Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Reading People

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

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Aaron Brinker, Creative Commons

READING PEOPLE

Description: “Reading people” is the ability to size others up quickly and accurately. People with this skill are able to see through misdirection and outright deceit to correctly identify a person’s character or motives in many different situations.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: being a good listener, being able to think clearly and in an organized fashion

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, perceptive, extroverted (other-focused), discerning, objective, decisive, focused, sensible, empathetic

Required Resources and Training: While some people are inherently good at reading others, there are some things that can be done to improve one’s discernment in this area.

There’s a kind of science to lying, with certain tells that reveal deceit. Paul Ekman studied this in great detail and shares his findings in his book Telling Lies; studying these tells and the micro expressions that people use when they’re not being truthful can improve one’s ability to identify truth from falsehood in others.

Much of what we know about others, we learn by observation. Anyone who wants to read people better can do so by simply studying them. Paying close attention to people, listening intently to them, and engaging with them will result in a better understanding of people in general and will eventually help us to recognize patterns.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Con-artists, detectives, gamblers, psychics, and empaths are often portrayed as being able to read others well. While it’s a positive skill to have, it often has a negative connotation, being used by people to manipulate and take advantage of others. The other stereotype is that of the shy and under-valued but highly perceptive sidekick or peripheral character. This person keeps to the background and doesn’t seem to have much purpose until, at a pivotal moment in the story, he/she reveals some great truth about the hero or villain that everyone else has missed.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when someone with power or influence is not who they appear to be
  • when a dangerous person is about to do something deadly
  • when someone is suicidal and is hiding their desperation
  • when a friend is in an abusive relationship
  • when someone is being conned
  • when a famous or highly regarded person needs to know his true friends from those who would use him
  • when trying to get to the bottom of an argument or long-lasting feud
  • when a police officer is interviewing a subject
  • when a con-artist or criminal is looking for a mark

Resources for Further Information:

18 Tips and Tricks about Reading People

What Every BODY is Saying

Telling Lies

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

When Your Writing Routine Goes Poof

I’m an easily distracted person. In order to write productively, I need a private space with no voices, few interruptions, and a view—because, let’s be honest, when you spend a large portion of your writing time staring out the window, you need something nice to look at. And all of this was fairly easy to arrange before my kids were born.

IMG_0236So cute, right? They make life worth living. They also make writing really difficult. For the past six years, I’ve had roughly 2 hours of writing time each day. To maximize that time, I’ve had to stick to a strict routine to keep myself on task. I work in my office, where it’s private, noise is minimized (meaning, the wrestling matches go undetected, but I can hear when they take the turn into a UFC cage match), and the kids can get me if they need me. I light a candle. I start up some instrumental music. With these things in place, it’s easier for me to focus and write.

But something happened last week that shot holes all through my perfect writing routine. My youngest son started school—half-day PreK. But that’s great, you say. Writing will be so much easier now with both kids at school, right?

One would think. But, le sigh, not so much. See, my kids attend different schools that are twenty minutes apart, with vastly different drop-off and pick-up times. In order to maximize my writing and decrease the amount of time spent driving back and forth, I decided it would be best for me to drop my son off, then write at the library that’s around the corner from his school. It wasn’t the perfect solution (obviously, writing at home with all my stuff in its proper place was the perfect solution), but I figured it would work. Unfortunately, those first few days were fairly unproductive. Why? Because the triggers I’d set up to get myself into the writing mood—privacy, music, candle, view—aren’t in great abundance at the library.

Now, I know that some of you don’t struggle with this. I know writers who can write anywhere, any time, no matter what’s going on. If that’s you, I envy you. I resist the urge to poke your dolls with voodoo pins. I wish I was wired that way, but I’m just not. So if you’re one of those types like me, who need structure when writing, what can you do when your routine/schedule/regimen changes, and you can’t  get into the writing groove? Here are some things that are working for me:

1. Keep Trying Ideas until You Find Ones that Work. My initial plan was to write at my son’s school (which is held at a church). But that first day, I learned that there was no Wi-Fi, which I need for Thesaurus writing. Also, my writing space was located right next to the nursery, which was noisy enough, but when the bingo group walked in…time for Plan B. I considered going to a nearby Panera or Chick-fil-A, since they have Wi-Fi, but I knew there would be too many distractions. So my third option was the library. It took me three tries to find a nice private spot there, and then I was on my way.

2. Duplicate as many of your old triggers as you can. There is no pretty view from inside our library, and for some reason, the dictatorial powers-that-be frown upon my open flame candle. *boggle* But I found the privacy piece in the Quiet Reading Room. And I realized that if I bring my earbuds, I can listen to music on my computer while I write. I also always have a drink of some kind while writing, so I’m now smuggling a Snapple into the library. I know. I’m a total hell-raiser. Anyway, when change rears its chaotic head, some of your old triggers just aren’t going to work anymore. But some of them will. Find the ones that do, and make them work for you.

3. Reward Yourself. It’s universal: change sucks. Scrapping an established routine and starting from scratch is hard. One of the things I wasn’t looking forward to was lugging my stuff to the library everyday to work. I knew I would need a good bag to carry my laptop and books back and forth, so I decided to get a nice one. And wouldn’t you know? I got this one for a song at a charity auction.

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Now, I don’t mind carting my stuff around as much. Every time I see this, it makes me happy—not only because I bought a pretty new bag, but because I was able to help this incredible cause at the same time. Maybe you’d like to work at a local coffee shop or café—some place where you could have a yummy snack or drink while working. If you write longhand or need paper for taking notes, treat yourself to an awesome pen or notebook. Figure out what motivates you and give yourself a little writing-related pick-me-up to propel you into your new normal.

4. Maintain Perspective. The writing has to get done. Period. The conditions may not be ideal. You may have to write at a time that isn’t so productive for you (hello, mornings). You might have to squeeze your writing time into smaller chunks than you’d like (hello, children). But, chances are, your old writing routine wasn’t initially ideal, either. Very likely, that routine began because of a change that killed the preceding routine. While change is hard, it can be maneuvered, even conquered. Give yourself some time to adjust, and you’ll soon find yourself hammering out the words and wondering what all the fuss was about.

What about you? What are your must-haves to write productively? If you’re struggling with any part of your routine, feel free to let us know in the comments, and maybe we can brainstorm a solution.

Posted in time management, writing time | 46 Comments

Character Talent & Skills: Mentalism

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

MENTALISM

medium_6918558888Description: having heightened powers of observation and exceptional body language reading skills that allow one to deduce things that others cannot, leaving many to believe some sort of psychic ability is involved.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: because the key to mentalism is the ability to see past deception and facades, appearing good-natured and nonthreatening will encourage others to put their guard down. A background in human psychology gives a mentalist insight into human behavior and motives, which allows them to make judgements about who they are and what they believe in. Armed with this knowledge, they will be able to deduce facts in a way others cannot. Having a way with words will allow the mentalist to ask the right questions to elicit a “tell” that can then be harvested for information. Sharp eyesight will allow them to notice micro-gestures in the split-second that they appear, which acts as breadcrumbs of true emotion. Mentalists are also skilled in mind tricks (the power of suggestion, reverse psychology, leading questions, misdirection, etc.) and utilize them to appear to read minds or somehow access information in a way that seems impossible.

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, focused, alert, intelligent, shrewd, persuasive, crafty, controlled, friendly, unconventional, creative, curious, charismatic, mysterious, charming

Required Resources and Training: understanding human psychology and emotions, having exceptional body language reading skills through exhaustive practice and some working knowledge of hypnosis and/or the power of suggestion will all hep a mentalist hone his craft.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • magicians who use mentalism in conjunction with sleight-of-hand can become very effective at manipulating audiences through illusions
  • police or other law enforcement personnel in the course of interviewing suspects and determining what is truth and what is not
  • those who practice psychological torture, where secrets must be uncovered
  • politicians who must persuade and inspire in order to retain support
  • lawyers during jury selections, and then later at reading the jury during the trial, allowing them to revamp their strategy if needed
  • anyone in a position of leadership or power, where retaining control is difficult and may depend on being able to uncover enemies before they attack (criminal organizations, for example)

Resources for Further Information:

Easy Mentalism Tricks

Psychology Mind Tricks

Mentalism School: Areas of Study

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

photo credit: Condor.com via photopin cc

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Boost Story Conflict By Exploring The Dark Side of Your Hero’s Best Qualities

 Every hero or heroine needs positive traits to not only make them likable and worthy, but also to see them through the tough times ahead in the story. No journey should ever be smooth, and the bumpier the road, the more the protagonist has to earn that happy (or at least satisfying) ending.

Yet like all things, positive traits have a dark side. Anything, taken to the extreme, will find its opposite, and this is something we encourage writers to explore using our Positive and Negative Trait Thesaurus books. There’s nothing better than the moral crossroads and conflict these extremes can bring into the story.

To see how our good friend & YA author Julie Musil has explored these positive and negative sides of character traits in her new novel, please read on!

Fleuron

Determined. Loyal.

Good character traits, right? Determined writers ultimately reach their goals. And we all appreciate a loyal friend.

 But admirable character traits, when paired with the right story, can turn negative. In a good way.

crossing linesIn my latest YA release, The Summer of Crossing Lines, the main character, Melody, is determined to find her missing brother. She relentlessly follows breadcrumbs of clues. Here’s the rub: those clues, and her determination to follow them, lead her to do unsavory things. She crosses moral lines because her view has become skewed. She goes too far.

The love interest in the story, Drew, is a thief who’s trapped on the wrong side of the law. He’s loyal to his dad and concerned about his safety, which causes Drew to stubbornly carry out crimes he’s not proud of.

With both of these characters, their positive traits lead them down dangerous roads. How can writers move positive character traits into negative territory, while also creating a believable, entertaining story?

 The Set Up

The first step is to set up the positive traits early. Melody stutters, and she’s determined to improve her speech. She’s determined to branch out and join the summer drama program. She’s a determined student.

Drew is a loyal mentor who plays basketball with younger kids. He’s loyal to his dad, who’s fallen on rough times. He’s loyal to the leader of a crime ring, who at one time came to Drew’s rescue.

Once the positive traits are established, we can then manipulate events to turn them negative.

Know Your Ending

Even if you’re not a plotter, you can re-write your beginning to make this work. I knew where Melody and Drew would end up–splayed out on a California freeway after a high speed chase. Once I knew the end game, I was able to establish a series of events that gradually moved them further and further over the line.

The trick here is to muddy the character’s viewpoint, which makes this unhealthy path seem necessary to them. When Melody infiltrates a theft ring, it’s reasonable to her. It’s simply a way to gather information and follow clues. With each crime she commits, she inches closer to her brother. She’s determined to find him, no matter the cost. When Drew commits crimes, he’s doing it out of loyalty. He’d rather break laws than break his word.

 When Positive Traits Collide

These positive-turned-negative traits can bind your characters together. Brainstorm traits using the Positive Trait Thesaurus and Negative Trait Thesaurus. Which traits can your characters have that will bind them together through a crisis? Which traits can you assign your characters that will increase conflict? How can those positive traits turn negative throughout the character arc?

For instance, a generous person might allow others to take advantage of her–she gives too much away and finds herself desperately in need. Or a kind, trusting person may believe what other people tell her–she won’t see the lies and betrayal coming. These positive traits turned negative.

In my story, Melody’s goal is to find her brother. Drew’s goal is to repay an unholy debt. Their goals run parallel to each other, binding them together. Her blind determination and his blind loyalty trap them in a high-risk lifestyle without an escape.

It’s fun to play with character traits, working them against each other. And it’s fun to turn a positive trait into a flaw–especially when it leads the character down a twisted path.

Have your characters’ positive traits ever turned negative? Did you plan it that way, or did it happen by surprise? Any tips you’d like to add? Please share!

Julie MusilJulie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her YA novels The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire are available now.

The Summer of Crossing Lines:

When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody infiltrates a theft ring, gathers clues about his secret life, and falls for a handsome pickpocket. At what point does truth justify the crime?

(Click HERE to add this book to your GOODREADS list!)

And for more information, or to stop by and say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook(Seriously, Julie’s pretty dang awesome, so make yourself a new friend!)

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

Talents and Skills Entry: Swift-footed

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

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Courtesy of Dru Bloomfield

Description: Being able to run quickly

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: endurance, being physically fit

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: disciplined, driven, competitive, determined

Required Resources and Training: Undoubtedly, there’s a genetic component to speed (including body mass index, bone structure, and muscle fiber physiology), making some people simply born to run fast. But a training regimen can help the swift of foot by 1)making a fast person faster, and 2)enabling a fast person to stay fast for longer periods of time (adding endurance). As always, one must practice the skill in question in order to improve. Pushing oneself to do more and go farther is also beneficial in maintaining and building upon one’s innate abilities.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Associated stereotypes include athletes (especially sprinters and distance runners), extremely thin people, superheroes, and men and women of African heritage. Common perceptions of fast people is that they may abuse their bodies in order to maintain their speed, through eating disorders or the use of steroids.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • in a race
  • when a message needs to be taken on foot
  • in an emergency situation when supplies need to be delivered on foot
  • to escape a murderous pursuer or wild animal
  • in many children’s games (duck-duck-goose, tag, etc.)
  • when the car has broken down and one must get to an important meeting
  • to avert danger before it happens (by breaking up an impending fight across the room or rescuing a child from an approaching kidnapper)

Resources for Further Information:

Physical Characteristics of Sprinters and Runners

25 Tips for Running Faster

Add Speed with these Before and After Running Tips

 

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Blurbs that Bore, Blurbs that Blare

I know that everyone has their own method of choosing books. Some go by the cover, others by the back copy. Some people get a good feel for the book by reading the first (or last) page or chapter. For me, it’s all about the book blurb—that two-paragraph snippet on the back cover or the inside of the dust jacket. If I don’t get a good vibe from a book after reading its blurb, back on the shelf it goes.

As an author in charge of writing my own blurbs, this creates a fair amount of anxiety; with the bajillions of books out there vying for our reader’s attention, it’s critical that we nail the book blurb. But how? What do I include? How long should it be? WHAT, IN THE NAME OF CHOCOLATE, MAKES A GOOD BLURB?

Enter Michaelbrent Collings, who’s got some seriously good advice on how to write the awesomest book blurb ever…

blurb image 2There seem to be a lot of misunderstandings about the back cover copy—the “blurbs” that so many writers have to put on the back of their books. 

In Ye Olden Tymes, some person who was paid to do stuff like that—meaning, a fellow who probably looked like a dumpier version of a Mad Men character—would take care of the blurb as part of the deal a writer got when they were published.

Now, with more and more writers turning to self-publishing, and with more and more publishing houses relying on the writers to provide copy, advertising, marketing, and more…it’s likely going to be something the writer does.

And that’s great! Because, well, who understands the story like the person who wrote it?

But it also sucks. Because, well, who less understands how to sell the story than the person who wrote it?

Wait, lemme ‘splain. No. Is too long. Lemme summarize. (And because the summary is this long, you should understand how important this subject is.)

Watching most writers tell others about their books is like watching parents show baby pictures: it’s a passionate, energizing, fascinating process for everyone… except for everyone who isn’t the parent. Sorry, but (and I say this as a parent myself) very few people really care about Tommy’s new tooth, about Lucy’s skinned knee, the nanosecond-by-nanosecond details of Charlie’s first step.

There. I said it. If I’m gone tomorrow it’s because The Angry Parents League finally dragged me away to an underground oubliette filled with binkies and used diapers, there to die in madness induced by never-ending Teletubbies reruns.

Back to my point: we don’t care about the everyday details of other people’s kids. At least, not until we are thoroughly invested in the child. And you don’t get a stranger thoroughly invested in anything by spewing mundane crapola.

6825401968_b85878bfab_mSo why, if that’s the case, do so many writers try to “suck in” complete strangers with the boring, banal details of their story?

It’s because those writers a) don’t care to be professionals, or b) just don’t understand the purpose of the blurb. I will ignore group a) because, to be honest, they irritate me and I hope they suffer embarrassing diarrhea at a fancy dinner party. No help for them.

As to group b), here is the purpose of the blurb, and this is the only purpose of the blurb. I will put it in big bold letters so’s y’all know I’m serious-like.

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

That is IT, people. The outside of your book—the cover design, the spine, the lettering, EVERYTHING—is for one purpose: to separate readers from their money. Your blurb is part of that. And its part of the job is (again):

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

So how do you do that? A few clues. First, leave out the details. No one cares about Eugene’s first skinned knee. Lead with that and it’s a buzzkill at the Christmas party. But if you say, “So, Number Three almost died today,” all conversation STOPS. 

Those who know that “Number Three” is your third kid will think, “Holy crap, died?!”

Those who don’t know what “Number Three” is will think, “Who died?” or “Who’s number three?” or “I thought you could only go up to Number Two!” (this is a Christmas party after all, so some of your people probably aren’t thinking straight at this point).

But everyone’s interested. Because you haven’t given details. You’ve raised questions. If you walked out of the room at this point, you’d get angry phone calls from “concerned” (i.e. ragingly curious) friends and family.

This is a good start for your blurb. Raise that question!

Also implicit in the above are a few other things that good blurbs tend to include: the genre of the piece (romance? Western? sci-fi?), the mood (funny? scary? Melodramatic?), and the HOOK. This last merits a bit of discussion here.

13533192_2452d19784_mThe hook is that gimmick, the setup, that grabs you in just a sentence or two. The core idea that sets it apart from all the others out there. It’s what you’d see on the movie poster—The Shining is about a family trapped in a malevolently haunted hotel, The Hunger Games is about a girl who competes in a battle to the death with other teens, etc. Note this, again, is not the story. Neither description told you who would live, who would die, what their lives were like outside the bare description of a setup. But the setup…interesting!

Look at the following examples.

When Sharlene wakes up after a five-year coma to discover that she has a ring on her finger and a three-year old baby named Kumbaya, she has no memory of how she got the ring or where the baby came from. Doctors assure her that Kumbaya is hers, and their tears assure her that the story behind the little half-Liechtensteinian babe is a heartrending one. But for some reason, no one will speak to her. They will not explain the ring, the baby, or the two million dollars in smuggled African conflict diamonds she also finds in the baby’s bassinet.

Now Sharlene is on a mission. To find the father of the child, to find the owner of the diamonds, and, hopefully, to find the man she somehow knows in her heart that she loves. She will travel across the world, from Australia to France to Indonesia on a globe-trotting trip that will take her everywhere and bring her into contact with people like the deaf-mute man who somehow plays harp music that makes her heart sing. She will travel everywhere…and then return to find that answers, and love, were right at her side all along.

And my thoughts after reading this, of course: HO. LEE. CRAP.

There’s no reason to read the book. Sounds like I’ve just read it, actually. I got the beginning, the middle, and even the end (she’ll find her answers when she comes home, and at this point I’m so sick of reading about it I don’t care anymore).

The saddest part is there’s a good blurb hidden in there. Think of this:

Sharlene wakes from a five-year coma with no memory of her accident. Or how she got the wedding ring that sparkles on her finger, the $2 million in illegal diamonds…or the three-year-old baby that doctors insist is hers.

Now Sharlene is on a mission for answers. Led by clues she finds, led by a need to know. And most of all…led by a feeling that love waits at the end of her journey.

Now I ain’t sayin’ this is art. But it is 1) shorter (which is almost always better on blurbs, since you have maybe ten seconds to grab someone and twenty seconds total if you DO grab them), 2) leads with the “hook,” and 3) SETS UP THE QUESTIONS THAT CAN ONLY BE ANSWERED BY READING THE BOOK (Who gave the ring? Where did the diamonds come from? A three-year-old baby?)

Here’s another blurb. This one from my book Strangers, which has been a top seller on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, etc.

You wake up in the morning to discover that you have been sealed into your home. The doors are locked, the windows are barred. THERE’S NO WAY OUT.

A madman is playing a deadly game with you and your family. A game with no rules, only consequences. So what do you do? Do you run? Do you hide?

OR DO YOU DIE?

This is 100% about the hook (waking up completely sealed in a family home), and about the QUESTIONS: will the protagonists make it out? Who is the madman behind it? What are the motives? How is such a thing possible to be carried out? And, hopefully, more questions that can only be answered by clicking that little “Purchase” button.

I also did the tricky move of putting the reader “in” the story. Instead of being “A family wakes up” (Strangers is about a family), I said “You wake up,” “you and your family,” “what do you do?” etc. It personalizes the story and makes the moving question even stronger sometimes (though of course this doesn’t always work). For instance:

You wake up from a coma. Five years gone. Illegal diamonds next to you, no memory of them or the sleeping three-year-old that the doctors insist is yours.

The only way to find answers is to follow the clues left by a mysterious man. A man whom you sense will lead you not only to your past, but to your future. Not only to understanding, but to love.

Okay, hopefully you get the point. And, regardless, I’ve blathered enough.

Remember, though (if you remember anything), this single thing. The point of blurbs. The fact that no one cares about your babies…not right away. You have to get them invested in the questions and the big stories before they will be interested in the details. And remember…

The only purpose of the back blurb is to raise a question that can ONLY BE ANSWERED when the reader BUYS and FINISHES the book.

Good luck. Go forth and sell your babies.

 

michaelbrentMichaelbrent Collings is a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter, one of the top selling horror novelists on Amazon for over two years straight, and has been a bestselling novelist on various ebook lists in over forty countries. His newest novel is This Darkness Light. Join his mailing list to be notified of new releases, sales, and freebies.

Posted in Guest Post, marketing | 36 Comments

How to Keep your Story Moving and Your Character Believable

One of my biggest pet peeves in novels is characters who tend to ramble on introspectively, analyzing every emotion, every decision, every response to outside stimuli. It drives me a little bonkers. So I’m happy to welcome MJ Bush back to the blog, so she can give us some tips on how to keep our characters believable by not letting them be TOO self-aware.

self-aware-character

One of the most common characterization mistakes writers make is granting their characters too much self-awareness. That sly pitfall puts tension at risk, limits believability (I’ll tell you how), and inhibits the ability to show rather than tell. Read to the end to get some tools that will help you find the very things that your character won’t know.

How much self-awareness you give to your characters depends on the age and personality of each one. Older, introspective characters will be more attentive to the inner self than younger, extroverted ones. But even a geriatric guru won’t be aware of everything.

Out of your entire cast, the point-of-view character will be in the most danger of seeming too self-aware. You probably know that dialogue often has a problem with being too “on-the-nose” and saying exactly what it means. It’s true for inner dialogue, too.

Worse, inner dialogue in real life is often reactive—a response to recent events, rather than an ongoing running narration. We’re generally “nonconscious”, as a psychology major might say; we make most of our choices and actions without deliberating over them or analyzing them. So any inner dialogue must be carefully chosen. 

But inner narration isn’t the only self-aware practice that we sometimes overdo in our characters. Our characters should also be a little clueless about their flaws, their true strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals. As the character is forced to grow throughout the course of the story, these things come closer to the surface of consciousness, and self-awareness should bloom in the “resurrection” of the hero’s journey.

Things Your Character Should NOT Do

  • Think in terms of how he seems, as if from an outside perspective. (Here’s an example.)
  • Narrate the reasons behind actions that would just happen, especially in a tense scene. (See the example above.)
  • Label emotions. Most people won’t think, “I’m so sad!” They’ll be thinking about the reason they’re sad.
  • Examine the root reasons behind every fear and hope and emotion. Most of us don’t go digging around in our psyches on a daily basis.

Any time your character is being reactive, such as when they are involved in highly emotional or active scenes, self-awareness should be negligible. You can use a small amount of self-awareness in the “sequel” of the scene-sequel sequence. Just don’t have too much too often. Sparks and hints of a coming revelation are more enticing than pages of introspection without action. (And I don’t mean shoot ‘em up action, either.) As Kristen Lamb has said, “Most real people are not self-aware enough to realize they have problems…Real people need some outside event or person to create discomfort that makes us change.” That’s the kind of action I’m talking about.

If you’ve ever had a problem trying to figure out how to force a character to change, did you actively consider whether or not they were aware of it? And now that you have, how could you inch them toward change AND toward awareness?

Remember, It’s Not Just Flaws

Your character could be unaware of fears, flaws, desires, strengths, emotions, and reasons for actions or reactions. Self-awareness and introspection should be used sparingly. It gives them more oomph when they do come out to play.

How can you tell when your characters are being too introspective? Please share in the comments!

And when YOU want to find your character’s fears, flaws, desires, and strengths… You can get my collection of Brainstorm Sparks (specially designed brainstorming tools for character creation) delivered to your inbox over the next couple of days. Get your first Brainstorm Spark now!

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MJ Bush is The Analytical Creative. Her writing advice steps back to take in the whole picture, then dives in to grab the pearls of usable detail. She’s the founder of Writingeekery.com and a full time fiction coach, editor, and writer.

Posted in Characters, Guest Post, Uncategorized | 27 Comments

Character Talents & Skills: Parkour

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

parkour
When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

PARKOUR

Description: A discipline of getting from one place to another, regardless of obstacles, as efficiently as possible, using body movement.  A practitioner of parkour uses one’s own body weight and momentum to scale walls or buildings, vault over obstacles and generally get from one place to another in unconventional and creative ways.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: strong hand-eye coordination and depth perception, a mind for physics, a strong body core, good stamina, cardio and flexibility, having some background in tumbling or gymnastics

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: fearless, decisive, careful, determined, radical, sharp-eyed, sensible, imaginative, disciplined

Required Resources and Training: agility and strength training

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions (and misconceptions!):

  • that only “street punks” do parkour, and it’s usually to escape the police
  • that parkour is dangerous
  • people who do parkour are reckless
  • parkour is a skill for young people, not old ones

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • when creative, out-of-the-box thinking is required to get from a to b (in an emergency when roads might be blocked off, elevators not working, etc.)
  • when one must reach a seemingly unattainable place in a life or death situation to reach safety (escaping a burning building, climbing out of a ravine or crevasse, crossing a field of debris, etc.)
  • as a way to prove one’s worth & ability in a “brawn over brains” environment
  • as a way to prove one is intrepid, not weak or fearful
  • in military maneuvers

Resources for Further Information:

The world’s best parkour & free running

Beginner’s guide to parkour

Ultimate guide to parkour

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

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Pulse on Pacing: How Smooth Transitions Keep Your Story Moving

Writing itself is change, and within story structure, transitions are key to keeping things moving.

It isn’t just about getting your character from scene to scene, it’s also is about communicating ideas and making sure there’s a smooth flow from one piece of information to the next.

raceWithout deft transitions, the manuscript flow becomes herky-jerky. Characters seem to leap about in time and space, plot points can get dropped and instead of riding down the flowing river of the writer’s consciousness with a pina colada in hand, the reader is riding shotgun in Monster Truck Crash Rally Death Match with an icy beverage all over their lap.

So how do we kick ass and take names as far as learning to transition well?

MOVEMENT

The plot and characters should always be in motion. Every action, every thought, every emotion should all draw the reader forward, deeper into the story. As you write, always think movement. Are the stakes rising, are the characters acting? Does each piece of information deepen the reader’s understanding of what is at stake, and what the character must face?

Each sentence should form part of the picture and contribute, naturally lead to the next. I’m not just talking sentence structure here, I’m talking about substance. Every word, phrase and idea must not be wasted. Select each carefully, with intent. This will create a natural and compelling flow.

Transitioning Between Scenes

Not every scene ends with a chapter break, so we need to have a little bag of tricks to get characters from one place to the next. First and foremost, always know where the ending point of your scene is. Every scene should have a natural beginning, middle and end…the end being where the character resolves to take a new action or where he finds himself in worse trouble than at the start. We don’t want those characters taking it easy, no sir. Bring on the hot irons of conflict & consequence!

TIP: When starting a new scene, be quick about anchoring the reader in the setting and let them know who’s viewpoint it is, especially if your book has two or more POV characters. Nothing turns a reader off faster than not knowing where they are, and who is speaking/narrating. A new scene should never feel like Musical Chairs–the reader should always know which POV they are experiencing.

Angela’s Tricksy Bag of, erm, Tricks

Keep a Weather Eye on Your Story

This is an excellent way to show a passage of time and get the character moving. No one can hang out at the park for long on a wintery January morning, not unless hypothermia is on the menu. Ditto with a character noticing how the cloud cover is stealing the sun’s heat, a storm is brewing or how the sun’s position changes as it crosses the sky. When your character takes note, the reader does too. Time is fluid.

–Thinking Ahead

The character’s thought process can easily allow you to skip ahead to a new scene. By letting thoughts (or worries!) drift to a future event (getting off work, meeting up with someone for a date that night, a ball game on the weekend, etc) end the scene, it allows you to jump right into that event in the scene that follows without causing a ripple in the story’s flow.

A Nice Fish Slap to the Face

Remember those high stakes we talked about? Well, action and pressure often leads to mistakes, which leads to nasty, sticky consequences. A great way to transition to a new scene is to show the character having to face the result of his earlier poor choice.

Routine, Routine, Routine 

No matter how wild and crazy things get,  some routines are rarely broken. The responsibilities of school and work, waking up, going to bed, mealtimes…if you need to, you can use these (but don’t slow the pace!) to show a leap forward to a new scene. But remember some routines can be overused (such as starting a chapter with the character waking up). Instead, try showing them start the day brushing their teeth or heading out the door to school or work. Take care that transitions don’t turn into long coffee breaks, either. Each setting choice should contribute directly to story and character development and have meaning, not provide a reason to show a long internalization that probably is not needed anyway.

Tick Tock 

There’s nothing wrong with having a good old-fashioned ticking clock to get a character out of one scene and onto the next one. If your character is on a schedule (and really, who isn’t?) they will be very aware of the time and can easily communicate this through their thoughts, actions or dialogue. No one likes to be late, right? Again, just be careful of not overusing this trick to get in and out of all your scenes.

Changing POV 

Obviously, this is only one to use if you’re using multiple POVs. If you’re at a loss over which POV to use in a scene, it should be told by the person with the most to lose or gain from the action & events of the scene.

Need some more ideas on how to use the world around your characters to transition? Check out The Bookshelf Muse’s Symbolism Entry on The Passage of Time

Image: pixabay
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5 Important Ways to Use Symbolism in Your Story

So many elements go into a truly good book. When we turn that final page with a satisfying sigh, it’s often hard to identify just what made it a success. But many times, symbolism is one of the things that ties the whole work together. Done sloppily, it’s heavy-handed and forced, and turns the reader off. And when it’s done well, symbolism is one of those elements that the reader doesn’t notice; they just recognize that everything worked. It’s an important element, but really hard to do well. That’s why I’m glad to have K.M. Weiland here today. Symbolism is just one element that she tightens the focus on in her latest release: Jane Eyre: Writer’s Digest Annotated Classics. I had the pleasure of reading this arc, and it was so incredibly interesting, seeing a classic analyzed to see what made it a success. It frankly would have scared the poo out of me, being the one to pick apart such an iconic, well-known novel, but Katie totally nailed it. So rather than blather on, I’ll just turn things over to the expert ;).

Symbolism can sometimes be a tough concept for authors to get their heads around. How do we come up with the right symbols in the first place? What should they be symbolic of? And how do we incorporate them into our stories without making them so obvious we lose all their symbolic value?

Symbolism offers one of the richest opportunities for writers to deepen their themes, past just the conscious appreciation of the readers and right into their emotional and subconscious cores. That’s a lot of power right there. And we’d be crazy to leave it on the table.

V8374c_JaneEyre.inddCharlotte Brontë’s classic masterpiece Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic) is a wealth of symbolism. You want to know how to do it right? All you have to do is learn at Brontë’s feet. Following are five methods of symbolism she used to enhance every aspect of her story—and which you can use too!

Symbolism Type #1: Small Details

You can include symbolism in even the smallest of your story’s details. The colors your characters wear. The movies they watch. The pictures they use to decorate their apartments. All of these details offer the opportunity for symbolic resonance.

In the first chapter of Brontë’s story, Jane Eyre is reading a book called Bewick’s History of British Birds, which features significantly bleak and desolate descriptions of the English landscape. On the surface, these descriptions have no connection to Jane’s world—except that, of course, they do. Brontë could just as easily have given Jane a cheery romance to read. Instead, she used the bleak descriptions to symbolize Jane’s bleak life as an orphan living with her cruel aunt.

Symbolism Type #2: Motifs

A motif is a repeated design. In a story, a motif is an element repeated throughout the narrative, often to obvious effect. Sometimes, however, it will be used in a less conspicuous way that infiltrates the readers’ subconscious with a web of symbolic cohesion.

The concept of orphanhood is prominent throughout Jane Eyre, most notably in the main character’s own status as a loveless orphan. Indeed, the concept of love and what people have to do to earn it is central to the entire story. Brontë reinforces the obvious aspects of this motif time and again throughout the story. Consider just a few examples:

  • Early on, a servant sings a song about an orphan girl.
  • Adele, the child Jane is hired to look after, is ostensibly an orphan.
  • When Jane encounters the Rivers family, late in the story, she discovers they are newly orphaned themselves, after the death of their father.

Brontë never draws attention to the motif by directly comparing these examples to Jane’s own orphaned state. Rather, she simply allows their presence in the story to reinforce the overall effect.

Symbolism Type #3: Metaphors

Motifs can also be metaphors. Indeed, some of the best symbols in literature are visual metaphors for thematic elements. You may choose to use fire to represent a character with a hot temper. Running water may become a symbol for purification. Illness might represent sin or corruption.

The main metaphoric motif in Jane Eyre is that of birds as symbols for captivity and freedom. Brontë uses the bird metaphor throughout the story to symbolize the relativity of every character and setting in relation to this fundamental theme. Small, plain birds such as sparrows represent Jane. Birds of prey refer to Rochester. And Thornfield—Rochester’s prison and Jane’s sanctuary—is frequently described in terms of a bird’s cage.

Often, strong metaphoric language will emerge naturally while writing a story. In the rewriting, see if you can identify any recurring motifs that crop up. Can you strengthen them to better represent your theme? Try to figure out ways to use different aspects of the same motif to describe varying characters.

Symbolism Type #4: Universal Symbols

Some symbols are ingrained so deeply in our social psyche that they are used in practically every story. The power of these symbols lies in the fact that they will already have been accepted deep into your readers’ subconscious minds. (Their potential weakness, of course, is that their very prevalence can make them seem like clichés.)

Weather is a particularly good example. Thunderstorms are often used as the background for a character’s defeat—or as a contrast to a seeming victory. When Jane accepts Rochester’s proposal, the lightning that strikes a tree in the garden isn’t just a random happening. It’s a portent of the dark revelations that will soon sunder their love.

Symbolism Type #5: Hidden Symbolism

Some types of symbolism will be so deeply buried within your story that your readers may not recognize them at all. Obviously, the value of hidden symbolism is significantly less than that of other types. After all, what good is something if the reader never notices it?

For example, Rochester’s horse is named Mesrour. Very few readers will catch the significance of this: Mesrour is the name of the executioner in Arabian Nights.

Why name the horse this at all? Why not Blackie? Or even O Beauteous One? For starters, both of the latter names would have been a poor use of our Symbolism Type #1. “Mesrour,” even without explanation, enhances the already dark and mysterious tone of the novel. And for those readers who do catch the obscure reference, the symbolism will only be that much stronger.

Symbolism is a delicate dance. But authors can’t afford to overlook it. When choreographed correctly, it can spell the difference between a three-star novel and a five-star novel. Just ask Jane!

K.M. WeilandK.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Posted in symbolism, Writing Craft | 30 Comments