Like many things, character motivations can make or break a story. When motivations fall flat it can be hard to connect to characters or understand their actions. Weak motivations can cause issues with other aspects, like plot and stakes. Let’s discuss issues to avoid and how to make sure your character has strong and clear motivations.
First off, when a character doesn’t know why they are doing something my interest wanes especially if this happens in the first chapter when the stakes are being set up. If a character doesn’t know, it doesn’t tell me about them or why I should care. In fact, it makes their actions feel unimportant. It’s often a big red flag when a character even thinks “I don’t know why” in regards to their actions and motivations. If they don’t understand themselves, the readers can’t understand. This makes their actions feel forced for the sake of plot. Motivations help develop characters and their role in the story. Forcing motivations for the sake of plot causes characterization and as well as motives to suffer in return. Continue reading “Character Motivations”
As an editor and a literary agency reader I read a lot of first chapters. Like A LOT. I’ve blogged about types of openings to avoid before. There are a few openings and issues I spot in first chapters all the time that instantly turn me off a book because I see them so often and they simply don’t grab my attention. I’m going to tell you some of my first chapter pet peeves and exactly why they don’t work for me.
Starting a story with a character waking up. I see this way, way too often. Usually when I see it the character is waking from a dream or their phone wakes them up in the middle of the night. This opening doesn’t work for me because A) I’ve seen it so often it has become cliche, and B) it doesn’t grab my attention. I want to get to know your characters right away. Start me with something more unique to them and their story and not something that could be used for any character. Similar to this beginning is starting with a character’s daily routine. It isn’t attention grabbing. Continue reading “First Chapter Pet Peeves”
I read a lot of historical fiction and something I’ve noticed lately is a lot of stories of famous people being written about from the perspective of someone close to them, an observer of their story. This keeps us out of the famous person’s head and shows us how they appear through the eyes of someone else. I’ve seen this device done very well, but I’ve also seen it done in ways that made the observer come off as too lackluster and boring. In the worst case, I went into a book expecting a prominent figure to play a central role only for them to be in less than half the book, for example as in The Wardrobe Mistress. The book was called a novel about Marie Antoinette, but she was more of a side character as the book followed the story of one of her undertirewomen. While reading my latest historical pick, I finally figured out what makes writing from an observer’s point of view work for my personal tastes and what doesn’t.
Let’s start with an example of a story of a famous person’s life playing out through an observer’s eyes that worked. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller did a wonderful job of showing us Achilles’s story through the eyes of his lover Patroclus. One of the reasons I enjoyed seeing the story from Patroclus’s point of view was because it shrouded bits of Achilles in mystery and gave us a view outside of Achilles’s own thoughts on himself, which is my experience seems to often be the reason why an observer’s point of view is used in the first place. However Patroclus played a large role in the story. Yes he observed Achilles’s rise to fame and his demise, but he didn’t just observe, he took part in that story and helped shape it. Ultimately that’s what sold me on Patroclus’s POV. I didn’t just get an outside perspective of Achilles, Patroclus’s character was fascinating enough in his own right for me to enjoy getting his story as well. Continue reading “Historical Fiction From the Observer”
Between the slush and my own editing I’ve seen a lot of first chapters. Dozens upon dozens upon dozens of first chapters. I often notice similar issues over and over again and find myself giving out the same advice in first chapter critiques and edits. Two of these issues specifically, a lack of stakes and a hook, I came across in a book I borrowed from the library. If you are a writer who struggles to understand issues like stakes without examples then read on because you are about to get some specific examples. I’m going to to discuss two common issues I spot in opening chapters with a few bonus problems and I’m going to be very candid with you. The book I’m using as an example is a young adult magical realism contemporary, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.
As a warning I quit reading after the first two chapters to get some other reading done and haven’t picked the book back up yet, so I have no idea of what happens after the first two chapters (yet). On Goodreads the book only has a rating of 3.2 and a lot of reviews complaining about it being “meh” or “boring.” Many called it “strange” and “odd” despite the great concept that has a magical realism touch to it. I’m always curious to read reviews of books after I finish to see what other people thought. Let me tell you exactly why the book got reviewed as meh and boring at the start so you can avoid making the same mistake. First let me be clear this book wasn’t rated low because the writing or story is bad, the book just needs some more reworking and polishing to have a wider appeal and the issues I’ve brought up are ones I see all the time, which is why I wanted to make this post. I find it hard to discuss common issues without examples, and this book provides some perfect examples for me to discuss. Continue reading “When Opening Chapters Have No Teeth”
Subjectivity can be so frustrating for querying authors and those on submission to houses. When you are trying to get an agent you will get tired of hearing about how subjective the industry is but it is so true. Subjectivity is real and not some myth created to frustrate or console rejected writers. As frustrating as it can be for those trying to get published, subjectivity is what lands all the varying books out there on shelves for readers.
What is subjectivity? You know how some people prefer chocolate ice cream but those who are wrong prefer vanilla or strawberry? (Guess which flavor is my favorite!) That is subjectivity. What one person might prefer another disagrees with. In publishing subjectivity is why some of us prefer specific genres or third person point of view over first person or vice versa. You know how a friend or family member recommended that one book to you that everyone was raving about? Yet when you read it you didn’t much care for it? That’s subjectivity in the industry. For me the most recent book that happened with was A Darker Shade of Magic. But subjectivity is why we get so many different types of books and writing on shelves. If not for subjectivity our reading options would be narrower. I’ve seen several books written in verse lately, but that sort of writing doesn’t appeal to me but it does appeal to others, so we can thank subjectivity for the variety of books it gives us. As they say variety is the spice of life. Continue reading “Subjectivity in Publishing”
Working with critique partners offers huge benefits to writers. There are the obvious benefits, like getting fresh eyes to look at your writing and help you polish. Then there are benefits you might not have considered, like the fact that critique partners can help you learn and get used to taking feedback, which prepares you to work with a professional editor. If you are a writer and don’t have any critique partners, I suggest you find some. And by critique partner I don’t mean family and friends who don’t write or read much. Get other writers who will edit you and give you constructive feedback instead of giving you a simple “I liked it.” Continue reading “Working With Critique Partners”
I’m starting a new reading challenge next week. For those who follow me on Twitter, you know I like to write. For those who also write and are trying to get published, you know how hard and draining the process can be. Sometimes you just need to take a break and regroup. For those who work in publishing, you likely understand how hard it can be to find time to read outside of your workload. While I’m between writing projects, I decided to make a dent in my library wishlist. At this point it has something like 70 books on it and it grows every month.
One of the best ways to improve your writing outside of well, actually writing, is reading. Since I work as an editor and literary assistant, I try to read widely to get a handle on what’s hot, what’s been overdone, and what I wish would be written. I’ve also been working hard at trying to improve my own writing. As such, I’m planning to read 1-3 books a week for a minimum of a month across multiple genres outside of my work hours, which alone include at least two unpublished books a week. I like to write fantasy and historical, so there will be a lot of that included. I plan to include adult, young adult, and some historical non-fiction. Continue reading “My Reading Challenge”