Friday, July 25, 2014

How to Create a Vile Villain

They are some of the most hated characters in stories...and some of the most loved.

They are evil.

They are flawed.

They are plotters.

They are the villains.

As you can see, he has all the makings of a villain.

But what makes a good villain? Who is he? Why is he in the world? What point does he serve?

This post is all about the forces that drive stories forward. As I like to say, "If the antagonist isn't important, then the protagonist isn't, either."


Tip #1. CHOOSE THE FORM OF THE BAD GUY THAT WOULD HURT YOUR HERO THE MOST

Antagonists come in all different forms. Some are a single villain, some are a group of people, and some are abstract ideas that originate in the mind, or circumstances and obstacles the hero must endure.

Villains aren't always people. They don't have to be. An antagonist opposes the hero, so maybe the hero must fight fantastical beasts, or survive a set of physical challenges. Maybe the hero is emotionally suffering with guilt, unrequitted love, or a moral dilemma that tears him or her apart from the inside.

Presentation of the conflict is crucial.

It doesn't have to be another person.

Tip #2. MAKE THE READER CARE THAT THE VILLAIN HURTS THEIR FAVORITE CHARACTER

Readers should connect to somebody in the story. Maybe the hero, maybe the hero's best friend, or teacher, or even the villain. Whoever the reader connects to the most, make them suffer.

Take a look at the last book you read. Notice how the villain might hurt the hero, but it has an effect on everyone else, too. The hero isn't the only one who suffers. Make people care that the villain hurt someone. Maybe readers love the villain and are awed by his power and opposition.

Make that count. Drive it home using emotion. Play the heartstrings of the reader, and they'll love your characters forever.



Tip #3. MAKE THE VILLAIN MEMORABLE

He has to stick in our minds. We have to know WHY he hurts the hero, HOW he hurts him, and WHAT he expects to gain from doing so. Maybe the hero is trying to foil a master plan, so the villain needs to get rid of him in order to rule the world. Maybe the hero is trying to be elected into office, so the villain tries to prevent that from happening so a law doesn't get passed.

Anything. Make it interesting, make it exciting, and make it resonate with the overall story. When it comes to books, we remember characters who gave us butterflies, made us feel sick, or made us angry. Or we felt like they were a close friend and could relate.

If a character can achieve a physical response in our bodies, we will never forget them.



Tip #4. GIVE THE VILLAIN A BACKSTORY

Unless you are making a movie for Marvel Comics, you should know that most villains don't just pop up out of the blue. They have existed elsewhere. You can see how they have shaped the world. There are lasting effects that every character stuffs up in the back of his mind.

Voldemort didn't just come out and attack the Ministry of Magic and Hogwarts - he was a major influence in the whole wizarding community for his entire life. From the orphanage, to his years at Hogwarts, to the construction of the Horcruxes and the First War against Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix. Voldemort had a presence the entire time, even when he wasn't physically there.

You want most villains to be like that. If nothing else, they should have some relevance to the hero's life and how the hero has shaped himself.



Tip #5. READERS LIKE LOGIC....AND SO SHOULD YOU

I have read one too many stories where a character suddenly becomes the bad guy because his friend accidentally killed another friend, or the girl he loves doesn't like him, so he turns into a supervillain with a vengeance against her boyfriend...who just so happens to be a superhero.

Come on people. Really? No, seriously, really? Was it so devastating that he just had to go off on a murderous streak?

No, and readers know this. They don't want to read some cheesy inciting incident - they want to see the villain develop, or at least understand how he developed. This builds a mutual trust between reader and author, makes characters more believable, and thus makes readers LIKE the story.

If villains like the Green Goblin, Doc Oc, Whiplash (Iron Man 2), and Sandman popped up all the time, NYC would be screwed. At least Loki had a plan. Unfortunately, it included the fatal flaw of many villains these days....



Tip #6. IF YOUR VILLAIN WAGES WAR, PLEASE, PLEASE DON'T LET THEM HAVE A "REMOTE CONTROL" ARMY

What does this mean? Let me tell you. In "The Avengers," the fatal flaw was that the whole army turned out to be robotic and by destroying the mothership, the army shut down and the six people fighting aliens miraculously won. Or like in "Battle: Los Angeles," (a movie I personally loved), the drones were powered by the control beacons and LA was saved when Harvey Dent shot a missile at the retreating mothership.

I'm just saying, while these make for cool action sequences, please try not to include that unless robots are literally taking over the world. We as readers don't like seeing something end so easily (if you've read "Inheritance," by Christopher Paolini, you'll agree that King Galbatorix TOTALLY would have won that fight instead of acting like a little girl. Shruikan didn't even try to help).

What am I trying to say? MAKE YOUR VILLAIN STRONG!!! But not invincible.



Tip #7. GIVE YOUR VILLAIN A FATAL FLAW THAT THE HERO MUST DISCOVER

Why are Voldemort's horcruxes so awesome? Because nobody knew they existed. Not even the readers, until the sixth book. Then we found out that three had already been destroyed, one of which we watched get destroyed and had no idea the significance until later.

GENIUS!!! Do that. Surprise the reader. Surprise the characters. Force them to discover the villain's weakness, or a way to fight him.

Everybody is different. Be creative! And if your antagonist is inside the hero's head, have him fight himself. Show us his torture and how he affects everything around him until he is able to reconcile with himself. Self-discovery and inner-conflicts make excellent storylines. Just be sure to wrap it up inside something else, and you're well on your way.


The villain of the story should fascinate us. Make readers fear, admire, or be shocked by him. Give readers a reason to care that the villain is hurting the hero. Give the readers a story why the villain is hurting the hero. People don't want the cheesy stuff. Show them that this guy could hurt them. Create that feeling and people will ask for the sequel.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

5 Query Letter Mistakes You Should Avoid

Writing your first query letter can be daunting. You have to pitch your book to an agent in 1-2 paragraphs (not including your hook line and bio) and you have to make it memorable.

In the near(ish) future, I'm going to write a post about the anatomy of a successful query letter with an in-depth analysis of my query (which has garnered a few partial and full requests, so yay!)


Without further ado...here we go.

Mistake #1: "MY BOOK IS DIFFERENT BECAUSE....!!!!!"

No, seriously. People have said that in their query letters. Not even joking. I used to fall victim to that, and now I've changed my methods because I learned that saying your book is different is you screaming I'M AN AMATEUR!!!

You need to know what your book is about. If somebody told you a chapter number, you should be able to tell them what happens in that chapter. As the author, it's your job to say, "this happened because this happened because this happened." Show that your story is connected to itself, or else it'll look like you write a bunch of events that don't seem connected.

But when it comes to the query, you have to explain one question: "What is the main character's conflict?" That's it. Nothing else. Hook the agent with the conflict.



Mistake #2: TRYING TO SQUEEZE IN EVERY OUNCE OF DETAIL THAT YOU CAN

Do yourself a favor and don't rewrite your book in the query letter. Save that for the synopsis. Leave stuff out. Lots of stuff. You have around 250-350 words to make the agent/publisher flip to the next page.

Remember, the only question you have to answer is, "What is the main character's conflict?"

In two paragraphs, introduce the character, introduce the situation, and show the agent that there will be a journey. Only include the main character and the character who has the largest influence on him/her throughout the story.

See, instead of stuffing the query full of shallow plot points, now you can expand on one or two points, giving the agent a chance to connect with the story and characters.



(Stupid) Mistake #3: "MY BOOK IS JUST LIKE THIS BEST-SELLING NOVEL OVER HERE!!!!!"

*cough* no it's not *cough*

I understand you spent the time to write a book and that's about as far as you'll get for a long time. Come on. I've been writing for 10 years and I'm not professionally published yet. You wanna know why? Because I wrote three books and, at the time, thought they were the best books in the whole wide world.

Today, I shudder at the thought of them.

When you write a book, I bet ten-to-one you think you have the next Harry Potter in your hands. You are so hopelessly in love with your book that of course everyone will love it! How couldn't they?

Basically, be humble.

Unlike this cat.

Mistake #4: "MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY ALL SAID----"

And to the trash it goes.


For some reason, I can't stop laughing at this.

Mistake #5: "MY HOBBIES INCLUDE WRITING AND READING."

Really? I wouldn't have guessed!

Yes, I have seen this in query letters....and....sadly I included these in the first query letter I ever wrote. But that was 7 years ago.


Personalize your hobbies and pastimes. Be specific. Make yourself look interesting. What do you do that nobody else does? Heck, what's a quirky thing you do?

As Haymitch Abernathy would say, "Give them something to root for." Show why you are unique. What makes you qualified to write this book? Why should they want you as a client?



As I mentioned above, I'll have a post analyzing my own query letter sometime in the near future. Subscribe and share to keep updated with my posts!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Broken Latch

Watch close there, at the door.
I think I should expect some mail,
Unless her hand has not yet traced
The words she wishes to share.

Waiting, waiting each day
For my letter to arrive.
Maybe it was lost,
Maybe the service ran astray.

Oh, how I tremble.
What folly! What shame!
Shall I ever know if she wrote
The letter that should be mine?

So I sit again and scribble,
Begging her to send another,
Praying she will accept my plea
To not be ignored.

Maps of EMBASSY

As I worked on EMBASSY (and now its sequel), I made a few maps to help organize the layout of cities in my head. I haven't made maps of cities on Belvun, but I might get around to those one day.

Remember to check out Embassy on Amazon!



Cornell, where Embassy opens.


The Undil Embassy


Orvad, seen in Book 2

Friday, July 18, 2014

Weird Al Yankovic's "Word Crimes"

This should be adopted as the Writer's Anthem. This music video is fantastic and displays nearly every complaint writers and grammar nazis have. Give it a watch!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

How Self-Publishing Can Prepare Your Book for Traditional Publishing


This is the follow-up post to (Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners. If you haven't read that, you should, especially if you're a self-published author who opposes traditional publishing.

Let me make one thing clear: I hope self-publishing isn't the future of the literary world.

Let me amend that: I hope people who self-publish UTTER CRAP, yet are convinced it's the best book ever, are not the future of the literary world.*

*I do not have high hopes for this.

Congress needs to declare a war, because these days, there's a big one happening in every book store and online retailer (I'm looking at you, Amazon). It's the traditional vs. self-publishing war, and it's getting out of hand.

If you read (Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners (which you need to if you haven't yet, cheater), then you'll understand why I have a bone to pick with a majority of self-published authors. Ironic, isn't it? I myself am a self-published author (case in point, Embassy, my New Adult Science-fiction novel).

The thing is, I might pull Embassy off Amazon any day, at a moment's notice. Why? Because there are professional agents reading the full manuscript as we speak. I didn't self-publish that book "just to get my name out there." Not entirely, that is. I did it to judge the market and acquire reviews, suggestions, and emails from fans -- which has happened spectacularly (Embassy is required reading in a Kansas high school).

You see, I put my beta readers through a lot. They did their jobs above and beyond my expectations. When I finished the eighth draft, I sent Embassy into the real world. This was my trial run: get it in front of people and accumulate feedback to keep improving the book until it started to grab the attention of agents.

From the time I hit "Publish" on Createspace, I gathered FOUR MONTHS of feedback and suggestions. Many reviews praised Embassy, while some went more in-depth and teetered on average ratings. Other people contacted me and gave personal feedback.

The point is: involve yourself with your readers. Be active somewhere and let people know you want reviews, suggestions for improvement, and critical feedback. DO NOT ATTACK ANYBODY WHO GIVES YOU A BAD REVIEW. Learn from them. Establish a professional relationship and listen to what they have to say.

For instance, one lady I spoke with, a complete stranger, told me she thought some of the characters felt superficial, and some of the relationships between characters didn't feel...realistic. (You can read her Amazon review HERE). She said she loved the world, loved the concept, but sometimes the characters just pushed her out of the story. We had a nice discussion, and she even pointed out she was surprised I didn't get angry with her critique, as some other authors had in the past.

I took her suggestions and began to apply them to the newest edition of Embassy. Around the same time, an agent expressed interest and requested the first 50 pages of the book. A month later, he came back and told me he loved the world, he loved the premise, but -- you guessed it -- he felt more detached from the main character than he wanted to be.

So in the span of a few weeks, I had multiple knowledgeable people tell me something was off with the characters. What did I do? I dove into revisions and focused on the characters, tweaking dialogue to make it more unique, adding some quirks, and reforming the relationships between some characters to make them more believable.

It took three months, but I cranked out the current draft, and Embassy is the best it's ever been. I gave free updated files to anyone who purchased the book on Kindle. A few of them reread it and told me they could literally feel the difference as they were reading.

Then I hit a new milestone -- an agent requested a partial manuscript (50 pages), and a few days later, requested the full manuscript. I'm still waiting to hear back, but without the feedback I've received from the general public, revising Embassy to the quality it is now would have been nearly impossible (I can't afford a professional editor).

If you read (Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners, (you have read it by now, right?), then you'll know that that post is one huge rant about the crappy quality of today's self-published books. I swear, 99% of self-published books are GARBAGE because the author just wanted to put "Published Author" on their resume, or got angry with the same five agents for rejecting them over and over.

The key is how much time you're willing to spend editing. Edit, edit, edit. Get feedback. DON'T get angry with bad reviews (no one is immune to the pain of seeing a bad review, trust me, and a majority will just argue with the reviewer, as I mentioned in (Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners).

The only way the quality of the self-publishing industry will improve is if the authors start treating it like the traditional industry. Selling books is a business, not a get-rick-quick gimmick. Don't believe those "success story webinars" you get in your email or find on the fifth page of Google.

To be successful, you need to write a quality book, free of errors and awkward formatting. That's 90% of the battle. The other 10% is marketing. If you give readers a crappy book with lots of errors, they'll give you crappy reviews pointing out all those errors. But if you give readers a book that stylistically looks good, readers are more likely to give genuine 4-and 5-star reviews.

So do the literary world a favor and CARE about the book you wrote. If you don't care, GET OUT. These days, we need quality writing, and if you respect the system, you might break out of self-publishing and land a contract with an agent.**

**That is, of course, if you want an agent.

Just don't forget to remove your book from Amazon when you do. There's something called "legal issues."



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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

(Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners




I'm sticking by that. Take as much offense as you want. Go on and rant. Get angry. Curse me from behind the screen. But you know what?


IT'S TRUE.

I've been in the writing business since 2004 and let me tell you: self-publishing was a tiny itch on the beast that is the publishing world. Over the last decade, that itch became a scratch, and that scratch, a cut, and that cut?

A FULL-BLOWN AMPUTATION.

The year 2010 saw the start of a new era, an era where "self-published" grew from a whisper...TO A SHOUT. Before 2010, self-published books were like the underground of the literary world. Sure, Indie Authors have always been the "elite" of the DIY world. Indie bookstores, Indie festivals, Indie awards, etc etc.

But self-publishing has begun to swamp out the true meaning of Indie. Strictly in terms of writing, it's becoming increasingly difficult for someone with Indie aspirations to write a book, hire an editor (or edit themselves), and gain a reputation as an Indie author who can appear at awards ceremonies solely through the mere credit of his/her work.

And here's why.

Self-publishing, more and more, is being used as an excuse. People write a book, send it to an agent or publisher, and when they're rejected, they get angry and upload their book to an online POD. Tada! Book gets printed and sells a few copies...and the author starts laughing and bad-mouthing the traditional publishing world for not recognizing their genius talent.

Oh, so those ten 5-star reviews were all complete strangers who bought your book? You mean, you didn't give a copy to close friends and family and tell them to write reviews to make you look good? (And don't they dare give you anything less than 5-stars!!!)

Now that you have all those glamorous reviews, EVERYONE who reads your quoted tweets and Facebook posts to mass-advertising writing groups will instantly buy your book, and you'll be a best-seller by this time next week, right? RIGHT???

Let's take a step back. The whole point of this post lies in the title: (Most) Self-Published Authors are a Bunch of Whiners.

You, reading this. Chances are you're a self-published author. In fact, I can almost guarantee it (unless this post goes viral and gets reblogged by "Writer's Digest," which is extremely unlikely). Answer a few questions:
  1. How many rounds of editing did you do?
  2. Did you submit to an agent or publisher?
  3. Why did you choose to self-publish?
  4. How many books have you sold?
  5. Are you making a living off of writing?
I put these questions in a specific order. After you write the book, you have to edit the book. And edit the book. And edit the book. And edit the book. AND EDIT THE BOOK.

Humans today are impatient creatures. Editing, for many, is boring, and those on whom editing takes its worst tolls inevitably convince themselves their writing is as good as it can get. They let the fact that they even wrote a book become their hamartia. This leads to a lack of discipline. And what is discipline good for?

Editing books, waiting for agent responses, and moving on from rejection to try again.

If you can't edit your book more than twice by yourself, there's a problem. Don't skim through and think readers will ignore technical and structural problems. They won't. Every time there's a typo, or a missing word, or a string of identically-structured sentences, readers get tossed out of the story. They WILL judge your writing based on little things you thought they'd forgive you for.

Then you submitted to an agent and got rejected. Maybe you tried again. And again. When the tenth rejection letter comes in, many people get frustrated beyond measure. "My book is genius!" many will tell themselves. "There is NOTHING wrong with my book! The agent is stupid!" others will say.

The excuses go on, and on, and on. This is where people instantly start turning to self-publishing -- and this is why self-published authors are a bunch of whiners.

Maybe this doesn't apply to you, but a vast majority of self-published books are ATROCIOUS. I've read my fair share of excerpts and full-length books from the freebies and discounts on Amazon, and let me tell you, it amazes me that anyone would let the public read such crap.

Basic grammar mistakes, dozens per chapter. Commas in all the wrong places, misspelled words, weird italicization and fonts, horrible paragraph and sentence formatting. Parentheses inserted every five words to introduce an internal thought. Chapters upon chapters upon chapters of backstory before the plot even begins. Terrible pacing, or an incomprehensible plot.

Yet what do many of these books have? 5-star reviews saying "the best new author in town!" or "promising to be the next Stephen King!" or "best book I have ever read!"

People. Please.

Then we take another look -- and what's this? A 1-star review? "Don't listen to the 5-star reviews," he warns. "They are clearly family members and friends who don't want to hurt the author's feelings. This book needs to be looked at by a professional editor, STAT."

The review has a comment...from the author himself. "How dare you accuse me of paying off my family and friends!" he argues. "Just because you're a nobody and my books are selling doesn't mean you have to spit on my success!"

Yes, that was actually based on a real response I saw from the author to a reviewer.

I've looked up some of these authors. I've read their blog posts. And you know what I've found? They all share similar stories, how they couldn't find agents (after writing two drafts and sending out six queries), so they decided to self-publish and voila! Instant author.


Now they'll go around tooting their horn, shoving their book down the throat of anyone they catch at the library or bus station. "It was a hard process," they'll say. "Every agent told me there just wasn't a market, but look! Here's the real thing, and it's got lots of 5-star reviews! You should buy it!"

These "Instant Authors" will sell 50 books in a year, and inside, they'll be boiling with rage. But when asked about sales, they'll pluck out a vague response, saying "sales are steady now," or "I'm taking some time off from writing to catch up on work."

Many will check their sales ranking every day, or read new reviews. Any reviews less than 5-stars (yes, 4-stars isn't high enough for most people) will wound them. If the person doesn't rant about good the book was, the author hates that person.

They'll never admit it, though. "What went wrong?!" they'll ask themselves as they read another bad review condemning the terrible writing.

What went wrong is that they didn't have discipline. They weren't patient enough. They were too prideful and didn't want to taint their reputation by asking for the help of a professional editor, or even a critique group. They believed a lie they themselves created.

I read so many posts today saying "traditional publishing is corrupt and ruining the industry!" But you know what? I think anyone who says that is just whining that zero of the five agents they queried picked up their half-edited manuscript and turned them into an overnight bestseller.

"Traditional publishers take all the money from the authors!" And yet those authors are still making more than you. Besides, there are employees to pay, ink to purchase, and shipping to account for. In the end, everyone makes just about the same, because the success of the company depends on the success of the authors.

"Traditional publishers don't market! It's not fair!" And....self-publishing is different? Hmm. Who's doing the marketing? That's right: YOU. And hey, at least with a traditional publisher, you might get an advance that lets you pay for that marketing, rather than being all out of pocket.

Here's the point: self-publishing, in today's society, is being used as an excuse for why you aren't famous and making millions off the book you wrote last month. Many people -- and I mean the authors -- want to see their name on the book and give it to everyone they meet on the street. Fail-proof plan. They just expect readers to fall in love with their books, not cringe and write bad reviews.

The quality of self-published books, as I said waaaaay above, is ATROCIOUS. This trend is ruining the credibility of people who actually take their time to develop their characters and plot, tighten up the story, and weed out all those little mistakes. There are a few self-published gems, but they're so difficult to find when so many others are pathetic attempts at fame and fortune without caring for the basic principles of writing.

Sure, the traditional market has its fair share of crappy books. But you can be sure that most of them are scrutinized under a microscope to fix as many errors in content, structure, and technical, before ever seeing the light of day. Some editors read the same book 500 times before it reaches stores. That's more than most authors, the people who wrote the book.

So let this be a message to anyone who blames the traditional market: stop blaming the big publishers for your problems. Stop cursing agents for rejecting you. Stop believing you wrote the best book ever. Stop, and edit your book one more time. Send out one more query. That's all it might take to get a yes.

Because if you have to tell a story, even a bad one, at least make sure it looks good. But if you don't care enough to revise your book until it's polished to a professional level, then get off your high horse and let someone with more discipline take the reins.