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Monthly Archives: January 2013

Keeping your plot and characters consistent

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

Be obscure clearly.

–          E.B. White

Nothing can be more frustrating to a writer (except maybe writer’s block) and a book editor too, than characters and/or plot starting to display inconsistencies. My favourite when doing manuscript evaluations for clients is the lady with short red hair in Chapter 2 who suddenly appears with long brown hair in Chapter 10. Did she suddenly don a wig? If so, say so…if it is consistent with what this character would do.

Or take these scenarios.

Does Tom suddenly appear in a conversation you thought was between Belinda and Sandra? James has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital in Chapter 2; in Chapter 3 he is jogging down the street. Does Cathy arrive home in her car when in the previous chapter it was stolen? Then there is the “Who he? Who she? Syndrome” where one character makes a splash appearance near the beginning of the novel, does a disappearing act (from the writing, not the story) for the rest of the novel and then turns out near the end to be the murderer.

Oops.

I’m struggling with some inconsistencies in my prequel mystery novel. Part of the problem is the novel is complex. So I run into “How did Bast (one of the fraternal private investigators) find out about Y factor or how would he know? Didn’t I have some videotapes back in an earlier chapter? What happened to them? And one character, a TV reporter, who is not a major character and not the killer, has a history with Bast which creates conflict when they meet up after no connection for a year. After hinting at the conflict from this main character’s point of view and a couple of scenes where the two have an actual confrontation in the first half of the novel, “conflict character” all but disappears from the story. I call this inconsistency by deletion.

Readers will pick up on inconsistencies.

What should a writer do?

I’ve touched on this a few blogs ago, but it is important to have a follow-up list of any inconsistencies you notice as you write or pick up later in the first rewrite. Then, you can go back and fix the inconsistencies and mark “done” on the list.

It might also be a good idea to do an ongoing list of your characters and include their conflicts with each other and/or a brief ongoing chapter outline. When you are creating, your organizational skills take a backseat in your brain. This is not the time to multi-task or tell yourself  “oh, I’ll remember to bring Tom home in a later chapter,” or  “This scenario isn’t going to work with what has  happened before.” You also don’t want to stop the creative flow to fix an inconsistency.

How do you keep track of your characters’ interactions, conflicts and location so your final manuscript isn’t full of inconsistencies? Let’s compare notes. We might all learn something new.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

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Dialogue or narrative – that is the dilemma

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford's mystery short story collection

Cover of Sharon A. Crawford’s mystery short story collection

We care what happens to people only in proportion as we know what people are.

–           Henry James

My publisher wants me to make my prequel mystery novel a bit shorter. Part of the problem is my two main characters, fraternal twins Dana and Bast, get too chatty in some places, especially when they are bringing each other up to speed on their separate investigations.

When do you use dialogue and when do you use short narrative to summarize what characters tell each other so that your novel or short story flows and doesn’t bore your reader? You want to make your reader care about your characters, not have your characters put your reader to sleep. Here are a few (but not only or all) guidelines to consider:

  1. Do you need to show anything with their actual dialogue and any accompanying actions? For example, if one character is giving the other some bad news and their reaction includes what they say and how they say it, you might want to go the dialogue route.
  2. Don’t drag out the dialogue exchange between characters. It can turn into the equivalent of repeatedly driving your point home to your reader. For example, I have Bast and Dana often repeating the same setup ad nauseum when they are comparing notes – each are reacting the same way and sometimes their dialogue covers what is told elsewhere in the novel. Summarizing that Dana brought Bast up to speed on whatever situation would suffice.
  3. A caveat to the above two points: there is a fine line from using dialogue to bring out the character’s reactions to something when necessary and when the dialogue shows as repetition. Ask yourself: is the dialogue best to show foreshadowing and move the plot along? You might be better to use dialogue then. Also dialogue and/or action might work better if the character is changing – perhaps trying to be stronger than wimpy or holding in his or her anger.
  4. With mystery fiction where the police detective or private investigator is interviewing a number of “persons of interest,” summarize in narrative the ones who have little or no information to contribute and use dialogue where something of importance to your plot shows up in the interrogation.
  5. Be careful you don’t overdo the narrative just to contain your dialogue. You don’t want to overdo the telling and bore your reader this way. However, with narrative you can include the character’s inner thoughts and actions.
  6. Sometimes you can combine narrative with summary. Here’s how I did it in the short story Digging Up the Dirt, with the fraternal twins. Instead of Dana repeating to Bast her “interrogation” by the constable and what led up to it, I wrote:

And you actually let that constable order you around,” my fraternal twin, Bast, said later.

“Well, I had to listen to Fielding’s interrogation, especially of Aunt Doris.” I smiled.

(copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford. Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, published by Blue Denim Press, 2012)

If you want to show how characters relate to each other under various circumstances and bring out their distinctive traits, dialogue with action might work best. If it gets too long, you can intersperse it with narrative. I do this in another story in Beyond the Tripping Point. Below is the link of my reading the opening scene in “Body in the Trunk,” clipped from my interview with Hugh Reilly on Liquid Lunch from thatchannel. The reading and the short preview before is three minutes long.

Sharon A. Crawford  Reading from Beyond the Tripping Point on Liquid Lunch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgOKYgBfAwY&feature=youtu.be

Now I need to get back to my own novel and follow my advice.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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What motivates your characters?

Click on the book cover to go to amazon.com

Click on the book cover to go to amazon.com

A novelist is a person who lives in other people’s skins.

–           EL Doctorow

Why do your fiction characters do what they do? Are they acting/reacting in character or way out of character? How do you “make” your characters behave?

First of all, you only have some control over your characters. As you are writing, often a character will “take over” and “decide” just what they are going to do. Fine, but you still need to make sure they aren’t acting outside of who they are. Or that you, as the author, aren’t manipulating what they are doing, especially having them do something just to move your story along or worse, just to write something.

Let me give an example.

Take Dana, the PI In “Gone Missing” and “Saving Grace,” two of the four linked short stories in my short story collection, Beyond the Tripping Point. Dana is also the mother of a seven-year old boy. So her dual role must factor in what her character thinks and does. Add to that the fact that her son is psychologically mute because of something that happened to him in the prequel novel (more on that shortly) and my work was cut out for me. In a critique of “Gone Missing” a few years back, I was chastised for not making Dana more professional. But with her problems with David, she wouldn’t be operating as a PI only – all professionalism –unless she is a “bad” mother – finds her son an impediment to her life, etc. Dana is not that and is always torn between her two roles, something readers can identify with in real life. So I have her wrestling with David and helping him as well as trying to solve the missing persons’ cases in those two stories. In “Saving Grace” she has a bit of a meltdown at one point chastising herself for being a bad mother. And to add insult to injury, another character Great Aunt Doris, who is a traditionalist where mothers are concerned, calls her a bad mother.

What is a mother/PI to do? Be human. Act in character.

In the prequel novel which I am rewriting for my publisher to look at, the actual occurrence which causes David’s muteness and all its implications has Dana roller-coasting a lot more than in the short stories. She does some stupid things, briefly goes into a catatonic state and sometimes gets more aggressive than usual. But – and it’s a large “but” all this change, all these actions and reactions come from her basic character and who she is. I don’t pull them out of the air. She is acting in character and characters have to deal with hurdles and change. So do people in real life and maybe that is a bottom line.

Make your characters real. What motivates them? Are they acting in character even when they don’t seem to be?

And go to my publisher’s page for a link to my interview with Hugh Reilly on thatchannel.com where I talk about some of these characters and where they and the plots originated. Eventually I’ll get that video up in the main part of this blog.. For now go to http://www.bluedenimpress.com/sharon-crawford.php and click on the link at the bottom of my bio.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Keeping track of everything in your story

Amazon.com link to Sharon A.'s short story collection

Amazon.com link to Sharon A.’s short story collection

If you start to revise before you’ve reached the end, you’re likely to begin dawdling with the revisions and putting off the difficult task of writing.

–          Pearl S. Buck

Currently I’m rewriting the prequel novel to four linked short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point. I’m expanding and complicating the plot and telling the story from four points of view. The original novel had only one POV – the first person singular – Dana. Yes it is the fraternal twins again and my own head has been going back and forth from the points of view of Dana, her twin Bast, her son David, and a suspect who isn’t named. I am following the rules of one character’s POV per scene or chapter.

However, all this to-ing and fro-ing makes it more difficult to keep track of timelines, who is doing what and the biggie – consistency in story line, in character’s actions, etc. To lower the muddle factor, I started a new file called “Follow-up List.” Every time something occurs that requires checking/changing for consistency, timeline – even research, it goes on the list. Right now timeline, consistency and keeping all the police constables sorted out are the big factors.

Why am I doing this? Besides the obvious, if you constantly stop writing to do research or sort out characters and timeline, you lose your creative flow. Mind you, I am going back for a few things if they are interfering with moving the plot along from where I am working. But the research can wait – some of it is just re-checking facts I’m not sure I got right. Or some detail such as a name change, can be fixed by using the Find and Replace Word features – preferably at the end of your writing session.

Another action I take (and I’ve mentioned it in an earlier post) is refusing to stall over a word that doesn’t seem quite right or is repetitious. Stopping to look it up in the Thesaurus, even if online, also breaks the creative flow. For example, as I wrote this blog post, I spelled Thesaurus incorrectly but did not correct it immediately. Here Word underlined it in red so I could go back and change it. For repetitious words or words not quite right, you just need to put (word) or (repetition) in brackets after the offending word and return to it later in your rewrite or in my case, another rewrite to fine-tune the rewrite I’m doing now. One final suggestion – format your manuscript before you start writing. Or if your situation is similar to mine – a rewrite of a novel originally written 10 or 11 years ago, where the formatting was different, you can leave it until you are finished. Stopping to fix paragraph formatting stops the creative flow.

And how is my massive rewrite going? Nearly finished the first big rewrite. If all goes well I’m hoping to have it done by the end of the day tomorrow. Afterwards, I want to let it sit for a few days and then go through my follow-up list and well, follow it.

Meantime, I’m doing plenty of PR for my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point. Tonight I’m doing a sort of performance reading of a short story excerpt as part of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada’s Talent Night. Sometime between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. I’ll be onstage at the Free Times Cafe in downtown Toronto. If you are in the Toronto area perhaps you can drop in. Check out http://www.freetimescafe.com/ for more information, including location, or go to my website http://www.samcraw.com under Beyond the Tripping Point where I’m posting upcoming readings, etc. as I get them. All my links are either on this book page or at the top of my website home page you will find the usual social media icons.

And if you click on the book icon at the top of this post, when you get to amazon.com, please read my bio and click on the Like Icon. Thanks.

Keep the creative flow going.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Setting Writing Goals for 2013

amazon.com link to Sharon A. Crawford's book

amazon.com link to Sharon A. Crawford’s book

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.

–          Agatha Christie

I’m not sure what the characters in my mystery short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point would plan to do in the new year. Some of the stories take place way before 2013 – for example 1965, 1997 and 1998. Be that as it may, that is no excuse why I and any other writer can’t set writing goals. It’s a new year and that brings new chances to write. If you’ve been procrastinating about finishing or even starting that novel or short story, here are a few outside the box (and a few inside the writing box) ideas how to get yourself from wishful thinking to actually writing.

1.    Do something else, like the late Agatha Christie’s suggestion above and I don’t think she meant using a dishwasher unless the dishwasher is you. Also try gardening (outdoors in season or indoor gardening in winter), walking, vacuuming and dusting, even sleeping. The idea is something mechanical and boring (washing dishes) and something that frees your mind to think creativity (walking, gardening) can kick-start an idea in your mind.
2.    Keep a notepad – electronic or hard copy – and write these ideas down as they hit your brain – you don’t want to operate like a gnat. That means keep something to do so near your bed at night.
3.    Take this latter a step further and start writing down your dreams no matter how silly they seem – analyze them or not, but the content alone may inspire a story.
4.    Learn from other writers – aspiring, established or in-between. Read blogs, attend writing workshops and courses (online or in person), join writing organizations and groups (preferably some that you have to go to in person as the personal connection with writers is good for your writing soul).
5.    Read novels and stories like you want to write – in print or e-book, whichever works for you. Reading others’ writing inspires you, not just with ideas, but with the writer’s style and grace.
6.    Blog excerpts of your writing – but make sure you state that it is copyrighted by you and don’t post the whole story because it could be considered a first publication and may interfere with other publication (unless you self-publish; then you can do what you want). On the other hand blog posts can often turn into seeds for books – trade or self-published. For an example, see posts by Alex Leybourne at http://alexlaybourne.com/
7.    Blog about your writing journey. We can learn from each other. For an example, see blog posts at http://bottledworder.wordpress.com/
8.    Try to write every day, even if just for an hour. For inspiration on this check out Julia Cameron’s The Writer’s Way at http://juliacameronlive.com/
9.    And perhaps most important – set writing goals for the year. Check http://bottledworder.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/new-years-resolutions-2013-guide-for-writers/ and Alex Laybourne’s blog post for Jan. 2 at http://alexlaybourne.com/2013/01/01/new-beginnings-a-guide-to-2013/

Happy and prolific writing for 2013.

If you read my book (see book cover at the top), please review it. Thanks.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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