I was recently interviewed on the Upgrade Your Story podcast, and the host asked if I had any reader questions that people might like answered. Several people chimed in on Facebook with questions. We didn’t end up having time to bring them up in the interview (we mostly talked about marketing and self-publishing… yes, such an unlikely topic for me!), so I decided to answer them here. Thank you to those who submitted a question. I hope some of the answers are of interest.
Doug asks, “How do you make your books have funny moments without allowing the humor to consume the book’s plot or character development?”
The funny moments come from the personalities of the characters themselves. When you’re constructing a protagonist or a side kick, if you give that character a few quirks or a distinctive personality, then you’ll probably find that jokes come naturally. Not every character needs to be over the top, or you run the risk of things getting a little ridiculous (which is fine, if you’re writing a parody, but you’ll need more balance for dramatic fiction), but some eccentric personalities can go a long way toward increasing the opportunities for humor. The straight-man/funny-man pairing is an old and effective standby in comedy, but you’ll also find tons of examples in dramatic fiction and on TV. Spock and McCoy, anyone?
In my stuff, Sicarius is the perfect straight man. You wouldn’t want to tease him too much, since he has all of those sharp, pointy knives, but if you’re Amaranthe, you can get away with a few jokes, and the fact that he never smiles and is always looming darkly gives her a lot to work with.
As far as not letting the humor overshadow the story, that can definitely be a challenge. I’ll be the first to admit that my characters often like to make jokes, even when the situation is supposed to be serious. I try to shut them up if they’re fighting for their lives, and it’s supposed to be a tense moment. Sometimes that works… and sometimes they rebel against me.
For a newer writer, I would say to let your heroes yammer however much they want in the rough draft. Then when you go through to edit, ask yourself, “Is this dialogue moving the plot forward?” Sure, you can get away with a couple of extraneous jokes here and there, but you don’t want characters bantering back and forth for two pages when the exchange doesn’t have anything to do with resolving the conflicts you’ve set up in the story. It’s tough to cut the dialogue when you love the humor in it, but you can always chop it and place it in a “cut scenes” file. Maybe you’ll be able to work it in later.
Oona says, “What I like so much about reading your books (outside of the stories themselves) is how, unlike so many other authors, you actually are continually putting out new books. I think that talking about what it takes to put out the amount of work you do in a year and how that helps as an independent author would be interesting. You are always updating, working on things, keeping contact. I feel that is such an important process and one that makes the fans even more loyal to you as a writer but also shows the amount of work you have to put into the career itself.”
I decided early on that I wanted to be able to write full time, so I was very serious about publishing often enough that this could be feasible. When you’re always working on something, you have more tidbits that you can share on your social media sites. I can’t even imagine what authors talk about with readers when they only publish a book every year or two, but I would guess that’s why their updates are less frequent.
One of the cool things about self-publishing is that you can monitor your sales numbers real time, and most of the retailers pay you within 60 days of the end of any given month. This makes it a lot easier to see the fruits of your labor. Compare this to being in traditional publishing and getting a royalty check twice a year. I would have a harder time staying excited about writing and marketing in that situation, where reports on how you’re doing are infrequent and less transparent. Money isn’t the only thing that motivates a writer (we hope), but getting paid every month and having it correlate to the amount of work you do is wonderful for discipline. If you don’t publish anything for a few months, sales tend to drop off, and you’re earning less. That’s a pretty powerful motivator to keep going!
Since I do treat this like any other job, I feel pretty lazy if I’m not working on something every week and if I’m not getting X number of words written or X chapters edited. If you plug along like that every day, it’s natural that you’ll finish novels regularly and have new work to share with readers. And yes, publishing regularly (even if you’re doing novellas and short stories between novels) can help you remain in your readers’ minds, and it also helps make the income more reliable and predictable. We all hope for best sellers, but it’s saner to treat this like the pulp writers of old did, sitting at the keyboard and writing stories day in and day out, knowing they only brought home the bacon if they sold one that week.
Rebekah asks, “Your characters are always so well rounded. How do you develop all of them to have such interesting personalities?”
Thank you, Rebekah. I think part of the character formula is to make sure your hero and side characters all want something (and then set up the story to make it hard for them to get that thing). If we can relate to what they want, it’s even better, but even if we can’t, we can all relate to the feeling of wanting something elusive. A lot of times when characters feel flat, it’s because they were dragged off on some adventure and never get a chance to be proactive.
Beyond that, as I mentioned up above, I’ll try to give characters a few quirks that make them memorable, because most people do have some idiosyncrasies that others find a touch odd. EE fans will know Amaranthe is a neat freak and has to keep a tidy lair/hideout/subterranean tunnel. It was on the second pass of Balanced on the Blade’s Edge when I decided Ridge would be a little superstitious and have that dragon carving that he rubs for luck. Even though the carving only appears a few times in the novels, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
When it comes to designing the adventuring party that’s so often a part of fantasy, it’s worth remembering that not everyone needs to be likable. You probably want your protagonist to be likable and relatable, but having a group of people that are all nice and all get along makes for boring reading. If you’re a Firefly fan, think of all the conflicts that existed between the crew. Mal and Inara were always sniping at each other, Wash was jealous that his wife argued with him but followed Mal’s orders without hesitation, and you were never positive that Jayne wasn’t going to sell everyone out. That made for interesting viewing.
Linda asks, “Being a professional author requires a lot of discipline. If you have a “typical” writing day, what is it like? Do you plot out your books, do you start writing and see where you end up, or is it a combination?”
On a typical writing day, I’ll take the dogs out for a hike in the mornings (I live in the mountains and have a young and high energy pup, so these outings tend to be a couple of hours long) or I’ll go play tennis. I’ve never been a perky morning person, so I like starting the day with some fun exercise before the work starts. That said, I’ll often plot out a few scenes on my phone while I’m out with the dogs.
Somewhere between 11 and 12, I’ll get serious about work and spend most of the afternoon writing or editing, depending on where I am in the current project. I’ll usually work for an hour, take a fifteen or twenty minute break to do laundry or dishes or something around the house, then do another hour and so on. Sometimes I’ll have something social going on in the evening, but more often, I just keep working until I finish the day’s goal. The afternoon is my best time, and I try to get the majority of my words down there. I might write 8,000 words between 12 and 5, then break for a class or to go to the gym, and it’ll end up taking me four hours when I get home to get those last 2k down, because I’m more apt to screw around online at that point in the day.
I’m still working on a good system for email. I like to prioritize the writing and publishing, so I tend to put off email if it’s something that will take more than a minute to answer, and sometimes those messages that require longer responses pile up and don’t get answered in a timely manner. I may simply need to start making a policy of giving shorter replies. I seem to remember that some bigwig out there has a rule of never spending more than five sentences on an answer. That might be tough for me. I’ve only answered four questions, and we’re already 1600 words into this blog post…
On the plotting question, yes, I sit down before I start writing and sketch out a 2- or 3,000-word outline for the manuscript. I didn’t always do that, but I’ve found that it’s much easier to get more words down each day and finish a novel more quickly if I outline. I deviate from the outline sometimes (usually), but having the general framework laid out ahead of time does help.
Heidi asks, “What are your grammar pet peeves?”
I’m not sure if I have any peeves. I’ve never been in the grammar nazi camp (honestly, grammar is not something I ever had in school, so outside of the basics, my understanding of the rules is more intuitive than anything else), but at the same time, I can’t read a book where the basic sentence construction is off, which you do sometimes run into when picking up random titles by indie authors. I’m always shocked when something like that is selling well and has tons of 5-star reviews. Commas in the wrong places, incorrect subject/verb agreement, dangling participles… These are things I can’t get past, no matter how good the story may be.
Okay, I have more questions in the queue here, but I’m going to split the post and answer the rest next week, because I have a manuscript to edit! Thanks for reading!