Posted in writing

What I learned about character development from the X-Files

mulder and scullyLast week, my husband and I started watching the X-Files for the first time. Not the new remake, but the original series. Neither of us has ever seen it, though I’m old enough to remember when they first came out. I didn’t expect to like it–and I didn’t at first. But by the third episode came around, I was hooked.

The Characters

Character development isn’t something you see much in TV anymore–or even in a lot of books. Which is a shame, because it can contribute a lot to the plot and conflict. I’ve found that flat or cookie-cutter characters to be boring. They just don’t hold my attention.

The X-Files did more than develop characters. From the moment we meet Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, we aren’t just meeting cardboard cutouts. They stand on their own two feet, as real and complex as the writers could make them, with obvious weaknesses to balance out their strengths.

Dana Scully is logical, clear-headed, and intelligent, but she also has a tendency to be closed-minded. Fox Mulder is just as intelligent, but because he believes in the unbelievable, has a tendency to come across as being crazy. He’s also reckless, a workaholic, and so focused on his goals and beliefs as to wear blinders. It doesn’t take long before they both respect each other’s abilities, and later–if what I’ve heard about the series is correct–come to love each other. Mulder and Scully are as opposite as two people can be, but is it any wonder they come to love each other when they complete each other so well? No.

What I took from the series

We haven’t finished watching the series yet, so I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to add to this before it’s all said and done. What they writers did with Mulder and Scully is basically my new writing goal. To somehow create compelling characters that you fall in love with–if not on first sight, then second–with strengths that aren’t completely unbelievable or over the top, while weaving in obvious weaknesses without driving people away.

Sounds difficult? You have no idea. And I want to do it. If I could do that with my books, then I could create a story that readers will want to go back to time and again.

Posted in daily life, writing

My first meeting with the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW

Yesterday I attended the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW for the first time.

BeckyWade_Photo_1_26_16Yesterday was a day of firsts for me. First time to attend the Dallas/Fort Worth chapter of ACFW. First time to drive into Arlington by myself. First time to get lost in Arlington. But of course I was going to get lost in Arlington. This is me we’re talking about. I get lost in Wal-Mart, for cryinig out loud.

Oh, and yesterday was the first time to walk into Chick fil A and decide I don’t want to eat at Chick fil A. Too crowded. But that’s beside the point.

Yesterday I attended my first writers meeting since moving to moving to Waxahachi back in December. It felt good to be back among writers, and I’m looking forward to making some friends. They look like a great group of people, and, since they have a new speaker ever month, I’m bound to learn something from them.

I definitely got to learn something this go round. They had Becky Wade come by and tell us about Taming the Social Media Beast. She told us about her experience with social media, and gave us tips for how to get the most out of Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She made it sound easy, and I have to say, she almost convinced me join Twitter. Almost. She did, however, tell us about making your own pins for Pinterest, and that is something I want to learn. Eventually. After I dig up my notes from the black hole in my purse.

Which goes to show you that not only am I a little introverted and antisocial, I tend to put things off, too.

I don’t know if my social media skills will ever get me published. Honestly, I doubt it. My skills aren’t the best, and neither are my number of followers. Some days, I think I’m doing fine. Then I compare myself to other people and get depressed. It makes me want to hire someone to have them look at my stuff and tell me what I’m doing wrong.

Maybe some of Beck Wade’s tips will rub off on me.

I don’t know. If I ever do get published, it will be because of two things: one–the quality of my writing, and two–the goodness and grace of the Lord. Not the number of followers I have. But numbers can’t hurt.

Posted in writing

What Music I Listen to While Writing

listen-to-mozart-while-workingEvery writer likes to write in a different environment. Some like to write in a busy cafe, surrounded by the smells of coffee and the sounds of people. Others have to write in complete quietness. Others put on music or the TV.

While there is absolutely no way I would ever be able to write with the TV going–I only end up watching it–I like to write to music. Three or four laptops ago, I had all my favorite CDs on my computer, and I’d listen to music for hours while I typed. Nowadays, I just put on Pandora.

For example, right now I’m listening Riverdance. I find that the uptempo fiddling music helps stimulate my brain cells so that my fingers fairly dance to the music. They stimulate my feet, too. It’s a good thing I like to write alone, because no one needs to see me dance.

When I’m not listening to Riverdance or other fiddle music, I’ll listen to movie soundtracks. Other times, especially if I need to especially concentrate on what I’m writing, I’ll put on classical music. Classical pieces composed by people like Mozart and Beethoven work especially well for background noise.

I do not like listening to music where people sing. This weeds out most everything you’d hear on the radio–pop, metal, rock and roll, blues, country. I find the human voice to be too distracting. I find myself paying too much attention to the words, trying to figure out what they’re saying.

Now, I can make exceptions to songs I’ve heard so many times I have their words memorized, or perhaps opera, where the words are sung in another language and I have no chance of understanding what they say. Thankfully, Pandora only plays things I like to listen to, so if I don’t like it I don’t have to listen to it.

Posted in writing

Lessons about writing I learned from reading

Why Should Writers Read?

lost-in-a-book-2Aspiring writers receive many pieces of advice. One is if writers want to improve their writing, then they need to read as much as possible. There’s a reason for this.

An observant reader will pick out mistakes from what they read. They will notice what makes their favorite stories work. Readers will develop likes and dislikes, and if those readers also happen to be writers, they will incorporate the lessons they learned from reading into their stories.

I’m not the most observant of readers. I have the tendency to read primarily for pleasure. Learning from what I read was a bonus. However, even I have learned a thing or two from the things I’ve read. Let me explain.

Complex characters are more interesting than flat or cookie-cutter ones

I love well-developed characters. I love reading a book and seeing how characters grow and become these awesome heroes that just decimate their enemies. Or whatever it is they’re fighting. I love it when characters change and overcome. Characters who get put through the wringer work their butts off for what they want–they deserve their reward.

Flat or cookie-cutter characters annoy me to no end. I look at them and I’m disappointed in the writer. Couldn’t that author have worked a little bit harder and given their character more depth? A history? And why do writers re-use their characters? It’s like they pick up John Doe from Book X, dye his hair and give him contacts, and then place him in Book Y. Same character and almost the same book.

Flat or cookie-cutter characters don’t change. They don’t grow. If they do, it’s because they’ve been reused and are growing in the same way. Ug. Give us readers a little bit of variety, people.

A well written character does more than just act the part. They drive the book, map out their own plots, and send conflict skyrocketing. You’re plot doesn’t make the characters–you’re characters make the plot.

If your character must be cookie-cutter or personify some stereotype, make sure you do the best job you can. And dent the cookie-cutter while you’re at it. Make this character your own. Every author is different. Make your books different, too.

That’s why I never hesitate to torture my characters. I enjoy it too, and rarely feel sorry for what I’m doing to them. In then end, I know I’ll have a better story.

If the scene doesn’t contribute, get rid of it.

I can’t tell you how many times I read a scene and think, “why is this here?” Romance novels can be bad about this–which is sad, because I love reading romances. All those sex scenes–are they really necessary? At what point to they become redundant?

I’m not a romance writer, so I can’t answer those questions. However, as a writer, I can tell you that superfluous scenes get added or left in for a variety of reasons. Maybe the writer needs to pad their word count, make the story longer. Maybe the writer honestly thought the scene necessary to the story.

It’s always easier to add to a story than to take away. Make sure whatever scenes you include in your story drive it someway. If it doesn’t do anything, do your own editing and get rid of it. This way, when the editor comes along with his or her evil red pen, they’ll have less to get rid of than before.

Avoid info-dumping at all costs

Info-dumping: the process of dumping as much information onto a page as possible.

You’ve probably run into this yourself. You’re reading a book–maybe a scifi or fantasy novel–and you’re character comes to a new place. Suddenly, you’re reading not just what the place looks like, but who built it, what he looked like and what he had for breakfast for thirty years. Info dump.

Information dumping can be boring and unnecessary. Granted, some info-dumping can be necessary for world building. Science fiction and fantasy novels typically have a lot of world building to do, and if they want their readers to understand the environment, details are necessary.

The thing is, there is a difference between info-dumping and telling readers what they need to know to understand the scene.

When world building, most of the details of that world will never make it into the book. I’ve got a file of world-building notes from my last book that is almost as big as the book itself. As an author, I will need every single one of those notes. My readers do not.

When you write your story, do not dump all the pertinent information all at once. Tell what the readers need to know and no more. Do they need to know what the temple looks like? Fine, but don’t give them so much that the information stretches on for three pages. That much detail isn’t necessary. Is it necessary for them to know why the temple is there, or about the battle that was fought at that location a hundred years ago? Fine, but put it someplace else, later on in the story–maybe during a conversation.


What did you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.

 

 

Posted in book critique, writing

Critique of Seanan McGuire’s books

seanan mcguireI have a confession to make. These past two weeks, I’ve been a very poor writer. And it’s all Seanan McGuire‘s fault.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. McGuire is a great writer, but that’s the problem. Thanks to her October Daye novels, I haven’t gotten any work done. I haven’t done any writing and I’ve barely done any packing. I’ve done nothing except read–read, read, read, as fast as I can, followed by flying trips to the library for more of her books.

Considering I’m moving in a week, that’s a problem.

No, what’s more of a problem is the fact that the library doesn’t have the latest two October Daye novels. Once I finish reading Chimes at Midnight (sometime later this afternoon), I’m going to be out of books. Wah!

I’m seriously thinking about ordering the entire series as an early Christmas gift to myself, but there’s the move to consider. Really, how responsible would it be to buy books while I’m in the middle of moving? What if they get lost in the mail? Besides, I don’t have anywhere to put them. Although, that’s never stopped me before . . . .

Posted in book critique, writing

A critique for Kage Baker’s fantasy novels

 This week I read . . . .

kage bakerEveryone, meet Kage Baker.  Kage Baker died in 2010, but before she died, she wrote several sci-fi and fantasy novels. Her fantasy novels include The Anvil of the World, The House of the Stage, and The Bird of the River. These three novels all take place in the same colorful world. I’m sad Mrs. Baker didn’t have a chance to write more novels in this world. Her world has so much potential for more stories. I enjoyed her pacing, the plots, and the bits of humor she sneaks in every now and then. If her fantasy novels read this well, then perhaps I’ll consider her sci-fi books as well.

Posted in writing

What I Learned from the 2015 ACFW Conference in Dallas

What I learned at the 2015 ACFW Conference in Dallas

penEvery year, ACFW holds a national writers conference. This year it was held in Dallas. Many writers go to connect to other writers, talk to agents and editors, or to participate in one of the many continuing education courses. This conference is usually fairly expensive, but the excellent quality makes the expenses worth it.

I decided to attend the conference for the first time and so two weeks ago, I hopped in the car and went to the conference. Since this was my first national conference with the ACFW, I decided to keep it simple. I didn’t sign up to talk to any editors or agents. Instead, I attended one of the continuing education courses.

Kristen-HeitzmannKristen Heitzmann taught a class titled Keys to Compelling Stories. The class was targeted toward beginning writers, though advanced writers would find her class useful as well. Kristen walked through what elements made for a compelling story and how to implement them in your novel. It was a very basic course, full of fundamental information any writer ought to know.

Elements to a compelling story included:

the first line/paragraph/page

characters

motivation

dialogue

plot/conflict

point of view

I’m not going to rehash everything she taught, but I will list what tidbits of wisdom I came home with.

The Beginning

The beginning of your story is crucial. This is your opportunity to catch your readers attention. Fail to do that, and they’ll put your book down. A compelling story is not satisfied wit mediocrity. It cannot be skimmed.

Make sure your readers have a strong reaction to your story–a strong good reaction to it. You don’t want to chase away your readers right off the bat. A strong 1st line forms a story around itself. The 1st paragraph bonds readers with the protagonist, and the 1st page promises more to come. Why should your readers care to continue? Tell them.

Characters

Readers need to relate to your characters on some level. Characters usually have 3 human elements to them.

  1. Physical–what do they look like?
  2. Emotional–their emotions need to engage the readers’ emotions
  3. Spiritual–what do they believe? Atheist? Their relationship with God can create depth.

Something else to keep in mind is that characters have both inborn traits and variable traits, just like we do. Their inborn traits are the things they were born with–hair color, height, etc. These things are fixed and can’t be changed. Their variable traits are the things that are the product of experience. Do they have a fear of heights because they fell out of a tree as a child? That’s a variable experience.

However, don’t give characters a trait just for the heck of it. Traits have to function–characters don’t have them just for the heck of it. Meaning, reveal these traits during the plot of your story. If your character has a fear of heights, then put them at the top of a skyscraper. Otherwise, get rid of it.

Motivation

Your characters need a reason for doing what they do. As the story progresses, your characters can grow and change based on what happens in the story. By the time the story ends, one of 4 things usually happens to them.

  1. Your characters don’t change. They end up with the same personality and same motivation.
  2. Your characters do change. They may have the same personality, but their motivation has changed.
  3. Your characters end up with a totally different personality and but have the same motivation.
  4. Your characters have a different personality and motivation.

Dialogue

Dialogue is obvious. It’s what your characters say, right? Well, yes. However, dialogue done wrong can drag your story. So avoid dialogue that repeats itself, and is stiff or stilted. Also, try not to over-use your tags. Even simple tags like “said,” or “asked” can get boring if used too often. That doesn’t mean you want to vary your dialogue tags by using “he stalked,” or “he yelled,” or something different every time you say something. This just means you use only the tags you need to use. Keep it sparse and appropriate.

Make sure you use period-appropriate dialogue for historical stories. Know your history and use the correct terms. If your character weaves tapestries, make sure you know all the names for everything involved with making tapestries. Using incorrect words and terms can irritate readers if they happen to know the subject better than you. 

This also means that your characters can speak differently from each other. Age, education, personality, attitude and region can all impact the things your characters say. But try not to go overboard with dialect. If your readers have to try to figure out what your characters are saying because you phonetically spelled out their accent–that’s bad.

Plot and Conflict

Plot is what your character wants and everything that stands in their way.

Conflict is the angst, danger and emotions of the resistance. Conflict drives the plot forward.

It’s important not to lose momentum. If your readers get board, they could put down your book. That’s bad–we want them to be glued to the pages. This means you need to constantly build tension. Some ways for doing this include:

  • strong verbs
  • effectively interwoven backstory
  • make the readers want something to happen/want something to stop happen
  • switch point of view to a different character
  • put the characters in a time crunch or have them misunderstand each other

Your character’s motivation plays a part in the plot. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? What will they do if they are put in a situation out of their control?

Make sure to keep the stakes high. No matter what happens, it can always get worse. Your characters constantly will face death of some kind–physical death, death of self/beliefs/way of life.

Point of View

There are general three different points of view used to tell stories.

  1. Omniscient
  2. First Person
  3. Third Person

Not many people write in omniscient point of view nowadays. It’s kind of fallen out of popularity. Omniscient point of view is when the narrator pretends to be God. The narrator knows what everyone is thinking at any moment and how they feel. This narrator head hops, and this is generally thought to be bad. The problem with head hopping is it can easily confuse readers. Wait, weren’t we in someone else’s head just a while ago? Writing from an omniscient point of view can be done well, but it takes practice.

First person point of view takes place in the head of a single person. Everything is written using “I did this or that.” We see through his eyes and we only know what he knows. We have only one narrator, and that is, “I.”

The biggest difference between first and third person point of view are the pronouns. “He or she did this or that.” We still only see through one person’s eyes at a time and we still only know what they know. Think of it like a camera. Third person is a second skin the readers put on, and the story carries them along for the ride. Readers get to climb into the character and experience the world through their eyes.

With third person, writers need to be careful not to head hop. Try using only one point of view per scene, and only use the character that tells the scene the best.


 

Did these tips help? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Posted in book critique, writing

My new favorite author this week: Catherine Asaro

catherine asaroThis week, I went to the local library and found a new favorite author.

Her name is Catherine Asaro, and she’s written multiple sci-fi and fantasy books. I have just finished reading her Lost Continent series, and I have to say, I’m sorry to see them go. She created a fabulous, wonderful story world for her characters to play around in. Her books kept me up all night because I had to know what happened next. The romance portions of the stories were clean and some of the best I’ve read in a while.

If I had my way, I’d do nothing but read them all day. Alas, someone has to clean the house. Unfortunately.

Posted in daily life, writing

My Weekend in Dallas

penI looked forward to this past weekend for literally months. Not just because I planned to go to my first ACFW conference, but because we planned to go house hunting as well.

Like many young people, my husband and I wait for the day when we can move our of our apartment into a house. We are tired of paying rent and living with sub-par furniture, since moving is hard on furniture and we’d rather tear up cheep furniture then our good stuff destined for our dream home.

With all that in mind, we saved money and chose our dates with care. The conference was a fixed date. If we wanted to go house hunting at that time, then things needed to be ready. That meant we needed to be pre-financed.

We knew what we wanted, but could we afford it?

Long story short–we still don’t know.

My husband works for himself as a software engineer. He’s only had the company for about a year. Unbeknownst to us, the banks prefer to have two years of tax information before they’ll give you a loan. However, we have excellent credit and a down-payment already saved up. Would the banks make an exception? We hired a finance guy to look into this for us, and he’s still looking.

So when we went house hunting in Dallas, it was without a realtor.

2015 ACFW Conference

Since we planned to go house hunting, I decided that my time at the conference needed to be as stress free as possible. That meant no appointments, no gala, and no parties. I didn’t want to talk to any agents, editors or mentors (as useful as it would have been). I would go for to learn, and that was it. Classes were held on Friday, which meant I needed to register to attend for only one day. I also bought a jump drive with all of the classes on it, so when it comes it I’ll have more things to learn. Even with all that, I spent less money on the conference than most other people would on registration. I also finished my story, created my one-sheet, and prepared in every other way I could for the conference. However, since we didn’t go house hunting, most of the other stress factors were non-existent.

I learned a lot of things at the conference, but looking back, it wasn’t nearly as stressful as it could have been. If I could do it again, I think I would get an appointment with an agent. Maybe mentor as well. I was much better prepared than I thought I was for this conference. I should have done more.

However, I came away with a lot of information, and I enjoyed my weekend. It was not a waste, but rather an exercise in patience and a lesson to trust in God. He has a plan–I just have to wait for Him to tell me what it is.

 

Posted in book critique, writing

A Critique of Neal Asher’s Dark Intelligence

Every since I finished writing my story, I have a little bit more time to read. Recently, I read Neal Asher’s book Dark IntelligenceIt’s the first science fiction book that I’ve read in a while, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

One of the thing’s I liked best about this book is Asher’s use of language and tone. For a story taking place light years away and centuries in the future, readers are not overwhelmed with fancy language, info dumps, or haughty tones. When I read it, I immediately could tell that the main character was just another guy. Simple, direct, and easy to comprehend. Only later do readers really understand how smart he is.

Another thing I found intriguing were the AI’s. In this story, science and society has progressed to the point where most people don’t worship God–they worship computers. The AIs in this world are more than just computers–they are gods ruling over men. They are all knowing and frighteningly powerful. But what happens when computers get too smart and too powerful? That’s only one of the themes Neal Asher plays with.

Neal Asher also has an interesting interpretation of reincarnation. In this world, death and the afterlife are no longer out of people’s control. Everyone’s memories and identities are recorded on computer chips, which can then be put into clones upon a person’s death. If you die, you don’t have to stay dead. If you don’t want to be reincarnated, your memories get downloaded into a Soul Bank. There, you live on in virtual realities of your own choice and design.

While this story is very well written and kept me wanting to read more. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. The notions of computers being this powerful and smart, or of people having so much control over the human body that they can defy and control death so utterly bothers me. If you have problems with this, or with depraved societies from the far future doing whatever they want with seemingly no consequence–then maybe this book isn’t for you.

Of course, you can’t do anything you want without consequences, nor are you ever truly in complete control. Many of the characters find this out the hard way, and that is also what this story is about.

This book is only the first in a series. If I happen to see other Neal Asher books in the library, I’ll definitely pick them up and check them out.