Writers – are we all amateur psychologists?

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Make yourself comfortable on the couch…and tell me, how does this make you feel?

len-k-a couch

When we write fiction, we play God within the boundaries of our own created world. Depending on the genre, we might invent a brand-new race of beings, decide what stage of development their civilisation (if we decide to even give them one) has reached and set up the conditions of their planetary system.

In other genres, we might set the limits on magic that can be used, whether the land is forest or desert, decide if vampires  turn into charcoal at the merest hint of daylight or if they just sparkle and look moody (you know who I’m talking about).

Even if you’re writing contemporary tales set in real cities (*raises hand*), the writer still must lay out a basic plan of many of the character’s lives right up to the point where we first meet them and – yes, I’m finally getting to the point – why they act the way they do.

In order to create a credible and engaging story, we must delve deep into a character’s motives and feelings as well as thoroughly document (even if we don’t publish) that character’s life history. Does that sound boring? Dull and unnecessary? Too much planning when all you want to do is write? Sure, you could write a female character who hates all men and sticks to that pattern throughout the book. But an interested reader will certainly, after a few chapters of your misandrous main character spitting fire and venom at her colleagues, begin to wonder ‘what’s with her? Why is she like this?’

As two-dimensional ‘evil villains’ have risen to the top of the ‘do not create’ list, shallow main characters are very close behind.

Each of us is the sum of our own experiences, so why wouldn’t a fictional character be exactly the same? Naturally, they would tend to be larger than life, otherwise they would be no more interesting that the average Joe. But for them to have arrived at the point where we pick up the book and begin to journey with them, haven’t they had a childhood, teenage years, formative characters all around them?

But, you might ask, what if my character was grown in a lab and has just escaped? Then you have an excellent blank canvas with which to view our society through their eyes. Remember, even the android Data (Star Trek, if you didn’t know) who was created in his adult form, was an extraordinary character and as we later learned, had a fascinating back-story.

But with more down-to-earth (or whatever planet you’ve chosen) characters, the shape of their mould (that’s not a medical term, by the way) can make the difference between a two- and a three-dimensional reading experience. Most would have had a childhood and at least a few years of life which would have left lingering impressions on their psyche. And the more profund the experience, the stronger the effect upon their thinking.

If you’re not sure how to do this, then this is the point where you get to play psychologist. If you have already created your character, or have a good idea how your character is going to turn out, ask yourself ‘why would they be like this?’ Go back down the line of their life and work out what event(s) set them off down this path; what turned them from being a happy child / teenager / adult into the person that you, the writer, need them to be? After all, we are born as innocents. It’s our circumstances that mould us – and perhaps to a degree, our genes do too.

Something I’ve found  to be very useful is my interest in time travel, particularly my fascination with turning points. Most of you will remember ‘Back to the Future’ and the event that flipped Marty McFly’s forty-something father from a wimp into a confident writer. He was backed into a corner by a bully and came out fighting – something that would never have happened without the intervention of his future son. That was a turning point – something that set him along a different path. Darth Vader? He began his slip towards darkness because he was forbidden from falling in love. In ‘Jersey Girl’, Ben Affleck’s successful life was turned upside down when his wife died giving birth to their daughter. You can probably think of many others.

Sometimes the causes can be more subtle. Would a beautiful and smart girl have different college experiences to a plain, smart girl? How would a parent’s estrangement affect a small child? Would a minor physical defect have a cumulative effect on a character’s confidence?

The flip side of this is; how will your character change throughout the story? Will they shed their emotional burdens and grow as a person? Will their baggage drag them down even further? Are they able to realise what they need to do as a person in order to change? Remember the Twelve Steps – the first step to a cure is to admit that there is a problem. As writers we must not only create the problem, we need to envisage the cure…or at least, the consequences.

For a reader to empathise fully, it is also important that the character can be reached and that there is hope of redemption (if they are low), satisfaction and justice (if they are malevolent) or happiness (if they are being oppressed). That way, the reader can engage and share the journey, whether it is good or bad. This is where stereotypical evil villains fail – they have nothing that a reader can empathise with.

Have you found a creative way to twist your character’s life from the straight and narrow? What have you done to add that third dimension to your character’s psyche?

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Why a writer needs self-discipline – and a schedule

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Source: Stock Xchng

Well, my writing seems to be getting back on track, although it’s definitely early days yet

Last week, I decided that the time for change had come. I’d been in a quandary for a while, constantly churning out profitable short stories and novellas, but at the expense of my sequel to ‘A Construct of Angels.’

I was writing, yes, but not getting anywhere with my long-term projects. I’d released one book, but my peers were on their second, third or more and I was merely treading water. I was also upset that some indie authors had ten or even twenty books in their back catalogue

I had one – and I needed to prove to myself that it wasn’t a fluke. Not only that, but I was being (politely) nagged about my lack of progress – thanks Peter.

So changes were made. Towards the end of last week, I created ‘Angels week.’ During this time, which would repeat on the fourth week of every month, I would put aside all other projects, completed or not, to concentrate solely upon ‘A Vengeance of Angels.’ The word count for this project can be seen at the right-hand side of the page (beneath the cover for ‘Construct’). It has shown no change since I posted it there about two months ago.

Not any more.  With ‘Angels week’ in place, it should begin to grow steadily, being updated at the weeks end.

This sort of self-discipline has been long-overdue, but in my defence, I have been very busy trying to keep the wolf from the door.  Short stories write and sell quickly, novellas almost as fast. They bring in much-needed funds and cannot simply be ditched. But they are short-term and will quickly be forgotten, lost amongst the ocean of small tales that appear every week. Larger projects, such as novels, are the slow stones that grind steadily away, producing small, but steady rewards that include not only currency, but confidence, credibility and that faint sparkle of a dream that is discovery.

Another blogger commented that this confusion is fairly common amongst writers and authors as they develop their craft. They must not only find their own voice, but they also need to integrate their writing into their lives so that it neither takes over nor gets swamped and lost. The metaphor of ‘finding the right jacket’ was suggested (thanks Jon!) and it works. There is a jacket for every situation in life – and every writer needs to find one that fits and will work for their lifestyle.

Has your writing life become a muddle? Are you always starting but never finishing? Are you so busy helping others or churning out short stories and fragmented scenes that you are creating nothing in real terms?

Perhaps you need to develop an ‘Angels week’ too…or just set aside that much-needed ‘me time’ that will get your writing back on track.

Are you a ‘Secret Identity’ Author?

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SP_AL_UK mask

Do announce the existence of your writing self to the world?  Do you tell all and sundry that you are proud to call yourself writer, or author?  Or do you hide your writing-ness under a bushel, hoping that sales will continue regardless of your introversion?

Despite being a quiet sort of soul, I tell everyone what (little so far) I’ve achieved.

Many years ago, when I was working within the world of MLM (multi-level marketing), I was taught to declare my presence to everyone with whom I conversed – it could only boost sales.

Now, as an author, I had to decide what was better – to hide in a corner and just hope that my books would quietly sell, or to promote them to everyone I met at the risk of being thought a pest.

bookmark

Back in November 2012, I produced a healthy number of bookmarks using nothing more than a colour printer, a laminator and a cheap guillotine.  The result was a useful ‘hand-out’ version of Ravven’s cover artwork. 

Whenever I met someone new, I would simply ask ‘Do you read much?’  If the answer was yes, then I would pass out one, sometimes two bookmarks to promote my work.  More often than not, the recipients were happy just to receive something for free.  In most cases, they were truly interested and asked all about the novel.

It’s still interesting to see the looks on my colleague’s faces when I tell them that I’ve (self) published a novel.  They look at me as if I’d just said ‘That song that’s at Number One..I wrote that.’

*Takes a moment to bask in adulation, then returns to reality*

If you don’t tell people that you have worked your socks off for ten, twenty years, applied your time to editing, reviewing, querying agents, sending out to beta readers before finally, finally, finally seeing your work in print, then why bother publishing in the first place?  True, you may not be worried about sales and are content to see your book sell just a few each month.  I count myself as a member of that happy group – at least for now.  But it cheers me every time I see another sale – it means someone else has downloaded that which I’ve worked so hard to achieve!  

On that last point, if you haven’t yet achieved that lofty and seemingly-unattainable goal, don’t ever, ever, ever give up on your dreams.  You are so close, and deserve it so much more that those who simply threw in the towel!   Don’t just take my word for it – ask anyone who has been published or is self-published.

There’s an old saying; ‘The only guarantee in life is this; If you give up, you will achieve nothing.’

But back to the main point of the post…if you have a book or a short story that is live, let as many people as possible know about it via Twitter, WordPress, LinkedIn, Facebook etc plus word of mouth.

free advertising

I even invested in a set of magnetic signs for my works van – something that has spurred many people to ask me about them.  As soon as that happens – they get a free bookmark! :)

Even if they don’t download a copy immediately, the bookmark will linger on a desk, in a drawer or pocket for a time and might remind them at a later date, or be found by a curious family member who could then be intrigued enough to search for the story.

Other authors have produced fridge magnets and keyrings – other items that can last for years and subsequently trigger a sale.

So, don’t be afraid to put your name out there, display your cover and spread the word.

What other items of ‘swag’ have you created as a reminder that your book is ‘out there?’

Place your answers on the side of my fridge, please! :)

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Wednesday Worries

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worried

It occurred to me last night that most, if not all, writers fret about their content and I began to wonder about the whole process of worry and uncertainty.

Do natural worriers make good writers?  Do we excel at creativity because our brains are always active, imagining events that range from statistically probable to those that will never happen even in the pages of a bad novel?

My mind, sadly, seems to be on a constant drive towards pessimism.  Some days, when my fret gland is active, my Muse goes into overdrive, conjuring up a series of ‘what-if’ scenarios that leave me questioning my sanity.

For example;  I can be driving past a police car and my Muse will whisper; ‘What if they decide to pull you over?  What if some of the flour that you bought last week leaked onto the carpet?  They might think you’re a dealer and arrest you.  You could end up in a holding cell with a vicious biker gang that’s out to make a headline.  They could kill you.  By the time the police realise it’s only flour you could have lost an eye, or a limb.  And then what would happen to your writing?’

This is the point where I look my Muse directly in the eye and say;

‘Seriously – WTF?’   

She will calm down and take her meds as prescribed and become lucid for a time, but then, without warning;

‘You know how you think you turned the gas cooker off, but you’re not sure because you might be remembering turning it off yesterday and only think that you did it this morning, but you might really have forgotten and when you get home and you turn on a light, it could set off a spark and blow up the whole house?’

Me;  FFS – The house is all-electric.

Muse;  Oh.  I worry too much, don’t I?  I think I will take a tablet.

Me;  Thank you.  Please do.

Muse;  *Pauses with the tablet close to her mouth*  ‘But did you ever wonder about Lenticular clouds – you know, the ones that look like flying saucers?  What it they really were flying saucers in stealth mode and they were watching us?  And what if flying saucers weren’t aliens but visitors from our future and they want to know why it all went wrong so that they could guide us to a better tomorrow?’

Me;  Now, look…

Muse;  I know. I’m sorry.  I’ll take that tablet now.

Me;  No, no.  *searches for a pen*  Seriously, that last one is a great idea – tell me it again so that I can write it down.  It could become a novel – a series, even.  Maybe Hollywood will pounce on it and offer me millions.

Muse;  *swallows tablet* Hmm?  Sorry, what idea?

*Andy groans*

hiding face

So, is your mind naturally over-active?  Do you, as a writer, constantly ponder the (often far-reaching) consequences of your actions?  Does your Muse deliver a stream of possible and impossible scenarios – one of which might be a gem of a story?

For the sake of my sanity, I hope it does.

For your sanity, I hope it doesn’t.

Please let me know if I’m alone in this.

If I am, I will seek immediate help from the family of accupuncturist hedgehogs that live in the fairies nest at the bottom of my garden…

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Write on!

It’s all about the journey

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I’d long been an avid cynic of reality TV shows such as X Factory, Pop Idle, Big Brooder, (disparaging mis-spellings intentional) et al, citing them as simple ratings magnets that were all hype and no substance.

I’d avoid them like the cliche, eschewing Saturday night television altogether, tutting at the oft-hyped results and the acres of tabloid coverage they seemed to generate.

But little by little, weekend visits to a friend’s house resulted in the television (which seemed to have no ‘off ‘ function) drawing my eye and ear towards the (often hapless) auditionees on ‘X Factor’ and ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ every Saturday night. 

I found myself becoming intrigued, for no reason that I could fathom.  I didn’t know these people, these fame-seeking wannabes (only some of whom were quietly talented and later became successful) and yet I found myself increasingly drawn into their stories as they inched their way towards the stars.  I followed them from their earliest beginnings.  I saw their spotlight-dazzled faces as they shuffled reluctantly onto an over-large stage to croak out a few nervous bars of their favourite song.  And then I watched their eyes light up as the crowd called out its approval.

But why was I watching this IQ-sapping drivel; this thinly-disguised attempt to solicit viewers (and before you mentally compose hate-mail, please let me finish), this apparent waste of valuable writing time?

It suddenly became clear to me when I unexpectedly became hooked on yet another reality TV show – Masterchef.  

Hooked? Why?  I know nothing about food.  I can barely make mashed potato or an edible cheese sauce.  To this day I am still able to slide rock-hard frozen food onto a microwave platter with only a basic idea of why it emerges twenty minutes later as a hot, steaming meal.  I have no aspirations to create Langoustine consommé with lemon tuiles and pea puree, or to begin experimenting with molecular gastronomy (although liquid Nitrogen does look like a wonderful toy).

The chemistry of food defies my kind of logic.  It’s a pleasure to eat, true, but the assembly is an alien process to me and most likely will forever remain that way. 

But there I was, week after fascinated week, watching untrained but enthusiastic amateurs, their fumbling fingers creating elegantly-assembled dishes of confit duck on a bed of celeriac mash to Michelin-class standards.   But why?  In the name of the knife, fork and spoon, why??

Then it finally clicked.  The title of this post says it all.  It was about the journey.

We aspiring writers have very similar goals to those clumsy cooks, those shaking singers, those jittering jugglers.  We are all on the same journey of self-discovery – with the hope of our own selves being discovered.  Or our work, at least.

I realised that by watching these rising stars gain new skills and achieve undreamed-of heights, my thoughts were paralleling their journey with my own aspirations, because I hoped that I would also (one day) experience a similar journey. 

My mind had latched onto these stories in an unconscious act of self-preparation.

It may be that every individual who achieved the final three of Masterchef, X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent has already inspired me; proved to me that it IS possible to lift our (literary) voices from behind the background noise of society enough to be heard. 

Ordinary mortals like us can achieve great things.  But it takes time.  It takes a measure of confidence.  But it can require a good measure of encouragement from our peers too. 

It is perhaps because of all of this that I am mentally prepared for the next step of ePublishing, the quiet, stealthy equivalent of seeing my work in Bookers or Waterstones.  I dare to touch my toe to the chill waters of public consumption and say to them ‘nibble on that,’ whilst thinking ‘pleasedon’tbite, pleasedon’tbite!’

The journey from ‘I could write a book’ through ‘could I write a book?’ to ‘I have written a book’ is moving forward.  Who was it that said; ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’?

But where is your journey taking you? How far have you already come?

Have you been inspired by stories of success or sheer determination? 

Have you watched others climbing the ladder towards success, feeling that your journey was headed the same way?

Do you feel (particularly with ePublishing opening up new possibilities) that the impossible is now possible?

Share your story with us.  Tell us where your journey is taking you.

Write on – and encourage others to do the same in every way that you can.

  

Reader Appreciation Award

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This post has been a long time due and so, for that, I apologise.

The whirl of completing my Twelfth Draft, the decision to ePublish and the creating of my book cover scoured my brain of much of my daily to-do list.

Anyway, last month I was fortunate enough to receive a nomination for the Reader Appreciation Award, not once but twice!

Thank you Mymagical escape (I tried to find your name on your blog, but couldn’t) for this award.   I love the image – it just so happens that big, bright sunflowers are a favourite of mine.

Also, Sonya Loveday nominated me the following day, a lovely thought.

The conditions of this award seem to be similar to those of the Liebster and Lovely Blog awards.

I tried to back-track through Mymagicalescape’s nominator, Pat Wood or as I like to think of her, Caress Arborea *winks*, but I couldn’t find any specific conditions listed on her blog.

Sonya mentions that the Reader Appreciation Award Foundation stipulate six nominations, so I will do that, but add in Mymagicalescape’s format and write seven things about myself first – stuff that I haven’t already said after receiving previous nominations.

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1. I believe in Angels – just not necessarily the kind that appear in popular literature.

2. I live in the same town as Jenna Burtenshaw and have received a great deal of encouragement from her.

3.  It was my wife’s tottering stack of vampire novels that compelled me to write ‘A Construct of Angels’.

4.  Movie soundtracks inspire my writing.

5.  My ‘day job’ takes me all over the UK.  75% of the time it gifts me writing opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.

6. Currently, my favourite writing tool is my Acer Netbook.

7. I am the closest I have ever been to publishing a book and cannot quite believe it.

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Now, the nominations;

I’m supposed to nominate six bloggers for this Reader Appreciation award, so here are my choices;

1. Candace Knoebel

2. Ryan Casey

3. M D Kenning

4. Sonya Loveday

5. Carly Sarah

6. Michelle Proulx

7. Abusively Baboozan

8. Pat Wood blogging

Oops – I can’t count.  I know Candace, Sonya and Carlyysarah had already been nominated by Mymagicalescape and Pat Wood nominated her in the first place, but I love them so much, I felt compelled to repeat the nomination.

Who’s to say that I can’t?  :p

Oh, oh.  Yellow card approaching from the Reader Appreciation Award Foundation.

Enjoy, bask if you like, but don’t forget to spread the love!

 

Write on!

Do you empathise with your characters?

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Do you?

I mean really get down into the mud with them and feel their pain as if it was your own?

In this age of guts, gore and death on both the big and the small screen, it’s all too easy to sit back and munch popcorn as a larger-than-life action figure takes a bullet, then fights on to the expected victory.  The heroine, meanwhile, hangs by a single finger over a fatal drop before she is rescued in the very last instant by a strong grip around her slender wrist.

Yeah, sure he groans as the bullet buries itself in his flesh.  She shrieks as her finger slips. 

But what do they really feel?  Can you, as a writer, firstly imagine the pain, the sheer terror that these characters ought to be feeling?  And can you, secondly, convince the reader that these unfortunate, suffering characters know that a life-stopping moment is but a heartbeat away?   We are all buzzing bags of emotion, not unfeeling machines.  Readers know this – and we must deliver. 

I’ve dreamed of plunging to my death in a car, then woken in a cold, shaking sweat, hardly able to convince myself that I’d survived.  In one brief moment, I’d mentally wrapped up my life, regretted things unfinished, and wondered if non-corporeal existence or oblivion awaited me.  Then; bang;  I was a crumpled statistic – but one with an answer.  One with an edge to create better death scenes; and to recognise shallow ones.  And although it was a dream, I’d been there.  I’d actually felt it.

If you’re in any doubt that you are tuned into your characters, retire to a quiet place after you’ve written your action sequence.   Become one with your character of choice.  Climb into their skin, then re-run the action.  Hang from a stone gargoyle one hundred storeys above the city.  Plunge over a waterfall, not knowing if you’re going to see the next minute.  Switch off all the lights and spin around three times to experience some of the disorientation of being inside a darkened warehouse (but please don’t injure yourself – even if you are researching pain!).

Better still, if the geography or architecture allows, visit the closest possible parallels to your scene and lean over that edge; feel the power of the wind and water.  Picture the last seconds of your life as gravity claims its prize. 

Your character would.

Imagine how you’d feel if someone close to you went over the edge instead; feel that anger, that helplessness, that utter and permanent loss.

And relax…breathe.  Then get it down on paper / screen.

I’ve dealt largely with falls so far.  Other fates are available, naturally. 

And of course, this technique doesn’t just apply to action scenes. 

Pain is not the only emotion;

Betrayal?  Your best friend has just eloped with your significant other / taken your expensive car / smuggled out your priceless show cat.  Get angry; feel betrayed.  Just don’t call that friend until you’ve simmered down and put your hurt and anger into black-and-white.

Love?  A trickier one this, one that relies on previous experience.   Think of it as the ultimate head-and-heart battle.  Except that the head belongs to an adult, and the heart is a wanton, wailing, selfish four-year-old that (almost) always gets their way.  How wrenching would that be as an internal monologue?

Fear?  There are many shades of fear, too many to list here.  Briefly, though; Fear of death (brief pain and it’s all over – but you might leave everything unfinished); Fear of loss – what is it that you could not stand to exist without?  Fear of change; your comfort zone – obliterated.

Feel them all – no, really.  Feel them all.  And then create characters that we can really relate to – and emotions that stir our own. 

What better than a novel that takes us upon a roller-coaster ride that leaves us emotionally wrought, but thoroughly satisfied?

For further reading I’d recommend Rivet your readers with Deep POV.  Please note that I am in no way affiliated with this work  – I just found it to be instructive.

So, over to you;

What techniques do you use to get beneath your character’s skin?  

Do you perform mental walk-throughs? 

Do you research on-line for the experiences of others, or even query them face-to-face?

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