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How one question made me a better author…

“What does she look like?” That was the question. Just a simple question I should be able to answer without hesitation. Yet, I couldn’t.

Over the last several months, I started attending the local writer’s guild meetings when my schedule would allow. At first, I was simply an observer, learning a little about the group and listening to the others’ stories. The last time I attended, I waded into participant and read a little of “Finding Evelyn”. Thursday, I was able to attend again and this time, I read a little of a fantasy novel I plan to finish once “Reconstructing Evelyn” is complete. They asked me questions about the plot and I answered what I could.

(I’m what is commonly referred to as a “pantser”. I don’t outline or plot the novel. I just sit down to write and see what comes out, so sometimes I can’t recount something plot related until it’s written.)

Anywho, we get to the end of the questions, answers, and feedback and one of the participants asked the question above.

Silence.

I couldn’t answer it. Why? Because I have no clue what she looks like. I can tell you how she feels. I can tell you things that happened to her up to that point but I have not the slightest idea what color her hair is, how tall she is, what color her eyes are, what scars she has. None of that has entered into what I’ve written so far, which means I haven’t thought about it. It doesn’t stop there. I can’t really describe the diner where the action takes place in the first chapter. I can describe certain parts of the diner I already wrote about but it’s like watching a story through a peephole that moves with the fuzzy outlines of my characters.

And just like that, I realized, Holy crap, I’m still writing like a news reporter. I’m not building a world for the reader. I’m just retelling what happens at that moment. In my previous career, the people and places were real; I didn’t have to try to see them. I may not have written about them, but I could see them.

I’ve been writing for a long time – professionally as a journalist and creatively on the side. I know the difference between when you are just surface telling a story, recounting what happens and when you delve deep into a story. You can feel it when that happens. For the most part, when reporting the news, I stayed on the surface. Every once in a while, when I was telling another person’s story, I would get to go a little deeper but not by much. And now, as I transition, I’m still writing there – on the surface. Which doesn’t work as well, I’m finding out, when the people and places only exist in your mind.

I’ve heard authors talk about crying when they’ve killed off a character. I’ve heard authors talk about how it hurt them to write that scene. I’ve heard them talk about their characters as if they are real people.

Having one published novel under my belt and with the second in the series underway, I realized I don’t really have that connection with my characters. As a matter of fact, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t even have a clear picture of them in my head and they are already written.

I’ve seen this quote popping up recently on Instagram: “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.” – Ernest Hemmingway.

(Side note: Feel free to follow me on Instagram)

I probably liked the quote but I didn’t fully understand it to my core until the other night. With just that one question, I now understand the importance of those character building sheets I’ve ignored all of these years.

With that one question, my entire writing career just took a giant step forward.  

For that one question, I am eternally grateful.

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