Monday, April 14, 2014

Spring-Board Your Story Idea with Character

Today's guest post is by my friend, New York Times Best Selling author, Shirley Jump!

Enjoy! (And don't forget the rafflecopter entries below.)

Spring-Board Your Story Idea with Character
By Shirley Jump

Thanks so much for having me here! I thought I’d talk about character today, because I get asked about creating characters all the time. For me, my book derives from my characters and plot at the same time, in sort of a ying-yang thing. Okay, that sounds crazy. It’s not as nut as it sounds. I swear ;-).

Lots of writers come up with an idea for a book but then aren’t quite sure where to go from there. I always start with character, and by doing that, the book becomes character driven, rather than plot driven. Character driven books are more emotional, connect more, than plot-driven stories.

For me, I have often have a What-If situation—What if a commitment phobic Coast Guard Lieutenant is suddenly saddled with two kids? What if a woman who is trying to start a new life finds out she’s walked into a money pit of a change?

Then I decide on WHO my character is. Is she a murderer? An actor? A chef? Is she the protagonist or antagonist? Is he the father of the murder victim? The doctor who diagnoses a life-threatening disease? A lot of times this vocation will come from the plot. If you’re writing a murder mystery, obviously you need a killer, a victim and a hero. If you’re writing a romance, you need a hero and a heroine who have a few conflicts between them but not so many that they can’t get together. If you’re working on a children’s story, then you need a child protagonist who goes through a life-changing event.
           
For THE SWEETHEART RULES, my latest in the Sweetheart Sisters series with Berkley, I chose a hero and a heroine who were opposites in everything from their jobs to their approach to life. Responsible single mom and veterinarian Diana has decided never to rely on a man again. Then she has a one-night stand with no-strings Coast Guard Lieutenant Mike Stark. Six months later, when Mike returns (after being saddled unexpectedly with his two daughters), she ends up having to rely on him when her life is un upheaval. So I had two great characters, with sparks between them. The next step was to figure out who each of these people were and why they were who they were.

Many things help you make these decisions. What kind of person would be thrust into this situation? And why? This can send your plotting into a 100 different directions so brainstorm on this. One of the best ways to brainstorm, and something I teach in my class on my “Brainmap” method, is the spoke and wheel. Draw one word in the center of the page (protagonist, murderer, and antagonist) then draw out lines that lead to all kinds of possibilities. Maybe the murderer is an innocent framed for the crime. Maybe it’s a desperate woman backed into a corner. Maybe it’s an accident. Maybe it’s a serial killer. Feel free to let yourself go, even if you end up with 100 ideas on the page, and come up with as many ideas as you can. Even if you don’t use all these ideas, hold on to the paper. When you get stuck later in the plot, pull this out and see where it leads you.

With THE SWEETHEART RULES, I had my heroine show a secret she is keeping at the very beginning of the book. That secret underlies every decisions she has made, and will come back to haunt her in several different ways. Then I figured out why she would keep such a secret, and what toll it has taken on her life and her relationships.

Third, you need to name your character. For me, I like names that have meaning. I have a baby name book I use to look up meanings, derivatives and nicknames. In THE SWEETHEART RULES, I wanted names that showed their characters. Dependable, reliable Diana and sexy, charming Mike seemed to fit well!

Fourth, create a character “bible.” This can come from a character interview, from your own thoughts, however you want to develop it. The character bible is comprised of the simple stuff - eye color, hair color, etc. But also tackle the bigger issues -- what happened to this character as a child? What is he or she afraid of? What’s his worst habit? Greatest trait? Biggest weakness? How does he feel about his parents/ pets? Last girlfriend? All of these things become fodder for great, well-developed characters. For THE SWEETHEART RULES, this became even more vital because it’s part of a three-book series, and I needed to keep everything and everyone straight.

These are the kids of details that give characters life. One of my first rejection letters praised my writing up and down but aid that my characters didn’t breathe and live on the page. I had no idea what this meant at the time, but learned later how to pump life into people on a page.

How do I do it? I filter EVERYTHING through that character’s past. When my character looks out the window at a tree, there is a memory associated with that tree, a memory that impacts on the plot, and that makes the tree and the moment with the character have ten times more meaning.

Characters shouldn’t be static -- they should have past habits, annoying traits, likes and dislikes, etc. Those are the little details that make them as real as the neighbor you don’t like or the favorite aunt you love. And creates books that readers love!

If you pick up THE SWEETHEART RULES, I hope you’ll share with me your favorite character! If not, tell me: Who was the most memorable character you read about? What made them so interesting? What kind of traits do you love in heroes and heroines?

If you love THE SWEETHEART RULES, it here or in a bookstore near you! And read an awesome review here, if you’re so inclined :-)

Don’t forget to enter the giveaway, too!

Shirley

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days writing romance and women's fiction to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. She cleverly finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners.

Look for her Sweet and Savory Romance series, including the USA Today bestselling book, THE BRIDE WORE CHOCOLATE, on Amazon and Nook, and the debut of her Sweetheart Club series for Berkley, starting with THE SWEETHEART BARGAIN in September 2013.

Visit her website at www.shirleyjump.com or read recipes and life adventures at www.eating-my-words.com.


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Monday, April 7, 2014

Has to do a lotta things

I read an article the other day about how the "next" generation doesn't like watches. "They only do one thing," a kid in the article was quoted as saying. If he wants to know the time, he looks at his phone. Which does lots and lots of things.

Ah. I get it.

Because your story has to do the same thing...Work on several levels. So do your characters. In fact, so do your scenes.

Nobody wants one-dimensional.

HER SUMMER WITH THE MARINE is the story of a woman coming to terms with her father's death, as she inserts herself back into the small town she'd thought she'd left behind for good, makes friends, runs a funeral home...falls in love. At the same time, it's the story of a guy rescuing his mom, who loves life and people, who likes to win, falling for the last person he should want...his high school nemesis. He learns that friendship isn't just about him "being there" for others...it's about letting go and letting someone be there for him.

The story "works" on several levels. The characters are multidimensional. And if I did my job the scenes do more than push the story forward. They also display character, show character growth, give readers a sense of small town life, and, read one after the other, tell a story.

The next time you look at your watch, think about your scenes, your characters, your story...Are they doing more than just tell time? :)

Happy Monday...and Happy Reading...

susan meier

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Guest Blog -- Barbara Wallace -- Enter via Rafflecopter (at bottom) to win prizes!

I'm participating in a spring blog hop with the CHOCOLATE BOX WRITERS! So For a little change of pace this week, we have more than one blog. This morning's is friend, Barbara Wallace, Seven Tips for Aspiring Writers

If you're looking for my Monday blog on digging deeper...just scroll down.

Enjoy!


Seven Tips for Aspiring Writers
Don’t chase trends.  Ignore talk about what’s hot and what’s selling.  Chances are, by the time you perfect your manuscript, the trends will have shifted.  Focus on writing a good book, not a marketable one.
Hone your voice.  So often I read unpublished manuscripts where the writer attempted to emulate her favorite author.  As a result, the manuscript is often technically perfect, but lacking spark.  As much as you might love their books, there can only be one Kristan Higgins or Ruthie Knox.  Be yourself.  Don’t be an imitation of someone else. 
Finish your book.  Sigh.  If I had a nickel for all the times writers drop a story because they got bored halfway through.  Or spent their energy honing the first three chapters as though writing a proposal.  I’ve got one word for you.  STOP!  The only sure way to publish a book is to have an entire book.  Similarly,
Understand the difference between a finished manuscript and a publishable manuscript.  The dark side of self-publishing is that it’s led some authors to believe that simply writing a book qualifies them for publication.  Not every book deserves to be in print.  I know – I have a half dozen books on my computer that will never EVER see the light of day.  Nor should they.  Be ruthless about your craft, and be honest with yourself. 
Accept rejection and failure as inevitable.  Everyone stumbles.  Falling down is part of the learning process.  What falling down isn’t, however, is a judgment on you as a writer or as a person.  Learn from your mistakes, and grow.

Never stop learning your craft.  Too often, I go to writers conferences only to find the hallways filled with new authors networking.  Meanwhile, there are bestselling authors sitting in the front row of the craft sessions taking notes.  The best writers know that learning never ends.  Strive to be one of those writers. 

Barbara Wallace


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Monday, March 31, 2014

Digging Deep

I decided not to write this weekend. I needed to give my brain a bit of a break and to houseclean because...well, things were looking bad. :)

But, as always happens with a  writer, once I stopped thinking about my book, I began to get tons of inspirations. Enough that I constantly found myself running for a pen and paper (as I vacuumed and steamed the floors) and eventually I just put a notebook and pen on the kitchen table so I wouldn't miss a good idea.

What was coming to me so fast and furious?

Ideas about my characters. Not how they looked or the ping of sparkle that came to their gleaming white teeth. But things about them I hadn't realized last week as I was furiously writing toward my 3000 words per day goal.

For instance, Laura Beth, the heroine, is the third heroine of a three-book series about friends who graduate college and move to NYC to become big-time career women. Heroines 1 and 2 find themselves (where they belong in the career world) and love...leaving poor Laura Beth in the dust. This impacts lots of her decisions. But even after the decisions are made, she's still living with the sting of failing while her two friends have succeeded.

She doesn't want to return to Kentucky, so she takes a low level job in Italy that comes with room and board. At first she's so excited to be in Italy, on her own, working to get herself together in this low level job that feels like a reprieve, that she forgets her issues...but I can't! I'm the author. It's MY JOB to stir up trouble for her.

The hero was a foster child, whose wealthy father found him five years ago, just when he was breaking out as a painter -- not house painter, artist. :) Everything happened fast for him. His dad found him. He became famous. He became rich. He entered a whole new circle of friends, married a super model, built a big house...became accustomed to servants and jets and limos...

Then he discovered his wife was cheating on him right before she was killed in a plane crash. He didn't actually lose everything, but suddenly he wonders if any of it matters anymore.

I think you can easily see how his "big picture" troubles kept me from thinking about "the little things" that would give the story depth. There should be times in the story when the hero breaks down and tells the heroine about his foster child past. He should tell her that though he loves the father who finally tracked him down, he is angry that when his mother told his father about her pregnancy the wealthy old coot kicked her out of his office. Constanzo could have saved them a lifetime of pain if, for once in his life, he would have listened. I can't let his status as widow take over. There's more to this guy than just a dead wife. <3 p="">
And what about her? Why is it so important she succeed in New York? What happened to her? Olivia and Eloise, the heroines from the first two books had terrible pasts. Laura Beth comes from a loving family...why is she so driven?

Pausing to clean my house didn't merely cause these questions and realities to tiptoe into my brain, they made me think harder, dig deeper, find those things that will cause readers to gasp or to feel the characters' pain.

So if your house is neat as a pin, take a walk. LOL But take a pencil and paper with you. Because even when you think you know everything there is to know about your characters, a trip through their pasts might just net you that one emotional event or experience that can turn your story on its ear...or give you the connection you need to make with readers to give them a truly remarkable experience.

Happy Monday...And happy reading!

susan meier

Monday, March 24, 2014

Characters

I've been writing a workshop for the multi-genre writer's group, Pennwriters' annual conference in May. (See: Pennwriters.org for more info.) I'm doing two workshops. One on Characters and one on writing a 3-book series.

As I was working on the one for Characters, it struck me that well-structured character actions and reactions can make some of the most beautiful writing.

Nora Roberts is my favorite when it comes to writing that draws me in. I even use an example from one of her books VISION IN WHITE to show how actions can not just move a scene along; they can also get in description less clumsily.

Just as they reached the door, it opened. The man who stepped out wore an open coat, no hat, gloves or scarf. The wind immediately kicked the dark hair around his ridiculously handsome face. One glance at Mac had his well-cut lips curving and his sea-at-midnight eyes lighting.
   “Hey Macadamia.” He hoisted her up by the elbows, smacked a kiss to her lips...

What do we see there? 1. The person described doesn't react to cold. LOL 2. He has blue eyes and black hair and is handsome…yet never once does NR say…his eyes were blue…She gets those descriptions into action. 3. Subtext…he knows her. He likes her. He teases her…he calls her macadamia. A nut! LOL

Nora Roberts USES physical description and action to tell us a great deal about the character’s personality. But also to inform us about the relationship, even as she moves the story along.

Genius. 

Physical description is important in terms of making sure the character’s physical characteristics match their part in the story, but the way you present it can do double duty if you can tuck the description into an action or reaction. If your protagonist is ugly, for instance, people are going to react to that. If he’s handsome, same deal. If he’s average, the very fact that they don’t react can play into your story.

USE EVERYTHING.

But also notice how Nora Roberts's paragraph flows. There's no story stoppage. (We interrupt this scene to give you an important description! LOL) Instead we are drawn in. We are in the moment with the characters.

That's good characterization and good writing. :)

Happy Monday...And happy reading.

susan meier


Monday, March 17, 2014

What to do when you're stuck

Yesterday, I woke, had coffee, watched some of the news...I can't function if I see too much bad news, so I monitor my daily intake. If I could do this with food, I'd be skinny.

Anyway, it was a normal day. I read through the first 2 chapters of a new proposal and loved them...just could have squeezed and hugged them, but when I read chapter three it fell flat. It shouldn't have. Everything was there. But it didn't read right. And suddenly I realized it wasn't the book...that chapter. It was me. My brain was so tired from everything I had done for PR for HER SUMMER WITH THE MARINE, that I could skim the first 2 chapters and pronounce them good (because I'd been over them 8,000 times) but the chapter I'd just drafted was mush because my brain was mush.

I immediately stepped away from the computer. Why? I didn't want to make things worse. I've been through this before and I know sometimes the worst thing to do is to push through when you don't have anything to give your story.

So what did I do...and why did I wake up feeling like writing today?

First, I considered my options. Work had caused the deadness of brain...so even if I worked on blogs or workshops rather than my book, I wouldn't heal my tired brain.

Then I considered housework. Menial tasks always revive my brain, but yesterday scrubbing the sink just wasn't doing it for me.

Then I realized I needed to do something for me. Something different. Something fun. So we rented CATCHING FIRE, bought popcorn and lazed around in our pj's all day, while eating popcorn.

But at the end of the day I also remembered something my trainer always tells me. Sometimes when you're emotionally or mentally exhausted you need to move. So I put on my new blueberry tennis shoes and went off to zumba class.

What are the takeaways?

When you are too tired to think, you can do your manuscript a great disservice. So ...

1. Step away. Get so far away from the computer that you can't even see it!
2. Give yourself options. Normally housekeeping is my go-to mundane activity to heal my brain. Yesterday, it wasn't cutting it. Why? I think because it was still part of a routine. And my brain wanted something different. My something different and your something different could be two totally different things. Some people like bubble baths. Some people shop. Some people eat out. There are lots of things you can do to rest your brain. Write a list of 20, give yourself choices so you really will rest your brain.
3. Once you've decided what you're going to do...throw yourself into it. Forget your book. (Buy the popcorn!)
4. Remember to move. My trainer is a very smart woman. She can take one look at me and know when I need to push physically to help myself mentally. If you don't belong to a gym and/or don't have lots of workout tapes, ride your bike, take a walk, run up and down your stairs! LOL Do something to get the blood flowing.

And most of all #5...don't be mad at yourself for needing a day off. I usually work six days a week. Lately, I've been working seven. How fair is that to my poor brain?

Taking a day off rather than pushing can usually reap the reward of a fully cooperative brain the next morning. It worked for me. :) Don't push yourself so much that you hit that wall that totally stops you...maybe for a long time.

Happy reading...

Oh, and don't forget HER SUMMER WITH THE MARINE will only be $.99 for one more week. Then it's up to full price. So get it while it's hot! LOL

susan meier