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Characters on Cannery Row

CANNERY rowI am currently reading Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. I’m a fan of Steinbeck, but I have to admit I struggled with the beginning of this book. It was full of description: describing places, houses, people and even a couple pages on the Model T truck. By page 34, I still wasn’t sure what the plot was. But as I am now halfway through the novel, I realize how this Nobel Peace Prize Winning Author continues to draw me in—characters.

There are over two handfuls of unique, interesting characters in this book. While writing, I often want to reach for clique or average person, especially in secondary characters. But I want to challenge myself to dig deeper for those unique personalities that we want to read about.

Here’s an example of a secondary character, Gay, in Cannery Row that only participates for thirty five pages. And while, I don’t remember the color of his hair or body type, but I won’t forget this story anytime soon.

Doc asked, “How are things going up at the Palace?”

Hazel ran his fingers through his dark hair and he peered into the clutter of his mind. “Pretty good,” he said. “That fellow Gay is moving in with us I guess. His wife hits him pretty bad. He don’t mind that when he’s awake but she waits ‘til he gets to sleep and then hits him. He hates that. He has to wake up and beat her up and then when he goes back to sleep she hits him again. He don’t get any rest so he’s moving in with us.”

“That’s a new one,” said Doc. “She used to swear out a warrant and put him in jail.”

“Yeah!” said Hazel. “But that was before they built the new jail in Salinas. Used to be thirty days and Gay was pretty hot to get out, but this new jail—radio in the tank and good bunks and the sheriff’s a nice fellow. Gay gets in there and he don’t want to come out. He likes it so much his wife won’t get him arrested any more. So she figured out this hitting him while he’s asleep. It’s nerve racking, he says. And you know as good as me—Gay never did take any pleasure beating her up. He only done it to keep his self-respect. But he gets tired of it. I guess he’ll be with us now.”

 I laughed out loud when I first read that. Steinbeck paints gritty characters that stick with us. Two dimensional characters are easy, like neighbors that we wave to while our garage shuts. There is more out there, let’s tip over their trash and see who they really are. Let’s keep digging.


darkchocolateWe are day eleven into the new year, and I’m wondering how everyone is doing with their resolutions. Granted my goal to eat healthy may be sunk as I have already eaten my second piece of dark chocolate today—so worth it by the way. But gratefully, I’m hanging onto my more realistic goals that involve writing and exercise. Here are a couple tips for all of us to make it another month or so with our goals.

    1. Write them down. Make the goal concrete and tangible by writing it down. Then place it where you can read it frequently. I like the electronic sticky pad on my computer desktop or the front of my writing binder.
    2. Get back up. I’m constantly watching my ten month old stumble, fall, and bash his head as he is learning to walk. It is painful, no doubt. He has the bruises to show for it. When working towards our goals, falling down is part of the process. Just get back up.
    3. Be held accountable. Tell your goals to a friend, a co-worker, instructor, or you can even post them here in the comment section. Make sure someone knows, and it is even better if they will want a report of how you fared. For writers, I recommend starting or joining a writing community. Find others with similar goals that will hold you accountable and push you to progress.

One of my goals was to create a personal blog and online presence. So please feel free to me on this journey at www.deannabrowne.com, on twitter @BrowneBooks, or on Facebook. My first blog is on joining this great online community. Thanks for the support, and I wish you the best in this new year!

Digging for Gold? Idea dumping can help.

At a recent write-in, a couple of us needed to work on world building. In my case, I was working on names for magic ceremonies, events in the past, that sort of thing. One technique that worked well for us was what I call idea dumping (aka brainstorming).

I’m not talking about the old style of brainstorming: grabbing a pen and staring at a blank page for an hour until the perfect idea comes. I’m talking about dumping all the ideas out of your mind−good, bad and ugly—until you find what fits. We pulled up a thesaurus, and I wrote down everything that was said. My paper was a mess, cramped full of notes.

I can’t lie and say magic poured out of our mouths, but as we batted around ideas they morphed into something great. So when you’re searching for that perfect name for your next goblin or handsome hunk remember a couple of things:

*Write every idea that comes to mind, even the crappy ones.

*Write at least ten if not twenty. I find my first three ideas are generic, and middle five to ten suck. Yesterday, it was not until at least twenty or more names had floated around until I found one I loved.

*Keep the list for a little bit, percolation helps sometimes. One dwarf thought she had a name, but it wasn’t until we moved on and were talking about something else did she realize the perfect one hit.

 Idea Dumping can be used for book names, magic systems, upcoming plot twists, and more. Sometimes our creativity is laying on the service and other times we have to dig a little for that golden nugget.

When Setting Comes Alive

Everyone can probably recall a book where the setting came alive for them, when the setting moves beyond words on a page and becomes its own three dimensional character. Old Man and the Sea is the first to jump into my mind.

Recently, I attended a workshop by Erin Quinn where she taught how to bring setting alive through characters. It was one of my favorite classes, possibly because it is an area I have been focusing on lately.

One exercise she demonstrated for us, involved describing a beach. She showed a picture of a beach scene from a balcony. Below the picture was a description of a beautiful beach on the morning of a wedding. Bliss and hope rang through each sentence. The next picture of the same beach had a completely different description below. It haunted us with scavengers and lost chances. It was the exact beach. And while some of the word choices were the same, many of the verbs differed and evoked strong emotion.

As we look through our characters’ eyes, the picture changes. We need to step away from the omniscient point of view and come in closer, bringing life and emotion to our surroundings, to describe the scene as only our character could capture it.

In considering an example, I’m chose the Hunger Games trilogy (because it is currently well known). We learn in book one, from Katniss’s POV how opulent the victors’ homes are. It is something Katniss and her family could never dream of moving into on their own. But when Effie arrives in book two, how would she describe them? If you watch the movie, Catching Fire, the disgust on her face is obvious.

My current work in progress is a rotating third person POV. So I constantly have to ask myself: is this my description (as the omniscient author) or is it how my character would describe it?

Below is a picture of a house. One exercise Erin Quinn had us try was to describe this house from different characters POV. You can use your own characters in your current work in progress or try some of these out: a Russian sleeper spy, a rich reality star, and a homeless man. Watch  your setting evolve, as you evoke emotion through the a character’s point of view.


Indie or Not?

The publishing market today is in a constant state of flux. Things are changing fast, and it can be difficult to keep up.

I recently attended a panel discussion, at the Desert Rose Romance Writers’ Conference, on the different options with publishing. There were six different authors and six different opinions. I thought I would share some of the pros and cons each author mentioned to help others, like myself, navigate this intricate world of publishing.


Virginia Nelson

She traditionally published in the past, and with three contracts in her hand decided to self publish.

Advantages: She wanted control over her product.

Disadvantages: She had a lot of research to do on self publishing. She had to initially pay out for her covers, editing and formatting, and self promotion was all on her shoulders.

Vijaya Schartz

She has published several books with small press.

Advantages: They will pay for your editors and bookcovers. Bigger royalties than larger publishing firms.

Disadvantes: No promotion or marketing. No advances.

Advice: Do not put all your eggs in one basket. Small publishers may close their doors. Do not put all your books with one publisher. (Those with a larger publishing firms agreed with this as well.)

Shelly Coriell

Shelly is an award winning author who published her young adult series with Amulet (a bigger New York publisher). She also has an adult suspense series with a different large publishing company.

Advantages: Book advances. Book tours (for her personally, not everyone). They cover all promotion. Great cover art. Three to five different editors to help perfect manuscript.

Disadvantages: No control of tour schedules. Smaller royalties because of advances. Not as much of control of book.

Advice: She was a big proponent of traditional publishing. But she does have a more personal novel that she plans to self publish so that she can have more control.

Erin Quinn

Traditional publishing for over twenty years with some independent publishing as well.

Advantages: Simon and Schuster is her publisher, and she loves their quality editing. Large publishing houses have great marketing as well.

Advice: She does publish novellas independently to supplement her other income.

Jennifer Ashley

She is a New York Times Best Selling author who has been traditionally published since 2002 and began self publishing as well in 2011. Berkley is her current publisher.

Advantages: One of the biggest advantages she discussed was that large publishing houses are able to make the back end deals no one else can. If you want your books in Costco, Walmart, Target, etc. You have to have a large publishing house to sell your books.

Disadvantages: You don’t have as much control of your book with a larger publishing company.

Advice: “Nothing sells your book like your next book” and “Your newsletter is gold.”


One piece of advice that several of them gave, was if you choose to go the indie route make your book the best you can. You may want to submit to agents to get feedback even if publishing yourself. Overall, self promotion and lack of professional editors seemed to be the biggest challenge to self publishing. While, lack of control was the biggest disadvantage to tradition publishing.

I hope this helps some of the newer writers out there, or those thinking of making a switch. We have of variety of publishing methods at the swamp and often discuss upcoming trends and issues. Whatever route you choose, do your research and keep asking questions.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Novel, and Add Some Evil Dwarves for Spice.

This weekend I attended the Desert Rose RWA writers’ workshop for the second time. I connected with old friends and created some possible new ones. I drank up all the advice—and collected the free swag— from experienced and successful authors in the business. On my drive back, one notion hit home with me: that as isolated as writing may be, a book is not a lone effort. We have beta readers, critique groups, agents, editors, cover artists, and publishers.

I pulled up The Catching Fire series to prove my point. On her acknowledgement page, Suzanne Collins lists:

Three editors

Five writing friends

Four agents/artists

Eighteen people from Scholastic Publishing


Nothing can replace the solitary effort of sitting your butt in front of the keyboard and writing. But it is amazing for me to see the collaborative effort and friendships that grow as we trudge through our novels. So whether you have evil dwarves or a patient friend, make sure you thank your pit crew. I know I’d be lost without mine.

The Driving Force of WHO

As I am currently flushing out a minor character, who now is taking a major role in my story, I’m realizing the importance of character. When I pick up a novel, I relish the unique voice of a character. It is those characters that I choose to stay with for the next several hours. My favorite novels are character driven. There are three major items I focus on when evaluating my characters.

Do I know my character?

There are a million character sheets that will make sure we know our character’s eye color, third grade teacher’s name, and what is currently in their pockets. While those things may be of importance, I have to go a step further. I ask myself: what would it be like to sit down and have a conversation with this character? I often journal from that character’s POV, even if I don’t write in their POV in the story. This is going beyond a police sketch of your character and finding their unique voice.

Am I showing my character?

This is a hard one for me. As I currently edit, I constantly ask myself if my character is coming through with emotions, actions, and dialogue. And my critique group’s favorite word for me is MORE. But I believe that “more” has to come through showing a character’s emotional response, not telling us.

Character Arc 

As I am editing a completed novel, I look back on the path my main character(s) has made to make sure there is substantial growth. I want my character to be changed dramatically by the end of my novel. And this isn’t a character step, where in one second their lifelong phobia or hatred is changed. It is an Arc. Where we all slowly partake and understand how this character is changing.


I love characters. I may forget the exact plot of the Jason Bourne series, but I will always remember his desperation to find himself, his repulsion at discovering who he was, and who is ultimately became. Characters drive a story, and keep me flipping my pages.

Delve into your Dark Side

All Hallows Eve is quickly approaching. Demon children will be scattered in the streets demanding to be fed. Jack-o-lanterns, representing the souls of the deceased, are screaming to be cut and burned from the inside. As you’re feeding miniature devils the marrow of life (aka chocolate), don’t forget to set aside some time to feed your own demons. Delve into your dark side to create a truly horrific tale of zombies and vampires that will haunt us all the way to Thanksgiving. Below are some ghosts captured in photos to inspire you. You can decide whether they are real or not. But I must warn you, look to hard and they may never leave.

It was November, 1905. Shropshire, England. A fire raged out of control burning Wem Town Hall to the ground. During the fire, onlooker Tony O’Rahil, captured these photos. No people or firefighters recalled seeing a girl at the scene.

This was taken in a small abandoned cemetery, Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery in the Chicago area. The Ghost Research Society took this picture in 1991. There was no woman present when they took the photo.

Michael Meehan and James Courtney were killed on board the SS Watertown in 1927. In route between Panama and New York, the men were buried at sea. Days later, the men were recognized. Their faces sticking up out of the water. The captain took these pictures.


This picture was taken in Manilla in 2000. This was a digital camera so no chance of double exposure. Neither of the girls reported any person being nearby. Or at least any living person nearby.

Color Me

highlighterWhen editing, I find highlighters are a great tool. They help me look at my writing in a different way. Highlighting helps me to focus on one specific correction, and help improve it. Here are a couple ways to color your manuscript.

 1. Verbs

Lately I have been focusing on using stronger verbs and avoiding the all too common “was” or “is”. When I highlight them, I get a bigger picture of my verbs usage. Then I go back and know what sections to strengthen.

2. Show Don’t Tell

Highlight every time you find an adjective (smart, funny, sexy) or a feeling (envy, bored, hate). If you see too many highlighted words in one section, go investigate. If you take the word out, will you still have conveyed the message through action or description?

 You can use this method to focus on any area you wish to improve. Whether setting or verb tense, looking at your story in a different light—literally—can help you identify its pitfalls. So, grab some colors, and get to work.


Precision in Language

I watched The Giver this weekend with my husband. I have loved the series and thought the movie was well done. One statement they used in the movie was “precision in language”. The parents often reprimanded the children when they were not clear about their feelings. Over the course of the weekend, my husband and I often would correct each other with the same comment, “precision in language,” as a joke. But as I am going through my edits, I find myself time and time again breaking that simple rule.

I often do a word search for some of these culprits: just, well, now, and so. Another nasty one for me is “was”.

For example:

Jim was walking down the path just as a plane flew overhead.

I can cut out “was” and “just” straight off the back. Then add a little show don’t tell to deepen it even more.

Jim walked down the path, when he heard the roar of a plane overhead.

Editing can be tedious and hard, but precision in language makes for a stronger story. Do you have any pitfalls you have to search for in editing?

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