WILR – The A-Z Characters course

Here’s another “WILR” (What I Learned Reading…”) review. And, as usual, I’m going to include a bunch of resource links, as well.

This is about creating characters, and the course is The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters. (I like it. A lot.)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve realized that I’m kind of terrible when it comes to crafting characters.

Sure, for walk-on characters that may not even have a name, the charts at 350 Character Traits can be useful.

But, ask me to craft a character that’s truly authentic…? Err. Umm. It’s been a struggle.

Oh, I own some great books about characters. I should read these (and then use them) more often.

On My Bookshelf

45 Master Characters is a good, all-purpose reference for pre-constructed characters. They’re based on classic and mythic archetypes. (Athena is subtitled: The Father’s Daughter and the Backstabber. It fits.) Everything is explained, nicely. This book is especially good for “red shirts.”

One reason you’ll rarely see inexpensive used copies of this book at Amazon, is because anyone who owns this book is likely to hold onto it, forever.

Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches is a title that embarrasses me to write. (I’m like that. LOL)

I had to buy a copy because I’m utterly worthless when it comes to staring evil in the face… and turning it into a character I’ll have to live with (in my head) for any length of time.

I’m so uncomfortable making a character evil, I either make them “too nice” to seem like genuine villains, or I refuse to think about them much, and write them as two-dimensional stereotypes. Either way, they’re boring and not-very-credible.

This book not only describes each kind of villain (or monster), it also explains what motivates most in that category, how to write them, and a lot more.

I have no idea why this book is available, used, for under $2 (as I’m writing this), because I think it’s a great book.

Writer’s Guide to Character Traits is strictly for people who want to delve into the clinical, psychological aspects of good guys, bad guys, and everyone in-between. If you’re going to have to be “in the mind” of your character and don’t know exactly how to write him (or her), convincingly, this book might be helpful.

(I rarely use it, but keep it on my bookshelf anyway. At some point, I expect that I’ll be glad I did. Meanwhile, I default to Angela Ackerman’s Negative Trait Thesaurus. I own all of her thesauruses — or is that thesauri? — as printed books, and keep them within arm’s reach of my keyboard.)

Less often, I refer to What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. If you’re writing mysteries or thrillers, and your protagonist needs to evaluate people, visually, this book provides good insights. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from the photos in it, and tend to flip through the book when I need a quick, revealing gesture, movement, or pose.

Fiction is Folks (published in 1983) is kind of fun if you like old-school approaches to writing, or if you’re writing something with a strong “literature” style. I read this book for entertainment, because the author (Robert Newton Peck, perhaps best known for A Day No Pigs Would Die) really gets YA characters, and he also throws in some juicy writing advice.

For example:

One word can save a sentence.

The sentence you just read, obviously, has not been saved at all. It is boring and dies a horrible death at the hands of this writer. It’s dull. But let’s give it another go.

One word can gussy up a sentence.

Sometimes, all a sentence needs to brighten it is just one little buzz word. That one unexpected blast is the pothole in fiction’s road. An awkward word to hopscotch a reader’s eye. And thus, tickle a fancy.

A buzz word is matter out of place. It doesn’t belong there. Yet, without it, the entire sentence is about as exciting as opening night at the You-Scrub-It Car Wash.

(After that, he goes on to explain how to come up with buzz words that will make your sentences interesting, and hold your readers’ interest.)

While you can still find a used copy of this book for under $20, I recommend it. If you’re planning a writing career, it’ll come in handy at some point.

And Now, WILR…

At first glance, “The A-Z…” report about characters may look good but not great.

Don’t be deceived. Take a second look. It might change your mind, and — if you’re like me — be a very worthy use of your time.

A-Z Characters(Also, I’m saying “report” because I think I bought it for $7, when it was just a 20-something page report. Now, it’s around $10 and includes a video and audio that I haven’t seen. They may give even more important, extra depths to the course.)

It’s true: Initially, I wasn’t impressed by this report. The letters-of-the-alphabet approach seemed like a gimmick. Also, I’ve read much of this before, in other courses and reports.

I kept reading it, anyway. (Okay, being honest: I just skimmed it.)

Then… I’m not sure how much was that quirky letters-of-the-alphabet thing, or his actual information, but — suddenly — I saw what I’d been overlooking in my characters (and character interviews).

That was a major discovery.

Very simply, I didn’t take them deep enough.

Sure, I knew my character’s name. The name even felt like the character.

I’m a bit of a synesthete. (So is Cassandra, a character in The Librarians TV series. I watch it on Hulu.)

If I name a character “Greg,” he has medium-brown hair, his gaze is clear and intense when he actually looks at you, and he probably has slightly flat feet. He also likes mac & cheese for lunch, and whistles when he works.

Yes, for me, that’s a “Greg.” (It’s not all people named Greg. It’s just what my “Greg” would be, in my story… at this very moment. Next week, he might be tall, blond, and gorgeous, with a smile that’d take your breath away.)

Most often, I choose names that will seem “right” (familiar) to my target audience. (For that, I select the decade-or-so when they were born, and choose a moderately popular name from that era. For the US — which is home to about 50% of my readers — I use Top 5 Names…)

Sometimes, I know the meaning of the person’s name. (I use Behind the Name for the name’s roots, though Meaning-of-Names can be better for actual meanings.)

And, I track all of my characters’ names using a worksheet I designed.

But a dimensional character my readers will care about…? Something just didn’t click with how I think… until I read The A-Z report.

A Rose By Any Other Name…? No, A Name Can Be A Door

Suddenly, reading just one part of this report, some essential mental lights turned on. At that moment, I realized: The character’s name can be a key to understanding far more about her (or him).

That tip in that report — one of many useful ideas — asked why her parents named her that.

  • What did it mean about her parents?
  • Who was she named after?
  • If it was an ancestor, what was that person like?
  • Did my character’s parents hope she’d have similar qualities, and how did that affect her upbringing?

In other words, the name led me to a better understanding of where my character came from, her family’s traditions (good or bad), their values, and how her parents’ expectations (and hopes) may have affected her.

For me, it was kind of a door to realizing, “Ah-HA! This is how to craft characters!”

Will I do that with every character’s name…? Maybe, but probably not.

And, that’s just one of several useful ideas in this report — yes, it contains one idea for every letter of the alphabet — that made a significant difference to how I’m writing and editing my books.

If characters aren’t your strong suit, and that kind of tip intrigues you, this course might be a big time-saver when you’re writing future books. (If you’re disappointed by it, he offers a 30-day money back guarantee.)

The A-Z to Creating Believable Characters* may not be pure gold from start to finish, but — for the price (under $10) — it was a worthwhile purchase for me. All I needed was one good spark to get me un-stuck with my characters This report delivered much more than that.

So, if you’re struggling with characters and the usual advice isn’t working, I recommend this course. It’s not just what Barry McDonald says in it, but how he presents it. For me, that’s where the magic is: Something in how he explained the character crafting process… it made more sense to me than all the previous resources I’d used, put together. (And made the latter more useful, as well.)

[As usual: If you’re not actually working on a book, do not collect yet another “ooh, shiny!” object. Place your posterior in the chair and write! <– Advice I need to follow more, myself. LOL]


*If you’re new to my reviews, the only affiliate links at this site are my Amazon links. In other words, I don’t earn a cent if you buy this course… or any other course I recommend. The only reason I write these reviews is to be helpful to other writers.

WILR – The Partridge Method – Christmas Romance

Merry ChristmasWhat I Learned Reading… The Partridge Method, Britt Malka’s course about writing romantic Christmas novellas in 12 days.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about Christmas romances: Readers buy them all year ’round.

I’m not kidding.

Of course, Christmas romance novellas are most popular from early November through mid-January. (K-Lytics analyses suggest a sales bonanza that’s worth noting. The rest of the year… your numbers may not be so great.)

But, this is important: Just as some people collect Christmas ornaments all year long, and they shop at related stores — like Christmas Tree Shops, Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, and Disney World’s Disney’s Days of Christmas — many readers are always looking for new Christmas romance novels and short reads.

Last week, Britt sent me a review copy of her Partridge Method course, for my comments.

As usual, I was impressed by the amount of information Britt included in this course. It’s a 68-page course, plus a 28-page worksheet for plotting your Christmas novellas.

As usual, she takes what could be a complex topic, and simplifies it.

(I don’t know about you, but it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in unimportant details, wanting everything to be “just so” in my books. And, in the process, I become overwhelmed and my first draft stalls. Or I never even complete the outline.)

Oh, do not think this is a “Cliffs Notes” version of writing romances.

Yes, to get the most from this report, you should probably know the main romance tropes — and typical story beats — in general.

For romance novel tropes, check the TVTropes.org list. (Warning: that website can devour your entire day. It’s that fascinating.)

Yes, some of TV Tropes’ descriptions are snarky, and a few are NSFW. You may be happier with Mindy Klasky’s list, and Lime Cello’s article (including her blunt opinions) goes into more detail about a few of those tropes.

But, in this course, Britt doesn’t leave out anything important. She includes all kinds of details… many of them make-or-break points that few writers might think of, on their own.

What I Learned from The Partridge Method

One point that surprised me is how Britt built a romance story from the traditional, Christian story of Mary and Joseph. And, she did it in a way that wasn’t the cliché of “pregnant, single mother meets generous man, and he falls in love with her anyway.”

Seeing Britt craft a truly fresh story to fit traditional romance “story beats” was impressive.

Also, her romance included religious themes without being preachy. I like that. Non-Christians could enjoy this kind of story, too.

That concept hadn’t crossed my mind.

But then, Britt used the exact same kind of story structure to outline a second story. It’s a secular Christmas romance. A story like this can capture all of the wonder and magic of the holidays, without specific religious references.

So, Britt’s course expanded how I think about Christmas romance stories.

At the moment, I’m writing some Halloween-themed books. But, thanks to Britt’s suggestions, I’m already brainstorming some Christmas “short reads.”


Britt also offers upsells, which costs significantly more. One includes step-by-step videos to show you exactly how she writes books like these.

Those videos are like having Britt at your side, making each step crystal clear. And, her videos show you how to construct & write Christian/religious Christmas stories and secular Christmas season stories, each demonstrated separately and very clearly.

So, I didn’t have moments of muttering, “Wait. What do I write in this chapter of this kind of story…?”

But, Britt’s basic course provides everything most writers will need. (And, if your budget is limited, don’t feel like you have to buy the upsells. They can be tremendously helpful. They’re not essential.)


A Slightly Different Approach to Plotting

Something else I learned from Britt’s course: She combined Rob Parnell‘s chapter structure with Steve Alcorn‘s version of scene-and-sequel.

The result is interesting. I’d tweak it, of course, not using every part of the structure for every scene.

However, Britt’s 28-page worksheet (included with The Partridge Method course) practically jump-starts your story outline. And, it does that better than most story beats worksheets I’ve seen.

What surprised me most was the flexibility of Britt’s worksheet. This is a system you can use to outline almost any kind of romance, not just Christmas stories.

Note: Britt’s plan is based on 12-chapter books. If you’re writing very short Christmas romances, you may need to modify her outline, condensing some of the action.

For example, you might combine chapters seven and eight. You might make your protagonist’s steep challenges into something so dramatic, she’s plunged into a truly dark moment. At that point, no “happy ending” seems possible.

You might also merge that with the transformational chapter (chapter nine), where she realizes what she has to overcome, personally, to achieve her goal… and she starts on the path back to HEA (Happily Ever After).

Otherwise, if you use the traditional guideline of 1,500 words per scene/chapter, you’ll write an 18,000-word book. That’s close to Amazon’s upper limit (of around 20k words) for any book you’d like them to promote in their “Short Reads” category.

Keep in mind: The 1,500 words/chapter is one of those long-standing standards. In my opinion, it has no credible basis in fact, and it’s not a rule. You can have a 500-word chapter. Or one that’s 250 words long.

And, I know one group of writers who’ve found success with 750-word chapters. (12 chapters x 750 words, each = 9,000 words.)

That’s well within Amazon’s Short Reads limits. If Amazon count an average of 250 words/page, a 9k-word book is 36 pages… but your mileage may vary. I’ve seen some Kindle books figured at over 350 words/page, and others at around 220 words/page.)

As of mid-July 2017, KD Spy rates One-Hour Short Reads (33-43 pages) Romances : Green for Potential, Green for Popularity, and Yellow for Competition. 

Or, at the other extreme, you could write 2500-word scenes. That’s what the Snowflake Guy uses in his books. (But, unless you’re a prolific author, a book with 2500-word scenes will probably require more than 12 days to complete.)

My point is: Don’t let traditional word counts stand in your way. And don’t make Britt’s course a constraint. Use it to make writing — and completing books — easier.

Option: One Chapter at a Time

Britt outlines as she goes along. That is, she outlines one chapter, and then she writes it.

Then she outlines the second chapter. Then she writes it.

And so on.

Thanks to her worksheets, she already knows what’s ahead… generally speaking.

Personally, I hate not maintaining a daily writing schedule. But, I’m not a “pantser.”

That is, I’m not good at making it up as I go along, writing “by the seat of my pants,” with no preparations.

For pros & cons of “pantsing” v. plotting, browse The Editor’s Blog or watch Victoria Schwab’s YouTube video about this:

Anyway…

Before I start writing, I generally outline my entire book, enough to keep from getting seriously sidetracked in the middle of the story.

The problem is: The outline can require weeks to tweak “just so.”

Oh, it’s fun-fun-fun at the time. Well, it usually is.

But, after that, it can take me days (or even weeks) to get back in the daily writing habit.

That part is not fun.

So, I may try Britt’s approach with my next from-scratch book. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me, before. (And, it’s a good example of how Britt often shows me that I’m making writing more difficult than it needs to be.)

Still, no matter what your balance of outlining and writing, I think Britt’s course offers a lot to anyone eager to write a short romance, and especially a Christmas romance.

Summary

I believe that — using Britt’s worksheet — most writers can probably complete a Christmas novella in 12 days, just as she says. And, I learned enough from this course to feel good about recommending it if you’re ready to write Christmas romances, especially Short Reads.

However, like any course, this is a good deal only if you’re actually going to use it. If you already have bookshelves (virtual or real-life) filled with how-to books & courses you still haven’t read (or used), work with them, first.  Avoid “Ooh, shiny!” syndrome.

Here’s where to find Britt’s course: The Partridge Method.*

I’m not sure how long this discount code will work, but it could save you 50%: XmasJuly


*As usual, that’s not an affiliate link. I don’t earn a cent if you decide to purchase this course. I just happened to like it, and think it’s worth recommending.

(I receive plenty of review copies I don’t talk about. But, so far, everything I’ve bought from Britt or received from her as a preview… they’ve all been very helpful.)

illustration courtesy of GraphicStock.com

WILR – Productivity for Indie Authors

WILR is “What I Learned Reading…”

Lately, I’ve been digging deeper into writing basics. I want more success from my books.

The truth is: I tend to come up with a book idea, and do a casual check to see if the market is viable. Then, I study the top few books – at least their book blurbs and some of their reviews.

At most, I spend about two or three hours on this.

Then, if everything looks good, I write the book.

If it’s nonfiction, I’m quick to push the “publish” button. I can practically write nonfiction in my sleep, so completing a book isn’t difficult.

If it’s fiction… that’s another matter. I tend to reach the midpoint. Then, I realize that I hate my book, hadn’t thought it through, or I have some other Very Good Reason to stop writing.

So, I quit, thinking I’ll get back to that book, later. Maybe.

And then I move on to the next project, usually following the same pattern.

This is not a healthy career path.

So, I’m reading (and sometimes re-reading) books, studying courses, watching videos, and generally re-educating myself about writing. (Especially fiction, but I’ll talk about those books in later articles.)

In the WILR series, I’ll talk about books (etc.) that I like, those that I don’t, and what I’m learning from each.

Note: These will not be summaries of everything in each book or course. I’ll talk about the points that made a difference to me. (You mileage may vary.)

productivity for indie authors by david lee martinThe first book has to be Productivity for Indie Authors, by David Lee Martin. For me, it’s the book that recently changed everything
about my writing career.

It’s the book that started me on my current re-education path.

David is minister, a successful author, and a long-time friend and someone whose integrity I trust. (You may know him from his free report, Published Is Better Than Perfect.)

When David offered to send me a beta copy of his productivity book, I dropped everything to read it.

It was time well spent.

This book really does live up to its title (and subtitle).

Here are a few things I learned, reading it.

First of all, I’m not a great writer. (This may not be stop-the-presses news to some people.)

I’m a storyteller.

Before reading David’s book, I didn’t realize the importance of this. Or even the distinction.

Then, in his book, I read:

See, to be truly productive we do not need to just be producing more. We need to be producing more of the right thing.

Then, he shared insights about identifying that right thing.

That made me pause. I had to go beyond looking at individual books’ sales, or even which book categories performed well for me.

My discovery: every one of my successful books, no matter how badly written, was written in a storytelling style.

When I write something that’s “just the facts, ma’am,” my books tend to fall flat.

Well, they still sell like hotcakes to data-hungry readers who don’t care if the book is well-written.

But, for anyone looking for something written with style, eloquence, and few typos…? Umm… no.

That can severely limit the size (and enthusiasm) of my audience.

This was a h-u-g-e “ah-HA!” for me, and it led to further discoveries.

It was the beginning of my current reading-and-studying binge.

In addition, I read The ONE Thing, which is a more general book about focus and productivity. David had made several references to this concept, and I wanted to know more.

While some of The ONE Thing was intended for a different audience, many of the suggestions applied to how I work, as well.

The ONE Thing brought me important additional clarity. But, I’ve talked with several friends who said they just couldn’t get through the book. So, you may want to see if your public library owns a copy you can borrow. (They probably do. For at least a year, it was a very trendy book.)

Anyway…

The rest of David’s book, Productivity for Indie Authors, delves into productivity tips and hacks. Many of them weren’t new to me, but the way David talked about them made a difference.

In some cases, he explained a fresh way to use things like templates, and how to apply the 80/20 rule, and so on. At other times, his context was something I previously hadn’t considered.

In general, I’ve been delighted to streamline more of my work with the ideas and tools he suggests.

But, for me, the biggest takeaway has been the new way I look at my writing career.

That triggered a rather large overhaul of how I do… well… almost everything.

Uncovering the storytelling ingredient was vital. It was the initial key.

(That may be unique to me. It’s not as if David said “this is the answer.” It just happened to be my answer, and I found it by thoughtfully reading David’s book.)

Regarding productivity, David began his book by explaining, “productivity will look different for different people at different times and stages in the development of their business.”

He’s 100% correct.

For me, some of his productivity advice was useful immediately. Other suggestions will be useful in the future.

But, the biggest thing I learned from reading Productivity for Indie Authors is what works (and doesn’t) in my writing career.

That led to me analyzing which things to do more of, which to do less of, and the areas where I need to develop better skills. (That’s one area where the 80/20 rule applies.)

In some ways, this has been humbling. I’ve had to admit to being a slacker. I’ve been looking for shortcuts. Too often, I’ve followed advice in lots of books, reports, and courses that assured me those shortcuts were viable.

Well, yes. They did work, short-term.

Long-term… not so great, and I got tired of constantly scrambling to write & publish new books to make up for the faltering sales of older books.

Now, I’m confident about the decisions I’ve made — and the new path I’m following — after reading David’s book.

I recommend it to any author/publisher at any level of expertise.

Here’s the link to Amazon.com: Productivity for Indie Authors, and here’s the link to Amazon.co.uk: Productivity for Indie Authors.