Pondering my next writing project

My favorite questions tend to start with “what if.” Lately, however, this writer has been asking himself, “What now?”

intersection with many signs and directions

Source: Ernie & Katy Newton Lawley, http://www.flickr.com/photos/lawley/59402926/ via Wikimedia Commons

Ever since I started plotting out If Souls Can Sleep nearly nine years ago, I’ve had a clear path in front of me when it came to my fiction. The road wasn’t always a straight line by any stretch—for instance, my wife and I wrote a children’s book in between the first and second draft of If Sin Dwells Deep—but I always had more tasks than time to complete them.

Until last week.

With the first two installments of The Soul Sleep Cycle in my agent’s hands, I find myself at an unexpected crossroads, where past, present, and future compete for my attention. And for the life of me, I can’t decide which path is the most prudent.

Option 1: The Past

Once upon a time, I wrote a sword-and-sorcery fantasy series called The Renegade Chronicles. I couldn’t get agents or publishers interested. Rather than invest more time in fixing it, I decided to try something completely different. The result was If Souls Can Sleep.

For many years, I’ve had the notion to go back and self-publish the TRC. After all, just about every article I’ve ever read about becoming a profitable author espouses the virtues of having a large number of titles for sale. Some of those same sources heavily imply that quantity trumps quality…

Then again, just as many advice columns say that an author’s No. 1 marketing tool is a well-crafted manuscript—in other words, the best story you can write.

(And what to do when writing tips contradict?)

Last week, I reread the first third of Book 1 of the TRC to see just how much dust had collected over the past 14 years. While it wasn’t as cringe-inducing as a feared it would be, one thing was clear: that book, along with the other two, would need copious edits.

The best-case scenario would be a performing a series of substantive edits on all three books, cutting out superfluous text, fixing awkward words and phrases, and eradicating all types of typos. In addition to removing excess, I detected a dearth in setting and sensory details throughout. The prologue was rubbish, too.

Pros for revisiting the past

  • Repairing something that’s already written is bound to be easier than starting anew.
  • This is the fastest way for me to publish several books in one fell swoop—and, hopefully, start generating revenue.
  • I invested seven-plus years in TRC, so dedicating another six to twelve months seems like a small price to pay in order to potentially profit from all that work.
  • If TRC finds an audience, I have a slew of storylines saved up for that particular universe.

Cons for revisiting the past

  • After so much time away, I’m not particularly passionate about this project.
  • Even with substantive edits, the final product will not reflect my current skill level.
  • Therefore, it will take an awful lot of willpower to refrain from completely rewriting the series, which would be quite time consuming.
  • More editing? It’s been more than three years since I wrote a new book—or, more precisely, co-wrote The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers—and I’m itching for the chance to jump back into the more creative aspects of creative writing.

Option 2: The Present

With at least one book left to write in The Soul Sleep Cycle (and hopefully a few more), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t eager to wrap up the major story arc that I started back in 2006. However, I’m reluctant to invest the time in Book 3 before I see whether the first two garner any interest—and sales—either via traditional publishing or indie publishing.

To forge ahead or take a break from the series—that is the question.

Pros for living in the present

  • I already have a pretty good idea of what this book will be about and what needs to happen before the end.
  • Having just finished major edits to If Sin Dwells Deep and minor edits to If Souls Can Sleep, the complexities of the story are still fresh in my mind.
  • I’m still very excited about this series, and, honestly, I can’t imagine not writing this book at some point—if only for closure.
  • If traditional publishers don’t buy the trilogy, I’ll have three books ready to self-publish simultaneously. (Hey, it works for Netflix.)
  • I’m confident that the project would push me creatively and that I’d be proud of the final product.
  • While not as easy as editing TRC, writing Book 3 of The Soul Sleep Cycle would still be simpler than coming up with a completely new idea for a novel.

Cons for living in the present

  • If ISCS and ISDD don’t prove profitable—regardless of whether I or a traditional publisher sell them—then spending time writing the next book in the series would be rather pointless. (See also: The Renegade Chronicles.)
  • Even with my new writing schedule, it could take me a couple of years to plot out this story, write it, and then edit it.

Option 3: The Future

I don’t know about other writers, but I always have a slew of story ideas rattling around my gray matter. I jot down some of these story starters in a Word file. In most cases, a few paragraphs are enough to placate that which is threatening to distract me from my current project. Such was the case with a young adult time-traveling tale, a twist-filled take on a traditional fairy tale, and a book about zealots bent on triggering Armageddon.

But then there are stories that can’t be so easily exorcized. For more than a year, I’ve found my mind wandering to a new novel—or series—codenamed “Changelings.” Last week, I finally relented and wrote a few pages about a potential plot and the people to populate it.

Could this be my next novel?

Pros for embracing the future

  • Jumping into a brand-new book would be undeniably energizing, not to mention fun. (I haven’t written a first draft a story since “Ghost Mode” in 2013!)
  • I already have a viable avenue to explore: Changelings.

Cons for embracing the future

  • I have no idea whether any of my ideas, including Changelings, will bear fruit.
  • Even if I were to write a complete manuscript for Changelings, there’s no guarantee it would be publishable.
  • Planning aside, starting afresh will surely be the most time-consuming approach. If my goal is to publish something pronto, this option is out of the question.

Of course, there are other possibilities. I could focus on non-fiction, repurposing some of my old Generation Why? columns or mining this blog for writing-related topics in order to make my self-publishing debut. Or I could give into one of my friend’s urgings and try my hand at a biography of some fascinating historical figure.

But the fact is my passion for writing has always focused on fiction.

“What next?” has almost never been a problem for this writer. Perhaps I should spend a little time exploring past, present, and future—each in turn—and see which project captures my soul. Then again, I suspect I already know where my heart lies.

Perhaps that’s another advantage of “living the dream.”


Filed under Writing

5 ways to support the writer in your life

Do you know someone who is committed to the craft of writing? Congratulations!

Maybe this writer is a relative, in which case you have destiny to thank. Or maybe you’ve befriended someone who has been bewitched by the notion that stacking words one atop another to build a story can be fun and profitable.

Either way, if you’ve spent any amount of time around a writer, you’ve probably already learned a few things about this admittedly strange species:

She might have told you how she came up with the idea for her story and why it’s awesome.

He probably dished on the details about his creative habits or writing schedule or preferred typeface.

Perhaps she shared her protagonist’s astrological sign.

(On second thought, maybe condolences are in order.)

Here’s the thing about writers. We spend a lot of time alone, populating a private world with imaginary friends—er, people—and thinking about topics reserved solely for storytellers and serial killers (e.g., how much midazolam would it take to knock out an average adult male?).

Eventually, we need to come up for air and share some of our “head happenings” with the wider world…or, at least, with our most-trusted loved ones. (That’s you.) And that means his success as a writer depends, at least in part, on you.

So whether they are still in the planning phase, frantically pounding out the first draft, or up to their elbows in edits, here are a handful of ways you can support any writers who cross your path:

1. Encourage them

In addition to a killer concept and mad composition skillz (i.e., the two sides to every story), thick skina strong spine, and enough patience to fill a Buddhist monastery, a writer needs encouragement to survive.

Oh sure, we might be able to sustain ourselves for stretches on ego alone, but eventually our confidence fizzles, and refueling is necessary. We need to be told that we aren’t wasting our time. These proverbial pats on the back can take the form of compliments. For instance, if an idea they share sounds cool, tell them. If nothing else, praise their dedication to what so often can feel like a hopeless pursuit.

Face-to-face chats are great, but don’t forget about Facebook and Twitter and wherever else in cyberspace your writer roams. Follow their author accounts. Like and share their posts. Comment on their blogs. If you engage them online, others might also!

(Yes, I actually wrote the word “cyberspace.” Apologies.)

2. Read their stories

Every writer needs readers. This is true even before a book or short story is published. Alpha readers, beta readers, pre-readers—whatever you want to call the role, you are a prime candidate for being the first eyes on a story.

You aren’t obligated to give a thorough appraisal of the piece, and no one should expect you to play the part of proofreader, but some feedback is appropriate. What did you like? What felt a bit off? Praise is always appreciated, and depending on your rapport, constructive criticism can be very helpful too—emphasis on “constructive.”

But never leave a writer hanging. You gotta give ’em something. And if you don’t make it to the end of the novel—or even the end of the first chapter—let the writer know. You can soften the blow by saying something like, “I don’t think I’m your target reader because this part didn’t work for me…”

3. Buy their books

Encouragement can come in a variety of forms, including financial support. In fact, one surefire way to show the writer in your life that you approve of their writing is by sponsoring them. Just ask my wife! (Insert rimshot here.)

Sure, there actually are donation/sponsorship websites like Patreon, but the most forthright way you can support your writer is by buying her book. Even if you still have an early draft on your e-reader from back when you served as a beta reader. And even if you don’t plan to read the thing cover to cover. Owning a copy of your writer’s book proves, definitively, that you give a damn.

It’s not just about the money, either (though that helps). The more sales a book receives on a site like Amazon.com, the better its ranking becomes; the higher the rank, the greater the visibility—and, therefore, the greater the opportunities for additional sales.

4. Review their books

five out of five starsHere’s where support starts to feel an awful lot like work: After you’ve read the book, write a review and post it on Amazon and as many other sites you can find that carry the book.

Actually, this isn’t as onerous as it sounds. No one expects you to write a college-essay style literary criticism piece that compares your writer’s story to Great Expectations. A few sentences will suffice, and if you have more to say, great! Be honest, but if there’s a lot you don’t like, maybe focus on the stuff that shined. Then copy and paste copiously around the web.

Why are book reviews important? People tend not to trust a book until it has 100 or so reviews. Sadly, it’s the quantity of book reviews—more so than the quality of what’s written in them—that prompts customers to put a book in their cart. Ten 5-star reviews just seem less trustworthy than dozens of reviews that average to 3.5 stars. Strange but true.

5. Spread the word

Whether self-published or traditionally published, any writer worth his carpal tunnel will spend time and money on promoting and marketing his book.

But a single writer can cover only so much ground. Even Jesus saw the value of sending His followers far and wide to share the Good News, thus increasing His geographical footprint. I’m not saying you have to quit your job and become a full-time missionary for your writer’s fiction, but if you come across folks who might like the novel, tell them about it.

Or, better yet, lend them a copy of the book.

Bottom line: Successful writers need readers, and as the friend or relative of a writer, you can make a significant impact on whether her attempt to “make it” as an author turns out to be a nightmare or a dream come true.

(Besides, haven’t you always wanted your name to appear on an acknowledgements page?)


Filed under Writing

Celebrating a writing milestone? Listen up!

When a writing project spans years, it’s important to acknowledge milestones along the way.

Earlier this week, I completed the heavy edits (read: rewrite) of my most recent novel, If Sin Dwells Deep. Considering the brainstorming for that book began five years ago and I finished the first draft 13 months ago, reaching the last sentence of the epilogue felt mighty fantastic.

Even though I still have to comb through the manuscript one more time for proofing purposes before sending it to my agent, I’m taking a moment to recognize this recent achievement.

And what better way to celebrate than with a song?

While working on my first entry in the Soul Sleep Cycle, I made a game of jotting down the titles of songs that contained themes in common my novel. In the end, I created a soundtrack of sorts for If Souls Can Sleep.

Now it’s become something of a tradition because as I was working on If Sin Dwells Deep, I found myself making similar notes. (I even have a couple of tracks tucked away for Book 3…)

Without further prelude here is my playlist for If Sin Dwells Deep:

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” As it turns out, that holds true for both protagonists and authors fiercely committed to pursuing their dreams.


Filed under Writing

Living (and writing) the dream

Hi, my name is David. Remember me? I used to write articles about writing on this website.

I’ll spare you the clichéd “Sorry I haven’t blogged in a while, but I’ve been busy” post. (Snore.) I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t woefully short on time or an author who boasted copious opportunities to type the hours away. Why should my situation be any different?

When a guy’s calendar sports more words per page than his manuscript, he has to prioritize. So even though I acknowledge that marketing is important, at the end of the day, I’m a fiction writer. If I’m going to produce a novel amidst real life’s diversions and obligations, fiction must come first.

Therefore, I make no apologies for my long absence here…though I’m hopeful there will be fewer in the future.

While I haven’t lost (much) sleep over a dearth of blog posts recently, I have succumbed to some tossing and turning due to a general lack of productivity—specifically, the slow rate of progress on the rewrite of my current novel, If Sin Dwells Deep.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that the “hour here, hour there” approach hasn’t been working too well. Yes, I know that some time—any time—is better than none and that the mark of a professional is being able to “turn it on” whenever the chance to write arises.

And maybe there are those out there who’d say I’m lucky to have had regular, if sparse, pockets of time allocated for writing each week. Indeed, some authors say spending a little time writing every day is the best approach.

Not for this writer…

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, the starting and stopping—or, rather, having to stop just when I was getting in the groove and then having to retrace my mental steps a few days later—was a recipe for frustration.

The Dreamer by Halfdan Egedius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dreamer by Halfdan Egedius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Part of the problem, I realize, is the nature of my current manuscript. A lover of mind games, I tend to write books with complex plots, and the main focus of the rewrite of this particular novel is a redistribution of revelations. Even after an extensive period of planning and organization (in the form of an incredibly comprehensive scene-by-scene outline), it has proven difficult to keep track of what plot points have been shared when—and what new surprises should be sprinkled in next.

My story about dream drifters was becoming something of a nightmare.

Fortunately, my tale has a very happy ending. As of this week, I have taken on a new role at the website and marketing agency where I work, and my new schedule includes one day away from the office each week. So instead of seven one-hour stints, I’ll now have that same span all in one session to focus exclusively on my fiction (i.e., plowing through as much writing and editing as humanly possible).

The new schedule also afford me some additional pockets of time for fiction-related activities, such as industry research and, yes, blog updates. As if things couldn’t get any better, my new role at the agency focuses more on content: copywriting and editing, along with creative concepts, website population, search engine optimization, and website analytics.

No pinching, please. I don’t want to wake up!

Tuesday was my first “fiction-only” session, and I edited two and a half chapters—the equivalent of about half of a months’ work under the old stop-and-start paradigm. My original (self-imposed) deadline for getting If Sin Dwells Deep to my agent was December 31, 2015. I expect I’ll be able to do much better than that now.

Improving my pace not only moves up the timeline for finishing If Sin Dwells Deep, but also means I’ll be able to tackle other objectives sooner, including exploring the option of self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles, investing more time in marketing, and imagining new stories to tell.

New stories? Imagine that! I’ve been working on the first two books of the Soul Sleep Cycle, on and off, for nearly a decade. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around pursuing a new plot—difficult but delightful.

And, of course, I’m eager for the day I can use this blog to announce that Book 1 of the Soul Sleep Cycle (whichever novel turns out to be Book 1), has evolved from a pipe dream to a finished product available for purchase.


Filed under Writing

The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical

Giving grammar short shrift is a surefire way to get shot down.

Recently, I was invited to enter an online writing contest, one in which the competitors posted partial or completed stories on a website. Contestants and the public alike could then read and rate each piece of fiction.

I confess I didn’t make it past the synopses of most entries. Awkward sentence structures, misplaced punctuation and more clichés than I could shake a red pen at — such obstacles prevented me from taking a chance on stories that clearly scrimped on the fundamentals of strong writing.

For instance, if you are not 100 percent sure you know how to use a semicolon, please don’t use one!

I couldn’t bring myself to submit to the contest. It just screamed “amateur hour.”

Maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, grammar is the one aspect of writing that has always come easy for me. Just about every job I’ve had since college included proofing among its duties. This scientific, rules-based side of the craft appeals to my left-brain proclivities.

There are many, many ways to screw up a story, and I admit I have my share of weaknesses. But since every writer has the same set of guidelines when it comes to parts of speech, punctuation, and so forth, I can’t wrap my mind around why so many of us slack off when it comes to grammar. This should be low-hanging fruit!

Or maybe every writer doesn’t need to be a whiz when it comes to grammar. I’m certain some of the best authors depend heavily on editors to take a great story and make it even better by removing errors of all kinds. But because we live in a DIY era of publishing, I sometimes worry that self-published writers don’t realize the poor impression they make when their dialogue is marred by missing commas or when misplaced modifiers confound the semantics of sentences.

Maybe the average reader is more forgiving than I give them credit for — or, at least, more forgiving than I am — but I have to believe grammar and usage matter. If nothing else, it adds polish to any given plot.

For me, fixing sentences is like a game, but since proofing isn’t every writer’s idea of fun, I’ve been kicking around the concept for a grammar-based video game as far back as March 7, 2012. I envision the app would help writers of all kinds could become more comfortable with punctuation in particular.

The odds that I’ll ever find the time (and the developer talent) to create this game are admittedly slim, but I thought I’d share these early notes. Reading on probably won’t make you a better proofreader, but it might make you smile.


Cowboy on a horse

Lawlessness didn’t necessarily work out so well in the Wild West. Y’all better tame your syntax. | John C. H. Grabill [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Who is the target audience?

I’m reluctant to make it too childish because I think a lot of adults could benefit from a brush up on their punctuation. But I also believe that an adult (whether a writer or some other kind of professional) will be more likely to try out a grammar tutorial if it’s clever and fun. So, off the top of my head, I’d say this game is aimed at middle schoolers on up.

What is the genre?

I want to keep this simple, in no small part because I’ve never designed a video game. Also, if this is going to be an app, it has to be small enough to download to a smart phone. That means a crazy, comprehensive game that blends/bends several genres isn’t going to work. Also, I don’t want there to have to be much, if any, typing because it’s a pain in the butt to type for any significant amount of time on a tablet or smart phone.

The first thing that comes to mind is a story-based shooter (e.g., blasting away improper punctuation and then selecting the character, if any, that belongs in the slot). But I’m not sold on that.

What is the tone/theme?

Due to the small scope of the project, I want to dive into a pre-established trope, thus avoiding needless explanation/development. Plus, being a fan of puns, it opens the door for some real groaners. My first thought was a sword-and-sorcery setup because the pen is mightier than the sword, and I could have a full-fledged grammar wizard teaching his young apprentice. Too “Harry Potter,” methinks. Besides, a grammar wizard sounds too much like a computer wizard program that checks for grammar.

After writing the descriptions for a couple of the “enemies” (below), I am envisioning the bad guys’ bios in the form of a wanted poster, which opens the door for a Western. And like the settings of most Western stories, I expect the humor will be very, very dry.

Who are the heroes?

Perhaps the player chooses among three characters. If there’s no difference between their skills/attacks, then it doesn’t make sense to offer three choices because it’ll just take up needless space. However, if each hero has his own approach (time trials vs. strategy vs. something else), then I would advocate for the following three crime-fighting characters:

  • Johnny Redpen — a hot-tempered quick draw, Johnny Redpen’s speed with a sixshooter is matched only by his hatred for good punctuation gone bad.
  • Edith Goodword — kindly schoolmarm by day, vigilante typo-hunter by night, Miss Goodword isn’t afraid to spread the gospel of good grammar in even the seediest of sentences.
  • Dominic “Doc” Proofer — the retired sheriff of Syntax Springs, Doc isn’t ready to hang up his shotgun, not when unruly marks are running amok and he can help make the West a little less wild.

Who are the villains?

  • Slim Semicolon
  • Dash Dastardly
  • Miss E. Lipses
  • Colon McClock
  • The Savage Slash and his half-wit of a half-brother Backslash
  • James Trouble (with a capital T)
  • The Quote-Crazy Kid
  • Old Man Apostrophe, the grocer

Who is the final boss?

  • Mr. ? (pronounced “Mister Huh?”) — The mysterious mastermind, he believes rules are meant to be broken and covets the mythical “Poetic License,” which will allow all manner of ne’er-do-wells to swarm previously perfect grammatical constructions.

What’s the concept?

The storyline unfolds through the poorly punctuated sentences our heroes are correcting.


Whether or not you think The Good, The Bad, and The Ungrammatical would make a worthy video game, I encourage any writer who lacks the basic understanding of grammar (and/or lacks a professional proofreader) to find some way to brush up on the subject.

If you don’t fix bad grammar and poor punctuation, you’re just shootin’ yourself in the foot.



Filed under Writing

It’s important to look back occasionally while on the long road

Yesterday morning, WordPress congratulated me on my blog’s third anniversary. There was even a fancy little trophy icon by the announcement.

Never mind that I hadn’t posted an article in nearly three months—or in this calendar year.

TrophyIt’s not that I had given up on One Million Words; I simply have prioritized the heavy editing/rewriting of my novel, If Sin Dwells Deep, over blogging. I knew I’d come back to this blog at some point, and I almost broke down last month and wrote the clichéd I’m-taking-a-break-but-stay-tuned! post to let all of my readers know that I’m still alive, but to be honest, I didn’t think anyone even noticed my silence.

After all, I know most (if not all) of my author’s Facebook page’s 85 “likers” on a personal level, so they’ve probably seen my non-writing-related comments on my other account. And the majority of my 58 followers on Twitter have hundreds, if not thousands, of other tweeters to fill their feeds each day.

Also, no one really reads this blog.

Well, that’s not entirely true. According to WordPress (the content management system upon which my website is built), I have 127 followers. Now, I can’t say with certainty that any of them actually read my posts (except those precious few who take time out of their busy schedules to comment on them), but they cared enough at one point to click the “Follow” button.

Delving into my site stats, I also find that there have been 357 comments over the past three years, and even if I estimate that half of those were mine (in reply to others’ comments), that still leaves more than 170 times someone read and replied.

While these aren’t big numbers compared to many, many other blogs, I take some solace in them nonetheless. I’m a big fan of measurable goals. I’m also a progress junky. Every now and then, I need to take stock of what I’ve accomplished, even if they are small successes.

Because most of the time, I’m terrible at acknowledging my accomplishments, especially modest ones. Every silver lining has a storm cloud and all that…

For example, while reviewing my early notes on my current project, I noticed a timestamp that caught me off guard. My very first ideas about this novel—the sequel (maybe) to If Souls Can Sleep—was dated 7/14/10.

Sweet sassy molassy, I’ve been working on this book for more than four and a half years?!

What’s worse is that I still have a ways to go with the editing, which means it could end up being five years or more from inception to completion.

To prevent myself from hyperventilating, I reminded myself that I tackled a number of other projects between July 2010 and March 2015: starting and populating this website, editing and publishing a children’s chapter book with my wife, writing a new short story (“Ghost Mode”), attempting to get that and another short story published. Oh, and real life happened somewhere in there too.

Perhaps it was a bit masochistic of me, but after seeing how long I’ve been working on Book 2, I opened my notes file for Book 1, did the math, and discovered that that novel took me four and a half years to plan, write, rewrite, proof, and submit to my agent. That means, when all is said and done, I likely will have pumped close to a decade into the first two books of The Soul Sleep Cycle.

And I still have at least one more book to go!

Then there are the four sword-and-sorcery novels I wrote before diving into a sci-fi/fantasy hybrid world of The Soul Sleep Cycle. Add in the experimental children’s book, and I’ve written seven novels. None of them are available for purchase.

I doubt there’s a word to describe the combination of emotions I experience when I consider the situation. I’m at once impressed with what I’ve done, amazed at how much of my life I’ve dedicated to this project, and disappointed that I don’t have more to show for it. “Impressamazappointed”?

If nothing else, the fact that I’ve put so much time and energy into my fiction without a significant return on investment indicates I have the thick skin and tenacity it takes to make it as a writer.

Or maybe it just proves that I am a masochist, after all…

Some aspects of my writing are quantifiable. As for this blog, I can easily conjure up this statistic: Over the past three years, I have published 51 posts (not including this one). And while that’s not a ton of content compared to some other sites out there, that’s 51 posts more than I would have written if I hadn’t overcome my prejudice of the medium and decided to add my perspective on the topic of fiction writing to the Web.

Other attributes are not so easily quantified, such as the satisfaction of transforming an idea in my head to a full-fledged story on the page or the frustration and guilt I feel when I go too long without a writing session.

If this were only a numbers game, I wouldn’t have much to show for my 17 years of being a dedicated writer. But every experience within that span has made me a better writer and wiser when it comes to the publishing world.

Were I to keep my eyes fixed solely on the destination, which always seems just beyond the horizon, I probably would have swerved off of this wonderful and terrifying road by now. But even when I’m enjoying the journey for the journey’s sake, I know I need to look back at the milestones I’ve passed along the way, if only to remind myself of the distance I’ve already crossed.

Even if that reminder comes in the form of a cheesy trophy graphic.


Filed under Writing

Should you care if readers care about your characters?

Once upon a time, I described my fiction as character-oriented.

I’d bandy about that phrase in conversations with friends (or anyone, really) who asked about my writing. I used it in query letters to agents and editors while precociously comparing my early sword-and-sorcery fiction to the works of Margaret Weis, R.A. Salvatore, and other authors of books with dragons on the cover.

“Character-oriented” just seemed to be the logical expression for my work because, at the root of it all, I loved creating characters. Back when I was I writing medieval fantasy—and attending to the world building that went with it—I created countless characters to fill roles from lowly peasant to powerful tyrant across a centuries-long timeline. (Though there weren’t any invincible protagonists, I’m happy to report.)

It was an easy exercise:

Step 1: pick a name.

Step 2: pick a personality.

I spent more than a little time creating character profiles so that the people who populate my stories transcended a mere two dimensions. Because I wanted my readers to understand the characters and to see them as clearly as I did.

I also wanted readers to care about them.

In fact, I’m confident I said this very line at writing workshops in college: “If I don’t care about your characters, I won’t care what happens to them.”

These days, I don’t know if would use “character-oriented” to describe my fiction. I look back at The Renegade Chronicles and some of my other early work, and it’s clear there was a lot of focus on the different personalities. Perhaps that’s inevitable when you write about a motley group of freedom fighters thrown together by fate and forced to get along…or die trying.

But once I turned the page from straightforward sword-and-sorcery fantasy to something more nuanced, I find most of my ideas start with “What if…?” and not “Who is…?” Inklings of the story—the plot, that is—tend to come first, though the types of people who will weather these scenarios come in at a close second.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

Apathy is the enemy of every writer.

The more I think about it, the more a term like “character-oriented” seems superfluous. Characters are but one element of a story. Like setting and plot, they are essential ingredients of a story. But are they any more important than the rest? Shouldn’t a story be character-oriented, plot-oriented, setting-oriented, and so forth?

More to the point, can a reader care what happens in a story if he or she doesn’t care about the characters?

The question haunts me because I’ve been accused of creating unlikable characters. Vincent, the protagonist of If Souls Can Sleep, isn’t the nicest guy. He has a lot of problems. He treats people poorly. And the fact that something supernatural seems to be happening to him does nothing to make him a better-adjusted citizen, particularly in the short term.

Whenever a beta reader would remark how they just can’t bring themselves to like Vincent, I’d argue (if only to myself) that it doesn’t matter. My goal was to make him realistic, and, realistically, people can be jerks.

Yet I also wanted him to be relatable and maybe even sympathetic.

While it wasn’t important for Vincent to be likable, it was arguably important for people not to dislike him so much that they dismissed his fate. Apathy is the enemy of every writer. So I suppose I had a decision to make: either make Vincent utterly unlikable so that my reader roots against him or take steps to make him more likable so that they could root for him.

I confess that I did soften him up a big in the rewrite, and reducing the intensity of his bad behavior not only made him more sympathetic, but also refined his character arc. Maybe he isn’t the most likable guy, but he has enough qualities now to make the reader care what happens to him.

A similar criticism arose for the protagonist of my short story “Going Viral.” A friend and fellow writer commented, “…I didn’t feel one bit connected to Sam by the end.” Also: “As a character, I found Sam neither relatable nor empathetic…the first syllable of ‘character’ is ‘care.’”

Come to think of it, I made Quentin E. Donovan (the Quentin E. Donovan), the “star” of another short story intentionally unlikable…

But in the case of Sam and “Going Viral,” I’m willing to chalk up Sam’s shortcomings to the fact that I struggle with short fiction. I also agree with my friend when he acknowledges that character development is even more challenging within the confines of short fiction.

It raises an important question: if the rest of the story is successful, does it matter whether the reader gives a damn about Sam?

A storyteller’s only job is to con the reader into turning one more page. We can’t directly control how anyone feels about anything, though, yes, a fair amount of manipulation comes with the territory. Writers have a handful of devices at their disposal to capture and keep a reader’s attention.

I already mentioned plot, setting, and, of course, characters. We also have themes, backstory, subplots, tropes that comes with various and sundry genres, tension, pacing—in short, anything and everything that could possibly compel a reader to travel from front cover to final page.

One could argue whether or not characters are the most important aspect of a story, but few would content that it’s OK to skimp on character development. If a writer neglects the work that enables the average reader to form a connection with the protagonist in particular, the rest of the literary elements are going to have to work that much harder to hook and hold the reader.

So how exactly can an author make his characters “connectable”?

  • Make us like her.
  • Make us hate her…or love to hate her.
  • Make us pity him. (A creative writing professor once told me you can instantly make readers pity characters by putting them in denial.)
  • Make us root for him because he’s an underdog.
  • Make her relatable…just like somebody we could meet on the street.
  • Make her utterly exceptional…someone we could never meet in our real lives.
  • Make him have big problems.
  • Make him have depth.

For more advice, there’s a nice, in-depth look at how to make readers care about your characters at novel-writing-help.com. And here’s five more tips at writersrelief.com.

Now it warrants mentioning that not every character will resonate with every reader. We all have different preferences and unique backgrounds. You can’t please all of the people any of the time, but as a writer, you should aim to please as many as possible.

And even if characters on the whole aren’t your strength, just make sure they aren’t a weakness.


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