A Unique Kind of Character Interview

Character interviews and character questionnaires—the point of these is for the author of the character to get to know him by asking him rounds of questions. If it’s a questionnaire, it will look something like this:

Name:

Age:

Height:

Hair color:

Eye color:

Parents:

Siblings:

Favorite food:

Favorite color:

And so forth. This is a way to find out a lot about your character…but most likely stuff you may never, ever use because it’s not important to the story. I’m not saying questionnaires are wrong and useless—quite the contrary. They can be very helpful and useful to some writers, but other writers may find them overwhelming.

Now though, there is such a thing as ‘character interviews’. In these, the author asks the character a question, and the character shows his or her personality through the answers. These work exceptionally well in order to get to know your character for yourself, but there’s only one problem. You interview your own character, and the character is in your head, and your own thoughts could influence the character’s response. This isn’t bad because this is just a fact of writing, but what if there’s a better way to interview characters? This is something I’ve explored with multiple authors.

This new format is very similar to the new kind of author interview I introduced a few weeks ago. A fictional scene is set, two of us meet, we write in third person, questions are asked, questions are answered, and you see the character in action rather than merely hearing their responses. For the Character Interviews, I allowed the authors to choose the setting—something from their story world—so their character would feel comfortable on their own turf.

I then came in, and I am not a character—this was difficult for both author and character to comprehend, and they kept trying to tie me to their reality, but I had to stay outside their reality because it allowed me to ask questions that would probably get another character of the story killed. How exactly did I remain outside their reality? I set one rule: no touching. Even if a character did try to touch me, he would pass through me as through I were a ghost. This was incredibly helpful when I came face-to-face to some savage, bloodthirsty villains because I was able to ask them pointed questions they hated to hear, and if they lashed out at me, they couldn’t harm me. This accomplished two things: 1) took control away from the villains, and they loathe that, so it shows a different shade of them, and 2) allowed me to stay focused on the interview and questions rather than getting caught up in an actual story scene. The point of these interviews is to ask questions—not become part of a story. That is why I set that rule in place.

Not all characters I interviewed were antagonists. Sometimes I interviewed the protagonist, and depending on the character’s personality, it was either a witty and charming interview or it was a cautious, carefully probing questioning. Some characters were forthright and confident, but others were withdrawn, distrusting, and insecure. To each of these, I had to adapt my approach to ask them questions.

What does this kind of character interview accomplish? In this type of interview, there is the element of the unknown. Neither you nor your character know what I will ask next. You are confident that you know your characters very well, and instead of trying to trip them up yourself with difficult questions, you’re completely backing up your character. Both your character and you are absolutely engaged in answering the question—rather than you trying to come up with questions which your character may or may not answer. Having someone from the outside come in and interview the character in a story form really gives the author and the readers a chance to learn who that character is. Being able to use body language allows for the character to show his true colors without having to say anything. I once interviewed a villain who I enraged so much that he had to go and get a drink, but he was still furious and squeezed the glass until it burst in his hand…and then he answered my question. If we were just showing the question and answer, we wouldn’t have been able to show his full rage.

Since an outside person is asking the question, this allows the author to learn so much about their character because they are forced to dig deep and find answers to questions they may never have thought of to ask. Sometimes the author realizes their character is completely cliché and shallow. In these cases, I’d pause the interview and inform the author of my observations. If they wanted to know how to make a stronger character, I’d make recommendations, and then we’d redo the interview after they’ve had a chance to recreate the character. It is amazing to observe the difference between the two interviews once the author has really delved deep into his character and forced him to take shape rather than letting him be ambiguous. But most characters I’ve interviewed have been well-developed. It’s just a matter of probing deep and uncovering the truth behind their motives and the depth of their beliefs.

Here’s what a few of the authors, whose characters I interviewed, said about the experience:

Nan Sampson Bach

This was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had! I knew my villain had a short temper, even though he prides himself on being so controlled. Kelly managed to enrage him so much he completely lost it. It was hilarious! The questions really made me think too (seriously, it was getting hard to tell who was doing the thinking, me or him), about his motivations, his underlying belief systems and a host of other things. I thought I had a handle on it, but this interview brought up some good stuff I can play with. So not only a FAB time, but useful for me the author and hence for my readers too! Thank you, Kelly!

Matthew Dale

So I have to be honest, this interview was a mulligan. The first time Kelly interviewed this character, he did not perform well. I don’t have a lot of experience writing villains and it showed. That being said, this interview was a huge learning experience! Kelly was awesome. She was patient and encouraging, but was very direct about what could be improved. That directness was tempered with kindness and an attitude of wanting to see a fellow writer improve their craft, which cushioned her critique. The “redo” interview was much better, and I really felt like I got to know my own character. She really made me dig into his motivations, and she didn’t hold back in asking him tough questions. It’s helpful to sit down and actually role play a character, which is something I hadn’t really done prior to this interview. This was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had as a writer. I would encourage other writers who want to do this interview to be willing to listen to the opinion of others, and at least be willing to consider that opinion. You may learn something new about your character you never considered before.

Kristen Moger

I found Kelly Blanchard’s character interviews a fascinating journey into my own character. It is an interesting experience to take a character out of my own head and make them come alive for another person. As a writer, it is a challenge I loved as it brought me a greater awareness as to my character’s motivation and potential. Thanks, Kelly, for the opportunity.

Clint Brill

Kelly approached me to do a character interview and, for some strange reason, I agreed. I’d never done a character interview before so I wasn’t sure how it would work out. I was worried about it and considered making an excuse to get out of it. Even at zero hour, as I was typing up the intro to get the interview started, part of me was still trying to think of how to get out of it. I couldn’t think of anything and I’m glad I didn’t. The interview was a lot of fun, and I was sad when our time was up. Kelly has a way of putting interviewees at ease and make the interview fun. Janus, the character I used for the interview, is very reticent when it comes to talking about himself, but Kelly got him to open up and reveal more than he has in any of the stories he’s appeared in. She even got him to reveal his plans for the future. Those plans were a surprise to me because I didn’t know anything about them. Because Kelly was able to make the interview fun and interesting, I enjoyed the process and learned something about my character that I didn’t know before. Kelly is a skilled and delightful interviewer. She can interview me or my characters any time she wants.

Lia Rees

In my second interview with Kelly, I was able to explore the personality of a supporting character who previously hadn’t seemed real to me. The style of interview was vital to this exploration. Kelly entered the world of my character, Myriam, with curiosity and openness. She easily grasped the unusual setting, psychological climate and areas of conflict. She asked probing questions, gently suggested potential pathways, and showed a general spirit of empathy. Immersing myself fully in my character’s reality, I was able to draw from intuitive methods as well as intellectual ones to understand her better than I had before.

Virginia Carraway Stark

This is what it is like:

You open those doors in your mind that release your characters to be free in their world. When you go to those familiar places, you notice something different…A new door where there was no door before.

That is what it is like to be interviewed as your character like my character, Sasha Wheaton, was interviewed last week by Kelly Blanchard. It’s the same as writing in many ways but with the added dimension of penetrating, rational thought being added to the process. By adding this we don’t just stay in our character’s comfort zone but penetrate deep into their hearts and minds. You’ll find more there than when you first opened that door. A vital tool for all writers seeking to hone their craft, and if you’re a writer, you always are a seeker.

<~>~<~>~<~>

These are just a few examples of what people have experienced with this form of character interviews. I am currently still in the process of finishing all 25 interviews, and that won’t wrap up until next week. I will begin posting the interviews regularly once I’m finished, and you can find the interviews on my other blog: Meeting With The Muse

Writers have discovered this to be a fun and unique way to get exposure for their work as well as introduce their characters, story, and writing style to readers, and I intend to continue offering this service to writers. If you are interested, you may join my group on Facebook: Author Kelly Blanchard, and watch for the announcement when I open the invitation for more people to be interviewed.

You never know what you’ll learn in these interviews, and this is a very unique way to introduce you and your work to potential readers.

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Leaving Feedback

As writers, we like getting feedback on our stories. We’re excited about the worlds and characters we’ve created, and we can’t wait to share them with others. Many of us love reading other people’s works in order to provide feedback and encouragement, but the way we comment can have different affects on them as writers. Now, to determine the best kind of feedback to give, I presented 30 writers with the following questions:

Imagine you gave someone a piece of your writing (a chapter or so). You did not ask them to proofread or edit or critique you work—merely enjoy it, and you get three kinds of responses:

  1. Awesome! That was totally neat! LOVED IT! Check out my story here:…”
  2. Awesome action! A lot of stuff happening here. It was a bit hard to follow at times since so much was happening. For instance, were there four guards or three? Because I only saw them take down three guards, so what happened to the fourth? Other than that, really epic writing! I chuckled when Rex was shouting at the others, “Stop it! Stop it! You’re shooting the mummies!” “They’re already dead!” “They’re ARTIFACTS!” “Then come out, so we can shoot you without hitting anything else. It’s either you or the dead guys.” “Well, when you put it like that…” That was funny. Can’t wait to read more. And hey, if you’d check out my story, I’d really appreciate it. Would love to hear what you think! Anyway, looking forward to more of your story. Keep writing!”
  3. You forgot a period at the end of the sentence ‘He determined this was going to be a very long afternoon’, and you’re missing a word in this sentence, ‘he didn’t dare look up because the bullets were everywhere.’ Also, the action was too fast and unclear a lot of the time.”

Out of the three which would you prefer to receive, and which one would get you to read the individual’s story?

The results:

No one chose #1.

2/30 people chose #3 as their preference of feedback.

28/30 people chose #2 as the feedback they would want to receive.

Those who chose #2 said they would be more likely to check out the other person’s story based on the comment they left behind. Although several people said they didn’t like the person plugging in their own story.

Those who chose #3 didn’t say much other than the fact that if they were going to look for a proofreader or so, they’d go to that individual.

However though, the comment examples I used above are imperfect. When I conversed with the 30 volunteers of the experiment, a few of them were torn between #2 and #3. They appreciated the specifics provided in #3, but in the end, if they were choosing to forever receive a single kind of feedback based on those three choices, they preferred #2. However, if given the choice, they really wanted a combination of #2 & #3.

Here is what I’ve determined:

If you’re only reading a chapter at a time or so, as you begin the story, find what you like about it—if anything really catches your attention. Focus on that. If something yanks you out of the story, make mention of it, but in the beginning stages of this procedure, don’t focus on every little error—not yet, at least.

Once you’re established an understanding with the author, and they ask you to give more detailed feedback, that’s when you can start looking for more specifics. Also, the courteous thing to do is to send that kind of feedback privately to the author rather than publicly. Would you like someone to publicly point out all the mistakes you’ve made, or would you rather the issues be handled quietly?

Even when you’ve established such an understanding with the writer, be sure to maintain a balance between the negative feedback and the positive feedback. Too much negativity can be draining and discouraging, and that can be devastating to a writer.

Another to keep in mind when it comes to some structures of sentences, the writer might not heed your advice. Don’t take it personally. Don’t think of them as stupid or a failure. They may very well have a precise purpose for that structure which you, being too close to it and viewing it as an editor, don’t see. Their decision might not work with traditional publishers, but they may be self-publishing, and it will work. All you can do is offer advice but then let them make their own decisions. This takes stress off of you.

In the end, remember, you’re not their editor—not unless you two agreed upon that and the author is likely paying you for your services. Otherwise, it isn’t your responsibility.

Now though, there is the aspect of leaving feedback and requesting someone read your own story. What is the best way to do this? Simple: don’t make the request—at least not at first. Rather, be encouraging to the author, allow for conversation to flourish, and then you may politely request they check out your story. Sometimes there simply won’t be a right time for that. However, if someone is leaving you the gracious comments, the kind thing to do is go and investigate their story without them having to make the request. That way you can leave similar positive feedback, and the two of you can encourage one another and slowly build a relationship where you can help one another grow as writers.

In the experiment someone pointed out to me a few things that I think are important to mention: caps lock & shorter sentences make things sound more malicious than intended. Also, using text writing (‘u’ instead of ‘you’, etc) when leaving comments greatly discredits you as a writer. The author, whose story you’re commenting on, will likely not check out your story or look to you for any editorial feedback because it appears that you are lacking the basic fundamentals of writing. I’m not saying you are lacking those, but you’re giving that impression when you use such writing. If you want to be taken seriously, then write in a more professional manner.

What happens if you read a story that is poorly structured, horribly written, and absolutely confusing? Should you be honest and tell the person? Or should you just smile and nod, “That’s nice…”? Well, put yourself in their shoes. How would you like to be approached if your writing was that horrible? Perhaps you should privately contact the individual and hint at some improvements they need to make. Don’t present them with a long list of errors on the outset because that could be overwhelming and so discouraging they may quit as a writer. You may make note of a few things and ask them if they would like some help to improve their writing. If they say ‘yes’, then you can begin helping them. If they’re not interested, leave them be. However, let me warn you, if they accept your help, then be ready to invest a lot of time and energy in their growth. If you don’t have the desire to invest that in the person, you can always point them in the direction of a writing mentor/coach.

Sometimes though, the story is honestly so horrible, and you don’t have the time to even open a conversation with the writer to help them improve, so what’s the best thing to do? Don’t comment. As the common proverb states, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Of course, it is entirely up to you.

Now though, I asked the participants of the survey a second question, and it was this:

What do those comments tell you about the people who wrote them? (shy, confident, encouraging, intimidating, arrogant, etc)

Here is what they said about each person. Disclaimer: this is not based on a real individual. This is the views of multiple people according to the comments. Remember, in this scenario, only a chapter or so was read like on Wattpad where many others have their stories online too, and the author did not ask for proofreading, editing, or critiquing.

Comment #1:

Shy

Advertising

Self-centered

Has agenda

Doesn’t care

Uninvested

Not as helpful

Wants you to read them but not read you

Busy

Encouraging

Narcissistic

Arrogant

Didn’t even read

Bubbly

Fishing

Insecure

Clueless

New reader/writer

Not sure how to write good review

Skims

Not comfortable giving feedback/critique

Not into the story

Rushed

Friend/family

Excited but not well thought-out

Didn’t pay attention

 

Comment #2

Balanced

Approachable

Friendly

Constructive criticism

Positive

Encouraging

Genuinely nice

Honestly attentive

Detailed

Eager to help

Engaged

Interested

Cares

Actual reader

Knowledgeable

Conversational

Heartwarming

A bit vague

Excitable

Confident

Thoughtful

Happy

Practical/useful info

Mature reader

Not overly critical

Not editor

Wants what’s best

Valid criticism

Praised author with specific details

Genuinely interested

Helpful

 

Comment #3

Negative

Arrogant

Nit-picky

Looking for something wrong

Hyper-critical

Perfectionist

Close-minded

Uptight

Stiff

Cold

Terse

Standoffish

Quick, to the point

Confident

Helpful

Task oriented

Bad day

naïve

Unfriendly

Discouraging

No one is good enough

Useful info

Proofreader

Disinterested

Determined to give useful info

Didn’t read but rather analyzed

Editor

Critical thinker

Can’t turn off inner editor

Aggravating

Picky

Not encouraging to helpful in the long run

Bitter critic

Grammar nazi

Critical of each error

Intimidating

Now, some of these may be contradictory, but that’s what happens when you get the opinions of 30 different people. However, this is an overarching view of what people think of those individuals behind the such comments.

So, what kind of feedback do you find yourself leaving? And what impression does that kind of feedback give others? Do you like that impression? If not, change the way you comment. Take a moment to make the extra effort, and everyone will benefit.

Why is it important to leave feedback on others’ writing—especially positive feedback? Because that writer might be going through a difficult time in their life, and they’re extremely discouraged, but one kind remark from a stranger can completely change the outlook of their day. If you become acquainted enough with the writer to help them strengthen their weaknesses, it will definitely impact their life—and yours.

There’s enough cruelty out in the world and on the Internet. Why not try to be a bit of kindness for someone today?

Sharing Others’ Works

Sharing the works of others—it’s the courteous thing to do in order to support one another, but it is one thing to share someone else’s work and another thing to get that writer new readers. So how do you do it? First off, you have multiple platforms on which you can promote others. Any social media outlet (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, etc) offers unique opportunities, but how do you share? What do you say?

Most of the time people simply say, “Read this awesome story!” or there might be a little more like, “Be sure to check out this fantastic fantasy story!” or such. It tends to be short and relatively vague, and it works…sometimes, but personally with me, such blurbs really don’t get my attention. It gives me no motivation to click on the link because it doesn’t speak to me.

However, I ran an experiment. I wrote up two random blurbs for a story and sent them to ten different people. Here is what I sent:

  1. “Hey, you should totally check out this awesome fantasy book! Lots of twists and turns. Very intriguing.”

  2. “Hey, you should totally check out this awesome fantasy book! It has me constantly doubting the motives of each characters, so I don’t trust any of them, but it’s a lot of fun. Plus! There’s a character who ABSOLUTELY reminds me of Rumpelstiltskin from ‘Once Upon a Time’, so if you like that character from that show, you’d like this book.”

(The story I wrote the blurbs about is ‘The Magician: Book One in the Rogue Portal Series by Courtney Herz’ in case anyone was wondering.)

I asked them which one did they prefer better? Which one would likely convince them to check out the story. The results?

7/10 chose #2

2/10 chose #1

1/10 was absolutely indecisive

The people who chose #1 said short was best, but they didn’t really give much more reason other than that.

Those who chose #2 said it was much more personalized, and it spoke to them more individually. The impression they got with #1 was the person was sharing the story only out of obligation—not because they really want to or believed in the story.

One person who chose #2 said if it were an official promotion of a story, they would choose #1 instead, but if it was coming from someone they knew and trusted who was helping out a fellow writer friend and sharing their work in a more informal way, they would choose #2.

And the indecisive person? Still hasn’t given me a reason one way or another.

So what is the verdict?

If you are sharing to help someone out in an informal manner, and if you really want to get that author more readers and help them reach their audience, take an extra moment to craft your message. Find something in the story that truly catches and keeps your attention, something that you find unique because more stories don’t do it (e.g. a vampire that cares for his pet cat even though he’s chasing down possible end-of-the-world threats (this story is ‘Shadows of Glenhill’ by Raven Blackburn on Wattpad)). Don’t make it a long blurb or have too many examples of things you really like in the story. Just one should do. Craft it so it’s more personable.

However, if you are sharing someone’s work in a more formal manner (perhaps as a blog post, or maybe your Facebook Page is about promoting others’ stories), then shorter is better, but still try to make it unique. Don’t settle for, “Great story!” Add something more like #1 had where it said, “…lots of twists and turns. Very intriguing!” —this tells you that the story will be one that will make you think as you try to get ahead of the characters and even the author. Every little bit helps, but keep it short. And, of course, always supply the link where the story may be found.

So, go ahead. Share fellow writers’ works. They may do the same in return, and both of you could be helping out one another. That is what a supportive community is all about.

How to Recap in a Sequel

The problem with writing sequels to a book is the inevitable recap to get people up-to-date on events in the previous books in order to move forward. The temptation is to do a major info-dump at the beginning of the story just to be done with it, or it’s dragged throughout the first few chapters, but both of these can be boring and lose the readers who are already familiar with the story. So then the temptation becomes to simply skip all the recap and dive headlong into the story because, after all, your readers should know all about this universe you’ve created, but you could be wrong.

I’ve picked up books that were in the middle of a series without realizing there were any books prior to the one I had in my hand. For the most part, the authors handled this well, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. On the other hand, there have been authors who handled this poorly, and my impression is, “This person is a terrible writer!” But the truth was I had jumped into the middle of a series without realizing it. You don’t want this, and no, you can’t say at the beginning of the book, “READ PREVIOUS BOOKS IN THE SERIES FIRST!” Yes, it would be great if it worked like that, but of course that’s too easy, and real life never lets you have the easy way.

So what is a proper way to recap without boring your readers? First of all, do you recall what it was like when you wrote the first story? How you had to bring your readers up-to-speed about the universe of the story? Employ that same tactic here. Imagine the sequel is actually a solo story. All the previous stories do not exist. Of course, your fans and you know they do exist, but at the beginning of the new story, you have a clean slate from which you can build the story. This is where you can have fun and really play with your readers minds (especially those who have been reading since the beginning). Say you have one character who, in the earlier books, is the antagonist, and the readers come to hate him! But in this new story, a new character comes in, meets the antagonist and is instantly charmed by him. While your faithful readers are screaming, “NO! Don’t trust him!” and they constantly look around waiting for a familiar protagonist to enter the scene, any new readers may be intrigued by the antagonist, and of course they’re in for a shock when the entire story flips on its head.

How do you inform the readers on past events that are important for the progression of the story? Sprinkle it throughout the story. Mention it only when it is relevant, and only do it either in dialogue or when your character has paused to think and reflect. For instance, say a you’re in the third book of a series, and you have this character who disappeared in Book 1 and wasn’t in Book 2 but you’re bringing him back in Book 3, and you want to remind your readers of the tension he creates for the main character (MC). Now, you could go into great detail as to how this character had betrayed the MC at a crucial point in his journey, or you can simply show the resentment, creating questions for the readers, and eventually answering those questions at the right time:

Uh, general…not sure how to tell you this, but um..”

At Silas’ rambling, General Cephas took in a patient deep breath then raised his eyes to glare at the man standing in his doorway. Only, Silas wasn’t alone, and Cephas recognized the silhouette of the other man immediately beside him. “Blackwell.” He narrowed his eyes as he rose to his feet, but he fisted his hand, forcing himself not to walk around his desk in order to strangle the man.

General!” Blackwell smirked as he stepped around Silas, who withdrew to watch the confrontation from a safe distance. Blackwell approached Cephas’ desk. “Did you miss me?”

Hardly.”

You haven’t changed, I see, but hey, you got a new office—nice upgrade.” Blackwell motioned to their surroundings as he moved to sit on the edge of the desk.

Cephas folded his arms as he regarded the man before him. Derek Blackwell—his former second lieutenant but also chief tactician. He served Cephas for many years, but the last time he saw the man was at the disastrous raid of Selgove when the Galactic Army encompassed and trapped Cephas’ small force, and they had to fight their way out. In the midst of the fighting, Cephas turned and was taken back at the sight of Blackwell standing beside a nameless Galactic general observing the fight. Before Cephas could fight his way to them and demand an answer, a gunshot whizzed past his head, and he returned to the immediate fight around him.

However, after his men had escaped, Cephas had much time to contemplate Blackwell’s actions, and perhaps now he would get an answer.

What are you doing here? Playing spy for the Galactic Forces?” Cephas narrowed his eyes, watching every movement Blackwell made—ready to unholster his gun and shoot the traitor in the chest right here in the middle of his office if necessary. Yet he gave his former second lieutenant the chance to speak, but Blackwell merely wagged his head as he chuckled a little.

You’re always been quick to judge people, General.”

And so the scene could continue. The scene which Cephas recalled in this chapter would have been a scene which the readers would have witnessed in Book 1. It was summarized in a way that still showed but was brief and quickly returned to the present moment of the story.

In essence, treat each new book in a series as a stand-alone book although reading them in order will give the reader a better sense of unity than if they had read the series out of order. However, if they pick up a book from the middle of the series, at least you’ll be able to keep the new readers rather than discourage them.

You’re not obligated to give your readers ALL the information immediately, but it is important to set the story, establish the characters, and keep the readers informed as they progress through the story. Time each reveal just right.

This takes practice, patience, and an ear closely in-tuned with every moment of the story. You must pay attention to the characters, their thoughts, and their emotions as they encounter all their conflicts. Once you’ve completely honed into that moment in the story, you will know when it is right to reveal or to withhold certain information, and this is crucial with books which are sequels.

The Author’s Obligation to the Reader

I texted a friend once asking her if she had ever read a book where there was a good scene but it could have been written so much better. Within a minute she texted back, “Chariot scene in Ben Hur.” I was surprised by her response on two levels: 1) she responded so quickly and didn’t need time to think, and 2) she had a scene in mind and didn’t require any clarification. No hesitation. No uncertainty. She had been looking forward to that scene since she began reading the book, and she had high hopes for its potential, but it disappointed her. 

I realized writers have an unwritten contract with the readers. As soon as the first word is put on the page you are promising two things: to complete the story and to use all the elements you bring into the story to make the tale memorable.

Having the story completed is always a given. If it’s published and in your hands, it has to be finished, but how many unfinished documents do you have in your computer? I know in my computer I have two main files—Finished and Unfinished, and the Unfinished is a lot larger than the Finished file. You may come up with a new story idea and write it until you get stick. As long as no one else sees it, that’s all right. You have no obligation to the reader. Your obligation to the characters and the story itself depends on your belief in them.

Now the second point was my surprise that my friend had a scene in mind and knew exactly what I was talking about. Imagine you’re baking in the kitchen. You have the following ingredients:

flour (a solid character)

eggs (the plot)

butter (great scenes)

sugar (witty, good-humored dialogue)

cocoa (dark twist)

baking soda (climax builder)

salt (truths come out)

water (everything’s resolved)

and as well as your mixing bowls and spoons. Separately they stand alone and have different purposes, but to make a chocolate cake, you have to measure each one specifically and stir the mixture. You can’t just say, “Let’s do a cup of salt!” and you also can’t just throw all the right measured ingredients into the bowl without stirring it and say it’s a cake.

When you write the first word on the page, you’re promising the reader, “I swear to deliver this story as clearly and accurately as humanly possible. Every element I include will be mastered. The climax will not disappoint. The results will be satisfactory, and the story will be memorable.”

Writing without studying and practicing different kinds of scenes and mastering different elements is like signing up for a marathon when you’ve never trained a single day in your life. You might survive, but it won’t be pretty, and you’ll probably never do that again.

So, when you sit down to write a story but especially a novel, be ready to deliver. “What if the scene I’m writing is boring or difficult? Can I skip it?” Some people do, but I don’t recommend it. There’s a reason why it’s boring or difficult. As the author of the story, it is your duty to look at the chapter and determine why it’s dull and unexciting. If you’re bored by it, your readers will be bored by it as well, and when they’re unamused, they put down the book and never finish it. You don’t want that to happen.

Why is the scene boring? How can you make it more interesting? It might be a scene where two characters are discussing a detrimental consequence of an action, and there’s nothing you can do to make the scene more exciting—except maybe add a flare of personality in the characters, or add a third character who doesn’t get along with one or both of those other two and has a wicked sense of humor or doesn’t understand the seriousness of the talk. Little things like that can make a boring scene pass quicker and be more entertaining.

Now, if a chapter is difficult to write, it could be because it is emotionally trying, or it could be because you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You know what needs to happen, but you’re not sure how it’s supposed to happen, or you might lack confidence in writing that specific type of scene. If it’s emotionally trying, that is good. All that emotion you’re struggling with is rich, so channel it into your writing. Don’t be afraid of feeling, don’t be afraid of your struggle. People relate to emotions, and when they sense the emotions are authentic, it will touch them, and you want that. Take it one step at a time though. Don’t push yourself, but simply allow yourself to feel, and write it.

However, if you’re struggling because you have no idea what you’re doing (with a fight scene, for instance), then you need to pause and reconsider what exactly you are doing and how it’s important to the story. With the first draft, you may wing it for the sake of writing it and moving on with the story, but don’t be satisfied with this when you come back to it during the revision process. Take time to study your problem. Come to understand where exactly the problem lies. If it’s a fight scene, it could be because you don’t know how fights really work. If it’s a battle scene, you might be overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the chaos that you don’t know how to cover it. Come to acknowledge the root of the problem. There is no shame in that. Next step, do research, ask fellow writers for help, read books with similar scenes and study how those authors handled the scenes.

Remember, you have an obligation to deliver the story to the fullness of your ability. Don’t think, “Oh, they won’t care,” or “They won’t notice,” because you will be wrong, and your story will be a disappointment. Writing is a craft. You must master it if you truly wish for your story to be memorable or an epic escape.

The Etiquette of Readers Part 1: Casual Readers

First, to clarify the title. The ‘readers’ implied are not the readers who pick your books up off the shelf and read. The readers I mean are those who work closely with you prior to publication. They are friends and family you let read your book in the process of writing it and revising and editing it, and they are those who will critique your work prior to you sending it to any publisher or editor. So I am not directing this to anyone picking up a book to read it for the first time. Everything I’m talking about is before the book is even published. Now, with that clear, let’s move on.

For writers, it is unnerving when our VERY first readers read our books before it’s even published. We might have written the entire story without telling a soul what it was about, or we might have told everyone we encountered about our story, but now is the time of reckoning—the time to see what someone truly thinks of it. Now it is time for the story to stand up and speak for itself—be the brilliant story you claimed it to be. Like you letting go of your child’s bike as they attempt to ride without the training wheels, you have faith they’ll find their balance and their freedom in being independent, but at the same time, you’re worried they might falter and fall and scrape their knee. Even if they do fall, you know you can’t rush to them and cuddle them and carry them into the house. They have to grow used to the pain of falling down, and they have to learn to get back up again. It’s part of growing up. The same thing applies to our writing.

Once we’ve written the story, we trust it’s ready for anything, but at the same time we’re terrified of being told that the ideas in our head are not entertaining, enlightening, inspiring, or original. We hate being informed our writing is cliché or boring or that people just don’t ‘get it’, so what are we supposed to do?

Let’s define some terms and then go into detail.

First up, we have the Casual Reader. This would be what I described in my previous post when you let a friend or family member read your story while you’re working on it (especially doing the revision/editing process). Their primary purpose is to be a cheerleader but also to wave a red flag when they’re confused at a point. You can let a Casual Reader read your work as soon as you finished the first draft or while you’re revising and editing your work.

Beta Reader: This is the individual you give your work to when you are ready for some real critiquing. You should have already done a revision or two or three and edited it as best you can. These are the people who are looking for inconsistencies, grammar errors, plot holes, and they will challenge your decision to have this scene unfold that way or that character to do that and not this. A lot of Beta Readers have the inclination of becoming editors, so they’re using this time as practice.

So let’s go into more detail about each kind of reader. Let’s start with the Casual Reader. Why let people read your work before it’s even completed and absolutely polished? One of the most irritating things I’ve discovered as a published author is working hard on a book, get it published, and the only response I get are vague like, “Oh it was a good story.” Now, to be fair, some are more definite in their responses, but still it’s easier to say “It was great,” rather than go into details as to why you absolutely loved all 600 pages of the book. Meanwhile, I labored hard to work that twist in Chapter 5, to kill that character in Chapter 10, to show the emotional and fundamental but silent moment in Chapter 26—doesn’t anyone appreciate it? I almost killed your favorite character, and all I get is, “Oh, that was nice.”?

Your Casual Reader will give you feedback you need to motivate you along the way. They will be your fans. You might not be famous with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook, but these few devoted readers will make you feel like the best writer in the world—not because they’re trying to make you feel good, but because they really enjoy the story and can’t contain themselves.

When you let Casual Readers read your work, don’t overwhelm them by sending in the entire story at one time but rather a chapter at a time. Letting someone read the story as a whole is like watching a movie. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, and it’s all wrapped up nicely where it may or may not have a sequel. However, allowing people to read it only a chapter at a time is almost treating it like a TV show rather than a movie—you drag it out. They get really attached to the characters, and that’s exactly what you want.

Casual Readers will give you feedback such as this (taken from a Casual Reader of mine who has given me permission to share):

Oh my gosh that is so AWESOME!!!!!!!!!! I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!!!!! 😀 I especially love the part when Vixen asked the guardian to hold her glove thing and she knocked him out. I cracked up laughing on that one.”

“Don’t make me cry you cannot make me cry I cannot cry STOP MAKING ME WANT TO CRRRRRYYYY!!!!!” :'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(:'(

Hahahahaha!!! This was hilarious! And surprising. You made me think that Ardden was going to be okay but who knows (except you) what’ll happen? I thought it awkward then hilarious when Lorrek found out Vixen and she disappeared so suddenly. And I so love it that everyone loves everyone yet they hate them so much.”

Finally I read it. I was so busy. I Love iiiiittttt!!!!! 😀 it kind of looks like Verddra is going to the good side, but you left a quote in there that Honroth said. Something about enemies. Anyway, it left me thinking that Verddra is acting good yet she isn’t.”

As you can observe, this kind of feedback is the best. It tells me in real time what my readers think and feel about characters, things they experience, and decisions they make. So if you want some responses from your readers, try sending it to them a chapter at a time and tell them in order to get the next chapter, they need to tell you what they think in detail of the chapter they read. This might not work for some readers because of time restraints, but communicate with them and see what works best.

Now, sometimes the Casual Reader will have questions, and that’s a good thing. Do not take offense or be discouraged when you get this kind of feedback. Remember, you’re letting the Reader read while you’re likely revising and editing, so you can always and honestly say, “It’s the rough draft.” In this context, errors to expected and forgiven. The Casual Reader is more like highlighting the AWESOME parts while tagging the vague parts. They are not the Beta Reader, so don’t expect them to give you too much detail as to what is wrong.

This is what you can expect from a Casual Reader. So, what kind of people are good Casual Readers? Not writers. I have about five Casual Readers, but only one is a writer of any kind. All others just enjoy reading. So find friends or family members who have the time to read, and ask if they’d be willing to read your story a chapter at a time.

I had fully intended for this to be one post discussing the Casual Reader and the Beta Reader, but as I wrote it, I realized it was getting long, so I’ve decided to split the two. Next week we will discuss the Etiquette for Beta Readers.

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