Tag Archives: Writing

Going Deep

brick-passage
Don’t be afraid to explore the depths of your characters

As in deep point of view. Not necessarily sexy, historical or romantic, but choosing a POV is a crucial part of storytelling. First person, second person, third person. Authors have used all of them to craft unforgettable books.

Many writers enjoy using first person, because they feel like they can dig up all their protagonist’s emotions. For that reason, many readers enjoy stories told in first person. Confession time here: as a reader, I struggle with first person books. Exceptions have been The Martian, by Andy Weir and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series.

First person isn’t a bad thing! It’s just a matter of personal preference. Like a kid at bedtime, I almost always want to know what the grown-ups are doing when I’m out of the room. Hence, I’m more comfortable reading third person, and a lot more comfortable writing in it. I like the freedom to move from character to character.

Even so, third person has its own pitfalls. I’m making my way through a book by a New York Times best-selling author, written in third person. It makes me want to poke pins in my eyes. Because it is All. Talking. Heads. Every last thought these characters have comes out in dialogue. Everything, including emotion, is on the surface — one of the hazards of writing in this POV.

Enter Deep Point of View

Deep POV, also known as third person limited, is a way to marry the intimacy of first person with the wider scope of third person. The reader is pulled into the head of a character from the first words of a scene, and experiences what it’s like to be that person as the story unfolds. Not just thoughts, but emotions and immediate physical sensations. The rush of first love, the burst of grief, the comforting squeeze of a friend’s hand on your arm. Making readers share those sensations gives them an investment in your story. Maybe even in you as a writer.

Going deep takes some work. For one thing, a writer can’t do it unless she or he knows his characters from the inside out. That means knowing more than their appearance and their basic goal, motivation and conflict. Where did they go to school? How do they view themselves? How do others view them? What was their birth family like? Do they speak formally? Swear a lot, or not at all? What are their wounds? For historical fiction, what are the customs, technology and language of their time and place?

The key to this point of view is that the writer is limited to what the current POV character can observed. (Limited third person, duh.) If you’re in your hero’s head, he cannot observe that the heroine thinks he’s hot. He can be aware when she flirts back at him, and can hear if she suggests going somewhere with less noise. But unless you’ve given him mind-reading powers, he cannot read her thoughts.

Besides, what if her ex is sitting in the corner and she’s trying to make him jealous by flirting with the first attractive man she sees? Mr. Hero doesn’t know this. The reader only finds out when the story moves into the heroine’s POV. (Things like this are why I love writing third person.)

Another thing to keep in mind is to avoid phrases such as ‘he thought’, ‘she noticed’, ‘he saw’, ‘she knew’. These place a distance between the story and the reader. Eliminating them will pull the reader in.

Consider the differences in these two examples:

Third person: She noticed a dark-colored splotch next to the building. When she stopped to touch it, her fingers came away sticky. She sniffed and recognized the coppery tang of blood.

Third person limited: A dark-colored splotch next to the building halted her. One touch left her with sticky fingers. She sniffed, then gagged at the coppery tang. Blood.

Ideally, the second passage makes readers share the character’s response to her surroundings. Plus they learn that the smell of blood makes her sick.

The more vivid we can make our writing, the more interesting it is to readers. Interested readers keep turning pages. ‘Nuff said, right?

Till next time,

Ann Stephens

 

 

 

We are what we Read

high-school-booksAs a writer or a reader, the types of stories we love reflect something about us: the kind of people we are (or would like to be), eras and places – real or imaginary – that we want to visit, characters we wish we could hang out with. (Book boyfriends, anyone?)

Whether they’re labeled ‘Heist’, ‘Road Trip’, or ‘Redemption’, we all have cherished books and movies that push our personal Like button. Sometimes they’re guilty pleasures, sometimes they’re best sellers, but reading or watching our favorite stories touches a special place in our hearts. They make our world better, even if only for a little while. They inspire us.

Screenwriter/novelist Alexandra Sokoloff believes writers especially should make their own list of story types that resonate with them. Making up our own labels gives each of us a private mental shorthand that tells our brains what to expect from the tale. Also, it’s way more fun.

Here’s a sample of her personal list, cribbed from her extremely helpful book on plotting, Writing Love. (Check out the link below!)

Caper/Heist/Con: Ocean’s 11, Inception (caper structure in a sci fi film)

Mentor Story: Karate Kid, The King’s Speech

Soul Journey: The Razor’s Edge, Eat Pray Love

Mysterious Stranger: High Plains Drifter, Mary Poppins

Note that these types of story cross genres, but they all have recognizable elements, such as ‘assembling the team’ in caper stories or ‘setting out for the special destination’ in road trip stories. Often a book or movie will fall into more than one category. ‘Thelma and Louise’ is a road trip story, but it’s also an ‘On the Run from the Law’ story.

Here are some of my favorite story structures. Naturally, you will find several historical romances. 🙂 :

The Big Makeover: Princess Diaries, Pretty Woman, My Big Fat Greek Wedding I

Master/Mistress of the Game: The Grand Sophy, These Old Shades, Second Season

Rescue/Mission: The Magnificent Seven, The Blues Brothers

Road Trip: The Lady Risks All, It Happened One Night, Angel Rogue

Noble Rogue: The Traitor, All the Ways to Ruin a Rogue

 

So what kind of stories talk to you?

 

Further Reading:

Writing Love, Alexandra Sokoloff

Save the Cat, Blake Snyder

Story Structure Architect, Victoria Lynn Schmidt

Flirting with Proper Nouns

 

OR, COMMONNESS AND CAPITALIZATION

Caps and little lettersOne of the things that never ceases to amaze me when I read self-published books are how often basic rules of grammar are flouted. We all make typos, yes, but a serious writer knows language is her most important tool. Spelling, grammar and parts of speech are our basic building materials. If you don’t master those, you’re not ready to publish. (Don’t even get me started on correct use of apostrophes. The world is not ready for a rant of that magnitude.)

Today, however, I want to talk about nouns. And why sometime they’re capitalized and sometimes they’re not.

The simplest definition of a noun is any word that represents a person, place or thing. A more detailed definition, from the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, is that “a noun is a word that names something, whether abstract (intangible) or concrete (tangible).” In other words, a noun can name things both perceptible, like a tree, and imperceptible, like goodness.

A common noun names a generic person, place, thing, activity or condition: The mayor of the city visited the ball park. Common nouns are capitalized only when they begin a sentence or appear as part of a title: “Detective Johnson examined the body.” vs. “The detective examined the body.”

Concrete nouns name things that are perceptible to the five senses: apple, rose, window, music. Abstract nouns name things than cannot be directly seen, heard, smelled, tasted or touched: grief, anticipation, schizophrenia.

A proper noun is the specific name of a person, place or thing. To rephrase the example above using proper nouns, it could read: Mayor Daly of Chicago visited Wrigley Field. Proper nouns are always capitalized, no matter how they’re used.

Titles of works are also proper nouns and have their own rules of capitalization. Big Sky River, (book), The Importance of Being Earnest (play), Downton Abbey (television show), Zero Dark Thirty (movie). Note that in two- or three-word titles, all words are capitalized. In longer titles, prepositions and articles are all lowercase except when they are the first word: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Human Bondage.

Articles on the web or in print can follow the same rule, or it is acceptable if the first word and proper nouns are capitalized and other words are lowercase.

Common nouns can become proper nouns: Democrats, Republicans, the Big Apple. And sometimes a proper noun may be used informally as if it is a common noun:  “Who died and made you Hitler?” implies that someone is dictating their wants without regard for right or wrong.

A class of common nouns called eponyms are derived from proper nouns that passed into such universal usage that the formal version was dropped. Today we might pack sandwiches, not Sandwiches (from the Earl of Sandwich, who popularized them) before setting off on an odyssey (a long journey, from the adventures of Odysseus in Greek legend) .

Do you have a spelling or grammar pet peeve? Which resource do you check for correct usage?

Revisions, I love them so

…or Surprise! Your characters had something else in mind!

 ImproperCoupleRevisions. How do I love them? Let me count the ways. They’re the writer’s version of the ‘second chance at love’ trope. You know, stories where the hero and heroine had a relationship in the past, broke up, and have met again with fear (he/she will just hurt me again) and loathing (that louse broke up with me for no good reason!). Both parties have sworn never to have anything to do with one another again. Except then that pesky author (me) keeps throwing them together, making them lean on and value one another all over again.

 

Revisions are another chance to fall in love with your characters. Seriously, I’m not the only one who finishes a manuscript and declares, “I’m sick of you people! I want to write about new characters! Go away and never darken my brain again.”

 

Someone somewhere suggested putting the manuscript away for a few months and moving on to other projects, and I heartily wish I could recall whose advice that is. I owe that writer big time.

 

Revisions are where I can get rid of talking heads, remove unneeded exposition, or add more descriptive detail if there’s no strong sense of place in a scene.

 

When I pulled out my most recent completed manuscript after a rest, I found that I really did like the hero and heroine. The baddie had a reason for his actions. Everyone had goals! They had motivations! They even had conflict, although I’m looking for ways to beef that up in the second draft. I hate making my characters hurt, but revisions are just the place to break their hearts into smithereens.

 

I even discovered an unintended theme. I started out writing about the healing power of love and the importance of forgiveness. Those themes are still in the story, but my characters all worked together to create their own idea. Every character in the manuscript is driven to protect his or her family. The hero, the heroine, the villain, even a couple of urchins that showed up in the course of the story all have family members or names or reputations that require his or her protection. In theater, this is sometimes called the spine of a play – a goal that is shared, even if unconsciously, by every character in the piece.

 

This kind of surprise doesn’t bother me. I’ve come to believe that no matter how thoroughly writers develop personalities and backstories, we know our characters better after we’re done with that draft. During the writing of a manuscript, I discover things about my characters I did not know when I started. It’s not a matter of pantsing. I write out biographies for my characters. I write scenes to show how they got their deepest emotional scars. Those won’t appear in the book, but it plumbs their emotions so that I know in my bones how much they hurt.

 

Is your writing an adventure? Do you get excited when a nugget of information reveals itself about your protagonist? Isn’t it fun?

The Practice of Inspiration

A woman searches for inspiration, in this 1898...

Professional artists, whatever their medium, say with good reason that ‘inspiration is for amateurs’. Deadlines, word counts, record companies or editors don’t care if you’re having a good week or not. They just need your product delivered when you promised it.

Nevertheless, even the most organized, disciplined artist (which excludes me!) needs and looks for inspiration to stimulate their process or refresh their brains. If a long-term goal is equivalent to reaching a mountain-top, and motivation is what keeps us on the trail, inspiration is the impulse that started us on the hike to begin with. It could have been something as simple wondering what the view from that particular peak looks like. It’s also the moment when an unexpected vista opens in front of us as we make our way upward. It’s something to savor and take a picture of. You catch your breath and rest, and then get back on your way. Inspiration makes you eager to see what you’ll discover next.

What refreshes you and gives that little zap of energy may not do a thing for your neighbor. Just check out all the different boards on Pinterest if you don’t believe me. What we love is as individual as we are. It could be visiting a botanical garden or window shopping at the local mall. The main thing is to find out what you love and take the time to indulge it. As long as you don’t wait for your Muse to drift down on a golden cloud and sprinkle fairy dust on your head before getting back to work, you should be fine. Maybe something wonderful that you can use right now will come to you. Maybe you’ll get a cool idea that you can’t use at the moment — make a note of it somehow so you don’t lose it. Or you might not see anything that really inspires you. That’s okay, you’ve still got your long-term goal to keep you on track.

One nice thing about looking for inspiration on a scheduled basis is that it opens your heart and mind. It can come from anywhere: spiritual readings, the rock you kept since you found it on the beach at age seven, a science journal. Like anything else, finding inspiration becomes easier with practice. And you find out what things inspire you for different tasks.

Lately, I’ve been looking at a lot of Georgian houses and listening to movie soundtracks. What gets your brain cells off and running? If you don’t know, take a few minutes and see what strikes your fancy!

Cross-Training for Writers

I was asked in an interview once what I’d write if I couldn’t write romance. I didn’t have to think twice; the answer is fantasy. As in Old Skool, Middle Earth, build-up-your-alternate-universe-from-the-Void fantasy. I devoured the works of Tolkien, C. J. Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Isaac Asimov, among many others, years before I attempted writing a word of my own books. I loved the chance to escape into another world while I read those books. The best of the romances I gobbled up by the pageful provided the same effect. My entirely unscientific theory is that good writers care passionately about their own creations, whether it’s a planet or a pair of feuding lovers.

I write romance because I enjoy offering hope in the form of happy-ever-afters. I love writing smart heroines and the hunks they deserve. (And okay, this is the only genre that allows me to look at man candy and say with a straight face, “It’s research.”) But I do engage in a form of world-building. Mine is different from speculative fiction writing because I am constrained by the laws, customs, technologies and events of actual past eras. I can tweak the rules and bend them, but if I break them, the reader will be jerked right out of the story and might not be able get back into it.

Fantasy readers are familiar with maps, spaceship diagrams and/or genealogical charts in the front or back of books. I use those tools too, as do most other writers serious about their craft. Maps are a sticky issue for me. The posh area of London isn’t large now, and it was smaller in the 19th century. If we had to squeeze in every London mansion, gaming hell, bordello and alley devised by historical romance writers, the metropolis might have taken up as much space as it does in 2012. On the other hand, I do write fiction. It’s kind of my job to make stuff up. While scholars may howl if I place someone’s home where a tobacconist’s shop existed according to the census of EighteenWhatever, if I make the rest of the street historically accurate, and the furnishings and design of the house, most readers will be okay with that.

Along with hunting for man candy, I do research actual maps, and furnishings, and when people stopped using quills and started using pens, and the beginnings of railway travel in England. Most of the time, I enjoy research, but when I can’t find a crucial piece of information, I wish I could make up my own rules!

I do get to make up my own genealogy charts at least, and that’ s another part of writing prep I enjoy. Speculative writers have to come up with naming systems, and I don’t envy them the task. It’s hard enough to find the exact match of first, middle and last names that scans well and conveys the character’s status as hero or supporting character. Throwing in issues like spaceship allegiance or Elvish naming customs would make my brain explode. Genealogy tells us a lot about family culture and values, personal traits that may be encouraged or not and even diseases that can affect a character. Take a page from fantasy writers and make a family tree or two for your manuscript.

I learned about the importance of creating a historical background for one’s books from the Appendices at the end of The Lord of the Rings. They fascinated me; I would go back and forth from them to favorite passages. I realized that such a deep background gave Middle Earth its breath-taking vision. My history is based in fact, not speculation, but it’s crucial for writers to understand the places and times in which they place their stories. Timelines and calendars are an essential tool of all writers, either to track fictional events or intertwine fictional with real events.

So, writers and readers out there…what do you enjoy about your second favorite genres?

It’s All About the Hall…

Apethorpe Hall, Northamptonshire

…or the manor, castle or house. I live in suburbia, but I learned my love of old houses early thanks to aunts who lived in homes built in the early part of the 20th century. My aunts’ houses had features like huge screened in porches, high ceilings, socket doors and sleeping porches, all terribly exotic to my youthful mind. The kleenex-box sized bathroom on Aunt Bert’s first floor that had no insulation and was always freezing cold in winter and the old fittings in Aunt Helen’s kitchen struck me as insignificant. Mind you, Aunt Bert and Aunt Helen, and their families, probably felt differently since they actually had to live with these inconveniences. But I loved those houses. I can still recall the layout of each of them.

Apethorpe Hall interior

One of the most important parts of my process is figuring out where my characters live. I could never be an architect, as my math skills stop at basic geometry; nor do I have a great eye for interior decoration, but I study floor plans and hunt down drawings and descriptions of historic houses, furniture and textiles. Here is a Jacobean interior, similar to some you’ll find in To be Seduced.

When a house was built influences its exterior, but how it’s furnished and decorated inside is a matter of the owner’s taste. I had great fun in Her Scottish Groom comparing the tastes of Diantha’s family with their new money and Kieran’s much older house. I used photos from visits to England, Scotland, and France to get ideas for details of the Rossburn seat. To emphasize the ‘old money vs. new’, I also looked for ways to make the Scottish house sound older than the book’s 1875 setting. Their antiques, for example, would date from 1775 to 1825. And they did not, to the heroine’s dismay, have indoor plumbing. (I don’t have plans for a sequel to HSG, but if I ever do, I will find a way to mention that one of the first improvements made with Quinn money was the addition of bathrooms. Lack of modern bathrooms would be a huge drawback to time travel.)

Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island

For the Quinns, I studied mansions in Newport to see how ultra-rich Americans of an earlier era spent their money. Opulent, dripping with gold leaf or frivolous fake oriental details, they provided an idea of the mind-set of people who could buy whatever they wanted, including an aristocratic bloodline for their descendants.

For my current WIP, I’ve gone online to explore English Heritage houses, London townhouses and the homes of the working poor. As always, I am fascinated by the different designs and styles, each lovely in its own way. I am quite happy in my suburban house, since it contains my family, but the pleasure of creating dream houses for my characters never fades.

What about your dream home? Is it a modern loft or an 1800s Queen Anne mansion or a 16th century farmhouse? If you need inspiration, visit http://www.english-heritage.org.uk to find more house like Apethorpe Hall, pictured at the top of this post.

The Cheapskate Writer

In a perfect world, I would write in an entirely separate wing of my house, which would include sound-proofing and a stocked fridge. My housekeeper and personal chef would eliminate the need to deal with interruptions like vacuuming and assuaging my family’s ridiculous desire for regular meals. My vast personal library of information would sit on shelves lining every wall.

Aaaand then there’s real life. And my real budget. Since getting published, my goal is to keep writing expenses out of our household income. One, that’s how I can justify to the Internal Revenue Service that I am a professional writer. Two, it makes me feel like, well, a professional writer. But since most authors only know what their income is when the advance or royalty check arrives, or when the month’s sales hits the Paypal account, this means I squeeze my writing pennies until they’re crumpled on the floor begging for mercy. Like Pseudolus, the protagonist of A Funny Thing Happened on the way to the Forum, my favorite word is ‘free’.

Here are a few things I do to save a buck (or more):

1. Free anti-virus software: I know, this sounds like the Worst Idea Ever, but hear me out. I have used the free version of AVG Anti-Virus for at least the last three years. It blocks viruses, warns of unsafe sites, scans my laptop daily and gives me summaries, and alerts me to problems. They offer yearly updates, FREE, and I have not had any problem with malware. And now that I’ve reached a point where I can pay for a security program, guess who’s going to get my business?

2. Free online backup service: One of the smartest things I ever did was to sign up for the free version of Mozy. I don’t know if the free version is still available for new customers, but here is a list of alternatives. Just be sure to get one! When my computer conked out last summer, I lost only a few hours work instead of a full day’s. Or — horrors! What if I’d lost an entire WIP? Yes, you can and should back up your work on an external drive daily, but with automatic backups twice a day, it’s that much more peace of mind.

3. The Library: Until I make the kind of money that gives me unlimited funds to spend on research, I fall back on my local library. I am looking at a biography of Louis XIV, a history of marriage, a book on gardening that I picked up for the gorgeous pictures, and a book about Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. And those are just the ones I can see right this second. On my Nook I have more.

So, would any of these suggestions work for you? I have more. Better yet, do you have any ideas for tightwad writers to save money? Tell us about them!!

And since tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day, which in my part of the U.S. is an unofficial civic holiday even for those of us with hardly any Irish blood, I added a link about one of my favorite Irish instruments, the bodhran, followed by a few more links. Enjoy!

How to Play a Bodhran

Type Faster

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type faster.” — Isaac Asimov

Someday, I am going to needlepoint Isaac’s words and frame them to hang somewhere at eye level to keep me from slacking off. To me, Asimov’s words are a kick in the butt to remind me that 1. I’m lucky to have a calling that allows me to make (some) money from the voice in my head and 2. someday, one way or another, it’s all going to come to an end.

Sometimes the words flow, sometimes they don’t, but a writer schedules set times to sit down at the keyboard or with pen and paper and write. There’s no way to know how easily the words will come. Or how good or bad they will be. But writers are also wives, husbands, parents, friends, critique partners, employees, and volunteers. Writing time is precious, so we must use every moment. If we produce crap that day, next day we’ll either edit it till it’s not crap or write new crap that we can fix.

Athletes and dancers warm up their bodies. Our minds have to be warmed up as well. It helps to start a session editing the last few pages of the previous day’s work. (Thank you Lew Hunter via Sally Walker for that tip!) And I began journaling about midway through last year. At the time, I couldn’t have told you why, because I stopped keeping a diary decades ago. I did not want to spend 30 precious minutes of my day writing something unrelated to my WIP. Finally, in November, I realized that the time spent scribbling in my journal really did help my process. But I journal first thing in the morning, not during a writing session.

This doesn’t work for everyone, but when I spend at least 30 minutes each day writing by hand, it cleans out and primes my creative pump, even if I can’t write till later. Checking emails and social networking distract me.  Keeping in touch is an important task that needs its own block of time. I don’t even like to plot during the time set aside for writing, unless a character makes a really sharp veer from what I thought would be the story. I hate it when they do that, but it’s part of the process, and like kids, sometimes you have to let hero and heroine go where they want to.

Asimov died youngish, age 72. (At least that’s young in the view of someone whose relatives routinely live past 85 and often past 90.) It’s said that he authored or c0-authored over 500 books. Besides the science fiction he is best known for, he wrote mysteries, non-fiction, guides to the Bible and Shakespeare, and limericks. He edited anthologies and had his name on his own science fiction magazine.

I think I have some typing to do.

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At a Loss for Words

Every writer runs out of words – at least good words – at some point. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is both normal and inevitable. Nature goes in cycles, from the seasons to the life, death and rebirth cycles of everything from stars to mayflies. From writers to dancers to architects, everybody hits points where our creativity and energy go dormant. Stars and mayflies, however, do not have to meet deadlines, performance schedules and project completion dates.

What do I do when words and energy run out? I remind myself of the opening to Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…”. So the first thing to do is not panic. The words are gone now, but they’ll come back.

The first thing I don’t do is not write. It’s frighteningly easy to say “The words aren’t coming, so I’m not going to try today.” Next thing you know, you haven’t written anything new for a week, or a month. Or longer. For me, not writing is never an option. Even if you can’t do more than journal and brainstorm, write something every day. I also edit previous scenes. They get me back into the story and (hopefully) remind me of why I wanted to write it in the first place.

Or maybe you don’t have to write out a full scene. When I’m really desperate, suffering from severe ‘page fright’ – the conviction that everyone down to chimpanzees could write the story better – I resort to my fallback habit: lists. In this case, it’s what I, as the author, need to have happen in a scene, and with whom. Mine often look like this:

  • Introduce Imogen and mother
  • Morgan panic
  • Alix lie to save him
  • Morgan disgusted at lie
  • Reaction of servants? How can A. be guest and employee?
  • Study or entry????

Far, far, far from a full scene. Not even the bare bones of a scene. But at least there are a few building blocks of life swimming around in the primordial broth. I can see the major players and necessary action, which gives me something to work with.

And I know from personal experience that the thing with the most question marks behind it is where I need to start. Sometimes I’m stumped for the location, as above. Sometimes it’s whose point of view to write a scene in. Whatever it is, the question marks tell me what is not nailed down that needs to be.

It helps to leave a scene that’s not working. Is there another scene you can imagine more clearly? Write that one instead. You might discover that the problem scene might not need to be in the book, or it could work better in another character’s point of view.

An excellent way to avoid blockages like this altogether is to allot time in your schedule for stuff that you like, but which has nothing to do with writing. Physical activity is crucial for good health. We don’t all have the time or money to join health clubs (I sure don’t), but we can take daily walks most of the year. Take a few minutes to put on a good song when you’re alone and boogie around the room. Seriously. If all you can do is chair dance, do that! The music alone gives you a mental break.

People do a lot of things when they’re stuck. I also find cooking and needlepoint soothing. What do you suggest to refresh yourself?