Sorting Book Review Requests…

Although I am currently in the process of sorting through a year’s worth of book review requests, I feel the need to take a moment and talk about what I’m seeing in my inbox.  A few years ago I wrote an article about the various reasons I reject book review requests – and it still applies, but that information, readily available, seems to be mostly ignored. So we’re going to talk about it again – authors, listen up.

Book reviewers can’t read every book that’s sent to them. We’d love to, but we simply can’t. Over the course of this past year, I was sent more than 300+ review requests to my inbox. Assuming I was able to read and review a novel every single day of the year with no days off, I still wouldn’t be able to get to them all.

As it is, I post two book reviews every week, which is still quite a bit more than most people read. That’s 104 books a year, if I don’t miss any scheduled posts. I would wager a guess that as an author, you don’t read 104 books a year. You probably don’t read anywhere even close to that. Only die-hard readers will pick up and finish that many books. Unfortunately, that means that less than a third of the books that are sent to me are going to be read this year. It sounds staggering, but I want the authors out there to realize that even if you have the best book ever written, chances are I still can’t get to it. I have to be picky. Really picky.

There is a reason I have a FAQs section with a clearly outlined process to getting your book reviewed. It’s a weeding out process. And guess what? Out of the 300+ books I was sent in the last year, only about 50 of them bothered reading my FAQs and sending me appropriate information. That helped, a lot. If you didn’t send an attachment of your book to in my inbox, your e-mail went directly into the trash folder. I didn’t read it. I didn’t look at your title, your cover, your blurb, I didn’t even read your name. I just looked for an attachment and trashed those without. Why? Because I don’t have time to e-mail several hundred authors to inquire for more information about a book I still may not want to read.

From there, I read blurbs. If I read the synopsis to your book and didn’t think “ooh, this sounds interesting.” I trashed it. Because, again, I don’t have time to read every book – and I don’t want to read 104 books I don’t find interesting. I don’t like giving negative reviews – it’s painful to everyone… so if I read your blurb and your book doesn’t strike me right away, I pass it up. I look for books I think I’m going to love.

Although I’m not done, I’d venture to guess that out of the 300+ books I was sent, I will probably add less than 10 to my To Be Read list. Whatever space is left over will be filled with review requests that haven’t been sent to me yet, or books I randomly pick up off amazon or out of my library – sometimes I just randomly pick a book out of all the books that are sent to me – and here’s where that FAQs comes in handy. Are you paying attention?

If you sent me a book file, and I don’t put it on my TBR list, it goes directly into my library…. and there is a chance that I will still read it at some point – even if I initially rejected it. Sometimes it pays to pay attention.

So what can you do as an author to get yourself read? Here’s some tips:

  • Send your book to reviewers that specialize in and enjoy your genre. You are far more likely to be read by these book reviewers. I love romance. I am 200% more likely to read your book if it’s a romance and I’m emotionally invested in your characters than if you don’t have romance. That’s just a fact. If you write historical fiction—find a reviewer that specializes in historical fiction. You’ll be more likely to get read, and more likely to get a good review.
  • Read the book reviewer’s FAQs and stick to the procedures you find there about sending book review requests. Don’t waste our time – because we won’t feel bad about trashing your review request. We don’t have time to cater to every author. There are a lot of you.
  • Don’t pester your book reviewer. Don’t send several e-mails to remind them to have a look at your book. It’s annoying, it’s invasive, and we will probably trash your book.
  • Don’t be freaked out about sending your book file to reviewers – especially if it’s clear that that reviewer regularly does book reviews. We aren’t going to share your file. We’re not going to upload it to pirating websites or send it to our friends and family. If it gets out of our inbox at all, it’ll go directly to our library, where it will stay. You aren’t going to lose anything by sending it to us – because we have too many books to read already, and we weren’t going to buy yours just to give it a shot. We may purchase it afterward if we really like it though.
  • Have a good cover. If it looks like you photoshopped the cover yourself, we aren’t going to read your book – because we’re going to assume you put about as much effort into writing your book as you did on that cover.
  • Hook us with your blurb and your first page. Make sure they are incredibly well written and grab our attention – because that’s what we’re looking for. I’m making snap judgments… and if that snap judgment is that your book sounds interesting, you are beating 70% of the competition.
  • It’s okay to send us your review request more than once – as long as you do it better the second time around. Adjust the blurb. Edit your book, get a better cover. Provide more information. Try to sell me on your book… and be sure to include that book file. It may make it the second time around.
  • If you find an author that gives you a good review on one of your books – send them more books. They are more likely to pick them because we already know we’re not wasting our time by reading your stuff. You’re more likely to get more good reviews.

These are just a few tips – but they are important. Read them. Learn. Apply. I guarantee you will have better results than just blindly e-mailing every reviewer you find.

So You Want To Be A Professional Reader

 

FrustrationNo one grows up saying “I want to be a book reviewer when I grow up!” Professional Reader isn’t a job like Veterinarian or Doctor or Pilot. We grew up having literature forced down our throats from the time we were first taught to read until we’re out of college, so we’ve all see the little blurbs on covers and introduction pages quoting some author or book-related group we’ve never heard of. Most of us never question these little snippets of opinions—we don’t wonder where they come from.

Two years ago, if you’d told me I’d someday be writing those little snippets of opinion, I would have looked at you like you were crazy. Professional Reader (which is a fancy way of saying Book Reviewer) is one of those jobs that we all know exists, but we never think about… like the people who manufacture toilets. Someone’s got to do it, but most of us have never met someone who does. Two years ago, I couldn’t even imagine how someone would become a Professional Reader. It was mysterious… unattainable. Two years ago, I barely read books.

Don’t get me wrong—I love literature. I always have. I’ve been writing and reading most of my life, and I’ve always enjoyed books, but somewhere between 18 and 30, life got complicated. It got busy. I didn’t have time to read. Before I knew it, years had passed and I hadn’t picked up a single book. That all changed a little over a year ago.

I was poking around YouTube when I stumbled across a book-club meeting that centered around Romance novels. I love Romance novels. Growing up, my mother always seemed to have a huge pile of Harlequin Romances stacked up beside her bed. My family had a cabin out in the woods that we spent weekends and summers at, and there was no phone, internet, or TV. So, we read. I have vivid memories of my mother sunbathing on the lake with her huge floppy straw hat and a book. When I was thirteen, my mother finally handed me one of her prized Romance novels and told me I was old enough to read them. I instantly fell in love… but Romance isn’t a genre most people are comfortable with sharing. Romance has this sense of taboo about it, and a lot of people think it’s straight out porn. A lot of people are embarrassed to read Romance, so when I stumbled across a group dedicated to reading Romance, I was floored. This—finally—was something I could really enjoy.

The group brought the passion of reading back into my life. It was so fun to finally be able to discuss my favorite literature with like-minded individuals. Reading became social to me for the first time in my life. I wasn’t just a bookworm, this was a community. Eventually, I wanted to share my opinions and reviews of the literature I’d read (and I began reading quite a bit), so I started blogging my reviews. This was the beginning of my life as a Professional Reader.

Professional Reader isn’t really a job. You can make money off it with ads or (heaven forbid) charging authors for your opinion, but for the most part, it’s a passion. Book reviewing is for those that truly love literature. It’s not just a hobby, and it is ridiculously easy to get into.

So you want to be a Professional Reader? All you have to do is read. Read and share your opinions. Now, I’ve made a bit of a list here of things you may want to consider, or know about as you venture into book reviewing. My opinion is of course, not the only opinion out there, but I learned a lot in the last year, and I want to share with you some of what I’ve learned.

  • You’re going to need to share your opinion. I’d recommend having a blog. It’s a wonderful way of creating a community for yourself of readers, authors, and reviewers. You should also consider joining several book sites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, Smashwords, etc where you can post your review opinions for other readers to find.
  • Review everything you’ve read. Doesn’t matter if it’s a kid’s book you’re reading to your son or daughter, a book you picked up at the library, the store, etc. If you read it, review it. The more reviews you have, the more likely you are to get offers from authors and publishers to read their books.
  • Authors and Publishers will approach you with Free books in exchange for honest reviews. Make sure they can contact you (which is another reason having a blog is a good idea. Make sure you have a contact page!) If you run out of books and don’t want to spend money, there are a TON of Free books floating around sites like Amazon daily. You can also sign up to review books at sites like NetGalley and StoryCartel. You don’t have to spend money to review books. Most people are thrilled to give you a free book in exchange for a review. Don’t be afraid to ask if you have to.
  • Always be honest. It’s okay not to like a book. No one likes every book they’ve read, and authors generally understand that at least a percentage of their audience just isn’t going to like their work. It happens. It can be daunting to share a negative opinion, but don’t be afraid. Take the time to explain why a book didn’t work for you, and try your best not to be insulting about it. Understand that authors/publishers want to market their book. If you have a negative opinion, that’s great (negative opinions are just as important as positive opinions!) but if you want to avoid offending anyone, be polite about your negative opinions. It helps if you spin the negatives in such a way that it doesn’t inherently hurt the book or the author’s feelings. You can always make a suggestion for what sort of reader may enjoy the book more than you did, and even if you really hated a book, you can usually think of at least one positive quote to say about it.
  • Have the ability to turn off your inner editor. There are times when it’s nearly impossible to get through a book unless you can turn off your inner editor. You should be able to look at a book, admit that it’s poorly written, and then enjoy the plotline and story while ignoring the typos. If you have a problem doing this, book reviewing isn’t going to be easy for you. We often get early drafts of stories that haven’t even been published yet, and there will be frequent errors. Find your inner Zen, and turn off the grammar Nazi for a little while.
  • You’re going to need free time. It doesn’t take a lot. If you are an avid reader, you can probably finish a book a day (or every two days) without a problem (it takes me about two to four hours to read an average novel). Reading before bed is a great way to wind down! Take your book with you everywhere and read when you can find the time. Some Authors/Publishers will give you deadlines for posting a review because they want the review out before their book hits the shelves. If you can’t get through a book in a week, reviewing books probably isn’t for you.
  • Take notes while you read, and promptly review a book as soon as you finish. Trust me on this. As a book reviewer, you will read a lot of books, and because of this, after a while your brain is trained to forget a book nearly as soon as it’s read to make space for the next one. Writing yourself notes as you read is a good way to remember points you want to bring up in your review and keep track of how you were feeling throughout the book. Reviewing quickly after you’ve finished helps to keep you from forgetting the plot and the character’s names.
  • Keep track of books you’ve reviewed (I suggest making a list on your blog) not only is it handy for other readers to be able to skim through and find books they like, but it’ll also help authors/publishers see what kind of books you tend to enjoy (so they don’t waste time sending you requests for things you’ll hate), and it helps you remember which books you –don’t- need to re-read.
  • Decide upon a post format and schedule, and then stick to it. It’ll keep you organized.
  • Learn to entertain. Book reviewing can be an art form. If you want people to read your reviews, you’re going to need to write them in such a way that keeps people interested (it’s sort of like writing a novel!) You need to hook people into reading your review, and you need to make it clear, and engaging so they read it all the way through. This doesn’t mean you need to be rude, nasty, or over dramatic… but keep in mind that your review doesn’t do a bit of good if no one reads it.
  • Use proper grammar and spell check. If you sound like a 16 year old sending a text message, or a YouTube troll, no one’s going to take your opinion seriously (and therefore no one’s going to request a review from you!)

This is by no means a comprehensive list. Book Reviewing isn’t for everyone either. It takes gumption. Sometimes authors will harass you and readers will argue with your opinion. There will be times when you’ll write a negative review and then hand it directly to the author—and that author will read it (and sometimes, e-mail you a response). It’s not for the faint of heart, but if you love literature as I do, you may really enjoy becoming a Professional Reader. There is nothing quite like losing yourself in another world for a few hours.

Writer’s Tip: Tackling The Second Draft

 

ProofreadingThere comes a time in every author’s writing career when it’s time to set aside the first draft of your literary baby and get to work on the second draft. As a book reviewer, I can unfortunately attest to the fact that many authors don’t seem to know what to do at this point. Most of the time when I’ve rated a book 3 stars or below on the scale of “how awesome is this book?” it’s because somewhere along the line, the author has failed to invest in a good editor. Trust me on this: the quickest way to a negative review is to fail your second draft. Please: never upload your first draft. Just don’t.

I realize it’s difficult for any author to look at something they’ve slaved over for weeks or even years and edit with a critical eye. There’s something terrifying about cutting out entire chapters and re-wording sentences we long-ago fell in love with—but it needs to be done. If you can’t be critical of your own work, then invest in an impartial editor and beta readers. Regardless,  you should know how to edit to some degree, and I’m going to give you a bit of a checklist of things to look for. Save yourself some grief later on and give the list a look. You may not agree with all of the points I’ll make, you may even choose to ignore them completely, but you should take a moment to consider them. You’ll be glad you did later on.

Try to look at each of these points individually. It’s a long list (thought not comprehensive..these are just the basics), and it can be overwhelming if you’re trying to consider them all at once. Example: Don’t worry about your spelling while trying to sort out the punctuation in your dialogue. It’s easier, and a lot less stressful, to focus on one point at a time.

The Beginning

It’s ominous, I know. This is the one part of every story that the author undoubtedly stresses over. You’ve probably read it more than any other part of your work, and it’s been around the longest—sometimes through multiple drafts, unchanged. This is your initial hook. It needs to draw your audience into the story and keep them long enough to surpass any lack-luster parts that crop up before the story really starts to sink in. Because of this, you need to pay special attention to it.

Make sure you have a strong first sentence, if not a strong first scene. Pay attention to the technical side of your writing here; misspelled words, incorrect grammar, or misused punctuation will have your audience putting down your book quicker than you can say the title. Now, all of these things are important throughout your story, but double, triple, even quadruple check the first chapter.

Do not start with backstory, exposition, flashbacks, or the weather if you can avoid it. It’s best if the first few moments of your story give us an impression of the main character, or at the very least show us what to expect from the rest of your story. A reader should be able to read your first chapter and get the general gist of what genre your book fits into, and where the story may lead.

The Middle

Do me a favor: find your word count, divide it by 2, and find the chapter that sits at the exact center of your story. This is the climax of your story—or at least it should be. If you find that your climax came earlier, or later than this point, edit accordingly. If the middle of your novel sags you will lose your readers. This should be the point in your novel with the most tension. The absolute worst thing that can happen to your characters, should happen here.

The End

There should be a clear end to your story unless you’ve done something horribly wrong. If your story feels like it ends too abruptly, your readers will be confused and unsatisfied. Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t have an open-ending. Cliffhangers are great—especially if you plan on subsequent books—but at least 90% of your story’s plotlines (or everything but the main series arch) should be wrapped up by this point. Too many holes and things left unexplained can be frustrating.

If you’re working on a stand-alone novel, feel free to wrap things up completely, but be careful you don’t wrap things up too neatly. If your story ends with an epilogue where everyone gets married or is pregnant, you’ve gone too far. Having everything turn out all right in the end isn’t interesting, and the world doesn’t work that way. No matter how good your story was, if everything ends in puppies and hugs, your reader will feel as if you gave up in the end. Leave at least one point that doesn’t result in fuzzy warm feelings. It’s okay to have characters regret actions, or have a character end up with an unhappy result. This isn’t to say that your story has to be a tragedy, just don’t make it perfect; it won’t feel genuine.

The Plot

You should have one. You should also have an overall theme. Take a moment and in one paragraph, try to sum up your entire story. Don’t be too specific:

Plot: A teenage girl, a victim to circumstance, harbors a dangerous secret. When circumstance challenges her to question everything she’s believed about herself and the world she lives in, instead of allowing herself to continue to be a victim, she will fight back, putting everyone she loves in danger for the chance to change her fate.

Theme: Fighting for what you believe in despite the odds, instead of allowing those around you to dictate your fate.

Notice I didn’t name any characters, or specific events. Chances are, at some point, these things will change. Keep your plot in mind as you edit, and do your best to stick to it. If your plot seems weak, it probably is.

Genre

You don’t have to stick to one genre, but you should be able to list which genre’s your story fits into. (Have at least one or two dominant genre’s, after that, no one really cares). I know it feels good to be defiant and say your story breaks conventional genre’s, but when it comes to publishing, you’ll need to be able to classify your story in some way. Otherwise, no one’s going to know where to find it in the bookstore.

You should be aware of your genre while you edit and make sure you fit into it. Certain genre’s have aspects that have come to be expected. Erotica’s will have sex scenes. Romance will be predominantly about relationships. Thrillers should have a sense of danger to them. This doesn’t mean that your story needs to be a clone of every other book in it’s genre, but you should be aware of how these genre’s may effect your plot and theme.

Audience

Be aware of your audience. If you’re writing a Middle-Grade book, your story will be written differently than an Adult book. Keep the age of your audience in mind as you edit. Middle-Grade books won’t contain sex scenes. If you aren’t sure which audience you want to shoot for, that’s okay! Write your story how you want it to be written, and then classify it later, but once you make the decision, make sure you stick to it.

Characters

Each character should have their own personality and motivations. Do not make the mistake of introducing characters whose sole purpose is to show up in a scene, react to other characters, and then fade away into the background. No one will remember their names, and they will come across as one-dimensional. It’s okay if your characters don’t agree with each other, or even make things harder for one another. Characters that have depth will bring your story to life.

If you have trouble, take the time to write a page summary of each character. Talk about their motivations: What do they want out of life? What are their circumstances? What is their personality? How do they feel about your other characters? What is their opinion on the situation at hand? If they were the main character in their own story, how would they handle things?

For example: In one of the novels I’m working on there’s the main character: Khet, and her sister Safiya. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Khet has lived her life as an outcast. Her existence is against the law in her society, and she, and her family have been forced to be secretive about it. This has put a strain on the family as they’re always cautious about how close they become to others in their community. For Safiya, this is particularly difficult. She is Khet’s older sister, and learned at a young age that her mother had betrayed Safiya’s father and had an affair. Due to her anger at her mother, and now her sister because of their forced secrecy, Safiya tends to treat her little sister as a burden, and doesn’t consider her a true relative. She wants nothing more than to get married and have kids of her own, but it seems as if all her life she’s been forced to keep anyone outside her family at bay. When she’s finally given a chance to reach her goals, Khet’s secret is let out, destroying her chances of ever realizing her dreams.

Though in this scenario, Khet is the main character, and the situation is not her fault, from Safiya’s point of view, Khet is the villain. She is an obstacle that stand’s in the way of Safiya’s dreams, and accordingly, she reacts by trying to abandon her sister in an attempt to finally live her life free of these inherited burdens. From Khet’s point of view, her sister Safiya has a caustic attitude and betrays their family, endangering Khet’s life. She comes across as selfish, and maybe even a bit evil—but that isn’t necessarily true. Like Khet, Safiya is a victim of her circumstances.

Your characters should be just as complex. Secondary characters shouldn’t exist just so that the main characters have someone to talk to or argue with. They each have their reasons for what they say and do… take the time to figure out what those are, and then be consistent.

Unless something profound happens, your character shouldn’t change their mind or their personality at the drop of a hat. Your characters will need to be convinced, or forced,  to act or think differently. They shouldn’t change just because it’s convenient for your main character or you. It isn’t realistic, and your audience will start to question if your characters have some unknown, secret motive. Your characters should change during the course of you story—they will inherently do so as the story moves along and events and conversations weigh in on their actions, but it shouldn’t happen like the flip of a switch. Think of it as their religion: would you change your entire faith (or lack there of) in a split second? No, not unless something profound forces you to, or circumstances change.

Dialogue

Say it out loud. I’m serious. One trap that authors repeatedly fall into is to write their dialogue exactly like they write their narrative. You can’t do it. Dialogue isn’t perfect, and it’s one of the few places in a novel where you can break most of the rules of grammar. People talk in stilted half-sentences with stops and starts, mispronunciations, accents, and run-on jibber jabber. They swear, they lie, they sometimes even refuse to speak, sometimes, they even interrupt. That’s okay! What isn’t okay is monologues, and poetic one-liners.

Do yourself a favor; it’ll be embarrassing, but find an empty room (or hey, more power to you if it has people in it!) and speak your character’s dialogue out loud, acting as they would act. It takes very little time to spot poor dialogue. If you can’t get through a sentence without cringing, you probably need to get back to the drawing board.

Also: remember that 90% of a conversation is non-verbal.  Your character is not a floating head in a black box. They should move, gesture, sneer, even storm out of the room—but have them do something—this will help to anchor them within a scene.

Another thing to look out for: names. Most of the time when people talk, unless they are directly addressing someone for clarification in a group or  trying to emphasize a point, they will avoid saying the name of the person they’re talking to. There’s no need to state character’s names in the dialogue if it’s easy to tell who they are talking to.

POV

Your story should be told from the point of view that tells it best—not necessarily what you are most comfortable with. Some stories, particularly personal ones, may be better told from a first-person point of view. Others, particularly those with multiple important characters (especially those that are separated by a great distance), may be better told from a third-person point of view. If your story doesn’t work in a particular point of view, consider switching it. It’s okay if your story is written from the viewpoint of several different characters, and it’s okay if they don’t follow a set pattern of appearance, as long as it’s clear who’s point of view each section of your story is written from. However, please do not switch back and forth between the types of POV. Your story should either be all 1st person, or all 3rd person. You can’t do both. Avoid 2nd person—trust me on this. There is nothing more irritating than having the narrator tell you how you should feel about a story.

  • 1st Person: I picked up the red ball.
  • 2nd Person (present tense)*: You pick up the red ball.
  • 3rd Person: She picked up the red ball.

*2nd person POV is almost always done in present tense – and I best used for choose your own adventure books.

Tense

I’m going to piss some people off: Write in past tense. If you’re considering writing in present tense, please, think it over a little more before you commit.

  • Present Tense: She picks up the red ball. / I pick up the red ball.
  • Past Tense: She picked up the red ball. / I picked up the red ball.

As much as some people will argue, Past Tense is the natural tense for storytelling, as stories are always told after the fact. That isn’t to say that there haven’t been some successful novels written in present tense. There have—but these are the exception, not the rule. The majority of readers find present tense to be distracting and awkward to read through, we are used to past tense. It comes naturally to us.So go ahead, be stubborn and challenge the norm—I applaud you if that is what you want to do, but do it with the understanding that there will be a large amount of readers who outright refuse to read your work. It’s not something I would suggest you endeavor to do with a first novel.

Spelling, Punctuation, Grammar, Style

Spellcheck. Read out loud. Invest in a good copyeditor. Errors will happen—nobody’s perfect—but you can minimize the damage by checking and re-checking your 2nd draft before you hand it over to be published. There is absolutely no excuse to not catch 98% of technical errors before you publish.

Why read out loud? As the author of your story, your brain is so used to reading it (after all, you made it up!) that your brain has inherently learned to “fill the gaps” and skim over errors. Instead of reading the errors correctly, your brain skips over them naturally because you already know what it’s supposed to say. The best way to get around this is to read out loud. Reading out loud forces your brain to work not only through the visual center of your brain, but the verbal as well. The errors will trip you up, and they will be easier to spot.

Reading out loud also helps you to pick out the flow, punctuation, and basic wording of a sentence. If it doesn’t work, you’ll know it.

Now, each person has a different style of writing, but there are certain things you should look out for. Some of these may include:

  • Passive sentences: try to keep these at a minimum. Passive sentences aren’t bad per se, but they do make your writing weak. The reasoning behind this is that passive sentences on average take more words than active sentences. The longer a sentence is, the harder it is to follow. There are times when you’ll want to use passive sentences—for example: To fix the flow of a sentence. Sometimes passive sentences sound better, but the majority of your writing should be active.
  • Don’t be wordy. Wordy doesn’t necessarily mean that you have too many words in a sentence so much as too many words that don’t add anything to the sentence. When constructing a sentences, you want to be as clear and concise as possible. You can always add more words to fix the flow.

Example:

Katherine didn’t really care for Michael that much; he had always reminded her of a dastardly cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

OR

Katherine disliked Michael, he reminded her of a cartoon villain, complete with maniacal laugh and white lab coat.

Words trimmed: eight. Meaning: unchanged.

  • Vary your sentence structure and lengths (and read everything out loud!). If all your sentences follow the same structure and the same length, your writing will seem boring and dry. It’s good to be concise and get to the point of your sentence quickly, but keep in mind that you need to watch the flow of your sentences. Also, when given the choice, always pick words that mean exactly what you want them to, not the next best approximation. Green != Lime, and Walk != Shuffle.

This is an example. This is not how you should write. All my sentences are short. It seems forced. It reminds me of a drum beat. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.

This is another example of how you should not write—even if it seems like a better idea than the previous staccato example, if all of your sentences are long, it can be hard to follow your narrative. After awhile, your reader becomes bored, and there’s more opportunity for them to become lost as the story drags on; the longer your sentences, the harder they are to follow.

This is a good example. It’s okay to have long sentences as well as short sentences. A nice blend of both is imperative to keeping your reader interested in your story without boring them. Your writing should be concise–it’s good to get to the point quickly–but by staggering the length of the sentences, the flow of the story is easier to follow. You can use short sentences to draw attention to important points, while longer sentences help smooth out the flow and clarify the points being made. Got it? Good.

  • Take the time to learn proper punctuation, and the function of coordinating conjunctions. Chances are, you’re using them wrong. (and, but, or, yet, for, nor, so) These words should never be used to start a sentence. They are used to join sentences. Sometimes, such as in dialogue, it’s okay to make an exception (like I said, dialogue breaks the rules of grammar!), but chances are if you’re using any of these words to start a sentence, you should change your punctuation.

WRONG: Khet liked Leander. But as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

RIGHT: Khet liked Leander, but as much as she enjoyed his presence, she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

 ALSO RIGHT: Khet liked Leander; she enjoyed his presence, but she couldn’t help but feel intimidated by his predatory stare.

PUNCTUATION CHEAT SHEET

When in doubt: check it out.

The Period:

  • Shows that a thought or idea is complete, and is always used at the end of a sentence. Example: I was homesick.
  • Use after most abbreviations. Example: Dr. Nevarr
  • Use after an initial. Example: C. A. Morton
  • Always placed inside a quotation mark that ends a sentence. Example: “If you think I’m going to jump off the edge of this building, you’re insane.”

The Question Mark:

  • Used to mark a question. Example: Why is the sky blue?
  • Place inside closing quotation marks if it is part of the quotation (or dialogue). “Why is the sky blue?” she asked.
  • Place outside the closing quotation marks if it NOT part of the quotation (or dialogue). Did she really just say, “He’s a jackass” ?

The Exclamation Mark:

  • Belongs at the end of an exclamatory sentence. Example: Put on your coat!
  • Should never be combined with any other form of punctuation. Example: What is wrong with you?!
  • Should never be repeated. Example: Never, ever, do this!!!
  • Use sparingly. When used often, your writing will begin to sound comical. Example: It is not okay to repeatedly use exclamation marks! It makes things sound silly! The more I do this, the worse it gets! Seriously! Don’t do it!

The Comma:

  • Used with names and titles. Example: Cary Morton, Author; Jamie Paige, Illustrator
  • Used after introductory expressions. Example: On average, you are more likely to be crushed by a vending machine than bitten by a shark.
  • Used after interrupting words or expressions. Example: Khet, who was often left to her own devices, found the event exhilarating.
  • Used to set off a direct quotation. Example: She said, “Please don’t open the door.” Not that I listened.
  • Used to set off appositives. Example: The character, Khet, is female.
  • Used to separate items in a series. Example: cakes, cupcakes, pies, and cookies.
  • Used to set off words of direct address. Example: The whole event is ridiculous, Leander.

The Semi-Colon:

  • Used to join closely related independent clauses. Example: It’s not bad to use a semi-colon; sometimes they are quite useful.
  • Used to join independent clauses when one or both clauses contain a comma. Example: Sometimes it’s hard to tell when to use a semi-colon, and so they are left out completely; people find it hard place them correctly, and are often warned not to.
  • Used between main clauses connected by a conjunctive adverb. Example: Khet wanted to run away; however, she knew it would be pointless.

The Colon:

  • Used before long, formal quotations.
  • Used before lists.
  • Used before part of a sentence that explains what has just been stated. Example: Khet was a mystery: she rarely ever talked to anyone outside her family.

Quotation Marks:

  • Used to mark dialogue.
  • Used to set off a definition.
  • Used to set off the title of a short work, such as a poem, essay, song, short story, or magazine article.

The Hyphen:

  • Is used to show a break at the end of a bit of dialogue or sentence, usually due to a sudden interruption. Example: “But—“ she started, but quickly stopped when she realized no one was listening.
  • Used in specific compound nouns and adjectives. Example: well-known
  • Used in fractions and compound numbers. Example: twenty-two, one-half

The (em)Dash:

  • Is used to show a break between phrases and clauses. Example:
  • Use to show emphasis, such as a sudden change of thought. Example: Safiya was selfish—and beautiful—but she wasn’t outright cruel.
  • Used before a summary of what is stated in a sentence. Example: Khet wasn’t prepared to leave her family, even if it meant saving herself—she cared about them too much.

The Ellipses:

  • Use to show that you have deleted words or sentences from a passage you’re quoting.
  • Use to show a discontinuation in thought or dialogue. Example: “Leander … seriously?” or “I want … “ She sighed. “I don’t know what I want.”

Punctuation is often a personal style choice (as long as you follow the rules). For example: I use a lot of emdashes (—) and semi-colons ( ; ) when I write. It isn’t wrong—despite popular belief—both can be quite useful; I happen to put my thoughts and dialogue together naturally in such a way that they are used more often than with other authors. That’s okay. You don’t have to use them, but you can if you want to—as long as you are using them correctly.

Whitespace, Paragraphs, and Dialogue Structure

Whitespace is exactly what it sounds like: the white space on a page where words do not exist. The more of it you have, the faster the pace of your story. No one likes walls of text. If your pages seem to have few line breaks, start a new paragraph and give your reader’s eyes a break. Generally the rule you want to remember is: The Rule of One:

  • One statement per sentence.
  • One topic per paragraph.
  • One theme per chapter.

As far as formatting paragraphs and dialogue you should start a new paragraph:

  • Anytime the speaker of dialogue changes.
  • Anytime the actor changes.
  • Anytime the topic changes.

For example, you wouldn’t write dialogue like this:

“Khet?” “Yes?” “Where’s your sister?” “I have no idea.”

Instead, you would format it like this:

“Khet?”

“Yes?”

“Where’s your sister?”

“I have no idea.”

The same thing goes for the actor. You wouldn’t do this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. Khet arched a brow.

“Yes?”

Instead, it should look like this:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

Dialogue doesn’t have to sit at the front of a paragraph as long as the person speaking is the same person acting. Also, if the same character speaks more than once, you don’t have to break it up:

“Khet?” Leander’s voice cracked, and he cleared his throat.

Khet arched a brow. “Yes?”

“Have you seen your sister?” he asked, “She seems to be missing.”

Khet stared at him for a moment. “You can’t be serious.” She frowned. “You are serious. Shit.”

…And while we’re on the topic of dialogue and structure, let’s take a moment to discuss proper dialogue punctuation and dialogue tags. Usually, you don’t need dialogue tags half as much as you think you do. From a young age we are taught to slap them on the end of every line of dialogue. To be fair, this is done because as children, it helps us to identify dialogue and remember who is speaking. As we get older, we don’t need quite so much instruction. If dialogue is written well, it doesn’t need a tag. Theoretically you should be able to tell who’s speaking without adding a tag.  If you must use a dialogue tag, make sure it’s one that is commonly used (and therefore easily ignored). Example:

“Khet?” Leander asked.

“Hm?” Khet replied.

“Never mind,” he said.

Ouch. Way too many tags, but you get the idea. Instead, it’d be better if we dropped all the tags that weren’t essential:

“Khet?”

“Hm?”

“Never mind.”

“Leander….”

“All right, all right. Look, we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Us.”

I didn’t need any dialogue tags here. Now, this isn’t going to happen every time there’s dialogue. This is just one example. In this case, I didn’t need to explain who was talking because the characters had a back-and-forth pattern that repeated, and at one point or another, both of them addressed the other character directly. Dialogue tags tend to slow down the pace and can be quite cumbersome if you let them. Unless you’re writing children’s fiction, it’s usually best to use as few dialogue tags as possible.

So what qualifies as a dialogue tag? Any bit of text that describes who is speaking and the direct manner in which the dialogue is spoken. Example:

  • He said.
  • He asked.
  • He replied.
  • He yelled.
  • He whispered.
  • He bellowed.

What doesn’t qualify as a dialogue tag? Any action performed during or after the dialogue. A lot of people get these confused. Example:

  • He grinned.
  • He smirked.
  • He laughed.
  • He frowned.
  • He gestured.

You can’t grin a sentence. You can only grin during a sentence. The difference? Punctuation.

“Khet,” he whispered.

“Khet.” He smiled.

Notice that with the top example (the dialogue tag), the dialogue ends in a comma, and the sentence is ended after the dialogue tag. With the second example (the action), the dialogue ends within the quotation marks, and the action is a separate entity. It’s very easy to get these mixed up, and a lot of authors do.

You can, however, combine the two:

“Khet,” he whispered, a smile on his lips.

The dialogue tag should always come before the action. You can also put dialogue tags and actions in the middle of the dialogue (especially if you need a pause to emphasize what’s being said, or the character has been speaking for a large amount of time).

“Khet,” he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Leander….” she began, “I can’t. Not now. Not after—“ She gestured over his shoulder. “—that.”

Take note that with a dialogue tag, the tag is always started with a lowercase letter. With an action, it will always start after quoted punctuation and with a capital letter, and end with a full stop. When you interrupt dialogue with a dialogue tag or action, if there isn’t a long pause (and sometimes there is!), you should treat the dialogue as if it never stopped and write the punctuation/capitalization accordingly. Example:

“Khet, “ he whispered, “please speak to me.”

“Khet.” He ran a hand back through his hair, disheveling the blonde locks. “Please speak to me.”

In the second example I’ve added a longer pause, and left out the dialogue tag, forcing solid punctuation between the two strings of dialogue.

Your Characters Don’t Live in a Vacuum—Detail

Your character has senses:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Sound
  • (And Mood! Yes, it counts, trust me.)

You need to use them. It’s easy to let your character float around in a vacuum where all we see is their inner thoughts and their outward dialogue—but that isn’t all there is. Describe things. Add detail. These things are important—just don’t overdo it. Let me introduce: The Rule of Three.

Your readers can only remember three descriptive aspects of any object, person, or place at a time, after that, they skim. Keeping this in mind; you should always try to add detail, but keep it within reason, and for the love of God, make it relevant.

It doesn’t matter that the stop-sign is octagonal or red. We can pretty much guess that’s the case. It does matter that there’s a dead body slumped at the base of it. The same goes for people: try to keep descriptions of characters vague:

Khet was 5’4”, 114 lbs., and brunette. Her eyes were the color of clouded jade, and a spattering of freckles dotted her fair skin.

… That would be going overboard. This is better:

Khet was a petite brunette, with eyes the color of clouded jade.

Three descriptors. That’s all you get. Use them wisely.

As a side note: try not to force your readers into a description. Every character that meets Khet isn’t going to describe her the same way. For example:  Leander (who adores her), would probably describe Khet as lithe with a pert chest, and hair that shone the color of amber in the sunlight. Her sister (who hates her), would probably describe Khet as a gangly, awkward girl, her skin mottled with sunspots, and with hair that hung limp in ratted tangles across her forehead. Perception of places, people, and things will be different depending on who is describing them. Let your characters describe your world – don’t describe it for them.

If you can, you should also avoid Info Dumps. Info Dumps are when an author stops the story to describe something, and then returns to the story as if it never happened. It’s distracting, and your readers will get bored. Instead, always try to work your details into the narrative and dialogue naturally. Things should be described as they are noticed by the characters, but never in a huge block. Spread it out, make it relevant, and keep it to a minimum.

The Basics…

These are the basics of things you need to look out for when editing your second draft, but they are by no means the only things you need to look for. I didn’t get into redundancies, incomplete sentences, world building, or choosing descriptive words by the underlying mood (I don’t have all day to get into these things. Pfft.), but hopefully this will help give you a bit of a checklist of things you should keep an eye out for. These are the things that frequently pop up in books I review that drive me bonkers. Do your readers a favor and fix them.

Cary jumped down off her soapbox, sending the audience a quick salute, and then sauntered off into the remnants of blogland.

Writer’s Tip: Writing Believable & Unforgettable Characters

So, rather than do my usual book review or giveaway article, I wanted to take some time today to give some writing tips instead. I know a lot of you out there are aspiring-writers (I’m one myself!) and sometimes we get so caught up in this “must publish!” attitude that we get lost in our stories along the way. Sometimes there comes a point when we stare at our half-finished novel and say “I’m stuck. “ Usually these moments happen when we don’t know where we’re going next with our story, and usually that’s because somewhere along the line we’ve strayed off the path and we aren’t quite sure how to get back.

One of the things that you may find helpful if you’ve never done it before is to take a really in-depth look at your characters and the world they live in. Characters are really the backbone of our stories. You can carry an entire story on the shoulders of a character without much plot (memoirs anyone?), but you can’t carry a plot without some great characters. So, to help you guys out, I wanted to write an article on things you should think about when creating a character for a novel, and give you some tips on how to create believable and unforgettable characters that aren’t overly dramatic or Mary Sue’s, while also giving you some ideas on how to go about fleshing out your story and maybe discovering plots that work well within the world you’ve created.

I’ll go through the points of this “list” sort of one by one, explaining and discussing each point. You don’t have to treat this as a questionnaire for your characters (though you can)… my goal is to get you thinking a little more in depth about your characters as real people, and not just as roles to fill in your novel.

For the purpose of this article I’m going to sort of work along-side you and make up a world as we go along so you can see where I’m leading with these questions. I want you to consider these points within your own story, not copy mine.

Culture & Environment

The first thing you should consider when writing a novel is what I call Culture & Environment. This is the world around your character. When creating a plot for a novel, or a character, I don’t want you to jump right into it saying “I’m going to write a steam-punk romance novel.” Jumping off from the genre isn’t a bad thing to do, but if you want to create a character full of depth, you need to also make sure your world contains depth. Here are some questions I want you to consider:

  1. What technological age does your story take place in?

The culture and society of your “world” are going to vary greatly depending on the technological age of your story. Society worked different in the Stone Age than it does now, and will work differently in the future some thousands of years from now. These things are going to make a dramatic impact on the type of person your character is and how they handle situations.

For the purpose of this article I’m going to be making up a completely new world , set of characters, and plot as sort of a guideline for how these questions feed into your story. Starting with my technological age, I’ve decided my characters are going to inhabit a very steam-punk-esque era on their world. The technology is advanced in function but very Victorian-Era in execution. We’re talking steam, intricate clockwork mechanics, and a world that is industrialized but still very caught up in how things look, and the intelligence behind creating those things.

  1. What sort of society does your character live in?

Taking the technology discussion a bit further, consider how this age and environment shapes the society that your character lives in.

For example, since my story takes place in a steam-punk-esque environment, I’m going to say that the society is shaped by the mental aspects of the age. Intelligence, manners, charms – these are the sorts of things this society cares about. People who are creative, hardworking, and inventive are applauded. The sciences and arts are the forefront of education on this world, and other things like athleticism and greed, while still in existence, are not the norm.

  1. How are the different genders or classes treated in your world?

The next thing you may want to think about is how the different genders and classes are treated in your world, and the type niche’s there are in your society. Depending on your country, all throughout our own world’s history, men and women have been treated very differently and a lot of times, class plays into this. Now, you don’t necessarily have to have a world where the classes are segregated, but you should take time to consider how your character’s social class or standing may impact their story.

For instance, in my world because intelligent, creative, and industrious people are applauded, I’m going assume that the upper class of my society are those of high intelligence and creativity. These are your scientists, inventors, artists, and writers. A step below that would be the elegant elite… Those that maybe haven’t had made any large discoveries or artistic works, but maybe inherited fame from a predecessor, or married into a well-known family. These are the lords and ladies of my world. They may not “do” anything of particular significance within my world, but they’re still part of that upper crust of people that my society looks up to. Below that would be the “every day worker” these are the people who work in watch shops and take tickets at the train stations. They aren’t famous for their intelligence and they may not have invented or created anything significant, but they’re still very much part of the society in applauding that upper crust and striving in their own little ways to maintain this world as a whole. They work within the laws and boundaries of the society they live in. Below that would be the criminal and downtrodden. These are the people that circumstance, money, heritage, or intelligence have pushed into the fringe of society. They are the poor, the stupid, the shamed, the maimed, and the criminal. They work outside the laws and boundaries of what we consider “polite society” because they have to. Survival is their main concern in this world, and that will sometimes push them into doing things the rest of society doesn’t necessarily condone.

Now aside from the classes, I’m going to assume that in my particular world, men and women are fairly equal. There’s more importance placed on the intelligence of an individual than the gender. In my world you’re going to see ladies smoking cigars and making business deals just as you would men, and likewise, men are going to be just as devoted to family and fashion as women. The gender roles in my society aren’t going to be as clear-cut as what you might see in another time period or setting.

A Quick Word on Plots & the People in Them

Now, if you’ve been following along, mulling over these questions in your own story, you should have a pretty good idea of the culture and environment that your characters live in. It probably feels more like a real place to you now than it did a few minute ago when you were just considering “steam punk” – or whatever other genre you’d picked.

I want to take a moment to talk about plot. You may already have one picked out, and that’s fine. Good for you. However, if you haven’t quite figured out the specifics of your plot and only have a vague genre idea of what you want to write about, follow along; I have a point to make that may help you flesh out your story.

Consider this: instead of making up some random plot idea, take a moment to think about the world you just described above. Now, tell me, who in this world has a story to tell? Using my own story as an example: What about the “elegant elite”? What if one of the society darlings suddenly found themselves in a position where they were now considered one of the “downtrodden”? What if one of the “downtrodden” was actually an amazing inventor trying to work their way up through society? What if one of the “working class” fell in love with an inventor of the upper crust? What if an invention was created that posed a threat to this world. What if it was stolen? And last but not least, what if some natural event or sudden upheaval took everything we just created, and tore it apart?

There are millions of possibilities just within this small glimpse of a world we’ve created that could spawn its own story. Think of the possibilities, grab one that sounds interesting to you, and then build it into something amazing that you can share with other people.

Through all that, I have something else for you to consider: Theme. Plots and characters and worlds aside, what sort of story are you looking to tell? Is it one of redemption? Love? War? Greed? Coming of age? Think about it and consider how these themes may fit into your world and what impact they may have on your story.

The Unimportants

The heading may be a bit deceiving, but bear with me. There’s a few things about your characters that while seemingly important, don’t hold as much of an impact on your story as what you may think. These are often the first things we think about when we create new characters, but among the many other things there are to consider, they’re relatively less important. These are:

  1. Name

First off, don’t just pick some random name that sounds awesome. It may sound cool, but it may not fit into your story. Keep in mind the Culture, Environment, Society expectations, Gender, and Class of your character. For instance, in my story old-fashioned names like John, Mary, Constance, Alice, David, Sebastian and Benjamin fit into my world readily whereas names like Raven, Skylar, Monique, Gavin, and Zebulan don’t really fit. The trick is to pick names that fit within the time period and location, and avoid names that are simply striking or unique.

You also want to avoid names that are difficult to pronounce, are really long, or have unusual spellings. No one thinks you’re being clever by naming your character “Kriystahl”. When your readers come upon these strange little snowflakes of individuality what they’re really thinking is: Amateur Writer. They will be more impressed with you taking a common name and making the character spectacular and memorable in such a way where that common name begins to mean something more than just average.

For this exercise, I’m going to name my main female lead:  Abigail Conway. It is a common, unassuming name that fits into the time period and society without sounding comical or overly unique. I’ll let her close friends call her “Abby” for short, and everyone else (due to society manners) shall refer to her as simply “Abigail” or “Miss Conway”.

  1. Appearance

Now this one’s a little trickier. Again, you want your character to fit into the world. What you don’t want is a character that is so unique in how they look that people roll their eyes at the description. Characters that are stunningly gorgeous with huge breasts and hour-glass shaped figures are a dime a dozen. Take some unremarkable features, and make them remarkable by pairing them with one specific attractive feature. Also, keep your descriptions down to a minimum.

For instance, Abigail is thin, short, and has a fair-complexion. These are pretty standard descriptors. She has brown hair/eyes, and the one striking feature she holds is a dimple in her right cheek when she smiles. All other descriptions of Abigail will come from how those around her see her. Someone who dislikes Abigail may describe her as unkempt or plain. Someone who loves her might say she is delicate and has eyes the color of honeyed tea. We can let the characters make up those features – we don’t need to do it ourselves – and if you try, what happens is you end up coloring the views of your characters and your reader. It’s easier to relate to a character if you let your readers fill in the gaps themselves.

  1. Age

It’s not really important what the exact age of your character is, and chances are that you’ll never say it in the story (unless it plays some important role in your plot). However, you should pick an age regardless, and then stick to it. Your age, while not important to the story itself, will play a big factor in the voice of your character. Four-year-olds don’t speak and think the same way a twenty-year-old would. Nor would a twenty-year-old put importance on the same issues as an 80-year-old.

For my story, Abigail is going to be 20. She’s young and ambitious, and still looking for a love interest, but isn’t obsessed with romance or social standing in the same way a 16-year-old would be. She’s at that age where she’s looking to make her mark on the world and is still figuring out her place within it.

  1. Gender

This one is a given, but you need to pick the gender of your character. It’s important in a way that changes small details of the story like how people address your character or the clothes they wear, etc, but what I’ve said about my character, Abigail, could just as easily be translated to male as it is to female. At some point, you’re going to have to pick a side (unless they’re a eunuch or a hermaphrodite). Pick it early on, and use it to help define your character and how they interact with the world around them.

Background: Family, History, and Skeletons in the Closet

First of all, AVOID DRAMATIC PASTS that exist solely for the purpose of being dramatic or making your character into a special snowflake. Nothing is more annoying to a reader than having a lead character raped or orphaned if it’s being done only to make the character seem unique. It’s not unique.

Events in your character’s past should define and explain why your character is who she/he is without upstaging the story itself. Most of us don’t think about how our character’s family changes who they are, but it actually plays a very big role on personality. A character that is raised as an only child by a single parent isn’t going to have the same personality as a character that’s the youngest of 9 children and has both parents. Not only that, but at some point your character’s family is probably going to make an appearance in your story.

Also consider how the past of your character impacts  their social standing, job, and personal life.

In Abigail’s case, she was raised by her Grandfather, the watch-maker. Her mother, a seamstress,  died early in her daughter’s life due to illness, and her father hoisted her off on her Grandfather to raise as he toiled day and night in a mid-level job servicing the rail line. Abigail loved her father, and he doted on her when he was home, but for all intents and purposes, she spent most of her childhood in the backroom of her Grandfather’s watch shop. When Abigail was 9, her father was killed in an accident on the rail-line. How has this affected Abigail?

Because of her somewhat tragic but loving background, Abigail has grown up strong-willed and good-natured. She places great pride in hard work no matter what level of the job, and adores her Grandfather even if he is a stubborn old codger.  She spends her days working in the fore-front of her Grandfather’s shop, makes deliveries for him, and has a small assortment of family friends that stem from her family’s position in the middle class. She may have friends that work on the rail-line like her father, or she may know elderly customers of her Grandfather’s shop. She probably knows a lot of gentlemen and young wives – because those are the type of people who visit a watch shop.

Now, before I get too far into how this background affects Abigail’s story and her personality, let’s look at those skeletons: A skeleton in the closet doesn’t necessarily mean a crime or something awful in a person’s past. What it means is: something your character doesn’t want anyone else to know, or doesn’t readily share.  Why do we need a skeleton? Because at some point you’re going to dust it off and show it to the world. Skeletons breed conflict.

In Abigail’s case, her skeleton is that she worries about her grandfather’s health and ability to run his watch shop. She puts on a brave face, but she knows he’s getting older, and sooner or later, the watch shop is going to pass on to her. Her grandfather wants to see her married to a nice man that may help her run the business. The problem with this of course, is that Abigail doesn’t want to make watches, and she’s not really concerned with getting married at this point in time. She dreams of adventure (something that is not necessarily appreciated in her society).

Being alone a lot as a child, sitting quietly in her grandfather’s shop, she spent her time reading and imaging faraway places. Her father would come home from work in the evenings and tell her stories of the people he met working on the rail-lines and the faraway places they came from. She’s desperate to see those places and people for herself someday, but will never admit it to her grandfather or anyone else, because she loves her grandfather and knows he wouldn’t approve. This unfulfilled need is slowly eating away at her insides day by day; a quiet death in mid-society.

Now as you’re reading this, you may think “oh she’s thought all this up ahead of time. There’s a lot of detail.” but I’m not. I have no idea what the plot for this story is going to be at this point in time. As you’re reading this, I’m making all of these details up off the top of my head. Abigail and her small life did not exist before this article. Abigail’s grandfather didn’t exist before the heading to this section. As you start to think about these things in your own story, it’ll start to flesh itself out. Ideas, people, and places will pop into your head that “click” with the rest of your story. Let them.

Keep in mind, that these people you’re making up as you go along should be just as complex as your main character. Eventually I’m going to have to consider Abigail’s grandfather’s name, his history, family, and his motivations. Secondary characters are just main characters out of focus – they should be just as complex and interesting as the stars of the story. Some day you may want to give them their own novel. Taking the time to think up all this background, even if you don’t use it, gives your characters a sense of depth they wouldn’t have had if you’d just gone : “Abigail’s got a grandfather. He’s grumpy. His name is Hugh.” No, his name is Hugh Conway, he’s a watch-maker and was once married to a strong-willed gal named Lilly Jones. They had a son named Peter, who married a seamstress named Grace Kemp, and they left behind a joy-filled daughter named Abigail who dreamed of setting out on her own and finding adventure.

Social Status & Moral Compass

A character’s social status will also have a big impact on how they interact with the world, and how far their moral compass swings. A character from the “elegant elite” will react to characters around them and moral issues very differently than a character in the dregs of society. Necessity, greed, personality, and even family will affect what your character is willing to do and how far they’ll cross the moral compass line. You should know what would push your character to murder, and what would push them to self-sacrifice. How do they treat their friends? Would they ever abandon their family to serve themselves?

In Abigail’s case, she has very strong morals. Because of her family’s love and kindness, she was raised to be kind to all manner of people, no matter their social standing. She is comfortable in the middle-class of her society, and doesn’t feel the need to treat others poorly. She holds no resentment against the upper classes, and doesn’t disdain the downtrodden (though she may be wary of them as they are often thieves and may push her good nature a little too far in order to gain things for themselves.) Abigail wouldn’t self-sacrifice herself because she knows her grandfather would rather she be safe no matter what, but she is willing to take some risks to her own safety in order to help others or even herself. Murder would not sit well with Abigail and I believe she would only kill someone in the most extreme of circumstances.

Relationships

Relationships are something you’re going to want to keep in mind throughout this whole process. You should consider each character’s relationship with each other, from the smallest secondary character on up to the main character. Just because you know all of your characters and their personalities doesn’t mean all of your characters know each other or even react to each other in the same way.

For instance, Hugh Conway, Abigail’s grumpy old grandfather is a shrewd business man with a soft spot for his granddaughter. He unnecessarily dotes on her, but to other people is probably quite abrupt and stingy. He probably haggles over groceries like a penny-pincher, but delights in wasting his hard-earned money on small gifts he knows his granddaughter will love and appreciate. Abigail teases her grumpy old grandfather in good humor, but is quite kind and friendly to most everyone else she meets. She may have a soft spot for orphans, but scolds them when they steal. She’s probably very open and even outlandish with her best friend, and awkward and shy with a handsome young rail-line worker who takes his lunch at the corner café down the street from her grandfather’s shop.

Middle-aged women in the area probably consider Abigail a joyous and fetching young girl (if a bit improper in her zeal) and secretly hope their sons will take interest in her. Older men and women probably shake their heads at the watch-maker’s granddaughter who is a bit dreamy in their opinion and not notably intelligent. Younger men her own age probably consider Abigail good-natured but a bit too boisterous for anything more than a passing flirt, and women her own age may consider her utterly ridiculous and ill-mannered (seeing as she doesn’t seem to care about proper fashion or being coy like they do).

My point is, every person in the story is going to view Abigail differently based on their own backgrounds, social standing, and personality, and she’ll probably interact with each of them differently.  Just because I like Abigail as a character and I think she’s fun and pleasant doesn’t mean the rest of the characters will agree with me. Keep this in mind as you continue to fill out your characters.

Flaws, Desirable Traits, & Personality

At this point if you’ve been following along (gee I hope so), you should have a pretty decent if vague understanding of who your character is. We’re going to take that a bit further and talk about their flaws, desirable traits, and personality. No one is perfect, and no one is so unforgivable a character that they don’t have at least one desirable trait. Take a minute to think over your character so far, and try to list three positive and three negative traits. They may have more, or even less, but there should be a fair balance in their personality. Never forget: Good guys can do bad things sometimes, and bad guys can do good things.

For an example: My dear Miss Abigail Conway is…

  1. Generally good-humored and happy.
  2. Almost never says a negative word about anyone.
  3. Loves her friends and family deeply and without reservation.

However, she also:

  1. Is often inappropriate in her comments and actions because she doesn’t fully comprehend society’s expectation of her manners or behavior.
  2. Is socially awkward and often ends up putting her foot in her mouth because she easily gets flustered around mean or immoral people and doesn’t know how to react to them.
  3. Is adventurous and often takes risks that put herself and other people in danger.

In short, Abigail is outgoing and happy, but also impulsive and prone to mistakes. To balance her vivid personality, she is rather plain-looking and unremarkable with the exception of her smile. Overall, nothing about her particularly stands out from the whole if you see her on the street. Some people will like her; others will think her foolish and inappropriate. She isn’t perfect, but she’s likeable.

Your main characters should always be likeable in some way. If your main character is “evil” then they should have some personality trait that makes them engaging or interesting for the reader, and at the very least: we should be able to sympathize with them. There’s nothing worse than having a character that we find boring an unlikeable – And forget about the whole “good / evil” thing. Characters do bad things, and they do good things. Don’t label them“evil” or “good” for the sake of being evil/good. Characters should be complex, unique individuals, just like people in the real world. Everyone’s a little bit of both.

Now, we also need to examine how Abigail (or your character)’s inner personality is different than what they outwardly present. Outwardly, Abigail is everything above. However, inwardly she is also somewhat melancholy and worrisome. She loves her family, but she is stifled by the life she leads. She longs for that adventure, and when that sometimes overtakes her actions, she ends up getting put back in her place by society. The light that makes up so much of her outward personality is slowly becoming more and more forced as on the inside, the light is slowly fading out. She’s not terribly unhappy with her life, but she longs for more. She is also worried about her grandfather’s health, his watch shop, and shudders at the thought that someday years from now; she’ll still be working in the shop alongside a husband and children of her own. She’s not ready for that life even if she assumes that is what she’s headed for. Abigail wants out – but is afraid to disappoint her grandfather who has lost so much already.

What are your characters fears? What do they worry about? How do they feel about their current situation? All of these things tie into your character’s personality.

What Makes Your Character Distinct or Unforgettable?

Every character should have something about them that makes them distinct or unforgettable. There’s nothing worse than having a character that is so lack-luster that the reader forgets their name halfway through the next chapter. Character should be memorable, if not in personality or appearance, then in deed. Take a little bit to review over what you know of your character so far. What stands out the most about your character? What do you think draws people to them as a character (either in the story or from the reader’s point of view?

For Abigail, I think a lot of her appeal is in her joy for life and thirst for adventure. With her personality you just know that she’s going to do extraordinary things, and you can’t help but be influenced by the light of her personality. For Hugh, I’d say it’s his dedication to his family. He’s a grump of an old man, but he doesn’t withhold love for his family. He would have saved himself hassle and money if he’d set Abigail on the streets as a child, but he didn’t- and when and if Abigail decides to leave for greater things, I don’t think he’d stop her.

Whatever “distinctness” you give your character, it doesn’t have to be something huge. It can be as little as the way they greet other characters or the way they always support their friends, even in the most foolish of endeavors.  It can even be a negative thing: Maybe a particularly unkind character beats a street urchin with a cane, or claims an apple is rotten in order to get it free from a vendor. The point is that it has to be something memorable. Don’t let your characters (even your side characters) fade into the background by simply showing up in a scene, playing off another character’s dialogue, and then pop out of existence like they never existed.

Voice

The voice of a character is the way they think and speak, not only in dialogue but narration. There are quite a lot of authors that fail at making their characters voices unique, and it has a noticeable effect: all their characters sound alike, and the reader gets confused about who’s speaking – or sometimes the character’s voice comes across as too mature or too juvenile for the character. So here are some things you need to think about when considering your character’s voice:

  1. Age: a 5 year old doesn’t speak the same way a 20 year old does.
  2. Culture/Environment/Class: A character in the victorian-era England won’t speak the same way as a character in the year 3029 in NEW New Orleans. Nor will a character raised in the streets speak the same as a character born and bred in nobility.
  3. Personality: A happy character with a pleasant personality isn’t going to talk to people the same way a grumpy, sour-puss will.
  4. Gender: Men and women will not speak the same. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions, but generally they have different motives behind their conversations, so the way they approach it will also be different.

For the purpose of this exercise I’ve decided that Hugh speaks with a gravelly, pinched voice and clipped, direct sentences. He doesn’t waste time on words and pleasantries. He is direct, and narrates his world in undertones of complaints about time management and wasted money – and never speaks people’s names directly. Abigail, on the other hand, speaks with a casual, teasing but friendly tone with a lady-like proper alto voice. She uses manners when addressing others, often calling them Sir, Madam, and Young Sir/Miss. She refers to her friends by their surnames only. She saves her greatest endearments for her family, and calls her Grandfather Hugh Conway: Gran’papa. Hugh has been known to curse at almost everyone in long, rude tirades (he calls the grocery woman down the street “that slack-jawed cutpurse-spinster”), while Abigail would never say a mean word about anyone – not even those she greatly dislikes. The closest she comes to an insult is when she teasingly calls her grandfather “you stodgy old bastard” which he secretly likes, and is always said with tongue in cheek.

Abigail narrates her world in tones of excitement, optimism and curiosity. How do your characters narrate their world? How do they speak to others? Do they have a sense of humor? Let their personalities color their view and language.

Motivation, Goals & Obstacles

We’re nearing the end of this article, so there are just a few more things I want to impress upon you. Some of the most important things to know about your characters are motivation, goals, and obstacles. See if you can answer these questions:

  1. What is your character’s motivation or goals in life? What is it they want for themselves, what kind of future do they envision?

Also, in a smaller way, as you’re writing, think about what your character’s motivations and goals are for each conversation and scene. Keep these things in mind.

  1. What things stand in the way of their motivations and goals? Is there anything you can foresee outside of some random event that could keep them from their goals?

Try not to take plot into account yet. For instance, what Abigail wants for herself, is to lead a life of adventure. She wants to do something extraordinary with her life. She DOESN’T want to spend her whole life in the little watch shop. The obstacles to this of course, are society and her grandfather. She doesn’t want to disappoint Hugh, and in her world, gallivanting off to have some grand adventure is rather frowned upon in general.  It’s okay if there are no foreseeable obstacles in your character’s way – there doesn’t have to be.

Now, taking plot into account, think about what your character wants, and if there are no obstacles in their way, throw one in front of them. If there –are- obstacles, consider finding a way to remove them, or make your character attempt to reach their goal despite the obstacles.

I could have Abigail’s grandfather die: that would remove one obstacle. Or, I could have something crop up (like Abigail getting kidnapped) that suddenly makes her goals possible, whether she likes it or not.

Ask yourself this question as you write, and any time you get stuck: What does my character fear the most, and how can I make it happen? Where your story goes from there is anyone’s guess. Anything could happen.

What’s Abigail’s story? I don’t know. Her book hasn’t been written – like I said, Abigail and her grandfather didn’t exist before this article. Maybe she gets abducted by a handsome member of the local street gang, in trouble with the law and is held for ransom – and thus begins her adventure into a new and unexpected journey. Maybe she finds herself unexpectedly trapped in an arranged marriage and runs away, leaving her Grandfather behind, and joining the rail-line. Or maybe her Grandfather dies and leaves behind a watch and a mystery to solve. I don’t know – but if I’ve accomplished anything with this article, hopefully by the end of it, you’ve gotten a feeling for who she is, and on some level, care about her story. Hopefully, after all is said and done, I’ve given you the tools and inspiration to tell your own story.