Tag Archives: writing

How long does it take to write a book?

Answer: I have no idea — even after writing nine of them.

Maybe some authors have a formula that produces consistent results, but for me, the question is too nuanced to allow for a simple solution. Here’s why:

  • No two novels are the same.
  • I tend to work on other projects in between drafts, which artificially extends the timeline.
  • I don’t consider a book “done” until it’s published.

In other words, the writing itself is but one portion of a much longer process that starts with choosing a worthy idea to pursue and ends the moment the product is available for purchase.

Sometimes it can feel like centuries pass between penning the prologue and typing “THE END.” | Image by Alan Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Often that journey has as many ups and downs—and plot twists—as the fiction itself.

Take Project 5, for example…

After writing the three books of The Renegade Chronicles and a standalone (and currently unpublished) Altaerran novel called Magic’s Daughter, I attempted to compose a book that would merge characters from both works. I abandoned it after 22 chapters because it felt like I was simply filling in the blanks, and truth be told, I was starting to burn out on sword-and-sorcery fantasy—as a writer and a reader.

I decided my next book would take a step in a drastically different direction. I chose the working title “Project 5” because, well, I hoped it would yield my fifth complete novel. (Not very creative, Ghost of David Past!)

In June 2006, I began plotting an urban fantasy novel set in present-day Earth. The cast included Benedict Strong, a nearly immortal magic-caster who defied his heritage by trying to live a normal life; Lady Pandora, a stage magician who used real sorcery in her shows; and a few others.

I wrote a couple chapters before losing interest.

Next, I embraced a completely new plot — a fantasy/sci-fi hybrid that would eventually become If Souls Can Sleep. Once that story got its hooks in me, there was no turning back. Here’s a snapshot of the steps leading from inception to publication:

Dec. 10, 2006 — Began brainstorming a new Project 5, starting with rough character descriptions.

Dec. 31, 2006 — Wrote the prologue and began researching sleep disorders while hashing out ideas for the plot.

March 5, 2007 — Wrote the first chapter and then drafted a chapter a month for the next two years.

Oct. 30, 2008 — Realized that I was trying to write three books in one; removed select scenes from the first draft and saved them for Books 2 and 3.

April 7, 2009 — Developed an outline for the remainder of the novel after finishing Chapter 24 to prevent “writing in circles.”

July 1, 2009 — Finished the first complete draft of If Souls Can Sleep.

July – September 2009 — Read through the first draft and made notes for editing.

Oct. 18, 2009 — Started working on the heavy edits.

May 2, 2010 — Finished the second draft.

May 3, 2010 – Sept. 4, 2017 — Did lots of other stuff.*

Sept. 5, 2017 — After finishing the second draft of Book 3 in The Soul Sleep Cycle, jumped into proofing and prepping If Souls Can Sleep for publication through One Million Words.

Sept. 20, 2017 — Finished the production and marketing schedule.

Sept. 21, 2017 – Jan. 29, 2018 — Tackled/tackling all of the tasks required to publish and promote the book.

Jan. 30, 2018 — Publishing If Souls Can Sleep.

* Nota bene: I set aside If Souls Can Sleep for seven and a half years while I worked on a variety of other projects, including writing and editing the next two books in The Soul Sleep Cycle; co-writing and publishing a children’s chapter book (The Pajamazon Amazon vs The Goofers Twofers) with my wife; writing a few short stories (“The Lake Road,” “The Monster and the Mirage,” and “Ghost Mode”); reworking and submitting “Ghost Mode” and an older story, “Going Viral,” to various publications; and publishing the three novels and a digital collection comprising The Renegade Chronicles as well as a free e-book compendium (Capricon and Beyond). I also spent time marketing The Renegade Chronicles, creating an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for a pun-a-day calendar, and making this website during that time.

You could say that If Souls Can Sleep will be 11 years in the making when it publishes early next year—though, technically, the inception for the series goes back even further.

According to the first entry in my Project 5 notes, dated Dec. 10, 2006:

Years and years ago, I thought that it might be fun to write a story about a man who meets a woman that he swears he knows. And she seems to recognize him, though neither can say from where. At some point, he would recall her as a recurring character in his dreams.

There was, of course, more to the story, but a lingering question has (in a sense) haunted me from that point forward: Who are the strangers that appear in our dreams? Are they real people whose names we have forgotten—or perhaps never knew—or are they amalgamations that our minds concoct when it needs nonspecific characters for a scene?

My next book will contend that dream strangers are real people, even if they do not exist in what most would call the real world.

“Years and years ago”?

That initial inkling has evolved—maybe “mutated” is a better word—over the course of decades, which only underscores my belief that the life of a story spans far longer than the time it takes to write it down.

Regardless of when this labor of love actually began, one thing remains true: I’m looking forward to finally sharing If Souls Can Sleep with the world in 2018!

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Reblog: Pantsers vs. Plotters

Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.

Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.

After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.

I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.

I wrote this blog post for nyareads.com. Read the entire post here.

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A different class of writing

Spending time with young people can make you feel old, but it can also make you feel young, too.

I had the pleasure of talking with students at Waupun High School yesterday. My mission: to share my educational background, professional writing experiences, writing advice, and tips for getting published with the fledgling writers—in 45 minutes or less.

waupun-warriors

Despite my best efforts, I might have uttered “when I was your age” at least once.

In all seriousness, it was a very casual environment, and even though I did most of the talking, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired as we went around the circle, and the students told of their current projects and future ambitions.

Because I’ve been up to my (pointed) ears in editing a certain fantasy trilogy, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a shortcut here by repurposing my notes from yesterday’s spiel—quasi-transcripts, if you will.

Hopefully, you’ll find a nugget or two of wisdom regardless of where you are on the path to authorhood.

My story

I started writing in earnest in high school. My fantasy tales bore a resemblance to the books I was reading at the time: DragonLance, Forgotten Realms…you know, books with dragons on the covers. Mostly, I engaged in world-building exercises and episodic storylines, though there was at least one false start to a novel

By senior year, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. At UW-Fond du Lac, I signed up for an independent study writing course. It turned out to be a one-on-one with a professor, where I delivered a chapter for her to critique each week. This was one of the most valuable college courses I ever took, and I learned an awful lot about the basics of storytelling, the importance of word choice—and how to meet deadlines.

In those two years, I wrote two-thirds of what would come to be Volume 1 of The Renegade Chronicles. When I transferred to UW-Milwaukee, I completed the first draft and then rewrote the entire manuscript from scratch senior year since my writing style—not to mention skill level—had dramatically changed since freshman year.

I submitted chapters of my book for various writing workshops, and peer review also proved incredibly valuable. (Though in one class, I had to convince the professor that genre fiction had merit before we were allowed to present fantasy, sci-fi, romance, etc.)

Meanwhile, I took as many literature and linguistics classes as I could. Beyond English courses, I signed up for philosophy, psychology and a ton of history courses. An all-too-common adage dictates one should write what one knows. Ergo, the more you know, the more you can write about.

I somewhat regret I didn’t take any journalism, marketing, or radio/TV/film classes. At the time, I wanted only to write fiction, so none of those related disciplines appealed to me. Then again, I picked up many of those skills later in life.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English with an emphasis on creative writing, I taught for a year in China, where I had my favorite job title to date: foreign expert. While overseas, I wrote a sequel. I also tried to publish a short story I had written in college (to no avail) and researched agents to represent my fantasy novels.

When I returned to the U.S., I got cracking on Volume 3—while racking up rejections for Volumes 1 and 2.

I was fortunate to find an entry-level position at a newspaper. As a news clerk, I mostly was responsible for formatting lists, such as marriage licenses and school lunch menus. (Have you ever questioned the proper spelling of “tri-tater”?) I typed up letters to the editor, too.

But I also got to do some proofreading and wrote an article here and there. In less than I year, I was promoted to entertainment writer and editor. I picked up a slew of skills in the newsroom—writing and proofing using AP style, headline writing, lead writing, pagination/layout, the basics of photo editing.

Most importantly, I learned the virtues of brevity.

After a few years, I went to the “dark side”—public relations and marketing. At UW-Oshkosh, I wrote press releases, coordinated interviews with faculty and staff, wrote articles for the online news publication and the alumni magazine, became a wiz at Word Press and other content management systems, taught myself project management, and supervised student interns.

I learned even more when I became an account executive at BrownBoots Interactive, including more website skills, search engine optimization (which injects a lot of science into the art of writing), writing for TV and radio commercials, managing multi-channel marketing campaigns, estimating on projects, blogging, and much more.

That’s right, the guy who couldn’t care less about journalism, public relations, and marketing in college grew to appreciate them and, if I do say so myself, excel at them.

But my dream has always been to be a novelist…

About 10 years ago, I joined Allied Authors of Wisconsin. Because I couldn’t get an agent to bite on The Renegade Chronicles, I decided to go outside of my comfort zone and wrote a sci-fi novel that got very good feedback from my beta readers. An agent, who is also a member of AAW, elected to represent If Souls Can Sleep.

And because I didn’t learn my lessons with The Renegade Chronicles, I wrote a sequel before selling the first one.

My wife and I wrote a children’s chapter book to test the waters with self-publishing. (More on that here and here.) But between a full-time career and family obligations, I always felt as though my fiction got short shrift.

Earlier this year, I decided I to take a chance and put my fiction on the front burner. I transitioned to a new role at the agency to allow for larger pockets of time for writing and editing fiction. I created a business plan and am committed self-publishing The Renegade Chronicles in 2016.

My long-term goal—my dream—hasn’t changed remains the same: I want to make a living writing fiction.

Writing advice

There’s no shortage of writing advice out there (and sometimes tips contradict). But here is some advice my mentors gave me “back in the day”:

  • Margaret Weis: “Treat your writing like a job. Write on a schedule.”
  • R.A. Salvatore: “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t, you’re a writer.”

I’ll add a few of my own observations to the mix:

  • Embrace a variety of life experiences—everything is fodder for your writing.
  • Learn as much as you can about the industry and gain related skills. Even traditionally published authors have to be business-minded marketing experts.
  • Write as many different kind of things as you can because you might be surprised at what you’re good at…and what you might enjoy.
  • Don’t turn your nose up at any writing gig—even if it’s the company newsletter—because everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Get feedback from others (e.g., writers groups, online forums) but realize that not all critiques are created equal. Not everyone is your target audience, and ultimately, it’s your story.
  • Always write what you love and do whatever you can to hold onto that passion.
  • Most importantly, don’t give up.

Tips for getting published

A lot has changed since I was in high school. Back then, you were supposed to write and publish short stories (which I sucked at), and you couldn’t hope to publish a novel without an agent. Also, self-publishing was for losers, and vanity presses that preyed on amateur writers made it expensive, too.

Today, self-publishing is both respectable and profitable. Print-on-demand means publishing a book is relatively inexpensive, though there are outside costs like proofreading and cover design. The biggest challenge is getting noticed above the noise.

As someone who is still on the path to publication, I don’t have any surefire secrets for becoming a bestseller. I do, however, have a couple of tips:

1. Don’t publish before you’re ready. After more than a decade between drafts, I’m now hacking apart The Renegade Chronicles, and they’ll be much better for it. And do your homework to avoid wasting your time…or getting sued.

2. Don’t be afraid to take chances. By the time you’re ready to publish a novel or a comic book or your memoirs, a lot is going to have changed. It’s never been a better time to be a writer, but it’s also the Wild West of publishing right now. If you want to get noticed, you have to experiment.

If you follow the crowd, you’ll always be behind.

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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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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.

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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.

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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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