Writing Characters with Magic Powers

Harry Potter I love magicAs a reader, writer, and editor of fantasy fiction, I love a good magic ability in my characters. (I mean, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Name of the Wind… these stories make me so happy!) Something that sets them apart, makes them different from the rest of the people in their world. A secret weapon that they can pull out to use when it seems like they’ve reached the end of their rope. Magic and the possibilities that magic creates in a world are the reasons I read fantasy fiction.

However, in order to have a well-crafted story, you have to give serious thought as to how you use magic. If you don’t, you risk breaking faith with your reader and ending up with a story whose conclusion falls flat instead of creating a sense of satisfaction for your reader.

Here are four things to watch out for when writing characters with magical powers.

  1. Magic has rules. Figure out what yours are, tell your reader what they are, and then don’t break them. Make sure you set up what the rules are fairly quickly so that your reader doesn’t get the impression that you’re going to take advantage of them and stretch their suspension of disbelief too far.
  2. Magic powers should be set up fairly early. Don’t add a new power for each problem that your characters face. Let them test the limits of their power and, more importantly, let magic fail them occasionally. The story you’re telling will be infinitely more interesting if your characters don’t succeed every time they face a challenge.
  3. Magic has consequences in direct proportion to the power of their effect. If you’re going to give a character the power to save the day, it needs to cost something. If all your characters use magic for is cleaning up a mess, the cost goes down.
  4. Magic is not a convenient way to explain some difficult part of your story. Don’t give your character the power to read minds in order that they can have access to information they wouldn’t otherwise know. Remember that it’s a character’s weaknesses that make them interesting, not their all-powerful abilities.

What’s one of the first things that happens when a story with magic is released to the public? They try to figure out where the magic systems break their own rules or fall short of adequately explaining themselves.

If you can master these four facets of writing magic into your stories, you’re well on  your way to building a stellar magic system that your readers will enjoy for a long time to come.

4 ways to avoid stereotypes in your writing and create rounder, more realistic characters

StereotypesIt can be really hard to avoid stereotypes in characterization when you’re setting up your novel. A stereotype is “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing.”

We all use stereotypes in everyday life, whether at the grocery store or filling up at the gas station or at a scientific symposium. For better or worse, they help us categorize the world around us.

But they can also get us into trouble when we forget to allow the people around us to be larger and more complex than we expect them to be. Stereotypes are so embedded in our conscious and subconscious that they end up on the pages of our novels before we really have a chance to process why we have chosen them.

These are a few reasons why you should avoid stereotypes in your characterizations.

  • They are unrealistic. People are wide and varied in their looks, interests, and self-expression. Fiction does not always have to reflect reality, of course, but if anything it should push the boundaries and create more options instead of less.
  • They are limiting. Once you decide to allow a character to conform to a stereotype, there’s not much left for them to do. You’re stuck having them act according to that stereotype instead of allowing yourself room to write the story outside those limits.
  • Stereotypes mean flat characters. There’s nothing to a stereotyped character. No motive, no real depth or dimension to him.
  • And once they stop having depth, your characters become uninteresting. Why would you want your characters to be predictable and boring?

If you want your novel to be memorable, you’re going to have to take some time to examine your characters and root out as many stereotypes as you can. Here are four ways to avoid using stereotypes in your writing to create rounder, more realistic characters.

  1. Spend some time people watching, and especially people that are different than you. I know this sounds a little stalker-like, but if you take the time to observe (or better yet, get to know) people who are remarkably different from you, you’ll begin to see how varied their actions, interests, body types, and style preferences are. Inform your writing by learning as much as you can about the people you are trying to portray and writing them as realistically as possible.
  2. Challenge convention. If you can’t find people similar to the characters you are writing, that’s ok. Take a few minutes to ask yourself why you portray each character the way you do, what purpose they serve in the story, and whether your story would be better served if that character did something completely contrary to what people expect. Why constrict your writing and your characters’ potential by forcing them to conform to a specific trope?
  3. Create rounder characters. The definition of a stereotype speaks for itself. It’s oversimplified–a caricature. You owe it to your characters to make them as deep and complex as possible. Again, this comes back to why you portray a character a certain way. Ask yourself if there’s a deeper, more meaningful way to describe that character or their actions.
  4. Make your characters unforgettable. How do you do that? By having them do unexpected things. If a character is flat and unimaginative, if he/she/it conforms to the expectations of your readers in style, language, and actions, then he/she/it will probably not leave much of an impression. Readers remember characters that shake up their world and challenge their preconceived notions of reality.

Discovering stereotypes and conscientiously eliminating them from your writing is hard! It requires that you do some deep self-reflection as well as some heavy developmental editing. But your writing will benefit so greatly from the exercise. And your readers will deeply appreciate the effort.

3 ways to turn off your inner editor

just writeAh, the inner editor. She’s so helpful when you want to be eloquent. But when you’re drafting she can be the bane of your existence, especially if you ever want to finish a manuscript.

If your inner editor is anything like mine, she’s anxious and picky and painfully overbearing. She insists that everything be perfect, so perfect that she makes it difficult to move on to the next scene, or even the next sentence sometimes!

If you take a step back from your frustrations for a moment, you can see that your inner editor is just trying to be helpful. But she can kill your momentum and your self-esteem, getting in the way of your ability to complete a project.

Here are three ways to turn off your inner editor so you can get some writing done!

  1. Put your editor away – Like, physically put her away. You may want to pick an object, or draw a picture, to represent your inner editor, however you visualize her. Then, once you’ve completed it, thank her for her services and put her in a closet, or a box, or somewhere out of sight where she can’t look over your shoulder and offer criticism. You can pull her back out of the closet when you’ve finished the manuscript. But for now, she needs to shut up and let you do the work.
  2. Break down your writing sessions into manageable pieces – When you think about writing an entire manuscript (all 50,000+ words) your inner editor freaks out. There are too many opportunities to screw things up in that giant project, she says. How can you keep track of it all? Instead, think of each writing session as a separate project. Pick a word count (500, 1000, 1667 words) and focus on that. Don’t worry about the larger picture yet. You and your inner editor can have fun working that out later. For now, your manuscript just needs to get written.
  3. Add a little pressure – Don’t give yourself too long to linger over those 500 (1000, 1667) words. The longer you linger, the easier it is for your inner editor to creep back in and start criticizing what you’ve done and what you haven’t done yet. Set a time limit and push yourself to get to your writing goal before she has a chance to stop you in your tracks!

I use Write Or Die, a fabulous little app to keep my fingers flying over the keys and get me to my daily word count goal as quickly as possible. It’s not very expensive and a great motivational tool. You can try Write or Die out for free here if you’re not convinced yet. Or just set a kitchen timer and get to typing! Whatever you need to do to get the words on the page, do that.

Your inner editor can be a helpful tool when the time is right, so don’t banish her forever. Just remind her that, until you’re done creating, it’s not her turn yet.

Why NaNoWriMo is a great cure for writer’s block

NaNoWriMo
National Novel Writing Month

It’s no secret. I’m a HUGE fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo). The event takes place in the month of November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 new words of a novel in 30 days. In those 30 days, literary madness ensues, fast friendships are forged, barriers are broken, dreams are made realities.

As we get closer to November, more and more posts begin to pop up giving you advice on how to get the most out of your NaNo experience, how to plot or pants with the best of them. (Don’t know what I mean by plotting or pantsing? Click here.)

Some posts, however, argue that NaNo makes worse literature, that NaNo is bad for writing, that it’s a fad diet that won’t keep the pounds off when you get back to daily life.

To those people I say, get out of the way and let people create in whatever way they choose. It’s fine if NaNo doesn’t fit your process. If you need to create in a different way from NaNo, you go right ahead. You do you. But don’t rain on our parade!

Now I agree that 50,000 words does not a novel make, but who ever said that the draft you create during NaNo was supposed to be perfect and publishable? Sure there will be problems with sentence structure, plot holes galore, and overused adverbs in those “winning” NaNo manuscripts. That’s what revision is for!

NaNo provides inspiration and opportunity for all. People who have always wanted to try writing a novel find motivation, encouragement, moral support, and success through NaNo. You can’t edit what you haven’t written yet, right?

Why NaNo is a great cure for writer’s block

I think it’s easy for some people to get so hung up on choosing the right words or expressing their idea in the perfect way that they freeze and can’t write a thing. NaNo can fix that problem. If you have to write 1,667 words a day, you can’t freeze and worry about finding the right words, you just have to write. And spending 30 days regularly meeting a certain word count, whether or not your muse wants to come with you, can unlock your voice in a way that no Creative Writing course could ever do.

What better way to get past writer’s block? So you can’t think of what should happen next in your story, but you have 1,667 words to write that day? Grab a writing prompt, a weird little plot bunny that takes you in a completely different direction for the day. Even if you end up not using that day’s words in your final draft, you will have shown that writer’s block that you’re the boss of your writing.

NaNo is the perfect time to tell your internal editor to take a hike and make yourself sit down and write every day. The best part is, when you get to the end, you can decide whether the NaNo process does or does not work for you and adjust your writing habits accordingly. But if you’ve been telling yourself that there’s no way you could write every day, much less 1,667 words or more a day, NaNoWriMo is your chance to challenge yourself.

At the end of November you might decide to pursue the manuscript and keep working on it, or you might decide to shelve those words and never look at them again. But no words are wasted words! It takes a lot of bad writing to get to the good writing. So pour it all out onto the page and don’t worry. You can edit in December.

3 Ways to Trust Your Readers More

Captain ObviousOne main problem that beginning writers have when drafting their novels is making sure that they get their meaning across to their readers without beating them over the head with it.

It might seem like you can’t leave any room for ambiguity in that one scene– you know the one–because it’s important that your reader knows what’s going on so that they understand what happens later. But never fear! Readers are really good at picking up subtext and connecting the dots.

In fact, you’re more likely to lose your readers’ interest by spelling things out in too much detail because you’ll leave no room for their imagination. Here are three ways to trust your readers more and keep your writing from seeming coarse and redundant.

  1. Use fewer “creative” dialogue tags – It might seem like you’ve used the word “said” a thousand times in your manuscript. And you probably have. But do you know how many times your reader has noticed it? Zero. If you change it up, however, she’s guaranteed to start noticing and possibly getting irritated at having the dialogue explained to her, and that’s going to draw her out of the story. Unless it’s really important to know that a line is whispered or shouted and the context of the dialogue is not going to help the reader get there, you can stick with said and not worry about boring anyone in the slightest.
  2. Try not to spell everything out – Occasionally you might need to clarify what your characters mean, but more often than not you’re wasting words by stating the obvious. And your reader is going to notice. This includes “on-the-nose” dialogue. In real life, people rarely say what they actually mean. Your characters should be no different. Choose your details with care and have your characters keep some of what they mean to themselves.
  3. Resist the urge to reiterate – Repetition has its place in a novel, but there are limits to where you can use it without causing your reader to feel talked down to. You don’t need to remind the reader of major plot points every few pages, or tell her more than once that King Triton is Ariel’s father. She’s going to remember.

The writer-reader relationship takes cultivation, certainly, but remember you don’t have to do all the work. Stop stating the obvious and allow the subtext of your novel to shine through. Your reader will thank you for the opportunity to let her imagination run wild right along with yours.

Four Ways to Choose Your Novel’s Title

lady hitchhiker
Can you come up with a creative title for this story?

The first thing your readers come into contact with as they discover your book will be the title. While the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” may still hold, the same is not true of a title. A title gives the reader a tiny snapshot of what is to come within the pages of the book. A title should at the same time encapsulate the themes of the novel and intrigue the reader, drawing him in, making him want to know more.

If your title is too obscure, your potential readers may not be able to relate or understand what you’re trying to tell them your book is about. If you’re too explicit, though, you could end up turning readers off because they feel like there’s no mystery to be found between the pages.

With genre fiction, you have to make sure your potential reader knows what’s coming (Interview with a Vampire or The Rake and the Reformer). Genre readers like to know what they’re getting into, and people who don’t normally read genre need to know what they’re getting into.

Four Ways to Title Your Book

But whether you write genre fiction or not, a good title will capture the essence of your novel. So in order to give a good title to your work, you have to know what the essence of your novel is. Once you figure out the essence of your novel, what makes it tick, you can write your title to describe it. Here are four ways to choose your novel’s title.

  • The Main Character – such as Jane Eyre, Harry Potter [and the…], Carrie, and The Great Gatsby.
  • The Setting – such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Fablehaven, or Howard’s End.
  • A Line of Poetry – such as Of Mice and Men, Tam Lin, or This Raging Light.
  • The Major Theme – such as Pride and Prejudice, Wicked, or Great Expectations.

Your title will likely be what makes people pull your book off the shelf. Whatever you choose, make sure that the title is honest, descriptive, and memorable.

4 Reasons Writing Short Stories Will Make You a Better Novelist

bestshortstorywriter4November is National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo), and it’s just around the corner. If you’ve never written a novel but you’ve always wanted to try, I highly recommend this incredible event as your moment to go for the glory. If you’re already planning to join the fun, I’ll see you there!

People prepare for the madness of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days in different ways. Whether you’re a planner or pantser, you can benefit from practicing during the next 5 weeks. And short stories are the perfect way to practice. You might be thinking that writing short stories will drain your creativity tank before you’re ready and that you need those ideas to make your novel work. But writing short stories adds more to your craft than it takes away.

Still not sure? Here are 4 reasons writing short stories will make you a better novelist right now.

  1. They’re less than novel length.
    It kind of goes without saying, but less than novel length is a point in favor of short stories. You don’t have to keep track of as many moving pieces, or fill as much blank space, or go into as much detail as you do with a novel. You can sit down and write a short story in a day. Can you do that with a novel?
  2. They’ll inform your novel-writing process.
    You learn a lot from carrying a story from start to finish. Making sure all your series or story arcs or character arcs round out the way they should and with the correct timing can be really challenging with a full-length novel. A short story gives you all the elements of story telling in a snapshot form that’s easier to manage.
  3. They give you a chance to focus on just one thing.
    Because short stories are, well, short, you don’t have time to add too many elements to them. So you can choose to work on a plot element you’ve been wanting to experiment with, or a character sketch, or your world-building, without getting distracted.
  4. You get to write “The End” sooner.
    Never underestimate the power of completing a project. The emotional and mental payoff you get from writing “The End” gives you motivation to move on to the next project. And, most importantly, once you’ve written “The End” there’s nothing holding you back from putting your story out into the world to get feedback so that you can start the whole process over again and write an even better story.

Sometimes writing a story set in the world of your novel but with a side character can enhance the main manuscript. But not every idea is a novel-length idea. Give those other ideas room to grow and see what happens. The more stories you write, the more ideas you will have. Short stories, far from taking away from your creative potential, only add fuel to the fire.

4 Rhetorical Devices to Give Your Prose More Power

Harry PotterRhetorical devices come in handy when you’re trying to emphasize ideas (logos) or evoke specific emotions (pathos) in your reader. Using carefully crafted sentences, you can write in a way that persuades your reader to think or feel a certain way.

We’re mostly concerned with pathos in writing fiction. Your scenes and sentences all work together toward the goal of conveying the emotion of your characters and eliciting emotion from your reader.

You’re probably familiar with these rhetorical devices already, but you may not have known what they were. Using these devices will add emotion and emphasis to your scenes, and help your characters pop off the page.

Four rhetorical devices to give your prose more power

Here are four different rhetorical devices. The examples are from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (of course, because I love Harry Potter!).

  1. Asyndeton – omitting conjunctions in a list of three or more.
    ex. “It was stupid, pointless, irritating beyond belief that he still had four days left of being unable to perform magic…”
  2. Alliteration – repeating initial consonant sounds, either adjacently to each other or spread out in a sentence or across several sentences.
    ex. “Harry felt that nothing but action would assuage his feelings of guilt and grief and that he ought to set out on his mission to find and destroy Horcruxes as soon as possible.”
  3. Anaphora – repeating a word or phrase at the beginning of three (or more) successive phrases or sentences.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”
  4. Andadiplosis – repeating the last word of one sentence or clause at the beginning of the next sentence or clause.
    ex. “Was the man he sought down there, the man he needed so badly he could think of little else, the man who held the answer, the answer to his problem…?”

These are just four of many different types of rhetorical devices. We’ll go over other types in the coming weeks.

Rhetoric is a natural part of how we communicate our passion and our ideas with others. You may already use some rhetorical devices without even realizing what you’re doing.

Learning to recognize rhetorical devices in other works that you read will help you better analyze and discuss them. And taking the time to identify and then intentionally employ these devices in your writing will help you become a more effective and eloquent writer.

Say That Again: Repetition equals theme in your novel

True love theme

Figuring out theme in your novel can be challenging. How do you sum up the meaning of a whole story, a whole world sometimes, in just a few words?

Simply put, theme is the message you are trying to send to the readers. Sometimes the theme is stated, something you’ve thought about and intentionally planted into your text.

But themes can be more subtle than that, as well. You may not have even realized the theme developing as you wrote. If you’re having trouble articulating what your manuscript’s theme is, go back and take a look at situations, phrases, or ideas that you repeat in the text.

Stuart Horwitz, author of Book Architecture says, “repetition and variation of a narrative element creates meaning.” Examine the recurring narrative elements in your story and see if you can identify a commonality, a pattern of meaning from them.

Once you’ve identified the repeated elements and what they have in common, take some time to distill what those elements are trying to say. See if you can get it down to just one sentence, like “There’s nothing new under the sun,” or “Death cannot stop true love.

This exercise can also help you decide what areas of your novel you need to strengthen. When you know what your theme is and you have identified what narrative elements best convey that theme, you can reinforce it by adding more, or rearranging the pieces so that your thematic elements show up at key points in the narrative.

If you don’t like what you see being repeated, you may have a lot of work to do. Whether you meant it or not, your repetition emphasizes those elements, giving them significance and meaning. If you want your theme to be something different, you’ll have to revise and place your emphasis (your repetition and variation) elsewhere.

Teasing out the theme in your novel can be a fun challenge. But more than that, it’s essential to creating a story that has a lasting impact on your readers.

3 Reasons to Skip Writing Lengthy Character Description

DursleysWhen you’re writing a novel, it can be tempting to take a paragraph to describe every tiny last detail of how character looks. After all, you’ve spent so much time imagining your character and what he’s doing that you can see him vividly, even down to the brand of jeans he’s wearing.

But let’s talk about why you might not want to describe your character to the last detail.

  1. It’s boring
    If you spend a paragraph, or maybe more, describing your character’s look and fashion choices, you could risk your readers skipping ahead to reach the dialogue or the action–you know–the good stuff.
  2. It leaves no room for the reader’s imagination
    Part of the reader’s experience of your story is picturing it as it happens. This includes what the characters look like. Don’t be too quick to control what the reader gets to imagine.
  3. It’s probably not the most important detail you should be focusing on
    Usually character descriptions come at the beginning of the novel in an attempt to tell us what our character is like based on his (or her) appearance instead of showing us his (or her) character in action. Give your character something to do and sprinkle in bits of description where necessary.

And now I’m going to use examples from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, of course, because I think J.K. Rowling models this practice excellently (as per usual).

[Mr. Dursley] was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors.

One sentence for each character, and we have what we need to know. We learn a little later that Mr. Dursley wears boring ties and that Mrs. Dursley has a shrill voice, but those details come in the moment, as needed, not all in a clump at the beginning. Especially if the characters you are describing are minor characters, there’s little to no need to get more detailed than this. The reader is perfectly capable of filling in the rest.

A lot of times, writers try to shove the details of their main character onto the reader at the beginning of the story because it’s something that they feel the need to get out of the way and then they never return to it again. Instead of spending a paragraph writing description that your readers are willing and able to fill in for themselves, choose details that will reveal something important about the character or that makes him different from other characters.

harry_potter_grows_01And now an exception to the rule. When introducing the main character, Harry, Rowling uses almost a paragraph to tell us what he looks like, but as you’ll recognize if you’ve read book before, nearly all of his features–from the color of his eyes to the scar on his forehead–end up having some significant role in the story, in the entire series, even.

Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley’s, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tap because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.

The skinny smallness and the baggy clothes tell us Harry’s aunt and uncle neglect him. The eyes are his mother’s, as he hears over and over once he’s around people who knew her. The broken and taped glasses reinforce the neglect and show the bullying nature of Harry’s and Dudley’s relationship. And the scar is PIVOTAL in the entire series.

Again, it comes down to the details. If your character’s appearance is important enough to spend words on in the first place, use it to your advantage. Use it to paint more than just a picture. Use it to tell your story. Use it to make your characters come alive.