How To Color a Character

When I first started sending my novels around to publishers and agents, I often heard that my main character was not very fun/nice/likable. “He’s no hero” and “she’s got too many issues” were typical comments. This perplexed me for a number of reasons. I liked my characters, for one. They were human and real to me. They were often based on, well, me. Or on Men I Have Known. They sort of wrote themselves. So how could they be wrong?

As it turns out, writing for publication is a business. And the business model says that a heroine should not have too many issues and a hero needs to be more heroic than a real man. I quickly learned that if I wanted to play this game, I’d have to learn the craft. In fact, one kind editor said exactly this to me. “Your writing is fine. You just need to learn your craft.”

Really? There’s a craft to it? What exactly is craft? And where do I get it?

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I got mine in Ohio. This is where I traveled to take a week-long intensive with bestselling novelist Jennifer Crusie. Jenny said a couple of things about character that were key to my novelist education. One was that a hero needs to be more heroic than any actual man I may have met (or married) in real life. The other was that readers want to cheer for a main character. They want to see someone worthy work hard, get knocked down, but finally, win the prize.

So I went home and proceeded to make up a character. What I’d done previously was simply write whoever showed up on the page (some version of me and an ex) and whatever they did. Now I was a writer who knew a thing or two about the theory (if not execution) of craft. It was time to execute. Kill my darlings. Reshape them into people with whom readers might want to spend time.

TheParisNotebook_w5955_300Now I start every novel with the idea that my main character is going to work very hard. She is not afraid of hard work. She will do whatever it takes to get the job done. After six published novels, it’s like second nature to me. Having practiced my craft, I understand hard work. So I get it. But at first it was difficult to go in and reshape these beings.

Give them better qualities, like a work ethic or heroic heart. You have to figure out ways to show this. What’s their job? Show them doing it. Avoid being boring. This part of writing, the planning and firmly putting character is the place you want them to be, is different than writing.

When I write, I hit a stream and flow. When I step back and plan, it’s more like being the person I am in daily life. I am not in the fictional trance. I’m present, with a problem, or maybe just dinner to make,  that same sort of mindset. I cut the fat, choose the spices, make sure not to burn my hand. And thus, my character becomes something of my deliberate creation, something of which readers of popular fiction might make a meal.

Editors & Endings

I read a great book this weekend that would have been much better with a little help from an editor. As I started to read the novel, I was thinking “This person is so good. Why is s/he not traditionally published? Why isn’t there a movie deal on the table?” Sure, there were a few typos, maybe ten in the entire book. An editor would have caught those, but okay, the story is so good, I just read on.

And then I reached the end. Reader, it wasn’t good. It didn’t give that sense of completion a great ending always strives to achieve. It was like this person just stopped typing. And I felt really bad for that author, because an editor would have helped improve the weak conclusion. My editor at The Wild Rose Press spotted the sloppy ending of Blue Heaven, my soon to be released novel, right away. It was the first comment she offered me. And when she said it, I knew she was right. I scrapped 50 or so pages and got back to work.

As much as I love the indie community, everyone in it should have an editor. I have two degrees in English literature, taught writing to college students for almost two decades and worked as a staff reviewer in  two top trade magazines. I’ve read widely and have given editing advice to thousands of college freshmen. And I still need my editor to get my novel right.

About those college freshman…by far the most common problem I see in their essays is not grammar or usage issues, it’s the conclusion. College students can’t wait for the assignment to be over, so many of them dash off a weak conclusion. Novelists can’t afford to do that. Our endings should wrap up the story, but more, they should offer one last special something for the reader. Brilliant endings are just as important as fabulous openings. Conclusions can make or break a book. If the ending doesn’t work, that’s likely all a reader will remember. If an ending is special in some way, readers will remember that, too. And they’ll buy your next book.

Stand-Alone Sarah

Sarah’s Survival Guide is a free 40 page story right here on my website. Anyone can read it, even attach it to their tablet or reading device. Makes it sound like I wanted to do something nice for my readers. I do, of course, but the real reason Sarah’s Survival Guide stands alone is because my former editor asked me to consider taking it out. I was writing romance at the time, and Sarah’s subplot was stealing the spotlight from the main lovers. Sarah is still very much a part of The Paris Notebook, especially the penultimate scene.

What Sarah does not have in the novel is a point of view. Sarah’s story is not filled out as I meant it to be. That’s okay, I’m a tough old writer and have been edited many times. I also understand the rules of writing romance. So I’m not saying my editor was wrong. She was spot on. The problem was me, I had not written a romance. The wonderful folks at The Wild Rose Press knew I was not a romance writer, and through two novels helped me become one. Then when I proposed a women’s fiction series, they said YES. They said that was where I should be, writing women’s fiction, with more going on than true love. Nothing against true love! I’ll always have a love story or three.

Almost the minute I learned I needed to cut Sarah’s story, I began plotting. I was able to pull it out almost seamlessly. I added a few bits into the book so it made sense and I took all spoilers out of Sarah’s Survival Guide. Then, after paying a friend a shamelessly small amount for a gorgeous cover, I was ready to roll.

I don’t know how many people have read Sarah’s story. I have never, in ten years, quickly going on eleven, looked at my page views. But I love hearing people tell me they wished there was more about Sarah in The Paris Notebook. And that’s happened at least a dozen times. Every time, I say “You’re in luck! Click on Sarah’s Survival Guide on my blog.” I think it’s a sweet love story. It works as a short story, but if you read it first, you might want to know what happens next. Well, that answer is in The Paris Notebook.

Galley Edits & Gratitude

As a book reviewer, I learned that “galleys” were the final manuscript, set in print, before publication. Galleys were what we mostly read. They had plain covers and came with an info-packed publicity note. We were always told that we should not quote from galleys unless the publicist agreed. I found that it was okay to quote good stuff but not bad, as it might be fixed in galley edit.

Both author and editor do one final read, and what we are looking for are typos, homonyms, spell check errors, grammar issues. My publisher really does not encourage any other kinds of changes in galley. Glaring oops, yes. Cutting and revising a paragraph or even a sentence, no.

Before I was published, I longed for the day when I would have my own galley edits to proofread. And now I do. I can’t remember doing this on my last book! The Paris Notebook had a different editor, still I’m sure I must have done.

But then, I was not in the middle of organizing a major moving of house. Now I am and I feel the pressure. It may be an insider secret, but after about 25 or so reads of a novel, this writer at least, starts to get bored. Really intensely bored. How ungrateful!

I plan to start my galley edits today, finally, after being distracted by furniture shopping, picking out new towels, and begging the window shade installers to come out with what part of my very large order they have. They said, not exactly no, but “We can be there next Wednesday at ten am to install everything” so I had to say yes. And the furniture, or the greater part of it, will be here Tuesday. I have a new-sized bed. I have not bought the sheets yet, although my pal Ali sent me lots of great stuff online. Great prices too.

See, every time I start to write about the process of writing, it segues into house talk. I have such abundance in my life right now, both with the writing and the new home, that I am simply grateful. And since it’s Sunday, I’m giving even more thanks for this life of mine.

Everything Changes

Had to update my status, as we say on Facebook. After a two day pity party, I’m writing again. And no sugar today. Yet.

Recently received my publishing contract for Blue Heaven. Same publisher, different contract. Not many changes, but the ones I noted were important enough for me to do some negotiating. I’m happy with the way things went and sent the new signed contract in today. Which means, I will be getting edits soon.

I love working with editors. Almost everything they suggest makes my books better and my characters stronger. I’m even starting to think a little bit like an editor. That’s good. The less editing my editor has to do, the better writer I am becoming.

There’s another big change in my life these days: after 27 years in the same house, my husband and I are moving. We’re going from a house to a condo. We’re going from no basement tri-level, to split ranch with a basement. (But also with a first floor laundry.) We’re going from a well-used and much loved home to a brand new (even a little bit bigger) place that we can button up with confidence and leave for extended travel.

My plan is to keep writing through the move. I’ve got a deadline and the clock starts ticking soon.