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
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.
I'm pretty sure every person who has ever seen more than one children's picture book has thought, “I could write something better than this garbage,” because a lot of picture books are awful.
And it might be true. But it's probably not as easy as you think.
Since I've sold some picture books, lots of people think I'm an expert. I'm really not, but I know a little bit. And today, I'll share almost all of it with you.
First, picture books are fairly easy to write. My first sold manuscript was less than 400 words. The next one was about 600. None of the agents or editors I've ever spoken to wanted anything over 1,000 words.
In terms of raw word count, this blog is going to take more effort than most picture books.
The plotting is really simple. You only have a few hundred words. There's not much to keep track of. There aren't many characters to flesh out. There aren't many plot threads to track.
The writing is also really simple. You're literally writing for people who read on a first-grade level. If you can handle that, you can probably write a picture book as bad as all the garbage that inspired you to write.
Second, picture books are kind of hard. All the stuff I just told you constrains your writing. You can't just throw more words at a story problem.
If you want to write a good picture book, every sentence has to earn its keep. Every paragraph has to do multiple jobs. You need to flesh out several characters enough to make them compelling. You need a plot deep enough to be interesting — more than just a string of funny scenes.
You need to make it accessible to a child. You'll get bonus points if you also make it interesting to adults.
Third (and this is something I'm still working on), you're not alone. You have an illustrator. Unless you're one of those disgustingly talented people who writes AND illustrates really well. But even you over-gifted people need to pay attention.
A lot of those picture books you thought were lame had the same problem — the illustrations just illustrated what the narration described. They were boring.
A good picture book has layers. The writing tells part of the story, and the pictures tell part. In the best books, they add up to more than the sum of their parts.
On the writer's side of the equation, that means learning what you need to say to move the story forward and what can leave to the illustrator. It's not just scene descriptions. A good illustrator will flesh out your story and paint in the fine details of character and plot that you don’t have time for in your paltry 1000 words.
But you have to make your writing evoke the rest of the story in the illustrator's mind.
I liken it a little bit to poetry, where the language also conjures up images and associations without explicitly naming them.
Fourth, I only barely understood any of this when I started, but I'd had the fortune of taking a class on Children's Literature since it filled an empty slot in my college schedule. My professor taught me the basics of what will appeal to kids. If you've got this down, you have a head start on everybody else.
- Children like to read about characters their own age or a little older.
- Young children like repetition because it gives them a sense of security and control. That's why if you have kids, they want to hear the same story over and over again.
- The best writers don't talk down to kids or avoid difficult topics. They do the extra work to figure out how to talk about sad or scary stuff compassionately and accessibly.
- Children (being normal humans) don't like it when you preach to them. Really good children's writing can carry moral lessons, but it isn't didactic.
So there you have it. Of course, there's still a lot more to learn, but that's about what I knew when I got started. The main thing is to love what you're doing. Write picture books because you want to tell stories to children.Read more
We authors are some of the most arrogant people in the world. We tell you what we’re thinking without being asked by scrawling our thoughts onto paper and publishing them. Then we sit back and wait on your approval. And if that approval doesn’t shine like the Egyptian Sun God’s golden disk during a summer solstice, we hide in a closet all weekend drawing pictures on the walls with our box of broken crayons
Then we do it all again.
Approvals of our work usually manifest as Book Reviews. Authors not only covet Book Reviews, we live for them. We all want Five-Star reviews but will grudgingly settle for Three-Stars. Anything lower than that, see my comment on crayons, above. Bad Reviews are important, too, though, just as long as they contain useful information. Simply writing, “My dog won’t even pee on this book,” is not helpful. You need to explain why your dog won’t pee on it, thankyouverymuch.
The only thing worse than bad reviews, though, is not getting reviews at all. It took me years to figure out why family members and friends wouldn’t review my books. “Tom, your book was awesome!” they’d say over dinner. “When’s the next one coming out?”
“Well,” I’d drawl, “as soon as you review the last one.”
Why? There are two main reasons people don’t write reviews:
- Readers are shy. The vast majority of people in the world keep their opinions to themselves. Remember, we’re the arrogant ones.
- Readers don’t know how to write reviews. Remember, we’re the writers.
It is my firm belief that if we can resolve Item 2, Item 1 will take of itself. In fact, I am going to fill your toolbox with a reviewing tool that is so simple, you are going to want to review everything you read from now on.
To start with, immediately jot down your ideas after reading a book. Strong emotions always accompany that last page and range anywhere from “Thank God this is over” to “My firstborn shall henceforth be known throughout the four lands as Tom Bont!” But a review should contain more than how you feel about it; it should also contain a logical description of your thoughts.
Once my opinions have percolated for a day or two, I use my jotted-down notes to compose the review. If there was a particular item I liked or disliked, I’ll talk about it. I might even include a short plot summary. Some authors don’t mind plot summaries. Some hate them. However, beggars can’t be choosers. If I do include a plot summary, I’m kind; I put Spoiler Warning at the top.
Next, I summarize the entire book into three categories:
- Writing: Spelling, ease of reading, plot creation; did you get lost when you read the book, and if so, how many times? Did the author take the time to hold your hand and lead you along your journey? Did the language make you wish that you talked that way or did it remind you of a bully from high school? Is the writing style formal, informal, or conversational?
- Background Information: This is more objective than subjective. Does the setting seem real? Do the secondary and tertiary characters react in a realistic manner. Is California still located on the left coast? The world must make sense! An example for me is a Peter F. Hamilton book. I tend to look up after an hour or so of reading and wonder where I am. I get lost in his world building.
- Character Development: Are the main characters real to you? Did you fall in love with one? Hate another? Note that some characters you are meant to hate.
I give each of these categories a Poor, Average, or Good rating. You may choose something more cinematic such as Sucky, Adequate, and Bloody Awesome if you wish.
Most authors would be tickled to get a review that covered these areas. If you want to put more into it, visit the following website: http://www.writing-world.com/freelance/asenjo.shtml
Here’s an example of an Amazon Review I did.
“Age of Heroes” by James Lovegrove
I’m not even sure where to begin with describing this book. The Greek demigods are alive and well and running around Earth? And now someone is killing them off? Hell, that’s a 5-star rating just on the idea.
And the book itself lived up to the hype.
Read this book.
Ratings: (poor, average, or good):
Writing was good.
Background information was good.
Character Development was good.
Five out of five stars.
Note the last sentence. Yes, you have to come up with a star rating.
At this point, the review is complete. But if you’re an over-achiever, you might write:
Craftsmanship was good. The book was of standard design, 6”x9”. I carried it around Scotland while on vacation, and I subjected it to rough carry-on bag usage. It held up great.
Eye Candy was good: The cover was exiting—a Greek god fighting a man with two machine guns. That’s what drew me to the book to start with.
Organization was average: There weren’t any indexes or dictionaries in the book. It would have been nice to have a listing of the pantheon of the gods in question.
Genre matching was average: I’m not sure what genre this book truly fits in. It spans from fantasy, to mystery, to science fiction. I would put this under Science-Fantasy. Amazon lists it as Military/Science Fiction.
Point of View was good: The points of view shifted from character to character, but the main protagonist, Theseus, is the main point of view. It was easy to follow what was happening.
Writing Style was good: The author’s writing style shifted from stilted conversation to informal description. In spite of that, I was able to follow along without any problems.
Wrap Up was good: This author closed all the threads. The book does beg for a sequel.
Thanks for reading this! I hope this article gives you the incentive to write those reviews. And remember, there is no perfect way to write a review. Use all of my suggestions, or just keep some of them. Either way, Write On!
Unlike most people who join a writer’s group to perfect their craft, connect with beta-readers, or simply commiserate about their latest rejection over pancakes and coffee, I was essentially voluntold (and yes that’s a made-up word) by my therapist to join the DFW Writer’s Workshop. As part of my exposure therapy for social anxiety, I had to join a group. Not only did I have to become a nametag wearing member of the DFWWW, I had to show up and participate in their activities. And if you’ve ever been to our weekly meeting, you know that there are two main activities — reading and critiquing.
The first time I read my work in front of my peers, my voice shook, my face turned fifty shades of red and sweat dribbled down the inside of my shirt as if I were soaking in a sauna. Even worse, I felt as if my rapidly beating heart was about to shoot up and out of my throat as I struggled towards my last sentence. I wanted nothing more than to slide under the plastic table and die. And that was while I was still reading. I hadn’t even gotten to the worst part, the critique, or the soul crushing evisceration of what I’d just read in front of real live human beings. That first read, I can’t even remember what people had to say about my pages. At the time, it didn’t matter. I was silently congratulating myself for surviving. I’d read my words aloud in front of people I didn’t know and I didn’t collapse and die, even though I felt like it was a very real possibility.
Each week it became easier. After each reading, I proved to myself that the fear I felt in my body wasn’t a real fight-or-flight situation. I could relax. More importantly, I could also listen and learn which has been the greatest gift of the workshop. I have learned more from hearing other people read their work and the resulting critiques on a weekly basis than I did in my MFA program. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work and more importantly — why. Even when I think I’ve nailed a passage and I look forward to sharing it, the simple act of reading it out loud at the group magnifies the stilted dialogue, the awkward sentence, or the lengthy exposition. It’s a wonderful, insightful exercise that I would recommend to anyone who wants to become a better writer.Read more