Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Sigrid Macdonald
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I recommend that people think of their book as a movie; now describe that movie to someone who is blind. The readers of your book do not have ESP. They can't telepathically tap into your head to know what you have in mind for your characters.
Start with a specific physical description of each character. It doesn't have to be long and it doesn't have to occur when you introduce the character; however, we shouldn't get to the end of the book and discover that your protagonist has a purple birthmark on his face, or is six foot seven and came from the planet Krypton, unless you were trying to surprise us.
Make sure that your description is not generic. Don't describe a potential romantic interest as "tall, dark and lanky." Pretend that you're reciting his attributes to a police officer who's looking for a burglar. Every trait is important, particularly the ones that will make him unique. Brown eyes or brown hair are mundane. A nose ring or a skeletal tattoo is not. Give your characters a goatee, holes in their jeans, stiletto high heels, platinum hair, a vaccination pockmark or a military crew cut. Do anything to make them different.
After you've created a strong visual image of your characters, devise a separate page where you can write down all the qualities each one of them has. This can be a biography of sorts. What kind of music do they like? What's their favorite food? Where were they born and how do they like to spend their spare time? Once you have a bio on each one, add this information into various parts in the book. Don't put it in all at once. Maybe in the beginning of the story your 23-year-old graduate student is listening to "How to Save a Life" by The Fray on her iPod while waiting for a bus. Later, she and her friend are munching on Chinese take-out. You know that she'll like General Tso's chicken and her ideal vacation is skiing in Vail, because you have it in her bio.
How do your characters react emotionally? Are they easily angered or unflappable? Are they sentimental and romantic? Or bitter because they've been burned? Put this in the bio. Maria's parents had an ugly divorce when she was quite young. She has trust issues and tends to be serious. Something has to be hilarious for Maria to laugh out loud and she's not keen on hugging people, especially strangers. Maria is dating online and she's yearning to meet a soul mate. That means that she would be easy prey if you want to introduce her to an unsavory cad, or she could be completely transformed, and become vibrant and lively if she meets a great guy with whom she feels safe.
Expound on the emotional state of your characters. By telling your reader how your characters feel, you're making them three-dimensional and identifiable. If you want us to love or hate your hero, start by telling us how he feels and why.
Then move on to what your characters believe. What are their ethical and political philosophies? What motivates their actions? Give us enough information so that we come to know and care about your fictional creations.
Lastly, there is nothing intriguing about a character who is too perfect. Josa Young, author of One Apple Tasted, claims that her hero is "beautiful, certainly (at least to begin with), and funny, but he is deeply flawed. Spoilt and indulged, he has no idea of what women are thinking or feeling and is as hormone-driven and indiscriminate as young men I knew."
Just as there can be no story without some sort of conflict or dilemma, truly fascinating and realistic characters are imperfect. They don't have to be criminal or callous, but do strive to give them some less than admirable traits.
Obviously, a 16-year-old is going to speak differently than a 46-year-old. A grandmother talks differently from a toddler. Someone from Texas doesn't sound anything like somebody from Ontario. (How aboot that?) Demonstrate that in dialogue.
Study the way people speak. When you're out in public, listen to people talking. Yes, I know this won't make you very popular and I hope that you won't be evicted from your local Starbucks, but grasping idiomatic expressions, dialect, inflection, content and slang will greatly enhance your writing. As I did for my Quebec scenes in my novel, record your impressions into your smart phone. Don't repeat other people's conversations verbatim. Just absorb the gist of what they're saying and more importantly, how they're saying it.
Especially tiresome is the use of popular words like awesome, amazing or excellent. Remember how often you used to see the term LOL in e-mail or on chat lines? Finally, people became sick to death of it and came up with alternatives like "ha ha," "he he" or even LMAO. Instead of using the smiley icon, some people started writing out the word "smiling." They wanted to be different and not bore their reader to tears. Be imaginative. Find synonyms for commonplace words.
Finally, be careful not to overwrite your sentences. Use words sparsely. Watch for terms that are redundant like, "I'm going out at 9 p.m. in the evening." Nine p.m. says it all. There is no need to add evening. It's like talking about "sweet chocolate." The only time that you need to do that is to distinguish it from dark or semi-sweet chocolate.
Some words simply take up space and don't add value. I had a good friend in college who ended many of his verbal sentences with the words, "as it were." What does that mean? It's irrelevant and sounds pretentious, although he didn't mean it that way. The same is true of ten dollar words. You don't have to impress anyone with your extensive vocabulary. If you naturally tend to talk and write in polysyllables, no worries, but don't feel compelled to use the most complicated words in the dictionary.
If your characters swear, that's fine, but guard against the overuse of terms, profane or not. I just watched Gran Torino by Clint Eastwood and quite enjoyed the movie; however, I cringed at the repeated use of ethnic slurs, not just because they are offensive -- which they are, but they were used deliberately to make a point -- but also because they made the dialogue seem less realistic. How many times in one sentence can one person swear and use racist terminology? Even the worst bigots have their limit.
Where is the appropriate place to talk about how an adult lost his mother to leukemia at age seven, and was briefly placed in foster care because his father was an alcoholic? Find a spot where something reminds the adult of his mother. Maybe another woman passes by and she's wearing Chanel perfume, instantly triggering memories of his long-lost mom. Perhaps he's sitting at a restaurant and notices that the business tycoon across from him is sipping Heineken, his father's nightly treat.
You can insert the backstory almost anywhere, as long as it has some relation to a current reference.
The Old Maxims
Avoid using clichés in characterization. We all know about the prostitute with a heart of gold, or the father who goes berserk when his son is denied medical care and holds the hospital hostage. It's not that you can't write about people who have those experiences; it's done every day of the week. Just make your version special.
For example, your prostitute or sex trade worker (a preferable and gender-neutral term) is well-educated. She hasn't been sexually abused and isn't addicted to drugs. Your character chooses such an occupation because she likes the sense of power and control. She is psychopathic and often ties up her clients, and robs them. Or the father who is enraged when his diabetic child is refused treatment kidnaps the child of the CEO of the HMO. You get the picture. It's fine to do something that's been done before, as long as you give it a slightly different twist.
Know What I Mean?
You know what you want to say but sometimes it's hard to express. Try to imagine your reader. Could anything that you've written be ambiguous? Could it be confusing? Don't assume that the reader knows what you are thinking. Step back and fill in certain details or clarify to be as precise as possible.
Here's an example: "That ended her short life in Shadow Lakes." What ended her life there? Did she die or simply move? Or did she stay but never had a decent quality of life afterwards? Think like a reporter and ask yourself all of the W's: who, where, what and why (and, of course, the non-W, how). Once you're clear about all of those, convey them to the reader: "Marrying Stephen ended her short life in Shadow Lakes because they moved into the city right after their honeymoon."
Plot and Characters
Sometimes the plot for your story pops into your head all at once, and you know even before you begin to write what you'll say and how your tale will end. At other times, you start out writing with nothing but a vague, nebulous idea. Often as you continue to develop the novel and the people in it, those people magically take on lives of their own; they will tell you what they want to do or how the book should end.
There are some important things to keep in mind about your plot: How plausible is it? How likely is it to happen? Even if you're writing science fiction, there's a way to make it believable by creating solid characters and using as much traditional science as possible. Every step of the way, think about the credibility of your plot line, especially in terms of its resolution.
A crazed killer is terrorizing the neighborhood and suddenly at the end of your book, he confesses. There's a way to make this believable and a way to make it ludicrous. Make sure that you add all the fine points that make your story real.
Setting the Tone
It's important to ask yourself before you begin, what is the purpose of your book or article? Do you want it to be informative, entertaining or humorous? Is it a drama, a comedy or a documentary?
Identify what you want your reader to feel. Inspired? Outraged? Empowered or informed? Your answer to these questions will enable you to set the tone for your book or article. Obviously, if you want the reader to feel uplifted, you don't want to present a lot of depressing scenarios unless your ending is like that of The Pursuit of Happyness: ultimately triumphant.
And you want to avoid mixed messages. My sister, Kristin, has a degenerative retinal condition that rendered her legally blind. She is a motivational speaker and hosts a radio show called Second Vision on AIRS-LA.org, a reading service for the blind. When she first started her show, Kristin didn't want to bring anyone down and would make jokes about losing her eyesight. There's nothing wrong with being funny, but I advised Kristin against this in certain parts of her show. When she described falling down a flight of stairs headfirst, joking about it diminished the impact on the listener. Her story was serious and frightening, and she needed to let people feel those two uncomfortable emotions before she moved on. If she hadn't done so, her audience would never have understood how tragic and potentially dangerous her vision loss had become. Once that was established, Kristin could return to being a comedian.
So, ask yourself periodically while you're writing what it is that you want your readers to feel, and make sure that your words are consistent with that outcome.
Excerpted from Be Your Own Editor
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Sigrid Macdonald is a book coach, an editor and a freelance writer. Originally from New Jersey, Sigrid currently resides in Ottawa, Ontario. She has written three books: Getting Hip, D'Amour Road, and Be Your Own Editor. A member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, The Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, Ottawa Independent Writers, and the Editors' Association of Canada, Sigrid loves Concerts, live comedy and watching Spanish movies, particularly those by Pedro Almodovar. Visit her or drop her a line at http://sigridmacdonald.blogspot.com/.