Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Character Motivations

I’ve recently finished the second draft of the second book in my 12th Dimension series (RISK). The first draft was too horrible to be seen by any eyes save my own and one other person. That one other person (thanks Kate!) was able to read it and point out holes the size of Belgium and therefore put poor RISK onto the second draft track. So when the second draft was complete it went out to my other Alpha readers for their evaluation.

Now reading this manuscript was no small task, as I understand. I’m sure it was a sight easier than what poor Kate had to read but there were still problems with the manuscript that no public reader should ever have to witness. My biggest problem: character motivations.

I am a discovery writer so by nature I write wonderfully from point A to point B. I create darn good action sequences (usually involving a lot of electricity and firearms) and my dialogue (IMHO) rocks. However, since I am the aforementioned discovery writer, I don’t always know what my characters want at the moment I’m writing that slam-bang action sequence. I usually don’t even know what my characters want until I’ve written “the end” and then had a group of Alpha readers read the manuscript and we stay up until two in the morning hashing over what the devil my characters want.

This doesn’t mean they are completely directionless. I’m pretty good at the small motivations, i.e. Rose doesn’t want to be shot by that guy so she hides behind that rock and volts him the second she gets a chance. I’m not even too bad with motivations that span several chapters, i.e. Thurmond sees that Rose is in trouble and will go to the ends of the earth (or Arches National Park) to find her and help her out. The place I really struggle is the manuscript-spanning motivations, i.e. Rose is sad at the beginning of the manuscript and has to do something deliberate over the course to 100 thousand + words to make her not sad anymore.

The trouble with not knowing character motivations is that you have characters who are for the most part reactive. Someone does this and so they need to do that. They are not able to drive the story. They don’t engender the same trust as you would give a character who, I don’t know, has a plan and you get to see them implement it. Don’t you just love a character you can trust will always get out of the situation? For example, Dr. Who is fantastic at this. You know his motivation (save Earth, or the girl or both) and so you can trust that no matter how bad things get he has a plan to get everyone out of it.

That doesn’t mean that characters can’t have moments of directionlessness (I know that’s not a word, the red underline is screaming at me), but they should be few and far between. They should be that low point right before the character turns things around and gets back on their motivation horse.

As my editor told me recently, “Just remember that the character must want something ‘even if it's a glass of water.’ (Kurt Vonneghut, Jr.)”

So tell me, discovery writers and outline writers alike, do you ever have problems with your character’s motivations?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Things I now know about writing

May I just start by saying my editor, Sheryl, is brilliant. I received my first edits from her this week which only went to show me how much I didn't know. It never fails--feel like you know everything about a subject and the universe will make sure you discover that you don't.

So I open the edited document and my first reaction was, "HOLY BLOOD RED PENCIL, BATMAN!"

Now I'll have to admit this didn't shake me up like it would have a year ago, or if I'd received the same information by someone a bit less trustworthy. I was delighted, not only that I hadn't self-published (not that I'm opposed to self-publishing but in R.A.G.E.'s case I would have just been shooting myself in the foot), but that at last I had been handed the tools by a brilliant professional (have I mentioned that yet? Brilliant, I tell you) to give R.A.G.E. the greatest chance out there in the big, scary world.

So after my original reaction and then my secondary reaction and perhaps a couple more reactions, (NONE of which involved any tears or welling about the eyes of any kind) I planted myself in front of my computer and went about learning what I probably should have already known.

Now I'm going to pass it along to you. Chances are you already know all this and you are welcome to roll your eyes at me and go find something more interesting to do. If you don't, however, go ahead and apply these techniques to your own work and you'll be surprised how much it tightens the writing.

1. The "ING" trap. This is what my editor calls it and you can read all about it here.

In my manuscript I'd call if more of a disease. Once I started it just seemed to spread. This is when (usually in an attempt to start your sentence with something other than he/she/ I/my or your character's name) you instead start with the verb. Example from R.A.G.E. "Trembling fingers touched my neck, searching for comfort from my dad." Urgh! Okay, this sentence is horrendous in many ways but let me fix it really quick so I can copy and paste it in my manuscript. How about. "My trembling fingers touched my neck, searching for the pendant that always gave me comfort from my father." Not great, but better, and it doesn't start with an "ing" word. Click on the link for more detailed info with examples and how to fix them. I understand it but I'm not sure I can explain it well enough.

2. ‘there is/there are' and ‘it is/it was' constructions. An example from my own work. "It was my leg, of all things, that hurt the worst." I mean seriously isn't it just better to write something like, "My leg, of all things, hurt the worst." I went and did a "find" (but not replace because you're going to have to use your brain to fix these ones) of all the "it was"'s. Amazing! And tightened. Done. You can read all about it here.

3. And last (at least for the moment until I receive more edits) The watching syndrome. Check for detailed info here.

This has to do with your character seeing things, hearing things and feeling things. Yes, we should have our characters using their five senses but it should be invisible. Here's an example from RISK this time, because I already went back and fixed the ones in R.A.G.E.: "I heard Max click a magazine into the M203 and start peppering bullets into the darkness." So much easier just to say, "Max clicked a magazine into the M203 and started peppering bullets into the darkness." Yes? Nod your head if you agree...did you just nod? And how about (also from RISK): "I saw the man lunging across the bed toward me, hands outstretched." How about instead: "The man lunged across the bed toward me, hands outstretched." Easy peasy and so much better.

I love all these little things in the editing phase and watching R.A.G.E. come together. Go ahead and read the other writing tips on the Shelfstealers website. You'll be happy you did and your manuscript as well as future (or current) editors will thank you.

My editor said, and I'm going to quote her because she's...(come on, you already know what I'm going to say because, admit it, you're clicking over to your own manuscripts right now and applying these things)...brilliant. She said, "when we eliminate some of the weaknesses in our writing, other weaknesses that were hiding, rise to the surface. I liken it to the sculptor's or wood-carver's process: carve away the awkward bits to reveal the grain, and then work with that grain to bring out its richness."

With those words I'm going to work on my sculpture...erm manuscript.