Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Polite and long

Usually we try to trim long and redundant sentences. But there's a purpose for sentence length. The longer and more ornate the sentence, the more "polite" it is. I probably stated that backwards. If the writing task requires politeness (like you are writing a complaint about someone that you need to continue to work with), if you lengthen the sentences, it actually sounds more courteous. So a bit of redundancy can actually help you sort of smooth out the meaning and soften it, I guess.

"I am so sorry to have to bother you with this, Don Corleone, and I know how busy you are, too busy to deal with a minor matter like this. But if you have a bit of time next week, I would love to take you to lunch and discuss that minor matter of your henchman threatening to torch my store. I'm sure it's just a mistake, or perhaps I misinterpreted his meaning. But it would be such a compliment if you would let me treat you to lunch so that we could straighten out this little matter. Can I call you to set up an appointment? There's a lovely little Italian bistro near here, and I'd love to get your opinion on the gnocchi."

That can be edited down to:

"Hey, Corleone! Call off your thug or else!"

But I don't know... I don't think I'd send the Godfather an abrupt ultimatum like that.

Here's a fascinating new sociolinguistic field, the politeness theory.

An Open Letter to Snooki

Dear Snooki,

Romanceland was a-buzz today with the news that you'll be writing a romance novel. Because I have more experience than you at -- well, at just about everything that doesn't require antibiotics, but specifically, at this fine art of romance publishing, I would like to offer a few pointers. Spirit of friendship and cooperation and all. Welcome to the club.

First, it's important that the heroine is someone the reader can identify with. I know, "identify" is a big word not usually seen outside of police line-ups, so let me explain what that means. It means that the heroine behaves in a way which most women will find unobjectionable. No making out in hot tubs with random strange guys. Or girls. Or cute wine bottles with drawings on the labels that resemble lips. Of either the facial or nether variety.

Not that romance heroines are prudes, far from it, but they do tend to have beating hearts inside their bodies, and all parts tend to get involved in the romance. Not just the fun bits. So, yes, this means you'll have to discover other body parts besides hair and asses. Oh, look! A brain! Did you know such things existed?

This "identify" thing also usually means the heroine has a goal in life. This might be hard for you to grasp, but goals and accidents of fate are not the same. So, for example, when you fell down and landed in a reality show, this isn't quite the same as achieving a goal. It's more an accident of fate. Of the twelve-car pile-up variety. You know, the kind that most rational people really would rather not see, but then they cringe and look and hate themselves for looking. So here's a handy tip to help you figure out if your heroine has a good goal: if it makes the reader want to pour bleach on her eyeballs or whimper in a corner. it's probably not working.

And the hero? Oh, the hero. Brace yourself for a few shocks here, Snooki. Most romance heroes are intelligent guys. I know, right? What's the big deal about brains if he's got a six-pack and he's juiced? Well, funny thing, that. See, eventually the hero and heroine will be sober -- I know, I told you it would be shocking -- and they'll probably have something like a conversation. In this case, it helps if the hero has a vocabulary of more than 60 words. Ditto that for the heroine. (Please tell me you already have a vocabulary of more than 60 words. You're supposed to be writing a book, after all.)

So this sort of leads us to the plot. According to the press, your book will be a tale of "a girl looking for love on the boardwalk." Given your past exploits on the boardwalk, we take this to mean "a girl who falls off a bicycle while attempting to use a beer bong." Wow! We're in great shape here! You see, we already have the skeletal makings of a plot. The heroine's first goal could be to stay on the bicycle. And her next goal could be to figure out how to ride a bike and use a beer bong at the same time. And her third goal could be to join the circus.

Lookit that. You've got the whole plot thing in the bag already. Not that bag. Hide that bag. You don't want to get arrested again, sweetie. Once is enough -- more than enough, actually, for most heroine types.

No, really, put the bag away.

Yes, I know there are different kinds of bongs. I don't need the visual aides.

Really. Put the--

Oh, I give up. Have at it, and anything else you want, too. God knows it could hardly make your book any worse than we anticipate.

Love and ki--no, skip the kisses until you get that rash checked out.
Just plain old love,

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Jenny's book out today!

Congratulations to commenter Jenny Brown, whose first book Lord Lightning comes out today! It's an Avon release, the first in a trilogy of historical romances. I've known Jenny for centuries, well, since GEnie was still the place-to-be for writers of popular fiction.

GEnie was a great place back then. I'm getting all nostalgic, the way some people do for summer camp. It was like a summer camp for writers. There was a great board for romance, and another for science fiction, and another for mystery, and I wish I had all the great writing info that was daily exchanged. I was in charge of the Craft of Writing boards in the romance section. Good stuff.

That was back when you had to type in "ATDT" and a modem string to get connected (through phone lines, yes, youngsters, we used to tie up the phone for hours, back in the dark ages). That's how Jenny and I met. It was just like Camp Winnimauga only with no mosquitoes.


Complex sentencing

Double-negative Construction

A double-negative sentence is one that has two "negatives," and as we all know, two negatives make a positive. This is also known as a "lelote," but I am just going to say "double negative," because, duh, there are two negatives.


I don't not know what's going on.


I know what's going on.

Now there are more subtle double-negatives that don't begin with "N". For example:

I doubted that she didn't know me.

"Doubted" is a negative (synonym is "didn’t think").

So: I think she knew me.

There are a few of these subtle negatives:





In fact, some of the double-negative constructions below don't use "not" terms. But they're still presenting two negatives in the sentence.

What's the problem with that? This construction forces the reader to re-read and recalculate what the sentence really means. Once in a while you might want to confuse the reader, but if you don't, recast the sentence clearly, with positive terms that make clear what you mean. Here are some examples, where you end up with a single negative perhaps:

There is no reason to believe that this primary campaign won't be not only effective but also responsive.

Straight out:

This primary campaign will probably be both effective and responsive.

Few people outside of the United States disbelieve in the power of American commercialism.

Most people outside the United States believe in the power of American commercialism.

The point is not that the decline in income has not been arrested.

The point is that the decline in income has been arrested.

In our inability to write with emotion, we are not so different from those alienated suburban teens who not only don't have the vocabulary to express feelings but also don't have the freedom to invent a new vocabulary.


In our inability to write with emotion, we are like those alienated surburban teens who have neither the vocabulary of feeling nor the freedom to invent it.

No less wise a person than Charles Buckley was incapable of facing age gracefully.

Even as wise a person as Charles Buckley was incapable of facing age gracefully.


So what's the issue?

You usually want the reader to understand your meaning and not have to "translate" the sentence to make sense. So you might try translating it yourself first! Try to recast it as a positive sentence so that the reader can understand it immediately.

Now if most of your sentences are easily understandable, the infrequent double-negative construction will stand out as particularly meaningful. You've gained the trust of the reader that you do know how to convey information concisely in clear sentences. So that trust will have the reader approaching your few over-complicated sentences and trying to figure out why you made these more difficult.

Every sentence construction has its purpose. So there are reasons you might want to use the double-negative and other complicated constructions. Why would you choose to make a sentence more difficult to read? Well, you might want the reader to slow down and read slowly, maybe even read it twice or three times. You might want to convey a hedge or irony:

Bill is not unworthy of promotion.

Might mean:

Bill is more or less worthy of promotion, but I am not enthusiastic enough to recommend him.

Often double negatives are followed by a "but" or "however" which states something clearer:

Hemingway is not an unaccomplished stylist; however, his terse prose is an acquired taste.

Finally, though, an important purpose of the double negative is to allow for a second meaning, a deeper meaning, a subtext or ambiguity. Here's an example, from that master of subtext, Shakespeare:

What wouldst thou write of me, if thou shouldst praise me?

O gentle lady, do not put me to't;
For I am nothing, if not critical.

Here is why double negatives shouldn't be wasted just to over-complicate simple thoughts. The double negative here conveys the most subtle of character revelation.

Iago is a complicated man who lives within deception, and here, for a moment, he is being honest, if only in his sentence formulation. He is nothing except his contrariness, his resentment, his envy, and the very construction of the sentence ("I am nothing") presents his sense of his own emptiness, and then, the sad but honest corollary there-- If I am not critical, I am nothing. That is, as with enjambment in poetry, the double-negative sentence lets the reader get two simultaneous and perhaps contrasting or complementary meanings.

I can't stress this enough, however: LESS IS MORE. The fewer times you use over-complicated sentences, the stronger will be the effect. The reader will assume that it there is some reason you broke your usual comprehensible pattern, and look for the deeper meaning.

(Oh, if you're wondering if two positives can make a negative, let me introduce you to my teenagers. Their favorite term is, "Yeah, right." Now you have to say that aloud, with full adolescent sarcasm, to get that they mean, "Mom, you are so totally wrong.")

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ian's site for writing action

Ian has started a new site: and it's is focused upon helping writers to improve the development of their action scenes by using cinematic techniques to better reach modern readers.

This is very cool, and I know I'm not the only one who needs some help in this area! Check it out.


Sunday, September 26, 2010

Promo proofreading

Note to the wise:
If you are sending out promo material for your book, proofread. And proofread again. And a third time. Then have a very picky friend proofread.

Do not ask me to buy your book if there are grammatical mistakes, misspellings, and punctuation errors in your solicitation. I not only will refuse to buy your book, I will send your solicitation to Theresa, who will make fun of it (just with me).

We're nice. We don't go on Twitter and tweet about each mistake. Others might not be so kind.

I have been getting a whole lot of "buy my book" solicitations lately, and so this is a frequent annoyance.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Voice examples-- put money where mouth is

Everyone post two paragraphs (200 words or less total) that you think represents your voice. That's my only guideline—this sounds like you, or the best of you.

Now everyone, respond with a description of another voice (identify name). Please, no critiquing, no assessment. This is just about describing a voice. So look for words that express what this sounds like, what this feels like. You can use food, music, poetry, whatever. You can compare it to someone else's voice (in fiction, poetry, or music). You don't have to be coherent. :)

What? You think I need this for a class? Huh? Would I do that?


My husband's book is out!

On sale early. It's about his experience and charity in the Himalayas. Check it out! It's called Bringing Progress to Paradise, by Jeff Rasley.

And for "Frequently Asked Questions," no, I do not go to Nepal and climb mountains with him. Are you kidding? I go to England and climb the steps to the cathedrals (and pubs :).


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book video-- back with some thoughts

It's About Time

A few days ago, I posted a note from a friend of mine about openings which included mention that she's not a fan of prologues. Several of you commented on this, and this was a hot topic in our recent structure workshop, so I thought I would elaborate a little on why prologues can be problems.

Stories unfold in time. This might seem like a Duh statement -- of course, stories unfold in time -- but given the state of so many unpublished manuscripts, this is perhaps not as obvious as we might hope. We see evidence over and over again of authors who don't contemplate the time factor, much less control it in a way that makes sense for the story.

Aristotle (I mention this name, and a collective groan arises from the structure workshoppers) said that stories must be unified in three ways: time, place, and action. What this means has been the subject of some scholarly debate in the millenia since the Poetics first came into being. For example, initially the unity of time seemed to encompass only histories, stories in which true historical events occurred in the same set time span, whether or not those events were causally linked. Later scholars read Aristotle's notes about unity of time in conjunction with his statements about causation and beginnings, middles, and ends, and concluded that the unity of time extended beyond the boundaries of historical narration into fiction.

At its most extreme, during the Renaissance the principal of the unity of time was held to require all story events to take place over the course of a single day. Even then, most storytellers violated the single-day rule. Nevertheless, the underlying principal was recognized as valid: stories unfold in time, and compressing that time can enhance the story.

So, if you imagine your story as a timeline, much like those we used to see in our high school history textbooks, you can plot the story events along the timeline: Day one, Franz Ferdinand is assassinated and Austria declares war on Serbia; Day Three: Russian declares war on Serbia; etc.

Now, here's the problem with prologues. In most prologues, there's generally a big time gap between the event in the prologue and the event in chapter one. It would be as if Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in 1914, but nobody declared war over it until 1922. The timeline gaps, the causation starts to fade, and the connection between the beginning and the middle of the story becomes less obvious.

This doesn't mean that all prologues are evil and must be destroyed for the good of all humanity. What it does mean is that any time you feel the urge to write a prologue, you must test whether it would be better to eliminate that gap in time. Or in place. Or in action. Sometimes just moving the events forward in time and calling them chapter one is the solution. Sometimes cutting the prologue and treating those events as back story is the solution. And sometimes, the prologue really is the best way to go -- but honestly, there are far fewer legitimate prologues than sagging timelines in most slush piles.


Monday, September 20, 2010

Interesting Radio Show

Someone sent me this link and I thought it was worth sharing.

BBC Oxford - Sue Cook's Write Lines.

Apparently, the episodes only stay live on the website for a short time. I listened to about half of one (about authorial control and critique groups) and nodded in agreement all the way through it. I'll be listening to the rest soon -- before they disable this episode, anyway.


Secret Agent Message

A slush-reading friend read my last post on openings and asked me to pass along this message.

"And here's what I never want to see again on page one. 1. Heroine driving and thinking about things. 2. Heroine flying and thinking about things. (In fact, no solitary travel in any form.) 3. Heroine staring in mirror and picking apart her own appearance. 4. Heroine being clumsy a.k.a the "adorable klutz" moment. 5. Heroine reminiscing about past lover/dead parent/baby given up for adoption. 6. The word Prologue. 7. Bathing, dressing, eating, cleaning -- all are dull. Of course, now that I list them, someone's going to submit a poignant and heartbreaking prologue where the heroine washes dishes and stares at her reflection in the dishwater and thinks about her past and then drives somewhere."

And that's a valid point. No matter how clear the "rules" and the reasons for them, someone's going to figure out a way to break them brilliantly. (How do you know if you've done it? If you have to ask....)


Saturday, September 18, 2010

A Piggyback Post: When Should They Meet?

Yesterday on Romance University, I blogged about the first meetings between heroes and heroines in romance novels. This post has sparked a lot of commentary both on their blog and behind the scenes. (Re: commenting on their blog -- one commenter will win a spot in Alicia's character workshop in October. Go over there and wave at me to enter. You want to take Alicia's class if you can, and you won't be entered in the drawing if you email me instead.)

There were several common concerns raised in the comments, and one of them is troublesome enough for most writers that I thought we might do a piggyback post here.

When Should They Meet?

There's been some pressure on romance writers to get the hero and heroine together on page one, or as close to page one as possible. Writers resist this, sometimes with good reason, but I thought it might help to examine the mechanics behind this advice. There are, I think, three reasons this has become an issue.

First, if you read any amount of slush, you quickly discover that most unpublished novels have absolute crap for a first page. Sorry to be so blunt, but -- well, no, actually I'm not sorry. This is the reality of the industry, and we all must face that reality. Most first pages are relentless crap. Sometimes this is because they are made of crap all the way through, and the first page is merely representative of the general quality of the text. But sometimes it's because the writer can't wrangle the opening. Openings are hard, yo.

Whenever I encounter a crappy first page, I flip to a random page later on and do a spot-check for writing quality. So yeah, okay, a crappy first page is a survivable slush offense if the inside pages check out. But do this for 98 out of every 100 manuscripts at a rate of, oh, around 300 manuscripts per week for a few years in a row, and what happens?

You get crazy sick of bad openings. And you start going to writers conferences and sitting at the podium and begging authors to get to the conflict already, put the hero and heroine together quickly, knock off the wheel-spinning on first pages and just tell the story already. And then next thing you know, writers are telling each other that the hero and heroine have to be together on the first page, which is a great idea, but it's not exactly what set you off to begin with. But you don't dispute it because, hey, if they get the hero and heroine together on page one, that would probably eliminate a lot of really dreadful exposition openings in the slush pile. Or not. But either way, the advice is out there and it won't do any more or less damage than most of the advice floating around the writersphere.

So that's the first reason: most manuscripts have really dreadful first pages, and the cumulative effect of this is a combination of editorial ennui and twitchiness.

The second reason has to do with what makes them dreadful. This is a little harder to explain because the specifics vary from manuscript to manuscript, but the end result is always the same. The end result is that the story doesn't engage -- and by "engage," I mean both that "this is interesting" and "shift into gear and go, man, go."

There can be many causes for a lack of engagement, but the more common ones tend to revolve around the same ideas: too much set-up, undercutting conflicts in advance, heavy use of exposition (or any use of exposition, really), and misunderstanding what constitutes "ordinary world" in the storytelling sense. The bottom line, though, is that all this reads like wheel-spinning, like an author unsure of where the story starts, even like an author distrustful of the reader's ability to follow the text.

"But-but-but," writers say, "I neeeeeeed my ordinary world. I neeeeeed my exposition. I neeeeeeed to explain that the heroine visited this very same hospital in 1993 with a sprained ankle, or else how will they understand why she knows that the ER is on the south side of the building? And the reader has to know that she's 5'8" and blonde and has eyes like emerald chips in a stormy ocean so that they can visualize what's happening when they X-ray her lungs. And that backpack full of schoolbooks she's carrying? OMG, have to explain that RIGHT NOW so the reader UNDERSTANDS who she IS as a PERSON."

Right. Or not. Actually, not. See, we form an understanding of a character by watching that character in action. Other material -- props, backstory, and the like -- are merely supplemental to this core understanding. So if you spend all the first few pages explaining this supplemental stuff without letting us see the character in action, we're getting the sauce but not the meat. Sauce is yummy, but it can't sustain us. Or our reader's interest.

So, reason one, piles of crappy first pages. Reason two, crappiness tends to result from too much ketchup, not enough cutlet. And here's reason three: it's all about the conflict, or it should be.

When does the romantic conflict start? Is it when her heart is broken by a past lover who left her at the altar in 1993, resulting in her running through the woods and spraining her ankle and needing a trip to the ER in her bridal gown? Uh, no. That might be fun backstory, but the romantic conflict doesn't exist until the hero appears before her. THEN she is torn between her emotional isolation and her raging lust for the new guy. Not one second before then.

Or, as I've said more than once in the past 24 hours, who cares if he's allergic to okra unless she's an okra farmer?

But let's take it one step more. Let's compare the sequential unfolding of two possible okra openings.

Okra Opening One:
Meet Lucas. Lucas is OMGhot and he rides a motorcycle but not in that icky dirty biker way. More like in a cool and powerful way. He's never been married but he did love one girl for a long time until she died of some tragic and thoroughly researched illness. He still misses her and thinks he sees her reflection in windows sometimes at night, but then he just puts away the whiskey bottle and returns to his hobby of welding sculptures of giant fish in his garage. Also, he's allergic to okra.

Now meet Jayde. Jayde had a seekrit crush on Lucas when she was a little girl and he was a teenager and he was dating her babysitter. Her babysitter who died later of a tragic and thoroughly researched illness, which is different from the tragic and thoroughly researched illness that claimed her parents and left her an orphan with a struggling okra farm, which is super important to her because it's her legacy.

Lucas, meet Jayde. Again. In the local pub in town on a rainy Tuesday night when he can't get on his bike and she just came from the cemetery. Too bad about the okra thing, eh.

Okra Opening Two:
Scene: a dark, mostly empty bar on a rainy Tuesday night. The soft sound of pool balls clicking over the croon of an old Patsy Cline song on the jukebox, someone's idea of irony. Lucas sits at the bar in a wet leather jacket, nursing a whiskey, avoiding the sight of the windows.

Enter Jayde, cool and withdrawn and hoping a drink will keep her that way. She grabs a stool down the bar from the hot guy hunched over his drink. Hot, yeah, but he only gives her the briefest glance. That's when she recognizes him. Slides down a couple stools.

"Lucas?" Her heart ka-bump, ka-bumps. "Lucas, is that you?"

He nods, sips, sets his glass down. Makes her wait for it. "Yup."

Hummanah hummanah. She shouldn't, she really shouldn't, but she slides down two more stools. "I'm Jayde, remember, little Jayde all grown up now ...

(insert more witty dialogue and action)

... and I run my parents okra farm now."

Nod. Sip. Set glass down. "I'm allergic to okra."

It just has more impact when it's revealed at a relevant moment. If you "set it up" by explaining the okra thing in advance, the bar scene loses impact.

We can all see that, right?


Friday, September 17, 2010

Brought to You By the Letters R and U

Today on Romance University, I'm talking about the first meeting between the hero and heroine, but not from the usual perspective. Forget about flaws and cute meets. Think about barriers to intimacy.

One commenter will win a spot in Alicia's character workshop in October. So go comment and see if you get lucky. :)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Link Full of Truth

This is funny. My favorite was #16:

Writers communicate in a bunch of different ways. But mostly writing. Hope you don’t like talking on the phone — that shit is rough.

I'm allergic to the phone. You with me on that one?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Plotting from Character

Several of you have asked me to talk about how to use character to drive the scene action. This is a big topic, but we'll aim for a nutshell version today.

When we analyze character in a finished piece of writing, we look at two primary types of cues. First, we look at the character's behavior. Action follows interest, as the saying goes, so looking at what a character *does* will indicate what that character finds important. Someone might say, "I really want to go to the movies today," but if they don't get off the couch and out the door, we can conclude that the movies were less important or compelling than whatever that character did instead.

Second, we look at how other characters react to our main character. For example:

Theresa: I really want to go to the movies today.
Alicia: You always say that, and then you just sit there at your desk all day instead.

You see, Alicia knows that Theresa has a pattern of conduct, and Alicia has already made some conclusions about Theresa based on that pattern. When Alicia expresses that conclusion in the text, Alicia cues the reader about the true state of Theresa's character. (Maybe I should have had Alicia say: Theresa, you can't possibly go to the movies today. Events of the past month have put you weeks behind schedule, Quit dreaming and get on the stick, girl. *cough*)

So the reader takes these two types of cues in the text and cobbles together a view of Theresa's character from that. It doesn't matter what Theresa says (I really want to go to the movies) if what she does and the character reactions contradict that dialogue. (It might lend some small-scale tension to the narrative, but that's a topic for another post.)

The way to plot from character is to work this dynamic in reverse. You start with a character trait -- Theresa's ambition, or Theresa's recent inability to manage chaos -- and you find a way to illustrate it through the action.

Easier said than done, perhaps, but it can be done. Start by listing your character's dominant traits: honesty, seriousness, pride, creativity, wittiness, whatever. Take a moment to contemplate whether the trait makes your character more or less heroic, more or less villainous. Now brainstorm events which can be used to demonstrate the trait. For now, don't worry about whether these events fit neatly into an overall plot. That's not the issue at the moment. Just think about how that trait will translate into action, and how other characters or circumstances can either magnify or diminish the trait.

Generally, we want to find ways to strengthen heroic traits in heroic characters. We want to challenge and eliminate non-heroic traits in heroic characters. And in non-heroic characters, we want to do the opposite: defeat any tendency to heroism and enhance any villainous trait.

However, that's not always the case. Sometimes you might want to take an heroic trait and exaggerate it until it becomes a liability. Or you might want to test assumptions about what is or is not heroic. Get creative here, and treat it as a creativity exercise.

When you're done, you'll have a list of ten or twenty or a hundred ways in which a trait can be translated into action, and you'll have some idea of how that action could have consequences for the character. If you have those two ingredients -- action and consequences -- you have the makings of a real scene. Any idea that doesn't show both action and consequences is probably too underdeveloped to be workable within the context of a story.

But with those two ingredients in the mix, you can decide whether that scene might work in your overall plot. Or perhaps, if you really want the character to drive things, you might build the plot around the scene. There's a certain amount of flexibility in character-driven stories that you don't have in plot-driven stories, so flex it and see what happens!


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Example of reader-character separation

An example of a story where the character has one experience and the reader another--

Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro). This was just released as a film. The book is in first-person.

Don't want to spoil it (though suspense isn't the point), but the main character thinks she is in a book about going to a boarding school and adolescent relationships. But rather quickly the reader is in another story, about children being exploited and the intractability of fate. The great tension here is that the main character accepts as a given what the reader instinctively resists.

What are other examples where the author wants the reader to feel something other than what the POV character feels?
This is no big thrill in omniscient, you understand. With omniscient, the reader is "above" any characters, and so expects to feel more or other (ironic detachment, amusement). But in deep POV (or first-person), the separation in experience might be more subversive, as it's unexpected. (We're in the head and body of the character, feeling what he feels.)


Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Character and the Reader-- expanding the response

Deep POV is compelling and lets the reader experience what the POV character experiences. But that doesn't mean that you should have the character experience be the limit of the reader experience... or contort the character to make him/her have the experience you want the reader to have.

Okay, that's pretty opaque. What I mean is... the reader can "be" simultaneously the character and... also still the reader. That doubling of identity, in fact, is a great part of the pleasure of reading fiction. That also means that if you want to create an experience for the reader, it doesn't have to be the same experience for the character.

The character should be in character! For example, if Joe is furious to discover his house has been invaded by a couple kids, he isn't going to stop being furious in order to --for a moment-- feel so sad about the kid who slams the refrigerator door and backs off. Joe just has to narrate (if we're in his POV and not in omniscient POV) seeing that kid. But this is Joe. He notices the kid by the refrigerator and yells, "Stay away from my food, you little shit!" Joe doesn't have to realize the kid is hungry for the reader to figure that out and feel pity. All Joe has to do is notice the kid, maybe relate/narrate that the kid is skinny (though he might put it as the little vandal is skinny), and that the kid was just in the refrigerator. The reader can draw her own conclusions, and feel her own feelings (and also Joe's).

This is, I think, especially important in romance, where the reader should feel a romantic/sexual attraction (to both hero and heroine, kind of bi, huh? :) from the start. But that can and should happen without the character leading. The character should feel whatever the character should feel at that moment in the plot, given the circumstances, but the writer-- YOU!-- should set up the scene so that the opportunity is there for the reader to feel eroticism or excitement or whatever. Too often writers think that the character has to feel or experience this so that the reader can, but in fact, the character and the reader are different people with different agendas, and will have different responses to the same event.

So of course you want the reader to be intrigued and attracted to the hero in Chapter 1, when he calls the heroine into his office and fires her. But you don't do that by making the heroine stop thinking about how unjust this is and how she's getting blamed for someone else's mistake and how is she going to pay for her kid's asthma treatment without insurance to think that the hero's legs are so sexy and tight under those fine linen slacks.

She can narrate the action you've set up. What action? Well, if you want the legs to show, he stands up to usher her to the door. She can notice/narrate his tautly muscled legs under the slacks, but what is she going to THINK? Not "My, my, what a fine pair of legs, yum," but "that pair of pants could probably pay for a year's medicine for my kid!"

The reader, however, can think that my, my, that's a fine set of legs, yes, even while participating in the heroine's righteous anger. Fiction readers don't need to be led, only guided, and that by the writer, not the character. Let the character react according to who she is at that moment and what she is experiencing in the plot. Just present the scene so that the reader can experience (additionally) that other experience.

Hitchcock knew this, knew the essence of suspense was to let the viewer know more than the characters. The viewer knows there's a bomb under the poker table... there'll be suspense. (See my article about this: Suspense Is More Than Surprise.) If the characters knew about the bomb, they'd jump up and run out of the house, wouldn't they? End of suspense. So let the characters go on playing poker, experiencing just poker fun time, and let the reader have reason to feel suspense.

The reader can be the character, yes, especially in deep POV. But don't think that the reader will ever be nothing but the character. The reader has a very different agenda-- to be entertained, to be thrilled, to fall in love. Don't restrict the reader to being just the character... or the character to being what the reader wants to be.


What's your voice?

I'm working on a class on voice, and I've gotten interested in how writers characterize their own voices. What words would you use to describe your voice?
I'm particularly interested in how you think your attitude or worldview affects your voice (like if you're pessimistic) or if you think your voice exhibits a worldview you don't share (like you're really an optimistic, but your voice is sort of grimly humorous).

Also, is your voice YOU? Or do you sort of have a persona-voice, you know, more knowing and erudite than you yourself? Is that possible?

If you write more in character voice, how does this reflect your own voice?

I don't know... but if you have thoughts about how your voice works, love to hear them!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

For the Mad Men Fans

This post about the Samsonite episode is brilliant. I was starting to think that Mad Men was slipping a bit, but this past Sunday's suitcase ("baggage" of course) episode reeled me back in. The episode was magic, and the analysis in the linked post is all about building intimacy between characters with small concrete details. Well worth a read. But you might need to watch the episode first.


Tuesday, September 7, 2010

October Character Journey Workshop

Do you ever worry that your characterization isn't deep enough or that your characters are wooden? This is the class that will help you! The character journey is a way of charting through the plot the change in the main characters, giving them both a reason and incentive to change. In this interactive class, you'll determine where the character starts and ends, and how the plot events can move them along that journey.

Class Begins: October 1, 2010

Class Ends: October 14, 2010

Signup Deadline: September 28, 2010

Class size is limited! Don’t delay!

Cost: $50

Instructor: Alicia Rasley

Alicia Rasley is an award-winning novelist and a nationally known writing workshop leader. She has worked as a fiction editor for a small press, and currently teaches popular fiction in an Master's in Fine Arts program.

To sign up, click the "Buy" button at

Monday, September 6, 2010

Heroic Traits and Scene Development

Okay. I've been stewing on this one for about a month and, as with other complex writing topics, haven't really hit on a simple and lucid way to blog it. So bear with me. I'll do the best I can. The main concept is something about character-based plotting at the scene level and how to manipulate change in heroic characters. We'll build an example and work from there.

In character-based plotting, we start by deciding which trait we want to have highlighted in the scene action. Let's say our heroine is a volunteer at a convalescent center, and she sometimes tends the hero's grandmother. Let's say she's an artist in a small-town setting, trapped there temporarily for personal reasons, and that she's taken to yarn bombing as a way of satisfying her creative urges and funkifying the town.

So she has nurturing traits, important in a heroine, which can be brought out through scene action in many ways. She's creative and playful, and she thinks yarn bombs are beautiful and funny. She's proud of this activity and thinks of it as a form of urban art. (Which it is. But I might be biased.)

The hero's grandmother is feeling a bit mopey for reasons of her own, so our heroine decides to involve her in a yarn bomb inside the center. The heroine is full of giggles and high spirits, and the grandmother plays along. Together they sneak into the physical therapy room and wrap the supply cabinet in a wild green and yellow and purple striped knit. Then the heroine wheels the grandmother back to her room and goes about her business.

A few minutes later, she sees the hero wheeling granny down the hall, smiles and giggles, and gets polite nods in response. Something about this doesn't sit right with her. She expected a more friendly response at least from the grandmother after their recent adventures.

So she slips down the hallway after them, trailing them from a distance, and watches them enter the physical therapy room. She peeks through the door and sees the hero and his granny have snipped the yarn bomb free from the cabinet and are winding and gluing the clipped strands around cardboard coffee cup sleeves. "Much more practical than a cozy for a supply cabinet," Granny comments, and our heroine feels the world tilt sideways. Practicality was never the point. Whimsy and art -- and cheering up granny -- were the points.

She reminds herself that making Granny happy really is the most important thing, and if coffee mug sleeves make her happier than yarn bombs, then so be it. She enters the room, and with a smile to cover her lingering dismay, helps Granny and the hero finish their task. "What a great idea," she says. "Granny, maybe you can teach people how to make these in arts and crafts on Friday."

The traits that put the heroine in conflict with her environment are creativity and a certain disdain for practicality, and maybe a touch of pride or high-spiritedness. All those conflicting traits are undermined by the action because she sees how little they're valued by the others in her environment. She can no longer feel that she succeeded in her attempt to cheer up Granny by exposing her to this form of removable graffiti.

But she's still capable of nurturing, and that's the heroic trait. So by letting the heroine react fully to the negatives, but then steel herself to remember the more important underlying goal, she's able to enter the room and demonstrate the true depth of her heroic trait.

Do you see how this works? When obstacles and problems throw a character into conflict with the environment, it's okay to attack the non-heroic traits but we still want to leave the heroic traits intact. In fact, we want to be left with a suspicion that the heroic trait has taken on additional importance because of the scene events.

So here's how you do a scene check for this element. First, identify the dominant emotions or traits being expressed by the characters in the scene or scene sequence. (Here, we had creativity, pride, etc.) Then check how many of those traits have been attacked through the scene action. Then identify the heroic trait and check whether it has been amplified as a result of the scene action.

Do we all know which traits are heroic? Can you name any in the comments?


Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dragging out ending

Just read a very good mystery where the murderer was arrested and taken away 3 chapters in-- I mean, Chapter 24 out of 26 chapters, so 2 chapters after the solution of the mystery. I read those last 40 pages thinking that any minute, the REAL murderer would be unmasked. After all, why solve the mystery so early in the book (with 2 chapters to go), if that's the actual solution.

So of course I thought the guy fingered for the crime was actually taking the blame for his mother or girlfriend-- whoever the real murderer was-- and that the truth would be unveiled in the last chapter.

Nope. The guy arrested was really the murderer. Now I would have had no trouble with this except for the expectation set up by solving the mystery too early. We're all trained by cinema-- if the monster is killed early, then it'll come back to life or there'll be a bigger monster with five minutes left in the film.

So be careful not to set up the reader for disappointment. Resolve that external plot near the end of the book. You might want a scene or two, maybe 15 pages, to wrap up the romantic conflict or the internal conflict. But two chapters-- that's tempting the reader to imagine a new ending, one perhaps more complex than yours.

When do you end your story? Any thoughts here?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Young Characters Are People Too

I was lurking in a discussion of characterization when the mostly baby-boomer discussers were talking about how it's difficult to create young protagonists if you didn't have examples right there with you, and even those with children that age had some trouble making the characterization work. I just happened to have read this article by an acting coach about why the Bobby Jindal speech (after Obama's first State of the Union message) was panned by so many.

The coach said that he could tell that Jindal was concentrating on the "how"-- "how do I show sincerity?" rather than the "why"-- "why do I believe this?"

The coach remarked, "In life we have thoughts and feelings and then we find the words to express those thoughts and feelings. It is a straight line. In acting as in public speaking, we start with the words. What should the great actor and the great orator do? They should find the thoughts and feelings that make them need to say these words. In short they should find The Why.

"What is a common mistake? It is focusing on The How. The actor or orator in this case is thinking about How to make the speech effective. If you supply the Why, The How takes care of itself. What Jindal did is focus on How he wanted to come across. In acting I call this a General Attitudinal Choice. He thought of the effect he wanted to have on the audience. He wanted to come across as likable and friendly. He wanted the audience to think that he is a good guy, so he adopted a general demeanor of kind and empathetic. This is why he came off as condescending. No matter what he talked about the the pose was the same. He was trying to project his idea of a warm and friendly guy. Therefore he came off as patronizing."

Well, really, when I read that, I thought it connected. :) Let me first talk about the problem. The problem is that if we the author don't "feel" this character within us, we might not be able to make that character plausible. And it's probably harder to easily feel a character who is of another generation. We know we can't just think of ourselves at that age, because the world has changed (hurray!). You probably don't want the 2010 heroine bopping to Beatles' hits (though, you know, my sons that age love the Beatles and Stones and Hendrix and all 60s music, go figure... I had a student last semester who wore a Beatles' t-shirt, and told me that he knew all their songs-- I said, "Because your mom played them when you were young?" He gave me a puzzled look and said, "My mom played Bon Jovi songs, not the Beatles." Who knows, as another 60s icon sang, where the time goes?). But it's not enough to know the latest musical trends and the clothing fashions. Those are just labels (and they'll probably change before the book comes out-- don't want to refer to the Jonas Brothers when you know in a year they'll be in the "where are they now" category).

It doesn't help that our major media portrayal of young people is on TV shows, which usually show them as whiny narcissists. This has been jumped on by a older member of the generation, who wrote a book called Generation Me, which purports to examine the culture of youth (only affluent white youth, from what I can tell-- not the students I teach at a community college, for sure) and dismisses them as, natch, whiny narcissists. Well, let's ask "why?" Why does she diss her own generation? I need only point out that she's on the older edge of the generation (as are most of those TV writers), and have you ever known a big sister to speak with unqualified admiration about her younger siblings? (As an older sister to 6 siblings, I admit this reluctantly.)

I can summarize the conventional wisdom on these kids who are of the same generation of many of our characters (somehow, let's face it, it's easier to do an action-adventure novel or a romance with, uh, young and fit characters :)-- but heck, you watch the same TV shows that I do.

What I know is that we want to create real people in our characters, no matter what their age, but we don't want to do this by pretending that the time period and culture don't matter (that is, we don't want to make them just like us, only 25 in 2010). And they won't seem real if we create them with labels-- she likes the Jonas Brothers (because she's actually 12 :), he owns a Mac Airbook-- and make that the only individual and generational thing about them. The reader is going to read that and sense "inauthenticity/insincerity" even if you meant for the best.

Instead of labels-- the "how"-- let's try going inside.

Well, first let me give my own sociological impressions of this generation, based on a smallish sample-- my kids, their friends, and hundreds of students (mostly working class or poor, but also some middle class, and some upper-middle-- I've taught at three universities).

They are actually whiny. :) I mean, I'll agree with that. Well, let's come up with a nicer way to say that. They have no trouble, in the main, voicing their discontent and hoping if not expecting that someone will fix it. If they don't like their grade, many of them will tell the professor that and beg or demand a better one. (There is some justification for that-- what used to be just a "major," and so just a choice, is now a "school" with competitive admission, so that B in English might mean she can't get into nursing school, believe it or not-- and if you wonder why there's a nursing shortage, you might ask why anyone would assume that nursing students should get an A in English, like an English major....)

But they are far more kind, loving, compassionate, and open than the immediately previous generation X (the one that drove so many of us out of college teaching...). They are much more peaceful and ready to find common ground than baby boomers. They have little fear of emotion-- this is especially striking in the young men, who seem less fettered by the rather toxic male culture of the baby boom and the even more toxic male culture of the ones that came to age during and right after WWII. (I am generalizing, which is part of my point-- we can't help but generalize, but what the whole generation seems like might mean nothing about an individual.) Competitiveness is no longer the defining trait in male-to-male relationships. (The postwar men were poisoned by this, I say as a woman observer. Fathers were even competitive with their sons... ever see The Great Santini? I knew lots of fathers like that.) Now notice that one significant difference with the new generation is they have grown up with women in positions of power. Many had single mothers (and you want to see a 25-year-old man cry, get him to talk about his single mom-- "She's my hero!" is what they often say), and many have had women bosses from their first jobs. They have also had girls-as-friends and are likely to be comfortable with that.

Oh, and the young straight men have mostly all had openly gay friends, and they just don't seem to have as much of an issue with that.

For young women... well, this is the first generation of girls who grew up mostly all playing competitive sports. (Thank you, Title 9!) That, I think, is significant in a lot of ways. Sports changes the girls, but the girls change the sport too. :) Something I notice that is a direct result of girl-sports is that our definition of beauty is changing. "Toned arms" doesn't mean just smooth and straight, but also the curve of strong biceps. (There's a whole website devoted to Michelle Obama's upper arms, which I'd think was sexist, but then I remember the website devoted to Pierce Brosnan's forearms, and ....) And there's a wonderful new attitude that you can be a tough athlete and then that evening be a girly-girl in a sexy short dress. These young women athletes don't feel they have to be tough all the way through all the time-- they know they can just play tough. The Williams sisters are as tough as any man, but did you see Venus playing the match in dangly earrings and a necklace?

But there is a sort of disquieting requirement felt by a lot of girls that you have to be beautiful, or -- beauty being notoriously in the eye of the beholder and thus available to anyone who is loved :)-- "hot"-- sexy, I guess. It's sort of baffling to us older folk, who think youth is sexy-- "Why worry? You're 23. By definition, you're sexy!" But that is no doubt exacerbated by the weird fixation the media has with presenting sex-workers as exemplars of what Men Really Want in a Woman. "Porn-worthy," not a term I'd consider a compliment.

This generation of women has also grown up with a sense of possibility that is not limited by their gender (though the whole generation has a much more intense sense of the limitations of the economy and planetary future than I think we baby boomers ever did).

So, to connect this to characterization, let's take for example a young woman character. I see two things that will factor in to your characterization, as much actually about building her world as building her, but factors you might keep in mind:

1) The universal qualities of youth-- young people are usually more resilient, less thoughtful, more creative (if you haven't written great poetry, played great heavy metal, or come up with a new mathematical theorem by 30, you might as well forget it-- these are "youth-intensive" fields). They are more active, quicker thinking but not deeper thinking. They are usually far more dependent on friendships-- their friendships are more intense. They are probably more into entertainment, especially music. They are sociobiologically programmed to be keeping an eye out for potential mates even if they aren't actively seeking. This doesn't necessarily say much about her as a person, but before you have your recent college graduate decide to forego clubbing for a night vegging out on the couch, ask yourself if that's more like YOU (or me, at least) than like a young person.

2) The qualities of the generation she's in-- that's fairly easy to do with a contemporary book, and not actually that hard for a historical either... just respect the reality of their culture and life. A heroine in Kentucky in the years immediately after the US Civil War is not going to have the same worries and values as one in London in the roaring 60s or in Chicago right now.

You don't get off the hook by setting the book in the future or on another planet. All that means is you have to figure out how her generation has been molded by the events of her childhood and youth and the culture around her. You have to make it up too. :) But you're already world-building-- extrapolate from what you have.

Keep in mind that she's got a lifetime, albeit short, of accumulated generational experience, and it's not just This Moment that counts. For example, most of us go on loving the music we loved when we were 15. We of course pick up some other favorite songs, and might even acquire new passions. But what's popular right this moment is probably not what she's listening to during the dark night of the soul... she's listening to the songs that made her cry back when music alone could make her cry. So if she's 22 today, she probably still has favorite Dave Matthews songs, and John Mayer songs, and maybe (though she might not admit it) Britney Spears songs, but she probably doesn't pay any attention to the Jonas Brothers. If someone says, "Quick, name an animated film," she'll blurt, "The Little Mermaid," not Fantastic Mr. Fox.

But generation is more than pop culture, isn't it? (I'm asking you. I'm a baby boomer. Our generation was pretty much just pop culture. :) What else influenced this generation? Well, we know THIS generation had 9/11 in the middle of their teen years and grew up with the Web and Internet and came of age to get their own My Space page and Facebook accounts, and are adept at texting... what the heck does that MEAN? Does it mean they are better or worse at personal relationships? Do they trust too easily or not at all? Do they understand or misunderstand literature from the 18th Century? :)


So when you've thought about what the background for this person might be, what the universal qualities of youth are and the particular qualities of this generation, then what? Background is not destiny. And I think to some extent, that's where characterization begins, not ends. If my heroine is merely a person of her time and age, then she's more generic than any real person would be. She's "how," not "why."

To get to "why," we have to consider how she reacted to those generational influences, and why? Why did one girl in the era of Britney decide to study opera? Why did one boy respond to 9/11 by signing up for the Marines, and his brother responded by joining an antiwar group? You don't have to put that into the story, of course. But if a heroine born in 1985 sings opera in the shower, you might think about what overrode the pop culture influences. This might be a clue that she didn’t grow up in the US, or she was home-schooled, or that she was raised by an aging-hippie grandmother who didn't have a TV.

That's what we owe all our characters, to understand the world they came from (and how it differs from the world we came from!), and how it shaped them, but also how they responded in their own way to the factors that influenced everyone in their generation. We have to find out the "why"—why they become the person they become.


Guest Post

I was asked to blog over at Pens Fatales on erotic romance, and chose to share my thoughts about why this genre is pro-feminist and pro-woman. I hope you'll all read it. This might be the truest opinion I've ever blogged on the subject.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

What's in a name?

Reading a book and liking it, but I can't remember which person is which. Is Hillary the waitress who is winning the cooking competition? Or is that Hailey? Or maybe Holly-- no, she's the one who was on the police force but quit to go to culinary school.


Take heed. It's a whole lot easier to get into a character when you can associate the name with the situation. And when two or more characters have similar names, well, some of us have trouble remembering. Look at those:

They all start with H, have an L in the middle, and end in Y. As I read fast through the story, they all look alike. And while I can sort out the names finally, I simply haven't been able (halfway through) to associate each name with the right person. This isn't usually a problem for me, and the writer is adept at characterization and character voice, so I really think the confusion is all about those three very similar names.

How do you choose character names? Do you have any rules you enforce on yourself as you choose (like two names can't start with the same letter, say)? As a reader, how do you respond to names? Can you think of any times the name got in the way of your bonding with a character?