If Walls Could Talk: Antagonists and Motive

M.H. Norris

Sometimes, one of the hardest things for me is deciding who whodunit. It’s honestly more than who did it, motive is key when writing a murder mystery.

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In Badge City: Notches, it was because of a psychotic break. That one I debated for several days over the motive—bouncing between a cold blooded psychopath and finding a real motive until I came to what I settled on. But I’m not spoiling it all.

In The Whole Art of Detection, it was an elaborate cover job. That one was hard trying to come up with something worth all the trouble. In the end, I took the line from Criminal Minds where they say that “it doesn’t have to make sense to us but it has to make sense to the bad guy”—the unsub.

Spending time on your good guy is easy. Everyone wants to be the hero, so that makes them easier to write—and makes them more relatable to your audience.

But some of the best stories, some of the truly solid ones, are the ones that get you to relate to the bad guy. Those ones where you almost wish they’d gotten away with it while you are relieved at the same time that the victim (or victims) got justice.

Those episodes of crime dramas are to me the most conflicting, yet satisfying.

I was writing a pep talk for my region on NaNoWriMo’s site when I started talking about things to do to help them push over the 50K mark by the end of the day. One thing I spent some time on was talking about your antagonist.

So many genres lend themselves to these over the top antagonists. I played with having one in a story I wrote long ago. The cartoon villain with the mustache, evil laugh, and optional cat.

But then, as I grew as a writer, I realized that that doesn’t’ make for a satisfying story. Why is this person doing it? What is their motive?

That’s when you hit a sweet spot. What fuels their desire to do whatever is they are doing to stand in your protagonist’s way?

They usually have to believe in it, whatever it is. They have to believe that that is truly the right course of action and commit to it.

Motive and fleshing out the bad guys is something I like to spend time on. James and I will spend hours upon hours with me going “why did this person did it?”

The motive might change several times until I find something I’m happy with. In Badge City, I agonized over that antagonist. The Whole Art of Detection changed I want to say at least four times and the motive changed just as many.

There’s one parting thought for you as I wander back to try and secure my win for this year’s NaNoWriMo.

Don’t be afraid to change things.

Your story will thank you later.

If Walls Could Talk: Something That Lasts

M.H. Norris

Happy Birthday Doctor Who!

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It’s hard to believe that 53 years have gone by since An Unearthly Child aired. If you haven’t had the chance, make sure you head on over to the Time Travel Nexus where we are going to have a variety of blog posts all day celebrating the anniversary.

As for me, I have plans to curl up and watch some Sarah Jane Smith.

Fun fact:

Did you know the beloved show was almost dead in the water? November 23, 1963 is a day most Whovians recognize as the day we first met The Doctor and Susan, but sometimes you forget that November 22, 1963 was the day before. Doctor Who’s first episode was lost in the sea of news flooding from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In a time where reruns were basically unheard of (a concept itself that is basically unheard of in today’s world), Producer Verity Lambert talked the BBC into re-airing the pilot right before the next episode the following week.

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The movie that came out the night before the fiftieth anniversary, if memory serves, An Adventure In Space and Time, was a biopic of sorts which documented how hard Verity had to fight for her show.

Because she knew, somehow, this idea of an alien running around time and space in a blue police box was something that could last.

And here we are 53 years later because Verity Lambert, a name a lot of Whovians don’t know, fought for something that she had helped to create, helped to bring to life because she had a feeling about it.

What about this episode stood out so much that it launched something that is still going strong after 53 years?

To me, one of the curses of being a writer is that I can’t help but judge the writing of everything I watch or read. It’s one of the reasons I’m not happy with the last couple series of Doctor Who.

On the flip side, I study them to see what they’re doing right and when a show has lasted as long as Doctor Who, the writers are doing something right. Yes, I know it took a break there through the 90s, with the exception of the movie, but even then audio dramas happened, books were written…

The show has existed continuously in one form or another and has developed such a rich history and lore that fans can sit there and discuss things in what may seem like a foreign language to someone who doesn’t understand Doctor Who.

What drew me to it?

That’s another way I approach something like this, when I want to study what it’s done right.

I’ll tell you the exact moment I was hooked on it. Or rather, let me show you.

How can he honestly think anyone is going to forget that?

The show is called Doctor Who for crying out loud. If you want to begin to figure out the Time Lord who lies about his age (worse than a woman turning 40) you need to be prepared to spend a lot of time doing it.

That’s what keeps people coming.

Thirteen people have technically played the same character, yet you see people debating over who was the best, and who did what better. Honestly, there’s pros and cons to all of them. Yes, I’ve said time and time again that Ten is my favorite, and he still is, but honestly, I love Six, Seven, Eight, Nine too.

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They’re all the Doctor.

What can we learn from Doctor Who today as we celebrate its birthday?

If a story focuses on the characters, and lets you get close to them, it can get away with a lot of plot problems.

Quite frankly, Dimensions In Time (the thirtieth Anniversary special) is a hot, hot mess. But it’s fun to watch because of the characters. Even if they only appeared from the briefest of cameos, even if they’re not technically themselves (probably), they brought most everyone back.

This is the lesson we can learn from Doctor Who. The show is at its strongest when it focuses on its characters.

Rose and Ace faced their demons during the course of their runs, and Sarah Jane did it herself during a spin off. That’s part of what draws what draws us in. They aren’t perfect.

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Their traits draw us in too. Ace has a love of explosions that isn’t necessarily safe (no more so than her love of smacking Daleks with baseball bats),  Sarah Jane snuck into the TARDIS without The Doctor’s permission…you get the idea.

And despite all their faults, or, really, because of them, they live on.

Honestly, the things that last, the authors who “make it,” and the stories that live on even after their creator has passed are the ones whose characters help to do it. Sure, we’re enchanted by the story, but I know it’s the characters I’m drawn to.

There’s been a few projects I’ve had to sit to the side. My biggest regret has been that the characters won’t get their chance to shine. Because, that’s where I start. Here’s the character. What is going on with them? With this story? This scene? This moment? How is it going to move them forward?

Why should you care about their story?

Why do we care about a man who travels space and time in a blue box?

Now that’s the 53-year-old question, isn’t it?

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If Walls Could Talk: Keep On Keeping On

M.H. Norris

For the first time ever, the entire 18thWall team was together at L.I. Who. One night, when we went to grab some dinner, a discussion came up regarding one of the panels. Ben Kasson made the statement that someone had asked one of the actors for acting advice.

M.H., Nicole, K-9, James, and Ben. The whole gang.

Her answer was to keep on acting. Which is really good advice, but Ben was in the middle of making a point. Writers give that answer too. Keep on writing, don’t stop.

“Read everything you can get your hands on” is another favorite of mine.

As Ben pointed out, the truth is that is honestly the best, and easiest, answer to the question that a lot of creative professionals get.

Keep On Keeping On

Week to week, I try to offer some advice sometimes something I overhear and need to chime in on or something I struggle with on my own writing.

One thing I took away from the weekend is don’t be afraid to ask that question. Honestly, you don’t know the answer until you try even if it is the keep on keeping on. Sometimes, how they deliver that answer actually answers your question a bit.

New writers go through a few stages the second of which I haven’t fully manage to coax myself out of. The first is the idea that you are the best writer there ever was and that your words are going to inspire the masses and that what you spent hours scribbling away at is worthy of the New York Times Bestsellers List.

I might exaggerate just a bit but you get my point. A lot of people who enter this field often times come in with confidence.

If you’re still in this stage, let me attempt to burst that bubble. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later.

There is a very large chance that your writing is bad. Grammatically full of errors, POV issues everywhere, dry prose, forced dialogue—these are all problems I’ve spent weeks covering because they are some of the most common problems I see in new authors.

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The other most common problem I see in new writers is that they don’t realize that there are any problems in their writing. You think I’m exaggerating but I’ve seen people who are trying to make the jump from writing in their bedrooms to actually having their work out. There have been times where I’ve wondered if the writer is going to be able to handle the jump.

What do I mean by that?

When you let someone else take a look at your work, whether it’s a writing group or an editor or even a friend, it leaves you feeling a bit exposed. I’ve heard someone use the example that it’s like sitting there naked—and it’s not an incorrect comparison. Especially if you’re passionate about the subject, you put a piece of you into what you write and having someone sit there and judge it isn’t the most fun of experiences.

I’ve been doing it for years and I’ll be honest, it doesn’t get a lot easier.

But aren’t the things that are most worth doing hard for a reason? It makes the good parts seem that much sweeter.

Here’s my other piece of advice for writers who want advice on how to get published or how to get better as a writer.

Do Not Do It Alone

I had someone ask me about this once. Did I really share pieces of my novel with other people before it was published?

And the answer is, yes, I did. I had people seeing bits and pieces of Badge City so that they could tell me how it was going. They saw rough rough drafts and drafts close to the finished product.

Badge City: Notches

In my opinion, my writing is stronger because I allow people to give me advice. I allow that not so invested opinion to come in and help me make things stronger. It helps me to get out of my own head and look at it. The very act of having to justify some of the choices I’ve made sometimes points out what’s wrong with a story or a scene.

Another conversation I had earlier this week was talking about the idea of walking up to myself even as recent as five years ago. Would younger me recognize me? Superficially, probably.

Would younger me recognize my writing as her own if it was sat in front of her?

Absolutely not.

First off, five years ago, I never imagined I would be writing mysteries, much less getting ready to launch a series of my own. Nor would I imagine some of the opportunities I’ve had in the last five years.

For my birthday, James and Nicole gave me a collection of my work, including some of my older stuff they dug up from the depths of their computer storage. Some of my stuff is hard to read because all I can see are the mistakes.

Keep On Keeping On

There was a second stage, I mentioned it earlier. The one, to a certain extent, I’m still in. The funny thing is it’s the polar opposite of the first stage.

It’s where you hate everything you write and everything seems like garbage and you can’t understand how people buy your work and how on this Earth you manage to be one of your publisher’s bestsellers last year.

Like I said, I’m still in it a bit. There are honestly days where I hate what I’ve written and it sometimes takes James telling me it’s not that bad to keep me from deleting it all.

You have to Keep On Keeping On when you are in a stage like that. And trust me, I know just how hard that task seems to be. How all you really want to do is to chuck your work into the bin and start from scratch because it seems awful and it’s never going to come together.

This is another time it’s good to have people around you to help you. Because sometimes what the piece needs is a little push in the right direction and you’re so involved, so invested that you can’t find it yourself.

After Ben’s discussion, I did think a little over the advice I’ve given, the ideas I have for more, and what I would say if someone asked me the question.

I would probably tell them a lot of what I said here today. And of course, I would have to end it with the traditional…

Keep On Keeping On

If Walls Could Talk: The Importance Of Strong Characters

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I was in a couple of discussions this past weekend and a similar topic showed up multiple times. When that happens and the topic is related to writing, that’s a sure sign that it’s probably going to make itself into a blog post.

Plot and Characters.

Two things that one cannot make a story without. Two things that people often bicker over what’s important.

Let me say this. You cannot have a good story without a solid plot. I’ve seen my own stories fall apart because the plot has had holes the size of Texas in it.

That’s why so many people have spent time writing books, blogs, and articles on the idea of plots. Don’t neglect it.

But, far too often, I see people neglect character development for the sake of a shiny plot. And let me tell you this, no matter how good your story, no matter how much you’ve thought your plot through, if you do not take time to establish your characters and help them to develop and thrive, then your story will fall flat.

There was a show that came on almost a decade ago and aired for one season, Commander in Chief. It was a political drama with the premise of a woman Vice President becoming president after the POTUS was killed.

I watched the season after reading about it in a screenwriting book. I was intrigued by the idea and the book mentioned the writing was good.

And to an extent, I agree with the author of the book. It also only took me one viewing to see why it only lasted one season.

After all the ups and downs of the season, I came out at the end realizing something very important.

I didn’t care about any of the characters.

The writing wasn’t bad, it had some rather witty moments. But after a 22 episode season there wasn’t a single character in that show that I was emotional invested in.

I’ve said, a few times during my time blogging for 18thWall even, that when one goes to try a new TV show, one comes for the premise but stays for the character.

It’s the same for books. The series that survive and become big are the ones that have characters that people latch on to. They are the ones where people almost forget that they aren’t actually real and laugh and smile at their successes and cry along with them when tragedy strikes. They are the ones where the story is strong and compelling and seem like an old friend.

Who is your protagonist? Your antagonist? What makes them tick, what motivates them?

And most importantly, why should people care about them? Why should they get invested in their lives?

Answer that, and you’re good to go.

If Walls Could Talk: Blasting Off with NaNoWriMo 2016

M.H. Norris

A lot of writers embarked the adventure that is known as National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMmo yesterday. They blasted off on a mission to write 50K words in 30 days.

It’s not too late to start. You can take yesterday’s words and make them up as you go.

NaNoWriMo is a great way to build a solid writing habit.

For me, it’s the one month out of the year where I use some of my writing time to write something purely for fun, for me. Usually, it’s outside of the mystery genre because I like to use the month to push myself. Sometimes, it’s an idea I’ve had that I just can’t quite get rid of and know that if I give myself the chance to write it, that maybe I’ll be able to focus on actual contracted work.

This year, it’s outside my usual genre. It’s not only something I’m pushing myself to do but it’s something I’ve said that I always wanted to write, and I decided that there was no time like the present.

So yes, I’m taking my column this week to add my two cents into the flurry of NaNoWriMo advice.

This is my fifth year doing it and I’ve only won twice. There’s a bit of a rush when you hit November 30th and can validate your word count and enter the coveted winners page.

So here’s some advice for those of you who are embarking on NaNoWriMo journeys of your own.

1) Things might not go according to plan

This can happen in a variety of ways. There might be days where you can’t write 1,667 words. Make it up another day or if you know it’s coming try and work ahead a little so that the loss of a day doesn’t hit you but so hard.

Your story might not go the way you planned. I’m talking to both Planners and Pansters. Granted, Pansters don’t have a hard set plan in place (panthers earning their name by flying by the seat of their pants), but that vague idea of what you want can change.

Either you find your characters lead you on a different path or you discover it and lead them. People who haven’t had the experience of characters telling some or all of a story don’t understand how they can influence how you write, but trust me when I say it’s a very real thing.

2) The finished product will be rough

You’re writing 1,667 words every day for 30 days to get to 50K. The draft that gets produced is going to be rough. I’ll join the people who say to tell your inner editor to take a break.

To an extent that is.

Yes, you can’t sit there and obsess over editing here in November. But if you need to tweak something so that you’re story flows better, go ahead and do it when you’re thinking about it to avoid the risk of forgetting.

But accept that fact that if you want to try to publish whatever you are writing this November, you’re going to need to spend some quality time with a red pen.

Or, if you’re like me, a pink pen.

3) It’s not going to be all sunshine and roses

The 20-30K point can be rough. Middles are hard, I’ve done a couple blog posts noting that. Thanksgiving and Black Friday are this month and all around us people are gearing up for the holiday season and there are so many other things you can do besides sitting down and typing up 1,667 words each and every day.

Don’t give in to that temptation.

Granted, things are going to happen and there might be days where you don’t quite hit 1,667.

That’s okay.

But don’t let it happen a lot because I learned my first couple of tries that those days can build up fast if you’re not careful and the more you miss the harder it is to make it up.

For those of you doing NaNoWriMo, you’ve done one of the most important things you can do as a writer. You’ve told yourself that you’re going to sit down and write that book.

So congratulations for those of you who blasted off on that journey yesterday. And for the rest of you, as I said earlier, it’s not too late to start now.

Good luck!

Margie22's TARDIS NaNo Calendar