I've been struggling with my antagonist. That might sound like a normal situation--antagonists create conflict--but my challenge is less about what he does than how believable he is on the page.
One editor told me: "He's too much like the other nasty guy." Another said, "It's just Bad and Badder." My agent said, "The antagonists need to be as believable as the protagonist."
Darn (or another expletive). Really, do I have to work as hard for these unpleasant characters as I do for my nice ones? Yep, maybe more so. Their actions have to convince a reader, so their motivations must be in place. They need to be distinguishable from other characters, so they must be described adequately. Which means I have to know them well. Double darn.
Here's a short checklist I came up with after all my struggles. Result: my antagonist is less stereotype, more human, still nasty.
If you're struggling with the bad guys in your story, whether real or imagined, run them through these series of questions and see how they fare. Then freewrite a backstory, wounding event, and false belief to make them even more real.
1. Does your antagonist have unique features, gestures, or way of speaking that makes them stand out? Are they clear on the page (physical appearance)?
2. What's their backstory? What causes them to act this way in the story? Hint: read this article on wounding events by Michelle Hoover (from Fiction Writers Review) if you don't know.
3. What's their false belief--the twisted view of the world that makes their actions explainable to readers? Hint: check out this post about false beliefs.
4. How might they change from beginning to end of your story? Hint: a character who doesn't change at all is called "static" and may even be a stereotype. Show a change, even to worse, and you make them more real to the reader.
Thanks to Rita who sent the link for this week's writing exercise. Scan these best endings and pick your favorite. Why do you love those and what might it tell you about how you want your own book to end?
Do you prefer a lyrical ending, rich with image? A factual wrap up? An ending that hovers or one that really concludes?
If you assume an ending answers a question or quest posed at the start of the book, what might that question or quest be for these ending lines?
It's a fun way to expand your perspective about your own story!
If you can't open the link, go to the Washington Post's website and search for "best last lines."
Writing a book--writing anything--is by necessity a solitary practice. We are by ourselves with our words at first, generating them in a conversation between laptop and hands on keyboard, or pen and notepad. It's not a bad thing. I actually love the process of being in the worlds of my books, and I crave the solitude to immerse myself.
But every now and then, it helps to have community. Community is essential for feedback, when you get to the point of needing it, but it's also very helpful for support.
Support to keep writing.
Support when those doubts hit hard.
Support when you're trying something new and want to run an idea by a fellow writer.
Support to know you're not crazy.
I love my writing group and my writing partner, who fulfill much of this need for me. But what if you have neither? You live far from any writers groups, you don't want to take classes to meet other writers. You can pay a coach or private teacher, but that costs money. How do you get free or low-cost community you can use and rely on, as you create your book?
One virtual community, Write Together, was recommended in Jane Friedman's e-newsletter. Jane's such a good resource, I immediately checked it out. It costs, but very little, and it's still small, which is a relief to some of us. More intimate, more like a real writer's group. Write Together provides accountability--every day writing and check in's by midnight--and that community to share progress or lack of.
Another online writing community is Scribophile, an international group that's growing fast. Scribophile has a credit system, where the more feedback you give other writers in the group, the more points you earn towards getting feedback yourself. It's primarily, in my opinion, for feedback, less for sharing progress notes and accountability.
And if those don't tickle your interest or need, check out this comprehensive list from NY Book Editors on the ten best online writing communities to join and why.
Here's a great definition of interior monologue: "a conversation a character is having with themselves, internally." Read more here. Some writers call it internal dialogue. Or thought tags. But whatever you call it, it's happening inside.
As an editor, I have strong opinions about interior monologue.
Many writers, including myself, rely on interior monologue a lot in early drafts. It's much easier to have your character think something that do the work to show it in actual scene. Interior monologue classifies as "telling" in the reader's mind. It's distant, emotionally, unless it's integrated into an active scene that demonstrates the emotion.
In early drafts, use IM to your heart's content. But be sure to come back in revision and question whether you're avoiding the work of scene-writing, and ask yourself why. If it's just laziness, which it usually is in my case in those first attempts, consider it a legit placeholder that will need to be reworked.
I also find many writers don't trust the reader enough, so they overwrite: they have a good scene but they add the same point as IM just to make sure the reader gets it. That only puts your reader off. They smell distrust a mile away. Another reason to be ruthless as you comb through, weeding out unnecessary interior monologue.
There have always been two kinds of interior monologue: direct or indirect. I can't believe I said that, she thought. That's direct. She couldn't believe she'd thought that. That's indirect. One is in present tense, italics, to make it look like dialogue. One is just blended into the narrative.
But the modern trend is to just take the italics out. You'll find some editors agree, some don't. But mine have usually recommended taking out the italics. So it would read: I can't believe I said that, she thought.
This week, for your writing exercise, consider combing through a chapter of your manuscript draft for IM. If you find some, rewrite as scene. Is it more potent? Is it better as IM?
One of my students is writing his first novel, a work of historical fiction that he has researched carefully. He became interested in the real subject of this story many years ago and has been on a fast track ever since, learning how to create a strong and engaging tale while staying as true as possible to the facts behind it.
When he attended my writing retreat last February in Tucson, we discussed ways to integrate the facts of the era and politics into his story. So much good material, so many great bits to bring in, but how much is right for the story--and what's just for him, in his own fascination with it?
Nonfiction writers (not memoirists, but those writing about facts and the interpretation of facts) have a lot of leeway here. Readers expect information, are reading for it. But with novels and memoirs, readers read for story--to engage with character, time, place, and dilemma. The facts behind the story must be woven in seamlessly so the reader doesn't come out of the "dream," as novelist John Gardener once called it. But writers are bursting to share what they know, from all that research.
Here's another dilemma: the subject of the story carried weight in his era, maybe changed many lives, maybe influenced history. The writer has an opinion about that--the subject was good, not so good, downright awful. But if the writer presents his opinion as he tells the story, it leaves the reader out of the equation. We can't make up our minds; we have someone "interpreting" for us. This often makes readers mad, at worst. At best, they become disengaged emotionally, because the writer is already providing all the emotion.
But you need to write with passion. You need to be invested, even fascinated, in your topic, right? How do you infuse the writing with this passion yet back off enough so there's no sense of "platform" communicated to the reader?
By "platform" I mean a message the writer intends to impart. An opinion or strong belief about what we should take away from the story.
Again, how do you divest yourself of opinions about your story?
Say you're writing a memoir or novel about abuse or another terrible event based in your past. Maybe you initially write for the catharsis, the revenge of saying, at last, what you wanted to say years ago. But the reader feels a message, a platform, a kind of preaching inside the story. It says, This is what you should take away from your reading. It's good if the writer can acknowledge this initial stage as writing more for the self than truly for a reader. It might take years to pass through this portal, to let go of the need to have a message, a platform, and allow the story to tell itself.
Or say you believe in the evil or goodness of your real-life main character. You want to make sure the reader gets this quality, above all others. Again, you are stepping between the story and your reader. It's tricky to write both pure heroes and villains. Very few engaging characters are that black or white. It's up to the writer to dig deeper and find the balancing traits to make this character human to us. Weaving in flaws and small kindness into the person's story allows us to engage as readers.
I write with platform, intention, message early in my writing process. It's inevitable--I have opinions and enthusiasms I want to convey. Eventually, as the drafts mature, I release my need to stand on anything and be heard as the writer; I let the story tell itself.
If you can recognize when and how you are doing this in your own book journey, it is a sign that you're bringing the reader into the conversation. A very good sign.
As a journalist for several decades, I was taught well by my editors how to wrap up an article, interview, or column. Leave the reader with resolution but come to a definite conclusion.
When I began writing books, I learned a different approach, which is especially common in memoir and fiction these days: create an ending that hovers.
In other words, the basic plot is wrapped up satisfactorily, but the inner story, or character's trajectory, is left with unanswered questions. You may feel this is bad for your reader, but here's an article that might change your mind. It's our writing exercise this week: to read, consider, and examine your own endings to see if they reflect this idea.
Marie, a blog reader, has been working on her storyboard and organizing her chapters, using the three act system that is so helpful for sorting out what belongs and what doesn't in early drafts and revisions. She's concerned about the middle of her book, though.
"Act I is comprised of chapters with progressive complications for my protagonist," she writes. But in the beginning of Act II, Marie's protagonist begins recovering from her problems. "These chapters are turning out to be much more tied up in a bow but I want to keep the reader interested until my protagonist gets smacked with a big problem at the climax of Act II. How do I let my protagonist recover from problems at the beginning of Act II yet keep the reader wondering/questioning/guessing?"
Middles are, for many writers, the hardest to write, just because of this dilemma. Whatever your genre, by midbook, the initial problem has been sorted out, at least somewhat, and your narrator (or reader, in nonfiction) is getting a handle on stuff.
I love the W storyboard because it demands the middle be considered--it helps me avoid getting too comfortable with recovery from problems.
Keeping the middle active and interesting is not easy. Slumpy middles usually occur in the good times of the story, when the protagonist rallies and makes some kind of decision after hitting a low point, and things get a little better.
On the W storyboard, the character (or narrator in memoir) falls for a while after the story starts. That's the Act I that Marie's talking about. Things get worse. Then the character hits a low point and there's a kind of leveling out. Some writers call this the "first turning point" of the story at the end of Act I. Or point 2 on the storyboard, the bottom of the first leg of the W.
Your Book Starts Here - Storyboarding for Writers
This is where things can get a little dicey, in terms of tension. As the character is "recovering from the problem" that the book started with, the pace naturally slows. How do you keep the tension and suspense in that section when the trajectory is supposed to be bit more positive?
I struggle with this too! My recent novel, Outlaws,lost 10,000 words in its midbook before it got accepted by an agent. I heard over and over again as I submitted that it slowed too much midbook. So I got ruthless. I made a chart and listed all the midbook chapters, from the end of Act I to the middle of Act II (point 2 to 3 above on the W). I forced myself to ask: What happens in this chapter to grow the tension? What new problem is introduced?
Where there wasn't any problem, I cut stuff. A lot of stuff.
I made sure the chapters ALL had something happening of consequence. Even if good stuff was also happening, I introduced new problems. If I couldn't think of any, the chapter/scene/section got moved out.
Gulp. It hurt! I'd spent ages on crafting those pages. But I knew it was critical to the readability of my novel that I stay detached from all my efforts and only kept what served the book.
Sometimes, I couldn't delete a section, because it was pivotal to the story in another way than rising the tension. So I worked with a few other techniques. I'll list them below:
1. Create a new twist at the end of the book, and work it backwards, planting clues that change and enliven the middle. Such as . . . an enemy turns out to be a friend or vice versa.
2. Introduce a new character or a mentor, maybe someone who brings in a different viewpoint and challenges the situation a little.
3. When I couldn't think of new dramatic action to try, I made a list of 10 things that could happen tried out one of them in a freewrite. For memoir, you can write the list then imagine the narrator facing these. Sometimes it brings an idea of what did happen that you're forgetting (or feel loathe to include but should).
4. Change locations! (Think Eat, Pray, Love)
5. And my favorite . . . scope out that interior monologue (thoughts, feelings, memories) and get people moving onstage.
If this idea inspires, terrifies, or intrigues you, it might be worth trying this week. Find your midbook, even one middle chapter, and test out one of the ideas above. See if it makes your middle less slumped and more on edge.
Book journeys are divided into very distinct experiences: the creation of the book and the selling of the manuscript. Many writers struggle more with one than the other. I worked with a private client who was aces in marketing; she already had a website for her book before she'd finished editing it. Another had a background in graphic design and was all about the book's beautiful appearance--we mostly worked together on the writing, which came harder to him. You may cringe at the thought of promoting yourself (selling your manuscript involves selling yourself too!) or you may be all over it.
But since publishing is a business--meaning, however altruistic the agent or publisher is, however much they love books and writing and want to support authors, there's financial gain behind each imprint--it makes sense that publishers look for books they can sell. Not just support, but make money on. A lot of this, nowadays, is in our courts as authors. Publishers rely on us to spread the word, connect with book clubs, be savvy on social media, get blurbs. We often hire pros to help (publicists) but if we can establish our online presence sooner rather than later, all goes much more easily.
This week's newsletter talks about a couple of ways to approach this process and shares links I've found useful.
1. Submitting excerpts of your book pre-publication.
A reader from the UK recently did the end-of-year review in my post at the beginning of January (scroll down to see). She was pleasantly surprised at all she'd accomplished on her book and felt ready to tackle the next task: get some of her shorter pieces published.
It's a good move. But how do you go about it?
Agents love seeing credentials. They are businesspeople too, and you're a better bet if you've already tasted the publishing world with essays, short stories, articles, and other publications. As part of your query letter, you get to list these. You can also talk about contests you've won, awards, anything that spotlights your business worth as an author.
Equally good, especially for nonfiction, are life credentials that support your book's topic and garner you an audience. Think of lectures given, volunteer jobs, service that relates to your story. All part of your cred.
But sometimes it's hard to move from writing to marketing yourself--the essence of submitting work for publication. You may feel stalled when you contemplate it. It helps me to break it down into steps.
* Research: begin a list of lit journals, magazines, websites, blogs, etc., that might be a good fit for your kind of writing--and especially your book's topic. Think of special interest groups that address that topic. Take time with this--there's no rush and it's important to find the right fit. Otherwise, you'll waste effort and get discouraged. I give myself six months to gather information. Then I select the top ten places and decide what to send.
* Try an excerpt: If you can excerpt your book, choose a short section and craft it into a stand-alone piece, it will serve you in two ways. You get the cred and you get interest in the book to come.
Another reader recently asked how to get started with websites, videos, podcasts, and other online presence. It also starts with research--where are the best places to present yourself, that tie into your book?
What I've learned: it takes time. A year or more. Time to research, to learn, to decide the best avenues.
It takes time away from your writing. Plus, it's a completely different kind of skill than writing requires. I have hired marketing pros to help me, get me started, get me going when either didn't have the time or I didn't want to take energy away from my book while it was cooking.
If you feel the urge, consider dedicating an hour or two a month to such tasks, in early stages of book writing. You'll need most of your energy to craft that first draft, or the book can die a slow death as you read about the unfamiliar terrain of marketing and decide it's not for you. Again, it's a completely different kind of skill, and don't assume you'll have it down when you start. Talk with other writers. Join online forums and hear what works. But keep most of your time and attention on writing.
Once you're revising, you may have enough momentum to get really engaged with the marketing research and it gives back. You get excited about your book being in readers' hands. And that's the best kind of marketing there is.
Realtors know that location is everything in buying or selling property. Try to sell a house that's near a busy highway or high tension wires, and you'll learn this. In story, location is also really important--I wouldn't say it's everything to a story, but it's as vital as good characters and strong plot.
Unfortunately, it's the aspect of writing that many writers tack on or ignore altogether.
One of my students, Margaret, was working on her memoir about growing up in post-World-War-II Mississippi. The storyboard worked well: plot points were good and you could track the dilemma of her story. So Margaret confidently took a few pages to her writing group for review.
Feedback was lukewarm. The pages lacked a sense of place, her fellow writers told her. Margaret, confused, came to my class to learn about this mysterious "sense of place."
She didn't want to include moss-hung oaks and sweet tea in her story, she said. The South was old news to her; she was writing her memoir to put it behind her. Thoughts and reflections about what she'd learned since she'd left the South were much more interesting.
When I read Margaret's "islands," I saw how brief was her acknowledgement of setting. She did note the ancient oak tree outside her family's home, the stuffed furniture in the parlor, the separate summer kitchen which kept the main house cool in August. But overall, there was an imbalance of sensory road signs. Indeed, Margaret's story could've taken place as easily in New York as Mississippi.
I told her that while good characters initially engage us, and plot twists provide momentum, it is setting that gives the emotional grounding that keeps us involved.
"But most of this story takes place inside my reaction to it," she argued, "in my thoughts and feelings, looking back from my life now." All good, but thoughts and feelings tell more than show. They are abstract. It's counter-intuitive, but reflective writing doesn't communicate emotion to a reader, only to the writer who has thought or felt it. I suggested Margaret study the container of her story, the environment where it happens, and distill just enough detail to provide the missing sense of place.
Rick Bass, award-winning author of Winter and other memoirs, described this sense of place as the small elements that "lay claim to you, eventually, with a cumulative power." Bass said they can be as simple as "the direction of a breeze one day, a single sentence that a friend might speak to you, a raven flying across the meadow and circling back again." A container comprises these small outer details, but also the inner landscape of culture, politics, religion, history--the
atmosphere of the life in your book. Writing believable container is much more than just adding one or two setting details. It's about creating a strong center that pulls a reader in and lets her fully live in your pages.
Growing up in such a senses-rich location, Margaret felt the South was overblown and overstated. But it was the container that she could--and eventually did--use to beckon the reader into her book. It was only by showing the South in all its over-the-top glory that she was able to reveal to her reader just how suffocating the South can be.
How Does Setting Deliver Emotion?
Another student, John, was a first-time novelist. As a professional nonfiction writer, he was trying to learn how container functioned in fiction.
In John's nonfiction books, outer setting details were used effectively to illustrate anecdotes. He was accustomed to crafting a minimal environment in his small stories. But as a new novelist, John was not having success with this plug-and-play approach. He felt his descriptions of breezes, sunlight, and birds were stiff, besides being injected into each scene willy-nilly.
So I asked him first to consider why he'd selected these details, why he'd placed them just there in his scenes.
John sheepishly said he was just trying to check "setting" off his writerly to-do list. There was also zero intent to use setting to enhance emotion-which is its primary benefit.
Setting must make sense with the emotional moment you're writing about, I explained. For example, if a character was struggling with a decision, he might notice something in the setting that mirrored his uncertainty. Not the clichéd dark and stormy night, but a small detail like a sweater buttoned the wrong way on an old man he's talking to. Or if it's a really big decision, a tree fallen across a road. A forgotten pan on the hot stove. These details mirror the character's unsettling confusion.
So John began a list of the emotional moments in his book. He began placing small setting details to echo each moment of his main character's emotion. The effect surprised him-there was so much more payoff! We discussed how, if his character just thinks about his decision, it stays in his gut and never reaches the reader's.
The setting is a roadmap for the reader. It emphasizes what we're supposed to be receiving from the scene.
Every book takes place somewhere. Even the most abstract nonfiction book has to have a setting. Writers can't neglect this outer container, the exterior setting, the physical location of their stories-and also how the interior environment is reflected in those outer setting details.
John learned that good placement of shown setting reveals emotion as subtly as a butterfly landing on a late-summer dahlia--without any interpreting by the writer.
A Basic Lesson: Creating Outer Container
Outer container, what is traditionally called setting, is demonstrated via outwardly perceived things: the weather, the time of day or night, where a person is physically in a room or garden or other specific location, how light slants against an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us. But how many writers omit these details, thinking, like Margaret, that they're boring or slow or unnecessary?
Outer setting details are the first conveyers of emotion to a reader. They set the stage.
Few playwrights set their theater productions on a completely blank stage-no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. Much easier for the audience to imagine themselves inside an 1850s farmhouse kitchen if there is a rocker, an old wooden table, a woodstove, and windows with eyelet curtains. So what outer details exist in your story right now? What have you taken time to write in?
Start by viewing what your narrator notices. Describe the seen setting first. Time of day (light, dark), objects, furniture, nature.
Move through each of the remaining five senses, asking yourself what might be perceived. What smells are in this place? What sounds? Add in these details without interpretation, without qualifiers, without telling the reader what the details mean. Write, "The garden was pink and gold and filled with summer light." Don't add, "It was beautiful to Marci."
We already get that. No interpreting required.
Overly Familiar Settings
Annie, a published mystery writer, was working on her latest story set in the Florida Keys. "I'm trying to be more mindful of adding in atmosphere to heighten the sense of being in Key West," she told me. "But one of the things that struck me when I visited the Keys was how familiar it seemed, how much the Keys were like the Jersey Shore town I was born and raised in. The marshy and swampy landscape, riddled with bays and inlets in South Jersey, has long encouraged all sorts of the same activities that take place in the Keys. Even the architecture is similar," she added, "and the tourist trade and the activities are all alike."
Annie wanted to know how she could give her readers a sense of Key West while showing that, for her character, this setting felt so familiar. I told her that even if a character knows the story's setting, from growing up there or visiting, it's important to realize that her reader won't. It's still necessary to place the reader in space, time, weather conditions, hot and sultry or cool and breezy. Setting places a reader firmly in the time of day, the experience of light slanting across the floor, or the way the tropical wind rattles the windows. In Annie's mystery, she could mention the familiarity of it to her character, but she still had to establish setting.
In short, setting lets us get inside the character's head, via what she notices about where she is, how it impacts her, including what she tries to ignore. You can't skip this step of crafting believable outer container. Or else we won't feel your story.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise
First, check out my short video on writing container:
Mary Carroll Moore: Writing the Container of Your Story
Then, choose a section of your writing where you want the reader to really get a punch of emotion. Answer three of the questions below. Select one or two sentences that come from the answers and add them to your writing.
1. What does the narrator smell?
2. What does she sense on her skin (air temperature)?
3. What does she hear close to her? In the distance?
4. What three objects are nearby?
5. What time of day is it? How can she tell via the setting (without a clock)?
A colleague sent me two fascinating articles recently about the reasonable and unreasonable expectations we writers have of the writing life.
The first is a funny-sad yet informative article by writers Rosalie Knecht from Lit Hub (link here) about the colorful fantasy some have of the writing life.
She likens some writers' fantasies of the creative life to images from an Anthropologie catalog, where true creatives drift through unfinished rooms in wispy clothes, have only difficult relationships, and must suffer to create. I resonated with that last comment, which creeps into my writing life unwelcomed from time to time. Knecht says this attitude does a disservice to writers who are actually trying to integrate "art-making with functional lives."
The other article, also from Lit Hub, is by the coordinator of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, Samantha Lan Chang. It's taken from a talk she gave at the One Story Debutante Ball. It's all about protecting your writing life from such fantasies.
I find the fantasy of the writing life both sad and scary. How many of us writers are still waiting to be "discovered" and propelled towards fame and fortune without effort on our part? Kind of a take-off on the Cinderella story, we hope for an agent or publisher who will truly get what we're trying to do and help us shape it. I find it sad because rare is the writer who finds that in today's publishing world, but also because it abdicates much of the value of the years of work it usually takes to learn and practice our craft.
I disavow writers of fantasy constantly, never an easy thing to suggest not quitting a day job to write full time when skills aren't strong enough to fuel growth, or to remind a first-time memoirist that memoir can take an average of seven years to write, according to a friend's MFA advisers. Fantasies interrupt the reality on purpose; it's more fun to dream of being rescued from the work that writing takes.
Around this time of year, I like to revisit one of my favorite creative resources: Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic. I listen to it as I drive. I crave her honesty when the fantasy of someone else's more beautiful writing life threatens to derail me from my own.
Your weekly writing exercise to is to read one or both of these articles--each worthwhile in its own right. If you can't access the links, search at www.lithub.com for either author's name.