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When we sit down to brainstorm a character, we think about possible qualities, flaws, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes that they might have. Then to dig deeper, we assemble their backstory, plotting out who influenced them, what experiences shaped them (both good and bad) and which emotional wounds pulse beneath the surface. All of these things help us gain a clearer sense of who our characters are, what motivates them, and ultimately, how they will behave in the story.
But how often do we think about our protagonist’s morality? It’s easy to just make the assumption that he or she is “good” and leave it at that.
And, for the most part, the protagonist is good–that’s why he or she is the star of the show. The protagonist’s moral code dictates which positive traits are the most prominent (attributes like loyalty, kindness, tolerance, being honorable or honest, to name a few) and how these will in turn influence every action and decision.
In real life, most people want to believe they know right from wrong, and that when push comes to shove, they’ll make the correct (moral) choice. People are generally good, and unless you’re a sociopath, no one wants to go through life hurting people. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but most try to add, not take away, from their interactions and relationships.
To feel fully fleshed, our characters should mimic real life, meaning they too have strong beliefs, and like us, think their moral code is unshakable. But while it might seem it, morality is not black and white. It exists in the mists of grey.
In the movie Prisoners, Hugh Jackman’s plays Keller, a law-abiding, respectful man and loving father. But when his daughter is abducted and police are ineffective at questioning the person he believes to be responsible, he is forced into a moral struggle.
Keller needs answers, but to obtain them, he must be willing to do things he never believed himself capable of. Finally, to gain his daughter’s freedom, he kidnaps the suspect and tortures him repeatedly.
In each session, Keller battles with his own humanity, but his belief that this man knows where his daughter is outweighs his disgust for what he must do. It is not only Keller’s actions that makes the movie compelling, it is the constant moral war within the grey that glues us to the screen.
Extreme circumstances can cause morals to shift. What would it take for your “moral” protagonist to make an immoral choice?
Is your character deeply honest? What might push her to lie about something important?
Is your character honorable? What would force him to act dishonorably?
Is your character kind? How could life break her so that she does something maliciously hurtful?
When your protagonist is forced to enter a grey area that causes them to question what is right and wrong…this is where compelling conflict blooms!
YOUR TURN: Have you built in situations that force the hero to evaluate his morality? If not, what can you do within the scope of your story to push him into the grey where he must wrestle with his beliefs? What event might send him to the edge of himself, of who he is, and possibly force him to step across the line dividing right and wrong?
Tools to help you understand your character better:
The Reverse Backstory Tool: Hit all the highlights on your hero’s backstory reel, including his Emotional Wound & The Lie He Believes About Himself
I’ve been doing some work with difficult characters over the last few months. Either the character in question has some pretty obvious flaws (which are part of who they are), or they do some pretty flawed things over the course of the story. Or both. It’s not that the characters I’ve been working with in my editorial practice are unlikeable, it’s that they’re human, quirky, realistic.
People are not all good, all the time. That doesn’t happen in real life, nor should it happen in fiction. But in fiction, you have to always keep in mind the idea of “relatability.” Because a character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Like Tinkerbell needs applause, the characters in novels need readers to believe in them and relate to them in order to be real. In the publishing world, if I can’t relate to your character, as a reader, chances are, I’m not going to get too deep into the story. I may even put the story down.
But sometimes characters must do things that aren’t exactly relatable. They must be mean, or selfish. They must act in a way that hurts others, or themselves. They must get away from their own best interest.
So how do you make a character like this accessible to the reader through good times and bad?
Sounds simple, but what does that look like on the page? I’ll prescribe my magic solution: Let the character admit that they’re being a butt, and it will humanize the behavior. It will get the reader on the character’s side. Just like in real life, in fictional life, an apology or owning up to a mistake go a long, long way.
Here are some examples. If a character is being cruel to another character, they could do something like this:
“Takes one to know one!” I shouted. I was being so terrible to Brady, but I couldn’t get past him telling the teacher on me. He was supposed to be my friend.
While the reader may not agree with the behavior, at least they know that the character acknowledges it and has a reason for it. Even if that reason isn’t that valid, at least the character knows they’re in the wrong. Even if the emotion blows over soon, the character has taken the time to guide the reader through their less-than-noble feelings. The character here is being a butt, but the behavior is coming from a place of hurt. In other words, vulnerability.
If they admit that woundedness, they become more human and less of a jerk in the reader’s eyes.
The same applies to actions. Play with vulnerability and motivation there, too. For example:
I knew it was wrong to steal. That’s the first thing we learned in Sunday School. And yet here I was, sitting in my car with a brand new MP3 player, still in the box, burning in my pockets. They hadn’t even stopped me. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I can sell it and help Mom with rent. I kept that on a loop in my head, but it didn’t make me feel any better about what I’d done.
In this example, the character has shoplifted something expensive. But they feel bad, which is one layer of vulnerability. And they did it for a noble reason, which is another. So we have two things that help sell the reader on the behavior.
The other vulnerable thing to smooth over tough-to-swallow words or actions is how they handle themselves after the fact. Does the first character apologize to Brady, even if it’s at the very end of the story? Does the second character go back to the store and pay them for the MP3 player once the financial emergency is over? Admitting their wrongs to the reader in the moment, and admitting their wrongs to others in the story: a two-pronged approach to broadcasting vulnerability.
If you have tough-to-motivate stuff in your manuscript, how might you use vulnerability to help build a bridge between the character and the reader?
Do you know of a colleague who is extremely good at their job, yet cannot pass the professional exams required to ascend the career ladder? Or an exceptionally bright friend – who seems to fall apart during exam periods? Or do you yourself struggle when it comes to final assessments? I’m sure most of us are familiar with situations like this, as they are a very common occurrence.
A month ago, I wrote the following on the wall of our top-secret Notes from the Slushpile hideout:
In the last week, I have:
Attended two book launches
Edited a 1500 word story down to 1000 words for the next issue of Stew Magazine
Formatted and scheduled next week's Alphabet Soup article and started work on the week after
Commissioned two more Alphabet Soup articles
Written a Slushpile blog
Worked full-time for 5 days
So why do I constantly feel like I'm not doing enough?
Why indeed? The Slushpile team were supportive in their replies (apart from Candy Gourlay who I trust was joking when she called me a lazy man!). But for me, the inherent problem lay in that final question. Why wasn't I satisfied with what I'd done, and what did I need to do to make sure that I was?
That led me to take a hard look at my own beliefs. For years, I believed that the more busy I was, the more I would get done. But what if that wasn't true? What if I could get better results and more satisfaction by doing less? Read more »Add a Comment
Well, I was feeling like a failure today, like I’d let the team down because an idea of mine went sour. It sucks when that happens, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I found myself retracing my steps, looking at how I got from A to B to C, to what I should have thought of to avoid where things ended up. It comes down to a lack of knowledge, and I’ve learned from it. This led me to think a bit more about failure, and our characters.
Failure is something no one looks forward to or wants to experience. It doesn’t feel good to fight for something and fail. A knot of emotion (frustration, disappointment, anguish, anger) can quickly escalate to darker feelings (shame, self-loathing, humiliation, bitterness, disillusionment, and even jealousy and vengefulness).
However, failure can also lead to positive traits like determination, persistence, resourcefulness and a higher level of discipline. And once on that route, it will lead to change. To evolution. To inner growth, and finally that thing everyone seeks: success.
How each of us deals with upsets, disappointments and failure can say a lot about who we are deep down, and it is the same with our characters. Not only that, but their go-to coping strategies can also help us pinpoint where they are on that path of change (character arc) and open a window into where their weaknesses lie, and what attitudes need to shift to get them on the road to achievement.
Coping (or Not) With Failure
Here are some of the ways I think people (and therefore our characters) tend to react when it comes to failure. Have a read and see which rings true for your hero or heroine.
For some, failure triggers the blame game. Rather than look within to what they might have done differently or take responsibility for their actions and performance, the blamer makes it about other people: What they did to cause this result. How they let one down. How it was rigged from the start. How one was held back, not helped, how others didn’t play fair.
The lesson that must be learned: be accountable, and be responsible. Whatever comes, whatever the result is, face it and take ownership for your own actions and choices.
Quitters become so bruised and angry at coming up short they take themselves out of the game. Quitters may put in a lot of effort, but at the end of the day, they have a breaking point. Many have an expectation that hard work or wanting something badly enough should lead to reward.
The lesson that must be learned: lose the entitlement and become a force of will. Hard work and dedication by nature is about going the distance, about pushing through pain and giving as much as is required. It doesn’t have a finish line to aim for; you only find it when you cross it.
Minimizers care about something right up until it slips through their fingers. Then they proclaim that the goal or prize is not as big a deal as people think. They protect their own feelings over failing by trying to minimize the achievement (also minimizing the victor in the process).
The lesson that must be learned: stop lying about what matters. Instead of pretending you don’t care, care deeply. The tide of negative feelings that come from failure shouldn’t stop you. If it’s important, proclaim it. Chase it. Try again and again because it’s worth doing.
Refusers deal with failure by denying a failure occurred at all. In their minds they won, but simply were denied the prize. Convinced that they did everything right, they believe they were indeed the “true” victor. They cannot take criticism and convince themselves that any differing opinions are invalid.
The lesson that must be learned: take self-importance down a peg. No one knows it all, and no one is so perfect there’s zero room for improvement. Look behind the mask, and ask the toughest question of all: Why is the need to always be right or to win so important? What fear does it hide?
Recommitters represent the point of the knife. In that low moment, they take failing hard. They question their path. They may toy with quitting. But something sticks their feet to the road. The goal, the closeness of it, the realization of the hard work it took to get this far…something pulls them back from the brink. They marry the goal, and go all-in.
The lesson that must be learned: don’t give up. The hard part is done and now it’s about that last 10%. Push, strive, and believe. Keep learning and growing and it will happen.
Adapters see failure as part of the process, so when they fail, they adapt. It isn’t the end of the world; there are other thing to want and go after. They move on.
The lesson that must be learned: find your passion and believe in yourself. Adapters may appear well-adjusted because they move on quickly, but often this is a manifestation of their fear of risk. They believe it’s better to settle for what is safe than risk being denied what they really want. Settling usually leads to regret so if you want something, don’t give up on it.
Assess and Adjust
The double A’s move past failure in the healthiest way possible: they assess their performance, objectively review what they could have done better, and then they adjust, seeking out the help they need to improve and get to the next step.
The lesson that must be learned: there’s no lesson here…they’ve already learned it: you should never be afraid of growing and evolving, and asking for assistance if you need it.
Personalizers take the failure to heart, and like the crumbly edge of a sinkhole, that darkness grows. Failing to achieve the goal becomes a spiral of falsehoods where a character convinces themselves that everything they touch is bad, that their life is one big failure.
The lesson that must be learned: your failure doesn’t define you, but your reaction to it might. Get some distance and perspective. Every day is new. Everyone fails and feels inadequate at times, but it is each person’s choice to make a change. Big or small, change happens because we will it, and we work toward it.
Wallowers crumple. They become destroyed by failure, and are unable to move on from it or imagine feeling any different. They want others to cater to them, feel sorry for them, and jump through hoops to help pull them out of their funk.
The lesson that must be learned: wallowing isn’t attractive, and makes you weak. People may cater to you when you wallow, and this helps make you feel special, but this is just a patch on a leaky boat. You’ll never be happy if you let failure own you. Realize failure is really an opportunity to learn and grow. Embrace it, and resolve to do better next time.
So what are your thoughts on this? Do these lessons make sense? Do they help to reveal some of your character’s flaws, or give you ideas for emotional wounds? I hope so!
Failure is such an interesting topic, because no one likes failing and yet it is one of the building blocks that pushes a character find the resiliency to to keep trying, to fight…and that makes for compelling reading.
Which of these coping methods do your characters use? Or, do they handle failure in a different way? Let me know in the comments!
it seemed that, for a while in the early 2010s, every book I was getting in the slush as an agent had something to do with the end of the world. Dystopian fiction was all the rage, The Hunger Games were exploding off the shelves, and the Mayans had supposedly hinted that the end times would happen in 2012. (Maybe they did and we are all a dream that one of my pugs, who sleeps pretty much continuously, is having?)
Point being, I saw the same iteration of manuscript over and over:
Kid is arbitrarily chosen to save the world, because the world is definitely ending, usually by a mechanism that is large, ominous, and largely outside of anyone’s control. The phenomenon is either natural (disaster, asteroid, climate collapse, virus, etc.) or manmade (shadowy government forces, global war, etc.).
I’ve written before about the unique challenges of the “chosen one” style of story, where a child is, seemingly, arbitrarily plucked from obscurity to avert global disaster. This is a very tough type of book to pull off, and yet that doesn’t stop pretty much everyone from trying. Basically, it opens up a lot of questions that never seem answered quite to my satisfaction. Why this totally ordinary kid? Why such profound magical powers out of nowhere? If this kid is so special, why haven’t they been groomed for the task from birth? Who decided that this one child, on a planet of 8 billion people, was the only hope?
Structurally, these stories also seem to follow a lot of the same steps, which now seem cliché. A milestone happens and they discover a secret about themselves that reveals a destiny. Then they are thrust into a completely new group of people. Cue meet and greets. Then they have to learn a whole new set of skills. Cue training montages (which contribute to a rather static “muddy middle,” since you can only write a few scenes of learning how to do XYZ before they start to run into one another). There’s a rival and a big challenge, then the character must do the thing they were destined to do. It looks unlikely for a second, and the Earth is splintering apart and shaking, and then, suddenly, they persevere at the last moment and the whole world is saved!
The big issue with these stories, other than their relative sameness, is that the stakes are maybe…too high.
Now, I can imagine you, dear reader, are about to throw your laptop at me. I keep talking about stakes and stakes and stakes and tension and friction and increasing stakes, and then I show up one fine Monday morning to tell you that, well, stakes can be too high. What do I want? Why am I so finicky? Is nothing ever good enough for Little Miss Goldilocks over here?
Hear me out. The issue with most manuscripts is, indeed, that stakes tend to be too low. The action is small, there’s not enough personal investment from the character, and the consequences of each action and plot point are barely registering on the charts. However, the opposite extreme is also problematic. If someone ran down my street right now in their boxer shorts, screaming that the world was ending, I would…shrug? Go to a news website? Call my husband? Throw caution to the wind and eat a whole thing of ice cream? I don’t know. That’s such an improbable event (no matter how many times our imaginations have gone there) that it’s too big to believe.
So selling such high stakes becomes very difficult. You have a lot of convincing to do, starting with the character, then the reader. Is the world really going to end? Readers, by this point, are savvy customers. We know how these types of stories go. And we know that the world ain’t ended yet. And if it was going to, it would probably be turned over to the professionals rather than landing squarely in the lap of a 12-year-old kid.
So should you even bother with an apocalypse story? You can. There’s always something deeply fascinating to humans about the idea of the world exploding or being decimated by virus. I would imagine there are some hastily written zika virus manuscripts popping into agent inboxes right about now. If you still want to do this sort of thing, I would suggest that the kid and the apocalyptic event need to be inextricably tied.
For example, this specific kid needs to match this specific apocalypse in a way that makes them the only possible answer. Let’s say that their mother was a leading climate scientist who was recently kidnapped. Life sucks for the character as they try to put the pieces back together. Then it’s revealed that the reason for the kidnapping was that Mom had just stumbled upon a shadowy government conspiracy to overheat the Middle East in a desperate bid to end the conflict there. But it worked too well, and now the entire planet is in grave danger. Mom is presumed dead, but Kid has his doubts. Worse yet, Mom told Kid some very classified information right before she was taken, almost as if she knew what was going to happen. Now Kid might be the only one to reverse the runaway climate. But, even with the world (theoretically) at stake, Kid has their own skin in the game: to see if Mom is actually alive, and to bring those responsible for the kidnapping to justice.
Apocalypse story. Shadowy government conspiracy. Runaway climate change (giving the story a timely hook). But what do we notice about this premise? It’s not just some random kid. In fact, the kid has deeply personal reasons for springing into action. And averting the apocalypse is almost a byproduct of more intimate, meaningful goals.
That’s what I would suggest doing if your stakes are too high: make them smaller (not in scope, but in terms of intimacy of objective and motivation). Make them more personal. Make it believable that a kid would rise up against huge forces to get what they want, because what they want is very close to their hearts. The stakes stakes can remain huge (there’s still an apocalypse scenario) but their impact on your specific character is what has the power to set you apart in this very crowded category.
This week Kelly and JJ discuss digging deep and finding the will to continue with NaNoWriMo. Also, real talk: we talk about bipolar disorder and depression, and the difference between I Don’t Want To and I Can’t.
Subscribe to us on iTunes, or use this feed to subscribe through your podcast service of choice! If you like us, please leave a rating or review, as it helps other listeners find the podcast. Thanks in advance!
Here’s the thing, y’all: NaNoWriMo is great for getting words on the page, but also remember to be kind to yourself.
Sometimes, terrible things happen to characters. It’s just a fact of fiction.
But as authors, sometimes we want pull back before things get too awful for our sweet, precious characters. Sometimes we want to make things easy because we love them.
My dear writer friends, that is not how our characters grow. Like mama birds shoving their chicks out of the nest to make them fly, we must make everything just awful so their true potential can shine.
Here are a few ways I like to shove my character birdies out of the nest:
Take away something they love.
Give them something they want. Take it away.
Make it impossible for them to have something they want because of their own action/inaction.
Do the opposite of what they want. If they want to go right, force them left.
Make someone else want the thing your character wants so they have to race for it.
Give someone else the thing your character wants.
Use one goal against another in a battle of What’s Most Important?
Destroy the thing they want so that no one can have it. (Cackling encouraged.)
Okay, lots of my ways to ruin lives involve waving what they want in front of them—then snatching it away. That sounds really, really mean, but believe me, properly motivated characters are characters willing to take action. And the closer they get to what they want, the harder they work.
And if the thing they want is gone/impossible to get, the character might have to reach higher for a new goal— something they didn’t know they wanted until everything else was stripped away. Maybe they couldn’t see it before. Maybe their focus was divided.
Don’t limit their goals to one thing, though! Give them a few things to desire, even if they mostly take action toward one thing. Keeping loved ones safe is always a good goal. Going after their personal dreams is another good one. Family and dreams can be good at conflicting with one another. (Sometimes families want characters to be a blacksmith, but the character wants to be a candlemaker! And sometimes characters have to choose between saving the blacksmith family from a tragic goat stampede . . . and going to the chandler convention in the next town over.)
And heck, definitely use combinations of the above list. Don’t limit yourself to one trick. Push until those little character birdies fly.
How else do you like to ruin your characters’ lives motivate your characters to take action?
I’m working with a client on a Synopsis Overhaul right now. Quick plug: If you haven’t checked out my freelance editorial website in a while, I have added this new service, as well as Reader Reports. I won’t bulk up this post by describing them here, but they’re two great options for getting feedback on your novel’s development as or before you write it (in the case of the Synopsis Overhaul) or getting my eyes on your entire manuscript, along with comprehensive notes, but without the investment of a Full Manuscript Edit. Check them out!
There’s a proposed scene in my client’s outline that doesn’t quiiiite work. Of course, she is free to write it and see if she can make it work as she develops her draft, but I had a reservation about it. Basically, her protagonist, let’s call him Sam, does something illogical. The issue is, he has been planning this illogical move for a while. He’s a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, and, for a smart kid in a heavily guarded environment, the plan makes no sense because he should know better, and he would get caught immediately.
But in the manuscript she’s planning, he completely ignores common sense and does his plan anyway. I told her in the synopsis edit that I didn’t buy it. The plan is so foolhardy and out of character, and so improbable in his environment, that I really would struggle believing its feasible. I called it the Improbable Thing.
In writing fiction, we create the fictive dream, right? We create a world and a character and a set of circumstances and actions that function with a certain logic. There’s enough logic there that the reader can suspend disbelief and “go there” with the story. Here, I was having trouble “going there” because my own logic kept calling out that this was too far out to believe.
My client is really attached to this plot point, and she doesn’t want to remove it from the story, which I completely understand. First of all, I’m not going to tell her to axe it at this early juncture. When I work with clients on developing a novel outline, I don’t rule anything out. They are free to write a draft of the novel as they wish, and see if it works. It’s tough to work with just an outline, because I don’t get to really see the manuscript in question. I just get to see its bones. Who knows how the final version could flesh out? But that’s what makes synopsis work exciting! It’s all about possibilities and tweaking things so that the actual manuscript comes into sharper focus.
So, if it’s not fair to say, “Yeah, cut it, it’s a disaster” at this point, then what? How do you work around a plot point or character development that seems improbable? In writing her back about whether or not to axe her beloved plot point, I had a great idea for this post.
If you’re faced with an instance in your story that people aren’t “buying” (or you’re worried they won’t buy), it’s time to think about the context. The present may still be good, but what if you put it in a different wrapper? A brilliant potential solution.
What if, in this case, Sam doesn’t plot the Improbable Thing in advance? He wants to accomplish XYZ, but he doesn’t think that it’s possible. Then, he is in the right place at the right time, and the opportunity to do an Improbable Thing comes up. He only has an instant to think, and so he thinks, “What if this is crazy enough to work?” This could be just the new context my client needs. It accomplishes two things:
First, it adds a layer of impulsiveness to the Improbable Thing. It wouldn’t have worked as a plan, because it makes no sense as a plan (too many holes). But it could totally be sold as a last-ditch, impulsive, emotional effort, and I’d buy it because if Sam is being impulsive, then he’s not thinking clearly.
Second, if Sam is right there saying, “This is too crazy to work, but I have no other choice,” then the reader feels reassured. We see him questioning it, right as we’re questioning it, so the reader and protagonist are on the exact same page! We’re a team! Nobody thinks this could work, which opens up the possibility that…well…maybe it could! It’s that leap that will help the reader suspend disbelief. And then I’m “going there” with Sam instead of rejecting the Improbable Thing.
If there are moments in your manuscript that you’re really struggling to sell, if you think they’re too far out there to make sense with plot or character, but you like or need them, think about context. By changing the wrapper, you can still give the reader the present, it will just be surrounded by a different situation or motivation or expectation. It’s up to you to create that experience and make it believable.
Of course, some things are just not going to be a good fit, no matter how hard you try. But others might just be, well, crazy enough to work, as long as you frame them right.
In 2009, I started researching and experimenting with ways to work less and earn more with my writing. I started out by vowing to work only two days per week.
It worked — and I’ll tell you how in a bit.
Since 2009, my schedule has settled to 30 hours per week or less; more than before because now my son is in school all day, and I really do love what I do and find it hard to keep myself from writing. These days, I generally work from 9-2:30 daily, and often take Fridays off if I can.
And during it all, my freelancing income has gone up by 30%.
Want to know how I did it? Let’s start in 2009.
How I Cut My Work Hours & Still Kept Earning
My goal, when I started the two-day workweek in 2009, was to spend more time with my one-year-old son, have more fun, and do more volunteering. On my days off I would check e-mail just to make sure nothing came up, and if a source could schedule an interview only on one of my days off, I’d do it. But most weeks, I sat down at my desk and worked two days per week.
The first thing I did to cut my hours was quit a time-suck writer’s forum. I could spend hours on there every day because there were so many members that every time I clicked, there was a new message. One day I posted a question about freelancing, and was treated to snarky responses about how I should already know the answer.
Right then, I decided to quit. I had my husband change my password and promise not to reveal it to me. For a couple of days my fingers kept twitching towards the keys that would bring up the forum, but then the urge subsided.
Then, on a roll, I found a free site-blocker app and blocked the other sites I spent a lot of time on, like iCanHasCheezburger.com and Failblog.
Suddenly, I had a ton of free time.
I soon came to realize that a lot of what we freelancers do is busy work. For example, I was in the habit of sending out e-mails to sources or editors in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day alternately clicking on “check e-mail” and surfing the web. Then, at 5, I felt that I’d put in a full day’s work, even though I really only worked for a few minutes and then spent the rest of the day waiting for people to get back to me.
So I stopped doing that. If I sent out e-mails and couldn’t take action until I got a response, I would shut my laptop, go off and do what I wanted to do, and come back later to check. Exact same results, but much less time “working.”
One week I felt stressed about all I had to do: I had several writing assignments on the go and was insistent on working three days that week at the most to get it all done. I asked my life coach for tips, and she said that many of her clients feel they have too much to do, but then when they sit down and actually calculate the hours — or actually do the work — they realize it’s not so much after all. They had just built it up in their minds.
So my goal buddy and I set up what we called a “boot camp” day on one of my work days that week. On boot camp days, my Jennifer and I called each other every hour on the hour to tell each other what we did in the last hour and what we planned to do in the next hour. There were no repercussions if we don’t get the work done, but there’s something about telling someone else what you plan to do that lights a fire under your butt.
And guess what? That day, I got all the work I had been worrying about done in four hours. I didn’t even have to work that third day.
You CAN Set Your Own Hours
Those were some very, very valuable lessons, and after so many years of freelancing, I’ve really realized the full power of the freelance lifestyle — the power to set your own hours and be the master of your own time.
The eight-hour workday is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to envision working less and still earning the same income — but as Tim Ferriss said in The Four-Hour Workweek, isn’t it amazing that all over the world, no matter what job they do, every person needs exactly eight hours a day to get their work done?
We freelancers are not in jobs where we have to be present all the time, like in retail. We can “disappear” and, using the power of technology, still be reachable if a client has an emergency (which they rarely do).
Granted, when I started cutting my hours in 2009 I had already been freelancing for 12 years, so I was past the stage where I had to spend hours each week formulating ideas and pitching. I was in many magazines’ “stables” of writers, so it was easier for me to cut down my hours than it would be for someone just starting out.
But even new writers can probably use their time more efficiently. C’mon, fess up — when you should be writing a query or building your website or working on a book chapter, are you 100% focused on that task or are you taking frequent web-surfing breaks? Do you bang out that pitch or do you procrastinate, yet still feel “busy” because you’re sitting in front of your computer?
Do MORE of What You Love
So what did I do with all this extra time in 2009? Well, I started a local parents’ group that ended up with over 100 members, so I spent a lot of time hanging out with other parents and their babies. I read — a lot. I upped my weight training from two days per week to three. And I did more volunteering for animal welfare causes.
Isn’t that why so many of us decide to go freelance — so we can control our workloads and our hours, and have more time to spend on our families, hobbies, and causes?
Every day I have to pinch myself — I can’t believe that so many years later, I’m still working reduced hours and earning more than ever. I keep thinking that one day, my husband is going to say, “Uh, Linda…we’re broke.” But it hasn’t happened. I’m going to keep up this schedule as long as I can…and the more I do it, the easier it gets.
Your challenge today: Want to work less and earn more as a freelance writer? Find your top five time-wasting activities and find ways to ditch or delegate them.
This post originally ran in 2010 and has been updated to be more helpful to you.
We talk about a lot of things on Pub Crawl – writing craft, the submission process, the editorial process, the industry, and lots of stuff in between. We like to encourage writing by hopefully imparting insight and advice. Lots of people do; bloggers, writers, editors, agents. And at one time or another, you’ve likely seen this advice: Write Every Day. There are no excuses. Do it or you’ll never get better. Practice makes perfect – so practice every single day.
But for many of us, this advice can actually be detrimental to the process because we are going through a different kind of process: Healing. And sometimes, healing means not writing every day, or at all, for a long time. And the biggest key to this is understanding that it’s okay. That your pace may different. That even your writing routine may change. This does not make you less of a writer, nor does it mean you won’t still improve.
Full disclosure: I lost my father in March of this year. I say this not to garner sympathy, but to give some context. It was shocking in many ways, and completely unsurprising in others. But the thing I didn’t expect? How grief really felt, and still feels. How it comes out at strange times, making the rest of your day difficult to get through. It’s a daily struggle, and I am only just beginning to understand that it will be for a long time yet.
The worst of it was, I lost my will to write. For many years, I posted poetry and flash fiction on my blog a couple of times a month. In addition, I did write nearly every day, or revised finished projects, or dashed off a few lines here, a few lines there. A random scene. A conversation between characters. For a long time, I was lucky enough to be full of inspiration.
After March, I still tried to write. But I was dissatisfied with the words, with the content. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure who I was as a writer. What did I even enjoy writing? What stories did I have to tell? Everything was colored by this new way I viewed the world, however slight the difference might have been. I would begin a story, short or long, and see it through to 5,000 words before deciding I wasn’t into it. I’d sit down to dash off a line here, a line there, and end up staring at a blank screen instead.
I read advice that told me to keep writing, to keep doing, to keep practicing OR ELSE. So over and over again I attempted it, and more and more the anxiety over that command made it impossible. And you know what? It wasn’t until I finally allowed myself a break, some time away from the page to actually breathe, that writing finally started to be of interest again several months later. Now, I’m using NaNoWriMo to encourage that interest – but I’m not punishing myself when I don’t hit the word count.
This is not to say I am not still struggling. Every word is harder to write than it used to be, because I’m fighting to understand who I am now versus who I was then. This is the same for those struggling with depression, or even with physical illness. Sometimes the idea that a true writer is one who writes every day, despite the struggle, despite the emotional hardship, is more detrimental to a struggling writer than the idea that we are allowed some time off, or we are allowed to adhere to a schedule that works for us – even if it means not writing daily. We are allowed to back away for a little while, to regroup, to think, to fight.
There is only one “right” way to write, and that is whichever way empowers you as an individual. If the idea of writing is giving you anxiety, remember that it’s okay to take a break if you need one. Writing isn’t going anywhere – it’ll still be there when you’re ready.
I’m certain I’m not alone in this – if you’ve found a way to write through emotional hardships, tell me about it! I’d love to know what you’ve done, or are doing, to find writing in your life again.
I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty:
Between 1996 and 2015 I sent out over 200 magazine queries — each one to multiple publications — and sold somewhere around 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate — or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)
So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? Top magazines like Redbook, Health, USA Weekend, Parenting, and Writer’s Digest? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?
It’s because I was too stubborn to give up.
Even when I was failing most of the time, I kept pitching. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.
So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing:
Rejection isn’t about you.
If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.
When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product? No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.
The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.
It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”
If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from writing, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!
The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. The good news is that the more you pitch, the more immune to rejection you become. Sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true: When you have one magazine query out there, it’s your baby and a rejection can crush you. When you have 50 magazine queries and LOIs out there, a rejection on one of them means you still have 49 more chances.
Now…get out there and pitch today.
This post originally ran in August 2013, and I updated it to make it more useful to you.
Authentic characters are usually modeled after real people. I don’t mean pulling traits and quirks from those we know (say, taking Aunt Judy’s laughter and blending it with the overly-smiley bus driver who takes us to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays). Rather, I’m talking about mirroring the human experience in the fictional world, giving readers a character who has desires they can relate to, and who struggles, fails or succeeds all in turn.
Human experience is also about the push for self-discovery, finding meaning, and achieving worthy goals. Just like real people do, our characters should seek to improve themselves in some way—at work, in personal relationships, spiritually, or through self-growth.
In fiction, the road to what one desires is never easy. Authors want to create a window into this internal life struggle that we all know so well. To do so, we write characters who have flaws–negative qualities that surface at the worst of times, sabotaging their efforts, blocking them from gaining what they want both on a conscious and subconscious level. It’s ironic, really; who they are and what they want are often at odds, making it difficult for them to achieve success.
As you can imagine, choosing the right flaws for a character is really important as they will directly affect character arc and how the story plays out for readers. So let’s look at why flaws become part of who someone is, and where they come from.
Digging Up Backstory: Negative Influencers & Experiences
In real life, who we are now is a direct result of our own past, and so in fiction, we need to look at who our story’s cast were before they stepped onto the doorstep of our novel. Many factors play a part in determining who our characters become, including the way they were raised, their role models, environment, and genetics. And if the character’s world is anything like ours, it’s filled with flawed people because life isn’t a perfect, well-balanced nirvana. And when it comes to the negative experiences or influences, each impart a lesson, and usually not a healthy one.
For example, specific events and long-term exposure to unhealthy ideas, behavioral patterns, and relationships can hamstring a character. An ignorant character, for instance, may be ignorant due to years of poor teaching, or from being sheltered in a way that limited his ability to connect or get along with others. This history of not being taught the whole truth creates a deficiency in his personality that undermines his ability to reach his full potential. An evasive character, on the other hand, may be this way as a result of seeing someone he cared about be taken advantage of by others because they spoke the truth, or they were overly trusting when they should have been on their guard.
While these past situations are important, the most crippling factor—the one that authors should always strive to unearth from their characters’ pasts—is emotional trauma. Old hurts can have a huge impact on our characters, influencing their current behavior. Emotionally painful events like these are called wounds and are profoundly powerful. This defining emotional experience from a character’s past is so debilitating that he’ll do anything to avoid suffering the same kind of pain again. It colors how he views the world and alters what he believes about himself and others. This traumatic experience instills a deep fear that the same hurt will happen again if the character doesn’t protect himself against it.
Physical defects with a lasting psychological effect, such as a crippling illness or disfigurement, can have the same result. In both cases, the mistaken belief that the character must harden himself in order to be emotionally safe is what allows negative traits to emerge.
The Character’s Wound
Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—an untruth that the character believes about himself (or a skewed belief about the world). He may think that he deserved what happened to him, that he’s unworthy of love or affection or happiness, etc. Self-blame and feelings of shame are usually deeply embedded within the lie and it generates fears that compel him to change his behavior in order to keep from being hurt again.
For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love (the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancee from being shot during a robbery (the wound), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women. If he does grow close to someone, he might sabotage the relationship before it can become too serious. He may also avoid situations in which he is responsible for others, believing that he will only fail them in the end.
To use a less dramatic scenario, consider a daughter growing up with a father whose work was more important than his family (the wound). This girl may become a workaholic adult due to her belief that the only way to gain the attention and acceptance of others is through career achievement (the lie). Although she wants a family of her own, she may sacrifice that desire so she can dedicate herself to work. Her health declines, friends become marginalized, and her life revolves only around activities that promote her career, leaving her successful at work but unfulfilled in her heart.
The lie plaguing your character should center on one of five basic human needs:
1) To secure one’s biological and physiological needs
RELATED LIE: I’m not capable of providing for myself or anyone else
2) To keep oneself and one’s family safe
RELATED LIE: I don’t deserve to feel safe
3) To feel connected to and loved by others
RELATED LIE: I am not worthy of love or affection
4) To gain esteem, both from others and from oneself
RELATED LIE: I can’t do anything right
5) To realize one’s full potential
RELATED LIE: I’ll never be a good ____ (parent, employee, friend, etc.)
Many secondary flaws result organically from one’s upbringing or environment rather than birthing violently from a traumatic wound, but a character’s major flaw should always be traced back to a defining hurtful experience. This flaw will compromise his path to achieving his dreams and prevent him from reaching his full potential. It is this weakness that the character will eventually have to overcome by revisiting the past and coming to terms with his old wound.
Wounds are powerful, both in real life and in fiction. Taking the time to probe you’re character’s past to find their emotional pain will help you better understand what motivates them and how they will behave when crises arise and choices must be made. One tool to help with understanding a character’s past, motivation, emotional sensitivities and more is the Reverse Backstory Tool. Full guidelines are in the Negative Trait Thesaurus, and a downloadable chart can be found HERE. Also, the Emotional Wound Thesaurus is a treasure trove of ideas for wounds, and serve as great examples for how much a wound will alter you’re character’s behavior.
Does your hero have a wound? What fear does it mask? What lie does the character believe about himself as a result? Let me know in the comments!
Before you go…
Today is the last day to get your hands on free One Stop For Writers passes. Imagine having One Stop at your side during NaNoWrimo…you would be unstoppable, a demon with a keyboard!
So why not try to win 10 passes for your NaNoWriMo Group, and be the Superhero of November? 100 passes are up for grabs and all the details are right here…good luck!
Did you know that talking to yourself can be really helpful? It’s true! Researchers have long known that positive self-talk can be an incredibly helpful tool. The power of positive self-talk is something that… Continue reading →
It’s NaNoWriMo Season, and that means a ton of writers are planning their novels. Or, at the very least (in the case of you pantsers) thinking about their novel.
Whether you plot or pants, if you don’t want to end up in No Man’s Land halfway to 50K, it is often helpful to have a solid foundation of ideas about your book. So, let’s look at the biggie of a novel: Character Arc. If you plot, make some notes, copious notes! If you pants, spend some time mulling these over in the shower leading up to November 1st. Your characters will thank you for it!
Are you excited? I hope so. You’re about to create a new reality!
Can you imagine it, that fresh page that’s full of potential? Your main character is going to…um, do things…in your novel. A great many things! Exciting things. Dangerous things. There might even be a giant penguin with lasers shooting out of its eyes, who knows?
But here’s a fact, my writing friend…if you don’t know WHY your protagonist is doing what he’s doing, readers may not care enough to read beyond a chapter or two.
The M word…Motivation
It doesn’t matter what cool and trippy things a protagonist does in a story. If readers don’t understand the WHY behind a character’s actions, they won’t connect to him. We’re talking about Motivation, something that wields a lot of power in any story. It is the thread that weaves through a protagonist’s every thought, decision, choice and action. It propels him forward in every scene.
Because of this, the question, What does my character want? should always be in the front of your mind as you write. More importantly, as the author, you should always know the answer.
Outer Motivation – THE BIG GOAL (What does your character want?)
Your character must have a goal of some kind, something they are aiming to achieve. It might be to win a prestigious award, to save one’s daughter from kidnappers, or to leave an abusive husband and start a new life. Whatever goal you choose, it should be WORTHY. The reader should understand why this goal is important to the hero or heroine, and believe they deserve to achieve it.
Inner Motivation – UNFULFILLED NEEDS (Why does the protagonist want to achieve this particular goal?)
Fiction should be a mirror of real life, and in the real world, HUMAN NEEDS DRIVE BEHAVIOR. Yes, for you psychology majors, I am talking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Physical needs, safety and security, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization are all part of what it is to be human.
If you take one of these needs away, once the lack is felt strongly enough, a person will be DRIVEN to gain it back. The need becomes so acute it can no longer be ignored–it is a hole that must be filled.
If someone was threatening your family (safety and security) what might you do to keep loved ones safe? If each day you went to a workplace where you were treated poorly by your boss (esteem), how long until you decide to look for a new job? These needs are real for us, and so they should be real for our characters. Ask yourself what is missing from your character’s life. Why do they feel incomplete? The story becomes their journey to fill this lack.
Outer Conflict – THE WHO or WHAT (that stands in the way of your hero achieving his goal)
If your story has an antagonist or villain, you want to spend some solid time thinking about who they are, why they’re standing in the hero’s way, and what motivates them to do what they do.
The reason is simple…the stronger your antagonist is, the harder your hero must work to defeat him. This also means the desire of achieving the goal must outweigh any hardship you throw at your hero, otherwise he’ll give up. Quit. And if he does, you’ll have a Tragedy on your hands, not the most popular ending.
Our job as authors is to challenge our heroes, and create stakes high enough that quitting isn’t an option. Often this means personalizing the stakes, because few people willingly put their head in an oven. So make failure not an option. Give failure a steep price.
The problem is that with most stories, to fight and win, your character must change. And change is hard. Change is something most people avoid, and why? Because it means taking an honest look within and seeing one’s own flaws. It means feeling vulnerable…something most of us seek to avoid. This leads us to one of the biggest cornerstones of Character Arc.
Inner Conflict – The STRUGGLE OVER CHANGE (an internal battle between fear and desire, of staying chained to the past or to seek the future)
To achieve a big goal, it makes sense that a person has to apply themselves and attack it from a place of strength, right? Getting to that high position is never easy, not in real life, or in the fictional world. In a novel, the protagonist has to see himself objectively, and then be willing to do a bit of housecleaning.
What do I mean by that?
Characters, like people, bury pain. Emotional wounds, fears, and vulnerability are all shoved down deep, and emotional armor donned. No one wants to feel weak, and when someone takes an emotional hit after a negative experience, this is exactly what happens. They feel WEAK. Vulnerable.
The Birth of Flaws
What is emotional armor? Character Flaws. Behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that a character adopts as a result of a wounding event. Why does this happen? Because flaws minimize expectations and keep people (and therefore their ability to cause further hurt) at a distance. But in doing so, flaws create dysfunction, damage the protagonist’s relationships and prevent his personal growth. And due to their negative nature, flaws also tend to get in the way, tripping the character up and prevent him from success.
Facing Down Fear
Fear, a deeply rooted one, is at the heart of any flaw. The character believes that the same painful experience (a wound or wounds) will happen again if unchecked. This belief is a deeply embedded fear that blinds them to all else, including what is holding them back from achievement and happiness.
To move forward, the protagonist must see his flaws for what they are: negative traits that harm, not help. He must choose to shed his flaws and face his fears. By doing this, he gains perspective, and views the past in a new light. Wounds no longer hold power. False beliefs are seen for the untruths they are. The character achieves insight, internal growth, and fortified by this new set of beliefs, is able to see what must be done to move forward. They finally are free from their fear, and are ready to make the changes necessary to achieve their goal.
Why Does Character Arc Hold Such Power Over Readers?
This evolution from “something missing” to “feeling complete” is known as achieving personal growth in real life, which is why readers find Character Arc so compelling to read about. As people, we are all on a path to becoming someone better, someone more whole and complete, but it is a journey of a million steps. Watching a character achieve the very thing we all hope to is very rewarding, don’t you think?
Need a bit more help with some of the pieces of Character Arc? Try these:
Welcome to One Stop For Writers’ launch week. Have you entered to WIN one of seven 1-Year Subscriptions to One Stop For Writers, or the Pay-it-forward Education Gift for a workshop seat in writing coach Jami Gold’s terrific online class (ending today)?
Also, don’t forget to snag a special Launch week code giving you 50% off ANY PLAN at One Stop For Writers.
As you can imagine with an online library, there are many nooks and crannies to explore. One of my favorite places is up in The Stacks where we keep our Templates and Worksheets. (click to enlarge)
Pictured above is the Character Fears Template. By following the prompts, you brainstorm a character’s secrets, failures, greatest mistakes, relationship issues, wounding events, situations he avoids, the lies he believes, etc. so it uncovers the thing he fears most…which, in Character Arc, is the very thing he must face and defeat to become whole and achieve his objective or goal.
Templates are easy to use. You can fill them out right at One Stop and the information transforms into a helpful “wheel” showing how everything ties together. This is terrific for planning and plotting, and will also help keep you focused on your character’s motivation in each scene. Once a Template is created, you can save and access it onsite, or export it to your computer for printing. Try creating one for each character in your book!
(We’re also building new ones as we go, so if you have an idea for a template or worksheet that you’d really like to see, make sure to submit your Wishlist Idea through the CONNECT button at One Stop.)
If you aren’t a member yet, don’t worry! You can register at any time for free and poke around. Go check out the Templates and Worksheets for yourself, and see what you think!
I was so happy to be able to talk with Lori Deschene. As the founder of Tiny Buddha, she’s helped more than 1,200 people (including me!) share their stories and lessons with more than 60 million readers (as of June, 2015). She’s the author of Tiny Buddha: Simple Wisdom for Life’s Hard Questions, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself, and her newest release: Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges.
Lori, I know you’ve written for girls’ magazines, and many of The Renegade Writer’s readers want to write for magazines themselves. How did you get into that?
I found my first magazine writing opportunity on Craigslist in the gigs section—something that doesn’t happen all that often! I didn’t actually have much professional writing experience at that time, but I did have the right experience.
The magazine was a new middle grade publication, for girls aged eight to twelve, and they were looking for witty, upbeat articles on friendship, self-esteem, and surviving embarrassing moments.
Prior to finding this opportunity, I’d worked in mobile marketing, taking promotional campaigns from city to city. My last tour was a walk across the country to promote a variety of health and fitness-related products. As the tour’s dog walker, I wrote a “dog blog” that chronicled my canine companion’s adventure.
These were all light, funny posts that fit the exact tone the magazine was looking for. They loved my writing samples and hired me to write an article for the first issue, which led to more than a dozen more.
Eventually, I submitted some of those articles to a bigger, more established middle-grade magazine and went on to contribute over fifty articles and quizzes.
I also wrote for a real estate magazine briefly that, once again, I found on Craigslist. It was also a new magazine, and I don’t actually know much about real estate. But I was looking to build a body of work, and I was open to any opportunities I could find!
In retrospect, I realize I could have been more proactive and targeted. I could have identified more magazines that I wanted to write for instead of taking any writing gig I could find on Craigslist (including a job writing travel guides for $6/hour).
But I think there’s something to be said for being hungry, and being willing to take whatever you can get to hone your craft and build your resume.
Then you started the Tiny Buddha site. What inspired you to do that?
Prior to starting the site, I’d spent more than a decade struggling with depression, bulimia, shame, and self-loathing. For years I felt alone with my challenges—like no one knew me, and no one would love me if they did.
After making tremendous progress with my personal struggles, I wanted to create a place where people could share what they’ve been through and what they’ve learned, to help themselves and others.
My hope was that this would help readers feel less alone with their challenges and more empowered to overcome them. And though I didn’t realize this at the time, I eventually recognized that starting Tiny Buddha was a big part of my own healing journey.
There’s something cathartic about leveraging your pain for something useful and valuable—and there’s little more valuable than making a positive difference in someone else’s life.
How has the Tiny Buddha blog helped your career? Do you earn money from the blog through ads, selling books…?
I earn money from a combination of:
I’m also planning to launch some products soon, including journals, gratitude journals, and calendars.
I launched my first eBook roughly a year after the site launched, and it sold regularly, but I was still working another full-time online writing job. I also dabbled with blog coaching and blog review reports—something I didn’t really love and only did briefly.
It really wasn’t until the three-year mark that I felt comfortable depending solely on Tiny Buddha for my livelihood. In retrospect, I’m glad I never felt pressure to earn a specific amount from the site. If I had felt that pressure, I may have said yes to opportunities that didn’t feel right for me.
There are a lot of ways to make money online, or to leverage your online presence to make money. Not all are good for each of us individually — or for our brands.
I also see you have a forum, a widget that lets people post quotes from the site on their websites, and much more. You accept guest posts, do blog tours… that all sounds like a lot of work! How difficult is it really to start and run a successful blog? I think so many writers believe they can just start a WordPress site and start posting their thoughts, and the readers (and money) will come flying in.
It is a lot of work! And I’ve been feeling that a lot more lately, as I don’t have an assistant or any employees. That being said, it wasn’t always a lot of work.
When I first got started, I devoted just a few hours each day to running the site. At the time, it was just a quote and blog feed, and I wrote very short posts (some of which, I now realize, weren’t all that compelling).
If I’d thought to myself back then, “I have to build a site with forums, daily guest contributors, a fun & inspiring section, multiple books, a widget, an eCourse…” I likely would have felt too overwhelmed to start. But I’ve added layers to the site over time.
I think the most important thing is that you show up each day and do something. You remain consistent and keep learning.
This guarantees that you’ll keep growing, slowly, bit by bit, over time.
Writers are always asking me, “I want to start a blog, but I don’t know what to write about.” I think you’re living proof that you don’t decide to start a blog and then cast about for a topic…you have something burning in you that you want to share so much that it can sustain thousands of posts and years of work. Do you agree?
Yes, absolutely! This comes back to what I wrote before, about having a mission. You have to have a compelling “why” behind your blog—some reason you have to explore this topic. Otherwise, you likely won’t have a reason to stick with it if and when progress seems slow. And you’re absolutely right—you likely won’t be able to write for years on the topic.
Every now and then, someone submits a post to Tiny Buddha starting with “I wasn’t sure what to write about this week…” Those are usually the least compelling posts because it’s clear the writer was looking for something to say, as opposed to having something to say.
If you don’t have something you have to say, readers won’t feel compelled to listen.
What are your top three tips for writers on how to build a successful blog?
I believe you need all three to build and maintain an audience—you need to deliver with consistency, solve problems readers are facing, and reveal your own humanity in doing so.
2. Foster a sense of community.
We all want to be part of something larger than ourselves, and we want to be where other people are congregating and connecting.
The first step in building a community is to have a compelling reason for its existence. People can “hang out” on any site—why yours specifically? What’s the movement they’re joining?
Is it a group of people committed to changing the world through meaningful work? Is it a group committed to sharing themselves vulnerably and learning from each other? When you have a strong mission for your site, community engagement becomes more than comments on isolated posts. It becomes about people supporting each other in working toward a common goal.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to end posts with questions. And if you can involve the community in a post in any way, that always helps.
Formerly, I asked questions on Facebook (such as “How do you help people who won’t help themselves?”) and then incorporated the responses into posts. I’ve also asked readers to submit pictures and videos for different purposes. An involved community is an engaged community!
3. Focus on building relationships.
Behind the most popular blogs you’ll find people who weren’t afraid to reach out to more established bloggers to learn from them, and to other new bloggers to work with them.
This might mean asking to guest post on a larger site to introduce new readers to your blog. It might mean working on a product with another blogger to launch to both of your communities simultaneously. It might mean building a blog support network with lots of bloggers in the same niche.
The more people you connect with, the greater the odds your blog will grow. And the more people you help, the more people will want to help you.
And you’re the author of three traditionally published books too! How did you get into writing books? Did you find an agent, or were you approached by one? Did you have to write a proposal?
I first started working on a proposal a year after I launched the site, and I sent that to an agent who’d reached out to me. He wasn’t thrilled with my idea, but he gave me some feedback that helped me come up with a new one. Shortly after, a small publisher contacted me after seeing me speak at a conference.
The most helpful advice I got when writing my first proposal was to ask myself, “Why would readers buy this book from me specifically?” My first idea was something anyone could have written, and I didn’t have anything in my background that would have positioned me as an authority on this topic.
Each of my three books makes sense from me specifically, because they’re all extensions of Tiny Buddha, including both my own personal experience and insights from the community.
So you’ve written for magazines, and you run a blog AND write books. Do you find there’s some value for writers in diversifying? If so, what is it?
I’ve enjoyed the variety because I find it more stimulating—and challenging. Whereas I could write a blog post in a couple hours, a book is clearly a long-term project. And it’s something that’s far more involved, especially when you’re working with dozens of contributors, like I do.
There’s also a certain level of satisfaction that comes from stretching yourself and trying to do something new. Especially if you’re writing about the same topic every day or every other day, it can help tremendously to mix things up.
What are your top two tips for writers who would like to write traditionally published books?
Aside from answering the question “Why me for this book?”:
Get an agent with success in your niche.
While you could send your proposal to smaller publishers without representation, an agent knows what makes a strong proposal, and which publishers would be best for your book. As I mentioned before, I’ve gotten a book deal with and without one, and the latter was a far superior experience, on every level, and totally worth the money.
Create a solid marketing plan for your proposal.
Publishers are looking to work with authors who can sell books. If you have an established platform, great! If not, do you know any other high-profile bloggers who will help promote your book? Are you willing to invest your money in a book trailer, a blog tour, or a publicist? Do you have any ideas for creative social media campaigns?
Since the Tiny Buddha blog is all about topics like happiness, motivation, inspiration, and letting go…I’d like to talk about two emotions writers feel a lot — fear and stress. Do you have any advice for writers on getting over their fears of rejection, failure, and even success so they can start pitching and writing?
As someone who’s pursued both theater and writing—two incredibly competitive industries—I know all about rejection! Three things that have helped me are:
Not taking rejection personally.
It can be tough to do this when you put your heart into your writing. But agents and publishers aren’t rejecting you. They’re rejecting the idea—and at that specific time.
There are plenty of times when contributors submit posts to Tiny Buddha and they’re very similar to posts I’ve recently accepted. That actually means they’re strong posts, but my job as a site editor is to offer variety and look for varied themes and perspectives.
I always encourage writers to submit again. Not all editors do this, but submit again anyways.
Think of it as a numbers game.
When I worked as a telemarketer, I knew that every twenty calls would likely lead to one sale. Knowing this made it easier to face those nineteen rejections because I knew I was getting closer to closing a deal.
It’s not quite the same with writing, but it can help tremendously to think of every “no” as one step closer to a “yes.” Challenge the belief that “no” is proof you’re not good enough. If you need a reason to believe you can still succeed, despite rejection, check out this article or this one or this one.
Realize you have far more options now than writers once did.
If you have something to say, you can find a way to put it out there. You can start a blog. You can write an eBook. You can self-publish a print book. And if you do self-publish a print book, you could then leverage that to get a deal with a traditional publisher. (I know several authors who’ve done this!)
We’re fortunate to have so many options available us writers today. Knowing this somehow takes the sting out of rejection because you know that no isolated rejection can crush your dream, or prevent you from honing your craft and getting your work out there.
I absolutely hate sending rejection emails because I’m both sensitive and empathetic, and I never want anyone to think I don’t admire and respect both them and their work. If I’ve rejected posts from the same writer a few times, I might offer extra feedback and end the email with “I hope I’m not discouraging you!”
Not too long ago, a writer responded, “No worries—you’re not! I have a whole list of sites I submit to, so I’ll just submit this to one of them.”
It’s something I’ll remember next time I’m feeling rejected. There are other sites. There are other magazines. There are lots of other ways to get my work out there.
And stress…we writers feel that a lot! We’re running our butts off pitching, interviewing, networking, writing. We have tons of deadlines, client demands, and other stressors. How can writers become more calm and centered so they can work more productively?
The best advice I can offer any writer is to get out of your head. There were many times in the past when I sat at my computer for ten+ hours, when on a deadline, with only short breaks to eat or use the restroom. This was a surefire path to stress and burnout!
I used to think taking a break for a walk or a quick meditation was wasting time, but I’ve since learned than fifteen to thirty rejuvenating minutes are actually huge time savers. I come back to my work refreshed, recharged—and in some cases, particularly if I’ve been in nature, inspired.
Then I have much calmer, and much more positive energy, to bring to my work.
Doing something childlike, like hopping on a swing
Dancing to your favorite music and releasing pent up energy
Tell us about your latest book, Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges. What inspired you to write it, and where can readers buy the book?
As someone who’s felt alone at various points in my life, I understand the value of strong relationships. I also know we’re living in an increasingly disconnected world, despite being more connected than ever.
We all need to feel seen, valued, appreciated, and loved. We’re social creatures, and we need to feel like we belong, like people get us and will be there for us. We also need to know people trust us and depend on us to be there for them.
Of course, these things are far more easily said than done. Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges can help.
The book offers a year’s worth of simple daily challenges to help people give more love in their relationships, treat themselves more lovingly, and put more love into the world.
Some of the challenges are active, some are reflective, some involve having conversations with other people, and some are writing exercises.
Each month has a different theme, including:
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Compassion and Understanding
Authenticity and Vulnerability
Releasing Anger and Forgiving
Attention and Listening
Honesty and Trust
Kindness and Thoughtfulness
Acceptance and Non-Judgment
Releasing Comparisons and Competition
Support and Encouragement
Admiration and Appreciation
Giving and Receiving
And every week starts with a relevant story or two from members of the Tiny Buddha community, illustrating the power of applying these principles in daily life.
The challenges are all little things, and some might seem simple, but the simplest things are often the hardest to do consistently—like putting your phone down and giving someone your full attention, or looking a stranger in the eye and smiling.
Relationships have never been my strong suit, but I feel much closer to people, and much better equipped to give them the love they deserve, since incorporating these tiny actions into my daily life.
That means you’re writing one query that you’ll be sending, tweaking as necessary, to multiple publications at the same time.
If you already have your query written, then it’s no skin off your nose to send it to one more magazine. It will take you only a few extra minutes to research the editor’s contact information and tweak the query as needed. If it ends up the pub doesn’t use freelancers, or doesn’t have the space for your idea, or doesn’t pay, then you’ve only wasted a few minutes — and your query is still under consideration by a group of other editors.
No problem, right?
And get this: If your idea is even a somewhat close match for the magazine (which it is, right?), you’re probably ahead of 90% of the pitches they get. I once heard a Family Circle editor tell writers that they shouldn’t pitch her articles on the sex life of frogs. She said that because people do it.
Let the editor say Yes.
You need to research a magazine only enough that you can be reasonably sure your idea will fit in it.
What you don’t need to do is spend hours poring over back issues and guidelines trying to figure out why your idea won’t work. Why spend all that time and effort thinking of reasons not to send a query?
Instead, give the editor a say. Editors are smart. They know a lot more than you do about their magazine and their audience.
And only the editor can know if, say, he’s about to start a new department where your pitch would fit perfectly, or he was just wishing he had an article on X (with X being your idea), or one of his freelancers just flaked and he needs another good writer pronto.
Or maybe your pitch will be so wonderful that the editor will make an exception for you. Carol Tice and I had one student in our recent Pitch Clinic class who sent a Letter of Introduction to a business she wanted to blog for. Here’s part of the response she got.
Ordinarily we do not accept guest posts, as they are almost always short and shallow. We receive numerous requests daily, but only post two or three per year. However, your email is better than most and touches on a few points that interest me.
We pay our writers and they work on assignment. Our top writer is off on baby leave so I’m looking for a backup. A few candidates are in the wings, but I’d like to try an article from you, if our terms are suitable to you.
This can only happen to you if you go ahead and pitch.
You don’t necessarily want to sell your idea.
Guess what? The goal of a pitch is not necessarily to get an assignment.
Well, of COURSE you would like to get an assignment. But what often happens is that your query or LOI doesn’t quite make the cut — say, the publication already has a similar article in the works — but the editor is so impressed by your pitch that she invites you to pitch again, or even assigns you a different article.
The goal of a pitch is to start building a relationship with a client.
If you hold off on pitching because you’re not fully, absolutely, 100% sure your ideas are a good match, then you’re missing out on the opportunity to start a conversation with an editor who may want to hire you down the road.
Your pitch shows what you can do. It shows you have great ideas, can write well, and are professional. Even if it’s not a perfect match, it can lead to assignments.
So the next time you find yourself spending hours researching magazines looking for excuses cut yourself out of the running, stop.
Stephen Guise is the author of the new book How to Be an Imperfectionist, and I was excited to be able to interview him for The Renegade Writer…because we writers often let perfectionism keep us from getting out work out there.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
The difference between chance and failure
How confidence = comfort
Why quantity is more important than quality
The perceived benefits of perfectionism
How setting the bar low can actually help you get more freelance writing jobs
Also…when I asked Stephen for a “cover image,” he misunderstood and sent me a headshot. I decided I’m totally going to include it as eye candy for the ladies!
Enjoy — and feel free to pass these files around to your writer friends!
P.S. Carol Tice and I are offering the audit version of our 4-Week J-School RIGHT NOW! Cart closes on July 30, which is two days from today. Want to gain the skills and confidence to land — and write — lucrative article assignments? Check out the success stories from our previous students on the J-School page. Work at your own pace…your access never ends!
Are You a Writing Fangirl…Or a REAL Writer? 7 Ways to Tell
We writers can spend hours every day thinking, dreaming, talking, and ruminating about writing. We love what we do!
But when we use these activities (and I’m loathe to even call them “activities”) as substitutes for actually writing…that’s a problem. We leave the realm of serious writer and enter the realm of — fanfolk.
And it’s a sneaky problem, because geeking out over all things writing feels like we’re being productive. We call it brainstorming, networking, getting motivated, whatever. But what it is not, is WRITING. Oh yeah, and MARKETING. And otherwise getting off our butts and going after, and completing, paying writing assignments.
(Caveat: I’m not saying we’re not allowed to have fun, kill time, and kibitz on writers’ forums. It’s when these time-wasters placate us into feeling productive — or we’re more interested in the trappings of a writer than in writing itself — that there’s a problem. )
Seven Signs You’re a Writing Fanboy/Girl:
1. You wear your Grammar Police badge with pride.
Writing forums, email discussion boards for writers, and blog comments are full of posts like these:
My client just sent me an email where he used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’! *headdesk*
Look at the typo in this newspaper headline! What is journalism coming to these days?
Hey, blogger…you call yourself a writer? There’s a word missing in the second paragraph.
Pointing out/kvetching about other writers’ grammar mistakes make you FEEL good because hey, you don’t make mistakes like that so clearly you’re a superior writer. But is it getting you more gigs? Is it getting more writing out of you? Or is it simply wasting energy you could be using to get more assignments?
The person who made the typo is writing. What are YOU doing?
I have a guest post on the MakeaLivingWriting.com blog that goes into much, much more details on why you want to pit away your Grammar Police badge. (With 177 comments…clearly a hot button topic!)
2. You give a crap that The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play. (And you know that it has 1,787 words.)
Look on almost any writers’ forum and you’ll see long threads where writers discuss their favorite pen (who writes in pen anymore?), post interesting factoids about Shakespeare, share motivational quotes from Hemingway, and hash out the details of the latest plagiarism/book banning/angry-author-screwed-by-publisher case.
I call these “fanboy writer posts.” These writer trivia posts show you’re a big fan of all things writing…but do they actually count as writing?
3. You’re a member of 10 writing organizations.
Here’s your email sig line:
Jane Smith, Wordsmith Extraordinaire
National Writers Union
Science Writers of America
Mystery Writers Association
Medial Journalists’ Society
East Podunk Stitch & Bitch Writing Club
Romance Writers of America
[Add five more here]
Guess what? Editors and potential clients do not look at this list and say, “Wow. She must be a serious writer. Let’s hire her!”
Being a member of (most) writers’ associations does not prove that you are a writer. If you shell out your $150, you can get in. Even if you’ve never written a word in your life!
Join the organizations that pertain to the exact type of writing you’re actually doing. Not the genres you wish you were in, or the ones you think will impress people. And only join if you plan to be active in the group (which includes — wait for it — writing.)
4. You are the proud owner of a vast collection of quill pens.
Many writers love the trappings of writing more than the actual act of writing itself. So we see aspiring writers posting photos of their collection of mugs with writerly sayings; getting/talking about/comparing/sharing on social media their tattoos of Remington typewriters; collecting recycled-paper, leather-bound journals (just for looking at, natch); and strolling the aisles of Office Depot coveting the fancy pens.
Anyone looking at you, with your exclamation point tattoo and “Writer at Work” doorknob hanger, would think you are a writer. But…are you actually writing? Don’t delude yourself: A collection of quill pens does not a writer make.
5. You take writing classes you don’t need.
Wait a minute…did I just say that? Maybe I’m shooting myself in the foot because I teach a ton of classes for writers here—but seen too many writers take class after class in order to avoid having to actually pitch and write.
(Many instructors LOVE students like that…they pay good money, don’t do the work, and the instructor gets something for nothing.)
A multitude of certificates from writing classes is the sign of an insecure writer who always thinks she needs to know more before getting started — or the sign of fanfolk who love showing off their creds more than they do actually writing.
Yes, take a class to learn the skills you’re lacking, whether it’s writing the perfect pitch, running a writing business, or crafting an article that will sell. Then…go out and do that thing. That’s what makes you a real writer. If you come to a a roadblock because you need more skills, THEN you can take more classes.
This goes for free classes, too. Just about everyone with something to sell online offers a free class/instructional webinar/training call to get people on their email lists. It’s tempting to try them all! But unless you need that exact skill right now, you can hold off until you do.
6. You love books.
Writers love spending lots of time on Goodreads reviewing books. And weighing in on the latest literary controversies (is The Goldfinch crap or not?) And discussing On Writing and Writing Down the Bones and The Artist’s Way. And bragging about how many books they have in their homes. (I have over 1,000 books! Oh yeah? Well, I have 1,500. Here’s a photo to prove it!)
But the fact that you have a library overflowing with books, a shelf full of writing manuals, and 500 Goodreads reviews (especially of those writing manuals!) does not show you’re a writer. You talk a good game, but do you have the ass-in-seat-time to prove it? Serious writers with limited time use their time to — write.
7. You call yourself a “scribe” or “wordsmith” on your business card.
You are not a scribe, and you’re not a wordsmith. These terms bring to mind unpaid writers jotting down poems for the love of it — or monks copying Bible passages. (My editor at a writing magazine kept changing the word “writer” to “scribe” in my articles and it drove me batshit crazy…as much as I loved this editor!)
You are a serious, well-paid businessperson who offers writing as a valuable service. Right?
So: Are you a fanboy/girl or REAL writer? And if you say you’re a real writer: Prove it today by shutting down the forums, putting away the writing manuals, resisting the urge for one more class or one more writing group membership…and writing.
P.S. All the e-books for writers in the Renegade Writer Store (except one) are Pay What You Want until Friday…this is an experiment, and if we like the way it goes, we’ll make this a permanent change. That means, at least for right now, YOU choose how much you’d like to pay for each book (with a minimum of $1 each). SO far we’ve had about 300 orders, most containing multiple books. Some writers are picking up EVERY book at $1 each, some are buying just a couple at a higher price, and some are in between. Have fun!
Happy Friday, everyone! To go along with Stacey’s post about submissions, this is a repost from my blog, a silly little song filk I hope some of you—especially those submerged in the submission swamp—might enjoy.
Last summer, when I was on submission with my novel to publishers, I remember being in complete and utter agony with the not knowing and not being in control. There’s a lot written about the query trenches throughout the blogosphere, but not a lot of space is given over to being on submission.
Part of that is because unlike querying, the experience of being on submission varies widely from individual to individual, so it’s hard to generalize. Another part is that being of sub is pretty much entirely out of your hands. Once your manuscript is on the desk of an editor, there is literally NOTHING you can do to influence the outcome. It doesn’t make for easy, digestible blog posts. Query tips are relatively easy to give, but there is no advice you can give to someone on sub, save Patience, young Skywalker.
And that advice sucks.
Being on sub is a bit like being the awkward middle schooler at a junior high school dance. Pick me, pick me! Sometimes you’re the first on the dance floor. Sometimes you’re left the self-conscious wallflower. Junior high—and publishing—can sometimes be cold and capricious.
I find the best thing to do in these sorts of situations is laugh them off. It’s either laugh, or cry, right? I’d rather a good chuckle than anguished sobs, so in order to distract myself, I rewrote the lyrics to “Agony” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods.1
If you aren’t familiar with the song:
Did I confuse them
With my rabid, insane,
Don’t I amuse them
With my witty, urbane,
Beyond power of speech!
When the contract you want
Is the only thing out of your reach.
Here in my tower,
I sit by the hour
Awaiting the Call.
The one that will save me
And soon validate me
In the eyes of them all:
All those agents are jerks!
Low esteem, insecurity
Are affecting my work!
Oh the torment, the stress!
Why can’t they just buy me—
How could they deny me—
They don’t know what is best!
Am I not lyrical,
Ahead of my time?
I am everything agents could wish for!
Then why no—
Then why no—
They all must be mad!
You know nothing of madness
Till you’re tearing your hair.
As you open email,
Yes, refreshing it,
Always refreshing it,
Though it’s different for each.
Always ten trends behind—
Always telling you no—
And the dream is just out of your reach.
I must have a book deal!
Okay, so I went ahead and decide to record the cover for funsies. Apologies for inflicting my voice on y’all. This song is not in my range.
At the point I had written this, the Disney movie version hadn’t come out yet. I have…Thoughts about it, but the “Agony” scene with Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine is definitely the best—and maybe the only worthwhile—scene in the entire film. ↩