As I write The Cat’s Eye Chronicles, there is no doubt that Sora is the main character of the story. Though I focus intermittently on side-characters, in the end, the series is primarily written from Sora’s POV, and her struggle directly correlates to the plot. This is, ultimately, Sora’s quest…it’s her adventure.
However, as I write, I can’t help but notice that it’s not necessarily Sora’s inner conflicts that drive the plot. Rather, it is the conflicts of two pivotal main charachters: Ferran and Crash.
Crash’s mystery, his demon/demons, and his story are essentially what define the series.
So what happens when a secondary character becomes the keystone of a book? Many miraculous things. We see Sora as she is, but also, we see her in regards of Crash. Her inner growth, her adventure, her experience relies on him. His mystery keeps her intrigued, and keeps the reader intrigued, and dare I say, keeps the author intrigued as well. This adds a depth to the story that otherwise would not exist.
Is Crash a simple character to write? No, he is full of contradictions, both self-imposed and arising from his environment. He is an endless source of conflict and intrigue. When I write his character, I draw on the darkness within myself, on the parts of me that truly resonate. The story, in this sense, isn’t truly about Sora. No, it’s about Crash, the Viper, his struggles and his triumphs, and his very slow, painful character arc.
Likewise, as we move into the territory of Ferran’s Map, I discover more about Ferran as a character and his presence ends up defining more of the story than perhaps I originally intended. I suppose it was inevitable. I think, in many ways, my creative soul is masculine in thought and more inspired by the struggles of the opposite gender–of battle, conquest, honor and heroism–more than what we consider typically feminine. Sora’s “coming of age” is just as important, but it’s the male characters in my books that truly capture my imagination.
I’d like to think there is a balance–Sora and Lori have their own struggles and their own worries, but the men in their lives become pivotal points of growth and change. In this way, the characters all play off of each other, assuming different roles, facing different struggles and achieving different accomplishments as the plot progresses.
So what is The Cat’s Eye Chronicles truly about? Well, you already guessed it, dear readers. It’s about an assassin. It’s about a killer reaching for new life. It’s about a girl who changes his world, and all the ways he changes hers. It’s about light and dark meeting each other, and realizing they are stronger together.
It’s about catharsis–realizing the darkness in another can compliment the light in ourselves–it’s about realizing there is no true light and no true dark–it’s all gray–it’s all real–and in the end, they can’t exist separately from each other.
1) Your writing sweater.
This might be an old comfy jacket, bathrobe or sweater that you throw on in the cold mornings or late nights to do your writing thing. It might belong to someone else–maybe a friend left it at your house or you grabbed your hubby’s hoodie. Either way, every writer has something warm, old and comfy to wear in front of the computer–and I bet you’d never wear it out on a Friday night!
2) Your writing chair.
This might be as simple as a computer chair. More often, it’s a comfy couch, lay-z-boy or even your bed, where you stretch out with a laptop or curl up with a notebook. Every writer has their favorite place to write and relax!
3) Speaking of notebooks….
You probably own 20 journals and you grab one of them when you need to jot down an idea, or if you’re just tired of sitting and staring at a computer screen. What notes go in which notebook? I have no idea! But chances are you have a favorite notebook, just the right size and shape, where you can pen your thoughts freely.
4) Your writing beverage.
Whether it’s a hot cup of coffee or tea, a soda, a big glass of water or a slightly smaller glass of wine, every writer has their “comfort beverage” when they sit down for a long-haul of words.
5) Your writing utensil.
Pen, pencil, mechanical pencil, gel pen, highlighter, marker…when you’re jotting notes on paper all day, you develop a preference for the feel of your “pen” touching the page. Every writer has a “writing utensil” of choice!
6) Your writing playlist.
Some writers prefer silence, but many have a special writing playlist on their computer or phone. It might just be a favorite station on Pandora. Nothing like the right ambiance to set the mood for that next scene!
Is here something I forgot? What do you consider an important part of your writing routine?
Character arc–you might have heard the term. It’s what your character learns or overcomes in your story. This is particularly important in series fiction, but even in stand-alone novels, it often becomes the central focus of your book.
For the sake of this article, we will focus on series fiction that doesn’t have an absolute conclusion by the end of the first book. In series fiction, character arcs become an essential part of the writing process. You might be asking, “How do you draw an ‘ending’ out of an unresolved plot, to continue into the next book?” Character arcs might be your tried and true answer!
Your Character’s Inner Conflict
Plots have conflict, of course. But on a smaller scale, your characters also have conflicts, and they don’t always coincide with the overall “big picture” conflict in your story. Example? Let’s say you’re writing a YA book where the main character saves the world from aliens. It’s a 4-part series. Your main character starts out as a bit of a nerd, and afraid of “being herself.” No matter what happens with the plot, by the end of that first book, your character should come to terms with her inner struggle–“being herself.” Perhaps she discovers that glasses are cool and not geeky, or that being a math-nerd allows her to detect the alien invasion. Even if the plot continues, it gives the reader a sense of conclusion.
In the end of each book, your character should reach a kind of catharsis–an emotional “conclusion” of sorts–that he or she has overcome the burden they started out carrying. Characters arcs are all about inner conflict and inner resolution, and harnessing this will make your book an overall more satisfying read.
Where to Begin
In the first chapter of your novel, your character has probably expressed some insecurities or doubts about him/herself. Those insecurities might even be subconscious–meaning, you wrote them into the first chapter without really thinking about them (which is a natural and very writerly thing to do), and then forgot about them as you continued with the plot. Or perhaps more accurately, you never took the time to fully define what you were truly writing about.
If we want to strengthen our characterization, we must go back through that first chapter and find that event/feeling/thought that gave our character doubt (inner conflict.) That is the beginning of our character’s “arc.” Similarly, if you’re a planner and you’ve already plotted your novel, plan the character arc into that first section of the book. Draw a literal picture of an arc. At the beginning, it should say “Josie–hates wearing glasses.” In the middle will be the “catharsis” (that moment where Josie realizes glasses are cool), and then “Conclusion: Josie realizes her glasses might just save the world.”
Throughout the middle of the book, as much as your character might be chasing down a criminal or defeating some great evil, there is also the internal struggle (coming to grips with a deceased relative, realizing popularity is a facade, etc.) There should be a pivotal moment in your book when the main character realizes their demons and begins to overcome them. This pivotal moment is called “catharsis” in literary terms. It literally means “a release of emotion.” Your character must release their previous demons…even if it’s a small piece of the larger plot-puzzle. Going back to our example of Josie, perhaps she discovers the boy of her dreams likes girls in glasses, or that her glasses have some sort of ability that allows her to see the aliens, and overcome a great evil.
Particularly in series writing, the conclusion of your first book may not resolve the actual plot. So then how do you finish the book in a place of “closure?” (Readers crave closure, just fyi.) A great suggestion–you allow your character to fully resolve whatever emotional issue presented itself in the first chapter. Then plan a new character arc in the next book. Perhaps Josie travels through her entire arc–she starts out hating her glasses, realizes halfway through that her glasses aren’t such a bad thing, and by the end, she prefers her glasses over having none. Resolvoing that character arc gives your reader the closure they are yearning for, without having to resolve the entire plot. Then, at the beginning of Book 2, Josie has some other inner conflict to face.
Characters are born from inner conflict. That’s what draws the reader into the story. Once you are done with your first draft, I highly recommend going back to that first chapter–or whichever chapter a main character is introduced–and discovering their inner conflict. Once that inner conflict is defined, draw it through the entire story to a moment of “catharsis” when they face their inner demons and conquer them. Then, in the end, the main character fully resolves their inner conflict. The story will feel complete, even if it’s part of a larger series where the larger plot continues.
Answer below! What is your character’s “arc”?
Beta-Reader: some poor sap who has to read through the roughest draft of your manuscript and red-pen it into oblivion. Luckily they love their red pen (and you, the author, do too.)
I see a lot of authors working with as many as 10 beta-readers. Now, since creative types can get flaky and life can always jump in the way, that might be a good safety net to make sure at least one person gets through your entire manuscript in the time frame you need.
But after 4 years in a Creative Writing program, taking endless semesters of workshops, by the time I was ready to find a beta-reader, I knew exactly the kind of person I wanted.
Beta-Reading: Quality over Quantity
4 years of writing workshops in college taught me one thing–many people, including other writers, aren’t always great at giving advice to improve your writing. It depends on their own skill level as writers and their own experience in critique groups. If your beta-reader has never been part of a writing workshop, you might not want to expect very much going in.
For this reason, I don’t usually recommend bloggers as beta-readers, as most respond to a story via “gut reaction.” A “gut reaction” is not necessarily a “critique.”I came out of my English program knowing with cold certainty that if I could find one excellent beta-reader who knew more about their craft than “writing from the gut”…one who’s studied creative writing or taken some literature courses, who preferably has some sort of training in higher education, and who takes the time to really pick a story apart…I could improve my work.
If you can work with someone like that, you don’t need a huge critique group. You really only need that one person.
See, I went through many semesters of writing groups where I only got very useful feedback from about 5 people in a 30-person class. Maybe the other 25 people weren’t trying. Or maybe they just weren’t very advanced with their own writing, so when it came to critique, they usually stuck to the obvious: “this phrase is overused” or “the story ends too fast.” Everything they said came from reading the story on a surface level, and critiquing from a place of gut reaction. Mix together 25 different gut reactions from different people, and who can you trust?
Everyone has something different to say about how to improve a story. In the end, you want to use someone’s advice who really knows what they’re talking about.
An excellent example: I wrote a short story for one workshop where I left the ending intentionally open-ended, sort of like Pan’s Labyrinth, where you’re not sure if the main character went on to commit suicide or if she really returned to the fairy realms and became a princess.
One person in the critique group said: “This is confusing, you need to rewrite the ending of the story so it has a conclusion, it feels like you sort of just petered off. You should rewrite this so as not to confuse the reader.”
Another, more experienced writer commented: “Nice use of ambiguity. I appreciate how you leave the ending up to the reader. I think you can improve a few sections in the middle to make the conclusion more powerful.”
The first response was from a young writer who is still used to thinking only in terms of black and white: either a story has a conclusion, or it doesn’t.
The second response was from someone who understood what I was trying to do with my work. They a) evaluated it, b) had knowledge of other short stories that used the same technique, and c) made pointed suggestions how to improve the story, within the style I was attempting.
If you’re serious about improving your craft and making your latest book the best it can be, it’s not enough to have a beta-reader who simply says “I like this” or “I don’t like that.” You want someone who understands what you are trying to do with your work, where it fits in the bigger scheme of things, and the small, key things you can change to improve it.
7 Traits of a Perfect Beta-Reader1) First, their own writing should blow you away. You should read their work and think–wow. I feel inspired. I’d love this person’s input on my own writing. And since most of us are indie-authors, you should try reaching out to these other indies and see if you can strike up some sort of beta-reading arrangement. Choosing old high school friends or family members probably isn’t the best idea, unless they are also writers, English teachers/professors, or very critical and analytically minded readers.
2) Find someone specific to your genre. Someone who writes literary fiction probably isn’t going to appreciate your paranormal romance novel unless they’re also a huge fan of paranormal romance. Make sure to pick a beta reader who has a special passion for your genre.
3) As stated before, pick someone with an extensive knowledge base. A lot of readers don’t really know what goes into writing a novel. They know basic stuff like “main character” and “plot,” but as for more technical things like active/passive voice, foreshadowing, themes, motifs and character arc, they might not have much to say. For this reason, I can’t emphasize enough–pick someone who knows more about writing than you do. And if you can’t find someone like that because you have limited resources, pick somebody who reads a TON, is usually very analytical, and at least understands the finer aspects of storytelling.
4) Find someone who also enjoys your work. I’ve ran into some beta-readers who think critiquing a story should be a “sassy” or “snarky” experience. This isn’t helpful to anyone. Find someone who nurtures your work and who believes in you as a writer, not someone who tears you down. Of course beta-readers can have a sense of humor and that can make the whole experience a lot more fun. But if someone is outright mocking your work, chances are they might be overly critical, and I’d ditch them and find someone with a better attitude.
5) Be careful of overly critical people. During my Creative Writing major, particularly as I hit my senior year, I found some feedback to be spot on (meaning, I saw immediately how it could improve the story), while some seemed overly (or uselessly) critical. For instance, nitpicking at tiny word choices or character names. A good beta-reader will give you a good mix of both: big-picture plot feedback, scene feedback, and maybe word choice here or there, just to strengthen that last sentence. Starting out, it might be hard to know the right balance. You might go through one or two beta-readers before you really click with one.
6) You and your beta-reader are a team. So speak up! Ideally, you’ll even become friends. If you have an issue with a scene in your own book, or maybe a certain character arc, but the beta-reader doesn’t mention it, write them an email. Ask questions. Start a conversation. A good beta-reader will take the time to write you back and discuss their thoughts on what might be improved.
7) Trust your gut instinct. In the end, your beta-reader’s word is NOT set in stone. If you feel like you want to change that scene, trust your instincts. This is your book, after all, and you have the last say. Similarly, if a beta-reader targets a section that you think is essential to the story–perhaps you have an idea of what’s going to happen at the end, or in the next book, and you really can’t justify changing that scene–then don’t. Again, as the author, you have the final say. And be confident about your own writing instinct. Feedback is just someone’s opinion, and sometimes opinions don’t mesh. There will be plenty of everyday readers who will appreciate whatever scene you leave in.
How Many Beta-Readers Do You Really Need?
If the world were an ideal place, I’d say find 1 person–a mentor of sorts–who meets all the qualifiers above. That way you have two targeted minds (author+beta-reader) working to streamline the same novel, and both voices blend to create a powerful reading experience.
But knowing how creative types can be flaky and how life can get in the way of a writing schedule, it’s good to have 2 or 3 solid, trustworthy writers on hand to beta-read your book. It helps when they’re up to speed with your series, or if you’ve read their books, so you can both make informed decisions about working together. I’ve made several wonderful friendships with beta-readers and I always have my eye open for a talented, lesser known author who might be added to my team. But I think, if you can get really solid feedback from 1 or 2 people, your manuscript will be fine. I wouldn’t suggest picking more than 4 people because then opinions will become conflicting and confusing, and as we discussed before, you might not be certain whose opinion is “best” for the story. So keep it simple. Keep it quality. And keep having fun!
This article was featured in Self Publishing: Carnival of the Indies Issue #44!I run across writing prompts all the time on the web. After my Creative Writing program, I don’t find many of them helpful in so far as challenging and improving a writer’s craft. Many writing prompts are just too comfortable. They focus on flexing your imagination instead of developing your technique.
Here are 4 amazing prompts I used in my Creative Writing 300-level workshops that will both challenge your writing and hopefully improve it.
1) Write from the perspective of an inanimate object.
The point: too often, we find ourselves only focusing on our main character when we write. We forget that a single scene has limitless possibilities. A desk, a flickering light, a wall clock, a house, or even a city block can have its own personality.
-Write a 1-page scene from the perspective of a house observing the people who live in it.
-Write a story about two inanimate objects falling in love.
-Write a story where a street becomes the main character.
Flex your characterization skills to include more than just ordinary people or animals. Practice describing a setting or environment that embodies its own character and atmosphere.
2) Write a story out of chronological sequence.
The point: As novelists, we are often focused on beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes mixing up the scenes can add a lot of life to a story. What if a book started at the “middle,” and worked its way back to the beginning?
-Write a 3-5 page story where the scenes happen out of chronological order.
If you’re not sure where to start, begin your first scene at the end of the story. Try to work backward (or forward?) from there. Read Catch-22 if the concept of this seems confusing, or watch the movie Momento.
3) Write a single scene from 3 different “distances.”
-Write a single scene about a character meeting a friend over coffee.
-Write the same scene from farther away: a person across the street observing two friends meeting for coffee.
-Write the same scene at an even farther distance: a person reflecting on that one time, years ago, when they met their friend for coffee.
The point: experience the difference between each of these scenes. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of each one: “in the moment,” “from across the street” and “from years and years ago.” How do the scenes change? Which do you feel is the strongest perspective or time frame? Which felt more “safe” to you and which was more of a challenge? This helps you break out of the mode of always writing from one “distance” or one sense of time.
4) Write a story that includes 3 dictionary definitions.
Use a definition from a dictionary in a 2-page short story (or scene). Try using this technique 3 different times throughout the text. Make sure your definitions fit the context of your story.
The point: explore new narration techniques. Think outside the box. Shake it up a bit!
And most importantly, have fun!
1) I don’t know what to say.
I see a lot of authors talking about “How to Plot Your Novel” or “Tips to Good Characterization” but honestly, whenever I try to explain my craft, it comes out a chaotic mess. Which probably means something about how I write my books, but eh, when you’re this crazy, why pick it apart? I spent 4 years in an English major and I’ve taught writing courses and tutor children so you’d think I’d have something to say on the subject. But seriously, if you want to write a book, just write it. If you’re stuck at writer’s block, just keep writing. If you lose motivation, just keep writing. And if you don’t plan to edit your novel, quit now.
2) My life is boring.
Honestly, I’m not that exciting, despite living in the middle of TV Land. Warner Bros. is a block from my house, Disney about two blocks, ABC, Nickelodeon, Lionsgate, HBO, etc. just a few blocks past that. Half my neighbors work in the studios. Me? I stay cooped up indoors all day writing. So unless I’m going to write endless blog entries about how cute my pitbull is (trust me, he’s cute), I don’t got a lot going on. Oh, we built a new fence today. Gripping!
3) I want to keep things upbeat.
I feel if I start blogging a lot, I’ll start ranting a lot. I have a lot of crankiness to offer the world. For one, I just started a new low-carb diet. Low-carb can be rearranged to spell Crab Owl. So yes, I feel like a Crab Owl, which means everything is getting on my nerves. Other authors are getting on my nerves. Amazon is bugging me. My writing is being annoying. My dog keeps barking at nothing from our front porch. There’s construction on my street every morning. My best friend hasn’t called me in a week. So yes, I am irking big time right now.
4) Sometimes, I write half a blog post, then decide it’s stupid.
I sit down filled with all this joyous enthusiasm wanting to share something mushy and meaningful about my writing. And then I get halfway through and think–who the heck wants to read this crap? You guys want my books, not my inner joy-joy monologues. And then I start craving bread and wanting to stuff a whole package of noodles down my face, so I eat snap-peas like a maniac because there’s 6g of sugar per serving. And then I leave my post in drafts because it’s all a bunch of piddly-puddly nonsense.
5) I hate following the crowd.
I’m just not a team player. The moment I see a lot of people doing something, I’m immediately repelled by the activity. This probably comes from all the deep-seated issues I had in highschool with cliques and cool kids and whatever. When I see a lot of people all jumping on the bloggety-blog bandwagon and writers trying to consolidate themselves into any sort of group, I dig in my heels. I became a writer because I didn’t want to be part of any group. It’s a solitary activity devoid of other people and I like that. I don’t have “writer” friends because I’d rather not build any sort of writing posse. (I’m a bit of a hypocrite, since I have a small online close-knit writing group called The Runaway Pen, but I picked those people because they’re awesome, humble, and they’re all really good writers, and let’s face it, self-publishing is hard to do alone.)
6) I don’t know what readers expect of me.
Honestly, my one true love in life is writing, second true love is The Cat’s Eye Chronicles, and third true love are my readers. You guys are awesome. But I have no idea what you would like to read about on this blog. More stuff about the book series? I mean, is that even interesting? Questions? Debates? Vacation updates? My favorite kind of tea? (Peach green tea.) I don’t know. You guys are wonderful but you also confuse and frighten me for various reasons. I want to entertain you, I also want to impress you, I want to revel in the series with you but I also don’t want to seem needy? I hate needy people. And I hate rejection. Please don’t reject me for struggling through carb cravings! Damn I could use a jalepeno cheese bagel right now. GODDAMMIT.
7) Surprise, it’s me, Crash!
I hate blogging. I took over the author’s computer so I could rant about how stupid blogging is, and her dumb low-carb diet, which is driving her nuts. Look at her, she’s crying in the corner right now clutching a loaf of Wonderbread. We didn’t have Wonderbread in the Hive. But right, blogging. What a waste of words. Save it for the story, will you? If you have to update, TL, then talk about me. I’m awesome. I once skinned a tiger and wore the fur for three days so I could infiltrate a Catlin colony (I made that up.) But this is blogging, so I suppose I could make anything up. If I could travel anywhere in the world, it would be India. I want to see the Bodi tree where the Buddha reached Enlightenment. And my dog of choice would be a Great Dane. Or maybe a German Shepherd, they’re pretty vicious. TL, stop eating that bred! Oh Gawd that’s disgusting. Put the loaf down! Oh no now she’s going after the sour dough….
xoxox <3<3 <3<3 Sora here! Crash leave TL alone she’s vomiting up bread in the bathroom right now. She doesn’t need your help.
(Brb Crash is trying to force TL to vomit.)