Sunday, December 23, 2018

What My Dogs Taught Me About Story Characters, Part 1

Once upon a time we had two dogs. Their names were Toffy and Bandit. 

We adopted Toffy from the animal shelter. A note pinned to her kennel door said: “thrown over the fence at Thanksgiving” and based on that note, she became Toffy.

She was only a year old, but that first year of her life scarred her in numerous ways. Within a few weeks, we knew she had been locked for hours in a small room, she had been severely punished for going potty in the house, and she had belonged to a man. I’d never known of a dog chewing her toenails, yet she did for several months after we adopted her.
We owned Toffy for 15 years, but all the love in the world could not eradicate her early experiences. She would not enter a small room with a door. In fact, she’d forego a treat rather than enter the laundry room where the dog biscuits were kept. 
Walks must have been the highlight of her day before we adopted her, because she went nuts at the sight of a leash. Although we walked her almost everyday and she had a big yard and the house to wander when not walking, her shrieking when we put on her collar and leash alerted the whole neighborhood. I’m sure few found that endearing at 5:30 in the morning.

As for the assumption she belonged to a man, her reaction to my husband supplied that answer. The first time he disciplined her in a stern voice, she became a trembling wreck. Since she didn’t react as strongly to my stern voice, we decided her first owner was a man. Needless to say, my husband never used a stern voice with her. 
Toffy’s only child status was changed within a year by the introduction into our family of a puppy someone left beside a four-lane highway. Bandit was six weeks old when my husband rescued him. 

Bandit never knew anyone threw him away. And no one locked him alone in a bathroom for endless hours, no one denied him the opportunity to go outside when he was being housebroken, and he benefited from the “no stern voice” rule by never having anyone speak sternly to him. Plus, he had baskets of toys to play with, doting parents, and a reluctant new sister.
Sixty-five pounds later, we owned an affectionate, good natured hound dog who believed everyone loved him and he could do no wrong. If you insisted he did something wrong, he’d press his ears back against his head and look guilty for a nanosecond. Then, he came over for the hug he deserved and he forgave you for scolding him.  
As you can see, Toffy and Bandit experienced two different childhoods. And by now, you’re probably wondering what my dogs taught me about story characters. Well, it has to do with psychological baggage. 
What is psychological baggage? It is the sum of all the events that occur during a person’s life. Each of us drags our own version of this baggage through life and it shapes how we act and react. Early life events are often the most significant and have the most profound effect on us. For example, it only took Toffy’s previous owner a matter of months to alter her life forever. Therefore, it behooves us to search our character’s childhood (birth to adolescence) and find their psychological baggage. One of the rewards of finding psychological baggage is the discovery of internal conflict which leads to character growth. 
Internal conflict is the Holy Grail of romance novels and since I write mostly romance, I’ve spent most of my fiction writing career seeking it. I’m not alone in this search. My résumé includes judging almost 50 novel writing contests. Since each contest involved multiple entries, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts by aspiring writers. They were not all romances, although many of them were. It soon became obvious to me that other writers often have problems building solid internal conflict for story characters. 
While many contest entries display a real talent for intriguing external plots, all too often the internal conflict is superficial and easily resolved. A story heavy on external plot with little internal conflict works well in some genres, but not in character driven stories. And even stories heavy on external plot do better if the hero and/or heroine have depth.

It behooves all writers to learn how to build strong internal conflict. Memorable characters have internal conflict. Taking the time to examine our characters’ psychological baggage offers us the chance to do that.

We’ll look at how to incorporate a characters’s psychological baggage into your story in the next blog.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

In the Beginning, Again

In my previous post, I discussed finding the right place to begin a story. I discovered I had more to share about beginnings, so I’m writing another blog. Beginning, Part 2, if you will.

As a writing contest judge, I often read stories that start at the wrong point in the story. Naturally, aspiring writers believe that by the time they have shined their story up to put into a contest, they have found the perfect beginning.

Not always.

Beginnings are often difficult to find, but they are crucial.
Their job is to hook the reader and sometimes a writer forgets to do that. Yes, Alice got up that morning and fixed herself a cup of coffee, ate a bagel with cream cheese, showered, washed and dried her hair, brushed her teeth, got dressed in her favorite navy blue dress, ad nauseam.

After an aspring writer works his or her way through Alice’s morning rituals, he or she often adds something along the lines: “As she left her apartment, little did she know her life was about to change.”

What!? If her life’s about to change, START with the change!

A writer not only needs to hook the reader with an intriguing beginning, but the writer also needs to lure the reader into reading more.

I’m not saying a writer doesn’t need to know Alice’s back story. How she goes about getting ready for work can tell the writer a lot about Alice. It can also tell the reader a lot about her. But the writer has to convince the reader to stick around to learn more about Alice.

This means the reader has to be captivated by Alice from the first paragraph. It’s the difference between boring back story and back story that that adds zest and flavor to the story. Being able to tell the difference and use it when you write is part of learning to write well.

A writer has to learn how to weave elements into a story in such a way as to capture the reader’s interest. It isn’t necessary to know the right place to begin a story when you first start writing it so don’t let it bog you down. Just keep writing. Remember the early stages of writing is the creative stage. You want to let ideas flow. Your inner critic must be turned off.

If you struggle with the perfect beginning, don’t let it keep you from writing your story. Instead, write an easy opening that gets the project started knowing you can come back later once you have a firmer grip on the story. Your first sentence can be something like:

This story is about Alice dealing with the aftermath of a car accident.

There, the opening sentence is out of the way. You’re free to write your story, secure in the knowledge you have an opening and that it isn’t written in stone. When that perfect opening hits you, just paste it into Chapter One.

I try to keep my beginnings as strong as possible because my goal is to grab the reader’s attention and invite her or him into my story world. This version of the opening to Stealing Destiny was in place when it won Best-of-Show in the Authorlink Contest awarded at a Harriette Austin Writers’ Conference.

The Yankee dropped out of the sky, landing in front of Billie and Destiny with a graceful thump. The tree limb over the trail snapped upward, relieved of the man's weight. Destiny shied backward, startled by the moving oak limb as well as the blue clad apparition.

I don’t think this is a bad opening, but I did revise it and the book won a contract with this beginning:

A gunshot cracked the summer morning air. Startled, Destiny shied backward with a frightened whinny. Billie hugged the horse’s neck, her body tensed for the searing pain of a bullet. In a shower of leaves, a Yankee swaddled in an oak branch dropped out of the sky to land in front of her and Destiny.

Sometimes the beginning is easy, sometimes it’s hard. My advice is to write until you find it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In the Beginning

I think we can agree that getting the right beginning to a story sometimes rates up there with going to the dentist. It’s something we know we need to do, but we dread getting it done. 

We worry that if we can’t find a great beginning for our story, it's doomed. So we flail around trying to
come up with the right beginning and presto! bingo! Suddenly we realize we not only don’t have a great beginning, we don’t have a great middle, or a great ending.

Let’s stop and take a deep breath.

While a great beginning is important, the fun part of writing is that creating the perfect beginning to your story doesn’t have to come first. You just need to find it before you write The End. Sometimes it appears in your head like a gift from the gods and sometimes you have to dig and dig and dig to find it.

This is why it’s important not to get hung up on finding the “perfect beginning” before you write anything else.

When I was writing Lady Runway (, I started the story in half a dozen different places. In one early rendition, the heroine was in a mail coach, then I decided to take her off the coach and move her into the coaching inn. Next, I came at it from the hero’s point of view and wrote a series wartime diary excerpts. I also tried putting the hero at the coaching inn before the heroine arrived. 

None of these openings felt quite right. 

Lady Runaway is a historical romance and traditional publishers of romance want the hero and heroine to meet in the opening pages. I was trying to nail that requirement, but the story didn’t lend itself to a first chapter meeting. When I tried to hook them up too early, I ended up with way too many flashbacks later in the book.

If I didn’t want a story riddled with flashbacks, Riana and Dev would have to meet later than the opening scene. In fact, they don’t meet until Chapter Four.

Instead of meeting Dev in Chapter One, the story begins with Riana opening the door to her nemesis. The reader is with Riana as she deals with the villain and makes her escape. 

The version with all the flashbacks did not get a contract, but the version I decided worked best did. Nor do I remember one reader or reviewer who complained that the hero didn’t show up early enough. I believe I found the right opening for that particular story. My many opening scenes weren’t wasted, either, because they became useful back stories.  

With luck, you’ll always find the perfect beginning for your stories. If not at the beginning, keep writing, it’ll probably sneak up on you.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

3 Pet Writing Peeves

It’s impossible for us to attain perfection with every sentence we write, but we do need to check our work for as many errors as we can before putting it out in the world. I keep encountering certain things in books I read that drive me nuts. Here’s my favorite three.

The Case of the Missing Pants

As we set the reader in our story world, we need to describe characters. If you chose to describe a character’s outfit, please don’t stop mid-way through the description.

A server in a crisp white shirt, red vest, and red bow tie approached. 

As I read, I form a mental picture of a character. From this abbreviated description, I can’t help butwonder if the bottom half of his body is naked. And if so, why didn’t the  other characters notice?

How about

A server dressed in a crisp white shirt, red vest with red bow tie, and gray pants approached.

While this isn’t the complete picture, his socks and shoes are missing, and maybe a watch–you get the picture. I haven’t described every detail, but there should be enough to keep a reader from wondering whether the server is wearing pants or not.

The Eyes Have It

For some reason, writers tend to send the eyes of story characters in many directions. Keep in mind a human’s eyes are pretty much stuck in one’s head. The only way eyes can perform some of the following antics is for them to physically leave the body. And yes, these are taken from books I have read.

Her eyes circled the room. 
He sent his eyes around the room. 
Her eyes flew to his face. 
His eyes drifted up from the floor.

Yikes. These are talented eyes if they can do all that. My advice is to use the word “gaze.” Rather like the ubiquitous “said” in dialogue, gaze doesn’t encourage a reader to picture eyes leaving sockets.

His gaze slid from her to the door behind her.

Works a lot better than

His eyes slid from her to the door behind her.

Think about what you write. Can you physically do what you’ve written? Or at least imagined yourself doing it? For example, I don’t have any problem picturing a character “rolling” his or her eyes because my daughter has mastered the technique. Her eyes never leave their sockets, but she clearly rolls them upward. Thus, I am comfortable using that description for a character.

Again, if your eyes can’t do something, a character’s eyes probably can’t do it either.

The Misplaced Possessive Apostrophe

I’m not sure why, but fewer and fewer people seem to understand how to use the possessive apostrophe. The average English speaker tends to use his or her, mine or yours, correctly, but the minute the possessive apostrophe jumps in, especially in an advertisement, things get wacky.

Take the following sentences for example:

Her parents’ house is large. 
Her parent’s house is large.

First of all, the house belongs to either her parents (at least two of them) or her parent (one person). Thus, if you’ve written that the heroine is pulling into the driveway leading to the house where both her parents live. You would write:

Her parents’ house is large.

Parents would be plural (indicating two people) and the apostrophe comes after the “s” to show possession. The parents own the house.

If the heroine’s parents are divorced or one is deceased, she would be pulling into the driveway leading to the house where one parent lives. You would write:

Her parent’s house is large.

This is singular possession. One parent owns the house. The apostrophe comes before the “s” and after the singular word parent.

Plunking the apostrophe before the “s” in plural words seems popular these days. You see it most often in advertisements, but it’s seeping into fiction.

DVD’s for sale. 
PC’s for sale.

Hmmm, written like this, the owner has only one DVD and one PC for sale. Oh, you had more than one? You have several boxes of DVDs and three PCs? Well, for goodness sakes, advertise them correctly.

DVDs for sale.
 PCs for sale.

I’m beginning to wonder if apostrophobia–the fear of misusing an apostrophe which then causes someone to misuse it–has gripped the world. If you have doubts about using a possessive apostrophe, check a grammar book (yes, you should own one) or check an online resource.

Perfection isn’t possible, but a good writer strives to keep clutter to a minimum. Remember, readers have imaginations, too. Once you get them comfortably ensconced in your story world, don’t let easily corrected distractions such as incomplete character descriptions, trick eyes, or grammar errors force the reader out of the story.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Writing Success: It’s How You Measure It

Did you know that 2,952 athletes competed in the 2018 Olympics? They were vying for a record 102 medals. Simple math tells us at least 2,850 athletes returned home without a medal. Since some athletes competed in different events and won more than one medal, the number of medal less athletes inches higher. Math is not my forte, but by my calculations only .05% of competitors won a medal. 

And yet, I’m sure there isn’t an athlete among those who returned home empty handed who regrets having the opportunity to compete. 

My favorite competition is the figure skating. I love watching the skaters’ dazzling performances, but even as I watch, hoping each will have a flawless performance, I know only one skater in a category will win the gold. 

Think about it–the sheer number of hours these skaters have worked to perfect their routine. The gold medal beckons and they compete, compete, compete for the opportunity to go to the Olympics. But after all that work, many of them do not take home any metal.

Undaunted, they start planning for the next Olympic games. 

The Olympic competitions remind me of writing. Hour upon hour of learning the craft, writing the work, submitting it or publishing it, being knocked down, picking oneself up, and yet determined to try again.

Bestseller status is our gold medal.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, 131,200 people are employed as writers in the U.S.A. This number includes all types of writing from cereal box ads to poetry with plenty of stops in between.

Pay ranges from the minuscule to the millions (of dollars). If you believe bestsellerdom means you’ve won the gold medal in writing, just remember 131,199 other people are trying for it, too. Based on the Olympic odds, not all those competing are going to win. Bestseller status doesn’t come any easier to a writer than the gold medal does to an athlete. 

How do you measure your writing success? Truth is, we often forget that success has meaning other than attaining profit. Success can also mean accomplishment in an something you do well. 

I am not a bestselling writer. Truth is, my family would have starved if we had relied on my writing income. I may not have attained name recognition or profit, but I believe I am a successful writer. While I would have loved to become wealthy from writing, it has never been about the money for me, it’s just something I love to do and get cranky if I don’t.

Mostly, I have had the satisfaction of having touched others’ live. I love that:

My home town set aside a day to celebrate a local resident whose accomplishments I wrote about in our newspaper. 

Two Alabama men were presented a prestigious award for mechanics by the Federal Aviation Administration due to an article I wrote. 

And then there’s the Aussie who was so delighted to find my humorous essay on the Internet about ants in the water reservoir of my iron. She said now her “mates” would believe it happened because she had proof it happened to someone else.

Success in the writing world, it’s all in how you measure it.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Point of View: Clarity is the Key Part 2

The POV sin to be avoided is head hopping. When a writer head hops, the point of view shifts from one character to another. The reader is literally hopping from one character’s view point to another character’s view point. By filtering a scene through more than one POV, it becomes less focused.

Let’s look at what I mean about head hopping with this bit of dialogue among three characters who work in the same office:

“Did you know Sherry had a breakdown last night?” Maxine poured herself a cup of coffee before shaking a packet of fake sugar into it. She liked knowing the office news before anyone else.
“No way.” Janine was surprised at the news about Sherry. How could she have missed something as huge as a nervous breakdown? She and Sherry had been working on the same project for weeks.
“Hospitalized.” Cora walked into the room in time to hear Maxine’s announcement and pleased she had the latest news about their co-worker.
“Mercy or General?” Maxine sipped her coffee, unwilling to let Cora see her irritation. Cora was always ahead in the latest office gossip.
“Mercy’s the best,” Janine opened the refrigerator, looking for the yogurt cup she’d scrawled her name on earlier that morning.

In the above example, I head hopped among three speakers.  The reader would have no problem figuring out who was speaking. Or what they were feeling. Or thinking. Some writers may believe that is a plus.


Isn’t there always a but? 

Head hopping diffuses the tension in the scene as the reader jumps from the feelings and thoughts of one character to another. The scene lacks focus.

A story told from more than one POV doesn’t mean mixing up all the POVs in a scene.  For maximum impact on the reader, a scene needs to be told from one POV. The best way to choose a focal point POV is to think in terms of the purpose of the scene. When I revised the above example, I decided Maxine was the focal point character. The scene needed to be told via her POV. 

Let’s take another look at the scene:

     Maxine watched Janine come into the break room. “Did you know Sherry had a breakdown last night?” The appalled expression on Janine’s face was all the reaction Maxine needed. She turned to the coffee pot and poured herself a cup of coffee to hide a smug smile.    
“No way.” Janine’s surprise echoed in the small room.
Maxine shook a packet of sweetener into her cup. She liked knowing the office news before anyone else.
“Hospitalized. For at least thirty days,” Cora said.
    When Maxine’s nemesis walked into the break room, she schooled her face into a pleasant expression. She refused to let Cora see her irritation as she turned and asked, “Mercy or General?”
     “Mercy’s the best.” Janine opened the refrigerator as she spoke, no doubt looking for the yogurt cup she’d scrawled her name on earlier that morning. 
   The same one that David, their supervisor, stole each morning. Maxine wondered when the guy was going to get enough courage to ask Janine on a date.

The narrative is basically the same, but I focused the reader on Maxine”s thoughts, reactions, and feelings to give the reader a more layered view of her character rather than a shotgun view of multiple characters.

Clarity of POV is an important component of building rapport between the reader and your characters so chose your POV for a scene wisely. Keep that rapport strong by staying true to the chosen POV, filtering every emotion, reaction, and thought through the POV’s world view.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Point of View: Clarity is the Key Part 1

I recently received an email asking my advice on how to change point of view (POV) in a story. There is a lot of advice floating around about POV with plenty of “rules never to be broken” countered by just as many “well, Famous Author did it this way.”

Truth is, I read a lot and I’ve seen a variety of techniques used to change the POV. I’ve also seen many definitions so just to be sure we’re all on the same page, let me define what I mean by point of view.

  1. First person is the “I” viewpoint. The story is told completely from one character’s POV which means the reader can only experience what the character experiences. 

  1. Omniscient is an all-knowing POV and the story is told through a “godlike” narrator who knows the thoughts and feelings of every character. With this POV, the reader experiences the story through the actions and feelings of the various characters.   

  1. Third person is a compromise between first person and omniscient POV that offers the best of both worlds. The reader gets the intimacy of first person with the perspective of omniscient since the story can be told by multiple characters.

There are pros and cons for using each type of POV, but knowing the type of story you want to tell helps a writer decide which POV is best for that story. First person can be limiting, but also works for many stories. An intimate memoir type story often calls for the first person. Some series are written in first person, but remember if you chose that POV, the main character must be someone interesting enough to keep your readers returning book after book.

With first person, there are no real worries about shifting POV since it’s always “I”,  but care still has to be taken that no other POV slips into the story by accident. Every emotion, reaction, and thought must be filtered through the main character’s world view.

When using either omniscient or third person, the writer must provide a clear transition when changing POV from one character to another. Often the POV change is separated by a line break which indicates to the reader that a scene or POV shift is about to happen. Another popular method is to shift with a new chapter. These techniques cue the reader to anticipate some change so they aren’t caught off guard.

However you chose to shift POV in a story, be sure and anchor the reader immediately to keep the reader aware of which character’s POV has become the filter for the story.

I’ve seen a more subtle signal of POV change in romance novels. These stories usually involve only the heroine and hero and writers sometimes shift the POV from the heroine to hero (or vice versa) within a scene to increase the feeling of intimacy. This gives another layer of emotion and perspective to the scene, but this type of POV shift must be done carefully. 

A transition sentence puts the reader firmly into the other character’s POV. This is usually done by using the character’s name to slide the reader over during an intimate exchange that involves only these two characters. Thus, the scene has been divided into two parts with the heroine’s POV first, then the hero’s (or vice versa). There is no jumping back and forth between their POVs with every sentence or “head hopping” which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Whenever using any POV, the writer must remain faithful to the chosen POV, filtering descriptions, interior monologue, observations, and emotions through the same viewpoint character. 

Head hopping is the POV sin to be avoided. I’ll discuss that in part 2