Archive for the ‘craft of writing’ Category:

That Character You Love to Hate

Sometimes it’s the little things…

Writing antagonists can be almost too much fun. Of course, we don’t want to make the ALL bad. We need to show them as balanced human beings. But when you first introduce an unpleasant character, how do you show he’s unpleasant?

I thought we’d take a little stroll through The Summer of No Regrets, so you could meet a favorite nasty character of mine, Webster Lampson, the college advisor of Brigitta’s sister, Mallory.

A red Porsche was parked outside. Out of it climbed a tall, thin man with a brown beard. He wore a Greek fisherman’s cap and a tidy raincoat. Mom extended her hand. “I’m Clare,” she said. “I was expecting Alana. Are you here to see the dorms?”

The guy took her hand. “No, actually, I don’t know an Alana. I’m Webster Lampson. I’m here to collect Mallory.” He winced as a raindrop hit his face.

Mom’s smile wavered. “Ah!” she said. “Mallory is not here. She’s running some errands for me. Won’t you come in?”

Webster Lampson studied us, the driveway, the entrance of The Center. He was getting wet. “Yes,” he said, “I think I will.”

I’m not good at guessing ages, but this guy was old. Almost as old as my parents. He must have been like forty or something.

Dad was in his office tapping numbers into a ten-key when we came into the foyer. “Paul,” Mom stuck her head in. “We have a visitor.”

Dad came out wearing his wolf sweatshirt. His ponytail was held with this bone and feather thing that dangled from the nape of his neck. “Paul Schopenhauer,” he shook Webster Lampson’s hand.

“Schopenhauer,” Webster Lampson grinned. “Mallory tells me that great German mind was a relative of yours.”

“Distant cousin,” said Dad. “You aren’t here about the Indigo Children?”

Webster chuckled. “I should say not,” he said, “though I have heard of their movement. An article on pseudoscience in one of the journals.”

I disliked him more moment by moment.

  1. List the small actions that give you a feel for Webster’s character (e.g. wincing when a raindrop hits him.)
  2. How would you describe the way Webster speaks? List some of his distinctive word choices.
  3. List some descriptive details about Webster.  (clothing, belongings, physical characteristics)
  4. From what you’ve read above, how would you describe Webster to a friend?
  5. Now, choose two of your own characters. For each, list
    1. two small actions (e.g. nervous tapping)
    2. two descriptive details. (e.g. neon green sneakers, tattoo of a sailing ship.)
    3. two ways of speaking/word choices (e.g. polysyllabic words/ “multitude of reprehensible behaviors”)
  6. Write a short dialogue between your protagonist and another character, using these details to show the distinctive personality of each.
  7. Post it in the comments!
  8. Come join us at Bellevue College for Cultivating Complex Characters!

I have never told you

“I have never told you.” Five words that can deepen your characters, add page-turning plot elements, and shed light on motivation.

When I talk to my characters (and yes, I do this frequently–it’s a relationship that must be maintained), I’m gratified when they talk back. And they will, if you know what to ask them.


Try this:

  1. Go to a quiet place where you can concentrate.
  2. Open your story journal. Don’t have one? Use a notebook, or a Word file, or a Scrivener page.
  3. Summon up the character from whom you need answers.
  4. Begin the journal entry “I have never told you, but…” and allow the character to speak. Don’t write about the character–“Marigold is angry with her aunt”–write as the character–I am angry with Aunt Joy. So angry. When she talked about Mike in her nasty way, calling him a “slick, know-it-all peacock,” I nearly walked out. All right, I DID walk out. And I took her dog with me.
  5. Don’t worry that you must include what you learn in the story. You may, or you may not. And what your character says may shift and change as they talk–as did Marigold’s decision to walk out.

You’ll be amazed by what this technique brings forth. In our upcoming Cultivating Complex Characters class, you’ll learn how to make your characters nuanced, believable, and fascinating to the reader.

Here’s what students are saying:

“Katherine is fun and encouraging—she made the class a pleasure.”

The motivation, goal-setting really helped me produce and move forward in my work. It really helps to be in an environment that is conducive to the writing process.”

Do come join us at Bellevue College!




Go Where the Longing Is

20150408_113351Perfectionism is a thief of time. I used to be plagued by this wily thief—I’d let it into my mind and give it full access. There it would scold and prod and criticize. And I would go slower and slower as my muse slogged toward mirages of excellence. After all, isn’t excellence what we are after?

It took me a long time to learn that excellence and perfection are not the same thing. Excellence is full of imperfection. We cannot begin with a finished product. And any creative work is a work in progress, even when it is finished. It’s not that the completed work is “bad,” but that we’ve chosen to capture it and hold it at that one moment—to bring it, just then, to the world.

Art is about longing. The goal is to go where the longing is. The other day I read a friend’s account of his wife’s slowing due to Alzheimer’s—how she becomes more distant day by day. I wept when I read it, and I wept as I wrote a response. After that I didn’t feel fit for anything but to play the violin. I notice that music responds to sadness because it creates longing, the same way writing does. Is it because when I open myself to the longing, I know that there is something to long for? Not wealth, or even happiness, but something undefinable? That I will spend my life trying to describe some small piece of it? And that the effort is its own feast?

That is what I want to offer the world.

To offer is not to guarantee reception. I offer because it is in me to offer—because the act of offering is its own celebration. I play, I sing, I write for the still, small voice within me. That it is imperfect is inconsequential. I do it because it opens me to the Mystery. I could say I don’t do it for awards and acclamation, but that’s not because I disdain those things. I create because when I am fully in creation I can’t do anything but create. I give myself to the act of creating in all its imperfection. This is what it means to be alive.

Come be imperfect this weekend! It’s not too late to register for the Full- Bodied Novelist. Use the discount code FBNRETREAT75 to save $75. The retreat cost includes lodging, meals, classes, a massage, and a one-on-one consultation on your manuscript.

Meet our massage therapist, Rene Pinkham on the retreat page, just below the event description.

The Violin Diet

Katherine violinWith the Full-Bodied Novelist Retreat coming up this weekend, I’ve been playing the violin again. There is a connection, so stay with me here.

I usually let months go by without my music. I play only to prepare for performance, thinking I need an “excuse” to play. But lately I have played for the sheer joy of playing with no audience but the Universe. I work on a piece that is hard for me, but attainable, or I just make something up. I let the music come up from my feet; I close my eyes and listen to the strings, letting my fingers find their way. It makes my neck hurt, using these muscles I haven’t used in a long time—but the muscles remember how to cradle the instrument, how to make it sing.

After I play, I sit down to write, and I’m open enough for the wind of word and emotion to blow through me. I’ve needed that. I’ve also found that I don’t eat as much on days when I play. I’ve satisfied some deeper hunger.

What do you do that is physical? That takes your entire concentration? It might be running or gardening or painting. Do it. A little every day. Even if you’ve let it go for a long time, find that thing you used to do that you are longing for and give yourself to it until you are back in your body. Then write.

It’s not too late to register for the retreat! Use the discount code FBNRETREAT75 to save $75. The retreat cost includes lodging, meals, classes, a massage, and a one-on-one consultation on your manuscript.

Meet our massage therapist, Rene Pinkham on the retreat page, just below the event description.

Overcoming Bored Writer Syndrome

Bored AuthorWhen I first began writing fiction it felt like all of the characters were me. Of course, all characters come from someplace deep in our psyche, but when I had a character who sounded, acted, talked and believed like me, I was BORED. I have great self-esteem and lots of people love me, but really I am BORING. At least to myself. And a character exactly like me doesn’t intrigue me enough to sustain a whole novel, hence–for a long time–many, many unfinished novels.

I’ve had to find a way to go deeper–to unpack why a character may think and act the way they do, and then write that character from the INSIDE. Ironically, this has led to a lot of self-discovery, as I get into the mind of the character the way an actor would.

Are you are suffering from Bored Writer Syndrome? Ready to think hard? Here’s a place you might start.

What is Your Character’s Philosophy? What are their underlying beliefs about life? Are they hopeful about life or pessimistic? Do unforeseen events have a purpose or are they just random? Do they believe in revenge? Forgiveness? Do they want to champion the rights of others? Do they have a religious or political ideal that guides their life? How close are their ideals to those of their family and/or friends? If they are quite different, why?

What is Your Character’s Self-Perception? How do they see themself? Do they have a source of power? Do they see themself as a victim? Do they believe they are worthy or unworthy? What are they afraid of? What topic would they rather not touch? What do they see as their role in the family? Among their friends? In the community? In the universe?

We’ll explore more about characters with things like character interviews, story journaling, talking to our characters on the page, and unpacking how other authors develop their characters in Cultivating Complex Characters. Come join us!

Other classes include The Plot Thickens and Writing the Hidden Story.

When It’s Hard to Relate

DSCF1569As a writer you know you must allow your characters to live through you as they unfold on the page. But what if the character feels unlike you? A character you can’t relate to is hard to, well, relate. But you WANT characters who are different from you–whether they are sympathetic, antagonistic, or simply “other” because they are outside of your community or life experience.

When you find the connection point with such a character you expand your empathy, a characteristic sorely lacking in our culture, but one that is essential for a writer.

I call the following exercise “Dressing Like the Enemy,” though the character may not be a villain in your story:

    1. List some of your political/cultural/religious values. “I believe…”
    2. List some activities you do not, will not, or cannot do. If you just want to get your feet wet, it could be something like mountain climbing. To take the plunge, choose something that you have a visceral reaction to. Don’t automatically jump to something extreme like murder, but try for something that makes you uncomfortable.
    3. Write a scene in the first person that includes the following:
      • The viewpoint character is one who would ordinarily feel “other” to you: different race, nationality, sexual orientation, gender, economic situation, political party, religion.
      • The character is doing an activity you can’t see yourself ever doing, or making choices you would never make.
    4. Before you begin, imagine yourself sitting in your chair as that character, relating your story. Watch out for authorial moralizing, and let the character express themself in a way that is authentic and allows room for the reader to relate to at least some of it.
    5. If you have difficulty “getting in,” see if you can think of or imagine an equivalent situation in your own life. “What if my own child had died and my closest friend had just said something like that?” Spend some time inside that situation until the feeling “clicks,” then continue with your scene.

If you’d like to post a link to your scene in the comments, it might be fun to see what unfolds for different people.

We’ll continue with more of these in Cultivating Complex Characters, Wednesday evenings at Bellevue College. Feel free to enroll, even if you miss the first session. You won’t be “behind.” Check here for other classes this quarter.


Three Keys to Scene-Weaving

Cool, isn't he? I found him at Faux Marble Classics

Cool, isn’t he? I found him at               Faux Marble Classics

Make sure your scene answers these questions before your reader asks them, unless you are deliberately withholding that information to build tension. (For more keys, join us in the Scene-Weaving class! Or, if you’re a teen, try Teenage Novelist: Scenes and Dreams!)

 1. Where am I?

  • Orient your reader throughout the scene so that your characters are not just “talking heads”
    • Sensory detail
    • References to small, specific objects or parts of objects
    • References to larger objects or elements of nature

It was a small key, no bigger than a shelled peanut, and when Jenny placed it in his hand Karl had to sit down on the temple steps. Clouds drifted frustratingly across the moon, blocking the light so that he couldn’t make out whatever was etched on it. He ran his thumb over it. Jenny dashed off to look at the marble dragons while Karl breathed in the jasmine air, trying to figure out what to do next. His sandal brushed a poppy someone had planted along the walkway. It was too perky a flower and it irritated him to see it tonight when there were no answers, when Karl was so close to accepting defeat.

2. Who is talking?

  • Orient the reader by mentioning the character by name or having him or her pick up an object or do some small gesture.

Karl fingered the key. “Where did this come from?”

Jenny shrugged. “It was under the elephant.”

“Under the elephant? By this you mean under its foot? Under its bottom?”

“Just under.” Jenny traced the bamboo leaves distractedly. “You sure ask a lot of questions.”

“For all the good it does me.” Karl forced the key grimly onto his key ring. “Look, Jenny, if we want any chance of you catching that spaceship we’ve got to leave now.”

Jenny drifted across the stone steps looking up at the moon.

“Are you even listening?” He jingled the keys impatiently.

“What?” she said. “Oh. I was thinking about my mother.”

3. What is the forward movement of the scene?

  • Give the reader a reason to keep reading. Every scene has a purpose to move the action forward. It can do so by explaining crucial information or by showing direct action, but even an “explaining” scene should involve some change.

“You were thinking what about your mother?” The moon was back. Karl stood and held the key up to the light.

“It’s her birthday.” Jenny climbed one of the marble dragons. “I’m sleepy. Do we have to stay?”

Karl didn’t answer. In the far distance, maybe over the next village, he could see lights in the sky. They seemed to open and close like eyes. They were moving towards the temple.



Scene-Weaving Challenge!

Tranquility-FitnessCenterThe Challenge
1. Take the given elements and smoothly combine them in a scene (or part of a scene).

2. Paste your scene in the comments, then change one element for the next commenter. (e.g. “still locked in the cabin, but now it’s noon the next day,” or “setting changed to an island,” or “ship noises get louder.”)

3. The next commenter will continue the story.


The Elements

Characters: Eloise, age 90, spry great-grandma; Jake, age 17, gamer.

Setting: Cruise ship

Situation: Eloise is traveling to Australia to meet a friend. Jake has been forced by his parents to go on the cruise. They meet just after Jake’s mother has confiscated all his video games.

Backstory: Eloise is a former spy; Jake once dreamed he had turned into a giant bird, and woke to find feathers on his pillow. This worried him. (Eloise is not worried about having been a spy.)

Problem: Jake and Eloise have become locked in the fitness room. It is 2:00 in the morning. The ship begins making strange noises.

If you are tempted to continue weaving scenes, you should come to:

Scene Weaving
Thursdays beginning April 16

In this course, students will focus on the well-crafted scene: devastating dialogue, authentic action, vivid setting. All of this comes from an inner landscape deep in the mind of your character. Appropriate for all genres of narrative writing: fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction. Classes include in-class writing and critique.

Bellevue College Classes
(North Campus)

YA Novel Writing: Captivating the Teen Reader
Mondays beginning April 13

Geek Fiction Writing
Tuesdays beginning April 14

Scene Weaving
Thursdays beginning April 16

Young Writers’ Workshop
Spring Break: April 6-8

Essay Writing for Teens: College Application
Spring Break: April 6-8

Scene Weaving Class, and The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Sleepwalker's Guide to DancingWhen her father begins having conversations with dead relatives, photographer Amina Eapen returns to her parents’ home in Albequerque, and a past she has been running from. Confronted with memories of a childhood visit to India and the tragedy that resulted, and of the brother nobody talks about, Amina wants nothing more than to get back to Seattle and resume her career crisis. But like the unsettling images she captures on film and then hides away, the truth has a way of asking to be told.

THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING is a brilliant debut novel by author Mira Jacob, and in our “Scene Weaving” class, we’re going to take it apart and see what makes it twirl.

I learn a lot by writing books, but I learn even more by reading other’s books with the eyes of a writer. Mira is a master scene-weaver, managing dialogue, backstory, description, and leaps in time, while setting off similes like sparklers.

Well-woven scenes are the heart of your book. When your scenes are ragged, even a spectacular plot can’t save the story. But when they are seamless, reading them is sheer luxury. Join us for “Scene Weaving” and make stories out of whole cloth.

Scene Weaving
Thursdays beginning April 16

In this course, students will focus on the well-crafted scene: devastating dialogue, authentic action, vivid setting. All of this comes from an inner landscape deep in the mind of your character. Appropriate for all genres of narrative writing: fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction. Classes include in-class writing and critique.

Also coming up at Bellevue College, North Campus


YA Novel Writing: Captivating the Teen Reader
Mondays beginning April 13

Geek Fiction Writing
Tuesdays beginning April 14



Essay Writing for Teens: College Application
Spring Break: April 6-8

Young Writers’ Workshop
Spring Break: April 6-8


Writing the Hidden Story

SpyI love those “aha!” moments when a character sneaks up on me–and I suddenly realize I’m not writing the book I thought I was writing. It might mean big changes, but it invariably makes a deeper and more authentic story than the one I started with. This is just as true for memoir as it is for fiction

As I prepare for my fall writing classes, “Writing the Hidden Story” and “Poetry and Healing,” at Bellevue College, I’ve been contemplating what leads to “aha!” moments.

The keys are sinking, blinking and linking.


A hidden story is subterranean. To get there, close the door for uninterrupted time. Sit in a comfortable position, slow your breathing, and focus on a scene. “Going in” feels like literally sinking down, down, down. Keep going until you begin to see through the eyes of your character (or your younger self, as the case may be.) Where are you located in the setting? How do you feel emotionally? How is your body responding? More than once I’ve been surprised to find my palms clammy and my breath quickening as my character takes me to a difficult encounter. When I begin to write, the words that come out are strikingly full-bodied and true. I’m often astonished, later, that I wrote them.


This would seem to be the opposite of sinking—but it’s not. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Blink talks about world-changing decisions that were made in microseconds. To “blink” is to capture and use that fleeting thought at the edge of your subconscious. One way to do this is to write a series of questions and answer them as quickly as you can. Examples are “Who would I like to read my book to?” and “What must I never write about?” We did this in a writing class by “becoming” our characters and asking each other surprise questions. When a student asked my character, “What are you most afraid of losing?” I blurted, “My brother.” Up to that point, the brother had played a significant, but not key role in the book. “Blinking” led to rethinking.


What if you are writing a character and a story so different from you and your world that they seem to have no connection? This happened to me when I wrote The Legend of the Valentine, whose protagonist, Marcus, is a black child in the South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Since I’m northern, female and white, I strongly questioned whether I had a right to write the story. Finally, a wise education director at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in Chattanooga challenged me to sink into my 8-year-old self and see Marcus across the classroom. Only after “being” that younger self with her curiosity, biases and naïveté could I begin to link my own experiences to Marcus’s. I did know what it was like to have a storytelling grandmother, and to face a bully, so I sank into that, and Marcus came to life.


Here are some fall classes and writing events. I’d love to see you there!

Writing the Hidden Story

Thursdays beginning September 18 at Bellevue College, North Campus (Note that the print catalog description is incorrect and describes the Plotting and Scheming class instead of Hidden Story.)

Poetry and Healing

One-day workshop, Saturday, September 27 at Bellevue College, North Campus

Epicwrite in the Park

One-day Live-Action Roleplaying and Writing event Saturday, September 20 in Carnation.

Epicwrite Overnight, “Nefarious Nemeses,”

October 10-11 at Cornet Bay Retreat Center, Whidbey Island

TEENWrite: Advanced Fiction Writing

Tuesdays, October 21-December 16, location TBD. Teens and college-age, limited enrollment, apply with a writing sample. Deadline: September 26.