Category Archives: writing workshop

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART Five: Creating Unforgettable Characters

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
― Ray BradburyZen in the Art of Writing

 

A playwright in a local writing group I attend posed an interesting question. He wanted to know what the group thought attracted readers to read the same authors repeatedly. The consensus reached was that we return to our favorite authors because they give us characters we identify with, cheer for and care about.

Think about a series of books you are fond of and consider what brings you back every time that author publishes a new novel. I’m certain the genre is appealing and likely the author writes well and is entertaining, but many authors are as well. I think one of the main reasons we favor certain authors is the characters they create.

Harry Bosch, Jack Ryan, Kay Scarpetta, Sherlock Holmes, Dirk Pitt, Eve Dallas, Travis McGee.

These characters and countless others are part of our lexicon. They become important to us and remain with us long after we have read the first or the last novel of the series. My father handed me my first John D. McDonald book featuring the character Travis McGee when I was sixteen, telling me I would learn about life from McDonald’s words. I cannot tell you how many times I have read each of the twenty-one novels in the Travis McGee series over the years. A self-identified beach bum and salvage operator, McGee was more than that. He was a believer in justice, respected women, hated drugs and drug dealers, greed, and corruption. A modern-day Robin Hood who helped those who could not fight the system, a characteristic of many of the characters we embrace.

As a mystery writer, many of the names I have listed above are old friends, and while I do realize they are not real, their familiarity from novel to novel allows that suspension of belief we need to immerse ourselves in fiction. These authors make their characters unforgettable and so should we.

First Impressions

The first time we meet anyone we form an immediate impression, despite knowing we should not judge a person until we get to know them better. But we do, and your reader will form an opinion of your characters when they first meet.

As we discussed in Part Four of our series, “Plotting Your Story,” you should introduce your main character, or protagonist, as soon as possible in your first chapter. If you want the reader to become engaged in the story and read until the end, then make your protagonist compelling. Give your readers a reason to like the character, to feel empathy for them, for their plight.

You should introduce your main character quickly and important supporting characters within the first chapter, even if only by name, not appearance. Your protagonist should be alluded to even if not present in the first chapter. Let your readers see who they are rooting for and who they are not.

 

Types of Characters in a Story:

 

The Protagonist

Your story revolves around this character and your readers’ interest will, as well. As we discussed, you must define them clearly and quickly. This character is your story, he/she must define the plot and be the focus of the central action of the story. The conflict that exists in the story is what this character must face and ultimately make a choice on how to deal with. Put you protagonist in peril throughout the story to involve the reader in their plight.

 

The Antagonist

The villain is the foil for your protagonist and the source of their conflict. Introduce the antagonist early as you would your protagonist. However, you may introduce their evil deeds first and, dependent on the genre you are writing in, have them appear in the story or reveal their identity as the antagonist at an appropriate time.

 

Secondary Characters

All character’s other than your protagonist and antagonist fall into this category. These characters can play a pivotal role in the story or serve a role in a transitional scene, a clerk or service technician, a doctor, any role you need. The role of side-kick falls into this category, and these characters need development to convey the level of importance they carry in a story. Keep in mind, even the most mundane of characters is an opportunity to enrich your story. A taxi driver might appear briefly in one scene, but you have the choice to make that character memorable.

 

“There are no hundred percent heroes.” — Travis McGee, Cinnamon Skin, 1982, by John D. MacDonald

Making Your Characters Unforgettable:

  • Appearance: As you write your characters, no doubt you will know exactly what they look like. The question is how much of that description do you impart to your readers. There are two schools of thought, describe your characters the way you want your reader to see them or allow your reader to imagine them as they choose. Whatever you decide, do not throw out an ingredient list identifying characteristics. Incorporate those characteristics into dialogue or the character’s internal dialogue as your story unfolds. If you do intend on revealing hair color or any other feature, do so within the first chapter. If you tell your reader in chapter five, your character is a brunette, and your reader thinks redhead, their connection with the character could be destroyed.
  • Background: Your characters origins, place of birth, ethnic background, ancestry, education, career choices, sports participation, hobbies, etc. can all play a role in their development. What did their parents do for a living, what unusual events occurred to impact their lives, what childhood pets did they have, all impact who they are.
  • Communication: How do they interact with people? Is he friendly, curt, argumentative? Do they have an accent, special words, or phrases that they use that shows their personality and makes them unique? What does their voice sound like? What is their internal thought processes?
  • Relationships: How do they interact with family and friends? Do they make friends easily, are they awkward in social situations? Do they genuinely like people, are they shy?
  • Goals: Decide what do your characters want. What are the goals, desires, need that you should address in your novel to move the story to its conclusion. Stories are based on conflict, and you need to show how that conflict interferes with their goals and how to resolve the issue.
  • Flaws: Do remember that your characters do not need to be perfect. While Hollywood prescribes that all characters must be handsome or beautiful, the fact is real life doesn’t look like that. Give your MC a scar, have them throw a temper tantrum, have them drink too much or hate dogs or apple pie. Let them complain about their weight or their cousins. Make them real people.

 

There are some things to avoid.

  • All those classic boys/girls next door, the dumb sidekick, the brave solitary cowboy, doting mothers, rough Marine drill sergeants, all those stereotypes we have come to expect, don’t use them. Do not write the expected, give your reader a character that is unique.
  • Do not create simple characters. Give them dimension. You have a cast of characters that should be interesting. While you will focus on developing your main characters and those secondary characters that are important to the story arc, don’t forget to humanize your minor characters. Make them stand out, give them a funny line or a unique attribute. If you cannot make them real, don’t use them as placeholders to take you to the next scene, cut them from the story.

 

How do you create these characters?

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

― William Faulkner

Story coaches and experts will tell you that writing a character biography down to shoe size and favorite dessert along with a list of books they’re read is the only way to properly develop your characters. There are numerous character development sheet templates available online if you choose to microscopically dissect their personalities. There are some authors who write a multi-page biography before they commence writing their novel.

Then there are writers like me. I think of my story arc, imagine the character, give them a name and start typing. They will tell me their likes and dislikes as we experience the story together.

Again, as in all things writing related, choose what works for you. The main thing is to remember to create multidimensional main and secondary characters that enrich your stories and propel the plot to its conclusion.

 

“I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn’t exist.”

― Berkeley Breathed

 

Resources:

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3055:are-travis-mcgee-and-john-d-macdonald-still-relevent-&catid=54:reviews&Itemid=187

https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/characters

Chris Coling: Designing a Quality Book Cover

Host note: In our continuing series of information on the writing process, we offer this thoughtful and informative article on designing a quality book cover.

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Hi, my name is Chris Coling and I’m one of the moderators for the writing group Writers Unite! I would like to promote a discussion about one of the most important parts of presenting your work to the public, namely the cover.

My writing name is Colin Gee, and I publish through Amazon on Kindle, and in paper through Createspace.

My credentials for this discussion are limited to being a relatively successful self-publisher who has been complimented on his covers; nothing more.

Admittedly, I spent quite some time on getting the concept correct [in my mind at least], involving research online and in bookshops, as well as driving my graphics man mad with tinkering.

The cover of your work is the first point of contact with a potential reader, and I believe an author should think long and hard about making sure that the initial contact draws the readers in, rather than pushes them away.

In my opinion, the cover is there to provide a strong visual clue as to the contents. I’ve seen books where the cover is a meaningless something that defies description. To me, no matter how nice it looks, or how much time it took to make, if it doesn’t offer up something about the contents of your work, it’s a waste of time.

I suspect most of us will start with the picture/graphic, against which we intend to set the other information.

This can be a dangerous area, as many images are legal minefields waiting to catch the unwary author.

My experience was helped by the genre in which I write, as there are many public domain photographs that are suitable. I also took my own photos and adapted them for purpose. Clearly, if you do that, then you know you are safe and sound and will not risk some legal interference later on down the line. Whatever you choose as your base graphic, exercise care and caution. That also applies to any other graphics you lay over the top.

Make sure you make the appropriate acknowledgments if you are using a work that is gratis, as some simply require that the owner/author be cited.

Having selected the right graphic, you can tinker with the presentation. Again, some pictures require that you record your alterations to the original.

You may decide to select a portion of a picture, rather than use the whole. It is important to remember that picture quality is very important and I would advise sticking to the original ratios to get the best display. If you cherry-pick a portion of a picture and then enlarge it, unless it is a super-duper HD image, you will lose definition.

In my case, the initial tinkering simply involved adding some colour to a B&W image. This also fitted in with my plan of using B&W images with coloured flags throughout, from different nations, using each cover to indicate which particular nation was the main protagonist within that book or was most central to the current story.

Perversely, that also backfired on me later in the series and my whole plan nearly fell apart. More of that down the page.

Adding extra images as overlays is no problem, provided you do it right. For my second book, my bro and I worked with some tank images, and trying to get the image quality the same as the picture on which they were mounted was a nightmare. I’m actually never really sure if we truly nailed it. If you’re just putting an object on the original, it’s less of a problem, but if you’re trying to incorporate an overlay into the original image, it certainly is. Be careful here.

My titles to date are all chess terms, and I use chess as a back theme on all the covers, by fading a chessboard down from the top. Chess is an important game to the Russians, which also helps create a certain feeling. I also incorporate a red chess piece. Red has a clear and unavoidable association within my chosen genre. More of the piece later.
Clearly, text style is a major decision for you.

My research in bookshops quickly led me down the road of solid gold text. There was simply too much of it on display to ignore. Plus, I actually liked it. At the time you read this, there may be a different style favoured.

I did decide to have more than one text type on the cover, but again, the research showed that was a reasonable decision, so long as everything was legible and there was no confusion between font styles.

The layout suggested itself and followed reasonably conventional lines.

Title in large text at the top, followed by smaller text with the series info and author name, or vice versa for some of the titles. This may not work for your book, and you can see a number of different presentations on Amazon or in bookstores.

With the text, if you elect for a solid gold as I did, it clearly risks obstructing something in the image you may wish to fall under the reader’s eye, so setting out your letters is important. Remember, with publishers like Createspace, there is a gutter zone into which you may not place any cover text. It’s simple enough to launch their cover creator and experiment with that.

The decision to state that each book was part of a series was one I never foresaw as having any issues. It seemed quite reasonable to me. However, some of my feedback on ‘Opening Moves’ suggested that had a reader known it was a series of books, they would not have bought the first one. Weird of course, as it stated clearly in the synopsis and on the cover that they were a series, but interesting from the point of view that some people don’t want to read a series of books. None the less, to my mind, it’s fair to let a potential reader know.

During all of this layout work, I tended to have a mind towards the rest of the series.
To me, certain uniformity draws the series together. I would keep the same/similar font, text positioning, style, and the chess hints throughout, so whatever I decided for the first cover had to be a style that transferred easily to those that followed.

One thing that bugged me during my research was the extensive use of flowery fonts by some authors, many of whose books were traditionally published. Yes, some look very nice indeed, but I would suggest that, if a potential reader cannot read the cover without deep study at close quarters, then you will already have lost the cover browser type reader who, put simply, will move on as they are unable to understand the basic words of your title.

Back to the chess piece. It’s a red queen. It’s also damaged. It was a major clue to the overall story, hidden in plain sight. I think that it wasn’t until book six came out that someone asked the question.

I incorporated the chess piece in the text [in the main,] occasionally in some other way. A bit-part character in book one is a Soviet intelligence officer who was wounded in the left foot. She, in the guise of the Red Queen, was sat on the front cover for the entire series. Whilst it was a risk, it certainly built up the ‘you’re a sneaky swine, Gee’ kudos with my fan base. Such things may not be for you, indeed you may not have a story that supports similar efforts, but I enjoyed doing it, and the one I got over on thousands of readers. Perhaps that was nothing more than hubris on my part?

One way I was very fortunate was in having a graphics man in the family, namely my brother, Jason. It might have been easy to just accept something, in order not to annoy someone who had already invested hours in doing something for you free of charge, but I always felt it was worth getting right. The forbearance he showed in doing a whole piece of work again, simply to move something a fraction of a millimetre, was astounding.

I hope you are similarly fortunate, but my point is, do not let the cover go forward until it is, in your opinion, the best it can be. I reiterate, your cover is the first point of contact and therefore your best chance of hooking a potential reader in.
Back to the flags. I used a national flag on each cover, placing them on roads or rivers, each conforming to the lines of the original photo. It worked well and without problems, until I place the US flag on a road, over which US soldiers were running and a US tank was advancing.

Fortunately, I tend to post the covers in advance on my sites. There were rumbles about using the US flag in such a way, and having men trample on it. There had been no contrary views when using the Tricoleur, the German flag and others previously. Suddenly I was faced with a possible destruction of my overall flag plan. Fortunately, the books had just moved to the forming of NATO, so I thought on my feet and used the NATO flag instead, which was considered acceptable. I guess the lesson there is that, despite your best laid plans, there is always something that lies in wait to bite you in the backside. I was very lucky to get away with it. I’ve attached the US version of the cover so you can see what the fuss was about.

The spine is important if your book is to be sold through an outlet, less so if sold through Createspace or similar, and completely unnecessary if sold as an e-book. I simply used different colours and text displays on my Createspace offerings, alternating between a dark and light colour spine, and contrasting text. I wanted the name and author to be clear and easily read.

The rear cover has no worth in an e-book, but is clearly important for Createspace and bookshop sales. Remember to leave space in your design for the barcode, and remember the gutter policy of the company you are using!

I have tended to use the synopsis placed online in Amazon as the text for the back cover. Seems reasonable to me. A word of caution on the picture you choose to go underneath that text. The writing is likely to be smaller so the picture cannot be too busy, or words will risk getting lost. The pictures I have employed have supported the general theme of the book in question, but have never been intended to do anything other than form a relevant backdrop to the text that describes the book’s contents. I have only ever used B&W photos on the rear covers, again to conform to the overall theme, and to make sure the text is clear and readable. I’ve included a single example to show you exactly what I mean.

You will now have a cover that you think is wonderful and extremely fantastic. Congratulations….. but….. Hold your horses, kemo sabay!

Show it to people you don’t know, without them knowing it’s yours. Friends and family can be notoriously unreliable when it comes to honestly and sincerity of feedback. I know from personal experience. Get opinions and listen to the criticisms. If you don’t get any of that, I will be very surprised. Someone may see something very basic that you, in your glee, have missed.

Please don’t let pride get in the way here. If someone else spotted it, take it on the chin and be happy that you have a better cover because of it.

Hopefully, by the end of your journey, you will then have a cover that is everything you hoped for, and that will entrap potential readers with its message.

If I have managed to give you some ideas, then that is great. If I’ve bored you to death, I apologise. This would have been 2077 words towards my latest tome… err 2085
Just remember to make good choices, and the best of luck with your covers.

Do feel free to critique my covers and destroy them openly! I’ll cope.

These are the covers of the books that are presently out. I include an example of a rear cover for your information, and the US flag version of ‘Initiative’ that was never used.

 

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Chris Coling is a retired firefighter and currently works at the local hospital. A part-time writer, he is presently working on his eighth and last book in an alternate-history series, with other ideas waiting in the wings. He writes for himself in the first instance but also enjoys the fact that his books are now read widely. He resides in England.

Writing Your First Novel Part Four: Plotting Your Story Idea

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART FOUR: Plotting YOUR STORY IDEA

Sing to me, Oh Muse… “

— Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

The muse.

Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.

Story vs. Plot:

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014

Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

Story Structure:

One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure.  The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience.  While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.

There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.

The Beginning

The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.)  You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.

The Middle

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The Ending

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

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While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.

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Up next:  Writing Your First Novel  Part Five: Developing Memorable Characters

 

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Resources:

https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/nine-muses-in-greek-mythology/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot

https://www.nofilmschool.com/2014/07/martin-scorsese-difference-between-story-plot

 

 

Write Your First Novel Part Three Plotter vs Pantser: To Outline or Not to Outline…

“Nora Roberts says she never knows where her story is going, that she sits down at the computer to find out.”

Writers, when they aren’t writing, love to talk about writing. It is, after all, our passion. A favorite topic of these discussions, and one that garners a lot of questions is “plotter vs.  pantser.” Do you outline your story before you begin to write or do you run with the idea that pops into your head without a care?

The discussion on how to construct a novel, outline or write without a plan, is one that elicits many opinions. There is no right or wrong way, the method used to write a novel is subjective and personal.

I admit to being a pantser, a writer without a plan. An idea will come to me, and I feel compelled to begin writing immediately. I formulate the beginning and end of the story in my head and work out how to get from Point A to Point B as I go along. Main characters come with the idea, and secondary characters materialize out of thin air as needed.

“Romance author Jane Graves, who identifies herself as ‘a big time pantser’ says ‘I’m cursed with not being able to see the good twists and turns of character and plot until I’m in the middle of writing the book. I can have a sense where it’s going, but absolutely nothing comes alive until the words start going down on the page. That’s when I start having revelations and seeing things I never saw at the synopsis level. For me, it’s kind of like remembering the words to an old song. If you ask me the words, I can’t tell you. But if the song comes on the radio and I’m in the middle of listening to it, I can tell you what comes next.’”

Pantsers usually cite one main reason why they prefer not to outline. They thrive on the unrestricted flow of creativity, which not having a plan gives them. Personally, I enjoy experiencing the story as it unfolds naturally. I don’t want to know what my character’s favorite food is or exactly where a murder is going to take place until the scene evolves. I prefer the characters surprise me.

Another reason is the tedious process of plotting out the story before writing. Many pantsers, this one included, feel very confined by a detailed plan. Outlining is akin to writing the story prior to writing the story.

There are problems with writing without a plan. You can write yourself into a corner, discover you have a major plot hole or realize the beginning of your story may be the middle and you have to develop further back into the story instead of going forward. A major criticism of this writing process is that without planning it often requires considerable rewrite to attain plot cohesion.

I suspect pantsters will admit they do some planning. Complex plots and numerous characters can be confusing. Some writers will sketch out chapters or write down key plot points as they develop them to keep track. I admit to doing both, I am notoriously horrible at remembering character names, so I keep a character list. I have also discovered that creating a chapter list, noting the significant plot events of the book helps keep me focused. My chapter notes are fluid, changing as the story unfolds, and my brief notes perhaps only a cryptic “ body discovered” but does help with keeping an even pace throughout the story.

Plotters, or outliners, on the other hand, thrive on detail. They wouldn’t dream of writing, some quite meticulously, without planning the entire story. Spreadsheets, index cards, journals, loose paper, word docs, all serve as platforms for the all-important outline. During the years JK Rowling was publishing the Harry Potter series, she gave a television interview where she discussed the large spreadsheet she created to plot out and track events in her epic novels. The enormous undertaking required to produce a series like Harry Potter underscores the plotters’ belief in planning. Multiple characters, plotlines, and volumes require attention to detail and even as a pantser by nature, I can see the value of plotting.

One of the serious issues that plague many writers is their inability to finish a project, short story or novel because they lose track during the middle. While a beginning and an ending are often known, how to navigate through the story to reach a conclusion often eludes them. Planning each scene, or chapter can help with this issue by providing the impetus to construct a solid middle.

There is a downside to plotting. I had a conversation with a writing coach, who loved the index card process and told me that I must write my story on the cards and then write my first draft. I didn’t. Writing a detailed outline, including every scene, every nuance to me defeats the point. When the last index card includes the words, ‘the end,’ I’ve already written the book. I don’t choose to write it again.

Also, plotting to such detail boxes one into a corner. If you have an epiphany in the middle of writing based on a detailed outline, you have two choices. Chuck the outline or rewrite it. Rewriting is tedious and time-consuming and unnecessary.

I suspect most of us are a combination of a plotter and a pantser. How much of each of these processes we embrace depends on our need for direction. The one thing I have noticed is our predilection to choose one of these styles seems to follow how we go about our daily tasks. Some calendar everything, make copious lists, some (like me)  ask, “Was that today?” What is important is choosing the writing process that offers us the most productivity and the most joy.

 

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Quote Resources:

http://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds/

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Write Your First Book  Part Four: Plotting will be posted soon.