Developing characters through eavesdropping.

Everyone eavesdrops.  It’s human nature.  If anyone ever tells you they don’t, they’re a filthy liar.  We all need to know what our fellow humans are discussing in their private conversations.  It makes life interesting.  However, writers must take it to the next level.

For writers, eavesdropping isn’t an occasional sport, it’s part of the job.  Many writers, when interviewed, will admit to using outside influences when developing their characters.  It’s the rare writer that can pull a fully three-dimensional character straight out of their enviable imagination.  For the rest of us chumps, there’s the art of eavesdropping and people watching.

I was watching the perfect basis for a character on the train the other day.  She was an overly positive, religious hipster who blessed a man’s broken foot before riding off on her merry way once the train reached her station.  You know you’ve got an interesting person on the train when all the passengers are staring openly, books and phones forgotten.  Stick her in your book and hopefully you’ll have your readers glued to her naïve optimism as she faces endless obstacles.  They’ll just be waiting for her to snap.

Even snippets of conversation caught as you walk past people can become the basis for a character.  On a holiday at the beach, I walked past two surfers discussing their friend’s misfortune the night before:

‘He lost $100 to a game of rock-paper-scissors last night,’ one said.
‘What, again?’ said the other.

Not in a million years could I come up with something so ridiculous.  The notion that someone made a bet on a child’s game more than once captured my imagination.  Who was this errant potential surfer who thought this was a good idea?  Was there some underground rock-paper-scissors gambling ring operating under my very nose?  Or was he just a drunk guy with a spare $100?  The possibilities were endless.  Marijuana was probably involved.

Before you know it, this snippet of conversation has created a drug-crazed deviant with horrible money handling skills and a penchant for children’s games.  His gambling problems have caused strain in the family home and he is facing being kicked off the couch.  Not only that, but his drug use has caused him to constantly see a dog-sized talking mouse wherever he goes who keeps urging him to pop children’s balloons.  His friends are starting to think that his muttering and shaking may not be a prank like they originally thought.  They think he’s suffering from dehydration.  Probably from all the salt water when he surfs.  They’re putting out a petition to have a drinking fountain put in at the beach.  But he more likely needs to go see a doctor.  Unfortunately he lives in a remote town and the closest doctor is a thousand kilometres-

Are you still reading this?  Shouldn’t you be eavesdropping?

The ultimate validation as a writer

This Christmas, I believe I may have discovered and received the ultimate validation as a writer.  It may not be what you expect…

Henceforth, I will no longer consider published work as the only success a person can achieve as a writer.  Sure, it’s fantastic to be published, making truckloads of money or having a readership of a billion people, but what percentage of writers ever actually achieve this?  I’m bringing some much needed realism to my dreams and taking enjoyment out of the smaller things when it comes to writing.

My epiphany isn’t what I received for Christmas, however.  I’m not a character out of a Charles Dickens book.  Rather than being transported through space and time, I received a gift from my partner.  Fairly common practice really.  This year though, he gave me a computer.  Specifically for my writing.  VALIDATION RECEIVED.

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It also has a big screen because I’m blind.

How so, you ask?  Someone close to me is finally convinced that what I’m choosing to do is worthwhile.  Someone else believes in me.  For any writer, this must be an occasion to celebrate.  We are too used to the slight condescension and confusion by our friends and family.  Why are you writing?  Why can’t you come see me and don’t tell me you’re writing again because that is not an excuse.  It’s not like it’s a job or something.

Most people can’t get past the belief that writing is just a hobby, that it should only be done in spare time.  So when someone steps up and acknowledges the passion driving what you’ve been doing for years, it definitely is a success story.  I’m grateful to have the partner I do and I hope this isn’t just a way to stop me interrupting his own passion: the Xbox.

Who am I kidding?  The Xbox is his one true love.

Initiate Epic Writing Session Sequence

I have just under twelve hours all to myself today.  So what am I going to do with it?  Spend time outside?

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Stuff that.

Please.  I’m that close to finishing my story that I’m planting my arse in this here chair and writing.  Nothing less than a meteorite hitting my laptop will stop me from smashing out the words today.  I’ve even got the fuel to keep me going.

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Much healthy. So heart attack.

Wish me luck!

Word count: ZERO

Good news everyone!

goodnewsI have been given my first writing job!  It may only be for a day and may have possibly been given to me by my very own mother, but darn tootin’, it’s paid!

I should also point out that it is environmentally focused and legitimate work through her organisation, so that’s something for the resume.

Huzzah for writing!

Description, or where the bloody hell am I?

As a reader I have come across a problem that pulls me out of the story so irrevocably that I’ve put down the book and nudged it away with my toe.  I’m sure you’ve encountered the same problem, but you may not have as much of a melodramatic reaction to it.  I’m talking about lack of description.  The lack of description that is so bad that you’re not quite sure whether you’re in Middle Earth or New York City.

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I recently read a book that was supposedly set in an ancient Chinese culture.  It’s funny though, the only indicators that it was set in China were the character’s names.  Otherwise it could have been set in any old medieval world.  There was no effort to show how this place that I was reading about was any different from the classic English fantasy world.  Given that the Chinese culture and technology was vastly different to the English equivalent of the time, I expected a little bit more in terms of description to wrap me up in this world.  Needless to say I got bored.

As a writer, you need to make sure that your reader is grounded in your world as quickly as possible.  The best way to do this is through description, and consistent description as well.  If your book is set in Ancient China, show me how it is different from everywhere else.  If it’s set on Pluto, I expect some mention about the ridiculously cold temperature.  Make me believe the characters are freezing their butts off.  Unless, of course, they are evolved to handle that kind of temperature.  But that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

Another failing in the use of description is changing haphazardly or unbelievably.  I call this the ‘characters are standing inside talking and inexplicably it starts raining on them’ phenomenon.  Or ‘first draft’ phenomenon.  That’s perhaps a bit easier to remember.  It’s fine to have these happen in the first draft, but if they make it into the published copy then I’m angry.  I don’t like reading inconsistent description.  If someone has left the room, then starts talking to the protagonist out of nowhere it gets confusing.  If no trees exist in the world but the main character’s house is made of timber from the finest wood in the region, then there’s a problem.  Remember what has come before, otherwise you’ll be creating inconsistent description and unnecessary plot holes.

But what about too much description?  When does it become too much that the story is lost in the describing of the world?  I must say, early on I was guilty of writing far too much description.  It wasn’t until a reader pointed out that they really didn’t need to know how many petals were on the purple flower that tapered off to amber at the tips that I figured out that maybe laying off the description can be a good thing.

There are articles that suggest the only description that should be put in is that which relates directly to the story.  I think it also depends on the genre.  Description about the world isn’t as necessary if you are writing a romance set in present time, as readers can draw from their own knowledge.  However, if you’re writing a sweeping fantasy completely set in an alternate world with magic systems and differing laws of physics, then description is necessary to embrace the reader into your world.

It must also be remembered that readers have different tastes.  I absolutely love the A Song of Ice and Fire series and a lot of that has to do with the amount of description that is placed within the story.  Other readers would quickly grow bored with seemingly endless descriptions and names of boats, armour and food.  Fair enough, but if George R.R. Martin wrote about the comparison of soil composition between Westeros and Essos I would lap it up and beg for more.  When articles tell you that too much description equals no readers, just look to George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.  Their success tells you otherwise.

Please don’t make me ask where I am when I’m reading.  I get lost enough in the real world, I don’t need it to happen anywhere else.

The choppy 60,000 words

I have previously posted about other milestone word counts and their problems, and I have inevitably reached yet another phase in my writing that I feel everyone must encounter at some stage.

It occurred to me a few days later while I was hunting for jobs, that I could just write out that amazing scene.  Get it off my chest and unplug the flow of writing.

‘No!’ my inner planner shrieked.  ‘You’ll lose the flow, you’ll never come back to the filler.  Then your story is DOOMED.’

‘Do it,’ my muse whispered in my ear.  ‘You know you want to.  Because reasons.’

So, with that flawless reasoning, I turned off job searching mode and turned on furiously writing mode.  Within half an hour I had written a sloppy, but passable exciting scene.  I went back to where I had cut off and lo and behold, the story started to flow again, the characters woke up from their naps and got to action.

Whenever I’ve started to slow down since then because of a scene in the future that is nagging at my brain, I have skipped a few pages ahead and written it out, got it down before I lose my mind.  A new weapon to put in my writer’s arsenal.

And who said choppy writing was bad?

The Dance

She looked up at the sky as it changed from a bright blue to the dark of night, bloody streaks of emerald and purple tainting the black. It meant nothing to her, the sudden change, but it meant something to the aunt who pointed at the sky with a quivering, vein-lined hand.

The aunt’s shout brought the attention of the entire group and she watched as the aunt lowered her hand to cover her brow, the other one covering her heart, the eternal symbol of danger. Others pointed to the sky now, the colours transforming and blending until a large creature emerged flying through the sky, lightening flickering as its wings beat the air.

The aunt cried now, collapsing and she leant down to comfort the older woman, her small hand rested against the ragged edges of the woman’s spine while she continued to look up at the sky. More colours were appearing around the creature, gold and silver, green and yellow, orange and brown. They all coalesced to form similar beings, their wings reaching out to cover the entire skyline.

Fear should have entered her, but it was only curiosity that flooded through her, a burning desire to see the creatures close up, to be consumed by them. She stepped forward, her hand dragging along the aunt’s spine before falling off and hanging loosely at her side. Her toes dug into the dirt below, feeling the movement of the earth and she continued on, a cry behind her going unnoticed.

No one tried to stop her and she stepped outside the circle, her eyes reflecting the dance of the creatures, her ears full of their music. They weaved amongst each other, sending splashes of colour further across the sky which in turn birthed more of the dancers, their movements wild yet graceful.

She wished to be one of them, flying so powerfully through the sky and her body moved of its own accord, doing its own clumsy interpretation of the dance. Her heart soared, reaching to join them so high above her and they turned to look at her as one, bodies shifting in the sky. Her feet scuttled across the ground as she moved faster to meet them, the creatures of the air, beautiful in their might.

Her hand reached out, begging to be taken, to be released from the earth which held her prisoner. They looked at her but did not help. She needed to do this herself, lose herself in order to find herself. Time became meaningless as she danced, her movements becoming more graceful as she edged towards the creatures, their wings beating air into her face as she approached, blowing her hair back, stripping away her entire being.

The dance quickened, encouraging her to move faster, to match the rhythm and she did so, effortlessly now, as her spirit started to pull away from her body. Her heart no longer hammered with the exertion, her breath no longer misted the air and blood no longer flooded through her veins. She left pain behind, just another prisoner of earth.

It all came to a stop and she rushed up to meet the creatures, a colourful streak in the sky joining the dance of the dragons.

My character walked in and punched me in the face.

How do your characters come into existence? Do they appear in your head fully formed or do you develop them slowly over time, adding pieces of personality here and there?

My characters come from all over the place. For instance, in the story I’m writing now, my main protagonist just appeared to me one day and I haven’t changed her in the slightest. Her friend however, she’s based on my younger sister, a flighty young girl who should take things a little more seriously. I’ve changed that character countless times.  I also have one character that I discovered while doing research for the story, and this is the man I want to talk about.

He was a handsome fellow.

He was a handsome fellow.

Not many people know much about – or have even heard of – Paracelsus. He was a Swiss German physician, alchemist and general all around occultist, whose writings surprisingly talked about God a lot. That doesn’t matter though. What matters is this quote, because it was the reason Paracelsus became the basis for one of my characters:

And I do not take my medicines from the apothecaries; their shops are but foul sculleries, from which comes nothing but foul broths. As for you, you defend your kingdom with belly-crawling and flattery. How long do you think this will last? … let me tell you this: every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoebuckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna, and my beard has more experience than all your high colleges.

BURN! This guy was badass. Not only that, but his real name was Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim. He liked to be called Paracelsus because he believed he was next to Celsus in terms of skill as a physician.

How can you not make this guy a character? He is the most interesting person I have never met. The intimidating thing is trying to create a full character based off of him that does him justice. He is that awesome. Listen to me, I sound like a groupie.

I'm not the only one who wanted to adapt him into a character.  Anyone recognise this certain father?

I’m not the only one who wanted to adapt him into a character. Anyone recognise this certain absentee father?

Anyway, he fit perfectly with what I wanted to do with the story, so I adapted the real person into a character that hopefully does him justice.

So tell me, where do you get your characters from?

The questionable 50,000 words

I posted last month about the semi-writing block that seems to occur at 20,000 words and I have reached a new dilemma now that I have written 50,000 words of my novel. I have now reached the point in my writing where I am questioning every word that I put down.

This is entirely my own fault, of course.  I couldn’t be bothered writing too much last night so I decided to read through the first chapter, just out of interest.  Just out of interest.  Who was I kidding?  I did the stupidest thing I could have done at this point in the story.  I should have just contented myself with reading a book.  But no, I had to read some of my own writing.

It has awakened my inner editor.  I was reading through the chapter and screwing my nose up at almost every sentence, my fingers itching to change the whole thing.  At least I wasn’t that stupid.  I managed to throw myself from the computer and have since occupied myself with things that have nothing to do with writing on yet another beautiful day in Melbourne.

Until an hour ago, when I decided it was time to knuckle down and pump out the words.  I managed 1500 words, but it was at a cost.  Every piece of dialogue I wrote, every description, every action, I was comparing to the first chapter.  I was trying for consistency when that shouldn’t even be entering in my mind at this point.  I should be just letting the story flow out of me, not double checking what the name of that town was that I mentioned 45,000 words back so I don’t accidently get it wrong.  God forbid that I have to read an incorrect town name in my first edit.

I’m also now questioning whether the story is really any good anyway, and why should anyone read this if it horrified me to read it.  Silly Kate, you should know that you think everything you write is awful.

The confidence has taken a shot as I step over the halfway mark and even though it’s all downhill from here, I think I may be wearing stilettos while doing it.  Tottering down, anxious not to fall and smash my face into the pavement.  Taking a few side steps to recover my footing and taking triple the time to get down that damn hill.  This is why men wear sneakers out on the town.

I’m now going to take a day to separate myself from what I read of the first chapter and hopefully I can steal some sneakers to get down the hill.

Moral of the story is this: Don’t reread your manuscript until you’re ready to edit.

My failure

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The bookseller gave me a look. You know, the ‘you’re a failure at everything if you don’t understand grammar’ look.

I’m going to make a confession here. I bought a book on basic English grammar last night. Why? For two reasons.

1) Now that I’m writing more seriously, I need to be able to know the ins and outs of grammar, from the basic to the complex if I want to improve.

2) A kid at the school I’m working at at the moment came up and asked me what a verb was, and I had NO IDEA.

Wow, that’s embarrassing. I fail at grammar. For all these years I’ve been getting on by my instincts and thinking that I’m doing all right, until some kid comes up to me and asks for the meaning of one of the most basic grammatical words. I told him that a dinosaur was chasing him, then I hid under a table and cried out of shame. A writer who doesn’t know grammar. What is the world coming to?

Now you grammar aficionados may be reading this post and cringing at all the errors, but I’m doing the best I can. I’m going to take the easy route and blame my teachers for not forcing me to learn more about linguistics. And then I’m going to pick up this book and learn for myself, because that’s the kind of go-getter I am.

So much grammar fails.