Sunday, November 18, 2007

Writing and a contest

It's been a while since I blogged on anything about the craft of writing. Most of the time I'm too busy with my own books - or teaching as I was doing last weekend.

But I spent yesterday reading and assessing some entries for a contest for a chapter of the Romance Writers of America for which I'm a judge, and there was one thing about them that struck me pretty forcefully right from the start.

The hero or heroine - often both - just didn't exist.

Oh, each book had a hero and a heroine, most of them (one of them at least) appearing right there on the first page, but they were just a name, and usually a job - I couldn't actually 'see' them in my mind as I read the openings that were what I have to judge. six opening chapters, an average of fifteen or more pages each, and so little description of the central characters in all of them that I have to struggle to remember any.

OK, one heroine fastened back her waist-length hair, a hero wore mirrored sunglasses . .. There was one rare entry where the hero observed the woman who was obviously going to be the heroine from a distance and it was such a relief to have a description - a sense of physical reality for someone in the story that I immediately gave the author an extra mark in her score.

When I read a book I want to know something about the characters whose story I'm going to follow throught a few hundred pages, days, weeks, years of their lives, several hours of mine. I don't want just names, or occasionally occupations, I want some idea of their ages, their height and build, their colouring. I want to be able to visualise them in my mind as I read their story, picture them on a beach, in an airport, even, if the story is Science Fiction and they are aliens living below the surface of a burning planet, with their silvery eyes and lizard like skin and six webbed feet.

I want to know who I'm reading about. I want to sympathise with them - or hate them - I want to have my life - my mental life at least - peopled by them for as long as I read the book.

And so when I'm writing I try to describe my characters as soon as I can, to 'bring them on stage' as forcefully, as visibly as I can so that my readers can identify with them right from the start. There are books where this doesn't happen and I've still enjoyed the, Day Leclaire has a great one - and darn it I can't remember the title right now - where the hero and heroine are in a lift, neither has seen each other because he was behind his newspaper or some such as she got in and the lift breaks down, the lights fail . . . It takes a rare sort of writer to pull off an instant attraction without the usual clues of colouring, size, facial features, but Day manages it.

But such books are rare. And of course once the lift is repaired and the lights go on then the conventional descriptive words appear at last.

But they were not in these contest entries. Every single one of those characters - apart from the heroine described at a distance - were invisible, not at all real in my mind - and so they were just words on a page, part of a book, not coming alive or mattering to me at all. I'll be honest and say that it shocked me that all of them missed out on this vital (to me) part of creating a character, making them real, making the reader care about them.

To me it's so important that when I was compiling a Character Questionnaire for my 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance, the description of a person is one of the first things I ask for:

What is this person's name?
Why was s/he named that?
What does s/he call herself?
Is there a nickname or a variation on the name that’s/he uses for some people and not others?
(As an example - Think about the different variations of Elizabeth that are possible – Liz, Lizzy, Bet, Liza, Beth . . . Would these make you think of different characters?)
Age? Birthday?
What does s/he look like?
Colouring– eyes – hair (what length? Curly or straight)

A book is something very different from a film or a TV drama or a stage play - then you can see what a person looks like as soon as they appear and you relate to them as a character from then on - that is what Peter or Mary or Aristotle or Frederica looks like and you recognise them and relate to them every time. But in a book, the character is just words on a page unless the writer makes them come alive and for me that physical description is a vital part of it.

So I'm afraid that all but one of those contest entries disappointed me - which was a pity because some of them had good dialogue, intriguing openings, the synopsis promised an interesting plot - but I'm a character driven author, for me the characters are what make a book and I'll be honest and say that the lack of character identification in these scripts meant that I really wasn't hooked enough to want to read on.


So - the contest. I've mentioned the 12 Point Guide To Writing Romance and as I haven't run any contests for writers in a while, I thought I'd offer a signed copy of this book as a prize today. (It'll let me see if anyone's awake and reading this!). I've also heard from the publisher that this book is now almost totally sold out - the last I heard there were less than 10 copies left - so if you want a chance to win a copy here's what you do:

Answer this question -

Apart from the 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance, I've written 2 other books on creative writing (one with my husband)

What are the titles of the other two books?

Send your answers to me by email with BLOG CONTEST in the title line of the message and next weekend ( November 25th) I'll get Sid on the job of picking a winner and a signed copy of the 12 Point Guide will be on its way to the winner. If you're lucky, I'll stick in a copy of The Greek Tycoon's Unwilling Wife as well.

And talking of contests - I'm planning and organising the special Christmas contests I have coming up - so watch out for those. By popular demand the Christmas Stocking Stuffed with books will be back.

Watch this space.


Ayla said...

oh yay i found them and emailed you. they were pretty hard to find, but i am still half asleep lol.

Anonymous said...

Great advice as always Kate. I like to be able to visualise the characters as soon as possible too.


Anne McAllister said...

Excellent point. And then, too, I want to be inside the head of one or the other of them so I'm not being "told" what's going on, but can actually feel it as they do.

lidia said...

Kate as a reader I don't normally pay attention to those things -- but now that you brought it up -- it is a very valid point. Being able to "see" someone even if print goes a long way.

I know that in real life I work with many people via email and phone. I love it when I am actually able to meet them in person and then be able to associate a name with a face.

So sorry for your disappointment in reading the entries. Hopefully the aspiring writers will learn a few things from you! :-)

Phillipa said...

Kate. What a brilliant post. I was struck by your comment about writing a book not being like a movie/film. I think a writer has to do all the things an actor does in a film - showing the audience emotions/actions - yet as a writer you also have the benefit of being able to show the reader scents, sounds and sensations which is even much more fun and i think, why people read rather than just watch.

I read your 12 point guide and remember the advice about using all five senses very vividly. I don't use character sheets at all, but I do try and creep deep inside my characters' heads. If that doesn't sound mad.

MTA - have just read Anne's post and totally agree (even with only 2 books published and numbers 3 and 4 on the way)


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