Category Archives: JT Ellison

Getting To Know You…

JT Ellison

Getting to know all about you…

Tra-la-la. Be glad you don’t hear me singing it. Just try to
imagine the dulcet tones of Deborah Kerr in Rogers and Hammerstein’s
classic, The King and I. I’m not quite sure why that song popped into my head
when I wrote the title for this week’s blog, but it’s fitting.

How well do you really know your characters? Are you really
as intimate as you should be?

Coming up with a character is easy. You give them a name, an
occupation, and a reason for visiting your story. Developing that character
into a living, breathing, vital aspect of your manuscript, one that
successfully propels your story forward, is another phenomenon entirely.

There are a few things that are an absolute for me when I
develop a character. The most important is a name. As I begin writing a new
manuscript, I make a cast list. All the main characters are there, as well as
all the secondary characters. Everyone who is going to make an appearance in
the story is named and accounted for.

A couple of rules that I like to follow when it comes to
developing character names – One, make the name pronounceable. Two, especially
for secondary and tertiary characters, make their name fit. If you’re writing a
story about white slavery, an unhappy stripper named Tatiana will convey the
message more effectively than an unhappy stripper named Jane.

Where do the names come from? I’ll admit, there have been
the times, (in the past, of course, cough, cough,) I’ve been in a pinch and
looked to my reference bookshelf. I pick a first name and last name at random.
Problem is, when you’ve been working on a manuscript for four straight months
with the same bookshelf of reference material, you’re going to duplicate
yourself. I was caught by one of my readers. I’d used Richard Curtis and Curtis
Richard. For shame. Now, I use every available resource. Magazines like Maxim
and FHM always have great names. There are websites that use algorithms to mix
and match names to degree. You get the drift – finding sources to pull from is
easy.

Since I’ve recently started on the third Taylor Jackson/John
Baldwin manuscript, I’m familiar with my main characters and the people they
work with on a daily basis. Secondary characters that are making their
second or third appearance are simple to keep up with. But the new primary and
secondary characters need defining, and I need a new list of tertiary
characters and one-timer throw-in names.

My very first step is to build the list of names. In my new
book, there is a big cast of secondary characters. A big cast. My list has
sixty-eight new character names on it. I know I’ll use up at least twenty-eight
right off the bat. I have a new character who has a whole team behind her, so
there’s another nine. See where I’m going? I never want to be left out in the
cold when it comes to naming my characters.

Unfortunately, as well intentioned as I am with my cast
list, there are characters who pop up unexpectedly and announce, “Hey, I’m
here. This is what I’m going to do to wreck havoc on your story. But I need a
name, please.” Hence, the pre-built characters list.

What works for me is to name my secondary characters off the
bat, but leave some of the tertiaries for later. That way I can satisfy my
spontaneity gene and grab a name at random a few times through the book. Now
that I’m a little wiser, I only take it from the proscribed list of tertiary
character names, rather than inventing off the top of my head.

But what’s in a name? There needs to be more to make a
character come alive.

Some characters are so big and bold, they parade right out
of your mind onto the page with no effort. Some need to be coaxed a bit. For
the reluctant characters, there are a few absolutes that must be answered
before they get to show up in print. The first things I decide on are age, hair
color and eye color (subsequent to race), height, weight, and level of
education.

While it’s generally easy to define a character by social
class and educational status, I have the joy of writing books that are based in
Nashville, Tennessee. This is a southern town, and there are many
colloquialisms here that can be misinterpreted by outsiders. Brilliant,
well-educated people here use terms that Yankees would deem dim-witted at best.
I try to be especially careful when I dip into that particular well. It’s a
unique issue that’s been written about by many more capable writers than I.
Suffice it to say you need to be aware if you’re writing regionally specific characters.

Back to building a character. Age, looks, race, education
and socio-economic status are first. Those are the main ingredients for me. Now
it’s on to the spices. I can’t say that I do the same thing for each character.
Some have more information on them than others. Some I know how they walk, what
they wear, how their hair is styled, whether they are straight or gay, who
their family is. Some I just have a mental picture of who they are. If they are
a one-timer, I try to be cognizant of their surroundings, so the character can
help me set the scene.

One of my writer buddies, J.B. Thompson, came up with a brilliant idea the
other day. She’s writing a book with an omniscient POV and several main
characters. The BMW’s (my critique group) were having trouble keeping all of
them straight, and we badgered her to do something about our inability to “get”
who was who. (Many times, POV problems are a result of not knowing your
characters as well as you should. If you know exactly how your character will
react in a certain situation, what they’ll say, how they’ll feel, your POV will
fall into place.)

Have you ever been sent an email survey by one of your
friends, the kind that has a huge list of questions that either you or said
friend must fill out? They ask detailed questions that are meant to show how
much you really know someone. My friend, in all her brilliant glory, decided to
fill out the survey as her characters. Since many of her characters are in
relationships or strong friendships, she allowed the characters themselves to
ask the questions of their friends and lovers. It gave her a stronger grasp of
who each character is and how they can be presented in the story to help us,
the readers, keep them straight. It worked wonderfully.

Another quick note on character building. One of the most
important questions I ask each of my characters is, “What do you mean to the
story?” A tertiary or one-time, one-scene character can steal the show. Let me
rephrase that. They should steal the show. I try to make my one-timers feel
special. Give them something important to do or say. You should never have a
character who doesn’t advance the story in one way or another.

Sometimes, even these tricks aren’t enough to really give
you a sense of who your characters are. Since we’re talking crime novels here,
let me point out that victimologies are vital to the success of your book. If
you don’t have a victim, you don’t have a crime, and you don’t have a book.
Making sure your victims are as well developed as your speaking characters
makes a big difference.

I tried something a little different in my last manuscript.
I had several girls who were killed. They were all in different states, and
they shared a physical resemblance. I was struggling with their deaths, mainly
because it’s so hard to kill someone in a book, no matter how gleefully we
might go about it. There was one that I felt so close to, it hurt me to kill
her. My protagonist was struggling with the issue, just as I was. I had him on
a plane, desolate, looking at the MISSING posters that accompanied each girl’s
disappearance. I envisioned him getting off the plane, going into his office
and tacking up the MISSING posters. Hmmm.

The next thing I knew, I was up to my, ahem, elbows, in
imaginary dead girls. There are a couple of glossy color magazines here in
town, so I went out and bought them, looked to the society pages, and cut out
pictures of girls that fit the killer’s profile. I then mocked up the MISSING
posters. Based on actual fliers from the National Center for Missing and Exploited
Children
website, they each had a picture of the victim, all her particulars,
where she was last seen – all the information I needed to use to drive the
story and build the plot.

Since that worked so well for me, and my new manuscript has
the same kind of situation, I spent yesterday and today picking out my victims.
In the manuscript, these pictures go in a dossier for the antagonist to peruse.
They’ll go in a dossier in my files as well, so I can experience what my
character experiences as he looks at them. This has been one of the most
successful tricks I’ve learned. Dead characters deserve as much respect as
living characters. Bringing them to life makes it harder to kill them off, but
the goal is to create believable, sustainable characters for your readers.

I also make my setting, Nashville, a character unto itself.
I know people have received those constructive rejection letters that claim the
reader didn’t get a good “sense of place”. Make sure your setting is a
character just like your protagonists and antagonist, and you’ll never hear that
again.

Get to know your characters, and they’ll never let you down.
I’d love to hear your quirks and ideas for making your characters sing. In the
meantime…Tra-la-la.

Wine of the Week: Monte Antico Rosso – A Tuscan Sangiovese

 

T.G.I.F.

Here
we are, the end of the first workday week of MURDERATI. Big thanks to all of
you that have stopped by with encouraging words and posted about us on your
blogs. We appreciate it.

I
thought I’d do something a little different today by way of introduction. My
story is fun, but it’s long, and it certainly isn’t going to help YOU get
published (or make money once you do). So instead, I’ve got something for the Newbies. A top ten list of things every serious unpublished writer must do.
Period. No whining. We’ll do my story another day, when it’s rainy and we’re
all bored. Suffice it to say that I have a great New York agent but no
contracts yet. Deal? Good. Let’s go.

Top
Ten Things An Unpublished Writer Can’t Afford NOT To Do:

1. The Organizations

  • The list of writer’s organizations is long and varied. Start here. Sisters in Crime (SinC) and Mystery Writers of America (MWA) take unpublished members. Yes, it costs money to join. (SinC $40, MWA $95). Just do it. Scrounge for pennies in the couch, give up the lattes. It must be done.

2.
The Subgroups

  • For minimal fees, you can join subgroups of these organizations. I belong to Guppies, the SinC Chapter expressly for the Great Unpublished Writers out there. Also the SinC Internet Chapter and my Middle Tennessee SinC  Chapter. This takes it up another $40. I also belong to SEMWA, the Southeast Chapter of MWA. That’s free.

3.
The Web Threads

  •  This too is free. It’s earned media, plain and simple. There is a thread for every genre, every idea, every group. The ones I belong to I joined because I know I can learn from the members. Some are public (DorothyL, Rara-Avis, Short Mystery, Murder Must Advertise.) Some are offshoots of the organizations above. A word to the wise – lurk for at least two weeks to get a general sense of what the thread is really about. You don’t want to pop up the first day, shoot off your mouth and embarrass yourself. Some lists are a little clubby, and they’ll appreciate a gentler introduction.

4.
The Magazines (Print and Online)

  •  Personally, I love Writer’s Digest. Tons of solid writing tips, great articles (Blogmate Simon Woods had an excellent article a couple of months back). I don’t get any others hard copy, because yes, I’m starting to run out of money. (If you’re an MWA member, you get a discount) There’s Publishers Weekly, but it’s pricey.
  • Online – Publisher’s Marketplace is the place to be. You can set up a website (See Mine), research agents and publishers, stay on  top of the deals being made, read book reviews, really, is there anything PM can’t do? Yes, it’s another chunk — $20 a month. But that’s how I got my agent…

5.
Critique Groups

  •  I am blessed to belong to the BMW’s, otherwise known as the Bodacious Music City Wordsmiths. There are 7 of us, published and unpublished. We meet the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. Those who are producing bring 10 pages of their WIP (or a short story) to be read ALOUD to the group. We then proceed to the critique portion of the program. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it’s just too damn funny for words. I’ve never left a BMW meeting without learning.
  • CG’s are a bitch to find. They’re worth their weight in gold when you do. If you don’t have a local MWA or SinC chapter to plumb, Guppies has a wonderful online critique group.
  • Just a little advice. NEVER let anyone make you feel like your work isn’t worth their time. If that’s the case, they aren’t worth yours.

6.
The Conferences

  • All I can say is ouch. When  you don’t have advance money to offset the registration fees, the hotel and the airfare, it’s going to take a bite out of your wallet. I’m attending ThrillerFest on my own dime, and it’s pretty painful. But you can’t make money without spending money. I keep repeating that one.
  • Conferences are invaluable. You meet like-minded individuals, make friends, learn tons, and come away with the Holy Grail of Writing – contacts.
  • Bouchercon, ThrillerFest and Malice Domestic are the Holy Trinity of Conferences. But there are others. My first was Murder in the Magic City, this February, in Birmingham. Cost me $40 and a tank of gas. I met a lot of people, including some of the Boys of Noir there (Duane Swierczynski, Victor Gischler, Harry Hunsicker, Jim Born and Sean Doolittle.) I was inspired to try some short stories and noir flash, which you can sample in the upcoming Demolition Magazine and the inestimable Flashing in the Gutters. So it’s a good thing to go and meet people. You broaden your mind. (And yes, everyone who knows me knows I got the worst case of professionally shys and wasted the whole morning being too reticent to approach the authors, so shame on me. I could have learned more.) Networking is 9/10th of the law. We’ll cover that more in a later post, because it’s so important. Networking online works just as well as in person, but it’s not nearly as fun.
  • Do your research. There are plenty of regional conferences in your backyard if you look for them. There are some fun ones listed in Upcoming Events, too.

7.
Independent Readers

  • This one can be a little tricky. Your Mom doesn’t count. Neither does your next door neighbor. I classify an independent reader as someone you’ve never met, so they can be objective. Like a therapist. Someone who will tell you the truth and not worry about hurting your feelings. And trust me, you’ll need an IR. I met one of mine on a web threads after we realized we shared the same taste in material. She’s a star. Caught the spot where I gave it all away in my new book, ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS. I rewrote it because of her.
  • Readers, period. Yes, your mom counts for this. Ignore her comments about sentence structure, but get her opinion. You’re looking for story flow here, realistic characters, setting. Things that make a book. I know so many people who don’t let anyone read their work before they submit. Personally, I think that’s a mistake. And don’t worry about copyright infringement or plagiarism. Really, if they could do it, wouldn’t they have done it already?
  • Dutch Uncles. Some people call them mentors. There should be people in your life who always have your back, who put you on their shoulders, cheer loudly, and are there  when you need to vent. I met mine at a book signing for the wonderful NYT best-selling author John Connolly. (If you haven’t read his Charlie Parker series, get thee to a bookstore now. You won’t regret it.) Connolly’s media escort was a local woman. She’s a brash, in your face type with a heart of gold. We started chatting and I told her that I was a writer. She says, “Aren’t you a member of Sisters in Crime? Don’t you belong to a critique group? Don’t you know any of the people here?” She was incredulous. I was entranced. I took her advice, and it was worth taking. Now she councils me, in life and in writing, and I don’t know where I’d be without her.

8. Read

  • Read everything you can get your hands on. In the genre, out of the genre, non-fiction, bathroom walls if you have to. The top selling books are selling for a reason. If you write regional knitting cozies, you need to know the work of every regional knitting cozy writer that’s out there. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. Emulate the voice and style of your favorite writers. After a while, once you’ve read enough, your own voice will poke through, and you’ll catch yourself saying “I would have written that differently.” Or “If he had just used the word kerfuffle there, it would have had more impact.” Once you catch yourself correcting the work of your masters, you’re ready for number 9.

9.
Write

  • Write Every Day. Let me repeat this. WRITE EVERY DAY. Sit in the chair and write. If you can’t work on your WIP, edit it. If that’s not working for you, pretend you’re taking my place on Fridays and write a blog entry. Start a blog of your own and talk about your writing. Write a short story. Write down the dream you had last night. Write your grocery list from your character’s perspective. Pretend you are being besieged by crows and you must write a good-bye note to Aunt Wanda. I don’t care if it’s 40 emails. Write, write, write. Gear all of your writing to your work, and you’ll get comfortable writing every day.
  • Submit too. Yes, you’ll get rejections. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. Perseverance should be every writer’s middle name. If your novel isn’t selling, write some short stories. Do flash fiction. Write an article about the pains of becoming a world class writer. There are so many ways to get your name in lights, you should never be at a loss for places to submit.

10.
Balls

  • As in you’ve gotta have ‘em if you want to make it in this industry. Publishing is a harsh world. When world-class writers with dozens of books to their name can lose their publishers, it tells you something. A couple of months ago, a gentleman mused, rhetorically, I think, about why we do it. Why do we write and set ourselves up for rejection? It’s an excellent question. I do it because I feel compelled to share. I chose this road three years ago, and I haven’t regretted it once. Money would be nice, but the satisfaction I get out of creating something from nothing, breathing life into fictional characters and making my readers care about them, is priceless. And seeing your words in someone else’s font is pretty special too.
  • This is the part where I tell you that you have to believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. And I mean it.

On
Tap for Next Week
: I scare myself – why am I not writing romance?

Wine
of the Week
: Condesa de Leganza – Crianza 2001

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