Write It–Characters that Jump off the Page



Seattle peoplePerhaps I am fortunate in that I have never created a character from scratch.  I once took a workshop at a small writing conference where we built characters from scratch.  We started with physical attributes and appearances, then we dug into conflicts and personality.  I think I even included the characters astrological signs.  Fun workshop, but I don’t write that way.

Many writers over the years have told me that their characters come to them fully-fleshed out. Some characters even bring their stories along, but not the plots. True, even the flesh and blood characters come as new friends or adversaries that you get to know little by little.  Sometimes in the middle of writing a story, a character confesses a secret he or she has been hiding.  In my case, my character Lucy Yakamoto told me that she thought she was a lesbian so of course, I had to go back and rewrite the story prior to her confession.

Oddly, once I did that, Lucy wrote her own story while I just typed along blissfully and sometimes with some consternation.  You want me to write what? Wow, there goes my reputation as a writer!

My first novel, (yet unpublished), Super-Nature Heroes features real life saints as magic realism characters.  This story came about when I was in the midst of Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” program.  I sat down one morning to write my three daily pages, and Saint Francis of Assisi showed up and gave me a what if statement.  “What if I reincarnated in modern Manhattan and married Joan of Arc?” Thank you Francesco for dropping that delicious idea in my lap.

As the weeks flew by, the saints appeared with their myriad of stories and we (I had some help), wrote the novel 3 pages at a time and if you do the math, you will figure out that the novel only took several months to write the first draft.  Typing the longhand took much longer and blogging early drafts, even longer.  The real work, fixing the grammatical problems, cleaning up the plot, adding some new chapters, etc…took several years.

The characters Agnes Cass and Yves Gervais came to me when I found a submission request for a short script taking place in Paris.  I believe that the requirements included one American and one French character. While the characters came to me in 3-D form, I still needed to research Pablo Picasso, Paris, San Francisco and then I brought in the circumstances to bring the two characters together.  Magically, the supporting characters came to me fully fleshed out too.  I saw them as cinematic versions in my mind.  This magical stuff which is what keeps me in this chair writing stories.

Some times, I feel like a huge party is going on in my head with my characters (from novels, scripts and short stories), networking with each other.  I wonder what stories could derive from this mix and match. Send all your characters to the same party and see what transpires.

How do you attract flesh and blood characters as opposed to building them from scratch?

  • Go for walks and observe the world around you
  • Ride public transportation and listen in on conversations
  • Do dream work and ask that your muse (or whoever) bring you characters
  • Use your imagination–go to a party and who do you meet?
  • Pick a story or plot and see who shows up to star in it
  • Network with your current characters and ask for introductions to their colleagues, friends and adversaries
  • Look among the people you know, would any of these people spark a character?
  • Write morning pages and once you get all the yucky stuff out of your system, see who shows up.

If you have any other suggestions, please leave them in the comment section.  And start meeting your future characters.

Write it–Tips to Writing a Powerful Memoir

DSCN6930When I first starting writing my memoir, I got caught up telling instead of showing my story.  I waded in exposition that bored every tooth in my head, not to mention my eyelashes.  In the past, I ran into boring exposition in other people’s memoirs too.  Why do we equate memoir with boring story?

Well, I can think of two reasons: First, we’re afraid to include dialogue because we can’t remember the conversations we had with others verbatim.  We’re afraid that someone will ring our neck and drag us into court if we put words in their mouths.  Second,  we worry that if we add an actual narrative with scenarios that include action along with dialogue that we entered the world of novel writing.  But let me ask you this question.  Do you really think that memoir authors such as Liz Gilbert remembered all her conversations as they were exactly spoken?

Now, there’s a huge difference between making things up and relying on memory to the best of our ability. The second scenario involves integrity and ethics because we’re trying to get it right to the best of our knowledge.  The first scenario implies that we’re just making stuff up and placing words in other people’s mouths that we would have liked to have spoken.  Wishful thinking does not equate an honest telling of the past.  That lands in the fantasy realm.

The other thing I learned is to get all the anger, resentment and negative feelings out during the rough draft and a second draft if it is required.  Then delve into a space of forgiveness and compassion for everyone involved in the story.  While it’s still your story to tell and through your eyes and your memory, ask yourself what it would feel like to walk in the other people’s shoes.  Psychoanalysis of others isn’t required and we’re best avoiding placing our memoir characters on the psychoanalysis couch.  Also avoid the exposition that results from delving into someone else’ head space.  Memoirs reflect our memories and our point-of-view which readers of this genre do get.

Avoid adding anything (especially that sounds bitter, self-pitying and resentful) to the story that actually doesn’t move the narrative forward.  I cut out a lot of this type of writing from my first draft because I realized I was ranting and not sharing a cathartic story.  I thought of readers wading through paragraphs, if not actual pages of me joining a pity festival.  This pity party didn’t move my story forward and just made other people look like predators out to destroy me, which in reality wasn’t the case.
FSCN0887So we can write dialogue that comes from the best of our memory and we can write scenarios in the same way that we write fiction, but it’s stuff that actually happened in our lives.  We also have the right to invent structure so we don’t have to tell our memoir chronologically, meaning we can step back and forth through time.  In actuality, I have never met anyone with a linear mind.  How often does your mind wander into the future or into the past? Try meditating and you’ll see what I mean?

Even Liz Gilbert with her carefully structured three-part memoir travels back to her past.  Even when she’s in Italy and India, she’s still bringing her divorce and marriage from the past into the present.  That’s the way our minds work, especially if we have undisciplined minds, which most of us do have.   Besides, memoir is French for memory and memory doesn’t occur in the present moment.  This means that we can play around with structure.  I encourage you to watch movies with unusual structures or books told in fragments to inspire you about creating the structure for your memoir.  I chose to tell parallel stories in mine so I have ten interludes about suffering from multiple chemical sensitivities interlaced with my housing quest in 2014.

The final element required for a memoir besides dialogue/scenarios and narrative structure is a voice.  The best memoirs feature a strong voice whether that’s a wry and funny voice or a spiritually powerful one or a fragile voice of someone coming into their own and beginning to acknowledge his or her personal power, I guess the word I’m looking for is vulnerability.   Once you have the dialogue/scenarios, structure and voice, the last selling and reading point is strong writing.  Work on sentence structure by varying length of sentences, balance exposition (telling) with scenarios (showing) and give the reader a good reason to read your memoir when they have thousands of other books they could pick up and read.

I’ll share more of what I learn during my memoir-writing journey as I work on my revising this spring.  If you would like a intuitive coaching session for writing or other creative projects, sign up for a session at Metaphysics for Everyday Living.  

Write it–Shadows that Bite Characters

DSCN6933Originally published on Bonjour Bellingham with musing about my second novel, “Agnes et Yves”

Before I fully understood the psychological and spiritual concepts of shadows and projections, I still managed to create characters with shadows that bit them.  The easiest example of shadows and projections is with my character Agnes Cass (“Agnes et Yves”).  When the novel opens, we flashback to Agnes’ insufferable childhood in Paris, living with a mother who spends too much time with the natives (Parisian men), getting naked.

Meanwhile, Agnes endures her mother’s irresponsible behavior, as well as, her mother’s sudden interest in everything “French” which includes listening only to French music, watching only French movies made in France, and eating only authentic French cuisine.

So Agnes does what any teenage girl trapped in Paris, she escapes and flies back to San Francisco where she hopes to severe ties with her mother and France.  However, Agnes meets Jane, another journalist who soon becomes her best friend.  Just like Agnes’ mother, Jane obsesses about everything French.  She even has a French poodle.

While Jane waxes on about France’s many virtues, Agnes falls in love with a flamenco musician from Spain, who basically treats Agnes like another port of call during his whirlwind tours.  Agnes doesn’t see the shadow that bites her and leads her to eventually lose her job, her reputation, and her grounding in the world.  Until Agnes learns that she projects her own insecurities onto her mother, and French people, she’s trapped in her own machinations.  In a sense she is just like her mother, only instead of chasing several Parisian men, Agnes chases after one Don Juan, but with a reputation for devouring women.

I won’t tell you about the transformation Agnes goes through, or how she ends up falling for a Parisian man who doesn’t fit her usual stereotypes.  I won’t tell you this because I would like you to read my novel.  However, I will ask you to find your own characters’ shadows and projection then see how you can work those more deeply into your fiction, short or novels.

Look for the following:

How your character relates to other people

Your character’s pet peeves, especially related to other people

The truth your character is not facing

Cognitive distortions

Exaggerated behavior (also known as over-the-top)

Areas where your character trips her or himself up

To do this, you’ll need to wear the hat of a psychologist, even if that means remembering what you learned in your college psychology courses.  You can also dig into self-help and pop psychology books to bring further depth to your characters.

Enjoy the process of sending your characters shadows into the light.

Write it–Line-by-Line

elephant (2)

After working out the plot points, developing characters and reading notes from beta readers, the time arrives to go through the manuscript line by line. Take off the writing hat and don the editor’s cap because line editing demands total ruthlessness.  Yes, time to kill those darling sentences, replace passive verbs with active ones and delete entire sentences, even paragraphs if they fail to move the story forward.

I actually enjoy this part of the writing process.  The most challenging part of writing a novel is writing the first draft and including the plot points.  But since I’m line-editing my fourth novel now, I’ll stay alert to common writing errors in future novels. So when we play the role of cleanup crew, what gremlins require ghost-busting?

While going through each sentence, read them out loud.  Does the sentence sound clunky? Do you find yourself tripping over words? Can you draw up a distinct image or does the sentence appear foggy? Does the sentence propel the story forward or cause you to yawn and skip a few pages of details? Imagine if you feel this way the readers will also lose their patience.

You have two choices if the sentence doesn’t fit the above criteria (clear, concise, moves the story forward or provide imagery for the reader), rewrite the sentence or toss it.

Do you find long passages of the character musing about the past or their current feelings about a situation? The readers expect some musing from your characters, but they don’t want to drown in it.  This is a good time to shorten the passage(s) by condensing sentences by using active verbs.  Also look for repetition of sentiments, combine sentences or ideas into one sentence.  Your readers will get your point.

Do you have too much dialogue? I have trouble with this myself because I tend to write chatty novels haven fallen in love with talky French movies.  One solution is to cut up the dialogue by adding body language responses such as, “he shrugged,” “she pouted,” or “she jutted out her chin.”  And if we listen to real dialogue we would notice that few people speak in full sentences unless they’re lecturing a class or giving a speech presentation.  Characters cut each other off, complete each others’ sentences or if they’re nervous, stumble over their words.  No one speaks in the Queen’s English any longer.  So sharpen dialogue to get us into the characters’ head space or hearts and to move the story forward without dumping too many details on readers.

Decide how much description is absolutely necessary to give readers an image of the characters, setting and story.  Some authors (such as myself who started out writing screenplays) tend to leave out important imagery details while other authors wax on like some literary giant of the golden era.  Beta readers help with this process.  This is why it’s a good idea to give beta readers a list of questions to answer.  I like to include questions about imagery (too much or too little?), tone, pacing, character development, plot twists and this all depends on the beta reader’s background.

Finally, fact check your manuscript.  Then look for silly errors (we all make) such as with the characters’ actions lacking congruency.  For instance, while line-editing my current novel “Love Quadrangle” I noticed that in an earlier scene my character Miranda ambled away from Pierre’s Jeep but later, she slams the door of the Jeep.  I chuckled and then fixed that glitch.  You might notice that at the beginning of the novel a character has red hair and green eyes, but halfway through the novel she’s now blonde with blue eyes.

It’s actually easy to make these errors and not because writers are lazy.  Some writers get caught up in their stories as if they are watching a movie.  I often feel swept away by my characters and instead of seeing the finer details, I’m engulfed by the bigger picture.  We space out and lose the plot or we ground ourselves so deeply in the story that we fail to give the story its breath or heartbeat.

The last thing I’ll mention is if you have professional characters, research those professions and find a beta reader who can give you advice on the details of their profession.  Better yet, go to a site that represents the profession, check out the space, pay attention to the rhythms, colors, tones and nuances while also interviewing the professional.  I’ve even heard of writers/authors doing this in medical and even police settings, so if you have an in, use it.  Find these professionals on social media then follow through.

By doing our initial line-editing, we have a better chance of landing deals with agents and publishers.  We prove that we are willing to sharpen both our writing and editing skills, and that we don’t mind the learning curves thrown at us.  As authors, we get better and better with every book or novel.  And who says that each step of the process doesn’t provide some treasure.  Just like polishing furniture brings out the natural grain of wood, line-by-line editing brings out the essence of a novel.

Originally published on Bonjour Bellingham

My Contribution to National Poetry Month

DSCN5397A Stitch in Time

She keeps time in a bag,

sand trapped between her sagging legs.

Stealing stitches from eternity,

her soul endures maternity

until she gives birth to herself.

Cocooned passive, waiting

a trick of the clock eminent

She pulls out an unfinished sleeve,

thinking of the day she’ll take leave.

A departure date only known to her.

Unraveling the future, knotting the past,

a continual spiral until at last,

no tears for these arachnid-like days.

She stares into the void’s haze

until an arrival date only known to her.

She’s the mother and the child,

the beginning and end of time,

a riddle, a mystery, a prophecy,

So clear and bright that we close our eyes.

Yet, this Spider Woman weaves humanity’s destiny.

By Patricia Herlevi, 2011

Photography by Patricia Herlevi


All Rights Reserved

Write It–Firing up the Memoir

DSCN5236My plan was to get started on my fifth novel last autumn, then life events sent me heading in the direction of a memoir. Now, I harbored misconceptions about writing memoirs which caused me to avoid them.  First, I thought I had to conjure bad memories and write them down in a narrative fashion.  And I thought that if I wanted to please readers that required a deeply disturbing confession of some kind… (archival article from Bonjour Bellingham)

Well, I since learned that writing memoirs does lead to gut-wrenching moments of rediscovery, but readers are more interested in a story they can relate to rather than a confessional.  Besides, I’ve never had a reason to hide in a closet and I’ve never worked in the sex industry nor am I the daughter of a controversial or famous person.  In fact, writing a memoir of any of my life stories seemed absurd to me, mainly because I find my life stories boring.  That was until last fall.

While it’s easy for me to remember events from the past months, I realize that digging back into the past requires jogging of memory.  Authors working on memoirs worry about accurate dialogue (isn’t going to happen unless you recorded your conversations) and portraying past events accurately, that is if they can even draw enough on memory to write a 200 to 300 page book. So I’m including some memory-triggering tips below.

  • Bring out the old photographs and photo albums from the time period of your memoir
  • Interview friends, family member, co-workers and colleagues involved in your story
  • Reread journal or diary entries from that period
  • Look up historic or media events from that period
  • Listen to music (extremely important for jogging memory) from the time of the events or situations featured in the memoir
  • Have a conversation with parents or close relatives about how they remember the event (this could prove healing too)
  • If the memoir involves illness or an accident, look up medical record notes
  • If the event was featured in the media, look up newspaper clippings or news audio clips
  • Look up current events from that time period
  • Visit a qualified hypnotherapist to trigger memories

Don’t worry if you’re story isn’t completely factual or accurate. The purpose of a memoir is to write from the author’s memory and perception of events.  It’s not the same as writing a autobiography or an article. Authors who feel that they roam too far away from the actual events (poetic license) add a disclaimer at the beginning of the book explaining this.

I read two books recently on writing memoirs which include: Paula Balzer’s Writing and Selling Your Memoir and Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories which I recommend.  Paula’s book gives you the nuts and bolts while Bill’s book provides exercises (which I found cumbersome since I don’t like to stop the flow of a narrative to do an exercise). Writing memoir workshops are often offered at community colleges and writer conferences.

I’m an Intuitive Coach for artists and entrepreneurs.  Sign up for sessions at Metaphysics for Everyday Living.  I’m currently working on a memoir titled Woman Sleeping on the Couch (One Couch Away from a Real Home).