Empathy, Emotional Resonance, and Fear

Emotion is at the heart of what makes fiction connect with a reader. People read for various reasons, but feeling suspense, or romantic love,  or a sense of wonder, or the suspicion arising from a mysterious crime, etc., and sometimes several of these at the same time, is a big part of what keeps a reader turning pages. Wanting to experience those feelings vicariously with the characters, and at the same time, experiencing the tension when those feelings are withheld or jeopardized by conflict.

In today’s Words of Wisdom excerpts, Joe Moore looks at how to create empathy so your reader will become attached to those characters, Clare Langley-Hawthorne discusses the importance of proving emotional resonance for the reader with your characters, and Laura Benedict considers the connection readers have to us via our fears.

All the posts are worth reading in full, and are linked from the date at the bottom of each excerpt.

So if empathy is the key to your reader becoming attached to your characters, what is a proven method for creating emotions?

Let’s say you want your character to be afraid—to experience fear. You could always just tell the reader that he or she is scared. That would mean little or nothing because not only is it telling, it paints an unclear picture in the mind of the reader. Scared could mean a 100 different things to a 100 different people. Now ask yourself what it felt like when you’ve experienced fear. Perhaps you were in a parking garage late at night. The sound of your high heels seemed as loud as hammer strikes. The shadows were darker than you remembered. You could see your car but it appeared miles away. Then you hear someone cough. But there’s no one around. You pick up the pace. Your heels become gunshots. You shift your gaze like a gazelle that sensed a stalking big cat as you hug your purse to your chest. Your pulse quickens. Breathing becomes shallow and frantic. Palms sweat cold. Legs shake. You press your key fob and your car’s lights flash but your vision blurs. You hear a strange cry escape your throat—a sound you’ve never made before. Your car is only yards away but you don’t feel like you’re getting closer. Were those your footfalls echoing off concrete walls or were they coming from the shadows? You reach for the door handle, your hand shaking, fear gripping you like a cloak of ice.

Here’s my point. It may not have been in a dark parking garage late at night but we’ve all felt it. Paralyzing, heart-stopping fear. In your story, you need to have your character feel the same. Describe it so that your reader will empathize. So that their hands will shake and their chest will tighten. Make them sweat, even if it’s only in their imagination. Approach every emotion your characters feel in the same manner. Use your life experience. How did you feel the first time you felt love, hate, jealousy, rejection. If you are honest in expressing true emotions through your characters, your reader will have empathy for them, and very possibly come to list them as their all-time favorite.

Joe Moore—August 3, 2016

Almost every book I’ve failed to finish or which has left me disappointed, has failed because I haven’t been able to care enough about the characters. Even in books where the plot has become thin or events have stretched credulity, emotionally deep and resonant characters have kept me reading.

In some ways, the process of providing emotional resonance mirrors the way a writer describes a character because it focuses on the feelings the character inspires in a reader. Those feelings don’t have to always be warm and fluffy, but they do need to strike a chord with a reader. The most powerful characters stay with a reader long after the book is finished.

All too often at writing classes or conferences the pieces that I’ve read or critiqued have had one major failing – the characters themselves. They are often flat on the page, cliched or simply do not ring true. So how do you create emotionally complex, relatable and ultimately resonant characters? Maybe the best starting point is to identify what not to do and work up from there.

Many new writers may feel the urge to create a quirky, one-of-a-kind character or perhaps they hope to create characters similar to those that have proven most popular in their genre (here’s where the recovering alcoholic, down at heel PI often comes into play). In either case, a writer should beware of using standard character tropes and cliches as well as going too far the other way by creating the most ‘out there’ character who sounds nothing like anyone a reader would ever meet in real life. if a character is nothing more that a series of quirks or tics then a reader is going to be just as dissatisfied as if the character is little more than a carbon copy of the stock-standard genre character. The key is (I think) to get into the head and emotions of a character in a way that displays the writer’s own unique perspective. In some ways, perhaps you have to place a little of yourself in each character (maybe not in a literal sense but certainly in an emotional sense).

Striking a chord in readers can be tricky as each reader also brings their own perspective, background, and emotions to the books they are reading. One character’s actions may pack an emotional punch for some readers and yet leave others cold. I find, for example, that parents in books often pack a huge emotional whallop for me, especially in books like Wonder or The Fault in our Stars. If I’d read these books when I was younger, I suspect different characters would have evoked a very different kind of emotional reaction. Yet there are some universal truths out there and characters that evoke strong emotions will go on to have wider resonance.

It’s hard to provide any kind of definitive ‘tip list’ for creating this kind of emotional resonance, simply because it is an illusive target (we only know it when we feel in the gut) but I think some of the elements include:

  • Going deep within a character’s psyche to understand their motivations;
  • Drawing upon your own past experiences and interactions to add depth;
  • Using action as well as interaction to draw out a character rather than description alone (this helps readers experience a character rather than just reading about them in a static sense);
  • Finding the humanity within all the characters (even your villains);
  • Exploring the inhumanity within all your characters (we all have weaknesses and foibles, prejudices and flaws that make us who we are – even if we’re not proud of them);
  • Looking for the universality of experience that strikes a chord in you the writer as you describe your characters and take them on their unique journey through your book;
  • Avoiding thinking or describing characters in terms of what they should be but rather what they are – try to step back from relying on conventions or mimicking other writer’s characters and remember no one is superhuman or a psychopath in their own mind.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—August 15, 2016

When we write about things that frighten us, chances are there will be lots of readers who share our fears. We can exploit (terrible word, but I mean it in the nicest way) those fears and redeem ourselves through characters that may suffer for a while, but journey to overcome their fears or terrifying situations.

As humans we all have fears. They don’t have to be big, bloody fears, or deeply felt emotional fears to propel or inspire a story. They can be as small as a spider or as microscopic as damaged chromosomes. Resonance is the important thing.

Here’s a list of fears that immediately spark stories of all sorts for me:

Fear of death.

Fear of being submerged in water.

Fear of my embarrassing secrets being revealed in public.

Fear of losing a child.

Fear of being blackmailed.

Fear of being taken advantage of.

Fear of success.

Fear of being a failure.

Fear of a bug crawling in one’s ear or nose.

Fear of being watched in a lighted house from the darkness outside.

Fear of being pulled over by a fake cop on a lonesome road.

Fear of being mistaken for a criminal.

Fear of home invasion.

Fear of the apocalypse.

Fear of snakes in the house.

Fear of roaming packs of dogs.

Fear of being watched through a computer’s camera.

Fear of being kidnapped.

Fear of a child being hurt or being killed by one’s carelessness.

Fear of being judged and found wanting.

Fear of being too happy, because it can’t last.

Fear of one’s eye(s) being gouged out.

Fear of the supernatural.

Fear of random violence.

Fear of cancer.

Fear of loving too much.

Fear of poverty.

Fear of seeing open, bleeding wounds.

Fear of corpses.

Fear of being wrong.

Fear of betrayal.

Fear of snarky groups of teenage girls.

Fear of being vulnerable.

Fear of losing a lover.

Fear of losing a friendship.

As you can see from the list, many of these fears are close to being universal for humans. Readers always want to discover things in stories that they can identify with. It’s all about the resonance, and not so much about the shock value.

Laura Benedict—January 24, 2018

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Now it’s your turn to weigh in about creating and connecting emotions with your readers.

  1. Have you drawn directly on your life experience to help create emotion? Any tips on drawing on your life?
  2. How important is forging emotional resonance with your characters to you? As a reader, how important is it to experience?
  3. What fears spark or drive stories for you? Any that weren’t listed above?

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You can join my reader group and receive a brand-new Meg Booker prequel novella.

Newly-hired librarian Meg Booker expects the extra two hours the library is open to be a piece of cake. Instead, she finds herself confronted by a mystery involving cookies.

December, 1984. Fir Grove Library, Portland, Oregon: Feathered hair. Cowled sweaters. Instant cameras. Meg has volunteered to work late at the branch during the Christmas festival. Families throng the library, looking to find items for the community treasure hunt. All goes well until odd behavior by a few patrons raises her curiosity. When cookies go missing, Meg realizes she’s stumbled into a mystery and decides she must solve it, even if it means joining the community treasure hunt and racing to the finish.

Farewell, My Cookie is a prequel novella to the Meg Booker Librarian Mysteries—a cozy library mystery series set in the 1980s.

Reviewed Words of Wisdom

I made my first sales as a flash fiction writer in 2009-11. A number of my stories appeared at Every Day Fiction, and that magazine provided my first experience in having my fiction reviewed. Readers could give a story a star rating, as well as comment on it, and sometimes those comments ended up being micro-reviews. Since then, like other published authors, my books have varying numbers of online reviews at the various online book stores and at Goodreads. Each author ends up having to decide how to deal with reviews of their books—ignore, read only the good ones, read all of them, and what, if anything, to take away from those reviews.

Today’s Words of Wisdom provides three insightful takes on reviews. Joe Moore lays out the three types of reviews, Laura Benedict reasons for motivations for reading your reviews, and Clare Langley-Hawthorne shares a useful way to categorize your reviews. Each excerpt is date-linked to the original post, and all are worth reading in their entirety.

No book has ever been declared great by everyone who read it. There will always be those who dislike a book for more reasons that we can count. As a matter of fact, it never ceases to amaze me the vast span of reactions to books including my own and those of my friends. Pick any bestseller and you’ll find someone who loves it and someone else who doesn’t. And often both are willing to say so, in the strongest of terms. There are more than enough good, bad and ugly reviews to go around.

So I thought that instead of talking about online reviews, I’d share some of mine with you. I’ve listed 5 of my thrillers (all co-written with Lynn Sholes) and a sample of the good, the bad and the ugly online reviews we’ve received over the years.

Disclaimer: I have no idea who wrote and posted these nor have I ever paid for a review. These samples were gathered from Amazon and Goodreads.

THE PHOENIX APOSTLES

The Good: “I’ll read anything these two authors write. I have to be careful not to put a spoiler in this review, but there is one scene that knocked me off the sofa. I don’t often squeal during a movie scene when the bad guy comes out from around the dark corner, but there was a scene in this book that made me jump and I almost flung the book across the room. I won’t tell which one it was because I don’t want to ruin it for any other reader.”

The Bad: “I just couldn’t figure out if this book was for “young adult” reading or “teen reading” or adults or Christian reading or even anti-religion.”

The Ugly: “The writing is deplorable, the style so bland I had to read a page twice to make sure it was indeed that bad!”

THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY

The Good: “What I want to know is when is this going to come out as a movie? It has to be one of the most exciting thrillers I have ever read. I was hooked from the first page on when Cotten Stone (the main character) stumbles onto the dig site of the Crusader’s tomb.”

The Bad: “This started with interesting characters and action, but the quality of writing was fair and the story went downhill. Would not recommend even as a beach book.”

The Ugly: “The book was simply boring and poorly written. The characters had no depth. The plot took forever to go anywhere.”

THE LAST SECRET

The Good: “This was one of those books you cannot put down. Basically I was on the edge of my seat so to speak whilst reading it. Exciting, mysterious. Well written, keeps you guessing. Loved it… Would recommend as great reading!”

The Bad: “It takes more than an exotic location and some perceived struggle between good and evil to make a good story.”

The Ugly: “Religious hype … I was totally disappointed.”

Joe Moore—September 5, 2012

Whenever I’m tempted to read reviews of my work, I keep in mind what my very first writing teacher told me: “You don’t get to look over your reader’s shoulder and explain your work. It is what it is.” That’s it. It’s out on paper or online (or shared with your workshop or writing group or significant other) and it must stand on its own. Sometimes it’s going to wobble, and sometimes someone is going to point out where you screwed up. That’s the way of sending work out into the world. The sending out has to be its own reward because there are no guarantees once it’s done.

If you’re not one of the stalwart writers who can confidently take anything a reviewer throws at you, pause a moment before you sit down to read your reviews at Goodreads or Amazon or anywhere else and ask yourself a few questions:

Am I looking for approbation? If so, then go ask your mom or spouse or bff what they think of your work, because while you might find some solace in reviews, you’re going to find a lot of other things that are nothing like approbation.

Am I being tempted to look at reviews by my overbearing inner critic? This is your own resistance trying to keep you from your work. Your inner critic will skim over all the nice things it reads and zero in on the negative comments. These are the ones that will stay with you when you sit down to write.

Am I willing to give equal weight to both the negative and positive reviews? This is related to the inner critic question. If you believe all the bad stuff, then you might as well believe all the good stuff, too. And vice versa.

Is there critical information that will help me become a better writer? This is a tricky one. Sure, there may be some clues in there, but if your goal truly is to become a better writer, then find a good editor and pay them to tell you what needs to change. Good editors rarely spend their time giving away their advice for free in reviews.

If I read my reviews, am I likely to be motivated to put my backside in the chair and write my thousand words today when I’m done? For me, this answer is always a resounding no. Your experience may be different. If someone writes to me and tells me how much they like my work, I sail away to my keyboard on Cloud Nine, but I’ve never felt that way after reading a review. And reading negative reviews can knock me off my schedule for days. Sometimes weeks.

My relationship with reviews has evolved significantly over the past decade. At the beginning I approached even Amazon reviews with reverence and fear. My attitude was funny given that I reviewed for a newspaper for ten years. I knew how subjective reviews were. Much depends on the reviewer’s workload, tastes, and expectations. But I couldn’t get past the kid waving the potholder for several years. I wanted everyone to love my work! And if they didn’t, I spent a lot of time worrying that there was something wrong with it.

I can’t pinpoint when I changed. Somewhere along the line I stopped having expectations of the people who—often very kindly—bothered to take the time to write down what they liked, or didn’t like, about my work. I turned my concentration to my characters, making them more human, even occasionally sympathetic. That was what I could control. Now, months can go by and I don’t even know about new reviews that have gone up.

Laura Benedict—August 10, 2016

An article in the New York Times last week got me thinking (again) about reviews (hey, I bet most authors have a small part of their brain devoted to the ever-present background angst about past or future reviews/criticism of their work). The article (which you can find clicking on this link) is an interview with the author Curtis Sittenfield on the thorny issue of how professional authors handle criticism.

Now we’ve all heard of the unfortunate instances where authors have directly responded to negative reviews or criticism – usually through an ill-advised rant on twitter or a hot-headed response on Goodreads or Amazon. If you’ve forgotten or unsure of what some authors have stooped to doing, I recommend reading some of The Guardian’s book blog posts on the matter (see: how not to handle reviewshow not to respond to a bad review for example).

Curtis Sittenfield provides a useful quadrant tool that many authors could use. Basically she divides up reviews into four quadrants: smart and positive (definitely read!); smart and negative (still read); dumb and positive (read for the ego’s sake); and dumb and negative (do not read!). Many authors get into the greatest hot-water when they allow themselves to get embroiled in a debate over what they consider to be ‘dumb and negative’ reviews. Now, maybe it’s too hard to resist the temptation to read these kind of reviews but it’s up to every professional author worth their salt to resist the temptation to respond to them. You just can’t take it all so personally (being a professional writer means recognizing this is a business after all). As Curtis Sittenfield notes: ” I literally don’t think I’ve ever read a letter from a writer complaining about his or her negative review that made the writer look good. You’re better off just biting your tongue.”

Too true!

But, as Curtis goes on to point out, there are many instances in which harsh criticism can identify a real weakness in a book or an author’s approach to their material that, while humiliating, can all be part of the process of learning to be a better writer. Even in these instances though, the best response from a writer is no response at all. For Curtis, her nightmare reviewer is one who has an agenda that precludes them from responding sincerely to the book – and I think this is (again) where many authors come unstuck. There’s a lot of mean people on the internet who have their own agenda when it comes to reviewing a book or adding comments on a thread regarding someone’s work. Sometimes they are angry and bitter, sometimes they may be jealous, sometimes they want to indulge in a personal attack just for the hell of it (some are just plain trolls after all). But there can be nothing gained from responding to a scathing comment or a harsh review regardless of the reviewer’s real (or imagined) motive. Anyone who’s been on Facebook or other social media recently can attest to the fact that you are never going to change someone’s mind through an ill-advised post, comment or flamewar!

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—August 29, 2016

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There you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly of reviews; reading reviews; handling reviews.

  1. How do you categorize reviews?
  2. Do you ever read your reviews? If so, do you read all of them? Do you have someone else screen your reviews and only share certain ones with you?
  3. Do you learn anything from reading your reviews?

Thriller Words of Wisdom

In the spirit of today’s Words of Wisdom, we’re cutting to the chase to talk about thrillers: defining them, the qualities of a thriller hero, and a few truly classic examples. The full posts for each excerpt are well-worth reading, and are linked via the listed dates.

First, let’s define a thriller and how it differs from a mystery?

Although thrillers are usually considered a sub-genre of mysteries, I believe there are some interesting differences. I look at a thriller as being a mystery in reverse. By that I mean that the typical murder mystery usually starts with the discovery of a crime. The rest of the book is an attempt to figure out who committed the crime.

I see a thriller as being just the opposite; the book often begins with a threat of some kind, and the rest of the story is trying to figure out how to prevent it from happening. And unlike the typical mystery where the antagonist may not be known until the end, with a thriller we pretty much know who the bad guy is right from the get-go.

So with that basic distinction in mind, let’s list a few of the most common elements found in thrillers.

  1. The Ticking Clock. Without the ticking clock such as the doomsday deadline, suspense would be hard if not impossible to create. Even with a thriller like HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER which dealt with slow-moving submarines, Tom Clancy built in the ticking clock of the Soviets trying to find and destroy the Red October before it could make it to the safety of U.S. waters. He masterfully created tension and suspense with an ever-looming ticking clock.
  2. High Concept. In Hollywood, the term high concept is the ability to describe a script in one or two sentences usually by comparing it to two previously known motion pictures. For instance, let’s say I’ve got a great idea for a movie. It’s a wacky, zany look at the lighter side of Middle Earth, sort of a ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST meets LORD OF THE RINGS. If you’ve seen both of those movies, you’ll get an immediate visual idea of what my movie is about. High concept Hollywood style.

But with thrillers, high concept is a bit different. A book with a high concept theme is one that contains a radical or somewhat outlandish premise. For example, what if Jesus actually married, had children, and his bloodline survived down to present day? And what if the Church knew it and kept it a secret? You can’t get more outlandish than the high concept of THE DA VINCI CODE.

What if a great white shark took on a maniacal persona and seemed to systematically terrorized a small New England resort island? That’s the outlandish concept of Benchley’s thriller JAWS.

What if someone managed to clone dinosaurs from the DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes and built a theme park that went terribly wrong? You get the idea.

  1. High Stakes. Unlike the typical murder mystery, the stakes in a thriller are usually very high. Using Dan Brown’s example again, if the premise were proven to be true, it would undermine the very foundation of Christianity and shake the belief system of over a billion faithful. Those are high stakes by anyone’s standards.
  2. Larger-Than-Life Characters. In most mysteries, the protagonist may play a huge role in the story, but that doesn’t make them larger than life. By contrast, Dirk Pitt, Jason Bourne, Jack Ryan, Jack Bauer, James Bond, Laura Craft, Indiana Jones, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and one that’s closest to my heart, Cotten Stone, are all larger-than-life characters in their respective worlds.

Joe Moore—June 29, 2011

 

I’ve come up with this list of desired qualities for the hero or heroine of a page-turning suspenseful mystery, romantic suspense, or thriller novel.

Heroes and heroines of bestselling thrillers need most of these attributes:

~ Clever. They need to be smart enough to figure out the clues and outsmart the villain. Readers don’t want to feel they’re smarter than the lead character. They don’t want to say, “Oh, come on! Figure it out!”

~ Resourceful. Think MacGyver, Katniss of The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Jason Bourne, or Dr. Richard Kimble of The Fugitive. The hero needs to be able to use ingenuity and whatever’s at his disposal to get out of any jams he finds himself in and also to find and defeat the bad guy(s).

~ Experienced. They’ve done things and been places. They’ve had a variety of tough life experiences that have helped them grow. They’ve “lived” and are stronger and more resilient for it. They’re definitely not naïve.

~ Determined. Your hero or heroine needs to be tenacious and resilient. They keep going. They don’t cave under pressure or adversity. They have a goal and stick to it, despite personal discomforts like fatigue, hunger, injuries, and threats.

~ Courageous. Bravery is essential, as readers want to look up to him/her. Any heroes who are tentative or fearful early on should soon find courage they didn’t know they had. The challenges and dangers they face force them to be stronger, creating growth and an interesting character arc for them.

~ Physically fit. Your heroine or hero needs to be up to the physical challenges facing her/him. It’s more believable if they jog or work out regularly, like Joe Pike running uphill carrying a 40-pound backpack. Don’t lose reader credibility by making your character perform feats you haven’t built into their makeup, abilities you can’t justify by what we know about them so far.

~ Skilled. To defeat those clever, skilled villains, they almost always have some special skills and talents to draw on when the going gets rough. For example, Katniss in Hunger Games is a master archer and knows how to track and survive in the woods, Jack Reacher has his army police training and size to draw on, and Joe Pike has multiple talents, including stealth.

~ Charismatic. Attractive in some way. Fascinating, appealing, and enigmatic. Maybe even sexy. People are drawn to him or her.

~ Confident but not overly cocky. Stay away from arrogant, unless you’re going for less-than-realistic caricatures like James Bond.

~ Passionate, but not overly emotional. Often calm under fire, steadfast. Usually don’t break under pressure. Often intense about what they feel is right and wrong, but “the strong, silent type” is common among current popular thrillers – “a man of few words,” like Joe Pike or Jack Reacher or Harry Bosch.

~ Unique, unpredictable. They have a special world view, and a distinctive background and attitude that sets them apart from others. They’ll often act in surprising ways, which keeps their adversaries off-balance and the readers on edge.

~ Complex. Imperfect, with some inner conflict. Guard against having a perfect or invincible hero or heroine. Make them human, with some self-doubt and fear, so readers worry more about the nasty villains defeating them and get more emotionally invested in their story.

Jodie Renner—February 6, 2013

 

Last month I read Anna Karenina for the first time. Truth to tell, I had mixed feelings about the novel. Many chapters were glacially slow. The descriptions of Russian rural politics couldn’t have been more boring. Worse, none of the main characters — Anna, Vronsky, Levin — was particularly likeable. Still, I got caught up in the soap-opera plot, the whole nineteenth-century aristocratic mating dance. And the book’s climax blew away. Every thriller writer can learn something from seeing how Leo Tolstoy handled Anna’s suicide.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that Anna kills herself, is it? It’s like the crucifixion in the New Testament — everyone knows it’s coming. In fact, the only thing that kept me going through the boring chapters was the anticipation of seeing Anna throw herself under that train. And Tolstoy didn’t disappoint me. The chapter showing Anna’s nervous breakdown in the hours before her suicide is brilliant. I loved her nihilistic, stream-of-consciousness observations as she rides in her carriage through the Moscow streets: “There is nothing funny, nothing amusing, really. Everything’s hateful. They are ringing the bell for vespers — how carefully that shopkeeper crosses himself, as if he were afraid of dropping something! Why these churches, the bells and the humbug? Just to hide the fact that we all hate each other.”

And then the fatal act itself, six pages later, described so pitilessly: “Exactly at the moment when the space between the wheels drew level with her she threw aside her red bag and drawing her head down between her shoulders dropped on her hands under the train car, and with a light movement, as though she would rise again at once, sank on to her knees. At that same instant she became horror-struck at what she was doing. ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Why?’ She tried to get up, to throw herself back; but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down on her back.”

After finishing the book I tried to think of other classic novels that offer useful lessons for thriller writers. Here are four more canonical works that made a big impression on me:

Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Mr. Ringel, my sixth-grade teacher, read this book out loud to our class over a period of several weeks. Reading a Dickens novel to a class of unruly eleven-year-olds was a pretty ballsy thing to do. I remember several occasions when Mr. Ringel had to yell at the miscreants in the back of the classroom who were whispering insults at one another instead of listening to his narration. But no one whispered when he read the scene in which Charles Darnay and his family make their perilous escape from Paris. It’s the great-granddaddy of chase scenes, and thriller writers have been unashamedly imitating it for the past 150 years: “O pity us, kind Heaven, and help us! Look out, look out, and see if we are pursued! The wind is rushing after us, and the clouds are flying after us, and the moon is plunging after us, and the whole wild night is in pursuit of us; but, so far, we are pursued by nothing else.”

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This novel is long. It has a whole miscellany of odd things that got left on the cutting-room floor when the book was turned into a Broadway musical. There are learned disquisitions on medieval monastic orders, the sewers beneath Paris, and the nature of quicksand. And though I wasn’t terribly interested in these subjects, I didn’t mind wading through those chapters. I was so desperate to find out what was going to happen to Jean Valjean, there was no way I could stop reading. Hugo was a master of the cliffhanger.

 Mark Alpert—February 22, 2014

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  1. Which elements of a thriller are essential, to you?
  2. What other qualities of character are necessary for a thriller hero?
  3. What is a classic novel you feel has thriller-like qualities?

Characters: The Good, the Bad and the Unnecessary

Protagonists, antagonists and supporting characters– without some version of each, it would be very difficult to write a thriller, and even harder to write a murder mystery. Protagonists must tackle the obstacles they face, with strength of will, usually sooner rather than later. Antagonists must throw up roadblocks; oppose, fight, scheme, betray, whatever it takes to get what they want, depending upon the character. Let’s not forget supporting characters—both protagonists and antagonists need them.

In today’s Words of Wisdom, James Scott Bell discusses that strength of will every protagonist needs, while Jodie Renner dives into creating a fascinating, believable antagonist. Finally, Joe Moore talks about the challenge of removing a character you realize is unnecessary to your novel. This last was something I had to do with my most recent novel, erasing no fewer than three supporting characters, because each turned out to be unnecessary.

As always, it’s worth reading the full posts, which are date-linked from their respective excerpts.

There is no novel, no drama, no conflict, no story without a Lead character fighting a battle through the exercise of his will.

As Lajos Egri states in his classic, The Art of Dramatic Writing:

A weak character cannot carry the burden of protracted conflict in a play. He cannot support a play. We are forced, then, to discard such a character as a protagonist … the dramatist needs not only characters who are willing to put up a fight for their convictions. He needs characters who have the strength, the stamina, to carry this fight to its logical conclusion.

Let’s think about Scarlett O’Hara for a moment. Do we want 200 pages of her sitting on her porch flirting with the local boys? Do we want to listen to her selfish prattle or watch her flit around in big-hoop dresses?

I’m not sure we want anything to do with her at all after seven pages or so, but then! She learns that Ashley Wilkes, her ideal, her dream husband-to-be, is going to marry that mousy Melanie!

She immediately lays plans to get him alone at the big barbecue. She’ll tell him of her love and he’ll dump Melanie. Through strength of will she draws him into a room where they can be alone.

Only her plan does not work out as intended. Which is good! For strength of will must be met with further obstacles and challenges and setbacks. The protagonist has to keep fighting, or the book is over.

That’s why, after the setback with Ashley, Scarlett faces a further complication—a little thing I like to call the Civil War.

For the rest of the book Scarlett will have to show strength of will to save the family home and fight for the man she loves (NOTE: strength of will does not always mean strength of insight. Scarlett does not realize until it’s too late who she really loves. Of course, we could have told her. It’s the guy who looks like Clark Gable!)

Now, a character can start passive. But she cannot stay there for long. In Stephen King’s Rose Madder, the opening chapter depicts a wife who is horribly abused by her psycho husband. The chapter ends with the chilling line: Rose McClendon Daniels slept within her husband’s madness for nine more years. 

Wise storyteller that he is, King does not give us more pages of abuse. No, he quickly gets us to a blood stain. It’s what Rose sees on a sheet as she makes the bed one morning, a reminder of her most recent beating. Nothing she hasn’t seen before, only this time it triggers something inside her:

She looked at the spot of blood, feeling unaccustomed resentment throbbing in her head, feeling something else, a pins-and-needles tingle, not knowing this was the way you felt when you finally woke up.

Then comes Rose’s strength of will. She finally does what her husband has strictly forbidden—leave the house. Do that, he warns, and I’ll track you down and kill you.

For us, walking out a door is a small thing, but for Rose Daniels it is the biggest risk of her life. But she does it.

And that’s why we want to watch her for the rest of the book. She will have to exercise her will many times in order to survive.

James Scott Bell—October 25, 2015

 

To pose a credible, significant threat and cause readers to worry, your antagonist should be as clever, powerful, and determined as your protagonist. Challenges and troubles are what make your main character intriguing, compel her to be the best she can be. They force her to draw on resources she never knew she had in order to survive, defeat evil, or attain her goals.

For today’s post, we’ll assume your antagonist is a villain – a mean, even despicable, destructive character we definitely don’t want to root for. He needs to be a formidable obstacle to the protagonist’s goals or a menace to the hero’s loved ones or other innocents. And thrillers, fantasy, and horror require really frightening, nasty villains.

Most of the bad guys in movies and books want the same thing: power. Or maybe revenge or riches. And they don’t care who gets hurt along the way. Or worse, they enjoy causing pain, even torturing their victims.

The antagonist needs to be powerful, a game-changer. As Chuck Wendig says in his excellent blog post “25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists,” “The antagonist is there to push and pull the sequence of events into an arrangement that pleases him. He makes trouble for the protagonist. He is the one upping the stakes. He is the one changing the game and making it harder.”

The protagonist and antagonist have clashing motivations. Their needs, values, and desires are at odds. The antagonist and protagonist could have completely opposite backgrounds and personalities for contrast – or be uncomfortably similar, to show how close the protagonist came or could come to passing over to the dark side.

Most readers are no longer intrigued by “mwoo-ha-ha,” all-evil antagonists, like Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction, be sure your villain isn’t unexplainably horrid, evil for the sake of evil. Today’s sophisticated readers are looking for an antagonist who’s more complex, realistic, and believable.

Chuck Wendig suggests antagonists should be depicted as real people with real problems: “People with wants, needs, fears, motivations. People with families and friends and their own enemies. They’re full-blooded, full-bodied characters. They’re not single-minded villains twirling greasy mustaches.”

For a believable, fascinating antagonist or villain, try to create a unique, memorable bad guy of a type that hasn’t been done to death. Try to give him or her an original background and voice.

Remember that the antagonist is the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s right. He justifies his actions somehow, whether it’s revenge, a thirst for power, ridding society of undesirables, or payback. He may even feel he has a noble or just goal, as in the serial killer of prostitutes.

Jodie Renner—March 9, 2015

Lynn and I write thrillers with complex plots, and THE PHOENIX APOSTLES is turning out to be the most complex of all. Because of the complexity, we have some really intense brainstorming sessions, especially as we approach the end of the book and must tie all the loose ends together so they are resolved for the reader. Our conference calls go on for hours as we play “what if”, argue, plot, and strategize. Since we live over 300 miles apart and only meet once or twice a year, we rely on unlimited long distance calling to work out the details.

Recently, we were discussing how each of our characters would resolve at the climax of the book. We both like big Hollywood endings, and this one is shaping up to be a whopper. We were going down the list of ever character, either signing their death warrants or letting them live another day. We knew what should happen to Carlos, but when we got to Teresa, we came up short. As a matter of fact, we couldn’t even justify placing her in the final scene. Normally, we assign all our characters “jobs” in each scene, and she was pretty much unemployed by the time the shit hit the fan.

There was a long silence on the phone. Then Lynn asked that dreaded question no self-respecting fictional character ever wants to hear. “Do we really need her?”

“You mean in the climax?”

“No, in the book?”

After another long pause, I had to admit she was right. If Teresa vanished from the pages of our novel, would it make any difference? The reluctant but honest answer was, no.

We came to the conclusion that we could convert all of Teresa’s “jobs” into the Carlos character and the result would be a tighter, crisper story with fewer heads to hop between.

And so the killing began.

Within a few hours, I had gone through the entire manuscript, found every instance of Teresa’s character, rewrote each one and shifting her responsibilities, motivations, and character development to Carlos. By sundown, Teresa was pronounced dead. Worse than dead; like some former Soviet government official who fell out of favor, she simply ceased to exist.

I had lived with Teresa for over a year. I knew her wants and needs. I liked her. But I had to sacrifice her to make for a better story. I mourned her passing, drank some whisky, and moved on.

R.I.P Teresa Castillo.

Joe Moore—July 1, 2009

***

There you have it, advice dealing with protagonists, antagonists and unnecessary characters.

  1. How have you shown your protagonist’s strength of will? Do you have a favorite example from fiction or film of this in action?
  2. How do you like to bring your antagonist to life? What’s the most fun aspect of creating an antagonist for you?
  3. Have you ever had to erase a character from one of your novels or stories? How much work was it? Any advice?

***

Brand-new librarian Meg Booker is just supposed to be checking out books.

Instead, it’s the patrons who are being checked out–permanently.

A Shush Before Dying, the first book in my new cozy library mystery series set in the 1980s, is now out, and available in ebook and print.

Beta Reader Words of Wisdom

I’m currently waiting for feedback on my latest novel from my wonderful beta readers. I use them with all of my novels, as well as my novellas. Sometimes it’s just one or two betas. Other times, like this one, it’s a larger group of readers. The group can include another fiction writer. Especially at the start of a series, I find input from another writer can be very helpful.

Two of today’s three excerpts, by Joe Moore and Jodie Renner respectively, look at beta readers and how to help them give feedback which will help your novel become better.

Since many of us also give feedback on other writers’ novels, today’s third excerpt, by P.J. Parrish, provides advice on giving feedback. The full posts date-linked at the bottom of their excerpts, and are worth reading in full.

A beta reader is someone whose opinion you value, who’ll take the time to read your manuscript in a timely manner, and who’ll give you an honest assessment of your work. For starters, I would mark off your list of potential beta readers anyone who is related to you, works with you, or lives in your immediate neighborhood.

Should you utilize a beta reader(s)? It depends on whether you’re working on your first unpublished manuscript or are further along in your writing career. Most beginning authors are searching for anything that will build up their ego and confidence, and keep their hopes alive. And most new authors have manuscripts that are littered with flaws and mistakes—it’s part of the learning process. Weak or unqualified feedback from others can cause a new writer to become confused and/or discouraged. And their hopes and dreams can be crushed by negative feedback. Or their egos are so artificially inflated that negative criticism can cause friendships and relationships to crash.

At the same time, established authors know the value of real, honest, sincere feedback and will react in a professional, business-like manner. Beta readers are a solid tool toward writing a better book.

In recruiting beta readers, try to line up at least three to four that are willing to take the time to not only read your work but give you constructive feedback. It’s also good to mix male and female readers. In general, try to find age-appropriate readers that are familiar with your genre. A female teen may not give you the feedback you’re looking for if your manuscript is male action/adventure. If you write YA, a retired senior citizen might not be the best choice, either.

Try to choose beta readers who are not acquainted with one another. And they don’t have to be your best friends. In fact, casual acquaintances could work better since there might not be a hesitation that they will hurt your feelings if they don’t like what you’ve written. There’s a good chance they’ll take the whole process more seriously than a relative or close friend.

Don’t ask your beta readers to line edit your manuscript. Tell them to ignore the typos and grammar issues. What you’re interested in is: Does the story work? Does it hold together? Are the characters believable? Can you relate to them? Are there plot contradictions and errors?

Beta readers differ from members of a critique group in that they measure the WIP as a whole whereas groups usually get a story in piecemeal fashion and focus in on a chapter at a time. Most critique groups also deal with line editing.

So once you round up your bevy of beta readers and send them your WIP, then what? Start by listening to their feedback. If your beta reader has a problem or issue, chances are others will, too. And most important is when numerous readers raise the same issues. That should be a red flag that there’s a major problem to address.

Other tips: Don’t be defensive. Sure, we all love our words—after all, they’re hard to come by. But comments from your beta readers are meant to be helpful and constructive. Don’t take offense. Take what they say to heart. Think about it for a while. Consider that they have a valid point and are not trying to tear down your writing.

Joe Moore—June 26, 2013

To avoid generic (and generally useless) responses like “I liked it,” “It was good,” or “It was okay,” it’s best to guide your readers with specific questions. Here’s a list to choose from, based on suggestions from novelists I know. If you’re hesitant to ask your volunteers so many questions, you could perhaps have them choose the ones that seem most relevant to your story and writing style. And of course, if you first use these questions as a guideline during your revisions, the responses from your beta readers should be much more positive, or of a nature to take your story and your skills up a level or two.

  1. Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  2. Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  3. Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel her/his pain or excitement?
  4. Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  5. Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or you became less than excited about finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  6. Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  7. Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  8. Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likeable?
  9. Did you get confused about who’s who in the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Are any of the names or characters too similar?
  10. Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?
  11. Did you feel there was too much description or exposition? Not enough? Maybe too much dialogue in parts?
  12. Was there enough conflict, tension, and intrigue to keep your interest?
  13. Was the ending satisfying? Believable?
  14. Did you notice any obvious, repeating grammatical, spelling, punctuation or capitalization errors? Examples?
  15. Do you think the writing style suits the genre? If not, why not?

And if you have eager readers or other writers in your genre who are willing to go the extra mile for you, you could add some of the more specific questions below. These are also good for critiquing a short story.

– Which scenes/paragraphs/lines did you really like?

– Which parts did you dislike or not like as much, and why?

– Are there parts where you wanted to skip ahead or put the book down?

– Which parts resonated with you and/or moved you emotionally?

– Which parts should be condensed or even deleted?

– Which parts should be elaborated on or brought more to life?

– Are there any confusing parts? What confused you?

– Which characters did you really connect to?

– Which characters need more development or focus?

Jodie Renner—June 16, 2014

 

A few other things I’ve learned about giving criticism:

Resist the urge to fix the problem. Unless you really have the solution, it’s not a good idea to offer up the answer to another writer’s problem. You don’t know their book; you’re not inside their head. You might be able to tell them they have wandered off the trail and that you, as the reader, feel lost. But it is not up to you to show them which is the RIGHT trail to the end. They have to find their way.

Watch your tone. Being snarky is, unfortunately, encouraged in our culture today. (I was curious about where the word “snarky” came from so I looked it up. It was coined by the Star Trek actor Richard William Wheaton in a speech he gave before a bunch of online gamers.) If you are asked for input, don’t be mean. Kindness is in short supply today and writers are like turtles without shells — easy to crush.

Don’t take out your frustrations on someone else. Hey, you’re having a bad day. Your own book is falling apart. Your plot has more holes than a cheese grater. Your Dell died and your geek can’t do a data retrieval.  Don’t vent your anger on someone else’s baby.

Don’t boost your own ego. Some people like to show how powerful or intelligent or knowledgeable they are, and use criticism as a way of doing that. They are puffing themselves up, challenging others, going all Alpha dog. Nobody likes a bully.

Let the person react. Giving a person a chance to explain why they wrote something the way they did helps their ego a bit and often, as they explain, they see where they can improve. It also makes you look fair.

Be empathetic. You’ve probably had the same problems the other guy is having. So tell him. Be vulnerable and relate how it was hard for you to understand motivation or the three-act structure. Walk in their shoes.

Don’t focus on the person. One of the hardest things beginning writers have to learn is to not take criticism personally. A rejection letter is never about you; it is about your book. So if you’re critiquing something, you might think, “Boy, this guy’s a lousy writer” but never say it. It only makes the other person angry, defensive or hurt. Plus, it makes you look like an ass.

Okay, so you’re done reading a friend’s manuscript. Or you’ve been doing your part in the weekly critique group. You’ve been kind, you’ve been constructive, you’re offering up suggestions that you think might cause a light bulb to go off over the other writer’s head. And then….

They turn on you. They say you don’t understand their genre. Or that if you’re missing the plot points. Or that they intend for you to hate the protagonist. Or that second-person omniscient is the only way the story can be told. I call these folks the Yeah Buts. “Yeah, but if you keep reading, things will get clearer.”  “Yeah but if you read more dystopian Victorian zombie fiction, you’d understand my book…”

You can’t help a Yeah But. Sometimes, they don’t want to hear anything except how great their stuff is. Don’t get angry. Don’t take it personally. You did what you could. Smile and walk away.

P.J. Parrish—September 10, 2019

***

There you have it, advice on working with beta readers, and on providing your own feedback on another writer’s novel.

  1. Do you use beta readers? Have you found them helpful?
  2. If you use beta readers, do you provide them with questions to answer, or things to look for?
  3. Have you given feedback on other writers’ novels? How do you approach doing so?

Musical Words of Wisdom

I almost always write to music. Music helps me get into the writing zone and stay there, and also with creating a particular mood in myself while working. I have a wide variety of music playlists. When I am drafting, I can play songs, but when I am revising, it needs to be instrumental—movie scores, electronica, synth-wave, even classical music at times.

Sue’s post this past Tuesday about using ringtones for characterization and Kris’s on Wednesday discussing a story’s soundtrack inspired me to search the KZB archives for posts dealing with using music, to hopefully start a discussion and share insights.

The first excerpt is from a 2010 Joe Moore post about film scores. The full post provides a list of film scores he liked. The second excerpt is from author Robert Liparulo, and is a fine follow-up, discussing how he uses film scores to create his fiction. Our final excerpt today is from Kelli Stanley, talking about how a soundtrack can help you mentally recreate another era.

As always, the original posts are date-linked at the bottom of their respective excerpts.

Lets start by looking at the cinema. Arguably, a movie would lose its impact without music. Even in the days of silent movies, there was a live piano player in the theater whose job was to add drama to each scene. You can have the greatest photography, acting, direction, set design and script, but without music, the movie would probably fall flat. Not to be confused with what some call movie soundtracks–usually a collection contemporary tunes–movie scores are written and orchestrated pieces of original music specifically designed for a particular scene. They enhance and support the visual images. If you listen to a movie score isolated from the visuals, it can verge on being classical in nature. As a matter of fact, I consider names like Trevor Jones, Randy Edelman, Hans Zimmer, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, John Williams, Howard Shore, and many others to be our modern day classical composers.

I discovered many years ago that I could also use the element of music to help me write. Someone gave me the CD score to THE MISSION with Robert De Niro. It happened to be playing on my stereo as I started a new chapter, and I realized that the music set exactly the same mood as the scene on which I was working. So from then on, as I watched movies I would pay particular attention to the scores. If they evoked the type of mood I sought in my WIP, or just set a very cool, dramatic, romantic or spooky mood, I would order the CD and rip it to MP3.

I now have a huge collection of scores on my computer and rarely sit down to write without my MP3 player on “shuffle”. I don’t use any music with lyrics since I find that other people’s words distract me. That’s why scores work so well—in most cases they are instrumental.

So if you’d like to try writing dramatic scenes to music, here’s a short list of my favorite CDs that seem to have it all when it comes to creating a mood found in most mysteries and thrillers.

Joe Moore—December 9, 2009

For as long as I can remember, I’ve listened to music as I wrote—through years of writing magazine articles and intermittent screenplays. It started as a way of deadening the sounds of screaming kids, vacuum cleaners, and when I rented an outside office, the shouts coming from the divorce attorney’s office next door. Then I started writing novels, and the type of music I played suddenly mattered.

Faster tempos do help keep the pace up—if not within the story, then at least with how fast my fingers move over a keyboard; but then, volume helps with that as well. The louder, the better. More important than tempo is how a piece of music makes me feel. A cue that starts off slow and builds to a triumphant crescendo can carry me through a fast-paced action sequence as well as any nonstop, staccato rhythm. “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from The Da Vinci Code, for example: a hero’s theme if ever there was one.

Over time, I’ve built a library of music categorized by the mood it puts me in when I write. Take, for instance, Clint Mansell’s haunting music for Requiem for a Dream. Its cues seem to be teetering on the edge of something, without relief or execution. No wonder several of the titles have the word “Tense” in them. When I launch into a suspenseful scene, I’ll often queue up my Requiem playlist.

Here’s a specific example of a partial scene and the music I was listening to when I wrote it:

“With the speed and fluidity he had practiced a thousand times, Hutch drew back on the bowstring and released it, all in one, smooth two-second motion. He held still for another beat to make sure the arrow cleared the bow. Then he dropped his right arm to a second arrow rising from the ground beside him. His bow arm never moved. His head never moved. His eyes never came off of Bad. As the arrow sliced a groove through Bad’s skin at the temple, Hutch was already nocking the next arrow.”

Most likely, Quentin Tarantino would go with something fast and exotic, like NEU!’s “Super 16” from Kill Bill. Because the scene is a mix of suspense and action, I powered up “Betrayal” from Enemy at the Gates—from the scene in which they discover a young boy murdered and hanging from a crane. It’s emotive and heart-wrenching, and prior to the “discovery” almost painful in its anticipation.

My writing-music of choice is almost always film scores. It seems to me that movie moguls are the benefactors of today’s great composers, Hollywood the new Vienna. I also like that the structure of a good story—with its cycle of tension and relief, despair and triumph—forces a wide variation in music within one recording. I used to think the strong bond between a movie’s images and its music would cause me to think only of those images while listening to the score—Russell Crowe plucking his violin in Master and Commander. However, I’ve found that the spirit of the music takes over and I can claim it for my own. That’s why filmmakers often listen to other movies’ scores while on set. They’re not trying to imitate another movie’s scene; they’re letting the music help them get in the mood for their own scene. The director Ridley Scott is known for doing this.

Robert Liparulo—June 28, 2009

 

Y’ see, listening is particularly helpful when you’re trying to lose yourself in time. Because City of Dragons is set in 1940, I immersed myself in a lot of music from the era—and had to be very careful to not access something anachronistic. I wanted to hear what my characters did, and I was writing about a period in American culture when music was truly a mass medium of popular entertainment … and when our entertainment—thanks to radio drama—was more audio than visual.

The music was key to me feeling like I could capture the past. And then it became about character, too, about my protagonist reacting to that world, particularly the irony of achingly romantic big band swing juxtaposed to the atrocities of war.

So I found myself becoming immersed in the music, actually using it in the book. And I felt confident about being able to, since some writers I greatly admire—like George Pelecanos and Ken Bruen—reference music and lyrics in their works.

The rub, of course, is the permissions phase … something I didn’t know much about. But warning, all you Springsteen fans who want to include “The River” in your latest novel … the author is responsible for either acquiring permission or rewriting the scene.

In my case, I found out too late and had to rewrite certain scenes, retaining a line of lyric and hopefully the flow and rhythm and emotion of the original draft. But—like a DVD director’s cut—I was able to link up a City of Dragons playlist on my website, so that, whenever possible, you can listen to the music my characters do.

It’s a cool way of sharing not just what I like to listen to, but what became an intrinsic element of the book, and a kind of instant time machine back to February, 1940.

Kelli Stanley–January 28, 2010

***

Now it’s your turn to weigh on using music when creating fiction.

Do you listen to music when drafting? When revising?

If you do, is there a certain genre or style of music you prefer listening to?

If you don’t listen to music during your actual writing session, do you ever listen to it “get into the mood” before writing?

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Self-Publishing Words of Wisdom

Last September I gave a presentation on self-publishing at the Newport, Oregon Public Library, for the Coast Chapter of Willamette Writers. It was well-attended, and there were a lot of thoughtful questions asked by the engaged audience. One of my challenges was focusing on evergreen advice rather than tips for the passing moment. Digital self-publishing has seen a lot of changes since 2008. Gold rushes have come and gone, as have marketing fads. The market has matured. But, you can still make money, possibly pretty good money, perhaps even enough to live well on, and, as important, you can still reach readers directly.

With that in mind, this Saturday’s Words of Wisdom shares excerpts on self-publishing from past January Kill Zone posts. James Scott Bell gives timeless advice on succeeding as a self-publisher, while Joe Moore gives tips on editing yourself, and P.J. Parrish looks at giving your book covers a makeover. It is always a challenge being selective in choosing an excerpt, but especially today. All three posts are worth reading in their entirety, and I provide links to each below.

So what does all this mean for the indie writer, new and used experienced? Is the “gold rush” over? Is the sky falling?

First of all, just like in the Old West, the gold rush made scant millionaires. There were never going to be abundant strikes except for the few. If the gold rush in digital publishing ever was, it was irrelevant to the vast majority of authors.

Second, the key to making a living as a writer (subtle plug for my book of the same name), has not changed and will never change, because it’s always been the same!

To wit:

You have to write books that are good enough to get the people who read them to want to read more from you, and to recommend you to their friends and social circles.

It doesn’t matter how glitzy your marketing or how cleverly you try to game algorithms. You have to be good at what you do. Imagine that! You get rewarded for merit, not gamesmanship!

And that also goes for discoverability, a word that has overstayed its welcome and is too often used as a Cassandra cloak for expostulations of impending doom.

Phooey.

The indie writers I know who were making a living writing in 2013 were still making a living—and in most cases, a better one—in 2014.

I’ve noticed a few things they have in common:

  1. They know their craft.All the successful indie writers I know personally paid their dues back in the “trad old days.” They studied and wrote and sacrificed and wrote and submitted and got rejected and kept writing. They spent years getting good at what they do. When the trad publishing contracts started looking grim compared to what self-publishing offered, they jumped in with one or both feet. And they were ready.

So what does this mean for the newbie writer? It means that you must set your standards high and create what I call a grinder. You must set up a system that holds your writing feet to the fire, and makes you get better at your craft.

Early in my career I was fortunate to work with one of the best fiction editors in the business. He would send me long, single-spaced letters, ripping into my books at the plot, character, and style levels.

I feared those letters. I would place them unopened on the corner of my desk and just look at them for a few days. I had to work myself up into readiness. Finally, I would read them several times, highlight things with a felt-tip pen, and then take a few hours to recover. Then I’d start revising.

I also had to get rid of any chip on my shoulder. I had to be willing to make changes. Yes, on occasion there were things I fought for. But I came to realize that this editor knew his stuff, saw things I could not, and thus made me a better writer.

As a new author, you have to figure out a way to get this kind of grinding feedback, and be willing to dig in and work hard. Some time ago I listed a way to do that with beta readers and a professional editor. Look for it within this post.

James Scott Bell—January 11, 2015

 

The next type of editing is called line editing. Line editing covers grammar and punctuation. Watch for incorrect use of the apostrophe, hyphen, dash and semicolon. Did you end all your character’s dialogs with a closed quote? Did you forget to use a question mark at the end of a question?

This also covers making sure you used the right word. Relying on your word processor’s spell checker can be dangerous since it won’t alert you to wrong words when they are spelled correctly. It takes a sharp eye to catch these types of mistakes. Once you’ve gone through your manuscript and performed a line edit, have someone else check it behind you. A fresh set of eyes never hurts.

On-the-fly cut and paste editing while you were working on your first draft can get you into trouble if you weren’t paying attention. Leftover words and phrases from a previous edit or version can still be lurking around, and because all the words might be spelled correctly or the punctuation might be correct, you’ll only catch the mistake by paying close attention during the line edit phase.

The many stages of editing are a vital part of the writing process. Editing your manuscript should not be rushed or taken for granted. Familiarity breeds mistakes—you’ve read that page or chapter so many times that your eyes skim over it. And yet, there could be a mistake that you’ve missed every time because you’re bored with the old stuff and anxious to review the new.

Read your manuscript out loud, or better yet, have someone else read it to you. Mistakes and poor writing will become obvious.

Spend the time needed to tighten and clarify your writing until there is not one ounce of fat or bloat. And once you’ve finished the entire editing process, put the manuscript away for a period of time. Let it rest for a week or even a month if your schedule permits while you work on something else. Remember that indie publishing means that you set the deadline and pub date. Then bring it back out into the light of day and make one more pass. You’ll be surprised at what you missed.

Joe Moore—January 20, 2016

 

What I think we should pay attention to is:

  • Professionalism
  • Consistency of brand
  • Messaging

Professsionalism means you can’t get away with a lousy, cheap-looking cover. Because it yells in neon to a potential reader “I am an amateur!” This applies especially if you are just starting out. Like they used to tell us in “women’s magazines” — dress for the job you want, not the one you have. Don’t design your own cover unless you have solid graphic background and even then — GET INPUT! Would you edit your own story? No…you get beta-readers, you hire copy editors. (If you do edit your own books, you’re a fool). You might have to hire a pro to do this. There are lots of good ones out there. Please don’t skimp on this. Please.

Consistency of Brand means your books have to look alike. I don’t mean literally, but they have to all be of a kind so potential readers can immediately sense a unified brand.  All good authors do this. And periodically, they go back in and re-design their older books en masse to give them face lifts. Time for an object lesson….

My friend Neil Plakcy (a member of my old critique group) has been publishing his Golden Retriever mystery series for about ten years now. His books are a lot of fun (the dog helps solve the crime), light in tone, but also deal with some serious issues. (his hero did prison time for computer crimes.) Recently, Neil decided he needed a make-over.  The first line is before, the second line is after. Click to see enlarged.

What was wrong with the first ones? Inconsistency in type-faces. Type too small. The main important image (the dog!) was usually too small and static (the dog is just sitting or standing around mainly). No one compelling image for the eye to focus on. The pictures didn’t capture the books’ playful tone. Dull colors. And hard to find Neil’s name!

What is right with the second ones? The type is consistent and DOG is set bigger and in contrasting color to drive home the content in a glance. The subtitle “A Golden Retriever Mystery” is always the same size and in the same place. Neil’s name is consistent and authoritative. There is negative space for blurbs. And the dogs are so cute they make you want to adopt them. These covers look designed, not slapped together.

Disclaimer time: My sister Kelly designed the new covers. She does this as a side business and this is not an infomercial to get her work because I don’t want her attention on anything else but our stuff for now. But she and I also are redesigning our own back list covers.  And, I gotta tell you, it’s not been easy.

P.J. Parrish—January 1, 2019

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Are you a self-publisher?

What evergreen tips do you have?

What constants do you see in self-publishing?

Story Idea, Soul, or Personality of the Writer – What Makes a Book Successful?

Some great thoughts on pursuing a story idea that you know is good, putting your soul into the story, and how your personality affects your chances of success. Below are excerpts from three great articles from the archives on what makes a book successful. Links are provided to the articles. Consider reading them. Then give us your thoughts below in the comments. Feel free to comment on other’s comments and strike up a discussion.

When I first met Kurt Muse about eight years ago, and he told me the story of his clandestine efforts to topple Manuel Noriega, and of his subsequent arrest and escape at the hands of Delta Force, I confess that I didn’t believe him. The story was too spectacular—too big—not to have been written about already. But it all checked out.

After Kurt and his wife, Annie, met with my wife, Joy, and me at the always-wonderful Café Renaissance in Vienna, Virginia, we shook hands and a pact was made. Together, we would write a book about courage and patriotism; about success over outrageous odds. It would be a story of public servants who truly serve the public, about people who risk everything for strangers with no expectations of recognition or thanks.

No one would touch it. – John Gilstrap – January 30, 2009

 

On a recent writer’s forum, someone asked the basic question: “what makes a good book?” Or, better yet, why is it that some books are hard to put down while others are easier to put down than a bucket of toxic waste?

From a technical standpoint, we could analyze the grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, command of the language, and a dozen other things we studied in school. (Which begs the question: why aren’t all English professors bestselling authors? But that’s something for another blog post.)

We could also discuss the book’s premise, theme, plot, voice, style, pacing, point of view, accuracy, and all those issues that were topics at the last writers’ conference workshop.

But my answer to what makes a good book is simple: soul. By that, I mean the soul of the writer. The more a writer involves or reveals his or her soul in the writing, the more the reader can and will relate to the story. Since soul is what separates us from the chimps and fish, it’s the element of a story for which we can all connect. – Joe Moore – January 28, 2009

 

I have been pondering the sticky issue of looks, personality and success and how this translates in the world of publishing.

I remember reading a story in the New York Times a few years ago on the anatomy of a bestseller and it compared two books coming out that year that had received huge advances and marketing budgets – one was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and the other was (and this is prophetic…) something I can’t even remember. Anyway, the gist of the article was that the author of The Historian had been willing to do a great deal of publicity and ‘be out there’ while the other author was virtually a recluse. While The Historian went on to make millions the other book sunk like a stone despite all the publisher money thrown at it. The moral of the story (I think) was that to be a bestseller a writer had to throw aside introversion to be successful. Basically, this article suggested, a writer could no longer afford to sit behind a typewriter or a computer. Nowadays that’s a no-brainer but still it got me thinking about the thorny question of writer personality (and let’s face it looks) and success.

So, throw aside your political correctness and ponder this question…is it easier to be an attractive outgoing writer than a shy, ‘more homely’ one?

Perhaps it’s a crass question but not one I think that is without foundation – especially when photographs are on book jackets and websites and your personality is judged in a range of venues – from online blog entries to in-person panel presentations. How would some of the literary stars of yesteryear fare in our current media-centric environment? Can a writer even afford to be introverted these days? How much is publishing success like a throwback to high school – when many yearned to be the prettiest and bubbliest of them all? – Clare Langely-Hawthorne – January, 12, 2009

Please give us your thoughts.

Magic Box of Story Ideas and Character Creation

When browsing the archives of TKZ, I sometimes find two or three blogs on the same or complimentary subjects. Today we have three articles on story ideas and character creation. The link at the end of each section will take you to the entire post, which I encourage you to read.

Please feel free to comment on other reader’s comments and strike up a conversation.

One of the questions writers hear often is where do we get our ideas. Depending on the situation, my standard answer is that I subscribe to the Great Idea of The Month Club. And when someone asks how they can join, I have to tell them that members are sworn to secrecy and forbidden to divulge that information.

If I’m pressed for an answer, I say that I can give some sources away, but only if they don’t tell where they got them. If they want to write murder mysteries, for instance, I aim them toward THE MURDER BOOK 2008, a blog by Paul LaRosa that records all the murders in New York City during 2008. There’s enough material there to keep a writer going for years.

But in reality, our ideas can come from almost any source at any time. Writers’ minds are in-tune with their surroundings ready to see the telltale signs of that little spark that could be used in a story or even become the basis of a whole book. – Joe Moore, 8-27-08

 

Often, when I speak to book-loving groups, I tell the Klansman-in-the-store story to illustrate why I write thrillers. As an author I am always trying to make my readers feel some of what I felt when real villains crossed my path, and I realized that they could do me serious harm. And I also realized at some point that my father wouldn’t always be there to make the world safe again. I have met more villains than I can count, and I do my best to protect myself and those I love from bad things and evil people to the best of my ability. Some evil is obvious, but most of the time it lies just beneath an innocuous and seemingly harmless surface. And sometimes the most dangerous things come to us with open arms and a smile. But seeing evil first hand allows me to write about threat and fear. Evil isn’t usually all that well defined, and it certainly is not simple. Villains should be complex, and human, and understanding them well enough to adequately portray them (in words) remains the ultimate challenge for writers. – Joe Moore, 8-23-08

 

John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole, wrote that “most of the interest and part of the terror of great crime are not due to what is abnormal, but to what is normal in it; what we have in common with the criminal rather than the subtle insanity which differentiates him from us.” I couldn’t agree more – for me, it is the commonality rather than the abnormality that makes a villain truly villainous.

Take Doctor Crippen – an unremarkable man in real life, the least likely man perhaps to have poisoned and dismembered his wife or to have been pursued across the Atlantic with a young mistress in tow disguised as a boy. Part of the fascination with this case is the sheer ordinariness of the supposed murderer – and now, with DNA evidence casting doubt on whether the woman whose body was found was that of Doctor Crippen’s wife, Cora, the mystery of what actually happened may never be solved.

In fiction of course, some of the most fantastical crimes that occur in real life can never be used simply because readers would never believe them. Take for example the man who murdered his wife over an affair that happened 40 years before and then left her body as a gift beneath the Christmas tree. Writers have to walk a fine line with villains too, making them both believable as well as intriguing. Are they merely the flip side of the protagonist? Are they an ordinary person pushed to the brink? Or does some deep psychological wound create the monster within? – Clare Langley-Hawthorne, 8-18-08

What is your favorite place to find story ideas?

How do you approach character creation?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

What is the craziest story you have ever heard about how an author got an idea for a character?

The First – “TKZ Words of Wisdom” post

Now and again we reach back into the TKZ archives for some timeless advice and offer them to you for discussion. Please reply, riff, or rant in the comments and interact with each other!

Write what you know. Good God, how many times have we heard that over the years? As if Jack Ryan was Tom Clancy’s pseudonym, or Lincoln Rhyme Jeffery Deaver’s. For way too many years, that write-what-you-know counsel was a real problem for me. I grew up in suburban DC, a middle-class white kid with no respectable non-academic. What the hell was I supposed to write about that was, you know, interesting?

As I got a little older, I came to realize what my writing instructors really meant with that cryptic advice: you have to be convincing. Unless you’ve loved, you’ll never be able to write about it convincingly. Until you’ve had a child and you’ve surrendered that part of your soul to another human being, I don’t think you can write parental angst in a way that will convince parents who are living it. It’s not about relaying events that you know; it’s about conveying emotions that you’ve experienced. – John Gilstrap, August 2008

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I got an email the other day from a beginning writer who was working on her first book. She had read some of my novels and enjoyed them, and she asked if I had any advice on helping her strengthen her writing. I could have given her many answers to that question including creating an outline, researching carefully, developing strong characters, accuracy, compelling plot, etc. But what I decided to tell her was that the best way to strengthen her writing was to choose the right words.

I know that may sound almost too basic. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the right words in the right order can make for good writing. But I suggested that once she completed her first draft and started the rewriting process, she spend time considering if she needed an alternative to her action and descriptive words. I’m not advocating a thesaurus-intensive approach to writing, just a conscious effort to consider if there’s a better, stronger, more visual alternative to power and descriptive words. – Joe Moore, June, 2009

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How do you fit romance into a non-stop thriller? These genres are not mutually exclusive. Look at your movies for examples. Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, and The Librarian: Quest for the Spear with Noah Wyle and Sonya Walger are two of my favorites. What recent thrillers have you seen where a romantic relationship is involved? How did the film get this across to viewers?

Here’s how to start with your own story: Give your characters internal and external conflicts to keep them apart. The external conflict is the disaster that will happen if the villain succeeds. The internal conflict is the reason why your protagonists hesitate to get involved in a relationship. Maybe the heroine was hurt by a former lover and is afraid of getting burned again. Or she has a fierce need for independence. Why? What happened in her past to produce this need? Maybe your hero doesn’t want a wife because his own parents went through a bitter divorce, and secretly he feels unworthy of being loved. Or maybe he feels that his dangerous lifestyle wouldn’t suit a family. Keep asking questions to deepen your people’s motivations. – Nancy J. Cohen, December 2012

Let the conversation begin!