WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? Knowing Your Characters

I talk a lot about characterization. A whole lot.

Super boy and super dog in cape and mask

Because of course characters drive your story, and without a great protagonist (and hopefully, small supporting cast), your reader has no one to root for; no one with whom to catch a ride and travel the course of the novel. And without that, you have no book—no matter how compelling the story.

I speak on this topic a lot at literary conferences, and I even wrote a free manual on Fashioning Fabulous Characters.

Every story has to be someone’s. If Earth blew up and neither you nor anyone you knew and loved were on it, would you care? Would you even know? But if a friend were stuck on a small island and the sea started rising around it, wouldn’t you panic?

The characters in your story have to be so real, so visceral, that when they’re in peril, when one dies, your reader reacts as if to a loved one’s passing.

And to accomplish that takes great skill from the writer.

You, as that book author, must know everything about anything that has ever happened to your characters.

Not at the outset, of course—many authors write from discovery, getting to know their characters as they go. But in the end, know them they must. And then in revision go back and add textures, layers, nuances, in order to breathe life into the skeletons on the page. The more important someone is in the story, the more depth you must evoke.

Say you’re writing a moral-twist tale about a thirty-something woman running for Congress. She truly believes in her agenda, rather than politics for power’s sake (suspend all disbelief here—this IS fiction), and of course, is forced into a box at some point (pick a topic as to what), a la Willie Stark.

How will she react? Do you, the author in charge of novel development, know how she responds to not only backing into a car in the parking lot when no one sees, but also what she does when her best friend comes to her with a shocking revelation? Does she deem it more morally right to turn in the friend (whether national security is at risk or not), or to hold to the confidence?

To know these answers, you must know our trusty heroine well. Otherwise, she’ll come across the page as contrived. Even though our story takes place with her in her thirties, what was she like as a child? A teenager? What happened on her first day of school? Did she get along with her brother? Is she a classic Leo, always bossing everyone around? Did she cry for days when her pet Springer Spaniel died? Or did she conduct the funeral for her friend’s cat?

Go back and write a short story that takes place during her childhood. Write another when she reached adolescence, and another revolving around her first sexual experience or college days. Get to know her through all stages of her life. None of these are to be included in the book—they’re for your benefit, as the author. And ultimately, your readers. Because the nuances you learn about your hero through this process will serve to bring subtle character traits to the surface as the story progresses.

Do this to a lesser degree with the supporting players. Another major problem I often see is too large of a cast of characters, the number of which precludes any from really being fully fleshed-out. Pare down your cast. Only a handful can ever really be formed into fully functioning folks with much depth. The rest need to step back a hair. You can have a lot of people with bit parts—it’s the handful of main ones I’m talking about here.

Just know that it’s often more difficult to make a bit player come alive than the hero, with whom you have much more time to spend.

But also know that you’re secondary characters believe the book to be about them

This brings us, as always, around to viewpoint. Giving a character a viewpoint signals to the reader that this person is hugely important. Again, each one has to have his own arc in the story, her own piece of the story question. Strictly limiting this will help you keep close tabs on each one, and how each fits into the plot.

Plot and characters cannot be divorced, and we’ll talk soon about the Story Question, and how characters propel that along.

Writers tend to give their people traits in laundry-list fashion. Again, this is GREAT—for you, as the author. But your reader is trusting you to tell her only that which is truly important to these characters in this story, and then to create and evoke it, rather than telling her about it.

The reader should get a sense of the Protagonist from the get-go, but then you shade and deepen her as the story goes—in the exact same fashion that you get to know a real human. As manuscript editor, I strongly encourage my writers to keep notebooks or lists or flashcards (whatever works for you) of each character’s physical descriptions, mannerisms, major and minor traits, etc. That way you can always flip through and remember, which imprints the information on your subconscious mind and brings it to the surface at the exact time you need it.

A lot goes into fashioning great characters. You can’t just “think ‘em up.” That may be how it begins, and indeed, these exercises help with that, but the depth, the nuances, the intangible points that make folks in books seem real bubble up from the author’s deeper self. You have to get quiet and listen to your people talk and think and move and be.

Willie Stark, so the story goes, was based on the Louisiana political figure Huey Long. I never knew that man. But I do know ol’ Willie. And I’d be willing to bet he took off under Penn Warren’s hand in a way that the real politician never could have. Now, that’s great characterization.

Lessons From The Traditional-Publishing Model Part Four: Distribution

Okay, this is a big bag of worms. And one that’s changing at the speed of light.

biggest differences in self publish vs. traditional publishing

One of the biggest differences in self vs. traditional publishing is something “they” never tell you.

 They being all those companies that want to sell you services to get your book in print. And this thing is something that writers are often shocked by—after the fact. It’s something new writers don’t even think about, until the horse has left the barn and they’re faced with the reality of what they have done.

And what is that thing?


Not the sexiest thing about writing and selling books, but it determines entirely whether your book even has a chance to be found in bookstores.

And, book-shelf space has gotten so incredibly competitive these days that only about one in a thousand traditionally published books get space on bookstore shelves.

But here’s the deal: The specific distributors that distribute traditionally published books, don’t handle indie and self-published books.  Now, while this is starting to change somewhat, it’s still pretty much the case.

Bookstores order from these distributors.  In the traditional model, the sales force gets materials early, pitches books to accounts, and preorders are placed—which is how print decisions are made.

All retail outlets (beyond Amazon) favor books with traditional distribution.

See the dilemma? If you self-published your book and want to see it on the shelves at the local Barnes & Noble, you’re out of luck. There is no distribution method to get there.
That door is closed before you even knew it existed.

And it’s a shame, because local bookstores like to have local-author signings. Some of them will bend those rules now and then, if you bring your own books (after jumping through about a thousand hoops!).

So just understand this before self-publishing your book.

Now, here’s the other kicker we can learn from what traditional publishers got wrong about all of this:


In the ever-changing world of all aspects of publishing, because of the distribution model they’ve always used, the big publishers got caught with their pants down. Until the last few years, most books were still purchased through brick-and mortar stores.

We all know what’s happened to that.

Bookstores have folded right and left. Even the monolith of Barnes & Noble.

Barnes and Noble currently has 647 stores and plans to only have 450 by 2022. This means they will have to close down 197 stores between now and then. In order to meet this target, they will have to shutter 19.7 locations every year.

Now that these big publishers are fighting with Amazon (another post entirely!), sales channels have narrowed even more.

Amazingly, the big publishers didn’t have virtual storefronts.

They had websites, but those were to publicize books—not to sell them. They didn’t sell directly to customers, but rather, they sold to bookstores who sold to customers.

Just in recent years have big houses finally opened storefronts online to sell to readers. Wow.

Make sure your author website has a method to actually sell your books to readers. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I’m always amazed when I go to an author’s site and the book is there, with a note as to where it’s available. Most websurfers won’t go that extra mile to find your book.

The game is changing. It continues to morph into things Traditional publishing never saw coming. Learn from what they did right. And what they did wrong. No one knows what’s around the next bend—no one.

Stay aware. Be ready to try new things. Plough new fields. Be a trail blazer. Who knows, you just might be the next Amanda Hocking!

What do you see as the next big trend?

Additional Reading:

Lessons From The Traditional-Publishing Model Part 3: Timing

Okay, so we’ve talked about focusing on the book, honing in on the genre, and now for the third thing to take from Traditional-publishing’s successes:


Lessons from the traditional-publishing model Part Three: Timing

Lessons from the traditional-publishing model Part Three: Timing

Here I’m not talking about all the time involved waiting on agents’ and editors’ responses to submissions (that was in the blog The Book!).

But rather, once you’ve signed that contract, the time lag that exists before the book comes out.  Which can seem like an eternity.

Oh, how writers bemoan the idea of waiting 18 months before publication with a Traditional publisher.

And often I hear from writers intending to self-publish for this very reason:  “I want my book out now.”

But any acquisition’s editor or agent can tell you that the time lag is actually vital.

So what happens between the signing of the contract until publication?


¬ First off, an editor will position the book on the publishing house’s list. 

Seems straight forward enough. But a reason exists as to why something comes out at Christmas (late Fall list) vs. why another gets designated a beach read (late Spring list).  Beach reads, for example, are lighter fare. In other words, you wouldn’t put out a book about depression or suicide in either of those seasons!

Choose when your book comes out carefully.

¬ Next, the lag gives editors time to get book-jacket blurbs for the back cover. 

And this can take a bit.  But never underestimate the power of these.  One huge way readers buy books is by word of mouth, and that includes blurbs by the rich and famous.

Spend the time to round up book-jacket blurbs!

¬ Covers are done differently with the Traditional houses than most Indie and self-published books. 

Usually the covers on the former are of higher quality than the latter, but they don’t have to be.

Take the time to get a fabulous cover, even if it costs you.

¬ ARCs. 

These help tremendously in creating buzz for a book.  Traditional houses get reviews in place from the major reviewers, and they almost all require ARCs (you pay for reviews once the book is already out but for “real” reviews, you need ARCs).  Now, with the new Amazon policy of putting a book in the system up to three months before publication, anyone can take this time to get reviews in place.  Do so!

Send out ARCs and get reviews before the book comes out. 

¬ Social Media. 

As we all know, this is king these days in promoting books.  And it takes a good while to get up and going.

Conventional wisdom from experts says a blog takes 6 months to a year to get noticed.

You want the best promotion for your book possible.  So get the website and blog going, your Twitter, FB, and LinkedIn up and healthy, long before the book comes out.  Goodreads is a must, and Goodreads giveaways are quite effective.  One before publication and one after.   Of course a whole host of other such sites exist as well.

Give yourself time to build your social platform!

¬ Promotional Materials.

This also gives you time to put together your press kit, along with postcards, bookmarks, etc.   Even in today’s “virtual” world, these still work wonders.

Get promotional materials printed well in advance, and send them out!

¬ Book Signings.

Both brick-and-mortar stores and online book tours work great!  They can also take a while to set up.  Local bookstores are usually quite keen to set up signings, especially if you get some media out with it.  And they are much more excited about an upcoming book, than one that’s been out six months.

Set up your blog tour and book signings long in advance!

So even in today’s world of “instant” publishing, slow down here.  Get your promotional ducks in line so you can launch your book in the most advantageous way possible.  Because no matter which way you publish, your point is to be successful.  Be that!


We talked last time about the first lesson from Traditional Publishing—focusing on the product, the book!  Now we continue with the second—knowing your genre.


TRADITIONAL-PUBLISHING Tips | The Genre’s the Thing!

Often new writers tell me a big reason they want to self-publish is so they don’t have to conform to publishers’ specs.  “I want to write my book the way I want to write it!” is a common sentiment.  Word count out the window.  Structure?  Who needs it!  “I don’t want to write formula,” comes into play.

And at least daily, I’ll hear something to the effect of: “My book is a YA novel with Christian themes but it’s not just for the Christian market so I don’t want to label it that.”

Well, if you want to sell it, you do.  Identifying the right genre isn’t just for those going the Traditional route.  It’s how readers buy books.  Although they probably aren’t aware of the underlying genre, they know what they like to read, and can identify it on the pages.

And it’s the exact place they walk to in the book store or library.

The genres, categories, and sub-categories are not really formulaic, except in the idea of what needs to happen, and what doesn’t.  Some are of course, but the vast majority of specs exist sort of like a clothesline on which you pin your shirts and pants, blouses and jackets to make up the storyline.

So why on earth should someone intending to self-publish care about Traditional Publishing’s specs?  That’s a huge reason you’re self-publishing, right? 

Big fat wrong.

It’s very true that Traditional Publishers can’t spot trends.  Just ask them!  The standard line is always: “I’ll know the next trend when I see it.”   Everyone in this business is always surprised (often shocked) at what takes off.  And then everybody wants that thing, with a different twist.  Who saw Urban Lit coming?  Or the resurgence of Vampires?  Or the Dystopian craze.  And don’t you wish you did?

But it is in hindsight that the Traditional model shines.  This really is a business of the tail wagging the dog.

But what those publishers excel at is in analyzing what made the tail wag in the first place.  In other words, they study the successes, and most importantly, who those readers are and what they expect from the books.  They know their customers.

How often have you heard: “Write for your audience”?  Again, that makes new writers quite squeamish.  “I write for myself,” is often the response.  Which, yeah, you have to.  But you’re also writing for someone to actually read your work, no?

Your audience exists.  If you know where to find it. 

People come to me all the time saying, “I have written a romance.”  Okay—what category and sub-category?   There’s a reason that Harlequin Desire is 50K words, while Harlequin Romantic Suspense is 75K.  And the reason is:

That’s what those readers want and expect.

A Desire reader doesn’t want the Suspense part.  Period.

For a more stark contrast, let’s mix genres.  There’s a reason that Cozy Mysteries are 70K words, with no graphic sex or violence.  But if you’re writing Urban Lit, you better have both!  Because, again, that’s what those readers are looking for in a book.

It’s not just word count, but what happens, and how it happens.  Even the prose is different in a Mystery vs. a Thriller.

Often I see manuscripts that do cross genres, which in the Traditional world is the kiss of death. 

None of the agents I know will touch those, because of course, they can’t sell them.  Writers get so frustrated by this.  They’ve just doubled their audience, no?  No.

By crossing genres, you’ve just lost both audiences.

Readers want what they want.  Give it to them!  They’re waiting for the next great book (in the genre they read, of course).

I often talk to readers, from people I know to strangers in airports.  I’ll ask what they like to read, and they usually respond, “Oh, I read widely.”  But when I press as to which authors they most read, those authors all line up in one specific genre (even though readers are unaware of the appellations J

Yes, you absolutely can throw all these specs to the wind, but go outside the lines at your own peril. 

Recreating the wheel in publishing is akin to climbing Mt. Everest when your goal was actually to hike the Appalachian Trail.  Man, don’t you hate when you do the former when the latter would have been so much more successful?

Go to the major publishing sites and peruse their categories and sub-categories and the specs for all, and discern where your book fits best.  Revising a bit to fit those specs is not at all difficult, and the results are powerful—you can target an audience that already exists, and is ready, willing, and wanting to buy the kind of books your write!

Now, go be that successful author you’ve always dreamed of being!

Lessons From The Traditional-Publishing Model Part One: THE BOOK, THE BOOK, THE BOOK!

Traditional publishing has been in the toilet this millennium.  Big news flash, right?

What are new writers missing | Traditional Publishing Tips

The Book, The Book, The Book!

As publishing houses scaled back, imprints closed, editors were fired, the door opened wide for self-publishing.

Now, however, traditional publishers are growing lists again.  Nothing stays the same for long in this business . . .

One way or another, however, traditional publishers have been at this a very long time, and have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

So what can we learn from big publishers’ successes and failures?  A lot.  Let’s dive in and talk about these issues, in order to gain their knowledge.

To begin, what’s the main point where new writers are failing these days?  No, it’s not the marketing.  It’s not the cover art.

What are new writers missing all over the place?  Putting the product, the book, first.

This really does seem like a no-brainer.  I mean, we’re writers, right?  It’s what we do—we write, we hone our craft, we study, we get critiqued, we write some more.  At least, that’s the way it used to be!

One of the issues new writers (and many seasoned ones as well, although they handle it differently) have with the Traditional folks is that this takes f o r e v e r.

Yep, it does.  At every single stage of the process, writers get to hurry-up-and-wait.  Hurry up and produce exactly what that agent, editor, etc., requests, and then sit on their hands for months and wait on responses.  It can drive a sane woman batty.

I’m in the process of getting one of my great Western writers agented, and of course, even though I know the agent very well, and have highly recommended the writer, it’ll take said agent two months to get to it.  Hey!  That’s actually quick!

But once she does get to it, my writer will get a full read.

Back to our point, though. What this enormous time lag did was to give writers all this glorious waiting time to actually focus on the book.  On writing. To learn the craft.

While they banged their heads against publishing’s seemingly impenetrable wall, they wrote.  Joined critique groups.  Got bashed there.  Went back and dove in again to make the story better.  Worked with an editor.  Wrote some more.

All of this took years.  But now, with the advent of instant publishing, you don’t have to go through all of that.  Presto!  Your book can be published without having to do all that incessant waiting.  You’re an author!

But not a very good one.  The waves and waves of schlock being “published” these days boggles the mind.  Oh my, is so much of this stuff just terrible.  Cringe-worthy awful.

And here’s the dirty little secret Traditional publishers know: You can put megabucks behind a new release’s marketing.  Hire PR agents.  Get the best cover in the world.  And maybe sell a lot of books because of all that.  But if the book’s bad, readers won’t buy the second one. 

In other words, you’ve totally lost the audience you worked so hard with marketing money to create.

You’re the same way, right?  You buy a highly touted book and by page five, it’s so awful you toss it into the trash, never to read that author again.  And I mean, ever.  No matter if said author ends up on the morning television shows touting her next one.

What sticks with you is the awfulness of what your hard-earned money was wasted on.

But then, the converse is also true, no?  You read something wonderful, and seek out that author’s backlist, while waiting eagerly for the next one.  I did that very thing with Pat Conroy not long ago.  For whatever reason, I picked up The Prince of Tides for the fourth time (one of my all-time favs, obviously).  Then I got on a Conroy jag, reading the ones I hadn’t read, while waiting eagerly for The Death of Santini.  Conroy could have written the yellow pages and I’d love it.

Oh, how I already miss him.

Of course, Pat Conroy came of writing age during the time when the only choice was to hone one’s craft . . .

Learn from him!  Dive in, learn your craft, hone it and hone it and hone it.  Have a great editor sign off on it before the presses run.  Ah, now you have a budding career as a book author!

Additional Reading:

These Are The 5 Most Important Resolutions For Writers

We think of resolutions as occurring with the new year, but when it comes to creative endeavors, commitment, and often re-commitment, resolutions arise year ‘round.

How to finish a novel

5 Most-Important Writers’ Resolutions

I love getting emails from writers who say, “I’ve dusted off my old novel (memoir, how-to, etc.), and am back to it.”

The love of the written word, and how we all connect with it, always warms my heart.

But like dieting resolutions, scaling back a hair will help you successfully meet your goals. So, let’s put our writing resolutions on a diet, so that we can bolster the power behind making our dreams come true, and focus on the crux of the issue.

Here are 5 ways:

Number One: Slow Down.

Everyone wants to be published yesterday. That in itself isn’t a bad thing—it’s one of those goals that keep you slogging through the slough of despond, as John Bunyan would say.

But I can promise you this is one of those instances where the tortoise beats the hare.

The number-1 thing I see that trips writers up is rushing.

I always cringe when someone comes back to me with revisions quickly—because I know before even looking that everything will have to be redone! Hurrying will leave cracks in the walls of your story’s structure someone will drive a Mack truck through. And it’s a true creativity killer.

Number Two: Take a Publishing-News Fast.

Let’s face it—the news from publishing is mostly depressing. Major imprints closing down. Editors losing jobs all over the place. The latest news of print sales rising is, of course, compared to a steep fall in previous years.

Some of us have no choice but to follow the business end of things, but you don’t—you can take a nice long fast from this and let your creativity soar.

Whenever I’m writing, I let publishing go take a long hike—in the opposite direction from the path I walk.

Number Three: Let your Creativity Soar!

Write, write, write, and write. Don’t self-edit as you go, just tag along behind your characters and see where they take you. Follow every thread, no matter how whimsical it seems. In fact, the more fantastical in the creative phase, the better!

 Run with it. Laugh, play, dance with the drama. You will go into book editing and revision way on down the line (so you never have to worry that you’ll be embarrassed later about some bone-head move now). For now, be free!

Number Four: Damn the Naysayers.

And those are legion! Let their lists of all the ways you can’t make it in publishing roll off your shoulders. Easier said than done? Nah. Just let them ramble on and as they’re doing so, say (silently), whether to your own demons or those of your mother-in-law: “You’re probably right. But at this minute, I’m immersed in novel development; I have a scene, chapter, story to write. I’ll get with you later.”

Number Five: Remember that Writing Well is a Journey.

This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

Again, our point isn’t to be published next week. Our point is to write beautiful stories with characters who leap off the page, and with whom we all want to tag along for their journeys.

All we’re looking for is progress, growth, the ability to see that what you’ve written today was better than yesterday, or last week, or last year . . . And I can absolutely guarantee that if you write, if you read and study your craft, and write again, you will get better.

And one day, maybe even in 2016, you will look up and realize: I am a writer!

Editing Matters Even When Writing For The Spiritual Market

The last decade plus, we’ve seen a huge surge in spiritually based books. They’ve sold so well (both fiction and non) that most of the big houses have some sort of spiritual imprint, running the gamut from Christian Fiction to Buddhist texts to New-Age works a la Hay House, etc.

Editing Matters Even When Writing For The Spiritual Market
Of course, publishing follows cultural trends (rather than vice-versa), so this could change at any minute. But for now, these books are still selling well.
I’ve seen a host of such manuscripts. Many of these come from counselors of a wide variety; many are scholarly; some from writers on a spiritual path.
But the majority have things in common: either they beat you over the head with their “revelations” (which needs no discussion—we’ve all had this experience!) or they’re free-form, just shy of stream-of-consciousness.
And while such numinosity may indeed be the manner in which we receive the essence of spiritual inspiration, it still must be translated into book form in order to be publishable, and to be accessible to the market—readers.
As with all true gems of knowledge, inspiration, even Truth (and isn’t this why all writers write? To convey some bit, no matter how big or small, of something learned along the way), the success lies in the telling.
Now, I’m not here to proselytize for or against any religion, spiritual bent, or path, but rather as a writing coach to help writers fashion their works into true and viable books.
Often the lessons along the way seem quite difficult, and oddly, the “spiritual writer” seems to have the most conflict with accepting criticism and revision, as if to do so would mar the pristine nature of the work.
All writers have that fear to some extent. The spiritually based ones tend to take it to the extreme. After all, if the inspiration came from God, Spirit, The Universe, whatever you may call it in your belief system, the idea is “who am I to question?”
I may have missed something, but I never heard God say, “To edit is of Satan.” Although, of course, many writers would attest to that in general!
But in fact, the editing itself can be as creative a process as the initial inspiration. It’s all in how you go about it.
This mindset, although seemingly mundane, is the point of creating a work that readers can grasp and utilize.
Remember—you yourself are not your only audience. Yes, you are a vital one to please (that is a lot of why we write).
But if you want someone else to actually read it, you must bring the work into a recognizable form, and one which others can grasp.
As a book editor, I see a ton of such works that go all over the map. In other words, the organization is off. Many need a much narrower focus. The ideas, while they may indeed be unique, go from Texas to Nebraska and back without ever crossing the Red River. I.e., you can’t follow the path to save your danged life.

Without a sharp focus and tight organization, the reader is catapulted all over the pages, unable to find the thread of the theme around which everything about the book must be weaved.
Each chapter must build upon the previous, so that your reader’s understanding and knowledge begin to grow from within. And that holds true for fiction and nonfiction.

I edited a wonderful book by Gerald Morton, Never Alone in the Back, which is a collection of stories from an EMT about emergency calls he’s worked. It also weaves his personal spiritual path, and its evolution, through these stories, the inner mirroring the outer, if you will, just as in a beautiful novel.
It was tricky making this work, but Morton is a brilliant writer (he’s had both fiction and non published by Traditional houses), and he never misses a beat. Nowhere is the reader confused as to how these stories relate to each other and the broader theme.

When Randy Mitchell wrote Sons in the Clouds, he didn’t shy away from the work I gave him. We focused on novel development and the elements of great fiction. He plunged in, and revised and revised, producing a beautiful book that fires on all cylinders, and which just happens to have an underlying Godly theme. Is it spiritual fiction? Yes. But first and foremost, it’s a great read. And that novel was nominated for Global e-book award.

While I’m not in the habit of touting writing how-to books, a great resource exists for a more in-depth study of this. Spiritual Writing, by Deborah Levine Herman with Cynthia Black, discusses some of these points, as well as the marketing end of things—i.e., the various genres within the spiritual market, where yours might fit, and how to identify it.

The main point here, however, is that writing a spiritually based book is not terribly different from writing any great book—from a novel to a manual on child care. All of them need inspiration at the core.
All require good writing. And all must have the elements that make up a good book—theme, focus, organization and structure, pacing, flow, vivid characters, showing/creating versus telling, substance, voice, etc.
You don’t get a cosmic get-out-of-editing-free coupon just because you claim God as the co-author (just ask Morton or Mitchell, referenced above :). Besides, I’ve never known the Divine to be a sloppy Creator or Editor.
We’re pretty much the ones who create the mess. And we have the God-given intelligence, combined with the resources available, to clean up that mess. The process is still about writing, editing, revising, rewriting—where, of course, as in everything, the devil is in the details.

Are You Struggling With The Writing Demon?

Writing is a convoluted and intensely psychological process. Even those who say it comes easy and/or don’t want to deal with all that mental ‘mumbo jumbo’ get caught in the same psychological traps as the rest of us.

Are You Struggling With The Writing Demon?

Anything that originates from the heart, the gut, the inner recesses of the human mind by its very nature cannot be easily contained or controlled.

Oh, we can learn to work with that finicky muse. Even tame her, in some cases (the Strength card in the Tarot comes to mind). But control from where inspiration begins? You may as well grab onto a fist full of water and try to hold it.

For example, when writing a book (fiction or non), this is how the process usually goes (if you’re lucky in the first place): You get an inspiration (which means, literally, to be filled with the spirit—the breath—of the gods, the muses, your dead aunt Clara, wherever you find it) and begin to write. The characters or the theme of the setting grow so vivid in your mind that you canNOT not begin.

Words flow from your fingertips onto the computer screen. And they’re good. You can feel it, sense it, your heart is pouring onto the pages. The meanings emerge clearly through plot points and the chapters begin to file into line like clothespins.

You are brilliant. You were meant to do this. All those people who scoffed when you told them (IF you even ‘fessed up) can now eat your dust. Life is good!

And then, ever so slightly you begin to slow down.

At first it happens so subtly that you don’t notice. And then a week has gone by and the chapter isn’t written, when before you were churning one out every few days. You feel stuck in the deep mud of time. Is everything you have written been in actuality, terrible? Or (if you’re not of the beating-yourself-up ilk) can you just not really find the time to return to it (even though your schedule hasn’t changed any if at all)? If you could just get another scene done . . . maybe then you can get back on track.

Some folks don’t go into this slow decline; some hit a brick wall and reel from the smack in the face.

But usually, it happens inch by inch until you’re so bogged down, the way forward so obscure, that bewildered writers want to sit in the road and cry (or on the couch watching soap operas. Horrors!).

You have reached a swinging, precarious bridge on your journey, and as with any good myths (down which the writing path will surely send you), you must successfully navigate this element or stay forever on the ‘wannabe’ side of the river.

In essence, this is quite probably the most difficult crossing on the whole mythical map.

Because if you give up here—and I don’t mean quit writing; most folks simply quit THAT book and begin another—a demon will follow you on down the road. Which demon that is will depend upon your own psychology (whether it’s the one labeled ‘Not Worthy,’ or ‘Afraid of Success,’ or countless other hairy beasts), but rest assured, you have just given power to a slimy creature that while you don’t believe is actually inside you, in reality is grazing on your creative intestines as we speak.

It is vital at this point that you push through.

No matter how horrible you think the work you’re doing is, write.

I mean, how bad can it really be? If your writing was so wonderful in the beginning, what turned you into a hack in the middle? I ask those questions just to turn your thinking around a bit, because they’re really beside the point anyway. Right then, you are in no shape to evaluate your own words. The twin devils of “You’re Brilliant” and “You’re Awful” will talk to you throughout this process. Your only job at that juncture is to say, “Yes, I hear you. And we’ll talk later. Because right now, I have a paragraph, scene, chapter, etc., to write.”

Push through. Make the conscious decision (and yes, it takes a fair amount of courage to stare into that abyss, which is what this crossing comprises) that you’re going to continue, even if you’ve lost your way.

What’s the worst that could happen? You change or ax perhaps whole chapters in revision. Big deal. We do that anyway. As with any monster you keep in the dark, once you face this one, it turns into a silly rat and scooches away.

I’ve chunked entire sections of books. What can I say? I got off track. But by persevering, I finally found the right road again, and in revisions could go back and delete (yep, ax completely) the sections where I’d lost my way. And in the end, I found the pot of gold—right where it was supposed to be, if not where I left it!

“Oh, no!” you say. “I would lose so much work!”

Yep. But revision is truly the name of this game. And you learn by writing and writing more and writing again. As good friend and Western author Glenn Bavosett used to say before he died, “Nothing is ever wasted.”

Because once you do push through that god-awful slough of despond (my apologies to the Bard), the oddest thing happens: Your inspiration reappears, never really having left, and now merely rising from all the muck. You’ll be slogging along, and almost imperceptibly the mud becomes less dense. All of a sudden you’re churning out chapters again toward the finale. It begins to go so fast that before you take a breath, you’re typing, “The End.”

And wondering how by the luck of the leprechauns you got there!

As An Author How Do You Know What To Do With Criticism?

“This is a very subjective business . . .”

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Taking Criticism

Are you just about sick of hearing that? How many rejections, critiques, or pieces of group criticism begin or end with that remark? And while perhaps meant to temper the above, we all know it’s a plot (sort of as we use in the South, “Bless her heart,” after trashing the bejeebus out of some character quirk).

Any creative endeavor, however, and especially writing, where you’re often relegated to one person’s opinion at a time, is very subjective.

So, how do you know when to take the criticism, and when to reject it? Because what you do with the words from the book editor, literary agent, contest judge, or critique group most assuredly predicts your success.

Whether beginner or seasoned pro, we all need outside eyes. Many of my writers, upon receiving rejections ask, “Is it the market, or is it my book?” The answer to that is of vital importance to your writing career, so let’s sift through, separating the wheat from the chaff.

Especially when first starting out, the critique from a writer’s group can seem very harsh. Sometimes the criticism may indeed be self-serving, being more about the person giving it than the work itself. But often, the folks who have been around the block a time or two want to help new writers along the path. The trick is to keep in mind the personalities involved, then weigh the validity of the comments.

And listen to it all.

Yes, you may dig through a ton of BS before finding a jewel, but that very gem may be the thing that pushes you over some creative hump. In the beginning, all of the skills and tools involved in book writing may seem overwhelming, but by listening to such critique, these skills become more accessible.

As you progress down the writing path, critique serves as a sounding board, letting your know that indeed, you are on track. Or not, and need to go back to the drawing board.

The same holds true for a judge’s evaluation through a contest or conference. Usually the evaluator is a seasoned pro (a novel editor, etc.), and can identify strengths and weaknesses in a flash. I will say that I’ve judged a lot of conference contests, and some of the evaluators don’t give a piece five minutes. But most do.

And before your ego reacts, try to stay objective to the subjective point of view, and look at the criticism from arm’s length.

Does the person have a point? Is the writing flat? Are the characters thin? If you were reading your work from the standpoint of outside eyes, would you feel the same?

That brings us to the submissions to literary agents and editors. Everyone has probably gotten the form rejection, the “Not for me” standard line. The next step may be closer, but say, “I didn’t fall in love with x, y, z.” Followed of course with “This is a subjective business and another agent . . .”

Even after you’ve become agented, you’ll get that ‘no’ from publishing-house editors. And taken one step further, once you’re published, some awful book review editor may slam you. The nerve! Again, these run the gamut, but hopefully they’ll respond more in-depth (just one reason why having a good agent is important).

As you sift through, does a pattern surface?

Are many saying they loved x but were put off by y? Perhaps loved the prose, the voice, but the problems lay in the basic book development? If so, you’re getting there. Those problems are fixable, and doing so may be your ticket to success. If not, you may be facing something as simple (yet difficult) of not yet targeting the right house or agent with your work.

Again, listen to it all. I can’t say that enough. Much more worrisome than keeping your ego intact is to miss something that may be key to your book or story selling.

 In today’s insanely tough market, a work has to be more than perfect to sell; it has to shine above all the rest in order to make an editor fall in love. Remember, the editor who does so still has to convince both the editorial board and the sales’ reps of the book’s brilliance. Never has traditional publishing been more difficult. Never has it meant more as per prestige.

Which brings us to the crux.

Creativity really is subjective, and in those murky waters lives the only true demon—the ego troll.

Nothing is closer to our core than the stories we write. We’re not selling bread dough here; we’re selling work from our very souls. This leaves us so vulnerable that the ego naturally jumps up to provide at least some protection, and in doing so can undermine the very essence of what we’re doing. Getting that troll out of the way so that you can be objective can be the true beast. But you must do it.

I’ve worked with just about every kind of book author. And I’ve seen very talented writers fail because they believed their work was so pristine, so perfect, it needed no editing or revision. I’ve seen semi-talented (and you have to have some talent, but the rest is about skills and those can be learned) writers succeed because they were willing to set aside their egos, dig back in, learn from the critique and their mistakes, and write better.

The best way to deal with the ego troll is to look it in the face.

Is your writing perfect? No. If honest, we all must answer that way. Can it improve? Of course. Does x agent or y editor or z critique group know anything? Hopefully. If not, why did you submit, join, etc.? It all comes back to you in the end. And even if you decide he/she/they were idiots (which surely they were! :), as the old cliché goes (don’t let my writers know I’m using one!), even a blind hog finds an acorn now and then.

Put your ego on the shelf for an hour and look at your work as if it belonged to someone else. The validity of any critique (or lack thereof) will shine through. And some always exists, even in the most pedantic response.

Your job is to find the subjective pearls, through your objective mind, and put those into practice.

Sooner or later, that obnoxious phrase with which we began this will not come.

And that agent, editor, judge will simply say, “Yes.”

Creativity And Editing And Working With A Developmental Editor

Most writers (especially new ones) have a fear connected to working with an editor, especially a developmental editor.  It’s not so frightening to think of someone copy editing your manuscript, as what can a few commas hurt?

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Creativity and Editing

But the idea of someone actually delving into the essence, well, it makes a lot of folks squeamish.  Kinda like how having a few stitches put in is one thing, but having open-heart surgery, quite a different one indeed.

The thought is: What if he fundamentally changes my work?  My voice?  My people.

That’s not, however, what a good editor is supposed to do, and not at all what a great one actually does.

One of the most important aspects of working with a great book developmental editor is an intangible one.

Writing is such a solitary endeavor. We strive, sweating blood and tears and losing pounds of proverbial flesh in the process, wondering whether the work is good or awful, great or terrible; should we chunk the whole thing and start over. And while authors need outside eyes regarding the nuts and bolts, the elements of plot and characterization and style, these simply provide the framework for the editing and revision. Great insight comes from seeing not only what works, but also what doesn’t, and quite importantly, why on both. Most vital here is guidance on how to fix the problems.

But all of that said, perhaps the most helpful of all aspects that a good editor provides is an emotional one.

And I don’t mean this in a hand-holding sort of way, although absolutely that must be part of the scenario. We all need encouragement; an outside voice that comes in and says, “Truly, you can do this.” All writers need to know that someone, somewhere, sees the potential of their characters, their story. That’s one of the things that gives you an often much-needed shot in the arm to continue slogging on.

Self-editing can be exhausting

Usually by the time a writer sends me his work, he has exhausted his skill set, or is stuck, or just plain sick of it all, and doesn’t know how to make the book better. The idea of one more revision or even polish, much less attention to book development, makes him consider taking up baccarat instead. “I just can’t look at this one more time,” is a common refrain. And often the thought of another revision once I’m done proves a sticking point to even sending it to me. “You do it,” I hear a lot!

But the oddest thing happens when I send a package home to a writer, including the detailed edit of his book along with an in-depth, comprehensive, and very specific critique. I cannot explain why this happens, but it universally does. And it always makes me smile.

Working with an editor revives an author

I’ll invariably get a call from a very different person from the hesitant one who originally contacted me. Although the first reaction is usually a sense of being overwhelmed, that quickly passes. Excitement fills her voice, the tempo growing more and more upbeat. “I see what you’re saying! And I could use this suggestion, or what if I did this instead? Would that work?” Glee tinges her voice.

When you work with a true novel editor—one who attends to all aspects and elements of great writing—for whatever reason, creativity gets cracked smooth back open. Inspiration floods the airwaves, and the keyboard. Characters take off in entirely different directions, deepening, expanding, broadening both themselves and the story they’re now impacting. And the writer who was stuck or sick of it all has just flown over the moon.

Writers are so very appreciative of this numinous turn of events. It’s a joy to see. They thank me profusely, but I benefit almost as much. Few things are more gratifying than to hear that excitement in the voice, that quickening of the pulse, and to know—because it always happens—that a new and better writer has been born. And with that, the beginnings of a great book as well.