Saturday, January 28, 2012

Creating Character Quirks

When you hear the name Sherlock Holmes, what are some of the things you imagine? The distinctive deerstalker hat? The curved pipe, maybe a magnifying glass? It’s a classic image, somewhat created by those who portrayed Holmes on stage. Maybe some remember Holmes playing the violin during periods when a case particularly perplexed him. Or maybe his storing his tobacco in a stocking. Possibly the true fans will remember his use of cocaine.

Nero Wolfe brings to mind a large man with an aversion to women’s tears, his collection of beer bottle caps, enjoyment of fine food, a slight tilting of his head in acknowledgment or emphasis, often saying “Pfui!” when refuting some absurd point, his fondness for yellow pajamas, and of course, orchids.

An affinity for tweed, knitting, and gardening–besides solving crimes–are aspects associated with Jane Marple.

Above is just a sampling of memorable characters. They’re remembered throughout the years because each has one or a series of aspects that distinguish him/her, their own personal ‘quirks.’

In some ways, the creation of characters is easy. You have a private detective who solves crimes. This person has brown hair and brown eyes, and usually wears jeans and a T-shirt. See? Easy. However, this person is pretty bland and not at all memorable. It’s up to the author to add ‘spice’ and ‘life’ to the character. For instance, the detective stands only four feet tall, drives a motor scooter, owns a St. Bernard, likes Chopin, and has an addiction to Snickers. Or maybe the woman has only one hand, is constantly haunted by nightmares of an abusive mother, owns a crossbow, and paints her apartment green.

As long as the author is able to bring the character to life and stay ‘true’ to his/her creation, then maybe people would be interested in reading about this character. It’s up to the author to give a character something to make him/her different from everybody else.

Think about the character envisioned by Andy Breckman and David Hoberman and given life by Tony Shaloub. They created a detective with over-the-top obsessive disorders. Adrian Monk feared milk, wind, sausages, tossed salads, and went so far as to dispose of a single tissue by sealing it in a plastic baggie, then sealing that baggie in another baggie. Somehow, the idiosyncrasies worked and the television character became one of the most loved.

Sometimes, characters are defined by other characters. This is especially true with Stephanie Plum. Yes, she has some quirky aspects to her, but a lot of the humor and ‘character’ comes from Lulu, Maretti, Grandma Mazur, and Ranger.

Authors need to dig deep to find the unique pieces and parts for a characters, whether they want the person to be funny or strictly serious. When writing a story, the characters will often times ‘speak’ and let the author know how to form their personality. Other authors may want to do an intense character outline to define a particular figure in the story. There are many books about developing character, and some may find them useful. What each author must remember, though, is not to be bound and limited by those books. Each must find his or her own path and find whatever works for developing characters.

Who knows, maybe today somebody is creating another memorable character to stand beside Sam Spade, Elvis Cole, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, and Pronzini’s ‘no name’ detective.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Study in Character

Many things I've learned over the years are self taught. When I worked as a graphic designer at a local newspaper, I was unfamiliar about the software being used to create advertising. Slowly, through the months, I discovered new things to be done with the program others hadn't.

So it was with writing. I didn't know anything about outlining, or formatting, or even too much editing, but throughout the years, I developed a system that worked for me. When I started writing my first action mystery, I knew what type of character I wanted as my protagonist. Since, she has developed into a deeper character with more flaws and more personality. At the time, though, I sat with pen in hand and wrote a very basic character outline. Along with her general description, I listed her favorite color, flower, food/drink, car, clothing, music, books. Nobody told me to do this and I didn't read any guidelines out of a how-to book. This just made sense to me to do this to better understand about whom I was writing.

Years later, I read about a more in-depth character outline. This included background information, childhood memories, past employment, etc. Also included was a guideline to understand the character in that particular story. I liken it to actors preparing for a scene. What's their motivation? What's their goal? What are their obstacles? How are the obstacles overcome? These series of questions can be used for every character in every scene and for the story as a whole. However, the trap into which some writer may fall is taking this too far. I know a writer whose character description included almost soap opera like dimensions. While this may be fine to jot down, do those miscellaneous factoids have any bearing on the present story? If not, I think time has been wasted when actual writing could have been done.

One of the difficulties I encountered was in the physical description of the characters. Brown eyes, dark brown hair, and medium build are so common, and I get bored reading about the same person in many books. For me, I had to develop a mental image of each character and I based the looks on various people I knew whether they be friends, classmates, or people in the public eye such as movie or television actresses.

Mallory Petersen, in Beta, was an easy character to develop. Basically, she is me as a female, with a little more flair, better looks, and better martial arts skills. I just took many of my traits, likes and dislikes, and used them to create Mallory. The drug lord in the story has the suave looks of Powers Booth while one of the cops takes his attractiveness from Nicholas Cage. One of the bad guys has an avian visage. Many characters were drawn from actual people I encountered while doing research. The stern secretary. The flustered receptionist.

For my first book, Night Shadows, background plays a large role for each of the two protagonists. Harry Reznik is married to an attractive woman and feels lucky to have her for a wife. He attended almost three years at the university unable to decide upon a career choice…until he met his future wife. She helped to develop his character throughout their marriage. For Lori Campisi, her background is mystery, and her struggle against amnesia and the revelations are part of the story. I knew the personality I wanted to portray and had a mental image of her features. The medical examiner has, "Tom Brokaw handsomeness." The Lieutenant is drawn from a model in a magazine. Reznik compares FBI Agent Campisi to Spock because of her control over exhibiting emotions.

Good authors will bring their characters off the pages and put them into the reader's mind's eye. Of course, every person's conception of a particular character may be different than another's, but differing views are the beauty of imagination and what make the books enjoyable.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Few Views on Editing

An early post this week as I'll be gone tomorrow.

I just wanted to share how others feel about editing. These comments were gathered after seveal people read another blog pot about editing. I saved my comments for the end.

I've been told that spelling capability, or lack of it, has been proven, in brain studies, to come from a certain small part of the brain. For that reason, I have no judgment about poor spellers, only judgments on the writing itself. I, for one, wish to hell I'd been pushy enough to lean on literate friends (once again) to proof my book. I was too cheap to offer to pay them (I'd already paid two of them to read earlier drafts for structure, style, and logic. They gave me excellent advice). I proofed myself. Proofing is something a writer can't do alone, not with 80,000 words to go over--nor can spell check do it. If I get another crime novel done, it's going to get proofed by at least one expert and I'm going to have to pay them. Meanwhile, I get to read my book and wince when I see my typos.
- Clark

I believe in submitting the best of your best and it's not up to an editor to re-write your book. Yes, there will be errors, but poor spelling and mistakes in verb tenses are unacceptable. I look back over ten years ago at some of the work I submitted and understand why they were rejected.

Scene structure, POV and storyline have to be close to right on in the submission.

Having said all of the above, I'm not an editor but know I have to get their attention if I want my book published. Catching them in the beginning is a must. Writing so they want to read more should be a goal. And finishing strong is a signed publishing contract. That's my 2 cents.
- Bob

Spell check and computers have opened the typo floodgates. Companies are no longer using skilled typists who are trained to catch and correct errors. Now everybody has a computer on her desk and poorly trained managers compose pages that a secretary once handled.

Spell check won't catch the wrong word spelled correctly. In proofing the galleys of my mss., I found some places where I had the wrong word (complimentary vs. complementary). Very different meaning!

And computers are not easy to read. My home computer's default is to make the type tiny and the page small. I can't see the typos. I have to manually increase the font size and the page space so I can read (that's why I missed errors the first time around). I don't know why computers are set up only for people with crystal sharp vision.
- Sally

I don't buy that it's acceptable to be a writer who's insightful but a bad grammariané/speller. If this is your craft, you have to master both imagination and good grammar/spelling. Suppose you were a brilliant doctor who understood the concept of heart surgery, but flubbed the technicalities of the actual operation? Same principle.
- Sunny

There are a lot of reasons for bad spelling, and "seeing through to the writer's mind" is pretty lame. What is that, the Freudian School of Editing?

A writer has an obligation to make sure his spelling is correct. Period. Whether he likes wordplay or not.

There are on-line dictionaries up the yin yang, so there is no excuse that the Webster's may be out of print, or that the dog ate it.

Even worse than bad spelling is poor formatting. If the publisher can't read it, neither can anyone else.

If you are serious about writing, then right it before you submit.
I'm an excellent speller.
- Melanie

Hardest thing for a writer is self-editing because she knows what she meant to say and sees the words as if they do indeed state that. Unfortunately, not always the case. As for those little underline things in spell check, (which the program says is two words although one often sees it as one) they have a tendency to become invisible.
- Carol

I recently read one book where either the author didn’t edit or the publisher’s editor wasn’t vey good. The book contained scores of problems with spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic sentence structure. I emailed back to the magazine (I was supposed to review this book for them) and asked if this was an ARC. The woman said no, it had actually hit the shelves. I ended up requesting not to review it because, frankly, I couldn’t find one thing I liked about it and on which I could positively comment. I couldn’t find one slight reason to recommend it. (I did review it for my blog just as an example of variety in my ranking system.)

I spoke to several people about why we sometimes find mistakes (obvious ones) in books by successful authors. Because they have proven successful the publishing house editor doesn’t work hard enough to catch the mistakes or lets them slide because they know people will buy the book nevertheless.

I’m not sure how it used to be twenty, thirty, forty years ago but nowadays you hear from everybody that the author needs to be able to do at least minimal editing before submitting. Why this needs to be said, I don’t know, because to me, the idea is fairly obvious. Maybe not to some writers.

We’re human and on occasion, things will slip by both the author and the editor and the publisher. They just don’t get caught for some reason. I’ve seen them, you’ve seen them, not a big deal most of the time. However, writers should know basic spelling. Again, this seems an obvious concept. I get to typing too fast and misspell scores of words by accident.

Usually, the spell correct catches them, sometimes not. Sometimes I use a word like ‘taekwondo’ and the spell check binks it and wants to change it to ‘teakwood.’ I’ve finally convinced my dictionary, taekwondo is a real word.

So where do you put the blame? Are you going to leave it up to the author to catch EVERYTHING before you consider accepting? The author isn’t perfect. Doesn’t the publisher and its editor bear some responsibility? I don’t know, I’m just asking? On my last two books, when I received my ARCs I found errors both the senior editor and the publisher missed. Obvious blatant errors. So am I to blame for not catching them earlier, too? Sure.

I did a blog on ‘it’ a couple years ago so when you brought up the word, I had to smile because I started wondering the usage of the word years ago. “It started to snow.” “It’s four o’clock.” Well, what is ‘it?’

I now go back to read individual chapters and, eventually, the entire book, aloud, so I catch every word. I still miss stuff, sure, but after going through three people editing it, I figured I’d better make an effort to minimize the number of mistakes earlier.
- Stephen

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Note on Editing

Have you ever seen the drawing of a pyramid of triangles in which you're supposed to count the number of triangles there are in the picture? Some people count the obvious smaller individual triangles, but miss the fact that the way the picture is drawn, there are bigger triangles throughout.

I think editing is similar. There are so many areas of editing, you may not be aware of where they show up and what you are doing when you do it. Let's look at a few instances.

You've made the decision to write a story. Boom! You've just done your first edit. You've made a choice in your life. You've edited your life and you will keep doing so every minute you take to develop that story. You edit when you create characters, giving them personalities. You edit when you create an outline (for those who do and those who don't still make decisions to move the story in a certain direction), deciding a timeline and the sequence of events.

Editing is not just done after you've completed the story, or when some publisher's editors splash it with colors highlighting the mistakes and suggested changes. Writers are editors and they have to be.

I love writers' critique groups and have been involved in three throughout the years. Each has had good and bad points in structure and operation but one of the problems I've seen in all of them is in regards to the writers themselves. A person brings Chapter One of a brand new story to the group for reading. The others listen then give their opinion on the strengths and weaknesses in the story. The person takes the story home and does a rewrite, brings it back to the group, hears more critique, then takes it home and does a rewrite…and the cycle continues. After a few rounds, someone will almost certainly suggest the person moves onto Chapter Two. Unfortunately, he/she cannot get past trying to perfect One. The story never gets written and either the person gives up or tries another story, falling into the same pattern.

Writers have to learn to work through each chapter until the story is completed. Sure, listen to the critiques, save the notes, keep in mind the suggestions, but keep writing something new until you've reached the end of the story. Then go back and rewrite.

Writers also have to know the rules. Grammar, punctuation, and of course spelling. Do not rely on spell check. You may not catch all of the mistakes (and believe me, you won't), but you want to present to the publisher/agent the best product you can create.

One of the fun ways to frustrate yourself is something my publisher and editors have agreed upon doing with each story we receive. When you think you've gone as far as you can with your self editing, go through and highlight every 'was', 'were', and 'that'. Then, go back through and eliminate all but the most necessary usages.

I've met authors who re-read scores of times and others who can whip out a decent product after only a few rewrites. There is no rule. You find what works for you. I wrote longhand and my first edit came when I transferred the pages to the computer. Then I'd print out the entire manuscript, grab a pen and a notebook and read through it marking corrections and scribbling changes for specific areas. I think it's where I learned a lot of my editing skills.

In early 2010, while waiting around for my story Night Shadows to run through the editing process, I exchanged emails with the senior editor and, to make a long story short, within about six weeks or so, I was hired as an editor. Now this surprised me, because I've had no official training, didn't take any college courses. I must have done very well on the 'test' story to satisfy the powers that be. Anyway, since that time, I have learned so much and I can pass on my knowledge to other authors.
I loathe working through the edits on my books. I've gone through several rounds of corrections and changes with Night Shadows, each one more excruciating than the last. Long hours until my brain goes fuzzy, but I'm learning. Editing others' material can be a horrendous job especially if the manuscript hasn't been polished by the author. However, it is a learning experience, because once you've read others' mistakes, you catch yourself making similar ones in your own projects.

And that's part of what makes writing so gosh darn fun.