THE DARK

I’M NOT A LOSER, BUT I DO KNOW THE DARK

You know, it’s funny. I never actually feel like a “loser.” I have absolute confidence in my own capabilities and talents. No worries for me there. Never have been. I don’t face personal doubts about myself. I have limits, I know them well. I have many extraordinary abilities. I know that too and precisely what they are. I also understand that usually my extraordinary abilities far outweigh my limitations.

On the other hand I do often feel like the Batman sitting atop a gargoyle 60 stories up in the pouring rain on a cold, moonless, pitch black night completely unnoticed and scanning the city for some sign of life. Which is exactly the way it is supposed to work when you’re the Batman.

When you’re a writer though… well, the dark is not your friend.

It’s Normal to Feel Like a Loser

by Michelle Griep

So you’re writing a novel, la-de-dah. Typing away like a rock star. Day after day after day.

After day.

And then, out of nowhere, whap! A horrific thought slaps you upside the head, yanking you out of the story and paralyzing you so that your daily word count takes a serious nosedive. Suddenly you wonder if you’re an author, that maybe all the things you write are just slobbery bits of drivel bubbling out of you. Panic sets in. Perhaps you’re not a for-real writer. Maybe you’re an impostor. A poser. An orangutan mimicking kissy noises in front of a mirror. Or worse — maybe the zombie apocalypse really did happen and you’re nothing but a body operating on rote memory because shoot, if you read what you’ve written, those words certainly look like a person with no brain wrote them.

Or maybe you’re just a loser.

Never fear, little writer. I’m here to tell you that you’re not a loser. You’re normal. Every writer hits this point at some time in every single manuscript they write — and sometimes more than once. Hating your writing and feeling like pond scum is par for the course. Why?

Because creation is the process of making something out of nothing, and that something takes blood, sweat, and tears to mold into a beautiful masterpiece.

Think about this . . . Babies don’t pop out of their mothers all smiley faced and swaddled in fluffy rubber ducky blankies. They come out screaming and howling, all mucked up with oobie-goobies and require a good cleaning and lots of love. You don’t think that mom had second doubts during the heat of labor? She’d have packed up and gone home at that point if she could.

That’s how it works for your story, too. Don’t pack it up. Press on through the birth pains. Push out that ugly story so that it can be cleaned off and wrapped up into a beautiful book cover.

The only way out is through, folks, no matter how you feel. Take your hand off your forehead (yes, I see that big “L” you’re making with your forefinger and thumb) and get those fingers on your keyboard instead.

WRITING FOR A LIVING

Yes, You Can Make a Living Writing Fiction! 10 Tips from Elizabeth S. Craig

 Make a Living Writing Fiction: Follow these Ten Steps

By Elizabeth S. Craig 

I’ve been asked by everyone from writers with day jobs to high school students if it’s possible to make a living as a writer.  The answer is easy—it’s definitely possible.  The next question is trickier to answer—how does one go about making a living as a writer?

Although some writers hit it big with a blockbuster book, the rest of us need to work harder and smarter. We need multiple books with multiple income streams to make it.

Here are my tips and best practices for making a living writing fiction.

I’m doing it, myself (if I weren’t I’d definitely be looking for a day job):

1) Write a popular genre that you enjoy reading and writing.

If you’re looking for commercial success, it’s best to choose a genre that’s popular with readers. There are readers who avidly follow new releases in their favorite genre, reading as many as they can get their hands on. Writing for those readers makes discoverability much easier than writing ‘a book that’s so unique, it’s impossible to categorize’ (something I’ve heard a writer say before).

But the second part of that tip is equally important—it’s vital that you choose a popular genre that you enjoy reading and writing.  If you’re branding yourself to a genre, make sure it’s one you know inside and out. This will be much easier if you like reading those types of books.

2) Know what readers expect from the genre.

There are always specific conventions to follow.

Most genres have a particular pattern to them…readers expect to see the stories constructed a certain way. These conventions are helpful because they give us guidelines to follow.

It’s fine to ‘think outside the box,’ but probably better not to start out that way if we’re looking for success. It’s better to experiment after we have a more loyal readership and even then it can be tricky.

I’ve known well-established writers who flouted cozy mystery conventions and suffered poor reviews and angry readers because of it.

If you’re not sure what the conventions for your chosen genre are, step up your critical reading and note similarities in the books. Read customer reviews of these novels on retail sites to see what’s worked and what hasn’t for readers.

3) Write in series.

Readers enjoy reading series and writing in series definitely makes the process easier for authors. With series, we have a set story world, characters with developed traits, and a structure to work from. It’s a terrific time-saver and a way to quickly create more stories without having to reinvent the wheel each time we start a new book.

4) Write quickly.

If you can release at least one book a year, you’ll soon find yourself in a position to make more income.

Having several published books makes it easier to run promotions. You could lower the price of the first book or even make it free. You can give a book away to readers as an inducement to join your email newsletter list.  Aside from the promotional aspect, having several published books gives us more ‘real estate’ and visibility on retail sites.

You can also write faster and more accurately by keeping a story bible for your series, noting any facts that you’ll need to know for future stories (character eye color, style of dressing, lisp, the street the protagonist lives on).

That way you won’t have to take time to reread your own books to research basic facts about your series.

Another way to make the most of your valuable writing time is by giving yourself a short prompt at the end of each writing session to remind yourself where you left off and what you plan on covering next.

5) Self publish.

I write three series, all of which started out with a trade publisher.  I’m continuing two of them independently.

That’s because I realized that I was making more money by self-publishing than I was by publishing at Penguin-Random House…with fewer self-published books.

6) Publish well-edited, well-designed books.

Happy readers make for repeat readers. Make quality part of your brand.

Self-publishing, it’s said, is a misnomer. It takes a team to create really solid products.

7) Make your published books work harder for you.

  • Have your books available in print as well as digital. Use both CreateSpace and IngramSpark to maximize your international reach.
  • Expand into audiobooks.
  • Make your books available in foreign markets and subscription services through distributors like PublishDrive, StreetLib, Draft2Digital, and Smashwords.
  • Get your books in libraries through OverDrive, Baker and Taylor Axis 360, and Bibliotheca CloudLibrary through the previously mentioned aggregators.
  • Accept paid public speaking gigs to talk about your books and your writing process.

8) Continue learning about changes in the publishing industry, better promotional methods, and emerging markets.

Invest time reading blogs that inform self-published authors, such as:

9) Be responsive to criticism.

Read your reviews, especially the critical ones.  If enough readers comment or complain about a particular aspect of a character or your stories, consider making a change to strengthen your books and make them more appealing to readers.

10) Work smarter instead of harder with marketing to open up more time to write.

Promo can eat up time better spent writing. Make a focused list of promo areas you want to pursue and then mark the time to research, create, and implement on your calendar (Facebook ads, BookBub, etc.)

But also consider working smarter and setting up strategies that will help you in the long run without the continuous investment of time.

  • Tweak keywords and keeping book metadata consistent for better discoverability.
  • Link to your other books in your back matter.
  • Make sure to have your newsletter signup link in a variety of places, including your email tagline, website sidebar, back matter of your books, and Facebook page.
  • Inform your newsletter subscribers whenever you have a new release.

This approach won’t appeal to all writers and isn’t right for all writers. This type of production schedule is intense and multiple releases each year can create pressure for the writer. It can take a while to see significant returns…it’s usually a slow build. But for those of us who’d rather write instead of pursuing a day job—it’s worth it in the end.

***

What other tips have I missed for writers interested in writing fiction for a living? And thanks to Anne for hosting me today.

By Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig) February 19, 2017.

Elizabeth writes the Southern Quilting mysteries and Memphis Barbeque mysteries for Penguin Random House and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink and independently.

She blogs at ElizabethSpannCraig.com/blog  and curates links on Twitter as @elizabethscraig that are later shared in the free search engine WritersKB.com. Elizabeth makes her home in Matthews, North Carolina, with her husband and two teenage children.

(Note from Anne: Follow Elizabeth on Twitter! Her “Twitteriffic” links are the best way to keep up with the publishing industry that I know! )

 

BOOK OF THE WEEK

Fall to Pieces: A Southern Quilting Mystery

When a quilting event falls to pieces, Beatrice works to patch things up.

Dappled Hills quilters are eagerly anticipating new events at the Patchwork Cottage quilt shop. The shop’s owner, Posy, has announced ‘Sew and Tell’ socials and a mystery quilt group project.

But one day, instead of emailed quilt instructions, the quilters receive a disturbing message about a fellow quilter. When that quilter mysteriously meets her maker, Beatrice decides to use her sleuthing skills to find the killer before more lives are cut short.

OPPORTUNITY ALERTS

Creative Nonfiction magazine seeks TRUE personal stories or profiles about people starting over after a failure or setback. Up to 4000 words. Paying market. $3  submission fee. Deadline June 19, 2017

C.G. JUNG SOCIETY OF ST. LOUIS ESSAY CONTEST $10 ENTRY FEE. Theme: Memories, Dreams, and Sensualities. They are looking for personal essays that add something unique to the conversation about Jungian ideas. Winners will have the opportunity to read their essays at our conference, Jung in the Heartland: Memories, Dreams Sensualities, October 2017. Winning essays published on the website. 1st Prize: $1,000. 2nd Prize: $500. 3rd Prize: $250. 3,500 words. Deadline: May 1, 2017.

LitMag pays up to $1000 for short stories! $250 for poetry and short-shorts. No reprints. They don’t consider work that’s previously been published either in print or online (including personal blogs.)

Write non-fiction? Impakter Magazine is looking for non-fiction articles and interviews (1000-3000 words max) in 4 verticals: Culture, Society, Style, Philanthropy. Articles about politics are also welcome but need to meet the magazine’s standard of high-quality content.  The magazine publishes daily (except week-end) and each piece attracts 10-40,000 viewers (in majority college-educated millennials). No submission fee.

Publish with the Big 5 without an agent! Forever Yours, Digital-first Romance imprint of Hachette is now taking unagented submissions, from novellas to sagas (12K words t0 100K words.) No advance. 25% royalty. Professional editing, design, publicist. Print books over 50K words.

ROMANCE AUTHORS! Here’s a list of 31 small presses that specialize in romance and do not require an agent for submissions. Also compiled by the Authors Publish Newsletter.

25 PUBLISHERS YOU CAN SUBMIT TO WITHOUT AN AGENT. These are respected, mostly independent publishing houses–vetted by the great people at Authors Publish. Do check out their newsletter

THE STAKES

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“The biggest risk is not taking any risk.”

It’s a quote you may have heard before, and likely it resonates with you because you know that sometimes the greatest adventures lie just beyond the choice of risk.

This is true in life and it is also true for characters in fiction.

Without some measure of risk, a character cannot experience true growth. Without growth, there’s no adventure. And without adventure, there’s no story.

If you’re a writer and you feel like your story is just not escalating or growing your character, then follow the advice below. Excerpted from my latest release, Troubleshooting Your Novel, here are a few thoughts on raising the stakes for your character:

You’re playing a game of cards, and the stakes keep getting higher.

Are you all in or not?

The most intriguing and compelling characters aren’t the ones who play it safe and hedge their bets, but the ones who gamble more than they can afford to lose. A person who never risks will never know the sting of loss. Some people might say he’s better off because of that.

Your readers would not.

Let your character take risks—and sometimes, let him get burned.

The stakes are simply who gets hurt, in what way, and how deeply if the protagonist fails to accomplish his goal. Always consider the consequences: what disaster will befall him in this scene if he fails in his pursuit?

If nothing vital is at stake, why would it ultimately matter if he loses?

And here’s the key: The stakes need to be high enough for readers to care, but also believable enough for them to buy into what’s happening.

Because of the narrative force of escalation, you’ll continue to raise the stakes as the story progresses—not necessarily in terms of how many people are affected, but by how deeply the failure or loss impacts the main character.

So, while it would certainly raise the stakes to plant a bomb in the middle of a stadium filled with fifty thousand fans, it’s not necessary to put that many people in danger. Depending on the story, that type of scenario might come across as completely unbelievable. But putting the life of the one person he loves on the line would make it personal and it might be all you need.

The higher you raise the stakes, the more you strain credulity. This is one reason thrillers are often longer books—they have incredibly high stakes, so the writer needs to take the time to set up a world in which those stakes are not just believable, but inevitable.

What’s at stake in your story? Justice? A relationship? Someone’s sanity or well-being?

Life itself can be at stake, the future of the planet can be at stake, and so can the destiny of the entire universe. (I’m not sure you can raise the stakes much higher than that. But if you can make it believable, go for it.)

Think in terms of “or else” and “if … then.” For example, “We have to accomplish this or else [the terrible consequences will come to pass].” Or, “If we don’t accomplish this, then [the terrible consequences will come to pass).”

The security or well-being of any aspect of the character’s existence can be at stake. Ask, “What part of her would die (in a literal or a symbolic sense) if she fails?”

Defining the stakes will also likely help you define your premise, which is usually a combination of stakes plus dilemma. (However, don’t think that you need to do this before you start writing your story. Often, the premise will only become clear to you as your story develops.)

The more specific the tasks, timing, and consequences, the sharper the story will be.

—Steven James

NOT MUCH A’NOTHING FOR NOBODY

Yeah, indeed, I agree with much of this.

My overall advice though is this. (And it has always been this.)

Live an extremely active life which includes plenty of getting out in the real world, socializing with real people, and physical exertion. Get out in the sunshine – hike, chop down trees, box, lift weights, haul stuff, work the land, observe, discover, record, take note. I always do my best work, both physical and creative (writing stories, poems, songs, inventing, making scientific discoveries, etc.) while busy at other things or engaged in physical activity.

Then I memorize those things in my head (excellent and stimulating mnemonic practice) to write down or record later. I prefer to write absolutely alone and undisturbed, sure, but I best initially compose, create, and work out of doors, among nature, animals, and God’s great creation (the very best source and inspiration for sub-creation), while at physical labor, or among other people at fascinating and fun enterprises.

That entirely alleviates “loneliness” and “isolation,” keeps you physically, mentally, psychologically, and spiritually fit and happy (and I am immensely happy), and makes your work far more fun and meaningful. It will also likely keep your socially fit.

I for one cannot imagine any attempt at “isolated or inactive (passive, static, sedentary) creativity.”

That, to me, would be entirely self-defeating and the thought of that kind of “creative practice” both revolts and repulses me. (It’s not so great for your Word Hoard or your knowledge base or business reputation either.)

Also, get out into the Real World and do something worthwhile and really important. And keep doing those things for your whole life. Then you’ll have something decent and interesting to actually write about.

Writing, you see, ain’t really a singular profession about a set of mental obsessions. It is a peculiar expression of why life should be approached obsessively, and professionally.

Live only in your own head and that’s not only the only thing you’ll have for yourself, it’s the only thing you can give to others. And that ain’t much of nothing for nobody…

 

The Isolated Writer

In general, writers do not do their best work in a group. The very nature of creative writing is a solitary pursuit, but without taking great care, can morph into a feeling of isolation. And this can occur whether an author lives in a quiet rural town or in midtown Manhattan. (The one in New York, not Kansas)So, how does an author, feeling isolated and alone stay motivated? How do they develop and maintain a marketing platform on their own? How do they maintain their creative edge when most of their time is spent in relative solitary confinement?First and foremost, they need to continually hone their skills. This agency has many resources available on our website and Steve Laube heads the Christian Writers Institute, providing anyone with mentoring through classes offered and great information.  www.ChristianWritersInstitute.com

But how do you overcome the feelings of isolation and loneliness which afflict so many authors? When you need someone to hold up your arms, what do you do?

Left unaddressed, isolation can lead to discouragement, creative-paralysis, and a myriad of other bad things threatening to stop writers of all experience levels in their tracks.

I am going to suggest a course of action counter to what you might think.  To “zig” when you expected to “zag.”

Please bear with me as I tell a short story.

Over thirty years ago I attended a people management seminar. It was a broad ranging presentation over several days with some excellent teachers. About a hundred people were in this particular group.

Breakout groups were for new managers, refresher skills for experienced managers, those at government offices, non-profits, public corporations, etc.  I still recall some of the presentation material today as very helpful.

I clearly remember one session on developing employee worth and self-esteem. The presenter’s approach emphasized the need for a manager to first have a high level of self-worth and personal confidence and once they had a “full reservoir” of each, distribute them to their staff.

It made sense.

But as we learned how to develop a high level of self-worth, I recall thinking their approach was different than my Christian faith would have directed. It pointed to somewhat “artificial” means to puff up one’s self rather than anything of depth.

After all, repeating “I am good, I am great, I am wonderful” only goes so far.

In a breakout session, we went around the table giving our impressions of the material and I mentioned the concept of giving and receiving (never mentioning the Bible or Jesus).

You want to feel appreciated? Show appreciation. You want to feel loved? Love someone.

I suggested if a manager wanted to increase their own sense of worth, they should focus first on improving the worth of others.

The stunned silence around the table combined with the apparent appearance of antlers growing from my head (based on the looks I received) proved I was suggesting a foreign concept.

Of course, as believers we do give from our abundance as God has lavished his grace on us, allowing us all to give others grace from his overflowing supply. But I felt this level of theological discussion was too much for this particular business seminar!

So I just kept it simple at the “Give much, receive much” level, which was confusing to anyone committed to a “Get first, give a little” strategy.

Let’s consider author isolation in a similar counter-intuitive manner:

  • If you need encouragement, encourage another writer. Read the books of people you have met at conferences and correspond with them.
  • If you need mentoring, start by mentoring young writers (middle school students are a good start). You don’t need an MFA to mentor a twelve year old in creativity. Teaching is the best form of learning.
  • Register and attend a writer’s conference with the specific purpose of seeking out an isolated, discouraged writer (even if you are one) and offer to be their accountability/encouragement partner. (As opposed to going to a conference looking for someone to do this for you.)
  • Help another writer establish their author-marketing platform.
  • Help shape someone else’s work.
  • Start a writer’s group and devote yourself to others’ growth.
  • Start a creative writing group at your public library.
  • Start a writing group in your church.
  • Connect with homeschooler groups to discuss creative writing.
  • Recommend other authors’ books to your friends.

When you spend time helping someone else, your own writing,
creativity, sense of purpose and value improve exponentially.

The more you focus solely on yourself, the less you will grow.

So how do you overcome the dreaded Isolated Author Syndrome?

Help someone else defeat it.

 

SOME ADVICE

February 13, 2017

ASK THE AGENT: DO I NEED AN AGENT IF I ALREADY HAVE A BOOK OFFER?

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Someone wrote to say, “I’ve been offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? And if the agent accepts, should he or she still receive 15% of the deal, even if they didn’t market my book or secure the deal for me? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”

There’s quite a debate about this issue. I suppose many agents would say, “Sure — call me!” They’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But my advice would be to think long term. Is there an agent you like and trust — someone you want to work with in the long term? If so, call him or her. Talk about the situation. Explain that you’ve already got a deal. The agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. They may review the contract for a fee. They may have some insight into your situation. But don’t sign with someone just because you think you need an agent and someone is willing to say yes. If, for example, you’ve got a $10,000 advance coming, make sure it’s worth the $1500 to have the agent assist with this contract. Sure, it may be worth it — if you’ve got a complex situation, or a novel that is going to be made into a movie, or a potential bestseller… those probably call for a good agent to get involved.

That said, it doesn’t really seem fair to me to take the full comission for a book I didn’t sell, though not everyone in the industry agrees with me. You can always talk with a contract-review specialist, who will review your contract for a flat fee (usually somewhere in the $500-to-$1000 range). You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be careful — they’re generally paid by the six-minute increment, and their goal is often to keep the clock moving. The longer it takes them, the more they are paid, so don’t agree to this without some sort of ceiling on the cost. And make sure you’re talking with a lawyer who knows publishing contracts, not someone who is used to doing real estate contracts or Grandma’s will. (I know of at least one author who paid more to have a top-flight entertainment lawyer review the contract than they were paid in advance dollars.) Generally speaking, your family lawyer won’t have enough experience to really help you with a publishing contract. Again, I’ve noticed a pattern among some agents to claim they can help you if you already have an offer on the table. That may be true, but check them out… you may not need an agent on this deal, but perhaps could use some help on the next one. Still, congratulations on getting the book deal, by the way.

Another writer asked, “Should I worry about a literary agent who turned me down, but suggested I work with his editorial service?”

Absolutely you should worry. Here’s how this commonly works — you send a manuscript to an agent, who says, “I really like this, but it’s not ready. However, we have an editorial service here who can help you. For just $1500, they’ll get this proposal ready for us to represent…” The agent sends you to his editor friend, then pockets half of that “editorial fee,” so he or she is making money off the author. That’s a total violation of ethics for literary agents (and I’d argue the reason we’re seeing some agents do this is because we’ve had a group of people jump into agenting who don’t really know what they’re doing). The Association of Author Representatives has a clear canon of ethics printed on their web page which precludes an agent from doing this very thing. It’s ripe with potential for abuse. It’s why I keep a list of editors I trust close at hand, to recommend to writers who need help, but I don’t have any editors on staff, don’t try and sell authors editorial services, and don’t get any sort of kickback if I do recommend someone. My advice: If an agent tries to cross-sell you some other literary service that charges you a fee, stand up and walk away. You can find a better agent. The same thing goes for an agent who tries to sell you their marketing assistance. There are too many scam agents who are basically trying to sell editorial or marketing services for a fee, rather than trying to help you place your book.

And another author had this situation: “I signed with an agent, but wasn’t happy. I fired that agent, and moved on to another. But now my first agent is claiming that anything I ever talked with her about is her responsibility! She claims that if I ever get a publishing deal for the projects she represented, she is to be paid the agent’s commission. Is that legal?”

This is an issue I just can’t fathom. I understand getting paid if I’ve done the legwork — let’s say that I’ve worked with an author to develop a project, showed it to publishers, and started to get some interest. If the author hears about it, fires me, then approaches the same publishers to try and get the deal and save themselves the 15% commission, I should still get paid. I state in my agency agreement that if I’m working with a publisher on your behalf, I’ll still get paid even if you fire me and do a deal with them within a year.

But I’ve seen this a few times lately — an agent claiming that if you EVER sell the book they represented, they’ll still get paid. To me, that sounds like a scam. I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice, but I would think this would be awfully tough to have stand up in court. My advice: read any agreement carefully before you sign it. If the agent has a clause that’s incredibly restrictive like this, ask to have it altered.

Okay, I’m just working through a bunch of the questions people have sent me. What have you always wanted to ask an agent?

PROS AND CONS

Should I Join a Professional Organization?

Thinking about joining a professional organization? This post is geared to the writer who has decided what type of books to write and wonders if memberships would enhance the proposal. Those who are undecided would be better served by attending a few conferences as a nonmember to discern career direction.

When investigating professional organizations, I recommend asking yourself questions:

Can I afford to join? Some organizations keep dues reasonable. Others are pricey. Dues often increase. If the math doesn’t work for you, don’t join, at least not at this time in your career.

Do I have time to participate? If you are already overburdened with work and family life, unless you can reorganize your calendar or drop other activities, now is not the time to join.

What conference opportunities does the organization offer? If you join an organization that offers, say, a conference in Hawaii every year and you will always feel uncomfortable with the expense and time needed, this might not be the right organization for you. But if they offer convenient local chapters where you can participate, then this organization offers promise.

Will I meet the right editors and agents through this organization? Visit the organization’s web site. Most will have either the past year’s or current conference plans posted. Do the editors, agents, and mentors specialize in or are they knowledgeable about the books you want to write? Look until you find a conference with the professionals who will be the most helpful for you to meet.

Does the organization cater to my career plans? Look for organizations with a mission to grow the writer you are or wish to be.

Will agents and editors be impressed by memberships? I take memberships into consideration but I never accept or decline based on memberships. What the membership tells me is that this author has connections, or at least the ability to be in contact with other authors writing similar books. These relationships are helpful on both a personal and professional level for the author. Membership also says that the author has taken steps to shore up a career and didn’t just write a book on the fly and hope for the best.

Can memberships hurt my career? Years ago, I received a submission listing so many organizations’ acronyms that if the author had been an active member in each, she’d have no time to write a grocery list, much less a book. I asked for elaboration, but never received any.

Please be focused and thoughtful before joining any organization. And remember, the membership is for your personal and professional growth. Enjoy!

Your turn:

Are you a member of any professional organizations?

What is the biggest benefit you see from joining professional organizations?

What professional organizations would you recommend?

 

CONTRIVORTIONIST

Contrived is a Four-Letter Word

Few things irritate fiction readers more than a story peopled by characters who act and react without any apparent reason for what they’re doing and saying. No reason, that is, except to illustrate the author’s message. Or prove the author’s point.

Well, you say, don’t we all have a message or point in what we write? Isn’t fiction about letting our characters take the readers on a journey of discovery and even realization? Yes…and no. Writers of powerful fiction keep in mind that the story trumps all. The story, and the characters who people it, should be crafted such that it all presents ideas, challenges understanding, and encourages discourse. It should feel authentic. If a character faces a struggle, we need to understand why he is struggling. If a character experiences joy, we need to know why that even brought her joy. When a fiction writer just has characters do and say what will prove their point or “teach” their message, without showing the why behind it all, without laying a sound foundation for the character to do and say what he is doing and saying, that writer is no longer writing fiction, but delivering a sermon. Or even worse, a story that’s…wait for it…contrived.

Dear ol’ Webster defined contrived as: “having an unnatural or false appearance or quality :  artificial, labored.”

When it comes to fiction, I define contrived as “weak writing.”

Think about it. The last thing you want your readers doing as they read your book is constantly stopping, frowning, and asking, “Why did he do that?” or “Why did she say that?” I’m not talking about the good kind of “why,” where readers want to keep reading to discover the answer to the mystery or the story question. No, this kind of why means the characters aren’t doing their jobs. They’re on the page, acting and speaking…but it doesn’t mean anything because you haven’t given reasons for what the characters are doing.

Suppose you have a hero who is constantly second guessing himself. He goes one way, and then another, and then another entirely. If we don’t understand what’s making said hero do such things, we end up thinking he’s weak, wishy-washy, and even irritating. “Make a choice, idiot, and stick with it!”) But if we know WHY he’s acting that way it changes everything. When we know that our hero was abused as a kid, that every time he took a stand he was punished, that every decision he’s ever made has been ridiculed…then we realize that he’s not operating out of being a twit, but out of a deep-rooted fear. When we understand the why, we are far more willing to go along with what, on the surface, is maddening behavior. Understanding the why gives readers a sense of empathy, and even encourages them to root for the character. (“Come on, dude, you can do it! Grow a spine!”)

Remember, though, the reason, the why, has to be sound. It can’t be just, “I’ll have him say this because it’s what I need him to say now.”

Yes, we novelists have created our characters. And yes, we have reasons for writing the stories we’re writing (and that applies to general market writers as much as Christian writers…we all have a message at the core of what we write), but folks, do your characters–and your readers–a favor and make sure your characters aren’t just puppets on the page. Flesh them out, let who they are and why they are, what drives them and what terrifies them, what delights them and what upsets them, unfold with the story. Let your characters come alive on the page, let them be authentic in what they say and do, and let them have solid reasons for it all.

When you lay a solid, credible foundation of why, story, your characters, and your readers all benefit.