Writing About Guns Without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

triggerTrigger Warning (heh): This post talks about guns and how to write about them. If that makes you squeamish, please go read something else. Thanks.

Good writing requires research. If you’re writing a story that involves open-heart surgery, you’re probably going to do some in-depth reading on the topic so you don’t get critical details wrong. If you’re writing a novel about hackers, you’ll likely want to consult with a computer expert or two to make sure you don’t embarrass yourself.

Unfortunately, too many writers ignore this advice when it comes to writing about firearms. Even well-respected authors tend to rely on what they’ve learned on the topic from movies, television and the news media. And sadly, much (if not most) of that is just plain wrong.

You don’t have to be a gun expert to write about guns. In most cases, you’re actually better off being as non-specific as possible. Getting into a lot of details about models and actions and calibers is a sure-fire way to put most of your readers to sleep. When details matter, though, it’s important to get them right. Failing to do so can turn readers off to your writing.

Whether you’re writing about guns or diamond mining or pigeon racing or square dancing, always remember:

Dave’s First Rule on Writing About Technical Details

When you mess up the technical stuff, not everyone will notice, and not everyone will care. But those who notice will care.

I have a friend who is a respected firearms instructor. He’s a walking, talking encyclopedia of firearms knowledge. A number of years ago, a best-selling author contacted him and said, “I need you to teach me about guns.” My friend spent days and days on the range with the author, teaching him everything from gun basics to marksmanship to defensive tactics.

I recently re-read this writer’s series from the beginning and it was easy to tell the exact point in the narrative where the author got his firearms training. First of all, the author named a character after my friend, so that was kind of a giveaway. Second of all, the author’s knowledge of weapons and tactics went up exponentially at exactly that point. A little knowledge went a long way.

The Language of Guns

Words, like guns, are tools … and we all know what happens when you use the wrong tool for a job. If you refer to a Glock 24 as an “automatic,” talk about inserting a “clip” into a revolver or describe a character “cocking” an AR15, you’ll reveal to your readers that you really don’t know what you’re writing about. This intrudes on the willing suspension of disbelief, and can lead to readers abandoning your narrative.

Major Categories of Guns

If you’re going to write a story that involves guns, you should probably know a few of the basics. The following definitions are adapted from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

Handgun: A weapon with a short stock designed to be gripped by one hand, which fires a projectile from one or more barrels. (Subcategories include revolver, pistol and derringer.)

Revolver: A handgun featuring a revolving cylinder that typically holds five to ten cartridges, each within a separate chamber. Before a revolver fires, the cylinder rotates, and the next chamber is aligned with the barrel.

Pistol: Any handgun where the barrel and chamber are a single unit. Pistols can be manually operated or semiautomatic. A semiautomatic pistol generally holds cartridges in a magazine located in the grip of the gun. When the semiautomatic pistol is fired, the spent cartridge is ejected, the firing mechanism is reset, and a new cartridge is chambered.

Derringer: A small single- or multiple-shot handgun other than a revolver or semiautomatic pistol.

Rifle: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed metallic cartridge to fire a single projectile through a rifled bore—one projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Shotgun: A shoulder-fired weapon that uses the energy of the explosive in a fixed shotgun shell to fire through a smooth bore either a number of ball shot or a single projectile for each pull of the trigger.

Note that some people call revolvers “pistols” as well—that distinction is not entirely agreed-upon. For obvious reasons, rifles and shotguns are often referred to as “long guns.”

If you’re writing historical fiction, there’s at least one other type of gun you need to know about:

Musket: A muzzle-loaded long gun that was the precursor to modern-day rifles. While rifles are distinguished by the “rifling” grooves that spin a bullet while it travels down the barrel, muskets generally feature a smooth-bored barrel.

Because of their smooth bore (and because the musket balls are often smaller than the barrels they shoot through) muskets are much less accurate than rifles. It’s said that rifles are aimed, but muskets are pointed. If you’re writing about the American Revolutionary War and you describe Redcoat soldiers “pointing their rifles” at someone, lots of your readers are going to laugh at you. The earliest muskets date back to the 1500s, and muskets were still in common use through the U.S. Civil War and even up to the turn of the last century.

Readers of historical fiction tend to be pretty particular about accuracy, so it’s worth doing some research if you want to sound informed.

Firing Action

Another way to categorize guns is by their “action,” which is a component critical to their design:

Fully automatic: A weapon capable of firing a succession of cartridges while the trigger is depressed, until the ammunition runs out or a malfunction occurs. Automatic weapons are considered “machine guns” and are highly regulated under the National Firearms Act and subsequent U.S. gun laws.

Semiautomatic: A weapon that fires a single shot each time the trigger is depressedA semiautomatic uses the energy of each fired cartridge to cycle the action and advance the next available cartridge into position for firing.

Machine gun: A fully automatic weapon that fires rifle cartridges (as opposed to handgun cartridges). Machine guns are usually designed to be shoulder-fired, and generally feature a barrel 14 inches or longer. Larger machine guns may be fired from a tripod or bipod.

Submachine gun: A simple fully automatic weapon that fires a pistol cartridge instead of a rifle cartridge. “Sub guns” are often short-barreled variants of light machine guns. Smaller submachine guns, called machine pistols, have no shoulder stock and are not designed to be fired from the shoulder.

The distinction between semiautomatic and automatic is an important one. Lots of smart people get this wrong. Plenty of famous authors get this wrong. Consistently.

The important thing to know about automatic weapons is how rare they are. They’ve been highly regulated since 1934, when Congress passed the National Firearms Act. It’s illegal for civilians to own any automatic weapon manufactured after 1986. Pre-1986 guns, when you can find them, are extremely expensive—$15,000 to $30,000 at the low end—and they require an intensive colonoscopy from the BATF to acquire.

Semiautomatic guns are a different story. They’re nothing special. In fact, the vast majority of guns sold in the U.S. are semiautomatic.

Calling a semiautomatic gun an “automatic” demonstrates either profound ignorance or an intent to deceive. Smart authors need to stop doing it.

Misunderstood Concepts

Assault Rifle vs. Assault Weapon

selective-fireAssault rifles, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, are “selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power between sub-machine gun and rifle cartridges.” The “selective fire” part is the important part: a true assault rifle has a switch to select between semiautomatic and fully automatic modes. (Some assault rifles include a “three-shot burst” option as well.) This is a very specialized type of firearm, available only to military and law enforcement purchasers, virtually impossible for civilians to acquire. Roughly 99.999 percent of the time, when someone on the news is talking about “assault rifles,” they have no idea what they’re talking about.

barrel-shroudThen we have the “assault weapon.” From a functional perspective, “assault weapons” simply don’t exist. This is a purely political term coined in 1989 by anti-gun politicians who needed to classify an arbitrary group of firearms for the purpose of banning them. On both the state and federal level, “assault weapons” have been defined and redefined in contradictory ways. In many cases, the legislators creating the definitions don’t even understand what they mean. This is humorously illustrated by the famous interview with a politician who, when asked if she knew what a “barrel shroud” was, said it was “the shoulder thing that goes up.” (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)

“Assault weapon” is a completely meaningless term unless you’re writing about the politics of gun control.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the “AR” in AR15 does not stand for “assault rifle.” It stands for “ArmaLite Rifle.” (ArmaLite was the company that originally developed the design.) An AR15 is not an assault rifle (nor is it a high-powered rifle). In truth, it’s a garden-variety semiautomatic that shoots a middling cartridge (.223 or 5.56x45mm NATO) that looks a lot like a military weapon but isn’t.

Magazine vs. Clip

mags-clipsThis is another one lots of writers get wrong.

Clip: A device that makes it easy to insert multiple rounds of ammunition into a gun’s magazine.

Magazine: A device that feeds ammunition into a gun’s action. Some guns have internal magazines, while other magazines are removable. The term is often truncated to mag.

If you’re talking about the rectangular thing filled with ammo that pops into the grip of a handgun, you’re talking about a magazine, not a clip.

Bullets, Shells, Rounds

If you buy ammunition for a rifle or handgun, you’re buying cartridges or rounds. Each cartridge consists of a brass or steel casing (or shell), a bullet or projectile (usually lead, sometimes jacketed in copper), a primer and propellant (also called a charge). Ammunition comes in lots of different sizes, and you have to use the right caliber and cartridge for the gun you’re shooting. Some common handgun cartridges include .45 ACP, .40 S&W, 9mm Parabellum, .380 ACP, .38 Special, and .22 LR (which is also a rifle caliber). Common rifle cartridges include .22 LR, .223, .243 Winchester, .22-250 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06 Springfield. There are literally hundreds of different caliber/cartridge combinations.

If you buy ammo for a shotgun, you’re buying shotgun shells, or shotshells. Shotshells are measured in gauge, not caliber. The most common are 12-gauge and 20-gauge. A shotshell is generally a plastic casing with a metallic base, which contains the primer and propellant (or charge). A plastic or felt wad helps keep the powder in place. In front of that is the shot (multiple pellets or BBs) or slug (a single, big-ass bullet). Shotshells are subcategorized by the size of their shot, with birdshot and buckshot being the most common.

Incidentally, ammunition is referred to as rounds because … bullets used to be round.

Other Considerations

Counting Rounds

Don’t tell anyone in Hollywood, but guns don’t come pre-loaded with an unlimited supply of bullets. If you write a gunfight, you need to know the capacity of the gun or its magazine, and then keep track of how many rounds have been fired (and where they went). Does your character carry additional mags or speed-loaders? If not, your character is limited to the ammunition already in the gun.

Most handguns, when they run out of ammunition, don’t go “click, click, click” when the trigger is pulled. Many revolvers do this, but most semiautomatic pistols don’t. In most cases, when a semiautomatic handgun runs out, its slide locks open. Pulling the trigger will do nothing.

Oh, and anyone who’s ever bought a gun knows they’re not cheap. You don’t throw your empty gun at the bad guy when you’re out of ammo. That’s ridiculous.

Manual Safeties

A manual safety is a mechanism built into a gun that, when switched to safe, makes the gun incapable of firing. Some guns have them and some don’t. One guaranteed way to make a lot of your readers roll their eyes is to write about a character unholstering a Glock and clicking off the safety. Glocks don’t have manual safeties. Most revolvers don’t, either.

Most modern handguns (including Glocks) do have multiple integrated passive safety mechanisms to help prevent accidental discharges. These include hammer blocks, firing pin blocks, grip safeties and trigger safeties. This type of safety can’t be switched on or off, so if you mention a character flicking a safety, make sure the gun you’ve put in his or her hands actually has one.

Working the Action

You know the scene where the bad guy appears and the cop racks his slide or pumps the action of his shotgun in dramatic fashion?

Yeah, that’s stupid. Just about anyone legally carrying a gun will have “one in the pipe”—a round already chambered. This is especially the case if the person is a law enforcement officer. Working the action with a round in the chamber just ejects a perfectly good catridge onto the ground.

Hollywood does this all the time because it looks and sounds dramatic. But it’s not realistic.

Guns Are Loud

You know that scene where your protagonist runs into some bad guys, exchanges gunfire, and then hides in a closet or something listening intently for footsteps on the stairs?

That’s bullcrap. Guns are LOUD—especially in enclosed spaces. If your character fires a gun without hearing protection, he or she won’t be hearing anything but a nasty ringing sound for half an hour or so. At the very least, your characters won’t be whispering to each other just moments later, because they won’t be able to hear the whispers.

“Silencers”

You know that scene where the hit man shoots his “silenced” gun and there’s a tiny little sound like a mouse fart and the target collapses to the ground? Complete bullcrap.

Earlier this year, a prominent U.S. politician tweeted: “When someone gets shot by a gun with a silencer, it’s quiet. Witnesses might not hear. Police will be less likely to track down the shooter.” This is exactly the type of thing you expect from someone who learned everything they know about guns from Hollywood.

First of all, “Silencer” is the name of a specific product created by Maxim in the early 1900s. The generic term is suppressor. Suppressors are regulated by the National Firearms Act, the same law that controls the sale and distribution of automatic weapons.

Second of all, a suppressor only partially reduces the sound created by the rapid expansion of gasses at the muzzle of a gun. It doesn’t do anything for the telltale crack that occurs when a bullet reaches supersonic speed (1,127 feet per second, at sea level). Most suppressors reduce a gun’s noise output by about 30 dB—just enough to shoot without hearing protection and avoid permanent hearing loss.

If your character fires a big handgun (say, a 1911 chambered in .45 ACP), each shot generates up to 162 dB of noise trauma. Suppressing such a gun can “silence” it to around 132 dB, which is still louder than the noisiest rock concert or NASCAR race. A suppressed .22 rifle could be as quiet as 112 dB, or even a little less if low-powered subsonic ammunition is used. But that’s still roughly the same noise output as a household leafblower.

Any gunshot, suppressed or unsuppressed, is going to be heard by the people in the next room—and probably across the street. Suppressors don’t “silence” anything. They just muffle really really loud noises so they’re only really loud.

Most People Can’t Shoot

Seriously—most people can’t hit the broad side of a barn from 50 paces. And yes, this often includes law enforcement.

Shooting is a skill. It’s one that must be perfected through hours of training and practice. A top competitive shooter can blow through 25,000 or more rounds of ammunition in a year. Military snipers will shoot far fewer rounds, though they make every round count. Also, to be fair, their ammunition is much more expensive.

By comparison, most police officers shoot fewer than 200 rounds per year. Law enforcement qualifying tests are notoriously easy to pass, and most departments allow their officers to retake the tests as often as needed. It’s not hard to find stories of extremely poor shooting by law enforcement personnel. In one notorious case, two NYPD officers fired 16 total rounds to take down a single bad guy … while also managing to wound nine innocent bystanders.

I don’t mean to knock LEOs. Sure, they carry weapons, but their primary role is to investigate crimes, not prevent them. Most departments have very little budget for live fire training. Also, most officers never fire a single shot while on duty, and many don’t do much shooting outside of the qualifying range.

If your character is a firearms noob in a high-pressure situation, he or she probably won’t be pulling off amazing feats of marksmanship—especially at distances beyond a couple of yards.

Even in the hands of a trained shooter, handguns are only accurate for so far. You know that scene where James Bond shoots down a helicopter from a moving boat with a single shot from his Walther PPK? Total baloney.

Kinetic Energy

A person doesn’t get blown back 20 feet when hit by a bullet. This may look dramatic, but it ain’t realistic. A bullet just doesn’t have enough kinetic energy to do something like that.

There are plenty of videos on YouTube showing the effects of bullets on ballistic gel (an analog for human tissue) or animal corpses. I won’t post any links here, but it’s really easy to find that kind of thing, if you need to know more.

Shooting to Disarm or Wound

You know that scene where the cop takes careful aim and shoots the gun out of the hand of the bad guy? Pure nonsense. Likewise, the whole “shoot the bad guy in the leg to wound him” thing is complete hogwash.

Anyone with any law enforcement or self-defense training knows that you don’t “shoot to wound.” You “shoot to stop the threat.” If a situation calls for the use of deadly force, a trained shooter will aim for center mass, or the middle of the torso. Aiming for a person’s gun hand only increases the likelihood that a defender will miss and hit an innocent person. It also increases the chance that the shot will miss, and the defender will end up being hit by return fire.

Character Counts

Much of this goes out the window if you’re writing in the voice of a character who doesn’t know much about guns. In the movie “Stand by Me” (which is based on a fantastic novella by Stephen King), Chris Chambers shows his friends his father’s 1911 service pistol, which he’s brought along on their journey. Gordie asks, “Ya got shells for it?” It’s totally the wrong word, but Gordie is a kid and he probably doesn’t know better.

We don’t expect Gordie to know the difference between a cartridge and a shotshell. But when a soldier or police officer in your story uses incorrect terminology, it sets off warning bells. Similarly, no trained shooter who wants to actually hit his target would hold a handgun “gangsta style,” but a gangbanger (or a wannabe who’s watched Boyz N the Hood too many times) might actually do that.

If your characters are going to display their ignorance of guns, it’s a good idea to cue your reader that the mistakes they make are the characters’ mistakes … and not yours.

John picked up an empty magazine and tested the spring. “How many bullets does the clip hold?”

“It’s a standard thirty-round mag,” Mary said, trying to hide her irritation. “Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just curious, I guess.” He picked up the rifle and fiddled with the charging handle. “Is this how you cock it?”

“John!” Mary yelped, pushing the muzzle aside. “Stop being an idiot and put that thing down!”

What to Do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

No amount of research can equal the experience of sending rounds downrange. If you’re going to write about guns, you owe it to yourself to actually do some shooting so you know what it feels like. And you don’t have to pay a firearms instructor to for one-on-one time at the range. Practically everybody has a friend who’s part of the “gun culture.” It might be that friend of yours who’s a hunter, your cousin in law enforcement, or a neighbor who’s a competitive shooter. Just approach the person and say: “I really want to get a little experience with guns. If I pay for the ammunition, would you take me shooting?”

From my experience, most gun owners love to take newbies shooting. Make sure you go somewhere safe and always follow the Four Rules of gun safety.

Finally, if your story involves a lot of firearms, invite a knowledgeable shooter to be a beta reader. Ask your reader to pay special attention to the gun-related content in the manuscript. Your story will benefit from having an expert double-checking the details.

writing-about-guns

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Postscript: I like to practice what I preach, so I had my friend (the one mentioned at the top of this post) check my work in advance of publication. He made some great suggestions, which I have incorporated into this piece. He also asked me to be a guest on his weekly radio program. You can listen to the program here. It’s the 1-06-18 show. My segment starts around 00:11:50.

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, shoots guns, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics. Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play is published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

The Art of Dropping Breadcrumbs

By Annette Lyon

Imagine that you’re reading an Agatha Christie novel. In the last chapter, Poirot calls the cops, tells them who committed the murder, and goes on his way, saying that of course everyone knows why Jeremy Jones is the one being carted off to jail.

TTOF - Breadcrumbs

After your confusion clears, you’d probably hurl the book against the wall in frustration. (Unless you were reading on a Kindle, in which case, you’d delete the dang thing with a strong click.)

Every story has mysteries and story questions. One of the biggest jobs a writer has is making sure that as the mysteries are revealed and the questions are answered, the reader isn’t confused to the point of book throwing. Continue reading

Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

File Jul 20, 11 07 36 PM

While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Getting to Know Your Character Through Poetry

Last weekend I attended the Charlotte Huck Literary Festival in Redlands, California. It’s a book festival specifically for teachers, librarians, and writers, with a very strong focus on poetry.

One of the faculty members there was George Ella Lyon, author of the following poem:

Where I’m From

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Isn’t that beautiful? The author talked to us about writing our own “Where I’m From” poems, an exercise she does with kids as young as 6. She told the following story to help us hone our lines.

One day she was working with a boy who wrote the first line of his poem as, “I’m from baseball.” After Ms. Lyon asked him a few questions he changed it to, “I am from the sweat behind the catcher’s mask.” His moment of realization for what she wanted him to do came when he said, “Oh! You want me to put you there!”

That is exactly what this poem does. It doesn’t just tell you that Lyon comes from a religious background, one with respect for elders, and a childhood spent outside. She puts you there and lets you taste, see, smell, hear the things she did.

As I was going through a workshop on writing my own “Where I’m From” poem, I thought, “This would be a great way to get to know my characters better.”

character poetry

Filling out a character questionnaire is one thing. It’s important to be able to list the special events and ideas that make up your characters backstory. But having to translate that into this kind of poem gives you a much better appreciation for what that backstory actually means and the tiny details you can write about to make them fully three dimensional.

This exercise for your characters can work two ways. Maybe you already know your character’s back story inside and out. Take those items on your list of traits and events and turn them into this poem.

For example, let’s use Katniss from Hunger Games, shall we?

I’m from the growl of empty bellies
And the black dust of coal
Dug from the belly of the earth.
I’m from forbidden mornings punctuated only by
The whisper of rabbits feet
And the whoosh of an arrow.
I’m from the snap of a bow
And the snap to attention
As a name is called
And a child is marched
To their final stand.

But maybe you are trying to develop a character more because you don’t know them well enough. In this case, you’re going to work backwards. Poetry is a wonderful twist on free-writing to get to know a character. As you write the poem, images may come to you, letting you in on flashes from your character’s past. You may have to piece together words of the poem to understand what your character is trying to tell you. You might be surprised what you learn.

I did this exercise for the mother in my MG novel. I already know that she’s an accomplished pianist and played recitals as a girl. She works in PR and married and had children when she was older. She’s responsible to a T, but a little stand-offish in her feelings sometimes. She’s insightful and compassionate, driven, and very overwhelmed with responsibilities. But I didn’t know much of her backstory until I wrote this poem, and now I can use it to develop her more.

I’m from the land of green stalks,
Brushing the sky for miles on end.
From practice makes perfect, curl your hands,
Don’t look at your fingers,
And scales every day.
From a row of A’s displayed on the refrigerator,
To a diploma hanging above my desk.
From that long stretch of highway leading me
Into the land where buildings
Brush the sky for miles on end.

I’m from the place where Rainy Days and Mondays
Always Get Me Down.
I’m from a phone call
From the sheriff. The one I know
On a first name basis.
A box of tissues used
On a single plane ride home.
I come from saying goodbye
Before I’m ready
When I can only say it
To a casket.

I come from the place where
“You can do anything if you work hard enough”
Meets, “family first”
And the terror that seizes me
Lying in bed
Feeling like both can’t be true all the time.
I’m from eyes caught on a subway,
A guitar pulled out at Central Park.
A promise for a smaller,
But richer life.
And another stretch of highway
Bringing us both
Home
To each other.

Writing this poem made me nail down the love story between the mother and father, the secret heartache of the mother, her fears, her professional backstory, all of it. And for me, it was so much easier than a generic list of questions. I highly recommend it.

If you do this exercise, I’d love to see your poem in the comments!

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Details, Details

It is said that both the devilish and the divine can be found within the details. This is especially true when it comes to good storytelling, where details can make or break a story. The tips herein will help you focus on the right details so as to enrich your reader’s experience, and not overwhelm them.

Your readers need somewhere to start in your story; a baseline; a point on the X-Y axes from which to begin. Some details are therefore crucial, such as your character’s names, ages, and genders, and where the story is taking place. So if your main character is a thirty-seven year old man named Bob who owns a Laundromat in Houston, of course your readers need to know that. If you don’t provide these basic details early on in your story, you run the risk of your readers becoming confused, bored, or completely lost.

However, I think we can agree that basic details, while necessary, can be pretty boring. As writers, we have been trained to look for more interesting ways to describe the world around us, and the worlds we envision in our heads. Every writing class I’ve ever taken has emphasized the power of descriptive details in bringing life to a story. Knowing, for instance, that Bob has finally decided on fire engine red paint for the 1967 Corvette Stingray he’s been restoring in his garage for the past six years is a very nice detail that adds richness to your story and depth to your character. Let your readers smell the distinctive blend of chlorine and Coppertone that permeates the swimming pool. Let them taste how juicy and tender the filet mignon is at dinnertime. Let them feel the tears on your character’s cheeks after her marriage falls apart.

two-grooms

But know when to draw the line. You’re aren’t Herman Melville, and your readers don’t want or need a page and a half description of a wall or a couch. (Unless, of course, the couch has come to life, grown fangs, and is currently chasing people down the street. Then, by all means, go nuts with that description—and let me read it once you’re done!)

An example from an actual manuscript I recently saw in the slushpile may prove helpful. (Please note that certain details have been changed to protect the author’s otherwise good name. I present this as an example to learn from, not to embarrass anyone).

“Jane opened the door of her dusty green 1998 Toyota Corolla, got inside, and closed the door. She pulled the safety belt from over her left shoulder, across her body, and fastened it with a click down near her right hip. She adjusted the rearview mirror, and then inserted the key into the ignition and started the engine. She put the car into drive, pressed the accelerator, and the car slowly moved forward. She moved faster, turning left onto Elm Street, and headed east for three blocks, before stopping turning right onto Maple. Then she traveled south for four miles, until she saw the grocery store up ahead on her right…”

…And just shoot me already! While we have an extremely detailed picture of what Jane was doing, we don’t care one whit about her. If we haven’t fallen asleep by the end of that paragraph, we’re likely wishing something—anything—would happen to Jane. In this case, the author has given us plenty of details, but they’re the wrong details. We don’t learn much of anything about Jane, except that she is driving her car to the grocery store on the most boring day of her life. Why go to all the trouble to describe her car trip when absolutely nothing happens along the way? Maybe the author really meant to write, “Jane got in her car and drove to the store,” but got carried away in the headiness of the moment. We’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that this is a completely wasted car trip, and a missed opportunity for us to learn anything interesting about Jane. So let’s consider how we might change that paragraph, focusing on the right details, to make it work better.

First of all, the paragraph is boring because we, as the readers, already know how a car operates. We know the minutiae of getting in, buckling up, and starting a car—and it’s really tedious. We do it every day without even thinking. And even worse, Jane isn’t thinking about it, either. So we’re already annoyed at the author for showing us something we don’t care about, because it’s something the character doesn’t care about. What if, instead, we saw Jane fiddling with the radio, bouncing from station to station, until she lands on just the right song? That’s already more interesting, especially if we discover that Jane is listening to classical music, or 80’s, or heavy metal, or K-Pop. Each one of those musical choices will tell us something different and interesting about Jane. What if we heard some of Jane’s thoughts about the important meeting she has later that day, or saw her looking at the stale French fries on the floor, and telling herself for the hundredth time that she really needs to clean them out? What if we hear her kids fighting in the back seat, and can suddenly feel the migraine beginning to form behind Jane’s left eye? Any one of those scenarios has already made this paragraph more interesting, because they are focusing on the right details.

Similarly, what about Jane’s car is important for us to know? Did we really need to know that she was driving a dusty green 1998 Toyota Corolla? The author never explains why, and so it becomes another pretty useless detail to clutter up the story. But what if we were told that it was the car Jane bought when she was in college fifteen years ago, and that she’s just hoping it will make it through one more winter? If we could feel the engine struggling up the hill, or could smell the burning oil, or sense Jane’s anxiety as she keeps one eye on the temperature gauge, we’d have much more reason to go along on this car trip, because we’re now sympathizing with Jane.

A good rule of thumb to follow is this: unless it specifically tells us something about a character, or unless it moves the plot forward, we probably don’t need to a lot of details about it. Readers are smart people, and we can fill in the blanks. What readers need are the details that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of themselves. So, if it’s not absolutely necessary that we know the make, model, and year of Jane’s car, you can probably leave that information out. If, on the other hand, Jane is driving the fire engine red 1967 Corvette Stingray that she stole from her ex-husband Bob’s garage, and is cranking some heavy metal music as she roars down the road? Feel free to describe the heck out of that image!

This rule also applies to all sorts of details, including clothing. If you tell me that your main character is a 15-year-old girl, I probably don’t need to know that she prefers hoodies and jeans—you know, like many 15-year-old girls do—unless that reveals something important about her. If you tell me that your story takes place in Wisconsin in January, you don’t need to spend a lot of time describing how everyone is wearing parkas and snow boots. I’m going to assume that’s the case, because I understand what January in Wisconsin is going to be like. I promise your readers will not envision your characters running around buck nekkid just because you haven’t described their clothing all the way down to their socks. (On the other hand, if your character really is running down the street in their birthday suit in Wisconsin in January? You’d better tell me that, because that story just got WAY more interesting!)

Focusing on the right details will make all the difference in your story by adding depth and richness. Furthermore, it will show your readers that you not only care about them enough to not overload them with stuff they don’t want or need, but that you respect their intelligence. And that is perhaps the very best thing an author can do for their readers.

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Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

Dennis lives in the Salt Lake City area with his wife, Natalie, who still has the text he sent her all those years ago that read “Holy cow–I think I’m writing a book!” In his spare time, he enjoys photography, playing the guitar, cooking (hold the onions, please), going to Disneyland, and Godzilla movies.

How to Avoid Hold Ups in Your Writing

Do you feel like you are being held hostage by your dreams to write? What exactly is holding you up anyway?

Personally, I can name a few too many.

To start off, I took way too long to pick the name of my blog. I mean really, I wasn’t naming a child and I didn’t have my husband to battle every decision. (He’s a school teacher so any baby name I picked out was kicked out.) So why did I take 5 years to decide what I wanted to do with my blog name and its genetic counterparts?

Because I wanted a blog with kapow. I wanted pizazz. I wanted the name to claim its worldwide fame. Let’s face it, John or Sarah just wouldn’t do. (Besides the fact that it had nothing to do with my blog.) I was just plain overthinking this gig.

But really, I was just putting off my fears by stewing over a blog name. That’s so stinking lame.

And a waste of valuable writing time.

Imagine if babies came that way. You couldn’t have the baby until it was properly named. I would have had a kindergartener (and very sore ribs) before he entered this world. Well, maybe just the first baby would come that way anyway.

So I guess that’s what I was doing. Protecting myself by not moving forward on my goals and dreams. I knew in a moment a dream could get slashed, hashed; mashed (I’ve been to writers conferences and heard the horror stories). So, instead I was striving for perfection first time around. Go ahead- laugh.

It was easier to just talk about my goals and dreams, push around several great names, and predict my own outcome with a twinkle in my eye. I have to admit the anticipation is quite intriguing but it was slowing me way down.

And guess what? When I actually threw the blog out there (with its proper, uncontested, name) it wasn’t as big of a deal as I was making it. It was just some wimpy little banana gun hold up that kept me from writing. Don’t just take my word for it (though I’ll certainly give it to you) but learn from the pros how to handle a real life dilemma of a banana gun hold up. Check out these three brilliant words of wisdom that can help someone who is afraid to take the next step in their writing.

MAKE QUICK (Banana Split) DECISIONS

Napoleon Hill: “One of Henry Ford’s most outstanding qualities is his habit of reaching decisions quickly and definitely, and changing them slowly.”


I’ve learned that this has become one of my downfalls to writing: overthinking things too much. Boy, is it ever. The writing process won’t be perfect the first time but perfection in writing comes when we are willing to make mistakes in the process. Time is a valuable. Don’t waste it. Be quick to decide what you want to do with your writing then get to it.
Chop. Chop.

Quick Tip to Making Quick Decisions:

Slow decisions are just a writer’s defense mechanism for procrastinating. Quit holding up your writing by overthinking everything. (Believe me… I know how this works.)
Put time limits on your thinking. Yes, as writers we are used to deadlines but some of us actually need deadlines on making decisions. If overthinking is one of your downfalls give yourself a deadline. Stick to it. Even if it is for the naming of your blog, writing your first chapter, creating a character sketch. Whatever. Just pick a deadline, make a decision, and go with it. Expect mistakes but gain the reward of success in your writing by simply just writing.

Then, if something needs to be changed tap into those overthinking skills. Take your time to change your mind.

Ok, critique people… are you squeaking? Henry Ford was very successful because he had a vision and stuck to it. Others critiqued him but he knew what he wanted and let his idea play out. Be slow to change.

PEEL THE SHELL 

(But Don’t Slip on the Banana Peel)


Ben Franklin: “Either write something worth reading or do things worth writing.”


Write things that matter. Find an element that people can relate to and you can make a masterpiece from a simple thought. Getting to the heart is the most important thing you can do in your writing.
Some of my biggest slip ups in writing have been writing without purpose. These writings become flavorless. True, it may look good (great mechanics, great details, etc.) but no one ever gets to the fruit of what you are trying to say. (I’ve had some expert moments with flavorless banana peel moments. Sigh. It’s like eating anticlimactic banana popsicle. Psh. Where’s the banana Creamie when you want one?)

Quick Tips to Peeling the Shell and Getting to the Fruit:

Ask what is my purpose for this piece? Write something worth reading. This question has been the number one thing that has helped my writing. If I know the common element my writing naturally forms its own path. Bingo! This one little direct question at the beginning of any writing time keeps me from slipping all over the place.

Try something new. Do things worth reading. So if you find the writing isn’t working you have probably depleted your creative side. Fill it up by doing something new. Discover an idea you wouldn’t normally find. Then, go ahead, amaze us with your words.

Ben Franklin was a publisher, a writer, an inventor, a painter, and known for his diplomatic work. I believe he was successful because he was well rounded. Experience feeds ideas  and makes a writer peel back the shell of assumption and get right to the fruit.

MUSHY GUSHY DETAILS 

MAKE GREAT WRITING 

(and Banana Bread)


Helen Keller: “The most beautiful things in life cannot be seen or even touched, they must be felt with the heart.”


I’ve always loved writing but not until recently when I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer did I realize that I needed writing. Yep, needed it. I stopped writing for a few weeks after my diagnosis. I soon realized that I was depressed not because I had cancer but because I wasn’t doing what I truly loved. So, I started writing again. Writing breathes life into me. I felt it in my heart, it was the fruit of who I am. Write because you love it.

Quick Tip to Finding the Fruits of Your Writing:

Find the why behind your writing (and remember it). I’ve learned the reasons for writing are my genuine source of happiness. Take a break from it if you need to (bananas ripen better when they sit). Or start writing if you haven’t. See if your mood changes. Does the need to write nag at you? Is there an unseen force that pulls you toward writing? Are you depressed without it? Does a piece of your heart feel complete when you do so? Ask yourself this one question: Why do you write? And when you find your true reason your heart will get all mushy gush. It will flow into your writing. And people can’t help but want to eat it all up.

Helen Keller’s limitations made her a magnificent person. She is my hero. It was her heart that gave her truth to life. When she knew what something was her heart confirmed it to her and she could communicate to the world by following her heart. Don’t let your limitations in writing drag you down. Use them to help you bake up an incredible treat.

Are you discouraged or frightened to take the next step in your writing? Breathe. It’s just a little wimpy banana gun hold up. You’ve got this.
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Christie Perkins is a survivor of boy humor, chemo, and faulty recipes. She loves freelance writing and is a nonfiction junkie. A couple of national magazines have paid her for her work but her biggest paycheck is her incredible family. Christie hates spiders, the dark, and Shepherd’s Pie. Bleh. Mood boosters: white daisies, playing basketball, and peanut butter M&M’s. You can find out more about her at howperkyworks.com.        

Authentication Required

Recently I sat in a workshop with a Big Deal writer who happened to also be my teacher. And at some point as he listened to every student read their work, he’d get super excited about one thing: an authenticating detail. There’s an excellent piece by Dave Koch on the subject here, but basically, it’s the one detail that makes the story come alive, that reaches you out and places you inside the world the author has created.

It doesn’t matter which genre you’re working. In a fantasy novel, this detail could be an element of the setting. In realism, it could be a tic you give your character, or a single action they take, or an item they own.

Stories will have more than one authenticating detail, but the key to an authenticating detail is that it be subtle and so organic to the story that it doesn’t jump out at the reader at the very moment it’s sucking them in. Essentially, this is the highest level of showing, not telling. It’s so seamless that it draws no attention to itself even as it evokes an emotional or intellectual response; the words cease to be a story and become an experience in the writer-reader mind meld that marks the best of books.

This all sounds very vague, doesn’t it? Mmm, yes. That’s because this is an elusive thing to do, weaving in the authenticating detail. It’s a reflection of an author’s voice and the specific world of the story, so it’s the kind of thing readers can point out to you as the thing that captured them, but no one can tell you up front how to do.

So, let’s look at an example of an authenticating detail in a character’s thoughts:

“She retreated to her favorite weeping willow to follow Osanne’s next order. It sat closest to the woods, and she slipped into the quiet of its canopy. When she was little, this space had felt more like the log chapel in Destrehan, the one the Capuchin priests had built. She had only been once, and she hadn’t like the old priest who presided over it. He’d dug his fingers into her jaw and they poked like chicken bones as he stared at her eyes and frowned. But she had never forgotten how the little church felt, like thousands of prayers had soaked into its walls.
Sylvie wondered how many of her prayers had soaked into the willow’s roots and branches since she had first learned to pray. It wasn’t the way the priests had taught, but she had learned from Osanne that what the priests taught was a place to start, and then you had to season it like a fricassee to get the full flavor out of it.” 

These two paragraphs are full of sensory details, flashes of memory. And for each reader, the authenticating detail may be different. That means it’s your job as a writer to think of as many as you can so you have the best chance of pulling your reader in WITHOUT bogging your story down in excessive detail. NO PROBLEM, RIGHT?

The reason the highlighted detail authenticates the scene, for me, is that without knowing much about this Sylvie person, this internal thought has revealed some tangible and intangible things at the same time. In the abstract, it reveals that Sylvie isn’t ground in religious orthodoxy—that she has a tendency to think for herself. In the concrete, it reveals a glimpse of her daily life, in this case, what and how she eats.

Here’s another example where the authenticating detail is in the setting:

“Everything is like that. Stores, schools, even churches. Some people do different stuff with their front yards so you can kind of tell places apart, but . . . mostly everything is beige.  The homeowner’s association loves beige, and that’s what they make you paint everything, or they fine you. There’s a lot of names for beige too. My house is painted Grecian Summer, which is a pinkish beige, and Olivia’s is New Sahara. That’s yellowish beige. I can show you Sand Dune, Creamy Mocha, and Dreamscape. (Pro tip: the guy who named that dreamed in beige.) I will give you ten bucks if you can see the difference between any of those.”

This is such an utterly relatable image that it takes you right back to every suburb like this that you’ve ever seen, but it’s developed beyond simply describing the houses and being monochromatic or boring. We get a sense of the narrator’s finely tuned sense of absurdity as she runs down the color names, and that’s the authenticating detail, the names of the beige she notices, not the beige itself. We learn both about the physical appearance of the town she lives in and her relationship to it in this single scene.

It’s tricky business, but watch for it as you read. When you stumble across a character’s internal thought or a detail about the world that really resonates with you, STOP. Pick it apart. Think about why that detail comes to life for you. What is the subtle work that detail is doing at multiple levels that brings a scene or character alive?

Go forth, writers. AUTHENTICATION REQUIRED.
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Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.