does not let go of those nuggets until after the reader has met the wondering threshold.

It is true.Timing is everything.

Harlan has excelled at the art of threading his hook through every moment of his Bestselling novels.

Look at your WIP.

  • How far does your hook get you?
  • How can you work in the concept of needle and thread?
  • When do you start giving up those precious answers?
  • Open to a page in Chapter 18, is the reader still asking questions?

Thank you so much for reading today!  Next month I will give you a bit more meat in the world of writing-craft-know-how, today was just a sample.

Do you have a favorite author that has a knack for threading a hook?   Let's chat about it in the comments! I will be teaching online this summer and I will be giving a class away to one of the brave writers in the comments section. So don't be shy, say "Hi!"

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Tiffany Lawson Inman claimed a higher education at Columbia College Chicago. There, she learned to use body and mind together for action scenes, character emotion, and dramatic story development. Tiffany’s background in theatre provides her with a unique approach to the craft of writing, and her clients and students greatly benefit.

She teaches Action and Fighting, Choreography, Active Setting, Emotional Impact, Scene Writing, and Dialogue for Lawson Writer’s Academy online, presents hands-on-action workshops, and will be offering webinars in  late 2014.

As a freelance editor, she provides deep story analysis, content editing, line by line, and dramatic fiction editing services. Stay tuned to Twitter @NakedEditor for Tiffany’s upcoming guest blogs around the internet, classes, contests, and lecture packets.

Check out her previous blogs on WITS.