Friday, March 11, 2011

AFK for the Tsunami

I know I was supposed to post about vain characters today. My apologies, I spent the day with my eyes glued to the TV.

More about my feelings on that here.

I'll try to write something about writing tomorrow. Meanwhile my love and heartfelt wishes to all involved.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Character Tag Clutter

Trying to come up with a theme for today's post, I asked a friend what was notable about the last book she read.

"I'm reading one of the books in a series," she said, "it's a long series and in the current book the protagonist is listing her heroic achievements. She's vain. It gets annoying."

I pressed her on the issue. My buddy gave a sigh. "Well the protagonist says, 'hello I am a *insert vocation*, I am a *insert character's paying job*, the girlfriend of a *insert something about the BF in question*, the leader of a *insert group*, part of a *insert second group* that is super powerful because I am an uber powerful untaught *insert vocation* who doesn't know how to control my shit.' "

I'd read most of the series in question (and enjoyed it) and although I didn't exactly agree that the character was vain I got where my girlfriend was coming from. I've left out the specifics about the character as I don't want to point fingers, and more importantly it's a situation that any series author should think about.

So lets handle the easy question first.

Character Tags

In any long term series, the character is going to have a lot of "tags" amongst their luggage. These can come in the forms of vocations (ex-cop, detective, artist, janitor), recurring friends and cohorts, groups the protagonist belongs to, titles the character was given, mannerisms (favorite drinks, always wearing a rumpled coat) and more.

For the first several Nancy Drew mysteries (forgive me, I've been on a Nancy Drew kick lately) every single person she solved a mystery for gave her a memento, and of course she had to show them off in the next book. After three or four books it got so cumbersome that the authors left that off. (Or maybe I read newer versions where the editors cut those lines.)

The problem comes when the author feels the need to trot out every single accomplishment.

Now in case your reader starts somewhere in the middle of your series, you want to let them know a little about your character. But if a reader has read your entire series, a huge chunk of exposition on your protagonist's past exploits will send them to sleep, or as in the case of my friend, set them to ranting. So how do you balance this?

Decide on your Core Tags

Kinsey Milhone (Sue Grafton) cuts her hair with nail scissors, jogs regularly, has a bad attitude toward relationships and an all purpose black dress that never needs ironing. She eats at Rosie's Restaurant, owned by an overbearing Hungarian woman and lives in a remodeled garage owned by a dashing 80-something gent who cooks, bakes and writes crossword puzzles.

Matt Scudder (Lawrence Block) is an ex-cop who mistakenly killed a kid in a shootout, used to be (in the first books) a drunk and now goes to several AA meetings a day. He works "under the table" and won't get a detective license. He's divorced. He likes to read the newspapers.

Bernie Rhodenbarr (also Lawrence Block) is a burglar who owns a bookstore, and is in turn, owned by Raffles the cat. He hangs out with a lesbian named Caroline who owns a pet parlor. They take turns having lunch at each other's business, and usually have drinks together after work - unless Bernie is working - Bernie never drinks before a robbery.

Inspector Thomas Pitt (Anne Perry) speaks like an aristocrat (he was the gameskeeper's son and schooled alongside the lord's son) but dresses like a slob, despite the best efforts of his wife Charlotte, who keeps his home cozy and helps him solve mysteries. He keeps an odd assortment of items (string, small toys, loose change, handkerchiefs, and more) in his pockets, and it stretches his coat out of shape. He's usually called to cases involving the gentry. Charlotte has several aristocratic relatives who get involved in the mysteries. They have two children, two cats and a maid named Gracie who's also been getting involved in the mysteries of late.

I didn't have to look up a single thing to make this list because these are the character tags that persist through each of these series. (Unless there's a new sequel I haven't read yet).

I'll call these "Core Tags" as they form the central quirks and tags that describe the character.

Decide on a few tags you want to use in every book (you may gain a few more Core Tags as your character grows).

And with the rest...

Limit How Many Tags You Use

You don't need to give the reader every detail of your protagonist's history right away or all the time. After all, you want them to read your other books, right? So give a few details from the past or who they are now (because of the experiences they had in previous books) and save mention of some other tags for the next book.

In Book Two, you might make the sister (briefly mentioned in Book One) a major character who gets the protagonist involved with the latest adventure.

In Book Three you might give a brief mention, "I'd spent the last month visiting with my sister and now..." and then have another character show up that wasn't connected with Books One or Two.

In Book Four you might bring in a minor character from Book Three as a romantic lead, and carry that relationship all the way through to Book Seven, then have them break up and have the romantic lead return in Book Eleven.

The same principle goes for any non-core tags from previous novels in your series, not just recurring characters. For example in Book Five you might say, "I hadn't been in this neighborhood in several months, and the last time I'd been dressed as a harlequin and carrying a broadsword." (Referring to something that happened in Book Two.)

Spread Tags Out and Use Them When They're Appropriate

My friend is correct that this particular author has a habit of giving chunks of exposition about the characters ranks, titles, jobs, etc. Often - even USUALLY - in the first page of the story. I'm sure that one of the reasons the author does it is that this character's titles and jobs are funny and a bit shocking.

Remember that you have a whole book to pull out your Core Tags as well as the tags you want to carry over from the previous books.

Begin with a gripping lead that pulls your reader in, and use your tags when they're appropriate.

We don't need to know that Kinsey Millhone prefers white wine until someone offers her a drink. We don't need to see her all-purpose black dress until the plot calls on her to go somewhere she can't wear blue jeans. Then she can pull it out of the backseat of her VW, slip it on and remark on how durable it is. We don't hear about her jogging until she gets up in the morning and drags on her sneakers on, or decides to skip the jog because she's too beat up.

Captain Kirk doesn't start Star Trek by carrying on about how Spock thinks in terms of "logical" and "not logical." But somewhere in nearly every episode, the plot will give Spock an excuse to pull out his classic tag-line.

Write Softly and Carry a Big Tag

There's no need to announce your tags. You don't have to point, wave and shout, "Hey, here's one of my protagonist's tags."

If in chapter two, Bernie goes into a bar and orders Perrier, the seasoned reader of "Mrs. Rhodenbarr's boy" will say, "Uh oh! Bernie's not drinking - he must have a job tonight!" It might take a few paragraphs before Block mentions that Bernie abstains before robberies. In fact, savvy writer that he is, he often waits a few pages or even until the next scene. Meanwhile the reader gets to feel warm and fuzzy because they know something.

The new reader might not pick up on the fact that you're using a tag this time, but the next time they read one of your books, they'll notice and recognize it.

The second time I read a Pitt novel and was told about Thomas's bulging pockets, I said, "Oh yeah, he's always like that, isn't he? When Aunt Vespacia showed up for the second time, I was thrilled. "This will be good, she's a hoot." Within a book or two I was hoping the characters would find an excuse to go visit her.

When I started this post I'd planned to address the vanity issue. Then I realized that the way the author showed her tags was a large part of my buddy's problem. I'll get to the vanity issue tomorrow.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Make Your Words Work - Indispensable Books For Writers

Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing-For Fiction and NonfictionIf I had to choose just one book that would help improve my writing, Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing for Fiction and Nonfiction by Gary Provost would probably be it.

What does Provost mean by his title?

"By writing that works, I mean writing that does the job it's supposed to do, whether that job is to inform, entertain, anger or instruct. Writing does not work if it only entertains when it is supposed to instruct. It does not work if it only angers when it is supposed to educate. Whether a piece of writing has been put together to convey factual information or to create images in a story, it should be judged not on good grammar or adherence to the rules of composition, (both of which are tools, not goals),  but on how well it does its job. Does it  work? Does this word reveal my character's feeling? Does this sentence convey the popularity of stock car racing? Does this paragraph communicate the feeling of despair these refugees have?"

 Make Your Words Work is down to earth from page 1. "Can Writing Be Taught?" he asks. "No," he says, "throw this book away." Provost's writing is conversational, easy to understand and witty. His examples are clearly illustrated and  entertaining as well as instructional. The book is broken up into workable chunks with exercises to solidify the concepts in your brain.

Not only does he cover the "usual suspects" of dialogue, description, viewpoint, pace and characterization, he talks about some of the unsung heroes of writing--things like music, unity, credibility, subtlety, tension, proportion and form.

Some of my favorite sections include, "Putting Description in Motion," "Use Strong Verbs," the entire chapter on Tension and...oh heck, the whole darn book. I like to use this book as a checklist when I edit my work, "am I varying the construction of my sentences? Can I milk the dialogue some more? Do I need to reorganize for better unity? Are my verbs pulling their weight?"

Provost teaches you how to turn your words into willing employees who make your writing clearer, more precise, more fun to read--and publishable! This book will make your words not just grip your readers, but pull them into an embrace and lead them on a tango across your pages.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Scrapbook - Get In Touch With Your Characters

This is an exercise designed to help you get in touch with your characters. It might even give you fodder for some new scenes. Try it, play with it, have fun!

Nowadays they have whole aisles in the craft stores devoted to scrapbooking, and some folks have turned this from a hobby to an artform.

When I was a kid, it was just a blank album that I could stick mementos in. I was probably 10 or 14 when I stopped keeping mine up. I remember that I had a napkin and invitation from a wedding where I was a flower girl, some autumn leaves pressed in wax paper, birthday cards, lyrics from a girl scout rally, a piece of cardiograph tape from my heart operation, some drawings I'd done, a copy of my first (abysmal) short story, a few A+ papers from school,  a couple of my best report cards and some photos from our family vacation in Colorado.

What's in your charater's srapbook?

Take note of the general condition of the scrapbook. Is it kept together with loving and painstaking effort? Are photos carefully pegged in with beautiful borders and caligraphed descriptions of each item? Or is it more like mine was, a loose collection of junk thrown in between the pages? Sometimes they got taped in, more often not. Was it rescued from a fire or flood? Burned on purpose, then pulled from the flames?

Does your character maintain it herself? Or is it a gift from someone in his family? If so, why is that person taking the effort? How does your character feel about that?

Is the scrapbook dedicated to a specific time or event in your character's life? Their junior year in high school? Their first year in college? The year they had a major operation? The summer they spent at camp? The year they won the 4H with a giant pumpkin?

Does it have a specific subject, such as their sports career? Their courtship and wedding? Their rise in their law career?

Is it dedicated to a specific person? A parent who left? A grandparent or a child who died? A child who is now grown? A beloved dog or horse?

Does your character have one scrapbook? Three? One for each year of their life? One for each major event?

Where does your character keep her scrapbook? Is it prominently displayed on his coffee table? In an old trunk in the attic? In some junk boxes in the closet that she hasn't bothered to unpack yet? Under the bed covered with dustbunnies?

Some characters will refuse to keep an actual scrapbook. Maybe he's got a drawer in his toolbox that he fills with mementos. She might keep a file folder, or even an entire file cabinet drawer. Or a tiny drawer in her jewelry box. Or a junk drawer in the kitchen. The mementos might be on display in a china cabinet, a set of artful shadowboxes on the wall, or maybe her refrigerator door acts as her scrapbook.

If your character is on the move a lot, their "scrapbook" might consist of just one or two items in their wallet, or a photo or birthday card--or divorce papers?--kept in their front pocket.

How often does your character look at his scrapbook? All the time? Almost never? Does he look over it with his children every night? Does she find it, forgotten on a shelf while she's packing?


Make a list of 10 items in your character's scrapbook. If you're ambitious, make the list 20 or 50 items.

Pick one of those items and write a scene involving that memento. You can set the scene in the now, and have him get angry and tear the item up. Or have her place it tearfully back into the scrapbook. Or write it as a flashback, and show us the scene that makes this item important.

Try it with a couple more items.

You might not use these scene in your final story. That's fine. This is just an exercise to help you know your character better. Or you may find that the scene becomes so strong and integral to telling your character's story that you leave it in.

Have fun and happy scrapbooking!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unnecessary Scenes - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Nancy Drew, Mystery Stories, Book 8)SPOILER ALERT! I'll be discussing the one of the pivotal climax scenes of Nancy's Mysterious Letter.

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy is about to fly to New York to confront a missing heiress and the villain of the story.

Several pages ago we are told that Nancy is planning this trip. However it seems that the author needed to up her word count. Nancy wakes up early with "a persisting thought in her mind" and suggests that Bess and George join her on the trip. She seems to have forgotten that this was already her plan. Maybe the new part of the plan is that Bess and George are coming with her. Okay, I can let that part go.

Nancy goes downstairs and asks her father for permission to go on the trip. He suggests that Nancy can stay with Aunt Eloise while they're in the city. We find out that Nancy's aunt is a school teacher and that all three girls adore her. Nancy calls her aunt. They have a long talk where Nancy tells her aunt about the case and Eloise is thrilled about the visit, but this conversation is summed up in exposition, except for Eloise saying, "I'd love to see you."

Then Nancy eats breakfast. She phones the airport, she makes reservations. Bess and George go home to pack. Nancy picks them up in her car, and plans to leave her car at the airport.

The girls purchase their tickets, get seat reservations, sit down to chat. Then Nancy decides to call the old postman who'd gotten her into this mystery in the first place. This conversation is also sumarized. Nancy is glad he feels better. She decides not to tell him about her info on the villain (whom he's related to). Then Nancy is accosted by one of the villain's henchmen and chloroformed.

What's wrong with this?

The entire scene from Nancy waking up and suggesting that Bess and George accompany her, to Nancy hanging up the phone and being accosted by the henchman (henchwoman in this case) takes about a page and a half.

It feels like it's way longer, and slows the pace of the story to a crawl.

First, do we really need the conversation with her father? We can assume that if Nancy ends up on the plane, she's got permission. Incidentally, why does she even NEED permission? In most versions of the stories she's eighteen at the time. Though in some early versions she was sixteen. And according to some of the novels, the age of consent is 21. Besides which, since Nancy is unemployed, so I guess Dad is paying for all this. Still, if she ends up at the airport we can assume that Dad doesnt object, right?

Next, we never actually meet her aunt. Eloise doesn't play any part in the rest of the story. Nancy never ends up going to her house or visiting with her. Nancy doesn't even end up having to stay at a hotel, so far as we know, because the story ends at the New York airport. Why do we need to know where Nancy will be staying once she gets to New York? For all we care, she could have hopped a plane straight home once the story ends.

Then there's the whole business of having breakfast, making reservations, driving to the airport, parking the car, getting their tickets, and finally going off to make that fateful telephone call which allows Nancy to be seperated from her friends.

The story would have been much better with Nancy suggesting that all three of them go to New York. Then we could have had a smooth transition:
The three girls arrived at the River Heights airport late that afternoon. They got their tickets and as they were waiting for their flight, Nancy said, "I'd like to find out how Ira Nixon is and tell him where we're going."
How is this better writing? Because it doesn't drag. It doesn't slow down the action or put the reader to sleep. If you thought my summary of Nancy's trip to the airport was dull, and uneventful, you'd be right. The problem is that the actual passage in the story is almost as bland as my summary. And nothing important happens until after she makes the phone call.

Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing-For Fiction and NonfictionIn Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing for Fiction and Nonfiction, Gary Provost makes much the same point.
For example, lets say a writer needs to get his character, Sam, from a scene in Sam's apartment to a scene at church, and nothing important to the story is going to happen between those two places. A simple and obvious transition would be "Sam drove to the church." The writer simply acknowledges that Sam did get from the location of one scene to the location of another, and goes on with the story. It might look like this.
    As Sam placed the books back on the shelves, he felt a tear form at the corner of his eye. He knew he would miss this apartment.
    Sam drove to the church. Susan was waiting for him and she was not smiling. "Where have you been," she asked.
We only need to know about Sam's drive if something important happens along the way. Since his trip is uneventful, we don't have to hear about how he started his car, what turns he made, the year, make, model and color of the car he drove or anything else. 

If the scenes leading up tp the airport are bad, an earlier scene makes even less sense. Anyone who knows Nancy Drew knows that she's accident prone. In the last few books I counted several instances of capsized boats/canoes and multiple car accidents or near accidents. Not to mention the times she gets locked in closets, tied up and otherwise menaced by the bad guys.

This time Nancy trips on her dress (she wasn't wearing high heels, since she was just trying it on) and pitches down the stairs when she goes to answer the doorbell. The dress tears and Nancy opens the door to a small boy with a clue.

Could Nancy just as well have answered the door and been told the clue without ripping the dress? Yes. Is the torn dress a plot point? No. Hannah the housekeeper easily fixes it, and we never hear about the torn dress again. Does it add characterization? Nada. Other than we learn that Hannah is a resourcefull seamstress (which also has no bearing on the story) we learn nothing about the characters. Did Nancy get hurt, thus leading to other plot complications? Nope. She grabs the banister, stops her fall and she's perfectly fine.
About the only reason the author seems to have added this scene is that Nancy hadn't had a near death experience in a while. Perhaps some of the guidelines for the series is that Nancy has to be in danger x number of times per story, or x number of times per y number of words.

Throwing your character in hot water isn't a bad thing. Whether you're writing a mystery or some other kind of book, your character SHOULD be offered complications on a regular basis. But when you do get your character in trouble it should be related to the plot, it should have consequences that affect the plot, and it should offer an opportunity for characterization.

 If it does none of these things, then cull it from your writing.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Adverb Abuse - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

An adverb as you probably know, is a word that describes a noun.  Mark Twain once said that, "Adverbs are the tool of the lazy writer." The problem is that in general adverbs are a sign of weak verbs. Well, it may come as no surprise that the Nancy Drew books are chock full of adverbs.

Nancy Drew 04: The Mystery at Lilac InnNow using the occasional adverb isn't a crime. However in the course of The Mystery at Lilac Inn:
  • Maud walks away rapidly.
  • Nancy greets someone pleasantly.
  • The police chief quizzes salesclerks briefly.
  • Nancy's car leans precariously.
  • "Hi Dad! How good to hear you!" Nancy says happily when her father calls on the phone.
  • She thinks indignantly that the driver who forced her off the road should have his license revoked.
  • The girls finish dressing quickly (even though there doesn't seem to be a reason for them to hurry).
  • She greets the gardner pleasantly.
  • The new waitress at the Inn smiles shyly.
  • "We'll have to douse it," John said tensely. "The whole row [of buildings] will burn down if we wait for the fire department."
  • She kisses her father affectionately.
  • A policeman rubs his chin thoughtfully.
  • She climbs out of a car quickly to inspect some damage.

These aren't even a good half of the adverbs I found. I've left out those which seemed to work and least somewhat, and I didn't bother paging all the way through the entire book to create this list. The sentence which caused me to begin this rant was this one:
She described vividly her encounter with her double. John listened intently.
Two adverbs in two sentences? Eeek! Run away screaming!

So if we were the writer how could we fix all this to clean up the writing?

Does Nancy need to describe it "vividly"? Could she just describe it? Could she "detail" it, implying that she gave him all the details? Does John need to listen "intently"? Could he merely "listen"? Or if we need to show that he seems interested in the exchange, can we say that he questioned her. Maybe something like:
 She described her encounter with her double. John listened, questioning her on the details.
Now lets go over the rest of the list.

When Nancy greets folks "pleasantly" couldn't we just say, "Nancy greeted them," or just have dialogue do the work and have her say, "Hi!" Or perhaps, "I'm Nancy Drew, she said with a smile."

With Nancy saying, "Hi, Dad! How good to hear from you!" do we really need to be told that she's happy to hear from him? Once again the dialogue does all the work. In a similar vein, when she kisses her Dad affectionately, most kisses between a daughter and father would be assumed to be affectionate. If the kiss is sarcastic, tepid, passionate (eww) only THEN do we need to know that the kiss is something other than it might seem.

On the subject of no brainers, John saying something  "tensely" when the buildings are afire is a complete joke. Having recently (omigosh an adverb) lived through a fire, I can darn well tell you that someone is going to be tense when then a fire may be ready to spread. Why not use a stronger verb, however. "He snapped." would do a great job of showing that he's tense. Or once again, just leave it to the reader and trust the dialogue.  "We'll have to douse it," John said. "The whole row will burn down if we wait for the fire department."

In other situations we have to ask ourselves how important the timeline is as it regards the plot. If Nancy douses the flashlight quickly (as she does at one point) this adverb can help us to understand that she's nervous and doesn't wish to be seen. However is there any decent reason to tell us how long it takes the police chief to quizz the salesclerks? Do we care how long it takes the girls to dress for dinner? No, on both accounts. Both sentences read better with the adverb struck out.

Regarding the cop and his thoughtful stroking of his chin, this mannerism is a cliche all on its own. How about, "a thoughtful look came into his eyes" or "he stroked his chin, taking a moment to think."

When Nancy gets out of the car to inspect damange, why "climbed quickly" when a stronger verb such as "leapt" or "jumped" would give us the same picture in fewer words. And since she's driving her signature blue roadster, "climbed" would really only be appropriate if she were stepping from a tall wheelbase truck or van.

I'd be indignant if someone forced me off the road as well. Why not just "Nancy was indignant. 'They should take away his driver's licence," she muttered.

The  few times that the adverbs are necessary for the plot, could also be done with more polish:

As Maud walks away rapidly, we are expected to understand from the dialogue that she is angry. Why not, "she swished away in a huff" or "her heels clicked against the floor as she made her retreat," or just, "she stomped off toward her room,"?

Again, with her attitude being somewhat of a plot point, rather than having her "remark pointedly," let her gestures and actions speak.  "She raised her brows," "she smirked," "she pursed her lips" or any of a few dozen gestures might have worked.

When Nancy's car leans into the ditch, its obvious that this is a tactic to inject some drama. After all, Nancy is being forced off the road. But try something more graphic, like, "The car teetered on the edge of the ditch. Nancy's stomach clenched and she braced herself for the vehicle to topple into the roadside mud."

The new waitress is also a plot point, as is the fact that she has a shy manner, but why can't she, say something, "with a shy smile." Or if the writer wants to push the point, perhaps something like, "she seemed self conscious of her bottle-thich glasses and Nancy wondered if the girl had the energy and gusto to work out as a waitress."

As a last note, sometimes adverbs are useful and necessary. Whenever possible, prune them from your writing. There's often a better verb or a better way to phrase what you want to say. If you use them, use them sparsely and with care.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Too Many Characters At Once - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy Drew 04: The Mystery at Lilac InnOf the books I'm discussing, The Mystery at Lilac Inn is the only real offender. But what a doozy! In Chapter One we're introduced to Doris Drake, who mentions to Nancy and Nancy's friend Helen Corning that her friend Phyl had talked to Nancy at the drug store earlier today, which Nancy denies. This sets up the Nancy-impersonator part of the plotline.

Nancy and Helen continue upriver in their canoe  where the canoe capsizes and we see a suspicious man with a crew cut.

Following this, we meet Emily Willoughby, are told of her fiance Dick Farnham, and meet John McBride, Dick's friend, Hazel Willoughby, Emily's aunt, and Maud Potter, the Inn's social director.

But wait, there's more! Hank the gardener, falls into a hole and hurts his leg. Another gardener, Gil Gary drives Hank home.

Including Nancy, we meet or are told of twelve characters in the space of only 9 pages.

As if that wasn't enough, the next chapter introduces us to Mr. Daly, the former owner of the Inn (why he's even in the book is beyond me, since he contributes almost nothing to the plot) and Hannah, the Drews' housekeeper

Those familiar with the series already know Nancy, Helen and Hannah, but by the time in Chapter 2, where Nancy brings up the subject of running into Doris, my head is swimming with names. "Who the heck is Doris?" I mutter, paging backwards, and having totally forgotten the earlier meeting, which was so brief that it took up less than a page.

Darkness Under the WaterWhat's the most characters you should introduce per chapter or per page? It's different for every story. The most important focus however, should be on making the characters memorable enough that you don't confuse the reader. If you've read my last installment in this series, you'll realize that each of these characters are just a collection of names and sometimes hair colors, making it nearly impossible to keep the names straight.

Just for fun, I'll check my shelves and see how many characters we meet in the first chapter of the books I've got handy.
B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, No. 2)
The Darkness Under the Water a young adult novel about an Abenaki girl growing up in Vermont during the Depression by Beth Kanell starts with all of four characters. Molly is the protagonist, Gratia is her sister who died at the age of 5 and continues to haunt her, and Mama and Papa get mentioned. 

In B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton, we meet the protagonist in a one page prologue, then in Chapter 1 we meet Beverly Danzinger and are told of her sister Elaine Boyd, who seems to be missing. An attorney, Mr. Wender is mentioned, and last we meet Tillie Ahlberg, who manages the condo where Elaine was living. Two names that were on bills sent to Elaine are also mentioned, but thus far these names seem peripheral to the story and I didn't feel the need to recall the names.

The Burglar on the ProwlSince I have The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block to read next (just coincidental that I'm reading two books with Burglar titles) I opened it and skimmed the first chapter. Only four names were mentioned besides the protagonist, though Bernie, a bookseller by day and burglar by night, and his friend did discuss the names of a couple authors and artists as part of their banter.

Two of the books on my shelf start with a much larger cast of characters in the initial chapter:

DarkwoodDarkwood by M.E. Breen's first chapter features our heroine Annie Trewitt, Aunt Prim and Uncle Jock, Annie's guardians. Page, Annie's sister, and Helen (their mother) and their father (unnamed yet in this chapter) and her friend Gregor, all four of whom are now dead, are mentioned. We also meet Izzy and Prudence, Annie's cats, and the villain, Gibbet, who comes to purchase Annie from her aunt and uncle. We also meet a few peripheral names: the Woefort family, who have lost a cow, Jane who reported this fact to Aunt Prim, and the names of several children eaten by the kinderstalk. Not counting the peripheral names, that gives us 10 characters. Eleven if you count the kinderstalk, a seemingly vicious race of intelligent wolf-like creatures who prey on humans. That's near (or even more than) the number of characters introduced in The Mystery at Lilac Inn. The difference? In Darkwood, Chapter One is 21 pages long (twice the length of TMLI's first chapter) and each important character is introduced with vivid description, dialogue and action to cement them in our mind.

Forbidden Land: First Americans, Book III (Vol 3)Forbidden Land by William Sarabande starts with Zhoonali a midwife, Wallah a kindly older woman, Iana, the other wife of Lonnit's husband, and Kimm and Xhan, the wives of Zhoonali's son, helping Lonit, one of the main characters, to give birth. We meet Torka, Lonnit's husband, Summer Moon and Demmi, Lonnit's two daughters, Karana, the tribe's medicine man. Umak, and Manaravak (both dead) Torka's grandfather and father are mentioned, as are Grek, Wallah's husband, Ekoh, a tribesman and Cheanah, who is Zhoonali's son and seems to be the main villain of the novel, Mahnie, Karana's woman, Aar the dog, and Sondahr, a medicine woman and Navahk, a magician ( both of the last two also deceased) are also introduced. Okay, that's a lot. Nineteen characters! Again this chapter is 21 pages long. Also, this book is the third in The First Americans Series, so if you're reading the series, you already know the majority of the characters.

Can you introduce more characters at one time and make it work? Certainly. Just be certain to make each character vivid enough for the reader to recall. Who's more memorable?
...a dainty young woman, had chestnut hair, set off to advantage by her white linen dress. (Emily Willoughby from The Mystery at Lilac Inn)
She could see the pores in the creases at the sides of her wide, flat nose, and the painted patterns around her smoke-reddened, rheumy eyes had smudged and run together. (Zhoonali from Forbidden Land)

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Undescribed Characters - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Believe it or not, hair color isn't much of a character attribute! Shocking isn't it? Unless of course the hair color tells us something about the character, such as the fact that they don't bother to dye the gray out of their hair (which could mean that they're comfortable with aging, might or might not be attractive on them, or could just be slovenly) or if they dye their hair in oddball colors, such as bright pink or green.

The Secret of Red Gate Farm (Nancy Drew, Book 6)However in Nancy Drew mysteries, all we usually get in the way of description of characters other than the villains is hair color and cut, possibly eye color, and a vague idea of their relative comeliness and body shape. Sometimes, we also get a clue on how they dress.

In The Secret of Red Gate Farm, Nancy's friend George is described perhaps better than most of the characters:
...dark-haired George Fayne. Her boyish name fitted her build and straightforward, breezy manner.
Bess, George's cousin is described as "blonde, pretty" and "pleasantly-plump." Joanne Byrd, whom Nancy rescues in the story is described as "sweet-faced" and "frail."
In The Mystery at Lilac Inn Nancy herself is described as an "attractive titian blonde" and we're told that her blue eyes twinkle. Helen Corning is "slender, pretty." When they meet the folks at the Lilac Inn we're introduced to Emily Willoughby:
...a dainty young woman, had chestnut hair, set off to advantage by her white linen dress.
The Mystery at Lilac Inn (Nancy Drew, Book 4)While John McBride, Nancy's potential love-interest in the story is "a handsome, well-built man with wavy black hair."

Finally we get to meet Aunt Hazel:
White hair framed her face in soft waves, and she was impeccably groomed.
and Maud:
...a younger woman who had an angry look on her rather pretty but petulant face.
The fact that Aunt Hazel is impeccably groomed, may actually say something about her character, as might Maud's "petulant face." Whew! Finally we get some actual character description rather than just outward details.

Do we really care however, that Emily's hair is "set off to advantage" by her dress? All that tells us is either that she's pretty or that she's got a bit of style. Neither of these suggestions contribute to the plot or to what is essentially a flat character, designed only to offer Nancy a mystery and a setting for it.

Nancy's father, Carson Drew is invariably described in the series as "handsome" and sometimes "tall." Just as the villains' are telegraphed in the stories, the people who are not the villians are apparent by their lack of description.

However the crowning achievement of non-description in the Nancy Drew series has got to be Nancy's housekeeper and surrogate mother, Hannah Gruen, who is usually described as "pleasant-faced" or some facimile thereof.

That one I want to take a special look at. "Pleasant" along with "nice," "good," and "agreeable" to mention a few others, are some of the most namby-pamby words in the English language. Interestingly enough, one of the synonyms for "pleasant" is "bland." Pretty much the last thing I'd want my characters to be.

In the Nancy Drew stories, it's almost as if we're told people's hair colors just so that the author can write, "the blonde girl said" rather than "Bess said."
B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, No. 2)
To contrast, here is a character from B is for Burglar, a Kinsey Millhone Mystery by Sue Grafton:
The man appeared to be in his seventies, corpulent and benign. Old age had given him back his babyfat and the same look of grave curiosity.
And another one (conincidentally an overweight person as well) from The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block:
One look at him, the way he held himself, the way he moved, and you somehow knew he'd been fat all his life, a fat baby who'd blossomed into a fat little boy, gone through the awkward years as a fat teenager, and emerged at last as a fat grownup.
The Burglar on the Prowland
No, he was fat all over, and I got the feeling it was fine with him.
Both of these descriptions not only give us a view of the outer person, but of the inner person as well.
I haven't yet finished reading B is for Burglar, so I don't know if Mr. Snyder is the murderer or not. I'm going to guess that he's not, but you never know. From that first glimpse of him, however he seems innocent as a child, telling us something about his inner nature, as well as his outer self.

The Burgular on the Prowl is on my shelf to read next. So I don't have the slightest idea who Block's character is or how he fits into the plot. The rest of the description goes on to say that he looks natty and prosperous, and that his teeth are:
...perfectly white and perfectly even, so much so that one could hardly avoid the suspicion that they were not perfectly real. But then you could have said much the same thing about his smile.
From this, I'm going to guess that this gentleman is someone who's going to give Bernie, Block's protagonist some trouble, whether he turns out to be the villain or not. The fact that the character is fine with being fat also tells us about a measure of his confidence. I wouldn't expect that this is someone easily disuaded from his plans.

So I'll hope that the moral of this article is apparent: When describing characters, give them actual CHARACTER, not mere labels. I'll probably write more in depth on this subject at a latter point.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games