Learning the Hard Way

February 1, 2013

I love hearing from other writers about their creative process.  Before I wrote a novel, I envisioned the process something like this:

  1. Pick an interesting setting.
  2. Design a suspenseful story line.
  3. Populate the story with multi-dimensional characters.
  4. Write one chapter per day until finished.

I figured the first three steps could be knocked out in one morning at a coffee shop, and with proper discipline, I could wrap up the rest in, oh, about a month.  Three months tops.

Then I wrote a novel.  For five years.  After crossing the five-year mark, I figured it must be finished, so I shipped the manuscript off to a professional editor who returned it with plenty of kind and encouraging comments. She also had two questions:

  • What is this story about?
  • Whose story is this?

How, I asked myself, did I spend thousands of hours writing a two-hundred-page story about nothing and no one?

The problem with my original concept of the process was that fictional characters are not little plastic game pieces that can be moved along a pre-conceived plot arc at the behest of the writer.  Like living people, fictional characters grow and evolve.  They are complex and unpredictable.  The best ones resist manipulation.

After five years of writing, I found myself with two hundred pages of stories about characters who were refusing to participate in the fun plot I had outlined for them.  They were behaving like children on Christmas morning who ignore the train set to play make-believe with the boxes.  It turned out that my characters had plans and desires of their own.  They were practically begging me to get out of their way.

My writing process is now more organic, less directional. I show up every day, ready to listen and excited to see what my characters are going to do next.  I wish it hadn’t taken me five years to learn to listen to them, but it’s a lesson I won’t soon forget.

What lessons about writing have you learned the hard way? Was there an easier way to learn them?

Kitten or Lion? A Character Development Technique

January 8, 2012

I saw a great photo affixed to my hairdresser’s license today.  The picture showed an orange tabby kitten looking in a mirror that reflected back the face of a lion.  It occurred to me that this could be a great question to ask when you are flushing out a character for a novel.  For example, how does your protagonist see themselves—as an innocent victim or a fierce fighter ready to take on the world?  Does this self-image vary between interactions with different people?  Does his or her personality change during the course of the novel? 

After you have answered the above questions, dig a little deeper:

How would the character’s parent or spouse describe your protagonist? 

More importantly, how do you, the writer, see your protagonist?  Have you captured that personification on the page?

Character Development: Memorable Moments

December 22, 2011

I was driving to my early morning dog agility class, trying to remember why in the world I signed up for a 7:30 a.m. class, when I remembered how grateful I’d been for this jaunt just a few months ago.  To understand how unlikely gratitude might be used in the same sentence as any morning decimal with starting with a seven, I should mention that I am not one of those people that bounce out of bed, bright and chipper, even on vacation.  Nor do I have a coffee habitat to induce caffeine to jump-start my brain cells.  I roll out of the sack, grope blindly for my glasses and stagger bleary-eyed to the bathroom.   I kid you not, a scalding shower is the only reason I’m able to put on clothing and reasonably tackle my job responsibilities. 

However, this last September, changed my attitude.   One particular Saturday morning, the road was empty of traffic. When I glanced in the rear view mirror, my senses were flooded with the pink and orange and blues and yellows of a magnificent sunrise bursting through the cloud cover of Mount Diablo.  The beauty was beyond postcard worthy.  Even as I committed this spectacular natural phenomenon to memory, I knew that this was a one of a kind event.  The clouds were perfectly positioned, the air quality crystal clear.  The reflection of light illuminated the mountain in a red glow that seemed to radiate life itself.  I realized I would never would have witnessed nature at its finest hour had I not been slogging my way to dog class.  I knew this was an unforgettable experience. 

It occurred to me that listing memorable moments could be a useful tool when developing characters for a novel.  In the case of my memorable moment, think about how much information it revealed:   my appreciation of the natural world, the activity I was about to engage in, you could infer a love a dogs and, of course, my natural sleep patterns.

Exercise:  Create a memorable moment for your protagonist and see what it reveals about his or her character.

The Need For SetUp

September 17, 2011

I attended a professional conference this week at a government building.  The meeting kicked off with a few building facts, including a side comment that they had been having fire drills on a daily basis.  The participants in the audience were instructed to listen to the announcement and determine whether the fire hazard related to only specific floors or if the entire building must be evacuated.   Sure enough, several hours later an alarm sounded and floors 12 through 14 were asked to vacate the building.  Ever since 9-11 when I heard that occupants of the twin towers were advised to remain in the building and, those that followed instructions, perished, I have wondered whether or not I would listen to a nameless voice that asked me to remain inside.  I honestly don’t know how I will respond to a given an emergency, so had I not had the heads up about the fire drill, I may very well have left the premises.   

The point of this anecdote is that an advance warning was given which set the stage for a forthcoming event, something that is critical in a good novel.  If you have a cat that is about to thwart a killer by batting away the murder weapon, said cat must be introduced to the room at the beginning of the scene.  If it magically appears at the 11th hour, readers are likely to be annoyed that there was a cat in the room all along and the writer never bothered to mention its presence.   Likewise, if a long lost boyfriend is going to appear at a wedding to stop the ceremony, this event should be preceded by both the introduction of the boyfriend as a character and some indication of the bride-to- be’s feelings for the interloper.  Not only will the reader not feel cheated by the sudden turn of events, but the setup can lend itself for more story tension.

Have you ever read a book or a story where you felt cheated by the appearance of an undisclosed character?

Creating Unique Characters

September 8, 2011

What makes an individual unique? One aspect is how they view the world. Even if you are putting a character in an exotic setting, why not have them do something unexpected?

For instance if your novel takes place in Paris, rather than send them out to explore the Louvre, have them do something lesser touristy like go on a tour of the Paris sewer. Or if the character does visit a renowned location, have their perspective reveal their morals or even be symbolic of the plot. A protagonist might climb the tower of Notre Dame and observe how one of the gargoyles appears to be about to consume a modern building. This could be poignant if the theme of this book centers around a conflict of following tradition versus progressive attitudes.

Even the simplest details can add value. If you character is traveling by train across the countryside, they could notice all the cattle are white or how the dilapidated state of the farmsteads reflect the economy. What is noteworthy to the character is a reflection of who they are and what they stand for. Such details will add depth to your story or novel and make your character feel real.

From Agents and Editors – Top Reason for Rejection

May 22, 2011

I heard it yesterday, I’ve heard it before and I have no doubt I’ll hear it again.  I’ve been to dozens of presentations by agents and editors over the last decade.  Invariably, they will discuss, or will be asked, what they are looking for in a manuscript.  Many reasons have been offered as to why a manuscript will get rejected by an editor or agent, but the most common reason is that they do not think the characters are developed enough.  My own experience as a reader is that a lot of literary fiction you find on the shelves are character-driven novels. 

Abigail Samoun, former editor of Tricycle Press, gave a talk to the winners of the Mount Diablo Branch of CWC’s Young Writers Contest.  She took us through the stages (a 5 year process), Paul Llewellyn, author of “The Tilting House (thetiltinghouse.com) went through on his journey to publication.  One of the issues Llewellyn had to deal with was developing his main character so that he felt real.  I, too, have gotten rejections where the agent’s biggest concern was that he or she did not like (or did not care enough about) my main character. 

Character development is not one of my strengths as a writer.  I am very much a plot driven storyteller.  It should also be no surprise that, as a reader, I am also drawn to page turners with lots of twists and turns to the plot.   I really don’t need to know the entire life history of the main character, give me action, surprise me, and I will be a satisfied reader.   

My book club recently read a thriller novel plot (Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer) that I loved because of the plot.  One of our members described it as a “Brain Twinkie.”   The book is fast-paced, something that is needed for the thriller genre, but I wonder if she was also reacting to the main character – a smart, but not very likeable person.   

As a plot-driven writer, I have found character development exercises useful.  Here are a few websites that provide a list of questions or exercises to bring depth into your characters:




The more a writer knows about their characters, the better.  A writer must know what makes their characters tick before they can bring them to life on the page.

Growing Characters

March 9, 2011

I’ve been working through Martha Engber’s Growing Great Characters from the Ground Up. The purpose is to get a better handle on my protagonist before penning my next novel. Geez, this process is much harder than I thought, mostly because this is so foreign to my normal way of approaching a story. You see, I’m a bit of a “pantser.” My normal process is to start with an idea and then begin writing. The characters usually develop as the story evolves.

With Engber’s approach, you start with the character first. You explore what you know about them to pull out their “one defining detail.” This detail could be an incident, an object, or a physical feature, but whatever you choose, this detail must be essential to their outlook on life. The defining detail reveals their primary motivation and greatest fear. Once you know their motivation, you put the character in situations (action) that will motivate them to face their greatest fear (conflict) and force them to change. And, there you have it, the major arc of your story.

The second half of the book gives several more helpful tips, but the exercises are far too detailed for my “pantser” tendencies. Even so, Engber’s book is just what I needed. I have files on each of the major characters and a detailed profile of my protagonist. In addition, I have a list of scenes that take me through the major plot arc. I can honestly say that this is the most meticulous I have ever been in planning a story.

Through these exercises, I understand my character better and am more inspired to write. The story is gelling for me and I’m itching to hit the keyboard. I know that taking the time to lay this groundwork will pay off as I write my novel. I hope this experience will help me take my writing to the next level.

What writing resources have you found helpful? Any other recommendations?

Plussing and Other Fundamental Elements of Good Writing

November 22, 2010

Want to learn the craft of writing?  Want your writing to go beyond good and step into extraordinary?  You don’t need to enroll yourself in a writer’s conference.  Try visiting the Pixar Exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California. 

This special event highlights all aspects of animated film-making, from character development, to world-building to plussing.  Never heard of plussing?  I hadn’t either.  Apparently, the term was coined by Walt Disney who would challenge even the best ideas put before him.  He’d tell his team of talented individuals to “plus it.”  Make it better.  Make it different.  Take it to the next level.  Every writer should take plussing to heart.

John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios says it takes three things to make an animated film:  world, character and story.  The same, of course, can be said of writing a good novel.  In the Pixar exhibit, each of these three elements is described within the essential foundations of creativity and believability.   One idea that hit on the mark was the idea that creativity is enhanced when parameters and restrictions are in place.  In line with that idea is the need for believability.  In order to have believability, there must be consistent application of the rules of the world.  The example that was given was the rule that toys must always become inanimate when humans are present in the Toy Story films.     

I found myself marveling at one picture in particular from the film, Ratatouille.  The night-time scene shows a restaurant sign in the foreground with a rat in a chef’s hat and a lit-up Eiffel tower in the distance.  Even if you were not familiar with the storyline, this one image would tell you world (Paris restaurant), character (rat) and story (chef’s hat).  The dark background could represent either the promise of conflict or be a sign of underlying realism since rats are active at night.  The Eiffel tower aglow in lights could represent the bright or comedic moments in the film or even the promise of a happy ending.

I ended my tour in Pixar’s Artscape where the audience quite literally enters a projection of digitally-processed images.  This animated delight is dialogue free and provides the viewer with an experience of exploring the exquisite details of the original artworks.  The experience holds all the elements of visual detail often enhanced with background noise.  If you’ve ever pondered what constitutes a scene, this presentation nails it.  Sometimes a given scene ends with a seamless entry into the next artwork, other times the scene provides a clear beginning, middle and end. 

The Oakland Museum of California is open 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (9:00 p.m. Fridays) Thursday through Sundays.  Admission is $12 for adults.  The Pixar exhibit closes January 9, 2011.  This is one exhibit that should not be missed!