A bird sang, and Anna raised her eyes to the topmost twigs of the still bare maple. Far, far above the tree, a jet plane ghosted across the luminous blue of the springtime sky. No contrail, and flying ahead of its sound. Silvery-white, it looked almost translucent, beautiful. Anna thought how strange that dozens of humans were up there, perfectly ordinary people talking, eating, farting, sleeping, anticipating their arrival in some distant city.
The tubular shape vanished behind a medium-sized cumulus cloud that billowed pure white, its edges made incandescent by the morning sun. Anna waited, neck craned, to see the aircraft emerge–because you just do.
She waited. Nothing emerged. No jet plane. No sound, either, although it should have arrived by now. The cloud shifted its shape, sending out illuminated tendrils, elongating, transforming. But the flying craft had disappeared completely, as though vaporized.
Exactly three minutes later, the rain of blood began.
We writers give our characters quirks and habits to make them relatable and different from one another. Fingernail chewing, smoking, polishing glasses, using certain expressions. The trouble is, it’s easy to forget about them while creating the plot.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Once the reader has absorbed that this one mangles paper clips and that one wears polka-dots, are further mentions of those quirks really necessary?
I think they are. Real people keep doing things like that, and we want our characters to be real. And it’s just sloppy writing to forget details. Besides, some readers are incredibly fussy. I remember reading a library book in which a certain character had a cat. The cat didn’t play an important role in the plot, but it was mentioned several times. Toward the end of the book, there was a fire in that character’s house and quite a lot of action around putting it out, making sure no one was injured, etc. But the cat was not mentioned. I have to admit, I may never have realized that, had not a previous reader made a marginal note, “What about the cat? Stupid author!” Readers notice details, even trivial ones.
So another editing pass may be in order. Along with tracking down typos and patching plot holes, add a quirks checklist. Insert characters’ habits, tics, pet phrases, and oddities at intervals throughout the text. And make sure not to mix them up.
But don’t overdo it. Sprinkle, don’t shovel. Aim for a happy medium between “Hey, what happened to the polka-dot bowties?” and “Geez, if I see another mention of paperclip abuse, I’ll throw this book at the wall.”
Fellow writers, do you give your characters memorable quirks? Have you ever forgotten about them in the course of perfecting the plot, or attached a quirk to the wrong character? Or as a reader, been annoyed at an author who did that?
I enjoy writing dialogue. In fact, I’m one of those writers who lets characters call the shots a bit too much. Often, they just sit around and yak, instead of doing something to propel the plot.
Dialogue between two characters is basic and straightforward. But in my current work in progress, a group of five people is about to go somewhere and do something. (Let’s hope it’s something interesting.) Of course they’re going to talk about things, make plans, argue about details–and I’m already getting nervous about refereeing those conversations.
A few things come to mind right away…
If the whole group is there, or even just three of them, I’ll have to supply dialogue tags or other clear indications of who says what.
At least one person will be the silent type. When they do talk, they should say something important or at least funny.
Dialogue will be easier if most scenes include three or fewer of the characters, which means thinking up how to get the others out of the way.
In fact, I’ve already decided someone is going to go missing. Which means the others will have to organize a search while dealing with a number of other issues. That will, of course, require more planning, discussions, and arguments, many of which will take place over meals. (Can’t starve the characters, after all.)
By the time I’m done, I’ll either have mastered the art of managing the multi-character conversation or killed off two or three of the characters.
All you writers out there must have ways of dealing with group dialogue. Any tips or tricks you would like to share?
Images from Pixabay. Featured image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay.
Finish winter pruning and haul brush pile to curb for collection
Clean up beds, cut down dead stalks, etc.
Uproot or cut suckers of lilac, snowberry, and Oregon grape from spots where they’re not wanted
Dig up or at least cut down plants of invasive Italian arum (aka Arum italicum or lords-and-ladies)
Pull up maple and laburnum seedlings, shotweed, and other weeds
Lay out soaker hoses. (They won’t be needed until June, but it’s much easier to wrestle them into place when plants are small)
Edge the beds that adjoin lawns
Acquire materials for mulching mix: bagged manure, lime, slow-release fertilizer, kelp meal, bone meal, alfalfa pellets
Mix above materials with compost to make Alfa-Omega* mix for mulching, and distribute among the beds
Repot potted delphiniums and hostas to larger pots; ditto the rose “Fragrant Cloud,” which was grown from a cutting and therefore is on its own rather feeble roots, rather than grafted onto a vigorous rootstock
No, not the bloody kind performed in times past to ensure good crops and the survival of the group. I’m talking about a situation that happens often in old gardens that aren’t as disciplined as they might be, with more plants than there is space for them.
Specifically, several years ago I saw a clematis for sale at a building supplies store. It was on deep discount because the main planting season (spring, to most people) was over and the stock, including this clematis, was looking a bit tired. The variety is “Blue Angel.” I’m a sucker for any blue flower, and a look at its tag revealed it to be a variety that should be cut to 1 foot (30 cm) of the ground in spring, which simplifies pruning. It’s possibly related to the viticella type clematises, one of which (“Polish Spirit”) is happy in my garden.
But sadly, “Blue Angel” has not done well here. For one thing, I planted it near a large magnolia, with the idea that its blue flowers would look great peeking out of the magnolia foliage in late summer. But that meant the clematis had to establish itself in soil full of magnolia roots. The hole I dug for it was probably inadequate, and to make matters worse, a large (you guessed it) Norway maple a few metres away supplies more roots.
In its second summer, “Blue Angel” actually managed to set up a couple of dozen flower buds on the two stems it had produced that spring. Then one of the stems wilted, along with all the flowers. Clematis wilt is a thing. No matter, the other stem survived and its buds bloomed. But the next year and the one after that (which was 2020), I could see the plant was struggling. I resolved to find a better spot for it and move it this spring–if it showed signs of life, that is.
So spring is upon us, and “Blue Angel” is alive. It has little leaves on its single feeble stem. Now is the time to move it, except that the site I picked out for it is occupied by half a dozen colchicums, which are at their peak of leafiness, feeding their bulbs for next autumn’s bloom. I could move them, but this isn’t the best time. It would be better to wait until summer, when the colchicums are dormant. Except that isn’t the optimal time to move the clematis. I could compromise and wait until the colchicum foliage starts to yellow off in May, but even that might be too late for the clematis.
What to do? Well, I have only this single plant of “Blue Angel” and several dozen colchicums. In its present spot, the clematis is likely to die. It might be possible to move the colchicums with sufficient soil around their bulbs that they wouldn’t know what’s happening. On the other hand, they might die. And even if they don’t, the clematis might not survive the move. But since it’s not likely to survive in its present spot, I’ve decided to make the move.
So here’s the plan. First prepare spots for the colchicums. Dig them up carefully with lots of soil (which will make a start on digging the hole for the clematis) and move them. Then finish prepping the clematis hole and move the clematis. Pray to the garden gods. Sweat (but with luck neither tears nor blood) will have been exuded in all these operations as a tribute to those deities.
This is exactly the kind of situation writers are advised to create for their characters–one where there is no good choice and a calculated risk is needed. And it shows that gardening really is a life or death business.
Once again, I have a work in progress. It took me a while to assemble the story’s elements, but on December 11th, 2020, I started writing.
Over the past twenty years, I’ve realized I can’t depend on obsession to fuel my writing projects, which is what happened in 2000 and 2001 when I wrote The Friendship of Mortals. (Writing project? No, that first novel was a bout of delightful madness!) For me now the normal state of writing a novel is a long and weary slog.
First drafting is a draining experience. Except when a scene fully blooms in my imagination and simply must be written, bridging the gap between imaginings and words is hard work.
A neglected work in progress is an albatross, a ghost, a sinister shape seen out of the corner of one’s eye, a bad smell lurking in the corner. A neglected work in progress is a burden. The choice is to keep slogging or lay it down and give up.
Giving up is out of the question.
So I made a deal with myself–write one page a day. One page, that’s all. If I hit a point where the work takes off and I write more than a page–great! But one page is enough.
A page of my handwriting is between 400 and 500 words. I’m aiming for a 100K-word first draft, eventually to be reduced to between 85 and 90K. A page a day until the end of June should get me most of the way there.
I’m not saying this is the best way to write a novel. I haven’t tried this technique before, but it seems to be working for me right now. Most days I can find the time and energy to write one page. Often, the session extends to a second or third page. The work is coming to life and asking to be written. After 12 weeks, I’m at 40K words, approaching the halfway point of the first draft.
Fellow writers, do you speed through your first drafts or squeeze them out word by word? Do you have any tricks to make yourself keep writing?