Writing Prompt Saturday- List Jobs

This week, I’d like to continue a writers notebook building exercise that I started at the end of last month.

That’s right, it’s a list!

I love lists. Today, we’re going to make a list of jobs.

100 jobs someone can have, to be precise. Because sometimes you’re going to have that character that has a job that isn’t a huge part of their story, but what they do for a living still matters. Lots of them, probably. And it’s far more fun to write about some unique or interesting job than a boring one, or one that everyone’s heard of.

Just like last month, I’d love to see a list built here, right on the site. So, same rules as last time. I’m going to list ten jobs. Then, anyone who wants can list ten more in the comments section.

1. Vet
2. EMT, or Ambulance driver
3. Housekeeper
4. FBI agent
5. Waiter
6. Copy editor
7. Police officer
8. Illustrator
9. Librarian
10. Writer

Funny thing is, I’ve also wanted to be all of the things on that list at one time.

What can you come up with?

Writing 101, Day 6

Today’s Prompt: Who’s the most interesting person (or people) you’ve met this year?

Wow, just one person?  No way, can’t do it.

See, here’s the thing.  I work in tech support and billing, which means I have the amazing opportunity to talk to brand new people all day long.  Here’s the thing, though, I never see any of them.  All I have is their voices, and their stories.  Oh, and let me tell you, the stories!

For some reason, people want to open up to someone when they’re stressed, and the tech chick on the other side of the phone is really non threatening.  So I get to hear all about what’s going on in their life today.

There was one woman, though, that stuck out in my mind.  After I fixed her tech problem we just talked for awhile, because she seemed like she needed someone to talk to.

Her husband had died a year before, but when he was alive they owned a Cesna, and she told me all about flying it all over America.  They’d started out working class, just like me and probably you.  But they’d invested so carefully and faithfully over the years, that they retired early and spent their retirement flying all over visiting their family.  She kept me on the phone for half an hour, and encouraged me to invest.  (I’m trying.)

People who are getting divorced, getting married, kids are about to leave for college, college kids just starting out on their own.  Every one of them has a story to tell, and sometimes they tell them to me.  And I love to listen.

I hear about the great new jobs, and I love that.  I had a gentleman call me to cancel his account with my company because he was moving into hospice, and it made me cry.  If you don’t know, hospice is the end of life portion of the hospital.  I talk to baby sitters who managed to break something, and moms who don’t know how to unhook the game system so they can watch their shows.

If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’ve got to have a day job, try to have one where you’ve got to handle people.  Because if you’re friendly, and ready to listen, you will hear more stories than you ever thought were there.

listening to children

Recently I’ve realized that I’ve done almost nothing for children’s writers. This makes less than no sense, because in my opinion, children’s authors are super heroes. You think I’m wrong? I’m not, and I can prove it, too. Think back to your very first favorite book. I am willing to bet it was not an adult book, and it likely wasn’t a young adult book, either. My very first favorite book ever was Where The Wild Things are, by Maurice Sendack. I read that book twice a day on average. I also read Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, and it’s thrilling sequel, Pickles To Pittsburgh. I devoured these books and gradually discovered bigger and bigger books. Goosebumps, The Baby Sitter’s Club, Chocolate Fever, The Last of The Unicorns. If I hadn’t learned to love reading with these, I might never have bothered with Philippa Gregory, Robert Jordan, Brandon Sanderson, or any of the other adult writers I love so much.

If you write for adults, stick around. We’re going to talk about that too. Today, we are talking about developing a skill that tool me years to master; listening to children. It’s all about character building, you remember, and some of your characters just might be children. So, if you don’t have any of your own kids, borrow some.

Learning the language

Children don’t talk the same way adults do. It’s like a whole new language, or an old one depending on how you look at it. And I’m not just talking about word usage, though that is a big factor. Kids string together words in a fresher, less uniform way than adults, because they haven’t yet learned the way everyone says things. They don’t use cliche phrases or metaphors. They just say it just how they see it. This can also be hilarious.

Learning the ideas

Another thing you’ll learn when listening to children is that they have what they think are all new ideas about, oh everything! Simple things are new to them, and they have none of the structural knowledge that we as grown ups are burdened with. You give a grown up a coffee cup. Unless they spend too much time on pintrest, there are about four things we can do with that cup.

A kid, oh my goodness, a kid will look at the coffee cup and give you ways to use it that you never in your wildest dreams considered. It’s a Barbie bath, it’s a car, it’s literally anything you could possibly think of. So when you’re writing for children characters you have to keep in mind that level of creativity. You have to learn how to see the world like a child sees the world again.

Learning the topics of high importance

Another really important thing to consider when writing for a child character is that what adult considers important is nowhere near what a child considers important. Time moves so different. Remember when it felt like Christmas was never going to happen because there was just no possible way that many days could go past.

Things that are important to children are things like shiny rocks on the sidewalk or finding a $5 bill on the ground. That is a monumental event to a child. Though to be fair if I find a five dollar bill on the ground that’s a pretty monumental event but that’s another story. (A sad one about a starving artist who likes coffee shops too much.)

The point is, children see the world with more excited eyes, they know things that we as adults have entirely forgotten. So when you’re going to write children characters, you need to spend time around children to remember their level of priorities.

So take some time and spend it around small children. They don’t need to be yours. Trust me you can always find ways to borrow other people’s kids if you don’t have any nieces or nephews or friends with kids.

Look for babysitting jobs if you’re still in college or high school. People are always looking for people to watch their kids especially if your affordable, because believe me as a parent, affordable childcare is not a thing that exists.

Take a notebook and just listen to them talk and take notes. The kid will love being the center of your attention and you will be in a better position to write a child character for your next book.

Our affiliates sponsor this week is Pen Boutique if you get a chance be sure to check them out. I swear, I found half my birthday wish list there.

And don’t forget to check us out on Monday on Facebook for the literary agent of the week, and on Thursdays for the discussion of the week.

So what do you think? When you need to write about a child character what do you do to get inspired? even better what was your favorite book of the kid that sparked your love of reading?

Idiosyncracies, how to use them and why your character needs them

This is an often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood part of creating a character. Too often we talk about a characters strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, favorite brand of coffee, that sort of thing. We don’t talk a lot about characters idiosyncrasies, though, and that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. When you think about it, isn’t that a big part of what you think of when you think about a real person?

So, just so we’re all aware, an idiosyncrasy is a behavior or way of thought particular to a specific person. Often this is associated with something weird or unexpected in someone’s personality. There are a lot of examples, but the first one that comes to mind for me is from the show Burn Notice. The main character is a smart, fearless super spy. Or as he says, he used to be a spy. He eats yogurt. I don’t mean like sometimes for breakfast. I mean he is often seen with yogurt. People bring him yogurt as a gift, steal his yogurt as a threat. He’s done at least one job for yogurt. He’s a super deadly man, who has worked for yogurt.

To clarify a bit further, an idiosyncrasy is not a character flaw. If a character is scared of spiders, that is a flaw. If a character is scared of spiders, so he takes off his shoe to kill them every time he sees one instead of just stepping on them, that is an idiosyncrasy.

An idiosyncrasy is also not a strength, or a normal hobby. Your character likes books. That is a strength. Your character speaks three languages. That is a strength. Your character has gone out of her way to collect fairy tales in French. That is an idiosyncrasy. Extra marks if she can’t actually speak French.

With this being little more than a weird character trait, some might say, why even bother with it at all?

For one thing, it makes your character more human. We’ll go back to Michael Weston for a minute. He’s not always a very likable or relatable character. He’s often doing terrible things or being a terrible person. His obsession with yogurt is humanizing. It’s also funny.

Idiosyncrasies can also suggest sub plots, or add to a main plot. Let’s take, for example, A Series of Unfortunate Events. One of the main characters, Violet, wears a hair ribbon when she’s making an invention. This hair ribbon has been used to incriminate her in a crime. People have used it to impersonate her. Once getting her ribbon back helped her feel more like herself so that she was able to think of an amazing invention to save her siblings.

Here’s another thing that Violet’s hair ribbon did for me, as a reader. I have long hair, and I can’t think of anything if it’s all around my face. I have to have my hair pulled back if I’m to get anything done from dishes to writing. This made Violet a very relatable character for me. Though I actually had more in common with Klause. #glassesproblems.

Finally, I’d like to revisit Michael Weston. He with his yogurt fetish. That was a clever thing to put into his character, because it does so much. The last thing it does for him is give him a spot of humor, which helps balance out his character. Without that, he’s sort of a narrow minded hard ass who has repeatedly put his friends and family in danger on the road to his goals.

Look at your character, and think about what sort of weird idiosyncrasy you can give them. My personal example was to give my main character Lenore a love of dogs. She’s a very professional, stern, get shit done sort of person, until she sees a puppy then she goes all over girly.

What do you think? What’s your favorite idiosyncrasy from a famous literary or movie character?

Protagonist vs. Good Guy

Last week, we talked about what an antagonist doesn’t have to be. This week, we’re going to talk about the one thing your protagonist doesn’t have to be, a good guy.

Modern story telling has given us all sorts of examples of main characters who are not good people.

The bad guy with good intentions.

Example, Magnito. And yes he does count, because he’s the main character of his own comic recently. Magnito does really, really bad things. But it works for him, because he’s often the one doing the bad things that need to be done, allowing the heroes to keep their hands clean. This is a fascinating character, for any number of reasons, but the biggest one is that he’s deep. He’s also cathartic. It’s never going to be Scott Summers who decks the bigoted moron yelling racial obscenities. It’ll be Erik, or Logan, or even Emma Frost. We all hope to be the good example like Scott and Jean Grey, but we also know it wold feel better to be Erik and Emma.

The good guy with bad habits or dark past.

Then there are all the characters who are awesome now, but have a really dark past they’re trying to make up for. The sweet librarian who killed her husband. The wonderful doctor who used to work with the Nazis. My personal real life favorite example is Wernher von Braun. The man was a Nazis, which no one decent is ready to defend. Then he came here to America and helped found NASA, for crying out loud.

It doesn’t need to be just that. It can be a stand up guy who’s a little to quick to call his wife a dumb bitch, (like oh so very many of Steven King’s main characters.) It can be the iconic Iron Man, with the drinking problem. And the taking too many women to bed problem.

The bad guy with no good intentions at all, but who habitually does good things anyway.

Like House. He is not a good person, not even a little bit. He’s a drug addict who habitually uses the people around him for his own selfish needs. He must be tricked into saving people’s lives, because if someone’s just dying, it’s not interesting.

This is a great character because we want him to win, but not really. We want him to get better, but that would make it boring. We want, more than anything, to know what happens next.

The bad guy who is doing bad things, but we’re rooting for him anyway, for some reason.

This has been a popular character recently. Bad guys, just plain old bad guys, as the main character. Dexter, Ray Donovan, Breaking Bad. They are not trying to redeem themselves, they are not trying to make anything better, they are not good people. They are bad, just bad people.

But they are endearing because they are people. We care about Dexter when we see him trying to get along with his girlfriend. We want to see Ray connect with his kids. Because even though they are doing bad things for bad reasons, they are genuine people, and their stories are endearing.

Here’s the thing you’ve got to remember when you’re writing for grown ups. There is no need for morals. We are not writing to teach someone how to behave or be a stand up person. We are writing to tell a great story. And sometimes, the best characters are really, really bad people. That makes them the best protagonists

The Writing Life- People Watching

What are characters? Your cast, your actors, the most important parts of your story? Well, yes, that’s all very true. But there’s a more basic answer than that. Characters are people. Or at least, they are the way we either wish people were, or secretly think people are.

To learn to write great characters, you need to learn about people. To do that, you must master the art of people watching. Once again we are borrowing from the habits of our fellow artists, visual artists. Sit near an artist in a coffee shop, and you run the risk of ending up in their sketchbook. So it should be with writers as well. If you’ve never practiced people watching, here are some steps to help you get started.

Always have your notebook with you.

You should already have a notebook with you at all times, but try to keep some pages open for taking notes on the people that surround you. When I started paying attention to the people around me, I was shocked by how no one ever seems to be aware of the fact that anyone else is around them. People will have amazingly personal conversations while shopping in the grocery store.

Wear headphones with the music off.

Like a spy, you don’t always want to be observed observing others. That’s when headphones are your friends. People assume that when you have headphones on you can’t hear them, so they’re not so self conscious. Pop on some headphones and settle in at a local coffee shop. People will go about their business, letting you take notes.

Listen more than look

You can see how people look on the internet. You’re watching people to learn how they act, but more importantly how they talk. Remember, I talked about how important dialog is in this post. So, when you’re people watching, you’re actually listening. Close your eyes and listen to how people talk to each other. Talking is like music in a way. You have to listen to a lot of it to develop an ear for it. If a piece of dialog strikes you, jot it down. Why does it strike you? Take notes on how that line made you feel, and how it would have felt if a friend or loved one had said it to you.

Take a walk through the park

Especially if you’re writing with children characters. Kids gravitate toward parks, and so do a lot of other sorts. Besides, it’s probably a good idea to get out of the house when you can. We don’t need anymore of the sun deprived pale geek stereotype.

Take public transportation

If you’ve never ridden on a bus or subway, do it. I have sat on long bus trips and just wrote notes on everything people around me were saying. Yes, all the rumors about people on public transportation are true. Yes, a woman once petted my chest while I was on a bus. Go try it anyway, you will not find a better place for people watching, I promise you.

If you want your characters to sound and act like real people, you’ve got to study real people. So practice people watching every chance you get.

Editing Dialog

I think it’s important to know your strengths and your weaknesses in life. Doubly so when you ‘re a writer, (read small business owner.) For instance, my weakness, which has been pointed out many times, is fight scenes. Probably because I don’t like to read them.

What I really am good with, though, is dialog. Talking, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. No one runs a blog who doesn’t like to hear themselves talk. But I really love writing dialog, and I think that’s why I’m good at it. But, like everything else with writing, the first draft is shitty, and the second draft is only a little bit better. It’s really my third draft that makes my dialog sing. Here’s how I edit dialog.

Read it out loud.

I read my whole second draft out loud. Every single page. When something makes my mouth trip, I highlight it. You ears know what sounds natural, and what doesn’t. So, if you read your work, especially your dialog, out loud, think about how you’d react if someone said this to you. Would it sound natural? If not, consider why.

Different character, different voice.

Reading your dialog out loud will also help you detect different voices in your characters. Not all of your characters will talk the same, at least you’d damn well better hope not. Each person’s word choice is based on their own personality, background and lifestyle. A bar maid’s going to talk differently than than a princess or a computer programmer. At the same time, a computer programmer will talk differently when she’s talking to a friend, parent or teacher.

This requires you to get into your characters. You should know how your character would say something, and what he or she would say in a given situation. I will straight up act out scenes, much to the amusement of my family.

All the grammar rules are thrown out the window.

We don’t talk how we’d write things down. We don’t talk with proper grammar. This is a good thing. So don’t keep to those rules when your characters are talking. Write how your character will actually talk. For example, my character uses the word ain’t. I really hate that word, it makes me itch. If I was writing a book with a character from around my home town, I might have them say “Yinz.” If you don’t speak Pittsburghese, Yinz means you guys or y’all. Like, “Yinz need to settle down!” Boy, do I want to punch everyone who says that word. But it’s perfectly fine if I’m trying to show you that this character’s from Pittsburgh.

Time period dialog.

If, that is, the character is from this time period. If this is a book set in the past, I’d chose something different. If you’re writing a book based in a different time, remember that you have to write how people talked then. If you’re writing a book set in the future, consider how people might talk then. One of my favorite examples of this is Firefly. People use random Chinese phrases in everyday life. That’s brilliant, I think. And speaking of brilliant…

Nationality dialog.

Consider where your character comes from. Back to our computer programmer analogy, a programmer from America will talk differently than one from India. In researching my book, I had to find Russian dialog to listen to, because one of my fictional countries is heavily based on Russia. That was fun, by the way, except for the fact that I had Checkov from Star Track stuck in my head for days. Nuclear Vessils. Hehehe, snort haha.

Take dialog editing seriously. Dialog is one of the strongest tools you’ve got to show us who your characters are. Make sure you take advantage of that.

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