by John Peragine
When you embark on the journey to go a non-traditional route of publishing, including self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or small/medium-sized publishers, you take on a lot.
We concentrate so much on the craft that when it comes to handing it over to someone else, we often want to crawl back to the comfortable place and begin the creation process again. We don’t want to be bothered with publishing and, more importantly, how to actually sell that book.
It might be fun to pick out a cover or a cute font because that continues to be in our creative wheelhouse, but the rest I put under the umbrella of the “business of book writing.” I realized that this is where so many of us trip and fall down. Hard. Scraped knees with stinging mercurochrome slathered on top.
The Usual Artistic Pattern: Craft Before Business
I spent many years learning how to play the flute. Technique exercises. Etudes. Sonatas and Concertos. Mixed in were orchestral excerpts. I played with concert bands, pit orchestras, and symphonies. I had private lessons, masterclasses, performing arts high school, and another five years of college. Can I play the flute? I hope so. Too many hours of practice and money were invested not to be a decent performer.
You know what they don’t teach? The business of music.
All those years of learning how to play and I didn’t know how to find work, negotiate a contract, approach a music producer, or any of those things that would actually monetize my efforts. I was so naïve, and it was not bliss. It was learning the tough way - via failure.
I got screwed a lot when I first got out of school. I should have paid the organizers of gigs for the pleasure to play because I didn’t know what my craft was worth or where to go to make more money. Did I learn? Sure I did, or I would have become the cliché starving artist.
Artists, authors included, starve not because they are bad at their craft, but because they are bad at selling their art.
When I decided to write full-time in 2008, I was even more naïve. I didn’t know what a "good" book contract was, I was just happy to have one. I can tell you, I gave everything away. I happily signed my rights to the works with my name on them for pennies. The publishers who bought those books continue to this day to make money off those books. I make nothing. Not a penny.
I got smarter right? Smarter, yes, but wiser? Not so much.
I learned about all kinds of things like author platforms, marketing, and what a return was. Powerful, very costly lessons. I was so excited to see Costco, Sam’s Club, and Barnes and Noble buy my book. I could walk into those stores and see columns of my books. Oh, the painful vanity of it all! Three months later, all those beautiful royalties turned from black to red.
Two Important Lessons
I needed a cure for my almost terminal naivete, or I needed to hang it up. I had to do two important things: I needed to figure out my relationship with making money at writing, and I needed to figure out how to do it.
The first lesson came in the form of a new book that covered the history of the world-renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Their history was deep, and Iowa City was only an hour away. I had a publisher send me a contract- I was ready to go. I was going to talk to the movers and shakers, the gods and goddesses of literary fiction.
I felt I was one of them. I was a published author. They were published. We were kindred.
We were not kindred.
They wrote for the excellence of the written word. Their prose is elegant and sophisticated. They didn’t write for the money. It was about perfection and artistry. Money and the concept of genre fiction were the dirty words of sell-outs. To say I was run out of town might sound dramatic, but alas, that is what happened. It became so bad, I had to break my contract with my publisher. I was shunned and could not continue my research.
I looked at my writing. Did I want a Pulitzer, or did I want to pay my mortgage? I am not suggesting that those two things were mutually exclusive, but I am a genre writer at heart. The idea of going back to school to get an MFA was not something that I felt was going to help me achieve my goals.
I’m not saying that I didn’t want to write great books, but I wanted to be able to sell them for a profit. I am a ghostwriter, and I have written many books, so I knew I could write something commercially viable. I needed to consider part 2: how to make money writing.
Four Sides of the "Success Formula"
Here is the simple formula of just about any business. And books are a small business that you can grow.
Money makes money.
Simple right? Yeah, if you have the first part of that formula. Even if I had a traditional contract, I needed to know how to make money alongside their efforts.
So here is the second formula that I figured out.
The fewer people who know you and your work, the more it is going to cost you.
Name recognition or book recognition is worth literal gold bars in your bank.
Having a bunch of followers and an extensive list does not mean dollars in your account.
I could have a million followers and a robust mailing list, and unless they are the right audience and I knew something about how to get them to buy my book, then I could be the next JK Rowling on paper and not make a single sale. This is true of self-publishing or a traditional publisher.
The smaller my ignorance, the greater sales I was going to make.
I didn’t need to invest more money in ads because I may as well take that cash out back and set it on fire. Instead, I needed to make an investment in myself. I needed to pay for some learning.
Oh boy…there are more crooks in the space of teaching you marketing than there are in the space of vanity publishers. Lots of bad info, and just absolute trash. I did find success, but I will not publish here where I landed because I do not want to make endorsements on this blog. Send me a message and I’ll tell you.
What I have found was that I was even more profoundly misinformed and ignorant than I knew. I have tested what I have learned now, and not only am I making more money, I am paying less money for marketing. In fact, the process has been so positive I feel ashamed to have called myself a semi-successful author for as long as I have.
This time I've made money with some actual knowledge, and I am growing my writing career. In the short term, I can create an automated process of selling my books with predictable outcomes. But it is still taking me time away from creating new works. That is short-term because my long term is to hire someone else to take over some of these tasks. I feel confident in hiring someone because I know better what I need and want them to do.
I spend time EVERY day learning more. Taking classes and taking notes. I spend time testing what I have learned and make adjustments as needed. It is exciting to see success and feel like I can grow my writing career that even has a built-in retirement plan. Imagine that!
My takeaway for you: accept that you need help. We all do.
Educate yourself. Invest in yourself. Take the time necessary to achieve your goals. Of course, they are your goals, and so my methods for achieving mine may not work for you. But I can say unequivocally that unless you establish a dream, make a plan to achieve it, and revisit it every day, you will feel frustrated and unhappy with unpredictable results. A defined dream has a much higher chance of becoming your reality.
What's your writing dream? What are you doing to educate yourself? Who do you recommend and why? Please share it with us down in the comments!
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You can learn more about his books at JohnPeragineBooks.com.
His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, was released on April 20, 2021. Click here to buy a copy.
by Kris Maze
Quick. On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is "totally under control" and 5 is "terrified to say," how are you managing your Writing To-do List?
If you have a structured, highly functioning system for marketing your author brand and still have time to write, then happily move along. But the chances are that technology changes and a variety of unfinished projects, leave many authors with an answer closer to 5 (terrified to say) than not. Myself included as I recall being overwhelmed by a “failed to launch” error on a social media post I spent too much time creating.
Authors juggle multifaceted platforms, often as solitary entrepreneurs. This effort is important, but is it worth the cost of writing your novel?
If you can relate, you may find relief in my intention to stress less and to declutter my writing to-do list in a systematic way. Perhaps some of the exercises here will help you prioritize your writing goals and create a focused writing plan.
In order to have a lasting career and a growing audience, author marketing simply can’t be ignored. Interacting through various media, as many experts suggest, is key to getting more readers. Not sure where to start? This recent WITS post, by Penny Sansevieiri, covers where readers and agents should easily find your author platform online.
My Refocusing Strategy
In today’s post, I’ll share my refocusing strategy, the steps I used to declutter my tasks and how-to prioritize writing projects. In part 2, I'll dabble with personalizing time management and share steps to create a schedule that fits your productivity goals and lifestyle.
To try this plan on your own, set aside a few minutes to dream up your best writing workflow. Your results may surprise you, like mine did, and investing time in your writing dreams is never a loss.
Step 1 Goal Setting for Authors: How to get your writing unstuck
In previous WITS posts, we examined how your physical surroundings and writing mindset can change your writing state of flow. Writing also depends on building a strong author platform with robust relationships with other authors and readers who follow what you write. Many authors risk losing the productive joy of writing unless they take charge of their writing time and identify what they really want to accomplish. Let’s start with identifying what you want the most from your writing career.
What’s in your Preposterous BAG?
What’s in your Preposterous BAG? Stolen from management philosophy, authors need a BAG, or Big Audacious Goal, to have a clear vision of what success means to them. We recognize that very few writers own a private helicopter and frequent prime-time interviews, but success depends on how we define it. The trick is to break it into smaller steps that begin right where we are. Hang with me as we break down the nitty gritty of achieving your writing goals.
CENTRAL QUESTION: What is your preposterous goal?
If you consider something moving you towards your dream, something that you can accomplish over the next 2 to 6 months, what would it be?
ACTION ITEM: Brainstorm for a few minutes and form a list of wish items and have-to writer tasks. Commit them to paper or pixel–we have time! (I recommend 5 to 10 minutes time to get your ideas flowing)
Some goal ideas: (Do any of these appear on your list?)
- Enter a short story into a contest.
- Monetize a freelance article.
- Write a query letter and have it reviewed.
- Research where to query a project and find a few agents interested in your genre/niche.
- Start an author website.
- Complete and edit 3 chapters of a novel for beta readers.
- Find and join a writing critique group
Step 2 Cleaning up: Create categories.
As I took a big picture inventory of my writing and created broad categories.
When I examined my goals from step 1, I had 6 projects in various stages of completion. Many projects gathered dust in the corners of my laptop and were not productive in my author business.
While I mentally and digitally sorted my files, I reduced my load by deleting multiple drafts, renaming confusing files, and parted ways with outdated materials.
I considered my shorter fiction that cluttered my mind. Writing short stories was a way to study new genres and try new techniques. These stories represented a lot of time I could have devoted to my manuscript. As I re-read the stories, I thought about how these smaller pieces could be re-imaged in my new business plan. My goal became to connect these works to my readers and give them a marketable home.
This is a great insight, but my writing process became even more fractured. The last thing I needed was to add more tasks to my list! Perhaps my system was failing?
CENTRAL QUESTION: Do my goals overlap into logical groups?
My categories for this round of writing tasks fell into 3 types:
- Short episodic fiction
- Marketing & website
- Educational materials
ACTION ITEM: Create categories on the work you want to finish, based on the goals you just wrote.
Step 3 Next Steps: Prioritize
ACTION ITEM: Take your Preposterous Goals and organize them on your favorite spreadsheet.
What? You don’t have a favorite one? That’s okay. I organized mine like this:
The first step in my analysis was to put all my data into a chart. If this sounds a little geeky, just try it.
- Planners – I KNOW you’ll love it.
- Plantsers – You will try it because, it may work and organizing is hard.
- Pantsers – You may hate doing it, but it is actually quite calming to put all those jumbling pieces into a neat chart. (If you are feeling frustrated before the exercise, it can’t hurt to try?)
Breakdown of steps:
1. Write all your tasks in the far-right column and assign them one of your categories.
2. Next think about how much time you need to spend on each item (think chapter or pages edited)
3. Then write in how often you would like this to happen ideally. If any of these are new to you and not something you are sure of–leave it blank. You can find out in the next stage when you check on how you did.
Here is my example:
Analysis: 2 prioritizing exercises to get to the heart of your goals
CENTRAL QUESTION: How do you feel about each of the Preposterous Goals that you wrote?
ACTION ITEM: It’s now time for the Gut Check analysis. Put a number between 1 (very easy to finish) to 5 (extremely hard to finish) as your impression on how much effort each task would take you. Keep this information close by as you will compare it to how you answer in the next exercise:
CENTRAL QUESTION: What have I already accomplished within each goal?
ACTION ITEM: Now, try the checkbox exercise. How many check boxes are true about each item on your list? Read though and jot down your totals for each of your goals.
Preposterous Goal #1- Check off all that apply for each project.
- I have an idea
- I have a first draft
- I have a revised draft
- I have feedback from beta readers and other writers on my draft
- I have an edited product ready for formatting
- I can format and create the final product for this project myself.
- I can format and create the final product for this project myself and ENJOY it!
- I have the resources or can pay for someone to complete my product.
- My product is already formatted and ready to query, put on the market, or post in public venue
- I have a marketing idea or plan.
- I have resources, programs, and time to create marketing materials.
- I have social media visuals, links, and ideas ready to create and I could schedule these easily.
Repeat the Checklist for each of your goals. The Spreadsheet from the beginning of the post has columns for both the Gut Check and The Check boxes.
- Planners–Have fun filling in all the boxes. What do you notice?
- Plantsers–You may find it useful if you do this reflection again during your next author planning session. You’ll appreciate your numbers from this session to make a comparison.
- Pantsers–If you figured out what your core goals and priorities are, you don’t need to fill in the spaces. The spreadsheet is a tool to serve your needs, not to become another to-do list item!
REFLECTION: Look at results for each item on your list and consider these questions:
- Do your gut responses match the Check boxes you identified?
- Are there projects that you could finish with little effort and only have a few steps remaining?
- Could you finish some of these items and make mental space for completing other creative work?
My Take-Away and A-Ha Moments
On my list, my top 3 goals were not ones I would have prioritized, but I discovered how to finish two list items and reap the benefits in a timely manner: connecting to my audience and providing them with fresh material. Those two became my focus in the next 2 weeks. My story series that will launch in a short deadline, so it also moved to top priority.
Before this exercise I didn’t consider these tasks as important or worthy to spend energy on them. Now, I saw how little I needed to do to accomplish my goal and to free up more writing time!
Three other goals, I was working on daily now ‘live’ on my secondary list. Once I complete a task, I bump another up to my primary focus list. Since I wrote this post, I have completed most of both lists.
Writers, if this process helps you focus and re-prioritize, I am genuinely happy for you. Go on and plan your writing with the comfort of knowing the writing will happen in the time you allotted each goal.
For me the time management didn’t turn out exactly as I planned it, as the tasks took less time when I did them in batches. I iterated after a couple weeks, looking over my 2-column scheduling method.
If you have a scheduling method that works for you, you are on your way to a more constructive writing life. For more information on how to follow through on your priorities, my next post here at WITS is about scheduling writing work into your lifestyle for less stress.
What were your results from the writing task exercises? What suggestions do you have for our readers? Please share with us in the comments below.
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Kris Maze is an author, freelance writer, and teacher. She enjoys writing twisty, speculative fiction with character-driven plots. After years of reading classic literature, mysteries, and thrillers, she wrote and publish her own books. She also writes for various publications including a regular post at the award-winning Writers in the Storm Blog.
When she isn’t spending time with her favorite people and pets, Kris Maze is taking pictures, hiking, or pondering the wisdom of Bob Ross. You can follow her author journey at her website at KrisMazeAuthor.com.
Look for her episodic YA dystopian fiction scheduled to release on Kindle Vella this summer!
by Jenny Hansen
A lot of leadership advice, training styles, and life philosophies pass by my desk in the course of my day job. Books like Emotional Intelligence 2.0, The Storyteller's Secret, and Start With Why are sitting in my workspace right now.
When I'm really really lucky, those leadership philosophies and "life rules" inform and enrich my day job AND my writing life.
If you've never heard of Simon Sinek, I think you'll like him. His mission in life is to inspire others and he's got some amazing lessons for creatives like the video below.
Simon Sinek's 5 "Life Rules"
You can go after whatever you want, you just cannot deny anyone else the ability to go after what they want.
In the video, he shares a story about how you perceive your goals - do you see what you want, or do you see the obstacle that stands in the way of what you want? This is a thought-provoking distinction. The only thing I didn't like about this story is the way he bypassed the obstacle. However, his point is valid.
- Focus on what you want.
- Don't impede others' success.
- You don't have to do it the way everybody has done it.
Sometimes you are the problem.
As an example for this, many writers I speak with self-sabotage. Here is a list of what their self-sabotage looks like:
- They over-commit.
- They put themselves and their writing last.
- They criticize themselves and their talent.
- They listen to others, rather than trusting their gut.
- They rush to publish, before they've done a deep edit or multiple drafts.
- They won't ask for help.
- They don't keep learning.
All of you are way ahead of the curve, just by being at blogs like WITS. You are for sure in the learning mindset already! And I promise I'm not picking on you with that bulleted list above - I do half these things as well.
Simon's hard-but-valuable advice: You can take all the credit in the world for things that you do right, as long as you also take responsibility for the things you do wrong.
Take care of each other. Writers overall are really good at this. We hang out with other writers, we talk about writing, we write. But what about making sure you reach out and ask, "what are you writing?" Or offering to do some chapter critiques?
Think of all the generous souls who helped baby-writer-you and pay those kindnesses forward. In the end, I promise you will get far more out of your volunteer time than you put in.
Simon's takeaway: If you wanna be a lead warrior (aka exemplary creative), you must be really really good at helping the person to the left of you, and to the right of you.
Be the last person who speaks. Simon shares a story about Nelson Mandela and his most important piece of leadership advice. Mandela's father was a tribal leader who let his son tag along. HIs father told him to "be the last person who speaks." Period.
Simon's point: To be a good leader, be the last person who speaks. It gives everyone the feeling, that they have been heard. And it gives you the benefit of hearing the others before you take action. Understand what they are saying.
(This bit is actually my favorite piece of advice.)
"As you gain position, people will treat you better. None of that is for you, it's for your position. It's for the level you have achieved as a leader. Be grateful for them, but remember. They are not for you..."
He explains what he means, but my favorite example of this comes from our own Laura Drake. She and I met in our local writing chapter and, as you might have guessed, we both jumped in to volunteer. One day, she was due to pick up a big-name author to drive her to the airport and was running around in a frenzy to get ready -- washing her car, changing her clothes multiple times, printing out a fresh copy of her manuscript.
When her husband asked her why she was fussing so much, she explained to him who she was driving. And he nodded and said, "That's nice. And just think, some day you'll be visiting a chapter to speak and some writer is going to be scrambling around getting ready to have Laura Drake in their car."
And he was right.
It's hard not to get used to the special treatment that comes your way. But with humility and gratitude usually comes happiness so just remember, "those perks aren't for you" and just be grateful in the moment for that perk.
A Timeline of the 5 Rules
Since 15 minutes is more than many of us have right now, I've included a summary I found of each lesson by time:
1. 0:40 - go after what you want
2. 4:50 - take responsibility for all your actions
3. 5:41 - take care of each other
4. 8:47 - listen first, speak last, don't agree or disagree but ask
5. 11:19 - everyone deserves a styrofoam cup
A word about creating your vision
This item, from another Simon Sinek video that's under two minutes, particularly resonated for me for writers:
"Vision is the ability to see that which does not yet exist. As we slowly bring that vision to life, more people will start to recognize the work we're doing and join our crusade. But, like an iceberg, there will always been much more waiting underneath the surface."
Many of us work for years on our books. We might have two books or ten or twenty out in the world before we see any kind of momentum at all. The first time I heard Robyn Carr speak, she shared that she was a thirty year "overnight success."
That's a lot of patience and perseverance to nurture your talent and your stories for so long without accolades. That's a long time to spend waiting for others to share your vision. I hope you are able to embrace the joy of your process and believe in your vision, even as you wait for the world to catch up.
I see the writing life as a conundrum - one that nearly every creative person struggles with: Your masterpieces exist to give you the joy of creation and the peace of mind of their completion. Us creators, on the other hand, want the joy of sharing those creations with others and watching them enjoy it.
Writers in the Storm is here to support you as you navigate your creative journey, conundrums and all.
What "life rules" have you found you apply the most often to your writing life? Which of Simon's rules resonates with you? Do you have other video motivations we should watch? Please share them down in the comments!
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By day, Jenny provides corporate communications and LinkedIn advice for professional services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
by Barbara Linn Probst
Stories are about what happens to the characters in them. It doesn’t matter if those characters are robots, pigs, spiders, or dragons. We read to find out how the character’s schemes and adventures turned out. Without characters, there’s no story.
In my experience, characters are “born” in different ways. Some appear fully-formed—how they look and talk, even their names. Others appear slowly, like a person walking toward me from far away. And still others have to be wrestled into existence; they almost seem to resist my need for them, requiring endless re-envisioning.
It doesn’t seem to depend on the character’s age, gender, background, personality, or how similar (or different) we are. In The Sound Between the Notes, for example, there are two minor characters, Beryl Dumont and Jimmy Ray Calhoun, who made themselves known to me at once, right down to their names. I didn’t have to search, struggle, or even think about how to bring them to life; they were vivid and authentic from the very beginning.
I wonder, sometimes: do we invent our characters, or do we get to know them? Do we build them, bit by bit, out of our storehouse of details and knowledge, as a landscaper might? Or do we coax them into existence, like a midwife, and marvel at the new person we’re eager to know?
Below are four questions, along with some practical strategies, that can help to create characters who are fully alive.
Why is this character needed?
That’s the first question we need to ask, and perhaps the most essential, because every character has to have a narrative purpose. By “narrative purpose,” I mean that the character has to evoke a specific struggle in the protagonist or be the agent of a critical emotional turning point in the story. If he weren’t there, the story wouldn’t work; the protagonist wouldn’t achieve her goal, or the story would have a different ending and thus a different premise. Merely being a “colorful character” isn’t enough to justify someone’s presence on the page.
The character’s role may suggest traits that embody, evoke, or serve as an intriguing contrast. For example, if you have a character whose story role is to periodically deflate your protagonist’s over-inflated balloon, you might want to give her a specific way of talking (e.g., no adjectives, short sentences) or a signature gesture (e.g., folding her arms, an offhand flick of her fingers) that conveys the impression of someone who’s only interested in the concrete here-and-now. A voice or gesture like this is congruous with her role in the story; it fits our image, and thus reinforces our perception.
On the other hand, you might want to create some depth and interest by giving her a trait that doesn’t seem to fit at all—an incongruous element that makes her vivid and intriguing. In a book that I’ll probably never finish, for good reason, I had a tough street-smart character whose hobby was carving tiny wooden animals.
The role has to be unique as well as essential; if two characters serve the same purpose, one has to go. You may want to combine them, preserving the more evocative aspects of each.
Best of all is when a character serves multiple purposes, or serves the same purpose at multiple moments in the story. For example, Daniel, the four-year-old son of the protagonist of Queen of the Owls, allows us to see Elizabeth as a loving mother, thus enhancing our connection and empathy. But Daniel’s innocent remarks also serve as the vehicle for several important plot twists. For him to serve these dual purposes, he had to be a certain age with a certain kind of personality—curious, talkative, blithely unaware. If I’d wanted to show Elizabeth as vain or short-tempered, I would have created a different son for her, one whose behavior would evoke those qualities so the reader could see them in action.
Why should the reader believe in this character?
The character can be someone we’re unlikely to meet in our own lives—more eccentric, heroic, talented, or tormented than anyone we’re apt to encounter—yet she still has to seem believable.
One way a writer can deliver a fantastic or larger-than-life character who also seems real is to give her a secondary trait that feels instantly and intuitively relatable—that is, credible, rendering the character herself credible. The trait can humanize a character who might otherwise seem unlikable or unapproachable. Think of Clemenza in The Godfather, a killer who enjoyed making homemade tomato sauce, or Chuck Yaeger in The Right Stuff, the unflappable pilot who broke the sound barrier and liked to chew Beeman’s gum.
What makes a character believable isn’t the tomato sauce, of course, but what it represents and evokes in us—in this case, a feeling of home, warmth, generosity. Characters in science fiction and fantasy, gods and goddesses in mythology, and other characters who clearly aren’t “real” can feel like they’re real when they act, react, and experience life the way we do. When a character yearns, rages, worries, mourns, or rejoices, we believe in his humanity. Think of Wilbur and Charlotte, pig and spider. You don’t need to be human to have humanity.
What happened to the character before page one of the story?
Once you’re clear about why the character belongs in your book and why the reader should accept her authenticity, the next thing to consider is what took place in her life before the story begins. Everything that happened to her during that time—childhood wounds and triumphs, choices she made, seminal influences and incidents—will affect her behavior in your story.
You need to know all of that—but your reader doesn’t. In other words, you need to know much more about her than the reader ever will. Sometimes a single gesture or a bit of dialogue is all you need in order for the reader to understand that this particular character acts on impulse or, in contrast, is afraid to commit. You, as author, need to know where the character’s impulsivity came from, especially if it’s crucial to the plot; knowing its origin, history, and the myriad ways it manifests provide the soil from which the character’s actions can emerge in a way that feels authentic, rather than trite or one-dimensional. But the reader might not need to know all that.
You may need to write pages and pages that never make their way into the book because they don’t move the story along. They have a different purpose, however— to help you get to know the character.
Start with the concrete details. What was her favorite childhood toy, article of clothing, animal, song? What’s her bedtime routine? What’s on her nightstand? What does she eat for breakfast? From there, you can let your mind take you back in time to the moments that made her who she is today. What does she dream about? How does she relax? How would someone know that she’s anxious or upset? It’s important to write all this out, not just think it. You might want to write it down in a special folder, separate from the manuscript.
Some people like to find a photo that looks the way they envision the character; they might even print the photo and tape it to their writing desk. You could even look for photos of the clothes the character might wear, the house she might live in. I don’t know anyone who searches for an audio recording of a voice that sounds the way their character would sound, but it’s certainly possible that a writer might do that! Think of how Prokofieff used different instruments to represent the various characters in Peter and the Wolf. Personally, I like to act out certain characters—to move across the room, sit and stand, the way they might.
No doubt there are many other prompts and tools. Use whatever helps you to feel your character as a living person.
What does it feel like to be in her skin?
In my experience, there’s one more step, beyond all the prompts, pictures, and exercises. Somehow you have to feel your character—what she fears, craves, loathes. Because each character is a part of your own self. That’s where it gets scary. You don’t actually have to experience whatever happens to Character X in your story, but you do have to dig down, open yourself, and feel that shame, rage, envy, despair, or humiliation inside yourself—where it already lives, in your own past or present.
Access it. Feel it. And then translate, re-embody it in your character.
What about you? How do you get to know your characters and let them come alive? Is there, or has there been, a character that keeps eluding you—a character whose “aliveness” you just can’t seem to feel? Do you have a hunch about why that it is?
Are there other strategies, in addition to the ones described here, that you’ve used to bring a character to life? Please share them with us down in the comments!
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BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on a historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was selected as one of the twenty most anticipated books of the year by Working Mother, a debut novel “too good to ignore” by Bustle, was featured in places like Pop Sugar, Entertainment Weekly, Parade Magazine, and Ms. Magazine. It also won the bronze medal for popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, placed first runner-up in general fiction for the Eric Hoffer Award, and was short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Barbara’s second book, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, launched April 2021.
By Linda Ruggeri
A few months ago, I posted my Memoir Writing 101 Series: Getting Started Part 1. Today I’m sharing Part 2, where we discuss with the same authors I wrote about, the positive things and surprises that came out of their memoir projects—the unintended consequences memoir writing can have in our lives.
When I work with memoir writers as their editor and/or writing coach, there is an inherent bond of trust that is forged. They promise to share their best work with me (which usually nobody has seen), and I promise to listen, read, and give them honest and helpful guidance that can make their manuscripts stronger.
It’s a delicate act and not one for the faint of heart (for either of us). I know I’ll be treading through different and sometimes difficult stories: some painful, some rewarding, some that took years to write, and some that are born out of pure passion—so what I say, and how I say it, can break or strengthen a person’s soul, or both.
Universal Writing Truth
In all manuscript revision processes, there are hard moments of truth we need to acknowledge (things we missed or omitted, points we never got across, sections we could have written differently). But there are also moments of great joy, where the writer finds themself in the words they’ve written and a sense of pride permeates the pages. The writer has found their voice and their story.
Here is part two of our conversation, printed here with their permission.
Linda: Can you tell me three positive outcomes that came from writing your memoir?
Christina (inspirational memoir)
I found writing my memoir to be very therapeutic. It allowed me to understand and work through some of my traumas. That isn't to say that I've completely fixed myself, but writing it all out was a good start. When I finally did go to counseling I knew exactly what I needed to work on and heal from.
Writing also forced me to sit down and focus on one thing for a certain amount of time every day. I work as a certified nursing assistant, so my mind is usually racing and cluttered, but when I had to sit down and write, I had to be very intentional and grounded with what I was doing. This approach worked and I enjoyed the process very much.
I also kept a promise to myself: That before I died that I would write a story about my life in hopes that it would inspire others out there who are going through a rough time. I also want to be able to share my story with my future children someday. When I finished writing it, I felt very proud of myself for not giving up, and for being honest with all the parts of my life.
- Writing memoir can be therapeutic and grounding.
- Being disciplined, and writing every day, guarantees you’ll finish your manuscript.
Carolyn (memoir author about a 40-year friendship)
The most positive thing that came from writing my memoir, was that I finished it and saw it through to publication. When I started writing it I wasn’t sure I’d be alive by the end due to many medical conditions, so that part went exceedingly well! My memoir is about a forty-year friendship I had with my neighbor Doris, and I didn’t realize how meaningful that friendship was until she passed away. It was this realization that moved me to write this memoir. I was afraid of how her family would take the book, but they had a very positive reaction, far better than I ever could have hoped for.
All the artwork in the book is mine, and that is something that I am immensely proud of. This memoir has brought new friends into my life and discussing my book has deepened friendships. Hearing that someone has changed their thinking and felt something more deeply has been a powerful reward I never had expected to have.
- Memoir affects other people’s lives and deepens relationships.
Ed (historical memoir)
What I enjoyed the most while I wrote my memoir was how many events I was able to recall triggered other memories. The "triggered memories” helped make connections to understand "how" and "why" some things happened. I was able to see my past with different eyes, and that of my parents and grandparents with so much more perspective, curiosity, and compassion.
I also enjoyed visiting historical societies and learning the specifics of certain things. How and why an early 1900s photo of my grandparents had been staged a certain way. What every item in that image meant. Touching historical documents and artifacts from the late 1800s—like a stereoscope, or a Twinplex blade stropper like the one my grandfather used—was very moving as well. I was able to revisit my past in a very tangible way and appreciated every minute of it.
- Memoir writing helps you develop perspective.
- It also makes you appreciate the small things in life.
Shelli (inspirational memoir)
From what I'd heard about "editing" I didn't think I would like or appreciate the suggestions and critique I received nearly as much as I did. This part of the writing process (revising my work after a developmental edit) was actually the MOST helpful and I appreciated it the most—even though sometimes it was very challenging to think through and figure out what I am/was really trying to say and how to say it more clearly.
I never realized how much chapter order—or the order of what is presented—can add to or detract from a story. The input I received on this was eye-opening for me.
I enjoyed experiencing firsthand that having someone edit your work isn't just for the mechanics of writing, it can help you be a better writer. I wasn’t expecting to learn so much. It’s made me a better writer.
- Working with an editor can help you become a better writer.
5 Mindsets for a Successful Memoir Writing Experience
Writing a memoir can seem overwhelming but with a game plan in place, not only is it doable, but it can be extremely rewarding. The following five tips/mindsets can increase the enjoyment of writing memoir:
- Writing memoir is therapeutic, even healing (and not every memoir needs to be published!)
- Writing our memoir will likely trigger other memories, and make us appreciate our lives—and how far we’ve come—a lot more.
- Writing memoir allows us to see the past with a new set of eyes, gain perspective, even learn something new about ourselves/our life.
- Our memoir can have an effect on the lives of others.
- A good editor will correct more than just the mechanics of writing, they can help you strengthen your manuscript so your message is clear, but also reaches your intended readers.
Now it’s your turn. Are you writing a memoir? What positive experiences have you had so far? Please share them with us down in the comments!
[Note: In Part 3 of this series we will discuss different ways to revise our memoir.]
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Linda Ruggeri is a full-service editor and project manager based out of Los Angeles. She co-authored the historical memoir Stepping Into Rural Wisconsin: Grandpa Charly’s Life Vignettes from Prussia to the Midwest and can be found online at The Insightful Editor and on Instagram. Her new book Networking for Editors will be released this summer.