Tag Archive | learning to write

What To Do If Your Characters Won’t Talk To You

Or do they talk too much?

 

Is there a “right” way to communicate with your characters?

I pondered this question late one night when I couldn’t sleep (the places a mind can go at three in the morning!). The topic was on my mind due to a Facebook discussion, where an author was concerned she had a problem because her characters wouldn’t “talk” to her. She had heard other authors say they had regular and vivid conversations with their characters, and she felt left out because she didn’t.

Many in the responses assured her she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Several authors, myself included, said their characters don’t communicate with them like disembodied entities. The consensus at the end of the thread was, like most aspects of writing, there’s no one right way. How your characters communicate with you is part of your writing process, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Whose Head Is This?

Personally, my characters don’t talk to me, they talk through me. I do a rough character sketch before I begin writing a story, but the characters, whether main or secondary, reveal themselves to me as I write. They don’t get inside my head, but I get inside theirs. When I am writing in a character’s POV, I am that character. I inhabit their mind, see what they see, feel what they feel. I think that is why I am able to write in deep point of view, and also why I can’t stand “head hopping” (alternating POV in the same scene). It may also be why I write slower than some writers, because it takes time to get into, and out of, character. The only downside is, when I write from the POV of an antagonist who is psychologically messed up, or a villain type, it sometimes creeps me out and takes a while to recover!

My reviews have cited “a wealth of character development” and now I know why. I didn’t even realize that I was, so to speak, “inhabiting” my characters until I thought about how other authors communicate with theirs.

Characters Are Crucial

Characters and their motivations, quirks, and personalities are extremely important in fiction. No matter what genre you write, character development is what makes the reader care about what is happening plot-wise. Some genres have more emphasis on character development and interaction than others, but knowing your characters is crucial for all fiction.
So, what can you do if they aren’t jabbering?

Here’s a few tips I have heard about getting to know your characters:

Write a character sketch– it can be a few paragraphs, a list, or a dossier. Some writers swear by this, and it helps them to know what food the character likes, what astrological sign they are, what happened to them when they were six, etc. Much of the information may not be used in the story, but serves as background, which helps to develop the character’s motivations and quirks.

Interview your characters– pretend you’re a journalist or a psychologist, and grill them with questions. Many writers find this helps when they are stuck, to ask the character what he/she wants to happen.

Try deep POV– even if you are not writing your story that way. Really get inside your character’s mind, and figure out why they behave the way they do. Writing a scene or two, which you may or may not use, can trigger you to discover aspects about that character you were missing.

Map it out– use a structural template, such as Debra Dixon’s Goal, Motivation, and Conflict, or something similar, to map out your character’s development and arc. Sometimes breaking it down like that can trigger all sorts of ideas and provide insight into the character’s psychological makeup.

Brainstorm- talk it out with another author or a trusted beta reader. If you feel disconnected or blocked from a character, talking it through with someone else can also trigger understanding. Sometimes just voicing your concerns out loud can make the character more “real” and you can gain insight into what they want or should do in your story.

The bottom line is, there is no one right way to communicate with your characters. Whether they are noisy or quiet, how they get the story through you and onto the page is highly personal and individual. While it is a good idea to try new methods, don’t compare yourself to other writers. If your way makes you comfortable and works for you, bravo!

Do your characters talk to you? What’s your process for finding out what they are all about?

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Making Peace With Unfinished Stories

How many unfinished stories does the average author have?

I recently took inventory of all the stories I’ve written, and was surprised to find how many I had started and not finished. I have published three novels so far, so finishing a draft in general is not a problem for me. Some stories seem take hold of me and I can’t rest until they are done, and others, not so much. But that pile of unfinished manuscripts has been staring at me almost as hard as my TBR (to be read) pile, and it made me wonder if there was a common thread, a particular reason why those stories didn’t get finished. Was there something wrong, or is it normal to have a backlog of unfinished work?

The Consensus
I polled several authors, both traditionally and indie published, and their answers surprised me. Just as every author’s writing process is different, so is their approach to finishing drafts. Here’s what I found:

Some or none? A few authors said they always finish what they started, but the majority did have at least some unfinished drafts, with the average being around 4-5. One prolific author had twenty-four drafts set aside.

Plotter or pantser? Some voiced the thought that having unfinished stories may have to do with being a “plotter” or “pantser” style of writer, but I saw no discernable trends in that regard.

Will they go back and finish? Most planned to finish their stories at some point, but some chalked it up to learning their craft. Only one person reported they had deleted their old drafts. Several authors mentioned having gone back to old manuscripts and rewriting them into successful books. Personally, I agree with keeping everything─you never know what might work in the future and there could be gold in those old manuscripts.

Does it bother them? Having unfinished stories has been bothering me, so I asked if others felt the same. Again, it depended on the author’s perspective. A few said it bothered them to have the unfinished stories, but others said they kept their main focus on what they were currently working on and had no time or energy to worry about anything else.

Why didn’t you finish? Many reported they loved their unfinished stories but set them aside for more saleable projects. For example, they got a contract on an earlier work, or had to keep working on a series, got an idea for a currently popular genre, etc. You have to go where the money is! But some authors said that certain stories just won’t come together, no matter how much you love the premise or the characters. It doesn’t mean the story is hopeless, though. Ideas for the stalled story could still come at any time.

 

The Conclusion
This exercise did tell me a few things about myself as a writer. First, I’m not alone or abnormal. Not finishing a draft or not using a completed draft is a natural part of the business. As long as you keep working, keep moving forward, it’s all just your body of work.
Taking time to examine my unfinished stories helped me in other ways, too. I was able to discern the common themes running through my work, and see the development of my voice. I can see how I’ve progressed with plotting and character development.

So I’m not as worried now about those languishing drafts, but sometimes the characters of those unfinished works start prompting me to get back to “their” story. I feel so guilty─I have let them down! But I guess I’ll just have to make peace with the fact I may never finish them all, and that’s okay.

How many unfinished stories do you have? Does it bother you?

 

Seven Things To Consider Before Submitting Your Writing For Critique

Woman Thinking

Are you nervous about having your writing critiqued?  Welcome to the club.

Just like reading reviews of your work, critiques are one of those things that most writers get nervous about. In my experience, though, critique, both positive and negative, is a powerful tool for improving one’s skills.

A friend who is just starting out recently joined our writer’s group. She was asking about how we approached critiques, and confessed to being a bit nervous about submitting her work. We assured her our goal was to be helpful and considerate at the same time, an approach we have refined over the years. Then a discussion ensued on the differences between helpful and potentially hurtful criticism.

Several of us have been on the receiving end of criticism by our peers which we found less than helpful.  We’ve also had feedback that was inspiring and constructive. My friend asked for more specific advice, so I mentioned my previous blog post on the subject, How To Survive A Negative Critique. Her question called to mind some other things I have learned in the past five years I have been attending my critique group, and I thought it might be helpful to new writers to share some things to consider before they submit their work:

Just Do It. Writing without feedback is writing in a vacuum. Being nervous is normal, but you won’t overcome it unless you put your precious words in front of some eyeballs. When you finally do become published, you will be judged by the entire world, so starting out with a few writers you know is a relatively safe way to begin. You may actually waste more time by writing without ever getting feedback, and end up having much more to correct and edit in the long run.

Start small. Start by submitting something short─a scene you are working on, or a first chapter. First chapters are actually great to start with, since the opening of a story is considered to be the most important part, and also the most difficult thing to do properly. New writers have a tendency to start the story in the wrong place as well, so don’t be surprised if someone points that out. Writing great openings takes practice, and feedback can help you to learn how to do that more efficiently and sooner.

Baby Steps. By starting with something small, you are not facing judgement of the entire project. Learning to take criticism and use it wisely takes practice. Separating your emotions from the feedback takes practice, too, as we tend to identify closely with our work when just starting out. The more you write, your perspective changes and you realize you can always fix what you wrote, or write some more. You will learn over time how to discern which feedback is structural (plot issues, grammar problems, etc) and which is subjective (the person giving the feedback is filtering through their own tastes).

Submit Clean. Always clean up your work before submitting! Go over it multiple times, use a grammar guide, run a spell check. No, it does not have to be perfect, but clean it up to the best of your ability. I’ve had to critique some work where the premise was exciting and interesting, but the grammar, spelling and general writing was so bad that it was difficult to understand what was happening. Some folks think, “I’ll clean it up after they critique so I don’t have to do it twice”.  No. Just don’t do that. It is a disservice to others who are taking the time to provide feedback when there are a billion other things they could be doing. Have courtesy for your readers, even when your work is in a “raw” stage.

-Alpha Readers. If you have cleaned up your work and edited it to the best of your ability, but you feel you still need major help with grammar and structural issues, consider submitting it to only one or two trusted writer friends. Family and non-writer friends may not give you the kind of feedback you need at this stage. They might be overly kind or overly harsh, depending on the relationship, or they may give neutral feedback to avoid saying anything. One or two trusted writer friends may be able to point out what needs to be done to prepare your work sample so you can submit it to a larger group for feedback.

Fair Balance. Be willing to provide feedback to others. Yes, this means taking the time to read their work and give thoughtful feedback. This process provides tremendous insight as to what to look for in your own work, and helps you to realize others are being brave and putting their work out there. Even though it sometimes made me uncomfortable, I submitted my writing to my critique groups and beta readers as often as I could.  I also reviewed the work of others as often as I could. A successful critique group requires this balance. If certain members only review others, and never submit their own work, or keep submitting but never offer critique to others, it can cause discomfort among the group. Besides, those who only do one or the other are missing out on half of the purpose of critiquing─to become a better writer.

Be Specific. When asking for feedback, indicate what you are looking for. If it is just a general impression, say so, but it will help you to consider what you are looking for specifically. Examples might be: Does this opening hook you? Does the dialogue in this scene sound natural? How much work do I need to do to clean up my grammar?  Is there too much backstory?

 

Taking it step by step will help you to build your confidence so that when you do get that first truly negative critique you’ve been fearing, it won’t hurt as much. You’ll be better equipped to take it for what it is worth, and learn from it.

I hope this helps those of you who are new to writing.  I still have a long way to go, and I will soon be facing the next level of critique of my work─the general public. I am sure to learn from that experience as well. Wish me luck!  I wish luck and great learning for all of you.

 

 

How To Survive A Negative Critique

Grrrrr.......

Grrrrr…….

You’ve finally finished that first draft. Congratulations! After months or even years of work, you’re ready to allow another set of eyes to read your precious words. You know it’s not perfect, and will likely need revision. But you’ve read it over and over, tweaked it and revised it, and now you need feedback in order to take your WIP or, Work In Progress, to the next level.
Test Drive Your Work
Finishing a first draft of a novel is a big accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning of your project’s journey. Having someone, and ideally, several people, read your draft and provide feedback is the logical next step whether you plan to self-publish or submit your manuscript for publication. There is only so much the creator of a story can see, and what is on the page may limited or confusing to a reader. Think of it as a test drive for your novel, before it goes out on the open road.
Have your significant other or family and friends read it, if you want, but in most cases their feedback will not yield the kind of constructive criticism you need to improve your work. The relationships color their feedback, and it may be overly positive or overly critical, or even benign, depending on the dynamics. It may be actually easier to take criticism (until you have developed a thick skin) from professionals (such as editors) or colleagues (critique partners), because of the distance and limited relationship.
Once you get the feedback from whoever has read your manuscript, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Even if they are a professional, it is only their opinion. You should consider all feedback, but it does not mean you have to use every single suggestion.
Look for trends or commonalities in the feedback. If a certain word, sentence or scene bothered several people, it needs to be addressed.
Read all comments or notes, but don’t try to fix anything right away. Let it marinate for a few days if possible.
Thank everyone who gave you feedback either in person or via email or message. Taking time out to read and give feedback is a kind thing to do for someone and takes effort.

 

The Down Side
But what if the feedback was mostly negative?
The first thing you should do is allow yourself to react. Politely thank everyone, as stated above, and then go somewhere alone to vent. Feeling hurt? It’s normal. Angry? Also normal. Allow yourself to work through all the emotions. You were brave and put yourself out there, and now someone has stomped on your dreams! Cry, yell, draw rude pictures of your critique partners and throw darts at them. Write a letter explaining why they are wrong, and then burn it or rip it up. Get all the bad feelings out before talking to anyone about how the feedback made you feel.
Then let it go for a few days. Your ego is bruised and sore, so let it heal. At this point, it doesn’t matter if the hurtful critique was spot on or off base. It doesn’t matter if you think you can fix it or not. All that matters is gaining some perspective about your work, and restoring your confidence.
Learning Curve
Writers feel things more deeply than most people; that’s often what prompts them to write in the first place. It’s a great thing to be emotional when creating, but editing and revision is a totally different skill set. It takes practice to turn off the emotional side and look at your work objectively, as others do. So venting after a disappointing critique or review may help to get you back in balance so you can be objective about the feedback.
The bottom line is, it’s your story, and you must ultimately decide how to use the feedback, positive or negative. Sometimes it’s just the reader’s personal preferences filtering their comments. The more you write and get feedback, the more discerning you will be at accepting/rejecting and using feedback.
Then you can polish that baby till it shines, and unleash it on the world!
And then there will be reviews, but that’s a whole other subject…

The Pros and Cons of Comparing Yourself to Other Writers

We all start at the beginning

We all start at the beginning

 

Being a fiction writer can be much like working in a bubble. While smart authors keep an eye on trends in the market, ultimately they each must create the best book they can and then hope it finds an audience. Since each work is an individual piece, and each author has their own distinct voice and style, are fiction authors really in competition with one another?
The Trend Chasers
When a trend is hot, and many are jumping on the bandwagon with similar titles and themes, then yes, those authors are competing for the audience that is buying that type of story. However, those situations are usually temporary because trends in fiction come and go. Tropes, genres and sub-genres rise and fall in popularity. Authors rise and fall in popularity (or notoriety). But thanks to a little invention called the e-book, published stories can now remain on the virtual shelf until they become popular again or are discovered by new readers (which may still require marketing and promotion, but at least now there’s an opportunity for resurrection). For more on the topic of writing to market vs. the story of your heart, see this excellent post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
Readers may have a huge TBR (to be read) pile, and the self-publishing gold rush may be over, but that doesn’t mean there is no chance for any given book to find an audience and gain sales. Whether self, indie, or traditionally published, a good story deserves a chance to be read. It’s not like we already have all the authors we can handle, or there are too many books in the world. The pipeline needs to be fed!
Author vs. Author
Does another author’s success or lack of success really affect you as an author? Only if you let it, by comparing yourself to others and feeling as though you are in competition with them. But there are times when comparing yourself to other writers can be helpful; it all depends on why you are doing it.
Reasons Why You Should:
For inspiration- Your favorite authors are your favorite because something in their voice and storytelling abilities resonates with you. It may be worth exploring in depth why that is so, to understand what touches you as a reader. It will likely be part of why you want to write in the first place.
To learn- So much can be learned from observing successful authors- craft techniques, marketing ideas, story structure, and more. You can also learn valuable lessons on what not to do by observing what goes wrong. Even bestselling authors have flops now and then, or well-known authors behave badly. You can also learn from emerging authors you know, what to try and what to avoid.
To strategize- From other writers, both new and established, you can learn how they handle things like marketing, social media, relationships with their readers, and how they network with professionals in the industry.
In short, discovering what other writers are doing and how they are doing it (maybe even why they are doing it) can help you along your own career path.

However, there can be a downside to comparing yourself to other writers…
Reasons Why You Should Not:
To judge yourself, or others- You should assess where your skills and accomplishments are, in relation to where you want to be, and act accordingly. You should not compare your skill level or accomplishments to your fellow writers, whether they are established authors or unpublished critique group members. Each person has their own path to follow, and there is no “right” way. Interview ten best-selling authors, and each one will have a completely different story of how they arrived at that status. Feeling inferior to another who seems to be ahead of you in progress, or feeling superior to someone who seems to be lagging behind you is pointless, because it is constantly changing, and you may not know the whole story of why they are where they are. Both attitudes, believing you are lagging behind, or that you are levels ahead of someone else, may actually keep you from reaching your own potential.
To use as an excuse- As explained above, there are plenty of readers to go around. There are ways to be discovered. It may take work, it may take time, it may take investment, but every writer has a chance. Focus on your own progress, don’t waste your energies worrying about how you compare to someone else. Don’t let someone else’s lack of success scare you away from trying, and don’t let someone else’s success intimidate you into thinking you can’t do the same.
As an industry, authors are well-known for assisting other authors. Which is as it should be; being kind and helpful to each other is beneficial to all. Competing with other writers doesn’t really help anyone. When it comes down to it, the readers decide who is worthy of their time, money and attention.
What do you think? Have you ever felt in competition with other writers? Was it a positive or negative experience?

Reader’s Pet Peeves- Why Writers Should Care

Not again!

Everyone has different tastes when it comes to reading. What one person enjoys, might make another reader want to fling the book or their e-reader across the room. Authors certainly can’t please everyone, so how much should they be concerned about reader’s pet peeves?
Common Complaints
A recent internet search revealed several articles and forum rants about various reader’s pet peeves. I focused on the Romance genre, but some also applied to fiction in general. After reading several, I found a few common themes to their rants:
Cliffhangers– this puzzled me because I have heard of authors still doing this, and that some readers don’t mind it, eagerly awaiting the next installment. But those who do hate it are vocal about their frustration. I am one of them, and I wrote a post awhile back on the subject, “When Romance Novels Finish Before You Do.”

Lack of Editing– This has become more prevalent with online publishing. Even traditionally published books have an error now and then, but when it becomes so noticeable it takes the reader out of the story, it’s a problem. Some readers are more forgiving, but there are ways to avoid this and ensure the product (book) is as accurate as possible before publication.

Clichés- This should be a given, but they still make their way into some stories. If you have to put one in your story, figure out a twist to make it ironic, humorous, or some other method to make it useful. Otherwise, leave it out.

Overused Tropes– the ironic thing here is, some readers love certain tropes and never get tired of them. So maybe the trick is, as with the cliché, to find some type of twist or fresh take on it. Maybe combine two or three? Take a trope from one genre and use it in another?

Inconsistencies- from timeline troubles to characters who change hair color randomly, readers notice details. After all, details are what draws them into the story. Keeping a list or series bible can help avoid these types of problems.

 

My Personal Peeve
It seems like it should be common sense to avoid such things as cliché’s or overdone tropes, but the fact there are articles and people on forums ranting about them, indicates they happen with some frequency. So, here’s my question:
If an author is successful, and sells well, do they get a pass on committing the “sins” that drive some readers crazy?
I can think of several recent examples of books that have sold extremely well, best sellers, which contained cliché’s, cliffhangers, overused tropes and/or inconsistencies. Can you? Apparently, these “problems” are enough to irritate readers, but not enough to keep them from being published and promoted.
Here’s what brought this subject to my mind, prompting this post- I was with a friend at a bookstore recently, when I told her I had never read anything by a certain author who is considered the Queen of Romance Novels. I wanted her recommendation on the best one to start with, because I wanted to see what made this author so popular. I took my friend’s advice, and started reading the book that night.
It was a story about an old haunted southern mansion, right up my alley. I loved the descriptions, the setting, the author’s voice; her characters were engaging. But by the end of the second chapter, I was irritated because of the constant head-hopping!
Yes, the author is a celebrated, multi- NYTBSA, and she has the skill to “pull it off” as my friend pointed out when I complained. Yes, the author does pull it off, meaning, it doesn’t hurt the story, but it annoys me because I never know whose head we are going to be in from moment to moment. Then I become hyper-aware of it, watching for the change. Often I end up re-reading portions because the change is abrupt enough to pull me out of the story. In addition, I feel it makes it more difficult to get deep into the character’s head when POV switches frequently.
Writers Gonna Write
My annoyance with head-hopping may be my own personal taste, but I was surprised no one else complained about it in the articles and forums I researched. I have always heard head-hopping is advised against, in books on writing instruction, and it is mentioned as taboo in the submission requirements for certain publishers. Apparently, some readers don’t mind it, and some authors can use it effectively.
So I guess the take away from all this is, yes, writers should be aware of reader’s pet peeves, but take the information with a grain of salt (oops, a cliché)! If you do include something that you know may annoy readers, at least have a good reason for doing so.
What are your reading pet peeves?

What To Do If You Hate Blogging

Cute Little Girl Typing On Vintage Typewriter Keyboard

What? You hate blogging? That’s okay. Writing and maintaining a blog is not for everyone. It can be a lot of work, and many writers feel it takes away from time they could be working on other writing projects. However, I believe it is one of the best tools for writers available, and here’s how you can still learn from it, even if you never blog.

In Favor of Blogging

I have learned so much from the almost three years I have been writing my blog posts. A recent post on Anne R. Allen’s blog, explains why blogging is still one of the best things an author can do, including 10 ways blogging can help your career. Whether or not her post inspires you to start or revive your own blog, there is still something to be learned. For example, how having a blog helps to get your name recognized by search engines. Connecting on social media is fine, and a following can be built using whatever social media outlet you prefer. But if you don’t have an actual website, a blog is a great way to get your name out there.

Another aspect of blogging I’d like to add is, since you’re in control, you can discuss any topic you like. This will help attract followers who like what you like. I enjoy discussing New Age/Supernatural topics from time to time, and I’m also a big fan of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A friend of mine, Tasha L. Harrison, is passionate about diversity in books, and romance novels in particular. So she addresses that topic in some of her posts. Anyone who has an interest in the subjects you discuss may become a new follower, or a fan of your books, and hopefully, a friend.

If you are a new writer, you don’t have to blog about the subject of writing. In fact, it is probably better if you hold off on that until you have more experience. But you can talk about certain aspects of your journey, as I have on such topics as writing a first draft, how lack of confidence can affect your writing, trends you notice in the marketplace, etc.

Targeted Learning

It is okay if you still find blogging is not for you. What you can do then is learn from other writer’s blogs. There are tons of blog posts about pretty much any topic you can think of, especially writing tips. If you are a new writer, blogs can be a great educational tool. Supplement your craft studies and conference going by subscribing to the blogs that speak to you. That is what I did, and it was easier to learn that way, in small doses, than to try to get through an entire book of writing instruction.

Build Your Own Reference Guide

Here’s my tip: subscribe to the writing tips/instruction blogs that you like, and they will send you an email when they post. If they are discussing a topic you want to read later, or feel you may need to refer to at some point, move it to a file in your email. For example, I have files broken down by topic: Plotting, Character Development, Dialogue, etc. I also have files pertaining to marketing and the business side of writing, such as: Formatting, Web Design, Covers, Advertising, etc. I have amassed a trove of information, available at my fingertips whenever I need it.

My Favorite Blogs

I have a few blogs I subscribe to, but I also find relevant posts through social media. Writers are great about sharing helpful information on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus. You can also bookmark posts you find by searching on a particular topic. How cool is that? Anything you want to know can be found in a few keystrokes.

Here are the blogs that I subscribe to for writing tips and instruction:        

Anne R. Allen’s Blog

Kristin Lamb’s Blog

Janice Hardy’s Fiction University

Jami Gold’s Blog

 

What blogs do you subscribe to? Do you enjoy writing your own blog, and has it helped your career?