Writer’s Digest Conference 2016: How to Write Compelling Characters

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Really great characters have motivations, tough choices and detailed backstories

A few more tips from the Writer’s Digest Conference, this event was a literal gold mine for myself and as I keep going through my notes and working on my stories I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned.

Jordan Rosenfeld gave a presentation called ‘Getting Intimate with your characters’ which I found very useful. Nothing mind-blowing, but common-sense tips that basically explain what is it that good authors do to make their characters come alive on the page.

  • Describe their breathing, their heart rate, any gastric distress
  • What’s the scent dominating the scene?
  • The temperature
  • Engage the senses with active verbs
  • Is the character nervous? Is their voice wavering? Stuttering? Hand-shaking, involuntary tics and twitching
  • Texture & Shape of visuals, Shadow and Light, use them to describe the mood of the scene and contribute to the emotional impact
  • Description of what the character is seeing and experience can set the tone for a scene or act as foreshadowing
  • Ground your character in the scene, 2 paragraphs of description without the character responding emotively is too much
  • Break up your dialogue with descriptions, use them to add input or to show us how the character is feeling in response to the conversation

Good descriptions can also inform us about the character, especially in those early chapters where you want to tell us everything about them. All of these work toward fixing a common novice error where the author tells us something instead of showing us. What that means is you’re telling your reader that Jimmy Joe Bob is a hick instead of describing his pickup truck decked out with a confederate flag and a gun rack. Let the reader draw their own conclusions.

You can further use descriptions to show us about their inner life, what their motivations are and the problems they’re facing. Different locations look different to different characters and that can highlight traits that may crop up later as your story progresses. It’s a great way to lay groundwork in order to advance your plot and make the characters choices more real and understandable.

An engineer, versus a medical professional or a high school student flipping burgers will see things and notice things differently. A characters backstory shapes their view of the world. What are their hobbies and interests? What a character does informs what they notice.

The last big tip from Jordan was to make scenes unique. Characters do repetitive behaviors and we have to find ways as authors to keep the plot moving. Find settings that are unique to the characters, if you’re starting a story or working on something just brainstorm three different settings in their life that inform us about the character’s life.

I’ll add in here a tip from FilmCritHulk, make a character sheet. Basically you chart out your character on one page. Everything from physical to psycho-spiritual traits, as well as their relationships, wants, and needs as a person. If you want a deeper explanation, I linked a blog post there which goes into the details.

 

 

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Writer’s Digest Conference 2016: How to make writing your full-time job

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In this post I want to focus on the talks that taught me useful bits on making writing a career. My last post plays into that as it gives excellent advice on querying but this post is going to focus more on mechanics and your behavior.

Go Hybrid or Perish – Vincent Zandri

Vinnie gave us some personal insight by describing his life’s story. It was incredibly educational. In short, he was doing a lot of variety in his writing. He wrote copy, magazine articles, short stories, and had relationships with editors across a variety of platforms. When he finally got his big break and published his first novel, he scored big: a quarter of a million dollar advance. The figure blew my mind as it did his.

He thought he made it, he stopped writing copy, stopped doing articles and quit with all the small stuff. He no longer thought it was necessary. Shortly thereafter reality came crashing down around him when his first book flopped. He had to reconstruct his career from the bottom up, just to stay afloat. That’s why he suggests folks who want to make this their career, who feel writing is their calling, must go hybrid.

A hybrid author writes a variety of material on a variety of subjects. They write daily and keep a steady output of material.

He mentioned some good tools, Kindle Direct Publishing lets you get stories out directly to your readership. The more you have, and the more you publish, the better marketing Amazon provides you with. Each story also becomes it’s own income stream, along with any other content you’re generating, the small streams from individual projects will add up. They also don’t have to be long, I’ve seen short stories up quite frequently.

Scrivener is another good tool for organizing yourself and working out ideas, or just collecting notes and research.  Also the low price tag of $40 makes it affordable.

Kboards.com is basically a digital writer’s cafe. Having trouble with your opening? What about the end? Need help with your queries? Basically it’s a free place to go and get criticism from other writers. You could spend thousands on hiring a professional editor or you can make friends and swap stories online. It’s also a good place to troubleshoot technical issues.

On Writing and Publishing with Emily St John Mandel

I’m just gonna throw this out there, Emily was ADORABLE… and I’m not even into women. She was charming, polite and insightful as she discussed her experience with writing and becoming a bestselling author. If you’re into dystopian fiction her latest novel, Station Eleven, is an award-winning hit and international bestseller.

Emily discussed literature as a way to reclaim identity, as a home that we can return to during times of upheaval or if physically returning to your home is impossible for whatever reason. She had some great advice.

  • You must write and you must finish
  • Be ruthless with your writing time, learn to say no to social engagements, and feel no guilt when lying about why you can’t attend
  • Learn to write wherever and whenever you have the time. If you can only write during sunny weather with the wind blown from the west and the temperature at a cool sixty-eight degrees this may be more of a hobby and less of career for you.
  • Solving problems makes you a better writer, embrace them
  • A compelling query and solid samples matter more than networking and having that MFA – in other words anyone can break in
  • Being nice and friendly is worth it – no one wants to work with snooty, obnoxious writers
  • Embrace uncertainty while retaining your confidence – try your best and let the chips fall where they may. If you’re not happy with the outcome, pick yourself up and try again.

Great stuff, right? The whole while she was super encouraging even though she’d never read anything any of us in the audience had ever written. It was inspiring and insightful and I really appreciated her candor.

Summarizing your story aka FML

WTFDOIPUTHEREI think, once you’ve hit a critical mass of content, you become a pretty good judge of the quality of a story. Like, no one had to tell you Harry Potter was well-written, or that Star Wars was epic (unless you’re one of those people – jk, love you too) and you knew you were going to see The Matrix a second time – right?

Or maybe I’m just getting old.

ANYWAY… this is kinda why I think my story is halfway decent and certainly fun to read. I couldn’t even tell you how many movies I’ve seen, or hours I’ve read, or TV shows I’ve watched… goddess! The hours spent ingesting stories could easily be the single most dominant activity of my life, beyond schooling or work hours and sleep.

But, how do I make that clear to you, the reader. How can I summarize my story in a way that doesn’t spoil anything, but still makes its awesomeness apparent. That is a flipping difficult question.

Now, for my next stupendous maneuver, I’m going bare my soul and show you guys the originals, why I hated them, the revision – and how I did that, then what I ultimately ended up deciding on. I’d love to know if you thought I did a decent job – or not – just try to keep criticism constructive. I tell myself my writing sucks enough as it is. 🙂

Okay… like jumping into freezing water, I’m just gonna do it:

Alex is seventeen years old and about to graduate, but what he didn’t expect was to crush on the new boy at school. Coming out to his friends and family is just the beginning. At the same time, Alex finds he has latent psychic potential, being able to feel emotions from other people as if they were his own. Danger lurks around the corner as a mysterious stranger foreshadows tragedy in the not-too-distant future.

Shift is a juvenile dragon on the run, . First born dragon in a thousand rotations, Shift has the unique ability to jump dimensions. A new friend and a reluctant teacher help Shift learn to develop his native gifts.

Spark is an Ethry, also called Watchers or Guardian Spirits, the Ethry observe the multiverse and help maintain balance. His role is to protect Shift and Alex – Twin Souls in parallel worlds – come together so they can protect both their realms from the darkness.
Twin Souls is an action-packed adventure across two worlds, ours included. You’ll follow Alex and Shift on their journey as they make new friends, discover disturbing truths, and fight incredible odds in order to protect the people they love.

Eep, egads! It hurts me to read it. I didn’t like it because it’s too straight-forward. It’s boring. It’s a description of my main characters – which is useful – but it comes off feeling dry. There’s no emotion. I had no idea what to do. So I emailed my boyfriend. He’s a dear. This is his book, go buy it. 😉

His improvement went something like this:

 One human.

One dragon.

Two worlds.

One epic adventure.

Alex is seventeen years old, about to graduate high school, but what he didn’t expect was to crush on the new boy at school. Yet coming out to his friends and family is just the beginning when Alex begins to discover he has latent psychic potential, being able to feel emotions from other people as if they were his own. Danger lurks around the corner as a mysterious stranger foreshadows tragedy in the not-too-distant future, and suddenly Alex’s world is turned upside down.

Shift is a juvenile dragon on the run. The Matriarch, ruler of Dra’kar, has her minions hunting him. First born dragon in a thousand rotations, Shift has the unique ability to jump between dimensions. A new friend and a reluctant teacher help Shift learn to develop his native gifts.

Spark is an Ethry, also called Watchers or Guardian Spirits, who observe the multiverse and help maintain balance. Spark must protect and guide Shift and Alex, twin souls in parallel dimensions destined to join forces and stop an oncoming darkness that threatens to overtake both of their worlds.

Way better, right? But still, the problem for me is in the formatting and the style. It’s too dry. So I gave my brain a day to stew on it. With my notebook in hand, I went on my fire-escape and started writing this:

Their fate was to be hunted because they were different. Now, twin souls in (parallel dimensions)(different worlds) must discover one another, and themselves, in order to save both their (planets)(worlds)(realms) from being conquered by (demonic entities)(the Dark Ethry, a race of extra-dimensional aliens).

Alex meets Aaron, the first guy he’s ever been attracted to.

Jan is secretly in love with her best friend, Alex – and with five black-belts protecting him has been easy – until now…

Chris struggles with a deep (regret) (dark secret) (painful past) and will do anything to (make it right)(balance the scales)(make up for it) (set things right)

Controversial, funny & action-packed, Twin Souls was an honest attempt to create a young adult story with a gay protagonist. Inspired by Joss Whedon’s work as well as the Marvel & Star War Universes…

Yeah, so that pittled out wrong, but the intro was right. There’s also this little tiny lie in there that I told, so I had to nix that out. I’ll let you figure it out.

One boy…

One dragon…

Two worlds – one epic adventure.

Their fate was to be hunted because they were different. Now, twin souls across two dimensions must find one another, and find themselves in order to save both worlds from utter domination.

Alex meets Aaron, the first guy he’s ever been attracted to.  Alex begins to discover he has latent psychic potential, being able to feel emotions from other people as if they were his own. Danger lurks around the corner as a mysterious stranger foreshadows tragedy in the not-too-distant future, and suddenly Alex’s world is turned upside down.

Shift is on the run. Lady Raxis, The Matriarch, Ruler of Dra’kar wishes to enslave the young dragon for his unique ability to cross dimensions. With her ability to force others to fall in love with her, she has nearly complete control of Shift’s native homeworld and the nine races that share it.

Spark is an Ethry, also called Watchers or Guardian Spirits – they observe the multiverse and help maintain balance, but they have no physical body. Spark must help Alex and Shift come together if they are to have any chance at remaining free.

I think that’s the best version. It teases the main characters, draws you in with some emotional language, and sets the stakes. Get the idea? Does that make you wanna read the book? Was this useful for you or just me mentally masturbating? Let me know in the comments!

Edit: I left it for a week and rethought about it. I still hate it. New! Better! Improved:

Alex was just another nerd, trying to be normal. When the new guy at a school turns out to be gay their attraction threatens to reveal his secret to the world. In 2016, coming out is easier than you’d expect, but dealing with new psychic powers is not. Soon, Alex is sensing the emotions of those close to him, and using them to fuel his newfound power. It won’t be long until someone wants to control him.

Shift has been running since birth. The first-born dragon in over a thousand years, his destiny is to save Dra’kar from the tyrannical Lady Raxis. A recalcitrant teacher & a ditzy dryad must help him learn to master his ability to shift between dimensions before they are discovered.

Spark likes to watch, in fact, it’s all he’s supposed to do. Light Ethry observe and record all happenings across the physical plane while staying out of sight. But when Dark Ethry begin to manipulate events in the physical realms he can no longer stay hidden and must contact his wards.

“SciFi? Fantasy? Twin Souls blends them both into a YA smoothy dappled with action, romance and tragedy.” – Some random guy on the street I bribed with a dollar

“It’s not a ‘gay’ story, which makes it unique. It’s a YA story with a gay protagonist. Definitely something new.” – The A New Yorker, not me, I swear.