Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characters. Show all posts

17 August 2020

Comedy Is Hard


I've often been accused of being funny, except by my former students. I've directed comedy in theater, too, both contemporary (Christopher Durang) and classical (Several Shakespeare including The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night), and my stories and novels always include some humor.


A few years ago, someone suggested I add another workshop to my repertoire: writing humor. I hedged. Then I visited libraries, bookstores and the Internet to find books on writing comedy. I found only a few, and none of them helped me.

Drama is easy. Melodrama is easy. Comedy is eff-ing hard.

Comedy comes from two sources. One is the situation, the basis of slapstick humor. Shakespeare's drunks and fools usually followed this tradition, which goes back to the Greek and Roman playwrights (Remember, Will lifted The Comedy of Errors wholesale from Plautus). This often becomes farce, where the characters become puppets in service to the plot.

The other source is more intellectual or verbal. Puns, wordplay and irony replace the pratfalls, and some people appreciate this more than others. If you tell the same joke to ten people, a few will roar, some will chuck, a couple will smile, and at least one will say, "Oh, that's it?"

Like American English, comedy relies on rhythm. Years ago, I attended a one-day workshop on directing comedy, and the instructor stressed "The Machine," the progression and rhythm that make a scene or play "funny." He said if you change the order or any component, you'll kill the joke. I agree. Years ago, my wife played the fussy roommate in the female version of The Odd Couple, and the other actress insisted on adding "uh-huh, oh really" and other ad libs to the famous exchange about "It's not spaghetti, it's linguini." She never got a laugh. Ever. Not one single night.

The only other specific hint I remember about directing comedy came from my directing mentor in grad school: Gorgeous is not funny...unless she slips on a banana peel. 

My first drafts aren't funny. Humor grows out of revision, usually from a character's reaction to the situation, more ironic than slapstick. If it doesn't feel like part of the character and the whole milieu, it doesn't work for me. I try not to reach for it because if it emerges, it's a pleasant surprise for me, too, and that's how punchlines work. They deliver what the audience expects, but not the way they expect it. 

My favorite authors write humor better than I do. Maybe that's one reason I like them. Louise Penny uses twisted literary allusions and puns, usually as responses from the residents of Three Pines, whom we've grown to know and love over the course of her Armand Gamache series. 

Dennis Lehane's irony--karma comes to town--often involves character, too. Don Winslow can use irony, but he can also go slapstick. His recent novella "The San Diego Zoo" builds on an outrageous situation seen through the eyes of a cop who becomes a laughingstock on social media. The opening line is "Nobody knows how the chimp got the revolver," and the story races to the logically absurd conclusion from that premise. Elvis Cole, the PI of many Robert Crais novels, loves self-deprecating throw-aways. 

Several romance authors write great comedy, too. Look at Jennifer Crusie's dialogue, especially late in a book where her characters paraphrase earlier speeches and turn them on their heads.

None of these writers could steal another's joke and make it work in their own stories. Comedy is personal, and that's what makes it so hard.

You really do reveal yourself on the page. 

20 July 2020

Plot versus Character


When I conduct a writing workshop, one of the questions people frequent ask is about the importance of plot versus character. I tell them that it depends.
If you're writing a novel, or maybe even a series, you need to know your main characters very well. These imaginary friends and co-workers need a biography that's complete enough to flesh them out and show what makes them who they are. You need to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and the lines they won't cross well enough to know what they want enough to risk dying for it. If you write mysteries, you need to understand how your protagonist's mind works so he or she can solve your mystery, too. You probably won't bring all this information on stage immediately, and some of it may never show up, but you need to know it. It's how you give your character depth.

If you're writing a series, this bio is even more important because some stuff may not matter until the third or fourth book, or even later. Publishers and agents love, love, love a series.

Lately, I've been moving from novels to short stories, and my thinking is changing, too. Maybe my attention span is waning, or maybe I'm just trying to go faster, but for short stories, it's all about the plot.

Remember, instead of 80K words or more, my short stories average about 4K, roughly 15 pages. Get in, get dirty, get out again. There's less room to present a complex and fleshed-out character. Unless you're trying to sell a story featuring a character from your series--which I've only done two or three times--you rely more on your premise, and that's more apt to guide your plot.

You need a character who will logically find herself in a particular situation. For a short story, once I have a premise, I start typing with generic names and see where those given circumstances lead me. I characterize the protagonist with action and his or her goal instead of with lots of description and back-story (both of which I tell my writing workshop students to leave out). If I go quickly and don't censor or force things, they will lead to the detail I need, and that often provides a plot twist, and maybe even a solution.

Let's say you're writing about a woman who qualifies as a "crazy cat lady." She has eight cats and has hidden her will somewhere in her enormous house. Cats suggest certain ideas: mice, purring, dogs, people who like or dislike them, people who are allergic to them. What if a supporting character loathes cats? What if she likes them but is allergic? Can you use that as a plot point, or even a clue? Maybe. It's a character detail, but it steers your plot. More and more, I discover details that flesh out the plot at the same time they delineate character, and when you get two for the price of one, it's even better.

As I re-wire my brain for short stories, I find that I'm writing them more quickly and maybe having even more fun. I'm fond of a few stories that have rich and complex characters, but several of them have never found a home except on my hard drive. The newer plot-premise stories seem to have more potential markets, so I can send them out with higher hopes.

That's a happy ending.


27 April 2020

How Low Will You Go?


Over the last two weeks, I've joined several other Connecticut crime writers on two podcasts from the Storyteller's Cottage in Simsbury. I've touted the venue before and love working with them. Now they're trying to keep their programs for writers functioning during the shutdown, and Lisa Natcharian invited several of us to discuss villains in our stories. I'll post the link to the podcast when it's edited and live, probably sometime in May.
Lisa came up with some provocative questions, and the topic for today is "How much evil can readers tolerate and how do you decide when to rein in a dark character?"

Her question made me look at my own writing again. I've sold nearly 30 short stories (a good week for Michael Bracken or John Floyd), and about half of them are from the bad guy's POV or have her/him getting away with it. Most of those stories involve revenge or poetic justice, and I seldom have a REALLY horrible person go scot-free. The comments on my website and Facebook Page indicate that readers like those stories, and some are among my special favorites.

Revisiting my novels, I was surprised to find how nasty some of my villains are, probably because I've worried lately that both my series characters are becoming more domestic in their private lives. Maybe I've done that unconsciously to contrast the "normal" and the dark side. But when I look at the bestseller lists, it's not just me.

If you look at those lists, you'll find Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Karin Slaughter, Meg Gardiner, Lisa Gardner, Laura Lippman, S. J. Rozan, Robert Crais, Stephen King, Harlan Coban, Tana French, Dennis Lehane, Don Winslow, Alison Gaylin, and a slew of other excellent writers, all of whom go deep. When I think back to the 90s, maybe the first book and film to come to mind is Silence of the Lambs, which presents two twisted villains.

I don't remember the last time I saw a cozy mystery on the list.

One of my undergrad history professors from days of yore said the best way to understand the minds and values of a civilization was to look at their popular arts. Plays, music, stories. . .

Remember, in Shakespeare's time, his most popular play was Titus Andronicus, which I usually describe as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in blank verse. It was a time of political turmoil, and his plays reflected that.



One of the other writers on the podcast said her readers know she won't get violent and won't use much profanity. Obviously, if you write cozies, your body count is lower. She doesn't read my books because she thought one of my covers was objectionable.

Maybe my readers want darker stories to help them cope with the real world, the way we tell ghost stories around the campfire. Remember Shakespeare's observation in King Lear:  "The worst is not/ So long as we can say, 'This is the worst.'"

Think of the Brothers Grimm, too. The original version of Cinderella involves the wicked stepsisters cutting off toes to make their feet fit the glass slipper, and birds pecking out those same stepsisters' eyes on their way to and from Cindy's wedding. The Greek tragedies wallow in gore.

Ditto slasher flicks, like Halloween and Friday the 13th.
We want to go waist-deep in the big bloody. Aristotle talked about catharsis. Maybe he's right. Maybe we've always been enticed by the horrific and crave a release. Maybe my history professor was right, too.

My most recent novels involve a serial killer who leaves the bodies of street people in abandoned buildings in Detroit, a cold case involving five people murdered in a home invasion, and a serial rapist. I think that as I watch the current social and political situation deteriorate, my inherited pessimism has become even stronger and it's coming out in my writing. Or maybe I do it to show that my life is nowhere near as bad as that of my characters. All I know is when I sit down at the keyboard, this is what comes out.

The book I'm vaguely resurrecting has a main character who is an alcoholic with an abusive husband, and I re-discovered things that excited me when I re-read scenes I had forgotten long ago. My last few short stories are darker, too. As long as people buy them, I'll keep going because people seem to need them.

When do I rein these characters in? I don't.

What's in YOUR holster right now?

13 April 2020

Spare Time and Spare Parts


We all need to fill much too much spare time right now, but social distancing is easier for a writer because it's part of our life anyway. Unfortunately, I may have domesticated Zach Barnes and Woody Guthrie too much and fear that I'll turn them into family sitcoms, so, for the first time since 2003, I have no novels in progress. I have a few ideas for short stories and a novella, but a few weeks ago I turned to the Nostalgia Plan, AKA Recycling 101.

I store pretty much everything I cut on flash drives or external hard drives: a line of dialogue or description, scenes I cut from novels or short stories, an interesting character, projects I abandoned, and even stories rejected so often I ran out of places to send them. I cannibalize enough to make it worthwhile.

I published Blood on the Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, in 2013, but I wrote the first version of that story late in 2003. In various forms, revisions, and under at least four titles, the book(s) received over 110 rejections.

Sifting through the wreckage, I found a complete MS called The Cheater, an earlier version of what eventually saw print. Between 2006 and 2008, I pitched it to 58 agents. Interestingly, three of them asked for a full MS, another asked for 100 pages, and two others asked for 50 pages or the first three chapters. They all turned it down, usually without comment, but one with the kind of rejection that makes writers crazy: "You're a good writer and there's a lot to like here, but I can't sell this."

No further explanation.

Eleven years later, I still don't know why that MS was rejected, but I suspect that it was because I changed genre in mid-story. The premise was that the PI who would later become Woody Guthrie met Megan Traine at their high school reunion and they teamed up to solve a murder that involved one of the their classmates. Alcoholism and domestic abuse were important themes, and I suspect agents freaked when the cozy went south.

A few weeks ago, I went through the book again. I even found two pages of revision notes from 2010, when I considered revising that 78K-word story for my then-publisher, who had a 70K-word limit.

The cozy high school reunion idea is autobiographical. I met the inspiration for Megan Traine at my own reunion. Although we graduated together (Our class graduated 691 students), we never met in school, and she became a session musician in Detroit. The reunion idea was the crux of several versions of the book, but I finally decided that was the problem and abandoned it for Blood on the Tracks. 

The Cheater, which I also sent out twice as Alma Murder, presented another problem. The PI was from Connecticut and his name was Erik Morley, but Megan Traine was constant through all  versions of the book. Her character deepened, but changed very little between 2003 and her real debut ten years later. I figured if I put her in Detroit with a different lover, she'd look a little slutty, so I decided to change her name and background. The plot would still work, and I liked the POV of the classmate, a woman accused of killing her abusive husband. She was a lawyer and a functioning alcoholic. So much for the cozy, right?

I studied my revision notes, revised them some more, added new ideas, and rewrote about 40 pages of the book. I changed Megan Traine's name and background and cut all the music scenes from earlier versions (Erik Morley still played guitar, another constant with Woody and one of the few things he had in in common with me).

It was like sticking my hand into a garbage disposal.

The more I read, the more I realized that Meg and music generated some of the best scenes in that book. Changing her would force me to re-write or cut parts that gave all the characters more depth.

Fourteen years ago, I loved the book and the characters and we were a team. The rewriting. . . not so much. It became a chore instead of a passion. I stuck it out for about three weeks, then remembered the advice all doctors have at the top of the list.

First, do no harm.

I was mutilating something I loved and the changes would make it different, but not better. I decided to leave the book alone.

Maybe I'll publish it someday as an eBook, and UR-version of Blood on the Tracks. If I do, Alma Murder still works as a title. Or, maybe, I'll just leave it sleeping on the hard drive where it's happy.

I was surprised that a 14-year-old MS still felt like I actually knew what I was doing. Now, the biggest change would be a global edit to replace the double-space after end punctuation. And maybe to eliminate a few semi-colons.  I have several short stories on that same disc that don't merit reworking. I guess this particular story was more important to me.

Samuel Johnson said that only a blockhead writes for any reason other than money. But sometimes money's not enough, either. Sometimes we do it for love.


What do you have in your closet?


18 December 2019

Breaking into Showbiz II


We did this back in 2017.  Here we are, back again, with all new entries.

Below is a list of characters from popular culture.  But how did they become popular? See the box on the right?  All the characters began life in one of those media.  See if you can match 'em up.  Be warned: there isn't a one-to-one match up, meaning exactly one character started in a TV show, etc.

Answers  below.

Bambi

The Lone Ranger
Radar O'Reilly

Jimmy Olsen

Raylan Givens

The Mighty Casey

Stuart (Stu) Bailey

Lamont Cranston

Mack the Knife

Alexander Waverly



Bambi.  Novel. Austrian novelist Felix Salten (an enthusiastic hunter, by the way) wrote Bambi: A Life in the Woods.  It was more or less what we would today call a Young Adult novel.   Published in 1922 and became an immediate success.  British novelist John Galsworthy called it  a "little masterpiece."  The Disney film version came out in 1942.  By the way, Thumper the Rabbit broke into show biz through the movies.  He is part of the Disneyfication  process, not appearing in the book.

The Lone Ranger. Radio. The mysterious masked man started life on the radio in 1933.  I bring him up because of a story that has spread in recent years that the character was inspired by Bass Reeves, a legendary (though very real)  hero, the first African-American U.S. Marshal in the west.  A biography of Reeves suggested that he inspired the Lone Ranger, but there is zero evidence that the creators of the show had ever heard of Reeves.

Radar O'Reilly.  Novel. The very first character to appear in the novel MASH by Richard Hooker (real name Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr.) is Radar O'Reilly of Ottumwa, Iowa.  In the movie he was played by Gary Burghoff, who went on to repeat the role in the TV series.  The only other actor I could think of who brought a character from the flicks to the small screen was Richard Widmark with Madigan, but it turns out there have been others.

Jimmy Olsen.  Radio. The eternal cub reporter, Superman's Pal, first appeared on The Adventures of Superman radio show in 1940.  He was created basically so the hero would have someone to talk to. We all need that from time to time, don't we?  Jimmy made it into the comics a year later.  Since then he has been in TV and movies as well as having his own comic book.

Raylan Givens.  Novel.  The Deputy U.S. Marshal first appeared as a supporting character in Elmore Leonard's Pronto.  He also showed up in Riding the Rap, before getting a starring role in the short story "Fire in the Hole."  This story, in which Givens is punished for an iffy killing by being assigned to his home state of Kentucky, inspired the TV series Justified.  The producers were so dedicated to making a work in the Elmore Leonard mold that they gave out bracelets to the crew that read What Would Elmore Do?  Most critics agreed that they succeeded and Leonard was inspired to write Raylan, supposedly a novel, but essentially designed to be broken up into three episodes of the series. In fact, two parts were used that way.

The Mighty Casey.  Newspaper.  Ernest L. Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," first appeared in a San Francisco newspaper on June 8, 1888.  It happened to be read by Arch Gunter, a visiting novelist nd playwright.  He was so taken with the work that he clipped it out.  When he arrived in New York he shared it with a theatrical producer who asked his star comedian, DeWolf Hopper, to memorize it and recite it during that evening's performance.  Thus Hopper began a new career as the prime interpreter of the poem for forty years, on stage, radio, records, and movies.  It does make you wonder what minor masterpieces are buried in a century of newspapers....

Stuart (Stu) Bailey.  Novel.  Roy Huggins created private eye Stu Bailey in The Double Take.  He felt the character was so clearly a ripoff of Philip Marlowe that he sent a copy to Raymond Chandler with an apology.  Chandler apparently replied that he'd seen worse.  When Huggins moved to television Bailey became one of the P.I.'s who worked at 77 Sunset Strip.  Of course, Huggins also created Maverick, and The Rockford Files.

Lamont Cranston.  Magazine.  I just know I'm going to get an argument over this one.  Bear with me.  In 1930 the Street and Smith company decided to create a radio show to promote their Detective Story Magazine. The narrator was a mysterious character called The Shadow.

Pretty soon listeners were going to the newsstand and asking for "the Shadow magazine," which didn't exist.  There is a modern MBA rule that says: Let your customer tell you what business you are in.  Street and Smith tookthe hint.  They founded The Shadow Magazine and magician Walter B. Gibson filled it with a new novel twice a month (he had to be a magician, don't you think?), writing under the name Maxwell Grant.  He wrote 282 of the tales over 20 years.

In the pulp magazine the Shadow's real identity was Kent Allard but he sometimes pretended to be other people, including man-about-town Lamont Cranston, who was frequently out of the country.  In the radio version, the Allard name was dropped and the S-man was simply Cranston.  Simple, right?

Mack the Knife.  Opera. Yes, but which opera?  The popular song is a bowdlerized version of the song from Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's Three Penny Opera.  But the song tells the story of Macheath, who first appeared in John Gay's Beggar's Opera, written two hundred years earlier (and inspired by an idea of Jonathan Swift's!).

Alexander Waverly.  Television. The regional head of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement was created for The Man From UNCLE, although some see a strong resemblance to the Professor, a spymaster who appears in North by Northwest.  Of course, both characters were played by the wonderful Leo G. Carroll.

Waverly and Carroll almost missed their big chance.  In the pilot for the series  the boss was Mr. Allison, played by Will Kuluva.  However, the network executives told the producers to get rid of the guy whose name began with K, so Kuluva was replaced by Carroll.  Turns out the network had really wanted to dump Russian spy Ilya Kuryakin, played by David McCallum. Fortunately for the show (and thousands of adoring young women) Ilya dodged death, not for the last time.

Carroll, in his seventies. had health problems  during production.  When you see papers scattered across Waverly's desk, some of them are Carroll's script, available for easy reference.  At one point he told the producers that his grandchildren complained that Mr. Waverly never did anything but talk, so they created a scene in which he karate-chopped a bad guy.  When he nailed it the whole crew cheered.

Oh!  Here's a bonus question for you.  The star of The man From UNCLE was, of course, Robert Vaughn.  But do you know what he did in his spare time during production?  The astonishing answer is here.


28 September 2019

Being a Goddess Sucks When your Characters Won’t Behave… (warning: more silly stuff from Bad Girl)


(Dave, are you smiling down on me? My comedy is back)

Recently, my characters have become more mouthy.

I like to think of myself as their creator. Goddess material. Without me, they wouldn’t have a life on the page, or anywhere, for that matter. This should buy me a certain amount of respect, I figure. Sort of like you might give a minor deity. After all, I have created five series for them to live in.

Unfortunately, my characters haven’t bought into that. Worse, they seem to have cast me into the role of mother. That’s me: a necessary embarrassment for the perpetuation of their lives. And like all kids, they squabble. They fight with each other for attention. I liken it to sibling jealousy.

To wit: “You haven’t written about me lately,” says Rowena, star of Rowena Through the Wall.

I try to ignore the petulance in her voice.

“Been busy,” I mumble. “Gina (The Goddaughter) had to get married in Vegas. And Del, a relative of hers, started a vigilante group.”

“I don’t care if she started a rock group. You’re supposed to be writing MY story.”

I turn away from the keyboard and frown at her. “Listen, toots. You wouldn’t have any stories at ALL if it weren’t for me. You’ve had three books of adventures with men. A normal gal would be exhausted. So please be patient and wait your turn. Jennie had to suck it up for Worst Date Ever. Del and The B-Team were next in line. You can be after that, maybe.”

Maybe. I wasn’t going to tell her about the 6th Goddaughter book currently in the works.

“It’s not fair. I came first! Before all those silly mob comedies,” Row whines. “Don’t forget! I was the one who got you bestseller status.” She points at her ample chest.

“Hey!” says Gina, fresh from cannoli central. “And which book won the Derringer and the Arthur Ellis? Not some trashy old fantasy novel.”
“Who are YOU calling trashy?” says Rowena, balling her hands into fists. “Just because my bodice rips in every scene…”

“Like THAT isn’t a plot device,” chides Gina.

“Oh, PLEASE don’t fight,” says Jennie, the plucky romance heroine of Worst Date Ever. “I just want everyone to have a Happy Ever After. Can’t you do that for us all, Mom? Er…Melodie?”

I look at Del, from The B-Team. “What do you think?”

Del shrugs. “Sounds sucky. What kind of crap story would that be? Bugger, is that the time? I got a second story job that needs doing. Cover for me, will you? And this time, let me know if the cops start sniffing around.”
“Cops?” says Gina. “Crap! I’m outta here.”

“Cops?” says Rowena. “There’s that little matter of a dead body in book 2…” She vanishes.

“Cops?” says Jennie, hopefully. “OH! Is one of them single?”






Book 15 is now out! THE GODDAUGHTER DOES VEGAS

(Don't tell Rowena…)

13 July 2019

A Morning in Conan Doyle Land


I woke up on Saturday morning not feeling well (this was a month ago, I'm all better). I was resting on the sofa and doing the swipe through Netflix's recently added and currently trending lists, looking for something new and interesting to amuse, entertain, maybe even enlighten. Finding nothing that "grabbed" me, I moved over to Amazon Prime. Flicking down through the rows, I passed the children's section, and a title in that row reached out and took hold.

A Study in Scarlet. 

An animated telling of a Sherlock Holmes tale? For kids!? Seriously?!? I selected the program and let it start playing, the cynic in me chortling, this will be good for a laugh. I went in with zero expectations; in fact, minus expectations. I expected Dr. Watson to be played by Scooby Doo.


The opening shot is a moonlit set of rooftops; a dark and stormy night in Victorian London. A police constable is on the street, patrolling with a lamp. He winds up on the Brixton Road. He's joined by another bobby. There's a light on in an empty house. They enter. In a dilapidated drawing room, there's a dead body of an elderly gentleman on the floor.

Two and a half minutes in, and I'm thinking, this ain't too bad. The animation isn't going to win any awards, but the storytelling seems to be faithful to the source, and it has mood and atmosphere.
The opening credits started, and I was about to turn the thing off, when the following credit appeared: "With Peter O'Toole as Sherlock Holmes." That got my undivided attention. Naturally, I let the program keep playing. I could happily listen to Peter O'Toole read aloud from the phone directory, or recite the Periodic Table (have I mentioned My Favorite Year is one of my favorite movies?). I had no idea he had ever played Holmes. 

For the next 50 minutes, I was away (once again, happily) in Conan Doyle land. The program did indeed prove to be a reasonably faithful telling of the story, Watson was not played by an exuberant Great Dane, and nothing in the story's telling was "watered down" or "rendered appropriate" in any way for children; my biggest fear while watching.

And it's funny, when you think about it: an adult tale of murder, forced marriage (i.e., rape), revenge, and justice filed away for children's viewing pleasure alongside the likes of Anne of Green Gables, the Cat in the Hat, and Spongebob. I presume this was because it was animated. There persists (in some minds) that quaint notion that if something is animated, it must be for kids, that all animations are simply "cartoons" and should be dropped into the "Kids and family TV" box. (I gleefully await the addition of Fritz the Cat.) Had the exact same script of A Study in Scarlet been filmed as a live action drama, then it would have gone straight into the adult drama box. No questions asked.

But I'm glad it did, one way or another, wind up in front of kids. They seem to get so much rubbish in their TV diet. Let them find this quiet little doorway into the world of grownup mystery fiction.

Peter O'Toole did four Holmes animated stories. They were all made in 1983, they're all 50 minutes long (with the exception of Baskerville, 70 minutes), and they're all on Amazon Prime (here in NZ, at least).
  • A Study in Scarlet 
  • The Baskerville Curse 
  • The Sign of Four
  • Valley of Fear
I've watched all of them. And as I said, there's nothing overtly special about the animation. The specialness of the telling lies in the stories themselves, and in this instance, the actor playing Sherlock Holmes (not that the films' imagery bears any resemblance to the man). If it's a wet Saturday morning, and you're unwell, I can recommend this medication.






stephenross.live/
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instagram.com/__stephenross/

23 March 2019

But Do You Have a Plot? Bad Girl whittles Popular Fiction Bootcamp down to 10 minutes…


(Bad Girl) 

Last month, I wrote about Endings, and reader expectations for each of the main genres.  The response was positive, and some people have asked that I bring more stuff from class onto these pages.  So here are some notes from the very beginning, class 1, hour 1.

People often ask what comes first: character or plot?

Do you start with a character?  Or do you start with a plot?
This is too simplistic.

Here’s what you need for a novel:
A main character
With a problem or goal
Obstacles to that goal, which are resolved by the end.


PLOT is essential for all novels.  It’s not as easy as just sitting down and just starting to write 80,000 words.  Ask yourself:
What does your main character want?  Why can’t he get it?

Your character wants something.  It could be safety, money, love, revenge…

There are obstacles in the way of her getting what she wants.  THAT PROVIDES CONFLICT.

So…you need a character, with a problem or goal, and obstacles to reaching that goal.  Believable obstacles that matter.  Even in a literary novel.

There must be RISK.  Your character must stand to lose a lot, if they don’t overcome those obstacles.  In crime books, it’s usually their life.

So…you may think you have a nice story of a man and woman meeting and falling in love, and deciding to make a commitment.  Awfully nice for the man and woman, but dead boring for the reader.  Even in a romance, there must be obstacles to the man and woman getting together.  If you don’t have obstacles, you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a plot, and you don’t have a novel.

Put another way:
When X happens, Y must do Z, otherwise ABCD will happen.
That’s what you need for a novel.

GIVE YOUR CHARACTER GOALS

1. Readers must know what each character’s goals are so they can keep score.

2. Goals must be clearly defined, and they must be evident from the beginning.

3. There must be opposition, which creates the possibility of losing.
   >>this conflict makes up your plot<<
4. Will the character achieve his goal?  Readers will keep turning pages to find out.

If you don’t provide goals, readers will get bored. 
They won’t know the significance of the ‘actions’ the hero takes.

To Conclude:
Until we know what your character wants, we don’t know what the story is about.
Until we know what’s at stake, we don’t care.

Melodie Campbell writes fast-moving crime fiction that leans toward zany.  If you like capers like the Pink Panther and Oceans 11, check out her many series at www.melodiecampbell.com

Lastest up:








21 November 2018

Meeting Some Old Friends


I had an odd and interesting experience today.

I am working on the seventeenth story in my series about mystery writer Leopold Longshanks.  This one will include several characters who have been mentioned before and I realized I needed a scorecard, so to speak. So I skimmed through all the previous stories to see what I have already mentioned about any characters who have, or are likely to, appear more than once.

And am I glad I did.  It turns out that the woman I have been referring to in my draft as Meghan McDonough is really Megan McKenzie.  Oops.

More annoying is the fact that another character I wanted to bring back is Fiona Makem.  It is an absolute grudge of mine about authors who confuse their readers by giving characters similar names.  If you have five people in your story why name them Pete, Pat, Paul, Polly, and Thusnelda?  There are so  many initial letters to choose from!

But in my case Makem and McKenzie had appeared in separate stories so I hadn't noticed the similarity before.  So in my current tale I got them on a first name basis immediately.

Another reason to make careful notes is that Fiona is attempting to write a mystery novel set in each county in Ireland.  I need to remember that she has already covered Death in Donegal, Whacked in Wicklow, and (my favorite) Plugged in Cork.  God only knows how she is going to handle Fermanagh and Laios.

My list of characters also set my fevered brain to work. What if straight-laced Officer Dereske met eccentric philanthropist Dixie Traynor?  That might provide some fun.

I always make character lists before starting a novel (for one reason, to avoid multiple use of the same initial, of course).  But this is the first time I have had to do it with a series of stories.

And I guess that's a good thing.  I like a series with a large supporting cast.  Think of Nero Wolfe or Amelia Peabody.

Now I had better get back to story #17.  Our hero is just about to reveal the solution...

18 September 2018

Put Some Feeling Into It


Authors often hear the advice to write what you know. The advice is usually offered to make sure the author gets plot details right. You wouldn't want to write a story about a police officer if you know nothing about police procedure. You wouldn't want to write about skydiving if you know nothing about the sport. Getting details wrong annoys readers who knows those details. And you don't want that. You want readers to turn pages without noticing, to be enveloped by the story, not disengaged by errant details.
The beauty of such a predicament is you can find out what you need to know. You can interview police officers. You can go on ride-alongs. You can watch skydivers. You even could jump out of a plane. (The emphasis here is on you. I would not jump out of a plane for any amount of money. I like it when my stomach isn't six feet below the rest of my body.) Ultimately you can learn the information you need to provide a true reflection of whatever it is you choose to write about.

But correct plot details will only get you so far. If you want to write a story that readers love, you need to write characters that are real, and that means characters that react like real people do. This is what readers are talking about when they say they don't like two-dimensional characters. They don't want to read about someone who's all good or all evil. After a while, such characters become predictable and boring. Readers want to see the shades of gray. They want to see characters acting like real people do, with all the emotion that entails.

And the good part about all this? You don't need to interview people or go on ride-alongs to get these details right, though you can. (And is there a "right"? More on that below.) To get emotions and emotional reactions right, all you need are two things: a good imagination--which I hope you have if you're a writer--and you need the special sauce of solid writing, empathy.

First imagination: A good imagination will enable you to understand, to truly picture, whatever scenario you're writing about. And I don't mean to simply imagine the setting. I mean imagine who your character is in relation to the conflict in which you are placing him or her in that setting. You could write a setup involving an avalanche, for instance. A character who is an expert rock-climber would react differently to it than one who is a first-timer.

Now once you've got your characters established and your setup and conflict imagined, empathy enters the picture. You may have never been in an avalanche, but can you imagine how someone in that situation might be feeling? I hope so. Dig deep if you have to. Not everyone will react the same way, even first-timers. But react they will in some way. Some will be terrified. Some will be practical. Some might even be invigorated. If you truly know your characters, you should be able to empathize with each one and understand how he or she would react to different situations in thoughts, words, and actions. Showing those thoughts and how they impact the dialogue and actions is what brings the character truly to life.

That brings me to the question I asked above. Can you get emotions wrong? Not if you make them seem realistic. Not if you let the reader understand where the character is coming from. Show a character whose mother just died and he merely shrugs, and your reader might think the character is one-dimensional. They might have a gut reaction that no one would act that way. But if you show the conflict in the character's head, letting the reader understand why he's shrugging, then that action can become believable. And the character is suddenly real.

I dug deep, trying to make my characters real, when I wrote my newest short story, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," which came out last week in this year's Bouchercon anthology, Florida Happens. My main character's husband has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. I've never been in that position, but I've watched friends and family dealing with a parent with such a diagnosis. So I've seen what the reactions can be. But even if I hadn't had this experience, I could imagine it. A character could be horrified, saddened, determined to do the right thing, or some or all of those things at onceor have some other reaction. If you can empathize with who your character is, you can understand how he would react to the situation he finds himself in. And then you need to show it in thoughts and dialogue, as well as actions.

In my pot roast story, my main character, Bev, becomes determined to care for her husband, Charles, in their home, despite that her doctor recommends otherwise. If I had just had Bev decide to care for Charles at home by herself without showing her reasoning, some readers might have gotten aggravated with Bev (or with me), thinking that Bev is reacting unrealistically or stupidly. But I do show Bev's thoughts in the story:

"I was determined to care for Charles in our home for as long as I could. He was my husband. My love. I owed him that."


Four simple sentences, but suddenly Bev's actions make sense. They are believable because the reader can understand where Bev is coming from.

There are a number of other things that happen in the story that might be hard to believe if you didn't understand where the characters were coming from. That's true for most fiction, books and movies.

In Gone With The Wind (not sure why this particular movie came to mind, but here it is), when Scarlet helps Melanie give birth, it might seem unbelievable considering how selfish Scarlet is and how much it must bother her that Melanie is giving birth to Ashley's son, but she does help. And the reader/viewer buys Scarlet's actions because the reader/viewer understands that Scarlet is doing it for a selfish reason, to look good for Ashley, but also for some non-selfish reasons: despite her best intentions, Scarlet has come to care for Melanie and some small bit of conscience is trying to push its way to her surface.


In Casablanca, Rick hated Ilsa for leaving him in Paris. He didn't know why she did it. But once he learned her reasons, he could understand because he could empathize with her. And suddenly she wasn't two-dimensional to him or to the viewer. And that made the story all the more interesting.

So if you want to create characters that readers want to follow, characters that readers love, get to know your characters well and then imagine how each of them would react to the events of your story and then show those reactions. It's the reactions that bring the characters to life. It's the reactions that make them real.

Authors, have you had a book or story that particularly resonated with you or with readers because you created a character that felt particularly real? What was it? And what was it about the character that stood out?

And readers, have you read any books or stories that affected you especially and unexpectedly because the characters felt so true to life? What was one and why?

And finally, if you want to read more about Bev and Charles, you can buy Florida Happens in ebook or trade paperback. Here's a link to the Amazon version. And here's a little more about the story:

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" is about aging with dignity. Bev and Charles live in a retirement community near the Everglades. Their home looks out on a lake in which an alligator named Romeo lives. The couple has always loved watching Romeo. But now Charles has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and Romeo has become a source of stress. And these two don't need more stress. When Bev gets injured, she hires an aide to help care for combative Charles. But then items start to go missing, and Bev doesn't know who she can depend on. A friend suggests the aide isn't trustworthy, but Bev begins to wonder if the real person she can't trust is herself.

12 September 2018

In The Corner


Ever painted yourself into a corner? Writers obviously set targets, like a page count or a due date, or decide on a specific setting or circumstance, maybe a card game, or Elizabethan London, or a child's narrative POV - and then of course we move the goalposts. I'm thinking more particularly of stepping into a snare of your own devising, creating a problem you didn't know you had.
Writing's an obstacle course. And one of the things you learn early on is that you can't leave stuff out, you can't skip something because you think nobody will notice. This is obvious if we're talking about forensic detail, say, but less so when it requires us to bring more to the game. We all play to our strengths, and have lazy habits of mind, or avoidance mechanisms. It's about the comfort zone. 

For example. I first blocked out my spy story "Cover of Darkness" a very long time before the end result saw print. We're talking years. Partly, it was cold feet. I wasn't even entirely sure I wanted to write about the Cold War, and my time in Berlin, and I had a handy alibi, because I knew I was crossing the line between inside information and actual classified material. But the real stumbling block was my own skill level. The set-up for the story - the rainy tarmac, the stuffy car, the security, the briefing - was all very fluent. The  problem was, once the story really starts, once McElroy makes the dive into the icy river, everything takes place underwater. It was claustrophobic, there was no dialogue, it was all physical description. I broke it up a little, of necessity, but the basic story is one long action scene. It was a toughie.

Another story, "Winter Kill," stopped me a third of the way in, because I'd written myself into an impossible box. I had a murder victim, a cold case, skeletal remains, but no ID on the victim. How do you pin it on somebody? Doyle claimed that the Holmes stories were written back to front, he knew going in what Holmes would deduce, so it was a matter of reversing the plot. In my case, I don't think I've ever known going in how a story would turn out. The work-around, in "Winter Kill," is that I blinked. I realized it couldn't be made to happen, and I came up with a way to narrow the possibilities, and put a history to the bones. In other words, I fudged it.

I've talked before about the sex scene in my novella Viper. This is an example where there wasn't any work-around. I put my head in the lion's mouth. I hadn't planned it that way, by any means, but as the story took on shape and momentum, the inevitability loomed. And it had to be full-frontal, it couldn't happen off-stage. I've speculated previously that I did this accidentally on purpose, just to see if I could navigate the rapids.

I'm wrapping a Benny Salvador story now called "Second Sight," and I've hit a snag right at the end. The question isn't what happened, but how to explain it - more exactly, how not to explain it, how to paper over the details because the truth will do more injury than a comforting lie. There's the moral issue involved, Benny being pretty much a straight arrow, and a part of him knows he owes an honest account, but the lie will own him. And then we have the actual mechanics. How do I manage this convincingly?

This last is a different kind of obstacle from the ones I've outlined above, and of course that's the point, that each of them presents a new, and individual, difficulty. The specific, not the generic. I'm perfectly ready to entertain the notion that we're testing ourselves, pushing the boundaries, raising the bar. That it's a contest, or even a contact sport, hand-to-hand combat, wrestling an intransigent syntax to a weary draw. Or is it simply the quiet satisfaction of getting it right? No. There's more to it than that. There's that place we all know, where you get to say it out loud. Gotcha, you bastard.



02 April 2018

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Truth About Villains


Superman isn't a hero because he can fly or see through walls or bend steel with his bare hands. He's a hero because of kryptonite, the element that will render him helpless. That's how it is in mystery writing, too.

If you're writing a crime or mystery story, the villain drives your plot. Without a strong opponent, your hero looks weak because he or she doesn't really face a challenge. That's bad.

So how do you make your villain strong?

Remember, your Bad Guy explores alternatives, stepping over the line into the darkness to get something he or she wants, by whatever means necessary. If those means include lying, stealing, or killing, so much the better. The villain's goal is usually money, love, or power, and those are the issues that give your story high stakes. Without stakes, who cares?

The more your villain influences the story, the better. The hero/sleuth has to meet the increasingly difficult challenges.

That's comparatively easy in suspense novels that use the Bad Guy's point of view for some scenes. Suspense stories seem to be getting bigger and bigger now, and Armageddon needs a full-scale Ming the Merciless (Yeah, I'm dating myself)
to carry the ball. Sometimes those stories present the Bad Guy as a monster. Don't TELL us your character is a monster, though, a Joker, Snidely Whiplash, or Hannibal Lector, SHOW us. He has to be willing to kill dozens of people, dance with glee over starving kittens and scheme to bring back Disco.
He doesn't have to wring his hands and cackle "Bwah-hah-hah, my pretty" whenever we see him, and he doesn't need a pet cobra or a bullwhip. But we like to see someone enjoy his work and take pride in it. My favorite line in the entire Batman series is Heath Ledger as the Joker proclaiming, "When you're very good at something, never do it for free."

The best Bad Guys have redeeming qualities, too. They have a good reason (to them) for what they do. Revenge for a dead sibling or child, pursuit of a cause they believe is noble, a cure for tone-deafness. And except for some bloodthirsty little peccadillo, they may be great people. Hannibal Lector has superb taste and a sense of humor. In the early James Bond films, Blofeld often cradled a white Persian cat. If he likes animals, how bad can e really be? Well, come to think of it...

That's suspense. In mysteries, we can't be that obvious. We want the reader to wonder who the Bad Guy is. My villains seem like ordinary people until we discover why they do those nasty things. But my Bad Guys (or gals, I have several of them--I love subtle femme fatales) keep the squirrel running on the treadmill.

In Who Wrote the Book of Death? Zach Barnes is trying to find the person who threatens Beth Shepard.
Beth is the visible half of a writing team, and Barnes isn't sure if she's the target or if the Bad Guy really wants to kill Jim Leslie, who writes under a female pen name. He spends lots of time looking at both peoples' backstory to see who might want to kill them. In the meantime, Leslie nearly gets electrocuted in his own home. The killer tampers with the wiring, but nobody sees him. Beth is almost run down, but nobody gets a good look at the car. Later, someone shoots at her while she's presenting an author event at a bookstore, and nobody sees the shooter.

The villain is hiding, but his work drives the story. Even though we haven't seen him, Barnes must scramble to protect both people and figure out who the heck is doing all this stuff.

In The Whammer Jammers, several characters have nasty agendas. Someone stalks a roller derby skater, someone plans a bank robbery, and someone sets fires to a geriatric hospital, but we don't know who is pulling all the strings until Trash and Byrne solve those cases and find the common denominator...in the very last scene.

Blood On the Tracks revolves around a cold case that comes to light when Woody Guthrie agrees to recover a missing audio tape of a 1991 recording session. Someone killed a man to steal that tape, and Guthrie has to figure out why a recording of a long-forgotten band matters that much. The tape is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a "MacGuffin," the gizmo that drives the plot, but the killer and his reasons are real. Guthrie has to understand how a twenty-years-old death links to three violent deaths in the present. That's a lot of influence by an invisible Bad Guy.

I put all these villains in plain sight and have them behave like decent people because I want to play fair with the reader. I give him or her information to unravel the mystery along with my detective, but I don't make my villain a weirdo or a demon or a cartoon. He or she is simply a person like you or me (But not as handsome or beautiful)
who made a really bad choice. Maybe that's what fascinates me the most about villains. Not all of them are monsters. There's a place for those, too, but it's not in my particular stories.

Unfortunately, opening the morning newspaper reminds me that we have enough monsters out there in real life.