Focus on Character

I’m venturing into my next novel-length story. This time, however, scenes haven’t been popping into my brain the way they did with Unspeakable. Hanna and Hank became quite tangible to me as characters very early in the process. For my work-in-progress (WIP), I have the basic frame of the plot and the characters, but there’s still a lot of work to do before I start writing that first chapter.

This past week I attended a writer’s workshop, Focus on Character, at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society in Calgary. It was taught by the wonderful Emily Ursuliak, who gave me permission to post part of what I learned on my blog.

How Do We Create Characters?

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THE DETAILS

We need to know a lot of details about our characters. But we don’t always need to share all of them. They can weigh the story down. Stephen King has said that the power of description is to give a few vivid details and let the reader fill in the rest.

But those details aren’t always visual. It could be how your character moves, speaks, or smells. The key is to know which ones matter to the story, but first you have to discover what those details are.

WRITING EXERCISES – DO THEM…KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS

Emily gave us several writing exercises during the three-hour workshop. All of which helped me learn much more about my characters. The process of writing about your characters in different situations or points of view, makes you understand your characters.

When I read the Harry Potter series, I always had the sense that J. K. Rowling knew more about her characters than she ever revealed. That’s what made her characters seem so well developed – because they were. J. K. has pages of detail about each of her characters (including family trees, powers, etc.) written on scraps of paper somewhere. But she doesn’t necessary reveal all the those details in her books. Some of those details are boring, but it helps her understand why her characters behave the way they do.

Emily had us do a writing exercise where our character went through their morning routine. I thought, Oh no, that’s the boring stuff, no one wants to hear about it. But guess what? By doing the exercise, I found out that my main character is a bit on the anal side – I didn’t know that before. Would I put that scene in my novel? Not likely. But that’s not the point – it’s to know your character better.

We need to understand our characters’ motivations, strengths, weaknesses (a necessity), backgrounds and what their relationships with other characters are like. If your characters are one-dimensional, it doesn’t matter what a great plot you have, people will stop reading.

EMOTION

Emotion is really important to how your character comes across and how they react to different situations. We don’t all respond to emotions in the same way. In the case of anger, would your character try to do a lot of damage? Deliver low blows? Try to get a rise? Withdraw? So Emily had us write scenes that would evoke grief, sadness and anger in our characters. I learned that my main character (MC) withdrew and internalized a lot.

POINT OF VIEW

Looking Through The Lens
Looking Through The Lens

We were also asked to take a scene that we had written and then change the point of view (POV). POV is basically where the lens is pointing.

There’s 1st person:

I ran to the store, my fists pumping.

3rd Person:

She ran to the store, her fists pumping.

And, one I’ve never attempted before…

2nd Person:

You ran to the store, your fists pumping.

Weird, right? But, Emily explained that the 2nd person can be very useful when trying to express a sense of dissociation when a character is experiencing trauma, or is drunk or drugged.

So, I’d like to share with you a couple of the writing exercises I completed during the workshop. They feature the main character in my WIP experiencing anger. I used the same scene using the 2nd person as it was really a scene about my MC experiencing bad news that was very traumatic to her.

In 1st person…

The doctor explains it to me. But his voice comes out toneless, without meaning. The only thing I hear is, “It’s over”. You’re over. You’re over. A drown of nasal sounds, punctuated with, “You. Are. Over.” 

I stand up. He’s in the middle of a sentence or something. I don’t know. I don’t care. I step away. One foot in front of the other. My movements are slow at first. Like I’m under water. The weight of the water is there, but I can never be weightless in it again. I brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. I’m swimming now, I pedal ahead. And I’m running until I slam through a door in a stairwell, it clangs behind me, and my head swims and spins, and I collapse onto the stairwell before everything goes black.

Now here it is again, in 2nd Person POV:

You stand up. The doctor’s in the middle of a sentence or something. You don’t know. You don’t care. You step away. One foot in front of the other. Your movements are slow at first. Like you’re under water. The weight of the water is there, but you can never be weightless in it again. You brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. You’re swimming now, you pump your feet forward. And you’re running until you slam through a door in a stairwell. It clangs behind you, and your head swims and spins, not from the news. But from what the news is about. You’re not you anymore and you collapse from the weight of it, from your broken mind, your broken skull, and everything goes black.

Does she seem more traumatized? I think so. Therapy! Therapy! We need character therapy!

Well, that was the whole point.

Further vs Farther

I’m posting a little later this week as I’ve been hard at work, reviewing my editors preliminary edits of the manuscript for Unspeakable.

I’ve learned quite a few things. Among them? I’m dash crazy – a fact I already knew. 😉

One of the things that surprised me though is that I used “further” incorrectly. Check out this sentence from Unspeakable:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink further into the couch, further into him.

My editor, Tanis, with ReVision Editing, changed it to this:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, farther into him.

What’s the difference? Well, I wasn’t sure. So I asked my husband, a man who uses the word “tranche” in everyday conversation. True story. Over beers with friends, he used the word “tranche”. But I digress.

He wasn’t sure, but said he preferred my version.

So, I looked it up. And here’s what I found out:

Farther’ signifies distances. As in, “The hare is farther down the track than the turtle.”

Whereas, ‘further’ is a figurative term, as in, “You’ll get further in life, if you study hard.”

However, some dictionaries say that they can be used interchangeably. So, I guess it depends on who you believe and what feels right.

This is my final version of that sentence:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, further into him.

I always meant the second ‘further’ to be figurative, as when she sinks into the couch, she is allowing the relationship to progress further.

 

Choosing a Setting for My Novel

A lake in Northwestern Ontario
A lake in the Canadian Shield

 

Unspeakable is set in a secluded mill town in Northwestern Ontario, Dryden. When I told my husband this, he said, “Don’t set it in Canada. No one wants to read a book set in Canada.”

I know what he’s trying to say. The majority of the readership in North America is from the United States, so in his mind, I am (allegedly) closing the door on a MASSIVE market by setting my story in Canada. However, when I had a portion of my manuscript reviewed by a Writer In Residence at The Alexandra Writer’s Centre, one of her first comments was, “I love that you set it in Canada.” So despite differing opinions, for now (until a fabulous agent/editor tells me otherwise), the setting remains.

So why Dryden of all places?

Dryden, Ontario
The Mill. Dryden, Ontario

 

As I had mentioned in an earlier post, in order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Dryden was a small town that I was intimately familiar with. I, like my main character, Hanna, worked there as my first job as an SLP. I feel that knowing the town where she’s living and being very familiar with (parts of) her situation helped lend a greater authenticity to the story. I could describe things more accurately, the smells, the textures, the beauty, and sometimes the not so beautiful. It helped provide a framework from which to build my story.

I have come across a few dilemmas in choosing Dryden.

  1. People are going to think it’s me.

 As I was a rookie SLP in Dryden just as Hanna is, it’s natural that people will think that she’s me. My sister even asked me if one of the first scenes actually happened (never mind that Unspeakable is a romance and I’ve been with my husband since grad school – thanks sis.). So, the answer is NO. Although Hanna and I have our careers and our first professional setting in common, she is not me. She has a very different personality and is confronted with situations that I’ve (thankfully) never experienced. And let’s face it, regardless of the setting I choose, people will think it’s me, simply because I wrote it. In fact, just this weekend I was having dinner with old and new friends. It came up that I had written a novel. Each sentence that I uttered, describing the plot, was punctuated with, “So, it’s you. It’s you, right.” I don’t think changing the location will change that popular perception.

2. People are going to think it’s my former colleague, the Sue Ellen to my J.R. (This was not a concern until recently.)

Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas
Linda Gray as Sue Ellen Ewing  (J.R.’s wife) in Dallas

In Unspeakable, Hanna is the sole charge SLP. When I worked in Dryden, I started at the same time as another new SLP, ‘Miss Sue Ellen’. To help with setting and clinical accuracy, she was amongst my first BETA readers. Her reaction? “People will think this is me.” Oy.

To be honest, when I created Hanna, I made her personality very distinctive from mine. But when I created her, it never occurred to me that people would think she was Sue Ellen. In fact, after reading Unspeakable, Miss Sue told me that she had found herself in a somewhat similar situation as Hanna (I plan on writing a future post on how things in my story started to come true – it has happened a lot!) I was totally clueless to this situation, as it had arisen after I had moved away. My first reaction: Hurray, my story has major plausibility! My second reaction: Uh oh, people might think it’s Sue Ellen). Sorry Miss Sue…all I can do is assure readers, that is isn’t you either.

3.  Do I use the Dryden of yesteryear or present day?

King Streen, Dryden, Ontario
King Street, Dryden, Ontario

When I moved to Dryden more than a decade ago, the town was like a quaint little suburb, much as I describe it in Unspeakable. After I left, there were some layoffs at the mill and apparently things changed. I went to visit there in the summer of 2013, (when I was in the midpoint of writing my manuscript). I was stunned by:

a). How accurately I remembered some things: like the inside of the health unit.

b). How I fabricated things from my memory when I wasn’t aware:

Hanna’s boss’s last name is Van Horne, but when I named her I had forgotten that that was the name of the street where the health unit is located.

c). How things that I had created had also come true:

Hanna’s apartment building really exists (it’s a unique building in the town) but I changed the business under her apartment from a shoe store to a Barber Shop for my own creative purposes. Guess what is actually there now; that’s right, a Barber Shop, much like the one created in my imagination – weird.

d). How things remained the same:

The Chinese restaurant across the street is still there, exactly as I had remembered it.

e). How things have changed:

The biggest difference now is that Dryden has definitely incurred some the brunt of its depressed economy. Let’s just say it isn’t the polished suburb I remembered. For the purposes of my story, would it be better to have the place be a little more rough around the edges, adding additional challenges to Hanna’s plight? If I did this, would I offend who proudly call Dryden home? At the moment, it feels too one-dimensional and cliché to make Dryden just another small depressed mill town, so for now I’ve left it as it was in memory.

4. In order to avoid offending anybody, maybe I should fictionalize the town completely and give it a new name.

There are parts of the setting that I have fictionalized already (e.g., restaurants, bars) and parts that are quite accurate (in my mind). But you know what? You can’t write a novel and worry about what others will think. That others will think it’s about you or about them. Or that people will be offended if their town isn’t always portrayed in a favorable light. That’s a sure recipe for writer’s block. It was concerns of what people might think that stopped me from writing altogether for so many years. So I just won’t go there. Unspeakable is Hanna and Hank’s story, and I’m glad I wrote it. A town by any other name doesn’t really change it.

 

Writing Exercises That Inspire

 

A Hint of Hank…

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In the intermediate creative writing class I took at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre two years ago, our teacher gave us weekly writing assignments. I found these very helpful at flexing my writing muscle and letting the creativity flow. In an interview with Vulture, Gillian Flynn reported that the “Cool Girl” article in Gone Girl came about when she was doing a writing exercise to help alleviate writer’s block. She indicated that, as a rule, she tends not to use writing exercises in her actual manuscripts, as writers tend to “shoehorn” them in. This resonated with me as I had a few that I tried to do just that with, and ended up deleting. However, there are a couple of scenes that started as writing exercises that really inspired the trajectory of my story (in a good way). I thought I would share one with you today.

 

The assignment was to write something from the starter line, “There is a particular place he is going to tonight but…”, and to just let it flow. I thought about my main male protagonist, ‘Hank’ when writing it. This is NOT the version in my manuscript for Unspeakable, but rather the exercise that inspired a ‘TSN Turning Point’ scene (I also removed names and spoilers). This exercise helped me understand ‘Hank’ a little bit better and set the tone of his voice.

I hope you enjoy it!

On the shores of Wabigoon Lake

 

There is a particular place he is going to tonight but he is not prepared to admit to himself where that is. If he ends up there again, it is not on purpose. This is a small town, there are not many streets, it’s only natural – after all this was his hiding place – not hers.

He pulls up to the dead-end street at the edge of town. He kills the engine and tilts the powerful machine onto its stand. He yanks the helmet off of his head, rests it on the black leather seat and runs his calloused hand through his smooth black hair, allowing the cool evening breeze to evaporate the sweat that has gathered in his short locks. He told himself that he was just going for a walk along the familiar pathway, to gather his thoughts, clear his head, to be alone. That’s not what he wanted. He wanted to see her again, to be allowed to touch her. He pushes the thought of her out his mind, pushes his body away from her, quickly marching forward. They are like magnets, you spin them in one direction and the attraction is undeniable, turn one to face the other way and they repel. He is searching solitude yet simultaneously seeking her.

His black boots compress the gravel below him as walks at an anxious pace along the familiar path ahead of him. When he veers off onto the smaller lightly trodden trail, the moonlight shines on the waxy leaves of the birch trees that feather their branches along the route, giving them an ethereal glimmer. Several minutes pass until he can see the clearing that marks their meeting place, the dark water of Wabigoon Lake shimmering in the dim light.

He pauses, the sparkle of the water momentarily mesmerizing him. An owl lets out a solemn cry. As he feared, longed for, and denied – he is alone. He leans against a tree near the waters edge, letting his breath slide out of him in synchronicity with his body as he lets his legs collapse beneath him, dragging his back along the bark, tearing at him.

He rests his head in his hands, trying to get ahold of his conflicting emotions. She had pushed him away and eventually he had responded in kind. He could not expect their friendship to continue. It wasn’t feasible in this suffocating town; where everyone thinks they know you and if they don’t, they make believe they do. There is no place for your own self. His voice will never be heard here – especially now that she is …(sorry, spoiler removed!)

 

If you have writing exercises that helped inspire you, I would love to hear about it!

Why J. R.? Using a pen name.

J.R. Ewing
Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing in Dallas

A few people have asked me why I’m using what appears to be a pseudonym. I’d like to make clear that I’m not ashamed of my writing in any way. I’m proud that I’ve finally pursued my lifelong dream; that I finally ignored the shroud of doubt and ducked out from underneath it…well maybe it started with a peak.

Here are the reasons that I’m using J.R. Yates and not my ‘real’ name.

  1. My writing has some adult and sexual content. In my career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I work with young children and their families in the public health system. At this point, I feel that it’s best to keep my professional career and writing separate.
  1. Unspeakable has a speech-language pathologist as its main protagonist. In the book, Hanna sees a varied group of patients. For now, it’s best if Hanna and my SLP alter-ego have some separation – that patients don’t feel that I’m writing about them. I assure you, although I pull from experience, every single character in Unspeakable is fictional.
  1. I’ll just come right out and say it – I have a generic name. More than that – I have a generic French Canadian name. J. R. stands for my first name and maiden name. If you Googled the name that I’ve used my entire life, you wouldn’t find me. You would come up with about a zillion obits for ninety-year-old women in Quebec. I’m in no way ashamed of my heritage – quite the opposite. I never took my husband’s name; I’ve been using my maiden without fail for all 12 years of marriage (yes, I’m one of those women). My name makes me readily identifiable as French (I see French and English clients), and I want my kids to know and recognize the French part of their heritage. Which brings me to my final reason…
  1. My kids. I want my kids to be proud of their mom for following her dream. So, if Unspeakable ever gets published (fingers crossed), I would love for it to have their last names on it. It’s my way of sharing my accomplishment with them.

 

How I Wrote My First Published Work: Unfaithful

Writing

“Write something from the point of view of an inanimate object.” That was the assignment in my intermediate creative writing class at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. I’m not sure what writing muscle it was meant to flex, but Unfaithful was the result.

 

My teacher, Robin Van Eck, had given the assignment the day before. I don’t have much time to carve out for myself (I have to sneak away just to pee, and the people – the little Yates people – they always manage to find me mid-stream). But on this particular evening, after clearing the dinner table, I was struck with the idea of what to write. “Dolls and mannequins were cliché and had been done to death,” Robin had said. “Be original.”

 

So, what? Another toy? No, too similar to a doll. What would speak to me as a mother? A wife? And it hit me – along with the constant stream of beeps, chimes, and notifications. That damned cell phone….

An Affair with Smartphone

It was one of those divine moments that writer’s hope will strike them when they sit down, fingers to keyboard. At the kitchen island, I tapped furiously on my laptop while my husband did the dishes (yes, he does dishes…and laundry too). Miraculously, no one interrupted me, and it was done in one sitting – about 20 minutes. That doesn’t mean I didn’t edit it after – but for the most part it was done. I wish it was always like that…but it often isn’t. (click here for my post on writer’s block).

 

I brought my completed assignment to class the following week and sputtered, red-faced, as I read it aloud. Robin gave me a, “Wow”, and I gave her a, “Yeah? But what do I do with it?”

 

She directed me to A Place for Writers website. There I found In My Bed Magazine’s call for submissions for their “Sex and Magic” issue. I thought, “Not quite magic, but close…”, but figured it didn’t hurt to try, so I submitted it.

 

I was shocked when a few weeks later I received the acceptance! My first submission and I got an acceptance. Unheard of – and probably dumb luck – but I’ll take it.

 

All in all, I’m proud of this little piece. It really speaks to my disillusionment with how we ‘connect’ with each other these days, but yet are so disconnected. You can read Unfaithful by clicking here.

The Process of Writing: Part Two

 

WRITING YOUR UNIQUE STORY AND DEFEATING WRITER’S BLOCK

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Last time, I discussed the importance of writing because you love it and understanding your characters. This time, I will be adding two more important strategies that worked for me in getting the first draft of my manuscript completed.

 

  1. Write What You Know.

I know, I know, we’ve all heard this one before, but it’s true, but not always in the way we might think. When I was at When Words Collide, a writer’s convention in Calgary, D. J. McIntosh (author of The Witch of Babylon), posed the question: Why is this story one that only you could tell?

 

When I wrote Unspeakable, I was motivated to tell a story about something I live every day; speech pathology. I challenged myself to make it sexy and interesting. In order for my plot to work, it needed to take place in a small town. Starting out in my profession, I was very much like Hanna (my main character); young, naïve, and in over my head. So I decided to place my story in the same town where I had found my first job as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) – Dryden, Ontario. It was the perfect setting for my story and writing about a place (and experience) I already knew helped add authenticity to my writing.

 

In addition to the things that I understand about Hanna, there are a lot of things that I understand about Hank, because of some of my unique life experiences. One is Hank is French Canadian; a language minority in his part of Canada. This plays an important role in his journey in Unspeakable.

 

Unspeakable is a story only I, the French-Canadian SLP who worked in a small mill town and grew up in Western Canada, could tell, because my life lens colors my story. HOWEVER, there are a lot of things in the story that I don’t know about – so you have to pull from similar experiences, as well you need to do your research (which I will address in a future post).

Write

  1. Sit Down and Write.

After you’ve got your plot, sub-plot, and characters figured out you need to write your story – your novel. Wow, that can be daunting. 80,000-plus words with a plot, subplot, characters, denouement….and, and, and…. Take a breath. Writing a book can be an overwhelming (and often discouraging) undertaking.

 

Where do you start? That’s just it. Start.

 

I found that writing an outline of my story and chapters really helped. And then, well, you have to sit down and write it.

 

Some writer’s have word count goals, time goals, etc. You could also write out a writing schedule. For me, it was much simpler than that. I tied my writing time into my life routine. When my youngest son was in an activity, instead of going home and running errands, I slotted that as my writing time. Inspired or not.

 

I was taught to use Free Fall Writing at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre. This technique basically means sit down and just write. Without editing or self-criticism – give’r (that’s a Canadianism, eh?). I didn’t set arbitrary word counts as a goal. I felt that this would just add unnecessary pressure and would lead me to feel dejected and defeated if I didn’t attain the word count goal. My goal was simple: Any writing, for me, was an achievement (a lot harder to fail that way). When I wasn’t sure where to go next or what to write, I used the Free Fall method and it really helped alleviate any instances of writer’s block and kept the story moving forward. And hey, I always left the coffee shop I nestled myself into with more content than when I had arrived.

 

 

So, in the end, with the help of things I learned about characters, world building, and Free Fall Writing, I got my story down on paper. But most importantly, I wrote Unspeakable because I had a story that I felt compelled to tell. Once I had the idea, plot points and characters bounced around my skull constantly; cracking at my consciousness and pulling me into a world of my own making. I had to let my characters breathe. This, in the end, is what really drove me.

 

Especially Hank. With his long lean body, black hair, and those cobalt blue eyes. Well, I couldn’t wait to spend time with him. And the only way to do that…was to write him. So I did. And now, I miss spending time with him.

Hank
Hank

 

Sigh.