Working with characters during revision

An alternate title for this post was: Dealing with Zoe.

See, I love Zoe, the female lead in Made of Shadows. She’s intense, passionate, fiery, compassionate, and maybe a little nuts. Okay, a little might be understating. Zoe is a woman on the edge. The martial arts skills and motorcycle don’t help.

photo from stock.xchng

So when editing Zoe’s story, sometimes it’s hard to tone her down. I realize I need a little distance from MOS to see the places where Zoe’s zest is adding to the plot and when it’s just distracting. Like I said, I care about her. I want the reader to care about her, too, which means I’ll have to learn to love her a little less, so I can edit her story properly.

She’s an absolute contrast to Lithe, of Pierce My Heart, my other WIP. Lithe is a soft-spoken introvert. She’s also a tough-as-nails fae investigator, but her motto, if she had one, would be, “Grace under pressure.” Sometimes I’ve worried that Lithe’s voice isn’t strong enough. Unlike Zoe, I worry that there’s not enough of Lithe shining through in the story.

Thus, one of my primary focuses for the next few months is going to be character development.

Our characters need to be relatable and likable. If the reader doesn’t care about what happens to Zoe or Lithe, then why keep reading? We want our readers to love the characters as much as we do. And if we’ve stuck around long enough to tell their stories, chances are that we do love them.

What complicates the issue is that our characters need to be consistent. This doesn’t just mean that in chapter one our character (let’s call her Lucinda) is a diehard vegetarian and in the next chapter she’s woofing down filet mignon. Character consistency is about more than favorite foods and hair color–it’s about the psyches of our characters, who they are deep down and how that influences their actions.

"Rodrigo, your kisses rock my world. Let me tell you my deepest, darkest secrets."

If Lucinda is perennially mistrustful, we need to make sure she doesn’t just easily open up to other characters. (As in, “Oh, Rodrigo, you’re a really good kisser. Why don’t I tell you about my traumatic childhood?”) Every action needs to be consistent with who she is. It’s not just about what the author wants to happen or where the plot needs to go; it’s about what Lucinda would do next, or what she would do given the next progression in the story. So if she opens up to Rodrigo, there needs to be a damn good reason, and one that’s consistent with her character.

But Lucinda also needs to change, affected by the circumstances of the plot and her interactions with other characters. Lucinda on page 1 can’t solve the situation (say, defeat the bad guy). If she could, we wouldn’t be writing a novel about her. Something has to happen between page 1 and page 300 that allows her to emerge victorious (if that’s the plot). Lucinda needs to change.

The character arc needs to mesh with the plot arc. Maybe Lucinda learns to trust, and trusting allows her to let someone in who can help her defeat the bad guys. She changes from a loner to someone capable of teamwork and trust.

And that’s where I’m at right now: reading books and blogs about character development. I know my characters. I need to make sure the reader does as well, and that each action is believable and appropriate. I hit a turning point while writing MOS. I’d been stuck for a while, not knowing where the story should go next. I tried a new approach. I stepped back  and asked, “What would Blake do?” Ah, bingo. “And what would Zoe’s reaction be?” Ah, naturally. I let the characters drive the story, and the plot unfolded before me.

What about you? What are your stumbling blocks with character? Any advice for working with character during the revision stage?

3 weak sentence constructs to avoid in our writing

As writers, everything we read and write develops our ear and eye. We learn how good writing sounds, how it leaps off the page, how it sends a thrill or a chill through us. A good line has bite. And we develop an eye—an eye for glaring spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors, so that those, too, pop off the page.

Reading a lot is a given for a writer—it develops your ear. And editing and critiquing—whether it’s a friend’s cover letter for an employment opportunity, judging for a writing contest, or the in-depth work we do for our critique partners—develops both our ear and our eye.

I’ve found a few sentence constructs that pop up in writing (my own included) that diminish the strength of the prose. When revising, we can find phrases with more “pop,” replacing weaker sentence constructs with those that have more “bite”.

1.)    There is/are/was/were. What is “there”? It’s not a character, not a meaningful object or place in the story. “There is” is one of the weakest sentence constructs I can think of, especially in fiction, when we have so much poetic license to be creative. “There is” can generally be replaced with a stronger, more vivid construct. “There is a tree deep within the forest…” can easily become “Deep within the forest, a tree stretches out its great, wide arms…” Because “There is…” really doesn’t mean much at all. But “A tree stretches…” takes us right to the heart of the sentence. When I revise my work, I try to avoid this sentence construct as often as possible. It’s too easy, it’s often telling not showing, and it’s just not powerful enough. “There is” is okay every once in a while. It’s just best in very minute doses.

2.)    I felt/he felt/she felt. If you’re in first-person or in third-person close, “felt” can be useful but highly overused—especially in a first draft. When revising, we can note these places in our writing. If we find this structure frequently, it’s time for a change. Why? Because, like “there is,” “I felt” can often be cut, leaving us with a stronger sentence. “I felt my heart thumping in my chest,” becomes the much stronger, “My heart thumped in my chest.”

3.)    Overuse of rhetorical questions. “How was Blake going to get out of this one?” “What was Cassie going to do?” I find these phrases peppering my first drafts—often because I honestly didn’t know how Blake was going to get out of this one, or what Cassie was going to do. They were more for me as a writer (clues to myself that I needed to figure something out) than for my reader. Every once in a blue moon is okay. In subsequent drafts, I try to delete these phrases as much as possible. If we’re not careful, such questions can start annoying the reader. Don’t you think? 😛

What weak phrases do you find in your own or others’ writing? How do we vanquish weak sentence structures so we can make our stories really sing?

WIP progress update, and growing as a writer:

“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”Stephen King (On Writing)

So, I hit 64,000 words in my WIP this morning, which means I’m roughly two-thirds of the way through the second draft (me thinks). This manuscript is teaching me a lot about myself as a writer. The meetings I’ve attended of Virginia Romance Writers have given me some insights not only into the genre, but also in writing in general. I’m making progress, exercising my writing muscles, which is always exciting.

So what am I learning as I go? Well, my strengths and weaknesses, for one thing. My strengths (I think): Description. Dialogue. And, most of all, character development, which connects to my greatness weakness. Action. I sometimes get stuck in someone’s head; sometimes, as crit partner Kathleen Foucart once put it, “The world is about to end, and they’re sitting around talking about it.” (paraphrase) She was right, too. (She usually is.) My plot had gotten stuck and was spinning its wheels in “Let’s just think this through,” Land, a place where stories go when the writer doesn’t know where to go next. When no one goes anywhere, the tension starts to fade. How will the reader connect if we’re just sitting in the living room? We need the escalation of tension, whether it’s sexual chemistry between two characters, or a ticking bomb (figurative or literal), or someone’s increasing desperation because what he or she has longed for is slipping further and further away. Fortunately, my story has a solid foundation for some serious tension and action. I just sometimes have to chip away at those excess scenes to get where I’m going.

Now, how is that good news? Because once we identify our weaknesses, we can work on them. I’m not going to send this manuscript out into the world to agents or editors or whomever when it has obvious problems that I can spot and fix. If I see a scene that’s too heavy on the internal and not enough on the external tension, I can revise. I can hype up the tension. I can get things moving again. Sometimes I write a scene and realize that I wrote it just for me. Now I know what motivates this character. I know what’s in her closet, skeletons or stilettos. I know what she dreams about, what she’s thinking when she stares out the window. My reader might need to know some of these things. He or she might need to know about them sooner or later. When I revise, I can foreshadow, although sometimes the foreshadowing happens without me knowing. Such is the writing life—that our stories and our characters hold secrets even the author can’t detect.

And I look forward to revising this story. Some writers say they dread revision. But I actually enjoy this process, however frustrating it might be. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I do a lot of editing already, though usually of others’ work, so I’m keeping those muscles in shape. I’m also editing this draft as I go, revising scenes before I send them off for critique, so hopefully my next round of revisions aren’t as extensive as this second draft, essentially a rewrite.

I am moving more slowly than I had hoped, but the story is getting there. I have faith in it. One day, I hope it will be a story that the world needs, a story to inspire people. I hope people connect with these characters and their trials. But crafting a polished, solid manuscript means taking it scene by scene with a careful eye. Yes, it’s getting a manuscript ready for the world that’s the trick.

Happy Writing!