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Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Deep Character Development: Show Don’t Tell



Deep Character Development: Show Don’t Tell


We’ve all heard that little pearl of wisdom, haven’t we? And in theory, we understand that it’s the author’s job to reveal a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue and action as opposed to exposition…but rarely do I find a more practical explanation of how to do that. So in the interest of deep character development, I’m going to tell you about my experiences with one character in particular in the hopes that it will shed some light on the tired old “show don’t tell” conversation.



Nikita Baskin


Nikita is a character from my Sons of Rome series, first introduced in White Wolf, and a character of whom I’m immensely proud. He’s the product of years of writing, and six years, specifically, of published writing.

He started, as all my characters do, with a baseline identity that I then added to and built into something three dimensional. To start, I knew that Nikita was three things: Russian, a member of the secret police, and also, secretly, a White (one of those Russians loyal to the deposed and then murdered tsar). These three main identifiers were the foundation of my research; I needed to understand what it meant to be Russian, what it meant to be a Chekist, and what it meant to be a White, and then fuse this information into a character profile. Because he was a White, I knew that he hated his Communist masters, and the government in general. And because it was 1942, and he was gainfully employed as a Chekist, he was going to have to play the long game, and do a lot of things that turned his stomach in order to get by. He was Russian, after all, and a survivor. An ace at playing the long game. When we first meet Nikita, he’s a man living a double life, and struggling beneath the weight of that mantle. He’s someone who feels deeply, and pretends not to, who burdens himself with guilt after guilt after guilt.

Once I know a character, then it’s time to decide how to reveal them piece by piece to the audience so that they can come to know them too. For me, the goal is to be explicit with details, but subtle with the meaning delivered by them. So with Nikita:

·         His failure to eat isn’t forgetfulness. Between anxiety, low blood sugar, and the weight of a guilty conscience, he tends to skip meals intentionally. He beats himself up, figuratively, and one of the ways he does this is to deny himself the things he wants or even needs. (And oh boy is that going to be an ongoing conversation that comes to a head in book four, featuring a certain wolf)



·         His coldness is a way to distance himself from others. He’s lost people, and he hates it, so he resolves not to get emotionally attached…an effort which always fails spectacularly.



·         Being a White isn’t, for him at least, so much a political leaning as it is a way for him to justify the things he’s done. Does he truly support the Romanov family? Yes. But more than that, his secret identity provides an excuse for the terrible things he’s done in the name of the Kremlin. He can justify the evil if he thinks that he’s waiting to make his move and turn the tide. And he can tell himself that when he does make that move, it will be to topple a government that will be made better by a return of a tsar. This is part of the reason it hurts him so badly to meet Alexei and find out he’s kind of…a little shit.

All of these things are revealed through the course of the book, one event, and one revelation at a time. Showing the audience his heart and mind in this way creates a portrait of a man that is more human being than archetype, and that for me is always the ultimate goal.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Deep Character Analysis Contd.: Lit Analysis



Literary Analysis


So there’s this gap. It’s a gap that exists between wanting to do something and actually being able to do it with any kind of authority. It’s a gap that exists at the outset of every artistic/athletic/professional journey, and it’s a gap that we must bridge with a combination of knowledge and experience. I was once a little girl who wrote a terribly-spelled “book” about Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, and a thirty-year-old who just released her twenty-second violent adult novel. In between those very different stages came a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of hard work, a lot of studying, a lot of failures, and a few quiet victories.

What I’m getting at is this: we all start somewhere. We are all students of the craft in our own ways, and there is no right path. But I do believe that – structured or informal – literary analysis is an important part of becoming a stronger fiction writer.  

I was lucky enough to have the chance to study literature in high school, and in college, but that is by no means a requirement. Because, truth told, I’ve learned more from self-directed study at home than I did in school. Do you have to study literature formally in school? No. Do you have to study in some way? I believe yes. And it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

If you’ve ever engaged in a conversation about a book you enjoyed, you were performing your own literary analysis. The most important trait of a successful writer is the ability to create an emotional connection between your characters and the readers. Being able to break down and understand the literature that did that for you is an important step in the learning process.

*Fair warning, before we go farther, with the exception of my first books, the Walker Series, I tend to write about characters who would be deemed “problematic” for the morality police of the book world. So the following example is about craft and character, not about morality. Morality has no place in my writing, thank you!*

Let’s take a closer look at an example with my character Mercy (since he’s arguably the most popular of the bunch).

I’ve talked at length in the past about the fact that Mercy was heavily inspired by Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, and is my modern day, outlaw biker take on the Byronic Hero. If you wanted to write a character like Mercy, then my recommendation would be to go read Bronte’s novel, and then, for clarification, check out some literary criticisms of it. Because superficially, those two don’t have much in common. Mercy is, after all, a Cajun biker with a seedy past who likes to hit people with sledgehammers and then goes home to read Tolstoy in bed with his old lady. But, like Heathcliff, Mercy is temperamental, passionate, violent, and deeply, almost childishly vulnerable. He’s obsessive. He loves with a singular focus that would, rightly so, frighten most women. He’s the kind of guy who is, let’s face it, darkly romantic on paper, but rather terrifying in real life.

The reason readers love – or even hate – Mercy is because he’s a complete person, flaws and all, and though simple on the surface, becomes slippery when you try to pin him down in a formal book review. But why? It’s because Mercy is a character designed to draw strong reactions out of readers, and he usually succeeds. Despite initial impressions, readers don’t actually love him because he’s tall and has long dark hair; nor do the haters hate him because he kills with relish. No, Mercy is the kind of character who preys on a reader’s desires and fears without, haha, mercy. Indiscriminately.

Okay, let’s break it down.

When I design a character, I start with the deep questions first. Who is this person at heart? What are they afraid of? What do they want most? What do they lack in their lives? In the early stages, I decide things like family history, shortcomings, religion (even if it’s never touched on in the book), phobias, and guilty pleasures. The answers to those questions, just like when we ask them of real people in our real lives, are rarely simple. Early character design is like a psychological evaluation.

For me, Mercy was always fascinating because of the stark dichotomy within his nature. He’s very mature, and also very immature. He’s incredibly cold, and incredibly tender. These could be traits of any number of fascinating fictional characters. The mature/immature dichotomy shows up often in characters who were forced to grow up too quickly, or without exposure to peers, and so have had an unusual emotional development. You see the cold/tender combination quite often in BDSM fiction, in which the urge to punish is then overwhelmed by the need to comfort.

It's the dichotomy that makes Mercy interesting. The books, the sledgehammer; being sweet to Tango and then torturing Ava’s ex for intel…all of that is window dressing. Those are the symptoms, if you will, that allow us to see deeper into his psyche to unearth the traits that lie at the core of him.

His physical size is a superficial strength – it’s his unfailing loyalty that is a true character strength.

As a writer, it’s your job to know the core of your character, and reveal it slowly through increasingly-in-depth scenes that reveal the superficial first, and then peel back the layers as you go.

As a reader, you have to work backward, starting with what you can see, and then digging deeper and deeper.

So, your homework: pick a favorite fictional character and try to break them down to their base parts. See what you can come up with. It isn’t a tagline or a particular nervous tic that makes them loveable – it’s who he or she is. Learning how to “diagnose” characters, if you will, will be a huge help in creating your own characters.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Writing 2200: Deep Characterization




Writing 2200: Deep Characterization


Now that we’re in the 2000 level “courses,” so to speak, it’s time to work on refining our craft. This next portion of the seminar is all about characterization.

I posted about characterization a few weeks ago – a standalone post that covered a lot of territory. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a deeper look at characterization, and also go more slowly. Posts will be spread out in smaller chunks – this is partly for you, but mostly for me since my writing workload is crazy right now!

First off, let’s talk about Inspiration and Originality; chiefly, how to figure out what inspires you, why it inspires you, and how to study literature in a way that enables you to use that inspiration to come up with your own original characters and plots.

Inspiration and Originality


There’s a phrase that I like to use: “Every story has already been told, and Shakespeare told them all better than the rest of us.” Yes, I do love Shakespeare – serious Shakespeare, and dick-joke Shakespeare – but the real point is: I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “new” story anymore. Fiction is rooted in fact. Human fact. Stories are about people struggling, people triumphing, people falling in love, and people doing unspeakable thing. Most writers are working off a Classic literary canon, and we’re all trying to tell our own stories amidst other stories that might sound like ours. There will be inevitable similarities. There will be homages and tributes; there will be rewrites, retellings, and reimaginings. There’s every chance that someone on the other side of the world is right now writing a story eerily similar to yours, and neither of you know it. And then there are pop culture icons that are modern versions of beloved Classics…the original fanfiction, don’t you know. The best thing any writer can do is read widely, work hard, and focus on your own story.

I want to take a brief moment, since I fussed about it on my IG story this weekend, to acknowledge that sometimes…it’s not a coincidence. There are predatory writers out there. The ones who think publishing books is a great way to get rich quick. Who scan the market, see what’s selling, and pick authors to outright copy from. These people are not paying homage to a favorite author, nor lovingly referencing the Classics. These people are outright stealing; sometimes it’s a simple matter of using another author’s ideas – anything from plot lines, to archetypes – to literal copy/pasting and name-swapping on entire scenes. Like I said: predatory. Malicious.

We’re not going to waste another second on that sort of thing.

Then there’s benign copying. It’s unconscious. It’s not malicious, and we’ve all done it. It’s how we learn how to write. It’s how we go from attempting our first stories to finding our own literary voices. When we start out, we mimic the styles of writers we revere, and eventually, we start to understand the ins and outs of execution, and can accomplish the same thing using our own unique characters, cast in our own unique story.

Though I do believe there is such a thing as a natural propensity for writing, no one starts out with his or her own confident, original style. That comes through lots of reading, lots of practice, and lots of hard work and dedication. We begin to learn our strengths and how to use them, and the more we read and study literature, the more we understand what really makes a character lovable, and a book readable.

In the next few posts, we’ll take an in-depth look at the characters we love, and why we love them, and hopefully you can pick up some ideas for your own work. I’ll walk you through some of my own early, embarrassing writing attempts, and share what I’ve learned along the way.

Friday, April 13, 2018

DVD Commentary - #RedRooster

Some "DVD Commentary" author notes on a Friday! This is the sort of stuff I always like to read, so I like to write it too, when I can and when I remember.

These notes are from one of my favorites scenes in Red Rooster. I've been researching Vlad for a year-and-a-half now, so by the time I finally got to actually bring him to life on the page - I was nervous, and put a lot of pressure on myself. This was one of those scenes that proved to me that doing a ton of research is key to finding your footing in moments like these. 

This is the Vlad readers will expect from casual mentions in documentaries, and over-the-top film depictions. The emotionless, unfeeling tyrant who drank the blood of babies.

Or is it?

I like to say that Vlad is the Middle Ages embodiment of "Look What You Made Me Do." He's got a list of names, and they're all in red, underlined. His father was betrayed, he himself was captured as a political hostage; his father and brother were murdered. Terrible things happened to his little brother. The Vlad who took the mantle of prince in Wallachia had an ax to grind, both with foreign enemies and traitorous nobles at home. Will I ever excuse his actions? No. But his motto was, more or less: "My name is Vlad Tepes, you killed by father, prepare to die...by impalement." 

With the highlighted line above, he's - as will became clear after later books - mocking not only Nikita, but himself as well. Because Vlad was the very definition of "no chill." He wasn't rampaging-ly violent, but, rather, cold, cunning, and committed to grudges. Machiavellian in the extreme, he nevertheless managed to nurse personal hurts and carry out revenge in a way that would later be painted as "senseless" by some historians. 

He was eventually betrayed by friends. So, again referring to the highlighted line, he doesn't see much value in friendship. Or...is it more a case of him feeling deeply, deeply hurt to know that his friends didn't value their friendship? 

Themes I look forward to exploring in depth when I get to finally write from inside his head.

The poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats has always been a personal favorite and provides modern readers with some context for the idea that things are "the worst they've ever been." In the poem, we see reflected the idea that WWI marked the coming of the apocalypse for many. The Great War, or even simply THE War for many, seemed like the darkest days of human existence. An end to all things, insurmountable. 

A sentiment that can be found all through history, at every major, devastating battle.

In the highlighted passage, we're seeing growth for Nikita. Born in the shadow of WWI, conscripted by the Bolsheviks to fight for a cause that he loathes, asked to do unspeakable things, and then thrown into the midst of the Great Patriotic War, Nikita has a hopeless outlook through most of White Wolf. Here, seventy-five years later and now immortal, we see that he's realized there will always be a new disaster. Once a fighter, a tsar's man, he's now a fatalist, and he doesn't want any part in anyone's war. He'll battle if he has to, for the people he loves, but he's nobody's solider anymore.

That's what he thinks

Vlad would argue that if you're not a soldier, you're a victim.

It'll be fun to explore those contrasting (?) viewpoints as the series keeps progressing.


Oh, Alexei. I loved this exchange for nerd reasons - holy cow, I got to write Alexei Romanov and Vlad Tepes having a conversation! - and also because there's such a stark contrast between the two "princes." 

Alexei was the only son of Nicholas and Alexandra, and therefore the de-facto heir. Vlad was not only a second son, but a second son in an age and a territory in which simple genetics weren't a guarantee of power. It was common for sons to ascend after fathers...but it was also common for leaders to be deposed, challenged, or forced to fight for their seats against bitter rivals. Prior to the collapse of the empire, Alexei had no such challenges. 

Also, poor Alexei was sickly, and lived a largely indoor life. He was only a boy when the family was murdered; pair his youth with his disease, and he had very limited physical experience. 

Contrast that with Vlad who was brought up a proper knight, both in his native Romania and during his time with the Ottomans. Swordsman, horseman, warrior, tactician - there were so "summer dachas and sailor suits" for Vlad. 

(Also worth a chuckle was the real-life fact that Nicholas started a war based on the recommendation of the real-life Monsieur Philippe after the old man predicted victory during a séance. So...let's not talk about diplomacy, Alexei. Though his father was far more diplomatic that certain previous tsars.)

So...there you have it. My long-winded breakdown of one of my favorite scenes, and the thoughts that went into shaping it. Hope you enjoyed. Maybe this also shed some light on the reasons why it takes me so long to write a book 😊


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing 2101: POV



Writing 2101: POV


Stories are populated with characters of all kinds, but only a select few provide readers with a view of the story. These are POV – point of view – characters, and their experiences and thought processes not only relay the facts of a narrative, but color the reader’s perception as well. How we feel about a secondary character can usually be tied to the POV’s thoughts toward that person. If an author’s writing is effective, readers feel empathy, and even sympathy toward POV characters; they can visualize the unfolding events of the story as if they had watched them on a movie screen.

In my own writing, the first, and oftentimes the most important choice I make is about POV: who tells the story and how. There are several factors to consider. First, how you want to tell the story:

First Person POV


In a first-person narrative, the characters are speaking directly to the audience. This is the “I/me” way to narrate a story. Almost all popular fiction that’s written in first-person is done so from a first-person limited perspective, as opposed to the omniscient storyteller approach that was common to fables and classics. The reader knows what the narrator knows, and nothing else. Generally, only one or two characters carry the brunt of the story when it’s told in first-person, and then the narrators are often labeled at the beginnings of chapters so the audience is aware there’s been a POV shift.



Third Person POV


This is the POV in which I write all of my work. This is the “he/she” approach to narration. As with first person, most contemporary stories are written from the limited perspective, with one narrator in possession of limited knowledge at the helm at each time. Though labeling can be used, it isn’t necessary, because your sentences contain the characters’ names and it is usually clear who is in the narrator seat. With my own writing, I limit each scene to one narrator; if the narrator changes, it’s because the scene has changed; in this way, I have multiple POV characters in each novel, but POV only shifts between scene breaks, and not between paragraphs – as some unobservant readers have suggested in the past (ha!).



Second Person POV


This narration style is the least popular. The narrator is referred to as “you.” It’s “your” story, but an outside narrator is dictating it to you.



A Note of Preference


Much talk of which is the “best” POV style circulates in review circles. I’ve often seen it argued that first person POV feels more “immediate,” and that it helps to ground a reader more solidly in the moment of a story. I want to take a moment to disagree with this notion. Things like sensory details, tangible emotion, and cultural relevance of a character’s struggle are the things that make a story feel accessible to a variety of readers. Intimate descriptions of locations and a character’s feelings are what elevate a story to the next level – “I” versus “she” isn’t the thing that makes a book feel real; that’s a mere stylistic choice.

The author’s job, no matter the POV, is to create an emotional investment in the reader.



POV Characters


Once you’ve decided between first, third, or second person POV style, it’s then time to decide who your POV characters will be. Keep in mind that every POV character should do at least some work toward either advancing the plot or illuminating a character. They don’t all have to pull equal weight, but each POV should offer the reader new information. If a POV only reiterates another POV’s point in the exact same terms? It’s extraneous.

You also want to make sure that each POV character’s thoughts and feelings accurately reflect their current state. That sounds like a no-brainer, I know, but it’s not uncommon to run across characters who don’t seem to mesh with the portrait the author is trying to paint. Think about your character’s age, experience, and current frame of mind when constructing his or her dialogue and inner monologue. If you’ve put due diligence into character development, sliding into your character’s head should be fairly seamless. Something I’ve heard before from readers is that they want “mature” characters; maturity is a state of mind, rather than an age. If your character is in his or her forties or fifties, they should act and think like it. An author’s job isn’t just to tell the audience, but to show them. Remember: don’t use particular traits or experiences as props; let those traits and experiences inform the way your character interacts with the world.



Beware the Inner Monologue


I’ll just be frank right off the bat: I don’t care for inner monologue. It seems to be a more recent phenomenon in which characters have conversations with their own minds for paragraphs upon paragraphs, and I don’t like them because, for the most part, they aren’t telling me anything.

A more diplomatic note on the subject: some inner monologue, or dialogue, if you want, used sparingly, is just fine. A character’s quick thought of should I? Or oh no. Or damn it. Silent I love yous, or internalized pleases. But large chunks of italicized internal ramblings can, for the most part, pull a reader from the immediacy of the moment. Because here’s the truth: as humans, we’re subtler than we sometimes think. By that, I mean that it’s very possible that, in certain tense moments, we don’t know how we feel. We try to think, fail to do so, and are pushed by circumstances into making a decision. It’s only later, hours or sometimes days, that we can truly unpack everything that’s happened and try to make sense of it. In writing, what we leave unsaid can have a greater impact than overexplaining something.

For instance, in a scene where a character is asked to make an impossible choice, it’s likely he or she would hone in on one or two pertinent thoughts. You don’t have to walk the reader through the minutiae of the decision; we can guess, based on his or her answer, what they were thinking in the moment.

Note that recalling memories, describing a person or a setting doesn’t count as inner monologue. I’m referring only a character’s direct address to his- or herself.



Remember…


Remember that the most important aspect of point of view is the character’s ability to communicate a story to the reader. First, third, or second doesn’t matter; all that matters is that:

1)      You keep consistent, and don’t swap between POV styles in the middle of a scene or paragraph; and

2)      The POV characters offer unique story and character perspectives to the over all narrative that, when combined, help to create a complete and enriching story experience.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Red Rooster - Debriefing


Here we are at the official Red Rooster debrief. This continues to be one of my favorite parts of the book release process. I get to share teasers and snippets along the way, but they're out of context, and I don't get to share as much as I'd like to. I can't promise that this debrief won't have spoilers - I won't try to say anything too obvious, but proceed with caution on that front. 

Alright. 

Ready?

I love writing sequels. Love them! The first book in a series always carries the burden of making something out of nothing. It invents a world - whether that world is a biker club, or, in this case, an alternate historical timeline full of supernatural beings. There will always be those readers who fuss about the initial world-building, but without it? The rest of the series will eventually cave in on itself. I like reading the world-building, and writing it, but sequels...those you can dive right into; they're perfectly warm pool water just waiting for you. 

RR came together quickly - especially when compared to the months and months I spent secretly constructing outlines for White Wolf. It was one of those books that I was able to envision and then execute with only minor adjustments. Some of the characters - Nikita - still managed to surprise me. And my boy Rob - you have no idea how long I've wanted to write that man in some capacity, and I still can't believe I managed to work him into this series - got to step onto the scene sooner than expected. It was just a really fun, really rewarding writing experience all the way around. 

Here are some gathered notes from my side of things:

The title: Despite characters named Red and Rooster, the title was actually derived from the brief reference Val makes near the end toward his mother's gods...and the waking of gods and heroes. For Val, locked up for so very long, Rooster's arrival - simply his name, Rooster - seemed to be a sign that a huge shake-up truly was about to happen, and not just something his captors taunted him with. 

Speaking of Red and Rooster: in very early drafts - and by that I mean notebook paper outlines - of the book, I planned to have the two of them consummate their relationship and enter into a real romance. When I started actually writing them, though, I realized that would have been jumping the gun. Since the book isn't a romance novel, I didn't have to force anything to happen right away, and leaving their relationship undefined enables me to write a more organic development in the books to come. Quick progress would have been wrong for them, and I'm very glad I pulled back.

The ferals: we will see them again. Oh yes.

Nikita: I don't think it would come as a surprise to learn that Nik is in A Very Bad Place after this book. Emotionally, that is. Lots more to explore there.

My favorite scene: that was a hard call. There were so many that I enjoyed. The runner-up was definitely Nik, Lanny, and Alexei's moment with Vlad. But my very favorite was a small one, just a few paragraphs: Sasha and Val finally meeting face-to-face. That was the scene that made me oddly emotional while writing, so I realized it was the one. 

Structurally, this book was a coming-together of a lot of working parts. And while I loved writing it, I decided, in the middle of it, that I very much want to slow it down a little now and write a sequence of follow-ups that focus on only a few characters at a time; a focus on individual stories...at least until it's time for the next big coming-together. The next book, Dragon Slayer, is very Val focused, and will have contemporary and historical storylines. I'm thrilled about it. 

I'm thrilled about the whole series. It's just rife with possibilities, and I can't wait to get back to work. 




Saturday, March 31, 2018

#RedRooster is Live!



“Tell me, Rooster, are you at all familiar with any of the old religions? Let’s just say, oh, hypothetically…the Norse gods, perhaps?”

**

I'm thrilled to announce that Red Rooster is live!! The second installment in my Sons of Rome series picks up right where White Wolf left off, with Lanny MIA...and no longer human. Set entirely in the present day, Red Rooster follows three groups of characters - Team New York, Team Wyoming, Team Virginia - all on a collision course with one another, and their harrowing new reality. 

Vlad is awake.

So is something much, much more frightening. 

**

“Don’t pretend to think I should be loyal to your cause. You were never loyal to me. Your own flesh and blood.”
“It was never about you.”
“No,” he agreed, bitterly, “not for anyone.”



Get it here: