The Writing Life: A Super Balancing Act

I’ll let you in on a little secretI’m a tad imbalanced. My family might use the word ‘super stressed’, my husband, at times, ‘super crazy’. It’s okay, because I know they love me, and it’s true, I do have a tendency to take things on…in excess. I used to attribute it to the expectation that modern women have superhuman abilities to scale relationships, home, health, career, and all their future hopes and dreams in a single bound, but that’s a cop out. The world has figured out we’re mere mortals, and I’m fairly certain I’ve got my priorities and goals straight most of the time. I’ve come to realize it’s more about me wanting to feel in control. I want to manage all my needs and wants with those superhuman powers. I want to do it all, and I want it done now (or, better yet, yesterday).

Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/
Image courtesy of Jeroen van Oostrom/

I think a lot of writers may secretly be like this. They’ll try to crank out the first draft of a novel with the speed of a silver bullet. They’ll read a seven-book series in as many days. They’ll manage their day job like a star reporter at the Daily Planet, and still make time for their secret (writing) identity. They’ll devote themselves to the needs of their family, friends, and home with the efficiency of an evil genius plotting the destruction of Metropolis (but with better intent, I hope). They’ll pretty much do anything they put their mind to, as long as they focus on it maniacally. As in…like a maniac.

Hey, at least we give it our all, right?

Image courtesy of Elwood W. McKay III/
Image courtesy of Elwood W. McKay III/

I’ll keep telling myself that. Meanwhile, failure to achieve balance among the important things in life can become our own personal kryptonite.

Are those of us plagued with this plight destined to live lives of extremes, or will we ever find a nicely balanced, happily-ever-after?

As I think about this, Colossians 3:23-24 comes to mind: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” 

I wonder, if I stop and remind myself why I’m doing something, will it help me be more selective? If I’d focus on doing some of the same things, but for the right reasons…not for my own vanity or because I feel pressured into it, not because I fear stopping will keep me from ever starting again, not because I’m told it’s what successful people do, and not because it’s supposed to define who I am, would I be more present in the moment? Would there be more joy in the work I undertake? Would I be a happier person overall?

Just maybe it will help me keep the bigger, digitally formatted, wide-screen, blockbuster motion picture in mind. And that, to me, is more powerful than a locomotive.

What about you? How do you stay balanced when you start to feel overwhelmed by the commitment you make as a writer?

Publishing Tips and a Lesson in Humility


Thursdays at the Water Cooler are for writing about the publishing business—an intimidating topic, and it made me take inventory of what I have to offer. Sure, I’ve written six novels. I’m published in print by a traditional, albeit small, New York press. I’ve worked with Amazon Publishing, and I’ve ventured into the indie business with a novel through Kindle Direct, Apple, and Barnes & Noble’s Pubit. I’ve marketed and advertised. I’ve developed a good network of successful published authors along with a few agents and editors. I’m business savvy, and I treat my writing as a profession. And yet…I can’t help but feel lacking on the topic of publishing.

In part, this is because I’m goal driven and I have lots of goals yet to achieve, but it’s also because I’m sincerely humbled by those around me—the extensive experience of the writers of the Cooler, the proficiency of those in my writing chapter, and the aptitude of people with whom I network online. I am one small voice in the mix, plugging along on my own publishing journey—often a lonely road with only rare glimpses of the bigger picture. So, what could I have to offer?

With humility comes wisdom.

I consider myself the average writer. As glamorous as writing sounds, it really is a somewhat lonely road. If some of what I’ve learned can keep me optimistically focused on moving forward, maybe it can help someone else, too.

1. No one knows it all, so don’t be envious of another’s success, and by the way, get comfortable with ambiguity. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence.


Whether landing your fifth series with one of the Big Six or newly exercising your empowerment to publish on your own, neither means you have it all figured out. Every facet of this business brings unique challenges, decisions, and discoveries. You are probably where you are in your journey for a reason. No matter where that is, you have more to learn. My tip: look for opportunities to gain knowledge wherever you can from those you admire, published or not. Just don’t get hung up on one source; look far and wide to develop a deep reservoir of knowledge to draw from.

2. Times have never been more dynamic or uncertain for publishing. I’m not talking about ebooks vs traditional publishing. I’m talking about the markets themselves—what readers will connect with and want more of, what’s hot and what’s not, new genres or formats cropping up. One extremely valuable lesson: do not try to chase a trend. It doesn’t matter how fast you write, I promise you, it will be over before you catch up. I write young adult fiction, and as hot as concepts like the Hunger Games are now, I’m already hearing dystopian is giving way to middle grade—but don’t pull out that old Harry Potter derivative; you’ve got to have something fresh and unique to offer to fit that trend. My tip: you should absolutely consider marketability as you write, but write from the heart nonetheless. It will come through in your writing, and you’ll wind up with something you can feel good about, whether or not it happens to be the latest publishing flavor of the month.


3. One size doesn’t fit all, thank goodness. I listen to a lot of author speakers, and I have to admit, I grow weary of hearing some say things like, “I pursued New York publishing—because I’m serious about my career…” If that was their publishing journey, great—but not only does that imply there’s only one ‘right’ way to go about it, it doesn’t even make sense anymore. Variety and choice are the best parts of the publishing industry today. Fact is, you can be plenty serious about your writing career, have a far-reaching readership, and make a steady income without pursuing traditional NY houses these days. That doesn’t mean NY isn’t still a valuable and highly sought-after option. They may still even be king of the playground, and they’re no doubt busily trying to reinvent themselves to make sure they stay that way, but there are other viable options out there. My tip: remember you have choices, and stand tall no matter what avenue you decide to pursue on your personal publishing journey. There is no ‘wrong’ way to go about it. Even if you make a mistake, you can learn from it and move on.

There are a lot of experienced writers out there, and I’m just scratching the surface. What tips do you have to share about the publishing industry?

What Writing Fiction Taught Me About Human Nature

I used to think I knew all about right and wrong, good and evil, heroes and villainsIt was all black and white to me. When I bothered to think of it at all, I pretty much knew how to bucket things and, I’m sad to say, sometimes people. Then I started writing, and I figured every character central to my plot would be a good guy or a bad guy, an ally or an obstacle. I quickly learned that wasn’t the way to build a character-driven novel. All-good or all-bad characters are flat, boring, and unrealistic. No one wants to read about them, and it wasn’t fun to write about them, either. I realized, like real people, characters must have a little of both in them.


This concept was easier for me to grasp with my heroes. After all, if a hero doesn’t start out flawed in some way, how can they ever hope to grow? This was something I embraced early on in my writing. The fundamental change that occurs when a hero is tested through a series of internal and external obstacles is half the fun of writing, in my opinion. The villain was a bit trickier. Even understanding no one is perfect, it’s easy to fall into the trap of pointing a finger at a blatant wrong-doer and summing up their person as ‘bad’.

As I spent more time delving into the psyche of my villains before casting them in a story, I realized who they are is more than what they want, their flawed reasoning or perspective, and even what motivates them to do the terrible things they sometimes do. Villains, like real people, can have a backstory wound too.

What is a backstory wound?


One of my favorite resources for character-driven plots comes from Martha Alderson, often referred to as the Plot Whisperer. A backstory wound can be anything impressionable in the character’s past that interferes directly with their success at achieving their goal. It’s worth pointing out this isn’t always something you’ll reveal to your readers, but it’s something the writer should know. Essentially, backstory wounds are how characters sabotage themselves, whether they’re aware of it or not. Heroes have them, and villains have them. (Don’t we all, really?) The main difference is, at the end of the story, the hero has changed somehow to overcome their backstory wound to the extent they can achieve their goal, whereas the villain hasn’t.

But they could.

Villains have the same capacity to grow and change as heroes have.


When I realized that little nugget, I was able to start writing better villains, and I also had a slightly altered view of human nature; I became a little more understanding. Like our characters, real people face conflict and make choices every single day—choices often colored by their own backstory wounds. The fights we pick, the words we say, the grudges we release, the big dramas and little thoughts and actions that shape us every day—these help us grow in character…or not.

I still have my views on right and wrong. However, now I try not to assign those characteristics to people, but rather to their behavior at any given point in time, often framed by the choices available to them.

What about you? What has writing (or reading) taught you about human nature?

Another Brick in the Publishing Wall

Inevitably, whenever I read an article about the publishing business lately, Amazon’s name crops up—often to highlight how they’ve become the big, bad wolf trying to blow down the publishers and booksellers with a huff and a puff of discount prices, a far-reaching distribution channel, and the ability to sell direct to consumers. Much heft, in particular, has been placed on pricing as the lynchpin that could make traditional publishers and bookstores obsolete. No doubt (and for good reason) they fret over this more than the average reader, and time will tell if price and reach are the mortar holding it all together. Meanwhile I’d like to explore another factor influencing why and from where customers buy because I don’t believe it’s all about price, and I don’t believe it’s all about marketing and promotion, either. What about convenience? Selection? Fulfillment? What about how well the seller delivers on the overall customer experience at every touch-point and every interaction?

Yes, I admit I’m a bit of a harpy about the ‘customer experience’ (call it a hazard of my day job), but it’s the one thing that keeps me coming back again, even if I can get something cheaper elsewhere, and when not done right, it’s the one thing that drives me away faster than I can pluck a hair from my chinny-chin-chin. Why do you think people who buy only from certain bookstores do that? Nostalgia for traditional publishing or because the experience and interactions they have in those places make them feel good? I’m guessing it’s the latter.

And do you think people who buy mainly from Amazon do that solely for the price, or might it have something to do with Amazon’s wide selection, easy to use website, quality packaging, fast (often free) shipping, easy returns, overall solid reputation, and available, empowered customer service? It just might. I’ve been buying everything from books, games, and gifts to guitars, clothing, and Cuisinarts through Amazon since 2004. Every time, they’ve worked hard to build my loyalty by delivering a consistently extraordinary customer experience.

When I think about my experiences with other sellers, they’ve been average or infrequent. With publishers (traditional and electronic), it’s a mixed bag. As a consumer, I don’t have many. As a writer, I’ve mostly been rejected or ignored. I realize this is par for the course in the publishing industry, and I don’t doubt I deserved the rejection at the time, but being ignored is memorable. I’m expected to provide thoughtful responses to hundreds of emails a day (and, no, email isn’t central to my day job), so it chafes a little when publishers say they don’t have the time to respond at all, ever. These may be ego-bruising realities for a writer, but as consumers who buy a lot of books (and the occasional Cuisinart, for that matter), engaging us only when it’s self-serving isn’t the way to build a positive, lasting relationship.

On the flip side, Amazon isn’t perfect.  I hear some Indie authors say they’re unhappy with Amazon’s KDP Select customer service, and they feel ignored or unappreciated. Amazon may, in fact, be wading into dangerous territory if they don’t figure out how to deliver the same service excellence to indie writers as they do elsewhere. But given the overwhelming number of positive experiences I’ve had with Amazon, I might be willing to forgive the first lapse or two.

If publishers and booksellers intend to compete profitably in a world where customers are ever-evolving in their expectations and where the likes of Amazon exist, they have their work cut out to deliver the kind of experience that builds loyalty (read: profitable behavior). There is no silver bullet. It takes time to build a reputation. Amazon isn’t the only threat to houses of sticks and straw. There’s a hurricane of savvy customers brewing.

What about you? Have you ever decided to purchase from somewhere (or not) solely based on an excellent or poor experience?

Disclosure: I have two contemporary romances published with Avalon Books, which was recently acquired by Amazon Publishing. I had drafted this blog post before I was aware of the acquisition, and it in no way impacted my depiction of Amazon here.

Seeking a Revelation

source: Fotolia via MS Office

We’ve all been there—happily plowing through a manuscript when we’re suddenly brought to a squealing halt. Or maybe it comes on gradually, like so much mud solidifying as we try to trudge through until we find ourselves frozen in place, blinking at the ground and wondering what happened.  It could be our outline didn’t foresee all it might have, or we wandered down an unexpected path only to find it’s a dead end. Or perhaps our characters took on lives of their own and staged a coup when we weren’t looking. However we got there, we’re stuck, and being stuck mid-project is no fun. So what’s a writer to do? 

We could ditch the whole thing. Occasionally that is the right answer, but being persistent writerly-types, thank goodness that’s not our first inclination. There are lots of ways to get unstuck which leave us with a better manuscript in the end. Here are my top five:

  • Walk away for at least 30 days. It never ceases to amaze me how insightful this can be. When you’re writing, you’re close to the material. You leave a part of you on the page, and sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Many writers know this, and they take frequent steps back from their material in the hopes of approaching it later with a less familiar eye. It’s tempting to think a week or two is sufficient, and sometimes it is. But if you’re really stuck, I highly recommend walking away for a full month to get a truly fresh perspective. That distance can do wonders for improving your writing on the next go-round.
Source: Wikipedia
  • Ask for help. While many writers recognize the value of a critique group for the craft side of writing, I’m surprised how few ask for help with storyline. Asking for help does not make you weak. It makes you resourceful. I recently rewrote the entire end to my novel because an editor thought it predictable. I asked a trusted critique partner for help. She brainstormed with her daughter (this was a YA story) and came up with a slew of possibilities. One contained the thread of an idea I ultimately spun into a much better ending. And let’s not forget the power of prayer. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and asking for guidance from above is simultaneously humbling and empowering. Just remember to let go of any preconceived ideas and be open to whatever form inspiration may take.
  • Print it. This isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but it works. Seeing your work in print is strangely insightful. You will plainly see things you don’t when looking at it on the computer.
  • Push through. To put it bluntly, give yourself permission to write crap. Knowing the next chapter or two will be ‘throw away’ material is incredibly freeing. It takes the pressure off and lets you work through the block. Not everything you write needs to be brilliant. You’re not going to go with that first or second draft anyway, right? So give yourself permission to make a mess before you refine it all.
  • Read in your chosen genre or non-fiction category. Some writers worry if they do this they’ll either find someone beat them to the punch or they’ll inadvertently pick up another author’s voice or idea. In the case of the former, you’re better off knowing this sooner than later so you can make your story stand out as different. In the latter, you can influence this: you’re a disciplined, creative being, not a machine that regurgitates what you’ve read without your knowledge. The benefits of understanding what’s successful (or not) in your chosen field far outweigh the possible risks. Read—and keep a pencil handy for when the revelation hits.

How do you get through when you find yourself ‘stuck’ during a writing project?

Third Day Give Me a Revelation

Word of Mouth or Cyber Bully?

I’m hearing more and more conversations crop up lately from small business owners who say dissatisfied customers with even an ounce of Internet savvy can create an unfair disadvantage for their businesses. They argue customers are too quick to zap off a bad review, poor rating, or negative ‘word of mouth’ without ever giving the business a chance to make it right. “Feedback is a gift,” business owners claim. “And I never even got to open it until it was too late.” I can’t help wondering if it’s more like a party too many businesses don’t pay attention to until a hundred people jump out of the dark and yell “Surprise!” Either way, these highly visible online rants and ratings of the unhappy and dissatisfied can be a real detriment to acquiring new customers. And some businesses are crying, “Cyber bully!” 

But are they really? Let me take it closer to home: enter the novice or mid-list author. These author folks may feel a similar squeeze when negative comments or one-star ratings crop up for their books at various reader/author social networking sites or online booksellers—sometimes even before the book is released and based solely on how excited someone is (or isn’t) to read the book. Add the rumor of authors gaming the system by soliciting everyone and their brother for 4 and 5 star ratings and by low-balling competitors’ titles, and you can see why authors can be squeamish about the power of word of mouth on the Internet. At its best, it works for you. At its worst, not so much.

But does that mean people who scatter low ratings like jellybeans at an Easter egg hunt—with or without commentary to support them—are really abusing the author? Don’t readers realize how much power they wield, how much of a boon or a detriment their ratings could be for an emerging author? 

Probably not. And not only is it a bad idea to police the system, I think it’s futile to try. Internet word of mouth is organic in nature. Those who trust and value the opinions of others will continue to seek them out, and in the long run, that’s a good thing for everyone. Just like when we write we make positive assumptions about our reader’s intelligence and ability to follow our stream of consciousness, we shouldn’t underestimate the sensibility of those same readers when it comes to their ability to sort through the good, the bad and the ugly reviews. I like to think unless the negative rating came from a highly trusted or personal source, most prospective readers toss out the outliers and look for themes anyway.

What about you? As a reader, how much do negative ratings influence your decision to try a new author?

Tomorrow is Another Day (for Publishing)

Cover illustration, Harper's Weekly September 7, 1861

The one constant in the print and digital publishing business these days is change, and change isn’t easy. Isn’t that the crux of most novels—thrusting your protagonist into unprecedented circumstances to change their world forever? I relate to strong heroines in those novels—Scarlett O’Hara being a favorite. While I don’t think the publishing landscape is doomed to resemble post-war Atlanta anytime soon, I can imagine when all is said and done, there will be those sitting around shell-shocked, sipping mint tea among burning embers, and those who will thrive with the flurry of a lumber mill during reconstruction.

One thing I’ve learned for seizing opportunity amidst upheaval is to apply basic principles of change management. 

“I can’t think of it now…I’ll think of it later.”1

As much as I enjoy Scarlett’s character, indulging in such thinking could be dangerous. The publishing business is changing, whether you take notice or not. If you don’t want the road to Tara to be riddled with potholes, it’s important to arm yourself with information. Fortunately, lots of people are talking about what publishing changes are in store, and you can follow any number of blogs for an understanding of the essentials or simply pose a question to a trusted writer’s loop and see what personal experiences you stir up. Do anything but ignore change. It’s not going away. 

“It’s better to know the worst, than to wonder.” 1

Expect to grieve a little. Change has a life cycle that passes through phases, including ‘loss’. Think about why you want to be published. This doesn’t have to be the answer you’d give anyone else, but be honest. Is it for the recognition? Because you have a compelling message to tell? Whatever the reason, with that need for being published in mind, ask yourself what you would lose if your choices no longer made sense.

Through the traditional print publishing route…would you lose time waiting for publication? Could your genre be overdone by the time you hit the shelves? Could the physical shelves be long gone by then? Could you lose out on the higher author cuts from e-publishing? And what about the e-publishing route…would you lose big name industry reviews? The satisfaction of seeing your book in print? Store placement to drive sales? Ask yourself if your expectations around what you have to gain or lose are realistic to begin with. What good is a higher e-publishing royalty if you can’t figure out how to move the books? Do you need ‘big name’ reviews if hundreds of GoodReads fans are singing your praises?

When you figure out what you really stand to lose, start brainstorming replacements. Can you hire PR to promote your book or join a group where authors help each other market? Can you fill down time waiting on publication by working on a new novel or building a platform? There is no easy answer here. Loss is painful, but coming to grips with it sooner than later frees you to move through the cycle and gets you thinking about moving forward.

“Now you are beginning to think for yourself instead of letting others think for you. That’s the beginning of wisdom.” 1

Success still resides at the crossroads of opportunity and preparedness. Recognize you have choices. You can go down the traditional publishing route today and find success, and you can go down an e-publishing route and find success. Or both. The choices mean you have some control over your fate. Treat your career decisions with as much careful planning as your circumstances will allow. Once you know where you want to go in the changing landscape, set milestones to mark your progress to keep alert to progress and risks along the way.

“In the end what will happen will be what has happened whenever a civilization breaks up. The people who have brains and courage come through and the ones who haven’t are winnowed out.” 1 

Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind

What about you? How are you coping with the changing publishing landscape?

I Have a Dream Today

Image: Andy Newson /

Why would a twenty-three-year-old white girl from the midwest clip a newspaper printing of the speech Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and tuck it away among her treasured mementos where it remains nineteen years later today?

Because she believed in the power of a lofty dream to drive change? Because she had faith in the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Because Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a compelling writer and speaker who knew how to captivate a diverse audience?

Yes, all of that and more. But, today I want to focus on three reasons I think the reverend’s writing moved me the way it did back when I first clipped that article, and why it still does today.

He created a universal problem and emotional connection. While the reverend’s speech was in no small part directed at those whose rights were being abused, he was brilliant to make it deeply personal for all Americans by invoking a patriotic problem. He speaks of when the ‘architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.’ If this problem, this refusal of rights can happen to one population of Americans, what keeps it from happening to anyone?

Reverend King Jr. makes us care because most Americans are cognizant of the greatness of the promise of our Constitutional rights. With an increasing global awareness, we’re even less likely to take them for granted. ‘It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.’

The writing lesson here: whether writing fiction or non-fiction, give your audience a personal reason to care by creating a problem they can relate to, an emotional connection either to the characters or the cause. Especially in fiction, even though your problem or plot may (and probably should) be extraordinary, your readers should be able to find the common humanity there.

He used powerful language, metaphors and active verbs to show, not tell. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech did not simply ‘tell it like it is’, he showed it through the use of active verbs and metaphors. While metaphors can be frowned upon in genre fiction today, few could argue they created a unforgettable visual of the plight of 1963: ‘seared in the flames of injustice’, ‘crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.’, ‘sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent’, ‘whirlwind of revolt’, ‘battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality’…

And, he also showed it in the vision of his dream: ‘on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…’, ‘Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed to an oasis of freedom and justice…’, ‘every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight…’. These are convincing visuals.

The writer’s lesson here: more than simply showing vs telling, try to break from the same worn and weathered words to paint vivid pictures. Scrap those clichés and push yourself to make your language—descriptions and actions—tell their own stories. This doesn’t mean your writing should be thick with purple prose, just that each word should be thoughtful and deliberate. For fiction writers, this also applies to dialog: if your reader can easily predict what your character will say next, it may not even be worth saying.

He leveraged the “Power of Three” and then some. A trick of great speakers—presidents and members of the clergy know this—is the rule of three. What most people remember from a speech is no accident. The key thoughts and takeaways are memorable because they are repeated or weaved throughout, at least three times.

The Rev. King Jr.’s words ‘I have a dream’ were repeated no less than six times throughout his speech. Same with ‘let freedom ring’. But, in addition to those memorable lines, he opened with repeated concepts around ‘One hundred years later’ to describe the state of despair long after Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Then with ‘Now is the time’ to spurn urgency of action, and also with ‘We can never be satisfied as long as…’.

This rule of three can work in your writing too: repeated themes and ideas stick. In fiction this may need to be more shrewdly thought out so you’re not overusing a word or repeating a crutch-phrase, but if there is a key point you want to make sure the reader doesn’t miss, this is a technique anyone can apply.

In respect for the holiday, might I suggest you take a moment to read the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech and reflect not only on his great vision but how charismatically he used the tools of language to share that vision with the world?

Emotional Development of Characters

Image: graur codrin /

Last year I drew The Emotional Development of Characters as the topic for my speaking engagement at the Tucson Festival of Books. Part of me was delighted; developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. The other part was terrified. Character development, like many aspects of writing, is very individual to the writer, and while I knew how I did it, it wasn’t exactly easy to explain, nor was I entirely convinced the majority of what I did wasn’t done subconsciously. Still, I took the challenge and came up with  a few pointers any writer might use as a starting point. Since Tuesday is a day for sharing about writing on the WordServe Water Cooler, I share those tips here with hopes someone might find them useful.

What do you remember most when you finish a really good novel? Are you left in awe at the amazing plot? Or do you have lingering thoughts about the characters? For most readers, it’s the characters they identify with more than anything. That’s because to care about what happens in a story the reader must care about its characters. So, how do you create characters your audience will care about?

One time literary agent, now children’s book author, Nathan Bransford once tweeted: In great novels, every character has their own set of goals, vices, and motivations and no one is purely good or evil.

In other words, they are human. One way to make it easier to connect to your characters emotionally is to give them some flaw. After all, to err is human. You don’t want to give them just any old flaw, though. It should be an important inner flaw, ideally one that plays off their strength. For instance, someone who is self-disciplined and organized (strength) may also be a control freak or inflexible (weakness). A strong and brave character (strength) may be overprotective and overbearing (weakness). Whatever the flaw, it should prevent the character from being the best they can be. It should get in the way of what they want, resulting in some internal struggle they will eventually face to overcome—or not if your story is a tragedy or the character in question a villain.

I like to think about my characters strength and flaws by getting a glimpse into their personality. There are lots of personality profiles available for a writer to tap into, but I use the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment to sketch my characters’ profiles. It suggests people have different ways of gaining energy (Introversion or Extraversion), being aware of information (Sensing or Intuition), coming to conclusions or decisions about that information (Thinking or Feeling), and ultimately dealing with the world around them (Judging or Perceiving).

If my heroine was Intuitive—trusting interrelationships, theories and future possibilities, her strength might be that she’s aware of others, and she is able to weave together possibilities from bits of information. Her flaw may be that those possibilities are not always based in fact, and therefore she makes decisions using circumstantial evidence. Maybe my hero is Perceiving—adaptable and keeps options open as long as possible. While this allows him to be flexible and go with the flow (strength), it backfires when he adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach when he should be taking affirmative action (flaw).

Once I have my characters’ personalities down, if I’m writing a romance I like to make the hero and heroine as opposite as possible. Those differences are ripe for emotional conflict. Or, maybe the conflict stems from the fact they are too much alike, such as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Either way, the process of overcoming and resolving those conflicts requires emotional maturity if the couple ever hopes to be together—and that is one part of their emotional development.

Another tool the personality assessment provides me with is the framework for how my characters would realistically act in any given circumstance. You know that adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting? It’s a lie. Words hurt because they are aimed at emotions. How a character reacts (or doesn’t) to internal and external conflict throughout your story should reflect who they are and where they are emotionally at that particular point in time.  More importantly, it should develop as the story progresses, eventually cultivating in some notable change to the character’s emotional self. Understanding your character’s personality, their strength and flaws is a start to making their responses more believable.

What about you? What tips or tools do you use to help readers care about your characters, and by default, their story?

Settling the Score in 2012

Photo: D Sharon Pruit

Like lots of writers, I’m goal-driven. Each December I reflect on what I’ve accomplished the past year and what I still want to achieve. I’m not talking New Year’s Resolutions here; my WordServe colleague covered that quite brilliantly here. I’m talking about taking a good hard look at where I currently stack up against where I want to be.

When I started writing, I decided if I did one thing—no matter how small—every day to move toward my goal, I was doing okay. That worked for a while. I sold a couple of novels, completed several new manuscripts and got an agent—all aspirations I’d set out to achieve. Then something changed. People were measuring success in the social media space in a quantifiable, new way.

I knew social media was important for author promotion, so I increased my focus there. I expanded my social networking channels, reached out to make new contacts and endeavored to add relevant content wherever I participated. Eventually, I fell into a nice rhythm, and I’d thought I reached some moderate success.

Until, I discovered Klout.

I understand the importance of measuring the benefit of action against the time (or money) spent taking that action. Klout measures influence based on ability to drive action through social networks. As authors, we want people to engage with us, and we want them to read our books. So, off I went to Klout, armed with the warm-fuzzy I was already doing okay. I signed into my various latest-and-greatest social networks, then eagerly awaited my score.

It came back: twenty. Let me put that into perspective. An average score for someone dabbling in social media at that time was around 22. I had spent the year ramping up my social media presence and was still decidedly below average. The cat-lady next door probably had a higher Klout score than mine. Dismal didn’t begin to describe how I felt.

Being goal-oriented, I’m not one to wallow in my misery, so I looked up people with Klout scores I admired and tried to emulate them. Ten+ tweets a day? Eesh, but if it will make a difference, okay. Post more Facebook content people are likely to like, comment on or share? Let me just dust off my crystal ball…check. I can do that! Get more mentions on Twitter? No clue, but maybe if I tweet more it will help. And it couldn’t hurt to blog more…micro-blog more…get more followers…make more friends…post better content…be more interesting…put more out there…respond more to other people’s stuff…who said less is more? More is more!

I adjusted my program, then went back to check my score. It was now a bright, shiny…24? Still not good enough. I continued to make tweaks and check to see if anything I did made a difference. When someone reblogged my content, what did that do to my score? When they commented on my links, how did that help? What if I un-followed a bunch of inactive Twitter accounts, did that do anything? One day I thought I’d hit on something when my Klout score jumped to the high-thirties, but then I figured out they changed their algorithms and lots of scores had gone up by 10 or more without any outside effort whatsoever.

Then it dawned on me, if Klout can tweak their so-called measuring stick, why can’t I? Who really cared about my score anyway? Would an editor not buy my novel if my score wasn’t high enough? Would my agent drop me if my True Reach wasn’t up to snuff? Would my Yahoo groups cringe to be seen with me? Would my Tumblr pals run away like one of their clever little gifs? Would I never sell another book again?

I’m guessing the answer to most of the above is ‘no’ with the exception of that last one, because if I didn’t stop obsessing about moving my Klout score, I was never going to make time to finish another book again. Ever.

As I look forward to 2012 and set some writerly-type goals, I’ll continue to include author promotion among them, but I’ll be careful what I use to measure my success. Even though Klout is interesting and a great validation for some, I already know it’ll no longer be my personal yardstick.

The only numbers I want to obsess over this year are word count, the number of pages I’ve edited, and possibly the number of adverbs I remove from my first drafts. I may even go back to my old adage: what have I done today to further my writing career? I’ll stretch myself to improve my writing—to dig deeper for character development, to toss out clichés and to make my dialogue sing. I’ll remember why I joined social media to begin with: to interact with friends, readers and other writers.

And when I look back this time next year, I hope I’ll be able to carve another notch in the old doorframe and celebrate 2012 knowing how much I’ve really grown.

What about you? How are you measuring success against your goals?

%d bloggers like this: