#WritersResources: Interviewing your Characters

When David & I first wrote November Deadline, our bad guy Bunty was little more than a cipher. The idea of doing a chapter or two from his perspective was tossed back & forth, but with four main characters (as well as a couple of vocal minor ones) already telling the story, we decided to leave well alone during the Challenge itself.

Those particular time restrictions now behind us, we’re filling out the story, and there’s now room for Bunty to have a voice. I did the initial rough draft of those chapters in a telling rather than showing manner, but when I came to re-draft them, I realised with something akin to horror that, even though he’s my creation, I’d no clear idea who Bunty was. While existing chapters already deliver a comprehensive picture of his looks and his political views, that was it … for he was that stereotypical baddie – all darkness, with no depth or nuance.

As a first step, I went through the original manuscript, pulling out every reference to Bunty, to ensure I didn’t contradict what’s already there – at least, not without intent and in the full knowledge of what needed re-writing. In so doing, I came across an exchange of dialogue with Jack I’d totally forgotten about (probably because David wrote it), which helpfully answered a couple of questions I was asking myself about his manner of speech (whether it was old-style and formal, or if he used a more modern selection of vocabulary), but I knew I was still missing the essence of Bunty.

David recommended Mind Mapping, but while procrastinating, inspiration struck! Deep from the recesses of my mind, I dragged up a memory of the multitude of “interview your character” questionnaires I’d saved on Pinterest absolutely ages ago, for Pinterest is yet another of those places I stockpile potentially “useful stuff”, only to forget all about it …

Two immediately jumped out of the mass – the first being a blog post from the pen of the wonderful K M Welland, which contained questions from her book Outlining Your Novel. I’m ashamed to say this book not only sits on my shelf, but has been read from cover-to-cover – clearly the old synapses weren’t firing properly, for I did not recall the terrific resource I had right to hand. The second was another blog post, this time from the team at The Write Practice, and forms a set of questions attributed to Marcel Proust. If these two don’t float your boat, there are plenty more to be found here.

I sat at my keyboard with a fresh cup of tea to work my way through both questionnaires. Much to my surprise, I was able to answer each question quickly and with little thought – so it turns out Bunty wasn’t such an unknown character after all, I Just needed to dig him out of the deep recesses of my mind via some well-thought out questions.

Mind Mapping ended up being a bit messy and didn’t give me any particular insights, so I turned instead to a Word Cloud … and the result was delightfully unexpected. Just so you know, whenever I produce a word cloud for inspiration, I don’t apply any weighting to the words as I like to see what the fates may offer me in the form of insights. The only word in the list I entered with a capital letter was Nazi (yup, my inner grammar – ahem – Nazi was at work there), otherwise all were lower case and in the same font.

Please accept my apologies for the dreadful quality of the image which follows – it was a snapshot taken of my PC screen (for yes, I did have technical issues during lock-down, but am sure I wasn’t alone in that), and also for the horrendous typo – but, you see, I couldn’t not include the result …

IMG_1470-1

For yes, buried among the obviously unpleasant aspects of Bunty’s character, those questions I’d answered revealed he was an unloved child – lonely, needy and unhappy. And suddenly, Bunty wasn’t a cipher anymore. Yes he’s a bully, but being writers who study human behaviour, we know that particular path is filled with those who’ve followed it in order to divert attention away from their own perceived weaknesses.

Although I can now see the unhappy child behind the man, the following saying plays an even more significant part in my overall assessment of Bunty …

It is our choices that show us what we truly are ...

I still don’t like Bunty, even though I think his character is more rounded and has depth. All I need to do now is to re-write those chapters …


© Debra Carey, 2020

 

 

#SecondThoughts: Beta Readers

The subject of beta readers is a surprisingly contentious one.  At one end of the spectrum you have those who think you shouldn’t move without consulting one, and at the other people who wouldn’t touch a beta with a 10 foot barge-pole.  For this post, I’ll be taking the view laid down by the Anglican church with respect to confession – all may, some should, none must.

The term has been around for comfortably more than a decade, and has been borrowed from the software industry.  A quick look round and I can’t find an exact etymology for the term, but it looks like a label that was first applied in the earlier years of this century, but a practice that was in use before.  This is something widespread – think about all the books you’ve read where the author acknowledges those that took the time to read the book before it was published, and provide feedback.  Sometimes this is limited to an editor, sometimes there is a longer list, varying from a couple of people to a full blown cabal.

Every now and again the #WritingCommunity on Twitter starts discussing this, and I’m sure the same is true of other social media writing communities, not to mention the various real-life groupings and courses that are out there.  Recently I saw a particularly vociferous response against the use of betas.  Stripping out the emotive rhetoric, the argument can be summed up as ‘you should have the courage to write the story you want without interference, it’s your story, not someone else’s’.  It’s not a terrible point, and does show that you need to be careful about how you use beta readers and why.  The major problem that I had with the article (aside from the damning of everyone else’s opinion out of hand) was that it was shored up by the example of the pulp writers of the early 20th Century, people who were batting out copy at a ferocious rate.  They, the writer argues, didn’t worry about beta readers, and neither should you.  The problem with that, I think, is that there is some very bad writing in that oeuvre, and it would have benefited from a read-through.  It was written, however, at a different time for a different market.

So why use a beta reader?  Is it just from lack of confidence?  Is it just a desire to have your ego stroked?  There are a lot of people out there talking about what they are writing and the problems that they are facing.  There are people who go through round after round of edits and don’t seem to get anywhere, and don’t want to show anyone what they’ve written until it is perfect.  There are things that make perfect sense in our heads, and we think we’ve made it clear when we put it down in black and white, but it is all too easy to make a ‘magic step’ that we know is there, but the reader, without the support of what’s in our heads, falls down.

But it is worth being careful about who your beta readers are, and you do need to be careful about how you use them.  Dumping your MS on a friend is unlikely to be useful.  You don’t want someone who is just going to be kind, you want someone who will tell you the hard truths.  You don’t someone who is just going to read through your MS, you want someone who is going to engage with it.

You’ve spent time and effort getting this book together, it makes sense to make sure that it is as smooth as possible.  You might get different feedback from different people – that’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing that you have to deal with.  It’s your story.  You’ve written every word, but you’ve jumped back and forth adding and changing bits as a result of changes in direction that you’ve taken or issues that have cropped up that you didn’t plan for.  Does your story still make sense?  Have any of the characters done anything uncharacteristic?  Are there any plot holes that you’ve overlooked?  Your betas, if you use them, are not just another reader: they are there to help you, but make their life a bit easier and tell them what you would like them to focus on – and you might have a different set of instructions for a different beta.  Everyone has their strengths (and weaknesses) and it pays to know these and work to them, where possible.  I’d strongly recommend reading Debs’ take on this, too.

I mentioned earlier that the term was one borrowed from the software industry.  It’s also one that is evolving and is in a bit of a fight with other terms too.  It’s important to be clear what you’re looking for in a beta.  Sometimes beta is being used when really we should be talking about an alpha reader.  Not everyone uses an alpha reader, but some people are lucky enough to have someone they can trust to try very early drafts on – particularly helpful when things are not gelling properly.  Critique partners can fulfil a similar role in a different way.  In the gig economy, people are putting themselves out there as beta readers for hire.  These people are not editors and often their only link to writing is that they like to read a lot.  Good on them for finding a way to make their hobby pay, but be careful – what can such a person offer you?

All may – it can be helpful, it’s worth considering, but it’s your story, and you need to remember that when looking at feedback.

Some should – we’ve all read stuff and we wonder what the editor was thinking allowing certain things through.  But perhaps they didn’t have a strong enough relationship with the writer to say ‘I think you need to change this bit’.

But, none must.  It’s your story, and if you think it’s perfect, send it off to an agent.  They might disagree, whether or not your book has been read by a beta.  But don’t just do what your betas say – at the risk of repeating myself, it’s your story.

© David Jesson, 2020

 

#Flash Fiction: The Feud

The Blimp

It was a day George had looked forward to for a long time. We all had. George’s family were close-knit and were rightly proud that “our George” had made it through the ranks, finally becoming an officer. They were a lovely lot who’d welcomed me with open arms into their loving, noisy family. Even before our wedding, George had worked on airships. 20 years – there wasn’t a man with longer service – yet he’d had to accept he’d be the junior officer.

We’d talked about it that last night. All of the other pilots were younger than him, but like he said, they were professionals – with bags of experience, and they’d all worked their way into the post through hard work and application – just like George. Except for Him. The whipper-snapper. The Chancer. Mr fly-by-night, glory-hunting Edwin Thurow.

So, who’d George get partnered with on that day of days? Yup – Thurow. I heard from one of the others that he’d tried – but the skipper had waved him away, suggesting it would be a good test to see how he coped taking orders from younger pilots. Didn’t he realise George had been taking orders from younger officers his entire career?

Being the junior officer, it was George’s job to do the radio reporting. The girls in the control tower said afterwards they could hear Edwin bloody Thurow in the background of every single report – contradicting George, shouting over him, at one point even snatching the handset away from him. The last report made was Thurow – saying they were going down to check out an oil slick … and that was the last we heard of them.

The airship came back – it chugged on, getting snagged on all manner of stuff, finally losing height till it flopped down in a city street. No-one was hurt, but neither my George nor Thurow were there. The cuppola door was open, the safety bar was pulled back, and the life jackets were gone.

They pulled George from the water a few days later. It took a while, but he recovered. They never found any sign of Thurow. There was an enquiry of course. George told them Thurow had sent him out of the cuppola to scoop up a sample of the oil slick. While he was hanging off the framework, the airship had jerked, and George had fallen in. The airship had circled for a bit, and George assumed Thurow was radioing for help, for there were ships in the area. But Thurow never made a report.

There were all kinds of rumours – one about a feud between George and Thurow was especially loud. Now my George didn’t like Thurow, but neither did any of the other pilots – because he was cocky and relied on luck way too much. But you know what they say about dirt sticking …

George took early retirement, still an ensign. That supposed feud did for his navy career. But my George never complained. He believed he was lucky – for he’d got to come home to me.

© Debra Carey, 2020


Good Fences

The inspector straightened up, snapping the tape measure closed.  He looked over the fence at the immaculate gardens on either side of the boundary line, and the scowling figures stood in each garden.  The inspector sighed.  This was the fourth time he’d been here in six years.  Each time the gardens looked even more lovely, and the gardeners ever surlier.  Completely different in looks and stature, nevertheless, the two wore identical scowls.  Where they should have been united in their love of gardening, they were divided by the paths they had taken.  Instead they were united, for all the wrong reasons, by the fence that divided the gardens.

“Gentlemen, the fence-line is exactly where it always has been and sits on the boundary line as defined in the deeds.”

“It can’t be!” Sullivan Doyle’s face looked like one of the beef tomatoes growing in his green house.  The inspector, who enjoyed cooking, mentally added a froth of cottage cheese, to finish off the picture.  Yes, a stuffed tomato if ever there was one. “This blackguard used the rebuilding of the fence as an excuse to claim an extra couple of inches!”  You can see where the runner-bean wig-wams have been knocked over!”

“They look like they were rather close to the fence-line” the inspector said mildly.

“His runner-beans!  What about my roses!” Gilbert Carte’s darker complexion was not so infused with blood as his neighbour’s but his face was no less animated; neither were his arms still, gesticulating wildly at several beautiful rosebushes with a few leaves hanging limp where they had been brushed against by the men replacing the fence. “They’ve been damaged irreparably by this half-wit’s attempt to bribe the men building the fence to move it a foot into MY garden!”

The inspector sighed again.  He’d been here before and would no doubt be here again.  There was very little he could say or do that would make an impression on these two.

“As the fence is exactly where it should be, I think you’ll have to chalk it up to experience that it’s a bad idea to change a fence in the middle of the growing season – ”

“But he – ” both gardeners exploded.

“- and,” the inspector continued, “the council will be in touch about the costs of having this survey conducted.”  He left, leaving the two men bickering across what, it must be said, was a very lovely fence.

*****

The inspector was also a retained firefighter.  As fate would have it, he was on-call that night, and ended up back at the gardens he had left just a few hours earlier.

©David Jesson, 2020

#FF Prompt: The Feud

“Of course, you realise, this means war!” said Bugs Bunny, breaking the fourth wall after he’d been insulted or something by the antagonist.  Who’s going to feud in your story? Why? How low are the stakes that are being fought over?

Anything goes – so long as it’s nothing NSFW.

Word count: 200-500 words
Deadline: by 8 am (GMT) on Sunday 12th July 2020

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


Post your story on your site and link to it here in the comments below, or drop us a line via the contact us page and we’ll post it for you.