Screw-up Characters and Admirability

An easy way to make a character likeable is to make them competent at their jobs/hobbies/anything really. The common wisdom is that we like characters who are talented.

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Katniss is a pretty obvious example. She’s not warm and cuddly, but she slays, literally, with her bow.

Of course, being competent isn’t the only way to make a character likeable. One of my favorite character types is the screw-up, i.e., the opposite of the competent character. I especially love screw up characters in comedies.

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Kristen Wiig’s character in Bridesmaids can’t catch a break. She had my sympathy.

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Community: a whole cast of screw-up characters

Why do I like them. Whether they’re loveable losers, too dumb to live, or can’t catch a break…I want to hug them all, or laugh if not at then with them.

Thinking about this the other day, I wondered how well screw-up characters work outside of comedy. Spoiler: they can work in any genre.

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A compare and contrast in character competency.

Harry Potter, with the notable exception of DADA, isn’t particularly talented at school or magic. However, Harry is courageous, loyal, and good. Oh, and Ron too. Ron’s humor makes him pretty damn likeable.

What I realized, unsurprisingly, was that even though these characters weren’t competent at their “job” there was some big trait to admire. So if I can’t admire a character’s competency, then I admire another trait: their humor, their bravery, the way they’ve overcome their past, etc. Harry Potter serves as a great example of that. Somehow, in thinking about how to write a screw-up character whose shoes a reader may still want to fill, that’s the realization I came to.

However nebulous “likeability” really is, in fiction “likeable” characters are characters we can admire.

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Query Writing Advice

There’s lots of advice out there on how to write a query, but I thought I’d throw out my two cents, focusing particularly on the most common mistakes I’ve seen as a slush pile reader and agent’s intern.

The first thing in your query should be your hook, a one to two–sentence paragraph that makes agents/interns/readers want to read the rest of your query. A hook can also be useful in stating what makes your book different from others out there.

Honestly, the hook should be the easiest part of your query. It’s the most interesting or most unique aspect of your manuscript condensed into one or two sentences.

I don’t have time to get permission to use other authors’ hooks, so I’ll give examples of hooks I’ve used in my queries. These queries got me manuscript requests from agents.

Hook example 1: “After spending four years believing herself to be the last half-demon on earth, 19-year-old demon hunter, Seph Morgan, is shocked to find out that she is merely the only female of her race, making her much sought after by demons, half-demons, and humans alike.”

Hook example 2: “In the empire of Rethvan, it is believed that the souls of those who are murdered must wander in endless torment until their deaths are avenged. Seventeen-year-old Jade must set her mother’s soul free by killing the man responsible for her murder, a man she has never laid eyes on: the emperor, her father.”

Not my best work, but you can see how the first hook points out how the story is unique—a half-demon girl is the only female of her entire race. And the second hook clearly points out the main conflict of the story—a girl is seeking revenge for her mother by attempting to kill her father.

Avoid hooks that could apply to lots of already published books.

Bad hook example: “A new boy enters Kayla’s life, and she finds herself instantly drawn to him.”

While I love a good romance, this hook doesn’t tell me how this story is unique. It could be the plot to Twilight or City of Bones or Hush, Hush or a thousand other books. That’s not to say that these books aren’t unique, just that this hook would be a terrible one to use for them because they have so many unique things about them that could be used instead.

The second part of your query is a description of the plot, main conflicts, and other fun details you want to include. In other words, a one to two–paragraph summary of your story that doesn’t contain any spoilers.

Now let me interrupt for a moment to say that some people have a hard time understanding what a main conflict is. It’s NOT a list of the themes found in your manuscript.

Bad summary example: “My novel is a heartwarming tale of friendship and love in which two souls must come together after a hardship has befallen them.”

Ick. I get this one all the time. Drives me nuts. First off, don’t tell me your story is heartwarming. I’ll decide that for myself. Second of all, that’s great that a hardship befalls them, but WHAT IS THE HARDSHIP? That’s the conflict, not that other crap that they listed. I don’t want to know the themes. I want to be able to tell the themes for myself by learning the actual conflicts of the story.

A main conflict is also NOT a description of the world you’ve made up or the creatures you’ve made up or whatever else you’ve made up unless you directly relate these elements to the conflict of the story.

Bad summary example: Welcome to the world of Eldyron, where magic and technology have reached their peaks. Some children ride broomsticks while others ride flying mechanical dragons. Some brandish wands while others use telekinetic devices called spingots.”

Obviously I just made that one up on the spot, but you see the point. It’s great that you’ve made up a new world, but what’s the conflict?! Is there an evil dude planning to use his magic to destroy the world? Is the main character an evil technological mastermind who plans to take control of the world? Whatever the actual conflict is, important people want to know it.

So what is the conflict then? It’s the problem. It’s what makes your story interesting, that thing that keeps everything from being happiness and giggles.

Conflict examples: bad guy trying to take over the world, obtaining revenge, people are disappearing, the class bully, etc.

It’s okay to include minor conflicts as well. It’s all right to describe your characters in more details if you show how their personalities lead to conflict. It’s perfectly fine to include interesting facts so long as they relate directly to the conflicts.

Also, your summary should focus the most time on the most important elements. Don’t spend a whole paragraph talking about the romance if it’s a very minor element. If your story has a strong romantic element, do mention it. A romance is always a conflict, and an exciting one at that.

Don’t forget to include in your summary the word count, title, and genre of your manuscript!

And if you want to see them, here are the summaries I wrote for the two hooks I used earlier.

Summary 1: “At 85,000 words, The Curse of Beauty is the first installment in a young adult fantasy trilogy following the life of Seph Morgan. When her parents were killed by demons, Seph dedicated her life to ridding the world of the nasties that lurk in the night. Having been trained to handle a sword at an early age and being half-demon herself, Seph is more than capable of taking out any demon unlucky enough to cross her path. While Seph appreciates some aspects of being half-demon (enhanced senses and agility, fast healing, impressive strength), others she finds extremely annoying (loneliness and an alluring, flawless beauty exceeding any human’s). For a girl who just wants to do her job and stay under the radar, drawing unwanted attention can be a huge inconvenience, sometimes a dangerous one.

When taken captive by a group of hunters who are neither human nor demon, Seph is furious until she learns something that changes her life. She isn’t the last of her race; she is simply the only female, which puts her hot on the market. Seph’s invited to attend the Jansen, a school that prepares half-demons for their future careers as demon hunters. Life changes dramatically for Seph at the Jansen. Whispers and catcalls follow her wherever she goes. She is now a teaching assistant for the sword training classes—where she deals with delinquent students who would rather check her out than pay attention to her instructions—under the direction of the extremely rude, hot, and mysterious Luke. But unruly boys aren’t Seph’s biggest concern. There’s another person out for her, someone more dangerous than anything Seph has ever fought against, and he won’t stop until he has her. The Curse of Beauty is equal parts action, mystery, and romance.”

Just FYI, that second to last line there, THAT would be the main conflict.

Summary 2: “Getting close to the most protected man in the world seems impossible, but Jade has an advantage that she doesn’t even know about. She has spent her life far from the Imperial City, living in the mountains—where her mother, the emperor’s twelfth wife, has kept them hidden from her father’s abusive habits. But after Jade finds her mother’s dead body and vows to avenge her death, she meets 23-year-old Tyrian, who plans to use her to gain his own political aspirations. He tells Jade about her previously unknown lineage, that as one of the emperor’s eligible children she can compete for the throne, and about his intent to help her do it. Tyrian might be conceited and dealing with his own tortured past, but Jade recognizes in him the same relentless determination that drives her. They both are willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want. Jade has no intention of ruling an empire, but she has no problem using Tyrian. She’ll go with him to the Imperial City and pretend to play this political game to try to win the emperor’s favor. How else is she supposed to get close enough to kill him?

Divine Vengeance is a young adult fantasy that combines the revenge plot of The Count of Monte Cristo with the royal sibling rivalry found in Stardust. Full of romance, political intrigue, adventure, and mystery, the manuscript is complete at 100,000 words. It is a standalone with series potential.”

And lastly, you’ll want to include your author bio in your query. Very little needs to be said about this. If you’ve got writing credentials, include them, if you don’t, don’t lie. It really doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a New York Times’ bestselling author looking for a new agent, the big guys really don’t care about your credentials.

So there, now you have no excuse NOT to include the plot of your manuscript in your query.

Interactive Books

If you who don’t have your finger on the pulse of the publishing industry, you might not know that the industry is currently like a coin flipping in the air, and no one knows just how it will land. With the rise of the ebook, traditional forms of publishing–particularly print publishing–are under attack from all sides, and no one knows what publishing is going to look like in five or ten years.

While some people are using this time to cling to old formats of publishing, others are taking advantage of the disruptive innovation of the ebook to do some really impressive things. Those of you who are interested in what the future of books might be, take note. Interactive books are coming.

In reality, we’ve had interactive books for a while now. I’m sure you can all remember the choose-your-own-adventure books from your childhood or, my personal favorite, those picture books that had little icons on the page that corresponded to noise making buttons on the side. You guys remember those? I sure do.

But with the rise of the ebook and the internet, books have the capability to become far more interactive–and far more high tech–than a choose-your-own-adventure story.

Back in September of 2012, the first installment of The Infinity Ring series was released. The Infinity Ring was published by Scholastic and was their attempt to bring together reading, gaming, and history.  The story follows time travelling kids who have to keep history on track to avoid world catastrophes.

While the book can be read just by itself, readers also have the opportunity to continue the journey of the book online. By going to the internet, readers can play a role-playing game as one of the books main characters. Scholastic, which has previously tapped into the goldmine of the internet through its 39 Clues books in which readers could go online to unlock exclusive bonus content, has long since realized that most kids aren’t satisfied with books alone. They want something more, something they can control and interact with. And with The Infinity Ring, they can do just that.

This, of course, isn’t the only multi-media book experience. J.K.Rowling, who is no less than a queen in the publishing industry, introduced her fans to Pottermore in 2011. Pottermore is meant to be an interactive online companion to the Harry Potter books. While all seven books aren’t up on Pottermore yet, users still can interact with pivotal moments of the first four or five books. They can get wands (mine is pear wood with a phoenix feather core) and get sorted (Gryffindor) and make potions or duel other users to get points for their houses. While a lot of users, myself included, complain that the site has no return value, fans of the Potter books keep going back to the site for the free content that delve deeper and deeper into J.K.Rowling’s fictional world. For die-hard fans of the books, that content is absolutely invaluable.

Of course, both of these are examples of print books with interactive supplemental content. The possibilities are considerably more endless.

I’ll let this Ted Talk explain it all:

Personally, I have a hard time seeing all books going in this direction, but the possibilities are endless and exciting to explore.

Self-care for Writers

I was hanging out with Tricia on Saturday, thinking/complaining about how I’m so inconsistent with how I write. First, I don’t do it often enough. Second, as soon as something’s not fun anymore I give up on it. Third, I don’t even revise what I finish or let me friends comment on it.

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And as any writer will tell you, a writer writes. So that makes me not a real writer…right?

But, here’s the thing. Don’t delude yourself, but don’t be too hard on yourself either. There are always extenuating circumstances, and you need to take a deep breath and decide whether to suck it up and stop making excuses for yourself OR if you need to get help and take care of yourself. You know, mentally.

My happiest writing memory, by far, is sitting at the junior high where I worked a couple of years ago, subbing a teacher’s classes while the students watched a mockumentary about dragons, and working on a brand new novel. It was four hours of fun. Four hours that I hold on to like I’m hanging on to the edge of a cliff. Because beyond those few hours, writing has never been fun for me. It’s a painful, abusive hobby. The only reason I still want to do it is because I have too many characters running around in my head. I want to give them life, but actually doing it feels like rubbing my face against a cheese grater. (If you’re a perfectionist to the extent that I am, you’ll understand what I’m talking about.)

Those Platonic hours were the easiest, sunniest writing hours of my life for virtue of the fact that I was in the best place mentally that I’d been in years, and have been in years.

So if anyone is beating themselves up because their dream is to be a writer/artist/whatever, but they just can’t seem to get it together, you have all my commiseration. Rather than repeat over and over that writers write, let’s focus our energies on taking care of ourselves. With that in mind, I’ve created a self-care list for writers.

JK Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech is still one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever heard.

Learn to recognize shame in order to eliminate it from your thoughts:

Laughter is the best medicine and I don’t care how hackneyed that phrase is, it’s true.


Laugh and cry with Allie Brosh?

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And remember