Writer Words

Writing Tips: Crafting Characters

I haven’t gotten any new questions in my mailbox, so I’m back with some more advice for aspiring writers.

Today let’s talk about crafting characters. In romance, characters drive the story. If readers don’t care about your characters, the story is no good, no matter how good it is.

What you have to do is figure out how to make readers care about your characters. Want to know how I do it?

I care about my characters!

It’s simple, right? But how much I love my characters comes through. Every single one I’ve written has had a piece of me. Maybe not a similarity to me, but definitely a piece of my heart. I spend months, years, with these people. They live inside my head. I’m the only one they talk to. It’s up to me to tell their stories.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but you have to care about your characters to make your readers care. Which means you have to find characters, stories, people you want to write about.

Do you have a friend that you wish could find The One? Does your kid have a teacher you think is sweet? Maybe one of your grandkids has a coach that you think would be a great hero.

Find someone who inspires you. Yeah, someone in your world. No, I’m not telling you to write the story of a person you actually know, but to get yourself started, use someone you know to inspire you.

Puffy & PreciousI’ve written characters based on men I saw in church (Davoli brothers Matt, Mark, and John from Paradise Park), a guy at the gym (Graham from Puffy & Precious), and even my best friend (Charlie from Fluffy & Fabulous).

Once I get a feel for who they might be, who my inspiration is, I go looking for a picture. Pinterest is a great resource because it’s free, and I use the photos for my use only so it’s legal.

With my picture and my inspiration in hand, I start to figure out who my characters are. What they want, what they’re looking for, who they’d fit well with. I go through a character interview to learn more about them. I ask about their background, how they grew up, who their family is, what they studied in school, what they drive, where they live, what scares them, what inspires them, what they’re proud of, what they’re embarrassed by. I dig deep and get into who each character really is. I need to know what makes them tick, and what ticks them off.

Because at the end of the day, a book will be boring without some kind of conflict.

By the time I’m done with my interview, we’re good friends!

Which makes it a whole lot easier for me to care what happens to them.

If you’re writing a book that has a character driven story, make sure you know your characters better than you know yourself. They can’t have any secrets from you, and you have to want them to find their happily ever after. Otherwise, your readers won’t want them to find it either.

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

Q&A Sunday: Reviews, part three

I’m back again for my third of three parts on reviews! Click to check out parts one and two!

This week we’re talking about how I feel about bad reviews. Lupita asked…

Do you take bad reviews personally and let it affect you or do you simply take it with a grain of salt?

I think it’s hard not to take bad reviews personally. Many authors don’t read their reviews and early advice to authors is not to read them. I learned quickly that i can’t handle reading a review that destroys my book.

I mean, really, how many jobs allow anyone in the world to openly criticize what you do and have zero consequence?

As I said before, bullying in accepted when it’s disguised as a review. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think anyone should think it’s fair. But it happens.

If a review is bad because the book is bad, it hurts. It bothers me to read that my books have editing errors (funnily enough, I misspelled both those words!). Editing errors I can, and have, fixed. If the fundamental storyline is just boring, I can’t necessarily fix it, but it’s good to know. If the characters are frustrating, again, good to know.

But when a review goes on to say nasty things about me and assumes to know who I am, that’s going to just make me mad. I’ve read reviews (thankfully not on my books) that have attacked the author for one thing or another. I don’t know if these people know the author, or if they just think they know something, or saw something online, but I don’t think a book review is the place for that. A book review should be a review of the book, not the person who wrote the book.

Let’s face it, if we were evaluating the person, horror books would be blasted on a regular occasion. I mean, really, if you thought everything Stephen King put in his book was his true desire, he’d be locked up somewhere. Books are stories, not reflections of the author. 

But it’s still hard to walk away from a bad review without being upset by it. I want people to like my books. There are times I put things in my books knowing people won’t like it, but I know that’s the way the story has to be. Those things don’t bother me as much. Those I can take with a grain of salt.

The ones I can fix, like errors of any sort, I will correct and put the book back out.

A really bad review will ruin my day. It’ll make me question everything I write in the next book. It’ll make me question if I should be writing at all.

I love my job, but my job is dependent on finding readers. If readers hate what I write, I shouldn’t be writing.

Thankfully, my reviews overall are more positive than negative. I have emails from readers who’ve reached out to me because they loved my books so much. When I read a review that upsets me, I go through the emails I’ve save and read those. It makes me feel better, and gives me that spark to keep going.

And somehow, whenever I read a review that’s not that great, I always seem to get a new email from a reader who says she loved my book and can’t wait for the next one. That makes me forget about that bad review. And I love it!

Thanks so much, Lupita, for all your questions! It was a lot of fun to really think about reviews. No, I didn’t read any new ones of mine over the last few weeks, but it made me think about reviews, and I needed that!

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

Q&A Sunday: Reviews, part two

Welcome back! If you missed my post about reviews last week, you can check it out here. We’re talking about them again today!

Lupita asked…

How do you feel about unjust reviews on your work? (I know we all have an opinion and don’t enjoy the same reading material, but I’m wondering about unjust reviews where you know it shouldn’t have even been posted. You know those reviews where they are just blowing smoke and clearly didn’t give the work a chance.)

Wow! This sure hits the nail on the head of a lot of my issues!

First, let me say, unjust reviews can be both good and bad reviews. Unjust reviews, in my opinion, are not only bad. Most of the time that’s what we thinking, but there are unjust good reviews also.

Confused? Let me explain.

Author X has a new book ready to come out. She gets in touch with all her friends and family and says, “Hey, my book is coming out tomorrow! When it’s live, go buy a copy and leave me a good review. I don’t care if you actually read it, just leave me a good review.”

Is that fair? 

Um, no.

Does it happen? 

Unfortunately, yes.

Lupita did a great job of detailing an unjust bad review so I won’t go into that one. In either case though, they’re frustrating, to say the least.

I think the best thing is to tell you when I, personally, think a review should be written.

  1. When you finish reading the book.
  2. When you read a book in a genre you enjoy.
  3. When you feel you can write it without being emotional.

How many of you are questioning number one right now? Be honest! You can write a review on a book that you hated because it was so bad you didn’t want to keep reading, right?

Here’s my opinion on that… it’s never going to be your favorite book ever. It’s very possibly going to be a book you’re frustrated for wasting your time on. But is it fair to leave a review on a book that you never even read most of?

Let me ask you this… Did you ever see Fight Club or The Sixth Sense or Collateral Beauty or Sliding Doors? I’m not going to give away any spoilers here, but did you love the movie even more after you saw the ending? Maybe it started out okay, but you hung in there. It’s only a couple hours. It was a good story and the longer you watched, the more you became invested. The more you were curious. The more you wanted to know how it was all going to be resolved.

Then the end comes, and the big reveal, and BAM! It shocked the shit out of you. You never saw it coming (or maybe that was just me). Every single one of those movies was made better because they did such an amazing job concealing the truth behind the entire thing. You didn’t know the whole point of the story until the end. You didn’t see it.

What if that book you stopped reading that you gave a one star review to was the same? You could have missed out on something life changing.

Maybe you still hated it, but I have a hard time saying you should leave a review if you haven’t read the whole thing. If you read the whole thing and still hated it, then let’s go to my second criteria.

Is it a genre you enjoy?

My husband is big into fantasy books. He’s actually read The Lord Of The Rings – long before they were movies. He read Game Of Thrones years before HBO made them into what they are now. He enjoys stories with lots of characters and fictional worlds with magic and mythical creatures and intricately woven storylines.

I can’t stand it.

I’ve watched Game Of Thrones and The Lord Of The Rings. I enjoyed both. But to read the books would be torture for me.

But that doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re just not for me.

There’s too much going on in those books. Too many characters that I can’t keep track of. Too many storylines.

But that doesn’t mean they’re bad. They’re just not for me.

Do you get it yet?

If you read a book in a genre you don’t typically read, you don’t always know the ‘rules’ of that genre. If you’re judging a book based on something you don’t like about the genre, that’s not fair to that book.

I had a content warning on one of my earliest books. It clearly stated in the description that there was vulgar language and sex in the book. I got a scathing review that there was too much sex in the book. Honestly, I laughed, but it still hurts my rankings. Someone didn’t like my book because they didn’t read the description and didn’t know the rules of contemporary romance. Many of them have open door sex. The ones that don’t, I’d say, are in the minority. But I don’t feel it’s fair to leave a bad review when that’s one of the expectations of the genre.

We’ve covered the first two. If you finished the book and enjoy the genre, then let’s move on.

Can you write a review without being emotional?

I get it. You read a book and that little thing pops up at the end asking you to leave a review. It’s easy, and tempting, to blast the book for all the things you hated. There was too much sex. And the heroine was too stupid to live. And the hero was an alpha asshole. And you hate small town romance.

And your dog just died, and there was a dog that died in the story.

And your boyfriend broke up with you because he found someone new.

And the hero has the same name as the one that got away in college.

And any number of things.

Are you thinking clearly? Are you upset because of things that happened in the book and you made parallels to your own life?

Does that mean the book sucks, or that the author is an amazing storyteller who has the ability to evoke emotion in you, even if it’s emotion you don’t like?

When we’re emotional, we can’t see things clearly. So while I get that you’re crying and the story really upset you, was it the story, or something else, that bothered you?

Take a day or two and see if you’re still as upset with a little distance. If you still feel the story is that bad, you’ll still want to write a bad review (or a good one). Go back in and write it. Yeah, I’d love to see only good reviews on my books, but I know they don’t resonate with every single person. I just ask that you don’t blast me, or anyone else, for something we can’t control.

Lupita has one more question about reviews for next week. Come back by then and check it out!

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

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Q&A Sunday: Reviews, part one

Well, welcome back to Q&A Sunday! A few questions landed in my inbox this week so I’m going to break them up over a couple weeks so I can really dive into them. Are you ready?

Lupita asked…

Do you read your reviews? If so, how do you deal with bad reviews? How do you deal with good reviews?

Sometimes I think reviews are the bane of my existence! Good ones always seem to carry less weight than bad ones, but reviews are so important for an author that we have to have them.

A little background… When a reader leaves a review on Amazon, or another retailer or site like Goodreads, it affects the ranking for that book. A good review will move the book up and it will become a little more visible to other potential readers. A bad review, obviously, does the opposite. Enough bad reviews and a book is essentially invisible.

In addition to that, if you want to offer a deal on a book, and want to list it on sites like BookBub, they will check out reviews. They want to know if reviews are overall good or bad. If you have 100 mediocre reviews and another book has 100 good reviews, the other book is going to get the listing.

Obviously authors want good reviews, but if you’ve ever read reviews, you know no one can please everyone!

So my reviews… For the most part, no, I don’t read them. I write my books the way I feel they need to be written, irritating characters and all. I know my characters aren’t perfect, but neither are any of us, and that’s what I’m always after – authenticity.

It’s hard to write, and read, a character that you want to shake and tell to do something different, but there’s a reason all the horror flicks show people running into the basement to hide from the killer. It’s instinct to hide. It’s instinct to be somewhere you think you can predict what’s going to happen. You might know the killer is coming, but you can see him coming instead of wondering if he’s going to catch up to you if you’re running through the woods. When you’re the third party looking in, it’s easy to see that it’s not a good decision, but when you’re that person, instinct and fear and, in the case of my books, other sometimes irrational emotions take over and control you. You do things that don’t always make sense. We all do it!

But readers don’t always like those decisions. So they leave reviews that say they didn’t like a character or something about the book.

Because of that, I frequently don’t read my reviews.

When I do, I do it in small doses. Maybe I’ll check in on one book and only read a couple reviews. I know myself enough to know that if the reviews are negative, it’ll bother me, so I usually only read reviews when I know they’re going to be positive.

But how do I deal with them?

The good ones make me feel really good. They make me smile and keep me going. Knowing readers like my stories keeps me writing more of them. Reading a good review from someone I don’t know always makes me so happy.

The bad reviews are tougher to deal with. I’m the kind of person who only likes to put positive things into the world. I definitely grew up with my mother saying if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. A lot of people never got that lesson! But that’s for them to live with. Bullying is accepted when it’s done in the form of a book review, which is sad. I can’t imagine saying some of the things I’ve read on reviews (mostly others since I rarely read mine). I accept and understand that not everyone will have good things to say, but a constructive bad review is much better than an emotional one that tears the author apart. I don’t see any reason for those.

I’ve judged a lot of contests. In a way, it’s reviewing the work of someone else. I also have a critique partner that I work with and friends who’ve asked me to review their work. In all those situations, my criticism is strictly about the work. In many judging situations, I’ve read stories in genres I don’t frequently read, but I removed my personal opinion from it and evaluated the story based on the story. I know reviews are opinions, but I would love to see people being kinder. You don’t have to only leave good reviews, but make sure your reviews are about the actual story and not the author, or you the reader.

I’m sure this answer will make some people angry. You’re absolutely entitled to leave scathing reviews. If you feel that strongly about something, I’m not going to stop you. Just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, that’s all I ask.

Come back next week for another question from Lupita about reviews!

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

Writing Tips: Finding Time

Time is such a valuable commodity. We all have the same amount. None of us gets more hours in the day, unless you have one of those cool necklaces Hermione had. If you do, can you send me one?

So assuming you’re an ordinary person without magical powers, you have the same 24 hours I do. Most days it doesn’t feel like enough. Especially when I’m on a deadline and anxious to get a few more things done before the school bus gets home. Or before the kids wake up. Or before my favorite show comes on.

We have to have priorities, right?

If you’re adding writing in as one more thing to do in your day, you’re probably wondering where you can find the time to write.

Here’s the secret… you don’t need much!

Yes, a book is not something you can finish in a day. It’s going to take you a while. But you don’t have to kill yourself to make it happen.

Personally, I like to write in thirty minute blocks, or longer. But this is my full time job, so I have all day. If you’re looking for some time, you can find it in small places.

Can you get up thirty minutes earlier? Trust me, I hate this suggestion. It’s one I balked at for years and years and years. I’m not a morning person. At all. But I decided over the summer that I was going to do it because I wanted to. Because I wanted more time to dedicate to my work. I’m not as tired as I thought I would be, and I’m getting more done.

What about at night? Can you stay up a little later? Again, same rules apply. You don’t need much time, and if you think this could work for you, turn off the TV (my big issue with it because I never did) and write.

What about, you’re going to laugh, in the bathroom? Let’s face it, we all have longer breaks in the bathroom at one time or another through the day. Can you write on your phone? Not a whole book, but for five minutes? You won’t get much done, and you’ll take a really long time to finish a book if you only do this, but it’ll add up. Just make sure you don’t lose track of time!

Waiting, for anything. Just like above, there are going to be times in your day when you’re just waiting. Doctor’s offices, grocery lines, carpool, commute, anything. Can you, again, pull out your phone for a few minutes and write a hundred words or so?

Can you write on your lunch break? Some people can’t, but if you have access to a computer during your lunch break and your company will allow you to do something non-work related, write for thirty minutes. You’ll be shocked how much you can get done in that amount of time.

Try it!

I think the best thing is to give yourself a week or two and try a few different options. Try getting up early or staying up later for a week. Try sitting in your car on your lunch break with a notebook or a tablet and writing. Try five minute bathroom breaks. See what works for you, then keep doing it.

For me, I have to have a schedule. When I first get up, I check my email so I know there isn’t anything sitting there waiting for me to answer it. After the kids are on the bus, I start writing. I write until lunch, and then get back to it afterward. But if I need to do something during the day, like a doctor’s appointment, I like to schedule it in the morning so I don’t mess up my flow. Figure out what works for you and start writing!

What tips do you have for finding time to write?

If you have a question, about writing or anything else, send me an email (mary (at) maryethompson (dot) com) with Q&A in the subject, or post it in the comments below, and I’ll answer your question right here on the blog!

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