Novel Boot Camp – Workshop #5: Query Letter & Blurb Critique

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The very last week of Novel Boot Camp is upon us! I can hardly believe it!

I’ve been enjoying your questions on the previous workshop, so I will leave it open in case you have any more questions you want to ask the editor (me).

I also want to let everyone know that the contest results and winners will be posted this Friday. This means that this workshop will be open for two days after the winner has been selected.

Now that your novels are starting to look shinier, let’s look towards the future – a future in which you all seek publication! Let’s focus on our query letters and blurbs. If you aren’t quite to the querying stage yet, don’t worry. Writing out a practice query can be a great way to solidify the plot and catch structural errors.

Want to get a leg up? Here are my best tips for a successful query (they work on most blurbs too):

How to Write a Query Letter

There are six important elements of a query letter. When all six are present, you know you’re getting close to a winner!

Character

What is your character like? What are her good and bad personality traits? The query letter should lightly incorporate this information, but should nestle the info in active, interesting sentences.

Motivation

What does your character want? What motivates her? The query letter should clearly define what it is your character hopes to achieve.

Obstacles

What stands in the character’s way? Why can’t he get what he wants? The query letter should make the obstacle(s) in the path of the character clear.

Proaction

What does the character have to do to solve the problem? What is required of him or her? The query letter should explain how the character is proactive.

Stakes

What happens if the character fails? What will they lose? The query letter should use the story’s stakes to suck the reader into the tension of the conflict.

Tone

What is the tone of your novel? The query letter should mirror this tone so that the reader gets from the novel exactly what they would anticipate after reading the query.

Workshop #5: Query Letter & Blurb Critique

July 28 – August 3

(Winners chosen on August 1st)

How to Submit Your Query Letter or Blurb

*Please read all of the rules before posting.*

Your submission should be posted in the comments section below and should include nothing but your genre and the first 250 words. Do not begin or end your post (or reply to your own post) with any additional information. The goal is to get unbiased, authentic critiques.

The critique is open to both query letters and back cover blurbs (for those who are self publishing).

Each writer may post up to two times. This may be two versions of your query letter or blurb, two different query letters or blurbs, or one blurb and one query letter.

What to Do After Receiving a Critique

You are welcome to reply to critiques on your work to thank the critiquer or to seek clarification.

Please do not post updated versions of your query letter or blurb. This will prevent any individual writer from dominating the workshop. Asking for subsequent critiques is also asking a lot from your fellow writers who already took time to help you out.

Absolutely do not, under any circumstances, reply to a critique in an aggressive, insulting, or demeaning manor. It’s okay to disagree, but please do so respectfully.

I want this to be a positive and empowering experience for the Novel Boot Campers! If I feel that someone is disrupting that experience, I reserve the right to remove their posts and/or ban them as necessary.

How to Leave a Critique

Please post your critiques as a reply to the query letter or blurb, not as a general reply in the comments section.

Please do not post one sentence critiques, such as, “I liked it.” Why did you like it? Be specific.

Do not mention your writing “status.” For example, do not mention that you’re a published author, an editor, a bestseller, an award-winner, etc. I do not have time to validate these statements and do not want writers being misled into believing they are being given professional advice.

Prize – Free Query Letter or Blurb Critique

Due to the volume of participants, it is unlikely that I will be able to select a winner based entirely on merit. Unless there is one critiquer who really stands out from the rest, the winner will be selected randomly.

That said, I will check through the posts of the random winner to ensure that they participated to the best of their ability. This means that the winner must have made a minimum of 5 critiques, all of which must be 3 sentences or longer in length.

My Participation

I will be offering critiques as I am willing and able. I’m editing novels 50 hours per week (not including the time spent on Novel Boot Camp) so it is unlikely that I will be able to offer critiques for most writers.  😦

Please do not take it personally! The ones I comment on will be more or less random.

And who knows? Novel Boot Camp will be over someday and maybe I’ll have time then to offer some critiques.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #15: The Climax

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The climax! It’s exciting! It’s suspenseful! It’s time to learn all about it!

For the readers, the climax will be the most important moment in the novel. It leaves a lasting impression (good or bad) of your novel and of your writing. So a stinky climax can be bad news, not just for this one book, but for your whole career.

No pressure or anything…

So what makes for a great climax? It’s pretty simple:

The Climax Must End the Conflict in a Satisfying Way

This is the backbone of what makes a climax rise to the occasion of fall flat. The climax is the moment the reader has been waiting for! It must prove to the reader that this book was worth the time and energy they invested in it.

A bad climax feels like a major ripoff (“Why did I waste my time on this book?”). Readers may feel like you strung them along for hundreds of pages just to give up and drop the ball in the end.

What you’re looking for is a climax that has readers on the edge of their seats, frantically turning pages, unable to wait to discover how everything unfolds. This is the satisfaction the reader has waited for from page one.

There are a lot of things that go into a satisfying climax, so let’s break it down into smaller parts:

The Obstacle Must be Big

There is no satisfaction in a climax with a teeny tiny obstacle that takes little effort for the protagonist to knock aside. The climax needs to involve an obstacle that is so big that the reader isn’t even quite sure that it’s possible for the protagonist to win.

It’s not enough to put your character at the edge of a cliff if all they have to do is take a couple steps towards solid ground. You’ve got to throw sticks at them, and spears, and stones, and their girlfriend.

It Can’t be Contrived

There’s no faster way to kill the excitement of a climax than by coming up with a contrived way for the character to win. The character needs to succeed (or fail) on account of their own merit. An example of a contrived climax is when another character suddenly decides (for no apparent reason) to tell the protagonist something that allows her to defeat the antagonist, such as his location, weakness, etc. Why did this character just now suddenly decide to be helpful?

One of the worst contrived climaxes is when the villain suddenly decides not to be evil anymore. Well isn’t that convenient? Even if there is some foreshadowing to the villain’s decision and the protagonist was integral to the villain’s change of heart, it is very unlikely that this won’t seem incredibly contrived.

The key to avoiding a contrived climax is to only allow conditions to improve for the protagonist when he or she personally earns it.

The Protagonist Must Defeat the Antagonistic Force

The protagonist is the hero of your story, so don’t let someone else swoop in and take the glory of the climax. The main character must be the one who ultimately defeats the antagonistic force. Any assistance from secondary characters shouldn’t extend much beyond backup. This is the time for the protagonist to shine, to show the reader what she’s made of! Never take that moment away and hand it to someone else.

If you’re writing YA or MG, beware mommy, daddy, the neighbor, or teacher showing up to save the day. This is the kid’s fight, let him end it.

The Conclusion Must Feel Final

The climax of your novel needs to feel final to the reader. The bad guy should either win or lose. The character either gets what she wants or fails to achieve her goals. There is not a lot of wiggle room here. If the climactic showdown doesn’t feel final, then the novel isn’t going to feel satisfying.

Note that if you are writing a series, there will be loose ends that haven’t been tied up and of course it may turn out that the conflict isn’t over at all come book two, but the main conflict of the book should be clearly resolved.

The Solution Should be an Obvious Surprise

“An obvious surprise? You’re not making any sense!” Yes, you heard me correctly, the climax should contain an obvious surprise, something that the reader never saw coming but that seems so super obvious once it happens.

Why do you want this obvious surprise? Because if the climax is too predictable, it’s boring, but if it comes out of left field, it will feel contrived. What you need to strike is a balance in between – an obvious surprise.

This requires that you use foreshadowing, sprinkling some easy to overlook clues throughout the novel. Reading the climax should seem like an “oh duh!” moment for the reader, where they feel like they should have predicted the outcome  and yet didn’t.

The Character Arc Must End

During or immediately following the climax of the novel, the character arc should come to its end. Often this is because the hero’s “climactic act” requires him to do something that was previously difficult for him or against his character.

The climax may also cause the character to have a realization about how he could or should have acted differently.

The Climax Must Fulfill the Promise

Not just the first page’s promise, but the entire promise of the novel needs to be fulfilled in the climax. If your novel is about a horde of angry ghosts, then the final showdown sure better feature an epic fight with the giant horde! If it instead focuses on saving the protagonist’s child from a kidnapper, readers will feel majorly let down.

The climax should deliver to the reader what they have been waiting two or three or four hundred pages to get to. Anything less will fall short.

To think of it slightly differently: everything in the novel has led to this point. Everything. If that’s not the sense the reader gets while reading the climax, then you haven’t done your job.

Homework: Crafting (or re-crafting) Your Climax

Spend some time assessing the climax of your novel, ask yourself:

  • Does the climax fulfill the novel’s promise?
  • Does it logically build from the rest of the novel or does it feel unrelated or episodic?
  • Does the character arc end during the climax? Does the protagonist’s growth solidify?
  • Is the obstacle faced during the climax bigger than all the other obstacles in the novel?
  • Is defeating the obstacle sufficiently difficult? Does it seem nearly impossible for the protagonist to succeed?
  • Does the protagonist win (or lose) on his own merit or does something contrived happen that allows the protagonist to win?
  • Is the protagonist the one who defeats the antagonistic force (not side or secondary characters)?
  • Does the climax feel final? Does it make the story feel complete?

Note that in order to have a satisfying climax, you may need to rewrite earlier portions of the novel. Don’t shy away from these major changes. In the end, a spectacular climax will be more than worth the effort to get there.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #14: Strengthening the Setting

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Setting is an element of fiction that many aspiring novelists overlook. This is especially true if their setting is a modern day city or town rather than an elaborate science fiction creation. But the setting is actually a vital part of the story no matter what sort of novel you’re writing. It can do everything from build atmosphere to create conflicts.

If you haven’t put any time or thought into your setting, you’re missing out on a major element of your novel.

The Setting Should Feel Purposeful

Wherever your novel is set, there needs to be a reason it’s set there. It should feel important (vital even) to the plot of the novel.

Why set a novel in the arctic if cold weather never affects the plot? Why set your YA in a high school if the conflict is irrelevant to the character’s school? And why set your novel in a bland/blank city when there are so many more interesting possibilities?

The sections below will help get you thinking about why you might choose a particular setting and/or how you can best utilize the setting you’ve already got.

Use the Setting to Create Conflict

Setting is so much more than just a location, it can cause or intensify all sorts of conflicts. Remember that “man vs. nature” thing you learned about in high school? Nature can be quite a compelling antagonistic force.

Floods, tornadoes, tidal waves, thunder storms, earthquakes, drought, thorn bushes, quicksand, raging rivers, poison berries, wild animals, freezing conditions – the setting can really kick the bajeezus out of your characters.

When inventing challenges for your characters to overcome, don’t overlook those that come from the natural world around them.

Use the Setting to Reflect or Intensify Internal Conflict

One way to make setting feel purposeful and integrated into the story is to use it to reflect or intensify the character’s internal emotional state.

If your character is thrown into a frightening situation with a bunch of characters she doesn’t know, you can amp up the volume by stuffing them into close quarters, like an underground bunker. The cramped space forces them to be in close contact and prevents the protagonist from being able to get away.

If your character has been forced to leave the comforts of home for the first time, sticking him in a dilapidated old house full of bugs and bats (okay, I kind of have a bat thing right now because of the bat that was in my office), will emphasis how unpleasant it is to be away from home.

Even something as simple as the claustrophobia created by a heavy snow storm or long winter can help amplify the character’s internal conflict.

Use the Setting to Say Something About Your Characters

Where the characters live and the places they visit can provide the reader with a strong impression of who they. For example, a character whose house is filthy will be very different from a character whose house is so clean you can eat off the floor. Likewise, a character who lives in an upscale neighborhood is going to be very different from the one who lives in a crummy apartment.

The setting can say a lot about your character’s lifestyle without you having to lift a finger. See, setting can even save you from too much telling!

Describe the Setting with Purpose

Anytime you describe the setting, it needs to be with a purpose. Sometimes writers feel that long descriptions of the setting are a requirement, but this is far from the truth. Long irrelevant descriptions (of anything) will slow your novel down!

Describe the setting with purpose. Whenever you include a description, think critically about why you’re including it – what is it conveying about the character? Why is the information important?

Don’t describe the layout of a city just because you can see it in your mind. And don’t spend a page describing the weather if your character never goes outside. Be strategic.

Engage the Five Senses

Creating an environment that is rich and interesting requires that you engage the reader’s senses. It’s easy to stop at what the setting looks like, but what about what it smells like? Do the city streets smell like wild flowers from the urban gardens or like the sewage the neighbors are throwing in the street?

What about sounds? Is the countryside silent or loud with wild animals and insects? Do the dry reeds crackle in the breeze? Can the sound of waves be heard crashing in the distance?

And don’t forget the little tactile details. Are the handrails smooth chrome or gritty and rusted? Is there gum stuck under them? And what about inside the house, does sand blow under the doors? Is it so humid that the walls sweat and the furniture feels damp? What does it feel like to live in this world?

Homework: Strengthening Your Setting

Here are some questions and activities to give your setting the push it needs:

  • Did you choose your novel’s setting for a reason? If not, brainstorm ways that your setting could create or enhance the conflict of your novel and/or tie in with your character’s internal conflict OR brainstorm an alternative setting that creates more depth for your novel.
  • If you’re happy with your current setting, brainstorm new ways the setting can affect the events of the novel. These don’t have to be big. They can be tiny moments that add richness to the story.
  • Write an essay about your setting and how it appeals (or doesn’t appeal) to each of the five senses. You could easily write an essay on each sense if you really let your imagination run wild.

These activities will help you enrich your setting so that it becomes a memorable and significant part of your novel.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #13: Handling Romance

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Full disclosure: I am not much of a romance lover. In fact, I rarely enjoy romance even as a side plot. This is mostly because it is typically done in a way that is so shallow, predictable, and annoying that I want to throw the book (or throw up). That said, I have edited a few romances over the years that I truly enjoyed because they had fantastically lovable characters and conflicts that were different and unique.

So here is my best advice on writing a romance that even I (and my fellow non-romance-lovers) will enjoy.

Don’t be Disgusting

No, not that kind of disgusting… I’m talking about the really disgusting part of romance – the mushy-gushy lovey-dovey, OMG I love you sooooooo much kind of disgusting.

You don’t want your readers’ eyes to roll back in their heads with exasperation, nor do you want them gagging into their e-readers. So use the mushy stuff sparingly. Here are some tips:

  • Show don’t tell (“Wow, everything comes back to that with you, doesn’t it?”). Rather than constantly telling the reader that they love, love, love each other, show it instead. Use actions, gestures, complex thoughts, and dialogue to convey their love. A great romance doesn’t even need to say the word “love” to be utterly and completely satisfying.
  • If you do use the L-word, don’t do it in every single gosh darn scene. Let it mean something. Use it sparingly.
  • Sparingly is a good guide to all elements of a romance. Unless you’re writing erotica, go easy on the smooching, sexing, ogling, and the compliments. We don’t need to hear how steamy hot the protagonist is in every single scene.
  • Avoid scenes that revolve around characters staring into each other’s eyes and endlessly professing their undying love. This seems weird to me, and also boring.

Don’t be Creepy

There are certain expressions of “love” that can be downright creepy. Some of these are used in published novels with varying degrees of success, but most should be avoided.

Here are some notable creep factors:

  • One or both characters are finally “complete” now that they’ve found the other person. The implication being that they needed a partner in order to become a real person.
  • Similarly: one character (usually the female) has no personality, goals, or interests until she meets the man, then suddenly the man brings meaning to her life. I’m not saying they can’t help each other grow, but they shouldn’t be empty shells before meeting.
  • The man (though it could be a woman) acts aggressively – grabbing or restraining the woman to prevent her from leaving because he just has to have a conversation with her about their relationship. This isn’t passion, it’s abuse, and it’s creepy.
  • One of the partners shows their love by being crazy jealous, perhaps even going as far as to attack another person or their property for expressing interest in their partner.
  • One or both characters are incapable of going any period of time without their partner. Missing each other is normal, but if life isn’t worth living because her bf went out to play golf, things start getting creepy.
  • The man is a total womanizer until he meets the female lead and then wham-bam he’s a gentle, amazing guy. “Yeah, but what about the whole womanizing thing?” said me, unable to forgive and forget.

Avoid Misunderstandings as Prolonged Conflict

A common issue with many romance plots and subplots is the primary conflict being based on a misunderstanding. This is a problem because it’s been done a million times and because it’s unrealistic.

The woman accidentally walks in on her man with his arms wrapped around another woman, but it’s not like that, she just tumbled into his arms while he was buying his love interest a wedding ring.

This is not a conflict that can be sustained for very long. In real life, normal people would just have a conversation immediately and then move on with their lives. Refusing to communicate over a misunderstanding can be maddeningly annoying to readers.

Weight the Romance According to its Plot Value

How much weight you give the romance should be balanced with its value to the plot. If the novel is primarily about the romance, then obviously there needs to be a lot of it! But if romance is a subplot, it can be helpful (and ideal) to consider how much it is enhancing the main plot and how much value it’s adding to your story.

There is no sense in lingering on a romance in every scene of your novel if it doesn’t tie in with or improve upon the main plot. If the romance doesn’t offer a stepping stone in the character arc or create interesting and complex conflicts that get in the way of the main plot, it probably shouldn’t have much “screen time” in the novel.

Take the genre into consideration as well. You do not want your horror novel turning into a paranormal romance. If the romance starts to push out the genre elements, you’ve gone too far.

What Makes a Romance Work

Now that I’ve told you all the things not to do, let’s talk about some of the things to do:

  • Show don’t tell (“Wait, didn’t she already say that…?”). I cannot emphasize this enough. You can tell readers all day long that your characters are in love, but if you don’t show it, it’s just a bunch of empty words. Readers need to feel that the characters are in love based on the way they interact.
  • The reader needs to perceive value in both characters. They need to have personality traits that are interesting and positive. Traits that offer something to their love interest. Traits that are likeable, loveable, or endearing.
  • But the characters also need to be flawed. Like big time. They need to have traits that the love interest identifies as negative. Nobody wants to read about two people who are totally amazing and perfect and love everything about each other. Have them accept each other despite their flaws and you will create something much more endearing.
  • Avoid insta-love. This is when characters become madly in love with each other all of a sudden out of nowhere. This sucks at the beginning of the book and it sucks just as much at the end. Romance should have a build up that should be clear but relatively slow.
  • Go for meaningful tiny gestures over big superficial ones. Juno filling Bleeker’s mailbox with Tic Tacs is a whole lot cuter and more meaningful than a fancy man in a suit taking a woman out to a candlelit dinner with a ring in the champagne glass. Characters that demonstrate that they know each other for real, deep down, in a special way are far more likely to be perceived as genuinely in love.
  • Develop love at moments that feel natural. Don’t try to stuff romance into scenes where it makes no sense, such as stopping in the middle of a burning building for a love-professing monologue. This reduces the tension of the burning building and also pulls the reader in too many directions to fully appreciate the romantic moment.
  • Differences don’t have to be about growth. Some of the best romances are those between mismatched couples where one is super crazy and eccentric and the other is rigid and orderly, or where one is super cowardly and the other is super brave and gets them into all sorts of trouble. These differences don’t need to result in changing the personality of the other partner. Sometimes relationships work because they balance each other. And that can be a beautiful thing.
  • Love your characters. If you don’t love them, they won’t love each other. Not really. If you don’t feel your characters’ souls as if they’re real, they can’t truly fall in love, and the reader can’t truly fall in love with their love. It just can’t happen.

Homework: Strengthening Your Romance

Whether your novel is a straight up romance or has the teeniest of romantic subplots, here are some questions to strengthen it:

  • If you took out all of the telling (whether it be narration or character thoughts) and all of the sexy/smoochy stuff, would the reader still be able to tell that the characters are in love? Do they demonstrate love without it having to be said? Do they have a clear connection?
  • Are both characters full and complete human beings before they meet each other? Do they each have value without being in a relationship? Do they each offer traits of value to each other?
  • Are both characters flawed? Both physically and emotionally/psychologically/mentally?
  • Does the relationship develop over time rather than the characters falling in insta-love?
  • Be honest: is a misunderstanding the backbone of most of their conflicts or do they have legitimate, realistic issues?
  • Is the romance weighted in the novel in accordance to its value to the plot?

These questions should get you moving on assessing and improving the quality of your romantic subplot.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Workshop #4: Ask the Editor

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Week four of Novel Boot Camp is upon us! It’s going faster than I ever expected. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been great fun. And of course, it has sparked a lot of questions from all of you wonderful participants.

So this week I want to give everyone the opportunity to ask me your most burning questions! Since there’s no way I can answer a couple hundred questions this week, I am not going to be responding in this workshop. Instead, I will be compiling the questions that I feel will best serve the Novel Boot Camp community, and I will post the answers to these questions in a future blog post.

When will the post go live? This depends a bit on how many questions are asked, the types of questions asked, and how easy it is to pick the best ones to answer. I may use the questions to write full lectures or I may compile them into several blog posts to go up after Boot Camp.

The Rules

Please follow these rules when posting your questions:

  • Each writer may post up to two original questions.
  • You may request a lecture or blog post addressing an issue or aspect of writing or editing if you prefer.
  • If you see that someone has already posted your question, please reply to their comment with “me too,” “ditto,” or an explanation of why you too are interested in the answer. Please try your best not to start a new comment thread for a question that has already been asked.
  • Please do not answer the questions in the comments. This will prevent things from getting cluttered and will also protect writers from getting potentially inaccurate advice.
  • Questions may be directly related to your book, but please do not post any excerpts.
  • Questions may be general in nature and not directly related to your novel.
  • Please keep questions related to writing, editing, or publishing.
  • All questions should be posted in the comments below.
  • Please post your questions before July 27th.

Unless there is a crazy huge amount of questions, I would like to answer all of them eventually. This will most likely not be possible during Novel Boot Camp, so be sure to follow the blog in case I answer your question after camp is over.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #11: Developing Your Voice

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Some novels seem to have everything right – cool characters, an exciting plot, and a fast pace – yet they are boring, boring, boring! How can this be?

In performers, this missing element is often referred to as the “it” factor. It’s difficult to define or explain, but when you see it, you know it!  As writers, our “it” factor is our voice. It’s the way we describe things and turn phrases. It’s our word choices, our ability to convey emotion, and our unique yet clarifying metaphors.

But many amateur writers struggle to find their voice. It feels so illusive, so impossible, yet voice seems to come so naturally to everyone else!

Sit back, relax, and have some coffee. I’m going to do my best to help you find your voice.

But first:

Why is Voice Important?

In a world where everyone and their dog has written a novel, the competition is fierce. I believe very strongly that the internet has created an insurgence of unskilled writers (and editors, don’t get me started…) who read a few articles online and think they’ve got this writing thing in the bag.

This means your manuscript must drip with potential in order to stand out from the pack. Unfortunately, a novel without a unique voice (unless the concept is knock-your-socks-off awesome) is going to struggle to get noticed.

Plus, voice is probably the very first thing an agent, editor, or reader is going to take note of. It will also likely be the deciding factor as to whether they like or dislike your writing.

How to Tell if Your Voice is Weak

There are lots of signs of a weak voice. Here are some of the most common:

  • Nobody will read your novel. You’ve given it to friends, family, and beta readers yet none of them ever got around to reading past the first few pages.
  • You get bored reading your own work. If you find yourself yawning while reading or skimming over sections of your book, that’s a good sign your voice is MIA.
  • You wish you could write like (Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk, John Grisham, [insert favorite author here]). Sure, a certain level of talent envy is normal, but if you aren’t a fan of your own voice, there’s a good chance it isn’t quite there yet.
  • You get rejected a lot. Rejection is a normal part of the writing process and can be the result of a lot of issues (both inside and outside your control), so I hesitate a bit to include this. But if you get rejected on project after project after project, especially if you never get any requests for partials or fulls, there’s a good chance you’re lacking in the voice department.

Reasons for a Weak Voice

Now that we’ve gone over some signs that your voice is not as strong as it could be, let’s explore some possible causes of a weak voice:

  • This is your first novel. Developing a strong voice takes time. Every writer wants to believe that he is a prodigy with a naturally fascinating voice, but writing doesn’t work that way. It’s a skill, and one that takes quite a while to learn and perfect.
  • You’re immitating someone else. An immitation is always second rate. So long as you’re trying to write like your favorite author, you’re never going to find a voice that is truly and authentically yours.
  • You have boxed yourself into a point of view. Experimenting with third-person limited, third-person omniscient, and first person can help you hit on a style that suits your voice and plays to your strengths. Sometimes switching the point of view is all it takes to find your voice.
  • You’re thinking too hard. Sometimes writers think too hard while they’re writing (or they revise as they go) and this inhibits their ability to just let loose and allow the words t0 flow.

What to do if Your Voice is Weak

There is really only one way to strengthen a weak voice, and that is to experiment. Here are some great exercises to get you started:

  • Experiment. Go wild. Take a scene from your book and paste it into a fresh document. Rewrite it in a style completely different from how you wrote it initially. Do this over and over, fiddling with the word choices, the descriptions, the length of the sentences. Get a feel for what it’s like to write in different styles.
  • Experiment with point of view. Do the same exercise above except write your scene in third limited, omniscient, and first person. Get a feel for what each of the POVs has to offer. Read through the samples to get a sense of which POV is best suited to your voice and style.
  • Spend time on unstructured writing. It’s easy to get bogged down in writing and rewriting and re-rewriting your novels. Sometimes this can get writers stuck in a writing rut where they can’t see issues with their style. Spend some time (each day if you can) writing something that has nothing to do with your novel. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with anything. Just write for the joy of writing and see what style emerges.
  • Write from a different character’s perspective. Sometimes a problem with voice can actually be a problem with the POV character. If your protagonist is a whiner, is superficial, or is bland or boring, it can have a devastating effect on your prose. Try writing from the perspective of a different character in your novel (you don’t have to keep the scene when you’re done) and see if your voice seems stronger.

Homework: Experiment!

Choose one of the exercises above and experiment with a totally different style or perspective. It might be just the thing you need to hit on a voice that you can be proud of.

But more than anything else, remember that developing a great voice takes a long time. It’s not going to happen over night. It’s probably not going to happen within your first few years of writing. It’s tough and it’s time consuming.

But hey, if it was easy, everyone would publish a novel!

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #8: Writing Believable Antagonists

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Antagonists are great! They’re evil, quirky, strange people who do things that we normal people would never dream of doing. Unfortunately, antagonists are often not given enough character development to truly be able to shine.

So today we’re going to talk about how to improve your antagonist and the role he or she plays in your novel. I know that I’ve touched on the antagonist a few times already, but I wanted to give this important character the space he deserves in this course.

Note that not all novels have a human (or sentient) antagonist. If your book doesn’t have one, don’t fret! It’s not a requirement. Though most books have at least some human element to their antagonistic force, so you may still pick up some helpful hints.

Avoid Bad for Bad’s Sake

The most common mistake when writing an antagonist is creating a character who is bad just for the sake of being bad. He loves to rub his hands together and laugh maniacally and think about drowning puppies and stealing candy from babies.

This type of person does not exist in reality. Even serial killers, rapists, and mass murderers are rarely (if ever) described as all-around bad people.  Even most crappy horror movies give the antagonist at least some sort of motivation.

People are bad for a reason. They have a motivation to do the evil things they do, which leads us to:

Antagonists Must Have Tangible Goals

The antagonist, just like the protagonist, has something that he or she wants to achieve. They have a goal. This goal needs to be tangible, identifiable. If the reader doesn’t know what the goal is right away, they at least need to get the impression that there is one.

The goal also needs to make sense!

Taking over the world and murdering everyone is a mostly illogical goal. What would someone do with a world full of dead people? Yet taking over the world could be turned into a realistic goal if it would allow the antagonist to solve some personal issue, such as needing the government’s secret technology in order to build a time machine to go back in time to save his sister.

Yes, even antagonists need to have a goal that is personal. Achieving their goal must relieve some source of pain or hardship in their lives. Without that, their goals will seem laughable.

Note that their source of pain or hardship could be entirely based on their own perception. It doesn’t have to make sense to normal people. However I would avoid using “insanity” as a cop out for the antagonist’s behavior.

Antagonists Believe They Are Right

Just like the protagonist believes they are right, the antagonist believes that they are right too. This is a very important fact that can be easy to lose sight of. Many amateur novels have an antagonist who practically walks around going, “Oh gee do I love being evil!”

This is not how people think. When people do bad things, they believe that (for some reason) the behavior is justified.

For example, an abusive parent isn’t abusing their kid because they just like being evil. Most individuals who act aggressively towards anyone (friend, family, or foe) are able to justify it: “He deserved it!” “He was asking for it!” “My dad beat me and I turned out okay!” “It builds characters!”

Some antagonists may even believe that what they are doing is actively good. For example, cleansing the world of a certain type of person, teaching someone “bad” a lesson, or righting some sort of wrong for which they were the victim.

The most important thing to remember is that if an antagonist doesn’t believe what they’re doing is right (in whatever twisted, messed up way), you’re going to have a tough time making them seem realistic to the reader.

Antagonists Are Defeated by Their Flaws

For a truly satisfying climax, the antagonist should lose because of a character flaw. Just like with protagonists, this flaw could take an infinite number of forms. Antagonists could be overly arrogant and make careless mistakes that get them caught. They could underestimate the protagonist and end up getting defeated in a way they never imagined. They could get so wrapped up in their ritualistic behavior that they don’t clear out of a crime scene in time. Or they could have difficulty controlling their anger to the point that they snap in public.

Whatever their flaw, it should be made as apparent as possible prior to the climax. This will ensure that when they are defeated, it seems logical, possible, and not like an easy way to simply let the protagonist win.

Cut the Bumbling Henchmen

Unless you’re taking the idea in a wildly new direction, I suggest avoiding giving your antagonist bumbling henchmen. Sure their sidekicks aren’t going to be as smart or as powerful as they are, but they shouldn’t be complete and utter baffoons.

In general, somebody else’s blatant stupidity does not make for a very interesting way of defeating them.

All characters of any significance (and henchmen certainly qualify if they become an obstacle for the protagonist) should undergo enough character development to not have to fall back on being stupid in order to fail.

What About Monsters?

If monsters are sentient enough to have a tangible goal, then they should have one. If they can talk, then they definitely need to have one.

The goal could be eating the protagonist or stealing their soul or appeasing the demon fleas infested in their fur, but they need to have some reason to be evil (just like the human antagonists).

Homework: Believable Antagonist Worksheet

To get you really thinking about how to improve your antagonist, I’ve created a worksheet of questions that will challenge you to think of your antagonist in a different way. You could easily write hundreds of words for each question if you properly develop your antagonist. So sit down in a nice quiet spot and get working!

The questions:

  • What is your antagonist’s goal? What is he or she trying to achieve?
  • Why does your antagonist feel that his goal is justified?
  • Does he ever not feel that the goal is justified? Does he ever feel guilty or remorseful? If so, what prompts him to continue pursuing his goal?
  • If the antagonist could snap his fingers and make the world exactly as he wants it, what would that world be like?
  • If your antagonist could travel back in time and change something about his past, what would it be? (Don’t say “nothing.” That’s a cop out and you know it!)
  • What is your antagonist’s flaw and how will it ultimately cause him to be defeated?
  • What is your antagonist’s relationship like with his henchmen/sidekick/etc.?
  • What does your antagonist like to do for fun? (Don’t say “kill people” or “make the protagonist suffer.” Really think about the question. Everyone has non-evil things they enjoy.)
  • What are some positive traits of your antagonist? Is he a great listener? Did she raise happy, healthy children? Did the wolfman once save someone’s life?

If you answer these questions before editing or rewriting your novel, you will be able to spot areas that are lacking in depth and create a more complex and interesting antagonist.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #7: Be Ruthless

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Writers love their characters. I mean, they really really love their characters! Some of them daydream about their characters throughout the day. Others hear their characters talking in their heads. And most authors say that they put at least some tiny piece of themselves in every character.

So because writers love their characters so much (and may even view them as an extension of themselves), sometimes they’re a little too nice to them.

I mean, when you love someone, you want to see them happy. You want their lives to turn out beautiful, all wrapped up with a nice tidy bow.

But this is not what novels are about. Nobody wants to read about a life sprinkled with rose petals. In order to write a great novel, you must be willing to beat the crap out of your characters. You have to give them hell. Throw them through the wringer and meet them with a sledgehammer at the other side.

You have to be ruthless.

Here’s how:

Write What You’re Afraid to Write

We’ve all had good and bad experiences that shape who we are. These experiences can cause us to shy away from certain subjects – either because they are so frighteningly foreign or so terrifyingly familiar.

These things can be big or small, serious or light. They are things so far from our plotting radar they don’t even enter our minds as we write, or they might be things we think of but dismiss. “I could never write about that!”

They could be things we’re afraid of: needles, the dark, spiders, clowns, freak accidents.

Or they could be things that just seem too harsh or unfair: the death of a loved one, abuse, divorce, infidelity, a terminal disease.

These things are scary, especially when they’re happening to our character (who, admittedly, as at least a little bit like us). Writing these scary elements or events into our novel can hit a bit too close to home. It can make us uncomfortable. But it can also make for an interesting and complex conflict.

Sometimes our plot needs something that’s hard for us to write. Consider the topics you’re consciously or subconsciously avoiding. Not only are they emotionally charged, but the terror that you feel about them can translate into tense and emotional writing.

Hurt Your Protagonist’s Heart

We’re all pretty nice people who don’t like to trample on anyone’s feelings. But this can make us really bad plotters when we want to coddle and protect our characters from broken hearts. And I don’t mean in a purely romantic sense. Broken hearts can come from all sorts of experiences and relationships.

The very best novels trample all over the hearts of their protagonists. They don’t pull any punches. They don’t wrap their protagonist in a cuddly blanket and push a mug of hot cocoa in their hands. They let the terrible things in the world rip them to shreds.

Never be afraid of breaking your protagonist’s heart. Let them taste their goals and then smash their dreams. Don’t worry, you can always build them back up later.

If you don’t let them go to those dark places, at least for a while, there’s no satisfaction for the reader.

The novel is your character’s journey. Give them a wild ride, not a pleasant trot across flat terrain.

Avoid the Impenetrable Protagonist

For those writing novels with a lot of physical challenges – natural disaster, hard labor, fighting, etc. – don’t shield your protagonist from injury. There’s nothing quite as artificial as a protagonist who runs barefoot through the woods getting chased by a murderer in the hot August sun, yet gets nary a scratch.

Do not wrap your protagonist in bubble wrap! They’re human beings, not androids. If you throw them into a pit, their legs should break. If someone punches them, they should get a black eye.

Overly protecting a protagonist is especially apparent when other characters do get injured. If your protagonist makes it out of every scuffle without so much as a bug bite while everyone else is holding their guts inside their slashed stomach’s, readers are going to call your bluff.

And besides, even if it does come off okay that your character doesn’t get injured, you’re still reducing the obstacles in their path. Make them bleed! Break their bones!  Your readers will love it.

Give Your Antagonist the Advantage

In a fight between a little girl and a sumo wrestler, it’s obvious whose going to win. If the little girl is your protagonist, awesome! If she’s the antagonist, suddenly she’s super-duper lame.

To create a satisfying battle (whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional) between your protagonist and your antagonist, the antagonist must (at least) be an equal match to the protagonist. Ideally, the antagonist should be the stronger, faster, smarter, savvier of the two. Yes, he/she will have a weakness that the protagonist uses to beat them, but in all other areas, they should be equal to or superior to your protagonist.

One way of going easy on your precious characters is to put an antagonistic force in their path that is easy-peasy to defeat. No! Don’t do this! The reader should believe that defeating the antagonist is impossible. If you match your sumo wrestler protagonist with a little girl antagonist (unless she’s evil, possessed, or an android), the battle is going to feel bland, boring, and totally unsatisfying.

Make Your Antagonist Act

Sometimes we get our protagonists into sticky situations where the antagonist clearly has the advantage. For example, the protagonist is tied up, handcuffed, locked in a jail cell, cornered, or battling without a weapon.

Those writers who are being too easy on their characters will often end up with the antagonist in this scene doing nothing! He will circle around the character, say some mean things, maybe swing his weapon around a bit, but will ultimately be foiled because he fails to actually ever do anything.

Don’t let your protagonist win just because the antagonist is an idiot. This might give you an opportunity to avoid hurting your precious main character, but the reader will call you out on it. “Why didn’t the bad guy just stab him? He was right there!”

We’ll be talking about antagonists more soon (*cough* tomorrow). But I want you to get started thinking about the role of the antagonist in putting your character through the wringer.

Homework: Give Your Character Hell

The homework has been a lot more challenging this week, so I wanted to give you a tiny break with something not quite so hard.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen to my character emotionally? Have you delivered it? Could you edit the novel to add it in? If not, could you add a tamed down version of it in?
  • Are there any scenes where the character should have been injured but wasn’t? Could you add an injury? Even a minor one?
  • Overall, are the obstacles in your character’s path a bit too easy? Do they create a legitimate challenge and carry a reasonable amount of risk (emotionally or physically)?
  • Is the antagonist as strong or stronger than the main character? Do their encounters/battles legitimately challenge the protagonist?

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #6: Internal and External Obstacles

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Yesterday we talked about the first piece of creating conflict – character motivation. Today I want to talk about the second piece – obstacles.

Obstacles are anything that gets in the way of the character’s goals. Obstacles come in all shapes and sizes. Think back to your high school English class when you learned about man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. self, and all that jazz. Obstacles can be anything!

The Internal Obstacle

External obstacles are much easier to get right. You throw an antagonist or a tornado or a ticking time bomb at your protagonist and he scrambles around to try to best it. Internal obstacles, on the other hand, are easy to overlook.

Every main character should have an internal obstacle — something within themselves that stands in the way of achieving what they want. This usually takes the form of an unfortunate character trait, such as being overly fearful, jealous, arrogant, selfish, etc.

This internal obstacle is (usually) not nearly as apparent in the novel as the external obstacles, but creates an extra level of depth. Consider Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes. It doesn’t hold him back in every scene, but it creates exciting and complex tension when it does.

The Beauty of Multiple Obstacles

Unlike multiple motivations, which can clutter the novel and confuse readers, multiple obstacles make for a more interesting and exciting novel. What’s more intense than two ghosts? Three ghosts! What’s more intense than a sword-wielding skeleton? A majorly huge giant right behind him!

Stacking obstacles until your character is in a situation that seems impossible to escape is an excellent way to keep readers hooked.

But it is possible for obstacles to be too big:

Watch Your Scale

In a movie, an epic battle between hordes of alligator-people can be super intense, visually striking, and so terrifying you bite your fingernails. But it doesn’t work the same way in novels.

Books aren’t visual, so the more soldiers, bad guys, or monsters you throw into the scene, the harder it is for the reader to relate to or keep track of any individual one. There is also a point where, as humans, we can no longer process the scope of an event on an emotional level because there is no intimacy. If I tell you that a thousand people were murdered, it won’t have near the impact of drawing you into a death scene for a single girl.

Obstacles in books work much the same way. A bad guy blocking each of the exits will often be a much more intense obstacle than a battlefield full of villains. Once you’ve lost the intimacy of an obstacle, tension is reduced.

If huge epic battles are an obstacle in your novel that cannot be removed, make sure to focus tightly on the main characters during the scene. Don’t rely on sweeping descriptions of the antagonists, but focus in on a few key baddies. And don’t forget to describe emotions!

Obstacles Should Increase in Severity

I talked about this a little bit during the First Page Promise lecture: you do not want to put your most intense obstacle at the beginning of the book. The obstacles your character has to face should increase in intensity and severity over time.

If they fight a twenty-foot space alien in chapter one, then a dust bunny monster in chapter thirty, the dusty bunny monster will seem so tiny and insignificant in comparison that the reader will struggle to feel any sense of tension.

A great way to increase the severity of obstacles is to increase the number of obstacles the character has to face at one time as you approach the novel’s climax.

The Best Obstacles Challenge the Character

Of course, all obstacles challenge the character, but I’m talking about the sort of obstacles that challenge the character on a personal, internal level.

Let’s say your character is deathly afraid of the dark. Use this fear against your character by placing his small child in a pitch black room with a giant monster. Suddenly your character has to face a fear in order to save his child. That’s a lot of complexity and depth for what could be a mediocre scene.

Here’s another example: Your character’s child is being held hostage. The only way to save the child is to shoot the captor, but your character doesn’t believe in murder under any circumstances.

A scene like the ones above will have the reader on the edge of their seat. What’s he going to do? How can he overcome this obstacle despite being scared or against murder? You can practically feel the terror in the character’s heart.

Obstacles that feed off of your character’s darkest issues will be the most captivating.

An Obstacle Should Exist in Every Scene

Just like with character motivation, an obstacle should be present in every scene. Without an obstacle, there is no conflict, and without a conflict, there is no reason for the reader to keep reading.

Note that obstacles do not have to be huge in every scene. They don’t even have to be huge in the novel as a whole. They just need to oppose what the character wants (his motivation), and they need to increase in intensity over time.

The most riveting novels will introduce a new obstacle before or immediately following the elimination of the previous obstacle. You do not want your character wandering around with no obstacles for long periods of time. This can cause the novel to stagnate.

Obstacles are Only Obstacles if the Character Cares

An obstacle must get in the way of a character’s goals. If it doesn’t work against their motivation, or if the character really doesn’t care all that much about it, then it is not a true obstacle.

Obstacles can’t be created by having a character temporarily care about something they ordinarily wouldn’t care about (this goes back to character motivation and how the plot should not dictate it).

If the character has never had an issue with their mother bossing them around and then suddenly (with no explanation/change) views their mother as an obstacle in the way of their independence, their mother will not come across as a legitimate obstacle. The reader will ask, “Who cares? It was never an issue any of the other times!”

For something that was not an obstacle to suddenly become an obstacle, something must first change in the character internally (such as a decision to no longer tolerate their mother’s bossiness).

If you’re struggling to come up with obstacles that truly stand in your character’s way, ask yourself: what is the worst thing that could happen to this character? Chances are you will initially come up with things that are too extreme, but scale it back further and further until you’ve got an obstacle of a reasonable size for the point in the story you’re working on.

Homework: Improving Your Novel’s Obstacles

This is another big homework assignment that might be too extensive for most participants to accomplish over the course of boot camp. Just get started and do as much as you can.

Go through each scene (not chapter) of your novel, and ask yourself the following:

  • Does this scene have an obstacle? If not, you must choose whether to add one in or delete the scene. (Remember that scenes should only be kept if they advance the plot.)
  • Could this obstacle be made more intense? If your character is thirsty, why not also make it hot outside? Oh, and they’re also running. And a lion is chasing them! And they’re wearing a parka!
  • Could this obstacle create conflicting feelings in the character by preying off of their darkest issues? Note, you do not want this to be present in every scene or it could grow tedious. Putting something like this around the climax is a great idea (it facilitates the character arc, which we’ll talk about later).
  • Is the obstacle truly an obstacle? Does the character actually oppose it in some way? If the obstacle gets in the way of an intangible character motivation (independence, acceptance, being loved), was this motivation clearly articulated earlier in the novel?

Now consider your novel as a whole (an outline would be helpful for this but isn’t required):

  • Do the obstacles get more intense over time? If not, you’ve likely got some restructuring to do.
  • Is the obstacle at the climax the most intense of the entire novel? If not, consider making the obstacle personally challenging for your character to add extra oomph to the scene.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 10.41.51 AM 93-facebookgroup

I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #5: Character Motivation

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We all have motivations – the things that make us do what we do. But it’s not entirely uncommon (okay, it’s really common) for writers to not put enough thought into their characters’ motivations.

After all, motivation is easy right? Bad guys are motivated by evil. Good guys are motivated by good. Easy peasy.

Not so fast! Motivation is a vital component of a successful novel. Weak motivation can not only reduce the effectiveness of your story, it can completely ruin it!

Plot-Dictated Motivation

The plot dictating the characters’ motivations is one of the worst things that can happen to your novel. You can write the most interesting twists and turns with a premise that has “bestseller” written all over it, but if the characters’ actions aren’t authentic, it will fall completely and horribly flat.

A lot of people believe that authentic actions come from well developed characters, but character development isn’t nearly as important as authentic motivation.

Suzie running into the lion’s den makes for a fascinating scene! But if the reader doesn’t believe running into the lion’s den is something Suzie is sufficiently motivated to do, it’s worse than if she had decided to stay home.

If your character makes a decision because that is the decision that moves the plot in the direction you want it to go, you may very well end up with a problem.

Writing a plot outline is great for a lot of writers, but if your character is standing with her arms crossed, shaking her head, saying “I will not do that!” – don’t make her!

Too Much Motivation

Too much motivation could also be called “wish-washy motivation” because often the motivations appear and disappear throughout the novel whenever is convenient. This happens when writers aren’t quite sure how to justify what the characters are doing so they stuff a bunch of explanations into the novel.

I should rob this store because they ripped me off. Plus this is the store that Billy the bully shops at! Plus it’s Tuesday and I always like to wreak havoc on Tuesdays. And also they sold me a moldy banana last year.

I am not saying that your character cannot have multiple motivations. Sometimes this does occur and works well (so long as it feels authentic).  But if your character constantly cites multiple reasons for their behavior (especially if their motivation flip-flops throughout scenes without a reason for the change), you could create a weakening effect where all of the motivations seem inauthentic.

Too Little Motivation

Some books (such as humor and MG) can get away with teeny-tiny helpings of motivation. But the majority of genres need a great big heap to keep the novel moving. Not multiple motivations necessarily, but strong ones.

In general, the motivation should reflect the severity of the conflict. Your character cannot murder someone because they’re motivated by wanting a ham sandwich. They can’t run away from home because Mom wouldn’t let them watch cartoons.

There are certain motivations that might seem big to the writer, but don’t feel big to the reader, such as a character being motivated by a sense of right and wrong. This leads us into the next topic:

Motivation Must Be Personal

The character’s motivation must be personal, meaning that there needs to be a reason why they are willing to fight the novel’s antagonistic force. A sense of right and wrong is not a strong enough motivator. This motivation could be shared by hundreds of other people who could solve the conflict instead. It doesn’t provide a reason why the main character has to be the protagonist.

A character motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong could be seeking revenge for the murder of his family or saving a loved one from being kidnapped. Suddenly a pretty average motivation has been turned into something highly personal.

Adding a personal motivator into the mix makes the character’s actions easier to identify with. Without one, it’s easy for readers to find the character’s decisions unbelievable. This is what you experience often in poorly written horror movies. “Why would you go in there? You have no reason to go in there! OMG the monster is in there, you idiot!”

If you look for a personal motivator in published novels, you will find that the motivator is usually to “fit in,” save a loved one, or defeat a force that only that character can defeat.

Not Dying as a Motivator

Not wanting to die is usually not a sufficient motivator on its own. Not because not dying isn’t motivating, but because everybody wants to not die. “What is that book about?” “Well, the main character doesn’t want to die.”

Not dying should be coupled with another, more personal and dynamic motivator (see above), such as wanting to solve a mystery or wanting to save a loved one or wanting to live long enough to enter a pie-eating contest.

Motivation Should be Present on Every Page

There should not be a page in your novel where your character has no motivation. From page 1 to page 300, something should always be driving their behavior.

A page without motivation is dull, and a scene without motivation is meandering. If you’ve ever read a novel that felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, there’s a good chance it was because the characters’ motivations were not clearly identified and articulated.

Motivation is About Goals

Some writers can fall into the trap of giving characters motivations that are not tangible. Something like “wanting to fit in” is a great motivator, but what does that mean for the character? For some people, fitting in might mean making it onto a sports team while for others it would mean finding a long-term partner.

Clearly identify the goal behind your character’s motivations. And by clearly, I mean that there should be no question whatsoever in the reader’s mind as to what the character is trying to achieve.

Introduce New Motivations Before Eliminating Old Ones

Depending on your individual story, your character may have a variety of motivations that change over time. This is perfectly fine, but be sure to introduce new motivations before completely eliminating old ones.

More than a sentence or two in which a character has no motivation will make the reader begin to feel lost and bored. Readers keep reading because they are eager to see if the character achieves their goal. If there is no goal, there is no motivation to keep reading.

Bad Guys are Motivated Too

The antagonist’s motivations are often overlooked. Since they’re not the main character it’s easy to minimize the importance of how they feel. But keep in mind that for many novels, the entire story hinges on the motivation of the antagonist.

Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist? Why do they want what they want?

Being evil for evil’s sake rarely works. We’re not writing cartoon villains. They need to want something tangible. They need to have a goal.

For more information, check out my video on How to Write a Great Antagonist.

Homework: Solidifying Character Motivations

This is a big homework assignment so hold onto your big girl/boy panties. For those without an outline to use for assistance, this will take even longer. If you can’t finish this during Novel Boot Camp, don’t fret. Just keep working at it whenever you can.

Look at each scene (not chapter) in your novel and ask yourself the following questions of every significant character in the scene:

  • What motivates this character? If they have no motivation, find a way to add one or eliminate the scene.
  • What is this character’s goal? Has it been clearly identified? Could a reader explain it to you without you first explaining it to them? If not, make the goal clearer.
  • Is this character’s motivation authentic? Does it truly feel like it’s coming from the character or was it dictated by where you wanted the plot to go? If the plot dictates the motivation, listen to your character instead (even if it means losing a really cool scene).

Note that there are times when a character’s motivation is kept secret. So long as this is not your protagonist, secret motivations are fine, but make sure it’s clear that a motivation does exist even if the reader doesn’t know what it is yet.

When to Add Motivation vs. When to Cut a Scene

If you run into scenes without character motivation, you will have to choose whether you want to cut the scene or add in a motivation. This decision should come down to whether or not the scene is advancing the plot. If it is, brainstorm ways to either add a character motivation or find a way to move the necessary information in the scene to a different scene that does have a clear character motivation.

If the scene doesn’t move the plot forward (or if it’s mostly just info dumping), you will need to come up with a way to restructure your story to eliminate the scene.

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.