Since I get a lot of questions from people wanting to begin or get back into their writing projects, I figured I would make this video with some hints on how to motivate yourself and get back into the writing groove.
Most of my videos so far have been about publishing and approaching agents and stuff, but I haven’t done much with actual writing technique and the earlier stages of drafting your book. Since I have done a lot of beta reading for authors, I thought I’d share some advice that I’ve found myself repeating for the authors I help on nearly every book.
This video addresses common pitfalls and teaches certain techniques for authors to use in polishing their novels, with particular attention paid to how to begin your novel. It also includes tips on characterization, dialogue, providing background information, pacing, story elements, and even punctuation. Enjoy!
My new video covers five reasons why I recommend against creative speech tags used in place of “said” and “asked.” I make my case for why conversations between characters should stand on their own without the tags or adverbs combined with the tags competing for attention against the actual conversation.
What’s a frame story, you ask? Well, it’s a fictional book that’s primarily written to shove the opinion or agenda of the author down the reader’s throat. The story takes a backseat to the message, and the characters either exist as mouthpieces for that message or become examples of What Happens to the Bad People Who Don’t Live By Our Philosophy.
While it’s fine for a novel to have a message or to teach good values, they should always first focus on the storytelling and the characters who are experiencing the plot. And furthermore, if you have an important message that you want to impart to others through fiction, it will actually be much more effective if it’s funneled through an authentic and enjoyable story. If you as an author find yourself more interested in inspiring people on what to believe than you are in telling the characters’ story, you should just be honest and write prescriptive nonfiction.
Many books with a religious or spiritual theme get this wrong. Every character is a plant—meaning they were specifically invented by the author to serve a singular purpose or “represent” something—and most of their featured dialogue seems rehearsed, overly organized, too structured, and preachy. When the action stops frequently so a major character can philosophize, preach, or reminisce on some topic that illustrates exactly what the story is about, you’re probably dealing with a frame story. It’s also really common for characters in frame stories to have very few defining characteristics beyond their role in the story and very little irrelevant back story. (Okay, I know nobody likes infodumps about characters’ back stories, but it’s very frustrating for me whenever it’s 100% clear that a character started living on page one. Unless they were BORN on page one.)
What’s especially troubling is when you agree with or really like some of the spiritual or philosophical messages. The very popular Left Behind series is a Christian fiction bestseller that depicts the End Times and is pitched as an exciting post-apocalyptic (literally!) future for what’s in store if you are not a believer. And while it sold millions, most of the Christian people I know who read it disliked it because the characters were constantly launching into their conversion stories and persuasive page-long essays about why being a Christian is vital. Considering nearly all of their audience is already Christian, they are (literally, again!) preaching to the choir.
And what about books like The Celestine Prophecy? It’s sold as fiction, and presents a New Age philosophy imparted through various revelations that the protagonist discovers while on an adventure. You know what? I’ve read it. And I can’t remember the main character’s name without looking it up. The story clearly wasn’t about the characters or what they were doing. It was about a deliberate attempt to engage the reader in a belief system or philosophy. I liked several of the insights. I remember those. I thought the story around it was unnecessary. And the sales pitch for its upcoming insight (released in the next book, of course) was blatant. The author might have made a loyal reader out of me if he’d either sold his insights in a tight little philosophy book OR written a story to fill in the frame.
But then there’s the question of how you’re supposed to use positive messages in your book without making the novel a frame story. It’s actually very simple, and I’ll emphasize that I’m not saying books shouldn’t have messages. I’m saying they absolutely must read like stories (not lectures) and absolutely must contain people (not puppets).
For example, the book Holes has a pretty straightforwardly anti-racist message in it. The story bounces back and forth between the past and the present, and in both time periods a relationship between a black person and a white person undergoes challenges and shows how they’re better together. In the past, it’s a white woman and a black man who fall in love, and the Old West town isn’t willing to stand for it. In the present, it’s a white boy and a black boy who form a lasting friendship and finally win against the authority that’s beating them down.
But the main characters—and even some of the secondary and tertiary supporting characters—have depth and history so you know where they’re coming from; they have personal struggles and idiosyncratic quirks; they are about way more than representing their race. And nobody ever stops the action to give us a nice speech on why it’s so important that black people and white people get along. (And it should be noted that their races also are not at all invisible. It’s not one of those “they said this one’s white and this one’s black, but we wouldn’t have known from context otherwise” kinds of “I don’t see color” books. Their racial backgrounds are part of the characters. They just aren’t their defining characteristic or sole identity.)
How about one of my favorite teen books: Stargirl. Now, this is clearly a “be yourself, don’t change for anyone” story. Is it a frame story? Not even close.
What’s interesting is how overt this message is without being a frame story. It’s the characters that make it special—Stargirl is certainly quirky in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way, with her ukulele playing, weird clothes, and tendency to change her name to whatever suits her. But she’s more than that, too. She’s special because she pays attention to what other people feel, and reacts to it; she’s special because she isn’t “trying to be an individual” with her stunts so much as honestly being cut from a different cloth; she’s special because when you see her weirding everyone out by cheering for the opposite team as well as her own team, you know her well enough to understand why she does it. When she goes through her self-exploration phase in the opposite way that most teens do—trying to be more conventional, for the sake of love—you don’t get a tidy wrap-up at the end where everyone’s learned their lessons and now we all know to be ourselves. We understand why fundamentally changing yourself for someone else is not about love, because we see the consequences as they take their toll on these characters. We don’t feel like we just watched an after-school special about individuality. We feel the loss and we understand the people who lost. And that’s what the book is about. You’ll come away with a message, but you’ll never feel like the author tricked you into following a character’s story just so they could make them give lip service to their own agenda.
The key to presenting a message through fiction is always going to lie in the authenticity of your characters. Make us understand them and why everything in their lives has led them to believe what they do, and we’ll believe in them enough to want to listen to you. But make their personalities secondary to the message you’re piping in from a different universe, and I promise you we’ll feel it.
Rachel Schieffelbein is hosting a bloghop on SECONDARY CHARACTERS, and I decided to hop in! This is my first bloghop, y’all! [I should have signed up with my other site at Blogspot, and I will from now on if I do more bloghops, but for now I’ve just mirrored the content over there. Follow me if you like!]
Secondary characters done right are the ones who aren’t just there as part of a story, aren’t just there to “support” the protagonist . . . and aren’t obviously appearing to fulfill a function for some purpose ordained by a writer in another universe. These characters breathe. They feel. They have independent emotions and they don’t behave as if they’re less of a person just because they have less time on stage. They feel like they started living when they were born, not when they walked into the protagonist’s life.
One of my favorite secondary characters is Butler from the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Butler supports his underage charge, Artemis, through thick and thin, and is probably the best bodyguard in existence (for a person who really needs one). He’s actually come very close to death more than a dozen times while protecting Artemis, and he doesn’t just protect him physically—he supports him in all his ridiculous evil genius schemes, and his actions are inspired by love for his charge just as much as they are inspired by his sense of duty.
But besides just being a great bodyguard and a loyal protector, Butler has depth. His family has protected Artemis’s family for generations. (His sister, Juliet Butler, is similarly trained, and later protects Artemis’s little brothers, among others.) Artemis didn’t know Butler’s first name until he really almost died because of a promise he made. He’s also fiercely protective of his little sister even though she can take care of herself. He’s a layered dude and an inspiring (if imposing) character. I love what his protection allows Artemis to do in the stories, and I love how he develops certain relationships with the other characters that also braid loyalty and compassion together with competence and badassery. (And the jokes about him being too big to fit in certain cars, chairs, and rooms are delightfully visual and fun for the younger kids who read the books.)
I love Butler. I wish I had one.
Another secondary character I love is Bailey from The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares. Okay, so Bailey’s “job”—in a book where Tibby is the rightful main character of her storyline—is to inspire Tibby to care about the right things and do some tearjerking. She’s supposed to do this by being a sad girl with cancer whom everyone figures will die at the end and exists primarily to teach everyone about the preciousness of life. Too bad Bailey had other plans.
Bailey is inspirational partly because she isn’t trying to be. She isn’t what you’d expect. She and Tibby pretty much detest each other and develop what could only be described as a grudging respect for one another. It was so amazing to see that Bailey’s gruffness and unpleasantness continued to be part of her personality even after she warmed to Tibby and tried to emulate her—because after all, her life is about her, and she doesn’t want anyone’s pity friendship. In stories containing an inspirational kid with cancer, usually they’re angry at the world because of their disease and experience a personality overhaul when they realize their time is limited. Bailey isn’t like that. She’s her. She’s not just a kid with cancer.
I loved seeing her wear those magical pants.
When I write, I try my best not to stick supporting characters into the mix just to do their thing and leave. I don’t want to make them unique by tacking on a catch phrase or a quirky behavior. I want readers to understand them as complex people, with evidence that they have opinions and preferences and life stories that aren’t part of the book. I want them to be as fully formed as any main character—and I want them to be fleshed out enough that if the story happened to be about them, there’d be enough material there to make it interesting. Stories in which the “secondary character” is the protagonist, like Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire or Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale, are especially wonderful in this way. They show us how the supporting character can be the whole show in the end.
Amazing secondary characters are a good reminder that every character is the protagonist of their own life. Well-told stories should always feature characters with full lives that read like they continue existing outside of the pages.
So you wrote your book and then you ran the spell-checking program. Now you’re done! Right?
There’s that laugh I needed.
One popular misconception among writers is that spelling, grammar, punctuation, and all the little language-correctness tidbits aren’t really all that important because surely real professionals can look past inoffensive mistakes and recognize a wonderful story when they see it. Right? Well, no.
I’m not even going to touch the importance of test readers for story, character, and concept purposes right now. I’m going to pick on the nuts and bolts and explain why proofreading is super important. Why should you have a near-perfect manuscript before you even think of trying to submit a book to an agent or publisher?
Because thinking those things aren’t an important part of the writing craft is about as unprofessional as you can get.
What do you know about publishing?
Do you know what the traditional path to publication is?
Do you know what self-publishing is?
I’ve run into a lot of people over the years who truly believe that self-publishing is the norm for books that later become successful. What non-writers (or just people who don’t research) believe is that all a writer must do to become “published” is write a book, have it printed and bound by a service (or just down at the copy shop), maybe register a copyright and get an ISBN/barcode if they’re sort of sophisticated, and boom, set up book signings and become famous.
They have no idea that bookstores won’t suddenly start carrying their book. That all of the hype surrounding their book will be generated by them and whoever they have on their team. That there aren’t a multitude of shrewd, kind “publishing scouts” wandering the bookstores and shopping malls looking for the next big thing.
You might as well make a plan for becoming a movie star by moving to Hollywood and walking around dressed in your best, expecting a talent agent to discover you and put you in a movie.
“Kill your darlings” is one of the commonly dispensed pieces of writing advice. What does it mean? It means that no matter how precious and beautiful you think your words are, you have to murder them.
What do I think?
Well, I think it’s true, of course.
First, why is it true? Why are we expected to “kill” our words if it’s already come out the way we wanted it?
There are two ways this gets slung around.
“Write what you know.”
- If you know it, you’ll write it well.
- If you wrote it well, you know it.
Neither of those are true.
I’m speaking in the general, of course, but not everyone who writes well can write their own experiences well; and not everyone who writes something well is doing so because they’ve experienced it.
I’ve had problems with my audience on this issue, from both angles. One camp assumes that something I wrote about is my experience, and brings those assumptions to the table when talking to me. And the other camp knows what my experiences are, and uses them against me to insist that I couldn’t possibly write an experience unlike mine authentically (or that I don’t have the right to try).
Purple Prose: a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. [x]
I have a big problem with purple prose. As in, I don’t like it, not that I struggle with it myself. (I sure hope not.) As its most common perpetrators happen to be in MY genre, I especially don’t like it when they make fantasy writers look bad. These folks are the reason everyone else thinks high fantasy is melodramatic and silly!
But some people mistake purple prose for High Art, and defend it viciously. I have been told over and over that this sort of writing enriches the novel’s landscape, while I feel it reads more like a vocabulary exercise meets a bad attempt at poetry.