Ask the editor: How to create authentic characters

By Midge Raymond,

Q: How do you write a first-person character whose voice doesn’t sound like the writer’s own? At some point does the character just take on his/her own life and you, the author, disappear? — J.W., Seattle

A: Many writers choose to write in a first-person POV because this voice comes naturally — it’s similar to writing in a journal or writing a blog entry. But, as J.W.’s question points out, when it comes to fiction writing, an author needs to make the sure the character can live and breathe on his or her own.

First of all, it’s not the end of the world if your character sounds a lot like you — as long as this character is real, engaging, and true to life. An author may want to avoid characters that resemble themselves for a couple reasons — for example, if you plan to write more than one book or story, you’ll want to diversify; also, you may want to distance yourself and your own life from your characters (a brief note to fiction writers: everyone will think it’s you, anyway, so don’t worry about this too much).

Here are a few exercises to help you bring your characters to life…

  • Take one scene and write it from several different POVs: first person (the “I” voice), second person (the “you”) voice, and third person (the “he/she” voice). This helps you get out of your own head and more fully into your character’s. You might also find that you prefer one of these POVs even more than the one you began with.
  • Consider some of your character’s opinions, and note where they’re similar to your own — is this necessary, or just convenient? That is, if you and your main character are both married, if you both hate beets, and if you both have German shepherds, perhaps you need to think outside the box a little. Every characteristic of your fictional characters should exist for a reason related to the story, not because it’s simple or easy to assign certain traits.
  • Finally, fill in the blanks below — and because this isn’t by any means a comprehensive list, add a few more categories of your own (favorite band, favorite ice cream, shoe size, etc.). This exercise will help you get to know your character as someone separate from yourself.
  • Name:
  • Nickname:
  • Age:
  • Gender:
  • Education:
  • Occupation:
  • Passion, if not same:
  • Finances:
  • Sexual orientation/status:
  • Sexual history:
  • Friends & enemies:
  • Family:
  • Hobbies:
  • Possessions:
  • Politics & religion:
  • Books & music:
  • Food:
  • Flaws:
  • Most noticeable feature / idiosyncrasy:

And I’d love to hear from you with some of the ways that you develop living, breathing characters — let me know! Happy writing.

 

The definition of irony

By Midge Raymond,

So, we recently returned from a lovely trip down the coast of California. One of the highlights for me was discovering a lovely vegan wine from Girasole Vineyards of Mendocino.

Here’s the ironic part: While the wine is vegan, the descriptions on the back don’t exactly reflect this. The chardonnay, for example, is said to pair well “with salmon or chicken in a light cream sauce.”

And this I quote directly from back of the pinot noir bottle: “..pairs well with everything from salmon to pork to grilled vegetables. VEGAN.”

And the sangiovese apparently goes very nicely with “pork tenderloin.”

I realize that it may not sound as sexy to write that a wine pairs nicely with tofu or tempeh — but, seriously, if a vineyard really wants to appeal to vegans, “pork tenderloin” isn’t exactly the way to go.

However, what matters here is that it’s a vegan wine, and a yummy one. And I can report the chardonnay does pair well with veggies –it’s crisp and light and delicious, and definitely a wine I’d have again. I’m sure it’s lovely with tofu, too.

 

  Category: On animals
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Ask the Editor: Should I pay a reading fee?

By Midge Raymond,

Q: I’ve noticed that some publications now charge reading fees, and I’ve heard a lot of writers say this isn’t ethical. When, if at all, is it okay to pay a reading fee? — M.K., Los Angeles

A: The short answer is: Almost never. The vast majority of reputable literary magazines do not (and should not) charge reading fees.

However, there are a few exceptions. One is if you enter a contest — most contests run by literary magazines charge reading fees, and this is perfectly reasonable because they offer cash awards to winners and often finalists as well (they may also offer a stipend to the contest judge). Many independent and university presses charge reading fees for their contests, for the same reasons.

A normal fee for a short story, poetry, or essay contest is $10-15. Some lit mags are charging $20 or more — for example, Gulf Coast charges $23 per entry for its annual prizes, which includes a subscription; The Iowa Review charges $20, and $30 will get you a subscription as well. These are both great magazines (and it’s always worth supporting them by subscribing), but these fees are quite a lot for most writers, unfortunately, and they’ll add up very quickly if you hope to enter a lot of contests. Small presses will usually ask for a fee of $25 per manuscript for a contest — I’ve seen higher, but this still seems to be the norm. You shouldn’t pay a fee for a regular submission, whether you’re sending an essay to a magazine or a novel to a small press.

Another exception is the “administration fee” that many magazines (among them The Missouri Review and Ploughshares) charge for using their online submissions systems — it’s usually around $3, which is roughly what it would cost you in printing and postage to mail in a hard copy anyway, and it’ll save you some time and maybe even few trees. While the majority of magazines still accept online submissions without charging this fee, it’s not an unreasonable one — and these magazines do not charge for regular mail submissions.

So the general rule is — fees are expected for contests; fees should not be paid for regular submissions, even if the magazines pay their authors (legitimate magazines that pay authors do not charge regular reading fees). If you encounter a publication that charges fees for regular submissions, do a quick Google search on that publication, and what you find will probably help you decide that it’s just not worth it.

 

Ask the Editor: Voice and character

By Midge Raymond,

Welcome to the Ashland Creek Press blog’s Ask the Editor series! Having received quite a few questions about writing, editing, and publishing, we’ve decided to answer a few of them here, for the benefit of all. If you have a question for us, please submit it here — and we’ll post it soon afterward, along with a helpful and insightful answer (we hope!).

Q: How does a writer make the narrator sound like a juvenile without making the writing sound juvenile? — J.G., San Diego

A: Voice is one of the biggest challenges for writers, especially when tackling a voice that’s very different from one’s own. And it’s especially important to make sure the writing itself is separate from the character, i.e., that the character can sound like a child without the writing sounding childish.

First, I suggest getting to know the character well, as sometimes this is the problem. If you’re writing from the POV of a juvenile, for example, make sure you’re seeing the world from this character’s eyes; try living in this character’s head as much as you can while you’re writing, as if you’re an actor playing a role. Our sense of a character’s age comes from the way he/she sees the world: a teenager will look at something very differently from the way a six-year-old would, or a thirty-year-old, or an eighty-year-old — so think about how your character (from the POV of age as well as his/her unique history) sees what happens around him/her, and describe it in detail. Everything that your reader perceives will come through the details.

Second, choose a POV that fits well what you’re trying to get across in the story — i.e., do you want an intimate, first-person POV (think Catcher in the Rye), or a more distant voice (if the kid is much younger, for example, you may find it easier to use third person to get across things that a child may sense but not be able to articulate in his/her own voice)?

Third, think of your audience — it’s often challenging to create a young voice that appeals to adult audiences, and this appeal (or lack thereof) will depend not only on the voice but on the story itself. There are always exceptions, clearly (not only Catcher in the Rye but books such as The Lovely Bones and the entire Harry Potter series). So try taking an objective look at your story; you may find that if your writing doesn’t sound adult, perhaps your story’s audience isn’t meant to be adult. And if it is, we’re back to POV: third person might be best, as you don’t need to limit your vocabulary as much as in the first person voice.

Also, read as much as you can in the POV you’re going for — this will help you get a feel for what works well. As you read, consider the ways in which these writers succeed in making their characters vivid while at the same time giving them authentic voices.

And finally, make use of a writing partner or writing group to help you judge how well you’ve succeeded. Ask, for example, how old your group thinks your character is, and see how this feedback helps you find that perfect pitch.

Happy writing!

 

Meet the Pacific Madrone: Ashland Tree of the Year 2006

By John Yunker,

Arbor Day may be still a few weeks away but here in Oregon we like to get things started early.

This week is officially Arbor Week — a uniquely Oregonian tradition.

In the spirit of the week, I present Ashland’s Tree of the Year from 2006 — the Pacific Madrone:

The tree lives at the center of Ashland’s Mountain View Cemetery (the subject of a future blog post).

I’ll pull back a bit so you can look up at the Madrone:

And here’s a final photo from the distance:

You can see the full list of Ashland’s Trees of the Year here.

Happy Arbor Week!

  Category: Ashland news, On nature
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