Do You Know Why The Character In Your Novel Exists?

How to create a charcter for your novelWhat is the central point of characters in your novel?  Their raison d’etre?  The essence of why they exist?

We can answer that in myriad ways.  Because of course, characters can be anything from of tertiary importance to the entire reason the novel exists.

And everything in between.

But when boiled down to the very essence of their beings, characters are there to drive the plot.

Yep, we talk in terms of character- or plot-driven novels.  And yep, books do lean one way or another.  But just like talking about good vs evil within people, we are all, and novels are all, mixtures of both and everything in between.  As Elisabeth Kubler Ross says, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”  Including your good-to-the-bone hero.

And even the most plot-driven book must have believable, memorable characters.

Otherwise no one remembers it.

Now I, too, can point to many bestselling books and authors with flat, unimagined characters.  We all can. But they are the exceptions to the rule, and not what an aspiring novelist wants to emulate.

So, what goes into creating fabulous folks on the page?  How do you get from first inception to The End, with people populating your story whom readers remember long after that final page?

How do you actually ensure that your plot changes your characters, and your characters drive your plot?

We’ll discuss all of that in the coming weeks, dive deeply into what makes all of the characters work, from the Protagonist to the Antagonist, from the secondary folks to the minor ones.  From what makes them believable as well as memorable, to the pitfalls we can easily avoid.

With some planning.  And more importantly, some understanding.

To begin we’ll dissect who, actually these people are.

What makes them tick?  What do you, as the writer, need to know about each and every one?  How do you find out the cores of their beings in order to portray them on the page without writing a tome on each one?  How, exactly do you get to that?

Then we’ll ask, where do they go?  Not just in the physical travels of the book, which is of course the plot.  But deeper than that—where do they go within?  What are the central issues of your Protagonist as he navigates the rough waters of your story, whether those seas are the windswept deserts of the Old West or the glassy rivers of a kayaker training for the Olympics?

In other words, all-genre inclusive.

How do they get to where they’re going?  That seems simple enough, no?  But it’s through the trials and tribulations, the meeting of allies and enemies, that your character’s metal is tested.  That’s where secondary and even tertiary characters become of paramount importance in either aiding or thwarting his quest.

And mastering that will ensure you never end up in those dreaded sagging middles.   Because you’ll have too much going on—both internally and externally—with your characters and story to ever create that lulling bog out of which no one comes back.

What do they learn?  This deals with who they are, from Part One.  All people have central issues—core fears, beliefs, desires, failings.  And through the course of this story—where they go, how they get there, the issues and demons they face—they’ll either master or they will fail in their outer conquests as well.

The internal conflicts do of course mirror the external ones, and we’ll talk about how to make that all work.

What do they achieve?  Does your hero find the Holy Grail, whatever she deems that to be?  Does she find a piece of it (if this is a series), to come back and fight another day?  Does he scale that mountain?  Swim that sea?  Slay that dragon? Die trying?

All of those work, depending upon what sort of novel you’re writing.  In a Tragedy our hero pretty much has to die.  But he reaches the Grail before doing so, as Augustus McCrae in opening up the Montana territory for cattle ranchers.

Then does he reenter society and bring back the boon, or is the promise implied that he will do so?

All heroes must, in the end.  Although this part is quite short and sweet.

And last but not at all least, how does he change and grow?

Remember those failings, those issues, those less-than-stellar traits we learned of in Part One?  Which of those has he bettered, mastered, like the alchemist turned the brass into gold?

And how did that influence the climax?

Because it must, you know, for your novel to be satisfying in the end.

The simple reason is that for a story to work, the characterization and plotting can’t be divorced.

And although we dissect them somewhat separately in order to understand how to make all this fit together into one whole, plot and characters are forever married, for better or for worse.

So, come along for this journey as we whittle away at the mysteries of unforgettable characters, and how you can create them for your own story.

It’ll be a fun ride!

49 Professional Tips On How To Write A Book

So much goes into a well-written book.  We’ve settled on 49 tips here, but it could go into the thousands.  As I often say when speaking at Literary conferences: “Writing well really is Rocket Science.”

49 TIps On Writing

And as with anything, learning to write fabulous fiction begins at the beginning, and continues one step at a time.

So, let’s break this up into sections, and dive in!


Style encompasses so many things.  And all intertwine.  But we can piece a lot of it out.

  1.      Voice.  Finding yours may take a bit.  Honing it will take a long time.  You find your voice by writing.  And writing a lot.

First book?  Maybe.  Second?  You’re getting closer.  It takes an average of 3 books to truly hone your voice.  Which is why so many successful authors thank their lucky stars their first books weren’t published . . .

Voice is about syntax and flow and the way your string your words together to paint beautiful images on the page.  But most importantly, it’s that whole package that causes a reader to love your work. And, recognize it.

The Litmus Test: Can a stranger hear your voice as uniquely yours?

  1.      Tighten.  Wow, we can write an entire book on this!  And yep, so much goes into truly tightening your prose to make it sing, to uncover the jewels from under the mounds of mud.

The Litmus Test:  Every word counts.  Every single one

  1.      Create, create, create rather than tell.  Everyone’s sick of hearing this these days, but the old Show Don’t Tell rule is paramount.  This isn’t a film—you’re not spoon feeding your readers.  So you have to create those images on the page in order for your reader to have the experience of the novel.

The Litmus Test: Can your reader see, hear, feel, etc., the scene?

  1.      Tell don’t show.  Yep, you read that right.  The thing is, if you created every single image, your book would be 1,000,000 words.  So you need to find the balance between where you create, and where you tell in order to bridge a gap that doesn’t need to be shown.

The Litmus Test:  Zero-in on emotional turning points. We want tight, concise writing everywhere but lavish word count on emotional turning points, which are crucial both to character development and the reader’s sense of story movement.

  1.      Do not both show and tell.  Seems like a no-brainer, right?  But what I see most is the author telling what he’s fixing to show, and then showing it.

The Litmus Test: Have you done both? Nix the telling and let the showing stand on its own.          

6.     Give your reader some credit. This applies to the above, but goes further.  Are you beating your reader over the head so she’ll “get it,” whatever it is?  I mean, if she’s reading your book, she has a brain to begin with, no?

The Litmus Test: Are you treating your reader like an idiot? 

  1.      Never underestimate points left between the lines.   This is similar to the above, but not exactly the same thing.  If you have created, showed, evoked, then your reader is getting what you intended.  But take that a step further—allow space for your reader to draw her own conclusions.  Let her have a space to think, to visualize, and most importantly, to feel.

The Litmus Test: Did you leave enough dots—and no more—for the reader to connect? 

  1.      Passive voice.  Yes, you can use it.  But the point is, we want to use passive voice to slow down the narrative, or for effect.  Not as a constant fixture in your prose.

The Litmus Test: Are you using passive voice when you intend to? 

  1.      Use short, snappy sentences in action scenes.  Carrying on from passive voice, are you using the way you string together words to enhance the storyline?  Using staccato-like sentences will cause the reader’s eye to move more quickly down the page, raising the heart rate, and evoking that sense of urgency, panic, fear, etc.

The Litmus Test: Do you vary your prose for the content of the scene?

  1.      Discern your favorite words and phrases.  All writers have them.  Those pesky ones that keep popping up, sometimes numerous times on one page.  Find yours (do a search).  And then eliminate them.

The Litmus Test: Are you using the same words over and over?

  1.      Does your prose fit your genre?  This one surprises many writers.  But different genres call for different styles of writing.

For example, Thrillers (except when they’re ebbing!) use a more staccato style.  On the other extreme, Literary works are often told in long, flowing sentences.

This has to do most with pacing—revving it up or slowing it down.

The Litmus Test: Do you know which style fits the genre you’re writing in? 


12.     Establish viewpoint.

POV is whether the story is told in first, second, or third person.

Viewpoint, on the other hand, is which character is narrating this book.

Again, another book-length topic!  And a huge one of misunderstanding.

Study the differences before you write your book.  Viewpoint is truly the hub around which the entire book revolves.

The Litmus Test: Do you understand POV?  Viewpoint?  The nuances?

  1.      Do not give a laundry list of character traits up front—those are author’s notes, for you, in order to flesh out the characters on the page.

Weave these in through action and as the course of the story goes along—just as you would meet someone in real life.

The Litmus Test:  Do your characters come on-stage and read like a list?

  1.      Can your reader see your characters?

Don’t tell your reader what your character looks like.  Instead, show the character through actions and mannerisms.

The Litmus Test: Does your character come across clearly, without your reader being told? 

  1.      Avoid these tags:

He saw x.  He heard y. He smelled z.

Doing so points out, again, that we’re in his head.  Which paradoxically keeps him at arm’s length from the reader.  Instead, write what he saw, heard, smelled, felt.  Evoke the senses.

The Litmus Test: Did you create what your narrator is experiencing?

  1.      Is your dialogue real?

Or is it stilted?  Does the 5-year-old speak like an English Professor?  Or the English Professor talk like a hooker?

Get quiet and listen to your characters.  Hear their speech patterns.  Write what you hear, including slang and favorite words.

But do be careful not to overdo.

The Litmus Test: Can you tell who’s speaking without the identifying tags?

  1.      Don’t describe your dialogue.

I.e., when you write, “she said anxiously,” then the dialogue itself is lacking.  Your reader should “get” her anxiety by the words she speaks, by her inflections and mannerisms and expression while doing so.

The Litmus Test: Have you told your dialogue? 

  1.      No real characters are all good or all bad.

The most memorable heroes have flaws.  His Achilles’ heel is part of the story question—whether he can achieve his goal—and also what he must overcome in your story.

And the worst villains have redeeming qualities.

As Elisabeth Kubler Ross said: “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”

The Litmus Test: Are your hero and villain a mix of good and bad traits?

  1.    Does your Protagonist have enough conflicts to face?

Most novels need conflict on every page.  It’s through conflict that the Protagonist moves through the course of the story.  Overcomes his foibles.  Uses those in mastery to save the day.

The Litmus Test: Do you have constant conflict to keep your character growing?

  1.      Does your Hero grow and change?

He must.  It’s through those conflicts, through the mastery of them, that the story has teeth and becomes satisfying to your reader.

But leopards don’t entirely change their spots.  We’re not talking wholescale change, but movement in a positive direction.

The Litmus Test: Does he change, and in a believable way?

  1.     Does your Hero save the day?

It’s amazing how often she doesn’t.  How someone else in the novel does.  And, well, that just can’t be.

One way or another, your Protagonist has to be the one who finds the Grail, whatever that Grail is in your novel.  That’s why she’s the Hero, no?

The Litmus Test: Who actually IS the hero of your novel? 

  1.    Does your hero achieve the Story-Question goal?

He doesn’t have to achieve all of it—especially in a series.  But he must attain at least the central one—answering the Story Question, in the end.

He can achieve it and then die—this is a Tragic Story.  But in all others, he must successfully answer that Question.

The Litmus Test: Is the beginning Story Question ultimately answered?


23.     What is the central theme of your novel?

This is different from plot or storyline.  It’s the essence of your book, and one to which you need sharp focus.  This comprises your essential Story Question.  And every single scene has to have a piece of it.

The Litmus Test: Can you say in 1-2 sentences what the theme of your book is?

  1.      Did your novel begin with that main Story Question?

It’s the one that propels your Protagonist on to begin with.  The same one that keeps him going.  And the one he finally answers—at the climax of your book.

The Litmus Test: Is the Story Question clear and consistent?

  1.      Is the timeline clear through the course of your story?

Sometimes this is vaguer than you think.  After all, the when of things happening is crystal clear in your head, right?

But not always so in the reader’s.

Did you give your readers signposts as to the passage of time?  And not dates stamped to begin chapters, but woven in unobtrusively through the story?

The Litmus Test: Do you readers always know where they are in the book?

  1.      Have you gotten a grasp on Ebb and Flow?

You don’t want your readers gasping for air with too much constant, staccato action.  Conversely, if they start yawning, they’ll quit you.

Even Thrillers have to have down times, when both the characters and the readers get to catch their breaths.  And even literary works have to have stressful conflicts, which propel the plot forward.

The Litmus Test: Does the storyline include both, at the proper times?

  1.      Do your Scenes contain the 5 elements that must go into them?

Scene setting, creation of conflict, climax of conflict, denouement, resolution.

Every scene must contain these elements.  They are what make a scene.  And a satisfying novel.

The Litmus Test: Are your scenes full and complete or are they missing aspects?

  1.    Are all of your scenes vital to the book?

Or do you have scenes, which you might just love, but have no real part of the Story Question?

Every single scene must propel the plot, characters, or best both forward in order to remain.  Otherwise, it sadly goes onto the cutting-room floor.

The Litmus Test: Can you explain why every scene must remain?

  1.      Does your scene take off right from the get-go? 

Or do you come into the room early, setting up every segment, and are paragraphs or even pages into it when something happens?

You want something to be happening with the first word of a scene.  Plunge us into the action.

The Litmus Test: Enter the scene late, leave it early.

  1.    Do you ramble on at the end of a scene?

Easy to do!  In real life, the gist of something is over and we keep talking about it.

But on the page, you want to leave the scene or chapter with the punchline—the part that matters.  This keeps your reader turning the page.

The Litmus Test: Do you leave it with the important part? 

  1.      Never underestimate the use of symbols and imagery to enrich your story.         

Remember the glasses on the billboard in Gatsby?  Pretty much everyone who read it gets a chill when those are mentioned.

You can evoke so much emotion through an image, a symbol, in so few words.

The Litmus Test: Does your symbology fit your story? 

  1.      Have you evoked enough tension in your tale?

Time constraints, applying pressure, dilemmas, complicating matters, and many more tools up the tension and drama.  And a book with no drama is a real yawner.

The Litmus Test: Does tension keep your Protagonist moving through the storyline?

  1.      Do your subplots flow into the main stream?

Sub-plots are great!  They enrich the plot, give it texture and layers, and help your characters learn and grow.

But a huge problem is that these often become tangents.  And those are book killers.

Be careful of sending your readers down roads that go nowhere—they’re liable to take those roads and not come back.  I.e., lay the book down, never to pick it up again.

The Litmus Test: Does every single sub-plot feed into the main Story Question? 

  1.    Does your story have a well-defined beginning, middle, and end?

This basically translates to Set Up, Confrontation, and Resolution.  You get here by outlining your story structure—whether before or after you’ve written the book.

Roughly, you’re looking for the Beginning (Act 1) to go from midnight to 3 o’clock.  The Middle (Act 2) to go from 4-8’o’clock. And the End (Act 3) from 9-midnight.

The Litmus Test: Are you long in one and short in another? 

  1.      Are you a victim of the dreaded sagging middles?

This is a trap so, so many writers fall into.  They set the book up perfectly, even end it well. But the vast middle section is a wasteland where not a lot happens, and we all get bogged down in never-ending quicksand.

The middle is actually where most of the ins and outs, plot points, allies, enemies, the mastering of tasks and even the very root exposure of the Protagonist’s nemesis occur.

The Litmus Test: Did you get caught in the bog?  If you did, then your readers have already fled.

  1.    Does your story have twists? And are they believable?

The point for a novelist is to create a story and people that surprise the reader in the end.

If your reader knows what’s going to happen, then you haven’t created your plot skillfully enough.  Worse, however, is to toss in a huge twist at the end that doesn’t fit the story or the folks in it.

The Litmus Test: Did you surprise your reader, but he say in the end, “Ah!  I didn’t see it coming but I should have!”

  1.    Are you writing what you know?

If you’re a secretary, is your main character a renowned neurosurgeon?  Or vice-versa?  To write rich, believable characters, they have to arise organically. I.e., that’s the essence of the idea that all the characters in a novel are parts of the author.

When your Protagonist is far afield from your real life, it shows. 

Every profession draws into it certain people.  And people are changed, at least somewhat, by the professions they go into, and the rigorous (or not) requirements of getting and staying there.

Yes, you can research into different fields.  But save that for ancillary characters.

The Litmus Test: Do you know of whom you write? 

  1.     Have you taken the time to learn your craft, before you send out your first manuscript?

I.e., have you joined a writer’s workshop, taken classes, worked with a professional editor, written some more, revised some more, studied some more, before thinking this manuscript is actually ready to go to publishers or print?

Writing well takes a long time to learn. And we don’t want you looking back years down the road and being embarrassed by what you published in the beginning.  Remember: Even Hemingway was grateful (albeit years later) that his first 3 manuscripts were lost on the train . . .

The Litmus Test: Are you trying to publish your first, or even second, or even third manuscript without having truly learned the craft? 

General Tips

39.    Read.  Just read.  Nothing serves an aspiring writer more than reading widely.

And while reading in your genre is a must, in order to know intrinsically the specs, reading widely is a huge plus.  So, start with your genre, then what’s selling in others, to the more obscure Literary, and even the classics.  All will serve you well.

And read critically.

The Litmus Test:  Are you starting to see what works in other authors’ stories and what doesn’t? 

40.   Schedule your writing time.  Not anybody else’s.

You’ll get lots of advice on the best way to be productive, but it honestly doesn’t matter if you write every day at 4 AM or 10 PM, you only write on weekends, etc.  What matters is that the schedule works for you.

The Litmus Test:  Have you found a writing time when you’re at your best? 

41.      Commit to it.  Oh, how easy it is for anything and everything to get in the way.

And while sometimes real life just does, if you commit to your schedule and only let the kid’s hair being on fire get in the way, you’ll write your way to success.

The Litmus Test: Are you consistently productive?

  1.     Settle in for the long haul.  Writing well takes a long time.  Take all pressure off yourself as per when you’ll perfect it.

The Litmus Test: Are you stressed about not being famous yet? 

  1.      Are you writing for the market, or what you love to write?

There is no wrong answer here.  But a chasm as big as the Grand Canyon spans the answers.

If your point is to be published, to have a career in writing, to make your living doing so, it’s possible that this will happen if you’re writing what your heart longs to write.  But that route is longer, more circuitous, and may or may not make you a household name.

On the other hand, many genres are crying out for new authors.  So if you want to become rich and famous in the most timely manner, write for the market.

The Litmus Test: Have you consciously made this decision? 

  1.      Outline your book.

Many, many successful authors do this.  It helps to give you a framework, keep you on track, make sure the story structure is right.

If you’re of a more analytic mind, this works great.

The Litmus Test: Does your outline fit with novel structure?

  1.    Don’t outline your book.

Many, many others write from discovery, letting the characters take them through the story at will.

Which is great if you aren’t daunted by revision.

And don’t mind tossing away half the book and rewriting it.

The Litmus Test: Do you have the fortitude to look brutally at what you have and chop off limbs if need be? 

  1. Know your Genre.

Genre rules are specific—for a reason.  They’ve been honed by publishers over decades, and they’re what readers in that genre expect.

While it may be tempting to write cross-genre, and seem logical that this may bring you a wider readership, the opposite is actually true. Readers expecting a book in the genre they are comfortable reading will be turned off. And you’ve just lost both sets of readers.

The Litmus Test: Does your book conform to the genre? 

  1.      Have you set your first draft aside for a few months?

One of the oddities of the writing life is we can’t see what’s on the page in front of us, after having gone over it many times.

So once that first draft is finished, set it aside.  And yes—for 6-8 weeks.  Give it time to settle not only on your desk, but also away from your mind.

THEN when you go back over it, the cream will have risen to the top, and you can clearly see it.

The Litmus Test: Have you kept yourself entirely away from it?

  1.      As you go into revisions, are you rewriting or are you polishing?

So often, especially new writers, think of revision as polish.  And it is surely that—at the very last stage of the game.

But revision is rewriting. Sometimes entirely—from word one.  Sometimes it’s writing new scenes, once you realize you’ve left holes.  Sometimes it’s trashing entire segments, and writing bridges between chapters.

The point being, revision means rewriting.

Once that’s done—and it sits again—then you go into the polish stage.

The Litmus Test: Have you actually rewritten your first draft, or just polished it? 

  1.      And finally, do you love to do this?

Writing well is difficult.  It’s an exacting endeavor, and takes a very long while to learn how to do well.  That blood, sweat, and tears idea?  It’s quite real.

This will also humble you to your knees.  As I often say, we’re not selling bread dough here, but parts of our very souls.

There is no shame in walking away if you find that your heart’s just not in it.  Or can’t take the pain.

The last thing we want is for you to be John Kennedy Toole, and off yourself from the excruciating nature of publishing.  Especially since his book went on to publication and a Pulitzer after his death.

The very best Litmus Test I know:

“In the deepest hour of the night, confess to yourself that you would die if you were forbidden to write. And look deep into your heart where it spreads its roots, the answer, and ask yourself, must I write?”
― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet


3 Quick Tips That Will Keep You Writing


3 Quick Tips That Will Keep You Writing


Ever noticed how it’s both? Anyone who has undertaken the daunting task to actually write and complete a book knows that no choice really exists. I talk a lot about Inspiration, but this one is more about her evil twin: Work.

Yes, you need the initial inspiration to even talk yourself into starting.

And often, that beginning breath of the gods will take you a long way—through the opening, into the major conflicts, your oh-so-well-drawn characters jumping to life and racing around the first turn and even (hopefully) into the backstretch.

Ah, we love that muse, and prime her in every way we can think of! We feed her with all the sweet nothings whispered into her ear, with the promise of carrots at the end of our writing day. And she always responds. At least, initially.

And then, often, we run smack dab into a soft spot on the rail. You feel like you’re hitting your head against a wall, and get that awful feeling of a bogging down. Where did all that momentum go?

It jumped straight off the track and landed in the soggy infield of slaughtered dreams.

I can’t begin to recount all the stories I hear from writers regarding this. Some try to press through, floundering as if with one leg tied behind their backs. Jockey-less. That writing muscle cramped up as in a lactic-acid meltdown. We’ve all done it.

So very many writers quit here altogether, or begin another book, only to at some point stop that one and begin another . . . I hear, often, “I was so inspired, I wrote 20,000 words in nothing flat. But then the trail went cold and now I can’t write until I get another breath of it.”

Phooey! As professionals, we all know this is when the perspiration part comes in. We know all too well that while amateurs rely on inspiration, professionals know that fortitude and courage must now take over. If a deadline exists, well, we whip ourselves on the rump and spur that pony on. The feed bill has to be paid!  And you’d be right :)

And I actually think this is the best-case scenario—you have no choice but to press on. Because it’s oh-so easy to stop and bemoan the lack of inspiration to write. But that is only a trick of the mind.

A few jumpstarting exercises work great here.  Let me show you how! 

1).    To begin with:  The very best is to take one of your major characters out of the book and into a scenario that occurred a decade before. Or in childhood or adolescence. This piece isn’t to be included in the book, but it can be a short story you can sell down the road.

Just take her away and include none of the rest of the characters, putting her into a scenario with a huge conflict. Begin writing and follow her where she takes you, with no attention to your prose or structure or anything, but rather, stream-of-consciousness. Not only will this cleanse your palate, but you’ll also learn something about her you can use in the book, once you get back to it.

2).     Next: Just write something entirely different, even if it’s a response to Dear Abby. Just write.

3).     FinallyAnd then, circle back to your book. Write. Take the last passage you have, and go. It may be awful. It may take your story a way you ultimately toss. None of that matters. You don’t care that this workman-like prose doesn’t have the zing of the inspired brilliance of before. That’s not the point. The point is you’re doing it.

Somewhere, along the far turn, you’ll find yourself racing again, getting ready for the homestretch, the breath of the gods back in your face, the finish line in sight. And often, you won’t even remember when you turned back on.

So what’s stopping you? Take the next step!  Go out there and finish that book.

Because as Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

How Do People Get Published In Today’s World?

Breaking into Traditional publishing has always been tough. Always.

How to get traditionally published

In this day of instant publishing, sometimes we forget that in days of yore, a writer could struggle for years, even decades to finally sell that manuscript and become a real book author.

Indeed, if that ever happened at all. This road has always been long and perilous, with the vast majority of writers dropping by the wayside, later if not sooner. Monsters and gargoyles and trolls block every single turn, both internally and externally. But then, grasping for the brass ring has humbled the greatest of us to our knees.

And, nothing has changed, really. Although the technology and the business model and all of that have taken off in directions unforeseen when I began in this business,

Getting Traditionally published is every bit as difficult today as it always has been. In fact, more so.

Due to sinking print sales and burgeoning self-pubbed books, the Traditional market has shrunk. Lists are tighter. Competition more fierce. As a book editor buddy of mine at a major house is fond of saying, “We’re only publishing existing authors—and preferably if they’re dead.” He says this with a straight face too. And their sales numbers bear it out.

Yet and still, folks are getting Traditionally published every day. So, how do they do it?

Hard work, fortitude, and persistence. Is it that simple? Yes.

The hard-work part comes in up front. It’s tough to write well. It’s really tough.

The vast sea of self-pubbed work out there is actually pretty awful. I get complaints from readers every single day: “I can’t find anything decent to read.”

And while this has been the case for some time now (don’t get me started on the Bestseller’s List), it’s a million times worse now. Literally.

As I’m fond of saying: “Writing really IS rocket science.”

And this hard work never ends—you must keep growing and learning and improving as a writer. Mastering book development is a life-long process.

If you don’t have fortitude, you won’t have the persistence to keep at it. I know so, so many writers with talent who finally quit, unable to bear the soul-wrenching rejection time after time, year after year. Yes, humbling. But we all know fifty stories about famous authors who wallpapered their offices with rejections.

It really does, in the end, just take one “yes.”

I began working with a new novelist a few years ago, Randy Denmon, whose novel, Lords of an Empty Land, was published by Pinnacle Books (an imprint of Kensington) in 2015.  In the days of reconstruction after the Civil War, a wild strip of land in northern Louisiana remained unconquered by troops and untamed by the law. Captain Douglas Owens of the Union 4th Calvary is given orders to reclaim this God-forsaken land from its murderous outlaw gangs. With his options dwindling, the Captain takes a squad of soldiers under his command–in a last desperate bid for freedom and justice that would change the course of history. . .

It’s a great story, beautifully written.

And you know what?  It just won a 2016 Spur Award!

We are beyond thrilled!

Great job, Randy!

About ten years ago, I began working with a talented young man (he was just a kid at the time. Okay, so he’s still just a kid to me, at 30!). Kevin Porter had written a good YA novel, and had worked and worked to learn the craft. We never got that one sold, but Kevin kept writing. He wrote a Mid-Grade novel, which is indeed beautifully done. Unfortunately, it has no vampires or werewolves in it. Which of course made his battle a steep uphill one. Did that bother Kevin? All I can say is he never whined or complained. He kept querying and kept sending and built up a social media presence with his blog at The Examiner

And his wonderful Mid-Grade novel, Missing,  was published by a Traditional house to wonderful reviews!

Great job, Kevin!

Did it take ten tons of work for both of these talented writers to get published? You bet’cha. Did they succeed, seemingly against all odds? Oh, lordy yes. But the point is, they did it.

Never, ever let anyone tell you it can’t be done. You have two great guys right here who say it can.

This Is Why Love And Lust Is Important In A Novel

Why do characters fall in love? Other than begging the question of why any of us tumble head over heels, what purpose does doing so serve for either a novel or narrative nonfiction?

This Is Why Love And Lust Is Important In A Novel

Why is this of such importance to a great book? Or in the words of the song, what’s love got to do with it?

Many new writers want to gloss over this part of human existence, focusing instead on “deeper” or “more profound” pieces of the human condition. And while that’s all fine and good, even if you’re not writing Category Romance where love and lust provide the backdrop to whatever else occurs, matters of the heart bring with them all sorts of luscious twists for your characters.

Characters drive your story. Faced with all manner of psyche-bending events, your hero undergoes trials and tests that force him to change and grow, force her to tackle problems on the outside, which mirror those on the inside. This turns the plot in another direction, bringing with it a new host of problems our hero has to face.

The best characters have to solve the inner before resolving the outer, and those tribulations form opposite sides of one whole coin. And nothing turns a character inside out more effectively than a love situation. For other than a few freaks of nature, the Bard hit the essence when saying that the course of true love never did run true.

Everything, in any book, has to be there on purpose. We use love won or lost to propel our hero onward. Often loss happens in the beginning of a story; it’s what causes the main character to sign up to drive the herd to Montana. Or to board the Starship Arugula for the outer reaches of the galaxy. And even though she may be running from her heartache, in the end, she must find resolution for that sorrow, or drift endlessly at the mercy of the Intergalactic pirates.

Because it’s in the very efforts required to heal that shattered heart that our hero finds his own essence, his own strength, and lives to fight the bad guys (or his own neurosis) another day.

Many plot threads run through any book. That’s what gives a story layers, richness, texture, and depth.

Each and every one of those threads must weave together into the main theme throughout the course of the story, ultimately tying up (or failing to, on purpose) in the end. The cowboy doesn’t always get the girl. If he doesn’t though, and you’re worth your salt as a writer, you intend to set him up for book two in the series.

Love, lust, whatever you want to call it tends to lay bare all of our fears and hopes and shortcomings. It causes the strongest man, or the most sensible woman (or vice versa) to come undone, to act in ways contrary to normal. To have their friends shaking their heads and saying, “What the bleep is wrong with you!” And it gives you, the author, that plethora of ways to plunge them into chaos—the essence of what makes a book tick.

Your Political Thriller will have more meat if the morning the President’s hand covers the red phone, he’s just learned his wife had an affair with, well, whomever—pick a pivotal and hopefully antagonistic character in the novel. Your Literary novel will resonate as the geisha falls in love, destroying not only her livelihood but likely her life as well. Your Fantasy will be enriched as our witch must save not only the town from evil, but the man who kept her from being burned at the pyre as well.

Love ups the stakes. And upping the stakes is what makes your story move. Keeps it going. Causes the characters to grow.

Finally, it never dies. Okay, so love can be killed (again, bringing with it that whole new Pandora’s Box of plot twists), but the impetus to love never dies. We go to our graves with it. A good friend had to move her ninety-two-year-old mother to a nursing home. After finishing with the paper work, she went to find her mom—who was stepping down the hall, an elderly man (of about her age) holding her arm. Once inside her new room, my friend asked if this man was helpful.

Her mom said, a gleam in her pale eyes, “He let me use his walker.”

Ah, yes, that’s what love’s got to do with it.

What Makes A Great Novel

Stories are the backbone of what makes us human. So it’s as natural as the sun coming up that we tell them, write them, listen and read them. Hemingway said he’d let go of many things through writing, and readers worldwide have learned great truths through the literature of our history.

on the floor and read a great book

What Makes A Great Book?

But if you go at writing a novel from that standpoint, it’ll get so bogged down in “seriousness” that everyone (agents, editors, readers) will quit it faster than you can say Pulitzer Prize.

Because in essence, novels are meant to entertain.

Haven’t you ever picked up that new, “big,” important novel and after a chapter gone, “Blech!” And for a variety of reasons. Because if a novel doesn’t grab you up and transport you to a different world (even if that’s within the main character’s mind), your loyalty to it will disintegrate like a Hollywood marriage.

To entertain is something of a nebulous term itself, as we all have different tastes. Which is one reason we have so many different genres and subgenres of fiction. While you may not be caught dead reading a category Romance, Chick Lit might tweak your fancy all day long. You might hate Westerns, but love literature set in the West.

Case in point: my author, Randy Denmon, just won the prestigious Spur Award for his novel, Lords of an Empty Land.  It’ a post-Civil War novel set in Louisiana, about a history I never knew.  While the Spur is awarded by Western Writers of America, the book simply transcends the genre.

Although not apparent on the surface (or in the bookstore), publishing operates through very rigid lines.

The point being, the novels you love to read, and more importantly for our purposes to write, might have meant a host of things to you, but first and foremost, they entertained you—if only in your own head.

So, how do we do that?

What you, as a writer, know is that you must have the elements of great fiction to begin with. That takes time, study, guidance, and lots of writing. The tools of great writing—whether fiction or non—can be learned.  And, they simply must be.

Characterization, plotting, organization and structure, voice, tone, etc.—all of these must be there in order for a novel to fly. And the devil truly is, as they say, in the details.

Because it’s by mastering these elements (so deceptively simple, no?) that we bring the magic forth from great fiction.

I could write a book on each of these topics, so we’ll save them for subsequent months. But you have to learn those skills first, before your okay or even good novel will be great.

The elements of great fiction provide the foundation upon which you stand to launch that fabulous story into the heavens of bestseller-dom.

From there, the intangibles come in.

Ask yourself:

*        Did I have fun writing this passage/chapter/book?

*        Do I care about my characters? (So often cardboard characters are mouthpieces for one belief system or another, and the author quite obviously didn’t like them to begin with. If you, as the author, don’t like your folks, how can we, as your readers?)

*        Am I bored when going through revisions? (Be prepared to read your own book a thousand times, as you rewrite/revise/polish. If doing so bores you, just think how jaded agents and editors will react.)

*        Does the middle drag? I.e., is your book the victim of ‘sagging middles’?

*        When you read it aloud, is the prose ratchety, awkward, stumbling? Or does it sing with poetry if Literary, or move at a crisp pace if genre?

*        Is the book all of one piece?

The key is to keep these questions in the front of your mind (taped to your monitor will help). Revisit them regularly.

Most importantly, with all of these tools solidly in your arsenal, then let your creativity run. Give that horse its head, hold on, and enjoy the visceral thrill of the ride.

That’s what makes for great fiction.

Hey Author What Makes Your Novel Unique?

We universally hear fiction editors say: “I want something like x book (whatever is selling hugely these days), but I want it fresh, unique, different.”

the special book

In other words, something just like, say, Harry Potter, but with a twist.

Now, on the surface, that seems simple enough. Even though what Aristotle said a while back still holds true today: “There are no new plots,” we have to make book writing seem so new as to belie that.

And therein lies the stumbling block for most writers. How do you make a story and characters unique without causing them to be so over-the-top that the book loses all verisimilitude?

All books have to have a fresh slant of some sort. For example, Coming of Age hasn’t changed in all of publishing. But the way in which you tell your story, the characters involved, and the events that transpire all have to come across as something new.

Most writers fall into two traps here. First, they write something that revolves around “pulled from today’s headlines.” As most of you probably know, agents and editors sigh heavily at this. While God knows, truth really IS stranger than fiction, if something is pulled from “today’s headlines,” by the time it would get into print, it’d be old news. Our society has a short attention span, even in this brave new world of POD.

But the second foible is subtler, and trips up more writers. What I see so often, in all genres, is characters who are celebrities or presidents of Forbes 500 companies or successful doctors or lawyers. Now, in and of itself, that’s not a rule-out.

The problem comes in that rarely is the actual book author a celebrity, or now running a multi-million-dollar company. Now and then one is a doctor or lawyer. But when the writer isn’t in those businesses, the characters don’t feel like any of the above either.

Plus, don’t you get tired of reading about that sort of person? Yeah, we like to get a voyeur’s view of the rich and famous.

But the most memorable books are about folks like you and me, struggling through this life and hopefully learning something along the way—even if within the confines of a Cozy Mystery or Traditional Western. Yep, Gus and Cap’n Call were famous Texas Rangers. Once. But their heyday had long-since passed, and what made Lonesome Dove so compelling was that longing that calls to all of us. Given the chance, I too would sign up for that trail heading north.

That’s what makes a book worthwhile, and that’s what I see more and more writers losing.

Which brings me to my point (you knew I’d finally have one).

That old cliché in this business could not hold more true here: write what you know. Because not only will your story then have the feel of reality, and keep characters from acting OUT of character, but nobody knows your slice of life like you do. Nobody. Not one person has had your exact experiences, filtered through your perceptions. And nobody can bring to life the events as can someone who has actually lived them.

Okay, so you probably haven’t actually murdered anyone. But chances are, your Mystery isn’t going to be told from the murderer’s viewpoint (unless you’re Dean Koontz, and we worry about him :). Most likely, your Protagonist is going to be someone trying to put the pieces together. And armchair sleuths abound.

On the other side of this ocean, we would all love to write The Green Hills of Africa. But when Hemingway tells you to never trust a man until you’ve seen him shoot a charging lion at thirty yards, well, you don’t have to wonder if he’s speculating. Every word of his stories resonates with truth.

It is the rare author who can pull off places and people without having lived with them; or, to be successful by Isak Dinesen’s method: “I have been a mental traveler.”

But even then, it’s no surprise that her signature work revolved around a story she LIVED.

 What makes novel development really fresh isn’t some bizarre plot twist (although these can work very well). It’s giving your reader a slice of life he wouldn’t ordinarily see.

I edited a great book where the main character was a slave trader, post Civil War, on a slave-filled ship headed to Brazil, and small pox broke out—Masters and Savages. Obviously, the author didn’t ride on that ship. But he’d already written a nonfiction, historical work on this subject (he’s a Ph.D. professor), and had studied small pox in-depth as well. I learned an enormous amount about a history I didn’t even know existed, and got completely wrapped up in the main character’s dilemma. Interestingly, that dilemma was about a universal human truth . . .

What do YOU bring to this table? What do YOU know that no one else does?

Find that essence. Forget the always-gorgeous, incredibly rich and successful, bling-adorned heroes. Give me a real person any day. One you know from the inside out, who learns and grows and stumbles and screws up and behold and lo—I can relate to. That’s why you remember Holden Caulfield (okay, so lots more boys revere the book than girls), or any number of others.

Hemingway said that a writer’s only requirement was to write the truth. We fictionalize it—the events may not have happened as we portray them—but the essence is pure.

So, go write your truth. And then let the rest of us in on it.


Ah, the dreaded query.  Writers hate them.  And almost all the agents and editors I know sigh heavily about them as well.  Because, well, they don’t want to be ‘wowed.’  Nor do they want to be bored to tears.  Humor can help, but only if it’s not forced and most importantly, if such prose holds true in the course of the text.

Author Query

The point is, one wants to know why you think she might be the right agent or why he’s the right editor at the right publishing house for your book.  They want to know what the book is about.  They want to know who you are and if you can pull off said book.

Because the only real question in an agent’s mind is: Can I sell this?

A good query is no longer than one page, and has three specific paragraphs:

1). Why are you querying this agent (or sometimes, editor)?  Does he represent similar authors?  Has she sold books in this genre?  Did you meet him at a conference (if so, by all means, remind him of when and where and what was said, especially if work was requested)?  Did someone in the business refer you to her?  The opening line of such a query might read:

Susan Malone of Malone Editorial Services suggested I query you about my x, y, z.”

An agent wants to know that you’ve done your homework, know what she represents, and aren’t just querying blind.  In this day and age of zillions of submissions and very few slots, everyone’s time is of the essence.

2). The “pitch” of the book.  To get here, you go backward:

  1. Take your long synopsis, and cut it in half.
  2. Cut this down to two paragraphs.
  3. Then, to one paragraph.
  4. Pare that down to a couple of sentences.
  5. Boil all of that down into one, thesis sentence.
  6. Finally, write another sentence or two around that.  This is your “pitch.”

It seems backward, but the exercise really works. It helps you to get clear on what’s important, and what parts to evoke in few words, in order to get that agent’s attention and refuse to let him say no.

3). Who you are and why you are qualified to write this book.

Here, include only that which pertains to you writing this book.  They do not want to know that you’re married with two children and live on the coast of Maine with your Golden Retriever—unless, the coast of Maine is a pertinent point in the storyline. Or that the Golden Retriever is the actual narrator.  Even then, include only that part.

But if you grew up on the shores of the Mighty Mississippi, hearing the stories of your people from a grandfather who lived it, and your novel travels along the path of a great flood, which destroyed not only the land around it but the people as well, then that’s a different story!  Include that for sure.

Include any publications you might have had.  That is a big plus.

Writers are often stymied by this, especially if this is a first novel, nothing else they’ve written has been published, etc.  But don’t be daunted by this.  If you’re writing a detective novel and you’re a detective, that lends credence to your ability to know and write about your subject.  If your novel revolves around an environmental mystery, and you’ve worked for the EPA or have been a Sierra Club activist, the same holds true.

If you’ve belonged to a writer’s workshop, etc., add that in—it shows that you’ve been honing your craft.  If you’ve worked with a well-known editor, the same holds true.   If nothing you’ve written has been published but you’ve won awards, include that.  But do not say that all your friends and family have loved the book—that’s amateurish.

And, the point is, we want you to look like a professional, even if this is your first writing endeavor.

So: Why you’re contacting him.  What the book’s about.  And who you are in relation to this book.

Simple formula.  Of course, simple is rarely easy.  But this outline will get you there.

Here Are 6 Tips For The Best Literary Agent For You

 The old saying goes in this business that it’s tougher to get a good literary agent than to make a sale to a publisher.  And in reality, that’s pretty much the case.  But it makes sense, doesn’t it?  These folks aren’t in the business for grins. 

How to find a literary agent

Literary Agent

Agents are the front line in vetting a manuscript.  They wade through piles and piles of often terrible stuff (how many writers think their manuscripts are perfect and need no editing/critique? Especially in this day of self-publishing) to find a gem or two buried in the muck.  And even then, that gem almost always needs work.  The manuscript that is completely ready to go is that proverbial one in a million.

But when a reputable agent takes on a manuscript (or, as many do, a writer and all of her works), he has a good idea of where to submit it—to which house, which imprint, which editor.  And in the back of his mind, he believes he can sell it.  Remember, real agents don’t make a dime until they actually do sell your work.  So, think of all the time and effort that goes in before making the publishing deal.  Boggles the mind, actually.

Do they know what’s going to sell for absolute certain?  Of course not.  Many of the agents I work with are alternately surprised when something sells better than they thought, or chagrined that a work they believe in whole-heartedly hasn’t sold.  For the record, the editors at big houses I know go through the same thing    So much of this business is truly subjective, from the first portal to the final destination—readers.

But pretty much, they know.  Agents have their own niches, and though they sometimes go outside of those niches, that’s fairly rare.

So, how can you find a good agent?

1). Make sure your manuscript is truly the best it can be.  And that doesn’t mean that Aunt Martha, who used to teach English, has a clue to that answer.  She doesn’t.  You have to work with someone inside the industry, who knows the business, to bring your writing and your book up to publishing standards.  There are many ways to do this (another topic entirely!), but just be certain that yours is as nearly perfect as it can be.

2). Know the market.  That’s the agent’s job, right?  Nope, it’s yours.  It’s your responsibility to find the right agent for your genre; one who specializes in what you’re writing; one who has sold your kind of book.  And be able to tell him exactly that in the opening line of your query letter.

3). Settle in for the long haul.  Because this takes a lot of time.  Especially in today’s tough market, most of the agents I know aren’t even taking unsolicited manuscripts.  A book has to be referred.  Or, they have to meet you at a conference and be intrigued by your pitch.

4). Attend Literary Conferences.  This is the best place in the world for networking.  Cherry Weiner of The Cherry Weiner Literary Agency doesn’t even take queries from writers she hasn’t met in person.  But she has taken on a lot of clients whom she met at literary conferences.  “When meeting and spending time at a conference, the first thing that is important,” Ms. Weiner says, “is—is there a connection.  Can the author and I work together.   Next, by the author telling me the genre, word count and story line I can tell immediately if it will work as is, if it needs more or less words, and if the topic is something that I can relate to or deal with. Meeting people first makes things a lot easier and somewhat less work for a very backlogged person.”

5). Get referred.  Most of the agents I know are taking referral-only for new writers.  Tricky, no? Number 4 above is helpful, but if you can’t go to a lot of conferences, other paths exist.

*  Do you know a published author whom this agent represents?  Ask for a referral

*   Work with a developmental editor who has connections to agents, and can open that door for you

6). Finally, be respectful but not awed.  Literary agents really are just folks, who deal with the written word and sales.  I know a lot of them, and they’re just trying to make a living, as is everyone else, and happen to do it via the love of good books.  On the other hand, I know how frustrating it can be to get those rejections, but don’t attack the messenger.  If an agent doesn’t take you on, do not write back what a lousy sob he is (you would be amazed at how often this happens).  Because if so, you’ve just burned a bridge that five years from now may have taken you to that pot of gold. 

Elusive beasts, these Literary Agents.  But if you perfect your craft, have the right book at the right time, do your homework, approach them in a business-like fashion, and keep at it, one just might be yours!

Can We Really Trust The Hero In Our Novel?


Horizontal cartoon illustration of prairie wild west with cacti and hero of the wild West leaves in decline.


Don’t’cha just love when I say that.  But as with most things, trusting one’s hero depends on many variables.

And while your hero’s character traits hopefully contain a mixed bag of positive and negative (nobody is all good or all bad.  As Elisabeth Kubler Ross says, “There’s a little of Hitler in all of us.”), and sometimes true character can feel somewhat obfuscated to the reader (hopefully by intention, on your part!), you, as the author, must know these folks inside and out in order to paint them will a full palate of colors on the page.

Even though often the protagonist will veer off in directions you never would have foreseen.

Which is still all fine and good—providing once the first draft is finished, you go back in revisions and even out and develop more fully what made him act seemingly “out of character” in the first place.

Which just means fully knowing your folks by the end.

So, how do we ferret through our main characters, digging down to the bones, drawing from archetypal characters in order to fully digest the trust issue?

A few ways will help.

֎   Do you intend for readers to trust your hero?

That sounds like a rhetorical question, but in essence, it must be answered yes or no.

Most writers will answer, of course!  But once you dive a bit more beneath the surface, you might find that’s not entirely the case.

A long-used device called the Unreliable Narrator becomes very effective in skilled hands.  This just basically means that the narrator’s credibility is seriously compromised.  Sometimes this is immediately evident, with said narrator making a false or delusional claim. Sometimes this becomes slowly apparent. And sometimes, it comes with a twist at the end.

Humbert Humbert from Lolita is most often cited, and indeed, old Humbert is a master at lying, while heralded loudly by his community as an honest man.

This one is easily seen, but for my money, Joseph Conrad effects this best in Heart of Darkness.  Marlow tells us from the get go that he likes to spin yarns.  And in journeying with him up the Congo in search of ivory and the mysterious Kurtz, we realize we’re really going deeply into the heart of man.  By story’s end, we are so caught up in the moral corruption found in the heart of all humans, we could give a fig if Marlow has told the tale exactly.

The point being, Nabokov and Conrad masterfully intended their narrators to be unreliable.  And, both worked beautifully.

֎   Do the narrator’s internal issues include some self-deception?  Or a lot of it?

Because we all have some of this.  Discerning exactly how much your protagonist sees himself clearly determines whether your reader can or cannot trust him.  And, on which side of the hero/anti-hero scale he falls.

As a minor example, I always laugh at the study done about men and women looking at themselves in the mirror.  The vast majority of women described themselves as heavier than they actually were. And, you guessed it, the majority of men described themselves as more fit.

But going a bit deeper, more recently, a study confirmed that men are more narcissistic than women, concluding that this is most likely due to gender roles learned in childhood.

      The first is a small issue, the second, a larger one. But issues you can exploit with your characters either way.

Basically, it’s one who’s just a little shy of her truth, as my aunt used to say.

֎   Does she have a bias that although she admits to (or not), she doesn’t always see the results of?

For example, take Race relations in our culture today.  Okay, so maybe that’s too big of a bag of potatoes!

So, let’s pare it down to one: If you’re white, do you think you have a racist bone in your body?

Of course not, you say.

Okay, let’s ask another question: If you’re a young white woman, walking alone down the street at night, and you see two young black men walking toward you wearing hoodies, do you cross the street?

Why, the answer may be, of course!  That’s only prudent.

Or, is it?

Explore this with your main character, and see how she answers.  Dig deep into her visceral fear and find out its true origin.

֎   Is your hero based on character archetypes?

The best ones are.  And if so, you’ve just sent a signal to your reader as per the protagonist’s reliability or lack thereof.

And knowing which archetype your character fits (usually he fits into several) can help you expand and convey with few words who this person actually is.

Psychologist Carl Jung identified 12 primary types, with more of course but these 12 are the all-encompassing ones.  He divided these into 3 sets of 4 types each. Each set shares a common driving source, named either Ego, Soul, and Self.  Carl Golden gives a great explanation of these, and I encourage you to become familiar with them. This will help you truly hone in on who your folks are, and why they’re the way they are.

֎   Is your hero successful?

By definition, he must be, or he’s not the hero.  But that doesn’t mean he lives, in the end.  Many times the tragic tale concludes with the hero’s valiant death (think Maximus in Gladiator, and about a billion others).  But often by way of that very death, the Grail is reached and attained, the boon received by the culture.

It also doesn’t mean that by tale’s finish, he’s completed all of the tasks he set out to do (especially if you’re writing a series).  But he damn sure better have reached, achieved, etc., the main one.

If when all is said and done, however, he has failed in his Quest, then he was never the hero after all.

Even Marlow, Conrad’s unreliable narrator, gets the Ivory and finds Kurtz in the end.  Although the latter was nothing as he thought, and turned his world (and the reader’s) inside out, which provided the true twist in the end. And exposed Marlow’s own self-deception for what it was.

So, some protagonists are unreliable by design, and some, by the way they unfold on your page as the story goes along.  Any of those work, and everything in between, but as with all things writing, it matters only that you, as the author, know that person inside and out.  And that you bring him to life as intended

Because with all things writing, no matter the twists and turns your character takes, the strengths and foibles that come to light through the course of your story, in the final analysis, you want them to all fit together for your reader.  Not all neat and tidy, but enough that in the end, your reader simply says, “Yes.”