Characters: Giving Readers What They Want

Blog 80 imageIn “Thoughts on Writing”, I’ve been posting about issues I’m grappling with as I rewrite my third book. A big focus of the rewrite is character development, which is partly based on comments of several readers on the prior draft. Today’s issue: how far do I go to respond to those comments?

Some writers advise not to use beta readers at all. Stand tall and believe in your book, they say. It makes me wonder what they do with comments about characters they get from their editor(s). At the other extreme, I’ve heard of writers who try to incorporate all comments from editors and beta readers except where they conflict. Their books are almost crowd-sourced and thus, perhaps the thinking goes, guaranteed to please all.

I treat my books as my own but do pay attention to what my beta readers say about my characters. Here are the guidelines I (currently) use for those comments.

Fix or explain the inconsistencies. If a beta reader finds an inconsistency in the history or preferences of one of my characters, I obviously fix that. However, there might be a good explanation for other inconsistencies. For example,a character who reacts differently to similar situations might do so because of an epiphany or personal growth. Or I might have screwed up and should make the reactions conform.

Watch for the same comment from several readers. I’ve posted this before, but if more than one reader identifies the same issue with a character, I usually try to resolve the issue.

A character’s depth can be improved. I aim to make my key characters rounded. When I’m told that a character is flat or superficial, I almost always work to improve that.

Consider what to do if the character, a trait or an action is unbelievable. I work hard to understand a comment along these lines. I often talk to the beta reader for more input. Sometimes I make changes and sometimes I don’t.

Consider what to do if the character’s not likeable. This is a tough one. In The Case for Killing and False Guilt, quite a few characters are troubled or irritating. Often, I’ve resisted change and told myself that, yes, those were the characters I wanted. In the third book, I’m interested in creating some key characters who readers would like to spend time with, even if they’re flawed. So I’m paying more attention to comments regarding likeability.

Focus hard on comments about characters with backgrounds different than mine. An excellent example for me is writing female characters. My goal is for them to be authentic and I ask my female beta readers to help with that.

Drop humour that’s flopping. What I find funny others often don’t. If the humour of one of my characters is failing, I get rid of it. No matter how much I laugh at it.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

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Refining Plot

Blog 78 imageTwo weeks ago I posted that I had received comments on the current draft of my third book and that I was working on developing some characters further. However, I need to make some plot changes, too, and that has me asking what the best process to refine plot is.

Some writers create an outline for a book that is so detailed, they don’t make material changes to plot when they write the book. Other writers find an interesting premise for a book, start writing and let the story take them where it might.

I’m somewhere in between. For the first draft of a book, I have a premise that leads to an outline. Then, following the outline, I start writing. However, as I work through chapters, I usually think of plot changes that will make the book more interesting. Then I amend the outline, write some more, and so on, until the first draft appears. I repeat this process over many drafts to get the final book.

But refining the plot in later drafts can be tricky. I write mystery/thrillers and the plots become more intricate as I create new drafts. Changing a plot in a later draft of a book, such as the third one I’m working on now, can be nerve-wracking. A tinker in one chapter can have a domino effect across several other chapters. Occasionally the plot looks ready to unravel.

Here are three things that help me to refine plot in later drafts.

First, I only make changes that I’m very certain will create a better book.

Second, I amend the outline from beginning to end, but more with instructions than specifics. For example, I might write “X needs to reveal motive by this point, not in chapter 20.”

And third, ultimately I let the creative writing process do its work. I might worry about how to implement a plot change. How exactly will X reveal her motive? Why, when, where? Yet, when I reach the chapter that needs a change, if I let my imagination work with the scene, nine times out of ten, the change emerges and fits well.

Every writer must find his best way to refine plot. Maybe some of what I do will help.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

Buy The Case for Killing.

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Becoming a Character

Blog 76 imageHere’s another post under “Thoughts on Writing”.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve been receiving comments on the current draft of my third book. I have a lot of reason to be optimistic and a lot of work to do!

One thing that’s become clear is that, while I’ve nailed many characters, a few, including two key ones, need to develop further.

At first, I had rough ideas that one character should be more interesting, another stronger and a third fleshed out. However, I wanted to understand the nature and scope of these ideas before I started the book’s next draft. The alternative was to sort out the characterizations while rewriting, but I knew that would be inefficient.

So, here’s what I did, and it worked well enough to share with you.

I took a day for each character that needed work, and drafted letters and emails about the events leading up to the book pretending I was that character. For example, an email of one character begins this way.

“Dear X,

Many thanks for calling me after my first letter. We had such a good talk and I thought I’d done just as we decided. Talk to her. Communicate. Find out what she wants. But she left anyway.”

It was a fascinating process. With little prodding, each character gave me five or six letters and emails. I just had to step into that character’s shoes and imagine he/she had enough on his/her mind to want to share problems with a confidant. When I wrote the correspondence, the character, not I, was writing.

In other words, in each of those three days, I became one of the characters for a few hours. And I learned a lot living in their heads.

Now I just have to reflect it all in the book’s next draft!

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

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Writing a Killer Ending

Blog 70 ImageI’ve been posting for a while that I’m working hard on my third book. I’m down to editing the last chapters before sending out the manuscript for the first round of developmental comments. And that has me asking: in the thriller genre, what makes for a killer ending?

A book’s opening is the chance to grab readers for the next 400 pages. The ending is an even bigger opportunity. Done well, it can grab readers for the next several books.

So, with the help of blogs by Joanna Penn, C. Patrick Schulze and James V. Smith Jr., here’s what I think endings of thrillers should offer.

A Climactic Incident and Resolution: A thriller should build to a final struggle with the book’s most compelling action, conflict, imagery and dialogue. And the storylines must resolve in a manner that respects the plot’s flow.

Good Meeting Bad: One way or another, in the ending, the good guy and bad guy must face off. Usually the good guy wins.

Surprise: In a thriller, everyone may anticipate that the good guy wins, but an ending needs surprise to stay gripping. There are lots of ways to create this. For example, it can be in how the good guys win, how sub-plots are resolved or, more daringly, by blurring the line between good and bad.

A Sense of Satisfaction: Readers want to feel satisfied at the end of a book. They’re more likely to feel that about a thriller if:

  • The good guy wins, either because he’s smarter or because he’s physically or morally stronger.
  • As part of winning, the good guy learns something important.
  • The readers understand and feel the good guy’s emotions.
  • The ending is not only surprising but also logical and foreshadowed.
  • The loose ends are nicely tied up and it’s clear that the story is over.
  • There’s a strong finishing sentence.

If a thriller’s ending offers all that, readers will want more!

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

Buy The Case for Killing.

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Choosing a Story’s Specifics

Blog 65 ImageAnother breezy blog post this week as I push to the end of my first edit of book three.

Almost every fiction writer knows the golden rule that a story must show, not tell. A lot of nonfiction tells, usually with generalizations. Fiction shows, by using specifics and often setting the story in real time. This allows readers to see and feel the action and conflicts. Then they’re entertained, while having the chance to infer the generalizations.

As I edit book three, I’m constantly vigilant for showing and not telling. I know that a bit of telling is allowed. It often starts chapters, is needed for a brief bit of background and gets readers from A to B. However, for building drama and conflict, I’d better be showing.

If showing is about offering specifics, the real challenge, I find, is choosing which specifics to include. Here are the guideposts I’m currently using.

I write thrillers. My genre is thrillers/mysteries. I’m not aspiring to literary fiction. My readers want the action to flow and that keeps me spare in my use of specifics. For example, increasingly, I avoid describing the colour of clothes that characters wear unless it’s essential to the plot.

Dialogue is powerful. Dialogue of course develops plot and characters. It’s powerful because a lot can be communicated with nuanced choices or absences of words. I rely on dialogue to round out characters economically and even offer specifics I might otherwise exclude. I don’t need to tell readers that a character is a man of few words if I ensure he speaks that way. And when that man is spurred to make a small speech, readers have a clear picture of something that’s important to him.

Is the detail significant? For descriptive passages, I ask myself whether readers really need to know the specifics I give. Some commentators use the term significant detail for specifics. So the question becomes whether the detail is significant enough to include.

Judging this can be trickier than it sounds and takes practice. I try to strip down to their basics the passages that transition between key scenes. However, key scenes must have enough detail for readers to see and feel the action. A good editor will tell me if I’ve gotten it right.

Other considerations may influence a writer’s judgment of what detail is significant. The writer may be more or less detailed in order to create the style he thinks best suits his story. Or he might be influenced by what will make his book more marketable.

Let readers imagine. I need to set scenes for readers but I want their imagination working alongside mine. By adding their details, readers not only immerse themselves in my story, they’re participants in the storytelling. This draws people to fiction and explains why movie renditions of stories can be disappointing. And it’s another reason for me to be sparing with specifics.

Characters’ thoughts are valuable but in small doses. I’m interested in how the psychology of characters drives consequences. So, in addition to describing what characters say and do, I write about what they’re thinking. However, I limit the specifics to quick, single thoughts and brief ruminations about a conflict, which works well for thrillers. I figure anything more will bore readers, probably because it’ll feel like I’m telling instead of showing.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

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Should writers watch word count?

Blog 58 ImageA recent Microsoft study concludes that the average human attention span has fallen from twelve seconds to eight since 2000. Apparently that’s less than the attention span of a goldfish. I’ll try to keep this post short.

I’m not a fan of proclaiming rules that writers need to follow in order to write a book and get some readers. But I have been wondering if, in a digital age with falling attention span, fiction writers should try to keep their books within a word count range. For example, I often read that thrillers should be 80,000–120,000 words. Here are some things to consider.

Readers are busy and have enormous content choice. These realities are obvious but they account for the declining human attention span. And I think writers ignore them at their peril. For example, a thriller writer should ensure that his book has a strong opening, good pacing and crisp writing.

A writer needs to keep his genre in mind. Readers of genres like mysteries, thrillers and romance have expectations about the length of the books they read. They can be convinced to read longer books but writers should be sure they have the goods to do it.

What is the writer trying to give the readers? The main goal of my books, The Case for Killing and False Guilt, is to entertain readers for a weekend. I hope the books offer the occasional human insight as well, but they’re thrillers, not literary fiction. A weekend is a precious amount of time these days, so I look to keep my books around 95,000 words.

What does your publisher want? For books of traditionally published authors, the publishing house will have ideas what word count the market prefers.

Books should be ruthlessly edited. Using fewer words for the same effect often leads to better writing and pace. In later edits of my books, I get cruel satisfaction from pulling out words. Especially adverbs.

Word count isn’t the be all and end all, of course. A really engaging book, especially with extraordinary writing, will hook readers regardless of length. But I do think that modern realities should drive a writer to keep an eye on how many words he’s written. And the added benefit is that he’ll likely produce a better book. Watching word count compels a writer to ensure that every word counts.

P.S. I thought about reading the Microsoft report, but it’s fifty-four pages long.

Copyright © 2015 Peter Fritze

Buy False Guilt.

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Improving the First Draft

Blog41 ImageIn early January, I read through the first draft of my as-yet-untitled third book. I wrote it last summer, so I got a fresh take on it. After finishing the book, I considered what questions to answer in order to create the best next draft. Here’s what I came up with.

Is the book a satisfying reading experience? If I didn’t like reading my book, it’s unlikely others will. I did though.

Does the structure work? I enjoy experimenting with structure. However, it can’t be at the expense of plot unfolding properly and good pace. I thought that, for the most part, the third book’s structure worked.

Are there plot problems? I plotted the third book quite carefully. However, I’ve seen at least one major plot problem. I’m sure I’ll also find many more minor inconsistencies; it’s amazing how those can hang around for many drafts.

What research is required? For better or for worse, I tend to write the first draft of a book with only the most essential research done. As I read the draft, I note down where more research is needed. For the third book, there’s a lot to do.

Do the characters resonate? In the first draft of a book, I only make the acquaintance of the characters. Going forward, they’ll develop much more. Lots of pleasurable work to be done there.

Do the characters have consistent voices? Characters’ voices can take time to develop. Many of my third book’s characters have only hinted at how they like to communicate.

Do the characters’ interactions make sense? Ah, no, not in all cases. For example, in the first half of the book, one character is quite friendly to another when she has reason to be angry or at least ambivalent. Overall I need to get to know the characters better; their reactions to one another will then clarify.

How is the writing? The quality of writing in my first drafts is always suspect and inconsistent. No surprise there; my first drafts are largely about seeing if there’s a story. I know it takes many drafts for the writing to become succinct and fluid. However, reading the third book front-to-back allowed me to identify redundant passages, poor transitions and, yes, even writing I liked.

On to the next draft!

Copyright ©2015 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Follow me on Twitter @PFritze.

When is a Book Ready to Publish?

Blog 36I have a confession to make. I said that my second book, False Guilt, would be available this fall. It will be the first quarter of 2015 instead.

I really did think I would make the original deadline. One lesson I’ve learned is that, when talking about a future book’s release date, it’s better to say “soon”.

But there are other lessons, too. My book’s delay has some very good reasons, which I’ve decided to collect under the general question: when is a book ready to publish? These comments are geared toward indie authors.

When the Writer’s Gut Says So. I didn’t become settled with False Guilt as soon as I expected. Now I’m ready to stand tall beside the story and characters and see what feedback I get.

To me, this really is a gut decision, because dastardly voices speak in the writer’s head. One says, “Another rewrite won’t make any difference. Get the thing out there already.” Another says, “This book needs to be perfect. Plan on 2017.”

I think that the more a writer writes, chances are he becomes better at assessing when his book is ready for publication. His sense of plot, pace and character development grows keener. He understands better when more research is required. He learns tricks like allowing enough time to pass between drafts to bring a new perspective to his work.

Several Drafts After Beta Readers Have Read The Book. My last two blogs discussed how useful beta readers are. I’ve learned that, after beta reader comments come in, I need to do at least three drafts of a book before it goes to the editor.

When the Editor Says It’s Ready. A good editor will be clear with a writer if and when his book is ready for public eyes. Some of what delayed False Guilt was my editor questioning character development and interaction. An editor’s structural, stylistic and copy edit comments can take several drafts to sort out.

It’s possible a writer and editor will disagree on some points. So, really, the idea is that a book is ready to publish when the editor says so, setting aside carefully considered points of difference.

When the Writer Has a Marketing Plan. Discoverability is a huge challenge, so writers must actively promote their books. Better yet, a writer should have a marketing plan. Mine for False Guilt, including a Facebook and Twitter presence and upcoming pre-release reviews, is coming into shape.

When a Compelling Cover Design is Done.  Book covers can make such a powerful statement, it’s better not to rush them. I like the direction the cover for False Guilt is heading in.

Not Too Soon After the Last Book. I won’t pretend to know when the optimal time is to release a second book. I’ll just say that I think The Case for Killing, published in April, still has legs.

When Readers Have Time. An indie author needs to think about the time of year when he’s releasing a book.

Initially, I thought releasing False Guilt in the heart of the holiday season was a good idea. I hoped it would be a digital stocking stuffer. But then I decided people will be too busy to give the book any attention. Now I’m hoping that False Guilt will help with the February blues.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Where to buy The Case for Killing.

Beta Reader Feedback

Blog35 ImageLast week, I blogged about using, finding and preparing beta readers. In this post, following my experience with The Case for Killing and False Guilt, I’m sharing my thoughts on what to do with their feedback.

As I mentioned last blog, I give beta readers a decent draft of my manuscript and a list of questions to address. I ask if they were entertained by the book; what they found worked and didn’t work about the plot, characters and settings; and where they encountered weak writing. I also ask them to circle typos and grammatical problems.

The form of the feedback varies a lot among readers. Two report verbally. A third enlarges on hand-written comments over coffee. From the last, I get a lengthy email. I don’t find the form matters much. All comments are useful and all readers make time for follow-up questions.

I consider comments from beta readers as carefully as those from my editor. However, the processes of handling the comments are different. The editor is a single voice speaking from a broad experience with manuscripts. Beta readers provide more diverse comments and have varying backgrounds. Their comments can differ and conflict. That can make for some tough decisions.

How do I approach this? Obviously I fix the typos and factual errors that readers find. I also assess grammatical problems, not only where the readers identify them but for similar instances across the manuscript. And I work hard on upgrading writing that readers say is weak, though it seems I re-write the manuscript I give beta readers at least three times anyway.

More challenging is feedback on whether the readers found the manuscript entertaining and on points about plot, characters and settings. The basic truth is that no writer pleases all readers. However, this can also be a dangerous rationalization for not improving a manuscript. So I try hard to refine my manuscript to handle all comments. If, however, beta reader comments conflict, I judge what to use according to my instinct and the consensus I see among the readers.

For example, pace in thrillers is very important. So, if one reader says a portion of my manuscript’s plot unfolds too slowly, I’ll try to improve it even though the other readers don’t complain. I’m pretty sure the book will be better as a result. However, I may end up keeping a plot point that one reader dislikes if the other three really like it.

Beta reader comments about characters’ makeups, motives and reactions can be especially challenging. Since my goal is that readers suspend their reality when reading my book, I can end up agonizing over these comments. Sometimes, though, after a lot of considering and tinkering, I’ll stop pounding the laptop keys and say to myself, “That’s who the character wants to be and not everyone will like or understand her.”

It’s true that no writer pleases all readers, but a writer who uses the feedback of beta readers wisely will definitely please more.

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).

Using, Finding and Preparing Beta Readers

Blog 34I’m going to devote a few posts to the topic of beta readers. I’m including the posts under “Thoughts on Writing” because beta readers can help writers both traditionally and self-published.

This post is about using, finding and preparing beta readers. The next post will ask what do with their feedback. One can have different views on these topics; here’s a link to another blog.

What are beta readers? Software developers release beta versions of programs for users to test functionality before the final release. Similarly, before writers publish their manuscripts, they sometimes circulate advanced drafts to beta readers for responses to their stories.

Beta readers are usually unpaid.

What do beta readers comment on and is it useful? Beta readers comment on anything from whether they found a book interesting, to problems they encountered with plot, characters or setting, to language use, grammar or typos. They’re likely to raise issues that take a writer by surprise.

For both The Case for Killing and False Guilt, I found beta reader comments highly useful.

When does a writer give beta readers his manuscript? Beta readers are not substitutes for editors, except perhaps for self-published writers on a tight budget. Rather, beta readers contribute to a manuscript’s preparation before it goes to a publisher or freelance editor.

For my second book, I also asked a beta reader for comments between the structural edit and copy edit. I wanted to double-check pacing and character development.

Where does a writer find beta readers? I use four or five beta readers for each book. They’re family, good friends and acquaintances. As my readership grows, I may use new readers. I understand a writer can find beta readers online but I haven’t tested that. Book clubs and writers’ groups are other good sources.

Some commentators say a writer should only choose beta readers if they meet requirements like being a writer themselves or being an avid reader of the manuscript’s genre. I found beta reader comments so useful, I believe beginning writers should accept any potential reader’s interest and be thankful.

Using some of the same beta readers for different books can be a good idea. Those readers may comment on the writer’s overall development.

If beta readers are unpaid, why do they help? Usually it’s because they’re nice people and intrigued by contributing to a book’s development. They might also have enjoyed a writer’s earlier writing. If they’re writers themselves, they may look for a return favour.

How should a writer prepare beta readers? Quality in, quality out. Provide beta readers with a very good manuscript, even though it likely will change a lot once all comments are in. Also, give beta readers a list of questions to address. My list means beta readers will tell me if they found the book entertaining; what did and didn’t work about plot, characters and settings; and where they found weak writing. Also, I want them to read my manuscript like a book they’ve just bought. Therefore, I ask them to circle the grammar problems and typos they find without reading for that. That’s for my editor – and me!

Copyright ©2014 Peter Fritze

Buy The Case for Killing here (Canada) or here (U.S.).