Thursday, June 29, 2017

Editor's Notes #33: The Perfect Character

Mary Sue cartoons property of MissLunaRose at

Readers love to fall in love with your characters. If a character is created interestingly enough, they love to love them, and they love to hate them. I think it's a tremendous compliment to an author when the reader puts the book down, saying something unintelligible through gritted teeth ("arrrrrggggghhhh" will do nicely) because the character is so complex that they relate to them. They get angry with/at them, and can't forget them just because the book is closed.

You do, however, want to avoid having your readers hate the character because they simply hate how you've created him. Creating the perfect character doesn't necessarily mean that the character should BE perfect. In fact, that kind of thinking will backfire in a big, big way more often than not.

Think of real life: the "perfect" man or woman . . . we think of someone who always says yes to us, or fulfills our every desire, acquiescing to our whims. But in reality, someone like that would bore us because he has no spine, no personality, no chutzpah at all—which translates into bland, no give and take, and nothing adventurous to explore and discover. There is no challenge for growth or new ideas when someone is always in agreement with you.

Some of my favorite YouTube videos come from Terrible Writing Advice, and this one about "Mary Sue" (aka The Perfect Character) is a hoot:

Be cautious of the pitfalls of creating a character too perfect/cliché. Your readers will cease being your readers after a while. Characters become caricatures, and your reader will not only be pulled out of the story again and again by things like, What? Perfect grades, chiseled abs, AND he feeds the homeless and is the football captain, too?

When our kids were little, we used to read to them all the time (big surprise there). Most children can comprehend at a higher age level than their own reading level—they may be reading Little House in the Big Woods on their own but are able to completely understand The Hobbit when it's read aloud to them. So when our boys were six and eight, I think, we were reading the Hardy Boys books to them. The first book thrilled them. The second book was great. The third, not so much, and by the fourth book, the shine had completely worn off. Even at their young ages, our kids wondered why the boys were never in school or had jobs but had an endless supply of money and gas for their motorcycles. They always had the exact skills needed ("Frank, an amateur gymnast, was able to flip back and upward onto the water wheel at the mill . . ."), and the last straw for them was when the brothers needed to pick up some broken glass as evidence, and Frank just so happened to have a folded piece of cheesecloth in his wallet. I'll never forget our oldest saying, "Really? Cheesecloth? Who carries cheesecloth with them anywhere?"

Lesson to be learned: if your character has no flaws, your reader will begin to despise the very character you want them to love and connect with.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Art of Having Someone's Back

If I were to take a poll, I'm willing to bet we all know at least one person who is "that" guy. The one who only pops up on reader forums or Twitter to say, "Buy my book!"

Don't get me wrong: there's nothing wrong with self-promoting. Indie authors must do it to survive, and even traditionally published authors should be able to promote and increase book sales. You've worked hard and you should be able to reap the benefits.

But . . . I guess what I'm asking is this: Is that ALL you do? Or do you also take joy in promoting the work of others? Is it all about you, you, you, or is it sometimes about [insert dramatic pause here] SOMEONE ELSE?

There is something . . . call it a necessary skill, call it a natural gift, call it a learned pattern of behavior . . . that benefits everyone at a cost to no one.

S.K. Anthony and her critique partner, Brandon Ax, call it "backhaving." If you're a backhaver, you know exactly what this means. It means being supportive. It means commenting on a blog. It means sharing someone's cover reveal. It means retweeting their links, or even hitting that +1 button to share without having to type a word. It means sharing something on Facebook, such as their book release or Amazon weekend sale. It means reading each other's work, whether it's a simple blog post or a full-blown manuscript. It means being a critique partner or beta reading. It means maybe even buying their book and reading it AND reviewing it.

Granted, no one person can do all those things all the time. And no one should feel pressured to try. But there is a line that begins to draw itself when a person is never, ever a backhaver.  Here are a few of the signs:
  • He "doesn't have time" to interact on forums, whether something like Goodreads or other give-and-take conversational places, for the sake of becoming part of the community
  • He only goes to the forums when it's time to self-promote
  • He doesn't visit blogs and therefore doesn't interact by commenting on them
  • He doesn't click the "share" button on Facebook to promote another's work or post
  • He doesn't give a shout-out or promote his editor or cover designer on writers' forums to help their businesses grow
  • He may post progress reports on a Facebook author page, but only to promote his own work
Is it any wonder that the not-a-backhaver doesn't understand why his book sales aren't through the roof?

Those of us who are backhavers can't imagine how anyone wouldn't be. Of course we share in the joy and successes of others, because we realize it doesn't hurt us to do so. It costs nothing to share someone else's post, promo, or announcement of something good. In fact, it gains you something: community, support, goodwill and more.

Being an independent anything is hard work, whether you own your own plumbing business, make jewelry, are a freelance artist/editor/photographer or whatever. Being a writer, whether self-published or traditionally published, is as much work as anything else when it comes to getting your name out there. Social media is a great tool that costs little to nothing, and is a very effective way to not only get your name out there, but keep it in the forefront of people's minds. It's a lot of work that sometimes pays off. And it's that "sometimes" that keeps us working at it.

I don't know about you, but the people I follow on Twitter, for example, are those who share a little bit of everything. There's the occasional personal tweet that may be funny or ironic, and a mixture of self-promotion and other-promotion. If a person constantly spews political hatred (on either side of the aisle), I unfollow. If a person posts their own books and nothing else, roughly four to five times per hour, all day, I unfollow. (And yes, there have been a few who tweet with that constant kind of bombardment.)

But the backhavers . . . ahh, the backhavers. I remember their names, because I see them when I visit from blog to blog, and on social media in general. They comment. They promote. They have guest posts on their own blogs.

They support. And that's why I know their names, and why I'll most likely buy their books AND read them AND review them.

You may have heard it said that we make the time for that which we deem important. On a related note, if your readers and fellow authors/editors/cover designers/small publishers see you only ever promoting yourself, they'll quickly come to the conclusion that you see only yourself as important—and if they're not important to you, there's no reason for them to support you.

Are YOU a backhaver? If not, it's never too late to start!

For those who have read all the way to the end: I'm working on a future post and need your help!
What is the best and worst writing advice you've ever received?
Shoot me an email at
and tell me what it was and how it affected your writing.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Shady Publishers

So you've written a book. Good for you! You should be proud of yourself and possibly a little impressed at your own perseverance. You've written and (hopefully) rewritten at least a few times, have gotten people to beta, rewritten yet again, hired someone to edit the manuscript, gotten a cover designed, and now . . . well, the world is waiting and you need to get your book into their hot little hands.

How, exactly, does that happen?

I’m going to talk about how it should NOT happen. As in most of life, if there is something worthwhile, there will always be someone who figures out a way to pervert it to their own advantage. It's no different when it comes to the printed word.

Every so often, there are articles posted about this (and I’ll give you plenty of links at the end), but it never hurts to put it out there again for those who may not be aware. What am I talking about?

Shady publishers, that's what.

They prey on the newbies, the eager, the naive. They know you want to see your book on the virtual shelves of Amazon and the physical shelves of Barnes & Noble, and they're counting on your eagerness to translate into ignorance in the rush to become famous.

Bottom line: you can self-publish through a variety of avenues (and I'll cover that in a separate blog post someday) but if you're looking for a publisher, you need to know one basic fact, and this is it—getting a publisher should not cost you a penny.

There are so-called publishers out there—vanity presses—who charge authors to publish the work, do their scam thing for a while, disappear, and then come back under another name to do it all over again with more unsuspecting people. Often they'll charge more than it would cost to self-publish, and my guess is that people fall for their deception only because they're fearful of the unknowns of self-publishing.

Part of what may drive some to go for the scammers is that self-publishing involves doing all the steps on your own, and all the research that accompanies those steps. Seeking out an editor, a good cover artist, formatting, etc. is such a hands-on thing. I can see how it would appear to be easier to allow a publisher to do all that legwork. All the promotion is your own as well when you self-publish, and scam publishers will try to convince you that your book will be promoted for all the world to see, buy, and love if you sign with them. Instant fame and fortune.

In addition to the appeal of the work being done by others, I think a good number of newer authors may lean toward vanity presses because . . . well, let's just think about the name of a vanity press. Their actions appeal to a person's vanity—the need to be liked and to feel approval. Though there's nothing wrong with being proud of your work and wanting others to enjoy it, the scammers count on that being a driving force in your choice of how to publish.

Vanity presses don't have the same criteria that traditional publishers follow (whether large publishing houses or small presses). Publishers who are on the up and up must be careful to only accept those manuscripts they believe will earn money for them. Their profits come from book sales, and their investments must be wise. Vanity presses, on the other hand, accept pretty much any submission because the money is flowing toward the press, not the author. Scammers have nothing to lose when you say yes to them. And those who don't know better are excited and flattered that a "publisher" is interested in them. Wiki even mentions that “a vanity publisher's intended market is the author and a very small number of interested members of the general public.” Ah, vanity.

As a musician, I can understand this completely. If someone doesn't like what I'm doing, that means, of course, that they don't like ME. Never mind the fact that perhaps they don't like the song itself, or the style in which it was performed. Or maybe they don't like my voice. Does that mean they don't like me as a person? It shouldn't. And yet, we tie our art so closely to ourselves . . . because displaying our art—whether it's music, writing, photography, drawing—often means we've revealed something very deep and personal. Rejection of that "something" is all too easy to link to rejection of "inner me."

And that may be the biggest factor of someone succumbing to the “oooh, shiny” appeal of a vanity press: they love you . . . the inner, personal you! They can make you rich! They won’t be able to stop themselves from bringing up your name during business dinners! The world will sing your name to small children in lullabies!

[Please note that vanity presses are NOT the same as small presses. There are plenty of legit, wonderful small presses out there that may be a good fit for you and your book-publishing needs. I may feature those in a future post.]

Thankfully, there are watchdogs out there. Even if there weren’t, a simple Google search would give a solid heads-up as to who’s been complaining about whom in the publishing business. Here are a few good places to check out, and some interesting blog posts on the topic of how to tell one type of publisher from another:

Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check —Exactly what it describes, and one of the most useful forums on Absolute Write.

Predators and Editors —This site's listings have temporarily been removed (P&E has called them "stale and outdated") until they can find a new caretaker to update the site. However, they still have a few good links to other resources such as SFWA's Writers Beware.

Scammers (and How to Avoid Them) —Author Megan Morgan put together a helpful post about a year ago with good advice about this. If you have time, check out her 2017 A to Z Challenge posts (which was how I found her in the first place). The woman is hilarious and her theme, 26 Things to Hate About Writing, had me laughing every day in April.

Self-Publishing & Vanity Publishing: Confuse Them and Pay the Price —This is an older post but covers things thoroughly, and reading through the comment section gives almost as much insight as the post itself.

For those who have read all the way to the end: I'm working on a future post and need your help!
What is the best and worst writing advice you've ever received? Shoot me an email at
and tell me what it was and how it affected your writing.