“Just throw strikes, buddy!”
When I think back to the days when my son played little league ball, there were many times when a pitcher stood there on the bump, chucking pitches in to the batter, and missing the strike zone by a mile. For any parent who has witnessed kids’ sports, you understand the pain of living through those days when they’re learning the game.
One particular instance found me watching a game, and the pitcher couldn’t find the strike zone. The well-intentioned coach shouted encouragement from the dugout. “Just throw strikes, there bud!” I wondered if the pitcher, in his frustration, said to himself, “Ohhh, so that’s what I should be doing. Who knew I was supposed to throw strikes?”
How does this apply to writing?
Q: How do I make my characters better?
Pat A: Well, just make them remarkable!
Great advice . . . not.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and get into the practical mechanics of creating a compelling character. If you’re going to do this well, you need to study those characters – literary and on TV – that really appeal to you. No longer can you be a passive member of the audience.
In my travels, there are consistently 4 things that keep arising with the characters I truly enjoy:
1. A compelling story goal.
This is why in the Write Your First Novel Now! Course, I emphasize the need to have a huge story goal for our protagonist. If it’s not big, seemingly unachievable, then our character would likely shrug their shoulders and say “meh”. The goal drives motivation which drives behaviour. Make the goal large.
2. A secret.
What’s a hero without some dark secret? This is the juice that we love to see. Give your characters one. All of them. Think about your own: stealing, betrayal, cheating, lying etc. What have you buried from your past? Go there.
3. The contradiction.
Oh, we love our characters to be consistent, and they should be for the most part. But we also love the contradictory nature of their characters. Doc Martin is a physician who faints at the sight of blood. Consider the anti-heroes like Batman. He’s as messed up as Joker . . . Perhaps if your protagonist always does the right thing in certain situations, put him in one where doing the right thing results in chaos and anarchy, and see what he does.
4. Make her vulnerable.
I stress this in all my workshops. Your protagonist cannot be larger than life if you want you readers to relate to her. I mean, even Superman has his kryptonite. Think about the heroes who appeal to you. Study them, and you’ll quickly see they have vulnerabilities that make them compelling. Do this.
You may think these four traits are necessary only for your protagonist, but in a novel, you can and should use these for all your principle characters: protagonist, opposition, confidante, romantic interest. If you follow this, your characters will jump off the page.
I see this all the time. A writer pours tons of time and effort into creating a wonderful story. They’ve taken their time to edit it, create an amazing cover, and tested it with beta readers. Now to send that baby out into the world.
The manuscript gets loaded into Amazon; they press the “publish” button and wait for the world to start buying the book.
The secret to selling more books
Maybe you’ve experienced this, too. So what happened? You know you’ve got a decent story, and you followed all the cover design principles. It’s not like you’re putting utter rubbish into the world like so many other self-published authors, but the only sales you got are from your mom and maybe a couple of friends.
But herein lies a clue.
The idea that if you build it, they will come might work for baseball diamonds in a corn field, but it doesn’t work in real life. Just because you wrote a great story doesn’t mean that people will find it or care about it. It’s up to you to switch hats from writer to marketer.
Hang on a sec, I’m not suggesting you do what some writers do and send out 50 tweets a day with a link to your book, or flood your IG or FB account with self-promoting begging of “Buy my book . . .please!” That has never worked.
The most effective way to sell more books is to find more people who like you, so they’ll want to buy your book without being bludgeoned with cheesy pleas.
This truly is the secret to selling more books: build a list of people who like you, who know you like your friends and family do, so they’ll want to support you.
Marketing your book
The basic idea is this: you build an email list of people who might be interested in your story. Then, you tell them about yourself over a series of emails and time so they get to know you. Then, and only then, you tell them about your book. This is not about selling (i.e. begging). This is about building relationships with people through email so they’ll want to buy your book.
Everyone knows about 100 people, right? You already have those emails on your computer, but now you’ll want to 10X that number in order to sell more books. I’m going to assume that you don’t have a huge blog site or anything like that, so how do you attract these new people?
The way I’ve done it in the past is through a giveaway. There are apps out there that’ll help you set one up for free, then you drive targeted traffic to it, collect their emails, and start your relationship.
Kingsumo.com is one such giveaway application.
I use Facebook ads to target people to my giveaway and to attract only those who might be interested in reading the kind of story I’ve written.
Once you have a big list, your next step is to help them get to know you. Put together a string of emails introducing yourself, what you do (writer), what you like, things you can teach, and so on. Give your new audience a chance to get to know you and like you.
Do this for a couple of months. This’ll give you a chance to weed out those who really aren’t interested, and to focus on those who have warmed up to you. One of the things you can do is give them a free chapter of your book to show them your style.
And then, you can let them know about your book for sale on Amazon and invite them to support you.
This will not sell you thousands of books overnight. This is a slow, intentional, deliberate process. But it does work. Keep on doing this, that is, building your list and a relationship with your followers, and you will sell switch those crickets to rounds of applause.
Today I want to look at character motivations, specifically the six key things you must do before writing your novel.
In any good story, your main character is driven by the pursuit of some overarching goal, for example, to solve the crime, win the race, or rescue the princess. These story arcs are critical to your plot, to build tension, and to spin your readers a good yarn.
But what motivates them, and why is this important for you as a writer to give some thought to? Ready to go? Let's get into it!
We’re going to consider 6 things that you should do when you’re outlining or plotting your story, before you ever write a single word of your story. This will guide you and keep you on track once you are in the writing phase of your story, so you’ll never have to second guess yourself and write yourself into a corner.
1. The One Sentence Summary
First, write a one-sentence summary of your character’s storyline. Don’t overthink it. This is as simple as going on a quest to rescue the princess so I can get my swamp back. Simple simple.
2. The Key Motivation (Abstract)
Second, describe your character’s key motivation, that is, what your character wants in an abstract way. Again, don’t overthink it. This could be justice for all, true love, to find peace and joy in a meaningless world. These are all abstract things, but they speak to what drives your character.
3. The Key Motivation (Concrete)
Third, describe your character’s overall story goal . . . what she wants in a concrete, real way. This is stuff like: get my swamp back, kill the bug eyed aliens, save the earth, stop the empire from blowing up planets.
Fourth, you now need to look at conflict. What’s stopping your character from achieving that goal? There’s likely a bunch of things, but for this exercise, focus on the major one: a nasty, fire-breathing, human-eating dragon, Darth Vader, Joker, the evil CEO
5. The Epiphany
Fifth, in the pursuit of their story goal, your character is going to undergo some kind of change, some epiphany that informs their actions. So how will your character change? What will she learn? What will he find? Perhaps it’s courage, perhaps it’s a realization that Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Write this down.
6. The Storyline Summary
And finally, number 6, wrap up all these things in a one-paragraph summary of your character’s storyline. Again, don’t overthink it. There’s no need to write an essay on what motivates your character, just pull all those first 5 things together in a summary. Refer to this as your writing, and you’ll stay on track.
Do this for all your major characters, your protagonist, atagonist, confidant, romantic interest . . . they all want something, and they all have reasons for taking action.
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Today I want to talk about the one obstacle to writing that my workshop writers consistently identify as the biggest problem facing them. Any guess what it might be? You might think it’s fear, and that’s definitely up there. We’re afraid of all kinds of things when it comes to writing: being judged, thinking we’re not good enough, talented enough . . . actually, any number of things.
No Time to Write
But the one obstacle to writing that most students point to is the lack of time. Now I get that. We’re all busy with our lives, our jobs, families, kids . . . there’s no shortage of things getting in the way of our writing.
And because we typically view writing as an indulgence, that is, something that’s not very important, it’s easy to drop it from the to-do list, isn’t it?
When that happens, all our commitments to finally writing that novel this year, or finally getting to those short story ideas we promised ourselves . . . disappear. And here we are a short time later wondering what happened?
Two Tips To Find More Time To Write
So, yeah, the biggest challenge to writing isn’t talent or knowledge. It’s not about whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned veteran. It has everything to do with finding the time to sit down and write. Now, it makes sense then, that if we can overcome this lack of time, perhaps we could make the time to get our writing done.
That might mean turning off the Netflix for an hour every second night. Instead of binge-watching, how about organizing a binge-writing session with your friends. Here’s another thing you can do to make time to write. Get up half an hour earlier a few times a week, and use that extra 30 minutes to write. Many of us find this to be a powerful writing strategy.
I’m reminded of the Billy Crystal character in the movie Throw Momma From The Train. Very funny movie by the way. Anyway, he’s writing teacher and he tells his students all the time that a writer writes, always. So here’s something you can do right after this video. Take a few minutes and really think about everything you do during the day. Are there times where you can find a few minutes here, a few minutes there where you can write? Is there something you can give up for a few months while you work on your novel? Now, make a commitment to write more in the next week and see how it goes. Then do it for another week. And then another. Before you know it, you’ll be cranking out the words like a pro.
I really enjoy working with emerging authors, and here's a new one for you. B.R. Meston has just released his first novel called Phoenix Rises published by DeeBee Books. It's currently available on Amazon and will be distributed globally over the coming weeks.
Here's my interview with B.R. Meston
First of all, where did the idea for Phoenix Rises come from?
The story of how I came up with the idea for the book Phoenix Rises is an interesting one. In 2012, When I was in grade 7, I met one of my all-time favourite teachers named Laura Blake. One morning Laura and I started talking and she asked me if I had any hobbies. My immediate response was that I loved writing stories. I shared with her that one day that I wanted to realize my dream of becoming a published author. Laura encouraged me to pursue my passion for writing and somehow that led to me writing Phoenix Rises.
Although it is true that the story has changed significantly since Laura typed the first draft all those years ago, I could say for certain having Laura’s love and support changed my life and allowed me to become a better writer. If I could talk to Laura today I would say thank you for changing my life and believing in me. I will carry the lessons you taught me forever.
Teachers really can make a huge difference in our lives. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing Phoenix Rises?
I loved writing Phoenix Rises; however, it was not without its challenges. Of course I knew writing it that I was breaking new ground In several different ways: my two main characters are female, one of which has a disability. However, I also discuss such topics as LGBTQ relationships, medical assistance in dying, and perhaps above all witchcraft and wizardry.
In my heart I knew that I had to add these elements into the book. For example people with disabilities are the largest minority in the world; however, we are the most underrepresented in entertainment and literature. As an author, I knew I needed to do what I could to change that.
In my view it is completely fine for a parent of a child to say we need to talk about what you’re reading or we need to read that together. In fact, it would be wonderful if a parent read my book with their child; however, this concept that you can’t read something because it talks about a specific topic that you don’t agree with that to me is nonsensical. We should be embracing our diversity not running from it. With all that being said, however, as an author it is difficult to know that my book may not be read by someone purely because of what my book is about and who I’m trying to represent throughout the story.
Are you a pantser or a plotter, that is, do you map out your story before writing, or just start writing and see where things go?
As a writer, the ideas come to my head and I write them as they come to me. I do not plan most of my writing as I prefer to see where the ideas take me. I will often say that I write the way my life is: I think I’m going in one direction and then things change completely and I am somewhere that I never imagined.
Where do you find your inspiration?
A lot of the inspiration for my writing comes from the injustices that I see in the world around me. Writing provides me with a fantastic outlet to make sense of what’s happening. My writing provides me with a safe way to express all of my emotions. My body may be limited by my disability, but when I’m writing my mind can go where my legs cannot take me.
Now that Phoenix Rises is done, do you have another writing project in the works?
Now that Phoenix Rises is done and published, I'm excited and ready to continue the story that was started. The story is not over yet my friends!
Great! Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their novel?
My advice to any new writer is there is no such thing as writers block. If you have writers block, you are afraid of something. Also, never get too attached to the first version of a story. Let go and just let the writing take you where it wants to go. I promise you it is an amazing journey.
Be sure to check out B.R. Meston's new book Phoenix Rises and support an emerging writer.
It's been a busy spring with more first time novels coming online and more to come over the next few months. Here's another... from first-time novelist Bob Eslami, called Booked! It's currently available on Amazon and will be distributed globally over the coming weeks.
Bob has attended a couple of the Ottawa Writing Workshops over the years and has written several YA short stories. I had the pleasure of coaching him through the process of writing his first full-length novel. Here's my interview with Bob...
Where did the idea for Booked! come from?
I was thinking how popular young adult fiction in novels has become this decade, and I felt why not contribute to this genre with my own ideas? That is why I came up with the story of how one teenage boy on the verge of entering adulthood is put in a terrible situation during a crucial moment of his life. He is framed for something he didn’t steal and must work with his significant other in order to find out who was behind the crime. It's a classic adventure mystery story with emphasis on writing itself, as well as on the true struggles of teenagers, especially those who are trying to redeem themselves like my novel’s main protagonist. With this idea, I symbolize how commitment and actually following through with goals is what highlights the change within teenage characters.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing your novel?
Trying to find the right pace of the storyline was difficult, as I did not want my characters constantly targeting each other and constantly searching. That's why I made a clear outline and gave realistic imaginations for my protagonists to use in order to solve the case. I also felt there was an overwhelming number of characters in the story and had to make sure each one contributed to the plot. Because I had two main protagonists, I had to make sure they each had their backgrounds explored. It had to be done thoroughly and precisely, as they are high school characters and therefore complicated individuals.
How did you come up with your characters?
I looked into the background of different high school students from popular culture and decided to come up with my own unique characters. I found inspiration from Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, and even Californication, the latter revolving around writing people. I thought why not have a couple of high school students that are interested in writing be part of an adventure together?
The main protagonist would be overwhelmed with trouble but always finds a way through the help of a friend. I did not want to make it cliché but I did include an authoritarian antagonist capable of doing things other characters could not. My main character Robert Spiritt is based on adventurous novelists like Hank Moody and I was eager to combine teenage drama with the genre of ‘writing within writing’ in this novel.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Various television shows regarding teens and especially writers as well. The life of a writer can be exciting even for one that is still a teen and aspiring.
Now that your first novel is done, what’s next for you?
Preparing for my next novel!
Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their first novel?
Get your imagination on the computer screen. Always keep writing.
Check out Booked! today.
I’ve been in the writing game for many years: fiction, non-fiction, business, and poetry. I’ve also offered dozens of writing workshops over the past couple of years, and I can tell you with full confidence that the hardest thing about writing is not the lack of creative talent, knowledge of genres or wordsmithing, no.
The most difficult thing about writing is actually sitting down and writing!
Fear and the Creative Writer
It’s not my intention to come across as obtuse or sarcastic or simplistic here. For me, Newton’s First Law of Motion is in full swing here: an object at rest tends to stay at rest. It’s very difficult to overcome our resistance and get our butts into our writing spaces and open up the laptop or pull out some paper and get writing.
What’s interesting about this, for me, is the reason why it is so hard to stop procrastinating and to start writing. It’s not writer’s block or some other excuse like that, no. It’s got everything to do with fear.
Look, I see this all the time with my writing groups. We are terrified of what writing might do to us, we fear being judged by others, and so rather than take the risk, we simply avoid it altogether by not writing at all. That, by the way, is the real reason behind “writer’s block”... fear!
Overcoming the Fear of Writing
I’m no different than anyone else. I fall into the fear-trap frequently, and the only way out that works for me is to have a daily writing schedule that I force myself to stick to no matter what. I know, for example, that by 8:00 every morning, I’m going to be in one of two writing spaces, laptop open, notes beside me, ready to work. And I treat it like a job too. It’s the only thing that keeps me productive. If left to my own devices, I wouldn’t get anything written, ever.
A funny thing that many of my new writers notice too is that writing is actually hard work. I think we have this idea that writing is easy. All you have to do is learn words and a couple of formulas, and voila, you’re a writer. It doesn’t help either when Jessica Fletcher and other TV writers never actually write much on their shows! They’re always off doing other fun things. Miraculously, their books get written anyway.
But that’s not the way it really works. Writing is hard work. It’s challenging coming up with interesting and fresh story ideas, characters that don’t look like idiots, stories without zombies or vampires(!!), and then actually sitting down for a writing session.
So if you’re looking to be a more productive writer, the first thing to overcome is the fear of writing. Fight the inner resistance. Turn the TV off, log out of your social media, and make a habit of writing on a regular basis.
Julia Lye recently published her first novel Anelisha Knight In The Yarns Of Gods through DeeBee Books. Here is my interview with her.
Where did the idea for Anelisha Knight and The Yarns of Gods come from?
The Yarns of Gods technically began on my 12th birthday, way back in 2009, when my aunt and uncle gifted me a 320-page journal. As soon as I ripped off the wrapping, I decided to get writing, mid-party. At the time, it didn't matter what came of it. I just didn't stop, not even to this day.
After the success of that present, I started to receive journals from my family every birthday and Christmas, even my friends took up the new tradition, and I made it my mission to fill every journal to the last page. The Anelisha Knight books turned into a six-book series (now reduced to a three-book trilogy) and an entire universe was formed in ten other journals with several different main characters. But Anelisha Knight came first.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing The Yarns of Gods?
Time management was a big one. I wrote the majority of the book over the summer break between my third and fourth year at Carleton, but once I was back in classes, it became difficult to focus on editing the book and I had to extend some deadlines. Having daily goals and a plan to finish however many pages within a certain amount of time made it all more manageable, and having a forgiving publisher kept the stress off my back. Finally finishing the book felt even more rewarding after working on it for so long.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
When I first began Anelisha Knight back when I wrote the first version in a journal, I was a pantser, writing whatever came to mind in a very stream-of-consciousness fashion. However, after I had that first edition out, I became a plotter, working with what I had already written. I tweaked it to omit the parts that the story didn’t need and expanded on the bits that kept my interest. Now, when I write new stories, I walk the line between pantser and plotter. My outlines are more like guidelines giving me an idea of where the story is meant to go, but I also let my writing take me by surprise as I follow winding rabbit holes.
Where do you find your inspiration?
For the most part, I like to incorporate the little themes and quirks that impact me most from my favourite movies, books, TV shows and even every-day life into my writing and make it my own. The bigger the emotional roller coaster, the better.
Now that The Yarns of Gods is out, can you tell us what’s next for your protagonist Anelisha Knight, or would that be giving away too much?
If I go into detail, it would be too easy to spoil the end of The Yarns of Gods, but I can speak about Anelisha, herself. After all, these books are first and foremost about her journey as a character through thick and thin. The end of the first book sees a big change in the life of Anelisha Knight, that forces her to face new dilemmas and hardships which threaten to consume her in the next book of the trilogy. She has experienced, firsthand, what it is to feel utterly alone, but has also fallen victim to devastating betrayal. Now, she needs to find her footing on new ground while measuring how much of her broken trust she is willing to give to others.
Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their novel?
The best advice I can give is to write. For a lot of people, that can be the hardest part of writing, but even sitting down for ten or twenty minutes a day and getting out whatever comes to mind will help oil the engine of your creativity. A good way to do that without distraction, I’ve found, is to write in a journal and then type it up later. That way, there’s no option of the internet to steal away hours of your writing time, as it so often does for me. And if you think of something in the shower or on your commute or at work, write it down, compile it, and use it however you can. Those little moments of inspiration are some of the best motivators to get you working on the story unfurling in your head.
Julia Lye is a writer living and working in Ottawa, Ontario.
Claudia plunged deeper underwater, staring up at the flickering starlight and the moon shadows blinking under a veil of the cleansing water. She held her breath, her heart beating the only sound, moving her arms and legs in slow motion. The burn in her lungs began as a memory of her father, when she was four and he pushed her on the backyard swing, his tie loose at the collar, gray flannel pants billowing in the breeze she made as she flew past him. Then, when she closed her eyes, the sensation of movement made her feel like she was flying like Wendy through the clouds to Neverland.
The burn continued, more strenuous now, vying for attention. It grew into a dull, penetrating ache. She released some air and watched the bubbles float above her face, drifting toward the surface, merging with the dappled light like a Monet seascape. Deeper, and a little deeper yet. More bubbles rushed to the surface. The ache became an urgent scream in her brain, and just when she thought she would black out, in that thin space between consciousness and some other realm, she kicked hard and torpedoed up, breaching the surface in a midnight explosion of splashes and sloshes and eerie echoes and great inhalations.
Crickets still chirped in the background and there, across the bay, fireflies danced in the darkness of the marshes. As she swam quietly, calmly back to the shore, feeling the water caress her naked body, the decision that haunted her for the past week solidified in her mind. It was time.
Cold sand pinched between her toes. Claudia gathered her clothes and climbed the stone steps to the cabin. Everything made sense now. Everything so clear. On the porch surrounding the wooden structure, she stopped to gaze across the mirrored water. The moon’s reflection and winking stars rippled across time, across the lives of all her generations. She shivered as droplets of water fell from her skin. She touched her belly softly, dead fingers trembling. Then, swallowing a deep breath, she turned and stepped inside.
- from a writing exercise in one of the Ottawa Writing Workshop sessions. Interested in writing? Come join us Saturday March 23 for the One Day Writing Blitz!
Like the name suggests, this prose is passive, the literary equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Let's take a look at what it is, and how to reduce our reliance on it.
The Passive Voice
By definition, passive voice occurs when the noun of a sentence that is being acted upon, becomes the subject of it.
Example: The building was destroyed.
Here, the it is the building that is being acted upon since it was destroyed by something. However, the way the sentence is written, we have no idea what caused the destruction. We've made the object being destroyed into the subject of the sentence. In other words, by saying "The building was destroyed" we are stating a fact. That is, we are telling the reader what happened, not showing the reader what happened.
A better way to show that the building was destroyed is to make the object of destruction the object again. We need a new subject for this sentence. Perhaps a bomb (subject) destroyed the building (object). Or spaceship (subject) blew up the building (object). And if we don't want to give away just yet who did it, we can write "An explosion destroyed the building", which is clearly just as effective. By adding that subject in the sentence, we instantly improve our writing by moving away from the passive voice and toward the active voice.
When To Use The Passive Voice
There are times when it makes sense to use the passive voice. Here's a hint: it's not when you're writing an action scene. Instead, we can use the passive voice for dramatic effect. In other words, when we're writing passively by intention, then it can be quite effective as long as we don't overdo it.
One of the more famous passages is Charles Dickens' introduction to A Tale of Two Cities.
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." and so on. By any definition, this is telling the reader, not showing. This has the passive voice all over it. And yet, in this context, along with all the other "It was" sentences he uses, a dramatic impression is left with the reader because he writes this intentionally.
But can you imagine how boring a fight between Captain Kirk and Darth Vader would be if it was filled with lines like:
- The phasor cut into Vader's cloak.
- A lightsaber fell to the ground
- A rock was thrown across the starship.
So if you're not thrilled with your writing, especially your action scenes, take a look to see if you've been using the passive voice unintentionally and, if you have, make the necessary change to the active voice and watch your prose come alive.