Tag Archives: Write Better

Lane Diamond Talks about Editing & Writer Coaching

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS AND INTERESTED READERS:

I’ve spoken on occasion about how hard it is for me to do my own writing because of all my responsibilities as managing publisher/editor at Evolved Publishing. Well, that got to me thinking: Exactly how many books have I edited, or co-edited with another, wherein I do the final polishing edit? And wouldn’t it be about time to do a little maintenance to update this information?

Well… here it is. To date (updated November 15, 2018) I’ve edited 148 books or stories for EP, 110 of which remain active there, and 34 of which have been returned to the authors. Wow. Yeah, that was my reaction when I did the update. And guess what? It explains a lot about my own lack of writing. C’est la vie… and it’s okay.

For the full list, just click over to my Writing Coach page and scroll down.

But really, as I think about it, I can’t possibly view this as a bad thing. Indeed, it’s a fantastic thing for me, and a point of real pride–in no small part because many of these books have gone on to win some very nice awards. I have helped, in my own small way, a number of authors to achieve their dreams (or at least to get started on those dreams), and nothing has been more rewarding for me than that.

And so the first thing I must say to all those authors is this: “Thank you.” Seriously, despite occasional frustrations with scheduling and workload, it has been my privilege and honor to have worked with all of you. I hope you become the superstars you deserve to be in this business. You’re doing great work, and I hope I’ve been able to contribute at least a little to that effort and to your growth as a writer.

I wear two hats in this arena: editor, writing coach. The first is clear enough, as I help authors address structural issues with their work–plot, characterization, setting, etc.–and then I help them not only clean up the prose but to ramp up its power. This is, I think, my greatest strength as an editor. As a writing coach, it’s really quite different, as I take on the role of trainer/educator/mentor. I do all as a writing coach that I do as an editor, but so much more. And make no mistake, this is where I’ve achieved my greatest professional satisfaction.

When I look to authors such as Ruby Standing Deer (I’m sure she won’t mind me singling her out), and I think back to where we started and the journey we’ve taken together, I simply could not be more pleased. Ruby has authored 3 books thus far, all part of the Shining Light Saga, historical fiction pieces focused of the American Indian culture of about 500 years ago: Circles, Spirals, and Stones. The 3 books combined have garnered 187 reviews at Amazon, 130 of which are 5-Star, and another 34 are 4-Star. That’s fantastic! And she has her 4th book coming early in 2016, so as her books continue to perform well and she continues to build her catalog, her future is bright.

And I was there at the beginning. Cool stuff.

Now, I don’t really take on editing jobs anymore outside of Evolved Publishing, because the EP authors keep me quite busy enough, thank you very much. However, I do still take on an occasional client in my capacity as a writing coach. I’m currently working with Melody J. Kaufmann on the beginning of her career as an author of sci-fi and fantasy. Her first book, After the Return, is progressing and getting stronger all the time. What lies ahead for MJ in her future as an author? I don’t know, but I’m hopeful that 5 years from now I’ll be able to look back, as I’ve done with Ruby, and say, “Wow, look at that!”

And who’s next? Hmmm… maybe you?

To be clear, I cannot take on a client right this minute, but if you want to be next up, beginning in September, now would be the time to give me a holler. Just email me at Lane@LaneDiamond.com, and we’ll start the conversation and the plan.

In the meantime, if you really want to know my work, there is no better indication than the books that appear on my Writing Coach page. I hope you’ll read all of them that appeal to your genre preferences. Really… you’re going to love them. Hey, maybe you’ll even take a chance on discovering the wonderful peoples and culture of The Fish People, a fabulous 500-year-old culture lost to time but not forgotten, in Ruby Standing Deer’s Shining Light Saga. Or maybe you want to try Robb Grindstaff’s Hannah’s Voice, or David Litwack’s The Daughter of the Sea and the Sky, or Angela Scott’s Desert Rice, all of which I cannot recommend strongly enough! And please enjoy.

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The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! (Part 2 – Practical Examples)

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

This post is a follow-up to one I did some time ago: The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! If you haven’t read that one yet, this would be a good time to do so.

I’ll not repeat what I said in that post. Rather, I shall move right on the some practical before and after samples, identifying both the problem and at least one potential fix. I’ve used actual examples from pieces I’ve edited/reviewed/read, so as always, I shall not mention any writers’ names, so as to protect the not-so-innocent.

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BAD: When I was young, I pointed out the inconsistencies as if I caught him cheating at cards, which he also did quite often.

Notes: The new opening below is a simple turn of phrase to not make it appear all about “I” at every moment. The second key change was making it not about “I” catching the cheating, but about “he” doing the cheating. Focus on the characters and actions around “I,” making it about them as much as possible, relying on the fact that we’re in the POV of “I,” and trusting the reader to react as “I” would want them to react.

BETTER: As a youngster, I pointed out the inconsistencies, as if he’d been cheating at cards or something—which he did quite often.

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BAD: I used to think I could make a living as a skier, but then I realized that I was wrong.

Notes: This option, with its 4 “I” in just 20 words, is all telling and rather… well, dull. The second option takes us deeper inside the character’s true motivations, and concludes with a striking self-admonition (and commentary) in the form of monologue.

BETTER: I’d imagined skiing bringing me wealth and fame. Yeah, money and girls—a life to make most folks bristle with envy, at least the guys. I’m such an idiot!

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BAD: I hear a sound from behind the garage, and I wonder what it might be. Maybe I should investigate.

Notes: Blah! Ick! Phooey! Where to begin? 1) It’s all telling; nothing actually happens. 2) Yeah? Well, we wonder too, so please give us something. What kind of sound? A prowler? A dog? An alien invasion? 3) The narrator suggests doing something, but again… nothing actually happens. Seriously, haven’t you always wanted to read a book in which nothing actually happens? No? Shocker! In fact, elsewhere in the story, the author suggests (again weakly) that the character is fearful of a stalker. Okay… so…? It’s time to engage the reader.

BETTER: I spin around as a loud crash echoes from behind the garage. It seems those tottering, beat-up old garbage cans are still good for something. I waste not a second in bolting for the back door, zipping inside the house and throwing the deadbolt firmly into place. Next stop: the phone and a 9-1-1 call.

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BAD: I thought I’d be able to figure out how I got here in the first place, but I still couldn’t believe I was lost.

Notes: “But enough about me. What do you think about me?” That’s how these I-Bombs often feel, as if it’s just all about “me” and nothing else matters. Also, this violates almost every rule of Show vs. Tell, failing to bring the reader into the moment. Remember those 3 words: “in the moment.” The best fiction brings a reader in and allows her to experience the story right along with the characters, as it happens. Ah yes, 3 more important words: “as it happens.” In this particular scene, the author attempted—and failed—to paint the character’s fear at being so completely lost. She simply didn’t paint the scene for us at all.

BETTER: How did I get here? For that matter, where the devil was here? What a ridiculous situation, to be so utterly lost. I glanced around again, mindful of the knot growing in my stomach—churning, rumbling, threatening to seek escape at any moment. I spun around and… nope, no toilets out here. Well this is just great!

Another Note: I’m a huge fan of the writer’s directive to “make every word count.” However, you must create the story for the reader. This is a classic case of under-writing. As an author, you can’t keep critical secrets. It’s not enough that you see the image in your mind; the reader must see the image in her mind. So share!

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BAD: I thought I might make her understand. I thought I could appeal to her feminine wiles. I thought I’d probably get lucky, in the end. I guess I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

Notes: At this point, it seems as though I shouldn’t have to say anything. You should be jumping all over this and in your best Arnold Horshack voice (for you fellow old-timers out there), yelling, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I know it, Mr. Kotter.” Nonetheless….

First, if you’re writing a first-person narrative, make it a point to use the Find function in MS Word, and type in “[space]I[space]”, and check the box that says “Highlight all items found in:”. This will highlight with a black box every instance of “I” in your manuscript. In time, you’ll want to do the same for variations: I’ll, I’m, I’d. Then, with the selections highlighted, scroll down and look for instances where those black boxes appear like a swarm of flies. Yep… time to revise.

In the case of the example above, the word “I” appears 10 times in 38 words. Umm… no. Just no.

BETTER: She’d come around in time. After all, how could she resist my manly charms, my smooth moves, my irresistible… well, me?

She didn’t respond at all. She just turned around without a word, and left.

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BAD: I saw smoke rising over the downtown district.

Notes: This is the simplest of all remedies, and it falls smack under the heading of “Show, Don’t Tell.” The first-person narrator, the character, is telling the story, so if he conveys some action, we know it’s because he saw/heard/felt it, etc. So just paint the picture for us.

BETTER: Smoke rose over the downtown district.

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I hope those examples will help guide you in trying to eliminate your own I-Bombs. Of course, my alternatives above are just a single example, in each case, of how you might fix the problem. Ultimately, your own style and voice will dictate the fix, and that’s fine. Just fix it! No carpet-I-Bombing allowed. 🙂

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Grab Your Readers Right from the Start, and then Hang On!

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

I think it’s safe to say that most folks have a short attention span these days, distracted by a million things going on all at once. Readers are getting harder and harder to find, as the percentage of people who say they read less than one book per year continues to climb. And those readers who are still in the game have approximately 7,629,954,813 books to choose from, and those are just the books self-published in the last 24 hours. :p

Seriously, as writers, our job is to grab hold of the reader quickly – certainly on the first page, hopefully in the first paragraph, and best yet, with the very first line. And yet, too many authors give short shrift to that opening line. These days, they do so at their own peril.

When I set out to write Forgive Me, Alex, my psychological thriller, I recognized the importance of the opening. Indeed, I obsessed over it. I wrote one I thought was quite good… and trashed it. I wrote a new opening that I though was truly excellent… and trashed it. Then I wrote one that was nothing short of brilliant… and trashed it.

I finally figured out that, while it was so critical to come up with a grabber of an opening, I was simply trying too hard. It took me far too long to realize that a literary jab would be the best option, like Mike Tyson throwing a series of lefts – Pop, pop, pop! Furthermore, I liked the idea of not just a quick jab on the first line, but an even quicker jab on the second line, which functioned as something of a punchline (pun intended). Here’s what I settled on:

—–I never expected to be a killer.

—–Who does?

Now, is that stunning, extraordinary prose? Not even close. It’s quick and simple, my version of the Pop, pop!

Reader response has been pretty good, as several have indicated they saw that first line and thought, “Oh, what’s that about?” Perfect.

In my sequel, The Devil’s Bane, (assuming I ever finish the darn thing) this is my planned opening:

—–Not the typical Saturday night out; Maria Molinari would always remember this day, if only she lived through it.

—–Not likely.

Once again, I tried to use the second line as a quick punchline to the first. And once again, I hope it will raise in the reader’s mind a question that he simply must answer. We’ll see.

Quite often, writers make the mistake of starting out with setting, painting a vivid scene for the reader. The problem is that without context – some story that takes place within that setting – the scene becomes irrelevant. Dear writer, please… start with action, drama, intrigue – something that makes the reader sit up straight and yearn to see what comes next. Do it right away, right out of the chute, in the fist paragraph. If you can, give it real punch, that Pop, pop! we talked about.

Of course, you’ll then want to roll right into a scene that keeps the reader engaged, anxious, excited. If you can provide that thrill of anticipation right from the start, all else being equal, you’ll have a much greater likelihood of attracting readers. Remember: many readers nowadays sample a piece online to determine if they might want to buy it. Don’t squander that opportunity.

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What Does a Writing Coach Do?

THIS POST IS FOR WRITERS:

Every writing coach is the same, and each one is different. Wait… huh? Yep, all writing coaches seek to dig deep into a writer’s needs, to help them reach the point where they’re producing professional-grade material that’s worthy of a broad reading audience. However, each coach may have a unique mix of specialties and focus.

And so, as an author (or one who aspires to be an author), you should always analyze what your coach/editor has to offer, engage in a candid discussion BEFORE committing money, and perhaps get a sample analysis/edit of your writing. If a coach/editor balks at providing one, run. Run fast.

I’ve seen writing coaches advertise that they focus on content: plot, characterization, setting, etc, but that they don’t spend too much time on the “technical” aspects of writing, such as grammnar, strength of prose, structure, and so on. To me, that’s like saying to the new marine recruits at boot camp, “Okay, this is a gun. You use it to kill the enemy. Let’s move on.” …and then not showing them how the gun functions, how to break it down and clean it to keep it in good working order, and how to reassemble it.

My opinion: There are a million decent storytellers out there, but there are precious few “writers.”

Thus, my approach to coaching is to say that it makes no sense to try to separate the trees from the forest. Of course content is important, but if you can’t write professionally, yours will be just another amateur book. (I know… I’m such a hardass!)

Seriously, though, my approach has always been that if I can’t help you become the best writer/author you can be, then there’s really no sense in us working together. It’s not all about the money. If I can’t stand up and shout to the world, when you’re done and your book is available, “Hey, everyone, go buy this book, because it’s awesome!” …then we (meaning you and I together) haven’t done our job.

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However, unlike as in the image above, you’re not a kid. You’re a professional (or soon will be), and you deserve the appropriate respect and consideration.

Want a touchy-feely-please-tell-me-how-wonderful-I-am support system? Yeah… I’m not your guy. Want someone who will tell it like it is, and work tirelessly to address every issue that affects your career? Then maybe I’m your guy. Don’t get me wrong: I try to keep it as upbeat and positive as I can, because I think that’s important, but not if it ever interferes with the end goal. Hey, I know we creative types can be a bit… er… touchy. *smiling* But sometimes, a little tough love is the best kind.

So what is my focus as a writing coach?

CONTENT: Yes, of course I address the essential elements of plot, characterization, setting, a proper climax, etc. However – and this often surprises people – it may not be the first thing we address. Let’s face it: if readers can’t find the forest through the trees, because the trees themselves (your prose) are impossible to navigate, then the forest (your story) becomes irrelevant. Thus, we may need to address at least some of that before we get too far into content.

GRAMMAR: Look, professionals know the rules, so if you’re going to be a pro, we need to address even this mundane stuff. Don’t break into a cold sweat about this. The truth is that if you have a good teacher, one who’s focused on your specific needs, you’ll learn it more easily than you think.

ESSENTIAL STRUCTURE: It’s not just which words you use to tell your story, but how you choose to place those words that will determine how well readers respond. Use structure to ramp-up the tension. It’s often critical to choose just that right place to break a sentence, or a paragraph, or a chapter. I’ve been told by readers that this is a particular strength of mine, and I’d like it to be a strength of yours by the time we’re done.

STYLE: This will be uniquely yours, as it is with every writer, and a Writing Coach’s job is to teach you how to enhance your writing while remaining true to who you are. We all grow, and learn, and progress… but we remain who we are. That’s important, yet you must be ready to grow as a writer, willing to say on occasion, “Well, that’s not the me I want to be. I want to be this me.”

PRIMARY COMMANDMENTS OF EFFECTIVE WRITING: The first two of these you’ve no doubt heard countless times before; the third, maybe not (since it is, I believe, a Lane Diamond construct): 1) Show, Don’t Tell; 2) Make Every Word Count; 3) Keep It Strong and Direct. What do each of those things really mean? Well, we’ll certainly talk about that if we work together.

CONVERT YOUR BAD HABITS INTO GOOD HABITS: All writers bring some mix of bad habits to their work. Those can vary greatly from one writer to the next, yet certain bad habits are more universal than others. Here are just some of those: 1) SOBs (State-of-being Verbs); 2) Passive Voice; 3) Infinite Verb Phrases (An Act without an Actor); 4) Wordiness; 5) Excessive Proper Nouns; 6) Awkward Dialogue Tags; 7) I-Bombs. There’s more, of course, and we’ll tackle each issue as we encounter it.

So what is your next step?

If you think you’ll benefit from working with a coach, and you think, based on what you just read, that I may be able to help you, send me an email at Lane@LaneDiamond.com. Please put “Writing Coach Needed” in the Subject line.

I’ll arrange to to have a one-on-one talk with you (no charge), and I’ll look at your work to give you an idea of where our focus would need to be (no charge), and we’ll talk about the ultimate cost, of course, should we decide to move forward. I’ll be selective, and I typically only work with one student at a time, but even if I can’t help you right this minute, I may be able to get you on the calendar in the near term.

Here’s to your writing dreams becoming a reality!

Even Minor Characters Are Critical

As an author, you shouldn’t pass up too many opportunities to heighten the reading experience for your loyal fans – to tug at their emotions. If you really want to keep them glued to the page, give them something to sink their hearts and souls into as often as possible.

One of the places where many writers fail to achieve this is in their portrayal of minor characters. Indeed, I would almost argue that the word “minor” is inappropriate, as every single character should be critical to the advancement of the story, or they should not be at all.

When I wrote my psychological thriller, Forgive Me, Alex, I needed to incorporate some murder victims. After all, one cannot have a serial killer without some serial killees. (Hey, I think I just made up a word!) In truth, these characters’ sole raison d’etre was to advance the character of the serial killer, and the ultimate conflict between protagonist and antagonist. Yet why would readers even care about these “minor” characters, or invest themselves in the gruesome acts of a serial killer, if I gave them no reason to do so?

They wouldn’t, of course.

So I needed to provide enough details about even these “minor” characters to elicit some empathy on the part of readers. It was important to keep it short and sweet, yet to provide some reason for readers even to care about the character.

The more readers care, the greater their emotional experience while glued to your book. And so, when I needed to set up a character for no other reason than to kill her off, to make her a victim of my nasty antagonist, here’s how I did it:

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The gentle breeze and mild temperature made a walk in the park the perfect distraction for Lindsey Merkham, but she chose the cemetery in lieu of the park. She did so because the cemetery sat conveniently at the corner of North Main Street and Cary Road, across the street from her apartment.

It contained several crisscrossing paths perfect for continuous power walking, her preferred method of exercise and, judging by her slender build, an effective one. She normally exercised right after work and before dinner, when she wasn’t too weighed-down or too lazy for her walks.

On this night, she was out late.

Lindsey stood five-feet-six-inches tall, with short, bright red-orange hair, and a figure that more resembled a young boy than an adult woman. The unfortunate birthmark on her right cheek, and the ski jump at the end of her nose, further heightened her insecurities.

Men rarely lined up at her doorstep.

Thus, she chose to take a late walk through the cemetery, a perfectly reasonable way to kill another uneventful Friday night. She’d snuggle later with her loyal kitty, Puffer, and read a good book.

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Did I draw on some clichés there? Sure. With little time in which to build reader empathy, I needed to use proven, time-tested methods. While I typically recommend against dropping clichés into a manuscript, this is one of those rare instances where it might actually be useful.

The key is to give readers a reason to care in as short a segment as possible (after all, this is a “minor” character).

As the scene progresses, and the serial killer attacks, I insert a line here, a thought there, from Lindsey, further building on what I established in those six short paragraphs. The intensity builds, right along with our empathy/sympathy for Lindsey, right up until that penultimate moment when she must, alas, meet her demise. I give readers a little something to sink their teeth into – a reason to care for, to feel sorry for, even to shed a tear for, this “minor” character.

Thus, readers engage in a scene that might otherwise just seem gratuitously graphic. Real life situations require real life characters. If you fail to bring even a “minor” victim into the light of reality, you give readers no reason to care, no reason to invest themselves emotionally in a scene that’s important to the overall story.

RECOMMENDATION

Create a character list that includes every single character in your book. I use Microsoft Excel because it’s easily sorted (I do so alphabetically by character name). You want some key details listed for each character.

Column A: Character Name – Be sure not to create any two names that are close in alliteration. Every name should sound unique, so as to prevent reader confusion. This is particularly critical with “minor” characters. So don’t have a Harry, Larry, and Barry, for example. The potential for readers to get lost is too great. Name them Harry, Ben, and Steve, and readers will have an easier time keeping them separate.

Column B: Character Role – List the character’s primary role in the story. Using my own book as an example, I used Protagonist, Antagonist, Protagonist’s Girlfriend in 1978, FBI Agent in charge of investigation, Algonquin Chief of Police, etc.

Column C: Character Relationships – If your characters interact in a key way throughout your story, list those relationships here. As an example, for my protagonist Tony Hooper, I listed: Alex Hooper’s big brother; Diana Gregario’s boyfriend; Frank Willow’s surrogate grandson; and a few more.

Column D: Character Speech Mannerisms – If your characters have a unique voice – and I hope they do – list here some of the things that make their voices unique. Whenever possible, draw clear distinctions between characters to help readers subconsciously, and automatically, identify a character/narrator. As an example, I listed that Tony Hooper, the protagonist, always said “perhaps,” and never “maybe.” I listed that Mitchell Norton, the antagonist, always said “maybe,” and never “perhaps.” It’s subtle, but with about ten other key differences in voice, I was able to provide readers a series of instantaneous “triggers” to identify these characters. I also gave them certain favorite phrases. For example, Mitchell Norton likes to throw around, “Fuck a rubber duck!” Obviously, I did not allow any other character to use that phrase; it was all Mitchell’s.

Column E: Misc. Character Identifiers – Place here whatever strikes your fancy. It can be anything from their physical descriptions to their socio-political views, from the clothes they wear to the foods they eat, from their favorite TV show to the music they prefer to listen to, etc. The keys are to keep them: A) Unique; B) Relevant; C) Something you can use to heighten readers’ emotional involvement with that character, when appropriate.

AND OF COURSE….

Be sure to provide your beta reader(s) and editor(s) this list, when it’s their turn to review your work.

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Book Awards Are Just Plain Fun

As authors, we all hope to win the occasional award. I haven’t really submitted Forgive Me, Alex to many – just a couple – but I’ve managed to get a little recognition, and the kind reviews my book has received have been pretty good stand-ins.

Well, I have the added pleasure of sharing in the glow of awards won by books I’ve edited. Over at the Evolved Publishing blog recently (linked at bottom), under the heading of “Quality Matters,” they listed as evidence of that commitment a number of books and the awards they’ve won.

Well, of the 16 books listed there, which have combined for over 35 awards, I wrote 1 and edited or co-edited (meaning I did the final polishing pass) 14 of those.

I often gnash my teeth about the all the editing I must do, and how that keeps me from working on my own writing, but I have to say, all these awards do bring a smile to my face. I still wish I had more time for writing, but whenever I get down and moody about that, I’ll just refer to that blog post at Evolved Publishing.

Maybe that will lift my spirits. 🙂

Here’s that blog post listing all the awards:

At Evolved Publishing, Quality Matters!

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A High Commandment of Effective Writing: Show; Don’t Tell

From the Editor’s Desk:

I’ve been posting articles about how to write better for some time now. Many of them go back to my old freelance editing days, and many of them, I’m afraid, have been lost in the shuffle.

Well, I think it’s time to blow the dust off a few of them, and to make it simple for you to visit (or perhaps re-visit) what I hope you’ll find to be helpful articles.

Let us start with one of the primary commandments of effective writing: Show; Don’t Tell. I’ll link here 3 posts from long ago that might help you grab readers, to provide a more satisfying visual experience.

Remember: Stronger writing makes for stronger reading.

Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Readers Can’t See What Something Is “Not,” They Can Only See What Something “Is”

Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: Make Your Characters Blind, Deaf and Dumb

Under the Heading of SHOW, DON’T TELL: With Words as Paint and the Page as Canvas, Paint Us a Picture

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Characters Must Live and Breathe on the Page

From the Editor’s Desk:

I’ve said on many occasions that what brings me to an author time and again is his ability to create characters I just can’t wait to see again. Indeed, I’ll revisit a great book every few years precisely for that reason — because I miss my peeps.

So what is it that makes a certain character, or cast of characters, special? Well, that’s a tough one, and a huge part of the reason we call writing an art and not a science.

The shortest answer, I suppose, is that the character must be “real.” I know… impossible for a fictional character. So let me rephrase: the character must be so well drawn as to appear to be real. We readers have to be able to easily imagine the character jumping off the page and joining us here on planet reality.

Yet that is not such a simple thing. What makes us “real?” Is it our eye color? Our hair color? Our height? Nah. I must say that, as a reader, I rarely care about those kinds of details. Indeed, I often (almost always) prefer to paint my own visual image of what a great character looks like. There are exceptions, of course. For example, imagine A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, without an explanation of Owen’s physical characteristics. Impossible. Would we appreciate The Hobbit if J.R.R. Tolkien hadn’t bothered to describe them in exquisite detail? Of course not.

Yet those are the exceptions. In most modern-day stories, whether it be YA or Mystery or Horror or Thrillers or Literary, the characters’ physical descriptions will not carry that much weight. What’s even worse is when authors think that by providing those details, they’re meeting their obligation to provide full, rich, real characters. Not so.

Characters come alive on the page when we get to know them intimately, when we can see inside their hearts, their minds. When we know their souls.

Furthermore, the way they interact with one another always tells us a lot about characters, just as such activities tell us a lot about people in real life. We hear often of actors, when a particular film or show works well, that they have that certain something we call “chemistry.” As an author, you want your key interactive characters to have chemistry.

The final key is that you gradually build out your characters, giving us glimpes inside them, via their actions and words as the story unfolds. Don’t just slip in a little narrative telling us a character is intelligent, for example. Blah. Show us through that character’s actions; lead us to the obvious conclusion about her intelligence.

Is another character shy? Show him cowering in a corner at a party, examining a painting on the wall, determined not to face the crowded room. Is another character witty? Don’t just tell us that. Dull. Put some of her wit on display, cracking wise at a social gathering, evoking laughter from those around her.

If your characters live, we will relate to them as readers. We will love them, or hate them, or fear for them, or be happy for them. If your characters are flat and uninspiring, you’re in big trouble.

Allow me to put on my grumpy editor’s snarl: If all you can tell us about a character is that she has red hair and green eyes, then please dig a little deeper into yourself, and then deeper into your character. If all your character’s dialogue is an endless string of cliches we’ve heard a bazillion times, then please pick up a book about how to write great dialogue. If, every mind-numbing time your characters interact, they begin with, “Hey, how you doing?”, then please focus all your energy on your day job. You’re going to need it.

I know. This writing thing is hard. Damn it!

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The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs!

As both a reader and an editor, I see more and more first-person narratives these days. It likely has something to do with the old guard – the “gatekeepers” – not influencing as many books, as the indie publishing revolution continues.

Once upon a time, while shopping my manuscript for Forgive Me, Alex around to agents, I encountered a number of agent websites on which they stated flat-out, “No first-person narratives accepted.” Such blanket “rules” frustrated the dickens out of me – right up there with “No prologues” and “No present tense narratives.” Still, in order to satisfy the gods of literature, I set about making my novel a third-person, past tense narrative, as instructed by the literati.

Then, about 100 pages into my manuscript, it occurred to me that much of it was flat, without emotional depth—lacking the impact, the punch in the gut I’d hoped to create. The answer? Simple: Change it to a first-person narrative, and just don’t submit to those agents who posted their dismissive warnings.

However, that decision spawned quite the learning experience, and it has particularly jumped out at me as I’ve been editing more first-person narratives. Indeed, the literary agents’ frustration over such pieces, the thing that clearly caused them to throw their hands up and surrender, and to apply those blanket rules, grew clear as air to me.

Let us call them “I-Bombs.”

Almost every first-person narrative to cross my desk has languished beneath a series of I-bombs: I did this. I went there. I thought this. I felt that. I heard another thing, and I did that other thing. I, I, I, I, I, I, I….

Yikes. Medic!

“I wanted to tell you this story in which I was the star, but…. Enough about me. What do you think about me?”

Yeah, that’s how those stories read: narcissism on parade. When I encounter 45 “I” on the first page, it goes right to the REJECT pile – whether I’m wearing my editor’s hat or my reader’s hat.

You may be asking at this point, “How do I write a first-person narrative and not use ‘I’?” The answer is simple enough: you don’t. The issue is the frequency with which you use “I.” Just as third-person narratives contain a bunch of “he” and “she,” first-person narratives necessarily contain a bunch of “I.” Precisely because of this, you must be vigilant to justify every single “I,” and to seek viable alternatives whenever possible.

Perhaps because we’re more likely to become the character-narrator in a first-person narrative, our minds get stuck in “I”-mode, and we revert to telling how everything affects “I,” rather than showing the story, allowing it to unfold in a series of scenes focused not on “I,” but on the people, places and events surrounding “I.” When you write, “I remember when John said he wanted to kill me,” you’re telling the reader of the character’s experience, rather than allowing the reader to experience it right along with the character-narrator. That shared experience between character and reader is the essence of a great read.

Most first-person narratives, laden with I-bomb after I-bomb, devolve into a telling, boring, look-at-me-world bit of torture that causes many readers to scramble.

My advice? Make your default approach a third-person narrative, and change it only if you decide it just doesn’t work, that it must be a first-person narrative.

Then, remember the primary commandment of effective writing: Show, Don’t Tell. And please, beware the I-bombs.

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Added May 2014: The Problem with First-Person Narratives – Beware the I-Bombs! (Part 2 – Practical Examples).

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The Power of Monologue in Fiction, or “Hey, I Like Talking to My Self”

In a fiction narrative, monologue (often referred to as silent dialogue) can be a great way to get inside a character’s head, and without sharing his thoughts with the other characters in the scene. That’s the key difference between monologue and dialogue: the former is a secret for the readers only, kept from the other characters, whereas the latter is a regular part of the obvious character interactions.

Monologue, like its first cousin dialogue, provides an intimacy for readers that straight narrative simply can’t achieve. I think many writers fail to take full advantage of this tool. I also believe some writers use this tool as if they’re attempting to remove a tangled wire from a kitten’s paw with a sledgehammer.

Like all tools in the Writer’s Toolbox, we must use monologue sparingly, and only where it perfectly suits the task at hand.

As a simple example, a character is in a crowded room, full of old ladies and wee children, where polite discourse is not just expected, but demanded. Then he… oh… drops that sledgehammer (don’t ask; I’m trying to make a point here) on his toe. He wants to curse up a storm at that point, but he grunts and swallows his words, because he has a responsibility to those old ladies and toddlers. Shit! Yep, that simple one-word bit of monologue works quite well, thank you.

Some scenes lend themselves to monologue better than others. In my novel, Forgive Me, Alex, as an example, I have three or four scenes that beg for monologue, those oh-crap-what-do-I-do-now moments where the character must remain silent. I use monologue several times within those scenes. During the rest of the book, monologue appears only occasionally, and only in small clusters, often a single word or sentence.

Allow me to provide an example from my novel of where a single short line of monologue works perfectly:

Oh, that grin. For seventeen years it has taunted me, punished me for my indecision, my incompetence. I missed my chance to kill him in 1978, to remove his damned head—simple, as if cutting a sheet of paper. It would have been a fitting end for a monster.

Why did I let him live?

Like whispers in a storm, those memories only tease at me now, here at this obscene and maddening event. I’m trying not to relive every moment of 1978. Every time I do, I feel as if swimming in quicksand, anchored by my constant companions—sorrow and guilt. I’m too damned tired; can’t shake the confusion, the dread. I fear surrendering to fear.

If you examine that line of monologue above, and how I proceeded into the next paragraph, you’ll see that had I made it simple narrative (a couple different ways to do so), I’d have lost some of the power of that moment.

So take advantage of this great writer’s tool… but take it easy. If you overdo it, you’ll sap the mechanism of its power.

Three things to remember about monologue in your manuscript:

1) Italicize the text, including related punctuation, and don’t use quotation marks to signify monologue.

2) Set up the mechanism early in the book (just once or twice), alerting the reader to the fact that italicized segments represent monologue, and then let it do its own heavy lifting. E.g. Holy crap, I thought, she can’t be serious. I realize this is redundant structure, but again, it’s only to set up the mechanism the first time; at least, that’s my preference.

3) Monologue, like dialogue, occurs in the moment. People talk to their selves in Present Tense, so don’t fall into the trap of writing monologue as if it were straight narrative. Use Past Tense only if the character would do so when talking to his self.

Gosh, I sure hope writers find this article helpful.

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