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.
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.
The Indie Revolution is the most exciting innovation since Google; it’s more refreshing than the demise of the mullet. It’s such a grand opportunity! It’s so… democratic. Anyone with the passion and discipline to write down the stories that live in their head can offer their work to the world. There are no subjective, judgmental, economic barriers blocking the way. Every avid reader can troll the newest book offerings looking for that next great discovery. When I find a fresh new voice with an exciting sense of drama, fascinating characters and a unique tale to spin it’s like winning the lottery (at least I imagine it is, having never won myself).
And we all know what they say about opportunity—it’s something to make the best of. That’s why I am so amazed how many Indie books contain errors of the sort that any good set of editorial eyes would have found and corrected. It’s a message to me, the reader, that I’m not important enough to make the book right. Or worse, the author thinks so little of me that I’ll accept any error, that I won’t notice or care.
How can I not care when DCI Stewart, ruggedly attractive in a wry funny way (this narrative already has me considering Book Two) has just gone through XXI chapters of intriguing madness to finally find the decisive evidence and as he lifts the shredded ribbon from the debris of the broken vase he cries, “Waa La!”. What!? Waa La? I’m out of the moment now, jerked rudely from the mounting tension. DCI Stewart is no longer clever or ingenious; he’s an idiot. Give the poor man a “Viola!”. I can’t bear to look at any more.
It’s a different kind of awful when the whip smart heroine finally descends the grand staircase to face her treacherous half siblings and the room falls silent, “the rustling tool of her elegant gown the only sound”. This instantly conjures hysterically unintentional images. Yikes, it’s toile. I want to scream. The story has lost all credibility. I can’t get my reading mojo back. Why didn’t this author care?
It’s one thing to accept a typo or two, even a few missing prepositions are forgivable (just remember all those reviews that say it would have been a 4 star except for the typos) but it’s a lot to ask your audience to overlook faulty word choice, a change of voice in mid-chapter, a glaring hole in the timeline, a nonsensical plot point or character traits that shifts mid stream.
Such errors are forgivable in any draft—that’s where the author gets the story down and who cares if a character proclaims it’s a “mute point”. Under the fresh, critical eye of an editor it will become a moot point. This is the stage where an objective eye sees what the writer has missed by staring so long at the trees. Maybe the story arc lags, maybe the narrative or characters are inconsistent, a good editor and the writer can fix it. Doesn’t the writer want it perfect?
Indie publishing is such a golden opportunity and writing a good book requires so much personal investment to get to a good draft it’s sad how many writers just blithely publish, warts and all. Take the extra step and work with an editor. Your book and your readers are worth it. We editors can to save you from shooting yourself in the foot.
That’s a strong statement—lots of ways to interpret it. I love it because to me, it says that all stories should have a villain. And I agree. How can you have the good without the bad? Where would the tension live? If something has to be overcome, you need a villain to vanquish. And if the plot needs redemption the story needs a villain to redeem. (A Christmas Carol without Ebenezer’s reform? Unthinkable.)
The villain isn’t always a person. It can be an institution,or an illness, or Mother Nature. All those ‘larger issue’ villains work for some magnificent tales, but my favorites are the really awful, mustachet wirling, gloating, cackling, venal bad guys.
Good villains, the kind we love to hate, are never one dimensional tools included just to make the protagonist work hard to overcome something. A well-drawn villain is a fully fleshed out character with attributes, history, and purpose strong enough to motivate and justify the hero’s tribulations. We’re so fully shown who and what Mordred is that his relentles spursuit of King Arthur is entirely credible—and because Arthur is beautifully depicted
—it’s personal to the reader. Now that’s an enthralling story.
Whether redeemable or irredeemable the villain is often the best part of a story. No one can think of Oliver twist without Fagin popping upwith his “…face obscured by a quantity of red hair” as he beats and betrays the children he has enslaved. We don’t forget Oliver, but we don’t dream about him either (or is that a nightmare?). When a character is that memorable it’s because something, if not everything about him, is relatable.
To develop a really badass villain, one whose actions the reader can understand and accept, the character needs some face time. Not as much as the hero certainly, but enough to lay the background for future actions, enough to make him real and fathomable. There is nothing more boring than a serial killer who is seen only through the gruesome details of the killing. If he is complex, as real people are, if he is exceptional in some way that supports an evil bent, then all the more disconcerting—like the jolly neighborhood butcher whose cutlets may not all be beef.
Some of the best villains have sterling personality traits. Perhaps they’re charming, or witty, well mannered and gracious. Traits contradictory to the villain’s actions make those bad actions all the more frightening. Showing the bad guy through contradictory traits is a powerful tool but if you work at it you can spin evil traits to appear benign—until they’re not. That’s chilling.
A well-developed villain written as an authentic character will give any story the spice it needs. Who will your next villain be?
Genre. Ugh. The subject gets more coverage than alien abduction, and it probably always will. The Internet is full of advice urging writers to pick a genre and then write to it; this before the opening sentence gets any thought. Writing to a genre gives the author a clear marketing path. There are warnings against cross genre work because it is hard to market, and then there are the arguments about what exactly, qualifies a story as belonging to a particular genre. Makes the head spin so I surprise myself, but I want to advocate a new genre.
I appreciate that genre categories help readers find a book – readers know what kind of story they like. I use those categories when I’m looking for a fresh read. It’s the best tool for digital browsing. Problem is, the categories are often restrictive. Amazon has denied several of my clients publishing their work in the genre category they’ve chosen. And they don’t explain what factors the decision was based on. Does that mean if your Regency era tale of love involves Aunt Middie, the humble poor relation whose secretive potions are powerful and move the plot along, you have a Romance – or a fantasy? You could publish in both categories but it would still be unseen by readers who didn’t check both those boxes.
Can a gripping good story feature a sexy vampire who steals the crown jewels, thwarts a terrorist plot, redeems the fallen countess as he exposes government corruption and solves the murder, all while meeting and winning his one true love? Of course it can. To me, the best books always have possibilities beyond what the author may have intended. I love genre-blending books, the mixed bag plots that weave in a load of improbable possibles and make it all work because the world building and plotting are strong enough for the necessary suspension of belief.
It’s a given that genre categories are necessary. I accept it and am glad that the categories themselves have expanded to include more contemporary fictional worlds such as Dystopia and Magical Realism. Still, that doesn’t cover those books that defy categorization by mixing literary elements. A.F. Scudiere, whose Nightshade series involves werewolves, the FBI, forensics, action and adventure and a developing love story is Amazon-ranked in thriller, suspense, fantasy, occult and mystery. That’s a pretty wide reach and each category fits in some way but I have to wonder how many readers browse all of them.
Ashley C. Gillis’s Detach & Target is a military thriller and a romance and neither element trips the other up. She is on Amazon under romance, war & military, and war. I wonder how many readers missed this exciting and well written book because the genre categories don’t exactly fit. I think a lot of readers may be missing a really gritty and realistic story of a special Marine unit’s action and interaction. If we had a genre category that spread a wider net, including any mix of literary devises in a cohesive, well written whole, it would be a great place to browse when a reader is hungry to taste something outside the conventional.
I propose calling this genre Salmagundi. It’s not just a salad anymore, it’s a new literary flavor.
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