Characters (aka the friends in my head) …

I’ve just cruised past 30,000 words in my work in progress (WIP) manuscript, and have reached the point where the characters feel as real to me as well, real people. I love this stage.

And as strange as that may sound, I promise it’s stranger having these fictional people in my head 24-7! They eat with me, dream with me, go on runs with me, and occupy a lot of my brain space when I’m driving and cooking, in particular. Which, aside from distracting me when I’m trying to count teaspoons of salt for a recipe, means this manuscript is gelling. It’s working. And that is well worth the crowded nature of my brain these days.

Now I don’t know how others do it, but when I’m starting a new book I think a lot about the main character, or protagonist, but don’t spent much time on secondary players (unless they have a big role to play). I typically choose my protag’s name (I write women’s fiction, so always a woman) — first and last (I use baby naming sites for this!) — and write a character sketch that looks something like this (this one is fictional … well, I guess they’re ALL fictional, but you know what I mean …):

Name: Elli Drummond

Age: 29 / Married

Lives in: Honolulu, Hawaii

Occupation: Seismologist

Eye/Hair: Green / Blonde from a bottle

Quirks: is deathly afraid of earthquakes + allergic to shellfish, has never left the US

Major likes: her job, coconut cupcakes, large fedora hats being back in style, and her co-worker, Damian (uh oh…)

Major dislikes: island living, shellfish (see above), her pale, Irish skin that won’t tan, being embarrassed, her husband’s job (pro surfer)

I also think about what the character’s greatest fear is, what she dreams about, where she grew up and number of siblings, and the types of books/television shows she watches.

Then, I start writing.

For me, if I do too much plotting on characterization my characters start feeling flat and all cardboard-like. Which = characters no one wants to read about. Of course, sometimes my list of begins looking a tad, oh, predictable (seriously, green eyes and blonde hair AGAIN?), and so I make adjustments as I go.

But as for the other players in the story, I typically have some idea who needs to show up when, but I don’t plan for them the same way. I like it when I’m in the middle of a scene and an unexpected character comes knocking on the plot door, wanting to be let in. Those are some of the best moments, and a number of my characters (including some who end up becoming major players) came about that way.

For example, in my current WIP I gave my protagonist one sibling, a sister. Then I realized that didn’t fit with the image I had of her in my head once I started writing … so I took the sister away and gave her two brothers instead. And despite having to rework five chapters, the writing flowed. It changed her experience, and gave her different insights and motivations. Also, it helped me make her a more interesting, more well-rounded character.

So lessons learned for me on characterization? Less (plotting) is more. Make sure there are quirks, and exploit them. Don’t write boring characters — make their lives difficult (messy, uncomfortable, unpleasant, and downright horrible if the story calls for it), so they have lots to work with as they move towards resolution. Don’t make them all look and feel the same (even if twins!), and definitely avoid starting all their names with the same letter (trust me, this happens).

And when they come whispering to you in your sleep, or while you’re driving/showering/cooking/sitting in a meeting…listen closely. Because no matter what direction you had planned for them, it’s quite possible they have a better idea.

 

 

 

 

How not to become a query cautionary tale …

I’m always amazed when I see comments from agents on Twitter about querying writers going off the rails or making (very, very basic) mistakes in their queries. The agents usually give specific examples (like a recent “Dir Sirs,” salutation), and often include a handy-dandy hashtag (#querytip, for example) to help others who might be about to hit ‘send’ a tad prematurely.

Agents are nice people. They WANT us writers to succeed. After all, we have a symbiotic relationship, and success is good for all. So because of that, let’s all try to make our communications with those in the publishing world courteous at a minimum, and enlightened whenever possible. Deal?

To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of “10 ways to make sure your query doesn’t end up on a ‘what not to do’ list on Twitter“:

  1. Be professional: Think of each query you send out like a resume for a job you WOULD DIE TO HAVE. Have you double and triple checked for grammar and spelling boo boos? Did you fill in the agent’s name correctly (on this note, always go with the Mr. or Ms. + Last Name salutation, unless you have a previous correspondence where you know FOR CERTAIN using his/her first name would be preferred — by them, not you, just to be clear).
  2. Never lie: Okay, maybe I should have put this one first? Regardless, never (ever) lie in your query. Don’t say you know so and so if you don’t; don’t say your manuscript is finished if it isn’t; and don’t claim you have the next bestseller (you just might, but unless you can predict the future, this one won’t get you far).
  3. Be sure you have the right agent: Crazy, I know, but agents tend to put their submission wishlists on their websites or blogs. Or tweet about what they can’t wait to read next. Or mention in interviews what they’re dying to see in their slushpiles. Sending an agent a genre they don’t represent is an instant rejection, and wastes everyone’s time. You can also check out sites like Query Tracker, which allows you to search agents by genres. Also? Read interviews to learn quirks, likes, and dislikes. If your book is about a future world run by corrupt unicorns, it’s helpful to know if any of the agents on your list have a hate-on for unicorns (if that’s even possible…I mean, c’mon, unicorns are the COOLEST…)
  4. Write a great query letter: I’m going to leave it at that. If you want to know HOW to write a great query letter, check out this article from Writer’s Digest or visit one of my fave sites, Query Shark, to see real query letters getting put through the wringer. Also, enlisting help is a fab idea. I relied heavily on my amazing critique partners, and hired someone to help me polish my query letter (Lauren Spieller, who was AWESOME and definitely worth the investment).
  5. Have someone other than your mom (or cat) read said query letter: Unless your mom is an ex English teacher with a passion for grammar (like mine), be sure to get some extra eyes on that letter before you send it out. After reading something so many times (like, 101), your brain starts to skim over words that look familiar … including words with errors.
  6. Don’t become a stalker: Be friendly with agents you follow on Twitter, but for the love of God, do not tweet one minute after sending your query telling them to check their inbox, or send a Facebook friend request, or call just to find out if they did in fact get your query, or send multiple DMs with random questions … just relax, okay? If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see more. Then you can send a lovely and excited email with your REQUESTED submission.
  7. Keep it together: You will get rejected. Lots. So be prepared. Gather your chocolate, single malt scotch, tub o’ ice cream, or whatever else you keep around for those low moments. And KEEP IT TOGETHER when you get a “Dear Author, Thanks for thinking of us but we don’t feel it’s right for us at this time…” email in the inbox you’ve been refreshing every 5 minutes since you sent the query. It doesn’t feel good to be rejected (because when you hit send you were SO SURE that agent would love the premise and jump on a request), but it’s all part of the game.
  8. Go OFFLINE to rant: Part of keeping it together is having someone to vent to when you feel frustrated about the querying process, and you’re long out of feel-better chocolate. And keeping the rants offline is critical — whatever you put on Twitter is there for all to see. So unless your goal is to piss off Agent X who rejected your query a full two minutes after you sent it, do not take your frustrations out online. It’s bad practice, and you will be remembered for it versus any future brilliant book idea you come up with.
  9. Remember it’s a business: Rejections are business decisions. They don’t mean you can’t write, or that another agent won’t want to see your manuscript, but agents are in the business of selling books. And if an agent doesn’t feel she can sell your story, for whatever reason, she can’t take you on. It’s not personal. Unless you’ve engaged in social media public shaming of said agent, or one of her friends … then it’s probably personal.
  10. Try to remember it’s not the end of the world: I’ve said it before — no one NEEDS to write a book or be published. I certainly want those things, and I’m going to keep writing and querying until I make that happen, but I’m not losing perspective while I do. Life will carry on, even if I send out 1000 queries and get 1000 rejections … but if you ever see me writing about my “999th” query letter going out, “fingers crossed!”, please do me a favour and suggest I STOP IMMEDIATELY. Thanks.