Friday, September 13, 2019

Are Your Characters Too Nice, Controlled, Predictable? Here's How to Bring Out the Tension and Make Them Vivid (But Still Not Serial Killers)

Annie, one of my readers, got surprising feedback from her writer's group.  One of her novel's characters, an abused woman trying to escape from controlling relationships (with parents and boyfriend) was unbelievable.  Her sadness and desperation to escape wasn't enough to make her vivid, memorable, engaging to readers.  Where was her strength, her resolution?

Problem is, Annie says, an abused person often lacks this kind of drive.  So what could she do to create more tension around this character, making her vivid and believable in her search to become her own person?

I remember reading Wally Lamb's novel, She's Come Undone.  It's a huge book and demands stamina from the reader, or so I remember.  I also recall nearly tossing it in the trash about two-thirds through, because the character was such a terrible victim.  For too long.  As a reader, I wanted to see some inner spark in this person, some hint that she'd win in the end--not in a Hallmark movie kind of way, but in a way I could buy, given her desperate circumstances.  In truth, I was bored with her.

In real life, people are desperate.  They also suffer chronic illnesses, terrible abuse, and other trauma.  But on the page, anything that goes on too long without redemption or even change can derail a reader.  Literature is not real life; writers of abuse stories must search out the nuggets in the character's history that create a pathway to change--of some kind.  Or worse circumstances and greater tragedy, which is equally compelling.  

In other words, there has to be an arc.  A sense of movement.  Exterior as well as interior.

I haven't read Annie's pages, but I'm going to throw out a guess, based on my own experience with writing this kind of character.  Too much is internalized.  Not enough is externalized.  

If Annie's character suffers inwardly, via sadness and desperation, what would in her outer life would reflect that?  Then, as she decides to change, what small steps would reflect that as well?  Maybe one day she gets dressed.  Another day she helps someone in an unexpected way.  Or she falls in love with a child in the playground and goes there every afternoon to watch (not in a stalker kind of way, just as a mirror for her yearning for something to love).  It doesn't usually take much to signify change to a reader.  And we humans usually change in small, tangible outer steps.  That accumulate, so when the dramatic final change happens, we believe it.  It's earned.

When I'm faced with this kind of dilemma in one of my characters--for my latest novel, Outlaws, it was the dilemma of one character being injured and hiding out for ten days, a boring possibility at first that I had to work hard to make interesting--I often read other novelists to learn how they do it.  I respect Mr. Lamb, but he's not one I choose.  Alice Munro is.  She's a master at showing small, external changes in character that reveal astonishing depths by the end of the story.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Lessons from Margaret Renkl: How One Memoir-Writer Circled Round Family, Nature, and Loss

How does a memoir writer weave family stories into a larger whole?  This is the perennial challenge.  Unless you already have a fan following, most readers won't follow your trials and tribulations just because you write about them.  You need to hook them into a universal truth, learning, or other bigger element. Something they can relate to their own lives. 

Friday, August 30, 2019

When a Writer Describes an Emotion You've Had (Without Quite Realizing It)--Power of a Book's Effect on Its Readers

Think your writing doesn't matter?  This week's writing exercise is to educate yourself (and inspire yourself) on the effect our words have on readers.  Click here for the podcast from writer Gretchen Rubin (The Happiness Project, The Four Tendencies) talking about her experience reading Isaac Mizrahi's memoir. If the link doesn't work: (search for Isaac Mizrahi in her podcasts).

Friday, August 23, 2019

Breakdowns and Breakthroughs--The Sine Wave of Book Writing

One of my coaching clients, a very skilled writer, wrote me a few weeks ago about the temper tantrum she was having with her book.  It's in revision stage, a novel, and a good one--I've read parts of it and I was hooked on the characters, plot, and premise.  But she's been working on it for five years and she's tired.  "I'm going to toss it," she said, and I half-believed her, so I sent her a plea to wait.  Set the thing aside for a day, two, a week if she could.  Do something else.  Something completely unconnected to her book.  Then decide if it was ready to be scrapped.

Friday, July 19, 2019

When Your Book Wants to Be Something More: The Persistence Required as Your Book Reveals Its Real Story

One of my long-time students, Linda Zlotnick, recently published her memoir, Star Sisters. The core story is about the death of her twin sister from ovarian cancer.  It was a many year journey to allow herself to process the loss on the page, then begin to watch the memoir take on other topics, unexpected ones.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Great Resources for Studying Up: On How to Submit Your Manuscript to Agent or Publishers

One of my blog readers from Europe is preparing to submit her first book to agents and publishers.  She has plans to attend the International Book Fair in Germany in October, but she wanted to study up before then.  She asked for my best bets in books, blogs, and other resources.

I'm always delighted to share my favorites.  I have to credit friends, colleagues, students, and other writers in the trenches of submission for most of these resources.  Anyone who's been through it knows how challenging the whole infuriating, wonderful, discouraging, illuminating process can be.  It helps so much to study up beforehand.  Be not surprised or unprepared--you'll kick yourself and you'll probably lose any future chances with that particular agent.

So here's the best I've found, thanks to many helpers over the years.  I've used all of these myself.  

Friday, July 5, 2019

How Do You Create Section Breaks--the White Space Pause--in Your Chapters or the Whole Book?

A great question, simple but important, this came my way from a former student who is working on the first draft of her memoir.  When you construct chapters, when you look at the book as a whole, you do have the option to give the reader small moments of pause, usually created with a few paragraph returns and white space (in chapters) or a couple of blank pages (in the larger book).  

What are the rules around doing this?  How often, and why?

Let's talk chapter breaks first.  

Friday, June 28, 2019

Is It Too Late? Successful Publishing After Forty, Fifty, Sixty?

Writers can become successes at any age--we know that, and we know it's the quality and timeliness of their work that makes that success come true.  But older writers, many in my classes, often comment on how challenged they feel competing with younger writers who have decades ahead of them.  "Agents want to know you have books in your future," said one of my students last week.  "I'm not sure how many I can promise at sixty-five."  Another worried about her appearance--was it current enough to promote if her book did well?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Behind the Scenes: How One Well-Published Writer Structured Her Memoir

This week, I'm sharing another great article--very different from the words of Ira Glass, last post, but equally inspiring for anyone writing a memoir and confused about structure. 

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has written a memoir not for the faint-hearted, about capitol punishment and her own difficult past, called The Fact of a Body:  A Murder and a Memoir.  This article from The Rumpus interviews her about the structure of her book and how she wove the two threads of frontstory and backstory.  Check it out here.  (If the link doesn't work, go to and search for the book title or the author's name.)  Thanks to Cherste for passing this on!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Bridging the Gap between Taste and Skill--Ira Glass Wisdom Revisited

Something must be in the water this week.  Maybe the air.  I'm hearing from discouraged writers, at every stage.  And by serendipity, I also came across the brilliant short film by Daniel Sax with Ira Glass speaking to this very problem.  So this week's writing exercise is short and sweet.  Watch, listen, take to heart these words.  (If the link doesn't work, go to www.ThisAmericanLife/extras and search for The Gap).

And for those who want to read/see more, check out this wonderful article from Brainpickings based on Glass's wisdom. (If the link doesn't work, go to and search for Ira Glass).