An engaging story is only as engaging as the characters going through the journey. Readers are investing their time (and hopefully their money), so as an author, I want them to feel as though they have a new person they can’t wait to spend their day with. Hero. Heroine. Villain. The cheeky best friend. I want my characters to feel authentic and be memorable, to last long after the story is finished. I want readers to connect with them on a deep, personal level. Having that connection pulls a reader in and keeps them there from the ‘Once upon a time,’ to the ‘Happily ever after.’
Creating lasting characters goes beyond the standard appearance, attitudes, and accents. It starts with the author knowing the characters inside out, upside-down, and backwards. An author has to know their character’s goals, motives, and fears even when the characters themselves haven’t a clue. It’s usually in those key points where readers begin to identify and connect with the character; seeing something of themselves reflected from the page and learning how those factors were influenced by a character’s backstory can help tie the reader and characters together.
The writing world has beaten the word ‘backstory’ to death with the ugly stick, but a character’s history is the foundation for how they interact with their world, and most importantly, how they approach conflict. Backstory has to exist, not in page after page of info-dumping, but peppered throughout the story in a way that will allow the reader to make their own connections.
With a character’s goals, motivations, and fears in mind consider playing a game of twenty questions AS your main protagonists. Try journaling your answers as if you were the character being interrogated or being set up for a blind date. Be sure to take note of any personality quirks, word choices, or individualized idiosyncrasies that can round out your character. Sometimes it’s those small, subtle details that can make a reader fall in love with the world you’ve created.
- What is your happiest/worst memory, and WHY?
- What is your greatest accomplishment/regret and WHY?
- What is your biggest pet peeve, and WHY?
- What is your guiltiest pleasure, and WHY?
- What is your greatest fear, and WHY?
- Where do you see yourself in twenty years, and WHY?
- You find $5,000 in the street, what do you do, and WHY?
- Who is/was the most influential person in your life, and WHY?
- Who is your biggest enemy, and WHY?
- Who is your biggest fan, and WHY?
- Regardless of pay, what would be your dream career, and WHY?
- What is your ‘go to’ quote or phrase that seems to answer everything, and WHY?
- What is your favorite film of all time, and WHY?
- Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual, and WHY?
- Who were you closest to as a child, and WHY?
- What do you find the biggest waste of time to be, and WHY?
- Do you believe in love at first sight, and WHY or WHY NOT?
- If you could meet one person, dead or alive, who would you choose, and WHY?
- If you had a theme song for your life, what would it be, and WHY?
- If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be, and WHY?
The answers to these questions provide backstory, but the most important part of the twenty questions is the why. Having a character explain the why is what really dictates how a belief or experience will affect any future goals, motives, or fears and how they deal with conflict.
Example – “No, absolutely not. Love at first site? An alien invasion is more likely. I watched my brilliant best friend who had the world set on a platter in front of her, suddenly get all tongue tied and looney over a fella she just met… and oh how she loved him and he loved her and it was all hearts, flowers and head-over-heels nonsense, and now she’s swindled broke with twins on each hip living in her granny’s apartment. You know that sayin’ – ‘Jesus take the wheel?’ – well, when you let your fickle, foolish heart take the wheel for the first time, you will find yourself lost and in a ditch somewhere with no idea how you got there.”
Given this example, this main character doesn’t just disbelieve love at first site, she is likely to have a complete distrust for romance in general. So when she’s dropped into a meet-cute with a swoony hero, the last thing she will be is bowled over by charm and a sweet smile.
Make friends or frenemies with the voices inside your head. Make it a goal to know your characters better than they know themselves. Always search for ways to get to the heart of what drives, and terrifies your characters. Give them real, human flaws and the kind of history that will connect with the readers of your genre. Readers want book boyfriends, and besties, villains we love to hate, give them characters they can’t stop thinking about because a story is only as interesting as the characters going through the journey.
So you finally submitted a manuscript to that agent you’ve been creepily stalking online for months and she responded with a “thanks but no thanks . . . but mainly no thanks.” What now?
First, what do I mean by ‘rejection?’ The word ‘rejection’ derives from ancient Sanskrit - rej, meaning ‘female’ and ecton, meaning ‘turns you down for the Wilco concert.’ Rejection comes in all shapes and sizes and I’ve experienced them all, but for now I’m only addressing when an agent or editor passes on a piece of writing you pitched to them for representation (if you’re looking for help handling dating rejection, I still haven’t gotten over some of those from 20 years ago).
If you’ve been doing this writing thing for any amount of time, then you’ve suffered the sting of rejection and have probably been consoled by anecdotes of successful authors who have famously undergone similarly crippling rejections. Like J.K. Rowling, who was rejected by 405 publishing houses before finally breaking through with her debut novel (Barry-something), and who today owns 3/4 of England. And Agatha Christie, who suffered through five years of rejections before eventually taking her revenge by elaborately murdering each of those editors one by one at a dinner party.
While such tales provide some comfort, you’ve sweated and bled onto this manuscript for months, or more likely, years (you might want to print a clean copy), so surely everyone who simply takes the time to read it will marvel at your genius and will hand you a cloth sack with a dollar sign printed on the side, right?
Well, not so much. Think back to the traditionally published books you’ve read. How many have you not liked? Hated? Given up on? Yet all of those writers found an audience somewhere. I once quit on a wildly popular novel during the final chapter (I won’t name names, but let’s just say I had a divergent opinion from the mainstream). How much do you have to hate a book to just give up with only like ten pages to go? Well, the author of that particular series is sitting on a beach somewhere lighting cigars with first editions of Ulysses and eating beluga sushi, or whatever it is rich people do, I wouldn’t know.
If an agent or editor rejects your work, it generally means one of two things: A) the writing’s fine, but he/she’s just not that into you. Maybe that agent already signed a manuscript about a crime-solving penguin that week, and simply can’t take on a second, or B) you’re a lousy writer with nothing to contribute to the world and no one will ever love you.
In either case, the only thing to do is to keep sending queries and keep writing. If that agent just isn’t digging what you’re selling, then maybe the next one will, and if not her, then the next one, and so on. If the issue is that you’re a terrible writer (and let’s not fool ourselves, that might be it) then the only way to get better is to practice arranging words in different combinations until you unlock the secret code of not sucking. Keep working on your next project. More writing floats all ships. If you just need to get better, it’s practice. If you need to test that same agent who seemed very close to signing you last time with a new work then this fits that bill too. Plus, what else are you going to do to fill the months in between Game of Thrones seasons?
Here are some ‘dos and don’ts’ of rejection for your reference:
- Respond to said agent impolitely. Or politely. Or at all. The thought will come upon you, usually late at night, to reply to the rejection e-mail with something innocuous like “Thanks for reading” or “I know where you live.” Suppress this voice. (The only acceptable thing to send to a rejecting agent is a fresh query for a shiny new manuscript entirely unrelated to the last).
- Mention said agent or agency by name via social media, either good or bad. I’ll certainly let an agent correct me if I’m wrong, but right now, I can’t envision any scenario where it would benefit you to single out an agent after a rejection.
- Become a Cowboys fan. It can be tempting to turn to evil in those dark times in life, but things will get better. Resist the urge.
- Call your ex in a moment of weakness. You made the right choice; now be strong.
- Pour yourself a glass of good scotch. If you’re under 21, you shouldn’t be drinking good scotch. For you, I recommend 10-year Glenmorangie as a more modestly priced alternative for a college budget.
- Keep writing. This should probably be number 1, but scotch.
- Keep querying. If you’re a decent writer and just haven’t found your audience yet, this maximizes your chances. And if your writing simply stinks, no harm done plus those agents probably appreciate the laugh.
- Attend nearby writers conferences. Or not-so-near if you like to travel. These are a hotbed of agent activity, often with query sessions and mixers. It’s much harder to reject a person face to face, so take advantage. That agent who passed on your homage to Charles Manson, upon meeting you and seeing in person that you are in fact truly frightening, might be impressed with your commitment to the subject matter and sign you on that basis.
- Join a local writer critique group. Most agents won’t tell you if your writing is hopeless, but a good critique group will.
- Work on your writer platform. Agents and editors love to see a vibrant social media presence with lots of built-in eyeballs. That same rejected manuscript may very well have fared better if you had an active blog or another 20,000 Twitter followers.
- On second thought, go ahead and call that ex. How bad could it be?
Rejection stinks and it’s deflating and demoralizing, but it happens in this industry, and in any creative industry. The only true measure of control any of us have is to keep at it. So suck it up and keep writing. Or don’t. Do what makes you happy.Read more
Being a writer is its own breed of paranoia. You lock yourself away in some little antisocial corner, hunched over a keyboard and pounding away for hours on end, and hope, in the end, someone will like your work enough to pat you on the back and tell you it’s all been worthwhile. You have a story to tell, an important one you want to share with the world, and the world wants it just as bad as you want them to have it. Rriigghhtt.
It rarely works out like that. You write for rejection, anticipating each one will be a little kinder than the last and you finally get a little bit of hope. Not necessarily acceptance, but hope. After reading your submission or query, if they didn’t tell you to burn your keyboard never ever send anything like that again, you can call that a success. Instead, they tell you taste is subjective and to keep on trying and you call that a victory. It’s like the high school cheerleader or quarterback telling the teenage you they would only date you if you were the last person on earth. Ah, then there’s still a chance, even if it’s a slim one.
You as a writer have to be tough as a three-year-old reaching for the candy dish on the coffee table. No matter how many times their hands get slapped and are told no, they know there is a prize just waiting to be claimed once they wear the hand slapper down. So, they keep reaching.
That’s what a writer has to do, keep reaching. There is no secret shortcut to success, just perseverance – and luck. Talent and luck. Hard work and luck. See the pattern?
Writer’s tears are more than a metaphor, it’s an emotional rollercoaster that you ride throughout your career. It just seems the valleys are a lot longer and deeper than the highs could ever be, but you don’t get off the ride. You persevere, that’s the artistry in your soul. That’s why you have to write. So write
Writing saved my life today. No kidding. It absolutely did.
I had stopped off at Whole Foods after work to write, not because I’m some pretentious writer dude being all like, I only write at Whole Foods, but because I bought a sun hat at REI, which is right next door and it was the last day to get 25% off and don’t tell me sun hats aren’t manly because I plan to do real manly things like mowing the yard and weed whacking and moving dirt. And anyway, it’s not really a ‘sun hat’ – it’s a death ray deflector.
So I’m sitting there, death ray deflector in a bag at my feet, writing and drinking my beer. Or maybe it’s the other way around, drinking my beer and writing. And, just to be clear, it’s not like I’m, you know, drinking lots of beer, it’s honestly just one beer after work while I write. I’m on chapter 24 or something of my elevator novel, all in all making fair progress, but tonight the characters are just being buttholes. Being totally uncooperative. For instance
Lou is all like “Yes I believe that you are correct in your statement.”
And I’m all like “Hell no, she didn’t. She did not just say that.”
And Henry’s like “Thank you Louise. You are a wonderful human being.”
And I’m like, GUYS WTF??? Work with me, Lou. That is so not your voice. The reader needs to be able to see who you are in everything you do. They need to see you, Lou, to see your passions, your failures, your anxieties, your beauty, your compassion, your hatred, your vulnerabilities. They need to be able to feel this without thinking. And Lou, it has to be organic – it has to be in the way you fix your hair or open a door. In the way you see people. In the way you react to situations. And not just when the elevator cable finally snaps and you need to save the day, but also when Elliot pukes on you, when Hipster Dad yells at his kids. When Henry slights you.
I tell them this, I tell Lou and Henry this. And you know what they do? They just toss me a little nod and get back to talking. They’re evidently on break. Lou is drinking effervescent water or something and Henry’s vaping. And on the screen I’ve typed
“Wait,” Lou says and her face lights up and her smile, her smile is something like a
Like a what?
What’s the hell’s her smile like?
So I’m like “Lou, what’s your smile like?”
She rolls her eyes and nudges Henry. “Break’s over,” she says. “Writer boy is freaking out. Time to get back to the elevator.”
“Union rules say I still got a minute,” Henry says and takes another hit of his vape.
Lou exhales, folds her arms across her chest and taps her fingernails on her forearms.
Henry exhales a cloud of smoke in her direction and she snatches the vape, drops it in her half full glass of effervescent water and saunters toward the elevator shaft.
I’m excited. They’re off break and ready to rock and roll but it’s too late. My beer’s gone and it’s just about time to get on home to the family. But I think maybe just one more page. I’m feeling the voice, so yeah, one more page, the family won’t miss me except then my phone rings.
It’s my wife.
I love hearing from her. She’s awesome. But I have one more page to write. And besides, she never calls me at this time of day. So I’m picturing an emergency - broken pipes or swarms of flying fire ants or maybe lava spewing out of fissures in the back yard.
On the fifth ring I answer.
And she’s like
Did you buy pork chops?
Time stands still and I shut my eyes. My insides clench.
She’s referring the trip to the supermarket last Sunday, when I said, “Can you go get the milk and I’ll get the meat?” Because it’s so much more efficient that way. I’m a super fast grocery store shopping guy. My motto is “Just get what you need and get out ©.” So I sent her on her way while I got the meat. Because, like I said, it’s so much faster that way.
I’m about to lie to her, to say “Would I forget to buy pork chops? Of course I bought them. If they’re not in the fridge then I guess our twelve year old son ate them.”
But I look around and see that I’m in a GROCERY STORE. And so I’m saved. I can buy pork shops in the same place I’m writing. Problem solved.
And that, my friends, is how writing saved my life. Well, maybe it didn’t necessarily “save my life”. It’s not like Dot would have been waiting for me with a rolling pin in hand, ready to teach me a lesson about forgetting to buy pork shops. She’d probably just have been like okay let’s just have leftovers.
Maybe it’s that writing just allowed our family to adhere to our rigid dinner schedule that we establish every Sunday. Or maybe, at the very least, it saved me from an unnecessary trip to the grocery store.
And that’s something.
So thank you writing. Thank you so much.
Voice is about allowing your characters to ooze off the page. For every action, every sentence, every movement, every failure, every success, for everything they feel, to be a description of who they are. Because, and I hate to break it to you, nobody cares if you forgot to pick up pork chops at the grocery store on Sunday. That’s boring. But throw some voice in with it and it becomes something more than a shopping mishap. It becomes personal.
What readers want is to get to know your characters. To identify with them. To love them. To hate them. To empathize with them. To discover what their insecurities are. What their passions are. What is meaningful to them and what is not. How that plays out in their actions and in their thoughts. And the last thing they want is you, the author, to tell them these things point blank. They want it to be how it is in real life, when they meet people and have to figure things out on their own. Because that’s interesting. It’s intriguing. It’s fun.
So yeah, go ahead, tell some lame story about forgetting to buy pork chops. Just add some voice. Make your characters come alive. Do that and the world will beat a path to your door.
Book signings have a romantic appeal for authors. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to a packed arena chanting our names. You breeze into the venue, get ushered to a table where a stack of your books waits, and scribble your name away for your adoring fans.
Yeah, I’ve never had one of those.
I’m a self-published writer, so I usually have what I call “the working man’s book signing.” That’s where you truck in a box of your own books, get shoved into a corner somewhere, and desperately spend the next three hours trying to make eye contact with your fellow human beings. If you’re lucky, you get to handle the sales yourself. If not, you have to settle up with the house at the end of the event, which is a whole level of awkwardness unto itself.
Oh well. It’s a living, right?
Except, no, it’s really not. You’re usually lucky to make enough to pay for your gas getting there. But as an unknown author, it’s a necessary evil, one of the few ways to get out in front of readers and sell some books.
In the past decade, I’ve had a ton of signings. I’ve had the “cattle-call,” where you’re in a room with far more authors than readers. I’ve had the “out-of-place,” where you’re set up in a store that doesn’t even sell books, so the customers don’t read and they’re all very annoyed by your pitch. But luckily, since I started winning some awards over the last few years, I’ve had far more good signings than bad, where people actually come to check out the books and are quick to buy.
Then, I found out the true definition of a bad signing.
A few months ago, one of my contacts came to me with an opportunity. I could have a solo reading/signing at a couple of locations in a not-to-be-named chain of discount book stores. Of course, I jumped at the chance. Readings are absolutely the best; I know if I can actually expose a potential reader to my work, they’ll buy. The only thing that made me hesitate is that the stores wanted a 40% cut of all sales.
To be fair, 40% is a pretty standard retail discount in the publishing world. Most retail outlets insist on it before they’ll even consider carrying your book. But, since retail outlets never carry my books anyway, I opt for a much lower cover price to entice more buyers. At a 60% cut, technically, I’m losing money on every sale.
But I figured, what the hell. Maybe I can do a markup for the event and just see how it goes. So I set up two events on back-to-back Saturdays at two different locations, and contacted the only manager whose name I was given. She gave me more details, including paperwork they needed filled out.
Oy vey, the paperwork this place required! Again, in ten years of doing this, I’ve never seen anything like it. My tax return was shorter than what they needed, which included an entire sheet filled out—by hand—for every title, and for each event. I was bringing seven titles. Not only that, but I noticed they also retained the option to pay the writer by check 6-8 weeks after the event. This was another first for me.
But, after being treated for carpal tunnel, I went to the first signing.
It went pretty well, mostly thanks to a couple of my good friends from the DFW Writers’ Workshop. There was no reading offered, but the store didn’t really have the traffic for that anyway. I did sell out of one title almost before I could get set up, and a few more sales trickled in after that sage poet Del Cain went around the store and talked me up to people. At the end of the day, the store totaled up my cut, which matched exactly what I had figured, and even paid me right out of the register.
Before I left, I got a contact name at the store I was supposed to be at the following week, and emailed when I got home to check up on the event.
They had no idea I was coming. Which meant no promotion of any sort had been done. Maybe that should have been a red flag, but I shrugged it off.
I was still flying high the following week, when I set out for the second signing. It was a much longer drive and it was also raining, which is never fun when you’re trying to transport a cardboard box full of books from a block away. But I got inside, introduced myself, and got set up.
A few minutes later, the manager came over with my tome of paperwork to tell me that I had filled it out wrong. The store was supposed to get 60% of sales, the author 40%.
I stared at him, flabbergasted. I told him that last week, the other store in their chain had given me 60%. He said that wasn’t right. I told him that 40% was pretty standard for the store, especially for an author who was actually bringing in the product and assuming all the risk. He insisted it had always been 60% for the store. I pulled up the email on my phone and showed him that. He said he would ‘honor the original arrangement,’ but would call to find out for sure. I told him if need be, I could just pack up and go.
He called his corporate office. I heard him go in the back and talk, then, after they assumingly let him know that I was right, he came out and told me stiffly that everything was good.
The victory was hollow. I didn’t want to sit here for the next three hours in awkward silence with this man.
As luck would have it, his shift was over, and he left me in the care of a much nicer employee. But we still sat in awkward silence, because the store was located in an outdoor shopping mall, and nobody goes to an outdoor shopping mall in the rain. That day, I just got one sale, and that was only because the employee talked me up to one of the few customers that came in.
Afterward, I went up to thank him. It’s nice when a store tells customers you’re there, and it always results in more sales. He said no problem, that they had another author in the previous week that didn’t sell anything, and he felt sorry for her sitting there all alone. I started to laugh, to tell him I knew what he meant, but a stray thought stopped me.
Wait, did…did he feel sorry for me? Was that a pity sale? No, that couldn’t be right, I wasn’t someone to be pitied, I was following my dreams, I was the up-and-coming underdog, I—
I looked around the empty store, and was struck by one of those moments. The ones where you wonder what you’ve done with your life. Let’s face it, I’m no Stephen King. No adoring fans will ever scream my name as I walk into a book store. I’m a writer who’s been rejected by enough agents and publishers to fill an arena, a self-published author who’s been pounding the pavement for ten years to sell just a few more books. I made my peace with those things a long time ago, but that day, they came crashing back.
Because that’s what a bad book signing can do to you, if you let it. Make you feel unappreciated. Make you feel like the years you spent writing that book were a waste.
I slunk back to my table and waited out the rest of the signing.
At the end of the day, the employee tallied up my percentage, which he figured at $1.64. On a $15 sale, that’s not 60%, that’s not even 40%, but I was too tired to argue. I waited for him to reach into the register and pay me my pittance, but he just smiled and told me good day.
Which is when I realized that this store was going to make me wait 6-8 weeks for a $1.64 check.
On the drive home, I thought—not for the first time—that maybe I needed to find something else to do with my free time.
I won’t, of course. I’ve been writing long before that experience, and I’ll be writing long after. Because writing isn’t about the money, and it’s certainly not about the book signings. Stephen King said that you should never write a word for anyone but yourself. I believe that. I write the kind of stories that I want to read, create characters that I identify with. Most of you probably do, too.
After all, if you’re only trying to entertain yourself, then you already have all the adoring fans you could ever want.Read more