Archive for April, 2016

TT: Alan Gets Into Someone’s Head

April 7, 2016

JANE: So, Alan, last time you mentioned that the biggest challenge you’d faced when you started in on writing fiction was getting into character’s heads.

Here's Edna!

Here’s Edna!

Did your writer’s group exercise based around writing a character sketch give you any insights into making a character come alive?

ALAN: Yes, I think so. I chose a picture of a cleaning lady and wrote three brief character sketches that described her as three very different people. Then I took one of those character sketches and wrote a (very short) story about her with a proper beginning, a middle and an end. I’m quite pleased with the results. All I’ve got to do now is try and work out how I did it…

JANE: Maybe if we step back and look at those three character sketches, you’ll have an insight.  Are you game?

ALAN: Yes, indeed.

JANE: First, though, I have a question for you.  Why did you pick a cleaning lady?

ALAN: As soon as I saw the picture, I remembered an incident from when I was a student. We had a party, and wrote a message on the wall: “We love Mrs Francis our wonderful cleaning lady”. She had to clean it up the next day, of course. But she did it with a huge smile on her face – she really was a lovely lady and I remember her fondly. I thought I could use that anecdote in a character sketch. And I did!

JANE: That’s neat!  I have another thought on that, but I want to hold onto it for later.  So, how about those character sketches?

ALAN: The first two character sketches described Edna, an office cleaner. I used almost exactly the same words to describe a nice Edna and a nasty Edna. It was a useful exercise on how important the choices of words and similes are. For example, the nasty Edna had “formidable curlers that looked as if they could put a permanent wave in the girders of the Eiffel Tower” while the nice Edna had “formidable curlers that only came out on Saturday when they gave her lucky hair for the bingo”.

JANE:  Nice variation on a theme.   Another good thing to remember is that the point of view of whoever is viewing Edna might influence whether they saw her as “nice” or “nasty” based on their own past associations with women who wear curlers.

So, what was the third sketch?

ALAN: The third character sketch was a longer piece that described Edna’s life in a small Yorkshire village in (probably) the 1950s. She was an amalgam of various such ladies that I remembered from that time. There was a little bit of my grandmother in her, and a little bit of a friend’s mother…

JANE: I’m curious.  Why did you name her Edna?  Was that the name of one of those ladies?

ALAN: I have no idea, except that really is her name. If she had a different name, she’d be an imposter. And no, I do not know anyone in real life called Edna…

JANE: Character names can be like that.

So, which one did you choose to write your story about?

ALAN: The nice Edna from the original character sketches. She helps Phyllis from Accounts Receivable with the month end report by applying a little bit of homespun wisdom and a dirty joke. It’s only 500 words, but I think it works quite well.

JANE: Sounds intriguing.  I know that sometimes there are contests for very short stories.  Maybe you can try your piece there.

Earlier, when you mentioned you’d chosen a cleaning lady, I mentioned I had a thought but wanted to hold onto  it.  Now I’ll trot it out…

One of the ways to avoid writing cardboard characters is to think of actual people you know – or as you did with Edna Three, several actual people you know.  A really good exercise is to write a story using real people as characters rather than thinking of them as abstract concepts like “detective,” or “biologist,” or “ship’s captain” or “cleaning lady.”

It’s astonishing how much we know about even casual acquaintances.  Yet, if asked the same questions about a character many writers would just look puzzled.

ALAN: Can you give me an example?

JANE: Sure.  There’s a clerk at my local grocery store I see regularly.  The longest conversation we’ve had is probably less than 120 seconds.  Nonetheless, I know she hates hot weather, doesn’t like bananas, struggles with her diet, is a former smoker, has a small dog she’s very fond of, and watches football.  She is not patient with people who don’t hold up their end, but can be surprisingly kind if someone really needs help.

The green grocer at the same store is divorced, but gets along well with his now adult children.  He’s afraid of flying.  Although very friendly, he prefers to work with stock to being put on a register.  He likes small towns, enough so that he gets up very early to commute in for his job, rather than live closer.  He’s fully bilingual in Spanish and English, switching between languages depending on who he’s chatting with.

And that leaves out physical descriptions entirely.  And names, both of which tend to be the first things many writers – both new and experienced – think about when putting a character together.

ALAN: That’s clever. I’d never thought of approaching it that way. I think I sort of assumed that successful story tellers had characters just walk into their fingertips and then drop straight out on to the page. It was a bit frustrating that it didn’t work like that for me.

JANE: Well, sometimes they do just appear – and start running the show.  However, not every character does.  I want to clarify something.  I’m not saying that all your characters need to be copies of people you actually know.  Far from it!  However, I do think you should have the same sort of “gut feeling” for your characters that you would about a casual acquaintance.

Now, mind you, I’m not saying that all this needs to come out on the page, but sometimes knowing these little things about a character helps give them more dimension.

ALAN: Thank you – that’s given me a lot to think about. Meanwhile, from hints that Lyn has dropped, I think the next few meetings of the group will be concentrating on how to make a place seem real. I’ll let you know how it goes.

JANE: That would be delightful.  Maybe in a few months we can pick up this theme again.  Meantime, I wonder if our readers have anything to add about their experiences with fiction writing or in writing groups.  (We had a little last week, but I’m inviting more!)


Flowering Determination

April 6, 2016

On Sunday night, we heard our first toad of the year singing in our tiny (120 gallon) backyard pond.  This makes it officially Spring.  Mind you, nighttime temperatures still frequently drop to below freezing.  Forty-degree temperature shifts are not at all uncommon here, where a mile-high elevation means I can find myself wearing a short sleeved tee-shirt in the daytime and a sweater at night.

Amaryllis with a Twist

Amaryllis with a Twist

So I’m fighting a desire to put in a garden because, even though part of me is dancing around saying “Spring is here at last!”,  it’s quite likely that seeds would rot in the ground and plants just sulk and/or get frostbite.  Or broken in half by high winds.  Our catalpa trees made the mistake of starting to leaf out and currently show some bad burn.  They’ll recover, though.

As a sop to our gardening Cerberus, we’ve planted some tomato seeds in our little seed starter.  Are you familiar with Miyazaki’s film My Neighbor Totoro?  If you are, imagine me as little Mei checking the garden after she and her sister Satsuki have planted the nuts and seeds the totoro gave them.  I don’t quite hunker down like a crab and stare, but I do check the seed starter several times a day, just in case.  I will not admit to whether or not I do the “totoro dance.”  My dignity needs some preservation.

A much more rewarding plant-watching activity is watching our two amaryllis grow.   Amaryllises surge forth visibly in the course of a day.  On the first day we brought them out, only one bulb showed a tiny green leaf tip.  Today – about two weeks later – they’re already flowering.  Very satisfying indeed.

These amaryllis plants are descended from one given to me for Christmas by a friend many years ago.  Last year, I had to split the bulb, which resulted in the very odd stalk that you can see in the accompanying picture.  I like the determination it illustrates.  Visual depictions of determination are something every writer needs.

Yes…  It’s spring in New Mexico, which is about as different as you can get from the “drip-drip-drop little April showers” you may remember from Disney’s Bambi. Still, it’s nice looking out the window and seeing some green, even if the green is largely what most people would call “weeds,” but we consider valuable stabilizing elements in our very sandy yard.

What else is going on?

This coming Saturday I’m the “Featured Speaker” at the UNM writer’s conference.  My slot comes up right after lunch.  I’m still putting my talk together, but I’ve collected some neat material and looking forward to it.  Perhaps I’ll see a few of you there.

I heard from David Weber, and he likes my story for the forthcoming (but as of yet unscheduled) “Safehold” anthology.  My story is called “Brother Against Brother,” and is set during the colonization of Safehold.

I’ve also finished typing up the “handwritten project” and started reading it aloud to myself.  It came in at around 54,500 words.  No idea whether my read through will end up making it longer or shorter.  What I do know is that I’m feeling increasingly excited about it.

Yes.  It does have a title: Asphodel.

Now I’m going to go emulate my amaryllis and see how I can make my writerly garden grow!

FF: No Fooling!

April 1, 2016

Finished my library books, got out another, and am back to SPQR.  So, as usual, all over the place.

Kel Pretend to be the Evil Queen

Kel Pretends to be the Big Bad Cat

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Storybook of Legends “Ever After High #1” by Shannon Hale. Middle grade and built around fashion dolls, so I didn’t expect much.  However, between descriptions and some of the most annoying slang I’ve encountered ever (hexellent; “fairy” instead of “very” ex.  “You look fairy, fairy lovely today!”) I found much to like, including a much more thoughtful exploration of character motivation than the similar School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani that I read a few months back.

Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt.  “The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It.”  Learned a bit more history of the RPG field, although the tight focus on D&D was a distorting element.

In Progress:

Maze of Bones, 1st 39 Clues novel by Rick Riordan.  Audiobook.  Part of a vast, multi-author project.  I’m obviously not the target audience but will stick to the end of this one.

Nobody Loves a Centurion by John Maddox Roberts.  SPQR 6.  Decius is with Julius Caesar in Gaul.

Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture by Adrienne Shaw.  “Gamer” here means video, not RPG.  Will at least skim, but I’m not really a video gamer, so many references don’t mean a lot to me.


Origami books.  Still.  I have mastered the inflatable rabbit and am considering what next.