Tag Archives: readers

Fun and games with book reviews

Sometimes book marketing seems like one big game.

Sometimes it feels like a joke.

In the spirit of positivity and productivity, I’ll eschew the plethora of ridiculous scenarios an author encounters while trying to promote his wares. But one paradox that made me smile (or, rather, roll my eyes) was when I was submitting information about my free Kindle promo and came across multiple paid services to spread the word.

That’s right: not only would I not make any profits on the book downloads during the promotion, but I’d actually be losing money in the process.

Any entrepreneur worth his home office knows you have to spend money to make money. It all comes down to ROI. But I personally believe there are better marketing avenues than pay-per-tweet networks.

OK, one more laugh: there are some online book reviewers who won’t read a novel until it has received a certain number of reviews on Amazon. I suppose professional/quasi-professional reviewers need everyday readers to make a decision before they deign it appropriate to crack the proverbial spine themselves. But from an author’s perspective, well, we need reviews on websites to gain exposure so that people buy, read, and, yes, rate the book on Amazon.com.

In an earlier blog post about the 5 ways to support the writer in your life, I brought up the importance of posting reviews. I’d like to revisit that topic today. Now. Because it turns out they are really, really important.

Also, I’m not too proud to beg for book reviews.

In case you need some convincing, here are a handful of reasons why book reviews can make a big difference in a novel’s success:

  • As mentioned above, some book review websites won’t bother with a novel unless it has at least five or ten or more reviews on Amazon.
  • Some book marketing services won’t include a book until it hits a certain quantity and rank of reviews on Amazon. For example: “Must have at least ten five-star reviews.”
  • Oftentimes, readers won’t take a book seriously if there are zero or very few customer reviews. Zero reviews just looks suspicious, and having less than ten is admittedly sad.
  • Amazon.com itself assesses the value of a book based on the number of reviews. Once a book hits fifty reviews, it makes an impact on Amazon’s search algorithm. In short, the more reviews (and the more positive the reviews), the more likely a potential buyer will be shown/recommended said book.
  • You’re also helping your fellow readers—which is why it’s important to be honest when posting a review.

So now you can see why those little yellow stars are so important—and why I’ve decided to make it as easy (and fun!) as possible for anyone who has read Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, or Martyrs and Monsters to compose a short yet oh-so valuable review.

Are you not entertained?

Mad Libs cover

Mad Libs: the epitome of fill-in-the-blank fun!

Just fill in the blanks, “Mad Libs style.” Then copy and paste copiously.

  • After reading (a previous book), I was looking forward to (expectations of this book).
  • If you like (adjective) characters and (adjective) plots, you’ll love this book.
  • This book reminds me (adverb) of (another book/series/author).
  • This book is at its best when (general example).
  • The pace of the story can be described as (adjective).
  • My favorite character is (proper noun) because (reason).
  • This book made me (verb phrase).
  • I can sum up this book in a single word: (adjective or noun).
  • I would (adverb) recommend this book to (noun).
  • I can’t wait to read more books by David Michael Williams (punctuation)

Party over here!

While Amazon is arguably the most important place to post book reviews due to its market share in the U.S. as well as other countries, there are many other places where folks buy books. Below are links to webpages where people can purchase The Renegade Chronicles, and they’re just waiting to be filled up with your brilliant comments:

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Smashwords

Note: you’ll only be able to leave a review at Smashwords if you purchased it via Smashwords.

CreateSpace

At CreateSpace, all you have to do is click the Facebook “like” button!

Goodreads

Are you a member of Goodreads? If so, use these links:

One more thing

If you’ve read any of my books, please, please, PLEASE post a review somewhere…anywhere!

(Told you I wasn’t too proud to beg.)

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Milestones from my book marketing marathon

What do you call a race without a finish line?

That’s not really a riddle. Or if it is, I don’t pretend to know the answer.

I’ve been thinking a lot about book marketing lately…because I’ve been doing a lot of book marketing lately. I keep coming back to that cliché about how (fill in the blank) is a marathon, not a sprint. As much as I want to quickly plow through my list of marketing tactics so that I can wrap up this project and begin planning my next novel, progress is unavoidably slow.

And pushing myself harder will only cause me to burn out faster.

Maybe the whole marathon metaphor is flawed in this case because publishing The Renegade Chronicles felt a lot like crossing a finish line. Leading up to that achievement was a series of tasks that required sustained pacing and a “keep your eye on the prize” mentality.

But even with Rebels and Fools, Heroes and Liars, and Martyrs and Monsters displayed on my bookshelf, trophy-like, a new endurance test lies before me—the next leg of the never-ending race.

In the spirit of celebrating small successes along the way, I submit the following 10 marketing and sales milestones:

1. Last month, I got a bit of press thanks to Action Publications.

2. Over the past couple of weeks, I sent requests to roughly 80 book bloggers. Three of them have expressed interest in reading and reviewing Rebels and Fools.

3. I’m on deck to be included in a “Newly Released” list on one website and the subject of an author spotlight on another site.

4. My professional Facebook page recently reached 100 likes.

5. The Fond du Lac Public Library now carries all three volumes of The Renegade Chronicles.

6. I’ve sold 75 “units” over the past six weeks. This includes paperbacks, individual e-book downloads, as well as the three-in-one digital collection.

The flag of Denmark

Right now, someone in Denmark might be reading my book. How cool is that? | Photo by US CIA via Wikimedia Commons

7. Three of those e-book sales were from readers in Denmark.

8. Last week, I received some very positive feedback from someone who doesn’t typically read fantasy: “I wasn’t sure if I would (like it). This isn’t my normal genre. I struggled just a little in the beginning trying to keep track of who all the characters were, but after that I was hooked. … I love the number of strong female characters, the bit of romance, all the adventure and plot twists. … I’ll be sure to post a great review when I finish.”

9. I will be the featured speaker at a Fond du Lac Area Writers’ meeting in June.

10. On June 17, I will be the featured artist at Cujak’s Wine and Coffee Bar during the Tour the Town Art Walk in Fond du Lac. (I’ll provide more information closer to the event.)

On second thought, writing, publishing, and book marketing are not so different from actual marathon running. The finish line is simply a measure of progress, not a true end—because there’s always the next race and another opportunity to improve.

Thanks for reading my blog and for your ongoing encouragement. I’m convinced “word of mouth” is the most effective form of marketing, so if you know anyone who likes fantasy adventure, please tell them about The Renegade Chronicles!

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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?)

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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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The pros get paid, plain and simple

Grocery shopping as a kid was a decidedly dull affair.

Wandering up and down the food-laden aisles took a big bite out of play time. And since most desserts and sugary cereals were considered contraband in my house, there wasn’t much to look forward to. The grocery store was Boredom Central.

Except on Saturday.

That was the day most of the local grocery stores enhanced the shopping experience with free samples. What a big difference those surprise snack stations made. Yes, I’ll try some smoked sausage. A new kind of potato chip? Don’t mind if I do!

And if you happened on by the frozen foods at just the right moment, there’d be a small square of pizza waiting for your eager little fingers.

While I can’t promise those free samples impacted my family’s purchases, offering free samples must still a viable marketing tactic. Why else would HBO and the rest of the premium channels promote free weekends if not to get you hooked with bite-sized portions of their TV shows and a limited-time smorgasbord of blockbuster movies?

Now imagine if a new network popped up and decided to give away its programming indefinitely but with a vague notion that at some point in the future, once it had enough regular viewers, it would put a price tag on what it provides. By that point, people would be so in love with its series and films, they would happily fork over money to get more.

Right?

I doubt it.

There’s a big difference between handing out a few free nibbles and serving up meal after meal at no charge. Just ask the many newspapers that tried to incorporate payment gates on their websites after making every article free-to-read for years. Most of them now limit the number of free clicks per month, but the damage had already been done. Very few folks believe they should be charged a fee to read about what’s going on in the world.

A $10,000 bill

No sane writer expects to get rich from his or fiction, but it’s equally ridiculous for professionals to expect to make profit by giving away their product for free.

Once you establish the worth of a product—whether it’s a frozen pizza or national news—it’s awfully difficult to convince people they should have been paying along.

The strange dynamics of creative pursuits and their corresponding value have been on my mind for many months, probably ever since I made my first foray into self-publishing. With regard to writing and the democratization of distribution (i.e., self-publishing), the power is placed in the hands of the writer to decide how much he or she wants to charge for a book.

But the subject of how much one’s time and talent is really worth stretches beyond articles and blogs about writing specifically. We live in a DIY world, and while some might rejoice at breaking down the barriers that kept the everyman’s creative endeavors from reaching the public, there are some unfortunate side effects from the Rise of the Amateur.

Take this article in the New York Times, for example, which reports that the need for imagery in newspapers and magazines is quickly being satisfied by stock photography and amateur contributions. The role of professional photojournalist is fading.

In the article, a photojournalist says, “People that don’t have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don’t feel the need to charge a reasonable rate.”

What exactly is a “reasonable rate”? Should people who invest in an education and work hard to improve expect a fair wage for what they do—or even a full-time job, for that matter? Why should a do-it-yourselfer be vilified for believing that sharing a photo with the world is reward enough? These questions and many more are worthy of consideration.

In his blog, author Scott Roche explores whether a writer should give away his or her fiction for free. There seems to be a theory out there that if aspiring authors give away their stories and novels for free, they will build a fan base, and with that boost in popularity, they will eventually be able to start charging those same readers later on for new fiction. Or, better yet, a traditional publisher will see how popular the author is and offer to purchase the existing series and/or future works.

I don’t buy it.

For one thing, there’s a lot of free content out there. Folks who prefer free fiction have plenty of other options; rather than change their habits and take out their credit card to buy your fiction, they are far more likely to seek out the next struggling up-and-comer or hobby writer willing to give it away.

Even if your “free readers” really, really like your characters or your style or your personality, you’ve already set a no-fee precedent. People don’t like surprises when it comes to payment. In fact, the only industry I can think of where that free-now-pay-later approach works is illegal drugs. Customers get the first taste for free, and they love the experience so much that they will pay just about anything for more. But even in this scenario, it’s more akin to the grocery-store samples than what some writers are attempting today.

And sorry to be the voice of reason, but no matter how good you are at your craft, the odds are that no reader will ever become chemically addicted to the words you put to page.

While Mr. Roche does put his content out there for free, the big difference between the free-now-pay-later paradigm and the author’s personal approach is this: he just wants readers and isn’t holding his breath while waiting for a major publisher to pounce.

Ultimately, every writer—every artist, for that matter—must decide what he or she wants out of the craft.

  • If you create for the sheer joy of creation, then feel free to crank out as much content as you want, whenever you wish. Keep it to yourself or share it as you see fit.
  • If you are satisfied with simply sharing your creations with the world, and you don’t want anything other than the knowledge that other people are potentially enjoying your work, then go ahead and give it away.
  • If, however, you believe your writing (or photography or whatever) is as good as or better than the stuff produced by people who do get paid—and certainly if you have costs you need to recuperate—you had better start charging for it from Day 1.

It’s not necessarily an easy decision to make.

As for me, I don’t expect I’ll ever be able to make a living off my fiction alone. (So few writers do!) But my time is valuable, and I’ve made an investment in the craft by way of a college degree and thousands of hours devoted to honing my skills. For every hour I spend in front of my computer, I’m losing an hour I could have spent with my wife and kids or volunteering for a worthy cause or catching up on sleep or enjoying a hobby just for the fun of it.

For me, writing is a job. I make a weekly commitment to it with the hope that someday I’ll be compensated for my hard work. If I just give away my books, I’m telling the world that, to me, they have no value beyond my enjoyment in the process, that they are worth less than other books, that it was all just for fun.

I decided long ago that the life of a dabbler wasn’t for me. Yes, I want readers, but not at any—and not at no—cost.

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The problem with invincible protagonists

I must have killed hundreds of people over the years.

Since I’m a writer of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, death come with the territory. That’s probably true for any genre that requires the choreography of combat. And when it comes to world building and mapping out a timeline that covers centuries, the beginning and end of a lifespan can occur in a single sentence.

Angel tombstone

If your character’s death didn’t significantly impact your plot or elicit an emotion from the reader, you might have done it wrong. | Image source: morgueFile.com

Some of these folks—from kings to commoners—died of natural causes. But many of my murders were quite violent, depicted in gory detail on the battlefield or in the shadows. One can hardly write about a war without tallying up the corresponding casualties. While some of that body count can be attributed to unnamed warriors, a fair number of major and minor characters have met their demise by my hand.

One of the first main characters I killed off occurs midway through my first novel (The Road to Faith). In truth, that knight’s unceremonious decapitation brought tears to my eyes as his comrades—and I—reacted to the tragedy. It wasn’t personal, you see. The story simply demanded it.

If the best characters take on a life of their own, then their deaths must be dished out judiciously.

That notion occurred to me recently while reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, which boasts a relatively high death toll. Major and minor characters alike fall in the three installments, but it wasn’t until the loss of a key player in the final book that my mind wandered through the pros and cons of killing off a main character—not to mention the courage it takes to pull the trigger.

It’s a topic I’ve pondered since before becoming a writer, back when I played the role of reader only and was at the mercy of other authors’ decisions when it came to the survival of the people populating their stories. Whether a character lives or dies is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. (It takes the adage “Kill your darlings” to a whole new level.)

Death tends to make a statement.

A certain self-indulgent character’s sacrifice in A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind. Heck, many classic children’s stories are none too subtle with the theme of life and loss. I’m looking at you, Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows.

Yes, death is a powerful tool in an author’s arsenal. And it can be abused. A friend of mine once remarked that when George R. R. Martin wants to inject tension into his A Song of Ice and Fire series, he kills off a character. I suspect that that’s an oversimplification, but none can argue that the fantasist is far from timid when it comes to the mortality of major characters, including chief protagonists.

In my opinion, those deaths don’t come off as wanton. True, not every one of them accomplishes a vital plot point (many do, however). And even if one of the first significant deaths in A Game of Thrones is steeped in shock value, it doesn’t come off as gimmicky. In fact, the deaths in Martin’s series seem not only realistic and warranted, but also necessary, which brings me to my next point:

The absence of death also makes a statement.

Nothing saps the tension from a story quicker than the realization that the main characters are invincible. No matter what sticky situation a protagonist finds herself, you just know she will escape unscathed. Granted, “life-or-death” aren’t the only stakes in the game, but I, for one, can’t abide a battle where the victor is guaranteed.

Perhaps the “unkillable” protagonist is a symptom of today’s writers’ (and readers’) appetite for sagas that go on forever. These never-ending series seemingly can’t commit to the loss of key characters or any ending whatsoever.

See also: Dissecting the difficulties to writing a sequel.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to fantasy and science fiction; Alex Cross and Stephanie Plum aren’t going anywhere soon. For that matter, Robert Langdon might be the most resilient mortal ever to solve a mystery.

Speaking of mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tried to weasel his way out of a never-ending series by killing off Sherlock Holmes. Outrage from his fans (and undoubtedly his editor) forced Doyle to rescind the expiration of that most-famous detective. This example seems to suggest most readers don’t want to see a main character die, least of all in an unsatisfying way.

Which means that when an author decides to slay a character that readers have come to appreciate, admire, or even abhor—and, above all, come to think of as an actual person—he has the responsibility to make it meaningful.

Plot twists have their place, but key deaths should make a big splash, not cause a momentary ripple. Story arc aside, a character’s death can be a profound milestone in her development—a final, important act that epitomizes how far she has come from the start. Or how far she has fallen.

If the best characters stand up and cast a shadow, then snuffing out their light must serve a greater purpose.

Naturally, there’s no formula to determine how long a character should live or whether his final moments should be detailed in the pages of a book at all. As with every aspect of this craft, a writer must stay true to the story, whatever that story happens to be.

Slashing copious throats for the sake of bloodshed alone only serves to dilute the effect. Likewise, pulling punches out of cowardice could sterilize an otherwise honest account of the human condition.

But certainly, anyone who is brave enough to write about life must also embrace the subject of death.

Readers and writers: Do you disagree? Should main characters be invincible? Please comment below!

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What else a writer needs to succeed (Part 1)

Let’s forget about the craft of writing for a moment.

It should go without saying that a serious writer must have some measure of creativity and a solid grasp of language to avoid the proverbial pitfalls of syntax and semantics (such as these).

Anyway, there are countless resources dedicated to helping dabblers step up their game and plenty of places where professional writers can learn to improve in such areas as concept development, composition, publishing, and so forth.

Elephants have thick skins. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

Elephants have thick skin. Writers should too. | Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim via Wikimedia Commons

We live in a DIY era, where a million (or more) websites will happily walk you down the path of getting an idea out of your head, into a computer, and, ultimately, in front of the eyes of other people.  And while I know I’m not the first to tackle this topic, there seems to be a dearth of articles pertaining to some of the more intangible qualities that, in my experience, benefit someone who wants to succeed—or simply survive—the sometimes schizophrenic lifestyle of an artist.

So without further ado, here is the first character trait of a well-adjusted writer:

Thick skin

Blame it on the prevailing mentality that we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes worthy our own reality TV series.  Social media gives us the ability to broadcast every inane detail of our lives.  We must be important, right?  I mean, these days even the losing team gets trophies just for trying.

Our collective self-worth has never been higher.  Or more precarious.

I suspect writers have always carried a certain measure of sensitivity when it comes to their work.  While we often hear the analogy of a book being an author’s “baby,” the relationship between the creator and the created becomes even more intimate than that when we see our work not as an extension of ourselves, but as the prevailing piece of our identity.

Not good.

I can’t help but marvel when I hear writers whine about negative reviews or, worse, when they go on the warpath to defend their precious child/ego.  Oh, I’m not immune to the impulse.  But having weathered college workshops populated by (fellow) know-it-alls, attended countless critique sessions with the brilliant Allied Authors of Wisconsin, and dissected many a manuscript alongside my biggest fan and harshest critic (my wife), I’ve learned how to keep my mouth shut—and my ears open.

Let’s get one thing straight: The reader owes you nothing beyond the price of your book—not their time and certainly not a positive review on Goodreads.  Your ideas and delivery thereof might earn you those things, but they are not to be taken for granted.  It’s a huge mistake to assume that the reader will share your emotional bond with a story, especially before they even crack the cover.

No, it’s your job to make them feel a fraction of what you feel about your characters, setting, and plot.  If they stop reading after a page or even the first paragraph, it could be for a variety of reasons, but it all boils down to a lack of connection between story and reader.  Hence, your book is always partially to blame.

Let’s get another thing straight: Even if your novel is better than anything written by Shakespeare or Suzanne Collins, you won’t please everyone.  The playwright has never been universally adored, and despite record-breaking sales, some folks simply can’t stomach The Hunger Games.

If you can’t please everyone, the logical conclusion is that some people will have some not-so-nice things to say about your work.

That’s OK.

Even if you end up writing something terrible, that doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.  It might mean you need more practice with the nuts and bolts of the craft.  Or it could be you didn’t do a very good job translating what’s in your head to the page.  Or maybe you just haven’t reached the right audience.

Every writer needs an audience.  And because technology is a two-edged sword—giving a writer not only multiple channels through which to distribute his or her work, but also instant access to readers’ reactions—we writers have to get better at separating ourselves from our work and letting the story speak for itself.

How writers engage their readers is a topic (or an entire series) for another day.  Meanwhile, here is my recommendation for contending with criticism:

  • Step 1 — Solicit feedback from those whose opinions you trust, particularly those who are well-read in your genre.  Wherever the criticism comes from, keep it in context.  It’s just one opinion among billions.
  • Step 2 — Tell yourself, “Even if they don’t like the story, it doesn’t mean they don’t like me.”  (And if necessary, add, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”)
  • Step 3 — Listen carefully and take notes.
  • Step 4 — Defy the urge to defend.
  • Step 5 — Seriously, keep your mouth shut!
  • Step 6 — Once the critique is over, you can speak, but only to seek clarification.
  • Step 7 — Show appreciation for the feedback, even if your ego has withered to the size of a prune.
  • Step 8 — Give yourself the distance of a day or two, and then go back to your notes and decide which points have merit.
  • Step 9 — Edit the manuscript, keeping what works and fixing what doesn’t.
  • Step 10 — When your baby goes out into the world, wish it well and resist the urge to hover and embarrass it by coming to its defense every time someone says something unkind.

Bottom line: Constructive criticism is a gift, not a curse.  But before a writer can benefit from it, he or she might need to grow a few more layers of skin.

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