Know Your Psychology

Last week I talked about the three dimensions of characterization. This time I’m going to go a bit deeper and talk about the psychology of characterization. Do you remember anything from psychology class? If not, it may be time to brush up. Psychology deals with how we behave and why. That’s what you need to utilize when you’re building a character. It all works with the dimensions of character we discussed earlier.

You’ll find that a lot of people are driven by resentment. Sounds petty, but it’s true. Someone hurts your feelings. Even if you’ve forgiven him for it, unless you’ve really dealt with it, you may still harbor some resentment, even years later. What do we do with resentment? We resist. If we resent someone or something, we resist it. We won’t use a product associated with someone or some organization we resent. If your best friend from school that stole your boyfriend makes overtures of friendship years later, you may rebuff her because of what happened due to your resentment. Resentment is a powerful motivator.

Resentment can even make us look for ways to get revenge. What happens when one spouse finds out the other has been cheating? The first one often decides they should also have an affair to get even. Is one spending too much on clothes? The other may go out and buy too much of something they like to get back at them. This gives them the feeling of exacting revenge, even though it really doesn’t solve anything.

The consequences of resentment and revenge are third dimension decisions which are motivated by second dimension issues. People usually dress all this up in first dimension fluff that may either try to hide it or flaunt it.

Let’s say you go to the wedding of an old friend. While you’re there, you see an ex who blatantly cheated on you with one of your other friends, flaunting it for all to see. He hurt you badly. He’s there with his wife… the very friend he cheated on you with, and she’s eight months pregnant and glowingly happy. Your heart begins to pound and your blood pressure rises. What do you do? Here is where your third dimension steps up to the plate and reveals your true character. Are you politely cool? Do you ignore them? Give them a piece of your mind and storm out? Embrace them and wish them well, meaning every word?

If you were writing this scene, you would be able to orchestrate exactly how your character would try to appear (first dimension), how her emotions were running amuck (second dimension), and her final decision (third dimension). The second dimension doesn’t make the character’s choice, it only shines the spotlight on their motivation. This is the psychology of what happened: it hurt, it hasn’t healed, it hasn’t been dealt with in any way. In this moment, the character must be pressed to act, amidst her pain, in front of everyone. Without the second dimension’s motivations, the reader wouldn’t be able to understand the meaning behind the character’s third dimension decision.

 

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OMG–I Can’t Stress This Enough

I’ve written on the topic of the importance of editing before, but OMG guys, it really is.

I love indie authors, I really do. Heck, I’m one myself. Some of my best online friends are, too. Some of what I’m hearing from indie authors is alarming. I’m hearing that editing is a luxury, an expense they can do without. Yes, it can be expensive. I’m sorry about that, but if you tell me that How to Train Your Catfish in Three Easy Lessons is 175,000 words long–well, I know you want to hear it’s only going to cost you $50, but any manuscript that long is going to cost you some bucks. Editing carefully, I can average about 1,250 words an hour, assuming I’m not spending that hour answering your emails asking why I haven’t finished your book yet or what did I think of the chapter on earning your catfish’s trust. I’m not saying you can’t ask questions… I encourage you to do so. This is a working partnership on your book. But back to our make believe scenario. So your 175,000 word manuscript on training catfish is going to take about 140 hours of my time. I wish I could do it for free (if I were rich, I would… I enjoy it that much!).¬† So why should you pay this *luxury tax*?

Case in point: Step into my time machine and we’re going to travel back several years. At this point in time I was doing reviews of birth-related books. (Cue spooky time travel music.) Ah. Here’s one. Take a look at this. Not only is the text so riddled with errors that it gets in the way of their wonderful message, but their formatting for the book was way off. The title page was actually on the left side! It made me wonder if they’d ever even seen a book before. Needless to say, all the money they spent printing all those copies was wasted. I couldn’t review it… there was nothing good I could say about the book. I contacted the author privately and suggested nicely that she get an editor to go through the book and then a book designer to set it up properly. I never heard back from her so I don’t know if she did or not.

As I said at the beginning, I love indie authors. I want them to succeed. However, it’s getting to the point that I hesitate to buy ebooks unless I’m already familiar with the author. I don’t want to waste my hard-earned cash on a book that may be full of errors. Before I push that Buy button, I wonder if they had the book edited. Will it be full of errors? I read books full of errors for a living… I don’t want to do it in my pleasure reading. If I find the first chapter full of mistakes, I don’t read the rest of the book, no matter how good the story was. I know I’m not alone in this.

A lot of readers are returning their ebooks for errors or complaining to Amazon, who then reports the errors to the authors for fixing. Amazon will report a few of them, then recommend to the author to check for more. If you get an email like this from Amazon, will you follow up and fix them? Will you look for more? Do you even know what to look for since you let them go through the first time? This means spending time going through your book again and then re-publishing.

Some of those readers will go so far as to write a review criticizing your editing errors for all the world to see and giving you a low rating for them. This brings down your overall rating. Even if you do find every error and fix them later, those reviews will still be there for other potential readers to see. I’m currently editing a book that had this problem. Yes, the errors will be fixed, but the old reviews will still color the perception of the improved book once it’s done.

Others will request their money back, and Amazon cheerfully refunds it, taking it out of your royalties each time a reader does this for the life of your book. Still think skipping the editing was a good idea?

Do it right the first time and hire an editor. Most of us are willing to work with our clients. I offer a payment plan… I’m sure many other editors do as well. I even offer a discount to those who can pay in full. I love books. I always have, ever since I learned that when letters are put together to form words they could tell a story. I got into this business to help authors make their books the best they could be. When the spotlight is on you, I want you to shine.

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Character Dimensions

Human beings are three-dimensional. Your characters should be, too. This is what makes them compelling. This is what makes us fall in love with them or love to hate them.

I’ve often come across posts online where authors are asking for character quirks. They’ll list a bunch of qualities their character has. “Dorothy is blonde, blue-eyed, and loves to knit. What quirks should she have? I can’t think of any!”

This is the first dimension. What we see on the surface. Maybe Dorothy chews her fingernails. Maybe she collects cats. Maybe she’s a rabid Doctor Who fan who wears her hair in a perm like her favorite character, River Song. This first dimension is a combination of how Dorothy sees herself and how she wants to be seen. Sometimes these things will contradict each other, which takes us to the second dimension. But we’ll get there in a bit. Let’s stick with the first for a moment longer.

The first dimension traits show your reader what is. It’s up to the reader to assign any meaning to it. So what if Dorothy knits sweaters for her cats? If you show the reader why she does this, you’ve just crossed into the (cue music) second dimension.

In the second dimension, you show the reader why Dorothy does what she does. Whether it’s her conscious choice or whether she does something to cover up something else, the second dimension exposes backstory or maybe Dorothy’s hidden agenda. Dorothy may have been a neglected child who never felt warm or cared for, so she knits sweaters for her many cats to give them the care she never received. Maybe. It’s a thought.

The third dimension takes all the first dimension choices and subordinates them to more important choices and behaviors that must be made when greater things are at stake. What will Dorothy choose when faced with such a dilemma? Since she only trusts her cats, can she trust another person? What if it were a life or death situation? Could she risk her life to save that other person, setting aside her distrust? The third dimension will let us know. These third dimension choices are good for showing character growth. Just like there’s a story arc, characters have an arc of their own. Do they grow and change? Is it for better or for worse? Can Dorothy grow as a person and trust again? Will she run back to her cats instead? Each of these dimensions lets the reader see the character from three different perspectives, even though they may not realize it, since it should be wrapped neatly in the story.

Now that you understand the three dimensions, let’s see what fun you can have with it. The first dimension may be a sham. Maybe it’s all an act. Maybe Dorothy puts on this mask because it makes her feel safe or it allows her to hide her true self. If you go with this approach, it is crucial that you show her true colors at some point or the reader will never know.

Look at your own choices in life. Every morning when you get dressed, you’re making first dimension choices. You can watch people around you and pick out first dimension behavior. This is great practice and research for writing.

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Editing on Slush Heap

I just had a great time appearing on Slushheap.com’s Google Hangout On Air. It was loads of fun. The host, Rudi Fischer, ran the show wonderfully with a little help from my hubby John, who was filling in for their regular co-host Darcie Duranceau, who was out sick. I hope I get to go back sometime so I can meet her. The other guests were Jim Ault, who specializes in marketing, and Katie Hayoz, a YA author from Switzerland, who told us all about the writing group she uses to help critique her stories as part of her editing process.

The hour was full of great information and fun. I encourage anyone writing a book to listen in. Slush Heap does a weekly show specializing in matters facing writers, so you might want to check out their backlist of shows as well.

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What Makes the Editor Tick

Sherlock the betta

Last Thursday, I was interviewed at Luscious Literaries. It was a fun interview, and I hope you pop over and take a look. Kassanna was a gracious host. :) It will help you learn a bit about me, you’ll see my cluttered desk, and get a peek into my crazy head. It’s good to get to know more about someone, isn’t it?

So, what makes the editor tick? Could it be the sound of bubbles popping at the surface of one of my aquariums? Really, it sounds like a fish store in here. If you ever went to a fish store in the 1970s (my mom was into fish at the time), they all sounded like bubbles. Back in the day, most of them ran in-the-tank filters that ran bubbles to the surface. It was a wet, plopping sound that I find soothing to this day.

Could my Chinese astrological sign of the water rabbit have something to do with how I tick? Maybe that’s why I like the sound of water? Hmmmm. I used to raise rabbits, but I don’t anymore. Now I chase literary rabbits in the form of commas hiding where they oughtn’t.

Could it be the excitement of helping to birth a book, to midwife it into being? I studied midwifery for years and birthed eight of my own children, who are the joys of my life. I never became a midwife, mostly because it was difficult to become an apprentice and attend the births necessary when we only had one car and my own children needed me. I could midwife a book while still attending to the needs of my children, half of whom are grown or mostly there. I did attend a few births as a doula… it was amazing. :)

Could it be my own inherent obsession with correct spelling and grammar? That’s probably a big part of it. I’ve been correcting things ever since I can remember. I have lots of fun stories from English class. In first grade, I got in trouble for refusing to read the word ‘darn’ out loud because my grandmother had taught me it was a bad word and I wasn’t to say it. But there it was in my reading book. What was a little girl to do? Then there was the class when I had the teacher in stitches because we were to write words on the chalkboard beginning with the letters ‘er’ and ‘ir.’ I wrote ‘erp’ and ‘irk.’ She questioned erp (which in my mind was another word for vomit) but she thought me imaginative, nonetheless. When I graduated high school, I gave my creative writing teacher a spelling dictionary so he could make it through the next year without me. I always corrected his handouts and gave them back to him. Helped me win the departmental award upon graduation, however. :) So, words and I go way back. I think this is mostly why I like to edit.

Words are meaningful. They can be silly. They can be powerful. They can be tender. They can tear someone apart or build them up. Words are amazing. While I can draw and paint a little and can be in awe over the feelings I get from looking at an amazing piece of art, words can take root in my soul. So, that’s what really makes this editor tick. I can’t speak for all the others out there, but deep down, I’d guess it’s something similar.

That’s why I write so much about learning the craft and words being a tool to use fully… they can do so many marvelous things if you know how to use them. They can become more than just letters arranged on a page. Just as a painter can make magic with color, so too can a writer make magic with words. I want to see magic on the page.

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Your Toolbox

You’re a writer. What do you use? Words.

Words are your most frequently used tool. Make friends with them. Caress them. Fondle them. Throw them against the wall. Whatever you do, use them. Get a dictionary. Make sure you’re using the right one. I recommend Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Would you build a brick wall and mistakenly use one brick made of styrofoam? Of course not! So don’t do it with your writing. Make sure each word is solid and well placed.

By the time I see a manuscript, this should be a no-brainer. Sure, mistakes happen occasionally, a word slips through revisions and past beta readers. But if you’re paying an editor to replace your malapropisms, you need to go back to square one and work on your writing skills. If you’re submitting your manuscripts to small presses full of these, work on your skills. If they’re paying their editors to replace your malapropisms, they’re wasting their editing dollars. You owe it to yourself as a writer to learn your craft.

Repeat after me: Every story you write should be crafted better than the last.

What did you learn from the last story you wrote? Did you eliminate your bad habit of ending sentences with a comma or did your main character have greater depth? Have you figured out the art of foreshadowing or did you learn that ‘he said’ is not a sentence in its own right? Each one is a step in the right direction.

Back to your toolbox. Words. How do you learn to use words? You should have these resources at hand when you write:

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus

It doesn’t matter to me if they’re books on your desk or websites you can access. What matters is when you stumble, you can look it up. How do you know if you’re stumbling? The word won’t quite sound right in that context. Does an artist fasten a piece of art? Maybe to the wall, but not when he’s creating it. He would fashion it. Can you prompt a chair against the wall? No, but you can prop it against the wall.

These tools also come in handy for spelling, avoiding repetitive usage of the same word, and so on. It may be awkward at first, but once you get accustomed to checking your resources, you’ll find them extremely helpful. Repetition of word usage seems to go in waves, for example. I’ll see an author get a word stuck in their head, breathed, for example, and it will pop up repeatedly for a few pages. She breathed, he breathed, everyone is so busy breathing you wonder if they ever took a breath before.

I do get manuscripts with these kinds of issues in them from time to time. I correct them gently and go on. It’s part of my job. The author will either improve or not, that’s their decision. If I can help you improve before I see your manuscript, however, that’s even better. I want you to grow as a writer. I want you to be successful.

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Cut the Clutter

Part of being a writer is knowing what to dramatize and what to leave out. Wait. Did I say to leave something out? Why, yes I did. I’ve touched on it before, but I see it time and again in the pages I edit. You don’t need to mention every detail, only the important ones. Do you consciously remember every detail of everything you do every day? Of course not! Not everything is memorable, nor should it be. In fact, even some things that are memorable can be glossed over in a story for the sake of brevity if it’s all pretty much the same. Perhaps one of your characters has started a new relationship and a week later, they’re still spending every moment together staring into each other’s eyes. Instead of spending pages detailing all that, it can all be summed up in a nice little sentence or two.

For the next week, Joey and I were inseparable. We ate, slept, and breathed as one, separated only by the necessities of work.

The story can then pick up where it left off with something important happening. This not only helps by condensing all those similar details, but it condenses time. Now we know time has passed. They’ve spent this amount of time together and know each other to this extent.

You can also condense information this way. While you may need to add technical information on a profession or other task in your story, if you provide too much, it could sound like a manual. First, you want to understand it well, then you want to present it through the character’s point of view. This will offer a taste of your character’s insight, which will make it infinitely more interesting to your reader.

For example, if your character is a draftsman, perhaps you could portray what he feels like as he first puts pencil to paper, how it feels to draw those strong lines upon the virgin paper rather than technically explaining how it is done. Likewise, it would be much different if he is more tentative, and he’s afraid to lay down those first few lines because he might make a mistake. How might he feel about his work then? It gives a completely different feel to a scene in which the character draws a few lines. Use these details to build your character, to build the tension of the scene. They all work together. Condensing the information like this can heighten this quality, it cuts out the excess that fills pages, but clutters the story. So learn to cut the clutter. Condense when you need to so you can focus on what’s important.

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Milestones

Does your story have milestone scenes or does it wander all over the place? Milestone scenes serve a specific function in a story and support the structure. These are the points in your story where new information  comes in and changes things up. Maybe the tension grows, or the stakes are higher or the direction takes and about face. You can think of a milestone as a plot twist if you like, though not every plot twist is a milestone.

Think of the milestone scenes as the support poles that hold your story up. For each milestone scene, there are several scenes that lead up to it, and several more that lead away from it. If you have your milestone scenes planned, most of your story is laid out before you. So, just what are the milestone scenes?

  • The opening scene
  • The hook (in the first 20 pages or so)
  • The inciting incident (which in some stories is also the first plot point)
  • First plot point (approximately 20-25% into the story)
  • First pinch point (approximately in the middle of part 2)
  • Midpoint (a shift in the middle of the story)
  • Second pinch point (in the middle of part 3)
  • Second plot point (approximately 75% into the story)
  • Final resolution of the story

These will be the most important scenes in your story. If you plan these moments, if you know what they will be and how they work with the flow of your tale, how to connect them and how to set them up, you’ve got a nice structure for your novel. Structure that will pay off.

All the other moments in your book are either heading towards one of these scenes or reacting to them… these key scenes have a purpose. If you plan your story this way, your first draft can actually be quite good from the start.

So can you do this without planning? Yes, but you’ll end up doing it in one of your later revisions when you realize the story isn’t where it needs to be. You’re still planning, you’re just doing it by writing instead of outlining. Don’t cover your ears and sing ‘la la la.’ It’s true. We all plan our stories, we just use different ways to do it. I’ve tried to pants it, but I end up lost in circles. It’s not for me, just as I’m sure my constant outlining and post it notes aren’t for all of you. Okay. I use Scrivener, because I already have so many post it notes on my desk for client projects that I’d never find the ones intended for my own story. Scrivener gives me index cards and an outlining feature.

My point is you need to know your key scenes and what they’re going to do for your story. Whether you do this before you write or during your 5th draft is up to you. These milestone scenes will propel your story forward like a bullet train headed for Tokyo station, where it will crash headlong from the track into the crowded platform, causing death and mayhem. Your hero (or heroine) must react in some way and eventually figure out who did it and why. Was it a mechanical failure due to a disgruntled employee? Was it a terrorist attack? Was it planned to take the focus away from an equally evil plot elsewhere? Only you can decide, but unless you understand these milestone scenes and how to make them work for you, your plot may fall flat somewhere along the way.

 

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Growth and Improvement

Do you still grow and improve with each book you write? You should. Each book should improve your storytelling skills. Every time you stretch those plot muscles, they should get stronger. Every time you get edits back marking the same things over and over, you should learn and adapt so you don’t make those same mistakes in the next book. Why? Because that’s part of learning your craft.

Athletes at professional levels still work out to stay at the peak of their game. Writers should too. This is common sense. You don’t lie back and rest on your laurels because you published a book. You push through and see where your weaknesses are and strengthen them. Push through the pain. Grow stronger.

Why?

Because if you want to really make a career for yourself as a writer, this is what you do. Look at Stephen King. Carrie was good, yes, but his later work was better. Why? Because he kept at it. He grew. I love to listen to his talks on writing because he’s not only entertaining, he gives good advice. He’s honest about what it takes. Now his character development is second nature. It just happens because he put in the work early on. You can do that too if you put in the work. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice to hone those skills.

If you just churn out your stories without improving, they’ll all be the same. Would you rather have a body of work that remains at one level or one that shows your growth and depth as a writer? I know what my answer would be.

Take the advice of your editors, your beta readers, your publishers. Sift through them and find the true faults in your writing. Don’t let yourself be too sensitive… be honest with yourself. Find those faults and correct them. Practice. Take workshops or use exercises from books to help with those issues. Write your next book. Are there fewer issues?

So practice. Write. Grow. Improve. Each story should be better crafted than the one before. Each plot point meticulously placed. Each character deftly drawn. Each setting meaningful and poignant. Each scene memorable. You’ll get there if you work at it.

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The Senses

When writing your scenes, don’t forget to use all five senses. It’s so easy to just use the visual. She saw the wind whipping through the trees. Bill saw the car flip and land on its roof, spinning gradually to a stop against the hydrant. But what about the other senses?

She saw the wind whipping through the trees, the leaves rustling madly. It tore at her clothing, pulling her skirt against her legs. She reluctantly took a step forward in response. The air smelled odd as the storm’ intensity built. She tried to remember when last she’d smelled something like it, but the drama in front of her occupied her completely. “Mama!” she cried. “Where are you?”

Now we’ve got sight, sound, touch, and smell involved. Not bad, and the storm feels a little more real.

Bill saw the car flip and land on its roof, spinning gradually to a stop against the hydrant. The grating crash of the metal against the concrete still rang in his ears. He ran to the vehicle and pulled at the doors, one after the other. They wouldn’t open. He pounded on the driver’s window. The man was unconscious. Blood smeared his face. He recognized a familiar smell and sniffed. Gasoline. Quickly he looked around for something he could use to break the window.

Using the different senses brings the scene to life. But now let’s take it even further.

SIGHT

Visual cues are what helps the reader visualize what’s going on in the scene. Your point of view not only provides the the information your reader gets to understand the story, it is the lens through which your reader sees what’s happening. Do your best to place your reader inside, so they see what the character sees, they don’t get told what the character sees.

TOUCH

We all touch things. Depending on our age, touch may be the best way to learn about our surroundings. Sometimes we touch things out of habit or to comfort ourselves. A smooth stone or coin, a soft piece of fabric. We touch the edge of a knife to test for sharpness. Who can resist running their fingers over a piano keyboard? Touch can be practical, it can be comforting, it can be strategic, it can make someone fearful. It can be personal or casual. Use it in your scenes.

SMELL

Scent can evoke strong memories. It can make one sick. It can be used to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys. Smell can be used to transition a scene as a flashback can be triggered by the smell of lilacs or fresh bread or anything you deem important to your character.

SOUND

Sound is a great way to create a setting. Who can’t visualize a beach from the sound of waves? What about an airport? A train station? Next time you go to a restaurant. close your eyes and listen. You’ll hear a hum of conversation, the clinking of glasses and silverware, the special language used between cooks and waitstaff. Now do this exercise again at another location. What do you hear that is specific there? These types of details will help you build your scene effectively.

TASTE

This sense doesn’t always fit in every scene, but when it does, use it. Maybe there’s the metallic taste of blood after the hero gets punched in the mouth, or the lemony flavor of your heroine’s favorite pancake recipe. Taste can also be used to great effect in some scenes. Grief, for instance, can affect how things taste. Can that be used in your story? Perhaps two characters come into conflict or reach a deeper understanding when one tells the truth about how bad the other cooks. Maybe that home-cooked meal that was made with love is the symbol of rejection when the other partner asks for a divorce. See the symbolism and use it.

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