One of the great things about fiction is the opportunity to step into someone else’s head and not only experience a new and different life, but to feel the excitement, anguish, and fear right along with the character. But why do some books elicit such deep emotions from the reader while others fall short? It’s all about connecting with the characters.
Have you ever read a book that you wanted to love, but you just couldn’t make yourself care what happened to the characters? Or maybe you wanted to know what happened, but you never felt any sympathy for or excitement with the characters? Either way, the problem is the same—you never developed a connection with the characters, so you never invested in their lives.
Why does it matter? Because people won’t read about characters they don’t care about.
Yes, you might find some readers who just want to know how the story ends, so they skim pages and skip long paragraphs to get to the last chapter (or, if you’re like me, you read the last chapter to see if you’ll like the ending, then decide if the book’s worth your time). Don’t give readers an excuse to skip pages! Instead, give them the chance to get to know your characters so they’re not merely curious to see what happens, they care about what happens.
How do you create meaningful connections with characters?
Stop skipping Act I.
Perhaps the most traditional (and well known) story structure is the three-act structure—beginning, middle, and end. Another way to understand and discus the three acts is:
- Act I: Introduction
- Act II: Body/Story
- Act III: Conclusion
In a ridiculously short summary, these three parts essentially mean:
- An introduction of characters, setting, and plot.
- Watching the characters interact with each other within the setting to advance the plot.
- When the characters work through the final plot issues to resolve the story with a satisfactory ending.
The part I really want to focus on is Act I, the introduction. It’s becoming more and more common to see that part of the story stripped down (if not completely eliminated) in an effort to jump right into the plot.
Don’t. Do it.
For years now, writers have been told to start their stories with action. Yes, that is absolutely true, but that doesn’t mean you dive right into the plot without first introducing all of the key players and plot elements. Don’t sacrifice Act I for the sake of action. When you do that, your reader doesn’t know whether to root for the woman on the run or hope she gets caught—without an introduction, you throw the reader into a confusing situation, and you never want to confuse the reader.
How, then, do you start your story?
- Start with action that’s appropriate for the genre and story. If you’re writing suspense, it’s understandable and often acceptable to open with a woman on the run, then reveal that character to the reader as you go. That’s part of the suspense plot. If, however, you’re writing women’s fiction, the action needs to appropriate: a working woman grocery shopping, a mom pushing a stroller while she jogs, two sisters sorting through their deceased father’s possessions. All of these things are active. It doesn’t have to be a car chase or gun fight, as long as it doesn’t start with the main character thinking for two pages.
- Introduce the main characters.Imagine you’re at a barbecue. Your friend brings over a stranger and says, “This is my co-worker, Larry.” Besides what Larry looks like, you only know one thing about him. That’s not a great introduction, but that’s how many authors start their books. Instead, use this introduction: “This is my co-worker, Larry. He just moved to town last month and is looking for a new massage therapist to treat back issues resulting from a car accident. I thought you might be able to help him since you work at a chiropractor’s office and have connections in that industry.” Wow. Now the reader understands Larry. They may not be able to relate to his situation, but they’ll understand why he hires someone to walk his dog and stop thinking he’s lazy. You’ve helped create empathy.
- Show the setting. Where and when a story takes place will impact the events of the story. For example, a cruise ship is sinking. How should the reader react to that? It’s hard to know if you don’t know when or where the ship is sinking. If it’s off the coast of Florida in 2005, the Coast Guard will be there with speed boats and helicopters—exciting! If, however, it’s 1912 in the North Atlantic Ocean, it’s tragic. Make sure you show the setting.
- Establish normalcy. If the reader doesn’t know what life is like for your characters, they won’t know how to respond when unusual events happen. Say your character is sitting in her car at a red light when two cars plow into the intersection and crash. She calmly calls 9-1-1, gives a statement when the police arrive, then goes home where her husband hugs her and tells her how proud he is of her and how amazing she is. Why? Without establishing her normal—that she’s an army veteran with severe PTSD who curls into a ball and suffers flashbacks when a balloon pops—there’s no way to understand her breakthrough by being able to call for help and drive herself home. Take the time to establish normalcy so the reader can recognize important moments.
By including these four elements, you’ll make it easier for your reader to connect with the characters, which will establish the emotional connection that pulls the reader through the story.
Why does that matter to you? Because all writers—published and not-yet-published—need to establish and build their platforms.
I’ll be honest: platform building isn’t my favorite part of being a writer. Instead of creating stories or editing my manuscripts, I’m writing blog posts or trying to decide whether or not to share a sarcastic meme on Facebook. But it doesn’t stop there. Social media is about being social, so I can’t just post and share things. I keep checking in to respond to and interact with people who interact with me.
If platform building is so time consuming, why do we do it?
- It builds relationships. My husband loves hiking and camping. I didn’t grow up doing anything like that, so it’s not how I would choose to spend my weekend. I’ll go camping with him though because we have a relationship. The things that are important to him are important to me. Something similar happens when an author establishes a relationship with readers: they’re willing to read something different or go to unfamiliar events because of the relationship you’ve developed.
- It keeps you connected. When I lived next to my friend and her kids, I bought the kids Christmas presents every year without having to think about it: I saw them weekly, so I knew exactly what they liked. Now that they live thirty minutes away, however, I have to call their mom to ask what the kids are interested in. I just don’t know them like I used to. The same thing happens with your platform. The more you interact with your readers, the better you’ll know them so you won’t have to ask what they like about your stories or what they want to see next. You’ll know because you’re connected.
- It keeps you visible. If you can write and edit quickly, you might publish 1-2 novels per year. That’s up to twelve months between releases, which leaves a lot of time for your readers to forget about you and find new favorite authors. If you have an active platform, however, your readers will always know how to find you.
- It identifies your buying audience. Before a publisher agrees to publish a book, they want to know how they’re going to sell the book. One place they look is the writer’s platform. How many followers/fans does the writer have? Has the writer even started developing a platform? No one expects an unpublished writer to have hundreds of thousands of fans, but at least having an Facebook account shows the publisher that you’re connecting with and learning how to interact with your audience, and that’s what will help you sell books.
All of that makes sense for published authors, but what about unpublished writers? Why do you need to have a platform if you don’t have any audience?
Because some day you’ll have an audience and you’ll want them to be able to find you. You can’t wait until your book releases because you’ll need to start marketing before then. You’ll want to announce your book contract and share your book cover art when it’s designed—all of that information helps generate buzz and interest in your project, but you can’t do that if you don’t have a platform from which to do it!
That means building your platform now. Here are the three most basic principles to remember as you’re starting this process:
- Stick with the platforms you already use. If you don’t like Twitter and have never used it, don’t force yourself to use it for your author platform. Instead, use what you’re already using—if you have an Instagram account, set up one for your writing persona.
- Go to your audience. If you’re writing for young adults, check out Snapchat, Tumblr, and Instagram. If you’re writing for senior women, try Facebook and Pinterest. If you’re not sure where to find your audience, search for the most popular social media platforms for that age/gender. (Pew Research studies this type of information and releases their data to the public.)
- Be active. Don’t just create a Facebook page. Post to it. Like other people’s pages. Comment on other people’s posts. Share their posts. Comment. Get involved. It’s called social media, so be social!
You can start building your platform at any time, but start it before you submit to agents and publishers. That will show them that you understand the necessity of platform and that you’re already working on it.
Speaking of agents, stop back again in two weeks to look more in depth at the role of the literary agent in your novel-writing journey.
Until then, what questions do you have on platform? Where do you need the most help or encouragement?
My debut novel—Summer Plans and Other Disasters—is now available on Amazon! Sign up for my monthly newsletter and you’ll receive the unpublished prologue: find out what inspired Calista Stephens to make those summer plans. Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for writing tips, updates on Guiding Light, and more!
This summer of change and opportunity continues to roll along with more surprises every day! As I continue to switch this site over to a more fiction-centric location, I want to take this week to focus on fiction as there’s an important date coming up.
Summer Plans and Other Disasters – my debut novel – releases September 15, and I don’t feel ready at all. Writing the book was only the first part. Finding a publisher was only the second. Now I’m in full-on marketing mode, and it’s a new experience for me! I’m taking this opportunity to read back over past posts and tips to see how to make the most of this book launch.
One thing that I know that I need to do is take advantage of social media to spread the word. That’s why I’m hosting an entire WEEK of events, and I hope that you’ll join me for an up-close look at what it takes to launch a debut novel!
September 15 – Release day –Join me on my Facebook page as I celebrate throughout the day
September 17-21 –Each day of the week I’ll be giving away a free copy of Summer Plans and Other Disasters but I’ll also be celebrating a different part of the book with a fun, book-inspired gift. They include:
Monday, September 17 – Lighthouses: I have two beautiful lighthouse ornaments from Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, including this one.
Tuesday, September 18 – Music: Callie loves music, so I’m sharing the love with the treble/bass clef decal. It’s hard to describe, so you’ll have to trust me – it’s awesome.
Wednesday, September 19 – West Side Story: Kyle knows how much Callie loves West Side Story (it’s her favorite!). Find out why when you win a copy of the soundtrack.
Thursday, September 20 – Michigan: There’s something about living in the Mitten State that gets in your blood. You can put the magic of Michigan anywhere you want with a special Michigan decal.
Friday, September 21 – Surprise: You’ll just have to check my Facebook page to see what I’m giving away!
All of this is new to me, so I thank you for your patience as we navigate this together. As I’m learning, I hope you’ll provide feedback:
– What works for you?
– What’s not working for you?
– What do you want to know?
– How can this website better serve you and your needs?
Please stay in touch so this blog can become what you need it to be (and not what I think I might want it to be).
Have a wonderful week!
Happy New Year! As we start 2016, it occurred to me that I’ve never actually completed an interview form for my own blog. You can learn more about me by clicking around this website, but here’s my attempt at completing the interview sheet that I ask everyone else to complete. Enjoy!
When did you start writing/editing professionally?
I started writing professionally in 2007, when I wanted to get a novel published. I realized I had a better chance of success if I had some bylines, so I contacted a local paper about writing for them.
I started editing professionally in 2012. As the only freelance writer in a small town, the chamber of commerce contacted me about editing some of their documents. I discovered a knack for it and decided to add it to my list of services.
In 2015, after years of tinkering with a variety of types of writing and editing, I launched Write Now Editing and Copywriting Services, focusing on fiction editing and copywriting. These are definitely my writing and editing strengths, and I love every minute of the work I do.
Why did you want to be a freelance writer/editor?
I didn’t really want to work freelance. I love working in an office and being around people, but I also love writing and editing and there aren’t any full time jobs in my area for a writer/editor. What really pushed me to take the leap was when my aunt moved in with us in 2012. She’s mentally handicapped, so she needed someone at home with her. Working as a freelancer let me keep working while being able to stay home for my aunt.
What’s your specialty/focus? Why/how did you pick this?
As a writer, I love copywriting – brochures, promotional material, web sites. I still write the occasional article for local papers, but I prefer copywriting whenever I can.
As an editor, I love helping people with their novels (I’m a certified fiction substantive editor with the Christian Editor Connection). I work primarily on adult fiction, but am also comfortable with young adult stories. I don’t edit children’s, middle grade, erotic, or horror because I don’t read those.
I’m happy to copy edit or line edit for non-fiction, but I’m not as confident in my substantive skills for that genre.
What’s your favorite part of this kind of work?
I’m an absolute word nerd, and I love helping people use words to say what they want to say in the way they want to say it (a lot of people think they’re doing this, but their word choices and/or punctuation send a completely different message).
What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome during your career?
Focus. I’m not very self-motivated, so I’m easily distracted. I work much better in a structured environment with set rules and standards, and it’s very easy to let things slide when you work in your living room for yourself.
What’s surprised you the most during your career?
Honestly, the more I study, the more surprised I am to realize how much I already understand about writing and editing, I just didn’t know the official term and format. I seem to have a natural talent for reading something and mimicking the style/voice, so that’s helped a lot when writing copy. (I’m not trying to brag, just being honest…)
If you could give a new freelance writer/editor one piece of advice, what would it be?
Know your worth. It’s understandable to do some free work early in your career to get experience and develop your resume, but as some point you need to stop working for scraps. When trained professionals work for $10/hour, it drops the value of everyone’s work.
Your time and talent is valuable – don’t give your services away!
If you could do one thing differently in your career, what would it be?
I would have joined a professional writing/editing group sooner. I’ve learned so much through these associations. They’ve been invaluable to my career.
What’s your favorite kind of work? Why?
Copy work – I know how hard it is to get a business up and running, and a good web site is invaluable. Too many people spend money to have a web site designed, but then they write the copy themselves without realizing that a badly-written web site accounts for more than 40 percent of web traffic leaving your site.
Copy matters! And I love helping people develop copy that accurately reflects their business.
What does your work space/office look like?
My desk is in the living room, so I’m surrounded by a chest freezer, piano, gas fireplace, and sectional. I have a convertible desk so I can work sitting or standing, and I have two monitors so I can easily look between documents. Almost every inch of my desk and work table is covered with papers, books, notes, etc. It’s messy, but I like it.
What is your go-to snack when working?
I’m too moody to have a go-to snack: sometimes I need sweet, sometimes I need savory. The only snack I can always eat are potato chips, so I don’t keep them in the house (or I’d eat the whole bag).
Excluding the CMOS (that’s a given) what one editing resource would you recommend? Why?
I would recommend connecting with a group of editing professionals. I’m a member of the Christians Proofreaders and Editors Network (PEN). I’ve learned more through my association with this group than I have from any book or magazine.
If you could only recommend one writing resource, what would it be? Why?
For fiction, The Basics of Writing Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke. This is the best basics book I’ve found. Even if you don’t write Christian fiction, this is a must-read.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
People often think that because they passed high school English they can write their own content, but it’s a skill that needs to be developed. If you just want words on a web site, you can write it. If you want your home page to grab people’s attention and pull them into your web site, hire a copywriter.
You can connect with me online at several places. Check out these sites:
www.karinbeery.com – fiction writing and services
Facebook – learn more about Karin Beery, author
LinkedIn – learn more about Write Now Editing & Copywriting, including freelance and leadership info
Twitter – a little bit of everything