Preplanning your novel

Okay, so you’re ready to start your novel …

Aren’t you?

I started one on January 2nd, with the goal of writing around 5,000 words a week and having the first draft finished by spring. But I’ve been planning that start for weeks. Let’s take a look at planning that might – or might not – work for you.

Which comes first, character or the plot? Well, you can’t go far without figuring that out, but the answer is a matter of opinion. I start with a plot idea:

“What would happen if a photographer from California arrived in rural Indiana predicting an oncoming storm, only to lock horns with a cop who hates photographers – and Californians?”

That one sentence began a yearlong project that eventually turned into my first published novel, Storm Chaser. For the sequel, I started out with another basic question:

“What if the photographer’s infamous ne’er-do-well brother heard about his sister’s new relationship and determined to be her wedding planner as a way of making up with her, despite having absolutely no experience in wedding planning?”

(Oh, come on – Storm Chaser is a romantic comedy: Surely it’s not a spoiler to say the story ended with a new relationship?)

In the end, plot based stories often begin with “What if?” followed by “What then?”

Character based stories, on the other hand, often begin – wait for it – with a strong character:

“Fran Mendoza-Vargas is a no-nonsense cop who worked her way past sexism and racism to become a young Indiana State Police detective. A third generation Mexican-American, she’s become popular around town for her cheeriness and optimism, but has sacrificed her personal life in favor of her job.”

Okay, we have the basics of our character. What then? Maybe the next step will be to ask, “What would happen if the straitlaced Fran encountered legendary bad boy Ian Grant, who seems determined to screw up the life of her new friend, the photographer?”

There, in two sentences, you have the base of my entire Storm Chaser sequel, despite the fact that I then fill it out with a three page long (single spaced) outline.

Oh, yeah … the outline.

To outline or not to outline? There’s a question that could cause fist fights at writer’s conferences. “Pantsers” are loud and clear: Outlines constrict them. These writers simple start out, and see where the path leads them.

I tried that approach. If you want proof, I give you an entire box full of half-completed manuscripts.

However, for some people it does work, and more power to them. If you decide to outline, how should you do it?

Any way you want. I don’t have roman numerals, capital letters, and so on. I just jot down the events of the story in order, sometimes throwing in specific scenes and even quotes, sometimes leaving it very spare and basic. You don’t have to use some specific format; this isn’t going to be turned in to your English teacher – it’s just for you. If a page of scribbling works, fine. If you like a detailed, numbered, scene by scene breakdown, that’s fine too.

It’s just a guideline, and my stories frequently stray from it as the characters come alive and new ideas pop up. (Where the heck did that horse come from, anyway? No idea.) But even if I decide to choose a different path entirely, the finish line is there to guide me on my way.

Speaking of characters coming alive, I like to fully create my characters before I start on the outline, in case they grab me by the short hairs and tell me they’re not going the direction I planned. Some writers say they have complete control over their characters at all time; but if I do my job right they come alive for me, and sometimes they’ll tell me they just wouldn’t do what was in my original plan. Thus the fight at the end of chapter one, which surprised me as much as them.

What do I know about my characters before I start? Their looks, all their family and friend relationships, their job, past jobs, past loves, pets, desires, dreams, fears, favorite and least favorite seasons, foods, cars, books, TV shows, movies, hobbies …

Well, the list goes on and on. Do a search for “creating characters”, or get a good book on characterization, and you’ll find all sorts of good lists. By the time you’re done, you should know not only what they look like and how they’d react in any situation, but every little thing about them, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Most of which your reader will never learn about. Research should be like an iceberg, with most of it never seen. Just the same, research the heck out of each and every person in your story unless they’re a very minor character, and sometimes even then.

So, you’ve got your plot idea, your characters, and your outline. What else? That’s the big stuff, other than stocking up on caffeinated drinks. For Storm Damage most of my characters were already created, but I went back and looked through their files. I also had to keep a timeline and a separate page of clues, because there’s a bit of a mystery involved in this one.

Since it’s set in my home area I don’t have to do a lot of location research, but be prepared to have a file (computer, print, or both) to keep any information you need to have on hand. When I set my novel Radio Red in northern lower Michigan – a six hour drive away – I collected all the information I could on the area, up to and including maps, tourist flyers, photos, and even video, as well as making several trips up there.

Research has to include your characters’ jobs too, of course. I immersed myself in studying weather for Storm Chaser, and used my experience as a part time radio personality to create a main character in Radio Red.

This is far from a complete list. There are issues of naming your characters, for instance – that could make for a whole piece by itself. But planning ahead a little, even if you don’t want a complete outline, can make the writing itself go a lot faster.

Remember, though: Your rough draft is allowed to stink. If you miss something along the way, or decide you’re writing in the wrong tense, or the story goes off the rails, just take a step back (or go for a long walk, or scream into a pillow), then come back and fix things. That’s what rough drafts are for.

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The More Things Change…Well, You Know the Rest

I’ve been a published author for almost twenty-four years now. A lot has changed since I started out. I’m an old-school author. When a friend and fellow writer told me the freelance editor she’d hired had pitched her manuscript at a writers conference, I was amazed. I already had an agent and a publisher before I attended my first conference, but I knew from writers who had made the rounds that if they didn’t show up in person for the meetings, they were out of luck. It took me a while to figure out terms like beta readers and steampunk. These things didn’t exist when I was being groomed for literary stardom back in the mid-eighties.

Seriously. The words “We’re going to make you a star” were uttered. Many times. And they wondered why I developed such an insatiable ego.

We didn’t have Facebook or Google or Amazon back then. We didn’t have the luxury of promoting our books online via Skype. There was no such thing as social networking or blogging or e-mail. Authors didn’t have websites. There were no e-books and the only form of self-publishing–a vanity press–was for writers content to pay a lot of money for a few boxes of books that were usually only read by friends and family. Publishers had to type press releases on paper, of all things. They had to use Snail Mail to send out bound galleys to book reviewers and media people who might be interested in doing an interview with the author. Author tours always involved air travel and hotel rooms.

But some things never change. If you want to be reviewed by the major book reviewers, you have to get your ARCs (advanced reading copies) to them one to three months prior to publication. The mainstream media will not interview an author until they actually have a book to promote.

Dance of the Gods Cover

Berkley Books bought my first novel, Dance of the Gods, on April 26, 1985. It was published on May 1, 1988–three years later. The publicity department did not schedule me for a single interview prior to May 1, 1988. Why? It would have been pointless. Doing publicity too soon would have been counterproductive. I was a new author no one had ever heard of. Since I wasn’t yet a bestselling author or a celebrity and didn’t have a large following for some other achievement, had I done interviews months prior to publication, book buyers would likely have forgotten who I was by the time my novel was in the bookstores.

Today, an unpublished author can build a following–to an extent–through blogging and posting updates on Facebook. But don’t expect Today or Good Morning America to book you for an appearance until you have a book in print.

Yes, My Protagonist Can Take Things Seriously

I suppose I have my mother to thank for getting me to love the classic era of movies. That, and Saturday Night At The Movies, which, when I was growing up aired classic black and white films, hosted by a fellow who knew what he was talking about. Between the two, I’ve gotten to find a wealth of terrific films that most people would easily ignore. And by most people, the sort who think that real movies started in 1975, and everything that came before was boring.

Among the actors of the classic era were two who worked together many times, William Powell and Myrna Loy. Six of their films together from the 1930s and 1940s are a single franchise: The Thin Man series. The characters Nick and Nora Charles were created by Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon), and the films got quite an audience at the time. These films are detective thrillers with more then a dash of humour, centered on the husband and wife pair, whose banter and chemistry are smart, sharp, and playful. Nick, an occasional detective who married into money, spends his time overseeing his wife’s financial interests and pursuing the ideal recipe for a vodka martini (often more of the latter). He seems to know an awful lot of people who are, well, disreputable. The films start out with a murder (and usually more before each is done). Nora likes to push Nick back into investigating the case. Nick would much rather finish his drink.
Yet in each film, there’s always a moment when Nick changes priorities; he starts taking the case seriously, and you see his detective’s brain at work, sorting out the case. You can usually tell when it is by the fact that Nick stops drinking (or at least cuts down). Nick proceeds to methodically work things out, bringing together the suspects, and unmasking the killer in a dramatic way (incidentally, if you haven’t seen the second in the series, After The Thin Man, you might be startled by James Stewart’s character).
Now then, before I go off on a film history talk, I thought I’d come to the point. Awhile back, during one of my writer’s group meetings, I was reading a passage from Heaven & Hell. The passage is from the point of view of Stavros Maras, the counter-terrorism unit commander. In it, he’s watching my protagonists and three of his team members get ready for an night time operation against the Covenant. He muses that he sees in the others the exact same professionalism as he does in his own team. That kind of surprised me (and I’m the guy who wrote it, mind you). Why?
It’s one of my lead characters, Stryker. Professionalism doesn’t seem to be a word I’d use to describe him. He’s casual and sarcastic early on in the book- getting this particular spy into a suit is like fingernails on a blackboard for the man. He doesn’t seem to take much seriously. Part of that is that there’s a lot of me in him. And in addition, I have to say he’s influenced by Jack Higgins’ character Sean Dillon, who has been described as the sort who thinks of life as something of a bad joke, so why take it seriously?
That got me to thinking. Late in the book, the wisecracks are muted. Like the good Mr. Charles, Stryker is taking things seriously. His priorities have changed. I think that in part, the terrorist attack at the heart of the book mutes his natural tendency to be sarcastic. He and the others witness the cataclysmic event, see the impact and the death in its wake, and it must have an effect on all of them.
As writers or readers, we all see it in characters when they have that moment when things change; their priorities or their status quo must adapt to the changing circumstances around them. Sometimes it’s a gradual process; other times the turning point is crystal clear, and who they were before is gone, perhaps forever.
Have you ever had that moment with one of your characters when you realize how fundamentally different they are from where they started? Or brought them through that proverbial point of no return?

Self-Publishing Expo: My Impressions

This year, I made the decision to become fully self-published under my company, Sagido Publishing and I recently released the 2nd book in the 7 Scorpions Trilogy, 7 Scorpions: Revolution under said label. I made this decision knowing that there are, unfortunately, many self published books that are garbage and us Indie Authors have to work that much harder to show that we are the real deal. That’s fine, I don’t mind a challenge, it keeps things moving and keeps us on our toes.

Worth It

When I made the decision to do this, I also decided that I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that what I published would at least be of the quality that a large publisher would put out (of course, seeing what some of them are publishing, that wasn’t the stretch I thought it would be). One of the steps was to attend the Self Publishing Expo in New York City back in October. I attended with a friend and fellow author of the Last Witch Series, Liz Kolodziej. For the price tag of $125, I figured it was worth scoping out but I will admit to not having high expectations going in.

emergency

I attended three presentations (Liz and I each attended different ones so we could compare notes, the whole divide and conquer). The first one was presented by a representative from Lulu, which is a company that offers services to self-publishing authors. Interestingly enough, the presenter had a Macbook and the projector was not set up to interface with it so I let him use my netbook for his presentation (probably should have had a Plan B but I don’t mind lending a hand). To be honest, it was probably a good thing because I would have left within the first 15 minutes if I hadn’t lent it to him. The first half of the presentation was really about the company and, though some of the history was interesting, it was really irrelevant to what I was there for. The second half, however, became interesting. Apparently, LuLu has decided to open up their platform to programmers who wish to create apps (not just web based apps but also iPhone, Blackberry, and Android apps) by releasing an API (Application Programming Interface). What’s nice about this is that you can use their services and distribution with your own apps. The power behind this is really cool. There are more details on their site so check it out. There are plenty of phone app developers out there who don’t charge all that much if you wanted to go this route. I actually had some ideas as a result of this but they don’t have anything to do with my sci-fi publishing.

Donotwakemeup

The next presentation I went to was the complete opposite. The first half was good, the second half I ended up leaving because I almost fell asleep. Literally. I was actually going to be grumpy if someone woke me up, hence the pic above. It was a panel discussion. Typically these are good but two things went against it:

  1. Has anyone ever told you that there is no such thing as a stupid question? Well they lied. There are stupid questions, and, like a lot of panel discussions, this one was plagued by them. They weren’t ignorant questions, I can deal with those. They were questions that could have been answered if the people had listened to the presenter in the first place. That pisses me off.
  2. The majority of what the presenters were saying was either them patting themselves on the back for a job well done, or information that is available on about 1000000000000000000000 different blogs out there.

It wasn’t all bad though. Some of what I heard was nice, simply because I’m already doing it so it was good confirmation that I have done something right because, like many writers, I assume I’m screwing everything up. Among these are:

  1. Author Partnerships: Strength in numbers everyone. That was one of the reasons for founding WMD.
  2. QR Codes: I’ve been playing around with this for awhile. QR codes are intriguing and most of all, you can create them for FREE. I’ve actually got labels that I print them out on and stick them to packages I send out. I’ve also put them on posters, bookmarks, cards, etc. Smartphones are on the rise and pretty much every carrier out there is pushing their customers to get them so take advantage of it. Also, young adults tend to have these so if your writing appeals to this group, you should be incorporating these.
  3. Mock interview with myself: I did something similar to this with my FAQ on my website. It reads a bit like an interview. I’ve done some updates as I’ve gotten interviewed. Often times members of the media, including bloggers, are looking for content for their website. If you have a ready-to-go interview, it cuts down on their workload and yours. They may want to tweak a few things or add a couple of questions but, for the most part, the content is prepared.
  4. Book Trailers: This one I have mixed opinions about, which I have already posted about here. Needless to say, despite my doubts about it leading to sales, it is another way to get the word out, especially in release preparation and I have created some for my own writing just for fun.
  5. Google Alerts: If you haven’t signed up for Google Alerts, you really need to, well, right now. This allows you to enter search terms to create bots that will send you alerts anytime your keywords pop up in a newly indexed page. This includes blogs, news, etc. At the minimum, you should have your name, the name(s) of your book(s), unique terms from your writing (like unique character names or names of fantasy locations), series names, and the name of your publishing company, whether you are self published or traditionally published. This is a great way to keep track of what’s going on. I also use terms such as eBooks so I know what is going on in that world, since almost all of my sales have been in electronic format.
  6. Website: If you don’t have a website yet, you need one. Along with that, a blog. Realistically, you can create these for free but I would recommend you get a professional web designer to design your site (they can do it in WordPress) with custom graphics to really make you stand out. I did this and the feedback I’ve received has proven to me time and time again that I made the correct decision.

Another item mentioned was Facebook Ads. I’m not sure how I feel about this, because formal advertising in general has mixed results in the publishing industry (as well as pretty much every other industry), especially now that there are so many ways to block ads. It can also get expensive and if you’re anything like me, your marketing budget isn’t all that big. Liz had actually made a good point. A more targeted approach may be better so advertising on a site such as Goodreads, which targets readers specifically. I believe it’s also cheaper but I’m not 100% sure about that. One piece of advice the panel gave, and it’s so simply that it’s genius: When advertising, compare your writing with someone well known or the premise of your book with something that is already well known. For instance, I’ve had reviewers compare 7 Scorpions to Terminator, Mad Max, and Star Wars (which was actually a huge honor), so I’ve actually quoted that. One of the reasons is that when people search out those subjects (or if you compare yourself with another author, the name of that author), your work might come up.

The presentation was not a complete waste, but it was good that I got out of it. Besides, my bladder was about to burst and I know you wanted to know that. Yes, I’m out of my mind and I make no apologies for it!

approval

The final presentation itself was worth the entire trip. It was presented by a literary attorney out of New York, Renee L. Duff, Esq. I used to work for lawyers and, though I am not a lawyer nor do I profess to be any type of legal professional, it has been a side interest of mine and I have some level of understanding (which also means I’m the first to tell someone to hire a damn lawyer and not rely on a random person’s opinion). Realistically, legalities are a huge concern to the self published author because that person is responsible for his/her own work entirely. There were several subjects covered here and I would urge you to pay attention and/or seek legal council to make sure you are covered:

  • Copyright mailing myth: When I first got started in this industry, I found out that you automatically have a copyright on your work when you complete it. However, you really have to be able to prove it’s yours to legally protect it. One method that has been perpetuated is mailing a copy of the manuscript to yourself, keeping it sealed. It will have a time and date stamp from the post office so if there was ever a question, you’d just have the judge unseal it. Has this worked? Yes. Is it dependable? Not at all. Matter of fact, pretty much anyone with experience in this field or with copyrights will tell you that your only true protection comes from registering your copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office (or the country you reside in). I have registered both of my published books with the copyright office. It was only $35.
  • Copyright/Trademark Enforcement: The responsibility for enforcing copyrights and trademarks, even the ones that are registered, rest on the party who holds said copyrights and trademarks. In other words, you. It is up to you to keep your feelers out for violations. That is one reason to get Google Alerts (which was also mentioned in this presentation). Keep in mind that there are cases of copyright infringement that probably wouldn’t go anywhere if you challenged it. First of all, you have to show that there is some type of damage being done, whether it’s to your profits or to your reputation. For instance, if a blogger gives you an unsolicited review using your cover image and some quotes from your book, that is a copyright infringement. They did not have permission to do that. However, if that review is absolutely fantastic, it not only isn’t damaging, it’s probably helping you make money so you wouldn’t fight that. If someone decides to post your book image up and tell the world that you stole the idea from them, then you may want to do something about that.
  • Fair Use: Not every situation where quotes are used from a book are copyright infringement. You will want to refer to the Fair Use Act, which spells out what you can and cannot use legally without permission from the copyright holder. This mainly applies to the media, education, and situations with no commercial gain (like reviews). Also keep in mind that much of what is in law is based on precedent, and not necessarily YOUR interpretation of the law. In this field, it is generally acceptable for reviewers to quote from your writing, within reason, even if it is a negative review. In turn, it is generally acceptable for you to quote pieces of a review (so even a mediocre review may have a line or two that you take so when someone reads the quote, they feel as though the reviewer loved it). This is done all the time by the big guys with the New York Times and USA Today, as well as other major publications.
  • Public Domain: These are works whose copyrights have expired. You see this a lot on older pieces. Does this mean you can grab the text and call it your own? Nope. Plagiarism is still theft. There are, however, more freedoms with this work than normal. Check with an expert if you want to use anything from the public domain in your own work, especially if it is for profit.
  • Get Permission: Despite the Fair Use Act, if you want to quote someone else’s work in yours, especially if you are going to be making money (i.e. you are writing a non-fiction book and you want to reference another one), get permission from the copyright holder, in writing. Most won’t care because it’s free advertising for them but in our litigation happy society, you might as well be cautious. Keep in mind that emails are admissible in court so an email giving you permission to use something is enough, just make sure you keep the original email electronically so that it’s authenticity can be verified (a printout is not authentic).
  • If you are concerned that your text may infringe on the work of another, there are services out there where you can upload blocks of text and have it checked against other sources. This is used in academia all the time. A great one for use for web sites is Copyscape.
  • Trademarks: Trademarks are different from copyrights. The first major difference is that they can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to register. The second difference is that, unlike copyrights, you have to maintain them (i.e. show the government that you are actively using the trademark) or it will expire. The third is that it can take months, even over a year to trademark something because others have the right to contest your trademark if they have something similar. Finally, there are only certain things you can actually get a trademark on. In this industry, that would be your company logo, the name of a series (individual titles cannot be trademarked, but a series name, like the For Dummies series can be trademarked), and various symbols. If you have a question, you can refer to an expert or to the Copyright Office.
  • Defamation: This applies somewhat to fiction but mostly to non-fiction. Defamation is liable slander. You are permitted to discuss facts. In the case of fiction, you can use landmarks and other such things in a fictitious manner (in 7 Scorpions: Revolution, chapter 2 takes place in the ruins of New York City and it is mentioned by name, as is the Empire State Building). You will need to be careful when it comes to individuals, or even private residences. For instance, if you have a distant cousin who you hate, you probably should not mention them by name and have them butchered to death in your fiction writing. In the case of non-fiction, you can write about provable facts. The rules are a bit different with public figures, but there is also not a clear definition of what a public figure is. Obviously, President Obama, major movie stars, etc, are all public figures and are the subject of all sorts of things that would be considered defamation if they weren’t public. You should definitely seek the advice of an attorney on this one if you have questions. A great protection for fiction (but not fool proof if you blatantly defame someone) is to put, at the beginning of your book, some type of text block that says the contents are either products of the imagination or places used fictitiously. You can see an example of the one I put in 7 Scorpions: Revolution on the copyright page here (yes, that was a shameless plug, deal with it).
  • Copyright Transfers to Company: If you own your own publishing company (and you should if you’re self published, it’s easy to establish a LLC or S-Corp), you should consider transferring the copyright to the company. Realistically, you still own it but that takes any liability away from you and puts it in the business. I’ve already done this. When you register a new copyright, you will have to register it to yourself but in the registration, you can put in the transfer so it’s done right away. You will need to follow it up with some type of written and signed document, in case it’s ever challenged. If you have already created a copyright, you can do a copyright transfer (no formal process in the copyright office, just have a lawyer draw one up or grab one from a reputable legal site online, sign it, and submit it tot he copyright office, they have instructions on how to do this).

In summary, the expo was definitely worth it. There were other services available (appointments with agents and editors) but I wasn’t interested in them. If they hold it again in 2012, and you are either self-published or considering self-publishing, you might want to make your way there if you can.

It Shows In Your Work

It shows within your work when you are enthusiastic about your work.  And when you don’t have enthusiasm about what you are writing or about writing, itself, it can reflect within your work, so strongly, perhaps, that readers might get bored with reading your work, evennif it has good information in it or a good poem, story, and plot.  But when the enthusiasm is there about writing and about what you are writing, that can make the story or article of which you are writing, shine.  So, try picking subjects you have high interest in, put your emotions into your words, let your emotions fuel you when writing stories and poems, and even if sometimes writing articles if wanting to make the readers sympathise and empathise with you about the situations, points, and facts you are expressing within your article. Then, write a rough draft to see if it says what you want it to say-what you want it to express, not just exressing the story, plot, etc.  Show it. Express it. And above all else, put your all into it. Zone in. What I mean by this is simple: Zone in, into what you are doing and into what you are writing. If you are around a stressul environment, especially much of the time, and you cannot seem to let down, enough, to write, just take deep breathes and stare at the screen without thinking. Then think only on the work, ahead of you that you want to do to express what you want to express, and focus solely on that, if at all possible, even if in small increments. Try to not think about the stressors and stressful situations as you are writing your articles or books (unless they are about the stressors around you. And then, if those articles and books are are about those stressors and the stressful environment around you, then pay attention to those stressors, but from an observational perspective, only, not allowing yourself to feel whatever is happening around you as you observe it all so that you can collect the data from that process to then use to add into your work material, looking at everything that is happening of stressful situation(s) as though an outsider looking in. And then, as you write those articles and books about that subject, use that collected info you’d observed about your stressful surroundings as reference in your work, being mindful to add your emotions you remembered previously feeling from your situation before you started to writing). Once you have begun writing, let it all just pour out of you of words as they will as you allow yourself to follow whatever path unfolds, wherever the writing process takes you. Try to not stop or interupt your writing path for another way of writing. Once finished for the day, hour, etc., check your grammar, form, format, spelling, etc., and make the changes you need and want to make to your writing. If you do this, it will show within your work, well, and it will not only grab readers in, from the start, but it will keep readers in, as well. Write, away. And above all, enjoy it.

April Morone

Coping With Negative Reviews

It had to happen. This is a subject I’ve been thinking about creating a post on for awhile but I’ve been avoiding it but recent communications with some authors I know have shown me that I need to just do it. There are a lot of articles and chapters in books on writing in regards to this. The fact is, it is a subject that ALL authors must face sooner or later so you might as well face it now.
First of all, for those of you who haven’t received a negative review yet and are concerned about getting them, I don’t blame you. No matter how much positive feedback you’ve gotten, it sucks royally to watch as someone rips your work apart (and some can be extremely vicious). I’ve opened my email many times to see a message from a reviewer and my heart rate jumps up as I open it, only to breathe a sigh of relief when the review is a positive one.

I also remember the first email I opened from a reviewer who hated my book. It was one of the most scathing emails I’ve ever received in my life. This reviewer was genuinely angry at me for writing what I wrote and didn’t have a single good thing to say about it. Then I got my first posted negative review. Yes, it sucked to read that. So again, I feel your pain. I understand the fear. I understand being hurt when that review finally comes (and it will).

Now, it’s time to clear your head. In my case, I have received a lot of good reviews. I had a blogger actually write that she wanted to buy the book for everyone because she loved it so much. I’ve had numerous positive reviews indicate opinions of the same aspects that the negative ones did, but only they were diametrically opposite. Funny enough, I received a “neutral” review from a blogger who liked the story but hated my writing style whereas a radio host specifically said that she felt my writing was so polished it was like reading a book from a major publisher.

So, why am I mentioning the parts of the marketing process that I would love to just forget? Because when I tell people to “suck it up cupcake”, I want it understood that I am not trying to be harsh or mean. Us authors are usually quite attached to our writing and it is easy to take it personally when someone doesn’t like it. Now granted, sometimes reviews end up being personal attacks on an author, which is ridiculous but it does happen. But, the reality is, people are entitled to review a book and they are entitled to their opinion. If your book sees anything even close to the distribution level you probably want, you WILL get some negative reviews. It’s inevitable. If you don’t want a negative review, don’t publish. It’s that simple.

If you don’t believe me, just go into Amazon and check out some of the top selling books out there. For instance, Twilight. Of the top 3 reviews, two of them are 1 star reviews (at least they were the last time I saw it). Actually, there are literally hundreds of negative reviews, some questioning the integrity of society for ascending the book to popularity. Yet, all four of these volumes have sold millions of copies throughout the world and have been translated into dozens of languages. Even Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, at the time of this writing, has 76 one star reviews. No one can please everyone.

Keeping all of the above in mind, when I see an author start throwing accusations against other authors out there for fowl play and the like, simply because they received mostly negative or no reviews and the other authors received mostly good reviews, I just have to shake my head. It’s kind of like that author who posted a multi-page response to a negative review on a blog, which subsequently went viral and caused a massive boycott of her writing. This is real life. No one cares if you’re insulted by a review. That’s not insensitive, it’s true. If I wrote a whining blog about the negative reviews I’ve gotten, people would probably boycott my writing too.

The fact is, if you’ve written a halfway decent book (it doesn’t even have to be super great), you’ll probably get some good reviews. And let’s be realistic. If you have beta readers and an editor and you actually take their advice, you’ll probably be fine. If you just jump in pig-headed and think your rough draft is worthy of print, you will probably be one of these people who gets slammed constantly. That’s not the fault of successful authors.

Writing: Creating Memorable Villains

            You don’t necessarily have to have a  traditional villain in your story. Sometimes the antagonist is a force of nature, or even something within the protagonist himself. (I don’t mean literally, although – have you seen Alien?)

            But if you’re going to have a villain, make him a great one. What makes a memorable villain?

            Darn good question. Although a one-dimensional villain can work (Terminator),  you usually want to avoid the trap of a cackling, mindlessly cruel, cookie-cutter bad guy (unless you have a specific reason for that – there are always exceptions). In The Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West was a fun villain, but she didn’t quite reach the great category because she was all evil. We know she wants her sister’s slippers because they hold great power, but she doesn’t seem all that upset about her sister being killed. How did she come to be in charge in the Winkie country? In the book version, how did she lose her eye?

            She becomes more interesting – although no longer quite the villain – in Wicked, the love it or hate it reimagining in which we learn how she came to be in that castle in the first place.

            So the first lesson of creating villains is to make them real people. Give them a reason for what they’re doing, a background, and more qualities than just a desire to blow up London. Speaking of London, an example can be found in Ernst Blofeld, from Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

            Blofeld is the leader of an international criminal organization but also, we learn, an economist and political history buff, former stockbroker, and turncoat war hero. He also doesn’t smoke, drink, or have sex, which perhaps explains his general bad attitude. There’s something going on in his brain beyond “Must get richer” and “Don’t tell Bond your plans next time”.

            So, your bad guy has to be well rounded, and it might be good to give him a sense of humor: Hannibal Lector was scariest when he was being witty.

In addition to that, if you want to take your villain from good to great, remember this one rule: Bad guys don’t think they’re bad.

            The really interesting villain in The Wizard of Oz is the Wizard himself, a feared and fearful legend who never leaves the palace and is never seen. Despite the fact that he’s a dictator who committed fraud against an entire nation, not to mention (according to later books) plotted to kidnap and hide the true ruler of Oz, he insists he’s not a bad man at all – just a bad Wizard.

            The moment that curtain is knocked over, and the Wizard is revealed to be a timid little circus performer from Omaha, he becomes a character so interesting that fans eventually convinced L. Frank Baum to bring him back to Oz in a sequel.

            Which brings us to Darth Vader.

            Like the Wizard, Darth Vader is mysterious, powerful, and scary. That voice, the outfit, choking a guy with his frakking mind … wow. But, like the Wizard throughout most of Baum’s first book, he’s strictly one dimensional. At the end of the first Star Wars movie most fans were probably thinking more about the neat ships, lightsabers, and whether Leia would ultimately go for the good guy or the bad boy, than about what went on in Vader’s brain.

            Aren’t we glad Leia chose the bad boy?

            In the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, something seems off. Granted, Vader must be upset about losing the Death Star, but why is he so intent on capturing Luke alive? How did he even find out Luke was involved in that battle? Why put so many resources into chasing down one guy and his arguable unimportant band of allies? Vader’s still two dimensional, but getting interesting. We knew he’d killed Luke’s father, and was once the student of Luke’s Jedi Knight hero. There was a history. What was it?

            You see, it wasn’t Vader’s villainy that was fascinating, it was those unanswered questions. How the heck did he end up in that cool black mask, anyway?

            Then – spoiler alert, for those three people in Dubai who don’t know – everything changed. At the end of Empire, Vader said one line that turned him instantly from a memorable bad guy to one of the greatest movie villains of all time:

            “Luke … I am your father.”

            I was fortunate enough to be in the theater at an early showing, before everyone got spoiled. Talk about a communal gasp. In the words of Professor Farnsworth from Futurama: “Whaaaaa?????”

            By the end of the third movie we saw an entirely different Vader: Still strong, skillful and ruthless, certain he’s in the right (“together we can bring order …”) but now conflicted, and with a past that showed he used to be one of the good guys, but got turned around. Whether you liked or hated the later prequels, all Star Wars fans were looking forward to finding out what happened along his journey.

            That’s a well-rounded character.

            Of course, your character will be on the page instead of the screen (unless you’re writing a screenplay), so the black suit won’t be nearly as effective. A better example might be Severus Snape, from the Harry Potter books.

            Talk about a rotten person. He’s an egotistical teacher who bullies his students and plays favorites, he absolutely despises little twelve year old Harry Potter for no good reason, and he kills one of the main good guys!

            Ah … but (spoiler alert!) as time goes by we get suspicious, and at the end comes one of the greatest twists of any book series ever: Throughout it all, the evil Snape has been protecting our hero, despite working for the enemy and despising Harry’s father. Why?

            Because as a boy Snape loved and lost the girl who married James Potter … and Harry has his mother’s eyes.

            Just like that, Snape become a flawed, haunted human being, dedicated to protecting the child who reminded him all too much of his past.

             You could argue that in the end Snape was a hero, rather than villain. Still, the rules apply:

            Give your villain a reason for doing what he does, so he’s not just some random maniac. (On the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike loves killing, but is also on a mission to restore the health of the woman he loves.)

            Give some insights into the bad guy’s past. If he’s stalking teenage coeds, maybe he was bullied in high school. If he’s ruthlessly trying to get rich, maybe he grew up poor and hungry. If he’s just plain crazy, explain how he got to be that way – but insert your back story in little bites, and don’t overdo it. Nobody said it was easy.

            If he has a good side (most people do), show it. On the TV show Glee, the vicious cheerleader coach suddenly lets a girl with Down’s syndrome onto the squad. Everyone assumes she’s up to some evil plan – until she’s revealed tenderly caring for her own Down’s stricken sister. She didn’t get less nasty, but she did become more human.

            And that made a great villain.