Currently working with a writer on the development of a new series. Book One has to really grip the audience if the series stands a chance. This is a great first draft with solid premise, good action, clever mystery, really likeable secondary characters and a perfectly creepy villain. The problem is the MC. Because the author is writing in 1st PPOV the narrator – that 1st person person – needs to be so compelling that the reader will stick with their voice for 370 pages and come back for more. That’s a tall order. My client just doesn’t know who this guy is…yet. My job is to help him find his perfect MC.
The author is busy working on a character sketch. That’s the best exercise I know to flesh out a character. I’m in awe of those writers whose characters spring full born from the creative ocean in their head. Most of us have to work out the details that make the character irresistible. Client and I are scheduled to talk on Wednesday and in the meantime I’m considering examples: which characters do I find irresistible, and why.
Janet Evanovich’s Ranger. Why do I love Ranger? Well, who doesn’t? Why is that? Handsome? Check. Talented? Check. Decisive man of action? Check. Smart, kind. Check. Attitude? Check. Sexy? Check, check, check. It’s all that and his eloquent monosyllabic dialog. “Babe.” That says it all. Then I realize that Ranger has been crafted to perfectly fit his purpose in the story. He serves as foil, friend and unattainable hero and Evanovich has drawn him with such magnetic traits that we’ll never tire of him.
Then there are the classics: Peroit, Miss Marple. Both have distinctive talents, and an attitude that makes their approach to the problem unique. Each can be kind and caring and each is a bit obsessive. They are very familiar, like comfortable old friends and I like to visit them when I need something predictable and comfortable. The flip side of that are the characters whose make up fits the same bill but we can see them grow and change with time and circumstance. There’s a malleable aspect to Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone that keeps her compelling more than comfortable. At closer look all four of those characters share important qualities.
Flavia de Luce and Lisbeth Salander. Were two more diametrically opposed heroines ever written? Yet both characters share some basic traits. Both have a sassy intellect, are obsessively curious, have a stronger than normal sense of right, are frighteningly brave and more resourceful than a Swiss Army knife. Each of them nurses a psychic wound and each is tough but tender; both Flavia and Lisbeth truly care about the world outside themselves. And they are both sterling hell raisers.
Just considering what makes a character so magnetic to me is enlightening. To see that archetypical qualities, those characteristics that speak to all of us, can come in a million different packages is key. Miss Marple is wrapped in comfortable flannel and her qualities have been shaped to fit her world perfectly. Lisbeth is her sister at heart only she is covered in leather and streaks her motorbike through a very different world. Peroit in his silk and Flavia in her calico are blood relatives and fit their entirely different worlds like a glove.
Now when I conference with my client I have some structure to my thoughts. I can help him see that there are crucial aspects to a main character that those traits should fit his world. If these characteristics are carefully thought out and artfully drawn his MC will win reader’s hearts and keep them coming back for installment after installment. Whew! Thanks for listening.
Short and sweet…and funny
I love Dickens. I really do; the man could use 400 words to describe something that needs maybe five and never miss a beat, never lose a reader’s interest – like spotting all the little details in a medieval tapestry. Then there are the Russians; I nearly drown in those narratives. All those names! Still, what grand stories. But after Anna’s head meets the track I have to read some Elmore Leonard to clear my palette. So many long narrative styles and each a joy to read.
Sometimes though, we all like something short and sweet and to the point. The limerick fits the bill perfectly. OK, it’s technically narrative verse, but a good limerick can express rich volumes in five simple lines. Mostly they’re funny and that’s a plus. And they’re therapeutic, as every frustrated student can attest. Penning limericks during long obtuse lectures got me through an entire semester of statistics.
Regarding statistics Professor Rum writes
While a perplexed class his piercing eye smites
There are lies and damn lies...
But in this student’s eyes
It’s only statistics that bites
It was Mr. Edward Lear (c. 1840-50) who popularized the form for children and thus introduced it to all and sundry. Anyone can, and everyone should, and most everyone has, unleashed pent up feelings in this deceptively innocent form. How to tell a truth, share one’s opinions, confess a saucy thought: let it out in a limerick.
I’ve been told an old man had sent emails To some various dubious females. He was asked what they said, But he just shook his head. I would rather not go into details
The madness of our current world offers so much fodder for a simple AABBA structure. From celebrity culture to politics to foodie commentary it’s an embarrassment of riches. Just think what you can do with Twitter? Jeff Bezos? Bit Coin? NFT’s? Of course, the really good limericks are the prurient ones. I won’t share any of those here – no need to risk offense – but I bet you all know at least one. And those limericks from elementary school? Sex Ed 101. A narrative form for all ages.
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
Penning a good limerick is useful. You can entertain family with a razor sharp limerick about Uncle Arnie, or share one with work mates about the Soup Nazi in the cafeteria – entertaining and therapeutic. But the best use of all is to prime the pump. When I’m faced with that fog wall of writer’s block I jot down a limerick. I work it until it shines and the word faucet flows.
A writer sat despondent in Rossclurds
She’d lost her facility for words.
She penned a snide limerick,
the lurid content did ‘er the trick,
And words flowed like Miss Muffet’s curds.
Lame? Well, yes. But it works and no one needs to read it. The next time you’re assaulted by the news, bemused by your sister’s latest breakup with yet another unsuitable guy or you’re faced with a blank page and the words just won’t coalesce, get your Limerick on!
Confessions From Quarantine
Fourteen months ago, when life became weirdly constricted, I didn’t wonder what to do with all that extra time. I’d read of course. Read, write a bit, and read some more. I could never tire of reading but by month 7 my eyes could — and did. I was ordered to rest my vision for one month. There’s always audio books, but I hate earbuds.
I tried daytime TV – in that murky upper cable range. I found myself in awe of the creativity of producers desperate for material to fill a 24/7 schedule. What obscure subjects! Shows like Storm of Suspicion. “True crime series that examines spellbinding crimes where the weather uncovered or solved crimes.” Wow! How many of those can you dig up? I moved on to an array of paranormal shows that all seemed to feature casually dressed young people filmed by a shaky camera in a deserted house where they would stop in shock and ask in a whisper, “Did you hear that?” Well, I never heard any thing and Ghost Busters did the hand held ghost meter thing a whole lot better. I conclude that daytime TV is not much of a pasttime.
Next — cooking. I’ve said before I’m not much good at it, but I do strive (now and then) to improve. I Googled ‘simple French recipes’ hoping to dazzle Tom and tried a stuffed chicken roulade touted to be “All the French, none of the fussiness.” Tricksy click bait, that. First I needed to pound my butterflied chicken breasts to ½ inch thickness. Pound them? I have hammers, but I wouldn’t eat something I used them on. I settled on whacking them about with a rolling pin. They weren’t all that thick anyway.
I made the simple filling (I’m good with vegies and nuts). It was the roll up part that got me. My breasts just weren’t cooperative. Once I finally got them in the hot pan they refused to stay neatly rolled. In the end it tasted pretty good, but it wasn’t pretty. Enough with cooking.
By now the eyes felt rested and ready to resume their primary function— reading. It was just a question of what to read. I wanted something entirely new to me. Something I might never in a million years seek out. And I found it by the cover. There is a promise in the lurid illustrations of a hugely muscled man, his clothing torn from battle, his eyes uncompromising. The tales of Doc Savage, the man of bronze were written in the 1930’s and 40’s, all 182 of them.
Lester Dent authored most under the house name Kenneth Robeson and the world and characters he built for the tales hold up beautifully 90 years later. Doc himself was once a victim— his parents were killed by bad guys — and he spent his youth honing his mind and body with lots of mysterious eastern mind techniques, exotic hand to hand fighting methods and grueling discipline — so he could spend a lifetime righting wrongs and punishing evil doers. Doc gathers a group of wonderfully eccentric characters to fight along with him. My favorites are Ham the dandy, and Monk the ape-like chemist.
All successful series books need to work as stand alone stories but need to supply enough background to explain the series characters and setting. It’s a difficult thing to do well without feeling heavy handed. Mr. Dent solved the problem simply: every Doc Savage book uses the exact same one to two paragraph description and character sketch of each supporting actor — and then he gets on with the action. And it works! I read 22 of the 182 Doc Savage adventures and by book 4 I had those set pieces memorized, but they are so good and so funny the tale would have felt empty without them.
It’s hard to decide what’s best about the Doc Savage books. It could be the complete innocence of of the world Doc protects, or the fact that Doc and his team never kill anybody (instead they take them to his Fortress of Solitude in the arctic and give them an operation that ‘cures’ them) or that Doc is a real doctor, he’s stinking rich and uses his money well, has a photographic memory, or that he is very shy around women. I loved it all.
It just goes to show that you can judge a book by its cover.
A simple Internet search can become a journey down the rabbit hole. A phrase or a word catches my eye, I click and find myself wondering down a path light years from the original intent. I was looking for info on clay pot cooking and got entranced by all the entries about things people are in praise of. Not sure how I got there, it’s a Google thing, but I couldn’t look away; all those heart felt testimonials extolling an incredible array of individual passions.
I was delighted by a man’s elegant praise of Velcro (who could argue with that?), an oratory on the simplicity of the ten penny nail (it really is an elegant and useful item), a poetic discourse on the play of sunlight on soap bubbles in the kitchen sink (I’ll take her word for it). The essays in praise of the rubber band, the sound of a child’s heartbeat in a quiet moment, the meditative smell of a crackling fire on a cold night all touched a universal human note—and I asked what I am in praise of.
Answer: writers. I write in praise of writers. I work with authors. I know something of the blood, sweat and tears invested in the books that are my passion to read. Writers are people with such a strong drive to tell stories they dive into unchartered waters and do it—despite the requirements of life. Writing is a full time occupation for a rare few. For most, the act of putting pen to paper is precious time carved out between client conferences, parenting, shift schedules, basic survival—the business of life. Amazing, praiseworthy.
Every book began as a spark in the mind of a writer. Might be an event, or a word overheard or grandmother’s lace collar that ignited the spark. With trial and error that spark becomes a premise to be populated with characters and action and goals. With more trial and error a burgeoning universe grows into a draft. More trial and error—okay, call it what it is—revisions and rewrites. Then more of same. Finally, a deep breath and first cautious preview. Writers group, spouse, beta reader, editor; it doesn’t matter who, the writer bears their soul. Feedback is absorbed (emotionally, technically, inspirationally), and it’s back to revise and rewrite, until the whole tough process results in the best effort of the writer.
That journey from idea to finished book is praiseworthy enough. That it’s just the beginning of a new sweaty effort is a fact. A book isn’t alive without readers. Reaching those readers is the next act. Even with a traditional publisher every writer has to promote their work — a fact even more vital for Indie authors. How else can the reader find your book among the 1100 new postings per day? Nothing makes me sadder than to have a client hang up their keyboard after publishing because sales are few to none. These are wonderful books, I know they are, but the author made no effort to promote. No one found the work. That wonderful book never stood a chance.
The investment of writing a book is a labor of love. Promoting and selling the book is just hard work. The effort begins with well-chosen genre categories and killer key words. An educated approach to pricing techniques, a website, blog and social media are promotional gold. Reviews are essential; consistency is key. Every author must invest the sweat equity needed to allow people to find their book. Fortunately, hundreds of Indie pros share promotional know-how, experiences and techniques on line, a lot of it free.
When I have found that ‘just right’ book I can snug up the Velcro on my slippers, hang my troubles on the ten penny nail, drain the supper dish soap and with the kid sit before the fire and travel wherever those pages take me. I am in praise of writers.
Every author faces this last crucial challenge. You’ve already spent untold hours researching, writing and editing your book. Your title hits just the right poetic note. You’ve gone several tense rounds to find the perfect cover. All that remains is the book blurb, the opening salvo in the promotional war. This is the first (and sometimes only) chance to grab a reader and compel them to buy the book. And so, like click bait, you need to lure your reader with an honest but irresistible snap shot.
It’s an art, this writing of a synopsis that isn’t a synopsis, this sell copy that isn’t an ad. And for something that isn’t a science there are strict rules: you have to be honest – no misleading the reader. No spoilers or why bother to read it – which can be tough since the spoiler is often the most exciting part of the story. Keep it at 200 words or less and don’t make it one run-on paragraph. Use the proper keywords for your genre. Reveal something about the antagonist – readers like to know if they can root for the hero. This isn’t the place to relate the entire plot but you have to provide the zeitgeist, the feel of the tale. No easy task.
A lot of the writers I work with find this daunting and ask for help, which I am happy to provide. I think it’s difficult for the writer to step far enough away from their work to pick out the enticing, salient points and present them with the tension and intrigue that make for a successful blurb. To the author, all story points are important. I get that, but as an avid reader I know what works for me in a blurb. It’s not how much is said, but how compellingly it’s said.
I start with a deconstruction approach. It’s possible to distill any story down to bare bones. In his book Hit Lit – Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers James W. Hall provided the most distilled example I’ve ever seen. This is a beloved tale that we all know intimately: “A young girl wakes in a surreal landscape and murders the first woman she sees. She teams with three strangers and does it again.” It’s short, accurate and intriguing but would it sell the book?
I wouldn’t distill it down that far but it makes a great beginning. What if we knew something about the young girl – an orphan, a princess, a refugee? And what about the surreal landscape – gaping desert, oozing swamp, forbidding mountains? Then the three strangers – female, male, older, menacing, kindly? Is all this murdering spurred by necessity, thrills, defense, the three strangers or is it unintended manslaughter? And finally, what is the young girl up to – revenge, enlightenment, finding a way out of the surreal landscape? Flesh out those points, add some genre keywords, reference any kudos and you could turn those original 24 spartan words into a 160 – 200 word blurb that would peak curiosity and entice the shopper to buy.
If you can step away from the totality of your story and deconstruct the plot to the primary elements, then present those elements in a provocative way you can create an effective selling tool with your book blurb. BTW, that book Hall described? The Wizard of Oz.
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