Drawing Strong Characters

They are like icosahedrons. When we meet someone we may think we are seeing the entire person, but what we really get are those bits of the person that he or she decides (consciously or unconsciously) are relevant. The reason for this is that we are complex with many parts to us and who we are in one situation is not who we are in another. So, as well as being complex we are adaptable.

Here’s an exercise. Select one person you know and list all the things you can that describe this person. That list will probably cover things like marital status, estimated age, job, children, education, schools attended, hobbies, favourite restaurant, holiday places and what he or she looks like.

That will be the first layer of this person and most of us can do this with a close friend or family.

Now add another layer.

This will include favourite clothes, colours, reading, phrases, food, music, friends, leisure activities and favourite places to shop, mannerisms, things he or she hates/loves.

Does your person like to be alone? Why? Or does your person always need to be around people? Why? What kind of activities does he or she share or not share with others?

Can you think of an incident that has shaped this person? That is the beginning of creating the next layer. This is not so easy because many of us keep those things to ourselves.

Now apply the above exercise to a character you are working with in a story or novel. Keep building this person as the more you know about him or her the better you will be able to portray the character.

Give your character a philosophy of life, a religion/no religion, cultural background, political preferences, a back story, personality and define his or her features. Add specific mannerisms. They will make that character authentic. Authenticity is what you are seeking to achieve.

And the final layer will be at the heart of the person. This is the part of most people we never see. In that core lies values, beliefs, what the person will die to defend, aspirations and dreams. When a character is being true to him or herself actions will spring from this core element.

You can test this by putting your character into a life threatening situation and see how he or she reacts. If the character does something that is not consistent with that inner self the reader will spot it.

For example, how would this person behave if they get stuck in an isolated area with three others with only enough food for two days? A self-focused person will behave quite differently to one who has a core value of putting others first.

If you have created a character that you can imagine in a situation like the one I have outlined, you have a well-rounded character . . . one the reader will recognise and relate to.

This is the value of preparing a character profile for main characters. Some of the information may never be used but the reader will sense there is more and that will make the character believable.

I encourage writers to prepare at least a one page profile for main characters and a shorter one for minor characters.

Below is a list I made up last year for a writer. I was prompted to do it after reading a chapter which featured a one dimensional character. This character was almost translucent. This is often something new writers who like to write plot driven stories do.

Here are the questions:
1. How old?
2. Appearance? Overweight? Thin? Has hair/no hair and so on. Describing hands is always very fruitful. Chubby hands….chubby person, long fingers, sensitive and so on…
3.Wears what kind of clothes?
4. What era?
5. Married? Divorced? Single? In a relationship? Seeking a relationship?
6. Work? Self-employed? Paid employment? Other? Not working? Why?
7. Has he or she worked? If so doing what?
8. Children? How many? Names? Ages?
9. How does he or she feel about the children? Regrets having them or lives for them?
10. Lives where?
11. Friends? Lots or one or two? Who are they? What do they do?
12. Food preferences. Eats out? Eats in?
13. Favourite places – mall? Bush?
14. Sport? Team? Solo?
15. Favourite food?

Mannerisms/personality. These are harder:
16. Eye that twitches when he or she is nervous
17. Betrays nothing
18. Chews nails, bites bottom lip, shades eyes, rocks back on heels, sinks hands into the back pocket of trousers, runs hands through hair
19. Throws things at people
20. Stamps feet, claps hands
21. Shoves people about
22. Laughs/doesn’t laugh

Inner world
23. Values – steals at a whim, cannot steal anything, not even a pen from the stationery cupboard
24. Attitude to pets – kind or awful
25. Beliefs – that people are always kind/not kind. Other beliefs; anything is possible/not possible and so on
26. Religious/not religious
27. Loyal, not loyal. How does this express itself?
28. Attitude to growing old/youth etc
29. The person’s history

Attitudes in general
30. Where does this person come from?
31. Parents?
32. Place?
33. How does the character feel about where he or she came from? Angry? Content?
34. What is the character’s dream?
35. What does he or she aspire to?
36. What does he or she feel about the environment?

Life changing event
37. Is this the event the novel is about? Or is it part of the character’s back story?

It is important to understand that real character is revealed when he or she is under immense stress. Up until that moment the character can tell the reader whatever he or she wants the reader to believe.

This kind of character development is as important for plot driven stories as character driven ones. Usually plot is driven by what a character does so the character has to be believable in order for the reader to believe the events he or she becomes engaged in.


When Businesses Fail

When businesses fail
When I had been at the ecentre for 9 months Sabrina put a cartoon on the cafeteria fridge which signalled the danger periods for a start up. The first was six months, the next a year then 18 months. I remember being extremely relieved as we passed each milestone. As I ticked them off I felt the business was becoming more stable and solid. But now I realise that yes, there are probably points in a business’ development that make it more vulnerable than other times. But those periods never stop coming. There is no magic point that guarantees a business’ survival. I am now firmly of the mind that I won’t relax until we pass the five year milestone. By then I expect I will have established the business model, have a regular revenue stream and loyal customers.
The fragility of a start up or a young business was brought home to me this week when the NZ Herald ran an article on a person who was doing something quite similar to what we were doing at the Story Mint in the early days. I admired her courage and her skill. She was an inspiration to me.
Her success also prompted me to look for a differentiator so that we weren’t competing in the same market and offering the exact same services. So it was a real shock when I learned that her business had failed and she faced a huge amount of debt.
It was a truly sobering moment for me as it brought back memories of a time many years ago when I tried to do what she had done. We were faced with two options at the time….come to arrangements with our creditors to pay off what we owed or declare ourselves bankrupt. We chose the former, got jobs and paid everyone off over six years. It was painful but we felt we could look ourselves in the mirror every morning.
We cleared the debt but the gut clenching pain is as real today as it was back then….a never to be repeated experience.
When we analysed what went wrong we came up with three clear answers:
1. We were under capitalised
2. We were in business with a person who promised a lot but was unable to deliver on his part of the deal
3. We relied too heavily on one person to provide expertise.
When a business is at the fledgling stage everything is hand to mouth and it is hard to see where money should be spent in order to gain a return in the most efficient way. In fact the question which should always be uppermost is, ‘what part of this business is sustainable and capable of delivering revenue. This question has to take precedence over all considerations. We are no good to anyone if we go belly up.
We are still committed to giving writers a path to publication but that goal I am now approaching this business model with extreme caution.
We have to know we can publish, promote and sell what we produce. If, for the moment we can be a community that encourages writers to hone their skills and we provide support and feedback to that end, then that is okay. The publishing can follow just as soon as we have worked out a way to make it sustainable.
Belonging to a community like The Story Mint is critical for writers. There are two reasons for that. The first is that when someone teaches or advises another they also learn. The second is that in this new world of epublishing we will need to rely on each other more than we ever have before if we are to survive the heart breaking reality of the publishing environment today
Above all I have to be realistic about how I’m going to fund the next steps we take. The only place I can see it coming from is the Style Guide™, a unique product that can be reconfigured in many ways to meet market needs. There are multiple markets for the Style Guide™ and that is a real strength.
Funding a business until it is on its feet takes careful management and is a terrifying tight rope act.
The second lesson I took from the earlier failure was a critical lesson to take on board – make sure you have a good lawyer and a good accountant. This is, without question sound advice.
I have also been really fortunate to have people who are also in business and who know how hard it is to get one up onto its feet. Having someone like that is like building a jigsaw where skills lock in together and we build a product that the market wants.
If we build a platform that will grow people’s writing skills (fiction and non fiction) that is the first step to a strong publishing programme.
The third point is to develop a business model which does not solely rely on the number of hours a person can work. A combination of automated and personal input is a powerful model.
When our first business failed over ten years ago a friend said to me, ‘you are allowed one failure, that is seen as a mistake, two failures is regarded as a lapse in judgement but three is down-right careless.’
I hope the person whose business has recently failed reads this blog and takes heart from it. I believe that she, like me in my first venture, was driven by a desire to make the world a better place for aspiring writers. It goes horribly wrong when that single driver clouds sound judgement. And a well-meaning idealist is no good to anyone if their business goes bust. My absolute commitment is for The Story Mint and the Style Guide™ to be here in five years ….thriving.
Business is a hell of an endeavour. Success comes to a few and those few are usually prepared to work every hour God sends, to sort the good advice from the bad, be prepared to sleep badly for years and in the end to make clear decisions that lead to where the money is. The good works will follow.


Automated essay marking – the future or not?


Submitted by Suraya Dewing on Thursday 2 May 2013

As part of the research into the next phase of the style Guide, I have come across a heated debate over automated essay marking.  Both are based on similar principles. It is not surprising there is opposition to automated marking, but it is surprising that the charge is led by such luminaries as Noam Chomsky.

As a leading linguistic academic, I would have thought that he would be interested in observing how machines learn language and interpret meaning. In a way, I would have thought that machine learning replicated stages of learning language.

I have no difficulty accepting that technology can now be programmed to analyse data and assign it a grade based on the class of words that appear on a page. It is all about where they land and how they cluster. It is not about understanding nuance and…

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Automated essay marking – the future or not?

Submitted by Suraya Dewing on Thursday 2 May 2013

As part of the research into the next phase of the style Guide, I have come across a heated debate over automated essay marking.  Both are based on similar principles. It is not surprising there is opposition to automated marking, but it is surprising that the charge is led by such luminaries as Noam Chomsky.

As a leading linguistic academic, I would have thought that he would be interested in observing how machines learn language and interpret meaning. In a way, I would have thought that machine learning replicated stages of learning language.

I have no difficulty accepting that technology can now be programmed to analyse data and assign it a grade based on the class of words that appear on a page. It is all about where they land and how they cluster. It is not about understanding nuance and meaning.

One of the arguments in favour of automated marking is that students can get instant feedback enabling them to re-work their essays and re-submit them. It is about the speed of response.

The counter argument is that an automated system is no substitute for live teachers who pick up on nuance. One sceptic, Les Perelman, a researcher at M.I.T., has spent time creating nonsensical essays which have fooled the software into giving them high grades.

People have done that with the Style Guide, so this does not surprise me. But what does amaze me is why anyone would bother.

If something gives students insight into their work, and helps them analyse their work and improve their understanding, this surely is a good thing. A sincere student, wanting to progress, would surely not spend hours working out how to fool the machine. If that was what excited them, then life will inevitably trip them up. Life has a habit of doing that.

I don’t think it is a question of whether or not we accept artificial intelligence, but rather more around how we might use this new technology to become better educated, better critical thinkers and self-analysts.

Sometimes I think we forget that the technology is programmed by us and that makes it our agent, acting on our behalf. We define what it assesses and the kind of feedback it returns. The aim should be to encourage learners to think, to analyse and to seek knowledge. This surely is what education is all about. If we save teachers hours of marking time, that frees them up to become learning facilitators – showing students how to ask the right questions, how to find information and process it. This skill will make them curious and being curious will set them up for life.

I do admire technologies which, after processing 100 essays, can pick up the key points and trends in order to assign grades to subsequent essays. We are simply talking about trends and patterns.

If someone does not want to learn, why would he or she waste time messing about? The machine is, at the end of the day, an inanimate thing. It is not capable of independent thought. It cannot argue with someone if they have written a load of old rubbish but which have captured sequences of words which it recognises as being within a certain category or family it has been programmed to recognise.

This is the point that makes me wonder at Les Perelman’s efforts to fool the machine. Why do that?

I have found that people who sincerely want to learn do not waste time throwing together random words and feeding them into the Style Guide. I have seen the opposite. I expect the same applies to students wanting to improve their grades.

The machine-graded essay also has something else in its favour. The machine does not know the student. It is, therefore, much more likely to be objective about the grade it assigns.

The only caveat I would put on all of this is that the student at some stage meets the teacher so that nuances of learning and understanding of concepts can be discussed. Students will still need to be exposed to the vagaries of dealing with human beings. At some stage in their lives, they will have to interact with real people and no machine can prepare them for that.

The Style Guide is an automated writing analytical tool.

It compares submitted writing to existing successful author’s work and generates a report that tells the writer how his or her writing compares. It explains possible pitfalls, gives a writer’s checklist and covers story structures.http://www.thestorymint.com/the-story-refinery


Painting a Picture with Your Words

When I was young – a long time ago now – my father took me to see a movie. I can’t remember the name, but I have never forgotten the image of a wide band of soldier ants moving across Africa eating everything in sight, including people. Not a particularly pleasant way to end one’s sojourn on this planet, but a riveting story nevertheless. I especially recall the army of these small creatures cutting leaves from trees and sailing across rivers on them….masses and masses of tiny boats carrying the ants across to the other side. They landed and clambered on.

I’ve never forgotten that story. It all came back to me with a spine-chilling clarity when I read a chapter of a novel a writer sent me.

The chapter starts with an interesting bit of information. It catches the attention of the reader. Here it is: ‘It is said that the strength of the jaws of the Driver Ants of Central and Eastern Africa are so powerful that the local tribes use them to suture their gashes.’

With that opening sentence, she has my attention. I am asking, ‘what is this about?’ I want to read on.

After giving some more detail, the writer places the character on the scene and he is looking at an Ant Farm. She has him estimate its size and decide it is perfect. The reader is now wondering . . . perfect for what? We discover that the ants’ owner has starved them for five days. When Saul presses his face up against the glass case the ants go mad in an effort to get to him.

Are you starting to shiver as you imagine the scene? I was.

We also get an image of the man who, as he straightens up, ‘drags his baseball cap further down over his forehead,’ and pushes his sunglasses back up the bridge of his nose . . . .

Can you see that? I could.

He is joined by another man and we get a similar description. This man is called Ant Man.

Ant Man throws an antelope carcass to the ants. The ants, starved for five days, swarm over the carcass and devour it.

The visitor describes what happens with a live creature and Ant Man begins to feel uneasy. Why is this man here? We feel his uneasiness and wonder with him . . . .

This is all excellent tension-building narrative.

The tension releases when the visitor goes into detail. I would advise the writer to edit this bit out. Why? Because it feels like the writer is trying to draw the reader’s attention to how much research she has done. No question that the more research a writer does the better. However, it is better that a reader senses more lies behind what is on the page. Fiction is not trying to replicate the work of an encyclopaedia. We are taking facts and weaving them into a story. Often no more than a third of the research we do for a story finds its way onto the page. The extra information filters through in the layers and subplot. This gives the writing substance.

Why would I suggest that the author not include what is a potentially ‘interesting’ piece of information? The answer lies in the question. Although information is interesting, it may not add to the story. In this case we are told that the ants release formic acid to let other ants know they have ‘struck gold.’

In fact, the interesting part of this paragraph lies in the writer’s use of the word ‘predatory.’ We are told the character and the ants share this characteristic. That is the interesting bit of this story. How are they both predatory and why?

The same thing happens later in the chapter when the writer gives the reader details of an injection the visitor has just administered to Ant Man.

Again the pace drops off.

Whenever a writer is captured by the information their research has thrown up it is a good idea for him or her to revisit the narrative and ask, ‘is this information a distraction?’ Does it interrupt the flow? Be very ruthless about answering this question. The general rule of thumb is if it is something a reader can find out on Google, or somewhere else, let them do that unless the information relates directly to the story.

Back to the chapter.

Unsettled by the visitor, the Ant Man runs inside. Short sharp sentences echo the Ant Man’s agitation. We can almost hear his breathing in each clipped phrase. We become tense for him, even though we suspect he has his own dark side.

The visitor tells the Ant Man how he knows him. For a brief moment, telling takes over. But before we have time to start urging the writer to get back to the story, we are there.

We see the visitor overpower the Ant Man and we know with gut wrenching tightness what fate awaits him.

It is gripping and holds the reader’s attention from beginning to end.

The reason it holds us within its grip is the amount of showing and the minimal amount of telling. It is vivd storytelling.Marvellous!

Suraya Dewing


Are Authors Entrepreneurs?

I hope that when I get to the end of setting up The Story Mint and developing the Style Guide, I don’t discover I’m an entrepreneurial junkie. I know I will miss the amazing geyser-like excitement that comes from turning what at first glance appears to be a failure, into a success. The biggest buzz of all has been realising that my business is not The Story Mint but the Style Guide, of which the Story Mint is part.

Dr Kathleen Vohs from the University of Minnesota has released a study which shows that entrepreneurs are not motivated by money but that personality plays a big part in what drives them. http://www.forbes.com/fdc/welcome_mjx.shtml

For example, she states that entrepreneurs are motivated by what she calls extra-rational motivations. Put simply, these are motivators that deliver a social or psychological reward. These are listed as including: the joy of creation, the satisfaction of team building and the desire to achieve meaning in life.

The point the article makes is that when money is the main driver in a start-up, the willingness of the entrepreneur to accept guidance from outside parties is reduced. This failure to involve others can impede the growth of a venture. To quote the article, ‘It has become a point of general agreement that great ventures require successful teams to execute.’ This is an important insight because it suggests a group of people see the potential of a venture and they become the hub around which the inner circle gathers. One person might bring them together but any success that results is the combined effort of many individuals.

So I wonder if my dream of writing a novel that would influence lives and bring about change is any different to the motivation driving me as an entrepreneur.

The writing dream continues to flourish with a mirage-like shimmer, but is growing dimmer as I realise that people may not want to share in my dream of changing lives through literature. That’s a shame, because I have invested large sums of money and time in researching, writing and editing a novel locked away in a drawer.

The story of The Story Mint runs parallel to that story . . . a vision that was all about giving people an opportunity to realise their writing dreams. When we published our first novel, Simon Angelo’s Tokyo Curry, and the success of our other services, demonstrated to me that anything is possible when people work together to achieve a dream.

Along the way I discovered a bigger dream . . . the Style Guide.

So what of my original dream; that of having a novel published that will change people’s understanding of the world? Well, the novel is written and edited but I am not in a position to allocate any more resources to it.

We have other novels, Tokyo Curry for example, that have first claim to our slender marketing budget. With digital publishing producing so much content, anything we publish has to stand out. A strong marketing and promotional campaign is the only way to achieve that.

As an author, I am in the middle of a collision between two forces – traditional publishing and emerging digital publishing. Digital publishing has given authors choices – between self-publishing and going via a traditional publisher.

Self-publishing sets writers free to explore topics they may not ever consider if their driver was to make money. Being free to write about whatever one feels like sounds marvellously unfettered. But what if no one wants to read what the writer produces?

The commercial imperative driving traditional publishers means publishers need to sell books and to make a profit. This driver means that a large number of topics are left untouched.

And that’s the dilemma facing writers whose passion lies in social commentary. Do they write about their passion and risk never being heard or do they choose topics they know will find a market and hope that one day they will be able to sell the novel closest to their hearts when someone is interested.

In a way, I have made that call in relation to the Style Guide. Go with the product that can potentially unlock the voice of thousands and pick up on the novel another day when life is less busy and absorbing.

So I wonder . . . is an author also a kind of entrepreneur – especially if he or she self-publishes and becomes responsible for self-marketing and promotion? Perhaps.


Style is a Writer’s Fingerprint

When I researched the Style Guide, I was surprised by the way selections of writing clustered according to genre. The other thing that staggered me was how volume after volume stacked on top of other volumes. I have absolutely no doubt that if we kept inputting data we would build on the mass of data clustering on top of itself.

So does this mean that writers are not unique individuals after all and all that time spent crafting a sentence is simply repeating a collection of words written in the same way by someone else?

The answer to that is: ‘not at all.’

What no writer can replicate is voice or style. Writing is about how authoritatively a writer stamps the writing with his or her voice.  That is the voice readers respond to as their eyes glide over the page.

This is what the Style Guide is measuring when it gives a writer feedback. It reports on a writer’s voice and tone.

I suspect there is truth to the claim that there are no new topics in the world.

For some, this may be a disturbing thought. But it is not important because what really matters is how writers treat the topics. That is what gives every topic a fresh slant, a newness that makes the reader say, ‘wow, that’s a new way of looking at things.’

Style, our writing fingerprint, gives old topics a new voice. A writer may borrow from other writers but how the writer cobbles those borrowings together is what gives the writing sparkle. It is what makes old topics appear new.

By the way, I am not advocating plagiarism here. Stealing someone else’s writing and claiming it as your own is reprehensible.

Every writer has a different voice, a unique voice. This voice gives words shades of meaning. The voice of the writer is not replicated anywhere else. Writers may have similar styles to other writers but never the same style.

A reader also does something similar when he or she reads. Every reader approaches a piece of writing from his or her perspective and takes from it the meaning shaped by past experience and understanding. How the writer’s work is interpreted is shaped by environment and world view. Together the writer and reader give everything we write new meaning, new colour. That is the essence of style.

When we read a text, there will be occasions when we catch snatches of something familiar. For example, phrases like John Donne’s (1572-1636) ‘No man is an island . . .’ frequently appears in different contexts. There are many examples. The new author will take that familiar saying, surround it with his or her words and create new meaning. The familiar maxim gains new meaning as a consequence of the author’s action.

That intertextuality tells us we all carry within us knowledge we have acquired over the years and, as writers, we transfer those insights to the page. However, a writer will put his or her own spin on it, stamping upon it a style that makes it feel, sound and appear new. Even if it relies heavily on borrowed text it is still new as it is shaped according to that writer’s crafting

The voice or tone of a piece of communication is important, not just in terms of capturing the writer’s intention but also to give a reader insight, at a subconscious level, into what lies beneath, the unspoken elements of the writing. This applies to all kinds of writing, all genres and is what constitutes style.

What this tells us is that topics are defined by experience. How we write about them is governed by style.

Whenever I pause in a busy day and think about that, I am amazed and relieved at the same time. Amazed because of all the people in the world, there is no other person whose writing style is exactly like mine. Relieved because it means I can write as much as I like, broadcast wherever I want and know no one will ever produce a piece of writing like mine….that is unless they have copied it.

It does not mean that someone won’t come along with a similar idea and do a better job or vice versa. It simply means that the way I write is distinctive. Developing that distinctiveness is what every writer should focus on because that is the essence of what he or she writes and now we hve the Style Guide to assist in that process.

The Style Guide makes no judgement on content. It reports on voice and tone, the writing’s fingerprint or style.