How to Write Characters Your Readers Love

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Question: What do Sirius Black, Finnick Odair, Robin "Puck" Goodfellow, Kenji Kishimoto and Remus Lupin have in common? (Hint: They DON'T all die.)  

Answer: They're all non-main characters that many readers fell in love with. They also all happen to be male with relatively awesome names, but that's not the point. 

Point is, these five guys developed a pretty extensive fan base, despite the fact that most of them were side characters. So how does that happen? How do authors write characters that fans falls so in love with that when some of them meet untimely ends, readers shed actual tears over the loss? 

Let's take a quick look at each of the characters: 

  • Sirius Black (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling). Sirius Black is one of my personal all-time favorite characters ever. He's a highly misunderstood man who spent years of his life trapped in the worst kind of prison imaginable for a crime he didn't commit, Harry's only hope at a "normal" life in a loving home, fiercely protective of his godson (but not to the point that he tries to shelter him), and armed with enough wit to make Snape blush. Combined with the fact that he's an adorable/badass dog half the time, there isn't much not to like about Sirius. 

  • Finnick Odair (Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). Finnick is attractive, witty, infuriates/embarrasses Katniss on more than one occasion, and turns out to have to have a horrible past that makes you feel guilty for misjudging him as a total tool in Catching Fire (or maybe that was just me). Top that off with his unconditional love for a fellow ex-tribute who isn't all there, Finnick earns his spot as a fan favorite pretty quickly. 

  • Robin "Puck" Goodfellow (Iron Fey Series by Julie Kagawa). (Slight spoiler) Puck is Meghan's long-time best friend and secret guardian with a sharp tongue and penchant for tricks and trouble-making, so when he gets friend-boxed, you can't help but feel bad for the poor guy. Furthermore, when he remains loyal to Meghan despite his unrequited love, readers love him all the more. 

  • Kenji Kishimoto (Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi). I'm not spoiling much when I say we all know Juliette isn't going to fall for Kenji—that much is pretty clear right from the beginning. But we can't help but admire his spirit when he tries to woo her over to him anyway (and make us laugh while attempting to do so), and plus there's the whole risking-his-life-to-help-Juliette-thing. 

  • Remus Lupin (Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling). After Sirius, Remus was probably my second-favorite minor Harry Potter character (tied with the Weasley twins), and I felt it important to include him because unlike the previous four, Remus is not funny. He's a very intense and serious character, largely afraid of himself and what he might do during a certain phase of the moon, and is entirely loyal to his friends and loved ones. Readers feel bad for Remus, and when he finds happiness we can't help but be glad that something good has finally come his way. 

So what do they all have in common that makes readers love them? 

They're all characters readers became emotionally invested in. They made us laugh and cry and sympathize with them. We learned about their darkest secrets and what makes them happy, what scares them and what makes them angry. Their creators didn't write them lightly—they're carefully written and fully-developed characters that we as readers can't help but love. 

The lesson is this: in order to write characters that your readers love, you need to invest just as much time and effort to get to know them as you did your protagonist. If you want your readers to remember the names of more than just your MC, you need to take time to really understand what makes your side characters tick, so that when time comes to write them, they feel just as real as your major characters. 

As a writer, you have to fall in love with your side characters first. Once you do, writing them so that your readers adore them just as much as you do will come that much easier. 

Who are your favorite side characters? What made you love them as much as you do? 

How to Spot Mary Sue in Your Writing

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If you've been a writer for any amount of time, I'm sure you've heard of the infamous Mary Sue and her brother Gary (or Larry) Stu. It's an evil name in the writing world as heinous as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named that makes every writer tremble in fear. 

Ok, so maybe not quite, but Mary Sue is a conniving little character that likes to slip into the unsuspecting writer's work, and if you aren't careful, you may fall victim to her sneaky ways as well. 

For those of you who don't know, according to Wikipedia (who had the best definition I could find), Mary Sue is "a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional." As I've already posted in the past about character flaws and mistakes, I'm going to focus on the wish-fulfillment/self-insertion bit. 

As new writers often haven't developed their Mary Sue radar yet, they tend to find Mary Sues cropping up in their writing most often. And it's not difficult to understand why it's so easy to accidentally write a Mary Sue into your work—as writers, we spend a lot of time trying to create new characters and get to know them, and sometimes as we get to know them, we start to realize that they remind us of...well...ourselves. What's worse, sometimes writers don't realize they've created a Mary Sue until halfway through the first draft (or even after the first draft is completed). 

Good news is there are warning signs that can tip you off to the possibility of a Mary Sue hiding in your writing that are relatively easy to recognize so that you can stop the invasion before it's too late. 

The Warning Signs: 

  • You agree with everything your MC says, thinks and does. Always agreeing with your protagonist is a HUGE red flag. That's not to say that you shouldn't be able to justify their actions (you should), but if you don't disagree with your protagonist every once in a while, chances are you've been writing a character that's a tad too reminiscent of you. 
  • You share the same strengths and flaws. Writing is often about balance, and there's nothing wrong with a writer sharing a couple strengths or flaws with their characters—that's natural, even. But if you're a perfectionist and a compulsive liar with a sharp tongue and quick wit and your protagonist is a quick-witted compulsive liar who also happens to be a perfectionist, then I hate to break it to you, but you may have just written yourself into your novel. 
  • You share the same strengths and your protagonist doesn't have any flaws. Please see point two and this post

My point is this: as writers we spend a lot of time in our character's heads—we live and breathe our stories until our characters feel as real as our family members and closest friends, but we are not our characters. The moment you start to suspect that you may have fictionalized yourself, chances are you probably have.

If you're a writer, have you ever written a Mary Sue or Gary Stu into your writing? What steps did you take to fix it?

Writers: Start Acting Like Professionals

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I am an unpublished writer, and I'm sure many of you reading this are also unpublished writers. Despite my not-in-bookstore status, I decided a long time ago to take some writing advice that I'd read over and over again, namely, to stop acting like a writer who was trying to get published and to start acting like a professional. 

What I mean is if you treat your writing like a hobby rather than a job, then you'll be hard pressed to try to do those things that professional writers do, like finish novels and write until your fingers want to fall off and edit your work to death. If you treat your writing like a hobby rather than a job, then you really can't expect anyone else to see it your passion as anything more than just a hobby. 

If you treat your writing like another job, however, I think you'll find that not only will you become more productive, but you'll become more confident in your writing (at least, I did). 

But what exactly do I mean by acting like a professional writer? Well, let's take a look at some things most (or at least many) professional writers do: 

  • Professional writers write to routine. Every writer is a little different—some write every day, others five or six days a week, others less, but the point is they develop some sort of method that works for them and they stick with it. Professional writers can't allow themselves to slack off for long—they have deadlines to meet and bills to pay and this is how they work. Which leads me to...

  • Professional writers meet deadlines. Published authors are constantly working under a deadline—whether it's a draft that's due, or a proposal for the next novel or a synopsis or whatever the agent/publisher/reader needs, published writers live by deadlines. And in order to pay the bills and keep their contracts and continue progressing, published authors do what they have to to make sure they meet their deadlines. 

  • Professional writers edit their work. I don't mean a casual sweep through, either—many published authors have been known to entirely rewrite their work from scratch or rip their drafts apart until the first draft is no longer recognizable. 

  • Professional writers read a lot. I've written in the past about why this is so important, but it's no coincidence that most published authors also happen to be avid readers. Reading is essential to good writing. 

  • Professional writers keep writing. When a writer's agent can't find a publisher who will buy their work, the professionals keep writing. When the book doesn't sell as well as they'd hoped, professionals keep writing. When the first draft looks absolutely horrendous and they start to wonder whether their story idea was worth writing at all, professional writers keep writing. Period. 
Now the secret is this: you don't have to be published to write like a professional. You don't need to have a contract to set deadlines for yourself, or create some kind of weekly routine. You don't need an agent or a publisher or a hoard of raving fans demanding your next book to keep writing and reading and editing your work and doing the very best you possibly can to write a fantastic story. All you need is you. 

The way I see it, if we act like professionals now, we'll be better off later when we actually are professionals with real deadlines to meet. In the meantime, we'll just keep doing what we do. 

What are your thoughts? Do you treat your writing like a job or a hobby?

Twitter-sized bites:
Stop acting like a writer trying to get published and start acting like a professional. (Click to tweet)
You don't have to be published to write like a professional. (Click to tweet

Writing Goals: How to Meet Them When You Don't Have Time

“Killing time isn't as difficult as it sounds. I can shoot a hundred numbers through the chest and watch them bleed decimal points in the palm of my hand. I can rip the numbers off a clock and watch the hour hand tick tick tick its final tock just before I fall asleep. I can suffocate seconds just by holding my breath. I've been murdering minutes for hours and no one seems to mind.”  — Tahereh MafiShatter Me (Page 127)
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A popular grievance amongst writers (and everyone else, to be honest), is about the lack of time in the day. And it's a fair complaint—time seems to race right past us, especially as we do workish non- writing things. Sometimes days go by so quickly that it feels like if you blink, you might just miss a couple hours. 

I'm sure many of you know the feeling. As most writers have other non- writing related jobs and responsibilities (i.e.: parenting, education, work...parenting while going to school AND working, etc.), it can sometimes be difficult to set aside time to write, which in turn can make meeting your writing goals significantly more difficult.Truth is, we're all busy people trying to juggle social life and work and family and writing and all those other things, and sometimes twenty-four hours in a day just doesn't feel like nearly enough time.

But as a rather wise, H. Jackson Brown Jr., said, “Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”  (via Writer's Relief's tumblr). 

The key isn't to try to cram more hours into the day (because except on Day Lights Savings, that's impossible)—it's to learn to fully utilize the time that we have. 

You see, we're really good at killing time. Whether it's zoning out in front of the TV or scrolling through Twitter during our breaks, we have a tendency of wasting precious minutes, then wondering where the day has gone. Or we look at the clock and say, "No, I don't have enough time to write before I have to do x" and we go enjoy some time-wasting activities during our free moments. 

But the truth is you really don't need much time to pound out a few hundred words a day. 

I've mentioned Write or Die before, and I'm going to mention it again because I think it's especially helpful when we're short on time. If you don't know what Write or Die is, I explain it in more detail in my secret fast- writing strategy post, but in short, it's an app (available on the web for free) that times your writing session and plays unpleasant noises and makes the screen turn red when you start daydreaming or otherwise do something that is not writing. And the best part is you set your own time (options vary from five minutes to two hours) and word count goal (which you type in yourself). 

So let's say hypothetically, you're going to work but you found you have some extra time before you have to leave. Most of the time, I imagine, those minutes would be spent doing things that don't involve writing. 

However! Those are precious moments that could be spent added some extra words to your WIP. Using Write or Die (or just a normal timer), you can plug in five minutes (or ten, or fifteen, or however long you have) and get some words written. It doesn't sound like a lot of time, and no, I don't expect you to write a thousand words in five minutes (nor should you expect that from yourself), but if you use the extra free minutes scattered throughout the day to write fifty words here and fifty words there, it starts to add up. All you really need are a couple ten to fifteen minute focused writing sessions to get a few hundred words written. 

Writing goals can be easy to meet if you use your time strategically. Because no, we writers aren't always gifted with huge amounts of free time, but as long as we take advantage of the free time we do have, we don't need an abundance of time to keep the momentum in our writing. We just need to use the time we have. 

Do you take advantage of your free time to write? How do you manage your time? 

Short Story or Novel Idea: How Do You Tell?

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Every so often one of you amazing readers will suggest a blog post topic I haven’t covered yet (which is fantastic, by the way) and I’ll ramble on about how awesome you guys are for being such interactive and invested readers and then get to the point of the post. 

As you might have guessed, this is one of those posts.

This time, however, I’d like to hear from you guys. Because while I have some ideas on the topic, I don’t really write all that many short stories, and truth be told, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve written one (which, come to think of it, should be remedied), but I suspect some of you lovely readers are more recently acquainted with the short story writing experience. So. Here we go.

The proposed question, as many of you astute readers probably inferred from the title, was how to tell the difference between an idea better suited for a short story than a novel.

I find this question to be particularly interesting because it’s been a long while since I’ve really even allowed myself to consider whether or not an idea would be appropriate for a short story—to me, it’s been more of a question of whether or not I could write an entire novel based on whatever premise rose from the depths of my mind, and those that failed the idea worthiness test of time were labeled unworthy and discarded and ignored. I kind of imagine Odin’s booming voice as he screams, “YOU ARE NOT WORTHY,” at Thor, but that’s beside the point. 

Getting back to the question, though, once you’ve determined whether your idea is worth writing about at all (again, the test of time is a good indicator), a large part of the difference between short story ideas and novel ideas is the scope. 

You see, novel ideas have to be big—and I don’t mean that they have to have explosions and ridiculously awesome action scenes—I just mean that while you’re working with your new idea, you have to be able to develop enough nuances, subplots and layers to sustain 80,000 (or however many) words. And sometimes, especially if you’re a pantser, it’s a little hard to tell if your idea is going to survive three hundred-some-odd pages or if you’re going to hit page fifteen and say, “You know what? Maybe this idea isn’t worth a novel after all.” But the first step in answering the question of whether or not your idea is enough to sustain a novel, lies, I believe, in determining the scope of your idea.

Let’s take a look at an example.

The Hunger Games is big. There’s no way Suzanne Collins would have been able to as effectively fit all the setup, relationships, celebrity status of the tributes, horror of the games, rebellion against the Capitol and repercussions thereof in fifteen pages (and I don’t mean written in summary-like synopsis form, I mean written as an actual story).

However, way before The Hunger Games was the short story The Lottery written by Shirley Jackson in 1948, which certainly has many similarities to the beginning of The Hunger Games (you can read it for free online, if you’re interested). The difference between the two? You guessed it—the scope of the idea.

While The Hunger Games included various subplots (i.e.: the Katniss-Peeta-Gale love triangle, among others) as well as an in-depth look at the glamorization of the hunger games in the Capitol that only made the brutality of the games (in my opinion) that much more powerful in its effect on the reader, The Lottery included set-up, foreshadowing, some characterization and, erm, the results of the lottery (you’ll have to read it if you haven’t already to know what I mean). The former was way too big to be shoved into a short story format, while the latter fit very comfortable in a little over 3000 words.

So, in short, the main difference to me between a short story and novel idea lies in the scope of the idea. If you think you can fit it in fifteen pages, then it’s probably not worth dragging out into three hundred; but on the other hand if you think it might be difficult to condense into a shorter story without losing anything, you might want to consider writing a novel (or at least a novella) instead. 

Those are my thoughts, but how do you tell between a short story and novel idea? Have you ever had a short story turn into a novel, or a novel idea become a short story, instead? 

Why You Need to Stop Rewriting

 “Every time my computer has ever crashed in the middle of writing an unsaved scene, and I had to rewrite it all from word one, it’s turned out better. There’s a lesson in that, and I think it’s this: I don’t need a muse; I need a less dependable computer.” –James V. Smith, Jr. from The Writer’s Little Helper.
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The very first writing book I ever purchased was The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith, Jr. When I came across the quote I started this post off with, it stuck with me. I thought it was an interesting observation, although I secretly hoped it was one I’d never have to make myself. Over the years I did a lot of writing and editing and even some rewriting, and as I tried to rewrite sections of my WIP, I would occasionally think back to that quote and silently thank my computer for not crashing on me so I had something to reference while I was rewriting.

Then, as I continued reading books on the craft, I started to notice a pattern.

In many of the exercises that included completely rewriting a scene in The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, one of the steps included a variation of, “Without looking at your original draft, rewrite this [x]” (x being passage, scene, exposition, etc). And in Plot & Structure byJames Scott Bell, these two quotes stuck out to me:
“Let your characters have their way. Let your secret life be lived. Then at your leisure, in the succeeding weeks, months or years, you let the story cool off and then, instead of rewriting, you relive it.” –Ray Bradbury (page 173)
“Relive your scenes. Not rewrite. Relive.” –James Scott Bell (Page 203)
I have to admit, I initially resisted the thought of reliving versus rewriting scenes, but this really hit home for me when one of my critique partners suggested I rewrite a scene from my last WIP. Even though I’d already rewritten it, I took her advice and rewrote the scene again and submitted it to her to take a look at once more to see if it had improved. I was hoping she would say it was better so I could move on, but she didn’t. She suggested I rework it. Again.

I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t frustrated. I was. But as I sat down with my notebook to try to rewrite the scene yet again, I remembered what I’d read about reliving the scene rather than rewriting it—and at this point, what did I have to lose? So I did. I relived it and got the new version of the scene on paper. And while the scene played out the same way, it was different this time. I felt more directly connected to my protagonist’s experience and the writing showed it.  

So when my hard drive died the other day and I lost a new WIP idea I was working on (which I hadn’t backed up yet), I’ll admit I was less than happy. I may or may not have even written a few passive-aggressive tweets and Facebook posts about it. But part of me instantly remembered the quote I started this post off with, and I thought, well, I guess now I’m going to find out how true it is. So I replotted everything and started over. And I have to say, even if I do manage to get those files back, I don’t think I’ll need them anymore.  

Have you ever tried reliving a scene? If so, what was your experience? If not, do you think you will? 

How (Not) to Write Amazing Villains

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Darth Vader. Lord Voldemort. President Snow. Professor Umbridge. These are names that will forever live in infamy in our minds—names that struck fear in the hearts of more than a couple characters.

As writers, we often like to analyze the best of the best to discover their secrets so that we too can write characters worthy of being listed with them. After much research, I have uncovered the keys to brilliant villains, and because I’m a generous person, I’m posting them for all of you to see.

So, without further ado, here are the only tips you will ever need to write the perfect villain.*

Ten Keys to Writing Amazing Villains:

  1. Evil name. No villain can be successful without an evil name. This is why Peter Pettigrew will never be listed beside Lord Voldemort. He was doomed from the start with such a silly-sounding name (sorry Peter, but Lord Pettigrew just doesn’t have the same ring to it).

  2. Evil eyes. The eyes—oh! The eyes! Unless your villain has terrifying eyes, how can you expect him to terrify the other characters with a single glance? Don’t handicap your villain by giving him normal (or worse—pretty) eyes.

  3. Evil monologue. This really goes without saying (because we all know how crucial the monologue is), but monologues make or break your villain. If your antagonist doesn’t go on for at least five pages about his nefarious plot to destroy the world with his excruciatingly evil death ray and how there’s nothing your protagonist can do about it, then it doesn’t matter how evil his eyes are because he (or she) has failed as a villain. 

  4. Evil lack of hair. No one will take your villain seriously with a full head of hair. Can you imagine Lord Voldemort with hair? Exactly.

  5. Evil mustache. The twirly kind, so your villain can spin his finger in it while monologing. (And yes, even the female villains require one).

  6. Evil laugh. Case and point: MegaMind. 

  7. (via Dhruv1sCeLT on YouTube) 

  8. Evil smile. To be revealed just before your villain does something particularly nefarious, so that your protagonist knows something horrific is about to happen. And just to be creepy. Because all villains are creepy.

  9. Evil cat/snake/pet. Voldemort had his snake, Umbridge had her kitten obsession and the Grinch had his dog. Coincidence? I think not.

  10. Evil lair. Living in a normal home or suburb will slowly leech away your villain’s evilness. This must not happen. Give him a lair—preferably one with skeletons hanging on the walls and horrific torture devices and his death ray pointed at the sky. That way, when he captures your protagonist and brings him back to the lair, his evilness with literally resonate off the walls. 

  11. Evil evil. This is the MOST IMPORTANT point. It doesn’t matter how evil his name or eyes or cat is if your villain’s evilness is not appropriately evil. Your antagonist must not have even a single redeeming quality, or his whole character will be ruined. Ruined! Your villain must live, breath, think and eat evil (cauliflower will do. Cauliflower is very evil).  The moment your reader starts to sympathize with your villain is the moment he has lost his credibility. Whatever you do, don’t let your villain show even a glimmer of un-evilness.

So that’s it. You now know how to write the most evil, terrifying villain in existence. Now get to work.

*= Assuming you want your villain to be so cliché-ridden that no one will be able to take him seriously at all.

What evil keys would you add to the list? 

How to Survive the Query Wars

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Maybe it's because summer is finally starting or maybe it's just a coincidence, but I've noticed more than a handful of writers mentioning that they've finished their WIP and will shortly be entering the trenches of the query wars as of late.

Querying is not an easy process for either partyfor agents and publishers it means reading hundreds (or even thousands) of letters a month in search for a story that refuses to be passed up, and for writers it means researching agents until your eyes are about ready to fall out and forcing yourself to write letter after letter to be sent into cyberspace only to sit back and... wait. And wait.

No, it's not easy to send out query letters (or even write the darned things for that matter) nor is it easy to wait for responses and receive inevitable rejections (because regardless of how good your story is, it's very near impossible to avoid receiving any rejections).

However! There is hope! It is indeed possible for writers to survive the query warsin fact, slews of writers do it all the time, and with these easy tips, you can too.

How to Survive the Query Wars: 

  • You will be rejected. Accept this. I'm not being a pessimist when I say you're going to be rejected, nor am I saying that everyone you query is going to reject you. What I am saying is that as a writer you're going to face a lot of rejection throughout your career, both in the form of form letters from agents and publishers and in the form of reviews later on. You are a writer. Rejection is part of your life, now. But that's ok, because every writer has faced iteven those who went on to become multi-billion dollar successes (*cough* J.K. Rowling *cough*). 

  • Learn to discern. Not all rejection letters are created equal. Receiving a form rejection means something a little different than receiving a personalized rejection (more on that here), and when you receive the rejection (i.e.: upon initial querying, after a partial/full request, etc.) speaks volumes about you might need to revise to get more positive responses. Remember: personalized rejections are a good sign. It means it was a near miss. Don't lose hope. 

  • Write something else. I sometimes forget how important this is, but remembering to write something entirely unrelated to whatever project you're querying truly is essential. Working on another project accomplishes a few things: 

    • It distracts you: distractions are worth their weight in gold during the query process. The less energy you spend worrying about that query letter you sent, the more energy you can spend on your writing.

    • It reminds you that even if this project doesn't work out, you are a writer and will write again

    • It takes the edge off rejection:I can't tell you enough how much easier it is to accept that your current project might not be ready for publication (or might have to go in the drawer) when you're excited about another new WIP. 

    • As a bonus, if you get an agent or publishing contract, you now have another WIP with publication potential for the future.

Finally, when you do get that coveted agent or publishing contract...


Seriously. You've done it! Now go get some drinks, or have a nice dinner, or bake some cupcakes (or all of the above). You've gone through the query wars and came out on the other side whole. Now go celebrate.

What tips do you have for writers entering the query wars?

Do Your Characters Make Enough Mistakes?

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After re-watching The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King for the umpteenth time, it occurred to me just how crucial character mistakes are to the plot—and not just in The Lord of the Rings, but in nearly every bestseller that I can think of. And I’m not talking about minor character mistakes, either—I’m talking plot-changing horrendous errors that cause death and maiming. These characters make mistakes that they can never take back—mistakes that leave them scarred in more ways than one.

Let’s take a look at a few examples (some of these are a little spoilery, so proceed with caution):

  • The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (J.R.R. Tolkien)Paranoid about people trying to take the ring from him, Frodo sends Sam away, follows Gollum into a rather eerie tunnel alone and nearly gets eaten by Shelob, the giant spider. And he sort of decides at the last possible second that he’s not going to destroy the ring after all, so Gollum has to bite his finger off to get it away from him.

  • The Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling)Over the course of seven novels Harry makes some judgments about Snape and accuses him of more than a couple horrendous crimes, and we all know how that turned out. Oh, and there’s also that nasty habit he has of running into situations unprepared that often leads to people dying.  

  • Divergent (Veronica Roth)Tris refuses to forgive a certain depressed teenager and says some horrible (if not deserved) things to him and shortly thereafter he commits suicide.

These are just a few examples, but the list goes on.

There’s something to be learned from these characters’ less-than-stellar decision-making skills, namely, that characters make mistakes just like their real-life counterparts—except their mistakes often have more dire consequences.

But character errors are more than just a chance to make our readers want to slam their heads into walls: they provide opportunity for character growth, great tension-filled plot points and a chance for our readers to relate to them. We all make mistakes, and reading about a character who never makes mistakes not only misses a whole slew of plot possibilities, but also makes the character significantly more difficult to relate to.

In short, I encourage you to make sure your characters make plenty of errors along their journeys. Don’t be afraid to let them royally mess up or make the consequences of their actions dire.

Because just like reality, mistakes are essential for our growth, and unlike reality, they make the plot significantly more interesting.

What do you think? Are character mistakes important? Do your characters make enough mistakes?

The Gift Writing Gives Us

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“I think that is the gift that both reading and writing can give us; the gift of escaping the prison of ourselves.” –John Green
Although I couldn’t attend BEA (Book Expo America, for those of you wondering what all the talk about BEA is about), I’ve been listening to a lot of the live streamed and recorded events on the Book Expo America website, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the BEA staff that’s made those videos available online because the information they’ve recorded is pure gold (so if you haven’t checked it out, I highly recommend it. With italics).

I especially loved listening to the Author Breakfast that featured a panel of Chris Colfer, John Green, Lois Lowry and Kadir Nelson, because between the laughs and heart-wrenching stories, the authors shared some really powerful advice. An example of this is the quote I started this post off with. You see, after Green joked about the progression from his first novel, Looking for Alaska, in which he shared quite a few traits with the main character to his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, in which he didn’t share any traits with his protagonist, he said the quote that I included above, and I thought that he pointed out something really special about writing.

Because yes, we often hear about writing what we know and while I still think it’s useful to do so at times, what Green emphasizes is the unique ability writing gives us—the ability to escape ourselves and step into someone else’s life.

Writing gives us the chance to be and do whatever we want—and there are no limitations.

This is why we need to take chances as writers to explore new worlds and characters and ideas that are entirely different from our own circumstances. This is why Mary Sueism is more than just the sign of an undeveloped writer—it’s the sign of a writer who hasn’t yet discovered the true gift that writing gives us. This is why, as writers, it is our job to set out on uncharted territory and come out with a story that we might not have thought ourselves capable of writing.

Because, as John Green points out, the gift is for more than just writers—it’s a gift that we can share with our readers. A gift that can really make our work special.

So I encourage you to take a risk and step outside the prison of yourself. You might just return with your best writing experience yet.

Now it’s your turn: What other gifts do writing and reading give us? 

Why Writing Books Are Essential for Writers

Photo credit: Goodreads
It goes without saying that most writers are also pretty avid readers (and those who aren't read anyway, or at least they should). While writers don't often have to be reminded to read books in their favorite genre or whatever genre they write in, it can sometimes be easy to forget another very important genre that all writers should be frequenting, namely, writing books.

Books on the craft come in all shapes and sizes—from enormous writing kits, to pocket-sized writing prompts and tips. Some cover a huge gamut of writing topics, while others focus on a specific aspect of writing like dialogue or plotting. What kind of writing book you choose will depend on your current goals or obstacles that you're trying to overcome, but the point is that you read them and, even more so, you actually do what they say.

What I mean is most writing books (and IMO, the best of them) include various exercises and prompts so that you can practice the new techniques and tips introduced throughout the book (a great example of this is The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass, as I mention later), and if you don't do any of them, then you've basically wasted your money buying the book to begin with.

Because the point of reading writing books isn't so that they look pretty on your bookshelf (although if they do, I suppose that's a bonus)—it's to improve your writing. It's to learn new techniques and tips that will ultimately lead to tighter, better-written manuscripts. But reading writing books without applying what you've learned is like taking a class and completely ignoring everything that's said—in which case you would have been better off staying home.

But if you read books on the craft carefully and actually do the exercises and apply the techniques to your work and—dare I say it—re-read them and highlight especially relevant information, I think you'll find that you'll get a lot out of the experience, and, better yet, your writing will start to improve.

Now that's not to say that by reading writing books you're guaranteeing publication or a best-selling indie title—regardless of what anyone tells you, there's never a guarantee like that in this field (or any field, for that matter). But if you want to improve your odds and you want to become a better writer, I can't recommend writing books enough.

Now this post would be pretty useless if I didn't give any examples of great books on the craft, so here are my top five favorites, in no particular order. I've also included the subtitles as they effectively summed up the purpose of their respective books:

  1. The Fire in Fiction by Donald Maass— "Passion, purpose and techniques to make your novel great."

    I actually wrote a review that explains in better detail why I enjoyed this one so much, but in short, it covers a large variety of writing topics and the exercises are fantastic.

  2. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell—"Techniques and exercises for crafting a plot that grips readers from start to finish."

    This is one of the many writing books from the Write Great Fiction series and it's one that's pretty well known for its great techniques and insight on plotting. Great for plotters and pantsers alike.

  3. Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell—"Techniques for transforming your first draft into a finished novel."

    This is also part of the Write Great Fiction series, and it's one that I found so incredibly helpful that I re-read it with a highlighter. Not only does it have fantastic advice and tips on how to revise your manuscript, but it has great quotes throughout the book with little extra nuggets of wisdom.

  4. Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress—"Techniques and exercises for crafting dynamic characters and effective viewpoints."

    This is another from the Write Great Fiction series that I found so helpful that I re-read it with a highlighter in hand. The sub-title describes it pretty well, but this book is chock full of character development gold.

  5. Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb—"A published author and top agent share the keys to achieving your dream."

    You don't have to be writing your first novel to benefit from reading this one. Although it's a little outdated as it was written before the indie explosion, it still has great advice on getting your book written, and fantastic insight behind the traditional publishing curtain and what exactly an agent does.
Writing books are a hugely important resource for writers— one that every writer would benefit from taking advantage of.

So those are my top five favorite writing books. Now it's your turn: do you read books on the craft? If so, which are your favorite? If not, why not?

What Makes a Great Final Sentence?

"Your first chapter sells your book. Your last chapter sells your next book."—Mickey Spillane (from Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell).
Photo credit: lynn.gardner on Flickr
I wrote a post a while back about what makes a great first sentence, but it occurred to me that I never followed it up with an equally important discussion on the second most important sentence in your novel—the final sentence.

I think what Mr. Spillane said about the first and last chapter of a book applies to the first and last sentence—while the first sentence is largely responsible for hooking the reader, the last sentence must resonate with your readers, or else you risk losing them to an unsatisfying ending. That's not to say that a terrible ending can be completely saved by a stellar last sentence, but the final sentence is like the final note in a composition—it should echo and leave the reader with a certain tone. If done correctly, the final sentence provides closure and often mirrors the beginning, creating a full circle.

But of course we can't talk about final sentences without examples, so I've provided some sentences that I thought were especially effective. The sentence(s) in brackets are the ones that come before the final sentence that I included to provide a little context:

"[I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave.] I suppose that now, I must become more than either." –Divergent by Veronica Roth
"[It's like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years.] But there are much worse games to play." –Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
"[The scar had not pained Harry for nineteen years.] All was well." –Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
What I love about these examples is the way they echo overarching themes that repeated themselves throughout the book or series. For those who haven't read it, much of Divergent was about Tris (the protagonist) trying to choose her identity between two factions: the Abnegation girl her family raised her as, which values selflessness, versus the Dauntless girl she had chosen to be, which valued courage. Her acknowledgment that she must become more than either both confirms one of the great revelations of the novel (without spoiling anything—that Tris is different from most) and points to the future books where we know she will have to be strong to survive.

In two of the three examples I purposely included the final sentence of a series because they so effectively wrapped up not just their respective novels, but the series.

In the case of Mockingjay we all know what games Katniss is referring to when she says, "there are much worse games to play" and it leaves the reader nodding in agreement while thinking back to the events of all three books.

In the Harry Potter example, the throbbing of Harry's scar was a foreboding sign throughout the series that became more and more frequent throughout the course of seven books as Voldemort became more powerful. To say that Harry's scar hadn't hurt him for nineteen years really confirms the final sentence that all is (finally) well.

So in short, a great final sentence does two of three things:

  1. Reflects elements from the novel/series.
  2. Wraps up both the book and series OR wraps up the book while leading into the sequel.
Once your final sentence accomplishes both of those things, you know you have a great final note on your hands.

Now it's your turn: What else do you think a final sentence should do? What are your favorite final sentences and what made them so memorable?

How (Not) to Be Awesome on Social Media

Photo credit: KEXINO on Flickr
Whether it’s Twitter, tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, Google + or some other form of social media I didn’t mention, there are certain unspoken rules of conduct, that when adhered to make you a courteous, likeable online person and when not adhered to make you…well…not. These rules can very well be the difference between a popular account and an ignored (or worse—blocked) account. It doesn’t seem fair, really, because not everyone is aware of the Rules of Social Media Awesomeness (as I like to call them) that can define your social media presence.

Until now.

For all to see, I have laid out the Rules of Social Media Awesomeness that are guaranteed to make you fantastic (online, anyway).*

How (Not) to Be Awesome on Social Media:

  1. Ignore comments/@ mentions. Why spend time answering those pesky comments and Twitter mentions when you could be using that energy to promote your online presence? Honestly.

  2. Gratitude is overrated. Did someone retweet your link or share your Facebook post? That’s nice. Your gratitude is implied, anyway. No use in spending precious time and energy to thank people.

  3. Spam ALLLLL the people. Now here, here is a worthy thing to spend time on. Send everyone you can a link to your blog or Twitter or Facebook page (etc.). In fact, if you do bother to answer those pesky comments, this is how you want to do it. Speaking of which…

  4. Use Direct or Personal Messages to send links (to your blog/Twitter/Facebook etc.). They’re not useful for anything else and you’ll really make someone feel special by gracing them with a personal link to your incredible pages.

  5. Constantly remind people to like/follow/add you. If you don’t post on your Facebook and Twitter and tumblr about your other Social Media pages that people should follow at least three times a day, then you’re wasting your time. People forget that you have other pages out there that they should be subscribing to. They’ll thank you for the constant reminders.

  6. Be Negative Nancy or Debbie Downer all the time. Because like gratitude, optimism and smiley faces are overrated.


  8. Leave all of your links on other people’s blogs/pages. I mean all of your links—your Twitter, blog, Facebook, tumblr, Google +, Pinterest, Klout, LinkedIn and Myspace (you never know…they might still use Myspace!)—every time you comment on someone else’s blog or page. On another note, if you don’t have a page on each of those sites, then you haven’t diversified your social media presence nearly enough.

  9. Be rude. Hey, it works for celebrities and it’ll make you memorable!

  10. Never share other people’s content. Social media isn’t about sharing, it’s about YOU! Never forget that.

So there you have it. Now go out there and be awesome.

*And by “these rules will make you awesome on Social Media” I mean, “please, please, please don’t do these things or risk being very un-awesome on Social Media.”

What would you add to the Rules of Social Media Awesomeness?
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