Niki is taking a break from newsletter writing to concentrate on other projects and will be back in the fall of 2011 with new insights into the world of words.
Writing a story that someone might be interested in will probably have people in it. We are, after all, interested in our own. Take jury duty, for example; we all wonder: what did he do? even before we throw the notice in the trash, because it will take time away from writing about our guilty characters.
When I began my studies in the craft of writing, primarily through RWA conferences, profiling characters was the order of the day. Writers, I learned from lectures, wrote every detail about each character in an Excel sheet - if they were serious. That seemed a daunting affair to me, especially when I could already see and hear plenty of characters in my head.
“Why do I have to put everything down on paper, too?” I asked myself. Maybe I wasn’t serious enough… yet.
“Isn’t writing, the love of your life?” an internal character inquired.
“Well, yes.” I answered in resignation.
“Then what about that GMC stuff?”
“GMC… ? Oh yeah! Goal, Motivation and Conflict!” Can you believe it? My own characters - teaching me how to write! It’s the truth; they nag me day and night.
I have since come to terms with the chores (and the voices) and find I only need to profile the characters that are not so ‘in my face’. To this end I have mainly worked with these three other methods:
A. The Three Step
B. The Collage
One character at a time, creating a personality collage from old magazines, scissors and glue.
creating a Word Cloud of personality characteristics
C. The Interview
Sit with characters as though in a talk show and ask them questions.
Interview them together as though you were one of them.
After trying each of these, I have come up with a combination technique that seems to bring out the beast (not a typo) in my actors better than the aforementioned 1, 2, 3’s.
First, I decide what their purpose is in the story; heroine, villain, supporting ‘sidekick’… then I break it down a bit for a detailed look; nervous hero, scapegoat, evil clone, heart-of-ice mother.
Second, I name them for simplicity so I don’t get them mixed up. Ernest would probably be an outspoken Greenpeacer, Belle could be demure, polite and pretty and I’d use Tim for the pimply-faced ‘timid’ bus boy. This process often dresses and defines their physical attributes: Ernest wears jeans, Tim’s long apron is dirty and Belle’s hair curls.
Third, the fun part; I antagonize them and watch how they squirm. Poor Ernest is attacked by his Ivy League half brother: “You’re hiding behind that hippy tree-hugger game ‘cuz you’re a little mama’s boy, too poor to afford the good things in life!”
I watch to see if Ernest stays to rationalize or maybe he’ll get into a fist fight. Instead, he walked away calmly with his girl friend giving me a whole new understanding of his convictions. As I watch the responses in my mind’s eye, some of the character’s appearances might change - they get taller, dress sloppier or suddenly have a skateboard sticking out of their backpack. Sometimes they simply outline themselves more clearly by stating that they hate green tea.
Since reality is stranger than fiction, I also write down snippets of conversation or behavior I see and try to add them to a character’s personality for ‘colour’. I recently heard someone say “I went south of the border and all I got was lied to.” and “She only cleans the kitchen mentally.” Teenagers don’t usually talk like that; an artist might, but a cynical, older man totally goes there. As I try to add these lines to my existing characters, some of them balk. That’s when I know I have a distinct player. They don’t need my help anymore. If the conversation bits remain inspiring, voila! I have a new character.
Since these fictitious people will be in my novel for more than a day, I go back to that first technique – the 3 Step, and see if their appearance changes during the next week, month or year. Does the character gain weight, grow out their beard or put on make-up? Do their clothes remain the same style or do they get rich and buy a new wardrobe?
Does their hygiene change? Some people lose hope while others become obsessed about finding that lost friend or treasure and sometimes it is reflected in their presentation. If they are the sort to give up, maybe they wear a frayed, stained sweater. If they get over their heartache, maybe they start going to the gym and get buff or have a face-lift.
When I look into my character’s innermost thoughts these things become self evident. Everybody thinks about what they are going to do long before they execute it unless there’s an emergency; then they do it by rote. When they begin their transformation they talk about what’s on their mind and each of them says it in their own, unique way – just like we do. Accents, inflections, slang, emotional flares; all make their way into what comes out of our mouths… so by now you must know that I’m working on a lovesick American in Europe who has traded in his starched, white shirt for a corduroy jacket (yes, with the leather patches on the elbows) and no longer throws himself on the bed for an alpha-male bit of relaxation.
Next, I’m on to the sassy red-head; she’s a size 10 Cockney secretary that doesn’t take ‘No’ for an answer and tells me she intends to be my jilted hero’s new love interest.
“Hey, Niki, you’re don’ it! You’re GMC-ing!” Interrupting my typing, this piece of fiction pushes my mail across to me, grinning wickedly.
Well, maybe not. Everybody writes; email, Facebook, Twitter, grocery list, thank you cards…
One could say “I’m a speaker.” But taking your part in the dinner conversation doesn’t make you a ‘Speaker’. One cannot claim the respect from chores: ‘I’m a cook’. ‘I’m a painter’. ‘I’m a care-giver’. ‘I’m a driver’. ‘I’m a listener’. (Actually, that one’s pretty cool - we need more of those!) The average mom is all of these, and more, but she does not get the titles.
Yet, it is true that we give a title to one who gets paid for that occupation: a greasy spoon chef is a cook, a teenager hired to paint houses is a painter, a paid baby-sitter is a care-giver, an ice cream truck operator is a driver and a psychiatrist is a listener.
We also give the title to one that follows their heart and applies their talent to a hobby: ‘I’m a gardener’ or ‘I’m a collector’, though oddly, society don’t give someone the title ‘Writer’ even if it is their hobby.
Sometimes it seems that if you’re not published, you’re not the real deal – “not a real writer”. Then one day we meet someone who wrote a family heritage manuscript and they tell us they are finished with the project, and furthermore: “I’m never doin’ that again” and we say to ourselves “not an actual writer; more like a one-hit-wonder.” But what does this mean? Isn’t it “once a writer, always a writer?” Apparently not; stricken from the ranks of membership, “they used to write”.
So, what really is a writer?
I think anyone who cannot live without a keyboard, an unlimited texting cell phone, a pen & notebook, a scrap of paper and pencil (or even a recording device like the Light-Scribe pen), are probably writers – even if they don’t know it themselves - they must write or die. Without the writing, there is not writer. Without the words, the writer dies inside.
When you get right down to it, a writer is a storyteller. However, a writer is not just someone who tells their stories, they have to be someone who has the gift of gab and puts their stories where their word processor is; one who produces a product that can be read. That’s the genuine article.
“So what? Why is this distinction important? Why should we define ourselves by the outside world? Why should we care how others define us?”
Because when you know Who you are, you can move on to What is going on with you; you will have a clear idea of Where you are heading, When you expect to get there and then, like magic, the How becomes obvious… the spelling it out, penning the plight, doing the Nitty-Gritty dance over a hot keyboard is what it takes to connect with the reader – the ultimate test; because if it is not written, it cannot be read.
“So, you’re saying a writer is someone who has finished a story?”
Not exactly… but close, for a right of passage is required first. Only after that fateful moment when an individual is seized by the addiction to the pen, until they hear voices of characters, until they feel the unrelenting emotion and drive to tell the story, until it becomes a religion to them does one become a true writer and they will never stop. At that moment The Word penetrates their soul, the word is Write!
“But can’t I be a writer before I publish?”
Of course; after all, one must start somewhere.
“Must I be defined as society sees me?”
You will be whether you like it or not. Be true to yourself – the addict, and they will see it in you.
It sounds simple because the truth is always simple: Society demands proof. If you want others to think of you as a writer then your goal pretty much has to be getting published - as proof. For that, you need to let your addiction take hold and consume you. Day and night put those words to paper. Write. Plan the plot. Write. Develop those characters and arcs. Write. Describe those settings, do the research for reality checks, tag lines, the blurbs, the synopsis... uh oh, sounds complicated again.
To cure the myriad of symptomatic details, the only antidote is to write. As simple as it sounds our inner temporal world is volatile and transitory – yet we can’t possibly write at the speed of thought. Forgive yourself and get the main words down; take a reality break then return to add colour, taste, smell, wallpaper and that look in his eyes. In the final assessment, the simplicity lies in the heart of the story – the one that’s in your veins – the story of you. Your point of view, your experiences, your loves and heart breaks, your recipes are all what make you the storyteller and it’s the words you use to create these emotions in others is what makes you a Writer. The writer’s job is to pull the tree of truth, roots and all, out of our souls and transplant it into the real world, the world of coffee and babies, of traffic and peas, of criticism and compassion. Our story is for this world to be left in legacy as an education left like a keyhole into our mind’s theatre for others to peer through to, enjoy and cherish. We must not take it with us. So we must purge, eject, spew, regurgitate, erupt, wretch and spit it out any way we can. Go ahead and nurture it – with the words of your notes. Research it – with words in your computer. Add the twist later when the characters know each other - with words on paper. Ask your muse – they’ll tell you. Trust your muse – they will guide you. But the truth remains: the story will never be published until you finish it.
The moral? To be a writer, one must write – every day. For the world to give you the title ‘Writer’ you must publish. So finish the damn book!
Then you get to be… an author!
It is said that volunteering for a board position with your RWA chapter teaches you more about the writing profession. I am here to tell you that is absolutely true for I have uncovered some little know sales procedures that are affecting us all in powerful and insidious ways. They are the downfalls of distribution.
Exactly, what happens to your book after it’s published?
It’s shipped to retail stores all over the country and put on the shelves for people to buy, right?
Wrong. Unless you’re lucky enough to link up with a huge publisher, more than likely you are in mid-standing with a well known “small press”. Just to be sure we’re on the same page about what a ‘small press’ is, Wikipedia states:
Fifty million dollars annually! Yet for all this, you may not even be listed as buyable!
Surprised? I was.
Here, I am trying to put together a book fair for over a dozen authors and a full quarter of these talented writers books are listed as ‘trouble-makers’… or not listed at all!
So, what makes a book troublesome for the retailer?
The trouble here is that even though the publisher has given a good discount, the Bookmaster catalogue can still be listed as ‘no discount’. Is this just a computer entry problem and easily fixed? No. I have learned some publishers have succeeded in getting the information changed only to have it revert back, a week later. Certainly errors do occur but politics, lack of communication and mysterious corporate ways dominate this business. In all my research (which has been extensive) I have yet to find the source of this problem. There is no central organization or guru that explains what to do. The store managers think it’s the distributors’ error, the publisher’s think it’s the fault of corporate offices of retail stores while the author has no privileges with the distributor and limited access to their publisher… a mystery, indeed.
Emma Ward of Management Consulting News states “Many people in the publishing industry feel that the easiest part of bringing a book to market is writing the book. With that in mind, you must begin planning at least as soon as you have written your manuscript—preferably before.” http://www.managementconsultingnews.com/articles/ward_market_book.php
Clear as mud? Well, maybe I can clear that up with a little story.
One day Wannabe decided to put a book on the market. The manuscript was sent to many different publishers across the land and finally one of them sent Wannabe a contract. Wannabe was thrilled because this had taken a long, long time. The town lawyer helped Wannabe tweak the contract, it was signed and returned to the publisher.
Many weeks turned into many months and at last the day came when the publisher announced a date for release of the book. On that day Wannabe rushed to the nearest book store to see it on the shelf… but there was no book shining out from the rest with Wannabe’s name on it. Days went by, then weeks and still no book on the shelf. Worry set in, for Wannabe had heard the gossip that after 6 months, a book was considered ‘old’. My new book will be ancient before anyone gets to see it, let alone read it!
Wannabe sent a letter by Donkey Delivery to the publisher asking what had happened.
Word made it back to Wannabe that the messenger had been slain by a terrible dragon that was keeping the publisher prisoner. It was said that many writers had the same problem and that the dragon was getting fat eating the messengers. At least now I know why things are slow, but I want to see it with my own eyes!
When Wannabe arrived on the cliffs overlooking the Valley of the Publishers, it was clear there were others in the same fix and all were in fear of not one, but many dragons menacing the publishers. Wannabe asked around for information about these huge creatures.
Mr. Wise, the wizard, explained: “The largest one is a book wholesaler and distributor based in La Vergne, Tennessee and its name is Ingram. His family controls about a million titles and sells to booksellers, librarians and specialty retailers and they have warehouse caves in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Indiana.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingram_Book_Group
“How can they sell books if they don’t release them?” Wannabe wanted to know.
“Best as I can tell,” sighed the old codger, “if the publisher agrees to give the dragons 55% to 65% of their gold, the dragons will let their books out onto the market. The publisher must also promise to accept returns.”
“But that’s more than half! Are you saying that this is a Catch 22?” Wannabe’s nose wrinkled in the noon-day sun. “It sounds like you’re telling me that the Small Press Publishers cannot afford the amount of gold the dragon wants, so they cannot sell their books to make more gold.”
“That’s about right, unless the retail stores get lots of orders for the book. If that happens they will start to stock it. It’s all about the gold.” A puff of smoke later and the wizard was gone.
Wannabe didn’t want to take ‘no’ for an answer so went to the friendly neighbourhood Fairy Godmother and told the sorry tale.
The Fairy Godmother looked in her Big Book of Spells (self published) and told Wannabe the magic 12 step program that might break the curse:
Hopeful and with new confidence, Wannabe ran to the nearest Barstuck Coffee Shoppe, ordered a Clappaccino to celebrate and got to work on the laptop. Victory is at hand!
News of the book fascinated town and country folks alike and multiple orders were placed for it. Soon the stores were sending in orders for the item and the dragons realized this may be one of those stories that will make a lot of gold. So they allowed the book to get inscribed into the Masters Book List. Finally, Wannabe got to see the book on the shelf. Now I can live happily ever after.
But someone was interrupting Wannabe’s thoughts. It was the store manager.
“So, when’s your next book coming out?”
The moral of the story is: Be diligent and check on your status every step of the way. Ask your publisher if your book conforms to the standard editorial requirements. If not, ask why. Be part of the process: write letters, make phone calls, send emails, read the small print and get your pumpkin home before midnight!
Niki, a director of Ways and Means 2009-2010, writes about neurotic romantics and their pets.