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Create Memorable Character Arcs

“A character’s past will be a minefield of negative experiences, but at some point, there should be an event you as the author can define as “the wound.” Small, painful events change a person bit by bit, but to focus all this hurt and pain into a single backstory moment can really help you better understand who and what damaged your character, and why, as a result, they question their self-worth. This also guides you to the false belief they must see for the lie it is, in order to become healthy and whole, strengthening them so they can achieve their goal.” Angela Ackerman

The growth of your characters is one of the most important parts of your story.

Every character – just like all of us human beings – needs to grow in some area of life. In a fiction story, many times, the character believes a lie that sprouted at some point in his or her childhood.

A really helpful question to ask yourself is: Why does the character believe this lie in the first place?

If your character is undergoing a change arc, then one of your first tasks is to figure out why he needs to change. What happened in his or her life to cause him to believe this clearly damaging lie?

The Reason Behind the Lie is Your Character’s Ghost

 As human beings we’re often blind to destructive choices in our own lives. We can see it in others, but can’t always see it in ourselves.

In other words, we lie to ourselves. We always have a reason why we value survival in one area of our ives over another. Like you have to work like crazy to earn the approval of friends, so you don’t feel like the friendless person your mother always said you’d be.

So if you find the reason, you’ll find the ghost.

In the movies they use the word ghost or wound to speak of something in your character’s past that haunts her or him. In Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s book The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws, they talk more about wounds:

Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie-an untruth that the character believes about himself… For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love(the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancee from being shot during a robbery(the wound), he may adopt attitudes, beliefs, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women.

Many times the wound will be traumatic like Jason Bourne’s forgotten past as an assassin in The Bourne Identity: Jason Bourne Book #1 (Jason Bourne series)by Robert Ludlum. Or it could be something more ordinary like a break up in Persuasion, by Jane Austen. The more destructive the lie, the more the ghost will impact the character.

As we write about our characters from the beginning of the start of their story of their ordinary life, readers will discover what haunts them only bit by bit as the story continues. The reason why your character believes his or her lie, is what will hook the reader’s curiosity. Then as the book continues you’ll pull them in with little clues until finally near the end of the story the character’s wound or ghost is revealed.

There are a few stories where the character’s wounded past stays hidden in secrecy. So the author chooses not to reveal it for whatever reason.

In some stories, the place where the wound began, might be shown in the prologue. In these stories, the wound is a story unto itself that explains the main character’s motivation before the book moves onto the real story. It’s only after the wound has come out into the open and changed his or her ordinary world – that’s when the main character begins to struggle to understand and find reasons for his new mindset and actions.

Your Character’s Ghost will take any number of forms

1. An aunt’s refusal to love her niece (Jane Eyre)

2.Knowing what happens to unloved toys. (Toy Story)

3.A divorce. (What About Bob?)

The thing to remember when you’re trying to find the ghost, is that it will always be the elemental reason for your main character’s belief in the lie. 

One popular example of an example of a character’s ghost is found in Charles Dickens’ classic story as seen in the movie, Disney’s A Christmas CarolIn this tale, Scrooge has man ghosts, and one main one – the Ghost of Christmas Past. This Ghost shows us the backstory and why Scrooge believes the lies he believes. In the story we come to see that he had a horrible childhood because his father never showed him love and who sent him away to a Boarding School – keeping him there even during Christmas holidays. Knowing this background helps the readers to understand why Scrooge has become the mean person he is.

Great Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Ghost are:

  • Why does your protagonist believe this lie?
  • Did something in his past traumatize him or her?
  • Or if this didn’t happen in his past, is there a moment in the prologue or first few chapters that will traumatize her/him?
  • Why does your character hang onto the lie?
  • How will she or he be helped or changed by believing the Truth?
  • Is your character’s wound or ghost Big? If you made it bigger would you end up with a stronger character arc?
  • Where will you finally show your character’s wound or ghost? At the beginning of the story? Or will you show a little bit throughout the story with a big reveal toward the end?

The backstory and growth of your character is one of the most interesting and important parts of the story.

Really listen to what your character’s wound is because if you know what started your character’s belief in the lie he or she believes, you’ll be able to help him overcome it. And by doing that you’ll have an amazing story that will resonate with a lot of readers.

What is your character’s wound or ghost that has caused him or her to believe a lie? I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

hugs, Lorna

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7 Secrets to Writing Sparkling Dialogue

“…I’ve found it helpful to think about dialogue as a weapon. First, it helps us see dialogue as part of overall conflict. And second, it reminds us that all dialogue should be intentional on the part of the character…” James Scott Bell in his book  How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript

A big secret to page turning fiction is when the reader gets pulled into sparkling dialogue that happens between the characters. 

Here’s a truth about best selling fiction stories: Dialogue is a great part of what makes the book great. The better it is, the more readable the book is. When dialogue is done well, it allows the person who’s reading the story to feel confident in the writer, and to get more involved in the story.

Why is dialogue so important?

Without good conversation between your characters, you will bore your readers to death! Using great dialogue is the fastest way to improve a your story.

When dialogue is flat and isn’t working, you can tell because it all seems to sound the same. However, when it’s catchy and full of conflict and tension, it stands out in your mind and lets the reader feel like they are a bigger part of the story.

But, there’s a few ways you can make the conversation between your characters interesting.

Tips for Writing Good Dialogue in Fiction

There are seven tips that will help to make the dialogue in your story stand out. 

1. When you’re trying to include backstory information or things from the past that the character wants to hide, there are ways you can get those out in dialogue. One way is to get the characters into an argument. When words are tossed each other – like a weapon – it’s a more natural way for the information to come out.

2. When starting your book – or early on in the story – create a voice journal for each character. Just begin a separate page or document that’s a bit like a free-form flowing speech made by the characters as she/he talks to you. Ask the character questions and allow your imagination to create words until the character starts to take on a voice of his/her own. That way you’ll start to hear the character in a new way. It’s helpful to do this with the major characters especially… but can also help with minor characters. 

3. Before writing a really compelling character you need to see and hear the character. One way that can help you sort of your many different characters is to find images on the internet – a head shot – that resonates with you and gives you a feeling of who that specific character is. As you see the picture it’ll be easier to jot down a few basic things about the character, backstory  and a little about the timeline of their life. Once you have a clearer picture of the characters – especially the main characters – they kind of take on a life of their own.

4. When you’re using accents in your dialogue, season it with a bit of dialect and let the reader’s imagination fill it in from there. It’s not usually a good idea to try to phonetically write out every word. If you make a suggestion of an accent, readers will go along with it. Then let the character through their action and what they say, do the work of characterization.

5. Dialogue is also a great way to increase the pace of a scene. If people are talking, there’s white space on the page and sometimes that’s a good thing. It can give the reader a sort of relief from large blocks of text. So if you want a fast paced feeling in your story, you would use short, crisp dialogue and moderate the use of action. To slow the pace down, you would increase the action. So it’s a matter of knowing what writing tools to use and knowing the feeling you want to have on the page.

6. Dialogue tags like “he said” or “she said” are is basically invisible to the reader. It doesn’t make them work any harder as they read, but still does the job of telling them who is speaking. Sometimes for variety’s sake you can put in a little action beat. However when using a action beat, it should have some kind of relevance to the scene. The thing is with writing an action scene it makes the reader work harder at visualization. And so if the action beats happen all the time, the reader will feel like your story is a tougher read than it should be.

7. Another things that helps make the dialogue great, is when you read it out loud. It’s a way to get the sound in your head out so you can hear it. It helps you to tell the difference between your characters. Even if you take a screenplay scene and read it out loud. James Scott Bell suggests taking a screenplay scene and rewriting the dialogue as if you were making a scene in a novel – add the little actions – and that will give you the rhythm of creating dialogue on a page.

An added note is about punctuation. All dialogue has punctuation which goes inside the closed quotes. Then it it’s a comma, you don’t capitalize the pronoun, like “he said”; if there’s a period, you do capitalize it. Then to add a interruption in dialogue you use the em-dash, which is the long dash(not the ellipsis which is the three dots). The ellipsis is used when a voice trails off for some reason in conversation, when he or she is lost in thought or something like that. 

So those are my thoughts on writing dialogue that sparkles in the reader’s imagination.

What are your thoughts on writing dialogue that sizzles? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

hugs, Lorna

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Crush Fear So You Can Finish Your Book

“Be yourself. Above all, let who you are, what you are, what you believe shine through every sentence you write, every piece you finish.” John Jakes

Many writers who are beginners and are writing the messy middle or even those who are on the homestretch to finish their books, have doubts and fears that they’ll actually be able to finish and publish their book.

It’s happened to me… quite a lot actually. I’ve had many doubts creep up on me, especially now that I’m in the homestretch in finishing Book #2 in my Historical Romance series. 

Thoughts of fear of failure; that people won’t like their book; that it won’t be good enough is a barrier many writers have to push past.

So how do we stop letting fear push us down and take small courageous steps everyday to finishing our book?

If you are procrastinating because you fear your writing isn’t good enough or you’re afraid no one will read your book, here’s some tips that might help.

Fear

Here’s the thing. Resistance is invisible. It can’t be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. It’s goal is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. It comes from outside us(kids, spouses) or it can be the enemy within. It will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. 

Sounds like fear doesn’t it?

One of the most powerful forms that resistance takes to stop us from finishing our work, is fear of rejection. And when the rejection comes from someone you know and respect, it’s even tougher to take. People can become paralyzed by fear if they’re not careful.

But if you think through what could be the worst case scenario, it helps to put fear into perspective. If no one likes your book or no one buys your book that probably is the worst thing that could happen as a writer. But, it you think about it, you really can’t have anyone not like your book unless they’ve read it, which means that they bought your book – in which case it means you’ve made some sales. 

So if you’re paralyzed by fear… that’s a good sign. Like self-doubt, fear tells us what we have to do. The more scared we are of putting our authentic selves out there, the more sure we can be that we have to do it. 

Fear of rejection is a difficult one, but it is something you can overcome. You don’t have to let it lock you in.

Procrastination

Procrastination is a cousin of fear of rejection. Most writers procrastinate because they let fear talk them out of taking the chance. If you never finish your book and publish it, you don’t risk rejection because you can say “I never got around to finishing it and getting it out there.”

When we procrastinate and don’t finish writing and publishing the book, we’ve given ourselves a safety net against the possibility of rejection.

Something that feeds procrastination is when you tell yourself “I don’t have time.” Sometimes life is incredibly busy, granted, but all of us have 24 hours in a day.  And the great thing is that books don’t have to be written in one day, one week or even in a month. All we need to do is write a little everyday.

If you break your word count into smaller goals that seem doable, then you won’t feel overwhelmed.

Here’s Some Strategy Tips to Beat Fear…

#1. Find Encouraging Writers to Hang Around 

Establishing friendships with other writers can be a huge help so that you finish writing and publish your book. You don’t have to go through the whole writing process alone. You might find local writing groups in your area, or you can meet other writers online that can help you overcome fear by sharing common experiences with others who have been and are in your shoes. Other writers will understand you in a whole new way that non-writers won’t. You need to be able to talk to other writers who understand that creating a book becomes part of you because you created it.

#2. Become part of a good critique group

A really good critique group will be full of writers who are honest and also encouraging. They should be able to offer advice on both sides of the coin – to tell you what’s good about your story and also have the courage to tell you what isn’t working. Hearing what needs to be tweaked in your story, isn’t fun, but you will grow because of it. If you have a atmosphere around you that is supportive and helpful, you can really fine tune your craft. In turn, your confidence as a writer will grow.

Remember to be open to hearing the good and the bad of your story. Even if you’ve written for years, there’s always going to be room to grow as a writer. Every story you write should be better than your last one.

Critique groups can be online and they can be small. And they don’t have to be a formal critique group. Beta readers who are writers can be a kind of critique group also. Now, because of the internet it’s easier than ever to find a group that works for you.

#3. Read Books on the Craft of Writing, Go to conferences or join online writing groups.

The Internet has opened up a whole bunch of conferences, workshops and writing groups online. You don’t even have to leave your house. A big part of workshops or conferences is that you get to network with other writers. If you’re part of a writers group, like  Tribe Writers it is educational as well as very supportive.

The really neat thing that happens as you connect with a few writers who are encouraging and supportive, most likely you will start to feel that way yourself. When I surround myself with positive people who love writing and are in the learning mode just like I am, I feel positive about myself and my writing. Then in turn, I can encourage others. I love that. So if at all possible, stay away from the negative and stay encouraged by other writers.

Of course reading books on the craft of writing, is amazingly helpful. In fact, just this past week, I had an aha moment as I read about the “mirror moment” in James Scott Bell’s book Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.

I love those moments when you stumble on something that really helps you understand your story. That’s something for you to look forward to, as you keep learning and practicing the craft of writing.

#4. Take Baby Steps to Get to Your Goals

In the last couple months, I’ve started to wake up most mornings and write first thing. It was an idea I got from James Scott Bell who said he writes the nifty 350. So I’ve started writing around 350 words which usually takes me 30 to 45 minutes. But if you would write 350 words twice a day, you would have 700 a day. If you keep writing for 30 – 45 minutes at a time every day for 90 days, you would have 63,000 words finished. That’s almost a whole novel. At that rate you could possible write 4 novels a year by write in 700 words a day. If you want breaks, you could bring that down to 3 novels a year instead of 4. That’s very doable, even if you are busy doing other things, to write at least one full-length novel a year.

The truth is that the more you write, the more comfortable and confident you’ll become as a writer. Another big plus, is that it will get easier to ignore people who don’t like your work. No one crushes fear by doing nothing. You must face your fear, overcome it and write anyway.

#5. Put Your Fears in Perspective

You might have had bad experiences where someone teased you or mocked you about your writing at some point in your life. But just because they think that about your writing, doesn’t mean everyone will believe that. You can’t please everyone. Taste is very subjective. For example, if you go and look at some of the reviews of some of the bestsellers on Amazon, you’ll realize that not everyone likes their books.

However the biggest thing to remember as you continue to create your stories, is to write what you love. In the end, it’s a part of you. It’s what you created. If you love what you are writing, then it was worth it.

hugs, Lorna 

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Tips for Using Flashbacks in Your Fiction Story

 “Writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.” Amy Tan

So what exactly is flashback in a novel?

Flashback is what a writer can use to enhance a story. It’s a way to enhance a story with information that the reader wouldn’t have known otherwise.

Flashback’s are something that brings information from the past into the present to help the reader better understand a character or part of the story.

One of the great things flashbacks do is to give the reader of your character’s life story by showing the character in an earlier time – usually anything from early childhood to the present time – in order to move the story forward.

It’s a way of telling what’s missing in the story. And because flashbacks deal with the past, they also give the reader insight into a character’s motives… the very of who they are and how he or she acts and interacts with the world around them. 

For example, if you’re telling the reader why the hero is so sad, usually there’s some traumatic event in his/her life that made him/her who they are today. 

Flashbacks(sometimes called backstory) work best about 1/3 – 3/4 of the way into the story. Chapter 1 is not the best time to dump all this information on your reader. Why is this important? Because the reader doesn’t care about the character yet. They don’t them well enough. So at the beginning a flashback will be boring to them and they might skip that part in your story.

It’s better to wait until later in the story when the heroine or hero is at a critical part in the story where the tragic even in their past could stop them from reaching their goal.

Benefits of using Flashbacks…

Backstory, in all honesty, is one of the hardest things to figure out when you’re a new writer. We are tempted to mention everything to the reader right away. In the first draft, this kind of makes sense, as we are trying to figure out who the characters are as we’re writing. 

If your a pantser(someone who writes the story by the seat of your pants), you’re probably trying to figure out the story as you go. If you’re a plotter and outline first, you might have an easier time of learning the delicate balance of when and how to use backstory. I’m a little of both. I usually write the first three chapters or so, kind of figure out the ending and then write an outline. So usually I have an idea on backstory by the time I get to writing the first draft.

So what do you do instead of using flashbacks or backstory in the first couple of chapters?

You focus on character.

At the beginning of your story you need to establish an emotional connection between the character you introduce and the reader. That connection happens best when the reader reads something that is happening to the character at this very moment in the story.

Since you’re going to tell some of the story from the main character’s point of view, the character is central to the story. So when you start the story, put the reader in the moment.

Ask yourself: What is the character saying? What is the character thinking and feeling? What are they seeing and hearing? Are there any other things important to the scene that the character is experiencing?

At the start of the story you can hint at backstory which will intrigue the reader and make them wonder what is going on. That will add anticipation for the backstory or flashback that will come further on in the story.

Flashbacks need to be brought into the story in a seamless way so that they form part of the story. Other flashbacks might occur as new chapters or separate scenes, or long pieces put into the narrative. Backstory might also be added in just a few sentences.

It’s important to remember that flashbacks slow the story down, so it’s good to learn when  to place a flashback without interrupting the flow on the entire story.

Also backstory that’s not done properly have a tendency to confuse the reader because they won’t clearly know the difference between past and present in your story.

There’s some great tips in Nancy Kress’s book Write Great Fiction – Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint on how to write great backstory.

Tips on what to avoid when writing flashbacks:

  • show clear transitions otherwise you might confuse the reader – they won’t be able to tell the difference between the actual story and the flashback.
  • try not to make the flashback more exciting than the main story
  • Putting the flashback/backstory as the first scene in the novel isn’t a good idea.
  • Don’t make your flashback overly long
  • Use them sparingly. Too much backstory will irritate the reader and make the main story hard to understand. They might lose interest too.

When I finished my 1st draft of Answering Annaveta (Russia to Canada Trilogy Book 1) I read the story through to see whether or not the flashbacks I used worked or if I should shorten them or delete them altogether. I got rid of a few of them.

The general rule of thumb when writing fiction: If it works and adds to the story, keep it. If it doesn’t, take it out.

In general, I think flashbacks bring a new depth to your characters and to the story when done properly. Most of time when the backstory is done right, the reader won’t even notice a well crafted flashback, but they will notice that the story is a great read because of it.

Have you used flashback or backstory in your story? Has it added a new depth to your characters & their story? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

hugs, Lorna

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