Blogger, speculative fiction author, and long-time friend of mine, Jon Mast, invited me to do a guest post on his new writing site. At “Wanted: One New Earth,” Jon takes an unusual perspective to discuss the writers’ life.
I enjoyed the chance to write something a bit outside of my norm- I hope you can stop by and check it out at One Earth: Slightly Used!
When talented photographer and fellow blogger Arti announced that she would be hosting a “Middlemarch in May” Read-Along, I couldn’t resist.
I’d never read anything by George Elliot, but Middlemarch was ranked as the best English novel of all time. The full list of “best 100” included some of my favorites, and I was excited to read the book that had defeated them.
My excitement dimmed just a little when I saw it waiting for me on the library’s hold shelf- all 836 pages of it.
While I love to lose myself in the winding paths of a good story, the weight of the book made me wonder if I might have signed on for as much work as pleasure.
Still, I reasoned, there must be something about this hefty tome that made it endure, something to make the story of people living in a provincial town in 1820s and 30s England resonate with readers today.
I dove in
Photo courtesy of Anastasia Zhenina via. Unsplash.com
When I emerged three weeks later and had reacquainted myself with my family, I felt like, just maybe, I had found what that something is.
Yes, Middlemarch has some slow bits. Some of the obscure medical and historical references bogged me down- thank goodness my book had copious end notes! Also, while I’m sure the issues surrounding the 1832 Reform Act were important, I don’t have much (all right, any) background in 1800s British politics.*
But the characters…the characters kept me coming back.
It’s not necessarily that I found Elliot’s characters likeable. Some of them would be the sort of friends who, when their name showed up on your caller id, you might be tempted to ignore.
No, the people of Middlemarch felt too real to be entirely likeable. And because they felt so real, both in their failings and their triumphs, I couldn’t help but finish the journey with them. I had to see where they ended up, because in each of them I could see a little bit of myself.
If Middlemarch were painting rather than a book, no flat, cartoonish portrayal of characters would do. With words rather than brushstrokes, Elliot shaded in her characters’ personalities: a stroke of light here to show their strengths and successes, offset by the deep shadows of flaws and failings.
With 836 pages to work with, I had ample time to get to know the young heiress, passionately spiritual, who only wanted to dedicate herself to something great, to serve in some profound way. Unfortunately, she was so set on doing this that she didn’t take enough time to consider if she were attaching herself to the right cause.
I watched with pity the ageing scholar, who hoped for happiness, hoped for success in his endeavors, but was warped and bent inward by worry, and caged by self-doubt.
I walked beside the talented young doctor, sure of himself and his abilities, unwilling to sacrifice his ambitions for anything. He was so self-assured, he failed to see that his hasty marriage might threaten it all.
Elliot, the omniscient narrator, sketched her characters through description and observation, then shaded them in using the observations of her other characters, and finally breathed life into them by showing how they reacted to their world.
In the end, it was almost as if the people populating Middlemarch were the ones who took my hand and led me through their story. (Well, maybe sometimes they got behind and pushed me through the rough patches.)
All in all, Middlmarch was not only an excellent example of complex and realistic characters, but it was also an excellent encouragement to continue refining my own characters. After all, they need to be ready and equipped to lead readers on the journey through their world.
Have you read Middlemarch? What did you think of it? Can you think of other stories with striking, detailed characters?
Many thanks for visiting!
* If you want a summary of the book, here’s one that includes links for character descriptions etc.
I’m a Midwesterner by birth. The joke goes that there are three standard responses in our conversations.
#1: “That’s not too bad.” This is suitable for any event from neutral to amazingly super awesome.
#2: “That’s not too good.” This choice works for anything from a minor inconvenience to tragedy.
If choices 1 and 2 just won’t do, the fall back is choice #3: “That’s different.”
Take that and apply it to romance…well, an old Ole and Lena joke comes to mind. (Best read in a thick Minnesota accent.)
Ole comes into the house to find Lena crying.
“Lena, what’s da matter?”
“Oh Ole,” she answers, wiping her eyes. “It’s just…”
“Ole, you never tell me you love me.”
Ole walks over, and pats her on the shoulder. “Aw, Lena. I told you I loved you on our wedding day. If something had changed…I would’ve let you know.”
Ba doom, Ching!
It’s not that my husband and I are not affectionate, and it’s possible that we might be overheard using the “L” word, but we don’t generally gush poetry as we gaze longingly into each other’s eyes.
That much emotion, publicly expressed, is just not comfortable.
In the setting of a novel, I’ll admit it, a bit of romance is “not too bad.” Still, even getting a book out of the library with a cover that clearly indicates that it’s a love story makes me squirmy. Thank goodness for self-checkout…
Unfortunately, the catalyst that gets the murder and mayhem in my novel moving is (you guessed it) a romantic interest. If I wanted to write my book, I had to write convincing romantic-ish scenes. That other people would read.
I steeled myself. It couldn’t be that bad.
The first draft was…ok. I felt like some of it was heavy-handed, but I didn’t know how to make it better, and it sounded kind of like some things I’d read, so I went with it.
After substantial polishing, I entered the novel in a writing contest.
Guess what? I should have followed my instincts. They thought it was heavy-handed too. I got called out on the same bits that I hadn’t been entirely comfortable with in the first place.
Back to the drawing board.
With feedback from the contest and considerable editing, I found a few tricks that helped ease my discomfort, and (hopefully) improved the finished work.
Keep Dialogue Tight
First, I hacked and slashed unnecessary dialogue. Anything that didn’t sound like real life or made me squirm was deleted, and I discovered that the story didn’t lose any clarity for it. Allowing characters emotions etc. to be implied rather than stated strengthened those scenes and helped the story move along.
Pick the Best POV
Second, I changed points of view. Rather than using the ‘love interests’ to narrate, I shifted POV to my antagonist whenever possible. He’s really my most interesting character, and his observations kept things from getting sugary while still letting the reader know the essentials.
It’s All About the Characters
Third, I strengthened the characters. I knew the characters I was writing well enough to know exactly why they would end up together. Based on the contest feedback, I hadn’t conveyed those characteristics clearly. I believe the phrase was something like “stock characters in main characters’ roles.” Ouch!
Since then, I’ve had a good time getting to know my characters better, developing them, giving them more personality and authentic emotion. It’s been work, but it’s rewarding to see not just the romance but all of the scenes getting stronger.
So. Have I mastered the dreaded romantic scene?
Plenty of authors handle that much better than I. BUT, I think I can safely say that I’ve come up with a story that fits my voice better than my first attempts, and something that I can hand off for others to read with greater confidence.
What do you like to see in a good love scene? Any tips, writers or readers?
Can Father’s Day be next weekend already? Last year I wrote this post to tell the story of the writing project my children and I always embark on for the holiday, and to share some thoughts on creativity. I thought I’d share it again, as we will be off on this same journey this week. I hope you enjoy it!
I’ve just completed my annual collaborative writing project.
For the past five years, my children and I have assembled a comic book to present to their daddy for Father’s Day. They are the stars, acting as themselves and their alter egos, “The Super Kids!”
It’s been a journey.
It all started with one little 3 year old, who improvised a superhero costume and stood where I told her to. I took photos of her and the baby, and used Publisher to add some speech bubbles.
This year’s production included pictures taken ‘on location’ at a local park, and all three heroes: Gargantu-Baby, Skater Girl and Skunky. (Yes. Skunky.)
As my kids have grown, so have their opinions, and their desire to direct the production. I try to keep it moving in plausible directions- no, honey, we can’t actually have you fly- but they do most of the creative work.
And it certainly is creative…
I wouldn’t have thought of a small stuffed rabbit being a ninja in disguise who secretly tries to trap us.
I would NEVER have thought of a giant, purple, spike-shooting hedgehog as a villain.
Nor would I have named my son “Skunky” and given him the power of shooting skunks out of his hands.
It’s a joy and adventure to see just what happens when imaginations run wild.
Creativity can be a scary thing as we leave childhood. It means taking risks. It may mean writing outside of our comfort zones. It’s all too easy to lose creativity when we get caught in thoughts like the following.
“This is what my genre demands!”
“This is what agents want!”
“That article said that the way I started my story is all rubbish! It’s OVER!!!!”
I’m not suggesting that all writing advice be thrown out. Still, I’ve found that becoming too fixated on ‘the rules’ rather than on the joy of creating a story can be crippling.
Writing would be much more fun if I approached it like my kids do. Just tell a story. Think of a fun plot, and go for it, even if it’s unconventional. Try a crazy idea, even if it’s not currently popular.
The worst that can happen is it doesn’t work, I had some fun, and I can move on to something else. And, if all else fails, I can just ask the littles for help. They have PLENTY of ideas.
What roadblocks to creativity have you encountered? How do you get past them?
The drive around Washington’s Olympic Peninsula winds and twists beside Lake Crescent, near temperate rainforests populated by all sorts of wildlife: herds of elk, blacktailed deer, even cougars. I needed to be alert.
When we saw a drive-through coffee stand ahead, I decided to give it a try.
Shacks peddling over-priced coffees line Washington’s roads, bearing names like “Bean Me Up” and “Express Espresso.”
This one’s name surprised me- “Bouncing Betty’s.”
My first thought was something like:
Naming a coffee shop after an anti-personnel mine seemed a little…well, tasteless. I reasoned that maybe they were just trying to indicate that their coffee was very powerful.
Whatever. That sixteen ounce non-fat white mocha was calling my name. I pulled up to the window.
I’m not sure if the barrista’s name was Betty. She didn’t have anything to pin a name tag on to.
We don’t need to discuss just how quickly I drove away after she bounced away to help the customer at the other window. We also don’t need to talk about whether I distracted the kids by pretending there was a herd of elk running past the car on the other side, all the while waiting for one of them to pipe up in that extra audible voice kids save for awkward situations, “Mommy? Where’s her shirt?”
Nope. The point is, whether due to unclear marketing on the part of the shop, or due to me being a little clueless, I ended up at a shop for which I was not the target audience.
Has something similar ever happened to you when picking up a new book?
One of my friends grabbed a book off the library shelf a few years back. The cover featured an intriguing old castle, and the blurb described it as a retelling of Sleeping Beauty.
Then she started reading it, and got to the S and M parts…
Believe me, if you knew my friend, you’d join me in having a good chuckle at her expense (and don’t worry, she’d join in). She was not the author’s target audience.
The desire to avoid this kind of confusion gives authors and booksellers a major incentive to categorize their books by genre. Romances, mysteries, thrillers, and horror stories are neatly grouped for the reader’s convenience.
It’s not a bad system. Unless, of course, you aren’t sure into which genre your book fits.
Personally, I’ve found determining my unpublished book’s exact genre a headache. I can say I’m writing historical fiction, but there are dozens of sub-categories of genre to sift through, each with its own rules. If I’d been a little more forward-thinking I would have been smarter and researched all of these rules BEFORE writing the thing.
Ah well. It’s one of those headaches that I’ll just have to live through.
After all, going back to the coffee shop comparison, I don’t want someone picking my book up expecting a “Natte Latte” and being disappointed with a “Thinking Cup.”
To keep that from happening, it’s important to realize that a thriller, which has world changing stakes and a ticking clock, is different from a suspense novel or crime fiction.
Whatever genre the book fits into will influence the cover art, the blurb on the back, even the title. After all, you don’t expect to pick up a book with a smoking gun on the cover and read on the back, “This heartwarming romantic comedy…”
Now, my ability to explain all of the nuances of book genre off the top of my head are currently equal to my ability to produce a double half-fat frapuccino. I could probably find the directions online and make a passable attempt, but why not let the experts do it?
Following are a couple of excellent and interesting resources:
Blogger Kristen Lamb gives some great (and entertaining) insights on the importance of genre, as well as giving some good genre definitions here.
Jacqui Murray has been doing an “A-Z” series on different genres, defining them and giving examples. Here is her blog post on genres in the letter “B” as in blog.
Do you have any other sources to share? Have you had any struggles determining the genre of your writing? Have you had any surprises when someone else’s genre was unclear?
It is my pleasure to present to you the second place winner from the March 2018 Word Weaver Writing Contest, Anne Clare’s “Dark Corners.” Anne Clare’s story was a blast to read. She hooked me from the opening and held me straight through to the end. Obviously, it was a fave of the celebrity judges, […]
I won a writing contest today!I had never attempted writing microfiction before this year, but when I started looking around for other writing blogs on WordPress, I found Nicola Auckland’s “Sometimes Stellar Storyteller Six Word Story Challenge.”
A one-word prompt is uploaded to the site every Saturday. The challenge is self-explanatory. Write a story, based on the prompt, using only six words.
Yep. Six words.
The challenge page includes a link on ‘How to write the best Six Word Stories,’ which gives the author’s rationale for the six word story, as well as some helpful tips.
Anyone can enter, and the contest is ‘just for fun,’ but the winner DOES get to post the fabulous picture above on their blog!
While I don’t imagine microfiction will ever be my go-to writing style, I’ve found the contest to be a fun exercise which forces me to be concise.
As to my award-winning story 😉 , this week’s prompt was COMPLICATED.
My story entry was : No! Cut yellow wire, THEN red!
Just think, you can now say you read an entire story today, in about two seconds!
After all, ’tis the season for love- at least according to all of the florists and chocolatiers.
‘Love’ seems to become very tangible on February 14th. It comes cloaked in gifts and meals, in little cards or wide-eyed stuffed animals.
During the rest of the year ‘love’ becomes more vague- harder to pin down. The word is amorphous enough to apply to the man I’m spending my life with, and also to my favorite purple sneakers.
I do love my native tongue, but I find it interesting how much more clearly ‘love’ is described in other languages.
No, I can’t claim to be multi-lingual. I wish I could. I made it through my two years of Latin and Spanish, but unfortunately I’ve lost so much that I might be able to carry on a conversation with a very quiet three-year-old, provided she wanted to talk about ‘queso’ and practice counting. However, I’m a pastor’s kid, and a smattering of Biblical Greek stuck, in particular some of the various words detailing (you guessed it!) types of love.
Ancient Greek had numerous specific words that all translate to ‘love’ in English. A couple of them are easy to recognize.
For instance, “eros” is the root for ‘erotic.’ Need I say more?
Philadelphia gets its name from the Greek word “philos”, and its nickname is based on the meaning: the City of Brotherly Love. (Just don’t look up the crime rates…or so I’ve heard.)
The third is trickier: “agape.” (Ah-gah-pay, rather than the ‘opened mouth’ pronunciation. I once saw a dentist office called “Agape Dental.” I wonder which pronunciation they were going for?)
Agape love is the love of self-sacrifice. It is love that gives, regardless of whether the object of the love is deserving. It’s love in action. (Going back to my first encounter with the word, it’s used consistently in the New Testament to describe the relationship between God and humankind.)
While the other types of love can be invaluable in stories, including some ‘agape’ can deepen and strengthen the relationships between characters. When they show unselfish love- love that gives rather than takes- it’s so outside the realm of the typical that, when written well, it’s unforgettable.
After all, to take a few examples from varied genres, Sam didn’t have to accompany Frodo into Mordor. Mr. Darcy didn’t stand to gain by secretly aiding the family of a girl who’d as good as spit in his face. Atticus Finch wasn’t forced to risk his reputation and family’s safety to defend an innocent man.
They chose to do it anyway, and those stories hold a place of honor as some of my favorites.
In real life, I think of the nights when my husband, weary from another overtime shift, rejoins the family to be pulled in three different directions by our children. I can tell that he’s longing for quiet, but he puts it aside. He talks to them, plays with them, listens to their exploits. I think of the nights when he sees the crazy in my eyes, and he sends me away for alone time in his place.
That’s love that doesn’t fit into a chocolate box.
Do you have any stories of love in action, in self-sacrifice, that you’d like to recommend? I always love new books to read!
Thanks for visiting!
BONUS: Fellas, if you’re celebrating today but can’t figure out what she really wants, Tim Hawkins has the answer. 🙂
Stan grinned and accepted the cigar. “Thanks, Mac. So, how’s it feel to be two days from retirement?”
“Heh. Why d’ya think I sprang for the good cigars? Man, life couldn’t be better.” Mac leaned back and rested his heels on the edge of the consol. His boot blocked the glow of the perimeter warning light as it began to flash.
Stan drew in a lungful of smoke, savoring the flavor. “Gerda looking forward to having you home more?”
“Sure. After risking life and limb out here on the Edge for the past five years, I’m ready for some domesticity. Let me tell ya, Stan. There were days I didn’t think we’d make it…”
Ok, readers, you tell me. What’s going to happen next?
Mac’s retiring, celebrating because they’ve made it this far, confiding in a friend, and a warning light’s going off…
He’s not going to make it.
Like a red-shirted ensign on Captain Kirk’s away team, some characters are so obviously headed for disaster that it’s best not to get attached.
Here are a few common ‘expendables,’ just off the top of my head.
The Mentor. The soon-to be hero of the piece is young and inexperienced. He or she needs guidance. Enter the wise old mentor, who leads, guides, becomes a father figure…and then dies. The hero/heroine is galvanized to become who they were meant to be!!!
The Relationship. Whether it’s a spouse, a child, a best friend, or a pet, if your hard-boiled ex-super- tough-character has settled down for a peaceful life at the beginning of a story, you know it’s not going to last, don’t you? Someone the character loves will be sacrificed on the altar of storyline so that he/she is galvanized to take up the fight once more.
The Innocent. How can you tell baddies are really bad? When they kill innocent bystanders who are no threat to them, naturally. (What do you mean it’s not very subtle?) Once that kitten ranch is gone, ooooh, we’re all gonna be rooting for the hero to take that kitten killer DOWN.
“I’m Retiring Next Week!” Enough said. He will not be collecting his pension. Sub categories of this include “Getting married tomorrow,” or “Just had a baby.”
Cannon Fodder. If you’ve watched Star Trek, you probably understand what I meant with my reference to “red-shirted ensigns.” The poor guys may as well have painted bull’s eyes on those polyester suits. In the realm of sci-fi, the only worse person to be is a storm trooper. (Sure, the armor looks good, but fuzzy mini-teddy bears can render it useless with sticks! Painful, and embarrassing.) In any story where a core team of main characters takes guards for protection, or travels in a caravan, or interacts with any group that’s not essential to the plot, look out.
This topic has been on my mind because I just caught myself using one of these types of characters.
I’ve had to stop and take a long look at my story arc.
Every story won’t be the most original and surprising piece of literature ever written- it’s just not possible. (How many books and shows have essentially repeated the same plot?) Still, if my story’s going to include a character’s death, I want it to count. I want it to increase the tension, raise the stakes, make readers care more.
In short, I caught myself in some lazy writing, and that just won’t do. My new goal for this draft is to make my paper people resemble flesh and blood more than cardboard cut-outs just waiting to be knocked down.
Maybe LeRoy (that’s my nice guy/best friend/cannon fodder’s name. Poor, poor LeRoy) needs to live. My, that would throw my plot for a loop! Or maybe he’ll still fall, but in a different way, or in a different time.
Maybe I just need to spend more time on his character so that he is more than a puppet, waiting on stage for his dramatic exit.
Can you add any other character types I’ve missed above- ones you always suspect aren’t going to make it to the story’s end?