Describing Characters: Moving Beyond Hair & Eye Color

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Whenever I'm in the planning stages for a new novel, one of the things I try to do is get a clear picture of what my characters look like. I believe we as writers need to know as much as possible about how our characters look if we want them to come to life.

I build my character's appearance in numerous ways.

If my character doesn’t already have a real portrait from history, I pick one from photos of actors or models. (Pinterest is a great place to do this!)

I also fill out an extensive character worksheet that includes the physical aspects of how my character looks. I make notes of every detail including height, weight, body type, scent, texture of skin, and other distinguishing physical traits that are unique to my character.

Obviously as part of the description, I include eye and hair color.

One thing I've noticed, however, especially among newer writers, is that sometimes we can rely too much on hair and eye color in our descriptions of our characters to the neglect of other techniques.

So, how can we find a balance when using eye and hair colors? Here are some methods to keep in mind:

1. Main characters will likely need hair and eye descriptions (especially in certain genres like romance). In fact, we should help our readers to visualize our main characters correctly right from the start (versus confusing them two-thirds of the way through the book by springing an image on them that might not match the person they’ve already visualized). However, these kinds of basic descriptions can be done in creative snippets that are subtly woven in.

2. Minor characters will probably NOT need hair and eye descriptions (unless hair or eyes play a role in the plot). Otherwise, why bother mentioning them? We can pick much more creative ways to describe them—preferably with traits that add to the story in some way (whether mood, tension, etc.). Blake Snyder in Save The Cat describes this technique by saying, “Make sure every character has ‘A Limp and an Eyepatch’ . . . something memorable that will stick him in the reader’s mind.”

3. Give our characters unique tags. A tag is something that will help identify a character throughout the book. Tags can be physical (a bulbous nose), verbal (a particular phrase only that character uses), characteristic (timidity), or an action (nail-biting). I've had to learn to be careful about over-doing my tags. Mentioning them every time a character makes an appearance can get tiring. Which leads to the next point . . .

4. Remember description is only a small part of bringing a character to life. In fact, description alone is not enough. We must weave the sharing of their physical appearance among other techniques—how our character reacts to situations, her goals, her method of handling conflict, the way she enjoys life, etc. All of these little things come together to leave an impression in the reader’s mind about who that person really is.

For example if a character is particularly worrisome, she can wring her hands and say "oh dear." But more than that, we should have her display her worry by hovering closely over her children, reminding them not to forget their lunch money too many times, and watching them cross the street even though they're in junior high.

My Summary: We can't forget to describe our character's physical appearance, but like most aspects of writing—we have to reject the easy (often clichéd) image that comes to our minds first. Instead we need to brainstorm, dig deeper, and find creative, interesting, and unique portrayals that will delight our readers.

But ultimately physical description is only the tip of the iceberg in bringing a character to life. Actions always speak louder, even in our characters!

How about you? Have you fallen into the eye and hair color description trap? How do you push deeper to find more unique ways of describing your characters?

How Important is Talent in Reaching Writing Success?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

 By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

How important is talent to a writer? Is talent required in order to become successful? Is talent necessary to rise above the competition?

I'd be remiss to throw out talent altogether and say that it doesn't matter in the least. The truth is a bit of natural talent can probably help to a degree. Some people are born with wild imaginations. Some have the ability to embellish a story. Others have a smooth way of stringing words together. And all of that can certainly give a writer an advantage.

Sometimes when people ask me where I get my story ideas or how I come up with a great plot twist, I stumble to find an answer. There are just some writing nuances that I can't explain, that just flow, that seem to be hard-wired into my makeup. Dare I say that I have some giftedness without sounding conceited?

However, even when writers are born with certain proclivities, usually talent alone isn't enough to propel a writer to the NYT best-seller list. And yet, there's a widely-held misconception that those who make it big or land multiple book deals simply have more talent than the average writer.

In fact, I think it's all too common for many beginners to have an elevated perception of their writing skill. When I was just beginning, I know I did. I thought my first couple of manuscripts were pretty spectacular. I figured publishers would be knocking down my door to buy my books.

Like many newbies, I thought my talent was enough to make my books special and different from the masses of others out there, that perhaps my books had an almost magical quality that could propel them forward ahead of others.

Fortunately, rejection was the humbling reality check. Rejection from publishers and agents helped me realize I wasn't God's gift to the literary world and that I still had a lot to learn before my material was ready for readers. It wasn't until my fifth book that I finally reached a point where my writing was good enough to catch the attention of an editor. Even then that particular book was rejected. But the interest helped me see that my writing skill was improving.

Unfortunately today, with the ease of self-publishing, many newer writers have lost the humbling reality check that was once a part of the process. Too many beginners with an elevated perception of writing talent (like I had!) toss aside the cautions about rushing to publish the first book or two they've ever written. They overlook advice about getting professional editing. Sometimes they ignore writing advice altogether.

It's all too easy nowadays with social media to see what everyone else is doing, to hear the success stories and to think that "easy" is the norm and that talent alone is enough.

But what we don't see is just how hard each of those successful writers had to work to reach the point where their writing was finally ready for readers to enjoy. We don't see the years and years of writing with no return. We don't see the hours of learning basic writing mechanics. We don't see the multiple rejections. We don't see the money spent on editing or critiques.

Yes, having some talent can give a writer a slight edge. But talent alone is not enough to become a good writer. Each step forward I've taken in my writing career has been hard-earned. I've had to scrape, claw, and fight for every inch of success. Nothing has come easy. Even after six published books and eight more coming down the publication pipeline, I continue to sweat and fight hard for every small victory.

My advice for beginners? Don't assume your talent is enough. Talk to successful authors and get a behind-the-scenes look at the amount of work they've put in. Look for ways to get "reality checks" to find out how you're really doing. Be patient with yourself. And most of all keep learning and writing because eventually with enough hard work, your stories will be ready for readers.

So what about you? How important do you think talent is in reaching writing success?

Put Your Best Work Out There: Avoid These 25 Newbie Writer Mistakes

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

When I'm judging contests, I can usually tell from the first page whether the writer is new (as in working on the first book or two), or whether the writer is more seasoned.

In fact, most of the time I can tell a writer's level of experience from the first paragraph or two.

There are a number of issues that distinguish newbies from more seasoned writers. Here are 25 mistakes I commonly see from a newer writer:

1. Starts the opening paragraph with flowery, verbose, or elaborate descriptions. (A seasoned writer will try to start with a hook, usually a life-altering situation or action.)

2. Stops the story/plot/action to describe a room or person or scene. (A seasoned writer will try to weave those descriptions in small pieces as the story unfolds.)

3. Describes any and/or everything. (A seasoned writer will pick strategic "props" to bring on "stage" that help convey a deeper meaning, theme, mood, or contribute to the plot.)

4. Neglects using sensory details or is too general. (A seasoned writer will try to include all the senses into scenes when possible and be as specific as possible.)

5. Forgets to refer back to the setting during the scene. (A seasoned writer won't just set the stage at the beginning of a new scene, but will continue to keep the reader grounded with interspersed details.)

6. Randomly hops around different characters' heads. (A seasoned writer will stay in one character's head or point-of-view until making a clear break into a different POV, usually at a new chapter or scene.)

7. Neglects to introduce a main POV character until too far into the book. (A seasoned writer will attempt to introduce all of the main characters, even if just by name, within the first portion of the book.)

8. Neglects to regularly give all POV characters enough time. (A seasoned writer may not perfectly alternate between POV characters, but they won't forget about one for too long.)

9. Doesn't stay true to character when in a specific POV. (A seasoned writer will get deep into a character's head and try to see everything from that character's perspective.)

10. Doesn't use contractions. (A seasoned writer knows that contractions help keep the story from being stilted and unrealistic.)

11. Over-addresses characters in the dialogue: "Mother, you’re such a dear. I just couldn’t live without you, Mother.” (A seasoned writer will be careful to eliminate all names that aren't absolutely needed.)

12. Uses large paragraphs of dialogue. (A seasoned writer breaks dialogue into succinct, short paragraphs, not giving one person the "soap box" for too long.)

13. Allows two characters to become "talking heads" where they converse without much else happening between them. (A seasoned writer will intersperse internal narration, action beats, setting details, or action within the dialogue.)

14. Conveys story information in dialogue that is solely for the benefit of the reader. (A seasoned writer looks for organic ways to weave in backstory and other information.)

15. Uses a wide variety of dialogue attributions other than the very basic words like said, asked, whisper, etc. (Seasoned writers try to make the attributions invisible to the reader's eye and almost always use said.)

16. Puts the attribution said before the character's name like: said Mother. (Seasoned writers will put the attribution after the character's name like: Mother said.)

17. Uses attributions with every bit of dialogue. (A seasoned writer will only use dialogue attributions when the dialogue needs the clarification often using action beats or other ways to clarify who is speaking.)

18. Includes chit-chat within dialogue. (A seasoned writer cuts out the ordinary, boring fluff and gets right to the meat of what's important in the conversation.)

19. Overuses adverbs to explain dialogue like: he said whimsically. (A seasoned writer will attempt to make the dialogue express itself.)

20. Uses verbs to stand in as dialogue attributions like: "This is going well," he laughed. (A seasoned writer will know that a character can't laugh, chortle, chirp, etc. a sentence.)

21. Uses clichés for description, characters, or even plot points. (A seasoned writer tries to disregard the first thing that pops into the mind and dig deeper for unique, fresh ideas.)

22. Explains or tells too much information. (A seasoned writer will resist the urge to explain and will attempt to show or lay subtle clues for readers.)

23. Overuse of -ing verb constructions at the beginning of sentences like: Running to the store, he talked on the phone. (A seasoned writer will be careful to express action clearly and succinctly.)

24. Doesn't make enough use of pronouns. (A seasoned writer uses pronouns because they're less clunky and mostly invisible to the reader.)

25. Drops in pronouns without clarifying the antecedent. (A seasoned writer makes sure the pronoun refers back to the last person's name that is mentioned.)

Those are just a few of my observations! Obviously, they're not "absolutes" because writing is a creative process and we can't box anyone in. I think it's unwise to say, "Never use adverbs" or "Never explain anything." When we take such advice literally, we risk having sterile stories.

Rather, I suggest using writing advice as a guideline. Use it to improve and stretch your writing muscles, but don't get hung up on it.

What about you? What particular piece of writing advice have you found the most helpful in taking your stories to the next level?

Why I'm Branching Into YA (Plus a Cover Reveal!)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Photo Credit: Flickr Joaquim Pinho
By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

In a recent post I shared that I have a Young Adult (YA) book releasing next March 2015.

I've been writing adult historical romance for the inspirational market for the past four years and currently have six full length novels published through Bethany House Publishers with three more slated to release through 2016 (including an enovella releasing in October to kick off my new lighthouse series).

Things are going relatively well. Bethany House has been an all-around excellent publisher to work with. With all the horror stories out there about traditional publishers, I really have nothing to complain about.

So why branch out? Why bother writing more? Why start writing young adult (YA) books too?

There are many reasons I wanted to try something new and why I chose to write a medieval YA series. Here are just a few:

1. I'm a prolific writer. Once I complete a first draft of a book, I'm always eager to start the next one. In fact, if too much time passes between first drafts, I become somewhat discontented. I'm most satisfied when I'm in the creative mode that comes with the writing process. In addition, my writing muscles are honed after years of constant practice. Thus, I'm willing and able to write more than one book per year.

2. I'm an ideas person. I count myself blessed that I don't struggle to come up with new story ideas. Sometimes I find myself having too many. With the ideas clamoring for my attention, it's difficult to be content with just one genre.

3. I want to have versatility. In today's turbulent publishing industry, nothing is certain. Authors could once count on reaching a sustainable livable income. But once-popular authors now struggle to keep readers and maintain adequate sales. As genre popularity comes and goes, some authors don't have contracts renewed. Others have quit altogether. Having some versatility seems wise in today's market.

4. I'm writing what I love. I love historicals AND I love YA books. With three high school students, I've tried to stay current with popular YA books so that I can discuss the books with my teens. In the process, I've found myself falling more and more in love with the YA genre.

5. I'm fulfilling my dreams. During my childhood, some of the first stories I wrote were about handsome knights, strong castles, and daring damsels. Those fairy-tale like stories have always been at the back of my mind. I've always wanted to write them. The dream hasn't died. It's only gotten stronger, until I've realized I needed to give it birth.

As part of the process of branching out, I had to consider quite a number of factors, including whether I should take a pen name. After all, I don't want to confuse my brand. Most of my readers know me for my adult historical romances, especially for basing my stories off of real events or people. Wouldn't writing medieval YA confuse readers?

After much debate, I decided that since medieval fits under the umbrella of a historical writer, that I'm still staying fairly close to my brand. And I've found that most adults enjoy reading YA almost as much as teens. Ultimately, I believe that my current readers will enjoy my medieval YA as much as any of my other books.

So there you have it! My reasons for branching out into YA!

And now . . . drum roll please! The cover of my first YA, An Uncertain Choice!

An Uncertain Choice

One beautiful lady. Three handsome knights. 
And a life-changing choice.

Due to her parents’ promise at her birth, Lady Rosemarie has been prepared to become a nun on the day she turns eighteen. Then, a month before her birthday, a friend of her father’s enters the kingdom and proclaims her parents’ will left a second choice—if Rosemarie can marry before the eve of her eighteenth year, she will be exempt from the ancient vow.

Before long, Rosemarie is presented with the three most handsome and brave knights in the land. But when the competition for her heart seemingly results in a knight playing foul, she begins to wonder if the cloister is the best place after all. If only one of the knights—the one who appears the most guilty—had not already captured her heart.

How do YOU feel about authors writing in more than one genre? Do you give it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down? Why?


Reader Pet Peeves

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Did you know readers have pet peeves?

As a reader, there are definitely things that drive me batty.

For example, one of my pet peeves is when authors use dialogue to drop in story information, like this instance when a mother is speaking to her daughter to convey a description, "Don't forget to brush your long, waist-length blond hair, dear." Um, okay. What mother would really drop a description like that into everyday conversation?

Another of my pet peeves is when authors introduce too many characters too soon, requiring me to open up a notes page on my iphone and keep a running tally of the characters' names just so that I can keep them all straight.

Often it's all too easy for authors to write in our own little kingdom of oblivion without chatting with readers to find out what they may or may not like.

So in a recent Facebook chat with my readers, I threw out this question: "When you're reading a book, what's your biggest pet peeve? We authors are always curious what drives our readers crazy!"

There were over 80 responses!

I thought I'd share some of those reader pet peeves so that all of us can become more aware of what readers don't like. While these little nuggets might not contain any hard, fast writing rules, these readers do offer some excellent advice.

Reader Pet Peeves:

Regarding Plot:

• Taking forever to get to the plot.

• Misunderstandings between the two main characters that go on and on and on. After a while, I just want to shake them and say, "Okay will you two just be honest with each other!"

• When a sub plot is started and then dropped - I get frustrated not knowing how it turned out.

• When I can predict the ending way too early.

• When characters flip flop too much. When they move from one act or scene to another without really finishing up the previous one.

• Loose ends! Unless the book is part of a series, I like all of the loose ends to be tied up.

• Epilogues that are too short and just added so everything is wrapped up quickly.

Regarding the Writing:

• Bad grammar and repeating phrases. Also a lot of adjectives, adverbs, and other stuff added to make the story longer.

• The awkward sentence that sometimes creeps in and you have to read it two or three times to understand what they are "getting at."

• Too much description and too many details bog the story down for me and it becomes boring. It's a balancing act here--some is needed, too much becomes painful.

• I hate when authors insult my intelligence by highlighting what should be subtle clues.

• Lack of research for details. If they get details wrong for lack of checking things out, it really bugs me.

Regarding Characters:

• Making the main characters too unlikable in the beginning if they are a "work in progress." Sometimes it's hard to bounce that image out of my head. Some authors take it a bit too far.

• The frequent repetition of what a particular character feels or believes. I don't mind being reminded once or twice, but once I've been told I don't like having the info repeatedly dished out.

• When the main characters angst over the same thing throughout the majority of the book without progressing. It gets repetitive and boring.

• When the dialogue does not represent the person who is speaking.

• Repetition of an action that is a habit for a person. If the heroine bites her lips when nervous I get it after the third time it's pointed out. When it gets to a dozen times I am irritated.

• Character names (especially main) that I am unsure how to pronounce or how the author intended it to be pronounced.

Enlightening pet peeves, aren't they? Thank you, dear readers, for sharing them!

Are there any other pet peeves that you would add? What bothers you the most in the books that you read?

How To Justify Spending Lots of Time Writing Before Publication

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I was at a recent book signing doing a presentation. During the Q & A time, I was asked a really great question: Unpublished writers often feel guilty for spending time writing when they're not seeing a profit from their work. How can beginning writers justify spending lots of time writing when they're not yet published?

I only had to think back to my pre-publication days to remember the frustration I once felt trying to justify the hours I spent writing. Sometimes I would question myself and sometimes others would question what I was doing.

I would ask myself: Should I really put so much energy into my writing when I wasn't making a dime on it? I often wondered if what I was writing was good enough. Quite frankly, I wasn't really sure if I'd ever even get published (this was in the day before indie publishing came of age).

I persevered through the angst and have since learned that the guilt was completely unnecessary.

There are numerous reasons why unpublished writers shouldn't feel guilty for spending time on their writing:

1. Writers need to GET an education.  

Most other professions require years of college where students pay out thousands of dollars to get a degree, all without seeing a return or the guarantee of a job in their field. Sometimes students are even required to do internships without pay.

No one questions such training. In fact, most people see it as a necessary part of the process of becoming ready to handle the "real" job. For example, most people wouldn't want to be operated on a brain surgeon who hadn't gone through numerous years of rigorous training.

The same is true of writers. We have to spend years learning the trade. Sometimes we have to pay money out (for conferences, books, workshops, etc.) even though we're not seeing a return. Usually we have to write numerous books without monetary profit. Those years of learning are our internship, the hands-on-learning that we need to finally be ready for moving to the next stage of our career.

2. Writers need to GO after their passion. 

I believe that everyone is given a gift which is usually wrapped up in a combination of talent, passion, and personality. When we discover our gift (or perhaps gifts), we should use it, pursue it, and make the most of it.

Maybe we won't be able to earn a living using our gift. But that doesn't mean we should set it aside. Lots of people have "day jobs" to help pay the bills, but still pursue their passion on the side.

Using our gifts helps to improve our mental health because we're doing what we enjoy and were made to do. Using our gifts often helps make difference in the lives of those around us. When we get to the end of our lives we can look back and know that we not only touched other lives and made our world a better place, but that we also lived our life to the fullest and best of our ability.

3. Writers need to GAIN family support. 

Families are the places where we should be able to discover and test our gifts. We should be encouraging one another to use them and supporting one another in our endeavors.

All too often, however, families take one another for granted and fail to mutually support each other.

Mothers, especially, are in the habit of sacrificing so much every day for their children and families, that they often give up personal hobbies, exercise, and even using their gifts because they're so busy doing stuff for everyone else. Eventually those moms burn out. I've discovered that I can be a better mom when I'm taking care of myself and leaving time for the activities that are important to me.

If families get into the practice of helping each other carve out time for the things we love and enjoy doing, then we'll all thrive. It can't just be one person sacrificing or one person getting to do his hobby. Rather we need to be encouraging all members within our families to pursue their passions (including writing!).

How about YOU? Have you ever felt guilty for spending time on your writing?

Transitions: What are they and how should writers handle them?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Recently I received this question from Mary: "I'm working on my 4th manuscript draft and suddenly having difficulties (even getting badly stuck) writing by scene. I can't seem to pass large chunks of time where little (yet somewhat critical) events take place. I don't feel like I have enough material for a full scene, yet I can't compile it into a different scene because of where it needs to take place in the story."

There is no one right answer to Mary's dilemma. In fact, there are a number of techniques she could employ to piece in the pesky material giving her trouble. For example she could write very short scenes to include the information and then immediately cut to the next important scene. There are no hard and fast rules for how long scenes need to be. I've seen some that are only a couple paragraphs long. As long as it serves an important role in the plot, then readers won't mind the length.

Another way Mary could handle those troublesome chunks of time is to take a closer look at transitions.

If scenes are the action parts of the story that our characters perform on the stage for our readers, then transitions comprise the stuff that happens off stage in between scenes. Transitions usually describe the passing of time, and they're like tunnels that transport readers from one spot of action in the story to the next important action.

How should writers use transitions?

A story that spans a greater length of time will likely need more transitions. Obviously when our plot covers months or years, we can't possibly include every little thing that happens to our characters without writing a tome. We will have to summarize, usually briefly, so that our reader still feels a part of the character's life even when it happens off stage.

When a story takes place in a shorter span, several weeks or months, then we'll have less lapse time between scenes and so likely won't need to share as much about what is going on during the other hours of the day we're not writing directly about.

Where should writers use transitions?

1. In between scenes. When we write the last word of one scene, the next sentence or paragraph can be a transition. We can briefly summarize something that happens off stage before we jump back into the dialogue or the action of the next scene. To the reader's eye, everything flows together smoothly. In fact, they may not even notice the transition.

2. At the beginning of a new scene. Often I end a scene with a distinct cut. In my first drafts I mark such spots with an "xxx" which lets my editors know to put a break there in the final printed book. After cutting off a scene (preferably with some kind of read-on-prompt), sometimes we'll need to open the new scene with a line or two of transition. Sometimes we may even need a paragraph.

We just need to be wary of dumping too much transition at the beginning of a scene. Remember the modern reader prefers to open books, chapters, and even scenes in the middle of the action. So dumping too much transition at the beginning could bog them down.

3. Weave the transition into the scene. When we jump cut from one scene to the next without any of the in-between transitions, then we may need to weave in some of the off-stage happenings as we write the scene.

For example, in my current WIP, one of the scenes opens with my heroine teaching her students. As the scene unfolds, the reader gradually learns that a couple of weeks has passed because as heroine looks out over the students, her heart aches at the number of children who've died during the recent Scarlet Fever outbreak.

I didn't stop the scene or the action to include the transition. Rather I piece it into the current scene in bite sizes so that the reader understands what has transpired during the blank space between scenes.

A word of caution: 

Don't use transitions for KEY plot points, especially for anything having to do with the romance. Don't summarize the first meeting, the first kiss, or the first date, or any other "firsts." Those are things readers want to experience right along with the character.

In addition to the "firsts" we want to make sure we don't gloss over any other important, life-changing events. Save the transitions for the more mundane, every day kinds of occurrences that really have no direct bearing on the plot. And then show the rest.

What about you? How do you handle transitions in your stories? Any other words of advice for Mary?

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