Tag Archives: character development

Writing a Saleable Book

10 Aug

by Susan Dennard

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Recently, someone asked me:

What is required to make a book saleable?

That is a rather large-in-scope question, and as such, I’m afraid my answer will be kinda vague. All the same, I thought it was worth taking the time to answer for everyone.

🙂

My super broad response is the:

The most important thing in writing a saleable book is writing a good book.

I am 100% convinced that if you have a well-written, compelling story, your novel will eventually find an agent/editor. Period.

That said, there are a few critical things that define a “good book”. Again, these answers are vague, and I’d be more than happy to get specific for anyone with questions (ask in the comments, please!).

Parts of a Good Book

1. First and foremost, the story absolutely most flow. Stilted dialogue, poor pacing, or unreadable grammar/syntax will kill a manuscript. A reader can put up with slow scenes if it all flows beautifully, and a reader can put up with a less-than-compelling plot if it’s smooth.

The way to ensure your novel flows is to revise-revise-revise. Learning to master the written word is absolutely critical. Few people write stunning first drafts, but give them a red pen, and they can line-edit their words into perfect prose.

2. Secondly, a book needs a compelling plot with tension on every page. The story builds, the tension builds, and everything ends in an explosive climax (and this applies to any genre—by explosive I simply mean all aspects of the story finally come together).

This is something you can learn by reading about writing, taking workshops, or simply reading heavily in the genre you write. There are structure to stories (three-act is the most common), and your job is to practice until these are second nature when you write/revise.

Again, my first drafts are rarely good examples of compelling plot, but I can revise them until they shine and all the subplots weave into the main plot.

3. Third, a book needs a cast of characters that readers care about. The best way to achieve this is to ensure the MC has a desperate need—secondary characters too. This is also something you have to learn by doing/practicing.

4. Fourth, the book must have high stakes. “High stakes” simply means we are invested in whether or not the MC achieves his/her goal. What will she lose if she fails to reach her goal? And why does that matter? A common reason a book fails to compel readers is low stakes—if we don’t care about the MC’s failure, we don’t care about reading the book.

Finding Problems

My biggest suggestion in terms of how to address these 4 components is to start critiquing and getting your work critiqued. Either find a critique partner, join a critique group, or stay active in a critiquing community. This is no doubt something everyone here already knows, but it’s so important (in my opinion) that I just have to emphasize it!

When you see others make mistakes, you learn to spot them in your own writing. Additionally, we, the writers, are often too close to our novels to see them “as a whole”. CPs and betas have the needed distance to spot problems

When I got an agent, Something Strange and Deadly had been through 4 crit partners and 2 betas. Did I always listen to my CPs’/betas’ comments? No—you must decide and filter feedback—but it was thanks to my CPs/betas that I caught some of my biggest mistakes (character inconsistencies, flat climax, plot holes, etc.).

What do you think? Are there any other components you think a saleable book needs? And how do you feel about critique partners or beta readers?

~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

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Using Method Acting in Your Writing

6 Jul

By Sammy Bina

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The first time I ever acted on stage was my freshman year of high school, when I played a 90-year-old nun in the show (warning: terrible pun ahead) Nun of Your Business. I’d never acted before, and knew next to nothing about it. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to pretend to be someone else, but it proved to be more of a challenge than I thought. As a 14-year-old, I had no idea what it was like to walk around using a cane. I still had all my teeth. Hell, I wasn’t even Catholic.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t the only one feeling like a fish out of water. So, to help us get into character before rehearsals, our director would have us sit in a circle and ask us mundane questions like ‘what’s your favorite breakfast food?’ or ‘what kind of errands did you run today?’ And we’d have to answer them from our character’s point of view. Now, as a frigid old woman who could hardly walk, I didn’t run many errands, but I waxed poetic on my love of all things breakfast, particularly buttermilk pancakes. I still remember that. I also remember insisting that I did not wear dentures.

Writing, it turns out, is a lot like acting. You have an entire cast of characters, each of them unique, and you have to manage to keep them all straight. You have to make sure they don’t blend together, and that each has a very distinct personality. I’ve been hard at work editing my current WIP, and was having a little trouble with one chapter in particular, where I couldn’t seem to get the mother to sound like herself. Up until that point in the manuscript, she’d been kind of sarcastic and grumpy. In this particular scene, the main character was in need of some comfort, and I couldn’t figure out a way for this older woman to offer her support without sounding trite and completely out of character.

So what did I do? I went back to my high school days of method acting. I sat myself down, closed my eyes, and tried to envision myself as a 47-year-old woman who’s hiding a fugitive in her basement, whose eldest son has turned out to be a major disappointment, and whose world is crumbling around her faster than a leaning tower of Jenga. I may have considered even putting on a frumpy dress and an apron for this, but couldn’t find any. (But if dressing up helps you, then by all means, go for it.) I envisioned what she’d had for breakfast that morning, and what kinds of errands she’d had to run. Knowing the scene took place in winter, I thought about how snow might affect her mood. Then I read through the entire scene out loud, much like you’d do at a play rehearsal. The problem, I found, was that a script is all dialogue, save for very specific sections of blocking. In between my lines of dialogue, I’d have a paragraph describing the lump in someone’s throat, or how badly their head hurt. When the thing I needed to work on most was voice, all those extra words just got in the way.

How did I solve the problem, you ask? I opened a new Word document, copied and pasted the scene I was working on, and deleted everything that wasn’t dialogue. And after I read through that, I realized why I couldn’t get the mother to act the way she’s supposed to. The problem was that the paragraphs between the dialogue were concentrated on the main character, as she’s the one narrating. So her voice was pulling me away from the one I needed help with. Once I took away my MC’s narration, the scene began to fall into place. I had a much better grasp on the mother’s voice. Keeping those emotions I’d dug up at the front of my mind, I was able to rewrite the scene in a way that stayed true to who both the characters were.

I haven’t acted since I started college, but I’ve found method acting to be a useful took I like to keep in my writer’s toolbox. It’s come in handy on more than one occasion, and I hope you guys can take advantage of it as well. Just start with the basic question of what’s the best breakfast food, and see where your imagination takes you!

~~~

Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She is currently in the midst of moving to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

Writing in Style (Or Style in Writing?)

15 Jun

By Sammy Bina

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Anyone who knows me in real life (or just follows my inane ramblings on twitter or tumblr) knows that my not-so-secret second love in life is fashion. Every morning I wake up and check the publishing blogs I subscribe to, then immediately move on to the style blogs. My writing may be influenced that day by some tips I picked up, and my outfit may just be an interpretation of something I saw online. Either way, my day has been impacted by the two things I love most.

But what does fashion have to do with writing, you wonder. Besides the obvious fact that your characters wear clothes (or maybe they don’t. Maybe you’re writing about a nudist colony, in which case, this post may not be relevant).

As writers, we’re told to infuse our characters with personality. No one wants to read an entire novel where the main character is as bland as a piece of burnt, unbuttered toast. We’re told to give them quirks, a distinct voice, and maybe a few defining physical features. Clothing, I think, falls into the same category. Maybe it’s just me, but I pay close attention when an author takes the time to describe what a person is wearing, even if it’s only a passing sentence. Suzanne Collins doesn’t really waste a lot of words on Katniss’s dress for the opening ceremony. In fact, this is all we get:

“I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies. I’m in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it’s the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow, and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. “

“My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style.”

It’s pretty vague, if we’re being honest. We have absolutely no idea what the headpiece even looks like. But that’s okay, because we’re given an impression. In our minds, we’re able to understand that the dress is, in a lot of ways, like Katniss herself: simple yet powerful.

Period pieces require a little more effort than a contemporary novel. Instead of saying a character’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’ve got to worry about historical accuracy. I took a class on the history of fashion in college, just so I’d have the basic information if I decided I ever wanted to write in that genre. The text book is actually a really great reference for anyone who’s looking for one: Survey of Historic Costume. There’s also a great website (the KCI Digital Archives) that has a lot of fantastic images compiled for your perusal. If you’ve read any historical romance novels, you’ll know that fashion plays a bigger role than it does in contemporary stories, if only because a person had to change so often, and a specific garment meant a specific thing in a specific situation. These days we don’t really have that problem; at least, not to such a degree.

Taking characterization into consideration, I think clothing is a totally legit way to help your readers understand them. I mentioned once how black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement. Same goes for that girl who’s always wearing frumpy clothes inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe she’s poor and can’t afford nice things. Maybe she doesn’t believe in wearing pants. Maybe she thinks she’s stuck in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, it speaks to her character as a whole.

Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my physical portrayal of people and places. I’ve made a conscious effort to include some sort of clothing description where it’s necessary, and one of my CPs mentioned the interior of my main setting seemed a bit lackluster. Needless to say, I took the time to spruce it up. I realized she was right — initially, it was just a standard house. There was nothing defining about it. Now, as I go back and edit, it’s begun to take on a personality of its own. Which goes to say that clothing doesn’t just belong on people — you can dress up a setting, too!

If you’re anything like me and prefer a visual to help you with your descriptions, the above websites should be pretty helpful. Also, take a look at polyvore.com. Not only can you create visual representations of outfits, but interiors as well! I’ve definitely found it to be a very helpful tool in certain situations.

What about you guys? Do you think clothing can be an important aspect of characterization? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

~~~

Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.

Building Plot from Character

17 Jan

by Susan Dennard

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Last Friday’s QOTW was about avoiding a contrived plot.  At the time, I took this to mean a copy-cat plot, but the responses of Mandy and Julie made me see what the question could have meant: how do you avoid a forced plot — a turn of events in the story that doesn’t feel natural.  Julie said, “if a seemingly unsolvable problem is solved by a character conveniently having an ability that was unknown before the crisis moment, the solution feels contrived.” Mandy mentioned “it’s the decisions the characters make that effect how the plot plays out.”

I wanted to take both of these fantastic answers a step further.  To avoid that feeling of “what a coincidence!” or “this feels out-of-character“, you can focus on building your plot from a character.  Whether you a plotter or a pantster, it’s important to keep in mind that in most stories character dictates plot.  Even the most plot-driven stories are affected by the heroes — think of Indiana Jones or Lord of the Rings where quests are the main force behind the story but characters also affect how that quest plays out.

Ultimately, convincing stories boil down to the decisions and actions a character takes feeling natural to that character (just like Julie and Mandy said).  The best way to show what I mean is to use my favorite stories as examples.

Plot-driven Stories

How would Star Wars: A New Hope have differed if Luke were a different type of person?

Luke is a reluctant hero — though he wants excitement and change, he’s unwilling to leave behind his family on the whim of his old pal, Ben Kenobi.  In fact, Luke is kind of a whiny baby.  For him to have willingly accepted Ben’s request to face Darth Vader from the beginning would have felt wrong.  Why?  Because it’s not in his character to actually face excitement and change fearlessly.  It’s not until his family is killed that he decides to set out on his quest and face the major nasty, Darth Vader.

What if Luke had been a braver, more aggressive character?  He’d have been gung-ho over facing Darth Vadar from the get-go.  We’d have found it weird if he’d been reluctant.

What if Luke had been a downright coward?  Well, no way in hell he’d have joined Ben Kenobi — dead family or not.  The quest just wouldn’t have happened.

The plot has to fit the characters.

Character-driven Stories

How would Napoleon Dynamite be different if Napoleon were a different type of person?

Well…you wouldn’t even have the same story!  If Napoleon didn’t call home for chapstick or draw hideous portraits of his prom dates, you simply wouldn’t have the same movie.  In other words, everything in a character-driven story is decided by the main character.  To have even the slightest out-of-character action is much more obvious, and to force plot events on a character will instantly alienate readers/viewers.

Again, the plot has to fit the characters.

How to Build Plot from Character

I foolishly messed this up with my first draft of The Spirit-Hunters — I made up a series of events I thought were über cool, threw some random characters in to act it out, and BAM!  I had a completely wretched story that was utterly unconvincing and took a year of heavy revisions to salvage.

Mandy offers great advice in the QOTW: “This is why I always reccomend that if you have a book idea, the first thing you do is figure out what kind of character would create the most conflict– whether that means a bossy Type A character who loses control, a fashoinista who ends up stranded in the woods, a socially awkward girl who ends up in high society, etc. If you truly think about what kind of characters will naturally create the most conflict, chances are the plot won’t feel forced.

The instant you’ve got your Shiny New Idea, sit down and sort out the best character for it — be it the kind of person who will create the most conflict (a reluctant Luke Skywalker) or the kind of person most likely to be up to these sorts of challenges (an always ready Indiana Jones).  If you’re writing a romance, what traits in the hero will most conflict with the heroine?  Thinking about characteristics and the conflict that can arise from such personalities will let you tap into a whole new (and convincing!) slew of plot events!

Have you made this same mistake in your own writing?  Have you seen it done in any movies/TV/novels?  Or can you think of a story that would be totally changed if the protagonist were a different sort of person?

~~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She is repped by Sara Kendall of NCLit, and her debut, The Spirit-Hunters, will be available from Harper Children’s in 2012. You can learn more about her writing process, crazy life-thoughts, and crippling cookie-addiction on her blog or twitter.

Modeling Protagonists After Real Life Heroes

21 Dec

by Susan Dennard

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Heroes.  Real, genuine heroes — the people who live and breathe like the rest of us, but somehow stand apart.  Stand taller.  Earn our admiration and respect.
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass starts off by asking you to list your heroes.  Why are they are your heroes?  What about them is heroic — what qualities do they possess?

Then he goes on to tell you to try to infuse your story’s main characters with these qualities.

Can you do it?  Can you name your heroes?

These are mine:

  • Isaac Asimov
    • He devoted his life whole-heartedly to the things he loved: writing and science.  He wrote over 400 books, was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, and paved the way for sci-fi writers of today.
  • Gichin Funakoshi
    • He was the father of modern karate.  He devoted his life to “being a better human being”, to raising his family, and to developing Karate-do. (His autobiography is AMAZING, by the way.)
  • My parents
    • They’re generous, warm, and believe 100% in following your dreams.  Mom & Dad are both devoted to doing the right thing and living their lives with happiness and love. (I know you’re groaning that I’ve listed my parents.  But for realz, they’re cool people.)

Notice that all of my heroes have one thing in common: DEVOTION.  Their lives revolved around what they believed in.  They were productive and never gave up.

When I set out to write my own heroes (usually of the “heroine” persuasion), they always possess that one quality.  No matter what, my protagonists will not give up.  They are devoted to their goals, and they will keep trying, keep acting, keep working despite the obstacles before them.

In The Spirit-Hunters, my main character, Eleanor, is in waaaaay over her head.  She’s a sheltered, high-society girl who’s spent most of her life chaperoned.  Now her brother has been kidnapped by a necromancer, walking dead are lurking in Philadelphia, and she has no idea what to do to make this all okay again.  But, she’s devoted to her brother; she’s devoted to rescuing him; and she’s devoted to doing whatever needs to be done.  And because of that one quality, she’s a hero.

Who are your favorite heroes in novels?

You can look to your favorite story characters for inspiration too.  You can no doubt guess that my favorite heroes/heroines are the ones that are devoted to TAKING ACTION!  While I enjoyed Twilight, Bella Swan’s passiveness was not my style…  All the same, the girl was 100% devoted to Edward!  Now Katniss from The Hunger Games — that’s my kinda hero!  Devoted to her family and to protecting the weak.

Of course, the protagonist needn’t be a tough-tamale like Katniss to appeal to me.  One of my favorite heroines of all time is Anne Elliot from Jane Austin’s Persuasion.  Anne is a soft-spoken sweetie, but she’s devoted to doing what’s right and being true to herself.

What about you?

Tell me your heroes — both real life and fiction.  What qualities make them heroes?  Do your own protagonists have these qualities?

Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

16 Dec

This post has been updated and MOVED to our new website: Pub(lishing) Crawl.

Creating Characters Using the Dialectical Method

6 Oct

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Dialectics is a method of argument that dates back to ancient times.  Central to both Indic and Western philosophy, the method was popularized by Plato in his Socratic Dialogues.  Dialectics is based in dialogue, but unlike debate, which centers on two people of opposing views trying to prove the other wrong, dialectics starts with two people of opposing views who wish to reach an agreement.

What does any of this have to do with creating characters?  Good question!  All strong, well-rounded characters have a dual nature.  So when I talk about “dialogue,” I’m not referring to a conversation between two opposing characters; I’m talking about an inner dialogue between the opposing forces within an individual character.  In other words, dialectics can be used to draw out and reveal the dualism and conflict within each of your characters.

The dialectical method is made up of four basic principles:

  1. Everything is transient and finite, existing in the medium of time (this idea is not accepted by some dialecticians).
  2. Everything is made out of opposing forces/opposing sides (contradictions).
  3. Gradual changes lead to turning points, where one force overcomes the other (quantitative change leads to qualitative change).
  4. Change moves in spirals, not circles.

Opposing forces?  Turning points?  Now we’re talking about writing!

As your novel opens, your main character will be of a specific frame of mind.  One attitude is dominant.  You should be able to sum up this perspective in a statement.  For instance, Romeo’s original perspective at the opening of ROMEO AND JULIET might be phrased as, “I will always hate all Capulets.”  This original statement, in dialectical terms, is the “thesis.”  Later, Romeo is faced with a contradictory view point.   An opposing statement would fit Romeo’s new attitude.  This statement might be, “Capulets and Montagues no longer matter, because I love Juliet.”  In dialectical terms, this opposing point of view is the “antithesis.”

Character development happens on its own when you delve into these opposing points of view within your character.  Once your character’s original view is opposed by a contradictory view, the original view must yield.  This doesn’t mean that the thesis is thrown over completely in favor of the antithesis.  In dialectics, unlike debate, truth is sought through compromise.  In the example of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo avenges the death of Mercutio by killing Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt.  So his love for Juliet has disproved his thesis, but his loyalty to his own clan has disproved his antithesis.  Romeo’s compromising view point could be stated as, “I will always be a Montague, but that fact will not prevent my love for Juliet.”  The compromise, in dialectical terms, is known as the “synthesis.”  When the synthesis is reached, generally your character has completed a full character arc.

Taking Elizabeth Bennet from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE as an example, Elizabeth’s thesis might be stated as, “Mr. Darcy is an overly proud, obnoxious person, not worthy of my attention.”

Elizabeth’s antithesis might be, “Mr. Darcy is a good man, and I do not deserve him (and he knows it!)”

Eventually, Elizabeth reaches a synthesis that might be stated as, “Mr. Darcy and I are both proud and stubborn, and we belong together.”

Take a look at your own favorite books.  Do the characters’ turning points and arcs fit the dialectical method?

Do the characters in your own manuscripts move from thesis, to antithesis, to synthesis?  If not, and you think the development of your characters could be stronger, can you find where the principles of dialectics could be applied?

I’d love to know if this approach works or doesn’t work for you. I don’t know that it will work for every book. Im looking forward to reading your comments!

~~~

 

 

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.