Mark Twain advised writers to use the right word, not its first cousin. This is an excellent suggestion, but what if you aren’t certain what the right word is, and your critique buddies all have different ideas? I heard Amy Tan say she will go through twenty-five drafts to make sure each word is polished, but I don’t have that kind of stamina. So here are my top four strategies for finding the right word.
Read the sentence out loud. There’s nothing like hearing the words to give you a clue as to where you went wrong.
Consider the location. Is the word in dialogue? Turn that bug into a feature by making this part of your character’s speech pattern. Is the word in lengthy exposition? Perhaps trim that passage and a better description will emerge.
Judge whether you need the sentence, or the entire passage, at all. When the garden gets unruly, it’s time to start whacking things off. I’ve found that solution is useful for my writing as well.
Punt. Just keep the word in place and trust that if it survives the next pass (because there’s always one more pass before publication, yes?) most readers won’t even notice it.
The lilac in our backyard is blooming again. I’ve never seen it blossom at this time of year. My first reaction was, “Cool! I love lilacs!” My second thought was about what this means for the health of the plant. Is it getting too stressed? Will it bloom again in the spring? Then it occurred to me that had I lived even five hundred years ago I would have asked, “What kind of omen is this?”
Omens can be good, or bad, or both, depending on who is interpreting them. I’m reading Plutarch’s Lives and he writes about a little infowar between two opposing parties and the meaning of apparent omens. It would have been hilarious except the omen was used to start a war, but that’s a blog for another day.
Writers don’t have to limit themselves to fantasy or horror to use omens in their plots and/or character development. We all look for meaning in our lives, and sometimes that involves deciding when something is a sign from the universe – which is sort of the definition of an omen, yes? The need to make a hard decision could force your character to rely on superstition, or revert to child-like behavior (“eeny, meeny, miney, moe” and all that), because there is no obvious right answer. Similarly, making a wrong decision could be both a plot point (or the beginning of a subplot) should one character decide everything would have been fine if the protagonist had only used some sort of faith-based option in the decision-making process.
In the ancient world, anything could be an omen. Give yourself the freedom as a writer to use whatever comes your way to make your story what you want it to be.
It’s the Solstice, so it must be time for the reindeer to return. Specifically, my reindeer collection. I thought about how it really isn’t Christmas without the reindeer and that I rarely get them out before the Solstice despite my best intentions. Then I thought of an article I read about design and navigating the holidays. The author suggested that since good design always has some tension, one should plan for tension during family gatherings. I guess the idea is if you’re the one throwing the monkey wrench into the works you can persuade yourself you’re in control. That got me thinking about character development. Most of my characters do their best to create calm, serene environments. Tension is fine for art, but not a family. What would happen if I let my protagonist deliberately start the tension? Would that make readers think I was being inconsistent, or would they see this as Susan’s (justified, one hopes) reaction to one more burden placed on her? How would Susan apologize for the crisis she started once it was over? Would she even try? I’m not sure if or how I will attempt to have Susan act in opposition to her usual style, but it’s an interesting question to ponder. It might even keep me from changing the traditional holiday recipes just to see what happens.
While I was trying to distract myself from eating the Halloween candy before the trick-or-treaters could get it, I was reminded about transformation in character development. The roots of Halloween are all about moving from one plane of existence to another, but we’ve sort of forgotten that with all the candy and costumes and fun. The same can be true of backstory and any other information your character has at the beginning of the story. As your character’s journey unfolds, she can forget or choose to ignore what she knows. Perhaps this will enable her to change, learn, and grow in wonderful ways, perhaps it will be her downfall. That part is only sorta kinda maybe up to you, but you can experiment and see what your character wants. Your character may discover that everything she thought was true about herself was at least partly a lie, and some of the rumors she had been told to dismiss were actually what really happened. The key thing to remember is that information is a tool, and how your character uses it can make for a ripping good yarn.
We had more rain in the last two days than we’ve had in the last two years. Well, it seems that way. We did get a big storm, and it brought sounds I hadn’t heard in ages. I’m not sure if I would have noticed them then, but I do now. For instance, there is a difference in sound in the French drain when the water is part of a brief cloudburst instead of a steady wallop. With continuous, intense precipitation the flow in the drain sounds like someone is running a powerful lawnmower somewhere in the neighborhood.
I wish I could describe a difference in the scent of the air. My sense of smell was never good, and age hasn’t improved it. Nevertheless, I have noticed the absence of odors like dirty air, so I’m counting that as a win.
The feel of the air is different. I’m so used to near-desert humidity that it’s like being tickled by tiny plush rabbits when I go outside. I don’t remember the air ever being this soft. I’m not planning a walk any time soon, however, because the sidewalk is still quite hard as well as slick. The air may feel soft, but it is also chilly and my joints will freeze up. The next thing you know, I’m down on the sidewalk with yet another wrenched ankle (but that’s a blog for another day).
I don’t often get a chance to experience weather – not that I’m complaining – so this rare opportunity needs to be explored. I’ll make many notes that will help add sensory details to future stories. That’s the plan, anyway.
The lipstick I have been using for Zoom meetings is almost gone. It was old when the pandemic started, so old I thought it would end up being part of my estate. That got me thinking about other ways I could mark the passage of time in my stories without resorting to months and dates. I remember hearing some comic say her parents had been married so long they were on their second bottle of Tabasco sauce. Perhaps I could work the lipstick image into a story, or another food image, or finally using up those little round bandages that come in every box of assorted strips and squares but never are the right size for anything. What could you use to mark the passage of time without mentioning a calendar?
I’ve been thinking about how one manages character development in a series after some of my writing buddies talked about how they’ve stopped reading an author they love because the protagonist doesn’t seem to learn from the past. It’s not a trivial question, because I am as guilty as the next reader of wanting my favorite characters to change, learn, and grow – but not too much. I still want to recognize the protagonist, even as I’m cheering for the character to evolve. Ann Anastasio and I never intended our first book, Death By Chenille, to become a series, but here we are writing our fourth novel with the same characters. We started out with characters who were flawed, yes, but essentially grounded. We wanted to tell the story of normal people in an unusual situation (saving the world from aliens who disguise themselves as bolts of beige fabric). As each new book in the Chenille series unfolded, we tried to keep our characters essentially who they were, but let them learn enough to solve the next problem. Is that enough to satisfy our readers? I’m not sure, but I’d welcome your input if you care to read the books (you can get them for your reader on Smashwords.com, for a few bucks).
Now that the shameless self-promotion is out of the way, here are a few possibilities for character development in a series:
You can start with a character that has a boatload of problems, and solve them one novel at a time.
You can start with a character at a specific age (younger is better), and trace her evolution in real(ish) time.
You can write entirely plot-driven novels where the protagonist has to learn something new in each novel or die. That also solves the problem of how to end a series when you are bored writing about the same characters.
Only you can decide how much change is enough for your character, and how much of a reset you are going to do in each novel to maintain the loyalty of your readers. For me, I’m going to try changing one thing at a time. My goal will be to maintain the core values of my characters, but give them a little wiggle room to surprise me.
My latest round of family history research has uncovered odd little connections that I think would make great stories if I could figure out how to make that information relevant to my readers. Just because I think it’s cool that my mother’s people have a connection to both Tolstoy and Lenin doesn’t mean my reader will care. My mother gave me a clue, however, and I’m passing it on to you. She is translating the last letter her great-grandfather wrote to his family. He died in exile long before my mother was born. Although she was interested in what he did and told us stories that had been passed down to her, she never felt a bond with him until now – after she became a great-grandmother. “Self,” I said, “you need to provide your reader with that same bond.” Also, I need the relationship my character has with her backstory to show up in the plot, not just in character development. Like the picture above, all the connections I make with the past must braid together nicely and lead straight to the reader (or, in the case of the picture, the viewer).
As an American writer, I am aware that our language is so full of idioms and imagery that we don’t even notice it. For instance, lend me a hand. I’m not actually asking for your hand, even if you could detach it from your arm and reattach it when I’m finished with it. Perhaps in a hundred years that might be a possibility, and then our readers will have a jolly time trying to figure out what we really meant.
Even single words can be fraught with hidden meaning, as I discovered when my college friends were discussing the possibility of getting together in Minneapolis. “When is the earliest you could make it?” we asked the one who has the tightest schedule. “Not until November,” she said, “but I’m not sure we want to deal with a Minnesota winter.”
Winter for me implies putting my sandals in the back of the closet. When I say I’m not looking forward to the cold, I mean something in the low forties. The fact that I went to college in Minnesota, and still have one of the sweaters my mother knit for me, in no way implies I can manage snow.
Readers aren’t going to know this, are they? If I want my reader to understand that my heroine thinks of winter as the time of blizzards while my villain thinks of it as the time of less sunshine, I need to show something about their wardrobes, where they are living now, maybe where they lived growing up. I could make winter a motif or a subplot, or a vehicle for character development. What I must never do is assume that this simple word has only one meaning.
After listening to Martha Alderson speak at Tri-Valley Writers, I realized my latest novel has plot holes that could double as train tunnels and I have no idea how to fix them. The answer is simple on the surface – keep going. Keep writing notes. Try approaching my muddle-in-the-middle by envisioning the end. Throw in more sensory detail until I really understand the scene and let logic take its course.
But what if I don’t wanna?
What if I woke up in a grouchy mood (for no good reason, mind you) and I can feel my heels start to kick against the floor and a long wail growing up from my toes? The Calvinist in me says get my hinder back in the chair and my pudgy fingertips on the keyboard and write anyway. The coward in me says I should just go back to bed because it’s hopeless, hopeless. The Labrador Retriever in me says the sun is shining, the air is sweet, and there are butterflies to chase (to which my knees say that boat done sailed, honey, so let’s forget all about this chasing nonsense).
In years past, I would grab a handful of carrot sticks and munch away until something popped into my head. After turning myself orange more than once, I gave up carrots and started fixing myself a nice cup of tea. Perhaps now I should listen to my inner Labrador and enjoy the sunshine with my tea until I can face the blank computer screen again. Because being a writer really isn’t hopeless, if you just give your story a chance to tell you what it wants.