How to Write Strong Female Characters

How to Write Strong Female CharactersRead my guest post on Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar’s blog: ‘How to Write Strong Female Characters‘ It’s not exactly a tutorial, but it shows what difficulties are faced and some possible solutions when writing female characters from a male feminist point of view.

How to Write a Good Book – Post 6. Editing

pen6At last your manuscript about Rudolph and Santa is complete and has  gone to your beta readers for one round of testing. What next?
This is where the hard work begins. Most writers don’t enjoy it, but editing is the stage that will lift your work from just a rough story to a world-class bestseller. Well, okay, we hope it will. Seriously though, without good editing, you book will not stand a chance in an increasingly competitive market.
If you can possibly afford the cost, I recommend you get another writer or professional editor to do the final edit on your work. You can always swap books for editing with other readers, if you are short of money. Why do I tell you this? A writer reads what he thought he wrote, not what he actually wrote, when he reads it back. He or she will read the same paragraph 20 times and not see the typo. It has has happened to me in a very embarrassing situation; a submission to a pubisher had an error in the first line of the query letter. Two other people close to me checked it and didn’t spot it. I read it at least 20 times and missed it. Once the tension of submission was over and I received their rejection, I saw the error and it was blindingly obvious!
But whether you are editing somebody else’s work, or your own, the editing process is the same. Do it in this order:
  1. Development editing
  2. Copy-editing
  3. Proof reading
Development editing
Development editing is looking for ways to organise and rearrange the text to tell the story better. A good example is for Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate, as mentioned in lesson 4. Structure. I took the few pages just before the climax and inserted one paragraph at the beginning of each chapter of the book in italics. I could do this because the Main Character (MC) used a tape recorder, so we don’t lose tension by revealing whether the MC lives or dies.Copy-editing
Copy-editing is basically getting the gammar right. It is done to improve the flow of ideas for the reader, clarify what you are saying and sometimes to reduce the length of text. You will probaby find that you also correct some typos, thus saving yourself work during the last stage; proof reading.
Read this sentence:
After that, the conversation went on but I left to find the dormitory
There is a lot of ambiguity here and at least 2 typos; there should be a comma before the conjunction ‘but’ and there is no full-stop (or period, if you are American). Some writers will not use a comma after a preposition of less than five or six words. This practise is becoming more common. So the comma before ‘the conversation’ could probably be removed.
But the sentence is very ambiguous. Did the person leave before the conversation, during the conversation or after. As it stands, it suggests that the person probably left before the conversation. But think hard. Is that what you intended to say? If you wanted to say that they left after the conversation, you would want to use this form:
The conversation went on, but I left to find the dormitory after that.
And if you want to say that they left during the conversation, you would write:
The conversation went on, but I left to find the dormitory.
Notice how this is also much shorter. If you want to reduce the length of text and it really doesn’t matter whether the person left before, during or after the conversation, then use this form.
Hemmingway is a great writer for economy of prose. He never uses a word when none is required. This is the typical approach of journalists, because each word would cost money to print.
Proof reading
Now you are simply looking for typos. These are not always picked up by your wordprocessing software’s spell-checker. For instance, look at this sentence:
The convection went on, but I left to find the dormitory.
If you have your auto-correct feature turned on, you are more likely to have the wrong word in a sentence. Here, ‘convection’s is not the word we want, but it is spelled correctly, so spell-checker will probably not highlight it. Beware of misplaced words!
I would recommend turning on the grammar checker in Microsoft Word. This will put a blue underline under a word, phrase or sentence that seems incorrrect, according to common grammar rules. If you see a blue underline, take a close look at the phrase. Here is a good example:
In fact I didn’t know what was wrong.
Word will underline ‘In fact,’ because that particular type of preposition is always followed by a comma. You will learn a lot about grammar by checking phrases that are underlined in blue. But don’t feel you MUST make the change. Sometimes word simply doesn’t understand the specific situation.
Here are my top tips for proof-reading:
  1. Do it twice. Once reading forward, to improve the flow, and once as in 2.
  2. Start at the end of your story and work back, reading once sentence at a time. This way, you are less likely to expect what you read and miss the typos
  3. Use a macro to check for unmatched speech marks. I doubt there is a writer on the planet who can write a book without leaving out some or putting them in the wrong place.
  4. If something feels awkward, it is. Try rewriting it in as many different ways as you can think of. Eventually you will get it right. You might even improve the story.
DRthicknessLastly, if you think editing is a waste of time, take a look at these pictures of December Radio. The copy on the left is before editing, the one on the right after. See how much the text was reduced. In my opinion, the story improved greatly as a result. The cover on the left was my visual. And as a bonus editing tip, pick your best scene and send that to your cover designer.
DRcoversThat is the end of my series of tutorials on How to Write a Good Book. I hope you have enjoyed and learned something from it. You can find all my books online. December Radio is in bookshops in the UK and USA. And there is a special deal:
Get 4 eBooks and the December Radio Paperback for $16!  lazloferran.com
If you find any errors in my books, email me!

How to Write a Good Book – Post 4. Structure

pen4So Rudolph is desperate to guide the tractor on Christmas eve, but his nose won’t glow properly. Erma makes him an enormous apple pie to make him happy and promises him a good night in bed afterwards. She wants that new TV!

How do you you get the structure of your story right?

First Draft

For your first draft, don’t worry about structure. Just get the story down. It will come out chronologically, that is, with the events in the order in which they happen. They may not stay this way, but that’s fine for now. Too many writers worry about writing a blockbuster with their first draft. You won’t. All writers have to write a second draft, so don’t try and avoid it.

Second draft

By now, you will have the basic story written, and hopefully the characters will be starting to interact naturally and seem real. You will also have enough ideas to keep the reader’s interest, but the pace may be uneven and the first few pages may seem a bit bland.

All stories, including those of Tolkien, J K Rowling and plays by Shakespeare, have a beginning, a middle and an end. In plays, these are called the first, second and third act. But they can be subdivided. Your story needs to have this basic skeleton:

  1. Beginning
    1. Hook
  2. Middle
  3. End
    1. Climax
    2. Optionally, a twist
    3. Ending or denouement

What is a hook?

The hook is really what happens on the first page, and probably in the first paragraph or even the first sentence. It is the bit that hooks a reader into wanting to read the whole story. Research has proved again and again that when a potential reader sees your book description, likes that and then decides to read the first page (as they almost always do in a bookshop, or on Amazon), they will decide within a few seconds, thirty at the very most, whether they want to read the rest or not.

That is all the time you have to really grab them! So make your first paragraph, and if possible, your first sentence, really grab them. Make it unusual, even odd, and make sure it contains some emotive words. For instance, have a look at this first draft of the first sentence of our Rudolph and Santa story:

Santa asked Rudolph to meet with him. He then proceeded to tell Rudolph that he has lost his sleigh, so they will have to hire a van. Rudolph says okay but he has to check with Erma, because he told her he should always check any changes to his working conditions with her. ….

That is okay, but it’s not going to make somebody want to read the rest of your book. Let’s try again:

The telephone rang in Rudolph’s apartment.

“It’s for you Rudolph!” his wife, Erma, yells up the stairs. “It’s Santa. Says its urgent!”
Rudolph turned away from the bathroom mirror and ran to the phone.
“My nose will never glow properly again!” he told himself.
“Rudolph! Is that you?”
“Yep, it’s me Santa.”
“I’ve lost my sleigh! It’s Christmas Eve. You know what that means?
“No.”
“I will have to use a van! That means I don’t need you!”
“I can’t pull the sleigh? Okay. Wait, Erma is trying to tell me something.”
Erma tells her husband. “Your union rules say you have to deliver the present. That means you have to drive the van!”

Now this is much better. First of all there is a lot of dialogue. Readers tend to prefer dialogue. They want the characters to show them what’s happening. They don’t want the narrator to tell them. It’s called ‘show, don’t tell,’ and is an important trick for story-telling. Basically people want to work things out for themselves. Good writing should have at least 50% dialogue, or monologue.

You can see also that there is a sense of urgency and tension with the dialogue. And already we can see that Erma is going to be instrumental in the events that follow.

The Climax

How do you write a climax? First of all, you should work out in your head what sort of climax it is. If its action, then you will need to use many more action words like ‘ran,’ ‘desperately lunged,’ ‘screamed,’ ‘screeched to a halt,’ etc. Try to use shorter sentences at this part of the story too; it makes for more tension. By now the reader should have had all the insight they need into the main characters’ emotions and motivations, so you can spend much less time on this. Focus on the action and make the reader anticipate the moment of climax by building a scene of terror or dramatic tension or scenery.

On the other hand, your moment of climax might simply be psychological. If you are writing an emotional love story, it might be the scene when the man finally proposes to his long lost love. Draw it out. Use lots of warm phrases like ‘heart burst with happiness’ or ‘finally she knew she had found true love.’

In our story it might be that Rudolph delivers all the presents on time and gets a big bonus from Santa. Not only can they get a really good wide-screen TV but he can take Erma on the honeymoon they never quite had (due to heavy work schedules at the time).

The Twist

A story doesn’t need to have a twist, but a twist can leave the reader feeling, ‘Wow! That was a great book!’ so you might want to try it.

There is not much I can tell you about the twist, except that you should have planned it from the start and given readers small clues that something peculiar might happen. And then when it comes, it must be as big a surprise as possible. They will feel cheated if they either anticipated it, or if there have been no clues whatsoever that something was coming. Leave them gasping or saying “Wow!” and you have a fan for life! A really good example is the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense and. In our story it might be that Rudolph’s father was actually a farm reindeer, and so Rudolph turns out to be the best tractor driver ever!

The Ending or Denouement

It might seem a bit obvious to say a story needs an ending, but it does need to be structured. It needs to leave the reader with the message you worked into the story (see the Themes tutorial) and don’t forget the character needs to show that they are changed of have learned something. You might also need to explain the twist a bit. But if you know there will be a sequel, you might not want to explain anything, but simply put the twist in the last sentence and leave the reader desperate to read the next book (as I have done in The Synchronicity Code). This is the moment when you want all the strands to come together so that the reader says, “Ah! Ha!”. Then they will be satisfied and want to read your next book.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, you might need to address other matters of structure during the second draft.

Structural editing

The second draft is really where you take the first editing step; structural editing. If you are paying a very good editor, they will suggest these changes to you. But what is structural editing?

If you have a lot of background and character building to get into the first chapter, it’s going to seem slow to some readers. Other readers won’t even buy the book, unless they get a feel for how good the climax is going to be. Fortunately, you won’t need to worry about this once the reader has read a few of your book. But how do you get round this problem with your first book?

I have found that sometimes it helps to take a preview out from just before the climax and put it in near the beginning or even before Chapter One. For instance, in Ordo Lupus and the Temple Gate, the climax is a confrontation between the main character and his arch enemy. Fortunately for us, he has recorded what happened on a tape-recorder, so his wife can set down the events. This is done in the form of a small insert, in italics, at the beginning of each chapter. In this way, I feed the reader a taste of what is to come later, and make them want to read more. Judging by the reviews, this technique seems to have worked quite well.

Take a Tip From the Movies

Lastly, I have discovered some very useful techniques used by movie makers. You might not want to try these ideas at all, but here is the structure for Gladiator. See how it develops the tension and keeps the watcher glued to the screen? You might want to try something similar with your books, especially if they are action adventures.

  1. A film should start with a scene that shows the main character doing what he/she does best
  2. Then comes the opportunity
  3. And then the new situation

Find out more at: http://www.whatascript.com/screenplay-structure-11.html#sthash.nsU1CVMf.dpuf

See you next time when we discuss 5. Varying the Pace.

And if you are wondering about the third draft, this will come later, in tutorial 6. Editing.

Let me know what you think of my tutorials by commenting below.

How to Write a Good Book – Post 3. Characterisation

writing3Basic Rules of Characterisation

So, in our story about Santa’s sleigh problems, we have Santa, Rudolph, and Rudolph’s wife, Erma!

Now how do you create characters for them? There are no hard and fast rules, but be wary of simply writing the story as it comes into your head without setting the characters. If you do this, the most likely outcome is that all the characters will sound like the same person, or sub-personalities of the same person. For instance:

“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma. I really love you. It’s exactly what a male reindeer wants!”
“It’s okay Rudolph. Wow! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted.”

Can you see some things wrong with this conversation?

  1. The both say, “Wow!” In reality, two people rarely use the same expressions as each other. Erma, being female, is probably younger than her partner (I am being politically correct here!), so she might say, “Dude!” instead.
  2. ‘Rudolph’ is a name of 2 syllables, unlike ‘Erma.’ If they have been living together for years, she would probably have shortened it to save time. ‘Rudy’ is more likely.
  3. She is female, he is male. Males don’t say, “I love you” as much as females. Males usually cover their  emotions so he is more likely to say something like, “You’re sweet,” or, “So nice of you.”
  4. And men tend to say as little as possible in emotional conversations. So Rudy probably wouldn’t expand by saying, “It’s exactly what I want.”
  5. Males tend to be less expressive of their emotions at all times, so there will be less exclamation marks in their conversation.

Now let’s try the conversation again:

“Wow! I got an egg for my birthday. Thanks Erma.”
“It’s okay Dude! I really love you too. I’m glad it’s what you wanted?”

See how the dynamics have completely changed. Now we begin to see their characters emerge. I deliberately left in the word ‘too’ in Erma’s reply because it accidentally adds something Erma might add on purpose; if she wanted to be sarcastic and elicit a further response from Rudolph. Also note that I added a question mark at the end of her reply. She might be uncertain whether she had satisfied him; women are more sensitive to the emotional state of partners so they are constantly probing to find out what it is. They also like to engage in conversation more than men so add cues in this way.

So you have seen how factors like gender, age, race etc. need to be taken into account in conversations between characters. And ALWAYS been vigilant for signs of them sounding the same. If you are unsure, swap the speech round. Pretend that Rudolph is saying Erma’s lines. If it sounds false, then you need to rework it.

But those are only the basic rules. The reader will want to see character development.

What is character development?

When writing any novel, there are certain elements always seem to enhance a book’s appeal. One is that the main character should always be changed by their adventure or learn a lesson from it. In this way, the reader sees that the character grows and the reader can grow with them. Great examples are:

Harry potter becoming more worldly as his adventures progress

Frodo Baggins learning that pity can be a good thing and in general becoming so wise that the Elven folk invite him to go over the sea and into the West with them at the end.

Luke Skywalker growing from a farm boy to a worldly Jedi knight.

As in real life, this is a long process so don’t make it happen in the first few pages. Plan what things will change them and plan the scenes to show this. But in order to do this, you will need a sense of the person’s core character.

The Character’s Core

It may seem a little odd to you but I will come to the character’s physical appearance last. The core of the character is what we are concerned with here. The trap that many writers fall into is to make the main character in their own image. In other words, the main character seems just like the writer. It’s very easy to do, and in fact, almost impossible to avoid completely. You need to develop a good deal of depth for the main character (MC), so it’s natural to draw on your own traits and experiences.

But we all have sub-personalities. We all have a side that gets angry very easily or is prone to love too easily. As we grow, we learn to control these ‘sides’ of ourself. However, writing is a great opportunity to let these people back out into the open again. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I love writing so much!

For instance, my main character in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 is an ex-secret agent with the rare gift of being able to see Evil before it happens. He is also incredibly unlucky, but because of his talent is always able to survive and even turn these events to his advantage. I based these characteristics on myself. Although such moods or events are rare in my life, they do seem to happen. Readers seem to recognise these traits in themselves and many have written to me saying how much they identify with the MC.

If you use this technique, you will find endless inspiration in your own life without giving too much away about yourself. If you are writing about somebody in a bad situation, writing about it as a sub-personality will also keep you more sane that writing about your whole self! This technique works equally well if you are writing about somebody of the opposite gender to yourself.

For secondary characters, you could use sub-personalities of your self but I like to use 2 other techniques.

The first method is to think of somebody you know well or have known well in the past. It needs to be somebody with whom you have laughed and cried with, or at least had an argument. Base your character on them, and use the same physical attributes if you like. If you are really bold, you can tell your friend you are doing this as a compliment. But ALWAYS change the name! Don’t embarrass somebody. Also be aware that if your friend knows that the character dies horribly or does something terrible, they may not like it.

The second is to use somebody famous; maybe an actor or actress. This can work very well if the actor/actress is very well loved and has done great emotional scenes in movies or on stage. I have used this technique to good effect in one of my books.

Appearance

I left this until last because in many ways it is the least important factor. But a physical appearance can reinforce a trait and become an effective cue for the reader.

For instance, dark hair or dark eyes can often suggest a malevolent personality. It’s probably a Western prejudice but nevertheless it exists. If you make a baddy blonde, good-looking and blue eyed, be prepared to make him or her really bad to compensate. Two examples that work well are Bond’s adversary (played by Xavier Bardem) in Skyfall and the priest assassin in Angels and Demons.

My MC in the Ordo Lupus books 1,2 and 3 has eyes of a different colour. This not only suggests a weakness but also a strangeness and rare gift of sight.

In general, you should always give a weakness or fault to a main character. Without this, it will be harder for the reader to identify with them. In our case, le’t say that Rudolph’s nose only shines brightly when he has had too much to eat and he is happy. So at the moment it is not shining, which means that he cannot guide the sleigh properly. See how you already feel sorry for him? Or at least, I do!

Lastly, I always keep a separate word file filled with a list of characters’ physical and psychological traits. Not being able to find out whether you gave a character blue eyes or brown at the beginning, and having to hunt to find out can be very frustrating.

So to recap:

  1. Take gender, age, race, sexuality, culture etc. into account when writing dialogue
  2. Use sub-personalities of yourself for the main character(s)
  3. Use friends for lesser characters
  4. Use actors or famous people for lesser or minor characters

In the next tutorials we will look at:

4. Structure

5. Varying the pace

6. Editing

If you want to ask me anything, or have an opinion to express on these tutorials, don’t hesitate to leave a comment: