5 Steps for adding a new character to your (completed) novel

November 17th, 2016

When my agent told me that I needed to add a new character to my novel – the one I’ve been working on for years and have revised countless times and considered this close to submission-ready – I wanted to make like my butterscotch tabby, Sunny, and curl up under a blanket and shut down.

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But then I remembered that I’d done it before. When I was working with my editor on FLYAWAY, she also suggested that I add a new character – a “decoy boy” to distract readers from the inevitability of the main character, Stevie, getting together with the major love interest, Alan. My character The Professor was born, and he actually became the character who generated the most comments and questions from students in my school visits.

So in my quest to add a new character to my current WIP, I went back to the process I had used before and came up with these five steps:

1. Clarify the new character’s role in your novel. Will this character serve as a decoy, as The Professor did in FLYAWAY, or will they fill another role? Other possible roles might include ally or mentor to the main character or proxy for the antagonist. Being clear on the new character’s role in your novel will help you determine how much weight to give him in terms of page time and backstory.

2. Determine the relative importance of the character. Is your new character a walk-on in one scene, or will she play a major role throughout the book? The new character my agent suggested that I add in this revision only appears in a few scenes and has little direct impact on the plot. Because of his relatively minor importance, I was careful not to flesh him out so fully that he drew undue reader attention.

3. Decide which other characters the new character will connect with. How tightly is this character woven into the weave of the story? Does he interact mostly with the main character, or will he connect to one or more minor characters as well? Will he live in one plot line or be part of several subplots? In order to weave my new character more closely into my story, I gave one of my main character’s friends a secret crush on him.

4. Create a name and a backstory relative to the character’s weight in the plot. This step is tricky. We writers love to create characters. I could have easily written a 10-page biography of my new character in which I explored his childhood and how it has impacted his current hopes, dreams, and fears. But since my character has relatively little importance compared to my major and supporting characters, I fleshed out only the essential elements of his backstory. I made notes on his name and age, his status in the school hierarchy, his interest in music, and why he’s attracted to my main character. That’s all the information I really needed. And because his relative importance to the plot is so minimal, I decided that my main character wouldn’t refer to him by name; she calls him Knit Hat Boy.

5. Choose the scenes in which the character will appear. Now that you’ve determined your character’s role in your novel, decided on her relative importance, and created an appropriate name and backstory, it’s time to “shoehorn” her into your already completed book. To complete this step, I read through my manuscript, and using Comments in Track Changes, noted the location of each scene where my new character would appear. Some of these were scenes I’d written previously that I planned to revise to include him; others were scenes I needed to add.

With your backstory notes and Comments in front of you, the final step, of course, is to write your new character into the novel. Easy? No. Worth it? In my case, yes. Thanks to my agent’s advice, I now have a new character who adds one more subtle layer of depth to my story.

Have you ever had to write a new character into an already completed manuscript? How did it go for you? What were the challenges you encountered?

Funeral for a Flip Phone

October 3rd, 2016

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Do you know what this is? It’s called a flip phone or “clamshell,” and was used by our ancestors near the beginning of the digital age. It was also my phone of choice up until this weekend, when I finally purchased my first iPhone.

Don’t laugh. Flip phones have some things to be said for them. They fit neatly into small spaces, and they don’t provide any of the Internet-related distractions that smartphones are so famous for. As a style statement, they’re so retro that they’re almost cool. Almost.

I’ve been putting off getting a smartphone for ages, even though all of my friends and colleagues have them. Even my 80-year-old uncle swears by his iPhone.

There were many reasons that I resisted trading in this baby for a smartphone; some good, some not so good. I’m not a fan of the way so many people seem attached to their smartphones to the point of neurosis. I mean, do you really need to check incoming texts at every red light? So what if the only replies I could text on my clamshell were “yes,” “no,” or “okay?” I feared adding one more distraction to my already cluttered life.

But if I dig a little deeper, I can see that the real reason I resisted trading in (well, okay: trading up) for so long was fear of change. In some ways, I crave the new and different. I’m always looking for ways to add more excitement to my life. How many people, for example, invite a parade of international students into their homes? But when it comes to life’s more mundane routines, I cling to the familiar, even when it no longer serves me. I remember a time, quite a few years ago, when I resisted getting a laptop because it would pull me away from the comfort zone of my home computer.

Now, of course, I swear by my laptop and seldom leave home without it. And once I get used to it, I’m sure I’ll feel the same about my new iPhone 4. (I know, I know, it’s obsolete; there are much more current versions I could buy. What can I tell you? I need to ease into things.) In fact, it has changed my life already. This post represents the first time I’ve used a phone to create an image for this blog.

I guess I’m finally becoming part of the digital age. In my own, tentative way. Small steps, baby. Small steps.

Revise Yourself!

August 24th, 2016

Every time I revise for an agent or editor, I learn something about myself as a writer. Whether it’s a tendency toward overstatement or a habit of going too light on action and description in my dialogue scenes, a professional’s comments always help me hone my ability to convey my stories on the page.

My latest revision was no different. In challenging me to add more “side streets and alleys” to my novel and to delve deeper into my characters’ emotions, my agent drew my attention to the fact that I tend to write very tight and spare. I put out what some people call “skeletal drafts” – the bare bones of a story which I later need to flesh out. The problem is, I have trouble putting enough flesh on those bones. In some ways a tight manuscript can be good, but it can also leave readers feeling rushed through the plot and cheated of fully connecting with the characters.

In pondering my agent’s challenge, I realized that my propensity toward “fast and tight” relates not only to my writing, but to the way I live my life. I’m one of those people who is always in a hurry. Perhaps because my childhood experience of cancer left me with an awareness of my mortality, time feels like it’s at a premium, and as a result I tend to rush through both tasks and interactions in my urgency to move on to the next thing. Even in my teaching, I tend to value flow over depth. I’m afraid that if I go on too long, people will get bored. If you want proof, take a look at my posts on this blog, few of which are over 400 words. Up till now, my motto has been “Get to the point.”

My agent has made my see that in my writing – and in my life – I can afford to slow down and take the time to explore each moment, each interaction, to it’s fullest. I don’t have to worry that my readers will get bored if I elaborate on a characters thoughts and feelings, and in the course of a day, I can risk a few moments of downtime or a lull in a conversation.

And maybe someday, I’ll even take the ultimate risk and write a 500-word blog post.

What have you learned in revisions that you can apply to your life?

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

May 2nd, 2016

I don’t do many book reviews on this blog, but I’m currently reading a book that’s blowing my mind: BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR by Elizabeth Gilbert.

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I almost didn’t pick this one up, because I wasn’t a huge fan of her blockbuster memoir, EAT, PRAY, LOVE. But thanks to a friend who recommended it, I decided to give Gilbert another chance – and boy, am I glad I did.

In BIG MAGIC, Gilbert doesn’t teach you how to write; she gives suggestions on how to live a creative life. Although the ideas she presents could apply to any artistic endeavor, because the author is a writer herself, the book focuses on the writing process. Giving examples from her own life and work, Gilbert discusses such issues as courting inspiration, dealing with rejection, and staying the course. While I’ve read scores of books about all of these topics, Gilbert manages to approach each one in a unique way. In talking about finding inspiration, for example, she doesn’t counsel writers to carry around a notebook or scour newspaper headlines. Instead, she advises thinking of ideas as actual beings out there in the ether, each one looking for a home. If you make yourself available, one of them will find you. And when it does, your job is to commit yourself to it and pledge your heart and soul to giving that idea a voice in the world.

One of the sections of the book that particularly speaks to me is titled “Day Job.” I’ve often bemoaned the fact that I have to work for a living and so can’t spend all of my time creating. But according to Gilbert, having a day job to support you is a good thing. Why put pressure on your creativity to singlehandedly shoulder your financial burdens? she asks. There’s a good chance your muse won’t feel up to the task and will take off for greener pastures.

In short, BIG MAGIC won’t change the way I write, but it will forever change my attitude toward writing. Instead of cursing the ups and downs of the writing life, thanks to the advice in the pages of this book, I’ll be grateful for the times that creativity finds me and offer myself unconditionally to its service.

Go-to Blogs for Writing Advice

April 19th, 2016

Of the scads of blogs out there aimed at writers, many of them useful and informative, a few rise to the top of my list when I need advice (what should the first paragraph of my query letter contain?), information (which agents are currently accepting unsolicited submissions?) or inspiration. Bookmark the blogs listed below. Or better yet, subscribe. You won’t regret it.

Kristin Lamb’s blog

Not only is this blog informative, with meaty posts on such topics as story structure, character, social media, and marketing, it’s also written in Kristin Lamb’s fun, hip style and peppered with lots of quirky visuals. Comment, and you could win discounted attendance to a webinar or a manuscript evaluation by Kristin herself.

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Illustrating blog

This blog, aimed at both writers and illustrators of children’s and YA books, offers several weekly features including Illustrator Sunday, inspirational guest posts by Erika Wassall, The Jersey Farm Scribe, and – my favorite – first-page critiques by both new and longtime agents. It was through one of these critiques that I got the go-ahead to submit a full manuscript to a top agent. Even though she ultimately rejected it, I was grateful to the Writing and Illustrating blog for allowing me to get my foot in the door.

K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors blog

After following this author on Twitter and enjoying her interactive posts, I subscribed to her blog and found a treasure trove of writing resources, including informative articles and useful charts, as well as videos and podcasts on the craft of writing. If you subscribe as I did, she’ll send an instructive newsletter to your inbox every week and provide you with a free e-book download.

C.S. Lakin’s Live WriteThrive blog

A new favorite for me, C. S. Larkin’s blog is full of nitty-gritty information on how to structure your novel, make your writing sing, and rise to the top of bestseller lists. I found her posts so helpful that I checked out her book The Twelve Key Pillars of Novel Construction, which now ranks among my most-dogeared writing books.

I pop in and out of a lot of blogs, but these are the ones I’ve either subscribed to or bookmarked for frequent visits. How about you? Which writing blogs have you found most useful?