Category Archives: Improving your Writing

Good Characters Make them Care

There are so many things to say about a character’s creation and how it defines the quality of the novel. They are the reason there is a story, so they need to be interesting. But how do you know that you nailed it? When your readers care about your characters.

I’ve often listened to people saying that they like this or that book because it makes them feel things. The character was so sweet, they were scared in that part he was in danger or so happy for her. The character needs to raise some feelings in them. It needs to make them care.

Even the most exciting plot in the world can feel shallow to the reader if you can’t make them care.

What ignites that sparkle?

Most things come down to the question, “How would you feel?” In this case, what makes you care? What makes you feel something? Ultimately, what makes you keep reading? Of course, not everyone is the same, but you’ll immediately have a part of the audience covered this way.

What makes you relate to a person if you try to think about people instead of a character? Maybe they are someone you have known your whole life. You know every struggle, every victory, and every moment, good and bad. That creates a fantastic relationship. But you can’t tell the entire story of your character, right? It is boring, and it will make your reader impatient.

What makes your readers relate to a character?

Each one of us has a different life story and different experiences and feelings about it. So, your readers will not necessarily relate to those things. However, we all go through some similar situations. One way or another, they are part of our lives whether we want them to or not. Let’s start there.

You relate to a person not simply because of who they are or what they are doing, but primarily for what happens to them. So, it is not about the character but the situation. Choose a situation that most human beings can relate to. Then, make your character go through it in the first pages.

Show them the way

Everybody can relate to a sad story, to a bad situation that can happen to all of us. That will make the reader relate, but does it make them care? Not necessarily.

Readers need to be able to identify themselves with the situation, but they want more. Most people read to dream, to make things better, so your character has to make it through those difficult situations. It is interesting, and it gives them hope. We all like a story of resilience. It warms our hearts and makes us feel more powerful.

A resilient character who fights their way to victory is something the reader can relate to and aspire to. Your readers would like to live that life, to be that strong – because all of us, at some point, felt so helpless, and we don’t want to. At this point, there is no return – your reader wants to know what happens next.

We all like a hero

We all had bad moments. General situations that could happen to anyone will make your reader relate to the character, but do not stop there.

They want a hero. They want this character who is apparently like them, but who can solve problems and have an inspirational, out-of-the-ordinary life. The kind they would want to live in. They want magic and hope.

Description – what to do and what to avoid

The description is an essential part of your story. It will allow your reader to visualize your scenes and your characters. You can make them smell and feel whatever you want them to. But, most importantly, a good description enriches your novel.

However, sometimes, it can backfire and make your story… boring. Who never read a book where you have pages and pages describing a few objects? They are boring, and no one cares about so many details. An example I like to give is a Portuguese writer, a classic and significant one we all study in high school: Eça de Queiroz. He took around ten pages to describe… a door! Yes, now, you can imagine how happy all Portuguese teenagers are about reading his work, right?

Now, you definitely want to provide your readers with a good description. Yet, you can’t bore them. So, here you have a few essential tips for doing it right.

Include it within your story

Lots of descriptive sentences, separated from the scene you’re telling, will become incredibly dull. Imagine stopping the action and start describing the chair where the character sat down. Is it something you would like to read?

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t describe the chair. I’m only stating that you should try to mix the description into the action. Describe one or two characteristics while you keep telling what’s happening. For example, your character sits on… give a general characteristic of the chair to describe it. Next, imagine your character looks down. He could notice something, a detail you want your readers to know about.

This way, they will visualize it quickly, and they won’t even notice!

Keep it simple

Many pretentious words, as if it is some kind of decoration for your story, will not work near the readers. They want to visualize what you’re describing, so you don’t want to put an extra intellectual effort into them.

Keep it simple and appeal to their imagination. But remember, simple doesn’t mean generic. Otherwise, your story will look too shallow.

Daydream!

Don’t force a description on paper, only because it’s needed. Don’t start by writing the biggest number possible of beautiful, meaningless words, trying to build something from them. First, imagine the local where your scene is taking place. Visualize it in your head without criticism. Then try to put it on paper, the best you can!

Imagination

Reading appeals to your imagination and experiences. Your readers will visualize your scenes according to their experience. Therefore, it is useless to describe an object meticulously, beyond extremely boring.

Provide your readers some clues on how things and people look like between the action. Let them use their imagination and finding out how a character, an object, or a place looks like at their own pace.

How to keep the interest in your readers

A writer’s biggest desire is for their readers to keep reading the story until the very last page. The scariest thing? Readers losing interest somewhere in the middle of it.

What can you do to make your readers come back to your story after they put the book down for some reason? How do you keep them interested?

Keep the interest

The most common advice is to use cliffhangers.

A cliffhanger is a way to end your scene, where your character, usually the protagonist, is facing some sort of life or death situation. Something really dramatic. Is that good? Sure, especially if you are writing an action-adventure novel. In that case, it is perfect. Yet…

If it’s not the case, you may need to rethink that option.

They need to care

A good story touches the readers. They care about the characters and what happens to them. This is your main concern: to make them care.

The most important thing to make your readers care is the character itself . Bring them to life; your characters need goals, a life story, a personality!

After you build the right character, you can end the scene with it in trouble. There are also rules here. You must think of the right kind of trouble – the one that makes the reader somehow worry about the character. You need them eager to know how the character will get rid of the issue.

No one cares if the laziest guy in the office is fired. However, if it’s someone who really makes an effort, or desperately needs their income, it’s more likely that your readers will turn the page to see what happens next. If you want to apply this idea to the villain, it is also possible. Imagine the lazy guy being promoted. Your readers will probably be furious and want to see how far he can go with it.

The character in question doesn’t need to be the protagonist. There are more characters in your book, and their depth is also a good quality mark for your readers. A perfect protagonist surrounded by a bunch of flat characters doesn’t make a good story.

Another way of keeping the interest is to end a scene with your point-of-view character making a decision that might go very badly. He’s facing a difficult situation and decides to take a risk. It has everything to go wrong but still… If it works, it will change your character’s life totally. That’s something your reader will want to know how it ends.

You are also a reader

I can’t get enough of this advice. I don’t know a single author that isn’t also an avid reader. It is crucial to learn and to understand what works.

In the end, the most important is the reader. So, if you still have any doubts about your choices, just put yourself into their shoes. What makes you turn the page?

Working with Point-Of-View

When you decide to write a story, you must determine who is going to tell it. At this point, you start thinking about point-of-view (POV). What would be more interesting for the reader? Generally speaking, there are two possibilities, telling the story in the first person or telling it in the third person.

After that decision, it’s time to get to the details. If you go with the first-person option, who would be the one telling the story? Why?

Even if you choose to have an external narrator to the story (third-person), you must decide if he would be omnipresent or follow a specific character or group of characters. Perhaps, your narrator is trapped in one place and can only observe what’s happening there.

First-person

This is, usually, what I prefer for my novels. You choose one character, and he or she is the one telling the story.

The benefits are in the emotion and the connection with the reader. The reader accesses the interior monologue and emotions directly by your character’s voice. This way, you make your reader build a very close relationship with one specific character and see the whole story through its eyes.

On the disadvantage side, you only access to his own thoughts and emotions. You see what he sees; you listen to what he listens… and nothing else. You have no clue about who the other characters are or what they are thinking, except through the interpretation of your narrator’s character.

Third-Person

In the third person, you have a completely different narrator and options. The narrator is someone outside the story, telling what is going on.

With the third-person point of view, you may also have interior monologue and emotion, but its told by a different person from the one having the feelings. This gives you the possibility of summarizing some thoughts, which might be the best course of action at some points.

A fascinating advantage of this POV is the fact that you can use your own voice to tell the story instead of using your character’s voice. When you’re using someone else’s voice, you have to focus on what he or she would think, how would that specific person tell this or feel that.

More important, your narrator can see and know everything about everybody. The omniscient narrator knows things that none of the characters know yet, and that can be a very interesting way to explore the story in some genres.

“Head-hopping”

Head-hopping is a technique inside the first person category, and it’s surrounded by controversy. This technique is about switching POV characters within a single scene.

Many writers defend that this will be a less powerful emotional experience for the reader. This group claims that first-person POV is about seeing the scene through the eyes of a single character, see what he sees, smell what he smells… In short, the reader interprets the world through his eyes.

However, other authors believe head-hopping can make the emotional experience even more powerful. You have access to the most profound thoughts and feelings of a character, but you are not limited to one single character.

I, personally, don’t have a definitive opinion about it. I tried it before, and honestly, it didn’t work. Nonetheless, I like the idea of being able to give voice to multiple characters about a specific event, while it’s happening. So, I believe that, if well-done, it can work perfectly for some stories.

Which one is the best for me?

Choosing the right POV is vital when you’re writing a novel or short story. Yet, it’s not an easy thing to do. You must have a good knowledge of each option and train with each one of them. It’s essential to be comfortable writing in both first and third person. Otherwise, you’ll be limiting yourself.

Other than that, it will depend mostly on the story itself and on how do you think it should reach your readers.

My advice is, if you are not sure about which POV is better for your story, then write a few scenes from each POV and see what feels right for you.

Procrastination: some tips to keep you motivated in your writing task

Procrastination is a common problem in any area. Many of us have to fight hard to find ways of motivating ourselves to finish what we start. It can be a tough task, right?

You may feel frustrated every time you hear, “Well, you love it. If it is your dream, why don’t you do it?” The answer is quite obvious: because of life! Life happens. Things get in the way, and at the end of the day, you feel exhausted.

As a writer, especially if you have another job (which most of us are forced to, unfortunately), this is especially true. However, with the right mindset and dedication, it’s possible to overcome procrastination. How? I have some tips to help you.

Commitment

First of all, commitment. The truth is: how many times do you get up in the morning, and the last thing you wanted was to go to work? But you go anyway! You must do the same thing with writing.

You may be tired or not in the mood. Go for it anyway. Don’t wait for inspiration, sit, and write something. If you want to be a writer than writing is your job.

Less is More

New ideas are exciting, and they make us want to follow them immediately. It’s a trap. Take notes of all the new ideas you have in a different document or a notebook, and stick to your job. Having too many projects at the same time will end in no finished projects.

Plan

An outline will help you to avoid a moment when you don’t know what to write. Check the post Planning: a story is more than an idea to know more.

Goal

Keep your goal in mind, even in those moments when you don’t want to write. The path is hard, but remember, finishing the book is, by itself, a tremendous success.

Some authors are focused on what comes next and get scared with all the problems with publishing and marketing. Just try to ignore that for now. Focus on one step at a time. Allow yourself to feel the satisfaction of finishing your project, and then you worry about the rest.

Training

It is, indeed, a matter of training. Human beings can do amazing things, but they have to train for it. It’s the same with writing.

Force yourself at writing a minimum every day (might be in minutes, or the number of words, as you prefer), and in no time, it will be part of a routine, and it will become easier.

I don’t have the time!

The lack of time is probably the most common problem for any writer. It’s challenging to find a break in your schedule, but with some planning, you can do it.

Let’s try something for a week. You write down everything you do during the day, and the time you spend on each thing. Mainly focus on those things you do every day. Then find holes, find things that you can cut out, or at least, spend less time with them. Even 10 minutes, it’s better than nothing.

Try to use that time you got for a couple of days. If it works, perfect! Doesn’t it? Try again. If writing is that important to you, you’ll find a window in your schedule. It’s a matter of priorities.

Always remember: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” (Richard Bach). So, don’t wait for the perfect moment or idea, just go for it.

Planning: a story is more than an idea

When you start to think about a story, what you usually have are some episodic ideas. Despite their quality, those ideas are not a story, even less a novel. Those need a plot and a structure.

I’m not saying that your ideas are not necessary. Every time you have an idea, you should take note of it with all the details, situations, and pieces of dialogue. It might be useful when you have the actual story. Some of those ideas you’ll use, some you will not. You’ll never know which ones are good enough at the moment they occur to you, so write them all down.

Major steps of planning

Writing a good story or novel takes some planning. Planning a good story takes some hard work.

When preparing your story, make sure you have all the main points worked out before you start writing the first draft. For that, you can’t neglect four important steps.

1. Know the genre

First of all, you must know the genre you’re trying to write in. There is no other way of doing this than read a lot of books in that genre. Study them.

Observe their structure, realize what they have in common, the distribution of the scenes, the rhythm. Try to find out why is the book interesting (or not). The most you know about it, the better.

2. The conflict

No conflict, no story. The most critical part of your story is the conflict. It is what makes your audience interested and catch your readers.

There is no story without a conflict, which makes it a massive step towards your goal. Take all the time you need in it. Do some research on tips and good practices. The conflict is the center of everything, and you need to think carefully about it.

3. Organize your ideas

Remember those ideas you wrote before? The ones that came into your mind in the most unexpected places? That’s right. It’s time to get and organize them.

Reread what you wrote, improve the best ones and try to see where (if) they fit in. At this point, you are already working on the actual structure of your story. Start choosing what goes in each chapter.

4. Go deeper into each scene

Before you start writing the first draft, retake a look at your former ideas. At this point, the best ones should already be scenes for your chapters.

Observe what you have now very carefully, and go deeper into each scene. Add descriptions, dialogues, and other essential details. That will make your life easier when it comes to the time to start writing.

Outline

Outlining your story is, without a doubt, a great help. There are, nonetheless, authors that refuse to use an outline. Well, that’s okay, it’s not exactly mandatory, but it will definitely, make your work faster and easier.

With an outline, you can try ideas, explore them without making them permanent. It allows you to explore more without so much commitment.

The outline gives you the possibility of not being stuck at one point. You’ll always know what to write next, and as you’re writing, new ideas will keep coming to your mind. All of them help to turn the original plot even richer.

Inspiration is hard work

Many people think that a great writer has a stroke of inspiration, sits down at his desk and write the next Nobel Prize nominee. That’s far away from the truth!

Inspiration is the fruit of several months (sometimes years) of hard work. The good news is that, in the end, you might have that masterpiece after all.

No conflict, no story

The conflict is the center of any story. You have a conflict, and subsequently a story but NEVER, ever, the other way around.

When you’re thinking of writing a story, the first thing to think about is the conflict and your plot is to be built around it. If there is none if it seems not to be ideal for whatever you were imagining, then think again. You might not have a story there.

Usually, you have this sort of structure: you have a main character that has a goal, but there is something keeping him from reaching it, a problem to solve, then your character will take action to solve the aforementioned problem, usually other issues and difficulties will be showcased along the way (most provoked by his actions to solve the first one, the big one), then he solves the main problem and the story ends. Simple.

The “problem” might be something as simple as an argument, unrequited love or someone just trying to sabotage your character. It doesn’t need to be (but could very well be) a world-changing problem.

So, how to do it?

It’s actually quite simple and you don’t need to have a tremendous epiphany to start. Usually, when you’re thinking about a story, you have a character in mind. Now, think about a goal for that character. Something that makes them move, tick, or something they otherwise want very much.

Now, the problem. What will actively try or passively keeping him from reaching that goal? Or who? How? What is going to happen?

Now that you have the main part, you just need to think, about what your character is going to do to solve the problem or get rid of their obstacle. These actions will most likely raise new problems and new actions need to be taken to solve them.

And, with this, the hardest part of your job is done! Next, you develop your scenes, starting from this last point onwards to the main goal.

Rules: Is this OK?

I could fill this post with an enormous amount of rules that mostly work for any novel you want to write, but that isn’t the point here.

Any writer, especially the ones who are just beginning, ask themselves now and then: Should I do this? Is that allowed? Can I write this scene like this? This is amazingly good and will help you a lot in order to build your story and give your work some quality, but let’s talk about writing rules in general: they are guidelines, not rules!


You can, if it works

No matter how peculiar your ideas might seem, if they work for your story, then you can use them. This is the only actual rule.

Do you want to tell your story from the flea point of view? You can, as long as it makes sense in the context. Now, you are probably thinking: OK, so how can I know if it works? The answer is easy: try it. Experiment, write different versions of a scene, for example, to determine who should be telling the story, if the narrator is sarcastic, funny or serious, if the narrator gives its opinions or merely describes what is taking place. You decide.

Flashbacks

One of the major problems a writer faces is how to tell background story and flashbacks are a commonly known way of doing it, however, most people would say “no” to it. So, are they allowed?

The reason flashbacks seem to be so hated is because you’ll need to stop telling the main story, to introduce the ancient story and most of the time, it’s not worth it. Again, these are guidelines, which work most of the time, but your story might very well be the exception and that is OK!

If it is, in your particular case, so important to describe something that happened before, do it! And that goes for any other guidelines too. If your story works best by breaking a rule, then please do it!

Experiment! Have fun! Try new things! Maybe you’re a visionary making something new and amazing, or maybe you’ll fail and need to start all over again. It doesn’t matter. There are so many options out there to be explored! Just enjoy yourself and never stop writing!

Fantasy Worlds: how to make them work?

Writing about some fantasy world can be a lot of fun, as is reading about them. I’m sure you’ve already read many a book containing descriptions of worlds that don’t exist at all, yet still managed to feel so amazingly real! You almost wanted to live in them.

However, when you’re creating a whole new world, you might face some challenges and sometimes end up feeling that it’s not as “real” as others you might have read about. Don’t know why? Well, the rule is simple: make up the underlying reality inside your mind, before putting it into words.

 

Imagination is the key

Imagination is like a muscle you can, and should, train and you must use it as much as you can whilst creating your stories. It’s the perfect tool!

Sometimes, though, building something out of nothing might be difficult, so you need a starting point, such as places and people you know, a crazy dream you had or even a strange idea on your mind. Pick it and work on it. Always remember: it doesn’t have to be perfect on the first try.

What you need to do is to make it real in your mind and then, you’ll more easily put it into words, in order to showcase your world to your readers. Make them see what’s in your mind as if they were watching a movie.

 

It has to have some rules

No one finds a random place, where everything is random, believable, so coherence is absolutely required. For example, if in your world people can read someone else’s thoughts, it can’t be always good or always bad, right? And if it’s something normal, or usual, there, they will probably deal with it much more easily than we would in our real world, right? No matter how crazy it might sound, it has to make sense inside the world you have created.

Another important question is the background. Unless you’re creating a new world, that had just appeared (and, like that, it would have its own consequences for the story), your world has a history. You don’t need to tell everything, but it has to be in your mind, because the past always has consequences in the present behavior, for example.

Lastly, if you’re still not sure of what you’re writing, there are some question you can ask yourself which might help:

How would it be if…?

How would I feel if…?

How would most people react to…?

In the end, I’m sure you’ll have a very interesting world to read into, talk about and fall in love with.