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How to Successfully “Genre Hop” as an Author

| Posted in E-publishing, Writing |

20

If you’re an indie author, you’ve probably heard this advice: write in a series and publish often. If you genre hop, your readers won’t follow you. If you have too many series going at once, you’ll struggle to build momentum and hit critical mass. Just focus!

It’s not bad advice. It comes from the business side of publishing, the side that’s focused on selling books and making money.

But writers are usually artists first and entrepreneurs later (if at all). As artists, we like to dabble. We’re always getting new ideas that we want to explore. For some of us, the urge to genre hop cannot be resisted!

But is it a career killer? Will all of your momentum grind to a halt as your mystery/thriller fans side-eye that fantasy romance you just published?

Let’s be honest: it won’t help things.

It’s rare to see someone who writes in fantasy this month, romance next month, and horror the month after that gaining a big audience and making a living as an author. Those who do manage to genre hop successfully are usually very prolific so they’re able to publish something new in each genre/series every few months, even as they explore other passions.

In general, though, genre hopping comes with challenges. Fans of one genre won’t necessarily be fans of another, so you essentially have to build up multiple fan bases. It’s easier to stick to one genre and become known for a certain type of book.

But if you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re thinking of genre hopping anyway. So, how do you do it and manage to succeed?

How to Successfully Genre Hop

I’ve failed with genre hopping, and I’ve also done it right (with my pen name). Even though that pen name is fairly neglected these days, you can go back to 2014 and read the posts I wrote at the time when I launched it, where I anonymously started a new name to write science fiction romance: reporting in after one month and reporting in after 10 weeks.

Admittedly, starting a pen name isn’t quite the same as jumping into a new genre under your existing name, but it’s the best example I’ve got right now, as least from my own previously published novels. I’m about to launch a new series under my name, a science fiction adventure series, so I’ve definitely been thinking about how to give myself a good chance of gathering momentum and garnering readers (and sales!) in the new genre. As you probably know, almost everything else written under my name is fantasy. There’s only one exception, a contemporary mystery/sweet romance/thing that’s a pretty good example of what not to do when jumping into a new genre.

I wrote that story a few years ago without thinking about whether it fit neatly into any established sub-genres out there (note: it doesn’t). I had no idea what to do for the cover (note: it shows). I believe that book earned out editing and cover art costs, but not much more. It’s sitting at a sales ranking of about 300,000 in the Amazon store these days. Only my die-hard readers check it out. I’m fairly certain that nobody who wasn’t already a fan ever found it and read it.

So based on my various learning experiences (failures and successes), here’s what I’m trying with the new series and what I suggest for others doing the same:

Commit to Writing Multiple Books in a Series to Launch in the New Genre

I probably would have more luck with the one-off mystery/romance if I’d turned it into a series, and at the time I was planning to write more of them. I set things up so there could be at least two more romances with the characters introduced in the first book. (And heck, I may still go back and write those stories one day.)

But I launched the book without having any sequels started or any solid commitment as to when I would publish them. I didn’t have a big launch strategy either. I basically emailed my list and said, “Hey, here’s a new book if you want to try it. There’s no magic in it. Or sword fights. Or dragons. Enjoy!”

Needless to say, it didn’t skyrocket to the top of any charts.

This time, I’m doing what I did with the pen name launch (by the way, if you’re thinking, “Hey, your pen name stuff is closer in genre to this new science fiction adventure, so maybe you should be launching it under your pen name,” you’re right, except that LB stuff is PG-13, and the pen name stuff is naughtier). My new series isn’t naughty (alas).

I wrote the first three books in the new SF series (Fallen Empire) before I even sent the first one to my editor. I’m launching Books 1, 2, and 3 back to back. The first one goes up this week, May 26th, and I’ll probably throw 2 and 3 out less than a week apart. They’re all just about ready to go now.

My reason for doing this is in part because I hope to gain some momentum with the rapid releases, and it’s also in part to help me commit to writing several books in the series. Sometimes, if you just write one and put it out there, and it doesn’t do that well, it’s easy to get discouraged and never get around to writing the follow-ups. (That’s what happened to me with Wounded.)

I’m 30,000 words into Book 4 now, before Book 1 ever launches. I told myself I’d write five books in this series before sitting back and seeing if it’s worth continuing or if I should then try to wrap it up. I’ll publish 4 a month after 3 and 5 a month after 4. (Sometime after that, I might need a vacation.)

This is all designed to give the new series a good start and to try to make some Top 100 lists over on Amazon where new readers (readers who prefer science fiction adventures to swords and dragons!) might find it. Because even though I have awesome readers already, and even though some of them will try out the new books, it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll have to attract some new SF-loving readers if I want the books in the new genre to sell well.

It’s very hard to find those new readers and do well if you only have one book out in the new genre. There’s a lot of churn on Amazon especially, but on the other sites too. It’s hard to keep books ranking in a category over time. But continually publishing new books in a series can help with that, by constantly giving you something new for the Hot New Releases lists and by keeping your name and series out there where people can stumble across it. If they find Book 3 or Book 5 and think they look interesting, chances are they’ll go and look for Book 1.

Consider a Low (or even free) Launch Price for Book 1

Even if you’re an established author in your regular genre, readers in the new one may never have heard of you. By launching at 99 cents (or even considering free), people may take the leap of faith and give your stuff a try. Because you’ve committed to writing at least two more stories in the series (and may already have them written), you don’t need to cringe at the idea of only making 35 cents per sale. You have two more books out, or coming out soon, that the readers can go on to buy at full price.

When I launched the pen name books, I made Book 1 permafree everywhere as quickly as I could. I paid for a few inexpensive ads for it, and ended up getting about 20,000 downloads in that first 8 weeks or so. Not bad for a pretty niche little genre. (And I wasn’t even writing the popular tropes within that niche genre.) I made thousands of dollars in those first couple of months, thanks to strong sales of the 2nd and 3rd books.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when, several months later, I made that book 99 cents so I could put it into Kindle Unlimited, sales dropped off. Even though Amazon’s KDP Select lets you make a book free for 5 days a quarter, it’s not quite the same as always having it free and continually being able to advertise it. I’ll probably eventually make that series wide (I think KU can be helpful when you’re launching a series, which I’ll talk about next, but once your books drop out of the Top 100s, it becomes less useful.)

Consider Amazon’s KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited (exclusivity with Amazon) for the Launch

This is advice that could change in the future, since Amazon is always tinkering with KDP Select and the Kindle Unlimited subscription program, but for the last year, I’ve been seeing a lot of newer authors come out of nowhere and hit and stick in the various Top 100 category lists (in case you didn’t know, I’m one of the hosts on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, and we interview a lot of different guests). Almost all of those authors were in KDP Select (in fact, I can actually name the one and only debut author selling well who wasn’t, because it’s that rare right now).

The reason KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited is such a help currently is because it’s easier to get a borrow of a book (from a KU subscriber) than it is to get a sale. That’s just common sense. And for the time being, all of those borrows count as strongly as sales in Amazon’s sales ranking calculations. That means that an author who isn’t exclusive with Amazon might being selling 50 books a day to maintain his sales ranking whereas a KDP Select author might only sell 20 books a day and get 30 borrows to maintain a similar ranking. In the Amazon store,it’s an advantage to be in KDP Select (and it’s a disadvantage if you’re not).

If you’re not already selling like hotcakes on the other platforms, then you may want to start off the new genre/series in KDP Select. I actually sell reasonably well on Barnes & Noble and Kobo, in particular, but after seeing so many people doing well with the help of Kindle Unlimited, I’ve finally decided to try a series there.

Since it doesn’t tie in with anything else I’ve written, and nobody’s yet dying to know about these characters, it seemed like the logical time. I’m expecting some pushback from readers anyway. We’ll see how it goes. My current plan is try the series there for the first 90-180 days and see if it’s worthwhile. I.e. am I making much more because I’m in Kindle Unlimited than I would be if those books were wide? Whether or not that’s the case, I expect the momentum for the series to have faded by the end of six months, so that’ll probably be the time to go wide. That’ll make it right in time for Christmas, so at least I can offer that to my readers on other platforms.

Give Away a Story (in the new genre) to Build your Mailing List

This isn’t new advice, but I’m talking specifically about giving away something related to the new series you’re launching. In my case, I even started a new mailing list. My regular one has such a mix of readers on it — some who like one series, some who like another, and some who’ve never read my books and just signed up because of my blog posts. I decided to start a fresh one for the science fiction. I also don’t want to annoy existing subscribers who read on other platforms by constantly mentioning new releases of books that are only on Amazon.

I’m not doing Facebook ads or anything fancy to get people onto the mailing list. I’m just putting a notice in the back of the new books that says if readers sign up, they’ll get a free short story that takes place between Books 1 and 2 in the series. They’ll also eventually get a prequel novella — I’d originally intended to make that the giveaway item from the start, but I didn’t get it written in time. So, they’ll get two goodies if they stick around!

Accept That Your Also-Boughts Might Be a Problem and Advertise to Get Around It

A lot of time when we switch genres, we worry that our current readers won’t follow us over. Believe it or not, you might have an easier time if they don’t, or at least if they don’t right away.

When you launch a new book, you want to sell enough copies that it starts appearing in the also-boughts of similar books in that genre. This is a big part of how discoverability works on Amazon. Ideally, I want my science fiction series to show up in the also-boughts of similar SF books.

But here’s what’s going to happen: it’s going to show up in the also-boughts for books for my other series. My other fantasy series. If Amazon emails readers about the new science fiction release, it’s going to end up going out to fantasy fans.

This is one of the reasons a pen name can actually make a lot of sense. You can always tell your current readers about the new books after the also-boughts have been established.

I’m not worrying too much about this (I think a lot of my existing readers will enjoy this series if they give it a try, so I’ve been telling them about it all along) because I honestly don’t have high expectations for this series, insofar as getting sales right out the door goes. I don’t think it’s written to market (hitting the popular tropes) enough that it has a chance of sticking in the SF rankings for months and months. As is often the case for me (when I say often I mean always), stories come to mind, and I get excited about writing them, and I don’t think much about marketing until after the books are done. All that said, I am trying to give it a good shot to do well.

If you’ve written something to market in your new genre, and think it has a shot at sticking on Amazon, you may want to try and snag some ads for that first week or two that it’s out. This could help you with getting onto the right kinds of also-boughts, those of other books in your new genre. I’m going to try a few ads myself.

Some of the sponsorship sites, which have predominantly run bargain books with lots of reviews in the past, are now accepting new releases. I have ads lined up with Ereader News Today, Fussy Librarian, and Free Kindle Books and Tips for the new Book 1. I may tinker a bit with Facebook ads, too, though I’m not a pro with them and usually just throw money away there.

Look for Promotional Opportunities with Other Authors Working in the Genre

People are still using mutli-author boxed sets and multi-author anthologies as a way for exposure. If you put a Book 1 into a boxed set, some of the readers may go on to buy your other books, and because numerous authors are promoting the set or anthology, it should get more exposure than it would if you were just promoting your own stuff.

This can be particularly powerful if you don’t already have a fan base in the new genre. Just as I a wrote a short story for my mailing list, I also wrote a short story for an anthology that’s coming out next month. It’s going to be a permafree anthology, so we should get lots of people trying it, and many of the other authors already have science fiction books out and lists of fans who enjoy the genre. I’m hoping that some of their readers will like my story and will want to go on and check out the series. (My story takes place between Books 2 and 3 in my series, but I designed it to work as a stand-alone.)

All right, as usual, I’ve rambled long enough here. You now know all of my plans! Like I said, I don’t think my series has enough of the popular tropes to really kill it (and I already gave away over 1500 copies of Book 1 to my regular readers), but I’m crossing my fingers that it will at least do well enough that I won’t regret having “genre hopped” instead of buckling down and writing more fantasy.

Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. Let us know if you’ve experimented with genre hopping and how your results were.

Finding a Good Editor, Talent Vs. Training, and Writing Banter

| Posted in Writing |

11

A couple of weeks ago, I started answering reader questions that came in via a Facebook post. Here’s the first batch, if you’re interested: Writing Humor, Writing Quickly, and Well-Rounded Characters.

Today I’m back with another round.

Patricia asks, “I’d like you to let other Indie writers understand how important it is to have a good line/copy editor. Your books come out in a timely manner and yet are so well edited compared to many Indie authors I’ve read. How is it that you are so prolific, yet have time to get excellent editing done? Or are you just that good right off the bat?” And Liberty adds, “Tagging onto Patricia, how to go about selecting the right editor for your project(s).

Well, good is in the eye of the beholder (or reader), I suppose, but I’ve written enough now that the rough drafts usually come out pretty close to what the final book will be. I have a couple of overworked and underpaid beta readers go over the manuscripts to let me know if my characters’ names changed, or if my mystery is confusing instead of delightfully engaging, or if I’ve unintentionally offended large portions of the population. Then I send the manuscript off to my editor, Shelley Holloway, and she can usually go through a full-length novel in a week (I only get copy-editing, not developmental editing or anything major). I do need to book her in advance, since she has other clients. Because I write quickly, it can be a challenge to guess when I’ll have things ready and to book far enough in advance, but she’s always great about working me in when she can.

I think most independent authors know that having an editor is a good (crucial) idea, but it’s not inexpensive, so I understand why some authors can’t hire a professional, especially when they’re just starting out. I also think some authors rush to publish before they’re really ready, and no amount of editing can fix a fundamentally flawed book.

I’m probably lucky that self-publishing wasn’t a trendy thing when I was getting started. I joined a writing workshop, assuming that I would have to query agents, and I also assumed I would have to write a few novels before I had anything that might catch someone’s eye. Even though I never liked reading short stories, I wrote lots of them so I could submit them to magazines and anthologies, in that hope that I might sell some and that those sales would look good on a query letter. This was all good practice and taught me a lot (even if I still don’t like short stories).

I did end up selling some short stories, and I was on the verge of sending out query letters for Encrypted (EE1 was sitting on my hard drive, because agents weren’t looking for high fantasy in 2010) when I got my first Kindle and stumbled across J.A. Konrath’s blog on his success with self-publishing. This rest is history.

My rambling point is that if a writer hasn’t learned the basics, they’re not ready to find an editor or to publish. There aren’t many first novels that should ever see the light of day. But you do need feedback on first novels, so that you can learn what you’re doing well and what needs improvement. That’s where workshops, either online or locally, can be a big help. Some people prefer writing classes and conferences or learning from books, too, but it’s important to get feedback from objective parties at some point (not your family).

As far as finding the right editor goes, ask for references, and then once you pick one or two likely candidates, ask if they’ll edit a few sample pages for you (most professionals will). Look and see what changes they suggest. Do they make sense? Do you agree with them? Are they rewriting things that don’t, in your opinion, need to be rewritten? You should be able to tell after you’ve seen a few pages of their work if you’re going to mesh.

Kantami asks, “I would love to know how you manage to keep the banter between your characters so fresh, it always works well within the story and makes me laugh.”

I talked a bit about humor in the other post and the straight-man-funny-man set-up. Usually the dialogue flows out naturally for me, based on the differences in the characters. Strong personalities and interesting quirks give you a lot to work with. Usually my point-of-view characters aren’t overly eccentric, because I want the reader to connect with them, but with the side characters, you can play around more.

I try not to go overboard, because humor is subjective and because it’s possible to try too hard and have things feel forced and unnatural. Most of the time for me, it’s just the characters talking about the plot and the conflict and the strange situation I’ve put them into. If it happens to make the reader smile, great. If not, hey, we’re still moving the plot along.

Nancy asks, “The ability to write a novel is a mysterious and awesome act of creation, at least to me. How much of your ability to write such consistently good stories is pure talent, and how much is due to training and experience? What kind of writing training have you had?”

I’m old enough now to have found a measure of success in a handful of hobbies and entrepreneurial activities (still waiting to become awesome at tennis!), and that’s taught me that some people are born with more talent for X, Y, or Z than other people, but that talent alone doesn’t get you very far. If you sign up for a martial arts class, you’ll see that a lot of people who start at the same time might seem more talented–or maybe you’re the one for whom everything comes easily–but several years later, maybe one in a hundred or even one in a thousand will actually get the black belt and win trophies at competitions. Was that one person the most talented back on Day 1? Probably not. He or she was just the one that liked the sport enough to make time to do it week in and week out, without letting life get in the way for long.

For myself (let’s talk about writing instead of the way I dropped out of karate…), I mentioned the workshops I belonged to already. In addition to that, I wrote as a kid, and I wrote all through school. I drifted away from it for a while as an adult, but I came back to it and decided to get serious about completing works and finding and audience for them. From that point on, I kept chugging along. I didn’t have any meteoric success with my first book, but enough people left good reviews that I was encouraged, and I had sold enough short stories at that point, too, that I believed I was good enough. Not great, but good enough.

I believed that I could write stories that at least some people would enjoy. And I learned to play to my strengths. I suck at world building, probably because I don’t care that much about it beyond a few interesting details here and there, so I don’t spend a lot of time on it in my novels. Designing big complicated plots with cunning twists and turns? Not really my thing. Usually I confuse myself when I try to write a mystery. But humor? Yeah, I seem to have a bit of a knack for that. Characters that people care about? That seems to come naturally, maybe because I put all of my own fears and insecurities into my heroes. So, I write character-driven stories with heroes who don’t take themselves too seriously, at least not for very long at a time.

A lot of finding success is just being the person who kept going after everyone else quit. If you do some of the writing stuff well and some of the marketing stuff sort of okay, and you keep publishing books, chances are, you can get to the point where you’re doing this for a living.

Lou asks, I always find that thinking of names gives me issues when writing – how do you come up with so many original names?? …Do you plan it all or just take the Amaranthe approach of having a rough plan and playing it by ear as it develops?” 

Are you sure you want to ask this from the author who named a town Wolfhump? And who named a character Sardelle, only to later find out that this is the Gernam word for sardine?

Okay…

So, I’m fairly horrible at naming characters, towns, and novels for that matter. Character names in early stories came via digging through Latin-to-English dictionaries (Sicarius, ahem). Not that creative. Later, I adopted more of a smash-keyboard approach. These days, I tend to write down street names or surnames that I see and like, and I’ll change a couple of letters to give it some fantasy flair. (Tolemek came from Tolemac Street, which I drive by every day; I noticed it was Camelot spelled backward, so it stuck in my mind.)

If I’m fit to give advice on this topic (questionable!), that would be it. Keep a swipe file on your phone or a pad of paper you always have with you and stick names or even cool ideas for stories in it. You never know when you’ll hear something that intrigues you and want to use it.

Pantsing vs. Outlining

As for planning things, I’m guessing this refers to the plot of the novel? I started my writing life as more of a pantser (I learned fairly early on that if I knew how things ended, I could find my way there), but as I was wanting to learn to write more quickly and be able to publish more novels in a year, I realized that outlining was key in learning to write faster. As long as I know what’s going to happen in a scene, I can sit down and write 1500-2000 words in an hour. If I’m kind of finding my way through the scene, the output drops considerably. 15 minutes of planning before a writing session makes a big difference in how much I get done in a day.

These days, I usually do about a 2,000-word outline before getting started. It’s not that neat, and there aren’t any tidy numbers or bullet points; it’s mostly a big picture overview of what I think the major plot points will be. If any cool dialogue jumps into my head, I’ll write it down, but it’s usually not until I’m writing the scene that dialogue comes to mind.

I don’t stick religiously to the outline. It’s just what helps me get the story firmly in my mind. Sometimes I end up following it fairly closely, but other times, I’ll have deviated by the end of Chapter 3. Sometimes I deviate so much that I’m not even looking at the outline from Chapter 5 onward. But I’ll continue to brainstorm the next 2-3 scenes out before I write them, often the night before, but sometimes on a dog walk during the morning. I have yet to knock myself out while typing notes into my phone, but I’ll keep you updated on that…

I have a few more questions to answer, so I’ll do another batch in the future. Thanks for taking a look, all!

After 20 Novels, What Does Your Editing Process Look Like?

| Posted in Editing, Writing |

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When I write about my self-publishing journey here, I usually stick more to publishing strategies and marketing topics, but a couple of people have asked me editing questions lately. As I close in on twenty novels (between my name and the new pen name, I should hit that number this Christmas, for my four-year self-publishing anniversary) and almost as many short stories and novellas, I guess it’s fair to say that I’ve developed a system.

My first novel (the first novel that I finished anyway), The Emperor’s Edge, took about seven years from conception to publication (and that didn’t even include looking for an agent/publisher, since I went straight to self-publishing!). Granted, there were years where I didn’t touch it at all in there, but I was definitely finding my way as a writer. I ran it through the SFF Online Writing Workshop twice, several years apart, before “getting serious” and deciding I not only wanted to be a writer, but I wanted it to be the full-time job (yes, quite ambitious for someone who had yet to publish anything). My second novel, Encrypted, also went through the workshop. I wrote that one a little more quickly and had it polished and ready to go in just under a year.

These days, it usually takes me a month to write a first draft (though I’ve done it in as little as two weeks) for a standard-length novel (80-100K). The beastly 220K+ word Republic took two months.

My first round of edits might take about a week for something that involves fact-checking and doing some research (I don’t usually spend a lot of time on either when I’m writing the first draft, because I don’t like to break the flow) or only three days for a simple story that’s set in a made-up world and doesn’t involve much of that.

After I’ve gone over the manuscript once, I send it off to beta readers, who will point out everything from typos to logic errors to confusing action sequences. I’ll usually start working on something else while I’m waiting for them to send the manuscript back. Once it returns, I’ll address their comments again and then either go over the whole story one more time (depending on the degree of the changes I made) or just go over the particular scenes where I made significant changes.

After that, the manuscript is off to my editor, Shelley Holloway, who will check for grammar issues, typos, and anything else confusing that my beta readers might not have pointed out. Again, I’m usually working on something else while she has my manuscript — gotta keep things going if you want to do this full time!

When Shelley is done, she’ll send the manuscript back, and I’ll run through and accept/reject changes and fix any issues she pointed out. We’ll usually go back and forth a couple of times before it’s ready to be turned into an ebook. Once Shelley gets started, it’s usually only about a week or maybe a week and a few days for us to do all of this (she’s doing the heavy lifting at this point). She has numerous clients, though, so I’ll have to book her in advance (sometimes hard when you write quickly) or just accept that there will be a bit of a wait before she can get started. (Again, this is why I always have something else ready to start on.)

The whole process, from Word 1 to finished novel, usually takes a couple of months now, with the slowing-down points being the times when the manuscript is off with beta readers or with my editor (or when I haven’t gotten an order for cover art in early enough, so I’m waiting on that). With one novel (Balanced on the Blade’s Edge), I wrote, edited, and published it in 30 days, but that was more of a bucket-list thing than the norm. Even if I can work that quickly, other people (beta readers, editors, cover artists) have lives (and other clients).

So, there’s an overview, but here are the answers to some more writing/editing-specific questions I’ve received:

A book in a month? A rough draft in two weeks? Don’t you think the quality of the writing suffers if you’re going that fast?

When I first heard about people writing 10,000 words (or more) a day, I thought the same thing, but I also realized that when I was writing my usual 2- to 3,000 words a day (1,000 before this became the day job) that it honestly didn’t take me that long to get those words down and that a big chunk of my day was spent screwing around online or around the house. I knew I could accomplish more and I actually started to feel a little guilty about not getting more done.

So I started to use timers to make myself stay off the internet for chunks of time and to do nothing but write during those slots (I’ve heard of other authors having a dedicated writing computer that isn’t connected to the internet). I realized that if I had everything outlined ahead of time, I too, could have 10,000-word days. That isn’t the norm necessarily, but now I feel pretty lazy if I’m working on a new draft and don’t get at least 5,000 down.

All of this equates to finishing rough drafts in less than a month. Is there any difference in my writing if I type 2,000 words a day versus typing 10,000 words a day? Not at all. It’s simply a matter of spending less of my day goofing off. If anything, I’ve learned that my first drafts tend to be more cohesive and need less editing when I finish them in a few weeks. Writing quickly lets me stay “in the flow” of the story. It’s closer to the way you would actually tell a story, if you were sharing it with a friend, closer to real time, if you will.

Back when it took me much longer, I would spend a lot of time rereading scenes and trying to remember what happened in the opening chapters. This way, the entire story is solid in my head the whole time I’m writing, and there are less gaffs to fix later.

You don’t seem to spend much time on the editing process. I usually have to rewrite X number of times. What’s the secret?

I did some major rewriting of the endings for both The Emperor’s Edge and Encrypted. Hating the original ending is one of the reasons EE took so long to finish (I abandoned it for a few years because I didn’t like the ending and wasn’t sure how to fix it.)

The secret… outlining. I was more of a pantser (writing by the seat of my pants) early on, and I often wrote my characters into situations that I didn’t know how to get them out of. I would get stuck and sometimes lose interest and end up abandoning the manuscript altogether.

I don’t do extensive outlines now, but I always summarize the basic story (a small paragraph per chapter) before I start writing. I’ll often deviate from that outline, but I always know how the story will end, and that lets me more easily find a way to that point.

In the morning, I’ll also do more detailed outlines of scenes I’m going to work on that day, especially if I’m trying to hit 10k words. Those might include some snatches of dialogue, things that wouldn’t tend to be in my overall outline.

Having that roadmap in place let’s me get the story down more quickly when it’s time to write. I already know what’s happening next, so I’m not staring at the screen and trying to figure things out.

Since, before even getting started, I’ve already found my way around potential pitfalls, I don’t usually run into a problem where I have to do a major rewrite when I’m editing. I’m usually tightening up sentences and fixing little issues, but not cutting chapters or changing an ending. (Early on, I was much more likely to have to cut scenes, but I find that rare now.)

I’ll also add here that I’m sure a lot of improvements in efficiency are just a matter of having written numerous novels. I remember how I used to dwell on every sentence when I was sharing chapters on that workshop. Maybe I should use a better verb here. Could this be cut? Is this too much of a run-on sentence? Eventually you internalize the rules and don’t think at all about sentence construction; you’re just telling the story and not letting the words get in the way. I think you tend to second-guess yourself less on the story itself too.

I’ve been told you should put a rough draft away for a while before jumping into editing, but you start right in? Do you think you lose any perspective that way?

I’ve heard that, too, and I used to do it, but I’ve found that when I take a big break (maybe because I got caught up in a new project) that I have a little trouble getting back into the manuscript. I won’t have the story as solidly in my head anymore. Also, because I write a first draft straight through without editing, I’ll often have some things in mind that I know I need to go back and address. I want to get to those before I forget about them.

That said, there’s inevitably a break between my first and second round of edits, since that’s when the beta readers have the manuscript.

When you’re writing your first draft, do you edit as you go?

Almost never. For me, writing the first draft is about getting the story down and that’s it. A rare exception is if I thought of something I wanted to add to the scene I was working on the day before. If so, I might back up to the top of the page and work that in before getting started. But I never go back and tinker majorly with previously written scenes.

I usually suggest that other people don’t either, even new writers. Especially new writers. After you’ve finished the story, you may find that you end up cutting a scene or rewriting your opening chapter, in which case you were just wasting time if you tinkered with it a lot early on. New writers, in particular, tend to find that they started the story a chapter (or maybe chapters) earlier than they needed to, and that their “inciting incident” needs to be moved forward a lot to hook the reader.

Do you have a revisions checklist or do you just wing it? (submitted by )

No checklist. I just read through from start to finish and fix what needs fixing.

I will sometimes have a couple of notes to keep in mind as I go through the manuscript. For example, in Rust & Relics 1, I established that Simon, one of the main characters, has trouble speaking to one of the other characters (because she’s a hottie and he’s in luuuurve). I have a note here, reminding myself to add a few more instances of him fumbling his sentences, because that’s something I forgot about a little as I was writing the first draft of Book 2.

How do you detach yourself from the story to edit, especially considering you usually go into the novels right after finishing it? (submitted by )

How do I step back and look objectively at it? This may just be a personality thing, but I’m rarely so close to a story that I think it’s awesome and fail to see flaws — I feel like I can be fairly analytical from the get-go. I’m also a super picky reader myself (I’m one of those people who got into writing in part because I struggled to find stories that I enjoyed reading), so I’m sensitive to whether a scene is dragging, characters are flat, or there’s not enough conflict to keep things interesting.

Does that mean everyone is going to love my stories, and that they’re perfect? Of course not. Sometimes I recognize flaws that I’m not sure how to fix; sometimes flaws get past me. I just hope the stories are good enough to entertain. (I’m still surprised and delighted when I get fan mail from people who really enjoy the books.)

If you start thinking of your novel as the creation of some sublime piece of art that’s supposed to wow critics and become a part of the Zeitgeist, then you’re probably setting yourself up for a frustrating experience, one in which you revise and revise and maybe never finish. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good” or “Perfect is the enemy of done.” Definitely true with writing novels.

Any tips for story stuff (versus grammar)? (submitted by )

There are lots of books on writing that cover story construction, and those authors are much better teachers than I am, so I don’t know that I have a lot to say here, except that when I’m writing/editing, I try to…

  • Give the characters quirks that make them seem like real people
  • Give the characters compelling problems that they have to overcome
  • Advance the story (have the protagonists working toward resolving conflict) with each scene
  • Up the stakes (make life more difficult for the heroes) whenever possible
  • Add some interesting/unique elements to the world to make it fun to explore
  • Leave out the “boring” parts, insomuch as you can recognize them (if you start skimming while you’re re-reading that’s a sure sign that there’s not enough conflict going on in the scene to keep the story compelling)
  • Work setting tidbits in unobtrusively, i.e. into the action or even dialogue
  • Make sure most of the conflict ties into the overall plot and isn’t just there Oregon-Trail style to perk up a slow scene (Mary has dysentery! Oh, but she recovers, and it turns out it didn’t matter at all.)

What software do you use for writing and editing?

I write in Scrivener. I’m sure I don’t use 90% of the features, but I love that all of my chapters and scenes are labeled and on display over in the menu, so it’s easy to jump around in the story if I need to. I wrote my first two novels in Word, with everything in one big file, and I can’t even imagine doing that now. Ick.

That said, editors and beta readers usually have Word, so I’ll compile the Scrivener document into a Word file before sending it out to people and usually do my final edits in that program.

How many words do you write an hour? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?

It will vary, depending on what I’m working on. Straight-up action scenes tend to come out most quickly for me. With scenes that are heavy on character interaction and dialogue, that will take longer. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write, and I’m more likely to pause and think about how I want a character to say something there. But when I’m plugging along and know what happens next, 2,000 words an hour is fairly common.

An hour is about the maximum that I’ll sit in the chair without a break. When I’m finding it hard to get going, I’ll set a timer and do 30-minute spurts.

I recently set a new words-in-a-day record, though I don’t know if I should count it since it was on a new novella for the pen name project and I haven’t been back to it since that initial burst, but I hit 13,000 words. (And no, I can’t imagine doing the entire 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo in a day).

I wish I could sit and write for hours, but I have carpel tunnel syndrome, repetitive stress injuries, or X other health issue that makes it hard…

Been there, done that. I was a wreck at 25 and had so many things wrong with me I was wondering if I would live to see 30. Even the computer stuff was hard because my hands hurt so much. Most of The Emperor’s Edge was written with voice recognition software.

More than ten years later… I rarely get sick and not much bothers me. I’ve done 10,000 words while sitting on the couch with my laptop. Ergonomics? Not a bad idea, but I don’t usually bother. Treadmill desk? Are you kidding me? (I do get exercise via hiking and playing tennis, but you won’t catch me doing many things that aren’t a fun break from writing.)

For me, Step 1 was identifying food allergies (gluten and dairy). Step 2 was cutting way back on sugar and things that metabolize into sugar in the body (carbs, essentially). Step 3 was realizing the low-fat diet advice was oh-so-flawed and adding healthy fats into my diet.

Recommended reading: Grain Brain, Why We Get Fat, The Big Fat Surprise.

I can’t promise that the right dietary change will fix all of everyone’s ailments, but it has made an amazing difference for me.

All right, this post has gone on and on, and wandered off topic more than once. There’s a novel waiting to be edited, so I’ll stop here. Any questions? Comments? Please leave a note below!

New Authors, Should You Self Publish or Seek a Traditional Publishing Deal?

| Posted in Writing |

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Since I’ve been self-publishing for three and a half years now, and it’s all I ever did, it’s hard for me to imagine what things would have been like if I’d been dead-set on finding an agent and publishing traditionally. I know I wouldn’t have quit the day job after the first year and sincerely doubt I’d be making six figures a year now. But it turns out that I write fairly quickly and publish often, so I’m not necessarily representative of the typical indie author experience (of course, some people who write in more popular genres, and/or are just better at writing/marketing than I am, have a lot fewer books out than I do and make a lot more, too).

I thought I’d do a bit of a comparison (as much as I’m able from my side of the fence) for those who are wondering which route is best for them. Before I jump into that, I want to make one point that often gets forgotten in these discussions:

Most people will never be offered a traditional publishing deal.

Not with a big house anyway (and I’m not a big fan of signing with small publishers, just because I don’t feel most of them bring much to the table that a moderately savvy indie can’t accomplish him or herself). It’s not as if you get to just decide that you’ll traditionally publish, remember. You can try to find an agent and try to find a deal, but there aren’t any guarantees.

Of the couple dozen people who I kept track of who were in the same SF/F online writing workshop as I was back in 2008-2010 or so, I only know of two who got agents and traditional deals (one is now a hybrid author, self-publishing in between her regular releases). Both worked very hard to get those deals, one by writing tons and tons of short stories and racking up some pro magazine sales before having her third or fourth book picked up. The other really worked the RWA route, entering all the contests and going to the conventions to meet agents and such. (Note to other science fiction and fantasy authors, if you have romantic elements of any sort in your novels, that organization seems to be a lot more helpful for new authors than the SFWA.)

So, just to be clear, what we’re talking about here is whether you should self-publish from the start or try to find a traditional publishing deal.

Advantages of Self Publishing

  • Speed — I finished a manuscript last week and sent it to beta readers, who should get it back to me this week sometime. I’ll spend a couple of days editing it, based on their feedback, then send it off to my editor, who should get it back to me a week or two after that. I have someone working on the cover art right now. I expect to publish this book in mid- to late-July. I started writing it in mid-May (and wrote some other stuff in between the first and second draft).
  • Calling all the shots — I can pick the cover I want, write the story I want, and choose whether to make changes an editor suggests… or not. I don’t have to worry about someone not publishing my story if I’m not willing to make changes that may or may not be in line with my vision.
  • Control over pricing — I suppose this falls under calling the shots, but it’s such an important part of the equation that I think it deserves special emphasis. It’s one of the main reasons self-published authors have been finding so much success over the last few years: news flash, nobody really wants to pay $14.99 for an ebook. Even $9.99 is a lot for an author you’re not already a fan of. At $4.99 or $2.99, your books will look like a deal. Of course, you can try higher prices if you want. You can change the price every week if you want to, until you find that sweet spot.
  • The ability to take advantage of opportunities — As the publisher of my own novels, I can change the price anytime I want to take advantage of promotional opportunities. I can go in with other authors to bundle my books for a chance to reach tons of new readers. I can say, yes, absolutely if Amazon emails and asks to make one of my books a daily deal. I can see, within days of release, if a new book is going to be a winner and, if it is, start writing a second in the series right away. Or, if it’s not looking like a winner, maybe I’ll shift focus to another project.
  • The ability to track sales hourly and adjust marketing tactics — I don’t think this gets mentioned enough. You are so in the dark if all you’re able to do is look at an Amazon sales ranking and get twice yearly royalty checks. I can only imagine how tough it must be to stay enthused about promoting a book when you’re not actually able to go in and see if your efforts are making a difference.
  • The potential to earn more money and sooner — It’s not easy to get the ball rolling as an indie (advice you’ll see over and over is to write the next book and the next book because there are marketing opportunities that come to those with series that just aren’t there with stand-alone books), but if you’re prolific, you have the potential to turn this into a career much more quickly than you can with traditional publishing. Sure, there are exceptions (every now and then you hear of someone getting a huge advance or becoming a best seller with her first book, but I can point out indies who have had freakish success too), but you don’t have to be an exception to start making a regular income. Note all the comments/success stories on this post about Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs.

Advantages of Traditional Publishing

  • Someone else foots the bill — I put together my first novel, The Emperor’s Edge, as inexpensively as I could at the time, without sacrificing what I believed were necessities (professional editing and cover art), paying around $800 total back then (I’ve since redone the cover once and am planning to again). I threw away $200 on someone who was utterly worthless as an editor and learned a lesson about people who claim that they’re good editors because they’re teachers, ahem. These days, I have my people lined up, and it costs me $1,000-$1,500 to get a novel out there, depending on length. That’s for an ebook and paperback. Brian McClellan recently did a post on how much his publisher had invested in his book to get it out there. I don’t believe for a second that every publisher is putting that much money into their authors (there are too many really bad or really simple covers out there for me to believe every publisher is coughing up $4-$6K for cover art!), but the point is that he didn’t have to pay any of the costs to publish ebook/hardback/audio for his book. The publisher covered it.
  • You’re in more stores and get more exposure — Even if I buy all of my books from Amazon, that doesn’t mean everybody does. A traditional deal should get you in all the brick-and-mortar stores. I imagine there must be something cool about seeing your book on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or in the airport bookstore.
  • Extra income from foreign rights sales — I’ve priced the cost of book translations, and it just doesn’t seem like it would be worth it to me, not when I’m looking at doing it for a seven-book series. At the same time, I’ve had inquiries from publishing houses in different countries, asking about the rights to my books. I keep meaning to look into that (or find an agent who might be willing to work on it), but I haven’t gotten around to it yet. From what I’ve heard from other authors, you don’t usually make a lot in each country, but if you sold the rights to a whole series in ten different countries, I’m sure it would add up. (Note: savvy indies can negotiate their own foreign rights sales; I’m just someone who prefers focusing on the marketing and on writing the next book, so I’ve definitely lagged behind here, and with audiobooks too.)
  • More review copies sent out and more sites/blogs willing to review trad published books — I’m a little dubious about how much this actually helps, especially after you have a mailing list of fans built up, but it can certainly be tough getting the first 10-20 reviews as a new author.

One thing I didn’t mention up there, and it’s one of the big myths, is that you won’t have to worry about marketing if you sign with a traditional publisher. The only time that seems to be true is if you get a big advance and they’ve got an investment they have to make sure earns out. If you got a 5k advance, and twenty other authors in your genre got that same deal this month, they’re probably just throwing darts at a board and hoping one lucks into hitting the bulls-eye, not even particularly caring which one it is. Most authors have to market, and I’ve heard that most agents look at a new author’s “platform” before thinking of signing them.

I’m sure this isn’t a complete list (if you have anything you’d like to add, please leave a comment), but I hope it’s enough to help those of you who are on the fence. There are pros and cons whichever way you go. Some people are just cut out for one path, more than the other.

For myself, I was determined to make a living at this, and that’s something I sensed I could do much more quickly as an independent author, because I was willing to write and publish a lot and to figure out enough of the marketing stuff to have a chance. I also have the patience of a toddler on a sugar high. It would drive me nuts sending off a manuscript, then having to wait two years to see it in print.

Creating Engaging Characters That Turn Readers into Fans

| Posted in Walks with Lindsay, Writing |

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FromtheBlueMountainsinMissouaI have ideas for a number of blog posts I need to sit down and write, but I’ve been busy writing the fiction (look for the next Flash Gold novella soon and Deathmaker, a follow-up to Balanced on the Blade’s Edge even sooner). I do, however, have another walking podcast recorded, so for those who like to listen, I talked about what attracts people to a series and about developing appealing characters in this one.

I don’t usually presume to give writing tips, since there are already a lot of people out there who teach that stuff and do a better job than I could, but characters are my favorite parts of the reading (and writing) experience, so it’s hard not to want to talk about them.

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I’ve shared what I think makes a good character (and what turns me off on other characters). Do you have any pet peeves of your own? Or things that make you fall in love with a character? Let us know in the comments!

(Oh, and because someone asked for pictures of the areas where I’m walking/hiking, I’ve included a photo today.)

Update: William Stadler was nice enough to type up a transcript of the episode. So for those who don’t have time to listen, here you go!

Transcript for “Creating Engaging Characters That Turn Readers into Fans”

Hey guys. This is Lindsay Buroker again. Today I am walking and talking to you from, I think it’s like the Blue Mtn. trail system. It’s a little bit outside of Missoula. So I’m kinda’ in the middle of my road trip to Seattle for the summer where I’m gonna’ visit friends and family, and of course…always be writing and working. And the great thing is that writing from home is that you can do it anywhere, wherever your home is.

After the last episode that I posted, I had a few people ask, “You know, if I do all these things to work on establishing a fan base, will I start selling more books?” You know, maybe you can find lots of examples of people that they do have a series out, and maybe they’ve got several books out and they’re still not selling very well. Is all you have to do is to keep writing? Is that all you have to do is keep writing and publishing and you’ll naturally get to that point and you’ll make a reliable income?

Or is it that some people get lucky and some people don’t?

I would say that there’s definitely a lot of luck involved in becoming a huge best seller – kind of a break out novel. Sometimes you see that happening, and you’re not really sure why it happened. You may read the book, and you’re thinking, “It was a good book, maybe, but was it better than fifty other books in the same genre?”

I think in that situation there’s some luck – of course there’s talent and working hard. What’s that phrase: “The harder I work, the luckier I get”?

But I do think that if you’re trying to build up a fan base – trying to reach that 1,000 true fans (maybe you’ve heard of that) that it’s more a matter of figuring out what people like and keeping on doing that.

As I was saying last time, having a series can really help. But of course you have to have something about your series, something about your writing that appeals to people and makes them wanna’ come back for more. And that’s not a gimme’, you know. That’s learning the craft of storytelling and practicing getting better.

I don’t usually try to teach on the topic of how to write. Because I don’t think I’ve studied it enough. I’ve kinda’ internalized [it]. I’ve learned a lot from doing – critiquing and being critiqued. But I haven’t taken a lot of classes or read a lot of books. I don’t know, I always think it’s a little presumptuous sometimes to presume to teach other people unless they come to you, and they’re really impressed by your writing, and they wanna’ learn to do it the way you do it.

Anyway. Today I’m gonna’ try to talk about something I’ve been told I do well. And that’s creating characters that people really enjoy.

I think there’s kinda’ two ways to get people into a series. And one is if you’re this really awesome plotter, you’re really good at creating suspense – really sucking people in.

You know, I think a lot of people saw the series Lost. And I don’t know if any of you did, but I know I didn’t remember any of the characters. I just remembered that I couldn’t care less if any of them even died. But I ended up watching a lot of the episodes, because there are all these questions that you want the answers to. You’ve got all these mysterious things going on. So, that sort of thing sucks you in.

Another series that I ended up watching all four or five seasons of was the new Battlestar Galatica. I guess it’s not that new at this point. And again, with that series, it wasn’t the characters. They were fine…some of them you hated. You were supposed to hate [them]. Some of them you kinda’ liked. But there weren’t any of them where you were like, “Ahh, that’s my favorite character. I’m totally watching this series because of that character.”

It was more a matter of the plot. You know, they were on this quest. You wanna’ see what’s gonna’ happen at the end. Are they gonna’ survive?

So that is one type of series that you can do that can draw people in and keep them coming back for book after book.

You can do cliffhangers at the end, or not. Some readers hate those, but from a marketing point of view, they seem to be pretty effective for people.

Now with all that said about that kind of writing, that’s not really my strength or what I do. I mean, I do, of course, try to make my plots interesting. And I have done a few cliffhangers – mostly because that was sort of a good stopping point where. I had written 120,000 words or something, and decided to break a book in two.

But I don’t necessarily try to string people along like that. And, um, if it’s a compelling plot, great. I always hope for that, but I definitely’ve been told it’s my characters people like, and that’s why they keep reading. And that’s a perfectly legitimate way to have a good series and have a following. Of course you can do both, but I thought I would kinda’ focus on characters today – talk about some of the reasons people seem to get into characters [and] some of the reasons they might be turned off by them.

And, you know, if something helps, great. I don’t always remember to do all these things right myself. I like to think about the marketing stuff. But, I don’t usually think about it too much while I’m writing, you know. I just sorta’ write what I wanna’ write, then try to make the marketing side of things work. Every time I try to write for a specific market, it ends up turning into something else.

But today…characters.

Because what you’ll find is if you’ve got some really cool characters, you’ll have people following along, and it doesn’t even necessarily matter so much what the next book is about. People wanna’ spend time with these characters.

I remember some of the series I’ve read [that are ]not in genres I usually enjoy. (I usually read fantasy or non-fiction, sometimes historical). The reason I’ve gotten sucked into them – usually because my mom or somebody recommends them – is because of the characters.

One example actually as a kid is I read all of the Cat Who mysteries by Lillian Jackson Braun, I think it was. I know she’s passed away now, but she wrote a lot those books, and had a really successful series with the main character and his cats. And she did a good job with these characters, making these quirky, interesting characters, and there was always a mystery, so you wanted to keep reading them because you cared about the characters.

Another example is – I actually do not care about thrillers and horror at all – but…I’ve read most of the Lincoln Child books that have Agent Pendergast in them. So that’s another one my mom got me into. And he’s really quirky – he’s a badass character, of course – but he’s got all these weird quirks that kind of draw you in…you know?

And then for tv people – since I did a science fiction series – as plot example, I got really into Stargate, the first one. Stargate. What was it called? SG-1 and I’ve got, I think, eight seasons on DVD, which is unheard of for me. I hardly ever watch that much tv or buy anything.

And that was an example where a lotta’ times I didn’t care for the plots or the scopes. I think I liked the first few seasons where they were more archeology focused. I hated all the bad guys in that series. All of’em. There was like three sets of bad guys, and I couldn’t care less for any of those episodes.

But I kept watching them because of the characters. I really liked Colonel O’neal and Samantha Carter. She was a great example of a strong female character that wasn’t so badass that she was grating. At least, I felt so.

And of course there was always kind of the subtle, “Maybe these two will have a romance, but, you know, they can’t cuz’ they work together – they’re on the same team, dah, dah, dah.”

I think for female readers, especially sometimes, that’ll be something that draws us in – having a romance. With a series, it’s kinda’ cool if you can have something like that not be resolved for a long time.

I actually did that in my own Emperor’s Edge series. I wasn’t really planning, you know, “How can I make this a great series that people will get into?” But because the main character, the heroine, was kind of a good moral person, and the other protagonist, my assassin character, was a less good moral person, they weren’t, um, an obvious match from the beginning.

But by the end of the series, you know, as things went along, it only took seven books for them to develop a romance. And I know that was one thing that was really drawing people along with that series. So, something to think about there.

Let’s just talk about characters in general – some of the things that can make really good compelling characters that make people wanna’ read along. And like I was saying, “Once you get that, the plot matters less.”

Of course you still want a good plot, but a person’s not gonna’ read the blurb and think, “Uhh, is this for me? I don’t know. I’m not really interested in, uh, oh…submarines, again, really?” But they’re gonna say, “Oh, it’s another book with those characters. Of course I’m gonna’ read it. I wanna’ see what happens next with their relationship.”

It doesn’t just have to be a romantic relationship, of course. You know, if you have a group of characters, or something, even one main compelling character who’s trying to do something with his life, people get involved with these characters and want to see what happens next, and you know, follow along with them.

So what are some of the types of elements for these types of characters?

Well, first off, let me say: anything I say today, maybe it’s a rule and rules can be broken. And we can all think of examples where people have had rules with unsympathetic main characters, or something like that, and the series is still really popular. But that’s usually an exception, other than a rule. If you want people to love your characters, these are things that tend to work, [that] tend to get people to enjoy them.

First thing I would say is, of course, watch out for the Mary Sue character, which is – you’ve probably heard this before – sometimes an author’s fantasy character – all the things he/she wishes she was: so she’s beautiful, athletic, everybody loves her, she’s got the best hair. And this kind of character can grate on people’s nerves, because she has no problems. She’s too perfect. It’s hard to love. Most people aren’t like that. [If they are], they’re kind of annoying; ya’ hate’em. You might like’em, but…ya’ kinda’ hate’em. So, those kind of characters can be a turn-off for readers.

That said, I do think that most people want a character that has some degree of competency in their field or in something that’s gonna’ apply to the plot. We wanna’ walk in a person’s shoes. We want it to be appealing. Because maybe they get to say all the things we wished we always had the guts to say to our boss, or whatever.

To keep these characters from being the Mary Sue type – or, is it Marty Stu? I can’t remember what the male version is, but it goes either way there. You give them some flaws, right? Flawed characters. It makes them feel more human, more relatable, just more appealing. And because they have all these flaws, you tend not to hate them for things that they’re good at because they’ve got all these issues going on.

It’s up to you to figure out what flaws would work best for your characters. You know, a lotta’ times they say, “Oh he’s got a horrible temper, or he’s got a history with a drinking problem or a drug problem.”

Uhm, Those are fine. They’ve kinda’ been done a lot.

The one thing I would say with your flaws is be careful not to make them too despicable that people’re going to just be turned off by that. I think a lot of people can relate to the, “He had a drinking problem. But now he’s trying to move on past that.” And maybe it’s always a difficult thing for him or her to deal with.

But, you know, we like to see somebody that’s fallen really low kinda’ pull themselves out and get on with their lives. Don’t say he had a drinking problem and then never have that come up in the plot. I’m laughing because one of my characters had that. I think it came up once or twice. They were too busy killing monsters and stuff. But um, that was a minor character, so yeah…there’s my excuse.

Whatever flaws you can think of, try not to make them be flaws that are gonna’ be turn-offs, like a really abrasive personality. I think you have more leeway with what you’re gonna’ do if it’s like a minor character, or not one of your point of view characters.

I will tend to make more normalish characters for the point of view characters, because I think people can relate to them. And then kind of the more quirky or more abrasive personalities – the sarcastic ones – might be, you know, a main character in the story, but not one of the point of view characters. So it kind of matters less if the reader is really in love with them.

You never know; sometimes those people, the more curmudgeony types, can become appealing characters. It’ll surprise you. If that happens, then do the next book from his point of view, or something like that.

I think you get bonus points from the readers if the flaw is something that really makes the reader sympathetic to that character. I think one example – I’m gonna’ keep using tv, because I think you get a lot of people that have watched a lot of stuff on tv. Maybe book examples might be less well-known.

So, um, if you saw the show Monk – that was the detective with all these OCD habits that was on for several years – it was funny because he had all these quirks, right. He had to go count the sidewalk cracks and touch the poles, obsessively clean his house every day. But his wife was murdered, and he was trying very hard to become normal enough to that he could get his job back on the police force.

His quirks, his characterization, his flaws, they were funny, and yet at the same time, they were a little sad and you kinda’ felt for him. So I thought that was just a good example of a character that [was] definitely a flawed character. There were so many things that he had trouble doing because of all these OCD issues. And these flaws made him endearing so that the watcher really connected with him.

At the same time, a lot of us have some of these flaws to maybe a lesser extent, so we can really identify with something like that. Or even if we can’t, like I said, you’re sympathetic; you feel for him – the way they wrote the character.

So that’s just something to think about. Flawed characters. Not doing Mary Sues.

Okay. Next thing. And I think I saw this a lot back when I was, um, critiquing a lot of people’s work, back when I was doing the workshop thing a lot. And that is when you have a main character, or a protagonist, who doesn’t really “protag.”

They’re kinda’ being pushed around by the plot. They’re not trying to take action themselves and make things happen. And this happens a lot to people who make the plot first and then put the characters in.

People that come up with characters first and then write a plot that evolves from the characters, this is less of an issue. Both are valid ways of writing and plotting. It’s just something to be aware of if you’re more of a plot first then characters type of writer.

What ends up happening is that you’re not as engaged with these types of characters. Things are happening to them. They’re just reacting. They’re not, like, actively trying to make their lives better, or fix a problem. Um, one story I wrote where…you know, I don’t usually have this problem because…well, it happens. Whenever I come up with a plot first, that’s when it’s gonna’ happen usually.

One other story I wrote was my character was kidnapped, and for most of he book, she’s, like, stuck working for the enemy to decode these ruins. And so it’s really hard for her to take action, cuz’ she’s a prisoner for the whole thing, [because] a really capable army has her.

But you just have to look for ways for them to try to influence someone, try to be thinking about escaping, trying to take action. (I’m saying that a lot.) Don’t just let them go with the flow. It’s hard for people to be sympathetic when someone’s a prisoner, then all they do is lay there and wait, and nothing happens unless the plot says it happens.

And these characters just tend to be less interesting. They’re less likely draw us in. We’re not rooting for them as much. Even seeing someone try and fail, maybe even more so, that makes us wanna’ root for them, makes care what happens to them.

Another thing that’ll commonly maybe annoy people is when you do the telling instead of showing kinda’ thing. Of course as a writer, you’ve heard, “Show don’t tell.” And with characterization, that’s a really big place where that comes into play. Especially if you read romances, the heroine is always described as being smart. She’s like a scientist, or she’s like an attorney, or whatever. And we’re told, “She’s smart, she’s smart.” And then throughout the whole book, she does nothing smart.

And I like to make smart characters, and I like to read about smart characters. But, you know, you don’t say their smart, right? You show them solving problems and getting out of sticky situations, outthinking other characters in the book.

So just…anytime you’re gonna’ say, “Oh, he or she’s smart character,” or you know, “He’s a really great fighter; he’s a navy seal, or a uber knight in your fantasy world,” again, you know, just think of ways you can show that through their actions. If you do say it, just make sure you back it up at some point with the actions. With characters, always show, rather than telling.

And if you don’t tell, if you just let [the readers] decide whether they’re smart, [the] reader can decide whether a character is smart based on their actions in the book, you don’t set up that, “Prove it,” kinda’ mentality. It’s up for the reader to decide. Maybe the reader’s really smart himself or herself and doesn’t think your character’s all that. So, you haven’t set up any expectations that failed to be met.

I think the last thing I’ll mention here is just, um, personality. People say, or sometimes you’ll see a review, “Flat characters” or “All the characters are interchangeable. You couldn’t tell who was talking without the dialogue tags.”

Or, you know, the other…let me reverse the comment, “I could tell exactly which character was talking without the dialogue tags.” And that means that you’ve really made a really distinct personality for each one.

“Okay,” you say. “That’s sounds great, but how do I do that?” Let’s say you’re going to have five or six characters in your adventuring group, how do you make them all different from each other and distinctive?

And um, you know, sometimes [with] different types of personalities, of course, is when conflict arises, and that’s also something that makes the reading more compelling. I guess it’s something kinda’ common in fantasy – which I’ve read a lot of – where you’ve kinda’ got this adventuring party, and it’s a little weird when everyone gets along really well, and the only conflict is external conflict.

Going back to tv shows, one of the shows I liked was Firefly, even though it was only on for, whatever, eleven episodes, cuz’ you had all these characters, you know, that they kinda’ were like a family, but at the same time, you know, you had the mercenary Jane who was always trying to, like, get money and turn in Simon the doctor and his sister. So he was always scheming against them. They didn’t get along. Captain could be abrasive. You had characters with a romance interest, all this stuff going on in this crew. So you had internal conflicts that made it interesting, as well as whatever the problem of the week was that they had to solve.

So, how to make these personalities? You know, you’re probably going to find that your main character or protagonist – especially early on as a writer – that there’s a lot of you in that character. And that’s natural.

But for the other characters, think of friends you know…or people you hate. Think about what about them is different, what stands out in your mind. Well, first thing, I would say, make sure each character has their own goals, their own driving interests, motivations.

It gets a little murky when everybody has the same goal. That’s when, you know, nobody’s disagreeing; everybody’s always happy-happy when they’re working together. Usually in life, everybody’s out for themselves though, right?

So maybe we’ve got one character, you know, maybe he wants to make money. Another one, tryin’ to win a woman. Another wants to be recognized as a hero by everybody; whatever it is.

They’re all gonna’ kinda’ have different life goals, and that’s a starting point for giving them each a different personality. And beyond that, you can think if they quirks, mannerisms that maybe you can just make something up, or maybe you’ve seen with somebody else.

I think I stole one for a very minor character once from a relative that I knew that at least five times a day, or if you had dinner with her, at least five times, she’d say, “You know what your problem is.” So I used that with a character.

Um, one quirk, like I was talking about that show Monk, he had all these quirks that made him a really distinctive character, very memorable. You know, you don’t have to use OCD. There’s lots of little ways, people can have quirks.

One thing I did with the steampunk novel I released about a month ago – I talked about [it] in the first episode – you know, I had a pilot, and he’s kind of a Marty Stu.

He’s always getting in trouble, so he’s not quite perfect. But one of the things I thought would be fun, because I just seemed to remember [that] lots of pilots…um…I don’t know any pilots, I’m kidding. But lots of athletes, I guess – which I do know – are a little superstitious. So I thought, you know, this is a guy who’s risking his life every day, so maybe he’ll be a little superstitious too.

So, I gave him this lucky dragon figurine that he rubs whenever he needs some luck. And it became kinda’ fun to poke a fun at that, sort of a little slight flaw for the character. So yeah he’s a little superstitious. That became like a memorable thing for him.

And it was good for some, uh…sexual innuendo jokes, if you like sort of thing. “Rubbing Dragons.” Yeah.

So, you’d be surprised how a little quirk that you give to a character can actually become a very memorable thing for the reader and something that they enjoy about that character.

Aright, I’ve been rambling for almost twenty-five now. So, I’m gonna’ go ahead and end this. Hope you found it useful. Maybe something sparked an idea.

Like I said, I should remember to listen to these things myself, cuz’ a lot of times when I’m in writing mode, I’m…I’m not thinking about, you know, marketing or the high end – high end plans. A lot of these things you just hope come out naturally. You just try to internalize them so that you remember them.

But I hope, yeah, I hope something helps, and…have a great week. And…happy writing! Bye-bye.

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