Getting to know your characters
One of my greatest ah-haa! moments in learning to write creatively was realising that characters are the essential essence of a good story. Whether you are writing memoir or romance or fantasy, or (as I do) historical fiction and crime, it is the characters who do all the work. They hook the interest of your readers and drive all the action.
An article by author Katherine Howell, published in WQ gives wise advice about creating characters.
The key is making the characters compelling enough that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. The reader has to care about the character and what happens to them, because the desire to find out what’s around the corner for this interesting person is what makes them read on.
The compelling character is the driven character. They need to have a goal they’re trying to achieve: something they want, and the more desperately the better.
I couldn’t agree more.
But before you can write a fascinating character, you need to know them as well as you know yourself. Getting inside your character’s head isn’t easy. You need to create a personal history and lots of irrelevant trivia about their ‘lives’.
My favourite character is investigative reporter and ladies’ man, Seth VerBeek (Baby Farm and The Scarlet Key). To write the story from his point of view, I had to understand where he’d come from and what had shaped his life. I also needed to like the character I’d created, so that I could write with compassion (and some passion as well).
So, without giving anything away, here is Seth VerBeek in a snapshot.
Raised in working-class Paddington in Brisbane, he was heavily influenced by his father, a tram driver who’d lost his job after the great tram depot fire of 1962. After leaving home as a teenager, he trained as a journalist in Sydney. When he was twenty, he was conscripted and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. Afterwards he worked as a foreign correspondent in many countries, including the Middle East. Returning to Brisbane, he slipped into a comfortable rut. His loves are: women (in a nice way); aged whisky; unravelling mysteries. He is also trying to quit smoking, but with mixed results.
Think about the characters in your work in progress. How well do you know them?
What do they like? Who do they hate? What annoys them? What makes them laugh?
One suggestion for getting to know your character is: take him/her to the pub and get roaring drunk (figuratively speaking). You’ll be pleasantly surprised what you find out … about both of you.
The Garret and the Cellar
Don’t you just love scribbling away in the writers’ garret? Creating, creating. Spinning lovely word tapestries that seem so clever and amusing and well-crafted at the time. Ah, the freedom of self-expression, the association of ideas, the vivaciousness of the characters!
Then, you write that wonderful little three-letter word: END. And it’s finished, your manuscript. You can print it out and hold it in your sweaty hands. All that thought and work and time and sacrifice. Yes, sacrifice. While you were writing, did you remember to visit your friends, or feed your cat, or get some exercise other than tapping your fingers on a keyboard?
And is it the end? I mean, really the end? I wish.
That brings me to where I’ve been these last months. In the cellar.
It was bleak and cold and lonely down there. Not much creative light to keep me nourished.
In the cellar, I had to dissect my work and put it back together again. Critically, dispassionately. I tried to breathe life into one of my point-of-view characters who was suffering from a severe case of cardboard-cutout-ism. Eventually I realised the syndrome was terminal and I had to euthanize her. Poor Rebecca, may she rest in peace.
After the restructure (and Rebecca’s symbolic cremation) I performed the mind-numbing exercise of line editing. Read a chapter; mark the words/sentences that are so bulky and cumbersome you trip over them; rewrite them in a light, sparkling and witty manner; reread and repeat the process.
Search and destroy: words that I overuse, clichés, lazy words that should be substituted, trying to find an elusive and magnificent word to replace the banal one I’d written.
A writing buddy read the first chapters of my manuscript and said, ‘You’ve got an awful lot of ing-words.’
Ing-words, they creep in without you noticing (there’s one of the little buggers now). So I did a search and found a zillion. I gritted my teeth and set to work methodically from the very start of the manuscript. And what did I discover? One of my all-time favourite lazy-words was thing (and all its lazy variants: nothing, something, anything). I found 320 of the little critters in my 90,000 manuscript. I swear they’d been breeding like mosquitoes throughout summer. Now it’s down to around 90, and those are meant to be there (rather than tossed into the bowl like a limp bit of lettuce because I couldn’t think of a better word).
Anyway, now I’ve finished and have crawled up into the light. Better still, now my wonderful manuscript is truly at an end … for now.
Next step? Submit. Might need anti-depressants for that one.
Lost in Translation
Readers of Baby Farm have commented that my use of the Australian idiom is a cause of constant delight. In Australia we underrate ourselves a lot. Most of the stories we know and love – whether in print or on film – come from other countries. The US and the UK are the main ones. Not surprising since we share a common language. Well, sort of.
When formatting the ebook version, I was amused to discover that Smashwords refers to Australian English as a ‘dialect’. When I stopped and thought about it, people from ‘Down-under’ have some interesting ways of expressing themselves. It also made me realise that being immersed in your own country puts blinkers on your ears.
For example, one of my writer friends unconsciously used a typical Australian-ism in her recent novel, along with the usual conversion of words like ‘lift’ to ‘elevator’, and ‘chips’ to ‘French fries’ in order to satisfy her American readers.
This is what she wrote: ‘I hopped in the shower.’ To an Aussie, it means ‘I stripped off and quickly got under the shower’. But, like so many of our colloquial phrases, the literal meaning is overlooked because we know the person isn’t hopping about on one leg, naked under a jet of water.
Another favourite of mine is ‘stickybeak’. The word can be used either as a verb or a noun. It means to pry into other people’s business, or a person who does. The woman who drew this unwitting gem to my attention was Canadian. ‘Oh, I just love your word stickybeak,’ she said. ‘Whenever I hear it, I picture a bird with a big hooked beak and yellow pollen stuck on it. Such a perfect analogy.’
In a Skype seminar Mark Coker (founder of Smashwords) was asked whether Australian authors should write in Australian or should they ‘translate’ their work into American to appeal to a broader audience. He replied that Australians should be true to their own language, as long as the meaning is clear from the context.
Thank you, Mark Coker.
I love our quirky colourful slang and would hate to lose it in the quagmire of a global English-speaking community.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie … (you know the rest).
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer
Writing must be the ultimate solo pursuit. Which is great if you love the inside of your garret or your study or your bedroom. Personally I don’t know how else to get those words out of my head and onto the page. Perhaps that’s because I’m so easily distracted by … practically anything really.
The only way I can concentrate is to shut myself away.
When I’m into a project, I aim for 1000 words per day. Depending on how I feel and whether the story is falling into place, that might take anywhere between two and five hours (I usually give up at five, whether I’ve got my 1000 words or not).
To a well-practiced writer that might not sound like a whole lot of words, but I don’t have the luxury of doing this full time. After a day of staring at a computer screen at work, by the time I get to the computer in my study, my eyeballs are bordering on fried.
After dinner, off I go – there’s nothing to watch on TV anyway – and get that word-counter ticking at the bottom of the screen. Sometimes I keep going until my eyelids have actually shut. Sitting there fast asleep, fingers on the keyboard. I hate to confess, I have even drooled.
Anyway, writing can get pretty damn lonely. That’s why finding others who are doing the same crazy thing is like gold.
Last night I went to the end-of-year celebration at the Queensland Writers Centre and it was a joy. I’ve been a member for a couple of years and attended their wonderful workshops. Now, instead of a sea of unfamiliar faces, there several … no, many … who share this long and meandering path from wanna-be to made-it.
This solo pursuit doesn’t have to be lonely.
The Reject Letter
Some writers complain endlessly about getting reject letters.
Perhaps I should qualify. In fiction, characters who are writers complain endlessly about getting reject letters. They also complain about their agent – but in real life, getting one of those is as tricky as navigating your way around Europe with a device that speaks only Italian (and I don’t).
The truth is this: if you actually get a reject letter, consider yourself lucky.Until recently most of my submissions have been sucked into a giant black hole in the cyberspace of publishing, never to be seen or heard from again. Some don’t even bother sending a one-line email to acknowledge the thousands of hours I’d slaved over the incubation and birth of my little piece of joy.
A couple of months ago I actually received my very first reject letter.It was so beautiful that I nearly wept. I’m serious. Someone actually took the time to write a NICE letter of support and encouragement. I’m sure everyone who submitted got the same one, but for a moment it made me believe that my writing isn’t total crap.
I’ll share the best part with you.
“Our editors thought highly of your piece. Unfortunately, however, the overwhelming number of submissions we have received has presented us with some difficult decisions to make in terms of compiling a long-list for the judges; ultimately this means that many high-quality pieces such as yours must regrettably be turned down.”
Now, isn’t that nice?
How to be a writer
For many years I dreamed of being a writer. Back in high school, I would start scribbling novels designed to make me famous. I would stay on task for a long, long time. Hours, in fact. Then the phone would ring and I’d be off to the movies instead. Months later I’d stumble across a wad of hand-written pages stuffed into the back of a text book. Re-reading what I had written would bring tears to my eyes … not in a good way. They were truly atrocious.
As an adult I gave up on creative writing, as you do when you realise you’re not an Emily Bronte or an Enid Blyton or a Colleen McCullough. I put writing that novel in the too-hard box and concentrated instead on being a good wife and mother and employee. That takes time and effort. There was simply no energy left for blue-sky dreaming.
The idea persisted. But how do you become a writer?
The answer is astonishingly simple.
To be a writer, you must write.
For me, the first tiny step was to sign up for a course in short story writing. It was a little old-fashioned, run by a technical college as a correspondence course. Every week I received my lesson in the mail. Every week I posted off my assignment and received feedback with the next lesson. The teacher was surprisingly encouraging. Not an unfair word was written. All was constructive and aimed at improvement. I was a little disappointed when it ended and I stopped writing.
A year later I took a two-day course on writing memoir. There was a mixed bag of participants – most, like myself, with the will but not the skill – cramped into a U-shaped classroom. Two were members of a community-based writers’ group that met every month at a local library. They suggested I join and I did.
We did writing exercises and critiqued each other’s work. My first meeting was terrifying: strangers read my work and told me what they thought. Mostly they were kind; sometimes they were honest.
I wanted more, so I joined the Queensland Writers’ Centre and took a series of workshops aimed at writing and editing an extended piece of work. That’s when the penny dropped.
Practice every chance you get. Set a number of words to write every day, and try to stick to it. When you choose to do this, then you are a writer.