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Short Story and Novel Writing with Series Characters – Part 2

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

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

You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.

– Larry Niven

 

After all my time-line tips last week I goofed. I put the wrong year for the four linked short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point. Ditto for the related series novel. It should be 1999 for the short stories and 1998 for the novel. At least I had it correct which came first. The years are now corrected on last week’s blog post.

Mea culpa, mea culpa.

This post will deal with length of short stories versus novels and start the discussion about series characters for both. The latter is complicated and we won’t cover everything today.

First length.

Short story length can be anywhere from the flash story of 50 words to longer stories of 8,000, even 10,000 words. Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine stories tend to run in the upper word count limit. However, some authors take the short story up to 18,000 words. In this case, many are self-publishing – either e-copy or online or in print or all of those. To me, this is a variation of the traditional poetry chap book publications. This is all good. The only caveats I offer here are: if submitting to publications or short story contests, follow the submission guidelines; and watch you don’t make the stories too long or you will be writing a novella.
Novel lengths vary from 65,000 words to 120,000 words (think Elizabeth George for the longer novels). Most novels are somewhere in between and it depends on the publisher or the author if self-publishing. My publisher, Blue Denim Pressm tends to go for the lower page count. Personally I like any length as long as the story flows and doesn’t read as if it is padded with plot lines, character development and points of view that are way too much and detract from the story. Shorter novel requirements sure make the author learns how not to be overly wordy, as I’m finding out. But as a former journalist, I always wrote long and then rewrote to fit the editorial requirements. Writing too short here would create the dilemma of insufficient information and it is harder to add than to subtract – believe it or not.

Characters in novels versus short stories

This is a loaded one. Novels and short stories written in the literary vein are more about the characters than the plot. However, the trend today in commercial fiction (including genres such as mystery and romance, particularly in novels, is to develop characters more). While I like Agatha Christie mystery novels – they were what I grew up on, what got me interested in mysteries (along with the old Perry Mason TV series), her characters, although intriguing and original, were not fully developed. The exceptions are her two main series characters – Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple.

So, how many characters do you put in a novel and in a short story? Obviously because of length, you wouldn’t cram many characters into a short story. War and Peace crunched down to a short story it is not. Take two or three main characters and a few minor characters and go from there, i.e., you will develop the three main characters fully but not the few minor ones. By “develop fully” I mean it wouldn’t hurt to do an extensive character sketch of your main characters before you start writing – with the caveat that they are not sealed in cement, granite or avalanche. When writing stories, characters sometimes take over and you as a writer have to respect that. Key question to ask here: is what this character is doing characteristic of him or her? That’s when you may have to return to your character sketch.

And you won’t use everything in your character sketch in your short story – or even in your novel, but you will use more in your novels. With a short story, every character element and development has to tie in with your basic story plot. With a novel you can add in the extras, although they have to tie in with the plot, but you have more leeway.

For example, in my prequel novel Beyond Blood, Dana Bowman has more space to show how she feels about a certain situation with her son as well as the conflict she has with being a mother of a six year old and a private investigator, especially when the two collide. If I didn’t do this, Dana would come across as shallow, one-dimensional and unbelievable. In the four linked stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (remember these are the year after the novel occurs), Dana is still reacting over what happened to David, but in the interest of space and plot, the whole story can’t be about her reaction. So I weave it in with the case she is investigating. In “Saving Grace,” while she is following a lead on a country road outside Goderich, Ontario, she stops the car and has a mini-break-down. But it doesn’t last long; she has to pull herself together and get on with it.

In the novel Beyond Blood, after the actual event that triggers all this has happened, Dana has many instances of having difficulty dealing with the situation. In one scene (without giving it away), she wakes up and is somewhat disoriented and depressed so she acts a bit strangely. She also has nightmares that act as a sort of premonition of what will happen. The time she spends with her son and her feelings about him there, as well as developing a possible relationship with Detective Sergeant Donald Fielding, all tie in with the plot. Without this character development, some of the future plot lines would have the reader saying, “This doesn’t make sense. How would she know how to do that? This action is not credible.”

These pointers are more for commercial fiction than literary fiction.

Next week we will delve more into the makings of series characters appearing in novels and short stories.

Meantime, you can read more about the characters and their stories in Beyond the Tripping Point (Blue Denim Press, 2012). Click on the book at the top and it takes you to Sharon A. Crawford’s profile – including book reviews – at http://www.amazon.com. The book is available there in print and Kindle. For Kobo e-book go to http://store.kobobooks.com/en-CA/ebook/beyond-the-tripping-point or go to any bricks and mortar store and order in a print copy. Spread the word.
More info on Sharon A.’s upcoming gigs, workshops, guest blog posts, etc. at http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html

Sharon A. Crawford’s prequel novel Beyond Blood, featuring the fraternal twins will be published fall 2014 by Blue Denim Press. Stay tuned.

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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Creating eccentric characters

I might write pages and pages of conversation between characters that don’t necessarily end up in the book, or in the story I’m working on, because they’re simply my way of getting to know the characters.

–          Norton Juster

Quirky characters appear in many novels and TV series. Think the main character in
Dexter
, all of the characters in NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles and the Agatha Christie character, Hercule Poirot, who has crossed from books into movies and TV. Not surprising as life is filled with eccentric characters. Look around you as you go about your day. It could be that old lady wearing sandals, a winter coat and straw hat standing on the corner and yelling. It might be your dad who insists on having one white vegetable, one yellow vegetable and one green vegetable at dinner; then meticulously cuts them all into tiny pieces before spooning them into his mouth.

Or maybe it’s you.

How do you create an eccentric character for your short story or novel and what can you “borrow” from life or can you?

Most of my short stories in Beyond the Tripping Point have at least one eccentric character, although most, if not all, the characters contain a certain amount of quirkiness. My favourite is Great Aunt Doris who appears in two of the four linked stories featuring the fraternal twin PIs, Dana and Bast.

Where did Doris come from?

I did have an eccentric aunt who at one time when she was alive was the same age (70s) as Great Aunt Doris. Like Doris, my aunt was short and had a mouth on her. There any resemblance ends. My aunt was deep into Catholicism and anti-fluoridation and spoke her mind on both in a somewhat whiny voice, punctuated by a grin showing all her yellow teeth. Great Aunt Doris isn’t particularly religious, but she is conservative and has set ideas on what mothers should do and be. And she hates gays. As Dana is a mother and a PI with a son and Bast is gay, you get an idea where that could go. Doris is also the great aunt of Dana’s ex-husband, but that doesn’t stop her from showing up uninvited on Dana’s and Bast’s doorsteps. And meddling in their lives.

  1.  You can base your eccentric characters on someone you know or met but remember “base” is a four-letter word. Pick one or two traits you like about your real-life eccentric and build your character from there using your imagination.
  2. Envision how your character looks and sounds: Great Aunt Doris has an ugly face – her aging wrinkles and puffy, yet sagging cheeks, plus that ruby-red lipstick make her resemble a gargoyle, especially when she opens her mouth. And she does, in a gravelly voice, to criticize Dana’s parenting skills and insult Bast as well as poke herself into the Attic Agency’s current case. Her usual garb is a flowered housedress and flat shoes or pumps but when she’s on a case, she does a female version of Sherlock Holmes – minus the pipe. I did say she was conservative.
  3. Don’t create an eccentric character just for the sake of having one. He or she must fit into your story and interact realistically with the other characters. In other words, he or she must do the impossible – blend in as well as stand out as a distinct character. Here’s a dialogue excerpt from my short story “Saving Grace.” Dana is in the middle of tracking down a suspect when her cell rings. It is Great Aunt Doris.

“Yes, Doris,” I say.

“David…David,” deep breath, “David…is throwing a tantrum,” Aunt Doris says. “He’s…hey, little fellow, take it…gulp…easy. Dana, you’d better be a good mother and get back to the hotel…now.”

“Aunt Doris, calm down. I’ll be—”

A vehicle’s coming down the road, slowing down.

“Just a minute, Aunt Doris.” Without disconnecting the cell, I jump off the veranda and scurry behind a nearby bush.

“What is the matter with you, Dana? Your little boy is having a fit and you run off….”

“Shh, Aunt Doris.”

“Don’t you shush me young lady. Your son—”

(Excerpted from “Saving Grace,” from Beyond the Tripping Point, Copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford, Blue Denim Press, due out fall 2012).

There is also Detective Sergeant Fielding who gets migraines and sometimes stutters. But that’s another story…or is it? He appears in many of the Dana and Bast stories and shares one trait with Great Aunt Doris. He doesn’t like Bast, but not because Bast is gay. So your eccentric doesn’t have to be a pariah. Remember the eccentric must fit into your story.

When you get an idea for an eccentric character, do a detailed character sketch. Don’t forget the feelings, including how you feel about him or her. What is the character’s purpose in the story? And make sure the eccentric isn’t someone from your real life. This is fiction, not memoir.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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