Unlocking Potentials

I’m facing an interesting challenge with my upcoming novel, which has me thinking a lot about character development. Characters are by far my favorite aspect of writing, and inner conflict is the thing that gets me most excited about a plotline – I love constructing the cause and effect interplay between a story and the people in it. When it clicks, the plot and the characters play off each other in this beautifully logical dance, and it doesn’t even feel like work to write it. LOVE IT!

Character development is a damn tricky thing, though, especially when it’s necessary for a character to undergo a supremely intense transformation. You don’t want your characters to have too little growth through the course of the story, or you lose a whole dimension of what’s satisfying about both the writing and the reading of fiction. On the other hand, you can’t make a character do a complete about-face unless you really lay the groundwork first. And that groundwork better be convincing.

People are full of potential – toward all kinds of things. We don’t have just a potential to live up to, we have hundreds of possible potentials that are constantly in flux, always vying for dominance in our actions and behaviors and attitudes. Unless you know someone very well, you probably see only a small range of possibilities in them. Some people you’re close enough to that you’re aware of the contradictions within them and you can see all sorts of angles to what makes up who they are. I get a lot of inspiration in writing simply from observing other people, being aware of how people operate and think, paying attention to dichotomies and wondering how seeming contradictions are resolved within one person.

One of the most important things to do when you’re aiming a character toward a major, life-altering transformation is to hint at the fact that they already have this other, new self in them. It’s there, dormant, waiting to be unlocked. They already are who they’re about to become, on some level. Maybe the other characters are shocked at this previously untapped part of them being suddenly displayed, but it was always there. That’s the way things work in real life, and that’s the only way to make such a metamorphosis believable in fiction.

“People don’t change” is one of the least accurate phrases ever uttered, and yet, in a way, it’s also true. People do change, sometimes a great deal, both externally and internally, particularly in the intense circumstances that characters in fiction are often put through, but you’re never going to be a whole new person, especially overnight, and neither will your characters.

My challenge: making an altruistically inclined woman who wants to improve the world into a ruthless, cutthroat murderess who’ll stop at nothing to bend everything to her will. And then deciding if there’s any hope for her redemption somewhere later on in the series. I know the events that lead to her changing, much of the way her intentions twist from positive to horrific, and the sources of her need for control and power. The hard part is turning her into a cold-blooded killer. We shall see how I fare at this task next month!

Series Bible, Take 1

So I’m looking into this whole “series bible” thing – seemed like a good idea, since I’m about to delve into writing a trilogy.  It’s pretty self-explanatory.  A series bible is just an organized set of notes on who/what/where everything is in your books – a way to keep track of people and settings that you mention, even in passing.  So if you need that information later, you have an easy reference for it instead of having to scan back through your whole manuscript to find out what color some bit character’s eyes were. 

Honestly, I already have so many notes on this trilogy that putting together a series bible seems like a bit of a joke.  Still, I could benefit from some organization at this point, given how many versions I’ve started of this #$@% book over the years, then changed things around, then changed them back, then changed them to something entirely different, etc.

My plan for this series bible is along the lines of a binder with separate tabs for the major characters, one section for lesser and bit characters, and a section for the settings – maybe broken up into places around the main city where most of the story takes place, and all the other cities, towns, battlefields, etc. that the characters come and go through.  Personally, since I draw, I like to do sketches of my characters and the places they spend most of their time, as visual stimulation and to keep things clear and consistent.  I’ll probably put some of those into the bible, if not on my bedroom wall next to my outline.  Even if you’re not artistically inclined, you can collect photos from books or magazines, postcards, online sources, etc. and use those for your visuals.

This being a fantasy novel, I’ll also include my ridiculously extensive notes on how the different magic styles work (there are five of ’em in this book, but thankfully I know better than to info dump all of that into the story!) and maybe flesh out my notes about the two religions that are prominent in the storyline.

I’m sort of approaching the series bible concept as a scrapbooking type project, only without the fancy paper and little cutouts of birthday cakes and stuff.  Although fancy paper isn’t necessarily a bad idea, especially if it’s a pattern that would be common on clothes or wallpaper in the story setting….  Hm….!

The Antagonist

Among the many pieces of advice that writers hear repeatedly, one of the most common is:  Don’t make your antagonist pure evil.  Variants of this advice are Your antagonist should be a full character, too, and Antagonists don’t think of themselves as “bad guys”, and Give your antagonists realistic motivations for their actions.

Personally, I love my antagonists.  It’s rare that I come up with an antagonist that isn’t delightful to write about – I look forward to working on scenes from their point of view, sometimes more than scenes with my protagonists.  With my upcoming NaNo book, in fact, the current protagonist was the antagonist, originally. 

I’ve heard many an actor say in interviews that their favorite characters to play are the bad guys, that it’s fun to unleash creepy and disturbing behavior in a context that isn’t going to hurt anybody.  Well, I’m lousy at learning lines, which is why I’ve never seriously pursued acting, but I have a similar attitude with writing “bad guys”.  Just have fun with it.  Come up with someone who’s really twisted and let them loose on your story.  And by twisted, I don’t mean this person needs to be evil, crazy, or monstrous.  They don’t need to be vengeful or angry.  Just warped.  Take the same motivation you’ve given your protagonist, add a wrong turn in the logic process, and BAM, you have a great start to your antagonist – and a nice little parallel going on between your “good guy” and your “bad guy”.

And while it’s fine for comic books to explain that the reason a supervillain is so horrifically screwed up is that he got dumped in some acid or was the victim of a lab experiment gone haywire, you probably want a better background for an antagonist in a novel – even if you never give the full back story in the text of the book.

Think about things that real people go through – people you know, people on the news, friends of friends, anyone – and think about how much it really takes to make a person crack.  It’s a lot.  If your antagonist is an outright villain, it took a lot for him/her to get that way.  What did that to him/her?  When you, as the writer, feel sorry for them on some level, you’re getting somewhere.  Your readers may never feel sorry for your villain, and maybe they shouldn’t.  But the writer always has to know more than they’re telling!


As you may have noticed, I don’t even have a working title yet for my NaNoWriMo novel.  Titles are not my strong suit.  I hate coming up with titles.  How else can I say this?  Inventing titles for my books is harder for me than writing a book.

So much hinges on a title, for one thing.  It’s the first impression a critiquer, editor, agent, or reader gets of your book.  It’s your first chance at getting in a narrative hook and getting people interested.  It’s like deciding what to wear to your job interview – you want it to represent you and your work, but you also want it to have some pizzazz and professionalism.  Job interviews aren’t my forte, either.

Nevertheless, titles are a necessary evil of writing – if for no other reason than that you need to call your book something while you’re talking to your friends and relatives and writer’s groups about it, especially if you have more than one book.  Or, you know, if you’re a poet and don’t want to call all your poems “untitled”, thus confusing everyone, including yourself, on a regular basis.

Sometime I may try the dart board method of naming a book – just pin random words to a corkboard, throw a couple darts (preferably in a not entirely sober state), and name the book whatever gets hit.  Until I have a corkboard, darts, and booze at my immediate disposal, however, I have to try other methods.

In instances of successful titling, I’ve written out lists of brainstormed title ideas and agonized over which one to use until finally I decided I liked one best.  Or, in the case of The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, I used what was originally the title for the first chapter (chapter titles don’t scare me so much, so they’re easy to think of (go figure)) and pilfered it for the book title.  Then I renamed the first chapter.  Song lyrics are a good go-to for phrases that may or may not be made into good titles, although be careful about copyright issues on that.

And really, why am I posting advice on this?  I suck at this.  Why don’t you guys give me some advice?  Because I can’t for the life of me think of a decent working title for my upcoming NaNo novel.  Right now it’s Book One of The Trilogy.  Yep.  That’s some creative titling work right there.

Clearly, this is weighing on my mind.

How to Take Criticism

I’ve guest blogged before about how to give and receive critiques. But I realized that I’ve never posted anything on the subject on my own blog, so here is one slice of the pie that is the topic of critiques: getting them and learning from them.

First off, if you take your stuff to a critique group, be professional. Don’t bring something you haven’t proofread yourself, haven’t bothered to run a basic spell check on, that your cat threw up on, or that you’ve formatted in some weird tiny font that nobody can read. It shows you respect your own work enough to present it well, and that you respect the people who are reading it for you enough to be considerate and not make them do all the work for you. Critiquers don’t do the work for you – they make suggestions and give feedback. Editors do the work for you (and I am one, if you want to know, and yes, I’m open for business, and my email is rakhulzna@gmail.com). /shameless plug

Anyway, you also need to be professional in your response to criticism. Let the group know up front what kind of feedback you’re looking for (Full-out troubleshooting, or just technical help? Know your dialogue is shaky but want to concentrate on finding inconsistencies in the plotline for now? Not sure if a scene makes sense and just want to know if it does or not?) Do not expect a pat on the head from a critique group. That’s what your friends and relations are for. Go in ready to be torn to shreds. If you get nothing but praise instead, that’s a happy surprise and kudos to you for your excellent writing. But it’s better to be prepared for the worst than to go in cocky and then have the rug jerked out from under you. Confidence is good, but steel yourself for criticism. That’s what critiquers are supposed to give you.

Don’t argue with critiquers. Clarify, sure, if you don’t understand a comment, but don’t say, “Yes, this part does SO work!” if someone says it doesn’t. The correct response is, “Okay, thanks for letting me know,” or “What is it that doesn’t work here? Can you explain, so I understand what I need to fix?” You can disagree privately all you want, just not out loud.

Do NOT, NOT, NOT start editing as soon as you get home from a critique, especially if there are a lot of comments (more especially still if there are a lot of things that need to be fixed or changed). Process it overnight, at the very least. Cry if you need to. Just don’t decide one way or the other on anything the same evening you get a critique. Later, after you’ve thought it over a little, you can decide which suggestions you disagree with, which you want to work on, and which things you agree with but think a different solution than the one suggested would be best for the story.

So there you go. How to approach and take your lumps – I mean, your critiques.


Subplots are a tricky issue sometimes.  Without them, your plot can come off stale, impersonal, simplistic, and boring.  In fact, without subplot, there really can’t be any character development (unless the resolution of an internal conflict is your main plot).  Too many subplots, and you can spread yourself too thin, confuse the reader, get lost in tangents, and generally make a mess of things.

Paying attention to what works for me as a reader, I’ve decided that the best subplots are the ones which play off of the main storyline.  Preferably, a subplot not only stems from the main events of the book, but also, in return, affects the main storyline.  A sort of feedback loop of cause and effect, each building off of one another.  Get a few subplots like that going at once, and your story will practically write itself (and everyone will think you’re brilliant for pulling it off (not that I’ve experienced that part as a writer, just noticed as a reader which books I find brilliantly put together)).

George Elliot and Terry Pratchett (who probably never would’ve expected to be compared within the same sentence) are both masters of interweaving an overall plot with smaller storylines.

The last book I wrote was so narrowly focused (intentionally so) that in the rough draft, I left out all subplot, just making notes to myself of subplots that occurred to me.  Anything that didn’t hold together or any characters that weren’t coming across as full, rounded-out people, I worked through in the second draft by stirring in a few of those back burner ideas from my notes, and that’s how I knew what subplots were actually needed to carry the story off.

I won’t be so lucky with my NaNoWriMo novel in November.  It’s a huge storyline with multiple conflicts playing off one another and a cast of thousands–no, I exaggerate…only hundreds…er…well, dozens, anyway.  And all those characters have their own issues and their own parts to play, and things to overcome that will affect everybody else.  It’s rife with subplots and potential for more to pop up as I go along, and frankly, I’m a little intimidated by that.  But I’ll take a page out of my own book (haha, I make funny) and in the rough draft use only what I know I need, making extensive notes for things I’m not sure about.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Hah!  Wish me luck!!

Big Cast Novels

When you have a big cast of characters for a novel, you have a big set of challenges ahead of you.  The first of these is deciding who your main characters are.  This sounds like it should be obvious and easy to answer, but I know from first-hand experience that you, the writer, can be very, very wrong about which people your story needs, and which storyline actually works for the characters.

Sometimes you have to write a chunk of the book (or at least a few scenes) before you get a real feel for what/who works and what/who doesn’t.  My personal rule of thumb is, if a character just flows out effortlessly, that’s your main character, or at least one of your primaries.  If a character you plan on being a primary figure in the storyline is difficult, frustrating, or no fun to write, CUT THAT CHARACTER!

Let me tell you a fun little anecdote about my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel.  I came up with the initial concept about thirteen years ago.  Yes.  Thirteen years ago.  I started the book five times, got about ten chapters in, and realized it wasn’t coming together each time.  So I’d stop, work on other projects, and do some world-building for this novel on the side.  Whenever I’ve finished a short story or a draft of my other novel, I’d come back to this one.  I talked to some of my writer friends about it.  “Cut your main character,” was their advice.  Cut my main character???  But she’s the main character, right???!

This summer, between drafts of my Erica Flynn novel, I sat down and looked over my notes about my thirteen-year project.  And holy heck if I hadn’t modified the storyline to the point that my main character had become entirely unnecessary to the plot!  I’d been writing her out of the book for years, subconsciously.  I didn’t enjoy writing the scenes that focused on her, I didn’t like her much (although I admired some of her personal qualities), and I wasn’t inspired by her.  The characters I’d written the best material for were either secondary to her, or pitted against her.  These are now my main characters.  My original protagonist is gone, not even a bit part.

Go with your instincts.  Who do you enjoy writing about?  Either you enjoy writing those parts because they’re really good parts, or you’ll write them really well because you like writing them.  No matter which direction that cause and effect goes, you’re going to end up with better material.

Also, write up a list of all your characters, and write out each one’s “through line” for the book.  What changes about them – whether it’s internal or external?  The characters who change internally and externally are your strongest, automatically.  Those are your main character nominees now.  Tweak their through lines.  Make them stronger, more dramatic, more interwoven with the overall plot.  Play around with it!  Have fun!  No, I’m not being sarcastic.  Really – have fun with your writing.  You can be miserable later, when you’re revising.  Hah!  😉

Where & When

I make a conscious effort not to let myself get too picky about my writing environment. It’s not that I don’t think a routine can be helpful, or that I have a personal vendetta against my whiny inner artistic self. Routine can’t always be counted on, however – there are always variables in life, especially if you’re not a rich and famous author and you have to do other work to make a living (and let’s face it, that’s most of us). And as for my whiny inner artist, she has her place, but it’s good to remind her of it from time to time – as in, “Hey. If you ain’t writin’, you ain’t a writer. And if you ain’t a writer, you got no cause to be all prima donna.” Tough self-love is sometimes necessary.

But back to my main point – I try not to get too attached to any one aspect of my writing environment. Time of day is an unavoidably undependable factor, since my “day job” is on a flexible schedule, and from one day to the next I could work a midday shift and be off at four-thirty in the afternoon, or I could go in around six in the evening and work till midnight.

Location is something I stay whimsical about. I do generally use my laptop, since my desktop computer is full of distracting games and art programs etc., but every now and then I’ll shake that up, too, and work at my desk. When I’m on the laptop, sometimes I sit on the couch and work, sometimes in bed, and sometimes (now) sitting on the patio lounger on my balcony. I’m not one of those writers who can concentrate in a coffee shop, although I try sometimes. I can edit just about anywhere, but coming up with new material is something I really need to lose myself in for it to work.

I do let myself be a little prima donna about whether or not I listen to music while I work. Some days, I’m just not feeling it, but the right music will click my brain into the right gear. Other days, music is a blaring, horrendous distraction.

The main thing, for me, is to have enough self-discipline not to need certain circumstances to write. I’d hate to have writer’s block every time I worked a closing shift, if the weather was too cold for me to work on the balcony, if my speakers went out on my laptop, or if something came up during my “writing time” and took up those hours of the day. I’d most likely be furious anytime anything threatened my routine, including friends and relations, and that would be a miserable situation for everyone involved. So for my own well-being and peace of mind, for the greater good of the world not having to put up with me throwing tantrums about my writing time, and to keep myself productive as a writer, I’ve learned to write whenever and wherever I can, even if I only have an hour in between things to do it.

The point is: Be flexible.

Editing Without Tearing Your Hair Out

It’s far more frustrating and difficult for me to edit my own writing than to edit other people’s work.  That’s only natural, since your own work is your own personal creation, and therefore hard to distance yourself from in order to get a clear view of the “big picture” of what works and what doesn’t.

I just finished the final draft of my novel, and feel like I got into a good groove with the process over the last year and a half of editing it.  Here’s some stuff that worked well for me:

  • Focus on one type of editing at a time.  It’s a different mindset to look for technical or grammatical mistakes than to look for awkward wording, pacing issues, or tone and character inconsistencies.  Big rearranges, additions, and cuts, too, are something I generally want to do separately from other, easier fixes.
  • If I’m doing quick fixes and notice something major that feels like it might be off, I highlight it or insert a comment to make note of it for later.  Then I can look it over in another sitting, reread it and decide if it really is off, or if it’s something I’d like to get feedback on before making any big decisions.
  • At times, I’m intimidated about making sweeping changes to the full text of the novel, as if I’ll get lost and never find my way home with the book again.  To trick myself into feeling secure about the process, I’ll cut three or four chapters that need major work, rearranging, cutting, and/or big additions, and copy them to a separate file called “edits”.  I make all the changes there, and when I’m happy with it, I paste it back into the “official” novel file.
  • I keep each draft as a separate file – clearly labeled as “[workingtitle]v1” and “[working title]v2” and so on, so that if the big changes go horribly awry or some terrible computer glitch tries to destroy me, I have the older drafts to refer to for reconstruction.  It’s also kind of cool to go back and see how the story flourished and bloomed over the course of the work I’ve done on it.
  • Take breaks between drafts!!!  And I mean a month or two, with a couple beta readers giving you feedback before you get started on the next set of rewrites.  This (a) gives you a little distance from the book so you have fresh perspective going back into it, and (b) gets you feedback to work from.  Also, you won’t be so sick of reading the book that you decide you hate the whole thing and never want to lay eyes on it again.
  • If you’re feeling stressed out about a big change or aren’t sure what to do with it, step away from it for a while.  An hour, a day, a weekend.  Not more than a couple of days, or you’ll lose your momentum and have trouble settling back in to your work, but a weekend off from editing is necessary if you’re not going to go crazy – or at least become so frustrated that you’ll get overly critical.  Take a walk.  Get some coffee.  Do a puzzle.  Think of it as your lunch break.  Then get back in that chair and do some serious work!

A Week in the Life

It’s been a busy week for me, writing-wise.  I finished proofreading the final draft of my novel on Tuesday, which means that today or tomorrow I will be able to wrap up the final version altogether.  Just got a few finishing touches on three chapters, and then it’ll be on to writing my query letter for an agent!

My plan is to spend October (after I get my query letter done and my book sent out) prepping for my NaNoWriMo project.  The book is the first in a trilogy, so in addition to planning the story arc for all the major characters across all three books, I’ll be looking into putting together a series bible (more about that in another post, when I’ve gotten started making one!).  I spent yesterday tacking every visual element I’ve come up with in association with this book over the years I’ve had it rattling in my head.  I have character sketches, clothing designs, a map, a grid style outline, architectural sketches of specific settings (from specific vantage points, in some cases), and ink drawings of some types of creatures the series may or may not involve.  This is all on the wall next to my bed now, which I hope will mean I’ll lie there and stare at it at night and get good ideas from my subconscious as a reward.  Ha!

October, if it goes the way I want it to, should be spent in a frenzy of sketching, inking, and coloring cityscapes and architectural studies, reading up on and eating authentic Italian food (and drink), and searching out traditional Italian and Russian folk music for the purposes of a worktime playlist.  Ah, man, what a hard life.

One of my short story beginnings also piped up this week, with lots of ideas suddenly occurring to me that will finally give the story direction, purpose, and cohesiveness.  So maybe if I’m a good little writer and get my book sent off early enough, I can spend a couple days drafting this short story before I get my head totally into the NaNo novel.  I love that writing is its own reward – literally – for me.  I’m like, I get to write a short story if I send off my book before I need to start my other book!  Hurray!  And this actually works as motivation.