WRITERS UNITE! TIPS ON WRITING!

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Deborah Ratliff: We Just Click, Dude!

How a deep connection between characters engages your reader.

 
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”    ― Aristotle

A writer recently posted a question in a group discussion. What causes a reader to return to subsequent novels by an author? He wondered if the author and their writing style was the reason.

I have heard this question many times, and I think that while an author’s style is important to a reader, what brings a reader back repeatedly is how the author crafts characters.

Once at a meeting of a writing group, we were discussing the merits of writing a novel series and what would cause readers to continue to follow the books. A local playwright listened to this discussion before pounding the table. He declared that there was only one reason a reader came back: the characters. Provide a character that a reader can identify with, care about, connect to, and they will respond and read everything you write about that character.

This is true for me personally. The first author and character I became enamored with were John D. McDonald and the infamous Travis McGee. Everything about his books drew me in. The main setting, the coast of South Florida, remains a favorite to this day. Every detail, the ancient Rolls Royce McGee converted into a pick-up truck, the houseboat he won in a poker game, the marina where the boat docked, all characters within the novels. But that alone did not bring me back.

Travis McGee was larger than life. A man of honor with a strong moral center who, while he would bend the rules to accomplish his goals, never lost sight of the truth and what was right. He was reliable, counted on to help people when they had exhausted all other possibilities to undo a wrong. I think we all want that level of stability and strength in our lives.

McDonald didn’t stop with his main character. He created a world of characters that existed from novel to novel. McGee’s best friend, the economist Meyer, was unique, along with a cast of colorful and eccentric characters. From Chookie, who danced at a local club, to The Alabama Tiger, who held a constant floating party on his boat, these characters became old friends. The last Travis McGee novel may have been the saddest book I have ever read. My friends were gone. There would be no new adventures.

However, that instant connection I had with McGee and company will never leave. I read those books over often and feel nostalgia and peace simultaneously. Once you have felt that connection whether in real life or in your imaginary life that feeling will never leave.

The question then becomes this. How do writers craft characters that readers can connect with at the desired level? Let us examine what makes a character memorable.

 

Who is this person?

You must establish your main character as likable and relatable. They do not have to be perfect but do need to have characteristics the reader can identify with, or there will be no connection.

An important consideration is not to stereotype your character. Perfection is not the goal here, realism is. The reader wants to see someone who is strong and heroic but with flaws that they have themselves. Then they can project themselves into the action. Remember, Indiana Jones was afraid of snakes.

Construct your character through show and tell, don’t provide a litany of characteristics. If your character is short (which I identify with) frame the description as “she stretched to reach the top shelf” not she was five-one. The reader will have experienced the reaching or watched someone who did and identify without an exact reference to the character’s height and create an image in their imagination.

Above all, reveal your character’s flaws. Are they afraid of new love because of hurt in the past? Are they devastated or angry because of a tragedy? Did they lose everything and have to start over? Show the fears they feel, the pain and anger. You should also give them a reason for hope—a faith that they will survive and reach their goal. Give them humor and confidence, even if you shake it from time to time. Let them laugh, cry, rant, and fight for what they want. Your reader should be cheering for your character to succeed with every word.

 

What are they seeking?

Establish your MC’s goal as soon as possible. What do they want? Once you have established the task before them, throw obstacles in their way. Create the need for the reader to become engaged in their quest. We have all wanted something we seemingly can’t have, and as problem after problem piles on, we think we will never reach our goal. Let the reader feel that frustration, fear, anger as they fight through the issues keeping them from their goals.

 

Who are their companions?

As with the Travis McGee series, secondary characters are significant to how your reader identifies with your main character and invests in the story. They need to be memorable as well.

I wrote a story where I introduced a character, a bartender in the New Orleans French Quarter, who was meant to be a vehicle for my protagonist to run into her former lover. Within two paragraphs, I had fallen for the bartender, and he morphed into a cousin and best friend of the former lover and became an integral part of the plot. The story became more vibrant with more depth because I added a character who had a vested interest in the outcome.

Create the friend, the mentor, the grandmother, the housekeeper, whatever character you need to help you present your MC’s human side. Someone who recognizes their flaws and is not afraid to tell them. Someone they can confess their thoughts to, someone they trust. With each interaction between these characters, the reader will become more attached to the main character.

 

What does this effort give you, the author?

Going back to our original question, why do readers return to a writer, they come back because they like the characters.

They “just click” with them. Standalone stories with great characters will bring readers back to an author. A series of novels with the same character succeeds because, while writing style may have allowed them to enjoy the first novel, readers will want to read the second and third and so on because you gave them a character who reflects their desires and one they can identify with time and again.

Never forget how it felt to instantly connect to someone important in your life. A good author will give that incredible emotion to their readers. Those readers will be back for more.

 

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Deborah Ratliff is Southerner with saltwater in her veins and love of writing. A career in science and human resources provided the opportunity to write policies/procedures and training manuals, articles, and newsletters but her lifelong love of mystery novels beckoned. Deborah began writing mysteries and her first novel, Crescent City Lies will be published shortly with a second novel, One of Those Days to follow. Deborah regularly contributes articles on writing to the blog, Writers Unite! and serves as an administrator on the Facebook writing site, Writers Unite! which has 43,000 + members from around the globe.

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Resources:

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/18077-what-is-a-friend-a-single-soul-dwelling-in-two

https://www.goodreads.com/series/52264-travis-mcgee

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082971/

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing

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Susan Staneslow Olesen: The Idea Factory

“I want to write, but where do you get your ideas?”

It’s hard for me to answer such a question because I’ve never had to think about it; ideas were just there. Writing is in my blood—my grandfather published a few books, my grandmother wrote poetry, my great-great-grandfather collected folktales, and my dad has articles published in magazines. I’ve been writing seriously since I was ten years old. I didn’t pursue writing as a career because it was something I already did well; there were other things I wanted to learn. Give me a class with a term paper and I knew I’d get a good grade.

Now, that’s not to say I never get writer’s block, or sometimes have no idea what to write. I belonged to a writer’s group for ten years, with monthly topics. Often I whipped off a piece that night or the next day, and goofed off the rest of the month. Sometimes I wrote three. Sometimes I started out with the topic in mind, but it took such a tangent you never saw it coming. Presented with the topic of “Hands,” I wrote about a magician’s assistant. For a theme of “Water,” I wrote a Greek-style myth inspired by a line of Pete Townshend’s song Hiding Out—“a waterfall of women weeping”—what an image! And yes, most certainly, I get overwhelmed when starting a new novel—even now, when I’ve written ten of them.

So, where does a writer get ideas?

The answer is: look around you. There isn’t a thing under the sun that isn’t an inspiration. Ants in the grass. A cat hugging himself in his sleep. A moth beating against a window. The fading sunlight creeping across a carpet. Every one of those has a story behind it. When? Where? Why? I needed a name for a lawyer, so I looked around me. Larry Lamp didn’t cut it. Marcus Driskin was named for a bottle of—you got it—dry skin lotion.

My first novel series, Best Intentions, arose from a short story I read in the back of a women’s magazine when I was about nine years old. It involved parents who abandon their five children at the side of the road, and how the oldest child—eight or nine herself—tries to make a home for her siblings in the woods. Using that theme of children abandoned, I invented a story of a large family whose mother dies unexpectedly, and when the father is sent to prison, they are legally abandoned into the custody of the eldest child (an overwhelmed 22-year-old in my story). That one small concept—children alone—turned into a five-volume sociological study of abandonment, depression, abuse, and the power of love and forgiveness. I joke it’s my Ph.D. in psychology. The two stories have as much in common as apples and oranges, but they came from the same concept.

In my second novel series, there is a simple line in Conflicts of Interest that says, “My second wife died of a medical condition.” It was only on editing that I wondered, what if the condition was suicide? Why? My head then exploded with possibilities, and a 40-page outline evolved almost overnight.

The best thing for a writer, the very best thing you can do to advance your writing career, is get outside and OBSERVE. Take notes if you have to, but your goal is to leave your abode and go feel the entire world with every one of your senses. Walk through your town, whether it’s New York City or a small village in the Punjab. See it with a child’s eyes, a child’s sense of wonder. What does it smell like, not just here, but there, too? Breathe in: smell the dirt, the pavement, the trees, the garbage rotting by the roadside, the skunk in the distance, fresh paint. How does the sun feel on your skin? Is the air humid, damp, sticky, dry, cold, hot, is the wind blowing? Is the sun hot but the air cold? Hot like a lamp, or hot like cayenne at a Mexican fiesta? How does the air change after it rains? What does the pavement smell like after rain, awash in the metallic smell of writhing earthworms? Listen as you walk. What music do you hear leaking from cars or windows? What is it saying? Is there a busker on the steps of city hall, blowing a trumpet or sawing a violin?

Everything tells a story.

James Baldwin called it Experience. A writer needs to experience everything they can, and then write what they know. That’s true, but you can’t always experience something—not everyone will be an astronaut; no one knows what it feels like to travel to Mars; a woman (random, average) cannot know what it’s like to be a man, and a man won’t ever experience childbirth. We don’t know if an elephant feels sadness; we can’t all climb Everest; we don’t all have a twin; we may never undergo divorce or have a child kidnapped or find an evil clown in the sewer drain—but we can observe, ask people, read biographies and science books, and we can use those observations to project a sense of experience, remembering a time when we felt profound fear, and write what we know. Read. Read everything you can get your eyes on, even shampoo bottles. What comes into your head?

A short video on Japanese cooking I saw inspired a short story of a child getting expelled from school for using a similar method to cheat students out of money. Completely unrelated, but inspired by nonetheless. Knowing old glass has a tendency to slide downward over the millennia led to the scene in Best of Everything where newcomer Sarah gets off on the wrong foot, informing Grandmama that her expensive and rare artwork is being mistreated and starting to slide off the canvas. When the cat died of liver cancer, I turned the feeling of loss into a poem about two children playing in a real forest. You can read it here. A horrific nightmare I had in college became a character’s nightmare in a story.

Susan S Oleson kitty

You’ve lived on this planet for decades. What have you experienced? What facts do you know? Think of a fact, any fact, and use it to formulate a story. Monarch butterflies migrate. Chewbacca walks through the Death Star naked, and no one thinks twice. It takes, on average, twelve minutes for pasta to cook. Murders can happen in less time. (Okay, so now I have a picture in my head of a naked Wookie boiling water for pasta, but s/he is murdered, and a butterfly flies past the window. See how ideas multiply?)

Experience. Observe. Examine everything, as if you just landed from another planet and were trying to figure everything out. Everything you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear—grab it with both hands, let it sift through your fingers. How would you describe it?  Observe everything. Observance = experience. If you’re writing about Greece and you’ve never been there, take a trip if you can. If not, find a Greek festival. Watch the people. Listen to the language. Note the colors of the costumes and the dances and the rhythm of the music. Taste the food, or at least just look at it, noting the way a grape leaf looks rolled and stuffed and cooked, or the shine on a triangle of baklava, the way the walnuts spill between the layers of dough. Taste the sweetness of Ravani. At worst, find a travel DVD at your local library and take in what you can. Observe, observe, observe. It doesn’t have to cost anything. Take notes if you have to. Many foreign cities have webcams; view the landscape in realtime. See the buildings, note the colors. What does it make you think of?

As a writer, your job is to convey your story, to transmit the movie from your head to that of the reader. A successful story pulls the reader inside, connects with them not just visually with a painted scene, but emotionally, retrieving the smell of Grandma’s peach pie, the gold flaky crust with the tips of the edges just starting to burn, the way she twisted the peaches in the pan just so to make it look like a swirl when set on the table, with a dollop of whipped cream perched in the center, rivaling the onion domes of Moscow. To build up that illusion, to pull those memories from people’s heads that make your writing alive for them, you have to pull their emotions, and you reach those emotions by pulling out those details that trigger their memories, and those details come with observational experience. A good story takes place more in the reader’s head than on the printed page. Hair the color of rusted chains, bouncing in a confident rhythm as she trekked up the walkway, paints a dynamic picture that sticks in readers’ heads, lights their imagination, and connects in a personal way. Roan may not be a word everyone understands, but most people have seen rusted swings in a schoolyard, brownish-red. Shared experience. In The Shining, Stephen King mentions the way someone blows their nose, peaks into the hanky, then puts it away. You’ve seen people do this. A little detail, incidental to the story, but it makes the character pop from the page. You know people just like that. You’ve seen passing motorists pick their nose while driving. Perhaps you have a friend with an eye that has a tic; it twitches when they speak. Slide that fact into a character; instant association. Use that fact as the basis of a story. Perhaps the tic is a fatal flaw, giving away a secret.

Observe. Observe. Observe. The distant clang of church bells, tolling the hour. The rush of wind through pine trees. The headline of a newspaper; a magazine article on solar-powered cars. Listen to the conversation behind you in the restaurant. Teri’s husband blew another paycheck gambling, and Hope’s offered to front her $40 for groceries. Every one of these situations is a story. Writing dragons? Visit a pet store and watch lizards.

Go. Write. Write with passion. Use all that knowledge you spent a day, a week, a lifetime accumulating, and put it into your writing. Write with authority, knowing that your words are truth. Everything you see or hear is a potential character, a potential story, a potential detail to help bring your story alive. If one idea isn’t enough, list several: a blue car, falling acorns, the wedding ring, Billy the Exterminator, the sound of geese honking. The more ideas you list, the more your story writes itself. First day of school, shadows on the wall, grandpa’s missing teeth, misty rain, fireman. All that knowledge is in your head—or at least in your notes. The more you practice, the easier it gets.

Don’t overthink it, just let your story go where it wants. You’ll be surprised where you wind up.

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Susan S Oleson   

Susan Staneslow Olesen is an exhausted novelist and blogger for the Cheshire Public Library, where she also runs a writer’s group. A graduate of Wells College and The Chase Collegiate School, she has been a fruit picker, dial press operator, special education teacher, crisis intervention specialist, Disc Media Wizard, fostered 50 kittens, and is a 30-year foster parent to six children plus three of her own. She runs in circles and tears her hair out with her husband in Connecticut.

 

Writers Unite! Tips on Writing!

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Sallie Moppert: To Outline, or Not To Outline, That is the Question

Just like each individual is unique, so is that individual’s writing style. Some people plot and outline every detail of their work while others prefer to wing it. It can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war between the two: am I plotting/outlining enough or too much? Which one of these methods is correct?

The answer is both. Whatever works for you is the correct one.

I have tried my hand at both styles and found a happy medium between the two extremes that works for me. I originally started making it up as I went along; I remember an occasion or two when I started a story and even I didn’t know who the killer was going to be in the story (a murder mystery with heavy emphasis on the mystery!). I also tried to completely outline my story from start to finish, dot-jotting all of the major events or details that were supposed to happen in a particular chapter for each and every chapter. Here’s what I’ve learned from my venture into the world of outlining and the world of flying by the seat of my pants and also the method that works best for me.

TO OUTLINE: Outlining can be very helpful for obvious reasons; with a blank page in front of you, figuring out what is supposed to happen when or what character is supposed to do something at a certain point in the story may seem like a daunting task. That’s where the outline comes in. Okay, chapter 1, I want to introduce this character and have him/her do this. I also want to introduce the conflict with this other character by some event happening. All right, now chapter 2…and so on and so forth. For some, having a definitive path to follow to get from page 1 to the final page is a must. With a clear cut start, middle and ending, the outline can help to reduce writer’s block. You already know what’s going to happen next. Granted, even though the next chapter’s details are already laid out for you, writer’s block still may occur when trying to get from point A to point B; don’t get discouraged! Then again, the writer’s block may be a good thing because it might be an indicator that there is a plot hole that needs to be fixed. Instead of trudging your way through hundreds of pages only to find a bottomless pit of a plot hole that could put the entire story in jeopardy, having an outline can highlight issues that might occur later in the story that will need to be remedied. Wait, this character can’t do that; it’s not in his nature! I have to go back and fix this. Or perhaps something like: why didn’t the antagonist just do this? It would have made this happen instead of that happening. I need an explanation for that reasoning/action.

NOT TO OUTLINE: Part of the fun of writing is the creativity that comes as a result of imagining characters, places and scenarios. A rigid outline could interfere with the natural flow of creativity. Oh, hey, that character would make a great addition to this scene! I’ll pencil him into this chapter and see what happens instead of shoot, this character can’t be in this scene, even though I know he/she’d have some great dialogue to add and/or would really help him/her in some way. Sometimes a character or a plot may need to change over the course of a story in a way that wasn’t even initially conceived of. My story Into the Fire was an instance of a character being brought into the story that wasn’t anything I had thought of doing when I started writing it. The piece itself was a side project I was doing, just having fun with different POVs and writing suspense, sort of like the movie Vantage Point (2008, with Dennis Quaid and Forest Whitaker); the different points of view all came together to tell a single story and the truth behind what happened. I got about five chapters in when an idea hit me: what if I made the cops called in to deal with the threat be Sam and Dahlia? I like the idea of putting Sam in more stories since he was a fun character to write and explore. Once that idea occurred to me, the pieces began to fall into place. The security guard became Sam’s mentor, Edwin. Sadly, though, Edwin’s fate in that story remained unchanged, even before Edwin Hill the security guard became Edwin Hill, retired cop/mentor/foster father of Samuel Marlowe. Because I wasn’t sticking to a rigid outline, I had the freedom to adjust the story accordingly.

THE HAPPY MEDIUM: I found that what works best for me is a flexible outline. I have an idea, whether it be a prompt or a scenario, that I plan to start writing. From there, I dot jot a couple of ideas that I want to happen in the story. Here are the notes I have for one of the stories in the next installment of Good Cop Bad Cop. This story is called (tentatively) ‘Paying a Debt.’

 

Gloria is going to the bank

Sam recognizes something is wrong and goes with her

He is off duty, so he has no weapon on him

Robbers show up

Turns into a hostage situation

Sam contacts [character name removed to avoid spoilers] for help

 

With these few lines, I have an idea of where the story is headed. The next step would be to create the characters, or, at least, get some names. With a flexible outline, I can add or remove characters as I need, so I usually just start off with a bunch of first and last names that I can refer to to create characters. Once I have some characters in place, I start writing. It’s fun to let the story develop on its own, with me, as the writer, merely along for the ride. I learned the value of this when writing a separate story a few years ago and the way the chapter was chugging along, I came to a confrontation between two characters that I didn’t plan on having in the rigid outline I’d created, but I loved the scene because it really fit the characters’ personalities to nearly duke it out until interrupted by a third character both were connected to.

The story is like a child and the writer, a parent. We spend days, months, years, working on a story, developing it and making it the best it can be. That story, though, can take on its own personality and traits or quirks that may not have otherwise developed if the writer hampered its natural procession.

Outline or don’t outline-whatever you feel works best for you but remember to let your muse and the story guide you at times. You never know where a story can go unless you let it take you there!

What do you prefer, outlining or winging it?

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Sallie Moppert Bio

A New York native, Sallie has a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice, with a Specialization in Forensic Science. A lifelong mystery fan, she has combined her love and passion for writing with her interests in criminal justice, law, and forensic science.

Sallie currently resides in New York with her family and two dogs, and works as a freelance writer/editor.

Good Cop Bad Cop is her debut novel, and is available everywhere books are sold in both paperback and ebook editions.

Realm of Magic is Now Available on Amazon!!

Writers Unite!’s first anthology — Realm of Magic — is now available for purchase on Amazon.com!

This collection of fantasy stories was written by members of the group! An eclectic mix of fantasy stories, with dragons and nymphs and other magical creatures.

Your support is for the members of Writers Unite! is appreciated!!!!

Click here to Order
Your Copy of Realm of Magic

 

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Interview on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk: WU! Anthology Realm of Magic!

WU! Admins Jessica Fisette and Deborah Ratliff appeared on Dr. Paul’s Family Talk, Impact Radio US with host Paul Reeves to discuss the upcoming release of the Writers Unite! Anthology Realm of Magic.

Click Here to Listen to the Podcast!

 

Click here to Pre-Order
Realm of Magic

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Dr. Paul’s Family Talk airs live on Monday’s and Thursday at 11:00 A. M. EDT (Summer hours)

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