Editor’s Tips: 3 Pitfalls to Avoid in Character Development

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pitfallIt’s no secret that strong characters are a key to bestselling fiction. Trouble is, there’s so much that can go wrong on the way to crafting that unforgettable protagonist. Over the years, as an editor and a slush pile reader I’ve seen the same pitfalls crop up again and again. Here are three of the most common ones to watch for in your writing.

1) The “floating character.” This is what I call a character who does plenty of things, but lacks personality or depth to give context to those actions; he or she floats through the story but are not grounded or connected in the way real people are. Even the most dynamic plot can fall flat without a clear sense of the protagonist’s back story, motives and emotional landscape; readers will spend time trying to piece together who the character is, instead of paying attention to the plot flow. In your opening chapters and as you move the story forward, be aware of questions your readers will be asking: What is the character’s family background (parents, siblings, children; does s/he come from a rowdy clan or is s/he alone in the world)? Any romantic history or current interests? Things that happened in childhood that affected who the character became as an adult? Greatest fears/hopes/challenges/triumphs? Likes and dislikes (interesting hobbies, unusual pet peeves)?

This applies not only to the protagonist, but also to the villain/antagonist, side kick, and other relevant characters. Once you have fleshed out your main character, be sure to spend time on your supporting cast to avoid a feeling of lopsidedness.

 

2) The question of likability. One of the top reasons agents or other readers stop reading a novel is that they “just couldn’t connect with the main character.” Does that mean a protagonist must always be charming and likeable? Not necessarily. In fact, characters that seems too perfect will come off flat and unrealistic. At the very least, they need a few flaws to make them come alive. Think of your closest friends in real life: would they be the same people without those (sometimes annoying) little quirks that make you love them all the more?

Even unlikable characters can work, as long as they’re compelling. These are the ones we love to hate; we’d stop reading right now, if only they weren’t so darn fascinating! An example is Benedict Cumberbach’s portrayal of scientist/mathematician Alan Turing in the recent box office hit The Imitation Game. Despite his arrogant and often unapproachable demeanor, Turing is a compelling character because we know something his peers do not—that he really is the genius he claims to be, and that he will succeed in spite of the challenges and detractors he faces. The other thing that saves this character is that we see glimpses of his difficult childhood and the social challenges he has faced throughout his life; it’s enough to make him sympathetic in spite of his glaring flaws. I won’t add any spoilers, but ultimately Cumberbatch builds this character into a figure that haunts you long after the film ends.

 

3) Voices that trigger reader pet peeves. Finally, there are a couple of voice issues that I saw frequently in the slush pile and that almost always led to a rejection letter. One is the excessively whiny or angsty first-person voice. It’s okay for your protagonist to complain now and then about the lousy hand fate has dealt him, or for your teen character to be a little antisocial thanks to pressure at home and school. Just be careful not to take it too far; readers don’t enjoy being hit with a wall of negativity in fiction, any more than in real life, and they also don’t want to feel like a stand-in for the character’s therapist. As mentioned in #2, if you are deliberately creating a protagonist that is difficult or prickly, make sure you show a glimpse of how she came to be this way, so that readers can sympathize. Then still go ahead and turn down the angst a notch. : )

Another major turn-off is “the rambler.” It’s a voice that constantly veers into musing, ruminating or philosophizing, at the expense of plot movement. If a story spends most of its time trapped in the protagonist’s head, you’ll lose readers fast. Keep characters’ thoughts and observations relevant and balance them with plenty of outside action.

 

By avoiding these three potential problems, you’ll be on your way to creating the kinds of characters readers want to spend an entire novel or series with—and that’s a giant leap forward for your novel.

 

Hot Titles & Upcoming Trends: A Look at BookExpo America 2016

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2016-05-13 16.32.19Last week I attended BookExpo America—the largest annual publishing industry trade fair in the U.S. With an attendance of nearly 20,000, it’s a monumental gathering of publishers, editors, agents, book sellers, librarians, authors, and others in the industry. BookExpo runs Wednesday through Friday, and then on Saturday the show opens to the public through Book Con, which gives book lovers a chance to meet their favorite authors, attend panels, and go home with a suitcase full of free advance reader copies (ARCs). What could be better?

One of my favorite things about BEA is that it’s an opportunity to preview the titles publishers, agents, and booksellers are most excited about for the coming year. In this post, I’ll share a glimpse of those hot new trends.

This year’s Expo took place in Chicago, after more than a decade at the Javits Center in New York. Reactions to the new location were mixed; some attendees pointed out that attendance was down slightly and that East Coast publishers sent fewer staff members and 2016-05-13 16.04.07threw fewer parties (boo!). Others saw the new venue as a plus, since it drew larger numbers of attendees from other parts of the country than usual and brought in many first-time attendees (yes!). Personally, I love New York, but I enjoyed the energy and freshness of this year’s Windy City BEA just as much.

Among the most popular events are the “Buzz Panels,” where editors from top publishing houses gush about a book they can’t wait to see debut. There is a panel for each of three
categories: Young Adult, Middle Grade, and Adult titles. This year’s Buzz Books in YA fiction featured an eclectic mix, from high stakes fantasy, to a dark satirical tale of modern high school, to the story of a girl who finds power through rap music after experiencing sexual abuse. Here is the complete list from the YA Buzz Panel:

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CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber

STALKING JACK THE RIPPER by Kerri Maniscalco

RANI PATEL IN FULL EFFECT by Sonia Patel

SPONTANEOUS by Aaron Starmer

THIEVING WEASELS by Billy Taylor
I have to admit I’m particularly excited about that first title because I had the great fortune to work on it with Stephanie as she prepared to submit it to agents and publishers. Watch for its hardcover debut in January!

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Stephanie Garber and I get excited about her beautiful Caraval ARCs

Other upcoming YA titles that generated major excitement were Sabaa Tahir’s A TORCH AGAINST THE NIGHT (sequel to AN EMBER IN THE ASHES) and Laini Taylor’s STRANGE THE DREAMER.

In Middle Grade, the focus was on classic adventure stories with a fresh twist. Here are the titles to watch for this fall from the Buzz Book Panel:

GERTIE’S LEAP TO GREATNESS by Kate Beasley

THE LOST PROPERTY OFFICE by James R. Hannibal

FRAZZLED by Booki Vivat

TIME TRAVELING WITH A HAMSTER by Ross Welford

THE ADVENTURER’S GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL ESCAPES by Albert White

In adult fiction, a few of the hot titles featured were Coleson Whitehead’s THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, which he describes as historical fiction with “one degree of magic realism,” Jodi Picoult’s latest work SMALL GREAT THINGS, and Louise Penny’s A GREAT RECKONING, the latest in her Armand Gamache mystery series. Another title that caused a stir among booksellers was THE GIRLS, author Emma Cline’s debut about a teenage girl’s disastrous experience in a cult in the 1960s.

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YA Buzz panel author Sonia Patel rapping a song inspired by her protagonist in Rani Patel in Full Effect

Here are the titles from the Adult Buzz Book Panel:

 

THE MOTHERS by Britt Bennett

LITTLE DEATHS by Emma Flint

A HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

THE NIX by Nathan Hill

DARKTOWN by Thomas Mullen

ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA by Gary Younge

 

Don’t miss your chance to download FREE excerpts from some of the titles mentioned here, and many other hot upcoming releases, in the Publishers Marketplace Buzz Book collections.

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Publicist Vanessa Lloyd-Sgambati, agent Regina Brooks, marketing expert Ken Smikle, and African-American Lit Book Club founder Troy D. Johnson talk about how to hook readers and drive book sales

A thread that connected many of this year’s panels and sessions was the continued need to bring diversity into our literature and the industry as a whole; yet great strides have been made. The team from We Need Diverse Books put on another fantastic panel about progress and continuing challenges (e.g. using terminology like “marginalized groups,” which connotes separation, not inclusion). In the panel “In Search of A Book Buyer: African American Women Top the List,” speakers addressed research that shows African American women represent the highest percentage of readers in the country, and how to authors can get their books into the hands of this audience. Regina Brooks, panelist and president of Serendipity Literary Agency, said, “My mantra is that as much as we need diverse books, we need people to market diverse books” (Publishers Weekly Show Daily: Day 2). One idea that come forth was the importance of getting books into community gathering places e.g. community centers, churches, and salons.

tribeBookExpo features a huge number of exciting new titles in nonfiction as well. Two must-reads that I came across focused on sociological aspects of life in the modern world: TRIBE: ON HOMECOMING & BELONGING by Sebastian Junger (May 24/Harper Collins) and THE FOUR DIMENSIONAL HUMAN: WAYS OF BEING IN THE DIGITAL WORLD by Laurence Scott. Junger, author of The Perfect Storm, spoke at Thursday’s Adult Author Breakfast, where he shared his belief that books “actually are kind of sacred…. It means that every phase of the book-making process and the bookselling process is sacred to some extent in my belief.” Expressing his gratitude to booksellers, he said, “It’s one of the most profound and important things I think that a person can do; that a society can do. The hands need the books and the books need the hands.”

Another exciting aspect of BEA is its spotlight on indie authors through the UPublishU conference, held concurrently at the same location (McCormick Center). Speakers from Ingram Spark, Kirkus Indie, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and many others shared tips and best practices. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, presented his “Top 10 Trends Shaping the Future of Publishing” (visit the Smashwords website for Mark’s industry insights and resources).

Want to see more fun shots of BEA? Visit my Word Cafe album on Facebook.

Four Red Flags to Avoid in the Opening Pages of Your Novel

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Warning light. copyIf you’re like me, this busy time of year can cause a dip in your creative energy. So, how best to use your time as a writer? ‘Tis the season for revisions! Whether you are just wrapping up NaNoWriMo or heading into your thirteenth draft, December is a great time to put on your editor’s hat. Most agents take a break from reading submissions over the holidays, so this will help ensure you have your novel polished and ready to go when they reopen in January.

Since your opening chapters are often what make or break your submission (or hook a reader if you indie publish), it’s worth focusing some extra attention on them. Based on my six years in the writing industry, I’ve compiled a bank of potential pitfalls for the beginning of a novel. Here, I’ll boil it down to four of the most common.

Four Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Your Opening Pages:

(1) Backstory overload. Also known as the “data dump,” this is one of the most common problems seen in first drafts by both new and seasoned writers. It consists of several paragraphs or pages at the beginning of a story with no purpose except to “clue the reader in” about the main character’s history or past events. It often happens when a writer confuses what she needs to know (in order to write the character and story), versus what the reader needs to know at this moment (which is usually much less). Fixing it means trimming material, or finding ways to weave in the essentials gradually, as the plot moves forward.

(2) Lack of physical grounding in the setting and the main character. Have you ever read a fellow writer’s first draft where your prevailing emotion was confusion? It was probably due to this problem. It occurs when there is not enough “grounding” information to help the reader picture the characters clearly and situate them in time and place. (How does the character see herself? How old is she? Is the scene happening in the kitchen or on the balcony?) The result is that the story feels disembodied, causing the reader’s attention to stray from the action as he tries to tackle those unanswered questions. [Notice I didn’t ask What does the character look like? Some authors give detailed physical descriptions, while others prefer to let readers fill in the blanks. The important thing is to give readers something–is she a teenager or a twenty-something; does she have physical attributes she is self-conscious of, etc.).

(3) Too much musing, ruminating, or psychoanalyzing by the main character/narrator. This is also known as introspection or inner monologue. A healthy dose is necessary for character development, but too much can spell doom for your opening pages. If nothing happens because your protagonist is too busy thinking and philosophizing, the tension fizzles and you quickly lose readers.

(4) No sign of the inciting incident. The inciting incident is the spark that sets in motion your plot arc. Without it, you end up with a story that never gets off the ground. It also plays a key role in your pacing and tension; a good inciting incident sets the tempo that those two elements must maintain. A common problem in early drafts is that the inciting incident shows up much too late. If it is not present within the first 25-30 pages (ideally, even sooner), you’ll have a very hard time getting your audience to read further. Often, this happens because a story starts in the wrong place due to backstory overload or improper sequencing.

As you get ready for your next revision, keep an eye out for these potential culprits. Better yet, have your writing partner or critique group do a diagnostic for you. Happy revising!