Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Courageous Cutting

As writers, we may naturally admire, like, be satisfied with, or happy about what we write. But there’s a difference between such feelings and excessive love of our own words. Over two hundred years ago, the author and literary critic Samuel Johnson admonished, “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out." Or, expressed in a more familiar way -- by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Faulkner, and, in this rendition, Stephen King, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."

For effective and salable work, we must learn to edit our work with less parental pride and more outsider objectivity, to combat that self-enchantment and cut courageously. 

“But wait!” you exclaim. “How do I detect too much love? How do I know what to cut? How do I develop that critical eye?” I’ve discovered three unmistakable touchstones, gleaned from my own and other writers’ red-faced experiences.

  • 1. Your body tells you.

    As you look at a word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph, you feel something. Maybe it’s slight nausea, a moment of dizziness, a sudden flush, a sinking stomach. 

    Listen to your body. It’s telling you, first, that the passage needs work, and second, that you’re too invested in it. Soothe your forehead with a cool wet cloth and face it. It’s time to cut.

    2. Your mind protests.
     The moment you begin to toy with the idea of cutting that passage, your mind  defends, reasons, and rationalizes:

          • “This passage is needed! It’s explanatory, descriptive, lyrical, mood-setting, eloquent, graphic, moving, exciting, powerful . . . .”
          • “It proves my genius!”  
          • “Look at all the drafts I’ve produced and chips I’ve consumed! Look how hard I’ve worked!”  

    However logical and reasonable these defenses seem, they aren’t. The first shows the extremes of your runaway ardor. The second attests every novice writer’s ultimate fantasy—you’ll be acclaimed and rewarded without having to pay your dues. The third betrays the writer as victim. No reader—parent, partner, friend, editor—cares how much time, effort, and calories you’ve put in. All they want is to be entranced and keep reading.
    3. Your emotions blind you.
    This condition is a little more subtle than the others. In your ill-fated romance, you may still be captivated by those words your body and mind have already signaled as offending. You may love the passage for the wrong reasons and will go to astonishing lengths to hold onto it:
    • Having received a rejection, did you already start an angry letter to the editor denouncing the rigidity of her writing rules?  
    • Would you gladly rewrite the entire piece to preserve this passage?
    • Would you throw out everything else and start a new piece around the passage?

    If you’re blushing or reluctantly nodding, you’re in trouble.

    I speak from sad experience. Recently, ready to email an essay to a chosen editor, I glanced at the opening sentence. Having reworked it countless times, I particularly loved its witty originality and sparkling alliteration. Only then did I see, shocked, that this all-important sentence conveyed the exact opposite of what I wanted to say! I cursed, raged, and rationalized. Finally, I sighed, and for the next two hours rewrote the entire first paragraph.

    When you’ve finally performed the excising surgery, you can bind up your wounds with one or more of these soothers:
    • Save the passage. Put it in a file labeled “Lost Loves” or “Cut But Not Forgotten.”  
    • Tell yourself how much better your piece is without the passage.  
    • Compliment yourself for being such an incisive editor. Think how proud your mother would be, and your old English teacher.  
    • Leave the piece alone, at least for a day. You’re not abandoning it but letting your subconscious simmer without interference. Why this detachment works remains eternally mysterious. But to go do something entirely different gives us the distance and objectivity we need to become courageous cutters.
    • If the hole left by cutting still seems unfillable, or you can’t nudge out a decent transition, just start writing. What emerges will be usable somewhere.
    • Read the best literature. Notice the conciseness and freshness.
    • Read less than the best literature(!) Observe the flaws and clichés, and you’ll be more able to spot them—and edit them out—in your own work.
    • Praise yourself for having finally developed that precious and elusive faculty all writers covet, editorial distance.
    • If you’re still mourning your lost love, keep in mind that someday, somewhere, that rejected passage may reappear. It may float unbidden into your head while you’re working on another piece. You’ll rapturously find that, with only the slightest adjustment, this old love will be exactly what you needed.
    As you listen to your body-mind-emotional messages, you’ll become your own best editor. With courageous cutting, you’ll increase the likelihood of acceptances and produce work of which you can be justly proud. 

    Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children's Book Insider, Fiction Southeast, Funds for Writers, and Writer's Digest. Using her PhD from Columbia University, Noelle has assisted doctoral candidates in (finally) completing their dissertations for over 28 years. In Noelle's book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) and the upcoming Challenge in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015), she draws examples from her academic consulting, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers reframe their problems and reach their goals. Visit Noelle at

    Wednesday, October 15, 2014

    Where Text and Pictures Meet

    The Writer
    In the very old days a picture book was 50% text with 50% art, often with one page being story and the other side being art. These days there is a greater emphasis on shorter text, with art taking up more of the page in full double-page side-by-side spreads. Here the images have to do more of the
    “showing” and writers have to work harder to tell their stories in fewer words. This means letting go of description as much as possible and communicating only essential information to the illustrator of what can or needs to be shown in images rather than words. Because the illustrator is an expert in their field, the writer has to keep their notes to a minimum to give the illustrator maximum freedom, hence the minimum description and minimum notes.

    At the same time, there are things that might be essential to the story such as, showing that the dog is hiding behind the couch before the page turn when we see the dog pouncing on the cat. To let the editor and illustrator know and have the manuscript make sense, you either write in italics Illo note: Dog hiding behind couch or [Illo note: Dog hiding behind the couch].

    The Illustrator
    An illustrator’s job is to add value with a further aesthetic element and take the words on a magic carpet ride illustrating both what is and what isn’t there in the text. Often the illustrator will add layers by situating the story in an unexpected place. Places bring up all sorts of visual culture associations. Imagine a story set in a beach town or the illustrator takes the same story and places it in a hi-rise NY building or an old hippie home. Imagine that unbeknownst to the author, the illustrator turns all the human characters into animal characters, making them hilarious in the process and helping to turn the story into what became a best selling series as Ashley Wolff did with the Miss Bindergarten series written by Joseph Slate. And then there’s all the historical information not included in the text that Yuyi Morales independently wove into Harvesting Hope by Kathleen Krull.

    Both the illustration and writing styles (or “voice”) impact the emotional resonance of a book. Sometimes nonfiction biography is paired with playful childlike illustration like Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s A Splash of Red: The Life and Times of Horace Pippin. Jessie Hartland’s deadpan text combined with her fabulously naïve looking illustrations make for a wonderful read in Bon Appétit: The Delicious Life of Julia Child

    Todd Parr and Lucy Cousins books combine straightforward simple language with incredibly delightful childlike illustrations where each elevates the other into the realm of pure pleasure, while more traditional artists like Paul Zelinsky and David Weisner do the same thing on a much more sophisticated level often with soulful or surreal stories. And then there are the cultural references that some diverse artists include in their style for specific books like Maya Gonzalez, Rafael Lopez, and David Diaz’s sometimes do, such as Maya’s inclusion of Mayan or Aztec symbols referencing history.

    The place where picture book text and art meet is rich terrain. It is a place of mutual respect and transformation, where each brings something that adds up to being greater than the sum of its individual parts. To find out even more about this subject, I’ll be co-leading a free webinar for both writers and illustrators on the related topic of 2nd Visual Stories
     this Friday October 17th at 5PM PDT.

    Mira Reisberg is the Director and founding instructor of the Children's Book Academy. She has been involved in the children's book industry since early 1988 as an illustrator, writer, editor, and art director as well as working as a kid lit university professor. Over the years she has taught many now successful children's book writers and illustrators. Starting November 3rd, she will be co-teaching the Craft and Business of Illustrating Children's Books with Chronicle Books' Design Director and Art Director extraordinaire for fearful beginning artists, multi-published illustrators, and adventurous writers. 

    Wednesday, October 8, 2014

    Getting Over the Interview Jitters

    Author and Rate Your Story judge Katie Clark wrote this week's post based on her experience with writing nonfiction, but interviews can also help give you the necessary background to make realistic fiction -- or even science fiction and fantasy -- that much richer.

    Writing has been a passion of mine from the time I was a little girl. The first piece I remember writing was a song—and looking back, it made absolutely no sense! But I was so proud of that song, and I remember strolling through my leafy backyard, singing it to myself over and over.

    As I became an adult, I continued writing. Writing children’s books happened by accident, but I quickly discovered I loved it! When the opportunity to write Police Horses, a segment in the We Work! series with Bearport Publishing, came along it was a no-brainer. I had written lots of nonfiction pieces for kids’ magazines, as well as a handful of other nonfiction children’s books.
    My first order of business was digging up any information I could find about police horses. This included how they’re chosen, the way they’re trained, what’s required of them, where they live, and more. It was a frustrating process, because I couldn’t find any of the information I was looking for.
    That’s when I realized I needed to do a personal interview. The thought made my bones shake! I liked writing because I could do it alone, at my own pace. I told myself that speaking with someone else would be an inconvenience for the other person, and no one would want to help me.

    Since the contract had been signed, though, I had no choice. Racking my brain, I remembered an online friend who used to work in her local sheriff’s horse division. She was happy to help me, and we set up an email question and answer.

    This personal interview gave me a wealth of information! Not only that, but my friend was thrilled to talk about something that had been an enjoyable part of her life. With her help, the book was finished and sent along to my editors at Bearport.

    The editors loved it! They didn’t even ask for any changes.

    The interview process was such a hit that I was happy to try it again for Animal Actors, my next book with Bearport. I searched for anyone who might be in the animal actor business, but I couldn’t come up with a solid lead. In fact, after emailing several different types of experts I never secured a single interview. Bummer!

    Throughout the process I definitely learned an important lesson—not everyone will say “yes”, but the ones who do will make the jitters worth it. When you know you have a credible source, it’s so much fun to turn in your completed manuscript with a shiny expert endorsement. If you’re on the brink of writing nonfiction, I encourage you to step out and seek those expert interviews. It’s worth the jitters!

    A few interview tips:
    • Brainstorm at least two different angles for your nonfiction piece. This will allow you to ask a broader variety of questions.
    • Jot down at least a half dozen well-thought out questions beforehand, so that you go into the interview with a distinct direction. But! Don’t worry if the interview takes an unexpected twist. Sometimes those twists will give you exactly the unique hook you need.
    • Do your research before the interview. In other words, don’t go into the interview blindly. Read whatever you can about the person you’re interviewing (their background and history, as well as the work they do). Read what you can about the subject of the interview, as well. You don’t want to waste the expert’s time by asking for answers you could find in any online source. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to ask basic questions, if you couldn’t find the information anywhere else. You need a firm foundation underneath your nonfiction piece.

    KATIE CLARK writes young adult speculative fiction, including her recently released dystopian trilogy, the Enslaved Series, made up of Vanquished, Deliverance, and Redeemer. She also has multiple nonfiction children’s books on the market, including Police Horses and Animal Actors. You can connect with her at her website, on Facebook, or on Twitter.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2014

    You Have An Agent. Great. Now What?

    The quest for an agent is often a harrowing and exhausting one, and just as often the pinnacle of the story pre-published authors tell themselves. But, in a way, the real story begins AFTER the offer for representation.

    Yes, the standard for landing an agent can be intimidatingly high. But after you pass that threshold, the agent will ask for revisions. Your manuscript had to be amazing to get you to this point, but the agent (assuming it’s an editorial one, which most are these days) will work to make it even better. You will revise however many times is necessary until the agent is satisfied your manuscript is ready for submission.

    Every once in a while, an agent will know the perfect editor for a specific project off the top of their head and pitch it to that person first. But most of the time, agents are going to submit a project to many different editors.  Figuring out who to submit to when involves solving the sort of logic puzzle that makes law school admissions questions mere child’s play. Agents have to think about how the current project might fit with what the editor has recently acquired. They’re looking for something that fits in the line without feeling too similar. “Same, but different” is an important concept here. 
    The agent also doesn’t want to put different imprints of the same company in a position where they have to bid against each other – not a nice way for authors or agents to form lasting relationships with editors.  And agents have to be mindful of not inundating editors with submissions from various clients. All that (plus the desire for feedback if it isn’t an immediate sell) leads to the need to submit in rounds.

    Once the submissions are off, then – surprise – the waiting begins again. Only, agents can nudge a bit more proactively than writers can (how often depends partially on agent philosophy, their relationship with different editors, and the imprint they submitted to).  And responses trickle in.  An editor might offer feedback which results in revisions. Or might offer to see the manuscript after revisions. (So, basically, the same thing that happens at the agent stage.) Then there’s no offer, and the next round gets shot off, or there is an offer, in which case talks with other publishers begin.  

    Then there’s examining offers, negotiating offers (which can take several back and forths while agents and editors haggle over important minutia while the author is hyperventating off somewhere in the corner), and finally (hopefully) SIGNING OFFERS.

    Which leads me to one of the most unexpected things about having an agent: landing an agent does not necessarily mean scoring a contract. Remember, reputable agents don’t get paid unless you do. They only take on projects they think they can sell. But no agent bats a thousand. (Unfortunately, we don’t know what the real percentage is because no agent reports it.) So always KEEP WRITING. It’s good for dealing with the waiting game, it’s good for your career, and it’s good for worst-case scenarios.

    But back to our happy story. Now begins a new journey – one where I condense six-eighteen months of work into two paragraphs. One that involves editors, line editors, publicists, cover designers, interior designers, accountants, and more all working to help make your book a success.

    After all the revisions you did before subbing to agents, after the revisions you did before subbing to editors, your manuscript is now a highly polished piece of beauty that your editor is going to ask you to revise. Yup. So, if you don’t appreciate the revision process, you may want to learn how – or find a new career. Then the galley proof (an early draft of the publication, for copyediting purposes) must be checked and perhaps rechecked. Your cover (which you usually have no say over) is unveiled. Advanced reader’s copies (arcs) of the book are sent to book review sites large and small. Tours – real and virtual – are scheduled.

    And all the while, you are working on your next project, right?  Because a new cycle is about to begin…

    Today is Open Submission Day

    Happy Birthday to Us! Rate Your Story turns 3 today. Sing with us:

    "We are 3 years old...
    We are 3 years old...
    We are 3-ee years o-old,
    We are 3 years old!"

    In celebration, today (October 1) is free and open submission day to the general public. Please make sure to read submission guidelines thoroughly before sending in a manuscript.

    Our next open submission day is November 1, 2014 - and it will be the final chance for nonmembers to submit for the year. If you missed signups for RYS membership this year, we will be offering memberships for 2015. Enrollment will open later this year. Watch our site and/or sign up for our eNews for more information.

    Have a great day!

    Wednesday, September 24, 2014

    To Boldly Revise As Others Have Revised Before

    One day a while back, I was doing running commentary as I watched the British version of Dancing with the Stars. “It feels a bit careful,” I said of one routine. Len, a judge, echoed me. Another dance more than made up in performance what it lacked in technique. My words… and, uh, Len’s. Another clearly lacked content. “Minimal,” pronounced a judge.

    Now, there’s no way I could take a judge’s place. They see plenty I don’t – heel steps and leading with shoulders and sloppy transitions. But I do remember back when I first started watching DWTS, I’d have no idea why the judges didn’t like a performance. Or I might know something was off, but not know what or why.  But hear the judge’s critiques long enough, and you start catching on. You become a more discerning viewer.

    Revising is very much like that. Whereas writing – especially for a beginner – might be a very personal act, revision is all about professionalism. Its rocket science and alchemy rolled into one -- a place where theme, voice, character development, plot, premise, tension, pacing, setting, and word choice all have to work. You can – and should – learn about the theory behind all those subjects, but more importantly, you need to know how to apply it.  

    When most beginning writers “revise,” the majority of what they do is wordsmithing.  It’s great to prune an adjective here or cut a cliché there but your story almost certainly needs more fundamental work than that. Except, until you get to a certain point in your development, you don’t realize there are bigger problems. This has nothing to do with talent – and everything to with the fact that writing, just like dancing, is a lot more involved than it might seem to the uninitiated – no matter how passionate.

    You can only write to the best of your abilities, and revise up to that same ceiling. How do you get better? (And, trust me, everyone can get better. )The same way I became a more perceptive towards ballroom dancing (except, hopefully with a little more intention)… by seeing people who know more than you in action.

    Study craft (there are some fantabulous free sites and blogs out there, but it’s worth investing in a craft book or two for efficiency’s and comprehensiveness’s sake… and then investing in one or two   Network with other writers in reputable forums or critique sites.  Make yourself useful to authors who are more experienced than you so they will include you in their groups (a bunch of newbie writers together, while potentially supportive,  can be just a case of the blind leading the blind.) Critique manuscripts, then comb over other people’s critiques of the same piece. What did they notice that you didn’t? How does what you’re reading fit into what you’re learning about the theory of writing? Dissect examples of bad craft along with the good. Just as with questionable dancing, it can be easier to see the mistakes in writing than to notice all the elements involved in flawless technique. And, of course, put your own work out there, and prepare to be humbled… and to come out a much stronger writer from the experience. 
    more when those first lessons have sunk in and you’re a master at applying them… and so forth)

    After a while you will start seeing issues and strengths you didn’t realize existed, in other’s works and yours. (Oh, what a humbling and exhilarating experience, to go back to an old piece and realize how awful it was… and how much you’ve grown as a writer since then). You’ll see why people say “Writing is revising.” It will stop being about tweaking, and start being great earth-moving goals. Keep that up for long enough and you’ll get to a sweet, sweet place where you can do a good deal of that “revision” – fine-tuning character arcs, tension, etc – before you set a word on the page. But none of that can happen until you take the plunge and learn from those who know more than you.

    Wednesday, September 17, 2014

    Worldbuilding As You Go

    A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how everyone can use a little bit of worldbuilding in their lives. Today, guest blogger author Matt Borgard goes over one unusual approach to worldbuilding.

    How much worldbuilding should you do before you start my story? The general advice is to worldbuild a bunch, then drop pieces of it as needed into your story. "It's ESSENTIAL that YOU know all the details of your world," the canard goes. "But it isn't essential that you tell it all to your reader!"

    And that's perfectly great advice that works for a lot of people. If you're one of them, rock on. I'd like to suggest the opposite approach, however. Which is to essentially do *no* dedicated worldbuilding.

    Many authors, even famous ones, construct stories this way. It's often called being a 'pantser,' as in, writing by the seat of your pants. I thought it might be useful to run through some quick pros and cons of this technique


    Organic Worldbuilding

    One of the most unrealistic parts of many speculative novels -- fantasy in particular -- is the constructed feel of their worlds. Everything fits together a little too neatly. In the real world, history is never that clear-cut.

    Rome's fall was not solely attributable to slavery. It was not caused by lead in the water or moral decay. Some of those things may have contributed, sure, but any historian worth his or her salt would laugh at you if you pointed a finger at any single cause.

    By contrast, authors LOVE to give us single events, single Great Men that create huge far reaching consequences -- even thousands of years later. You know those desert warriors? Yeah, their entire culture is based on this conversation these two guys had once. Oh, and you know those nomads who split from the warriors? They split because of this one thing a mage said once, here's the flashback.

    In my experience, allowing your world to grow naturally and organically can circumvent the desire to overexplain. Having a history of your cultures is not a bad thing. But being able to draw a tidy line between every single thing a culture or person does or values back to events thousands of years ago is a dangerous one.

    Start Your Damn Story

    If you have fun worldbuilding, go for it! But if your goal is to produce a workable story, seven years of worldbuilding (yes, this happens) is clearly too much. Most writers recognize this, but many are paralyzed both by the thought of starting the story (which is never as good as it is in your head) or the thought that they haven't planned enough to begin.

    Doing literally no worldbuilding resolves this dilemma. You don't have to be worried about how much worldbuilding to do prior to Chapter One, because there's only one answer: none. You don't have to be paralyzed about starting the story, because when you sit your butt in the chair in front of your word processor, there's nothing else you *can* be writing.

    To put it another way, if we frame this discussion as a (admittedly simplistic) choice between MAXIMUM WORLDBUILDING and ZERO WORLDBUILDING, the better answer is clearly the latter. Worldbuilding without story is nothing. It's a reference document that no one other than you would be interested in. On the other hand, a story with no plan, with naive worldbuilding, is at the very least a story. And you can mold and shape a story. There's not much you can do with worldbuilding other than using it to start a story ... which you could have already started!

    Prioritize What Matters

    The maxim that "Character is King" is Creative Writing 101, and though I've had plenty of people argue that it's too simple or limiting, I've yet to see any evidence that it's not true. There are stories with fabulous, engrossing settings, but in every case, it's a character who serves as our liaison to that setting. A castle isn't interesting because of the stones and mortar that serve as its walls; it's interesting because of the kings and queens, princes and princesses, rumors and schemes happening inside.

    Starting with a setting forces you to do a fair amount of pre-written worldbuilding. Minimal worldbuilding leads you to focus on character. If you find your stories spend way too much time on setting or plot, and your characters end up bland by comparison, a "no planning" strategy might be exactly what you need.


    Lack of Consistency

    A lack of foresight leads to some pretty hilarious inconsistencies at the end of your rough draft. Think a small village of seafaring fisherman becoming a metropolis of mountain-dwelling scientists.

    Worldbuilding without planning means you're going to have to take a dedicated continuity pass at your rough draft. In effect, worldbuilding in reverse. Instead of taking a "world bible" and making a story from it, you're taking a story and making a world bible.

    These inconsistencies can be viewed as a chance to rethink the fundamental assumptions of your story. Often, when I do a lot of planning, I find it hard to imagine the details of my story in any way other than how I've outlined them. Of course this tribe has a quorum government, because that's what I wrote in my outline.

    When you happen on an inconsistency, however, your brain ask *why?*. If halfway through, your tribe is suddenly governed by a single dictator, what in the tribe's makeup prompted that? Does it make more sense than the original quorum plan?

    You don't truly know your character and setting until you've written in that world. And though it can mean extra work, some inconsistencies here and there can ensure your understanding is reflected in the details of your world.

    No Time for Gestation

    Sometimes I find that my initial seed of an idea for a story doesn't carry me far enough to get a meaningful story. Like that metaphorical seed, stories need time to grow. Taking time to build your world often doesn't develop your plot or characters directly, but it does give them that many more showers and dog walks to sprout on their own. Jumping right in has the potential to rush this process. A good way to solve this, at least for me, is to have more than one project in the oven at a time. Your mileage may vary.

    Setting is in the Passenger Seat

    Above, I mentioned that worldbuilding-as-you-go forces you to focus on other aspects of storytelling. And while I maintain that this is advantageous 90% of the time, it can remove some potential in using the world as a natural catalyst for events. It's unlikely that you'll develop a plot because there are mountains in this area of the world, because you might not even know what this region looks like until the minute you write it.

    That said, it also gives the freedom to invent the world as needed. Need to slow down your characters' journey so the Big Bad Villain can get to the town first? Give 'em a mountain pass! Of course, now you'll need to make this a mountainous region, with the climate and culture that goes with that. But that's the sort of thing I *love* about organic worldbuilding.


    So, should you build your world as you go, with absolutely no preplanning? I certainly think you should give it a try if you haven't before. If it's too scary to try in a longer work, go for a short story! If you're used to compiling an almanac before the first word of your novel, minimal worldbuilding may well give you a newfound sense of freedom and agility.

    At the very least, I hope it gives you another option to answer the "how much worldbuilding?" question.

    Matt Borgard is a speculative fiction author. You can visit him at

    Wednesday, September 10, 2014

    Character Voice 101

    You’ve got a fresh premise. A great, fast-paced plot. A satisfying world. Only problem is, your main character sounds like they could be yanked out of your manuscript and plopped into any random book in your genre and nobody would notice. It’s an all-too-common problem: authors put generic characters through the motions, and end up with forgettable, staid results.  Don’t make your character sound like any ol’ person. Heck, don’t let them sound like any ol’ precocious six-year-old/angsty teen/smart alecky twenty-something/sophisticated spy/etc. Smash those overdone stereotypes and create a person that comes alive on the page.

    Before you can do that, you have to appreciate the subtle impact voice has. Pick a character. Any character. Now plop a delicious smoothie in front of them.

    “Yum, thanks.”

    You are very welcome. “Yum, thanks” is a realistic, adequate response. But let’s provide this character with a family. Give ‘em all smoothies. Now what? Do they all say “Yum, thanks”? Okay, they might, and that might work under certain – humorous or frightening – circumstances. But if everything a character says and does throughout a story is indistinguishable from another character, you’re not going to have a very exciting story. So, returning to our smoothie- perhaps, you might get:

    “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    Do we have any rum left?

    “Strawberry banana? Dis. Gust. Ing!”

    I’m going to have to run three miles after this.

    Now we’re getting a glimpse of the different character’s personalities and priorities. Let’s invite the neighbors. Smoothies all around:

    Free food. Score!

    “Do you have any flaxseed oil? How about stevia?”

    Ha! Shelby’s gonna be so ticked she missed this.

    “Can I have some more?”

    I can’t believe they forgot about Mikey’s allergies again. No, wait. Yes, I can.

    “Maybe just a sip.”

    Oh, god. Now I’m going to have to invite them over.

    “Did you know a strawberry isn’t actually a berry, but an aggregate fruit? And all those seeds on it aren’t seeds at all, but ovaries! It’s kinda gross when you think about it, except we eat plant ovaries all the time, so I suppose it’s really quite normal.”

    And these are just characters being offered a smoothie. People react in different ways. Given the same stimulus, they notice and value different things. Their thoughts and spoken words form different speech patterns. They are as varied as fingerprints, snowflakes, or… people.

    Your character should be the same way. Why? It’s just good story-telling. Anything less is boring… and dishonest. A story doesn’t have to be true, but it should be honest. And when readers encounter an honest story, realistically told, they find it easier to slip into that world, to keep turning and turning and turning the pages. And in the end, that is your goal.

    Okay, you’re sold – rich characters are important. But…how?

    It boils down being thoughtful. Now, there’s power in fast drafting (the only good draft is a finished draft), so if all the nuances aren’t coming to you at the get-go that’s fine.  But at some point, you need to carve out the details. And that means: 

    •   Giving your character unusual life experiences: So many characters move. So many live in everyone-knows-your-business towns. So many are writers or artists. So many are orphans. And yet huge swaths of possibility lay undiscovered. Which isn’t to say you can’t do one or more of those things, but make sure you bring some fresh perspective into it, too. 
    •  Understanding your characters: This might begin with a character sheet, a biography, a journal entry from your character’s point of view, or just some plain old rumination. Whatever your system is, you need to know your character – not just their age, occupation, and looks, but their passion, world view, personality, reaction to change and adversity, etc. The more nuanced an understanding you have of your characters, the more authentically – and distinctively – they can interact on the page. 
    •   Wielding your words: This is where showing, instead of telling, becomes crucial. Any character can be angry. But one might experience a hot rush of blood and tears while another set his jaw while another punches a wall. Collectively, all these decisions regarding dialog and action add up to a rich picture of a complex character.

    And, of course, the final way to help you create better characters is to read and read, and examine what makes other great characters work on the written page. Share some of your favorite book characters below, and tell us why they stand out to you – and have fun writing.