What’s It All About, Roomie?

Did you know that every short story and novel has a theme? It never occurred to me until I stumbled across an article Don’t Know Your Story’s Theme?  Of course, my answer was, “nope”.  Turns out, it makes a huge difference in the quality of your story.        

The theme is that central idea that sent you off on a mission to write this particular story with these particular characters.  Think of it as the glue that keeps chapter one from tumbling off into the gorge before your reader gets to chapter twenty-one.  Essentially, it’s makes your entire story worth writing. 

Remember:  a novel or short story is not a journal entry or a diary.  Journals record events that may or may not connect to each other.  Diaries are observations of experiences in a single day or month or year.   Both exist to contemplate or amuse a particular subject.    Stories, on the other hand, have a reason to live.

The Scarlet Letter’s theme focuses on how rebellion against accepted religious and social traditions impacts the people that ascribe to them.  Rebellion can have a positive or a negative result and in some instances, both.  In this novel, a comparison is made between the way a rebellious woman is treated vs. the lack of accountability demanded of a man involved in the same situation.

In Cold Blood has a consistent [and, very sad]theme exploring a connection between mental illness and criminal behavior; and, questions the manner in which society has decided to cope with that combination.  Capote raises the issue of capital punishment and if it’s right to buttonhole every person regardless of circumstances into a one-size-fits-all punishment. 

[Oh, that I could ever write as well as Capote! That’s a goal for me. O.k., for now, I’ll settle for writing as well as my writing Roomie!  She’s fabulous.]

When reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I was enjoying the high jinx so much that I didn’t realize Twain was pointing out the unfairness and injustice of slavery and the reason that every man should be free. 

Here’s an example of how the same theme, in the hands of different writers, using different subjects can end up sounding nothing alike.  To Kill a Mockingbird  and Dracula tackle the very popular theme involving the conflict of good and evil in society.  [Who’d of guessed?]  One takes an approach of realism while the other veers into fantasy.  

Theme is never directly stated in fiction.  It’s the hidden message that makes readers remember your story.  It’s easy to confuse theme with topic.  Topics are the show part of the show v tell. Once you determine the theme of your story, incorporate as many topics as you find useful. 

For example: To Kill a Mockingbird uses these topics to show how good or evil affects everyday life.

  • Ambition 
  • love and benefit of good education  roots of moral education
  • unjustified and cruel prejudicial system
  • that people are not judged by their qualities, or moral standards but by the color of their skin
  • racial discrimination
  • laws and codes
  • frailty of this legal system
  • social inequality has its impacts not only on the application of the legal system but also on public behavior

While Twain snuck into The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn topics that could be explored with humor and tongue-in-cheek sarcasm balancing it with the seriousness that the horrors of slavery deserved.

  • Winning an honor or feeling the loss of honor
  • absurdity of religious traditions and religious persecution
  • Empathy
  • difference between the rich and the poor and the haves and the have nots
  • guilt and shame
  • Superstition
  • Racism

Topics are those interesting bits that propel your plot forward to reach the final conflict and satisfying resolution. While you will only have one theme, you can load your story with all kinds of topics that serve as examples of how your theme works. 

The Grapes of Wrath and Death of a Salesman also use the same theme:  how industrialization changes the society for those who outside the mainstream.  In Grapes, it concentrates on the collective destruction of the tenant farmers in Oklahoma; while Salesman, spotlights the plight of an individual who is unprepared for the way in which business methods are altered.

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Writing Mistakes I’ve Made

Mistake # 3 and # 4

Being the author requires that you invent the story or at the very least manipulate it so it makes sense.  That means you have to create the pathway [aka plot]for the people that fill the pages to follow so the story has a beginning, middle and end. 

And, this leads to Mistakes #3 and #4.

# 3:  Failing to know your characters.

#4: Thinking you know your characters well enough.

So, what are you going to do now?  Do you know the story? Do you know how it ends?  Who is the protagonist?  The antagonist?  Do they learn anything about themselves or each other by the end of the story? What happens in the middle of the story?   What ‘s your genre?

One Way to Start

Being the author means knowing every detail about your characters – what they eat, their hobbies, their family members – including mom and dad, things that make them laugh and cry and their flaws. [Like the husband who chews with his mouth open making slurpy sounds that sound like waves hitting the side of a ship].

It means making your antagonist a really good antagonizing character – even downright evil with a teensy-tiny piece of good buried way deep beneath their skin.  Everyone has a redeeming quality.  [So, I’m told but as of late, I wonder.]

It means making your protagonist a do-gooder with a couple of flaws that dulls the shine on their goodness – maybe they hate their mother or rip out flower beds with yellow flowers or have really crappy manners at the dinner table that make you sick. 

It means knowing the place where you plop them down so well that you know the name of everyone who lives on that street or how many houses are yellow or if there is no parking on the right side of the street.  It means knowing exactly how that particular place impacts the actions and reactions of the characters that pass through. If you plop a character on a ship, does one have a fear of salt water? Or terrified that a renegade whale is lying in wait?  Or, maybe, a cracken is about to crawl on board?

It means making sure they “talk” to others and that the whole story is not just an exposition.  Let me correct that – It means making sure that they “seem to talk” to other characters and share information.  Dialogue is not “conversation”.  Dialogue only appears to be conversation.

It means making sure they are not couch potatoes! It means getting them up off their rear ends and forcing them to get a bit of exercise or drive a car or walk with a limp because they stepped in dog poo on the way to work.  It means they bend and twist and look at the sky when they are bored.  It means they have cooking contests with their neighbors or play croquet in the snow.        

So, where do you start? Anywhere! 

I start with creating red-blooded characters so that they aren’t just cardboard cutouts.  Of course, they aren’t flat to me which is not a benefit because it always leads me to believe that I know them better than I do. 

I hear and see them marching through the storyland they’ve shown me  – so either I’m a writer or I’m in need of medication and a rubber room.

Creating Characters

Start by getting to know your characters – really know them.  This will take you some time so don’t try to rush it.  Dig deep into their soul to find the answers.  The purpose is to make sure that all your characters start out as individuals. 

Every time I start a story, I partially fill out character inventories for my main players – protagonist, antagonist, victim or lover or best friend or partner that plays a decent sized role in the story.  By the time I get to the third character – no matter what part they play – I’m tired of deciding who they are and move on to “stall-writing”.  That’s the stuff you write when you’re avoiding the work you know you should do while convincing yourself that this stuff is important too.  [It’s Not!]

Usually, my first stall writing consists of a very vague outline of the story.  That outline usually consists of  the basic opening – xyz went to abc town and meets dyd who does who-knows-what and the end – xyz rescues dyd and they get married. Let’s be honest that is not any kind of working outline – thereby:  A stall tactic!

Spoiler Alert! I’m wrong!

What I keep relearning because I always think “there’s an easier way” or “I know this guy so well” or “it’s a bit player – I don’t need to know if they like chocolate cake”.

Inevitably, I get three chapters into the story and whoop-whoop!  I don’t know how the character would react to the circumstances I plopped on the page.  For example:

I’m in the middle – chapter three, of course – of writing this murder mystery where the detective meets his “future” mate while he’s with his “current” girlfriend.  The current girlfriend plans to break up with him at the end of their weekend away because she’s decided that she doesn’t really have much in common with him. 

The future “hoped for mate”  just broke up with a fiancé, graduated from college and moved to the area.  She’s focused on her new dog, starting her new career and getting settled into her new house. 

The future “mate” is walking her dog on the beach.  The waves are vicious and the undertow warnings are out.  She gets caught by a wave and dragged out by the undertow.

The detective notices her walking the dog and getting sucked into the water and her dog running after her trying to save her.  He reacts as the cop he is and rushes to save her from drowning.  A passerby grabs the dog’s leash and holds him back. 

Whoop-Whoop!

How does the “current girlfriend” react? 

  • What does she do or not do?
  • Say or not say? 
  • Does she help the girl when she is brought to shore?
  • Does she get mad at her detective boyfriend for leaving her standing on the beach looking dumb? 
  • Does she walk away pissed and wait for him at the car? 
  • Does she comfort the dog?
  • Talk to the stranger?
  • Does she start an argument? 

See what I mean?  I don’t know enough about the character – the one that’s about to get dumped anyway in the next chapter – to know what to do with her while her boyfriend is off swimming. 

It’s at that point that I tell myself for the umpteenth time [proves I’m a slow learner – or bullheaded, one] there are no shortcuts to knowing your characters.”  Or, maybe, it should read: you must know your characters better than you know yourself”.   I should paste that on my computer screen, but I’d only rip it down because it would be blocking my view of one of the folders on my desktop. 

Every editor and publisher and READER will tell you that the characters have to be “believable” or “three-dimensional” or “not flat”.  They need “meat on their bones”.  And, sadly, the only way to have a character that seems real is to do the inventories. 

Some writers – some lazy writers – will tell you that you don’t need to do an inventory on your “stock” characters – e.g. the waitress, the kid crossing the street, the old man sitting on his porch. 

I’m here to tell you the truth: Yes, you do.

You need to know why the man is sitting on the porch and what the expression on his face is means and why he’s dressed as he is. Maybe, his wife is mad at him and pushed him out the door without his shoes.  Maybe, his pet iguana died in the middle of the night and he’s grieving.  Maybe, he’s just plain nosey! 

Which takes us to the waitress. Does the waitress hand shake when she pours coffee.  Is she a gossip that loves to overhear her customers conversations?  Is the cook mad at her and she spills coffee on the guy next to you? 

Is the kid crossing the street at night?  Is he chasing a brother?  Is his mother chasing him?  How old is he? Does he almost get hit by a car? All this information sets the scene for how your named characters react to the rest of the story. 

Hint: the more questions you answer, the more you’ll realize that you don’t really know them. 

Usually how tall or short or fat or skinny is irrelevant to the story you’re telling.  It might help you to envision them and how they look standing next to each other but generally, the readers couldn’t care less and it doesn’t add much to the story…

Unless, of course, one is so tall that they don’t fit through a doorway and the other is so short they can’t see the top of the kitchen table and both are important to the story. 

Here’s a few questions for your characters to answer just to get you started:

  1. What do you think about in the shower? 
  2. You’re at a bar when the one person you don’t want to see walks in. Who are they? How do you react? 
  3. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever wished on somebody and who was it? 
  4. If you could erase one movie from existence, what would it be and why?
  5. What is the weirdest talent or ability you have and how do you use it? 

For example: The last question – one of my characters weird talent is that he excels at the Claw game – the one where the claw comes down and you try to grab a prize.  The problem now is that he has a bunch of stuffed animals he doesn’t need and can’t give away. 

Find a Character Inventory Questionnaire that You Like

Like nearly all fiction writers – published or unpublished – there are two things I really hate to do and always pay the price for skipping if I don’t:

  1. Filling out detailed Character Inventories on every single character in the story

Let me repeat that:  Every Single Character in EACH story

  • Really strict Self-Editing – the be tough on your writing

This refers to the self-editing before you present your piece to the deciders – deciders could be publishers, editors, readers or just someone that hired you to write something.

If you avoid the inventory, avoid asking more than cursory questions about your character or try taking shortcuts, I promise you that you, too, will get to chapter three and find out you don’t know your character well  enough. 

Relax! There is No Inventory Police Squad

You can always make adjustments and only answer the first 20 questions and leave the rest for later. However, you should keep all the questions even if you don’t answer them.  What I have found is that for my main characters or important secondary characters I need to answer more of those questions than I originally thought.

For minor characters, I  use only the questions that would apply to their reason for being in the story.  For example, if you have a bartender that plays a minor role – which means he/she appears once shares specific information and then is never needed again – I answer questions about his feelings: 

  • Do you like your job; why? Why not?
  • If married or in a relationship, how does your partner feel about your job?
  • How do you speak – fast pace, low tone, squeaky voice, harsh bellow; curse a lot; use slang?   Have an accent? Use 5-syllable words or prefer the 2-syllable type?  Speak to people like you’re their teacher or doctor or friend?
  • Happiest memory; saddest memory
  • What Lie do you believe that influences your viewpoints?

For example:  The last question – one of my characters believes that his parents who had been married for more than 36 years truly loved each;  then, he discovers, that is mother couldn’t stand his father and vice versa; that she stayed because in her day, she didn’t have a choice.  The lie influenced how he viewed “love” and “marriage” and always felt like a failure trying to grasp the kind of love his parents had.

Links to Some Character Inventories

This one is highly detailed and I would recommend only answering as many questions as are relevant to your character.  I especially like this one because it offers you character inventories for flash fiction, short stories, novellas and novels.  This is the final one I’d recommend and the site is full of great information. 

Fiction Writing Mistakes I’ve Made

Mistakes #1 and # 2

If you’re just starting to write fiction, then you probably already have a story in mind.  If you’re anything like most writers, you know the characters by first name.  You know how they feel about their story peers – who they like and who they don’t.  You already know the end of the story and have a sense that this could be the next great American Saga. 

You sit down to write it out and the words flow easily.  You feel more like you’re recording the events unfolding in front of your eyes than being the “creator” of a novel.  Then, about Chapter 12 or so, everything goes blank.  All your characters vanish.  You sit listening for their chirping voices in your head to tell you what happens next. 

Nothing.  That’s what happens.

Nothing.

Your characters have told you all they know.  They don’t know the whole story.  They only know  their own part.  And, they’ve already told you all of that. 

Some writers like to call this “writer’s block”  others call it “hitting the wall”.  

It’s neither!

You’ve reached the end. That’s all.

And, that is Mistake #1 and #2!

#1 is believing the characters know the story

#2 is confusing writing a diary with writing a novel.

I have quite a few of these already on paper – not completed of course – because the characters went deaf and dumb right in the middle of the story.  Grrrrrrrrr.  One day, I’ll go back and use some of the information and develop the characters in my story graveyard. One day.  LOL. Right.

Get a Brutally Honest Friend

Tip:  Find a friend that is an aspiring writer that you can trust to review your work and tell you what ‘s good, bad, ugly and totally missing. 

Every writer – fiction and non-fiction- will tell you to do this.  And, no doubt you are scratching your head and wondering where to find this ‘friend’. 

  1. Post a note on your FaceBook page that you are looking for a ‘writing friend’. 
  2. Post a note on your WordPress page that you need a brutally honest friendly friend to review your writing. 
  3. Do not ask your relatives or your best friends  – they will lie to you because they want you to succeed and don’t want to tell you that your work sucks!  [I did that and when I got the rejection and read over it – a month later – I KNEW it sucked!]
  4. Do you work in a group that gets paid to write articles for others?  Maybe, you can ask a coworker to be your writing buddy.  That’s where I found my writing Roomie.  I’ll let her explain in comments if she chooses. 

A writer friend of mine and I exchange raw stories for review and editing because we know each other well enough and long enough to be brutally honest in a polite way about the writing.   She had ten chapters completed and reached “the blank wall” – which is why I know I’m not alone making this mistake.  Keep in mind, she is an excellent and experienced writer.  Unlike me, she is also well-organized with a character board on her closet door.  [All my characters are huddled together in a folder on my computer.]

I mean, really, who doesn’t love writing a story that drops in your lap from creative space?  Her’s is a drama; mine is a mystery.

I read and reread her story and suddenly, I realized something important for any “story” was missing.  I called and asked her who her antagonist was.  [Slap on head! She didn’t know either.] She had no defined antagonist.  There were several likely prospects:  nature, another character, time. 

The story I was writing had also reached that wall.  I did have all the mandatory parts and pieces but had no idea what came next.  Why????? Because my characters – the ‘talkers’ – kept referring to the story that happened before this one.  Fortunately, my friend recognized what was wrong. 

There were too many characters from the ‘before’ time that kept popping up in the story that I was telling and I had to make a choice.  Some epic saga, huh? 

Goes to show you that anyone of us can fall into this trap.  

 “You invent and control characters. You decide whether they live or die.”

Sidney Sheldon

In the Beginning …

Well, o.k. … not exactly the “beginning” – just the beginning of my writing career.  Now, I’m guessing at how long I’ve been in the writing business but as close as I can get is at least 12 years.  But, I think it’s more. 

Until 2016, I wrote non-fiction exclusively for a couple of agents.  One in Arkansas and one in India.  It was a great experience because I learned to meet both word counts and deadlines consistently. 

At some point around 2016, I decided to go out on my own with a friend that wrote for both agents as much as I did.  Back then, it was common for us to work 18 hours a day – into the wee hours of the morning.  So, we kept each other company online while we were doing the research for the articles.  Somewhere along the line, we got punch drunk one night and started referring to each other as “Roomies in a Padded Cell”.  We call each other “Roomie” to this day.

We could write well and fast. We were great at SEO and setting up brand new sites.  What we weren’t great at was getting clients!  So, that effort dwindled away. 

Following that, I decided to explore my creative side – something I’d felt had been buried in the mounds of fact-based articles.  I came up with 4 or 5 story ideas right away and started writing – furiously.  Then,  the story would just come to a screeching halt.  I didn’t know why but always anticipated that it would start back up someday.  NOPE! 

After that, I came up with a story that I knew was big enough for a novel and wasn’t old worn out rehashed stuff.  By this time, I realized I didn’t know a thing about writing dialogue!  What I didn’t yet know was that I didn’t know a thing about writing fiction! 

This site has a two-fold purpose:

  1. To share my learning experiences in meandering from non-fiction into fiction.
  2. To share some of the novel I’m working on. 

Welcome, to Pepper Writes Stuff!  Hope you enjoy.

A Question That No One Asks Romney/Ryan About Their Economic Plan

I’ve been [foolishly, no doubt] waiting for one of the smart reporters or moderators in any of the debates ask Mr. Romney or Mr. Ryan how many jobs will be demolished if and when their economic austerity plan goes into effect.

Think about it for a minute.  Romney and Ryan and the Republican Platform that directs the actions of the down ballot candidates, as well, states that they want to “eliminate”:

  • Medicaid [the Federal subsidy]
  • Medicare as we know it and make it a voucher program for those who are less than 10 years away from retirement
  • Social Security Disability
  • Social Security Supplemental Income for those who are receiving the minimum Social Security payments of $525.00 a month – try to live on that!
  • All Federal Worker’s Unions
  • Teacher’s Unions and the Education department at the federal level
  • Pell Grants for low-income recipients [these grants are for students whose family is below the poverty level and only provide partial payment toward tuition and books]
  • Stafford Unsecured Loans for eligible students [for students and families who can not get a traditional “secured” bank loan.  Since the 2008 bank/Wall Street crash, people who have lost their homes or whose homes are valued at less than the loan are ineligible for those “traditional” loans.]
  • Bush Tax Cuts
  • Earned Income Credit
  • Federal subsidy of Food Stamps
  • Obama Care which provides for payment for breast cancer testing, ovarian cancer testing, contraception for those who choose to use it, ultrasounds, children’s preventative health care, pre-existing condition continuing care, lower rates for purchase of major medical for those whose employers offer it, lower rates on COBRA insurance when you lose your job and medical coverage
  • FREEDOM to decide for yourself if an abortion is in your best interest and the best economic interest of your family
  • Refuse to increase cost of living for social security recipients that remain eligible

From the Republican Party Platform 2012:

Three programs-Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security- account for over 40 percent of total spending. While these levels of spending and debt are already harming job creation and growth, projections of future spending growth are nothing short of catastrophic, both economically and socially.

…Cutting spending is not enough; it must be accompanied by major structural reforms, increased productivity, use of technology, and long-term government downsizing…

Just as a note for those who missed out on the dictionary of political speak, “increased productivity” means that each “worker” must produce 2 – 3 times the amount of work they are currently accomplishing or lose their job; “use of technology” means that many electronic outsourcing [or “off-shoring” as Romney likes to call it]  will be added with all menial data work sent to countries that pay$2.00 hr; “long-term government downsizing” means that the Republican Party will pass [if they have enough congressional members to do so] NEW CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS to prevent re-establishing any of those programs that they cut!

The Republican Party Platform 2012 actually states that in several sections – in between fluffy, nice sounding words selling a junk car while trying to make it look like a real deal.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg that the Republican candidates from Romney to those running in your State Legislature are determined to do.

How many people do you suppose work for the departments doing the paperwork, bookkeeping, and data entry alone for Social Security?  Medicare?  Medicaid? Department of Health, Education and Welfare?  That’s at least 2 million people who will be joining the unemployed in short order.

Keep in mind, these people do not just work in Washington D. C.  They work in your towns, your counties, your state, your region.  They are your neighbors and friends and teachers to your children and grandchildren.  Maybe, they are members of your family.

They are also on the list to be sent packing if the Republican Candidates get their way.

Worse, all the Safety Net Programs will have disappeared and in the words of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, people will just be “forced to take personal responsibility” and “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”.  American citizens that have not taken responsibility for their own finances already will  just have to find another way to survive.

So, realizing what their platform and desires are [according to the actions that they have already taken and words accidentally revealed] I am wondering how they expect to create any jobs for the extra millions of people that they intend to thrust onto the unemployment roles with no safety net.

Those who invested with Romney’s Bain Capitol

After watching the Romney campaign culminating his  most amazing “Me, Too!” positions on foreign policy, I can’t help but wonder if those who invested with Romney during his Bain days are thankful that they didn’t lose more than they did.  If he spoke as he has throughout his campaigning for the last 6 years to potential investors, they would have laughed at the prospect.  

Romney does keep “pointing” to his experience in business claiming that “he” had to “balance budgets” for “his business”.  Spoiler Alert!  Romney was the PITCH MAN for Bain Group and the CEO of Bain Capitol which ONLY took in money – there was no budget to balance!  

Link to “CISPA” Bill to TRACK us online

The House of Representatives passed the Cyber Intelligence Information Protection Act (“CISPA”), a cybersecurity bill that allows the government to obtain detailed information about Internet users from the private sector.

The bill preempts established privacy protections in other federal laws and opens the door for increased surveillance of individuals in the United States.

The bill also creates a new Freedom of Information Act exemption, which will reduce government transparency and accountability.

http://epic.org/

 

 

Senate to Vote TO PASS ANTI-RIVACY Against US

The House of Representatives just passed a bill on anti-privacy and it is up for a vote in the Senate when they return from this current hiatus.  This bill allows government bodies to monitor social media sites and track and block what they do not approve.

PASS THE WORD … Before they don’t let us pass the word anymore.

Background

Background:

The name “Togarain” comes from a visit last year to Saratoga Springs, New York and all it did was rain the whole two weeks.  I ended up online in a chat room and needed an id to sign in. 

The title “The Pepper Shaker” originates from my mother’s suggestion for a newspaper column when I had first started writing in Laramie, Wyoming years ago.  Now, its expanding to become an online blog/column, as well. 

Last year, I went totally blind in the left half and lost half my sight in the right eye.  After a year with continuing sight loss, which now is down to less than 12%, I am preparing to have lens implant surgery on my left eye on Wednesday, May 2nd.  I’m anxious, excited, frightened and uneasy all at the same time. 

On my other blog “Kickin’ Back in a Padded Cell”, I have begun writing about my journey in blindness over this last year in a series of posts called “Inside the Padded Cell.”