Tag Archives: Character Development

Writing Prompts: Character Development

10 Feb

It’s been a while since I’ve been to my prompt group. It was good to see everyone again and good to do some writing. I thought I’d share my prompts here for you to try for yourselves and give you a short look at what I wrote. The first two are a warm-up and the second two focused on developing a character through another character’s eyes. Happy writing!

The Prompts:
1. A soft ran (3 minutes)
2. A welcome interruption (4 minutes)
3. Two people meeting again for the first time after a long separation (7 minutes)
4. A person alone for the first time in ages (7 minutes)

My Answers

Prompt 1
The pitter patter of water on glass is almost deafening. There’s no such thing as a soft rain when the entire wall and ceiling above your bed is glass. I stare up into the grey sky, unfocusing in all ways a human can unfocus. This was romantic once when we’d lie here together, staring into the clouds and talking about little nothings. Keeping warm from the snowy ceiling above us in the winter. Letting the sun wake us up on lazy Saturday mornings.

Once before I’d liked the sound of rain on the glass. It was a reminder that I was dry but only because of a thin sheet of glass. A thin sheet that can shatter in a second. In a second called life when the car crashes into your leg but not before crushing through bone and tissue and life to your right.

The rain makes my leg ache as I swing it over the side of the bed and remember that it’s one rainstorm at a time; one day at a time; one breath at a time.

Prompt 2
Data entry could not be more mindless, tedious, boring, and awful. And I’m looking at a stack of it. The 100 most recent customer service surveys filled out by angry customers in the hope of winning at $50 gift card (side note, you’ll never win) and filled out in a hurry against the wall by the door with a pen running out of ink. Please withhold your jealousy. I’ve gone and gotten my morning coffee. I’ve done the recommended ergonomic stretches. I’ve even tried striking up a conversation with Tim, the quiet engineer that sits next to me, but there’s nothing else to do; it’s got to be done.

I pick up the first sheet and glance at the purple pen writing and frantic scribbles that are in the corner, willing the life of the pen to go on. I’m waiting for the universe to interrupt, waiting for something to distract me for another five minutes, but nothing does. I finally open up the tracking document and begin to enter data.

But suddently… yeah, there’s nothing. Back to purple pen misery.

Prompt 3
“Hey cousin!” Mary is waving from the driver’s window of her silver SUV. I’m staring blankly at this woman who I used to know so well and having trouble reconciling her with the grungy older cousin I knew in my youth. I walk over to the car slowly but she makes no move to get out.

“Grace will start wailing if I get out of the car. Hop in! We’re on our way to grab lunch.”

I walk to the driver’s side and hop in. My duffel bag is a little too big to fit on the floor so I hug my knees to my chest. I thought the smell of bus would permeate off of me like an old woman’s perfume but the even stronger scent of diapers and spilled milk masks me.

Mary reaches over the center console and wraps her arms around me as well as she can’t with a seat belt on. “I’m so glad you came to visit. I promise this will be a great little vacation for you. It will be so great to catch up. Gosh, I haven’t seen you since you were in middle school! And now you’re half-way through high school, this is crazy.” Mary gives my shoulder a squeeze and puts the SUV into drive.

I’m about to smile and admit to myself that this really could be fun. I’m optimistically thinking that two weeks with my cousin and her family in Georgia is the break I need to give myself space from my mother and her most recent obsessions (yoga and natural hair treatments) and see what’s been going on with the rest of the family. I’m about to be happy.

There’s a whining behind me and I turn around to see the source of the diapers and spoiled milk. Grace is 18 months old and huge. You’d think she’s three if she didn’t have a baby face and she takes up more of her booster seat than any child should. I smile and reach a hand back to greet her.

“Hi, Grace. I guess I’m your cousin once removed.” I’m thinking that somehow in her 18 months she learned how to shake hands or at least will reach out and touch mine. Instead, her face screws up in a mix of confusion and horror. She opens her mouth and instead of cute little toddler words, a white film comes out. Not a lot, but enough to get on my hand. Grace immediately starts bawling.

Mary turns around and sees my hand, held in the abyss, unable to do anything about it. “Oh gosh, I’m so sorry about that! She does that a lot. I’m sure there are some napkins somewhere around here.” She starts fumbling in the console but comes up with only an old magazine on parenting. “Here, this might help.”

I’m helpless, holding a parenting magazine and baby barf and aware I’m about to get a rude lesson in babysitting and about now I think I’d rather treat my roots with almond oil and wood shavings while doing a down dog pose.

Prompt 4
She closed the door behind her and the giggles, the friends, the late night crying over some social event, the make-up and the frat boys all went with her and for the first time in four weeks, I have the room to myself. Now, two weeks might not seem long to you but to someone who grew up in a quiet house with conservative parents and no pets, four weeks with a newly liberated newly Greek roommate was a long, long time. So long that it forces you to remember what quiet sounds like. The library, unfortunately, has been closed due to water damage and a spider infestation. The quietest place I can find is a coffee shop but it’s a twenty-minute walk and there’s been a deluge of rain the past week.

But this weekend is the pledge retreat in Ohio. Which means Kristen is gone for over 48 hours. All of her friends are going so they won’t be barging in here dying to tell her something and all of the boys know it’s pledge retreat weekend so they won’t knock at three am to see if she’s ‘still up.’

I’m so overwhelmed with possibilities that I’m not sure where to start. I’ll vacuum on Sunday and this will be my first opportunity to remove my things from Kristen’s desk (still not sure how she got my ruler and 3-hole punch). But these things only take me a few minutes. I have 47 hours and 50 minutes left to go.

I can take a nap. But I’m not tired; I really want to turn on some music and for once, I get to pick the music. None of that top 40 stuff that Kristen’s friend Mary insists on; I’m able to put on some nice mellow soft rock. It’s nice to have some noise around. I pull up my Facebook page, trolling for something to distract me.


It’s my lab partner, Kaitlyn. We’ve become decently good friends over the past month. As good of friends as you can become in 30 days.


Is your roommate gone?

Yes! Finally.

Awesome. What are you doing to celebrate this weekend?

I’m not sure.

Want to watch a movie?


I’ve got Catching Fire. I can be there in 10 minutes.

Make it 15.

Cool, see ya.


It was nice while it lasted, but silence could only be sustained for so long.


Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


Library Writers Group: Character Development

28 Oct

Hello fellow writers!

As we get closer and closer to NaNo, I keep thinking about editing, but I’m almost too nervous to think about it seriously. Luckily, my library writers group made me feel awesome about writing and I’m feeling motivated again. We’ll see how long this lasts.

This month we talked about character development. We talked about our favorite characters and why they’re our favorite characters. I think one of my favorites would have to be Lisbeth Salander from Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. She’s so strong and unique which was great because she didn’t remind me of any other character out there. Other favorites were Rosa Huberman (The Book Thief) and Charlie (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). Then we talked about characters we don’t like and we gave general descriptions more than specifics. We hate characters who don’t learn from their mistakes. When a character makes the same mistake twice, you want to punch him. It’s a fact. But when a character grows and develops, you’re more inclined to like him. We also hated when our characters had no motivation behind their cause. We need a reason to want the character to succeed, especially if we would do something different from the character in our own lives.

When it comes to villains,a good villain has a ‘love to hate him’ personality. They’re not pure evil for no reason; there’s a force driving them to act against the protagonist. When I think about it, Voldemort is actually a poor example of a well-motivated villain. (I hate knocking my favorite series.) He wants to be powerful because it’s powerful. That’s pretty weak. But then we look at a character like Lucius Malfoy who’s evil because he made a bad mistake when he was young and now has to follow through with it to protect his wife and son. That’s some good motivation if you ask me (and if you’re reading this, you did).

We also want to read characters who are realistic. There are a lot of elements that go into a character being realistic and not all of them have to be met to give a good character. We listed a few:

  • Relatable
  • Flawed
  • Consistent
  • Not ‘captain special’ (not everyone loves them)
  • Speaks in a realistic way
  • Not taken to the point of over-developing a side character who dies soon after
  • Has a unique voice.

This last one is worth diving into. There are a lot of ways to give a character voice. Some simple ways are giving them a phrase that they say often or a dialect or accent that’s unique to that character. Whatever it is the writer chooses, it needs to make the characters read differently, especially in a dual-narrator book. This was a big complaint of Allegiant; Four and Tris sounded like the same person. We did an exercise where our group moderator gave us some quotes and we had to guess who said it. Of the six we did, we got four right (I got one! Go me!). A unique voice adds a lot to a character.

For practice, we did a sheet called ‘101 Character Development Questions’ by Cecil Wilde (which for the life of me, I cannot find a link to). It’s a series of (shocker!) 101 questions about a character to help flush him or her out. They’re divided into categories: Basic Information; Backstory; Tastes; Morals, Beliefs, and Faith; Relationships; Physical Appearance; General Knowledge; Specific Knowledge; ‘What if…’ Questions; and Miscellany. In our session, I got to Morals, Beliefs, and Faith before I had an epiphany. My character is Italian, born to native parents. His foil character is Irish, born to native parents. Chance are that in the time period I’ve written them, they’d both go to church, arguably the same church, every Sunday. And I hadn’t mentioned that in my story. Needless to say, I’ll have to add that in.

I hadn’t given much stock to these lists before, but I see how they can make you think more about your characters. Maybe I need to spend the time doing these. Maybe.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Novel Girls: Comfort Zone and Fantasy

3 Jul

My Novel Girl friends probably thought I forgot about this post. Nope! I just ran out of time to write it so it’s only now going up. We met waaaay back on June 5th. Yes, we’ve met since then. I’ll get to that later.

I shared the first half of a piece I wrote back in February that I’ve shared with one person but really not touched since. My main character is a man named Mitchell who sees a girl he used to know from school and plucks up the courage to go talk to her. He’s a shy guy and remembers her as a quiet girl, but it still makes him nervous to go see her. However, he seems to find his balls really quickly and asks her out on a date. This took Nicole and Katherine aback because it seemed like a really sudden change and it wasn’t well motivated. I’ll have to look at either giving him more balls early on or making him more nervous throughout.

Katherine brought us a piece that will begin a longer story to get our initial reactions. From the portion we read, it was hard to tell if the book was fantasy or not because it had several elements grounded in this world. We talked about ways she could introduce fantastical elements to the story up front. She could show some supernatural powers, describe the setting’s place in the fantastical world, etc. Depending on how outlandish a fantastical world is, there are tons of different ways to do this. The problem is conveying what you have in your head to your readers. It can be hard to get the image on paper the way you want it to look. Which makes me think; maybe it’s okay if you don’t. Part of the magic of reading is being able to create by yourself what the world will look like in detail. There’s a line between enough and not enough. What are some books you thought gave too much detail and what are some that gave too much? Do fantasy books lend themselves to more detail than contemporary books to convey the setting?

Nicole‘s piece was a little different from other things we’ve read from her. We talked a lot about how it can be refreshing to get out of your comfort zone and write something that’s a stretch. Sometimes really good things can come from it. We did an exercise at a writing group once where we all had to name our least favorite genre or the one we didn’t like to read, and then write our first prompt in that style. I think really good pieces like Nicole’s can grow out of exercises like that.

By the time you read this, we’ll have already had another Novel Girls meeting, so be ready for another one of these posts… eventually!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at SamAStevensWriter@gmail.com. And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (3/5). The only proper way to give your book 20 endings

21 Apr

I wish I could have read it faster, but I’m really glad I got to read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. My co-workers and I will get together sometime this week to talk about it and I’ll put up a summary of what we talked about.

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Cover Image via Goodreads.com

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

In a mix between reincarnation and the movie Groundhog’s Day, Ursula Todd is reborn on the same snowy day in 1910 when she dies. In each of her lives, she’s subtly aware of the lives she’s lived before and is able to avoid the terrible tragedies that befell her and her family. She remembers their maid bringing the Spanish Flu into the house and killing her and her younger brother. She remembers the London Bombings by the Luftwaffe and how she’s died in them. She remembers an abusive lover and the death of a young friend. In each life, she has to decide which tragedies to avoid and which to bare.

I didn’t know when I started this that Ursula was going to continue reliving the same life. I thought the book was more about reincarnation. I think I prefer the alternative that Atkinson pursued with this novel, however. It was a really unique idea and raised a lot of good questions. What would I have done in Ursula’s situation? If I’d known of a huge international war that was coming, what would I do to stop it? In my life time, that’s September 11th (though I would still be a bit young to do much at the time). How could I have stopped that and would I have done it? I love powerful books that make you ask yourself that question.

I loved how layered the characters in this book were. We got to see them on several different life paths in the book and we could see how they reacted to Ursula in her different lives. I loved Sylvie as a character because she was well developed, but I didn’t like her. In the life where Ursula was raped, Sylvie is so rude and hateful toward her daughter that it tinged how I felt about her in all of the following lives. I liked getting to see different sides of Teddy depending on if Nancy lived or died. I adored Ursula’s change in romantic interests between lives and how she would deal with those people in her other lives, remembering them slightly as if they were ghosts. Characters in this book were very strong in general.

Ursula herself was my favorite character. I loved seeing her thrown into so many terrible situations and reacting with such insight and poise that it was incredible. She was, quite literally, an old soul in her youth and a very practical woman in middle age. Though the reader gets to see her grow up sever times, we still see her as dynamic across her lives.

There wasn’t a character that I could particularly attach myself to and relate to well. It’s sometimes hard to do that in historical fiction where the setting takes a very strong role. Having never been bombed or lived during a World War, it was difficult to relate to the characters and the struggles they felt. There were moments when I could sympathize with Hugh or Izzy or Ursula, but on a whole, I didn’t think the characters were much like me.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

My favorite part of the book was the time Ursula spent with Eva Braun in Germany. I thought it was a really interesting way to have Ursula connect with Adolf Hitler. Most WWII books written from a German point of view tend to focus on suffering (like The Book Thief or Stones from the River) but this one focused on the luxury and affluence that Hitler allowed himself. Eva and Ursula were so far from Berlin when they were in the mountains that Eva would be bored, not even aware of the war and death. I thought this was a really unique perspective of a terrible situation.

I think the repeated deaths in the London Bombings were my least favorite section of the book. It was dark, depressing, and bordered on repetitive. We would invest in Ursula so much, only to see her killed in the same building. While I know showing us her life until the point of death each time made it harder to see her die, it also made the book drag in the middle and it got to a time when I had to keep putting the book down to do something lighter and happier.

I loved the theme of sacrifice in this book. Ursula has to decide between her own happiness and doing something for the greater good, which might not even matter if the world was to begin again. How big of an impact did killing Hitler make if she has to do it in each life? Like Billy Murray in Groundhog’s Day, is she searching for the most meaning and impact a single person can make in one life? Would that be killing Hitler, or is it saving the people of London from burning buildings? What sacrifice is the greatest and how can Ursula make that sacrifice?

Writer’s Takeaways: I adored how Atkinson was able to develop characters by giving us different views of them in Ursula’s different lives. I think this would be a hard style for another writer to follow or copy, so it’s a good one to appreciate from a distance. Atkinson’s creativity must be commended.

A solid three out of five. It dragged, but it was well worth reading.

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Life After Live, by Kate Atkinson | The Marlborough Reading Group
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson | mrsmamfa
Audiobook Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson | literary hoarders

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (2/5)- A meandering love story that only leads to a sequel

10 Mar

This immediately goes to the top of the ‘Longest Audiobooks I’ve Listened To’ list. 28 disks, over 30 hours and yes, it took me over a month to finish. To be honest, it got rough toward the end. I’ll explain later.

Cover image via Goodreads.com

Cover image via Goodreads.com

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

World War II is over and Claire Randall and her husband, Frank can finally be reunited. On a trip to the Scottish highlands to reconnect, Claire wonders off to explore some ruins and is transported back in time over 200 years, to 1743. She is taken to the MacKenzie lands and determined not to be a threat, but must find a place for herself in the new time. Claire hopes to return to the ruins where she was transported through time and joins a routine journey with the MacKenzie men during which she’s stopped by John Randall, descendant of her husband, Frank, who thinks she might be a threat and hopes to interrogate her. To become a Scott and remove herself from his English command, she marries Jamie Fraser, nephew of the MacKenzie lord. The adventures don’t end as Jamie has a price on his head for murder and the two must continue to escape Randall’s sphere of influence. Facing prosecution for being a witch, Jamie takes Claire to the ruins where she passed through and gives her the opportunity to go back. Claire decides to stay in the 1740s and stay with her new husband and try to save the Highlanders from the massacre that will come when Bonny Prince Charlie tries to take the English throne.

Outlander is the first of eight books in the series written by Gabaldon. I’ll be honest and say I have no intention to continue the series after reading Outlander. Most of my complaints are from a story-telling perspective, not from an entertainment perspective. On the contrary, there are some wonderful stories within the book. I read that Gabaldon starting writing the book to see if she could do it, not really planning anything or knowing what would come of it. I feel like she never got an editor that explained story arc or character development very well. I think the book could easily have been 500 pages shorter. So many of the mini stories didn’t further the plot (which I’m now confused as to what it is) or develop the characters. There’s only so many times Claire can be almost-raped and saved by Jamie at the last second before I think she’s careless.

I was also not a fan of Claire as a narrator. I know I’ve said it before, but she had that ‘Nick Caraway’ quality as a narrator; she was a window through which I watched the story. She had very little internal dialogue, thoughts, or emotions. Most of what she said was description of action. The reason this really bugs me is it felt like she wasn’t interacting with her own story. She seemed blase, not an endearing character in a narrator.

The thing that bothered me the most was how quickly Claire seemed to forget about her first husband, Frank. They had a weird marriage, from the sounds of it, but I still think she forgot him rather quickly. It was implied that because of the war, they weren’t together for very much of their seven-year marriage and that because of this, they had an understanding that both would be unfaithful and that there would be no questions about it. I’ve never been involved in a wartime relationship and I’m not going to pass any judgement over this, but I will pass judgement on how soon after arriving in the 1700s Claire seems to stop thinking of Frank. He comes up every 50 pages or so, interspersed with how in love she is with Jamie and many near-death experiences. I find it hard to wrap my head around how she seemed to move on and give up on the life she was building for 30 years in about four months.

As with many books about time travel, Gabaldon touches on what would happen to the 1940s if Clair changes things in the 1740s. She has an in-depth conversation with a French scholar at the end of the book when she is deciding what she should do about the pending destruction of the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden. Does she have the right to interfere and maybe change history? They decide that her knowledge of the future is a gift from God and to remain inactive is to deny his blessing. I really like this idea. Claire’s biggest concern is the death of Jack Randall, ancestor of her 1940s husband, Frank. He died sooner than family records indicate; does that mean if she goes back, Frank will not exist? These are the kinds of questions I love about time travel.

I realize that this is starting to be me ripping on the book more than a review of it and I apologize for that. I follow Gabaldon on Twitter now and I saw that she is heading to Scotland to film a TV series for the Starz network based on her books. I feel these books will make a better TV show than they do novels, honestly. The up and down of the action will lend itself well to one-hour segments. While I’m not going to get cable to watch it, I’ll try to find it on Netflix when it becomes available. From me, that’s a huge compliment.

Writer’s Takeaway: I was talking to my friend Alex, who is also reading this book and he said that he heard Gabaldon was a ‘pantser,’ meaning she wrote with no plan. I’m in the midst of trying pantsing myself, being quite the planner, and I think this book is the epitome of the bad things that come with pantsing. It seems like Gabaldon had no direction for her book, which becomes increasingly obvious as the book goes on. I felt that she finally figured out she wanted to talk about the effects of one’s actions on changing the future very close to the end. The pregnancy at the end felt a lot like Fifty Shades of Grey which had much of the same feel.

I think Gabaldon did a great job with character development. Claire was not as well-developed, but Jamie and the MacKenzie men were each their own, distinct character and I really enjoyed reading about them. They had very realistic strengths, especially Colum, the handicapped leader who was as sharp as a tack. None of her characters, even Jamie, seemed to have any ‘super natural’ heroic qualities. I thought the villain, Black Jack Randall, was perfectly loathsome. I loved him.

I also must add, Gabaldon writes some really quality sex scenes. This is, after all, a romance novel, and she does it well, without the action seeming overly explicit or underdone. She’s a good example of this.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. Only two out of five stars.

This book fulfills the 1700-1799 time period for When Are You Reading? and Foreign Country: Scotland (UK) for Where Are You Reading?

Until next time, write on.

Related Posts:
Review of “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon | Rhapsody in Books WeblogThe Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon | the redheaded reader
Review: Diana Gabaldon – Outlander (Cross Stitch) | Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Reviews

Novel Girls: Time Period, Education, and Coincidences

10 Feb

We had yet another lovely night with the Novel Girls! This might be one of our last times for the four of us to get together before Sonia moves away for her job. We hope she’s able to come back soon! In the mean time, we’ll have to brave our way forward while sending her the sections we’re going over.

Speaking of Sonia, two of the points I want to cover up while we were talking about her piece. The piece takes place in the mid-20th Century, she said around the 50s or so. I recognized instantly that it was a historical piece and Sonia did this really well with time-period specific vocabulary. I think our favorite was ‘doll dizzy.’ However, it was hard to narrow when in the early/mid-century the setting was. She’ introduced Frank Sinatra to establish that it was later than 1940, but where in the 1940-1950s era, we didn’t know. Did it really matter? No, the story was strong. But it could have helped. I’ve thought of a few ways to help establish a historical setting.

  1. Use period-appropriate words.
  2. Describe the dress, cars, music, etc. that define the era.
  3. Reference a great historical event that has recently happened. If it’s famous enough (moon landing for example), this will give readers a solid guess at the year.
  4. Birth/death year of a character and their age so readers can do simple math to figure out the year.
  5. An idea my friend John suggested: Refer to social customs and mores from the period. For example, a woman being alone, a shoulder or ankle being considered a scandal. We associate these customs with a specific part of history. (Thanks, John!)
  6. If all else fails, but a date stamp in the work or in the summary of the piece.

Can you think of some other ways to establish a time period in historical fiction writing?

The other thing that came up while reading Sonia’s piece was the education level of a character. When plotting characters, this is usually something a writer thinks about. If someone has dropped out of high school versus having a PhD, there will be aspects of their life and personality that are hugely different. Usually vocabulary, lifestyle, and occupation do well to describe this, but Sonia’s piece being historical fiction, this was made more complicated. The vocabulary seemed off because of the period, not because of education. The occupation of her character was a huge help to understanding this, but it came into the piece later. Lifestyle was a bit confusing because the exchange rate and cost of things isn’t immediately re callable to the reader. Here are just a few ideas I have to help establish education level.

  1. Use contrast between those of high and low education level. Compare their clothing, spending habits, family situations, and speech patterns.
  2. The way other characters talk to your character can make a difference. I find that people with more education are quickly given more respect by their peers, no matter what job they’re in. If you have two people in the same job and one is a high school grad and the other is a college grad, the way someone would speak to the college grad might be.
  3. Reference the time a character spent in school. If your character has a masters, you can say that he is still paying off loans from working on his masters.more respectful than to the high school grad.

How else can you show a character’s education level?

While we were reading Katherine’s piece, she asked us if her fantasy seemed to far-fetched or if it was grounded enough in reality. We agreed it was very well grounded but talked about when we feel fantasy is overdone. The biggest thing we all agreed on is when things are too convenient. A door is locked? Good think your character knows just the spell to open it. Is there a large rock in the road? No matter for character who suddenly has super strength. On the flip side, when a character doesn’t use a power/skill/resource that they have in a situation where it would be very advantageous to use it, fantasy becomes equally frustrating for a reader. The classic superheroes are a good standard to look at when trying to find the right balance. They all have a weakness. Superman has Krypton and his love for Lois Lane. Wolverine has his own anger to deal with that can impede his decisions. If your fantasy characters have a good mix of abilities and weaknesses, I think there’s a solid chance of the fantasy seeming well grounded.

What do you find frustrating in fantasy writing?

We didn’t discuss this specifically, but I wanted to talk about the word ‘just.’ Most writers know that the word ‘just’ is a filler and doesn’t add anything to your writing except word count. Taking the word out of sentences makes them stronger 99% of the time. However, what about in dialogue? Do we use the filler word to make dialogue more lifelike? My husband was doing a transcription of his students the other day and we were laughing at how silly everyone sounded, using filler words like ‘just, like, kinda,’ etc. So, is using ‘just’ in dialogue more realistic, or still a filler? I’m personally an advocate for making dialogue as realistic as possible, and if the character is the type who would use filler words a lot, I think it should be used in the writing. What do you think? Does using the word ‘just’ in dialogue hurt the writing or make it more realistic?

If you have any suggestions for things we could discuss at our next Novel Girls meeting, drop me a comment, we’d love to hear from you.

Until next time, write on.

Novel Girls: Getting Rid of Info Dumps and Ages

15 Jan

I had greatly missed my girls nights with my fellow Novel Girls. SG and Nicole were able to come over Thursday night while KK safely stayed home and did not brave these terrible Michigan roads. (I think the pot hole I hit a half hour ago knocked my axle back into alignment. They’re powerful.) So after a bit of girl talk and pizza, my husband left and we started reading.

Nicole and SG brought the first part of their NaNo stories and I had the next section of my novel (we’re getting toward the climax now). We started with Nicole, who was in a really difficult position. About three chapters into her NaNo, she decided to completely change the character’s relationships and jobs and pretty much everything else about her story. This was SG’s idea and makes for a pretty sweet ending, but the beginning is not at all related. She cleaned it up as much as she could for us and we read through the first chapter.

The one thing we both noticed was how much back story she had added to make the setting shift work. The way the characters knew each other in her original idea was very simple and went with their jobs but when the switch happened, everything was more complicated and necessitated a lot of explanation. This got us talking about ways to work in back story without explanatory paragraphs. My recommendation was to bring it through in dialogue. If two characters were friends in college, the narrator can tell us and we’ll know, or one of the characters can say, “Compared to the time we spent together at school, I feel like I never see you anymore!” Boom, info available. SG agreed but felt that the description of the company would be harder to work into dialogue. Her suggestion was to simplify the setting. Instead of being set at a private investigative company that contracts with the police, she suggested making the company a precinct. Because of all the cop shows on TV, most people have some vague idea of how a detective fits into a precinct and it wouldn’t have to be explained.

I personally have two other techniques for avoiding the info dumps I had at the beginning of my rough draft. The first was to see if I could move it at least three chapters into the book. At that point, I think, readers are more likely to read it without their eyes glazing over because they have a deeper interest in your characters and learning their back story is more interesting. The other is to cut it completely. If it’s not important enough that it can come up in conversation, I ask myself if the fact is so important that it needs to be said at all. A lot of the time, the answer is no.

How do you avoid info dumps in your story? Is a lot of back story something you notice as a reader?

SG’s story started off with two homeless guys and their daily struggle. I assumed based on the situation that they were somewhere between seventeen and thirty. She had one line that said “The boys giggled” that really threw me off. I thought it was referring to the characters as boys but Nicole pointed out that many times people do refer to grown men as boys to demonstrate a casualness. She suggested it was more a combination of “boys” and “giggled” that made us think they were young. SG agreed and said she would revise the sentence but it brought up a bigger question for me; how do you establish age without saying it?

I had the same problem with my novel, which opens with a fight on school property. I had multiple people who read it and thought the characters were in elementary school when they were 16/17. I had to add the phrase “high school” to give off a better impression.

I tried Googling advice on this and the internet came up pretty dry. So here we go with some solid Sam advice.

  • The way a character speaks can give an impression of age. For example, does the character refer to his mother as mom, mommy, or by her first name? All of these can give us an age impression.
  • Talk about how long he has been doing something. If Joe has been in retail for 20 years, we get an idea of how old he is.
  • When the character’s appearance is described, use words like young, bright, old, aged, weathered, etc. to describe an appearance.
  • Age of other characters can be alluded to in the same way. If someone’s best friend has a lined face, the character is probably around the 45-60 range, not 32. If someone’s mom is young and lively, his is most likely not in his 50s.

There you are, Reader. I know you were hoping for some solid Sam advice. Is this advice helpful? How do you imply age without stating a number? Please leave a comment and let me know, Reader! I love hearing from you.

Until next time, write on.

When is a Character Too Much?

13 Jan

I had a friend of mine read my book last week. It was weird for me because it’s a Young Adult book mostly aimed at girls and he’s a young-20-something-professional. Not exactly my ideal reader. Sill, he read it through (twice!) and gave me some good feedback on scenes and characters. And of course, I’m going to blog about it.

One of the things he said is that a character of mine seemed over the top and unbelievable. I understand completely why he said this. My problem is that I wanted her to seem a little over the top, but not unbelievable. It got me thinking, when is a character’s personality ‘too much?’

I recently started watching the show New Girl on Netflix and I find it funnier than a baby turtle eating a huge strawberry (Google this, it’s hilarious). One of the characters in the show, Schmidt, I find over the top and unbelievable. But do you know what? He’s my favorite character. I can’t imagine ever meeting anyone like him in real life because he’s such a character. And yes, I mean that in more ways than one. There are other more realistic characters written into the show that help accentuate how eccentric Schmidt is and I still love him. Now, I’m thinking that it might not be a bad thing for a character to be a little unbelievable. We’re each such individuals that no one would believe that we’re real.

I further questioned myself, is it bad that my character is over the top? Do I want her to be? Yes. Do I want her to seem unbelievable? No. But where is the balance? Where is the thin wire and how can I jump onto it?

I’m thinking of people I’ve met who seem over the top. I knew an ‘over the top jock’ in high school, I’m friends with an ‘over the top theater nerd,’ I went to college with a ‘I think I’m Japanese even though I was born 100% Caucasian in the Midwest’ girl and at a NaNo event, I think I saw a British pixie. So that’s about four, five if you safely assume I’m forgetting one at the moment. And these people are memorable. I can describe their characteristics that make them almost unbelievable in vivid detail. Isn’t that what we want in our characters? Don’t we want them to jump off the page and scream at our readers so that they can’t forget them?

Thinking back on my manuscript, I think I could tune my character down a little bit and maybe humanize her a little more by adding more motivation so you understand what made her so over the top. Besides this, I don’t really want to change a lot; I like her. Though, I want my readers to like her as much as I do.

Reader, I need your advice. When is a character too much? When has a writer gone past ‘over the top’ and hit the moon instead? Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

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Until next time, write on.

Book Review: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

11 Dec

I’d taken a break from audiobooks on my phone, but I’ve been in a push to finish more books than normal with the end of the year coming and being behind pace to meet my goal of 70 for the year. And so I’ve started doing these again, the perfect thing to do while baking Christmas cookies. I had read Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” when I was in high school but have never touched her other work before.


Cover Image from Goodreads.com

Cover Image from Goodreads.com

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

One of the women in my prompt group loves ghost stories and said that this is her all-time favorite ghost story. I’ve never been big on ghost stories before but I was intrigued and added it. This was almost my book club selection for October as well and might rear its head for next Halloween. Either way, I wanted to get the book in and what better time than Christmas!

Hill House has been haunted for years with residents dying and leaving out of fear for years. Dr. Montague studies the supernatural and gathers around him a team of people willing to spend the summer in Hill House to document the activity. Eleanor, a naive young girl who lives with her family, steals her sister’s car and drives out to Hill House where she meets Luke (relative to the owner), the doctor, and Theodora, a strong willed woman determined not to be scared. Their stay in the house is marred by strange writings on the walls and voices at night. Eleanor starts to lose control of herself and feels drawn to the house to a point where she is physically unable to leave.

There were parts of this book that gave me chills and did genuinely scare me. The scene where Eleanor is awakened in the middle of the night to no light and the voices of a man and child coming from Theodora’s room particularly scared me. I got a shiver when Eleanor awoke to find Theodora too far away to have held her hand. Unfortunately my husband chose that moment to slink quietly toward me and touch my shoulder. I screamed so loud I must have woke the whole building.

A friend of mine said this book had a good character arc in it and I agree that Eleanor’s change is well done, but I didn’t find the other characters anywhere near as intriguing and I felt the house was less of a character than it could have been.

The one character I found most memorable was Mrs. Montague, the doctor’s wife. She arrived late in the story and was very interested in using popular ghost hunting tools to explore the house, criticizing the others for their ignorance toward ‘proper’ ways of experiencing the supernatural. Comically, Mrs. Montague struggles to interact with the ghostly spirits that have been tormenting the other residents for a week. She uses a sort of Ouija board with some success, but is not troubled at night. I think Jackson was making a point about focusing less on trying to find an experience and just letting it happen. One can research the best ways to relax on vacation and bring all of the right tools along, but if one is concentrating too much on the proper amount of time to spend sunbathing, one is not going to enjoy the time on the beach. Trying too hard is a way of failing.

Are hauntings real? There are many accounts of unexplainable happenings and I’m sure there will be for years to come. Television shows are devoted to the very things Dr. Montague was exploring in this text (Paranormal State, Ghost Hunters International, etc.). But are they real? It all depends on what you want to believe. I think that if you believe, you’re more likely to experience something, but you can decide for yourself if that’s because you’re more willing to accept what’s happening or the spirits are more willing to communicate with you.

Writer’s Takeaway: Jackson’s topic makes defining fear necessary throughout the book. She did a wonderful job of varying the ways she described this emotion, but kept it prevalent throughout the book. Her description is commendable. I’m also of the impression that there are many times in a book where we as writers want to convey suspense or something truly frightening and a story such as this teaches that ordinary things such as a house can be terrifying. The door’s close on their own when one isn’t looking and a map is necessary to find the breakfast room? Creepy. I’m glad I read outside of my usual genre so I could see a great example of this.

Overall I wasn’t that impressed. Two out of five stars.

Until next time, Reader, write on.

Prompt Group: Character Development Exercise

5 Dec

After a hiatus for NaNoWriMo, I finally returned to my prompt writing group. We did an exercise about character development that I liked. I might be able to turn this into a short story? I’m not sure I want to? Is it obvious I’m hesitant?

Here’s the exercise for you all if you want to try it. I’ll include my answers and writing at the end. If you give this a go, please let me know if it worked for you and if so, how it went.

Step 1: Take five minutes and write descriptions of two characters. What’s their name, age, occupation, hair color, eye color, quick personality traits, etc. Probably about four lines each.

Step 2: In three minutes, write down what each person wants, either long or short-term, that they will work for. What’s their motivation?

Step 3: Answer the following questions about each character.

  • What is their greatest virtue?
  • What is their greatest weakness?
  • What angers him/her the most?
  • What is he/she afraid of?
  • What is his/her secret?
  • What is his/her biggest regret?
  • What is his/her attitude toward:
    • Love?
    • Death?
    • Religion?
    • Money?
    • Politics?

Step 4: Once you’ve done this for both characters, take fifteen minutes to write a scene between the two characters.

Got it? Now do it. My answers are below.

Character 1
Jamie. 32-year-old, lives alone, Engineer. Sandy blonde hair, average height. Brown eyes. One solid friend, Aaron. Bachelor-pad apartment. Clean-ish. Likes music, especially 80s rock.
Goal: Save enough money to move to Ireland. wants to quit to work at a recording studio there.

  • Greatest virtue? Truthfulness
  • Greatest weakness? Single-minded
  • Angers him? Interrupted music
  • Afraid of? Being an engineer forever
  • His secret? Afraid to commit to anything
  • His biggest regret? Not majoring in music
  • His attitude toward:
    • Love? Blaise. If it happens, okay. Not actively seeking it.
    • Death? Only after a long life
    • Religion? Be a good person
    • Money? Saving it, he’s cheap
    • Politics? No opinion as long as it doesn’t interfere with his travel plans.

Character 2
Tom. 59-year-old Banker. Divorced, 25-year-old daughter lives in town. Male pattern baldness, wears grey suits to work
Goal: Retire to Florida and be alone.

  • Greatest virtue? Hard-working
  • Greatest weakness? Cynical
  • Angers him? His own failure.
  • Afraid of? His daughter not loving him.
  • His secret? Goes to visit prostitutes because he’s lonely
  • His biggest regret? Daughter having to live through his divorce.
  • His attitude toward:
    • Love? It doesn’t exist.
    • Death? “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
    • Religion? Strongly against. Ex-Christian.
    • Money? It’s his job. It comes easily to him so he spends liberally.
    • Politics? ‘Angry Republican’

And finally, my scene:

Jamie felt his car jolt from behind. He groaned aloud, already summing up how much this would put him behind in his savings. He put on his blinker and pulled onto the next side street. The road was slick and he’d been dreading being rear-ended all winter and his bitterness was already stored up, waiting for this moment.

The car that pulled up behind him was a nice, slick BMW. He rationed to himself that someone with such a nice car was sure to have insurance as he reached into the glovebox for his own. The man who stepped out had a sour look on his face as he marched to his front fender to inspect the damage. Jamie got out of his Mazda and joined him to stare at their collision.

“It’s not terrible,” the man said, looking at Jamie’s bumper.

“It’s hanging off of the car!”

“But at least it’s only your car. Mine’s fine.” It was true, his bumper had buckled, but it would pop out and with some touch-up paint no one would ever know.

“Can I have your insurance? I’ll have to replace the bumper and I need to have it covered.”

“On that piece of junk?” the man looked the Mazda over, taking in its rust stains and dingy cloth seats inside. “Couldn’t you just replace it?”

Jamie shook his head. He didn’t want to explain that the car was only needed for another two years before he left the US for good. “I don’t need a new car, I just need a new bumper.” He offered up his own insurance card as a sort of peace-offering. “I can give you my information if you need it.”

“Is everything alright, dad?”

Jamie looked up and for the first time realized there was a passenger in the BMW. The girl had raven black hair and she looked frustrated.

“Just stay in the car, Katherine.” He shot her an annoyed glance before she rolled her eyes and closed the door, shivering at the outside cold. “Here’s my card,” he extended it toward Jamie. “Can you take down my information in your phone?” Jamie nodded and pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipping it open and finding the notes app. “Jesus Christ, son, you still have a flip phone? Are you stuck in the stone age?”

“It gets me through,” Jamie said, starting to grit his teeth. “What’s your name?”


How did yours turn out? Was this exercise helpful? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Until next time, write on.