Category Archives: Writing Craft

The Myth of the Overnight Success Story

If you’re anything like me you’ve been working on your novel (or a series of novels, or several stand-alone novels) for many, many years. And you probably have friends that know this. Or maybe they’re just coworkers and if they’re not the type of people who sit down and read or write then they’re not going to understand what takes you so long. The problem is that they are fooled by the myth of the overnight success story.

While I still worked for the same company I do now, in years previous I was in a different position and surrounded by people who didn’t read. They didn’t read. They didn’t write. And they most certainly didn’t understand the publishing industry, the literary market or the process. Hell, I don’t even think I understand the process sometimes as our world is ever-changing. The thing is a lot of people think that overnight success happens because it can seem like it does to certain individuals. It also doesn’t help that we live in a society that craves instant gratification.

No one ever sees all the years of struggle before that.

Amanda Hocking is a self-made millionaire. She wrote several YA novels. For years she submitted to publishers and received a whole shoe box full of rejection letters. But to keep all of those years spent devising plots and crafting characters from going to waste, she decided to self-publish on Amazon.com. At that time she was working a job that made under $30,000 a year. And all she wanted was a few hundred bucks to go see an event in a nearby town.

I believe she had seven novels written at the time. She posted all of them on Amazon around the same time. Within two years, she was a millionaire and a lot of people saw that as an overnight success. But again, no one takes into account the years she spent writing the novels and receiving the rejection letters.

Don’t let the myth of overnight success fool you.

Don’t get caught up in the belief that you’re going to write a book, put it out there, and wake up the next day to fame and fortune. That’s not how it works. Yet, a lot of people think  that’s what happens… when that never happens. It just appears that way from our angle. It appears that way standing on the outside, looking in.

In the end, when your friends or coworkers start questioning you as to what on earth takes you so long to accomplish your goals and dreams, remind yourself that at least you’re working towards something. Because people with that kind of attitude usually aren’t working towards anything in life. They are content to wake up, go to work, and come home. If they don’t understand that it takes time to be successful than they’re not working toward success themselves.

Don’t Let Your Characters Fail at Life

There is a little book that sits on my desk and I consider it to be one of my secret weapons when it comes to honing the craft of writing. It’s compact and filled to the brim with great advice from writing dialogue, structuring scenes, creating characters, story pacing and much, much more.

Each section covers a different topic and is color coded so that you can easily navigate towards the topic you want to explore or need help with. One of the sections on CHARACTERS stood out to me as the example to author provided is seen so often in books and film. I even think that I’m guilty of it. But audiences are getting tired of seeing this kind of lazy writing. I’ll let Mr. Smith do the explaining as he puts it best.

The following is an excerpt from  The Writer’s Little Helper: Everything You Need to Know to Write Better and Get Published, by James V. Smith, Jr. :

Don’t go into the basement.

Why do some characters do things that most sane people would never dream of doing? Warning: don’t allow your characters to do stupid things.

In a story where the screen is literally bathed in blood after a series of basement murders, why would any story’s character, after hearing a strange noise, open the door, and call out, “who’s there?” And go down?

And why does a brilliant, competent lady cop rush into a fight against half a dozen black hat, black belt bruisers without even calling first for backup? Don’t these people in the movies ever go to the movies?…

When you pull a stunt like that, readers don’t like it. If you treat readers like dopes, they get the last word. They can shut you down by shutting your book.

So anytime a character encounters a terrible situation, the predicament ought to have been logically foreshadowed as an outcome of previous events. No matter what choice the character makes under duress, a reader should be able to conclude without straining credulity that the character has proven himself capable of that decision by his actions in previous, less stressful situations or by his nature, which the writer already has at least hinted at.

Having said all that, I added a caveat: don’t rule out illogical behavior.

The huge mistakes that fictional characters make contribute to the very best stories of our times. If Ishmael had heeded a fortuneteller’s warning not to go aboard a whaling vessel, you’d have had no Moby Dick to vex him at sea and you in school.

This having been said, I am extremely guilty of having characters make stupid mistakes. Maybe it seemed plausible to me at the time or maybe I didn’t think things through all the way. Sometimes it takes a second set of eyes on your work to bring this to your attention. And even when that second set of eyes does bring it to your attention, you may not always agree with their suggestion.

I’m asking you to consider it. If you’re character’s behavior seemed out of place to someone who is editing, proofreading or beta-reading your story, at least give it some thought. Because it most likely will be obvious to the rest of your audience. You may come to find that what you’ve already written really does make the most sense. Or you may come to find that your character really wouldn’t have done such a thing.

Why is this important?

The decisions that your characters make shape the story. Just like James Smith said above, characters do sometimes make stupid mistakes. For example, did you know that when human beings are being chased, we tend to run upstairs rather than outside? We do it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen it done it so many horror flicks. But I think that’s what he means when he says “don’t rule out illogical behavior.”

I consider myself to be a somewhat intelligent person. Do I make dumb mistakes? All the time! Do I sometimes speak out of turn or put my foot in my mouth? Absolutely. Human beings aren’t cardboard cut-outs nor should your characters be. We are complex, emotional beings with many different wants, needs, goals, aspirations, etc. This is why it’s very important to know who your characters are when writing a story (a future post).

So in writing and editing your work, when one of your characters comes to a fork in the road and has to make a decision, think it over. Is that decision true to their character? Using Smith’s example from above… maybe they would be dumb enough to call out “Who’s there?”

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A Word on Symbolism

I once had an English teacher in high school who told us that Hemingway himself had said there was no symbolism in The Old Man and the Sea. But then she turned to us and said, “He’s full of crap! It’s just filled with symbolism.”

English majors are notorious for pulling things out of their asses. (Sorry for those of you reading this who were English majors). Every English paper I ever wrote in high school and college was some bullshit symbolism that I pulled out of thin air and the teachers ate it up like hot cakes. If the author says, “There is no symbolism,” then there was no symbolism intended. However, anyone can make comparisons and call themselves an expert.

When it comes to putting symbolism in your book, don’t try and force it. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to put it in there at all. If it comes naturally in the process, go for it. But don’t fret over symbolism. Readers are going to draw their own conclusions regardless of what you say.

It’s all a matter of perception…

You could write something and say that it was meant to symbolize one thing, but if the reader thinks something else, then hey- opinions are like assholes, right? Everyone has one.

I have spoken to many aspiring and novice writers who talk about wanting to add symbolism to their story to make it more meaningful. Symbolism is not what makes the story meaningful. What makes it meaningful will be different to everyone who reads it.

This is as much of a piece of advice for you as it is for me. Just write the damn story. And don’t put too much weight on what others think otherwise, you’ll never get it done.

Happy writing and good luck!

-RB

Character Description: Use TMI

I once read somewhere that you should never write more than three lines of description when introducing a new character. While extra bits of description can be added amidst dialogue or thrown in throughout a scene. Keeping it to three lines is a general rule of thumb for when you first introduce someone new.

The reason for this is so you don’t overwhelm your reader. A big, wordy dump of information is difficult to absorb all at once. But the real question is- how do you go about picking the perfect three lines? How do you decide which character attributes to hone in on when you first introduce?

A great technique I learned to help you focus on the three perfect items or lines is to use too much information or TMI. Right before you introduce a new character, right down absolutely everything you can about them. Write a terrible description. Write everything you know. Be wordy. Once you get everything out on paper, you can start picking through your words to find the most important and identifying qualities.

Most likely you’ll focus on things that set this character apart from the rest. You want your readers to have a distinct view of who this person is. As human beings the first thing we notice about another person is their appearance. It’s human nature. It’s natural. Were not going to know about the lilt of their voice if we’re not talking to them yet. However, if we only see them from across the room, we might notice a bit more than the color of their skin or the color of their hair – those are obvious.

Help Define Your Character with Description

Other things that help define who a character is can be reflected in the way they walk. Perhaps they have a limp? Or maybe they have a scar above their upper lip? The way someone dresses can also reveal a lot about who they are, what they do, their income, their social class, even possibly their education.

In a way you almost have to think like a detective. Look for things that aren’t necessarily obvious, such as gender. It’s not very interesting to say, “Sally was a girl with blue eyes, red hair, and white skin.” Sometimes we can tell a character’s gender by their name. [I say “sometimes” here because science-fiction, fantasy and young adult dystopian novels make up a lot of names.] It’s almost an insult to your reader to spell things out for them. Also, most people with red hair have white skin and fair colored eyes. This doesn’t mean that there is a place for these obvious descriptions to be inserted somewhere in the story if you feel it should be in there. But someone’s hair color doesn’t tell you a lot about who they are as a person.

Another thing to consider is how you would want an author to describe you. Would you like them to describe you generically (i.e. He was a white man with a comb-over). That doesn’t tell us much. That doesn’t even really tell us his age because I know young men under the age of 30 with receding hairlines.

Again, you can pepper some of the more generic descriptions throughout the scenes. But when first introducing them, try to write down every possible thing you know about them and narrow it down from there. It will allow you to capture their distinct image in such a way that it entertains the reader with your language but also cements in their mind how this character stands out from the rest.

Utilize Real Life for Character Description (Things to Consider)

If you’re not sure where to start, start with someone you know. How about the biology teacher who wears a patch over his left eye? The man who pirates freshly released movies and walks around with an actual parrot on his shoulder? Does the character have smoker’s lines around their lips? Missing teeth? Gold teeth? A service dog? A tiny chihuahua in their purse? Are their shoes polished and shiny? How shiny? Is there a pep in their step? Any noticeable tattoos? Piercings? Do they wear a wedding ring? Which hand is it on? (Some religions and nationalities wear their rings on another hand or not at all).

You might also consider what they are doing when you first see them. Are they riding a horse? In a business meeting? Are they alone? In a group? An orchestra? A choir? The list goes on and on. It takes all kinds of people to make the world go ’round. Which kinds of people are you writing about?

Write Out of Order

In the spirit of the Camp NaNoWriMo that’s going on right now, I’d like to piggy-back onto my previous post with some short, sweet advice. If you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go next in your story, write out of order! Or maybe you do know what comes next but you just aren’t feeling that scene today, or this week… Write out of order!

Start in the middle of a scene. Write the ending first. Focus on a plot point that’s further along. Skip around. You can always come back to where you were. Maybe start a fresh page or a fresh document! One of the beautiful things about art is that there really aren’t any rules. Sure, there are guidelines. And obviously, you want a final draft to be polished and edited- you want to put your best foot forward but there it nothing that says you have to write a story in the order it should be read.

And don’t be afraid to mess up! After all, that’s what rough drafts are for. Throw it all out there onto the page so you can sift and sort the treasure from the trash in the future drafts. In a rough draft, you can’t make mistakes. They simply don’t exist at that time.

Now, go write something!

-RB