How to make each character you write sound different

Jane Eyre

One of the foremost tips for writing dialogue is to make each character sound different.

Easier said than done, right?

Recently, I was reading Lyndsay Faye’s novel Jane Steele, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre where Jane is a murderer. One of the many things I adore about Jane Steele is how unique and endearing so many of the characters are.

Jane SteeleYou could easily cherry-pick a piece of dialogue from Jane Steele and match it to its speaker simply by knowing the following:

  • The butler, Sardar Singh: a man of careful words and prone to phrases like, “So often the way with _____.”
  • The ward, Sarjara Kaur: an eager girl who references horses every other sentence at least.
  • Mr. Charles Thornfield: openly bold, sarcastic, and teasing. He participates in exchanges consisting of mock insults, calling Sarjara “Young Marvel” or “tiresome changeling,” for example.
  • Jane: has a tendency for foul, unladylike swearing.

This makes Jane Steele an excellent example of how to write distinct character voices. By giving your characters a quirk as to how they conduct themselves in conversation, you can make them vivid and memorable.

How to write something longer than a short story

Writing novels GIF

You’d think if you struggle with word count, you should forget about novels and just write short stories, right? Nope. YOU CAN WRITE A NOVEL. Take it from me. Underwriting is practically my middle name.

If you get stuck after 2,000 words, maybe you’re not planning enough. Maybe you’re “pantsing” — or sitting down to write without much more than an idea and seeing where it takes you.

But 50,000+ word beasts don’t get written that way. Novels require outlines, or you’re gonna get stuck a lot. Now, everyone’s pre-writing stage is different. And there is such a thing as doing too much brainstorming and not enough of the actual writing, so you need to determine the balance that works for you.

Here’s a glimpse at my outline and “story bible” for my WIP. I have five major buckets:

Ideas:

  • My original brainstorming of my seed idea, along with the trigger moment where my story begins and the key scenes in my protagonists’ pasts that shaped their worldviews.
  • A rough sketch of the defining scenes that I knew I wanted in my novel.
  • A bullet-point outline of my whole book. I’ll slot in new scenes here and there, and I refrain from plotting out the next act until I’m done writing the previous one.
  • Main plots and subplots, with chapter-by-chapter developments. This helps me see how each thread is developing and whether any lack substance or depth. Occasionally, I’ll add new subplots while writing the book.
  • Stuff for agents: my query, theme, paragraph summary, elevator pitch, professional synopsis, etc.
  • Notes on the voice of my characters, as well as any slang and sayings unique to my world. I worry about this more in later drafts, but I like to have something to consider as I begin.
  • An ongoing list of things to fix in revision. While I’m working on the first draft, I’ll put stuff here if I’m worried something isn’t working so that I remember to come back to it later.
  • Acknowledgments (so I know who to thank should my book be published).

Characters:

Profiles on each of the central characters. Details about their physical description, personality, moments in their pasts that sparked their “misbelief” (worldview), and ideas on how they will fail and succeed throughout the novel.

As author Lisa Cron says, you can’t “write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone [that you] know absolutely nothing about.”

Rules of the world:

This is where I do my world-building! I take notes on my world’s history, cultures, creatures, religions, locations, and anything else that comes up in my story.

This adds dimension and can be beefed up as you go along, but it’s good to have a decent idea of how things work before you dive in.

Actual research:

Real-world research to lend credibility to different aspects of my story or to inspire fictional elements.

Examples: plants used for healing, types of geography/terrain, how archery or blacksmithing works, and so forth.

Scenes in development:

This is where I keep my scene cards, track my overall progress (chapter/act word counts and what I accomplished each week), and “guiding principles” — memos to myself about bigger picture considerations to keep in mind as I write.

In my pre-writing process, the scene cards come last, and I develop each immediately before writing that scene in my novel.


Writing catI don’t necessarily do all this work upfront. My real-world research, for example, I complete as needed as I’m writing the book, and I may come back to the character profiles to flesh them out more if I’m feeling stuck with a character.

But that’s pretty much it. It’s a growing, organic document, and pre-writing spawns a lot of ideas for plot, subplot, and character development.

I keep all these files in Scrivener, but some people prefer a binder and paper. It’s your choice.

What does you pre-writing process, outline, and “story bible” look like?

5 tips for staying motivated when writing makes you depressed

Booze GoT GIF

Writing is not always fun and joy. In fact, I’d say a lot of writing is not fun and joy. But it is deeply rewarding, and that’s why we do it.

Right now, I’m finding it hard to move on from one manuscript (in the query trenches) and focus on the next. There are no guarantees in writing, and when you’ve put years and tons of work into a book, learning to be okay with possibly nothing happening with it can be soul-crushing.

So how do you stay motivated and optimistic in the face of rejection?

Take a break

First thing’s first: Don’t buy into the myth that you have to write every day. You don’t.

I find that I operate best when I hold myself to a schedule that works for me. Consistency is what matters. I consider sitting down for a writing session (including preparing/building scenes or doing research — whatever keeps me grounded in my book’s world) five days a week to be a respectable, manageable goal.

That’s just me. Find what works for you, and for god’s sake, cut yourself some slack. You are not a machine. You can still (and should) have a semblance of a social life, even as a writer. It’s healthy for you.

Forget about numbers

Some writers keep on track by giving themselves daily, weekly, or monthly word count goals. I find this incredibly demotivating.

Instead, I focus on accomplishing quarterly goals. To push myself, I might set a goal like, “Finish Act I.” When it’s done, it’s done.

I always freeze up when I look at word count, especially since I’m an underwriter. My internal dialogue goes something like, Ugh god this scene was only 800 words how am I supposed to write a 80,000 word novel at this rate, this is IMPOSSIBLE. Cue the self-doubt and worthlessness.

That’s bad. Stop it. Don’t worry about word count. You can always add more in revision.

Watch (or read) something that inspires you

Sometimes just listening to or reading the advice of other writers can give you the shot of inspiration you need to get your butt back to work.

“Booktube” and the community of authors/writers on YouTube always gets me pumped and excited about stories — both reading and writing them. I love Ava Jae, Kim Chance, Rachael Stephen, Lindsay Cummings, and Kristen Martin, for example.

And there’s no better reminder of why you’re in the writing game than reading a book so damn good that it makes you want to learn to be that good, too.

Look at the bigger picture

Writing is hard, but guess what? You’re a rockstar. You’ve got this. You’ve written thousands of words before this — hell, whole manuscripts, even. And you’re getting better every step of the way.

Becoming a good writer is practice. We lose sight of the big picture because writing a single book (over one, two, or more years) is the equivalent of one dance performance, one bicycle race, or one marathon. Ain’t nobody got our level of determination.

This Is Fine

Fucking embrace it

I know it sucks (believe me, I do), but sometimes you just gotta work through the pain.

If you hate the thought of sitting down to write, or if you think you’re a shitty writer — well, you can still feel that and put fingers to keys, or pen to paper.

Use that anger and frustration and agony as fuel — forget all about showing others you can do it. Show YOURSELF you can do it.

It doesn’t have to be perfect — you just need to get the words out. So yes, you can get this piece of shit done. You WILL be an author.

Because you’re a fucking badass, that’s why.

Understanding little things called subplots

X-Files GIF

I’m discovering that “subplots” is a term that most of us think we understand, but really we have a lot to learn about.

Subplots are miniature storylines that branch from the main storyline, right? Except … how the hell do you put them together? What constitutes a good, working “subplot” versus “some random side stuff than happens”?

In my current WIP, I think I’m getting better at developing subplots — or at least better at identifying them, which is really the first step to building them. But it’s a little like trying to make pottery. It looks easy until you actually do it. You end up with something that looks like a lump rather than a pretty pot.

I like how Janice Hardy explains plotting with layers. She writes, “A good subplot will add complications to your core conflict, be a step to achieving that core conflict, or cause trouble in your character’s internal or personal story arc. Subplots aren’t there just to cause random trouble or tell the story of another character because that character is interesting. They’re there to help illustrate some point of your core story.”

How do you know you’ve developed and tied up a sideplot well enough? That’s what I’m trying to figure out for myself, one ugly lump of clay at a time. I’m currently keeping track of each scene that contributes to a particular subplot, and guiding each of the subplots is what I’m calling a “breakthrough question” — the bigger question I’m trying to answer and the point I’m trying to get the character to by the end.

I like that Hardy points out that subplots can be a complication, “a step to achieving that core conflict,” or even a means to “help illustrate some point of your core story,” because that provides a little more room to work with.

I’m not sure if there are any true hard-and-fast rules for crafting subplots, but the bottom line seems to be, make sure it’s relevant to your characters’ growth, theme, or the main conflict … and not just some random side stuff that happens.

The 8 most important lessons about writing you’ll ever learn

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is one of my favorite books on writing, and it packs so much invaluable, hard-hitting advice into the beginning that it’s worth reading for the first 40 pages alone.

Story is imperative to our biology

Story Genius BookWhen it comes to story, we’re getting more than entertainment. We want to be engrossed because we’re asking ourselves, according to Cron, “What am I going to learn here that will help me not only survive, but prosper?”

Cron explains that humans evolved to work together, and storytelling plays a big role in doing that. “Don’t pet the lions” is an important message to communicate for our survival, but we need more help navigating the social world. “Sure, we can see what people do,” Cron writes, “but knowing why they’re doing it — which is what matters most — is elusive … That’s what we’re dying to know, and what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear, especially novels.”

We don’t read to escape reality, Cron argues. We read in order to learn how to navigate it.

Story is not plot

Plot is what happens. Story is something bigger.

“A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result,” Cron writes.

But, Cron argues, we’re learning the wrong understanding of story when we’re kids and our teachers give us prompts along the lines of, “What if Freddy woke up and discovered that there’s a castle in his backyard? He hears a strong sound coming from inside … and then … Write a story about what would happen next.”

What happens next isn’t the story; it’s the plot. Context — the meaning those events have for the protagonist — is what makes a story.

Good writing does not equal a good story

Cron says most of us mistakenly believe that the trick to writing a good story is to learn how to write well. So we study grammar and strive to emulate beautifully crafted sentences.

But that’s backward. We should be first learning how to tell a good story and worry about getting the writing right later.

“The conventions of writing — voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it — are the handmaidens of story, not the other way around,” Cron writes. “It’s the story that gives those beautiful words, those interesting characters and all that drama, their power.”

If all we wanted was beautiful prose, Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t be so popular.

Beautifully crafted sentences are just shells without context and meaning — without the story. When we read a book that moves us, we mistakenly think, “I want to learn to write luscious sentences like that!” when we should be thinking, “I want to learn to write the kind of story that would give sentences like that their power!”

‘Writing is like driving a car at night’ (pantsing) is bullshit

There’s an E. L. Doctorow quote that says, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That’s bullshit, according to Cron.

Most people aren’t natural storytellers. The best example I can think of here is Stephen King, who vehemently argues against plotting your novel — of instead “pantsing” your way through it, which has always struck me as terrible advice.

King is a natural storyteller, someone whose “cognitive unconscious has the innate knack of offering up prose in story form.” King might be able to sit down and starting writing a great story without knowing where it’s headed, “but when the rest of us follow suit, our stories almost always end up taking a meandering, disjointed, episodic route that often ends abruptly when we inadvertently drive off a dimly lit cliff.”

If you can move things around, your novel is in trouble

Rough drafts are supposed to be shitty, Hemingway said. And Cron agrees. She just has a problem with taking that too far — to, as author Anne Lamott says, “let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Cron says that “chances are, after months of pantsing what you’ll see is a collection of events that don’t add up to anything — just a sprawling, aimless frolic. And trying to shape it only makes it worse, because there’s nothing to shape. … The very fact that you can move things around is a telltale sign that the novel has no internal logic.”

Yeah, Cron is a hardass. I kind of love her.

Plotters sometimes do it wrong, too

Plotting your novel is mostly right. But a lot of writers, Cron says, focus on plotting the wrong thing first: the external events rather than the internal story.

“Thus plotters begin by laying out the surface events of the story — beginning on page one — with little regard to the protagonist’s specific past, which is the very thing that determines not only what will happen in the plot, but how she sees her world, what she does, and most importantly, why.”

Or to put it more simply, “Outlining the plot first is like saying, ‘I’m going to write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.”

BOOM.

The Hero’s Journey structure is misleading

External story structure models only contribute to the problem. Cron says “it’s deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape” — something big happens here, something dangerous there, instant gold — “and you’ve got a story.”

But story is more than a paint-by-numbers plot. The problem is, these models like The Hero’s Journey analyze finished works, not works in progress.

Writers follow these story models beat by beat, Cron says, and then wonder why their novel isn’t “nearly as engaging as all those novels, movies, and myths that the ‘story structure model’ was based on.”

In other words, you can’t create a good story from the outside in.

Be careful with ‘in medias res’

It’s good to start your story in medias res, meaning “in the middle of the thing” — as long as you understand that you still have to know the why.

Too many writers take in medias res to mean “plunge us into current action and explain it later,” Cron says. “… By leaving the ‘why’ out of the picture, the action often reads as a bunch of things that happen” — which we know is plot, not story.

Writers, give yourself 10 minutes a day

Don't Give Up Dinosaurs

Honesty time.

I’m at this weird point in my writing life where I know I’m getting better, but I’m the least motivated I’ve ever been.

Let me back up and explain. I’m about a third deep into my WIP, which will be my third novel (fourth if you count that one I started in high school and never finished). At the same time that I’m writing it, I’m querying my previous novel and starting to wonder if I’ll ever get a manuscript request, let alone get it published. Even after two years of writing/revising and rounds of query critiques (including by published authors), it may not happen, folks. The query — for whatever reason — isn’t hooking agents.

So I’m feeling kind of discouraged. Like, what’s even the point of trying?

I know I’m usually all about preaching, “YOU CAN DO THIS KEEP TRYING,” but the truth is, even those of us who understand the value of persistence to a successful writing career aren’t immune to struggling with confidence. I’m feeling pretty lousy.

Yes, I take comfort in the fact that for many published authors, it takes multiple books before they get published. Maybe even ten books. Or twenty. (Seriously, read this post — it will give you hope.) And pretty much every book can feel like “the one” and not be it.

And I know I’m growing and getting better. For my first book (not counting that high school attempt), I finished the first draft but not revision. For my second book, I finished the first draft and several rounds of revision with several critique partners, but the foundation is perhaps too weak to fix. For this book (third), I’m much more confident in the world-building, characters, and the foundation of the novel — it’s going to be better from the start.

All signs point to “it will happen someday.” I will get published. But the “someday” part throws me off.

And then I watched author Rachael Stephen‘s video about how it’s important just to try, every day, and keep trying. “You don’t want to write today,” she says, “but all you have to do is try. For ten minutes. … Once they’re up, you can get up and walk away. And at least you tried today.”

After that, she says, chances are you’ll get over the feeling of “oh my god this is so grueling ugh why even do this” and actually get carried away in the writing and start to enjoy yourself. You’ll start to remember why you wanted to write a book in the first place, and that will support you through the process.

Stephen admits that the video is as much a reminder to other writers as it is to herself, and I think this blog post is the same thing for me.

So I’m going to put in my ten minutes today. Even though I don’t want to. Even though I’m not feeling it. Even though I don’t particularly believe in myself right now. Because if I don’t at least try, then it will 100% never happen. And if I do try, and keep trying — well, even if I can’t predict whether it will or won’t happen, those are far better odds.

A game about how writing a book sucks out your soul

Bucket Detective

Writing is hard. Maybe hard enough to want to do anything to make it easier — like helping a weird cult that is up to their necks in some evil business.

That’s the premise of Bucket Detective, an hour-long dark-comedy game about a crummy writer who, desperate to finish his (terrible) book, agrees to help a cult in exchange for divine inspiration. It’s $4 on Steam or Itch.io, and … yeah. That’s kind of awesome.

I wish there were more games about the writing process and the insane lengths authors sometimes go to, honestly. I didn’t particularly care for The Novelist (a game about a novelist and his family struggles), and I’ve heard mixed things about Elegy for a Dead World (a game about writing fiction).

Alan Wake is a decent game about an author — and while it doesn’t focus on writing per se, it’s a fun Stephen-King-esque thriller about a guy whose wife goes missing, and pages from a book you don’t remember writing start showing up as you search for her.

Are there any games out there about writers/writing that you’ve played? Were they any good?

Planning a scene in your novel

Writing a novel

As I start my next manuscript, I’ve been toying with different ways to plan scenes.

Quick aside — go read Story Genius by Lisa Cron. I’ll try to post soon about why it’s so good. She has a lot of smart stuff to say about common writing myths and getting story right.

Anyway, back to scenes. I’ve done a lot of groundwork for imagining my world and characters, and I know my novel’s trajectory. But I’m an underwriter, which means I struggle with word count. I need ways to keep myself on course and incorporate that world-building little by little into the actual writing.

So I ask myself these questions to prepare for writing a scene, and so far I’ve found they work like magic:

  • What is the purpose of this chapter?
  • Whose POV will this be and why? What’s their emotional state going in?
  • What is the goal, conflict, and disaster?
  • What is the reaction, dilemma, and decision (emotional reflection)?
  • What is the twist that will keep people reading, or how does the problem get bigger?
  • How do things go wrong for the protagonist?
  • What choices does the character make here?

And then, once I’ve answered those:

  • What is the setting, and how can I set the scene as I begin?
  • What description the five senses will help me set this scene?
  • How can I anchor the characters’ behaviors to their past in this scene?
  • How can I deepen the characters’ misbelief (flawed worldview) in this chapter?

By this point, I’ve usually come up with a lot of ideas and gone way deeper into my brainstorming than I anticipated, so I’m ready to begin. But just in case, I sometimes also answer these last two questions:

  • What about my world can I reveal, or dig deeper into? What can I sprinkle in?
  • How else can I ask “why” to make the story richer and motivations more believable?

Since I use Scrivener, anytime as I’m writing that I hit on something I need to research more (including terms or general world choice), I leave myself a note on the side and keep typing.

Your turn. How do you prepare to write a new scene?

The importance of vulnerability

Nobody wants to show themselves failing. Yet that’s exactly what Kim Chance did in her latest video.

Let’s redefine that: Kim isn’t actually failing. She’s acquired a literary agent, which means she has a better chance of succeeding than the vast majority of writers whose manuscripts never get accepted. (See my interview with Kim here.) But the feeling of failing is admitting that you don’t have it together, that things might not work out, and that you’re scared shitless.

It takes a lot of courage to say, “Hey, I might not pull this off.” It takes even more courage to take a step closer to success, in front of the whole world — like Kim has on YouTube — and then fall short. We all go through this. But nobody wants to say, “I’m in the middle of the messy part that could be my failure,” with everyone watching. We only want to say, “I made it to the other side, and whew, it was tough, BUT I DID IT.”

Yet when Kim exposed herself — cried on camera, ditched the bubbly-happy persona she usually shows us, and let herself be completely vulnerable — she sent a message that was way more powerful and inspiring than any “We can do it!” speech. Because she showed us we’re not alone.

Of course, we all realize other writers have doubts and anxiety like we do. But to actually see that? Totally different.

“I guess what I lie awake thinking about is, what if it doesn’t happen?” Kim said. “What if [my book] Keeper doesn’t find a home? What if it doesn’t get published?”

She said, “I’ve been on submission a couple months now, and I’m scared. I’m really scared.”

That wasn’t the only fear she shared. She challenged herself to write the first draft of a new manuscript by June, before her baby is born. But she admitted she’s made no progress since that announcement.

“I am crippled with this fear that I can’t write a book. Isn’t that dumb?” she said. “But I just have this fear that I’m a one-hit wonder. I wrote Keeper and that was awesome, but what if I can’t do it again? What if that was it? What if that was my bout of creativity there in that one book, and now I’m trying to write the book of my dreams, the book that I would absolutely die to write, and what if I can’t do it?”

Yes, yes, a million times YES. I recently finished my second book last year and started querying it, and I’m already paralyzed by this fear. How can I move on to begin another project after this last one took two years of my life — hundreds of hours of time and energy — and nothing might happen with it? And that’s the norm. How do you find the motivation to do that all over again while facing rejection after rejection, or no response at all, from agents about the last book you wrote? How do you not get defeated by that? How do you not judge yourself by each and every “no”?

Kim said, “What if I let everybody down? What if I let [my agent] Caitlin down? What if I let you guys down? What if I let my family and my friends down? What if I let myself down? What if everything I’ve been telling myself is a lie?”

The stakes for Kim are even higher than they are for many of us. Personally, I don’t often share, outside of the internet, that I write books. That I spent night after night, week after week, working on a manuscript. Because as soon as you do that, people expect results. They don’t understand that the normal process is very slow-moving, that some authors don’t get published until their third or fourth or tenth book — and others, never at all. People think no news or bad news is a sign that you’re doomed to fail, that you’re a hack writer, that you’re chasing an impossible dream. And it’s hard not to believe them.

Kim said, “I know that somewhere out there, there’s somebody watching this who’s shaking their head, saying, ‘That’s me.’ I don’t want anybody to feel alone during this process. So as defeated as I feel right now, I’m gonna tell myself … I’m gonna keep telling myself what I’m always telling you guys. That dreams don’t work unless you do. And that no matter how hard it gets, you’ve got to keep going. You’ve got to keep fighting.”

Every part of a writer’s journey is tough, she said. And it is. It absolutely is. “Writing a book is hard,” Kim said. “Querying a book is hard. Writing a sequel is hard. Being on submission is hard. Being a writer is hard, guys! … But it’s one of the best jobs in the world. It’s one of the best feelings in the world. And I’m so glad to be a part of it.”

Me too, Kim. Me fucking too.

2016 is almost over. You were awesome.

Buffy Awesome

New Year’s Eve is a night of promises. “This next year is going to be awesome. I’m going to lose weight, read a hundred books, and run a marathon.”

Chances are, we’ll break those promises and then spend the year feeling bad about ourselves. How about we change that?

My new tradition is not to make resolutions on NYE, and not to beat myself up over what I failed to do this past year, but instead to give myself credit for what I accomplished.

My biggest feat? I finished a book. My second book.

I may not yet be a published author, but I Am an Author. I wrote a thing, revised a thing, and did all the work in between. Hey, I’m fucking proud of myself.

I learned new skills this year. I stepped out of my comfort zone more times than I can count, both for my day job and in my personal life. And I finally conquered my dread of revising. I figured out that the “secret” is that there is no secret — it requires you to roll up your sleeves and dive in and get really messy, and you’re wrestling with your own Watcher in the Water that you can only partially see and it’s horrible, and you want to give up and cry uncle, but eventually you survive.

I don’t always feel awesome, but I deserve to, and so do you.

Watcher in the Water

Right now, I’m querying, and it’s mostly a lot of waiting and worrying. In January, I’ll be tackling feedback from a beta reader, and I’m sure that will fill me with doubt and cause me to flail and agonize like I’m battling a baby water watcher, but there’s nowhere to go but forward. I’ve done the whole tango before. I can do it again.

And regardless of whether I find an agent and a publisher, I’m going to do the dance again, from the very beginning. I’ll start another book. And this time, I’ll try out some new moves.

That monster won’t know what hit him.