Friday Links: Summer Reads to Inspire Your Writing

Happy Friday, everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great week and that you have some time set aside this weekend for reading and writerly things. With all the end-of-school and graduation talk the last few weeks, plus the chatter of summer vacation plans, it’s easy to slack off on your writing goals. But remember, by the end of this month we’ll be halfway through 2017, so if you had some grand aspirations for the year — things you wanted to accomplish or milestones to hit — be sure to schedule a little work time along with the fun.

That said, I do have some great reading recs in this week’s Friday Links, along with everything else, so I hope you find something inspiring and/or informative that will keep your own creativity pumping along. Enjoy, and happy writing!

Our Story – There’s a brand new app on the way to help you find diverse books to read. It launches online on June 15th, with mobile apps on the way as well.

Jennifer Weiner: From Small-Town Beat Reporter to Big-City Columnist – A peek at the author’s journalistic background and how she got her start.

These Are the Essential Comics to Read after You’ve Watched Wonder Woman – A great roundup of both classics and newer runs to help you get your Wonder Woman fix.

New York Today: A City Library on the Subway – Learn how to access free ebooks from the New York Public Library for the next six weeks on a special New York subway car (and also in the stations).

100 Must-Read Novels Set in London – You may not be able to zip off to London to show your support for the city in the wake of the latest terrorist attack, but you can always grab one of these great titles to visit in spirit.

Amita Trasi and Cecilia Galante on Writing Young Characters – Two authors share their thoughts on the importance of writing from a younger perspective.

Friday Links: Recommit to Your Writing Goals

Happy Friday, everyone! And a very happy Easter to those of you celebrating this weekend. I suspect anyone dealing with bunnies and eggs and midnight services might not get a whole lot of writing done over the next few days, but that still leaves a few days on the other side of the weekend to address what I’m going to talk about next, which is the end of the month — and therefore the end of the first quarter of 2016.

Ah, snuck up on you, didn’t it? Kind of hard to believe we’re just about three months into the year, but we are. So I challenge you to take an hour or two between now and April 1st to take a peek at your list of goals for this year and see how you’re doing. On track? Need to recommit? Can you cross anything off? Maybe things have changed and you need to rework one or more goal in light of those changes. Only you can say for certain, but now is the perfect time to make those decisions and figure out where you go from here. And for those of you who didn’t make any writing goals for 2016, it’s never too late to start! We still have nine months ahead of us and it’s amazing how much you can do in that amount of time.

As for this week’s links, I hope they inspire you in your commitment to your goals and maybe help you get them done. Enjoy, and happy writing!

Lynn Steger Strong On Writing Characters Too Nuanced to Be Reduced – An interesting article with some thoughts on making characters deep and true.

Opportunities for Writers: April and May 2016 – A list of fellowships, competitions, etc. where you can submit your writing in the next couple of months.

Before You Blow Up Your Life, Do This – Jonathan Fields on knowing when not to quit your day job.

Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon – Sign-ups are now open for this fun readathon scheduled for April 23rd. A great way to set aside some time specifically for catching up with your reading.

The Life of a Book: An Interview with Editor Brant Rumble, Part 1 – The first in a series from Penguin Random House tracing the book’s journey from manuscript to bookstore.

On Terrible Writing Advice from Famous Writers – A humorous reminder to always think for yourself and filter what you hear.

Want to Write for Book Riot? – The bookish site is currently seeking new contributors.


Friday Links

Happy Friday! I’m melting here in SoCal, wishing for a nice fall breeze. But other than that, it’s been a great week and I’m looking forward to a productive weekend with a bit of time out to read a book with a cover. But first, I have this week’s links, and I hope they will inspire you to a bit of creativity over the next couple of days. Have a wonderful weekend, and enjoy!

Greasing the Daily Grind – On schedules, habit, and productivity.

Literally vs. Figuratively – A quick-and-handy grammar check, with links to some other commonly confused words at the end.

Who Is Your Boo Radley? Finding Characters Who Motivate You to Write – Delving into the characters who intrigue you to make your writing shine.

That’s too Much: The Problem with Prolific Writers – A look at the question of appropriate literary output.

Moral Craft: Issues of Plot and Prejudice – An interesting piece on racism in writing, discussing intentions and author responsibility.


Ask Your Characters “Why?”

Flat characters can kill your story before it even gets started, and they’re guaranteed to make an agent or editor stop reading your manuscript long before the end. It can be difficult to allow your characters to develop naturally when you have a wonderful idea that you want to move them through, but it’s important to remember that as exciting as your story may be, there needs to be a reason for your characters to do what they do. You can’t have them act only to serve the story in your head; those actions must make sense both in the context of the story and for the character you have written. And the best way to know what your characters will do in a given situation is to ask them why. Asking “why?” will tell you who they are.

Behind every action lies a motivation, no matter how small. Why do we get out of bed? Because we can’t sleep. Because we have to go to work. Because we’re no longer tired. Because we heard a noise. But when it comes to character building, you want to ask why a character is the way they are. What led them to the start of your story? Why have they reached this juncture? Why have you given them certain personality traits and skills? Why do they work in whatever job you’ve assigned them? It’s not good enough to say “because I said so,” because if that is the only reason for their actions, they are in danger of becoming cookie-cutter characters, cliches you move through the story instead of realistic characters who drive the story.

You create layered, nuanced characters by drilling down and getting to the core of who they are and what they want. Their goals play into the action of the story, but it’s even more important to know why they want those things, because that motivation is what keeps them from giving up in the middle of a quest or throwing in the towel when a relationship requires some work. Likewise, asking why will explain a character’s inability to sustain a romance or tendency to pick a fight when certain subjects arise. If you have a character who is vulnerable in certain situations, you want to know why. What in their past formed that part of their personality? A character with a particular skill set learned those skills somewhere; why are they so good at whatever it is?

Not all of these details will loom large in your story, of course. Some may appear as a detail in a conversation, while others might end up “extras” for your website, but you will know, and that knowledge will inform everything your characters do and say over the course of the work.

You won’t have all the answers before you start to write, either. Some will come to you as the story develops and your characters land in situations that require them to react. Those decisions might be obvious to you, or they might require some thought, but try to understand why they make the choices they do.

Other answers will only work themselves out while you rewrite and revise, in context to the larger picture of the entire story. Look for inconsistencies in your characters’ behavior. Does something happen to change their outlook or their approach? Have they tripped over some trigger that brings their past to the foreground? Or have you pushed them to some point merely to move the story forward? Later drafts allow you to check for consistencies of behavior and motivation, and to make sure your characters are changing over the course of the story in an organic way that fits both their personalities and their experiences.

As with real people, you will never know your characters completely, but if you ask why they are the way they are in respect to the story you’re telling — why and how their pasts affect the present action — you will go a long way toward fleshing them out into living breathing beings who will engage your readers and draw them into the world of your work.


Kicking Your Characters into High Gear

As an agent, I look at a lot of different things when I’m reading submissions — strong writing, engaging story, excellent build up of suspense, and compelling characters. These are all important, but that last one in particular can really throw me out of a read if you haven’t managed to create a realistic, believable protagonist, or if your villain comes across as flat. It would be impossible for me to compile a comprehensive list of all the ways I see characterizations go astray, but I will focus on some of the most frequent issues to give you a place to start.

One of the most common problems I see with characters — especially the protagonist — is that they ultimately come across as far too perfect. Because they are often driving the story, they succeed too easily in order to allow the author to move the plot forward. Whatever obstacles pop up, the protagonist miraculously has all the skills required to solve them and keep going. The result is someone who is just a little too smart, a little too action-oriented, and just plain boring. A perfect character is an unbelievable character, and very difficult to identify with because, as much as we’d all love to ignore our own faults, we know that we have them and that everyone else has them, too. Make sure your character needs to struggle; if they’re intellectual give them physical obstacles to overcome; if they’re a loner, force them to work in a team situation. Take your character’s major characteristics and mix them up, making sure that they are better at some things and not good at others. Not only will you have a more believable and interesting character, but you’ll allow room for growth along their character arc. Just be sure they don’t end up perfect at the end, merely ahead of where they started.

Another issue writers have with characters is developing a believable range of emotions for them. Too often, each character seems to represent a certain level of emotion — a happy or sarcastic character who provides quips and comic relief, the grumpy character who dwells on the worse-case scenarios and points out all the problems, the smart character with the dry wit and the quick answer. Even if characters have their roles and their strengths, they should not fall into these sorts of ruts, and their emotional arcs need to be more complex. Particularly with the protagonist, it’s vital to communicate the character’s emotions in a way that the reader can understand them, because often they drive their decisions and actions. Your reader might not always agree with how the character feels and what they do, but if you can put them inside the character’s emotional state, you can allow them to understand those choices and continue along for the ride. In some cases that will mean not showing the emotion itself, but instead focusing on how the character struggles with their feelings. Not everyone is willing to allow their emotions to show in their expressions. In fact, many people work very hard to keep those things to themselves. But something always leaks out and gives them away. Think about how that applies to your characters in your given situations.

The folks at the Writing Excuses podcast have a series of episodes focusing on character development, and I highly recommend you check out Three-Pronged Character Development and Showing Emotion in particular for additional thoughts and a few writing exercises to help address these issues. Happy writing!

Who Are Your Characters?

There’s been much discussion on how writers delve into characters whose experiences are different from their own. By this I mean less creating new races for your science fiction novel, and more exploring other cultures that exist in the real world. Unless your story has a small, isolated cast, it will require some diversity, and it’s important to think about how you represent those other people. You want to be authentic, to avoid cliche. 

Which begs the question, who are people, really? What makes your characters feel true to life, regardless of race, sex, religion, etc? And how can you be true to them as people while still making them fresh and surprising?

The following TED Talk takes a wonderful look at identity, and being true to yourself and your desires, even when those might go against cultural assumptions. I hope it provides some inspiration on the creative front as well. 

Are You Ready to NaNo?

Happy October! For those of you in the know, the start of October means commencing a countdown to November and NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo encourages writers to write quickly, turn off their internal editor, and just pour that down-and-dirty draft onto the page. Participants pledge to write 50,000 words (or more) in a month, and receive encouragement in the way of fellow writers with whom to trade stories, plot points, and frustrations; a website where they can track words written, get writing tips from professional authors, gather in forums by area or genre, and purchase t-shirts and other souvenirs proclaiming themselves NaNo writers; local area meet-ups where they can write with other like-minded souls; a colorful badge for their website should they achieve their word count by November 30th and more.

Anyone who has signed up for NaNoWriMo previously is aware of the challenge involved. A prolific writer might feel the word count is easy, but the truth is that it’s hard to show up and write every single day, and the pressure of producing some 1,700-odd words daily can be wearing. It just takes a couple of missed days to get quite a bit behind goal. And for newbie writers, the entire project can sound daunting.

So how can you prepare for NaNoWriMo? What might give you an edge toward completing your task? This month I’m going to offer up some suggestions and tips that will help get you on your way.

There are many ways to start a novel, but I’m going to begin here with character. Who will be your protagonist? Male or female? Young or old? Human or other? Figure out who your main character will be and start learning a bit about them. Background, family, education, relationship status, occupation, etc. You might not use it all; in fact, you probably won’t. But getting to know your character is the first step to following them through the course of your NaNo novel. Happy writing!

Mini Challenge: Day Five

Today is the final day of the mini challenge. I hope you’ve had some fun with the different prompts and that you’ve gotten some good writing done. Don’t forget, these are just meant as jumping off points — ideas to get your mental juices flowing and maybe give you a bit of material to work with going forward.

For the last of the prompts, we’re returning again to character. Where yesterday you built a character based on some of your favorite qualities and back stories, today I’m going to give you a list of characters and ask you to write something about one of them. Try to choose someone unlike the characters you generally write. Stretch a bit and see what you can come up with for someone very unfamiliar. What sort of story can you tell about them?

Pick one or more of the characters/scenarios below and just write. As with all the other prompts, you only need a page or so to start. Maybe you’ll set it aside and it will be no more than an exercise, or maybe you’ll start something that captures your imagination and keep on going. Either way, thanks for playing this week, and happy writing!

Pick a character:

A soldier the night before deployment

A construction worker on the tallest building in the world (in progress). Can be any time period, any building that once (or still) held the title, or a future construct.

Someone who owes money to the mob

A child (ten or younger) who is being bullied at school

An assassin

A fortune teller

Someone on their death bed — you pick their age and what they’re dying of…illness, old age, etc.

A gardener/grounds-keeper on a huge estate

Someone who works in a casino

An athlete who has just sustained a career-ending injury

A dancer facing a casting-couch situation

A mortician


Mini Challenge: Day Four

Have you been keeping up with this week’s set of challenges? If so, you should have a few different ideas already buzzing about your brain. Even if you’re too busy to participate right now, you can always file these away for future use, and reuse them again and again whenever you’re looking to mix up your daily writing.

Today is day four, and we’re going to take a slightly different approach. We’ve been focusing on story, plots and settings and genre, and ways to revitalize them or try something new. Instead, we’re going to look at characters today. Who are your absolute favorite characters? Think about the books and films and TV shows you love most, and the characters who really capture your imagination. Who would you like to know? Who would you fall in love with? Who would you readily accompany on their adventures? Are they witty and sarcastic? Honest to a fault? Painfully insecure but determined to carry forth despite that? Do they come from impoverished backgrounds that give them the drive to succeed, or are they from money but lacking a solid emotional upbringing? Are they comfortable in their space and only pushed to action by some catastrophe on their doorstep?

For today’s prompt, I want you to think about the characters you love and what it is that makes you love them. Do you see any patterns? Shared backgrounds or personality traits? If you have a romantic type in real life, do you also have a fictional type? Think of the qualities you most enjoy in a character and make a list. They don’t all have to be from a single character either; in fact, better if they’re not. Then build yourself a character who shares some of those characteristics you adore. Start from scratch, dream up their past, and come up with some present-day moment that can kick them off into a story. Throw a bunch of scenarios at your character and ask yourself “what if?”

As always, you only need write a page or two of your idea, but in this case you’ll probably spend a bit of time beforehand working on your list of character traits. And be sure to save that list! You can probably build quite a few protagonists from it. Happy writing!