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Building Character

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Protagonists, antagonists, supporting characters… Where do they come from? Our heads of course. We can shape them, manipulate them any old way we choose. And by adding bits here and there we eventually leave our readers with an impression of the person we’ve created. If it’s our protagonist, we usually want our readers to feel empathetic towards him or her so maybe we make them vulnerable. If it’s the antagonist, we often imbue this character with traits that conflict with the protagonist thus creating tension.

We can get lots of mileage from physical attributes as well. Take Captain Hook for instance. He was mean and menacing and what could be scarier for a child than a villain with a silver, pointed hook for a hand. Or how about Fantine in Les Miserables? We see her beauty fade as she first sells her hair, her teeth and then her body.

Right now I’m creating characters for my next novel. Piecing together parts from people I know or characters from movies, books and television. Kind of like a quilt of granny squares. The eyes for one of my main characters, a 13-year-old Jewish girl, I got from from the cover of a book. It’s pinned to my bulletin board. Her friend looks a lot like Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver – tough and lanky.  And the Jewish grandmother is soft and round with an ample bosom just like a dear friend I once knew.

And if we’re really good at it, creating a character, sometimes that fictional being takes on a life of his or her own. One such character for me is Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie sang to me. I loved her spunk, pluck and tenacity. I found myself wishing that I had known her for we’d surely have been best friends.

So what characters have left a lasting impression on you?

Write on everyone!

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Are You a Panster or a Plotter? Weigh in.

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Battles rage about this issue. When writing – especially something large or complex – are you one who flies by the seat of your pants (Panster)? Or do you carefully outline the story from beginning to end (Plotter)?

Take a moment to answer the poll. It will be interesting to see which one comes out ahead…

Myself? Well, I’d say I’m a Semi-Plotter.

It all started in grade school when my teacher, Mrs. Harding, made us outline our book-reports. You know I, II, III followed by A,B,C and then 1.2.3 yadda, yadda, yadda. Sometimes it got so convoluted that I’d forget where I was in the scheme of things. I’d draw arrows from III.C.4 to I.B.2 and then erase like crazy. By the time I was done, there would be holes in the paper and tears on my cheeks.

But over time, I realized that this kind of planning was good for me. To an extent. It helped organize my thoughts, figure out where I was headed and finally bring it all together in a neatly wrapped package. Years ago, when I wrote for a local paper, I would often jot down a rough outline to get a good feel for the flow of the story. Then I would fill in the missing pieces of information. Often, I would find myself surprised when my story simply concluded on its own as if by magic.

So I’ve taken this non-fiction type of outline and plan to apply it to my next work of fiction. But in a much more organic way.

I have the story in scenes written out randomly on my laptop. Yesterday I cut up a brown-paper bag like you would if you were going to use it as a book-cover.  Next, I raided my daughter’s art cubby and scavenged a nice assortment of colored markers. I plan to sketch out a timeline of the scenes on the brown paper and use it as an “outline.”

So for those of you content to simply let the pen fly willy-nilly, I bow in respect.

But you won’t have a pretty piece of brown paper with rainbow- colored jottings to hang up on your wall now will you?

Rejection’s Evolution

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When No Isn’t Necessarily No – Some Useful Insights

Got two manuscript rejections yesterday. One in the mail the other in my email inbox. But I’ll tell you about these later.

When I first started sending out manuscripts and began receiving rejections I took them hard. I would vow not to do it again – not to put myself out there and be vulnerable. But invariably I would get over it and begin once more. The submission, followed by the waiting and then the rejection. Usually addressed to “Dear Author/Illustrator.” They were forms – mere slips of paper shoved into a SAS that I had provided. But with those I guess I was lucky. For it was when I didn’t hear anything for months that stung the most. My writing not even worthy of a stamp.

But things are changing. My rejections now appear on publisher/agent letterhead or are addressed to me personally via email like the ones I got yesterday. And while they both were a “pass” there still is hope. After getting over the initial let down of rejection, I reread the letters and both included invaluable insights into my writing and where I might improve. Both the editor and the agent suggested that I “tighten things up” and be more “succinct.” The tension needs to be increased.

I will take this generous editorial advice and put it to good use. Those thoughtful words will fuel cuts, rewrites and revisions. And when I think I simply cannot improve my writing any more, I will do it again.

Only then will I re-submit.

My advice to all receiving rejections: if the editor or agent takes the time to write something constructive about your piece you are SO CLOSE! Follow through and do what they say.

Sometimes the “no” is a “maybe”.

Are the 1970’s history?

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How often we find ourselves using that term – HISTORY.  If we want to make something that happened in our lives seem insignificant we say, “Oh, that’s history.” We’re over it. But what is history when it comes to writing? Some history teachers tell their students that history is anything that happened in the past. So yesterday, I made a broccoli and chicken casserole for dinner. So is that now considered “history?”  I don’t think so. But no one will argue with me when I say that in June 1815 Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo as Abba so poignantly reminded us. So where is the line between “history” and “not history”? There are differing opinions. And what about the terms “historical fiction” vs. “period fiction.” Yikes… This is getting complicated!

According to The Historical Novel Society, a novel is considered to be “historical fiction” if the story is written fifty or more years after the events described therein or prior to the writer’s birth. The American Library Association’s RUSA says that the events within the novel need to be at least a generation (25 years) before its publication. And yet, according to the veritable Encyclopedia Britannica, a historical novel need only have its setting be within a period of history with events and details depicted accurately.

So would the Sherlock Holmes series be considered historical fiction? According to the definitions above, yes. However, there are those that profess it is not because historic events are not the primary focus. The same with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. There are those that claim that these works should be considered “period fiction” – novels that occur within a specific time period but have no real focus on depicting actual historic events.

So this brings me back to the 1970’s – the time period for my next novel. Will I be writing a historical novel or a period novel? I guess it doesn’t matter right now because I’m just beginning. But come time to pitch The Summer Girl to agents I will need to be sure which genre I use. (Agents hate it when you get your genre wrong!)

What do you think? Is period fiction a sub-genre of historical fiction? Or is it a genre all of its own? Or is there an ever-morphing line between the two?

Food for thought…

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