Tag Archives: writing tips

The Perils of First Person

by Katriena Knights

Many beginning authors start their writing adventures with first person. To many beginners, it feels more natural, more immediate, and even easier. But writing in first person carries a number of stumbling blocks and dangers that aren’t as obvious in third person.

So what’s the big deal? Write in first person, and your reader will feel like they’re right in the middle of the action, right? In fact, this leads to the first peril of first person writing—keeping your protagonist in the middle of the action. Which isn’t always as easy as it might seem.

If you decide to write your story in first person, you can’t recount any events that happen while your protagonist is absent. This can cause all kinds of problems, especially with a more complex story. You should take this into account when you’re plotting your story, and be sure your main character participates fully in any major plot twists. In Twilight, Stephenie Meyer commits a major faux pas in this regard by having Bella fall unconscious during a critical moment of the story’s climax. It’s a really good way to lose your reader. Apparently this didn’t bother her jillions of readers, but it bugged the heck out of me.

Another question to ask is particularly important if you plan to write a series. Can you sustain a first-person narrative over the course of your series? This approach is common in the YA and Urban Fantasy genre, but keep it in mind as you’re constructing your initial plans and proposals.

In the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon manages to make it through nearly two massive tomes without deviating from the POV of her main character, Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser. But it’s not long before her story outgrows this POV, and Gabaldon starts dealing with the shortcomings of first person by using third person in various scenes. At first, she frames this as Jamie relating stories to Claire. But then she also needs to tell Bree and Roger’s story, and that’s when the first-person train goes completely off the rails. The bulk of Gabaldon’s epic series is told in alternating first and third person, with the only first-person sections being those told from Claire’s POV. I’m not saying it doesn’t work—it works very well in these books. But it’s a tricky thing to balance, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.

Another fairly common approach to first-person narrative is to alternate the POV characters, telling each section from a first-person perspective. This can be an effective way to explore more than one character, but there are some pitfalls here, as well. Don’t try to use too many characters—your reader is likely to get confused about whose POV she’s in. Also, it’s very important to vary the narrative voice. I’ve read some alternating first-person POV stories where the voices of the characters were virtually identical, even though one was female and one was male. This made it very difficult for me to orient myself, since there were few proper names to let me know whose head I was in.

I’m not one of those readers who’ll flat-out refuse to read a book if it’s in first person—although they do exist—but like any reader I can be pulled out of a story if the technique falls short. So when you’re considering the structure and plot for your first-person story, think about addressing some of these possible problems so you can head them off at the pass.

(By the way, this post is brought to you by my laboring over my recent WIP, the sequel to Necromancing Nim, which is written in—you guessed it—first person.)

Animals as Secondary Characters

Hi, I’m Robin D. Owens and I write fantasy romance for Berkley-Penguin-Random House (the “Heart” Series – 13 going on 14). I also write the Ghost Seer paranormal romance series for Berkley (Ghost Seer out last April, Ghost Layer recently released in September and Ghost Killer out next February). I wrote a five book series of fantasy for women (the “Summoning” series) for Luna Books.

I’m known for my animal or Familiar companions, and I’m quite sure that Zanth, the telepathic cat with attitude (redundant), sold my first book, HeartMate. Since then, in the Heart books, I’ve had kittens, cats, dogs, foxes, a raccoon and a hawk as my Fams – along with a wandering mole, etc.

In my Summoning series I have some magical beings who shapeshift into various animals. Miniature greyhounds and warhawks are the most common, though occasionally they have their catlike moments. I also have flying horses.

These characters are in the books for several reasons: mentors, friends, comic relief and occasionally under threat (they can get into trouble and some go to war). In the Summoning books, they also play a mysterious part in shaping the worlds’ events.

You might call them archetypical characters. Mentors who advise (and may have their own agendas which also make them tricksters). Friends who are there to listen or nudge or nag (so, that’s still a horse word but at least it wasn’t badger…). Comic relief: this I use quite a bit, I like my tension built, released and built again.

The Ghost Seer series has a ghost Labrador as a spirit guide and all around cheerleader.

Things to watch for when you’re writing animals. First, my cats are pretty much cats, except they are slightly more intelligent and can speak telepathically. They are self-centered, they live in the moment, they have contradictions in whatever philosophy they have but it has meaning to them at the time. They’re vain. They call all cats “Cats,” capitalized, and all dogs “dogs,” NEVER capitalized. They look down on dogs. And they negotiate payment for favors.

I try to keep my animals close to what they are here on earth, and with those limitations. My puppy in Heart Thief adores her FamWoman…and piddles on the rug. My crippled and starving Noble Hound in Heart Fate resents having to eat leftovers that a hunting cat “generously” gives him. He looks down on cats because they aren’t as loyal as dogs. The Ghost Seer dog, Enzo, is determinedly cheerful.

For research…I have cats and my ex-roomie had a puppy. I observed. There is a strategically vital place in my house and each and every one of my cats has found it and held it.

I read a lot of books on foxes and there are some in the neighborhood. Another thing, THE expert on foxes call a noise they make “chortling.” Maybe the sound is closer to chortling than the standard, well-known “barking.” If I used “chortling,” it would pull my reader from the story to think about the word which is not something associated with foxes….

The mole came in handy in a couple of the stories and a fan who liked moles and stuck the idea in my head provided critique and tips.

I have friends who have horses and I studied “natural” horsemanship, went to a horse camp (I live in the city) given by another writer who has Lipizzaners.

So, from my point of view, don’t make them too cute, or too smart, and keep them lifelike. People will love them anyway.

May all your writing dreams come true.

Pen and Paper? Are You Kidding Me????

By Mark Stevens

I recently sparked a flutter on Twitter.

I mentioned that I write by hand.

Yes, full novels—start to finish.

By hand.

I mentioned this on Twitter and I could hear virtual jaws dropping from coast to coast.

Okay, in reality, I had five or six comments along these lines: “Are you KIDDING ME??????”

I also found a few like-minded souls.

Soon, we had a club forming. Men and women of the Pen & Paper Brigade will only listen to vinyl, take pictures with film and write books by hand.

It’s the only way to go.

First, a notebook is so damn portable. No hunts for electrical outlets in the coffee shops. Trains, planes, automobiles, canoes, rocket ships. Doesn’t matter. Got a place to sit down in the woods? In the park? A mountain cabin off the grid? You’re set.

Second, that sound. I’m addicted. That faint, dull scrape of ink going on a page. It’s visceral. It’s real.

Third, less time staring at a computer screen. Don’t we all need less? And no worries about outdoor reflections, moving around so the sun is just right. When you write by hand, it’s a non-issue. Have you ever headed to the computer and waited ten minutes while updates are installed? Non-factor.

Fourth, the process slows me down. My storytelling head is slow. Fresh copy goes on the right side and then the left is open and available for inserts and new ideas.

Fifth? Well, this is kind of a stupid reason but I dig seeing the notebooks stack up. I shoot for 500 words a day. That’s it, that’s all. I try to get in five days a week of writing. It never works out exactly. Some weeks fail, others get in a groove. But I recently finished a novel in about 14 months, including uploading the darn thing to a computer. Yes, at some point there is computer involved but then it’s a solid second draft.

Here are my tools.

  1.  College-ruled, 1-subject notebooks with perforated pages, 11 inch by 8 inch. I like 100 sheets per notebook. I’m not super fussy about my notebooks, but you get the idea.
  2.  A uni ball VISION ELITE. (I think the lower-case uni ball is official and I don’t want to be disrespectful so I’m going with it.) I prefer the “bold” tip. I like blue. Black is okay. I’ve tried many other options. Nothing comes close. (Dear uni ball folks: One case may be shipped to my home address in exchange for this endorsement. Email mstevens@ecentral.com for shipping particulars.)

Any downsides? None that I know of, other than trying to decipher that gnarled-up penmanship. Man, that’s some wild stuff.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Implementing Your Conference

By Katriena Knights

Author’s Note: Several people are posting their reviews of the recent Colorado Gold conference. I decided to do something different rather than just post, “Colorado Gold was Awesome!!!1!1!!!1.” So instead I’m going to talk about ways to use all the great ideas you get at conferences without overwhelming yourself with change.

Writer’s conferences are a great way to network with other writers, learn more about your craft, and find out what’s working for whom in the world of promotion and sales. A serious writer should probably attend at least one or two a year to keep on top of the latest trends in the industry and to bump elbows with other writers who are undoubtedly experiencing the same struggles and frustrations. You can learn a ton at a good conference–sometimes enough to kick your career or the quality of your writing up to that next level.

Conferences can also be overwhelming, though. You come home filled to bursting with great ideas, but when you start trying to implement them, it’s just too much. Adding that great promotional idea takes away too much time from the manuscript you’re trying to finish, or the kick in the pants you just got about the book you’ve had on the back burner diverts your attention so you can’t focus on the manuscript you’ve got under deadline.

So how do you reconcile these conflicting needs? The best way is to break down what you’ve learned and figure out how to ease into the new routines. This way you can take advantage of what you’ve learned without derailing everything you’ve already built. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  1. Organize your notes. Look through the notes and materials you brought home from the conference. Sort out the things that got you really fired up—the ones you want to start doing immediately. Set other ideas to the side for future reference.
  2. Figure out what’s relevant. Which of these ideas address an immediate concern? Is there a promotional tool you think will prod your sales up if you use it consistently? Is there a brainstorming idea that looks like it could get you out of the writer’s block you’ve been battling on your WIP? Put those on the top of the pile.
  3. Prioritize. Figure out what makes the most sense to try right away, and what would probably fit into your routine if you leave it for a bit later. For example, if you’ve already committed to a project that has to start immediately after the conference, don’t try to start a new writing or promotional routine that will eat all the time you have for that commitment. You might even put everything aside for a few days to get other work out of the way or to let your ideas marinate.
  4. Implement one thing at a time. Don’t try to change your entire routine in a day. Ease into the new approaches. If the promotional guru you heard at the conference presented a complex posting schedule for your social media, try bumping up your posts gradually on one platform at a time rather than tackling the full schedule from day one. That way you’ll have a new routine in place right away and can build toward the final goal.
  5. Keep building. Once you feel comfortable with the new routine, add to it. Whether your goal is writing more words or posting more promo, keep moving forward incrementally. Go from a post a day to two posts a day. Go from 250 words a day to 500. If you keep moving forward, you’ll end up where you want to be, even if it takes a little longer than you’d like.
  6. Weed things out. Just because a particular method works for one writer doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. If something isn’t comfortable or doesn’t produce the results you’re after, ditch it. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong or that you’ve given up. It just means that particular approach didn’t work for you. Never be afraid to do this. Trying to struggle through a routine that you find tedious is rarely going to get you the results you want.

Working through what you’ve learned at a writers’ conference and getting those tidbits to work for you is a challenge, but in the long run it can be the best way to give your career a kick in the pants. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but don’t be afraid to take it slowly, either.

How to Grow a Novel

By Barbara Graham

Graham_MurderBySunlightProbably because I’m in the midst of trying to get my garden to produce something other than really healthy weeds, and my next book is in the formative stage, the comparison between gardening and writing a novel seemed ideal.

After all, they both start with high hopes and big plans. Each beginning I think—this will be the garden/book that won’t have “issues” like weeds, blight or repetitive phrases. The characters will be fascinating and the tomatoes won’t have blossom end rot.

Before beginning such a fabulous project, there is some studying involved. I peruse the seed catalogs and gather ideas for the best vegetables for the sunny end of the garden. Can they grow in our short season? For the book, what will the story line be and because I write mysteries, who should I kill this time? The first book in my mystery series, Murder by Serpents: The Mystery Quilt was inspired by a headline in the newspaper. It simply read, “man found dead in car.” No snakes, no other tie to the storyline. I began playing with the scenario. Why would a man be dead in his car? Any number reasons. You pick one of your own and write that book.

So, we plant a seed and soon there is a sprout. The seedlings go into the garden on the recommended date but I like to cover the tender sprouts. I often use plastic milk bottles without lids and the bottoms cut out. They form individual greenhouses. Also too tender for early exposure, ideas and characters being developed now should avoid the early critique situations. Let them get some roots and a good strong stem before hearing from the critics. Something fabulous could wither and die from early exposure to the world.

Pull the weeds and throw on some fertilizer. Add more words, maybe create a world with murderous garden gnomes. This is the waiting game. Slog through the pages adding on. Fix the dialogue. Protect it from outside intruders like deer stomping the tender leaves with their sharp hooves, making a mess, it is your world to save.

The garden is planted, out of human control, except for watering and constant weeding. Heavens, some weeds are taller than the desired plants. Every first draft of the next book, I find myself wondering “who wrote this mess?” Is that a weed or something worth keeping? Sometimes in the early stages, they look the same. There is much work to be done. Peering at the vegetation, you see emerging baby carrot tops. They look like fine parsley but sharing the same spot is some nasty broadleaf weed. The weed must be carefully extricated without killing the carrot. It is the garden equivalent of excising the wrong word in a sentence, a writers’ weed destroying the intended meaning.

Is anything worth keeping? Yes. Throw some more fertilizer in there, use better words. Plants and story are both improving at last. The plot has only a couple of small holes now, easily mended, and your hero is worthy of the name. There are small, dark green tomatoes on a plant. Green peppers on another. The potatoes plants are tall and covered with small purple flowers. There are jewels in the dirt.

One more rewrite. A walk through the garden again. The ripening tomatoes are even more gorgeous than expected. Maybe you should enter them in the county fair. Let the judges see what a real tomato smells like. As for the novel, a few more rewrites, queries and maybe a contract, all yours for the picking.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Barbara Graham began making up stories in the third grade instead of learning to multiply and divide. A native Texan, she later lived in Denver, New Orleans and East Tennessee. Inspiration for Silersville (home of her imaginary friends) comes from her Tennessee period. An unrepentant quilting addict, she lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and the spoiled dog. Her motto is “Every book needs a dead body and every bed needs a quilt.”

Her most recent book, Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt is book five in her Quilted Mystery series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quiltmaker wife, Theo. Visit Barbara at her website.

Barbara is giving away one copy of Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt to a lucky U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, September 12. The winner will be selected using random.org and the name posted here on Saturday.

Crush the Crutches

By Mark Stevens

Do you have “crutch” words?

Words you inject into your prose without thinking?

I mean, they are such great freaking words that you when you ask a reader to plow through your latest incredible best-selling novel, she comes back and says:

“Well, not bad. But did you know you used the word ethereal 187 times?”

Or (fill in the blank for your go-to word)?

Me?

Guilty as charged. I’ve got a few. They change from one piece of writing to the next.

They are words my inner brain fell in love with, most likely, decades ago.

I pull them out of the dust-covered brain cells that are my word filing system and I drop into the prose without really thinking.

(Question: Why can’t my ability-to-edit brain see the heavy repetition of my crutch words? When I read manuscripts by other writers, their crutch words jump out at me like something from Sharknado. “Did you mean to use the color ‘salmon’ on page four and page 196?”)

Which brings me to Visual Thesaurus. (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/)

Stevens_Visual ThesaurusIf you are looking, occasionally, for that little spark to kick a sentence or a paragraph in the butt—a way to give your writing voice a little inspiration—check it out.

It’s a word lover’s daily jolt of caffeine.

First, take your crutch word and enter it in the search engine. VT will give you a visual rendering of the universe in which your word lives—all its relatives, close and distant.

If you want to tweak your favorite plum word in one direction, you click on that word within the sphere (Do mean “hot” as blistering or “hot” as spicy?) Suddenly, you are charging down another path looking for the right word.

Plus, VT has daily columns about word derivations and interesting takes on word usage. A recent column looked at “anxious” versus “eager.” Knowing the difference is the kind of distinction that might give your prose more accuracy.

If you subscribe ($25 per year), you get a daily ‘word of the day’ in your email and lots of nifty/nerdy info to go with it.

As I write this, today’s word is ‘theurgy.’ (“Magic performed with the help of one—or more.”) Recent words were cheroot, caliphate and hypernym. As Visual Thesaurus says: Dog, for example, is a hypernym for dachshund, Chihuahua, and poodle. Some folks call ‘em generic terms or superordinates.

In fact, Visual Thesaurus will help you avoid hypernyms (and your damn crutches) and be as precise and fresh as possible.

Every day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Series or Standalone or The Problems of Estimating When You Don’t Outline

By Carol Berg

Carol Berg PhotoIn my published writing career, I’ve started six projects. Three of them, I intended to be standalone novels. Only one of those three stayed that way. One project I sold as a three book series and it turned out to be four. Clearly I’m not great at estimating.

My problem is that I am an organic story developer. I hate the word pantser, because to me that implies the writer doesn’t know where he or she is going. I always know where I need to start, and I always know where I’m going. My problem is, I don’t always know how many events or scenes or words it’s going to take me to get there. Nope, I don’t outline individual books or a series as a whole. I generate events and scenes as I write, because, for me, story ideas blossom as I get to know my characters and see what kind of challenges and personal interactions will drive them toward the climactic events that I want to happen.

Berg_ThreeCoversOne example: My novel Transformation was intended and sold as a standalone. I brought it to a very satisfactory ending. A true completion of the story is very important to me. Only, just about the time I sent the book off to my editor, I realized something critical about my demonic villains. The story I had told was only a piece of a much larger story arc that dealt with the identity of those demons and how that related to the identity of my hero’s people, their religion, and their single-minded pursuit of a war that took place in the physical landscape of human souls. That realization delighted me, but it also generated two additional novels that became the Books of the Rai-kirah. The single fantasy story became epic.

Three of my five “not-standalone” projects are this same kind of series. In these three series, the individual novels are separated by as little as a single day, or as many as four years. Each volume is a complete story in itself, but also a piece of a larger, continuing (epic!) story arc involving the same core of characters. Sometimes the books will have the same point of view character (like the Rai-kirah books) sometimes different ones (like the novels of the Collegia Magica).

I envisioned my Bridge of D’Arnath series as three books – and proposed and sold them on a three-page synopsis. The story centered around a disgraced noblewoman, a sorcerer/warrior who happened to have a displaced soul in his body, and the search for a kidnapped child – a child who had been brought up to believe he was evil. The third book ended when the boy was sixteen. But once I got there, the ending wasn’t right. Having sons myself, I knew that no kid, especially one who had undergone the traumatic childhood of this one, was “finished” at age sixteen. That’s where book four came from – Daughter of Ancients (NAL/Roc 2005) my first Colorado Book Award finalist. Oops!

Another project I mis-estimated was the novel Flesh and Spirit. I sold it as a standalone. But I also sold it on the basis of a single paragraph . When I was about halfway through writing it, I realized that there was no way this story would fit inside one book. I had to go back to my publisher and say, “You know this book I’m writing? It’s really two.” That is not a happy thing to say to a publisher. Fortunately, they liked it well enough to buy the second book! This became the Lighthouse Duet, a slightly different kind of epic series because it is really one big story split into two volumes. The resolution at the end of the first volume is really more of a turning point. Hey, I’m in good company. Lord of the Rings is really one big story split into three volumes, right?

Berg_DustandLightMy new series, the Sanctuary Duet is a parallel series to the Lighthouse books. I had the idea for Dust and Light (released just this month from NAL/ROC Books!) and wrote it up. Uh-oh, a paragraph! But I also wrote the first six chapters before I sent off the proposal. And this time, I told them it was going to be two books, even though I wasn’t sure the story was big enough. . . Indeed, when I reached the resolution mark of Dust and Light, there was an overarching mystery that had not yet been solved, and so I clobbered poor Lucian de Remini on the head and sailed into Book 2, Ash and Silver (NAL/Roc, August 2015). But I haven’t finished Ash and Silver yet, and there sure are lots of threads to resolve. Stay tuned…

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Carol Berg never expected to become an award-winning author. She chose to major in math at Rice University and computer science at the University of Colorado so she wouldn’t have to write papers, and ended up in a software engineering career. Now her fourteen epic fantasy novels have won national and international awards, including multiple Colorado Book Awards and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. A starred review from Publishers Weekly uses words like captivating, impressive, and perceptive about her newest novel, Dust and Light. Learn more at http://www.carolberg.com

The Effects of the Relativity of Time on Writing

By Kevin Paul Tracy

I just finished writing a particularly irksome passage in my latest project, Bloodtrail, the sequel to Bloodflow. Irksome in that the choreography and the chronology, like a pair of cranky siblings, were fighting each other and would not agree. I was having difficulty getting characters to where I needed them to be when I needed them to be there in a logical progression, without drawing the question from readers, “Wait, how did she get over there so quickly when she was all the way over here a second ago?”

TIME RELATIVITY

I was working so hard on this section for days, that when it was done, I had this distorted sense of the scene’s place in the book. Having worked on it for so long, I had this sense that the scene, which was an important one but not particularly pivotal, had become too large in the narrative, took too many pages, and was longer than other scenes in the book which were in many ways more pivotal.

So I went back and I reread the entire passage, paying close attention to page-count and the pacing of the scene in relation to other passages. I came to the realization that my concerns were unfounded. The scene was well placed within the narrative, paced on par with other scenes, and took up just as many pages as were needed, to convey the import, no more, no less.

I realized that my sense of this passage and it’s place in my story had become distorted by the amount of time and concentration I had exerted on it. Upon realizing this, it occurred to me that there have also been times when I feared I’d given a scene short shrift, and felt that I needed to flesh it out more to give it the weight and gravitas in relation to the rest of the narrative I felt it needed. Those times, when I went back, I again realized I’d been mistaken, that the scene was exactly how I had intended it to be. Once again my sense of the scene had been affected by the time it took to write it, in this case by coming together so smoothly and effortlessly that it seemed to take no time at all to write it.

And then, of course, are the bad times, when you think everything is fine, but a read through, often in critique group, brings out the glaring problem of pacing, timing, and impact in transitions from one scene to the next.

This distortion of perception is an effect of time relativity on writing. As writers, we sometimes lose perspective on the project we’re currently developing. Especially if we walk away from it for a day or more and come back. We lose the sense of continuity in the narrative because to use it isn’t a smooth, single-strand, linear process. If you have experienced this time-stretch, time-shrinkage in your own writing, you are not alone. We all encounter it.

For me, every time I sit down to write I go back and reread the prior scene. This has the effect of centering me on the pacing of what I’m doing, and of getting me back into the mood, the atmosphere, if you will, of the current project on which I’m working. I write two series: the Laine Parker Adventures (Rogue Agenda, The Lucifer Strain (pending)) are a collection of light thrillers with similar pacing and flavor to the TV show Castle or the Stephanie Plum books; while the Kathryn Desmarias Gothic Mysteries (Bloodflow, Bloodtrail (pending)) are dark, baroque, chilling tales of romantic horror on the order of Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker’s original Dracula. These two genre’s have wildly differing pacing, atmospheres, and plot progressions. I sometimes will work on them interchangeably. The only way I can do so is to reread the prior passage, to put myself into the world I’m going to be writing about, before adding additional scenes.

In short, when first-draft writing, don’t fret about time relativity and the sense that you are writing unevenly paced or balanced chapters or scenes. The important thing is to get something on the page. There will be plenty of time to even things out in rewrites, and you just might find it isn’t as uneven as you think it is.

Here Comes the Judge

By Mark Stevens

Who am I to judge? No, really?

I’ve judged the Colorado Gold contest for many years. I take on five or six entries each time around. That’s not many pieces to rate. Some judges handle dozens—and more.

Five or six entries take time—twenty pages of each novel and a three or four-page synopsis to go with it. First, I read each entry straight through and then I embed comments on the second pass.

Then, the real work: filling out the score sheet.

Is the “emotional content” a five or six?

Is the “scene craft” a four or a five?

The totals add up. The contest is designed to find unpublished writers who are worthy of the spotlight. (And, yes, years ago I entered the contest a few times. I was crushed when my scores didn’t add up.)

This year, alas, I struggled to connect. With anything. I shipped back a whole lot of misery for contestants to absorb. (I am very glad each entry receives scoring from at least two judges; I am not alone.)

So I’m here with a few humble suggestions.

  •  Keep it simple.
  •  Give me one character with a strong point of view.
  •  Show me that character’s attitude about one thing.
  •  Don’t give me blah.
  •  Or ordinary.
  •  Give me edge; risk.
  •  Convince me that the story starts on this day.
  •  Rivet me with a colorful detail. Or two.
  •  Decide why I want to spend a few hundred pages with your main character and give me one reason to engage in the first few pages.
  •  Help me see, taste, smell, touch. Make it sensory.
  •  Avoid using dialogue that is only designed to fill readers in on the background lives of the characters. (Just don’t!) This is dialogue as “info dump.” It’s deadly.
  •  But, mostly, keep it simple.
  •  Really simple.
  •  No, really.

www.writermarkstevens.com
https://www.facebook.com/AllisonCoil
@writerstevens
https://www.facebook.com/theasphaltwarrior

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Collecting People

By Liesa Malik

How many books have you read recently on building characters? Not building character—as in developing your own moral compass—but building characters that you can write about in your next novel? A quick search on Amazon recently pulled up over 100,000 titles when I searched for “books, characters in fiction.” Whew!

As commercial fiction writers we know that good characters are some of the most important ingredients to any story. Where would we be if Scrooge weren’t such a delightfully well-rounded reluctant hero?

We’ve often been instructed on how to build characters, but today I want to talk about collecting them through real life adventures. Characters are in the people all around us. If we learn to use our powers of observation, and note people continuously, our stories will have a real boost up when seeking publication.

Here are some ideas for your “collecting” process:

  • Have a place to keep your collection. This could be a spiral notebook, a file on your computer, or a binder with tabs for collecting and sorting your observations. Thing is, try to keep this collection in one place. Mobility simply gives you opportunity for losing precious work (I still have a poetry book out in Atlanta, Georgia somewhere. Grr!)
  • When you’re in a restaurant, look around. Find the most interesting or the most boring, cutest or ugliest person in the room and jot down a quick biography of him or her. So what that you don’t know them? You’re working on fiction. Pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes and note things like the way they use their flatware, whether they’re glued to their phone or are looking about, how they sit, how they chew, how they interact with the room around them. Give them a name that truly suits them. Bingo! You’ve just “collected” your first person. Here’s an extra tip. If you go to a bagel or coffee shop each morning, as I do, you’ll see the same people over and over. In the course of a week, you could build quite a lot of notes and history about your character. Pop them into your collection file. When you need that character, he or she will be ready to polish and run with.
  • Make a list of lists. Sitting around for fifteen minutes? You could play a game of Sudoku, or you could make a list of lists. Pull out your trusty notebook and jot down lists of people to remember. Start with the phrase “My favorite ___ is . . .” The favorites is a list of occupations or roles of people in your life: teachers, neighbors, relatives, movie stars and so on. At a later time you can choose one of these favorite roles and list actual people, or choose one favorite person and write about them.
  • Drive around and snap a photo of a house you’ve never been in. Okay. Got this idea from the July/August issue of Writer’s Digest, but I just love it. They didn’t say to take a photo, but what the heck? Live dangerously. You could only be accused of stalking, prowling, or “casing the joint.” Once you have the photo or a clear image of the house, write down the story behind it and the people who live there. Bonus! You’re learning to describe setting as well as build characters.
  • Be a busy body. Whenever I go to get a haircut or chat with someone on my street, inevitably people tell me stories from their lives about relatives I’ll never meet, or bosses who only get worse with each retelling. When I get home I try to jot down at least part of my friends’ story. It’s good for building a character. One word of caution. When it comes time to retell any true tale, try to change something significant about the person gossiped over. I mark these notes with a phrase like “true recollection” and the name of who told me this, so that I know how much needs to be changed around.

This is such a fun topic that I could brainstorm all day with you. Bet you have some great ideas too. Why not comment here and let everyone know your best character-collecting tip?

Or join me this Saturday at the Lakewood Art Council’s Art Gallery, 85 S. Union Street (behind the Wendy’s) from 1:00 to 2:30. I’ll be talking about repurposing books into arts and crafts and signing my book, Faith on the Rocks. Bet the place will be full of characters.