Saturday, April 3, 2010

Establishing Strong Characters (part two):

Your primary goal here is to achieve what actors refer to as “in character.”  You should be able to talk like your guy, move like your guy, think like your guy…  be your guy.  I have no illusions that my work is completely original, and therefore, I know full well that I am more likely to write about what I see.  So, I spend a lot of time watching people.  I think it is natural for writers to watch people, but I try to take it a step further: 
            Instead of simply observing a person, I imagine my life if I were that person.   What would I eat?  Who would I date?  What eccentricities would I have?
            And then, as part of my daily routine, I will write about what life was like when I was that person.
            You’ll notice that I don’t immediately try to put this person in a story.  I just write it because that’s one of my eccentricities, and I call it journaling.  But backgrounds, as I described earlier (Writing Sharp Dialogue, part 1), are essential in creating any believable character.  While writing a first draft, I will often write out the character’s background right there in the prose.  Even if I know that later I’m going to take it out.  I don’t write it all, but I write just a little more than I think I need, and then I’ll chop it all up in the second re-write.
Freddy’s chapter in “Lives” originally began with him taking a look through his apartment.  You can tell a lot about a person by what they keep and what order they keep it in, so I went into several personal items that he kept and the memories associated with them.  All in all, it was about ten pages and I cut every word from the final draft.  Why?  It wasn’t necessary to move the story along and I had learned everything I needed to know about Freddy by writing it.  After writing that piece, I was so “in character” that when I wrote two lines -
Mom scooped some ice cream onto my plate without asking.
I ate it anyway.
- I knew I had his character in such a way that it wasn’t necessary to bore the reader with arcane details about his life.  One of the biggest mistakes I see when I read a struggling writer’s work is the addition of unnecessary details.  Make your characters strong and lean, and keep the golden rule first and foremost:  If it doesn’t entertain your reader, you shouldn’t let your reader have it.
In my next entry, we’ll talk a little about how to do that.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Establishing Strong Characters (part one):

            Every person has unique DNA, a unique fingerprint, a unique voice, and a unique personality.  Even “identical” twins have unique faces.  Remembering this is the first key in writing strong characters, even before you get into their background.  No matter how “minor” your character may be, your guy is not “one of those guys.”  Your girl is not “that type of girl.”  Just as every person you meet in life is important, every character you create is also important.
            Your characters are yours, and yours alone.  No one has ever met them, and you are formally introducing them to the world.  At the risk of repeating myself, I will say it another way:
“Your characters have lives of their own.”
            As in life, your character doesn’t get a second chance to make a first impression.  Therefore, it is ideal for you to introduce your character with a signature.  A signature, like every other attribute of your character, is unique.  From a literary perspective, I am talking about an action, a gesture, a saying…  Something that your character does that’s different.  In “Lives,” for example, Freddy McDaniel starts off talking about his old car with his Dad.  In that scene, he talks about his older brother, Kyle and it is obvious from the attention his Dad pays Kyle that he favors Kyle more.  Later on, when they have dinner, Freddy says, “Mom scooped ice cream onto my apple pie without my asking.  I ate it anyway.”  It reveals the dynamic between Freddy and the rest of his family that becomes very important later on.  His Mom is so pre-occupied with Kyle, that she just goes through the motions with Freddy.  She doesn’t hate him or abuse him, but her actions reveal a lack of attention to Freddy’s wants and needs.
This line also reveals a few things about Freddy as well.  He is passive.  He does what he’s told.  He eats what he’s given…  and he accepts his fate as it’s written.  To spell that out, however, would tell the reader too much, just like it would tell your friend too much if you described EVERY emotion you had to them.  No matter how close our friends are, we censor our thoughts and your characters should censor theirs as well. 
The characterization is best revealed through action, rather than explanation or dialogue. 
A reader should know what a character is thinking without having it spelled out for them.  When that happens, you know your characters are strong.
Now that we’ve talked about the end result, let’s talk about how we get there. 

Monday, March 8, 2010

Writing sharp Dialogue (Part 2)

Another good way to develop your dialogue skills is to write in 1st person.  1st person is dialogue.  Every sentence you write is conversational and must remain true to the voice of the character.  When I write in 3rd person, I feel a distance between myself and the reader.  Right now, I’m in 1st person, and the words flow as if you and I were sitting down, having a cup of coffee together and chatting about our writing secrets.  It’s more intimate, and it’s more realistic. 
            I journal about a hundred thousand words a year, and all of it, as you would imagine, is in first person.  Granted, it’s in my voice, rather than a character’s, but it is still a good exercise for writing dialogue.  When I look back through these entries, I’ll hear whatever mood I was in at the time very clearly conveyed.  I was hopeful…  in love…  young(er)…  agitated…  lonely…
As writers, we’re told to write what we know.  So employ some method acting in your dialogue.  When a character is drunk, or heartbroken, or violent, or passionate…  Meditate into your own psyche and bring that mood to the surface.  Then, mix that meditation with the character’s background that you wrote in the previous entry and I promise you that what you come up with will be surprisingly rich.  
If you relate strongly to your characters, your audience will, too.
What’s the exercise here?  First of all, journal every day.  Personally, I write my dreams down when I first wake up and go from there.  Other people I know write at the end of the day.  Whatever works for you is fine, but keep a journal, and keep a routine.
Next, rewrite the character’s background that you finished writing in the last entry, but this time use 1st person.  Having a 3rd person POV and a 1st person POV of the same thing will give your character more dimension.  If you’re a super workaholic, write yet another character bio from the POV of another character in the book. 
Dialogue = characterization.
In my next entry, we’ll look at ways to establish good characters.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Writing Sharp Dialogue (Part 1)

            Of the many writing tools, the one I feel is the most important is dialogue.  By its very nature, dialogue creates conflict.  Jack and Jill are talking.  If there was no conflict, they would have no reason to talk.  Let’s say Jack wants to sleep with Jill.  Even if he talks about the weather, there is conflict.  If he struggles to say something, but clams up, there is still conflict.  In a previous entry, I suggested you try writing a scene using only dialogue, and then write the same scene using no dialogue and see which one is more compelling.  In this entry, we’re going to try to find the right balance between dialogue and narration.
            This balance can be dictated by your genre.  If you’re writing comedy, or a thriller, use as little narration as possible in order to quicken the pace.  The opposite of this would be a drama, or a romance novel, where the dialogue is nearly incidental to the description.  The larger the dialogue to narration ratio, the faster paced the piece will be.  My attitude is, if in doubt, use more dialogue.  I find that a faster pace is usually more appreciated than a slower one.
            So now that you’ve got an idea how much dialogue may be necessary for your piece, let’s talk about making it more compelling.  The standard rules apply (making it short and sweet, not going overboard trying to be “witty”), but we need to go deeper than that.  Asking yourself, “What would my character say?” isn’t quite deep enough, so here’s an exercise for you to try:
            Before writing ANY dialogue, open another document and write 5 pages of your character’s background.  Where did they come from?  What were their parents like?  What school did they go to?  What accent do they have (ALL characters have accents)?  What was the important “coming of age” incident in their life?  Write every detail you can think of, even if it’s more than 5 pages.  And don’t just jot notes, either.  Really write it out. 
            If you push yourself to do this for all of your characters, your dialogue will be much stronger.  You’ll find that their voices are more universal and your readers will respond to that.  You won’t be told, “I got Jack and Mike mixed up whenever they talked” because Jack and Mike are completely different people and your dialogue will reflect that.
            If your dialogue drags, amp up the energy a little.  In “Lives,” for example, I have a chapter where Thomas and Eva are in bed and he’s hypothesizing about how a hotel room could be decorated so badly.  In the first draft of this, it was after they had made love (low tension), and there was no action (boring).  They were just in bed and he was talking and she was listening.  I intended the scene to convey some important elements of Thomas’s character, but it wasn’t working.  The scene slowed the entire chapter. 
Instead of cutting it out, however, I made his monologue take place during their lovemaking (where tension is very high), and she does a bit more than just listen to him.  The improvement in pacing and readability was extraordinary and allowed me to keep the scene, and build not only Thomas’s character, but Eva’s as well.   

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

8 Techniques for Writing a Fast Read (Part 2)

5.  Dialogue is one of the most important techniques you can learn. 
While I will write specifically on dialogue in a later post, for now I’ll just say that you should keep your dialogue realistic and plentiful.  Dialogue is even more important than action when it comes to driving the piece forward, because human interactions almost always have conflict and conflict is what keeps a story going.  Try writing a story twice:  Once using only dialogue, and once using only description.  This will help develop your dialogue to be more descriptive, and help make your description more compelling.
            6.  Resolution kills momentum.  
The temptation will be to tie everything together in neat little packages as often as you can because we, like everyone else, like to resolve conflict.  But conflict is what keeps a story going.  The solution is to end every chapter with a cliffhanger, especially in a layered story where you are dealing with Bobby and John trying to diffuse a bomb while Jenny and Margaret are interrogating the terrorists in the next room.  Go back and forth, ending with the bomb about to go off…  then the terrorist is about to crack…  You’ll find that if you do this enough, eventually your piece will demand a break and THAT is when you describe the house, or the hill, or the backstory that led to now.  When the reader is wondering what is going on, they are compelled to read in order to find out.  And when they are out of breath, they will appreciate the description, so long as the story eventually takes over again.
            7.  Find great test readers and listen objectively.
If you push the envelope too hard, you will confuse your reader and they will put the book down.  So, some finesse is in order.  The only way to know how much finesse is to have someone else read it and tell you what they think.
What is a great test reader?  They should have these attributes:

a.     They read your work thoroughly (no skimming) in a timely fashion.
b.     They are supportive, but HONEST about your work.
c.      They offer good suggestions as to how to improve it.

You’ll find that, if you make your writing compelling, you will have little if any trouble finding test readers.  But that will only happen if you listen to what they have to say.  Do I change everything my test readers ask for?  Of course not.  But I at least consider every suggestion and visualize what the writing would be like if I did what they suggested. 
8.  Remove your emotional connection to the work.
When I write, the first draft is passionate, but everything after that is just refinement of my product.  I remove all emotional connection to the process after the first draft because if I don’t, I won’t ever want to change it.  Very few writers get it right on the first draft, or even the second or third.  It’s important to take it as far as you possibly can before seeding your work to your test readers, or else you will alienate them.  And without test readers, you will never fully entertain your final readers with a fast-paced well-rewritten novel.
Thanks for reading!
-JJ McMoon

Monday, March 1, 2010

8 Techniques for Writing a Fast Read (Part 1)

            One of the best compliments I can receive is that something I’ve written is a “fast-read.”  When my test readers tell me that, then I know the work is on its way to being published.
            Believe it or not, there are a strategies involved, and they are surprisingly easy to follow.
1.  Let’s start with vocabulary. 
Most authors out there try to dazzle with their vocabulary.  The insinuation seems to be, “If I use this word, people will realize how smart I am.”  That may be, but they are less likely to read another of your books.  The problem is you’ve missed your target audience.  You are writing for other people who like big words, and most people who read fiction do not.  My attitude is, every now and again it’s OK to use a word like “hubris” or “polyembryony” …  but your reader will probably be better served with “arrogance” or “identical twins.”  It’s not “dumbing down,” but rather letting your reader have what they thought they were buying when they picked up your book:  A relaxing voyage through their imagination, rather than a succession of trips to the dictionary.  Make sense?
2.  Try keeping your paragraphs and chapters short as well. 
By this, I mean cutting off all of the excess fat from your work.  Who cares if you took ten pages to describe how the guy wiped his face and you think it's beautiful?  Unless wiping his face is central to the story, “He wiped his face” is enough.
3.  Short sentences are good also.  
There is no writer I can think of who did this to greater effect than Hemingway.  Compound sentences require concentration and focus…  ie, they require “work” and your reader is not reading your stuff to work, but rather to get away from work.  Make them work to figure out the central mystery, or what X is going to do when he finds out Y’s been cheating on him.  But don’t ever make them work to remember what you’ve been talking about for the past ten pages.
            4.  Plot-driven pieces tend to read faster than descriptive ones.
             You can spend ten pages describing a noise from the cabin out back, but if there’s no action you’re going to lose most readers.  When you talk about what happens, instead of putting the reader in the middle of the action, you will lose most of them.