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As writers know, the goal of any book is to make the reader FEEL. We want them to empathize with our characters, feel pulled in by the events and become immersed in the story. When a reader’s experience is emotional, it becomes meaningful, transcending mere entertainment.
Characters are the emotional heart of a story. Why? Because through them, writers can remind readers of their own emotional past. It becomes an intimate, shared experience that bonds them together.
Sure, readers have probably never been terrorized by a serial killer, vampire or demon in their own lives, but they know what it is to feel terror. Likewise, a roguish yet handsome highwayman has likely not pursued them in a roar of love and lust, yet they know what love and lust feel like.
As people, we have an unending spectrum of emotional experiences. We know sorrow and confusion, humiliation, fear and pride. We have experienced satisfaction, confidence, worry and dread. As writers, it is up to us to convey these feelings through our characters so that our description awakens deep and meaningful memories within readers.
Showing what a character is feeling can be difficult for writers. Here are 3 tips to help ensure readers share the character’s emotional ride:
1) Prime your readers
Spend a bit of time early on showing what has led to your character’s emotional sensitivity. Let’s say themes of betrayal are key to your book & the character’s ‘dark moment.’ If you alluded to a past betrayal by the main character’s mother in a scene before this point, then your heroine seeing an old toy from her childhood will become an instant trigger for those past feelings.
2) Focus on what causes the emotional reaction
Sometimes the best way to bring about an emotional moment is to describe what is causing the feeling. For example, let’s say Alexa likes Ethan, the boy next door. She is trying to work up the courage to show him she wants to be more than friends when she spots her rival Jessica at his locker. If you describe how Jessica touches his arm when she laughs, steps closer as he speaks, fiddles with her low necklace to draw his attention to her cleavage, etc. then your reader will feel that jealousy build even without showing Alexa’s thoughts or physical cues.
3) Think about how you might feel
If you are drawing a blank on how to show what your character is feeling, think about how the emotion you’re trying to describe makes you feel. Dig into your past to a time you felt embarrassed, or angry, frustrated, excited…whichever emotion is the one your character is currently facing. What sort of thoughts went through your head? What did your body do? Did you openly show how you felt through gestures and body language, or did you try to hide it? Then, decide if some of your experience can be adapted to your character. Emotion is strongest when it comes from a place of truth.
Just a reminder: This series is not an Outline How-to; this is more appropriately looked at as a version of the Character Q&A. Some writers like to ask their characters twenty questions. Some like to jump right in to the story. This series is just one method of character and premise development.
So, with that in mind, let’s jump into the last section of this series!
Now, I’ve saved this chunk for last because structurally, your book should answer these “questions”, as I’ll call them, in a linear fashion.
To recap a bit, you’ve already determined your character’s weakness, what they look like as a changed person, and the moral choice they must make at the end. Now we must determine just how the character gets to that moral choice.
It begins with a desire. What your character wants, what propels the plot and provides a catalyst for the entire story. Maybe your character wants to save a friend/a lover/a parent from an evil dictator. Maybe your character wants a degree in Astronomy from a prestigious university. Maybe your character wants to confess his love for the girl of his dreams.
Note: This is called a desire because it’s not necessarily the same as what your character need. The desire is the superficial goal. It’s what your character thinks he or she needs more than anything else, what will ultimately make them happy. It’s often the clash between desire and need that makes for interesting internal conflict.
Your character’s need should be reflective of your character’s weakness. If, as I proposed last time, your character’s weakness is a fear of doing anything risky due to a loved one’s death, but her desire is to visit a friend who lives halfway across the world in a strange country, then your character needs to overcome her fear of doing anything that might be considered a risk to get there. This is, hopefully, much easier said than done.
So to fulfill her desire, your character now needs a plan. Maybe getting across the world is easy, but finding her friend once she’s landed in the foreign country is where things get tricky, and she must hire a guide, or negotiate a method of transportation that could go horribly wrong. Her plan is the catalyst – employing it is where things will ultimately test your character’s weakness, and force her to confront it.
And plans often go wrong because of the opponents that stand in your character’s way. Determine your character’s opponent by asking: who are the people who are making your characters’ life difficult? Who is testing your character’s weakness and emotional limits? How do they make the plan next to impossible to follow through?
Note: I’m intentionally not using the word antagonist here because, while antagonists are always opponents (when they’re human), opponents are not always antagonists. An Antogonist could be considered an active opponent – someone who actively opposes your character and sabotages the plan intentionally, whereas some opponents don’t even realize they’re in the way. They just exist. For example: your Main Character wants to date Person A, but Person A is dating Person B. Person B is an opponent. Even if he or she never does more than act as a really great romantic partner to Person A – even if he or she never actively opposes the MC, they are in the way of the MC’s goal, and therefore an opponent. The Antagonist in that scenario is actually Person A – because she actively wants the opposite thing to the MC, and rebuffs the MC’s advances because of that opposing desire.
Whew. Still with me? Okay, let’s move on.
Your character is enacting her plan. She’s facing her opponent(s). Now comes the battle: the moment when her desire and her weakness come head to head and she is forced to overcome her weakness or fail at everything she’s overcome to get this far. Yes, this is the climax. But it’s also an internal battle for your character where she’s forced to face these things about her that have been holding her back, emotionally and physically.
This should spark an internalrevelation: things are not how they’ve always seemed to your character. Now that she has finally reached her friend on the other side of the world, your character realizes the world is, in fact, beautiful. That she is, in fact, capable of taking and overcoming risks. Your character gains an understanding of herself and her surroundings due to overcoming her weakness – she has found a new balance to her previously unbalanced life.
Now that you’ve determined your character’s desire, her plan for achieving it, and everything in between, sit back and admire your handiwork. As a bonus, ask yourself, what does it all mean? I know my premise, I know what my character is trying to achieve. Now what’s the theme of my story? The theme for the story above could be something along the lines of “Taking risks results in a more fulfilled quality of life” or something to that effect.
It’s up to you to take everything I’ve talked about in the last three posts (linked at the top of this post, important concepts in bold) and assemble your own worksheet. You might find some things I’ve talked about particularly enlightening, and some of them not so much. Take what you need! Create a development worksheet that works for you. That’s the beauty of story development and storytelling. There are lots of methods, but only you can determine the right method for you and your writing. This one just happens to be mine.
I hope this has been useful! As always, I love hearing what you guys think and if posts like this are helpful to your process. Now, go forth, and conquer (your story)!
A friend of mine asked me for a list of posts that I would like shared online (how nice, right?) and it prompted me to visit my website stats to see what posts were the most popular with those who visit.
This in turn led to the bright idea that instead of just sending her the list, I should share it here, too!
If you are looking for helpful posts in different areas of writing and marketing, these TOP 5 LISTS are ones visitors seem to enjoy the most. If you find any of them especially helpful, feel free to pass them on to others, too.
Let’s talk about the opening line of your book. The first thing to know about “first lines” is that they are not going to make or break you. Sure, it’s a lot of fun coming up with great ones. But as long as the first line makes someone want to read the second line, and that line makes you want to read the third… you’re on the right track.
The second thing to know is that the opening line might be the very last thing you write before your book is finished.
That said… don’t you just love a great opening line?
The fun thing about writing a book is that you get to choose what kind of opening line you want, what type of sentence appropriately sets up your book. You can choose to set a stage or create a setting. You can reveal a character. You can drop the reader into the middle of a scene. You can introduce conflict. You can have your character speak a line of dialogue. There’s no one right way to do it.
Today I looked at some of my favorite first lines from novels, and asked myself why I liked them. I found each one appealed to me for a different reason. It might have:
brought an immediate smile (or stab) of recognition
struck me as poignant
painted a really cool word picture
set up an intriguing mystery
introduced a character I want to know better
made me laugh
drawn me into an unfamiliar world
used words in a beautiful way
The one thing they all have in common is they make me want to read more. They immediately draw me into the universe of the novel by the unique voice that first line begins to establish.
One of the trends lately is to come up with stunningly clever first lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But not every novel requires one of those. Some need a more understated approach.
Some say the best first lines introduce conflict right away. I believe that can be true, but it’s not the only way to write a first line. Most of my favorites give a small hint that something is going to go wrong, or something already has gone wrong.
There’s no formula for a first line. It should elicit interest, pique something in the reader, speak to their heart or their intellect or their funny bone. It just has to work. Some of the best opening lines stand remarkably well on their own, having enough meat to allow you to chew on it awhile.
Here are a few popular opening lines from famous novels:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
~ Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (my favorite first line ever)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
~ Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
~ J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
~ Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
~ William Gibson, Neuromancer
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
~ Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
All this happened, more or less.
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
~ Anita Brookner, The Debut
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
~ C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
~ Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
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 seems in the last few years, dialogue about all-things-publishing has been focused on platform, marketing, increasing output, distribution platforms, technology, and self-publishing. But I think it’s important to call our attention back to the work.
Two years ago in January 2014, I posted a prediction for the coming year:
“I think authors will re-focus on the foundational importance of writing a good book. Conversations will be more about mastering the craft and less about the logistics of publishing. People are becoming aware that while options are expanding because of self-publishing, and it may be easier than ever to get your work out to readers, the process of writing a good book is the same as it’s ever been. It’s challenging, it’s grueling, it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting — and it can be incredibly satisfying. People will have a renewed awareness that ultimately, the great writing itself is the very best platform there is, and determine to put most of their efforts in that direction.”
I’m not sure if my prediction came true. Are authors re-focusing on the writing? Some are, some aren’t. But here’s what I know: It’s easier than ever to get a book published because of self-pub and indie publishing. But it’s not any easier to write a good book.
In fact, it may be even harder to write a good book than it was in days past, because both you and your reader have more distractions. You’re tempted by the Internet, your ability to concentrate for long periods of time has been compromised, and deep focus is more challenging. Meanwhile, your reader has infinite sources of information and entertainment. So a book has to be darn good to to keep both your attention and your reader’s. Now is the time to make sure we’re not minimizing the importance of mastering the craft.
Platform is important if you want people to read your work. But ultimately, great writing is the best platform. A million followers are meaningless if you don’t have something worthwhile for them to read. Marketing challenges, evolving technology, and competition will always be with us. But it’s irrelevant without a good book.
I sense, out there in writer-land, an increasing focus on writing more-more-more. Many want to publish as fast as possible. Volume + speed = more money, or more success, or some such equation. But readers can only read so much. They’ll have shrinking patience for works that feel sloppily crafted and hastily written.
The only way forward is the same as it ever was: run away from the noise, hunker down and wrestle mightily with your prose.
As an agent, I’m here to help with the “other stuff.” Only you, the writer, can do the most important part. Write that book. And make it great.
Let’s collectively settle into 2016 remembering that mastering the craft is the best object of our focus. There is a time for considering various publishing routes and promoting our works, but only when we have in our hands a book that is the absolute best it can be.
So where are you on this? Are you mainly focused on craft, or do you spend a great deal of energy focused on other aspects of publishing? What’s the right balance?
Let’s go into 2016 focused more than ever on the craft of writing. Click to Tweet.
It’s harder to write a good book today – you & your reader have more distractions. Click to Tweet.
A million followers are worthless if you don’t have something good for them to read. Click to Tweet.
As writers, we all want to encourage a powerful bond to form between our audience and the protagonist so that readers care about the hero or heroine and root for them to succeed. How we do this is through empathy, which is a feeling of understanding and connection that comes about when we successfully put the reader into the character’s emotional shoes.
The Power of Vulnerability
Vulnerability is a necessary element to building empathy, but like all powerful things, it is a blade with two sides. On one hand, as people, we connect to displays of vulnerability because it gives us a glimpse at what lies beneath the mask a person wears day-to-day. When someone reveals a truth, an emotion, a deep belief or their biggest fear, they expose their heart to someone else. The willingness to be vulnerable (a necessary ingredient for love and intimacy, for example) is about saying, “this is who I am. I am sharing this real self with you.” It is self-acceptance and courage at the highest level, the purest form.
But vulnerability means being open, and that means risk. We’re going out on a limb, opening ourselves to whatever comes. Pain. Emotional wounds. Judgement, blame, criticism, rejection, humiliation, exploitation, and a host of other things no one wants to feel. This is why it is human nature for people to try to avoid feeling vulnerable and to act strong, even when we are not.
To create credible characters, we want to mirror the real world. This means that like real people, most characters will resist showing their vulnerable side, too.
Do you see the conundrum here? We need to show readers our character’s vulnerable side to help empathy form, but as mirrors of real people, the character will fight us, refusing to let down their guard and acknowledge their soft spots. What a head trip, right? Here we thought we authors were in charge, but nope.
Luckily, authors tend to be, er, sneaky. (Okay, okay, manipulative.)
When our characters are being all alpha tough and refusing to let people in, we can turn once again to the real world for help. Some situations just make a person feel vulnerable. There’s no choice. So, if we identify “universal triggers” for vulnerability, it won’t matter how stubborn our characters are. Simply by deploying a trigger, we’ll be able to place them in a situation that leaves them feeling exposed.
Through their actions, their thoughts and by making them look within at their greatest fears, readers will see a POV character’s soft side. Better still, because these are real world events, readers themselves will know exactly how the situation can lead to that feeling of vulnerability.
Here are some ways to make your character feel – and appear – vulnerable, whether they want to or not.
Through not knowing what will happen next.
People crave control, of having power over what the future will bring. Take that away and you are left with the feeling of not knowing, of having no influence or say in the outcome. By placing the power in another’s hands through choices, actions and decisions, you rob your character of control. The resulting feelings of frustration, anxiety and even despair are all ones that reinforce vulnerability. Readers have all felt a loss of control at some point and so will deeply identify with the character’s range of feelings.
Through the mistakes they make.
Despite our best efforts, we all make mistakes. Not only do we hate it when one happens, we tend to beat ourselves up about it, growing frustrated and disappointed for not being smarter, stronger or better. Characters who make mistakes feel authentic, and it humanizes them to readers. Besides, mistakes create great plot complications & conflict!
Through personal failures.
Not succeeding at what one has set out to do is one of the most heartbreaking moments an individual can experience, and it is the same for our characters. A hero’s personal failure, especially one that has repercussions for others, is one way to break down those steel walls and show our hero as vulnerable and human.
Through a death or loss.
A deep, personal loss is never easy. Often a person only realizes what they had or what something meant when it’s gone. Again, this is a universal feeling, something all readers can identify with. Written well, seeing the hero experience loss will remind readers of their own past experiences. Death is final, but other losses can be potent as well. The loss of hope is particularly wounding.
By having one’s role challenged.
Whatever the character’s role is (be it a leader, a provider, a source of comfort , etc.), having it challenged can be devastating. Roles are tied to one’s identity: the husband who loses his job may no longer be able to provide for his family. The leader who made a bad decision must witness the resulting lack of faith from his followers. The mother who fails to keep her child safe feels unsuited for motherhood. When a role is challenged in some way through choices or circumstances, it creates self-doubt, making the character feel vulnerable in a way readers identify with.
By casting doubt on what one believes.
Each person has set beliefs about the universe, how the world works, and the people in it, allowing them to understand their place in the big picture and instilling feelings of belonging. When knowledge surfaces that puts trusted beliefs into question, the character suffers disillusionment, a powerful feeling that can make them feel adrift in their own life.
Disillusionment is an emotional blow and everyone has suffered one at some point. This can be a good way to trigger that feeling of shared experience of vulnerability between character and reader.
By experiencing fear or worry for another.
This ties into that loss of control I mentioned above, because one directly or indirectly has a lack of influence over circumstances affecting a loved one. Fear and worry can also create road blocks about how best to proceed. It’s one thing to take risks that only affect oneself, and another to take risks that will impact others. The paralysis a person feels over what decision to make when it impacts relationships is an experience readers understand.
By having one’s secrets brought out in the open.
Secrets are usually hidden for a reason and are often the source of guilt or shame. When one’s secrets are revealed, the character is stripped of their security, and they believe others will view them differently as a result. Readers can empathize with this raw feeling of being exposed. (This link has lots more information about secrets.)
Showing vulnerability is all about emotion, so if you have it, pull out your Emotion Thesaurus the next time you want to find a unique way to show, not tell, that feeling of being exposed.
As you can see, there are many other ways to bring out a character’s vulnerable side. What techniques do you use on your cast of characters?
“To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever been written. Ever. It is utterly fresh, mine and complete.”
That was a line in a query I received.
It’s hard to explain how this sounds to agents and editors who get pitched everything under the sun, are typically well-read, and are aware of what’s going on in the publishing marketplace. The book might be unique but not to the extent the writer seems to think.
When pitching your work, you have to walk a fine line: Be confident, but don’t come off as grandiose. Stress your original and fresh voice, yet don’t be afraid to acknowledge there have been other books similar to yours, whether in plot, style, theme, whatever. Yes, you want to be unique, but you can’t make wild claims that just aren’t true. Every book published has some similarities to something that came before; yet yours must also have something fresh and different about it.
In non-fiction book proposals, we always have to provide comparable titles (the “Competition” section) and increasingly, editors are asking us for comps even for fiction. Many authors write something like, “There are no books similar to mine.” What it says is, “I haven’t taken the time to properly research the market and I have no idea what other books could be compared to mine.”
Remember, it’s not bad to be able to compare your book to others people have heard of. It’s good. It helps people begin to capture a vision for the type of book you’ve written. If you can point out the ways your book is similar and different, and why you think yours is a good complement to the other, you can further help a publisher understand what your book is all about. Don’t ever claim “There are no books like mine.” If that’s your impression, go back to the bookstore and find some.
You don’t have to give comp titles in your query, but when you get further down the road, you may be asked what books you think yours is similar to, so it’s a good idea to be ready.
Of course, if the book in question really was amazingly fresh and original, my response to the query would not be quite so negative. Alas, it was not the case. Most of the time when people try so hard to tell me their book is awesome, rather than just showing me an awesome idea and letting me figure it out for myself… it’s usually not awesome.
Unsurprisingly, the same writer who told me their book was utterly fresh responded to my pass letter with the observation: “This is probably one of the most spectacular works of fiction ever written.”
My loss then, I guess. Bummer.
Do you have a hard time finding books to compare with yours?
People are always talking about how important it is to keep the reader interested. Retain their interest. Keep them turning pages all the way until the end. One way to do this, I keep hearing, is though the cliffhanger chapter ending. But no one ever tells you HOW to write the cliffhanger effectively. My biggest question: If you don’t end your chapter at the end of your scene, how DO you end your scene?
Well, I’m happy to welcome Rebecca Belliston, who’s here to answer that question and offer some advice on how to write cliffhanger endings well.
One of the best things an author can hear from a reader is, “I’m so exhausted. I stayed up until four in the morning to finish your book.” And then they go on to complain about how they’re going to fall asleep in class or at an important meeting.
When this happens to me, I swallow a grin and say, “Oh, I’m sorry I kept you up so late.” But really, I’m not sorry. Not at all. Because if they were willing to give up sleep, they must have really liked the book.
The Importance of Chapter Endings
Often writers are told to work on the hook of their story, making readers interested in the characters and setting within the first page or two. And while that’s important (and extremely daunting), it’s equally important to keep the reader reading all the way until THE END. Because, let’s face it. We’ve all started books we’ve never finished. Heaven forbid our readers do that with our masterpieces, right?
But I’ve found that the following formula works pretty well to keep readers reading:
End chapters with a cliffhanger as often as possible.
Think about TV shows, especially dramas. They cut to commercial at the height of the scene’s intensity, not at its resolution. Even in reality shows, the music builds to a dramatic swell and then, BAM! You’re watching a Geico commercial. They do that so you don’t leave. So you don’t get distracted grabbing Oreos and a glass of milk during those two minutes and forget to come back.
But as authors, we’re tempted to stop chapters when the conversation winds down or the conflict is resolved—basically, at the end of the scene. It’s a natural break in the story, so it seems like a sensible place to end the chapter. However, if we end every chapter with a resolved scene, readers might leave for those Oreos and find something else to do. When it comes to holding reader interest, knowing when to end a chapter matters almost as much as knowing what content to include within the chapter.
Suzanne Collins did an amazing job of this in the Hunger Games. Chapter after chapter, she left us hanging:
“Effie Trinket crosses back to the podium, smoothes the slip of paper, and reads out the name in a clear voice. And it’s not me.
It’s Primrose Everdeen.”
I’ll tell you, that one grabbed my attention. So did this one:
“For a moment, everything seems frozen in time. Then the apples spill to the ground and I’m blown backward into the air.”
Now, would you stop there to go get a treat? To sleep? No way. You’d fly through the pages, hardly even noticing the chapter breaks because the story was flowing so seamlessly.
So How Do You End Scenes Without Using Chapter Breaks?
1) End the scene in the middle of a chapter. Then, a few pages or paragraphs later, when your scene does end, just use the classic three-star break to show that a new scene is beginning:
For example, end the chapter with Humpty Dumpty in the act of falling off the wall, so the reader has to start a new chapter to find out what happens. The next chapter begins with him broken on the ground, helpless. A little later in the chapter, when you need to end the scene and switch to the POV of the kings’ men, do a little *** to make the jump.
Readers are less likely to put down a book after this kind of break because it’s softer than a chapter break. They also don’t have to physically turn the page to move on to the next scene; the rest of the text is right there on the same page, enticing them to continue reading.
2) Use a simple transition sentence to change scenes.
Since the Hunger Games often ended chapters with cliffhangers, many of the scenes themselves ended in the middle of the chapter. To make this work, Suzanne Collins used one or two transitional sentences to indicate a scene break. She even skipped days with a simple transition sentence like this one: “Even two days later, Katniss still couldn’t…”
(NOTE: This only works if you aren’t jumping POVs. If you’re changing the POV, you must use a chapter break or a *** to show the change.)
3) If you do need to end a scene at the end of the chapter, leave something unresolved— something in the air that’s big enough to make the reader turn the page. Chances are that if you’re aware that you need to leave something hanging, you’ve found a possible spot to end the scene.
Use these techniques and you’ll greatly reduce the number of bookmark-able places in your story. Watch TV shows and read books to see how it’s done. The more you practice writing chapter and scene endings this way, the more natural it will feel to leave your readers hanging and begging for more.
Rebecca Lund Belliston is the bestselling author of the Citizens of Logan Pond dystopian trilogy and the LDS romantic suspense novels, Sadie and Augustina. She’s a sucker for a good romance, a good clean romance, and as such she layers her stories with page-turning romance and heart-pounding adventure. She’s also the bestselling composer of religious and classical-style music that has been performed around the world.
When she’s not writing fiction or music or chasing her kids, she loves to cuddle up with a good book. She and her husband live in beautiful Michigan with their five kids.
Hi, Julie here! In anticipation of the opening of The Force Awakens, Stephanie Garber and I have teamed up to bring you a post on writing lessons we’ve learned from Star Wars! These are all taken from little-known, fun facts about the movies we found compiled in a great article called 37 Things You Might Not Know about Star Wars. From those 37 things, we’ve chosen seven we feel contain great lessons on the craft of writing.
Stephanie first! Here are four writing lessons she’s learned from Star Wars:
Lucas’s Initial Draft of The Script Was Too Long
This worked out for Lucas, who was able to trim his original script and use the excess for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but before this happened his screenplay was rejected by multiple studios. If Lucas hadn’t been an Academy Award nominee, who knows, Star Wars might have been rejected again by 20th Century Fox, and then the world would have never known the greatness that is Star Wars.
So, don’t let the world miss out on your literary masterpiece because it’s too long. When a manuscript is significantly longer than the standard word count for its category, it can betray an underlying problem with either the writing or the story. If your manuscript is only slightly longer than average, see where you can trim extraneous words and sentences. If it’s significantly longer than the norm, it might be a sign you have unnecessary scenes, or too much going on in your story.
Alec Guiness didn’t want to be in The Empire Strikes Back because it was “fairy-tale rubbish”
As a fantasy writer, I’ve felt people haven’t always taken me seriously purely based on my genre. What makes me even sadder, I’ve seen some of my creative writing students embarrassed to share their work because they don’t want their peers to judge them—I’ve witnessed this happen to students who write a variety of genres. I’ve also noticed that my students who feel embarrassed really hold back from taking their stories as far as they could go, out of fear that others will see how deeply they love what they are writing. As a result these stories are never as strong as they could be.
But the truth is, people want to read stories where the author doesn’t hold back. Love is infectious, so I suggest putting all your passion into your stories—don’t hold back out of fear that people will judge you. Because in all honestly, people may judge you and that is their mistake to make—like Sir Alec Guiness.
Han Solo’s Best Line was an Ad Lib
This continues to be my favorite fun fact from Star Wars. During The Empire Strikes Back, right before Han Solo is frozen in carbonite Leia tells him, “I love you.” Originally Han was supposed to respond with, “I love you too,” but instead, Harrison Ford changed the dialogue to, “I know.”
This line is not only highly entertaining, it helps to define Han Solo’s character. It can be easy to give characters lines that anyone can say, such as, “I love you too.” But if you go back through you manuscript and change those lines to things that only your character could say, you will not only have stronger characters, your book will be much more entertaining.
Vadar’s Big Reveal in The Empire Strikes Back was Kept Secret From Nearly Everyone
I believe this was done to keep spoilers from leaking out. However, when I read this fun fact it inspired me to share something I enjoy doing as writer. I love keeping secrets from myself. For example, I might know that at some point my main character is going to be faced with the two things she wants most, but I try to never figure out which one she is going to choose, which not only makes it more fun for me to write—because I honestly don’t know what will happen—this also prevents me from falling into the trap of having my main character make plot based choices. Instead I get to dive into scenes with her and see what she does based on her ARC and current emotional state.
I love your four lessons, Stephanie! (I especially loved the one about Sir Alec Guiness!) Here are three writing lessons I’ve learned from Star Wars:
Lucas was Inspired by Akira Kurosawa For The Story’s POV
George Lucas has said that he was inspired by the POV used by Akira Kurosawa in his film The Hidden Fortress. Apparently, in that film, Kurosawa reveals the story through two of the lowest characters. Lucas applied this technique when he let Star Wars unfold through the perspective of the two droids.
The lesson I take from this is that Lucas studied the work of masters and applied what he learned. He saw a technique that worked and wondered what effect that technique would have on Star Wars. We can all do this. Maybe you’ve read a novel in verse and found it moving. Maybe a book written in present tense struck you with its immediacy. Don’t hesitate to try a range of writing techniques to see what works best for your story.
Theaters Didn’t Want to Show the Movie
When the original Star Wars movie was ready for distribution, fewer than forty theaters agreed to book it. A different film from 20th Century Fox, The Other Side of Midnight, (based on a bestselling book,) was in high demand instead. Consequently, the studio required theaters that showed Midnight to also show Star Wars.
Contrary to what the theater owners expected, Star Wars became the hit and The Other Side of Midnight was a big disappointment. But the theater owners wanted to go with the movie based on a bestseller because it was safe. Sometimes this happens in publishing too—sometimes books get buzz because they follow a trend or are similar to a hit book—but don’t let this influence your writing. Audiences and readers respond to stories, not trends. Write the best story you can write. Write a story you connect with, and others will connect with it, too.
Han Solo was Supposed to Die
When Han Solo is frozen in carbonite at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, the filmmakers didn’t know if the character would live or die because Harrison Ford had only signed on for two movies. The lesson I find here is that you need to stay flexible with your story. Consider all options for your characters! Let your characters grow, and if they make choices that are more interesting than what was in your outline, follow their lead! Stay open to new developments on the page.
So those are seven writing lessons Stephanie Garber and I have learned from Star Wars. We’re sure there are many more! Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments—on these lessons or any others!
Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.
Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.
Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.
Alter the Intention
If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.
Weaknesses Are Allowed
Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.
By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.
It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)
Which leads me to my last point.
Don’t Make It a Big Deal
If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares. The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.
Gender Still Exists
Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.
Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.
Kat again! I know I’m not the only one who’s always looking for ways to draft faster. So here today is indie writer Heather C. Myers to talk about ways you can increase your word count
Writing manuscripts fast is pretty much mandatory in the indie publishing world if you want to be successful. Because anyone can publish a book now, it’s important for an indie author to produce quality work in an efficient amount of time in order to stay relevant, cross-sell and show readers that they’re committed to their audience by producing multiple books for consumption. It’s also important for traditionally-published authors, as they have deadlines they must adhere to. The challenge is: how do you generate quality material at a fast pace?
Outline: Outlining is what I recommend to every author who asks for writing advice. It reminds you where you want to take your story and why you’re writing it. Also, it prevents writer’s block in that you always know what you’re going to write! Outlines don’t have to be constricting and they’re not set in stone. I outline by writing 2-3 sentences that describe the main points for each chapter. Everything else, I come up with at the seat of my pants.
Give yourself a timeframe: How soon do you want to finish your novel? Is it a month? Two months? 1 year? Whatever it is, make sure you give yourself room for unexpected and last minute events that can happen – finals you have to study for, a birthday party or a vacation you have to go to. Remember – the shorter amount of time you give yourself, the more you’ll have to write. If I want to finish my manuscript in 6 weeks, I usually give myself 2 months, just in case.
Come up with a daily word count that fits with your timeframe: It’s important to come up with a number you believe you can achieve each and every day, so make sure you set your timeframe accordingly. It’s nice if you want to finish your 60,000-word novel in 2 weeks, but unless you can write 4,300 words for 14 days straight, it won’t happen. For me, I write 5 days a week, and 1,500 words every day. That will get me 7,500 words per week, 30,000 words per month. This means I finish a 60,000-word novel in two months – with the weekends off!
Now, don’t pick a big number because you want to get the writing part over quickly. It’s necessary you pick a word count you believe you can achieve every day. This way, you won’t burn out and you’ll feel accomplished every time you do meet it. It will push you to continue to write because you can see your results. Maybe only 500 words each and every day works for you. 500 words written every day is still 3,500 words a week, 14,000 words a month. Which means you’d finish your 60,000-word novel in just over 4 months. This may not sound like it’s fast, but if you consider that it takes people years to finish their manuscript (I’m looking you George RR Martin!), 4 months is not that long in the grand scheme of things. Plus, you have to think of writing with the turtle & hare mentality: If you start of strong but burn out, you’re not going to finish in the amount of time you want to. However, if you pace yourself and do a little every day, you’ll finish exactly on schedule.
Create a writing schedule: If your intention is to write fast, you need to keep yourself in check. Schedule your writing for every day you plan to write. This could mean you have to wake up early or you go to bed late – whatever works for you and your daily word count to ensure your writing won’t be interrupted.
Public accountability: Studies show that if you make a public declaration of something you intend to do, you’re more likely to follow it. Tweet out your daily word count goal and then tweet out if you matched it. Post it on Facebook. Have an accountabili-buddy. Hold yourself accountable and you’re more likely to succeed.
And there you have it! I follow these tips to the letter, even though I have a baby and a part time job, and it’s allowed me to write manuscripts in 6-8 weeks – which is perfect for my publishing schedule. Implementing these little tricks will do wonders for yours!
Heather C. Myers is a chick lit/romance/new adult indie author with 12 self-published titles on Amazon, and plans for more. She recently signed with Anchor Group Publishing, with the first book in two of her series to be released this month. You can find her watching the Anaheim Ducks during hockey season, traveling or at Disneyland with her family. She lives in Orange County, California with her husband, her daughter, two step-sons and two rambunctious terrier-mixes. To learn more about her, please sign up for her reader’s list here: http://eepurl.com/0vqLX
Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to serialize a novel. We wouldn’t have Charles Dickens without serial publishing – nearly all of his novels were serialized back in the day, when magazines published a chapter from stories like A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House every week or month. Though we moved away from that form of novel publishing, websites like Wattpad have created a resurgence, particularly with YA stories. Writers are able to publish one chapter or segment at a time and obtain reader input as the story progresses, quite possibly changing what the narrative may have otherwise been in a traditionally published format.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real and I’ll Meet You There to name a few, answer some of my questions regarding her experiences with this form of publishing, based on her serialized novel, The Lexie Project. If you’ve read Something Real by Heather then you’ll recognize some of the characters in The Lexie Project. Anyone considering launching a serialized or multi-platform project should take Heather’s answers to heart – she has put a lot of work and thought into the story and the social platform, and is ready and willing to share her lessons and expertise. Check out her interview below!
Me: First, tell us about The Lexie Project!
Heather: The Lexie Project is a young/new adult multi-platform story that is being written in real time with crowd sourcing. It’s a satirical look at reality TV and fame: think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets Clueless and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. My readers send me comments about what they hope Lexie will do in the future and I take that into consideration as I write. I also incorporate real life current events into the narrative, which takes it to unexpected and interesting places! I’m posting a chapter a week on Wattpad and on The Lexie Project website in addition to blogging as Lexie, tweeting as Lexie, and engaging with readers on Lexie’s other social media sites. I’ve hired an actress to play Lexie in videos and on Instagram. Lexie’s roommate is a YouTube star and so I’ve also hired another actress to play her and post videos. There’s even a podcast interview series with Lexie and “famed” celeb podcaster T.J. Maxxx. As you can see, the story very much incorporates our real life connection to social media and other forms of online media. All the social media and blogging is extra—the story reads as a complete novel on Wattpad itself, so for readers who don’t want to be online too much, they can still have full access to Lexie’s narrative.
Me: Something Real was traditionally published. The Lexie Project is a serialized web novel. What was it about a serial web platform that allowed you to tell this story in a way you couldn’t with traditional publishing?
Heather: I wanted the narrative to have the feel of reality TV and reflect the real-time life of a young celebrity. A novel takes lots of time to write and at least eighteen months between the time it sells and appears on bookshelves. Lexie is nineteen, very much enmeshed in our world of instant gratification fame. I wanted readers to get a sense of what her life is like, how she responds as things happen, whether that be an angry tweet using a hastag that is trending right now (like #SingleBecause) or selfie posted on Instagram. Lexie isn’t going to wait two or more years to tell you how she feels about something—she isn’t even going to wait an hour. In a way, we’ve all become our own biographers, curating our life story as we live it via our social media. Lexie’s doing the same.
Me: What should writers consider before choosing to serialize their own novels on a forum like Wattpad, versus attempting traditional or even self-publishing?
Heather: The first thing is that you don’t get paid writing a story this way and there’s no guarantee it will get picked up by a publisher down the road. Macmillan (my publisher for Lexie’s companion novel, Something Real) has been super supportive, but this project is not under contract with them—and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m taking a risk here. Of course, I want the book to be published traditionally after I complete the online aspect of it. I think it has potential to do really well in that arena, as well. Not all readers are going to want to access Lexie’s story online. Plus, there’s the benefit of fun extras and editing and the other important things that go into a traditionally published, vetted book that readers who’ve already accessed Lexie online would like to have, as well. But I also see multi-platform storytelling as a part of publishing’s future and I want to get in on the ground level, be a maven of sorts.
Another major consideration writers should think about is the time a multi-platform project takes. Spoiler alert: it’s taking over my life. I currently have five books under traditional publishing contracts for which I receive advances to live off of. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be doing this right now. Having those and Lexie…well, you can imagine how much sleep and free time I get.
Finally, your story has to work for a multi-platform project. Some stories aren’t best told this way. I mean, would you want to read M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing this way? No. But you might want to read Feed like this. I have plans for a multi-platform sci-fi, but it’s going to look very different from Lexie. And I have plans for other novels—both adult and young adult—that are only going to be found in book form. You’ve got to do right by your story and characters first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
Me:Do you think the fact that you have been traditionally published provided the foundation for this project? Or is this something you could have done without first being traditionally published?
Heather: Frankly, I think starting this way would be a waste of time for any writer who hopes to be traditionally published and make a living off of their words. You do hear stories about publishers picking up books by Wattpad writers with a huge following, but the return on that investment—from what I’ve heard—isn’t always paying off for the publisher. That’s not to say you can’t break into publishing this way—I just wouldn’t bank on it. I think the fact that I’m traditionally published gives me an immediate fan base and readership. But even for me, it’s slow going. That’s part of why you can access the story both on Wattpad and Lexie’s website (which is a Tumblr platform). I knew my adult readers weren’t really on Wattpad and wouldn’t be super keen on learning how to navigate yet another social media site.
Me: What is the most important thing you have learned from this process? The biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Heather: I’ve actually started a blog series called Lessons From Lexie, because I’m really interested in tracking this experience. It’s, as I often say, both the Wild West of storytelling and YA on crack. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s going to take five times as long to do it as you think it would. You have to be on point like nobody’s business. There are so many things outside the story to keep track of, so if you’re not careful, it can be very easy to let the writing get lazy or to just go with the easiest or most sensational plot choices. My biggest challenge, then, has been not losing sight of crafting Lexie with the same care and attention on all story levels as I do with my other books. So far, so good—but it’s a lot of work.
Me: Finally, If you could give a writer planning to serialize his/her novel one piece of advice, what would it be?
Heather: Plan as much as you can and never put any writing out there that isn’t stellar. Usually, my readers don’t get to see my work until it’s been looked at by loads of readers, copy-edited, and vetted by gate keepers and my agent. My books go through a writing and editorial process that takes years. The chapters I post for Lexie—since I’m crowd sourcing and incorporating current events—get less than seven days. When you work this way, you’re putting your first draft out there, no matter how many betas you have or how much you revise your weekly installment. That takes a lot of hubris. You need strong, solid craft and experience. You also need to be deeply grounded in your story and characters. I had a whole novel—Something Real—to get me to where I needed to be with Lexie. So there’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes before you get online. Multi-platform storytelling is not for the faint of heart or anyone who isn’t a perfectionist—so be warned.
All of Heather’s advice and wisdom is spot-on, so I want to thank Heather for taking the time to talk to our readers about serial publishing and The Lexie Project! You can find more information about Heather and her books on her website, listed below, or read The Lexie Project on Wattpad. Let me know your thoughts below!
About Heather: When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multi-platform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a project dedicated to creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
I’m in the process of outlining the sequel to my debut YA novel, Ivory and Bone, so I’ve been thinking a lot about conflict and the purpose it fills in a story.
“Joe went to the store and bought a dozen eggs,” is not much of a story, mainly because it doesn’t contain any conflict.
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. He picked up a second carton, but slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. He picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, Joe was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts.
That second example is a story (albeit a boring story,) because it has conflict. But it is boooooring. And at least part of the reason this story is boring is because the conflict doesn’t have any meaning. It doesn’t tell us anything about Joe, his character, or the choices he makes. It doesn’t make us care. It doesn’t resonate.
I’ve been thinking about these concepts as I consider the conflicts my own characters encounter. There are so many ways to put an obstacle in your character’s path, but they won’t all serve the story equally well.
Let’s go back to Joe. All of the obstacles he encountered to buying the eggs were impersonal and did little to develop or reveal Joe as a character or make us care about him (except, maybe, for his final decision to buy doughnuts instead of eggs!) They also held no hint of something interesting about Joe and his quest for eggs that was yet to be discovered.
But what if we revisit those obstacles and tweak them just a bit?
Joe went to the store and picked up a carton of eggs. On the way to the register, a cart came out of nowhere and smashed into him, breaking the eggs. Looking up, Joe spotted a man running away down the frozen foods aisle. The man gave one quick glance over his shoulder, and Joe thought he looked like his grandfather, but that was impossible. His grandfather had died just last month of coronary heart disease complicated by uncontrolled high cholesterol, and Joe did not believe in ghosts.
Joe picked up a second carton, but he slipped in a puddle of melting ice cream, and all the eggs broke. As he lay sprawled on the floor, Joe noticed that a sign emblazoned “Caution-Wet Floor” had been folded and set to the side, where it wouldn’t be noticed. Had someone intentionally sabotaged the dairy aisle?
Joe picked up a third carton of eggs, but realized they were past their sell-by date. A strange chill ran over Joe’s skin, as he wondered if someone—or something—was determined to thwart his quest for eggs.
Just then, Joe noticed the doughnut case. Five minutes later, he was on his way home with a dozen doughnuts, hoping he had put the trauma of the dairy aisle behind him.
Joe’s story is finally becoming a bit more interesting, because the conflict is beginning to take on some meaning. We know that Joe recently lost his grandfather. We know that eating eggs may have contributed to the cause of his grandfather’s death. We know that Joe’s obstacles may have been more than coincidences, since there are signs that the cart and the ice cream puddle may have been deliberately intended to thwart his progress.
To us as readers, Joe’s struggles become more interesting when we see the personal meaning behind them. The conflict now reveals a bit about his character. It raises questions in our minds about the source of the conflict and what may come next. We care more about Joe—we may even relate to him and root for him.
Consider the first book of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy. The inciting incident occurs when the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is sent to the Games. It would have been enough if Katniss’s name had been pulled from the bowl at the reaping, triggering the main conflict of the story. But instead, the name of Katniss’s little sister, Prim, is pulled from the bowl, and Katniss volunteers to go to the Games in her place.
This is a fantastic example of conflict that resonates. If Katniss’s own name had been called, the story would have gone in the same direction. But because she volunteers, the conflict now tells us about her character, it makes the struggle she faces more personal, and gives us cause to relate to her and root for her. It’s a small choice that makes a huge difference.
What are your thoughts on conflict that resonates? Can you think of other examples from books or movies? Do you strive for meaningful conflict in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they’re finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if manmade threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe how difficult it can be to write about yourself in a bio—after all, you’re a writer! But I understand it’s not as simple as that, so here are a few tips to make it easier.
Write your bio in first person for query letters, third person for most other purposes including proposals, book jackets, article bylines.
Make it professional but you also need to convey personality and writing style. Don’t try too hard to be funny, but include something that makes you seem like a real person.
What gives you credibility? What makes you interesting? What helps people connect with you? (When you’re on Twitter, Facebook or your blog, what kinds of posts seem to get the most comments?) These are things you can briefly include.
If your book centers on something specific—the Civil War, for example—are you a member of a Civil War society? Have you published any articles in historical journals? Include that.
Try not to include too much “resumé” type information–education, job history, etc. because it tends to be boring. Only include what’s relevant to the book you’re pitching.
As you write a bio, consider carefully the purpose of the bio – who is the audience? Is it agents and editors? Is it your blog readers? Tailor it to this audience.
How to write a bio if you have no publishing credits:
If you’re a member of a writers’ organization such as SCBWI, ACFW or ASJA, you can mention it.
You can mention if you’re a member of critique group or if you have a degree in literature or writing.
Don’t say something like “I’ve been writing stories since I was two years old.”
Keep it short and sweet, i.e. “Jane Smith is a fifth grade teacher in Bellingham, Washington, and is a member of RWA.”
A bio for a query letter:
For FICTION, if you’re unpublished, it should be one to two sentences—about 50 words or fewer.
For NON-FICTION, it should be longer, enough sentences to establish your credits, credentials, and/or platform in the subject matter of your book.
Some tips for the process of writing a bio:
Read author bios in a dozen different books. Note what you like and don’t like.
Make a list of things you MIGHT want to say about yourself. Try to list 20 to 30 things—don’t self-edit, because you don’t want to leave anything out. Later you can choose the best elements to include.
Write two or three bios of different lengths and keep them on file so that you have them ready when you need them.
Trade author bios with a writer friend and help each other make them interesting.
What has worked for you? Comment to this post and share!
I offer three home-study writing courses that cover everything you could ever want to know about writing picture books, middle grade or young adult novels. The courses come with written lessons as well as writing assignments that will help you progress through your manuscript while learning all about the craft of children’s book writing. You can take any course at your own speed and from anywhere in the world. You will have a rough draft of a completed manuscript upon completion!
If you already have a completed manuscript and are simply unsure of what to do next, consider purchasing Editor in a Box, my 6-step editing system to help make your manuscript the best it can be! This product exists in two versions – one for picture books and one for chapter books and novels – and can be used again and again on all of your children’s book manuscripts.
If you’re ready to start submitting your manuscript to agents and editors, The Complete Picture Book Submissions System created by Julie Hedlund and myself, opens periodically for registration. To download our cheat sheet on picture book submissions and get notified when the course reopens, register here.
Finally, if you are ready to share your book with your target audience and supplement your author income, consider School Visit Wizard! This brand new product allows authors to learn how to cultivate, book and deliver stellar school visits!
Are you more interested in a traditional school setting? Think about applying to the 2016 Children’s Literature Fellows program run through Stony Brook Southampton. This program selects only 12 fellows per year who are mentored by bestselling authors, in order to complete several picture book manuscripts and/or a middle grade/young adult novel. While most of the course is completed from home, Fellows are required to attend the Children’s Literature Summer Conference and a Winter Publishing/Editing Conference at Stony Brook Southampton, NY.
So why not take a chance and go back to school? If writing children’s books is your passion, this is the moment to make it happen!
P.S. If you’re unable to make up your mind, be sure to take a look at my blog. I have tons of posts on the topic of writing and publishing children’s books. Be sure to scroll through the many posts or search keywords relevant to your interests.
I’ve been coaching several of my clients through the process of coming up with a good title for their book, so I thought I’d share my tips with you.
Let’s start by acknowledging a few things. The publisher is usually responsible for the final decision on title, and in the query stage, it’s not that important. In fact, some agents have said they don’t pay any attention at all to titles. But at some point, you’re going to want to think seriously about this. Your title is part of the overall impression you’re creating about your book. It can set a tone and create an expectation. Whether you’re pitching to an agent, or your agent is pitching to publishers, I think you want to have the strongest title possible.
Think of it this way: the better your title is, the better your chance that the publisher will decide to use it, rather than changing it.
So here’s what I recommend when you need a title, for either fiction or non-fiction.
First, make sure you know the genre of your book, and identify what kind of feeling or tone you want to convey with the title. Write it down. This is important, as I’ve seen humorous books with dead-serious titles, contemporary books whose titles say “historical romance,” novels that sound like self-help books… you get the picture. Be clear on what your title needs to instantly communicate.
Time to start brainstorming:
→ Find twenty books on Amazon that are in the same genre as yours and whose titles you like. Write down their titles. Try to get a feel for what works with your genre. What do you like about the titles? What don’t you like? Then put the list away for awhile.
→ Sit with a pencil and paper (and maybe your critique group and a white-board) and free-associate, making lists of words related to your book. Put them in columns: nouns, verbs, adjectives. If it’s a novel, list words that describe or suggest the setting. Then think about each of your major characters and write down words that relate to them. Think about the action in the story and write down verbs that capture it. If your book is non-fiction, list words that capture what you want your reader to think, feel or do after reading it. And words that describe what your book is about.
→ Nothing is off limits—write down anything you can think of that conveys anything about your book. Use visual words that suggest a scene. Other words that evoke an emotion. A sensation. A location. A question. You should have at least 100 words.
→ See if any of the words would work as a single-word title. Then start experimenting with different word combinations. Adjective-noun, verb-noun. Keep a thesaurus handy and look up other words. Write down as many word combinations as you can. Try not to self-censor at this stage.
→ From these lists, come up with at least 20 possible titles. Then put them away for 24 hours. Two things will happen: your subconscious may still be working on it; and when you come back to your list, you’ll have fresh eyes.
→ Go back to your title list. Add any new ideas you’ve had. Then narrow it down to three to five possibilities. Run them by a few people. (This may or may not help, depending on if there’s a consensus or the opinions are all over the map.) Take a little more time before narrowing it down to one. If you can, wait another day or two.
→ Remember your list of titles from Amazon? Go back to it. Ask yourself if the title you’ve chosen would fit the list—without being too similar or generic.
A few more questions to ask about your title: Does the tone of the title match the tone of the book? Does it convey the right genre (including time period if applicable)? Would it attract attention? If the book were spine-out on the shelf (so the cover and sub-title were not visible) would it still attract attention? Would a reader have any idea what the book is about just from the title? (Sometimes important for non-fiction.)
Once you’ve made a decision—celebrate!
Q4U: How have you decided on titles for your books? Do you find yourself emotionally attached to the one you’ve been living with since you first thought of the book?
More writers are hiring editors these days, whether they’re going indie or just making sure the manuscript is polished before submitting to agents and publishers. If you’re a newer writer, unpublished, here are some things I think you should do before spending your hard-earned money on a freelance editor.
(1) Get objective feedback.
It’s best to have a critique group or partner, if possible. Try to get the most honest feedback you can—not on grammar and punctuation, but on the overall content of your book. Are readers finding the book engaging? Are they reading to the end? Are they confused?
(2) Edit & revise your book using reputable sources.
Non-fiction resources HERE. Writing a memoir or personal story? Click HERE.
(3) Understand and follow 3-act structure.
This is for fiction and memoir. PLEASE don’t underestimate the importance of story structure. (Tweet this.) If your editor has to spend the bulk of their time fixing your structure and educating you about it, you won’t get the best value for your editing money. You can learn structure on your own—and seriously, your book won’t work without it. A couple of helpful resources are Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, and Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.
(4) Read your book out loud to catch awkwardness and poor phrasing.
This is especially helpful to make sure fiction dialogue is snappy and believable. But it helps with any kind of writing. Often when you read it aloud, you’ll catch problems you’d never spot by reading silently. (Tweet this.)
(5) Make sure your editor has edited published books.
It’s difficult to verify the legitimacy and credentials of each editor. So do your best to verify that they’ve edited books that have been published by traditional publishers. It’s your best bet for getting a good edit.
It’s hard to believe we’re only two short days away from opening the doors to the One Stop library. This is going to sound a bit baffling, but in some ways it hasn’t hit me yet. It’s a bit like a publishing a book: you plan, work, and strengthen your project, and it becomes your life. Then one day, boom, it’s out the door or uploaded and you feel…adrift.
It’s like your brain hasn’t clued in that everything has changed and the piece of yourself that you’ve held onto so tightly is now about to become something that belongs to other people too.
Well, One Stop For Writers is polished and waiting to become the online library it was meant to be. Lee, Becca and I are very excited, and hope it becomes a game-changing tool for a few writers out there. Because this is such a labor of love, we’re looking forward to adding to it over time, bringing even more value to everyone who uses it.
Writing Checklist Nirvana
As the “marketing department” of our little merry band, I created a bunch of imaged-based sharables that provide good value to writers: an assortment of check lists and tip sheets on different areas of writing that can be hard to master. Each one ties into our signature descriptive thesaurus collections and teachings.
My intent leading into launch was to offer something that would be shared openly online, and help get the One Stop For Writers name out there. Thanks to the terrific efforts of an amazing street team, the idea worked and we’ve achieved some discoverability. I’m linking to a few here for you to use in case you haven’t yet come across them. There are many more available on our special One Stop Pinterest board, too, along with some dark writing prompts and emotional showing tips.
Also, if you go HERE, you’ll find many topic-specific writing boards we’ve put together under the One Stop For Writers banner. With so many articles out there on writing, it can be exhausting to know which ones pack the biggest value punch. This should help make it a bit easier to find the best of the best when it comes to writing advice.
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!
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:
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!
I don’t know about you, but I love reading books where the author encourages me to draw conclusions that are wrong. Case in point–untrustworthy characters who I trust anyway. Like all writers, I am ultra aware of character cues and actions as I read, so when I’m led astray and find out someone I believed to be good really isn’t, I want to cheer and tell the author, “Well done!”
Tricking readers in this manner is difficult.
In real life, all of us are body language experts. At least 93% of communication is nonverbal, meaning we are very adept at ‘reading’ other people by their mannerisms, gestures, habits and voice changes. In books, this skill allows us to pick up on nonverbal cues which communicate a character’s emotions. Plus, if we are in the dishonest character’s POV, we also have access to their thoughts and internal visceral sensations (heartbeat changes, adrenaline shifts and other uncontrollable fight-or-flight responses). All of this means that tricking the reader can be very tough.
There are several ways to make the reader believe one thing while another thing is true.
One technique is the red herring. This is where a writer nudges a reader in one direction hard enough that their brain picks up on ‘planted’ clues meant to mislead them. So for example, let’s say I had a character who was a pastor and youth councilor for his church and he spent his weekends working with homeless teens, trying to get them back into group homes. The reader will begin to get a certain image in their mind.
If I then further describe him as slightly bald with a bad taste in fashion (imagine the kind of guy that wears those awful patterned sweater vests) but who has a smile for everyone he meets, it’s a good bet that I’ve disarmed the reader. They’ve written this character off as a nice, honest guy. Even though his life is all about the church, no way could he be the one stealing cash from the collection box, or the man having affairs with depressed women parishioners, or playing Dr. Death by administering heroin to street teens, right?
Another technique is pairing. Similar to a red herring, pairing is when we do two things at once to mask important clues. If, as an author, I show my friendly pastor leaving an alleyway at night and then have a car crash happen right in front of him, which event will the reader focus on? And if later, the police find another overdosed teen nearby as they interview the pastor about the accident, commending him from pulling a woman from the wreckage before the car could explode…would the reader put two and two together? If I did my job right, then no.
A third technique is to disguise aspects of his “untrustworthy nature” using a Character Flaw. After all, no one is perfect. Readers expect characters to have flaws to make them realistic. If our nice pastor (am I going to go to Hell for making my serial killer a pastor?) is characterized as absent-minded with a habit of forgetting names, misplacing his keys, or starting service late and flustered because of a mishap, later when the police ask him when he last saw dead teen X and he can’t quite remember, readers aren’t alarmed. After all, that’s just part of who the character is, right?
When your goal is to trick your readers, SET UP is vital.
If the clues are not there all along, people will feel ripped off when you rip the curtain aside. Make sure to provide enough details that they are satisfied you pulled one over them fair and square!
What techniques do you use to show a character is untrustworthy? Any tips on balancing your clue-sprinkling so that the reader doesn’t pick up on your deceit before you’re ready for them to? Let me know in the comments!
Hey PubCrawlers! So, you participated in NaNoWriMo. First, congratulations on what you accomplished, even if you didn’t (technically) finish. That takes a lot of work, a lot of guts, and a lot of stubbornness. So…what’s next? Let me start by telling you what I’ve learned over my years of participation (and also as a literary assistant).
Sometimes the book you’ve written isn’t one you end up loving enough to keep.
It can hurt to write that many words, only to realize it’s not a story we want to show to the world. But it’s okay to feel this way – every word written is important, regardless of what happens after. Even if it stays in a drawer for years, you accomplished something that helped you grow and learn as a writer. Even the most prolific writers learn something new about themselves every time they write.
A lot of us have this tendency to believe that everything we write should be work-shopped and queried and edited and shaped. But I’ll be honest – I have at least two NaNo novels that have never seen the light of day. They’re not great – structure-wise, they fall apart halfway through. The characters are inconsistent. The story is so-so. And I love that I am the only one who has the privilege of reading them and seeing just how far I’ve come.
Getting to know who you are as a writer is never a bad thing – it’s one of my favorite aspects of this contest.
Don’t query the book on December 1st (or even in December, period).
This one comes from the agency side of my experience. Agents get an influx of queries those first few days after NaNo and it’s usually a sign that a writer is querying his/her NaNo draft fresh out of the contest. I get it – finishing a novel is incredibly excited, and lots of us are guilty of querying too early, NaNoWriMo or no. But if you decide to revise the book and query later, querying too soon means rejections, which means you’ve crossed a handful of agents off your query-able list when it comes to that project.
When revising, an outline works wonders, even (or especially, if you’re a pantser) when the draft is already on paper.
When you write 200 pages or more in a matter of weeks, plot lines can get crossed, characters can disappear, motivations can get muddied, and epiphanies can change the entire trajectory of your book. But what can you do? If you want to finish, you have to keep writing. That is, after all, what NaNo is about – disengaging the part of your writing brain that tells you to edit as you go, and getting the words on paper.
When you outline after the fact, you can see where the events you might have missed should go, where the characters who faded away might re-emerge (or that they aren’t needed, period), and where the dead-ends can be smoothed back into roads.
This tends to be the first thing I do with NaNo novels – it’s the easiest way for me to get on track with revision.
Apply what you learned to future projects.
Before finishing my first NaNoWriMo years ago, I had a hard time finishing a novel. I constantly went back on passages I had just written and edited them, making them absolutely perfect. I felt like, if I could just make this chapter perfect, the rest would follow more easily than if I just wrote anything and everything on my mind.
I was…not entirely correct. Because I spent so much time smoothing and perfecting and correcting, I lost sight of the story itself. Writing another chapter became even harder, because suddenly nothing was as perfect as the chapter I’d spent all that time fixing. So I’d spend just as much time fixing the next one. And the next. And the next. Until finally, the process became boring and tedious and I’d give up.
NaNoWriMo gave me the freedom to simply do what I had to do to finish the race. To get the words out. To write “The End”. And I realized that editing and perfecting and smoothing is so much easier and so much more satisfying when you’re doing it to a finished product. Sometimes you end up rewriting half the book. Sometimes you don’t. But until you make that lump of clay, there’s really nothing to shape anyway.
There are whole communities of people who want to write with you.
And you don’t have to stop when NaNo ends. If you have trouble finding beta readers, critique partners, or just other writers to commiserate with, NaNoWriMo is a wonderful place to meet people. In person, in forums, as buddies, whatever. Whatever you’re comfortable with – the set up is tailored for introverts and extroverts and extroverted introverts alike. Going to a write-in can be so helpful – not only do you got words into the draft, you have the opportunity to exchange information with other people looking to hang out with writers.
It’s okay to not finish the race.
Seriously. This year, I ended November with 35,000 words, and I’m more than okay with that. The most important thing is that you’ve challenged yourself as a writer. Challenging yourself is the whole point of the contest – and for some people, that might mean finishing 10,000 words or 120,000 words (yes, I know some people who manage insane word counts and it boggles the mind). Whatever you’ve achieved, that’s exactly what it is – an achievement. Don’t ever worry that you’ve achieved less than someone else – one word written is still one word more than zero.
These are just a few of the things I’ve learned from participating in NaNoWriMo. I’m intrigued – are there any lessons you’ve learned or wisdom you’ve attained from participating? I know there are a lot more insights than the ones I’ve listed above, and I’d like to hear about them!