Critical Thinking: The 5 Factors that Earn 5 Star Reviews!

An excerpt from: Paul Goat Allen | March 12, 2018, Writer’s Digest. Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

Novelists live and die by reviews yet uncovering what garners a gushing ovation or blistering takedown is often a mystery. A professional critic lays out what it takes to earn five-star book reviews. For two decades I’d been working as a freelance genre fiction book critic for outlets such as BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the Chicago Tribune. After sharing my credentials with the group, some of the writers began telling stories about mediocre or bad reviews they’d received at different points in their careers from one or more of the companies I’d listed.

As a reviewer, not much has changed since then. I enjoy all genres and have reviewed thousands of titles in hundreds of sub-genres ranging from apocalyptic fiction to zombie erotica. (Yes, there’s such thing as zombie erotica.) In the end, genre categorization matters little to me—it’s all about the story. With that in mind, I decided to formalize a universal framework through which I process and analyze my various reading experiences. While there are undoubtedly specific narrative elements I look for in-particular-genres (pacing and tension level in thrillers, for example), there’s a pyramid of qualities—a Hierarchy of Needs, if you will—that I seek in every story. While highly simplified, it’s this structure that dictates whether I give a book a positive or negative review.

These five criteria will not only provide a glimpse into how a veteran book reviewer dissects and evaluates a novel but, hopefully, make you look at your writing in a different light. See for yourself: Does your work-in-progress have what it takes to earn a positive review?

The Book Reviewer’s Hierarchy of Needs: How to Earn Five-Star Book Reviews

  1. Readability

A book’s degree of readability is the base layer of my reviewer’s pyramid, and the foundation for any good story. The quality of a novel—narrative clarity, narrative fluidity, having a coherent storyline—is directly related to the number of times I put that book down. Some are so bad, so poorly written, that I struggle to get through a single paragraph without wanting to walk away. Others have such a fl uid plot that I find it virtually impossible to stop reading—Tad Williams’ The Witchwood Crown and Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass being two such examples of utterly readable, page-turning novels.

I’ve read a lot of “unputdownable” books over the last few decades, and the vast majority of these all have something in common beyond a clear and fluid narrative: The stories have noticeably strong chapter beginnings and endings. It’s a small thing, but a great way to compel readers to keep reading. How can you put a book down when every chapter begins and ends with a cliffhanger sequence, bombshell plot twist or powerful statement? When I consistently find these elements in a novel, I know the author fully understands the significance of readability.

Conversely, novels that aren’t as readable—that are poorly written with awkward sentence structure, a confusing storyline, weak chapter beginnings and endings—are almost asking to be tossed aside. This may sound obvious, but if you can’t compel a reader to read your story, then you need to focus more on your craft before penning another book.

  1. Immersion

I define immersion as the ability for me, the reader, to not only lose myself in a novel (I call these “stay-up-all-night-till-your-eyes-bleed” reads) but to experience the story intimately, living vicariously through the characters. This trick is accomplished through a continued focus on setting, rich description and atmospherics. I don’t want to experience the story as a detached viewer looking down at what’s happening—I want to feel like I’m in the story.

The litmus test for this is easy. If I become so engaged with a book that I lose track of time—if I glance at the clock and hours have passed by—you’ve succeeded in drawing me fully into your read. Writers who are absolute immersion masters (think Cherie Priest, Justin Cronin, Charlaine Harris) are so good at captivating description that weeks, months and oftentimes years after reading their novels I can still vividly recall specific scenes.

This layer is where many writers stumble, and here’s why: While they may excel at world-building and meticulous description at the beginning of a novel, once the action and adventure ramps up, they not only lose focus but completely ignore description altogether. I’ve seen this happen countless times in every genre: rich description for the first 100 pages or so, then almost nothing in the final 200. It’s called literary escapism for a reason. If I can’t lose myself in a read—from beginning to end—then I haven’t fully escaped. Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View

  1. Character Depth and/or Plot Intricacy

Three-dimensional, interesting and identifiable characters bring emotional connectivity and intensity to the read. If your readers aren’t emotionally invested in your characters, then the narrative impact of your story is inevitably going to be negatively impacted. Emotions wield power. If you can bring your readers to tears, make them laugh out loud or scare them to the point of checking under the bed, then you’ve succeeded on some level.

Creating authentic characters to whom readers can relate is a solid achievement—but an obvious word of warning: Stay clear of clichés and stereotypes. Overused conventions—like the Chosen One in fantasy who is consistently a white male, or the emotionally damaged billionaire entrepreneur in erotic fiction who needs to sexually dominate his love interest—even if brilliantly rendered, will underwhelm and disappoint more than a few readers (and reviewers).

Now, the reason I include an “and/or” between character development and plot intricacy is because, in some rare cases (particularly in mainstream thrillers), a novel with an impressively knotty storyline can still succeed with relatively cardboard characters.

Which is why plot intricacy is key: Why read a novel where you can accurately predict what’s going to happen after a few chapters? (I do that quite often. After reading the first chapter or two, I’ll jot down a prediction in my notes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve guessed the ending correctly.) I just finished reviewing a brilliant historical mystery for Publishers Weekly that was filled with so many plot twists I was left guessing until the last few pages. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or a thriller or a romance—the plot has to be intricate enough to keep your reader simultaneously engaged and a bit off balance.

  1. Originality and Innovation

This one ties in with embracing originality, be it atypical characters or unconventional story structure. So many books out there today are built upon unoriginal, rehashed, derivative storylines. I read a lot. And I get bored easily, especially when reading the same basic story arc again and again. My advice? Don’t play it safe. Write a story that you’ve never read before. In a 2016 Goodreads interview I conducted with fantasy novelist Michael J. Sullivan, author of Age of Myth, he said,

“It doesn’t matter if it’s been done before. It just matters if it’s being done well now.”

I love that quote. Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be re-envisioned or reimagined but be innovative—put a new twist on an old mythos, turn a stereotype on its head. Have the courage to be creative!

  1. Thematic Profundity

In the introduction to the 2006 reissue of Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 Hugo Award–winning classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Mary Doria Russell writes, “You’ll be different when you finish it.” That’s my hope for every novel I pick up—that within the story there will be a kind of spiritual and/or existential wisdom, a kind of revelation or insight that will change the way I look at myself and the world around me.

A novel that holds this kind of thematic power—as well as the other elements in the Hierarchy of Needs—will get a starred review from me every time. Stories, no matter the genre, have the power to change lives. Novels like Andreas Eschbach’s The Carpet Makers, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We have irrevocably changed who I am. After all, that’s the ultimate goal, right? To write a commercially successful and critically acclaimed novel that is both entertaining and enlightening.

Evaluating a novel is a cumulative process. Those with masterful character development but zero immersion will still receive a poor review, for example, while a thematically profound read with excruciatingly bad readability will receive a terrible review.

May this Hierarchy of Needs not only make you more aware of how your writing is experienced by readers—and jaded book reviewers like myself—but also offer up a few invaluable insights that can be used to improve your craft. Who knows, maybe my next starred review will be yours.

Paul Goat Allen has worked as a genre fiction book critic and written thousands of reviews for companies like BarnesandNoble.com, Publishers Weekly, the Chicago Tribune and Kirkus Reviews.

 

 

Ten Myths About Creativity by Melissa Donovan

 

 

 

 

 

 

reblogged from Writing Forward, by Melissa Donovan on March 6, 2018, 

https://www.writingforward.com/  (An excerpt from Melissa Donovan’s book, 10 Core Practices for Better Writing.)

This excerpt is from “Chapter Nine: Creativity,” which offers insights and tips to help you stay inspired and creative as a writer. The excerpt I’ve chosen presents ten myths about creativity. These are notions about creativity that people assume, even though many of them are counterproductive to creativity.

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” – Maya Angelou

There’s an old myth floating around, which suggests that creativity is inherent. You’re either born with it or you’re born without it. But creativity can be learned and developed over time. Some people may have a more natural inclination toward creative thinking, but anyone can foster and nurture creativity.

Artists throughout the ages have gone to great lengths and sunk to fathomless lows in pursuit of inspiration. The ancient Greeks personified inspiration in the muses. When they needed inspiration, they invoked these supernatural entities, calling on them for artistic help. Artists have set out on journeys, pursued spiritual and religious activities, and engaged in painful or unhealthy experiences in order to feed their imaginations.

Indeed, there are famous examples of authors drinking themselves to death or committing suicide, and of course, there is the well-known tale of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off part of his own ear. And finally, there’s the ever-present stereotype of the starving artist.

Despite these tales of suffering and tragedy among authors and artists, the most successful creative people tend toward more practical measures, choosing lifestyles and habits that are healthy and conducive to creativity. Unfortunately, these destructive myths about creativity persist.

Ten Myths about Creativity

1. Drugs and alcohol: One of the worst myths about artistry is that drugs and alcohol promote creativity. That’s a lie. What drugs and alcohol do is promote dependence. It is ineffective and inefficient to rely on these substances in order to make art. It’s also unhealthy, and in fact, it can be deadly.

2.Misery: Another common myth is that pain, sorrow, and anger are the best conduits for creativity. Sure, when we are unhappy, writing can provide a healthy, therapeutic outlet. But this has nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with the need to express oneself. While misery may indeed inspire us, we can be just as inspired by happy or emotionally neutral experiences. Relying on a depressive state of mind for inspiration is just as dangerous as relying on drugs and alcohol. And like drugs and alcohol, such thinking is unhealthy and can be deadly.

3.Suffering: This myth is based on the idea that artistry is won through suffering. Some people actually believe that artists should suffer, and suffer hard, before they get to succeed. What you have to do to succeed is work hard. You shouldn’t have to suffer.

4.Divinity: There are less dangerous myths about creativity and inspiration. Some people believe that creativity makes a divine appearance only when they are supposed to create, and the rest of the time, they shouldn’t bother. We all have moments of great inspiration. They come and go and are rare for most of us. The most successful writers don’t wait for inspiration, they work for it. Regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs, we can learn to control our own creativity just as we control other aspects of our lives. It’s called free will.

4.Talent: Lots of people believe that creativity is inherently tied to talent. Talent just means you have a knack for something. Lots of creative people may not be especially talented, and there are plenty of talented individuals with no interest in pursuing the arts.

5.Two kinds of people: Some people are artistic; everyone else is not. That’s definitely not true. Everyone is creative, and the more we nurture and foster creativity, the more creative we become. Creativity is closely associated with the arts, but artists aren’t the only people who are creative.

6.Life of poverty: Many people believe that it’s practically impossible to succeed or make a living as any kind of artist. They mistakenly believe that an artist’s life is one of poverty and struggle. All kinds of people experience poverty—not just artists—and artists who do experience poverty don’t do so just because they are artists, as is proven by the many artists who never struggled with poverty.

7.Fame and fortune: Conversely, some people believe that artists will enjoy great fame and fortune. While it’s possible that you could write a wildly best-selling novel and become rich and famous, it’s not likely, although the odds are better for you than for someone working in a cubicle-eight-hours a day who doesn’t make any art at all. At least you have a shot at fame and fortune.

8.Creative people are weird: everybody’s weird.

9.Creative people are creative all the time or whenever they want to create: Once you’ve shown yourself to be creative, some people will think you’re capable of doing anything that requires creativity or that you’re a constant fountain of ideas. While many creative people have more ideas than they know what to do with, some have to work hard at finding inspiration.

10.The truth is that creativity is different for everyone and possible for anyone. You just have to want it, and you might have to work for it.

 

Line Editing: What Is It? By Jami Gold

Screenshot of line editing example

What Is Line Editing and What Should Line Editors Do? by Jami Gold https://jamigold.com/2018/03/what-is-line-editing-and-what-should-line-editors-do/

Last month, when I put together the Master Lists of writing craft skills to provide insights for self-editing and/or finding editors, I created a list for each phase of editing:

As I mentioned in the Line Editing post, in my experience, line editing is the hardest type of editing to nail down. We can say that line editing is about how we write scenes and paragraphs, but what does that mean?

Let’s take a closer look at what line editing encompasses

Why Is Line Editing Hard to Define?

While developmental editing is about the story and characters and copy editing is about grammar rules and sentence-level issues, line editing skills are all about our writing—as a whole:

  • our voice
  • our style
  • our techniques
  • our choices

Despite how line editing skills overlap those of developmental editing and copy editing, the skills also go far beyond looking at character arcs or knowing grammar and into becoming deeply in tune with an author’s voice. Talented line editing can make our writing sing, and the step shouldn’t be skipped.

Do We Need a Professional Line Editor?

Unfortunately, many writers have probably never been exposed to good line editing to recognize it (or its lack). It’s rare for a beta reader or critique partner—or even an English teacher—to have the necessary skills to be a good line editor. Due to the difficulty in finding non-professionals with the necessary line editing skills, my “default” recommendation as far as editing is:

For most writers, if we can afford to pay only one professional editor, we should get a professional line edit.

However, many editors who call themselves line editors actually perform more of a copyedit. It’s essential to get a sample edit from a potential editor to see what kind of changes they’re suggesting—and whether or not their changes are good for our voice, etc.

What should a professional line edit include? Check this list of examples…CLICK TO TWEET But that brings up the issue: If it’s so hard to define or recognize good line editing, how can we find a good line editor?

The first step is to learn more about what line editors do (or should do). The better we understand this stage of editing, the more we’re able to self-edit for these issues or judge whether a sample edit from someone calling themselves a line editor reveals if they’re actually looking at the right things.

Once we know whether a potential editor measures up, skill-wise, we can then focus on whether they’re a good match for our voice. I hesitate to ever recommend specific editors because we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but our individual needs are never more important than finding a line editor who’s a good match for our voice.

No matter how skilled the line editor, we should stay far away from any who don’t “get” our voice. *smile*

What Should Line Editors Do? The Basics…

Line editing focuses on clarity and strength in our writing, such as:

  • Are any sentences clunky or confusing?
  • Do any motivations need to be made clearer?
  • Are any phrases too cliché?
  • Do any sentences or paragraphs need to be tightened?
  • Are any sentences or paragraphs too repetitive?
  • Would different words make a stronger emotional impact?
  • Would showing or telling make a point more effective?
  • Would rearranging any sentences or paragraphs help the storytelling flow or have emotional focus?

In my post a few years ago about how we can evaluate potential editors, I gave a few examples of line-editing comments:

  • “I feel like her words should directly follow this. See what you think of the new arrangement.”
  • “This wording is a little awkward, and I would add a sentence or two showing her decision.”
  • “You can cut this. We know it already.”
  • “This almost goes without saying. Could you use a more descriptive adverb, or better yet, phrase?”

Note how these comments get into reading flow, clarity, tightening, and stronger writing. These are what we’re looking for with line edits. (Also note how these comments get into the nitty-gritty of how we word things. That’s why we need our line editor to be in tune with our voice.)

What Should Line Editors Do? More Examples…

I love how line editing makes my voice and writing stronger, so I want to give more insights into what a good line edit can do for us. I hope these examples give us more ideas about the types of self-editing we can do as well as what we should look for when evaluating potential line editors.

In my Line Editing Master List post, I organized line-editing skills into several categories. Using many of those same categories, here are some of the comments I received from my line editor on my latest release, Stone-Cold Heart:

Structure Scenes

Scene structure is usually a developmental editing step, but this is one of those areas that can overlap with line editing—especially when it comes to narrow story issuesrepetition of ideas, and story/emotional flow.

  • “What’s the deal with this? Where did it come from?”
  • “That’s DEFINITELY something I’d expect her to ask about.”
  • “Would this not cause problems in the world?”
  • “I think it’s fine to have this new POV scene this way. It’s not like there’s any other way to reveal this info. The only other thing you could do to make it slightly less jarring would be to put a prologue in her POV.”
  • “I would cut this and move it down to AFTER her explanation so you don’t cut the tension of us waiting to see what happens, with all the backstory.”
  • “I pictured them still on the couch and assumed she was either talking to them from the kitchen or had come back into the living room, so I’m confused about when they decided to join her.”
  • “Insert scene break.”

Structure Paragraphs and Sentences

Paragraph and sentence structure is the “meat” of line editing, ensuring ideas are expressed with strength and clarity.

  • “Three prepositional phrases in a row is the absolute max. I prefer no more than two because it gets overwhelming, but I’ll let you decide if there’s an easy way to rework this.”
  • “Feels redundant. I don’t think you need both of these.”
  • “Cut. This goes without saying, as we see this already.”
  • “I don’t see any need for the paragraph break.”
  • Closer implies comparison, but what are you comparing here?”
  • “Wrenched what?”
  • “Unclear who’s speaking here.”
  • “This sentence has too much going on. Can you split it into two?”
  • “Maybe change to “it doesn’t matter” or something similar. “No” is a confusing answer here.”
  • “This is a little hard to picture.”
  • “This is a little clunky. Reword if you can.”
  • “Even going back to review the last page, it’s not immediately clear what excuse you’re referring to.”
  • “Odd word choice. I feel like this word implies the opposite.”

Tightening sentences is also a major aspect of line editing, as in these screenshots:

Example of a sentence tightened and strengthened.

Line editing example of sentence tightened and made clearer

(Newsletter readers need to click through to the post to see the images. Click on the images to see full size.)

Develop Voice

As I mentioned above, voice is the trickiest aspect of line editing. A line editor who’s not a good match for us will try to “fix” our voice choices into something dull, but a good match will help us make our voice stronger and sharper.

  • “You know me and repetition, but using the different form of the word in the first sentence throws it off. Do you think changing it to match the other two makes it too much? What if you combine the last two sentences?”
  • “I think you may be over-using this word. The idea is well established at this point, and I don’t think the particular word needs to be repeated quite so many times.”
  • “I feel like a pause before this is necessary to emphasize it. Comma, em dash, ellipsis, your choice.”
  • “Try adding this understatement to make it funnier.”
  • “Sounds too formal.”
  • “I would maybe draw out these words with ellipses.”
  • “Some writers would use hyphens to make this into one idea. I was just reading something in an editor forum that said that’s considered lazy writing. Meh. Who knows?
    But the italics are a little odd as well. You could rephrase.”
  • “Technically these are comma splices. Which I’m sure you know. I would probably use periods here, but I can see wanting to tie it all together, so I’ll look the other way if that’s what you choose. 😉 “

Note: That last bullet is a great example of how a good editor match will “get” what we’re trying to do with our voice. *smile*

Evoke Intended Reader Reactions

Another aspect of feedback is for an editor to let us know whether our words are having the intended effect. Good editors will mention when something feels “off.”

  • “I’m assuming the gun isn’t loaded, but I can’t be sure, so maybe make that a little more clear here.”
  • “This actually minimizes the explosion in my head. I think of a bang as something sharp, caused by a gunshot, two things being struck together, etc. But an explosion is more of a boom. Or you could just describe its effect or compare it to something.”
  • “This sounds far more emotional. I would probably cut this part unless you mean to imply that he’s actually falling for her.”
  • “This seems out of left field. At least off topic.”
  • “I would switch these. This just sounds awkward, so it kills the moment you’re trying to create here.”
  • “The ellipsis makes me think that he’s drawing a blank for what to call her. But this word alone is a perfect end to that sentence.”
  • “Both of their statements here feel a little contrived.”
  • “I think this line could be stronger.”

Develop Characterization

A good line editor will help us develop our characters through word choice and keep our character’s presentation consistent.

  • “I want an adjective here to tell me what kind she likes.”
  • “This makes me immediately distrustful of him. Is that your intent?”
  • “Italicized because these words are always extra meaningful for him.”
  • “Seems like a really modern turn of phrase for his voice.”
  • “Would he know what this is?”
  • “I feel surprised that he would use this word. It seems a little feminine or something.”

Use Showing vs. Telling and POV Appropriately

Line editing can also highlight out-of-POV (point of view) phrases or let us know when we need more showing or telling.

  • “These highlighted phrases feel like she’s too self-aware. If she recognizes the signs, why can’t she exert some sort of control over it?”
  • “Are his arms still around her?”
  • “This feels very info-dumpy for her to say aloud. Doesn’t sound natural.”
  • “Not sure if she’d know her expression is pathetic.”
  • “This seems too self aware. Almost outside her POV. Maybe an analogy like…”
  • “This feels kind of “as you know, Bob-ish.””
  • “Can you unpack this a little? What does that look like?”
  • “Above, she merely “stepped back” from his arms, so I assumed he was still right there within touching distance.”
  • “This is a little tell-y.”
  • “More description please. A warehouse, a mansion, a brownstone, an estate?”

Miscellaneous Line Editing Elements

In addition, line editing can touch on goals, stakes, conflict, motivation, pacing, tension, etc.

  • “This feels like overkill. We get this point, but it feels like a jump. Almost weird that she’s even thinking about this.”
  • “Why does she assume this?”
  • “I realize the importance of this moment. You need their bond to be threatened, but this doesn’t feel like it fits. It comes out of left field.
    Could you tweak the direction a little and have her lash out? That’s still a lack of trust, without seeming like the thought suddenly made her change her mind.”

Want More Line Editing Information?

Here are a few other posts where we’ve talked about line-editing issues:

Hopefully this information helps show how line editing can take our writing and make it stronger. With a good line editor (or amazing self-editing skills), our stories will grab readers’ attention and emotions, compelling them to read just. One. More. Page. *smile*

How familiar are you with line editing? Have you had a good line editor before? What made them good (or bad)? Does this help clarify what a good line editor should analyze or how to evaluate a line editor’s skills? Do you have any questions about line editing?

Stock and Cloned Characters in Storytelling

 

 

 

 

 

by Melissa Donovan on March 15, 2018 ·

I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?

I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.

This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other instead of a cast of stock characters who are mere clones of one another.

Stock Characters

We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they immediately know who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.

When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other primary character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become fresh and interesting.

Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial, and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges — one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.

Cloning Characters

Stock characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip-off. Such characters are problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.

You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind. And give your character her own personality and challenges.

As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.

Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.

While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is much better.

Nature vs. Nurture: How to Avoid Cloned Characters

Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.

Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.

1.Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters  name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.

2.Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike.   Try developing a diverse cast of characters.

3.Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.

4.Create character sketches complete with backstories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.

5.To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors, models, and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.

6.Once you’ve created your cast, ask whether any of them are stock characters. If any of your primary characters feel like stock characters, make them more unique.

Are You Using Stock Characters? Are Your Characters a Bunch of Clones?

The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. Together, they shared the same purpose or function within the story. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do in one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.

I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.

How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? Have you ever noticed stock characters or cloned characters in a story you’ve read? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing!

 

 

How to Jumpstart Book Reviews for Self-Published Books!

BY JOEL FRIEDLANDER ON JANUARY 15, 2018

It’s never been a better time to be a self-published author, and there have never been more book reviewers available to the writer who decides to go indie.

Book reviewers help spread the message about your book by publishing a review to their own network. But if you’re new to publishing, you have to figure out how to get those book reviews that can bring you more readers.

First, Get Your Kit Together

Before you go hunting for reviewers, make sure you’ve got the essentials you’ll need. At the minimum you should have:

Either a PDF or an ePub of your book, or both. Include the covers, and also have the cover available as both a high-resolution (300 dpi) and low-resolution (72 dpi) graphics, preferably in JPG format

For print books, plenty of copies and mailing supplies. If you’re publishing via print on demand, order enough books to respond to reviewer requests, since you’ll need to add your marketing materials to the package.

Press release about the launch of your book. Try to make it sound like a story you would read in the newspaper.

Cover letter. This should be a brief introduction to you and your book, but keep it short.

Photos of the author. Again, you’ll need both high- and low-resolution images if you’re approaching both print and online reviewers.

Author biography. This is a good place to show your qualifications, particularly if you’re a nonfiction author.

There are lots of other things you can put in a press kit or a reviewer package, and you can find more about that here: Media Kits for Indie Authors

How to Find Reviewers

There are literally thousands of book bloggers online, and most of them review books even though they aren’t paid. Nevertheless, many are thoughtful reviewers and good writers, and have a significant following.

There are also reviewers offering paid reviews, and over the years this has become much more acceptable in the indie community. It’s one of the ways we get word out to readers about our books.

Paid reviews might work for completely unknown fiction authors, who have little chance to get exposure when they get started. Otherwise, use free review sources at first, it will be a long time before you run out of them.

Here are some recently updated resources that will help you locate reviewers:

Midwest Book Review welcomes self-published books, and their website is bulging with targeted information about book reviews and reviewers.

Indie Reader invites authors to submit their books for review, and they have become a trusted source for reviews. The site is run by authors and writers.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Free Reviews is an updated article from Publishers Weekly by By Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel with lots of excellent resources.

Indie View keeps an updated list of hundreds of reviewers.

Self-Publishing Review has been reviewing books since 2008 and also has lots of information about book marketing in general as well as an archive of great content.

Don’t forget the many reviewers who post on book-oriented sites like Goodreads, where you can also find genre-specific groups, too.

Reedsy has built an excellent list of Best Book Review Blogs of 2017. Authors can search by genre and filter out blogs that do not review indie books.

The Book Blogger List is another searchable curated list of online reviewers.

A recent interview with Jason B. Ladd, How To Get Book Reviews As An Unknown Author, with a great outline of the process of getting reader reviews.

For print reviewers, consider the programs run by the Independent Book Publishers Association. These mailings of books for review go to over 3,000 newspaper and magazine editors and reviewers.

There are an almost endless list of blog articles and books on this subject to research, too. Getting reviews is a standard part of book marketing, and you should plan on spending

Here are some recently updated resources that will help you locate reviewers:

Midwest Book Review welcomes self-published books, and their website is bulging with targeted information about book reviews and reviewers.

Indie Reader invites authors to submit their books for review, and they have become a trusted source for reviews. The site is run by authors and writers.

The Indie Author’s Guide to Free Reviews is an updated article from Publishers Weekly by By Daniel Lefferts and Alex Daniel with lots of excellent resources.

Indie View keeps an updated list of hundreds of reviewers.

Self-Publishing Review has been reviewing books since 2008 and also has lots of information about book marketing in general as well as an archive of great content.

Don’t forget the many reviewers who post on book-oriented sites like Goodreads, where you can also find genre-specific groups, too.

Reedsy has built an excellent list of Best Book Review Blogs of 2017. Authors can search by genre and filter out blogs that do not review indie books.

The Book Blogger List is another searchable curated list of online reviewers.

A recent interview with Jason B. Ladd, How To Get Book Reviews As An Unknown Author, with a great outline of the process of getting reader reviews.

For print reviewers, consider the programs run by the Independent Book Publishers Association. These mailings of books for review go to over 3,000 newspaper and magazine editors and reviewers.

There are an almost endless list of blog articles and books on this subject to research, too. Getting reviews is a standard part of book marketing, and you should plan on spending some time doing this for your own book launches.

5 Key Tips for Getting Book Reviews

Now that you have your materials together and access to lots of reviewers, you’re ready to go. Here are my 5 best tips for getting book reviews, whether online or off:

Pick the right reviewers. This is the single most important thing you can do to help your review program. Find out what kind of books the reviewer likes to review, and only select appropriate reviewers. Don’t just spam your contacts or people you know in unrelated fields. I do few book reviews on the blog, but I constantly get pitched by romance novelists, thriller writers, and just about everyone else. Save everyone time and effort by aiming your review requests in the right direction.

Query the reviewers. Check each reviewer’s requirements. Some want you to just send the book, but many ask for a query. Some review e-books, many do not. Conforming to their requirements saves both of you time. Check out this query letter tutorial.

Send the book. In your query make sure to offer both as many versions as you can of the book. You can use a PDF, an ePub or Kindle format, or a print copy. Let the reviewer decide how she wants to receive it.

Follow up. Don’t stalk or harass the reviewer, who is probably doing this in her spare time. But if you haven’t heard anything after a few weeks, follow up to see if they still intend to write the review.

Thank the reviewer. It’s common courtesy, but it also shows you appreciate the time and effort someone else took to help bring your book to the attention of more people. Every reviewer has an audience of some kind, and every audience can create network effects that spread the word about a book that really stands out.

Book reviews can be very effective in spreading the word. Nothing sells books as well as word of mouth, and you can get people talking about your book if you can bring it to their attention. Book reviews will do that for you. Consequently, an aggressive, ongoing book review program is one of the best ways for self-published authors to get attention for their books.

Something to Add?

In addition to the resources mentioned in this article, do you know of others for finding book reviewers, and particularly identifying top reviewers in your field? Any tips to share? Please let us know in the comments.

 

 

Three Secrets to Great Storytelling!

Whispering

 

 

 

3 SECRETS TO GREAT STORYTELLING as presented on Writer’s Digest. I found this article by Steven James helpful in forming the structure of scenes.  (this is a re-blogging from 2014 but I thought it deserved a revival now, because it is simple, straightforward, and to the point.)

As a novelist and writing instructor, I’ve noticed that three of the most vital aspects of story craft are left out of many writing books and workshops. Even bestselling novelists stumble over them – Steven James But they’re not difficult to grasp. In fact, they’re easy.And if you master these simple principles for shaping great stories, your writing will be transformed forever. Honest. Here’s how to write a story.

Secret #1: 
CAUSE AND EFFECT ARE KING.

Everything in a story must be caused by the action or event that precedes it.  As a fiction writer, you want your reader to always be emotionally present in the story. But when readers are forced to guess why something happened (or didn’t happen), even for just a split second, it causes them to intellectually disengage and distances them from the story. Rather than remaining present alongside the characters, they’ll begin to analyze or question the progression of the plot. And you definitely don’t want that. When a reader tells you that he couldn’t put a book down, often it’s because everything in the story followed logically. Stories that move forward naturally, cause to effect, keep the reader engrossed and flipping pages. If you fail to do this, it can confuse readers, kill the pace and telegraph your weaknesses as a writer.

Secret #2: 
IF IT’S NOT BELIEVABLE, IT DOESN’T BELONG.  

The narrative world is also shattered when an action, even if it’s impossible, becomes unbelievable. In writing circles it’s common to speak about the suspension of disbelief, but that phrase bothers me because it seems to imply that the reader approaches the story wanting to disbelieve and that she needs to somehow set that attitude aside in order to engage with the story. But precisely the opposite is true. Readers approach stories wanting to believe them. Readers have both the intention and desire to enter a story in which everything that happens, within the narrative world that governs that story, is believable. As writers, then, our goal isn’t to convince the reader to suspend her disbelief, but rather to give her what she wants by continually sustaining her belief in the story. The distinction isn’t just a matter of semantics; it’s a matter of understanding the mindset and expectations of your readers. Readers want to immerse themselves in deep belief. We need to respect them enough to keep that belief alive throughout the story.

Secret #3: 

IT’S ALL ABOUT ESCALATION.  

At the heart of story is tension, and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. At its core, a story is about a character who wants something but cannot get it. As soon as he gets it, the story is over. So, when you resolve a problem, it must always be within the context of an even greater plot escalation. As part of the novel-writing intensives that I teach, I review and critique participants’ manuscripts. Often I find that aspiring authors have listened to the advice of so many writing books and included an engaging “hook” at the beginning of their story. This is usually a good idea; however, all too often the writer is then forced to spend the following pages dumping in background to explain the context of the hook.

IN CONCLUSION

By consistently driving your story forward through action that follows naturally, characters who act believably, and tension that mounts exponentially, you’ll keep readers flipping pages and panting for more of your work.

 

Jami Gold’s Resources for Writers

My Writing Articles by Jami Gold

I’ve written over 700 posts on my blog, most geared toward writers. Sign up for my newsletter to receive new blog posts every Tuesday and Thursday. The links below highlight some of the most useful and helpful posts so far (or use the search box in the sidebar to find information about a specific topic). https://jamigold.com/for-writers/

Favorite Writing Blogs and Resources

  • Fiction University by author Janice Hardy (excellent writing craft advice) and her team of guest authors (for more writing and publishing advice), including the Indie Author Series, where I’m a faculty member/guest blogger
  • Writers Helping Writers (The Bookshelf Muse) by authors Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (home of writing thesauruses for brainstorming unique emotion, settings, weather, and sensory information, etc.)
  • One Stop for Writers by Angela and Becca, the same team as above and the authors of the fantastic Emotion Thesaurus, created an online version of all their thesaurus collections and tools
  • Writer’s Knowledge Base by author/link-collector Elizabeth Spann Craig (the search engine for writers)
  • storyfix.com by author Larry Brooks (great breakdown of story structure; author of Story Engineering)
  • warriorwriters by author/social media expert Kristen Lamb (fantastic advice about writing and publishing industry; home of #MyWANA)
  • edittorrent by editors Theresa Stevens and Alicia Rasley (writing advice and publishing news from editors)

Favorite Writing Tools and Resources

  • OneNote: A free, full-featured application for saving research notes, planning our story, capturing photos and ideas, etc. And everything is searchable. Squee!
  • Dropbox: Never lose your writing! Internet-based, password-secure storage to access your work from any connected device (computer, phone, tablet). Ta-da! Instant backups. *smile*
  • Evernote: A great little access-anywhere note-taking application. I use this for everything from grocery lists to remembering that cool name for a character I saw in a movie’s credits.
  • Scrivener: Writing tool for planning, drafting, and ebook formatting. I mostly use this for drafting, but the possibilities are endless. (For Windows and Mac)
  • TechSurgeons: Need a (better) website/blog? TechSurgeons specializes in author services (and understands our neuroses!). Super reliable, kick*ss support, and technical geniuses. (Why yes, they’ve saved my site more times than I can count. *smile*)

Favorite Writing Craft and Reference Books

Click here for a listing of writing craft and reference books I’ve used and/or discussed on my blog

The Writing Craft: Novel Openings to Avoid by Jami Gold

Jami Gold has the most complete Writing Tips, Writing Resources, Editing Resources and they are all unbelievably wonderful! I am posting one of dozens of great writing tips, plus so much more. http://www.jamigold.com  I discovered Jami Gold on Anne Allen’s blog and she also presents wonderful writing tips!http://www.annerallen.com 

I found the following writing tip to be exactly what I needed to know and so interesting – who knew?  Jami did!

 

 

 

Novel Openings to Avoid:

1)     Weather reports: the famous opening line, “It was a dark and stormy night” may keep contemporary audiences aware of Lord Bulwer-Lytton’s otherwise forgettable 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, but not in a good way.  Opening with meteorological events isn’t only a problem with people who’ve read too much Victorian literature. Our television-saturated brains tend to think in terms of the “establishing shot” of a screenplay. But, a novel needs more than pictures to connect with the reader. It needs human emotion.

2)     Morning wake-ups: showing your character waking up or getting ready for work/school hits the snooze button for readers. In a movie or TV show, you can show one character getting ready for work and it’s interesting. In the cable TV series, Dexter, the serial killer/protagonist’s morning ablutions open every episode. But in a book, where you couldn’t have the creepy-comic music and double-entendre blood orange shots, the same scene would bore us silly.

3)     Dreams: some people call this the “Dallas” opening, because of the TV soap that got written into such a corner the writers had to pretend a whole season was “just a dream.” Writers sometimes try to hook readers by opening with a scene of surreal horror—but if it all turns out to be a dream or a video game on page three, the reader feels tricked.

4)     The death of the protagonist: This is apparently very, very big with the paranormal/horror crowd. If your MC is a zombie, vampire, or other member of the undead community, think of something else. This has been done, um, to death.

5)     Trains, planes and automobiles: if your character is en route and musing about where he’s been and where he’s going, you’re not into your story yet. Jump ahead to where the story really starts.

6)     Funerals: Slush readers say a huge number of manuscripts—especially memoirs—start with the protagonist in a state of bereavement. But most readers aren’t eager to embark on a literary journey with a miserable MC.

7)     “If I’d known then what I know now…” starting with the conditional perfect may seem clever to you, but unfortunately it does to a lot of other writers, too. This is cliché territory—don’t go there.

8)     Personal introductions: starting with “my name is…” has been way overdone, especially in YA. Again, not a bad idea, but too many people thought of it first.

9)     Minor characters speaking or thinking. The story-telling old man, the child—any detached observer telling the tale will only distance the reader. Whoever/whatever we meet first becomes foremost in our minds, and readers will want to go back to that character. Make the first person you meet an important member of the cast, not a spear-carrier.

10) Reader-Feeder dialogue, also known as “As you Know, Bob.”

“I must retrieve the elusive magical jewelry item,” says Bob. “Without it, I cannot access my rightful powers—and my evil Uncle Murray will usurp my domain.”“But as you know, Bob,” says Sidekick. “The magical jewelry item is in the hands of the four skanky queens of the Bingo Borogroves and guarded by the Dire Dragoons of Doom. We will be risking our very lives.”  Sidekick is not saying this for Bob’s benefit. He’s saying it for ours. Conversational info-dumps are never a good idea.

11) Group activities: don’t overwhelm your reader with too many characters right off the bat. It’s like meeting a bunch of people at a cocktail party: you don’t remember anybody’s name if you hear too many at once.

12) Internal monologue: Musing is boring. Especially reader-feeder musing. “Back when I was younger, I would have slain the dragoons with my magic sword, but when my parents were killed in that chariot crash on the way to get Borogrovian take-out, and my Uncle Murray had me locked up in the Dark Tower of Doom, the skanky queens stole my magic sword and melted it down to make a necklace and a pair of matching earrings…” We don’t need to know this all on the first page. Bring in backstory later.

13) Too much action: Writing gurus keep telling us to start with action, action, action, but this isn’t actually such good advice. We need to be emotionally engaged with a character before we care how many dragoons of doom he slays.

 

***

A Good Review is Hard to Find – Part 2

Part 2 of A Good Review is Hard to Find reveals the truth about who decides whether a book is good or not and I agree. This is a great overall depiction of the importance of getting critiques and reviews prior to publication of a book.

 https://journieswithliz.com/2018/01/12/a-good-review-is-hard-to-find-part-2/

 

Liz Leighton Writing Adventures

Who decides if a book is good? I’ll give you 3 guesses and the first two don’t count. I’m certain you don’t need 3 guesses. Just in case you’re exhausted, running a high fever and the walls are talking to you, or you just woke up from surgery and you’re still groggy from the anesthesia, I’ll go ahead and say it very clearly. The readers. The readers ultimately make that decision.

You can write that first book that you think is great. You can market the hell out of it. You can learn all the tricks to get that book to top ranking on Amazon and you can even use all the ways to manipulate that book to the NYT Bestseller list. In the end, if readers that love the genre(s) of your book don’t like your book, that may be the only one you ever sell.

What does any of…

View original post 635 more words

The 5 Secrets to Developing Better Characters | BookDaily

The 5 Secrets to Developing Better Characters | BookDaily #AuthorTips

By TA Sullivan

November 8, 2017

The 5 Keys to Character Development

My friend wanted me to attend a writing seminar with her, so I agreed to go. However, the summary said it was geared more for novices, so I didn’t really expect to learn much. Boy, was I surprised.

The instructor, a creative writing instructor from one of the top schools in the south, came in and took her place at the podium. After introducing herself and giving us a brief synopsis of what the presentation was to be about, she asked us to take five minutes to describe her as if she was a character in one of our stories.

The results were pretty much as expected. Most of the attendees gave similar descriptions to this:

Melanie is a 30-ish woman with brown, shoulder-length hair, dressed in a gray suit with a lacy, rose-colored blouse.

She told us to hang on to those descriptions, and then she went on to give us her presentation. That’s when we all learned how wrong we had been in actually thinking we had described a character. What we had described was a one-dimensional, uninspired, and uninteresting person.

A story character should be as varied as someone in real life. They should have substance, not just a description. They should come alive for the reader and become someone that the reader can actually believe in. The 5 primary attributes that each character needs in order to achieve this kind of depth are:

Mannerisms/Traits: These are the tics or compulsions that a character displays consistently. For example, the character paces when nervous or agitated, chews gum or tobacco, hums to him- or herself, blinks excessively, clicks a pen without realizing it, taps the end of a pencil on desk all the time, bounces his or her foot, plays with his or her hair or runs his or her fingers through his or her hair, chews his or her fingernails, rubs at a scar on chin, cheek, nose, etc., stutters, or laughs inappropriately.

Behaviors/attitudes: These are how the character displays his or her feelings. For instance, the character might be belligerent, argumentative, disagreeable, a yes-man, Polly Anna-like, naïve, happy, bland, or teasing.

Scents (what smells are associated with the character, if any): Most memories are related (and often triggered) by scent. Yet, as authors we tend to forget about the smell-factor. Perhaps, because books (even electronic ones) don’t yet include the ability to smell our characters or their surroundings. Still, even a description of an odor or an aroma can evoke a sense memory and help our readers remember and relate to our characters. So, include references to scents whenever possible. As it is, most people have a particular scent, and those that wear perfumes or aftershaves, or use perfumed dryer sheets, usually have a cloud of odors surrounding them. Or perhaps, your character forgot to bathe, was climbing about in a dumpster, or lives with a herd of cats.

Sounds (what sounds are associated with this character): Sounds are another overlooked, yet memorable way to help your readers remember and relate to your characters. Perhaps your character whistles, imitates bird calls, makes clicking sounds (of fingernails on a desktop or keyboard, of tongue against the roof of the mouth) or tapping sounds (of shoes or cane or fingers while texting), drags his or her foot, is associated with a rustling (of petticoats, silk fabric against skin), snapping (of cape or of gum), clomping (of boots or shoes), or wheezing (due to asthma or being overweight).

Looks: Physical attributes are the easiest to describe and usually what we (as authors) tend to focus on. However, since most readers are inclined to let their own imaginations flesh out the character, this is where the author needs to be more sparing. Include only a few basics and let the reader do the rest. For instance, relate your character’s hair color, hair style, eye shape and color, colors worn (bright colors, dull colors), clothes styles, height, weight, or unusual physical features (scars, nose size, ear shape, piercings, missing limbs, or tattoos), but describing the shoe size, exact height, and a detailed discussion of the character’s wardrobe is rarely useful and is, most times, distracting.

With all this new information at hand, she again asked to describe her as if describing a character in one of our stories, and the results were profoundly different. For example:

Melanie, our instructor for the day, was a professional-looking woman, who paced the stage in her enthusiasm. Our eyes followed her tapping heels, while her down-home voice engaged our ears. She was a southern lady, from her warm smile to the hint of jasmine that surrounded her.

Now, which description makes you feel as if Melanie was, or could be, a living person? Which description helps you connect on all levels with this person?

So, the next time you need to describe a character for your story, remember there is more to people than just how they look. Ask yourself: what does the character sound like, smell like, and act like. Add each layer to that character until you have someone so real you can see them standing in the room with you. That’s a character that your readers will remember. That’s the type of character you need to help you tell your stories.

So, how about you? How did you make your characters come alive?

WANT TO SHARE THIS TIP? TWEET THIS:

🐦CLICK TO TWEET🐦 #Authortip from @BookDailycom: 5 Secrets To Developing Intriguing Characters by @tasinator

About the Author:

TA Sullivan was born in the back of a cab in Chicago, Illinois, and she has continued to be unconventional in all that she does.

For over thirty years, she has made her living as a technical and marketing writer and editor in such diverse industries as manufacturing, cellular technology, and computer software. She has become quite proficient in turning boring into something readable and entertaining.

Her first book, “Escorting the Dead: My Life as a Psychopomp,” is an autobiographical look into the world of death escorts and near death experiences. It won praise from critics and readers alike.

Her next book, “On Dreams and Dream Symbols,” strove to expand people’s awareness of their dreams and what those dreams might be trying to tell them.

The first book of her fantasy series, “The Starstone,” came out just last year, and she is readying her second book, “The Globe of Souls,” for release this summer.

You can find out more about her on her website and on Twitter