Give the reader a break: Plotting and chaos

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about plotting and chaos. He recommends helping the reader.

Last night I had a dream. If I do dream, normally by the time I wake up the dream is gone. This morning, however, I remembered the dream. It went something like the following:

I woke up, walked into my living room. My recliner was gone, as was my XBOX One. The room was littered with paper, boxes, and various fast food wrappers. The window was missing, and a large piece of cardboard was in its place. I went outside, and got into my car. I could barely see over the dashboard. I noticed the cardboard window had writing on it, and massive amounts of duck tape held it in place. I could not understand what the writing conveyed.

I began to back out of my parking space. The space went on, and on, and on. Finally, I began to head out of the parking lot, but cars were sitting in random fashion, and I felt like I was navigating a downhill slalom. Once on the highway, nothing moved. A tree crew was busy sawing the large oak trees into fireplace lengths. I stopped to adjust my seat upwards so I could better see out of the car. Another vehicle attempted to pass between my car and the tree truck. Suddenly sirens erupted everywhere. They kept getting louder, and louder—but they too seemed foreign, almost like sea gulls squawking over a fish. My alarm.

So the dream is not all that strange. In fact, I know exactly what it is saying. It shows me as being out of control, and in a world surrounded with chaos. Even the things closet to me – language, the comfort of my own chair, driver settings in my own car, all seem strange and out of place. Clearly the dream echo’s my own feeling of being overwhelmed by numerous projects, with impending deadlines. Yep, I just saved myself five hundred dollars worth of psychotherapy (a good thing since my health insurance does not cover such stuff). It is an uncomfortable feeling.

Don’t confuse your readers.

Confusion is not suspense. Readers like a good mystery story. They love reading thrillers. But confusion is not suspense. Chaos is not mystery. Not knowing what is going is not thrilling. When the plot degenerates into a morass of confusion, that is about the time the book goes sailing across the room, and the author goes on my blacklist.

It is a sad fact that there are more books published in a single year than I will ever be able to read in an entire lifetime.  So when I invest four or five hours in a book, and I am unable (or unwilling) to finish reading it, I feel really cheated. Never mind that I probably wasted twenty or thirty dollars on the book, that is four or five hours I will never have back again (money spent can be earned again, time spent is gone forever).

A writer makes several contracts with the reader. One of these contracts goes something like this:

Spend the next eight to ten hours with me, and I will tell you a story. The characters are interesting, the plot is engrossing, and the story will be memorable.

I hope you have a great day today.

The three key factors to successful description

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about three key factors when using description.

It was a dark and stormy night, when I was awakened from a comatose sleep with a phone ring tone so sharp it could slice coconuts. I snarled like a lion at the chirping device, and muttered something that had the caller really been listening might have upset them had they cared anything about the reputation of their mother. Which at this graveyard silent hour, I was having serious doubts.

Ok, enough of that. Description is important  but not as an end. Description should serve the plot, the characterization, the setting but not supplant these things.

1. Remember that less is more. If I have a monster, and I go into great detail describing that monster, I may or not create a scary monster. Think back to the  1920’s and 30’s style monster movies. They were not very scary at all because the monster just looked hokey. Special effects were not all that great, and directors had not yet mastered the less is more. In fact, many modern movies fail in this regard as well. They are special effect driven, and after a while 30 minutes of continuous explosions, fireballs, and smoke just get tiresome. Instead, ratchet up the tension by holding back.

2. Do I really care if the character has blonde hair, blue eyes, and  … well whatever? No. In fact, I might not think that blonde hair, blue eyes, and whatever are all that attractive. In a writers group I was in, a beginning writer described all of his female characters as blondes. When asked about this, the writer did not even know he had done it. His answer, “I just like blondes.” Personally, I tend to skip over long descriptions of characters. In general, I don’t care what they look like. If a particular character is supposed to be attractive in the story, then why not consider showing how other characters react. Are they deferential, condescending, or whatever?

NOTE: It is always a good idea to show, not tell. This goes for description as well as action.

A meal arrives at the dinner table. The writer can go on, and on, and on about the steak, potato, lobster, gravy, dinner rolls, salad and so on and so forth. And you know what? Maybe the writer just lost half of the readers. Why? Because maybe they are vegan, or have other food restrictions. Instead, show don’t tell. One character rubs his hands together, another places her face over the plate, and uses her hands to waft the aroma of the food while she inhales deeply. Another character, licks his mouth, then takes his napkin and wipes his face because he realized he was beginning to drool. In this instance, by showing three different characters reaction to the food, I not only tell something about the meal (it is obviously great) but I also provides insights into the type of characters – one is more of a coinsure, one is rather crude, and one is a rather foolish chow-hound. Now, the meal may consist of meat and potatoes, or it might be gourmet Cuisine … who knows. Indeed who cares what the characters ate – it will become important later on in the story.

3. Remember that readers today want the story to move along. I recently read Ivanhoe, and while it is an awesome story, with a great plot, excellent action and so on, I was shocked at how long it took me to read. I mean, the book was just over 500 pages, and I really thought I could knock it out one rainy Saturday … but such was not the case. It ended up taking me three days to read. This is because the writing was densely packed with description. One of the great things about Sir Walter Scott, is that he took great pains to get details correct. He put a lot of these details into his novels, AND if that were not enough, he even added footnotes for the details he was not quite able to fit in. As much as I loved the story, I am afraid that poor old Scott would be quite unable to find a publisher now days. Readers do not mind reading longer books (especially from their favorite established writers) but the writing must flow naturally, and the descriptions must serve the story. I am convinced that one reason Scott put so much detail in his writing is that he did not have a Facebook account, a Twitter account and a cell phone. Therefore, it really did take him a thousand words to describe what nowadays we get in a single picture. 

I hope you have a tremendous day.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk a bit more about description.

Interview your characters?

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about interviewing characters as part of the development process

This morning I decided to make some Orange Cream tea from leaves I bought when I was in Hamburg. It is a wonderful tea, and it goes well with really dark chocolate. I added a bit of Orange Peel, and a cinnamon stick to the tea and it came out nice.

Interviewing the character

A common suggestion I hear in writers groups, at conferences, and even in books and blogs is to interview the character. Some even go so far as to create an interview sheet, that the writer is supposed to fill out.

The suggestion is to create an interview sheet for each character, especially for main characters. Include likes, dislikes, favorite foods, music, activities. Decide on style of clothes, type of hair cut, and so on and so on and so on. Of course, the interviews are supposed to be for the author, and will not end up in the book. But this is actually a pretty dangerous assumption because after all of the work, the writer really begins to think all of this stuff is important. This leads to the infamous beginner mistake called the info dump. It goes something like this:

In walked Sam. Sam was a recent graduate of Ohio State University where he was a member of the campus newspaper. He wrote a weekly review of chain restaurants that were within walking distance of the downtown campus. He was well known, therefore, for having a rather well developed culinary pallet, especially when thinking about low priced chain restaurants. There was just one thing, and that was that Sam really does not like green eggs, nor does he like green ham. This tended to cause quite a stir around St. Patrick’s day. In fact, Sam once stated to a close friend that he would not eat green eggs or green ham in a box, nor with a fox. He also confided to his wife that he would not eat either green eggs or green ham in a tree. But he had not ruled out eating green eggs and green ham with a Kangaroo. Yes, there was definitely a maybe when it comes to eating with Kangaroo, in in his household, it caused much ado.

Ok, so maybe this is not an improvement over a great children’s classic. In fact, there is much to distracting information here. The fact that Sam worked on a campus newspaper, or that it was Ohio State, or his reputation for eating at low priced chain restaurants, St. Patrick’s day. All this is unimportant. But because I took the time to create the back story, I want to use all of that work. Purists will say, but it helps with motivation, it helps the writer to understand the character and therefore to create believable characters.

Create, Document, on the fly

Maybe. Maybe not. What I do, is when I add in a specific detail, I document the detail in my character sketch. I only add details when I need them. To me, this keeps from having artificial characters. Because, if I sit down and create a back story, likes and dislikes and all of that, then the characters do not seem to believable. On the other hand, if I think how would the character react in a specific situation, then now I have context, and as a result a stronger character. Plus, because I have no back raft of details, I have no desire to do an info dump on the poor unsuspecting reader.

Think about it. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe not.

Join me tomorrow when I will talk about description.

I hope you have an great day.

Writing is one thing … editing is another

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about separating writing and editing.

Last month held the #NaNoWriMo event (The National Novel Writing Month). The idea is to write a 50,000 rough draft of a novel in a month, that translates to around 1,600 or so words a day. To me that is not all that big of a deal. I routinely write more than that in a regular day. I also write more than that at night. Especially when the moon is out, and the sky is clear. I enjoying heading out on the porch and writing.

The key, for me anyway, is to separate writing from editing. If I type a sentence, and pause to edit it, then I do two things:

1. I ruin my momentum

2. I waste time editing something that I might have deleted in the first place.

It really is that simple. Writing and editing are two different processes. When I am writing, I get into a flow. I begin to compose situations, descriptions, I think of details that I want to include, and I begin to eliminate things that take away from all of that. It really does not matter if I am writing on a technical book project, or if I am working on my mystery novel … I just sort of visualize a conversation that begins to take place, I explain things to an imaginary audience. In fiction, I am telling a story to a hypothetical reader.

In both cases, I know where the story goes. With a non-fiction work, I plan my book projects out extremely carefully. The outline goes down several layers – nearly to the point of lead in sentences for each section in a chapter. In my fiction writing, the outline covers the main idea, the major flow, but not all of the details. I may indicate where I think plot twists occur, but once I have the plan, I do not go back to it too often.

For a day of writing to be productive, I must know where I will pick up in the morning. I deliberately, leave off at a point where I know where things go. In this way, I am sort of on autopilot for the first point. Hopefully, like priming a pump, the words begin to flow before the prime gives out. Hemingway said essentially the same thing, he said that he never writes himself out because otherwise it takes too long to get back into the flow of things the next day.

This is actually one of the good things of the #NaNoWriMo it helps one to set goals, and to see how steadily meeting goals, helps one to achieve the desired results.

Remember, a writer writes. A writer also edits, but don’t do both activities at the same time.

When bad things happen to good characters

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about causing bad things to happen to good characters.

I am really lucky. I get to do exactly what I want to do, have a lovely wife and soul mate, get to take classes at a great university, and have a nice place to live. I get to travel around and speak at conferences.In short, I am basically living the dream. Of course there are some annoying things, like my decades old struggle with my weight, but beyond that, life is good.

I would make a really boring character.

Personally, I think I am a fascinating character, but I also realize that in a book I would be really, really, really boring. Ok, so we create these lovable, handsome, suave and debonair characters that we want our readers to fall in love with, and then what? Well, my tendency, because I love the character also, is to make everything turn out wonderful. I want the character to have a lovely life.

The cure for boring characters.

How do I add challenges for my character to overcome? Here are some thoughts.

  1. One of the most obvious, is to saddle the character with a problem, such as drugs, alcohol, nightmares from an abusive relationship, or childhood, or some other thing. But I think that by and large, these are pretty much overdone. I would love, for example, to see a detective who has a serious fear of snakes, or spiders, or some other such phobia that afflicts millions of people. How about a detective who is afraid to drive a vehicle (maybe they were in a car crash that killed their parents). To make matters more interesting, they live in a town where there is really sucky public transportation (like 90 percent of the USA).
  2. Have things go wrong. The protagonist knows the antagonist hides vital information in a specific location. The protagonist does the right thing and tries to obtain a search warrant, or tries to convince the police to investigate. All the while the antagonist makes plans to escape – for good. Oh no. What now? The protagonist can break the law, and catch the antagonist with the goods, and hope that things will work out (or shoot the antagonist and hope to get away with it) or whatever. But instead, overcome with an attack of conscience, the antagonist does the right thing. AND, the antagonist escapes. To make matters worse, the protagonist gets into trouble for some minor infraction, and ends up in jail. This is the classic denial AND FURTHER MORE formula. This is especially powerful when the protagonist is really trying to do the right thing, and gets ensnared in the morass of government red tape (think Kafka’s The Castle).
  3. The bargain with the devil. Think about Mister Roberts bargain for crew liberty with the draconian Captain Morton, where the price becomes something of a pound of flesh, and there is no Portia to sweep in and save Antonio.
  4. Back them into the corner. Once a character is completely backed into a corner, and there seems to be no way out, then as a writer I have done my job. The trick, of course, is to figure a way out of an inescapable situation.
  5. Kill the character. Once the character is dead, they cease to be boring. In my novel, I ended up killing a character, that at first I had intended as the love interest for my main character. But, dude, she was boring, so she had to die. I mean, there was no redeeming her. As it turned out, a walk on character, ended up being much more interesting.

If a character is boring, try one of these techniques and see what happens

Setting as character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about using setting as character

This morning it is cold, rainy, and the sun has yet to make an appearance. I decided to make a cup of coffee instead of tea this morning. It just seems like one of those sorts of days.

Luckily, I have a bag of Kona coffee. This particular coffee comes from the island Kauai in Hawaii. In a very real sense, the smells, the taste, the warmth all transport me back to when Teresa and I were on the island. I close my eyes, and visualize the blue skies, the green mountains, and the lush foliage that surrounds nearly everything on the island.

A strong sense of place exudes character

I know it is popular to write what one knows. I also know, from reading the FBI crime statistics, that murders happen everywhere. But to be brutally honest, some places are more interesting than other places. Maybe that is not entirely correct. Maybe what I mean is that some places are easier to make more interesting than other places.

This is because Mayberry RFD, and Petticoat Junction were both pretty boring places. I mean, if I were driving down the road, I do not think I would stop at Floyd’s barber shop and get my hair cut, and I most assuredly would not stop at the shady nook hotel and night of rest to get a room for the night. Especially with some old dude hogging the front porch, and some old scruffy dog laying across the steps. I believe I would hop back in the car, apologize to Teresa, and say something like, “Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.” I certainly would not stop at goobers garage to get a fill up. Nope, I would hope the fumes would carry me back to the Interstate.

But what does the previous excursion into nostalgic television reveal? The places were NOT character, it was the people: Uncle Joe, Andy, Goober, Floyd the barber … that made the places interesting. A wide dusty, dingy road, was not too exciting. Therefore if one happens to actually live in Dog Patch Tennessee, then one must populate the place with interesting people.

What is a strong place?

Well, Hawaii is an awesome place. Magnum PI, Hawaii Five O, both were great shows with a strong sense of place. I mean, Magnum was a rather boring person to be honest. He did have great hair, and an awesome mustache, but as a character he was really one dimensional. And the lounge lizard? Dude, I mean can I say flat cartoon? And Hawaii Five O? Come on, I mean nearly all of those characters were flat, and not all that likable. I found myself rooting for the bad guys. But the setting? The scenery? Awesome. So Hawaii exudes a strong sense of place, and becomes a character in the shows.

Of course, big cities – New York, LA, Miami all have a strong sense of place. But I do not want to simply read another “LA crime story.” I want to see something that is different, unique, where the character of the setting shines through. Don’t show the same old stuff, but portray a sense of place with an artists eye, an insiders knowledge of locale, and show how the story could only have taken place in this particular location.

Do that. Make me want to stop in Mayberry.

Using Dialogue to Reveal Character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about using dialogue to reveal character when writing fiction

Last night in class we began a discussion of Goethe’s Faust. It is an amazing work, and one that makes me wish to study harder when it comes to learning German. As it is, I must read it in translation. Interestingly enough, I actually have four different copies of this work.

As I was studying for class the other day, I begin to notice how Goethe reveals Dr. Faust’s character. He uses inner monologue, actions, and even dialogue to show us the character of Dr. Faust.

In the scene outside the city gates, Wagner and Faust are walking along having an animated conversation about the meaning of life. When suddenly an old peasant comes up to Faust and offers a jug of beer. This is because of work the doctor and his father did during the plague in which hundreds of lives were saved, at great peril to their own. The old peasant credits Faust with overcoming many a hard ordeal.

Others chime in, My health attend this man of worth, long to help others on this earth! Dr. Faust appears to be somewhat embarrassed by this outpouring of adulation, and he replies, Obeisance make to Him on high, who teaches help, whose help is nigh.

So, it appears that Faust is a humble person. Wagner, who continues walking with Faust comments on how great it must be, and how proud it must make Faust to receive such praise and homage from the citizenry. But Faust replies, that it was despite their efforts that people recovered, and that no matter what they tried patients kept on dying. In fact, he confesses, that some of their treatments probably hastened the death of some of the patients.

What is presented, then is a public face that appears humble, and a private face that is full of doubts. Faust even comments on this duality in another part of the text. Even in translation, Goethe’s strong characterization shines through.

If you can find a nice modern translation (or better yet if you can read the original German) you may want to look at this poem with a fresh eye to characterization. It just may be the perfect thing to read today.

What makes a good literary character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the elements of a good character

Once again it is a wonderful day outside. I am convinced that one reason for putting up with the oppressive heat and humidity of the deep south during the summer season, is anticipation of a lovely fall. Indeed, this year the fall season is exceptional.

Elements of a good character

I want to talk a little today about what makes a good literary character.

NOTE: I am continuing yesterday’s It’s all about character article.

A good character, is not necessarily one that is irreverent, irascible, or irritating – although they may in fact possess those characteristics. But what makes a good character is are they believable.

Now, I do not mean that the character must conform to some arbitrary psychological profile, rather, does the sum equal believability in the particular world created by the writer. When Luke Skywalker picks up the light saber and is able to hit the battle drone while blind folded it is believable because of elements of his character brought up earlier in the movie.

When creating a description of a character, do not just recite facts such as he was 250 pounds, six feet two inches tall, had blue eyes and blond hair. This tells nearly nothing about the character. If one must describe the character in physical terms, a great way is to do something like Rex Stout did in the Nero Wolfe novels where he described Nero Wolfe as an eighth of a ton. Goethe’s Dr. Faust is not described in terms of appearance, but in terms of what he knows – and more importantly in terms of what he wants.

For Dr. Faust, these two elements, knowledge and desire, are important in his characterization because they lead to his hubris and eventual downfall. For Nero Wolfe, his size is likewise important for his characterization because it explains why he is so reluctant to leave the brownstone.

Here are some elements of character, that when used judiciously, can help to move a story along.

  1. Desire. What does a character want more than anything else.
  2. Fear. What does a character fear? Will the character overcome the fear, learn to deal with the fear, or succumb to the fear.
  3. Normal routine. What a character does on a normal basis is useful when contrasted to what becomes the “new normal.”
  4. Habits. Either known or unknown to the character. For example, a character who says that they “hate gossips” and yet is the worst gossip in the entire story is revealing something about their inner truth.
  5. Dreams. This differs from desires in that desires are usually known to the character, whereas dreams may be unacknowledged. This can become really interesting when the character actively peruses one thing, but desires something else … especially when the character does not know that it is what they really want. When placed in terms of people and love, it can make for a fun and interesting love triangle.

It’s all about character

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the importance of character

This morning I am sitting on the porch enjoying a cool fall morning. I am sipping on a cup of English breakfast. I decided to add a cinnamon stick, and a little peppermint and spearmint leaf to the pot. The result is a nice refreshing tea that goes well with Belgium almond cookies, and German Chocolate biscuits.

I have my Surface Pro 3 with me, and am reading a new writer on the Kindle app. The cool thing about using a Surface, is I can read, check my email, keep up with market open, and even write a blog all at the same time.

One of the problems the new writer I am reading seems to have is with creating memorable characters … unfortunately, I am not really invested in any of the characters, and that is unfortunate (especially after nearly 100 pages).

Character is the thing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that compelling characters are the most important thing. For example, when I was a kid, I watched Captain Kangaroo. Now, I remember the rabbit, Mr. Green Jeans, the Captain, and especially Mr. Moose. Yep, who could ever forget Mr. Moose and his ping pong balls? Do I remember any particular episode? Nope. So plot is not as memorable as character. What about setting? To be honest, I could not tell you a single thing from the Captain’s set … did it look like a ship? It might make sense, but I am not sure.

What makes a compelling character? Well, for a character to be memorable, I need to either really love or really hate the character. A wishy washy character is not going to do it for me. Does the character need to be over the top? Not necessarily, but it might not hurt. How about funny? That really helps … not a clown, but an interesting view of the world.

Hints for creating compelling characters:

  1. Sense of humor. Not slap stick, but cool turns of the phrase. Saying something unexpected.
  2. An unusual interest, or hobby. A character that seems to be slightly out of place. For example, a cop in a rural South Carolina town that quotes Thomas Mann might be unusual. The compelling question then becomes, where did he come across this?
  3. An unexpected soft side. Something that shows an unexpected connection with at least some fellow human beings. For example a bank robber who always hands a little folding stuff to panhandlers.
  4. A person who seems unflappable. A cop, a detective, or even a criminal who maintains their cool when everyone else is degenerating into panic. We always tend to gravitate to people who remain calm and exude professionalism … even when it is professional criminals.
  5. Avoids clichés. The suave and debonair art thief, the crooked defense attorney, the criminally inclined police officer, the cowboy detective are all clichés. This does not mean that one of these types of characters cannot make an appearance in the book, but there had better be something unique and memorable about them, or they degenerate into cartoon characters … and when is the last time a cartoon character was truly memorable? It takes more than a rabbit that can talk to make the character memorable. About the only talking rabbit I remember is Bugs Bunny … and that is because speech is actually the least surprising thing about him.

I truly hope you have a wonderful day. Go forth and write.

It’s talk like a moose day

SUMMARY: Ed Wilson discusses the importance of context in understanding language

Hey, it is talk like a moose day. Ok, not really, but it can be. The challenge is to talk like a moose all day. Can you do it? You see, the thing is a moose does not have a tremendously large vocabulary. In fact, as far as I know a moose only has one word. They say, “moooooooooooose.”

Given the constraints on vocabulary, how does a moose communicate? They do so with tone, facial expression, and context. I have read that over 90 percent of what we communicate with one another is done non-verbally. I may say, “Yes, I would love to go with you.” But my tone of voice, my ‘body language’ (such as crossed arms and feet, tilt of my head, my eyes, the corners of my mouth) all may be saying, “dude, I would rather have match sticks shoved under my toe nails and set on fire, than to go with you.”

To bring in these subtle contexts into ones writing can be a challenge. Here are a few recommendations for bring in the non-verbal aspect of communication:

1. Study body language. You can do this via observation. Watch what people do with their hands, feet, how they shift their body, move their eyes, or tilt their head when they are talking with someone. Listen for tone of voice, non-verbal pauses and utterances when someone is speaking. All of these convey much more meaning than mere words.

2. Read a good book on body language. There are tons of books about body language, look at the reviews and pick one. Or better yet, go to your public library, and ask the librarian for help.

3. Practice writing.

4. Read good writing. Go to the library, and peruse books written by excellent writers. See how, or if, they handle the non-verbal stuff.

Here are a couple of examples:

She looked at me and said, “Of course I love you.”

“Yeah, I know,” I replied.

Here is another example:

I studied her carefully. She exhaled. She slumped back into the chair. She crossed her arms. I noticed her foot began tapping. It tapped, and tapped, and tapped. It was like Morse code. I don’t know Morse code, but I knew what it was saying, she had found someone else. Finally, she looked straight at my chin, and spoke.

“Of course I love you. I always will. Till death do we part. Remember?”

I felt cold and began to tremble. That’s what I am afraid of.

“Yeah, I remember,” I replied.

Conveying the non-verbal communication is a great chance to “show, don’t tell.” So, remember, today is talk like a moose day. Pay attention to the non-verbal communication around you, and when you are ready, give it a go. Remember, a writer writes.