Wednesday, July 29

A Writer, A Character and A Reader: A Different Sort of Trilogy

By Bonnie Randall

Special Guest Author

This meme is so true: in order to create quality prose we need to craft, project a unique character’s voice, and review our own work from the objective stance of a reader. A tall order, this prescribed trinity, yet with even more broad-strokes implications than just the confines of our current WIPs. In order to best serve a writing career, an author needs to invoke this Holy Trinity all the time.

As in:

1. Be The Writer

Obviously. But do more than just write the project that’s in front of you. In addition to that, embrace the way you perceive the world as prose and write everything. Write constantly. Write whenever and whatever strikes you.If something you see jolts a line of prose in your head, write it down because:

a) The more you write, the better you get.

b) The more you write, the more your brain will (yes: literally) get used to writing and do it reflexively. (Don’t believe me? Consider the last good—or bad—habit you picked up. It started by repetitive practice, didn’t it? And now it’s part of the fabric of your life).

c) Writing always, about everything, will teach you what you love to write about the most. So keep the lines of prose and random vignettes you generate. Review them from time to time and pluck the common denominators or themes from your own inspirations. In doing so you will discover your voice, discover your passion, and may even discover your genre (or the genre you should be writing).

d) Writing will beget the also-excellent habit of self-editing. The vignettes and lines you keep—review them. Put them through the rigors of reworking by using strong verbs, strong nouns, few adjectives and adverbs. Remember: writing is an art practiced yet never perfected (thanks be to the Writing Gods)

2. Be The Character

As you go about your day-to-day life, acknowledge that while you would order the oatmeal and wheat toast from the breakfast menu, your hero would get _____. You drive an SUV, but what about your protag? Antag? You have your ‘Top 10 Tracks’ on your iPod. What does your hero listen to? Maybe he doesn’t listen to music at all. You have a set of dress clothes—but what would your character consider to be ‘dressing up’? In Sheila Connolly’s cozy Museum Mysteries series, her main character Nell dresses up to go to dinner—then reflects that her dress clothes don’t look much unlike her work clothes. Hmm. A little detail that says a lot about her perception and priorities.

Force yourself to exist within the skin of your character and consider life through his/her lens—then fold some of these incidental details into the text of your manuscript, little layers that will expand the character into a living, breathing, idiosyncratic human being whose choices and interpretation of stakes will then enlarge and deepen your plot—all because they will be so congruent and consistent with the unique personality you’ve crafted.

3. Be the Reader

Read your own material? Absolutely. Review today’s work tomorrow morning with fresh eyes and renewed objectivity. Re-read your finished manuscript six weeks after its completion so you’re better equipped to edit with ice equal to the fire with which you wrote it in the first place.

Beyond that, read others’ work, trying always to make a habit of reading authors who are better than you. Reflect on what your favorite writers do to pull you in again and again, knowing that what works for them can be learned by you. Pay particular attention to how other writers manage elements in stories that you find tricky. Do you struggle with transitions? Wooden dialogue? Telling vs. showing re: descriptions? Examine how others execute these components and (going back to directive #1) be The Writer again, crafting vignettes to practice these skills.

Read for pleasure but read as an analyst too.
Read to see how someone navigates language with a skill set different than yours, and collect techniques as you go. Watch what works and why. Pay attention. Take notes.

Read outside your preferred genre.
I’m not a huge fantasy fan, yet recently read The Library At Mount Char by Scott Hawkins and was blown away. The entire novel is phenomenally crafted, but what’s most impressive is how Hawkins routinely injects wry and sometimes even absurdist humor into some of the grimmest and most gruesome fiction I’ve ever read. I was so taken with his skill that I read some scenes over and over, reflecting on how and why it all worked so well.

Read biographies.
They make for excellent research and are often written in such informal voice you feel the author is sitting having a coffee with you (a style, incidentally, which you can employ with your fictional characters, to given their dialogue a natural cadence and rhythm).

Read the news.
It will keep you informed so that your fiction is built on current interests that are compelling today’s reader. The news can inspire stories, and yes I know that sounds callous—yet consider this: people love to make sense out of the nonsensical or the tragic. They want to understand the characters behind the crimes. A great example of art imitating the headlines is certainly the long-running series Law & Order. Or the excellent novel We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, about a school shooter and what ‘built’ his monstrousness. So yes, read the news and let it inform your fiction and prompt stories—like your version of the decades-long disappearances along the Highway of Tears in British Columbia, Canada. Or your take on the mysterious and darkly absurd feet that keep washing ashore in Vancouver. Or the true identity of the toddler found in the garbage bag in New England, a little soul who no one seems to know.

Write. Read. Assume the identity of your character(s). These crucial components will lift your fiction into becoming the best it can be.

Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls.

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  1. Great advice. I especially vouch for the distance one needs to take after completing a work.

    1. I'm exacting that distance right now and It's. Killin'. Me. (But the lack of objectivity would kill me more) ;)

  2. Love this take on it! A simple and fun way to explain why we need to wear all three hats.

    1. Thanks! It really is that simple - and that difficult! (Such is writing *groan*)

  3. Great advice! I love how you state that the writer has to be the reader as well. I'm writing a journal for writers about how to be a writer and what to expect. Your ideas are similar to mine. I looked on your website and I did not see where I was able to follow your blog. Also are you on twitter? If so, please follow me @KrystolDiggs

    1. Hi Krystol! Reading is crucial to almost any endeavor, I think. I am not on twitter, but here is the link to my blog

    2. ....and the link to my facebook page! Best to you with the writer's journal you are crafting!

  4. Excellent post, Bonnie! I found your 2nd point--Be Your Character--especially insightful; my tri-lead protags **NEVER** shut up some days, but this could be because I don't see myself in their "Day of the Life Of _______" often enough. Points one and three--Be the Writer and Be the Reader--are fantastic. Especially hard in being the reader: I sometimes find myself so engrossed in what I'm reading, I forget why I'm reading in the first place and have to pull myself out of the tale/story/news-piece, etc., to remind myself this.

    Great piece! Thank you (and big thanks to Janice for this guest post!)

    ~ Missye

    (@MKClarkeWrites if anyone wishes to follow on Twitter).

    1. Thank you, Missye, I struggle with the reader part too and often find sometimes I end up reading a book twice (or very slowly) because it's like looking at it through two different lenses, isn't it? - that of the reader whisked away by a great story, and that of the analyst, tearing it apart and examining WHY it's a great story.
      Thanks so much for the feedback :)

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