Today’s Writing Tip

blogging-336375_1280 copy

Giving characters a distinguishing feature or mannerism increases your story’s imagery and provides a handy mechanism to remind readers what they look like. This can be something like their hair color or style; other distinguishing physical features such as eyes or nose; or certain gestures.

The more characters your story has, the more important it is to give them each some sort of “tag” so readers can keep them straight. With the possible exception of red herrings in mysteries, everyone in a story needs to serve a purpose and move the plot along. If they don’t, zap ’em, and if they do, make them memorable.

 

Advertisements

Today’s Writing Tip

notes-514998_1280 copy

Remember your main character needs to have a fatal flaw. It doesn’t have to be evil; it could be something like being too honest or outspoken. No one is perfect and to be convincing, your characters shouldn’t be, either. It’s their weaknesses that make them more endearing and real. They also build suspense, an essential ingredient for any story.

If you’re not sure what a character’s fatal flaw might be, take a close look at his or her strengths. Any trait that can be a strength can also be a weakness, if taken to the extreme. Obsessions, for example, can go either way, to a person’s advantage or detriment, depending on the situation. For example, being determined and not giving up can also result in beating the proverbial dead horse.

Today’s Writing Tip

technology-3167297_1280 copy

“Cardboard characters” are those that have no personality. Make sure yours have likes, dislikes, and opinions so they act like real people. If necessary, keep a list of each character’s physical and personality traits on file if they’re not vivid enough in your mind without it. Readers notice if your hero’s eyes are blue on one page and green on another. Same goes for that couch or car! Never underestimate how astute your readers may be! Otherwise you’re likely to find out when they give you a lousy review.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

computer-3076956_1280 copy

Using astrology for character development is helpful and fun. If you’re not familiar with the characteristics of the various zodiac signs, a book like my “Whobeda’s Guide to Basic Astrology” can help. Get your copy here. 

If you already have an idea what your character is like, it’s usually not too difficult to fit him or her with a Sun sign. You can find some basics here. This will be their core being and provide considerable help regarding how they’ll react to certain situations. If you define a birth date for him, it’s fun to get a natal chart reading from an astrology site like mine, ValkyrieAstrology.com, which will give you even more in-depth information about your character, perhaps even hinting at events in your story.

Actually, it was writing a novel that first introduced me to astrology. One of my characters was into it, forcing me to do some research. I discovered it worked as well as how handy it was for defining characters. It’s quite eerie how well it works, which you can read above in a previous blog.

Today’s Writing Tip

coffee-3047385_1280 copy

Fully developing your backstories always pays off. Not only do they contribute to the quality of your characters and plot; you can always offer them as freebies to potential readers. Some background information can be referred to in your main story, but including too much can bog it down. Some can be dropped in here and there as flashbacks. However, lengthy explanations of past experiences that influenced the character aren’t always relevant to the story at hand. Nonetheless, if they’re interesting you can use them as a short story/teaser to readers who visit your website or sign up for your newsletter.

 

Today’s Writing Tip

workstation-336369_1280 copy

One of the most important things you must do as an author to make your work stand out is to create vivid characters readers will remember. One way to add color to your characters is by giving them a regional accent. Capture it in writing by deliberately misspelling their dialog to reflect how it sounds phonetically. Just make sure you’re familiar with what that particular accent really sounds like or anyone from that region will recognize it’s not authentic, which could do you more harm than good. Accuracy is always important.

Today’s Writing Tip

woman-2937216_1280 copy

Every occupation has its own jargon. Use enough in character dialog to sound authentic, but don’t boggle the reader’s mind with too much technical terminology or acronyms, which should always be defined the first time they’re used. If several pages or chapters separate their next use, remind the reader. This can be easily done via dialog. For example:

“The ARU went out again,” John said.

“That’s the second time this month the auxiliary refrigeration unit has gone on the fritz,” Bill grumbled in reply.

Some Benefits of Backstories

26572416_s

As an author you’re probably already familiar with backstories.  These may reside nowhere but inside your head, but in order to develop authentic characters and plots, they need to exist.  Even if a character has amnesia, such as Jane Doe in the popular TV program Blindspot, he or she needs to have a past.  Life experiences, even for fictitious characters, are what make people interesting, provide motivation and bring out their personality.  As an author, if you don’t know this about your character, it’s going to make it more difficult to tell his story.  Dialog and action may be stilted or artificial without knowing what makes him tick.

If you’re having difficulty getting into a character, talk to him or her to find out more about their background.  You might be surprised what you’ll discover.  Character interviews are common these days in blogs, which further demonstrate this principle.  Talking about a character with other writers or your beta readers can bring out all sorts of great ideas as well.  If you get stuck, try this out.  I can have as much fun brainstorming with other writers about their current WIP as I can with my own, whether it involves character motivation or plot development.  Backstories are also great practice for new authors not only to develop their cast but their writing style as well.

It’s worth noting, however, that you shouldn’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant characters a name.  If you do, they’ll wonder later what happened to so and so.  The general rule is that any character who doesn’t contribute to the plot doesn’t need to be there, anyway, except in the case of certain group situations, like extras in a movie.  If they’re important enough to deserve a name, then they should have a backstory, no matter how simple.

For main characters, these backstories tend to come out in the course of the story to a greater or lesser degree, but not always so much for minor characters.  However, if you find a detailed backstory developing for a minor character, chances are he/she/it has something interesting to say.  You’ve undoubtedly noticed how various sit-coms have had spinoffs over the years, typically when a minor character becomes interesting enough to have his or her own program.  One that comes to mind is Frasier, which evolved from Cheers.  Another example would be the ewok stories that evolved from Star Wars.

It used to be that backstories were useful to the writer, but often sat in a file that never saw the light of day.  Now that ebooks are so popular and relatively easy to produce, they can serve a useful purpose for keeping readers and fans engaged, either as your full-length novel develops, between books in a series or even to add additional depth to a story that’s already out there.  Who knows?  It could evolve into another full-length story as you dive into what makes a character tick.  This is often how series and trilogies are born, when there’s a lot more to tell.  Fans who become attached to a character love to hear more about them.  And these are not always limited to the main ones.  How many movies have you seen where one of the supporting actors grabs your attention?  You never know who another person will connect with or for what reason.

Since this background information is often already written up, or could be relatively easily if it’s parked in your brain, it’s worth it to do some editing and get it into ebook form.  Print form works, too, since these books are usually short and make great giveaways or ultra-inexpensive samples.  As expected, the cover is the most expensive element of a book, so they might not be as cheap as you’d expect, but usually your cost will be around $2.  For example, my Star Trails Compendium, which is 135 pages long, costs me $2.48 while The Sapphiran Agenda is only 29 pages but $2.15.

Backstories work well for giveaways and teasers, both before and after a book is released.  My Star Trails Tetralogy series has two, which are free on Smashwords and its outlets and 99c on Amazon.  The Star Trails Compendium comprises all the terms, definitions and cultural background information for the series while The Sapphiran Agenda is a true backstory for a minor character, Thyron, who’s a flora peda telepathis, i.e. telepathic walking plant.  Many readers noted he was their favorite, though at least one found him annoying, demonstrating how you never know how they’ll be accepted.  Thyron has at least one more story to tell which I hope to have out soon.

Put backstories to work for you to gain new fans, retain old ones, and provide short samples of your writing style.  Short reads are popular these days as well, even having their own category on Amazon, which further increases their appeal and potential for finding new readers.  Whether you’re in the middle of a lengthy novel, between books or perhaps stuck with a case of writer’s block, these gems can be fun and easy to write and provide a means to maintain contact with your existing fan base.  If you need ideas or examples, feel free (literally and figuratively) to check mine out at the links below.

StarTrailsCompendium copy

The Star Trails Compendium

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00005]

The Sapphiran Agenda

Top image copyright 123RF

 

6 More Tips for Serial Writers

faulknerquote

Most of the tips in my previous post for serial writers were picked up from reading and beta reading the works of others. Afterwards, I realized that I’d learned quite a few things that were also worth passing along from writing my own tetralogy. These comprise either things I did that helped the process or I wish I’d known as opposed to figuring out the hard way. So, without further ado, here are a few more tips for those of you working on a story that refuses to end.

1. Read any previous volume(s) to assure consistency. Some details such as the color of a minor character’s hair or eyes can easily be missed, yet picked up by an astute reader. Trying to explain that Edith’s eyes are blue in certain light and green in others is somewhat lame, so it’s best to avoid it by being accurate. If you keep a file on your characters that includes such details it will simplify things later. Quite frankly, I don’t, but believe me, I will next time because it can be time-consuming and a real pain to hunt down later. Of course, while you’re reading, you can note these things, too, which is part of the point.

The best part of rereading the stories that precede you current work is you can usually find some seemingly small details that you can tie in. This is especially true when you’re wrapping everything up at the end. Fans in particular love this sort of thing and it may even drive them to go back and reread the earlier stories as well. Some of them may actually function like an inside joke. If you know anything about fandom you know how dedicated fans thrive on such things.

Assuming you have print copies of your book(s), using sticky notes or page markers works best. If you want to get fancy, you can even color-code them for different types of information. I was amazed and delighted at how some of the seemingly simple details in previous episodes related to the grand finale.

Also note how your style may have changed as your story unfolded, especially if the first one was your debut novel. (See the section in my first “Tips for Serial Writers” blog entitled “First the Worst, Second the Same…” for more on that.)

2. Use flashbacks, albeit brief, to tie in past events from previous books. Important events that ripple over into subsequent volumes should be recapped to refresh the memory of those who read previous works but did so long enough in the past to need reminders. It also puts things in context for new readers who may be reading the episodes out of sequence. These don’t have to be long and drawn out, which will bore your fans, but enough to get them back on track. Prologues can sometimes be used in this way as well.

father3

Flashbacks add depth as well as context.

In some cases, if your serial is complete, readers may start with volume one and blow straight through, especially if it’s a box set, but there’s a good chance that other books may have intervened or perhaps time, dimming their memory. If it’s not yet complete, it’s even more important. If a reader feels lost, it pulls them out of the story and they’re likely to be frustrated, which is one of the last things you want to do. If they wind up scratching their head or digging through previous books to find the event in question, unless they’re madly in love with your story they may toss it aside and pick up something else. Once they stop reading there’s always the chance they won’t be back. Confuse ’em, you lose ’em. Not good.

3. Timing is Everything. Serials are usually sufficiently complex to involve numerous characters who grab the spotlight from time to time and thus the point of view (POV). Keeping the timing correct can be a challenge, especially if coincident scenes are not written in sequence and have to be integrated later. I tend to write a scene when the idea arrives so I have all sorts of things to pull together as I attempt to wrap up a single volume, much less the entire serial. If you maintain a detailed outline, it helps, since you can insert POV excursions accordingly.

Mapping out key events visually is helpful, using project management software the ideal, but often unfamiliar or unavailable. The last thing any author needs is a stiff learning curve on a software package when they’re writing a novel. Using Excel is the next best option, the timeline broken down to suitable increments, whether hours, days, months or years. These go across the top with each column representing a unit of time. Events are listed in the rows below with the proper time element highlighted. You can do this by hand if you prefer; graph paper makes it a little easier.

typewriter

My first two novels were written on a typewriter that looked a lot like this one.

This can be done out of sequence if that’s how you write, either by inserting a row if everything is in order or organized later based on event timing, which is shown where time marks overlap. Including a column that contains the chapter number right after the first one with the scene description can be used to sort them as well, which also reveals any that need to be adjusted.

I remember seeing a comment from an author one time regarding how difficult it was to keep track of plot action occurring in different time zones. I laughed. My tetralogy involved coordinating events on different planets, spacecraft affected by Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity, and even time travel itself as my story shifted amongst the various characters. Keeping everything in the proper sequence to maintain story continuity was definitely a challenge. Again, Confuse ’em, you lose ’em. Remember that. Not all readers have the patience to read on with literally millions of other books begging to join their TBR list.

4. Insights regarding how your characters have evolved. How a character changes in a story is important, a key element, in fact, to good fiction. In a serial this may be a gradual process, perhaps so much so that the reader doesn’t notice. It doesn’t hurt to remind them using internal dialog on the part of the character(s), as an observation by another character in thought or dialog, or even in the narrative. For example, something as simple as “Before arriving in New York, Patsy was afraid of crowds, but now she navigated 5th Avenue with confidence” does the job.

5. Include the fate of all characters, not just your protagonist. You never know who’ll be a reader’s favorite character. I was surprised how many of my readers favored Thryon, my telepathic walking plant. Thus, you need to make sure everyone’s exit, whenever or however it occurs, provides closure. Don’t simply leave them behind. Characters who ride off into the sunset can also provide fodder for spinoffs.

6. Expect to miss your characters, who by now have become old friends. You may want to consider leaving things open enough at the conclusion to allow for spin-offs. Fully developed characters are just begging for another appearance. You know them as well, maybe even better than your own children or best friend, so if they’ve earned fans along the way, consider using them again. On the other hand, if you’re bored with them, readers may be, too, so this is not something that’s required or should be forced. Back stories are often at least partially written and can be put together for a quick short story that you can use as a giveaway enticement in your marketing efforts. Back stories are also great for holding readers’ interest until the next episode is released if it’s taking you a while to get the next one together.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000039_00005]

It was fun writing this back story to my tetralogy which kept fans engaged and also served as a hook for new ones.

I’ve found that my short stories evolve into novels and my novels apparently evolve into a serial. Go figure. I simply get bombarded by ideas too good to leave out, especially once my characters come to life and take over the story. Other writers can crank out a single novel or novella in a few weeks or less whereas mine, for various life-related reasons, took years.

Fortunately, readers have a variety of preferences as well, whether it’s a quick “beach read” or something they can get their teeth into. Note that back stories can provide fans with both! My next one will be a spin-off from one of my Star Trails characters, which will hopefully prevent it from likewise expanding. But only time will tell.