Monthly Archives: February 2014

Writing Around the Details

Some details simply aren’t necessary. You don’t have to provide a detailed summary of injuries sustained to characters, don’t have to be or consult with a doctor for a prognosis. Those details can sometimes be more detrimental to a story than helpful to the reader.

A prime example of this is Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter By Design.

For those not familiar with Lindsay’s Dexter series: Dexter is a serial killer who kills serial killers. He mostly targets those guilty of crimes against children, primarily pedophiles who kill children. He is also a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Police Department. His foster sister, Deborah, also works for the Miami Police Department.

In Dexter By Design, Dexter and Deborah pay a visit to the home of a suspect. Deborah is stabbed in the process and hospitalized.

Not once throughout the ordeal does Lindsay go into detail about Deborah’s injuries. The only thing the reader knows is that “she lost a lot of blood.”

No medical jargon. No technical mumbo-jumbo. No lengthy explanations about where the knife penetrated, what organs (if any) that may have been affected and no platitudes about how lucky Deborah was.

Instead, Lindsay focuses on the real issue: the relationship between Deborah and Dexter.

Deborah recently discovered Dexter’s secret life and she was processing her feelings about the matter.

Dexter was processing how he felt about his sister. Feelings are something Dexter is always processing, whether he believes he has them or not.

There was already enough going on in the novel without it getting bogged down with medical details regarding Deborah’s injury. Going into those details would have been tedious instead of enlightening. Rather than have the reader stumble through the medical vernacular, Lindsay keeps the important stuff in the forefront while using Deborah’s injury as background drama.

Details about her injury simply aren’t necessary. It is enough to know that Deborah has sustained a potentially life-threatening injury and even more important is how Dexter reacts to it and feels about it. Details about the injury itself would have added insult (pun intended).

It is the foremost job of the writer to keep the story moving, keep the reader interested. Had Mr. Lindsay insisted upon including medical and technical details about Deborah’s injury, not one of those details would have been pertinent to the story. It would have just been information the reader had to slog through to get to the next interesting part.

This doesn’t mean you should forego any research that needs to be done. There are details that are imperative you know something about.

For instance, in the novel I am currently working on, I need to learn more about guns. This will require hands-on research: visiting a firing range, talking to people who are gun enthusiasts and probably handling and shooting a gun as well.

I’m not crazy about guns. But one of my characters is a superior markswoman (that’s right, I said woman). She’s gonna know her gun, know it well and know how to handle it. This is an important detail in the novel and the research must be done.

Guns scare me. I’ve never held one unless you count the childhood water gun. It is imperative that I overcome this, steel my nerves and do that research.

Weigh the importance of your details to your reader. Must they know that a conduit is not only a means of conveying water it also denotes a means of access? Do they really need to know the minute details of an injury or would it suffice they know it is life-threatening? Do they need to know the exact route to get to the buried treasure or is it more important what the characters endure to get there?

While the details can be interesting if they don’t move the story along or make a poignant point it may be best to write around them. Sometimes the how and the why of a thing isn’t as important as how the people affected deal with it.

It isn’t that details don’t matter, they do. As long as you expend the time and energy on the really important details.

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Writing Tip

Pens and paper.

Most writers know to keep pens and a small notebook handy to jot down the occasional idea, but not many realize how valuable these tools are.

Invented long before the computer age, these two items are much easier to carry around than a laptop, are much more lightweight, do not require electricity or a signal and the batteries never die. The pen may occasionally run out of ink, but that’s why you always carry extras.

I suggest using a steno pad or one of those small fat notebooks that fit easily into a purse, tote bag, briefcase or even your pocket.

Using a notepad and a pen is also safer than using an electronic device. I have witnessed people stealing those electronic devices right out of the hands of the users. No one will attempt to steal a notepad and a pen.

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Tapping Into Your Own Personal Dexter

As humans, we all have a dark side. Each of us is capable of experiencing anger, frustration and despair. As humans, we have (most of us anyway) learned to cope with this darker side and to not act upon our darker nature.

That darker side can come in handy for the writer.

I never thought I could be a fan of a serial killer. It goes against every moral fiber of my being. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the audiobooks of Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter series that I thought I would give them a try.

Dexter Morgan is actually a charming individual with his self-deprecating wit and his view of himself as a monster. Thanks to his foster father, Harry, Dexter found a way to satisfy his slaughterous tendencies by killing other serial killers, mainly those who commit murderous crimes against children.

Despite his claim that he has no conscience, Dexter has more of a conscious than most people I encounter on a daily basis. He is very much human, more so because he claims he is not than anything else. Even though, on occasion, Dexter allows his “Dark Passenger” to take control, his actions in between victims present him as just another ordinary guy. Sort of.

I wondered as I listened to those audiobooks (I’ve listened to several of them) how on earth Mr. Lindsay could create such a character?

That question lead to, how would I create such a character? Better still, how would I create a character who truly has no conscience?

It isn’t as easy as it seems to create a vile character who performs despicable acts. At least I don’t find it so easy. It’s a little frightening to imagine what I could do if I had no conscience.

As I pondered how I was going to create my character Desdemona in the Sword of Tilk Trilogy and make her someone people could really hate, some guy cut me off in traffic.

I am not prone to road rage though I understand the inclination. It’s difficult not to react when some idiot does something stupid in traffic that could result in fatalities. When it happened and after I finished letting loose a string of expletives that would do a sailor proud, a light bulb went off over my head. (This doesn’t happen often so when it does I tend to pay attention.)

All those emotions the incident conjured could be applied to an evil character.

Better yet, use that bottomless imagination of mine and what I would do if I could get away with it.

That is a big IF.

Remove the barriers of conscience, punishment and retribution and allow your imagination to take you where it will. Do keep in mind that these acts are not something you would actually do, even if you could get away with it.

Then project it onto your evil character(s).

The evil witch Desdemona must kill her own mother.

Harming a parent, a child or a pet are three of the most evil, vile and contemptible acts any human being can perform. I hope there is a special place in hell for those people who perform them.

In order to write the scene where Desdemona performs this act, I had to imagine a person I held beneath contempt.

Face it: there is someone in almost every person’s life that is held beneath contempt. It is virtually impossible to live in this world without feeling that way about somebody.

The guy in traffic isn’t one of them. Detesting someone that much requires personal involvement.

Be that as it may, I visualized Desdemona performing the murderous deed to this person.

Mr. Lindsay did an excellent job of portraying the Dexter Morgan character. But he actually made Dexter likeable.

A noble thing to be sure but if you want your characters to be evil – truly evil – then you have to put yourself in their shoes. Imaginatively, not literally, of course.

We each have a Dexter inside: That part of us which wishes to get even, get ahead no matter what it takes, or simply would like to see others who deserve it suffer. Deny it all you like, it’s there. It’s just a good thing the majority of us has a conscience to keep that dark side in check.

The dark side is not a place I wish to dwell. It wouldn’t be comfortable to live there round the clock.

But tapping into it when needed adds dimension to your characters.

 

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Establishing a Character’s Character

Characters must have character.

This may seem an obvious statement, but you’d be surprised how many writers fail to give their characters character.

You must ask yourself what characteristics do I want my characters to have? The answer to that is completely up to you.

Determine if your character is a good guy/girl or a bad guy/girl.

A good character may have some of the following characteristics: Integrity, Courage, Loyalty, Determination, Ambition, Compassion.

A bad character may have some of these: Greed, Hate, Anger, Deceit, Ruthlessness, Dishonesty.

Mind you, characters will more than likely not be this cookie-cutter. And these are just a few of the traits found in each category.  But if you’re trying to establish who the reader should root for, then each of your characters needs some of these traits.

Let’s begin with the good guy.

The last thing you want to do is state, “She or he was loyal, brave and true.” She or he may be all three but it’s a very boring way to let the reader know.

Instead, put the character into a situation that shows the reader how loyal, brave and true she or he is. Like in the paragraph below.

Donovan crept along the cobblestone path to the door of the castle, his hand ever ready on the hilt of his sword. Dawn was fast approaching. He had to get inside, kill the wizard Morgrith and flee before the wizard’s demons found him. He knew he could do this. He must do this. Otherwise, Morgrith would cast a spell rendering King Rodolfo powerless, incapable of running the kingdom. Even so, Donovan’s hand trembled upon the hilt. He knew not what he would encounter in the castle, only that he would deal with whatever lay before him.

We have established that our hero, Donovan, is afraid; his hand would not tremble upon the hilt of his sword if he weren’t afraid. His courage is evident in that he is willing to act in the face of his fear regardless of what he may encounter. His loyalty is to King Rodolfo and he will see his mission through.

Let’s tackle the flip side of the coin. It isn’t enough to state that someone is evil. Show the evil.

Morgrith stood at the window of his study following Donovan’s every move. The demons stood at the ready, awaiting Morgrith’s signal to begin their assault. There was a vat of hot boiling oil and talons and teeth sharpened to a fine point awaiting the beleaguered hero. Let him think one lowly knight could thwart this wizard’s plans to possess the kingdom. He would know otherwise soon enough.

Here we’ve established the evil in our wizard. He’s ready to kill one knight and it shows he will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

In order to develop a character’s character, it is vital to force the character into challenging situations. How the character deals with those situations will establish the character of the character, for better or for worse.

It gives the reader a glimpse into the life of the character, what makes the character who she or he is. It enhances the reading experience to know a character will face her or his demons and will be a stronger person for having defeated those demons. It enhances the reading experience even more to see how a character deals with her or his demons.

Because how a character in a story or a novel deals with those challenging situations may well inspire a reader with new ideas about how to deal with her or his own challenging situations.

 

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Giving Your Characters Blemishes

This doesn’t mean covering your character’s face with adulthood acne or warts. But it doesn’t mean all of your characters should have clear skin and picture-perfect white smiles either.

Giving a character a distinctive trait or traits, whether physical, mental or emotional, makes them more relatable for the reader.

Consider this character:

Daphne stood tall and erect, her slender body succinctly outlined by her flowing blue dress. She waited beneath the awning to avoid the rain. She sighed. Once again, she had forgotten her umbrella.

No matter, really. Sooner or later, some man or other, whether handsome or not, would come along and offer her his umbrella. Her smooth face and sapphire blue eyes guaranteed it.

And she would accept the offer, of course, knowing it gave the impression to the male that she was interested. When nothing could be further from the truth.

Consider this character:

Though short in stature, Colt was built solid: concrete wall solid. His tattered grimy flannel shirt stretched tautly across his chest. Faded denim jeans bulged from muscular legs, even though the jeans appeared to have been used for car waxing and worn afterwards without a good washing. His sandy brown hair was long and askew about his face. He wasn’t old but his face gave the impression he was old beyond his years. His hazel eyes suggested a tired wisdom he would sooner live without. A raspy sound issued from his hand brushing across the salt and pepper beard on his face. He was a handsome man, though none could tell past the grime. A shower, shave and a haircut would not improve his outlook but it would well improve the way others looked at him.

Even so, none of these features compared with the constant twitch of his right eye. One would think he was winking in a suggestive manner if one didn’t know any better.

What can you tell right away from the description of these characters?

Daphne may appear picture-perfect, but right away you know that Daphne is shallow and superficial. She’s confident her good looks will get her the things she needs as well as the things she wants. She obviously doesn’t hesitate to use them, particularly in regards to the opposite sex.

Daphne’s good looks become her blemishes. Sooner or later she is bound to learn that good looks don’t get her everything.

Colt, on the other hand, is fraught with obvious blemishes, from his slovenly appearance to his twitching eye. You get the impression that Colt has a story. His character is all the more interesting for his blemishes: why is he so slovenly when he obviously takes care of his body? He must take care of his body if he is so muscular. And why does his eye constantly twitch? What causes that?

Wonderful examples of imperfect (by society’s definition) characters can be found in the works of Dean Koontz.

In By the Light of the Moon, the character Shep O’Connor suffers from Asperger Syndrome. In One Door Away From Heaven, Mickey Bellsong is a recovering alcoholic who meets up with Leilani, a little girl with a brace on her leg and a deformed hand.

These three characters are instrumental to their respective stories.

Shep provides a little comic relief when he is a walking thesaurus. But he also paints the picture of frustration for his older brother Dylan who is his caregiver. When the two undergo serious psychological changes after being given a shot of a mysterious fluid by a stranger, the relationship between the brothers is taken to an entirely new level as is Shep’s character.

The relationship between Mickey and Leilani is fraught with humor when the two meet. But it is humor which hides each of the characters’ worst fears. Leilani fears her stepfather is going to kill her. Mickey fears herself more than anything else. Little do these two characters know, the humor also hides their courage and strengths as well. The shortcomings of all these characters is evident from minute one. It is a wonderful place to start as the reader experiences the growth of these characters and inevitably grows with them.

Picture-perfect characters are all fine and good. But characters with flaws are the characters readers will best relate to. An imperfect character makes for a stronger reader-character relationship.

Those flaws in the hero or protagonist make him or her human. It helps the reader realize that he or she can be the hero, too.

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The Muse Speakeath

The word muse can be used as either verb or noun.

As a verb, it means “to think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.”

As a noun: “the goddess or the power regarded as inspiring a poet, artist, thinker, or the like.”

Both definitions apply to writers and other people of creative thought processes. Creative people must spend a good deal of time thinking about the next step in her or his creative process.

We also call upon our individual creative goddesses from time to time.

My creative muse’s name is Natalie (that’s what she told me.) She is one of the most important people I know.

She virtually shouts at me when a new idea is presented to me as a possible creative avenue to pursue. But she also, very quietly, works on ideas teaming up with my subconscious to ensure those ideas are coherent and worthy when it comes time for me to consciously work on them.

They make a great team, Natalie and my subconscious. Often is the time that an idea will occur to me during my writing that I had not consciously considered. I credit Nat and Sub for holding on to that idea to present to me just when I needed it.

It is important to listen to the muse. She is very wise and knows what the creative person needs. She probably knows you better than you know yourself.

She will inspire you, sometimes taking you in directions you wouldn’t normally venture to follow.

She’ll never steer you wrong. But she’ll always steer you in the right direction.

At times, a writer gets “married” to a particular idea. A character must act a certain way or these particular events must happen thusly. Though still being creative, this line of thinking leaves little room for digression, expansion or exploration: it limits the imagination and demands that certain steps be taken without allowing new steps to be created.

Follow where the muse takes you. She may be trying to show you a different perspective, one which might make all the difference. She may be introducing you to a new character, one which you didn’t think of but one which might add more to the story than you realize.

She may be encouraging you to experiment. Try something different, something new. She may be prompting you to use a storyline that others think nominal but which you can make astounding.

The muse has faith in you even when you lack faith in yourself. She knows what you can do, what you are capable of, even though you may be unaware of your capabilities.

She is there to believe in you when no one else does.

When the muse speaketh: Listen.

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