Secondary Characters Deserve Attention

secondary characters deserve attentionDo you have secondary characters in your novel or story? Have you given them enough attention? Or are you using them as if they were props?

As writers, we spend time in character development for our protagonist and antagonist, and tend to throw in a secondary character for dialogue or for a cause of some kind, etc. Without distinguishing characteristics, these minor beings are flat, boring, and unnoticeable. What can a writer do to enhance a minor figure’s brief appearance? For example a police officer might be in a couple of scenes, but has little importance. Find something distinctive about him. Does he smell like cigarette smoke? Does he pull on his ear frequently? Is his badge on crooked?

What about a delivery boy? In one of  my short stories, he’s there for a minute, but I have him joking with my protagonist about the size of the package being taller than her. She enjoys his humor.

In a different short story of mine that won a second place award in a competition, called “A Cup of Change,” the waiter talks too much about his fiance, yet he’s infatuated with the protagonist who openly flirts with him. He appears twice in the story for brief moments, but he’s memorable. When I wrote that story several years ago, I had learned that secondary characters can reflect the theme or premise or can have a similar goal or problem in a subplot. “A Cup of Change” is about a woman who is having an affair with her friend’s husband and doesn’t realize her friend knows about it. The woman tries to encourage her friend to get a divorce since the married couple are not getting along. Meanwhile the waiter talks on and on about his upcoming wedding. The wife flirts with him and gives him advice on how to treat his bride while the mistress interprets the interaction as a good sign for an impending divorce. The young waiter’s actions show he is excited about his wedding plans, yet nervous around this mature, seductive woman. He’s a minor character but fully developed and he reflects the theme of marriage and betrayal.

Do you have a favorite minor character?

Link for Story Ideas

story starters spin machineHere is a link for story ideas/Writer Igniter:

http://diymfa.com/writer-igniter

Press the big bar that says shuffle and specific words from four columns stop after spinning for a few seconds.

For my first shuffle, I received:  Psychic meets new roommate with a silver quill on the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

My second shuffle: Bronze Olympian must make a hard sacrifice with a secret recipe in Paris.

The setting column has photos. Visuals add to inspiration. If I didn’t have several works in progress now, those two prompts could lead to a couple good stories.

If you aren’t a writer, it’s fun to read the sentences you receive.

Try it and let me know the results of your shuffle.

Does Your Setting Have an Arc?

Setting componentsWriters know that the main character’s change follows an arc. The plot has an arc of increasing tension toward the climax and then some resolution. How can a setting have an arc?

Setting details are important, not lengthy chunks of detail, but enough interspersed so the reader has an image. The image also is relatable to the reader’s experience of being in a place like that or being reminded of a similar setting from movies or pictures.

Setting becomes a character through the details and the emotions attached to them by the character’s past and present experience with it. As the character changes, show some corresponding differences in the environment. Perhaps there are real physical changes that occur, but it is the character’s new perception of it that is most important.

For example, in Norman in the Painting, Jill’s hometown is a place of security. It’s a small county seat with attorneys and jurors rushing to the restaurants on Main Street during lunch. Tourists peruse the antique stores looking for bargains. The locals know her and the family name. Her parents spent their lives engaged in the town politics. The environment is safe for Jill. The reader sees the stores, court buildings, the alleyway to the parking lot, the cemetery, and Jill’s home as well as the contrast with her sister’s house. She enjoys the dark clouds and winter rain and jumps over puddles by the curbs.

However, as Jill becomes less dependent on that familiarity, she smells the mold in the antique stores, she feels the attorneys’ stress  and hears the jurors’ complaints about missed work. She is annoyed by the overflowing of the creek from the storms’ deluge of water and the sandbags in front of every store on Main Street that she has to dodge.

After thirty-two years in the same place and never traveling, she’s ready for a change. The present setting has become oppressive. It’s a living, aging, grumpy environment needing an uplift. Jill wants to leave.

Creating setting as a character in a story is another way to deepen the reader’s enjoyment of your work.

What does the setting of your story mean to the protagonist in it?

What Did You Start Writing?

hands on computer keyboardWhen you first started writing, what form did you use–short stories, poetry, memoir, or a novel?

In middle school, I chose short stories and I still like to write them. Next I wrote a few novels, and then poetry. In the afternoon writing class I teach, we are writing a Haiku twice a month based on a photo members take turns bringing to class.

My preferences for short stories and poetry affect my novel writing. The shorter forms make it necessary to be aware of exactly the right words to use and to eliminate too much detail. I’ve discovered that when building character in a novel, choosing the right words is more complicated. One has to think about interspersing physical description, feelings, thoughts, and how to show a deeper, rather than a superficial character.

In my novel, Norman in the Painting, I think I’ve created minor characters that have more personality than the protagonist. I’ve written a post-a-note to remind myself to deepen Jill. She’s the center of the action, readers learn about her values by her dialogue and by the decisions she makes. However I sense she’s hiding something or resisting a close relationship with the reader. I’ll have to figure out why.

What is your favorite form to write?

The First Page

First page of a book A reader, editor, or agent often gives a first page three or four seconds before closing the book or tossing the submitted page onto the notorious slush pile. What do we have to squeeze into those few seconds?

  • We have to grab the reader’s interest immediately, usually with writing something active not passive.
  • Ground the reader in the setting, i.e. when and where the story is taking place preferably with specific sensory details. Brief and succinct, not too many details regardless how well-written–remember we only have a few seconds and we have to cover more than setting.
  • An interesting character who makes the reader care about him or her is necessary. Show the character’s public and personal persona. Let the reader learn about him/her by the character’s actions, thoughts, or feelings.
  • Show the promise of the story. Is there a puzzle or mystery to solve? Is there a love interest that is blocked? What does the character want? What is preventing him or her from getting it?
  • No backstory on the first page until much later. Donald Maass, in Writing the Breakout Novel, suggests saving a flashback or important snippet of backstory until after page 100.

The first couple pages and the ending will make or break your chances for acceptance by an editor or agent. Feedback from a critique group or fellow writer can clarify what’s working and what isn’t.

The following link has several first lines of published fiction. How many make you want to read the book?

http://www.theguardian.com/culture/gallery/2012/apr/29/ten-best-first-lines-fiction

Photo: FIRST PAGE, FIRST LINE of Richard Powers&#8217nationalbook.tumblr.com

Writing Tips from Authors Cara Black, Laurie King, and Penny Warner

Cara Black and Laurie KingPenny warner with Nancy Drew bookMy previous post told about the three panelists at one of the San Francisco Writers Conference sessions I attended this year.The authors spoke about “Heroes & Villains: Building Compelling Characters for Crime Fiction.” The following are some notes I wrote from what each of them and the moderator, Kate Chynoweth, said.

Penny Warner said she gives the protagonist and antagonist equal weight and shows their strengths and weaknesses. She gives both an obstacle they have to overcome.

Laurie King is not an outliner. She writes a 300 page rough draft to find her way through the story and then revises.

Cara Black uses a particular section in Paris where the murder happens in the beginning, writes why the protagonist, Amy Leduc, would be in that area, and how Amy overcomes the unusual obstacles. Each book takes place in a different  arrondissement (administrative district) in Paris and that setting becomes a character as well as the people. Cara also said that the villain is right in his/her own mind and then he/she has to continue with his belief to cover up what was done. Often the villain is smarter than the protagonist.

Kate Chynoweth pointed out that the villain can’t be completely villainous. Show something good about them or a fear they have. “Even a villain can be afraid of spiders.” For example: Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs liked classical music, particularly Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach.Kate chynoweth

During Q & A, the authors were asked what time frames they have to write their next book. Penny Warner writes one every six months. Cara Black writes one a year. Laurie King says a goal of an average of 3000 words a day could lead to a rough draft of a novel a month. It takes her 3-4 months to write the draft and then 5 months to revise.

I have to admit it has taken me 6 years to revise my fourth novel, Hada’s Fog. It’s still not polished the way I want it to be. Granted, I’ve been working only part time on it, but I had to put Hada aside for a while in order to write something fresh. I’m determined to finish Norman in The Painting in a year. I have these authors for inspiration.

How long has it taken you to write a book?

Penny Sansevieri

Penny Sansevieri with booksPenny Sansevieri spoke at the San Francisco Writers Conference. I went to three of her sessions. She is the Founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., and a widely recognized book marketing and media relations expert. She is the author of fourteen books including How to Sell Your Books by the Truckload on Amazon and Red Hot Internet Publicity.

“Don’t be an expert, be a filter.” ― Penny C. Sansevieri

She had many tips for promoting books. One idea I liked was to make trading cards and offer them as gifts for reviewers. She passed out a set of thirteen cards to everyone who came to her sessions at the conference. Each card had a writing tip. For instance, Tip #11 states, “Did you know that you can thank reviewers through your Amazon Author Central account? Every review that’s posted there has an “Add a comment” button that you can click on and post a comment” such as “thank you” which makes a connection to the reviewer and you can also offer them your latest book for free if they’d like to consider it for review, too”.

Her website is: http://www.amarketingexpert.com/

Find her on Twitter at:

Solve Writer's Block and the Sagging Middle of a Novel

sagging middle of a leaning pole with the words

My previous post told how I was stuck in the sagging middle of my novel. I didn’t know how to get back into the rhythm after three months of writing Ekphrasis prose and poetry due the end of December. I’d imagined several ways to begin Chapter 15 and didn’t like any of the options. For the first time, after writing three novels, I had writer’s block.

Ann Winfred came to the rescue. She and I are on-line accountability partners. We have an agreement to write and submit to each other a minimum of five hundred words on our WIPs each week. Her work in progress is http://comingofagecroneicles.com When I told her I was struggling, she asked me if I planned to continue with the novel or not and other questions that made me evaluate my goal. In the process, I discovered what I was doing wrong. I had been imagining how to start the chapter. My style is to sit down and write, not to think about what to write. I also had lost contact with my characters. Like an actor, I had to become the protagonist again. The best way to do that was to write.

I sat at my computer and wrote eight hundred seventeen words. Satisfied with the beginning of the chapter, I set it aside. I had an idea of how to eliminate a repetitious boring middle–I’d speed up the action and combine the baby steps to get to the next plot point sooner. I arranged a free day to finish the chapter. As I typed, the protagonist took a different turn, which happens in writing and I was happy with it. Then I discovered that for almost a whole page, I had switched to first person instead of third. Freaky at first, but then I realized I was back to writing in my usual manner, which is to go with the flow of my consciousness and not to think too hard. I changed the I’s to she’s, finished the chapter in record time, and I’m pleased with the new middle. It’s not blocked or sagging any more.

The way to solve writer’s block is to sit down and write. Set a small goal, maybe 300 or 500 words of a draft that maybe used later or might be thrown away, but at least there are words on a page. The next writing time, the result could be longer and better. Trust the muse, the protagonist, your intuition and find an accountability partner.

The way to solve the sagging middle is to sit down and write, bring in more action and tension, amp it up, go to an extreme; you can change it later if needed. Bring in a new challenge, a natural disaster like a hurricane, or make a thief take a treasured item adding to the protagonist’s anguish.

Most important: remember your writing goal and know you CAN do it.

Writing the Sagging Middle of a Novel

sagging middle with book shelf sag

In my previous novels (three sitting in the drawer, finished but unpublished), I didn’t worry about sagging middles. Aware of that syndrome from hearing other writers talk about it, I amped up the drama in the middle. No problem.

In Norman in the Painting, my present WIP, I stopped writing the novel at the point where the middle begins, unbeknownst to me. I thought three weeks off would be a break I could afford. The Tri-Valley Branch of the California Writers Club had a Winterfest in which arts and crafts were submitted and members could write Ekphrasis prose or poetry for each other’s submissions. I started in October, enjoyed the activity, and completed 23, which took me until December. I convinced myself I had been writing those three months and the experience was worth it so no need to feel guilty about letting my protagonist sit for so long. In January, I’d pick up my WIP where I left off.

Not so easy. I got stuck in the middle, not even the middle of the middle, but the beginning of the middle. In October I had thought I was halfway finished with the book, but when I tallied the words, the 30,000 word count showed a little over a third of the way, not half. The first plot point had occurred a ways back, now what?

I’m not a plotter, but I had plot points in mind. However, the story wasn’t ready for one yet. I had to cover some important steps to get there and I realized those baby steps would be a rehash of what happened before with different endings. Boring to the reader and to me. I imagined several scenarios to begin the chapter, yet none worked. How do I get from C to D?

To be continued in my next post.

Story Ideas Come and Could Go

write a short storyKatherine Mansfield, a prominent modernist writer of short fiction, wrote, “It’s always a kind of race to get in as much as one can before it disappears.” She was referring to a story idea that arrives and needs to be written down. It’s best not to think about it too much. Writing allows things to unfold that wouldn’t happen when one only thinks the story through. Write it down as soon as possible and as much of it as possible. It’s a first draft, a fragment, a hint of the real story that will develop eventually.

There is no how-to-manual for writing a short story. Maybe setting it aside for a while is important for the right moment to select the point of view or the succession of the events to work out. Every story has it’s own unique form. It can’t be rushed. It evolves over time if we let it. Be alert to when something emerges that we never dreamed we’d express. Don’t resist it, Embellish it. Trust it, and see if it’s right for the story.

Want a goal for 2015?  How about 52 short stories?