Featured From the Archives: The Devil’s in the Details

This is a post I originally published three years (what? How has it already been three years?) ago, but that is entirely still relevant. In fact, if anything, this opinion has only been further cemented by my time as an editor. Which makes it prime material for dredging up from the archives, along with its sister post; I’ll post that one next week.

Before any of you out there freak out, this isn’t about you (and least, I hope it isn’t). This is more of a general viewpoint I’ve witnessed over the years, rather than a specific rant triggered by something I saw recently. 😉

It also happens to coincide with a cool new project by REUTS founder Ashley Ruggirello, titled A Writer’s Google Search. Be sure to go check it out! Because hopefully, after reading this, you’ll have lots of interesting, strange, and maybe even horrifying Google searches to contribute to the fun.

The Devil’s in the Details

By Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 6/22/12

This is a pet peeve of mine, so get ready for a hailstorm of snide.

The devil’s in the details. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have heard this charming colloquialism. And I’m sure there’s a formal explanation of its meaning somewhere. But my interpretation is this: it’s the tiny details that will be the hardest, driving you absolutely insane in the pursuit of perfecting them all and ultimately landing you in the looney bin, where you’ll write them continuously on the pristine white walls until you run out of space.

In other words, it means RESEARCH, people!

This is important in all genres of writing, but especially in urban fantasy, whose very existence relies on believably entwining the impossible with the world we know so well. The difference between a decent fantasy story and a great fantasy story is the detail — those little things that ground it in reality. And I’m seeing more and more writers who seem to be forgetting that fact.

Personally, I spend far too much time invested in chasing down those small, intricate details. Often longer than I actually spend writing. (Okay, so maybe I also kind of use it as an excuse to procrastinate, but that’s not the point!) For example, one of my newest plot bunnies (definition blogged about here), required that I road-trip down to California just so I could pinpoint the exact number of the emergency call box featured in the story’s location. All right, all right, to be fair, I road-trip to Cali quite frequently, but this time I paid special attention to those lovely blue, creepily positioned call boxes. And before I resorted to putting another 1000 miles on my poor overused car’s odometer and sinking another $300 into the gas tank, I researched the heck out of them. Which means I can now proudly say that I know far more than I ever wanted to about how those emergency beacons of hope actually work. A fact which may or may not come in handy while writing the story and hopefully will never be needed in life.

That dedication to detail isn’t exclusive to that one plot bunny either. My main work-in-progress has had me learning more random factoids about Portland, OR than I’ve managed to collect in five years of adjacent residency. Why do I bother? Because those little details make it feel real, while so many other aspects are clearly not. Also, so natives of the locale can’t bust me for not having done my research. Because, let’s face it, readers a nit-picky bunch, and nothing makes us feel more smug and superior than being able to point out when an author got something wrong.

It’s not only to avoid the humiliation of being caught taking a few liberties on reality though. Attention to detail will elicit squeals of delight from a reader’s inner-fangirl/fanboy when they discover the exact location their favorite book took place. I’m sure anyone in Forks, WA can attest to this. They overhauled the entire town to capitalize on that tendency. So it’s just as much about providing a solid and memorable experience for your readers as it is preserving your integrity as an author.

As a reader, my suspension of disbelief can only be pushed so far. If I read a story where the lead character is so impossibly invincible that they’ve taken multiple stab wounds to the chest, been shot 42 times and are not only still alive, but kicking ass, I’m out;  you’ve lost me. If you include a piece of outdated technology and use it in a way everyone who’s ever owned said device knows is physically impossible and ridiculous — sayonara! If your characters are as real as a cardboard cut-out, bring on the eye-rolls. If your female characters are the literary equivalent of a pin-up spread, don’t even bother writing the next sentence. And if your setting is so obviously a real place, but it feels like that moment in video games where you can walk through walls, fall into trees, and randomly float into space, you’re done. You need to go back to the drawing board and spend more time in the world building phase. Trust me.

That’s not to say that I’m an overly critical reader. I’m actually not. I’ll read just about anything, in any genre. I thoroughly enjoyed the Twilight Saga, devoured The Hunger Games, and read a plethora of cheesy romances. (Cue the horrified gasps from the literature community.) So you can’t say that I’m being an elitist snob. I just expect that there be an aspect of believability included. And I don’t think that’s an unusual request.

Not everything in a story has to be 100% accurate. My point is simply that you need to spend the time it takes to make it feel like a fully realized, substantiated place. The geography of your fantasy land should feel as real as the world around us, not as squishy as a mud puddle. Magic is great, but it should have rules. Just like real-life physics dictate the laws of gravity, motion, and pretty much everything, magic should have some kind of understandable parameter too. How you define those laws is entirely up to you. Just make sure they’re consistent. Got aliens? No problem, but please ensure they feel like something that could exist anatomically. And don’t even get me started on space travel. Let’s just say it should seem like a plausible thing, not a “cool-factor” moment and leave it at that.

Just to be clear, though, I’m not suggesting that you cram your story full of so much detail that it becomes an overwrought, boring soup destined to collect dust in your desk’s bottom drawer. Too many details can be equally as damaging as too few, regardless of accuracy level. I’ve read quite a few published books that bored me to the point of giving up (which rarely happens, by the way. I’m super stubborn like that). And I’ve run into others that were so realistic in describing the disgusting aspects of bodily fluids and unnecessarily vulgar situations that they were just downright crass. And while I did finish them (see statement above about being stubborn), it was done while wearing a disgusted lip-curl and loss of appetite. Violence is fine, as are vulgarity and/or profanity when the situation dictates, but when your writing starts including things for shock value only, it’s time to reassess if you need all those details.

Temperance and moderation. Those are the key words for today’s rant. There should be a balance between the plot and the details that support it and define your setting.  How do you find that balance? Research. It really is as simple as that. Sprinkle just enough accurate details into your tale and you’ll keep even the pickiest of readers happy. On the believability front anyway. Stylistically, you’ll always have to deal with criticism, because, as my husband likes to say, “haters gonna hate.”

Featured From the Archives: Camp NaNoWriMo and the Impatience Demon

So it occurred to me today that it’s July. Yes, I realize I’m a little behind and the explosions ricocheting around my neighborhood last weekend should have been my first clue, but whatever. Point is, it’s July, and there are probably quite a few of you out there slogging your way through Camp NaNoWriMo. Did you know that I tried it myself a couple years ago? Well, I did. And even more pertinent to the conversation, I wrote an entire series of blog posts about it:

Camp NaNoWriMo and the Procrastination Monster
Camp NaNoWriMo and the Perfection Plague
Camp NaNoWriMo and the Impatience Demon
Camp NaNoWriMo and the Final Outcome

So, in the interest of finding something entertaining to post this week, I’ve decided to feature one of those humorous articles. This particular post is about a lovely creature I dubbed the Impatience Demon, and while it was written with Camp Nano specifically in mind, I think many of you will be able to relate. The tips I give at the end for how to vanquish said creature can be applied to any aspect of writing, editing, or even just life. Enjoy! 😉

Camp NaNoWriMo and the Impatience Demon

By Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 7/19/13

All right, week 3 of the REUTS Publications Camp Nano Team Competition is ending, and I’m starting to look like the stress ball I’ve become. My hair has definitely taken on a few more strands of silver, Carpal Tunnel has taken up permanent and painful residence in my right wrist, and I’m pretty sure my blood is now caffeine. And don’t even get me started on the pounds I’ve packed on thanks to stress-eating several tubs of ice cream. Yeah, I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty.

Turns out, there’s a downside to curing the Perfection Plague. Just when you think you’re free and clear, it appears. Spawned from the depths of river I-Can-Actually-Do-This located in 50,000-Words-in-a-Month-is-Nothing land, the Impatience Demon will take every shred of patience you have and maul it into nonexistence. And if you’re already an impatient person, well, sorry to say, you’re just doomed. You may as well have a bullseye tattooed on your forehead, because it’s coming for you, and, like the Grim Reaper, there’s no escaping it.

(What? Every camp needs a good ghost story, doesn’t it? 😉 )

I’ve never considered myself a patient person. In fact, before I discovered the beauty of headphones, I was that kid that asked, “Are we there yet?” every 5 minutes on a road trip. So it’s not surprising that Camp Nano’s Impatience Demon found an easy target in me. What is surprising is the level to which it pushed me, sending me so far off the cliffs of bitterness and resentment that I became paralyzed. I’m sure you can guess what happened to my word count after that. Yep, last week was definitely not my shining moment, productivity-wise.

What does an Impatience Demon haunting look like? Well, something like this:

You wake up feeling slightly sick to your stomach but sure you’re going to get things done. A few deep breaths and you’re good. You’ve got this. Until you realize that, oh crap, you have to go to work or that empty refrigerator isn’t going to get filled.

Grumbling, you punch in to your daily sentence at the Dreaded Day Job, only to get slammed with things that interfere with even thinking about writing, let alone sneaking a few minutes to do it. But you push through, growing more and more resentful with every paper that lands on your desk.

Eventually, your time is up and freedom is yours. Except, oh yeah, you have to put gas in the car. You roll up to the gas station, and it’s got a bazillion idiots all lollygagging around the pump like it’s an ice cream social. When it’s finally your turn, you run into problems with your rewards points, say “screw it” after a few failed attempts, pay full price and head home — only to get stuck in traffic. Every jerk on the planet decides to cut you off, because, apparently, understanding the concept of merging lanes isn’t required to obtain a driver’s license anymore, and you end up inching feet at a time until that 7 mile drive feels like 200 and you’re pretty sure you could have walked home faster.

You step in the door with a few minutes left before dinner, but you still don’t get to write. There’s a pile of bills you have to deal with first, and you watch your bank account dry up like a puddle in a drought. That’s Okay though, you didn’t really want to eat this week anyway. It’s now dinner time, so you scrounge around in what’s left of last month’s groceries and concoct something passably edible.

Now you get to write, yes? Nope, because there’s laundry to fold, dishes to clean, people to pay attention to, and oh yeah, your DVR is about to implode. You tackle all of these things, growing more and more irritated at anything that stands between you and the computer until finally, you get a moment to yourself to write. There’s only one problem, you can’t concentrate.

Focus? Yeah, you kiss that goodbye as it floats out the window on the laughter of the Impatience Demon.

Sounds a lot like the Procrastination Monster, doesn’t it? Except for one major difference — the Procrastination Monster gets its power from distraction, while the Impatience Demon’s comes from a lack of control. You want to write during an Impatience Demon attack; you just can’t, resenting everyone and everything that keeps you from getting to your manuscript.

I was actually shocked at how quickly I went from happily going about my daily routine to uttering streams of expletives worthy of a sailor over every little thing. I have never hated folding laundry so much. Or checking social media. Or answering emails. Or even watching TV! And you know  there’s something wrong if I’m resenting the DVR. That’s when I figured out I was being haunted, that my impatience had reached such a toxic level, I was in danger of burning everything to the ground in frustration.

So I did the only thing I could — I walked away. I disconnected from everything, buried my head in the proverbial sand for a couple days and pretended the Demon didn’t exist. Not my smartest move; it completely backfired. When I came back, the Demon was still waiting for me, except now it was armed with a mess-load of things I was behind on.

But if I failed to exorcise the Impatience Demon, how is this lesson helpful? Because, Grasshopper, I didn’t fail.

Yes, I lost the battle, but admitting that I lost allowed me to find my fractured focus, pick up the pieces, and glue them back together with a renewed sense of purpose. I called on all the Martial Arts training I’ve had to find discipline and all the tricks from decades of fighting depression to forcibly change my thinking back to the positive. Essentially, I stripped the Demon of its power. And you can too.

When you find yourself starting to drown under the avalanche of things you can’t control, hating everything around you and sending your loved ones scrambling for cover from your fire-breathing nastiness, try this:

Step 1) Find an appropriate outlet for all that pent up rage.

Go for a run, punch something (preferably not your loved ones), escape to the library, the beach, or anywhere that grounds you in tranquility for a few hours. You’ll feel the Demon’s poison leech from your brain, and when you return home, you’ll be ready for step 2.

Step 2) Remind yourself to see the silver lining.

This step is the hardest. It takes a lot of will power and self-realization/acceptance to change your thinking. But it is possible. All it takes is stepping outside of your negative thoughts, realizing that your perspective is skewed, and forcibly changing your thought process to focus on positive things instead. (I make it sound so easy, don’t I? Trust me, it’s not. It’s taken me years to even become moderately capable at it.)

For example, say you’re royally ticked off about having to do the dishes, your thoughts swirling around an image of breaking plates on the wall. Recognize that thought as negative, realize that your emotion is far more violent than the situation warrants, and press pause. Now, try to think of what’s good about this particular activity, like the fact that you won’t have smelly dishes stinking up your kitchen, the feel of the warm water, or the smell of the soap. Once you have that positive thing in mind, press play again and your thoughts will take on a rosier disposition. See? Not that hard once you figure it out. The hardest part is recognizing when your thoughts take that turn down Negative Lane.

Step 3) One step at a time.

Now that you’ve let go of all your angst, the Impatience Demon is gasping for life. You’re just about free from its clutches. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, like everything is out of your control, take a deep breath and focus on a single task. Forget everything else. Put blinders on and just get that one thing done. Then move on to the next task on the list, focusing entirely on that one, and so on. Before you know it, you’ve conquered the entire list! Pretty slick, huh?

And there you have it. A simple remedy for surviving the Impatience Demon’s attack. I’ll bet, if you listen hard enough, you can still hear the echo of its last cry as it disappears in a poof of smoke. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it? Now take your victory and get back to writing. I know I’m going to. I’ve got one week left and a massive number of words to make up!

Featured From the Archives: Writing . . . With a Twist

All right, everyone. The moment has come; it’s time to announce the winners of my 3rd Blogiversary Giveaway. Before I do, I want to sincerely thank everyone who supported and entered the contest. You were all so overwhelmingly enthusiastic, that, true to my nature, I’ve decided to throw in a surprise bonus. What might that be? Well, let me preface this by saying that I’m either crazy, or generous (or crazy generous?), because I’ve decided to give away not one, but SIX full edits. Yes, see, crazy.

Without further ado, the lucky winners of said Full Edit Packages are . . .

Susan Nystoriak

Ann Marjoy K

Tiffany Rose

Shantele Summa

Emma Adams

C.C. Dowling

But, that’s not all. I also said I’d be giving away winner’s choice of three print editions from the REUTS Publications library. Those lucky people are . . .

Rachel Oestrich

Alexandra Perchanidou

Ashley Hudson

I will be contacting the winners regarding their prize over the course of this next week. To everyone who didn’t win this time, I’m sorry. I tend to do these kinds of giveaways a couple times a year though, so please come back and try again in the future. 🙂

And, because today is supposed to feature an actual article and not just an announcement, I’ve pulled one of my more humorous bits of writing advice from the archives (at least, I think it’s humorous). Enjoy!

Writing . . . With a Twist

By Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 8/3/12

This week’s topic comes courtesy of an interesting forum thread I haunted about what makes a plot twist good or bad. And since I’ve decided to break one of writing’s cardinal rules by courting a twist largely hailed as cliche, over-done, and impossible to pull off, I decided that maybe I’d take a moment to dissect what makes a plot twist successful. Publicly, of course. Because what fun would it be if I kept my musings to myself?

Every consumer of entertainment is familiar with the plot twist, be their media of choice literature, film, or video games. It’s a staple of the storytelling arsenal, and it’s a device everyone tries and most fail at. I’m no exception. I would like to say that I haven’t included such horrifically cheesy plot twists as pivotal characters actually being long-lost family members, vague prophecies that come to fruition in a way that surprises no one, bringing a character back from the dead after spending several long scenes grieving their loss, the dramatic love confession everyone saw coming the moment the characters met, the betrayal by a character close to the protagonist, etc, etc. But I would be lying, because the truth is, I have done all of those. And I’m rather embarrassed about it. Oh, and did I mention they were all in the same story? Yeah, needless to say, that one needs a massive overhaul before it ever faces the publishing gauntlet.

The only thing I can draw comfort from is that every writer suffers this same affliction during the beginning stages of their career. And eventually, they all outgrow it. Mostly. That doesn’t mean they graduate from relying on the plot twist to infuse their stories with suspense and  mystery, it just means that they stop suffering from CPT, a.k.a. Cheesy Plot-Twistitis. Symptoms of CPT include the heavy-handed attempt to create a twist no one has seen before, but in reality, everyone has seen before; the desperate need to earn intellectual points by creating an intricate, and completely obvious, web of twists and turns that wouldn’t fool a four-year-old; the delusional belief that you’re actually smarter than your readers, resulting in the condescending reveal of something we all figured out on page 2; and the urge to cram so many twists into your plot that it starts to look like a fraying pretzel, and even you can’t keep your ideas straight anymore. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, CPT isn’t terminal. To send it into remission, though, we need to figure out what makes a plot twist good.

I believe a successful plot twist consists of three things:

  • Subtlety
  • Total integration with the plot-line
  • Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events

This powerhouse combination relies on all three parts working seamlessly to produce a recipe for success. Just knowing the ingredients isn’t enough, you have to know how to apply them. It would be like trying to cook with no directions. What order do you add them? What happens when they combine? How much of each one do you need? These answers are just as important as the ingredients themselves, so let’s break down our list of plot twist ingredients a bit further.

Subtlety: This is the foundation of a successful plot twist, and perhaps the most crucial element of the three. How often have you watched the first three minutes of a movie or television show and instantly known how it would end? Or within the first two pages of a mystery novel, figured out who the villain was and why they did what they did? Some of you may just be geniuses, but more often, the reason it was so easy to figure out is because the twists were predictable and obvious and something you’ve seen a billion times before.

Audiences tend to remember twists that make large impacts on them and look for them to be repeated. It’s kind of the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” phenomenon.  We only partially like being made to feel foolish, so we remember those moments vividly. For example, everyone who’s ever seen The Sixth Sense remembers that moment when you realized nothing was what you thought it was. (I don’t believe in spoilers, so on the off-hand chance you haven’t seen that movie, I left it vague for your benefit. And if you haven’t seen it, shame on you! Go rent it. Right now!) Fans of Inception will forever be analyzing every aspect of future movies, looking for the threads tying them together. And people (like myself) who watch far too many police/courtroom dramas will likely be trying to figure out who the criminal is within the first five minutes, and often succeeding.

So how do you manage to fool an audience who’s keeping a keen eye out for plot twists? Through subtlety. A good plot twist is one written with a delicate hand. It’s hidden until the moment of it’s reveal through the clever use of decoys and hints that carefully and slowly build toward the twist. Play into your jaded audience’s expectations and let them think they’ve got it figured out before springing the reality on them. If you’ve done it well, they never see it coming and will begrudgingly offer a tip of the hat in appreciation afterward. Your audience wants to be challenged, so never underestimate them.

Total integration with the plot-line: For a plot twist to work, it can’t be out of the blue. There needs to be a lead-in, a build-up of tension before the final reveal. And you do this through those subtle hints I just mentioned above. Failing to sprinkle enough clues into the narrative will result in a twist that feels like it’s sole purpose is to get you out of a narrative corner you didn’t expect to be in. Readers hate hand-waving devices (things that dismiss everything they just read in order to change the story’s direction). It makes them feel like they’ve wasted their time investing in your book. And I don’t blame them. Any writer that uses devices like this is cheating, looking for the easy way out of a sticky situation. That character wasn’t supposed to die yet? Fine, bring them back and have everyone ignore the fact they died. Don’t like where your narrative is heading? Make everything a dream, and then you can take off in a whole new direction without having to revise your entire manuscript. You can see why it’s something readers find irritating, and why it should be avoided. Your twist has to feel like a natural — albeit surprising — turn of events, not a miraculous and random thing that doesn’t fit the rest of the story at all.

Which brings us to the final element . . .

Complete alteration of the reader’s perception of prior events: While you don’t want your twist to feel out of place with the rest of the narrative, you do want it to surprise the reader. Ideally, the final reveal is a twist so shocking that it changes the way your audience thinks about everything prior to it. I’m going to use The Sixth Sense again, because, even though it’s old now, it’s still one of the best examples of this element in action.

When viewers got to the end of the movie and the massive twist was revealed, there was a resounding “WTF?!” reaction, and suddenly everything the audience thought they understood about the film was painted in a completely different light. During the subsequent flashback explanation, we realized that the clues had been there all along, we just hadn’t seen them. This is exactly the reaction you want to create. When you reveal your big twist, you want your readers to immediately rethink everything they just read, and hopefully, because you’ve subtly integrated the build-up so well, they’ll realize that all the arrows were pointing to this moment, and it’s not really that shocking at all. In this way, you create an experience that’s both surprising and completely in sync with the rest of your piece.

Master all of the above, and voilà! Successful plot-twist soup, instant cure for CPT.

Now that we’ve dissected what it takes to make a plot twist successful, let’s take a brief look at what makes one bad. Personally, I don’t think there are such things as bad plot twists, just poorly executed ones. Just like no story is ever truly original, no plot twist is either. It’s all about the presentation. That said, there are a few notorious twists that are generally frowned upon by readers and writers alike, things seen so many times that it’s nearly impossible to spin them in a fresh way. Doesn’t mean you can’t try; just be prepared for a high rate of difficulty and the likelihood of potential failure.

The List of Plot Twist No-No’s:

  • Everything was just a dream
  • Villain & hero are actually related
  • Prophecies
  • Long-lost heir to the throne is actually the stable-boy/kitchen scullion/maid/soldier
  • The hidden love triangle/dramatic declaration of love
  • Betrayal by someone close to the protagonist
  • Bringing a character back from the dead after grieving their loss
  • Miraculous special powers that the hero discovers just in time to kill the villain
  • Gender reveal of villain/hero/general bad-ass character opposite of expectations
  • Anything which makes the prior storyline irrelevant
  • Anything that feels like the writer is simply trying to prove they’re smarter than their audience

Reading that list, I’m sure you can think of many examples where you’ve seen these very things done well. Which proves my point that there are no bad plot twists, just bad execution. Feel free to attempt the impossible and include any or all of them in your own writing. I, myself, will be attempting the all-hated “everything was just a dream” scenario. And it could very well blow up in my face. It could also be the very thing that makes my story successful. You never know until you try. But you can’t say I didn’t warn you if it doesn’t pan out the way you expected. 😉

Featured From the Archives: Writing Characters With Great Backstories (Without the Backstory)

I spent the majority of today attending a lovely writing workshop, where I met fabulous people, heard intriguing pitches, and participated in a panel discussion/critique of anonymous first pages. The last is what prompted me to dredge up the following article. By far, the thing that caused all five panelists to stop reading can be summed up with one dreaded word — exposition. As much as it pained some in the audience to hear it, that pesky bugger inevitably resulted in their work being rejected. So it behooves you to pay attention. You can have a superb concept, but if your first page falls into the bottomless pit of exposition, there’s no saving it. So instead, let me show you how to avoid ending up in that pit in the first place. Deal?
 

Writing Characters With Great Backstories
(Without the Backstory)

By Kisa Whipkey

Originally Posted on 2/21/14

 
As an editor, I get to bear witness to all kinds of writing pitfalls. (In fact, I have a post series dedicated to that planned for the near future.) But one of the most prevalent, by far, revolves around divulging exposition — especially of the backstory variety. There are varying degrees of offense, but my personal favorite (and by “favorite”, I really mean eye-roll inducing, hair-pulling, editing nightmare) is when writers feel the need to divulge a character’s entire, complicated life story in the first chapter. Why is that bad? Well, think of it like this: your first chapter is the reader’s introduction to your character. So in real life, it would be like meeting someone for the first time and having them word vomit their life story all over you. What kind of impression does that leave? Yeah, I bet you’d avoid that person like the plague after that.

I can already hear the murmurs of confusion and disagreement.

“But, we have to make sure our characters feel well-rounded and real,” you say, “We don’t want them to feel like cardboard cut-outs or Mary Sues.”

You’re 100% right. But you can do that without resorting to the word vomit introduction. How? Well, that’s what I’m here to show you. 😉
 

Step 1: Creating Backstory

 
Before you can begin to write a well-rounded character, you have to actually make them well-rounded. You need to know that person intimately. They need to be real — as real as your best friend from high school, or your quirky aunt with the 82 cats who lives in a motor home. The best way to do that is by making what’s known as a character profile. (There are tons of templates available online, but this one is particularly thorough.) Document all those tiny little details and experiences that make your character who they are. Don’t just stick to the superficial details, like eye color and body type, but really get to know them.

How’d they get that scar on their right knee?

Who was their first crush, and who broke their heart for the first time?

What’s their strange nightly ritual? And why do they keep that weird nick-knack on their bookshelf?

In a separate document, flesh out your character from top to bottom. Until, like an actor, you can step into their skin and write with their voice. This process is as essential to your novel as plotting is, so don’t skimp. You’ll need to do this for every major character, and, to some extent, the supporting cast as well. You’ll see why here shortly.
 

Step 2: Writing as Character X

 
By now, you should have pages and pages of notes. You’ve created all these exciting experiences and nuances that shape your character’s personality, and you can’t wait to share them all with the world. Right? Wrong. This is where pet peeve #208 (listed above) comes in. Writers assume that since they’ve created all this material, they need to use it. That it’s a disservice to their character not to, and that stuffing every minute detail into their novel is the only way they’ll be able to illustrate just how intricate this person’s life is. But guess what? We’re all intricate, complicated people. And we don’t care that you’ve managed to create another one.

Your character spent 8 months backpacking through Europe three years before the events of chapter 1? Great. Who cares?

Your character has a great grandmother who can bake the world’s best pot roast, but who died ten years before the events of the story? Okay. Sad, but so what?

Your character’s favorite childhood dog only had three legs, but could run like a greyhound? Weird and slightly interesting, but what does it have to do with the story?

My point is, unless one of these anecdotes or facts has a direct affect on the current plot, it doesn’t make it into the book. Why did you just waste hours writing all of that, then? Because, even though it’ll never be stated outright, it will color the way your character reacts to any given situation. Essentially, by creating that profile, you built their “voice”. Every experience we go through changes our fundamental outlook on life and will have a subtle affect on the way we behave, the things we say, and even our perception of a situation. That’s the definition of personality. It’s a reaction filtered through our individual set of traits and life experiences, and is what makes each of us unique.

For example, the character with the three-legged dog is likely to be compassionate toward animals as well as people who are differently-abled. While someone without that particular backstory may be callous and insensitive to the needs of others. The person with the grandma may have a certain affinity for pot roast, reacting to it much differently than someone who’s, say, a vegetarian. And depending on how your character got the scar on their knee, they may have an ingrained fear of something that makes absolutely no sense to anyone else.

It’s the history behind the character that makes them feel real. Even if we never hear the story of every experience, we’ll respond to that feeling of depth, of fullness. It’s not about creating a detailed biography of these fictional people, it’s about making them feel human so readers can connect with them. So go ahead and create those elaborate backstories, but remember, 90% of it will never be used outright in your book. And that’s okay. The authenticity you’ll be able to create for having done this exercise will far outweigh the “wasted” time you put into it. Because, at the end of the day, fiction is nothing without its characters.
 

Step 3: Murder Your Exposition

 
(I make that sound so dramatic, don’t I?)

Exposition has its place, but rarely is it needed as much as writers imagine. Storytelling is about conflict and emotion. And, as they say, “show, don’t tell” whenever possible. Exposition is telling at its worst. It’s that irritating person that walks into the room while you’re trying to watch a movie and forces you to press pause in order to pay attention to them. It breaks whatever action you have happening and says, “look at this irrelevant bit of info” instead. Which is why your final mission for this lesson is to go through your manuscript, find any spot where you stuck a random memory or some other detail from their past, and ask yourself, “Does this really need to be here?” I guarantee, the majority of the time, the answer will be no.

You can convey a lot of backstory simply through subtext and the way the character reacts to the environment and situation around them. Sometimes it is necessary to supply the details, the history, but even then, exposition is rarely the key. Try to find some other way to divulge it whenever possible. Dialogue (although never use dialogue as a convenient vehicle for giving the reader information as it will instantly feel false and unnatural), inner monologues, passing comments, etc. Flashbacks are even preferable to straight info-dump exposition. But if you do have to resort to a flashback, make sure that your character is in an appropriate situation for one. Don’t halt the middle of a battle to have them daydream about how they received a commendation for whatever umpteen years ago. If you do that, congratulations, your character is now dead. Because, while he was standing there daydreaming, the guy he was fighting lobbed his head off.

Once you’ve identified your exposition, strip it out wherever you can. Read the chapter, paragraph, sentence, without it. Does removing it in any way change the clarity of the message? If the answer is yes, then weave it back in, but only as much as necessary. If the answer’s no, bravo! You successfully killed a bit of exposition. And if you just aren’t sure, well, that’s why editors exist. Be ready, though, because they’ll be the first to go after your exposition with a butcher knife.

So, in summary, (since I seem to have rambled more than normal in this post) great characters require equally great backstories. But great writers know when and where to divulge that information, relying heavily on the subtleties of voice and subtext to convey the majority of it. Do they have journals full of notes and character profiles and unpublished material? You bet! How much of that creeps into their actual books? Maybe 10%. But you feel its existence. The work feels authentic, the characters real. Follow in the footsteps of those writers and show us your character without resorting to a word vomit introduction. Readers (and editors) will greatly appreciate it. 😉

A Writer’s Resolutions: 2015 Edition

Ah yes, resolution season. Normally, I’m among the first to catalog a new batch of ambitious goals, but this year, I’ve felt strangely impartial to the practice. Aside from the usual personal ones, like “Be Debt Free,” “Lose Like 100 lbs,” and “Stress Less, Have More Fun,” my resolution list has been sadly lacking. But, since it’s tradition to set some writing ones in stone by posting them here, I’m going to try and rustle some up by the end of this post.

First, a quick reminder of the ones from last year:

Writing Resolutions 2014

  • Finish the rough draft of Unmoving
  • Upload Chapters of Unmoving every two weeks to Wattpad & Authonomy
  • Revise and Re-publish The Bardach, Spinning & Confessions via Createspace/Amazon KDP
  • Compile brief synopses of all plot bunnies
  • Write, Edit & Publish one new short story

How did I stack up against those? Most of you already know. Unmoving still isn’t finished, but I did manage to write quite a bit more of it, thanks to the bi-weekly deadline. Though, I also wasn’t as consistent with that as I wanted to be, and I often had to postpone the chapters, missing the deadlines completely while I tried to finish other obligations. I didn’t upload anything to Wattpad or Authonomy, but I did start submitting the serialized chapters to Starter Serials. So we’ll count this one as a win. Yay me! A quick Amazon search will show that I completely failed at resolution three (The Bardach rewrite is only about a third of the way done), and I also didn’t complete four or five.

So, all total, I managed to maybe, kinda sorta achieve one on that list. But that’s still better than I did last year, so I suppose it’s progress, right?

2014 was actually a great year in other regards, though, aside from the last month, when it decided to go out with a crap-storm of awful. But before that, I attended my first writing conference, followed quickly by a second. I met a lot of fantastic new people and learned some cool new tricks. I helped twelve books come into the world, read a plethora of amazing manuscripts on submission, facilitated the Project REUTSway short story contest, and all around kind of flourished as an editor. So even though I didn’t make the specific goals listed above, I’d say it was a good eleven months. I’m not counting December. That month can suck it.

What does that leave me with for 2015? Well, on one side, it’s left me with a continuation of the suckage December shepherded into my life. But it also leaves me optimistic and full of ambition for my writing, editing, and art. Yes, art. The long-lost bastard child of my creativity. Which brings us to . . .

Writing Resolutions 2015

  • Finish Unmoving (It’s going to happen this year, damn it. I have other stories clamoring for attention too!)
  • Upload Chapters of Unmoving every two weeks to Wattpad & Authonomy (Since I didn’t technically accomplish this to the letter, I’m reusing it. Deal.)
  • Revise and Re-publish The Bardach, Spinning & Confessions via Createspace/Amazon KDP (Still something I really want to do. But I’ll settle for at least completing Kindred — aka The Bardach 2.0)
  • Compile brief synopses of all plot bunnies (Definitely becoming more and more necessary, since I can’t seem to remember s**t if it’s not written down anymore.)
  • Write, Edit & Publish one new short story (Still not sure why I haven’t managed to do this. It’s a short story! Get it together, self.)
  • Plan, Prep, and Unveil Secret Blog Project by the end of the year

You’ll notice there’s now a sixth resolution, and it’s particularly vague. I’m excited about it, but I don’t want to give too much away until I know for sure I’ll have the time and ability to pull it off. Let’s just say that if all goes to plan, it’ll involve quite a bit of free fiction for your reading enjoyment. 😉

Other things on the horizon that aren’t official resolutions — let’s call them “soft” resolutions:

  • Be more consistent with new content for the blog. You’ve all been super patient with my hectic schedule this past year, and I truly appreciate it. But I’m hoping to get back to a more regular posting schedule, full of new insights on writing, editing, publishing, or whatever the heck I feel like writing about. Sound good?
  • Maintain, consistently, the release schedule for the VIP subscription to Unmoving. (Not sure what that is? Look here.)
  • Start working on a more traditional (probably YA) novel. Now that my path to self-publishing is underway, I’d like to tackle the other half — traditional publishing. I’ve always said I wanted to do a hybrid publishing style, self-pubbing A Symphony of Synchronicity, and then pursuing traditional publishing for my dark fantasy stuff. Now seems like a good time to start working toward that goal.
  • Dust off my art training and put it to good use. I have a few artistic opportunities looming in my near future, so I think its high time I went back to actively cultivating this skill set. It may even help support that first “soft” resolution, yielding unexplored topics to write about. We’ll see.

I’m sure there are others I could list, but for now, that seems plenty ambitious, I think. So here’s to a new year, a clean slate, and accomplishing all those things we didn’t in 2014. Cheers!

P.S. I’d love to hear what some of your writing/publishing goals are for the year. Share them in the comments below! 🙂