CRAFT: character vs plot and the usual crankiness

ATTENTION: If you are one of the kick-butt agents to whom I’ve submitted work, and you’re checking my journal/weblog out the way people keep telling me that agents will do before making a decision about whether to contact an author about representation, please ignore this post and go to one of the good ones . . . maybe this or this. This one is mostly for other writers and rambles around a bit. Okay, I get kind of b*tchy, too. And that seems to upset people and get me on the sh*tlist. Move along–nothing to see here.
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Some writers like to use character sheets or other “profile” tools so that they can develop their characters before they start writing the book. I never have been able to do this (it seemed too much like rolling up a character for a D&D game back in high school), but some people have success with it. Don’t spend a lot of time on these things, though . . . you can get all bogged down. James Frey (not the druggie memoirist; the how-to-write fellow who must’ve taken tons of ribbing for the last year or two) who writes the _How to Write A Damn Good Novel_ books does them, it seems; his latest, _How to Write A Damn Good MYSTERY Novel_, has examples of the way he worked his characters out. That’s not how it works for me, but there are nine-and-twenty ways of constructing tribal lays.

Here’s a webpage that talks a bit about this. The writer who forwarded this to me says she doesn’t use the sheet/method to invent or put together characters, but uses it as she works; she makes notes for continuity and consistency, and when she’s finished the first draft, she goes back to reread the novel and uses the list to see if there are things she can’t answer or areas she needs to work on. Often characters will develop as you write about them. They come to life, and they’ll do what they’ll do. Let them be who they are, and make the plot serve THEM–don’t use them in service to the plot. The way they interact with others and deal with their surroundings will illuminate and/or bring out aspects of the story.

Another similar page. These things can be useful, I suppose.

An acquaintance writes: “I use an index card per character and draw a stick figure on it. To the left of the head, I write three words or phrases that give a physical description. Below that, three words describing character traits. To the right of the head, I note: Favorite things? What do they love? What do they fear? Character’s goal/motivation. Below the feet I list their likes and dislikes.”

I don’t name the acquaintance because (1) I got this off a mass mailing list, and (2) I winced big-time. I post this because perhaps this kind of thing will help you. But . . . I hope it isn’t something you need.

(Okay, now tell us what you REALLY think of the stick figure card trick.)

“GOD . . . how pathetic! If I had to do that, I wouldn’t screw with writing fiction at all.”

(Thanks for sharing.)

“I mean it. It’s like when I first discovered that some people can’t play piano by ear and have to rely entirely on notation for the feel and sound of a piece. Hubby is like that–ten YEARS of piano lessons, the last couple of years with a TCU prof who charged over $100 per 45-min lesson [and this was in the late 1970s when prices overall were lower], and he cannot play a thing now except the first two bars of “Sentimental Journey” with two fingers. He cannot “hear” a piece and sound it out, and he has to have the music in front of him and “read” it with his left brain or whatever. Whenever I am playing a new piece I’ve never heard by sight-reading it, I marvel at how tough it really is in comparison to playing by ear, and I think, ‘Man, if I had to do it this way all the time, I’d be off smokin’ bananas in the corner.’ I really couldn’t do it that way. For one thing, I’m not that organized. Stuff just flows, or it doesn’t. This could be because I’m an INTP with dashes of INFP. Or I could just be a typical weirdo. (Is there such a thing, or is that in itself an oxymoron? Not the same as a hydroxy-moron. Heh.)”

Well, thanks for sharing, voice of internal monologue (ahem). . . .

But it’s pretty much true. My characters spring forth while I scribble or type on the novel idea, and if not fully formed to begin with, they make themselves known soon enough. Cody–the teenage boy twin in this screwball comedy that I’m writing in order to enter the Dorch American Title contest–started out by coming on stage to help his twin Jen (the teen girl who sprang forth bodily as Athena, etc., when my scene opened). He opened his mouth to speak the first time and I heard this “Lurch” voice from the butler on the TV “Addams Family.” In his next line, he did a John-Ritter-doing-his-dad-on-Three’s-Company switch when he saw that there was a cute teen girl there whose bags he could carry. (“Howdy, y’all! Welcome to Texas!”) And when he came back on scene to respond to his sister, who is raving on about how she will get rid of those intruders, and she says, “You’re with me. Aren’t you?” He says, “What you mean WE, kemosabe?” in a Tonto voice. (That comes from the old joke when the Lone Ranger and Tonto are surrounded by angry Cherokee and the LR turns to his companion and says, “Well, I suppose this is it for us, old friend. We had some adventures, didn’t we? But now we say our final prayers.” “What you mean WE, white boy?”)

Cody appears to be one of those Jerry Lewis/Jim Carrey class-clown types who can do all the Mel Blanc voices and likes to do impressions. But he’s not obnoxious. This is NOT something that I would have put down on some index card or would have even thought of. It is an organic part of how the story comes to me from (thank God) the Muses. I didn’t plan that. If it turns out to be obnoxious, I’m just stuck with it.

Okay, what I *do* use sometimes is a file that has stuff in it telling me what color people’s eyes are and which one(s) know Morse code (in the ranch romance, the teen girl who’s Cody’s love interest knows it, and will have need of it when the dark moment comes) and which clues he/she knows when. This kind of errata/continuity/consistency sheet is useful.

Also, once I realized I was writing two mystery series, both with thirtyish female amateur sleuths, I opened a file called “Jac vs Ari.” Jacquidon’s book is in intimate third person; Ari’s story is first person. Jacquidon is the college grad who had such great career opportunities, Ari the loner who had a distant mother and an admired elder sister who got into trouble young. Jacquidon is the elder sister to Chantal; Ari is the younger sister to Zoe. Zoe had a child who died last year; Chantal is single and has a boyfriend who never comes on the scene in person but is a comic relief figure who has often JUST called and is often invoked or quoted or has given Chantal some piece of the puzzle somehow (or sent just the right tool to use to fix something)–this is used for comic effect as well as to advance the plot. He’s like Mrs. Columbo–remember, we never saw her int he original series, but he was always saying, “MY wife–she thought of this, and I wanted to ask. . . .”

That kind of thing. But the reason for that file was so that I could verify that the books weren’t at all alike and that I couldn’t possibly “just make both books about the same sleuth” for the sake of having one series. The books are rooted in the character and what happens/plausibly occurs to her.

Jac’s books are light, funny, witty, Snoop Sisters-type, like the Anne George novels crossed with Joan Hess (or so I fancy). Ari’s stories are darker, deeper in a sense, have more emotional development and change (at the end of the first book, Ari’s sister has come out of her self-imposed hermit state somewhat in the process of solving the crime, and may come back out into the world from which she retreated when her son passed.) Jac’s story clues use technology/computers. Ari’s are more traditional mystery clues. She’s no technophobe, but mostly she doesn’t end up using GPS units to find her way out of dungeons at sex clubs.
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Grandmaster of Mystery Donald E. Westlake says that his famous burglar character came to him when he saw a neon “DAB Dortmunder” sign in a bar. “I could see his slumped shoulders, the way he walked. The name just told me the guy.” He also says, “I don’t know where fiction went. […] This is the first generation of TV and screenwriters who don’t come from print. If Sony didn’t write it, they haven’t read it.”

*sigh* Life goes on.

Apparently I am not alone in thinking it is wrongheaded for publishing to be turning novels into screenplays with a bit of narrative (or into whatever they’re turning them into–they’re not like books always have been any more, and the justification given is that the “MTV generation needs faster pacing.”) Well, the new generation or whoever may just not like to read. Maybe they were turned off when schools tried to force them through _Silas Marner_ before they were ready for it (which could be never.) And we may be headed toward a postliterate society. But I think we should still have books for people who love books. So what if they aren’t blockbusters? (Money, of course. But bear with me a moment.)

Just think of the blockbusters of the past that no one reads now. _Jonathan Livingston Seagull_ was the RAGE for YEARS in the 1970s when I was in high school . . . now people would be embarrassed to admit that they wore the sterling seagull necklace and quoted the lightweight faux-philosophy. _Bridges of Madison County_ inexplicably isn’t on anyhone’s classics list. _Airport_ and _Shogun_ were HUGE in their time, but no one goes back to read them now. Even _Roots_, which was on all the social studies and literature lists for a while there, is no longer a Must Read for Everyone as it started out to be. All these books were the be-all and end-all at the time. I predict that the Duh-Vinci Code will soon lie in the remainder pile with these others, thought of as “that book that was so big in the early part of the century.”

You don’t think so? What about “The Day After Tomorrow” which was supposed to be SOOO BIIIHHHGGGG . . . now forgotten, and you don’t see it on people’s ever-favorites list or “the classics you should read” or anywhere but the throw-away shelf for forgotten stuff. Do you want to pour your heart into something and work your butt off and have it forgotten so quickly? (Although the money might be nice, while it’s pouring in there for a while.)

Have books that were blockbusters survived? Sure, the deeper, book-like ones. But those are outnumbered by the ones that just don’t satisfy.

For some reason, this rant reminds me of ‘s mini-controversy about whether _Little Women_ and _A Tree Grows In Brooklyn_ are children’s lit or classics. Go vote, if you are so inclined.
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Dickens’ _Our Mutual Friend_ isn’t an easy book, but unlike John Irving, who said he’s saving it for when he’s bedridden or ill and needs a great ride, I’ve already read it. It’s not like the rest of Dickens so much as it’s like a new Dickens. Had he continiued to live and write, I think we’d have seen a different pattern emerge. Oops, but I mustn’t read the classics! It influences my prose style so that it isn’t subject-verb-object and influences my stories to have introspection, “sequel,” and parts where characters do a bit of thinkin’. Anathema to the modern agent/editor/marketing whiz! (Or so it seems to me from the way they all talk.)
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Here’s what the Chicks Over 40 say:

[O]ne of the most frustrating parts about publishing these days [is that] they’re modeling themselves after Hollywood and looking for high-concept. I recently heard an agent say she’s more interested in the high-concept than the writing. And even though we hear characterization is more important than plot, it’s the plot that gets the interest, the attention, and the foot in the door. An editor once said it’s all about characterization–any plot can be fixed. I’ve come to see that the characterization usually has to be there to sustain the interest, but the initial response is to the plot, to the concept. That’s what they look for in the query letter, and that’s what a reader looks for when they read the back cover.

[T]he plot is the device to reveal who people are. When we see the characters in action, that should naturally propel the plot forward. This is similar to our journey on the road to publishing – or wherever our life’s journey leads us. How we handle our journey reveals who we are.

Interesting characters make for an interesting plot. Do I care about the Civil War without Scarlett O’Hara? Only in history class. In the movie, I’m fascinated with her. Do I really care about the plot in “Casablanca” or am I fascinated by Bogie and the gang? Why are the lines so memorable – e.g., “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” and the inaccurately-quoted “Play it again, Sam?” Why is it one of the most “popular, magical (and flawless) films of all time, focused on the themes of lost love, honor and duty, self-sacrifice and romance within a chaotic world,” according to No doubt the plot is compelling. But is it the plot alone or did the characters make the plot come alive for all of us?

Read more at All good, all the time.
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Some books have enjoyable enough plots, but are actually about the characters. Those are the ones I remember. I usually don’t feel the full impact of the story until I read the last few lines and everything is tied together and becomes clear. Steinbeck is great at this.

Don’t the characters keep people coming back to a series that has lost its novelty-plot status? Look at the Janet Evanovich books. Her premise is tiring a bit and perhaps even getting worn out, but fans still insist that she write about Stephanie. Lots of series sharkjump like that, where the author is ready to move to the next thing, but audiences won’t let them because they LOOOVE that character.

Some people think it’s boring when characters think and do things that they feel “slow down the action,” and would rather have the plot be the main force in getting them to keep turning pages. But hopping around “because the script says so” (in slavery to plot) makes for cardboard characters. Often while I’m watching a film with others, someone will whisper, “Why did she or would she do that?” The answer is “because the script said so.” The script was probably changed on the fly by the director and some rewriter person five minutes before, to make it “cooler.” Aarghh! Breaking the plot bolts and having people act out of character and irrationally, but that’s another story.

Plots need to come out of what a specific character does in a particular situtation. Otherwise, everything feels forced. I want to know how people feel and how they react to events/circumstances. The circumstances by themselves are not compelling. (A war. Pictures of bombs going off. Sounds of M-16s shooting. Flyovers. Hmm, terrible, man’s inhumanity to man, inability to learn from history, etc. But when we see it from the POV of a six-year-old child who sees his family killed as he hides under the bed . . . and then we see the Marine who’s assigned to pick up the dead bodies and who collapses after picking up a three-year-old little girl and having her innards pour onto his boots . . . and we see the horrors of war and the inexplicable-ness of why people DO things like this . . . it’s a lot more powerful.)

This “living inside the heads of the characters,” having the vicarious experiences, is part of the beauty of reading. Often, in movie adaptations, we lose that intimacy with the character’s thoughts and feelings. Many times the writer is just plain witty and clever with a turn of phrase, and that is also a great pleasure for the word-oriented. The image-oriented people love to be shown. And they’ll believe stuff that isn’t plausible in the least without questioning that plot hole because they are SEEING it happen. It must’ve happened, because we just saw Shelley Long do it. In books, authors have to set off some logic firecrackers to explain these things, all the while not “slowing down the action.” Lot tougher, in a way. But then it doesn’t cost $2 million to film it; you just type it and weep.
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Me . . . I can’t stand the SEQUENTIALness of film and computer games. You can’t skip around. You can’t linger on parts you enjoy and go back to check something to see if your guesses were right and you don’t get to savor great lines. You get a different experience. You can’t interrupt a film the way you can a book and “get back into it” by curling back up with it after the trip to the store or on the next bedtime. It doesn’t work that way. Books do.

I like to have my imagination going. I participate and construct part of the story when I read. I don’t want to be SHOWN everything from the POV of some director. Well, maybe occasionally, but only on some stories.

Don’t like to read? Maybe you are reading the wrong things.

Read Don Westlake. Harlan Ellison. Kurt Vonnegut. And all the others who write clever, vivid prose that just makes you laugh and see the imaginary movie all that much more clearly.
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“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go into the making of genius. Love, love, love: that is the soul of genius.”–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756-December 5, 1791)


Memorial Day–not so much a holiday as a day of remembrance

Today is a day to observe a moment (or more) of silence and spend some time in thought as a tribute to our war dead. (And, by extension, everyone else’s.) It is a day to be somewhat solemn. If you celebrate rather than mourn, at least take time out to think about the price paid for our freedom. (You don’t have to believe in war to honor family, neighbors, and countrymen who died in service to their country. In fact, maybe it’s better if you don’t believe in war.)

The “National Moment of Remembrance” is at 3 PM. Pause and pray and/or think about the true meaning of the day.

(paraphrased from this “Return to the traditional Memorial Day” site)

The meaning of Memorial Day has faded too much from the public consciousness. From a solemn day of mourning, remembrance, and honor of our departed loved ones, it has degenerated into a weekend of barbecues, shopping for bargains, and lake romps during which only token nods toward our honored dead are given, if at all. Too many don’t know what the day stands for. It’s just the early summer three-day weekend.

I feel that it is a national day of mourning. I think about my dad’s WWII wartime service, my uncle’s, my husband’s uncle’s (who gave his life in WWII), and all the servicepeople now across the globe. They don’t HAVE to lay it on the line out there for you, but they do it out of a sense of duty, honor, and love of freedom. (These sentiments are not copyrighted or trademarked by the Neocons or any other group, by the way. Feel free to be patriotic, even if you don’t like the direction things have been going here for a while.)

It’s also a day to remember my sister-in-law who died in a traffic accident coming home from a Memorial Day event in 1986. I wish I could do something to decorate Daddy’s grave, my uncle’s grave, her grave this year, but I won’t be able to travel to do it. Often groups of vets will go out and decorate the headstones that show a military service record (as my dad’s and uncle’s do–they show the last rank and which service.) I hope that they’ll go do that this year, and (as always) pray that next year I’ll be free to go do it myself.

Read more about Memorial Day at

Dingeldorfer finds a penny under the front doormat

What *is* today? Thursday? Already?!

I’ve just queried a prestigious literary agency about my mystery. It’s too funny a book to let it languish after only one lap around the track. We’ll see if they agree. This agency has three agents who have edited mystery series in the past. I didn’t tell them about all my fantasy/SF, because they don’t handle it. I figured I might as well get the book out there.

I’m still working on the Ranch Romance for that June 1st deadline. Also am waiting to hear back about _Lasernight_. Next up for revision is _Little Rituals_; I’m going to switch around the opening scenes to see if that makes Daphne’s goals clearer. That suggestion came from Patricia Gaffney and was approved by Judith Arnold. Nope, I don’t know them personally, but I won brief evaluation/critiques from each in a charity auction. (And I’m not even taking that off my taxes. Getting pretty low on discretionary funds, but that’s what they’re for.) Then I’ll finish _Miranda’s Rights_ just because I love the story. Not that there’s anyplace to send it.

(EDIT: Here’s a similar charity auction running now on eBay. Catherine Coulter and Bob Mayer spoke at RWA-San Diego’s conference in March and donated critiques. See the details at In the search field, enter “Catherine Coulter critique” or “Bob Mayer
critique” to find the listing.)

I’ve also been monitoring Dennis’s screenplay about his years as part of the Bobby Sherwood big band. It’s a fascinating tale that’ll appeal to people who like stories about Vegas behind the scenes and musicians who tour, among others. I even made a suggestion here and there. He already has a producer and backers, so this is The Real Thing. That is endlessly exciting!

Oh, and I discovered that they did choose a winner for the Malice Domestic/St. Martin’s Press contest, but out of spite I’m not going to tell you who it was, except that it wasn’t me. That was a royal screw-up. *GRIN* No, actually, it was a vast evil conspiracy. *GRIN* But all seriousness aside, it’s strange to me that they have done no press release that I can find and have had virtually no publicity about the winner. It took some sleuthing to find out who it was. That’s another reason that I really wouldn’t want to announce the winner here–it may be that they’re waiting to do some kind of announcement, and who wants to make enemies by being a “leaker”? The author has no website and no Google hits, so perhaps the seeming secrecy is for a reason. They did apparently announce the winner at Malice, even though they’re not really connected to the contest, but no one covered it for the press, which is why we–um, not the royal we, but I’m including the person who found the name for me–think we should keep on the quiet side with it. Really strange that it’s not being blasted from the treetops, though. You’d think publicity would be a number-one concern. Surely they’ll have publicity when we’re closer to the publication date.

And don’t call me Shirley.

I haven’t updated this week until now because I’ve been so busy with real-life and career issues. Just know that hubby has gone back and forth to the doctor with one side of his face going numb “for a while, now and then” (“spells,” the doctor settled on calling them) and that I’ve been trying to get the family/great room ready for a change in flooring. Yeep.

Don’t want this journal to be one of those boring self-promotional ones where people just chatter on about their exciting careers and so forth, so I’ll end with one of my favorite quotations.

“That makeup makes you look like a hooker! And in MY day, gasoline cost ten cents a gallon and they gave you a free glass with a tiger on it every time you filled up!”–Cranky Grandpa who stands on the corner yelling at cars

Need some stuff for Masterpiece-In-Progress

What’s a funny substitute for “Sierra Madre” that implies boobs? Like “Twin Peaks” did, without being gross or grotesque.

Also, I need a totally bogus errand that you could send a teenager on (at a guest ranch where she’s working) in order to get rid of her so you can have a private conversation. Needs to be plausible, but once she gets there or tries it she realizes it was bogus and heads straight back.

Man, the first of June deadline is rushing right up toward us, isn’t it?

attn: Paul McCartney eligible bachelor again

*sigh* I’m sad to hear that Paul McCartney and his wife are breaking up. I wanted him to be happy. Can the media get off the subject of how much $ she may or may not get, please? He couldn’t possibly spend the rest of it anyway. I was just thinking . . . Linda died, John was killed (and before that, they were pretty much estranged), his mom died when he was a child (as I understand it) . . . typical life of an artist. And now another sadness.

On the up side, now he’s available again! Too bad I’m too haggy to go after him. I also missed the window of opportunity on Jerry Lewis–who knew that he’d get a divorce and go find a younger woman back in the 1980s? Phooey.

Speaking of that . . . yesterday at critique group they told me that a “hot description” of my romantic lead is not “looks like John Lennon with those little round wire glasses.” Who knew?! I didn’t want to be cliched and say Paul McCartney! Or Micky Dolenz (now there’s a guy who has been rode hard and put up wet.) Or Robert Carradine from “Revenge of the Nerds.” I suggested Val Kilmer in the “Real Genius” period, and they said I was getting closer.

So I need a description of the romantic hero. I was thinking of Peter Davison, Doctor #5. Anyone want to give that a shot?

They liked my placeholders. Wherever I needed a nervous gesture, I’d just put “***nervous gesture***” and go on typing. Wonder if I could sell that idea to editors as a sort of fill-in-the-blanks story that’s personalized by each reader? Let readers come up with their favorite nervous gestures and funny stuff wherever the author has inserted a placeholder. That way they’re bound to like the book. Or let built-in software generate the phrases and insert it in each copy as it runs off the presses. Now that might be an idea . . . every copy of the book would be personalized.

Like those “My Book About Me” things they used to sell at the State Fair.
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From William Burroughs’s essay, “Remembering Jack Kerouac,” in _The Adding Machine: Selected Essays_ (Seaver Books, 1986):

“Many people who call themselves writers and have their names on books are not writers and they can’t write, like a bullfighter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there or he can’t write about it. … [Writers] are trying to create a universe in which they have lived or where they would like to live. To write it, they must go there and submit to conditions that they might not have bargained for.”


“Good description is symbolic not because the writer plants symbols in it but because, by working in the proper way, he forces symbols still largely mysterious to him into his conscious mind where, little by little as his fiction progresses, he can work with them and finally understand them. To put this another way, the organized and intelligent fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind.” (p. 37, John Gardner, _The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers_)

“Any literate person can write, but that doesn’t make great writers any more common or less valuable than great painters or great musicians or other things that relatively few people can do.”–

And finally. . . .


Play a LINGO applet online to practice.