Stuck, stuck, stuck in a rut

Have you ever had an image in your head, an idea so strong you can see it, you can taste it, you can smell it…your fingers are poised over the keyboard, you’re ready to type…and your muse laughs, walks over to an overstuffed chair, sits down and says, “I’m not writing it and you can’t make me”?

Argh, I want to strangle my muse!  I want to turn him upside down and shake him until his eyeballs fall out.  For those of you who don’t know, my muse is a cheeky little meadow gnome who talks incessantly and at the moment he’s driving me insane.  There is this scene that I want to go a certain way and no matter what I do, he keeps steering me down another path.  His path.  I balk.  He balks.  We fight and struggle.  The scene goes  nowhere.  It’s stuck.

If the scene goes the way my brain tells me to take it, I can wrap it up in a nice little package.  Bing, bam, boom, it’s done.  It’s tidy.  It’s clean.  If I follow my muse, the scene will get complicated, deepening the story line.  I’ll have to edit several scenes towards the end of the novel, but they’ll be more intense.  A minor plot hole will be filled.  Still, all the scenes combined will up my word count, something I’m trying to avoid.  If I take my path, I’ll stay within my word count.  The minor plot hole will be still be there but I can fill it in in the next book. Still, I don’t like leaving plot holes, and I do want my story to be as rich and intense and as mind-blowing as possible.

“But I don’t want the added word count.”  I whine and stomp my foot

“Add the words,” my muse says.  “You can thank me later.”



“Ahh, stop it!”  I pull hair out of my head.

Which path should I take?  Should I play it safe and take the path of least resistance…keep the story tight, or should I follow my muse and disrupt my character’s lives by throwing in another twist that wasn’t there before?  Word count or plot?  This tired, battle-worn author wants to know.

The Emotion Thesaurus – an interview with Becca Puglisi

Hey everyone!  I’ve got a great guest today.  Give a big welcome to Becca Puglisi, one of the brains behind the ever popular THE EMOTION THESAURUS.
What is The Emotion Thesaurus?  From The Bookshelf Muse:
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression is a writer’s best friend, helping to navigate the difficult terrain of showing character emotion. Through an easy-to-use list format, this brainstorming tool explores seventy-five emotions and provides a large selection of body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts associated with each.
I stumbled upon Becca’s blog site, The Bookshelf Muse, almost two years ago and it immediately became one of the best resource tools I used in my writing.  Becca, together with Angela Ackerman, put together an amazing website of  ’emotions’ that help writers “show” instead of “tell”.  It has been a lifeline for me and other writers as well.
For the longest time, Becca and Angela maintained The Emotion Thesaurus through their blog site, The Bookshelf Muse; however, on May 14, 2012, they released their awesome and amazing book, The Emotion Thesaurus:  A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.  If you don’t have this book yet, get it! It is a must have for your writing library.
Now onto my interview with the lovely and talented Becca Puglisi!   *Applause*
Me:  Thank you for joining me today, Becca.  In order to put together such a remarkable book, you must be an avid reader.  Tell me, what books have most influenced your life?

Becca:  Well, I have to be a little predictable and start with the Bible. It’s the only book that, 30 years later, I’m still going back to on a daily basis for inspiration and direction. Another one, called The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg, always reveals areas of my life that need work matter how many times I read it. When it comes to the craft of writing, The First Five Pages (Lukeman) was the first book I ever read. It set off half a dozen light bulbs in my newbie writer’s brain and truly kickstarted my journey as an author.

Me:  Oh, I’ll have to check out Lukeman’s book. Sounds like another great ‘how to’ book to have around.  So tell me, what authors do you admire, and why?

Becca:  Oh gracious. Let’s see…Tolkien is at the top of my list, for his ability to envision and create such rich and complete worlds and convey them so clearly to the reader. Robin McKinley is another author whose books never fail to awe me. Rowling, obviously, for sheer creativity. Shannon Hale and Joan Bauer for consistently putting out sweet YA that is engaging and well-written. John Green, whose books can move the most practical reader (that would be me) to tears. Stephen King, for not ever holding back–having the courage to put absolutely everything out there. And Franny Billingsley and Laini Taylor, for being true wordsmiths who are consistently able to phrase things so beautifully and uniquely.

Me:  Wow. You’ve mentioned some really great authors in there.  I have to agree with you about John Green.  The Fault In Our Stars had me sobbing like a baby.

Can you tell us a little about THE EMOTION THESAURUS  and why you and Angela wrote it?

Becca:  Angela and I technically started writing The Emotion Thesaurus back in 2004, though we had no idea that it would end up being a full-length book. Angela and I, complete strangers, had just joined Critique Circle and our first critique group. One of the problem areas I noticed early on with my writing was that my characters were always shifting their feet, narrowing their eyes, and fidgeting. So annoyingly repetitive, but I didn’t know how else to show their feelings. So I started a list of physical cues for some of the more common emotions. Angela commiserated, saying that her characters were always biting their lips, nodding, and smiling or frowning. When everyone else in the group admitted that they struggled with the same thing, I shared my bare-bones list of emotional indicators. We agreed to contribute to the list and Angela kept a master copy.

This was the start of The Emotion Thesaurus, birthed out of a need that we each saw in our own writing. When other writers responded so enthusiastically to our lists, we realized that it wasn’t just us who struggled with emotional description; it was a problem area for most writers. So we decided to expand our lists, streamline the format, and provide the resource in book format so other writers could utilize it.

Me:  What a fantastic story.  How and why did you come up with your blog?

Becca:  In 2008, Angela and I started The Bookshelf Muse. In discussing what kind of blog we’d like to have, we decided that we wanted to offer resources to other writers in a format that would keep people coming back for more. Angela remembered our list, and how it had benefited us and the other members of our critique group. So we started with that. When writers responded, we brainstormed other areas of descriptive writing that we could highlight, and the rest of the thesauri followed.

Me:  Just out of curiosity, do you have any novels in the works?  If so, can you tell us about them?

Becca:  I’m currently working on two YA novels and I just happen to have the log lines for each. The first is historical fiction: Gold may sparkle and shine but it also has the power to destroy, as Nora learns when it’s discovered near her California home in 1848. The second is a dark fantasy that I’m hoping to expand into a series, if I can figure out how to do that: When villagers begin losing themselves in the nightmare realm of Reverie, a grieving and undisciplined girl is the only one who can walk into the Haze to save them.

Me:  Ah, you’re a writer after my own heart.  Love fantasy and the premise sounds fantastic! On that note, I’m going to say goodbye. I know you have other blogs you’re hopping around on to get out the word about the new book. I want to thank you for stopping by and chatting with me today.  It was an absolute pleasure.  I hope you guys sell tons and tons of books. It has definitely helped me out more than I can say.

Oh, and in closing…may I say what a great turnout you had when you and Angela sponsored the Random Act of Kindness blitz.  I think there were over 200 bloggers who participated in that event and so many lives were touched because of both of you.  Thank you.  I hope that people will continue passing on random acts of kindness with no expectations of return gifts.  It’s such a fantastic feeling to make someone else smile.

If you want to keep in touch with Becca and Angela, you can find them at The Bookshelf Muse and don’t forget to grab a copy of their book available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, iTunes and Smashwords.

That’s it guys. Give a big round of applause to Becca for stopping by.  I would also like to give you guys a big thank you for joining in today and I hope you enjoyed learning a little bit more about Becca and The Emotion Thesaurus.   Have a wonderful day!

How to write a fantasy novel, Part Two – Outlines

In case you missed the beginning of this series, you can click here.

Okay, so you’ve come up with a brilliant, original idea for your fantasy novel.  Now what?

I found through trial and error the next thing to do is to create some sort of an outline.  Now, now, stop your groaning.  I’m not a plotter, but I’ve found this step to be really important.  It can be as simple or as elaborate as you want to make it, but the important thing is you make one.  I made the mistake of writing my first and second fantasy stories without an outline and there were plot holes all over the place.  The outlines I do now are not fancy or long; in fact, they are quite simple, but they include the essentials:  idea, plot points, main characters, setting, etc.  I personally like to do brief outlines for each chapter, that way I have some sort of idea of where I’m going in my story and I can plan my plot climaxes.

So here is what my outline looks like.  I’m making it up as I go so please bear with me.


 Idea:  A powerful magical teen must somehow figure out how to become non-magical so he can save his world from the evil emperor whom he later discovers is his father.

Hamblet Adams:  16-year-old male main character
Pearly Whites:  main character’s best friend; female shapeshifter
Squeaky Willows:  the village idiot and town gossip
Hopshoggle:  forest-dwelling mage and teacher
Cornelius Krunk:  Emperor


These four characters live in Figswillow, an eastern coastal town on the floating Desmond Isles.

Plot outline:

As punishment for their endless practical jokes at school, teen magician Hamblet and his best friend, Pearly, are ordered to work in the town’s archival library after school to catalog thousands of books and parchments the Emperor confiscated in his latest travels.  While working late one night, Squeaky appears at the library with a book for Hamblet, but it’s not just any book. It’s the Emperor’s secret diary, and in it are his plans to destroy magic.  Hamblet finds out the only way for the emperor to destroy magic is to destroy its source…Desmond Isles, and more importantly, the powerful magician whose very essence feeds the magic of the isles.  Determined to stop the emperor and save the Isles, Hamblet, Pearly, Squeaky and Hopshoggle embark on a journey that takes them to magical places where they meet fantastic creatures – and ruthless villains.  Along the way, they discover allies in peculiar places, courage they didn’t know they had, and a hidden destiny that changes everything.


 Ok, so this is a very, very basic outline. Like I said, you can do this for each chapter as well as for each character.  I also make extensive timelines so I know what’s going on when. I also create maps that give me a basic idea of where my characters are and what my world looks like.  The maps don’t have to be perfect, but they should be legible enough for you to place your characters.

So, these are my tips on How to write fantasy, Part 2.  In Part 3, I’ll take a look at character development and give you a few tips I learned the hard way through…duh duh duh…rejections.

“Q” is for Quest

Hi, everyone!  This post is part of the A-Z challenge. Please take time to visit the other blogs that are participating.

As many of you know, I write primarily YA fantasy.  I love the genre as much as I love the generation I write for.  Why? Because young people between the ages of 15 and 22 are searching for who they are, what they are.  It’s a giant quest to figure out the game of life and where they fit into the huge puzzle.  Couple that with a few dragons, knights, a cranky meadow gnome and some pretty regimented feys, and you’ve got a rip-roaring YA fantasy story with a quest.

But how do you write a quest?

Well, I’m no J.K. Rowling or J.R.R.Tolkien, but here are a few things I’ve learned along the way in my limited writing career :

1.  A quest is nothing more than a plot line.  Every character – whether in fantasy, crime, mystery, romance – has a quest, a goal they are trying to reach.  Define the goal.  What journey do you want your characters to take?

2.  Develop your characters.  This cannot be stressed enough.  You need to know them inside and out.  You will need a hero, a heroine, and the lucky sod(s) who guide(s) the hero along the way.  Each one needs to be identifiable and likeable.  You also must have the villain.  He can either be detestable or leave the reader with a love/hate relationship.  He is not all bad.  Why?  Because no one is all bad.  He must have a redeeming quality of some sort, even if it’s his/her hypnotic amber eyes that lead your hero to his doom.

3.  There must be something worth obtaining.  It can be human, inanimate, spiritual, but it has to be something the hero must find to make him whole.  It needs to be something the hero would fight and die for to get.  Make sure the reader wants him to find it, too.

4.  Plan the conflicts. Some editors will recommend at least 3 anti-climaxes before the big WHAM at the end. Make them short, fast and more intense than the one before. Build the tension.  Make your reader WANT, Need to find out what happens.

5.  Don’t stray away from the goal.  Stay focused.  It’s easy to get off track and delve into a side-story, but don’t.  Save those for another time. The reader may love reading about Auntie Kim and her award-winning lizard stew, but if it doesn’t move the story along or have anything to do with your hero accomplishing his quest, Auntie Kim will have to go.  Keep her handy, though. She might have her own story to tell of her own down the line.

6.  Make sure your character grows.. Make sure he learns something from his struggles, both internal and external. In the end, he has to be different than when he began the journey.

7.  Don’t leave your reader hanging in the end..  Even if you are leaving the storyline open for a sequel, make sure you finalize the current quest.  I hate to keep using the Harry Potter series as an example, but Rowling did this so perfectly.  Each book had a main quest – the 1st was finding and destroying the Sorcerer’s Stone. The second was finding out who Tom Riddle was and destroying the basilisk in the Chamber of Secrets, and on and on.  The quest that carried throughout the seven books was the need to destroy Voldemort.  If you are planning a series, make sure (a) the underlying theme that will carry over is well-defined, (b) that each story has its own primary quest, and (c) that quest is wrapped up, finished, complete.  There must be closure to the immediate quest.  Otherwise the reader is left hanging.  You don’t want to leave your readers hanging.  Spend time on the ending.  Leave your readers with the desire to come back for more.

And there you have it.  The simple steps of how to write a quest.  Now get at it. That WIP isn’t going to write itself.

(…now where’s that red pen of mine…)

N is for Names

Happy Monday, everyone!  This post is part of the A-Z challenge. Please take time to visit the other blogs that are participating.

Names.  Everyone has one.  Novelists sometimes have many.  In fact, being a novelist is one of the only professions where it’s perfectly okay to have multiple personalities, voices and imaginary  playmates (including creatures, shapeshifters, vampires, and werewolves, among others) running around in our heads constantly.  And of course, each one of those characters has a name, but what are they, and how do novelists come up with those names you love?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but some names just come to me when I write, like David, Charlotte, Trogsdill (“Trog”), Einar, and Eric from my novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King.  I liked the ring that each name had and didn’t really realize what the significance of their first names were until I started doing some research into a last name for Trog.  I was really amazed at how their names spoke volumes of their characterizations:

David Alwyn Heiland:  beloved/noble friend/savior

Charlotte Breanna Stine:  free man/noble/anointed

Trogsdill Domnall:     to walk heavily/mighty; great chief

Eric Finian Hamden:  forever, ruler/handsome/praised

Einar:  warrior; battle leader

Aside from having random names pop into my head, how else do I come up with character names?  I look at several things.

Era:  current, trendy names may not work very well in the era your story takes place.  “Electra” probably wouldn’t work in a story set in the early 1700s.

Place:  Where does your story take place?  “Bobby Jean” may stand out like a sore thumb in wealthy societies.

Reserved or Contemporary?:  Is your character conservative?  Maybe a name like “Arthur” would be more appropriate than a more contemporary counterpart like “Sonny”.

I’ve also learned to try and avoid famous names, and not make the pronunciations too difficult.  Readers can’t relate to names they can’t pronounce.  And, unless you’re writing a comedy or trying to make a specific point, try to avoid same sounding names, like Harry Larry or Kendell Wyndel.

Where else do I look to find cool, interesting names?  The phone book, the Bible, baby books.  There are tons of “name” sites on the internet.  I also pay attention to those movie credits.  You’d be surprised by the gems you find there.

I found that keeping a running list of names at all times helps a lot.  Whenever I hear a cool name or come up with one, I jot it down so I don’t forget it.  

Whatever I do, I try to make my character’s name identifiable and memorable.  I’ve been told it helps to make a story stand out from the others.  I hope I’ve succeeded.

What are some of your favorite character names?

K is for Knack, Kudos and Kleenex

This is a continuation of the A-Z blog challenge.  Click here to see the list of all 1935 participants!

For the past several weeks I’ve tested my writing capabilities like I’ve never done before.  I wrote a short story based on a picture and submitted it to a publisher for an upcoming anthology.  This was no easy feat.

I stared at the picture a lot, actually for a couple of months.  I thought I had a story I wrote years ago that would work.  I dusted it off and after reading it again, decided it belonged back in the vault. I was back to square one.  I then started reading through some other unpublished pieces and decided to take a few things out of each one that I liked, and weave a new tale that would capture the essence of the picture.

It was more difficult than I thought it would be.

Slowly but surely, a story emerged and I was happy with it…well, I was happy with the 1st half of it.  The second half sucked, with a capital S.  Even my beta readers agreed. However, with their comments, I brainstormed and came up with another half that we agreed was much better and presentable.  I submitted the story to the publisher.  That was April 2.

The next day I received an e-mail from the publisher. My heart almost leapt out of my chest.  I held my breath and opened the e-mail.  They liked the story but wanted changes. Would I be willing to make them and re-submit?  Can anyone say, “Heck Yeah!”  I had until April 11 to resubmit.

I thought about it, racked my brain, tortured my beta readers while offering my own critiques of their short stories for the same anthology competition.  Amazing enough, it never felt for a moment like we were competing against each other.  We were three authors working together in hopes of being published together.  And, because we were all part of an online writer’s group, the three of us had tons of support from the other members.  I can’t begin to say thank you enough to our support team.

In the wee hours of April 11, I sent over a revised copy of my short to the publisher.  An e-mail from the publisher around 11:40 yesterday morning sent my heart racing.  Was it good news?  Bad?  With a knot forming in my gut, I opened the e-mail.

They wanted clarification and ideas on how I would change some things.  Would I give them in-line comments on how I would fix some things?  Whew.  Not a denial.  I answered “Yes”, and I provided them with what they wanted, but let me tell you, the self-doubt kicked up a notch.  Here I was in the second round of edits and I still missed the mark.  What does that say about me as a writer?

Wait.  No.  Don’t go down the pity path, I said to myself.  They were requesting information from me.  That meant they were still interested.  Stay focused. Stay positive. The next round of e-mails concurred with my ideas and I got the “We’ll let you know” e-mail.  Okay.  Still in the running.

Today, I sit and wait.  Only five out of all the submissions the publisher received will find a home in the new anthology.  Part of me feels very positive. I mean, I gave it my all; the other part feels like I’m an outlier statistic.  These are feelings I think all new authors feel and go through.  Our hands sweat.  We get nervous.  We check our e-mails a gazillion times and pray when we get the one that counts, it’s good news.

No matter what the outcome, I know me.  Tears will fall, either out of joy or sadness.  The box of Kleenex is already on my desk.  I will cry for those who made it, and cry for those who didn’t, but never once will I doubt we all have the knack to tell a great story.  Kudos to all who tried and took the chance, and to my beta sisters who submitted along with me…you rock my world and I am blessed to have you on my side.  Good luck to each of you.  My fingers and toes are crossed.

C is for Characters

This is a continuation of the A-Z blog challenge.  Click here to see the list of all 1935 participants!

Characters.  They’re everywhere.  At the grocery store.  In the park.  At school.  You even have them as your friends…and family.  No one is off-limits, including you, especially to an author.

Writers are always looking for new fodder for their next project.  One common question people ask writers is, “Where do you find inspiration for your characters?”  For me, I’d have to answer, “From you, and the person sitting next to you.  The grocery clerk and the librarian.  The elephant trainer, the executive.”  It’s true.  We are all unique, interesting individuals.  No two of us are exactly the same, which makes each of us the perfect ‘playground’ for authors.

I love creating characters.  I have a notebook of character traits I’ve gathered from watching people and listening to them.  I have conversations written down with an estimation of the age of the person(s) speaking so I can fit the right dialogue with the right character.  I love having an idea for a character, thumbing through my notes picking this trait and that trait, then putting them all together to make a unique person.  Take Charlotte Stine, my female secondary character in my novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King.

Charlotte was born on April Fools Day but there’s nothing April Foolish about her.  She has waist-length dark brown hair, a turned up nose and a round face.  She has a scar across the back of her ankle where she caught her foot in the spokes of her bicycle when she was six.  It took 65 stitches to put her back together.  Her parents didn’t think she’d ever be able to participate in sports.  Charlotte proved them wrong.

Currently, she’s 16, almost 17, and excels in gymnastics and dance.  Her favorite subject is biology and she hates math.  She plays the oboe, clarinet and piano and prefers classical music over top 40 or rap.

She has no problem speaking her mind to others and is always on David’s (the MC) back to stand up for himself and assert his opinions.  She is respectful of her parents and tends to not create waves with them, especially her dad.  He’s a retired Air Force captain with top-secret clearance at the nearby Air Force base.

She is squeamish at the sight of blood and passes out.  Her favorite meal is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Her least favorite:  shrimp.  She is allergic to lemons and breaks out in hives if she encounters even the peels.  She plays with her hair when nervous and is terrified of cockroaches, beetles (except ladybugs) and any other large, crunchy insect.  She despises war.  Her brother, Daniel, died fighting in a war she felt was unnecessary and senseless.  She is way too trusting and impulsive and tends to blame others for allowing her to act irresponsibly.  Her best friend in the world is David (the MC).  She doesn’t have a lot of friends at school because she can’t stand the hypocrisy and two-facedness of girls her age.

She’s adventurous and energetic, pioneering and courageous, enthusiastic and confident, dynamic and quick-witted.  On the other end, she can be selfish and quick-tempered, impulsive and impatient, foolhardy and a daredevil.  Her nature is to push or be pushed. There is no middle ground.  She likes challenges that stir people into action, and gets irritated when others don’t see her clear vision.  Even with her aggressiveness, she is still very much a lamb.  She would much prefer attaining her goals by gently giving in without resistance to the demands of a given situation, rather than by getting entangled in something larger and more powerful than herself.  This takes patience, which is something Charlotte doesn’t have.  Too bad she has to learn it at the mercy of a dragon.

Who is your favorite character and why?

Chain Story Blogger Contest Winner Announced!

Copyright (c) <a href=''>123RF Stock Photos</a>As promised, today I announce the winner of the Chain Story Blogger Contest and Award!  I would like to thank all of you for participating and I really loved all the responses and seeing the story develop over the last week.

My 17-year old son, Kevin, read over all the entries several times and debated them, trying to decide which one he liked the best.  In the end, he had to pick only one, and that winner is…


Julie Catherine

Congratulations, Julie!  *throws confetti in the air*

I asked my teen which post of Julie’s was the deciding point and why.  He said the following was the one that he really liked the most:

“Green scales glimmered in the sunlight, flashing down the length of his sleek back and long, flickering tail. Darren’s emerald eyes rimmed with gold shone as he raised them towards the heavens and roared, belching crimson fire and tendrils of curled gold flame.”

Copyright (c) <a href=''>123RF Stock Photos</a>

He loved the description of the dragon and the atmosphere she created in this scene.  Kevin went on to say that he enjoyed all of Julie’s entries the best for her choice of words and how she was able to get across the meaning intended in as few words as possible.  She evoked a sense of mystery in her writing and kept him wanting to turn the page.  He also thought she made the characters pop off the screen.

There you have it, straight from the mouth of a seventeen-year old avid reader.  I liked this exercise, even for me, because I got to hear an unbiased view from a teenager about what he looks for when he reads:  few words, tight scenes, mystery, description and characterization.

Julie Catherine, as the winner you get the Chain Story Blogger Award

and a free critique from moi of the first 10 pages of your manuscript.  Please send your ten pages, double-spaced to me at  Please allow 2 weeks from the date I receive the pages to send back my comments (I do not foresee it taking this long but, just in case…) J.  Also, please stress in your e-mail exactly what sort of feedback are you looking for in addition to the line-by-line edit and critique.

How to write believable fiction

There are many articles on the internet, in books, and advice from authors/editors on how to write believable fiction.  One of the best online sites I found was   The articles are in-depth and far more extensive than I could go into here.  If you’re looking for information on

this site has what you’re looking for.

But what if you’re having difficulty coming up with a race of characters or a world or anything fantasy?  Maybe a character name or even a title for a book?   That’s where GENERATORS are invaluable.  Might I suggest the following:

Romance Title Generator

Seventh Sanctum – for any and all writer needs.  Awesome site.

Place Name Generator – Seventh Sanctum also has ‘place’ generators

Character profiles

Or maybe you’re brain’s frozen and you can’t think of anything to write about. Try:

Again, my first choice is Seventh Sanctum.  Afterwards, head over to these sites.

Plot Generator

Writers Plot Ideas

Logline generator

Need a twist to your plot but you don’t know what to do?  Try:

Plot Twist Generator

And when you’re done goofing around for a few hours, head over to your word processor or your notebook or whatever method you choose to write, and get busy on that novel!  The world is waiting to read your words!

‘Flesh out’ your characters. What does that mean?

Congratulations!  You’ve completed your manuscript and now you’re ready to take the plunge, stand naked before your audience, and expose all to your chosen beta readers.  Two points I want to make before I go any further:

  • If you don’t have any beta readers, get some…now.  Don’t walk.  Run.  You need them before you even think about subbing to an agent or publisher.
  • Do not invite others to give their honest opinions and critiques if you are not ready to hear what they have to say.  I understand that criticism is sometimes hard to take and it can hurt.  Sometimes the critiques feel like personal attacks, but they aren’t.  Your betas have your best interest at heart.  They want to see you succeed.  Keep that in mind as you let their suggestions sit for 24 hours.

With that said, let’s look at one of the most common suggestions your beta readers might say:  “You need to ‘flesh out’ your characters more.”

What in the heck does that mean?

I know when I first started putting my novel out there for critiques, this comment always baffled me.  As a then newbie writer, I often wondered what it meant and how does one flesh out characters?

In a nutshell (pardon the cliché), it means your characters probably read like one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, always acting and/or doing expected things in expected scenarios. They’re not unique but rather born of stereotypical molds.  Not good.  In order to make your characters – and in turn, your novel – stand out, you have to make your characters unique.  Have them shatter the mold.  Make them act against their inherent nature.  Flesh them out.

How do you do this?  You have to get deliciously mean with your characters.  Deny them the things they expect, or make something happen to them they don’t expect.  For example, my main character, David, from my novel, In the Shadow of the Dragon King, is a wealthy kid who’s grown up not wanting for anything.  He’s had everything given to him, therefore is able to fart around in his free time to do whatever he wants.  In my first draft of the story, David didn’t really grow.  He remained this sort of nice but pompous jerk who thought he had life all figured out.  In my 12th draft, he realizes he’s not the biggest fish in the sea, and he certainly doesn’t know near as much as he thought he did.  He no longer has the world at his fingertips.  He can’t go to his godmother and have her intervene on his behalf.  He isn’t privy to the luxuries of life – a comfy bed, food to eat, clean clothes, showers.  He doesn’t have access to all his millions to buy the necessities he needs:  a razor, deodorant, toilet paper.  He must learn to improvise and rely on his instincts, luck, his best friend and a few unusual ‘gifts’ if he is to survive the perils facing him.  In essence, I’ve ‘fleshed him out’.

Making your characters act against their nature exposes what they are really made of.  The reader relates to them because now your characters are no longer single dimensional cutouts.  They are now human, with real flaws and attributes, real fears and strengths.  They’ll be going through physical and emotional changes, and your readers will gladly follow along because they want to see your main characters succeed and win while seeing the bad guy epically fail.  Your readers are now hungry, salivating to find out how your characters are going to get out of the mess you created.

So, the next time your beta reader, agent or editor tells you to ‘flesh out your characters’, it’s time for you to step out of your comfort zone.  Abandon the norm.  Force your mind to do the unexpected.  Your characters will be better for it and your readers will thank you for it.