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I wrote this post a while back on how snippets of conversation show character so well in real life. It amused me that these were actual words real people said to each other in the moment.
James Scott Bell is my hero. An electrifying speaker. I picked up his book at the Writer’s Digest Conference a few months ago. He takes a page-turning, straight-forward approach to revision and self-editing in his book, Revision & Self-Editing.
You forget you’re reading a book because you’d swear he was right there breaking everything down for you. His conversational tone totally won me over.
An accomplished writer, he’s living the dream. In this book, he shares his knowledge on revision. He’s not kidding about providing techniques that transform your first draft into a finished novel.
After each chapter, I felt my brain smoothing out with new insight. By the time I finished his book, I understood what was wrong with my first manuscript.
I applied what I learned to the book I have slaved over for 2 years. A book I knew was complete. A book I’d queried and gotten full requests on.
In four days, I cut 6,000 words.
Mr. Bell gave me the tools I needed to see what wasn’t working in my manuscript. I’m eternally grateful to him.
This is a reference tool that is chock full of useful techniques, concepts, and real life examples to guide me throughout my writing career.
One of my favorites?
The Neil Simon note saying, I can fix it. Which reminds me ANYTHING CAN BE FIXED.
Isn’t that a phenomenal concept? All the bad parts of my novel can be worked out. Once I know they aren’t working. How empowering.
Revision & Self-Editing are tackled separately. The Self-Editing subsections covers such major points in the novel as: Character, POV, Plot & Conflict, Scenes, Dialogue, Show vs. Tell, Setting and Description. The Revision section covers similar points and provides a Revision Checklist.
This book is a must buy for first time and accomplished authors.
If you are going to pick up one book on revision and self editing. THIS IS THE BOOK.
Last Thursday, I attended Kristan Higgins book signing at Durham Public Library, which is a cozy library where one expects to encounter Lorelei and Rory from the Gilmore Girls. The activity room was filled to capacity with fans of Ms. Higgins work.
If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, GO! Ms. Higgins is a lively, eloquent, and entertaining speaker, who kept her audience enthralled the entire time.
Ms. Higgins has published seven books. Her current book, My One and Only, is on the USA Today and New York Times bestseller list. The story centers around a divorced couple. The heroine learns she’s maid-of-honor at the same wedding where her ex-husband is the best man. Because it’s a destination wedding In (Glacier National Park) Montana, they must ride together to the next airport.
This book is a departure from Higgins’ plucky classic romantic comedy heroines who believe in love. As usual, she decided to make things hard on her characters and contemplated the worst hero for her heroine– her ex.
At the time, she thought it was very original and didn’t realize there’s a class of books called reunion stories. For this type of story, a sunny heroine would not work. So Higgins created Harper, a woman who saw flimsy commitments her whole life. She did have a brief moment where she believed in love, but within a year she was divorced.
To avoid making her a cliché, Higgins wanted her to believe in marriage in a control freak sort of way. Then she set her off on the road, a place she’d never been before. She needed her characters far from the things they were comfortable with. And she needed the plot twists to be believable that they would end up stuck together.
Making it the best option for them to drive to the next airport required heavy usage of Google maps.
Higgins finds that the more she, writes the more she loves back story. In order to understand how things got so screwed up between them, she had to write about their history because the answers to their problems lay in past events.
Higgins loves to write about first love because it’s so seductive and the characters believe that as long as they love each other everything will be okay.
Her characters had to deal with the very real issues of communication in security. This may be her most emotionally mature work.
The heroine’s mother, Beverly, was originally envisioned as “Trailer Park Barbie.” however, the character fought back and refuse to obey Higgins. Instead of the very insensitive character she tried to write, the mother became kind and nice.
Every detail of the book was carefully selected, including Harper’s dog, Coco, who is half Jack Russell, half chihuahua. That made the dog part bold/brave and part fearful, reflecting on the duality of Harper.
To research Harper, Higgins picks the brain of a divorce lawyer friend.
Setting is very important to her. She went to Martha’s Vineyard to get a feel for the place. She’d never been to Glacier National Park, but someone in her writer’s group gave her hundreds of pictures. In order to capture the look and smell ,Higgins also went to the Park Services National Park website, where you can listen to the sounds you’d hear at each park.
In order to make the road trip from Glacier National Park to the airport realistic, Higgins employed Google maps, using the camera to see what the road looked like. The road trip went across Montana and North Dakota.
Higgins is a diehard Yankee fan. But her books are usually set in Red Sox territory. However it’s important to note the Red Sox hardly ever win a game.
When she started out as a writer all she wanted was to hold her book. Her agent told her that goal will change and she’d want to hit the lists.
Her kids are priority. But after hitting the lists and winning awards, she has traveled more. She’s spoken all over the country, but usually only sees the airport and the hotel. She attends conferences and writers groups’ events. Her busiest season is the spring and summer.
The more she writes, the faster she’s gotten at writing a book. As for self-doubt and worry, they remain a part of the process.
She enjoys her research, but it is scary to step outside what you’re used to. The road trip, the non-perky main character, the divorced couple–these were all risks.
To celebrate her placing on the New York Times list, Higgins called her friends and family and then helped her son with his math homework.
She is excited to have her publisher hire a publicist for her. She’s done interviews, blog radio talk show, and live chats with Q&A.
She just completed a book in March and turned it into her publisher. Her next book will be the last book of her contract.
The next book she’s writing will include the hero and heroine’s point of view in the third person. She’s very excited about it.
There are times, she and her publisher will disagree. For example, her publishers did not like how Harper was a departure from the typical romantic heroine. Higgins considered their feedback with an open mind, but felt strongly that Harper had to be this way. It looks like Higgins was right.
She has thought about doing a series, but hasn’t yet found a story for it.
In terms of her writing process, she starts with the character first, thinking what if you were x. She’s like a cat with a mouse, seeing if she likes it long enough to write a book. She has a file of 50 ideas, 49 of which did not become books. She’s also a big outliner, creating chapter by chapter outlines including setting. She’s very detailed and knows what will happen next.
Of course, things change in the first draft and many things have to be reworked. But that’s just part of the process of knowing your characters and spending time with them. She’s very hard on her characters and very realistic about her books, creating very high standards.
She read an excerpt from the book and it was absolutely brilliant. In this scene, Harper proposed to her boyfriend. Total Trainwreck.
Higgins loves kids and has them in her books. She has written three novels with fathers. Her 10th book will feature a heroine who is also a mom. Personally, she found the father is easier to write because she didn’t want to dive into motherhood in her romance novel. She also names novel kids after kids she knows in real life.
She tries to write everyday or do writing related activities. In the morning she gets her kids off to school, does housework, and goes to her office to write. Her office is located above her mother’s garage and does not have WiFi. A few hours of writing makes up a lot of pages.
She said the best and worst aspect of being a writer is that you are never away from your characters. There is no vacation from them.
She mentioned that her son wrote a novel at 11 and is now typing it with his cousin. Sounds like another Higgins author on the way.
Lately, I watch tv and movies through the lenses of a writer. I can’t seem to stop. Unbelievable characters, confusing plots, slow pacing, and uninteresting protagonists are my biggest turn-offs.
So when I catch something I like, I think about it. Every Harry Potter book and movie has been a good experience for me.
With the movie, there were a few hiccups where they diverged from the book and the story lost something, but overall I liked it.
The movie sucked me in 95% of the time. Here’s why:
- Great actors making the characters come to life and feel believable.
- Strong plot with good pacing.
- Tension throughout and more of an edge (which seemed to appear in the later Potter movies).
- Clear POV. No head hopping or uncertainty over whose narrating.
- Great secondary characters–most quirky, some lovable, and some despicable. But all eliciting a response from me.
- Cause and effect follow through. Things flow from each other and the past books flow into this one seamlessly.
What were your favorite things about the Harry Potter movie? Any that might also be characteristics of a great novel?
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?
As I develop characters and decide on who is the protagonist and antagonist in my story, I realize real life is not nearly that simple. Sure in my life story I’m the protagonist. But in someone else’s story, I may be the antagonist.
Many times, I’ve been the sidekick. Even, an ancillary character that fills in the background. And the character I portray in other people’s lives is very different from the character I am in my own story.
Which randomly brings to mind this Klimt painting. Each character is drawn relative to the other. If you remove one, the others lose their positions. And I think that is what makes storytelling so interesting. Everyone’s role is defined by the others. Remove one person from the picture and everything shifts.
What got me thinking so deeply about this? My online Writer’s Digest class. We had to describe our protagonist and antagonist and what motivates them. To me as the unbiased third-party story-teller, I am privy to all the facts and circumstances of their lives (or at least I like to think I am). It allows me to determine what role they play in the novel I am writing.
But then I have to delve into what roles they play among the other characters. And that is where things get convoluted. I have a heroine, who some view as a spoiled manipulative man-eater, while others see her as someone who put her friends first and suffers mightily for it. Same character, different perspectives. She is all these things. And that’s why I love writing her.
And I started wondering…hmmm in my own life…I’m sure I’ve been the antagonist in several people’s stories. I’m sure I’ve been good and bad and everything in between. And I started to wonder how I play out in other people’s stories. Which got me wondering, does anyone see themselves as the antagonist? Or do we all cast ourselves as protagonists in our own minds? Even when we may very well be the antagonist in many situations?
I just finished Paige Shelton’s Farm Fresh Murder and it was a deliciously good read! I hate when I put the clues together before the book is done, but this one kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end. Paige did an excellent job of introducing a slew of interesting characters in such a way that you never knew who the killer was. It’s a great twist ending. One of the best books, I’ve read this year.
Her characters and setting feel so real, you’re dying to drive down to Bailey’s and pick up some of Becca’s pumpkin preserves. Personally, I wasn’t sure a farmer’s market could be that exciting. Boy was I wrong. Her writing makes me contemplate giving up the city life to grow strawberries.
The supporting characters are so well written they guarantee the series will be worth reading.
The protagonist is likeable, quirky and loyal–all of which conspires to make for a great tale. I cannot wait to read the next one in the series and find out more about Becca’s love life and the goings on at the farmer’s market. I’m hooked.
And a huge congrats to Paige Shelton for the book hitting #35 on the New York Times Bestseller List–check out her posting on it and find out more about her tattoo promise!
One of the biggest problems I’ve had with my manuscript is point of view (POV). Originally, I started with multiple points of view. Then I encountered head hopping, where I would jump amongst perspectives in one scene. It was BAD. So I revised to limited multiple POV with 5 main characters. Still disjointed.
I moved to 2 main character POV. Then I realized the characters didn’t feel real enough. So I switched to first person. And that’s when my characters became life-like. I had to remember everything told from the “I” point of view was necessarily skewed by the character’s perspective. If she said someone was mean, it didn’t make it true. Ah nuances. Fun. Then came the hard part: revealing characters other sides without the protagonist necessarily changing her opinion even if the reader might.
I’ve heard that third person POV is the most popular now, but for me, I love first person. I love immersing myself in that character even when she interprets things wrong. I love the challenge of bringing other characters to life by their actions and interactions with the protagonist.
I thank my lucky stars that I experimented with POV in the same story, it was an invaluable learning experience, forcing me to retell the story. It restructured my novel. At first, I worried I’d lose the flavor of each character, but I think when done carefully first person POV still gives you a cast of living breathing supporting characters.
What do you think? Do you write in third person or first person? Do you have multiple points of view, only one, or a limited number? What works best for you and why?
Sometimes I overhear snippets of conversation and I memorize it for future use, knowing at some point one of my characters will use the line. When my close friends read my stories they are always amazed at how tidbits of my daily life work their way in.
Anyway, I am storing the following lines ripped from interactions at the Botanic Gardens for future use. But they made me giggle to hear them so I figured I’d share them now.
a) Picture it, gorgeous rows of cherry blossoms in full bloom. The sun peeking through the clouds. Then a mom turns to her son and daughter (approximately 8-10 years of age) and says, “You are ruining this for me. I will have to come back here alone on Tuesday to enjoy it.”
The son, sounding decidedly annoyed with his mother’s dramafest, replies, “Mom, take the picture.”
b) This was overheard while strolling among the tulips. Spray Tan Barbie to über Jock Ken, “When did I ever say I was going to leave you?”
I almost felt bad for this guy. Because clearly if he brought it up, she said it with her actions. I love when people have serious discussions in public.
This is one of my favorites from years ago.
It was my first apartment and this couple next door was usually very quiet until one night they got into a terrible fight. She’s screaming at him about how insensitive he is and how she hates him. He growls back at her, “You’ve ruined my life!”
Hands down, he won that argument. I mean what is worse than ruining someone’s life? I remember her trying to come back at him and he growled it again. Then she piped down. I guess she realized she’d done enough damage for the night.
I love the things we say in the moment. People are such characters. Myself included of course.
What is the craziest/funniest/most outrageous thing you’ve ever heard people say?
As I walked home from the subway tonight, my mind turned away from work and the book I was reading on the train and toward my new character’s life story. I already know who her parents are and how they got together. But was she an only child? Nah. She has a younger sister. Promising. And an older brother. My mind locks onto them and all the possibilities fire through my head. Images of the brother shift into focus. His name. His age. As if he is telling me his story. But he won’t reveal it all yet. No. He makes me work at getting to know him and when I get it wrong, boy does he let me know. Yeesh. He’s gorgeous by the way. All blond Adonis with unruly curls and blue eyes that sear you from the inside out. He’s the rebel in the family. He went corporate and lives in a flat in London.
The younger sister? She’s in college. She’s like her dad–total surfer, living the southern California dream. But she’s always been jealous of how close the other two are. It’s hard being the youngest by several years. Growing up in her sister’s shadow. Ugh. She was hoping when her sister got married and moved away things would get better. That she’d finally get her parents’ attention. But think again. Her freaking parents started skyping to keep in touch with her sister. Threw themselves into their causes and as usual she was relegated to the back burner. She hasn’t shown me her face yet. I think she is mad that I met her brother first. It wasn’t my fault, he just came up and introduced himself.
I am already in serious like with both of them. I am not sure where or if they will appear in the book. but they are so important to the main character’s development. It’s weird to spend so much time on something I may never share with the reader. But in order for the story to feel real, I have to believe in the world I am weaving. It has to exist.
What’s my favorite part of the process? Hard to say. I love the beginning when inspiration strikes and knocks me over. I also love the point where I know what the characters would and wouldn’t say and do. When I picture them as clear as anyone else I know. But until that day arrives, the naming is my fav thing. Pouring over baby name books until I find the perfect name. It reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s poem:
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
For me the character must have a first and a last name, possibly a middle and probably a nickname. But not all will be used. When I can call them by name, they take on that third dimension–suddenly more tangible, more alive. A total turning point in the story and our time together.
So how do you create characters? Is it a spontaneous thing or a rigorous format? What is the hardest part?