Category Archives: writing

On Character-Driven Stories, or: It’s About the People

“Don’t tell Angelika,” a friend of ours, an engineer, said to my husband, “but I tried to read her book, and didn’t make it past the first few pages. There are way too many feelings in it!” My husband did tell me, because he knew what my reaction would be: I laughed long and hard.

But also, quite contrary to our friend’s expectations, I took his statement as a compliment. For one, he only tried to read the book because it was mine, i.e. it was an expression of friendship, which I appreciate. But the other thing is that the average engineer is not exactly my target audience. So if I managed to turn one off by dint of having too many feelings in my book, I think I may have succeeded in writing for the other kind of person: the one who wants to hear about emotions, about the inner life of characters, about their relationships to one another.

The point was brought home to me again just the other day in my writers’ group. One of the critiques I got on a piece of mine, the beginning of another novel, was, “Do you really need three different points of view to tell the story?” I was a little taken aback (not to say  hurt, which is, alas, the price of getting all-too-necessary critiques). But once I’d mulled it over for a while, I came to a conclusion: the answer is Yes. Yes, I do need three points of view, because what my stories are about is the characters and their interactions.

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One of the Amazon reviews of Seventh Son says: “The character relationships are subtle and involved. In fact, all of the book’s true drama comes from how people relate to each other”. Precisely. I write character-driven stories.

And the reason I write character-driven stories is because that’s what I like to read. Now, I’m fully aware that I’m in somewhat of a minority with that preference. What’s popular, what sells best, are plot-driven stories, stories where things happen, where there is action and external drama. Battles! Kidnappings! Sword-fights! Car chases! Explosions! Murders! Wicked witches poisoning girls with apples and being chased by workaholic dwarves with pickaxes!

Personally, I find action scenes boring. Crash, bang, boom, bash – just tell me who wins already, and get on with the real story, about the people. (Plus, I don’t like the tension and extra adrenaline; I’ve got too much of it coursing through my system already – a side effect of being an HSP; but that’s a post for another day.)

To me, what is interesting in a story is not so much what happens, but what the people make of it, how it affects them. I want to get into their heads. It’s the character of the, well, characters that matters to me, that creates stories. Of course you always need a plot – a beginning, a middle, an end – but to me that plot can be as simple as “girl meets boy, girl has trouble getting together with boy, girl gets boy”.

In fact, the latter is the plot of all six Austen novels; the only thing that changes is the characters. And Austen is still in print after 200 years. It’s also the plot of every romance novel, which are, in fact, as a group the biggest sellers on the fiction market. Character-driven stories roll across the screen in every TV serial like Downton Abbey or Coronation Street which follows a group of people through the years, watching them live their lives and interact with one another; and they shocked movie critics when My Big Fat Greek Wedding and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became sleeper hits.

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Come to think of it, given the popularity of the aforementioned tales, maybe I’m not in such a minority with my preference for character-driven stories, after all. There are a lot of us who prefer people stories, which can be easy to forget when you hear writing gurus go on about “what sells” or castigate the fledgling writer for “not writing tightly enough” or – gasp! – using adverbs, those touchy-feely markers of emotion.

There are a lot of us – but even if there weren’t, I’d still stick with my preference. I like Austen, and L. M. Montgomery, and Georgette Heyer, and even Miss Read. No swords, no car chases, no bad guys and nary a dead body. Just wonderful, fascinating stories about people.

Okay, I’ll grant you that writers of these stories don’t often populate the weekly bestseller lists. But I have a hunch that they are disproportionately represented on the long-sellers list. Which is all to the good, because it means their books are going to be around for a long time for the likes of me to enjoy.

Life, the Universe, and Character-Driven Stories. It’s all about the people.

 

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News From the Writing Trenches: #NaNoWriMo2017

It’s Nanowrimo.

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I’ve got a bear.

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I’m writing.

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Oh, and it’s winter and stuff.

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That’s all.

Life, the Universe, and News From the Writing Trenches. See you on the other side!

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Let the Crazies Begin, or: Why I’m a Wrimo

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“What’s the point?” someone asked the other day, when the conversation came around to NaNoWriMo. (NaNo-whatmo? you say. NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. You know, that Novemberly craziness where I, and several hundred thousand others across the globe, vanish into a deep rabbit hole of mad, bad and dangerous-to-know novelling, aiming to write a 50,000-word novel in the space of 30 days. I might have mentioned it a time or three [dozen] before.)

What’s the point, indeed. Why do this to yourself? Why engage in such a bout of insanity? And don’t get me wrong, it is insane. Every year, I get stressed to the hilt, moan and whine, say I’m not going to finish (my fellow local Wrimos can attest to that). And every year, I sign up again. This will be my seventh NaNo in a row. But why?

Grant Faulkner, the current executive director of NaNoWriMo, just wrote an excellent article about it: “How a Month of NaNoWriMo Can Lead to a Lifetime of Better Writing“. A lifetime of better writing. Or, in my case, writing at all.

If it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo, I wouldn’t be a writer. Because writing, dontcha know, is for special people. People who have talent. People who have passion, who must write or go insane. People who have grand ideas, big stories to tell – stories of adventures in far-off places, of lives lived in danger and darkness, of deep and harrowing emotions or high and lofty ideals. People who create unforgettable characters and bring them to life on the page. In other words, people not like me.

I’ve always loved stories, and as a kid in school, I was good at writing them. I even took creative writing courses in my undergrad studies, and a night class on how to write books for children. But what I learned from those classes, among other very useful things, was that I don’t have what it takes to be a novelist. I don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to finish a whole novel, and even if I did, my ideas are kind of basic, trite. Light-weight, as it were. Not the stuff that real novels, and therefore real novelists, are made of.

And that was okay – it’s not like I was crushed or heartbroken about it; it was just a realistic estimation of my skills and abilities. I’m not one of those people who “always wanted to write a novel” – it never occurred to me that I could, because novel writing, dontcha know, is for… (see above, rinse and repeat).

Enter NaNoWriMo 2011.

I wasn’t going to “write a novel” – nah, I had no such lofty goal. All I wanted was to see if I could do this thing, could write 50,000 words in one month. I was going to have fun, and tell myself a story that I liked, and that’s all.

And you know what? I did. I wrote 50,000 words, told myself a story, and “won” my first NaNo. But that wasn’t all. When I was finished, I had a novel. A full, completed novel. And just like that, I was a writer.

Because a writer … is a person who writes.

And that’s what NaNoWriMo is about – writing.

The goal that all us crazies sign up for is to write 50,000 words. Not everyone makes that goal; in fact, not very many Wrimos do – a rough estimate is that maybe 1 in 4 reaches the full word count. But for the rest of them? They still write. Even if someone falls 40,000 words short of the goal, that means they’ve still written 10,000 words they hadn’t written before. Ten thousand words! That’s a lot of words, people. It’s about forty pages, printed out, and there’s novellas out on the market of that length.

And the reason these Wrimos wrote those words is because they signed up for it, and got caught up in the sheer enthusiasm and excitement that’s NaNoWriMo and swept along in the current of writerly excitement. Caught up just like I get caught up again, every year, for the seventh time in a row now. Surrounded by other crazies, talking titles and plots and word count tricks, sharing ideas and cheering each other on.

It doesn’t matter that those stories we write aren’t deep, or lofty, or weighty or important. They might be, but then again, they might not. They might be terrible, riddled with spelling mistakes, more full of plot holes than a broken sieve. But they are still stories, and they have been written. Written by writers.

And that is the point of NaNoWriMo: it makes me a writer. That’s why I do it, year after year.

Like I said, you don’t have to join in – by no means do you have to join in. But if, perhaps, this is something you think you might want to try – do it! Come on in, join the fun! It’s the best thing ever. And who knows, at the end you might have a novel in your hand – that’s what happened to me. And it was a game changer.

Life, the Universe, and Being a Writer. Thank you, NaNoWriMo!

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The book that started it all.

 

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Rearview Mirror on a Summer

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Long Beach, Vancouver Island

September has come, it is hers / Whose vitality leaps in the autumn…*

Except that my vitality ain’t doing too much leaping at the moment. I’m still scrambling to catch up with the long, busy, and, above all, “away” summer – you’ve seen a few of the pictures. We left home on July 9th; spent two weeks in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island; came home; then after all of two days I hopped on a plane (or rather, a series of them), and headed for Europe for a month. A few days of sightseeing in Munich; three weeks of family stuff (helping with a move, to be precise); then to cap it off, three glorious days in London.

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Marienplatz, Munich, with Mary’s Column and Old Town Hall

Six weeks, 1500 photos, a wealth of experiences and memories. My house and garden, meanwhile, went to pot. As for my writing – well, I was going to say that nothing happened on that front, either. But that would actually be quite untrue. No, I didn’t really put any words to paper (or screen, as it were). But among those 1500 photos are quite a few that I took specifically as references for my WIP (that’s short for Work In Progress, for the un-artsy of you). The whole time in Germany I was soaking up atmosphere, sounds, tastes, sights – all with a mind to how that could be put to paper. My hotel in London was a converted Regency townhouse – inspiration pure (I might just have to write a Regency novel one of these days just so I can set it in that street; it was called Burton Crescent in those days).

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Cartwright Gardens, Bloomsbury

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I want to go back…

One street over, Tavistock Square, was where both Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens lived for a while and wrote To the Lighthouse and A Tale of Two Cities, respectively. Five minutes walk up the street was the British Library – I got to see original manuscripts by (i.e. stare in awe at the notebooks of) Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde; my jaw literally dropped when in one of the gorgeous glass cases I saw the Lindisfarne Gospels, and in another the Codex Sinaiticus… But I didn’t just revel in high-brow literature – I stopped in at King’s Cross Station and took a look at the Platform 9 3/4 store with its trolley stuck into the wall, too.

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The one and only portrait of Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra. National Portrait Gallery, London.

I drank Bavarian beer in Munich, Württemberger wine in Stuttgart, and English cider in London; I ate pork roast with dumplings in the Hofbräuhaus, lentils and spätzle in the old part of Stuttgart, and beef-and-ale pie in a pub by King’s Cross. I got claustrophobic in the Bloody Tower as one of the bloody masses of tourists and sat in silence in the Stiftskirche in Stuttgart among a few other visitors stopped in to pray. I revelled in train rides and was moved to tears by world-famous paintings. And in between, I packed boxes and unpacked boxes; walked to the grocery store, walked to public transit, walked to visit people, and on Sundays went for walks by way of recreation.

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Beef pie and Symonds cider, in honest-to-goodness London pub

And now I’m back home in the land of peaches and salsa and grapes, where one has to take the car even to buy a jug of milk. I have limitless wi-fi again, so I’m catching up with what I’ve missed on the internet (which I haven’t actually missed that much – I’m considering making this a lifestyle). And I’m bound and determined to get back to writing. I have great good intentions to regularly sit down and work on my, well, work. One can always be optimistic, no? I certainly have enough inspiration to carry me along for a while.

Life, the Universe, and a Long Busy Travelling Summer. Now to process all those impressions…

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Franz Marc, “Birds”. Lenbachhaus, Munich. So beautiful it made me cry.

*opening line from a poem by Louis McNeice, Autumn Journal

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News from the Writing Trenches: #amtravelling, #amwriting

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I know I’ve been really quiet on here lately – well, it’s because life happens. Steve and I are on the road at the moment, and will be for most of the rest of the summer, visiting friends and family, and doing a little bit of sightseeing – no, sorry, research! – on the side.

But I thought I’d let you know that writing is still happening, in a manner of speaking. Some of it is just thinking about it (long drives in the car are perfect for that); some is editing of previous work; some is writing in short bursts in a little notebook. The latter is a new one for me – I do all my “serious” writing on the computer. But maybe this very “being not serious” that writing longhand in a tiny book entails is what I need at the moment.

So, writing still goes on. I’ll let you know when there’s something to let you know. Meanwhile, I’m keeping my eyes and ears open for new experiences, scenes and ideas – writing material is everywhere.

Now Steve’s got his backpack on and he’s ready to go for another day, so I better get on with it.

Life, the Universe, and News From The Writing Trenches. Happy Summer!

PS: If you do Twitter or Instagram, you can follow me at @amoffenwanger – I’ll be posting the odd picture there.

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The Issue With Rumpelstiltskin

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I have a heck of a time typing “Rumpelstiltskin” – the “ltsk” combo in the middle is really hard to get, as no other word I can think of has that sound sequence in English. For some reason, the German “Rumpelstilzchen” flows much easier from the fingers.

However, that’s not the main issue with this fairy tale. The real problem, I decided on re-reading it yesterday, is that the beautiful miller’s daughter (that’s the beautiful daughter of the miller, not the daughter of the beautiful miller – there’s English grammatical ambiguity for you) is screwed coming and going.

I used to like “Rumpelstilzchen” when I was a child. It has an ending that I always found quite satisfying: The nasty manipulative gnome is found out, and in his fury at being thwarted he tears himself in half. Happily Ever After, The End. It never occurred to me that…

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Writers in Conference

I got to go to the Writer’s Conference, Word on the Lake, this past weekend. Now that I have (mostly) recovered from the excitement and adrenaline high, here are a few pictures:

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The dock on Shuswap Lake next to the hotel

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We stayed at the hotel; Steve got a bed all to himself

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Steve and me watching old Star Trek on TV in our room. He thinks Captain Kirk is silly.

I got to have a blue pencil (critique) session with Gail Anderson-Dargatz, an award-winning internationally bestselling author who just happens to live in the area. Gail is amazing. She went way beyond what is expected from a blue-pencil-er (blue pencil provider? critiquer? whatever that’s called). Her input was encouraging, illuminating, challenging, and informative, but aside from that, she’s just a great person to talk to. We got along like a house on fire (at least that’s how I felt), and largely thanks to her I came away from the weekend feeling that much more like a “real” writer. And of course I bought her latest book, The Spawning Grounds, and got her to sign it for me.

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Books and a CD by some of the presenters

And here comes the great big shoot-up-the-fireworks highlight: I won an award. That’s right: I got first place in the non-fiction category of the Word on the Lake Writing Competition! I got a cash prize, but even better, my story of how I immigrated to Canada (“Canada” being this year’s theme) was printed in the contest anthology. I’ve been published!!! It’s just a small little book, nothing all that amazing – but you know what, to me it is amazing. It was all very exciting. There was a banquet with lovely food and entertainment, and I had my hand shook and all, and got a beautiful certificate to take home.

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My award! And my story in print!

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The first-place winner in the poetry category performing his poem (song).

I had a sales table in the foyer during the conference where I tried to flog my books and/or get more editing clients, luring them with candy. The success rate was, shall we say, indifferent (i.e. I only sold one book, to a friend, and gave one away), but hey, having the table made for some good networking. Which is what a conference of this kind is all about. Plus, I gave people sugar. Muahahah!

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Me trying to lure readers and editing clients with candy.

Of course all of that was only part of it. There were so many learning opportunities in the amazing workshops – “How to Get Your Book Noticed” (by Gail), “Effective Book Proposals” (by Anna Comfort-O’Keeffe, a professional editor), “The Importance of Setting in Fiction” (by the very funny and Irish Patrick Taylor)… and another by one of the writers for Murdoch Mysteries, in which we learned how a mystery show episode is written (I’ll never watch TV shows the same way again). I came home with my head full to bursting; I still haven’t quite settled down to everyday life again.

Life, the Universe, and a Writer’s Conference. I’ll be processing the experience for quite some time yet.

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