Why do readers read? They want to escape their world. But you knew that, because you are also a reader.
The greatest writers through time have said that the best fiction takes a reader through a fact finding journey and also on an emotional journey. The emotional journey is what connects you and the reader. Without it, you’re just relating what happens in your characters’ lives. Bonding with the reader is the most important job you have as an author. But how can you do that? There are many ways, but today I want to discuss two.
First, recall emotions, especially those you’ve buried. Buried emotions are the best because they affected your heart. Recall a time you felt hurt or happy or lost or found. Allow yourself to experience the emotions again and write them down. By writing them down, I don’t mean just the term. Write the dialog used during the conversation and the reactions both physically and mentally you experienced. Be honest with yourself. The more you peel away the layers of your psyche, the more powerful your writing will be.
Here is an example as I recall my first taste of love. I’ve changed my hero’s name to protect him.
My first kiss happened in my family’s barn. The barn had been in my family for five generations. It was old and leaned slightly. Closing my eyes, I feel the cool air against my warm skin- the barn is built into the hillside. I can see the wood planks, turned gray from time and wear, just a few feet above my head. Bridles and lead ropes hang from pegs hammered into road milled posts nicked over years. Large rocks make up the foundation walls. My sorrel gelding is in his stall watching me, and dust mites float in the sunlight pouring in the door behind the boy who had chased me inside.
I can smell a mixture of summer sun, feed and manure. I hear the munching of hay as the cattle fed and the sound of my horse’s neigh and snort. There is a dip from the nozzle near the shaft to the silo. I also hear the whispered alto voice of the boy with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen, as he declared his affection for me. His gorgeous cobalt eyes were magnified behind glasses: dark framed like Clark Kent’s. Eric was my hero and always would be. I’d love him until the end of time.
My heart thumped against my breast, knowing Eric really liked me while my toes wiggled in my boots as if telling to run because if my dad found out about the kiss that was about to happen he would kill the boy and ground me for a month. My spine stiffened and my step was defiant as I cut the distance between Eric and myself, committed to take my chances. Looking up at me, because he was about two inches shorter, Eric’s eyes widened before closing as his lips met mine. For a brief few seconds, we entered an unknown world, a world we knew we’d entered again, in due time.
“Will you go to the movies with me on Saturday night? I can meet you there,” he said in a rush.
I simply nodded, afraid my voice would crack.
Writing the memory down gave me tons of ideas of how to write emotion into any first kiss scene, no matter what the age of the characters.
As an exercise in your comments, write about your first kiss. What do you recall?
Second point: Everyone has experienced a first kiss. Using that scenario immediately connects you to the reader. But what happens when you’re writing beyond your experience? Research is the answer. Say you’re writing a scene where the characters have experienced a fire and have lost everything. You’ve been fortunate enough not to have that disaster happen to you, so what you can do is ask someone who has. I did this and I’ll never forget the two of the responses I received.
One woman she said she always looked at her husband as the rock she could count on, but the day they lost everything, her husband fell to his knees literally and was lost. She took over the responsibility to shoulder their way through rebuilding their home and lives. That catastrophe made her stronger than she thought she ever would be.
The second woman told me she felt guilty after suffering the loss of everything. Her guilt was over her family’s heirlooms for which she had been entrusted. For generations the treasures from England had been kept safe and passed down. She was the one to fail to do so. She was ashamed of herself. It took her a long time to come to terms that the lost was not her fault.
Both are very unique outlooks on a tragedy that can connect you with many readers who’ve had the same experience. And for those readers who have not, we have a better insight into the depth of emotional upheave that a fire can cause.
So show your readers your passion. Reveal your heart and the heart of others.
About the author
I began my writing career at the age of nine and sold three handwritten copies of a twenty page story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and follow in the footsteps of my favorite authors, the ones who took me away and inspired me. Many years later, here I am.
I’ve earned the nickname of trouble from family and friends. Okay, I admit I do stir up things now and then, but in my defense I’m usually the one called on to champion a cause.
All that life reveals is fair game to a writer.
Join my newsletter at www.autumnjordon.com to learn more about me and my works, including my Christmas romance Perfect.
Over the last three weeks I’ve blogged about the nexus between certain well-recognized Archetypes and the story structures that go with them. I’ve reviewed the Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption. There are, undoubtedly, many more story patterns that fit specific archetypes.
But what if you’re writing a story about a protagonist that doesn’t quite fit the archetypal pattern of a Hero, Virgin, or Sinner?
What if your main character is a Sidekick? Or a Mentor? Or a Networker? Or a Judge? Or, the list goes on. . .
In an earlier set of blogs, I wrote about using the positive and negative behavioral traits of Archetypes to develop character arcs, independent of the rigid structure imposed by the beat sheets of The Hero’s Journey, The Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption. For many authors, the detailed beat sheet is of no help at all in plotting or navigating through a novel’s story. These authors need a structure that’s much simpler, more free-form, and in many ways more creative.
That’s where the classic three-act story structure is all about.
You can find all kinds of writing and advice on three-act structure. I’m a big fan of Michael Hague and his wonderful workshop on these topics in which he outlines the connection between story beats and character arc.
In Hauge’s take on story structure, a story’s Main Character needs to move from his “identity,” which is the mask he shows the world in order to deal with a wound he’s suffered in his backstory, into his “essence,” which is the fully realized, authentic person that he needs to become. Take a look at the video clip in which Hague discusses the Main Character’s “inner journey.”
If this sounds a lot like the Virgin’s Promise, or the Sinner’s Redemption, or even the Hero’s Journey, it’s not surprising. All good stories tell a tale about a Main Character who changes because of the action of the story. The Hero proves his manhood. The Virgin empowers herself. The Sinner sees the error of his ways. So it’s fair to say that the detailed beat sheets of the Hero’s Journey, the Virgin’s Promise, and the Sinner’s Redemption all follow a basic structure, that’s usually presented in three acts.
Now, here’s where I’ve added to Hague’s ideas by using behavioral archetypes to help define a character’s identity and essence. Since every character archetype comes with both positive and negative behaviors, I can use the archetype to develop an arc that takes a character from the dark side of his archetype to the light side.
To give you an idea of this shadow and light quality of archetypes, here are a few:
A Liberator has the ability to free himself and others from outmoded forms of belief. But a liberator can also impose his own tyranny over the very people he tries to liberate. Could you write a story about a liberator who learns not to impose his will on the people he’s trying to set free?
An Engineer gives creative energy a practical form. He has a talent for designing solutions to common problems. But an Engineer can also rely on mechanical means, and have no regard for emotional consequences. Could you write story about an Engineer who has to learn compassion?
An Athlete is dedicated to transcending physical limitations and developing personal willpower and strength of spirit, but an athlete can also misuse his ability for personal gain, or have a false sense of invulnerability. Could you write a story about an Athlete who values money before the love of the game?
A Sidekick is loyal, unselfish, and tenacious. But a Sidekick’s loyalty is usually be so large that he never moves on to find his own fulfillment. Could you write a story about a Sidekick who becomes a Hero?
I hope you answered yes to all these questions. And, just for fun, I’ve used the archetypal shadow and light behaviors of a Sidekick along with a basic three-act story structure to come up with a quick synopsis of a Sidekick story. Here it is as a series of story beats.
A Sidekick Story
ACT I Introduce the Main Character and his goal or problem.
INCITING INCIDENT The story begins when something changes in the Main Character’s circumstances. This could be like the Hero’s call to adventure. Or the Virgin’s opportunity to shine. Or the first messenger that arrives at the Sinner’s door.
We see Sidekick in his ordinary world, being the sidekick to the local Cowboy Hero. He’s loyal and unselfish, but he’s also not moving forward with his life, because, well, he’s a Sidekick. But suddenly the Hero comes down with the flu.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD For the first one-quarter of the story, the Main Character deals with the change in circumstances. He may try to ignore it, he may refuse the call, he may miss the point. While he dithers things get worse, until he finally makes a decision to do something.
Someone needs the Hero’s help, and the Sidekick dithers around feeding the Big Guy soup, but it’s not working. Someone needs to rescue the Rancher’s Daughter, and the Sidekick finally decides that he’ll have to do it because the Hero is out of commission.
Act II Through a series of events the Main Character learns about himself. (Moves from identity to essence.) He must overcome obstacles and challenges using methods that are new and different for him.
THE FIRST PINCH The Main Character faces a problem he must overcome. The problem is relatively easy, but it will require the Main Character to learn something new about himself.
The Sidekick goes to the neighboring town to talk to the Rancher. The Rancher isn’t so sure the Sidekick is all he’s cracked up to be. But with a little bit of fast-talking, and a mask, the Sidekick convinces the Rancher that he’s the real deal Cowboy Hero, here to rescue the damsel in distress. During this encounter the Sidekick learns that he can be as charming and articulate at the Big Man himself.
THE MIDPOINT The Main Character faces a much bigger problem in which he will have to learn something very important about himself. Michael Hague would say that the character would have to move into his “identity” during this period. The Hero gets the “magic elixir” here. The Virgin is caught shining. The Sinner meets the avatar of goodness.
The Sidekick tracks the bad guys to their lair and through a stellar display of cunning and bravery he rescues the Rancher’s Daughter. And he’s pretty impressed with himself because he did it single-handedly. Something the Big Man can’t do since the Cowboy Hero always has a Sidekick – namely him. Maybe the Hero’s success has been dependent on him from the beginning?
THE SECOND PINCH The problems facing the Main Character are getting more and more complicated. He continues to learn stuff that will bring him further into his “identity.” But the stakes are getting much, much higher.
Things get more complicated because the Rancher’s Daughter is cute and he likes her. A lot. And she’s smitten with the Sidekick who she thinks is the Hero. Which is kind of a problem. Nevertheless one thing leads to another and they make love. In the heat of passion the Sidekick says something that the Rancher’s Daughter interprets as “I love you.” (Of course a Cowboy Hero would never, ever do any of this, because, well, he’s a Cowboy Hero and always gets the bad guy but never gets the girl.)
ACT III Something happens and even though the Main Character has grown as a person, he will still fall back on his old ways of thinking and reacting. This will cause a huge crisis that he must resolve.
THE CRISIS Something happens which forces the Main Character to forget everything he’s learned through the course of the story. He reverts back to the person he was at the very beginning. (Hague would say he moves away from his essence back into his identity.) From an archetype perspective this means he moves from the positive qualities of his archetype back into the negative ones.
The Sidekick returns home to find the Hero fully recovered from the flu. The Hero is fine with the fact that the Sidekick rescued the Rancher’s Daughter, but when she arrives in town expecting the Hero to fall on his knee and propose marriage, the Sidekick is in deep trouble. The Rancher’s Daughter discovers the Sidekick isn’t who he said he was. And the Cowboy Hero feels betrayed because we all know Cowboy Heroes don’t ever get the girl.
THE RESOLUTION All appears lost, but somehow the Main Character gets his act together, jettisons his fears, remembers what he’s learned about himself and fully embraces his “essence.” When he does this he is able to resolve the crisis.
The Sidekick loses his job and the Hero’s trust, but maybe that’s not the end of the world. After all, he could have the love of a wonderful woman, and he’s proven to himself that he could do the Hero’s job. There are plenty of Western towns that need a guy like him. And he could hire his own Sidekick. So he jumps on his horse, catches the Rancher’s Daughter, professes his love, kisses her senseless, and they ride off into the sunset together.
The simple three-act structure above can be used to write any kind of story. And if you combine it with archetypal behaviors that were first outlined by Carl Jung, you have some very powerful tools for brainstorming story and character arcs.
I also think that this less rigid beat sheet is perfect for writing a synopsis or coming up with a brief outline, especially if you’re a seat of the pants plotter who doesn’t want to know every scene before you write it. In fact, the story beats I’ve outlined above, if you put them in paragraph form, would create a very short, but complete, synopsis for this Sidekick story.
Even though I consider myself a tiny bit OCD when it comes to plotting stories, the truth is that I use the three act beat sheet way more often than I use any other story structure because I find that it’s the most fluid and liberating, and the best structure for synopsis writing.
Thanks for tuning in to this blog series. It’s been fun to write. Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below.
And if you’d like to learn more about this topic, I’ll be teaching the three act structure and archetypes at RWA’s convention this July in San Diego. I’ll also be teaching a workshop on this topic for the Virginia Romance Writers in October.
Today is a momentous day for me! SACRIFICE, the fifth and final book in my paranormal romance series, The Dragonfly Chronicles, has released!
Amen! The first book in the series, PROPHECY, came out in 2009. Ugh! Really?
So I had some hang-ups in the last seven years, which delayed each book: three busy kids, taking in a crazy golden retriever rescue, spending two years fighting ovarian cancer, etc. Plus each book weighs in at about 350 pages and took mountains of research (five different time periods) and intricate planning to create a complete story arc over all five individual stories. So yeah – seven years. And although I’m exceedingly proud of the books, and they’ve earned lovely reviews (one of them was a finalist in the Golden Heart), I haven’t sold enough copies to bring in decent royalties. Sigh…
I’ve tried blog tours, networking, social media platforms, better author branding, giveaways, etc. Not really working. So what do I need to do to sell a book?
After reading posts and conversations between my Ruby Sisters, I’ve concluded that I have to write more books, faster. Yes, that sounds obvious, and I can say, “Great, I’ll write more books faster.” But I need a realistic list of action items to help me reach my goal.
First – What is my main goal for my next series? To publish two books together and then subsequent books every three to four months. <Big Breath> I still have three busy kids (without drivers’ licenses) and a crazy golden retriever, along with a lot of ovarian cancer awareness events. So…what steps am I going to take to achieve this goal?
1. Don’t get cancer again : ) Not that I can actually control this, but I do need to make room in my day for exercise and healthy eating.
2. Shorten my books. When I look at a number of successful romance authors, their books run about 250 – 280 pages in length, about 100 pages less than mine. So these will be faster paced books, without so many subplots. They will follow a more straight forward path to the conclusion. My paths are usually very convoluted, so this will be a challenge.
3. Chart out my plots and try to stick to them. Sometimes tangents take me to fabulous places, but often times they do not. If a tangent looks crazy-promising I will of course check it out, but I will try not to write in circles.
Collage for MASQUERADE: Book 3
4. Keep a story series bible from the start. I’m terrible at remembering where scars are located and the color of eyes and little details that might pop back up in another book. I spent way too much time finding these details in earlier books to keep consistent through the series. With a story bible, I’m writing all this down on One Note (an electronic story bible) and/or in a collage for each book.
5. Track my word counts. I’ve done this off and on through the years, but just like with counting calories while dieting, counting words written per day can really push me toward success. If I can write 10K words a week, that’s just 2K words every work day, I’ll finish a book in about eight weeks. That should still keep me on track for a three-four month release. So despite my kids needing rides, spring break, cancer awareness talks and events, walking the dog, cooking dinner and cleaning up after my wonderful yet messy family, I will get in 10K words per week.
Repeats with gusto – “I WILL get in 10K words per week!”
6. Implement Take-Out Tuesdays and freezer to crockpot dinners twice a week. I tend to make dinner each night for my family. I still want to save money and provide healthy food for my family, but I can make a bunch of freezer meals once a month, to pull out twice a week. Here is my favorite site with freezer to crockpot recipes. http://newleafwellness.biz/ And anytime I do make dinner, I make a double batch and freeze half, from hamburgers and meatballs to BBQ chicken and marinated pork tenderloin, making extra takes only a smidgen of extra time.
7. Maintain my quality by keeping reference material and web sites within reach. I won’t lower my quality, but I will make sure to keep my history books on my desk and my etymology and Gaelic translation sites open on my computer. My series sound track will play in the background, while my muse will type away as I sip my Chai tea latte.
So this is my initial plan. What do you think? Do you have other tips on how to create fabulous books in a shorter time frame?
Oh, and I have a giveaway going on in honor of my new release! Check out my web site to enter for a chance to win a $10 gift card to Amazon, signed copy of the first book in the series, and a dragonfly gift pack! Enter here: http://www.heathermccollum.com/
No, this post isn’t about the Hanna-Barbera animated character Snagglepuss. (Yeah, I’m definitely aging myself here.) Instead, it’s about stage direction – you know, those descriptions, tags and ‘beats’ we writers use to move our characters around within the setting we’ve created.
To be even more precise, this post is about UNNECESSARY stage direction.
Too much stage direction can really slow down the pace. Too little stage direction can really confuse your reader. Either can make the reader want to throttle you.
I’m doing some final revisions on my WIP in part to improve the pace. (ENTHRALL ME currently weighs in at a whopping 128K words, so some judicious pruning is definitely in order.) When writing early drafts, I err on the side of writing too much stage direction rather than too little. This means that later on in the revision process, my manuscript is littered with so much unnecessary walking and sitting and touching and crossing and glancing and noticing that the Pace… Grinds… To… A… Haaaallllltttttt….
“Duh, we GET it, Tammy. Move on. No, really. MOVE ON.”
Seriously, we don’t have to explicitly write every physical action every character makes in every scene in our books. Readers are more than capable of filling in the mundane details for themselves.
I write in very deep third-person point of view. Following are examples of some “Well, Duh!” revisions I made to eliminate unnecessary stage direction and pick up the pace:
He let himself stare while she continued the conversation with Thane and Valerian, cataloging her rose petal skin, her lush, pink lips, her foolish green-tipped hair, and the mismatched earrings. Her eyes sparkled with verve, with life. Her impish grin conveyed her energy and delight.
Had he ever been so young?
First of all: The scene is written from Wyland’s POV; we’re already seeing Tia through his eyes. Using the words “staring” and “cataloging” to explicitly reference the act of seeing is unnecessary, and actually introduces distance in the POV work.
Second: My purple-tinged description of Tia’s many physical charms * wince* not only slows down the pace, but it diverts the reader’s attention away from the point I wrote the paragraph to make: that Wyland feels old in comparison. This is the wrong place in the manuscript for so much physical description – description I know I wrote better elsewhere.
Third: Wyland is an educated man, but I think I’ve used too many multi-syllable words here. Simplifying the language will pick up the pace.
As she talked with Thane and Valerian, she sparkled with life, full of energy and delight.
Had he ever been so young?
As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, he heard a series of electronic clicks and ticks behind him. Fabric rustled, and the whispered sounds made his body hair stand on end. He shifted his shoulders, trying to gain some breathing room in a perfectly-tailored suit coat that suddenly seemed two sizes too small.
“He heard?” OF COURSE he heard; we’re in his POV. And, OMG, did I actually describe him moving his shoulders? #FAIL
As he dealt with the cork and poured the wine, electronic clicks and ticks whispered behind him. Fabric rustled, making his body hair stand on end. His perfectly-tailored suit coat suddenly seemed two sizes too small.
Sometimes, when revising, a few snips with a cuticle scissors will do the trick. At other times, you need a freaking machete.
On this revision pass, I’m also pruning away a lot of eye, lip, and breath gymnastics. You know what I mean: the blinking, the frowning, the eye-rolling, the raised eyebrows, the tightening and pursing of lips, the sighs, the inhaling and exhaling, that writers sometimes use to convey a character’s emotional reaction…or to avoid using “said” quite so often. 😉 I seriously overuse these supposedly subtle reactions in early drafts, to the degree that reading them later on makes me feel like I’m banging readers over the head with a cast-iron skillet: “SEE? SEE? IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, THIS IS HOW SHE FEELS!”
A little of this ‘tagging’ goes a long, long way.
In this example, Tia and Wyland are sharing a shower. They don’t have time to make love – he’s late for work – but that doesn’t stop Tia from teasing him:
The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” Transferring her hands from his body to her own, she started washing her breasts.
His gaze followed, his face taut with arousal. Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”
Oof, talk about belaboring the point. Do I really need to explain to the reader that Tia moved her hands from Wyland’s body to her own so she could wash her own breasts? Do I need to interpret Wyland’s emotion for the reader quite so explicitly? In addition to flagrantly violating “show, don’t tell,” my unnecessary stage directions killed the sexual tension dead.
The commute from Marine On St. Croix to Chanhassen was a haul and a half under the best of conditions. “Rain check?” She started washing her breasts.
Swearing under his breath, he grabbed the shampoo. “What are your plans for tonight?”
These precise little snips can really add up. I’m about 150 pages into this revision pass, and I’ve already eliminated nearly 4000 words of unnecessary stage direction from my manuscript.
Revision-wise, one writer’s clarity is another writer’s overkill. As always, YMMV. But when revising for pace, every word counts. We don’t always have to be so literal or “explain-y.” Our job as writers is to not bore our readers with too much stage direction, or to confuse them with too little, but to find that Goldilocks Zone where the story keeps moving, the pages keep turning, and the reader doesn’t say, “Exit, Stage Left!”
Do you have any stage direction, face gymnastics, or pacing pet peeves? Care to share some of your personal “Well, Duh!” or “Exit, Stage Left!” manuscript moments?
Curtain image by Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I started writing when my son was eleven months old. He graduates from Junior High this coming May. I wrote my first book in under a year, at least I count it as my first book, because the other two before it weren’t fit to be coasters for the coffee table. So I wrote this book, met with a popular rock band for the research and secured an agent within three months of sending it out.
I got a call from her one day telling me that a publisher in England had heard about this book through the grapevine and called my agent asking for it. They called her. This was unheard of I was told. A month later a producer asked to see it. He wanted to make a it into a movie of the week.
Through this experience, I learned that there are two types of people in the writing industry.
I belong to an online writing loop where pubbed and unpubbed work side by side answering each others questions. There was one women who was indeed, just one of us. She had participated in our discussions and been there just like the rest of us.
And then she sold her first book. A few months later I wrote her and asked her a question just like I had done with her a dozen times before, and she with me. This time the curt reply came with an ending sentence telling me that there were other people on the loop I could have gone to without bothering her. I never bought her book. Neither did anyone else in our critique group.
So what happened to my career? I mailed off the revisions my agent had asked for in January. When I hadn’t heard back by June, I finally called.
I was told that my agent had died that previous February and nobody had thought to notify me. To this day, I still do not know the specifics. My book was returned with a no thank you. I was released from the contract. No one ever knew what happened to the English publisher and the movie producer disappeared without a trace.
In one phone call I went from the cutting edge, being told that my book was so damn unusual that it would create a new sub-genre, back to square one. That was seven years ago.
And that is where the lessons began.
Not how to put a sentence together or how to submit in proper format. All that was in books. What I learned came from people.
The kind of person who glances down at your names tag at a conference, sees that there is no marking designating your masterpiece and their eyes wonder the second before they excuse themselves to go sit at the agent/editor table. I attended a conference with an someone I knew. We weren’t best friends, but we had spent some time together. When I hadn’t seen her the whole three days and finally ran into her, I asked her about it. “I don’t come here to socialize,” I was told. “I’m here to meet the people that will get my book on the shelf and that’s it.” I wasn’t one of the important people, not worth the time. At least not to her.
I met a particular multi-published author who shall remain nameless who was so important to herself she dismissed me with the wave of her hand while I was standing at her signing table.
And then I met the real people. The true giants.
I met Sue Grafton at a book signing. When I mentioned I was a newbie writer, she stopped the line for two minutes, crossed her arms over her chest with the most sincere smile and asked me how it was going.
Dean Koontz. When I didn’t feel as if I could go on with all the rejection letters, he sent me a personal note telling me ”For fifteen years most of my friends and virtually all of my relatives thought I was a bum … hang in there.” He even spelt my name right.
And Clive Cussler? I had been reading him since I was fifteen years old. He was the reason I got into writing in the first place. It’s why I write action romance. So what did he tell me when I finally, after eighteen years, met him at a book signing? “Send me a copy of your manuscript. I would like to take a look at it.”
These are my teachers.
These are the people that are not so impressed with themselves or their work that they will turn their backs on the person with the plain badge. They care. They remember.
I had a drink with an editor from a publishing house recently and we were talking about how hard it is break in to the business. When I recounted my history, she smiled sadly and said she was sorry.
And that’s when it hit me.
I almost had the instant success. I was almost one of the rare that sold their first book.
And if that had happened, where would my ego had ended up? What table would I have been sitting at and with whom would I talk to at the conference?
My lack of success in the writing industry, at least by some standards, put in the right places at the right time and showed me the people I want to mimic. The real giants. Not because they have sold more books or make more money or put their books in the top ten of the New York Best Seller List. They are giants because they cared enough to look back and see where they used to be.
It appears that my big break is a hair breath away. I have people who want to read my work. People with the clout to make the difference. We’ll see. I’ve been close before and have learned not to get too excited.
What goes around comes around. Karma. Ying and Yang. Two sides to every coin. With every action there is an opposite action. It doesn’t matter how you say it, it all means the same thing.
What we put out in the world will be what we get back. In my writing, as well as in my life, I want my second side to reflect my first. And it’s not going to be determined by how many books I have on the shelf or who I sat next to at that luncheon. It’s going to come from how I treated the person who has just finished her first draft of her first book and the person who just opened his forty-seventh rejection.
So whether or not my book sells and the deals start pouring in, don’t look for me at that front table by the podium. Look for me in the back with the real people, the people with the plain badges who realize the struggle and the reward go hand in hand.
ABOUT JACQUI JACOBY:
Award-winning author, Jacqui Jacoby lives and writes in the beauty of Northern Arizona. Currently adjusting to being an empty nester with her first grandchild to draw her pictures, Jacqui is a self-defense hobbyist. Having studied martial arts for numerous years she retired in 2006 from the sport, yet still brings strength she learned from the discipline to her heroines. She is a working writer, whose career includes writing books, teaching online and live workshops and penning short nonfiction.
When writers think about the tools of our trade, our thoughts might understandably go to craft: words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice. Characters, plot, setting, tense. Point of view, goal/motivation/conflict, dialogue, pace. And yes – all these things all need to be taken into account, all these things and more.
But I’d like to add to the list something that I consider to be an essential character development tool: empathy.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
Film critic Roger Ebert once described movies as being empathy machines. I think the same thing can be said of books, because at the foundation, isn’t every great reading experience one where we temporarily abandon our sense of self so we can vicariously experience life from another point of view?
By the time I graduated from high school, I’d spent thousands of hours in fictional characters’ heads, considering someone else’s perspective, and the more unlike me the character was, the more fascinated I was…about the staggering breadth of the human experience, about the possibilities of the world outside my rural hometown, and about the place I wanted to make for myself in that world.
So this might explain why I feel a strong attraction to, and a strange affinity for, so-called “unlikeable characters”, and to fictional villains in particular. What intriguing psychological ground! What makes a villain tick? What secret pain does he or she hide?
I didn’t realize this affinity might be a marketable skill until I was in college, when a psychology professor suggested I consider a career in criminal psychology. “You have an unusual capacity for suspending judgment.” I didn’t end up interviewing with the FBI, but in retrospect, I think this sense of psychological curiosity came from a very obvious place.
From READING – and having free-ranged the adult library stacks from age ten, I’d met perhaps more than my fair share of dubious fictional characters. 😉
Which brings me to writing, and to empathy.
They say that a villain is the hero of his or her own story. He or she thinks they’re doing a good thing, the obvious thing, for very good reasons. When writing villains, we need to understand those reasons. Judgment and mental distance is a luxury we simply can’t afford, not if we’re going to do that character justice on the page. To get at a villain’s true goals, motivations, and conflicts, and to write from their point of view with any sense of authenticity, we have to dig deep, put aside our personal value systems, and try to find some common ground, some shared humanity, in what can be pretty unsavory psychological territory.
We need to be brave enough to engage our empathy machines…at least temporarily.
It can be very challenging to explore the inner lives of characters who might be very, very different than ourselves – REAL people, three-dimensional people, flawed people who both frighten and fascinate. Though it’s a tool that always needs honing, I find a well-developed sense of empathy to be a very handy tool to have around.
What are your thoughts on books as empathy machines, and the concept of empathy as an essential tool in a writer’s toolkit? Who are some of your favorite villains, and why? Please weigh in.
…who still receives letters from readers expressing both delight and dismay about Stephen, the villain in my 2011 release, TASTE ME – including questions about when I’m going to write “his” book! 😉
Composite image by stockimages/KROMKRATHOG at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
At the recent RWA national conference in San Antonio, one very simple tip from best-selling YA author Ally Carter almost tipped me out of my chair. I noticed other workshop attendees’ faces lighting up at the same time. (They were reacting to what Ally said, not to me falling out of my chair. Just thought I’d clarify that…)
What did Ally say that was so profound to me? When it comes to plot and premise “Don’t start a book till you have both.”
It makes perfect sense, right? Without a plot to drive your premise, your story will limp around in circles. At that moment, I realized I’d started most of my books with only the premise in mind and let the plot “magically” work itself out later. This is why I often get to a certain point in a manuscript and think:
I also realized I’d been using the terms plot and premise interchangeably. What’s the difference? I’ll fall back on Back to the Future, one of my favourite movies, to illustrate this.
Premise – The basic idea or hook. Think of it as the tagline you’d give if someone asked you what your story is about. Back to the Future’s premise? A teenager accidentally travels back to the year 1955 in a time machine built out of a DeLorean.
Plot – The plot is what happens in the story, a sequence of events and problems your main character faces. A book can have a main plot plus one or more subplots that intersect the main plot. In Back to the Future, Marty McFly must return to 1985, but his DeLorean is out of fuel and only 1.21 gigawatts of power can send it back to the future. In a subplot, Marty encounters his parents as high school seniors. He has to make sure they fall in love, otherwise he and his siblings may not be born in the future.
Want to know more about plotting? Go back in time and check out these excellent posts from the Sisterhood’s past:
A writer looking out the window is a writer at work. A writer sitting on a bench eavesdropping on a conversation is a writer at work. Even a writer crammed into a tiny, cluttered space searching the internet while a cat wiggles his way into more and more of her chair is a writer at work—as you can see. The list of things writers do that others see as wasting time or daydreaming is endless.
However, sometimes, even for writers, daydreaming is just daydreaming.
This is a healthy thing. It’s a broom that sweeps all the cobwebs and mind-clutter away, opening the space, banishing the musty, and letting in new and fresh possibilities. It’s also a time for the great What if and to ponder theWhy of whatever strikes your fancy.
It was in this state I started watching this season of Dancing with the Stars.
Words are like a living entity, with the incredible ability to spread on their own. And partnered with today’s technology their range and speed are vast. They have the power to influence one, or many, and in doing so change the world. They have the potential to span centuries and thus persuade or motivate generations.
Think about that, because as an author that colossal sovereignty comes through you. What a huge responsibility.
As authors, we spend considerable periods of time thinking about our characters and plot. Then we write. After which, we layer in emotions, senses and setting details. And of course, there is the endless tweaking of dialogue, sentence structure, hooks and much more. However, have you consider the message of your story?
I love to learn new things when I read, and I believe my readers do too. My all-time favorite book is Jean M. Auel’s Valley Of The Horses. Yes. It is a romance, at least it is to me. A beautiful love story. The novel’s setting is the primeval world. I applauded Miss Auel for her research. I can’t imagine the years she spent doing the work. While reading, I learned tons about herbs and ordinary plants and their therapeutic uses. I also learned a valuable safe aid tips, not to mention I discovered a fantasying past world.
In my romantic suspense stories, I’ve embedded true crime cases and safety tips in hopes my readers take heed and share the pointers, because one day my message might just save them from harm. Each of my contemporary novels contain messages relating to honesty with one’s self, strength of character and of family the their importance. My readers have responded positively to my messages in their reviews.
We have the power to change others’ lives-save lives. We can change people’s perception of themselves, help them understand a different person’s perspective or perhaps handle a stressful, urgent situation in a much better way than they would’ve. We can change their beliefs about history, people, the world or the future. We can spur them to take action for a cause. When their life changes, they remember you.
Great stories share information as well as entertain. What is the knowledge that you want to share for the Greater Good with your readers?
Blockbuster Movies show it, Platinum Records praise it, great literature lauds it…every living soul searches for it. Good grief, Carrie Twines’ livelihood depends on it. Everyone in Black Moose, Vermont seems to be in love or in hot pursuit of it. Their bliss only reminds Carrie of what she lost as a teen when two geeky best friends became first loves—until heartache sent them on different paths.
Carrie returns to Black Moose to emerge from the shadows of her parents’ stardom and find a normal life, love and family, but the odds are stacked against her. However, her luck is about to change. As she contemplates the merits of spinsterhood, a game of chance brings her back to the man she’d walked away from years ago. He’s even more kind and sexy than he was fourteen years ago, but can she trust him with her heart again?
Luke McQuire is a man with two things on his mind: building his electrical business and evading the town diva, Olive Ann. But when Carrie shows up again like a lucky penny, he’s got more to think about—including why she left him in the first place. He’s a damn good electrician, but can he make sparks fly with the one woman he wants—the one woman who was able to resist him?
Readers loved PERFECT, and the rib-tickling, warm fuzzy feelings continue in PERFECT HEARTS.
Okay, I admit it; I am a Science Fiction geek, and I loved Farscape. The whole premise excited my imagination —which is normal, considering I write futuristic Sci-Fi Romance when not dealing with lords and ladies. However, as much as I enjoyed the show, it’s the beginning—available in the music video above—that really spoke to me.
“Look, I can’t be your kind of hero.”
“No, you can’t be. But each man gets the chance to be his own kind of hero. Your time’ll come, and when it does, watch out. Chances are, it’ll be the last thing you ever expected.”
Nobody wakes up one morning and says, “I’m going to be a hero today.” Heroism tends to be the product of unforeseen events, unplanned incursions of circumstance, or simple happenstance (being in the right place at the right time). When any of those things occur, ready or not, the truth of a person’s character is revealed. There is no time for prevarication, dissembling, or projecting the desired image. There is only now. And a hero does what the now demands without regard for anything—or anyone—else.
In the now, a true hero has but one goal: Save the maiden. Rescue the colonists. Protect those within the fort. Brave the fire. Face the bullet. Find the threat and eliminate it—or die trying.
Heroism is about risk. Whether that risk is physical, psychological, or emotional is irrelevant. Whatever the root, the perception must be one of threat or danger.
Heroes put themselves in harm’s way for others. Were there a handbook for heroes, that would be Chapter One.
As writers, we write all kinds of heroes, and in doing so, must escalate the risk, elevate an ordinary man to heroic heights. How much is our hero willing to give? What is he willing to lose? His life? His heart? His beliefs? To be a hero, he must be willing to disregard something he believes necessary to his existence. The numismatist who has dedicated everything to procuring a unique coin only to sacrifice it to ransom a kidnapped child, or the accountant who, despite fears of professional suicide, ferrets out the truth about his crooked boss so the innocent bookkeeper won’t go to jail is just as much hero as the brawny Scot swinging his bloodied claymore to defend the lady he is sworn to protect.
It’s how we write him that gives him his chance to be his own type of hero.
Of course, most of us would prefer the brawny Scot—at least between the covers (that’s book covers, ladies). Still, the most unassuming person, given the right circumstances, can be a hero, while those to whom our perception ascribes innate heroism can turn tail and run.
Along those lines, the first movie that comes to mind is The Incredible Mr. Limpet—which could easily be subtitled Casper Milquetoast Saves the World. No, I’m not kidding, and here’s the original movie trailer so you can see for yourself.
Among types of heroes, one can’t forget the unwilling hero, thrust into a situation better avoided but doing what’s necessary because there’s no alternative. Atticus Finch is a good example of an unwilling hero. A quiet man, he goes about his life without raising much dust until he’s forced to choose between his preferences and his principles. Principles win, and as a result, he, his daughter, and his entire community discover his innate strength, courage, and conviction.
Then there’s the anti-hero, cynical and self-serving, forced by circumstance to do the right thing. Rhett Butler anyone?
There are other types of heroes, of course, but I’ll let you fill in the blanks while I give you one more video. (You really didn’t think you’d get away without something historical did you?)
Now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite type of hero? Alphas? Betas? Gammas? What do you think makes a good hero? Have you ever read a book with an unexpected type of hero? Is there any one thing that makes you fall in love with a fictional hero? Do you have a favorite hero? Anything you want to share about heroes, feel free. Let’s celebrate heroes!