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, 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, 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.

St. Paul de Vence

Cobble Streets in St. Paul de Vence

My camera clicked a photo everywhere I turned. The cobbled narrow streets, the signage over medieval doorways, windows flowing with bright trailing flowers caused my finger to push down on the shutter release as if afflicted with an uncontrollable tremor. The scene sets the writer in me to scheme a hide and seek chase, my protagonist, Ruby Draker, as always running for her life. “He will never stop hunting you”. It echoes constantly in her mind. Oh, stop it, Marianne. You’re on vacation!  But that’s part of the reason we came to France, to find some new inspiration in a setting where the exotic meets the modern everyday life.

St. Paul de Vence is a medieval hilltop village. It is completely walled and fortified from invasion; not that it’s barricades stops tourists on this pleasant spring day. I can only imagine what life might have been like in this town in the seventeenth century. Its spirit still lives and I can feel the hum of that ancient time.

There’s a story in every stone, window, and lookout point. It’s brewing for now. Perhaps in the third Draker novel. I can draw on it’s ghosts to enchant my readers.

To write is to live; to read is to dream. There are so many stories to tell.

Have a lovely day mis amis.

Market Day in Provence

Market Day in Provence

We took the Peugeot on market day. At home, I’m accustomed to a hand full of outdoor stands where farmers sell their home grown produce. In Le Muy (pronounced mew eee) there are multiple and varied vendors, more than vegetables, berries, fruit. It covered both sides of three narrow streets where vendors offered bread, cheese, meats, paella, pottery, fabric, table clothes, shoes, handbags, crafted products and clothing as well as souvenir type products. Whew; such a selection of wares. It was truly an open-air sort of shopping mall that somehow felt intimate and quaint. The fact that it was scattered among the historic section was a bonus. It was swarmed by locals and tourists on this hot sunny Sunday morning.

We purchased mostly food products to enjoy back at the country house. Though Ingrid and I are shoppers, she having purchased a blue linen blouse and me yet another table cloth (my third). Yet the food was the best. The bread and cheese in France is delicious. We serve it around 4PM with a cool beverage of choice and sit on the shaded veranda back at the country house, three couples chatting and reviewing our day. Oh, c’est la vie!

My passion is pottery and table clothes, all in Provence patterns. Not sure how I will get the pottery home without breakage. I will likely have to take it in my carry-on for the flight home. I can see the airport security personnel rolling their eyes as my carry-on luggage goes through the x-ray machine. However, I’m sure they’ve seen it before. These lovely pieces will remind me of our stay in France after we get home.

Today may be a day of leisure because traipsing about Provence, though very enjoyable, takes it’s toll on your energy. A bit of blogging perhaps. Au revoir mis amis. Have a wonderful day where ever you are.

Lost in Provence

Lost in Provence

It was bound to happen. Being left to our own resources with maps conflicting with an all knowing electronic voice telling us where to, it was a recipe for disaster. I’m blaming the round-a-bouts. As soon as you get off A8 (Provence’s super hi-way) you cross a round-a-bout every 300 to 500 meters. It completely turns your sense of direction around, kind of like spinning in a circle when we were children making us dizzy and disoriented. Not a good thing when driving in a foreign country trying to find your way to local sites. Today we wanted to go to Grasse, a town in Southern France, where the ladies wanted to visit Fraganard, a perfume shop. Mais oui! Oh; the joy of experiencing French perfume and face creams. Merveilleux. It seems that Madame (the female voice of our GPS system) wanted us to go via the super hi-way and we wanted to go on D562, per map directions, the scenic winding hi-way to get a feel for the real Provence. We were at odds.  Madame was most insistent but in the end our guys won the day, albeit we wasted an hour programing and reprograming the GPS to convince Madame of the virtues of the route we wanted to take.

It was a rather trying ordeal though hilarious. Fighting with your car, a rental one at that, certainly seemed ridiculous. But finally taking an additional hour and a half we arrived at our destination pleased that we triumphed over a machine.

Grasse is famous for it’s perfume companies. It also has a historic section where shops and boutiques bore the signature of old century atmosphere. We stopped for ice cream and then found a little shop that sold only nougat. Yum! Couldn’t go back to our rented country home without a good size chunk. Also, found a lingerie shop that fit the description of Ingrid’s novel, Winter Pleasure and French Lingerie. The shops were quaint and most unique. The fight with Madame was well worth it, round-a-bouts and all.

Tomorrow – the open farmers market in Le Muy where merchants sell products grown and produced locally. Stay tuned and subscribe so you don’t miss any posts. Au revoir mis amis.