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

***

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

***

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!

Ending Up At The End

by Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

One of the most popular features of TKZ is our First Page Critiques. We invite you to submit the first page of your WIP and we will critique the good, bad and ugly elements of the work. We offer this feature because of the importance of grabbing the reader right off the get-go. A list of all the previous submissions can be found at First Page Critiques along with an invitation to submit your first page.

So we all know how important the first-page grab is, how a writer has to set the “hook” as soon as possible. But what about endings? Are they as important as beginnings? After all, they occur after the big finale, the gripping climax, the roaring finish. In a way, we can think of endings as anticlimactic. And yet, they have an important function to perform in any story. So today let’s take a Writing 101 Series look at endings.

First, the ending should resolve anything that was not addressed during the climax. Once the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is put to bed, what’s left must be brought together as a resolution in the ending. There must be closure to anything still hanging in the reader’s mind.

The ending also answers or clarifies the story question. Since the story question usually deals with character growth or change, the ending must make sure the story question is answered.

Let’s say that the main character had to stand by and watch his family perish in a terrible accident that he inadvertently caused. The story question might be: will he ever forgive himself and have the courage to find love again and perhaps start a new family? The actual plot might deal with something totally different, but along the way he finds a new love interest. Once the climax occurs and the plot is resolved, the reader must discover the answer to the story question. It has to be made clear in the ending. In most stories, the main character takes a journey, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional. How he completes the journey is the answer to the story question and must be resolved in the ending.

Another function of the ending is to bring some sense of normalcy back to the characters’ lives. It can be the restoring of how things were before the journey began or it can be the establishment of a new normal. Either way, it must be resolved in the ending. Our hero has found a new love and plans to start a new family. It’s his new normal and the reader must understand the changes that he went through to establish that new normal.

If the story contains a theme, message or moral, the ending is where it should be reinforced. Not every story has an underlying theme, but if it does, it must be clarified in the ending. This way the reader can close the book with the feeling that the theme or message was accomplished or confirmed. The main character(s) got it, and so did the reader. Even if the reader doesn’t agree with the message, it has to be confirmed in his or her mind what it was, and if it was completed.

The end resolution of the theme or message must be in sync with the story. For instance, if the theme is to accept a spiritual belief in the existence of a greater power in the universe, the plot and characters must touch upon or address the idea somewhere along the way so the end resolution confirms that they have changed their beliefs to support or at least admit to the theme.

The ending should also cause readers to feel the way the writer intended them to feel. Whatever the emotional response the reader should experience, the ending is where it’s confirmed. After all, the writer is the captain of the ship. He steers the story in a specific direction—a direction he wants the reader to go. The reader is a passenger along for the journey. It’s important that in the end, the ship dock at the right port. Worse case is that it doesn’t dock at all. That’s the result of a weak ending.

The ending is how you leave your reader. It’s the last impression. And it just might be the reason the reader wants to buy your next book. Or not.

What’s your brand?

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Why is a reader motivated to purchase one book over another? Is it the author? How about the cover art? The cover blurbs from other writers? The title? The synopsis on the back or inside liner?

All of the above are important, no doubt. But I believe one of the biggest factors in motivating the purchase of a book is “brand”, or lack of it in the case of not making the purchase.

Why brand? Readers want consistency. Think of food. Everyone knows exactly what a Burger King Whopper tastes like. The Burger King brand is known worldwide because they produce something that people like and they keep making it. I can walk into a Burger King anywhere on the planet and I know what to expect. The same goes for McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, KFC, Taco Bell, and hundreds of other well-established brands. If I crave a Big Mac, there’s only one place to get it. If you’re looking to put your brand over some products and items to help market your company a little better, look into this company that design branded merchandise.

I think that the same holds true for books. I can pick up the latest James Paterson, Nora Roberts or Clive Cussler novel and I know what to expect. They have established a consistency in their product that has become their brand. As a matter of fact, their names ARE their brands. All you have to do is mention Patterson, Roberts or Cussler, and anyone who has experienced those brands knows what you’re talking about. Just like the Whopper. You don’t have to explain it to someone who’s already had one.

What is brand? For starters, I think of it as a consistent level of expectancy. By that I mean that the customer/reader expects something to happen each time they make a purchase based upon the brand, and it does—every time. If there ever comes a time when it doesn’t, the customer/reader will abandon the product for a replacement—maybe not the first time, but eventually they will move on.

Now I know what you’re thinking. What if I’m a debut author? I have no brand. Or I only have a couple of books out. Not enough time to establish a brand yet. Ask yourself this: how strong was James Patterson’s brand when he published Along Came A Spider in 1993? Probably not as strong as it is today. He started with a good story, quality writing and a compelling package, and built it into the James Patterson brand combining it with other vital branding items. Branding goes way beyond story content, style, voice, and other writing elements. It involves your book covers, your website, your blog, your marketing collateral, how you dress in public at signings and conferences, how your email signature is worded—in other words, your brand is your message working in tandem with your personal “packaging”. The good news is that today we have even more avenues for building our brand than Mr. Patterson did years ago.

So, how do you create a brand from your message and personal packaging?

Your message is primarily the words that are contained in your books and the words used to describe your books. The packaging is the “framing” of those words. If the message and the packaging are not synchronized, you will create confusion in the marketplace. You control your message by the content of your stories. And it’s important that you work closely with the publicist and marketing department at your publisher to make sure your message matches the message they produce for promoting your books. If it doesn’t, keep working with them until everyone feels that it does.

What about the packaging decisions you can do yourself?

Start with your website. It’s one of the most important parts of your personal packaging. You’re in control of all aspects of its content and construction. Make sure it looks like your books. I know that sounds pretty basic, but you’d be surprised that the only similarity between some author’s websites and their books is that they show a picture of the book cover. For best packaging results, the entire site should have the same visual feel as your cover(s). If you can’t create or capture that yourself, find a professional to do it. Remember, it’s the TOTAL packaging that helps establish your brand.

Now think about the rest of your collateral material such as business cards, post cards, posters, bookmarks, newsletters, e-mail blasts, bulletins, etc. Do they project your brand? Are they an extension of your book covers and website? Again, if you can’t achieve a totally consistent personal package, find a professional designer that understands branding and packaging. The investment of using a design agency will pay for itself in the long run.

Make sure you know and understand what you want your brand to be. Understand who you are in relation to your brand. What kind of image do you want to portray? I’m not suggesting you come up with some fake persona and act like someone you’re not. But guess what? Being an author is acting. It’s acting out your brand. It’s your personal packaging.

In building your brand, you must consider all of these items working together. The consumer will come to expect it and it’s to your advantage to deliver.

As a writer, do you feel like you have a brand? If you do, is it the one you want? Are you aware of it? Can you think of some other examples of writers who have a consistent, strong brand?

Editing Tips for the Indie Author

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

Back in the days of legacy publishers ruling the world, getting a contract meant that your book would be edited by staff editors. First by the acquisition editor, then the copy/line editors and maybe additional content editors. It was mostly out of your hands. A lot has changed with the wave of indie publishing. Writers that can afford it can hire a freelance editor—there are many available. A simple Google search will reveal numerous sources. Most indie writers with a limited budget take on the task themselves. The last thing you want is to self-publish your masterpiece if it’s filled with mistakes. To make it as good as it can be, I’ve listed a collection of DIY tips on editing your own manuscript.

There are a number of stages in the editing process. Starting with the completion of your final draft, they involve reading and re-reading the entire manuscript many times over and making numerous changes during the process. It’s in this phase that you need to make sure your plot is seamless, your story is on track, your character development is consistent, and you didn’t leave out some major point of importance that could confuse the reader. At this stage, you’re taking the job of the content editor, so you must pay close attention to content. Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Is the flow of the story smooth and liquid? Do your scene and chapter transitions work? Is everything resolved at the end?

Next, check for clarity. Legacy publishers employ professional proofreaders. In your case, this is where beta readers come in handy. If it’s not clear to them, it won’t be clear to others. Don’t assume that everyone knows what you know or understands what you understand. Make it clear what’s going on in your story. Suspense cannot be created by confusing the reader.

Once you’ve finished this first pass searching for global plotting problems, it’s time to move on to the nuts and bolts of editing. Here you must tighten up your work by deleting all the extra words that don’t add to the reading experience or contribute to the story. Remember that every word counts. If a word doesn’t move the plot forward or help develop the characters, it should be deleted.

Some of the words that can be edited out are superfluous qualifiers such as “very” and “really.” This is always an area where less is more. For instance, you might describe a woman as being beautiful or being very beautiful. But when you think about it, what’s the difference? If she’s already beautiful, a word that is considered a definitive description, how can she exceed beautiful to become very beautiful? She can’t. So I suggest you search for and delete instances of “very” or “really”. They add nothing to your writing.

Next, scrutinize any word that ends in “ly”. Chances are, most adverbs can be deleted without changing the meaning of the sentence or your thoughts. In most cases, cutting them clarifies and makes your writing crisper.

After that, go hunting for clichés and overused phrases. There’s an old saying that if it comes easy, it’s probably a cliché. Avoiding clichés makes for fresher writing. There’s another saying that the only person allowed to use a cliché is the first one to use it.

Overused phrases are often found at the beginning of a sentence with words like “suddenly,” “so” and “now”. I find myself guilty of doing this, but they don’t add anything of value to my writing or yours. Get rid of them.

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.

One more piece of advice. Edit on hardcopy, not on your monitor. There’s something about dots of ink on the printed page that is much less forgiving than the glow of pixels. Remember, less is always more.

Any other editing tips?

Too Fast, Too Slow, Just Right

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

The story in most novels takes place over a period of time. Some are condensed to a few hours while many epic tales span generations and perhaps hundreds of years. But no matter what the timeframe is in your story, you control the pacing. You can construct a scene that contains a great amount of detail with time broken down into each minute or even second. The next scene might be used to move the story forward days, weeks or months in a single pass. If you choose to change-up your pacing for a particular scene, make sure you’re doing it for a solid reason such as to slow the story down or speed it up. Remember that as the author, you’re in charge of the pacing. And the way to do it is in a transparent fashion that maintains the reader’s interest. Here are a couple of methods and reasons for changing the pace of your story.

Slow things down when you want to place emphasis on a particular event. In doing so, the reader naturally senses that the slower pace means there’s a great deal of importance in the information being imparted. And in many respects, the character(s) should sense it, too.

Another reason to slow the pacing is to give your readers a chance to catch their breath after an action or dramatic chapter or scene. Even on a real rollercoaster ride, there are moments when the car must climb to a higher level in order to take the thrill seeker back down the next exciting portion of the attraction. You may want to slow the pacing after a dramatic event so the reader has a break and the plot can start the process of building to the next peak of excitement or emotion. After all, an amusement ride that only goes up or down, or worse, stays level, would be boring. The same goes for your story.

Another reason to slow the pace is to deal with emotions. Perhaps it’s a romantic love scene or one of deep internal reflection. Neither one would be appropriate if written with the same rapid-fire pacing of a car chase or shootout.

You might also want to slow the pacing during scenes of extreme drama. In real life, we often hear of a witness or victim of an accident describing it as if time slowed to a crawl and everything seemed to move in slow motion. The same technique can be used to describe a dramatic event in your book. Slow down and concentrate on each detail to enhance the drama.

What you want to avoid is to slow the scene beyond reason. One mistake new writers make is to slow the pacing of a dramatic scene, then somewhere in the middle throw in a flashback or a recalling of a previous event in the character’s life. In the middle of a head-on collision, no one stops to ponder a memory from childhood. Slow things down for a reason. The best reason is to enhance the drama.

A big element in controlling pacing is narration. Narrative can slow the pace. It can be used quite effectively to do so or it can become boring and cumbersome. The former is always the choice.

When you intentionally slow the pace of your story, it doesn’t mean that you want to stretch out every action in every scene. It means that you want to take the time to embrace each detail and make it move the story forward. This involves skill, instinct and craft. Leave in the important stuff and delete the rest.

There will always be stretches of long, desolate road in every story. By that I figuratively mean mundane stretches of time or distance where nothing really happens. Control your pacing by transitioning past these quickly. If there’s nothing there to build character or forward the plot, get past it with some sort of transition. Never bore the reader or cause them to skip over portions of the story. Remember that every word must mean something to the tale. The reader assumes that every word in your book must be important.

We’ve talked about slowing the pacing. How about when to speed it up?

Unlike narration, dialog can be used to speed things up. It gives the feeling that the pace is moving quickly. And the leaner the dialog is written, the quicker the pacing appears.

Action scenes usually call for a quicker pace. Short sentences and paragraphs with crisp clean prose will make the reader’s eyes fly across the page. That equates to fast pacing in the reader’s mind. Action verbs that have a hard edge help move the pace along. Also using sentence fragments will accelerate pacing.

Short chapters give the feeling of fast pacing whereas chapters filled with lengthy blocks of prose will slow the eye and the pace.

Just like the pace car at the Indianapolis 500 sets the pace for the start of the race and dramatic changes during the event such as yellow and red flags, you control the pace of your story. Tools such as dialog versus narration, short staccato sentences versus thick, wordy paragraphs, and the treatment of action versus emotion puts you in control of how fast or slow the reader moves through your story. And just like the colors on a painter’s pallet, you should make use of all your pacing pallet tools to transparently control how fast or slow the reader moves through your story.

What additional techniques do you use to control pacing?

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tomb-cover-smallMax is back! THE BLADE, book #3 in the Maxine Decker thriller Series is now available in print and e-book.

Developing Memorable Characters

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

As insatiable readers, we all have a favorite character or two or three. From Jay Gatsby to Sherlock Homes, from Atticus Finch to Hannibal Lecter, from Jack Ryan to Dirk Pitt. They all bore their way into our brains and became memorable. What was it about them that made them so? Why is it that even after years have passed since you read their stories, you still remember them as if they were your friend or neighbor? As a writer, can you produce characters like Scarlett O’Hara or Santiago or Jason Bourne? There’s no reason you can’t. Just follow these simple tips to creating memorable characters.

Probably one of the most effective techniques in character building is to give your characters flaws. If you want characters with perfect looks, perfect bodies, or perfect personalities, pick up a copy of Vogue. Otherwise, give them imperfections for which the reader can relate. We all have flaws, so should your characters—all of them from the main protag and antagonist to the most minor walk-on. They need to be imperfect.

Speaking of flaws, your protagonist should always have a fatal flaw. It could be anything from speaking in public to something life threatening like Kryptonite. It’s always there hanging over the protagonist’s head never knowing when it will fall.

Next, your main characters should be larger than life. This has nothing to do with physical size although it could. I’m talking larger than life in regards to courage, faith, kindness, intelligence, generosity, loyalty—a characteristic that exceeds most people, one that becomes necessary by the end of the story to solve the story question. We all have courage, but at the point where the common man’s courage gives out, the protagonist’s kicks in to save the day. And whatever the larger than element is, let the character learn how to use it having not known it existed before.

The antagonist should be equal to or in some respects greater than the protag. But not by much. The antag must challenge the hero’s standards and morals down to his very fiber. The antag must be a worthy adversary. If it’s a heavy weight fighting a bantam, who cares.

Your characters should have multilayers. They’re not just a tough guy or a beautiful woman or a genius. Give them a defining characterization such as being an introvert, then place them in a situation where they must become the opposite.

Indiana Jones had a fatal flaw—snakes. He had to overcome his biggest fear to answer his biggest call to action. Put your hero in a situation where the thing that stands in the way is that biggest fear. Now have them figure out how to overcome it.

Throw obstacles in your protags path. Never give them a cakewalk assignment. Always place speed bumps and walls in their way. You want your reader to be asking “How will they get out of this one?” And make each wall higher than the last. Even if the reader has no idea how to escape that current predicament, the protag somehow figures it out. That’s what makes them memorable.

Finally, make life miserable for your protagonist. When it gets bad, make it worse. Never give them a decent brake. Push, push, then push some more. That’s why we read thrillers. We want to see what happens when the good guy or gal gets pushed to the limit and overcomes it. If need be, torture your protag. Not necessarily physically. It could be mental or moral. Give him or her a decision that builds their character. Memorable characters are those that step up to the plate, make the right choice, and swing for the bleachers.

Happy Tax Day!

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Vengeance can be earth-shattering!
tomb-cover-smallMaxine Decker returns this July in her most dangerous adventure yet; THE TOMB.
Be ready.

Tips for researching your story

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

My co-author, Lynn Sholes, and I write globe-hopping thrillers that always deal with some form of futuristic technology—human cloning, quantum computing and mechanics, string theory, human cell regeneration, faster-than-light propulsion, and many other yet-to-be-developed science. We spend a great deal of time before and during the drafting of our manuscript researching or story. Often, we call upon experts to help us formulate our fictionalized theories. For instance, we contacted a famous geneticist and asked: “We know you can’t regenerate an entire human body from just a sample of DNA, but if you could, how would it be done.” The result was the science in THE PHOENIX APOSTLES.

I find researching for our novels to be as much fun as writing them. It’s the excitement of uncovering those tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. I believe that research adds layers to a story. It keeps the story from becoming thin and two-dimensional. With the right amount of research, we can round out character’s lives, locations, settings, and atmosphere. Each layer helps transport our readers into a more fascinating and realistic story-world. Some genres demand more research than others—science fiction, medical, legal, criminal, and historical to name a few. But all books can benefit from in-depth research.

The general rule in researching for a manuscript is: more is better during the collecting stage but less is better during the writing stage. Here are some tips to help find the right balance.

When we research, we collect a great deal of material, almost always more than we need. We come across a lengthy article on a topic and highlight a dozen of those tasty info tidbits. The skill to researching is to choose one or two that will enhance the reader’s experience without bogging down the tale or turning our writing into a dry college lecture or travel guide. If you have a number of research items available for a particular scene, pick the one that helps put a little bit more icing on the story cake. Ask yourself which one helps develop the character or move the story forward the best. That’s the one to use. Keep the others in mind in case they’re needed later. Also remember that choosing the right research data will help lend authenticity to our writer’s voice.

Another tip is to never talk down to the reader by using information from our research that they might not understand. Never confuse the reader or push them out of the story by making them feel they’re not as smart as the writer. It’s really easy to put a book down and move to another out of frustration. Keep it simple—but not too simple. There are a number of ways to talk down to the reader. Avoid them all by not talking over their heads or dumbing down the information as if you were explaining it to a child. Even if the readers may not totally understand a fact or word, use it in such a way that they can mostly grasp the meaning from the context of the scene.

Avoid throwing in facts from your research just to prove you know how to look stuff up. Again, use your research only if it helps build your characters or advances your plot. Showing off your knowledge is not why the reader enjoys reading.

Lastly, avoid the dreaded info dump. Spread out your research information in just the right amounts to keep the reader from skimming over pages or skipping ahead. Your novel can educate readers and take them to places they’ve never been, but don’t forget that first and foremost, the reader wants to be entertained, not go back to school. Sprinkle in your research like spices and seasoning in a gourmet dish. Too little creates a bland taste, too much creates heartburn.

Zoners, any other researching tips and experiences to share?
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tomb-cover-small“Vengeance can be earth-shattering.”
Max is back! Coming in July, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB, book #3 in the Decker series. This time around, the former OSI agent risks her life to stop the elimination of an entire branch of the U.S. Government.

Subplots

By Joe Moore
@JoeMoore_writer

One of the most dreaded parts of a book to write is the middle, or what I call the “muddle”. Beginnings are fun and somewhat easy, and endings can be, too. But the tar pit in the middle can bog a writer (and reader) down, sometimes to the point of no recovery. One method of beefing up the submarine-clipart-Submarine-Clip-Art-24.jpgmiddle is the use of subplots.

But just knowing about subplots and their importance is not enough. Many writers are not completely sure what a subplot is, much less how to weave one into the story so that the subplot strengthens the main plot and its characters. Here are some tips to help understand how subplots play a role in your story.

What Is A Subplot?

A subplot is a secondary story that runs parallel to the main plot. One of the easiest methods to understanding subplots is to look at the different layers of your own life. From the moment you awaken in the morning until you fall asleep at night, the plot of your life story is to do what needs to be done to maintain your existence—go to work, do your job, take on and complete tasks, go home and spend time with your family, end your day with plans to repeat and improve your plot tomorrow.

Possible subplots

1. Your car is old and prone to breaking down. On the way to work, it dies for good. You don’t have the money to fix it.

2. Your son calls from college with bad news—he’s failing and needs to move back home.

3. The neighbor’s dog barks constantly but the owner won’t do anything about it.

These are simple subplots, but they can help to provide additional conflict to your story and generate suspense when needed, especially in the muddle. Dealing with them can also help to develop your main character so his actions are more believable concerning the main plot.

When choosing a subplot, make sure it has something to do with the main plot. It might be interesting to have your main character decide to go sky diving, but unless doing so provides an opportunity to have him face his fear of heights or build up his courage for what’s to come later in the main story, it would be a waste of time.

When should you start a subplot?

If the subplot is about your protagonist, you should introduce it as soon as possible. If you intend to have multiple subplots, their starts can be staggered later in the story. Let’s take subplot #3 in the suggestions from above—the barking dog. Your protagonist could be awakened by the dog at the beginning of the story. It could be a cause for constant irritation whenever he’s home and could come up a number of times throughout the plot as the protagonist tries to deal with the neighbor. The barking dog subplot has nothing to do with the main plot other than to show the protagonist’s ability to cope with the problem and his skill at dealing with hostile people. These characteristics will come in play later when dealing with the big events of the plot.

Moving between plot and subplots

An obvious back and forth between plot and subplot can come off as contrived. It’s better to weave the subplot into the main plot so that they seem one and the same. For instance, the protagonist is awakened by the barking dog on the day of the big corporate presentation—the main thrust of the plot. If they don’t get the account, he could be let go. The barking puts him in a foul mood. He phones home after the meeting to let his wife know how it went only to hear the dog barking in the background of the call. He gets home, thankful that the dog is not barking. But at 3:00 AM his peaceful sleep is once again interrupted by the barking. Solving the issue of the dog and its owner is not the main plot of the book, but it is a character-building opportunity and a cause for conflict.

So when things get bogged down in the muddle, rely on the subplot(s) you’ve already introduced and built upon to fill the gaps and move the story forward.

How about you? Do you use subplots? Any additional tips to define and utilize them?

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tomb-coverMax is back! Coming this Spring, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB from Sholes & Moore. #1 New York Times bestseller Brad Thor calls Sholes & Moore one of his favorite writing teams.