I’m working on a story that’s decided to set itself in Baltimore. I’ve never been to Baltimore, so in the interest of research I started watching The Wire. While my characters aren’t nearly as hardcore as those on the show, it’s been a great showcase of an often overlooked part of American life.
If you’ve never seen The Wire, it follows two storylines: that of a unit of the Baltimore PD trying to bring down a drug empire, and that of the leaders and minions of the empire. It’s a gritty show that doesn’t shy away from violence, and without giving any spoilers, it’s best not to become attached to any characters because no one is untouchable on this show.
I watched an interview with one of the creators, who talked about the decision to kill off a popular character in the third season. This character was a favorite, although he was also beyond reprehensible. The creator basically said that killing off the character was best for the story (which I agree with), and to keep him alive would be only to do so for the sake of the character, not the story.
I thought about that with my own stories. I’ve killed a lot of characters, some of whom readers wanted left alive because they liked the character, but as a writer I need to do what the story calls for. And sometimes that means killing off a character.
Readers, how do you feel when a character you like gets killed off?
I’m currently in that fun part of the doctoral student process where I’m writing my comprehensive exam – a big 75-page paper that demonstrates I’m an expert in my field and deserve to stay in the program. My focus is on trauma-informed care and education.
Trauma-informed care basically boils down to 2 things: realizing people have experienced crappy things in life, and then giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is NOT about making excuses for behavior, but rather finding an alternative way to get the same results you expect for everyone else.
There are quite a few types of trauma. Each one has a different cause, although they can all have similar results.
BIG CAVEAT: Not everyone who experiences trauma will react to it the same way. Some people are affected and some aren’t. It basically comes down to resiliency (although my argument is that if so many students have experienced – or are experiencing – trauma, why don’t we just change how the education system reacts to it, rather than telling kids to suck it up or get over it – which is kinda what teaching resiliency comes down to).
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration focuses on “three E’s” of trauma: event, experience of the event, and effect. Specifically, “Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”
Within that definition, there’s a lot of room for variability.
Acute trauma – one single event. A house burning down, getting mugged or raped, witnessing your parents’ murder in an alley when you’re supposed to be enjoying the theater.
Chromic trauma – exposure to multiple events. Interesting fact: chronic poverty has the same neurological effect on kids as combat does on military personnel.
Complex trauma – exposure to multiple events over time, but of an interpersonal nature. Domestic violence and child abuse falls into this category.
Identity trauma – trauma that effects an entire group, because of how they identify (also known as historical or collective trauma). The Holocaust falls into this group, as does genocide against the Native Americans. It often manifests in cultural stories, practices, and beliefs.
Continuous or ongoing traumatic stress – chronic or complex or identity trauma, but it’s still happening and there’s no way to escape it. For example, people trapped in a war zone with no way to escape it.
Secondary trauma – the response to witnessing or hearing about someone else’s trauma. A huge issue for caregivers and teachers, especially if they’re not prepared for it.
Writers love to throw trauma at their characters, and readers seem to love it too. What types of trauma do your characters face? What types do you prefer to read about?
I write a lot of character-driven stories, and so I’m always on the lookout for ways to focus on characters’ motivation and thought processes. I’ve recently come across a term, stuck points, that really fits with my works.
My research focus in my PhD program is trauma’s role in education. As such, I’m taking a lot of classes and workshops focusing on a trauma-informed perspective – realizing that there’s a good chance anyone you meet and work with has experienced some kind of trauma that affects their perceptions and behaviors, and therefore changing your own perceptions and behaviors to meet them where they are.
One of the methods used to treat trauma is cognitive processing therapy (CPT), which focuses on reframing people’s perceptions of what they experienced. And a major component of this is stuck points.
Stuck point = a thought that keeps someone from recovering from a bad/traumatic experience.
Often times, stuck points develop because someone’s old way of thinking doesn’t fit with what happened to them. It builds on the just world theory that bad things only happen to bad people – so if something bad happens to you, you must be a bad person.
Stuck points are often a black and white exaggeration, using terms like “everyone” or “no one,” “always” or “never.”
Stuck points can focus on the past – “If I’d done X, then Y would’ve happened instead of Z” – or they can focus on the present – “No one will ever love me” or “I’ll never be able to trust again.”
“My parents split up because I was a bad kid.” – focusing on his crappy childhood
“If I’d been a better partner, my relationships wouldn’t have ended badly.” – focusing on past relationships
“If I’d trained my soldiers better, they wouldn’t have been killed.” – focusing on his military experience
“I don’t deserve to have a happily ever after.” – the summation of all his other stuck points.
Sometimes there’s truth in stuck points. For example, if Andrew had been a better partner, maybe his relationships wouldn’t have ended – but maybe they still would have. What happened wasn’t entirely his fault, and he shouldn’t keep beating himself up over it.
As characters grow over the course of the story, they can move past these stuck points to become a healthy character (or go from a healthy character to having stuck points). Either way, it makes for a great, character-driven story.
What stuck points do your characters have? Are they able to resolve them?
My first novel, Yours to Keep or Throw Aside (previously released as The Lone Wolf), came out a couple years ago. After hearing about it, I’ve had several people tell me, “I’m not a big reader, but I’ve been thinking about writing a book too. I have a really great idea.” Which is great, but….
Before I go any further, watch this video.
It’s been said that for every overnight success, no one saw all their late nights and early mornings. Writing is no exception. It’s hard work, and it take a lot of time.
Here are the things I think are necessary to write a publishable book:
I’ve been an avid reader since I was five (25+ years), and I read everything – fiction and nonfiction, children and adult, Nobel laureates and NY Times bestsellers, US and international, classics and modern, literary and fluff, genre – you name a category, and I’ve read something in it. I’ve taught high school literature and analyzed it in college lit classes. So, I think it’s fair to say I have a good idea of what’s out there, what works and what doesn’t, and why. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
2. Develop your writing skills.
I’m currently a PhD student and I’ve worked as a professional researcher in several fields, meaning I’ve written a lot of analysis/explanatory papers, some of which I’ve won awards for. And I’ve taught writing at the high school level, so I think it’s fair to say I have well-developed writing skills. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to write a book.
I wrote one anyways, for NaNoWriMo ’09. And, it sucked. It sucked bad. I’d like to revisit it someday, but as for now it’ll stay locked away.
3. Get feedback from people you don’t know, who know what they’re talking about.
I kept writing, though. In October 2010, after eight months of writing, I finished the first draft of Yours to Keep or Throw Aside. Yay me! It was good, but I knew it wasn’t good enough. So I joined FOUR online writing groups (and I’ve since joined a local in-person writing group and a local writing association). Two were worthless and provided absolutely no feedback. One was filled with people who said it was great, and would I please tell them how great theirs were too so they could win a popularity contest? The fourth, Scribophile, ripped the novel apart. Not only were there story and character issues, but the writing was subpar – POV mistakes, filter words, telling instead of showing, too many tags and adverbs. And you know what? They were right.
4. Learn more about the craft of writing.
So I set out to learn about what I was doing wrong. I read books on writing. I follow a couple dozen blogs about writing. I read about what to do, and what not to do, and billions of examples and explanations of each. I talked to other writers. I’ve attended writing workshops.
I also wrote (and continue to write) short stories. While the depth is minuscule compared to a whole novel, it’s a great way to try out techniques, hone your voice, and finesse your understanding of the language.
5. REVISE, then Revise, then revise again. When you’re done with that, revise.
Armed with all that knowledge, I rewrote my novel. I got more feedback. I rewrote it again. I got more feedback. I nitpicked with edits for two years until finally I was ready to send it out into the big scary world.
6. Learn about the publishing industry.
While I’d been editing, I’d also been reading up on the publishing industry. I’d tested the waters with short stories, both with publishers and self-publishing. So when it came time to send queries, I knew who to send them to, what to say in them, and what to expect in reply.
When people tell me they want to write a book, but they don’t like reading, and they’ve never written anything other than stories in elementary school and short papers in high school, and they don’t know anything about their audience or the publishing industry, and can I put in a good word with my publisher for them? – the answer is NO.
It’s not that I’m trying to be mean. I think everyone has great (and not so great) ideas for books, and these people are no exception. But they need to put in the work, because writing a book involves much more than an idea.
Writers – what’s your experience with publishing? Any points you’d add to my list?
This year I got involved in the local NaNoWriMo group, which we’ve decided to keep going throughout the year. While I didn’t come close to finishing, many people hit the 50k mark and were wondering what the next step is. I recently presented the following information; hopefully you’ll find it useful too.
NaNo’s Over – Now What?
Before you even think about publishing…
Self-edit your manuscript.
Length – is it long enough according to industry standards?
Show vs. tell – if your book were a movie, would you rely on the actors or voiceovers to convey emotions and plot points? (BUT you don’t need every detail)
Plot, subplots, and themes – identify these and make sure that everything in your story relates to them. Take out or rewrite scenes and characters that don’t fit
Find someone who will give you constructive feedback on what works and what doesn’t in regard to theme, characters, plot, etc.
NOTE: your mom/significant other/best friend will generally not be objective or specific.
Repeat steps #1-3, as many times as necessary.
Line edits (no point until you have a well-written manuscript)
Grammar, I-bombs, filter words, repetition, etc.
Consider hiring an editor because spell check is not enough!
Generally selling exclusive first rights
Not published elsewhere – non-password protected sites Google/anyone can access (your website)
Generally less than 10% public is okay – snippets, 1st chapter
No matter what option, you’ll be doing the majority of the marketing
You do all the work (or hire someone) but maintain allcontrol.
$ = as much as you want to spend
Smashwords, Book Baby, Kindle, Createspace, Lulu, etc
You pay someone to publish your book on their terms
$ = generally thousands of dollars, plus you pay inflated rates for your own books
Tate, Publish America, generally any company that solicits you
Someone does all the work and pays you (flat rate or royalties; advance)
$ = generally nothing but depends on contract
Big Five – generally 15% royalties, need an agent
Indie/small press – higher royalties (30-50%), don’t need an agent
Find an agent who does your genre or a small press. Pay attention to books/authors you like to see who they use. Follow industry people’s blogs and on Twitter.
Send a query exactly as instructed – 200-word blurb, first x pages or chapters.
Repeat ad nauseum – expect dozens of rejections/nonresponses.
Mix of self-publishing and traditional
Whatever works for you – varies from writer to writer, story to story
Essential no matter how you publish
Relationships, not advertising – do NOT spam!
Polite to follow back but don’t feel obligated to become king/queen of [platform] – better to have engaged, interested followers than high numbers.
Best engagement – ask questions people can answer, then respond
Follow people you find interesting – agents, writers, celebs, etc
Try to tweet at least once a day – something interesting, not necessarily always about writing
All about engagement – retweets, favorites, responding
Hashtags to get noticed: #amwriting, #amediting, #amreading; be creative
Author page – people can like it, can’t see their info; easy to separate from personal
Author account – friends with fans, can see their info and they see yours; technically not allowed to have 2 accounts
Easier to have conversations
FB limits who sees your page posts unless you pay; 10x more views for FBTwitter than TwitterFacebook, so try to use 140 character posts
Not as popular (yet?)
Essential central spot to send people who may not be on FB, Twitter, etc.
Consider buying your own domain – looks more professional
Bio – same for everywhere (long and short versions) + 1 pic for everywhere
Novel/stories – titles, novel summaries, covers, publication dates, links to full text or place to buy
Contact info – form/email address, mailing list, social media links
If you have one, update regularly: daily, weekly, monthly, whatever works for you
Blogger, Weebly, Wix, WordPress.com (free but limited customization), WordPress.org (on your own host; more flexibility)
If you’ve published, is there anything you’d like to add to this? If you’re an aspiring author, is there anything you need clarification on? Let me know in the comments!
As an aside – one of the great things about networking with other authors is that they often give you free ARCs (advanced reader copies) of their upcoming books to review. I’ll be looking for some ARC readers in late October for my novel, The Lone Wolf, due out in December. If you’re interested, please sign up for my mailing list (link on the left) for details.
The book is a companion to her Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Part one walks writers through the basic structure of a 3-act story, from writing a strong opening hook, setting the tone and defining the setting, to writing an ending that readers will love.
Part two focuses on scene development. She delves into Randy Ingermanson‘s scene/sequel (action/reaction) idea, expanding on it with ideas for scene disasters, conflicts, dilemmas, and decisions, as well as variations that still work in the context of a structured scene.
Part three is about structuring your sentence – about what makes prose good. This for me was the most helpful section and what I’d be most likely to refer to other writers. She covers participles and parallelism (a huge thing for me), run-ons and fragments, as well as how to get rid of stuff you don’t need, like modifiers and filter words.
Throughout the book, Weiland gives detailed examples from movies and books, as well as coming back to the same four in every chapter: Pride and Prejudice, It’s a Wonderful Life, Ender’s Game, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. It’s her examples that really make this book useful; it’s one thing to tell us about a concept, but much better to show us through real-life examples.
Overall, this is probably one of the most helpful writing books I’ve read, and one I definitely want on my shelf.
One of the recurring comments I receive on my stories is that I have good dialogue. It’s natural; it’s nuanced; it flows just right.
But that’s not what real dialogue sounds like.
As an example, here’s a brief snippet of a statement I recently transcribed at work.
Q. What did the job consist of?
A. It was, uh, a downstairs, and we, and then he wanted an upstairs in this garage. For her weight-lifting or exercise room, and. So it was a pretty good-sized garage. And then, uh, we, we build that. And then [he] gave us a choice, to go hire somebody to do the roof and the soffit.
“How do you even find anything in here, Gene?” I asked him for the hundredth time, as I moved a dusty box of file folders over to my desk. “Nothing’s alphabetized or in the client database.”
Gene Lancaster shrugged his massive shoulders and leaned back in his chair, which creaked tiredly beneath his weight. “I made do just fine, missy, before you came on in here.”
Our secretary-slash-paralegal Loretta rolled her eyes. “I, for one, appreciate the efforts you’re making, Abby. Even if Mr. Lancaster don’t.”
“Hush now.” He waved his hand at her, batting away her words. “This whole system worked just fine for my daddy, and I reckon it’s good enough for me. And for Miss Big City, too.” He nodded in my direction.
“Your daddy? You ain’t half the lawyer he was.” Loretta had worked with Gene’s father, back when it was still Lancaster & Lancaster, instead of Lancaster & Empty Spot. “Your daddy, the real Mr. Lancaster, why, he was the best lawyer our county ever seen.”
“I told you to hush, woman.” He caught me grinning at their exchange, which I still found amusing despite hearing a version of it several times a day.
She ignored him, like usual. ‘You remember that case he had with old Mr. Myers?”
Gene slapped his knee. “Sure do. Old George was heading home from the VFW, lit to the gills, and smashed into Sheriff Tate’s car.”
See the lack of correct grammar in the first one? The stuttering, correcting, repeating? The vernacular and slang? And then compare it to the second one. The key to realistic dialogue is finding a balance between conversational tone and moving the conversation forward. If a sentence doesn’t make sense, cut out the parts that don’t make sense. If a character is repeating himself, cut out the repetition.
If you write, what are your tips for realistic dialogue? As a reader, what bugs you most about the dialogue you read?
Duotrope: subscription-based listing of 4000+ places to submit short stories and poems; gives stats on each publication such as time until response, pay rate, acceptance rate, etc. Definitely worth the price.
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