Monday, June 6, 2016

Hole 4: Keeping Your Characters on Par and Writing Against Type


Creating realistic and compelling characters requires layering. In this series on Keeping a Character on Course Through a story, we've talked about stake, distinction, and world view, so let's turn now to talking about writing against type.

We've all heard the phrase, "There are two types of people in this world...[fill in the blank here] and a writer's goal is to create people who don't fit into this binary or any stereotype that limits people's understanding of others.

Not every construction worker will sit on a beam, eating lunch, and whistling at "lookers" as they walk by. While construction is a draw to folks who like hands-on experience with visible results, the type of person who wants to do that work varies wildly based on class, gender, faith, ethnicity, and a thousand other variables. How is your construction worker different than others?

Is she a woman who creates industrial inspired sculptures from work site scraps? A man who performs in an improv group on the weekends? A Mohawk grandson of one of the men who helped build the Empire State Building.  Is he struggling with a fear of heights and the knowledge that the world says Mohawks don't have such fears?

Getting a Little Theoretical:

There's a concept called "radical multiculturalism" which suggests that the only way to end discrimination is through the intentional deconstruction of the concept of the 'other' by viewing all cultures through an emic perspective."  Seeing cultures that are not our own as they see themselves requires understanding them and that means reading their stories and their history and getting to know as many people from as many backgrounds as possible.

Going Cross-Cultural:

As an author, it also means doing extensive research before creating characters from cultures that are not our own. Keep in mind, we do that every time we write. I've written about men, but I'm a woman. I've written about children and I haven't been a child in far too long. Writing cross-culturally doesn't just mean crossing ethnic lines.  I encourage people to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries with respect, honarable intent, and an open mind.

Here's a great blog by Molly Henning on resources for writing cross-culturally
10 Great Resources on Writing Cross-Culturally

Writing Against Type:

When it comes to writing against type:

1.Know the type. If you're creating a particular type of character, be conscious of how that type of person is often portrayed in literature, film, and humor and break the mold for that type.

2. Be aware of your own preconceived notions about a particular type of person. If you don't explore your own ideas about people, you'll act upon misconceptions without fully realizing it.

3. Learn about real people in that role. As a geek with zero athletic ability, I didn't have a high opinion of athletes, so I learned about athletes like Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer, the two women who broke the mold and showed the world that women could run in the Boston Marthon. Gibb ran in 1966 by joining the race after the starting line because they wouldn't allow women to register. Katherine registered without declaring her gender in 1967.  Here's more about her run in her own words:

1967 Boston Marathon, the Real Story

These athletes like so many that I have known have demonstrated the heart, discipline, and individuality that go into being an athlete.

4. Be Genuine. In going against type, don't do it just to do it. Allow the unique qualities of the person to rise organically out of realistic life experiences.

5.  Be Complex.  Allow characters, even if they are  a secondary or a background player in the story, to be layered and complex. What makes them unique? How can you bring that out in economic ways. Patricia McLachlan, the author of the critically acclaimed [book:Sarah, Plain and Tall|106264] is a master at economic character development by giving them defining actions and characteristics.

How do you go against type in your own writing?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Character's Course Through a Story--Hole 3: Creating World View

Establishing your character's view of the world is such important part of making your character distinctive, it's a figurative "hole of it's own" in this golf course of character development we're walking through this summer. 

I also realized that readers will have to do a lot less scrolling, if I posted each "hole" of this course in separate blog.

World view is the way your character uniquely views the world s/he lives in and the more unique and nuanced you can make this world view, the more real your character seems. Junie B. Jones entirely kid-centric, totally Junie way of seeing things has made those books an international success because of her own unique, but totally relatable way of looking at the world. 

Showing the Readers The World "Anew"

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life points out that authors need to recognize that choosing to be a writer is also saying that they have something to show the world they might not see on their own. When we write about life, we should do so with the knowledge that we need to help people see the world they live in "anew"--as if it is new to them.

Unique character world view is one way to do that. In my own work, I have characters who often have world views that are askew from those around them. In 1930s Louisiana, Nissa Bergen has a mama who crosses the color line, the gender line, nearly every other line she finds-- a free spirit, she refuses to bow to social customs. Nissa is her own girl as well, when her best friend, Mary Carroll intends to go flower picking in a dress wearing perfume, Nissa wants to know if Mary wants every wing flapping bug in the parrish to be tormenting them because perfume is just a nasty smelling bug attractor to her--not the typical feminine view.

Just as each writer should learn unique ways to describe ordinary things, they should be able to look at the world from a unique set of eyes and be able to look at the world through the eyes of each of their characters, even if they don't like the view. 

Seeing the World Through A Character's Eyes

Acting theory is a great way to learn more about how to see things from a character perspective. Screenwriters and fellow authors can also be helpful in this regard. Here's a recent article from the Huffington Post that might be helpful:

5 Ways Writers Can Get into the Minds of Their Characters

But let me offer an exercise that can limber up your literary mind reading skills. Go to a public place with a lot of traffic and pay attention without being intrusive. Notice how people reveal what they think of the world by the way they dress, what they eat, what they read, and how they carry themselves. 

If you see someone reading, try to imagine what they think of what they're reading based on the material, their appearance, and their body language, then ask for their opinion. 

Ask three different people what they think of a movie? A type of weather? A historical figure to notice how they express their world view differently.

This type of exercise hones your skills and allows you to internalize the way that each person exhibits a unique view of the world.

How do you get into the mindset of your characters?

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A Character's Course Through a Story

A Character's Course
Through a Story

Summer is often about going light and airy--shorts and a breezy blouse, a salad or a slice of watermelon, a book on the beach with your toes in the sand, so let's take that route through character development.  Better yet, let's approach it with another summer pass time in mind, golf-- a character course in nine holes.

We'll take this course one hole at a time, adding a new hole a day!

Hole One: The Clubs You Bring Onto the Course AKA Backstory
In golf, you're swinging to hit the ball into the hole in as few shots as possible using different clubs, judging the lay of land, and doing the legwork to get that ball to the flag. Characters can work much the same way. You to create them in as few strokes as possible using the best tools and covering the distance from first page to last by judging the lay of the land in the fictional world that unfolds as you write it.

For your first tee shot, it's all about the clubs you bring onto the course and the metaphor is apt in more ways than one. In creating a character with compelling backstory, you have to remember that much of that character's story remains "under the rim" of the bag and the surface of the story until you pull a club out to take a swing. And each part of that story as a different purpose in your story like a driver is much different than a putter. With emotional situations that are raw and real and lead your character rash action, they are swung hard and fast like a driver. Emotional issues that are delicate and require diplomacy, you swing slow and easy with great care and aim like a putter.

For me, I come to the course with my bag of clubs aka backstory, but I allow my subconscious to choose the clubs.  I just pick the bag--the point when everything that changes, the incident that shapes who the character is at the beginning of the story--the storm that leads to a farming accident that takes away the use of a boy's leg (Worth), the end of slavery that frees a young boy to go find the mother who was sold away from him (Walking Home to Rosie Lee), and the adoptee who is terrified of water has to go live on a lake for the summer (Water Steps).  From there, I let the backstory unfold as the events do, asking myself "What would my character do now? Why?"

An understanding of character motivation and life-shaping events is essential here--study it in the books you read, the movies you watch, the people you meet, and consider a course in psychology via a book or an actual class. All of these things will be instrumental in helping you shape your character's past and remember--give everyone a past or the secondary and tertiary characters won't seem real.

Keep in mind, everyone plays golf differently, so everyone creates their character backstory differently. Find the way that works for you!

Here's an article from Rachel Ballon to offer you another perspective on developing backstory:
"How to Weave in Backstory to Reveal Character"

How do you incorporate backstory?

Hole 2: Swing with Distinction

Making your character unique is an essential of character development. You want your character to be someone your readers can relate to, but that can be as simple as making them a golfer--allowing them to have a hobby, need, or desire that readers in your target audience share.

Stake is an essential for your readers as well. That's the need/want that drives your character through the story aka keeps them on the golf course plugging away that little round ball. It could be a hole in one they're looking for here, but whatever it is, it should be internal and external. The hole in one is an external goal. Internally, the character may be trying to control their temper so they don't wrap their golf club around a tree when they miss a shot.

My dad frequently came home with bent clubs claiming that he was attacked by a heard of buffalo that he had to fight off with his club or get trampled.  Let's just say, I came by my ability to spin a tale naturally and my dad was a definitely a distinct character!

You also want your character to have a distinct voice. To speak in a way others do not.  Does your character constantly use shopping metaphors? Do they speak in as few words as possible? Run off at the mouth? Use a catch phrase like, "As long as no one swallowed a bug, we're good" is that because he swallowed a bee as a child and discovered he was allergic?

As I said, backstory is important and should be woven in.  You can also distinguish characters through the pasts you create, the clothes they wear, the pets who follow them, the things they do every Tuesday at 9:15 AM.

Let your character walk off the page by being a unique individual with layers, voice, and motivations!

But don't just take my word for it, here's
an article on giving your character a distinctive voice by fiction editor, Beth Hill
Variety in Character Voices

How do you make your characters distinctive?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"Book Addiction": 
The Reads That Shaped This Writer
by Guest Blogger Laurie J. Edwards

A Reader Gets Hooked

Asking me to choose the book that had the greatest impact on me is liking asking me to choose my favorite child – it can’t be done. My mother’s favorite story is that, when I was eight months old, I would sit in my playpen and “read” Reader’s Digest from cover to cover, turning one page at a time and looking over one side and then the other, before turning to the next page. I may have been imitating my parents, who were voracious readers, but my love affair with books began then and continued throughout my life.

When I truly learned to read, I holed up in my room, ignoring my mother’s plea that I needed fresh air and exercise. My reading addiction led to flashlights under the covers and books hidden inside my school desk. I read an average of 20 to 30 books a week throughout my elementary, teen, and young adult years. I read my way through library after library, and my greatest joy was becoming a librarian with access to free ILLs (interlibrary loans) and no fines.

All of this makes it difficult to pinpoint one special book that turned me into a writer. The book I reread from cover to cover until it was tattered was A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. That book influenced my philosophy of life: I wanted to be Sara Crewe, to always be cheerful in spite of life’s hardships, to always look for the best in people, and to use my imagination to brighten any situation. If I had to give one book credit for inspiring my outlook on life and stirring my creativity, A Little Princess would win the award.

From Reading to Writing

The author that I most wanted to imitate, though, was Madeleine L’Engle. When I read A Wrinkle in Time, I dreamed of writing a book that affected readers so powerfully, that immersed them so deeply in a fantasy that they lost track of time and space, and that made them sigh in contentment when they closed the cover, knowing that the ending was not only inevitable, but perfect.

When I began writing, I took Madeleine L’Engle’s quote to heart: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I strongly believe children have an open-mindedness and a deep, innate understanding of what’s important in life, a knowledge that adults lose as they rush through their days worrying about to-do lists and other people’s opinions. Young readers are storing up knowledge and information they’ll use as adults, so children’s books have the power to influence their life choices.

I still remember the impact Madeleine L’Engle’s quote of Francis Thompson made on my young impressionable mind: “Thou canst not stir a flower / Without troubling a star.” Reading those words made me appreciate the vastness of the universe and the interconnectedness of all life. I realized the ripple effect even tiny acts of kindness can have on the world around me, and to this day, I can’t pull weeds without feeling a vast sadness. I’d rather have an overgrown garden than remove a plant, any plant – even a weed. To touch readers’ lives so deeply that my words positively influence decisions made decades later would be my greatest dream.

I may never approach Madeleine L’Engle’s greatness, but when a teen boy comments on Wattpad about my YA novel Grace and the Guiltless, “I've never been so moved by a book. You honestly made me cry…”  or a young teen girl says, “Reading this makes me stick up for myself and teaches me to boost my confidence,” I feel I’m heading in the right direction. Someday I hope to influence readers the way Frances Hodgson Burnett and Madeleine L’Engle affected me. These writers have taught me many things, but the most important is:
 "Thou canst not stir a reader
Without troubling a heart.”*

*an adaptation of poetic lines by Frances Thompson "The Mistress of Vision"

A Little More About This Book Loving Author

Laurie J. Edwards is the author of more than 2200 articles and 30 books in print or forthcoming. A student in the Hollins University MFA program in Children’s Writing and Illustrating, she also juggles editing and illustration careers, while writing fiction and nonfiction for children and adults under several pen names. As Erin Johnson, she writes the YA Western series, WANTED, in which her heroine, Grace, has been called “the Katniss of the West.” As Rachel J. Good, she writes the SISTERS & FRIENDS Amish series. Visit her at and

Thank you so much for this lovely homage to the books that shaped you, Laurie.


What books shaped your life?

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Wandering and Seizing

                As the name of this blog reflects, I'm a bit of a wanderer, and this month, I wandered over to Molly Blaisdell's blog Seize the Day and offered a few ideas about blending realism and fantasy and frosting cakes (which I know surprisingly little about. Come check it out: 

Monday, May 2, 2016

Image-In This! Or Not

We've all heard the rules of imagery before--be concrete, be unique, be sensory, be partial, be specific and I've posted blogs on this before both here and on my Goodreads Restop blog: Wordy Wanderings Rest Stop, So, to cover new territory, I'm going to offer my final poems for National Poetry Month  a. In May and b. without a focus on imagery.

Because I'm a fan of looking at things from various angles and "showing the other side of things" knowing that few things have only two sides, here is an article from the American Academy of Poets that suggests we should move beyond concrete imagery: "In Praise of Abstraction".  

But to keep concrete imagery in the mix, I'll also share an article on imagery.  Here's an article that looks at imagery in the work of the poet and playwright Garcia Lorca:  The Imagery of Garcia Lorca

Now back to other forms of poetry. As we see in the work of ee cummings who famously brought the issue of sound, visuals, and abstractions to the forefront in modern poetry, imagery is not a requirement for poetry that could rely on experiential elements of abstraction vs. imagery.

To look at how this can work, I'll approach a subject in terms of imagery, then in terms of abstraction. Let me know which you prefer and why? Keep in mind, they will both be initial drafts that may lead to very different poems in the end.

(28 of 30)

A Desk

Images of an office supply store
come to mind
Yet that would not account
 for the books, piled spine in
spine out, 
genre graphic
to text book graphite
the gray dust
words bound
for discussion
sticky note pocked
question mark riddled
pile of unfilled papers
unpaid bill 
that I cannot account for
Coffee cup ringed with pen marks
but hosting only highlighters
a pair of scissors
and memories of the pens 
that marked it
Where are my notes 
for the lecture
I have to give
in an hour?

And now once more in abstraction!!

(29 of 30)

words withering waiting for a station in line
a memory of location a unleashing from the page
dogeared, shuffled, marked, stickied
read, reshuffled recalled
bound by glue by eyes that scan
follow the dotted lines of allusions
highlighters unused
pens off to parts on known
woodgrain printed on plastic 
glued beneath the weight of days
weeks semesters of appointments
lectures advising lunches with a half-life
computers with letters worn to memory
drafts written revisioned repeated
submitted rejected
for me
to find
them beneath the pile

Better 2 days late then never, right?

a dozen doubled days plus five
a poem in a shell 
each nested
in advice
wrapped in articles
set not in time
nor place
nor rhyme
but in flux
waiting for the 
aging process
to proclaim it
a heady bouquet
or vinegar fit
for naught

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Weeding My Poetic Garden

     Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of working Kathleen Merz, Managing Editor at Eerdmans and Jodell Sadler to offer a webinar through Kidlit College on creating reading that hooks readers on the first page and pulls them along to the last page with Kidlit College. It was a fantastic experience that has inspired the topic for today's blog--poetic weed.  It's a term I coined for applying the fundamentals of editing poetry to revising and tightening writing of any genre. All me to demonstrate one element of the poetic weed to get you started:

Here's my poem for today:

(27 of 30)

Growth Spurt

"Mom, what's a growth spurt?"
she asks from the comfort of the backseat of our minivan
Is it going from learning the lyrics of "Jesus Loves Me"
to changing them to say, "Jesus send my grandpa back to me"
two days after he died?
Or is it learning about the sacrifices of lent while sliding your chicken off your
plate onto the restaurant floor,
then announcing, "I gave the chicken up for lent."
Maybe it's raising your hand at children's church
when the minister asks, "What is heaven like?" 
and saying, "It's where you go and get a new body and never feel any pain anymore"
But what I tell you is that it's when
you're body craves all the nutrients you need and 
allows you to grow in one big overnight push
Yet I can't help but think that there's so much 
more than two rows of seats between me
and the little girl I can still see in the
rear view mirror

Pull All the Prepositions

Here, we have a narrative "poem" about a girl growing up too fast in a writing style that is more prose than poetry and even at that it's more told than shown, so the first step of a poetic week is to go back through and see if there are any words that are not essential to the manuscript. The best way to get started is to look at conjunctions, articles, prepositions, adverbs, and adjectives and see if perhaps you can't winnow down the language.

But remember this rule: Only remove words if by their removal you make the writing more active, dramatic,and organic. If removing the word makes it awkward or stiff, you want to leave the word where it is. 

  Let's give it a try:

"Mom, what's a growth spurt?"
she asks from her car seat perch
Is it learning the lyrics of "Jesus Loves Me"
and converting them to, "Jesus send my grandpa back to me"
two days after he died?
Or learning about lent while sliding your 
chicken onto the restaurant floor,
then announcing, "I gave it up for lent."
Maybe it's responding, "What is heaven like?" 
with "It's where you go and get a new pain-free body"
But what I say is, "Your body stories all the good food
you eat, then zoom you grow double quick."
Yet, I'm thinking,
there's so much more than two rows of seats 
between me
and the little girl 
I can still see in the
rear view mirror

The events and images are a lot tighter and clearer now, the pace smoother.

But this is only one step of a poetic weed and it's important to remember that writing is like gardening. You don't just pull one batch of weeds and walk away until harvest time. You plant, you water, you fertilize, then you weed, and weed, and weed, then after you've dealt with the birds and the bugs and little bare footed invaders, you harvest what could be a beautiful tomato of a poem or it could be a lovely red fruit a piece that looks good but tastes/reads like dirt.

Give Strength to Your Tomatoes 

Or at least the opening and closing of each line.  Just as we put our tomatoes in a cages to give them something to grow on, the scaffolding of a poem can be your opening and closing words for each line.

A poetic weed also asks you to look at where you end and begin your lines. You should go for strength, clarity, and narrative gap here. You want strong, concrete words that can open up a sense of suspense for what's coming in the next line.

Let's put up our tomato towers in the poem I'm working on:

"Mom, what's a growth spurt?"
she asks from her car seat perch
Learning the lyrics of "Jesus Loves Me"?
Converting them to, "Jesus send my grandpa back to me"
two days after he died?
Learning about lent while sliding
chicken onto the restaurant floor,
announcing, "I gave it up for lent."
It's responding to "What is heaven like?"
with "It's where you go and get a new
pain-free body."
I tell you, "Your body stories all the good food
then zoom,
 you grow double quick."
Yet, I'm thinking,
there's so much more
 than two rows of seats
between me
and the little girl
I can still see in the
rear view mirror

We're getting closer one bloom at a time. I hope. Here, by turning the answer into separated questions, I was able to lead with "learning" and "converting" and remove "your" and "then" and I worked on the line breaks to set up the possibilities of the answers with "or," "maybe," and "but" they're not powerful words, but I'm hoping the single words work like the base in a fulcrum, balancing the ideas on either side.

I hope this gives you a little helpful advice.  I know that with this particular poem, I'm just getting started and I'm eager to keep going/growing!

How about you?

Weed away my friend!  You'll never know what may grow from it.