Friday, December 30, 2016

Fashion Statements and the Omniscient POV

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Anne Shirley longed to wear puffed sleeves.

In high school, I wore pegged jeans and shoulder pads.

And a century and a half ago, Dickens wrote in the omniscient point of view.

Fashions change, and the literary world is no different. Today, it's very difficult to write in an omniscient POV and get published. There are several reasons for this.

Frankly, a good omniscient POV is really hard to do well. It sounds easy, because yes, "omniscient" means that the narrator knows what's going on in each character's mind.

But here's the giant caveat: that does not mean that the narrator can hop around between their heads willy nilly. There has to be a purpose for when we go from one person's viewpoint to the next person's, a stylistic reason for showing the contrast between this person's feelings and that one's, even if it's within the same line.

The most common excuse beginning writers use when they're criticized for a poor point of view is, "But I'm using an omniscient POV."

Chances are that no, you're not. You're just being sloppy.

A real omniscient narrator has its own personality and feel. There's a distinct reason and purpose for telling the story in that way, more so today than in Dickens' time.

In today's publishing world, the most common place you'll see this type of POV is in epic-style fantasy, where the scope is large and sweeping. But even in many of those works, you'll get third person POV, such as with Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time books, which are definitely written in third person.

A contemporary example of an omniscient POV that works is Lemony Snicket's 13-volume The Series of Unfortunate Events, wherein the narrator has such a distinct personality that he even breaks the "fourth wall" and talks directly to the reader at times. He pontificates on his own opinion of the events as well as what other characters think about them. It's done very much tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top. And every bit is intentional and smart.

A somewhat older (and serious) book that has an omniscient POV is James A. Michener's The Source. It was published in the 1960s, when the omniscient POV was already going out of style. The POV really works in this book, and for that matter, there's really no other POV that Michener could have used for it. For starters, the book covers literally thousands of years, so he couldn't have picked two or three POV characters to carry the plot.

Another big issue with The Source is that because the stories and themes covered over the centuries in the book reflect on one another, an omniscient narrator is needed to gently draw lines between them for the reader. The result: a brilliant read that must have been painstakingly written.

The entire point of this post? In general, pick a third person POV (how close or distant is up to you, as is how many POV characters, but I wouldn't go for more than 3-5), or first person. Each of those POVs has its own pros and cons.

But unless you have a really, really good reason for using the omniscient POV, resist the urge. There's a very good chance your story won't come across as a brilliant Michener work (the guy won a Pulitzer, for crying out loud). Instead, you'll likely look like an amateur who head hops and doesn't know what it means to maintain a decent POV.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Rejection's Not a Stop Sign

A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

I got the chance to attend the same teen conference that Julie wrote about yesterday. In addition to teaching a workshop, I was part of a panel about the process of getting published.

We talked about the "typical" submission/acceptance process: the query, the request for a partial, a full, what an agent does, when you can and cannot submit to an editor, how to avoid unscrupulous agents, and so forth.

(Dang, what I wouldn't have given to know this kind of stuff when I was 16!)

When each of us on the panel talked about our publishing history, of course rejection came up. A lot. It's part of the business. One of the authors on the panel actually had his first novel accepted on his first try. (Yeah, I know. We can all hate him.)

BUT . . . he has since experienced plenty of rejection.

We told the teens in the room that not only does rejection happen, but it will happen. Plan on it. Being rejected is part of the business.

Sometimes you'll be rejected because you stink.

But other times, it could be for a hundred other reasons: your story didn't speak to that particular agent. Your writing voice isn't one they prefer. They just sold a book similar to yours to another house.

The fact that there are books on shelves that I love and someone else hates (and vice versa) is the same thing: editors and agents all have their own tastes.

Sometimes, finding the right agent or editor at the right time is a matter or timing and luck.

You can't blame all your rejection on back luck, however: you have to do the work first. Work hard on your writing. Make your manuscript shine. Write several books to hone your craft.

Do everything you can to make sure that when opportunity comes knocking (or, rather, when you're chasing it down and the door finally opens), you're ready for it.

Never take rejection as a sign that you should stop writing. It may be a detour, a pause, a yield sign. Maybe a moment to take another look at your work or your query to see if you can improve.

But it doesn't mean it's time for you to give up.

(Go ahead and burn the rejection letter if it makes you feel better. Just get back to the keyboard afterward.)

Monday, December 26, 2016


A popular post from June 2009

by Annette Lyon

Something only a handful of people know is that I've been dealing with chronic (as in daily) headaches for roughly 5 1/2 years. In that time, I've dealt with a bunch of doctors and tests and medications, and I'm still on that journey.

But the headaches themselves aren't the point of this post. What a new specialist told me this morning is the point.

When he found out that I'm a writer, he took it in stride and almost considered that a possible contributor to my headaches. I was a bit confused, because I know from experience that if I stop writing, I get more stressed out (and hence get even more headaches).

I can't stop writing. That would be akin to chopping off a limb, and I can honestly say that my headaches would likely get out of control if I stopped writing.

But then the doctor went on. He said that artistic and creative people tend to have more sensory receptors. That we're more sensitive and aware of the world around them. That things simply affect us more. And that can lead to stress, which can contribute to headaches.

I think he's right. I know I'm affected powerfully by major life events. But then, I also get a lump in my throat from something as simple as a lawn with a fresh coat of snow or by seeing my child riding without training wheels for the first time.

I'm more aware of temperature changes than the average person. I notice subtle shades of color. I see cloud formations, mountain shapes, or clumps of trees and try to find fresh metaphors to describe them. I rewrite billboards in my head as I pass them on the freeway.

When I watch a parade, I think about all the time and effort that went into each float and try to catch every detail to make it worth the workers' time.

Music has a powerful effect on me . . . which is possibly why I sometimes avoid it, because I can't always predict what it'll do to me.

My emotions tend toward the extreme. If I'm happy, I'm happy. If I'm scared, I'm scared. There's not a lot of middle ground. It's a matter of constant intensity. (My poor husband . . .)

Basically, with all that activity going on in my brain, I'm more prone to headaches than, say, a neurologist like Dr. T.

I don't write this in an effort to support the theory that writers are miserable, starving creatures with horrid lives. Hardly. I think we can feel joy just as intensely as we can feel misery. I just think that creative people are simply a more intense variety of human being.

I'm still on a mission to banish the headaches for good, and part of that will be a new medication and finding better ways to manage stress (I'm thinking yoga . . .), but for the first time in many years, I'm looking at my condition with new eyes.

It's almost as if what Dr. T. told me today validated me as a creative person. He basically told me that I have the ability to see beauty and detail that others simply lack. And that ability gives me an advantage over those who don't have it. It helps me imagine and feel and write.

So when all is said and done, I'd rather live with headaches if it means that I can find more beauty than others, if it means having the ability to feel an overwhelming ache because of an event so intense it makes me shed a tear . . . and then be able to put it into words . . . so someone else can read it and then shed a tear of their own.

I'm sensitive. I'm a writer. I'll take them both.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What Counts as a Publishing Credit?

A popular post from May 2009

Reader question:
When agents/publishers ask about previous publishing credits, they don't consider self-publishing a "real" credit, do they? If you have that in your background--and you're sending an electronic query--should you remove the sig line? 

You're right; self-publishing isn't considered a "real" credit during the query process.

Here's why: when an agent or publisher asks for publishing credits, what they're really wanting to know is whether you've been through the acceptance and rejection process. Has someone else in the industry evaluated your work and deemed it worthy of publication instead of rejection?

Technically, blogs are "published" online, but you wouldn't include that as a credit, would you? Of course not, because blog posts haven't been vetted through the quality machine. 

Similarly, anyone can self-publish a novel. Granted, there are a lot of very good self-published books around (I've read two excellent ones in the last year, and Writer's Digest has their own self-published book awards). 

That said, anyone can self-publish, even someone who can't tell a period from a comma. Self-publishing is particularly easy with modern print-on-demand technology. 

The upshot is that self-publishing won't tell an editor that you can write.

Now, if your self-published book won a prestigious award (such as the Writer's Digest contest), then it would be worth mentioning.

I don't know whether it would hurt to have a self-published book listed in your e-mail sig line (that might be a question for an agent to answer), but I definitely wouldn't mention it in the body of the query.

Other types of publishing credits are worth mentioning: magazine articles, short stories in anthologies, essays, and so on. Basically, any place where there's an acceptance/rejection system in place. And of course, the bigger the clout and audience of the place that accepted you, the better.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Misplaced, Dangling Fun

A popular post from October 2008

by Annette Lyon

Time for another post with self-editing fun. No, really. This time it is fun. Today's topic is one that's easy to giggle over, at least when you find the mistake in someone else's work (or before yours gets in front of an editor).

Let's laugh with some misplaced modifiers and dangling participles!

So what is a misplaced modifier? It's a noun (or pronoun) or phrase—basically any descriptor—that's in the wrong place for what it's supposed to be describing. Often that means it's too far away from it, or at least that something else is in the way.

Don't let the terminology scare you. Dangling participles are just a specific type of misplaced modifier. I won't go into the differences between the two. Instead, I'll lump them together.

Try this sentence on for size:

Joe went on the ride with my sister called The Raging Flame of Death.

Hmm. That's not a sister I'd like to hang out with. Oh, wait! The ride has that name. In that case:

He went on the The Raging Flame of Death ride [or the ride called The Raging Flame of Death] with my sister.

Other funny examples:
Two computers were reported stolen by the high school principal.
(That's one unethical principal . . .)
The anchor reported a coming lightning storm on the television.
(Get AWAY from that television!)
Please look through the contents of the package with your wife.
(Must be one huge package if she fits in it.)
James hadn’t meant to let it slip that he wasn’t married, at least to his boss.
(Wait. His boss is Mrs. James?)
Quiet and patient, her dress was simple, yet stylish.
(Let's hope her dress wasn't loud and impatient.)
At the age of five, her mother remarried.
(Um . . . doubt that's legal in any state. And she certainly wasn't a mother then.)
These little nasties are painfully easy to drop into your work without you even knowing it. Basically they happen when you've used an action and then the subject that belongs to the action is put into the wrong place.
The result is most definitely a meaning you didn't intend.
One of the most common forms is relatively easy to spot: look for sentences that open with an "ing" phrase. (These are the most common dangling participles, if you care about that sort of thing.)
Turning the corner on a bike, a huge dog startled him.
(Apparently that's a dog with serious coordination skills.)
Driving through town, the grocery store appeared on the right.
(Freaky store. And just how big is that car?!)
And here's one of my favorite dangling participles (which I found in a New York Times bestseller that shall remain nameless, even though it was just too funny):
Being my father, I thought he'd be more upset.
(Now THAT is one amazing genetic trick . . .)
You get the idea.
Misplaced modifiers and dangling participles can sound scary and intimidating, but in reality, they're easy to fix. Just make sure the action in your sentence is really attached to the person or thing doing it.
This is one of the many things you don't need to worry too much about in the drafting stage. It IS, however, one of those things you should try to catch in the revision stage. One great way is to read your draft aloud. The stresses and pauses will make you recognize when something doesn't quite sound right. Pick some trusted readers to ferret out these kinds of bloopers as well.
Your future lack of embarrassment is most definitely worth the effort.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Beauty Out of Context

A popular post from April 2009

By Julie Wright

Several years ago, the Washington Post convinced Joshua Bell, a world acclaimed violinist, to dress in simple jeans and a t-shirt and to take his $4,000,000 Stradivarious down into the subway to play for the masses. The experiment was to see if people recognized great art out of context.

Within 45 minutes, 1097 people passed by the violinist playing his little heart out. Only seven people stopped for any duration of time to actually listen. Joshua Bell is a man who can fetch seat prices of $100.00 for merely adequate seats in a symphony hall and much more for good seats. Joshua Bell is a master. Only 7 people stopped for beauty, recognizing it for what it was.

What has this to do with writing, and more importantly with you?

I recently heard an editor say that they don't normally take middle grade work, but if Neil Gaiman walked in, they would never refuse him simply because his protagonist's were a little young for this imprint. They could say this because they know Neil Gaiman. He's been declared beautiful by literary standards.

But what if he showed up looking like everyone else? What if he came in out of context? What if he came through the slushpile as an unagented author without the Newbery sticker? Would they recognize him for who he was? A few might . . . but I'd bet most wouldn't. (and by the way, I loved The Graveyard Book)

The point is that you may be the next big thing--stamped with the approval of the literary world. Your manuscript may be beautiful, but not recognizable exactly yet. Don't obsess or let it get you down. Joshua Bell stood in the masses and played beauty. Few actually stopped for beauty. It's not to say the music was any less beautiful down there in the subways, but that out of context, it was harder to see, harder to pay attention to as the people scurried about with thier lives. The world just works like that.

Life gets out of balance and the subjective nature of art makes rejection inevitable.

Take a moment to view the entire article as it is beautiful in its own way and deserves to be read:

Friday, December 16, 2016

If You Wrote the Code . . .

A popular post from May 2009

by Annette Lyon

My husband is a software engineer. This comes in handy for a writer spouse. When my computer crashes or I'm my usual techno-idiot self, I just call him. ("Honeeeeey! Come fiiiiix it!!!")

The other day, he mentioned an industry axiom:

If you wrote the code, you can't write the test.

In other words, the software engineer who wrote the code is incapable of testing it properly. He has a limited perspective on it, so his test would cover (of course) just the things that occur to him to test. It wouldn't be comprehensive, because someone else would think of testing in other ways. If the coder is the tester, all kind of weaknesses or bugs will probably be left behind. 

A coder's test can't be comprehensive because he has blinders. He wrote the code.

It needs another perspective.

Sound familiar?

As a writer, you're too close to your "code," your manuscript, to test for problems, to find the holes. No matter how great of a writer you might be, you need someone else, a "tester," to look at it with a new, fresh perspective.

Writers need to learn how to do revision and self-editing, and I'd go so far as to suggest that those skills are crucial to being a successful writer. But they aren't enough. At some point, you need to step out of your isolated writer bubble and hand the pages off to someone else. 

I've had critiquers point out plot holes that I never would have noticed (usually things I can fix easily . . . once I know they're there). They've caught motivation issues (sometimes those fixes are more complex, but they always make for a more believable story). Other times it's something as simple as an inconsistency, a confusing passage, or a pacing problem.

The story is perfect in your head, so when you read it, you miss things a good "tester" can catch. Having such a tester is the only way to make sure that what's in your head actually made it onto the page.

In the software industry, testers are trained in what they do. They understand computer languages and coding. An engineer wouldn't grab any old Joe from the street (or his mother or best friend) to test his code. Of course not.

The same concept applies to writing: you need qualified "testers."

While Grandma Sally will pat you on the head for writing such a great story, she probably can't help you improve it. She's blinded by her love for you, for starters, but she's also not qualified. 

Pick testers who write and know writing. They need to be able to diagonose problems in a written work, tell you when you're telling and not showing, catch info dumps, and  grasp things like characterization, conflict,  exposition, and a plethora of other things.

A parallel axiom for the writing industry:

If you wrote the story, you can't critique it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Unlovable Character

A popular post from December 2009

By Julie Wright

I have a confession to make. I write unlovable characters. I do it ALL the time. I like the growth that comes from a character who starts out with a bit of bite. And what's more, I think sarcasm is funny. If you stick with my characters long enough, you will find them softened and lovable by the end of the story, but some people think writing the unlovable is impossible.

I'm here to say it is very possible. To start out with someone who is reprehensible and then grow to love them makes for a fun journey for the reader as well as the character. It allows the reader access to understand other people, other motives, other walks of life. It allows the reader to grow and find compassion and comprehension within themselves.

I don't write the unlovable as a moral object lesson for readers. I think I write them because I was so unlovable for so many years of my youth and I can relate to the unlovable.

But how do you write snarky, ill-tempered characters and keep people from throwing your book across the room, or worse from writing you and demanding a refund?

Daphne Atkeson, someone I know from an online writer's group for YA novels, created what she calls a "cheat sheet" of ways to establish early empathy (not sympathy) for a character. She gathered this information from several craft books by Billy Mernitt, Michael Hague, Donald Maas and Orson Scott Card.

Here is her list with her permission:

-- undeserved misfortune

-- Liked or loved by someone else

-- Good at something, has a strength

-- Trying to improve or be good

-- Wit or boldness

-- Aware of his flaws

-- Has some power

-- Has a familiar flaw

-- Shows forgiveness

-- Self sacrifice.

Four keys. A character must have:

1) PURPOSE--most important--what he wants, must be specific

2) CREDIBILITY--believable

3) EMPATHY--not sympathy, don't feel sorry for him, identify with

4) COMPLEXITY--inner conflict, more than one side, surprise us with
unseen aspects, contradictions and quirks

To the degree that your character feels passionately invested in his own
life, the reader will feel invested, too.

CHARACTER TIPS from Blake Snyder (Save the Cat)

Character must be someone we can.

1) Identify with

2) Learn from

3) Compelling reason to follow

4) Deserves to win

5) Primal stakes that ring true (primal means sex, food, survival,
saving loved one, fear of death)

As I looked over the list, I realized that I incorporate these methods and tools in my writing all the time. With my characters being who they are, I have to. But seeing her list gave me an understanding into my characters that I'd never had before, and from now on, I'll be writing these characters a little better than they were before. If you lean towards the unloved characters, this list might just be what you need.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Synopsis Updated

A popular post from May 2009

By Josi S. Kilpack

Over the last six years or so I have given several presentations on how to write a synopsis. I gathered my information from books and websites; compiling it into instructions that are easier to follow and understand than many other resources. At a recent writing conference I was told that one of the 'rules' I have been teaching, is no longer in favor with the novel writing community. I have updated the Synopsis posts I've done on this blog, Part I and Part II, but am trying hard to make everyone that might have read the 'rule' aware of the change. Needless to say I am humbled by the correction. I certainly prefer to be right about everything all the time, so admitting I was wrong does not come easy to me, but I hope it's less about my ego and more about truly wanting people to be pointed in the right direction. Maybe it's a little of both :-)

Oh, what was the rule?

I've taught that when writing a synopsis you should put your characters name in ALL CAPS the first time you mention it in your synopsis, then use regular capitalization for other mentions of that character. Editors and Agents currently prefer just normal capitalization of the first letter of the name.

Thanks much,

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Publishing Sandbox

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

This past weekend I attended writing conference and sat in our own Josi's class about building your own writing community. It's a topic I hadn't thought much about as a topic, but when I stopped and sat back, I realized just how important it is.

I'm sure Josi will do a much better job of explaining it another time (please do, Josi!), but for now, I want to mention it and encourage writers to build their own communities.

You'll have many types as your career progresses, and they're all important in their own way. I can safely say that without some of mine, I wouldn't be where I am today.

Networking Opportunities
For me, the start here was with the League of Utah Writers and my local chapter meetings. Look around where you are to see if there's a similar organization where you live.

From chapter meetings, I branched out to attending LUW's annual conference (boy, was I terrified for that first one!) and then their spring workshops. I made several writer friends I'm still in contact with today.

I learned a ton, but even better, thanks to some of those contacts, I ended up landing in my next type of community:

Critique Group
I joined a group with several aspiring, but unpublished, writers. Over nine years later, we're all published, several of us are award-winning, and we've all got writing careers and deadlines.

But it's more than success our group has brought; it's also provided us with emotional support. There are some things only other writers understand, and those are the things you can share around the critique group table. I know I get antsy and on edge if I miss too many weeks of meetings. I need my group to keep me in balance.

Online Communities
These encompass a lot of things:

E-mail lists made up of lots of writers who are in the same market you are.

Your blog and the blogs of others you read and the relationships you build through them.

Online critique groups, forums, and other organizations you belong to.

Online marketing efforts.

Social networks.

And more.

These can all be amazingly powerful in many ways. My online communities have given moral support, provided answers to research questions, and brought me many friends and professional contacts.

The longer I'm in this business, the more I see that those who are willing to give and help each other out are the ones who will succeed the most in the long run.

Keep in mind that how you present yourself to some of your communities is critical. My critique group doesn't mind if I occasionally whine and throw a pity party, but you won't see the same kind of thing on my blog, where I need to maintain a bit more professionalism. Whining isn't a way to make people want to buy my books.

By the same token, be aware of how you present yourself in blog comments, at conferences, and in other professional interactions.

With blogs and e-mail in particular, you might be trying to be funny but come across in a way you didn't intend, because tone can be hard to interpret correctly in those venues.

Always be genuine and honest in every community. Be yourself. But that doesn't mean publicly criticizing someone else in your market or otherwise demeaning another person.

As Josi said in her class, publishing is a small sandbox; play nice.

What you put out will come back to you in spades, whether it's positive or negative. It's definitely worth sending out the positive.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Publication Timelines

A popular post from May 2009

by Heather Moore

Admit it. When you wrote your first book, you thought you'd find a publisher within a few months, and your book would be out before the year was up. Right? Now that you know better, here is the real story:

27 months . . .

My first book that I got published took 6 months to write, 2 months to edit, 10 months to hear back from the publisher, 9 more months to be released. Total time: 27 months

When you show up at an author’s book signing for his/her latest release, you should ask, “What are you working on now?” Chances are they are writing a book that will come out after the book that they just submitted or had accepted. Clear as mud? The reader sees the new release as the fruits of an author’s labors about 1-2 years after the book was actually written.

Often, when I’m at a book signing promoting my newest book, I’m in the throws of writing the next thing.

A sneak peak at my projected schedule:

July-November: Writing Historical Book “B” (sequel to “A”)
November: Historical Book “A” is released (written in 2007)

January: Book “B” accepted
January-July: Writing Non-Fiction Book
July-November: Writing Book “C”
Sept/Oct: Book “B” released
Waiting for news on book “Q”
Will start a sequel for book “Q” if it’s sold

*2010 Projection
Spring: non-fiction book released (if accepted by publisher)
Fall: Book “C” released (if accepted by publisher)
Fall: If “Q” book sells in 2009, it may come out 2010 or 2011

Currently I have book “Q” with an agent. I wrote the book Spring/Summer 2006. I handed it off to readers Summer/Fall 2006. In January 2007, I had an agent’s interest but she didn’t like the ending. I did mass revisions and finished them Summer 2007. The agent never responded back. At the beginning of 2008 I found another agent. A year later in January 2009, the book was “approved” for shopping (after more revisions). Five more months have passed. This might be a record. 36 months total . . . and counting.

Now, just for fun: The book “A” that I wrote Summer/Fall 2007 and was released Fall 2008, guess when I received the first royalty check? February 2009.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Paper-Thin Conflicts

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

Want to annoy your reader?

One of the best things you can do is to have a story that, structurally speaking, might as well be a sitcom: it's episodic. That means every chapter has its own new (shallow) problem that gets resolved by the end of the chapter (or so).

That kind of weak plot is enough to make this reader want to throw a book across the room.

While it's common to have chapters that have their own sub-conflicts and sub-plots getting resolved, you always need a bigger, over-arching problem that carries the book from beginning to end.

Yes, we want to know if Luke will get out of the trash compactor alive, but we also have that Death Star thing to destroy by the end of the movie.

Yes, we wonder what Harry will do with Norbert the dragon, but if he doesn't save the Sorcerer's Stone and face Voldemort at the end of the book, we have no story.

And sure, it's nice that Belle and the Beast have a beautiful date in the ballroom, but if the spell isn't eventually broken, who really cares?

If you don't have a big conflict, one that's complex and, well, BIG, I'm sorry, but you aren't writing a novel. Or at least you're not writing a good one that readers will care about.

Conflict is the engine that drives the plot. You need enough of it to push the story from page one to the very end. That means the problems must be deeper than, "Dang. We had a misunderstanding."

At a workshop several years ago taught by Janette Rallison, she made a point that's stuck with me: If your conflict could be resolved by a single conversation, it isn't big enough.

Of course, stories with these kinds of paper-thin conflicts never do have the two characters talking it out, even if they could solve the problem in about fifteen seconds by doing so.

A common place for these kinds of thin conflicts is in romance. The basic romance formula requires the boy to get the girl and then lose the girl before getting her back again for good. Too many would-be writers use a thin excuse for getting the hero and heroine apart: a simple misunderstanding.

So the story has a series of misadventures that drag the story on, one minor blip at a time, for a couple hundred pages or so, until the sad little misunderstanding is fixed.

Misadventures and misunderstandings work for episodes of Hannah Montana, but they aren't going to work for your book.

With a thin conflict or series of thin conflicts, you'll lose your reader, because there's nothing driving them to keep reading. They lack the, "Oh, no! What's going to happen next?" or, "How will they ever fix that?"

As our own Josi likes to put it: Get your character up in a tree. Throw rocks at them. Throw bigger rocks. And even bigger rocks. Now set the tree on fire. Then make your character find a way down.

Ask yourself:
Is my character simply up in a tree?
Or have I set the tree on fire?

Get your conflict blazing. Keep us wondering whether (and how!) your character will find a way down. Intense conflicts don't have to be of the James Bond action variety. A solid internal conflict can do the job just as well.

No matter what it is, the conflict must be big enough to carry the story and keep readers interested so they won't chuck your book against the wall.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Flawed (but Redeemable) Characters

A popular post from April 2009

by Annette Lyon

I consider myself lucky that I learned this lesson relatively early on: Make your characters likable.

The lesson for me was shortly after I joined my critique group. I read a chapter of my work in progress, and everyone around the table agreed on one thing:

My heroine was really unlikeable.

She was in a somewhat embarrassing situation, so I had her a bit defensive and trying to explain herself. She came across as rude and nasty.

I had no idea until they pointed it out, but after that meeting, I was able to stand back and see that they were right. I changed several scenes to make sure that she was sympathetic and that the reader was compassionate toward her, not annoyed or turned off.

With a few exceptions where anti-heroes actually work (think: Artemis Fowl), your hero and heroine need to be good, likable, people whom your readers can relate to and root for.

Let's use the romance genre as an example. In the classic format, boy gets girl, loses girl, and then gets girl. Ideally, the reader roots for them to get together, is dismayed when they're separated, and then rejoices when they finally commit and live happily ever after.

Your reader won't engage in that way if your heroine is whiny and snobbish or your hero is so arrogant he deserves to be left at the altar.

On the other hand, your characters can't be perfect, or we won't care about them. They need to be human. They need flaws.

But make them too flawed, and the reader hates them. So in a sense, you as the writer have to walk a narrow tightrope: How much of a flaw is too much?

Romances often have the hero and heroine despise one another at the outset. It usually works, but in that case, neither can be so despicable that the reader won't ever overcome their own dislike. The reader needs to see their flaws to understand why they hate each other, yet at the same time be able to see past the same flaws and want them to be together.

The classic example of a writer who pulled off this type of character arc is, of course, Jane Austen with Pride and Prejudice. We pretty much sympathize with Lizzy for the entire book, while Darcy comes across as pretty darn arrogant and irredeemable. Yet Austen made him human, and oh-so-redeemable when we see him in his own element at Pemberly.

Suddenly we know he's not only a good man, but a likable one. We start to think that maybe Lizzy was a bit off in her initial judgment. From there, of course, the more we learn about Darcy and the more we see his noble actions, the more we like him, so that by the end of the book, we're thrilled that he and Lizzy finally get together.

If we hadn't seen Darcy at home, if we hadn't learned about his relationship with his sister and how kind he is to his staff, and if weren't given good reasons for his earlier stiff behavior and prejudices, or learned about how he secretly saved the Bennett family honor, the story wouldn't be the classic it is today, two hundred years after its publication.

A romance I read recently, however, narrowly missed being chucked against my wall because of this very issue: the characters were unlikeable, not only toward each other (which, as we've discussed can work well), but to the reader. For the entire book.

By the end, I figured they were both so annoying that they deserved each other.

On the flip side, I read a remarkably well-written self-published romance that handled the hero and heroine perfectly. In the beginning, they had a dislike for one another, and for good reasons. They both had flaws (quite big ones) and issues they each needed to overcome. But none of the flaws were irredeemable, and none were too big. They were both very sympathetic characters, so well-drawn, layered, and human that they became quite real to me, and I believed the story.

Here's one of the biggest compliments I can give a book: there were times I got so engrossed in the story that I almost forgot there was a writer behind the scenes pulling the strings.

The other book, however, never let me forget for one minute that a writer had put the words together. One big reason was that the characters were so annoying that they never became real to me. They were caricatures, cardboard cutouts.

I won't publicly say what the first book was, but since the second one was so good (in spite of some minor line-editing issues) I want to give it some props.

For a good, flawed, very redeemable, and likable hero/heroine pair, read Seeking Persephone, by Sarah M. Eden. (It's a Whitney Award finalist for Best Romance, and in my opinion, it deserves the honor.)

It's definitely worth your time.