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I can’t remember how Writing and Selling Your Novel was recommended to me, but it was definitely worth reading.
I love books on writing because they are like attending mini-conferences. Lots of topics are covered that make me think about writing in different ways. Usually sparking a breakthrough or giving me a new technique when editing or drafting.
I’ve been reading this book for a couple months because the chapters are wonderfully divided up into individual topics and lessons. Each has exercises to try too.
I really loved how he explained Stimulus and Response. It gave me a new way to analyze the flow of my writing.
One of the best takeaways is: “Whenever you show something happening (a stimulus), you must show something else happening as a result (a response); and whenever you desire a certain thing to happen a response), you must show the happening that caused it (the stimulus).”
Sounds simple right?
But one point he made is that when you have dialogue and internalizations in a paragraph, you want to put the line of dialogue at the end of paragraph, if the next paragraph begins with the speaker responding to it.
Stimulus-response at work. It really makes things flow better.
His chapter on Making Story People More Interesting touches on some basic psychological aspects that can be employed to ratchet up the conflict and tension.
I found the transactional analysis theory very useful in understanding an argument in my current novel. The idea is that there are 3 ego states: parent, adult, and child.
Conflict happens when there is a cross transaction, which means any of these three talking to one of the other two. So if a parent talks to a child, you’ll get some sparks.
Gotye’s song Somebody That I Used to Know has blown up. I have a theory about why.
The lyrics harken back to the origins of songs as tools of storytelling. This song gives us clear insight into the male and female characters. We learn about their relationship. How it collapsed. Their takes on what went wrong and the fallout.
I can see the events play out in my mind when I hear this song.
And therein lies the brilliance. Music as a form of storytelling. I feel like I read a short story when I read the lyrics.
Such clear character development and plot. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to their story.
What do you think? Am I on to something? Or is it something else?
Donald Maass’ gave a killer presentation at the Writer’s Digest Conference. As useful as the Empire State Building in navigating New York. Definitely improved my craft toolbox.
He talked about how as a reader, we give up on writers who stop writing great fiction. But he believes everyone can write and keep writing books where readers fall in love with the main character from page one and stay around for the next 300 or so pages.
But how do writers make readers care about their main character?
You start with three kinds of protagonists:
- Everyman–ordinary guy/girl but extraordinary stuff happens to him
- He suggested taking a person you consider to be a hero and figuring out what they said or did to become a hero to you
- Focus on the details of that moment (location, time of year, your state of mind, your reaction, etc.)
- Think about what makes that moment come alive for you
- Now find a way to give that quality to your protagonist
- Think of a way for the reader to experience this quality in the first five pages of your manuscript
- Hero/Heroine–may have high-risk job or something special that sets that apart from the rest (the everymen)
- Think about one way that you as a person are human/fallible
- Give that human quality to your protagonist
- Figure out how to have him experience it within first five pages
- Dark protagonist–wounded, down and out, self-hating, the anti-hero
- Think of one thing this character wants to be able to do. It can be something common/ordinary that they cannot do
- Consider how your character would like to be more human
- How can the reader experience the dark protagonist longing for change?
- What represents who they want to be?
- Have it come though in the first five pages
Readers need to see something that shows strength of character in everyman, humanity/fallibility of hero, and possibility of redemption in dark protagonist. This will make the reader connect with the main character.
Key Point: In the first five pages, the reader needs a reason to care about the character for them to continue reading onward
What about the antagonist?
The antagonist is the secret enemy of the protagonist.
- Find five ways for the protagonist and antagonist to be together face-to-face
- Think about the antagonist’s opinion of protagonist–how does he see the protagonist?
- What does he despise and admire about the protagonist?
- How does the antagonist believe the protagonist can help him?
- Figure out 2-3 ways that your antagonist is likeable. This will create nuances of character
- Now show this in the manuscript
- Consider why your antagonist is justified or right in his actions
Key Point: Create a sympathetic antagonist. Have him live by some set of principle/have something altruistic or selfless about him to make him more real to the reader
This will infuse your story with passion and fire.
How to tackle a flat scene in your book
- Figure out what the POV character wants in the scene. What does he feel most strongly in that moment?
- Once you identify the emotion, think about a time in your life you felt that way
- Delve into the details of the period in your life, time of year, people around you, etc.
- What provoked that feeling in you?
- What made the feeling more acute to you?
- What would you change about that moment?
- Now give all that emotion to your POV character in that flat scene
Key Point: Draw on your life experiences to enrich your character and give them depth
If you have a story where most of the conflict is internal to the POV character, create a person who represents part of the POV character’s inner conflict. Now you can dramatize outwardly.
A huge thank you to Mr. Maass for sharing his insight and conducting his session as more of a writing workshop where we actually worked on our manuscripts.
This is my dog, Emerson. I can tell you great stories with amazing plots about Emerson, but right now are you interested?
Maybe slightly but not really. I mean he’s cute but why listen to a story about him? Why care?
What if I mentioned that he is a warrior lapdog who sleeps facing the door and guards me while I shower? Kinda interesting quirks.
How about if I tell you he snores and makes noises like a little old man all night?
Or that if you miss his breakfast time, he will sit in bed groaning and staring at you until you wake up and feed him?
Okay now you’ve got a character sketch. He’s a quirky dog who clearly thinks he’s human. Do you like him or at least feel some reaction to him?
Now would you listen to a story about him? Even if I meander off course slightly–you might give me some leeway. (Although I’ll try my best not to)
Why? Because you’re interested in my main character. You’re wondering what he might do.
Emerson, realizing he was dealing with yet another flawed human, sat patiently in the middle of the kitchen–right in Dad’s way as he made himself a sandwich. Emerson glanced at Dad, then the cabinet where his food was and finally at his food bowl. He repeated this eye movement a dozen or so times until Dad got the message and opened the cabinet to find his food and feed him.
Not the most interesting story, but you listened right? Why? Is it because the character sparked your interest?
What do you think? Do you show enough of your character to intrigue the reader early on? What’s your experience with developing characters in your story?
Firstoff, huge thanks to MWA NE and SinCNE for making Crimebake 2010 a fabulous conference!
Friday at Crimebake started off with an amazing welcome for Sisters in Crime New England. They had coffee and cookies and the perfect ice breaker–a scavenger hunt to find people with different abilities–like Agatha Winner or Writer of Paranormals. Immediately, we all had a conversation breaker and it make the conference kick off the best ever!
I signed up for the master classes and soon made my way to Writing the Traditional Mystery with Roberta Isleib. She’s a great public speaker and I highly recommend taking any workshop she does on writing mysteries.
She started by explaining that all cozies are traditional mysteries but all traditional mysteries are not cozies.
Typical traits of a cozy include:
- Amateur Sleuth
- Violence and sex happen off-screen (if they happen)
- A closed/contained setting
- Emphasis on deduction
- Victim and murderer know each other and the sleuth has to figure out the relationship between the two
- Being a comfort read
- Not jarring
Traditional mysteries can be darker than cozies. Cozies are a subset of traditional mysteries and usually include a craft/cooking/gardening.
She stressed the importance of knowing your genre. If a book can’t be labelled, it can’t be sold.
The killer must be in the book in enough detail so that the writer plays fair with the reader. At the end of the book, the reader should think, I should have seen it coming.
The three most important things in a Traditional Mystery are:
- Character Development
In the past, characters weren’t expected to change much in a series. Now readers expect growth and change within the book and over the course of the series. There must be a character arc–what she learns and how she changes. The arc of the character can be: character realizes she’s obsessed with an outer goal/desire but needs x to be whole/fulfilled. You have to have an idea of where you wants the character to end up.
Nathan Bransford blog talks about how every protagonist wants something and the novel is about them trying to get it. The antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist.
The character’s stakes are also crucial. Here are the things you should ask yourself to get a better grasp of the character’s stakes. (BTW, this was my favorite part of the workshop–very interactive and thought-provoking).
- What brings character into story now?
- What is her goal?
- Will her goal change?
- How will the character change by the end of novel?
- What makes your character unique?
- Central strength of your character?
- What weakness should she have?
Think about your characters history and from that make the stakes feel more real. Convince reader why they got involved. Can’t sell plot until sell character.
Setting is the third key part of a mystery. Change has to be underway–a place in turmoil and something happening in bigger world. Setting has its own value system.Something new to reader.
Setting has to intersect with character and plot. We were now asked to write a two sentence setting. Go ahead and write yours.
Okay now take that same setting and view it through the protagonist’s eyes. Description should do double duty by showing and telling character’s feelings. You can use description of setting to convey stuff about the character.
Audience members also got up and read their responses to parts of the workshop to illustrate how to use her teachings. Overall an awesome workshop–Thank you Roberta!
I’ve been creating back story for the characters in my newest story. It’s so much fun to imagine why they are the way they are. Who were their parents? What are their first, middle and last names? Who were they in high school? What do they represent to each other? Brainstorming. Character birthing. It’s the beginning of it all.
It all started one day while I was scrubbing the shower tiles in November. Don’t laugh, a girl’s gotta have a clean bathroom. Besides, I do my best thinking while I clean. I had just finished the Backspace Conference and faced a ton of edits to my novel, The Curse of the Radcliffe Rubies, before I could send out more agent submissions. I was working diligently on the edits, but feeling a bit beaten down.
Around that time, I’d come across a short story contest and dismissed it because I didn’t write short stories. But I’m not the kind of person to say never. So as I finished up the tub and grabbed the toilet brush, I decided to write a short story. But what was my premise? Who were my characters? What story could I tell in 1500 words or less?
A challenge to say the least. But I decided to give it a shot and began crafting my concept. Within a few weeks, 1400 words were drafted and edited. The word count restriction made me weigh the value of each word. My writing was tighter than ever before with zero room to meander. And my first short story was written. Fifty or so edits later, it was polished and ready for submission in November 2009.
The results of the contest were available in February 2010. I didn’t win. But I did come away with a prize. My characters wouldn’t stop talking and living. They demanded their own novel, which I began to draft in my spare time. And now I get to daydream about their lives and how they became who they are.