Friday, February 17, 2012

A Writer’s Dilemma

What to keep and what to toss?

Of all the inner battles a writer has to wage, this one gives me the most grief. Early in my career, I felt obligated to toss everything into my opening chapter, including the kitchen sink. Of course, my first editor knew better and counseled me to go for brevity. Actually, a lot of brevity. Taught me the value of the truth that less is more.

Perhaps the main reason I told too much was fear of the dreaded hook. We all know it is vital to hook our readers from the very first sentence, but, gosh how are they going to be hooked if they don’t know the entire history of the main character? Stuff like that. Sorry. That was my feeble attempt at humor. Actually there are all manner of hooks, and the experienced writer loads them into her/his bag of tricks. Hooks are not my subject of choice today but would make a good subject for a future post. Now to get down to it.

Along the way, I had a chance for a few weeks of mentoring by a NYT best-selling author, and she taught me a lot. Interestingly enough, her advice was for me to gather all sorts of peripheral data to flesh out my protagonist before I wrote word one. At her insistence, I went shopping and picked out the kind of pen I’d find on her desk, the style notebook she kept handy, items in her home that she would kill to keep, etc.

I thought at first my mentor was daft. Why did I need to pick the china in her buffet, the clothes in her closet, the time of day she was most vulnerable to a case of the blues. On and on. By the time I’d complied with her instructions, the course was nearly over, and I felt cheated.

But, and this is a dandy, I sifted through all that stuff and, you know what? I suddenly saw my character as human, a person with strengths and weaknesses, passions, hungers, foibles, and aversions, to wit; a real living breathing, suffering, imperfect but lovable person I could write about.

I wrote the book. The final story won’t be written on that book in my lifetime, since I have no way of knowing how it will fare in the competitive world of fiction writing. But I wrote the doggone book and I’m proud of it, one of my best ever.

Now, back to my question. How much of all that periphery did I include? Not very much in terms of straightforward narrative, though understanding what kind of blouse she would wear for a certain occasion, or her favorite song, made her come alive in the pages of my book. So, my advice to fellow authors is, compile a book on your main characters. Don’t be shy, and don’t undershoot. This is your chance for that kitchen sink array.

You’ll ultimately, perhaps with the aid of a good editor, hone it down to the essence of what it is to be alive on God’s green earth. And, no doubt, your editor will give you a sharp paring knife to bring it into shape. I’ve included a partial list below, of the items I catalogued in developing Sera Moreland for my mystery novel, TOCCATA.

Happy reading, all.

Pat Dale

Partial List for Sera Moreland, heroine of Toccata:

Leather-bound stationery cover

Grandma Nadine’s silver piano shaped music box that plays Pavanne for a Dead Princess

Grandma’s French set of porcelain China, Festivite by Raynaud of Limoges that had been left to Sera on Nadine’s passing

Favorite colors for shirts and blouses, and sweaters: aqua, pastel pink, lavender

Business suits: charcoal and medium gray

Likes: all shades of blue

Dislikes: red (other than her Ferrari)

Extravagances: Luxury autos, Aston-Martin DBS and Ferrari, and Bosendorfer piano

Favorite music: French Impressionists, Debussy and Ravel

Lifestyle: Spartan. No house staff.

Sera is comfortable living alone, her only insecurity a repetitive nightmare stemming from an adolescent sexual encounter.


  1. I think we're getting back to the classic "plotter" vs. "pantser" debate here. I don't figure all that stuff out in advance, if and when I need it I'll make a decision based on where the story is going at that points ... I'll "pants" it. If the car is never driven in the story, or never even shows up in the parking garage, why do I care if it's a Ferrari? If my character isn't doing a dinner party (unlikely in my stories, but what the heck) why would I care if she had Limoges or Corel or Melmac? Nope, far too much "plotting" for me. I just make it up as I go along. Or even go back and stick this kind of detail into an earlier chapter if I find I now need it to have been there (did that make sense? I hope so). "Pantsing all the way!"

  2. I, too, am a pantser. Or, I was. When I went through this, I felt the way you do, Jim. but what I learned was that my characters come out much more in-depth than the other way. Sera owns a DBS, which she rarely drives, but the fact she would part with that kind of cash to have it in her carriage house tells something about her. She does drive the Ferrari, a lot, and that tells something else about her character. And so on.
    I tried it this way once, and I'm hooked. But, I agree that you don't have to do it like this to be successful.

  3. Interesting post Pat. It is important for the author to know everything about their character, (and when writing Fantasy, the world where the action takes place,) but the dilemma is being able to share the info without overloading the reader or bogging down the plot. Whether pantser or plotter, the same need applies... doesn't it Jim?
    Finding the happy medium, that's the trick.
    It would be vital in a mystery not to give irrelevant information... or are red herrings part of the mystery/fun?

    1. For me, part of the fun of writing a mystery is to plant an occasional red herring, along with possible suspects who turn out to be innocent. Just as in real life, solving a crime is often about sifting through facts to find the ones that lead you to the culprit.
      My St. Louis Blues series is an attempt to do a romantic mystery kind of novel. I know that some mystery writers do not want romance to dilute their reading, but I couldn't help myself with Toccata. Sera Moreland is one of the most sensuous characters I've ever created, and it would have been an injustice to turn her into a sexless heroine.
      Ditto with Daniel Quinn, cop extraordinaire.
      One other thing, this series is based on a single overarching plotline. The first book doesn't end with the solution of the crime, but leads to the second book, etc. Doing it this way, my characdter arcs will expand through successive episodes until I have fully developed my characters and find a good way to let them go. Or die. Or whatever they tell me they want to do when it's over... Hmmm?

  4. I don't class knowing your characters inside and out as being a plotter. To me being a plotter is trying outline the PLOT. Creating a character, developing that character, until they start walking and talking to you -- to me that's being a pantser all the way. Because the character's telling you these things about themselves, you're not making it up. In fact, I can't really start writing UNTIL a character gets up and starts walking and talking to me, and I never realized it until I read this, but I've been subsconsciously doing that with all my characters in every dang book I've ever written. I just KNOW what their favorite colors are, their favorite music, how they react in certain situations, the cars they drive. And without knowing all that, how on earth would you make your characters REAL?

    1. You've got it, Gail. My mentor, M.J. Rose, used the technique I described to get me to do what you are talking about. It worked. From day one, I've always let my characters mature in my brain until they're screaming to get out and live their own life, courtesy of my keyboard. I just learned to do a bit of documenting to heighten my concept.

  5. Pat, I'll never forget the invaluable help a VN vet gave me before I began work on Kiss of the Assassin. He took me through my paces, but was always fair and patient. I couldn't have written that book without. I put it through a critique group back in the mid 90s and I received one of the best compliments of my writing career. A VN vet asked me when I'd been in-country.

    Great post. Thanks so much for visiting my blog.

    1. That's when you know you got it right, Joylene. No writer can be everywhere he or she needs to write about, but good research can help bring a touch of authenticity to your writing.

  6. The ancient Greek dramatists believed character is destiny, that out of your character's nature will flow the events of the story. Fascinating post, Roland

    1. In that case, I must descend from the Greeks, because that is exactly how I develop a story. Although, on further consideration, I do exert a considerable influence on where my character takes me. Conversely, where I take him. Altogether a fun journey all things considered. Thanks for your sage comment, Roland.