Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lesson 7 1/2: Characters Are Puzzling

After reading my last post, you are probably chomping at the bit, eager for examples of how to add depth to your characters. Well, the wait is over! Here it is:

In my first novel, The Seasons of Mae, the story begins in St. Louis, but the bulk of the story takes place in my beloved Montana. Just as the seasons change and bring death, rebirth and prosperity to Montana's rugged landscape, the seasons of Mae's life change, bringing her opportunities to travel on a path much different than the one her parents laid out for her.

But first, we need to get Mae to Montana.

In the first chapter of the book, we meet her sister's beau, who stands to inherit his father's railroad fortune. Robert works for his father, and more importantly, is overseeing the construction of the railroad across Montana. Here is Mae's opportunity.

Thus far in the book, we know that Mae is unhappy at home and feels continually slighted by her parents.

We are in the dining room, where Robert is discussing a last-minute trip to Montana that will pull him away from Mae's family and his pending proposal to Mae's sister, Alice. Alice is unhappy that Robert will be leaving before she gets a ring on her finger. There is a tense silence in the room as everyone sees how upset Alice is. And then Mae does this:

"I would love to go with you," Mae blurted out.

She has just invited herself along with Robert on his business trip to Montana. There are several problems with the way this was written.

1. There's no mention beforehand of Mae's desire to see the Wild West. Perhaps she could have been reading books or newspaper articles about the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and the vast opportunities for those looking to start a new life. The reader should have seen that this was a hidden interest. It could even be something as simple as mentioning that Mae preferred to spend her time outdoors, enjoying the scenery, rather than sitting indoors sipping lemonade.

2. As Robert is speaking of Montana, the dialogue is all external, meaning that we are not getting a glimpse into any of the character's heads, with Mae being the most important character. Before she spoke out in such an atypical manner for the time period, we should have had some insight into what she was thinking so the reader can understand this strange request. Something like:

Montana? Mae had always longed to go there. The untamed beauty of the state was touted as unrivaled. It was a land of endless opportunities--a land of promise. It was exactly the kind of place a girl with a restless heart and stifling parents could go to stretch her legs for awhile. This was her chance. Before she was able to give it a second thought, she quickly said, "I would love to go with you!"

In order for a reader to grow fond of a character, your reader needs to know what makes your character tick. How often have you visited with an acquaintance and thought, "I wish I knew what they were thinking," or "I wonder what makes them behave this way?" Those people you are the most deeply connected with are those you know well--you understand their motives, their desires, their passions. Your reader needs to have this same relationship with your characters.

But remember, don't TELL your readers who the character is ALL AT ONCE. Remember to weave.

Here's another analogy that might help you: think of character development like a puzzle. Your reader can't assemble an entire puzzle all at once. It takes time. They might just get a glimpse of who the character is at first, but after YOUR diligence as the author, the reader will be able to build an entire picture of the character's physical traits and see the essence of their soul.

You also want to make certain you don't spend too much time inside a character's head. I recently read a book that was 95% thoughts and 5% action. It was very annoying. We read to escape our own inner conflicts and thoughts; getting trapped in someone else's inner turmoil is not a release at all. Give just enough for your reader to understand, but not so much that your reader wants out. Balance thoughts with actions based on those thoughts.

3. If I add the paragraph in italics from step #2 to Mae's inner dialogue, it certainly helps the reader gain better insight into Mae's request to go to Montana, but something is still missing.

Physical actions.

If she's nervous about asking something so uncouth, we should see it in her body. Perhaps she could fiddle with her fork. Maybe she could clear her throat before speaking, indicating that she is hesitant to speak, yet she cannot stifle it. Do her cheeks flush after she realizes she's spoken the desires of her heart? Does her stomach burn with indigestion when she sees the glare her mother gives her for saying something so brazen? In my manuscript, none of these things happen, which makes Mae seem very one-dimensional. 

Again, you want to be careful not to over-do it. Too much eye-rolling, heart-stuttering and blood-boiling can make it sound like your character's bodies have been taken over by a legion of demons.  Add just enough for your reader to sense what is happening physically. Body language is oftentimes key to understanding those around us, so it needs to be another piece to the puzzle you are giving to your readers. Make certain physical reactions are included during key moments, such as the example given above. If it's a plot point, we sure as heck want to know how the characters are reacting.

Here's a better example from the next chapter:

Mae quickly shrugged her shoulder to remove his hand from her arm and turned towards him, her face feeling hot like fire. “No!” she exclaimed. “You must propose to Alice!”

What do you think has just happened, without even knowing the entire context of the scene? What does Mae's reaction tell you about her integrity? What does it tell you about her courage? Is she able to speak her mind, even if the situation is uncomfortable?

Ask yourself questions like these as you review your manuscript. How are my character's thoughts, actions, and body language being portrayed? Have I given enough puzzle pieces, or have I given too many? And most importantly: when the puzzle is completed, is my character someone the reader has grown to love?

Give your characters hearts and then send blood pulsing through their veins. Make them breathe, feel, touch, love. Give them the ultimate gift--life.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lesson 7: Bring Your Characters To Life Without A Magic Wand

One of the most sobering realizations I had as an early writer was this: there are no new stories. Literary experts disagree on the exact number of plots which have been rewritten time and time again, but there's a 99.9% chance your storyline has been told before.

Does that mean you should quit writing?

No, it does not.

But if you are going to make your novel rise above scores of other similar novels, you are going to have to make your book as unique as your own fingerprint. How do you do this?

By creating realistic, compelling characters.

While you may delight in reading a book where the prose is flowery and poetic, or you may devour a book where non-stop action keeps you turning the pages, when you think about the books that you truly love--the ones that linger with you for days or months or even years--chances are you felt a deep connection with the characters. They left an imprint in your heart, just like a living, breathing person.

 The author's role is not to be a like puppeteer, 
controlling the character's actions, but  ...

to be like the Blue Fairy, giving the character life.

How do you create lifelike characters?

Well, there isn't a simple technique or a simple trick. Like everything else in writing, it's a process. Word by word, chapter by chapter, you build your character's personality and strengths, as well as weaknesses. But before your characters can come alive on the pages of your book, you need to be well acquainted with your characters before you ever type a single word.

I keep a cheat sheet for each of my characters. I do this during the plotting phase, but I do change or add to the cheat sheet as the story develops. On my cheat sheet, I list the following for each character:

Main goal:
Motivated by:
Inner need:
Flaw blocking need:
Core trait:
Other good and bad traits:
Imperfections and quirks:
Dialogue style:
Relationships with others:

I like how this list is prioritized: the focus is on the character's personality and not on their appearance. Unless the character's appearance is pivotal to the plot, (for example, if the hero can't get a date with the girl of his dreams because he has was born with two noses instead of one) a wise author would downplay external appearances and would focus on internal attributes instead. Why?

Think of the people in your life who are close to your heart: do you love them because of their appearance? Most likely, that answer is no. Yes, at first you may have been attracted to them because of their smile, their hair, their six pack abs, (I've never seen any in real life. I think they're a myth.) but the reasons for truly loving a person are much deeper that what's on the surface.

Great characters should have some of the following traits:

Selflessness: your character should have interests other than their own pursuits and goals. Think of all the amazing conflicts that arise when a character has to choose between something they have always desired versus the love and acceptance of their family and friends. Selflessness is something your character might have to learn or strive to develop, but so long as your character doesn't start out as a narcissist, your readers will be glad to watch your character grow.

Compassion: in order for your hero or heroine to be well liked, they need to show that they have a heart. Even (or especially) in their relationship with the antagonist, your hero should feel deep empathy to towards those who betray or otherwise cause harm. That empathy might stem from a need for acceptance, a remembrance of the person the antagonist was before they turned to the dark side, or even a weakness the antagonist has which the hero can see in himself.

External calm (even while they might be in the midst of a raging inner storm): this is simple. No one likes to be around a hot-head. Yes, we all blow our tops from time to time, and if your character does so, it should be uncharacteristic and rare, and followed by feelings of guilt from the character. If your character snaps and yells at his friends, his family, or his high school math teacher, it should be a pivotal plot-point, where your reader will see that the character is falling apart at the seams.

Diligence: your character should be able to persevere though the toughest of challenges. They may have a moment where they simply can't take another step towards their fate, but they will eventually pull through. Before they reach that critical point, make certain you show that your character has was it takes to be a champion, even if they don't see it in themselves.

Vulnerability:  Unfortunately, we live in a world where people like to tear down those who are deemed too successful or too "perfect." If your characters come across as being exceptional in every way, your reader will not relate to them and will ultimately dislike them. Give your characters weaknesses: fears, insecurities, health problems, skeletons from their past. As a character works to overcome his or her weaknesses, your reader will feel a kinship with that character, since readers are working on overcoming their own weaknesses as well.

In reviewing my first novel, The Seasons of Mae, I am relieved to know I did something right: I gave my characters depth. However, the way in which I manifested each character's traits could have been improved.

Since your eyeballs are probably bleeding by now, and since characters are such an important topic that they warrant more than one post, I'll save my examples for how to give your characters more dimension next week. See ya then!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Lesson 6: English as a First Language

You’re building a house! How exciting! You’ve interviewed several builders and you've selected one who has your same vision. The house he describes is your dream house! Then the first day of construction arrives. You watch as your builder swings a hammer at a nail and he misses EVERY SINGLE TIME. You see that he doesn’t even have his hands firmly grasped around the hammer: he’s holding it like it is covered with thorns. You panic as you realize you have hired a builder who doesn’t know how to use his tools. 

Your dream house is going to be a nightmare.

What does this analogy have to do with writing? It has EVERYTHING to do with writing. 

If you want to become a published author, you have to learn how to use the tools of the trade. WORDS are your tools, and if you don’t dot your i’s and cross your t’s, you have no business writing. (Especially since computers do the dotting and crossing for you. Duh.)

The most important thing any writer can learn is this: publishing is a BUSINESS. Writing a book is a heartfelt journey, and while an author is emotionally attached to their creative endeavors, a publisher does not look at your book with the same sentiment. The main question publishers ask while reviewing a book on submission is “will people buy this book?”

I’m not going to go into details on what makes a book sellable, but every writer should know this: the competition is FIERCE.

Even if you are self-publishing—wait: make that ESPECIALLY if you are self-publishing—you need to make certain your book will stand out above the millions of other books out there. So in addition to a complex plot and likable characters, your prose needs to be polished.

The painful truth about my first novel is that not only did I commit many writing sins (like telling, not showing and head hopping), my grammar wasn’t very stellar either. I’ve spent countless hours over the years reading books and websites about grammar, style and punctuation. And since I’m Dory’s first cousin (at least I thought I was, but now I can’t remember) I have to frequently refer to these same guides to double-check usage and rules. Lay vs Lie might trip me up for the rest of my life. But, the point is: my writing got gooder. I mean better. Much better.

I am blessed with a creative mind, so forming a complex plot comes naturally to me. But mastering spelling, grammar and punctuation is something I have to work for. The lesson to be learned from my own journey is that no matter what your writing weakness is, if you work hard enough, you CAN overcome it!

I’ve heard people say the most important aspect of writing is an interesting story and bad writing can be fixed by an editor. This is not true! If your words are your tools, no one is ever going to look at your work if you show that you don’t know how to properly form words into sentences and then form sentences into paragraphs and then form paragraphs into pages and then … Sorry, my fingers got away from me. They do that sometimes.

Want to see some awful examples from The Seasons of Mae?

She was standing behind “the ladies in waiting,” as Mae and Sara had begun to call the three wealthy young ladies, Margaret, Beth and Lizzy, who had their backs to her.  She could hear that they were conversing about someone in love. Mae’s curiosity got the best of her and she leaned in a little closer to see if she knew whom they were talking about. 

This sloppy section has a few obvious mistakes. “Was standing” is passive. The pronoun “her” (and also “she”) refers back to Lizzy, while the subject should still be Mae. The overabundance of commas in the first sentence is also confusing. A better version would be:

Mae stood behind Margaret, Beth and Lizzy: three wealthy young ladies Mae and Sara had aptly named the “ladies in waiting.” The young women were gossiping about a new romance. Mae hated to eavesdrop, but curiosity got the best of her and she leaned in closer.

Now look at this one:

“You first,” he said.  Mae breathed a heavy sigh, and spilled the beans on her pretend fetish for Robert in attempts to rid herself of his control.  “It was a huge mistake, I should have never done it, but it was all I could think of.”

There’s dialogue from two different speakers in one paragraph—which can be done occasionally, but this is not the occasion. It is confusing to the reader. And again, there are too many commas. There’s a boring cliche in there. And saying “breathed a heavy sigh” is too wordy for a simple, involuntary act.  There’s also a sentence ending with a preposition. This would be better:

“You first,” he said.

Mae sighed heavily and then divulged her pseudo fetish with Robert for what it really was: a desperate attempt to rid herself of his control. “It was a huge mistake,” she said. “I know it was wrong, but it was my only chance.”

There are also many simple mistakes, like these ones:

“Who’s farm is this?” she asked. (Whose farm …)

He tried to sell, but no one was ever interested, so its been sitting here empty.”  (It has been)

I could go on for pages with basic mistakes like improper word usage, spelling and contraction mistakes, but I won’t. You guys all know how to fix those. But here’s one more example of BAD writing:

Mae looked at him puzzled, but he said nothing else and unlocked the door. 

First off, if this is Mae’s POV, she doesn’t really know what her face looks like—although she can guess. When I glare at someone, I can assume I look mean, but I’m not going to say “I looked at him mean.” Which brings up the second thing: saying she looked at him puzzled isn’t proper English. Plus, this is one case where the reader deserves more. Rather than just saying a “puzzling expression,” the author can elaborate. When describing actions in a particular character’s POV, rather than saying what they look like, describe how the action feels to the character.

Mae felt her eyebrows furrow--even though she knew contorting her eyebrows in such a manner made her look like a Neanderthal with a unibrow. He had to know she was beyond curious, but he said nothing more as he unlocked the door.

Maybe you’ve been told by agents or critique partners that your “writing isn’t quite there yet,” or maybe you can sense with your inner-author intuition that your writing isn’t the best it can be, but don’t despair! You CAN improve your writing. And do you know what? Every writer can improve their writing—even authors who are successfully published. Life is about continually learning, and writing is no exception. You won’t reach a point where you think: "There, I’ve mastered the art of writing.” Your writing will continue to evolve year after year. How?


Practicing. Write, write, write: especially if your are discouraged by rejections and harsh critiques.

Read. Yes! This includes grammar manuals!

Have your work critiqued by honest people who are not related to you.

Critique the work of other budding authors. In fact, I think doing online critiques of beginner’s novels helped me develop my craft more than any other tool. Once you can recognize BAD writing, you know what pitfalls to avoid.

You will get to the point where you can’t read a book without having your internal editor turned on. (This can be annoying sometimes!) When you reach that point, you will know that everything you have learned about grammar is deeply imbedded in your brain and you will be able to write fluidly without being tripped up by all the little (sometimes nonsensical) rules. This is when you know that your writing is “there” and you have made the transition from “writer” to “author.” Congratulations! Let's celebrate with some cake ...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lesson 5: Rev Up Your Search Engine

We’ve all watched the Behind The Scenes footage at the end of a DVD. Sometimes the footage can be just as long as the movie: especially if there’s a lot of costuming and special effects. But we all know that the massive amounts of extra footage is just a tiny nutshell of what really happened during the filming process. For every minute we see on-screen, there are thousands of man hours prepping for that scene. So it should be with our writing. Sometimes, the most important words are the ones that don’t make it on the page.

Yes, I’m talking about RESEARCH!

For each book I write, I have a binder full of information. (Not women. Ha ha. Oh wait, that joke is too old? Sorry.) Each notebook is full of research on history, setting, and character development, including a very detailed character bio. Most of this information never makes it into the novel. Remember how we talked about weaving? All the research done for a novel should be carefully disbursed throughout the novel, like leaving a trail of crumbs (preferably chocolate cake crumbs, because those are always the best) for the reader.

I’ve currently been researching the Gilded Age and more specifically, Newport, RI. In addition to reading non-fiction books about the locale and time-period, I’ve been reading novels set in that time period as well. One modern novel I read used large chunks of description that, I kid you not, came straight out of one of the non-fiction books. The description of the house in the novel (an imaginary house) was almost the exact description of one of the Vanderbilt mansions. I understand that the author wanted her readers to sense the ornate world of the Gilded Age, but there are a few things wrong with letting research (and in this case--near plagiarism) show up on pages of your manuscript.
1. It shows a lack of creativity and originality.
2. It can make the author seem like a know it all
3. And related to #2: it makes the author visible on her pages. It’s a form of AUTHOR INTRUSION. What is author intrusion? It’s any time the reader is pulled out of the story and reminded that an author is there, pulling the strings on each of her character puppets. Don't be rude: never intrude!

If research shows up on the pages of your novel, it’s going to distract readers because it will be an INFO DUMP and it will likely not be in the author’s voice. An oversimplified way to think of how to bring your research to light is the Kid History videos. Children are retelling—in their own voices—a story they have heard their parents talk about. As an author, you will take little tidbits you have learned and disburse them throughout your story in your own unique author voice. But remember: if it’s not information your POV character would know, it should not be there. (Again, that’s author intrusion.)

So far, I’ve given research a bad name. Let me clarify:  research is NOT bad! On the contrary: it’s crucial to your success as an author. Like I said in the first paragraph, just as much time—if not more—should be spent researching before a single sentence is typed. If you are writing a historical, this is especially important. You want your reader to feel as if they are living in the same world your characters are, and this can only be done if the author is intimately aware of the time period. For my last novel, The Reign of Trees, I looked up thousands of words to make certain they were in usage in the 1500’s. (Simple words like billowy) Most of them weren’t and needed to be replaced. An author must be meticulous if she is going to immerse her reader in the story.

I wasn’t always so meticulous though. Several times in The Seasons of Mae, it was obvious I didn’t do my research. For example, one character mentions listening to Bach. This would imply listening to a phonograph, but guess what? The phonograph wasn’t invented until 1877. My book takes place in the early 1880’s in Montana. Do you think the phonograph would have been in mass production in just a few years AND available to people who lived beyond the edge of civilization? No, probably not.

Another mistake I made several times throughout the novel was not understanding social decorum of the day. Unmarried men and women weren’t allowed to fraternize without a chaperone, yet this happens frequently in Mae. One scene that stands out under such circumstances involves a muddy road and a carriage that becomes lodged in said mud. As the characters work to free the trapped carriage, the male character, Reese, uses the backside of Mae’s dress to wipe his muddy hands, and therefore leaving intentional muddy hand-prints, making it look as if he had goosed her. Even if Reese is from backwards Montana, no respectable 1880’s man would have ever done that to a woman, let alone to a society debutant. Writing scenes that don’t fit in a particular time period make an author (in this case, moi,) lose all credibility. 

Research isn’t just for writers of historical fiction. Your novel may be set in a place you’ve never been to, or have only visited once. Make certain you spend hours studying the area, including using Google maps street view so you can get a better feel for the area. I recently read a novella which took place in Montana, and I happen to know a thing or two about Montana. However, the author had not done enough research. She referred to our beloved University of Montana as the UM. UM, that’s not right. It’s the U of M. Yes, readers will be that nitpicky if you get your facts wrong! It’s your job to fact check everything in your novel. Get it right, or the readers won’t buy it!

Before you write, make sure you READ, READ, READ. You should become completely immersed in the genre you are writing in before you ever type a word. It is through prolific reading that a writer becomes an author.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Lesson 4: Over The Top Makes A Book Flop

Last week, we related theatrical performances to writing as a method to ensure that your characters are acting rather than being acted upon. Let’s continue with that analogy for a while today, alrighty? 

A stage actor has been taught to be animated. Their face needs to look alive. They need to project. They need to sell their performance to the audience. But some novice actors go a touch too far and instead of just acting, they over-act. You’ve seen this before, right? While watching the performance, you might hope the actor will turn it down a notch. If this actor has one of the lead roles, you might get so annoyed with their OVERACTING that you can’t wait to get out of the theater. 

Oftentimes, novice writers do the same thing. OVERWRITING is a symptom of writers trying to be more vivid with their writing.  If “showing, not telling” is the fundamental language all writers need to learn,  then it is only natural that diligent, hardworking writers are going to try to do just that and write prose that is meant to describe every scene to perfection. There’s a key word in that last sentence. Do you know what it is? It’s TRY. 

And sometimes when we TRY, it means something is not coming naturally to us. Trying too hard in writing results in manuscripts that are bogged down with flowery, superfluous prose which detracts from the storyline. 

If you feel like I’m contradicting what I said last week about slowing down the pace of The Seasons of Mae to let the reader absorb the lifestyle of the late 1800’s, I’m not! It IS confusing. But don’t worry: filling your novel with just the right amount of imagery is possibly one of the hardest tasks to master.

Last week’s good example of imagery was one small paragraph. Now take a look at a bad example:

The old wood floorboards creaked underneath the weight of the sturdy rocking chair as Mae absentmindedly rocked back and forth. The rhythmic rocking mimicked the perpetual beating of her heart, which she gave no thought to either. It was the magnificent sunset which held her interest.  She watched as the vibrant orange clouds mingled with the shockingly pink sky until they seemed to meld together like paint on the palette of a skilled painter. It wasn’t until the sun had completely fallen behind the tree-clad mountain that she remembered her surroundings. Her arms were ripe with gooseflesh from the brisk nighttime air and a chill ran up her spine as she heard the howl of a straggling coyote. She shouldn’t be out here alone, but what choice did she have other than to keep her eye on the lonely horizon until he finally came?

What stands out to you as you read that paragraph? It’s the overabundance of adjectives, isn’t it? They are like little speed bumps along the road to your plot. Picture yourself driving over a speed bump in a low-rider as you read every adjective in that paragraph. Are you annoyed yet? Unless you are aiming to annoy your readers, you’re going to need to plow down half of those speed bumps.

Don’t get me wrong: adjectives are good! BUT! Like everything else in life, they should be used in moderation. Take that first sentence for example: if the floor boards are creaking, we can assume that the wood is old. That’s an easy elimination. Examine your sentences carefully and get rid of unneeded adjectives. Also make sure the adjectives you pick pack a punch. Rather than saying “she had shoulder-length blonde hair” try something more descriptive by saying, “her flaxen hair rustled in the wind like a wheat field just before the harvest.” (Hasty example, but you get the idea.)

One of the best similes I’ve heard lately came from an episode of Psych, when Shawn says, “My heart feels like wet toilet paper.” Isn’t that the perfect description of a broken heart? Not only does it match the character’s personality, it gives the viewer a vivid image to attach to how Shawn is feeling. And notice how short that sentence is! See, you don’t always need to be wordy to illustrate your point. 

In addition to choosing powerful adjectives and nixing the rest, oftentimes novice writers spend too long dwelling on details. I once read a book where the author took an entire page to describe a waterfall. Yes, really. We’ve all seen waterfalls before (well, maybe except for the people who live smack dab in the middle of the Sahara Desert, but we’ll forget about them for now.) so why would we need to waste so much time describing how water descends from mountain top to valley floor? Nor should we spend more than a few sentences describing a character’s appearance—at least not all at once. Remember to weave those details throughout your story. You wouldn’t notice every feature on a person you have just met; your readers shouldn’t have to learn all those details at once either. Pick your character’s most prominent feature to describe first, and then later on, let your narrator notice how his hair curls up at the nape of his neck after he’s spent the afternoon working in the yard.

Think of how you would feel if you ate the entire bag of Oreo’s all at once. It’s too much! Relate this to your writing: you always want to leave your reader wanting more. Waiting for that next clue. That next piece of the puzzle the helps them see the plot you so meticulously planned. Give them one yummy little morsel at a time in a clear, precise fashion and you’ll have your readers eating out of the palm of your hand

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Lesson 3: What a Pace Case!

Everyone moves at a different pace. Some people have endless energy. You know the type: they run marathons, serve on the PTA board, bring meals to new mothers, and keep their family and house trendy and spotless. (I say that with no jealousy whatsoever.) Then there’s the type who enjoy a slower pace: the type who has a rocking chair on their front porch where they sit to shell peas from their backyard garden. (I also say that with no jealousy whatsoever.) The way each person lives at either breakneck speed or lackadaisical ease isn’t something we should judge. One way is not better than the other; they are merely different and unique to each life situation.

It is the same with a novel. There isn’t just one way to pace a novel, as each novel is unique in its execution.

A mystery or a thriller should have a fast pace. A character in such a novel might have times where they are running for their life. A good author will leave her readers feeling breathless as well. This is achieved by staccato writing: meaning short, precise sentences. Now is the time to tick-off English teachers everywhere, as you will use incomplete sentences and sentences that start with conjunctions to create a sense of immediacy. For example:

The door. She could see the door. She had to make it inside. And fast.

There isn’t a lot to think about in those sentences, making it easier for the reader to become immersed in the story and feel the same panic the character is experiencing. Most books in suspense genres aren’t very detail oriented, as taking time to describe houses, food, flowers, etc, would detract from the urgency of the storyline.

However, historical novels are a place where greater descriptions are appropriate. A historical novel does have a slower pace, as the day-to-day life at that time was indeed slower. (Read that last sentence again. It was SO profound!) In a historical, you want your reader to take time to absorb their surroundings. The Seasons of Mae is set in Bozeman, Montana in the 1880’s, and here is the scene where Mae sees her surroundings for the first time: 

As they approached the mountains, the scenery grew even lovelier. The large pine trees towered like stately statues guarding the earth’s most precious treasure. The smell of the evergreens was medicine to Mae’s soul. She closed her eyes, tipped her nose in the air and drew in a deep breath, relishing the aroma. It had been ages since Mae had felt such inner peace. Instantly, she had fallen in love with the Gallatin Valley. 

This passage is slow, serene, and descriptive. It’s exactly what it needs to be at this point in the novel. However, the general pace of the novel is off. Mae makes an impromptu, life-changing decision within the first 20 pages of the novel. When I wrote the book, I never thought of Mae’s character as being rash and impulsive, but after letting the book sit for a decade, I realize that is exactly how I have portrayed her. In several instances, she reveals deep inner desires and personal secrets with people who are practically strangers. After meeting someone once or twice, she feels like they are family or like she has known them her entire life. This isn’t really her true personality: it’s my own weakness as an author. 

In addition to allowing the characters to make hasty decisions and not giving them adequate time to develop relationships (one couple goes from strangers to secret lovers as the result of one conversation! This would have been highly unlikely during this time period, especially considering the proper upbringing of the characters.), I also didn't allow scenes to fully develop.

Picture a balloon. A few puffs of air and you have a toy that will instantly entertain a child. But if you spend a bit longer and sacrifice several more precious breaths, you can make the balloon bigger, more interesting, and a lot more fun. A word of warning though: just like a balloon can be overfilled and therefore pop, so can a story. Don't fill your story with unnecessary verbiage. Don't weigh your story down with TOO many details. You want your balloon to be just the right size. 

In most of the chapters of Seasons of Mae, I only skimmed the surface of each scene. Take this scene for example:

“If he has enough money in the bank, I dare say they don’t care what type of man he is,” Joseph said harshly.

Mae said that she was surprised to hear Joseph saying such things, for it was usually she that brought the conversation down a notch. She was worried that her bad example had rubbed off on him, but he replied by saying how the focus of Alice’s courting this past year had left a bad taste in his mouth.

I don’t know why that entire conversation wasn’t written out. Oh wait, yeah I do! It’s because I was cheating my way through this novel. This example is just one of thousands, making it obvious that I didn’t take the time to give details. And if the author doesn’t take the time to build a solid scene, it will crumble.

Think of each scene like you are watching a play. If the scenery has changed since the last chapter, we need to know that. We need to know if the lighting has changed: indicating day or night, or possibly one character taking the spotlight for a time. And then most importantly: dialogue. What is being said? What is not being said, but is being implied through body language and sarcasm? Write all of that down. If my book was a play, the actors would be standing on stage, looking confused (twiddling their thumbs and possibly picking their noses) and not acting. The narrator would be saying, “Mae did this and then Joseph did this and then she decided to ….” Essentially, the narrator has hijacked the story!

Your characters have mouths: let them speak! It is through their words, their actions, and their thoughts—not the narrators—that your reader will see what is happening on the stage you have built in their mind. You are the producer/director/writer of the production: it is your job to make certain your audience is properly entertained. Slow the story down enough to let them visualize what is happening on stage. Let them get to really know the characters. Pull them to the edge of their seats when necessary. Don't cheat them, after all, they've paid for the best seat in the house. :)