Listening to Your Characters


“I hear voices in my head, and if I remember correctly, I always did.” — Stephen King

By P.J. Parrish

So I’ve got my protagonist Clay Buchanan at a critical point in the story. He’s just done something awful, faced his “mirror moment” as James Bell calls it. And now he’s sitting in a dive bar, two sheets to the wind, thinking about what has brought him to this crisis.

My fingers are poised over the keys, waiting…

Waiting for him to tell me what is on his mind.

((((Silence))))

Clay? You there, buddy?

(((Cickets)))

Dude, I really need you to talk to me.

(((Goin’ dark)))

Oh man, is there anything worse than characters who won’t talk to you? It doesn’t often happen to me but when it does, it brings my writing momentum to a screeching halt. It is something I can’t just “write through” and hope I can go back and fix it later. Because when a character refuses to reveal himself to me, refuses to let me inside to hear his thoughts, I lose the heartbeat of my story.

Most writers, I think, hear voices in their heads. Yes, we visualize our stories, seeing the action unreeling in our heads like movies. But we also hear the speech and thoughts of our characters, as if we are mere conduits for voices that seem to have lives of their own. Writing is, after all, just “a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia,” according to E.L. Doctorow.

Hearing voices is on my mind of late not just because of my recalcitrant character Clay. But also because I read about a fascinating project called Hearing The Voice. As part of medical project on auditory hallucinations at Durham University in the UK, researchers are surveying novelists about how they experience their character’s voices. They’ve gathered info from more than 100 authors, including Hilary Mantel, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens.

And here you thought you were the only “loony” one.

The questions are intriguing: What does inner voice actually “sound” like? What is like to hear your characters or subjects out loud? What do writers do when they can no longer “tune in” to their inner voice? (Hello? Anyone want to interview me?)

Here are some interesting findings:

  • Writers tend to “experience their primary and secondary characters differently.  They have a sense of “inhabiting the interior life” of their protagonist and of looking out at the world through their eyes. But they report that secondary characters tend to be experienced visually.
  • Many writers are unable to “see” the faces of their protagonists. The main character often registers as a blank – or, in one case, pixelated like a censored photograph.
  • Writers’ engagement with their inner voice, and the role it plays within the literary-creative process, changes radically over the course of their careers. Early on, they report little separation between their own thoughs and those of characters. Over time, however, writers report that the inner voice becomes more complex, taking on echoes of other voices harvested from life and literature.
Now all this is fun for academic types, but what can we mere writers glean from it that’s useful as we face the task of creating full-blooded, idiosyncratic and memorable characters? Let’s break it down.
First, I am not talking about “the writer’s voice.” That is your style, the quality that makes your writing unique to you. It conveys your attitude, personality, and way of looking at the world. I’m talking about your character’s voice. This is the speech and thought patterns of your narrator and others who orbit around him or her. Each character you bring alive on the page must have her own distinct voice. It is one of most vital – and maybe difficult – elements of great fiction. No two characters should sound alike.
You make your characters’s voices come alive on the page two ways: through dialogue and through thoughts (sometimes called interior monologue). No two people talk (to others or themselves) the same way. Every person has his own distinct vocabulary, rhythm, dialects and tone. Other things that make voice unique: age, geography, intellect, education level, and — yes, I’m going there — gender.
A teenage girl living in the farm town of Morning Sun, Iowa, is not going to sound the same as a elderly Creole dockworker from New Orleans. A British solider in World War I is not going to sound the same as an American Vietnam vet.  If they do, well, you the writer are not listening.
I’m reading a terrific book by Thomas Cook called Sandrine’s Case. (It was an Edgar best novel nominee last year but Cook’s stuff is always good. His characters live on after you close the book). Here’s one dialogue snippet:

“Worked up?” I offered a vaguely contemptuous snort. “I feel like Meursault in The Stranger.

“Be sure you mention that to the press, or better yet, the jury. I’m sure they’re all great fans of postwar existential French literature.”

Which one is the supercilious college professor and which is the lawyer whose wife sends him to work with tuna sandwiches in bags? And here’s another:

“My grandfather would have shot you with one of the dueling pistols I still have,” he said. “But I fear I lack the courage required to defend my honor.”

This is another professor but in the legato rhythm, ripe vocabulary, and fey tone, Cook has conveyed volumes about this man’s background (genteel Southern) and personality (timid cuckold).

Here’s another example, this time from one of my favorite movie scripts:

Crash Davis: After 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out. Besides, uh, I don’t believe in quantum physics when it comes to matters of the heart.

Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?

Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, sex hd xxx soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. [pauses then winks and walks away]

Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash…

Nuke LaLoosh: Hey, Annie, what’s all this molecule stuff?

In this exchange, we find out all we need to know about the intellectual level of these two baseball players.

Maybe we should also take a quick look at the mechanics of how we convey character’s voices. Dialogue mechanics are pretty straightforward. But I find some inexperienced writers have trouble with interior monologues. Maybe it’s because dialogue is SHOWING, but to convey a character’s thoughts, you must move into narrative mode, which technically is TELLING. And many writers believe that will slow things down too much. I disagree. A good interior monologue  gives the reader a window into a character’s soul. Yes, you can convey what a character is thinking or feeling through speech, facial expressions and movement. But sometimes readers also need to “hear” what is in their heads and hearts. It cements the emotional bond.

Interior monologues can be short or long. Short ones are one- or two-sentence thoughts inserted into an action scene or dialogue. Long interior monologues can go on for paragraphs or pages and because they slow the pace, you have to be careful where you put them.

Another mechanical consideration: Do you use “I thought” or “he thought” or do you simply signpost a thought with italics? I like to use both. Here’s a sample from my WIP, the thoughts of my stubborn character Clay:

YOLO. It was a dumb name for a restaurant, he thought. But then when he glanced at the matches he had snagged from the hostess he saw that it stood for You Only Live Once.

He ordered a Martin Mills bourbon. Hundred bucks a shot, but he wasn’t paying. He took a sip, closing his eyes in pleasure at the caramel taste.

Carpe diem, baby.

I used both techniques in the same interior monologue. Why? Clay’s thoughts about the restaurant are illuminating but sort of mundane, so I think “he thought” is sufficient. But by setting the “carpe diem, baby” off in itals, I am trying to say something unique about Clay’s rather louche personality. It’s a grace note, a kicker, an extra beat. If you use this, I recommend you set it off on its own line. And use it only for special moments or emotion, humor or info. By all means, write:

Oh God, what have I done? 

But never:

 I think I’ll have egg salad for lunch.

Some moments call for you the writer to directly “speak” what is on the character’s mind. I call this intimate interior narrator. You don’t use itals or attribution but when well rendered, the reader feels a psychic connection with the character. 

Alex stared at the back of Buchanan’s head, a spasm of disgust moving through him, like that time that rapist had reached through the bars of the Tallahassee jail and grabbed his arm, grinning and saying he had never touched that little girl. Alex had gotten the man off. Two months later, he quit his public defender job and signed on with a small Orlando firm specializing in corporate law. It wasn’t only for the money. He just wanted to feel clean.   

Even though this is me, the writer, in narrative mode, I am deep within my character’s psyche as he has a key memory, hence the slightly run-on stream-of-consciousness rhythm. If I were in an action scene, however, the rhythm would be staccato and tense.

And speaking of my characters, Clay decided about a half-hour ago that he was going to start talking to me again. Originally, I  had thought his mirror-moment had left him depressed. Then I thought it had left him angry. Well, I realized it was neither. I was confused about his motivation and well, I wasn’t really listening to him.

Now I can’t shut him up. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to chapter 22 before he decides to clam up again.

 Carpe diem, baby.

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How to make it to the Big Show

“Do you know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? That’s 25 hits…25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points…okay? There’s 6 months in a season. That’s about 25 weeks, that means if you get just one extra flair a week, just one. A gork, you get a ground ball, you get a ground ball with eyes! You get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week and you’re in Yankee Stadium.” 

— Crash Davis in “Bull Durham.”

By P.J. Parrish
I love Crash Davis. And I really love his great speech about that razor-thin line between the major and minor leagues. I was thinking about this speech the other day as I read our royalty statement from Amazon. 
Because for two weeks, we made it to the Big Show. We made it to number one on a Kindle bestseller list. We had 47,000 downloads in 48 hours. We made some really good scratch.
We did it with one book. One book that is 12 years old. A book that is now out of print. A gork, a flair, a ground ball with eyes.

So this is the story of our great Kindle experiment. It’s only one writer’s limited experience. But it has totally reshaped my thinking about my career and my place as a business person within it. Maybe you’ll find it instructive. Or maybe it will inspire you to try something different than what you are now doing. Because I believe that in this fast-shifting landscape, we writers — nay, storytellers — are the only things that can’t be replaced. In fact, this new publishing machine is going to have to be rebuilt around us.  We aren’t cogs anymore; we’re the engines.

A quick caveat: Five years ago, I was one of those folks who preached the gospel of Never Self Publish. It was the road to oblivion, the realm of the desperate. There was a special ring of hell reserved for writers who didn’t want to work hard or pay their dues. And five year ago, self-publishing WAS all that.

But ebooks have changed everything. Now major authors are buying back their ebook rights; mid-listers are finding new life for their abandoned backlist titles; newbies like Colleen Hoover are breaking into bestsellerdom; and everyone is reading the small print in their old contracts.

Five years ago, you were a fool if you self-published. Now, you’re a fool if you don’t.

Another caveat: I was really apprehensive about doing this. I had to be talked into it by two writer friends.(Take a bow Christine Kling and Sharon Potts.). I didn’t think it would work. Boy, was I wrong.

Here’s the background: Kelly and I have published twelve books with two traditional New York publishers.  Only our first two-book contract from 2001 has no mention of “electronic rights” so we decided to self-pub.

We chose our second book, “Dead of Winter” because it is far superior to our freshman effort. First rule of ebook self-publishing: DO NOT PUT OUT A “LESS-THAN” BOOK.

We decided to enroll it in Kindle Select. This means you can’t load it into any other reader formats like Nook and Kobo. Why did we do this? Because Kindle Select lets you give the book away if you want (More on that later) and the book is placed in the Kindle library, which means readers can borrow it instead of buying it. (More on that too)

Also, Kindle’s formatting is pretty easy to learn. Many authors pay others to do this but Kelly is tech-savvy and we mastered the learning curve quickly. Nook’s formatting program is a bitch. (More on that later).

Kelly designed our cover (below). You can’t legally use the original one your publisher created.

Then we wrote our “description.” This is like the back copy on your book and potential readers can click on it to find out what the book is about. It’s important that this be enticing; authors often go back and tweak this endlessly to get it right. Here is what we wrote:

Available for the first time in eBook! Read the thriller that launched the award-winning New York Times bestselling Louis Kincaid series.

In the quaint tourist town of Loon Lake, Mich., a killer is taking his vengeance. One by one, the bodies of cops are found, brutally executed, with mysteriously coded death cards placed with each corpse – the gruesome signature of a psychopath. And the only sound louder than doors being locked against evil is the sound of hearts beating in terrors. Louis Kincaid came north looking for refuge, a place to forget his past. But now he’s landed in the middle of an investigation that’s a terrifying journey through a town’s fiercely protected heart of darkness.

2001 Edgar Award Finalist
Praise for DEAD OF WINTER and PJ PARRISH
“Stylish blend of mystery, knife-edge tension and a complex hero readers care about.” – USAToday
“Tense, thrilling, and your manicurist’s best friend – you’re going to bite your nails.” – Lee Child
“Full of intrigue and edge-of-the-seat suspense.” – Michael Connelly
“The author’s ability to raise goose bumps puts her in the top rank of thriller writers.” – Publishers Weekly starred review

We priced it at $2.99, loaded it up, sat back and waited for the hordes to line up at our virtual door.

After 51 days, we had sold 128 copies. I’ll do the math for you: Even at Amazon’s 70% royalty rate, that means we made $267.90. Which means I made $133.95. (Remember, there’s two of us.)

Big whoop, huh?

We decided we didn’t like the way the cover looked in the Amazon store. It looked muddy and had no pop. (I wrote a KILL ZONE blog about bad ebook covers Jan 15; you can find it in KZ archives) We downloaded a new cover.

On day 52, we pulled the trigger on Amazon’s giveaway option. We gave our book away free for three days.

In the first forty-eight hours, we had 47,000 downloads. It shot to No. 1 in Amazon’s free bestseller store for all mysteries and thrillers.

After three days, we took it back to $2.99. In the first three days, it sold almost 3,000 copies. And here’s the gravy: It was “checked out” of the Amazon library almost 1,400 times. You get an extra royalty for that which averages $1.88 per download but has gone as high as $2.85 for us.

“Dead of Winter” rose to No. 15 on the PAID mystery/thriller bestseller list. It made it to No. 39 on the paid list for ALL Kindle books (that includes all fiction and non-fiction, classics, cookbooks and even the Bible). We — P.J. Parrish — suddenly appeared on Amazon’s Most Popular Author’s list. (I didn’t even know it existed).

We did no advertising. Nada. We announced it on Facebook and sent out a newsletter blast (But that goes to our fans who’ve already read it; we were trolling for new fish). The only thing we did was to take a day to contact blogger sites that are dedicated to giveaways. (There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to this. See Christine Kling’s FOR WRITERS website for advice on this. Nancy Cohen also listed some here at KZ in her February 13 post.)

The book continued to sell at the same fast rate through all of January and into February. Our borrows increased. Today, as I write this, the “glow” is over. (That’s what Christine calls that big sales bump after a giveaway). Sales are on a slow descent but even last week, the book sold an average of 112 books a day.

Other benefits I didn’t see coming: Our reviews for “Dead of Winter” went from 32 to 93, all from readers who said they had never read us before. The book was featured on dozens of blogs. And get this: We saw a bump in sales for our other ebooks (based on Amazon ranking). The ones put out by Pocket, priced at $7.99 moved up. But we saw a significant bump for the ebook that our other publisher priced at $4.08. That book, “An Unquiet Grave,” published 7 years ago, went from Amazon Siberia up to no. 7,057 and today is hanging on at No. 64 on the Private Eye Bestsellers list. Which illustrates, to me at least, the important of being able to price your ebooks right.

And I just found this out an hour ago: our new book HEART OF ICE (due out next week) has crept onto the bottom of the Amazon PI bestseller list at No. 97.

Now one word here about Nook et al.

While we were doing “Dead of Winter” we self-published CLAW BACK. Because it was an original novella, we wanted to make it available to all formats. We went to the Barnes & Noble author website to find out how to self-pub it. It was like trying to cut your way through a thicket with nail clippers. We bought the Scribners software to learn Nook formatting but were defeated by its intricacies. (You have to decide where your tech breaking point is).

We sent “Claw Back” to Smashwords, a formatting company. Smashwords also distributes your ebook to all the non-Kindle sites. A week went by and the book still wasn’t in the Nook store. We emailed; B&N said it was in the system. Two more weeks went by. Crickets. B&N just kept saying it would appear “soon.”

On Jan. 17, we pulled it and enrolled it in Kindle Select at $3.99. Sales were small. We dropped the price to $2.99 and it took off. Sales aren’t as great as “Dead of Winter” but they are steady. As I write this, “Claw Back” is No. 95 on the police procedural bestseller list. And we haven’t given it away yet because we want to time it as a “slingshot” prelude for our new book.

I’m not trying to bash B&N here. God knows I don’t want to see any bookstore die. But a report in Slate this week says that contrary to earlier reports, losses in the Nook division are going to grow this year rather than staying flat. They didn’t exactly make it easy for me as an author to reach my readers.

So what’s the take-away here?

I won’t turn my back on traditional publishing. I still want “tree” books in my readers hands, if that is the delivery method they prefer. But I want to reach as many readers as I can and I want to do in ways that are creative and flexible. So I will continue to self-publish.

Because you can hit a gork or a flair and make some good money. If you’re good and lucky you can even make enough to live on so you can write more. But maybe even more important, you get control. YOU decide when to put your book out there. YOU decide what the cover looks like. YOU decide what the price should be. And YOU decide exactly what direction your career is going to go.

Oh, there’s one more cool thing: You can actually make sense out of those Amazon royalty statements.

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