Power Up Your Dialogue

Power Up Your Dialogue

Ruth E. Walker

Excerpt from “Shooter”, award-winning Young Adult novel by Caroline Pignat:

I meet his eyes. Hold them for a moment. “Thanks…Hogan.” He shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. But it is, for me, it’s huge.
“Okay–but your brother is definitely dead,” Xander blurts at Hogan. “That I know because–.”
“Xander!” Isabelle cuts him off. “Geeze, don’t you have a filter?”
“No.” Confused, he looks down at his camera. “I never use one. I’d rather see things as they really are.”
We sit in awkward silence, looking everywhere but at each other.
“He’s right. It’s true.” Hogan lets out a deep breath. “It’s been two years. I should be able to at least say it.”
But he doesn’t.
Xander tilts his head and stares at Hogan. “But it’s true that you killed him?”

In fiction, well-crafted dialogue like Pignat‘s can take my breath away. But what if your dialogue is so over-written, unrealistic or dull that your reader wants your characters to stop breathing? Or at least, stop talking.

I get to read a lot of dialogue from writers at all stages of their writing career. For example, I read and assess self-published works from potential members of a national writers’ organization. I’m also a coach and editor working closely with writers seeking to polish their manuscripts. And I teach workshops that focus on crafting excellent dialogue in fiction.

I’ve read some fantastic and engaging dialogue. And I’ve read dialogue that felt like listening to someone recite the nutritional contents of a milk carton. Believe me, you want the words your characters speak to be fantastic and engaging. No 19% of vitamin D for you.

Dialogue has work to do

I’m always surprised when writers miss opportunities to make dialogue work for them. Dialogue is not filler, nor is it secondary. It’s a multi-tasking powerhouse and writers would be wise to remember that.

But even more important, there are technical effects that support and enhance your story. The following are just a few examples of the potential for spoken words:

Plot:

  • propel your narrative forward with action: “Get up! They’re swarming the gates.”
  • foreshadow, suggest, nudge: “Are you sure the doors are all locked?”
  • establish setting, time, era: “Mistress, your limbs are showing ‘neath your petticoat!”

Character:

  • convey emotional state: “Every time I look at you, I see her, alive again.”
  • highlight personality/idiosyncrasies: “Beans can’t never touch meat on my plate. I won’t eat it!”
  • establish culture/social background: “Ach lass, will you no’ be getting down from there?”
The art of character-speak

If we wrote dialogue like true, normal conversations, we wouldn’t have readers. Most real life conversations are a jumbled mess, peppered with ums, ers and ahs, interruptions, half-finished sentences and the shorthand of shared experiences.

For readers, dialogue is the illusion of active listening, of looking from person to person as a conversation unfolds. Readers also enjoy an increase in white space to ‘rest’ their eyes. Conversations create the dynamic that excites readers and keeps the story moving forward.

The job of the writer is to put words in the mouths of our characters and make it all sound natural while making sure it does some of that multi-tasking work we want it to produce.

Here are two approaches to consider.

1. Take out words to give a more natural flow. Start with a basic conversation.

“Did you see that cat get run over by the bus?”
“What cat are you talking about?”
“Frank’s old tabby cat, Tibby.”
“I didn’t see a thing. I guess Frank will be a mess.”

By taking out a word here and there, and giving a bit of a tic to one of the speakers, we also get a bit more flesh on the character.

“You see that cat get runned over by the bus?”
“What cat?”
“Frank’s ol’ cat, Tibby.”
“Didn’t see a thing. Guess Frank’ll be a mess.”

2. Use surprise or the unexpected to up the tension. Real life is often surprising when our conversations with a neighbour or colleagues go off to places we didn’t expect. Do the same thing in your dialogue because there is nothing like potential conflict to tempt your reader.

“Hi, Andrea.”
“Janice? It is you.”
“It’s so good to run into you, Andrea. You look amazing.”
“Why did you hide him from me?”

Knowing when to bring in dialogue

If there is a formula for when and where to use dialogue, I’d love to know what it is. I can say this much: When I look over my fiction, I see that I use dialogue most often when I need to raise the stakes or create conflict or tension in the story.

I don’t mean that the “conflict” or “tension” needs to be dramatic verbal combat. There are gradations and shades to tension and conflict, so sometimes that means being subtle in how I construct those conversations between characters.

Brushstrokes can be more effective than a gallon of paint. With those big scenes of a major reveal or emotion, I will often default to dialogue. But I also use dialogue for subtext and quiet discoveries.

Choosing to write scenes primarily through dialogue, action or narrative, is intuitive for most writers. But when looking at your second or third drafts, pay attention to where you’ve made those choices.

It could be that what you’ve shared in a long, explanatory passage of mostly narrative just might be better delivered through conversations between your characters.

Did You Know?

We were recently asked what a writing coach does. A writing coach supports writers at different stages of the creative process. At Writescape, we often work with writers who just want to know if they are on the right track.

Sometimes a writer needs help with specific techniques like Point of View, dialogue or story structure. And sometimes, a discouraged writer just needs someone to prompt or encourage them.

Coaching services should be tailored to your unique needs and timetable. Writescape’s  coaching services combine online, mail and telephone or in-person communications — depending on geographic, time and similar circumstances.

Contact info@writescape.ca for more information on our coaching and editing services for writers.

A Writer’s Listening Skills

A Writer’s Listening Skills

Ruth E. Walker

My grandmother wore hearing aids. Bulky beige plastic half-moon shapes sat behind her ears.  They were attached to wires that held a small custom-moulded earpiece to fit into each ear canal.

The aids helped with her hearing but at times the high-pitched whining feedback loop was terrible, and she constantly had to adjust the volume. As a child, I thought it seemed a lot of work just to hear better. As I got older, I wondered what it would be like to have to wear hearing aids.

As fate (and genetics) would have it, I’m about to find out.

Hearing is believing

Why would a writer need to worry about perfect hearing? After all, my work exists between my fingers and the keyboard and/or the page. I don’t need to hear what I’ve written when I’m editing—I just need to know that I’ve used the best possible words in the best possible order.

I write fiction. I am especially drawn to characters—their motivations, fears, desires, idiosyncrasies. And I’m curious about them and love to get inside their heads—in short, how their actions and reactions reveal who they are.

Dialogue is a huge part of revealing character. Through conversations and interior monologue, I get to do a lot of exploring and developing interesting characters. And getting that on the page is what gives readers insights into what makes characters tick. What they say. What they don’t say. And how they say it.

I like to think that I’m pretty good at this part of the writing process. I have, as they say, an “ear” for dialogue, for the way people speak and I’ve learned how to use that in my fiction.

I’ve honed that skill by reading how other writers use dialogue. And I’ve further honed that skill by listening in on conversations over the years, by paying attention to how people speak, and especially if they have an agenda or perhaps something they want to keep private.

But lately, I’ve had some trouble with that listening-in part.

I beg your pardon

Over the past year or so, I’ve gone from occasionally asking people to repeat themselves to missing about 40% of what is being said around me. Phone conversations are more difficult. The television is set at an increasingly high volume. Indeed, our PVR has been a godsend so I can rewind and replay two, three even four times to get what I missed.

Parties are really tough even though I’ve become adept at the “large conversation gathering smile”—the go-to when I can’t hear most of what is being said but don’t want to appear “out of things.”

But does this actually affect my writing? I suspect it does in ways I’ve not yet considered. And most importantly, it’s severely limited my listening-in skills. My gift for dialogue doesn’t rest at my fingertips the same. It’s almost as if I have trouble hearing what my characters are saying.

A hearing loss is isolating and while I can still turn to writing to focus my energy, I am missing out on aspects of life.

Solitary craft still needs the world

What I write and how well I write is directly affected by me living a life outside my writer’s room. I’m inspired by the world around me. From birdsong in the early morning to the river’s gurgling at the cottage to the chatter of people in the grocery story, it all is part of what makes me the writer I am.

Sure, the act of writing is solitary. But for me, it is the result of all the senses in play in the world around me. There is nothing solitary about that.

I’m lucky. I have the means to purchase hearing aids that should help me return to the conversation of the world. And if I’m right, those hearing aids will give this writer a much needed boost of inspiration and life.

DID YOU KNOW

In 2015, The Guardian newspaper published an article Hearing Words, Writing Sounds: Examining the Author’s Brain. It’s a fascinating glimpse by Richard Lea into the idea of two kinds of “listening” — writing and reading.

For Pakistani and UK novelist Kamila Shamsie, “It’s about the sound of sentences.” and accordingly, she reads her chapters aloud when she finishes each one. But Booker Prize winner, A.S. Byatt, never reads her work aloud because there are “clearly distinct forms of written and spoken language”.

Professor Brenda Rapp of Johns Hopkins has focused a research study on speech and writing and two regions of the brain: one dedicated to producing and interpreting speech and one to the act of writing. They are, according to Rapp, separated at a very deep level. According the Lea’s article, Rapp’s study followed:

…patients with specific difficulties in speech and writing for 15 years [demonstrating] that writing and speaking are supported by different parts of the brain, not just in terms of the processes controlling the hand and mouth, but at deeper levels of the language system that contain knowledge of how words are put together.

Like Shamsie, I often read my work aloud. Does that mean I’m listening for something more than what I see on the page? I think so, even if I’m not too sure what it is that I’m hearing when I read my work.

How about you? Read The Guardian article and think if “listening” comes into your process of writing. Or, like A.S. Byatt, do you keep your focus strictly “on the page” in how the words work?

One Woman Crime Wave

One Woman Crime Wave

In Conversation with…Vicki Delany

So many of us dream of being a full-time writer. But how many of us would sell our house and retire early from a job as a systems analyst with a major bank to do it? Vicki Delany made that gusty move in 2007. Now she rarely wears a watch and can write whenever she feels like it. In just ten years, Vicki (also writing as Eva Gates) has more than 20 crime and mystery novels to her credit .

And she finds time to give back to the writing community. For two years she was Chair of Crime Writers of Canada, and is also a member of Capital Crime Writers and Sisters in Crime. Just this last Labour Day weekend she was an organizer for the first festival of Women Crime Writers: “Women Killing It”.

Plus, she’s taking precious time out  to join us as Writescape’s guest at this year’s fall retreat, Turning Leaves 2017.  Perhaps you’ll join us too, but right now, take a glimpse into the writing life of this prolific, energetic and generous crime and mystery writer.

What attracted you to the mystery/crime genre?

Mystery novels really do fill the spectrum from light and fluffy to very dark indeed. Something for everyone in fact. Darker crime novels, such as psychological suspense, show the human psyche under pressure.

They take (usually) normal people and put them through a heck of a lot. Some survive, some do not. Physically as well as mentally or morally.

Crime novels allow the reader to ask him or herself: what would I do in this situation? What would I do if this happened to me? How far would I go to save my child/defeat my enemy/get revenge/save myself? What would I do for money/for love?

I’m not interested, as a reader or a writer, in explicit violence or international spies. I’m interested in character and character development, good and bad. It’s through the lens of the crime novel that we can explore people under extreme pressure. The use of a crime or a mystery allows the author to up the stakes for the characters, but the essential humanity and the complex range of human emotions are what’s all-important.

At the moment, I’m writing mostly cozy books. Cozies are all about friends and family and community. The tone is much lighter, there is never any real danger to the main characters, and not much in the way of tragedy or angst. Sometimes a little dash of romance, but the friendships are all important. People love these books because they come to love the characters and the town they live in. And the food. Food and books are often important in cozy novels.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

I’m reading The Perfect Spy by John Le Carre, recommended by a friend. A powerful, complex, intricate novel by an author at the height of his powers. I’ve just finished Dust and Shadows by Lyndsay Faye. In the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series, all the books and merchandise for sale in the shop exists in real life. I don’t read everything my fictional character stocks, but I do like to dip my toes into Sherlock pastiche now and again.

Up next? Probably In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. I am not a big historical novel reader, but I have loved Dunant’s books. I’m looking forward to the September release of Collapse of a Country: A Diplomat’s  Memoir of South Sudan by Nicholas Coghlan because I have been to South Sudan and I set one of my adult literacy novellas there. (Juba Good)

Tell us about your most recent mystery book series

The latest series is a cozy series, meaning very light, an easy read. No human tragedy or angst here. Gemma Doyle owns the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop and Emporium on Cape Cod. The first book in the series is Elementary She Read.  When Gemma finds a rare and potentially valuable magazine containing the first Sherlock Homes story hidden in the bookshop, she and her friend Jayne (who runs the adjoining Mrs. Hudson’s Tea Room) set off to find the owner, only to stumble upon a dead body.

elementary-she-read-rgbThe higBody on Baker Street - finalhly perceptive Gemma is the police’s first suspect, so she puts her consummate powers of deduction to work to clear her name, investigating a handsome rare books expert, the dead woman’s suspiciously unmoved son, and a whole family of greedy characters desperate to cash in on their inheritance.

But when Gemma and the ever-loyal, but often confused, Jayne accidentally place themselves at a second murder scene, it’s a race to uncover the truth before the detectives lock them up for good.

The second in the series hit the shelves last week on September 12, and is called  Body on Baker Street. The series is a lot of fun with lots of Sherlock Holmes references, but the books can be enjoyed by people with no interest in the Great Detective at all.

Describe a typical writing day/week

When I am at home I write every day, seven days a week. I get up in the morning and go to my main computer in my office, and read e-mails, read the papers online, spend a bit of time on Facebook or Twitter.

Then it’s time to start to write. I walk into the dining room and stand at my Netbook computer which is on the half-wall between the kitchen and the dining room.  As I pass through the kitchen, I put one egg on to boil.  (In the summer, I might sit outside on the deck). I always write, standing up, on the Netbook. I read over everything I did the previous day, doing a light edit as I go. I then take my egg into the study and eat it while checking email.

Then back to the small computer for several writing hours. Discipline is important to me, or I’d never get anything done.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received?On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

In On Writing, Stephen King says to be a writer, you have to read and you have to write. Read, and read a lot. It’s the only way you are going to learn the craft of writing.

What are you working on right now?

The fourth, as yet untitled, book in the Sherlock Holmes Bookshop series.  I am about to start going over the publisher’s edits for The Spook in the Stacks, the fourth in the Lighthouse Library series I write under the pen name of Eva Gates.

 

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape’s Turning Leaves 2017 fall retreat November 3rd to 5th, you can meet Vicki Delany at the author’s chat on Friday evening and take a workshop with her on Saturday morning, as well as enjoy her company at meals and social times.  

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Ten Ways to Get the Most from Writing Prompts

Gwynn Scheltema

At the recent Just Right at Glentula Retreat, we used a number of writing prompts. Most writers have tried them at some point in their writing journeys. Some love them; some not so much. I find them invaluable. I’ve used written, verbal, visual, and textural prompts. I’ve even used smell and taste prompts.

Some writers resist prompts, because they feel that their writing time is limited and they should be writing the “real stuff.” But remember that “completing the prompt” is not the object. The goal is to get you writing, to get you writing what has the most energy for you, and to lead you into your writing project.

How do you do that?

Follow the energy

Often when you begin writing about the subject of the prompt — say swimming in a lake — it can take you  somewhere else — say an experience of drowning or crab baskets in Italy or how your father never believed in taking vacations. Go there. Forget the prompt and go where the energy is.

Prompts unlock memories and experiences, and when you write honestly about them, about how you felt, what you observed, and perhaps even capture some of the dialogue that was spoken, you can take that piece and adapt  it later for your “real” writing.

Prompts are not precise nor prescriptive.

Understand the possibilities of “You”

Prompts often use the pronouns “you” or “your”: “Write about your greatest fear” or “Imagine yourself beside a body of water…” Of course, you can write about your own experience, but you can also approach it as if you are one of your characters. And not just your protagonist or your viewpoint character. Often it is more revealing to pick your antagonist, or a minor character.

Switch it up

Try the same prompt from two different characters’ points of view. If the prompt says “What’s your favourite colour?”, get your character to answer. What colours does she/he have an aversion to? Perhaps you don’t know. Write about the fact that you don’t know that about your character. Why don’t you know? What else don’t you know? Or have characters answer that question about each other. What did your protagonist’s mother think were his /her favourite colours? How did that play out in your protagonist’s life? Did the mother always dress your protagonist in blue for example?

If you are a memoir writer, remember that the people in your life are your characters; they are just called Mom, or Dad or Great Aunt Mabel. And like a fiction writer, you can stretch by writing as if you are another character.

 

Prime the Muse

Prompts take you places you don’t expect, but I’ve also found them useful for getting into scenes that I was planning to write. Start by identifying a scene in your story you want to work on. For instance, you might want to do a scene where one character makes the first show of affection towards the other. Using the prompt “What’s your favourite colour?” as a line of dialogue could take you to a scene at a fair or in a mall where he is buying her something, or in a garden where the flowers are in bloom, or just in the kitchen choosing a coffee mug.

Write what you know  

The facts of your life may not be the stuff of wild imaginative novels, but your human reaction to events is as valid as any character in any novel. Perhaps you haven’t been in a dugout canoe in the Amazon Jungle, but you know how it feels to sweat. You also know how helpless you can feel in a strange place. Could the feeling of being swept down the river with the jungle crowding in also feel like being swept along in a crowd at a frenzied rock concert or at busy subway station? It’s not the facts from your life that connect with readers, it’s the emotions and commonalities.

The Senses

Like the things you feel, what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell also relate to what we all know. When writing from prompts, the senses will always ground you and lead you forward. Make use of ALL five senses. Also consider the temperature, the quality of the light, time of day, the weather, the seasons, the historical period.

Move into Metaphor

When you have considered the senses, move into metaphor. Ask yourself: What does this remind me of? What is it like? What is it not like? Explain it to someone who’s never seen, heard, touched, smelled or tasted it before. What would a child relate it to? What would your character compare it with?

Be specific

As you write, imagine being in your scene. Notice and write about specific sensuous details: not “a car” but “the dented yellow Edsel-Ranger taxi.” Write about unusual details, incongruous details. Write about what’s missing. Imagine the scene with and without people — general people, specific people. Listen for snatches of remembered or overheard conversation.

 

Opposites

Turn the prompt around and do the opposite. Substitute “hate” for “love”, try “old” in place of “young”, use “like least” instead of “favourite”. Write using both approaches and consider the similarities or juxtapositions created. If you can’t remember, start with “I don’t remember.” If you’ve never experienced the prompt, say singing for a crowd, start with “I have never sung in front of people because …” or “I have never sung in front of people but I have …”

Lists

Sometimes a topic seems too big to approach with authenticity. For instance, if the prompt asks you to write about someone you fear, and you’ve always feared your father, you may not feel comfortable diving into writing about him. Instead make a list of all the people you fear. Try to make the list really long. The items you add to the list last are often the ones buried deep. At the end of your list may be a kid from grade school. Write about him. Chances are you’ll find you feared him for many of the same reasons you feared your father.

Or make a list about all the emotions you feel about your father, and write about any one of them.

Give it a go

Prompts have been the source of many of my “keep” scenes. I may end up only using a portion of what I wrote, perhaps just one paragraph, but the prompt usually takes me where I’ve been resisting going and anything that gets me writing is a good thing.

Need a prompt now? There are lots of online sites. Here are a few for fiction, non-fiction and poetry:

Now, go and write, write, write ….

DID YOU KNOW

At Writescape retreats, we provide optional creativity sessions to tickle your muse and a companion work book full of prompts and ideas to take your writing to places it hasn’t gone before. Join us at our next retreat: Turning Leaves 2017.

A (Fairly) Sure End

A (Fairly) Sure End

Ruth E. Walker

How do you know when you have written it? You know, that elusive perfect ending? That Thelma and Louise, Ebeneezer Scrooge, Harry Potter finish that completes the character arcs, ties up all the loose ends and leaves you longing for more but knowing that it’s all over?

Darned if I know.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I have some ideas, most of them gleaned from novels, stories and even poems that I’ve loved over the years. I also have some words of wisdom on the subject from other writers. And maybe, between them and me, you might glean some good ideas that you can use to help with finding a satisfactory ending to your work.

Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer and philosopher offered me a clue: “It is always important to know when something has reached its end. Closing circles, shutting doors, finishing chapters, it doesn’t matter what we call it; what matters is to leave in the past those moments in life that are over.” (The Zahir) I needed to be ready to leave my novel as if I were leaving the past of my own life: imperfect but inevitable. That led me back to my ingredient list.

Check your ingredient list

In a previous post (Write the Elusive End), I suggested that you need at least one of three essential ingredients for good endings. Either:

  • Change (either your POV character or in the reader themselves);
  • Inevitibility (sure, surprise me but that surprise MUST make sense); or,
  • Tragedy (don’t fear an unhappy ending if it seems right)

I also noted that I had written/sketched out three distinctly different endings. All three had change and inevitability and one was full of tragedy.

I liked all three. So which one is the best one?

I went back to the beginning

An overarching theme in my current WIP is duality. I fretted about the ending until I finally accepted that I am writing a duology. Not a trilogy. Instead, a two-book series.

I know that each book must stand on its own, so I still needed that “perfect” ending. However, I now must ensure that I have planted sufficient treasures in the current narrative that will leave room for readers to achieve their ah-ha moments. And hints that will logically support my plans for the second book.

Accordingly, I’ve been editing.

Surprisingly, many clues were already in my manuscript and I just had to refine here and there. And some of the connections to the second book naturally flow from the ending as I continue to work on it. I just didn’t know it until recently.

Consider your passions

I’m profoundly interested in why people do things. Motivation, yes. But what else is in place to push people into horrific actions? And is there room for forgiveness? Redemption? If so, what must be in place for that to occur?

My character has to undergo a huge arc. From mindless killing machine to a compassionate deep thinker. And I have to show that arc to my readers so that they will know, without question, that she is not the same character as the killer on page one.

My readers will not be satisfied with a neat bow or happy ending. And my narrative will fall flat if I try to be kind to the characters I’ve grown to care about. So there must be tragedy. And there must be self-sacrifice. And there must be a choice to be made with only two options, neither of them immediately happy ones.

When I accepted that, I knew what had to happen at the end. So, I’ve been busy and by the end of this month, I will be writing those two words on my manuscript. The. End.

And then back to a new manuscript while I wait for feedback from my beta readers. Because, as Frank L. Baum said in The Marvelous Land of Oz “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”  Of course, this is rather ironic given that Baum wrote 15 more Oz books after that one.

I can only hope to live so long.

DID YOU KNOW

Writescape is on the move this June when Ruth and Dorothea Helms travel to Haliburton County to offer Write to Win, their popular workshop on the art and skill of entering and winning writing contests. These two skilled presenters are writing contest judges, contest administrators and contest winners. It’s a full day of insider tips, resources, hands-on exercises and creative activities. Saturday June 17 at the Minden Library. Come prepared to write and win. Details.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Gwynn Scheltema

I have a one-syllable name—Gwynn. It’s a fairly common Welsh name although my spelling is a little unusual in that it doesn’t have an “e” on the end. And, no, no-one was drunk on the way to the registry office, or misinformed or forgetful or anything else. The story goes that I don’t have an “e” because my brothers (who got to choose my name) couldn’t decide between Gillian and Lynn so they smooshed it together and added a “w” for easier pronunciation to make Gwynn.

Growing up, I didn’t know this story; I only found out in my twenties. However, my father’s family had emigrated from Wales in the late 1800s and the name means “bright, white, fair, pure, blessed” and I’m blonde, so it’s a good fit. I like it. I like that it’s different. I like that it can’t be shortened. I like that it fits my history.

Names affect the way we feel

How a person or character feels about his or her name can affect what they feel about themselves. I love the way this excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s short story “Hairball” sums up the idea. So much character and back story is packed into the paragraph. Sometimes it is the character’s own view of herself, and sometimes how others see her.

During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school, she’d shed the frills and emerged as a bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street-feline, and pointed as a nail.

What’s behind a name?

Playing with names is a useful and powerful tool to add to your writing toolkit. Names have meanings, ethnic histories, associations with myth and stories, famous people, gods and family ties. Choosing the right name is the key.

Finding out what’s behind a name can be fun (and addictive). The web is full of sites that give the etymology, history and meaning behind names—first names and last names. There are sites for choosing baby names, for seeing the popularity of names over the years and even “character analysis” based on names.

Choosing a name

Devyani Borade blogged in Writer’s Digest about a quirky method to choose character names for fantasy characters: “Eyes closed, I randomly open a dictionary. Then I run a finger down the middle of a column while mentally keeping a beat, and stop at the count of six. (Why six? Because on this occasion, my story has six characters.) “Macamba: (n) Tropical American feather palm having a swollen spiny trunk and edible nuts.” Interesting. I repeat the process and come up with “Tabes: (n) Wasting of the body during a chronic disease.” Ah, just sublime. Then I switch the last letters. Et voila! Tabea Macambs. Pretty exotic, eh?

Names and Personality

I went to Quizony and did a quiz called “What Should Your Name Be?” based on personality. Apparently, my name should be Camilla. The quiz tells me: “Camilla is the name of a legendary female warrior… can make tough decisions… never afraid of taking on responsibilities… always has new ideas and new goals.”

Actually, I like it. And it’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. So it got me thinking about a character I’m working with whose name I’ve changed several times during the writing of my novel. I did the quiz again, only this time I answered the questions as if I was my character, Emily. According to the quiz, her name should be Victoria: “… powerful and forceful… determined… people respect and look up to you.” Hmmm. It fits her. I’ll think on it.

If your character is young, you might like to try a similar site where all the questions are geared to YA.

Over to you

Do you have a character whose name you aren’t quite happy with yet? Perhaps a character that needs naming?  Spend some fun time looking up names, their meanings and histories, their connections and personality traits.  And let readers know in the comments below how you pick names for your characters.

DID YOU KNOW

The name of the Rice Lake resort where we hold our annual Spring Thaw retreat is Elmhirst. It means “the elm-wood hill”, from the Olde English pre 7th Century “elm”, with “hyrst”, wooded hill. Join us there to focus on your work in progress and receive feedback from two skilled editors.  Come for three days or five, April 21 to 25 for an all-inclusive escape to write.

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Romancing the Villain: A Writer’s Love Story

Ruth E. Walker

It’s true. We all love a really good villain. Providing, of course, that they’re between the covers of a good book or kept safe inside a movie or television screen. That’s the other side of our love affair: we control where and when we spend time with those villains. Writers know that if we want readers to root for the hero, we need to create a good bad guy. Here are some points to consider.

The hero/villain bond

Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes. Shere Khan and Mowgli. The White Witch and Aslan. A villain is the counterpoint, the mirror, the connection to the dark side of our hero.

Voldemort would just be an ugly, nasty, nameless whozits without Harry Potter. With young Harry in our hearts and minds, He Who Cannot Be Named notches up the terror-meter. And when he finally shows up, he sets fire to the page. Harry’s emotions catch fire too, and not always with good result. That’s important. For Harry, the villain is part of his journey, and all good heroes have flaws that villains love to exploit.

But we don’t just need the villain to serve as the foil for our hero. The most interesting villains come with baggage and struggles of their own. And generally, they don’t even KNOW they are villains.

(I see dead people…all the time. And they don’t know they’re dead.)

Well, unlike the ghosts in The Sixth Sense, most villains do know what they’re up to. But in their own story, they’re the hero. George R.R. Martin said:  A villain is a hero of the other side.

King Joffrey, anyone?

Author Stephen King has created many memorable twisted characters and sometimes, they start out as the hero of the story — Carrie, for example. Villains in King’s hands are much more than stereotypical bad guys. Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win. Indeed, Mr. King. Indeed.

What does your villain want?

Your villain is more than window dressing. When you write them, do you consider their life story? What about their childhood disappointments? Their losses? Their fears? The source of their desire for world domination?

Maybe Iago secretly reads romance novels to learn to be less awkward in lovemaking. Maybe The White Witch just wants Narnia to stay a frozen wasteland because she’s afraid of growing old.

Just like your story’s hero, your villain needs goals. Readers may not need to know all about the “inciting incident” that sets your villain on the road to bad deeds. But as the writer, you need to know your villain’s motivations.

To support a good plot, the villain’s goals should be contrary to your hero’s goals, or at the least, interfere with your hero’s ability to achieve them. Energy and tension come from those conflicts. The greater they are, the stronger the plot, so your villain better not be feeble. Think of it this way: a weak villain makes for a weak plot.

How complex is your villain?

Compelling characters resonate with your reader. They trigger emotions. Villains hold our attention when they are three-dimensional and we believe they exist.

Your villain may only have a walk-on part to trigger the inciting incident for your hero, but that villain still needs to be believable. And one part of making villains believable is to ensure they believe in themselves.

Consider Javert in Hugo’s Les Miserables. An intelligent man of principles, he relentlessly pursues justice, but without an ounce of compassion. We believe in him because he believes completely in his truth. Actor Jack Gleeson, who plays maniacal King Joffrey in the Game of Thrones television series puts it this way: Both villains and heroes need to have a steadfast belief in themselves.

How well does your villain fit with your story?

This one can be a tricky question. Simply making a character “evil” and “heartless” doesn’t mean that character will fit the story you are telling. As already noted, you can look to your hero to find some of the right kind of villain qualities. But you also have to consider time and place.

A story set in medieval times can have a villain who is chivalrous and noble but has no hesitation in running a broadsword into child’s heart to make a point. That same twisted knight may not fit so easily in a contemporary horror novel.

Take a close look at the story you are writing. Is your villain the best antagonist you can create, or is there room to refine your “baddie”? Up his sympathy factor? Lose some of her stereotypical nasty behaviour? Since I started to write this article, I’ve had some ideas that will send me back to my own in-progress novel. Again.

But that’s okay. I like my villain and hopefully, you will too.

DID YOU KNOW?

Villains, Vendettas and Vagabonds is a one-day workshop Ruth facilitates for writers. She’ll be in Niagara-on-the-Lake in September sharing insights and ideas on creating great “bad” in fiction. The workshop is part of the NOTL Writers’ Circle programming for 2017.

She’ll also be offering this workshop in Durham Region this fall. Stay tuned for details.

Write The Elusive End

Write The Elusive End

Ruth E. Walker

Oh, the love affair of writing the novel. The first blush of an idea. The rising heat as you pound out page after page of an unfolding story. You don’t want it to stop.

You constantly think about your novel, about your characters, your plot, your wonderful, endless possibilities… Until you find yourself without an ending.

Yeah, End-less: Your sense of dread when you need to finish your novel but there is no ending in sight.

Or End-less: Your sense of disappointment with an ENDing that is LESS than satisfying.

Poet and playwright Y.B. Yeats referred to the ending of a poem like a “click”:

The correction of prose, because it has no fixed laws, is endless, a poem comes right with a click like a closing box. (1935 letter to Lady Dorothy Wellesley)

While I might argue with him that prose indeed has many fixed laws for its “correction”, I’ve always liked Yeats’s idea of a “click like a closing box.” In my opinion, not just poetry needs to possess that “click” at the end.

No matter the issue, if you come to the end of your novel with a whimper instead of a bang, or at the least, the lovely satisfying “click”…your readers will be unhappy. And nobody wants unhappy readers.But if you’ve written a great beginning, do you need to give the same focus to the end? Prolific crime novelist Mickey Spillane said:

Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book.

Click

Spillane’s not talking about sequels. A wise writer remembers that a disappointing or weak ending will undo all the joy your reader got at the beginning.

So what inspired this post? I’m working on the ending of my novel. I have three written (or at least, sketched out.) One tragic. One that leaves room for a sequel. And one that ends more positively. I’m undecided but I feel that I’m getting closer to the right ending. To help me work through the possibilities, I did some exploring on what a good ending needs. I’m sharing some highlights here:

A good ending needs:

To show change
  • Growth/change in your POV character is a common expectation for readers. But you could have a POV character who is “static” and remains unchanged right to the end. In that case, your reader must somehow be changed, have a new/deeper understanding of the impact of that character’s lack of change.
To be inevitable
  • This is not the same as predictable; no reader wants an ending that has been hinted at in every chapter since page one. And no reader wants deus ex machina endings with the ‘gods’ suddenly appearing and fixing everything.

To read something brilliantly written with an inevitable yet often unexpected ending, check out any of Alice Munro’s stories. I can re-read one of her stories and still get that yummy satisfaction from an inevitable, but often surprising, end. Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades”, about an uncomfortable children’s piano recital, has a masterful and quietly profound ending.

Not to be afraid to be unhappy
  • Who doesn’t want a happy ending? But if Romeo and Juliet ran off and lived to a ripe old age, how memorable would that be? Theirs was an “inevitable”, if tragic, ending. We may want a happy ending, but our lives (and some good stories) don’t always comply. And really, they are often better stories if the ending is not all rainbows and sugar plums.

In sum, a good ending needs to be satisfying for the reader…and for the writer. Whether it is a “click” at the end, or a sunset being ridden into with the future uncertain, a good ending needs to make sense. But how do you know if you’ve written the right ending?

In a later post in The Top Drawer, we’ll explore techniques and tips for knowing when you’ve achieved the best possible “The End.” Hopefully, by then, I’ll have found mine.

Did you know:

From endings come new beginnings. Writers in Ontario (and beyond) learned at the Ontario Writers’ Conference that it would be the last such gathering. Gwynn, Heather and I were so sad to hear that. We’d been at every OWC since its launch in 2006. But then the OWC announced an exciting new start. It wasn’t ending after all, just changing format and exploring how to offer writers its signature networking and education opportunities in new and exciting ways.

While it retools, OWC is still holding its monthly Story Starters contest, using images to spark the imaginations of writers. There are prizes to be won and bragging rights to add to your bio, so check out Rich Helms’ quirky and fun image and enter.

 

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Been there: Using real-world settings in fiction

Gwynn Scheltema

I’m always fascinated by the worlds that writers create for fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think I’m fascinated by the sheer complexity of creating an entire culture from its laws and religion to its people, plants and landscape.

But basing our stories in the “real world” we all know (or think we know), can be just as complex.

Keeping facts straight.

krzywy-las-641507_640Using real settings—real towns or cities, real street names, real landmarks— can seem easy because you have everything created already. You don’t have to invent culture, landmarks or names. If you mention the CN Tower or Westminster Abbey, you need only give a few details, and readers can fill in the rest.

Provided you get it right.

You can be sure that if you get it “wrong”, someone’s going to tell you. Or your reader will be aware that you made a mistake once, and be on the alert in case you do it again, so now there is a subconscious element of distrust as they read. At the very least, it will kick them out of the narrative momentarily.building-72225_640

Your Impressions

Sure, you can control facts to a large degree with good research and careful editing, but what you can’t control is readers’ reactions to your perceptions of real places. If, like facts, readers think that you got the impression “wrong”, it will be noticed, and have the same effect as getting facts wrong. If, as a narrator, you describe a particular real neighbourhood as “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, that might be your interpretation, but your reader may not agree. Your perceptions of real places are valid, but so are your readers’impressions of the same place.

So what can you do?

Impressions vs. facts

As you write be aware which setting details are facts and which are opinions. Characters only should express all the impressions or opinions. Characters in this instance include the narrator in a first person story. In sections of exposition, stick to facts. This is a good rule of thumb for any details actually, not just for setting. Essentially, setting opinions expressed through exposition become “author intrusion” and open that door for “getting it wrong”.

Manipulating impressions

The moment you move impressions of real places to the realm of character, you have the opportunity to manipulate setting to support other elements like character development and theme.

By choosing to focus on the details the character notices in a setting and what they think and how they feel about it, says as much about the character as the setting. Characters usually notice the things that align with their emotional state and with their level of understanding. You can set or heighten mood and sneak in details that will be important to plot or speak to theme.

midway-game-983385_640

Think of a child and his mother entering a fairground. The child is likely feeling excited and looking forward to fun, so will notice details that are colourful, fun and energizing: whirling rides, flags and balloons, stalls full of prizes to be won. The mother might be jaded by years of attending fairgrounds, aware of potential danger and cost. She will notice questionable people, machinery that looks or souman-1283576_1280nds dangerous and the crush of crowds that make it hard for her to keep track of her child.

Another manipulation is to purposely describe factual details “wrong” to establish an unreliable character.

Fiction and reality fusion

Perhaps the best way to use real settings is to create a fictional piece within the real one. A fictional town in real Northern Ontario. A fictional bar in Paris. You still get the advantages of the “real world” settings, but not the disadvantages. Your fictional component should be similar enough for believability, but you have the freedom to create your own “impressions”’ of the place. You get to decide if the place is “dangerous”, or “upcoming” or “ugly”, and your readers will believe you.

 

The Power of Cameo Characters

The Power of Cameo Characters

Gwynn Scheltema

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”

~ The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Incidental characters, walk-on characters, cameo characters—call them what you will—they have an important part to play in a novel. Do you remember a scene where a character appears just briefly and then we never see that character again? 

When a writer includes a walk-on character, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

The answer depends on what kind of novel you’re writing, where in the novel the character appears, and what the character does in the scene.

Mister Pip

Mister_Pip_(Lloyd_Jones_novel)One of my favourite “cameo characters” is a woman known only as “Daniel’s grandmother” who comes to share her wisdom with Mr. Watts’ class in Lloyd Jones’ book Mister Pip:

Daniel’s grandmother, stooped and old on her canes, peered back at our class with her weak eyes. “There is a place called Egypt,” she said. “I know nothing of that place. I wish I could tell you kids about Egypt. Forgive me for not knowing more. But if you care to listen, I will tell you everything I know about the colour blue.”

And so we heard about the colour blue. “Blue is the colour of the Pacific. It is the air we breathe. It is the gap in the air of all things, such as the palms and iron roofs. But for blue we would not see the fruit bats.

You can find blue squinting up in the cracks of the wharf at Kieta. … It is trying to get at the stinking fish guts, to take them home. If blue was an animal or plant or bird, it would be a seagull. It gets its sticky beak into everything.

But blue also has magical powers,” she said. “…Blue crashes onto the reef and what colour does it release? It releases white! …A final thing, children, and then I will let you go. Blue belongs to the sky and cannot be nicked which is why the missionaries stuck blue in the windows of the first churches they built here on the island.”

What is achieved with the character of Daniel’s grandmother?

Now on the surface, she seems just a quirky character who says some strange things about a common thing we think we know about already. Rebels have invaded the island and they are all living under very strained conditions. She has been invited to teach the children something, and yet she speaks “only” about blue.woman-1031000_640

She appears about a quarter of the way through the novel, just as things are taking a new and frightening turn. Perhaps her only purpose in the novel, therefore, is to provide some colour (pardon the pun), or perhaps some comic relief from an otherwise serious situation.

And that would be fine, because those are two good reasons to have a walk-on character.

 Is Daniel’s grandmother really just incidental?

Lloyd Jones’ character seems incidental—indeed, she could be removed altogether with no effect on the plot line—but she definitely adds to the novel.

This scene supports one of the themes of Mister Pip, which is the examination of the power of the imagination and words, and how they can achieve what is seemingly magic.art-Mr-Pip-620x349

She is also foreshadowing what Mr. Watts will do: SPOILER ALERT: to delay execution, he will weave a “magic” tale from what seems at first to be ordinary things . Daniel’s grandmother has told the children in a kind of metaphorical code or allegory what will happen. She has told them to “listen” and to believe in the magic of ordinary things.

In fact, when Mr. Watts thanks her, he says, “…while we may not know the whole world, we can, if we are clever enough, make it new….We just have to be as imaginative as Daniel’s grandmother.”

 Memorable and effective incidental characters…

  • add local colour
  • provide a break in mood or pace so readers can breathe
  • do something “complete” in their own scene so that removing them from the book seemingly doesn’t affect the main plot
  • can be used for wider purposes such as theme, foreshadowing and comparison to emphasize other characters
  • are often best left unnamed
  • should only show up when other main characters have been established

So cameo characters can enrich, elucidate, or refocus a novel, or they can simply entertain. Good ones usually have more than one purpose—and are always memorable.

Share a cameo or walk-on character that you remember in the comments below.