Your Repertory Company of Characters

three furies by mandy greer

three furies by mandy greer

Gore Vidal famously said that every writer has a repertory company of players. He thought Shakespeare had about fifty, Hemingway only one, and himself around ten.

I found this quote while pulling together material for Writing Romantic Fiction and it has been swirling around in my mind ever since. If all writers have a repertory company, then I must have one, too. On a flight one morning, I drank coffee and stared out the window at clouds and sky and tiny box towns far below, and thought about that. Who are my characters?

Turns out Vidal was right. I can come up with a company of very specific characters. One major player is a version of Demeter, an earth mother who brings the spring. She likes to cook, and often grow things; she’s creative in some way. She tends to be tall or robust, with significant hair in some form. She is very often the main character in many of my women’s fiction novels, and was often the lead in my romances, as well. There are other leads, but this one tends to be my favorite.

I also discovered Persephone in the line-up, the lost child who needs help and mothering, often by the Demeter character. She’s often an adolescent, or motherless, and troubled in some way. She’s Portia in The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and Katie in How to Bake a Perfect Life and Natalie, the seven year old baby foodie in The Secret of Everything.

There are men, of course. The dark-haired (often curly-headed) man, often ethnic and serious or studious or even sad. He’s Julian in The Lost Recipe for Happiness, and Solomon in A Bed of Spices, and Isaiah in The Sleeping Night (playing opposite the lost, motherless Angel). I often write a beautiful, troubled, lost man who needs connection to make peace with—whatever. The Rebel/Rouge/Bad Boy with a heart of gold, who is Blue in In The Midnight Rain and Zeke in Breaking the Rules.

I have a very specific penchant for casting Sam Elliot, at many ages, in lots of roles. It’s not even conscious, really—I just notice that I’ll be writing along, and once again, Sam will be taking the role. The dad in this book, the lover in that, the friend in yet another.

I like a wise woman character, too, who is often—weirdly—a ghost. Maybe she represents my ancestors, my dead grandmother and other women who guided me. She’s vigorous and powerful and wise, and often quite beautiful, even in advanced age. She understands the world and her place in it, and often provides insight for the main character. In Lady Luck’s Map of Vegas, she’s a living breathing woman, Eldora, and not so much wise as experienced.

Often my sidekick characters are dogs or cats, which made me laugh. It’s true for many of us, though, isn’t it? We find connection and support in our pets. Animals can save us.

I wondered for awhile if exploring this idea would make me appear to be a hack in some way, if it would take away some of the pleasure of reading the work. But we are writers here, dissecting our own processes, and in the end, it was entirely too fascinating for me to leave it alone. Where is the power in knowing who the players are? Continue Reading »

Reading Synesthesia

ReadingSynLast month I caught what can only be titled The Stomach Virus from the Damnable Pit of Hades. Yes, it earned the superfluous moniker. But don’t worry—this isn’t a post about my gastrointestinal woes. I’ll spare you those details. I mention it because it was the first time I’d ever experienced synesthesia of the body and more significantly, of books.

I’d read about this phenomenon in my Writer Unboxed sister Therese Walsh’s novel The Moon Sisters. So I felt I had known it in my imagination, through her character Olivia, who lives with the neurological muddling. To help you understand, in case you have yet to pick up Therese’s book (which I highly recommend you do at once, especially if you are a WU aficionado!), here is what I experienced physically:

Toothpaste tasted and felt like baking soda on my tongue; mouthwash, like too-sweet honey. Black tea brewing clear across the room smelled like burnt hair. All soda pop smacked of cough syrup and bubbled down like cat nails in my throat. Cubes of cheese were salty sea sponges. A whirling fan was like being slapped in the chin with each blade. The sound and feel of closing a desk drawer, the cupboard, or a door ran like a tuning fork through my body in bursts of orange that made me have to lie down. The ping of my Twitter Tweetdeck induced nausea. Okay… so that last one may affect others similarly.

Point being, it was the strangest thing I’d ever encountered. Nothing was right. The world was topsy-turvy and all I wanted was everything to go back to being what my memory-senses said they should. For the familiar to be the familiar again.

All of this I could blame on illness and medications. They were messing with my senses, I consoled myself. As soon as I was over this thing, I’d get my regular appetite, hearing, smells, sight and feeling back. But what scared me most was that my imagination seemed to have been impacted too.

Like most writers, I’m a reader, first and foremost. So when diseased by the Netherworld, I reach for a comforting book and panicked. The novels I’d purchased mere weeks before in giddy excitement, I couldn’t focus on past the first sentences. I had one bewildered, tearful moment where I lined my TBR pile up on my sickbed, cover to cover, picking up one and trying to get “into” the story dream. Failing. Then picking up another and doing the same. It was miserable—and I presumed I was a very, very sick woman. Obviously.

So I decided to try something outside my normal, literally and literary. I went online and ordered three books that were not my typical reading fodder but were written by good friends in whom I trust for prose prowess and storytelling. A cinematic summer thriller. An apocalyptic dystopian novel. A sci-fi romance adventure. Continue Reading »

How to Make Social Media Worth Your Time: When Is Enough Enough?

Flickr / Thomas Hawk

via Flickr / by Thomas Hawk

A writer recently asked me to comment on whether there is anything to be gained from being active on more than two or three social media accounts. How extensive should you really get—and is it possible that “less is more”?

I interpret this question to mean: When is enough enough? And how do I make any effort worth my time?

Answering this question requires stepping back—waaaay back—and looking at how and why authors use social media in the first place. I’m going to focus on the three most common stages.

  1. Growing relationships in the community.
  2. Actively marketing a book (or product/service).
  3. Nurturing reader relationships.

Stage 1: Growing relationships

This kind of activity is largely unquantifiable, but it’s also where nearly every single person starts (at least if you’re not a celebrity).

As you learn to use any social media tool, there’s a “warming up” period as you understand the community, its language, and its etiquette. Most people begin by reaching out to the in-real-life people they already know on the network, then branch out and connect with people they haven’t met in person before.

What’s the purpose of this activity?

Well, why do any of us attend social functions? To have a good time, to learn and be informed, and to seek encouragement and support.

When does it reach its limits of utility? That’s kind of like asking how many relationships, or how many friends, is too many. If it’s starting to drag on your resources and time to do other things more important to you (such a writing), then it’s time to re-assess.

While I don’t recommend analyzing your social media use (from a numbers perspective) when you’re focused on it being, well, social, it’s helpful to check in with yourself on how the activity is making you feel. Energetic or drained? Positive or anxious? Empowered or jealous?

If you’re experiencing more negative emotions than positive, it may be time to step back from the specific networks causing these emotions, or stepping back entirely until you identify what’s creating bad mojo.

Stage 2: Actively marketing a book

You’ll only be successful at marketing on social media if you’ve already been through stage one. No one likes a stranger barging into the room and hawking his wares. It’s considered rude and the stranger is ostracized quickly.

But let’s be honest: many people have been told to get on social media in preparation for a book launch, and have no interest in using it beyond the marketing and promotion utility. That people feel this obligation or burden is one of the greatest failures of publishing community, but I’m going to set that aside (for this post), and instead speak to how to manage this stage authentically without rubbing everyone the wrong way.

Social media is excellent at building awareness and comprehension in the community of who you are and what you stand for. Over time, you become more visible and identifiable, because you show up consistently and have focused messages (let’s hope). It’s usually only after this recognition and trust develops that you can run a successful campaign that focuses on the sale—getting the community to buy.

Measure traffic to your website from social media. Does it make up a high or meaningful percentage of visits? If you don’t know, this is a significant gap in your knowledge that is preventing you from really answering the question: How do I make it worth my time?

For those who don’t have these relationships or trust in place, here’s a work around: Get your friends and influencers who already have relationships and trust in place to help spread the word for you.

If you do have a solid foundation, then create a focused and strategic campaign, with specific start and end dates, for each social media network. Build in ways to measure if it’s working or not. For example, it’s easy to track how many people click on your links in Twitter, or retweet or favorite you. Facebook shows you the number of likes and shares. Over time, these simple metrics can tell you a lot about what people respond to, so that you can adjust and improve your updates. (At its heart, social media has a lot in common with strong copywriting. For lessons in copywriting, see Copyblogger.)

Regardless of your stage of activity—but especially during marketing campaigns—you should measure traffic to your website from social media. Does it make up a high or meaningful percentage of visits? If you don’t know, this is a significant gap in your knowledge that is preventing you from really answering the question: How do I make it worth my time? Continue Reading »

How To Fire – and How Not to Fire – Your Publicist

picture by Nic McPhee

picture by Nic McPhee


It’s like a dirty word. In fact, I’m calling it today’s Dirty Word of the Day. Once, I needed help with an author contract and reached out to a woman about hiring her as a consultant. I got an email from her that said, “I don’t like publicists but sure I’ll talk to you.” Uh, no thank you. I wouldn’t want you to slum it with little old dirty me. And I wouldn’t want to disappoint her and her preconceived notion of a “publicist” either. After all, I’ve been told I’m quite likeable (usually).

This woman, she’s not alone in her prejudice. There is this love-hate relationship that exists between authors and publicists, between publishers and outside publicists – now there is a really dirty word and occupation: outside publicist. Like… porta-potty cleaner, fishmonger, used car salesman or …porn star. (In fact, for fun, here are a few other really disgusting words, perhaps far more disgusting than publicist. And some really disgusting jobs, perhaps far worse than publicist.)

But, in all seriousness, and back to the Dirty Word of the Day: At some point as an author, you are going to have to make a decision about hiring a publicist. And at some point you might not be happy with that publicist, you might not know what to do or you might be considering firing that publicist, or perhaps looking for another porn star…err publicist to take their place. Here are some tips on how to fire – and not to fire- your publicist.

#1 Share some pie

If you are on the fence about the relationship with your publicist and whether you want to extend it or terminate it, sit down and talk. My grandfather (a true Midwesterner) liked to say that there’s nothing that a good pie can’t fix. If you live in the same area, sit down over coffee (and pie) and have a face-to-face, heart-to-heart with your publicist. They are (usually) people too. I’ve been doing this awhile and I know that sometimes it’s a matter of neither party understanding the feelings, needs, expectations, hard work and situation on both sides. If you don’t live in the same area, try Skype or Face Time. Relying on email or texts is not a great way to communicate, especially over big matters. And if you have hired the kind of publicist that would never even consider sitting down over coffee, let alone pie, with you, then you should probably fire them (just kidding…sort of).

#2 Be Patient

I often have clients say, “Why haven’t you heard back yet?”, “Well, you would think local media would be very interested in my story”, or “What’s taking so long? It’s been over a month now…”. Media relations is tough and it takes time and a good publicist is aggressive and persistent without being annoying. Sometimes who you know can help, sometimes not. Sometimes an editor is busy or out or just not interested or has other things they are focused on. Sometimes they are still reading your book. Sometimes they read it and didn’t choose it. Sometimes they didn’t like it. Sometimes they loved it and still there wasn’t a place for it. There’s never any guarantee and it’s very hit or miss. This is very difficult to hear when you are paying money for a publicist. I had a book featured in Entertainment Weekly that the editor called “The undiscovered YA book of summer”. I couldn’t have written that better myself. Oh wait, I did write that in the pitch, and it got put in the story. Amazing! But you know what? It took eight months for that to happen. So just don’t jump the gun – a good publicist knows that media relations takes time and effort and requires follow up. If you don’t think that follow up is happening, ask. Ask again. But be patient if there’s been no word. Patience and consistency wins the race, or something like that.

#3 Stay Classy Continue Reading »

Networking for Writers

Photo by Michael Heiss

Photo by Michael Heiss

Today, we’re thrilled to have Margaret Dilloway with us. She’s the author of the upcoming novel, SISTERS OF HEART AND SNOW, (Putnam, April 2015) about two estranged sisters who are inspired and brought together by reading the history of real-life 12th century samurai woman named Tomoe Gozen. She is also the author of the middle grade fantasy novel MOMOTARO (Disney-Hyperion, 2016), as well as THE CARE AND HANDLING OF ROSES WITH THORNS and HOW TO BE AN AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE.

Margaret lives in southern California with her three kids, and unruly Goldendoodle and husband (yes, she means unruly to apply to both of those characters).

Publisher’s Weekly has this to say about How to Be an American Housewife:

In this enchanting first novel, Dilloway mines her own family’s history to produce the story of Japanese war bride Shoko, her American daughter, Sue, and their challenging relationship.  Dilloway splits her narrative gracefully between mother and daughter (giving Shoko the first half, Sue the second), making a beautifully realized whole.

Follow Margaret on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Networking for Writers

For the typical introverted writer, the hardest aspect of the job (besides, you know, actually writing and getting published) is networking. Yes, you have to network in your writing job exactly as you do at any other job. Establish relationships, form friendships, and help each other out.

But this means you have to pop up out of your dark little hidey hole and actually talk to people. (Or at least talk online). Everyone has to do it, because every writer at some point will need help from other writers in the form of blurbs, advice, cross posts, or getting the home address of a new agent (kidding).

Unfortunately, nobody writes the unspoken Rules of Networking down for anyone, so either you’re naturally good at it, or you have to observe and enact the secret customs, or you’re terrible at it.

Now that I’ve crossed the bridge to the other side and become a published writer, I’ve kind of gotten to know some of these unwritten rules. And now I’m on the receiving end of strangers asking me for favors out of the blue. I thought it would be helpful to write some of these rules down. Say them aloud. Discuss them.

The most important thing to remember when you approach another writer is that you want the other writer to feel respected. Ever used that dating app, Tinder? On Tinder, if you express an interest in someone who’s already expressed an interest in you, you can send each other messages. (Disclaimer: I’m not on Tinder. I swear). You might get a message saying, “Hey, beautiful, I want to spank you, meet me at my apartment in 30.” If you’re looking for a long-term mutually respectful relationship, then that message will be a turn off.

Same thing with networking. You want to approach someone with the intent to have a long-term mutually respectful relationship, not with the goal of using them for your means, then discarding them. I mean, take me on a date before you invite me back to your place, for goodness’ sake!

So please. Take the time to get to know the writer a bit better before you start bombarding him with requests for favors. In other words, treat the writer like you would your friend with a truck. Everybody wants a friend with a truck to help him on moving day. People with trucks don’t want friends who only call them when they want to use their truck.

Do’s Continue Reading »

There is No Horse & Cart. On Finding Success as a Writer.

Before we get to today’s post, I wanted to make you aware of an offer by a group called Writer Mamas. These women are trying to raise funds so that several WU community members can attend the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in November. To that end, they’re selling $200 worth of writing books and guides for half cost. Click here to learn more about the offerings.

“That’s putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it?”

This is probably the metaphor I like the least, yet hear most often. In what context do I hear it? Things such as:

  • Developing an audience before you write a book is like putting the cart before the horse.
  • Starting a newsletter list before you have a dedicated audience is like putting the cart before the horse.
  • Thinking about long-term goals before you know who you are as a writer is like putting the cart before the horse.
  • Spending a single minute on social media before you write 1,000 words each day is like putting the cart before the horse.

Why do I dislike this phrase? Because it simplifies to a romantic narrative of how to succeed as a writer. It nearly always whittles it down to:

Romantic thing about writing vs creepy horrible spammy businessy thing.

It’s easy to feel wise and pure by saying things like that. I mean, I would love to say:

“Filing a joint tax return before hugging my wife is like putting the cart before the horse.”


“Waking up early to change the cat’s litter box before writing a poem about my son is like putting the cart before the horse.”

For the context of a writer, when we talk about success as a PROFESSIONAL – things are often more complicated than simple romantic contrasts. You have to do a wide range of tasks concurrently; you are unsure of what works; the world you WANT to live in (where cupcakes have no calories and where a book naturally finds its way into readers hands), differs from the world we DO live in (where it may actually take effort to help get a book into the hands of the right reader. Don’t even get me started on cupcakes…)

Now, before I go further, I want to be clear about two things:

  1. Yes, developing your craft as a writer is indeed THE primary thing you have to work on. I wrote about this just last week.
  2. If you have ever used the term “cart before the horse,” I am NOT making fun of you, I am not saying you are wrong, I am not trying to pick a “side,” I am not judging you. I totally get (and appreciate) that people often use this phrase when they see others veering off track and losing perspective. The phrase is meant to get people to focus on what matters.

But I worry that these simplistic phrases and encouragements: “don’t put the cart before the horse” mask the reality of how complex success really is:

  • Success is rarely a linear plan with clear steps that are taken in order.
  • Success is often more nuanced.
  • Success is often confusing, even after the fact.
  • Success is usually overwhelming.
  • Success is filled with WAY more luck than we would like to believe or admit.
  • Success usually requires a wide range of partnerships, some formal, some informal.
  • You can do everything right, but if the timing is off by 1/2 a degree, success can be elusive.

Continue Reading »

Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?


Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for August 10, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first manuscript page of the Preface and the first 17 lines of Chapter 1. There are two polls.


On October 18, 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence vanished from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo , Sicily. The Nativity, as it is commonly known, is one of Caravaggio’s last great masterworks, painted in 1609 while he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by papal authorities in Rome for killing a man during a swordfight. For more than four decades, the altarpiece has been the most sought-after stolen painting in the world, and yet its exact whereabouts, even its fate, have remained a mystery. Until now . . .

Chapter 1

It began with an accident, but then matters involving Julian Isherwood invariably did. In fact, his reputation for folly and misadventure was so indisputably established that London’s art world, had it known of the affair, which it did not, would have expected nothing less. Isherwood, declared one wit from the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, was the patron saint of lost causes, a high-wire artist with a penchant for carefully planned schemes that ended in ruins, oftentimes through no fault of his own. Consequently, he was both admired and pitied, a rare trait for a man of his position. Julian Isherwood made life a bit less tedious. And for that, London’s smart set adored him.

His gallery stood at the far corner of the cobbled quadrangle known as Mason’s Yard, occupying three floors of a sagging Victorian warehouse once owned by Fortnum & Mason. On one side were the London offices of a minor Greek shipping company; on the other was a pub that catered to pretty office girls who rode motor scooters. Many years earlier, before the successive waves of Arab and Russian money had swamped London’s real estate market, the gallery had been located in stylish New Bond Street, or New Bondstrasse, as it was known in the trade. Then came the likes of Hermès, Burberry, Chanel, and Cartier, leaving Isherwood and others like him— independent dealers specializing in museum-quality Old Master paintings— no choice but to seek sanctuary in St. James’s.

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »

When Life Hands You Lemons


photo by Mark Roy

Please welcome Kathleen McCleary to Writer Unboxed as a new regular columnist!

Three years ago, I had one of those summers in which everything that could go wrong did—and on a colossal scale. I was under a tight deadline to finish my second novel, which had been four years in the writing. My editor wanted me to add a second point of view, which was basically like writing another novel and weaving it together with the one I’d already written. I had four months to get it done. And during those next four months, the following happened:

  • My youngest daughter was bullied and refused to go back to school
  • My father died suddenly
  • My mother was hospitalized for a cardiac condition the week after my father died
  • My father-in-law died
  • My oldest daughter and I both got pneumonia and had to miss my father-in-law’s funeral

Of course my agent and editor both told me not to worry about the book and the deadline. And indeed, I wasn’t sure I could even remember what I was doing with my story in the face of so much heartache. But when I sat down to try and work on the book, I found that all those feelings—anger at the bullies who had wounded my girl, grief at losing my father and father-in-law, gratitude for the wonderful men they had been and all they had done for me—fueled my writing in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

No one in that book loses a parent or in-law, or gets sick and misses a funeral, or stands vigil at a parent’s hospital bed. But the characters do suffer losses, grieve, cherish each other, try to find solace in small moments—all the things I felt that summer, even though none of the situations in the book were based on my own life.

There is an immediacy and honesty to writing that comes out of adversity. That kind of immediacy and honesty connects readers to your work in a visceral way.

I have found this to be true again and again in writing, that some of my deepest sorrows have led to my best writing. There is an immediacy and honesty to writing that comes out of adversity. That kind of immediacy and honesty connects readers to your work in a visceral way.

One of my favorite sayings about writing is that “all the feelings are facts, it’s the facts that are fiction.” Continue Reading »



Flickr Creative Commons: RA.AZ

This delightful word was originally coined in the fifties to describe deliberately confusing bureaucratic jargon.  Since then, science fiction writers have co-opted the term for the scientific background you feed your readers to explain the ways in which your world differs from reality.  It’s the bafflegab that persuades your readers to suspend disbelief.

It’s most often used in science fiction, of course, but other genres use bafflegab as well.  Fantasy novels require a magic that behaves according to rules – what might be called metaphysical bafflegab.  Some romance novels now require an explanation of where vampires come from and how they live.  Even historical novels rely on something similar.  People who lived in the middle ages would probably find the world of many medieval mysteries unfamiliar, if only for the shortage of lice.  But that’s not a problem as long as the world is convincing enough to satisfy modern readers.  After all, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare had Cassius say, “The clock hath stricken three,” twelve centuries before the mechanical clock was invented.

How much bafflegab you need depends on your audience.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy needed much less in the way of explanation than, say, Jennifer Wells’ Fluency.  Being lighthearted lets Douglas Adams deal with alien languages by having his characters stick a small fish in their ear rather than bringing in a linguistic expert, as Wells does.  If your readers are into your romance for the dark, dangerous love interests, you don’t really have to go into detail on the biology or ecology of your vampires.

Bear in mind, too, that you can often cut down on the bafflegab by using IJD technology.  (How does the spaceship travel faster than light?  It Just Does.)  We don’t think about the details of internal combustion engines when we’re driving to work.  In fact, I’m told most people never think about the details of internal combustion engines at all, though I have trouble believing that.  In the same way, people in the future won’t think about how the warp drive works every time they fire it up.  So a lot of your background technology can simply remain in the background. Continue Reading »

C-c-considering Cadence: Understanding One Quality of Voice

tempoThe Oxford Dictionary defines cadence as “a modulation or inflection of the voice, a rhythmical effect in written text, a fall in pitch of the voice at the end of a phrase or sentence” or simply as “rhythm”. For purposes of discussion today, I have a brief illustration of how it can affect reader experience.

Consider the following lines:

I do not like green eggs and ham,
I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.

A classic by Dr. Seuss, yes? But take a simple stanza like that, give it to the likes of Mariah Carey, and one would expect it to be delivered in an entirely different style — one which might be represented like this:

I do not like green eggs and ha-am,
I do not like them, Saaaammm-I-Aaa-a-a-ahhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm,with the Ms dragging on to infinity such that they begin to choke the airways of anyone attempting to master them. And the songstress clutches her throat as she falls to the ground, her face turning an eggplanty purple to match the quality of this prose, all while Mariah sings and sings, her eyes cast upward as if to follow her soaring voice, which conveys a rapturous purity—

Ahem. You get the idea.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, the more I become conscious about the use of words, the more I notice that it’s cadence which lies behind my approval or disapproval of a writer’s performance, including my own words.

Continue Reading »

If Buddha Wrote a Novel


By Jenny Downing on Flickr’s Creative Commons

Today’s guest is Renee Swindle, the author of newly released A Pinch Of Ooh La La and Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin). Her first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Renee has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. An admitted tea snob, Renee lives in Oakland with three rescue dogs and three cats—“Yep, six animals and me,” says Renee.

Dish magazine says, “Swindle has a way of making her characters dance on the page, drawing you deep into the midst of their laughter and their sorrow, their joys and their mistakes.”

You can connect with Renee on Facebook, Twitter, and on her blog.

If The Buddha Wrote A Novel

I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.

First off, please don’t let the title of my post scare you away! Buddhism is far more about psychology than religion; even the Dalai Lama is known for saying his “religion” is compassion. And meditation, the cornerstone of Buddhism, can be practiced by the religious and non-religious alike. Think of it like that hot trend right now—yoga. Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying. So what does all this have to do with writing? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Well, I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.


A couple of years ago, while meeting with my meditation instructor, I said something along the lines of, “I love Buddhism—except for the whole compassion thing; that part sucks. Most people get on my nerves and I have zero compassion for jerks!” My instructor, who’d read my first novel, and knew about the novel I was working on at the time, stared at me pointedly and asked if I ever felt my characters were jerks—if I ever lacked compassion for the people who inhabited my stories.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious.

Granted, the heroine of my first novel sleeps with her best friend’s husband (d’oh!), and the narrator of my second novel battles alcoholism and the habit of sleeping with strangers. Still, I felt defensive. I love my characters. I think they’re complex, broken, spirited and funny. When I told my instructor as much, he reminded me about the importance of equanimity: the practice of keeping curious and open without grasping hold to a fixed opinion.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious. Even if a certain character’s backstory doesn’t make it into the novel, you should know why and how they became who they are. If you write your so-called “bad” characters with no sense of insight, or compassion for that matter, you just might end up writing them as flat.

Discipline Continue Reading »

The Six Archetypes Every Novel Needs

Hacks for Hacks: Sense of Humor RequiredArchetypes are time-tested character types from which hundreds of your favorite characters are drawn. Harry Potter. Ishmael. General Woundwort. All of these are based on classic archetypes that I’m too lazy to look up but I’m pretty sure have origins that date back thousands of years. Here are the six character archetypes you need to put in your novel to create your own classic characters.

The Hero

The person your reader will follow around for a few hundred pages. His sword: sharp. His virtue: true. His retorts: witty. His courage: brave. His face: sufficiently young and handsome to attract a name actor when you land the movie deal.

Henry looked at the castle before him with his steely blue eyes. Within its walls lay a treasure that would take about three hundred pages to reach. He set his chiseled jaw, thinking about the many challenges he would face; the lessons about life and stuff he would learn on the journey, which would be more valuable than the treasure, lessons so valuable that people would accept them as currency. He squinted his steely blue eyes. “The time has come,” he said, jaw-settingly.

You’ve probably got most of these archetypes in your book already. If not, their absence is almost certainly the one thing that’s keeping you from landing a major book deal.

The Mentor

This wise guru has wisdom to impart to the hero. Often depicted as an old man or woman, the Mentor has sage advice that the Hero usually doesn’t want to hear, since it values patience and strategy over action and casual violence. Through her guidance and knowingfulness, however, the Mentor will eventually make the Hero see the light. This sometimes involves guilting the Hero into compliance by getting herself killed.

Wise old Orin of the Mountain stroked his beard knowingly. “You have much to learn, young one,” he intoned in his rich baritone. “One day, when you are old and wise and bearded, you will see.” Orin’s wife, wise old Mythra, nodded and stroked her beard in agreement.

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