Tackling Your 2018 Reading Goals

Reading is one of the best things you can do to become a better writer. Reading work by more experienced authors shows you how they’ve tackled the same challenges you’re facing. It helps you see what works (and, sometimes, what doesn’t). Reading a variety of genres and styles sparks new ideas. Reading other authors’ voices helps you find your own.

But between writing, revision, research, critique groups, and conferences—not to mention family commitments and the dreaded day job—how can we hope to squeeze in reading time as well? Here are some tips that helped me double my reading success last year.

1. Write down your goals.

2017 was the first time I tried writing down my goals. I had several pages of lined paper in my writing binder with my writing-related goals for the year, as well as slots to fill in when I accomplished said goals. The first item on the list was “Read 15 books,” followed by 15 empty lines where I could record each book as I finished it. I ended up needing another sheet of paper, because my list grew to well over 30! I felt great every time I sat down to fill in a new line. Compare that to 2016, where my goal was much more vague—“read more”—and, according to Goodreads, I only finished about a dozen books.

2. Make use of Goodreads.

Speaking of which, Goodreads is a wonderful tool for tracking your reading goals. I use it not only to mark books toward my yearly goal, but also to manage my monstrous to-be-read list. I can organize books by genre, and create lists of research books when I start a new writing project.

3. Make use of libraries, used bookstores, and thrift stores.

Reading can become an expensive hobby if you buy all your books new, even if you’re buying ebooks. Thankfully, libraries are still alive and well, and we have a wide selection of used bookstores here in Colorado. My favorites include the Tattered Cover, the Boulder Bookstore, the Book Cellar in Louisville, and 2nd & Charles in the Flatirons Mall. I also find a lot of great books at thrift stores for a dollar or two each.

4. Listen to audiobooks.

I spend about 40 minutes each weekday in my car, on my commute to my day job. Before I discovered audiobooks, that amounted to 200 minutes (over three hours!) wasted every week. In 2017, I checked an additional 20 books off my list because I could effectively read in the car. But audiobooks tend to be pricier than print or ebook formats, so I always get mine from the library.

5. Allow yourself the first chapter test.

I learned the hard way that some books just aren’t right for me. In past years, I felt guilty if I gave up on a book after only a chapter or two. I would then slog through the next hundred pages until finally losing interest and putting the book down—wasting several weeks in the process, when I could have been devouring something new. Don’t waste your time reading bad books! If you’re not hooked after the first chapter, give yourself permission to close the book and move on to bigger and better things.

6. Don't read too many books at once.

I can usually only juggle two books at a time: one audiobook and one in print. Sometimes I can handle a second print book, if it's an anthology of short stories or poetry. When I attempt more than that, at least one of my reads-in-progress suffers because I can't give it my full attention. I end up forgetting what happened in the last chapter, slowing down, and eventually stopping the book altogether. I read much better—and waste less time—when I focus on one book until it's finished, then move on to the next one. Know your limit so you don't book-overdose.

7. Take your books with you.

Any time I leave for a doctor’s appointment, critique group session, RMFW event, or anything else where I might have some down time, I bring a book. Whether I have to wait five minutes or an hour, I’m glad to spend that time working toward my reading goals rather than thumbing through dull waiting room mags (or worse, staring at those creepy anatomy posters doctors are so fond of). Similarly, if I’m flying anywhere, I’m sure to bring enough reading material for the whole trip. Don’t let any of that time go to waste!

I hope these strategies help you tackle your reading goals in 2018. Feel free to share your own reading tips or goals in the comments.

A Writer’s Wishlist

Dear Santa,

I know we writers can be coy about what gifts we want. And I’m sure you’re tired of getting us the same things year after year (books, and the occasional desk accessory). So, I’m just gonna say what we’re all thinking and tell you what I really want for Christmas this year.

  1. Representation from my dream agent. You know, the one I’ve been surreptitiously stalking on social media. If you can’t get her, any agent with at least five bestsellers under their belt will do in a pinch.
  2. An acceptance letter from my dream lit mag or anthology. Preferably both.
  3. A book deal. Doesn’t have to be with my dream publisher—any of the Big 5 will do. Two-book deal, six-figure advance, nothing fancy. Maybe throw in some movie rights if you’re feeling generous.
  4. An international book tour with truckloads of adoring fans. Don’t forget the adoring fans. Have you ever had to sit through a book signing where only your mother and your yoga instructor showed up? It’s scary. (Neither have I, but I have nightmares about it regularly.)
  5. Fame and Fortune. With a capital F. Basically, what you’ve enjoyed for the last few centuries.

Most of these things are large and oddly shaped, so don’t stress about wrapping them. Just wedge them under the tree between the book-shaped packages and the ergonomic desk chair with the big bow on it.

Thanks,

Rachel

P.S. I got at least 35 rejection letters this year, without punching anyone in the face. If that doesn’t put me on the nice list, I don’t know what will.

P.P.S. If you’re still not sure, remember: I can turn you into a fictional character and kill you. Slowly and gruesomely.

 

Happy holidays from RMFW! The blog is going on winter break for the next two weeks, when our writers will be nestled all snug in their beds, visions of book deals dancing in their heads. See you in January!

How to Pull Off a One-Day Writing Retreat

This November, I participated in NaNoWriMo with the goal of finishing the first draft of my next novel. I had a disadvantage, though, because I had family visiting for a week at the end of November. Unsure if three weeks would be enough to finish my draft, I decided to try something new at the end of those three weeks: a one-day mini-retreat.

I checked into a hotel at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday and checked out at 11:00 a.m. the following day. In that time, besides getting eight hours of sleep and eating two meals, I wrote over 12,000 words and got my first draft finished. It was easy, cheap, and invaluable—here’s how I did it.

  1. Get a room. It’s important to get away from your natural habitat, and all the distractions that come with it. If you can afford it, get a hotel for the night. Join hotel loyalty programs like I did, and put your points toward your retreat. If you can’t swing it financially, try a cheaper alternative like Airbnb, or ask a friend if you can hole up in their guest room for a night.
  2. Plan your meals. Snacks are fine, but you can’t get through a write-a-thon on protein bars alone. You need real food to keep those creative juices flowing. If you get a hotel with a fridge and microwave, you can bring leftovers to reheat between writing stints. Or, if there are restaurants near your hotel, you can take a break to grab dinner.
  3. Plan your words, too. When I’m struggling to get words on the page, the problem is never my typing speed—rather, it’s a lack of ideas. Set yourself up for success by mentally diving into your WIP the night before. Think about what you want to work on during your retreat. Make a list of scenes you could write, settings that need descriptions, or characters that need development. When you begin your retreat, you won’t have to waste any time thinking about what to write—just review your list and get to work.
  4. Ditch distractions. When you arrive at your retreat, set the tone for the rest of your stay by organizing your new space, settling in, and writing. For me, this meant clearing the coffee tray and phone from the desk, setting up my laptop, filling my water bottle, and turning on my favorite ambient sounds for writing (they’re Harry Potter-themed, and you can find them here). Don’t turn on the TV. Don’t check your email or Facebook. If needed, send a text message to your loved ones—then silence your phone and put it somewhere out of sight and out of reach.
  5. Adjust your goals as you go. You should go into your retreat with some idea of what you want to get done—preferably, something ambitious yet reasonable. For me, it was writing 9,000 new words. When I hit 9,000 at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, I could have given myself a pat on the back and left early. Instead, I set a new goal: 3,000 more words before checkout at 11:00.
  6. Take breaks. Writing is hard, and exhausting. I kept a pace of about 2,000 words per hour in the first two hours of my retreat, then slowed to half that in the third hour. I realized I was starting to lag; I needed a break to recharge. I stopped for dinner and a shower, then returned to the novel with renewed energy. Don’t feel bad taking breaks—in fact, you should plan to. But you should also plan when the break will end, and hold yourself to it.
  7. Push yourself. This retreat isn’t supposed to be relaxing. You’ll be drained by the time it’s over, but you’ll also have some major progress on your WIP. Be prepared to work hard. Then, when it’s over, celebrate.

My NaNoWriMo 2017 Roadmap

After spending nine months on a first draft and another year and a half on revisions, I resolved to make my next book a more streamlined process. That’s why I’m spending October of this year on research, outlining, and pre-writing, and I hope to use NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write my rough draft. As November approaches, I thought I’d share the roadmap I’ll be using.

This is an in-depth outline adapted from the books Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld and Writing Deep Scenes by Jordan Rosenfeld and Martha Alderson. It’s just one of countless outlining methods available. I’ve studied several, and they all boil down to pretty much the same thing—but for some reason, this one clicked the most with me. It breaks your novel into four parts, each taking roughly 25% of the total word count:

  1. Beginning
  2. Emerging Middle
  3. Deeper Middle
  4. End

It also focuses on four “energetic markers,” which can be thought of as key scenes or turning points:

  1. Point of No Return
  2. Rededication
  3. Dark Night of the Soul
  4. Triumph

The Beginning introduces the main character in her normal world. It sets up the central story conflict, as well as the protagonist’s flaw or wound—in other words, how she will need to change over the course of the story. The Beginning ends with the first energetic marker, the Point of No Return, a critical juncture where our heroine decides or is forced to plunge into the new world of the middle. She can no longer return to her old world and status quo. She may be physically trapped in a new world or situation, or she may make a promise or commitment that she can’t renege on.

When she emerges from the Point of No Return, the protagonist is thrust into the new and mysterious world of the Emerging Middle. Here, the action is controlled by antagonists and obstacles. Our heroine faces many setbacks, but is still winning in this stage. Her shadow side begins to reveal itself, both to the reader and to the character herself. She must begin to face her flaws and wounds, which will eventually force her to change. The Emerging Middle ends at the midpoint, a.k.a. the second energetic marker, the Rededication. This is where the main character is forced to reevaluate her progress toward her goal, and either recommit to that goal or identify a new one.

After the Rededication, the protagonist enters the Deeper Middle. This place is even more mysterious and challenging than the Emerging Middle, and our heroine is no longer winning—instead, the antagonists take the lead. The mindset and techniques that served the main character well in her old world no longer work, and she is forced to change her plan of attack. She faces greater setbacks and higher stakes than in the Emerging Middle, and her emotional outlook becomes increasingly bleak. Then, just when she thinks she’s about to reach her goal, she loses everything at the Dark Night of the Soul. This energetic marker turns the story in a new direction. It also awakens the main character to her flaws, strips away her old self, and gives her what she needs to succeed in the upcoming climax.

The protagonist enters the last quarter of the novel, the End, by formulating a plan and gathering resources. These include external resources (information, allies, tools, supplies, etc.) and internal resources (bracing herself emotionally for what’s to come). She no longer hesitates or second-guesses herself—she knows exactly what she must do and why, if not how to do it, and she moves toward her goal with courage and determination. This leads to the final energetic marker, the Triumph, a.k.a. the climax of your story. The Triumph is the heroine’s final confrontation with both the external antagonist and her own internal flaws. In order to succeed at the Triumph, she must come to terms with her shadow side and complete her character transformation. She is now fully united with her new self-awareness, understanding of the world, and sense of responsibility. The Triumph is followed by a brief resolution or denouement, which wraps up any last plot threads and provides a glimpse of the transformed protagonist in her new world.

What I like about this approach is that it’s a roadmap, not a formula. It helps me find the bones of my story before I start writing, while giving me the flexibility to discover the rest as I write. It also forces me to keep in mind both central story threads, action and character arc, and how they work in tandem. I’m looking forward to trying it out in November. If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year, good luck, and I’ll see you there!

The Subtle Art of Similes and Metaphors

We’ve all read them—those little would-be jewels of description that make us pause, furrow our brow, and say “Huh?” We’ve all been guilty of them, too, especially in the early stages of our writing careers.

They’re bad similes and metaphors, and they stick out from a manuscript like a sore thumb—but it can be difficult to pinpoint why they aren’t working. In this post, let me count the ways in which a well-meaning simile or metaphor can turn ugly. To help you follow along, I’ve taken some cringe-worthy examples from my own first novel (the one that’s been living in a drawer for 10 years—and you’ll see why).

 

It’s clichéd. This goes without saying, but it’s so common in similes and metaphors that I had to mention it. Resist the urge to take this easy, and often eye-roll-inducing, route.

Example: The creature’s face was like something out of a nightmare.

Not only is this a cliché, it doesn’t tell the reader anything new. It suggests the creature is scary-looking, but it doesn’t provide any specifics to help the reader envision it.

 

It’s unnecessary. If the action it’s describing is straightforward, the comparison may not enhance the reader’s understanding. Adding a simile or metaphor where it isn’t needed takes up valuable word space and makes the writing feel like it’s trying too hard.

Example: Her mouth fell open like a trapdoor.

This simile doesn’t work for a number of reasons, but really, do we need a simile at all? We all know what someone looks like when their mouth falls open in surprise; adding a comparison doesn’t enhance the story in any way.

 

The items being compared are too similar. Using a simile or metaphor to compare two nearly identical items doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding, and ends up feeling redundant rather than illuminating.

Example: He swung his fist like an enormous club.

Our forearms are shaped like clubs, and in hand-to-hand combat, we use them essentially like clubs. Thus, this simile is almost as useless as “He swung his arm like an enormous…arm.”

 

The items being compared are too different. Although the two parts of a comparison must be fundamentally different in order to enhance the reader’s understanding, they must also be similar enough for the reader’s mind to connect them smoothly. If they’re too different, the reader will be left slack-jawed and confused.

Example: The melody floated through the air like a great butterfly.

Butterflies don’t make noise, and we generally associate them with visual rather than auditory beauty. Melody engages our sense of hearing while butterfly engages our sense of sight, causing this off-key insect to crash and burn.

 

It doesn’t suit the tone or voice. Even the best similes and metaphors can pull readers out of the story if they don’t mesh with their surroundings. If you’re writing a scene with a spooky, dark tone, you don’t want a simile that feels too lighthearted or comical. Similarly, if your protagonist has no sense of humor, a funny simile won’t feel authentic to his voice.

 

It’s crowded by other similes and metaphors. I once read a manuscript where the writer incorporated several similes per page; some paragraphs even had one per sentence. My brain felt like it might short-circuit trying to envision one comparison after another, with no breaks in between. Plus, the narrative dragged because I kept having to pause and think about the next simile.

Example: Her eyes shone in the moonlight like glass marbles. He stretched his two fingers and pulled her eyelids gently down over them, like shades drawn one last time over two windows on the world.

This one kills multiple birds with one stone. Besides having two similes in as many sentences, it compares eyes to windows on the world, which is a cliché. Plus, the comparison to something as mundane as window blinds doesn’t fit with the tone of this scene, in which a main character has died.

 

It’s too difficult to convey. Say you get a great idea for a simile or metaphor. The comparison is spot-on! The imagery is stunning! It’s rich with thematic symbolism! But if you can’t find the right words to convey it to the reader, it won’t work.

Example: Their faces were like something carved out of molten lava, similar to those of men but warped, misshapen, with eyes like burning embers and gaping black holes for mouths.

There’s a lot to digest in this one sentence—molten lava faces, burning ember eyes, black hole mouths—making it too convoluted for easy reading. In many cases, it’s just a matter of trimming the fat and rearranging the words until it works. But if you can’t get the idea across without a run-on sentence, multiple clauses, and a pair of parentheses, don’t force it. Keep brainstorming until you find a comparison that’s more conducive to the written word.

 

These are some of the most common pitfalls when it comes to crafting similes and metaphors. Avoid them, and you’ll be well on your way to similes that sparkle and metaphors that mesmerize.

My #1 Way to Make the Most Out of Conference

This September will be my third time attending the Colorado Gold, and my sixth conference overall. In those last five conferences, I’ve made friends with other writers, found critique partners and beta readers, gotten requests from agents, met famous people (squee!), and learned a lot about writing craft. I’ve also gained confidence; over the course of several conferences, I’ve gone from hardly being able to make eye contact to striking up a conversation in the lunch line.

What’s my secret for maximizing the conference experience? What’s my #1 piece of advice?

Be brave.

I go into every conference knowing that I’ll get out of it what I put in. I challenge myself to do something that scares me, whether it’s reading my work aloud, approaching an agent at the bar or just saying hi to the attendee in the seat next to me. Because I’ve realized, after many conference experiences, that I can’t afford to leave any opportunity on the table just because I’m nervous.

Before my first-ever conference, I agonized over whether to sign up for an agent critique roundtable. My inner pessimist whispered, What if everyone hates my work? What if I can’t handle the criticism? My writing couldn’t possibly be as good as these other people’s; I’m not ready to do a critique session.

But somehow, I tuned that voice out long enough to press the “register” button anyway. And guess what? The critique session was wonderful. I enjoyed every minute. I got some great feedback, and I met another middle-grade writer whom I’ve been close friends with ever since.

At my most recent conference, they offered a first-page agent critique for free with your registration. Cool! Then I read the fine print: I’d be in a room with an agent and a dozen other writers, and I’d have to stand up in front of everyone and read my first page aloud. My inner pessimist recoiled. I’ve never read anything for an audience before. What if I have a panic attack? What if I faint? What if I throw up in the agent’s lap?!

I only signed up at the urging of my writing mentor, who said it was a great opportunity to get my work in front of an agent. Yeah right, muttered my inner pessimist, like anyone would be interested in my book based on one lousy page. And when my 8:00 a.m. session rolled around, I almost didn’t go. I remember walking down the hall toward the room and pausing, swaying on my feet, listening to that nagging inner pessimist. I don’t need this stress. I should go to another session, a lecture, where I can just sit and listen—where I don’t have to be brave.

Then my close writing friend (the one I met at that critique roundtable) caught me in the hallway. Turns out she was signed up for the same first-page critique session. I sucked it up and walked into the room with her, and guess what? It was a great experience. I got helpful feedback and some practice reading my work aloud, which wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d expected. And the agent liked my first page so much, she sought me out later to request the manuscript.

At the Colorado Gold last year, I participated in the Friday night book signing with the other Found anthology contributors. It was my first book signing, and it wasn’t quite as glamorous as I’d expected—probably because I had zero clues what I was doing. I found myself at a loss for what to write with my signature, I addressed it to the wrong name at least once, and I had major impostor syndrome. Why am I here? niggled my inner pessimist. What am I doing in a room full of other authors—real authors—when all I have to my name is a couple of short stories? Their signatures are so squiggly—mine isn’t nearly squiggly enough!

I walked away from that signing feeling like a klutzy, insecure fish out of water. But I’m still glad I did it. I made friends with the other contributors, I learned a lot about how book signings work, and I got my first-time jitters out of my system—so my next book signing will be easier.

My point is: Hiding from our fears doesn’t do us any good. We have to face them, and we have to give ourselves permission to fail the first time (or two, or ten), knowing that it will help us in the long run. So if you’re going to Colorado Gold next month, be brave. Challenge yourself, try something new, set lofty goals. I guarantee you’ll be glad you did.

Curing White Room Syndrome: How to Ground Your Reader

This is my second year serving as a judge for the Colorado Gold contest (which I highly recommend, for a number of reasons—but that’s a story for another blog post). After judging a dozen or so entries, I noticed I was making the same comment on almost every single manuscript: I didn't feel grounded enough.

Lack of grounding is sometimes referred to as "white room syndrome," because without sufficient setting details, a scene can feel like it’s taking place in an empty, white-walled room. But the lack of grounding isn't just a setting issue. Readers need sufficient information on other elements, such as character, conflict, and genre, to be fully immersed in the scene. At best, lack of grounding causes readers to feel like they're watching a scene from a distance rather than living it along with the characters. At worst, it causes readers to be too confused to turn the page.

So how do you achieve that elusive sense of grounding? Start by asking yourself the five W questions about your scene:

Where is it set? This applies to the macro and micro level. Is it set on Earth? In America, or Antarctica? In a big city or small town? Inside a building, on a train, in a cornfield, in an underground tunnel?

When is it? This also has macro and micro elements. Is it present-day? WWII era? Prehistoric? Is it the middle of the night? Sunrise? Dinnertime?

Who is in the scene? This doesn’t just mean describing the main character; you must also provide a sense of anyone else present. Is Mr. Protagonist sitting on the couch by himself, or is his wife sitting beside him? Are they alone, or is there a cocktail party full of people going on around them?

What are they doing, and why? If your character is digging a hole, he might be planting a rose bush or burying a body. If she’s racing to the hospital, she could be a surgeon who’s late for an operation, or she could be pregnant and going into labor.

Remember to look at these questions from the perspective of a reader. You, the writer, know the answers to all of these and more—but from the first page, or even the first paragraph, does the reader know?

Of course, grounding is no excuse for info dumping or over-choreography. The reader doesn’t need to know that the main character is 42 years old, 5’9” tall, 160 lbs, with shoulder-length chestnut hair, gray-green eyes, a square chin, and long fingernails. The reader doesn’t need to know she’s sitting behind a desk in room 212 on the second floor of Corporation, Inc. in Blahville, USA on March 22nd, 2016. The reader just needs a few key details to get a flavor of these things. For instance, you can show the character is middle-aged by showing a picture of her 12-year-old son. You can hint that she lives in the present day by mentioning her computer or smartphone.

Then, you can make the scene come alive by adding concrete, memorable details. Instead of “She had long fingernails,” try “Her glittery glue-ons clicked with every letter she typed.” Instead of “She worked in an office,” try “Her windowless cube farm felt live a cave.” Find details of character and setting that are dynamic, rather than static—things that can be incorporated into action, things that can be described with active verbs rather than the life-sucking “was.” Instead of “Her skirt was black,” try “Her black skirt clung to her as if it had been painted on.” When your descriptors pack more punch, they’ll stick better in your reader’s memory.

I’ve seen many writers get halfway there: they do a good job grounding the reader, but too late. Imagine you’re reading along, envisioning a fair-haired boy walking through a forest—only to discover 10 pages later that the character is actually a bald 50-year-old walking around a cruise ship. It’s jarring, and it pulls you out of the story. When we read something that isn't fully grounded, our brain automatically fills in some of the gaps. It's jarring when we realize we've filled them in wrong, and we have to tear down and rebuild the entire scene in our mind.

This applies to genre as well. When readers encounter white room syndrome, they’ll usually fill in the gaps with a contemporary setting by default. Imagine their shock when, pages later, they realize the story is set in a space-bubble orbiting Saturn, or the human female they were envisioning turns out to be a centaur-cyborg hybrid. Not only do they have to rebuild the setting in their mind, they also have to grapple with an entirely different genre. Readers want a sense, from the first page, of what kind of story they’re diving into—and if you don’t provide that, they’ll be ungrounded.

As writers, we have a painfully short window of opportunity to hook readers before they put our books down forever. The good news is, if you work hard on grounding, you can immerse readers on page 1 and never let them go.

Yada Yada Yada: Give Your Characters Distinct Voices

Just like real people, your characters have unique personalities, backgrounds, and worldviews—they should also have unique voices. Newbie authors often miss this lesson, and as a result, all 15 characters in their novel end up sounding exactly like the author. Here’s how I took my writing to the next level by giving my characters their own distinct voices.

There are two layers behind character voice: how they speak, and why they speak that way. Here are a few examples:

How                                                  Why

Big vocabulary                                 Insecure, trying to impress

Big vocabulary                                 Highly educated

Longwinded                                     Used to work as a teacher or lecturer

Longwinded                                     Arrogant

Blunt                                                  Doesn’t care about others’ feelings

Blunt                                                  Comes from a country where directness is valued

Loud voice                                        Lives with a hard-of-hearing relative

Loud voice                                        Attention-seeking

Notice, from the list above, that each how has multiple why possibilities. Also note that some of the whys on this list are personality traits (such as insecurity and arrogance), while others are related to the character’s environment (such as occupation and hometown).

Your job is to first understand your character’s whys, from both personality and environment perspectives. There are many factors to consider: character traits, education, upbringing, location, sense of humor, political and religious views, and overall attitude toward the world. Are they a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type of person? A leader or a follower? What are they afraid or superstitious of? Do they appreciate sarcasm, puns, or black humor? What kind of local slang or colloquialisms might they be exposed to? What job or hobbies do they have? Are they timid, assertive, or brash? Self-confident or insecure? How old are they, and how emotionally mature?

Next, determine how these whys inform how the character speaks. This means vocabulary, grammar, sentence length and structure, directness and subtext, just to name a few. This also includes verbal tics, similes and metaphors, and references to history, pop culture, etc. For instance, a college professor will likely have a wider vocabulary than a high-school dropout. Someone who studied abroad in France might exclaim “Mon Dieu!” while someone who grew up in Alabama might say “Criminy!” A professional engineer may use words like “delta” and “deviation,” while a hobbyist gardener may make analogies to roots, leaves, and flowers.

Then make a list of each character’s key hows and whys. Your lists might look like this:

Allison                                                                           Xweebob

12-year-old girl from New Jersey                               Middle-aged alien from Neptune

Hates school, but loves athletics and gym               Expensive education, has traveled extensively

Uses lots of slang, sentence fragments                    Speaks more formally, full sentences, big words

Makes references to sports                                        Makes references to home planet

Sarcastic sense of humor                                            Doesn’t understand Earth humor

Once you have a rough list for each of your important characters, do a round of editing just for dialogue. Print out your manuscript and skim through the whole thing, highlighting each character’s dialogue in a different color (you can do this digitally, but I much prefer doing it by hand). Then go back to page one, and read through only one color of dialogue. You’ll notice immediately if that character is repeating himself, saying things that don’t fit his voice, or using a verbal tic too often. Make edits as needed, then go back to page one and start reading through the next color. It’s time-consuming but well worth it.

And remember, crafting distinct voices doesn't mean slathering on the dialect or slang. For instance:

Character A: “Well, hawney, sun’s a-settin’, so yew’d better git on down the road thurr.”

Character B: “Croikey! Is it dusk a’ready, mate? Oi’d better get outta here ‘fore Oi get eaten boi a croc!”

Character C: “Dude, I’ve never seen, like, a real crocodile. That would be, like, super intense, like, you know?”

For one thing, no reader wants to wade through this jungle of phonetics. For another, this is so heavy-handed that the characters come across as stereotypes rather than real people. The art of good character voices is much subtler. Here’s a better example:

Character A: “Gettin’ dark out there. You better get on home.”

Character B: “You’re right, mate. Hope the crocs aren’t out tonight.”

Character C: “I’ve never seen a crocodile—you know, a real one.”

See how these lines give a flavor of the characters behind them, without choking readers with dialect?

As with dialect, verbal tics and pet phrases will add depth to your dialogue, but be careful not to overuse them. If a character says “I dunno” or “Holy crap!” every other paragraph, readers will notice—and not in a good way. Same goes for references, analogies, and metaphors. As with anything, moderation is key.

Hopefully, this gives you a good starting point for your own character voices. Now dive into that story and start talking!

 

Novels Are Like Onions

When I started writing, my biggest hang-up was the misguided notion of Writer with a capital W. If I’m a real Writer, I thought, I should be able to sit down whenever I feel like it and write something good—nay, groundbreaking! If I’m a real Writer, the words should magically pour forth from my sweat glands onto the page! Right?

Wrong. And as a result, I spent years just trying to get off the ground as a writer. I would get a spark of inspiration, sit down to write the Next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem/Whatever, then give up half an hour later when I realized the first draft wasn’t even close to perfect. I would then decide “I’m not a real writer” and quit writing for months—before coming back to repeat the process all over again.

Then a couple of years ago, when I started my current novel, something finally clicked. I was watching Shrek one night while working on my first draft, and I realized that novels, like onions and ogres, have layers. Many, many layers. This applies not only to book-length fiction, but to any form of writing, including memoirs, short stories, poems, and even this blog post. It takes a lot of time, thought, and effort to get all those layers in place and working together, so no first draft is going to be perfect. And guess what? That’s okay.

Imagine building a house: you can’t paint the bathroom until you’ve installed the plumbing. Some budding writers (including me, at one time) think that being a writer means pouring cement, wiring electricity, and picking out drapes all at once. But in fact, writing anything requires multiple drafts so you can put all those layers into place and make sure they’re working together. This, dear writer, is why the writing gods created revision.

Here are some of the many layers I’ve seen in my writing:

  • Premise
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Pacing
  • Characters
  • Physical description
  • Emotion
  • Motivation
  • Character relationships
  • Suspense
  • Foreshadowing
  • Voice
  • Tone
  • Mood and atmosphere
  • Setting
  • Worldbuilding
  • Dialogue
  • Body language and facial expression
  • Internal thoughts
  • Themes
  • Symbolism
  • Writing style
  • Word choice
  • Imagery
  • Metaphors and similes
  • Chapter breaks and cliffhangers

I’m sure there are more. But from this list alone, can you see why it’s unrealistic to expect to do it all at once? Start with a single layer, or a handful, then let the others fall into place as you revise.

Which layers to start with? That’s up to you. In my experience, it varies from one writer to another and from one project to the next. My current novel started with a premise and a main character—they were the foundations of the house. Then I added elements that came relatively easily to me, like pacing, foreshadowing, and dialogue. It wasn’t until several drafts later that I finished fleshing out my worldbuilding and added my best imagery and metaphors.

Because there are so many layers, it can be hard to spot the ones that are underdeveloped or missing altogether. This is where critique partners and beta readers come in. If they’re reading for big-picture stuff (i.e., not copyediting for you), they’ll notice if something is lacking. I remember finishing what I thought was the final draft of my current work-in-progress, only to have readers tell me I had left out my main character’s thoughts and feelings. That’s a huge layer to omit—and because I was so close to the work, I never noticed it myself.

So don’t fret over these layers. Start with what feels natural and just keep going, getting help from your trusted readers. Like peeling an onion, let yourself discover the layers as you peel them back one by one. And yes, there will probably be a few tears, too.

Coping with Rejection: a 12-Step Program

Rejection can take many forms. For some of us, it’s our short fiction being turned away by one magazine after another. For others, it’s agents rejecting our novels at the query letter, partial, or full manuscript stage. And if you go the indie route, it can rear its ugly head as poor sales or harsh (so harsh!) reviews.

Since we can’t get our work into readers’ hands without facing rejection at some point, we have to learn to deal with it. Follow these steps to build a healthy relationship with your own rejection monster.

1. Expect it.

Even before the rejection happens—while you’re writing, revising, sending your submissions out, or waiting for responses—remind yourself that rejection is inevitable. Start preparing yourself mentally. And when the rejection does come…

2. Acknowledge it.

Sometimes rejection bounces right off you; other times it punches you in the gut. It’s hard to admit that a two-sentence email from someone you’ve never met just made you crawl under your desk and weep (been there!), but it’s important to stop and think about those feelings. Why did you want this so badly? Why are you so disappointed? Remind yourself that it's okay to feel this way.

3. But don’t wallow.

Every rejection needs time to process those feelings—sometimes a few minutes, sometimes a few days. But once you’ve unpacked your emotions, it’s time to let it go and get back to writing. No use crying over spilled ink.

4. Lean on other writers.

Commiserate with your critique partners and writer friends. Read the blogs and memoirs of published writers, who often share their own rejection experiences. Stephen King famously got so many rejection letters that the nail on his wall couldn’t hold them all. If he could go from that to being, well, Stephen King, there’s hope for you too.

5. But know that everyone’s journey is different.

Just because Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, or your critique partner Bubba got a hundred rejections before their big break, that doesn’t mean you won’t get a hundred and one. Or two hundred. Or twenty-five. Or a thousand. Everyone’s journey is different, and your rejection count is no reflection of your quality as a writer. Because…

6. There are many reasons for rejection.

A rejection doesn’t mean your story sucks; it just means it wasn’t a good fit for that agent, editor, or reader at that time. Maybe it doesn’t mesh with the other stories she’s acquired for the next issue of her magazine. Maybe he’s currently representing something very similar to your book. And maybe they genuinely didn’t like your work—but that doesn’t mean none of the other seven billion people on the planet will.

7. Remember, it isn’t personal.

For whatever reason, this piece of writing didn’t work for this person. It’s as simple as that. No, they don’t hate you. No, they haven’t stuck your first page on the water cooler for their colleagues to laugh at. Don’t let your fragile writerly ego jump to the worst conclusion; give yourself the benefit of the doubt.

8. And it is personal.

Agents and editors have varying tastes just like us mere mortals. And because they get so many submissions, they have to genuinely love a manuscript before they add it to their already-full plate. They may like your work or think you’re a talented writer, but if this book doesn’t give them that glowing, choir-singing-in-the-background feeling, they don’t have time for it. That’s no fault of yours. You just have to keep submitting until you find someone who loves your book as much as you do.

9. When one door closes...

I know, I know, this isn't what your bruised ego wants to hear after suffering yet another rejection black eye. But it's true. Submitting your work is like dating: now that this agent/editor/magazine has rejected you, you're free to court others. It's only a matter of time before you find someone who really connects with your writing.

10. Learn from it.

Make the most of rejection by using it as a learning experience. If you get feedback with a rejection letter or one-star review, use it (or at least consider it). Next time you submit, that feedback could make the difference between a big fat No and a Yes, please!

11. Remember how far you’ve come.

Maybe you’d hoped to be agented/published/famous/obscenely wealthy by now. But where were you a year ago? Ten years ago? Landing a book deal or self-publishing a bestseller aren’t the only measures of progress on the writing journey. Reading, writing, revising, learning the craft, joining a critique group, going to conferences—that all counts as progress. Take some time to recognize what you have accomplished, rather than fixating on what you haven’t.

12. Stay brave.

Remember Step 1, Expect rejection? You knew what you were getting into before you typed your first sentence—and you still sent your baby out into the unforgiving world of publishing. That takes guts, so give yourself some credit. And don’t let the rejection scare you into not being brave next time.