JM Frey

thewriterjess

JM holds a Masters of Communications Culture from Ryerson and York Universities, as well as a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts from Brock University and a minor in Classical Mythology. She specializes in fanthropology: the study of media audiences and fans. She also appears in several documentaries and radio shows speaking on this topic. JM is also a professionally trained actor, voice actor, an award-winning vocalist, and a published poet and science fiction author.

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

WORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap

A young writer reached out to me on Instagram last month looking for some guidance when it comes to Character Development. She said that she was afraid that she spent a lot of time describing what her characters were doing at any given moment, but was failing to reveal why they were doing the thing, and what they were feeling when they did it.

This can be a problem for a lot of writers, especially those who aren’t thinking critically about the underlying layers and motivations of emotion in the scene they’re writing. Books, after all, serve only one real purpose – to tell a story that makes you feel something. The peril of simply reciting a character’s actions instead of revealing to the audience how they feel while they do them is real.

And because humans sympathize with others so strongly, the overarching way to make a reader feel something about a book is to share with your readership what the characters themselves are feeling in the moment. You need to provide readers with the opportunities to experience the emotion in tandem, and to watch those characters learn, evolve emotionally, and grow as people as the adventure happens.

Now, that’s not to say you have to drown the prose in blunt, obvious phrases like “I’m sad,” or “I’m so angry at you right now!” Novels are still, overwhelmingly, more successful when they can show and not tell.

I mean, I liked Lord of the RIngs okay when I read it, but ultimately I found it very boring as a story as it was a recitation of actions and histories and descriptions, with little to no glimpses into Frodo’s thoughts and feelings on the Quest. I couldn’t feel the weight of the ring digging the chain into his neck, I didn’t thirst with Frodo when he was parched, didn’t understand how bone-tired he was as he snuck through Mordor. I didn’t glory in the sun of the Shire on his face or the grass of the meadow below Weathertop on his feet.

But then Peter Jackson gave us this:

And this:

And yes, I am aware that this is a film, and a picture is worth a thousand words. But there’s feeling in these screencaptures, even as they’re static. In both of them you’ll note that Frodo is sitting down, resting, mind far away and leaning back on something.

But he’s not at all feeling the same thing, and his posture, body language, where he’s looking, what he’s holding, and how he’s reacting to the environment around him all gives the viewers a clue to what is happening to him internally.

And writers – lucky us! – have to do the same, but, you know, with letters instead of pictures.

When writing a scene, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • What is the Character FEELING in that moment?
    • What is their overriding emotion in this scene?
    • And what does that emotion motivate them to do, or not do?
  • What is the Character HIDING from those around them?
    • What secrets do they want to keep. Is it something dire?
    • How does holding that secret make them feel?
    • Is this secret distracting them from what’s happening? Are they paying attention?
  • What is the Character REVEALING Accidentally to those around them
    • If they’re hiding something, are they giving it away? Are they a good liar? How does that affect their body language? Can others tell?
    • What happens when the others around your character understand what they’re trying to hide?
    • If they’re not intentionally hiding something, they may still be giving clues away to something else – what do they looking, what are they wearing, how are they moving? What’s on their clothes? Think Sherlock here – and keep in mind, who in the rest of the group can read those clues, and how accuratly?
  • What is the Character REVEALING On Purpose to those around them
    • If they have a secret, are they hoping others will figure it out? Are they helping other figure it out?
    • Are they sharing information some other way, besides talking?
    • Are they actively sharing the info, or passively?
  • How does that affect the ACTIONS of the Character in that moment
    • Taking all the above into the account, what does the character do, where do they move, what actions do they make as a result?
    • (For example – if they are lying to their mother, would they go sit at the table directly beside her? Or stand further away? Why make that choice? To what advantage to them?)
  • How does that affect the BODY LANGUAGE of the Character in that moment
    • Are they excited? Bouncing on toes? Throwing hands in the air?
    • Are they exhausted, slouched against a wall or another person, struggling to stay upright?
    • Do they look guilty? Or are they cool as a cucumber about a secret they’re keeping?
  • How does that affect the PHYSICAL FORM Of the Character in that moment
    • What does guilt feel like? Squirming on the inside, heavy with shame, a headache?
    • What does happiness feel like? Lighter than air, the urge to dance?
    • What does hunger feel like? Curled in on stomach, weak, cold from lack of calories to burn, sleepy.
    • etc.
  • And lastly, why is the Character doing that particular ACTION at that particular time
    • If you’re adding actions just to add actions, sit back and think of how natural they are. Would that character actually do that thing, at that time, with everything else around them happening the way it is?
    • Stillness is also a choice, and it can be a powerful character-revealer, depending on how you use it.

Let’s do an exercise:

Go back to the moments where you character is DOING and not FEELING. Put a pin in them – flag it, highlight it, print it out and put an actual pin in it, whatever works for you. Then, when you’ve found several moments that need fleshing out… step away from the keyboard.

And act it out.

Say what your character is saying. Do what they are doing. And above all, trying to feel what they are feeling.

The first time through, do it exactly as your character is doing it; copy what they say and each action precisely. Mark the places where what they’re doing or saying feels stiff, awkward, or forced. It likely is.

The second time through, pay attention to those awkward moments, and try doing them a new way. Get into your character’s head and improvise; ball your fists, kiss the back of your hand if there’s a smooch, punch a pillow, pace, jump, use your body the way you really would if you really were this person in this actual situation. Make that cup of tea or take down that bowl from the cabinet.

Try to access the emotions of the character – and then pay attention to how those emotions affect your body.

When you want to cry, what happens? The back of your eyes burn, there a lump in your throat, your chest feels tight, your chin starts to shake, your nose runs.

When you’re elated, what happens?  Your blood feels fizzy, your heart beats fast, you bounce and hop on your feet, your head feels light, you’re giddy and giggle, your hands flutter. You can’t focus on just one thing.

When you’re furious, what happens? You slam doors, to grunt and huff, you punch the air, you stab your finger in someone’s face, your face flushes, your hands shake.

These physical reactions to emotion are a human  universal, and moreover they show the emotion the character is feeling rather than tell it. It’s like a cheat-code to getting your reader to understand what the people they’re reading about are feeling, are going through, without having to outright say that they’re sad, or elated, or furious.

When you reach the end of the scene, make notes on what you changed. Then run through it as many times as you need to find the right balance.

And then sit down to the keyboard and make those changes. I’m certain you’ll find the scene much stronger. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Soon you won’t have to stand up to do it at all, you’ll remember that this is stuff you have to add into the prose and will do it as you write – practice, after all, makes perfect.

If this exercise doesn’t work for you personally as a writer, then try to find another way to access this emotional reality of your character as you’re working on the scene. Remember, emotion is the driving force of all action. What you feel dictates – or drives – what you do, and how and why you do it. This is no less true for made-up people.

And as always, I advocate that each writer try to get out of their PJs and away from a keyboard and take an acting class or two. In highschool? SIgn up for drama classes or join the club. Outside of school? Audition at a community theatre, or do evening improv classes. If you’re not up for public acting, read books on acting techniques, character motivation, and performance. Something, anything that helps you access the understanding that physical gesture is born of motivation, which is driven by feeling, which can reveal character. And then practice it.

Or watch movies, see what the actors do – how do they make you understand so clearly what they’re feeling, and why? And then practice describing that.

I promise, it will help you become a better writer.


There are also some great resource out there to help you understand how character drives motivation, which drives feeling, which drives action:


Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here.

Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: The DO-ING Trap
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ANNOUNCEMENT – “The Skylark’s Saga” has been picked up!

ANNOUNCEMENT – “The Skylark’s Saga” has been picked up!

There’s a saying in the military which is also particularly apt for the publishing business: “Hurry Up And Wait”.

It means things can happen in an instant, all of a sudden, and need your attention now now now, and when the rush is done you just… wait.

After a weekend flurry of emails back and forth, contract slinging and review, negotiations, and finally signing, I had to wait two whole months to announce this deal!

Back in November, I had a meeting with a television writer who had come to me to discuss the rights for The Skylark’s Saga . She’d read the first book (as well as some of my other work) and saw great potential for the tale to be translated into an older-teen/YA aged animated series, rather like The Dragon Prince or She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, but aimed at a slightly older audience.

We met in a pub and talked about all of her ideas for the series, and with my agent, hashed out things like compensation, deadlines, and contracts.

And I have been sitting on this news since then!

So what does this mean? Basically, a shopping agreement is not a dramatic adaptation option. The studio Alpaca VS Llama has secured the rights to make a package of materials based on The Skylark’s Saga  – treatment documents, series outline, character designs and illustrations, and a pilot script – for an animated series to take to production houses and networks. They ‘pitch’ this idea, and if someone picks it up, then it becomes an option.

Right now, I’m working with studio head Elize Morgan to fill in her questions about the backstories of characters and the worldbuilding (yes, she’s got book #2 already… no, I can’t share it with you yet. 😉 ) and from there she’s going to start working with an illustrator to figure out the best way to mock up our beloved characters.

I’m extremely flattered by AvL’s interest in the series, and wish Elize all the best when she heads out to start sharing the world of the Skylark with potential studios and channels.

JM FreyANNOUNCEMENT – “The Skylark’s Saga” has been picked up!
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

WORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?

This is a question that came in from social media, and I’ve been pondering the answer for a few months. I could say something glib like “When I’ve hit my publisher’s word count!” but of course, this question is, I think, more about when you know that you’ve finished telling the story you wanted to tell – beginning to end and with all the adjustments and edits added during the drafts.

I think, if I may projet, what you’re really asking is, when are you satisfied enough with the manuscript to call it “done” (or at least, done enough to start pitching around or to give to your editor/agent.)

And that’s a hard, hard, hard question for any author, but a doubly hard one for me – see I nearly always write the ending first.

When I start a novel, I usually start by writing the scene that is, for me, the most powerful, the most attractive, the most fun and filled with the most flavor of the book.  Usually it’s either the first act, second act, or third act/novel climax, simply because of the way my brain works. By that point I more or less know where in the timeline of these character’s lives the story needs to stop, and where it needs to start. But of course those things can slide depending on edits and the need for background info, epilogues, a better tie-up, etc.

For other writers, they plot the whole book before they sit down, so they know before they start where the ending is. And for others, they just write until it seems done, and solidify that endpoint during the editing phase.

But as for knowing when the story is finished?

Yowza.

That’s a hard question to answer.

Don’t laugh, but for me it’s when the story stops squirming. There’s this feeling I get in my stomach, under my skin, that’s like a wiggly itch – it’s the physical manifestation of knowing that something is off, I just don’t know what yet. When I read the book and there’s no squirm? It’s done.  You could also be really morbid and compare it to a pinned live butterfly as well – flipping and flopping all over the place, shedding wing-dust and scales all over the velvet. I have one pin in it – at the tip of a wing – but I have to get another pin into the other wing, and then another in the bottom wings, and another in the thorax and … yeah, okay, I know I sound like a serial killer.

But the idea is the same. When the story is pinned in place from all corners, and the full picture is spread out, beautiful, and legible, then the story is done.

A good way to check is to write the meaning and beats of each scene down on note cards as you re-read the book over, like this:


The Untold Tale

Chapter One:
Scene 1:

Beats: Forsyth sees Mother Mouth approaching with Pip through study window –  goes down to meet them in the foyer – they check for/neutralize spells on the body Mouth has brought – body is alive, it’s a woman – Forsyth brings her into the house and they set up a room for her – Forsyth stays by her bedside, ostensibly as a host but really to keep an eye on her in case this is a ploy

Needed Because: Sets up Forsyth as caring and overly servile; intros world, Turn Hall, Mother Mouth; sets up Forsyth as spy (readers don’t know yet); introduces Pip’s scars.


When you have all your cards for all your scenes, pin them to the wall and connect them with color-coded string – for example, anything scene/card that builds Forsyth as the Shadow Hand will be connected by, say, Purple, while anything about Pip and her scars is connected in green. You can also do this with color-coded highlighter marks, sticky notes, stickers, etc.

(I do it digitally via Scrivener, which has a pin-board and color coding built in.)

When you’ve done this all, step back and look at it – does every card have a string attached to it, or a color coded dot in the corner? Do all the things you’ve set up pay off? Do you have a scene that is a repeat of another, does it re-establish something that was already established once, or drags, or is superfluous? Did you describe the same place three times or did the character growth arc flipflop?

And if it doesn’t serve the overall story? Cut it. Or fix it. Or rewrite it.

I call those moments “decks” – we build a lot of decks for our characters to hang out on in fiction, but we should really be building staircases. Your staircase can have some landings, some places to rest up and catch your breath, but ultimately they should be going up up up. If your characters / plot / forward momentum is chilling on a deck with a frosty bevvie, then the deck needs to be rebuilt, tilted upward, and forcing your story back into motion.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to book has to plow ahead, no-holds-barred. Your story can meander, and linger, and be slow, can treasure quiet moments and have multiple episodes that feed into the main narrative – that’s fine. So long as everything needs to be there. So long as it goes.

But a book should be waterproof and air tight, no matter how many words long it is.  Looking over it shouldn’t give you squirmies. Everything should connect, no scene or moment or even sentence should be meaningless.

If you can say that you have ruthlessly reviewed every plot point, every scene, every sentence – going from macro to micro – and can confidently and honestly say that everything that is there is something that needs to be there for the sake of the story, or the plot, or the character arc, or the world and/or word-crafting… then I think that’s when the book is done.

When all of the story that needs telling to make it a story is told, then then the story is complete.

I know it sounds complicated and rigorous, but with any luck, you’ll have your own intuitive version of the squirmies that will let you know when there’s still one more draft to do.

SOCIAL MEDIA REACTIONS


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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here. Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – When Is The Story Done?
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The Maddening Science – New Writing Process Blog

The Maddening Science – New Writing Process Blog

Start from the very beginning with me…

So, perhaps I’m a bit of a fool, with the Tumblrpocolypse potentially coming, but I was backing up all my Tumblrs and sideblogs (see the above-mentioned Tumblrpocolypse) and realized that I never really did anything with my sideblog about my short story The Maddening Science. I never got around to producing the short film, and I had to back-burner the full-length novel version when I got the contracts for The Accidental Turn Series and The Skylark’s Saga

I considered just deleting the sideblog – there were only a few posts – and then I realized that this would be the perfect opportunity to form a Writing Process Blog so my readers could follow along with my new novel from the very moment I begin it. 

I plan to use this blog to archive articles, photos, and any discussions of interest pertaining to the themes and events of the novel. I also want to use it to chronicle my writing process and accomplishments (or failures!), and share snippets of the novel in sneak previews. I’m also be open to questions, suggested articles from readers, and conversations about the book in specific or writing in general.

You can read all about the intended novel project here.

If this sounds interesting, please come follow me there! 

I hope that Tumblr doesn’t implode, and that you enjoy the content! I am always happy to interact with readers, so please don’t hesitate to drop me an ask, message, or note!

JM FreyThe Maddening Science – New Writing Process Blog
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WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

WORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction

My writing has been featured in the Bedside Press books “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls” and “The Secret Loves of Geek Girls: Redux

I caught up with publisher Bedside Press to discuss storytelling and the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. You can read the blog post here.

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Got a question about the craft or business of writing? Ask it here. Or read other Words for Writers blog posts here.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – Fiction and Nonfiction
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