Writing Homework #21: Improve Your Character Description

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

There’s a standard set of traits many writers will default to when introducing or describing a character: height, eye color, hair color, skin tone, sometimes weight. I include myself in this group–I made a big deal in the What We Need series that Paul was tall and blond and Nina was short and dark-haired. I tried not to refer to those traits too often, and I know plenty of other description happened too. But if someone who read my books once was asked to describe them years later, I’m sure they’d give an answer similar to what I just said.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful to mention–the reason they’re so common is that they’re generally obvious, the sort of traits you’d notice right away when meeting someone. (Eye color maybe not so much; I’ve seen a strong pushback in various writing circles against making it a key feature, because eyes are small and hard to see clearly without being quite close to someone. In a long-distance relationship I had in my younger days, I misremembered my boyfriend’s eyes as brown after we met, and when I saw him again they were actually hazel with lots of green!)

The problem comes when a) that’s all you get for a character, height, hair color, general body shape if you’re lucky; or b) when it’s treated like a checklist, and the story breaks for a full paragraph including all of the traits the author has decided are important, for every single character. (No, no, I haven’t forgotten that torture, Dreams Underfoot.)

I want to make it clear, I’m not advising anyone to never use these traits. I want to examine what can be done when you’re not limited by them.

What else do people want to see in your characters?

  • Imperfections. A skin tag on the side of their neck. Acne, chicken pox scars, stretch marks–they’re not just from pregnancy, or limited to women. A spot on their jaw where they missed using foundation. Makeup not hiding their freckles even though they tried. Even beautiful people aren’t perfect, so show us that.
  • Details that tell us about more than their appearance. A wrinkled shirt might be a sign they don’t care for their belongings, or that they had to wear it overnight for some reason. Rounded shoulders and sagging posture could mean they’re simply tired, but also might indicate they hunch habitually, to seem shorter or less threatening, or because of a sedentary job. Jeans torn out at the knees might be a fashion statement, or they might belong to a hobbyist skateboarder who bails a lot.
  • Go beyond the visual. We notice how people look when we meet them, but also how they sound. What’s their voice like? Their laugh? And what about how they smell? It won’t always be obvious, but any scent strong enough to notice would convey information. Perfume or cologne implies a certain care for how they present themselves, even if the scent itself isn’t great to other people. If someone smells like cut grass, they might be a landscaper. Shampoo or lotion can smell like just about anything, and choosing a scent says something about what they find pleasant.
  • Body language. How much personal space do they keep around them? Are they a hugger? How do they stand or sit? What are they doing with their hands while they talk?

Compare:

Ryan was tall and raven-haired. His blue eyes stared at me from across the bar, and I shivered under the intensity of his gaze. [yes, I went full-on bad-romance description, thank you for noticing]

Even after Ryan sat down and ordered his drink, his head was level with mine. The bar lights added gleaming bits of pink and blue to his dark hair. His pale eyes tracked my movements as I mixed his cocktail, but I wasn’t sure I liked the attention.

The first description is serviceable, sure. We might be able to pick Ryan out of a random lineup with that information. But what do we learn from the second description that we don’t get in the first?

  1. The narrator-bartender is probably fairly short, if a tall man sitting down is still on an even eye-level with her.
  2. The bar is lit with pink and blue, though it’s not clear what kind of lighting: neon, strings of Christmas-style lights, or something else.
  3. We don’t know his precise eye color, but given the established setting, it’s more reasonable to notice his eyes are light instead of dark. Would naming an exact color even be accurate with the colored lighting already mentioned? Probably not.

And I didn’t even get to things like his scent (probably not applicable in a bar setting) or his body language or his imperfections. Body language cues would be a natural next thing to include as he took his drink; imperfections would only come up if the bartender sticks around long enough to notice.

As usual, I’m only scratching the surface. Character description is a deep topic, and though I’ve given general advice to shore up common weaknesses, you could go a lot further, and what traits to include will also depend on your personal style and the needs of the story.

On to the actual homework: If you have a WIP currently, revisit your primary/initial description for each major character. Note your tendencies on what’s included and what you consistently ignore. Rewrite each description in a separate file (I’m not ordering you to change your actual project for my homework assignment!) but hang on to it if you found the exercise helpful.

If you don’t have a WIP handy, find pictures of people from image sites and practice on them. Try to give the barest possible “standard” description you can, while including details you usually wouldn’t. Because this is practice, make them as long as you want; longer than you’d probably use in a story. Do this for at least three individuals, and try to use models that don’t look anything like each other, so you have lots of ground to cover.


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part III — Dialogue

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I left dialogue for last because, for me, it’s the aspect of writing I have the least trouble with. The initial spark for most of my scenes is usually a snippet of conversation; I’ve built entire novels from an idea that evolved from two characters talking about something strange. (I’ve been tempted, sometimes, to share the first scene I wrote for the earliest draft of What We Need to Survive–it looks almost nothing like the scene that made it into the book. I’m afraid if I go back to look at it now, five years later, I’ll cringe to hard and won’t be able to post it!)

So, in the first part I talked about narrative, and in the second, action.

Dialogue, while it may be easy for me to write naturally, may be trickier to add after the fact. How can you tell your writing needs more dialogue?

  • The primary source of information is internal monologue or other narrative. For some stories, this may be the right choice, but ideally a reader gets important information from all available sources, including dialogue. If everything comes from a single source–like a first-person narrator–then we only get one worldview, and other characters have no chance to speak for themselves. (Also, it leaves the reader vulnerable to unreliable narrators, which can be great if it’s on purpose, but awful if it’s not carefully constructed. In most other cases, multiple information sources are best.) Consider: would adding any dialogue to this scene give you a chance to incorporate more information the reader needs? Would any information already included be more or less reliable (depending on your story aims) coming from a different source?
  • Your action scenes are silent. Think about it. If two or more people are fighting, there are going to be taunts or insults hurled along with the fists and feet. If one person is chasing another, somebody’s probably yelling: the chaser, or bystanders on the street who are getting shoved out of the way. Even a character alone in a dire situation will probably vocalize something: cries for help if they’re in danger, swearing if they’re frustrated by something, talking to themselves to calm their nerves if they’re anxious. It’s not impossible, of course, but people rarely react to high-energy situations with silence. Consider: what would a natural reaction to this scene be for an Average Joe character, and what would they say? If that doesn’t feel genuine to your actual character, why and how would it be different? Would adding dialogue to show that reaction enhance the scene?
  • It was applicable for action, and it’s applicable for dialogue: have I gone too long without mentioning a character? Lengthy passages of description or world-building can be broken up by dialogue as easily as action. To return to my hiker-in-the-forest example, after a chunk of narrative about the forest itself, your hiker could say something out loud in reaction to an attention-grabbing element. If you’ve ever watched a video someone takes of a wild animal approaching them, you know they’re always talking, and not necessary to the camera. Hey, look at you, cute little fox or OH MY GOD THAT BEAR IS HUGE IS IT COMING THIS WAY. And if your hiker’s not alone, even better; intersperse dialogue with their companion throughout their hike. Consider: what elements of this scene would be better conveyed through dialogue than description? Should I describe the sunset or show my characters reacting to it? Would they talk to the fox or be silent, hoping it comes closer?

If this seems more vague than the other two entries in the series, well, you’re observant, because it is. It has to be. The trouble with dialogue, more so than narrative or action, is that it’s the most obvious spot to fall out of character; I’m more likely, as a reader, to notice when someone says something I don’t think they would say, than if they mention a description of something I don’t think they’d notice or take some small action they normally wouldn’t. Both of those things are possible, of course, and with strong characterization they’d also be problems–but in my reading, at least, out-of-character actions are usually deliberate mysteries set up by the author; out-of-character narrative just isn’t common enough for me to generalize; but out-of-character dialogue is all too easy to find. (Especially in television shows; with multiple writers on staff writing many different characters, slip-ups happen. I still remember some really OOC lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years later.)

All of my advice here can only be general; I can’t tell you your deliberately silent-stoic character should be shouting from the rooftops when they have a crush on someone, because you know it’s out of character. But if your talkative, charismatic ladies’ man is sitting silently drinking in a crowded bar…well, shouldn’t he be talking? Flirting with someone? Chatting up the bartender? If he’s not, that tells us something about his mood, and if that’s your point, great! But if you just forgot to give him appropriate dialogue, if you didn’t let him be himself as he would in that setting, then it’s an oversight, and adding dialogue would solve it.

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part II — Action

In Part I, I discussed what to do when you find your writing lacking narrative depth–description, internal monologue, and world-building. Today I’m going to tackle one of the other three major components of a text: action.

For context, when I say “action” I’m not talking about it in the narrow sense of “action” movies–fight scenes, explosions, and car chases. In this sense, I mean it quite literally–action is when something (a character or part of the environment) acts in some way. John walked across the room. A broken tree branch fell to the ground. Lily tossed her hair indignantly. The little boy cried because his ice cream fell off the cone and onto the sidewalk.

In every case, something is happening. This is your opportunity for strong verb choice–there’s no “to be” conjugations found here. (At least, not as primary verbs. Because English tenses get funky, they’ll still show up as auxiliary ones, but that’s another post.)

How can you tell your writing lacks action? Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to focus more on narrative or dialogue, and that’s fine if you’re doing it deliberately. But if you have long passages of narrative (be they description or exposition dumps) your writing can feel flat or monotonous. If you focus too much on dialogue, you end up with what’s often called the “talking heads” effect–characters constantly speaking back and forth without moving, thinking, or stopping to observe their environment or each other. That can be useful in short or tense exchanges, but over longer conversations it can feel bouncy, ungrounded in reality, or confusing.

The solution, of course, isn’t to drop a fight scene where one doesn’t belong or crash a helicopter into the forest you’re describing. You don’t need to change the plot as a whole or the focus of the scene, to insert more action. (You can, but you don’t have to.) You just need to ask yourself a few questions, depending on context:

  • Could my characters be moving right now, and if so, how could that enrich the scene? A conversation that used to be sitting in a booth at a diner could move outside instead while characters are walking, giving you a less static environment for them to interact with. If it has to stay at the diner for whatever reason, how are your characters gesturing as they speak? When do they take a bite of their sandwich? Who’s the one more likely to look over every time the door opens? There’s no hard rule for balancing dialogue with action, because the needs of every scene will be different, but in general, break up more than three or four changes in speaker by inserting an action. If you’re using lots of one-liners, you might be able to go a little longer; if you’re using bigger blocks of dialogue, maybe every two or three. If your characters are discussing something serious and you want a slow pace, you can use action with every chunk of dialogue, though that is its own trap as well. The demands of the scene come first, but be conscious of when a lot of one thing becomes too much.
  • Can something or someone from the environment interact with my characters in a useful way? We’ve all seen the meet-cute where the wind blows something out of one character’s hand for another to pick up and return to them; but it doesn’t have to be so forced. If you need a character to pause for a beat before they answer a question, have that wind blow their hair across their face, so they take the time to push it aside. If one person would rather not be having this conversation in the first place, they might seize on any distraction the setting offers them–a blaring car alarm, a flock of birds taking flight, a lost child in need of rescue. Sure, that last one’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t know what your story needs–it’s just an example. To go back to my diner setting from above, if a character jumps in their seat when they hear a dish crashing in the kitchen, it could tell your readers a few different things, depending on the effect you want: that they’re anxious in general, or about this situation in particular; that they weren’t paying close attention and the noise “woke them up”; or alternately, that they were so focused on their conversation partner that the noise reminded them where they were, because they’d tuned it out. Blank rooms may be a description problem, but blank environments don’t let your characters exist in a real, living space. Give them something to do beyond the scope of the person they’re talking to.
  • Have I gone too long without mentioning a character at all? A long paragraph of description about the forest your protagonist is hiking through might include “action” sentences, like a bird darting from tree to tree or a deer passing at a distance. But if the majority of the block of text is clearly for descriptive purposes, it might be time to refocus on the hiker. What was the last thing they did or said? How long ago was that on the page? Did you remember what it was before you found it, or has it been so long on the narrative tangent that you weren’t sure? Just like long passages of dialogue, too much description, exposition, or world-building can be broken up with brief bits of action to keep momentum going. It can be trickier if you’re explaining a necessary bit of fantasy-world politics or history, of course; world-building has a host of challenges I can’t begin to cover in the narrow context of underwriting action. But if you can’t find a way to insert action, it might be a sign you’re info-dumping and you need to trim it down or chop it into smaller pieces to scatter through the story more naturally.
  • Can I replace any dialogue or narrative directly with action? This is a more advanced/limited technique, but it has its moments. A character doesn’t need to think that a sunset or a scenic view is pretty, or say so to a companion, if you show them climbing a big rock to get a better vantage point. In a chase scene, you wouldn’t need the pursuer to state that they lost their target if you show them coming to an intersection and twisting in every direction to catch sight of them. (I bet you could imagine that one easily–movies use it all the time, but they often double down by having the pursuer say “I’ve lost them” out loud, even when it’s obvious to the audience. If they’re informing a third party listening in on the phone or another communication device, okay, I’ll grant that. But simply saying it to themselves? Totally unnecessary. I’d rather they swear at the end of the scene to show me they’re frustrated by their failure!) Converting a story beat from one type to another can be challenging, but this is the pinnacle of the adage “show, don’t tell” and can liven up any scene, cut down on repetition, and prove you trust your readers to connect the dots on their own.

As with my first post on narrative, this is meant to be an overview on adding/improving the action in your writing, not a comprehensive list of all possible issues, and definitely not a “one size fits all” solution. These questions are a set of tools I’ve developed for myself based on my own observed weaknesses; other authors handing out their own writing advice will offer other perspectives. If mine don’t suit your needs, I hope you’ll use this as a jumping-off point for further research into solutions that work for you!

Coming soon: Part III, on dialogue!

How to Deal with Sex Scenes in Your Writing: Part II

In Part I, I did my best to present a balanced approach to when and how to include sex scenes in your work.

Here in Part II, there’s no balance to be found. I don’t have multiple angles of attack to offer when writing the nitty-gritty of the scene itself; I can only tell you the process I’ve developed for myself, which might surprise you.

And what is my sage advice? Overwrite everything.

No detail is too small to include. No word is off-limits like you may see in other sex-writing advice, that would have you shy away from verbs like “thrusting.” No desire is too base to depict, no emotion too dramatic, no body part too unmentionable.

Be graphic. Be indulgent. But most of all, be thorough.

“But, Elena!” I hear you gasp. (Let’s assume at least some of you are gasping and clutching your pearls.) “You’re telling me to write porn!”

Yes. Yes, I am. Get it all on the page and leave no question exactly who is doing what to whom and how they all feel about it.

When you’re done, set it aside for a bit. Work on a different scene, or another project, or take a break for an hour or a day or a week, whatever you need to reset your brain.

Before you look at that wonderful and naughty porn draft again, evaluate what your story needs this scene to be, according to your comfort level and the guidelines I laid out in Part I. That’s going to help you figure out how far back you’re going to scale when you edit, because yes, you’re editing this right now, not in a future draft.

Then, reread the scene and cherry-pick your best bits. What strikes you as good, what makes you feel alongside these characters, what gets to the heart of the action. Mark those lines somehow–I recommend highlighting–and make sure they survive the cuts.

Next, cut anything that repeats something from your best lines without adding to it. Cut anything that is pure mechanics or stage direction unless it’s absolutely necessary to understand the flow of the action. Cut, or at least trim down, any description that distracts from the point of the scene.(Remember, I told you to overwrite, so you should find at least some stuff that ends up being unnecessary.)

Some hypothetical examples for illustration of what to keep and what to toss:

  • Setting detail could be useful if it displays something about the dynamic between the characters–if a working-class man finds himself in a rich woman’s lavish bedroom for a tryst, I’d want to know what catches his eye about her furniture and decorations, and how that makes him feel. But if two college kids are going at it on a blanket in the forest because neither of their roommates ever leaves their dorm rooms, then I probably don’t care about extensive descriptions of the trees–just mention some bird song or dappled sunlight and it will get the point across.
  • Physical detail is great to heighten awareness of other senses, but unless you’re opening the story with sex, you’ve probably described the characters before. Don’t reiterate stuff we already know about them, but use the extra intimacy of the scene to reveal new information–hidden tattoos or scars or piercings for the visuals; how they smell is always a good choice because smell is the most neglected sense in most writing; how they sound (different than usual) when they’re turned on, and so forth. Don’t just repeat their hair or eye color!
  • How much dialogue to use is a tricky thing to generalize about because it’s going to depend a lot on how the characters already speak. Readers usually want the personal stuff as pillow talk: back story if it’s relevant, emotional honesty, vulnerability. Do include explicit consent. Do include dirty talk as long as it reveals something about the character using it, but don’t use too much or make it too generic (unless that’s the point; in an as-yet unpublished work, I have a dude who sucks at dirty talk but I include it anyway to show how much his partner has to try to be excited about sleeping with him. Not a healthy relationship, they don’t stay together for many reasons, and yes, I wanted to use their sex life to help demonstrate that.)

Okay, you’ve marked the best bits and cut the worst bits. You probably still have a lot that is in between. Look for ways to strengthen those parts by rewriting them until they better fit the mood you’re aiming for. If that doesn’t seem to work, is it something that can be summarized and rolled into something else? Can you minimize it instead of cutting it entirely?

And finally, once the scene is mostly flowing in the direction you want it to, go back over your word choice and consider your audience and their expectations. Are there any terms in what you have left of your original porno version that strike you as too crass? Too clinical? Do you have a character using a term you’re not sure they’d actually say, or maybe not even know? Substitute other words until you have something you’re comfortable with, something that seems authentic to your characters and doesn’t sound too jarring. If you need help, look up word lists and euphemisms–I promise they’re out there!

(Side note: I’m personally begging all non-UK authors not to use the c-word to refer to a person’s vagina. I can’t stop the Brits, I’m aware it’s not considered nearly as foul a word there, though I can’t help cringing when it comes up in their works. I grew up believing it’s one of the strongest gendered insults there is and it doesn’t belong anywhere outside of that context.)

Okay. Still with me? You’re almost done. Set it aside again if you need to, or dive right back in at the beginning, and read it out loud. (Or have a text-to-speech program read it to you.) You might blush, you might squirm, you might wish you were doing anything else. But you’re going to hear any problems you didn’t catch last time around, and bonus: exposure is making you more comfortable with the idea of writing and reading about sex. (Could I have written these blog posts so candidly five years ago before I published my first novel, with my first sex scenes? Oh, hell no. It took a lot of beta readers telling me I did good before I felt ready to put that out into the world.)

And there you have it!

Honestly, at this point it probably needs more work, just like your whole first draft needs more work, even though this one scene has already had some rewriting applied. You’re still going to want to line-edit and proofread it just like anything else, but the hard part is behind you. Pour yourself a drink (if that’s a thing you do) or treat yourself to some chocolate or a piece of cheesecake or whatever. You did it. You wrote a sex scene.

How to Deal with Sex Scenes in Your Writing: Part I

Sex is a part of many’s peoples lives, and good fiction should reflect that reality. But not every story needs sex, just as not every person wants sex, and there are certainly genres that suffer for its inclusion (don’t ask me why a cozy mystery I read years ago had a steamy, raunchy sex scene in it, so out of place, I can’t explain that, please don’t do it.)

But sex abounds in many genres; if you’re writing romance, it’s often a reader expectation, and if you’re writing erotica, well, then it’s the entire point. If you’re not prepared for the idea of writing a sex scene when you start your story, stumbling later across the need to include one can prove a serious block.

In my years of digging through writing advice on the internet, “how do I write a sex scene?” and “how do I not be embarrassed writing a sex scene?” are, anecdotally at least, two of the most common questions I see being asked. I’ve handed out dribs and drabs of that kind of advice before, but I’ve never bothered to put together my thoughts formally, so here we go!

Question #1: Does your story actually need sex?

I touched on this above with genre, but even that isn’t always a clear guide. Plenty of romances end with a first kiss and are still romance, because while sex scenes are common, they’re not universal. And if you’re writing something else, it’s really going to depend. There’s always heat in the YA universe about how much sex there should be in titles aimed at teenagers and how to depict it responsibly when it’s included. Any Hero’s Journey sort of tale, regardless of the parent genre, could include a romantic (and thus, possibly sexual) element when the Hero gets the Girl in the end as his reward–but that’s a pretty toxic view on female agency, so really dig in and decide why it needs to be there. (Or subvert the heck out of it, but that’s another topic entirely.) James-Bond-style action has sex baked into its DNA, but in thrillers, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s absent. It’s going to depend, and some of your decision may be driven by how genre-saavy you are.

But across all fiction, the ultimate common-denominator answer for including sex should be the same standard for questioning other actions or plot points: does this tell the reader something about the characters that they can’t get any other way? If the honest answer to that is no, then the sex scene you were wondering about is probably unnecessary.

Question #2: What are the different styles of sex scene and how do I use them?

First choice: the “fade to black” scene. It’s not sex, it’s implied sex. The characters involved get a little cozy with each other, maybe engage in some PG-rated foreplay, and (hopefully) there’s clear intent and consent established. Then the metaphorical lights drop and the scene fades out before any more blatant sexual acts happen.

When to use it? Well, anytime, if that’s all your comfortable doing as an author. But more specifically, it’s best deployed when it’s crucial to the story to establish the characters have a sexual relationship, for whatever reason, but the sex itself wouldn’t drive the narrative forward.

When not to use it? Erotica is right out, obviously. But while I’ve seen a handful of lighter romances use it successfully, I’ve seen plenty that handle it poorly, even to the point where there’s no scene transition, just a paragraph break between the “characters get handsy” and “basking in the afterglow” stages. Be aware that cutting the “actual” sex out of a scene too abruptly can leave readers annoyed, disappointed, or even confused about what did or didn’t happen–it’s most effective to use a clear scene break and establish that time has passed.

Second choice: show the sex happening, but a) keep it short, and b) don’t go into much detail. When I’ve read these types of scenes, that can range from a single paragraph overview that focuses more on the emotions being felt, to a full page or two of dialogue and/or internal monologue mixed with the most basic mechanics of the situation.

When to use it? This is partially reader expectation–as I’ve mentioned, many romance readers do expect sex in their stories–but also this is the better choice when the sex “matters” more than a fade-to-black scene transition would allow for. If the sex sparks some kind of emotional turmoil or epiphany in the POV character, you’ve got to have a place for that to happen, narratively speaking; off-screen won’t do. But again, if the nitty-gritty of the characters going at it in detail won’t enrich your plot, then keep it zippy and move on.

When not to use it? If you’ve established a sex scene needs to happen at all, there really aren’t serious downsides to this option, excepting reader expectations. But that’s a tricky beast to handle and you’re never going to satisfy everyone, because any given group of readers can have opinions ranging from “this took to long to get to the sex/the sex wasn’t sexy enough” to “OMG I can’t believe these two jumped in the sack like that so fast/how they did/where they did.” (And since I often skim other reviews of the romances I read, yes, this has really happened, one reader will complain about a lack of enough sex scenes in the same book another will insist had too much or the wrong type of sex. You can’t please everyone, and sex especially is so personal. Do your best to your own comfort level, and at least some people will enjoy it.)

Third choice: As graphic as you want to be, baby, no holds barred for as long as it takes.

When to use it? This is obviously the go-to choice for erotica, but it has its place in romance, too, if the sex scenes themselves don’t overwhelm the story through sheer quantity. While erotica may focus more on titillating and arousing the reader, in romance these prolonged, detailed scenes are often about demonstrating sex as an opportunity for bonding and emotional growth. If you want to give your characters plenty of narrative time to fight, or banter, or laugh together, or realize deeper feelings, then a longer and more substantial sex scene allows you that time.

When not to use it? Lots of times. Were you on the fence about including a sex scene to begin with? Then you probably want a simpler one. Is it rare to find sex scenes in your chosen genre? Then you probably want a simpler one. Are you uncomfortable with who might read this (friends/family) or what you might inadvertently reveal about your own sex life? Definitely go with one of the first two options.

Sadly, I can’t tell you how not to be embarrassed by writing sex scenes and letting other people read them. It was a concern of mine at first, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t. But at some point, you either have to decide to embrace it, or not. There are certainly baby steps you could take, like posting anonymous smut somewhere and seeing what the reaction to your style is, before you show anyone your “real” work. But that is extra work, and it’s not going to be right for everyone.


I had thought originally to dive right in from here on how to write sex scenes, or at least, how I write them, but it turns out I had a lot of thoughts first on whether they’re necessary and how to approach them. So Part II of this probably-two-part series will be covering that instead!

How Not to Start Your Romance Novel: A Case Study

Last week, I was chugging merrily along through my backlogged romance ebooks–which stretch all the way back to stuff I got in 2017 and still haven’t gotten to–when I found a novel with one of the most confusing and frustrating first chapters I’ve ever read.

I read the second chapter. I was still confused. I read the first chapter again, twice. I read the second and third chapters and managed to push forward to about 18% before giving up.

By my own standards, I could count that book as “read”–in the sense that I attempted to read it and did not finish, but I read enough to articulate why I wasn’t going to finish. You all know me by now, I’m firmly in favor of DNF reviews when they’re warranted.

But I didn’t review this. I simply deleted it from my Goodreads like I never owned it. I’m not counting it for my Mount TBR. I didn’t feel like I could review it, it was so bad and I was so confused.

Why am I talking about it at all, then? I considered doing a live-blog reading of it on Tumblr, those always look like such fun when my mutuals do them. But those are generally best-received when the book is either a new release, an already popular book, or a well-known love-to-hate-it book. This random romance novel? None of the above.

I considered breaking down its flaws for illustrative and humorous purposes here, chapter by chapter, a la Jenny Trout and her infamous series on the Fifty Shades books. But that felt like too big a commitment, and while I have no idea how monetarily successful this random novel’s author is compared to me, we are both indies–if I went after this novel, I wouldn’t be punching up. Sideways, at best. I didn’t feel right about that.

What I can do is share all the things I think it did wrong in that first 18% and why I found them so offensive, from a writerly perspective.

  1. No matter how often general writing advice says so, “in medias res” is not right for every story. The first chapter details a non-romance story line, but the Hero is already present and already in a relationship with the Heroine. Then the second chapter jumps back three months, before the relationship begins, to detail how the Hero met, not the Heroine, but the Heroine’s birth mother. Except I haven’t been given any reason (other than my confusion) to want to know why he’s meeting her and not the Heroine.
  2. Too many names, too many questions raised. The first chapter is a scene with three people waiting to be joined by a fourth. The Hero (named,) the Heroine (named,) the birth mother (no name given,) and the half-brother/son (no name given.) But later in the chapter, the Heroine’s internal narration briefly mentions her uncle by name, and then an actual internal thought gives us another name that is not connected to anyone. The thought is literally just “If [name]–“, which doesn’t lend any context. I had to read until nearly halfway through the second chapter to discover it’s the birth mother’s nickname. (Not even her real name, which is given when she’s introduced in chapter two, at the “beginning” of the story.) That could have easily been included in the first chapter simply by having someone address her directly. Instead, I was left wondering a) why my “romance” novel was starting with a long-lost-family reunion story line and the romantic relationship itself was passingly mentioned as already underway; b) how it worked out that the story was about a woman reuniting with her lost son and not the heroine herself, despite the woman only being referred to as her “birth mother, so was the Heroine adopted or what?; and c) why was the Hero there at all and how was he involved in their reunion. Okay, yes, your first chapter should raise questions for your readers, but not to the point of frustration and confusion. Also, none of these questions I had are about the romance itself, which is a problem.
  3. Killing narrative time instead of answering questions. When we finally “meet” the Heroine in the chronological story line in Chapter 3, she spends the front half of the chapter agonizing over having forgotten to bring a gift for when she met up with her birth mother (still don’t know why that’s happening or how their lives disconnected from a standard parent-child relationship) and then the second half inside a chocolate shop going on ad nauseam about chocolate and how wonderful it is. Toward the very very end of the chapter, she meets the Hero, who has also dropped into the shop, but their interaction lasts about ten seconds, narratively speaking, with no sparks and only the barest hint that they already knew each other from Way Back When.
  4. Obvious inconsistencies don’t hide secrets very well. So I did eventually get far enough to answer the “what the heck is going on with this family” question, and I’m not sure the early reveal was intentional or not. Remember how the Heroine’s uncle is briefly mentioned in Chapter 1? He shows up again later in casual conversation as the Heroine’s brother. At first, I was like, that’s obviously a mistake, how did no one catch that? Then I thought, okay, it’s not terribly uncommon to name kids after their aunts and uncles, but this makes it sound like they’re the same person… which is when I realized they were, because the Heroine was raised alongside her “birth mother” as her sister. She was a baby born to a young woman whose mother pretended to be the baby’s mother. The story itself confirmed that not long after, which is why I’m not sure if this inconsistency was intended as a clue or a simple mistake. This is what the author spent four chapters writing awkwardly around, for the sake of a shocking reveal. And by the way, the romance still hasn’t started yet.

Genre expectations, people. I’m not saying every romance has to be in alternating third-person perspectives, following the same structure of meet one lead in Chapter One and the other in Chapter Two. (Though it’s common method because it’s a successful one.) There’s a lot of ways to skin this cat. But if I can read the first 18% of a romance novel and the two leads have only met briefly in a public place and exchanged less than two minutes of pleasantries, while the entire rest of the book is devoted to what should be a subplot at best–then that’s not actually a romance novel, it’s a shaky and awkward start to a piece of women’s fiction about the fallout of teenage pregnancy and what it’s like to be part of a secretly non-conventional family structure. Which is not the novel I thought I was getting.

I’m sure I’ve revealed enough detail about the novel for someone who’s read it to potentially recognize it; that can’t be helped, not if I want to provide enough meat to substantiate the issues I wanted to discuss. But my intention here is not to publicly decry the author for writing a crummy romance–if it were, I would have splashed the cover right at the top of the post. My intention is to be able to share the flaws I perceived in the work in such a way others could learn from them, without shaming the author directly, because that just didn’t feel right to me here. I have no problem posting honest reviews of bad books, as anyone who’s followed me for any length of time will know–I’m not kind to books that piss me off. But this was bad on such a different level that I wanted to treat the book differently, as a learning opportunity instead of a punching bag.

Naming Characters: A Few Do’s, A Few Don’ts

I’ve just set out on the mission to rewrite #rockstarnovel, and in comparing names in the full first draft to some changes I made in the partial (unsuccessful, abandoned) rewrite draft I attempted, I’m wondering what I was thinking.

Two names got changed literally because the originals weren’t conducive to creating a memorable or useful ship name. No, that’s not vanity on my part as an author, hoping for fandom shipping. The characters are rock stars, and at one point they do something eminently shippable on stage. Social media goes nuts over it, thus, they need a good ship name.

But then, I changed another band member’s name, for no apparent reason, while leaving the other three of the principal cast untouched.

And even more strangely, if I changed the name to avoid having two characters start with the same letter of the alphabet, when I changed the name it still started with the same letter as another character’s name? Neither pair are so similar I think it would be confusing to a reader, but I still try to avoid that most of the time.

Name frustration in my reading doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it drives me batty. In a series of several romance novels I read, several main characters had incredibly similar names, to the point where I would legitimately confuse them. There was a Piper, and a Tyler, and they were different genders so that wasn’t so bad. But then came Tucker, who was friends with Tyler, and they were both men. Can I be blamed for getting T—er and T–er confused as I read? I don’t think so.

So that author had a preference for -er names that stuck out, but it’s more common that I get inundated with names that begin with the same letter, or sound too similar when spoken. In What We Need to Survive, the character Mark was actually named “Will” for a while, but in reading it out loud to myself during the editing stages, I thought it sounded too much like the main character’s name, Paul. Two male four-letter names that end with “L.” So I changed it. (Actually an astute reader pointed out to me that in the first paperbacks, I missed a single instance of that name change, and he was like, “Wait, who’s Will?” I fixed it the same day.)

All of this leads to my rough (and adaptable) hierarchy for choosing names that won’t confuse your readers.

1. If you’re writing fantasy in any form, you might be making up a lot of your names to suit your world and any language you might or might not be constructing to go with it. Either you’re putting in the work on your own, or you’re helping yourself out with name generators. Good luck, and feel free to ignore any of the rest of this list that doesn’t apply, because I’m concentrating on existing names in the real world.

2. Start with any names that need to have a particular meaning, are in a foreign language to the one you’re writing in, need to match a certain historical period, etc. Put your research in for that as necessary: as an example from my own work, in #spookyromancenovel, my hero is a Japanese-American, and I wanted a good last name that had some relevance to the story, so I chose Ishikawa, because “ishi” means “stone.” And the point of the story is to save him from being transformed by a curse into a gargoyle. Now, I didn’t stretch myself too much to make this too cute–Ishikawa is a reasonably common Japanese surname, and the other half, “kawa” for “river”, isn’t of any particular importance. And his first name, Noah, is one that I randomly chose before I’d even decided on his heritage, and no, it’s not a Biblical reference, it’s just a name I liked enough at the time to pick, and it stuck.

3. Once you’ve got those names chosen, you’ve probably still got some unnamed characters. For the sake of your readers, choose names dissimilar from the ones you’ve already set. If your main character’s name is Bob, don’t name his best friend Ben (same number of letters, same first letter) or Rob (avoid rhyming names!) If your heroine is Melissa, her coworker shouldn’t be Melanie (same first syllable) or Alyssa (not quite rhyming but really close.) Now, to some extent within families, siblings can have similar names if their parents do that to them–I knew a family of nine kids when I was growing up and all of them, boys and girls alike, had “J” names–but if you’re going to do that sort of thing deliberately, then there should be a story reason, and you should still do whatever you can to make those somewhat-similar names distinct from each other in whatever way you can.

4. Yes, in real life, friend groups and sets of coworkers and what not are going to have doubles (or more) of the same name. There were eleven Elizabeths in my freshman class at college, and most of them went by “Liz” and two of them were assigned to each other as roommates, which we all thought was cruel of the housing department. I dated two guys with the same given name in a row, once, though fortunately for me the second one went by a nickname; and that was the same name of my biggest junior-high crush, who I never actually dated. No, I don’t have a thing for men named that, it’s just really common! So if you want to reflect this sort of commonality in your work (which you absolutely don’t have to) you can get around the potential for confusion by having doubles that include an important character and a minor or offscreen one (“Yeah, I’m Brandon, and so is the head of my department at work and the guy who makes me my coffee at Starbucks every morning”) or by having two major characters with the same name go by different nicknames (Cathy or Kate for Catherine, for example–derived from the same source but quite different.) Though if you’re going to do that, you are drawing attention to their names in a way that might seem silly if the story doesn’t require it in some way.

5. One last note: we all have names that, for whatever reason, we don’t like. Either because of some past association with a person of that name, or you don’t like the way it sounds, or whatever. But you can use that to fuel your mood when you’re writing a character you don’t want your readers to like. Not that they’ll have the same association with the name that you do–that’s not likely at all–but the feelings you have in writing a character with a name you find distasteful will (probably) seep into your writing about them, and your audience will pick up on that. So “bad” names aren’t always bad, if you use them to your advantage.

I think that’s everything. I hope that’s everything. It’s a lot, and as always with any writing advice (whether from me or other sources) it might not all apply to your style in general or any given project you’re working on. Absorbing and using writing advice is always a synthesis of what you already do and what you want to try–some of which might not work for you.

Essential Skills for Writers: Reading Critically

Story time: I have a post that’s been sitting in my drafts folder since July 2017. I last added to it in February 2019. Its working title: “If You’re a Writer, Read These Books.” I started it when I read The Poisonwood Bible, and it seemed like a thing everyone could learn from. Whenever a book or series struck me as having something particularly strong about it, from a writerly perspective, especially if it was rare in my experience, I put it on the list.

The problem was that it took me almost two years to come up with three entries for it, and I never actually wrote the whole post. Here are my notes, which for posterity’s sake I have not altered at all:

The Poisonwood Bible: this is how to juggle five (!) different first-person narrators with profoundly different character voices. Not necessarily the best for pacing, but you can always tell who’s telling you their story by the word choice and tone of the narrative.

The Talented Mr. Ripley: Using show don’t tell to define the main character, who hardly ever speaks. Clear characterization through reaction to other people.

Graceling Realm and/or MaddAddam series: multibook “trilogy” structure doesn’t have to be chronological if you plan carefully for it

But I never wrote that post, and now I never will. I’m going to write this one instead.

It’s not my job as a writer to tell you which books to read to get better; it’s your job to learn from the books you choose to read.

So when I say “read critically” in this context, I don’t mean “read like you’re going to trash the book in a review.” I have definitely learned a great deal from committing to reviewing every book I read, but a) that’s a lot of work; b) reviews are generally for sharing and not everyone wants to share their thoughts; and c) you’re not necessarily going to pick up a new tidbit of learning from every book you read. I’ve read four books so far this year, but I’m only going to mention three of them.

So what did I learn from…

Full Dark, No Stars? This doesn’t apply to me directly, as I write novels and not short fiction, but I definitely find anthologies more enjoyable when a theme connects all the individual stories somehow. I saw this before, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness–those novellas had a strong central theme. On the flip side, it’s why I found Ray Bradbury’s The October Country relatively hit-or-miss, for example, despite loving his work in general. If I ever do write short fiction again (I did a lot of stories and poems in high school and college, not so much since) I will put together collections that “go” together, rather than a random sampling.

Sunshine? This one hit close to home, because the most pressing issue I had with it was something I struggled with myself in the first draft of #spookyromancenovel: overindulgence in world-building. In Sunshine the title character will go on pages-long tangents about interesting but ultimately obscure facts about her world; in the NaNoWriMo-fueled race to finish #srn’s first draft, I did exactly the same thing. If a thing was interesting and I had thoughts about it, I wrote about it, even if it broke the scene into pieces. Perfectly fine for a first draft! But in Sunshine it got to print that way, and while I enjoyed the book, I consider that its biggest flaw. In #srn’s second draft, I cut as much world-building as possible based on relevance, shortened the rest, and left copious questions for my beta readers at the end of each chapter begging them to tell me where it was too much and where they had questions.

Autonomous? This gave me an even stronger example of not seeing the forest for the trees–as hard sci-fi this was so focused on building the tech of its world that it left hanging a huge number of questions I had about the societal and political structure that created the setting for this story. While its over-indulgence in world-building did mess up the pacing too, it was more that I felt like I was getting to examine this new world through a microscope but never being allowed to look out a window. The bigger picture just wasn’t there.

If I boil this down to writing advice snippets for consumability:

  1. Central themes can enrich and connect the various stories in anthologies.
  2. Over-indulgence in world-building details can bog down the pacing of a novel.
  3. Consider the scale of your world-building; don’t focus strictly on the micro and ignore the macro (or vice versa.)

Have I seen this advice floating around before? #1 and #2, yes, definitely. I don’t really think I’ve seen anyone address #3 in any great depth (not saying it doesn’t exist, only that I haven’t been exposed to it.) But even if I knew the first two bits of advice already, finding them illustrated so clearly in my reading drives them home more than just reading an article someone else wrote about those bits of advice. And “discovering” #3 for myself is even more powerful.

This advice applies equally to positive and negative aspects of your reading–admire and emulate the things you find successful, even if the scale is too ambitious: I wouldn’t tackle five first-person narrators in one go, but I could use my experience with The Poisonwood Bible to help me craft two or maybe three distinct personalities. And avoid or minimize in your own work the things you don’t like in what you read. Which seems an obvious conclusion when stated so clearly, but the how of getting there is the important part.

Let’s Talk about Tropes #11: The Character in the Fridge

bottles-1868175_1280

I just watched the first episode of The Boys this week.

I have not read the comics, but I’m loosely familiar with Garth Ennis’ style from Preacher; I’ve read the first volume and intend to read the rest, and I watched the first season of the adaptation but lost track of it amidst the ninety million other shows to watch and haven’t continued. I know what kind of headspace his work creates, how gory, brutal, disturbing, and darkly humorous it can be.

I was also forewarned by both my husband (who has read the source material) and a good friend (who binged the entire show before I started) that this story is intended, in basically every way possible, to be upsetting and make the reader/viewer uncomfortable.

Brilliant success, there.

A lot of seemingly good people in this story do a lot of horrible things, but it’s the inciting incident that sets the tone, that grabs you by the stomach and makes you want to puke. So, obligatory warning, spoilers below for the first episode of The Boys.

On the surface, I was thoroughly disgusted by Robin’s death. It’s gore on a level I rarely see, for starters, with the slow-motion blood-drenching. When the camera pans down to show Hughie still holding her dismembered hands, I felt actively sick. And then, as I had time to absorb the implications of what happened, I was sickened by the apparently poor choice of having the white protagonist’s girlfriend be a woman of color and immediately get killed, because that’s a good look. (That being said, I don’t know what her ethnicity was in the source material, and I’m generally pro “colorblind” casting, it never bothers me if a canonically white character is cast as non-white, unless it creates other racially charged issues, as it may have done here. Or may not have.)

And, on a meta level, we all know fridging characters is bad, right? Especially when it’s a woman, especially to spur on the story of a male protagonist.

Yet, here, that’s actually the entire point.

As I watched the rest of the episode and saw that fridging a character was only the very tip of this horrible, horrible iceberg, I realized Robin’s death is emblematic of all the collateral damage the Seven, and superheroes in general, have caused, and that the story probably couldn’t have started any other way. What else would have caused Hughie, slightly neurotic and generally Everyman as he is, to take on the most powerful cadre of superheroes in the world? What else would have so gripped and angered the readers/viewers with its senselessness, its casual cruelty (especially after A-Train’s later scene, joking about Robin’s death,) and the combination of its horror in the moment, and discovering the horror of how very commonplace similar incidents have been?

I spend a lot of time and word count talking about tropes and how not to use them, how to avoid the common pitfalls involved, and before watching The Boys I probably would have said it’s impossible to fridge a character to good purpose. I would have been wrong. Ennis takes the laziness out of this trope by using it quite deliberately to evoke the expected reaction for his own story goals; proof that even the most overused tropes, the ones we consider the worst, the laziest, the least useful, still have their place when carefully thought out.

Let’s Talk About Tropes #10: There Was Only One Bed

interior-3538020_1280

First of all, a quick apology: somehow I neglected the Tropes series for over a year? I really didn’t feel like #9 was that long ago. Also, in checking over past subject matter to make sure I didn’t repeat myself, I discovered that the title format changed partway through, because I’m not great at consistency when I’m juggling this many projects, apparently. I’m making a category for them so they’re all available in one place if you want to catch up.

Now, about the beds. What do you do when you need to up the romantic or sexual tension between a couple? One answer is to put them in any situation where there’s only one bed to share. They could be traveling together and there’s a mix-up with their hotel, or they didn’t have a hotel to begin with and they’re pulling over into some cheap place that only has one room left, and guess what–there’s only one bed.

I love this trope, and I hate it. It can be handled well (anything can!) but there’s so many easy traps to fall into, so many assumptions made by the creators who use it.

1. In mass media, this trope is entirely heteronormative. “Oh no, a boy and a girl might have to share a bed! What will happen next?!?” But on one hand, not all boys are attracted to girls, and vice versa. This trope is pulled out to put the not-couple in a questionable situation where we can assume hanky-panky might ensue. But where are the subversions where it’s no big deal because the guy isn’t into women (or the reverse, of course?) Why doesn’t this ever get paired up with the gay best friend trope? (Not that that isn’t a problematic one, too, but that’s for another post.)

2. On the other hand, why doesn’t “one bed” every raise any alarm bells for same-gender pairs? In high school, I went on a trip to Toronto to see The Phantom of the Opera as a part of the National Honor Society. Obviously all the hotel rooms were segregated by gender, so I was sharing a room with two queen beds in it with three other girls. I drew the short straw and had to sleep beside a girl I barely knew, whose first name I think I remember but last name, no clue. (To be fair, this was just over twenty years ago.) Why didn’t that raise any concerns to any adults? What if that girl was a lesbian? What if I was? (I identified as straight at the time, now I know I’m bisexual. I didn’t start anything with that girl or either of the other two in the room–but if I’d been a boy, all hands on deck, it’s a nightmare!) If a boy and a girl are in danger of having sex with each other simply because there’s only one bed, why not two boys? Why not two girls? Why not two of anybody, regardless of gender identity?

3. Which brings me to the third problem. Yes, the trope is generally trotted out to be specifically about sex, to create the will-they-won’t-they tension. But that only reinforces negative stereotypes about men/boys and predatory sexuality. Why can’t two people share a bed without sex being a specter hovering over the situation? Why do we assume the men/boys won’t be able to control themselves and take advantage (or try to take advantage of) the women/girls? A) Why can’t it be the girls lusting after the boys; or B) why can’t these two just act like rational human beings and understand that sleeping in the same bed doesn’t mean sex is happening? (It’s sort of forgivable when we’re talking teenagers who don’t have the life experience, necessarily, to make good/safe choices, but when I’m reading an adult romance novel that falls into this trap, I usually walk away disappointed. Men aren’t hormone-driven chauvinist pigs, and when they are, they shouldn’t be the hero of the story!)

That isn’t to say that two people can’t be uncomfortable with sharing a bed, ever, at all. If one person (character) has personal space issues; if they have real reason not to trust the other (though this brings up the larger issue of whether or not the two of them can even share the room at all, let alone the bed;) if one admits to being a total cover hog, or a tendency to toss and turn, or anything else that might make the other person uncomfortable sharing a bed with them. There’s no reason not to be considerate, after all.

And this isn’t me, O Great Author Elena Who Knows Everything About Everything, telling you not to ever use this trope. (/sarcasm) It’s popular for a reason. It’s a back bone of fan fic, especially alternate-universe fic, everywhere, and since I don’t read a lot of that these days, I wouldn’t be surprised if the more progressive fic authors are already dismantling the classic trope in the ways I’ve taken issue with. (And probably a few ways I haven’t even considered yet.) As with all my Tropes posts, I’m asking you to consider why you’re writing a character or situation the way you are, and if there’s a way you could break free of the same old patterns everyone else uses. And if you choose to follow the pattern, if you’re doing so deliberately, that’s fine. Just take the time to examine the tropes you use and make sure you’re not writing them out of laziness, and you’ll be fine.