WriterStrong: Are You Portraying Strong Character Relationships?

You are in for a treat, because we enticed a stellar new author to WITS today. I read Sharla Lovelace’s debut novel, The Reason is You, after the RWA National Conference. I read. A lot. And Sharla’s book is the best I’ve read this year. You’re getting in on a Pre-NYT Bestseller here. I’m not kidding, remember you read it here first.

Read on, you’ll see what I mean. Take it away, Sharla!

Hello everyone and thank you for having me!

I’m going to start this out with a shocking confession.  I don’t follow rules.  I just do it.

See, the amazing Laura Drake invited me to talk about my writing strength today, and was very kind to say that she felt that strength was in how I portray relationships.  So I thought, “Cool.  I can do that.”  Others have told me that.  It’s actually one of the things that my agent likes the most about my work.  So, no problem.

Except that what I found is that all I can say about it is “Thank you,” as I bow and sit back down.  Because I have no idea how it comes to me.

I’m one of those frightening “pantser” people that don’t plot ahead of time, don’t map out arcs or make charts, don’t plan my word choices, and I have no earthly idea what a participle or a gerund is.  (Sorry, Margie!)

I got through high school English sentence structure by ear.  In the same way that I have a natural ear for music, I also have it for the English language.  I know what sounds right.  I know how things are supposed to flow and when something is out of whack.  But don’t ask me to explain why.

I write my stories in the same way.  I mix up short and long sentences not out of design, but because that’s what I want to hear.  I create families that talk like I talk—like most people talk, I would think.  Using conversational dialogue that feels real.  I talk it out loud to hear the rhythm and the banter, sometimes doing it wrong on purpose because—well—sometimes that’s how we interact with each other in real life.  I’ve never lived in Mayberry or whatever town the Cleaver’s lived in, so my people are not June and Ward.  They’re Luke and Lorelai from The Gilmore Girls.  Or Amy and her mother and brothers with baggage in Judging Amy.

While I hear the good…I hear the bad as well.  I know when it’s lacking, or when something feels forced or flat.  When the emotion isn’t there or when it sounds like you’re talking to a vacuum cleaner salesman instead of your love interest.   When this happens, I close my eyes and walk through the scene.  Is there a special bonding between a grandfather and his granddaughter, like a little growl he does when he hugs her that he’s done all her life? (Nathaniel and Riley in THE REASON IS YOU)

Or let’s do a new one.  What do I see?  What’s on the walls?  What’s on the floor?  Is the rug old?  Was it there when the main character was a child?  Did she used to have blanket tent forts over it, and was there a Kool-Aid stain she tried to cover up by moving a chair?  Was her sister with her?  Her brother?  Did she lie for them?  Did her mother know all along?

Could any of this be a casual conversation around a dinner table with lively banter as the rolls are passed and her grown brother throws one at her, nearly spilling her glass of wine?  A family, being a family.  Someone showing up late to the monthly get-together with excuses ready, while eyes meet all around the table.

Then, I open my eyes and start coloring all that into the cracks.

Here’s an excerpt from my upcoming release, BEFORE AND EVER SINCE.

I just closed my eyes and mentally switched gears.  The current ones were going in circles.  I pulled my phone out again and read as I spoke, asking the question I could ask in my sleep.  “Okay, Mom, how does the contract read?  Please tell me there’s a contingency on you finding a home first?”

“I’m not getting another home.”

You could have heard crickets in that silence.  Holly and I both stopped breathing as we stared at the woman we once thought so wise.  I wondered if Holly’s panic journey included what room she’d have to give up in her house.  I, for one, saw my messy office go up in a frenzy of silk flowers, craft glue, and Tandy’s bean bag chair.  Aside from that, the fleeting seed of doubt about her state of mind was skipping around in there, too.

“I think I need some rum in my tea, too,” Holly said quietly.

Mom pulled the bottle from a box in the pantry, since the alcohol was evidently already packed.  She poured some in both their glasses, and then held it out for me.  Not having a glass was beside the point. 

“That’s okay, I think I need to be sober for this,” I said, holding up a finger.

“All right,” Holly said, gulping down her happy tea and sucking in a deep breath like that would prepare her for war.  “Explain.”

Mom gave each of us a look and began, “Your Aunt Bernie has that big Winnebago—”

“Oh dear God, tell me no—” Holly started.

“Mom, please say you’re not selling this house to live on the road with Aunt Bernie,” I said, finishing the thought. 

Any sentence that began with Your Aunt Bernie was a preface to some kind of lunacy.  Mom’s sister, Bernice, had been widowed for ten years and had done the very same thing.  Sold her three-bedroom house with a pool and lived out of a powder blue Winnebago, traveling the states and landing wherever the whim struck her.  When it struck her to visit home, she’d take up half the street and you could almost hear the neighbors groan.

“Why not?” she asked.

“Jesus, this is ludicrous,” I said under my breath, turning around to find some normalcy in the pictures next to the TV.  They weren’t packed yet.  They still sat in the same place they’d always sat, nestled together on the table I’d tried to paint with watercolors when I was five.  It still had a green spot at the bottom of one leg where the grain absorbed the pigment.

“Seriously?” Holly asked.  “You need reasons why you need a real home?  Not one with wheels and a port-a-potty?”

My mom grabbed a cookie from the tin and broke it in two, then halved those as well before popping a bite into her mouth and holding one down for Tandy who suddenly sprang to life again at the potential for a snack.

“You know what?” she asked around the cookie.  “I’ve been puttering around this house by myself for a long time.”

“We know, Mom,” I said.

“I’m still talking,” she said with a look that I knew too well and could instantly make me feel eight.  “Now—I’m a grown damn woman.  My kids are grown, hell, my grandkids are grown.  I have no reason to lie around this house, baking cookies or planting flowers and waiting to die.  And if I want to ride around in a big ugly tank eating Cheetos with my sister, then I can damn well do it.  I don’t need you two little mother hens telling me what I can and can’t do.”
That’s how I do it.  No formulas.  No rules.  Just filling in the colors.  It’s not for everyone!  LOL.  But it works for me in the end.

Thank you for letting me share my ramblings!

Sharla

Sharla Lovelace is the National Bestselling Author of THE REASON IS YOU, JUST ONE DAY, and the upcoming BEFORE AND EVER SINCE, which is due out in November 2012.  Being a Texas girl through and through, she is proud to say that she lives in Southeast Texas with her family, an old lady dog, and an aviary full of cockatiels.  

Sharla is available by Skype for book club meetings and chats, and loves connecting with her readers!  See her website http://www.sharlalovelace.com/ for book discussion questions, events, and to sign up for her monthly newsletter.

You can follow her as @sharlalovelace on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.

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35 Responses to WriterStrong: Are You Portraying Strong Character Relationships?

  1. Hi Sharla,
    What a relief! I’m not the only one who approaches this craft by allowing my instincts to lead me down the path of my words. I completely get everything you and do the same thing. In fact, I couldn’t tell you textbook rules for proper sentence structure if a gun were held to my head (but, in that case, I’d think abouit it very hard). Something you said, though, did provide a kind of “rule”…letting your thoughts color in all the cracks. Beautifully put! With Laura’s glowing endorsement of “The Reason is You,” I’ve added it to my reading list. Congratulations with its success!
    Sharon

  2. Lotta layers here, for me:

    1. The content of your excerpt feels familiar. Two years ago, my Best Beloved and our Little One and I became nomads. We’ve settled again, at least for a while, but you should have heard the squeaks of indignation from all and sundry. Apparently living everywhere isn’t as morally appropriate as living just somewhere. And yes, the dialog in that excerpt sounds real to me.

    2. I actually did my grammar homework, but I still wing it with dialog. I’ve never gone back to analyze the parts of speech unless something feels off. Usually, it turns out that I’ve broken some grammar rule in order to make the dialog more real. Gives me little incentive to study my dialog’s grammar, though in my non-fiction I at least give it a nod.

    3. LOL? Really? I was right with you until then. (But at least it wasn’t “LOL out loud” like my brother writes. He thinks he’s funny.)

    • Sorry Joel..🙂 In this very texting age, I fall into that trap. I have a teenager, and spend more time in text conversations with her than I do writing full sentences sometimes. LOL… <—–(cough…cough…)

  3. Thanks so much to Laura for inviting me! Hope y’all enjoy!

  4. It’s so FREEING to know I can write without plodding my way through an outline. Boundaries appeal to me about as much as they appeal to my characters.

    I think it was that Laura Drake woman [*waving, hi, Laura!*] who first confessed in this series that she is *gasp* a panster.

    Loved the cadence and content of your dialog, Sharla. Proper sentences in dialog? Pffffft. I read my work aloud — including the narrative — but pay particular attention to how the dialog reads. I also run my chapters through wordle.net to make sure my two POV characters don’t mirror each other in voice and word usage.

    Margie Lawson plays in the first draft, but I bring out her big guns during edits. I have a slight love affair going with her rhetorical devices and tend to overplay with them. Hate it when I have to ditch a good Zeugma or Conduplicatio. Since you’re also a Margie fan, you’ll (hopefully) understand…

    I find that certain rhetorical devices better lend themselves to my heroine and others to my hero. Identifying those helps me create unique voices for each POV. After a few chapters, they naturally fall into rhythm on their own.

    Can’t wait for release day. Congrats. Thanks for a this treat of a read.

    • Thanks, Gloria! I do understand the Margie-isms (lol…sorry Joel) but I have to admit I run from them. Goes into that “rule” thing and no matter how much I want to use the techniques my brain shuts down on it. I truely fly by the seat of my pants. 🙂 But I constantly edit as I go, too, so my “first draft” is almost the final one. I print out to edit hard copy, and then it is done. 🙂

      • LauraDrake says:

        I LOVE Margie’ ‘isms’ but I totally suck at knowing the names of them (and break out in a sweat at thinking about spelling them! Tell me you had to look up ‘Zeugma, Gloria, or I’ll have to hop on a plane to Texas and dogpile you.)

        I guess being able to use them is the most important part, though, huh?

        • Sorry, Laura. I don’t have to look up or spell check the Rhetorical Devices. I have them memorized.

          Seriously.

          Now, get on that plane and come to Texas! I may even share the spreadsheet I did on Margie’s RHETorical DEVices. (File Name? RhetT DevlisHt, of course. The extra “h?” Long story.)

  5. Hey Sharla, that was great and exactly the way I do it too. Rock on, fellow pantster.🙂

  6. Edith says:

    Wow that’s one feisty lady! Sounds like a character I want to learn more about. I’ll be watching out for your name and books!! Good luck with the NYT list too!🙂

  7. Wow, Sharla, you write beautifully! I read the sample pages on Amazon of “The Reason is You,” and I can’t wait to read the whole book. Your characters are real, the cadence of your prose is delightful, and you have an immersive style that resonates for me. Love it. Nice to know you’re a pantser, as am I, and I also edit as I write so that I have a finished draft when I’m done. Well, finished for me. My agent? Not so much.🙂

  8. Sharla, I know I’ll love this book as I did the first two. You are a “natural” talent … which means … you work your buns off making it sound easy. Love that you don’t follow rules. As a natural born rebel I can relate to that🙂

  9. cathygivans1980 says:

    I am so very glad I decided to stop by here! I’m really not one for outlining, although I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t tried. I do have a general idea of where I want my story to go, but so far, that’s the furthest I’ve gone as far as planning. I write by “feeling” the scene. I’ve struggled with envisioning it, however. I’m going to have to try that some more – it sounds like it works really well for you; it just might work for me if I keep trying.

    • Keep trying till you find your niche! I wish mine was easier, I try to plot every time, but it is always useless since it’s always off the rails by page 3. Good luck!

      • cathygivans1980 says:

        Gasp! You make it to page THREE!? I’m lucky if I stay on track past the first page.😉 Seriously though, thank you for the encouragement. I’m on my first book, so it’s really interesting to find my writing style and voice. Most of the writing I do is for other people…it’s a lot of fun coming into my own (most of the time).

  10. Sharla, I just finished Just One Day and loved it to much. You really do a marvellous job getting into your characters, portraying their thoughts and emotions. Can’t wait to read your next book!

  11. Sharla~
    I can’t wait to read Before and Ever Since. I love the characters already.
    Great post!
    Kristi

    • Thanks Kristi….I hope you enjoy the book! I’m getting nervous…I always get so anxious before a release. LOL. Like throwing your kid in a pool and saying “Ok, swim now.” And you hope they remember how. 🙂

  12. I love it. It’s almost exactly what I do.

  13. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Love pantsers.

  14. Yvette Carol says:

    Wonderful. Good to know I’m in good company.I write the story and then do the plot after!!

  15. Vicky Green says:

    Thank you for the wonderful post. So good to know it’s ok to be a pantser.

  16. Great post. Some things you just have to play by ear and let the rest of the chips fall where they may.

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