Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Blind Spot

I’m afraid I have a blind spot which I didn’t recognize until after I’d entered several contests and received a lot of critiques. It’s usually impossible, or at least difficult, to see faults and failings in my own writing (or personality, for that matter.) That sure leaves me at a terrible disadvantage when it comes to improving a chapter or an entire manuscript.

Enough beating around the bush. I learned that I insert way too many characters into my first few chapters. I don’t know if it’s a problem unique to me or if others share this habit.

Since I write with only a barebones outline, I improvise as I go along. If my muse is awake and whispering in my ear, I scribble everything she tells me. Sometimes I include enough characters in the opening scenes to practically fill a whole series of books. When ‘people’ who pop into my head seem to enhance my story, I add them in and develop a subplot. Often they could use a book of their own. Sometimes they take over my story and drown out the voices of my hero and heroine. But I love the complicated plots these delightful people provide and I hate to eliminate them even though I can bring them to life again in their own story. But I want them to function now, in this manuscript.

At first one or two judges mentioned ‘too many characters’ with ‘too many goals.’ Huh? How could that be? I thought goals, motivations and conflict were crucial elements to include in a first chapter. Maybe the judges were nitpickers—or maybe they didn’t know as much as I did! (How do you like that for arrogance?! And I consider myself teachable and anxious to learn from others!) Maybe they didn’t understand that down the road these extra, but fascinating characters would enrich my story and help develop a complex, lively plot.

And then one day I received a revision letter which clearly suggested I combine superfluous characters and concentrate on the hero and heroine’s tale. Since I couldn’t object to the kind and helpful ideas of an editor, I cut and compromised. But low and behold, my manuscript improved. I didn’t need a cast of thousands to tell a story.

This ‘light bulb moment’ may seem insignificant and even obvious, but it made an enormous difference to my writing. Maybe some of you have had similar moments where comments from contest judges noted a weakness you didn’t know you had. So a big thank you to the judges who spot problem areas! And a big pat on the back to the writers who heed their advice.


Janet Dean said...

Cara, excellent advice on keeping down the population in our books. Combining characters is a great idea and suggested by Donald Maass in his workbook, Writing the Breakout Novel.

Having said that I'll admit to writing openings with multiple characters. I have five characters in the first chapter of Courting Miss Adelaide, my debut novel, but my editor didn't ask me to cut any of them. I think it works because the three of the four men on the committee my heroine faces aren't people the reader must remember right then. And it's very obvious who the hero is. All of these characters are integral to the book.

In Courting the Doctor's Daughter, my second book in the Courting series, the hero and heroine face off in a crowd of townspeople. Some speak and are named to give the story flavor. Since this is a series, readers enjoy seeing characters from the previous book, but they have to serve a purpose in the story.

Guess I'm saying, if the story requires more characters in the opening, there's always a way to make it work.


Carla Capshaw said...

Hi Cara,

I think a lot of writers have trouble seeing the flaws in their own writing. I mean, we know what's going on, so why doesn't everyone else! lol

You're right, contests are great for helping us see our blind spots. I don't have an overabundance of characters, but I learned from contests that I ADORE adjectives. Once I realized I add too many, I learned to weed them out with regularity.

I think the key to keeping our writing clean and understandable is to remember the reader *doesn't* know what's going on in our mind. The cleaner & less complicated (and I don't mean dumbed-down) our stories are the easier it is for people to go with the flow of the story. In the end, it's our main characters that should shine. It's their story. They're who we want our readers to remember, not the sub-charaters, landscapes or even the VERY descriptive prose. :-)

Great blog!!

Melanie Dickerson said...

I had an editor, a final round judge, tell me I had too many characters in the first chapters. How did she put it? Ah yes, here it is: "You were walking around town introducing every secondary character imaginable before we met the hero. That's not the way to draw a reader into the story."


But, Ms. Judge Editor Lady, Tina LOVED it just the way it is, so you must be wrong.
No, no, I didn't say that!!! (Not saying I didn't WANT to!) So I cut the first 7 or 8 pages. But there are still a lot of characters in that first chapter. Sigh. The editor judge did request the first three chapters and a synopsis. I'm wishing now I had cut more characters before I sent it. Can't help that now.

Patricia W. said...

I think it depends on the setting and whether the characters are named. Kidna what Janet said.

If characters are introduced but not named, they don't stick and the reader can keep going. But when an author has many named characters, the reader unconsciously pauses at each one, trying to file the person away in memory. If they were named, they must be important, right?

In settings that include large gatherings, the reader isn't surprised to meet more than one or two characters. But the author can still limit it to only those who are necessary, and only name those that the reader needs to care about beyond that scene.

Patricia W. said...

Kinda, not kidna.

Tammy Doherty said...

Once again, I'm awed by how a Seekerville post hits on an issue I'm having.

Too many characters isn't a problem for me. No, I have too few. Well, maybe not too few characters but virtually no subplots with my secondaries. Which might be okay if I were writing a shorter novel (like LIS). But my goal is to be writing a longer, single title.

So, I'm struggling with adding subplot. Or cutting 20K words and targetting Steeple Hill. I so hate not knowing what to do! I did cut some stuff, and now it looks like maybe the LIS path is the one I'm supposed to be on.

I have more than a blind spot - I'm deaf sometimes, too!

Thanks Cara - good luck with your characters :-)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Ah, Cara-mia!

You hit the nail on the head with this one, darlin', and it's a common enough mistake for those of us who have SO MUCH TO SAY....


It takes a few whacks of the ruler (read: contest judge smackdown) to wake us the dense among us, but once we've caught on we're somewhat educable.

Thanks for a direct post, kid.


Mary Connealy said...

I once had an edtior refer to my 'cast of thousands'.

I got that.

I also once critiqued a whole book for a friend and it had way to many characters. I old her, these three villains...make them one person.

How? She asked, it's a mother and son and son's girlfriend.

So, now it's just a son, everything the mother and girlfriend do, the son can do on his own, you'd barely have to change anything.

It's hard to do that though, because she had a vision for her story and she saw this little 'wolf pack' of bad guys and was fond of them.

Not unlike my 'cast of thousands' I loved those people.

In Calico Canyon I've got those five little boys, so identical and needing to somehow come to life as individuals. I seriously considered if I had just gone too far with numbers. I kept them but it's really tricky to keep them all in the story, all moving and talking. With so many characters several tend to fade into the woodwork anyway because you just can't keep track of all of them, so just ELIMINATE THEM.

Mary Connealy said...

Have any of you ever read The Stand by Stephen King?

I haven't but he talked about it in his 'On Writing ~ A Memoir of the Craft'. He said about half way through the book he'd just completely lost his way with it. He had too many characters, too many subplots, too many directions. He was just dead in the water with no idea what to write next.

He blew half of the characters up.

I thought that was hilarious. That took care of a lot of troublesome characters and subplots and then he could go on and write the stories he cared about.

Ann said...

One blind spot might be getting so wrapped up in "She lives in a log cabin and this is how she does her laundry and this is how she cooks corn dodgers ..." that the plot oozes along instead of flows.

Plus, there is a cast of dozens as others have noted.

I put a lot of time and effort into building the story world, and it seems so nfity to me, that I want to share all that.

I know novels are supposed to be like real life with the boring parts left out but, as a boring person, it's hard to know what to leave out!

I learned at the newspaper that stuff can be cut ruthlessly and I will still survive. Sort of ;-)

Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Cara.

I'm kind of the opposite. I have to make myself develop secondary characters. It just takes so much energy! LOL But I'm learning. If I plan ahead and do character sketches before writing, it helps me.

Carla mentioned simplicity. I totally agree with that. I've learned the hard way that once you start trying to force things to work, it just gets more and more complicated. Before I know it, I've wound my plot into such a knot I can't find a way to get out that makes a bit of sense to the reader. So I keep repeating to myself--keep it simple, keep it simple. One man, one woman, something keeps them apart, they overcome it, they live happily ever after. :)


Gina Welborn said...

Great post, Cara.

I'm too tired to think of anything witty to say. But at least my Surburban is clean. I think I'll nap for two hours before I have to leave for VBS.

Why don't my friends remind me before I volunteer to help that I don't like kids?

Oh my graciousness.

My word verification is jumbled up letters signifying me and nap.

Even word veri is telling me to slumber.

LauraLee Shaw said...

Ouch, yes!!! It hurts, but it'll be great to hear your wise advice in my ear the next time it's ringing with denial. Thank you!

Myra Johnson said...

Thought-provoking, Cara! My pet peeve with "big" books and lots of characters is when they're offstage too long after I've formed my initial mental picture. The next time they're in a scene I get mad when I can't remember any details about them. I like it much better when the author gives secondary characters some kind of tag (resemblance to a movie star, pertinent description, quirky habit, etc.), and then judiciously reminds me so I can quickly bring the character to mind again.

Julie Lessman said...

Great post, Cara!! Like Carla, my blind spot was adjectives -- I adored them too, the more the merrier! Thank God for Veg-o-matic judges who slice and dice blunders that writers don't always see. Kind of like the grandma who thinks her really ugly grandkid is model material when he as a huge wart on his nose.

Mary said: Have any of you ever read The Stand by Stephen King?He said about half way through the book he'd just completely lost his way with it. He had too many characters, too many subplots, too many directions.

Oh-oh, I gotta feeling this might happen to me! In my Daughters of Boston series, I not only have a story about the hero and heroine, but with each new book, I also include stories about each of the other couples. Book 3 had more balls in the air than a juggler in a circus. Now I'm starting book 4, and have subplots going on four other couples at the same time as the hero and heroine AND weaving in a story about the brother who will be the hero of book 5. YIKES, I'm confused already!

Mary Connealy said...

I rememeber, especially early on with my critique group, I'd say...this is telling. Or 'you need short sentence to create speed and tension in this action scene.'

We'd all do it, the others correcting the same mistakes in my work that they're pointing out in their work. then add...why can I see this mistake in YOUR book but not in MINE.

Sandra Leesmith said...

Great post Cara, I love secondary characters when they're done right. And yes, there can be too many. I'm sure cp's have dumped many of mine. sigh. Characters I really loved. So my solution was to give them their own book. Now I need to find an editor who wants them. chuckle.

Keli Gwyn said...

Cara, the problem of having too many characters in the first chapter was something I'd never even thought of until a wonderful and generous author pointed it out to me.

I sent a first chapter for critique before attending the Mount Hermon conference in March. Robin Jones Gunn critiqued it. While she liked my voice, she pointed out my profuse population problem.

Talk about a gracious, generous women. She offered to talk with me about her comments. When I located her and asked to set up an appointment, she stopped then and there and gave me fifteen minutes that have made a world of difference.

My thanks to contest judges, critiquers and you here at at Seekerville who generously offer wise counsel.