Category Archives: Writing Craft

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.

 

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!

An Editor’s Tips for Effective Worldbuilding—in Any Genre

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shutterstock_244945240Earlier this month, I presented a workshop on world building at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Retreat in beautiful Estes Park, Colorado. It was a fantastic event and an honor to spend time with a talented group of writers from many genres. One of the questions that we discussed was this: Which kinds of stories require world building? While the knee-jerk response is usually Sci Fi/Fantasy, everyone in the group quickly agreed on a better answer: “All of them.” Whether you want to set your story on another planet never before heard of, or a startlingly realistic representation of contemporary Detroit, you have to do the work to bring that place to life. Sparse world building can leave readers feeling ungrounded or unable to connect with your story, even if you have complex, engaging characters.

If you’re at the beginning stages of your novel, there are a lot of great resources out there for brainstorming and outlining your world. One of the most common is the world building checklist, an extensive list of questions designed to help you get to know your fictional world inside and out, so that you can begin to work those details into the story. Here are a couple of my favorites:

http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

http://io9.com/5936277/12-questions-to-ask-yourself-about-the-system-of-magic-in-your-fantasy-novel

(Again, these are geared toward SF/F worlds, but many of the questions apply to world building in general.)

Once you have gone a little further with your story, it’s helpful to know what NOT to do. Here are some tips I shared at the workshop based on the most common world building problems I see as an editor:

FIVE COMMON WORLDBUILDING PITFALLS

Lack of rules or breaking the rules—letting things happen in the story “just because.” If you bend your own worldbuilding rules in the middle of the story, it will come across as lazy plotting or too convenient. “But, it’s magic” is no excuse! In non-fantasy stories, this means staying true to the atmosphere you have built from the beginning. If you’re writing a contemporary romance and the setting is a small town that feels cozy and intimate to the main characters, it can’t suddenly morph into a dismal dead-end town without a very compelling reason.

Planting symbolic figures without a foundation. This is a common problem that happens when world building is mostly surface-level. You can’t throw in symbolic figures just for fun. For example: If the characters in your Sci Fi novel (or even historical fiction) frequently invoke “the Goddess,” readers must be given some notion of the underlying religion or mythology.

Data dump. This is where entire sections or pages at the beginning of the novel are devoted to worldbuilding and/or backstory alone; it’s a recipe for losing readers fast. World building should be organic—woven into the fabric of the story itself  as you introduce the main character (show the world through his or her eyes), the inciting incident, etc. It’s not an explanatory section in the opening pages of the novel.

Imbalance of macro and micro. Good world building always includes two layers: the “big picture” and the everyday details. Sometimes there is a clear sense of the macro level (geography, political structure, etc.), but little sensory detail for readers to latch onto. Or, there is an abundance of micro level details (what people wear, the foods they eat for breakfast, how they pray, etc.), but the foundation and infrastructure for these elements remains unclear.

The fantasy world is too similar to the real world. This one is specific to the SF/F genres. If you have a magical or supernatural element in your story, readers will expect to see its effects on the world at large. In other words, the things that set this place apart from the real world cannot exist in a void. Even if your story draws from a real-world referent (e.g. ancient Egypt), readers will be watching for details of what makes the place unique throughout the story, and without enough of this, the story could feel underdeveloped or disappointing.

I hope these tips give you some good food for thought. Go forth and build a world!