Guest Post: Subject is Variable – Character is Everything

Today’s guest lecturer is Amanda Rosenblatt:

When writing anything, whether it is an OpEd blog, a creative short story, or a fact sheet, the character put into the text is crucial. When I say “character,” I do not mean a talking rabbit that solves crimes.

People who are lucky to find careers in writing aren’t always going to be lucky enough to write about what they want to. Some are very blessed to have gotten to release the content they wanted to, or they find success in self-publishing, but there are others who write about the subject matter they are given to work with.

Any true writer is just happy to write and can work with anything they are given. The written word is their broken glass, the subject being the glue, and the final product becoming the mosaic made from materials once deemed worthless.

A great example of this concept is “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” The “My Little Pony” franchise before 2010 was successful at selling toys, but their films and TV series were lackluster in their reception, at best. Now, the fourth generation of the franchise is highly successful and noted for its depth in storytelling, as well as character building.

The people who created this generation were not the makers of the subject, being “My Little Pony.” The series was born from a toy Hasbro released in the early 1980s, so it is not new.

The writers worked with what they had to make something better. Something relevant to modern society that was educational and entertaining. Not only did it appeal to children, its target audience, but it even pulled in an adult audience, who lovingly call themselves Bronies or PegaSisters.

Were the writers for this show passionate about the subject matter at first? Likely no, since it was just another writing job and they were adults building the concept of a children’s show. But look at what they created with the subject matter given!

The moral of the story is that it shouldn’t matter if you are writing a technical manual, a satirical piece, or a feature story. Take the subject, give it life, infect it with character, and make the words work with you. You’ll give them all something to talk about, even if it’s completely by accident.

Amanda Rosenblatt is a fellow contributor to Answers.com with J.E.S. Hays, and a writer for VA Home Loan Centers. Follow the VA HLC Twitter account, or visit their site.

5 Rules To Know Before You Break Them

Many amateur writers mistakenly believe that they don’t need a solid grounding in the language in order to write. After all, great writers break the rules all the time, right?

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The fact is, those writers break the rules precisely because they know which rules to break. You can’t write well if you don’t know which rules can be broken and which can’t – and in order to know that, you’ve got to know the rules in the first place.

If you want to be a good writer, or even a great one, get started with a solid grounding in your language.

  • Spelling: know what the word is supposed to look like before you try to spell it in dialect
  • Vocabulary: know enough words to say what you want to say
  • Definitions: know what a noun is, or a possessive; understand what goes on behind your sentences so you know how to achieve the effect you want to achieve
  • Process: know how to make the proper plural or past tense; understand how the words change depending on what you want them to do
  • Grammar: know how to match your verb to your noun, or how to catch a run-on sentence or sentence fragment before you try to change things around

Any good language textbook will be useful if you didn’t pick up enough in school. Learn the rules so you can break them.

15 Simple Tips for Procrastination

Procrastination is a fine art. How should I avoid my writing, you ask? Here are some simple tips.

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  1. Clean the house. You know it needs doing, right? What better time to start than when that blank page is staring you in the face?
  2. Straighten your desk. How can you work on a cluttered surface?
  3. Wash clothes. Everybody needs clean clothes.
  4. Wash your hair. And the rest of you, too. Who likes a smelly author?
  5. Walk the dog. They expect it, after all.
  6. Feed the cat. They also expect it.
  7. Wax the car. You need a shiny automobile for those book tours you’ll be doing.
  8. Hop online. It’s only for a few minutes. How much time can Facebook eat up, anyway?
  9. Fix lunch. Everybody needs to eat.
  10. Go buy groceries. See Number 9.
  11. Fix that leak in the sink. Who can write with that annoying noise?
  12. Wallpaper the bedroom. Or paint it. You need inspiration, and those old walls just aren’t doing it.
  13. Sharpen all your pencils. How can you write with a dull pencil?
  14. Knit an afghan. Or crochet one. Your knees might get chilly while you’re writing.
  15. Clean the bathroom. Wait, this is getting entirely too ridiculous!

Quit wasting time and get back to that manuscript!

Catch ‘Em Quick

Writing a catchy first paragraph is a must for every writer, but especially for fiction writers. If the reader isn’t hooked in the first paragraph, sometimes the first two or three if they’re generous, they’re not going to be interested in finishing the story.

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“The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.”
—Joyce Carol Oates, April 1986

The first thing you need to keep in mind is this quote from Joyce Carol Oates. She’s right: in order to craft a really fascinating first sentence or paragraph, you must have your ending already crafted. All this means, of course, is that you finish your first draft before you wrack your brain trying to find that perfect  opening scene. Get the story down, then worry about creating your “hook.”

A good first paragraph starts in the midst of the action. Don’t begin your story with the character waking up and brushing his teeth, then eating breakfast and going to work. Start with the body falling past the window in his office. The reader will wait a bit to learn more about your protagonist if you give them a good enough story.

Once you’ve completed your first draft, find the scene that starts your action, and lead with that scene. That’s your hook.

Revising 1-2-3

Revision can be tough. Sometimes it’s hard to take a good, clear look at what you’ve written.

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Here are some good tips to get you started on the revision process:

  1. Start at the beginning – Editing is easier when you follow your story the same way your readers will. Starting on page one will not only help you to catch typos, but allow you to check for plot holes, continuity and characterization.
  2. Highlight all passive verbs. Look for is, are, was, were and has/have been. If the sentence can be rewritten into active voice, do so. If not, consider eliminating the sentence entirely. You do need passive voice occasionally, but keep it to the bare minimum.
  3. Get rid of the cliches. HERE’S a great list by Writer’s Digest of the most commonly used cliches. Do a find-and-replace search to be sure none of these have crept into your story.

Once you get into Edit Mode, you’ll find that it flows right along.

5 Ways to Round Out Your Characters

It’s not enough just to invent a character. You have to breathe life into that imaginary person. Here are five ways you can do this – and how to show your readers you’ve done your homework.

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  • Physical Appearance – what does your character actually look like?
  • Mannerisms – how does your character act and behave? What gestures does he use habitually? How does she walk?
  • Speech – Does your character use long or short words? Simple or complex sentences? What quirks of speech do they use?
  • Belongings – What do your character’s possessions say about them? What things does she treasure? What things can’t he live without?
  • Spaces – what is your character’s house like? Their bedroom? Workspace? How do these spaces show your character’s personality?

Now, how do you impart this information to your readers without boring paragraphs of description? Remember to show, not tell.

Here’s an example – let’s say we’ve got our heroine, Sandy Shores, who’s a quirky lifeguard with a secret dislike of children.

We could tell about her:

Sandy Shores was a tall green-eyed redhead who strode the beach with a possessive eye. It was her stretch of sand, after all: hers to guard and keep safe for the tourists and their rugrats. She twirled her battered whistle – a keepsake from her father’s days as a high school football coach – as she patrolled. She spotted a stray bit of litter and pounced. Blasted kids and their candy bars. Why didn’t their parents teach them to throw their garbage away properly?

However, it’s much more effective to show – and drop in your background tidbits as you go:

“Patrolling your beach again, Sandy?”

Sandy Shores turned eyes green as the sea on Officer Law. “Laugh if you want, Doug, but these people are on my sand. They’re mine to guard.”

“Even the dreaded house apes, eh?”

Sandy shuddered, watching a particularly sticky urchin toddle across the beach, holding a dripping ice cream cone. “Somebody has to keep the brats safe, yes.”

Officer Law laughed, his eyes on the battered whistle in her fist. “Why don’t you get yourself a new one, anyhow? That one looks like it’s on its last legs.”

Sandy closed her fist protectively. “It was my father’s.”

See the difference? Now, you try it – you don’t have to put everything about your character into the first scene, but drop bits and pieces of their life into your story to make them more believable.

What is a Scene?

Many writers, especially new writers, have trouble with scenes. They can picture the beginning of their story and the end, but what comes between gets a little hazy.

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The key to keeping your story moving is to be able to write a good scene, and to keep those scenes coming. And the key to a good scene is conflict.

Pages of prose do not a scene make, nor does dialogue between characters. Unless there is some sort of conflict and movement from one value state to another, you don’t have a scene. You should have movement from negative to positive, or vice versa. Hate turns to love, or guilt to innocence. Each scene should have some sort of “turn” or movement.

Make sure your scenes go somewhere. They must follow the story pyramid: inciting incidents, progressive complications and tension, climax and resolution. If you get stuck, think about your character arc: is your character getting closer to his goals or further away? It has to move in one direction or the other along the arc for it to be a successful scene.

Unfortunately, the easy to understand scenes are often the most difficult to craft. The scenes that stick in a reader’s mind are the ones you’ve had to edit and re-edit to perfection. And when you’re writing scenes, remember: the first thing that comes into your mind is something that’s already been done. Go deeper and seek out the real tension and conflict that will drive a truly memorable scene.

Plot or Character Driven?

Are you a plot-driven or character-driven writer? By this I mean what sorts of stories do you typically write?

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It all depends on what sorts of questions you ask. Do you find yourself asking “What if” questions, such as “What if a tornado hit my town?” or “What if that man suddenly started running down the street toward me?” These are plot questions, questions about the story itself. Stories that answer this sort of question are plot-driven stories.

If you find yourself asking “Why” questions, such as “Why did that woman just laugh?” or “Why does that man feel the need to step in and help that person?” then you’re asking character questions. Stories that deal with internal struggles are character-driven stories.

Good stories have a mix of both plot and character – they have an external plot driving the story, but they also have internal character struggles going on at the same time. The trick is to pay attention to what you’re doing so you can have an even mix of character-driven scenes and plot-driven scenes.