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Posts Tagged ‘Characterisation’

Margo Reveals What it’s like inside a ROR Crit Week!

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on February 6, 2012

From Margo …

A Deepening ROR—a wRiters On the Rise workshop, from the inside

That's where we were circled in red

First there’s a bit of foreplay. Someone pipes up online: “When’s the next ROR?” Someone at the other end of the country: “I’ll have a novel draft ready by about January; how’s everyone else set?” And all the ROR-ettes speak up one by one, with their first or later drafts that are in synch, or the obligations or health issues or financial limitations or lacks of work-in-progress that’ll keep them away this time.

ROR meets roughly every 18 months to 2 years; I haven’t been able to get to the last couple of retreats but when this one was mooted, I decided that I had a chance, if I went hell for leather during November-December, of getting a super-rough first draft of my colonial NSW fantasy written for ROR’s perusal for the end of January workshop.

Tansy and Andrew scoped out Steele’s Island Accommodation; we discussed timing and settled on the weekdays 30 Jan-3 Feb, because the place is booked out with weddings most weekends.

All went quiet for a while. I dealt with Sea Hearts copyedits and proofs, wrote stories for Twelfth Planet Press, judged the Australian/Vogel’s Award, wound up my time on the Literature Board talked at the Brisbane Writers Festival, launched two other writers’ books, day-jobbed 3 days a week and, by the looks of the calendar, dined with a lot of different people. Clearly I didn’t scratch myself; there wouldn’t have been time.

On 1 November I started writing the draft of Formidable Energies. I registered with Nanowrimo, because I wanted some company, and besides, they have this neat graph that you can use to track your progress against the ideal path towards the 50K words. I like a neat graph, and I’d never make one for myself. Generally I’m not wordcount obsessive; this time, though, I definitely had to achieve a book’s worth.

It was lonely, exhilarating, hilarious, keeping up the pace, papering over the chasms in my research, blithely charging on, jumping in and out of the story, going from jam scene to jam scene and ignoring any bread-and-butter bits, but trying to keep it coherent enough for my ROR friends to be able to see what I was getting at, the nature of this beast.

I didn’t have the know-how, about Celtic gods, about Irish language, customs, culture and history—and only a 20-year-old history degree to help me with the convict ships, penal law and early colonial Sydney. I researched as I went just so I could picture enough setting in which to tell the tale. Perhaps this research was the most fun. I prowled around the State Library, requesting old travel books on Ireland and copying useful pages onto the iPad. I learned so much during that month—but most of all I learned what huge gaps existed in my knowledge, and the enormous job I might have on my hands if I ever went at the research properly.

And I knuckled down and wrote. Here’s my completed Nanowrimo graph, to give you the bare bones of the story of my month:

I was happy with that. I booked my ticket to Hobart. I wrote on for another 2 weeks into December, and managed a draft of 45K, which took the story from (what I imagined was the) beginning to (one possible) end. Manuscripts began to fly between email boxes. I did what pulling-together of the draft I could, wrote some explanatory/apologetic notes to cover the worst breaks, trailings-off and confused bits, took a deep breath and sent it off to my ROR-mates.

There was a flurry of communication as we sorted out accommodation moneys. Then came silence as we read each other’s drafts; that’s a lonely stage too, that one, keeping your opinions to yourself, addressing comments to an unresponsive screen, worrying that you haven’t quite captured what you felt about this character or that piece of plot logic, or that you haven’t phrased it helpfully. Weeks, it takes, reading five novels and assembling meaningful critiques.

Departure date loomed. I anguished a bit more over my reports, then saved them, printed them out for good measure and started packing.

The view up the estuary

Steele’s Island Accommodation: the perfect place for a writers’ workshop. Huge spaces for meeting and lounging in, more rooms and beds than we could fill, even with half our families along. Outside, a river-beach to stride along to the sea, a wooded hill across the water, waves and mountains in the distance, weather pouring across the sky. Only a few distant holidaymakers reminded us that there was a world beyond ROR. And the landscape showed that this was once an extremely popular place to feast on oysters. We kept to that tradition, at least.

Steeles Island Midden

But aak!, Formidable Energies was scheduled for the first critique session in the morning, and I hadn’t thought about it for six weeks—how would anyone’s comments make sense to me? So after the welcome dinner, deep into the first night and early in the morning I went over it again, reacquainting myself with its wild ambitions, its flights of fancy, its longueurs and its pathological avoidance of any form of action on the part of its main character.

Then on the Tuesday morning, all those weeks of solitary work suddenly blossomed into community, and made perfect sense. My story, which had seemed so stale and stuck, sketchy and hopeless, suddenly loosened, lightened and took flight on contact with the possibilities brought to it by my colleagues. From feeling as if I couldn’t progress without wearing amounts of research and tedious clunky plot-making, I went in the space of 2 hours to being excited about the many, many ways this story could go, the means by which I could get my main man moving, the significance I could bring to the powers plaguing him, both in Ireland and the new land. I saw the way forward; I saw several ways forward. I couldn’t wait to get back to the ms. and try out these ideas.

Just as good, if not so directly personally affecting, were the rest of the critique sessions. I would come out of the 2 x 2-hour sessions almost unable to think straight, I’d absorbed so much as I listened to Rowena, Richard, Dirk, Tansy and Maxine’s encounters with the same manuscripts. They’d responded so differently – or they’d felt the same, but phrased their response so differently, or come up with some completely ingenious solution. It was thoroughly absorbing to watch other RORers’ novels fly apart under each critiquer’s hands and then be brought back together in new ways.

Thank you so much, ROR-ettes, for the time and thought that went into your reports. Thanks for the privilege of reading and considering your works in progress. Thanks Tansy and Andrew for finding Steele’s Island, Dirk for the wonderful food, Daryl and David for radiating calmness, Steven for tourist-ing on our behalf, and Raeli and Mima for providing an understorey of questions, songs, sand-sweeping, fruit-eating and general play.


Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Authors and Public Speaking, Book Launches, Dialogue, Editing and Revision, Genre Writing, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Point of View, Research, Story Structure, World Buildng, Writing Craft, Writing Groups | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Inner Life of a Successful Writer

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 29, 2011

Chocolate and Coffee - also must haves for the writer!

Back in the late nineties after I had my first children’s book published I wrote up a Beginning Writer’s Checklist (here’s the updated version).

Recently, I came across this post The Common Traits of the Successful Writer by Bob Mayer, Part One and Part Two. He starts with:

‘It’s not normal to sit alone and write 100,000 words.  So let’s get that out of the way.  You aren’t normal.  You aren’t in the bell curve and you aren’t necessarily on the good side of the curve. ‘

I had to smile.

He says the publishing industry is changing faster than ever and he’s absolutely right. Once there was one way to get published – Write. Write short stories and books, develop your craft, attend workshops, develop your craft, make short story sales, enter competitions. Do all this while writing every day. Win or place in competitions. Develop your craft. Approach publishers with a CV of published short stories  and placings in competitions, get rejections.  Attend more workshops. Develop your craft. Keep writing. After about 10 years get that first publishing contract from a major publisher. And then you really start to learn, because as a writer you never stop learning.

Was it perfect? No. Good books were overlooked. (Some people lucked onto a book sale with their first book. Then they had to do all their development as a writer meeting deadlines in the public eye).

Now … People can self publish, release their books as e-books and Print on Demand. They don’t have to wait on recognition from major publishers. Of course this means a lot of books that are not ready for publication see the light of day. How do readers sift through these to find the gems? That’s a post topic for another day.

Back to the traits of a successful writer. This is an interesting quote from Bob Mayer:

‘Remember something about the art of writing: It is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see the colors and strokes that make a painting, feel a sculpture, and hear music.  The manner in which each individual piece in those fields impacts on the senses is different.  But every writer uses the same letters on a piece of paper.  You have twenty-six letters that combine to form words, which are the building blocks of your sentences and paragraphs.  Everyone has the same words, and when I write that word and you write it, that word goes into the senses of the reader in the same way.  It’s how we weave them together that impact the conscious and subconscious mind of the reader that makes all the difference in the world.

A book comes alive in the reader’s mind.  You use the sole medium of the printed word to get the story from your mind to the reader’s.  It is the wonder of writing to create something out of nothing.  Every book started with just an idea in someone’s head.  Isn’t that a fantastic concept?’

He’s right about writers all using the same 26 letters and the book going from the writer’s mind to the reader’s mind. But to me writing is deeply sensual. I create a Resonance file (See here and here). The file is packed with images, snatches of research, true stories and, while I don’t collect music, I know what music the characters would listen to. This file is a pale outer representation of the inner world of the story. In my mind the world of the story, it’s characters and society is richly sensual and packed with detail.

Mayer doesn’t actually list the common traits of successful writers because he’s plugging books on the topic. (The Writers Toolkit and the Warrior Writer – Both links were down).

Here’s my list of a successful writer’s traits:

1. A Passion to Write. This is the kind of passion that keeps you awake at night thinking about plots and characters. The kind of passion that drives you to sneak away from the family on Christmas Day to write because you just can’t keep away from the story. Which leads to …

2. Perseverance. The craft of writing is something you can read about in books, but often you have to ‘discover’ it as you write. The recognition of something only comes as you are doing it and you internalise the understanding. All of this springs from …

3. A Love of Reading. (This really means a love of story in all its forms). If you were the sort of kid who got lost in a book, if you are the sort of person who goes to see a movie and spends the next three days thinking about alternate endings, then you are a writer. The more you read, the more you internalise the craft of writing. And writing consists of …

4. A Love of Words for their own sake. I’ve always been fascinated by words, by the history that words contain and by the power of a single word, how it can change the meaning of a whole sentence. But words are just the building blocks for …

5. A Love of Story. Story is not plot. Story is a combination of plot (events that happen) and character (the people who react to these events or trigger them by their actions). Combine these two and you have something that comes to life in the reader’s head. Story. But just having a story is not enough. You need to hone that story with …

6. Persistence and Patience. (Writing is Rewriting) A successful writer needs the persistence to keep writing, but the patience to give your book time to sit while you mature as a writer. When you first finish a book you are too close to it to see the flaws. Time and distance is needed. Working on another project will help you hone your writing craft. Then, when you come back to the original draft of the first book, you’ll see ways to improve it. Published writers have editors who help them do this while meeting deadlines.

Do self published writers need all these traits? Of course they do. They need them more because they don’t have  a professional editor helping polish the story they love. Whether you self publish or are published by a major publisher you want your book to be the best it possibly can be. This means polishing the book and developing traits (strategies) to make you the best writer you can possibly be.

I haven’t mentioned writing groups here. I’ve done several posts on the importance of writing groups. ROR is an example of how a group supports the individual and furthers their craft. Here’s list of posts I’ve done on the topic:

Writing Groups where would we be Without Them?

ROR 101 (How we set up the group)

Critiquing 101


Do you belong to a writing group? Do you write every day? How do you motivate yourself?

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Editors, Nourish the Writer, Plotting, Publishing Industry, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Dialogue – a powerful tool!

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 4, 2011

As writers we can’t get away from writing dialogue. My son is currently reading Dostoevsky and he showed me a passage he’d just read which was one paragraph that went on for pages. Of course that book was  written 150 years ago, but you only have to pick up a book from the nineteenth century to see how fiction writing has changed ‘gentle reader’. Along with that change in tone, comes the change in how much dialogue there is compared to narrative.

We expect to see lots of white space on the page. Because of movies and TV we readers expect to be part of fast paced conversations. We expect to get our story through conversation. I teach writing film treatment, script, storyboarding and animatic so I am always watching TV series and movies, analysing the structure of the story, characterisation, world building and pacing. I can’t help myself. I do it with books, too. It is the writer’s burden, to be unable to switch off the internal editor. In fact, if a movie or a book captures you to such an extent that you don’t notice the scaffolding, it’s a joy!

Dialogue needs to do many things. It needs to:

Drive the story forward.

That’s a simple one. We can all think of instances where the author uses dialogue to reveal information vital to the unfolding plot. A mystery will have the protagonist (usually first-person narrative) questioning people to unravel the mystery.

Impart back-story (without info dumping).

This one is a bit harder because you can’t have the protagonist saying something to another character that they both know. Yet, you may need to convey this specific information to the reader. You could have the two characters arguing – ‘No, it didn’t happen this way. You’ve got it wrong’. Or, you could do what I call The 13th Warrior Ploy – you introduce a protagonist who doesn’t know the back-story/society and another character has to explain what’s going on. We’ve all been in that position, starting a new job, needing to pick up information really quickly. This is handled really well in the movie The 13th Warrior, when Antonio Banderas plays an ambassador sent to the north who falls in with a group of Vikings.

Reveal character – through how the protagonist speaks, through what they say and via the reactions of the other characters to them.

Obviously there are dialogue quirks we associate with certain characters. They could be well educated and pedantic. They could have an accent – this needs to be handled well. Rather than trying to write phonetically,  use one or two words and try to capture the rhythm of their speech.

What the character says reveals their world view. Someone who grew up on the bottom rungs of society might have a chip on their shoulder and immediately assume that everyone else is out to trick them. How other people react to that person reveals their character. Much of dialogue is action and reaction. Action – needing to impart information. Reaction – reacting to an event or other dialogue.

Increase tension – through the obvious imparting of information (Flash we only have 12 hours to save the earth!), through mis-information (Sure, you can trust me), and through silences.

Silences may sound like a funny thing to include in dialogue but they are very powerful. In film a silence is really obvious and it creates a mystery or a sense of immanence, of information about to be imparted.

In a book it is less easy to create that tension of silence because we are living in the internal world of the character and their thoughts carry us along. So, if there is a silence, we often get the character’s thoughts as they anticipate what the other person is going to say or analyse what is going on. One author who did silences really well was Anne Rice in Interview with the Vampire. Towards the end I can remember feeling a rising tension because  the other character because wasn’t communicating. There was the sense of things left unsaid.

Coming back to mis-information or subtext. I like it when a conversation carries layers. There’s the obvious layer of what is being said and there’s the deeper layer. One line that springs to mind comes from a recent movie, Tamara Drewe. It was a romantic comedy, written by a woman and tells the story of three women of different ages. The eldest was a woman in her forties, played by Tamsin Greig. She is married to an author and runs a writer’s retreat. (I particularly liked the portrayal of authors – very amusing). Her husband is a philanderer, and a reasonably successful mystery writer.  She spends all her time running the hobby farm, catering to the visiting writers and acting as his secretary, while he gallivants off to festivals (and has affairs). You need all this back-story to get the layers to the dialogue. Early in the movie she discovers the chicken shed’s foundations are rotting and she gets really angry. She’s trying to fix it while muttering – ‘It’s all rotten underneath’. Sure, she’s talking about the shed, but she’s also talking about her marriage and her anger springs from that. It’s a really nice piece of characterisation.

Most importantly, dialogue should do more than one thing.

So take a look at dialogue in books you enjoy and in TV series and movies. How many levels is the dialogue working on? Can you think of a writer who does really good dialogue?

Posted in Dialogue, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Ghosts by Gaslight!

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on September 14, 2011

Stop Press!

Richard says:

Just received some great news from my French publisher. They want me to go over for the Montreuil Book Fair, plus some bookshop signings and schools. They’ll fly me over at the end of November and rent an apartment for two weeks in Paris for Aileen and me. Formidable!!

And …

Whoo! The Ghosts by Gaslight anthology just came out from Harper Voyager in the US—and I’m in it! A very special moment for me, to be in the company of names like Robert Silverberg, Gene Wolfe, Peter S. Beagle, James Morrow and Jeffrey Ford!

I think it was at the Melbourne Worldcon when Jack Dann said he’d like a story from me for a collection he was editing with Nick Gevers, a collection that combined supernatural with steampunk with Victoriana. Right down my alley! He mentioned other potential contributors he was going to invite, like Gene Wolfe and Robert Silverberg, Garth Nix and Sean Williams, and I remember thinking, well, it would be nice if just a few of them accepted. In fact, the final roll-call turned out way way better than Jack ever hinted. So many of my all-time favourite authors, including our very own Margo from ROR,with a very good ghost story called “The Proving of Smollet Standforth”.

I took it as my role to be a strong steampunk representative, since that’s what I’m known for nowadays. And the basic idea for my story had been lurking in my mind for a long time.  It tied in with the first memory that I’m sure is my own real memory—and not recreated from what adults told me—which is when I was about our or five. We were on holiday in the seaside town of Fleetwood, in Lancashire, England, and looking at Fleetwood pier, which had been recently destroyed by fire. It stuck far out into the sea, a wreckage of tangled, twisted girders, and not just tangled, not just twisted, but racked and contorted like an expression of agony, a frozen shriek of pain. That was the seed for “Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism”.

It’s sort of supernatural, but it’s also very definitely steampunk, with steam-age machinery at the centre of the story. Late nineteenth century research into electro-therapy is also involved, as carried out by such pioneer brain-scientists as Eduardo Hitzig, Sir David Ferrier and Friedrich Goltz. Although there are ghosts in the story, these are not ghosts as we have known them!

“Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism” was an amazingly difficult story to write, because I couldn’t get the voice I needed. I started to write in First Person, re-wrote in Third Person, tried again with a different-sounding First Person, another go at Third Person, and finally—phew! gasp!—hit upon a First Person voice that sounded just right. I guess the problem was the contradiction between using formal vocabulary and long sentences, necessary to get the 19th century feel, but also conveying intense emotion and an underlying thrill of horror. My lifeline was Edgar Allan Poe—I confess, I actually read a Poe short story every morning before starting work on “Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism”. I’ve never put myself  deliberately under an influence in that way before, but it worked!

Any questions on writing steampunk?

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Creativity, Editing and Revision, Steampunk, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Writing Process

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on April 15, 2011

This one is for the Gorgeous Goth Girl, who dropped by the writers’ table at Brisbane Supanova and asked if I could do a post about the Writing Process.

Writing Process is such a huge topic, I thought I’d review some of the posts we’ve done in the last couple of years.

Starting with the Aspiring Writer’s Check list.

Here is one on the Writing Process.

First of all, are a plotter or a pantser? And what can you do about plotting?

So how do you grab the reader in the first 10 minutes?

One of my favourites that I like to use, Deep Point of View.

And here’s a really nerdy one, Characterization through View Point, revealed by Action.

How do you integrate back story?

And here’s one we all need to beware of The Sagging Middle!

What if you were going really well with your book, then life got in the way and you had to go off and do something else for a couple of months and now you want to get back into the book? See here for tips on getting back into your manuscript.

When it is all done, then there’s the Revision and Editing.

But don’t just listen to me. One of the writers I keep going back to is Holly Lisle. This is her page of extensive writing tips. Here is her page on courage for writers.  Frankly, we all need the courage to believe in ourselves. And this is Holly’s page on How to Finish your novel. And while we are talking about really useful site with lots of writing tips, there’s our very own Richard Harland’s 145 page guide to Writing. He breaks it into Good Writing Habits, The Elements, Characters, Story, Language and Getting Published.

There you are, Gorgeous Goth Girl, no excuse not to get stuck into your manuscript!

Out of curiosity, are there an requests from our readers?

Posted in Characterisation, Editing and Revision, Plotting, Point of View, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »

Grab that reader in the first 10 minutes

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on November 27, 2010

There’s a saying in movies that you have to grab the viewer in the first ten minutes.

Next time you’re watching your favourite movies take a look at what has happened by the ten minute mark.

By the time those precious ten minutes are up, the viewer should know who the hero is, what he/she wants and what the main thrust of the plot will be.

And they should CARE about the hero/heroine  otherwise they are not going to keep watching and you’ve lost them. The same goes for books.

How far can a reader get in ten minutes? Ten pages, one chapter? How long do you have to capture the reader?

Rather than worry about how long you have, concentrate on making your opening so gripping, the reader has to keep turning the pages.

I love genre. I am unashamedly a genre writer so, for me, Story is King (or Queen if you are worried about sexism). And for me,  Story = Plot driven by Character. Now that I’ve warned you about my (not so) hidden agenda, here are my tips.

When I run workshops I tell aspiring writers make me care. To do this:

Give your hero/heroine a BIG problem.

Make your readerlike them. (They don’t have to be all sweetness and light. In fact I like a character better if they have failings. Abercrombie’s Glokta is one of my favourite characters!).

Put your hero/heroine in danger.

Reveal something to the reader, that the character doesn’t know. Make it something they need to know.

Make the bad guys really bad, but with a motivation that would be logical. And if you really want to turn the screws, make your baddie a little bit likable, too.

Set a time limit.

Make your character determined to do something (even if it turns out to be the wrong thing). There is nothing so irritating as a character who vacillates.

Keep back-story to a minimum. (I know this is hard in fantasy and SF because we build these amazing worlds and societies, which impact on our characters’ motivations and life choices. But it is the PEOPLE the reader cares about, not the history). You can fill the reader in later. As a reader, I’ll take a lot on faith if I am captured by the characters and their dilemma. I can catch up with back story later.

Logic – make sure your world building is logical. Nothing breaks the reader’s suspension of disbelief faster than a logic flaw. And if there’s one in the first chapter, the book is likely to be riddled with them.

There’s lots of good advice for writers on how to make their opening chapter/s riveting. Here are Mike Gagon’s tips for writing a great opening for your books. And here at Fiction Notes they cover the basics.

See here for some analysis of openings from Sarah Hoyt over at the Mad Genius Club. And here’s some first paragraphs.

See Leanne C Taylor’s article on how the 10 minute movie rule applies to games. 

For fun see here for great opening sentences from science fiction books, a post by Charles Jane Anders. And here are 100 great opening lines from all sorts of books. Andhere at is a list of opening chapters (an excerpts) from novels, if you want to do some reading to compare how other authors handle this.

Those first 10 minutes, when the reader steps into your world and into your character’s shoes are critical. Do you have a favourite opening page or two, that gripped you from the start? Is there an author you know you can rely on to sweep you away?

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Finding your Character’s Voice

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 26, 2010

This is a Sunday Craft post that’s turning up on a Wednesday. The VISION list has been discussing how writers find their character’s voice, so I thought I’d ask the RORees for their insights.

Richard Harland:

How do I find a character’s voice? Well, basically, by not looking for it. I’d never try to envisage a character’s voice as something that could exist all by itself – I mean, turns of phrase, speech patterns in a vacuum?  I only start to discover how a character speaks when I try them out interacting with someone else. Then it becomes a question of how they try to influence others, bounce off others, show a particular face to the world … and that’s what produces their individual voice. Character determines interaction with others determines way of speaking to others determines typical turns of phrase and speech patterns. That’s the sequence that works for me.

I’m talking about a voice within a third person narrative, of course. It’s different in a first person narrative when the character is the narrator. I’ve just had huge struggles over a story called “Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism” for an international anthology called Ghosts by Gaslight, and my struggles were 90% over getting the right voice for the narrator. It had to be a 19th century voice, therefore formal and proper, but at the same time intense and emotional. A difficult balancing act – and I began the story the story five times over before getting it right. Maybe that’s my only advice for a first person narrator’s voice – keep on experimenting, however long it takes, because if you haven’t got the voice, you haven’t got anything.

For Richard’s Writing Tips see here.





Tansy Rayner Roberts

I’m just coming to the end of a trilogy that’s more complex than anything else I’ve ever written, largely because of voice.  I have several POV characters, most third person and a few first person, and it’s hard work to keep them all feeling like they have a distinct voice.

My personal ideal is that you should be able to tell whose eyes the scene is being shown through even if they’re not named (though of course I do always name them, I’m not that mean!).  My main trick for capturing voice is vocabulary – I like to have a few key words that are specific to a particular character, something they use more that others don’t.  I also like to use phrasing that links back to their past or their interests – so my dressmaker sees the world in craft metaphors, the performer from a small fishing town uses theatrical comparison and sea shanty style insults, my aristocrat has a higher sense of entitlement and impatience and a complete tomcat sensibility which means he wants to have sex with everyone he meets…

There is no perfect way, but I do like to have a few things to cling to with each character that makes me feel as if I am in their head, and telling this part of the story through their voice.  Swearing is a great key to each character – some characters swear more than others, some more creatively, some prissily, some boldly, and some not at all.  Though as with anything you can overdo that kind of difference – you don’t want to end up as a parody of your own techniques!  I hope I get the balance right.

Having said all that I am REALLY looking forward to my next book which will only have one POV character, first person, and one single voice to capture.  Oh, the luxury!

Maxine McArthur:

Sometimes a character’s voice is there from the beginning. Halley was like that. I did a little tweaking in the middle of writing Time Future because the plot changed greatly, but basically from the moment I wrote the prologue—which stayed pretty much the same without rewriting—she was ‘there’. In my head. Which was a bit scary.

Tacs (a character in my present project) is like that, too. I’ve never had to struggle to wonder what he’s going to say or do. With these characters, the right words tend to come out easily.

Sometimes a character’s voice develops as I write—the more I get to know them, the easier it is to express their thoughts. You have to court them. Murdoch was like this, and also Ishihara in Less Than Human. It’s an enjoyable process, this getting to know a character. It may involve quite a bit of rewriting, but that’s part of the fun. The words don’t come out as easily with these characters—yesterday I spent a good 15 minutes (I was also boiling an egg at the time, that’s how I know) finding the right two lines of description from a certain character’s point of view.

I think that ‘finding’ a character’s voice is a cumulative process, not a point of ‘aha!’ discovery. The more time you spend getting it right in the beginning (like my 15 minutes), the easier the words come as the story progresses. It’s as though the character’s voice wears a path in your subconscious, and when you step onto that path, like a record needle placed in the groove, you can’t go wrong. This is another reason I spend a bit of time each writing session re-reading previous passages—it helps set the needle in the right groove.

Trent Jamieson: (Warning, Trent was overcome by an attack of Whimsy!)

The Tournée Method

For this method you need at least six or seven jars, with their lids as well. Make sure you remove their labels, and wash the jars and their lids thoroughly, and I mean thoroughly they must be as clean as possible.

You will also need a very sharp knife, and I mean Very sharp, the sort of blade that will cut you if you if you look at it from the wrong angle. Yes, that sharp. A tournée or a bird’s beak knife as they are commonly known is best, though you may need it professionally sharpened. Most supermarkets sell them, but if you cannot find one there, try a shop that supplies kitchen items to chefs.

With your tournée knife, and your jars, (careful, don’t break them, the jars must be whole, the lid making a perfect seal) walk to the nearest bus stop or train station.

As you probably know, the four winds of the world gather there, there’s nothing they delight in more than blowing open people’s umbrellas, or mixing rubbish, dirt and air in whirling bursts to scatter over commuters’ finest work outfits. More importantly the four winds contain all the voices of the world.

Sit at the stop (or station), switch off your Ipod and listen. Listen in the most profound way you can, above the sound of approaching buses (or trains). Strain your ears. Listen to the voices of the world. You’ll find if they’re fast or slow or angry. You’ll know if they hate or they love. If they speak in long slow sentences or rush as rapid as racehorse, a real thoroughbred. You’ll know if they are educated or not, if they like to swear or sweeten their words.

Listen. Concentrate.

Now, when you have found what you are looking for, be quick, and be subtle. Open a jar, slip out your knife, and (careful not cut yourself of or others) slice the voice from the wind. You don’t need it all, just a sliver.

Fill each jar with a different voice, some will be heavy some will be light, when you have enough take them home and set the jars on your desk, or wherever it is that you work. Do not shake the jars! That would be cruel.

Each voice should last you at least six months, possibly twelve, enough time to get a novel written, enough time to know what that voice is saying, what it’s thinking. By the end you should be able to close your eyes and hear that voice even when it isn’t there.

At that stage you should be able to empty the jars, rinse, clean, then repeat as required.

Don’t you just love, Trent?

But what’s he’s saying is true. All the voices in the world are out there. You just need to listen. I catch a lot of trains. Commuter trains tend to be serious business, but trains at off peak times are real microcosm of the world. I listen and sometimes people talk to me. I must have a friendly face because people tell me the most amazing things.

So there you are, some insights on how writers find their characters’ voices.

Posted in Characterisation, Creativity, Nourish the Writer, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 14 Comments »

In the beginning …

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 16, 2010

We writers spend so much time over openings. This post over at the Mad Genius Club made me think about openings.

There is the first paragraph,which has to sparkle so much it grabs the jaded editor and then it has to grab the fussy reader, browsing through the bookstore. (How important is the first paragraph when a reader can download the whole novel instantly, often for free?).

But the real challenge is  the opening chapters.

These opening chapters have to set up the world which is harder for speculative fiction writers because even a Dark Urban Fantasy writer’s world has different rules from the one we live in.  Holly Lisle has some tips on getting to know your world here.

I tend to let the world grow as I write. I trust myself to do this because I’ve done a lot of reading on sociology and anthropology. In fact the real art is not to introduce too much world building. The writer reveals only what the reader needs to know, as they need to know it.

These opening chapters  have to introduce the characters and make the reader CARE about them. This is terribly important. If your reader doesn’t care why would they keep reading? This is where Holly Lisle talks about bringing characters to life.

There’s a saying, have your character save the cat – meaning have them do something likable. I’d say, even if the character is doing terrible things, the reader will like them if they are doing these things for a good reason. So make your character’s motives powerful, make these motives something the reader can identify with.

Rather than constructing characters, I tend to throw them into conflict and see what they do. This way I get to know the character as the reader gets to know them. This has the added bonus of putting the character is danger which  raises the Worry Factor as I call it. The more your reader is worrying about the character, the more they are going to want to keep turning the pages.

These opening chapters have to introduce the conflict. If you throw your characters straight into trouble, then you’ve already introduced the conflict. By the end of the first two chapters (depending on the complexity of the plot) the reader should have a good idea what the driving force of the conflict is. Holly Lisle covers conflict here, both internal and external conflict.

So this is why opening chapters are so important. I often find that I’ve started too late and have to go back to write more before the original opening. Do you struggle with beginnings?

Posted in Characterisation, Genre Writing, World Buildng, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , | 11 Comments »

Writing for Young Adults

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on October 13, 2010

Today we have Lara Morgan doing a guest post. Lara’s book, The Rosie Black Chronicles is published by Walker Books. We’ll be giving away a copy of Lara’s book, so watch out for the give-away question at the end of the post.

Writing for young adults wasn’t something I naturally fell into. Everything I’ve written previously has been for adults, but I found myself with a gap of time a few years back and I thought, why not write a story specifically for young adults? I’d been working on a complex fantasy trilogy for some time and I was really looking for something totally different to that and since I’ve often read a lot of YA I thought I would have a go at writing it. For some reason, I thought it might be easier.

Well the simple answer to that is, of course, it’s not easier, but it is a little different.

Firstly, and this is something I had pointed out to me by a fellow writer early on, it is vitally important that you don’t let any of the adults take over the story. It sounds bleedingly obvious really, but as a writer used to having older characters as the focus, this was a lesson that had to be learned quickly.

In The Rosie Black Chronicles I have two fairly prominent adults, Rosie’s aunt and a man called Riley, and at one stage in an early draft Rosie’s aunt began edging onto centre stage. I almost didn’t realise it until my mentor told me that Essie was becoming more interesting and getting better lines, than Rosie herself.

How to solve this? Well, in time honoured YA tradition I had to hurt her. Aunt Essie, that is not Rosie. Yes, I found one of the best ways of scaling down any adult involvement in the plot is to maim them. It was very freeing. Suddenly I felt the story begin to come alive and it allowed Rosie to step forward and show her true heroic colours. It was the most important lesson I learned about writing YA and it’s something I stick with now as I’m working on the second in the series.

The three other things that differ in YA are:

Word count – novels generally max out at around 85,000 words, which as a writer of door stopper size fantasy was a challenge for me.

Language  and Sex.

Those last two, language and sex, depend on how young your audience is and your publisher, but also very much on the kind of book you’re crafting. Generally there is a less is more approach for swearing and its pretty much assumed that graphic descriptions of sex aren’t appropriate for YA.

In Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go, he cleverly masks the swearing of his main character in a way that is absolutely logical in the terms of the story, so that when a swear word is actually used once, and only once, by a character that scene resonates in a way that  would not have been possible had swearing been commonplace throughout the book.

That’s not to say bad language can’t be used in YA. I have read many books where it is present but it is clear from the outset that it is part of the characters and a reflection of their world and it not being there would make it seem as if the author were being coy and not telling the truth.

Sex in YA is a bit more difficult. One the one hand there is a certain view that as these books are aimed at a teen audience sex should be portrayed as responsibly as possible and something that is not casual or without consequence and I think, as a whole most YA novels tend toward this. Graphic descriptions of sex are irregular but references to characters having sex are generally just that, references without the actual act occurring or just plenty of heavy petting. I don’t have sex in my book, but sexual attraction is certainly present as I feel it would just be dodging the truth to pretend that characters in their late teens don’t have any such feelings. Because really, in writing YA, it is as important to tell the truth about people’s feeling and developments as it is in any fiction, regardless if you’re writing science fiction, contemporary fiction or paranormal romance. That’s all I hope to do with my stories; tell the truth about the world and the people in it and hope those who read it enjoy it.


Giveaway Question

How many years in the future is The Rosie Black Chronicles set?  (hint: watch the book trailer for the answer)

We’ll announce the winner in one week’s time, on Thursday the 21st of October.

Posted in Australian Spec Fic Scene, Book Giveaway, Characterisation, Genre Writing, Plotting, Promoting your Book, Visiting Writer, Writing Craft, Writing for Young Adults | Tagged: , , , , , | 11 Comments »

Male Characters and Male Readers or What do men really want in a book?

Posted by Rowena Cory Daniells on August 14, 2010

Following on from the recent discussion on the blogs about YA readership, books for girls with strong female characters and books for boys with identifiable male characters I thought I’d dip into character construction, specifically male characters for male readers, which is really cheeky because I’m female, I’ve never been male and I’m not likely to be. But I do have four sons and a husband. (I’ve nicknamed my house Testosterone City).

Over at Tamora Pierce’s blog on why she writes for girls, she says ‘These days, whether anyone believes it or not, 6-7 of the books published for kids through teens still have male heroes. Not much of a change, is it? A study done on picture books recently pointed out that the majority of human characters in those books were men, shown doing active work, while women were shown in domestic settings, doing nurturing tasks. Not operating steam shovels.’

(As a side note to this, I watch the British TV shows Grand Designs which is follows couples building their homes. They repeatedly interview the women in their kitchens preparing food).

Peirce refers to Hannah Moskowitz’s post on ‘The Boy Problem’ where Hannah talks about the type of male characters prevalent in YA books and why boy readers don’t relate to them.

The cry seems to be that we need more books for boys once they leave the middle primary grades to get them reading. When I mentioned this discussion to a work colleague who writes for computer games, she said that a book can’t compete with a computer game where the player is the character having the adventure!

So we are losing the next generation of male readers to computer games. Meanwhile, women make up the majority of readers, they buy more books. See Eric Weiner’s article ‘Why Women Read More Than Men. ‘Among avid readers surveyed by the Associated Press, the typical woman read nine books in a year, compared with only five for men. Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.’

Which brings us to the male reader. What does the hypothetical male reader want?

Apparently it is not books about disempowered women. Over on her blog, Glenda Larke is objecting to male readers who are uncomfortable with her exploration of female choices in a time of war. She says:

‘Stormlord Rising is a fantasy novel, but it does deal with issues of war and its effects, especially on the woman and children who are caught up in the battle. Ok, so it’s a story, not a treatise, but it touches on things like: how much should a woman do to keep her unborn baby safe? Should a woman use her sexual allure and her body to stay alive? How much should you compromise your principles for those you love?’

These are realistic questions, and it is good to see them being explored in a fantasy setting. But this particular male reader found it confronting.

Consider this – a man might never have to confront the reality of being disempowered. He won’t have to cope with snide sexual references at work and then be told he’s a bad sport if he complains. Unless he ends up in prison, he will probably never have to fear rape.

If you ask this hypothetical male reader to empathise with a character who has to deal with these things you will lose him. (Obviously there are male readers who can empathise with female characters just as there are boy readers who will read a book with a female protagonist as the point of view character).

My male relatives are particularly keen on Bernard Cornwall’s books. These are always well researched and contain strong male characters battling against violent times while remaining true to what they believe in. Cornwall’s books deliver a ripping read and they sell really well so he knows how to write convincing male characters which appeal to the male reader.

There are plenty of articles on writing good characters. See Holly Lisle on How to Create a Character.

This is an amusing take on how men think from the Romance University. (Contains feedback from real males). And here is a follow up post.

But I did not find a lot of information on writing male characters. I found this interesting article On Writing Convincing Male Characters at Advanced Fiction, by Randy Ingermanson. He uses this as an example:

Apparently, when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” a lot of women assume there is some hidden meaning, such as:

  • Your hair usually looks terrible. It’s about time you did something right with it.
  • Your makeup is a mess, but at least your hair is OK.
  • You’re fat. The hair compensates a little, but you’re still fat.
  • Let’s hop in bed, you nymph, you.

The reality is that when a guy says, “Your hair looks nice today,” the secret encoded message which he hopes you pick up is, “Your hair looks nice today.” In the vast majority of cases, that’s all he means. No more. No less. There is no implication that your hair looked bad yesterday or that your makeup suffers by comparison or that you have a weight problem or that it’s time for a roll in the hay.’

So to write a good male character you need to understand the way the typical male mind works while bearing in mind that you are writing a distinct person who happens to be male. That person is going to be shaped by their upbringing and the society in which they now live.

This might sound obvious, but you don’t want to write a 15th century European mercenary with modern sensibilities who is worried about not polluting the environment, although an awareness of the environment would be believable in a native whose survival depended on the stream not being fished out.

Having worked with young males (aged 18-25) over the last year, helping them develop their writing skills, I’ve noticed that 7 out of 10 of these young males want to read stories about gaining warrior skills, then going out and battling evil with a group of other young males. This is hardly surprising since we’ve survived as a species because our males were willing to defend the tribe. The remaining 3 males (out of that group of 10) write exquisitely romantic stories about falling in love. (Romantic in the sweet, sensitive way not the Hallmark card way). And then there is one every so often who writes about a warrior who falls in love with a girl and her sole purpose is not to admire him, but to complete him.

This is hardly a scientific observation, but it does come from practical experience. And you will notice that Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe usually has a romantic interlude with a woman which, while it lasts, is very important to him.

So there you have it. Give the male reader a character he can admire, who stays true to his beliefs, and who is believable bearing in mind his time period. Give the character injustice to fight, the skills to fight it so there is a chance of him winning and a woman he cares about, and you have the seeds of gripping story. (Sounds like a good story for readers of any gender).

Males out there, feel free to comment. I know I’m going out on a limb here, claiming to know what male readers want in male characters.

Posted in Characterisation, Research, Writing Craft | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments »