Writing Secondary Characters from the Inside Out

My growth as a writer consists largely of “Well, DUH!” moments, where I realize in a blazing epiphany something super obvious I should have known all along. My latest is about writing secondary characters, and I’d like to share it with you. (I can’t say that without hearing a folk guitar intro in the background, so feel free to imagine one.)

Here it is in a nutshell: Write supporting characters from the inside, not the outside.

For years, I’ve been trying to take to heart the advice that characters other than the main character should have stuff going on, too — that they could each be the hero of their own story. For all major support characters (love interests, villains, BFFs, etc), I generally have sections in my notes where I plot out their arc, figure out their goals and flaws and fears, and all that good stuff. I thought that was enough, and sometimes I got good results that way. But other times, no matter how good a character’s arc looked on paper, I couldn’t make them come to life in the story.

I have one particular character in the book I’ve been revising who gave me a hell of a time. I couldn’t get him to work. I redesigned him completely several times, gave him more plot and more interesting relationships with other characters, and rewrote his scenes over and over. But each time I sent a new draft to beta readers, every single one of them unerringly singled him out as the weakest character — and they were right.

So I tried something I hadn’t done before. I tried to inhabit him as if he were the main character. While I was folding laundry, or in the shower, or driving to the store, I ran scenes in my head with him as the viewpoint character, letting him drive the scene. Thinking his thoughts, feeling his feelings, making his choices.

It helped immensely. I went back and rewrote everything the character said or did. I don’t know yet if he’s where he needs to be… but he’s finally a Real Boy to me now. He can talk and argue with the other characters on his own in my head, while before if I had him in a scene he was just filling the purpose I needed filled or providing a backboard for another character to bounce off.

I’m now in the early planning stages for a new book, and I’m trying the same thing with each of the major characters. For instance, there’s an antagonistic character who I originally envisioned as a flat minor villain (flavor: Ambitious Sociopath Vanilla). But then I tried really treating her like the hero of her own story — not just making notes about her arc, but getting inside her head and writing some of her story in my imagination. I wound up with a far better understanding of why she’s doing what she’s doing, and she expanded in much more interesting dimensions, becoming more human and tragic (if still ultimately a villain).

I have no idea why I wasn’t doing this before. It seems like a no brainer, right? But for many of my supporting characters, I was writing them from the outside, with no idea what their inner headspace was really like. Writing for the effect they’d have on the scene, or the interactions they’d have with the main character, rather than inhabiting them and driving their actions from inside their thoughts and feelings.

Let’s just say a more immersive approach is working better for me so far. Well, DUH.

Dear Newbie Querier Me, Part Two: Forget Personalization

(This is another thing I wish I could go back in time and tell myself at the beginning of my querying career.)

Dear Newbie Querier Me,

I know you keep reading that you need to personalize each query to the specific agent you’re querying. I know you see agent interview after agent interview where they talk about what a difference good personalization can make. But listen to me carefully now: that advice is for other people. Not you. For the love of chocolate, stop trying to personalize your queries.

You didn’t meet those agents at conferences. You don’t have a referral. You aren’t going to impress them by saying you love their famous client, because everyone loves their famous client, and besides, their client you love is a picture book author and you’re writing YA. I know they say to let them know why you’re querying them in particular… but the fact is, for almost every agent you query, the answer is because I read everything about you I could find on the web and you represent my category/genre and seem really cool.

That is not actually useful or interesting information. Skip it and get to your story.

Most of all, Newbie Querier Me, don’t try to make charming small talk or any such crap. You can’t do that. Sure, you read success stories about people who did that in their query letters and it worked out for them, but those people probably did not grow up in Massachusetts. You live in a state where making small talk with strangers is considered an invasion of privacy and kind of rude. You never learned how to do it without sounding like a creepy stalker. Stop trying. Just stop.

If you want facts and figures, consider this, Newbie Querier Me: You will spend hours personalizing many queries. You will get many agent requests. You will never, even once, get a request on a query you personalized. You suck at this. Stop shooting yourself in the foot. No one will notice if you skip the personalization, but they sure as hell will notice if you screw it up.

Love and Kisses,

Future Agented You

(PS) To those reading this who are not me, if you’re one of the lucky ones who actually has specific connections to mention (met the agent at a conference, have a referral, etc), or who is good at this personalization stuff and not intimidated by it, go right ahead and do it! Don’t let my pathetic failures hold you back if this is an area where you can genuinely shine.

But if you’re like me and you dread the personalized section of your query, do yourself a favor and leave it out. Just make sure you get the name right, and do your research to make sure the agent is seeking what you’re querying and is a good fit for you. It’s your story they really care about anyway.

On Tearing Down Walls

I grew up wanting to see more girls with swords on book covers. When I find one, it still makes me feel all warm and happy inside (especially if she’s wearing sufficient clothing, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue). It means I have a place in stories — a place I want, and a place I can be proud of. And a place in stories can carve you out a place in the real world, very directly. If you see female warriors, astronauts, and scientists in books and movies and games, you’re far less likely to question that they can exist.

I didn’t have to grow up wanting to see more people with my skin color on book covers. But lots of kids do. We need to change that, now more than ever.

The news lately has made it too horribly, tragically clear what happens when we see our fellow human beings as Other. We need to get all colors of faces on book covers, in movies, in games. And not just as the Token Black Guy on the team of 6 or even the Hero’s Best Friend… and certainly not just as the criminal, the thug, or the villain’s non-speaking lieutenant. We need diverse heroes, scientists, magicians, love interests, teachers — characters you want to invite into your living room. Characters you’d trust to watch your kids or save your planet.

We have to carve out that space in our stories. A safe, trusted, awesome space for all our friends and family in this wide world with its rainbow of people colors. Because what people see in stories, they will expect in reality.

Our imagination is our greatest power. Use yours. Create stories, art, and games that embrace and empower all kinds of people, diverse in race, gender, sexuality, and more. Your kings, gods, heroes, and scholars don’t need to be white straight dudes. They can be, but there are a lot of other options out there. And by using one of them, you can make someone feel happy and included. You can open a door that might have been closed otherwise. You can help show people raised in prejudice a wider world.

Who knows? You might even save a life.

Giving Thanks

You know the saying “It takes a village to raise a child?” Well, it takes a village to make a writer, too.

While writing a novel is one of the few grand creative endeavors you can actually accomplish alone, doing it right without losing your mind requires an extensive support team. I’m thankful for mine — they are all amazing.

My dad, who always encouraged me as a writer, including buying me my first copy of Writer’s Market in fourth grade.

My husband, who is amazingly understanding about allowing me writing time, even when it comes out of our time together.

My kids, who read my stuff and give me suggestions, and are incredibly enthusiastic in their support of my writing career.

My friends, who are always happy to vote on titles, help me come up with pitches, or generally root for me.

My CPs and beta readers, who are so incredibly generous with their time and give me feedback which is worth its weight in plutonium. These guys are seriously amazing.

The writing community, which is so generous with time and knowledge — sharing writing tips, running contests, putting together agent information, providing moral support, and always lifting each other up instead of pushing each other down.

My agent, whose enthusiasm for my book is as fantastic as her responsiveness and insight.

Thank you all. You guys are awesome.

Where to Begin

In the draft I’m currently revising, I have a hook at the beginning, then I kind of establish some stuff, and then something Really Exciting happens at the end of Chapter Three. I used to cross my fingers and hope readers would just hang on until the end of Chapter Three, because then I gave myself decent odds of hooking them for the rest of the story.

Yesterday, with the help of a critique partner, I had a rather embarrassingly belated epiphany: move the end of Chapter Three to the end of Chapter One. Duh.

The thing is, I knew starting in the wrong place was a common problem. In the book I wrote after this one I’m revising, I sat down with the specific intent of starting in the right place, with the inciting incident happening in Chapter One, and the results were fantastic. I should have known ages ago that this was what I needed to do.

But I had it in my head for this ms that the hook at the beginning was the inciting incident, and then I knew a couple of months had to elapse before the Really Exciting Thing. So I had two chapters of montage, basically, before I got to the really good part.

This was a terrible idea. I can admit it now.

I had to challenge my fixed ideas about what order events happened in, and ask myself whether there was any real reason the Really Exciting Thing couldn’t happen right away, and then we could allow time to pass. And there were reasons, but none of them were things I couldn’t get around with a little revision work.

I’m doing that revision work right now. It’ll be a few days before I’m ready to field test the results with beta readers, and I’m sure it’ll need further tweaking, but I can already tell I made the right decision. I no longer have this big chunk of timelapse montage weighing down the opening chapters of my book, which are so critical.

It’s good to remind myself that just because the story is “the way it happened” in my head doesn’t mean I can’t rip it up and move things around if it’s better for dramatic tension.

The Dreaded Vagueness

Whenever I did pitch workshops of any kind, I kept seeing the same crucial piece of feedback appear over and over again, both on my own pitches and others’: don’t be vague. If you read a bunch of query or pitch feedback by people who know what they’re talking about, one thing rapidly becomes apparent: vagueness is the enemy.

This drove me nuts, especially for Twitter pitches or other short forms. How specific did they think I could be, exactly, in 140 characters? Not to mention that it seemed to directly conflict with other sage advice — not to try to fit everything in to your query. I struggled with this paradox for a long time, trying to give specific details while keeping my pitch tight.

Then I had an epiphany. The rule wasn’t be specific. It was avoid vagueness.

The problem with vagueness is that it makes your pitch sound like every other pitch out there. Consider this:

Protagonista’s world is turned upside down by a startling discovery about her secret past. She must come to terms with her own powers before a sinister enemy destroys everything she loves.

Okay. That could be a great book, or it could be a terrible book. We don’t know. More to the point, it could be about 500 different books.

If you were giving feedback on this pitch, you might ask things like “How is her world turned upside down? What discovery? What secret past? What powers? Who’s the enemy? Who or what does she love and how are they at risk?” And the poor writer might wonder how they were possibly supposed to answer all those questions in two sentences.

But the real answer is not to try. You don’t need to answer all that stuff. In fact, you shouldn’t, because some of it should be a surprise. The problem isn’t that you need to spell all that stuff out — it’s that you made all these vague references in the first place, inviting questions you don’t have room to answer.

Instead, hone in on three things: character, conflict, stakes. You don’t need to be specific about your villain, your world design, your secret startling revelations… but you do need to be specific about what your hero has to lose and the choices they must make.

That vague pitch could be any of the following:

When mean girl Protagonista learns she’s doomed to die on her 16th birthday, she has 72 hours to make amends for all the wrongs she’s done or the curse will pass to her little sister.

Protagonista’s longtime crush has finally asked her to the prom. But when she learns he’s a super zombie in disguise, accepting his love could doom her entire school to become a feeding ground for the undead.

Protagonista’s zesty spice blends can mystically cure diabetes and baldness. But unless she can whip up a recipe for forgiveness, her vengeful ex will publicly reveal her past as a stripper to drive away her fiancee.

These are not knock-your-socks-off pitches, but you can at least imagine what the book might be like… something you can’t do with a super vague pitch like the first one. Spelling out the conflict and stakes precisely gives the reader something to latch onto. Vague euphemisms for general story themes give them nothing.

So when you find vagueness in your pitch, kill it! But that doesn’t mean you have to explain everything. It simply means that if you spot vague, cliche phrases in your pitch, you should try again.

Revising in Phases

I used to try to do all my revisions in one pass. I’d gather all my feedback from CPs and beta readers, plus my own notes, and pull everything into in one document in the order the issues appeared in the book. Then I’d go through from start to finish and try to fix everything in order.

Lately, I’ve been doing it differently. I break it down and do several revision passes, each aimed at a different kind of revision.

This works better for me, because I don’t have to keep switching modes. Some people may have the right kind of brain to watch pacing in a scene and make sure the emotional stakes are coming through and cull unnecessary adverbs and clarify backstory points all at once. I, however, lack this power.

For the revision I’m working on now, I’m planning four main phases:

1) Structural Edits. Stuff like combining characters, plot changes, shifted story or character arc focus, new scenes… things that affect the bones of the book. I’m doing these first because structural edits can wreak havoc on everything around them. Gotta knock out those walls and build those additions before you can polish the counters, or there’ll still be dust and chunks of plaster everywhere.

2) Point Edits. These are edits to very specific points in the book, usually from feedback. They include stuff like clarifications, line edits, additions of a thought or detail… anything that involves swooping in, editing a sentence or two, and then leaving for another scene. This pass goes after the structural pass because who knows if the line I’m editing will even still be there? But it goes before the make-it-pretty phases because sometimes when I’m parachuting in to the middle of a page with a point edit, I can wreck the flow of the paragraph without even realizing it.

3) Flow Edits. In this pass, I’m focusing on voice — both overall narrative voice and character voices in dialogue — and setting. Mushy-squishy, hard-to-define, subjective stuff where you really have to have your brain immersed in the flow and rhythm of the book and can’t be stopping every few paragraphs to make unrelated tweaks. While I’m at it, I can keep an eye out for places where those structural and point edits wrecked the flow or created awkwardness. I can smooth things out and make sure the prose is singing in tune.

4) Polish Edits. In this pass, I’m doing the nit-picky language type edits… cutting excess words, searching for and destroying empty words like “just” and “that,” eliminating adverbs that aren’t pulling their weight, that kind of thing. A lot of this will happen with searches for guilty words or even suspect punctuation marks. Hopefully I’ll still be able to stand looking at my book to do another full read-through checking out each sentence to make sure it’s well formed, too. This has to be a separate pass from the flow pass even though both are focused on polishing the writing, since if I’m looking at nit-picky details I can’t hear the music.

I hope to run it by some beta readers between either passes 2 and 3 or possibly 3 and 4, to get one last round of feedback before finalizing things, and to make sure I didn’t break anything too badly with the edits.

I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the amount of work, but I’d be lying to myself if I said it wouldn’t be worth it.

NaNoWriMo 2014

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but every year I cheer on friends doing it. I find it incredibly motivational to watch them post their word counts and progress.

I’ve always got some writing goal I’m working towards, and in November I like to try to set something suitably epic so I can get into the NaNoWriMo spirit even if I’m not in the right place to start and end a new novel in one month. Some years I’ve used the boost of enthusiasm I get from the NaNoWriMo excitement to finish a novel draft, to complete a revision pass, or to hit some other milestone.

This year, my baseline November goal is to complete my current major revision pass. My stretch goal is to complete the entire revision (which will include multiple passes with different purposes). Thanksgiving blasts a big hole in the middle of November for me due to family visits, so I’ll probably only get 20-25 real writing days out of the month, but I’m going to go for it!

I wish all my friends who are doing NaNoWriMo luck… and those who have other November writing goals luck, too. Get those words on the page!

(Not) Doing the Dumb Thing

Last night, I basically had this conversation with my main character:

Me: I need you to do this thing.

MC: Hell no. That’s stupid. Why would I do that?

Me: Well, you can’t deny you want to do it.

MC: Sure, but it’s risky and dumb. No thanks.

Me: It’s OK. I promise nothing bad will happen. I just want you to go have this conversation, OK?

MC: Why should I trust you, after everything you’ve done to me?

Me: …Fair point. OK, never mind. Don’t do it.

MC: Damn straight.

It served as a good reminder: don’t make your characters do dumb things for plot purposes. They’ll only be sullen and uncooperative if you do.

(It would have been a cool scene, though. Sigh.)

Subtle Revisions

I’m working on revisions now, and one thing I’m running into a lot is scenes where something has subtly changed in this revision. Maybe a character knows something earlier than they did in the previous draft, or their relationship with another character has changed, or the previous scene they just came from had a different feel to it, so the main character should be in a different headspace.

Technically, the current scene doesn’t need to change. There is no specific element in the scene that needs revision. But with the new, changed circumstances, it should probably unfold differently in subtle ways.

I’m definitely revising these scenes to account for the subtle changes — that’s not in question. But I often face a choice: should I just change a couple of words or lines to get the point across, or rewrite the scene completely?

Yeah… Another thing I’m noticing about revisions is that the answer that’s more work seems to always turn out to be the right one.

The method that seems to work best for me when revising these “something is subtly different” scenes is to open two docs next to each other. The one on the right is the draft I’m working in. The one on the left is blank. I then cut the entire scene (or at least the parts that should change) and paste it into the doc on the left. I write the new scene in my draft on the right, but I give myself permission to pull in as much as I want from the old version.

This keeps me from looking at the old scene and going “Eh, good enough!” I have a blank page to start from, and once I start typing new words, it’s easy to keep going. But I can just as easily refer to that first version and reuse the good bits that I can’t say any better this time around.

Writers, what do you do when you’re revising scenes like that?