Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

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Guest Post: Dreck Detector, Or How to Make a Reader Pick Your Book

Looking for those precious story nuggets.

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

Our illustrious leader is on vacation this week, so in addition to booby trapping her house and putting her cats on Kijiji,* I’m staging a hostile takeover of her blog. I need to preach at you conveniently assembled penmonkeys for a second.

You see, I’m not just a writer and a reviewer. I’m also a voracious book-eating tiger. I need a dozen a month just to survive. Dreck gives me acid reflux, so whenever I prowl the Goodreads giveaways I reject about a hundred books by new authors who made the same dumb mistakes as the last hundred. In the interests of improving my digestion and your bottom line, here is a list of things to do if you want me to eat read your book.

1. Name it something interesting.

Your title is your one chance to grab my attention. Don’t blow it by naming your book Nonspecific 2: The Broadening. Your title should also tell me about the tone and content of the story. Game of Thrones says ‘pseudomedieval political infighting’ while The Graveyard Book says ‘like The Jungle Book, but with dead things.’ Avoid all puns unless your book is funny.**

2. Don’t photoshop your own cover.***

I know ‘they’ say you should never judge a book by its cover, but ‘they’ are whiners who don’t want to put time and money into fixing crappy book covers. If you don’t care enough about your book to pay an artist with actual talent to design your cover, why should I believe you care enough to write it well?

3. Blurbs are where you tell me what happens.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t quote Amazon reviews. Boil the essentials down to a couple of sentences**** and TELL ME WHAT HAPPENS. If you can’t organize your thoughts well enough to write a coherent paragraph, I’m going to assume your scatty brain can’t possibly handle a whole book.

4. Proofread your Goodreads page.

Spellcheck does a lot of the legwork when it comes to fixing typos, but it won’t catch clumsy wording and it definitely won’t recode your HTML if you missed a bracket. So double-check that your finished page isn’t loaded with ampersands before you rely on it to make all your hopes and dreams come true.

5. Avoid pay-to-play publishers like the plague they are.

You want to self-publish? Great. Start your own publishing company. Give it a name. Hire an editor. Create a website. Register for an ISBN. Don’t just hand over your life savings to a vanity publisher, because in my world ‘Createspace’ means ‘no typos were harmed during the publishing of this novel.’

 

Katrina Nicholson is a writer, reviewer, and bareknuckle catsitter. She lives across the street at www.refrigeratorbox.org.

 

*For sale: one tangled furbeast, one Irish dunderhead, and a honey badger.

**Yes, even the really clever ones.

***Or draw it with pencil crayons, or hire your twelve-year-old nephew who’s ‘really good with computers’ to do it.

****Not a meandering 3,000 word essay. My attention span is not that lon–SQUIRREL!

Guest Post: How To Be A Writer

Take the blog! Don’t look back!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

I want to be a writer.

Cool. Then write. Goal accomplished.

Smartass.

No, for real. One of the many beautiful things about writing is that anyone* can.

You want to be a pilot? That, my friend, will be an expensive process. Want to be in a rock band? You need other people who share your vision. Olympic gymnast? I hope the gods gave you a flexible spine. And possibly a severe eating disorder.

But you have to be in fairly dire straights not to be able to get your hands on pen and paper. And if you’re reading this post: my friend, you are not in those straights.

No, I mean a writer writer. Like, published and paid. People wanting to make movies and TV shows of my creations. You know, like George R. R. Martin or J.K Rowling.

Ah. I understand. What you want, then, is not to be a writer, but to be famous. Or rich. Or both. And that is something different. Unfortunately, I cannot help you with those things, as I am neither rich nor famous.

I am, however, a writer, however intermittently these days. I have universes in my mind, and I occasionally use written language to render those private imaginings into a form which I can share with others. And whether I ever have anything of significant length published or not, at the end of my days I will count the hours I have spent penning into notebooks or toiling over my laptop as time well spent.

Because I loved it, for the sake of it.

I love that there are fully formed characters walking around in my head, many with emotional imprints as strong as the flesh and blood people in my life. Is that psychologically healthy? Arguable. I’m all right with it, though.

When I write I am a god. I create worlds, histories, climate patterns. I control the seasons, even how many seasons the world has.

When I polish a poetic description of a crisp and golden autumn day, or feel my fingers move like quicksilver to script the casual banter of two too clever characters. . .whenever I feel I have succeeded in crafting a segment that could lift you the reader up or break their heart or produce a genuine gut laugh, it’s a victory. And that victory exists whether the words I have created reach ten eyes or ten million.

Many people have this flawed idea that people who ‘make it’ always knew they would. That those writers didn’t have to carve time out of already busy schedules, didn’t have to sacrifice family time for story research or deal with doubt or worry about working two jobs to pay the bills during the course of their novel creation. Like, the process was easy because the result was somehow guaranteed.

I may not know my ass from my elbow some days but my 32 years have granted me at least this much wisdom: no result is ever guaranteed.

That is why it is of such dire importance to spend our days doing what we love. Now. Not what we we think will yield us riches and prestige 5 or 10 years down the line, but what we love in this present moment in which we exist.

I don’t care if what makes you happy is crafting surrealist spoken word poetry or spending as much time as possible with your children or taking extraordinarily long showers with detachable shower heads— make the time to do it.**

Maybe you only like thinking about writing ideas, but the actual process of ‘type type edit curse delete curse question existence’ makes you think Bukowski was onto something with the whole ‘drink self into oblivion’ plan. That’s cool (the not writing plan, not the chronic alcoholism plan). Just imagine, then. Be an imaginer.

But if you love writing then do that. Write. Create something that makes your heart sing and your chest swell with pride. Don’t worry about the whys or wherefores. When it is done, if you think you have something of value and the idea of dollar signs and your name in lights seems appealing, then worry about how best to market the completed product you now have. If it’s something you crafted lovingly and poured yourself into with fiery abandon, it may not be all that hard.

Maybe. Again, see above point: No result is ever guaranteed.

No result except this: If you do what you love, your days are well spent. And that is true whether the fruits of your labour are justified with dollars and TV contracts or no.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

*[Anyone literate, anyway]~Pedantic Vacation Steph

**If you love all of those things and more besides. . .well, sugartits, it is time to be realistic. You can do one thing well, ten things decently or twenty things poorly***.‘How to prioritize’ would be a whole different post. Series of posts. Novel. Series of novels.

***Actual numbers may vary depending on person, existence and tasks.

Ch-ch-changes: 5 Tips For Surviving Editing (with Guest Blogger goodness)

J. Jonah Jameson

Editor may not be exactly as shown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

All right, you little word badgers. I have a special guest for you today. Sherry D. Ramsey is an excellent writer whose debut novel, One’s Aspect To The Sun, was just published by Tyche Books. In addition to that, she’s an editor, putting together several short fiction collections with her collaborators over at Third Person Press.  She’s here to talk about working with an editor, and since she’s got experience on both sides of the table, you’d best listen.

I’ll be handing things over to Sherry now. Be nice to the substitute, or I’ll keep you all after class. *Takes off Shouty Hat and Stompy Boots, hands them over to Guest Blogger, watches you all ominously from behind a pillar.*

5 Tips for Surviving the Editorial Process

 

by Sherry D. Ramsey

The thought of working with an editor—either an editor you’re paying to help you improve your work, or an editor at a publishing house—can be a scary one. What if they hate your story? What if they don’t “get” it? What if they want you to change everything?

Well, having spent time on both sides of the editorial desk, I can tell you: being edited is part of the process, so you might as well get used to it. Or as Bare Knuckle Writer herself might say, Suck it Up, Princess. I rewrote the last third of my new novel, One’s Aspect to the Sun, after getting detailed feedback from my editor at Tyche Books. She told me what she liked about the novel, but also identified problems and weak spots and suggested how I might fix them. Although her advice was invaluable and she helped me find the right ending for my book, not all of her suggestions worked for me as they were. My job was to figure out how to address the issues she identified while keeping what I felt were the important elements of the book intact.
It can be challenging, but working to editorial feedback doesn’t have to be a horrible experience. Here are five tips to make the editorial process easier to confront.

1. The Editor is Your Friend.  A good editor offers a fresh viewpoint and an objective (and usually experienced) eye. The best editor will be your partner—not a dictator—in working through your story’s weak spots with you. It should be a back-and-forth process, the editor offering suggestions and guidance that you interpret and implement in your story. The editor’s job, after all, is to help you make your work better. No editor benefits from making your work worse.

2. The Editor Does Not Want to Ruin Your Story. An editor may have a different “take” on your story or see it going in a direction you hadn’t planned. This doesn’t mean that they are trying to ruin the story or make it theirs. Remember: editors have read a lot of stories, and many of them have been awful. They’ve probably seen every way a story can go wrong, and they want to help you avoid those pitfalls. Their ideas are usually worth considering.

3. Not All Editors are Created Equal. Not every editor is going to be the right one to work on your story or book. If an editor would like you to change everything except the main character—they’re probably not the right editor for this project. Likewise if they offer only vague comments with no real guidance, direction, or explanations. The right editor will clearly identify problems and weak spots and maybe even make suggestions for changes. Just remember: if they make personal comments about you as a writer, run the other way, and take your story with you.

4. The Writer Isn’t Always Right. Suppose your knee-jerk reaction to the editor’s suggestions is “No way!” Okay, throw your hissy fit while no-one’s watching. Then calm down, sit down, and consider what the editor has said, and why. It’s entirely possible that your story has some serious problems, and the way you wanted it to go is not the best way to tell the story. You might be wrong. Accept it, then see what you can do about it. Taking editorial suggestion is often about compromise, and you can’t compromise if you think you can’t make a mistake.

5. You Always Have A Choice. Editorial suggestions are just that: suggestions. Really don’t like them? Walk away. No-one is forcing you to make these changes. Just be sure you’re walking away because you actually fear for the integrity of your story, and not because your ego doesn’t want to be bruised. Writers who don’t need editors are extremely rare, if they exist at all. Are you completely certain you’re one of them?

Want more of Sherry’s writing thoughts? Tune in on Twitter: @sdramsey. Or check out her website over here.