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David Corbett—New York Times Notable author of many novels including Blood of Paradise (2007), Do They Know I’m running (2010), and The Mercy of the Night (2015)—published a sparkling, extremely-helpful nonfiction writers’ guide in 2013 entitled, “The Art of Character.”

In this book, he touches on many aspects of fine, intelligent, deep, 3-D characterization not only for writing books—literature—but for other mediums, thus the subtitle of the work: “Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film, and TV.”

Amongst the nearly 400 pages of astute, deft suggestions concerning how to pen purposeful, profound people on the page, Corbett uses Greek tragedy, modern psychoanalysis, and the psychology of Myth to demonstrate, from many vantage points, how one can deepen their conception and understanding of literary characters.

One of the most helpful conceptions and guidelines, in my humble opinion, is his “Five Cornerstones of Characterization.” I realized while reading “The Art of Character” that much of what he writes about is, for many writers, for the most part intuitive. And yet, as a freelance book editor, I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I read year-round that lack the basic essentials of these five incredibly helpful (and I’d vote just about necessary) points. It is far too easy for a novel to begin delving, blurring into the far-reaching and terrible Death Land of anecdote, veering dangerously far away from any semblance of “plot” or “deep characterization.”

That’s not to say that some great works of literature lack essential plot: On the Road; The Sun Also Rises. But these books contain fantastic, powerful characters which push us to both empathize, understand, care, and thus keep turning the pages. And that is, I believe, the most important, crucial point here: A writer’s job is to make a reader care. If we don’t care—about your characters—the fact of the matter is we’re going to stop reading. Simple as that.

You can write a more literary, “character-driven” novel, even to a certain extent devoid of plot, but it still must contain strong, believable, well-rounded and developed characters, must contain real drama, must play with tension and conflict, must draw us in and hold us, make us give a crap about who and why.

Therefore, I posit that character, itself, is the most important ingredient of a novel. Without plot, you can still survive with deep characters we care about, as mentioned above. But without good characters—exhibiting 2-D, flat, weak characters we can’t relate to and we don’t care about—you are dead in the literary water. (Best bet is both good characters and a solid plot.)

Here are the Five Cornerstones of Characterization, as provided by David Corbett from “The Art of Character: Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV.” (Taken from page 48 of the book. Slightly edited/modified for simplicity/clarity.)

  1. The character needs or wants something

  2. She is having difficulty getting what she needs or wants, and comes up with a plan for overcoming that difficulty

  3. She exhibits a seeming contradiction

  4. Something unexpected happens (she makes a mistake), which renders her vulnerable

  5. There is a secret

The main thing here, and what he constantly mentions in the book, is this notion of desire. The main character—your protagonist—must have some kind of need/want/desire, driving him or her forward. There must be something they’re trying to get: love (internal and/or external); redemption; salvation; revenge; a lover’s attention; a best friend; success; etc. Corbett talks about internal versus external needs and wants, how the two often play against each other. There is often a clear exterior want/desire, which if preferred so that readers have a clear notion of the main character’s drive.

But underneath that external drive/desire/need/want/yearning, is something deeper, a more internal longing that might either add to the external want or even play against it (which creates fantastic tension).

But the point here, your main character must have a desire and the story must be driven principally by that desire. As we go along, we’ll discover, bit by bit, that a deeper internal desire exists within the character’s interior world. But also, cornerstone #2 suggests that the character will soon bump up against the obvious: a series of hurdles preventing them from achieving their goal of getting what they desire (externally and/or internally). This creates drama and tension. When a character has something they want and they try to get that thing and are prevented from getting it due to another character who has an opposing desire/want/need…now we have good drama. This is the stuff of great fiction. (The Hunger Games; The Girl on the Train.)

I won’t get into the final 3 cornerstones—I’ll let you think about them on your own, ponder their wisdom, and read “The Art of Character” to discover more depth—but I will say that one thing I’ve noticed in my own [published] writing (and another point Corbett discusses) is that in order to truly find out what a main character’s true desire might be, and how that might come into conflict with another character, and how the external might conflict with the internal, you have to mine your own life.

Write a list down of some of the bigger things in your life, external things, you’ve consciously been aware of “wanting,” “needing,” “desiring.” If you’re honest with yourself, that’s a long list, even just considering for half an hour. Now add to the list the internal things you’ve desired; love, attention, closer friends, a particular type of respect, more open and honest conversation, less politically correct discussions in social settings; whatever.

Now take those two columns and add to each how many of those desires were thwarted for whatever reason: some might be due to time issues; some to your own shortcomings; some to shame, guilt, fear; some to external forces, other people who prevented you somehow from achieving your external goals (or internal ones); etc. The point here is to get you thinking deeply about how to craft an intriguing, realistic, believable, 3-D protagonist (and more minor characters, too, as well as the villain) in your writing. Because, again, if we don’t buy your characters—if we can’t envision them existing in real life, with all our problems, insecurities, failures, joys, loves, pride—we’ll never care enough to finish your book.

And that’s what we all want: For readers to finish our books. (And to write great, compelling characters that almost literally jump off the page.)

Have at it, hoss. Give it a go.

Michael Mohr

P.B.S. (Not the News station; Post Blog Script): Two final notes.

1) I am a freelance book editor (click here to see one of my recent clients), former literary agent’s assistant and published writer. My work can be found in the following: Fiction Magazines; Flash; Tincture; Alfie Dog Press (click here to buy my fiction); Mountain Tales Press; MacGuffin; Milvia Street; Writer’s Digest (guest blogger); The Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency]blog; The San Francisco Writers Conference Newsletter; and more.

If you have a novel or memoir (prefer literary/realistic but will look at genre work) please send me the first 20 pages to: michaelmohreditor@gmail.com. If the work seems like a potential fit I will provide a short free test edit for your perusal.

2) I am currently reading the literary sensation—“The Girls,” a fictionalized Manson Family saga—by mid-twenties debut author Emma Cline, from Northern California. I plan on seeing her read live next week in San Francisco. So far I am loving her book. Her novel recently went into a bidding war and she won a heralded $2 million advance from Random House, with a 3-book contract. Obviously, they foresee a long future with this new, young writer. I bring this up because I plan on blogging about the book when I am finished with it. Within the next week or two, depending on time constraints. Also, if possible, I might even try getting an interview with Cline. We’ll see if I can pull that off.

Till next time.

Write on.

MM




Many writers out there wonder how, in the hell, can they get their book into the worthy and capable hands of a literary agent. Well, it’s a process.

For one thing, I’ll be blunt: If you have a connection of any kind, use it. If you can nail down a referral, that will help big time. But assuming that’s not an option, and you have to go in ‘cold,’ here’s how you do it.

First off, start by writing the book all the way through. You’d be amazed how many agents tell me that writers submit partially completed manuscripts (or queries that pitch partially completed books). Unless it’s nonfiction—and that’s a different deal—finish the book first.


And not only finish it but have that puppy shining solid. I mean really, really polish that book. This means that you workshop it, get feedback, make changes, etc. It means that you show it to a lot of people both writers and professionals. It means that you hire a professional book editor (like me) to edit the book with skill and patience, from an objective viewpoint.


It means you go over those first five pages again and again and again. Attend writers’ conferences, read agents’ and writers’ websites and blogs about what a good 2016 book (in your genre) does and is and has. Research, research, research!!! And when you’re done with all that, research some more.

Ok, now you’ve got a tight, polished book. You’ve done your research and you know your genre’s preferred word count (the target for fiction in general, minus sci-fi, is about 70-90,000 words), the stakes are high, you’ve got solidly created characters and a strong world built. You’ve hired that editor and have made the suggested changes you agree with. You have read websites and blogs and conferred or consulted with at least one professional with or without a fee about the book industry and specifically your book.

Now is the ‘fun’ part. I am being partially sarcastic, partially serious. Time to look for an agent. This requires more research. Pick maybe ten agents to start out with, maybe even only five. Your call. Do NOT pull the amateur move where you pick out 50 agents at huge firms and send a generic query. They will laugh and reject it without even taking a sip of coffee to think about it. They live to reject this stuff. They also live to find the next J.K.K. Rowling. Trust me. Make it easy for them; make them HAVE TO look at your idea.

Pick your five or 10. Now research. Go to their websites. Don’t know where to start? Google, my friends, Google. We live in 2016; there are no excuses anymore. Fifteen years ago, sure, it was a little more limited. But not anymore. Ok, go to Google, type in ‘Young Adult Romance’ literary agents, or whatever genre you have written. Then go through the list. Star these places on your computer. Make a list on a word.doc file of each agent.

Now, when you look at their sites, make sure they represent YOUR genre (of the book you wrote) and that they seem to like your type of book. Let’s say you wrote a dark, edgy YA book (Young Adult). Find the agent who represents ‘dark, edgy YA.’ Usually it will say this in the bio in one form or another. Also, go a step further. I know this is irritating; it takes time. Go to their client list and Google some of their titles sold. Note where they sold the titles to. This will help you decide if you want to saddle up with said agent. What are your writer’s goals? Small house, medium, large? You can find all of that out online.

When you find a couple of client titles, look hard for any key words of the plot/summary of the book in the online description or the review of the book. If you find any similarities to your book, blammo! You’ve now got a [query] first sentence hook! Use that to compare to your book in the first sentence of your query. It will show the agent that you gave a crap and that you did your homework and that you are genuinely invested in that SPECIFIC agent. This will win you points; you will be that much closer to actually having your work looked at by an agent. There is still no guarantee, the work must speak for itself, but you at least have a higher chance.

Aside from that, make sure you write a killer query letter. Research how to do that online. For query writing and agent spotting, check out Chuck Sambuchino’s website (CLICK HERE). He’s great. Make sure your query follows guidelines and is three succinct paragraphs: a short paragraph about the genre, word-count, audience, and setting/hook sentence; a middle graph about the book (mini synopsis); and a third and final graph about the author (you), any credentials or publications you might have, why you’re the best person to write the book, etc. We’re talking 250-300 words tops. The closer to 250 you can get, the better. Just hook the agent’s attention, that’s really your sole goal. And also have a one- and two-page synopsis. That’s for another post.

Write on.

“You said it. Let’s edit.”


**

Michael Mohr

Freelance Book Editor (Send a book to michaelmohreditor@gmail.com. I charge 5 cents/word.)



I’d say 95 percent of the clients I work with on book editing projects are filled with impatience. As a writer as well as a book editor, I of course understand this feeling perfectly. It makes sense. For the most part, developing writers approach me with a first or second or third draft, or even sometimes a memoir or novel they’ve worked on for years, and they have a specific plan for how they want that project to go.

The problems with this approach are many-fold. For one thing, the majority of developing writers out there don’t necessarily understand how “the industry” works, and also how book editing itself works. Due to the popularity of writing nowadays, people have been told they can very easily self-publish or simply hire a book editor for a quick edit and then, ZOOM; you’re getting published!

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that writing and editing (and publishing) take a long. Freaking. Time.

For me, as your book editor, I want your work to be the very best it can be. This means I want to often do two, three, even four or more (usually it’s two-to-three) developmental edits (general edit looking at plot, structure, pace, characters, setting, voice, logic concerns, etc) and then a line edit after that. This process easily can take anywhere between six months to a full year or longer. That’s right, you heard correctly; up to a full year. As you move through the process (and you’ll take time off each draft to allow your eyes to become objective with your own work again) you will undoubtedly become a stronger writer. This is part of the point. Also, you can do some research and try to understand agents, query letters (which I can help you with as well) and the market a little better so that when we’re done, you’ll have a better grasp on what you’re doing.

I perform only developmental and line editing (line is going through the whole manuscript line by line and strengthening your writing) which means you’ll still have to then hire a proofreader when you’re done with me. But the point of everything I’m saying is: SLOW DOWN AND BE PATIENT. Let me let you in on a little trade secret: Good novels and good memoir (I only work with novels and memoir) come from writers who take their time, slow down, and put out their very best work. Don’t rush the process! As a client, be willing to be teachable. Remain humble. You don’t have to swallow everything I tell you, and by all means disagree with whatever you wish (and we can discuss each issue/concern) but don’t make the rookie mistake of either rushing your not-truly-ready manuscript to agents or even worse perhaps, releasing an unprepared self-published book into the digital world that isn’t your best material. We’ve all seen some grizzly stuff out there, and you don’t want to be in that category.

Instead, do the right thing and take it slow. Yes, each draft is going to cost you more money, but it’s worth the price when you consider what you’re getting back: A solid, tight, finished product worthy of readers’ expectations. I am a published writer, a freelance book editor, and a former literary agent’s assistant at a reputable firm in the Bay Area, so I know how all this works from a personal as well as professional standpoint. I have worked with clients like Christian Picciolini (“WHITE AMERICAN YOUTH [Hachette Book Group, 2017]”) and have seen clients like Tom Pitts (“Hustle,” Snubnose Press) get their books published successfully. I worked with Christian for over a year on a book he’d been working on for a decade. Tom Pitts I worked with through the agency I was with and we went through several drafts.

The point? You don’t need to spend a decade on your book, or even half that. But you do need, in my opinion, to spend some real time going over your material to make sure it shines brightly and performs its main functions: to entertain, to teach, and to enlighten.

Are you ready for me to help take your novel or memoir to the next level? Got the patience? Give me a try.

Write on.

“You said it. Let’s edit.”

Michael Mohr

***

Have a project for me? Send me the first chapter as a word.doc, a description (short) of the book and of the author, and a basic description of your desires and goals as pertaining to the project to michaelmohreditor@gmail.com.


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