Smell Your Story

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was nosing around for the subject of today’s post, and sniffed out the sense of smell. It is under utilized in fiction. We rightly concentrate on sight and sound, because those are the most immediate and pervasive senses, necessary for the telling of a story. But touch, taste, and smell should be used judiciously to enhance the narrative.

Today, let’s take a whiff of some ways you can use smell in your fiction.

Create a Tone

At some point in the beginning of a scene, use smell to help set the tone. In Michael Connelly’s The Narrows, FBI agent Rachel Walling arrives at a desert crime scene, the work of the notorious serial killer, The Poet:

As they got close to the tents Rachel Walling began to smell the scene. The unmistakable odor of decaying flesh was carried on the wind as it worked through the encampment, billowed the tents and moved out again. She switched her breathing to her mouth, haunted by knowledge she wished she didn’t have, that the sensation of smell occurred when tiny particles struck the sensory receptors in the nasal passages. It meant if you smelled decaying flesh that was because you were breathing decaying flesh.

Boom. I’m there.

Reveal a Theme

In Jordan Dane’s No One Heard Her Scream, San Antonio detective Rebecca Montgomery is ordered into her lieutenant’s office:

Lieutenant Santiago’s office smelled of coffee and stale smoke, a by-product of the old homicide division, before anti-smoking legislation. Central Station had been smoke-free for quite a while, but the stench lingered from years past, infused into the walls. No amount of renovation had ever managed to eliminate the odor.

Not only does this give us an added descriptor of the scene, but it also signifies the conflict between the younger detective and the old-school guard of the department.

Make a Comment

Travis McGee, the creation of John D. MacDonald, is a houseboat-dwelling “salvage expert” who gets dragged into various mysteries. One of the marks of a McGee is when he riffs on some contemporary issue, or makes a generalization that tells us about his view of life. In Nightmare in Pink, McGee is waiting on a bench at a police station, watching “the flow of business.”

It is about as dramatic as sitting in a post office, and there are the same institutional smells of flesh, sweat, disinfectants and mimeo ink. Two percent of police work is involved with blood. All the rest of it is a slow, querulous, intricate involvement with small rules and procedures, violations of numbered ordinances, complaints made out of spite and ignorance, all the little abrasions and irritations of too many people living in too small a space. The standard police attitude is one of tired, kindly, patronizing exasperation.

Now we know why McGee prefers to live on a houseboat, and goes around the cops when he’s on the job.

Show the Inner Life of a Character

McGee again. After the slings and arrows of the mystery in The Turquoise Lament, we have an epilogue. McGee is on his boat, The Busted Flush, with his friend Meyer. They’re playing chess.

I had Meyer crushed until he got cute and found a way to put me in perpetual check with a knight and a bishop. We turned off all the lights and all the servomechanisms that click and queak and we went up to the sun deck to enjoy the September night, enjoy the half moon roving through cloud layers, enjoy a smell of rain on the winds.

I love that smell, too, which carries with it both a sense of peace (which McGee needs) and a portent of coming storms—setting up the next McGee adventure. Nicely done, John D.*

So remember, it never stinks to use the sense of smell in your stories. Does that make scents?

*NOTE: The word queak in the last clip is in the print version I own. I wonder if JDM made a typo and then decided it sounded good, even though it’s not in the dictionary.

8+

Holiday Food for Thought on Character Conflicts

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock for Jordan Dane’s use

This is my last post for 2018, but I got my inspiration from Jim’s post “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing” on Nov 25th. As always, the discussion comments were very interesting. Two comments stood out in my mind and I wanted to explore them. I thought they could combine into this post on character and conflict.

Marilynn Byerly said: “…Conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.”

Marilynn is so right. Great summary. There can be the external conflict of a global disaster or a killer on the loose, but if you add complications within the main character (a flaw or handicap that forces them out of their comfort zone to deal with the external conflict after facing their own demons), that’s good stuff.

AZAli said: “When I was starting out, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a scene about characters enjoying themselves.”

I could relate to AZAli’s comment here when I first started out. I didn’t want to waste a scene on the seemingly real life of the character, but in moderation, this can be insightful, especially if the internal demons of the character are at odds with what the plot will bring. In Michael Connelly books, The ups and downs of Bosch’s personal life are an intricate thread woven into the fabric of his stories, so tightly written and paced, that Bosch becomes real in the reader’s mind. It’s like you KNOW him over the series of books you’re reading. His failed relationships, the love he has for his daughter and complicated ex-wife, and his troubles on the job that arise because of his very uncompromising nature.

Be judicious, not to overdo diversions, but I would suggest that if you want to add depth to your character, give him or her a backstory that is integral to his/her internal conflicts and force your character to deal with those too, along with the plot. No scene is wasted if the reader is enthralled. It’s a balance, but one worth pursuing. (I love getting emails or social media comments from readers who ask about the personal life of my characters. They share their hopes for what might come next or ask about the service dog I have my Vigilante Justice series, Karl. You never know what will resonate with readers.)

I thought of a writing resource book by Deb Dixon called “Goals, Motivation & Conflict.” This little book (affectionately called the GMC book) has a lot of fans. It helped me add complications to my characters when I first started writing. It’s a good resource for new writers. I also attended one of Deb Dixon’s workshops and got a lot out of it. (Workshops are wonderful to learn new things and to network. I would encourage any author to attend a workshop, no matter what skill level you are. There’s bound to be something that will stick with you.)

I’m resorting to my memory on the matrix concept of the GMC book and the general idea that has stuck with me after reading it. My resources books are buried in my BOX ROOM after my last move. The idea of t he GMC book is to give your characters INTERNAL CONFLICTS and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS and maybe dare to have them conflict with each other.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Summary: With a little forethought and patience, you can craft a better book if you plan your characters’ conflicts and create a tough journey of discovery for them. And remember that one book could turn into a series if you create a large enough world with characters that can be sustained through a series. I even like to plant seeds of mystery for future books within the pages of a standalone. You never know what good fortune might happen.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you the best and have a great 2019, TKZers!

DISCUSSION:

For Writers: Tell us about the internal and external conflicts of the main character(s) in your current WIP, TKZers. How have you made your characters at odds with each other?

For Readers: Share novels that had a good balance of the internal and external conflicts of the main character. What did you like most about the journey of the book?

 

8+

5 Key Ways to Balance Internal Monologue with Pitfalls to Avoid

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Attribution – Niki K (Wikimedia Commons)

John Gilstrap had an excellent post yesterday on Internal Monologue that resonated with me. He gave great examples of what works and what may not, with explanations on his sage reasoning. He certainly gave me things to think about in my own writing.

I tend to write in deep POV and very tight, with sparse narratives. This is especially true when I write my novella length stories for Kindle World, which is a great exercise in writing a tight plot and keeping the pace up.

In my full novels, I reign in my internal monologue and make it focused, with the character having a journey from beginning to end of the book, as well as a journey even within each scene, so I don’t repeat the deep POV thoughts.

On the FOR WRITERS resource on my website, I have a post titled – START WITH A BANG. If you scroll down to the “Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?” sub-heading, you’ll find a section on how I let dialogue be the starting framework and how I layer in elements to fill out a scene. Internal monologue is vital to establishing my character’s journey and emotional growth and it’s something I focus on a great deal – even when I do my final draft read – but it’s the last thing I add to any scene, because I want to control it and isolate the journey to avoid pitfalls.

Despite my own methods, I greatly admire writers like Michael Connelly (particularly his Bosch series) where his mastery of his character’s internal views feel so authentic of an experienced war weary cop. He effortlessly brings in Bosch’s personal relationships and his workload to give a 360 view of this man’s life. That’s not an easy thing to do. It requires an intense knowledge of his character Bosch.

No matter how a writer learns how to craft internal monologue, it is easily one of the areas an author can veer off course and overuse…or under use, for that matter. Have you ever read a book that is all action, devoid of emotion or insight into the character’s internal battle and conflict? This is definitely a balancing game to get internal monologue to enhance your writing and make your stories memorable for readers.

Key Points to Finding the Right Balance for Internal Monologue:

1.) DIALOGUE – If you see your narrative paragraphs stretching out onto the page in weighty clumps, look for ways to make your internal monologue lean and mean by use of dialogue. This is something I have to pay attention to, even with my sparse style. Clever dialogue is a challenge, but it can be so much fun to write.

Plus, effective dialogue can help you pace your novel and tease the reader with red herrings or mystery elements, and not a plot dump of internal thoughts.

2.) LESS IS MORE – It’s easy to get carried away with every aspect of a character’s POV. The reader doesn’t need to know every logical argument for their action or inaction. People don’t think like this, especially in the heat of the moment in an action scene.

Have patience to let the story unfold. Too much internal thought can dry up pace and bore readers. The reader doesn’t need to know everything, especially all at once in a dump.

Also be careful NOT to repeat the same thought over and over. Repeating internal strife does not constitute a journey. It only reminds the reader that the author is searching for different ways to describe the same thing. Oy.

3.) TIMING – pick your spots when internal monologue makes the most sense. James Scott Bell wrote a great post on What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction where he talks about starting a novel with a character in thought, no action or disturbance. Resist the urge to bury your reader in internal monologue right out of the gate.

In addition, if your character is in the middle of a shoot out, that would not be the most opportune time to share his feelings on getting dumped by his girlfriend, not even if she is the one shooting at him. (Although I would love to read a scene like that.) To make the danger seem real, stick with the action and minimize the internal strife until it’s logical for the character to ponder what happened after.

Plus, if you spill the exposition too early, the reader won’t retain it as well as if you had waited for the right timing, when the reveal would be most effective.

4.) SHOW DON’T TELL – Once you get into the quagmire of telling a character’s POV, it’s too easy to get carried away with the rest of your book. If you can SHOW what a character is feeling, and let the reader take what they will from the scene, you will leave an image nugget that will stick with them. TELLING doesn’t have the same impact.

5.) ACTION & DIALOGUE DEFINE CHARACTER – These are the two areas where readers will most remember a book. Unless you’re into author craft and can appreciate the internal monologue finesse of John Gilstrap and Michael Connelly and many other author favorites, you probably may not remember how effectively the author used internal monologue. It’s like the color black. It goes with everything in such a subtle way that you may not notice it.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) What tips do you have to share on how you handle internal monologue in your own writing?

2.) With the key points I listed above, do any of them pose a particular challenge for you?

3.) Name a recent book you read where you noticed the author’s deft handling of internal monologue. (I would love to expand my TBR pile.)

11+

2018 Writerly Resolutions, Anyone?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Michael Lane – Tacoma

Happy 2018, TKZers! (Sorry for the exclamation point, John. I had to poke you after your great post on Note to Copy Editor.)

Has anyone made any new year’s resolutions for your writing?

I love the start of a new year, especially after I finished December 2017 with time off to replenish the creative well without a deadline to race against. I wanted to spend quality time with family and friends. Mission accomplished.

I have a deadline looming mid-February 2018, so I’m hunkered down with my daily word count, but the time off has done wonders for my enthusiasm.

My 5 Writing Resolutions for 2018

1.) Read Better Books – One of my 2018 resolutions is to read more books from some of my favorite authors. Well-crafted books inspire and challenge me. I love learning new things.

In 2017, I thought that since I read so much, that I should mitigate the hit to my budget by reading free e-books. I DID find some new authors I liked, but they were few and far between. For the most part, I had to stop reading many, many books (which I hate to do), due to the poor quality of the writing.

Some of the chronic problems I saw were novels with excessive passive voice, typos, missing words, rambling internal monologues, back story dumps, chatty dialogue without focus, bland characterizations, misuse of first person POV, characters I didn’t care about, and plots without structure or pace. My version of throwing the book against the wall was to delete/purge the free books off my e-reader.

To kickoff 2018, I’m reading Michael Connelly’s latest – Two Kinds of Truth – & I scored it when it was on sale. Win-Win.

2.) Dare to Try New Things – I have a partially written novel that I will finish in 2018. It involves an aspect of historical writing. It scares me to death. I’ve never taken on such an endeavor, something so daunting for me.

I’ve done my research on Victorian England (countless searches on the Internet and purchasing several research books) and need to infuse my prose with the right time period setting and dialect, without going overboard to slow the pace. It’s been a challenge on layering what I need into every scene, but so far it’s working. I’ve made a resolution to jump back on it after my Feb deadline.

3.) Stay Better Connected with my Family and Friends – This is a personal goal, but it contributes a great deal to my writing inspirations and my positive frame of mind. My close circle gives me the elixir of joy that I need to push myself to new accomplishments. The bigger challenge might be to find face time during the year, in between my deadlines, but this is important to me. It needs to happen.

4.) Add Depth to my Character Voices & Back Story – In my 2018 challenge novel, the one that will have historical elements, I have a unique character that makes me work hard to get her right. I struggle for every word out of her mouth, to make her distinctive. This has not been an easy feat.

As I write, I have my Thesaurus open and often must go back over what I had jotted down in haste, to fine tune her voice and truly listen to her as I edit. One of my pet peeves is to read a book that starts out with great care, but it gets sloppy on the character portrayal in the middle and toward the end. That feels like a cheat to me, so I am putting effort into every scene all the way through.

5.) Find a Better Balance with my Deadlines – I want to find a better balance between writing Amazon Kindle World novellas along with my full novels this year. Kindle World deadlines are totally up to me on how many I agree to write and what those deadlines might be. I will commit to fewer KWs this year (to write in more selected worlds), in order to find time for my full length novels and proposals.

 

Those are my top five resolutions. They should probably be called GOALS. In my mind they are very achievable and I’m determined to check them off my list as I get them done.

For Discussion:

What about you, TKZers? Have you made any writer resolutions for 2018?

Do you have any rituals for goal setting? How do you celebrate your achievements?

Below is my next cover for a book I haven’t started yet. I have a general idea on the plot and had a broad outline, but after playing with the cover, I’m now inspired to launch into the story. I even changed the title to make it fit.

Cover Design by: Fiona Jayde Media

Valentine & the Lotus Circle

(Novella 2 of 2)

Coming Feb, 2018

Love made him vulnerable…once

Driven by guilt and revenge over a tragic death, Braxton Valentine is coerced into being the latest recruit to the Phoenix Agency as a covert operator and a powerful psychic, but he is not a team player. To confront his rogue ways, the Agency hires a mysterious woman psychic from the ancient and mythical Lotus Circle–and she takes no prisoners.

6+

Two Writing Mind Tricks to Get You Rolling

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles

You know me. I’m a quota guy. I call that the best writing advice I ever got. It’s the reason I can look back over 25 years and see all these books lined up.

I write 6,000 words a week. I divide that into six days so I can take one day (usually Sunday) off. If I miss a day for some reason, I make up the deficit on the other days. Since 2000 I’ve kept a record of my daily, weekly, and yearly word count on a spreadsheet.

Every now and then I’ll have a week where I do very little writing, if any. I highlight those weeks on the spreadsheet and note the reason. One time it was pneumonia. Another time it was a week-long conference. Most recently it was a trip to Ireland with my wife and daughter. I give myself a pass in these instances.

Aren’t I nice?

Most days, however, I try to write first or second thing in the morning. If I can hammer out a “Nifty 350” or a “Furious 500,” the rest of the writing day is so much easier. Some days the words flow. Other days writing feels like trying to jog in snow shoes through the La Brea Tar Pits.

You all know what I mean.

After 25 years of this, I dare say I’m familiar with just about every mental condition of the writing life.

So today I want to talk about two mind tricks that will help you get going on days when those snow shoes are attached.

  1. Fifteen Minutes

In the current (October, 2017) Writer’s Digest, David Corbett interviews Michael Connelly. At the end he asked Connelly for his best advice for aspiring writers. Connelly said:

I’d pass along what I learned from Harry Crews, who was my creative writing teacher at the University of Florida. He said if you want to be a writer you have to write every day, even it’s only for 15 minutes. It was the “15 minutes” that hit home. You have to keep the story fresh in your mind; you can’t let it slip away.

A few days ago I was avoiding the blank screen. I remembered the Connelly quote. I looked at the clock and said to myself, “At 11 a.m., I will give fifteen minutes to writing.” That felt doable. It wasn’t a heavy burden.

So at 11:00 I sat down and started typing. I noticed it wasn’t long before I was into the story again. When I next looked at the clock it was 11:25 and I’d typed 654 words.

  1. The One-Inch Frame

This idea comes from Anne Lamott and her book on writing, Bird by Bird. She writes about having an empty one-inch picture frame on her desk.

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

This has worked for me, too. If I bring my focus down to just one thing, and forget about the big picture that is an entire novel, it feels easier to accomplish. Invariably, after I fill that frame, I want to keep going. So I’ll write to another one-inch frame. After that I’m usually off to the races and the words flow again.

As Yogi Berra once said about baseball, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental.” The same goes for writing, especially if it’s something you want to do long term. That’s why I wrote a whole book on the mental game of writing.

Next time you’re stuck because you just don’t feel like clacking the keyboard, give yourself fifteen minutes or a one-inch frame. You can do that much, and you’ll probably end up doing much more.

So what about you? What tricks do you use to get yourself going when the going gets tough?

9+

Let Me Entertain You

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

The year was 1919. The “Great War” was over and the “Roaring Twenties” about to begin. Out in Hollywood Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith got together to form a new film company they called United Artists.

In Georgia, Jackie Roosevelt Robinson was born. In New York, Theodore Roosevelt died.

On September 21, at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, a cabal of Chicago White Sox ballplayers met to plan how to throw the World Series in exchange for gambling kickbacks.

On April 10, in Mexico, the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata was assassinated, never knowing that one day he would be portrayed on the big screen by one Marlon Brando.

And out of Camden, New Jersey, the Victor Talking Machine Company was shipping its latest model Victrolas, an item that had become all the rage for an emerging middle class. For through this wonderful machine music of all types could be piped right into the living room. Everything from Caruso to Al Jolson, from Beethoven to Eddie Cantor was available for purchase on vinyl discs with a hole in the middle.

All Victrolas sold in 1919 came with a booklet, a little manual instructing the customer how to get the most from their purchase.

Today, when for the first time you have brought a Victrola into your home, we wish it were possible to show you how much this, the most versatile and so the most satisfying musical instrument in all the world, can be made to entertain, to console and to inspire.

To say that the Victrola offers you, your family and your friends “all the music of all the world”—is to dismiss the subject with an entirely inadequate phrase and so this booklet has been prepared to offer certain suggestions for your greater enjoyment of this, your newest and we verily believe your happiest possession.

This was a huge development in our cultural lives in the age before radio became pervasive. Victrola extolled the benefits of music for the weary traveler on life’s highway:

Intimately associated as we are with the development of the Victrola, yet we are fully conscious of the wonder of it and we, no less than our customers, have learned that amid “the daily round of irritating concerns and duties” we have only to turn to the Victrola in order to be once more in love with life and its beautiful, blessed burdens.

And while championing the virtues of classical music, the booklet also recognized the great benefit of simple entertainments:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their musical opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular music than they will despise good music which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from ragtime as there is from a Beethoven symphony or the thunderous emotions of a great opera. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

Well said, Victor Talking Machine Company! Let me be so cheeky as to translate this into slightly different terms:

Art is art, no matter what form it may take, and those who are sincere in their literary opinions will no more despise the lighter and more popular books than they will despise literature which is the product of other kinds of feeling and other rhythms. In certain moods and at certain times there is as much “inspiration” to be derived from a thriller as there is from a National Book Award winner. Each produces its effect in its own way and each supplies a very real human need…

And yet … there has always been a tension between the “serious” writer and the “commercial” kind. At times the former may think of the latter as a hack. The latter may consider the former a snob.

Mickey Spillane was the mass-market paperback king of the 1950s. He engendered a lot of envy. (What? Envy among writers? Surely not!) Many “serious” writers were supremely ticked off that their wonderful, years-long-to-write novel of domestic angst only sold 300 copies, while Spillane’s fast-paced Mike Hammer PI novels sold in the millions. Even Ernest Hemingway took a poke at Spillane, in print, which prompted a TV interviewer to ask Spillane if he’d read Hemingway’s criticism. Spillane said, “Hemingway who?” The audience roared (Hemingway never forgave Spillane for that!) As The Mick later put it, “Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.”

Well, friends, there is room for both caviar and peanuts, pheasant-under-glass and bacon burgers. And culinary delights in between. But I happen to believe that the novels that move us most and heighten our perception of life also entertain on a basic, storytelling level. If I’m not fully invested in the characters, or if the plot is a drag, I’m not prone to sticking around for any message.

And pure entertainment deserves an honored place, as Dean Koontz pointed out in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Writer’s Digest Books, 1981): “In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

So let me entertain you! And you me! Here’s what I like to see in a novel:

  1. A hero or anti-hero we root for

A hero represents the values of the community. An anti-hero has his or her own moral code but is drawn into a conflict within the community. The big question is will the anti-hero transform? Katniss Everdeen is an anti-hero who becomes a hero. Rick in Casablanca starts out unwilling to help anyone (“I stick my neck out for nobody”) but by the end is ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good (“But I’ve got a job to do too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do you can’t be any part of. I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”)

This doesn’t mean the lead character has to be what we normally call “good.” I root for Richard Stark’s hard-core criminal Parker, because among the other thieves and lowlifes, he has the better argument! 

  1. Conflict within and without

My favorite novels have both levels going on. That’s why I love the Harry Bosch series. We are as invested in Harry’s inner journey as in the case he happens to be working on. Even straightforward action thrillers like The Executioner series are elevated when Mac Bolan pauses to reflect on what all this killing is doing to his soul.

  1. An Ah or Uh-oh ending

My favorite endings leave me with a definite feeling. One feeling is “Ah…”, a sense of such satisfaction that I feel all the circles have been completed, the outer plot and the inner journey. Usually the ending scene is a personal one. Examples are Lost Light by Michael Connelly, Nathan’s Run by John Gilstrap, and Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block. These books have final scenes that move me at the heart level.

Stephen King is a master of the “Uh-oh.” As in, something bad is going to happen again! For example Pet Sematary and The Stand.

Kris (P.J.) wrote recently about the ambiguous ending. In the right hands, that can have the same effect as combining the “Ah” and the “Uh-oh.” An example is The Catcher in the Rye. 

  1. Some unobtrusive poetry in the style

That’s a phrase I lift from one of my favorite writers, John D. MacDonald. He’s describing a style that is more than plain-vanilla minimalism, yet not so over-the-top that it screams Look at me! I’m a real writer! The latter is where we get the axiom “Kill your darlings.” You can fall in love too much with a felicitous phrase, though I will say that the axiom is a bit too barbaric for my taste. Sometimes I’ll show mercy to a darling, but always defer to the judgment of my true-life darling and first editor, Mrs. Bell.

Give me those things, and you’re liable to turn me from a reader to a fan. And it’s what I hope to give you with each book. 

So let me put it to you, TKZers. What entertains you? Do you prefer to feast on one kind of fiction? Do you think one type is “better” than any other? Or do you like a big buffet with lots of choices?  

What do you try to put in your own fiction?

***

Historical notes:

The Victor Talking Machine Company’s logo featured a Jack Russell Terrier listening to an “external horn” player, cocking his head because he heard “his master’s voice” coming out of the horn. The name of the dog is “Nipper.”

The external horn machine was not a Victrola. Victrola was exclusively used for a model that had the horn inside a nicely designed cabinet, with small doors in the front that opened and closed. There were many fine Victrola designs, like this one:

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To Age, or Not at All

angel headstone

(Photo by Alexy Sergeev, who retains all rights therein)

My friend and fellow TKZ contributor Joe Moore offered up an excellent post three weeks ago concerning the pros and cons of writing a series versus writing a standalone novel. You can find it here if you wish to refresh your recollection of it. My little offering today is focused upon an issue which arises in a literary series when— oh joy! — it becomes extremely popular and continues for books and books and years and years.  Lurking in that blessing is a problem: do you let your primary characters age gracefully, or not at all?

I have been fascinated with this problem since I was nine years old. I was reading a daily comic strip at the time titled “Dondi.” It was created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen and was about a World War II war orphan who was brought back to the United States and adopted by a G.I. The strip had been going for five years by the time I discovered it in 1960; my mother, seeing me reading it, wryly observed that Dondi was the only five-year old kid in 1960 who could still remember World War II. Dondi stayed five until the strip shut down in 1986. This got me thinking about the problem of aging in fiction, one that is confronting a number of authors right now.  No one really expects characters like Spenser or Lucas Davenport or Harry Bosch or Jack Reacher, to age in real time. What occurs in a novel of genre fiction typically takes place over a few days or weeks, with a new novel being published every year or two. I have heard it said that a year in real time translates into a month or two in the world of the fictitious character, less than that if the succeeding book picks up where the previous book left off. The problem, however, is that when you have series that have survived for three decades and beyond that, events in the real world overtake a long-running series. It’s the Dondi problem, if you will: how is it that a veteran of the Vietnam War is tracking a GPS location on their android phone in 2012, all the while climbing fences and taking down the bad-uns like the thirty-something year old they were when the series started in 1982? Even the most youthful characters should be manifesting signs of becoming long in the tooth at that point. Yes, some authors are addressing this to varying degrees. Ace Atkins, who picked up the Spenser reins from the late Robert B. Parker, is slowing him down just a bit, letting age and damage manifest themselves incrementally but irrevocably. Michael Connelly and John Sandford seem to be moving Bosch and Davenport, respectively, into new situations where they might not be quite as physically active as they were twenty or more years ago. James Lee Burke addressed the problem of age brilliantly in LIGHT OF THE WORLD, wherein he appears (and I stress “appears”) to write finis to the darkly poetic accounts of the life of Dave Robicheaux. Age and death may be inevitable; it is tough, however, to contemplate saying goodbye to these folks, to watch them walk upright, if a bit stiffly, into the sunset.  Do they necessarily have to age? Or can they be like Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson, stuck in the amber of grade school forever?

For those of you honoring me with your presence today…what say you? If you are writing a series, do you plan to age your characters at some point? Do you have an end game planned? Or will they be forever young? And readers of series…what do you think? Do you want your favorite characters to age, or do you prefer them to be forever young? Do you have a preference?

 

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Top Ten Things You Need to Know About Characters

Scarlett210. Characters are how  readers connect to story

I’ve read books about the history of eras, and while interesting, they are nothing compared to a good biography (I’m currently reading H. W. Brands’ biography of Andrew Jackson). Why? Because we are more fascinated with people than epochs. (I once heard history described as “biography on a timeline.”)

We all love twisty turny plots, chases, love, hate, fights, freefalls––all of that. But unless readers connect to character first, none of that matters.

9. On the other hand, character without plot is a blob of glup

Contrary to what some believe, a novel is not “all about character.” To prove the point, let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara. Do you want 400 pages of Scarlett sitting on her front porch, flirting? Going to parties and throwing hissy fits? I didn’t think so. What is it that makes us keep watching Scarlett? A little thing called the Civil War.

A novel is not a story until a character is forced to show strength of will against the complications of plot. Plot brings out true character, rips off the mask, and that’s what readers really want to see.

“Blob of glup,” by the way, is a term I remember from my mom reading me The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. I always thought it quite descriptive.

8. Lead characters don’t have to be morally good, just good at something

Two of the most popular books in our language are about negative characters. I define a negative character as one who is doing things that the community (theirs, and ours) do not approve of, that harm other people. A Christmas Carol has Scrooge, and Gone With the Wind has Scarlett. Why would a reader want to follow them?

Two reasons: They want to see them redeemed, or they want to see them get their “just desserts.”

The trick to rendering a negative Lead is to show, early, a capacity for change. When Scrooge is taken back to his boyhood, we see in him, for the first time, some compassionate emotion. Maybe he’s not a lost cause after all!

Or show that the negative character has strength, which could be an asset if put to good use. Scarlett has grit and determination (fueled by her selfishness) and just dang well gets things done. We admire that, and hope by the end of the book she’ll turn it to something that actually helps those in her world. She does, but by then it’s too late. Rhett just doesn’t give a damn.

7. Characters need backstory before readers do

Yes, you have to know your character’s biography, at least the high points. One question I like to ask is what happened to the character at sixteen? That’s a pivotal, shaping year (unless your character actually is sixteen, in which case I’d go to age eight).

But you don’t have to reveal all the key information to readers up front. In fact, it’s good to withhold it, especially a secret or a wound. Show the character behaving in a way that hints at something from the past, currents below the surface. Why does Rick in Casablanca stick his neck out for nobody? Why does he play chess alone? Why doesn’t he protect Ugarte? Why doesn’t he love Paris? We see him act in accord with these mysteries, and don’t get answers until well into the film.

6. But readers want to know a little something about the character they’re following

Against the advice that you should have absolutely zero backstory in the first fifty pages, I say do what Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Connelly and most every bestselling novelist does: sprinkle in bits of backstory in the opening pages. But only what is necessary to help readers bond to character.

A rule of thumb I give in my workshops is this: In the first ten pages, you can have three sentences of backstory, used all together or spread out. In the next ten pages, you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all together or spaced out. This will force you to examine closely what you include, saving the rest for later, and letting the story get cracking.

5. Memorable characters create cross-currents of emotion in the reader

We all know about inner conflict. A character is unsure about what he’s about to do, and there’s an argument in his heart and soul, giving him reasons both for and against the action. That’s good stuff, and one way to get there is to identify the fear a character feels in each scene.

But to create even greater cross-currents of emotion in the reader, consider having the character do something the absolute reverse of what the reader expects. Brainstorm ideas for this, and you’ll often find a great one down the list, beyond your predictability meter. Put that action in. Write it. Have other characters react to it.   

Only then find a way to justify the behavior, and work that into your material.

It was E. M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, who defined “round” (as opposed to “flat”) characters as those who are “capable of surprising us in a convincing way.”

4. Great villains are justified, at least to themselves

The antagonist (or as I like to put it, the Opponent) is someone who is dedicated to stopping the Lead. It does not have to be a villain, or “bad guy.” It just has to be someone on the other side of one definition of plot: two dogs and one bone.

When you do have a bad guy opponent, don’t fall into the trap of painting him with only one color. The pure-evil villain is boring and manipulative, and readers won’t fall for it. You’re also robbing them of a deeper reading experience (for which they’ll thank you by looking for your next book).

One exercise I give in workshops is the opponent’s closing argument. Pretend they have to address a jury and justify their actions. They are not going to argue, “Because I’m just a bad guy. I’m a psycho. I was born this way!” No bad guy thinks he’s bad. He thinks he’s right.

Make that argument. Weave the results into your book.

3. Don’t waste your minor characters

One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is putting stock characters into minor roles: The burly bartender, wiping glasses behind the bar; the boot-wearing, cowboy-hat-sporting, redneck truck driver; the saucy, wise-cracking waitress.

Instead, give each minor character something to set him or her apart from the stereotype. Think of:

• Going against type (a female truck driver, for example)

• An odd tick or quirk

• A distinct speaking style

Use minor characters as allies or irritants. Even those who have only one scene. A doorman, for example. Instead of his opening the door for your Lead, have him give the Lead a hard time. Or have your Lead in a hurry but the cab driver is lethargic and chatty.

A little time spent on spicing up minor characters will add mounds of reading pleasure to your readers.

2. Great characters delight us

When I ask people to name their favorite books or movies, and then ask why, it’s invariably because of one great character. As good as Harrison Ford is in The Fugitive, people always mention Tommy Lee Jones, and even his famous line, “I don’t care!”

The Silence of the Lambs? Two great characters. The absolutely unforgettable Hannibal Lecter, and the insecure but dogged trainee, Clarice Starling. Lecter delights us (because we are all a little twisted) with his wit, deviousness, and dietary habits. Clarice delights us because she’s the classic underdog who fights both professional and personal demons.

1. Great characters elevate us

Truly enduring characters end up teaching us something about humanity and, therefore, about ourselves. They elevate us. And that is true even if the character is tragic. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, the tragic character creates catharsis, a purging of the tragic flaw, thus making us better by subtraction.

On the positive side, I think of Harry Bosch and Atticus Finch, both on a seemingly impossible quest for justice. I’m the better for reading about them, and those are the kinds of books I always read more than once.

On the negative side, I think of the aforementioned Scarlett O’Hara. We are pulling for her to do the right thing, to get with it, to join the community of the good. Then she goes off an marries some other guy she doesn’t love and uses him mercilessly. When she finally suffers the consequences of her actions we, too, are duly warned.

So, TKZers, when you think of an unforgettable character, who comes to mind? What is it about this character that moves you? Elevates you? Makes you want more of the same?

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