Wednesday, August 29, 2007

To Read or Not to Read?

by Annette Lyon

I heard an author once say they were just too busy to read anymore. Those pesky writing and publishing things just took too much time out of the day.

It should be no surprise when I tell you that shortly after this conversation the quality and creativity of this person's work took a serious nose dive.

Why is reading so crucial to be a good writer?

Sure, perhaps you can glean an idea or two from other books. I know I've read novels where I think, "Dang, that's a great verb!" "cool plot twist," "awesome character," or whatever, and mentally file it away for future reference. But that's not why I read.

Through reading, you can also learn a lot that you can later draw on for research purposes. Also good, but not the main reason to be reading, either.

Reading for a writer is like exercise for a runner. If you don't do it, you're going to lose your ability. Reading books opens your brain to new creative voices and fresh images. In a very real way, it recharges your writer's batteries.

To mix metaphors completely, if you aren't feeding your inner artist with a regular diet of stories and words, quite simply, it's going to starve. The inevitable result is that your work will fall flat, lifeless. If you manage to produce anything, you'll begin repeating yourself, not only in word choice but in storylines, characters, and conflicts.

Read a variety: of course read the genre you write in, but branch out as well. Try a new genre, a new author. Read non-fiction as well as fiction. Read newspapers and magazines. Read short stories and poetry. Heck, read cereal boxes, mentally rewrite billboards on the freeway, enjoy bumper stickers.

Work that part of your brain that is connected to images and words, and when it's time to perform, it won't fail you.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Chapter by Chapter

By Josi S. Kilpack

In non-fiction, a chapter is easily divided from the rest of the book. It usually centers on one idea, one segment of the overall topic. If writing about Chickens, for instance, one chapter would be about hatching chicks, another one about raising chicks, another one about building an adequate coop. Coming from a fiction writer's perspective, chapters in a non-fiction are a breeze. (I'm braced for hate mail from non-fiction writers on this, bring it on, I can take it).

In fiction, however, the delineation is different. In The Da Vinci Code, Brown uses short chapters; 105 in fact. And, at least in my opinion, it works for the book. Because the book is fast paced and covers a broad character array, having short chapters moves it quickly, keeps the energy up, and allows him to show multiple POV with solid breaks. I liked it, in fact a lot of other authors liked it too and I've seen a change in many novels since then. I did it myself in my latest book Sheep's Clothing, having 79 chapters, nearly 30 more than any other book I've written. But, that doesn't mean it works for every book.

As you decide how long your chapters should be, consider the following:

--Long chapters give the reader a chance to really get into the story, and scenes taking place within that chapter. Since readers rarely put a book down in the middle of a chapter, longer chapters can be to your benefit if your book is one that moves at a slower pace.

--Any chapter, long or short, that ends with a 'hook' makes it harder for the reader to put the book down. Ending in a cliffhanger increases the chances that the dishes will be put off for just 'one more chapter'

--If you use multiple POV in your novel, consider a new chapter with each POV change. It is highly obnoxious to realize several pages into a scene that you thought you were Jim but are really Brenda.

--Every chapter should do one of two things, and preferably both: 1) Move the story forward 2) Further characterization. If your chapter does neither, it should be cut or combined with another chapter that does fulfill these requirements. If it only does one of those things, can you make it do both?

Chapters are the building blocks of novels. Each chapter should build on the ones before it and lay ground work for those scenes to come. Don't get so caught up in 'trends' that you lose sight of how the chapter works in your own story.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Creating Natural Dialogue

By Heather Moore

Have you ever been told that your character’s dialogue sounds stilted, formal, or unnatural? One easy way to prevent this is by reading your scenes aloud. When you “hear” the words you’ve written, suddenly you pick up on any awkward or disjointed phrases.

Some tips I’ve found useful:

1. Say more with less. Showing character through dialogue applies to this. If you told your girlfriend you found the perfect dress, she might gush, “When can I see it?” If you told your husband, he might say, “How much?” These two different responses show character.

2. Don’t name call.
In other words, if Jeff is speaking to Roxy, he probably doesn’t say, “Roxy, will you call me later?” He’ll say, “Call me.” There are some exceptions for when characters call each other by name. They include when they meet each other somewhere, when they’re angry, or passionate.

3. First draft dialogue vs. second draft.
When the story is coming fast, your job is to get the words down quickly. This includes dialogue. But before you start sending your work to readers, go over the dialogue again with the character in mind. If your character is annoyed at someone, would he say, “Knock it off,” “Buzz off,” or “Leave me alone”?

4. If you have one character who swears, fine. But if all your characters swear, and with the same expletives, it becomes confusing.

5. Make sure when a question is asked by one character it’s answered in some way by the other character—whether in action or dialogue.

6. Don’t forget the unforgettable rule of thumb. Use “said” most of the time when writing dialogue.

7. After the second draft, read aloud again. You’ll be glad you did.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Actions and Reactions

by Annette Lyon

One of the most common problems I see in beginning writers' work is that the story is reported factually. "He said this. She replied this. He did this. She did that."

By this point, I’m reaching for a chocolate donut, because I’ve lost interest—even if the plot line itself has a great premise and I want to know more.

Why? Because I don’t care about the characters or even know enough about what they're doing, thinking, and feeling to care.

This is where point of view becomes crucial. In any given scene, the reader should be firmly entrenched in one person’s head. That means we’re not just observing the scene from the outside, but from their eyes. We know what they’re thinking. We feel what they feel. We react the way they react.

But just choosing a POV character isn't enough. You can pick one and still be a newspaper reporter about the events unless you show what the character is experiencing.

That can’t happen with a laundry list of events, no matter how exciting those events are. If Joe says something shocking, Jane needs to react to it. Is she feeling hurt? Afraid? Angry? Does she laugh out loud?

Great. Show the reader. (Remember: don’t TELL us that she’s hurt/afraid/laughing. SHOW us.)

Do Joe and Jane have a romantic doorstep moment? Then don’t rush through it, saying that he kissed her and then she went inside. That's cheating the reader. Instead, explain what she felt as he kissed her (assuming she’s the POV character), what she felt when it ended, and what’s going on in her head, heart, and body as she goes into the house.

Print out a chapter of your work in progress and read it aloud. After each line of dialogue and each action, pause and ask yourself if the "movie" that’s in your head has really made it onto the page, or if there’s more you can add to flesh out the characters, the scene, the feelings within the story. Mark each spot that needs more. Then go back and flesh it out.

This can be a fun revision if you consider your first draft to be the bones of your story and then go back and to add the body to it—the muscles, the skin, the hair, the fine lines and details that make an okay piece stand out and come alive.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Writer Applications debut at a publisher near you!

By Julie Wright

Last night I was up pretty late filling out a writer application. It felt like I was applying to go to Harvard (Not that I've ever filled out an application for Harvard--like they'd ever let *me* in). Who knew there were so many questions a publisher might have for a writer?

I'd actually never filled out any kind of application before when working with a publisher, but I saw the brilliance of the application immediately.

A publisher needs to know what they can expect from their authors. They need to know they aren't going to invest a ton of money in an author who isn't willing to put in some effort too. I thought I'd post the general idea of the questionnaire here. If you want to be an author, you need to know what's expected of you once they slap your name on a book cover.

Some of the questions were in regard to my education and experience in writing. They asked if I was willing to promote my book with booksignings and media interviews. But then they went on to ask if I'd be willing to take a month off for promoting my book if necessary. They wanted to know if I had any experience speaking in front of both large and small groups of people. They wanted to know if I attended writing conferences and regular critique groups so that I was always refining my craft of writing. They wanted to know my writing habits ( I didn't mention that I write in the bathtub surrounded by candles and my radio on loud enough to drown out the kids banging on the door . . . If I ever die from electrocution, you now know the details of how it all happened).

Ultimately the questionnaire wanted to know if I believed in myself enough that I was willing to invest in me the way I wanted them to invest in me.

It's a good question.

If you want to write . . . do you believe in yourself that much?

If you want to write . . . I hope your answer is yes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Writing Habits

by Heather Moore

Once you've published a novel, one of the most common questions you'll receive is, "How do you find the time?"

Of course, as writers, we know what we've given up. Number one: sleep.

I've set my alarm many times at 4 a.m., or stayed up way too late . . .

But don't worry, we're not alone. On a recent television interview, Stephenie Meyer said she was very nocturnal when writing her first novel. It can be frustrating when you are deep into a scene and your thoughts are spilling out faster then you can write and . . . the phone rings . . . or someone says "Mo-oo-om!"

Stephen King writes 2,000 words a day. Mary Higgins Clark starts at 5 a.m. and sometimes keeps going until midnight. Patricia Cornwell puts in 14 hour days when she's working on a new book. Danielle Steele? 18-hour days. Isaac Asmimov--16 hour days. (Writer's Digest, May 2005)

Talk about dedication. I'm feeling like a procrastinator right now. But I'm interested in what works for you. What are your writing habits?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Take Pause

by Annette Lyon

Below are five sentences missing the punctuation marks that add pauses in the sentence. (They do other things as well, of course.)

Each sentence is missing at least one (often several) of the following: commas, semicolons, colons, and em dashes. See if you can figure out which punctuation marks go where.

1. It’s almost six there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.

2. The guys at work Tom Joe and Alan play golf each Thursday.

3. Today Karen had to do all of the following pick up the beef, potatoes, and onions for the stew drop off the dry cleaning videos and UPS package and mow the lawn.

4. She was born on March 27 1963 in Las Vegas Nevada.

5. To be honest that haircut is atrocious Julie.

The answers:

1. It’s almost six there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.
What we have here is two sentences stuck together without any punctuation. The most common (wrong) way writers try to fix this is by tucking a comma between the two thoughts. Don't. Unless you can add a conjunction (like but or and, which you can't, because we're just adding punctuation), you need a semicolon:

Correct version:
It’s almost six; there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.

2. The guys at work Tom Joe and Alan play golf each Thursday.
Technically there are two correct answers here, depending on the preference and style guide of who you're talking to or writing for. Obviously we need commas. The question is whether you need one before the and. I prefer using it, but it's optional. In addition, we need em dashes to set apart the guys' names. We've already identified them as the "guys as work," so the em dashes help to break it up and clarify that we're getting even more specific.

Correct version:
The guys at work—Tom, Joe, and Alan—play golf each Thursday.

3. Today Karen had to do all of the following pick up the beef potatoes and onions for the stew drop off the dry cleaning videos and UPS package and mow the lawn.
In most series (such as #2) you need only commas to separate the items. But here we have entire items that need commas, so you need something else to separate the individual pieces of the series: a semicolon. In this case, we also need a colon before the list:

Correct version:
Today Karen had to do all of the following: pick up the beef, potatoes, and onions for the stew; drop off the dry cleaning, videos, and UPS package; and mow the lawn.

4. She was born on March 27 1963 in Las Vegas Nevada.
Dates need to be separated by a comma between the day and the year. If the date is mid-sentence, you need a comma after it as well. Cities and states also need a comma:

Correct version:
She was born on March 27, 1963, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

5. To be honest that haircut is atrocious Julie.
Add a comma after introductory phrases where there is a natural pause ("to be honest") and before a name when you're addressing the person. (Without the comma before "Julie," this sentence implies that the hair cut might be termed an "atrocious Julie." Interesting name for a cut, but most likely not what the writer is going for!)

Correct version:
To be honest, that haircut is atrocious, Julie.

How did you do? If you missed several, dust off your punctuation rules and review them. Punctuation marks—especially ones that add a pause, like the ones above—are like signposts for your readers. With them, readers glide through your work. Without them, readers bump and jolt their way through your sentences.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Charting Your Course

by Lu Ann Staheli

If you are serious about becoming published, then you are following my previous advice and sending lots of submissions. Keeping track of what you send, where you send it, and the response you receive is important, but there are more ways to track your history and chart a course for success.

Before I share my charts, let me give you an idea how to set up a workable format. First, create a computer file where you will keep these charts together. Next, as you begin each chart, set up the page layout to landscape instead of portrait. Each file will use a table, but the number of columns depends on your personal preferences. I’ll offer suggestions, but the choice is yours.

Currently, I am using five different charts, each with their own importance to me. I’ll share my ideas with you, and I hope you’ll find some of them useful as you develop your own charts that will keep you on course with your writing career.

1. Submissions Log: The main headings I use on this chart are Submission Date, Project Title, Publisher, Editor, Response/Date, but I also record specific notes such as e-mail or snail mail submission, SASE, query, cover letter, synopsis, or sample chapters, how long before a response is expected, and notes from the editor upon return response. This helps me know what my next step needs to be with this piece and the editor.

2. Idea Chart: If you’re anything like me, you have more ideas than you’ll ever be able to write about in a lifetime. I got tired of having sticky notes, scraps of paper, entries in notebooks and all sorts of other places with writing ideas scratched onto them, so I set up a three columned chart where I record the project idea, the format I think it will take, and some notes about a fleshed out idea, if I know that at this stage. This gives me a quick place to go when I want to record and idea or when I need a topic to write about.

3. Markets Chart: I read several publications that I would like to write for. I also subscribe to professional publications that announce markets. Although I have a current edition of Writer’s Market, this chart allows me to keep track of some very specific places I might send my own work. My columns are labeled Markets, Details, and Payment. Keeping this information helps me know which market to target for a particular idea or manuscript without having to research each time.

4. Agents/Editors: This chart is a quick place for me to check what agents and editors are out there, currently working and waiting to hear from me. I keep their house and mailing addresses here too, and update the listings when Publisher’s Weekly, SCBWI, or Children’s Writer list a move for an agent or editor.

5. Reading Log: As a teacher I require my students to keep track of what they read. I keep track of my own reading as well, and I’ve found this to be not only revealing about my habits as a reader, but it points me toward becoming a better writer, too. This chart records the date I finished the book, title, author, number of pages, and genre. As I review this list, I recognize which authors draw me in more than once. What books I read quickly. Which were agonizingly long to get through. Were there books that I abandoned? Answers to these questions cause me to focus on my own writing. What would someone else discover about themselves if they were reading my book?

Whatever charts you decide to keep, make sure you use them to help you not only see where you have been, but as a place to chart the course where you intend to go to as a writer.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Burn Out

by Heather Moore

It’s easy to hit burn out as a writer . . . especially if you feel like you aren’t progressing. Writing is the art of hurry up and wait. Hurry and finish the novel. Hurry and submit. Wait, then wait some more.

Here are some suggestions that might jumpstart your creativity and motivation:

1. Consider something new. Writing a novel but you’ve hit writer’s block? Write a short story or an article and submit to on-line magazines.

2. Take a break. A real one. Paint the room you’ve put off, work in the garden, or throw together a last minute weekend trip. No writing, maybe a little reading, but mostly just experience.

3. Music. I used to think this would be distracting, but when I put together a play list on my computer, I was surprised at how motivating it was. I found myself typing to the rhythm and checking my emails much less often.

4. Guilty reading. When I’m working on a new novel, I feel like I can’t read for pleasure. But sometimes it’s great to get outside of your head for awhile and into someone else’s.

5. Mix up critique. I faithfully take my current novel to critique. But last night, I took a query letter. I received excellent feedback on some things I had “overwritten.”

6. Dissect a book. You’ll find that your favorite writer isn’t as intimidating as you thought. In fact, sometimes the writing is quite straightforward. By analyzing writing techniques of another author, you’ll see just how possible it is to bring everything together.

7. Set a goal. Then reward yourself. The time, place, and item is your choice.

8. Writer’s Conference. Every conference I’ve attended, I’ve come away feeling recharged. Instead of thinking “There’s too much competition,” think, “If they can do it, why can’t I?”

Okay. Now it’s your turn. What are some things that motivate you?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Weaving Fiction from History

by Annette Lyon

Some of the most beloved novels of all time are historical fiction, written well after the period described in them. Think Gone with the Wind, A Tale of Two Cities, and Les Miserables.

These books (and many others) have much in common, including the fact that when you read them, it feels like they were written during the time they were set. The time period is accurate and real.

How did Margaret Mitchell, Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo do it?

A Dynamic Time Period
They didn't write about any day in any year. They wrote about a time in which there was turmoil and conflict (great building blocks for a story!). Those time periods are also ones in which readers can readily identify. Saying "1860" is far more generic to a reader than "The U.S. Civil War." Immediately we have an image in mind, complete with inherent conflicts, a setting, and much more.

These authors most certainly read up on the time period they were writing about. I don't know if it's true, but rumor has it that Dickens read a couple of hundred books on the French Revolution for A Tale of Two Cities. While I don't think you need to go that far in your research, read and dig around enough to know what you're talking about and be able to present the era in a way that's believable and real.

Story over Research
If there's one key to writing great historical fiction, this is it.

Keep your knowledge of the period in check. Yes, Dickens and the others knew boatloads about the Civil War or war-torn France, but they didn't flout it. They used whatever bits and pieces helped bring the STORY alive.

And that's the key right there. Story must take precedence over research. A chain of facts does not make a plot.

It's tempting to cram into your book as many of the details, facts, and figures you've learned. Or at the very least, cram more than you should. Chances are that less than 10% of what you research will end up in the book. But it's that 90% or so that you can draw on that allows you to create a rich environment for your characters to play out their stories in.

Beware the danger of making your story into a giant history lesson. Remember at all costs that the historical details are NOT the story, that they are there solely to ENHANCE the story. Yes, they may play a big part of the story and provide many of the conflicts. (But now we're back to the history being there for a reason: creating a rip-roaring story, not for setting the scene.)

I like to think of the time period as the hanger on which the story is draped. It's definitely there. It makes a big difference in how the story and characters work. But it's NOT the story in and of itself. In some respects, Gone with the Wind could have been written about several different wars, because it's the characters who create the story, not the war itself per se. (Remember how Goodnight Saigon, based in Vietnam, is a retelling of Madame Butterfly? MB certainly wasn't written during the 60s, but the underlying story is timeless.)

Any time you find yourself throwing in facts for the sake of telling more than your reader needs to know, pull back. Don't over explain elements from the past; it doesn't sound natural. If you use terms that might be unfamiliar to modern readers, find a natural way to work an explanation into the text.

For example, I had a reader for my upcoming historical novel indicate that he/she didn't know what a tick was and that I should explain. It would have been ridiculous for me to stop the scene and go on about how before mattresses, people filled large fabric "pillowcase" type things with straw, and they slept on those, and that's what a tick was. That would have been an intrusion to the narrative.

Having my characters stop and talk about it would have felt equally false. Why on earth would one of my two female characters describe a tick when they both know full well what it is? People don't chat over things they already know about. (It's what I call the, "As you know, Bob" mistake in dialogue.)

Instead, I simply had a character refer to the person who would be sleeping on the guest tick and that they'd need to get it filled with straw before she arrived. Natural conversation, but the information that the reader needs to know gets across.

Historical writing can be rewarding and exciting. Just don't let the history get in the way!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Be Good . . . the things even E.T. knew . . .

By Julie Wright

Advice for the day: Be good to your readers.

It makes sense right? After all, they are the ones shelling out hard earned money to read your books. You want to treat them right so they feel like it was worth it. But what does that mean?

That means if you are writing in the romance genre and the girl doesn't get the guy in the end, you weren't good to your readers.

Ever genre comes with reader expectations. If you're writing romance, somebody better be falling in love. If you're writing murder mystery, somebody had better be dead and avenged by having their killer caught. If you're writing horror, the reader had better be terrified to turn out the lights when they close the book.

Anything less is not being good to your reader.

I have a book I'm slightly ashamed I wrote, not because the story was bad, but because there are more adverbs than should be legally allowed. The grammar and punctuation suck muddy rocks. There are even a few words spelled wrong. My editor must have been having a bad few months when my book came to his table.

When people tell me they read this book, I have to resist the urge to dig money out of my pocket and offer them a refund.

Oddly enough . . . people liked the book. No one says, "Man, you sure do use a lot of adverbs." They gush over being in love with James and how much they relate to Kit. They liked the story. They loved the characters. Even though that book has more issues than the National Geographic, readers felt like I treated them right.

This goes along with that whole door open/door closed thing from last week. Don't worry about the technical stuff. If you have technical issues, pay someone to line edit for you when you're done. But for right now . . . fall into your story. Know your characters, your storyline, and your genre.

If you know those things . . . then you can say you followed E.T.'s sage advice: "Be good."
(he'd have added the part about being good *to your readers* if Spielberg hadn't cut his lines.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Pushing the Envelope

by Lu Ann Staheli

So many want-to-be writers have the same roadblock stopping them from success—they don’t send enough submissions.

For some, the fear of rejection stops them from actually sending their work out to editors. For others, they are so busy worrying about the arbitrary rules set down by publishers—no multiple submissions, agented submissions only, wait 6-10 months for a response, etc.—that they either wait months at a time for a rejection that is sure to come or they fail to send their submission to a house or publication that might be waiting for just what they have written.

All too often, today’s publishers do not even respond to submissions, SASE or not. The author who follows the rules might wait for a long time, never having the nerve to send the same submission to another house, always in hopes that the one place they’ve sent it will come through in the very end. I hate to break your bubble, but that scenario isn’t likely to happen.

So, if you want to increase your chances of publication, you have to break the cycle of follow-the-rules, then sit and wait. Here are a few tips to help you get around those roadblocks and into the fast lane toward publication, even if it means more rejection.

First, let me assure you, a fast rejection is not a bad thing. The quicker you find out who doesn’t want your manuscript, the better chance you have to find the right house or publication for your work. A quick rejection will help you cull the list of potential markets for all of your work, saving you the trouble of submitting again and again to an editor or house who isn’t a good match for your style.

Next, remember that multiple queries and multiple submissions are two separate things. There is absolutely no reason why you can’t send several queries out for a single project at the same time. The likelihood of more than one publisher wanting to grab it up is slim, and even if they did, what a great place to find yourself. That is how bidding wars that drive up an author’s advance and the final contract percentage happen with books. I know one writer who had two houses buy the same non-fiction book from the same query. The author took the same information and wrote one book from a humorous slant while the second was for the more serious sportsman. Two advance checks and royalties for the same work, all because he sent multiple queries for a project he believed in.

As for those editors who say they only accept submissions from an agent, this may not be entirely true. Some editors will accept queries from anyone, agent or not. Others will accept queries and submissions from people they have met (interpret this to include spoken-in-front-of) at a writer’s workshop or conference. If you’ve attended a conference, or if you belong to SCBWI, it doesn’t hurt to add a label on the outside of your submission envelope stating this.

Even a rejection of a particular manuscript or idea does not mean the editor has rejected you altogether. Pay attention to any notes or comments you might receive that encourages you to submit something else to the same editor. I use a self-addressed postcard with check-off options in my submissions. Many times editors will choose the option that states: “Although this manuscript does not meet my current needs, please feel free to query me on another project.” I always take advantage of that invitation, and so should you.

Editors can’t buy your work if they don’t know you’re out there, so, if you’re sitting around waiting for that response from a single editor, wait no more. Get busy and send your query out to additional places who buy the same kind of pieces. Every time a rejection comes back, send the query out to another house. Keep track of where and when you are sending, then be ready to smile when the request for a completed manuscript a contract offer comes through.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Do You Need a Pen Name?

By Heather Moore

As soon as your first novel comes out do you expect to be recognized everywhere you go? Perhaps people in your neighborhood and at the grocery store will tell you about the book they’re working on and demand a referral to your agent. Or, since your book will be an overnight success, you’ll start receiving phone calls right in your own home from readers around the world.

Most authors don’t have pen names. Why? Because they’ve received advice from authors who do—which is: I wasn’t an overnight success and it was a lot easier to market myself when I was really myself.

Of course pen names still exist and serve the following purposes:

1. When the writer jumps genres. A well-known romance writer will have a hard time selling to men when she writes that first suspense novel. So a pen name might be in order. Publishers have even gone so far as to say “by Betty Brown, writing under the name of Carl Clegg.”

2. A female author is trying to push back the stereotypes of being a romance author. Men will pick up books by R.J. Turner, but probably not Rosalee Jenkins Turner. (And they won't be bothered if someone walking by notices what they’re reading.)

3. The author writes for two different markets. This is more common than you think. Some writers will publish under a pen name for the Christian Market, while they use their real name for other works.

4. Create mystique—commonly used by fantasy authors. The fantasy author creates a pen name that is unique and appealing. Sometimes the reader doesn’t know the real name of the author for a while and that adds to the intrigue.

5. Positioning your book—yes, it’s what it sounds like. Some publishers will create a pen name to cater to a specific place on the book shelf. If you write YA fantasy, of course you want new readers to see your books displayed next to JK Rowling’s—so maybe your publisher will choose a last name that starts with “R”.

6. Switching publishers. Had a bad experience? Burned by your last publisher? Your new publisher might want to wipe your slate clean and give you a pen name so that your past won’t come back to haunt you.

My advice is to not get too worried about choosing the perfect pen name, but keep your options open.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Characters that Breathe

by Annette Lyon

Characters are the lifeblood of any story. Next to conflict, they're arguably the most important element of your book. The trick is how to make characters that practically breathe on the page, rather than making characters who feel about as lifelike as cardboard.

1) Dialogue
Listening to characters talk is not only good for showing vs. telling, propelling the plot, and so forth, it's also a terrific way to show characterization. Think of JK Rowling's characters: Hermione sounds very different from Hagrid, who sounds different from Snape, who again sounds very different from Dumbledore. For specifics on writing characterization in dialogue, visit this post about it.

2) Mannerisms
Major caveat here: don't overdo this one. But a specific mannerism or two that a character does when nervous, angry, excited, or experiencing another heavy emotion can add an additional level of realism. An example: In Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Nynaeve yanks on her long braid whenever she's angry or irritated. After a while, he doesn't have to tell me how upset she is; I know by how hard she's tugging on that braid.

3) Motivation
What is at stake for your character? More importantly, WHY? If your readers know the answers to both questions, they'll be far less likely to put the book down because they're rooting for the fictional people you've created. The characters are REAL. Read Josi's earlier post here for more about character motivation.

4) Point of View
You can reveal a ton about a character by the way they see the other people in their world. Going back to Harry and company, imagine how Snape would be viewed if we saw the story through Malfoy's point of view. Snape would be a hero, a champion, a great teacher. But we see him through Harry's eyes, the kid who gets the short end of the stick from Snape.

5) Internal Dialogue
How do your characters think and feel during and after situations of conflict? What they feel and what they decide to do next reveals more about their character than anything you could tell us outright. When Jean Val Jean releases Javert (and then when Javert kills himself) we learn an enormous amount about these men, and in a more effective way than if Hugo had just explained to us that Val Jean values mercy and Javert is a slave to justice.

Read over your drafts and see how well your characters are coming through. Are they round or flat? Have you shown who they really are? Work in some of these elements so they're just as real to your readers as they are to you.