Thursday, April 28, 2011

Creating Compelling Characters by Jodie Renner

Quick – who are your favorite fictional characters? Some of my favorite thriller writers are Lee Child, Harlan Coben, and C.J. Box. Their plots are riveting and keep me on the edge of my seat, but it’s the characters that endear themselves to me and stay with me longer – Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett. And I’ve just recently met Michael Connelly’s very likeable defense lawyer Mickey Haller. And who can forget Janet Evanovich’s great cast of characters—not to mention all the excellent characters in our favorite stand-alone novels!

Your novel can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. The fiction writer’s greatest challenge is character development.” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)

Your protagonist needs to be likeable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. –And don’t make your villains 100% evil, either.

Please – no annoying protagonists

Your main character can and should have a few faults, but overall, she needs to be sympathetic and likeable – not whiney, ditzy, cold, immature, or annoying. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character. If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist and what happens to her within the first few pages, she will put down the book and go on to another one. As James Scott Bell says, in fiction, “readers will respond only if they are connected, bonded in a way to the lead character.” (Revision & Self-Editing)

A perfect character is insufferable

Don’t make your main character too good to be true. Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes.” As Mittelmark and Newman so aptly put it, “Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they’re better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be true.

“Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life. Making them nicer than the average reader will earn the reader’s loathing, or make her laugh in disbelief.” (Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel)

Develop those cardboard characters

To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears and insecurities, hopes and desires, likes and dislikes, quirks and attitudes, and strengths and triumphs. Many of these details won’t make it into your novel, but knowing them yourself will make your character more complex and well-rounded, and reduce the chances that you have him acting out of character.

Also, a sure-fire way to deepen your characters is to have them react more to events. Show how they’re feeling, through their words, actions, and body language. An emotionally flat character is boring.

Give your protagonist charisma

“GRIT, WIT, AND IT.” – That’s James Scott Bell’s answer to the question “What makes a great Lead character?” Here are a few of his points about each of these essential attributes:

GRIT – “Let me lead off with the one unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction: No wimps!

A wimp is someone who just takes it. Who reacts (barely) rather than acts. While a character may start out as a wimp, very early on he must develop real grit. He must do something. He must have forward motion. Grit is guts in action.”

No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve their life. As Bell says, “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in your story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.”

WIT – Wit can rescue a character from a moment that can become just maudlin self-pity, or be overly sentimental, almost sappy, and will enliven even a negative character. As Bell says,

“Find an instance when your character can gently make fun of himself. Work that into a scene early in the book. This makes for a great first impression on the reader.”

IT – “It” means “personal magnetism – sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘It’.”

Bell gives several suggestions for making sure your lead character has “it”, including:

“Work into your novel an early scene where another character is drawn to your Lead character. This can be because of sex appeal, power, or fascination. It can be subtle or overt. But this will set It in the minds of the readers.” (Revision & Self-Editing)

And don’t forget to give your main character plenty of attitude!

Don’t wimp out on us

“Fiction writers too often forget that interesting characters are almost always characters who are active—risk-takers—highly motivated toward a goal. Many a story has been wrecked at the outset because the writer chose to write about the wrong kind of person—a character of the type we sometimes call a wimp.” (Jack M. Bickham, The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them))

As Jessica Page Morrell says, “Your characters can be neurotic or despicable, vain or shallow, but they must always be vivid, fascinating, and believable, and their actions, decisions, and motives must propel the story to an inevitable conclusion. […] Usually the writer simply doesn’t realize that his character is a dishrag type because he modeled the character after a real person or he doesn’t realize that fictional characters differ from us mere mortals.” (Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us)

So don’t model your hero after someone you know. He needs to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Morrell puts it, “fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.”

Make sure your protagonists aren’t boring, perfect, annoying, or wimpy. Make them appealing and memorable by giving them charisma, flaws, likeable traits, and above-average moral and physical strength and inner resources.

Copyright © Jodie Renner, March 2011

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”

Thursday, April 21, 2011

How to Make Digital Books Work for You by Agent Kevan Lyon

I am always in awe of authors and agents who seem to easily write thought provoking or inspiring blogs, and the few times that I give it a go I seem to struggle to come up with something nearly as interesting as what is out there! But, that said I will give it a go and talk about something that is foremost on everyone’s minds these days in the agent/author world – e-publishing and self publishing and what it all means for each of us?

I have always thought that the introduction and adaptation of e-books was a positive thing for authors, giving them more opportunities to bring their work to readers and to make their “author-brand” more widely known. In the early days I thought e-books represented incremental sales to the traditional retail market. Now, with the loss of retail bookstores and the amazing ease of use and power of the many reading devices, there seems to be no doubt e-books are replacing some traditional print books sales.

For authors, digital books represent a real alternative to get their work published for the first time, or maybe even more importantly, e-books can become part of an overall strategy to reach new and existing readers and draw them to their work, both in print and e-book formats. For debut authors stepping into the world of e-publishing on their own, I think it is an amazing opportunity, but proceed with care. There will be so much content available that rising above the fray and getting your work noticed by readers will be an ever greater challenge. Be sure that what you are publishing is your best work, it will always be out there – and may bring you a nice royalty check, or painful reviews that may haunt you for some time to come. Consider investing in editing and a well designed cover. The world of self-publishing may begin to look like a giant agent slush pile of reading, and to be honest reading through that can be painful at times. But in the end readers will ultimately dictate what is sold, read and reviewed, and early indications seem to point towards established authors topping the e-book bestseller lists, although there are those lovely surprises that can be found out there. Yes, there are the few self-publishing mavericks we have all read about that are making zillions of dollars, but don’t expect this when you put your book up for the first time and you can just enjoy the “ride” and you just may be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Should this deter a new author from stepping into this world? Absolutely not. For new authors who have tried to sell to traditional NY publishers this may be your chance to prove them all wrong – you can be the next runaway bestseller. Or, if you are just stepping into the publishing fray you may want to approach your writing career strategically with e-publishing as just one of the many approaches you plan to take to reach your readers. I encourage my clients to explore including digital-only stories in their writing plan. If you are working with a traditional publisher you may be able to publish a short story that introduces characters in your upcoming book, or provides a transition between books in a series. Some publishers are introducing a writers’ backlist at value prices, digitally - to introduce that author to new readers just before their new release. Keep existing readers engaged with your writing, by providing them more, or tempt new readers into your series with that well priced novella you just published in a digital first format. If you are lucky enough to have options, coming up with a creative combined print and digital strategy will be your best bet.

In this very exciting time in publishing – and I do see it that way – I think authors have the chance to connect with readers in a way that they never have before, and it all points towards a very interesting future for this business that we all love.


Marsal Lyon Literary Agency – Kevan Lyon

With over 20 years in the publishing business, including 5 years as a Literary Agent with the Dijkstra Agency and 17+ years on the wholesale, retail and distribution side of the business, Kevan Lyon brings an informed and unique perspective to her work with clients. Her background on the buying and retail side of publishing affords her helpful insight into what types of books will sell and how to market them. Kevan holds an MBA from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

Kevan handles women’s fiction, with an emphasis on commercial women’s fiction, young adult fiction and all genres of romance. Her particular interest is historical fiction of all types. She is particularly drawn to stories that draw the reader in and loves a sweeping, complex story with strong female characters. Her authors in women’s fiction span a broad range of genres from more literary, commercial projects to all genres of romance including historical, contemporary, suspense and paranormal. She loves to be surprised by a unique plot or characters and is always looking for a new, fresh voice or approach. A few of Kevan’s recent and soon to be published books include UNFORGETTABLE, by Laura Griffin (Pocket Books); SCOUNDREL by Zoe Archer (Kensington); LEGACY by Cayla Kluver (Harlequin Teen); CATFISH ALLEY by Lynne Bryant (NAL), THE GENTLEMAN POET by Kathryn Johnson (Morrow); THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS by Lynn Sheene; THE GUARDIAN by Margaret Mallory (Grand Central Publishing) and EARL OF DARKNESS by Alix Rickloff (Pocket Books).

She is also interested in non-fiction, representing authors in the areas of current events, narrative, memoir, environment, parenting and pets/animals. With non-fiction projects she looks for topics that she is passionate about or that speak to issues of particular concern to women and families.

For more information visit the agency web site at, visit their Facebook page, or follow Kevan on Twitter!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Don't Mess With Me (Please?) by Alan Orloff

I have a recommendation for all crime writers: Attend a Citizen's Police Academy.

I did, and it was a fantastic way to see what police departments really do (the only better way might be to enroll in the real police academy and become an honest-to-goodness cop).

Many local law enforcement jurisdictions hold their own Citizen Academies (or some version of one--make a few calls, you'll be surprised). Mine was put on by the Herndon Police Department (in VA), where everyone involved was absolutely great--friendly, informative, generous. We met every Wednesday night for 12 weeks, and the sessions encompassed a wide range of police activities.

Undercover narc cops spoke to us about the seamy underbelly of the drug world, regaling us with some amazing stories and showing us what different drugs looked like, up close and personal. Gang specialists told us about dealing with different gangs and how to spot gang activity. We watched a K9 unit demonstrate "take-down" techniques, and we hit the streets to work the LIDAR gun (sorry Mrs. Peterson, but I clocked you going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone).

We went to the evidence lab and learned how to expose fingerprints with superglue fumes, we observed the lie detector in use (excuse me, the polygraph), and we got to fire live weapons on the firing range. A word of warning: Don't mess with me--I put all five rounds in the inner circle, and it was the first time I'd ever even touched a real gun. Okay, I think it was from five yards away, but still...

Another highlight was our visit to the County Detention Center (aka, the jail). Talk about an eye-popping experience! We toured the whole thing--intake, processing, fingerprinting, breathalyzers, the holding cells, regular cells (pods, I think they were called), as well as the "special" cells. Fascinating, and mighty depressing. Talk about getting scared straight!

While all those experiences were terrific, the topper was my ride-along with a police officer.

I'll take you back to that Saturday night on the mean streets of Herndon...

We'd been cruising for about two hours or so, checking out the normal trouble spots, and we'd gotten the usual calls. Excessive noise at a sketchy apartment complex, some possible gang activity near the 7-Eleven, a D-and-D (that's drunk and disorderly, for all you, uh, rookies) at a local bar. Just your typical shift. Then the radio crackled to life again (notice how police radios always "crackle to life.").

There was a report of people--several people--running through the Community Center's parking lot with rifles. "Hold on," the officer beside me said. "This could get hairy." She flipped on the siren and we went roaring through town, cars parting to let us through. Screeching into the Community Center parking lot, we pulled up alongside a couple other cruisers, both empty, one with a door still flung open. Someone had left in a hurry.

The officer barked at me, "Stay here. Don't get out of the car."

I forced a nod, mouth too dry to talk. Of course, she didn't have to worry. I had no intention of following her into the night with a bunch of armed goons on the loose.

She grabbed her shotgun out of the lockdown and raced off, leaving me all alone.

My heart raced. What if the guys with guns doubled back and found me, by myself, a sitting duck in a patrol car? Would I become the unfortunate reason future ride-alongs had to be eliminated? I sank in my seat and peered out over the dashboard, hoping for reinforcements. Nope, just me and the empty police cars. I'd realized it before, but it hit home a lot harder in that moment. We don't pay law enforcement personnel nearly enough.

Luckily, the situation had a non-violent resolution. It turned out that the people running through the parking lot were teenagers wielding air rifles. No one got hurt. But, man, how easily could something have gone terribly, irrevocably wrong? In the dark, those air rifles were indistinguishable from real rifles. Some poor teenager's head easily could have been blown off.

I'll say it again; I heartily recommend attending a Citizen's Police Academy. Just make sure to wear two pairs of underwear on ride-along night.

* * *

The first book in Alan Orloff’s Last Laff Mystery series, KILLER ROUTINE, is now available, at your favorite booksellers and on-line. His debut mystery, DIAMONDS FOR THE DEAD, was nominated for the Best First Novel Agatha Award. For more information about Alan and his books, please visit

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Get the Skinny on Website Design and More by Madeira James

What are some of the most important things an author should think about when considering a website and choosing a designer?

Maddee: There are so many things to think about, but as an overview: write the most important parts well (bio, book descriptions, etc.), organize it in a way that visitors can easily find what they need, and have a site design which expresses you and your writing. Having a professional-looking website says SO much about the seriousness of your writing—while a poorly designed website can be pretty damaging. I always say it's better to not have one at all than to not have it look GOOD. That said, there are certainly authors who have the time and talent to do their own, which is great. And for those of you who can't, there are people like me. When I first started my business in 1998, there weren't too many of us who specialized in author website design. Now there are MANY. And you know what? I love that! I don't consider it competition at all—in fact, I love that there are so many designers for you all to choose from. The joy of it is we all have our own style and so do you—and you can choose the person/company which best fits YOU.

I think the best advice I would give an author in choosing a designer is to first look at lots of author sites to see what appeals to you, and then contact the designers whom you like best. By the way, I definitely suggest working with someone who works with authors regularly—we know so much more about what you need than say someone who designs business websites. They may design lovely sites, but if they don't know what an author needs, or how an author site should be set up, it's not going to get you anywhere. I've been occasionally tempted to take on a photographer (for example) as a client but I realize they really are best served by companies who specialize in photography sites. I love having my little niche and am happy to stick with it! I can't tell you how many authors have come to me with a current website which needs to be completely redone—it was designed by a cousin who didn't know what they were doing, or a faceless conglomerate who didn't pay attention to their needs. That said, here is my quick little list of what to look for in a designer...

  1. Go with a professional author website designer (as I said above, look at author sites you like and find out who designed them).
  2. Make sure their style fits what you have in mind.
  3. Have them commit to a timeframe as to when the site will be LIVE (oh the horror stories about designers who never get sites done).
  4. Find out how long they "normally" take to do edits (my normal timeframe for edits, for example, is 24 to 48 hours and right away if needed).
  5. Get the price upfront.
  6. Email some of their other clients to see how they like working with them.
  7. Make sure you feel a connection to them—it should be a long-term relationship and you want someone you can trust and relate to.

Most important: it should be a fun process and the final site should be exactly what you had in mind. There is nothing I like better than to show a client a design and have them tell me I "got them." Love that!

What promotional/social networking venues (blogs, facebook, etc.) do I recommend to authors?

Maddee: As we all know, social networking is the big thing right now. Authors all feel like they have to blog, tweet, and commune with fans on Twitter, Facebook, GoodReads, etc. etc. I would say if you want to get into all that (and yes it's fun and can certainly help gain new readers), just make sure you put your real writing first. If you're pondering blogging, you might want to think about joining or starting a group blog. They are so much more fun, and you attract more readers for all the obvious reasons. I guess in a nutshell, if you're a really social person, all the social networking makes the job of writing even more fun—and if you're not social, try to force yourself to be at least a little bit—as it's a great way to meet both fellow authors and future readers of your books! And by the way one of the great ways to do some of the social networking a bit more time-efficiently is to cross-post—so that what you blog, for example, automatically gets posted to Facebook and Twitter.

What do I think about author branding?

Maddee: It's important for you to build a clear perception of you and your writing, and one of the best ways to do that is obviously through your website identity. One of the first things I ask an author, before I start designing, is what do you want your site to FEEL like? How do you want potential readers to envision you and your books? It's so important! And once we get the website design down, then we can design other things to go along with that: blogs, dang cool Facebook Fan pages, logos, newsletters, business cards, bookmarks, rotating ads, ebook covers, & bookplates -- all which match the author's site. It's exceptionally fun! Examples here and here (in the sidebar).

How much time needs to be devoted to website updates and newsletters to keep an author "out there?"

Maddee: It's certainly good to update a site relatively frequently to keep things fresh. This is not only true to keep visitors coming back, but it's also good for search engines—you will rise higher in the rankings if you regularly update your site. As far as newsletters go, I am a big proponent of them—it's a great (and simple) way for authors to keep in touch with their readers. I design the newsletter template in the style of the author's site (as part of the original design process), so it's a great branding tool as well. Names are collected through "sign up for the mailing list" forms and then newsletters can be sent out every now and then when something new is happening (e.g. a new book, a movie option, an upcoming book tour). It's professional, colorful, and never comes across as spam, since people have signed up for it in advance.

Should even unpublished authors have a website?

Maddee: While the majority of my work is with published authors, I do occasionally take people on who are still looking to be published. I'm pretty choosy—the strength of the person's commitment to their craft is important to me, because I'm serious about my work and I like to work for people who have this same feeling about theirs. Whether you "should" have a site before you have a publishing contract is completely up to you. Some people feel it will show them to be serious so they may be more likely to get an agent and publishing contract. I would stand by the thought that how well you write is what gets you a contract—but that a website (a beautiful one that is!) certainly can't hurt. But one thing I quite definitely suggest is to buy domain right away if it's available.

Maddee James is the owner of, which designs and builds cool author sites! She thinks she has the best job ever. Period.