Friday, July 24, 2015

Fiction Craft: Characterization (Part I)

A discussion of how to create characters who behave like real people and fascinate readers.

By
Robert Ferrier

Readers live your story by experiencing how people deal with danger. Your characters must seem like real human beings--feeling, caring, striving, failing, winning, hurting. Above all, they must earn reader's respect. Readers have seen every plot imaginable, yet they have not learned how your characters handle adversity. This column and the following one will answer these key questions:

1. How do you create a character?
2. How do you give a character direction?
3. How do you make a character fascinate readers?

CREATING CHARACTERS

Never model a character after a real person. Human beings possess too much complexity for a story. Yet the traits you emphasize enable readers to understand why a character behaves as she does under stress; only stress reveals true character.

Characters react to stress because of motivation. To ensure they act as you wish under pressure, you must construct their past to set up the desired reaction in the future.

Give them a biography, including a "backstory." The more important the character, the more complete the biography. Print out this "story resume" for each character and place it nearby. Include the character's name, date and place of birth, physical description, age, address, occupation or primary endeavor, immediate relatives, friends and relationships with each. List every facet of their physical and emotional makeup. Build them from the inside out, including traits that set them apart and differentiate them from other characters.

Above all, give them a current problem--the story goal--or in the case of a villain, a reason for blocking that goal. 

A tip for "bracketing" your character: List one sentence quotes about her strengths from five of her fictional allies. List one sentence quotes about the character's weaknesses from five of her enemies. Then you'll know your character.

In the backstory, list date and circumstance of pivotal events which have imprinted the character. Think action/reaction. Impact characters with a past event that explains why they react in a certain way to a present event. Not all past events need be revealed. (If they are revealed, use sequels or dialogue). However, as author you must know their backstory. Otherwise, you won't know how and why your characters react as they must under pressure.

Give all your characters a conflicting "story equation." Loyalty vs. Greed. Honor vs. Cowardice. Love vs. Fear. True characters struggle with internal choice. In commercial fiction, heroes and heroines will make the right choice, no matter the personal sacrifice. Villains choose the wrong path and pay the price during plot reversal at the denouement (the subject of a later column).

Armed with the character's background and personality, you are ready to begin the story, which should launch in full stride with an immediate change threatening the character's well being.

USING CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION

As author, you see your characters clearly. You've created them. However, readers view your characters as if looking through an opaque glass pane. They lack your clear vision of the character. Let's take a situation: You've put reader in the main character's viewpoint, and another important character enters the scene for the first time. Since first impressions imprint readers, and they're looking through the opaque pane, you must paint the character in broad, heavy brush strokes. To you, the description may seem almost "clown-like." To reader, however, your heavy hand allows the reader to "see" the character through the opaque glass, rather than presenting a fuzzy shadow.

Here's a scene introducing the character, Joe Buck, in my novel, THE WITCHERY WAY:
------------------------

"Damn blowdown!" roared a voice 

Wade stared open-mouthed at the figure before him. Joe Buck stood six-feet-four, wearing fire engine red overalls that matched the color of his face. The overalls showed smears of grease, dirt, burgundy paint, coffee, dried egg yolk, blood and something that looked like a smashed jelly-filled donut. His square face looked the color of Oklahoma clay, and his eyes bulged like two lumps of coal. Big ears stood out from his head like two leaves of cauliflower, and his black, coarse hair flew awry. The nose looked all Choctaw--wide and hooked. In contrast, his mouth formed perfectly, turned up at the corners--a smiling grizzly. Joe Buck pointed at Wade. "Do you know how to fix a blowdown?
------------------------

AVOIDING COMMON MISTAKES IN CREATING CHARACTERS

1. Don't begin a story by introducing the character's background. Place readers in the character's viewpoint as they face an immediate threat to their status quo. Introduce background during sequels.

2. Don't censor yourself in creating characters. Your family and friends won't try to see you or themselves in your characters, which are fictional constructs designed for story purposes. Readers will forget about the author, and lose themselves in your story.

3. Don't make the character one-dimensional. Give her faults, quirks, physical and emotional "tags" and flaunt those tags often. Above all, give her feelings and show them through viewpoint.

4. Don't fail to differentiate your characters. Never begin their names with the same letters, and choose names carefully to fit the character. Contrast characters physically and emotionally.

In summary, your characters carry the story. Build them from the inside out, giving them feelings and purpose.

Next month: How to direct your characters and make them fascinate readers.
Copyright 2001 Robert Ferrier

Saturday, March 7, 2015

2014 Norman Galaxy Contest Winners


Rhymed Poetry:
1st Place: Romance by Neal Huffaker
2nd Place: Poet on the Prairie by Barbara Shepherd
3rd Place: Reflections by Mary Brannon

Unrhymed Poetry:
1st Place: Memories by Skye Lucking
2nd Place: Springtime by Jean Stover
3rd Place: Spellbound by Shelley Anne Richter
Honorable Mention: Halloween by Neal Huffaker
Honorable Mention: The Note by Mary Brannon
Honorable Mention: Auntie’s Temper by Barbara Shepherd

Non-fiction Article:    
1st Place: Purple Elephant by Skye Lucking
2nd Place: Claudia Potter, Medicine Woman by Barbara Shepherd
3rd Place: Do Adopted Children Grow Up? by Mary Payne
Honorable Mention: Christmas in March by Mary Brannon

Nostalgic Essay:
1st Place: Into Darkness by Neil Huffaker
2nd Place: Grief Relief by Shelley Anne Richter
3rd Place: Remembering Paul and Jackie by Keith Eaton
Honorable Mention: Writing with One Wing by Barbara Shepherd
Honorable Mention: My Very Most Unforgettable Character by Mary A. Spaulding
Honorable Mention: Little Sister Tagalong by Jean Stover
Honorable Mention: Laughing Gas and the Tornado by Skye Lucking
Honorable Mention: Could He Do it? by Mary Brannon

Children’s Fiction:
1st Place: Hear Me on the Radio by Barbara Shepherd
2nd Place: The Spunky Tenderfoot by Neal Huffacker
3rd Place: A Lottery Ticket for Lionel by Shelley Anne Richter
Honorable Mention: The Other Twin by Mary Brannon
Honorable Mention: Lessons for Lyncoya by Mary Payne

Short Story:
1st Place: Mystery without Mozart by Susan Brassfield Cogan
2nd Place: The Portrait Painter by Barbara Shepherd
3rd Place: Granny Thistle by Shelley Ann Richter
Honorable Mention: The Indomitable Dentist by Neal Huffacker

The Bonnie Speer Creme de la Creme Winner:


Into Darkness by Neal Huffaker

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fiction Craft: Revising the Novel

By Robert Ferrier 

Completed first drafts unleash a torrent of emotions. Enjoy the moment. Few writers finish a novel, and you've passed those who dropped out along the way. Now you're eager to launch that book into the world. 

Beware the trap. First drafts don't sell. 

Euphoria masks sins: overwriting, plot holes, faulty character motivation, stilted dialogue, research errors, flawed scene structure and style mistakes. 

Editors look for reasons to reject. Craft your work into a salable manuscript -- one that stands out -- by taking the following steps: 

I. Delay 

Take a 4 - 6 week working vacation from the manuscript. Distance yourself from the book and let it "cool." The objectivity gained will prove crucial later. 

Use this time to seek evaluation of the manuscript by your critique group or a published author. Check your ego at the door; you don't need validation, you need red marks on pages. 

(By the way, this is a good time to copy the novel to a separate disk for safekeeping in a deposit box.) 

II. Take Notes during "First Read" 

After returning to the project (You didn't peek did you?), read the manuscript straight through with a notepad. Don't revise; make margin notes and jot down page numbers for repair jobs. 

Focus on key issues: 

A. Confirming significance of story goal and scene goals 

B. Strengthening characters: 

1. Are their actions motivated and logical? 
2. Do the characters grow? 
3. Does their "inner humanity" change? 

C. Checking key elements of: 

1. Beginning: Threatens protagonist with change? 
2. Middle: Moves toward confrontation with opposing force? 
3. End: Forces choice of sacrificial decision by protagonist, reversal and achievement of 
story goal. 

D. Ensuring ascending importance of scene goals 

E. Noting fluff and personal opinion 

F. Marking viewpoint mistakes 

G. Staying consistent on details 

H. Avoiding overuse of words or phrases. 

I. Varying chapter openings. (Use action, dialogue, narration or description.) 

III. Begin Revisions 

A. Cut overwriting 

Remember Stephen King's advice: Second draft = first draft minus 10%. Tighten the manuscript by cutting: 

1. Adjectives and adverbs 
2. Wordy passages and personal opinion 
3. Excessive research 

B. Correct errors listed in your notes and critiques 

C. Continue building characters: 

1. Add color and background to major characters 
2. Look for ways to use minor characters as major players 
3. Tag characters physically and psychologically 

D. Insert plot pointers 

Now that you know the story line, insert incidents that prepare readers for major events occurring later. 

E. Strengthen scene and sequel relationship 

Does each chapter-ending scene finish with a "hook" that pulls readers into the next chapter? Does each sequel (emotion, dilemma, analysis, decision, new scene goal) match the previous scene's intensity? 

F. Check story logic 

At crucial plot points, reinforce why the protagonist doesn't quit the quest. 

IV. Polish for Submission 

A. Correct grammar, punctuation and spelling 

Style errors warrant a rejection slip. Don't rely entirely on your word processor's spell check and grammar functions. 

B. Read aloud 

Whatever the length of the book, read every word aloud. If your voice trips over a word or phrase, delete the word(s) or revise the sentence. The final result will set you apart from amateurs. 

C. "Kill Your Darlings" 

Some of your "favorite" phrases, sentences or passages won't fit. Delete them. Find solace in your royalty checks. 

V. Submit the Manuscript 

When you've completed the above steps, submit the work. Two things will happen: 1) you'll suffer postpartum depression, and 2) you'll obsess about the status of the manuscript. The antidote: begin another story. Setting new characters in motion frees you from looking back.

Twitter: @Dante_Dreams 
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Ferrier/e/B0035CY448/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A discussion of the elements of viewpoint in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Viewpoint 

By

Robert Ferrier
(rferrier1941.cox.net

Readers ask one question when they begin a story: Whose skin am I in?
Viewpoint enables readers to live the story through a character, rather than observing like patrons at a play. By establishing viewpoint--along with time, place and circumstance--the author prepares readers to begin an adventure. Readers feel every emotion; share every thought; see, feel, hear and taste everything, living moment-by-moment inside the viewpoint character.
In establishing viewpoint, authors use one of three narration methods: first person, second person or third person.

First Person Narration

All story narration filters through the thoughts, feelings and actions of an "I" character. This method provides the closest identification between character and reader. Authors of detective novels often use this technique.

Second Person Narration

In this rare, idiosyncratic technique, a "you" character tells the story.

Third Person Narration

He, she, it or they tell the story, using one of three variations. The objective narrator tells the story only through outward signs--action, description and dialogue. The omniscient narrator knows everything that a god might know, seeing into the minds of all her characters and inserting author comments. In the most commonly used technique, a limited omniscient narrator describes outward events through the mind and senses of a central character.

Elements of Viewpoint

Whether beginning a scene or sequel, establish a single character's viewpoint immediately, using one or more of the following elements:

1. Emotions
2. Thought
3. Intent.
4. Physical Senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell.

Once a character expresses emotions, thought or intent, readers know they are inside that character's skin. In limited omniscient viewpoint, only the viewpoint character can know what she is feeling or thinking. Immediately establish viewpoint using physical senses.
In the following scene the viewpoint character, Jimmy, crawls into an abandoned coke oven in a ghost town to escape a pursuer armed with a crossbow.
---------------------------------------
When he crawled through the opening, a wall of heat hit him. He felt his way along the bricks in total darkness. Afraid of making noise, he curled up and listened to his pounding heart while he waited and prayed.
Stinging sweat blurred his view of the entrance.
He wrinkled his nostrils at the musty smell. He tried not to think about what might have been here before, or what might be here now. No nukshopa, he thought, remembering his Choctaw father's advice. No panic. Just think of something else, something good. So he thought of how his mother had rubbed his back after football games. He thought of her hands, how good they felt, how much he loved her. How much he missed her since she died.
He waited, prayed and sweated, losing all sense of time.
Then he saw a small boot--the size of a boy's--at the entrance. The leg looked muscular, like a man's.
Jimmy remained still, watching the entrance.
Now he saw both boots. Then both knees. And small, strong hands.
A dwarf?
Now the man would crawl inside.
Jimmy knew he had to move deeper into the oven, yet something made him stop. Some fear. A presence.
But not to move meant exposure, and death.
He inched back deeper into the oven.
Then he heard a deadly buzz, so loud that he felt his skin crawl. That sound....
He was alone in the dark with a rattlesnake.
---------------------------------------

Common Mistakes in Viewpoint

Avoid common mistakes in viewpoint:

1. Don't allow the viewpoint character to use a physical sense in an impossible way.

Wrong: "Helen's face turned red." (Helen can't see her own face, unless she's close to a mirror.)

Right: "Helen felt her face turning red."

2. Don't allow the viewpoint character to experience thought or intent in a non-viewpoint character.

Wrong: "Helen watched her sister think about the idea." (Helen can't know what her sister is thinking.)

Right: "Helen watched her sister, imagining what must be going through her mind. Would she like the idea?"

3. Don't begin a scene without establishing viewpoint immediately. Physical senses alone may not establish viewpoint. One character can observe another character seeing, smelling or touching something. Thus, reader still doesn't know whose viewpoint they are in until one character expresses thought or emotion.

4. Don't change the viewpoint character within a scene. Readers prefer to remain inside one character during conflict. Use a chapter break or other interruption to shift viewpoint.

In summary, viewpoint ranks as one of the most powerful tools available to the fiction writer. Use this technique in both scene and sequel, enabling readers to live the story moment-by-moment.

Next month: Characterization

Suggested Reading:

Bickham, Jack M. Scene & Structure. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1993.

Card, Orson Scott. Characters & Viewpoint. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1988.

McClanahan, Rebecca. Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1999.

Swain, Dwight V. Techniques of the Selling Writer. Norman, Ok.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.




Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Elements of writing effective dialogue in fiction.

Fiction Craft: Dialogue 

By

Robert L. Ferrier


Dialogue offers a powerful tool for developing characters, building conflict and foreshadowing events. Listen to conversation by people of all ages, ethnic groups, occupations and gender. Real conversation sounds brief. So does fiction dialogue, with conflict added. Read masters of the craft--Elmore Leonard and Ernest Hemingway.

Functions of Dialogue:

1. Developing Characters

Characters identify themselves in dialogue by words, attitude, tone and "speech tags." For example, the character Wednesday in Neil Gaiman's novel, AMERICAN GODS, addresses Shadow with the speech tag, "m'boy." Through Wednesday's attitude, we "hear" his sense of superiority and volatility.

2. Building Conflict through Stimulus-Response

Conflict hogs 95% of a scene. Thus, dialogue between characters resembles sparring.

Dialogue acts as a stimulus at the end of a paragraph. With few exceptions, the responding character's dialogue should link immediately in the next paragraph. On the other hand, if a paragraph ends in action rather than words, the responding paragraph should begin with action. This parallel linkage speeds readability.

The dialogue techniques of linking (repeating) words or using question and answers tighten stimulus-response between paragraphs. One exception: in a highly-charged transaction, it's acceptable to delay the response by inserting emotion.

3. Foreshadowing Future Action

After writing your first draft, you know all major events in the story. Take advantage of this knowledge by inserting new dialogue to foreshadow these events. Here's a segment from my novel, DEAR MR. KAPPS. In the original draft, Mr. Elconin was a minor character. Later events provided an opportunity to make him a major charactor, as evidenced by this inserted scene, which takes place in the lounge of a retirement home.:
--------------------------
I turned my back to the jigsaw puzzle ladies, but I felt their stares.

"Mr. Elconin, I saw you reading Model Flyer. Can you teach me to fly a model airplane?"

A light sparkled in his eyes. "What model will you be flying?"

"I don't know. A trainer." I felt stupid.

He stared at me. "Ever work with gasoline models?"

"No, sir. I'm just starting." I felt him slipping away. "I've got to fly a trainer before I try The Lightning."

His eyes widened. "Lightning? You mean a P-38 Lightning?"

"Yes, sir. I need to fly that plane before it's too late."

He crossed his legs. "Too late for what?"

"For my friend to see it happen." I searched for the words. "We're building the plane together...or we were. Now he's dying, and I'm building it."

"Dying? How old is he?"

"Fourteen. We've got cancer. That's how we met, during chemotherapy." I felt bad, talking about BB. "He doesn't have much time. He's got to see that plane fly."

"Cancer." He stared at my bald head, then his eyes glazed over, and he drifted away."That's how I lost my wife...to the cancer." He came back from the past and raised both hands. "You don't have a prayer."

"Why? I'm willing to learn! I need a teacher!"

"Humph!" He pointed a bony finger at me. "That Lightning flies too fast for a rookie." He made a darting movement with his hands. "Before you learn, your friend will be dead."

I felt my face flush. "So I should quit? I never quit! I haven't quit on my cancer. I'll bet your wife didn't quit! She fought, and you helped her fight!"

I heard a gasp from the jigsaw ladies. The room fell silent. Even the fire seemed to stop crackling. Mr. Elconin's eyes flamed. He might have lapsed into some memory. Then he looked up again. "You finished that Lightning yet?"

"Well, no. We've...I've got to finish the tail, fit the engine, paint the plane...."

"Great googlie mooglie!" he muttered.
------------------------------------

As an exercise, circle all linked (repeated) words and question/answer transactions in the above scene. Note how these techniques speed flow while building tension. 




Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robert.l.ferrier
Twitter: @Dante_Dreams 
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Ferrier/e/B0035CY448/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Writing Process

by Lisbeth L. McCarty

Each person uses a different process to write, just as each human being is different.

There is no right or wrong to any method; the bottom line is to keep writing. Here are three parts of the process that have helped me:

1. Read. This is redundant, as I have no doubt that every writer is a reader. On the other hand, we all only have so many hours in a day. Television is easy and Facebook is fun, but try to make a point to read a book or part of a book every day.

2. Inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere, even when you are simply walking down the street. All the authors I know have minds that are running full-time, so try to harness those ideas by taking note of something each day that inspires you for use in your writing.

3. Edit. We’ll all seen misspelled signs. If you are like I am, you are exhausted by the time you are finished writing and don’t want to re-read what you have just written. Take advantage of your talented friends or hire a copy editor.

_________________________
Lisbeth L. McCarty
https://www.facebook.com/LisbethLMcCarty
Available on Amazon.com:   I Cooked; Therefore, They Ran;  Ours was the House;  Mustang Island; The Bitten Air; Scared Spell That Ends Well

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Fiction Craft: An Introduction

By Robert Ferrier

As a beginning novelist, I knew writers who worried about choosing a premise, writing to the market or obtaining an agent.

I, on the other hand, thirsted for knowledge of fiction craft.

Novelists build stories from blocks, just as workmen build houses from bricks. To build our story house, we must know the materials, tools and techniques of our craft. I gained knowledge the hard way: by attending classes, writers conferences and workshops. I learned from published authors. I joined writing groups. I read novels and instructional books. Most importantly, I completed eight novels and started several others. Every level in the New York publishing industry rejected me, from associate editor to executive publisher.

NEVER QUIT
How did I avoid quitting? By feeding "the critter" inside me. The beast subsists on the words I write. Salvation arrived in electronic publishing. E-book editors ignore marketing niches and gobble fresh, well-crafted stories.

How do you separate your work from the slush that floods publishers' desks? By knowing and using fiction craft -- the building blocks of story.

SCENE GOALS
In this article we explore the engine which drives all commercial novels: Scene.

Scene: A unit of conflict experienced moment-by-moment by the reader through the character's viewpoint. The elements of scene include goal, conflict and disaster. A scene goal represents something that a character wants or needs to achieve the story quest.

Examples include, but are not limited to:
* Possession (such as a clue, a piece of information, victory in a confrontation)
* Relief (from danger, fear, domination, loneliness, poverty or revenge) from loss, betrayal or injury.
Scene goals force the viewpoint character to take immediate, specific and concrete steps, requiring both decision and action. These goals loom large in the character's story quest. In other words, something vital must be at stake.

Suggested Reading:
Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain
Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickham
Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robert.l.ferrier
Twitter: @Dante_Dreams
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Robert-Ferrier/e/B0035CY448/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0