Saturday, July 9, 2016

On Conversation Skills

I am at a Writer’s Workshop at the beautiful Glen Eyrie Conference Center (and Castle!) in Colorado Springs. If you’ve never been here, it looks like this:

Be jealous.

I’m super excited about this workshop. I’ve wanted to come to this for years. But right off I faced a potentially terrifying situation. There are I think maybe 80 or so people here and I don’t know any of them. At all. I walked onto the lovely terrace and saw all these people talking to each other and thought Oh dear, what now?

So here’s the thing. I might be an introvert. But then again I might be an extrovert. Honestly I’ve never been able to figure that out. I like people but I’m not exactly super social. I like meeting new people but I feel awkward in situations where I don’t know anyone. Over the years I’ve learned something that I’ve found extremely useful in situations where I know absolutely no one in a crowd of people: Conversation skills. Oh, and coffee helps a lot too.

So if you’re about to encounter one of those awkward situations, here’s my advice: Guzzle your coffee beverage of choice, find someone who looks equally as awkward as you feel, and ask, “Can I join you?” Then you ask questions. Start out simple. Ask their name. Where they’re from. What they do for a living. Listen. Ask more questions. Listen more. Smile. Laugh. It’s a simple enough concept but there are plenty of people in the world who are too shy to take the initiative to do it. Guess what? I am extremely shy. Or I used to be, before I learned to talk to people. If I could, I would thank all the beautiful ladies in Mary Kay who taught me how to do it.

I have no idea how well I did with this today but I met some people and had pleasant conversations. I’m pretty sure I talked too much, too loud, and too fast, and I laughed too much (thanks, coffee!) The thing is, writers are not often conversationalists. We love words but we prefer them on pages or screens, crafted painstakingly over multiple drafts. Conversations are just so...spontaneous. Original. Uneditable. Potentially awkward and yes, even terrifying.

Here’s a secret: I pretend to be way more confident than I am. I guide conversations like I know what I’m doing but I’m constantly wondering if people think I’m annoying. I engage in genuine conversation and I sincerely care about what people have to say but there’s always a little voice in my head ticking off pace and telling me things like, “ok you need to shut up now and let the other person talk” or “ok take it down a notch. Drat the caffeine.” I suppose that means I’m not a natural conversationalist. I do have to work at it. Still, I find it is always worth the effort. I love people. I love their stories, their energy, the expressions on their faces when they talk. I can dominate a conversation if I want to or I can let it happen around me. I might be annoying. I might be loud. But at least I can carry on a conversation when I need to. It’s a skill worth brushing off from time to time.

Friday, July 8, 2016

On Why Weak Characters are Plot Killers

Much has been said on the subject of plot vs. characters. I'm not sure why it's a debate. When writing fiction, you have a plot, and you have characters. Both are equally important. No one cares about the plot unless they care about the characters, and no one wants to read stories about people who never do anything.

I have heard a sage piece of writing advice, passed down from writer to writer until no one knows who first said it: “Every scene must move the plot forward.” It is true. Each scene must have a purpose, and even if the main purpose is character development or setting, it must tie to the plot somehow. It's easy to get carried away writing a scene that has developed in my head and forget about this important truth. That's why books are written on plot and structure and why outlines are important, to remind creative writers not to get so carried away with their creativity and their characters that they lose the plot. But it's also possible to become so tied to your plot that you lose your characters. And when you lose your characters, you lose your readers. That, my writer friends, is a disaster.

I'm reading a book right now with a compelling plot, and for the most-part, well-developed characters. The main character is a very sensitive soul who's just trying to make sense of the world she gets snatched into, and the people who inhabit it. She is lost and bewildered and not entirely sure what exactly she is or how she fits into this world, but she has a sense of who she is that cannot be shaken. Some of the secondary characters are very well-drawn as well, relatable and true to themselves. But one character, the love interest, is inconsistent to the point that no one in the book knows who he really is or what he's about, and neither does the reader. There are hints in the book that he has this great shadowy secret in his past and that perhaps his odd behavior will make sense once the truth is revealed. Meanwhile, I feel like I'm expected to like him because the protagonist likes him, for some inexplicable reason. He is bad but not all bad, and good but not all good, shrouded in mystery and I suppose that's why this girl is drawn to him and why I should be, too. But I'm not.

I've seen this done before. When a character is supposed to be a bad boy with a heart of gold, the kind that nice girls fall in love with despite their best intentions, there is a tendency to create such a thick veil of mystery around this character that no one can penetrate it, so that no glimmer of his real character can come shining through. In my opinion, this is a mistake. It is impossible to relate to, and therefore care about, a character who is not true to himself. And it is impossible for a character to be true to himself when no one except the author knows what sort of character he really is. It is such a subtle writing flaw that it's hard to explain but I always know it when I see it: It is character sacrificed for plot. The author knows the secret about this character, obviously. But in hiding the secret beneath levels of deceit, they have left the readers with nothing to grasp about the character. He is important. The book begins from his point of view. The only thing we really know for sure is that he cares deeply about his friend who is dying. He lies about everything else. Well, I can't care about a character who lies and only loves one person. That doesn't make sense.

In every interaction that the protagonist has with this love interest, you can see the plot ticking forward to some inevitable conclusion. It is clear to me that the author put more emphasis on developing the plot than on developing this character into someone I know and can therefore invest myself in. This is not an amateur mistake. This is a popular book written by a best-selling author. It's not a bad book, either. This character development flaw isn't frustrating enough to make me want to toss the book aside, but it is frustrating. It could have been done better.

So what can we learn from this? Know your characters. Let your readers get to know your characters. Even if you build them up as one sort of person and then reveal them as something completely different. That can be a great twist. If you've got a bad boy, then let us see him being bad instead of just letting him brag about it. Don't let him claim to be something he's not. If he has a heart of gold, then show us that. “Save the cat” is a cliche but it works because it shows compassion for the weak and helpless. If he’s conflicted, let us see his conflict, without hiding who he is. A poorly developed character kills your beautifully developed plot. Don't let any of your characters commit plot murder. Let them commit murder in your story if you must, but don't let them kill your plot. Your readers will thank you, and keep reading.