Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Character Observations: Nicole Arbour (Dear Fat People) Part 2

I bet you thought I wasn't going to publish a post today...

The internet up here on my mountain was not so good today. I had a lot to get done, and no bandwidth to do it. Also, my daughter's preschool sent her home early because she was "feeling sick." Ok, apparently she threw up twice. That's sick. Only she wasn't sick when I picked her up, and we had an awesome afternoon free of my normal writing and "other" responsibilities (what does a new author do for money? THAT is a post for a very rainy day).

So, by now you might have forgotten that this is part two of my diatribe against Nicole Arbour (Part 1). Honestly, I just needed to vent last week, but now I'm feeling rather detached from her little video. I've moved on. Great, so let's get started on the writing part.

Standard disclaimer: I'm in no way an authoritative source on writing advice. This isn't advice, or tips, or help in any way.

Every character has a back story. You need to know it, even if you never mention it.

So, let's craft a character based on Nicole Arbour. What's the first thing I do when creating a character? Name them? Nope. Just start writing and see if they "develop" over the course of my story? Hehe... NO. I frequently refer to characters as "puppets" though that description implies that I am the puppeteer. I am not the puppeteer. I don't control the characters, they control the story.

They're more like lopsided rocks rolling down an obstacle course. I determine the obstacles in their way, but they decide whether to bounce left, right, or roll right over them. I'll often plan a scene by writing an outline of where the characters are emotionally and plot-wise at the beginning of the scene and the end, then hope they let me get there. My characters have a way of deciding how to respond to situations as I write them which alter the game plan, sometimes significantly. This creates a more realistic plot, and it lends to more believable characters. Well-formed characters write their own scenes and have me re-plot and clean up as I go, which is easier than trying to form characters around the plot itself.

So, my characters need motivations, emotions, personality... in essence, they need to be as human as any other person in my mind. The characters Jessica, Ashley, Kristina, Andrew, Corinne, all exist in the same department of my mind as my actual friends and family. I can hear them speaking as I write dialogue, see them moving as they interact with each other. Characters are way more interesting than, say, scenery or political machinations (which, in my opinion, should only exist as a means to advance character interactions).

Not every character was abused as a child

Which brings us to our character, FakeNicole. I can picture her in my head, ranting about that poor kid on the plane. But how does she react in a different situation, say, when she was actually sitting next to the kid. We have some information, like how she put the divider down even though it might not have been necessary. What was she really thinking when she did that? How did she do it? Slowly, with a look of disdain crossing her face? Or did she look the other way, avoiding eye contact? Did she exhale with a 'harumph' as it landed in position, or did she silently shift in her seat?

To really get the details of the moment, you have to figure out what she's feeling and to understand that, you need to know WHY. Why does she have these negative feelings towards heavy people? When did they start? Did her mother tell her fat people are evil when she was four (my kid's going through a slight judgmental phase which I'm trying desperately to abate without making her self-conscious). I hesitate to make every character trait the result of some childhood trauma or bad parenting. Think about yourself for a moment. Are you defined by your childhood? Sure, some parts of you are, but chances are you've been growing as a human since you turned 18.

Just for fun, I'd probably say FakeNicole's prejudices started in college. Did they really? Who knows, this part is fiction.

Her roommate gained the freshman 15, while FakeNicole tried really hard to stay thin. But her roommate got good grades while hers suffered, she had fun with an ambitious friend group while FakeNicole felt isolated. FakeNicole became resentful, but for the most part still really liked and admired her friend even as her envy grew. She needed some way to justify why her roommate was succeeding while she felt like a failure, so she started mentally noting all the ways she was superior. She eventually decided that by letting go of her weight, FakeNicole's roommate was gaining some kind of advantage. She wasn't hungry during class like FakeNicole was, and she was able to eat anything out with friends, which was hindering FakeNicole's social situations. Of course, none of these things were really happening... until, of course, FakeNicole started to identify them. Once she defined herself as someone who sacrificed her grades and social life to be thin, it became part of her personality, and eventually, her identity. The anger came much later.

I write at least 30 paragraphs like these about each major character before I put them in a story, and I continue writing them as the novel continues (because as well as you know someone, there are always more things to learn about them). Even minor characters get at least three paragraphs like this, writing which is both essential to the story, but never read. Sometimes elements from these bio-paragraphs work their way into character descriptions or even contribute to the plot, but for the most part these add nothing to the novel other than deepening the characters' backstory.

All that said, writing a sequel is a very interesting proposition from a character standpoint. Not only do you have backstory from before the first novel, but you have what happened in the first novel, how the character perceives what happened in the first novel, and what happened between the first novel and the second. With luck, characters will change in ways which stay true to their original conception but reflect the events which readers experienced first-hand.

Think you'll see FakeNicole in my next novel? There's always a chance... But you'll have to wait to find out. In the mean time, why not check out my debut novel? Join the "dozens" of people who have already gotten to know the people who exist solely inside my cramped little brain.

(Yes, I said "dozens." I'm proud of that number, ok? I'd like it to be "thousands," I'd settle for "hundreds," but I'm damn proud of "dozens" thus far as an unknown author.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Character Observations: Nicole Arbour (Dear Fat People) Part 1

Last week after I finished writing my blog post about societal judgment being a theme in my first novel, I turned on Facebook and saw a link posted by my cousin about someone named Nicole Arbour.

I'm a little... slow... when it comes to pop culture things. About two years ago I used to watch stuff on YouTube like Fine Bros., Grace Helbig, Minecraft vids, etc. and so I haven't always been out of touch. But I live in a house on a mountain and the internet is spotty, so without YouTube I've become slightly behind the times. I missed the original "Dear Fat People" video when it was viral and had to hear about it on Facebook like someone's grandmother.

Fun fact: I originally based parts of my lead character off of Grace Helbig's video blogging, but went in another direction. However, a new character in my second novel features some of those traits. Recycling!

I immediately knew I needed to write a post about this girl, but what? I thought about refuting her claims, but that's been done to death and honestly, I read a transcript of the video and the only word to describe her thoughts is vacuous. There's this part about smashing candy which, I guess, is supposed to be a metaphor for fat people abusing their bodies but... I don't know. She has one single premise backed up with no actual arguments that goes something like this:

"Fat shaming (which should be called "truth bombing") is good because it makes people stop eating too much."
-Nicole Arbour, definitely not me.

Really, go back and read the transcript, that's ALL she says. And that one premise gets a lot of traction in today's world because people don't think about it critically. Yet, it's pretty easy to debunk, watch:

Does yelling at bad drivers make them stop driving poorly? Does complaining about politicians make them any more honest and trustworthy? Does refusing to grant homosexuals a marriage permit make them suddenly straight? Does yelling at a crying baby in a restaurant make the child rethink their life choices? No. Being angry at someone is only useful if that person doesn't recognize the problem. But fat people recognize that their weight is an issue. Being angry about it doesn't change anything.

Or does it? Some people argue that efforts to change societal attitudes about weight, to stop so-called "fat shaming," are making fat people less likely to change. I guess you could make that argument, but I don't think it's particularly valid. For one, there is something called a "shame spiral" which is basically: 1) do something bad to yourself, 2) feel bad about it, 3) do that thing again, 4) repeat steps 2-4. If people already feel bad about their weight, and if that shame is making them more likely to overeat and less likely to exercise, then how is making them feel worse going to change anything?

How does fat shaming affect people who suffer from anorexia? Just throwing that out there...

People like Nicole Arbour and her followers don't actually sound like they want to help people. They say they do, but their demeanor doesn't fit with their rhetoric. Nicole Arbour spends a good third of her rant describing how she blames an overweight family for 1) making her wait in airport security, 2) her getting sweaty from walking in an airport, 3) making her sit next to an overweight kid. Seriously, one of her complaints about fat people is that she had to sit next to one! That's like me saying 'I don't hate black people, I just wish they would sit on a different half of the bus because I don't like the idea of my elbow accidentally brushing up against theirs.' (Nobody sits next to me on the bus; maybe I look scary? Kinda bums me out.) She argues that the child's fat was "on her lap" but the kid's story and basic physics call BS on that one. Even if she was somewhat uncomfortable sitting next to a larger person on a plane, which I confess is pretty frustrating because most people value their personal space, that doesn't excuse her vitriolic attitude both during and especially after the flight.

Which brings me to the point of this post... wait, what? 700+ words and I still haven't even gotten to the point? Actually, this is a problem with the 'stream of consciousness' style of this blog. I was going to talk about how I would craft a character like Nicole Arbour for use in one of my novels. But that's going to take this post way over 1000 words, which means we're looking at a two-parter.

Next week: Developing a backstory and characterization for Ms. Arbour. See you then!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Flavors Which Tie a Novel Together

Ok, I promise no more cranky screeds about WUI (writing while intoxicated). At least, not this week.

Update on the novel: Novel #2 is really starting to gel at this point. I have my outline done, which will probably be cut to shreds by the time my first draft is complete, and I have what I call a "Novel Wiki" written. My Novel Wiki is a set of notes on characters, settings, locations, a timeline, mystery elements and a few other tidbits which I can refer back to for continuity and to figure out the needs of any particular scene, chapter, act etc. I've written a nice, tense prologue so now it's on to the meat of the novel.

This is the tricky part.

Because I'm in the mystery genre, I like to write in sequence rather than jumping around the timeline. I think it helps me keep in mind what information the reader has at a given moment rather than say, "Oh, I would have told them about this in Chapter 6." So, I have to start at the beginning. That means I'm focused on two things. 1) keeping up momentum and maintaining reader interest and 2) introducing the characters and their present situation. Since this is a sequel, I thought introducing the characters could take a back seat in the first act, but in reality I have to negotiate a six-month gap in which every character has changed and their motivations must all be explained. That makes keeping up momentum very difficult.

Oh, and as always, I need to establish the theme of the novel.

"It's a mystery novel, not literary fiction. Do you even need a theme?"

I know mystery readers don't expect something like an overarching theme to exist in their novels, but I can almost certainly assure you that one exists in any novel, mystery or otherwise, worth paying for.

I wish I could tell you all about the dozens of ways I used the theme of my first novel to shape its plot structure. However, I'm trying to use this blog as a mild advertisement platform (whaa?!?), and thus spoiling the plot for potential new readers would be detrimental to my goals. So, I promise to keep any spoilers limited to the selection of text you can read in Amazon's preview, or roughly Chapter 2.

The theme of The Tide Washed Her Away: "The people who know you best are the people who care about you."

There are two main plots in the novel. One involves Jessica Carter coming home after a failed career and having to reconnect with the friends she alienated, while the other is learning about Corinne Masterson's life before she was murdered.

So how does the theme fit with these plots? With Jessica, she has no idea what her friends' lives have been like since she left them behind in Hampton. She really doesn't know her friends because she stopped caring about them, and that bothers her enough that she promises to change her ways early on. But as much as Jessica has stopped learning about her friends, they too have stopped learning about her. They think she's arrogant and self-assured when her reality is quite different. Those initial misperceptions on both sides lead to conflict, and Jessica's pursuit of the truth behind her friends' lives becomes a driving motivator as the novel progresses.

With Corinne, the theme centers more around how people who don't know her are more likely to judge her unfairly for a life she was rumored to have led. Jessica seeks to change people's opinions of Corinne by writing about her life, but since Jessica has been gone during this period she has no choice but to seek out people who cared about Corinne.

In the end, people probably won't even notice the theme playing out. That's not the point of having a theme. It's more like cooking a gourmet dish. There are tastes which bind the various pieces together, but the diner isn't necessarily going to be able to point it out. Without an overarching theme in a novel, the plot can lose cohesion.

I really hope to someday pick apart The Tide Washed Her Away and show just how much the theme is used. Unfortunately, this blog post is getting long and, again, I refuse to spoil readers.

The theme for the next novel is a slight variation on the first. "The people who care about you influence who you become." It is, like any good sequel, an embellishment on the first theme, expanding and adding to it while keeping the flavor of the series consistent.

That's it for this week. Maybe by next week I will have figured out a way to explain to my wife's family why she's working her butt off to pay the bills while I write make-believe... Heh... I'm a dreamer, not a miracle worker.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Writing Under the Influence

You sit down at your computer and stare at a blank page for half an hour, thinking to yourself, How am I ever going to get this post/paper/chapter/scene/etc. done when I can't even get a single word on the page?

I don't care if you're a seasoned novelist or a freshman in high school, I think we've all been at this point a few times in our lives.

What do you reach for when that happens?

All writers want to be the most interesting man/woman in the world.

You know the commercial, the one with the wizened yet irreverent man sitting in a bar with a cocktail in hand, attracting the interest of other patrons (or TV viewers, as the case may be) with an effortless charm. People in general, and writers specifically, seem to gravitate to such a persona, which explains why the Dos Equis brand has stuck with those ads for years. Writers see their beloved Hemingway in those commercials. Hemingway was a notorious drinker, which adds to a certain mythology surrounding alcohol and creative writing. Alcohol is a part of many aspiring writers' "method," "habit" or "process." But the number of successful authors who drink regularly are far fewer than aspiring writers imagine.

I can almost see the argument, though. Getting past that first page is a terrible burden. Before the first words, there is a storm of self-doubt which brews inside authors' heads. We are inhibited by that doubt, and thus anything which might break through it seems welcome. Too bad the downside of the help alcohol provides far outweighs its benefit.

Never film yourself dancing when you're drunk if you plan to watch it sober.

We all know people can't drive when they are drunk, nor can they dance, sing, draw, or do anything which requires the higher functions of a brain. This is common knowledge, but how many people think those rules don't apply to them? How many people drink and drive, thinking they are an exception? How many people only dance when they are drunk, knowing that their skills haven't improved, only their ability to ignore the judgment of others.

How many regret what they have done the morning after when they think back on what they did?

Writing is no exception to these rules. Nobody can write well when they are drunk. You can't write well when you are drunk. Nobody means nobody. Yet writers convince themselves that, if Hemingway could do it, so too can they. But Hemingway wrote sober in the mornings and drank at night, something which adherents to drunken scribbling seem to ignore.

Even if one chooses to use alcohol or similar chemical means to get past inhibitions or to gain inspiration, 90% of the work of writing takes place in the editing stages. That is where the fevered delusions of your imagination come together to form a smart, coherent work. Have you ever woken from a dream and written something you think is profound only to read it later and wonder what you were thinking? Now imagine reading a book made entirely of inebriated recollections of ideas which, when they see the light of day, come across as shallow or even unintelligible. That is what drunk writers produce. Maybe that junk can be transformed in editing, but it is certainly no justification for writing while under the influence.


Wow, I guess that post has been building in me for longer than I've been working on this blog. I started off trying to explain why pistachios are my favorite thing to have on my desk when I'm writing, but ended up writing a screed instead.

I could start over, but... nah. Someone out there needs to read this today.

Sorry for the rant. Work on my sequel to The Tide Washed Her Away is going well, in case you needed an update. I'll be back next week!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Quick Thanks From a Grateful Writer

I didn't want to clutter my substantive post with sales talk, but I feel like a quick thank you is in order for all those who have either purchased my novel outright or read it in Kindle Unlimited.


You see, I set out writing a novel with the hope that someone might read a story I wrote. But while having family and friends read my work was nice, knowing that at least a few strangers are experiencing my novel is fulfilling in a way I can barely describe. I'm certainly hoping you guys enjoy it.

If you did enjoy my book, why not stop by my Facebook Page and say hello? I'm not hawking "likes," I'm just letting you know there's a way to get in touch if you want it.

Thanks again!


How to Do Big Things

Well, here I am again. Did you think I had abandoned this project? After one week, really? Well, I didn't. I might have if something better came along, but it didn't.


"I just don't think I could do something like that. It's too big of a project, too complicated. I wouldn't know where to start."

I've been told by several people that they couldn't ever write a novel for various reasons, including lack of imagination and an inability to write "well" (whatever that means). Both excuses are, of course, ridiculous because all people have imaginations and all speaking adults can tell stories. A novel isn't good because someone had a good imagination or because they have some magical ability to craft words, a novel is good because an author takes the time to make it that way. Which leads me to the most common reason for not writing a novel: "It's just too big."

I can't think of a single "small" thing in life that's worth doing. Go ahead, try.

What did you come up with? Did you say, "telling someone you love them?" Did you say, "going for a brisk walk?" Did you say, "learning something new?"

Well, those are good things to do, and they are small. But, taken alone, those things are meaningless. What point is there in telling someone you love them a single time without building a relationship? What good is a single walk when it's not a part of developing a healthy habit? Learning a single fact without understanding the context in which it exists is trivial.

Did you say, "writing a single page?"

It is confoundingly (apparently that's not a word according to spell check... it should be) common to hear authors telling new authors they need to "write every single day." I won't go into why that's not always the best advice because Jennifer Mattern of AllIndieWriters already did, but I can see why that advice has such traction. Writing every day is just another way of building a habit, and a habit is necessary when writing a novel requires not one large effort, but countless single pages of writing and editing.

“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
-Vincent van Gogh

By now you can probably see the writing on the wall. I'm going to say that writing a book is as simple as breaking it down into easily managed parts. Got it? Ok, we're moving on.

It still feels like you have an entire mountain to climb, doesn't it? That's how I felt when I set out to finish a novel for the first time. I had started novels before, but for one reason or another, I never finished. Before I set out to make a complete novel, I needed a plan. So, I made a plan, and then another, and then another. I created a detailed plot outline, character biographies, notes on mystery elements and locations... But I was no closer to starting a novel when those things were done.

What finally worked was to boil the entire process down into something anyone can do in less than five minutes (though, hopefully, you'd spend longer than that). I wrote SIX sentences, boiling my story down to a paragraph of less than 100 words. Each of those sentences became an "act" and each act was then divided into "Scenes." Each act was simply an expansion of a single sentence. Under each act, every scene was explained again with just one sentence. There were sixty-two scenes in total. I assigned each scene a word allotment, then started the next day with Act-1, Scene-1.

Here's what I had for my very first scene (minor spoilers):
Act-1, Scene 1: Jessica drives to a party to reunite with her estranged friends while thinking about the failures of the last five years. 1250 words.

You see that "1250 words" comment? That's all I had to write. Not 100,000 words telling a story with complex characters, plot, mystery elements and locations... just 1250 words. Anyone can do that.

My scene-by-scene outline was eventually cut to shreds, though the acts remained until I began my first editing round. Those 1250 words became 388 in the final version of my story by the time I had edited everything over and over. Writing the first draft, the part most people never finish, is only about 20% of the effort. But once you've got that 20% complete, I'd imagine your chances of finishing the thing go from 1 in 1000, to about 1 in 2.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to work on the outline for my second novel.