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What to do when writing tips contradict

The only constant when it comes to writing advice is inconsistency.

There are times when I wish someone would come up with a template for writing a creative, impactful and commercially successful novel in “Just 10 Easy Steps!” While there are no shortage of textbooks and self-help guides for writers, I fear there’s no one surefire way to become the best writer you can be.

At the end of the day, fiction writing is more art than science.

Since no two minds work precisely the same way, no two writers are going to approach planning, plot structure, character development, research, writing, and editing exactly the same way. A method that works for one author might result in utter failure for another. A customized methodology, then, is key.

Portrait of author Stephen King

Who am I to question the wisdom of Stephen King? Just another writer trying to figure stuff out. | Photo credit: Shane Leonard

In my first post on this blog, I vowed to abstain from stating “absolute rules that govern writing as a craft or business.” Mostly, I didn’t want to come off as arrogant, but there’s a more pragmatic reason for my promise:

There aren’t any absolutes when it comes to writing.

That’s not to say there aren’t valuable tips to share. (I like to think that this blog contains a helpful nugget or two for people careening headlong down the same crazy path I’ve chosen.) And there are plenty of overarching platitudes that seem applicable to most people.

Yet I have to believe that despite how many successful writers have declared, “You must read voraciously in order to become a better writer,” there’s a genius out there somewhere who penned his or her masterpiece in a vacuum.

Anomalies aside, some so-called writing rules outright contradict others. Never was this more apparent to me than during recent email correspondences with a novice writer and prospective member of the Allied Authors of Wisconsin, who sought my perspective on several conflicting pieces of information—including the sage words of one Stephen King.

The article he referenced included excerpts from King’s memoir, On Writing, which I had read and enjoyed many years ago. In the article, King says writers should “write with the door closed; rewrite with the door open.” The article further paraphrases the point: “You should maintain total privacy between you and your work,” while composing the first draft.

This wasn’t the first time the aforementioned aspiring author had encountered advice dissuading him from sharing his partial manuscript with others. And while I can agree that there are some disadvantages to prematurely exposing one’s story to the critics, I believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In “Why writers groups still matter,” I outlined how soliciting feedback from fellow writers can help an author and his or her book. Of course, one could wait until he or she is finished with the first draft before joining a writing workshop, sending it to beta readers, and so forth.

So why not acquiesce to King’s (and many others’) point of view? Here’s what I told my friend via email:

I don’t know if I’d say receiving critiques on your work prior to having finished a first draft is detrimental. I can see pros and cons.

Some pros include getting an early understanding about what the readers are latching onto. If their attention is focused on the right stuff, you know you’re on the right track. If they are getting distracted by minor details (or characters), that gives you some ideas not only for how to revise those first few chapters, but also how to treat such things moving forward.

I will say, however, that I think it’s a mistake to perpetually revise chapters. I’ve seen it happen time and time again where writers can’t get past the first handful of chapters because they’re constantly revising until it’s “perfect.” And getting feedback from alpha readers adds more feedback, so, yeah, there’s a higher chance that a writer will want to revise/redo/rewrite instead of move forward.

At Allied Authors meetings, I take notes on the critiques for every chapter I read. But I never work on those chapters immediately after a meeting. In fact, I don’t review them until I’m ready for Draft 2. (Though I will keep comments in mind in case they are relevant for upcoming/unwritten chapters.) I’m a firm believer that it’s better to get a complete draft done before trying to improve on anything. It’s probably because I’ve seen too many people frustrate themselves by trying to make Chapter 1 flawless before moving on. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that work.

Is a completely MS review preferred? Absolutely. …it’s difficult to critique portions of a novel (due to a lack of context, etc.), but imperfect though they may be, I continue to find value in chapter-by-chapter reviews.

So who is right—Stephen King or I?

Or both?

In actuality, I’m not disagreeing with King on a philosophical level, but the devil is in the details. And even if King and I likely agree that rewriting Chapter 1 ad nauseam is a mistake, there are probably those out there who make it work. Probably, there are folks who never get a second opinion on their manuscript before sending it off to an editor or self-publish it and let the public decide whether it’s worth purchasing.

Writing is a complex activity. What’s ideal for one person might not be remotely achievable by another. (Sorry, Mr. King, but as much as I’d love to knock out a first draft of a novel in three months, real life tends to get in the way.)

Every writer must determine his or her own path from conception to composition. There’s a heck of a lot of alphabet between Point A and Point Z. I suppose the only thing that matters is making it to “The End” without getting lost among all of the warnings along the way.

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Self-publishing: a seldom-told story

Partial cover image of "The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers"

We knew we wouldn’t be able to create a cover worthy of the story just on our own, so we found a graphic designer to give the book the pizazz it needed visually. (Enjoy this teaser image for now!)

Here’s the good news: self-publishing puts authors in control of nearly every aspect of the publishing process.

That’s also the bad news.

Once upon a time, a successful writer could get away with being a brilliant storyteller and leave proofing, editing, cover design, interior layouts/paginating, and distribution to folks whose full-time jobs were to manage such things.

Today’s writers who walk the path of traditional publishing continue to benefit from the collective expertise of professionals.  At the same time, the self-publishing route has become more accessible and profitable than ever before.

Which means more and more folks—such as my wife and I—are taking the do-it-yourself approach.

The pros and cons of DIY publishing, self-publishing, independent publishing (or whatever you wish to call it) could monopolize an entire series of blog posts.  Suffice it to say that amateur publishers have more freedom when it comes to the presentation of their novels than their contract-signing counterparts do.

Yet that freedom comes with a price.  For instance, a traditionally published author might not have much of a voice when it comes to the composition of her cover.  In fact, I’ve heard of situations where writers downright despise the depiction that ultimately graces the front of their books.

Not so with self-publishers—that is, of course, if you are a graphic designer, know one who will do you a favor, can afford to hire someone with the talent to translate what’s in your head to the printed page, or are satisfied with a template you (and God knows how many other writers) found online.

Fortunately, my wife and I know more than a few graphic designers, and we’re both extremely satisfied with how the cover for our upcoming children’s book, The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers, turned out.

Then again perhaps “DIY” is a misleading term when it comes to self-publishing.  I’d wager very few independently published authors could ever do it all alone.  Even those who can’t afford or otherwise spurn professional help in the form of artwork, editing, and proofing (a perilous decision, in my opinion) aren’t likely be the ones buying paper, setting up the press, or building their own retail website to sell their work.

Why would you bother when services like CreateSpace can handle the printing for you, and Amazon.com is more than capable of handling monetary transactions and distributing copies?

Despite such shortcuts, however, plenty of work remains for the self-published author.

I’ve read articles that purport the contrary, but believe me when I tell you that self-publishing is a significant investment of time.  Most of the checklists I’ve stumbled across online are far from comprehensive, and even if they were, looks can be deceiving.  A single line item can swallow up an entire afternoon…day…week…

On more than one occasion while trying to make sense of journey, I’ve felt like a certain British lass who wandered haplessly down a rabbit hole.

For example, we asked our cover artist to leave a space for the barcode, which we knew we would be purchasing in the near future, along with an ISBN.  No big deal.  It would be easy enough for her to add it to the back cover later.

But before we could create the graphic of the barcode, we needed to determine the price of the book, which we couldn’t do until we learned how much it would cost to print the book, which we couldn’t calculate until we were reasonably certain how many pages it would have, which ended up being only one aspect of price because we learned that printing our interior in full color was cost-prohibitive, which meant we needed to figure out if our color illustrations would look good in grayscale, which we couldn’t do until we consulted the graphic designer who was working on the cover.

Yes, I’ll have some more tea, Mr. Hatter…

Before someone accuses me of unfairly representing and/or tarnishing the reputation of self-publishing, perhaps a disclaimer is needed.  Our situation might not be typical for the following reasons:

  • This is our first attempt at self-publishing, so there’s a learning curve.  I’m confident that if we were to go through this exercise again, it would go faster and smoother.
  • Because there are two authors, there are two opinions when it comes to details big and small.  Not every decision is a drawn-out negotiation, but before either of us pulls the trigger on any task, we at least have the courtesy to consult the other.
  • I’m a (recovering) perfectionist, who sometimes gets bogged down in research.  (More evidence of that here.)  I prefer to consider all of my options before committing to a course of action.

I’m also incredibly detail-oriented, so if the page numbers on the contents page don’t align perfectly along the right margin, I have a problem with that.  The point is to make our book look as polished as any traditionally published title.

Speaking of page numbers, I must have spent an hour last Sunday battling Microsoft Word, which boasts an incredibly convoluted process for setting up Page 1 on any page other than the first or second with a document.

Even after setting up a section break to separate the story itself from the book’s front matter, I needed a YouTube video to show me the location of a tiny, random button that appeared at certain times on a certain tab and which needed to be unclicked so that the footer styles wouldn’t carry over from the intro to Chapter 1.

And then I had to figure out why only odd page numbers were showing up.  On second thought, forget the tea.  Alice needs something stronger…

The entire time, I kept thinking, “There are people out there whose job is to transform a manuscript into a print-worthy layout.  Someone—or several someones—could do in a matter of minutes the steps we’ve been attempting to do (on and off) for the past handful of weeks.”

But that’s the tradeoff.  We could have decided to hire a service to handle such things.  We also could have attempted to sell The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers to a traditional publisher of children’s chapter books.  Instead, we’re doing as much as possible ourselves.

It’s been a learning process as well as an adventure outside my comfort zone.  But that’s Wonderland, for you: unfamiliar, sometimes infuriating, and often…well…wonderful.

Editor’s note: The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers is no longer available for purchase. Here’s why.

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What’s in a (brand) name?

When one first decides to become a novelist, many important questions come to mind:

Even though the first question is the only example that impacts the act of writing, all three are related.  However, I suspect most writers don’t spend too much time pondering genre.  One typically decides to be a writer after coming up with an idea (or twelve).  Choosing a genre to write tends to follow the same thought process as choosing which genre to read.

Cover of Stephen King's "Under the Dome"

Note the size and placement of the author’s name.  Would I have purchased this book if Stephen King’s name weren’t on it?

A lifelong fan of science fiction and fantasy, I always saw myself as a conjurer of tales that contain magic, mad science and/or other manipulations of the laws of reality.  I didn’t overthink it.

And while I did grow a full beard and pretentiously smoke a tobacco pipe for a few months in college, I’ve dedicated more time to addressing the second question above: real name or pen name?

In my early days of being a writer—when I spent nearly as much time fantasizing about how wonderful being an author would be as I did writing actual fantasy—I came across the same bit of advice for up-and-comers time and time again: Start with a pen name.  That way, if at first you flop, you can always try, try again without carrying any baggage with you.

When at last you’ve taken the publishing industry by storm and the masses finally appreciate your literary, then you can start slapping your real name on the cover.  (You can also let your new readers know about the various non de plumes you collected over the years to boost sales of those older books.)

Call it confidence or just plain cockiness, but I quickly decided such pessimism wasn’t for me.  Why bravely venture down the road of achieving my dreams while preparing for—no, planning for—the possibility of failure?

So then the big question became how to write my real name.

David Williams?  Far too common.

David M. Williams?  Better, though not by much.

D. Michael Williams?  Hmm…

D.M. Williams?  We fantasy writers do seem to like initials…

But in the end, I settled on spelling it all out.  And while future journalistic and PR writing would bear a byline of first and last name only (mostly because throwing in a middle name just seemed pretentious in those situations), I vowed all fiction would unabashedly boast my full name.  No guts, no glory, right?

Having made that important decision, I was able to move onto arguably more important endeavors, such as writing novels, editing novels, finding an agent, creating this website, etc.

So imagine my surprise when the big question recently made a reprise.

Oh, David Michael Williams will be the name that appears on the proverbial spine of my speculative fiction—from sword-and-sorcery short stories to sci-fi series.  But what about other types of fiction?

No, I’m not talking about erotica or the steamier subgenres of romance.  Or gruesome horror thrillers whose macabre details might inspire my neighbors to install extra security.  Or even essays that take a politically controversial stance.

I’m talking about a chapter book for children.

Here’s the thing: An author’s name is more than a mere label.  It’s his or her brand.  And if you don’t think brands are important, take a look at the covers of books penned by New York Times bestsellers.  While a newbie’s name likely will be printed at a much smaller size than the title of a book, a name like Dan Brown or David Baldacci takes up more space than the title.

Nora Roberts could slap her name in big letters on a half-finished crossword puzzle, and people would buy it.

If you need further evidence that brand names do matter, consider this: When Stephen King wrote the book Thinner under the pen name Richard Bachman, he sold 28,000 copies during the first run.  But after the public learned Bachman was really King, ten times as many copies sold.  Same product, different results…simply because of the brand.

Now if any of these heavy hitters decided to genre jump (and if the experts are to be believed), he or she should create a pen name so as not to confuse fans.  After all, if Dan Brown put out a collection of poetry, readers expecting another Robert Langdon adventure would be more than a little disappointed after the first stanza or so.

Even writers who aren’t household names are advised to adopt aliases when dabbling in multiple genres.  Because writers aren’t just people who write anymore.  We’re also supposed to be business experts in our own right; masters of our one, chosen genre; and personas with an online presence in order to engage prospective customers.  Therefore, each specific audience requires a separate identity.

I’m told that in order to be successful, writers must also be marketers, self-promoters, and subtle salesmen who don’t wait for their target audience to find them, but rather relentlessly seek them out.  Just about every how-to article on the internet instructs authors to develop websites, engage in social media, and build their brand online and offline.

That’s a lot of work for one person (especially when that person already has a full-time job, wants to spend time with his family, and, oh yeah, actually write new stuff now and then).  Juggling multiple brand names means either investing more resources into self-promotion/marketing or splitting up what time has already been allocated for such things among the various personas.

Today I’m David Michael Williams and tomorrow…someone else?

Once again, I find myself tempted to flout conventional wisdom and do it my own way.  If I’ve learned anything on this long and winding road toward publication, it’s that the entire process—from conception to sale—is as much art as science…with a little of the arcane tossed in for good measure.

And while I understand the danger of confusing and perhaps disappointing readers, I’m pretty sure most folks are smart enough to realize that If Souls Can Sleep and The Pajamazon vs. The Goofers Twofers are intended for two distinct audiences, even without seeing their covers.  Besides, most stores are pretty good about clarifying categories.

Sometimes I fear the business side of books distracts writers from our chief concern: the craft of writing.  We spend a lot of time these days plotting how to get more manuscripts into readers’ hands, and maybe that’s unavoidable.  But I, for one, am ready for another reprieve from thinking about my own appellation and, instead, selecting the perfect name for my next villain.

At the end of the day, I’m an ordinary guy with a very common name who likes to write books for various age groups.  I’m happy to share my thoughts on different aspects of the craft, but I can’t claim to be an expert.  I’ve put away my pipe and shaved off (most of) my beard because I’m not a celebrity and don’t care to be one.

Granted, that’s not a very compelling brand, but I’m just naïve enough to believe that the words in my novels should matter more than those on the About the Author page.

What is your thought on pen names and managing multiple author names?  Comment below and/or weigh in at Writers Poll: real name vs. pen name

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Choose your own adventure (please!)

Remember those old Choose Your Own Adventure books?  The ones where you controlled a character’s destiny and guided the direction of the narrative?

I’m conducting an experiment that brings that old series of children’s books to mind.  Below you will find the beginning of three short stories.  Please read them all and then vote for the one you’d want to read in its entirety.

Pick your favorite, and just maybe it will get enough votes to earn an ending (despite my ambivalent attitude toward short fiction).

* * *

Option 1: “The Villain”

Quentin E. Donovan—the Quentin E. Donovan—sidestepped into an alley, closed his eyes, and did something he hadn’t done in a decade or more: He went into ghost mode.

A deliberate twitch of his left thumb, and the twin IRIS mods went offline.  A whispered password triggered the auto-transcript program that fueled half a dozen different Lifefeeds to quit.  Finally, he removed the sleek, pearlescent PAM—an eighth-generation iCoin Pro—from his pocket and thumbed the command to repel incoming V-captures.

No feeds, no casts, no signals whatsoever.  He was officially grid-locked.

Without the translucent menus and scrolling text in his periphery, the world seemed impossibly simple.  And slightly pink.  It took him a moment to realize his eyes were compensating for the absence of the green tinge that always coated the corner of his vision, notifying him that the ocular implants were successfully uploading his sensory data to the Sphere.

He shivered, as though losing the subtle, soothing tingle of info-exchange between his bioware and the local hotspots had reduced his body’s temperature.  The air around him even tasted dead.

No wonder they call it “ghost mode,” he thought.

Quentin turned back to the street and saw a woman approaching.  He smiled politely—no, eagerly—but she never acknowledged him, her blank stare undoubtedly combing through a number of feeds only she could see.  He just stood there for several heart-pounding seconds after she passed, until finally he identified the foreign, long-forgotten feeling called loneliness.

He pressed his palm against smooth surface of the iCoin and flirted with the idea of rebooting all of his AR apps.  But he found courage, then, in the thought of what glory lay ahead.  A shame, he thought, that his millions of fans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the thrill of this clandestine meeting he had arranged only hours before on the Darknet.

Releasing his hold on the offline PAM and rubbing his eyes (though that did nothing to restore the reassuring green glow of the IRISes), Quentin stepped onto the street, walked into a FaceCafe, and—without the aid of any tech—scanned the place for someone who looked out of place.

Closest to the door, a middle-aged woman fished a wire out of her purse and connected one end to the table’s powerport and the other end to an oversized, blaze-orange PAM.  The infant in the highchair beside her wailed until the woman returned to the device to his eager little hands.

Across the room, a guy talked to an invisible partner across the table, laughing suggestively as he adjusted the crotch of his trousers.

A few tables away, a woman furiously swiped the air with her fingers and frowned at what Quentin could only assume was bad news.

Nope, nothing out of the ordinary, he lamented.

Disappointed, he sat down and keyed in his order for a plain-taste, half-stim coffee.  He would just have to trust that the Darknet stranger he pinged—the professional Villain he had promised to pay half a million Cs to make his life more interesting—would recognize him.

No worries there, he thought.  After all, he was the Quentin E. Donovan.

* * *

Option 2: “The End”

’Twas no secret a sinister shadow had fallen o’er the realm.  Matthias had been warning neighbors and sojourners alike for as far back as he could remember.  So often had he spoken of the myriad harbingers of The End—the rising number of refugees from faraway kingdoms, the tales of war they brought with them, and other rumors of unnatural creatures roaming the countryside—that his discourse on dire omens had a practiced elegance.

He would daresay none could make the encroaching cataclysm sound as poetic as he.

Then, one day, he realized something truly was amiss.  No, an army of demon warriors had not arrived to ransack his favorite inn.  Much to the contrary, the Satyr’s Horn was empty but for Old Llew, the stout barkeep, and two patrons Matthias saw most every day but whose names he had never chanced to learn.

There were no travelers to bequeath a coin for courtly verse or bawdy ballad.  Nary an adventurer in whom to confide ominous words in hushed tones.

Nay, the room was frightfully quiet.  Though it was his custom to take up his lute hitherto the midday meal, he could not.  Likewise, the three other men in the common room exchanged no pleasantries with one another.  Matthias might have stood there, a scarcely breathing statue, forever had Rosalyn, the barmaid, not entered from the kitchen door.  She seemed not at all disturbed by the alarming lack of patrons as she made her rounds, distributing foamy flagons of mead to unoccupied tables.

Matthias took a single step away from his spot by the fireplace and trembled.  Surely his eyes betrayed him, for his clothes—aye, his very skin!—seemed to crawl in a most uncanny way.  He might have attributed the abnormality to having imbibed too much of Old Llew’s bitterbrew, except the day was still young, and any gleeman of good repute knew better than to partake in intoxicating drink afore his day’s work was done.

Judging by the sparse state of the common room, he’d not have cause to sing a single verse of “Sir Ceridwyn the Clever” nor the melancholy chorus of “Lady Winter’s Lament.”

His legs felt as stiff as broadswords as he quickly crossed the common room, the cadence of his boots against the floorboards the only sound in the place.  Rosalyn seemed not to notice him as she unburdened her tray at another empty table.  Forsooth, she walked past by him without a greeting or a hint of the saucy grin that had sent many a man to bed with impure musings!

He reached for her but thought better of it.  When he called out, the syllables tasted strange on his tongue, as though he had never spoken the lass’s name before.  Despite the room’s grave silence, Rosalyn surely hadn’t heard him.  She disappeared into the kitchen once more.

And was it his imagination making a dupe of him once more?  He would have sworn to the Benevolent Lords above that the kitchen door had opened and closed without Rosalyn’s touching it.  Aye, he would have wagered two and twenty golds on the truth of it!

He hasted to the bar, his hurried steps sounding like thunder.

“What goes on here?” he demanded.  “Has the curse come at last to the Glens?”

Though Old Llew looked up from the cup he was forever drying, he seemed to stare through the bard rather than at him.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

“I am Matthias Manyroads, and well you know it, Llew!  What—?”

The barkeep’s vacant eyes blinked.  “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger.  If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”

* * *

Option 3: “The Anthropologist”

Godspeed.

The word surfaced amid her whirling thoughts and the nervous energy that tickled her skin like an invisible feather.  Godspeed.  An expression of good fortune in a new venture.  Like a journey.

No one at Indigo Academy had used that word while saying farewell to her and the other two discovery team members.  She supposed no one in Settled Space would have seriously employed such a clearly superstitious expression.  Idioms that evoked any deity had surely died off millennia ago.

The capsule-shaped stasis chamber shuddered as some subroutine or another powered up.  In a matter of minutes, the vessel’s atmosphere would adjust for the long voyage and trigger the nanites in her blood to put her body in a suspended state.  It was a painless process, but she always dreaded it.

Spaceflight was a rare delight for most but an even rarer distress for her.  She might have stayed on Indigo for the rest of her life—which, if the other scholars’ tenures were any indicator, would be another four hundred and fifty years at least—and forever eschewed the discomfort of maximum velocity if this had been any other mission.

But how can one say no to the chance to pioneer the only other planet in the universe known to harbor intelligent life?

Godspeed.  Somehow the antiquated notion seemed absolutely appropriate in light of the undeveloped and arguably barbaric planet that was their destination.  The societal and technological advances the three emissaries brought with them mimicked and even rivaled the supposedly supernatural abilities of the aliens’ sundry deities.  Yet despite her mere two hundred thirty-seven years, she wasn’t so naïve as to believe the aliens would revere them as gods.

More likely, the New People would defy them precisely because of their superiority, which threatened not only many long-established religions, but also the aliens’ egocentric belief that they lived at the center of the universe, metaphorically speaking.

A sentiment she herself had held until the day a wayward drone revealed the existence of a second sentient species on the far end of the galaxy.

“Are you ready, Anthropologist?”

She flinched at the sudden voice in her ear, and her heart rate spiked.  But then the nanites synthesized whichever hormone neutralized unnecessary anxiety—well, more of it, considering how long she had fretted earlier about the astronomically small probability her stasis protocols would fail, causing her to lie awake in the capsule for the months-long voyage.

“Anthropologist?”

Ysa never called her by her real name.  Maybe the title amused her.  Or maybe Ysa, who ranked among the most gifted physio-biologists in Settled Space, thought learning the name of such a young scholar was beneath her.

“I am,” she replied at last, though she wondered if anyone could be fully prepared for the first face-to-face contact with a new race.  Yet she knew better than to express any doubts to Ysa, who had never made a secret of her cynicism for the New People or the mission.

“Your attitude might change when they begin studying you in return, Anthropologist.”

“We will see.”

She was thinking about how good it would feel when Ysa saw how wrong she was about the aliens when the vessel began its countdown to the unprecedented journey to Earth.

* * *

—Editor’s note: as of 11:59 p.m. April 3, “The Anthropologist” had the most votes and will, therefore, get an ending…which is not to say I won’t circle back to one or both of the other contestants at some point.  Thanks to all who helped with this experiment, which has indeed taught me a few things, including this: once you give others a choice, you suddenly realize which option you really favor.

—Another editor’s note: while “The Anthropologist” edged out “The Villain” by a single vote, I ended up pursuing the latter.  I simply couldn’t figure out how to write “The Anthropologist” as a short story.  It got too big too quickly!

—Yet another editor’s note: “The Villain” (now called “Ghost Mode”) has been submitted for publication consideration.  Want a sneak peak?

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How to make a person

The problem with stories is they require people.

I’m not talking about author and reader—though they, as well as their relationship, are fraught with challenges too—but rather the individuals that populate the story itself.

Some might call these people “characters.”  But a writer doesn’t really want to invent characters any more than he/she wants to come up with a plot.  Sure, we typically end up with those things, sometimes, just sometimes, we transcend.

When a reader flips through pages made of paper or pixels, the last thing an author wants is the audience to see a story as a series of fictional events.  The goal of any storyteller is to weave a spell of deception so powerful that it all seems real at the time.

We aim for an obliteration of disbelief, though if we’re lucky, we invoke a suspension of the same.

If a writer can trick a reader into wondering what a character will do next or, better yet, what he/she would do in an unrelated situation, the writer is that much closer to success.  Because if a reader cares about a character as if he/she were a real person, the reader is more likely to care about the story they’re a part of.

So what’s the difference between characters and people?

Characters have motives.  People have psychology.

Characters follow a story arc.  People exhibit behavior that moves them in a number of different—and often conflicting—directions at once.

Characters have unique voices.  People adopt different voices in various situations.

Those contrasts only begin to hint at why it’s so very difficult to create a person entirely out of words.  Some might argue that it’s impossible, maybe even misguided.  After all, art is meant to imitate life, not become identical to it.  Anyway, as previously stated, the best we writers can do is pick and choose pieces of reality, incorporate them into the folks who inhabit our fiction.

However, just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make every attempt to eschew the temptation to spew out two-dimensional puppets, rough archetypes, and (especially) lazy stereotypes and, instead, aspire to come as close as humanly possible to creating humans.

And how do you get to know a real person?  By asking questions—lots of ’em.  While working on my first novel, a creative writing professor provided me with a handout that contained a ton of questions.  I can’t recall the source, and I’ve made my own additions over the years, so I believe I’m safe with sharing them in this not-for-profit venue.  The questions have served me well when creating main characters, though I wouldn’t recommend taking the time to answer them all for minor players (unless, like me, you have a penchant for the planning process).

Interview question for your person-in-progress

  • What does this character look like?  What color eyes and hair does he/she have?  What are his/her height and weight?  What color his his/her skin?  What is his/her race?  Is there anything unusual or unique about his/her appearance (e.g., tattoos, piercings, etc.)?
  • What style of clothes does he/she wear?  Would anyone notice him/her in a crowd?  Why or why not?
  • How does he/she present him/herself?  Does he/she carry him/herself proudly?  Does he/she appear ashamed, shy, or aloof?  Does he/she have any idiosyncrasies or habits—good or bad?  Does he/she chew gum, smoke cigarettes, or have a twitch?
  • Does he/she speak in a particular way?  Does he/she sound educated, snobby, or dull?  Does he/she use slang or the proper dialect?  Is he/she sarcastic or have a particular way of telling a story?  Does he/she have a favorite tagline?  Is he/she always using clichés?
  • What was this person’s childhood like?  Did he/she have any brothers or sisters?  Two parents, one, or none?  Where did he/she live?  Was he/she constantly moving as a child?  What was he/she like as a child?  Was he/she hyperactive or timid?  Does he/she remember his/her childhood fondly?  Are there any memories in particular that stand out?
  • What does this character do for fun?  Does he/she watch or compete in sports?  Hunt, play cards, or play video games?  Is there something he/she collects?  If anything, what does he/she read?  The newspaper?  Mystery novels?  Can he/she read at all?  What types of music does he/she listen to?  What movies does he/she enjoy?  Does he/she have a sense of humor?  What does he/she find funny or not funny?  Is he/she someone you would hang out with in your free time?
  • How does this person feel about lying?  Does he/she lie when it suits his/her purpose?  Is he/she a pathological liar or blatantly, painfully truthful?  Would he/she cheat or steal?  What, if anything, would prompt him/her to kill?
  • How does he/she view his/her vices?  Does he/she see them as sins?  Is gossiping a sin?  How about promiscuous sex?  Is he/she cowardly, only concerned with Number One?  Constantly complaining, prejudiced, racist, or greedy?  Does he/she have any secrets?
  • Is this character an optimist, a pessimist, or something in between?  Does he/she believe in fate or free will?  How does he/she feel about life?  Does he/she love it?  Hate it?  Is he/she merely going through the motions?  What does he/she want out of life?  What is important to him/her?  What are his/her goals?  Money?  Power?  Success?  Fame?
  • Is he/she spiritual or religious?  How does he/she feel about others’ beliefs?  Is he/she tolerant and/or open to new ideas, or is he/she steadfast in his/her ways?  Has he/she ever been in love?  What does love mean to him/her?  How important is it?  How does he/she feel about sex?  Is it important?  Are his/her sexual habits normal or deviant?
  • How does he/she feel about children?  Does he/she love them, feel uneasy around them?  Does he/she want to have children of his/her own?  What might he/she sacrifice for his/her children?
  • What is a typical day like for this person?  Are his/her days full of surprises, or is he/she on a set schedule?  Is he/she comfortable with routine, or is his/her life too stressful?  What does he/she do for a living?  Who are his/her friends?  Does he/she have many, only a few, none?  Who does he/she hate?  Does he/she have any enemies?
  • Is he/she married or single?  Is he/she a loner by choice or desperately looking for someone?  Does he/she have any kids?  How often does he/she see them?  Where does he/she work?  Where does he/she go for fun?  How does he/she interact with strangers?  Or does he/she stay within his own clique?  What would a random person think if he or she saw your character walking down the street?

I’m sure there are shortcuts out there—streamlined lists or other getting-to-know-you exercises—but the more questions you can answer, the better you will know the people of the page.  At the very least, pull open Facebook and see what kind of profile information a real person is apt to display about him or herself.

Since real people tend to censor, exaggerate, and so forth when engaging in social media, maybe it is a good idea to fill in categories like “politics,” “religion,” and “education” as an additional exercise.  After all, just because you know the deep, dark secrets of your fictional folks, that doesn’t mean they would share them with the world.  What kind of Facebook profile would they set up?

That’s the problem with people: so many layers.  And only you can decide how much—or how little—to reveal to the reader.  But before you can make those decisions, you have to get up close and personal with your characters.

The bad news is the stork isn’t going to drop a fully developed character in your lap.  The good news, however, is that if you make the time, your people are always available for a lengthy interview.

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Finding time to write

At a recent guest lecture on self-publishing, a fellow attendee asked the featured speaker if she had any advice for someone who is working full time and doesn’t have four to six hours a day to devote to writing.

That seems to be the million dollar question (and, incidentally, the million word question) with anyone who wants to become a “serious writer.”  Most of us don’t have that kind of free time.  And even if we did get paid to write fiction, many—if not most—writers who have been published through traditional means can’t afford to quit their day jobs.

So we must cram our words in whenever and wherever we can.

I wrote the first draft of my first manuscript, The Road to Faith: Book 1 of The Renegade Chronicles, in three years and then completely rewrote the 175,000-word manuscript my senior year.  After graduation, I pounded out 2,000 to 2,500 words a day, five days a week.  I cranked out two drafts of Book 2 while living in China and completed Book 3 the following year.

For me, momentum is a drug when it comes to writing, but momentum can be difficult to maintain when real life gets in the way.  I wrote a fourth, full-length manuscript (Magic’s Daughter) and got about halfway through a fifth fantasy novel in the years that followed.  During that time, I got married, bought a house, and had a couple of kids.

It took me more than three years to plot out, write, and then rewrite my fifth novel, If Souls Can Sleep.  Rather than completing a chapter a day (as in my post-college “glory days”), I was reduced to a sluggish pace of one chapter per month.

That sucked.

Fortunately, I have a very accommodating wife.  Before I started working on the sequel to If Souls Can Sleep, we sat down and mapped out a schedule that would allow me to commit more time regularly to fiction writing—without forgoing my familial duties.  It worked out fantastically (no pun intended), and I got through the first draft of the sequel in less than half of the time it took me to produce the rough draft of Souls.

Now that I’m between drafts of the sequel and am working on a slew of other non-novel projects, I find I have far more I’d like to accomplish in any given week but with the same finite amount of free time.  With my fiction writing—and newspaper column writing—I stuck to a nice, neat schedule.  Now I have a ton of unrelated tasks of equal priority.

Instead of getting psyched up about tackling these new creative pursuits, I started to panic.

And so I did what I always do (whether at work or at home) when I start to feel overwhelmed: I got organized.

This morning I invented a new writing/free-time schedule.  I don’t have four to six hours every day to allocate to my various new projects, but every little bit counts.  And, for me, measurable progress—albeit gradual—is better than an utter lack of consistent momentum.

Here’s what I came up with:

David’s writing schedule for 2012

Sunday

As time allows: Work on Allied Authors website with Steph

Monday

Before work: Start column or start blog post
Lunch: None (leave at 4 p.m. to work out at the YMCA)
Evening: Read through Souls sequel with Steph

Tuesday

Before work: Finish/email column or finish/publish/promote blog post; if time allows, research self-promotion, publication
Lunch: Read “CODE” (i.e., work-related research)

Wednesday

Lunch: None (leave at 4 p.m. to work out at the YMCA)
Evening: If no blog post yet, then write/publish/promote blog post or (if already posted to blog), research self-promotion/-publication

Thursday

Before work: Work on Pajamazon Amazon; Right to Read
Lunch: None (make up for time at Right to Read)

Friday

Lunch: Read “CODE” (i.e., work-related research) or meet Steph for lunch

Saturday

As time allows: Work on Allied Authors website with Steph

I doubt this makes much sense to anyone but my wife and me, but I hope it illustrates a point: Whether you’re working on your first novel, trying to talk yourself into penning more poetry, or considering undertaking an entirely different hobby, there’s always time to be found.

Step one is seeking out those pockets of time in your regular schedule.  Step two is sticking with the plan.

—Editor’s note: for the record, this very aggressive plan proved unsustainable.  The modified version features far more flexibility.

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