manuscript, self publishing, Writing Tips

The Basics of a Bad Novel : Characters

Part I – Characters

There are great novels and awful novels, and then there are those that are in between. I call them FRUSTRATING.

They are frustrating because they could have so easily been so much more. They have major flaws and errors that are easy to spot and quick to correct, but no one bothered. These novels also often play with the established format and structure of the novel/genre and tacitly tell the reader, “You don’t matter, I write for myself.”

The bad novel or the frustrating novel is very common today because of the ease of publishing. In bypassing the publisher, the new author has also bypassed the editor. In this series of posts dedicated to the FRUSTRATING NOVEL, I am going to delve into three basic elements starting with CHARACTERS

The Basics of a Bad Novel

I am not going to get into the principal characters (protagonist, main lead, support lead, antagonist , etc) that is a discussion for another day and a much longer one at that. Let us concentrate on the 5 main problems pertaining to characters in such novels.

  1. Lingering on minor characters

Naming minor characters is not really bad, but if you start naming all characters and telling us a little something about each of them, you are putting the reader in a maze. Soon he will lose track of who’s important and who’s not. You are the God of your story, if you linger too long on a minor character your reader will assume the character is important.

Let’s take a simple example:

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard.

That’s a simple description of your apartment.

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard, Andy Brown. He prefers to call himself in 007 style, “Brown. Andy Brown.”

The focus of that information is now your security guard, not your apartment. I expect your security guard will be more than just a person you pass by on your way in and out, why else would you bother to tell me about him.

I live in an apartment building in Manhattan. It is a group of 170 odd apartments with top of the line security and a very polite security guard, Andy Brown. I acknowledged his pleasantries with a nod and a smile and stepped out onto a cold sidewalk.

I have named the minor character because I have many scenes of simple interactions, but I write in a way to indicate clearly to my reader that stepping out of home is the event, running into Andy Brown isn’t.

A lot of writers do worse. They add a posse of characters to make the setting more realistic. Andy Brown is only the night security guard, Billy Green is the daytime security guard. Then there’s Andre, the Mexican kid who delivers flowers for the foyer and Kim Hau, the super-smart Asian girl who delivers groceries to your doorstep, she is doing this to save up for college by the way. These authors argue that this is exactly how it’s in real life.

Well, fiction isn’t real life. It shouldn’t be.

Minor characters are rarely fun for the writer, literally never for the reader.

  1. Characters from the back story

James Bond’s grandfather was a pharmacist. So what!

In building the back-story of principal characters, writers often create family trees and a slew of minor characters that bind their hero’s life story together. As arduous as that task is, it must always remain in the background. Like a backdrop it should complete the picture but never be the focus.

Every character must have a back story, what does it really mean?

It simply means that your novel is set in a finite space of time but your characters have existed before and after your novel.

If your novel is about a whirlwind romance between Tom and Betty from 1979 to 1982, you have to be clear in your head as to what they were doing before 1979. Many of those events and incidents would have added up to make them the way they were in 1979.  The important thing is: it should be in your head, not necessarily on the page. The character’s action could well be a direct or indirect result of the back story but if you have to keep visiting the back story for every trait or reaction and in the process produce an ensemble of blink-and-you-miss-it characters, you will dissipate the tension and cause the reader’s mind to wander. No author wants that.

Let’s again take an example

The hero has grit. He comes from a long line of renowned hunters who have stared death in the face and defeated the most ferocious of beasts. How do you highlight this lineage to give more depth to your character?

  • If your hero having grit has nothing to do with the plot, then let’s leave it out. If your story is about, say, your hero struggling to clear his SAT, then any reference to his hunter ancestors or an attempt to liken them killing a tiger to him killing the monster that is AP Trigonometry would be stretching it too far. Don’t try to connect what cannot be connected.
  • Get another character to refer to his ancestors but not in a matter-of-fact way, it should be done in a scene that directly connects to the information. For example, your hero is a  doctor working on a resection. You can liken his grit in ridding the body of a tumor to that of his ancestor who chased a man-eating tiger out of the village. Don’t just drop information; make it connect to the story.
  • Let the author/narrator refer to these ancestors multiple times throughout the book or the sub-plot but each time you refer there must be some additional information and it must connect to the scenes in which the references are made. Reinforce the back-story, make minor characters stand out.
  1. One minor character per event

This one is the worst of the lot. It is similar to point 1 where we talk about minor characters being given unnecessary importance, with one important difference. Minor characters aren’t given importance, but there are truckloads of them.

While the reader is not misled into assigning undue importance to a minor character, he is however, completely drowned by the overabundance of minor characters. Keep an eye out for this problem because it creeps up on you and takes over your novel in no time. In YA novels dealing with high school or college you will find this problem when the protagonist gets the lecture time-table from a student counselor, buys some old books from a senior year student, gets a pack of beer with a student from down the hall, goes stationery shopping with the dork roommate and runs into the pretty girl from the Economics class at the store.  You know these characters aren’t important and hence it’s all the more frustrating to keep hearing about more and more of them.

In my classes, I use an anecdote to drive home the (un)importance of minor characters. My late great-uncle was a very famous optometrist and would get about a dozen interns every year. Due to age or memory or plain rudeness, he would refer to them by number not by name. His defense: by the end of the year only 3 or 4 will remain, much better to just learn their names then.

That’s what readers want, that’s also what they do. They ignore characters till you say something that makes them sit up and look again at some character. Too many characters is like too much description, no one cares for it. At the very least, try to get a character to do more than one thing.

A writer must proactively search out minor characters and remove them. There’s a big benefit to removing excess minor characters, it often leads to deleting unnecessary minor scenes and makes your writing stronger.

  1. Passive supporting characters

Do not confuse supporting characters with minor characters. The protagonist’s friend whom he frequently turns to for advice is the supporting character, the guy who hands the friend a latte at the Starbucks is the minor character.

Drawing up supporting characters should be a post in itself, so let’s just look at the basics:

Supporting characters are not props.

Don’t take the qualifier “supporting” literally, most authors do. A supporting character is not just an agony aunt or a friend/mentor who spews life-lessons or smart-ass quips. A supporting character MUST support the story not the protagonist. It stands repeating: supporting characters must support the story.

Unlike minor characters, supporting characters need to do something other than run into  Mr. Protagonist.

Supporting characters need to have a life and at least one subplot of their own. The closer the subplot is to the main plot, the better it is. By closer I don’t mean his actions have to help the hero, but they must have a bearing on the main plot. Let’s say your protagonist is working hard to save money for a surgery his daughter needs. The supporting character, a friend who has so far been helping the hero do that, decides to take a road trip to reconcile with his mother but meets with an accident. The protagonist pays for his friend’s bills and ends up with no savings. There you go, there’s the problem, there’s the tension and a possibility of high drama.

  1. Series characters

You are not a candidate for this last problem unless you are writing a series. Series spread over 3 or more books tend to have many characters, some of whom will be quite important. You cannot however introduce a character much earlier just because he is important. Characters must serve the story here and now. If you look at the Harry Potter series you will realize how important this rule is. Remus and Sirius play very important roles in the third book and they are friends of Harry’s parents but there is no mention of them in previous books because they had nothing to do.

This is what is known as Chekhov’s Gun. It’s a plot device named after the great Russian playwright who said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This works equally well for characters and is probably the single most important rule. Don’t introduce a character unless he is doing something right now. Imagine your ten-year old self being introduced to your future wife. Is she important? Yes. Do you need to know about her now? No.

You can also consider Chekhov’s Gun from the opposite perspective: If you fire a gun in the second act, then show it in the first act.

It works, sometimes wonderfully too especially if you connect back the dots and go wow. When important things are presented innocuously to the reader, they delight the reader upon revelation. It’s a common ploy in mysteries.

A word of caution: Many authors and writing coaches take Chekhov’s Gun literally and think that if something is not actually part of the plot it should be out. Consequently, they think of Red Herrings in mystery stories to be a violation of the principle. It is not.

Chekhov said that everything introduced to the author must do what it must and soon. The red herring is supposed to mislead and it will do that. It is not extraneous to the plot, it is the plot.

Characters must serve a purpose, they must do something to the story. Fiction has no place for bystanders.

Happy Writing!

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manuscript, Self-publishing, Writing Tips

A Solid Start : The First 10 Pages of Your Novel

woman_browsing_books

How long does it take for you to know if you like a book?

More importantly, how long before you realize you don’t like it?

Years ago I attended a screenwriting workshop conducted by a national award winning screenwriter. The course was excellent and in many ways, eye-opening. One of the many things that have stayed with me from that 5 day workshop is the importance of the first 10 pages of your screenplay, the first 10 minutes of your film.

It applies equally to a book, the first 10 pages is your best ammo to get a reader glued.

The first 10 pages are the first 3000 – 3500 words of your novel and it is sometimes only halfway into your first chapter.

10 pages, that’s all you get.

Thankfully, that’s all you need. More on that later, let’s now look at the first 10 pages. For the sake of simplicity, let’s consider the first 10 pages to be your first chapter.

Your first chapter is KEY. It represents the whole book. And if your first chapter doesn’t grab the reader, you may not get the benefit of being read.

Imagine a reader browsing a local bookstore:

Step 1: He heads to titles stacked under his favourite genre (thrillers, romance, etc)

Step 2: Starts reading the back cover of books (randomly or based on titles he likes)

Step 3: Opens the book to page 1 and starts reading a few pages

If you clear the first two rounds, that is you happen to write in a genre he likes and you have a good book description on the back cover, then you better have a power packed first 10 pages.

No one is going to read more than 10 pages in a casual browsing, in fact you’d be lucky if someone reads though 10 pages, it is usually within 3 – 4 pages that a book is discarded or rushed to the billing counter.

It’s not different in the virtual world. After the book description, the sample chapter decides it all.

10 pages, that’s all you get.

Now that you know the deal, let’s see how best you can use those 10 pages and what’s expected of you.

  1. Move it.

The first 10 pages cannot be passive. It’s all about movement, all about action. I purposely added movement before action, because some writers take the word action literally and start off with an outlandish outburst or a crime or just crash a car for fun’s sake and then start their novel a mile from the action. Movement is action, don’t describe the weather or ramble about the “play of light and shadows filtering through autumn leaves”, you will have enough time to do it later (if you must).

If you must start with mundane description, let it lead somewhere. Look at Raymond Chandler’s starting lines for The Big Sleep

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

84 words into the book and you can’t wait to read it.

  1. Set the tone

The genre and tone of the novel must be clear to the reader from the start. This might appear formulaic but it works well.  Adventure novels start with action, romance and romantic comedies focus on introducing the main characters and the many (comical) problems in their life, thrillers and whodunits often start with a crime.

Consider any romance novel and see how it starts with the central problem and then immediately goes to the central character. Or think of private detective novels that start with a client coming to the detective’s door or a letter/call summoning the detective to a place where a crime has taken place or is about to take place. These are examples of genre familiarity, it’s a comforting warm blanket that ardent fans of the genre crave. You’d do good to provide it to them.

The tone must be set from the start.

Whatever the focus of your novel, must be the focus of your first chapter.

  1. Employ the Hook

OK, I have spoken enough about this.

The HOOK is the inciting incident close to the opening of a story that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on. It must create urgency in the reader, the immediate need to know how this situation described plays out or is resolved.

Sometimes you know how it’s resolved but you want to know how it plays out. Consider Erich Segal’s master opening in his most popular work, Love Story:

“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?

That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.”

So you know the girl who loves the narrator dies, you want to know how it plays out.

The hook is usually the major problem or the major situation, in many cases however, the hook is just a minor problem that leads the hero or protagonist into his most important bind and that resolution forms the crux of your story.

Consider Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”, the murder of curator Jacques Saunière sets in motion the events where the main problem is protecting the Holy Grail from falling into the wrong hands.

Not every story can start with a murder but it must start with something dramatic. Hooks in romance novels are particularly jarring if not done well. They often start with dramatic events like funerals and accidents that have nothing to do with the actual story.

The HOOK has to be closely connected to the story, it must be integral to the plot. Consider the starting lines of Beth Thompson’s romance novel, Ants on Peonies (Disclosure: I am the developmental editor for this book)

Ants on a Peony. That’s all my mother could think when she looked at my bandaged head, propped on several pillows and tethered by tubes to a square metal box that burped out numbers.

As I drifted in and out of consciousness, she imagined that my brain had been invaded by foreign entities that were blocking my ability to act or think normally. Glossy, black ants munching their way across the curled buds of June’s favorite flower.

Do ants help or hinder the peony? She’d heard arguments for both sides, but couldn’t remember the definitive answer.

“Given the precarious state you were in, I finally decided I was entitled to believe whatever I wanted,” she told me much later. “So, I chose the former.”

Even as she recounts this story 30 years on, there is a hum of incredulity in her voice as if she, a mere mortal, could get away with that kind of thinking – having her way with the Lord God’s ideas of righteousness and all.

She makes me shake my head, my mother. Maggie Scott, a remarkable woman living an unremarkable life. Not so different from many folks I know, except in one blinding, shield-your-eyes kind of way: She’s happy with her lot.

I suppose my life would have been easier if I’d bent to Divine Will – whatever the hell that is – more often. Not that knowing would have made much difference; godly things have inspired me less.

Less than a page into the book, you know the main character and how her life has shaped up, in another page you will know that this accident is the focus of her story.

A hook has to have clear connection to the story. Few things are as irritating as a forced hook.

  1. Introduce the Protagonist

You want the readers to care about the main character and his problems, the quicker he/she enters the scene the better. If you think it is not possible to have the protagonist enter within the first 10 pages, think again. Nine out of ten times, you will save yourself a convoluted storyline by starting it right and the only right start is with the protagonist.

Consider the brilliant opening of Double Indemnity:

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers. It didn’t look like a House of Death when I saw it. It was just a Spanish house, like all the rest of them in California, with white walls, red tile roof, and a patio out to one side. It was built cock-eyed. The garage was under the house, the first floor was over that, and the rest of it was spilled up the hill any way they could get it in. You climbed some stone steps to the front door, so I parked the car and went up there. A servant poked her head out. “Is Mr. Nirdlinger in?”

Half a page! And you have a hook “this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers”, the main character is the narrator, you understand he is into selling insurance, and in another half a page you will be introduced to his selling acumen and the other principal character, Mrs. Nirdlinger.

If you haven’t read James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, grab a copy now. At less than 200 pages it is no frills storytelling at its best.

  1. Maintain Suspense

Long expositions on character or situations kill the tone. Keep it exciting and anticipative for your readers.

In the previous example of Erich Segal’s Love Story, the author doesn’t kill the suspense after telling you that the girl dies. He doesn’t say how she dies or how soon or what impact she had on his life. That’s the rest of the story, that’s for the reader to find out over the next 160 or so pages.

The first 10 pages of a novel must help readers get their bearings. Introduce your protagonist and maybe a couple of more characters, give them something to care or worry about, and  don’t allow the tension to let up.

10 pages, that’s all you need.

Happy Writing!

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self publishing, Self-publishing

4 Assumptions that Help Authors Fail

 

Writing

10 years ago, only one book out of every ten would succeed. And by succeed, I don’t mean bestseller. These books would earn out the advance for the author and probably get in a little more on the royalty, they would earn the publisher a small profit (yeah, not the kind of profit traditional publishing bashers say publishers make), but good enough to commission another book by the author. Occasionally, one of these “success stories” would break out and become a bestselling A-Lister. All in all, 7 or 8 out of every 10 published authors would fail. Today, with the ubiquitous self-publishing model, the number is higher it’s probably 97 or 98 out of hundred.

Yes. Only 2 or 3 out of every hundred novelists will see success. Not Patterson kind of success but “I can quit my day job” kind of success.

 

I am considering for this post , four lines of thought that lead to failure.

These assumptions have nothing to do with the art or craft of writing.  Insipid writing, silly plot, cardboard characters are rarely the only reason for failure. If they were, then quite a few of today’s best-selling authors would be working nights at the local diner. Every year there is at least one crappy book that becomes an overnight success, we have all read those books and wondered, “What the hell!”

Failing as a novelist goes beyond writing a bad book. Way beyond. It is more about not having the attitude of a career writer. I am not talking about “gut feeling” and “outlook” or other sappy stuff, I am talking about tangibles.

Here’s why you fail as a novelist, it’s because you ASSUME:

  1. I don’t need brand-building

Readers buy authors. There are fans of Dan Brown, and Mark Giminez, I am yet to come across a fan of Random House. Publishers will market your book, but they can’t market you without you stepping in.

So what is brand building for an author?

A. You establish credibility by writing more and more books. This is the best and most sustainable way of brand building. You deliver on your brand promise, every time. Agatha Christie’s brand promise was “an ingenious plot” and she delivered on that. Every time.

What’s your promise?

When a reader picks up your book, what can he be sure of getting?

B. This is more roundabout but quicker than the previous option. It works well for some genres. If you are writing police procedures, then a blog on CSI or forensic pathology will establish your knowledge and peg you as a writer who is serious about research. It builds your credibility, it builds your brand. It’s more work, but the dividends are rich.

Conventional and cautious wisdom will tell you that brands are not easy to build and only top selling authors have brand value. A closer look will reveal the opposite: only authors who have a brand value become top selling authors. Look at any bestselling author today and you will find a brand, a promise that keeps readers coming back for more.

Think of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Tom Clancy, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steel, Harlan Coben , Sophie Kinsella, each one has made a small promise to the reader, and they are going to keep it.

 

  1. I am a star, I don’t need to engage with my fans

If you do manage to get to the point where you have more than one fan who is not a friend or a family member or someone you donated a kidney to, rejoice.

Very few authors get fans. Crazed devotees who will (for whatever reasons) wait eagerly for the next book and buy it the first chance they get are rare to come by. If you reach there, hang on to it and don’t let go.

Let’s get to a simple example: Pottermore.

This Harry Potter companion site is for fans and J K Rowling adds free content to it every so often, a Thanksgiving gift of 1500 words here, a Christmas bonanza of a back story there and we are all glued. This, mind you, for an insanely popular series that needs no hard selling.

If J K Rowling needs to continuously engage with fans, you need to do it too.

You need to make it easy for a fan to know more about you, your next project, and your writing plans. You need to have a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a blog, the whole shebang. This is not just brand building, it’s brand engagement.

A word of caution: Engagement is not about selling.

One of the easiest ways to become a failed novelist is to write one book and then beat it into the heads of all around you. The only message some authors share is about their book and how it’s on sale or it’s free today or it’s at a never before price of 99 cents. It’s not doughnuts, the “Hot Now” sign does not work.

Using social media with the sole aim of brazenly promoting your book is not engagement, it’s harassment. Sharing interesting things is the key, share solid pieces written by others on Facebook, Google+, and other sites. Create some value for your fans.

True, it seems for the most part to be a time-waster, but it’s not. It yields good results. Most importantly, it tells your loyal reader that you care enough to be around.

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  1. I can always go back to my day job

Imagine you start out on your career as a lawyer, banker, teacher, whatever, and go about it with this thought in your mind: “I can always go back to my parent’s basement.”

No one does that. Yet a majority of aspiring authors create these elaborate safety nets and then don’t even take the plunge. This is the kind that secretly hopes they can slink away into the night if their book is a dud.

You want to be a writer, then burn bridges.

Go all in. You don’t have to give up your day job but put yourself out there. Don’t shy away from working doggedly at that goal, no matter the smirks and eye-rolls. Behave like someone who is in it for the long run, not someone who is embarrassed by the possibility of failure.

 

One of the clear signs of cold feet I see is with authors writing one book. They wait for it to be a success and then and only then they brew that coffee and sit down for the next novel. There are many examples of authors who have written just one book, don’t let that fool you. The more books you write the greater the chances of someone coming across one of them, the more books you write, the more seriousness you show. As a bonus, your writing improves by leaps and bounds.

 

  1. I know it all

I am appalled every year by the number of people who think, they know all there is to know. They criticize writing courses, they ridicule writer groups (OK, I will grant that one) and they feel, they have arrived in every which way. They brush away every piece of writing insight as either a fluke or utter nonsense. They have it all figured out.

Look at successful professionals in any field, they hone their craft, continuously. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find authors who actively improve their skills. The problem lies in thinking writing to be creative, hence unteachable. It is a creative field, but with a majority of the work that is craft, not art. Constructing sentences is craft, using one word instead of another is also craft, these are things that are technical and can be learnt and improved upon.

I have even come across writers who have quit reading. They cite reasons like “the quality of published work is so poor”, or that “I would rather spend that time writing (but they rarely do),” or the ever popular “reading destroys my creative thinking I want to be free from suggestion.”

The “Know it all” manifests itself in more devastating forms like,

A. I Can Do it All

I write my books, I edit them, I proofread, I design the cover, I market my books, and yes you guessed it ….I am the only one who reads my books.

Writing and editing aren’t as similar as you’d think, the skills are very different. Besides, you should never self-edit. Make no mistake hard-selling and constant promoting aren’t skills most writers are born with. It’s two different personalities and most often needs two different people. Get help, professional help. It’s your career and your dreams at stake, nothing less than perfect will do.

B. I am Always Right.

These authors have created the literary equivalent of the emperor’s new clothes: you don’t see it! That’s because you are stupid.

They abuse critics, lash out at reviewers, and pretty much talk down to everyone they can. There was a recent (late 2014) case on Goodreads where a reader posted a 1 star review and the author went on a bloody tirade about how stupid she was to have missed the point. He wove conspiracy theories about how she was out to harm him and all that he stood for. It was a crusade really, and frankly quite (unintentionally) entertaining. All the poor girl had said was she found the book wordy and that it went around in circles without saying much. The author responded with more than 2000 words of defence!

 

The good news is that these are assumptions, and therefore all you have to do is not make them. Also rarely does a novelist have all four problems, hence it’s easily doable.

 

Here’s to success, Happy Writing!

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