Compelling characters grab a reader’s attention and pull the reader into the story. In the best fiction, a reader becomes an interested observer, or at least feels as if he or she is part of the plot.
How do writers create characters? And, how do writers create characters who are so interesting that readers care enough to know what happens to them?
Interest in the Characters and Being Observant Helps
How a writer feels about the characters is part of the dynamic of writing interesting characters. In his Granta article, “The Making of a Writer,” Kent Haruf explained that, “To be more aware of others and to pay closer attention to what others around me are feeling… are good things if you are trying to learn how to write fiction about characters you care about and love.”
Writers like Eudora Welty and Jane Austen, who lived sheltered lives, were still able to write compelling characters with perceptive details about their society and the world in which they lived because they were observant about the people around them. Observing what motivates people provides writers with insight they can use in their work.
Creative Writing Courses Can Help
Writers can learn from workshops and writing courses how to create complex and compelling characters. Building characters to make them distinctive and credible can be learned. In creative writing courses exercises can help writers explore the facets and traits of characters that make them human and absorbing.
Watching movies to figure out how to build scenes, learning to write dialogue, and taking narrative classes that help writers learn how to craft longer stories that do not lose their momentum are among the skills that writers can learn.
The Distinctive Instructive Style of Writing Workshops
The workshop format generates progress through peer reviews. The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop is recognized as the leader in this space. The university may have come naturally to this approach because of Midwestern farmers’ tradition of “neighboring.” Neighborliness was how small farmers supported each other by helping each other in farming chores. Writing is a lonely craft, but workshops help writers learn to refine their craft sociably.
Writer Kent Haruf went to great lengths to get admitted by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As he shared in his Granta article, the teaching methods in his time were more “descriptive” and less “prescriptive.” Experienced writers shared “what they thought worked in a story and what didn’t” and left it up to writers “to figure out how to fix it.”
Whether a reader’s attention stays with the story or the novel will depend on the writer’s skill in creating interesting, compelling characters, storylines, plots, and subplots.
Copyeditors face unique challenges when working with multiple clients and writers. Primarily, everyone has their own idea of what is right and acceptable, and clients will vary on what they expect in any given piece of work. Rules also tend to change with the times as traditional writing forms make way for modern artistic freedom in speech and writing. How fast do things change? Oxford English Dictionary editors estimate they add around 1,000 words per year. Wrap your spell-checker around that statistic!
Editing in Real Life
Thinking that editing class you took in college is the be-all and end-all of editing is where potentially great editors falter, and this can make or break a career. Classes are only the beginning, no matter how thick and unwieldy the dictionary and style manual were that you memorized. The best learning even an experienced editor will find is in real life situations, especially from writers willing to share their editing nightmares.
If you Google a phrase like “bad editor,” you will find more than 20,000 results telling you exactly what not to do, including a humorous definition from Urban Dictionary. Likely most of these “Don’ts” were born from writers fed up with their police-like editors ruining a good piece of writing by sticking hard and fast to old rules. As an editor, it is imperative to work with your writer rather than against them. Ultimately, you will end up learning a lot about yourself in the process.
When you are ready to get serious as an editor and you want to improve your skills in today’s terms, find some writers to talk with. Writers are everywhere, so it should be easy to find some with some interesting editing horror stories. Brace yourself for brutal honesty in their opinions of editors because this will shed light on how you can improve. Pay attention to how they fear and perceive editors and vow to do better.
Consider the Audience
Consider editing as a continuing education in the English language. Consider the audience your writer is writing for and what the readers expect as far as form and function. It is important to know that being on the cutting edge of linguistics is bad for business (you don’t want to be too different), but being able to flex your branches with differing needs and expectations will make you less of a “bad guy” and more of a partner.
Finally, seek out a mentor or team of mentors who will provide you uncensored advice on your copyediting techniques. The more people you ask opinions of, the more diverse your skills will become. This in turn will help you break free of stagnancy and allow you more room to grow in the career.
Flash fiction, or extremely brief works of fiction, has exploded in popularity over the past few years but has been around longer than many realize. In America, one can find examples of such micro-storytelling as early as the 1800s from authors including Kate Chopin and Walt Whitman. The popular magazine Cosmopolitan popularized these short forms by way of their “Short Short Story” section, and by the 1930s, anthologies of these shorts started to hit the printing presses.
Presently, numerous print literary journals are dedicated to flash fiction, including the Vestal Review and Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine. The internet has
broken through the limitations of print publishing these short pieces and given audiences a means to instant satisfaction, both in writing and reading the short-form written works that feature short prose, snippets of high drama, and often open endings designed to leave the reader wondering, “What next?”
Often called “fast food for the mind,” flash fiction has jumped off the pages of obscure literary magazines and found a comfortable niche on the internet. Now everyone with an internet connection and some imagination is invited to try their hand at this not-so-new style. Some writers take flash to the extreme. Historically, although the story has seen a few versions from one telling to another, there is a tale of Ernest Hemingway winning a bet with his “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
In addition to the six-word-story challenge alluded to above, folks have come up with other now commonly accepted subsets for flash fiction. Included in these powerful little subs are:
- 140-character stories called “Twitterature”
- 50-word “Dribbles”
- 100-word “Drabbles”
- 750-word “Sudden Fiction”
While there is no hard and fast rule for an actual word limit to any flash fiction story, audiences will agree on “the shorter, the better.” The internet is, after all, the go-to source for bite-sized information and entertainment. Because of this, flash fiction naturally took over a corner of the web. Not only has the internet been the impetus for enhanced awareness of the style, it has blatantly influenced its popularity. We now see online journals dedicated solely to this uniquely satisfying writing style.
New online journals crop up weekly, bringing us new flash fiction to consume. With every new voice on the web, the style continues to evolve and new rules are written. Keeping in form means flash writers take existing forms and redefine them. As long as the many forms of flash fiction remain nebulous, audiences will remain interested.
Writers may at times find themselves stuck for a new angle on an existing project or at a loss for new topics to explore. When this happens, writing becomes frustrating, and that puts a damper on creating new material. If you are a writer, consider how your immediate surroundings affect you. Do the “same four walls” often make your writing as drab as your office? Does your personal writing drone on about the same topic night after night? If so, it is time for a change.
Professional spaces are often highly limited in how they can be personalized. In a creatively stifled office situation, it often helps to invest a small amount of money into personal writing effects like fountain pens, colored pens, and higher-end notebooks or sketch books. Taking notes with different tools helps pull a bored office worker out of the mundane and makes business writing sound better. It is also easier to work when you are happy. E-mails and memos will sound much more alive, catching more interest.
Personal writing spaces offer a lot more freedom when it comes to how they can be decorated. Writers with their own writing rooms can experiment with color, sounds, and scents to wake up the right hemisphere of their brains. If painting the walls with inspiring colors (usually oranges, blues, and greens) is too much of a task, walls can be covered with colorful tapestries or even embellished bed sheets and photo frames. Background music helps some and hinders others, so try a few things until you find a happy place.
Of course, some writers may engage in work that requires both professionalism and extreme creativity. These are the lucky ones! Marketing and advertising are two such careers where a certain amount of artistic freedom is rewarded with bigger paychecks and better contracts. In these instances, such writers are encouraged to make their work spaces (desks, offices, studios) a reflection of their creative vision, places that never stop inspiring their work.
No matter the type of writing you do, whether personal or business, if you ever feel stuck for new ideas, try changing up your surroundings. Something as simple as sitting in a new park if you work primarily indoors, or writing in a museum cafe or anywhere else you do not usually go, can provide the boost needed to start creating again.
Self-publishing is difficult for authors who have already spent their valuable time writing their book and do not have the time for or experience in performing all the other tasks involved before going to print. Self-publishing companies like Lulu and BookBaby provide services including cover design, editing, and print-on-demand publishing. The author, in return, is responsible for registering the copyright and ISBN, production management, and marketing.
When authors are their own publishers under this avenue, they also have more control over the final price of the book, which is a major selling point to prospective readers. The self-publishing company will usually help the author determine a price for the book by providing a calculator for printing options and publisher commissions. This allows the author to see plainly what their portion of the profits will be for each book sold.
Vanity publishing, also called subsidy publishing, differs from self-publishing in that the author assumes all the risk and pays the publisher. This is counterproductive to authors trying to make money on their books. While vanity presses do offer services like cover design and editing, there is a major catch. Once a manuscript is published by a subsidy, it becomes their property, right down to the ISBN number. The author forfeits all rights to the book once it appears in the publisher’s catalog.
Different from both of these types of publishing options are traditional publishers. These are companies that actually invest their money and resources (like marketing and printing) into the promise that books will sell. They purchase rights to manuscripts and pay royalties to authors, often offering advances prior to publishing. Traditional publishers are where the money is, but they are also the most difficult to work with, especially for unknown authors who present a greater risk to the publisher.
Knowing the differences between the different publishing avenues available can make or (financially) break an author. By doing research into prospective publishing routes and companies, authors will find more success and fewer headaches in trying to make their works available to their intended audience.
While great science fiction deserves a great plot, another element to writing in this genre can be just as tricky to weave in. The setting of a science fiction story is the real foundation of the piece. Writers can touch on a range of human emotions in a well-crafted setting and utilize them to build strong characters and plot lines. This is why many readers turn to fantastical novels over other types of fiction like drama or romance. Good sci-fi has the power to bring readers to entirely new worlds.
By creating fictional worlds rich with imagery, emotion, and culture, writers allow readers to escape the mundane “real world,” the one they trudge through every day, and enter a new realm. They can forget their everyday worries and cares by departing from reality and immersing themselves in the microcosm of your story. In this genre, the setting is less of a backdrop and more of an element directly related to the way every action plays out.
Playing with the Senses
Human culture relies primarily on visual stimuli to understand the surrounding world. In remembering this, the writer should focus on creating a story backdrop that is rich in visual cues and vibrant enough to see through words alone. With the right choice of descriptors the writer can spur the reader into seeing precisely what the writer means to suggest.
Fiction writers can stoke the reader’s emotions with landscape as well as with straightforward actions. Both aspects can combine into powerful storytelling that will leave readers craving more. Settings can inspire every emotion, whether through the soothing, entrancing low hum of a magnetic engine or the rush of racing through dangerously narrow canyon walls saddled to the back of a Roc at the break of a second-sun rising.
Further, authors can add dimension to their settings by adding environmental sounds to their setting descriptions, for example, by describing the crackling hiss of a comet as it races precariously close to the thin atmosphere, or the crystalline tinkling of moisture dripping upward from the bottom of a pristine cave floor. There are endless ways to manipulate the readers’ senses, providing a captivating setting for any scene.
Beyond describing the physical setting, the sci-fi writer should be aware that the meta-setting plays an important role in supporting the fictional environment. As in real life, the cultures and personalities around us shape the way readers see the world. Characters therefore should present viewpoints and actions that complement the physical setting of the scene. A simple example of this is where a hot, dry environment would naturally produce short tempers and the survivalist’s mentality in a character.
Remember in writing fiction, all elements of the story must provide a strong foundation as well as continuity to hold it together. By creating settings that incorporate compelling visuals and truly immersive worlds with characters to support them, science fiction writers will create enduring works worth buying, reading, and sharing.
No matter what purpose your writing serves, whether fiction or prose, speech writing or business writing, the words you serve to your audience need to make a powerful impression if they are to be remembered. There are four key aspects to storytelling that should be included to motivate your audience and inspire them to pay attention. Learning to incorporate all these elements will make your writing stand out and easier to remember.
If you dissect any story, you will find that it is driven by a degree of conflict. Conflict refers to any challenge that needs to be overcome in order to reach a goal. A fictional example would be a character forced to decide between two things he or she wants. A business conflict may involve a competitor trying to undermine your company by underpricing their product or someone leaking proprietary information. Presenting challenges clearly sets the basis for your story.
When your conflict must be faced head-on to achieve a goal, be it love, wealth, or whatever else applies, this brings on the transformation. Your main character would choose love over money and find true happiness. Your company would hire an investigator to discover who leaked your company’s client list to a competitor. Transformation has many faces, including physical, emotional, and financial. It is the moment of change that gets your story where you want it to be.
Make it Authentic
To stand out and keep your audience’s attention, your writing needs to be authentic. Authenticity means you do not want your work to sound like someone else’s. Worse, you do not want it to sound generic. Even fantasy can be authentic. The idea is to create something that your audience can relate to, even if metaphorically. Once your story incorporates this aspect, you will connect with your audience and they will find relevance in your words. It should speak to their needs and emotions.
Add Some Magic
Magic can be achieved in a number of ways, and it does not have to be fantastical or unrealistic. Think of your main character as having some sort of flaw or quirk which acts as the impetus for attracting their true love. For your business, imagine that investigator your firm hires has an uncanny way of finding information no one else could through secret sources or simply intuition. He will be the wizard who magically saves the company.
All these elements weave together to create memorable stories, both real and fictitious. Conflict makes readers or listeners crave knowing what happens next. Transformation makes them say, “Yes, that’s how it should go!” Authenticity provides real-enough situations that people can relate to and apply in their active listening. Finally, magic brings it all together in an ending they may have never seen coming. Together, these key storytelling aspects will make even the most mundane stories memorable.
In the process of writing, it is helpful (even vital) to have other sets of fresh eyes look at your work and give you their honest opinions. Peer and professional feedback will help you hone your writing before it is published and even before it reaches the editor, saving you precious time in going from pen to print to paycheck. Joining a writing critique group, either virtually or in person, will be your weapon against common writing mistakes that are easy to miss.
Open Critique Groups
Open critique groups have no restrictions as to genre, level of experience, or any other criteria. These are the easiest groups to work with, especially for beginners. They are found both online and locally (try searching Craigslist or Meetup.com), and due to the diversity of people involved, they can help you expand your professional network. The major drawback is you may never know what types of people will be at any given meeting, so feedback can vary in quality.
Closed Critique Groups
Closed groups most often limit the number of writers who can join and may also have restrictions on genre, experience, or other criteria. They typically involve monthly or annual fees, which can hinder some talented writers from joining. On the bright side of closed groups, the numbers are smaller so you will develop trusting relationships with those critiquing your work.
Online-Only Critique Groups
Virtual or online groups also have their pros and cons. Some helpful things about them include not having to commute to local meetings, which saves you time, and being able to set your own schedule to work within them. If the lack of personal interaction bothers you, you can find one that holds meetings via Skype or Google+ for more real-time interactions.
In addition to the groups discussed above, you may want to add a critiquing partner to your network. Ideally, this should be someone familiar with your genre and your work as a whole. Having a partner gives you the flexibility of only having to arrange meeting times and places with one person. It is recommended that you choose a partner whose ideas differ a bit from yours, as this will give you a fresh perspective on your work.
No matter what critique style you choose, remember you want to vary your audience so you achieve perspectives from as many different viewpoints as possible. This will help you see your work through your readers’ eyes, as your real-world audience will also vary widely in their ideas and interests.
Being considered by your peers as a “good” or “bad” writer can make or break your creative career. However, you can make easy adjustments to elevate your work, get noticed, and above all get better at what you do. There is always room for improvement, and anyone who tells you otherwise has given up. This leads to the first point: Good writers understand perseverance is key.
Quitters Never Win
For those who are just starting to get their feet wet in the publishing world, the first few dozen rejections can be discouraging enough to make you reconsider your passion. Where bad writers throw in the towel, good writers know that the only way to meet their goals is to keep going. Perseverance means pushing through with faith that you will improve or find the break you are waiting for.
While some writers seem to possess a natural affinity for the craft, writing must, like anything else, be practiced. Bad writers wait until inspiration hits, going long periods of time between writing sessions and then blaming things like writers’ block for their lack of production during the down times. What good writers know is that having the discipline necessary to write through the dry times makes for additional productivity and becomes a good habit. Most of all, the practice achieved in disciplined writing is vital to success.
Learning to Take Criticism
Criticism is not always a bad thing. If a peer, an editor, or your client reviews your writing and makes suggestions as to grammar, punctuation, content, or any other point of contention, take every word of advice and learn from it. Only you can decide whether or not it applies to your work, but remember, it is not generally someone’s intention to give criticism as an insult. It is there to make you better. Listen to both the internal and external voices to help you hone your writing.
Speaking of honing your writing, here is another thing good writers understand: The first draft is never the last. Bad writers will quickly knock off a piece of work, see no room for improvement, and call it a day. Good writers, on the contrary, will polish their work with one or several revisions, tuning their work with precision until it stands above the rest.
From learning to take helpful feedback with a simple, “thank you,” to realizing your work isn’t perfect but still requires your dedication, there are numerous little ways in which you as a writer can improve. Stay humble, and always be prepared to see your writing project through to completion, even if it means re-writing it twice and taking a rejection in stride from time to time.
Whether you are an experienced writer or aspiring to compose the next Great American Novel, disorganization with your time and goals is your worst enemy. Setting goals for your writing takes little time, but it can save you hours of frustration, missed deadlines, even the dreaded “writer’s block.” When you are ready to get serious about your writing, whether for personal or business purposes, the following tips will help you put your work into perspective and meet your goals.
The first thing you should do is empty your bucket. All writers have a bucket list, no matter how minor. Maybe you want to get the novel on paper that has been rolling around in your head. Maybe you want to submit and publish a certain number of poems this year or get picked up by a certain publication. Maybe you want to set up a blog that you can maintain and gain a large following. Whatever your goals, write them all down in one place so you can begin getting them organized.
Take Small Bites
Once your major goals are listed, start looking at their specifics. This is where you will break down each goal into bite-sized pieces so they do not seem so daunting to tackle. Two things to keep in mind are to make them measurable and attainable. Outline the steps you need to take to reach each degree of success. For example, before you start your blog, you need to secure web hosting, decide how much you can or are willing to pay for it, and pick a theme and layout.
To bring your goals to fruition, they need to keep moving. Set time limits for each task, and stick to them. Your eternal “To-Do List” will transform into something you will hold yourself accountable for. Be realistic in allotting the time you need for each step toward your goal. Also, be forgiving. Sometimes things come up and you cannot meet a deadline you set. Simply re-work your schedule, and keep moving forward.
It is up to you if you want to keep your writing goals with your personal schedule or in their own notebook or calendar. You may try different ways and see which aligns best with the way you work. It will make you feel quite accomplished as you are able to check things off, regardless of how you organize. Once you plot your strategies, following them and sticking with them will become an easier habit over time. Before you know it, your once-messy bucket list will become a portfolio of your achievements.