Killing Your Darlings: How to Know When to Cut a Character

I’ve always loved the phrase “kill your darlings.” It’s a piece of writing advice handed down through the years that encourages authors to cut out parts of their stories—even their favorite parts—when necessary to improve their novels. (For the nerds like me, Slate put together a great history piece about the phrase.) In this case, our darlings are going to be secondary characters.

Secondary characters can be hard to write. Your main character(s) will have change, growth, and momentum throughout the story, but many secondary characters don’t get the same treatment. In fact, they often end up sidelined. It’s a curse of storytelling—you can’t focus on every detail of every character and write a good book at the same time. Readers don’t expect your secondary character isn’t the star of the show, but they will notice if that character is underdeveloped.

So how do you know when your secondary character necessary to your story? We’ll use the STOP method (patent pending) to ferret out useless characters. If you answer “yes” to the questions below, it may be time to kill your darling.

Is your character… STATIC?

If your character doesn’t experience any inner change, you have a static character. There’s nothing wrong with writing someone who is stubborn or unwilling to accept change—those are character traits that can be explored. A true static character ends up being flat and one-dimensional in a way that isn’t interesting to the reader or useful to your story. These characters are the product of too little attention rather than being an intentional choice in the writing.

Is your character… a TROPE?

Stereotypical characters pop up in fiction all the time. If you can subvert those stereotypes or use them to make a point, more power to you. If you’re using a stereotype as a shorthand because you’re not getting creative, kill that darling. A personal pet peeve is the “mean girl rival” trope: the super popular, super pretty, super mean girl who is vying for the same things as the heroine (usually a guy). Yes, there are mean girls out there. But are they all blonde with long red finger nails, three-inch heels, and an evil sneer? No. If you’re going to write a character who falls into a stereotype category, break outside the mold. Give them depth, motivation, and their own personality, even if it’s a mean one.

Is your character… a ONE AND DONE?

First, let me say it is possible to have strong characters who only appear once in the novel. However, if you have a character whose only line is “Hello!” or who interact with your overall story in a meaningful way, they probably aren’t vital. The true test here will be to see how much of an effect this one appearance has on the rest of the novel. If this character causes a ripple, keep them. If they pop in and out of existence without so much as a blip, kill them.

Is your character… a PLOT DEVICE?

Characters should certainly influence your plot, but no character should exist for the sake of plot. A plot device is a quick fix, a workaround, and using a character solely to advance your storyline is—quite frankly—lazy writing. You have to think of your characters as real human beings (or real aliens or animals or monsters) who have hopes and dreams and fears and their own stories. They cannot be picked up and dropped in the middle of a scene because you don’t know what to do next. Find a natural way to move your story forward, with or without that character.

When it comes to writing secondary characters, there is one all-important rule: Make each character count. STOP writing characters who don’t count, and start writing ones who do.

Rocking NaNoWriMo: 7 Tips for Reaching 50,000 Words

We’re almost halfway through National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, which encourages writers to participate in a 30-day challenge. The goal? Write 50,000 words in the month of November. Tens of thousands of people have participated since the program’s creation, and many of them have gone on to complete manuscripts, make great writing friends, or eventually sell books. Amazing!

50,000 words in 30 days can sound daunting (especially if you’re planning to spend a whole weekend in a Thanksgiving-dinner-induced food coma). But here are seven ways to make the most out of NaNoWriMo and to help you reach your goal. Continue reading

The Right Writer: A Quiz

With the recent press about the forthcoming novel American Heart, I’ve heard a lot of people asking, “Am I the right person to write XYZ type of story?”

First of all—this is not a stupid question! (And because I don’t subscribe to the belief that there are no stupid questions, you know I mean that.) “Am I the right person?” is predominantly asked by writers seeking to create books that feature diverse characters and stories. Hooray! Please do create narratives that are diverse and inclusive, because we can all agree that having more diversity in the book market is a very good thing. An even better thing is when those stories are written by own voices authors who share the experiences or backgrounds of their characters.

Now, few authors create characters exactly like themselves…that’s usually called a memoir. Writing outside our own lives and tapping into the collective human experience is a hallmark of storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with creating characters who are different from you. In fact, we should always be exploring other points of view—if we didn’t, reading would be really boring! But are you writing a book that would be better (i.e. truer, richer, more compelling) coming from an expert voice? Because there’s a big difference between sharing a story and sharing someone else’s story. Continue reading

“What Kind of Book Should I Write?” An Editor’s Plea to Ignore Trends

When I meet with aspiring authors, I’m often asked, “What kind of book should I write?” Everyone wants to know what the next big trend will be and if they should start writing in that niche. My answer? Ignore trends. Don’t ask someone else what kind of book you should write—write the book that speaks to you. Don’t follow the crowd—stand out from it.

Here’s the thing about publishing: it moves slowly. This may not be news to you if you’re a George R. R. Martin fan (though let’s be real, that one’s all on George), but some folks are surprised when they learn a book can take a year—or two or three—to get published. Factor in the time it takes to write a manuscript and query it, and you can be looking at anywhere from two to five years. Sometimes even more.

I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the publishing process here, though I will note that those years are well spent developing a manuscript, creating a cover, building a marketing strategy, and launching a book into a competitive market. The real point of this post is that writers should ignore trends no mater how enduring those trends seem to be. Continue reading

Platform for Fiction Writers

Ah, the dreaded p-word. “Platform” is an all-encompassing term that can include blogs, websites, social media, speaking events, TV/radio appearances, celebrity fame, and other outlets that help an author connect to readers, writers, and other gatekeepers in the literary industry. Jane Friedman describes it best: “an ability to sell books because of who you are or who you can reach.”

At one time, nonfiction authors were the ones who had to worry about platform—they had to prove there was an audience who wanted to read about their particular memoir, advice, or topic. But now, most fiction writers are expected to have a platform too. The content of a story always comes first, but many publishers want to see an author’s connections in the early stages of the game. So let’s take a look at frequently asked questions about all things platform for fiction writers. Continue reading

Writing Conference Pitches: Dos and Don’ts

Many writing conferences offer aspiring writers the opportunity to pitch agents and editors. These meetings can be a chance to get representation or even a book deal, and as a result can seem totally intimidating. But don’t get overwhelmed—follow these dos and don’ts to make the most of your face time with a publishing pro!

Do…research the person across the table. Spend time before the meeting checking out the agent or editor on their website and on social media so you know exactly what kind of project they’re looking for. Choosing the right person is the first step to finding a home for your book. Continue reading

Seven Things to Do Before Querying Your Novel

Finished your book? Starting to query agents and editors? Wondering how you can stand out from the slush pile? Check off these seven steps before sending off your manuscript, and you’ll be well ahead of the game.

1. Edit. A book that has not been edited by a third party is not your best book, and working with a critique partner or hiring a professional editor is always a smart move for your manuscript. You can connect with thousands of other writers online or in your local community and even find folks in your genre who are willing to read your work and provide notes. A second set of eyes can provide invaluable feedback and catch those pesky typos that you’ve overlooked. Continue reading

10 Things to Do When You Have Writer’s Block

It happens to all of us, that agonizing moment when you sit down to write and…nothing happens. You try all the tricks you can think of to break the cycle, but the words just aren’t coming.

Instead of banging your head against the wall, try the 10 activities below. Some get your creative juices flowing, some engage your research skills, some are just plain fun, and all them allow you to keep moving forward with your manuscript without actually writing the text. And who knows, maybe you’ll be back at your keyboard before you reach #10.

1. Go back and edit what you’ve written. Stuck on a chapter? Go to the beginning of your book and start editing. By the time you reach the sticky chapter, you will have gotten reacquainted with your book and will be full of news ideas to improve. Continue reading

Writing with a Coauthor: 6 Smart Strategies

Thinking of cowriting a novel? A lot of folks have done it. Some recent YA examples include Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan, Doon by Carey Corp and Lorie Langdon, Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, and my personal favorite, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

Cowriting can be a blessing…and a curse. On the pro side, you only need to write half a book and you have a built-in brainstorming buddy. On the con side, think of how agonizing it is to write your own first draft, and then imagine having to share that with another human being who is writing an equally agonizing first draft. Or consider having to make compromises when you really, really don’t want to. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Avoid disaster with the six strategies below that will help you make cowriting work. Continue reading