Heather Dawn Gray has participated in several of the Ottawa Writing Workshops and has written and published two novels. Please check out her books on Amazon using the links below. Here's my interview with Heather!
Heather, you’ve written and published two novels over the past couple of years. What prompted you to say, “Yes, I’m going to write a novel!”
I’ve been saying ‘I’m going to write a novel’ for over twenty years. It took a one-day class with you, David, to show me how to plan my novel. After that day, I could see the way forward.
Where did the inspiration for The Lie and the sequel Where Truth Lies come from?
The inspiration came from two main events:
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing your first novel?
Editing and marketing have been my biggest challenges.
I was determined to edit my book for free, but I didn’t have a structure for editing. So, it took me a really long time; a lot longer than it took me to write the book. I used ProWritingAid, reviewed/revised many times over, and asked for help from some beta readers who were great at editing. In the end I feel like I have a quality product and I’m a bit more knowledgeable about the process.
As for marketing, I don’t feel liked I’ve cracked the back on that one yet. I keep trying different things. I know I need to make a marketing plan and then follow it. I’d just rather write. It’s my downfall.
Did you find writing your second novel easier or more difficult than the first?
It was definitely easier. So much of what I learned from writing the first novel I incorporated into the second. I learned to make a more comprehensive plan before I dove into the writing and that helped keep me grounded through the writing process. My second novel is a sequel, so some of the characters were already developed which also helped. It was fun to build on a story I’d already created.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Without a doubt, a plotter. That’s the reason I was unable to write a novel before I took your novel writing class. I needed a tool to help me plan it out. Once I had that, I was good to go!
What’s the biggest thing you learned about yourself from writing and publishing two novels?
I’m an author. That may sound strange, but I set out wanting to write one book. I now know I will be writing novels for the rest of my life. You could say, I found my inner author!
Can you tell us what’s next in your writing agenda?
I’m working on my third novel; another genealogical fiction. I’ve taken weeks to plan this one out. I’m developing more complex characters and the plot is more involved than my first two novels. I will eventually write that novel spinning around in my head, but for now I’m happy to imagine and learn from a fiction genre I never even knew existed, until I wrote my first novel.
Do you have any tips for aspiring novelists who want to write their first novel?
Make a plan! I realize there are pantsers out there, but I don’t understand how that’s done. A plan is essential to keep me on track, and stop me from panicking because I know exactly where I’m going. And the plan breaks the writing down into bite sized chunks that are very manageable on a day to day basis.
Surround yourself with a supportive writing group. I was lucky to find my initial writing group through your classes. You created a very supportive atmosphere for critique and comfort in sharing. It’s so important to share your work. I thought writing was a solitary endeavour – anything but!! The more feedback you receive, the better your writing gets, and ultimately the better the story. I’ve also found some contacts on social media who have helped me immensely. Don’t be afraid to expand your circle.
Find people who are willing to beta-read/edit your book for free and listen to their advice. Make the group as diverse as you can so you get different perspectives. It’s easy to surround yourself with like-minded people, but getting different perspectives will improve your story.
Beta read/edit for other people. It may seem like you’re taking time away from your own writing, but it really does help you improve your skills. I’ve beta read/edited for complete strangers as well as people I know well. And most of the time the beta reads are for genres outside of my usual comfort zone. It goes back to diversity being key to improvement. I do realize, however, it’s getting to the point where I do have to limit the number I tackle at once, so I’m still finding that sweet spot.
My last bit of advice would be to let it go. In the end you need to release your novel into the great unknown. It will never be perfect and you’ll never move on unless you do. You may think you’ll only receive criticism, but my experience has been very positive and constructive feedback. Trust that letting your novel go will give you the confidence to continue writing, learning and improving.
Want to find out more? You can reach out to Heather right here:
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/HeatherDawnGray/?ref=settings
This post was written by author and Ottawa Writing Workshops Instructor Julia Lye.
When it comes to writing, I feel it’s a common preconception that we should only write stories that “matter.” But to who?
As writers, we can sometimes pigeonhole ourselves into only writing topical, political, philosophical, or any other kind of -cal stories, and we sometimes forget to let ourselves write for the simple enjoyment of it. The writing fever, as I call it, when you just can’t stop your hand racing across the page and it’s 2am and you can’t remember when the sun went down. My childhood into my late teens were vivid with writing fever, acquainting myself with the broader brushstrokes of my imagination, and then life caught up with me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. I started setting time aside for writing, rather than setting time aside for everything else, and I only wrote when I had something to say.
Now, I’m not a very loud person, nor are my opinions, so waiting around to be riled up wasn’t the most efficient way to keep up my old writing habits. I lost some of the richness of enjoyment in my focus on writing for an audience. That’s a tough spot for any writer, as doubts encroach in the shadow of capital P Perfection, fuelled by the need to make something popular, and to give it merit in the vast, ever-expanding ocean of literature. It becomes so easy to paint ourselves into a corner, where we think we need a reason to do the thing we as writers should be doing out of love. My two cents on the matter were best put by the man, the myth, the legend Patrick Swayze. No one puts Baby in a corner. Not even ourselves.
Giving your story a message for the audience to hold onto isn’t a bad thing but making something you love, and pouring your heart and soul into it, are the most important parts of writing. Whatever happened to escapism? To fun for the sake of fun? Your enjoyment of your own writing is the key to reader enjoyment, even if the story doesn’t have a genius and elaborate deeper meaning for the theorists and critics to pull their hair out over. Your passion for the story itself will bleed through the page, and your love for it will be contagious. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what matters.
Some random thoughts I often find rattling around in my head go like this...
What are you, stupid?
Me: Dang, I wish I could write better prose . . . this scene sucks.
Lizard Brain: Maybe if you had more talent, Loser. Hey, what makes you think you’re a writer anyway? No wonder you can’t get a date . . .
As you can tell, I’ve been thinking about Mindset lately and how to develop a healthy one for achieving my writing goals. Carol Dweck discusses the psychology of the Growth Mindset (healthy) versus the Fixed Mindset (unhealthy) in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and I encourage you to give that a read or find a Ted talk on the subject. But what I’m most interested in is how to develop a successful writer’s mindset beyond the “set a schedule and stick to it” thing.
I started with what I wanted to achieve as a writer. Here’s my list:
I don’t claim any of this as original thinking. I mean, look at those. That’s the Olympic tag of better, stronger, faster, isn’t it?
Never mind, those goals will get me closer to my million words and ten novels, at which point I'll have developed a few skills.
Now, a fixed or limited mindset – expressed so well by the Lizard Brain – would say we’re born with only so much creative talent and you get what you get. A growth mindset says nuts to that, and views every project, every writing task as a critical step in the process of becoming the writer you want to be.
A writer with a fixed mindset will tell herself “My first draft sucks. I can’t write. Better take up yoga or something.”
A writer with a growth mindset will tell herself, “My first draft sucks. But the last part of my novel flows way better than the first, and I learned a lot about the importance of planning and plotting my scenes. So sure, it sucks, but I’ve got something to work with and learn from.”
Which one are you?
I have to admit, my default has been a Fixed Mindset since childhood (and maybe one day I’ll have the courage to share that journey with you), but I’m getting better and better at ignoring the Lizard and focusing on the positive aspects of the writing process.
With that in mind, here are my Three “How to Develop a Growth Mindset for Writers” tips:
1. When you write, don’t think, just write
This is really hard for me and I know it’s hard for you too. We love writing a couple of sentences and then jumping into edit-mode and start fiddling with words until we feel the writing is “good”. The key to developing a growth mindset is to let go of all that crap. Just write. Don’t edit. Resist the temptation to make your writing better (that comes after you’ve written your draft). So when you sit down to write, just write. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, what you’re going to have for supper . . . just write.
2. Write way more than you have been. Way, way more.
If the first key to a growth mindset is getting words out, warts and all, then the second key is writing a ton of words. Like, way more than you have been.
Writing is a numbers game. As Ray Bradbury said, and I paraphrase, if you write one short story every week for a year, chances are pretty good that at least a couple of them will have merit. Numbers. There is no short cut to becoming a successful writer. You must put in the time and effort, and that means writing a lot. Want to be a good novelist? Write a dozen novels and you will be. I guarantee it. Numbers.
So if your goal has been to write 1,000 words per day, then starting now, make that 5,000 per day for the next week and see what happens. I bet you won’t be able to spend nearly as much time fiddling to “make it better”. The only way to achieve that many words is to follow tip #1 above.
3. Stop caring so much
I might get emails about this one . . .
Do I care about my writing? Sure I do. I want to improve as a writer, engage readers more, and spin better yarns. But what I mean here is that if you want to improve as a writer, you need to stop putting so much pressure on yourself that the writing process becomes a shackle.
Here’s what I mean.
I often have writers come into the workshops with the goal of writing an awesome, intelligent, thoughtful, best-selling, profound novel with Big Themes and Unique Characters, about a story they’ve been thinking about since childhood. This is the one. All those other stories don’t matter compared to this one... the novel I'm born to write.
So the approach to writing becomes really important and serious. Every sentence is fiddled with. Plotting and planning can take forever (if they take place at all, because many new writers think that if George RR Martin can write by the seat of his pants, then everyone should do it that way). Daily word count drops to 200 words. And it can take forever to write the story. Most never finish.
Why? Because we care too much about it. We open the door to the Lizard and invite him in. There’s way too much pressure to make sure the writing and the story doesn’t suck, to the point where the story inevitably never gets finished. Subconsciously, we tell ourselves, "If I'm still working on it, then I don't have to share it with anyone, and I'll be safe."
Look, if you want to be a writer, you have to stop caring so much about every little word. This goes back to #1. Just write. Stop thinking so much about it and write. One way I found that really helps me is to write a story about something I don’t really care much about at all. For example, if I give myself a task of writing a story about Pat who’s out catching fireflies one night and ends up catching something a lot more sinister instead, then I think yeah okay whatever, set the timer, and off I go. I’m not married to the story. So now I can focus on just getting it written, warts and all. No pressure.
Ah, okay, I’ve rambled on enough about this now, so I leave you with a challenge for today.
Take your best writing day. How many words did you crank out? 1000? 2000?
Now double that number.
Now triple that number.
That’s your challenge for today: to write three times as many words as your best day.
Don’t worry about quality (that will improve naturally just by writing a ton). This is all about hitting the word count.
Let me know how it goes!
Unsubscribe | Update your profile | 11 Mohawk Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario K2H7G7
So you’ve finally finished the first draft of your novel . . . congratulations! That’s an amazing accomplishment.
But you also know the real work has only begun. Before your send your opus into the world, it must look and feel as good as anything you’d find in a book store, including cover design and layout and, of course, a polished and awesome story.
Let’s focus on polishing the story today with a look at editing.
The Editing Problem
For most writers, myself included, self-publishing is the way to go. But we don’t want to put more garbage out into the world. You know what I’m talking about . . . buddy thinks he’ll write a story, which he does, and then vomits it all over Amazon for the world to see, warts and all.
If you’re going to spend the time and effort writing a novel – and hopefully a good one – then you owe it to yourself to make it look as professional as possible. This means a solid edit.
But, the cost of editing can be tremendous. Suppose you’ve written a 75k word novel. For a run of the mill copy edit – assuming that you’ve followed a well-structured plotting system so you know the story works – you could pay as much as $0.05 per word. That’s a cool $3,750. Even a final proofread to catch any remaining typos will cost $750.
I can pretty much guarantee that you’ll never, ever recoup that money from book sales because, honestly, very few self-published authors ever sell more than a hundred books. Ever. At a couple bucks of royalties per book, you do the math and it looks grim.
Still, though, your story needs editing. You don’t want to hold your nose and contribute to the barf on Amazon, do you?
The Editing Solution
Many a novelist believes the solution to this costly, but necessary, service is to self-edit. Maybe pick up a piece of software or read a couple of books on it. That will help. But you also need to check your mindset. When you’re writing, you’re in creative mode. As an editor, you need to put a skeptical scowl on your countenance and slay all those pretty words of yours.
Not everyone can edit their own work.
I can to a point, but then I need outside help for all my blind spots.
Still, you can get about 80% of the manuscript problems fixed on your own, saving you a ton of money in the process.
Here’s how . . .
The 3-Step System (with 2 bonus steps)
With your finished draft in hand, you’re going to do three revising passes through it, focusing on What, Why, and How.
Let’s look at each one.
1. What Happens
In this pass, you’re going to focus on the story and what happens. This isn’t the time to get cute by throwing in all those Big Themes that might please your high school English teacher: focus on making sure the story is coherent. It flows logically, the action is appropriate. Fill in any missing gaps. Fix the chapter transitions. Make your story flow.
As you do this, when you notice typos, fix them up along the way. You’ll miss a bunch, I guarantee you that, but it’ll be a start.
2. Why It Happens
In the second revision pass, you’re now going to focus on the characters and their motivations to really understand why they behave the way they do. This will ensure consistency, which is super important if you plan to keep your readers engaged (which we want, just to be clear).
Your Main Characters
When I talk about “main” characters, I’m talking about your viewpoint characters (if you’ve taken a workshop with me, you’ll understand that . . . if not, these are your protagonist, antagonist, and a confidant or romantic interest or some other primary character in your story).
So make sure the good guys are likeable and the villains are nasty. For even more effect, give your hero flaws and vulnerability, make her take some bad decisions. Readers need to feel sympathy for them. Also, give your antagonist some good traits. Make him real. Sure, he might have murdered Don Fanucci in cold blood, but just because he did, Vito Corleone loves his kids a ton (can you tell I just watched the Godfather II?).
Followers of the Snowflake method of plotting get this, but all writers should have a thorough understanding of what makes their characters do what they do.
Characters are motivated by two things primarily: a concrete goal (that is, the story goal) and an abstract goal. So for example, your hero might have a burning desire to solve a murder (concrete goal) because it speaks to their sense of justice in the world (abstract goal).
Look at your viewpoint / main characters and ask yourself what motivates them. Then, as you go through this revising pass, keep those motivations in mind when your characters act and make decisions and generally do stuff. They need to be consistent or else your reader will scratch her head and wonder wtf . . .? Why did Sally do that? It should be clear.
3. How It Happens
Now we’re getting close to the next end (you’ll discover, if you haven’t already, there are may “ends” in the writing process).
In this third revision, you want to add in some of the colour to your prose. Things like describing your settings in each section or chapter, what your characters are wearing, what the weather’s like, and so on. Be careful: this is not an invitation to give each character a laundry list of descriptors. You know what I mean: Sally stared the killer down. She wore a blue smock with white socks and gray shoes, a black ribbon in her hair, and a pendant that said “Bite me” in bold lettering.
Don’t do that.
Drip your descriptions in.
What you’re looking for are those small things that help the reader engage. Like one of my baddies who has a penchant for dandelion tea. Think about the old Law & Order shows. Whenever the cops went to interview a person of interest, that person was always doing something: mowing the grass, fixing a car, cleaning the house. Those are the little details that readers love and that keep them engaged.
But wait . . . there’s more!
Two bonus revision passes!
4. Chapter Openings and Closings
If you follow a proven plotting method like our Plotting Roadmap, you’ll see that all sections (which later become chapters) open by hooking and orienting the reader. The endings leave the reader having to keep going to find out what happens (does Sally kill the killer? Does she die?)
So in this pass, you’re focusing on the openings and closings of your chapters. You need to keep your reader hooked. Don’t let them put your book down!
5. One Last Proofread
All the while, as you’ve been going through your drafts, you’ve encountered typos and fixed them. Now you get to do it one more time. So put your manuscript away for a few days, and then read it through again. Don’t fiddle with it anymore, just focus on typos and consistency in your writing.
For example, if you write “six o’clock in the morning” one place and “6 am” in another, it might just be enough to kick your reader out of the floe. Be consistent.
And now, you’re ready to publish, yes?
Now you’re ready to pass your manuscript off to your beta readers with a list of broad questions so you can make sure you didn’t miss anything big.
By following these steps, and a proven story structure, you will eliminate the need for extensive editing completely and save yourself thousands of dollars.
M.C.R. Marshall wrote and published his first novel Delphi's Shadow, an action-packed and thoughtful science fiction story. Here's my interview with Mike...
Where did the idea for Delphi’s Shadow come from?
I had a completely different idea for my first novel. Started developing it and everything. Then about two weeks into the first write your first novel course someone (might have been David in fact) posted a link in the Ottawa Writers Workshop FaceBook page about the Hubble telescope detecting a pitch-black planet. Hmm what could they be hiding? I thought. And off I went.
Delphi’s Shadow is a ‘hard’ sci-fi story, meaning that I try to ground it as much as possible in realistic science and logic, as opposed to something like Star Wars which is closer to fantasy. There was a lot of influence from the Expanse book series and Charles Sheffield’s Cold as Ice series, as well as Ian Banks (especially the names of the ships).
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing Delphi’s Shadow?
This was my first attempt at approaching novel writing in a structured way. I had the usual misgivings about structure somehow destroying the art of the writing, but once I understood it as a process that teaches you the fundamentals, rather than some sort of restrictive set of rules, I was good to go. Although I got into a real mess because I used cue cards to map out my structure rather than a Word document, and I ended up turning them into such a scribbly mess that I couldn’t understand what I’d written and had to redo the whole thing.
As it is with a lot of people, getting the space to write was a big challenge. I have a busy job that demands a lot of brain energy, I’ve got kids, I’ve got chores around the house, I have friends and hobbies and I like to stay in shape and all sorts of things that take up my time. So I had to make room by giving things up. For me that was Netflix. That hour I’d spend watching a series, I recommitted to writing.
Another thing I noticed was that about halfway through the novel I felt as if I’d leveled up as a writer. I’d hit 50k words and suddenly I was putting better sentences together, I was showing and not telling, I was getting comfortable with pacing and foreshadowing and reigning in my overdependence on passive verbs. Which was great, but also discouraging because I realized I had to do something with the first half of my novel to raise it up. I spent a lot of time rewriting entire sections and I still don’t know if it made that much of a difference. I think this is a dilemma that most first time novelists may face one way or another.
Finally the editing almost killed me. Seriously. I think I spent just as long editing as I did writing. Some people love editing. I don’t know what planet they’re from, but for me it was like pulling teeth.
Are you a pantser or a plotter?
Definitely a plotter. I have to know where I’m going at least in broad terms. I think of it like planning a long journey. I start out with where I want to go, I have a good idea of how I’m going to get there, but I’m completely open to changing it up along the way if something interesting comes up. If I look back on my original plot outline and compare it to the final manuscript, there are big deviations. But the initial outline allowed me to think about how this was going to change the story and keep me from the dreaded writing myself into a corner trap.
Where do you find your inspiration?
I read a lot, as most writers do, which shows me how other authors have approached all the technical aspects of writing, how they create stories and engaging characters (or not - which is just as valuable). I’m constantly following up interesting articles and blogs, which is where I get my concept ideas. I particularly enjoy science and futurism blogs like Isaac Arthur’s Youtube channel. I also do a lot of people watching, because at the heart of any good story there are interesting people. All of my characters are made up of bits and pieces of people I know or even just passed on the street one day.
Now that your first novel is out, can you tell us what’s next in your writing agenda?
Delphi’s Shadow was set up as the first in a trilogy. But my next project was going to be totally different, because I wanted to experiment with something new. I’d plotted the new book and started in on the first sections. But I was having difficulty getting into it and I found myself drawn back to the story I started with Delphi’s Shadow. So I’ve given in and I’m plotting out the sequel, tentatively titled Delphi’s Remains.
Do you have any tips for writers who want to write their first novel?
Obviously I’m a big believer in making a plan and a plot, which was key to me getting the work done. But at the end of the day the most important thing is this: Write. Write. Write. It’s the only way you’ll get good at it and the only way you’ll finish that story. Make it a priority. Tell people that this is important to you so that they can help you claim the space to do it. Make it the thing you reward yourself with. Make it more important than that exciting new show on Netflix.
Today, I’d like to share with you the top 10 most common fiction writing mistakes. These were compiled by Danny Mancini at ProwritingAid, but I can tell you, they certainly ring true for me. I was most susceptible to number 3 when I tackled my first novel (the One that Shall Never See The Light Of Day). I've taken Danny's list and added my own thoughts :)
1. Poor handling of dialogue
Your dialogue must sound realistic. Try reading it out loud and letting your ears tell you whether it sounds real or not.
2. Unrealistic characters
No one is 100% Evil or Good. Make your characters – even the non-human ones – more realistic by giving them both good and bad personality traits.
3. Unlikable characters
This was my biggie back in the day. Your lead character – the hero – must be likable. If your reader doesn’t like her, she won’t care about her, and that is the end of her reading engagement. An unlikable lead is the kiss of death.
No plot twists? Predictable dialogue? That’s a big bag of yawns. Surprise your reader. Make him think “I did NOT see that coming!”
5. Use of clichés
Again, boring, tired, over-used. The only time clichés can work is in dialogue. If that’s the way your character speaks, then speak on!
6. Lack of pacing
Pacing in a novel is extremely difficult if you’re writing by the seat of your pants. Writers in my workshops understand that the Plotting Roadmap we use builds pacing right into it. Takes the guesswork away.
7. No sense of setting
This doesn’t mean you need to spend pages and pages describing the landscape (please don’t do that), but you must orient your reader frequently so they’re not left wondering where they are.
8. Lack of conflict
Another kiss of death. Remember, tension = what could happen, and conflict = what does happen. Make sure you have lots of both to keep your reader interested.
9. Editing as you go
Don’t do this. You’re giving in to the Lizard Brain when you start saying to yourself, “Oh, I can fix this up,” or worse, “Oh, this is garbage, I better fix it up.” There’s lots of time to edit after you’ve finished your draft.
10. Jumping on the genre bandwagon
You’ve heard the old adage “write what you know”? In this case, write a story in the genre you know. If high fantasy is your thing, then trying to write a hallmark romance because they sell the most will come back to bite you. You can’t fool readers. They know a genre fraud when they see one, so stick with the genre you understand the most.
One of the common challenges I encounter with many workshop writers and coaching clients is how their characters are motivated. This is a problem for me too in my own writing, make no mistake. It isn't good enough to have them do random stuff willy-nilly.
This is one of those things that's easily missed or ignored, yet critical for bringing characters to life.
What makes your characters do what they do?
When developing your primary characters - protagonist, antagonist, and other major characters - spend a few minutes considering these two questions:
1. What does your character want in an abstract way?
This could be something like self-esteem, love, power, justice, world domination... the idea is there's a fundamental motivator that's part of your character's core being, and this is what drives them in their decision-making.
But abstractions only tell us about our character's core... we still need to understand the character's goal and that brings us to the next question:
2. What does your character want in a concrete way?
This is their story goal, and it must be concrete or else the character and the story start faltering like a wonky donkey. For example, your hero's goal may be something concrete like rescuing the princess, or you're winning the big game, or solving the murder, or marrying the town's only doctor. Those are concrete story goals.
Pulling it together
Once you've clarified what your characters' goals are, then use their abstract motivations to guide their behaviour. If your character wants to save the princess (concrete) but he's motivated by power and lust (abstract), the story is a whole lot different than if he was motivated by love and justice.
See, it's super important to know at all times what both motivators are for your characters. Keeping these in mind will remove a lot of the ambiguity from the characters' actions, and will bring a lot more coherence to your plot.
1. There are already too many novels out there… why does the world need more? Specifically, why does the world need YOUR story? And what's up with writing a book anyway? These days, more people are noodling around on TikTok or making other videos than they are writing or reading. If you're thinking of writing a novel, it pays to really look at the fundamental reasons for doing so. "Because it would be cool" may not be enough of a reason.
2. Anyone can write a novel, and many do. There’s nothing special about it once you learn how, other than having the discipline to actually write every day. I talk about this frequently in my workshops and courses. Like, a lot! The greatest skill a writer can have is the discipline to sit down and write every day. That is more important than talent (we can all develop what God has given us) or skill (like any skill, we can learn), or innate creativity (we're all born with this too). But, not everyone has the resilience to actually sit down and write.
As a result, anyone from any walk of life can write a novel. You don't need to go to school to "become" a writer. Just write. I'm all for that, but it also means there's really nothing special about what we do, is there?
3. Writing a novel won’t make you rich. You have a better chance of winning a lottery than you do in making any significant coin from a novel. If self-publishing costs anywhere from a few thousand dollars and up, this can be an expensive hobby. You will never recover your costs in time or money from book sales. So please, if you have dreams of being a famous author, doing the talk shows and signing books all day, remember: the vast majority of novelists never sell more than a couple dozen books. That may be difficult to understand and yes, you may argue that someone must win the lottery and "why not me?", but the hard truth is if you're writing a novel to get rich, you won't.
4. No guarantee of fame either. Other than the chosen darlings, most novelists spend their writing careers in anonymity, working menial jobs to pay their rent, living on Mr. Noodles and hoping to get picked by HBO or Random House and then life will be sunshine and rainbows. Truth #1: you and I won't get rich writing novels. Truth #2: we won't get famous by writing novels either.
5. Writing a novel doesn’t bring immortality. Hemingway may have been right when he said that if you want to be immortal, you need to write a book (or plant a tree or have a kid), but today? Hardly. When anyone can post videos of their butts on TikTok for free, immortality is cheap. Writing a novel is an awfully hard way to do it when your iPhone is sitting right there.
6. Writing novels doesn’t really flatter the ego. Oh maybe for a few weeks once you’ve finished and published it, but then what? You read it again and find all kinds of things you’d like to change and that one crappy rating on Goodreads or Amazon is enough to send you around the bend and become a monk. Not fun. More like self-torture. There's a medical term for that. Why bother when the world seems more interested in the number of likes you get on an Instagram post rather than the number of people who actually read your book.
7. All that time and effort spent in isolation, ...wrestling with word choices and syntax and structure and stealing other writers’s ideas… even introverts can only take so much of that. And for what? So you can sell a few copies of your book to family and friends. And never mind the cost of doing it right. From opportunity cost, to the real costs of getting an editor, a professional cover and layout, coaching and courses and other skill-building activities, and novel writing becomes a very expensive hobby.
Wow, that's pretty doomy and gloomy for me today, isn't it?
And yet... we write!
One really good reason TO write a novel
Yes, we still write. We still want to put in the effort to create a story from a bunch of squiggles on the page. Why? Because fundamentally, your story is one of possibility. If you write fiction, you’re writing about things that could happen, or could have happened. Why is this important? Because it offers hope. When you read a novel, you’re learning how others act and react in situations that you could find yourself one day. Perhaps you’ll learn something about how they deal with conflict and fear. Perhaps that guy marooned on Mars can show us what resourcefulness and resilience is all about, even when we know we’ll never be in that situation.
Hope. Possibility. Sharing your story. Despite all the reasons for not writing a novel, this is why hundreds of thousands continue to do so every year. So now I ask: why not you, too?
“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.