Getting to Know Characters

It would be easy to describe Edgar, the log salvage man, in a routine description, telling what he wore and how he talked, how he smelled, or how he behaved. But after a few sentences, would my readers still be with me, especially since Edgar was a secondary character? Why would a reader want to bother?

There are many ways to introduce characters and let the reader get to know them. Here is one method I used in my novel, The Wind Weeps. Edgar is important to the story, but he is a secondary character. Andrea, my main character, has a new job as a wharfinger’s assistant. She greets Edgar as he pulls in to dock at the wharf with his salvage boat and she goes to help him tie up.

Excerpt from “The Wind Weeps”

Edgar’s beat up log salvage boat, Prowler, sidled up to an empty dock space, the engine roaring and spewing blue smoke. Below the waterline, the exhaust sputtered and rumbled. A rainbow film of gasoline crept over the surface of the water. The floating wreck couldn’t have seen a coat of paint in years. Specks of white—all that was left of the original paint—stuck to dented, scarred aluminum. I assumed the jagged metal teeth attached to the bow like pieces of a huge, big-toothed saw, were for pushing logs. The open boat had a canopy over the bridge where the skipper and a deckhand might sit somewhat protected from the weather. But, exposed to the elements, the back was littered with coils of rope, peevee poles, power saws, axes, and piles of chains. Ugly, loud, and stinking of gas and oil, the Prowler’s arrival could not be ignored.

One of the older boat owners and a permanent resident of Lund, Edgar was probably in his seventies, but he hopped out onto the float with the spryness of a much younger man. He was shadowed by an invisible pong of oil and garbage. I wrinkled my nose and reached for the stern line to help him tie up.

“Hi, Edgar. I’m surprised to see you here. Don’t you usually tie up at the floats at Finn Bay?” I knew Bert wouldn’t be pleased to have him tie up here.

“Hey there, Andrea. Yah, that’s right. I won’t be long. Just have to run up to the general store to get some more tobacco. I run out in the middle of the job and it makes me right owly to be without it.”

“Course it does,” I said. He had the sallow, wrinkled skin of a seasoned smoker.

His grimy hand reached for the line I was about to tie. “Here, I’ll do that. These lines is kinda dirty and I don’t want ya gittin’ yer hands fulla grease ’n’ stuff.” I gladly gave the line over to him.

*****

Available at amazon. com and amazon.ca for Kindle and paperbacks.

For other e-readers, go to smashwords.com.

If you enjoy reading The Wind Weeps, please check out the sequel, Reckoning Tide.

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Sylvia

Baja Camping

On an extended dry camping holiday in Baja, I was catching a few rays of sunshine, when I met Sylvia. She visited me in my imagination and now lives in my novel Orion’s Gift. Here she is telling us about a letter that changed her life.

They say ignorance is bliss. I can vouch for that. My life was humming along just fine until I received that letter. Afterwards, nothing was the same.

I flipped the envelope front to back looking for clues to its content. When I saw the return address, my mouth felt dry. It was too soon. My hands trembled as I unlocked the front door. On my way to the bedroom to get changed after my morning run, I tore open the envelope.

As I read, I forgot to breathe. Dazed, I threw myself onto the unmade bed. Clutching the blankets, I hugged my knees and stared at the wall, my chest so tight I thought I’d pass out. I didn’t recognize the moaning wail as a sound that could have come from me. Gut-wrenching sobs followed. My mind raced with wild incredulous thoughts. It can’t be true. It has to be a mistake.

My throat ached from crying and my sinuses were so swollen I could hardly breathe. I had to stop blubbering. Feeling sorry for myself wouldn’t change anything. Useless waste of precious time. I had to pull myself together.

I stumbled into the kitchen for a glass of water. My eyes felt puffy and glued shut, but a glimpse of the clock forced them open.

“Oh, shit. I’m going to be late for work.” I hurried back to the bedroom and made the mistake of looking at the dresser mirror. “And I look like hell.” I threw off my sweats, and jumped into the shower.

Thank God Joel had already left for work. It wouldn’t do for him to see me like this, puffy-eyed from crying, and perspiring after my run. He had no sympathy for tears and he wasn’t one to appreciate the natural look—didn’t like his girls sweaty unless it was from a lengthy session in bed. His girls! Hah! Why the plural? I had my suspicions, but what could I do? I was lucky to have him. Lucky he stayed with me. Tall, handsome, getting richer by the minute at his real estate job; most women would consider him a good catch. But would he stay with me now if he knew?

I rushed to dry my hair and style it, threw the blow-dryer down, slapped moisturizing cream on my face, and brushed my teeth. Panic threatened to take over again. I’d always been on time. The boss frowned on employees arriving late. I didn’t know why I still cared. Did it really matter anymore? Did anything?

I stepped into a cool blue-green summer dress and sandals. Grabbing my keys I was off. No! I hurried back to make the bed. What would Joel think if he came home to that mess? Come to think of it, the kitchen needed a quick cleanup. I hadn’t had time for breakfast, but Joel’s dishes still littered the table. Quick! Into the dishwasher, wipe the crumbs off the island, fold up the newspaper, unplug the coffeemaker and give the carafe a rinse. Oh, hurry! I shouldn’t have taken that time to feel sorry for myself.

I loved Joel. I always knocked myself out to please him. Wish he’d do the same for me. I still didn’t know what he ever saw in me. Funny! That was exactly what he often said—“Don’t know what I ever saw in you.” And when he saw the hurt on my face, he’d add, “Must have been something really special, ’cause I’m still here.” Then I worked my butt off to make him see it was worth his while to keep me around. I kept the house sparkling clean, made gourmet meals, gave him whatever he wanted in bed. I made sure I pleased him.

My mother always said I was pretty—long legs, good skin, shiny ash-blond hair—but mothers always say that. Joel says he loves my flashy smile and the four freckles on my ski-jump nose. People say I turn heads. I guess I look good, but wish I was smarter. I did okay in school, but I didn’t take home any prizes or scholarships. Pretty? Smart? What did that matter now?

I had about ten minutes to get to Goodridge. The girls in the office called it Get-Rich. Problem was that only the lawyers got rich. Clerks like me never got more than puny little wages.

On the way out I saw the offending letter on the dining room table. I snatched it up and clutched it to my chest. That would have been a big mistake, leaving it there for Joel to see.

*****

Click the links to see the book.

Orion’s Gift at amazon.com

For e-readers other than Kindle, go to smashwords.com.

Orion’s Gift at smashwords.com

Natural Selection – My Review

It is my pleasure to host author Jacqui Murray on my blogs today. If you came here first, please also visit wordsfromanneli.wordpress.com for more about Jacqui’s latest fabulous novel, Natural Selection.

Book information:

 

Title and author: Natural Selection by Jacqui Murray

Series: Book 3 in the Dawn of Humanity series

Genre: Prehistoric fiction

Editor: Anneli Purchase

Available print or digital) at: http://a-fwd.com/asin=B0B9KPM5BW

 

My Review

Lucy lives in a world without any technology or modern conveniences. No stores to buy anything. No life-saving antibiotics or vaccinations. Nothing but nature in a world that is still forming, 1.8 million years ago. Imagine having to defend against wild animals, survive the harshest weather, and endure countless injuries, while you try to find the basic necessities of life: food, water, and shelter. Most of us would soon die in these natural circumstances, but Lucy and her small group of travelers work together to survive. They have one advantage over the animal species of their time. They can think and learn and plan.

Lucy’s kind of early man made tools of stone, and are referred to as Man-who-makes-tools, but another group of more advanced of her time has learned to use a spear and is more likely to kill and take slaves from Lucy’s more primitive group.  It is Lucy’s mission to save the members of her group who have been enslaved by the more advanced group.

She guides her group through natural disasters, threats from huge and dangerous animals, and the danger of being killed by other traveling uprights, Man-who-preys.

Each danger is an adventure of its own, and I marveled at the skills and bravery of Lucy’s group while they suffered the fiercest weather conditions and natural disasters without any clothing to help protect them.

Lucy’s kind heart accepts others who are in need. She brings into her group a large dog who would otherwise be considered a fierce enemy, but because she adopted him when he was in need, he is her loyal defender and friend. A Tree-man, reminiscent of our modern ape, also abandoned, adopts her group, as does a cat who will become very large when it grows up. These, and a handful of people like Lucy, including one young man who is nearly blind, and two more advanced uprights, travel together to try to rescue Lucy’s former group from the Man-who-preys group who are holding them captive.

Lucy faces onslaughts of volcanic eruptions, impassable rifts in the land, injuries from poisonous snakes and marauding animals, most of whom are larger and more powerful than she is. But Lucy’s spirit, her courage, and her knowledge of healing plants, keep the group going.

I admire Jacqui Murray, the author of Natural Selection, the third in the Dawn of Humanity series, not only for the huge amount of research she must have done to put this series together, but for weaving the information into the adventures and the group dynamics that are part of Lucy’s story, all in an entertaining and informative way.

I couldn’t put this book down. One threat led to another and I couldn’t help imagining what I would do if I were in Lucy’s situation. She had to be so tough, so brave, and so determined to finally find her former group members and attempt to rescue them.

I was sorry the book ended, and I hope Ms Murray is already working on another series like this one. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

About the Author:

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular prehistoric fiction saga, Man vs. Nature which explores seminal events in man’s evolution one trilogy at a time. She is also author of the Rowe-Delamagente thrillers and Building a Midshipman , the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. Her non-fiction writing includes over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, and reviews as an Amazon Vine Voice. She is a columnist for NEA Today, and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics.

 

Social Media contacts:

 

Amazon Author Page:        https://www.amazon.com/Jacqui-Murray/e/B002E78CQQ/

Blog:                                       https://worddreams.wordpress.com

Instagram:                             https://www.instagram.com/jacquimurraywriter/

Pinterest:                                http://pinterest.com/askatechteacher

Twitter:                                   http://twitter.com/worddreams

Website:                                 https://jacquimurray.net

 

Do You Know About Elmore Leonard?

It is just a couple of days after what would have been Elmore Leonard’s 97th birthday.  This American author was born Oct. 11, 1925 and died Aug. 20, 2013.

He was a prolific writer, but he was concerned more with quality than quantity. Somehow he managed to do both. He wrote many novels, screenplays, short stories, and many other types of publications.

Elmore Leonard at the Peabody Awards in 2011. Photo from Wikipedia.

Here are his Ten Rules for Good Writing, published in the New York Times.

  1. Never open a book with weather.

  2. Avoid prologues.

  3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said,”…he admonished gravely.

  5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.

  6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Elmore said, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Excerpted from the New York Times article, “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

The Clipping Gallery

Further to the recent post about jargon,  I want to suggest a solution for writers who suspect they have too much verbiage in their first draft, but don’t know what to do about it.

Maybe you’ve noticed it yourself as you read a section over, but more likely one of your critiquers noticed it, and pointed it out as unnecessarily long or boring, or both. You read the wordy section again and try to find all kinds of excuses for keeping it as it is. Maybe you even realize that it is a bit repetitious or unnecessarily dull, but you like the anecdote it relates (even if it is long and wordy). You simply don’t want to let it go.

Ask yourself:

Does keeping it move the story along?

Does it provide some essential information the reader needs to know?

Does it increase the reader’s empathy for a character?

Does it foreshadow a possible crisis?

Does it increase the tension by dropping a worrisome clue of something that may interfere with the hoped for solution?

If the paragraph does none of the above, ask yourself, “Do I really need this? Will the story suffer if I remove it?” If the section is not critical to the story, and others have mentioned that it drags the story down, perhaps you should consider making some changes.

I think I have a solution.

A friend in a critiquing group suggested that in a case like this it is good to make a folder on your computer where you can save this precious writing that you have such a hard time giving up. Call it “Clipping Gallery” (or some other name that you will quickly associate with this editing gimmick). Then copy and cut the wordy section out of your “work in progress”  (WIP). Paste this wordy section into a Word file and save it to your Clipping Gallery. You may want to have sub-folders if you have several works in progress.

Now that the questionable writing is saved in a file where you can always retrieve it and put it back into your WIP, you can relax. Your precious writing is not lost and you can change your mind any time and go back to the original version of your WIP.

I’ve agonized over losing all that perfect writing I did. Maybe I had some special turns of phrase that came out  exactly as I wanted, and I simply did not want to let go of them. So what if they were a bit wearisome to the reader?

But once I cut those wordy sections and put them in my clipping gallery, where I could retrieve them any time I wanted, I felt better. The hard work that some others found boring, but I was so attached to, would be safe and available to me any time I wanted it. And, surprise, surprise, the WIP worked just fine without the parts I had removed. I just had to be sure the transitioning was in place where I had removed sections.

Many times, I’ve put sections of my writing into the clipping gallery. Do you know how many times I’ve taken something out of the gallery and put it back into the WIP?

NEVER!

But it’s still there if I want it.

After a while, when I come to my senses, I realize I really don’t want or need the removed part anymore and I’m okay with it.

 

 

 

Dialect in Writing

 

Dialect 

If one or more of your characters have a dialect or accent that you feel is important to note in your novel, I would suggest that unless you are very familiar with those regional speech patterns or accents, use them sparsely so they  don’t distract from the story. The safer way to do it would be to choose a few instances of the dialect and use them in dialogue. Try as much as possible to have the rest of the writing in plain English.

Falling out of character by messing up the dialect is going to do damage to your credibility as a writer and to the credibility of the character.

I’d like to give you some examples of how I have used dialect of a character in my novels.

One of my secondary characters in The Wind Weeps is Monique, a French-Canadian girl. I wanted to show that she spoke with a French-Canadian accent, but I didn’t want the phonetic spelling of every word of her speech become a chore for the reader. My solution was to limit Monique’s dialect and accent to a few of the most obvious speech habits that were typical of French speakers of English.

Saying the soft sound of “th” (as in “they”) is often difficult for speakers of French origin,  so, for example, instead of saying “there,” Monique would say “dere.”  For the hard sound of “th,” she might say “somet’ing” instead of “something.”

In French the sound of “h” is not used, so in English, Monique would have a habit of dropping the sound of the letter “h.” I showed this by placing an apostrophe in its place.  If she were saying, “It’s time to have something to eat,” she would say, “It is time to ’ave somet’ing to eat.”

That reminds me of the last clue to Monique’s speech being different; she would not use contractions. Instead of “can’t,” she would say “cannot,”  or she would say “it is” instead of “it’s, and “I ’ave” instead of “I’ve.”

By using these three changes in the dialogue, the reader could instantly identify that it was Monique who was speaking.  Just to be sure, I gave Monique two more habits of her own. I added the odd case of her swearing by having her say, “Tabernac,” once in a while. I also had her use an expression that was all her own by having her conflate two common phrases she had heard used in English. When she wanted to say “For sure” or “Sure thing,” as she had heard others say, she ended up saying, “For sure t’ing.”  Whenever this came up in the book, we would always know it was Monique speaking.

If you’d like to check it out yourself, you can find The Wind Weeps and its sequel, Reckoning Tide, at all amazon   (click on amazon) outlets and at smashwords.com (Click on smashwords.com).

My books are all marked down to 99 cents US so you can load your e-reader with bargain reading.

You can find a review of The Wind Weeps, by clicking on this blog post by Diana Wallace Peach,

P.S. For those who follow both my blogs, I have copied this post for both this one time. I don’t intend to make that a habit.

 

 

Verbs Again

Many times we use sentences that have clauses with a second verb in them. It’s important to keep the sense of time accurate. I liken it to keeping the boat on an even keel. We don’t want to lose balance, rocking the boat, and potentially ending up in a shipwreck.

I’d like to show some verb tenses and examples of how they can be used.

present/present

She knows the parade passes by her house every year.

present/past

I hear that you fell and broke your leg. What I don’t understand is why you climbed that tree in the first place.

past/past

I rushed out to the street when tires crunched, and a voice called for help.

past/prior past

We saw that George had hurt himself in a riding accident two years ago. He ignored the trainer’s instructions.

In this case, we are using the past tense to say that we knew about George’s accident. Then we use the prior past (often with “had”) to show that the action happened even earlier. Once that prior past is established  we don’t always need to include “had” in the verbs for the reader to know that we are still talking about the prior past. It can be done to reinforce that past setting but isn’t always necessary. You don’t want to end up with too many “had had’s.”

Above all, don’t mix your verb tenses randomly or you will confuse the reader and frustrate them, sometimes causing them to close your book forever.

We don’t want that to happen.

Knowing Your Characters – Part Three

For readers to enjoy your book, it is most important that your characters and their behaviours are believable. I remember in my early efforts at writing, I created good characters who did everything right, and bad characters who did everything wrong. It was really hard for me to give my good characters any flaws, or to give the bad guy credit for doing anything right or having any redeeming qualities.

It took a lot of rewriting to shape believable characters for my first novel. But trust me, it gets easier. Think of any person you know and like a lot. Are they really perfect? Just because we easily forgive their shortcomings, doesn’t mean they are perfect and have no flaws. We just like to bury those flaws. Look hard and you will find a flaw that your character might have which the reader will forgive, but which also makes the character more human.

The same goes for someone we may not like. If we took the time to get to know them, we would have to admit that they’re not ALL bad. Give your antagonist some redeeming quality. You’ll be surprised how the reader will then care about what happens to him, or at least feel some empathy for his situation.

Using these flaws effectively can help enrich your novel and make it easier for your readers to believe what your characters do, and it enhances our emotional involvement with those characters. If we don’t care about the characters, why bother to read the book?

So we have to know our characters if we are to tell their story. We need to know their long-term goals and their short-term goals. We don’t want the reader to wonder, “Why would he do a thing like that?”

In building the background for the character’s motivation, we might work in some family background, some incidental things that help the reader understand why the character would react the way he does as the story develops. Short flashbacks can lay the groundwork for what has shaped the character’s emotional growth, his attitudes, and his ways of dealing with situations that will come up in your plot.

How else do readers learn about the characters?

  1. The author can simply tell about the character. This is probably the easiest way but not necessarily the most convincing.
  2. Have the character tell about himself.
  3. Have another character tell about him. (This way is more believable.)
  4. Show what the character is like by his actions.

All of these methods can be used, but the last one is probably the most effective and the most believable.

Body Language

If you take the time to find stronger verbs when the character is doing anything, you can often come up with something that more precisely describes how the character behaves. Does he stand or does he slouch? Does he limp? If so, why? Does he move erratically or are his movements smooth? Find the verb that accurately describes this.

For every action the character does, consider whether the verb you use is the best one to describe his particular way of doing things.

Emotions

You can show the character’s emotions using physical descriptions (sweat beading on his forehead, slumped shoulders, furrows in the forehead).

Another way is to show some action that tells how he might be feeling. Is he drumming is fingers, sighing heavily, flexing his jaw muscles, squinting or rolling his eyes, waggling his head, lifting his chin, biting his lower lip?

Dialogue

What a person says and how he says it can tell you a lot about how they are feeling and about what kind of person they are. This is a huge topic and I would like to deal with that in a separate post.

*****

Meanwhile, study the people around you and make a note of their flaws and their redeeming qualities. You’ll be surprised how useful these can be when you incorporate them in your writing.

Verb Tense and Other Issues

iStockphoto.com DenisTangneyJr

I followed her down the dark street, gradually closing distance between us. She glanced over her shoulder and her high heels tapped on the sidewalk faster. She’s getting nervous. I could tell from the way she leaned forward that she was hurrying to reach her car faster. It doesn’t matter. I was going to catch up to her in a few seconds and then she will be mine, all mine.

Hard to believe, but this jumble of verb tenses is similar to something I came across in a novel recently. I almost put it down in disgust, but I wanted to know what happened. Still, the poor writing took all the enjoyment out of reading this crime novel. The plot was good, but the delivery was not.

Most of the story was told in third person, past tense. The trouble started when the author switched to the killer’s POV and told us his thoughts in the first person. That, in itself is not so bad, but within these sections, when we see the story from the killer’s POV, the author slipped back and forth between the past and present tense in a way that did not work. It could have been done if we were  made to believe that the killer is thinking in the present, and telling us about a past event, but that was not the case here. The author simply slipped back and forth between tenses haphazardly.

It told me that the author had not mastered the art of writing yet, and that he had not run his manuscript by a critiquing group, and certainly not a copy-editor, any of whom would have enlightened him.  Even his greatest fan, Aunt Mary, would have noticed the errors in the changing of the tense.

When you write, why not have someone else read your first drafts and offer some suggestions? A critiquing group or even a writing buddy can be good for this. You don’t have to accept what these readers say, but it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion and ponder it. Of course I’m going to say, “If you’re serious about publishing, get yourself a good copy-editor,” because that is what I do, but really, having a clean manuscript before you publish is so important.

The book I’m reading now, which has so many problems with verb tense, is full of other small errors. Some are typos, and others are grammatical errors, but the verb tense problem was the icing on the cake.  Although the author has some serious writing issues to resolve, this work was salvageable, if only he had not published too soon. As it is now, this novel will never be remembered as a great book. It could have been a good one, if he had taken the time to have someone read it over and point out the errors, and if he had hired a copy-editor to catch those many small mistakes along the way.

Self-publishing should not mean that the writer does it all himself, without the help of a critiquing group or a copy-editor. Yes, you can upload your ms and be your own publisher, but as a publisher you also need to deal with things like getting a professional to do your book cover and one to check your manuscript for errors before you bare your soul before the world of readers.

Easily Overlooked

You’ve written your first draft and you’ve read it over, perhaps focusing on some particular aspects of writing (like using your pet words too much, or checking for “ly” words), and after rereading your manuscript until you think you could recite it from memory, you feel ready to publish.

Not so fast! First, let’s check for some common mistakes. In a novel I recently read, I was reminded of two kinds of errors that are easily overlooked.

One involves words left out, and the other, words left in.

Here are some examples.

Sometimes, as you re-read, you realize that you’ve used a character’s name too many times within a few sentences, or you might have used too many pronouns when you should have used a name once in a while. So you make some changes. Let’s say you’ve used the name too often, so you put in “her” instead of “Miss X,” but you don’t take out “Miss X” until you’ve had a chance to reread the whole section, checking for a good balance of names and pronouns.

You get into your self-editing and several pages later, you remember that you should read it all over. This is when the brain and the eyes start fighting. You’re already getting tired and as you read, your brain tells you, “I know what this is supposed to say. I wrote the thing. I know what it says.”

Your eyes tell your brain, “Yes, that’s what it says. I know because I’ve read it so many times already. It’s fine.”

But is it?

“Miss X” is mentioned several times in the chapter, but now, one of the sentences has “Miss X” AND “her” as well.

The road was rough and the driver reached over to check her Miss X’s seatbelt.

See how easily that slipped in there?

Very often, mistakes like this are added to the text with the purpose of fixing a problem, but it ends up causing a different one.

*****

Correcting sentences where words have been left out is even harder to do. Again, our brains tell us what we know the text to be, and the eyes go along with it in agreement. But as we read work over too quickly, we think that all the necessary words are in there. That is how many small words are left out (words like: to, at, in, an, it). A good way to catch these omissions is to read your work out loud.

A similar error occurs when we type “and” for “an” or “it” for “if” or “in,”

*****

A word of advice:

Don’t work at your self-editing for too long in one session. Take breaks. I have often noticed that when I find mistakes in the writing, they occur close together within a page or two. This tells me that the writer was probably getting tired at that point.

*****