Monday, April 21, 2014

Breathing Life Into Your Characters

When I think of my favorite books, what I remember before character or plot is how I felt after reading the author's words. I think that's probably the goal for every storyteller -- for their narrative to be powerful enough to evoke emotions. Whether it's anger or angst, cheerfulness or bitterness, love or hatred, these are the bumps in the road of life that make such a deep impression, we remember them. It seems to be equally true when we read about characters experiencing them.

I compare an amazing manuscript to a great cake recipe. Sugar and flour alone won't a cake make. Only the perfect ratio of voice, goals, rhythm, pacing, plot, with dashes of descriptions that cover our senses (touch, sight, smell, sound, taste) will result in a great manuscript -- or at least get us started on one.

Every writer has different methods they use to help strengthen their writing. People watching and interviewing characters from our books are two of the more popular ones. Personally, I find I'm always searching for new ways to show. We all know that one of writing's most basic rules is showing not telling. If we 'show' our Readers what we want to convey, we can provoke a mental picture in their mind. If they can 'see' what we are seeing, they will become more engaged in our story.

One thing I found helps me show emotions in different ways is taking notes while I watch TV. I'm all over Meredith Gray rolling her eyes at April (seriously?) or Cristina's deadpan stare (again, seriously?) or studying how Derek always rubs his face when he's apologizing. (Of course, studying Derek for any reason isn't quite work, is it?)

However, my absolute favorite to watch for note taking is SHREK. That lovable ogre emotes better than most people. It's literally all over his face. When he's angry his eyebrows knit together, perplexed -- one eyebrow will cock higher than the other or if he's surprised those eyebrows will shoot skyward. I can then take these physical reactions and apply them appropriately to my characters. 

So, what tricks do you use to bring your story to life?

photo credit: moriza via photopin cc

Monday, April 14, 2014

Good Enough, or Great?

Revising is tough work.

I recently turned in my second round of edits for PLAY ON. For three weeks, I worked seemingly non-stop—I was awake at 4am, and went to bed at midnight. My kid ate frozen pizza three nights a week. There was a four-day stretch during which I didn't change my PJ pants and my hair went unwashed (GLAMOROUS, I tell ya). It’s a wonder that my poor laptop didn’t burst into flames. But I finished, and that’s what important, right? Right. Just never mind that my house looked like someone burglarized the place.

Since I started the editorial process, I’ve had quite a few people (all non-writers) ask me why I’ve had to do so much work on this story. They asked, “Wasn’t it good enough? It wouldn’t be published if it wasn’t good enough, right?”

Well, yeah. It was a good story—a darn good one, if I say so myself. But what they don’t realize is that revisions are a book’s best friend. And honestly, I don’t want my book to be “good enough.” Revisions turn a good book into something great.

“But Michelle,” you’re saying, “you don’t understand how much work my book needs. I’m terrified of screwing it all up.”

On the contrary—I know that feeling very, very well. I was absolutely terrified of ruining my book. But my editor is amazing, and she has these equally amazing lines in her edit letters that are exactly what I need to read (and are actually posted above my computer). One of my favorites, and one I need to remind myself of constantly, is to really dig in, and don’t be afraid of what’s there. You can’t be afraid to be creative. And sometimes, that creativity may require drastic measures.

A character adds nothing to the plot? She may need cutting.

A precious line just doesn’t seem to fit? Slash it.

You have so many subplots that your book looks more like a soap opera synopsis? One of them may need to go. (If you're like I was, you may think that lots of little subplots add depth. Sometimes, perhaps. Most of the time, they weigh your story down.)

There's something you're dead-set on keeping? You absolutely refuse to let a character go, or you'll fight tooth and nail over a line? Then you better make that sucker work. Everything needs a purpose.

All this may sound easier said than done. Sometimes it is, but you need to be open to trying new things. If those things don’t work, delete them and try again. The key here is that you have to try.

What it comes down to is this: Do you want a good story, or a great one? If your answer is great, then take a long, hard look at your manuscript. Dig into your world, into your characters, and consider the potential there. Don’t be afraid of change—that change may make all the difference.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Conflict and Tension Tips

Last week I went through some notes I’d received from a beta reader. In one chapter, my reader highlighted an area and suggested ramping up the tension. I saw her point: that particular scene, with some adjusting, could have been seriously suspenseful. How could I get it there? I dove into my own recollection of conflict and tension tips, and did some poking around for new ones, too.  And, being a Revision Warrior, OF COURSE I wanted to share them here.


Less is More.

-     Dialogue: During a tense scene, abrupt dialogue with short—even incomplete—sentences is great for setting a hurried pace.

-     Action Scenes: Writing a scene with short sentences helps establish a quick tempo, which in turn builds tension.

-     Setting: Setting can play a huge role in establishing tension, but don’t get carried away on the adjectives. This, by the way, happens to be a trouble spot for me. Too much time spent describing the creepy stairwell takes the reader out of the moment.

Put your MC through the ringer.  What’s the one thing that could possibly break your MC’s spirit? What’s the one thing that absolutely can’t happen if the plan is going to work?  Consider making it happen. Make it personal. WHY would Situation A be devastating for your protagonist, in particular?

This can be hard. A brilliant lady from my writing group (Marlana Antifit) proposed that my MC face a betrayal, and even suggested who the betrayer should be.  I was not immediately on-board.  Not only would it be one of the worst kinds of betrayal, but the betrayer is a favorite character of mine.  But I couldn’t deny, it would add a layer of conflict I could play with for many chapters.  It could also help inspire readers to keep turning pages. So, as cringe-worthy as it was, I did it. 

Are your characters enthralling? Make sure your readers care what happens to your protagonist. Create characters so vivid, so intriguing that readers want to stay on this journey with them. They don’t all have to be likeable. In fact, who wants a perfectly perfect protagonist? But the reader should certainly want to see how your cast of characters react to whatever train wreck you throw them into.

The stand-by: Show don’t Tell.  While this is always a good rule, I think it doubly applies here.  When that climactic scene finally appears on the page, readers want to be in that moment.  Convey thoughts and feelings through action as much as possible.  

                As an example, instead of: “Feeling scared, she grabbed a knife from the drawer.” 

Maybe try, “Hand trembling, she opened the drawer and pulled a knife from the tray.”

Read a page-turner. It’s like taking a refresher course. One of my go-to reads is JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George

It's a quick read and I’d recommend picking it up if you haven’t.  Here’s the gist of it:  A girl is lost in the tundra and her survival depends on learning to communicate with a pack of wolves. Yes, a pack of wolves.  I first read the story in the fifth grade.  I remember being terrified for Julie, yet also wanting to be her at the same time.  I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read it by now. 

Remember learning the literary concepts of conflict in grade school? JULIE OF THE WOLVES has it all, Man vs. Man, Nature, Self, Society... after I read JULIE, I always feel inspired.

Play up those chapter hooks.  In TV-speak we called this a “teaser”.  Always end your chapters with a suspenseful hook, a tidbit that will make diving into the next chapter irresistible. 

On that ever-challenging First Chapter...  In the opening pages, your protagonist should be doing something. The reader wants to get to know your main character, and what better way than by throwing them in the proverbial fire? By the end of a few famous opening chapters, we knew Harry Potter was the Boy Who Lived and Katniss alluded to the horror of the Hunger Games. And Julie, from JULIE OF THE WOLVES? On page one she’s already lost in the Arctic Tundra, laying on her belly, staring at a pack of wolves. 

Do you have any go-to tips or great reads for tension? Please share!