Sunday, May 29, 2011

Decisions, Decisions

Does he have white-blonde hair or dirty-blonde hair? Does she keep her fingernails pristine and perfect, or does she chew on them? Is he hot-tempered, or merely brooding and misunderstood? Is she a confident Christian or does she struggle daily with the concept of God?

These are a few of the thousand questions I ask myself at this point in the brainstorming process (getting to know my characters, building them, fleshing them out). I both loathe and adore this vital part of the process. I loathe it because there are so many questions to ask and answer. Potentially thousands. It feels so limitless (and sometimes overwhelming!). I could spend years answering all the possible questions. But I don't have that kind of time, so I must pick and choose carefully. But I also adore this part of the process because there's so much freedom, so much potential. I can create any character I want, give them any personality, any quirk, any shady past. It's all in my hands.

Characterization is both a blessing and burden, but no matter what, it's absolutely necessary. We're essentially creating human beings that will tell our story for us. So, we must know them inside and out. And, much better than our readers. When students ask me how to create a character, I always tell them, "Ask questions." Ask yourself what color hair, eyes they have - what shade of white their teeth might be. Do they have tattoos? What's their romantic/dating history? On and on and on. I give them a character sketch to fill out - link here - and they add in more questions as part of the assignment. It's always fun, hearing their questions. They usually get very creative!

I've grappled with this characterization process more than once, as I look back over this blog and find a few entries that deal with it: Character Stew; What's in a Name?; Good Guys/Bad Guys; Casting Your Characters.

What are your tricks/suggestions/routines for fleshing out characters? I'd love to hear them!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Know Every Angle

The point of view for my current novel is third person limited (getting inside the mind of one character, using third person pronouns). However, as I'm starting to place my female protagonist in important scenes with the male character (he's another "main" character, but the story isn't told from his perspective), I'm feeling a little stumped. I realized this morning that, even though this is "her" story, I don't know the male lead well enough to show his reactions to situations accurately.

So, this morning, I turned the tables. I focused only on him (in the brainstorming process), and saw the entire plot from his perspective only. And when I did that, it opened up everything. I understood his motives, saw why he would react in ways he did. And I started seeing my female protagonist through his eyes. The story suddenly feels richer, brighter, stronger. Even though, in the story, I haven't changed the POV at all (it's still "her" story).

This situation reminds me very much of the not-published "sequel" to Twilight, called Midnight Sun (okay, all you Twilight-haters, bear with me a second, here...this post has less to do with Twilight and more to do with POV). ;-)

I read Twilight years ago, at the suggestion of a Creative Writing student. I thought the writing could've been stronger, but I liked it. I thought the concept was creative. But I hated Edward. Hated him. I did not understand why the world had fallen in love with him. I saw him only as manipulative, controlling, and even a bit misogynistic. But Twilight was all from Bella's perspective, never Edward's. Thus, we only saw him through her eyes. There were whole periods of the book where we didn't "see" Edward at all (because Bella wasn't in his presence). Therefore, much of his jerky behavior was a mystery to the reader.

Well, somebody told me to go forth and read Midnight Sun -- link here. It's a novel told from Edward's perspective. It's still the Twilight story (nothing changed, plot-wise, from that book), but it totally switches to Edward's POV. While reading his side of the story, his perspective, a strange thing happened. I started to like him. I could empathize with him. I finally understood why he did the things he did in Twilight. It all made perfect sense.

And though I don't plan to write a separate novel from my male character's point of view, it's still imperative that I know who he is, why he makes the decisions he makes, and what he's thinking when my female protagonist has a scene with him.

In the end, I think it's essential that we writers know every angle of the story we're telling, and that even includes the perspective of characters whose POV we're not highlighting. The story will be stronger and richer for it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Gem

I love watching movies (even mediocre ones) that contain something unexpectedly brilliant that pops out at me. Something literary or deep or perfectly-stated.

Well, I just finished watching a cute, quirky indie movie called Happythankyoumoreplease (<---even the title is quirky, no?). It's written, directed, and starred in by Josh Radnor (of "How I Met Your Mother").

Anyway, the film itself is sweetly charming, and a little off-beat. Just the way I like my movies. It has a few extremely well-written moments between characters, where something is described or told that feels clever and and "spot on."

My favorite part of the movie (writing-wise) was when one of the characters was trying to explain to her long-time boyfriend that she was falling out of love with him. I liked the way it was explained, because I think the analogy perfectly hits the nail on the head. (This is from memory, not word-for-word):

The character reminds her boyfriend of when she'd first become attracted to him, when she first "noticed" him. She'd gone to meet him at a bar and was clearly over-dressed and he'd joked, "Going to prom?"

After that reminder, she tells him, "You 'got' me. I knew then that you weren't going to let me get away with anything, unlike most people. And in that moment, you sort of came into focus. Like, 'THERE you are...'" Then she pauses, looks sad, and says, "But now, it seems like you're going out of focus again..."

I just loved the way this was described. Because it's so true -- some people, for whatever reason, sharpen into focus for awhile, and sometimes, for whatever reason, they fade back into "normal" view. They become fuzzy again, maybe become less important? It was a really unique way of describing it. Very creative. Wish I'd thought of it first, heh. ;-)

Anyway, it's fun when an unexpected line or notion hits me that way in a movie. As a writer, I always admire those little gems that present themselves. And, as with a well-written book, it makes me want to reach higher as a writer. And that's never a bad thing!

Edited to add: Score! I just found the clip at YouTube - link here!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Measure of Success

When it comes to success, I think there's something beyond raw talent that comes into play. What ultimately separates successful people from unsuccessful people is one important thing: tenacity.

It's that stubborn digging-in. That attitude of never, ever giving up. Even when the odds seem impossible, the goal unreachable. Because, really, how can you succeed if you stop trying?

Love this quote, just wanted to share:

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. ~William Feather

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"It's Subjective"

We writers have heard this a million times, about how subjective the publishing business is. And the reason we've heard it a million times is because, like it or not, it's true.

I was thinking about this yesterday -- how art, in general, is ridiculously subjective. A song, a painting, a novel, could be considered either beautiful or ugly according to one thing: the eye of the beholder. Because the beholder is the one who casts judgment on the piece. And because the beholder is the sum total of all his/her past experiences, beliefs, and individual tastes, then that judgment is entirely unique. And valid.

Case in point: I visited a modern museum of art a couple of years ago. And as I was viewing these enormous canvases on the wall (one with a huge line painted beside a large red circle), I marveled at how someone could look at this and call it "art." How someone could spend a hundred thousand dollars on something my five-year-old niece could do with her eyes closed. But the neat thing is, they can. That's their right, their prerogative to look at that painting and admire it. They have just as much right to say they adore that big splotchy circle as I have to say I don't.

When it comes to our writing, when it comes to our scouring the ends of the earth for an agent, and/or publisher, we always need to keep in mind how very subjective this business is. There will be those who read my work and see only a simple line with a red circle -- who will shrug their shoulders at it, or who won't "get" it, might not even like it. And, that's their right. But there might also be (*fingers crossed*) those who read my work and see something else. They'll see beauty there. They'll nod their heads, smile, and consider it "art."

Just like the pair-of-jeans analogy (link here), we writers cannot let ourselves take rejections or critical feedback to heart so much that it paralyzes us or fills us with doubt. Because what we do, what we write, is art. And the very nature of art is subjective.

When we realize that, I think we're better able to release our work into the world (whether it's into friends' hands, or those of agents/publisher), offer it up to them, and accept whatever opinion they hold of it. We don't have to agree with it, but we do need to realize it's theirs, it's valid, and most importantly, it's highly subjective.

Brilliant Post

I love Nathan Bransford's blog -- it's so insightful, so spot on. And he always manages to make me think. To make me look at something in a new way.

He's done it again with a recent post -- here's the link to his brilliant thoughts on "Reversals."

Sure, I've always known that we, as authors, must throw obstacles in our protagonist's way, must present challenges and problems for them -- or else we have no plot. No drama, no tension. But I'd never looked at that process in this particular way before (as "reversals" - essentially, creating highs and lows, ups and downs, backs and forths that keep the reader interested).

I adore the Star Wars example he gives. Again, he made me look at that movie (the plot) in a completely different way.

So, thank you, Mr. Bransford!

The Right "Fit"

I'm becoming convinced that the biggest criteria, the greatest factor in getting published is the right "fit." The right work fitting the right agent/publisher at the right time. It all sounds very cosmic, doesn't it? And maybe it is...

Sure, there are other things that matter: the work must be grammatically-correct, compelling, original, strong. But even so, if an agent/publisher doesn't handle your type of genre, then those things are suddenly and utterly moot.

It's like trying on a pair of jeans. Sometimes it takes dozens of "try-ons" before we KNOW - "This is the one! A perfect fit!" But here's the thing -- the ones we discard in the process might have been so close, but in the end, just weren't right. It doesn't even mean they were inferior. It might only mean they weren't THE ONE.

In some ways, this analogy is comforting. The notion that it's not the jeans' "fault" for not being selected. That it's more about the "fit," that it's out of the jeans' control, whether the fit is right or not. And -- that there's always the hope that if a pair of jeans is discarded on the shelf by one person, that the next person who picks them up to try them on could finally be "the one!"

I think if we see the publishing process in this light, we're a lot less likely to take things personally...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Just for a Giggle

Proof that canines can be artistic/creative, too! click here

(Thanks to my dad for the link! ;-)

Friday, May 20, 2011

POV Shifts: Proceed with Caution

As a writer (or even as a reader), I'm not a big fan of point-of-view shifts, hopping from one character's mind into another, back and forth. It can get complicated and choppy and confusing. I prefer to stick with one character (perhaps two) and get to know them better than any other character. Because when you spend a little time here with one character and a little time there with another, you feel like you know a few characters sort-of well, and none of them extremely well.

Also, POV shifts can feel incredibly jarring, if not handled deftly. One book I read years ago--I can't recall the title or author--placed the readers in the mind of one character for several chapters. We got relaxed, got comfortable, settled in to know her thoughts, the way her mind worked. Then, the phone rang. The character picked it up, and we watched her end of the conversation play out, as expected.

But when she hung up, WHAM! The reader was suddenly thrust into the mind the other character on the other end of the phone. Huh? Sure, that move could be considered uber-creative. But it was also uber-confusing. In fact, I had to re-read that shift about three times to make sure what had happened. Very jarring. In addition, I kept wondering how the other character--the one I'd gotten to know so well--was reacting at that moment. I'd invested a lot of time with her, and didn't care about this other character. I kept wanting to jump back into the other woman's POV again. I think I read the rest of that chapter and then quit reading altogether. I knew that if the author used that jarring technique once, he/she would probably use it again and again. Ick.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule (not that this post is a "rule" - it's just my opinion, my...heh...point of view ;-).

One exception is the book I'm currently reading (and loving) - The Island, by Elin Hilderbrand. Ms. Hilderbrand starts off by allowing the reader to see one character's point of view. And just when we know the character (and like her), the POV shifts to another character. But--it's done so swiftly and smoothly that it feels natural. (A break in text is given, then the name of the upcoming character offered in big bold letters--we're prepared for the shift before it occurs. We know what we're in for. It's not a shock or surprise).

And by the time the author has shifted again (there are four characters whose POVs we see, and I'm only on page 80 right now), we not only understand the transition and are prepared for it, but more importantly, we feel we know each character thoroughly. And, this particular story couldn't be told any other way. We need to see into the minds of each character intimately to be able to know precisely what they're going through when they're together. This technique, used brilliantly, is effective and creative. Reading Ms. Hilderbrand's novel isn't just a pleasure--it's also a lesson. It gives the writer-reader a chance to see a technique executed extremely well.

Rosamunde Pilcher also handles POV shifts well (The Shellseekers has whole sections of the book entirely devoted to each character's POV, and the shift is clearly made by placing the character's name before that section).

What are your experiences with POV, both as a reader and writer? I'd love to hear them...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Summer Reading!

Since there's never enough time for pleasure reading during a semester, I'm always thrilled when a summer rolls around and allows me the luxury of time. Time to read!

So, I thought I'd share on the blog what I'm reading this summer.

I just finished a book called Juliet, by Anne Fortier (link here). It's an enjoyable read - an intriguing, suspenseful, unique plot, set mostly in Italy. A nice change of pace from what I'm used to...

Now, I'm reading Elin Hilderbrand's The Island. And so far, so GREAT! It's well-written and it's also a page-turner.

She's my go-to author for summer reads. She's got another book coming out in June, as a matter of fact (already pre-ordered!!).

I think summery-books are tricky, from an author perspective. They're meant to be "light" and "breezy" beach reading, but the writing quality should never be sacrificed. Which is why I really enjoy Hilderbrand's books. The quality of her writing is strong and the plots are interesting. And, somehow, she manages not to recycle old plots/characters. Every "beach read" of hers feels fresh and new. (I highly recommend The Blue Bistro - the first of hers I ever read).

So, what are you reading this summer? I'd love some recommendations!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I Own It

I always love to hear artists/writers/creators talk about their craft - to hear all the unique ways they describe this magical "thing" of creating something (whether on canvas, on the page, or on a keyboard).

Last week on Oprah, writer Toni Morrison was interviewed and she described her craft, what it does for her:

After all these years, Toni has one more lesson to offer: Everyone needs to have a place that is all theirs. "It's just a place where it's you," she says. "It can be creative, it can be a computer, it can be anything. It's your sacred place and you own it." (source here)

That's my favorite part of the quote - that we "own" our creativity, that sacred place, that world we've created. It's all ours and no one else's. I think if we writers are honest with ourselves, we'd agree that a huge part of the allure of writing is the degree of control we're granted. In real life, we don't have much control -- heck, we can lose just about anything, beyond our control, at the drop of a hat: our keys, our memory, our loved ones, our health, our time, our material possessions, our jobs, and on the list goes...

But when we write, we are in FULL and absolute control. 100%. We determine the fate of every character, every plot outcome, every setting, every word. And that can be oddly liberating. Odd, because in the end, that control is just an illusion, isn't it? I mean, we have control over a world that isn't even real, except in our own minds. Still, though, that sense of control we feel when we write -- that's just as real as the keyboard I'm typing on right now.

It's a power we can own. It's ours alone.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Nature of Creativity

First of all, I'm FREEEEE! Submitted 150 grades yesterday, attended graduation, and promptly fell asleep in my recliner afterward, lol. So tired.

But this article - link here - rejuvenated me. This morning, I was wondering how on earth I would make the enormous shift in my tired brain from grader-of-essays to creative-writer again (I hope to finish a novel this summer, while I'm off). Well, this article did it. It's brilliant. It's thought-provoking. And it reminded me of why I'm creative, of why I love to BE creative. It makes me feel alive!

So, today, no matter how tired you are, how weary from an incredibly-difficult work week, try and take a few minutes to read the article, and to get creative. Even if it's only for an hour.

It's an hour well-spent.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I just read something that actually made me tear up. I didn't expect it to hit me that way. It struck such a nerve in me -- that anxious, self-doubting nerve that sometimes wonders if I'm "good enough" as a writer.

If you've ever shared those doubts, CLICK HERE. (<--I found the link on Janet Reid's amazing blog)

It will inspire you. It will touch your spirit and make you smile. And mostly, it will remind you of something very important -- that it's all about perception. If we think we can't, we can't.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Dialogue Tips from an Expert

Passing along this humorous, common-sense blog entry from Editor Lynn Price, about the perils of creating dialogue.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

God's Adjectives

I'm currently buried underneath 1,000 research papers to grade (okay, so maybe that's a slight exaggeration, lol). Still, I wanted to come up for air and offer a quote that one of my students posted recently.

Before I get there -- we all know that too much of a good thing is...well...too much. I always give the example to my students of "Good Will Hunting." Sure, Oscar-worthy movie. Sure, incredible performances. But honestly, the first time I saw it, I lost track of how many times the "f" word was used. Yes, it enhanced characterization. It made the dialogue feel more genuine, more realistic. And, it made the contrast between Will and the new circle of friends even stronger. I get it. I understand its purpose. But sheesh - did it have to be inserted in every other word? I'm no prude, but after awhile, it became a distraction. It started to take away from all that Oscar-worthy stuff (much like any word said over and over and over again, 50 times in a row, will quickly lose all meaning).

I tend to think less is more. For instance, imagine a meek, sweet, God-fearing, never-cussing grandmother shouting a profanity when she stubs her toe, then covering up her mouth in shame (even though she's alone). Fully unexpected, and fully powerful. That profanity, as opposed to Will Hunting's, packs even much more punch because it's used SPARINGLY.

Another quick example would be a book that hits the reader over the head with SYM-BOL-ISM. It punctuates each-and-every-scene with the deeper theme, that nearly chokes the reader with its earnestness. It's too much. It's over the top. Let the readers figure it out for themselves. Use words and symbols SPARINGLY. Otherwise, they lose their value, which is the opposite of what we're hoping to achieve.

This, I think, is what Mr. Twain means here (and he says it so much better than I):

God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. [If] you 'thunder and lightning' too much, the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by. ~Mark Twain