Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Do Your Characters Poop?

Do Your Characters Poop?

Create Interesting Characters, Not Brooding Turnoffs?

In 8 Ways to Write Better Characters, author Elizabeth Sims realizes, looking back on her first manuscript, that its shortcoming was "poor character development." Sims says of her characters, "The kids just don't pop."  I, being half blind, read, "The kids just don't poop."

Elizabeth, of course, didn't say "poop," but take a moment and think about it: how anal retentive were you being when you developed your characters?  Did you bedevil them with a mish-mash of personality traits--all narrowly detailed or imbalanced--that made your emotionally troubled characters unlikable?

Let's not go into your characters' potty training--or yours.  Rather, let's ask simply if your characters lack that certain je ne sais quoi that makes them interesting despite brooding minds and personality flaws. Think Professor Humbert, who obsesses over twelve-year old Dolores Haze. He's a sicko, but we can't quit reading Lolita.  Rhett Butler is also a personality many women today would find over-bearing, yet frankly, he and Professor Humbert are both fascinating.

Since Lolita and Gone With the Wind, characters have grown more "over the top," "edgy," and "dark," but they've grown--in Freudian parlance--less in-your-face emotionally, less raw and real (in my opinion).  However, they're still beautiful memorable misfits that pop for readers.  Think of the Bella Swans and Edward Cullens, the Anastasia Steeles and Christian Greys.  Do they not have those ineffable personalities readers enjoy so much they speak of them like family? 

Leverage Your Characters' Group or "Power Dynamic"

How easy is it to develop a Professor Humbert, a Rhett Butler, or a Christian Grey?  How can you make your darkly brooding or disagreeable characters pop? As Sims points out, there are many things you can do, but one tip among the eight she offers, which I find helpful, is her idea of leveraging the group. We're "students of human nature," says Sims, so shrinking our characters and analyzing their group dynamic is both necessary and fun.  Thus, we need to pay attention to what our characters do in groups.  I immediately thought of Lord of the Flies.

The key, however, isn't just analyzing group behavior.  You must leverage it, us it to enhance and develop your characters' personalities.  Sims identifies three works that "[ . . . ] use group dynamics to gripping effect," and then lists Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, and David Mamet's play, Glengarry Glen Ross.  Sims breaks down the inter-relationships and how each contributes to making the characters more likable and dynamic.

In a previous post, Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic, I also show how you can analyze and use your characters' power dynamic, basically by dismissing your inner narcissist and avoiding the use of descriptive narrative as a mode.  In this and future posts, I'll be providing more "how to" tips on using your characters' power dynamic to develop your characters.

Helpful Links

McFarland, Mary H.  Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic
Sims, Elizabeth: http://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/improve-my-writing/8-ways-to-write-better-characters

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic

Fouc U! 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic

What Readers Want

We're readers with individual tastes and needs, yes, but we're all on the hunt for that one novel.  We open it, start to read, and hallelujah!  We hear an angelic chorus, and we instantly know: this is no work of modest vocal force.  It's the one.  Yes, it's the big Messiah.  We don't just hear the words, but we also sense the author's fidelity to characters' moods, intentions, and motivations: we feel it. Reading thus becomes an ecstatic experience that seduces us, pulls us into the story and bonds us with the work's composer.  There's no greater experience in the realm of reading pleasure--none.  It's addicting.  We crave it.

The Near-Sensual Experience

Why?  Why do writers ignore the chance to create this near-sensual experience and, of more importance, why do we cheat ourselves of the chance to write stories that build pleasurable emotional bonds with our readers?  Many reasons, perhaps.  I've struggled to infuse my stories with this force, the force that makes characters' lives and personalities come alive, the force that grabs us by our souls' heels and makes us rise (pun intended), as King George II did when he heard Handel's Messiah, and cry out joyfully.  I can think of one reason indulged religiously by most writers, and it's as natural to us as breathing.  It's our desire to narrate as narcissist, rather than studying our characters' power dynamic and then articulating it with the emotional depth readers need and long for.

Whoa!  That's a mouthful.  Yup.  I'm not dumbing this down.  You've got to do your homework, which means immersing yourself in Foucault 101 (see link at bottom).  Don't like the idea?  Yeah, Fouc U, too.

The Magic Formula

I'm a writer (technical writer) by profession, with an extensive background in the software industry and, of late, a struggling fiction writer.  Thus, I automatically search for some formula I can hand you and say, "Here it is. Follow this, and readers will love your story." 

There is no magic formula for anything in fiction writing.  On the other hand, I've found a way of exorcising my narcissist, while narrating with passion (hallelujah!) and emotional depth my readers want.  It's based on my beta readers' response to my present WiP, a literary erotica (out-of-category romance) couched in a suspense plot.  It's called Damage, and it is shaped by my immersion in studying Foucault's power dynamic as it relates to text and subtext

The Event Horizon

As I said, exorcise your narcissist.  Tell her, "Be gone!"

Your story isn't about you: it's a composition, the same as Handel's Messiah, and it's got to reach your audience's "event horizon," a Foucault phrase.  In the most basic sense (Foucault is impossible to deconstruct definitively), but from my perception developed during my graduate studies, it's the point where readers' emotional core engages irrevocably with your story's text (and, especially, it's subtext).  Less literally, it means the "cosmic vault from which there is no return" (Görgün, Sevova).

So step one in reaching readers' event horizon is realizing: I'm not writing for me.  I'm writing to interact with my readers.  I'm creating emotional performance art.  I'm writing so readers can feel my characters' power dynamic, and that in response, my readers' will interact emotionally with my characters and their passion will be stirred.

Easy for me to say, isn't it?

The Poison of Reader-Character Interaction

The poison of writing that incites passionate reader-character interaction is descriptive narrative, simply describing what happened between characters and when.  When you do this, you ignore the potential to create a reader-character power dynamic.  All that remains is your own narcissistic interaction with your text and, some would say, your ego. 

It's habit, like breathing, and it's difficult to consciously analyze that we're doing it as we write.  The good news?  We don't have to.  There are infinite points in our novels where we can stop, go back, or move forward for a look-see and say, "Oh, wow, this is the point where my protags switched power lanes."  For example, in Damage, my WiP, Madison Warner finally gets it that her former lover's suicide made her needy in her present relationship.  At that point, I could have simply narrated and described her reaction.  Instead, I analyzed her power dynamic with Bale Buckwalter.  How do I want Madison to wield--or not--her newfound power?  What will Bale do in response, and why?  How does the couple's relationship pivot--or not--on the alteration in their power dynamic?

After my analysis, I carefully avoided narrative description as my writing mode, choosing instead other tropes to support the scenes' and my readers' emotional demands in ways that stimulate beyond the limits of narrative description.

Performing this type of power-dynamic analysis opens infinite ways to create scenes that excite readers, or enable us to return to old scenes and ask, How might I make this scene more emotionally satisfying for readers?

One Interpretation of Foucault's Power Dynamic

Doctoral candidates have built careers studying Foucault.  Today, he's viewed as anachronistic, but we can still learn a lot about passionate writing from the master of deconstruction.  In his dissertation on Foucault's power dynamic, Doctor Sergiu Bălan, with the Institute of Philosophy and Psychology, Bucharest, points out what we writers neglect, and that is the idea that power dynamics are not uni- or even bilateral.  They're organic and alive, and further, individuals are conduits of power, not passive recipients.  

My understanding of Foucault's power dynamic has helped me create and tweak my characters' power dynamics in Damage, and further, it has helped me get the intensely passionate reaction at this point, which I'm seeking from beta readers.  

Bălan, in "M. Foucault's View on Power Relations," sums it up as follows: 

Usually, power is understood as the capacity of an agent to impose his will over the will of the powerless, or the ability to force them to do things they do not wish to do. In this sense, power is understood as possession, as something owned by those in power. But in Foucault's opinion, power is not something that can be owned, but rather something that acts and manifests itself in a certain way; it is more a strategy than a possession: Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain . . . Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organization . . . Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.

Helpful Links


Monday, April 18, 2016

Dragon from the Land Beyond Fantasy

How Did I Get Here? - Um, since it's Monday, and since this blog post is inspired by a ten year-old, I won't beg you to go into the specifics.  Cabbage patch, maybe?  Wink, wink.

I'm Not Writing What I Want - If you agree, if you're writing anything but what you thought you'd be when your head was filled with dreams of how life would be after grad school, welcome. You're in great company: mine.  And, oh, about a gazillion others.

What Happened?  I started out writing fantasy and poetry in grade school.  Yea, me!  I got so many atta-girls from my teachers.  In high school, I got hung up on Poe.  What's not to love, right?  My teachers--yep, it's always the teachers, isn't it?--hugeazz wink, wink--focused on stuff like rhyme in Annabelle Lee, while I drooled secretly over the suspenseful thrill thinking about the tell-tale heart and that oh-so-sharp swinging pendulum gave me.  I couldn't wait to get out of class and write my own Poe-like tales.

When Did I Know I Wasn't a Writer? I've always known I was born to be a writer.  You have, too. But between grade school (I skipped kindergarten: too danged smart for 'em) and my undergrad years, I picked up some bad behavior, motivated by what others, many others, told me I needed to do and think in order to be a writer.  Some of it included diagramming sentences, some of it involved deconstructing subtext, yada-yada.  You get the idea?  My whole self, my entire creative self, simply got subverted, redirected and misdirected. 

It's taken me years of stilted writing and attempts to learn how not to write what--and how--others have told me I need to. I've finally learned the only rule that matters: obey the inner child. 

What Do Dragons Have to Teach Us? - This weekend, I went to a writer's meetup at the Crown Plaza in Cincinnati.  I was sicker than a dog, din't want to go, but I pushed and, thanks to friends, made it.  But while I was sitting there, between trips to the bathroom, this little ten year-old named Katie showed up at my table and started telling me about her novel, Dragon from the Land Beyond Fantasy.  Jawdrop! This little kiddo, with dark brown curls and all sequined out in a cute outfit, starts telling me how she's a writer, how she's finishing this novel and working on her next. 

Katie's enthusiasm was boundless.  While she knew her genre and could hold her own with every writer at the conference, she didn't worry about any of that crap. She just held us all spellbound, rattled off her logline, her plot, and on and on.  

Wow!  I sat with tears in my eyes, not only because Katie was one superb kiddo, but because I felt more energized than I'd ever been in my entire writing life.  I'd reconnected with the most important part of me, my inner child.

Katie came back to get her picture taken with me.  I felt honored.  I couldn't hold back my tears of joy, and I encouraged her to come find me when she got Dragon from the Land Beyond Fantasy finished.

I think that kiddo was secretly a little dragon sent from the land beyond fantasy to remind me what's important about being a writer. 

Have you met your dragon?  Where?  Tell me.  It's Monday, so let's inspire.  

No promo on #MondayBlogs, but you can tweet me or whatever.  I just want to kick butt today and write like I was meant to.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Do Loglines Work for Your Novel?

Stanislavski.  Image the property of owner.
A Logline for Your Novel? - One obstacle authors face is the time it takes to write a novel. For me, a chunk of time is devoted to plotting.  If you're a pantser, kudos, but I'm a rabid Stanislavski fan, so everything I write is plotted, or it's "scripted," so to speak.  Even if you're not a plotter, you still need a main idea to write your story.  

For me, developing the main idea is my starting point, so I like having a fix on it before I start plotting.  If I can distill my story's main idea down to twenty-seven or so words, about the length of a logline, I've got my baseline for moving forward quickly with plotting.

Logline Versus Premise? - They are two different animals, and if created well, they work as complements.  That said, there's tons of blogs about the difference between the two, which is not the focus of this post, so happy Googling. 

I bypass premise writing and instead write a logline for my novel.  The reason is simple.  If I can clearly explain my novel's main idea to myself, I can then easily expand my plot in a way that saves me huge amounts of time.  

Another reason I write a logline is that it contains the audience hook, which is broader and more implicit in a premise, making it unwieldy to explain to others.  In this busy world, I prefer the logline, which I can easily learn and memorize and belt out in an elevator, subway, or busy restaurant.  Anywhere.  

If there is one dude I love to learn from, it's D4Darious, or Darious Britt. He's got a great YouTube video on loglines and how to write them (link provided below).


Monday, April 4, 2016

Edit My Darling Novel?

How Do I Pick an Editor?

How Do I Choose an Editor for My Novel?  Like ferns, editors grow seemingly by asexual reproduction.  There's so many. Help!

Do I need an editor?  Of course not.  That is, you don't if don't care about your professional rep as an author.  Silly!  Even Stephen King needs an editor.

So how do I choose?

Copyright 2016.  Mary H. McFarland.  All rights reserved.

What's My Editor's Credentials?  Editors must have credentials. Check them.  If she's worked for a publishing house, she has inside info on evaluating your manuscript against industry standards.  She might also advise on how to beef up your novel's sex appeal to publishers. 

All well and good, but when your novel hits Amazon, no one cares about your editor's celebrity status.  What readers do care about is whether your novel looks and reads professionally. Does it shine, or is it filled with plot holes and glaring inconsistencies?  

So you'll want to ask: 

  • What specific credentials does the editor possess?
  • What editorial functions does she perform? 
  • Which clients has she edited, and for which genre(s)?
Always vet your editor.  Call authors and verify how the edit was done, plus ask about the level of satisfaction.  Also, ask for a list of editorial functions and pricing.

K.M. Weiland (link below), offers advice on what to do if you can't afford an editor. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bruce Nauman's Performance Art in my WiP "Get In Line"

"How'd you come up with your idea for that novel?"

I'm bored?

No, seriously, I'm researching book 2 in my Toein' The Line series.

Jump The Line, book one, took me out on a limb.  You've said in your Amazon reviews that you love Jump The Line, and you don't seem put off by my choice of first person present PoV.

Then why go out on a limb?  Why risk pissing you off?

I Love Performance Art and Reader Immersion
In the future, books will be a brand of performance art that immerses you interactively, just as performance art does its audience.   We're already talking about "choose your own adventure" and "gamebook" novels, and gaming is fairly immersive today.

So back to where I got my idea for Get In Line, which is book 2 in my Toein' The Line series.  What if, I asked myself, my killer wanted to involve his victims' families in his macabre art of murder the way performance artists do their audiences?  Then I took my what-if scenario a step ahead.  What if my protagonist, Alaina Colby, and her boyfriend, Aidan Hawks, wanted to play around with performance art in their love life?

Hmmm.  I'd have to be careful, since my murderer, aka "Picasso," could be too creepy for words.  And I wouldn't want to draw any parallels between his idea of murder as performance art, and Alaina's and Aidan's playful experimentation.

Oops!  I've crawled right back out on that limb, I know.  Not sorry, either!

What do you think?  Am I heading in the right direction with Get In Line?  

I'll be sharing more soon.  Meantime, tell me if you like my ideas for book 2.

TTYL! Press Hard and Concentrate!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Premise Writing Ain't Poetry: Uncrapify!

Eternal Sunshine of the Forgotten Mind

"Huh?" you ask.  What does "eternal sunshine of the forgotten mind mean?  Um, exactly?" 

I don't know, either, and that's the problem with writing your novel's premise.  It's got to be exact.

Alexander Pope is a favorite of mine, but I gotta tell ya, premise writing ain't poetry.  Okay, maybe it is. It's certainly an art form.  But my point is that your novel's premise can't befuddle.  It's got to be clear what your novel's about.

Tough assignment, I know.  Calls for boiling your book down into a sentence or two, something we writers don't exactly enjoy.  But I'm not hangin' with Pope today, who says theory has no business in a work of art.  Ehhh!  Wrong, Alex!

My premise for Vengeance Is Mine: The Profiler's Passion.  Tell me if it's clear or not.  I'm open for suggestions. 

FBI profiler, Riley Cruz (protagonist) loves unscrewing and looking inside the skull of serial killer, Tannis Loomis, a new breed of female serial killer (objective), who's collecting juvenile vics faster than the Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe (situation), but when SAC Smith (opponent) comes to the field office and Riley falls in love (disaster), Special Agent in Charge, Carter Beck starts a war in Riley's heart, head and groin that will destroy everything she's ever believed about herself (conflict).

Want to get some specific guidance on writing your novel's premise?  K.M. Weiland is the best theorist on the Web.  Her "how to" is spot on--pure poetry.

Quit Whining and Write Your Premise!