Why I’d Rather Be Broke

I’m now just a few days shy of a month since I quit working full-time.

I’ve taught for three years. During that first year of teaching, I got my first solid idea for a novel and started writing seriously. It took me several months to figure out how to find time in my day for serious writing, but I worked at it, and I read books on craft, but I mostly ignored whatever might happen after finishing my novel. I simply read and wrote.

The second year of teaching, I started feeling the strain of working full-time and serious writing. I’d hit 50k several times in my novel due to starting over multiple times, cut and rewrote enough pages it would have taken a forest to print them all, and continued to read books on craft. My progress picked up significantly- I had a real novel taking shape, not just a wandering mess of words. I started looking a bit further into the future and made some connections in the book world. I branched out in what I was reading, discovered what a query letter was, used my vacation days to stay home and write, started this blog, and FINISHED my first novel. Yes, it took me two years. I still love it. It’s the first of a series– a huge story with a huge cast, tons of historical detail, and a complicated backstory. I don’t regret taking it on as my first for-real novel (I won’t tell you about my high school and college novels. Oh, the trauma), but I must have been crazy to do so. I sent it off to beta readers and started writing the ever-dreadful synopsis and crying over draft after draft of query letters. My friends and family will tell you, I had very few spare minutes in 2011. (I’m still not fully back to the social butterfly I was in the pre-writer era.)

2012 marked a big change for me. I barely knew anything (still working on that), but I knew how to find out the basics. I revised and revised from my beta notes, sent that first traumatic round of queries (go read the archives here- fun stuff), revised more, sent further rounds of queries, received requests (astonishingly enough)and started reading new books. I’ve always loved classics, and of course I read the big hits. But I as I learned about the book world, I discovered some pretty fantastic writers. Somewhere in between reading THE NAME OF THE WIND and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, subtext, voice, and internal conflict started making a bit more sense to me. In August, I started working for my fabulous boss editor at Entangled Publishing- the same month I wrote my 6-week first draft of MOON RIVER. Two years for the first draft of my first novel, six week for the first draft of my second. The scope is smaller, it’s not the first of a series, and the backstory isn’t nearly so complicated, but I love it just as much. Writing and polishing MOON RIVER kept me distracted while I queried SILENCE- I’d taken a break with it for the summer while I did YET MORE revisions on it.

Thanks for sticking with me here. I promise there’s a point.

The summer of 2012 saw me completely overwhelmed but unable to quit anything I was doing. To be published, I had to write. To live, I had to work full-time. My internship with Entangled was teaching me valuable skills that dramatically increased my knowledge of the industry and writing in general. Reading new, brilliant fiction and books on craft kept me sane and were also necessary for learning to write well. But I simply didn’t have enough time to do it all. Knowing MOON RIVER was a notch above SILENCE in writing quality made me desperate to finish it and get it out in the world; querying and revising SILENCE was incredibly time consuming; reading anything for pleasure made me feel guilty because I needed to be making progress on my internship and adding to MOON RIVER’s word count and sending queries, but it was necessary for staying sharp. My husband and I started talking about what would need to happen for me to work part-time. It was just a dream, but looking at it as an option helped me keep going.

The fall of 2012, all these things I’d buried myself in started snowballing. I finished MOON RIVER. Beta notes on it came back that made me grin instead of cringe. My internship with Entangled was going really well. The writing community on Twitter pulled me in, and every day, I love chatting with the writers, readers, agents, and editors there. I’m learning so much from having them on my Twitter feed. I read, read, read. CODE NAME VERITY, SHADOW AND BONE, and WHAT ALICE FORGOT helped a number of things click for me. Reading made me a better writer and helped me to keep loving books.  Teaching forced me to prioritize and value my free time. Interning made me a better writer and querier. Participating in the online writing community made me a better reader and writer. I can’t emphasize enough how much I loved all this work- stressful and demanding as it was (and still is).

But I just didn’t have the time to do justice to the tasks I was undertaking. I was dabbling in six things, mastering none, and needing each day to have 50 hours. Teaching, as much as I loved it, wasn’t making me a better writer. I couldn’t really drop anything but the areas I was investing in were only creeping forward. All my stress and effort for very little return. I’d burn out before I made it.

And then MOON RIVER was all but ready to query and the Carol Mann Agency offered me an internship.

To jump, or not to jump?

I couldn’t add two more things to my day. Literally could not. One serious “will we die of starvation?” talk with my husband later, I gave my notice at work and the school graciously offered me a part-time position similar to a teacher’s assistant. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now without this job, so I’m very thankful for it. I know so many writers who would give their right arm to stop working full-time and devote themselves to writing, and I feel a bit guilty that it’s me doing it and not them.

We’re broke. There’s a real possibility we’ll be living in a cardboard box next month (or showing up on my sister’s porch). But I’m doing what I love. I’ve been working part-time for a month now, and every day is a blessing.  Stressful and demanding, filled to the brim with deadlines and to-do lists, but still a blessing. MOON RIVER has ventured out into agents’ inboxes, I’m getting to work with some fabulous writers for Entangled and CMA, and I’ve started my next novel- I can’t wait for it to be living and breathing on the page.

I’m fine with being broke to make that happen. I’ll eat rice for a year, forget what restaurants are, and start pricing gasoline not by the gallon but by the drip, if I have to.

Maybe I jumped off a cliff and I’ll regret it when I hit the bottom. Right now, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. Here’s hoping my optimism makes the landing softer.

Prose Tips: Be the Biggest Loser

Avoiding empty words and cutting  unnecessary words are two fantastic things you can do to immediately improve your writing.

Even if you already do this, check again. Empty and unnecessary words slip by even the most watchful writer. Actively avoiding these kinds of words helps, but searching for them and cutting them out is a normal part of the revision process.  Hunt them down and hack them out.

Empty words include words like there, is, are, this, that, etc. Rather than being content-bearers, these words are grammatical markers carrying little meaning themselves. Starting a sentence with “There are” or “there is” weakens the sentence and makes the writing unwieldy and vague. Cutting out these power-drains in your sentences will noticeably improve your prose. For example: “There was a loaf of bread on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection” can be easily revised to read “A loaf of bread rested on the counter, crusty and golden in its perfection.” Adding an action verb can fairly easily solve the issue.

Most uses of the word “that” are unnecessary as well. “The girl waited for the train that she was sure would never come” becomes “The girl waited for the train she was sure would never come.” Use ctrl-F to highlight each use of “that” in your writing, and check to make sure you’re only using it when absolutely necessary. If it seems necessary, see if you can rewrite the sentence so it isn’t.

Cutting unnecessary words is a bit broader topic. Writing good fiction (and nonfiction) requires condensing. Many writers use rambling phrases to say what could be said in a word or two; knocking these out and replacing them with concise, punchy words is necessary to brighten your prose. Of course, many fantastic writers use long, flowing sentences- but every word is necessary and specific. Don’t use more words than you need to say what you mean. “Grover walked slowly over to the counter, picked up a knife from the knife block, and cut back and forth through the loaf of bread” is much better as “Grover strolled over to the counter, picked up a knife, and sliced the bread.”

Right now that sentence reads like an action beat to break up thoughts or dialogue. If the event is an important moment for the character or is meant to carry metaphorical meaning or subtext, much should be cut or rewritten. The sentence probably still contains detail that doesn’t matter, even though it’s condensed. If what matters is the bread being sliced, then we may not need to hear about Grover walking or choosing a knife. The fat needs trimmed. “The knife rasped through the crust, breaking apart the loaf” is a more specific image conveying similar information.

To avoid unnecessary words, think about what has to be conveyed and why- and then say it in as few words as possible. Linking words together to get Grover from point A to point B waters down the prose and simply doesn’t grab your reader. Make sure the words you use are necessary. Keep in mind “necessary” doesn’t deal with simply the information conveyed- tone and voice play into what words are necessary, too.

Don’t let your sentences be candidates for a reality TV weight loss program. Say the same thing in fewer, more specific words, and your sentences will be better off. Avoid words that don’t add meaning. Your readers will notice the difference.

Do you have a favorite editing trick or tool for cutting the fat out of your writing? Tell me about it!

The Basics of Character Development

As I work on revising my novel this week, I’m going over my character development. My novel has a wide cast and that’s challenging (but fun) to manage. Currently I’m working out notes on each character to make sure my portrayal of each one is consistent and that they are as fully developed as their roles require. This has, of course, brought me back to my books.

My post for this week will therefore be a breakdown of the nuts and bolts of character development. As always, challenge, question, and comment below, please!

The goal of character development is to create characters  exactly suited to your purpose. In my experience, there are 3 levels of characters. Tertiary characters (background people- the cab driver or cashier, perhaps) should be flat characters that don’t distract your readers. They aren’t interesting and they shouldn’t be interesting. For them, this this is good character development.

Secondary characters are much more complicated, of course, as are primary characters. These two types of characters are what I will generally be referring to throughout this post.

With primary characters, the goal is exactly the opposite of flat and uninteresting. They should be, as Brandi Reissenweber puts it in Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, “real enough to cast shadows.” Before we look at how to do this, let’s look at why we want this from our characters. In Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton says, “If they are well-wrought, stories intrigue, entertain and satisfy us. But it is characters that we love— and love hating. In the short stories and novels we read and reread, it is characters above all that we cherish.” Characters are what make your readers attached to your work. They make your writing memorable. Ebenezer Scrooge, Neville Longbottom, Elizabeth Bennett and Anne Shirley are an enormous part of what makes their novels compelling.

So, how do you make the next Huck Finn, the next Atticus Finch? There is no recipe for characters like that, and a lot of it has to do with talent (both learned and natural talent). However, there are consistent elements involved in developing characters that are complex, memorable, and realistic.

Active protagonists are essential. With few exceptions, a story with a passive protagonist will eventually wither and die. Protagonists set the story in motion; they drive the action. If they aren’t active, neither is the story. An active protagonist is one who wants something. This is key to a good protagonist. Again, Reissenweber says, “Desire beats in the heart of every dimensional character. A character should want something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it creates a steam of momentum to drive a story forward.” How badly the character wants  whatever they want tells the readers how hard to root for them to succeed– if Atticus only sort of wants to win the trial, readers will only sort of care.

This desire must be something internal and external. Characters have to desire something tangible that is core to their identity. For example, a teenager put into foster care as an infant may desire to know his birth-mother. This may be borne of an internal desire to find his identity- who he is and why. The tangible, plot-propelling expression of that is the hunt for his mother. Note that because this desire is key to who he is, he will, guaranteed, want it badly. Linda Seger, in her book, Making a Good Writer Great, notes says that “Yearnings push and pull at us…Sometimes they’re so strange that we wonder what anyone would think about us if they really knew what we yearned for, or how much we yearned for it… Too many characters lack guts and vibrancy because they only have a wee bit of want, rather than raging desires.” An internal desire to be loved, to be accepted, and to take control of one’s life (and many more desires like these) are realistic internal desires that a character could have, and the tangible, concrete counterpart desires he may have are endless. Your character must have them, however.

One more important note is that this abstract, internal desire is often a big part of what connects us to a character. For instance, most of us know and empathize with the need to be loved, and we will connect with a character who wants that badly.

Besides a strong internal desire mirrored by a strong external desire, there are 4 more main traits of solid characters. The second trait is complexity. No human can be reduced to a stereotype, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Characters may start with a type- the farmer, the feminist, the rural preacher, the hipster, the gold digger– but they must, absolutely must, transcend type. They must be different from anyone else of that stereotype. The farmer might secretly study foreign politics. The feminist may love gardening with a passion. The preacher might be a compulsive liar. The reasons why they do these things that separate them from their stereotypes make them real people. These differences should include flaws and virtues, as well. The sinless hero and the completely evil villain are stereotypes themselves.

The third element is contrasting traits. All people, as you peel back the layers, have conflicting characteristics. Personally, I am a social person– to a point. I am social, and I am also not. One of my characters in my novel does not want a husband- but she does want children. Ebenezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser, but deep down (deep, deep down), there is a part of him that is still a little boy. These contrasting traits happen because of all the baggage we carry around with us. All the things that influence who we are help create these contrasting layers. My husband still surprises me with the things he does, and not because I don’t know him well or because he’s an inconsistent person (he isn’t). It’s because people are complex beings with multiple reasons for why we do what we do. Sometimes one reason wins out, and sometimes another does. This creates those layers, those contrasting traits, and the characters in our fiction should have them too. A character without them won’t be convincing.

I just mentioned consistency, and that is the forth element of round characters. Consistency is  the effect of readers being able to see why the contrasting traits exist. So as your characters live out their lives in  your plot, make sure there are solid, consistent reasons behind why they do what they do. They may do surprising things (and they should) as long as we can see why that choice was made. Elizabeth Bennett said she’d never marry Mr. Darcy, but she did, and we believe it because we can see why she did. She changed her mind, but the reason she did is still consistent with who she is.

Of course, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy both changed as characters over the course of the novel, and ability to change is the fifth characteristic of sound characters. The possibility for characters to change keeps us reading and keeps the characters from being predictable. We want to know if Scrooge becomes a better, happier soul; if Neville Longbottom rises out of his shy, bumbling childhood; if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can change enough to value each other as they ought to. They might, they might not– we read to find out. Here too we find ourselves rooting for this kind of character, and if he or she has a strong internal and external desire, we’re doubly captivated.

Those 5 things -desire, complexity, contrasting traits, consistency, and ability to change- are the main elements of compelling, realistic characters. Now, say you’ve got that all worked out. More than that, you’ve got pages filled with who this character is beyond these 5 traits. You know his his backstory, his favorite kind of peanut butter, his nervous habits, and what makes him happy, sad, and angry. How do you make all this complexity come across in your writing? How do you characterize him within your story?

There are 4 main methods of characterization. The first is what the character does. This is the closest thing we have to objective information about who a character truly is– what she does. Adam Sexton also points out that, “if readers have observed an aspect of character in a scene, they will more likely remember it.” So, instead of telling us what she did, have her do it in a scene. It gives us strong evidence about who she truly is, and we’re likely to remember it since we saw it.

The second method of showing character is through what the character says (or thinks, if we have access to that through the point-of-view.) This is, of course, more biased and subjective than actions. Kind words, judgmental statements, or pithy thoughts let us in on how characters think and who they are. Complaints, wise advice, thoughtful responses… these things are great opportunities for readers to see who your characters are.

The third method is through what other characters say or think about that character. This method is especially useful because it characterizes both the speaker and the character about whom she is speaking. If I say harsh words about a friend of mine, it may tell the reader something about my friend, but it will likely also tell the reader something about me. It may tell a great deal, in fact.

The final main method of showing characterization is through what the narrator tells us. Except for cases of unreliable narrators, the narrator is honest and unbiased. We don’t have to filter what he tells us. Make use of this reliable perspective for elements of your character that you absolutely don’t want doubted, and then support those traits with the other methods.

In all these things, subtlety is the goal. If these things are done heavy-handedly, readers will feel forced or manipulated. Being too obvious is just as bad as being confusing, if not worse, so this is where practice and good feedback is important in character development. Learning to see where you are overwriting and where you are being too subtle is important to having truly realistic characters, characters who keep readers coming back and are real enough to cast shadows.

Of course, there is much more that can be said about each of these areas, and I have glossed over and abbreviated many things. The three books I reference in this post have excellent sections on character development and I highly recommend turning to them for additional examples and explanation. Thank you for reading!