The Importance of Throwing Our Readers for a Loop

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I think I'm one of those people built with an internal "surprise radar." I can sense a surprise coming, spot the clues, and figure out what's going on without my family realizing I've discovered the "big surprise."

It's pretty tough to get anything past me in real life. I can probably count on one hand the times I've been truly surprised.

Not only is it difficult for my kids or husband to get much past me, I don't really like surprises all that much. I'm not spontaneous. In fact, I'm too much of a planner, too logical, and too practical. I like my ducks in a row. Surprises usually drive me nuts.

Except . . . of course when they're in fiction.

But usually surprises in fiction are as rare as surprises in real life. I suppose that's why I absolutely adore when I don't see something coming in a book, and it hits me square in the face.

That happened to me recently when I was reading The Fault in Our Stars, a bestselling YA that deals with teenage cancer, death, and grief. While I'm not normally drawn to reading books like that, my daughter and her friends were talking about. So I wanted to find out why the book was so popular.

After finishing the book, I can see that there are a lot of reasons the book has been successful. It's well written, engaging, and VERY heart-wrenching.

One technique I noticed in The Fault in Our Stars that I particularly liked was the author's ability to take me (the virtually un-surprisable) by surprise. He threw in a couple of unexpected plot twists (which I won't divulge in an effort not to spoil the book).

Those unexpected loops got me thinking about how we as writers often overlook the potential of adding in the unexpected.

Readers lament about plots and characters being predictable. But adding fresh spins and unique story-lines is usually one of the hardest things for writers to do (especially because it seems like everything has already been done).

But there are essentially two major areas where we can focus on adding the unexpected:

1. An unexpected loop in the plot. 

Our stories ought to put readers on a roller coaster ride, with the usual ups and downs, twists and turns. But then once in a while, we need to throw them into a loop. We need to turn them upside down. We need to change things when they least expect it, usually right when they're getting comfortable with the ride the way it's going. 

Of course, we don't want to add in something isolated and unrelated to the plot simply for the sake of generating more drama. In fact, I'd go as so far to say, that the new loop must be integral to the plot. We want the reader in hindsight to be able to see the subtle clues we planted that warned them about the coming loop.

Perhaps we make the reader think danger will hit one person, but then we shift it to another. Or maybe the good thing our character is striving after turns out to be life-threatening instead. We flip the situation into reverse, doing the opposite of what the reader expects.

2. An unexpected character reaction (behavior or thoughts). 

Obviously unexpected plot changes happen on a macro-level. But we can add the unexpected on a micro-level too. One way to accomplish this is to have our characters react either physically or internally in a way that seems inappropriate to the situation.

We can have the hero act-out-character, in a way that surprises him at the same time it surprises the reader. Laughter during a somber moment. Anger when none is warranted. Forgiveness when it's not deserved.

Perhaps the uncharacteristic reaction is part his character arc growth. Perhaps it brings out the need for growth. Or perhaps it is even a setback in the growth he's already accomplished.

The important thing is that we don't set up such reactions in a vacuum, but that we make them integral to the character that's already been developing. Even if we initially surprise our readers, they eventually can see how the reaction fits the character that they're getting to know.

My summary: One way to brainstorm for loops is to think of three normal plot occurrences or three normal character reactions. Then write down the exact opposite of those things. Pick one and try to weave it into the story somewhere.

While we don't want to make our readers dizzy with too many loops, they will appreciate when we can take them by surprise every once in a while.

How about you? Are you easy to surprise in real life? How often does a book you're reading take you by surprise?

3 Areas That Suffer in Quantity-Driven Writing

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Once upon a time, most writers could survive by writing just one book a year. But in the changing landscape of the publishing industry, with lower advances and sales, writing one book a year isn't financially feasible for many.

With the ease of e-publishing, more and more writers are able to publish their books. But unfortunately the reading population hasn't gained as many new readers at the same rate as the number of new authors. Thus, among the influx of writers, the publishing pie has been cut into smaller and smaller slivers so that the majority of writers are earning significantly less.

As writers earn less, one of the solutions is to publish more with the hope of increasing earnings with each book out there. Obviously an author has the potential to make more money with five published books versus one.

In addition to hoping to increase earnings, writers are moving toward quantity writing because having backlists has become one way to maximize marketing. Many writers offer older books for a reduced price (or even for free) with the hope of gaining new loyal fans who buy current releases.

With so many authors and books available, it's all too easy for readers to finish our book and then find another author or book that catches their attention. Consistently having books to put into our readers' hands keeps our names fresh in their minds amidst the growing competition.

Whatever the case, the trend over the past couple of years has moved toward quantity publishing and long tail marketing. Among indie authors I know, it's not uncommon to see them releasing a new book every few months.

While the nature of traditional publishing may not allow for authors to put out books quite so frequently, many are self-publishing alongside their traditional book deals to allow for more quantity.

In this modern era of quantity-driven writing and publishing, however, there are a few pitfalls. I've had to be careful not to fall into the pitfalls myself.

1. Skimping on Research:

Research is an integral part of the writing process for most writers. Whether we write historicals, thrillers, suspense, or contemporary romance, we all have areas within our stories to research.

If we're striving to add some freshness to our story and move beyond the mundane of what most people already know, then we have to seek out new occupations, new locations, or new issues that go beyond the ordinary.

But of course, it takes time to investigate issues, interview experts, read research books, or even take trips to do more in-depth hands-on learning.

When pressed for time, research often suffers and consequently so does credibility, passion, and the thrill of unique and fresh material.

2. Skimping on Depth:

The age old question still arises: quality versus quantity? And is it possible to write fast and prolifically and still have stories that are well-plotted with characters that have clear arcs and settings that are full of sensory details?

Of course, I don't think fast writing equates poor writing. Many writers who have been using their creative muscles for a while, have honed them, learned writing techniques, and are able to produce large amounts of beautiful prose in short amounts of time.

But on the other hand, prolific writing doesn't always allow writers the time to reflect on issues within stories, to add more twists, to create more suspense, or to take characters deeper. In the rush to produce, writers may sacrifice the contemplation and mulling process that can take a story from good to great.

3. Skimping on Editing:

Often the first place writers cut corners on the road to publishing is with editing. Sometimes writers may not want to take the time to let the story have a resting period in order to gain objectivity. They may finish the writing and jump immediately into editing the book.

Usually our books need to be self-edited multiple times. One or two read-through's is never enough. But if we're in a rush, we may cut out some of the nit-picking or we may decide not to rewrite a troublesome spot.

Other writers may not want to pay the cost for a good content AND line edit. They may pay for one and neglect the other. Or they simply may be naive enough to think they can go it alone (or perhaps with the help of a critique partner or two).

My Summary: While there's nothing wrong with quantity writing, we all need a reminder now and then (including myself) not to sacrifice too much for the sake of getting our stories out there. In the end, quality still trumps quantity in building loyal and happy readers.

What about you? What are some of the pitfalls (or positives!) you've noticed about quantity-driven writing?

9 Ways to Grow in Writing Skills

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Can a writer improve through writing ALONE? Or does it take MORE than actual writing to become a better writer?

I definitely think that we become better writers by the act of writing. In fact I'd even go as far as saying I don't think a writer can truly grow without LOTS and LOTS of writing.

But . . . we could write book after book and still not take our writing skill to the next level. We could quite possibly fill our shelves with stories that never exhibit any significant growth from one book to the next. In other words, the process of writing itself is never a guarantee that we'll grow.

After writing over 15 books, I can testify to the power of prolific writing. It's absolutely essential to becoming a better writer. But I have always coupled my writing with learning. I intentionally find areas where I'm weak, I consciously look for new skills to incorporate into my stories, and I challenge myself to painful growth.

It’s out of massive writing PLUS determined efforts to stretch ourselves to grow in writing techniques that we eventually begin to move toward publishable-quality writing.

Here are 9 ways we can challenge ourselves to grow.

1. Get quality critiques.

Every critique helps me get a glimpse of my weaknesses. For example after one critique, I learned I was weak in adding sensory details to every scene. Another helped me realize I needed to maximize scene tension. A good critique will show us something—usually many things—that we can work on. I try to pick several key techniques from each critique to practice.

2. Read and study books INSIDE our genres.

Most writers read voraciously. We can try to get a feel for what’s popular within our genres and particularly with authors we admire. But we can also look at what makes those stories work. What draws us in? What makes us like the characters? What holds us to the end?

3. Read and study books OUTSIDE our genres.

Over the past couple of years, I've stretched myself by reading books that I might not normally gravitate toward. I've challenged myself to be a bit more eclectic. As I've done so, I've realized that I'm constantly picking up really good ideas from these non-genre books, techniques that I can apply to my genre (with a little tweaking). Sometimes the fresh perspective of a new genre can add freshness to our genre.

4. Devour writing craft books.

This is probably the way I’ve grown the most over the years. I've read book after book, borrowing most through the library. When I wanted to learn how to write by scenes, I read those books. To learn to plot better, I scoured plot books. As I attempted to write better dialogue, I checked out dialogue books.

Some writing books provide inspiration. But we have to delve into technique if we want to grow. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything we read, but we can always discover new ideas to try.

5. Take lots of notes and review them frequently.

I keep notes on index cards. When I read something helpful on a blog post, I jot it down on a card. When I find something in a book that I want to practice, I make a note. I pull out those cards, review them regularly, and they remind me of the things I need to work on most.

6. Discipline ourselves to write consistently.

Discipline and consistency help us become prolific. But then we need to take it one step further and actually practice what we're learning. Sometimes we have to slow down our writing process, at least temporarily, while we add in a new skill or two. For some writers, maybe the conscious application happens in the rewrite process. But the point is, we eventually have to take that head knowledge and let it shape the words we write.

7. Read writing-related blogs.

Most writers reading this post are probably already well on their way to searching out helpful blogs. We can learn a tremendous amount from one another in the writing community. I find almost all my links to writing related posts on Twitter, especially because I follow a couple of writers, @elizabethscraig and @thecreativepenn, who share great writing-related links.

8. Take online writing courses.

There are great webinars to choose from, classes, conferences—some for free and all from the comfort of our homes. Writer’s consistently offers a variety of courses. Take a look at Writer's Digest University for all of their online workshops, tutorials, and resources.

9. Attend a local or national conference.

Conferences are an ideal time to rub shoulders with other authors, to talk about the craft, to brainstorm, and to glean ideas. In addition, we have the opportunity to sit under the teaching of some of the best authors out there, ask questions, and soak in their wisdom.

Besides the actual writing, what else has helped you to grow the most in your writing skill? 

6 Ways to Keep Readers Up Past Their Bedtime

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

One of my favorite compliments from readers is, "I stayed up really late reading your book."

Story tellers would much rather have their books keep readers awake until unreasonable hours rather than having their books put readers to sleep.

So how can writers make readers bright-eyed, excited, and turning the pages rather than bleary-eyed, yawning, and closing the book?

Here are 6 ways to keep readers up past their bedtime:

1. Make Every Scene Count:

Before I write a scene, I envision a stage and my characters upon it. Who would want to go to a play and watch the actors meander around the stage talking to themselves or reflecting on problems while eating, getting ready, shopping, driving in the car, talking on the phone, etc.? Big yawn.

Rather than the mundane and ordinary, our audience wants to be entertained by the unfolding story. Put the characters on stage and have them jump right into the action and drama.

If we eliminate static scenes, then readers will come to expect that every scene in our book adds suspense or value to the plot, even when we slow the pace. The more succinct and necessary we make each scene, the fewer parts readers will be able to skim or skip.

2. Make Every Character Count:

Before I add a new character (particularly a minor one), once again I envision a stage. I check to see if any of the other characters who are already on stage can do the job first.

First, I don’t want my stage becoming cluttered with too many characters. Our audience will have a hard time keeping them all straight even if we do our best to give them unique tags and names. So when I need a minor character, I try to use one I’ve already brought onto the stage earlier (rather than add a completely new character).

If we write tight with our characters, we increase the potential for them becoming more memorable versus getting lost on the crowded stage. And in doing so, we hold our reader's attention better.

3. Cut the Flowery Descriptions:

When I write descriptions, I look at the stage and decide what props I need and why. I don’t wax eloquent about the weather or the clothing or the people passing by—just because I want to. I make myself have a reason for adding in those details.

As a historical writer, I have a little more leeway with descriptions, because of course I have to bring to life a bygone era for a modern reader. Nevertheless, I still try to be careful not to overdo the floweriness. If any descriptions lasts more than a couple of sentences, it's likely gone on too long and either needs trimming or should be moved somewhere else.

4. Create and prolong suspense:

None of my books are "suspense" novels. But every book can benefit from having elements of suspense laced throughout. Noah Lukeman in his book The Plot Thickens, describes suspense this way, “Suspense, simply, is about creating and prolonging anticipation.”

Once our readers are invested in our characters, suspense is process of dangling our readers breathlessly along, continuing to put our characters into situations where readers longs to find out “what happens next.”

Lukeman says this, “One can have underdeveloped characters and weak journeys and a hackneyed plot, but if suspense exists, and audience will often stay with the work . . . suspense, more than any other element, affects the immediate.”

5. Increase conflict:

When I look at developing conflict, I generally target three main areas for each main character: physical (or outer) conflict, emotional (or inner) conflict, and relational (or romance) conflict. I weave all three strands together like a braid. These conflicts are often inseparable yet distinct. And the writer’s job is to keep intertwining the strands without letting one sag.

Yes, the conflicts will ebb and flow. Perhaps we will bring resolution to some issues, but then we must introduce new situations and circumstances that continue to push our characters. Ultimately, we want to prolong the tension for as long as possible throughout the book—keep the braid tight until we near the end.

6. Use Read-On-Prompts (ROP):

At the end of every scene and chapter, every time we switch character points-of-view, every break in the action—we should look for ways to keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next. We want to make it hard for them to put the book down at a “natural” resting place.

However, we need to be careful about tacking on a ROP. It needs to flow naturally out of the scene. If we resolve something within one of our conflict strands, then we should make sure we start introducing a new problem or issue before we wrap up the scene.

What qualities about a book keep you reading past your bedtime? 

Telling the Truth About Client-Agent Problems

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on The Passive Voice blog called, "I think my agent's dead, what to do?" The article shares a letter from a writer lamenting over her agent's long periods of silence and lack of communication.

After many months and repeated attempts at contacting her agent, the writer said this:

"I’m stuck wondering what happened to her and where does it leave me? Do I have an agent? Is my novel out there being considered? Or did she get terrible responses back from the editors and decide she hates it after all? Does she regret signing me on? Is that why she’s gone AWOL on me? Is she seriously ill? Dead? Did she quit her job? If she has dropped me, shouldn’t she let me know?"

The letter was interesting and sadly all too familiar. I wasn't too surprised to see over 100 plus comments from other writers sharing similar agent experiences. Over the years, I've heard stories from friends who've had frustrating and difficult periods with their agents.

Unfortunately, silence, poor communication, and uncertainty are all too common problems in agent-client relationships. 

In the age of self-publishing, many writers have decided to forgo the frustrations and have chosen not to have an agent at all. And that's a completely valid option.

For those who are traditionally published or hybrids (a combination of indie and traditional), then having an agent is still an important consideration.

Recently, I've changed agents. While I really liked my previous agent on a personal level, over time it had become clear to me that I needed a new agent to better fit my working needs. I didn't really consider the possibility of NOT having an agent, since I have too many projects in the traditional publishing fires.

During the whole process of changing agents, I realized that it's really difficult to know the quality of various agents out there. The majority of writers don't like to publicly bad-mouth anyone in the industry. So most of the time when we complain about agents or publishers, we tend to do so in general terms (without naming anyone specific).

Sometimes we say nothing at all because we blame ourselves for the problems. We think if only we were a better writer or more interesting person that perhaps our agent would like us better. And because none of our agent's other clients are saying anything, we think we're the only one having problems.

But staying silent about the problems doesn't help the writing community. Our silence only perpetuates the problems in the industry. And after all the frustrations I've heard about over the past few years, I'd like to see client-agent frustrations become the exception, rather than the norm.

So what should we writers do? Should we speak out more openly about our experiences?

Perhaps . . . if we can find a professional way to do it.

Of course, there is the Writer Beware site that lists thumbs down agents to steer away from.

But what about reputable agents? How do we know who's good and who's not? Who communicates well and who doesn't? Who works hard and knows the industry and who is just getting by?

My solution before switching agents was to get plenty of references on the new agent I was interested in approaching. I contacted several authors who'd been working with this agent for many years. And I asked them pointed questions about the quality of the agent, her work ethic, how she communicates, how often they experienced frustration, and any problems they'd had.

After getting their honest responses, I had a much clearer picture of the new agent. And then of course, I had a long conversation with the agent before signing, in which I shared some of my concerns.

Obviously, I'm not the world's perfect client. And there's no perfect agent either. But I think too often writers are settling for much less than they deserve in the client-agent relationship.

So my advice to anyone searching for an agent for the first time (or the second or third or more) is to make sure to get references. Ask current clients lots of questions. (Most agents have a client role on their website that you can look at.) Ask previous clients why they left that agent. And don't sign until you get a clear picture of how that agent operates.

Also, I would caution new writers from becoming so desperate for an agent that they end up ignoring red flags and settle for just anyone they can get. Such a decision could eventually do more harm than good.

What are your thoughts? Do you think writers need to be more open about agent problems? If so, how?

5 Qualities Successful Blogs Have in Common

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

When I first started blogging, it seemed that everyone was saying writers should blog to develop a platform. Of course, I jumped on the bandwagon, fascinated and even excited about the prospect of meeting other writers through blogging.

With newbie enthusiasm, I was pumping out five posts a week, visiting lots of blogs to meet new people, and commenting like crazy.

That momentum couldn't last forever (not without sacrificing my writing). Eventually I dropped down to posting three times a week and did that for a year or two. Then I decreased to twice a week for while. And now I only blog once a week on Tuesdays.

After five years, I've learned a LOT about blogging. The number one conclusion I've drawn is that having a blog is NOT essential to a fiction-writer's platform. Why? Because readers aren't surfing author blogs consistently if at all. Thus blogs won't help writers sell significantly more books. Instead of wasting countless hours writing blog posts, writers are better off putting their energy into writing books.

Sidenote: Lest you think I don't draw true "readers" because my blog is geared toward writers, I did experiment for a while with one post a week specifically written to interact with readers. The page views on those particular days dropped drastically, while hits on my writing related posts have only grown.

All that to say, I don't think blogging is necessary for fiction writers (non-fiction is different!). Fiction writers will get more bang for their buck by putting time and money into their books, not blogs.

However, that's not to say blogging has no value to a novelist. It does . . . to a degree. Some people simply enjoy the process of communicating in a blogging format, sharing their thoughts, public journaling, and meeting new people. Others use their blogs to update readers occasionally with events or new books. Those can be valid reasons to blog.

I simply caution writers who start blogging because they want to use it as a platform to draw in readers of their books. Be wary of having too high of expectations. Be careful of expending too much energy on it. Definitely don't sacrifice writing time to blog. And be realistic about the result of blogging helping with sales of book (because it will only help VERY minimally).

For those hearty, daring souls who persist in blogging, there are ways we can give our blogs a chance at having relative success, (and not just having our posts read by a dozen people, half of whom are spammers). After all, no one wants to put time into writing posts no one will read.

As I've analyzed blogs over the years, here are five qualities that "successful" blogs seem to have in common:

1. The blog has a target audience. They know who they're trying to reach and why. Whether that's writers, young parents, work-at-home moms, feminists, etc. the blog is relatable and enjoyable for a specific group.

2. The posts give the audience a reason to keep coming back. The blogger offers something tangible that speaks to a need in the reader. Visitors take away something every time. It could be advice, encouragement, knowledge, community, etc. Whatever it is, readers are willing to sacrifice busy time to swing by the blog because visiting is a worthwhile use of their limited time.

3. The posts are user-friendly, fairly short, and easy-to-read. Enough said.

4. The blogger uses multiple social media outlets for promotion of posts. It's not enough to have the philosophy "If we build it, they will come." No, unfortunately, when we publish a blog post, no one will come . . . unless we promote in multiple places, like Twitter and Facebook (although if we over-promote then people begin to tune us out). Making pinnable graphics for Pinterest can also create a continuous source of traffic (since pins are constantly being repinned).

5. The posts are consistent and reliable. Readers are more apt to return if they know WHEN we're posting (rather than having a random schedule) and if they know they'll get consistently good content time after time.

What's your blogging story? Has your blog been helpful to you or not? What do you think goes into having a successful blog?

6 Key Things to Consider When Developing Characters

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I have to admit, I don’t write (or often read) character driven stories. My books are full of action and drama and are primarily plot-driven. But, that doesn’t mean I neglect my characters.

In fact, I'm currently in the pre-planning stage for a couple different books. And one of the most important parts of my pre-writing process is developing my characters. I literally spend hours and hours thinking about them and shaping them BEFORE I type one word.

I find this time of getting to know my characters one of the most delightful aspects of the entire writing process. I relish the idea of playing "god" and breathing life into people. I get to make my characters exactly how I want to. And while it's daunting to have so much power, it's also euphoric.

I thought I'd share a few of the things I consider when I'm developing my characters in the pre-writing stage. By no means is the following list comprehensive. It's simply a breakdown of some key things to think about while playing "god."

1. Make them distinct.

Obviously I consider their physical appearance. I have to visualize every physical detail about my character before they come alive. In addition to hair, eyes, and body type, I consider distinguishing physical traits (usually two or three unique things). Often I find a picture of an actress or actor that serves as the basis of my character.

But I always go much deeper than physical appearance. I pick an action tag (something they do like nail biting or head scratching). I also choose a verbal tag (something they say like "My, my" or "heaven have mercy"). And finally I narrow down a characteristic tag (something like timidity, arrogance, or boldness). I also analyze if they have any quirks or eccentricities.

2. Flesh out their personalities.

Not only do I try to understand their skills, abilities, and talents, but I also attempt to determine their personality type (are they dominant, passive, loyal, outgoing, etc.). I go deeper with these kinds of questions: What makes them angry and how do they handle their anger? What embarrasses them and how do they handle embarrassment? What makes them afraid and how do they handle their fears? What are their prejudices? What is their sense of humor? What's their philosophy of life?

3. Understand their past.

I may not need to know when they had their first scraped knee or lost tooth. But I do try to look for those defining incidents in their past that have shaped them into the characters they are in the present. These are usually the painful, life-shaping events (big or little) that provide the impetus behind their motivations in the story. I usually answer the question: What are the most painful experiences in the character's past to prove why they act the way they do?

4. Define their strengths.

I try to narrow down the qualities that will help my readers care about the characters. Some refer to these as the “heroic” qualities. I brainstorm a list, then try to pull out a top strength. This is the one I show my character doing in my first chapter, to get my readers caring right away. I also pick out a few others that form the backbone of the character.

5. Define their weaknesses.

I carefully decide a main inner struggle or conflict that my character will need to work through. This is sometimes called the internal plot which is separate from but woven together with the external plot (and the relationship plot in a romance). The weakness needs to arise organically in the story out of those past motivations that we know but won’t divulge until later to our readers.

6. Understand their goals.

As chapter one opens, I want my characters' story goals to become clear right away. But that means I have to know what they want first. Their wants often stem out of the past hurts and pains. I ask myself three questions: What's my character's biggest dream? Why do they want that goal (or dream)? And then what's keeping them from that goal?

For me, the KEY is that I don’t start writing the story until my characters are already alive. After spending days, sometimes even weeks getting to know my characters, I finally reach a point when they’re living and breathing in my mind. In some ways, I’ve become that person—I’m playing his or her part with my body, heart, and soul. It’s at that point I know I’m ready to start the actual writing.

Yes, I realize I won’t know everything about my characters, that I’ll understand them even better as the story unfolds. But it’s like a marriage relationship. Before marriage we take time to get to know our partner—all their secrets, their past, their strengths and weaknesses. The growing doesn’t stop when we say “I do.” We change and always give our partners new things to discover about us. The same is true of our fiction characters and perhaps even more so.

When we take the time to stoke the passion with our characters and understand them intimately before committing them to paper, then we have a much greater chance of deepening that once we start the story itself.

What about you? Are there some other things you try to learn about your characters before you start writing?
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