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June 23, 2011

Writing Exercise #15: Character Hooks

Filed under: Writing Exercises — Tags: , , — ax20 @ 2:39 pm

This is more of an exercise to help you with something you are already writing. I posted a link about a way to help differentiate characters when you have a lot of them. That article talked about creating hooks for your character, a small detail or trait that makes them memorable.

Your assignment is to write a list of twenty-five traits. Some should be looks based, others should be about personality, while others can be about their status or any other element you can think of. It’s no fun to come up with in the first place, but you will be happy to have it in the future.

General Writing: Memorable Characters

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 2:28 pm

How do you make your characters memorable? Especially in a world where you create tons of characters, how do you make sure the reader can keep them straight? Check out this post for a really good way to think of it:
Hooking Your Characters

Getting Published: Misused Words

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , , — ax20 @ 2:20 pm

When submitting work to an agency, you don’t want to give them any reason to think you might not know what your doing. You don’t want typos, grammatical errors, or other problems that will make them think you aren’t careful with your work. One of the things you should be paying attention to is the words you choose to use. Misused words can lead to confusion and hesitation and can even take the reader out of your story.

Imagine you’re in the middle of an exciting scene:

Tom raced down the street. He had to catch them. If they got away it would be all over. He ducked around a group of kids, leapt over a pile of crate, and kept going. He was closing in, closer. He reached out his hands and grabbed the horses’ reigns.

Wait a minute, horses have reins, not reigns. In that moment, when a reader has to stop and think, he clearly meant a different word, the reader has been pulled from the story. And if the reader is going to get confused, likely so is an agent or a publisher. Sure, one typo will probably not kill your story, but a lot of them over the course of your manuscript might. And if they’re already on the fence, you don’t want to give them a stupid reason to back away. Here are two great blog posts talking about some words that people often confuse/misuse:
Commonly Confused Words
Fifteen Common Errors and How to Fix Them

General Writer: Active vs Passive Characters

Filed under: Character, General Writing — Tags: , , , — ax20 @ 1:57 pm

One of the big problems I have noticed in a number of manuscripts that authors submit is they create a story so beyond the main character, that the character becomes a spectator. Perhaps its a civilian caught in a war zone where the soldiers bring him to safety and have him stay there while they take care of things. Or maybe it’s a non-vampire who spends her entire time being protected and rescued by her vampire boyfriend while she does nothing but wait to be captured the next time. Or it’s a teen character whose parents tell them what to do and they always listen. Either way, your character spends the entire story reacting to events instead of taking action.

If your character spends most of their time on the sidelines while things happen around them, it is time to reconsider your story. It’s just boring for the reader and extremely frustrating. You need to find a reason to get your character to take action.

A great example of this is in the latest 39 Clues book I read:
Grace Cahill is a thirteen year old girl who has a message that she needs to take into a war zone. She might have just given this message to someone else but not knowing who to trust, she determines to do it on her own. She gets there, delivers the message, and is told by the adults that things are being taken care of, she can now relax. But while she’s sitting alone and she decodes the message and realizes she had it wrong when she delivered it. She tries to tell the adults but they are all too busy to listen to a kid so she sets off to follow the clues herself.

There were many reasons why Grace might have been relegated to sit on the side. There were adults around to handle things, she might have passed off the responsibility to someone else. But for reasons constructed by the circumstances and by Grace herself, she is taking action, which ultimately places her in danger and into the thick of the story.

This is also the reason why Dumbledore, Sirius Black, and even Harry’s parents had to die in the Harry Potter series. It is the same reason why in the Chronicles of Narnia the Pevensies’ parents had to be elsewhere while they entered Narnia and why Aslan wasn’t around for most of the story. For this same reason, Qui Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi had to die in Star Wars. These are all characters who, were they present, would have taken the action out of the hands of the characters they were mentoring and protecting. By taking their guardians away there is no one to stand between them and the battle that must be fought. (This is one of the main reasons why in kids’ books, even if you spend time wondering why the kids aren’t telling their parents what is happening, you understand the reason: if they told, the kids would be out of the story.)

A story is never as interesting if told by someone who is barely involved. Find reasons to make them part of the action through a combination of circumstances and personality and your story will immediately be more interesting.

June 21, 2011

General Writing: Drama

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , , , — ax20 @ 11:46 am

An important element of writing is the conflict, drama, tension, and stakes of the story. What is keeping the main characters from their goals? Here is a good post discussing some of the ways to add these things into your story:
Where to find drama in your writing

Getting Published: Revisions

Filed under: Getting Published — Tags: , — ax20 @ 11:44 am

Sometimes you will submit your work and the agent will request (or suggest) revisions. As a writer, you always have to be able to take criticism. If the agent is bothering to request this, think of it as an opportunity. They see potential but your work isn’t quite there yet.

Sometimes I read a work and I know it has potential but I also see a major problem with something (like maybe the structure). We don’t usually give advice to authors because there are simply too many submissions to give people personal feedback, but in these cases I will suggest to the author that they do another draft of their work and consider revising the way they have done something (such as where they started the book or to speed up the pacing). This doesn’t mean that we will necessarily take their book should they make these changes, but it does mean we’re willing to reconsider the work.

Here is another agent’s take on revisions: What I Talk About When I Talk About Revisions

June 19, 2011

General Writing: Story Development

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 10:44 pm

Another reason why many of the submissions I have read through have been rejected is their lack of plot development. Oftentimes, what happens is the book jumps from point A to point H to point Z. They don’t show us how we got from one point to the next, jump over long spans of time, and at best, provide a summary of the many events we missed. If events have drastically changed from one chapter to the next, we need to know how and a summary of what we didn’t see is not the way to go about it.

If you don’t know how this major change occurred (say a character that is much loved becomes despised, a poor person becomes rich, a fighting couple has reconciled) than we have a bigger problem–you have not fully developed your idea. If however, you simply did not feel like you had the space to go into it all, then something you might consider is simplifying your story.

Oftentimes, what happened is that there is too much happening. You have so many events to touch on that you can’t adequately cover all of them. Instead you have to jump over long spans of time simply to get from one plot point to the next. Cut out some of the side stories and events less crucial to your story (such as cutting out side characters and their minor subplots) to make more room.

There is another possibility. Perhaps you are covering a span of time too long for the book you are writing. Consider how much of the story is truly important–you wanted to show us how a character grew up, but what of their childhood was really important? Can you just start when they are fifteen instead of five? You wanted to show how a character is trained, but is it important to see the first training session or just any training session? By condensing the time frame of your story, you won’t have to “fill in” the time gaps. A shorter time frame will also cut out the boring stuff that you need to gloss over since there isn’t time for it to happen in your character’s life.

Make sure your story progresses naturally. If you skip out on important events, then the changes in your characters and the pace with which it all takes will feel unnatural and forced.

General Writing: Character Development

I have read hundreds of manuscripts by now and one of the big reasons why they get rejected is that their characters lack personalities and development. There are a lot of ways to work on this, but sometimes the characters in your book are lacking individuality is because you have included so many characters that you don’t have enough time to spend on them all. If you write in the scenes needed to add more characterization, the book will become much too lone.

One suggestion is to cut some of your lesser characters (perhaps condensing a few characters or deleting some of the non-essential ones entirely). By doing this, you make space for your main characters and can add in scenes that will help show who your characters are and what sets them apart from other people.

But how do you side who stays and who goes? Identify your main story (A story), secondary story (B story), etc. How do all of your characters fit in? If they don’t play an important role in the story–cut them. If they play a role that someone more important can play–cut them. Even if you love the character, save them for another book.

You won’t be sorry to have the extra space. Add in scenes where your characters must make choices (stand up to someone or avoid confrontation, apply for something or let an opportunity slip by, give up or keep trying, etc) to show how they behave in different situations. You can show their growth by having a similar situation arise later where they make a different choice.

Of course, this isn’t the only way to develop your characters, but if you find your book is overstuffed and your characters are underdeveloped, this is an easy solution that you might want to consider. (A word of warning though: should you cut a character, make sure you fully remove them from the manuscript. It would be awfully confusing if suddenly in the middle of a scene, someone who has never been mentioned speaks and then suddenly disappears again.)

General Writing: Party Scenes

Filed under: General Writing — Tags: , — ax20 @ 8:48 pm

I have only ever used one party scene in my writing so far, so I have not thought much about it. However, after reading this article, Why Writers Give the Best Parties, I see parties in a new light. (It even makes me rethink Gossip Girl a bit, but that is a different topic…)

June 15, 2011

General Writing: Age Appropriate Wording

Filed under: General Writing, Genre — Tags: , — ax20 @ 7:50 pm

One of the most frustrating things to happen when you’re reading a book is to be suddenly pulled out of a book because the wording doesn’t make sense–a stupid character starts using big words, ten-year-olds suddenly sound like they’re fifty, a toddler talks in long coherent sentences…It isn’t only dialogue you have to consider, though this is often the biggest culprit. if you’re writing a first person novel then every word you write is a reflection of the character and thus must be appropriate to that character.

Check out this blog post for more on this idea:
To Delve or Not to Delve That is the Question

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