Monthly Archives: April 2014

“It’s Alive!!!” Bringing Your Characters to Life

One part of successful books is building believable characters. When readers are reluctant to leave behind characters they’ve grown attached to, writers know they’ve done something right.

When characters seem like real people, readers are more willing to get invested in the story. If readers believe in the characters, they’ll believe the rest of the novel. Think of Sherlock Holmes, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Gandalf. Chances are even if you haven’t read the novels in which these characters appear, you’ve heard of them.

To create believable characters, you need to know them intimately. The clearer and more lifelike they are to you, the more realistic they’ll be to the reader. When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know how they think, feel, act and react. You’ll know who they are.

Creating a biography or a character chart helps to flesh out your characters. However, sometimes the sketch you’ve created doesn’t fit into the story you want. If that happens, see if that character really belongs in your story, or if there’s something that needs to be changed about that character. Don’t force characters into a story. Don’t stick a cube in a circular hole.

There are three basic aspects to creating believable characters:

  • Physical. People’s first impressions of someone are based on their appearance. Skin type, height, eye color and shape, hair color and type, age, weight, body type, state of health, body and vocal language (how does he walk and speak), and dress.
  • Sociological. Character’s connections to the world. Family, education, social status, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, friends, general relationships with others, job/profession, etc.
  • Psychological. Character’s personality. Temperament, passions, talents, bad habits/vices, hopes and fears, outlook on life, psychological disorders, and emotions.

After these three aspects are applied, flesh out the character’s past and future. Characters aren’t usually born at the beginning of a novel. They’ve had experiences and relationships before page one. All that’s happened to them influences who they are during the course of the novel. Let the back story show through in how the character interacts and responds to other characters and situations. Even for minor characters, create the impression that they have a life beyond the bit part they play in the novel.

Give your characters emotions and contradictions. Knowing the lives and personalities of characters is telling. Knowing how they feel about those details is even more telling. A character’s emotions and thoughts are what truly make him real. For example, Suzie is dieting because she wants to lose ten pounds, but there’s was this big, chocolate fudge sundae that spoke to her at lunch. She couldn’t ignore its siren call.

Another part of creating realistic characters is having them act believably. If they act out of character, it will undermine the story’s credibility. Make sure your character is consistent, his actions fit his motivation, the risks are balanced by the payoff, and his actions come from his emotions and intellect.

Finally, show your characters in action. In real life, people don’t get to know others by reading their bios. Sure, we learn some about their background, but we don’t really know a person until we see what he does. What readers see and hear for themselves is more powerful than what the author explains to them.

Readers are intelligent people. They don’t need every little thing explained to them. They’ll be able to pick up on characters from watching and listening.

What do you do to create believable characters?

Jinkies! My Word Count’s Too Low: How to Increase the Length of Your Novel

Most word count problems deal with too many words. However, novels with too low of a word count do happen.

Just adding more words to your novel isn’t going to help, especially if you’ve got a good plot and subplots, believable characters, and a solid story. The first thing to do is to look at your target audience. For a good listing of genre guidelines, follow this link http://bit.ly/QuU7KS. It’ll lead you to Literary Rejections Word Count article.

After looking at that, if your word count is still too low, here are some things you can try:

  • Further develop a subplot. Subplots enhance the main plot. However, some subplots may be more meaningful than others, or may have larger consequences that we haven’t explored yet. If a girl sneaks out of her house to meet up with a guy, have her get caught. Show the fallout of that decision.
  • Pace yourself. Sometimes we get so excited with writing our first draft that we rush the buildup to the big scenes. Go back and add more to the buildup, so that when the big scenes and the climax comes the readers are tingling with the same excitement you felt writing that scene.
  • Bring a new character into the story. Introduce a character that will throw the protagonist for a loop. Don’t make the character’s intentions obvious. Maybe this character isn’t who he says he is. Maybe he’s the bad guy in disguise. Maybe he’s actually a good guy, but is made out to be someone to avoid.
  • Look at your ending. Search for any loose ends. Are there situations you alluded to but didn’t continue? If your protagonist took a picture of a suspected terrorist, don’t forget to at least contemplate giving it to the authorities.
  • Obstacles. Don’t just throw obstacles in to slow the protagonist down. Include situations that have an effect. If the protagonist has to cross a swinging bridge, don’t simply have the bridge collapse. Have someone the protagonist cares about get injured or die, or have the new route the protagonist takes introduce something else to the story.
  • Fill in those skip days. There are probably several places in your novel, where you skip over days. You say something like “two days later” or “later in the week.” What happened in those missing days? Sometimes there’s an entire chapter within those skipped days. However, only add a scene or a chapter if it works. If it throws off the rhythm, plot, or pacing of your novel, it may not be the best addition.

A novel that’s too short can be a pain, but spending some time thinking about what to add will help you increase your word count. And I’ll say this, if you end up being like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, word count won’t matter so much. But until you reach their level of fame, or get extremely lucky, it does.

Have you ever written a novel with too low of a word count?

Hiring an Editor: Solid Investment or Financial Waste?

Recently, I’ve been hearing more agents, writers, editors, publishers, etc. urging writers to pay for a professional editor to edit their novel before they query an agent.

Let me begin by saying good editors can improve a novel, sometimes drastically. If you’re at the stage where you can’t revise anymore, but something feels off about your novel, or you’ve been querying and getting all rejections, it would probably be beneficial to hire an editor.

However, hiring an editor is not the first thing you do after writing your first draft. Editors, especially good ones, are expensive. They put a lot of time and effort into editing your work. Therefore, you don’t want them to waste time on aspects you could have seen for yourself and fixed.

There are also different types of editing. Make sure you’re familiar with them and know which one your novel needs. Sometimes, if you’re unsure, you can ask the editor for a sample. This typically means the editor will read 3-10 pages of your work and edit those. This gives you a clear idea of what feedback you’d be getting. (A sample doesn’t mean free. Many editors are willing to provide a sample for a fee.)

Here’s a quick overview of the different types of editing:

  • Proofreading. This is the final stage of the editorial process. Proofreaders catch the errors copy editors overlooked. They see the novel with all of its images and titles.
  • Copyediting. Copy editors are the grammar and punctuation police. They find the spelling, punctuation, spacing, and all those other little grammatical mistakes. They are employed when your novel is in its nearly final form.
  • Line Editing. Line editors work with the prose. They look at paragraph structure, word choice, sentence flow, voice, style, forward movement, readability, etc.
  • Developmental Editing. This is more about the big picture and is more in-depth than both copy and line editing. Developmental editing involves plot structure, theme, tension, pacing, character development, character motivation, etc. This form of editing often involves rearranging, re-writing, trimming, and more.

Not all editors do all types of editing. Not all editors use the same names for the different types of editing. Some will call developmental editing substantive editing. Some will say those are two separate things, where developmental editing is working with the author as they write their novel and substantive editing is once the novel is completed. Others say copy and line editing are the same. Bottom line, you need to go to an editor’s website and learn specifically about what they provide.

Some other questions to think about:

  • How much money are you willing to spend on refining your novel? Many writers get published without hiring an editor. However, getting published is extremely competitive. If you have the money to spend and want to improve your novel quickly, consider hiring an editor. If you don’t have the money, join a critique group, get beta readers, or take free/inexpensive writing workshops. This all takes longer, but won’t cost you that thousand plus dollars you’d spend for a reputable editor.
  • How much money can you expect to recover? Most writers don’t make much money when they get published. Most have to keep their day jobs. Again, if you have the money to spare. Go for it.
  • What about all those scammers out there? Anyone can set up a website and claim to be an editor. You have to do the research. Look for their credentials. See what other books they’ve edited. Ask for a sample. See if they have examples of their editing up on their website. Call them and ask questions. A reliable editor will be able to give you references, will readily provide you with a resume, and is willing to talk with you.

Whether you decide to hire an editor or not, in today’s literary world your novel needs to be pretty close to print-ready for an agent and a publishing house to pick it up. These days, most publishing house editors don’t have time to dig into the nitty-gritty. If your novel has a decent number of mistakes, even if it’s well written, it may not get picked up. It’s a bummer, but it’s the truth.

What do you think? Hiring an editor: yes or no?

Cutting Down Word Count

You’ve dedicated massive amounts of time and worked extremely hard on writing your novel. Now you’re sitting at your desk (or wherever you write) with a complete manuscript. The problem? It’s complete at 120,000 words or 150,000 words or an even larger word count.

Yikes. The chances of getting an agent to read past that immense word count are slim, especially if you’re a debut author. Plus, usually with such a high word count there are extraneous materials within the novel. This leads to working on cutting down the word count during the revision process.

Decreasing a novel’s word count is a headache many writers face. However, too many words can take away from the story.

Cutting down on word count doesn’t have to mean hacking your novel apart nor does it mean taking out entire scenes. What it does mean is getting rid of the words or sentences that aren’t helping your story to move along. Yes, this does include good writing. Sometimes a sentence or a paragraph is fantastically written, but if it does nothing for the story it shouldn’t be in the story.

So, what do you look for?

Telling and Showing. Most writers already know that showing is generally better than telling. But sometimes we include both telling and showing in our novel. There’s rarely a need for that. Trim the redundancy by showing without telling.

Conversation. Spoken dialogue and written dialogue are two different things. When we speak, multiple conversations can occur at once, we use non-words, and we often repeat what we or someone else has said. (Think of all the ums, uhs, likes, and ers that are used when you’re speaking to friends and family.) If this happens in writing, the conversation can stretch on for pages. To make sure this doesn’t happen keep clarity and rhythm in mind when writing dialogue. We want the conversation to flow and for readers to be able to understand us without having to reread a conversation multiple times. Think of written dialogue as an edited version of what we speak.

A second wordiness problem is having the character describe something that readers should have read someplace else. Don’t let your characters be marionettes for the plot. Let them be real, breathing, and believable. People don’t say, “My long, thick, wavy, silvery-blonde hair is sticking to my slender back in this unusually humid, hot weather that is obviously the result of global warming due to big, private, industrial corporations that only care about the bottom line and not the fact that they’re destroying our delicate ecosystems, such as coral reefs and rainforests, for future generations.”

Please don’t do that. Establish the scene first and then only use dialogue if it’s something a person would naturally say in a conversation.

Description. Be careful of detailed description. Many writers attempt to describe every little detail in a room or a park or on a flower. Most of us who try this end up with wordy descriptions that tell us information we don’t need to know or really don’t care to know. For example, saying that a burly guy shoots the protagonist in the chest gives a pretty clear picture of what’s happening. Is it necessary to know that the gun was a SR9c compact pistol that weighs twenty-three ounces?

If the specifics play into the story, then maybe it is necessary. But for most of the time we can be specific enough without drowning the reader in imagery that’s not critical to the story. A few implied words often do the trick. Let your readers fill in the blanks.

In the end…

When you’re facing cutting down word count, remind yourself that it’s about the story, not the words. To help you gain some objectivity, give yourself some distance before starting that revision process. Doing so will give you perspective and help you to keep the core conflict in mind. Subplots are great and all, as long as they don’t overwhelm the main story.

How do you handle decreasing word count?

The Unexpected: Plot Twists

Plot twists create intrigue. They give readers that thrill that keeps them reading. However, creating a good plot twist isn’t as simple as wanting one.

There are ways to help you create plot twists that satisfy readers.

Know Your Characters

Your plot and characters are not separate. Having your characters do certain actions only for the sake of moving the plot forward (such as to get two characters to break up) can make your characters seem like they’re going through the motions instead of living them.

Interesting plot twists emerge from your characters. They match up with character personalities and echo out from their pasts (because our past experiences do effect our present selves).

If you know your characters, they often become real to you and start adding to the story as if they are dictating what you should write. This is a good thing. It means that your characters’ actions will be consistent with their personalities and past experiences. This makes them believable, which may mean what you originally envisioned for the plot doesn’t work anymore. But what arises from this writing may be the thrilling plot twist you needed.

Reader Expectations

There are certain aspects of novels that people expect, and are what happens. The hero has to face many, increasingly difficult challenges. There’s a monumental climax often involving a life or death situation or decision. But in the end, things work out or there’s at least hope of things working out.

So, how can we make a novel interesting when what readers expect is what usually happens? We present the scenes and actions in ways readers don’t expect.

Look at your plot and find what outcomes are obvious. Then, search for ways to add a twist. Some ways to help think up twists:

  • Brainstorm: Free thinking to see what you come up with. This can help you find ideas that aren’t completely obvious and aren’t so far out in left field that they are utterly impossible.
  • Make things worse: Find ways/situations that will injure your protagonist physically and emotionally.
  • Unveil a secret: Disclosing information that relates to the problem at hand can surprise readers. If done right, it can uncover what’s really going on or add a new layer that was previously unexpected.
  • Expose a character: Unanticipated betrayals and liars alter readers’ expectations, especially if the betrayal comes from someone the protagonist trusts.

Flip Your World View

Really good plot twists change the way your protagonist sees the world. Create a sense of foreboding or have the protagonist see another character as mean, and then turn the foreboding into relief and have the mean character end up being a nice guy.

Realistic Surprises

The most effective plot twists aren’t totally predictable and don’t come out of the blue. Think about surprising with the familiar. When the readers get to the end of the book, they can go back and see little, subtle hints placed throughout the novel directing them toward the true ending. They typically won’t see these hints until after they finishing reading the novel, but they can go back and say, “I should have seen that coming.”

Lay your groundwork so that things don’t pop out of nowhere. Groundwork allows for indirect hints, so that when the ending comes it’s not without some warning.

Some Examples Of Novels With Great Plot Twists:

  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • My Sister’s Keeper and Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

In the end, you’ll give readers what they didn’t expect, but in a way that delights them.