Tag Archives: writing

Supporting Characters II: Keeping Track of the Cast

It’s easy to remember the protagonist, the love interest, the antagonist, the sidekick. But how to keep track of a multitude of supporting characters? We doncast of characters’t want our readers to start asking themselves, Which one is Zoe anyway? Was she the high school dropout or the nurse on the evening shift?

  1. Naming characters memorably can help readers keep track of your characters, but it can feel a bit Dickensian.  Charity Pecksniff,  Abel Magwich, or Cleopatra Skewton may or may not suit your style and genre.  Nonetheless, characters like JK Rowlings’s Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Severus are certainly easier to track than Tom, Dick or Harry.
  2. Homer tops all in the use of the dynamic character tag.  He uses powerful descriptors and repeats them throughout his tales : “white-armed Andromache” (also Hera, another wifely character), “swift-footed Achilles”, “grey-eyed Athena”.   And my favourite, arguably a character, “the wine-dark sea.”
  3. If ours is an epic tale such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, we’ve got appendices of names sorted by family or birthplace that readers may consult.
  4. But it’s worth looking past the cast list, far more closely at Jordan (and at Brandon Sanderson, who brilliantly finished the series when Jordan died).  Jordan is too much of a master to leave it at lists.  He tags his characters cleverly with actions or repeated thoughts that remind us of their conflicts – Nynaeve, short-tempered, gifted in the One Power, and beautiful, is always tugging hard at her long braid, while Mat, the attractive reluctant hero, always has a new way of feeling sorry for himself where women are concerned.

Our readers look to us to keep them firmly centred in the time, place, and cast of the story while they enjoy the ride we’ve invented for them. The stronger the centre, the more fantastic the story can be.


Où sont les blurbs d’antan?

small writerOne problem I have with ebooks, is that once I’ve purchased them, I can no longer read the blurbs without returning to the estore.

I want my blurbs. Those artful, enticing descriptions put a smile of anticipation on my face, speed my reading with a supporting scaffolding of basic information, and reassure me that I haven’t already read this one (or that it’s going to be my great pleasure to read it again.)

I noticed that Stephen King’s Revival (loved it) has all the copyright/acknowledgements at the end of the ebook. That made for a slick clean start. He’s always on the ball with these things.  But where is the best place to place eblurbs so that we can see those back cover/inside flap descriptions before we read the book? Summer weather is too pretty for brooding, so I’m lying on the grass, gazing up at the sky and mulling on it.


Mapping the Action

“Remember in your story that setting is the other character. It is as important to your story as the people in it because it gives them context and can ideally be used to heighten drama and tension, depending on where it is.” — Rob Parnell

And Then There Were None , Agatha Christie
And Then There Were None , Agatha Christie

The best, most effective, time and editor-saving way to make your setting real is to find or draw a map. This holds whether the whole thing takes place in a single room, on an airplane, in Vancouver, in the bowels of the London Tube station, or on an imagined planet in an alternate universe.

There is no better way to keep the action straight. You don’t need to know how to draw—as long as you can scratch and scribble, keep it by you. Draw upon it. Make notes for revision.

And then maybe someday an artist will ink it all in, to make fantastic endpapers for your novels.

Trust the Horse You Rode In On

The nice thing about horses — as opposed to bicycles or cars — is they’ll take you home even if you’re dead tired, it’s dark out, and you’ve perhaps had a drink too many.

So much of writing depends upon a confident attitude.  You may feel you’ve lost your way and are floundering in the dark.  But it helps to remember that, although it’s the mark of the supreme professional to want to learn more, you’ve already learned so much.

We all have.  We’re inspired by writers at the podium who remind us that we’re close to our next great idea.  We’re helped by readers who let us know that we’re onto a good thing.  And we have the enduring support of all our past reading, because all those thousands of books that held us, pleased us, and made us smile are our brilliant teachers.  Thanks to them we have residing inside each of us a specialist in storytelling structure.  That’s your trusty steed who will carry you across the finish link.

When you sit down to write, it’s exciting to know that there will always more to learn.  And it saves a lot of hair-pulling and uncertainty when you realize you are already an expert.

Trust the horse you rode in on to get you home through the dark.

Reviews in the Age of the Internet: Karma Comes to the Castle

castleWhen I first discovered that many used books in the UK were one pence plus delivery I went a little crazy.  Sequels and missed treasures — this was the most complete lending library I’d ever patronized, and I could keep the books.  My library swiftly expanded and rose like a castle into the clouds.

However, soon doubts came home to roost upon the castle walls. I’m a writer, and I would like to be paid, so shouldn’t I be buying the book new?  These are Karmaic doubts.  And you don’t want to mess with Karmaic doubts.  Sharks, typhoons, poor ebook sales … you never know with Karma.

So now, having bought what books I can manage firsthand and the rest secondhand, I post reviews for all.  In the age of the Internet there’s never been an easier, more effective way to do it, because review sites are all over the web.  I wander through my shelves, pick out a book I enjoyed and put up a glowing review for it.  And it’s great — I’ve always wished to thank authors for a great read.  All those hours they write, just to please me!  Thank you very much indeed.

And, a big thank you to readers and writers who have taken a few minutes to post reviews for Pulp Literature.  We so appreciate this work. Thanks again to all.

Writers’ Time Management and Kindness to Strangers

What’s the best way to get time to write?

I believe that you do so by treating yourself with as much caring and respect as you’d offer a total stranger.

Here’s the scenario. You’re waiting for an appointment, and a woman beside you has struck up a conversation. “What do you do?” she asks.

You’ve been practicing the answer, so you don’t hesitate or apologize: “I’m a writer.”

“How wonderful,” she says. “I so admire you. I’ve always longed to be a writer, but I can never get the time to do it. There are just so many things in life you have to do first.”

“That’s true,” you say. “You’ve got to really want to write…”

“Oh, I want to,” she says. “My life doesn’t want me to, but I do.”

“There’s a time for everything,” you say. “You’ll find the time now or someday. Don’t worry.”

Notice that you didn’t tell that woman that she was wasting too much time, ask her whether she was lazy or maybe just untalented or easily distracted or addicted to television or internet surfing—all things that we accuse ourselves of being.  Relax and look for the hour for yourself. We’ve all got them at least once or twice a week: in a coffee shop, in a library. While everybody’s watching a movie.

You can write about a thousand words in a quiet hour.  You can outline in a noisy ten minutes anywhere, if you bring a notebook, so that those thousand words will move the plot forward.

And if you can’t find time for a thousand words, maybe you do five hundred. And you know what? If you can’t do that this month or next, it’s okay. It’s just fine. You will do it someday. And your work will be wonderful because dreaming is good. Loving the thought of being a writer is fantastic training for loving writing.


Writing tips from Rumpole of the Bailey: Part 2


I’m examining the first three paragraphs of Rumpole A La Carte to see how John Mortimer gets the story going in the first three paragraphs. Rumpole on the Shelf

Right away, in Paragraph One, Mortimer gives us Rumpole the underdog crusading hero trudging round the old Bailey, short on time, but long on stamina as he battles to impose Rumpole order on a chaotic universe (the hero’s mission statement). Also, in paragraph 1, we receive the promise of genre as Rumpole references the murders he’s solved and his expertise with bloodstains.

Then, in Paragraph 2, Mortimer introduces what’s at stake—his wife, Hilda—as well as setting the story in its arena using Hilda’s cookery as an entry into the world of haute cuisine, where the battle will be fought.

All this in two paragraphs, a little over half a page…Now, turn the page, and in Paragraph 3 Mortimer introduces Hilda’s cousin, Everard, Rumpole’s peer on the field of battle, since he is also a lawyer, and his superior for looks, charm, culture and money. This is Rumpole’s Enemy. Everard Flings Down the Gauntlet…

Mortimer sets all this up with a masterful hand (and writes the TV script while he’s at it).

Thus, we have:

 Paragraph 1. A crusading underdog lawyer sleuth…

Paragraph 2. …will battle for his marriage…

Paragraph 3. …against the attractive, rich lawyer out to steal Hilda.

I bow to you, John Mortimer. I shake my head with admiration. I do my utmost to learn from you… Especially this week, as I’ve got a new mystery novella to start writing.

I couldn’t have a better model for structuring intrigue and struggle. Thank you, John Mortimer.  I miss you.

“I have often noticed, in the accounts of the many crimes with which I have been concerned, that some small sign of disorder—an unusual number of milk bottles on a doorstep, a car parked on a double yellow line by a normally law-abiding citizen, even, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, someone else’s mackintosh taken from an office peg—has been the fist indication of anarchy taken over…”

–John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. From paragraph 1, page 1.

The Joy of Editing

Yes, I spent Valentine’s Day at my computer editing. No, I don’t feel guilty about this. My husband likes to see me on an editor’s high. I used all my obsessive energy to nail the italics for a tricky bit of interior monologue. My reward? The author wrote to thank me for saving his lines and not being a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” editor.

While some editors try to “Do No Harm,” other editors believe in “Kill Your Darlings.” In between these two is the magical realm of helping without hurting. I believe the magic comes from listening carefully to the author’s voice, and bringing that voice forward.

A good editor is like a good doctor. Good doctors listen and ask questions. Bad doctors make assumptions. I find the joy of editing comes when I can listen, support, and strengthen the story rather than change it to impose my will upon it. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books that needed a stronger editorial hand, and would likely have been diagnosed for amputation by a more vigorous editor. But “kill your darlings” is the wrong attitude. Both the editor that is too soft and the editor that is too aggressive are not listening to what the book is trying to say. If you respect the best intentions of a story, you will be true to the internal skeleton and make each piece function properly. Each line carries a message that needs careful placement to achieve balance.

I’m off now to do more editing. We’re busy polishing an exciting Issue Two with our graphic designer, and it’s going to be really really good. (And no, I’m not going to delete one of those adverbs. ‘Cause it’s really really good.)

Groundhog Day

shyAs a teen,  I lived in my journal.  My words were the real me, my true existence, and if I ventured out into other lands, they were usually books. Reality was either too boring or too overwhelming for my senses; either way, I preferred to escape into an interior world where I had more control and could lock up the intense experiences of real life, hoarding them in inner chambers as treasures or tortures.

Yesterday I heard three women describe their internal worlds which had trapped or redeemed them. Dhana Musil, Sylvia Stopforth, and Elaine Woo are contributing authors of Shy: an Anthology (Lewis and Altrows, editors; University of Alberta Press, 2013.) These women fit the stereotype of shy introverts, but as I listened to their stories, it was clear they were not shy on the inside. They wrote loud and clear, and revealed more of themselves on each page than most extroverts reveal in an overlong evening of partying.

Which leads me to ask special questions for Groundhog Day, that unique holiday when worldwide media focus on a notoriously shy and retiring animal (and technically an overgrown hibernating squirrel):  Do you think shy people are more sensitive? Did being shy contribute to your becoming a writer or reader? If you write, is your voice different in prose than in person?  We each have our own experience of being shy. What’s yours?

Barocci’s Hands: Artists, Writers and Elements

It’s a beautiful sketch. I’m certain that Barocci didn’t draw these hands for show, but only to be referenced as elements for his saleable paintings. Great artists have always collected and referenced elements for use in their own compositions. Constable had notebooks full of elements for landscapes,  and I learned this summer that Gordon Smith, now in his nineties, asks friends to bring him photos of natural elements—branches, beaches, cloud formations—for his paintings.

Most writers are readers, and we roam landscapes of prose, admiring other authors’ figurative language. But admiring isn’t active, the way sketching is. I wondered how exactly other writers go about collecting elements for their compositions. It occurred to me that in the same way that Barocci made records of emotive hands, many of us amass and write down streamlined adjectives, powerful verbs and efficient connectors.

The elements of figurative language include simile, metaphor, alliteration, imagery, onomatopoeia, personification, hyperbole, opposition, oxymoron, paradox, idiom, allusion. Colour words, tastes, textures, odours… What a lot of elements! It almost seems as if using so many would result in an elaborately over-written narrative. But, when I take a favourite thriller by a marvelously restrained writer down from the shelf and open it at random, I check the elements off on a list. What do I find? The author uses, not fancy words, but figurative language throughout. I make another checklist, and take down another bestseller, and again my list is thick with checkmarks.larger flight

Now, when I revise, I print out another copy of the list of the elements of figurative language. And as I read my own work, I check off similes, metaphors, alliteration, imagery… Excellent elements don’t necessarily make for excellent storytelling, any more than beautifully drawn hands guarantee that the final painting will be a masterpiece. But the resulting work would be less satisfying without them.

Here is one of Barocci’s finished paintings—and take a look at the way the figures’ hands direct the eye about the composition…