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Developing fiction characters from observation

The latest Beyond book in the series

The latest Beyond book in the series

Here are a couple of excerpts from the Developing Characters and Dialogue in Fiction workshop I taught this past Tuesday.

If you want to get your dialogue bang on with your characters, here are some tips:

Listen, watch and read who and what are out there. That could be a TV series, a movie, a book, and in-person. A couple of TV series with excellent and diversified characters (each quirky in their own way) are NCIS:LA. Even if you are not an NCIS fan, the two sets of investigator partners are priceless – not only to watch for entertainment but to study as a fiction writer. Briefly.  the one set consists of Deeks who is actually an LA detective transferred to NCIS. He tends to run off at the mouth and fixates on weird things in life. His partner (professional and personal in the series) Kensey is so different – she is the slob in this duo and likes to pick on Deeks. The other duo, in a nutshell, Sam and Callen – Sam black and Callen is white but they are different in personalities and lifestyles. Sam has been married for many years to another agent, Michelle and they have two children including an adult son in the military. Callen is a minimalist in his life and has problems with committment.

I suggest checking out reruns of NCIS:LA as Kensey is in a coma from a severe injury for the next few episodes as the actress playing her is on maternity leave. But there are other interesting unique characters in the series including the unit’s second in command played by Linda Hunt.

Another series with quirky characters is the British Heartbeat. It ran from around 1992 to 2010 but repeats are shown on various TV stations or you can probably see it there or on alternative viewing. Heartbeat is set in the late 1960s in a fictitious small town in North Yorkshire, England. It focuses on small town policing operating from Ainsfield station at that time and is intertwined with some of the social issues then.  Not all the characters are cops, but all characters are so well developed and except for a core few, the characters do come and go over the years. My favourites are Mr, Greengrass who is an elderly con artist with the most disgusting dog you may have ever seen, and Oscar Blaketon who is the Sergeant in charge of the police station until he takes early retirement due to health issues. Then he becomes a postal clerk and then co-owner of  the pub which is also central to the series. Blaketon is an interferring know-it all and keeps that up even after he retires.

Another way to absorb characters is to listen. A writer I know wanted to find out how teenagers speak so she would go to where they hung out and listen without butting in. Getting the slang and other language peculiar to your characters often requires this up-front listening. I also like to listen in on loud cell phone conversations when travelling on public transit – although there is not as much of that now with people texting.

The idea is to observe and absorb but not steal characters from TV, film, books or real life. And if your character has disabilities, you might want to actually interview someone with the same disability and also try to live in their shoes, so to speak, for a bit of firsthand feelings. For example, life in a wheelchair is so much different and not just operating the wheelchair and getting through doors. The view is a bit different. Just a caution: if you are going to get the feel of being blind, it might be a good idea to have another person with you for safety’s sake.

As for me I had a six-day experience of being 85 percent deaf. It was terrifying going into a grocery store and trying to read people’s lips. The only thing I heard was two people yelling and it must have been quite loud for me to hear it.

It was only temporary – ear wax. Who what have thought that?

How do you create distinctive characters in your fiction?

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

And as usual, the Beyond Blood book icon at the top takes you to one of the places with my profile and books.

 

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Get your writing critiqued

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

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

Every time I’d get a critique or some redirection, I’d always just take it very personally. Now I have no problem with it.

-Jessica Alba

Besides proofreading which I talked about in last week’s post, another tool for the writer is to get your writing critiqued by other writers. I have posted about this before but it is important enough to do an updated version.

Let me take you to yesterday evening when my East End Writers’ Group met at S. Walter Stewart Library in Toronto. We are basically a writing critique group and that is what writers come here for. Some new members joined us and we had some interesting writing excerpts from some very talented and intelligent writers.

Some of the issues that other writers picked up on and commented about:

For the beginning of a literary novel. Use more dialogue – the author knew this but needed some guidance on how to go about it.

For a non-fiction self-help book which was written in plain language. Some structural changes were suggested by other writers, such as use sub-headings, use more anecdotes and less instruction.
For a synopsis for an opera – yes we have a music composer who also writes short stories. We were all getting lost in all the characters. Suggestions were to make the synopsis shorter (as it would be going on the program) and list the characters and a bit about each separately.
So you can see how more pairs of eyes and ears can pick up what the writer misses. When we write we do so in solitude (we would hope no outside interruptions). We also have tunnel vision (subjective) with our work and sometimes “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Even when we know something isn’t working, we may try and try again, several times, and run out of options to fix it. Others can see what our mind may miss.

This is where a writing critique group comes in. I urge you to join one – online or in person – whichever you prefer. Just a few caveats. You shouldn’t have to pay for this – it is mutual writers helping writers. Maybe everybody can bring food or beverage for a snack. With East End Writers’ Group I ask everyone to bring a gluten-free snack or juice. I usually bring cheese, rice crackers, fruit and peppermint tea bags. Now if I just could get the kettle working at the library – despite being shown it just doesn’t work for me. It is not the straightforward plug in the electric kettle version.

Kettles no matter – what does matter is you pick a group that suits your needs. Find out if the group is open to all writing genres or just fiction or poetry, etc. Which do you prefer? Do you pre-submit your writing excerpt for critique or just bring it to the gathering? If online, how do you submit it – in a form online or as a Word attachment? What about copyright online? It should remain with you the author. If online, are you expected to critique other writers’ work? How many? Check the timeline for these and see if you can work within the group’s timeline. For groups meeting in person, look at when they meet and how often. Do you want to go every week (some do meet once a week and that can prove hectic and too much), once a month or? And do you prefer weekday daytime, weekday evenings or Saturday mornings or afternoons. Will you fit in with the group, i.e., are they giving constructive criticism? Are they negative? Are they nasty?

Give the group a test drive. Attend for a few sessions or sign up online for a few sessions and if you don’t like, bow out.
Where do you find these groups? For in-person, check your area library branches – their websites should have them all listed. Or check the library branch itself – often they have a flyer posted. Or ask a librarian. A librarian can often tell you what other branches are offering. Universities that offer writing courses often have writing groups as well. Check their bulletin boards. Also some writing organizations also offer writing critique groups, often online – these would be open to members. There is also Meet-up if you have that in your area, which has writing groups.

Or go to Mr. Google and just try “Writing Groups” (that one also gets you some links for info how groups operate and what to look for) or “Writing Groups (your location here)”. When I add “Toronto” to “Writing Groups” my East End Writers’ Group is listed as the top two and three. Guess that is good SEO.

You can read about my characters and their stories in my short story collection 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.

More info on Sharon A.’s upcoming gigs, workshops, guest blog posts, etc. at http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/BeyondtheTrippingPoint.html

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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POV Part 2 – Getting inside other characters

cover of Sharon A.’s short story collection. Click on it to get to amazon.com

Action, reaction, motivation, emotion, all have to come from the characters. Writing a love scene requires the same elements from the writer as any other.

–          Nora Roberts

Back in October we learned the cardinal rule of Point of View in fiction – do not switch character POV mid-scene or mid chapter if the chapter has only one scene. So, how do you get the POV of other characters out there without “jumping heads?”

In the previous post we discussed how, when and why to actually change the POV. But what if you want to let your reader know how Sam feels and thinks without getting inside his head?

You know the old axiom about good writing – show, not tell.

That’s how you do it.

In “The Couch,” the first story in my mystery short story collect Beyond the Tripping Point, the Point of View is that of the main character, the young private investigator, C.U. Fly. Fly has a big thing for the secretary, Annie Everglades, but the story never gets inside Annie’s head. Here’s a brief excerpt from near the story’s beginning:

“Give it up, C.U.,” she said when she found me staring at her long legs. She pushed back her wire-framed glasses and gave me an icy grey glare. “C.U. Fly, you may be a private investigator, but I am not your client.” Then she turned to her laptop and her fingers began to zip over the keys. “Your talent is listening, not looking. Go bug a client.”(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford).

Annie’s reaction to C.U.’s unwanted advances is obvious. This is shown by her dialogue – she gives C.U some boundaries and explains the PI’s functions. There is also a bit about what C.U. is doing at the time. For the latter, notice the use of the word “me.” We also get Annie’s actions – pushing back her glasses and giving C.U. a cold stare. Then she dismisses Fly and gets back to her job.

So dialogue and actions show the reader how Annie feels towards C.U. and we didn’t get inside her head.

Here’s another excerpt from the same story.

“C.U., get your paws off my back,” she said as the three of us occupied space on the couch. At her voice, Brutus leaped over me and settled in Annie’s lap.

“Fine,” I said. “You’re in charge of dog sitting services.”

She gave me one of her frosty stares. I smiled and pretended my heart stayed at normal medical settings. I had no control over my legs and arms, so staggered up, shook myself into my denim jacket and padded down the stairs..”(Excerpted from Beyond the Tripping Point, copyright 2012 Sharon A. Crawford).

Here we have a combination of dialogue between the two characters, action, but also how the POV character, C.U. Fly feels (pretending the heart stays normal) and how Fly reacts (smiles, staggers up off the couch, puts on a denim jacket and leaves). Fly’s reactions show the reader the relationship between the two characters – they are operating from different perspectives but we also learn how Fly sees Annie and feels about her.

In summary, you can reveal what is going on with other characters in your story by:

  1. Dialogue between the POV character and the other character.
  2. Action – between the POV character and the other character or just the other character.
  3. And tying in with the above – reaction of the POV character to the other character.
  4. POV character’s feelings and beliefs about the other character.

We’ll cover using third person POV and multiples in future postings.

For now, here is my current upcoming event with my book Beyond the Tripping Point:

Tonight, November 15, 2012 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. I am on a panel with other recently published Canadian Authors Association Toronto Branch members, Chris Canniff and Bianca Lakoseljac. The three of us will share the ups and downs of getting from first draft to published book. Location is the Northern District branch of the Toronto Public Library in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. More details at http://www.canauthorstoronto.org/events.html Those in the Toronto area, please stop by.

And to purchase a copy of my book – now in e-book form as well as print,  for Kindle (and also a link to the print copy. just click on the book cover at the top of this post. For Kobo, click on the book cover below.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Beyond the Tripping Point link to Kobo

 

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Workshop your writing – join a writing critique group

Parts of Sharon’s short stories were originally critiqued by members of her East End Writers’ Group

Half my life is an act of revision.

                -John Irving

I run the East End Writers’ Group a writing critique group in east Toronto (http://www.samcraw.com/Articles/EastEndWriters.html). I’ve brought pieces of my stories from my collection Beyond the Tripping Point when they were in rough shape and received excellent suggestions on how and what to fix. In turn I have given some advice to other EEWG members on possible ways to make their manuscript sparkle. (My writing/editing/writing instruction business motto is “We make words sparkle.”)

The fact is we writers view our own writing very subjectively. A phrase or sentence or plot sequence may appear brilliant in our eyes but read out loud (with plenty of light) around the writing circle, the flaws start to show up. As we learned in last week’s post, reading out loud does this, but so much more when there are other ears besides your own hearing it.

I’m not trying to be negative here. One of the goals of writing critique groups needs to be pointing out the strengths and weaknesses in a positive, helpful and friendly manner. Giving suggestions for how you can improve your story is even better. Sometimes the group members agree on what needs fixing; sometimes they don’t. What you are receiving is a number of options to consider. I find that if many people agree on one point, a change is probably necessary. And with other eyes and ears on your manuscript, the feedback is objective. No tunnel vision.

For fiction, some of the areas we look at are:

In General – Is the beginning a reader hook? Is the lead at the beginning or later in the story? Does the story flow? Is there a point or theme to the story? What is the story’s biggest strength?

Plot – Besides grabbing the reader in paragraph one, does the plot contain suspense? Foreshadowing? Have a mixture of narration, dialogue, action and inner thoughts appropriate to the story? Is the story credible? Have some resolution at the end?

Characters – Are characters distinct? Three-dimensional? Believable? Interesting? Do they have character tags? (for example, jiggling keys in a pocket when nervous), Is there a protagonist? Antagonist? How do they interact? Dialogue appropriate to the characters? Further develop the plot and characters?

Point of View (more coming in a later post; I promise) – Too many points of view? Is POV used the best POV for the story? Whose story is it?

Writer’s Style – What is the style? Laid-back? Moody? Simple (as in simply told, not stupid)? Lyrical? Literary? Fast-paced? Light and humorous? ). Are word choices and phrases unique?

Mechanics – spelling, grammar, punctuation (including my two favourites – verb tense mix-up and incorrect dialogue setup).

Now that you have some idea what writing critique groups do (or should do), how do you find a suitable writing group? Consider if you want a group exclusive to fiction or whatever you write or to cover all writing areas. (EEWG is the latter). Consider if you want in-person or online. If the former, consider the geographic distance. Is it free or is there a charge? (EEWG is free but participants bring a gluten-free snack for our networking-snack break. We like to talk and eat.) What type of critique setup do you want? Some groups require pre-submission of manuscripts; some only critique one manuscript per session; some groups have page and time limits for reading. Some meet weekly, bi-weekly, monthly. (EEWG meets one evening monthly except July, August and December. We have a 10-minute reading limit, so length is up to six-pages double-spaced, copies for others and no pre-submissions.)  Check out local library branch websites – many library branches run writing groups or know who does. Check local writing organizations. When you find a group, try it out a few times and if it doesn’t work for you, move on to another group. Can’t find a suitable group? Start one yourself. I did 12 years ago.

If your schedule is tight already you might want to go the online critique route. For example, in Canada, the Canadian Authors Association (http://www.canauthors.org) has a Virtual branch for its members. Google “writing critique groups” and see what you get. The beauty here is you can pick one not in your geographic area. But remember, most online groups require give and take – for every critique you get you have to do one (sometimes more) critique of another person’s writing. That’s how we learn – from each other and each other’s writing.

Happy writing and happy critiquing.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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Reading your writing out loud

Sharon A. Crawford almost reached her tripping point reading from Beyond the Tripping Point

Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.                                                                                            ~P.J. O’Rourke

The stage was set for the public reading. The host introduced me and I grabbed the author copy of my book Beyond the Tripping Point. I walked up to the lectern, took the mic, opened the book, prepared to read…

And could barely see the words.

No, folks I wasn’t going blind. And my glasses were (and are) just fine.

The culprit was not enough light. Only dim ceiling lights. The restaurant had supplied the lectern and mic but did they forget we would need to see to read? I wasn’t the only one who had problems seeing. Usually I enjoying reading in public and am told I do it very well. Not last Thursday evening’s session in the patio room at a Toronto restaurant. I was reading as part of the Toronto branch of the Canadian Authors Association season launch, which outside of the restaurant’s gaff with the lack of light, went very well and brought in record numbers for the branch. I was proud to be reading as part of the CAA program. And yes I did manage to stumble through the short passage I read (and was actually heard as others told me afterward). However, I was so disconcerted by the lighting situation that I forgot to mention the date of my book launch (November 4, 2012). My publisher did, when he went up to the lectern.

My publisher since told me to print out my reading excerpt from my Word copy double-spaced in 14 point. Another author told me to use sans serif font and print all caps. Not sure whether my eyes could deal with the latter, but the large print sans serif sounds good. I might also bring a flashlight or a clip-on book light – if I can find new batteries for my book light and figure out how to insert them. Never again will I complain about bright lights shining in my eyes as I do a public reading.

Fortunately, this reading was a dry run (as my publisher put it) for the book launch.

This reading experience made me think how much reading out loud can help the manuscript in-the-works. Sometimes hearing what you have written puts your story in a different perspective. And your setup for reading-out-loud can bring out different experiences. If you read out loud, record it and play it back, you can hear your words as if coming from another person. If you merely read out loud, you hear the sound from inside your head.

Both methods can give you excellent feedback. You might discover:

Something in the plot sounds jarring and doesn’t work.

One character’s dialogue doesn’t sound right for the character or for the scene.

The point of view you have used may not work. For example if you wrote it from the third person omniscient – see all and hear all – like looking down from a cloud – it might sound cold and distant for what is intended to be an intimate story. (We will be covering the ins and outs of point of view in an upcoming blog. Soon).

You will hear your word errors – words that don’t fit exactly for what you mean, words left out or repeated.

Reading out loud can be an enlightening experience (pun on word intended). You can hear your characters live, breath, and speak. Reading out loud is an excellent tool to help you improve your writing. Playing back what you read works even better.

And if you are going to read in public, be prepared. Bring a large printout of your reading material and a book light or small flashlight. And practice beforehand. That latter (and my experience reading in public) was my saving grace last Thursday evening. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to walk away without reading.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

Author of Beyond the Tripping Point

http://www.bluedenimpress.com

 

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Fiction-writing lessons from my students and more

Cover of my short story collection Beyond the Tripping Point

"The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say."
                                    ~ Anaïs Nin

Tuesday evening I taught a workshop on Developing Character and Dialogue in Fiction at the Runnymede Public library branch in Toronto. We covered what I’ve been blogging about the past few weeks and a bit more. I used excerpts from my mystery short story collection, Beyond the Tripping Point, to illustrate some points – which I’ve been doing here. There was one big difference – I had the proof copy of my book in my hands. This is very exciting and I’m putting the book cover up at the top of this post. You can find out more about Beyond the Tripping Point at my publisher’s website www.bluedenimpress.com.

Okay, back to the workshop.

One thing I really like about these workshops is the sharing and the learning. I always learn something. A student amazed me with his beginning of a story about a teenager starting the first day at high school. The student was a girl and that means he wrote it from a female perspective and did so very well. We will be covering this aspect and others for Point of View in writing fiction in future posts.

This story was one of three scenarios suggested to write the beginning of a story (novel or short story) focusing on bringing out the characters. The first time round they wrote using everything but dialogue, i.e., character actions, thoughts and working in what they see going on around them. After we talked about dialogue, they went back to their story and added some dialogue. It was interesting to see that most of them chose the student starting high school scenario.

Here are the three suggested scenarios:

a)      A teenage girl’s first day attending high school.

b)      A former bully returns to her high school reunion. She is 40ish and a psychiatrist.

c)      A man sits in court waiting for the verdict to a criminal charge for a crime he did not commit.

All of them conjure up various ideas. For a) the participants in this workshop had somewhat shy students. I don’t want to reveal their plots because they may want to develop them into their own stories. However, some ways to show the character as shy would be to have her hang back from the others, maybe get sick to her stomach before she leaves home, get lost trying to find her first class. And what would be really different is if the student was a guy. Usually guys would be more brash but what about making the fellow shy. How would he react? Would he get bullied? What story lines can you come up with?

For b) you would be taking the other side of the fence – the bully returning to her alma mater, especially when she (or it could be a he) is now a psychiatrist. How would the ex-bully feel about even going to the reunion? Would he or she go alone or insist a spouse or best friend come along for moral support? Maybe the ex-bully hasn’t told friends or spouse about his or her checkered background. How does being a psychiatrist influence? What happens as the ex-bully walks in the school front door, the auditorium? Especially when he or she spots one or more former classmates that were bullied? The scenarios are endless here.

For c), which a couple of students tackled, you might go inside the accused’s head as he waits for the jury to return? How does the accused feel? Remember this accused did not commit the crime. How are the others in the courtroom behaving – his lawyer, the prosecutor, etc.? What is the courtroom like in relation to how it makes the accused feel? Has the accused locked his thoughts onto one juror and watches Juror No. whatever to see what this juror’s face shows. And when the jury returns and the foreperson is delivering the verdict, how does the accused feel as the foreperson speaks? And after? If found guilty? If found not guilty? Again, the scenarios are endless.

Try writing the beginning of a short story for all suggested scenarios and see what you come up with. Pay attention to developing your character and use dialogue. You never know; you might have the beginning of a good story.

Cheers.

Sharon A. Crawford

 

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