31 August 2012

Context is King

I live halfway up (or down) a hill, it's a little like a bowl with houses on the far side. Stick with me for a moment, as I promise you this is relevant.

One evening about a year ago I was on the phone talking to a friend while looking out of the window. It was winter and dark so I couldn’t see much other than house lights. Suddenly flames shot up from a house on the far side of the hill.

My words were along the lines of, 'Oh my goodness it's a fire.' You can see how restrained I was! My friend, at the other end of the phone, had no idea of the context of my words. Did I have a kitchen fire? Was my house suddenly a raging inferno?

Context is everything when we write. We don't live in a void and neither do our characters. Non-fiction writing also needs context. A prospective reader will want to know why they should buy this particular book. In learning and development terms this is generally referred to as WIIFM - What's in it for me? If I'm going to invest my money, and more importantly my time, then there has to be a good reason.

In my last post I mentioned the shoot-out at the beginning of the film. I didn't know any of the characters, or the reasons behind the gunfight so I didn't really care about the outcome.

We need to care about characters to invest emotion in them, and we need context as where something is happening and why.

It doesn't need to be pages of description; often a few words or a sentence is enough for readers to paint the picture themselves.

Context is most important in our beginnings - obviously the start of a book, and the start of sections or chapters to orient the reader, especially if we've moved the setting, time has elapsed, or we are now with different characters or a different POV.

We may be able to see the scene clearly in our minds, but if we haven't taken the reader with us, they'll be stumbling around in the fog wondering where they are.

27 August 2012

What You Need, When You Need It

We watched the film Cleanskin on DVD recently. It's a terrorist shoot 'em up, guns and bombs thriller. Yes, you've guessed right, it wasn't my turn to choose!

I won't go into the plot in any detail, but I wanted to write about one thing that surprised me.

The film started in the expected manner with a shoot out, even though we didn't yet know who the characters were, and therefore who we should want to win. I guess that having Sean Bean on one side was the clue.

In succeeding scenes we find out the reason for the shoot out, and meet some of the other characters, in particular a young man called Ash. Later he recognises a woman in a bar, and from their conversation and the meaningful looks they exchange we understand they had a serious relationship in the past, and that it didn't end well.  BUT, just to make sure we get the message, we are taken out of the current plot and go back several years to see their early relationship unfold. 

Back in the present plot we have a bit more action, and then we are taken back several years again to see how Ash became involved with the group. I didn't time this second 'flashback' but it was must have been 5-10 minutes at least. From what we see in the 'present plot' of the film we can put two and two together and do without the flashbacks.

One of the first writing 'rules' we learn is not to drop in huge chunks of backstory, and both those in the film would have been at least a chapter!

It is hard to murder your darlings, but watching this film made it so obvious why we need to do just that.

It's not a bad film, but I didn't think it required the info dumps. We can read the situation about the relationship from the body language and dialogue of the two actors, and the second we can put together ourselves.

I found this a good reminder that information we might feel is vital for the readers is not always necessary. Get your writing group or beta readers to read extracts without the backstory, if they can understand what's going on without the backstory, then you've done your job well. 

Drip-feed only what is absolutely necessary, and only when it is absolutely required.

24 August 2012

Working on Autopilot

Earlier this week I had to go to a meeting at a client's office. I parked the car a couple of streets away and headed to their building. One of the roads I cross is a one-way street, although it has two lanes. While I knew the traffic was only going in one direction, I couldn't stop myself looking in both directions before crossing.

I suppose the childhood training of 'Look right, look left, look right again', is so ingrained I had done it automatically.

I lived in Germany for a number of years, and on mainland Europe they drive on the right. The first few weeks I drove in Germany I recall being in super-alert mode to avoid making mistakes after being so used to driving on the left, although I had a few close calls when crossing the street while walking.

After a short time, driving on the 'wrong' side of the road became familiar, and I settled back into auto-pilot mode. When I returned to England there was a similar period of time getting used to what had originally been the norm.

When we first learn something new it's arduous and takes a lot of effort, but the brain is very good at forming habits. Once it knows this task is something we're going to do on a regular basis, then habit takes over. Think back to when you first learned to ride a bike, or drive a car. Everything was difficult, so many things to take notice of and do, but after a period of time it becomes a habit. If the brain didn't work this way we'd be overloaded.

This function is very useful, but it does mean we can sleepwalk our way through life if we're not careful. 

There are lots of simple things we can do to increase brain activity and keep us alert. Try doing a few tasks with your non-dominant hand. For example brush your teeth with your left hand instead of your right, or for those of you like me, try using your right hand instead of your left. Simple exercises that involve crossing the hands over the body are good for engaging both sides of the brain, or the good old rub your tummy while patting your head exercise. When I taught computer applications, a good wake-up exercise was sitting on the office chair (one with wheels) and moving backwards on it.

This autopilot mode can also invade our writing. We miss plot holes because we're too close to our writing, or don't see things such as weak dialogue, too much description, characters that aren't believable, or any number of other things that might need work in an early draft. 

Last night we had a good meeting of the writing group I belong to. We haven't met for some time as life has interrupted us on a few occasions, and one of our members now lives in Melbourne and another in the South Island. This week Bron was up from the South Island for the RWNZ Conference and most of us were able to make the meeting. It also happened that I was one of the two members having writing critiqued. Our format is that we email the extract (about 20 pages) to the group one to two weeks before we meet, so everyone has time to read and note comments before the meeting. As it's been some time since we met, we also had a great catch up. 

It's so good to have constructive feedback. The others will pick up things I've overlooked, and they often have a different take on a scene, or see it in a way that I haven't. They read the extract both as writers and readers. This feedback is invaluable in the journey to turning early drafts into polished books.

20 August 2012

Character Motivations

The last few posts have been about characters, and their positive and negative traits. Negative traits are equally as important as positive ones, because no one likes a perfect protagonist, and even a positive trait can become negative if taken to an extreme.

One thing I haven't mentioned is physical description. When I'm reading I'm quite happy with my own visualisation of the character, and I've often got that firmly in my mind before reading a description, but there are some books where a description of a character is vital to the plot. Look through some magazines if you are having difficulties with picturing your character, or take the elements you like most in your favourite actors and make a composite of them - though thinking of police photo-fit pictures that might not be such a great idea!

Whatever our characters look like, their personality and temperament is far more important in making them believable. 

Once we have rounded our their character, using whatever tools we feel best, we must make sure they are true to those traits. One of the most annoying things when reading a book, or watching a film, is a person doing something totally out of character. Plot should not drive our characters. They need to act in character, or we should signal the reasons for change.

In Lives Interrupted, Kate has a happy, outgoing personality and thinks that life is a breeze. After she is nearly killed in a bomb explosion these traits change dramatically, but given the circumstances that is believable.

In my current work in progress (Lies of the Dead), Tom begins as someone who isn't keen on change and prefers to take his time making decisions. When his brother commits suicide, Tom needs to know why. As he discovers things about his brother, events and other characters don't allow him the luxury of time. This initiates changes in him, and so by the end of the book Tom makes choices he wouldn't have considered at the beginning, but they aren't irrational. We've moved with him and understand the changes.

Our characters need to have hopes and fears, as opposed to perfect skin and make-up. Okay maybe they can have perfect skin, but they also need the hopes and fears that make them believable.

They must make choices that are realistic for them, not because the plot demands it. Remember, they drive the plot and not the other way round. When they come up against a challenge, we have to consider their traits and motivations to know what they will choose to do.

What motivates your character? What has happened in their past that makes them act the way they do? This doesn't have to appear in your story, but you and the reader need to know enough about them to understand their motivations.

17 August 2012

Character Trait Tools

I talked here and here about positive and negative character traits, and why our characters need both to be well-rounded and believable, as opposed to a protagonist who is perfect, or an antagonist who is totally evil.

Many of the personality tools break characteristics down into four main character types. These are given a variety of names depending on the book or tools you are looking at, but the four basic character types can be described as:

  • Analytical
  • Agreeable
  • Communicator
  • Determined

A character can have some, or all of those traits depending on the situation and who they are with, but usually they will be strongest in one, with some backup traits from another, while characteristics from the other two groups are much less apparent.

The interesting thing is that any trait taken to extreme can become negative.

The analytical character will be precise and methodical. They like systems and procedures, and are slow to make decisions, but their decisions will usually be sound. However, taken to extreme this could mean they are overly cautious and need a huge amount of information before making a decision. Can you see how this trait could irritate other characters and affect your plot?

The agreeable character is very people focused. They are dependable and friendly, but they may not like confrontation, or may not want to tell the protagonist the truth if it's going to hurt them.

The communicator has great ideas, but not necessarily the staying power to see them through to completion. They are outgoing and social with high energy levels. A quiet character could find this emotionally draining if we put them together in a conflict situation. 

The final of the four character types is the determined or strong-minded character. They are results oriented, intense and focused. These are good qualities in a leader, but if taken to an extreme could mean they are aggressive, or very rigid in their thinking - they are always right. Lots of potential there for conflict, which is what we want in our writing.

When I started my current work in progress I knew the basic personalities of the three main characters, but I wanted to round them out so they weren't just generic cardboard cut-outs.

The character types I've just mentioned are a good place to start, but there are other sources of inspiration.

One of the best known personality assessment tools is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). This uses 4 preference types giving 16 possible type combinations. There are plenty of books and information on the internet on the combinations, and what the main preference types mean.

Natal or birth charts are another way of looking at the positive and negative sides of personality traits for our characters. If using this I've started with the basic birth sign I thought fitted their character, and then given them a birth date and time to see their personality makeup. 

The Enneagram Personality System works with nine personality types. Your protagonist or antagonist will be one of those types, and there is information on how these traits can be positive and negative.

I've found all these tools amazingly helpful in rounding out my characters, and I've also thought of other possible conflicts while looking at how a positive trait can be a negative, or at least perceived as negative.

I tend to be more of a planner, and prefer using these tools while I'm getting to know my characters, but they can be used at any time.

I'd love to hear from you, and find out if any of these helped with your planning or writing.

12 August 2012

Cover Image Changes for Kindle and Smashwords

One of the reasons I started this blog was to share my experiences in writing and publishing.

After having a novel published, I decided to publish Lives Interrupted myself using KDP and Smashwords for the electronic version, and CreateSpace for a print version.  I documented the steps I took and what worked best, and earlier this year decided to pull those posts together in an electronic book Smart Formatting.

About a month ago some of the requirements for cover images changed and I've updated the dimensions and information in Smart Formatting.

Below is the new information.
In mid 2012 Smashwords changed the minimum image pixel dimensions, as Apple required higher pixel counts. They require all ebook cover images to be at least 1,400 pixels wide. If you are looking for a good height to width ratio, say 1:5, you could go for an image of 1,600 wide by 2,400 tall.

KDP has a minimum of 1,000 pixels for the height and state an ideal ratio of 1:6. They recommend that images be 2,500 pixels high. For this ratio you could create an image of 1,600 wide and 2,560 high. The image must be in RGB (Red, Green, Blue) colour mode. I uploaded my image as a .jpg file although KDP say they will also accept .tif files.
Normal service will be resumed in the next post, and I'll continue with positive and negative character traits. 


10 August 2012

Working on Positive and Negative Character Traits

In job interviews the question I hate most is - tell us about your weaknesses.

Do you really want to know them? Can't I just tell you about my strengths?

The trick - according to me at least - is to describe a weakness that you're working on and can show progress, or (and this is my favourite) a weakness that could be considered a strength from a different perspective, and how you use it to best advantage.

I mentioned in an earlier post about putting off readers with super-hero characters who don't have any flaws. Most people can't relate to perfect characters, and therefore don't like or care about them. If we don't care about a character then we're not going to continue reading the book.

Very few people are all good or totally bad, and any characteristic taken to an extreme can turn into a negative. It depends on how we want to play it. 

For example, we might have an assertive character who is very vocal about everything, and who thinks the quiet character who doesn't like conflict is weak.  But we can turn this around if the non-conflict character quietly negotiates the terms they want. Quiet doesn't necessarily equate to weak.

A character trait isn't black or white, but can be any shade of grey (though that's a different book!). The trick is getting to know your characters, and understand what makes them act as they do.

In the book I'm working on at present, Tom, the main character, doesn't like making quick decisions.  This is a trait that annoys several of the other characters, and because he is also quiet rather than pushy, they come to the conclusion he is stupid.  Silly conclusion for them. 

Tom is the oldest son in the family, and though he is an adult he still feels this responsibility. This has shaped his character, and therefore his beliefs and actions. 

However, these traits and beliefs are also things that work against him, and form some of the change that occurs in his character.

A believable character makes decisions in keeping with what we know of them, or if they make an uncharacteristic decision we will see the reasons why they've acted in that way.  They move the plot forward because of their actions.

We need to know our characters better than we know ourselves - we often have blind spots about our own character traits!

Ask yourself questions such as:

* What events shaped your protagonist?

What do they want?

* What drives them?

* How do they feel about themselves?

* How does this impact your story?

* What would surprise your protagonist? Not just the large events, but the smaller things that round them out as a person and add depth.

Ask yourself the same questions for your antagonist.

Next post I'll talk about some of the tools I've found useful in developing both the positive and negative sides of character traits.

07 August 2012

Perspective and Being Too Tightly Zipped

I've just spent a few great days in Sydney. Your thoughts on that statement will probably vary depending on what part of the world you live in. Sydney is just under four hours flying time from Auckland, and is one of our closest destinations. Although that's further than Paris is from London (for example), it's a popular place to visit for a short trip from New Zealand.

I love visiting Sydney, and have considered moving there on a few occasions, though the things I love about it are some of the things that put me off moving there. It's a vibrant, busy, bustling city, and these days I prefer the quieter life.

There is a popular quote that says travel broadens the mind, but does it?

I think that if we have an open mind to begin with, then travel will challenge our assumptions, and give us new ideas and views of people and cultures. While it possibly won't change our beliefs, it should give us greater tolerance for others. But, and this is a big but, we have to have the right frame of mind, and a willingness to change our perspective.

My mother always said that some people were too tightly zipped into their own skin to look at situations from a different perspective, and unfortunately that's still true.

I believe that as people there is more that makes us similar, than makes us different.

I stood for a few minutes enjoying a view within listening distance of a French family. The parents were with their youngest child, who was about three, while two older boys played with a ball. The mother said something, and the three-year-old replied with, 'Pourquoi?'

My school French managed to make our most of the mother's answer, and again the child replied with the one word. This went on for a few minutes until the mother gave up, and passed the conversation onto the father, and I moved away smiling.

Pourquoi is French for why, and I'm sure every parent has had more than one why conversation with a toddler. They can seem never ending when you're in the middle of one!

The ferry trips across the harbour to Manly were lovely, and even at night it was pleasant to sit outside and watch the city lights.  The gardens and park along from the Opera House were filled with hyacinths and tulips, as it is a good 4-5 degrees warmer than here in Auckland, but it made me realise that Spring is just around the corner.

It's all about perspective.

02 August 2012


If you don't like sport, you'll probably be finding it difficult to divorce yourself entirely from the Olympics. Even in our distant part of the world, where the time difference means that most events are on overnight, there are repeats, the internet, and of course recording the bits you do want to see.

I wasn't particularly gifted at sports as a child. I've always been tall, and the sports teacher spent most of my school life telling me I should be good at high jump/long jump, running and whatever else we were doing, because I was tall. Telling me didn't make it so, but I did love watching those athletes stand on the podium clutching their medals

I only started running a few years ago, tricked into it by a friend and the guy doing the training. Much to my surprise I found I liked it, though I'm not sure 'like' is the right word. I don't leap out of bed thinking, oh goody time for a run. It never gets any easier, and while I'm running my brain keeps asking me what the hell I'm doing. I've not yet come up with an answer. What I do know is that I keep running, and as I've given up other sporting activities I don't enjoy, I guess that somewhere, well hidden, I enjoy running.

I'm not a fast runner, and I would hazard a guess that I'm not one of those elegant, athletic people that appear born to run, but I keep on dreaming that maybe I am.

I’ll be watching the marathon, though my longest distance so far is around 8km, with the dreams of childhood still in my head. Well, that's what writer's do; we think up the impossible and make it happen.