Archive for the ‘My Kitchen Table’ Category
Freedom ain’t free. We’ve all heard it. But in this visual program created by Lizzie Palmer, an astute fifteen-year-old girl, we are reminded of the human beings in the uniforms, making the sacrifices and doing what we’ve asked them to do.
I was touched deeply by this, and wanted to share it.
PS. Lizzie Palmer is 15 years old.
Lizzie Palmer hasn’t lost sight of the human beings.
Thanks, Lizzie, for the reminder.
WARNING: This is a no-edit zone…
Every writer goes through periods of it, and I’m neck-deep in one such period now. That is, periods where the professional To-Do list is several pages long and for every item that finally gets ticked off, two more go on–and one of the additions is typically needed ASAP. What that means down at the bottom line is that it’s a struggle during such times to get to the actual writing.
If someone came to me with this challenge, I’d tell them to prioritize. To put the actual writing first and let everything else follow when the writing goal for the day had been met. But in this situation, my advice wouldn’t work. Why? Because I’m in the middle of launching three major projects at once and chairing a contest committee that requires constant monitoring.
Now, I can hear you say that it’s my own fault–that I should have properly planned and then I wouldn’t have three major projects launching at once, and ordinarily I’d agree with you. But in this case, two of the three major projects fell into my lap and were terrific opportunities. I had to make a choice: seize them or forget them. I chose to seize.
So what’s my point?
Sometimes things happen that aren’t bad but good things. And we have to work through the discomforts they cause to reap the benefits. While we’re going through them, it’s not a lot of fun and we do grow weary. (No doubt my darling husband would describe that “weary” a little differently; with far more colorful a description.) But if we stay focused and remember that these seeds we’re planting will enjoy a harvest, and then we’ll be glad we endured the discomfort during its season.
So I’m enduring discomfort, sleeping less, putting a lot of extra time in the office and looking forward to harvest time. Seriously looking forward to it–and to the reunion with my characters and stories. And I’m seriously working at keeping a constructive mindset and positive attitude.
Because the simple truth is that when you write for a living, you do get to do less writing. You have to share your time with all the other writing-related endeavors that go with it. And there are more of those endeavors all the time.
Writers love the writing. But not many love the related endeavors. If there’s any advice for someone new to this, it would be to find a way to love the related endeavors. Because they’re a large part of the big picture, you’ll be doing a lot of them, and it’s all in a day’s work.
Inspiration for books strikes us in different ways:
Which comes first doesn’t matter much, provided the author ties the other two ways to it.
Why? Because these three things weave together with Setting and other story elements to make a tapestry–a book. And if they don’t interweave so the threads fit together, well, you won’t have much of a tapestry.
So it’s beneficial to you to develop these elements simultaneously.
For example, in HER PERFECT LIFE, the statement (or reason I wanted to write the book) was to bring to readers’ attention what serving our country can cost the people who do it, those they love and those who live them.
How do I build a protagonist to convey that message?
I chose a female POW. She demonstrated the costs, and helped define the plot: a female pilot crashes, is deemed dead but is taken POW for 6 years. She had a perfect life–all she wanted: a husband, two kids and a great copilot.
Now the story could have gone a lot of ways, depending on what theme or statement I wanted to make. I didn’t want to write about her as a POW, I wanted to write the costs of service. So In Chapter 1, she was rescued. And the rest of the book deals with her coming home, her husband being remarried to a great woman her kids love. She’s a stranger to the kids. And all that was in her perfect life–family, home, career–it’s all gone. Now what?
And that’s where real character development begins.
Remember that characters are admirable people we want to emulate. They’re not like us; they’re like the people we want to be. They do the right thing, or the wrong thing for the right reason–and that includes the antagonist. Even if he’s psychotic, he feels totally justified in what he’s doing. He might be warped, but he doesn’t see that, just as none of us see ourselves as bad people. He sees his actions as reasonable, logical, and maybe even noble.
You build a character based on need–not yours. The story’s. Every choice made, every idea pondered, every single thing you elect to include in the book, you include because it best serves the story.
Anything that fails to meet that test, you ditch. No matter how funny, no matter how strongly it resonates with you, no matter if the rhythm and sheer beauty of the words just sets you aflutter. Ditch it. Be ruthless. Only what best serves the story stays.
Characters, like people, need to be three-dimensional. Physical, Emotional, Spiritual.
Physical: What the character physical looks like. What abilities and skills does s/he need to be able to do what s/he must do in the story? (To be credible, s/he must be capable. This holds true for protagonists and antagonists. Make them strong, wise, sharp, clever–this way they can carry a lot of story weight.)
Where did s/he get those skills? Where do most people with those skills live, or where are they likely to be? (Now, your character has a history–and you’ve got a setting.)
What does the character’s name say about her/him? Is it a name common to the area s/he’s from? Where s/he is now, in the story? What is that community like? Is there a strong, say German influence? Or Hispanic influence? How does that impact your character?
All of these things are defining the physical attributes of the character–and far more. You’re putting flesh and muscles on the bones.
Emotional: Taking into consideration all the above physical aspects, you have also gone a long way to define the emotional demeanor of your character. To do this job, in this place, with this kind of history and experience, this person is apt to have this type of emotional makeup. Coping skills, what s/he loves and hates and fears. What s/he wants–goals and motivations (which you will use as story conflicts). And who is trying to keep him/her from reaching those goals? There’s your antagonist.
Ask why s/he is trying to stop the heroine and you’ve got his/her motivation. And that goes a long way toward defining what he’s like physically and emotionally.
Using opposites works. If he’s an arson investigator, then she’s an arsonist. If the protagonist wants to ban guns, the antagonist is a collector. If the protagonist wants to save the world, then the antagonist wants to destroy it.
Why does opposites work? Because it creates conflict that spontaneously combusts. The opponents are opponents the second they appear.
So what kind of temperament, attitudes and demeanor is the main person who is for and against what you, the author, have to say that you want others to hear? Answer that, and you’ve defined your characters’ emotional states, and honed the definitions on their physical designs.
Spiritual; These people in this situation, in this emotional state are apt to draw on these traits and beliefs. I’m not talking about religion, though that can be part of the definition of this. What belief does your character ascribe to, what philosophy of life. Does s/he believe in truth? If so, does s/he believe truth is immutable, or that you shape and mold it? Does s/he live in black and white? Or in vivid color? In shades of gray?
An example: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Not sure who first said it, but which label a person wears depends on who’s assigning the label. How that person sees himself relates to his spiritual side.
Strong characters, ones we remember, are three-dimensional and have aspects of all three dimensions: physical, emotional and spiritual.
Not only is this essential for crafting a credible story, it’s mandatory for making a reader care.
Look to how we react to books. We might feel drawn to its subject or to where it is set. We might even be drawn to its horror, but we emotionally react to its characters.
Would Harry Potter hold the same appeal if Harry weren’t Harry?
Would Gone With the Wind be as strong without Scarlett or Rhett? Would the story be the same if Melanie were the heroine?
No, on Harry. No, on Scarlett and Rhett. And no on Melanie–that’d be a totally different story.
We love characters, or love to hate them, because we identify with them. In them, we see shards of ourselves, reflections of who we are and what we want–why we want it–and who we want to be.
If we don’t identify with the characters, we do not care what happens to them. If we don’t care what happens to them, we aren’t going to enjoy the book. It’s that simple.
Remember, authors write for a purpose and with purpose. To do so effectively, the reader needs to bond with the characters or you don’t have the right vehicle to convey your message or statement. This is true, even if that purpose is to entertain.
A quick look at Secondary Characters. You create every secondary character in your book to serve a specific story purpose. Maybe s/he is a confidant to the protagonist, a mentor or someone who undermines and assists the antagonist. Know the purpose. What s/he must do in the story helps define who s/he is.
Now that you know what must be done, look for ways to combine these actions. Instead of having three different people do one thing, have one person do three.
My rule of thumb is to kill every secondary character I can possibly kill. If they won’t die, then I let them live. They’ve proven they’ve earned their space in the novel.
What they must do defines who they are, and what attributes and shortcomings they need to be well-rounded, developed characters. They too should be physical, emotional and spiritual human beings. And its through those three dimensions that you create highly individual, real-to-life people instead of cardboard characters.
THAT BRINGS US TO SUBPLOTS
You know what you, the author, wants to say. You know who is going to say it and, if you’ve developed your secondary characters, then you’ve also gone a long way to define your plot and setting. So your book is a vehicle, and its occupants are all on board.
Your plot is the windshield. It’s where you’re going. But that doesn’t make subplots side-trips or back seats. Subplots are more like your car’s rearview and side mirrors.
A rearview is smaller, and what you see through it is a reflection. That’s what a subplot is to a plot. It mirrors or echoes the plot. It relates, it’s interesting and compelling and it stays in secondary position to the plot.
The minute your subplot becomes more interesting or intriguing than your plot, it becomes the plot and your previous plot becomes subplot. Proportion speaks to importance. Importance is designated by story space. Space is premium, and you give only what an event has earned. So significant events and people get a larger share of space than secondary people and events. Plot gets more space than subplots.
Subplots strengthen and reinforce plots. They brace, add deeper dimension, greater understanding. They express motivations, which are often unstated otherwise, or create more significant obstacles than we deemed apparent initially.
For example. In WAR GAMES’ Body Double, the antagonist buries the protagonist in a tomb. She’s alive and he feels this will terrify her because he knows that her father used to beat her and lock her in a wooden box until her bruises healed, so looking at her didn’t offend him.
But he doesn’t know that the protagonist used to hide in the box to keep from getting beaten. It was the one place her father would never think to look for her.
Now, without that subplot being interwoven into the story, her being locked in a tomb wouldn’t hold the same level of significance. Her reaction wouldn’t have the same connotations, either. The subplot put down the foundation for the plot, strengthened it, reinforced it, and helped characterize the protagonist–and because he did this to her, it helped characterize the antagonist, too.
I’ve incorporated many of the lessons we’ve learned and the myths passed on about characters rather than setting them out on their own because of time constraints. If you’re not clear on that, then do a review of the archetypes and then look at unforgettable characters and note the things they have in common. Equally important, notice the attributes that are absent.
One last bit of advice in building your character cast. Love them all–protagonist or antagonist, primary character or secondary. If you do, it shows in the work on a level that is nearly subliminal. It infuses the work with layers you don’t often realize are there until much later. It’s almost magical, the way relevant tidbits appear and insert themselves.
Conversely, if you don’t love them and respect them, then that shows, too. And your magic becomes a nightmare.
Building story people takes time and effort, but the investment is the kind of thing that makes readers stand in line for hours to get “the next book” or read what the author wrote long after the author is no longer here.
Remember, there’s power in the pen. Power to captivate, convince, entertain and open closed minds. The story itself doesn’t do those things; the characters the author has built to live that story does, and those characters have the power to change lives. ❧
There are a lot of articles in my online library for writers at www.vickihinze.com on character and character development. One you should definitely look at is: Creating Unforgettable Characters. You might also take a look at the articles on Dialogue, because how we say what we say characterizes us, too.
There are a lot of different articles on characterization. You should also review the in depth series on Plot and The Fictional Dream.
The series on plotting contains more specific information along with examples on subplots.
Be aware that I went through a “goofy title” phase and so articles like Sunshine and Diamonds are on character, too. It seemed like a good idea at the time…
Printable PDF: How-To Build a Character Cast.pdf
The Fall 2007 Newsletter is up on the http://vickihinze.com website. So is the Fall Feature Article, Reflections. Enjoy!
I’m about to post the Fall Feature Article, Reflections. Wanted to let you know it was being uploaded.
RWA members: It’s time to vote. There’s online voting this year, which is super. I was a bit surprised at the slate–that several of the positions are unopposed. I know these are demanding jobs, and we’re all swamped these days, but I’m concerned about experience. This year, things should be okay, but what about next year? Will there be sufficient experienced members to assist the new board members in getting acclimated? I’m hoping so, and when I voted I thought hard on this. It’s no easy job, so the board will need a lot of support.
WAR GAMES. I very much appreciate the letters, emails, and notes asking when my next military book will be published. I’m happy to report that Medallion Press has picked up the SASS series, and we have a new team of women, SAT–Special Abilities Team. It’ll be a while, but I’ll see what I can do to get you something between now and then. I’m very happy to be continuing this series!
For those in the Destin, Florida area: I’ll be doing an all-day workshop this weekend. I’m really looking forward to this–Elizabeth Sinclair and Kathy Carmichael are coming for it, too (Elizabeth [aka Marge Smith] will be doing her infamous synopsis workshop.) Emerald Coast Writers is sponsoring the workshop, and Medallion Press senior editor Kerry Estevez will be there along with two other editors, sharing info on selling. Deborah LeBlanc will be there, as well.
Remember to vote!
Been swamped lately, but I wanted to let those interested know that it’s time to enter the International Thriller Writers annual awards. You can find all the info on their website: thrillerwriters.org.
“I cannot give you the formula for success,
but I can give you the formula for failure—try to please everybody.”
–Herbert Bayard Swope
I spent the morning with a writer who was feeling torn and troubled. She had this three-book contract with a publisher. I remember the day she negotiated it; she was very happy that day. The first book went well, but during the time she was writing the second book, her editor received a good offer that included a promotion at a different publishing house and left. While happy for the editor, the author was worried about the departure’s impact on her and her books. The author was what we call orphaned.
Her worry was unfortunately justified. While those who make editorial assignments attempt to pair authors with editors who will love their work, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, it can be a real nightmare for everyone involved.
The author and editor both can really put forth effort to mesh their visions, but there are times when no matter how hard one tries, or how many times one revises, the visions are just in different worlds. Sooner or later, usually after much teeth-gnashing and many attempts to please, one or the other realizes this just isn’t going to work out, and cries uncle.
That’s a painful time. Admitting defeat is never painless, but when you’ve made so many attempts to satisfy and please and still failed, it can be devastating. It can convince an author that she can’t write. It doesn’t seem to matter how many awards she’s won or great reviews she’s gotten or how many fan letters she’s received. Those things are in the past and this is now, and now, she can’t please her editor and somehow in her mind that equates to her not being able to write.
It’s easy to get mired down in negativity in these circumstances. It’s easy to feel that same doubt about your skills and abilities and gifts that you had when you first started writing. And it’s humbling, to say the least, to be told that the work isn’t acceptable.
But here’s a couple things we should remember and often forget in this situation:
1. Every match isn’t made in heaven. Some author/editor matches are never going to be productive. The two people involved see what is being done from totally different perspectives and they don’t (or can’t) appreciate the view from the other’s perspective. That’s not a flaw, it’s just the way it works because people are different. And even though it’s hard to remember that’s a plus, it really is a plus.
2. Purpose. If an author writes with purpose, then this type of challenge creates far less havoc for the writer, insofar as ability is concerned. Yes, a terminated contract can cause financial challenges and other kinds of havoc, but those types of challenges are easier to deal with if your writer’s esteem and worth isn’t trampled. You’re in a far better place mentally to accept that this is not personal. It isn’t a reflection on you but on the marketability of this work, at this time, by this publisher. No more than that.
You see, each publisher has a vision of what it wants its company to be. Each editor has a vision of what she wants her body of work to be and a vision of how that body of work fits into the publisher’s vision of itself. And then every writer has a vision of her career and how she fits in with the editor and the publisher and their visions–and a vision of each work within her body of work and how it fits in with her career and how that fits in with the editor and publishers’ visions. See my point?
It isn’t just about the book. Or the author. Or the editor. Or the publisher. Or the bookseller, for that matter. It’s about all of them, and more.
So when an author lets her writer’s esteem nosedive on an issue like this, it’s not really a fair thing to do. It’s taking everything onto herself and ignoring all the other spokes in the wheel. A wheel doesn’t have just one spoke. It requires more support and balance than that.
3. Terminating a contract can be a painful thing. You work hard to get one and then to lose it… well, it’s frustrating, and it can be financially crippling–if you’ve allowed yourself to be reliant on that which is not yet actually yours.
Many years ago, a then bestselling writer gave a piece of advice I’ve never forgotten. Never count on any money that isn’t in your hand–and only count on it if all terms and conditions for losing it have been met. In other words, remember that an advance is an advance against royalties. It isn’t royalties that you’ve already earned until the book has been accepted.
That advice sounded smart to me, so I don’t even include advance money in my budgeting. I get it. It’s there in the account. But I don’t rely on that money until such time as the manuscript is accepted and it’s mine. I pass this along because there have been times when that practice has proven its worth.
It’s not easy for most writers to survive financially. Yes, some are extremely well paid, but the majority don’t earn a decent living. Last I checked through Author’s Guild, the average income from writing was about $5K a year. But for those who are attempting to earn a living at it, it requires discipline and sound fiscal practices. Not spending what isn’t totally yours is a sound practice. And that includes reliance on projected income when there is no assurance that the projected income will be met.
Many contracts contain a clause that if the contract is terminated and conditions are such that the author must repay advance payments, that repayment is made from the first resell of the work or within a certain time. I’ve seen contracts with six months or a year and some with five years. This gives the author time to market the project elsewhere and another opportunity not to fall into financial havoc. But some contracts don’t have this provision and having to repay sums advanced immediately can cause financial hardships. The moral of that story is to know what you sign and plan accordingly.
It’s heartbreaking to see an author torn up about something like the termination of a contract. Losing an editor is always a difficult thing. You seek and seek the perfect one for you. Someone who sees the vision inside your head and gets your humor and trusts you to make things work logically and to pull things together in a way that makes sense. That’s a tall order, but we do manage to do it.
And then through no fault of anyone, that relationship is gone and the author and the new editor have to find their feet with each other and develop a new relationship. I’ve had this happen several times. Often it worked out great. Really great. On a couple of occasions it didn’t.
On those occasions, like this author, I tried to make it work. But the simple truth s, if it requires enormous effort, it’s not right. That’s a signal I learned to watch for, and one that’s proven valuable to me. When it’s not right, it’s no one’s fault. It’s just not a great match. A “not great” match can sometimes work, with time and trust and learned respect. But it does take the effort of both parties. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a good match grow into a great one, but I have seen some good matches be extremely productive ones.
I came to recognize these times and places in my life as turning points. And I have to say–looking back with the clarity you only get from hindsight–that those turns were good ones. I went into new directions, did new things that I came to love. I tried new ventures I wouldn’t have tried. Let’s face it. We all like comfort. And so long as we’re rocking along and we’re comfortable, we’re less apt to adventure. It’s human nature–and proof that it really is necessity that breeds invention.
How many times have you heard authors say that they tried this or wrote that as a last ditch effort? One to save their career, to allow them to keep writing? Or that an author switched genres because xyz happened and they had to take drastic measures?
Even with the benefit of others’ experiences in that vein, it’s hard to remember that turning points are good things when we’re the writer who is displaced or unsettled and we can’t see the path in front of us clearly. But knowing those times and challenges exist for others and that many others have successfully navigated them should offer us solace and hope and reassurance that strengthens us to lick our warriors’ wounds and cocoons that writer’s esteem. The truth is that the sooner we do recognize we’re at a turning point and we get going on locating and then walking that new path, the sooner we settle in again.
The thing is, we’re not ever going to really settle in. Not indefinitely and not if we’re lucky. Life doesn’t work that way. It always tosses new challenges into our paths. Maybe that’s a good thing. We stay interested, invested; we don’t stagnate or stop growing. We do get past the upset and get focused on the new adventure. And let’s face it. That can be exciting. Wonderful. Intriguing. Elevating and liberating.
Change isn’t a bad thing. Yes, it can create havoc, but mixing it up rejuvenates and that’s valuable, too. Change can be a terrific thing, even if the transitions themselves suck. And more often than not, they honestly do.
We can gripe and moan and be devastated, or we can vent and get over it and press on to what comes next. Obviously the sooner we press on, the sooner the transition passes. And obviously if we remember that no one person can please all other people the easier we’ll be on us during these times.
I think that’s a key stroke in success. We don’t let transitions attack us, the human being and writer inside. We accept that we all have different visions and goals and purposes and we come together for a time and when that time is done, it’s done, and it’s time for the next leg of the journey.
Really. Life is in the journey. And after all, we aren’t just building a career. We’re also building a life.
Rumors of my demise are exaggerated.
I’ve been suffering a malady common to writers–deadline-itis. And I’m happy to report that I’ve survived!
I’m typically up for trying new writing techniques and methods but I’ve always resisted one thing many writers do regularly–co-authoring a book. Well, a friend approached me with a project that was different. It wasn’t like anything I’ve ever written–which is saying something on its own–and it intrigued me. Still, I hesitated. I’ve co-created a series of novels but in that series, we each wrote our own books. This would be a co-authoring a book situation, and frankly, I wasn’t eager to board that jet. Over the years, I’ve heard far too many horror stories to blindly jump.
But the author offered me a parachute. I figured, I had nothing to lose. And so we struck an agreement that played to our strengths and . . . we did it!
I’ve just finished the final draft and I am so excited about this book that I’m giddy. The experience has been overwhelmingly positive, and the book… well, I love it. It’s a YA and I’m very pleased.
We brought our strengths to the table and because they’re different, we’ve created a book that is far stronger than either of us could have created alone.
Would I do it again?
With this partner, yes. I would. For now, stay tuned.
We all get nine gazillion of them–those email chain letters that promise bad luck, bad tidings, financial crashes and everything you can think of–and we moan and groan and decide to delete them but then we get that tiny niggle of a doubt that maybe we will have bad luck and crash and burn and so we’re torn–and resentful–and then must decide whether or not to fall for it, knowing we shouldn’t.
This morning a friend sent a soap-box response. Bless her. It’s an email chain letter worth passing on…