Thank You, Doctors

compassI have a secret to share with you.

When I create characters for my novels, I often call on the expertise of two renowned psychologists. Their names are Carl Jung and Isabel Briggs Myers. Many of us know their work in the form of the theory of psychological typology, or the personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). I’ve found that once I start developing a character, I can turn to the Myers-Briggs personality types to fill out the outline of a character with true-to-life traits and behaviors using the four categories of personality type. In short, it’s like a cheat sheet for character creation.

Let’s look at an example using the first piece of the four-part MBTI.

I’ve got a rather demanding physicist I want to cast as my reluctant hero. As an academic, he fits the Introvert (I) type, rather than the Extrovert (E): he prefers private time, doesn’t do well in crowds, and is sometimes so wrapped up in his thoughts that he’s oblivious to what’s happening around him. I’d say that’s a good description of a physicist who loves to work long hours in a research lab. However, since I want him to come across as blunt and insensitive, I’m going to throw in a little Extrovert: he tends to act first, and reflect later, in social situations he finds challenging.

Here’s the scene I’m working on: After finishing a 20-hour stint in the lab, the physicist is awakened from a deep sleep by an insistent knocking at his front door.

Here’s the question I have to answer as the author: Is he going to greet the visitor with a smile, because he can’t wait to share the big discovery he made during that lab marathon? Or is he going to roll over and refuse to come to the door?

I decide he’s going to roll over and pull the pillow over his head in true Introvert style.

But the knocking continues. He has to do something to make it stop because it’s infringing on his solitude, which he craves.

Grudgingly, he drags himself out of bed; he’s not going to be a happy camper when he opens that door. Nor does he want to talk with anyone (this is an awkward social situation, remember!), but because of that bit of Extrovert quality (act first, think later), he ends up jerking open the door. When he see’s it’s his least favorite colleague from work, he blurts out a rude, “What are you doing here?”.

By using the MBTI as my guide, I’ve accomplished several things, such as giving him consistent character traits, motivation for his actions, and even the beginning of a conflict with another character.

By the time I identify the other three parts of his personality type – Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), Judging (J) or Perceiving (P) – I’ll have the keys to his actions in any situation my plot throws at him.

How do you make your characters come to life?

Amish Aliens Stole My Baby

Not really, but sure grabbed your attention, eh? And that’s the point of this post.

Calm down. I hear you. You’re a novel writer, not a journalist. Why should you care about catchy headlines? Isn’t that a lame gimmick better left to the National Enquirer?

Actually, no.

Mastering the art of grabbing the reader’s attention is a valuable skill every writer should hone.

In case you haven’t noticed, the written word is exploding from one end of the spectrum to another, from e-books to self-published hard copies to blogs. Getting your work to stand out from the crowd is more important than ever.

Which begs the question: How does one grab a reader by the throat? There are many ways, but here are a few to toss into your writerly toolbox:

Shock and Awe

This is one of the tactics I employed with my blog post title. Think controversial. Think stunning. Think outside the box. This method is most often used by rabble-rousers who get a secret thrill out of rattling cages.

Warm Fuzzies

If you start off with something everyone can relate to on an emotional level, you’ll draw in the human side of the reader. It’s a pull that’s hard to resist. In my example, I tossed in the word baby. Emotions are what set us apart from the rest of the mammals. Well, that and opposable thumbs.

Trendy Tidbit

The ol’ People magazine approach, naming what’s hip or what’s not. Naturally this works better for contemporaries than historicals…but not always. Amish is a buzzword right now, which is why I chose it for my post title.

Opposites Attract

Jumbo shrimp. Government intelligence. Amish aliens. Put two incongruous words together, and if they’re not cliché, people will sit up and take notice.

Now then, where to employ these attention grabbing strategies? Obviously your entire manuscript can’t be outrageously intense. You’d burn out your brain and your reader would gasp for air. Nevertheless, there are key areas that require some eye-popping fancy footwork. These are:

– The first sentence of a book…better yet, make that the first sentence of every chapter.

– The last sentence of each chapter. Force your reader to turn the page.

– Back cover copy. Often this is where you reel ‘em in or break the deal.

– The one-liner that sums up your entire novel.

So go ahead. Give this a whirl. Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd, especially when it comes to your writing. Hopefully you’ll attract the attention of an editor, not an Amish Alien.

And if you’re brave enough, share with us your re-written stunning first line of your current project (fiction or non-fiction).

The Craft of Writing

The dictionary defines ‘craft’ by making references to skill, dexterity, cunning, and even deceit. Of course, it is normally associated with a deft manual skill to produce a thing of value or beauty. Trying to decide exactly what is the good and acceptable product of a skilled craftsman we then descend rapidly into the shadowy realms of subjectivity.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison and all that.

I have just been reading George Orwell’s little manifesto entitled ‘Why I Write,’ which he published in 1946, the year I was born. Orwell was undoubtedly a craftsman, knew his craft well, and was literate and articulate enough to write succinctly about it. In the early part of the book, he lists what he believes to be the four main reasons, or motives, why a person would want to seriously write.

  1. Egoism
  2. Aesthetic
  3. Historical
  4. Political

The first motive is probably the strongest driver, if we are honest enough to admit to it. It is the desire to be seen to be clever, to be talked about, to be on the New York Times Best Seller List and even to be remembered after our death, though we won’t be around to bask in the glory.

Becoming a writer is an odd desire in many ways. What I mean is, if you want to be a painter, a carpenter, an engineer, a dentist or a doctor, it is assumed you will have to be trained and fully learn your craft before you can produce or do anything really good.

To become a writer is somehow different from all the other professions, in that you can go to university to study English literature and attend creative writing courses run by eminent successful writers. In the UK, I imagine hundreds do just this, and I guess in the USA it probably numbers in the thousands. But somehow it doesn’t quite work out in the same way as for the people who study diligently to become craftsmen in other disciplines. In my doctor’s office, I see on the wall his credentials proudly displayed–the Medical Certificate, which says he can practice as a GP. I look at that and trust him implicitly.

If writers had consulting rooms, like doctors, and I saw on the wall the University degrees in literature, philosophy, history and the like, would I assume that the holder of these prestigious awards was a great writer? We all know the answer to this question. It’s a simple, unvarnished ‘no’.

The craft of writing can be taught. The craft of learning to become a writer can be learnt, but it doesn’t guarantee that the student will be a great or even a good writer. But why doesn’t it?

Returning to George Orwell and his little essay ‘Why I write,’ he says this about considering what makes a good writer: “…it has to do with the writer’s early development; his subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in, by his acquired emotional attitudes, his temperament, his maturity and not forgetting the all-important motives, listed above.”

From the point of view given in the paragraphs above it is clear that learning the craft of writing is not enough. We can partition this activity as the objective study of writing. All the rest is established in the subjective department of the writer. This latter realm cannot be taught. It is indeterminate, unique, special, incalculable, complex, mystical, beautiful, tangible yet ephemeral, and at some precious moment even eternal.

It is the human psyche which holds the secret. What pours out onto the ‘tabular rasa’ is a miracle at times. Where does it come from? It comes from the life within. It can be good, bad and ugly, but when it is truly creative and inspired, it shows. And more importantly readers know it too. It becomes a shared experience par excellence. It binds us together in unity. It applauds the human race. It raises us out of the mire and places us firmly on the mountain top. Hallelujah!

PS – For some other writers’ views see :

  1. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King
  2. Ernest Hemingway on Writing, by Larry W. Phillips
  3. On Writing: Rethinking Conventional Wisdom about the Craft, by David Jauss

How to Captivate Readers

Small Child Reading

Wonderment

Children’s eyes

See marvels,

Creation

Born anew,

Wonderment

In each small

Everything.

Give me, Lord,

A child’s view.

©Janalyn Voigt

The cup of tea at your elbow grows cold.The dryer buzzes, but you hardly notice. The clock ticks past the time to make dinner, but you turn the page and read on, captured by the author’s creative world.

When they can make readers forget they’re reading, books rank high on purchase lists. Figuring out how this happens is well worth the effort. Can such a thing be identified? Bringing the reader so fully into a story would seem to take an elusive blend of mastery and pixie dust. Besides, don’t readers’ preferences dictate which books will draw them in?

I would have agreed to this idea a week ago, but not any longer. You see, the book I’m currently reading for a literary contest is a young adult story. With my teen years forever behind me, I am not a target reader for this book. In fact, when I first picked it up, I groaned inwardly. While being required as a literary judge to read a slew of books might seem an envious pursuit, the bare truth is that sometimes I wind up stuck with a book I’d otherwise never open. It would be arrogant of me to judge another author’s writing without actually reading it, and so in a fit of fortitude I slog doggedly onward until the merciful end.

If that had been the case with this particular book, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It wasn’t. I did have to push past a slow start, but then the story enveloped me like a warm shawl on a chilly evening. I read late into the night, turning pages in a way that would have gratified the author. As I mentioned, I am not this author’s target audience, so I may never crack one of her books, but the next day I found her Goodreads page and became a fan. Why? Because her writing transported me in a way few books have. And I read a lot of books. If my experience is anything to go by, preference has little to do with captivating a reader.

What does, then? I asked myself this question with an interest not in the least academic. I want to apply this writer’s secret sauce to my own writing. I read the rest of the book with that goal in mind. What I discovered rocked me to the core.

Apart from the necessities of craft and mastery, two distinct factors elevated the story: a unique writing voice empowered by a vivid imagination. The author’s strong sense of self expressed without reserve resonated within her fully imagined story.

In these days of rapid writing, let’s not forget to add art to craft. The demands on you to produce and promote can steal the soul from your writing, if you let it. Feeding your inner artist is the only way to tap the wellspring of creative life within and produce enduring works. That will look different for each of us, but one thing remains true for all. The way forward is backward. At least mentally, let yourself step backward into childhood and discover the world with fresh eyes.

What books have you read lately that have surprised you? Transported you back to your childhood?

Four P’s in a Pod

Ever try to stab a pile of peas with a fork? Inevitably, a few green roly-polys fly off your plate and plummet to the floor. It’s a horrible way for a pea to go.

And even worse when it happens to one of your scenes.

Track with me here. You’re writing along la-de-dah-de-dah and wham! An invisible pitchfork skewers your brain, and the words go flying right out of your head. You have no idea what to write next. And the longer you sit there, the more you wonder if the words you’ve already written even have a point.

Don’t panic. Be proactive. Mind your P’s and…umm…P’s! Four of them to be exact: POV, Plan, Purpose, Page Turner. Try the following handy-dandy trick at the beginning of each scene to keep your writing on track.

POV (Point of View): This is the easiest P of all. Simply jot down from which character’s perspective your reader will experience the scene.

Plan: An architect needs a blueprint to construct a building that’s stable and functional. A writer needs one, too. This step is exactly what the label implies. Plan out the sequence of action for the scene, including setting and who’s involved.

Purpose: If your scene doesn’t have a purpose other than back story or description, then toss it out. A well told story is one that takes the reader by the hand and pulls them along, always moving forward.

Page Turner: a.k.a. Cliff Hanger. This doesn’t have to be a literal hero dangling by his hangnails from a ledge. Simply put, the goal of every scene, especially the last few sentences, is to leave the reader begging for more. Physical action is the most tangible way to accomplish this, but it doesn’t have to be. Emotional or spiritual conflicts are great ways to make a reader wonder what will happen as well.

Pulling It Together: At the beginning of each scene, simply satisfy each of these “P’s” before starting to write fresh copy. Here’s an example of how all this pulls together (taken from my current WIP):

POV: Nicholas Brentwood

Plan: Ballroom scene / Nicholas allows Emily to dance with Henley, though he doesn’t like it one bit / Shadwell asks Emily’s friend Bella to dance, but Bella says she’s already dancing with Nicholas / Nicholas is about to protest when he realizes not only will he be doing Bella a favor by saving her from dancing with Shadwell, but he’ll have a much better view of Emily on the dance floor himself / While out dancing, he loses sight of Emily and rushes out to look for her / He searches upstairs, downstairs, everywhere, but merely turns up Emily’s scare-rific ‘friend’ Millie, the one who’s been trying to snag him / he tries to evade her, until her parting words make him stop and turn around

Purpose: Hypes up Nicholas’s concern for Emily / Provides an opportunity for the next clue as to what happened to Mr. Payne

Page Turner: Millie’s parting words, “I know what happened to Mr. Payne.”

There you have it. It’s really that simple. By thinking through the four “P’s” ahead of time, words will roll right off your fingertips and appear on your screen, which technically crams one more P in the ol’ writing pod…

Productivity.

How will you use the four “P” technique this week in your writing? What other techniques do you have that keep the words flowing?

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