Tag Archives: main character

Carol’s Homework Assignment Post-WIFYR (Yes, I said “POST”)

The assignment is to read the first chapter of 50 books in the Middle-Grade and Young Adult venue. They can be sci-fi, fantasy, or into whatever genre they fall. I am to read them from a writer’s perspective, paying special attention to: intro to main characters, plot development, intro to other characters, anything useful that points to why these books start out well and, as a result, get published.

So here is the first book. “Edgar Allan’s Official Crime Investigation Notebook” by Mary Amato. Middle-Grade. 140 pages.61K7EpEI-qL

From the School Library Journal:

The kids at Wordsmith Elementary School get a lesson on poetry when a thief stages a series of classroom thefts, leaving behind small poems at the scene of the crime. Edgar Allan keeps notes in his crime journal and writes some verses of his own as his classmates compete to solve the mystery. He thinks his home life is strange with his parents both employed as clowns, but when he learns more about the thoughts and personal lives of his classmates through the poetry they write, he gains a deeper understanding of himself and his community. With characters named Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett and a teacher who drinks Tennyson Tea, readers will get thinly veiled lessons describing alliteration, meter, and metaphor. … A good springboard for introducing poetry units.

Opening paragraph shows the reader the crime of stealing the class goldfish.

Characters introduced:

  1. Edgar Allan (MC)
  2. Ms. Herschel (teacher)
  3. Kip (a skinny boy whose leg was jiggling against his desk)
  4. Taz (the class clown)
  5. Maia (the person who gave the fish to the class)
  6. Gabriella (the new girl)
  7. Destiny Perkins (Another classmate. I’m guessing she’s going to be an important character later. She’s the first character given both names)
  8. Patrick Chen (Edgar’s nemesis)

Eight characters introduced in the first four pages. One complaint about my storyline was the introduction of five characters in eight pages. Apparently too many characters are not always an issue. Further study on this will be necessary.

It’s a fast beginning. The theft, the discovery, several theories of who did it, and Edgar and Patrick’s competition to discover the culprit before the other are all laid out by the end of the first chapter (page 6). Fast paced and quick. That part I get.

One comment in a review section said, “It’s a little slow paced as the story progresses and sometimes Edgar seems to think older than a fifth grader.” To people who consider that fifth graders must sound a certain way and be only so intelligent, I divert your attention to “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?”

I had similar complaints that my characters sound older. They sound like I sounded at 14-16. My friends were, for the most part, the same way. We were avid readers and had been for a decade or more by that age. Nerdy kids who read a lot don’t sound like kids who don’t. They don’t think the same way either. I may try to tone it down some, but if I do it too much, the characters will lose their personalities.

I’ll definitely finish Edgar Allan’s Official… It has the makings of a good ride.

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Thinkin’ on Thursday: Road Maps in More Detail

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Last Tuesday I wrote about possible ways for Pantsers to make a road map which would help keep them on the straight and narrow with their novels. I also pointed out what can be learned simply by looking at some stats. And I made a promise. A promise to show what else I learned by taking a careful look beyond the numbers, and checking out the actual content.

This time, I put the chapter number at the top of each section. Underneath, I made 4 columns: page number, character, a single verb describing what the character was doing, and a brief description of what was done. The latter was accomplished in somewhere between two and half ‑a‑dozen words (seldom that many). Some of the pages were completed in only a line or two, most took about four, a few complex ones took more, but my first 14 chapters took only 2 pages, while double‑spacing between chapters. So keep it all short — it’s your story: you should recognize what’s going on in just a few words.

If the verb in the 3rd column was passive (that’s a problem of mine) I typed it in all caps. Here’s an example:

4          Wyndell          THINKS                     about (possibly) dead twin

Poppy            coughs                    —

Mum              rushes                    to help Poppy

Wyndell          STARES                    at tools

tells                           himself he’s NOT the One

HEARS                     Poppy saying “have to be sent…”

Those six lines encapsulated the entire page in 30 words.

So what can be learned from this? After the first 14 chapters I drew a lot of conclusions:

The story didn’t really begin until the second page

It was too long by at least half, considering all the passivity which was trying to pass as action: thinking, wondering, knowing, feeling, realizing, watching, wishing, questioning himself, acknowledging, hearing, worrying, believing — none of those were acting! (How should I deal with the fact that too often Wyndell, the main character, was by himself? How do I work in someone for him to talk to?)

I wanted to know what the reader would actually learn from these pages (in however subtle a way). So I made a list of story items revealed, such as:

An Evil Essence is threatening

11‑year‑old Wyndell is making a Luck Hat with scraps

He begins to notice Elements (water, air, earth, fire) responding to him

He wants to know what his Skill will be

His twin is missing . . . etc., etc., etc.

Then I was able to make some decisions about these chapters:

Split the first long chapter into two

Bring in the Sidekick character as quickly as possible

Let Wyndell confront his ailing father

Mix everything up by throwing in a 3rd (and important) character’s chapter

. . . and so on.

I was surprised to find that even though I was aware, in the back of my mind, that the writing was too passive, it took really listing what was going on to see how nothing much was going on outside the MC’s head. And that led me to seeing other ways to portray the events.

It was an interesting and revealing journey. I would recommend this to any of you who know you need to do some rewriting, but are not quite sure where to start. Good luck with your endeavors!

See you next for Saturday’s Softcover!

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Tips on Tuesday: U 2 Can B cum a Better Writer!

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Toward the end of last month, Write to Done had an article (no author’s name given) emphasizing 3 habits that separate good writers from “Tragic Wannabes” — it suggested 3 essential steps to better writing: study, practice and feedback.

STUDY

Personally, for study, I would suggest workshops and classes, though heaven knows there are also plenty of books out there. Libraries don’t always have the most current info on writing, but they’re free. Community Ed classes often have writing offerings. So do outreach programs from colleges and universities, which may also offer short courses or conferences. Local writers organizations often sponsor workshops, conferences, even contests.

I began my personal “study” program through the League of Utah Writers some time in the late ’70s. Since then I’ve gone to workshops sponsored by the League, by colleges and universities, and by local writers groups. Occasionally some are free, or VERY low cost. When they get up to as much as 5‑7 days long (or more), or they are being taught by highly touted authors/editors/ agents, etc., they are more pricey. But, any way you look at it, you’ll find dozens of options.

PRACTICE

Writers should write. Every day. My current favorite go‑to daily source is 750words.com, which is free for a month. You are sent a reminder every morning. They have on‑line “badges” for starting, having streaks of varying numbers of days without missing a day, number of words written, and so on. When you finally have a “streak” going, it’s pretty motivating to keep it up. If you choose to “belong” to the 750, it’s only $5 a month after the first month. Try it as a freebie! What have you got to lose? For those who have a lot of stick‑to‑it‑ivness, just do it on your own. EVERY day. Without reminders. (Or badges.) Or talk a partner into doing it with you — keep challenging each other. Just Do It, as they say!

Never underestimate the value of re‑writing! Take some of your good pieces, and rewrite to make them have more punch. Rewrite to boost characterization of your main character. Rewrite to take out the dross which was only an information dump (info dump) anyway.

FEEDBACK

Classes will generally give you feedback. Some workshops, or workshop sessions will also. If you take a class, check with your new friends to see who would like to start a critique group with you. It can be in person once a week. Or on‑line, in a chat room, or even by phone. In my opinion, if they’re only willing to meet/critique once a month, it’s not worth it. That’s too long between critiques to get much accomplished. I’m happily aware of two or three critique groups who started by meeting each other in writers classes which I taught in a community ed. setting.

It’s usually not a good idea to get feedback from close relatives or friends. Of course, your mother thinks your writing is brilliant. Your siblings are dazzled by your outpourings. Your best friend won’t tell you what she “really” thinks. Start with “relative” strangers: people you meet in classes and/or workshops. Join a writers’ group like the League ‑ pretty much every state has them.

Study, Practice, Feedback, and your writing will improve! Give it a shot!

See you next time for Thinking on Thursday!

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Thinkin’ on Thursday: Your MC’s Intellectual, Psychological and Emotional Impact

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

Today, I’m thinking about the impact of minor characters on my Main Character (MC). And MC’s impact on others. How do characters inter‑relate? What do they glean from each other, both good and bad? What do they offer to each other?

I had lunch the other day with six of my former debate students from years and years ago. We’d gotten together a few times in the past, but had missed doing so for the last five years. In or near their 30’s now, two of them are working in law offices. Both are basically fulfilling the roles of paralegals, one having had some outside training, the other being taught by her company. One will finish her B.S. this year at the U of U, then begin applying for law school. The other, currently being “trained” by her work place, will get as much training as possible which is offered at her work, and will then go back to school. Both of them are the main support of their two children.

One of the others, having worked years ago with the Utah State Legislature, has a good, solid and responsible job, but also plans on returning to school, has one child and is currently separated from her husband.

Another quit a lucrative and responsible workplace for a “better job” recently: she has become a stay‑at‑home mom. Another, after an LDS mission, and a stint with the military has separated from his wife, works in a law‑involved field, but lives close to and sees his two children often.

What was I seeing from all of them? Shades and shadows of how their debating experience had influenced their interest in world‑wide affairs, their willingness to put themselves “out there” and live a challenging, sometimes difficult, but often rewarding, life. All, without exception, were actively engaged in their own lives. They were still looking forward, still planning “what comes next,” still curious, and still actively involved.

As writers, we need to be the same: curious, involved, active, with wide interests and involvement in the “job” at hand, whether at home, at work, in our writing, in our characters. Take a look at how all your characters — especially the main characters — are influenced by their friends, their enemies, their interests, the actions and reactions of the people around them.

When people are this involved in their own lives, they are influenced intellectually, psychologically and emotionally. All these aspects of your characters will make them feel real, sound real, act in authentic ways. Look at how your antagonist impacts your MC. In one story, that influence may be highly emotional. In another, it may be mostly psychological. Or it may be an intellectual impact. All three may even be evident in the same story, though not necessarily at the same time.

All of these will make your characters more “real.” Your readers will connect with these “real” human beings more quickly, more deeply . . . because readers are influenced in that way by THEIR friends . . . and seeming “enemies” . . . too.

See you next for Spellbinder Saturday!

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Wednesday’s WIPs: What Happened to the WIPs During NaNo?

Easy as A, B, C . . . from HA, BB, JC, and CC

H.A. The Other Siders: NaNo is OVER ! ! !  The book is now complete, but heavy editing is just around the corner.  I am about to do a Savage edit, but I’m not going to start the edit for two weeks because I need to let it simmer and settle.  I need to forget enough of it that I’m looking at it with fresh eyes.  Next report may be “nothing to report.”

B.B. gElf and the Legend of Jarra‑Jen:  With more than 17,000 words in this partial manuscript, I still need to activate some judicious cutting.  And that’s what I said two weeks ago as well.  I cleaned up parts of the story, wrote some more all for National Novel Writing Month.  I got the main story to be a little more cohesive and, hopefully, more character ‑ driven.  I plan to finish polishing the three or four chapters I’m allowed to send to the Dark Crystal contest, ending with tension which will, hopefully, induce the judges to want to see more.  Between these two manuscripts, I ended up with over 52,000 words for NaNo.

Glass Mountain Princess: Then I turned my efforts to writing this fairy tale which had been languishing in the background. I’ve straightened out more of the characters, and have given some real and up ‑ front time to the Main Character.  Previously he didn’t show up as being the “most important” — in other words, the MC until quite a ways into the story.  He also has more personality showing than before.  I like his more independent spirit now — he’s more than just the target of his mean brothers.  I also have introduced the Mountain Folk as more integral to the plot, which gives him friends — maybe even a “side ‑ kick” character as that relationship develops.  I’m going to let the gElf story sit and stew for a couple of weeks while I continue work on this story.  Then I’ll take two to three days to polish gElf, send him off, so I can return to the Glass Mountain Princess story.  I’d like to send it to the agent before the end of the year.  And THAT’S a lot of work ahead.  Hooray!

C.C. Ezzy Bear: I am a NaNo survivor — and winner! I almost completed the book—I have one difficult chapter still to write, maybe two.  I just barely made it through. Anyone who succeeds at NaNo deserves the Tee-shirt!  I’m NaNo exhausted, so I can’t even think of anything else to say.

J.C. The Shadow Master: After sharing chapter one with my 14 year old son I asked his opinion about the story and what, as a reader, he might expect would happen next.  Based on further conversation with him and the input of my wife, I am moving forward with chapter two and am excited about the new content.

See you day‑after‑tomorrow for Friday Friends!

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Wednesday’s WIPs: WIPpin’ Along in November

EASY AS A, B, C . . . from A, B and both C’s

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.org) is HERE.  So where do we stand on the current WIP—and has it become part of NaNo?

H.A.  The Other Siders: It’s NaNo!  I have over 4,000 new words since our last report. I am going to shove my characters through to the Other Side. The characters now have come up with solutions of their own, and I haven’t had to do a thing about it except write it down! I love it when that happens. It’s good to know the voices in my head can be constructive. 🙂

B.B.  gElf and the Legend of Jarra‑Jen: Still in process and I want to send it in to the Dark Crystal contest, even though NaNo has begun and I need to move on to my faerie‑tale mash‑up.  I’ve done a massive rewrite on the first two chapters about the Gelflings.  I think I really have enough to only need one more chapter before sending it.

Oddly, in both the Gelfling legend and the faerie‑tale, I  had the same problem: both have a young male main character who is not very active in the beginning of the story, leading to little sympathy for a character the reader barely knows: g’Elf in the Dark Crystal story; Ashlad, in the faerie‑tale.  In both stories, a story teller, or Tale‑Teller, comes in and tells the children, or the whole community, a story.  g’Elf figures out that he must become the new personification of the hero Jarra‑Jen to save the Gelflings.  Ashlad, realizes he must take action and save the Princess.

Now that I’ve figured out most of what g’Elf must do, I can mimic—to some extent—his actions in Ashlad’s story.  The twist will be when Ashlad has saved the Princess, he is going to be kidnapped by a marauding pack of wolf‑like creatures, the tables will turn, and the Princess (whom I still have not named!) will now have to save him.

C.C.  Ezzy Bear: I have not learned anything new about commas.  I am doing NaNo for the first time ever—it’s an interesting experiment, an interesting way to write.  It’s difficult not to go back and correct things, so it’s quite a new experience.

J.C. The Shadow Master: I am finding that going back to the beginning of the story and interjecting a new side‑kick is extremely challenging.  Many things written specifically for two characters, but now must include a third.  It’s a good thing I’m an Eagle Scout, because I learned a lot about untying knots!  My wife is convinced this is good for the story, even though she doesn’t have to dwell in the tangled mess.  I registered for NaNo, but am not dedicated to necessarily being a “winner” this year—we’ll see where it goes.

See you day‑after‑tomorrow for Friday’s Friends!

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Tuesday’s Tutor: Is Your MC Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Part III

Easy as A, B, C . . . from BB

In today’s final-of-a-series post, Nikki Trionfo will discuss how to make a smart character do all sorts of dumb things. (Parts I and II were published here on 10/15 and 10/25, or see her unabridged version at http://www.realwriterswrite.com/ 2013/08/is-your-mc-smarter-than-fifth-grader.html

Did I just label a character as smart? Sorry, to reiterate from Part II: no character (or human) is smart. Characters (and humans) merely do things that are smart (or not). And, obviously, they can never do things that are smart all the time and in every sphere, because smartness partially depends on viewpoint. Don’t believe me? Start with a basic Western view of intelligence using the following basic “smart” building blocks:

1.  Logic

2.  Abstract thought

3.  Self-awareness

4.  Communication

5.  Emotional knowledge

Endow your character with all of them. When this character bumps into a reader who values something else, you’ll find the character’s smart-factor starts to dip.

A.  Polynesians might mock the character’s lack of spatial awareness.

B.  Eastern thinkers might demand problem-solving using spirituality, meditation, mysticism, or tradition.

C.  Westerns might stab your character with their literary set of small knives. Who likes a know-it-all?

Even if you could make your MC do smart things all the time, why would you?

A general recommendation (for Western stories especially) is to invent an MC with plenty of smarts in their back pocket, but with an intelligence failure that can be defined clearly and early in the story. Some examples:

PRIDE: Couldn’t Rhett Butler have been nicer to Scarlett? You know, after he knew he loved her? Sure, but she would have used that weakness to mock and manipulate him. The price of love was humility. He wouldn’t cultivate that trait because Scarlett wouldn’t either, damn it.

PERFECTIONISM: Anne Shirley defined romance too narrowly and almost missed out on Gilbert Blithe.

PHYSICAL WEAKNESS: Um, can anyone say femme fatale? Hooking up with that long, cool tube-of-lipstick is asking for trouble. But plenty of characters are “asking,” if you catch my drift.

LOW SELF-ESTEEM: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things features “larger-than-average” Virginia, who has a “plus-sized” inferiority complex. Virginia doesn’t under-stand why the guy who sometimes kisses her would want to hang out with her in public. She doesn’t get it because she sees herself from her point of view, not his. The reader can see she’s pushing away the very thing she needs most: someone who cares about her.

PASSION: If you want something so, so bad, but can’t have it without a terrible cost, it can drive you crazy (Captain Jack). You can make your character’s thoughts spin until they don’t make sense. Start the story while they’re still sane and let them spiral into madness. Or start the story after they’re loopy and give careful hints so that we see their madness is actually rational thought(?) about a desperate goal (Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). You can even have your character obsessed with catching a whale (Moby Dick). Reason doesn’t matter to these characters.

THE FATAL BLIND SPOT: Indulge me, because you’re about to read an excerpt from my own manuscript. In this scene, Salem is sitting in a high school class, processing the fact that her sister Carrie’s supposedly accidental death may have been a murder committed by gang members. The boy sitting behind her has just said her name:

       At the sound of my name, I snap around to look at the guy. He’s accessorized in gang paraphernalia, not caked with it. His only completely visible marking: an upside down V inked onto his cheekbone.

Expressionless, dark eyes stare at me . . .

Terrified, I whirl around to face forward.

A gang member.

And he knows my name.

Up to this point, Salem has narrated faithfully; the reader trusts her. She says the gang member Cordero is ominous—we believe. When we see evidence, later, we hate Cordero as much as Salem does. But what happens when Salem runs into Cordero’s positive qualities?

  “Cordero is dangerous,” I warn her. “He was trying to kill the guys in the car.”

  “No, no. He just chased them away,” AddyDay answers.

  “He was shooting at people,” I insist. “He wanted to kill them.”

  She cuts me off and I haven’t told her what she needs to hear. She needs to be afraid of Cordero—she needs to hate him. He took Carrie. He took everything.

  “He saved my life,” AddyDay repeats.

In this scene, Salem refuses to consider evidence—even from an eye witness —which redeems Cordero. MC-smartness flips off because the reader can see what Salem can’t: She’s got a blind spot. When it comes to Cordero, she’ll see what she emotionally needs to see.

MC’s all need to make mistakes like this occasionally. It makes them human, provides foreshadowing, and allows for personal development. In the example, it provides suspense as well. Salem trusts the wrong people. She’s the girl metaphorically walking down the lonely, dark alley and the music’s getting scarier the more the reader is able to see what she can’t.  Will Salem figure out her blind spot before it’s too late? Yes: happy ending. No: a tragedy.

This question about the MC figuring something out about his- or herself is so important it overshadows every other question—even the mystery of who killed Carrie. Attention, authors: no one cares who killed your characters, saved a dying world, whether there’s poison in the wells. Not until readers love or hate potential suspects, that world, or the drinkers at the wells. Which takes time—it can’t all be checked off in chapter one. But ten or fifteen pages is enough space to give us something we can love: a character. We love smart ones, dumb ones. Characters we know, see their potential, ache for them, put ourselves in their shoes. We love them when they make us laugh, hate them when they ruin everything. Like they’ve really hurt us. Like they’re dearer than family. Give us those characters, and we’ll stick with the story to the final page and beg for more.

Final Note: I said I’d address all the “exceptions” to my rules nixing clichés as a shortcut to establishing intelligence. There’s only one: Use clichés (dumb blond, fact-spouting nerd) to quickly introduce side characters who do nothing but advance plot.

Now I’ve addressed it.

Thanks again, Nikki!  You’ve presented us with some great ideas on creating characters who are smart, and not-so-smart, but three dimensional.

 See you day-after-tomorrow for Thursday’s 13!

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