Committed to a Character

A fellow writer in an online discussion group asked how other authors feel about their main characters. Why do we stick with them and want to write about them?

When I started writing my series, I needed a lead character who could solve the type of mysteries I wanted to write. The “villains” aren’t killers. Some commit other types of crimes such as theft or stalking; some are fraudulent shamans or healers; some are corrupt or dangerous in a personal and spiritual way without breaking the law. My protagonist, Mae Martin, is psychic, though that’s not the only skill she brings to solving mysteries. Like any amateur sleuth, she’s observant, analytical, persistent, curious, and she’s the kind of person people turn to for help.

Except for being psychic, Mae is based on a good friend (the friend knows I did this). If I feel I’m losing touch with her, I just have to ask myself what my friend would do or say. She’s generous and nurturing, but she’ll only put up with so much, and when she speaks her mind, she can be a handful. Her willingness to help others is both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness, because she can go overboard. Mae sometimes catches herself in the act of getting too wrapped up another person’s troubles, but she ends up doing it anyway.

My friend, who is a good bit younger than me, is on her third marriage. So far, Mae is dodging number three, but she has what she calls a “man habit,” and hasn’t managed to go as long without a relationship as she meant to at the end of marriage number two. One of the things I enjoy about her is that she was raised to be a nice Southern lady, but she’s feisty and she likes to win. When she seems too good, I remember her competitive streak, and her bad choices as well as her good ones. I like her for her faults as much as for her strengths.

I once read a blog post in which an author said to give your characters just three traits—don’t make them more complex or contradictory. Interesting idea, and it may work for certain subgenres of mystery, but it’s not my approach to building characters. Though I don’t have to reveal and explain every aspect of their psyches, complex people feel more real to me, and they apparently seem real to my readers.

Some readers are deeply attached to Mae’s boyfriend, and they tend to take his side when the couple has fights; others take her side. I was strangely flattered when a friend asked me to create a character based on her so she and Mae could go through a conflict and work out some problems. This friend feels that she and Mae don’t get along as well as they did in the first few books. “I want to start out as her nemesis and become her friend,” she said. I’m inclined to do it. There’s already a character in one of the two books in progress who resembles this woman in age, appearance, and occupation. She and the real person who inspired Mae strike me as incompatible, though they’re two of my closest friends. They live in different states and have never met, but I’ll have fun throwing them together in fiction and seeing how they both grow and change through the encounter.

On Ramona DeFelice Long’s blog, she once suggested a character “I’m not” exercise: having the character list their perceptions of what they are not, and then checking to see if these things helped or hindered the character, and if these perceptions were static or changing. I found it helpful to look at how Mae sees herself, not just how I see her. After all, we can have inaccurate perceptions of ourselves. She doesn’t necessarily know herself as well as  she could, and that’s where the potential for growth comes in—the shortcomings that get her into trouble and challenge her to learn.

What keeps you committed to your series protagonist?

 

Thank You for Not Enjoying My Book

Since my turn on this blog comes around on the fourth Thursday of the month, every year I get to explore a new facet of gratitude on Thanksgiving. This year, I asked myself, what’s the most unusual thing I’m grateful for? How about thanking someone who didn’t like one of my books?

As a member of Sisters in Crime, I’ve stayed in the Guppies subgroup, short for “great Unpublished,” long after moving out of unpublished territory. Like many authors, I find the group’s benefits too valuable to leave behind. One benefit is the opportunity to do a manuscript swap with another author and give each other feedback. In addition to getting input from my regular critique partners, I always seek out at least one new critique partner or beta reader per book, someone who is not familiar with my series.

This time, I did a swap with an author who turned out not to like my work, and I didn’t like hers. It was great. Since neither of us was wrapped up in plot and character, we saw all the technical problems each other needed to address. She noticed some things the other six people who gave me feedback didn’t. They were following the story, turning the page, emotionally involved, and wondering what would happen next; she was disengaged. Though I continually get better at weeding out my crutch words and my over-used habitual phrases, certain ones are so natural to me they become invisible. But they were visible to her, and likewise her habits were visible to me. She also noticed where I needed clearer time transitions at the beginnings of chapters, where the background was unclear, and where a long chapter should break in two. I thank her for not enjoying my book. She helped make it better.

This was the second time in writing my six-book series that I’ve had this experience. Years ago, I swapped an early draft of a book that later evolved into The Calling with a woman who didn’t even finish it. Her assessment was harsh, not as tactful as the Guppy guidelines suggest we should be. My prior swap partner on that manuscript liked my characters so much, the plot and pacing weaknesses didn’t register with her. This ruthless second critique motivated me to study plot and structure and then revise from the ground up. After that, I reworked the book chapter by chapter with a critique group. The final product has been well-reviewed, and bears little resemblance to the version that my swap partner so disliked. I am grateful to her for tearing it apart.

Of course, I’m equally grateful to critique partners who did like my books. It’s useful to get insights and suggestions from someone who enjoys the work in progress, noticing where it could improve but also telling me what they find effective. When my critique partner who didn’t like the book still said that the end of Death Omen made her cry, I was sure I’d done something right.

Death Omen

The sixth Mae Martin Psychic Mystery

 Trouble at a psychic healing seminar proves knowing real from fraud can mean the difference between life and death.

At an energy healing workshop in Santa Fe, Mae Martin encounters Sierra, a woman who claims she can see past lives—and warns Mae’s boyfriend he could die if he doesn’t face his karma and join her self-healing circle. Concerned for the man she loves, Mae digs into the mystery behind Sierra’s strange beliefs. Will she uncover proof of a miracle worker, or of a trickster who destroys her followers’ lives?

The Mae Martin Series

No murder, just mystery. Every life hides a secret, and love is the deepest mystery of all.

Buy links and preview

Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is currently free on all major e-book retail sites.

I Couldn’t Have Done It Without You, or Critique Partnering

Amber in tree final

IMG_1610jordaina1

I have a writer friend who has never used a critique partner or any beta reader other than her husband. She’s done quite well that way, but not all of us could. Whether you’re a writer who hasn’t worked with a partner, or one who has tried the process but not yet found your critiquing soulmates, I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how it works when it goes well. Each member of my main critique team* takes a turn in this post. Although they talk about me more than they mention each other, it’s not because I’m more important in this trio; it’s because I’ve been working with each of them for years, while their partnership is more recent.

Amber

Before I published my first book, I joined an online critique group. I learned much from group members who came and went, but Jordaina Sydney Robinson and I have carried on long after our formal group chose to dissolve.

The Calling, my first book, had been chapter-by-chapter critiqued with a prior partner when Jordaina joined the group, so it’s the only one of my works she ever received in a fairly polished state. For all the others, she’s been the first reader, the person I trust with my possibly off-key experiments in plotting. I appreciate her attention to emotional and psychological detail. She notices what rings true or doesn’t and what needs clarification. And she comments on what she likes as well as what needs improvement. What writer wouldn’t like to know what pops into a reader’s mind?

I found my other indispensable critique partner, Janet Simpson, when I needed someone to read a completed draft of Shaman’s Blues. After processing Jordaina’s chapter-by-chapter feedback, I needed another perspective on the whole book. Janet turned out to be great at noticing the phrases and sentence structures I overused as well as looking at the big picture of the plot and the characters. I added her to my permanent team. A valuable critique partner tactfully but honestly tells you when something doesn’t work. Her feedback on my latest book, Ghost Sickness, motivated me to give a major subplot an overhaul.

When Janet needed an additional critique partner last year, I introduced her to Jordaina, and we are now a kind of circle. We are genuine fans of each other’s work. I think this is essential for writers working together long-term. In the formal group, which was dedicated to paranormal mysteries, there sometimes were members who wrote varieties of the genre such as vampire fiction or YA that didn’t appeal to me. No matter how well-crafted these chapters were, it made my commitment to weekly critiques more of a job than a labor of love. My offbeat variation on the mystery genre—no murders—isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, either. Jordaina’s and Janet’s humorous mysteries delight me. Both make me laugh. This isn’t a chore. It’s a pleasure.

We don’t have a schedule. Each of us sends what we need critiqued—a full manuscript or a chapter or a revised section or two—when it’s ready. Sometimes one of us has a deadline, sometimes not. It works, like a healthy relationship, with balanced give and take. No rules needed.

Jordaina

Personally, I think the biggest hurdle any writer has to overcome (ever!) is the fear of showing someone their work. Whatever state it’s in, whether that be the poorly punctuated first draft that doesn’t really make total sense (I’m allergic to commas – just ask Amber, she’ll tell you!) or the most polished and shiny draft you have in you (what Amber normally sends me under the ridiculous heading of “work in progress”).

It doesn’t matter though, because whatever I send Amber, I feel safe that she won’t judge (except for my lack of comma usage – I know she tuts over that) and that she’s committed to helping me make my story as compelling as I possibly can make it.

My first book, Beyond Dead, looks very different now from the first draft Amber critiqued, and many of the larger changes in the book came from her critiques. And that’s one of the best things about critique partners – they don’t just tell you about typos and plot holes, they give you options of how to fix them. Or, at least, the best ones do. And, with Amber and Janet, I’m lucky to have two of the best.

I have a few friends who are just starting out on the first drafts of their very first novels, and I keep telling them they need to start looking for critique partners now because finding a partner that you trust is more difficult than finding a husband (not that I’m particularly looking for a husband). And anyway, I think I’d rather have a great critique partner.

Note: Some commas in Jordaina’s section come courtesy of Amber.

Janet

 I have been around a bit. I was a good time girl looking for a permanent partner, flitting from critique relationship to critique relationship, never quite finding my perfect fit. And then I found Amber. The first book in my series had been published when we bumped into each other online at Sisters in Crime and we’ve never looked back.

When Amber told me the genre she wrote, I wasn’t sure it was going to be my cup of tea but once I started reading I was hooked. For me, her plots are secondary; it’s all about her characters, and if she takes them in a direction that doesn’t work for me, then I am happy to tell her that her characters are wandering off.

What do I get in return, other than a free read of her books well before the general public get a look in? Commas. Sad but true. I have no idea where commas go either. I go from sprinkling them liberally, like confetti at a wedding, to leaving them out altogether. However, Amber is good for more than a smack upside the head in regards to the proper use of punctuation.

I’ve got a confession to make. Don’t tell anyone, but I used to write romance, and sometimes I get carried away and forget that my Daisy Dunlop books are mysteries. There is a hint of, will they, won’t they, between my two main characters and when I wandered too far down the will they path in my last book, Lost Property, Amber dragged me back on track. A couple of other people who read the first draft loved the move towards a less platonic relationship and the drama of a cliff-hanger ending, but Amber didn’t think it worked. I trust her when it comes to my books, no matter how many other people cheered me on to keep going with what I had. If Amber says don’t do it, then a major rewrite is required. Was she right? Well, the positive reviews the book is getting would indicate that I made the right decision to trust her judgement.

Honest critique relationships take time to build. Some people don’t want the truth; they just want a pat on the head. Other people don’t want to tell you the truth; they just want to tear you down to build themselves up. Amber has never been anything other than honest and open, and I can’t imagine writing a book without her input. Not only Amber’s but Jordaina’s as well. Together they give my books the polish—and commas—they need. Thanks ladies! X

Another note: Amber may have removed some of the commas in Janet’s section to punctuate Jordaina’s.

 *****

*Although this post is about reciprocal critique partnering, I’m equally grateful to my beta readers who have helped me polish my work after my critique partners have worked with me through its early stages. Among them are Claire Murray, who saw why I needed to restore the original ending of Soul Loss, Heather Stetler, who has an attentive eye for the subtle details, and Kate Collier, who knows where to cut.

If you want to explore this topic further, a recent post on Maine Crime Writers, one of my favorite writing blogs, was about beta readers.

http://mainecrimewriters.com/brendas-posts/beta-love

 

Keeping a Series Strong

Amber in tree finalI hope this hasn’t happened to you, but … have you ever picked up the sixth or seventh book in a series you follow and been let down? Maybe the author crushed you with backstory aimed at new readers. Or worse, the author took your loyalty for granted and got self-indulgent with a book full of “darlings” that should have been killed. Series fans, myself included, sometimes forgive all of that and keep reading because they love the characters. New readers who happen to start with a later book in the series won’t be so forgiving.

Authors who handle backstory well (in my opinion) give very little and slip it in only as needed. In one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon novels, she briefly mentions that Anna acquired her dog, Taco, after accidentally causing the death of her friend who owned him. That’s it. No other details. The story moves on. To me, this was brilliant. The reader knows just enough with this bit of painful background to understand Anna’s feelings about Taco. I hadn’t yet read the earlier book, Blind Descent, in which the accident occurs. When I did read it, nothing had been spoiled.

I’ve started other series late in their progress and quit without finishing due to backstory overload. It wasn’t just dull; it ruined the earlier books for me. Of course, a series character’s personal life changes and grows in each book, and it’s inevitable that book three will give away transitions in the lead character’s love life or family life, but it shouldn’t spoil the mystery plots of books one and two. I suspect that most people like to begin a series at the beginning, but others grab the newest book first. Sometimes the new release in a series is the only thing my library has available in audiobook, so off I drive with no prior familiarity with that author. It’s usually a good experience, but once in a while I get a book that threatens to put me to sleep at the wheel with tedious summaries of the characters’ previous adventures, sometimes in the worst way possible: expository dialogue. “Remember when we solved the mystery of the missing heiress? You saved my life and hers.” “But it was your quick thinking that got us there.” “And then the press made a hero out of her husband, of all people.” On it goes. Both characters were there and know what happened and yet they tell each other so the author can tell the reader. Yawn. Hit eject button. Pull over for coffee. Try a different audiobook.

This experience has motivated me to get a new critique partner for each book in my series. I have long-term reliable partners who know my work and my characters, and who do great plot critiques, but I also need fresh eyes on each book. Because of my aversion to backstory, I include as little as I possibly can. The new person who hasn’t read the prior books lets me know what was unclear, and then I can insert the necessary minimum at the right place. The new reader also will not be as tolerant of scenes that are fun for me and for people who have a long relationship with my characters, but which are slow in moving the plotsymptoms of that other error which can creep into a long series: self-indulgence. My new critique partner will catch it and help me cut the fluff.

I want the person who picks up book five first to have a complete, compelling experience within that story, and to be curious what happened in the rest of series. Also, I hope for the later books in the series to be as alive and exciting for long-term readers as the first book was.