Unauthorized Rule #5 – Always Put Your Characters in Terrible Danger

Whenever I do a book signing event, after explaining to curious readers that my novel Finding Ruby involves a kidnapping, forced identity change, several shootings, explosions, and a fire or two, I get confused looks. They ask, “How do you think up these things”? and eye me sideways; after all, a person who dreams up such diabolical stuff for her characters must be a creepy sort. Maybe they don’t think I look like a person who has this kind of mind – or perhaps they do.

I laugh and tell them, “I have a vivid imagination.” What can I say- it’s true: I’m a fiction writer of spy thrillers. The genre demands intrigue and suspense and many eventful mishaps. In order to accomplish that, I put my characters through hell.

In my previous blog post, “Don’t Fall in Love with your Characters,” I talk about how hard I find it to put my darlings in harm’s way. Of course I’m protective of them, especially my “good guy” characters. But I’ve learned that allowing my personal emotions to influence the shape of my story only throws up creative barriers. My editor says, “kill them.” You want drama? Then don’t let the reader get comfortable. It’s hard to do, but I’ve found that to be good advice. Being conflicted, I side track myself with a bunch of rather crazy rules I’ve invented in order to maintain a business attitude about writing. Mine are fictional characters and rules are just rules. Creating a protagonist is easy. He/she has a problem that needs to be overcome. The antagonist, well, he/she needs to be defeated.

But what to do with all those “supporting” characters? I consider them fair game. There are so many books with strong opinions as to what the right and wrong things to do with characters are. OK, some of the rules make sense, but for me some of those rules only restrict my creativity. That’s not a good thing because writing is all about inventiveness and originality. Why should I limit myself just because there is a rule that says I shouldn’t do this or that?

Instead, I try to write intelligently, using proper grammar, a follow-able structure, and a clean format. Writers can get discouraged if they feel they are not measuring up to the rules. So I take my own approach. I put my characters, all of them, in dangerous circumstances. Not that my way is radical; I just tell my story the way it comes out, straight from my imagination, dictated by that mysterious inner voice every writer has.

When the conversation with my reader goes on, I explain how in the novel, my female protagonist, Ruby, finds herself in unwanted action whereby a psychopathic killer relentlessly pursues her and her new family, the Drakers. “Oh, that sounds too scary. It would keep me awake at night,” they say.  This gives me pause. While I consider Finding Ruby a complicated adventure in which my characters frequently encounter worst scenario hazards, I didn’t write it intending for it to be “scary.” I wonder if those same people ever tune into the evening news. Now that’s scary! Maybe that’s their point. They want to get away from the fearful events that plague society. With that in mind, I can see where they might love a book description that goes something like this:

Mary has the perfect life in her peaceful suburban Toronto neighbourhood. She has a successful career, and is going to marry the man of her dreams and live happily ever after. The end.

Such a story would never exist, but I understand the impetus to want this. Or maybe these readers are just superstitious and think that reading about awful events would conjure up disaster in their own lives.

However, if your reading tastes run along the lines of stories that don’t put you to sleep the minute you open your book, you might choose stories whose plots make your hair stand on end. I’m not sure how many people go into a bookstore looking for a book about Mary and her perfect life, but I personally wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t want to give that to my readers.

Therefore my rule stands: always put your characters in terrible danger. Finding Ruby is a story meant to entertain. Happily ever after might be a good ending for a fairy tale, but it’d be a pretty lousy ending for a mystery.

Unauthorized Rule #4 – Don’t Be Afraid of Adverbs

Newly inspired writers work hard to get the attention of a publisher or an agent. We can easily be influenced by the opinions of bloggers, authors (famous or otherwise), and agents or editors within the publishing industry who advise on writing style and techniques and what to avoid when submitting your work. One caution we tend to see dispensed with fair regularity is that one ought to avoid adverbs.

It’s unfortunate that adverbs have become the pariahs of the literary world. They get such scorn from so many, it’s as if using them can ruin your writing career. It seems nowadays writers have erred on the side of overly spare writing in an effort to strike those modifying words from the record.  It’s said that words ending in “ly” weaken your story and tag you as an amateur of the craft, someone not yet ready for the privilege of being published because you fortify your wimpy action statements with modifiers.  After reading Stephen King’s memoir/book on writing, On Writing, one would imagine the road to hell is paved with adverbs. Hey, he’s what one might call a household name in the literary world, so when he pipes up with such a dictate, we should assume it to be true.

But the road to hell? A career ruiner? That’s an awful lot of power to assign to the use of a legitimate part of speech. From where did this paranoia originate?

I believe that contempt for adverbs is contrived, something invented to encumber the newly initiated. Creating fear around appropriate language is like handcuffing the able bodied simply for what– crowd control? After all, so many people are writers nowadays or at least aspiring ones.

Come on, people! Have some back bone. An adverb is a perfectly appropriate writing tool. However, I agree that using adverbs effectively is quite another matter, something that requires writers to be thoughtful about selection, placement, and frequency. As in my first blog about, “Show Don’t Tell” it’s primarily a matter of not imposing upon our reader.

I’m one of those writers who likes “ly” adverbs. I especially like to use them in my first draft. Adverbs free me from overthinking my stories to the point where I would get hung up on which words to use. I use adverbs with impunity in my first iteration because sometimes rules can unconsciously encumber a person’s creativity.  Hmmm… unconsciously – good adverb. See: adverbs don’t have to be the poor relation of the grammar family. They indeed have their use. So I no longer suffer from adverb anxiety.

Yet I appreciate that the rhetoric has created the great adverb debate. To use an adverb or not to use an adverb? Perhaps Shakespeare would’ve approved. It’s not until my first edit that I take careful note of whether or not each adverb is appropriate. Sometimes it is; sometimes it’s not. The nice thing about writing is that your first version will never be your final product. Let your adverb be like an exotic spice, that if left to deepen its flavour will either stand alone and be a triumph, or will coalesce with the other spices into something exquisite.

The one exception to my “free to be you, me, or adverb” is with dialogue tags. That’s where I draw the line because when we assert how something is said or done in a dialogue tag, it intrudes on the reader’s experience of hearing or experiencing that moment herself.

Ex: “You’re always telling me what to do and how to act!” Mary said angrily.

It stands to reason that the writer should ensure that the dialogue itself indicate the tone of Mary’s voice and her emotion. Meaning any additional adverbiosity in the tag is redundant. Why would you have to “tell” the reader that Mary is angry? It should be so evident that the reader implicitly gets it.

On the other hand, let’s be a little softer on ourselves. I mean, let’s say you did use an adverb there. Would the reader slam your book shut and say in a huff, “Well, this writer is using adverbs, and I’m not going to take it anymore”? Probably not. It’s just that dialogue is something we like our readers to play out in their minds using the words provided to form pictures of the written scene, and for that reason, the tag should be as unobtrusive as possible. But really, there is nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence. My deepest apologies to Mr. King, but we must be allowed our own style and expression. It’s our readers who will be the ultimate judge.

I may not be a grammar guru, but I am mindful of the rules. I understand why so many prominent writers caution against their use, but I say free to be you and me. Sometimes we have to trust our own ears and that means using adverbs where appropriate. They are a proper part of speech, and best of all, they are not illegal.

My next post focuses again on my characters. That rule is going to be a lot of fun: Rule # 5 – always put your characters in terrible danger… even if you love them.

by Marianne Scott author of Finding Ruby.

 

 

Rule #3 – Be Descriptive But Don’t Over Describe

In order to get our readers’ attention, writers not only have to make readers feel like they are present in the scene, but we also need to entice them to stay and continue reading. Personally, I love it when I sit down to read a book and find myself transported into another world, and my own around me vanishes as I turn the pages.

How does this happen? Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning: avid readers may have an easier time being captured by words and passing into a fictional dimension. But writers have to ensure all readers- from avid to dabbler- can be held and even arrested by the world of the story.

The necessary ingredient is vivid description. It’s not enough to talk about a character or a setting. Readers need to be able to identify personally with a situation in a story, to actually see themselves in it,  an unnamed extra, standing on the sidelines and hearing and seeing firsthand what is happening or developing in the plot. Here is where skillful crafting comes in: by choosing the right descriptive words to form subconscious pictures, like a movie of the mind, we can create sensorially vivid environments for the reader to come inside.

It’s a fine line between too much and too little detail. Sometimes in an effort to provide all the sensorial information necessary to put our readers into our headspace, a writer can go overboard with description. Painting the verbal picture is more than pulling out your dictionary of adjectives and stringing a series of them in front of every noun in your book. Consider the image above. There are several things going on. How would you go about describing so much detail?

“The red, pink, white, and orange beds of exotic flowers mixed among the dark green, chartreuse, emerald leafy grassy background of the garden was a testament to the expert, meticulous, obsessive dedication of the caretakers of Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C. who plant and maintain such a wonder of splendid beauty.”

Oops! I think I just exhausted my reader. Excessive use of adjectives or other modifiers are not the answer. Choosing your descriptors is particularly important when you consider what your story is about and how much weight to lend to each detail. This garden could be the setting for an intriguing plot. Yet while it is important to make the setting as vivid as possible, the actual landscape is not a part of the developing story.

Now consider the image as a place where an encounter with a villain is about to take place, the protagonist having been lured by a text message from a stalker to a specific spot for an exchange of information… or worse.

“Standing at the top of a staircase that led down to the noose-like pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds in full bloom, Tamara scanned over the exotic specimens laid out over Butchart Gardens for signs of her stalker. She paused before descending into the colorful valley of plants and shrubs. Beyond the gardens, the mountains were framed by a misted sky. She shivered despite the warm morning sun while she verified the message on her cell phone. “Meet Maurice by the Sequoia grove just past the totems.”

When a setting has numerous components and a lot to look at/hear/smell, it’s easy to get excessive with adjectives. But adjectives alone don’t do the trick. Without the photo, you might have understood the visual content of the scene, but that pile of adjectives that focuses on the visual robs the reader of learning what the mood of the moment is. Which version moves the story forward? Relevance is what is at stake.

When describing a setting, adjectives are less important than capturing the essence of the setting through the context of the moment in the story. In “…pathway flanked by a patchwork of flower beds,” the metaphor is more descriptive than had the colours of the flowers been defined. Also, “the noose- like pathway” is foreshadowing that this encounter might not be entirely a casual or friendly meeting.

Dialogue can also have a descriptive component to it. When you read a line of dialogue, can you hear the speaker’s tone? Does the dialogue support the description of the character? In my novel, Finding Ruby, my villain betrays his creepy inner demons through innuendo. What better way to “show” his evil character? Consider this example:

“Retired,” Felix huffed. “You and all the others are traitors. You abandoned the agency and you betrayed your country. You’re all cowards leaving before our job was done. Now I’m going to make sure you’re all going to pay for abandoning your country – and for abandoning me.”

Ahem. Do you think this guy might have issues? Great dialogue enhances descriptive content.

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about using adverbs in dialogue tags. Are they really needed? It’s more than just what your characters “say.” Indulge me, please. Adverbs are highly controversial. Watch for my next post for a great debate.

 

The Unauthorized Rules of Writing, Rule #2 – Don’t Fall in Love With Your Characters

MarianneScottwriter

Rule #2 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing”

When you say it out loud, this sounds like a rather ridiculous rule. Characters are not people. At least they don’t have physical substance. They sort of talk and walk around in your head. They are non-entities, figments of a writer’s imagination; so how on earth can a writer become attached to them in a personal way? That’s a hard question to answer. All I know is that as I was writing my first novel, Finding Ruby https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Ruby-Marianne-Scott/dp/0995877300/ref=dp_ob_title_bk, I kept running into a wall known as writer’s block. I knew the plot. I knew the ending (sort of) and I knew that the excitement had to peak and wane. Yet, there I was in front of my computer dumb as a doorknob without a single idea as to how to move the story forward. I lamented to my editor, Jenna Kalinsky. What…

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The Unauthorized Rules of Writing, Rule #2 – Don’t Fall in Love With Your Characters

 

Rule #2 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing”

When you say it out loud, this sounds like a rather ridiculous rule. Characters are not people. At least they don’t have physical substance. They sort of talk and walk around in your head. They are non-entities, figments of a writer’s imagination; so how on earth can a writer become attached to them in a personal way? That’s a hard question to answer. All I know is that as I was writing my first novel, Finding Ruby https://www.amazon.com/Finding-Ruby-Marianne-Scott/dp/0995877300/ref=dp_ob_title_bk, I kept running into a wall known as writer’s block. I knew the plot. I knew the ending (sort of) and I knew that the excitement had to peak and wane. Yet, there I was in front of my computer dumb as a doorknob without a single idea as to how to move the story forward. I lamented to my editor, Jenna Kalinsky. What she said nearly sent me into psychotherapy. I was shocked. We’ve been working together for years, she as my teacher and editor and founder of One Lit Place https://www.onelitplace.com/, a literary hub and collective and a place where writers can gather and have all the resources they need to succeed as writers. Meaning I’d thought she was a decent person.  “Kill someone,” she said. I distinctly remember my reply. “I can’t kill anyone. I love my characters,” I said. Well!!!! Now what? I kept up my protest for about a week as I continued to search that empty receptacle of my mind for the next scene in my book. Nothing!

Desperate, I yielded to her suggestion but let it marinate for a while. The idea of killing a character was somehow akin to killing a member of my family. But, the more I thought about it, the more I saw merit in the elimination of a subordinate character, however distasteful it seemed. I realized there are times when people provoke you into ominous thoughts.  I don’t like to admit it openly but I remember real life personal incidents when I wanted to quickly and efficiently bring about a person’s demise. Fortunately, these thoughts are fleeting albeit delightful. Thank goodness for laws against murder as it saved several of my bosses from an untimely yet satisfyingly (for me anyway) brutal death. As her advice ripened, it made me think. Can I exploit that dark side of my own personality? But, how would I justify such a thing? I found the answer in the Indiana Jones ‘knife to a gunfight’ scene. From my writer’s perspective, every time I watch it, the devil whispers in my ear and this time he won. After all, you do what you have to do. Maybe I did have the killer instinct. The problem is that becoming a literary executioner takes a bit of practice. I started with Leonard, a newly invented character, who I inserted into a scene and then masterfully crafted a shootout where my darlings (my beloved good guys) had to shoot not only him but two other bad guys in an attempt to save their lives. Ah, like a vampire getting her first tastes of human blood – it felt good. But just in case, I’d kept my therapist’s number handy.

After the endorphins settled, I started to feel guilty. No bad deed goes unpunished. A few chapters later I hit another wall. It was as if the writing gods were punishing me for doing such an evil deed.  I was beginning to doubt that I’d ever finish my novel. Still in mental anguish from being such a bad influence on the moral values of my characters, I decided I needed more counselling. Yep!  Jenna to the rescue again. Her solution? You guessed it; more killings, but this time a good guy had to die. It was like she thrust a knife into my gut. I have to say; this woman is good at what she does – very good indeed. I trusted her completely but this was a side of her I’d never seen before. Yet, she had keen instincts and knew how to break down that brick wall I was facing. Her advice has never failed me before. Jenna knew; when you’ve already had a taste of blood, the next killing is a bit easier and because I’m a quick learner I outdid myself. By the end of a rather heart wrenching and intense scene, two of my characters lay dead, in an inky pool of blood in the dirt of a country driveway. “Well done,” Jenna said.

‘My God. Did I really do that?’ I suffered, conflicted. Wasn’t an author’s writing a reflection of her moral principles? So why did this corruption feel so powerful? The answer is that I’d lost focus on what is real and what is just ‘writing’. It’s the separation of fact from fiction that liberates a writer to craft her story with outrageous details. Armed with this new skill, I knew I could kill any character that stood in the way of the completion of my novel. Love became ambition and to hell with any character who might be shot in the crossfire. I needed to finish the novel and really wanted an explosive and unexpected ending.  It was a given that my antagonist had to die but sculpting the scene into a horrific finale would require the sacrifice of more of my beloveds. Because I was no longer emotionally tied to their safety, I could concentrate on the kind of drama it takes to hold the reader captivated until the very last word. How good is it when your reader says, “Damn, I didn’t expect that!”

Of all the attributes an author has to possess, viciousness somehow claws its way to the surface. For me it’s a lesson learned. Don’t fall in love with your characters because in writing you are not an angel nor are you the devil and you are definitely not a parent so allow your characters to find danger at every turn. It’s the story that has the final say.

Next blog – be descriptive but don’t over describe. This sounds confusing, I know, but too much of a good thing is bad. But then, what does a conflicted writer know? You might be surprised. Be sure to check in for Rule #3 of “The Unauthorized Rules of Writing.”

Rule Number One – Show Don’t Tell

Rule Number One – Show Don’t Tell

This is my favourite writing rule, though not completely my own. It’s one I borrowed from the experts and I’m not giving it back. Show – don’t tell. Writing is like a painting. Every word is a brush stroke enhancing an image expressed in the unique creative genius of the artist, or writer. But, that’s not to say that a writer should impose them self on their reader.

Note the following sentence:

“Mary ran down the dark street trying to get away from the sinister man following her.”

At first glance this sentence appears to draw the reader into an exciting scene. But in fact, the reader has been tricked, treated like a child, being told what to see, how to react. Perhaps as a writer you’re insecure and therefore make the judgement call for the reader regarding the outcome of circumstances. “Oh crap, this guy is going to hurt Mary.” Here are some problems that I see with this approach.

  1. Mary is a common name which has no association with character. I see a Caucasian female of unknown ethnicity, a dilemma I refer to as ‘generic person syndrome’. Completely boring!
  2. She is ‘running down the street’. There is no indication of distress or emotion that such an encounter would evoke; an expressionless neutral act. If the reader doesn’t understand the intensity of running, the verb becomes inconsistent with escaping from a male pursuer of ‘threatening’ character. The author is ‘telling’ you this person is male and sinister. As a reader, you have been depowered to interpret the setting and characters as well as the intended plot. How rude!
  3. In a threating situation would a woman simply ‘try’ to get away? The intransitive verb fails to communicate the force of the danger. “Oh, I think I’ll try to get away or maybe not.” As a reader, you’re probably thinking, ‘why am I reading this shit?’
  4. As for setting, all we know is that it is a ‘dark street’. Setting in this case is an important element of the scene and this one is lacking in sufficient detail to help the reader envision the mood of the scene and why Mary is wanting to get away from this guy. ‘I think I’ve seen this show before’, you say before you close the book and read something more engaging like the calorie count on the can of Coke you’re drinking.

Now consider this approach.

“Monique’s breath quickened; her heart pounded as she tucked the runaway lock of hair behind her ear whipping her head back to scan the fronts of the boutique shops lining both sides of the narrow cobbled street of Rue des Fountaines, searching for the tall muscular figure with the fedora and trench coat, who’s silhouette she glimpsed at every turn.”

Would this hold a reader’s attention better than the first example?

  1. Monique is a name that has a French quality about it so it gives us a hint of her background. We know she is distressed because of her breathing and heart rate, no doubt due to the speed of her movement. We would anticipate that she is running. She has hair long enough to fall in her eyes from the action of her head movement.
  2. She “whipped her head back” and “scanned” behind her. Both are quick and somewhat frantic actions. Clearly Monique is faced with an situation that is causing her distress.
  3. The cobbled narrow street with the name ‘Rue des Fountaines, gives us the setting of an old perhaps historic section in a French village.
  4. Would you interpret a reoccurring siting of a silhouetted muscular man as menacing? This sentence allows the reader to make the choice and thereby creates the ‘hook’ that draws them to read on.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes the plot requires that a piece of information be disclosed. But if you chose to tell your reader something, consider doing it as a piece of dialogue.

As she approached the constable at the intersection, her eyes were dark and wide. “I think someone is following me,” Monique said.

Trust your reader. Use just enough sensual clues to allow them to form their own emotional and visual interpretation of what is happening.

Next post, I’ll talk about another important rule. Don’t fall in love with your characters. You might need some serious therapy if you have to kill one. I bet you can’t wait for my rule number two.

 

 

Unauthorized Rules

When I was in high school rules were something that was meant to be broken. They restricted your freedom, constrained your creativity, and worst of all destroyed your individuality.  Being enlightened, a quality endowed to all teenagers, we considered the world a place that floundered in compliance. There was nothing ‘cool’ about our parents and the world they created including the constraints that they arbitrarily imposed to limit experiences. The logic of that bewildered us. But, the young are slippery. It’s not so much that we broke the rules, more that we let them slide off our consciousness. It didn’t matter that the direction we wanted to go had no established paths. We forged new trails. This new expression manifested in our hair styles, the clothes we wore, but markedly so in our language. We spoke jargon, completely unencumbered by rules of grammar. The adults despaired at the rebellion, throwing up their arms and rolling their eyes and labeling us total literary morons. Yet we wore that label proudly refining our brand to reshape the world to suit a new generation of what the establishment called weirdo’s. Then something unexpected happened – maturity prevailed; and our own signature peculiarities either became eccentricities, hobbies or in most cases were simply discarded- passé, yesterday’s news.

Indeed, the majority of us fell in line and became what we dreaded the most – our parents! Some of us even saw the merit in rules of grammar. Alas, I was one of those individuals who acquiesced because I had a passion for storytelling and became a writer. “Eh man,” I have to admit that I tried; but somehow on the written page, jargon truly did demonstrate a lack of intelligence. So, I bought Grammar for Dummies and the reformation was on the way. Don’t get me wrong.  I still make grammar slips. But, the universe is kind when you’ve found your true place within it, because I was sent a guru, in the person of Jenna Kalinsky, a grammar genius and my trusted editor. Ergo my writing career was established. And, duly influenced by the sanity or insanity thereof, rules became an important part of my life; so important in fact that I actually starting making some of my own.  To that end, I’m starting a series of blog posts that I’m calling, ‘The Unauthorized Rules of Writing’.  While it’s rather easy to make them, justifying them is quite another matter.

My next writing rant = show, don’t tell. Let’s have some fun.

Hope Jenna doesn’t catch any bloopers in this post.