Friday, November 21, 2014

Character Ethos: Three ways to make readers care about your characters

Writing engrossing characters can be some of the most fulfilling--and frustrating--parts of writing. When it works, the characters feel as though they are real people, not just constructs from our brain, contained by ink and white spaces.

But so often, one of the reasons agents give for rejecting a manuscript is that they just didn't "connect" with the character. I've given up on books for the same reason: the premise was cool, the plot was fun, but I didn't care what happened.

So how to create a character that people care about?

There are lots of other resources out there about characters. K. M. Weiland has a powerful series about welding a character's internal arc to external plot. Becca Pugilisi and Angela Ackerman have a whole series of posts on out-of-the box character skills.

But I'm not going to talk about any of that.

Instead, I'm going to borrow a couple of tools from classical rhetoric.

When I teach my students about persuasive writing and speaking, we talk about Aristotle's three rules for character, or ethos. Aristotle argued that no one will be persuaded by a speaker that they don't trust. In the same way, readers won't be persuaded by a character that they don't believe in--so the way that the narrator presents the character (or how the character presents herself in first person) is critical to reader's acceptance.

(Note, I'm not talking here about unlikeable characters, who are an entirely different kettle of fish).

According to Aristotle, we trust speakers (and by extension, characters), who demonstrate:

1. Good will

In life, and in fiction, we like people who show that they care about something beyond themselves. This idea drives the infamous "save the cat" motif--readers are more likely to care about a character who isn't self-obsessed.

In the Hunger Games, we're willing to forgive Katniss her arrogance the instance we see her willingness to sacrifice everything for her sister.

2. Good sense
Aristotle believed that audiences wouldn't listen to--or trust--speakers who lacked common sense. For him, this meant that speakers needed to demonstrate a certain expertise on their topic. In writing, I think this means that characters need to make the best decisions they can, given the information at hand. Nothing frustrates me faster than a character who makes a stupid decision (horror movies are infamous for this: No! Don't go into that abandoned house!) just to further the plot.

A few weeks ago, Entertainment Weekly ran an interview with Mindy Kaling (whom I love). In it, she discussed her rules for writers on the show, which I think all writers should follow. Among her rules: "No one is a moron."

Good rule for writing, and for life.

3. Good character
Now, Aristotle isn't interested in character or morality in the old-fashioned sense, because clearly we don't always like characters who are overly virtuous. (Some of my favorite characters, in fact, are deeply flawed in this sense). For Aristotle, in fact, virtue comes from fitting in with your audience--demonstrating that you value what your audience values.

I think this takes on an interesting twist when we talk about writing. You have to know who you are writing for--identify that audience's deepest values, and have your main character embody some form of that. Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy features a complicated heroine, Alina, who can be proud, moody, and power-hungry. But she's saved by her intense loyalty to her friends and her devotion to her country and to justice. Because loyalty and justice are virtues her audience (primarily younger fantasy readers) also values, we perceive her as being strongly moral--even when she lies and kills in pursuit of her goals.

While these three principles can't guarantee readers will connect with, or even like, your character, they can at least head off some of the most basic failings in characters.

What principles do you find helpful in developing characters that readers will love?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Three Essential Rules for Writing a Novel

Years ago I was privileged enough to hear the charming T.A. Barron speak. Holy Hannah! That man can captivate an audience.

If I remember correctly, he began his keynote address with these words, “There are three essential rules for writing a novel.”

Of course, he had us on the edge of our seats.

“Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

The auditorium filled with laughter. It’s true! What ARE the essential rules for writing a novel? There are as many methods and advice and rules as there are writers searching for them. 

But I stumbled across an essay in which T.A. Barron speaks of what he does see as essential for writers. 

He said we should:

#1: Observe

Pay attention to the world around you! Observe how your food tastes and the fall feels like and the people you pass sound like. Take it all in and then put it into your work. 

#2: Believe

This one can be tricky. But you need to believe in yourself. Believe in the stories you are creating. Believe you have something important to say. 

#3: Be disciplined

If you really want this to work. If you really want to be a writer. If you really want to finish that book....then you need to do it. You have to find the time. You have to make it important. Even when it's tough. 

Years ago I heard someone say (and I wish I remembered who it was so I could give them the credit) something like, “Your worst words written are better than your best words never written.”

Interestingly enough, T. A. Barron did mention the three things he needs to write a story.   I stumbled across an interview he did where he said, "All I know is that, to craft a story, I need three things: a character I care about; a wondrous, magical place; and a troubling question or idea. Without those three elements, I simply can’t muster the energy to spend a day writing or revising a page—let alone several years creating a trilogy."

So, maybe there aren't three essential rules, but I love his three essential ingredients for writing a novel.

What do you think the essential rules or ingredients for writing a novel are? 


Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures, and...loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she's a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

3 Ways to Stay Motivated During Long-Term Projects

This week I finally finished another round of revisions on my novel. Wait, let me say that another way. After three months, I finally finished another round of edits, as well as the three-month round before that, and the three-month round before that, and the year of rewrites before that, and the year and a half of rewrites before that, on top of the five months of writing the initial draft. Sound familiar? If you're a novelist, I'm sure it does. Writers are nothing if not marathon-ers. It's the nature of the craft.

 But it sure as hell isn't easy.

I've given up a thousand and one times over the four years I've been shaping this novel, and felt absolutely sure I'd never finish it a thousand and two times. It's hard to stay focused on the end goal when it's just so far away, and there's so much work to do between here and there. There's a reason most people who starting writing a novel don't finish. When the demons of self-doubt are raging and the progress is slow, how does a writer summon up the courage to keep going? Here are some ideas:

Research. And I'm not just talking to historical writers here. For every novel, there is a theme, a career path, a relationship, a hobby, an era, a setting--something--that got you interested in writing the book in the first place. We all do some amount of research to properly portray those subjects at the beginning of the project, but usually research tapers off the further in we get. The thing is, new information breeds new ideas, and new ideas breed excitement. When you start to feel complacent in your story world, discover something new about it! Get excited about it again!

Stay Balanced. Writers are an obsessive bunch, especially when it comes to our work. Sure, we take care of our family commitments (because they'll nag at us if we don't), but otherwise, we often get so involved in the story, hitting a word count, or meeting a deadline, that we stop eating well, exercising, seeing friends, enjoying our others hobbies (remember those?), and taking time just to be.
Obsession creates a very unhappy soul and an unhappy soul lacks confidence and has a harder time being productive. The best cure I've found is setting a time frame and sticking to it. If I complete my two hours, no matter how many words I did or didn't write, I have succeeded for the day. The rest of the day, I dedicate to the other areas of my life.

Accomplish Other Things. I think the hardest part about long-term projects is that there are a lot less accomplishments along the way. Sure, it's nice to complete a scene or a chapter, but it isn't done. It isn't check-it-off-the-list and celebrate done. And because writing is a process, even when we think it's done, that's only until the next round of revisions. In order to feel confident in our ability to be productive, we have to produce regularly. We need to chalk up accomplishments more than once a year. This is what I love about blogging. It gives me the opportunity to finish something on a regular basis. Other ideas are submitting short stories to magazines and anthologies, submitting articles to publications, volunteering in your writing communities, running promo campaigns online, etc. Whatever you do, do something, and make sure you finish it.

The thing about long-term projects is that it gives us a lot more time to think about how things could go wrong, whether or not we're capable of completing the task and completing it well, and to lose sight of why that novel is important in the first place. But with a little brain trickery, we can keep our motivation and confidence high, shifting our productivity into an upward spiral. Because the more you get done, the more you want to get done. Productivity begets productivity.

After all, there really is something to that saying that if you want something done, give it to a busy person.


Jamie Raintree writes Women's Fiction about women searching for truth in life and love. She is currently working on revisions of her first novel in preparation for submission to publishers. In the meantime, she blogs about her journey toward a well-balanced life and a career in publishing--her struggles and successes along the way. She lives in Northern Colorado with her husband and two young daughters and is a Workshop Coordinator for the Women's Fiction Writers Association. Subscribe to her newsletter for more blogs, book news, and writer tools like the Writing Progress Spreadsheet. To find out more, visit her website below.
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Monday, November 17, 2014

Refill the Creative Tank

If you signed up for NaNoWriMo, chances are you are starting to feel a little tired. You have been pushing diligently for that daily word count, ignoring the house, dust bunnies and plot bunnies, and may even been vaguely aware that there are some holidays coming up (no, I'm not talking about December 1st).

First of all - KEEP GOING! YOU CAN DO IT!

But for a moment, I want you to think about your car. Pretend you started with a full tank of gas on November 1st. Then pretend you drove 40-50 miles a day in it. Would it need a refill yet? (If not, we might all hate you. Not really. Maybe a little).

For writers, our minds and hearts and souls are our creative tanks. True, they probably get better miles to the gallon than our cars, but there are still times when we need to allow a break, a refill. This can come in several different ways. For me, music does wonders for my creative tank. I listen to classical music while I'm writing nearly all the time. It is a necessity for both my sanity and to provide a more satisfactory background noise than those that often accompany sharing a residence with people. When I really need to fill up the tank, nothing an do it like live performances. I know this about myself, and in the last few years, I have been more mindful to take advantage of opportunities to fill my tank.

You may be thinking, "But I have to hit my 1667 a day!" Yes, to win you do. But concentrated, dedicated effort can reward you with time to still fill that tank. Go for a walk, watch AN (one) episode of your favorite show, etc. There is a necessity of balance that writers (artists really) start to forget. We can become manic, so focused on a goal that nothing else matters, but in the end, we are still people, not word processing robots.

So go forth! Write like the wind! Then take a break and reconnect with the people you love.


Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and high school English teacher in Southern Utah. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a dash of magic. Her loves include Diet Coke, owls, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is an editor for the Women's Fiction Writers Association quarterly newsletter and can be found here.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Reasonable Writing Goals and Releasing Guilt

Writing is a constant endeavor for many of us. This is because writing is part of who we are, part of our souls and even our identities. I get super duper cranky when I don't get to write, and I am a MUCH happier mom, wife, and person if I get to write every day.

I've been super duper cranky this week.

It's NaNoWriMo this month, and I'm slowly watching the line of what should be my daily writing goal increase while my bar graph of progress has gone almost flat. November always turns out to be an extremely busy month for me at work, my children have been sick this week, I haven't been able to write during the day, so I've been falling asleep at my laptop every night and *deep breath*...

Yes, breathe. I finally remembered to breathe and then took the time to remember some things. Balancing all of the other obligations in life plus writing isn't easy. My lovely critique partner Erin said it well in yesterday's post when she pointed out that it is very easy to take on too much and suddenly find yourself with too many sides (like a dodecahedron).

Here are some tips for setting reasonable goals with writing:

1. Release the guilt. You don't need to be everything to everyone at all times. Your family isn't going to suffer if you don't cook every night. Your kids will learn a little more independence if you explain you need the next thirty minutes (uninterrupted) to write. My kids know that writing is a normal part of my day, and they sometimes even make me little writing mascots to cheer me on. We write because we love it, and you shouldn't feel guilty for doing it.

2.  Life happens. If you took the NaNoWriMo advice that poured in mid to end of October, then you probably cleared your schedule as much as you could for this month. In doing so, you mentally prepared yourself for having all of the time you'd need for your daily writing goals. But unexpected things sometimes pop up. Make sure you have writing goals, but don't kick yourself if you can't meet them because of things that are out of your control.

3. Some words are better than none. So you didn't quite meet your writing goals yesterday. Or the day before. Give yourself allowances for hard days, but do make an effort to sit down every day and write as much as you can. Even if you're not making your word count goals each day, writing every day is an excellent goal in and of itself.

4. Recognize your own strengths. I'm not a fast writer. If I'm lucky, I bust out maybe 300-400 words during each 30 minute #writeclub sprint every Friday night. But I've been told by more than one editor that my early drafts need less revisions compared to other drafts they've seen. Things like this tend to even out, and while it's hard not to measure yourself against others during sprints or other word count-specific writing exercises, remember that your writing style is unique to you.

Do you have any other advice to share about how to juggle writing, life, and fend off the super duper crankiness? 

Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read all of the books on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty backdrops of her stories. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

I am NOT a Dodecahedron

My writing group has an ongoing group private discussion on Facebook. it's awesome. A while ago we had a conversation that went something like this…

(Helen shared a brilliant cover she was working on for her upcoming book The Eternal)

Me:  I'm impressed with your design skills! You could start doing that on the side! (Heh heh....what side?! I think all your sides are taken.)

Helen: Yeah... no more sides. Haha!

Me: Yeah, me either. I mistakenly think I'm a dodecahedron. (Is that a 10-sided shape?)

We went on to discuss other things and then Elaine posted a picture like this…


That’s what I think I am. 

A dodecahedron. (And for the record, they have twelve sides.)

Here’s the thing.

My life is pretty full right now. With six kids ranging from one to fifteen, I’m probably in one of the 
busiest seasons of my life. But I still have a hard time saying no to people or even saying no to myself. I want to do all the things, be involved in all the things and make and paint and photograph and write about ALL THE THINGS.

And I can’t.

I need to choose. I need to change the shape I think I am.

So, I'm in the process of asking myself two serious (and very hard!) questions. 

#1: What do I NEED to do?

#2: What can I give up?

Do you think you're a dodecahedron, too? If so, how are you changing the shape you think you are?


Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, jewelry-making, and pretending she’s a grand artist. She is the southern Utah coordinator for the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

The 4 C’s of Writing a Query Letter

We are excited to have Shallee McArthur with today's guest post!


Does that single word fill your writer’s stomach with dread? It used to do that for me. I queried two books before I got an agent, and both times, the writing of the query letter seemed like the most impossible thing on the planet. How could I take my entire amazing story, shrink it down to 250 words, and make it sound amazing?

Eventually, I discovered something important. A query letter is simply a story in miniature. If I wanted to convince an agent I could tell stories, I darn well better write a good 250 word story. And that made me realize…I already knew how to do this. The only difference between writing a query and writing a novel is that they have different formats.

So allow me to share the format that I used to write the query for my book, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. (If you’ve read Query Shark, these might sound familiar. If you haven’t…go do so.)

A query letter needs the same 4 basic elements a novel does—a query simply strips away the excess and focuses narrowly on them. The format is simple: a Character in a Conflict who makes a Choice with certain Consequences.

Character: Who is the story about? What makes this person worthy of their own story?

Conflict: What goes wrong? What disrupts your character’s status quo? What is the story about?

Choice: What choices does your character face when the conflict rears its ugly head?

Consequence: This is the “or else.” Your character has to make their choice, or else…bad things happen. What specific consequence is your character trying to stop with their choice? Consequences are how to make your reader care about the conflict.

I found that the easiest way to start a query was with a single sentence that described the book and had those four elements. It's a lot easier to expand from one sentence than it is to shrink down 70,000 words. In fact, it’s kind of like Mad Libs.

When ________ (character) faces _________ (conflict), s/he must ________ (choice) or else ________ (consequence.)

You can play with the format, of course. Here’s my original logline for Unhappening’s query:

A 17-year-old girl who stores her memories in external objects must hunt down a memory thief before she is robbed not only of all her clues, but her entire life.

The reader knows who the story is about (girl who stores memories in external objects), the conflict (memories being stolen), and what choice she has to make (hunting down the thief), before something bad happens (she loses a lifetime of memories).

You don’t want to include the logline itself in the query, instead you want to expand it into a query. How do you do that? Details, my friend. The right kind of details. Now, the right kind is going to depend a lot on the type of book you’re writing. Character-driven? You’ll need more details about the character. Crime thriller? You might want more focus on the conflict and consequences. Being vague about your details can make your story sound generic. But you don’t want to explain all the events of your novel, either. You want to focus on the moments that make your story stand out.

Here’s the pitch from my query to illustrate the kinds of details you can focus on.

“Seventeen-year-old Gena never takes off her Link bracelets. Each one holds her most precious memories—literally. Gena is Mementi, someone who uses the Links to store every moment from her life. Her memories never dim and they’re never forgotten. [This is all character. I focus on my character to explain the essential bits about her world. I try to give the reader a reason to think this is a character they might want to read about. I try to give VISUALS—bracelets never taken off, memories that stay bright.]

But they can be stolen.

A Link thief has already ripped entire lives from six people, including Gena’s best friend. Anyone could be next. Which is why Gena freaks out when a strange boy appears and claims she’s forgotten him. His proof? A recording of his own memory that shows her crashing into him—on the run from the Link thief. [Conflict is right here. I focus on the essential moment where the conflict comes into play: When the boy approaches Gena and she learns her memories are gone. A few sentences of ACTION describing the actual scene are all that’s needed.] 

With suspicion tearing her town apart and hints of a dark purpose that could destroy the Mementi altogether, Gena has to find the thief. Again. Before she forgets anything else." [This is choice and consequence rolled into one paragraph. In relaying it, I tried to add a bit of drama through WORD CHOICE and sentence structure.]

Writing a query is hard. There’s no doubt about it. Because queries are shorter than novels, we think they should be easier, which is part of where some of query-writing anxiety comes in. Accept that it’s hard. And then remember that you know how to write a story, and that’s all this is. Play with how much or little you want to tell of each of the four elements, and the best order to present them in. Get feedback. Refine it. Try writing it again from scratch to see if a new approach works better.

Do all those things you did when you wrote your book. You are a writer. You’ve totally got this.


Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. A little part of her heart is devoted to Africa after volunteering twice in Ghana. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and lives in Utah with her husband and two children. Her YA sci fi novel, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE, debuts Nov. 18, 2014.

And because people always ask, her name is pronounced "shuh-LEE." But she answers to anything that sounds remotely close.