Category Archives: Publishing

Do Everything But Kill Your Characters: Why Struggle is Vital for Character Development

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When we write, we all have characters that we love. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They’re our children, and like all good parents, we want to keep our kids safe. However, when characters are safe, they’re not interesting. More so, readers, and ourselves, don’t get to know who these characters are. We can’t discover what lies at their core. It’s only through the tough times that we get to truly know our characters.

Not long ago, I provided feedback on several chapters for a fantasy novel. These chapters were about midway through the novel, and after having read from chapter one to this point, I found myself not knowing who the protagonist was. Sure, she was a princess, the last of her family (the rest of them having died in peculiar accidents), and was on the run from evil fairies and a traitorous royal court. But her two loyal companions were always there to save her from any attack.

So, while the princess constantly thought about how she had to be brave and kind and show that she deserved the crown, I never got to see her in action. She was always standing around, waiting for her companions to fight off various sinister creatures. I got to a point where I asked the author, “What would happen if the princess was attacked, when there was no one around to save her?”

It turned out that the princess could take care of herself.

It’s easy for characters to think or say they’d act/react one way, but eventually something bad has to happen to them. Only when our characters are forced to act do we uncover their true personalities.

And, once characters face hardship—and the more that they confront—they grow. They can only become better people if what they care about is shredded to tiny pieces. Rip characters’ souls apart and they’ll be forced to build more resilient hopes, dreams, and spirits.

It’s not easy to knock down your characters, not only because you care about them, but because it’s emotionally taxing on you. Some of the hardest scenes I’ve written are when I’m ripping apart my protagonist. I become so emotionally invested in the story that I experience what my protagonist experiences, so by the end of stressful scenes, I am emotionally and physically spent.

But, I continue to write those scenes, because of all the books I’ve read, the best ones are usually those where the characters are torn down. Even if the book is fantasy or science fiction, I can relate to the core of the hardships they face, and that makes me care about the characters.

(Photo courtesy of Ewan Cross.)

How to Write a Novel When You Don’t Have Time

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Often I hear about how people say they don’t have time to write. Their full time job, family, pets, etc. get in the way. I understand, and there are times when I believe that I have to choose between writing and working. However, even though I work full time, maintain a blog, participate in a critique group (which means spending time working on other people’s writing), exercise, and deal with the unpredictable speed bumps life chucks in everyone’s path, I somehow manage to write.

How is it possible to spend time writing, when you don’t have time to write?

Fight through the Sludge

Don’t allow yourself time off from writing. It’s easy to let one day off grow to two days, three days…until the time snowballs into weeks and then months. On the last day of my writing master’s thesis class, my professor told us that, once we step out of the classroom, most of us will never write again. More specifically, my professor was talking about how we wouldn’t write the genre/type of writing we’d just spent years working on to culminate in a novel/short story collection.

At first, I hadn’t believed my professor, but, after staying in contact with some of my classmates, I do. Many of them haven’t written anything creative since thesis…that was about 6 months ago, and, of those that have, they haven’t written much.

Their reason? Life got in the way.

Be Disciplined, Like a Samurai 

Writing a novel or short story takes time and effort. Anyone who writes knows that it’s not easy. Writing is exhausting. It uses a lot of brain energy, and it can be easy to come home from a long work day and just want to veg. I’ve done it. But writing is a skill, and every skill takes discipline.

One of the best ways to become disciplined is to be motivated. Motivation commits you to writing. Maybe a specific character in your story encourages you to write, because you have to tell that character’s tale. Perhaps you’re in a writing group and you’ve got deadlines to meet. Perchance you’re the type of person who’s motivated by visual stimuli. Create a writing space that you have to pass by on a daily basis. You could tape motivational quotes and pictures to the wall above your space.

Remember, as Robert Collier said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”

If you still think you never have time to write, here are some writers that became famous authors, while working full-time:

Anne Rice

Anne Rice wrote Interview with the Vampire, when she worked full-time as an insurance claims examiner and while she was grieving over the death of her 5 year old daughter.

Lewis Carroll

Lewis Carroll penned Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, while working. He continued to work, even as he became famous and earned enough money writing to be a full-time author. He taught at Christ Church until late in life, as well as being a mathematician and a photographer.

Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker worked as a civil servant at Dublin Castle for 10 years, while writing for the newspaper the Dublin Evening Mail. He went on to manage Sir Henry Irving’s production company/venue: the Lyceum Theatre. While working as the company’s manager, he wrote and had published his first horror story, and eventually published his most famous work Dracula in 1897. Stoker worked as Lyceum’s manager for about 30 years.

(Photo courtesy of Tony.)

Reading Challenge 2016: Top Book So Far

At the beginning of this year, I joined Goodreads’ 2016 Reading Challenge. In this challenge, you pledge to read a certain amount of books during the year. While some of my friends stated they’d read 50 or even 200 books, I challenged myself to read 30. For me, this is a lot…it’s about a book every two weeks. I’m two books away from my goal, and I’m happy that I’ll complete this goal.

5518988345_9ef6af4df9_oI wanted to share one of my favorite books so far this year:

We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

If I could give this book more than five stars, I would.

At first, I was put off by the amount of cursing within the opening chapters (heads up there’s several f-bombs), but I quickly became engrossed with the protagonist Henry’s personality, trauma, and, most importantly, story.

This novel engages readers, and forces them to witness bullying, mental illness, and come to understandings that they would normally otherwise rather not think about. Shaun David Hutchinson uses Henry to send some very important messages to readers: “Remember the past, live the present, write the future” and that we do matter; maybe not to the universe or in the grand scheme of things – all of us will be forgotten in time – but we do matter and because we live the present, we’ll keep on.

After all, we’re the ants. And what do ants do? They keep marching one by one.

There’s a deepness to this story that isn’t initially apparent, but then showcases itself brilliantly through the pain of loss, the presence of new love and the guilt and fear that sometimes accompany that love, and much more.

This novel begins with Henry telling readers about how he’s been abducted by aliens multiple times, and that they’ve now given him a choice: press the button and save Earth or don’t press the button and on 29 January 2016 the world is going to end. The question remains: will Henry press the button?

Though there is a love story within this book, this novel is so much more complex than a YA romance between Henry and Diego. Henry’s ex-boyfriend Jesse – the love of his life – committed suicide. Henry’s mother is a chain-smoking waitress, who cannot stand her one-time dream of being a chef because that dream reminds her too much of Henry’s dead-beat, door-slamming father, who abandoned them. Henry’s brother is a college dropout. The most popular boy in school alternates between bullying and making out with Henry. Henry’s grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s. The list goes on, and it is dark and amazing and heartfelt, and at times when readers need it most, comical.

Insight abounds in this novel, and what’s more is that the insight is conceivable. Usually in YA books, the protagonist possesses an awareness other characters miss, and often that insight is too deep or advanced for that character. However, in this novel Henry struggles with the big life questions. He asks others for answers, and the answers they provide create a well-rounded and realistic picture, with each of their answers reflecting the events that have occurred in their lives and how those events have impacted them. This story and its characters are believable to the point I imagined it as real life. That’s a big part of what makes this novel so engrossing, and what had me smiling, crying, and feeling all the emotions throughout the tale.

This book left my mind reeling with thoughts long after I closed the back cover. Definitely take the time to read this.

I’ve read some fantastic books this year, others that weren’t so great, and one that I would have been happy never picking up. Currently, I’m reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I’m only 10 chapters in, but so far this novel has impressed. It’s reminiscent of 19th century gothic novels and is a novel rife with subplots and breathtaking twists and turns. I can’t wait to finish it.

What’s your favorite novel of this year?

(Photo courtesy of Sweetie187.)

Don’t Mistake Unpreparedness for Writer’s Block: Know What to Write Before You Write

 

Sometimes when you sit down to write nothing comes to you. You stare at the blank screen and you can’t picture anything. Frustration builds until you shove yourself away from your desk and leave writing for later.

Often, this inability to conjure anything to write is termed writer’s block. However, writer’s block isn’t always the culprit behind the inability to write. More often than not, nothing is coming to you because you’re not ready to write.

5033800896_b63b3f63f9_oWhen writing a novel, preparedness is extremely important. You need to know what you want to write about. This doesn’t mean that you have to plan out every chapter in advance. Often you’ll find that the story changes as you continue to write it. But, there are many steps involved with writing a book.

Take a minute to think of them.

What did you come up with?

Some of mine include:

  • Writing a one sentence summary. This boils your entire novel down to its main premise. It gives your novel direction. For example, “A mute snake-breeder becomes embroiled in the chase for a once-presumed extinct snake after discovering a blood-splattered scroll in a half-dug grave.”
  • Ask a boatload of open-ended questions. When jumping into more of the details, I’ll ask myself, “what if,” “who cares,” “how about,” etc. These types of questions help me flesh out the story, and help me spot any plot holes before I write myself into a dead-end. Also, open-ended questions are great for adding sub-plots and complexity to a story, thus making it more realistic.
  • Explore your characters. I usually don’t know all of my characters at the beginning of my story, but I know my main characters. I know what they look like, their backstories, how they’ll act, and more. Having fully fleshed out characters not only helps you know your characters inside and out, but helps you see where the story is going and, even, how much of a role each character should have in the plot. Sometimes the person you thought should be the main character isn’t the best choice.
  • Research. Many times there’s information already out in the world about what you want to write. Take time to explore this information. You never know what useful tidbits you’ll discover that will enhance your story. For example, if you’re writing historical fiction, you need to do intensive research on the time period you’re writing about. If you don’t, the piece won’t feel authentic. Even if you’re writing a futuristic science fiction novel, it’s still important to know what type of technology is realistic in the future. You have to be able to explain where nanites came from or how instantaneous travel is possible, or, if you’re writing a dystopian that occurs after World War III, you need to know what the consequences of setting off nuclear bombs are, etc.

Once you’ve done your research and exploration that blank screen will seem like less of a mountain. Ideas will come to you. Perhaps not immediately, ideas take time to fully form, and it’s likely you’ll discover that more ideas come as you’re writing; you’ll end up going back and adding those new story strands, creating a fuller, more complex, and intriguing story.

(Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library.)

Halt! How to Not Lose Readers on Your First Page

 

When it comes to enticing readers (or literary agents) to read your novel, the first page is extraordinarily important. Many people, including agents, believe that they can tell whether a book is worth reading from the first page. This means that your first page has to deliver what a reader expects it to.

495969512_f317d59719_oThink about how many times you’ve gone into a bookstore, the library, or onto Amazon in search of the next book you’re going to read. You probably first look at the title and the book cover. If those two aspects draw you in, then you read the blurb. If you’re still interested, you’ll open the book or, if on Amazon, go to the free preview, and check out the first page. If the first page doesn’t impress, then you move on to the next book. After all, why would you stick around to read an entire novel, if the first page isn’t interesting?

So, what can you do to make your first page enticing?

While there’s no hard-and-fast rules, certain elements can help or hurt your first page. Oftentimes, starting a novel with dialogue or weather will not catch readers’ interest. Readers want to picture what is happening. Have you ever read a scene where two people are sitting somewhere and having a conversation? The conversation may be intriguing, but you have no idea where the two people are or what the two people look like? Or, maybe it’s the opposite, where you have so much description that you’re overloaded. You can probably think of a novel where the author spends the first pages describing the weather, the house, the landscape…and nothing else happens. Nothing occurs that sets the scene in motion.

When it comes to writing a novel, readers want and expect the novel to read like a movie. They want scenes to be visual, as if a camera is guiding them.

Why is this?

Because readers want to be immersed in the story. In essence, readers want to be shown a story instead of told it.

How do you go about writing a scene like a movie?

Think about scenes the way a director would. Where should the camera be angled at this moment? Where is every character positioned in this scene? If something happens at point A, how does that effect point B? For example, your two protagonists (sisters) are fighting a gang of five people. The younger sister is stabbed. This effects the older sister’s actions. She may get distracted, and so gets punched in the face. Does the camera catch the younger sister getting stabbed, or is the camera focused on the older sister, so that the older sister, and readers, only hear the younger sister scream? It’s only when the older sister whirls around to look at the younger sister that she and readers realize the younger sister’s been injured.

When combining the camera technique with a novel’s first page, set the scene with a brief camera shot. This shot shows where the character is by using sensory detail. By setting the scene, your readers can follow what is occurring.

Notice that I said, “occurring,” instead of “about to occur.” Begin the first page in the middle of an action. Readers don’t want to be told that something is going to happen; they want to be immersed immediately in what is happening. Here’s a great opening line from Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”

This line throws readers into the story. Something morbid is occurring, and a group of children are about to witness a horrendous act that will change their worldview. Readers want to know more.

No matter what, the camera should never feel like it’s stuck in one place. You want to choose the best angle for each shot. A close in view will limit what readers’ experience, while a faraway shot will give readers a bigger picture view. However, while a close in shot will showcase small, vital details, a bigger picture will pass over the details for a more bird’s eye view.

You want readers to notice what you want them to see. Give readers enough information to make them want to know more.

(Photo courtesy of Stephen.)

When You Have Too Many Characters, Let the Zombies Loose

 

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I’ve been commenting on a friend’s work in progress. It’s a fantasy novel, and the number of characters is large. The novel is the first in a planned seven book series, and many of the characters are important. There are ten children/teens and three adults, for a total of thirteen main characters.

While there is no firm rule about how many characters to include in a novel, oftentimes fewer characters is better. Fewer characters tend to mean increased readability and emotional power.

When you have too many characters, several things can happen:

  • Reader confusion. While you have thoroughly thought out your story, readers haven’t. They don’t know all the ins and outs of every single character. As more characters get involved, plots and relationships grow more complex. It’s a lot easier for readers to forget what’s going on. Characters are forgotten and readers get frustrated.

 The most recent chapter I commented on for my friend’s book was one scene that contained ten characters. The chapter was about twenty pages because my friend wanted each character to get an equal about of time in the limelight. However, this novel is in limited third-person point of view, which means that the story is told through the eyes of one character. This sole character should have the lion’s share of the story. By my friend attempting to give all the characters equal show time, the protagonist’s voice was lost in the shuffle.

  • Tedium takes hold. When you have a large cast of characters, you need to take time to introduce them all. Characterization is pivotal. But, each character should get a percentage of readers’ attention. The more important a character is the more she should be in the story. Spending too much time explaining isn’t interesting. You don’t want readers to say that your novel was slow.

Many of my friend’s novel chapters are intense. I want to keep reading. Yet, I find that the characters spend too much time conversing. I want action, and too often I get five or more characters in a scene and for some reason all of them have to voice their opinion or I have to know what each one is doing at all times. This slows down the action and the tension.

  • Too much fluff. Writing characters is fun, as is creating playful banter and showcasing each character’s viewpoint, for the writer. Readers are only interested in characters that serve a purpose. If you’ve got characters in your story that don’t add to the plot, get rid of them. It’ll do your book good. The tighter your cast is, the more impactful your story will be.

As I’ve been commenting on my friend’s chapters, I’ve used track changes to delete swaths of text. At first I felt bad, but after a while, I realized that what I was doing was cutting out the fluff. There are so many characters that many times the important parts of the plot were pushed to the side. And, too often, when I wanted to know what the protagonist was thinking and feeling, I couldn’t find the protagonist anywhere in the story.

Having a large cast of characters is fine, as long as you’re honest with yourself. Do you need all those characters? How many of those characters will be in the story’s climax? Will anyone miss character 13 if you cut him out?

Like the title says, when you’ve got a huge cast, it might be time to let the zombies chow down on a few of your characters.

(Photo courtesy of Birgit Fostervold.)

Why Conversational Writing is the Hot Trend

 

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For the past number of years, I’ve seen commercial writing shift from third person point of view to first person. At first, I couldn’t stand first person. It seemed somehow less than third. Perhaps this was because in some ways first person is more limiting than third person.

Third person point of view allows readers to see more of the world. They’re not trapped in one person’s mind. However, first person allows for an in-depth view of that individual. Plus, readers get to experience every facet of that individual’s personality.

Riding along with first person point of view was a more conversational tone. The writing was less formal; instead opting for writing that sounded the way people would speak. This meant stretching or breaking some grammar rules, which for a person who spent much of school studying Romanticism and learning about various style guides from APA and AMA to MLA was more than an irritation. This breaking of the rules would chuck me headfirst out of a book.

But, somewhere along the way, I began to enjoy the more conversational writing style. I discovered that I enjoyed breaking the rules—if there was a specific, vital reason—on occasion in my writing.

I found that conversational writing has some enormous advantages.

  • It’s easier to comprehend. While I’ve read and enjoyed many dense and literary books, I often find I develop a headache while reading them. My mind has to constantly work to understand the subtle messages buried in layers beneath the overt descriptions and statements. A conversational writing style foregoes this. Instead, it conveys the message directly to readers. Readers are able to more readily enjoy the book, and in today’s world, where fast reads are popular, conversational style is key.
  • It creates an instant relationship with readers. Since conversational writing often occurs with first person, readers feel like the protagonist is talking directly to them. They feel that they can relate to the protagonist as an actual person. With so many people stating that they read to escape reality, being able to relate quickly to a character is vital in drawing readers into a story. Plus, readers are much less likely to put down a book, if they feel they share commonalities with the protagonist.
  • Readers see it as more credible. A conversational style is almost like the protagonist is talking to a close friend. The protagonist is confiding all her thoughts and emotions to readers. Oftentimes, what the protagonist thinks is also what readers see on paper. Readers become an integral part of the story. They’re connected through the protagonist’s natural, authentic voice.

One of the best ways to create a conversational writing style is to speak aloud what you’re writing. If the words feel awkward on your tongue, then they’re going to be even more blatant on paper. However, one word of caution is to watch out for being too conversational. Many times in conversation people jump around from topic to topic. We’d probably all experienced having a conversation with a friend, where we’d talked for an hour or so, and then have no idea how we got onto the topic we finished the conversation with.

In writing, there has to be a clear line connecting bits of conversation. When readers become confused, they’re pulled out the story. Each time a person is jolted from the story, she is likely to put the book down, instead of continuing reading.

What are your thoughts on conversational writing?

(Photo courtesy of aj-clicks.)