August 5, 2012

WRITING ADVICE – SL Viehl #7: Depth of Character

I stumbled across the writing of Sheila Kelly (aka SL Viehl, Gena Gale, Jessica Hall, Rebecca Kelly and Lynn Viehl) about eleven years ago with the publication of her first novel, STARDOC. I was looking for a the work of a current writer to replace one of my favorite kind of science fiction – human doctors in a space hospital working on aliens. I discovered this genre as an adolescent in Alan E. Nourse’s STAR SURGEON, followed it into James White’s SECTOR GENERAL books and A.M. Lightner’s DOCTOR TO THE GALAXY. S.L. Viehl’s books satisfied that itch – but I learned about a year ago that she is so much more than just a “space hospital” writer! The bits of writing advice in this new ten part series are used with her permission. This one is from:

A couple of weeks ago, CRICKET MAGAZINE accepted a story of mine about penguins on my imaginary Space Station COURAGE. Lonnie Plecha, the editor of CRICKET, asked for a few changes. “I’m not proposing a massive overhaul – more of an enhancing of what you have…You have an opportunity to deepen the story somewhat by elaborating on the dynamic between Candace and Dejario.”

In particular, he asked me to answer very specific questions (the initial word limit for CRICKET submissions is 1500 – there’s not an awful lot of room in there to provide all the elements of story! That’s one reason why I submit to children’s markets, I have to write literary, entertaining, genre flash fiction).

Some of the questions he wanted me to answer: “Why are they always sparring? How did Candace’s father die? What’s wrong with penguin whispering anyway? …are [they] about thirteen years old?”

All of his probing led me to expand of what was originally in the story and I ended up adding about two hundred words. This is exactly what SL Viehl is talking about when she says, “If you haven't gone deeper with your character (or any of your other story elements), and developed them to be more than what the reader initially encounters, how are you going to sustain interest? Remember, as with the gator, all that upfront cuteness only goes so far.” (You’ll need to follow the link above to understand the gator reference!)

I have no excuse as a writer when it comes to skimping on character building. This is an area of writing in which I am still very weak and one I’m constantly working on. Not that I’ve got this whole writing thing nailed down (now that I have an agent and all), but I have strengths and weaknesses. Character building is a weakness and I need all the help I can get.

The metaphor of the Great White shark having to keep moving forward or die was a powerful one for me. As a science teacher and a biology major, I have many more details than I needed when I drew on this one to motivate me and the metaphor became a powerful image for me.

Reading that character building should result in a character like an iceberg with three fourths of it hidden wasn’t very helpful.

But telling me that a finished character should be like an alligator – which hides almost ALL of its attributes underwater but which, nonetheless are still alive, vital, powerful and necessary for the story – now THAT’S a metaphor I can grab hold of!

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