L is for Likability

The indomnitable Chuck Wendig may have said it best: “The audience will do anything to spend time with a great character. We’re junkies for it. We’ll gnaw our own arms off to hang out once more with a killer character.”  (By the way, you should definitely read the rest of his 25 Things You Should Know About Character post, though not if you’re sensitive to profanity.)

I know a great character will make me hike through miles of an otherwise bleh landscape.  There is a certain long-running series which will remain nameless that I only stick with because of the main character.  It was great in the beginning, predictable in the middle, and now as it’s gotten old enough to vote, it’s almost painful.  Yet, there I am, year after year, looking forward to another romp with my old friend, the main character.

I may be kidding myself, but I hear tell I’m pretty good at creating a likable character.  I’ve spent some time trying to figure out what exactly makes certain characters leap off the page for me, and what it is that I do to create lovable characters myself.  My answers aren’t perfect, or complete, but here’s what I’ve got for your reading pleasure.

  1. Know who they are.  Even secondary characters deserve a bit of a backstory.  Most of it will never make it to the page, but it makes all the difference for me as a writer to know a little history on anyone who has more than a cameo role.  It informs how they speak, what their priorities are, how they dress, how they relate to others…everything.
  2. Know what they look like.  I am a firm believer in leaving as much description as possible OFF the page.  I like a reader to be able to construct whatever appearance they like for a character, assign any race, make them any size they like in their minds.  But when I write, I see scenes in my mind like a movie, so I need to know who’s playing the parts.  It helps me imagine how a character moves through the world if I know what they look like.
  3. Bring some personality to the page.  I’m more than a little obsessed with people’s speech and body tics.  Every professor I ever had in college had at least one verbal tic.  One was obsessed with adverbs.  By the end of the semester, I had a tally sheet for every time she said actually, really, definitely, probably, and so on. (In one three-hour lecture, she said actually 92 times.  NINETY-TWO!!!)  So, every one of my characters has some little habit that identifies them as a person.  One rubs her thumbnail on her lower lip, another can’t keep his hands still when he’s nervous, another is addicted to ice.  It makes them feel familiar and human.
  4. Speech patterns.  I’m not talking dialect here, but everyone has a unique way of speaking.  In writing, it’s not always good practice to write truly natural dialogue, because the way people talk in real life is, frankly, dull.  But even with spicy, snappy dialogue that keeps the pace moving, you should be able to identify who is speaking most of the time.  Some characters make liberal use of profanity, others never use it.  Some speak formally, while others can barely stand to use a complete sentence.  And you know you’ve met at least one person who has exclamation points at the end of every sentence.  You never want to go overboard with a verbal tic, but if you know a character’s backstory, and a little bit of their personality, you should be able to predict how they’d answer a question.

    Just for funsies, let’s see how a few different characters I’ve created would answer a simple question.  (By the way, this is pretty much exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about ‘voice’ in a story.)

    Question:  How did you math test go?

    Jack:  “Could have been better, I guess.” (Maybe if I’d actually studied…)
    Gwen:  “Who cares?  I refuse to learn calculus on moral grounds.”
    Mike:  “I made that test my bitch.  It actually cried a little when I was done with it.”
    Levi:  Shrugs, looking down.  “Fine.”
    Jemimah:  “It was fun!  What did you think of it?”
    Caine:  “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”
    Mariska:  “It’s possible I just achieved the first negative score in the history of math.”
    Sun:  “Shh.  We’re not talking about that.”

  5. Save some cats.  Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! book on screenwriting is invaluable if you want to learn about the mechanics of Hollywood storytelling.  I know there are others out there, but that’s the one that really helped cement it for me, so naysayers can just keep their nays to themselves.  In it, he says that the key to making any character likable in the first few minutes of a movie is to give them a save the cat moment.  This is the time when a character, even one you shouldn’t expect to root for (like the criminal hero of Ocean’s Eleven, for example) shows their humanity, their heart of gold.  I’m not saying a boring, or two-dimensional character can be made workable by showing him rescuing orphans from a burning building in chapter one, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt would it?  So give your characters an opportunity to do the right thing in some small way, even if they procede to be insufferable assholes for the rest of the story.  Even if it’s simply being kind to the store clerk at the gun shop where he’s restocking on ammo to go on a killing spree, you need to show us a touch of humanity to give us a glimmer of hope for this character’s journey.
Okay, I think I’ve about worn out my soapbox on this issue, so I’m going to go ahead and dismount.  *curtsies*  Thank you for your attention.

K is for Kissing

YA writers are obsessed with kissing.  Seriously, ask any of them.

Last week at RT, I spent a lot of time with YA writers at all stages of their careers.  Some were multi-published, some were just getting started.  But we all love the kissing.

But why?

Some of it came home to me while sitting around with a group of those YA writers at conference.  One of them had been given a copy of an adult erotic romance at one of the events.  Demonstrating our usual level of maturity, we decided to do some dramatic readings of those scenes.  The reactions from the group were about on par with a group of 12 year-old girls.  Squealing, covering our ears, even a few “Ewwws!”

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m totally okay with the existence of erotic romance.  In fact, I know some really great people who write it.  But for a group of people who write about teenagers, it was all a bit much.  Too much anatomy.  And it was lacking in exactly the things we love about kissing scenes in YA.

Is there anything better than anticipation?  Not anxiety or fear, but anticipation.  Like when you’re standing in line for a roller-coaster and your stomach is fluttering with nerves, but you want to get on that ride so bad.  Or the moment when a waiter sets your favorite dish in front of you and your mouth starts watering.

And is there any moment of anticipation better than that is-he-going-to-kiss-me? moment?  I submit there is not.  YA stories are filled with those moments.  No matter how intense a relationship gets between two characters, it’s still relatively new when you’re a teenager.  First kiss, first love, first lover (and yes, I am childish enough that the word lover makes me snicker).  It’s all got that shiny, anticipation-filled, butterflies-in-the-stomach, sweaty-palms newness.

I love that.

Maybe at heart, all YA writers are adrenaline junkies.  I, for one, am glad that I’m able to find those feelings of wonder over and over again.  Cheap thrills, and natural highs.  What could be better?

J is for Just Do It

I know, the title is tres lame.  But Nike was onto something when they wrote that slogan.  It’s about bravery, and commitment, and follow-through.

Want to be a writer?  Just do it.
Want to finish your first book?  Just do it.
Want someone’s autograph?  Just go up to them and ask.

I was supposed to post my entry for J on Wednesday last week, but here’s what happened:  I WENT TO MY FIRST RT CONVENTION!  It was in Chicago, it was exhausting, and it was awesome.  And there were a lot of opportunities to just do it.

The first was even going.  It meant meeting my crit partner (Hi, Jessie!) in person for the first time.  Not just that, but sharing a room with her for four nights.  I was nervous, I’m not going to lie, but I did it, and we got along great, and I already miss her! (Hi again, Jessie!)

The next was being bold and introducing myself to as many people as I could.  Some I knew from Twitter; some I only knew from the covers of books.  As a typical writer introvert, it’s not the easiest thing for me meeting new people, but I did it.  Now I have new friends all over the country and a ton of great memories.

As tempting as it was to hang back when I was in the presence of some of my favorite authors–especially after I got laryngitis on the second day–I decided to go for it and introduce myself.  I may have fangirled all over a few of them (*cough, cough* Stephanie Perkins, Franny Billingsley, Veronica Roth, Francine Pascal *cough, cough*) but they were all super nice.  Writers are the best.

So whatever fears are holding you back aren’t worth it.  Put your butt in the chair and write.  Don’t be afraid to suck, just get through the first draft.  Go to a conference.  Go to a book signing.  Introduce yourself to people.  Be brave.  Commit.  Follow through.

Just do it.

I is for Inspiration

Inspiration strikes without warning.  Usually at the worst possible time when you can’t do anything about it.  It used to hit me when I was still working in the hospital when I was helping a patient hold still for a procedure.  Talk about inconvenient.

The single best piece of advice I can give you about inspiration is to write it down.  As soon as humanly possible.  Find a scrap of paper, the back of a receipt, tell Siri to take a note.  Just get it done.  Because I guarantee you if you don’t get it down somewhere YOU WILL FORGET IT.  I have lost many an idea that way.

Now, for a random list of things that have inspired me:

See what I mean?  I never saw any of that coming.

H is for Hyperbole

Because writers are the best exaggerators I know, and I love that about us.

Also, hyperbole always makes me think of Hyperbole and a Half.  And Allie knows a good grammar joke when she hears one.

So, just in case you’re one of the few people on the Internet who has not been inducted into the wonder that is Hyperbole and a Half, I give you:

The Alot.

P.S.  I know this post is kind of cheating compared to what I’ve done so far, but I have a for realsies good reason for being a cheater today.  Maybe I’ll even get to share it with you soon…  *mysterious look*

G is for Good Posture

I just read a book about people who choose to live almost completely in a virtual world.  (It’s an awesome book, by the way, and you should definitely read it as soon as possible:  Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Trust me, it’s a geekalicious dream come true.)  The main character makes several reference to the brutal effects on the body that all that visor-time creates.

And as epic as the Oasis sounds in Ready Player One, and as much as I’d love to see it and hang out there, I did find myself wondering about what would happen to my body.  Lord knows my regular old laptop has it’s own nasty effects.

As writers, we’re all at risk for Repetitive Stress Injuries, from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, to potentially career-ending neck, back, and shoulder injuries.  Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re willing to put up with some minor aches and pains if it means you get to put words on the page, but I know that minor aches and pains can become much more serious over time.

So, I’ve started taking active steps to prevent those kinds of injuries.  One happy thing I learned recently is that reclining is one of the kinder postures for computer use, and I loves me some reclining.  In fact, if I could get paid to recline, I think I could go pro.

But it’s not enough.  So I’m also using my husbands pull-up bar to do some standing rows every day.  I learned some wonderful, simple exercises for the neck and shoulders from a Physical Therapist.  I try (try, mind you) to stand up straight.

Theresa Walsh, at Writer Unboxed, wrote a fantastic post about ergonomics for writers.  I’m not doing enough, I know it, but it’s better than doing nothing, right?  If you’re serious about a career of this, I would definitely recommend looking into ergonomics.  Heck, if you’re getting paid, you’re going to need some write-offs anyway!

F is for Friends

For years, I was a recluse.  Not actually, of course.  I went to school, I worked, I had friends.  But I kept my writing to myself, never talked about it in fact.  Like it was a dirty secret.  Like, instead of making up stories, I was sitting in the dark making s’mores out of the dust bunnies and used chewing gum.

Even my husband didn’t know I wrote.  At all.  And I’ve known him since I was 15 years old.  I don’t remember exactly how many years it took me to tell him, but it was more than 5, I know that.  To be perfectly honest, I still get a little red-faced and heart-fluttery when I talk to people about my writing in real life.  
But I know that’s not normal.  And it’s not helpful.  Because writers need friends.  Writing friends.
Here’s why:
  1. Writers are a special brand of crazy, and only other writers will completely understand that kind of crazy.  You NEED that writer friend who won’t call a mental health professional when you admit you’ve checked your email 100 times in the last 90 minutes, or start talking about your characters like they are real people.
  2. Writing in a vacuum sucks.  (Ha! You see what I did there?)  If you never let anyone else see your work, you’ll never know if it’s any good.  You might never learn that you’ve been using the subjunctive wrong your whole life.
  3. When you get stuck, writer friends will help you brainstorm your way through to the next part of your story.  Sure, sometimes they suggest throwing a nuclear weapon into your contemporary romance, but usually something helpful comes out of a brainstorming session.  Even if it’s just that your own creativity gets shaken loose.
  4. Only other writers know how utterly squeeful it is to type The End, or get that Shiny New Idea, or see your cover art for the first time, or get the word that the Really Famous Writer is going to blurb your book, or see your pre-order button appear at Amazon.
  5. Writers are some of the most supportive people I’ve ever met.  Sure, there are some baddies out there who like to cut newbies down, and there are people who will be jealous when you get an agent/win a contest/get a contract/win the cover lottery/etc.  But there will be ten times as many who are jumping up and down with excitement for you.
  6. Writers have good taste in books.  When you need a recommendation, these are the people to go to.  And let’s face it, you started writing because you love to read.
  7. Two words:  Grammar jokes.  You need people in your life who will appreciate how hilarious they are.

So, don’t be a crazy hermit like I used to be.  It’s so much more fun with friends. 

E is for Experiment

This was a lesson a long time in coming for me as a writer.  See, I write Contemporary, humorous YA, mostly romantic, and kinda girly.  It’s my favorite thing to read, too.  And for a long time, I thought that was all I could do.  I was confident I couldn’t write anything dark, that I couldn’t be really mean to my characters.  Certainly, I could never write a male POV.

Then, I tried it.

When my humorous, romantic, girly YA wasn’t selling, I thought, what if I tried to tell this story from the male POV?  And I didn’t have anything to lose, so I went for it.  Turned out, diving into that male POV also tapped into my dark side.  I made some really terrible stuff happen to that kid.

And when I was finished with him, and another male character showed up in my head asking for attention, I did some even worse stuff to him.

Now?  Now, I’ve really gone off my rocker, because I’ve started a new project that can only be classified as magical realism.  What?!  Who am I?

I don’t know yet, and that’s the cool thing.  Experimenting has shown me sides of myself as a writer that I didn’t know I had.  Let my mind stumble across ideas I didn’t have access to before.  And it’s exciting, and a little nerve-wracking.

Better writers than me have said this same thing.  Maureen Johnson crusades against the idea that writers are a “brand.”  And the always hilarious Chuck Wendig likes to keep his fingers in as many pies as possible.

Try something new.  You might use your writerly chemistry set to make a stink bomb, but you might also invent Post-It notes.  You’ll never know unless you step outside your comfort zone.

D is for Disappointment

The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

The first rule of writing is you don’t talk about disappointment.  And there’s a lot of it.

If you’re just starting out, you probably know that.  Querying is a recipe for disappointment.  Sure, you refresh your inbox every 30 seconds, but you know you do it with as much fear as excitement.  Here’s the secret, though:  it never goes away.

Justine Larbalestier said it more eloquently than I could ever hope to with her post I’ll Know I’ve Made It As a Writer When…

And it’s not just those milestones Justine put on her list.

It’s the waiting…
the Twitter-stalking…
the waiting…
the low pageviews on your blog…
the waiting…
the news that your agent isn’t sure about your latest manuscript…
the waiting…
the feeling that you’ve run out of ideas…
the waiting…

Did I mention the waiting?

So, why do it?  Because how can you not?  Because the worst day of writing is still better than most days doing anything else.

Because for all the disappointment, there’s the elation.

When you get the new idea…
when your agent loves your latest manuscript…
when you get that so close rejection that asks what else you can show them…
when the words pour out of your fingertips like a flood…
when you type the words The End…

So, yeah, there’s a lot of disappointment in writing.  It’s hard sometimes.  It’s pouring your heart into something only to find out you made mistakes.  Big mistakes and little ones.

But…it’s writing.  And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

C is for Contest

One of my favorite shows of all time is So You Think You Can Dance.  In fact, when American Idol premiers in January, my only thought it:  When this is over, SYTYCD will be next!  It’s like my personal version of March Madness.  I can’t get enough.  I rewind and watch the best dances over and over again.  I make my husband watch some, even though he would rather watch paint dry.  Love. It.

On the show, during the regional auditions, one of the things the judges will occasionally say to dancers is that they are clearly “Competition Dancers.”  Most of the time, the dancers readily agree.  Here’s the thing, though–that’s not really a compliment.

So what does it mean?  I means that they are usually technically skilled, and know how to put together moves in a pleasing order that goes well with their music.  They usually play to the audience and make sure their smiling faces can be seen at all the right moments.  Doesn’t sound so bad, right?  It’s not, necessarily.  But it does generally mean they don’t have the so-called It Factor.  They’re not going to win the whole enchilada.

Where am I going with this?  Well, I’ve entered a few writing contests in my day.  I’ve judged a number as well.  And I’m starting to think there is such a thing as a Competition Writer.  These are writers with solid technical skills, a decent story idea, and the ability to write an opening scene with a good balance of action and backstory, not info-dump, and not overwhelm the reader with a million characters.

But what I’m finding over and over is that missing It Factor.  And I don’t know how to explain it.  How do you get someone to make their words leap off the page and seize control of a reader’s brain so they can’t stop until they read The End?  What makes some prose sparkle?  What makes a character so compelling she’ll never be forgotten?

The short answer is, I don’t know.  But I do know when I’m reading contest entries, and I’m following my judging guidelines, I sometimes find myself giving better scores than something really deserves, but it’s all based on my gut.  Sure, technically, the grammar is flawless.  Sure, the dialogue is natural and appropriate for the time period.  The world-building may even be well handled, and the pace effective to keep my attention, but when the sample pages are over, I don’t care.  I don’t care if I get to read more.  So, this entry might get high marks based on the criteria provided, but that doesn’t mean it’s a hit.  That means it scored well based on the available marks.

That’s a contest writer.

While judging a contest recently, I started to use the criteria to mentally evaluate some of the books I was reading that month.  Published books, that is.  And you know what?  Most of them wouldn’t have scored well in this contest.  Some didn’t tell me a thing about the plot in the first 10 pages.  Some did no world-building.  Some did “too much” world building.  Some didn’t introduce the romantic interest at all.

But these books?  I can’t even tell you.  I have been on a hot streak lately.  I’ve read some amazing, amazing books.  Books I’ve insisted others read immediately.  Books that will enter the canon of my Favorites of All Time.  Books that made me feel like a talentless hack.  Books that made me want to work harder, be better, think about things, cry, laugh…

In a contest, though?  They probably wouldn’t even final.

So if you’re just starting out, contests may be a wonderful way to get feedback.  Learn about creating an interesting hook.  Get help with grammar, sentence structure, description, characterization.  But if you’re finalling over and over again, but agents and editors don’t seem interested?  It’s probably time to step away from the contests.  Because you have to know the rules to know how to break them.  And when it’s time to break them, break them beautifully.  Knock their socks off with your rule breaking.

And don’t worry if you never final again.