How To Color a Character

When I first started sending my novels around to publishers and agents, I often heard that my main character was not very fun/nice/likable. “He’s no hero” and “she’s got too many issues” were typical comments. This perplexed me for a number of reasons. I liked my characters, for one. They were human and real to me. They were often based on, well, me. Or on Men I Have Known. They sort of wrote themselves. So how could they be wrong?

As it turns out, writing for publication is a business. And the business model says that a heroine should not have too many issues and a hero needs to be more heroic than a real man. I quickly learned that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to learn the craft. In fact, one kind editor said exactly this to me. “Your writing is fine. You just need to learn your craft.”

Really? There’s a craft to it? What exactly is craft? And where do I get it?

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I got mine in Ohio. This is where I traveled to take a week-long intensive with bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie. Jenny said a couple of things about character that were key to my novelist education. One was that a hero needs to be more heroic than any actual man I may have met (or married) in real life. The other was that readers want to cheer for a main character. They want to see someone worthy work hard, get knocked down, but finally, win the prize.

So I went home and proceeded to make up a character. What I’d done previously was simply write whoever showed up on the page (some version of me and an ex) and whatever they did. Now I was a writer who knew a thing or two about the theory (if not execution) of craft. It was time to execute. Kill my darlings. Reshape them into people with whom readers might want to spend time.

TheParisNotebook_w5955_300Now I start every novel with the idea that my main character is going to work very hard. She is not afraid of hard work. She will do whatever it takes to get the job done. After six published novels, it’s like second nature to me. Having practiced my craft, I understand hard work. So I get it. But at first it was difficult to go in and reshape these beings.

Give them better qualities, like a work ethic or heroic heart. You have to figure out ways to show this. What’s their job? Show them doing it. Avoid being boring. This part of writing, the planning and firmly putting character is the place you want them to be, is different than writing.

When I write, I hit a stream and flow. When I step back and plan, it’s more like being the person I am in daily life. I am not in the fictional trance. I’m present, with a problem, or maybe just dinner to make,  that same sort of mindset. I cut the fat, choose the spices, make sure not to burn my hand. And thus, my character becomes something of my deliberate creation, something of which readers of popular fiction might make a meal.

Sex and the Shadow

hawaii3Shadows are where danger lurks. Shame is in the shadow of every single life. And sex includes shame for so many of us. Makes sense, then, that one of my problems as a writer has always been with sex. Open the door or keep it closed?

Those who throw the door wide and step right through would argue that sex is the primal urge in life and drives most of our actions most of our lives. Why not just admit it and stir sex into the mix?

Those who would rather not say hey there are other basic human bodily functions we don’t feel the need to write about so why should sex be any different?

I used to be firmly in the “keep the door shut” camp until I signed a contract that called for a consummation scene and my editor called me on it when I didn’t write one. I think now that part of my issue with writing sex was shame. I’ve got some of that, but then I think most people do, especially women, especially women who have had men take advantage of them sexually. We carry our scars and some of us think it might be our fault it happened. We bury all that and we certainly don’t want to stir it up by writing about it.

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But sex is why we are all here. Literally. We would not be walking this gorgeous earth, not one of us, if somebody didn’t have sex with somebody else, and yes, that would be our biological parents. Also sex is beautiful between loving couples (or whatever combination you are into). Orgasm is the closest we will ever get to completely letting go of our thinking mind and entering into a state of bliss on earth. So why the shame? Why the secrecy? Why the guilt heaped upon me by wrinkled noses, poked out tongues, and suggestions that I give out page numbers for sex scenes so they can be skipped over?

And that’s just my family. Also, yes someone did stick their tongue out at me when they saw the cover of my latest book and the inevitable question arose (ahem) and I answered that yes, this book had sex in it. It’s about a single mom. She falls in love with the man of her dreams. She’s not a virgin. She has two little humans walking around that are part of her deal and central to her identity who prove that. So, you know, sex is an important component of the love relationship. Sexual attraction is what, if you’re lucky, leads to love.

A rational single man, I have heard, will not want to marry a single mom. No way. Kids are baggage. The actual kind you can see and must feed and care for along with this woman. But sex is not rational and neither is love. Also, they go with one another. I can’t be “in love” with someone and not want to have sex with them. They go together like cookies and milk. So yeah, my novel is sorta The Brady Bunch meets Sex and the City. And I’m coming out of my shadow to say I like it like that. It’s supposed to be that way. That is the way the story goes.

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There’s more to love than sex. Of course there is. I once had an emotional affair. You know, that thing where you’re just friends and then one day there’s more? But you can’t have sex because the divorce isn’t final yet or the spouse just doesn’t understand? Only your “friend” who you now love beyond reason understands. There’s no sex there. Not yet. But if the emotional affair continues, there will be sex. And in my case, there was no sex, but only because we both knew the timing was wrong. We stayed friends, too, but it was difficult at first. Because emotion almost took me under. Sex is a healthy release of that emotion we call love, which is why it deserves to walk out of the shadow and onto the page.

I have admitted before that, for me, writing is therapeutic. I can say now that writing sex scenes helped me face my shadow and the shame I formerly, wrongly, sadly, associated with the most awesome act on earth.

Truth & Fiction

kissYesterday I met a writer friend at the library to talk about his novel-in-progress and other writer stuff. It was a great meeting. For me there is nothing like a one-on-one conversation. It’s my very favorite. Like reading a book, just you and the author on this ride. So to have a one-on-one with another writer is such a treat.

One of the things that came up was how much of ourselves we put into our characters. Melissa is ME. She’s the most autobiographical character I’ve ever written, like literally pages torn out of my teenaged diary. But at some point, my characters leave me behind and become themselves. Even Melissa. For one thing, my first sexual experience was nowhere near as romantic as Melissa’s was with David. But she waited a long time to be with him and I wanted to give them something special. With help from a friend (I still am not overly confident about writing love scenes)  I think I did.

My writer friend is a journalist, a very good one, who is trying out the fictional waters, and while writing is writing and good writing in one area is going to increase the chances writing in another area will also be good, at least at the sentence level, the word choice level, the degree of sophistication in the prose, there are big differences in fiction and fact. Plot, for one thing. But character? I can only speak for my own experience, but I use my emotional life to fill out the gaps in my characters’ internal stories. I usually change everything about the plot because my life is rather dull. I’m a teacher and writer. When you see these types on film, you see two minutes in the classroom, not four hours. You don’t watch someone writing a novel, although that might be an excellent new sleep aid.

For a peek into this autobiographical novella of my teenage vagabond years? “Sweet Melissa” s on sale for a sweet price for a few more days.

New Page “For Writers”

As you can see above, I’ve added a new page to the site. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and today I’m finally opening that page. Since I’ve started writing less about writing, I wanted to make sure writers seeking advice had somewhere to click.

♥ Writers, this is for you ♥

Having said that, I promise readers that I will post more fun extras on a regular basis for you. If you don’t write, and you don’t read my books, you’re probably a pal checking up on me to make sure I haven’t been buried under an avalanche of books. Not to worry! I’m alive and writing.

♥Readers, this is for you♥

A Gypsy tidbit I have not mentioned yet is why I chose that title. Talking with my BFF yesterday, I started telling her about a dream I had about Stevie Nicks. Don’t worry, I didn’t tell her the entire dream, as I know that dreams are only interesting to the person who has them. I get ticked off in novels if the author includes more than one dream. Okay, we know you want us to know something, but your character doesn’t know it yet, so she has a symbolic dream. Yawn. Anyway, I always loved Stevie, and even though the characters are Romany, I named the book Gypsy after her song.

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I’m from Detroit, so not sure how local the MC5 were back in the day. (MC stands for Motor City). They had a couple of hits “Devil in a Blue Dress” and “Kick out the Jams” come to mind. The chorus to “Devil in a Blue Dress” sung fast, was ‘JennyJennyJenny, won’t you come along with me?’ and I’m thinking of it because Jenny Crusie is the writer who taught me everything I know about the craft of writing. And I’m looking back at those old lessons to try to get my WIP in order.

If you want the details on Jenny’s intensive workshop, I talk about our week together here. But back to today at my writing desk. Not a writing day goes by without me taking one of my Jenny hammers, wrenches, or screwdrivers out of the toolbox. Today, I’m going with a suggestion she gave me. This is a paraphrase, but the gist is:

Me: My books are too short. They’re more like novellas. How can I make them longer?

Jenny: One way is to add a subplot. The subplot should support the main plot. They should mirror each other and be entwined in ways important to theme and plot.

Great advice. Working on my second book in the Blue Lake series, I came to the end at about 40K. So of course, I needed a subplot. This was convenient, because I really wanted to write one, but with romance, editors can be picky about subplots. Now that I’m writing “women’s fiction” a subplot and even another point of view or two is not a problem.

So at first I thought, well, I can write the whole subplot as a separate book and then add it in where necessary. I have some experience with this in reverse when I had to pluck a subplot out of another book. That was pretty easy, but the opposite is not. Because really, a book needs to feel whole. Everything needs to seem like it naturally follows from what happened before. And I can’t get the theme/plot/intertwined thing doing the subplot as a stand alone.

So I’ve got three full scenes written and three or four ideas for scenes. My plan was to write out those scenes, but today I’ve decided I’m going to read through my WIP and decide where my supporting characters need to come in and why they are in this story in the first place.

And thanks Jenny for all you do and have done for me and many many other writers.