Please head over to Literary Rambles today to win a copy of WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT! I’m sorry for the lack of substantial posting over the last few weeks and all the book talk. But I have discovered just what a different beast it is to promote a book than to just dream about having a book be published. I’m learning and will share some thoughts on marketing once I get the hang of it. (If that ever happens!)
Not only was my publication date moved up by about six weeks, but I am also coming to terms with the realization that you can’t put off important things until…you feel less tired, or until the stars are perfectly aligned, or until the house is clean. That’s what I was trying to do with marketing the book. “I’ll start talking about it more once I have my head around book promotion and once I know I can do it well,” I said to myself. Then I got real. You’re never going to feel less tired (coffee helps you forget this sometimes), the stars will always be just a degree or two off, and the house…well…the house is what it is. A reminder never to put off all the hard and exciting work of publicizing, writing, and chasing after your goals!
So expect some more book promotion talk and some giveaways just in time for the holidays. I’ll post interviews and other things I’ve done across the web for the guide as I get them. At some point in the next few months, we will return to our regularly scheduled programming. Until then, I’m going to trip and flounder through some book promotion and see what happens. 🙂
ETA: Updated the link, sorry guys! I had my wires crossed because I was sharing with someone the Bravo page of the sous chef for my boyfriend’s new restaurant.
After a great weekend at the Kansas SCBWI conference with Jay Asher, Arthur Levine, and many more talented faculty and writers, I’m back in NYC for Hurricane Sandy. Some people with flights out yesterday were stranded, so I made sure to take one at 6:30 a.m. just to get back home. Now, despite being very close to the evacuation zone here in Brooklyn, both me and my boyfriend are hunkering down for a cozy day.
Just an update on WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT, it seems like it is shipping from Amazon now, in addition to being available from the Writer’s Digest Shop. If you see the book “out in the wild” at a brick and mortar bookstore, I would love it if you could take a picture and send it to me via email or on Facebook. If you have read the book and loved it, please tell your writing friends, and (if you are feeling really ambitious) leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads to help spread the word.
I’m thinking of getting some labels printed for “bookplates” to sign and mail around to people who want a signed copy of the book but aren’t nearby. Would any of you take advantage of that?
My book has arrived at the Writer’s Digest warehouses and I got to see and buy a copy of it at the Writer’s Digest West conference this past weekend in Los Angeles. Hooray! Now it is only a matter of time before it gets out to bookstores and online retailers. Crazy, right? If you have pre-ordered it (thank you!), I have no idea when it will ship, but I’m guessing sometime in the next two weeks rather than on December 4th (as is stated on Amazon). If, in the meantime, anybody sees the book in the wild at a bookstore or receives their copy, take a picture and send it my way–I would be thrilled to see it!
I started the proposal in July of last year, sold the book on September 9th, 2011 and now it’s more than a year later and it’s a real thing rather than a Word doc on my computer. A lot of books have come into the world as a result of my efforts on behalf of clients, but none have yet been my own. It’s a trip.
For those who don’t know, I took a WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Don Maass approach to the guide and excerpted thirty-four middle grade and young adult novels to make various points about character, voice, setting, etc. I find that it’s a lot easier to teach with examples rather than simply sprout off on a topic. I recently contacted most of the authors whose books I talked about and offered them a review copy of my guide.
The legendary author Karen Cushman, whose book ALCHEMY AND MEGGY SWANN is excerpted, was kind enough to read and write a quick review of my guide:
On quiet afternoons, I love to sit curled up in a chair and read books about writing (really!). I’m a writing book nerd. Mary Kole, literary manager at Movable Type Management who blogs at kidlit.com, just sent me a copy of her new book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers. And ultimate is right. I can’t think of a topic Mary doesn’t cover. The book is lively and helpful—my only quibble is the term kidlit in the title. It’s my pet peeve, but a pretty minor quibble for what is a terrific book. If you want to write for children or are a writing book nerd like me, take a look at Writing Irresistible Kidlit. I recommend it.
The original review is here. I am flattered and grateful for her kind words! I’ll cross-post more reviews as I receive them. You can see what I have to say about Karen Cushman’s work and the writing craft in general by pre-ordering my book today!
Speaking of more, well, uh, speaking on the writing craft, I’m teaching my Middle Grade and Young Adult Craft Intensive webinar with Writer’s Digest on Thursday, October 25th at 1 p.m. Eastern. As with all of my webinars, you don’t actually have to be available and logged in at that exact time and date to participate, but you should still register. All registered students, regardless of whether they attend the live event or not, get a recording of the session after the fact (audio and video of the PowerPoint), the opportunity to get all of their questions answered in a class-wide PDF, and a critique of the first 500 words of your MG or YA manuscript.
It’s important to note that this might be my last time teaching on this topic for a while, so get in there while you can. Find out more and register here.
Today, I want to talk about what makes a great character. A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. A stellar protagonist must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great heroes to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here. You’ll even find a character development worksheet to help you along.
How to Create a Character
Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main anchor to everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two people.)
A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.
Questions for Character Development
In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions in this character profile worksheet:
What is your protagonist’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
What are their secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? Their needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one they most want to change? The one that will never change? Why?
What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
What is the hero’s past? What is their present? What is their future?
Character Development Exercises
When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every person in your book. But the above character development worksheet is a good place to start.
You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your protagonist? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.
When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.
Character Development Brainstorming
A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into their head).
I’d say that, out of the above questions in the character development worksheet, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.
Character Objective and Motivation
As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your hero takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.
Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.
In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.
Character Development and Subtext
If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!
We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.
From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!) You will also want to work with the idea of interiority, which you can learn more about.
Character Development and Plot
And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each person. What each character is really doing in a scene.
If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!
Want personalized help with what makes a great character for your story? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.