Category Archives: Writing

Guest Post: Margie’s Rule #9: Cliché Play by Margie Lawson

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Thank you to Writers in the Storm and to the incomparable writing coach Margie Lawson for this wonderful article on how to eliminate tired and meaningless phrases from your writing.

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Most writers know to avoid clichés. Every basic how-to book for writers includes a section on avoiding clichés. Those experts refer to clichés as lazy writing.

So do I.

Clichés represent weak writing. They’re easy to throw on the page. No thinking required.

Clichés don’t share the specificity and emotion as the phrase or sentence you could write.

No power words. No power.

What are power words? In my world, power words are the words that carry psychological power.

What’s wrong with using clichés?

  1. They’re predictable.
  2. They’re annoying.
  3. They invite the reader to skim, and tune-out.
  4. They don’t add specificity.
  5. They don’t deepen characterization or draw the reader deeper into the scene.

There are times when using clichés or cliché twists works well.

  1. When they are so rich, so perfect, they make you smile.
  2. When they are so twisted, they make you laugh.

Dennis Lehane, Moonlight Mile

Dennis Lehane uses two clichés in the passage below from Moonlight Mile. The one in the last line works well. It’s a perfect fit.

Set Up:  The POV character is angry with Helene, the scuzzy mother of the teenage girl who is missing. Here’s how he characterized Helene earlier: “If it smelled of stupid, Helene just had to be somewhere nearby.”

After the silence went on a bit too long, Helene said, “What’re you thinking?”

“I’m thinking how I’ve never had the impulse to hit a woman in my life, but you get me in an Ike Turner frame of mind.”

She flicked her cigarette into the parking lot. “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.” Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

I’m sharing my deep editing analysis of that passage for fun, and to share the learning opportunities. After my analysis, you’ll find more examples of cliché twists. Enjoy!

Deep Editing Analysis:

Cadence – Read it out loud. You’ll hear the cadence driving the reader through every sentence. No stalling.

Allusion – Rhetorical Device – the reference to his Ike Turner frame of mind.

Clichés

  1. Like I haven’t heard that before.

In this scene, that overused line carried power, strengthened characterization, and made me laugh. I approve using this cliché here.

  1. . . . wasn’t far off the mark.

It works. It’s tight. I like the cadence. And I can’t think of a better way to end that sentence.

Period. Infused. Sentences. My way of describing when the author morphs what would have been a normal sentence into sequential single word sentences. Like. This.

“Where. Is. She.”

Lehane shared what I call a Dialogue Cue. He didn’t add a sentence describing how the words were delivered. He showed it structurally. The punctuation indicates that each word is clipped, and that the character speaking is big-time irritated.

He also did something I haven’t seen on the page before, but I’ve heard it in real life. He had one character speak in that clipped style, and had another character respond the same way.

“Where. Is. She.”

“We. Don’t. Know.”

The reader knows the second character is mocking the first. But Lehane doesn’t TELL us. He SHOWS us. Smart. And smart alecky too.  🙂

Facial Expression, Amplified:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Lehane could have stopped with:  Helene bulged her eyes at me.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a twelve-year-old.

Lehane could have stopped with: Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old.

Ah! Adding the word, pissy, adds psychological power. It taps a universal emotion in readers.

Most adults have dealt with a pissy twelve-year-old, a child, niece, nephew, neighbor. Adding pissy elicits an internal nod. It ratchets up the tension and tightens the emotional hook.

But Lehane didn’t stop with that strong sentence. He amplified the line and empowered the emotion. Here’s his sentence again:

Helene bulged her eyes at me like a pissy twelve-year-old, which, in terms of emotional development, wasn’t far off the mark.

Back to Clichés!

Writers often write body language, dialogue cues, and visceral responses in clichéd ways.

  • She arched an eyebrow.
  • His face was as red as a beet.
  • She had butterflies in her stomach.
  • Her legs turned to jelly.

Avoid them. Write fresh.

Clichés are sneaky devils. You may not catch them until a 7th or 11th or 27th read-through. Or you may not catch them at all.

According to Donald Maass, clichés sprout up everywhere. Donald Maass has a sensitive cliché-meter. So do other agents.

Some people are cliché blind. They don’t recognize them. Working with a critique group, critique partner, the clichéd phrases and sentences they miss may be caught.

REMEMBER — Compelling Cadence:

Every sentence should have a compelling cadence. Read these examples out loud. You’ll train your cadence ear.

Cliché Play from a few Immersion-grads:

Megan Menard, Pursued

Before:  It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

After:  It’s all fun and games until the river wins.

Before:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Time to knock this one out of the park.”

After:  “I’m done with Little League, Ketterman. Home runs can be caught. We’re going for the grand slam of escape. Set off the alarm and run all the way home.”

Before:  “Forget it. You’re slower than molasses.”

After:  “Forget it. You’re slower than dial up internet.”

Set Up: Seniors in the retirement home are playing poker.

Before:  …winner takes all

After:  Those scoundrels cheated and rigged the deck to beat Esther Scott’s full house with four of a kind, leaving her as the loser-takes-all new owner of Tank, the meanest cat in God’s creation.

 

Suzanne Purvis, Fused

Before:  My heart jackhammers.

After:  My jackhammering heart pounds get-down, get-down, get-down.

Before:  Matt throws another rock and barely misses Avis’s ear.

After:  Matt throws another rock and misses Avis’s ear by a flea’s foot.

Before: The last sentence was:  Each time, setting me up as his fall guy.

After:  He started the fire behind the Friendship Hall, the fire at the Chamber of Commerce, the fire at the library. Each time, setting me up as his fire guy.

 

Lori Freeland, The Accidental Boyfriend

  1. I’m selfie-conscious.
  2. This girl’s kick-boxing my ego’s ass.
  3. I didn’t sign on to be his bud-with-benefits.
  4. Tension’s strumming off me like a badly played guitar riff.
  5. I try not overthink the whole commando-thing while I’m putting on Gabe’s pants without Victoria to cover my secrets.

BLOG GUESTS:  IT’S YOUR TURN!  

Click the comment link and say Hi. Or share one of your cliché twists.

My Writer’s Manifesto

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My Writer’s Manifesto

What is a manifesto?

When I read about writing, one term that often comes up is the writer’s manifesto. That word sends me back to 1995, when the unabomber sent his manifesto to the New York Times. It revives suppressed memories of anarchistic memories and maniacal demands. Why would I want to write a manifesto?

What is a manifesto, really? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer. Oh.

Writers can examine their intentions, motives, and views about writing so they can come up with something like a mission statement, something they can refer back to when they need focus or encouragement. Why do we write? What are we hoping to achieve with our writing?

pen-and-notebook

Why I write.

I write because the written word is an art form I enjoy. I love to read. I love to learn, and I have insights to share. I am analytical and creative; writing is an excellent outlet for me.

When my children were young, I hoped to be able to help support my family with my writing. That didn’t happen, and eventually I had to take a day job which left me no time to write. In my retirement, making money is less of a concern. Yes, it would be nice to have healthy royalty checks coming in, but even if they never do, we’ll get by. I don’t need to write what sells; I can concentrate on what’s in my heart.

I am a follower of Christ. I’ve adopted this scripture passage as one of my life verses:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8 NIV).

That verse summarizes what I write about. ARHtistic License acknowledges beauty and quality in the arts. I try not to rant about the ugly stuff. My fiction always has a redeeming message.

My Writer’s Manifesto

  1. I will write something every day, even if it is only an idea for something I will write in the future. Daily writing is a discipline that will exercise my creative muscles.
  2. Other writers are my colleagues, not my competition. I can learn from them, and I can promote their work and share what I know with them.
  3. Making money from what I write is not my major concern; I am more interested in sharing ideas and insights and stories.
  4. I will write pieces that inspire or that celebrate excellence. I will write stories with a positive message. There is enough horror in the world already.

Now it’s your turn.

Have you written a manifesto for your writing or your art? In preparing to write my manifesto, I read lots of articles on the internet, but I found this one to be especially helpful.

Would you like to share your manifesto with us in the comments below? (If it’s on your website or blog, just paste a link.)

In the Meme Time: The Writer’s Journey

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Journey

Guest Post–Literary Magazines And Journals: Your FAQs Answered by Writer’s Relief

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This article has been reprinted with the permission of Writer’s Relief, a highly recommended author’s submission service. We assist writers with preparing their submissions and researching the best markets. We have a service for every budget, as well as a free e-publication for writers, Submit Write Now! Visit our site today to learn more.

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If you’re writing poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction, or essays, then literary magazines are your best friends. But at first glance, the world of literary journals can be intimidating. The submission guidelines often vary from one publication to another, and each journal seems to have its own special etiquette that you must try to decipher. And then there are the oodles of rejection letters that writers receive over the course of their careers. The entire process can be quite overwhelming. You probably have a lot of questions.

Fortunately, the submission strategy experts here at Writer’s Relief have a lot of answers. We know the ins and outs of getting poems, short stories, and personal essays published in literary magazines. And guess what? It may not be as difficult to get published as you think!

FAQs About Literary Journals And Magazines

Q.: What Is The Definition A Literary Magazine (AKA Literary Journal)?

A.: A literary magazine is a publication of collected works by various authors. Writers can submit their writing to editors of literary journals at different times during the year depending on reading dates. Submissions can be unsolicited (not requested) or solicited. Literary magazines feature poems, short stories, and essays that are written by new, unpublished writers, or by well-known authors. Each literary magazine has its own style and focus.

The number of people who staff a literary magazine can run from a single editor working alone from home, right up to a large team of volunteer readers and paid staffers who unite to put out multiple issues of a magazine every year.

Writer’s Relief maintains a HUGE database of literary magazines. The database is updated daily, based on not only the information that is available to the public, but also on insider information gleaned from managing our clients’ submissions to various editors. Tracking many years’ worth of personal comments on submissions means that we know what editors like, and we make it our goal to connect writers with the editors who will fall in love with their work.

Q.: How Much Do Literary Magazines And Journals Pay Creative Writers?

A.: Many new writers get excited about literary magazines because it’s heartening to know there’s a community eager to publish new poems, stories, and essays. But hot on the heels of a writer’s interest in a literary magazine is this common question: How much do literary magazines and journals pay?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that a writer will be able to make any significant income by publishing in literary journals. Literary magazines are rarely able to pay creative writers for the privilege of publishing an accepted poem, story, or essay. And the literary journals that do pay writers are rarely able to pay much beyond a token honorarium.

Editors aren’t being stingy: Budgets at many literary journals are very tight. To stay afloat fiscally, literary magazines often rely on grants, predetermined budgets set by academic committees, or small subscription bases. Some literary magazines host writing contests to generate income. Many editors wish they could pay their writers for the right to publish accepted submissions. Learn more about the reasons literary magazine editors rarely pay writers money.

That said, there are some literary magazines that do pay writers for the right to publish poems, short stories, essays, and the like. Here are a few places to start your research to find literary journals that pay:

How To Find Literary Journals That Pay Writers

22 Literary Journals That Pay To Publish Poems–And Why Others Don’t | Writer’s Relief

Q.: What Are The Benefits And Advantages Of Getting Published In Literary Magazines?

A.: Most writers submit their poems, stories, and essays to literary journals in order to gain exposure for their writing. Getting published in a literary magazine is one of the best ways to build a strong reputation as a creative writer. Literary agents and publishers often read literary journals to discover exciting new voices. In the publishing industry and in academia, publishing in literary journals is a rite of passage that is, in some circles, an expected first step in a writer’s career.

Need more convincing? Read this: 33 Great Reasons Why You Should Submit Your Writing To Literary Magazines | Writer’s Relief.

Q.: What Is The Difference Between A Literary Journal And A Literary Magazine?

A.: Most of the time, the definition of a literary journal is synonymous with the definition of a literary magazine. At one point in the history of publishing, the pages of a literary journal may have been bound differently, and presented in a slightly different physical format, than a literary magazine. But these days, the distinction between a literary magazine and a literary journal has largely disappeared (especially now that so many literary journals and magazines have converted to digital format).

Q.: What Genres Are Published In Literary Journals?

A.: The majority of literary journals publish a mix of short stories, personal essays (nonfiction), and poetry. They might also include some visual artwork, interviews with authors, and book reviews.

Though many literary magazines accept a wide array of genres, some specialize in one genre. For example: One literary journal might exclusively publish flash fiction, while another might be dedicated to publishing “long” short stories.

Literary magazines can also be organized by theme (love, nature, food, etc.) or by authorial interests/ethnicity/place of residence.

Read more: 6 Surprising Things Literary Journal Editors Love To Publish.

Q.: What Style Of Writing Is Most Common In Literary Magazines?

A.: These days, many editors of literary journals are interested in publishing creative writing that has a literary sensibility. That means, the majority of literary magazines are interested in writing that’s a little challenging, thoughtful, experimental, intelligent, and emotional—writing that might not find a home at a commercial publishing house. However, you will also find literary magazines that specialize in genres that are historically considered commercial: detective stories, romances, etc.

Learn more about the difference between literary and commercial writing.

Q.: What Does A Literary Magazine Editor Actually Do For Writers?

A.: Editors at literary journals read through submissions, facilitate conversations about manuscripts and publishing, make decisions about which works to accept, write up editorial requests and assist authors with revisions, proofread and format, and much more.

Q.: Which Is Better For A Writer’s Career: Publishing In Digital Literary Journals Or Printed Literary Magazines?

A.: When literary magazines began moving into digital format, some writers resisted the change—in part because of the nostalgic draw of holding a physical copy of a printed publication. But now, online literary publications are as reputable, profitable, and career-building as print literary journals—if not more.

Publishing in online literary magazines offers benefits that publishing in print sometimes cannot:

  • Online archives have a longer shelf life than printed periodicals.
  • Online literary magazines are easily accessed by (and discovered by) readers as well as publishing professionals.
  • Online literary journals nominate for many of the same literary awards as print publications.
  • Online literary publications often cultivate larger readerships than print magazines thanks in part to simpler (and cheaper) distribution.
  • Readers (and writers) find it easier to share online literary magazines, increasing the likelihood of a work going viral.

Focusing your publishing efforts on building your reputation, as opposed to pursuing a specific publishing medium, is a stronger, smarter approach to establishing a successful writing career.

Q.: How Can You Determine The Reputation Of A Literary Journal?

A.: To evaluate the reputation of a literary magazine, there are a few criteria you can consider:

  • Professional credentials of the editors and the writers who are published in the magazine
  • Quality of production (design, proofreading, etc.)
  • The magazine’s ability to nominate its writers for major literary awards
  • The longevity of the magazine (how long it has been around can give a hint as to how likely it is that it will keep going)
  • Whether or not you personally see value in the content (because your opinion matters!)

Here at Writer’s Relief, we recommend that writers submit their work to a range of literary magazines, which means focusing not only on top-tier, famous literary publications, but also on reputable mid-size and even small periodicals. There are many advantages of this approach: So-called small publications can have a big effect on a writer’s career by way of exposure, award nominations, networking opportunities, and more.

Q.: Which Literary Magazines Publish Submissions By New And Unpublished Writers?

A.: Very few editors of literary magazines would turn away talented new writers just because they’d never been published. That said, some literary journals do tend to give priority to established writers. However, there are many others who welcome writing submissions from unpublished writers. In fact, many editors consider it a badge of honor to discover the next great writer in their pile of unsolicited submissions.

Here’s where you can learn more about how new writers can get published in literary journals.

Q.: What Formatting Rules Should Writers Know For Submitting To Literary Magazines?

A.: If the submissions guidelines page of a literary journal’s website doesn’t specify a format for submitted work, writers would do well to follow customary publishing industry protocol. Contact information in the upper left corner, standard fonts and margins, and headers that include name and page number will rarely rub editors the wrong way.

Most editors at literary magazines also like to read a cover letter or at least an author bio from writers who are hoping to secure publication.

Q.: What Are The Most Common Mistakes That Creative Writers Make When Submitting To Literary Magazines?

A.: If you’re a new writer trying to get published in a literary journal, here are the common mistakes that you’ll want to avoid!

Skipping the cover letter. If a literary magazine editor indicates that he or she wants to read a cover letter, seize the opportunity to make a personal connection.

Ditching the author bio. Some writers neglect to include an author bio in order to make a statement that only the written manuscript should matter in the editor’s decision to publish or not to publish. Other writers skip the author bio simply because they have a lack of publishing credits. Whatever your opinion, know this: If a literary magazine editor asks you for a bio, then you skip it at your own risk.

Clicking “send” too quickly. Never hit the “send” button until you’re sure your submission is thoroughly proofread. You may even want to consider working with a professional proofreader when submitting your creative writing to literary magazines and journals.

Narrowing the market. Many writers get hung up on the notion that big-name literary magazines are the only worthwhile publications. Unfortunately, this mind-set often leads to limited publishing opportunities, especially for new writers.

Submitting without researching first. Some writers send their creative writing to any and every literary magazine under the sun. This is not a policy we endorse. If you get a reputation for submission spam, you could find yourself blacklisted.

Ignoring submission guidelines. Editors have told us that their number one pet peeve is submissions that totally ignore the submission guidelines. That said, many editors are flexible and may accept valid explanations for ignoring minor elements of submission guidelines.

And the number one, most common mistake writers make when submitting to literary magazines…

Not submitting frequently enough.

If you can’t find a home for a truly good piece of writing, chances are you’ve given up too quickly. There are thousands of literary magazines out there. It can take time to find the right one. But with time constraints, research frustrations, query/cover letter etiquette questions, and countless insecurities, it’s a wonder some writers get any submissions out the door at all!

Creative Juice #162

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Creative Juice #162

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!

An Interview with Author Edward Hoornaert

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I became acquainted with Edward Hoornaert several years ago, when I was a participant in Weekend Writing Warriors, where authors post snippets of their works-in-progress for feedback. Hoornaert is a prolific author who earned the nickname Mr. Valentine for his romance novels (Mr. Valentine is also the title of a romance novel by Vicki Lewis Thompson which was inspired by Hoornaert), and then turned to science fiction. (See my reviews of Alien Contact for Idiots and Newborn on my Books Read page, #3 and #1 respectively under 2017. A review of Alien Contact for an Enhanced Nutcracker will be coming soon.)

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Edward Hoornaert against the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, Ed’s “spirit’s home.”

I recently sent Ed some questions about his work, and these are his responses:

ARHtistic License: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Ed Hoornaert: I’m a plantser, or maybe a potter. Not Harry, unfortunately for me. [Andrea’s note: I call myself a plotser.]

My first ten or twelve novels (out of 20) were written ‘by the seat of my pants.’ However, I had too many failures that died around page 50 because I discovered there was no ‘there’ there. So now I write an outline, 5 to 10 pages long, of the first two-thirds of a book. Plotting further than that tends to be wasted because the book inevitably takes off in (slightly) new directions. I always have a vision of the ending, though.

Actually, I spend more time getting to know what makes my characters tick than I do on plotting. Come to think of it, in the best books you can’t really separate the characters from the plot; different characters would result in a different story. That’s what I aim for.

AL: How long does it take you to write a book?Farflung

EH: I drafted The Guardian Angel of Farflung Station in about three weeks. Then I spent more than twice that long rewriting and honing it before I submitted it to my small-press publisher. It remains one of my favorites because it came so quickly.

At the other end of the spectrum, The Trial of Tompa Lee, a sci fi novel that was my final book for a traditional publishing house, took about three years. Interestingly, the gestation period says nothing about the books’ quality. They’re both among the best I’ve written, based on reviews.

AL: What is your biggest writing challenge? 

EH: My biggest challenge is holding the world and my family at bay long enough to write. I’m still not comfortable with the selfish side of writing at home. It’s tricky, you know? I have a great marriage and family, and I want to keep it that way.

AL: Do you cut a lot from your drafts when you revise? 

EH: Back when I wrote by the seat of my pants, I had to cut a lot from my drafts, but now that I sort of plot my books, I almost always add rather that delete. My draft scenes are often sketchy, sometimes all dialogue, so I flesh them out and add sensory details. Until the last couple passes, that is, when I’m looking to trim clumsy or wordy passages. Then I aim to cut around 5% of my words.

TompaAL: Do you ever get stuck?

EH: Lordy, yes. Usually, there’s one of two reasons:

  • First, I didn’t plan out my idea or my characters well enough to know whether the conflict will sustain a book. Getting stuck like this is often fatal.
  • Second, I sometimes need time to pause to figure out what, exactly, should happen next and why it matters. These may be conflicts between plot (what the plot wants a character to do) and the character, who’s like an actor asking a director, “Why on Earth would I do something as silly as that, instead of this?” I need to dig deeper.

AL: You got your start writing romances for Harlequin Silhouette. Then you turned to sci fi and sci fi/romance and self-published. Why self-publishing?

EH: Actually, I got my start with Tab Books writing a couple of computer books for children before I went to Silhouette. After Silhouette, I published with Five Star Speculative Fiction, an imprint of another big publisher. For the record, some of what I write these days is put out by small presses.

I left the rat race in 2012, by which time I’d gotten the rights back to my sci fi novel. I brought it out as a self-published book that year, along with two sequels that make up The Trilogy of Tompa Lee. It’s impossible to sell the last two-thirds of a trilogy, and I couldn’t find any houses interested in reprinting the first book just to get the sequels. Self-publishing to the rescue! The second book in the trilogy has a 4.8+ rating out of 5, so some readers are glad I took the leap.

Self-pubbing is perfect for me. My career in technical writing had been perfect training. The technical issues of formatting and production were child’s play after software manuals, and being in a two- or three-person department had drummed into me the absolute necessity of going over and over a manuscript until I was sick of it, and then going over it some more.

AL: What, for you, have been the benefits of self-publishing? What are the benefits of traditional publishing?

EH: Main benefit of self-publishing—I don’t have to wait forever and ever; the wheels of large publishing houses grind very, very slowly.

The main benefits of traditional publishing were 1) money, because with the Harlequin behemoth behind me, I made decent shekels; and 2) I didn’t have to do any of my own marketing. I hate marketing.

AL:Your Harlequin books were written under a pen name: Judi Edwards. Why? Was it thought that men couldn’t write women’s fiction?

EH: No, I don’t think that was the reason. A fair number of romance novels back then were being written by men, such as Donald Maass (now a literary agent and author of some of the best books about writing available). I even heard rumors that up to 10% of romances were male-authored. The folks at Harlequin Enterprises — I actually wrote for Silhouette Books, a Harlequin subsidiary — knew that men could write romances women would read.

Although I wasn’t privy to their reasoning, I got the impression the powers-that-be were afraid some women wouldn’t buy a book if they knew a man had written it. Maybe they’re right. There is a bit of prejudice against men working in the genre.

AL: Alien Contact for an Enhanced Nutcracker has just come out. What’s up next?Nutcracker 6

EH: Nutcracker is the sixth book in my Alien Contact for Idiots series and the first new book in the series in a year; I took time off to write two books in my space-opera series. Although I haven’t decided for certain—an idea has to grow in my mind to the point it “takes over,” and whether that will happen is unpredictable—I’m probably going to take a hiatus from both series and work on a standalone book.

Several years ago, I drafted a manuscript about a colony of people forced to explore the relationship between madness and creativity. I’ve always thought the concept was dynamite, even if the execution was a popgun. I’m fifty-four pages into a rewrite, concentrating on changing and sharpening the character of my female lead. She was a bit boring because I didn’t understand what drove her. Assuming the book “takes over” it’ll be near-future science fiction with elements of romance. The working title is Never Seen a Purple Cow.

AL: What is something about you and your books that you’d like your readers to know?

EH: One of the tried-and-true paths to success these days is to publish a lot of books—every month or two if possible. The problem with this approach is that quantity takes precedence over quality, and I hate the idea of publishing a book that isn’t as good as I can possibly make it. I rushed one of my books, and I’ve regretted it ever since.

So I’d like readers to know that I’m old school. I rewrite and hone until a book is as engrossing as it can be. Quality over quantity!

Effing - Weekend writing warriors

Ed’s cat, affectionately known as Effing Feline, makes a weekly appearance on Ed’s website.

Guest Post: Top 5 Ways Writers Screw Up Their Characters by Lucy V. Hay

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Thank you to Lucy V. Hay and to Bang2write for these insights on effective characterization.

Happy sillohettes

Caring About Characters?

So, you’ve been given this feedback: “We need to care more about your characters.”

Immediate RED FLAG!!!

This is a useless piece of feedback. Put whomever gave it to you on the naughty step RIGHT NOW and join me children in examining why this feedback sucks BIG TIME. (Okay, okay, the feedback-giver *means* well. And yes, just like “Show It, Don’t Tell It”, this advice probably started off good stuff).

BUT I put it to you “we need to care more about your characters” creates waaaay more problems in drafts than it solves. Why? Because writers end up spending SO LONG trying to make us “care” (WTF does that really mean anyway?), they end up shooting themselves in the foot story-wise.

Great characters are part of great STORIES. This means the two are inextricably linked. So when writers get that ubiquitous, but crappy note “we need to care more about your characters”, they inevitably start focusing on character AT THE EXPENSE of plotting and story. YARGH!

How Writers Screw Up Their Characters

5) … They introduce their characters badly

Whether screenplay or novel, your character needs to be introduced in an interesting and dramatic way.  When we meet your character for the first time – especially your protagonist – s/he should be preferably DOING something that:

a) Tells us *something* about him/her in terms of personality

b) Gives us a sense of the storyworld/the tone

c) Gives us *some clue* or indicator about the situation at hand

Yet too often we meet characters waking up, getting ready for the day ahead and/or eating breakfast; coming down the stairs or from another room (usually when someone yells for them); sitting in cafes or restaurants musing; or sitting in their bedrooms doing the same. LE YAWN.

This is nearly always because writers mistakenly believe that seeing a character in their home environment (or similar) makes us “care” about them. IT DOESN’T. It’s just dull!

Remember, readers make all kinds of assumptions not only from your very first page, but from your opening image too! Make sure you introduce your characters in ways we don’t see all the time to stand your best chances in the marketplace. Read more: How To Introduce A Character.

4) … They put too much tragic back story for characters “up front”

This is an issue that seems primarily a screenwriting-related problem. I loved the following dialogue in the brilliant WRECK-IT RALPH, which I watched recently with my Wee Girls:

FIX-IT FELIXJeez, she’s kinda intense, huh?

SOLDIERIt’s not her fault. She’s programmed with the most tragic backstory EVER.

In comparison to WRECK IT RALPH then, scribes DON’T play the notion of a tragic back story up front for laughs. Instead, the reader will have to wade through stories of child abuse; adoption/rejection; rape; bereavement; self harm and recriminations – all before the actual main story gets going. More often than not, this will mean going through an acre of flashback before the situation in hand kicks off, though sometimes there will be various arguments and/or a funeral, or even ALL OF THIS (yikes!).

Yet these huuuuuuuuge adverse life events are massive; to make them blithely “character building” feels like a slap in the face for the characters. Not convinced? Think about it:

“Oh my character has to deal with being held hostage in the bank where she works – BUT IT’S OKAY BECAUSE IN THE PAST SHE WAS ABUSED AS A CHILD, SO SHE CAN HANDLE THIS” — WTF???

Yeah, yeah ***of course*** writers don’t mean it this way; they’re trying to give their characters “layers” and make us “care” about them. I totally get that. But seriously, overly tragic back stories played up front are not the way. Characters’ reactions and the way they deal with what’s happening to them in the “here and now” tells us SO MUCH more than acres of flashbacks or expositional dialogue about their traumatic childhoods.

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