Thursday, March 26, 2020

Best Hack: Get Inside Yourself, Go Deep

What writing hacks motivate this writer to write? (In their March posts, Pat Smith explains what a writing hack is, and Ann Parker offers us links to find them.) These days, I’m not sure what it would take to get me to finish my work in progress, and I don’t know exactly why. Two things that make a novel readable, according to me, are, simply put, the plot (duh!) and the characters. I wrote about characters in a post in 2018. We all know, or so we’ve been told, there are only seven plots. In fact, I wrote about that, too, in a previous post.

What can I tell you that’s different to what I’ve already written? Yes, we can take one of those generic plots and twist it any way we want. We can put the story on Mars, in the desert, or in New Orleans. We can make the setting a character by giving the place its color and vibrancy so that when we finish reading, we want to go to Paris or Rome or Charleston. But what makes me want to write is the character. My genre is suspense/thriller. What inspires me, and how do I make the character come alive so that readers turn the page for her/him and not just for the cliffhanger?

One of the reasons a series takes off is because readers like the CHARACTERS. (Am I being redundant?) They like their humor or their sensitivity or their weirdness or their danger. I’ve been stuck on my work in progress for a while. I needed to be inspired, so I went back to a book I love and read it for the third time: Robert Crais’s L.A. Requiem.
Why? you ask. I bet you can guess. The characters. I thought I could dissect what it is that makes the two characters so appealing to me. Elvis Cole, the wise-cracking “World’s Greatest Detective,” and his enigmatic partner, Joe Pike. Pike is really the intriguing one. He rarely talks, yet in this, the eighth book in the Cole/Pike series, we get more background on what made him the way he is. We empathize. Crais never unloads everything we need to know about his two characters in one book, so he has plenty to spread out over the eighteen-book series. Pike is underwritten, and because he is, he vaults from the page. The reader is drawn in because she wants to know more about him. Another defining characteristic of the series is the close bond between the partners. They are always there for each other, no matter what dangerous situations they find themselves in. It’s called friendship, and it works in the same way an intense relationship between a man and woman works in a romance novel. In a sense, this is a buddy series, or a term I dislike, a bromance.

The book I’m working on isn’t the first in a series, though it could be if I wanted it too. I don’t. What I do need to accomplish is to make my characters interesting, intriguing, and compelling enough that if it were the first book in a series, readers would want to read the next one and the next. (I hope I’ve done that with my Diana Racine series, and reviews seem to suggest I have.) My main characters are twins. They are identical, but they’re nothing alike. I like them, but at this point, I don’t LOVE them, and I need to love my characters in order to write them. Something’s missing. I haven’t gone deep enough in their heads. My usual trick is to become the characters—to think like them, to feel like them, to BE them.

Some writers have created characters that readers love enough to make the books bestsellers. Lee Child with Jack Reacher, Michael Connelly with Harry Bosch, Robert Ludlum with Jason Bourne, and so many others. Think Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Alex Cross, Eve Dallas, Lincoln Rhyme, Nancy Drew, and Lisbeth Salander, to name a few. It’s the character, stupid. Don’t shortchange them for the plot. They should be at least equal in importance. Like I mentioned above, plots have been done over and over, but characters are unique, save the hard-drinking ex-cop-now-detective who killed someone accidentally and lives with the guilt.

One of my blog mates posted that reading someone else’s work while writing distracts her. Not me. I’m made aware of how much more I need to do to get the depth and quality I so love in other talented authors’ works. Now that I've written myself into understanding what I need to do, I will get back to this yet untitled work that is basically finished. Maybe if I get my characters right, I'll be able to put a title to it.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

9 comments :

  1. I think the reason British television is sometimes superior to American television is the focus on characters. It is hard for me to care about a book when the characters do nothing for me.

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    1. Exactly. We all respond to different things in a character. For me, they have to be a little screwed up. I find normal people in a book boring.

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  2. I love this post, Polly. You got me to thinking and I realized that characters are exactly what draw me to a particular author time and again. Louise Penny's Inspector Armand Gamache, Elizabeth Peters' Amanda Peabody, Martha Grimes' Richard Jury, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce, Agatha Christie's Miss Jane Marple...are all characters that live on in my memory long past the moment when I finish the books in which they appear as the protagonists.

    Now, if only I can create such a character!

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    1. Pat, through this blog, I've gotten to know you a bit, and I know if you search your heart and mind, you can come up with such a character. Just forget you and become that character.

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    2. Such good advice, "Just forget you and become that character." A director told me that when I was rehearsing for my first lead role, and I made that my mantra. I also told my drama troupe the same thing when I directed shows with them. That is such a vital key to making a character real. Thanks for the reminder.

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    3. The one time I was in a play in high school, that's just what I did. I couldn't have done it if I had to be me.

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  3. You've gotten some good advice here (good for me, too). The only thing I can add is to accept who you are now, Polly, as opposed to who you were when you were a younger writer. As we age, many things become more challenging, including writing. Just remember that your skill in that arena hasn't gone anywhere. It just may need to be approached with more patience and love than necessary in the past. Accepting where you are in your life and remembering all the lessons you've learned along that journey, let those insights guide you and nourish your writing spirit. This works, but it takes a bit of effort.

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