What Killed It For Me, #7: Issues with Sequels

photo-22I started this series talking about issues in books that pretty much everyone can agree are a problem: weak writing, clichéd characters, unclear character goals, etc. Last week’s post on Action Openings was a little more subjective, and today’s pet peeve is going to be more so. It has to do with sequels and why I may finish the first book but not read any of the rest.

First let me say that I’ve never written a series. All of my books so far have been stand-alones (though I’ll eventually be turning one into the first of a series). So I don’t have any experience writing a series. But I’ve read a TON of them and, as a reader, I have strong opinions about what works and what doesn’t. You may agree, you may want to stab me with your voodoo pins. Either way, here are the reasons why, in the past, I’ve finished book one of a sequel but failed to read any of the rest:

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Courtesy: Raymond Bryson @ Creative Commons

1) Too Many Unanswered Questions. I recently read a paranormal thriller that had me RIVETED. It involved a killer on the loose, a tropical island, a curious weather pattern, a mysterious clique of fascinating but ominous people, and frequent vanishings. The stakes were clearly high, the characters interesting, the premise fabulous, and I was completely invested right up to the end. Then I finished the book. I slammed it shut, held it up for my husband to see, and made some form of unkind declarative statement that I won’t repeat here.

A lot of questions were raised in this book, and I think maybe two of them were answered by the end. The rest…well, you’ll just have to read the sequel to find out. Um, no. I was so confused (and pissed) when I finished, that I won’t be reading any of the sequels.

As authors, we have an obligation to our readers to deliver what we promise. If you give readers an indication that the hero’s eventually going to have a show down with the villain, you need to fulfill that promise and make sure it happens. In the same way, if you raise a bunch of important plot-based questions, the reader expects those important questions to be explained. Now, I’m not saying that everything has to be ironed out by the end of the first book. Far from it. But you have to answer enough of the questions so the first book makes sense on its own. Every book, even one in a series, needs a complete story arc. So please, for the love of all things literary, if you’re going to write a series, answer the pertinent questions at the end of the first book. Don’t be coy and mysterious and assume that readers will be intrigued by your ambiguity. No, they’ll just be annoyed. Let’s try to avoid that.

2) Too much elapsed time between books. I read a really popular first book in a series a few years ago. The second one came out in the fall; I put it on my reading list, and there it sits. Six months later. Still unread. I really liked the first book. I gave it four stars on Goodreads—high praise from me. I recommended it to friends when I was finished. But a year-and-a-half later, I just wasn’t into it any more. Now, the books that I absolutely LOVE, it won’t matter how much time goes by before the next book is released: the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, the Grisha trilogy, The Wicked and the Just (please please PLEASE, when is the sequel coming???). I snapped up (will snap up) these sequels as soon as they’re available. But, to be fair, these kind of LOVE books are few and far between for me. I may like a first book—I may really really like it—but if too much time passes before the next book in the series, I could very well lose interest and never another of those books.

So here’s my first suggestion for avoiding this, and please bear with me, because I know this isn’t possible for everyone: If it’s possible for you as an author, self-publish your series. This way, you can control the timeline and release your books at intervals that will keep readers salivating.

Now, I realize that this may not be possible if you’re working with a publisher. Readers may have to wait a year to eighteen months before seeing your next book and you may not be able to do anything about that. So here are two suggestions that may help tide readers over from one book to the next:

  • Before the second/third/etc. book comes out, publish a summary of the previous books on your website. Sometimes, I find out a second book has come out, but I’m not really interested because so much time has elapsed that I can’t remember what happened in the first book. But if there’s a summary for the first book out there, I read it, and I remember why I liked that book. I get jazzed again and many times end up continuing the series.
  • If possible, micro-publish related pieces in the interim. If your readers will have a while to wait between books, provide some related material that will give them a taste of your world/characters/story between releases. Write a novella from a minor character’s perspective (à la the supplements to Susan Kaye Quinn’s Mindjack series). Provide a short story that explains an important event from your hero’s or villain’s past. Now, I don’t know what limitations traditionally published authors might have in this area (maybe someone could chime in on this?), but your interim pieces don’t have to be books for sale. Post them to your blog and let everyone read them. Save them in PDF format and make them available for free download at your website. Send them to your newsletter subscribers. This is a great way to keep readers interested in your series during a long interim between releases.
  • This is an idea I’ve been toying with, so it may not work for everyone (or anyone), but consider writing most of the series before starting to publish. I’m not a prolific writer by any means; this is one reason why I haven’t published fiction yet, because I can’t supply books as quickly as I’d like to. But, I figure if I get 2 or 3 books written before starting to publish, then I can release them in quick succession without keeping readers waiting.


As a reader, I love me a good series. Right now, I’m on book two of The Last Apprentice, which has apparently been out forever and WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME? As a writer,  sadly, I’ve got few personal words of wisdom to share. But that’s what friends are for, right? Janice Hardy’s got 7 tips for you on writing a series and Joanna Penn has some great advice on avoiding continuation issues when writing a series. Jami Gold’s started an interesting discussion on if you should even learn how to write one. And then there’s Holly Lisle, who I wish was my friend, offering a video-series workshop on How to Write a Series. Enjoy!

Posted in Uncategorized, What Killed it For Me | 13 Comments

Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Sewing

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

SEWING

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Courtesy : Lori Branham @ Creative Commons

Description: sewing encompasses a variety of forms: dressmaking, embroidery, millinery (hat making), quilting, needlepoint, crocheting, knitting, and other activities involving needle and thread. Sewing can be a practical endeavor (as a means of producing a needed product) or a leisurely activity that is more craft-like or entertaining in nature.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: dexterity, good hand-eye coordination, sharp eyesight, a basic knowledge of mathematics, being able to communicate clearly with others

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: patience, meticulousness, creativity, organization, dependability

Required Resources and Training: The basics of sewing can be self-taught but many sewers choose to train through an apprenticeship or via trade or fashion schools.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: Sewers are usually portrayed as females; it would be nice to see other people groups represented in this field. Closely related to sewing, fashion design is a popular skill or hobby that is quickly becoming cliché among female protagonists, particularly in YA books.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful: when extra income is needed; as a means of artistic expression; when money is scarce and clothing/cloth has to be recycled or repurposed; when an article of clothing needs repairing at an important, high-profile event

Resources for Further Information:

Hand Sewing Basics

Choosing Fabrics for a Sewing Project

A Sewing How-To

 

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

http://www.fabricsandbuttons.com/Merchant2/merchant.mvc?Store_Code=WSS&Screen=Choosing-Fabrics

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What Killed it For Me #6: Action Too Early

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This looks like a good place to start my story…

It’s likely that we’ve all encountered these stories—the ones that open with an explosion, plague, car chase, alien abduction, fist fight, or other volatile scene involving a main character that we know virtually nothing about. I get why authors do this. It makes sense that starting the story with a bang would engage readers and suck them right in. But most of the time, the opposite happens for me: I end up confused and uninterested. And here’s why: To care about what’s happening to the character, I have to first care about the character.

To care about a hero, readers need to know what he wants and what’s at stake if he doesn’t get it. They’ve also got to respond to him emotionally on a certain level if they’re going to empathize with him and his circumstances. Readers need to have a feel for this stuff before the main character gets thrown into the arena or accused of espionage. If the cart comes before the horse here, it’s highly likely that readers won’t engage and may not continue reading.

So how do we avoid this problem in our own writing?

1. Don’t start with the main action. We need to see the character in her real world before the main conflict arises. This provides contrast, pitting the old safe-but-somehow-unsatisfactory world against the crazy new one. It also gives us a chance to get to know the hero before her world is turned upside down. So if your story is about people surviving an ebola outbreak, don’t open with the hero’s mother bleeding from the eyes. If it’s about a woman living in the aftermath of divorce, don’t open with her husband leaving her. Give readers a chance to care about the hero before the main conflict arises, and readers will be more inclined to stick around to see what happens to her.

2. Avoid gimmicky opening action sequences. I made this mistake in one of my first novels. My book opened with the main character running through a field, breathing heavily and casting frantic looks over her shoulder. Readers assumed she was being chased, and she was. But when it turned out she was just playing hide-and-seek, they were not amused. The opening came across as contrived, which is fitting, since that’s exactly what it was. Readers are smart. They know when they’re being deceived or manhandled, and like anyone with any sense, they don’t like it at all. (This is one of the reasons why opening dream sequences rarely work.)

The thing is, enthralling stories that suck readers in don’t have to start with action. Look at The Hunger Games. Talk about action-packed—yet, it opens with the main character waking up. Collins could have opened her book at half-a-dozen later points in the story, and there would have been a lot more going on. But those openings wouldn’t have worked, imo, because they weren’t the right place to start her story. And that brings us to something super important that you have to do…

3. Start your story in the right place. Somebody famous (I forgot to write down the attribution and now I can’t remember who. Sorry, anonymous writer mentor person!)  said that you should start your story just before the protagonist’s life intersects with the antagonist’s agenda. The Hunger Games is a great example. President Snow’s agenda is to strengthen his control over the people of Panem via the hunger games. Katniss has been to the reaping a number of times, but because her name hasn’t been called, her life hasn’t yet intersected with Snow’s agenda. That doesn’t happen until Prim’s name is picked. Had Collins started the story after that, the opening would have been jarring and probably confusing for readers. Had she started much earlier than she did, the opening would have dragged.

All of that being said, books in certain genres—thrillers and detective stories, for example—are more likely to start things off with a bang, and readers tend to respond favorably. But whatever the genre, finding the right starting point is critically important in engaging readers early. (See Kristen Lamb’s post on this topic). Locate that magical point where the antagonist’s agenda intersects with the hero’s life. Open your story just before that collision, and you’ll likely be starting in a spot that will resonate with readers.

Photo credit: The Official CTBTO Photostream @ Creative Commons

 

Posted in Openings, Uncategorized, What Killed it For Me | 27 Comments

Eight Steps to an Agent, a Publisher, and a Two-Book Deal

Happy Monday, everyone! I know, I know…Mondays. Bleh. Luckily, Donna Galanti is here to cheer you up. When it comes to publishing, she’s done it all: her short story collection is self-published, her debut novel was published through a small press, and she’s recently acquired an agent for her children’s book series. Today, she’s here to share her journey to traditional publication—the lessons she learned and is still learning as a published author. So be encouraged, everyone. IT CAN BE DONE!

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Courtesy of Mark Sebastian @ Creative Commons

Over three years I traveled a writing road to become published. It was challenging, and every step (forward and backward) led me to an agent, a publisher, and a 2-book deal. If you want to become traditionally published, I hope my journey helps you realize that it really does all start with one step, and ALL these steps will benefit you once you get that book deal.

1 step to get out of the comfort zone
Three years ago I crawled out of my writer’s cave and met other writers. I attended workshops, conferences, and networking events. I challenged myself to take a class on how to write in a different genre. Writing is impulsive. Be impulsive and take risks to get outside your comfort zone.

Are you ready for discomfort? Once you have a book deal…you’ll be asked to sign at book expos, present at conferences, do author panels, write blog posts, or present at school assemblies.

2 years submitting to 189 agents
I spent years submitting to agents. Be ready for rejection and combat it with more submissions. Your query letter is your sales tool to get an agent to ask for the full manuscript. Keep getting rejected? It’s time to revise that letter. New agents are prime for querying as they all want to build their client lists. I recommend following the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. My friend and agent, Marie Lamba, has a great advice column on getting an agent here on her Agent Mondays.

Are you ready to keep pitching? Once you have a book deal…your agent may need to spend months pitching your book to publishers, and you await more rejection until it finds a home.

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Courtesy: Nic McPhee @ Creative Commons

3 rounds with my developmental editor and 3 beta readers’ feedback
Spend the money and use a developmental editor. Frustrated that my manuscript was being rejected, I knew something wasn’t working. My editor at Writing Partner helped me see what I needed to do (three major rewrites over two years) and apply what I’ve learned. Here are 5 things I learned from my editor. Find the right beta readers who know how to decipher fiction and read the genre you write in. Give them a list of questions to help guide them.

Are you ready to take criticism and apply it to make your work better?  Once you have a book deal...you will work with an editor at the publishing house, or your agent as an editor. They will request changes – and expect you to know how to fix them. Will you know how? Be open to changes. Read my friend Kathryn Craft’s editing journey in regards to her book deal.

4 (and a half) months waiting for an offer
It takes a long time to hear back from agents and publishers who have your manuscript under consideration. While you wait, keep revising and submitting your work and getting feedback. Study the publishing market. Get free e-newsletters to Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace. Read in your genre. Purchase books on how to write. See my writing resource list here. And keep coming up with new book ideas. Why? Because an agent doesn’t just want you for a one book deal, they want you for a long term relationship. When you get a call from an agent, they will want to know what other projects you’re working on. Have those ideas shaped into short pitches. I had mine on hand to seal the deal.

Are you ready to think about agents the same way? Once you have a book deal…On your new career path you need to prove you are serious about being an author, that you know your genre, and youre self-motivated to create a portfolio of writing. You want an agent who will guide and champion you. Research them before querying and talking with them and have your own interview questions ready. Here’s a great article I referenced before talking with my agent.

5 writing conferences and 5 novels read in an internship
As a writer you need to learn the writing craft, the business of writing, and how to build relationships in a writing community. I’ve been lucky to have met many folks through the Philadelphia Liars Club and their Writer’s Coffeehouse. Through an agent friend there, I was offered an internship with the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency. In this role I evaluated manuscripts. I learned how to deconstruct a novel. And I learned to see similar problems in my own writing and how to avoid them. I’ve also befriended many bestselling authors, online and at conferences, who want to help new writers. They’ve advised me, allowed me to guest post on their blogs, and have written blurbs for my work. They pay it forward. Someday you will too.

Are you ready to keep learning from your peers and apply what you’ve learned? Once you have a book deal…you will be elevated as a writer in a new partnership that requires you to be professional and knowledgeable in your craft – and you need to continue networking to build those valuable relationships that will boost your career.

6 in-person agent pitches
I’ve pitched my book to agents at conferences and at social gatherings. Think of it as a conversation. Agents need writers as much as we need them. Always be ready to talk about your book. Always have a business card on hand and ask for theirs in return.

Are you ready to pitch at a moment’s notice? Once you have a book deal…you will be promoting your book everywhere, formally at signings and informally in the grocery store. Have your book’s one-line pitch ready to share with that potential customer. Remember, YOU are the one person most passionate about your book.

7 months to write the first draft
I almost gave up. Remember, I challenged myself to write in a new genre? It was hard. I didn’t always enjoy it. I felt outside my comfort zone, but I gave myself a deadline to finish, and I stuck to it. And here are six things I learned about writing a children’s book during this process.

Are you challenging yourself to finish your book on a deadline? Once you have a book deal…you will be expected to meet many deadlines. You will be given an editorial calendar and go a few editing rounds on the manuscript, each time with a deadline. Got a two-book deal? You will be given deadlines to deliver a manuscript proposal and the manuscript on book two. You will have deadlines to meet for blog tours and other events. Keep a good reputation and make deadlines.

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Courtesy: Sean MacEntee @ Creative Commons

8 agents who had the full manuscript and rejected it
The biggest reason agents rejected my book? They didn’t like the voice—and that’s a personal choice. Your voice is your natural, unique expression. Wait for that someone who will love your voice. It can be the agent that helps you launch a career, like my agent, Bill Contardi with Brandt & Hochman. It can be the publisher, like Month9Books, who fell in love with my middle grade novel. If they love your voice in one book, they most likely will love it in others you write.

Are you ready to take rejection and keep persevering? Once you have a book deal…your changes to the story may be rejected. Your title may be rejected. Your next book idea for the second book in the deal may be rejected. Get used to rejection and think of it as positive traction.

And now it all comes down to one. One agent. One publisher. One deal.

I spent years preparing to publish my book and when it happened, it happened fast. Within a month I had an agent, a publisher, and a two-book deal. But look at the number of steps (and missteps) I took along the way to get to that ONE. Going through all these steps may be disheartening at times, but doing so prepares you to step into the authorial role and work with your agent to build a career. Because you will encounter these same steps as a published author.

Are you ready to take these steps again? And again?

What’s my next step? The challenge of transitioning my brand from an author of dark adult fiction to children’s fiction. That may be a post here for another time–once I figure it out. ☺

Galanti,DonnaABOUT DONNA:
Donna Galanti writes suspense, young adult, and middle grade fiction and is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents, Inc. She is an International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Author of the paranormal suspense novel A HUMAN ELEMENT (Echelon Press) and its sequel, A HIDDEN ELEMENT (Imajin Books), which releases summer 2014. Book one and two of her middle grade series, JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD, debuts in 2015 (Month9Books). She lives in Pennsylvania with her family in an old farmhouse that has lots of writing nooks, fireplaces, and stink bugs but sadly no ghosts.

Visit her at:
www.donnagalanti.com
Twitter
Facebook
Goodreads

Posted in Agents, rejection | 53 Comments

Character Skills and Talents: Survival Skills

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

shelterDescription: It takes skill, intuition and knowledge to be able to survive in less-than-ideal circumstances with few resources. When disaster happens, often there is no warning and little time to prepare, so understanding how to use what is available to provide necessities like food, water and shelter is very important. People skilled in survival can obtain fresh water, forage for food, build a shelter and defend themselves until help arrives. The willingness to protect oneself (be it flight or fight) is a necessity.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: Survival is about putting emotion in the backseat so one can think clearly and prioritize what is most important. Being able to read a map, hunt and set traps, start a fire without matches, wield a knife, and build a shelter are all valuable skills. As well, knowing how to find water and filter it in both urban situations and in nature is a must-have skill. Another asset would be a working knowledge of local flora and fauna and how it can be used (food, medicine, protection). Tracking, scouting and the ability to identify potential threats in advance will also greatly improve one’s chances in a survival situation. Being physically strong and healthy, with good endurance, is also important.

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: observant, adaptable, intelligent, skeptical, inventive, strategic, rational, intrepid, patient and alert

Required Resources and Training: Some form of combat and weapons training can be beneficial, both to gain knowledge of attack and defense and for strategic thinking and self-discipline. Survival situations require rational, calm thinking, which can only be achieved through learning self-control. Exposure to the outdoors, be it through survival camps, scouts, guided excursions, camping, hunting and fishing or having a mentor who knows the outdoors will help a person learn how to live without the myriad of modern resources we take for grated each day. TV “survival preppers” shows, websites, and online videos are an education in itself, providing tips and tricks on using natural and common materials to survive.

Scenarios Where this Skill Might be Useful:

  • Governmental breakdowns or war
  • an apocalypse type situation (caused by a natural disaster, nuclear fallout, aliens, zombies, killer unicorns, you name it)
  • if one is lost in the woods
  • a car breaking down miles from any sort of help
  • if one must flee one’s home and stay off the grid

Resources for Further Information:

14 Steps To Surviving in the Woods

3 Ways To Make A Water Filter

Survival 101

9 Ways To Star A Fire Without Matches

Survive The Apocalypse Site

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

photo credit: Martin Staviar via photopin cc

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Hurting Animals (In Fiction!)

Before we get to today’s very intriguing post…Angela and I need to let everyone know that we’re in the process of uploading new files of The Emotion Thesaurus to the various stores that sell it. No content is being changed; we’re just adding our new website address and information on our newest books. If you’re trying to buy The Emotion Thesaurus and it’s unavailable at the distributor of your choice, please know that this is temporary, and the new file should be available within 24-48 hours. If you simply can’t wait, you also have the option of buying from a different site (we’ll be staggering uploads so only one distributor is unavailable at a time). See our bookstore for a complete list of distributors. And now, on to the interesting stuff.

Marian Perera is here today to talk about a topic that I’ve never seen before on a writing blog. You’re probably cringing already, just reading the title. What if your story does call for an animal being harmed at some point? How do you handle it? Is it worth the possible backlash? Talk amongst yourselves…

Warning up front. If you hurt a cute animal or a pet in your book, no matter what the reason, there’s a small subset of readers who will hate the book, never read anything else you write, and maybe hate you too.

I know this because, inspired by a cat going overboard in my third manuscript, I started a thread on a forum to discuss the topic. There was a reason for the cat’s fate and there were no details at all, gory or otherwise. The cat simply went overboard and was never seen again.

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I’ve gotta get off this boat.

Some readers made it clear this was an absolute no-no for them. One said that if he read a book that featured an animal, he went to the end to check if the animal was alive and safe. If the animal didn’t appear, the book was dropped. Another reader said that if the hero rode a horse into battle, she would want the hero to die for endangering the horse. “Boycott the author” and “blacklist” featured in a few of the replies.

It reminded me of a certain novel where the heroine survives a shipwreck. After she washes up on an island, she finds the ship’s cat clinging to some wreckage and climbing ashore. The cat makes occasional appearances throughout the book, doing nothing other than giving her a purry pet to cuddle. It makes me wonder if the author wanted a cute animal in the story but either couldn’t bear to let it go down with the crew or was worried about potential backlash if the cat didn’t reappear, completely unharmed.

I’m not in favor of gratuitous cruelty to animals, but I’m not keen on cute animals wearing a mantle of authorial protection either. If the protagonist’s family is burned alive in their house in an act of revenge but her fuzzy kitten escapes without scorching a paw, the author’s preferences will be only too clear. Though if Fluffy dies too, the heroine mourning her children and her pet in the same breath might be unrealistic (yes, I’ve seen that happen).

It also matters why the animal is harmed. If your villain tortures a puppy to show us how evil he is, that’s likely to come off as gratuitous. If your villain, during a home invasion, shoots a trained guard dog, that still hurts and some readers will still hate you, but at least it won’t seem as though you’re just going for the shock factor. In some stories, endangering an animal is unavoidable. If you’re writing an epic fantasy where the heroes go to battle à la the Ride of the Rohirrim, only they walk so their horses won’t be hurt… well, I won’t buy this. Literally.


Genre definitely plays a role; readers of horror or suspense might be more prepared for this kind of thing. Stephen King’s novels are great examples, and in one of Dean Koontz’s books, the lovable dog doesn’t survive to the end. The time period should be taken into consideration, too. My novel takes place in the early days of the Age of Steam; if my characters had too much of a modern, Western perspective on animal welfare, that would be unrealistic. I mention whaling in my novels without condemning the practice because during this time, when the characters are fighting a war, marine conservation is going to be the last thing on their minds, even though this is very important to me.


Overall, I’m in favor of being true to the story no matter what. My novel The Deepest Ocean could not have been written without a shark fighting a killer whale and both being injured, though few readers get upset over what happens to sharks. Which is sad, because these are beautiful apex predators…but that’s a digression for another day.

Either way, it’s good to know what will be a deal breaker to some of your readers, and I’m glad I was warned beforehand. Though interestingly, my editor didn’t ask for the cat detail to be changed.

I’d love to hear from more readers on this topic. What are your experiences or thoughts on animals being hurt in fiction?

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Bio : Marian Perera was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in the United Arab Emirates, studied in the United States, and lives in Canada. For now. Her sharkpunk romance The Deepest Ocean was recently released by Samhain Publishing, and two sequels have been signed. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, her blog and Twitter (@MDPerera).

*Cat photo courtesy of Alan @ Creative Commons*

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What Killed it For Me #5: Weak Writing

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Courtesy of Jem Yoshioka @ Creative Commons

Today I want to talk about one of the most common reasons I stop reading: weak writing. I’ve been putting this one off because 1) it’s highly subjective, and 2) it’s not a simple fix.

By definition, weak writing is writing that weakens the story or narrative—annoying things that jump out at me and pull me out of the story. For me, weak writing includes things like

  • too much telling
  • repeated words and sentence structures
  • reliance on dialogue to convey information to the reader
  • characters using each others names repeatedly when talking to each other (Angela, where’s the bacon? I told you, Becca, I ate it all. Why do you have to be so selfish, Angela? Because you’re a piggy pie, Becca.)
  • wordy writing
  • superfluous adverbs (he said angrily, she walked quickly from the room)
  • play-by-play; describing character movements that should be inferred (picking things up, crossing rooms, standing and sitting, etc.)

These are some of the things that drive me absolutely bonkers when I’m reading. No doubt, your list of offenders will look different from mine, but weak writing—particularly in the beginning of a book—is a major problem for me. Authors put so much emphasis on a story’s opening; if I pick up a book and have to slog through the first chapter or two, I can only guess that the rest of the book is going to be just as bad, and there are simply too many well-written books out there for me to waste my time trudging through a poorly written story.

So how do we overcome such a vague and nebulous problem?

Read. Read a lot. I know this can be hard for some of us because reading takes time and time is something that we don’t have. But, imho, if you want to become a better writer and overcome weak habits, this one is kind of a deal-breaker. Chefs eat other chef’s foods. Musicians listen to other people’s music. Some of this is for enjoyment, but it’s also for inspiration and education—to see what other artists are doing and how they’re doing it. Reading, on a conscious and a sub-conscious level, introduces us to new and better writing techniques. If you want to write but you don’t have time to read, make that a priority.

Learn. Some writers might be lucky enough to learn great writing through osmosis. I don’t happen to know any of those people. The vast majority of us have to educate ourselves on what weak writing consists of and how to purge it from our stories. Attending conferences is one way to do this. If you’re uncomfortable with attending a physical event or you don’t have the money or time to do so, consider an online conference like WANACon or IndieRecon; they offer great flexibility of schedule and content. Another way to educate yourself is to read nonfiction books that focus on overcoming weak writing. The First Five Pages (Lukeman) was a huge help to me when I first started writing, and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King) is one that I still refer to.

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Courtesy of James Mitchell @ Creative Commons

Critique. When new writers ask me for tips on how to become a better writer, my first bit of advice is always to get into a critique group. We’re so close to our writing that we often can’t see what’s wrong with it. It often takes someone else to point out the weak areas that need work. Letting other people read your work is PIVOTAL to growing as a writer, but I would argue that critiquing someone else’s work can be just as important. Using a critical eye to review a piece of writing helps us to recognize what works and what doesn’t. It helps us to see new techniques that we may never have considered before. It’s also a great confidence booster; recognizing the good and the bad in someone else’s work helps us see that we’re growing as writers. It’s rewarding to know that we’re able to positively contribute to someone else’s journey.

Write. You’ve probably heard it said that it takes a million words to become a master writer. Now, before you get out the pitchforks, I know that “a million” is a nice round arbitrary number that can’t be applied to all people; some people will need less and some will need more. But the principle is true: becoming good at anything takes practice. You can read all the craft books, attend every conference, and become Stephen King’s crit partner, but if you don’t practice the lessons you’ve learned, you’ll never master them. If you choose to own just one piece of advice from this post, own this one. Write. A lot. As much as you possibly can. It’s only through writing that you’ll start to recognize weak writing and learn to replace it with strong technique.

So…you’ve heard my rant about weak writing. What constitutes “weak” to you? And what craft books do you recommend that can help us overcome weak writing?

Also, I’m at Susan Quinn’s blog today sharing some of my favorite Indie resources. Susan is not only a prolific writer of awesome books, she’s wicked smart and very generous with her information. If you haven’t checked out her blog, get thee hence!

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Talents and Skills Thesaurus Entry: Mechanically Minded

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

MECHANICALLY MINDED

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Description: Mechanically minded people are able to intuitively see how things work. Good with tools and machinery, they’re adept at fixing things and are often able to take unfamiliar items apart and put them back together again so they work as well as or better than they originally did.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: dexterity, being able to think non-linearly (seeing pieces of a set and identifying what’s missing; working backwards, from the end point to the starting point, rather than the other way around)

Character Traits Suited For This Skill Or Talent: patience, being observant, being somewhat visionary in nature (able to look at pieces and see the whole picture), resourceful

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions: mechanics, inventors, geeky computer types, men

Scenarios Where This Skill Might Be Useful: in a dystopian society where broken items must be reused and repurposed rather than replaced; when a wealthy family wants to retain a handy person to do odd jobs around the property; a scenario in which something of great importance needs fixing; when someone’s car/air conditioner/refrigerator breaks and they can’t afford to buy a new one

Resources for Further Information:

The Handyman Club (info on DIY projects, including a list of helpful blogs)

Jobs for The Mechanically Minded

Just for fun: Take the How Mechanically Inclined Are You? Quiz

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

Photo: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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What Killed It For Me #4: Clichéd Characters

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Courtesy of Tom Newby @ Creative Commons

It’s hard to come up with characters who are believable yet don’t sound like every other character out there. It’s especially easy to fall into this trap with certain archetypes, like witty sidekicks or wise old mentors. Unfortunately, a recent book that I started had a whole cast of clichés: the jaded, super-sarcastic teen girl hero; the loving but confused single parent; a villain in the form of a Queen Bee Mean Girl. As for the love interest and sidekick…I didn’t stick around long enough to meet them.

But even one clichéd character may be too much; you don’t want to give readers a reason to lose interest or roll their eyes when they’re introduced to a character they’ve seen a dozen times. Character creation is one of our passions at Writers Helping Writers, thanks to the research and practice we put in while writing our negative trait and positive trait thesaurus books. Here are some tips we’ve learned on how to write believable and interesting characters without repeating the stereotypes:

Explore the character’s backstory to discover her wounds. It’s easy to throw together a bunch of attributes and flaws when creating characters. But traits develop organically out a combination of factors: upbringing, environment, basic needs, morals, past wounds, personal values, etc. It is this unique combination of elements that results in a truly unique character. To avoid recreating a character who already exists, delve deeply into her backstory. Doing so will give you the information you need to figure out exactly who she is today.

Once you’ve explored the character’s backstory, use that information to choose a combination a flaws and attributes that make sense, but are unique. For example, it makes sense for a character who was once the victim of a home invasion to be over-protective and paranoid. For me, the mention of those flaws instantly brings to mind an image—a stereotype that I’ve seen a million times. Paranoia is a logical result of this kind of traumatizing experience, but what if you combined it with other flaws or attributes to turn the stereotype on its ear? Maybe your character was raised in a very proper household where any kind of emotional extreme was taboo. So now you’ve got a genteel, mannerly character who’s scared of her own shadow—but has to hide her fears out of a desire to maintain the right image.

Creating unique characters is really just a matter of digging into their history and coming up with traits that make sense for them. For help in this area, we created a number of related resources on our Tools for Writers page, including the Reverse Backstory Tool, the Attribute Target Tool, and the Character Pyramid Tool.

Explore the positive side of negative traits, and vice versa. Clichéd characters are seen as clichés because they’re easy to read. They’re cardboard. One-dimensional. Which is ironic because character traits are anything but.

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Courtesy of Adg’s Screen Caps @ Creative Commons

Look at John Bender, from the movie The Breakfast Club. He’s hostile, and embodies many of the expected negative associations that go with that trait: he’s volatile, verbally abusive, and has trouble connecting with others. But hostility also has some positive aspects that John exhibits. He’s fearless and uninhibited, often saying what other people are too timid to say themselves. The positive sides of this flaw make him more than just an angry character. They make him interesting and somewhat endearing because people value fearlessness and admire those who speak their minds. We want to evoke those endearing feelings in our readers, so make sure to explore both sides of your character’s defining traits and you’re sure to come up with someone unique and compelling.

Don’t forget the quirks and idiosyncrasies. Certain character types—like adventure heroes and detectives—easily fall into stereotypes. If you want your hero to be different, give him something interesting that will make him stand out from the crowd. Indiana Jones? Afraid of snakes. Captain Jack Sparrow is a cowardly pirate. And for those of you who remember Kojak, what comes to mind when you hear that name? Bald guys and lollipops, right? Mission accomplished.

A word of caution regarding quirks, though: if they’re thrown in off-handedly, they can feel clumsy and contrived. Find something that makes sense for your character based on his backstory and personality and you’ll have something that is believable rather than gimmicky.

Add an inner goal. Another reason detectives and adventurers tend to resemble each other is because they all have the same goal: to find the treasure or solve the case. But what if your character also has an internal goal—something he needs to overcome or wants to achieve that will result in personal growth?

In The Bone Collector, Lincoln Rhyme is an ex-forensics specialist on the trail of a serial killer in New York City. This is his outer goal: to find the killer. Just like any other detective story, eh? Except that Lincoln Rhyme is a paraplegic. That’s enough to make him interesting, but there’s more: it’s made clear from the beginning of the story that the thing Rhyme wants more than anything is to die. He’s made plans for his “final transition” and is seemingly at peace with it because he thinks this will make him more happy and fulfilled. 

By adding an internal goal, Deaver adds a dimension to his main character that makes him different from other detectives. Keep this in mind for your own heroes. For more information internal goals and motivations, check out Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell.

Character creation is tricky, but with a little extra backstory digging and these tips, there’s no limit to the number of unique and resonant characters that we can create. Happy writing!

 

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Talents and Skills Entry: Archery

As writers, we want to make our characters as unique and interesting as possible. One way to do this is to give your character a special skill or talent that sets him apart from other people. This might be something small, like having a green thumb or being good with animals, to a larger and more competitive talent like stock car racing or being an award-winning film producer. 

When choosing a talent or skill, think about the personality of your character, his range of experiences and who his role models might have been. Some talents might be genetically imparted while others are created through exposure (such as a character talented at fixing watches from growing up in his father’s watch shop) or grow out of interest (archery, wakeboarding, or magic). Don’t be afraid to be creative and make sure the skill or talent is something that works with the scope of the story. 

archeryDescription: the ability to hit a target at long range using a bow and arrow. Some archers work solely with stationary targets, while others practice on both stationary and moving objects. Archers may hone their skills for sport and enter competitions, hunt game to provide for themselves, their family or tribe or even as a form of self defense in dire circumstances. In some cultures as well as in fiction, archery is a prized skill in battle.

Beneficial Strengths or Abilities: concentration, strength, strong eyesight, flexibility, being a skilled tracker, having knowledge of animal anatomy (if hunting for food) or human anatomy & armor stability (in battle)

Character Traits Suited for this Skill or Talent: focus, perfectionism, self-controlled, studious, disciplined, patience, resourceful, observant, tenacious

Required Resources and Training: contemporary archers can practice at indoor ranges or outdoor (either stationary and 3D) ranges, as well as one’s own property with either a natural barrier (such as hillside) or man-made barrier (foam blocks, special nets  or hay bales) to catch any stray arrows. Understanding how to stand, aim, brace one’s arm and grip just firm enough to have a stead shot yet avoid torcing the bow are common lessons, but to become truly skilled, an archer must put hundreds of hours into study and practice. A mentor or teacher will speed up the learning curve. Archers should know their equipment and how to maintain it, and utilize arm guards and chest guards to ensure clothing does not get in the way and protect the body from injury.

Associated Stereotypes and Perceptions:

  • That archers are loners who prefer nature to people
  • That archers are reckless (shooting close enough to scare someone, but not wound used as a plot device to show incredible skill and/or a bad temper)

Resources for Further Information:

Basic Archery Techniques

Archery For Writers: A Primer

Arrow Wounds & Treatment on the Western Frontier

A Writer’s Guide to Bows (part 1, 2, 3 & 4)

Also, YA Author Christina Farley has a kick butt heroine who is a archery master, so if you like, snag a copy of Gilded to see how this skill plays out in fiction!

GildedSixteen-year-old Jae Hwa Lee is a Korean-American girl with a black belt, a deadly proclivity with steel-tipped arrows, and a chip on her shoulder the size of Korea itself.

When her widowed dad uproots her to Seoul from her home in L.A., Jae thinks her biggest challenges will be fitting in to a new school and dealing with her dismissive Korean grandfather. Then she discovers that a Korean demi-god has been stealing the soul of the oldest daughter of each generation in her family for centuries. And she’s next.

You can brainstorm other possible Skills and Talents your characters might have by checking out our FULL LIST of this Thesaurus Collection. And for more descriptive help for Setting, Symbolism, Character Traits, Physical Attributes, Emotions, Weather and more, check out our Thesaurus Collections page.

photo credit: eyedea via photopin cc

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