Among the masses of characters in the masses of books out there, what truly makes a character stand out in a crowd? What makes a character remain living and breathing in the reader's mind long after they've closed the pages of a book as opposed to characters that are "here today and gone tomorrow?"
This fall I read a book called Flat Out Love by Jessica Park. I was impressed with Park's character-building. EACH of the characters was distinct, quirky, and amazingly alive.
Since it's nearly impossible for me to read without turning off my internal-editor, of course I had to analyze the nuances behind Park's stand-out characters. Here are just a few of the techniques she employed as well as a few others we can use to help our characters jump off the page.
1. Make the character HEROIC in her own way.
She needs to have a greater cause than just herself and her own needs. She needs to be concerned about someone or something else, so much so that she's willing to sacrifice her own needs. But of course, that greater cause should be unique to our character's personality. Not everyone has to be Superman in order to be heroic.
2. Give the character QUIRKS or distinct traits.
In Flat Out Love, each of the characters is really quirky to the extreme (which worked in this story but I'd caution against being too over-the-top).
One of the characters, Celeste, carries around and talks to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of her brother. Another character has a geeky tee-shirt collection and is a huge math and science nerd. Even the minor characters are very distinct with unique traits that set them apart from the others.
3. Make the character MULTI-LAYERED.
In other words, we want our readers to have to keep peeling away layers of the character's personality to discover the "real" person hidden beneath. She may have issues that she's dealing with on the surface. But give her deeper struggles too. Hint at the problems but don't be too quick about revealing her fullest nature. Let the reader wonder and peel away those layers as the book unfolds.
4. Drop the character into a UNIQUE PLOT.
Rock her world. Show her having real struggles that are believable but different. On the other hand, we don't want to have our character flattened by the circumstances. No one likes a character that is constantly having a pity-party.
5. Make the character LOVEABLE.
It IS possible to make our readers fall in love with even the gruffest, weirdest, and quirkiest of characters. The best way to do that is to make her heroic (the first point). But beyond that we need to make her logical, confident, self-sufficient, strong, and wise (the kind of person we aspire to be).
Obviously, our character needs to have a flaw. But the flaw has to over-balanced other traits that make her redeemable. For example, if she's weak in logic then we need to make sure she's high in confidence and other positive traits. If she's weak in self-sufficiency then we need to be sure she's strong in logic and other areas. The positive has to outweigh the negative otherwise it becomes difficult for our readers to care about the character.
6. Have the character DO THE UNEXPECTED.
In Flat Out Love, I didn't expect the heroine, Julie, to cater to Celeste's obsession with her life-sized cardboard cutout. But Julie was constantly surprising me by how she accommodated Celeste's need to take the cutout figure with her everywhere.
Not only did the heroine act in ways I wasn't expecting, but the dialogue and plot also kept me on my toes. I was always uncertain what was coming next with the characters, and because of that they were all that much more memorable.
My Summary: Perhaps we aren't able to do each of the above to each of our main characters in every book. But the more we can chisel away and shape our characters into unique individuals who are admirable and likeable but delightfully surprise us, the more readily they will join the ranks of unforgettable characters.
How about you? Have any characters you've read about lately really stood out to you? What are some traits that make those characters memorable?
This year I failed at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I took up the challenge to write 50,000 words in November, hoping to complete a new novel. Over the past couple of years that I've participated in NaNo, I've "won" which means I've met the goal of writing 50,000 words in one month. So I thought I'd have no trouble this year too.
But in spite of my best intentions and my very best efforts, I fell short by 3,000 words. Even burning the midnight oil on both ends, I just couldn't do it.
At first I felt like a failure for not finishing and made all kinds of excuses for myself. I'd had to stop writing for several days earlier in the month because I had to finish line edits and return them to my publisher. That kind of editing is time and energy consuming.
Then in the later part of the month, the unexpected happened. My grandmother died. I had a busy week of making travel arrangements, driving eight hours to the funeral, staying with family, and then turning around and driving home through precarious weather conditions. Needless to say, after I got home, I was incapacitated for a day from grief and a stress-migraine.
During the midst of all of that, I was attempting to get my website ready for its December 2 showcase. And obviously I had a great deal to do to get ready for my newest book, Love Unexpected, to launch on December 2 as well.
Yes, excuses, excuses, excuses. Sometime they're legitimate and sometimes they're not. The simple truth is that there will be plenty of times when we fail.
We fail to meet a writing goals, word counts, weekly totals.
We fail to meet a publishing deadline.
We fail to get the positive reviews we hoped for.
We fail to final in a contest.
We fail to get the attention of the publishers we wanted to work with.
We fail to make as much money as we wanted.
We fail to increase our social media platform, even though we've worked hard to gain exposure.
We fail to make the story or book turn out the way that we anticipated.
Over the years, I've learned that there are lots of ways we writers fail. Disappointments, melt downs, and moments of falling flat on our faces. Those times are inevitable. For all of us.
Of course social media can have a candy-coating effect, making it seem like everything for everyone else is always SO wonderful. But if we take the time to look past the sugary-sweet facade, we'll see that even the best authors have rough days.
Everyone fails from time to time. We have no control over that. But we do have control with how we deal with the failure. The difference between those who go on to have successful writing careers and those who peter out and eventually fall away has to do with how we handle our failures.
Successful authors DO fall down. They feel hurts, disappointment, frustration, and even feel like giving up from time to time. I have.
But once successful authors fall down, they don't stay down. They pick themselves back up, brush off the dirt and dust, and then begin to creep forward once more. Maybe they barely crawl along. But they don't stop. They inch forward, until little by little they're walking, running, and perhaps even soaring again.
Yes, I failed NaNo this year. I had a mini-pity party for a few hours (and drowned my sorrows in a chocolate brownie sundae). But then the following week, I plunked myself back in my chair, opened up the story, and pushed myself until I reached the end. I completed my 19th full length novel. 14 of those are either published or slated for publication.
If I'd given up every time I felt like a failure, I would never have reached the point I'm at today. So, dear friend, if you're feeling discouraged or feeling like giving up, remember you're not alone.
Remember that even when you fail, you can still win.
What disappointments have you faced recently? Have you felt like giving up? Are you picking yourself back up and continuing onward in the midst of the failure?
The first (as you can probably tell!) is that I've had my website overhauled for a brand new look. I had my first website designed almost five years ago by Pulse Point. Needless to say, Pulse Point did a fabulous job, and I've been VERY happy with my site ever since.
So why have my website overhauled, you might ask?
Well, several reasons, actually:
1. I'm branching into two new genres next year. In addition to continuing to write historical romance, I'll be adding Young Adult (An Uncertain Choice, a medieval romance releasing in March 2015 through Harper Collins) AND I'll also be releasing Historicals (the first is releasing in September 2015 through Random House).
Thus I wanted my website to not only have special pages for my new genres, but I also wanted it to have a broader appeal (so that I'm not branded as only a historical romance writer).
2. I wanted to bring a clean-cut, more 2015 feel to my website. Just like styles in clothes and shoes come and go, so do styles in websites. What was popular five years ago, may start to feel dated today. So, in an effort to keep up with the changing styles and times, I wanted to clean up my website.
3. I have new author and family photos. Every so often, we writers need to have our author photos updated. Since it's been about five years since I had mine taken, I realized I was due for a makeover. (And my family photos needed to be updated too.) The new photos have a slightly different feel to them, so I decided this was a good time to place those new photos in a new home.
All that to say, grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy browsing through my new site! I hope you'll feel at home!
The second big milestone today is the launch of my seventh book, Love Unexpected! This is the first book of my first series. So I'm really excited about it! The series centers around real women light keepers who served at real Michigan lighthouses.
Of course I've fictionalized the stories and piled them full of my usual page-turning danger and adventure. Nevertheless, I hope you'll enjoy learning a little bit more about lighthouses and some of the women who helped run them.
If you enjoy marriage of convenience stories, lighthouses, and pirates, then I have no doubt that you'll like Love Unexpected. Whether that sounds like your cup of tea or not, I'm encouraging readers to give it as a gift this Christmas. We all know books make an excellent gift!
In fact, in celebration of my book's release, my publisher is sponsoring a "Give the Gift of Books" giveaway with a package of FIVE new releases (including Love Unexpected). Enter to win the package of books either on my Facebook Page or on the Events Page here on my website. If you win, you can gift yourself or give the books to someone else.
(And if you missed out on my FREE e-novella, Out of the Storm, make sure you go get it now! It kicks off my lighthouse series.)
Thanks for stopping by and celebrating these new milestones with me! I'm so grateful for the many friends and readers who've encouraged me along the way!
Usually I'm the "glass half-empty" kind of gal. It's all too easy for me to feed myself negative messages. In fact, during pity-parties, I'm known to feast on those fattening but empty-calories of negativity.
However, lately I've been convicted that I need to try to be more positive, especially regarding my self-talk. Instead of gorging on all the complaints and difficulties of life, I want to digest a healthy and regular dose of positive self-talk.
One way to do that is cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Instead of focusing on all the things going wrong, I need to make sure to be thankful for all that's going right.
Over the past couple of years, there's been a great deal of upheaval and uncertainty in the writing and publication world. Whether indie, traditional, or hybrid, all writers have faced challenges. Amidst those difficulties, it's easy to let the negative weigh us down.
So today, in the spirit of Thanksgiving and in light of my resolution to focus on the positive, I'd like to propose eight things we writers have to be grateful for:
1. New opportunities. No matter which route of publication we take, there are more opportunities than ever before. We aren't locked into one way of publication. We can pursue whatever is most beneficial for our careers, whether that means traditionally published going completely indie or indie published going completely traditionally, or perhaps writers doing a mixture of both. We can explore new genres, new book lengths, and even new styles of writing.
The doors of opportunity have opened wide and the possibilities are limitless.
2. Revitalized careers. Not too long ago, poor sales often meant the end of a writing career (or at the very least starting over under a pen name). But now, with the long tail of backlists, lower sales are no longer an immediate death knell. Even when publishers have to let an author go due to poor sales, the author doesn't have to lament the end of a career. In fact, the change to indie publishing could be a whole new beginning.
3. Supportive readers. Yes, there are still trolls who delight in damaging authors. And yes, there are still reviewers who take particular enjoyment in being as brash as possible.
But, there are countless readers who are INCREDIBLY supportive of authors, who time and time again do all they can to help promote, cheer on, and share the love of favorite authors and books. They're sensitive to how hard authors have to work nowadays and they show their gratefulness. I know I speak for many authors when I say, "THANK YOU for all you do!"
4. Manageable social media. Not too many years ago, when social media was fairly new, writers jumping into social media often became swallowed up in the hype, feeling that they had to do it all–blog, facebook, twitter, etc. The frenzy to be everywhere doing everything was time-consuming and draining.
Fortunately, that hype has died down. Writers realize that social media is still beneficial for connecting with readers and helping to promote books (to a degree), but it doesn't provide any marketing miracles. Now, writers can focus more on writing good books and keep social media in perspective.
5. Encouraging writer friends. While we may not spend hours and hours blogging and tweeting with writer friends anymore, social media still allows us to be connected to other writers. We can find other writers out there who share the same struggles and challenges that we do. We can draw inspiration, advice, and encouragement from being able to easily interact with other writers online.
6. Helpful writing professionals. We are especially blessed that we have help for ANY issue at the touch of our fingertips. Whether we need help on how to plot our novel or shape our characters, or whether we seek the names of agents who are accepting queries or the names of cover designers, we can easily track down the information we need.
Writers are an incredibly generous group. Indies and traditionally published authors alike go out of their way to share resources on their blogs so that others coming behind can navigate the industry with more ease.
7. Continual need for more books. While there are many readers who still prefer paper books (like me!), we have to recognize the many advantages that have come out of the recent ebook revolution. Ebooks are easy to buy, download, and carry. With portable devices, people have books available to them basically wherever they go. The affordable prices of ebooks often entice readers to try new authors or to read in genres they may not have once considered.
Overall, ebooks have encouraged more people toward reading than ever before. And thus, the demand for books continues to remain high.
8. The beautiful privilege of writing. For those of us who are attempting to make a career out of writing, we can never forget the beautiful privilege we have of being able to do something we love every single day. Even though some of us have to juggle multiple responsibilities and day jobs, writing is a way to relieve stress, to lose ourselves in another world, and to bring joy to our lives.
Ultimately the creative process of writing in and of itself, even without publication, is a delightful activity, one that we should cherish and not take for granted. There are those in this world who don't have energy, time, or opportunity to do what they love because they're busy just trying to survive.
Writing is a gift. Let's never forget that.
Let's give thanks! What are you most thankful for about writing, reading, or life in general?
No one ever sends their manuscript off to an agent thinking, “There goes that horrible piece of junk. Boy am I glad to get that worthless manuscript off my desk.” No one sends the first pages of their book into a contest saying, “I know I’m going to score poorly and lose.” And certainly no one who self publishes says, "It's not all that great, but oh well, I'm publishing it anyway."
Instead, most of us polish up our work until we think it shines with brilliant glory. We labor over it and try to get every word perfect. Sure, our fingers might tremble with anxiety when we finally hit send or publish. But let’s admit it. We usually think our work is pretty darn good. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t put it out there.
Yet . . . many manuscripts that agents and editors see just aren’t ready for publication. I've judged numerous contests entries that still need a lot of work. And let's face it, there are even plenty of self-published books that aren't up to par either.
Why do we struggle to know our skill levels? When we’re just beginning, why do we often think we’re better than we really are? Why are most of us blind to our own faults?
Here are a few of my theories: (Make sure to chime in with yours!)
We naturally view our work through our maturity level.
My daughter likes to bead. Recently, she pulled out some bracelets she’d beaded when she was younger. “Wow, these are ugly,” she remarked. “I can’t believe I ever thought they were pretty.”
“At the time you made them,” I said, “that’s all you were capable of. You viewed their beauty through the eyes of a little girl. But now that you’re older, you know more about colors, designs, patterns, and styles so you can create more complex jewelry.”
The conversation reminded me that we naturally see our writing through the eyes of our maturity level. As a beginner, we’ll think our story is riveting or our descriptions beautiful simply because we don’t know better yet.
As we grow, our insight and understanding will deepen. We’ll see writing patterns and styles with more complexity. And we’ll realize what we once thought was beautiful was amateur at best.
We have a tendency to overlook our faults.
Whether in marriage or parenting or whatever, we can easily point out the faults in our spouses or children. But it’s much harder to recognize our own issues.
No matter how long we’ve been writing, it will always be easier to see what someone else is doing wrong and so much harder to see the same problems in our own work.
In some ways the blindness to our issues is a natural defense mechanism. We want to protect ourselves from the pain that comes from admitting we’re wrong, that we’re not perfect, and that we have an uphill battle of hard work before us.
The creator’s love is a powerful bond that precludes objectivity.
If you’ve ever been a parent, you’ll understand the bond that happens the moment you give birth to your own flesh and blood. As the parent, your love for that creation supersedes the love anyone else could ever have. After all, the baby is a piece of you.
When we birth our stories, no one else will have the same depth of love for our creation that we do. Invariably as I write my first drafts, I fall in love with each story. That’s why it’s always so hard when my editors don’t fall in love with it right away and end up sending me lots of rewrites.
Most of us don’t realize how much hard work published authors have put in.
We often have a distorted view of writing and the publication process, especially when we’re starting out. How many times have you heard someone bash an author by saying, “This book isn’t any good. I’m sure I could write something better”?
Now that I’ve been writing a while, I realize writing isn't just about talent. What I’ve come to understand is that it’s more about hard work. Those authors with 10, 20, or even 40 books aren’t where they’re at because of luck or talent alone. They make it look simple and easy, but in reality they’ve put in hours, weeks, and years of sweat and back-breaking labor.
If we think writing a book is easy, then we likely haven’t immersed ourselves in the reality of what it takes to write good fiction in today’s market.
The point of all this theorizing is threefold:
1. ALL writers MUST have critical and objective feedback on their work, preferably multiple edits from qualified writers or professionals.
2. We must resign ourselves to the fact that writing a publishable book is NOT easy. We have to stop trying to take the easy way and simply embrace the reality of the hard work.
3. Stay humble. If we attempt to view our skill level realistically and humbly, we’ll be much more open to hard feedback and subsequent growth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts! Why do you think it’s so hard for writers to know their own skill level? And why are so many of us blind to our faults?
Recently I received a reader email that said this: "My friend gave me one of your books and I devoured it in two days . . . The scenes play out like a movie in my head, and I felt the characters were all real people!”
The scenes play out like a movie.
The comment was interesting and pushed me to analyze some of the techniques that I utilize to bring the book to the big screen of the reader’s mind. Because ultimately, we want to bring our story to life in such a way that the reader feels they are there experiencing the story right along with our characters.
So how do we make our books play out in the reader’s mind like a movie? Here are just a few things I do:
1. Choose scenes strategically.
In the most recent book I wrote (which I recently turned in to my publisher), I had approximately 40-45 scenes. How did I choose what scenes to include and which ones to leave out?
Part of the decision-making will have to do with genre expectations. Romance readers want to see the developing love-relationship between the hero and heroine. So we usually need to play out the key relationship-changing moments (dates, conflicts, important meetings, etc.). Readers will be disappointed if those kinds of scenes happen off-screen. Other genres will have reader expectations as well (that’s why it’s important to study our genres!).
I also try only to display scenes that move quickly and have the most tension, conflict, and action—scenes that could truly play out on a movie screen. I eliminate having a bunch of slower-paced, smaller, static scenes with little happening in them. Instead, I economize by finding ways to slip minor but necessary details into my conflict-laden scenes.
2. Eliminate unnecessary transitions.
Obviously we can’t include everything that happens to our characters spanning many months. So we’ll summarize what happens between scenes (often called a sequel). I like to think of those summaries as transitions—a way to get from one important scene to the next critical happening.
Yes, transitions are sometimes necessary—especially when we want to skim over a large passing of time. However, movies have very few transitional scenes. Instead they jump-cut from one important point to the next, allowing the viewers’ imagination and intelligence to piece together what’s happened in the interim.
We can use that technique in our books too. Our readers are just as intelligent as movie-goers and don’t need to know anything other than what’s truly important to the story itself. If we must fill them in with the between-time happenings, we can often do so by dropping the information into the current scene in quick bites or subtle ways.
3. Craft the setting carefully.
We want the setting to become so vivid that our readers visualize, smell, hear, taste, touch, and are immersed into the scene right along with the characters. On the other hand, we don't want our readers to realize we’re describing things. Too much portrayal (or describing unnecessary or unimportant details) will bog the reader down.
So how can we make a setting seem movie-screen real without overpowering our readers? Like with other story elements, we'll need to be strategic in what we choose to describe and where we place those descriptions. Often we do a good job of grounding the reader in the setting at the beginning of the scene, but then we allow our characters to act in a blank vortex for the remainder. The key is to look for ways to intentionally thread the setting details throughout the entire scene.
4. Breathe life into characters.
Bringing our characters to life is one the most challenging aspects of writing. We can pick the dramatic scenes to “film,” eliminate pesky transitions that slow down the story, and give the setting a makeover. But then we often fail to breathe life into our characters and instead populate the page with stick-figures.
One way to make our characters three-dimensional, is to get inside their heads. We need to see what they’re thinking. If all we do is “show” them acting, but never take the time to move into the characters' minds to hear their reactions, emotions, and struggles, then we risk having flat characters. We need to know their intense joys, deep pains, and heart-wrenching conflicts—and we can do this by giving the reader glimpses into the characters' internal struggles and thoughts.
In getting the reader into a character’s head, we help them see the story through the character’s eyes. The book plays out even more like a movie because now the reader has “become” the main character.
Have you read any books lately that felt as if you were watching a movie? What helps bring a book to life for you?
Over the past few years, the book world has grown increasingly crowded as droves of indies have rushed to publish books. In the last year, we've also seen traditional publishers beginning to experiment with novellas, niche genres, and other markets thanks to the revolutionary nature of ebooks. In addition, established authors are re-releasing backlists as fast as they can.
All of that means that more books are available than ever before.
I think most of us can agree that it's become much harder for any ONE author to really stick out from the masses of other authors. There are just so many of us scrambling to get our books in front of readers, shouting, "Read my book! Read my book!" (Well maybe not literally shouting, but often it feels that way!)
Sometimes we can begin to feel like we're drowning in the sea of all the other books, that we're mostly invisible, that even when we supposedly do everything "right" to spread the word about our books, we still go largely unnoticed.
Recently John Owen emailed me and asked me a question that I'm sure many of us are grappling with: "How do I expand my reach and make aware to the general book buying public the availability of my book?"
When browsing online bookstores, most (non-writing) readers don't look at the publisher as they make buying decisions. So indie versus traditional publication is not a hugely important factor in reader buying habits.
Obviously readers gravitate most to the already established authors. So being a name brand like Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, or Danielle Steele still counts for something.
But readers who are willing to explore beyond the tried-and-true brand names often look for recommendations from other readers, keep an eye on trending books, and gravitate toward the buzz.
They also take into consideration price as well as reviews, particularly leaning toward books with lots of reviews. Sometimes, they even consider the number of books an author has published as a benchmark for reliability.
It stands to reason, then, that authors who are trying to get their books noticed can take advantage of those common reader patterns:
1. Find ways to get others to genuinely recommend our books. Often that takes the form of initially giving away limited copies of our books (like on Net Galley) or to specific reviewers or Influencers. In exchange for the free book, we should make sure the reviewers or influencers know our expectations about promotion or reviews.
2. Try to generate buzz about our books. Obviously it's very difficult to quantify the effect of blog tours, facebook chats, social media sharing contests, Pinterest boards, Goodreads giveaways, taking out ads, etc. Since all of those things are usually occurring at the same time, we can't easily identify which ones are the most helpful. However, every little bit of buzz we create has the potential to get our books in front of a new reader.
3. Look at ways to make the price workable. There are LOTS of theories about how to price ebooks. The general consensus is that ebooks should be priced lower than print books. But beyond that, opinions range all over the place for the "right" price. For multi-published authors, having one on sale (or free) can be a way to hook readers (particularly with a series).
4. Encourage readers to leave reviews. This can be done as simply as leaving a request as well as link at the back of the ebook. "If you've enjoyed this book, please consider leaving a review at an online bookstore." I usually ask my launch team (influencers) to leave reviews. Book bloggers are often open to reviewing books. We can also look for people who might be interested in the specific topic or message of our books and offer a complimentary copy for the purpose of a review.
5. Keep writing and always look for ways to improve our books. If readers stumble across an author with only one book containing a handful of reviews, the reader will be less likely to take a chance on the book. But if the author has written lots of books that each have lots of reviews, the readers will think the author is more successful/popular and thus more reliable. Whether true or not, that's the reality of the system.
The bottom line is that there are no magic formulas for getting noticed in today's crowded market. My philosophy is to first and foremost continue writing the best books that I possibly can. Then at the same time, I try to be savvy about marketing and trying new things.
What about YOU? Have you ever felt invisible in today's crowded market? What are some ways you've found especially helpful in getting noticed?