Monday, May 30, 2011

Creating a Unique Storyline

There is an old saying "There is nothing new under heaven" and if we are to believe that then there is no such thing as a unique and original storyline. Which is saddening and daunting and makes many just want to give up. It makes others write predictable story lines that fit in acceptable genres and use this cop-out when challenged. Whether that statement is true or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is that you want to create a story that is unique to you and will be unique to your readers. This does not mean that you cannot or should not be inspired by the things around you. Look at Wicked. We all know the story of The Wizard of Oz, right? It has been redone a dozen times (often badly) and there is no way another hack can give us a unique perspective on a story everyone already knows, yet author Gregory Macguire does exactly that. He did it so well, that he has a booming enterprise of novels from it.

So the key to uniqueness is not necessarily to come up with a story line no one else has EVER come up with, but to look at other story lines and figure out how you can do it better. One of my first screen plays was originally inspired after watching I Know What You Did Last Summer and despising the predictability and simplicity of the story line. Since my story hasn't actually sold yet, I cannot say that it is better; but I sure think it is!

Some of the best story lines come from our own dreams. They are unique to us, but they are influenced by everything we watch, see and do. Keep that in mind as you jot those little dreams down. After I have a particularly vivid dream that I think will make a good story, I will often do research to see what other stories are similar and see the reviews they got. If I have a clear concept for my story and there seems to be a viable market for it; I will hastily write out my first draft, then do some reading on the other stories out there. See what the readers had to say about each book, what their comments were and why. With that in mind, I hit my second draft, crafting it to the desires of my audience.

For example, Science fiction and Fantasy thrillers tend to be a lot more judgmental of plot holes and have a much higher standard of expectation for prose. Criminal thriller readers tend to want detailed educated sounding explanations for procedures, but do not require high prose and tend to be more interested in the plot than the science behind the catching of bad guys. And those who read paranormal do not have as high an expectation for prose, but will totally ream you if there are plot holes or continuity errors! Not that every person who reads any of these categories will necessarily feel this way, but these simply tend to be the trends.

After you do this research, keep this information as it will help you when it is time to get an agent! Knowing your market, what they think, how they feel and what other books are out there in direct competition is a very good way to pitch your sale. It also indicates that you considered those issues when writing your story.

The most important thing to remember: in order to write a unique story you must remain true to yourself. We are all unique individuals and if you let your voice be heard no matter what, the story will be unique!

Now just a quick business note to all my friends. I welcome comments and questions. If there is anything in particular that you have questions about, or even if you disagree with my blogs, please feel free to comment. I am by no means an expert in this field, I am simply giving my perspective and thoughts. Discussion is healthy and other opinions and thoughts are welcome! If you would like to request a topic for me to cover, feel free. I will do my best to oblige.

Heidi Angell

Monday, May 23, 2011

How to Develop Rich Characters

Most of the time I develop my characters first. It is not a conscious or intentional act, it just happens. My characters develop in my head while I am working on other stories and then I shape the story around the character. Now, for most writers this is counter-intuitive. After all, it is all about the story, right? But the characters' actions and thoughts are what make the story. How the character thinks or behaves shapes the decisions that they make. It is absolutely possible to create the story then develop the character, based on how the story is meant to go and a lot of my writer friends do exactly this. If you choose to write your story this way then it is even more important for you to take a step back and take the time to develop your characters. There are many techniques for developing characters. I use many of these techniques myself and so it doesn't matter whether you choose to develop your characters first or the story first as long as you develop both!

First step, you need to give your characters names. One of the things about movie scripts that drives me crazy is that they often don't give secondary characters names. And for what it is worth, Shakespeare had it all wrong. Names are important! Your character's first introduction is often by their name. So unless you are intentionally trying to be ironic, you would not name a big, hulking, girl Grace, nor would you name the tough guy Nordstrum.

The next step is to define your character's physicality. There are many options available to do this. You may pull from everyday people that you know or pull from actor's pictures. The danger in this is that the person's personality may bleed through into your character. (which is not necessarily a bad thing!) If you are handy with other art media, you may choose to draw your own character. I had a friend who was such a good artist she really could have done comic books! But if neither of these options appeal to you, then you can simply write out their physical descriptions. Be as detailed and thorough as you can, even if you will not describe them in such detail in the book. The more real they are to you, the easier it will be for you to make them real to your audience.

The third step is to establish their personality. As logical and practical as this might seem, a lot of people get stuck with this. This step is the most crucial and often the most difficult because if you don't know your character's personality it becomes almost impossible to explain why they make the choices they make. You have to define their whole self so that when they do things, you can know if this is out of the norm for them and if so why they would make that choice. I have known writers who go WAY overboard with this to the point of defining their favorite food, establishing a birth date, their favorite color and everything. It seems obsessive, but Booth from Bones likes pie. They make a point to stress it. How could that possibly be important? He is a tough guy, all-American and he likes pie. Plus you know there is something deeply wrong when he doesn't order pie. Yeah, details can be important!

And even if those details are never given in the actual story, they help you to think of the character as a full and real person. If you cannot do that, then how can you expect your readers to do that? And as we established last week, if your readers don't do that then they won't connect. If they don't connect, the book becomes irrelevant. Our personality is what defines us and it is, more than anything, what will define your characters. That is the beauty of writing, this is a medium that has the exclusive privilege of not being driven by looks. We need to make sure that our character's personality is as rich and as fully developed as possible because it is their personality that will guide every decision they make, not their looks. It is their personality that drives the plot.

Finally, you must establish the characters' relationship to one another. Again, there are many ways to do this, but often it helps to have a visual aid. Especially if you have a large cast of significant characters that you are working with. My current method is to draw a chart (sort of like the story webs we had to do when coming up with a theme for a paper. you can also do this with their personality.) But I recently saw this really neat method that another author I know uses and I REALLY want to try it. She has a whole wall devoted to a cork board. (I would probably go with dry-erase) and she puts her characters' bios up and attaches them with color-coded string to establish their relationships. Then she has enough room to plot out the major story points across the board. It is amazing because at any point she can simply look up at her board if she is in confusion about something that she is writing.

And lets be honest, as writers sometimes we do get confused. We have fifty different options for our story going on in our head at any given time and having to flip back to this page or that page to remember if someone was supposed to be a cousin or an uncle is a bit frustrating. Problem is that if we don't pay attention to the details, then the reader will be even more confused. They don't have fifty different story options in their heads, they only have the one story option you present. They catch the little detail points that editors and even agents might miss. We readers are some of the smartest people out there. We are detail-oriented and we want it as real as possible. We will notice if someone starts out as a brother then becomes a best friend in the middle of the story because the moment we read brother we attach significant familial importance to that character and through our own interpretations develop beyond what the author says and infer things about their relationship. When that relationship changes it damages our conceptions of the world we are being drawn into and challenges the potential reality of that world.

So go and develop detailed characters that people will care about and your job is almost done! Now all you have to do is come up with a challenging story line that is unique and independent, write the story and edit the story until you don't catch any more mistakes. Then you simply write a synopsis that will grab people, write a query letter that is unique and original and can sell your story,  find an agent and then find a publisher. Piece of cake!!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Creating Character

Now there is a hot debate in the writing world about what is the most important element in writing, so I am going to weigh in on this debate. First of all, I would like to say that pretty much all of the elements are important, but to me the most important element is characterization. I base this judgment on a lot of things, one of which I learned in theatre. I have seen some  brilliant story lines that just didn't come together because the characters were not well-developed. How many of you have seen a "B" movie and the script was pretty good, but the cast just failed to deliver? Same idea.

Characters are the heart of any story. They are what we connect with and if we don't connect with them (either negatively or positively) then the rest of the story is meaningless. There are countless books that I have read and don't really remember because the characters were insignificant. On the other hand, there have been stories that were not well-developed, that were cliche and predictable; but had characters that I could relate to and sympathize with and therefore these books maintain a presence on my shelf today.

Here are some of my personal examples. I know Vampire Diaries was hot there for a while, they even got their own mini-series; but I just could not keep reading after book three, despite a colleague's insistence that she LOVED the series. Here is why: I absolutely despised Elena. (I know there are a lot of you out there who will totally disagree with me and that is ok.) She was a whiny, preppy, annoying, vapid, little fluff ball. I have  a hard time relating to someone like this and it was maddeningly infuriating being stuck in her head!

Unfortunately I wasn't impressed or interested in any of the other characters either. Stafan was... wishy-washy, Damon was weak for a villain and the real villain didn't get exposed early enough for me to even root for her. (Sad when you want to root for the villain!!)

On the flip side of the vampiric young adult selections out there is the Vampire Academy series. As any of you who have seen my book review know, I LOVE this series. Looking back on it, the writing is of similar skill and although I think Richelle has a better story flow, they have about the same amount of action. The main difference in these two writers is that Richelle develops these rich and enticing characters. Rose is a tough girl (which totally appeals to me) but for those of you who like the softer, sweeter girls, her best friend Lissa will fit your bill. Despite the fact that generally I don't much prefer Russians, I still managed to figuratively fall for Dimitri. And those who don't totally love Dimitri will probably fall for Christian. Even the villains are awesome and sometimes shocking. There is a character for everyone to love!

For those of you who doubt the logic in my argument ask yourself this, what do most people talk about, obsess about and generally rave or rant about with the big stories out there? (Jacob vs. Edward? Which house would you belong to? The only reason people care is because of the characters who make up those houses!)  But seriously, do a Google search on Harry Potter and most of the forums are not talking about JK Rowling's fabulous use of foreshadowing. They aren't discussing her unique ability to wind the most insignificant detail in and make it the key to the whole series. No, people are talking about how they cried when so-and-so died, how Harry is growing up so much, how they all just KNEW Ron and so-and-so would end up together. (It's hard not to give spoilers!!) And it is the same for pretty much any book, movie or play out there. People become fans of the characters. That is what they relate to.

Just as in real life, it is the people we connect with. So make your characters full people. Make people want to connect with them. If you have great characters, it can carry a so-so plot. But a brilliant plot cannot carry so-so characters. Besides, for me, the better I know my characters, the easier it is to make the plot better. The plot becomes more real and meaningful.  It begins to flow.

Now that I have made my argument for why full rich characters are so important, next week we will talk about how to develop those types of characters.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Scheduling Time to Write

Most writers, especially those just starting out on the path of writing "professionally" cannot rely on our writing as our primary income. It takes time to make money writing. So writing is like a side job... a side job without set hours or set deadlines... and for your loved ones, a side job without a set pay period. It makes it difficult sometimes to help them understand why your "hobby" is more important than anything else they want you to do.(Such as watching them on the wii, wiping fingerprints off the wall, making them do their homework.)

And as people are wont, sometimes it is just easier to give in to their immediate need and postpone your dream. Don't! If you are truly passionate about writing, you cannot let this happen. As Diana Sharf Hunt said "Goals are just dreams with deadlines." Take your writing passion out of the dream category and set it in the goal category. In order to do this, you must set some time aside for this goal, you must set some deadlines for yourself, and above all you must educate yourself on this business. Yes, writing is a business. A very exclusive and very viable business.

Now, I am not suggesting you go out and quit your job. (At least not until you have your first publishing contract!) Nor am I suggesting that you put this above everything else. Kids gotta eat. But you do need to devote time and energy to it. Start by carving out a set amount of time each day for writing. The wheels get rusty if you don't. For those who work real nine to fivers and have family and other obligations, you may only be able to carve out an hour a day. For others it may be more. Do the most you can while still maintaining balance in your life. You cannot become a closet case and devote your whole life to writing. No one works any job 80 or more hours a week for long without suffering from burnout.

Maintain balance. I am currently a stay at home mom. I know that there is no way I can write while the kids are running around screaming and running amok. Once the kids are off to school I start a load of laundry and sit down to slug it out. Every hour or so I take a twenty minute break and get some cleaning in. I have several projects running at one time and I keep them all going by devoting a certain amount of time to them. I'll spend a couple of hours working on each one. Some get allotted certain days. For example Monday is blog day. After I am done with the blog I hit the other projects. Tuesday and Wednesday are book reviews and fiction days and Thursday and Friday are book reviews, marketing and non-fiction days. Weekends are for family, but often in the evening I will write.

I am constantly balancing my desire to lose weight, my desire for a clean house, my desire to spend time with my family and my writing career. There are some things that my family has taken shared responsibility for (chores) and some things that cannot be compromised. (dinner before 6:00, Scouts and school activities.) Although the balance is a slippery slope, it is worth it. With my first contract out there, even my husband sees it now!

If you believe in yourself and do the work, you can become a writer. It isn't really any harder than any other entrepreneur's work. And being an author is just like being an entrepreneur. As long as you have the discipline and commitment, you can do it. By setting attainable goals and deadlines, such as writing for two hours a day and having a first rough draft in six months, you can be on the way.