Archive for the ‘writing tips’ Category

Character Relationships   Leave a comment

Image result for image of character interactionCharacter building is a crucial step in the creative writing process. If you tend to be a plot-driven writer, you may become too focused on creating and developing isolated character profiles and overlook one of the most crucial aspects of character-building: the relationships that exist between these characters. Yet, it is the interconnectedness of characters that provides the framework for fictional society. A fictional world would collapse if not for the networks of people and creatures who hold it up.

Writing believable character relationships requires some thought about how real relationships work. What motivates people to interact harmoniously or to be confrontational? How do those interactions take place?

The best characterizations come from observing actual human interactions. People are very distinctive and these differences form the attraction that draws us together and forms lasting bonds.

Authentic dialogue can divulge a wealth of information about the character’s personality and feelings towards another character. It is a way of bringing the malleable relationships between these characters to life. Unless you’ve trapped your characters in an elevator or a cross-country car ride, avoid information dump dialogue. You just don’t need to tell your readers so much about a character in a huge slug. Moreover, you also should try to recreate verbal interactions from real life down to its finest details. Readers want authentic dialogue, but the dialogue should always play a role in developing plot, characters or character relationships.

Aim to write dialogue that is purposeful. Think of dialogue that incorporate actions (whether it be a lingering glance or a re-adjusting of the collar) or dialogue that intrigues the reader and prompts questions.

 

To a certain extent, it is hard to write characters who are not based on people you know. While you don’t want to suck your friends into your make-believe world, you can borrow their habits, worldviews, and politics. Even better is if you can find something ironic in that person’s character, you can create a truly believable character. For instance, an outwardly cynical person who has a hidden tenderness — for cats or birds, for example — is much more believable because nobody is completely consistent in all of their ways.

Character relationships lacking tension can feel flat and one-dimensional. Characters shouldn’t be constantly fighting each other — even enemies sometimes find common ground, but no two people can interact without their flaws occasionally causing conflict with those around them.

Ah, flaws! We wish we could write perfect human beings, but they’re so boring. A character who is slow to trust others romantically might have had a damaging romantic experience in his past. This allows you to leak some backstory into your character’s interactions in the plot of the novel. Character traits that impact individuals and the people around them negatively also create tension.

 

 

Even characters who are similar should have traits that cause friction in some situations. Right now, I’m writing characters in Transformation Project who see things differently from one another when it comes to handling food distribution. Will they come to a compromise or will they fail to prepare for coming martial law because they can’t agree?

Just as the plot of a novel should show development, so should character relationships. While some relationships may be fairly fixed, primary intimate relations should ebb, flow and change. In journalism, we ask 5 “w” questions that can be used to tweak character relationships. “Who, what, why, where and when”.

By tweaking the 5 W’s you can explore the cause and effect and make sure that any momentous change reverberates through your characters’ primary relationships. You should resist the temptation for characters to instantly like each other because that skips the interesting parts of getting to know each other. The problem with characters instantly liking each other is that this skips the interesting elements of character introductions. You can create curiosity and narrative tension out of the fact each character is still somewhat unknown to the other.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that two characters feel instant physical attraction, but building connection through multiple encounters makes this attraction feel earned. This creates curiosity for the reader and provides a means of narrative tension.

Jazz thinks Shane is sexy, but she also knows he’s dangerous and that isn’t attractive for her. While his gentle moments compel her, she is repelled by his anger and secretiveness. Will something change later? I’m not telling except to say that other men are much more interested in her than Shane is currently. He seems very determined to remain single, even though he admits Jazz makes him warm.

Know your characters inside out. Know things you don’t share with the reader. It’s easier to create believable relationships when you have a multi-dimensional understanding of each of your characters. Note essential facts about each character, even if many won’t get mentioned in your story. Knowing more about each character than you’ll need in the final story will keep characters vivid in your mind’s eye. This will translate to the page, especially when you describe character relationships and are able to bring in your characters’ most crucial attributes and differences.

Literature is replete with believable, engrossing, developing relationships. If a specific type of character relationship is central to your story (such as a life-altering friendship or romance), find books where these feature and make a summary of the course of the relationship. Take notes on characters’ first interactions and their last. Take notes too on any disagreements in the course of the book and why they arise. How do the characters’ personalities complement each other? What differences created the conflicts.”They have history”. Three words that explain the air of distance and awkwardness lingering between two individuals. It’s important to remember that your characters have a history that often transcends the boundaries of the story at hand.

“They have history”. Three words that explain the air of distance and awkwardness lingering between two individuals. It’s important to remember that your characters have a history that often transcends the boundaries of the story at hand.sk yourself, how do your characters’ pasts intertwine with one another?

In Transformation Project, Shane is returning home after being gone for a long time, during which his former girlfriend married his brother. There’s still feelings between these two now-grown teen lovers, but there’s also this new dynamic because Cai is involved in the relationship. Meanwhile, Jazz (and others) have come into Shane’s life to draw his feelings in another direction. Even though Transformation Project is not a romance, I use these tensions to make the character interactions more interesting, more like real life in a small town. I mined some interactions from a small Alaska town from 30 years ago, so I know the intertwined relationships between the two brothers and Marnie are authentic.

It sets up my readers to ask the “why” question. What happened to make Shane so closed off? Why doesn’t he still love the woman he was entranced with for seven years? Once the questions are out there floating in the minds of the reader, I gradually interweave some backstory into my tale.

Remember, relevant backstory is a finite resource. Don’t blow your wad too soon in your story. You don’t want to use up your resource. Just tease enough to keep your readers engaged.

Character motivation directly stems from character backstory. You should explore the ways backstory causes characters to clash, but you should also explore their disparate motivations and examine the potential conflicts that may arise.

Ask yourself, how do the drives and standpoints of each character differ? If a group of people in your story are working together, but end up having vastly conflicting final goals, how will this damage their ability to cooperate?

Discover what motivates your characters, then examine the ways in which those motivations support or undermine each other.

Character evolution is the key to any good story. Sometimes your protagonist is changing the world and other times he’s the one doing t he changing. Character arcs are ultimately the whole point of fiction. The plot is merely a backdrop to what the characters are doing.

Moreover, examine not only how each character progresses through their journey, but also how those journeys intertwine with one another.

Consider how changes in one character’s mindset impact their interactions with other characters. Explore how dynamics between different characters shift over time because of such changes.

Perhaps two sworn enemies become friends when they realize that they have more in common than they thought. Perhaps these two friends revert back to being enemies when an act of betrayal breaks their trust in one another and consequently forces them apart.

Ask yourself: What lessons do the characters (and the reader) learn from each of those encounters? How do their encounters with other characters shape their own transformations as a person?

Don’t ignore your minor characters. Though less prominent than your major characters, they still play a vital role because they ensure the integrity of your novel or piece of fiction. The exchanges that occur between them may be slight, subtle and seemingly trivial, yet these small exchanges become necessary nuances in your story.

If your story world is a lattice, then the minor characters are the final strips of wood that lock everything into place and ensure the overall structure’s cohesion. The purpose of minor characters for the reader is not to know their stories; it’s to know that they each have a story, to know that they are as much a part of the story world as your major characters.

So let every encounter between your characters be important. Remember that it’s when you as the writer understand the significance of character relationships that you are able to most profoundly understand the characters themselves.

It’s time to get writing and get exploring! A world of meaningful character interactions awaits.

World Building 101   Leave a comment

Have you ever wondered how the speculative fiction greats created their realistic fantasy worlds? Me, too.

Yes, I’m a fantasy author, but I stand in awe of writers like JRR Tolkein, Katharine Kerry, Brandon Sanderson and Kate Elliott in their ability to make the magical seem real.

Some of them have been kind enough to blog about how they do it and I have learned a lot from that, which I now pass on to you.

The world we live in is magical. You may not realize that because it seems to familiar, but creating a fantasy world means building a world based upon reality and making sure that the reader knows the rules of that world. For readers to accept and continue to read a story, the write must make them believe in the world the characters inhabit. Characters must remain true to the rules of that world throughout the story for readers to accept what is happening to them.

  1. R. R. Tolkien depicted Middle Earth as a world so real that it has become a classic upon which so many others are based. Tolkien created Middle-earth, the lovable hobbits, the psychic elves and the irrepressible dwarves with incredible description and attention to details. The story contains all the elements of a traditional fantasy — a bumbling hero, an enchanted talisman, dark magic versus the good wizard, and an quest. It’s the gold standard in fantasy fiction.

How to attain something similar in your own writing? It’s not magic. I know I don’t have a wand. I did, however, study about how the greats created worlds their readers readily accepted.

The setting must be believable.

  • Characters should dress appropriately for the period and culture.
  • Weapons must be appropriate to the world.
  • If magic is involved, the writer should define the rules of magic and stick with them throughout their tale.

That looks like a perfect table of contents for a series, so see you next week.

The Agony of Criticism   Leave a comment

Willow Branch Blue White Recreation CoverThere are writers and there are authors. Unlike some in the publishing field, I am not convinced that all that separates a writer from becoming an author is publishing a book. I think some unpublished writers are authors in progress while some published writers will never be authors.

It’s a painful truth, but one does not simply sit down and write a good novel. There’s research, there’s writing, there’s rewriting and editing … and more than anything else, there is critique.

How you accept critique is part of what separates writers and authors.

I’ve been scribbling stories since I was 12. I had some critique on my fiction in high school from my teachers, but for most of the decades between then and publishing my first novel I was writing fiction for my own amazement. Then I decided I really wanted to advance a book to publication and I started to submit it to friends to read.

I guess my friends love me. They all said pretty glowing things about the manuscript that would become the seedbed for Daermad Cycle. Somehow I knew that wasn’t completely honest. I went one step further and submitted it to the writers site Authonomy. Mostly I got good reviews and that felt a little bit more honest because these people didn’t know me. Some of the reviewers gave minor critique — moves a bit slowly, takes a long time to get to the point, it’s awfully long — but I wasn’t really sure what to do with that critique.

Then it happened. Somehow I attracted the attention of a notorious misanthrope on the site and he (or that iteration was a she, I think) decided to critique my book.

If you’ve never been run over by a Mac truck, I don’t recommend it.

I knew this was a mean, mean person, but her words bit deep. She (or he) really hated my book. Worse, though a truly miserable human being, this person was also a great writer.

There are three ways to handle that sort of critique:

  • throw the project in the trash bin where the critic suggested … thereby proving that you’re a writer and not an author in progress;
  • ignore the critique and keep the project as it is … also suggesting that you may not be an author in progress;
  • learn from the critique what is worth learning.

The author in progress does the third thing. After I got done being mad and sad in cycles, I resolved to come back to the critique in a while (that turned out to be three months) and mine it for what was worthwhile. Because this person had a history of being deleted from the site, I printed out the critique and put it away for later consumption. In the meantime, more nicer reviews came in that sort of agreed (in a nice way) with the mean review. I recognized that this mean critic had given me solid advice in a truly despicable manner and her critique was really not substantially different from the more soft-soap critique of the nicer reviews. He was brutally honest and that was exactly what I needed.

I went back to the book and applied the critique in a reasonable manner. I broke the manuscript into smaller more manageable portions (thereby creating a series, which is almost never a bad thing in epic fantasy). I was honest about how slow it was and I resolved to change that. I included death and mayhem much earlier than I was comfortable with. I excised the info dumps and limited the beautifully detailed descriptions I like. I added more complex characters, including some actual bad guys. And I got a better book, which got better reviews, but I also gained the confidence to pick a date to publish. You see, buried in that really mean review, was a off-hand statement that I had to mull for a long while and when I came back to it after the rewrite of the book that would become The Willow Branch, Book 1 of the Daermad Cycle, I realized that it was a very subtle compliment. Nasty guy actually thought there was a kernal of something in the book worth saving.

But if I’d done what I thought he was advising — burn the manuscript, eat dirt and die — I never would have come to that realization and either one of two things would have happened. Either The Willow Branch never would have been published or … I shudder to think this — the book entitled that would have been a mediocre book that should not have been published.

One of the major things separating writers from authors in progress is how they handle critique. All critique is useful to those who are willing to use it.

Lela Markham is the author of two published books The Willow Branch (Book 1 of Daermad Cycle), an epic fantasy, and Life As We Knew It (Book 1 of Transformation Project), an apocalyptic headed toward dystopian.

Where Does a Writer Start?   Leave a comment

They say the best place to begin is the beginning.

I’m writing my first short story in 25 years. I used to write short stories often and even had a few published in smallish Alaskan anthologies that no longer exist, but a quarter century is a long time not to use a set of muscles.

So where to begin? Over the years, my short stories have become novels and I write novels by the discovery method. I’m a good way into the narrative before I decide how it will end and then I draft some plot points to get to the ending. I then go back and rewrite to correct all the inconsistencies left in the wake of a discovery writer’s pen.

I don’t have that kind of time or space in a short story of 10,000 words due in August.

Where do I start? I’m a character-based writer, so for me there is no story until a character presents himself, but this story will be a stand-alone companion within the larger universe of the Daermad Cycle where there are abundant characters for the choosing. 10,000 words is a daunting limit I’ve grown unused to. Suddenly that blank computer screen intimidated. I think I know what brand new writers must feel.

Where to begin? Gulp! Uh…. Wow, that sure is a blank screen!

I have a lot of writing heroes, but when it comes to shorts, Ernest Hemingway ranks near the top. What former journalist can resist those succinct yet eloquent sentences? In his book A Moveable Feast, Hemingway recommends that I find “one true sentence” that is the message of the short. It’s the truth, the controlling idea, what I want the reader to come away from the story believing.  What idea do I believe that I would I want to grab the world by its metaphorical shoulders and shake my readers until they listen?

I wrote that down on the computer screen and other words followed. While plotting my draft to reach that statement, I realized that it is one of the overarching themes of the Daermad Cycle. I’ve been following Hemingway’s advice (read decades ago and just rediscovered in time of need) without realizing it.

If you are a new writer just starting out, the blank screen (or paper) is intimidating. The good news is that you probably aren’t writing to a deadline. You can afford to write a mediocre short or even a novel with no ending because you haven’t made any promises to other people. That gives you time to experiment, discover and explore. Consider entertaining Hemingway’s advice. Find a statement you really want to make and try writing to demonstrate that truth, to express and then prove that central idea through the narrative structure of the story. Present the truest thought you can conceive of without resorting to explanation.

By just writing that one sentence you overcome the hardest part of writing – getting started.

Lela Markham, author of The Willow Branch and Life As We Knew It.

Agony of Criticism   Leave a comment

There are writers and there are authors. Unlike some in the publishing field, I am not convinced that all that separates a writer from becoming an author is publishing a book. I think some unpublished writers are authors in progress while some published writers will never be authors.

It’s a painful truth, but one does not simply sit down and write a good novel. There’s research, there’s writing, there’s rewriting and editing … and more than anything else, there is critique.

How you accept critique is part of what separates writers and authors.

I’ve been scribbling stories since I was 12. I had some critique on my fiction in high school from my teachers, but for most of the decades between then and publishing my first novel I was writing fiction for my own amazement. Then I decided I really wanted to advance a book to publication and I started to submit it to friends to read.

I guess my friends love me. They all said pretty glowing things about the manuscript that would become the seedbed for Daermad Cycle. Somehow I knew that wasn’t completely honest. I went one step further and submitted it to the writers site Authonomy. Mostly I got good reviews and that felt a little bit more honest because these people didn’t know me. Some of the reviewers gave minor critique — moves a bit slowly, takes a long time to get to the point, it’s awfully long — but I wasn’t really sure what to do with that critique.

Then it happened. Somehow I attracted the attention of a notorious misanthrope on the site and he (or that iteration was a she, I think) decided to critique my book.

If you’ve never been run over by a Mac truck, I don’t recommend it.

I knew this was a mean, mean person, but her words bit deep. She (or he) really hated my book. Worse, though a truly miserable human being, this person was also a great writer.

There are three ways to handle that sort of critique:

  • throw the project in the trash bin where the critic suggested … thereby proving that you’re a writer and not an author in progress;
  • ignore the critique and keep the project as it is … also suggesting that you may not be an author in progress;
  • learn from the critique what is worth learning.

The author in progress does the third thing. After I got done being mad and sad in cycles, I resolved to come back to the critique in a while (that turned out to be three months) and mine it for what was worthwhile. Because this person had a history of being deleted from the site, I printed out the critique and put it away for later consumption. In the meantime, more nicer reviews came in that sort of agreed (in a nice way) with the mean review. I recognized that this mean critic had given me solid advice in a truly despicable manner and her critique was really not substantially different from the more soft-soap critique of the nicer reviews. He was brutally honest and that was exactly what I needed.

I went back to the book and applied the critique in a reasonable manner. I broke the manuscript into smaller more manageable portions (thereby creating a series, which is almost never a bad thing in epic fantasy). I was honest about how slow it was and I resolved to change that. I included death and mayhem much earlier than I was comfortable with. I excised the info dumps and limited the beautifully detailed descriptions I like. I added more complex characters, including some actual bad guys. And I got a better book, which got better reviews, but I also gained the confidence to pick a date to publish. You see, buried in that really mean review, was a off-hand statement that I had to mull for a long while and when I came back to it after the rewrite of the book that would become The Willow Branch, Book 1 of the Daermad Cycle, I realized that it was a very subtle compliment. Nasty guy actually thought there was a kernal of something in the book worth saving.

But if I’d done what I thought he was advising — burn the manuscript, eat dirt and die — I never would have come to that realization and either one of two things would have happened. Either The Willow Branch never would have been published or … I shudder to think this — the book entitled that would have been a mediocre book that should not have been published.

One of the major things separating writers from authors in progress is how they handle critique. All critique is useful to those who are willing to use it.

Jacquie Biggar-USA Today Best-selling author

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