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Archive for Writing Advice

Writing Advice

What I Hate About You

Here is my one top tip to building fictional characters: their greatest strength should also be their biggest weakness. There are some quizzes that circulate on the internet, like this one, that purport to tell you what people secretly hate about you. There are always a bunch of silly questions thrown in about picking your favorite animal or your signature dance move, but the meaty questions, the ones that determine the answer, are the ones that ask you what people love about you. Because whatever trait it is that people love about you, that’s also the one that drives them nuts.

If you are charming, gregarious, and the life of the party, chances are that other people read you as shallow or self-involved. If you are quiet and reserved, like me, you probably come off as cold or snobby sometimes. Also apparently scary, from what I’ve been told! A person who’s a smarty pants may save the day in times of crisis, but on a regular day, some folks find him to be a giant know-it-all.

This push-pull of your best and worst traits holds true for fictional people as well. Characterization is most satisfying when it is rich and consistent. So if your character has a tendency to act first and think later, she might shine in an action sequence but create friction with her boss. Similarly, if your character believes passionately in the bonds of family, he’s probably willing to make huge sacrifices for those he loves—but may be blind to their faults.

Strength and weakness are interwoven, interdependent.

Characterization is also situational and relational. You don’t act the same way with your mom that you do with your friends, or with your boss. There are always shadings and exceptions and times when your actions may surprise even you. I have a petite, mild-mannered friend who chased a male intruder out of her home when she caught sight of him. She never would have imagined she’d do such a thing until she found herself shouting and running after him!

Broadly, though, who we are in terms of our core personalities don’t change much over time, and the things we do well, whether that’s socialization or analytical thinking or caretaking, have a cost to them. Considering this inherent yin-yang when building your characters can help you mold them into believable, complex people.

Family Life, Writing Advice

Grammar Counts…or How I Met My Husband

I met my husband via online dating about a decade ago, when the odds tilted even more firmly in favor of women seeking men. Does online dating really work? One of my family members wanted to know. I said sure, you could definitely find a guy on the internet. Of course, the catch was…you would find a guy—who was on the internet. I was inundated with replies from engineers, gamer geeks, coders and anyone else who was most comfortable behind a screen. I wasn’t judging these guys in the least—after all, I was a geek behind a screen, too—but they did have a certain sameness to them.

In this sea of anonymous men, my husband immediately stood out to me. On our fourth date, he wanted to know why. “How many replies did you get to your profile?” he asked.

I squinted, estimating. “Around 4,400.”

He made a choking noise. “4,400? Then why did you pick me?”

“You wrote in complete sentences,” I told him sweetly, because it was the truth.

He gaped at me, disappointed. “That’s it? That’s all? Wow, talk about a low bar!”

Except it wasn’t a low bar at all because so few of the guys actually took the time to construct actual English sentences.* They wrote in text speak or emojis or lacked any kind of punctuation whatsoever. Meanwhile, Garrett’s initial note to me used correct grammar, a wide-ranging vocabulary, and also demonstrated both humor and curiosity. 

See, he’s cute too!

You know who else has hundreds of would-be suitors in their inbox all the time? Literary agents. They may see hundreds of query requests per day, many of them from authors who do not follow the rules for submission. Their queries are too short or too long, or they leave off important information like genre and word count. Authors will send pages when pages are not asked for, or leave them off when they are required. I heard one agent say that almost 90% of queries fail to follow her preferred procedure, and of course, this is an easy way for the agent to reduce her reading list by 90%.

Writing a tight query that follows all the directions won’t necessarily land you a deal, in the same way that I didn’t marry my husband just because he writes coherent emails. Content still matters. But in each case, it’s a small step that shows you take the relationship seriously. Your novel can be experimental. Your query shouldn’t be. Take the time to look up the agent’s submission guidelines and follow them. Think of it this way: you’ll already be standing out from the crowd!

*Please note, however, that writing complete sentences did not guarantee you any sort of date with me. I had one respondent to my profile who wrote, “I like white feet.” This is a complete (and very creepy) sentence! I did not write back to him.