Thursday, 9 March 2017

Writing Lesson from 'Six of Crows': Character Descriptions


After a very productive morning during which I finally broke the back of a very pesky chapter that has been irking me for some time, I find myself with time to spare, and bring to you a post I have been waiting for weeks to write...

Writing Lessons from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. (No spoilers here. You may read this in all safety, then go buy the book.)

The discrepancy between this and the blog title lies in the simple fact that several lessons have been learnt reading Six of Crows, but for the sake of the well-established format of my blog posts i.e. "one book, one lesson" (nobody mention that this is only the third post), I have chosen to write about character descriptions.

In case you were wondering, the runner-up lessons were "How to Write Successful Flashbacks" and "How to Use Backstory to Advance the Plot". So, yeah. Maybe I'll come back to those one day, if I ever run out of books to blog about. (Unlikely.)

*clears throat*

Characters...

For an action-packed heist, this book is all about character. Even the title refers to the six main characters, each of which are about as different from each other as half-a-dozen teenagers could be. The characters breathe life into this story, they drive the plot, they create the disasters, they get themselves into, and out of, their own holes. And considering there are five main POVs and two additional ones, I found myself relating quite easily to all of them.

The descriptions, all told from another character's third person point of view, are pulsating with life and layers.

Kaz, the leader of the gang, is a rough and tough youth, who leads the group with his own agenda and a great deal of flair. Most of the time. Here are my favourite descriptions of Kaz in the opening chapters.

"He was a collection of hard lines and tailored edges - sharp jaw, lean build, wool coat snug across his shoulders..."

"Kaz stood with both gloved hands resting on the carved crow's head of his cane. He looked totally at ease, his narrow face obscured by the brim of his hat... she'd come to understand that it was a joke he played on the upstanding merchers. He enjoyed looking like one of them."

"Inej knew the moment Kaz entered the Slat. His presence reverberated through the cramped rooms and crooked hallways as every thug, thief, dealer, conman, and steerer came a little more awake." This one is particularly genius, as it acts as a description of both an essential element of Kaz's character, and also of the setting of their home.

Inej is a soft-footed 'thief of secrets' who climbs walls, picks locks, and spies on everyone. The following descriptions of Inej were actually my favourite lines in the whole book. Beautifully written.

"Inej had a way of making you feel her silence. It tugged at your edges..."

"He'd heard other members of the gang say she moved like a cat, but he suspected cats would sit attentively at her feet to learn her methods..."

"He didn't see her go, only sensed her absence."

"No one else moved like that, as if the world were smoke and she was just passing through it."

Jesper is a twitchy, hyperactive guy with an addiction to gambling and a love for guns. He's my favourite character of all six. I think he's the one who seems the "simplest", but there's a lot more to him.

"With a great sigh, Jesper removed the gunbelts at his hips. She had to admit he looked less himself without them. The Zemeni sharpshooter was long-limbed, brown-skinned, constantly in motion..."

"He had yet to give up his rifle and the silhouette of it across his back made him resemble a gawky, long-limbed bird..."

"Whenever he got cranky he liked to lay his hands on a gun, like a child seeking the comfort of a favoured doll."

"Jesper always felt better when people were shooting at him. It wasn't that he liked the idea of dying... but if he was worrying about staying alive, he couldn't be thinking about anything else. That sound - the swift, shocking report of gunfire - called the scattered, irascible, permanently seeking part of his mind into focus like nothing else. It was better than being at the tables and waiting for the flop..." This is a genius interpretation of Jesper's ADHD, which is never stated outright, but is unquestionably present.

So, to summarise, Bardugo's characters are:
- well-developed
- unique
- described in original ways
- characterised by a small number of elements that are central to them and bring them alive.

On that note, I'd better get back to my WIP and practise.

Readers, which are your favourite characters in Six of Crows or other books, and why did they come alive for you?

Writers, how do you craft your writing to ensure that characters are well-rounded and well-described?



Sunday, 26 February 2017

What I Learned from 'Thanks for the Memories', by Cecelia Ahern.



Good morning/day/evening to you, dear readers. (It's late evening for me, and I'm eschewing my responsibilities to bring you my latest post...)

What I Learned Reading Thanks for the Memories, by Cecelia Ahern (published by Harper Collins). Many of you will know her as the author of 'P.S. I Love You'.

This book is not my usual kind of read. It's most definitely romance, which I rarely read as a genre. My sister gave it to me, and the first thing I should say is I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN.

I literally kept dashing to my room to read another chapter in secret. If that doesn't deserve a blog post, I don't know what does.

So, before I get into the nitty gritty of how Ahern pulled this off so well, I'll start with: go read the book. If you enjoy romance with a great cast of characters, main and secondary, a beautifully engaging setting, and a perfect ending, you'll love this. It will not make you cry as much as 'P.S. I Love You' but it will definitely pull at the heart strings. The main character's elderly dad is an epic character, who will you never forget. (Or at least not for awhile. I read this a few months ago.)

Right. So. That said, I'll jump right in.

SPOILER

This book certainly upholds the 'keep them apart till the ending' principle. But I did not know that when I started reading, of course. The two main characters first meet in chapter seven (of forty-three),  so pretty early on. From that moment on there's a sort of cat-and-mouse chase that almost brings them together several times, and it is infuriatingly effective. As the reader, I had absolutely no clue about how or when they were going to connect and, as I said before, I couldn't put the book down.

If we take the leading lady to be the protagonist (her PoV is first person), and the guy to be the antagonist (his PoV is third person - his actions mostly keep them apart), this principle can be applied to any genre. By knowing that they will inevitably meet at some point, and something big will happen, Ahern keeps the reader guessing all through the book. The trick, I think, was all the 'almosts'. If the two leads had separate story lines that never touched until the end, this nail-biting urgency would be lacking. It was the multiple 'will-they-won't-theys' that kept me turning those pages.

In my current WIP, a superhero/spy mystery, the main confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist comes, as it should, right at the climax, pages from the end. But I'm attempting to apply this principle by giving them plenty of 'almosts' to keep things hot.

I guess my beta readers will let me know if it works!

Readers, which books have you read with plenty of 'almosts'?
Writers, have you applied this principle to your story?












Sunday, 12 February 2017

Great Almond Street and What I Learned Writing a Short Story


Writing a novel is exciting, but also excruciating and exhausting. I hit a low in December, and very nearly lobbed my WIP into the nearest black hole I could find. Fortunately, a timely suggestion to join a critique group kept me going, and said WIP has thus far escaped the relentless pull of the gravitational force otherwise known as Giving Up. 

You may have heard of it. 

So, December was a time for Doing Something Else. I blame this partly (or maybe entirely) on the 95k I wrote during November's NaNoWriMo. I needed a post-NaNo detox. 

Then I discovered The Winter Writing Contest, hosted by Short Fiction Break, and decided to have a go at writing a short story. This particular contest attracted me due to its workshops where other participants could read and give feedback on each other's stories before the final contest deadline. There was also the option to receive feedback from the judges, win or lose. 

My story, Great Almond Street, was selected as one of ten runners-up! Needless to say, this was a huge boost of encouragement, and to top it all off, I learned so much during this experience. I'm now fully convinced that all writers should experiment with short stories every now and then. 

Here are my humble reasons why. 

1. Every word counts. 


Literally. The word count on this competition was 1500 words. That's less than the average scene in my novel. Every single word has to make a difference. Every word must advance the plot, characterize, or foreshadow. Or, preferably, do all three. 

This was an excellent lesson for my long and rambling novel, currently weighing it at well over 120,000 pounds words. Sharpens knife. 

2. The premise must be, dare I say, magical. 


I hummed and hawed over various story ideas that fit the theme, and none of them connected. None of them stuck. I started a few half-hearted drafts, and knew they were going nowhere. 

Then my husband inspired me with the mention of conjoined twins, and I knew immediately I had my story. I knew the story would be told from one of the twin's POV, and I knew what would happen to the twins. 

I believe this is the single most important reason why my story was successful. I could have written any of the mediocre ideas I'd had, but they would have never been anything other than mediocre. (Same writer, same brain, same dog-eared Thesaurus on the same desk.) 

This realization scares me. My WIP premise may not be all it should. 

Never mind, I'm still learning. 

3. The importance of voice. 


Of those who were kind enough to read and comment on my story, many mentioned the voice. A child's voice, no older than six or seven. This story, told by the mother, would have been different. Told by the father, different too. Told by the other twin, definitely different. 

Voice is paramount to a great story. It's what keeps us reading. Writing from a child's POV was a new experience, but beautifully refreshing. Over ten years of working as a speech-language pathologist gave me a particularly developed 'feel' for how children speak. I'm so happy this came across as legitimate in my story. 

Not every character's voice comes as easily, but come it must, if the story is to shine. 


Great Almond Street


We lie together on the bed and watch Mummy pack all the new clothes into the suitcase. I play with the little ladybirds at the bottom of Sarah’s plaits, making them crawl up her shoulder and neck. Mummy holds up the new yellow daisy dresses.
“Daisies for the Queen!” Sarah giggles.
“The Queen is too busy,” I tell her once again.
“Mummy!”
Mummy blinks and turns around to fold the dresses. “We can certainly ask her.”
Sarah pokes me. “Told you,” she says, and sticks her tongue in my face. I stick mine back, a little further, because I am a little bit bigger than her.
“Mummy, can we have lollipops for breakfast?” Sarah lifts her head to look at Mummy, and I do the same. Of course Mummy will say no.
“Lollipops and chocolate,” Mummy says but she doesn’t turn around.
Sarah falls back against the pillow and laughs. “Tomorrow will be the best day ever!”
I laugh with her, because I love lollipops and chocolate too, but Mummy is being strange. I ask Daddy if she is sick. Daddy laughs and hugs us. He tells us to play on the swing before we have to leave. We sit together and ride through the sky. Her smile is a mirror picture of mine, except hers is a little bit bigger.
“They’re talking about the hospital,” I tell Sarah. “Great Almond Street.”

  

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

What I Learned Reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The bull has been taken by the horns (pardon the passive voice) and here is my first blog post for this my new writing platform. Howdy, readers, and thank you for stopping by.

Today I would like to kick off a long-standing series (I promise) of posts entitled 'What I Learned Reading...', and I have decided to give first place to, dum, dum, dum... The Hunger Games!

Why, you ask?

Short answer: It's awesome. Longer answer: I resisted the gravitational pull of society and did not read this book (or watch this movie) until the end of last year. My thirty-something brain had it branded as a soppy teenage book (even though I like reading YA), so yeah, I snobbishly held off.

Then, something happened.

I started writing fiction.

This happened about a year ago, overnight. Literally. I had a dream and it was about an awesome superhero girl who could fly and rescue people from tall buildings. I think the building in my dream could have been the Empire State Building. Random. I've only been to New York City once, and that was in the last millennia.

Soooo, after this dream, I decided to write a book about this awesome superhero girl, who, I discovered, did not have a goal, did not have a backstory, did not have an antagonist and did not have a point. A long and difficult year later, she found all those missing things. (And lost the ability to fly.) Or should I say, I found them for her, through many many hours and days and weeks and months of Learning The Craft.

(Small diversion here: The World Wide Web is amazing. How did people self-learn anything a generation ago?)

In my plentiful readings I kept coming across The Hunger Games, most often referred to as a great example of This, That and The Other.

So I read it. Then I read Catching Fire. Then I read Mockingjay. Then I watched the four movies.

Now I get it.

I'm not saying these books are perfect. (After all, what is, except maybe a fluffy little raspberry macaroon?) But they are pretty darn awesome in many diverse ways. And one thing I learned from Suzanne Collins is...

Character Reactions.

So you're going along in your story and something big happens. Massive. It could be shocking, surprising, scary, whatever. Your awesome protagonist has to react. Sure. So, what? She says 'I'm shocked?' Nah. She looks shocked? Yawn. Her jaw drops and her heart pounds? A little better, but pretty clich├ęd.

SPOILER ALERT for anyone else with a snobbish thirty-something brain who has not read The Hunger Games.

At the end of chapter one, Prim's name is called. She is going into the arena. Needless to say, Katniss, her sister, is shocked. She's scared. Worried. Whatever.

But this is how Ms Collins starts chapter two:

One time, when I was in a hide in a tree, waiting motionless for game to wander by, I dozed off and fell three meters to the ground, landing on my back. It was as if the impact had knocked every wisp of air from my lungs, and I lay there struggling to inhale, to exhale, to do anything. 

That's how I feel now, trying to remember how to breathe, unable to speak, totally stunned as the name bounces around the inside of my skull. Someone is gripping my arm, a boy from the Seam, and I think maybe I started to fall and he caught me. 

I love this. Collins cuts away from the present in the first paragraph, and gives a brief but clear description of a past event, then ties it into the present again. It is a visceral reaction, serves to bring in backstory, characterizes Katniss perfectly, foreshadows future events in trees, and speaks volumes as to how she is feeling right now.

I am attempting to apply this beautiful little nugget of writing to my own Work In Progress. It's harder than it looks, but I'm trying.

Chasing my tale.