Writing Shortcuts: (Part 4) Characters

This is the fourth post in the Writing Shortcuts mini series where I discuss all the things I learned in the second draft that I wish I had known (and done right!) during the first draft of my current WIP. Check out post #1 and #2 (setting) and #3 (pacing) to catch up!

Apparently everyone in the world besides me knew about this handy little writing trick. Even the non-writers of the world (I polled a few, so it might be an unreliable sample) knew. And when I mentioned my mind-blowing, brilliant, life-changing writing idea to them, even the non-writers paused and stared at me like I was crazy. “. . .  you don’t already do that?” some asked. “Doesn’t every writer do that?” others asked, inevitably referencing some world-famous writer who had admitted to the practice in an interview/magazine article/memoir.

Apparently, this is obvious to the logical people of the world.

But in case some of you out there never had this idea occur to you before (like me) and (like me) just go at a manuscript and writewritewrite 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 words with no real character knowledge, just kind of expecting each word to get you a little closer to the character having life breathed into them, I have news for you:

Characters back stories are the most amazing thing in the world.

Character back stories are a get-to-know you opportunity. They’re generally only one or two pages long and in them they include first impression information (what you’d notice right away if you met them for the first time), self-introduction information (the quick-and-dirty sort of elevator speech every person has when introducing themselves to someone you want to get to know. Think back to how you introduced yourself to your college roommate), and the deep dark stuff you’d only pull out of someone past 2:00 am when you’re laying on a trampoline together, staring up at the stars, and talking about life.

These back story write-ups were inspired by MG/YA authors Kit Grindstaff and Jennifer Hubbard, who gave this great session at the NJ SCBWI conference back in April that completely rocked my world. It was about dirty little secrets. About how important it is to know those secret, dark things about each of your characters. Only once you understood them like that, could you then throw them on the page, like I had been blindly doing, and expect any magic to percolate.

After reading the first draft and giving the first few chapters to a critique partner, I knew one of the greatest weaknesses of the manuscript–and one I didn’t yet know how to fix–was the main character. She was the most important person in the book, by definition, especially because I was writing the book in first person, but she almost barely existed. She had no personality and was overshadowed by the much clearer secondary characters. I was having her do all these things and say all these words, but she was not a fleshed out person with flaws and feelings and fears, and it was really obvious that I just didn’t understand what made this character tick. What was her motivation? Her favorite things to do in her free time?

I came up with nada.

The other characters were also pretty flat, so I systematically began approaching each character with a homework assignment: each one had to have this entire form filled out completely and satisfactorily before I could dive into revisions.


[Full name, occupation]

Motivated by: [i.e., truth, justice, fear, guilt, secret crush, etc.]

Instant description words: [i.e., adventurous, devoted, controlling, bubbly, lone wolf, etc.]

Biggest mistake ever made in life: [usually a flashback memory scene to a regret]

Biggest obstacle: [The thing the character finds most challenging, the thing they’re constantly trying to work on. Example: needing to fit in, mending a frayed relationship with a loved one, getting over fear of heights]

Least likeable quality: [Flaws are so much more illuminating of a character than why I like them. This question helped me figure out that one character was meek to a fault, for example. If I had just focused on her likeable qualities, I would have had a pretty flat character who was friendly, polite, and a loyal friend. But with that meekness shining through, she has an added depth and becomes more real.]

These are the basic things I always answer. A lot of other stuff gets written down and crossed out and doodled, but these are the bare bones I need to understand every character’s personal history. I write these out by hand, so they’re pretty much a hot mess of scribbles in a notebook that only I can decipher.

It took me about two weeks to do a character sketch for each of the secondary characters. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about each one. But I kept returning to that blank page for my main character. I’d jot down ideas, tid-bits of the main character’s history, anything to get to know her better.

After a few weeks and a lightbulb moment thanks to a brainstorming session with my sister, I finally finished her character sketch. I understood her. I got her. And it made revising her scenes, her dialogue, her actions, and writing new scenes for her so much easier. I was able to edit away all the crap in the first draft that, it was very clear to me now, was simply not this character’s MO. If only I had done these character sketches to begin with, before I ever started the first draft! Writing that entire first draft over the course of about four months didn’t help me get to know the characters better. I wandered through that world and through that plotline as lost as any of my characters. It wasn’t an effective method for me. The characters just foundered for pages upon pages and even when I wrote “The End,” I was still lost.

Lesson learned? Always write character sketches for each and every character before the first scene they appear in. It’ll help make them consistent and it’ll help the scenes write themselves. Now, off to squeeze in some character sketches to prepare for the secret NaNoWriMo project…!! I can’t wait to spend the month practicing writing a speedy and much better first-draft process! Join me?

Switching Careers: Leaving Law for the World of Words

Publishing Advice


Name: Erynn Im-Sato
Current Title: Sales Rep, Proprietary and Display Marketer Sales
Hometown:  Torrance, California
Graduated From: UC Santa Barbara, 2005
Currently work and live: HarperCollins Publishers, New York

My path to publishing:

I was an English major in college and I thought I wanted to be a journalist or editor. My first job out of college was at a local surf magazine in Santa Barbara but then decided I wanted to pursue a more lucrative career in law instead. I moved to San Francisco and worked at a law firm for a year before having an honest conversation with myself and admitting I wanted to go back to the world of words. In my state of quarter-life crisis I rationalized a move to Paris to study French language and English literature in preparation for the GRE, but came back to the US knowing I wanted to work with books. So I moved to New York, enrolled in the Columbia Publishing Program, networked with publishing professionals, got a job at HarperCollins, and have been here for almost five years now.

How I found out about my first publishing job (or internship):

I met a HarperCollins HR rep at the Columbia Publishing Program career fair. I requested an informational interview which turned into an offer for Harper’s rotational program, where I’d be given the chance to try out all the different departments. After three weeks with the Harper Perennial marketing team, I got an offer for a full-time position with the special markets sales team.

What my typical day looks like:

I now work on the proprietary sales team in the special markets department. We create custom-edition books for customers such as Costco, Barnes and Noble, and more. I create and pitch new titles and package ideas. I manage projects from conception through design, production, editorial, and author approval. And I also blog at www.booksoutsidethebox.com, talking about life, books, and cool places where books are sold.

What I love most about my job:

Getting to talk about books everyday with people who love books just as much as I do.

Advice on Breaking Into Publishing

  • Network. You can network via social media by following companies on Twitter and their blogs. And you can also network in person by going to to MeetUp events like NYC Literature Nerds, The Publishing Point, eBooks, eReaders and Digital Content Publishing. Try to meet as many people in the industry as possible.
  • Read outside your comfort level. If you’re a fiction heavy reader like me, get some non-fiction books under your belt. Check out young adult, mass market, etc. Browse bookstores, keep an eye out for trends and interesting book packages.
  • Be up to date with industry news. There are tons of resources like the free daily newsletter Shelf Awareness.

Connect with me!

Twitter: @ErynnImSato

Blog: www.booksoutsidethebox.com

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com/user/show/1468815-erynn

My Book’s All Grown Up!

It’s not my book, exactly. This gripping exploration of the brutally violent Mexican criminal organization, Los Zetas, was written by George W. Grayson and Samuel Logan. But it is my book in that it’s the first book I shepherded all the way through the editorial process from beginning to end.

I was assigned this manuscript my first day as an editor at Transaction, eight months ago. For authors who are worried about letting your manuscripts leave the nest, just know that the editors will take good care of  them. We love watching your manuscript grow from a fragile, impressionable Word document to a beautiful, typeset, professionally bound, grown-up book.

I’m so proud.

“So, You Want to Work in Publishing?”–Andrea Modica

Welcome to the guest blogging series, So, You Want to Work in Publishing! Every Thursday you can look forward to the personal stories of how someone else broke into publishing. The guest bloggers and I hope that you find our stories encouraging, informative, and helpful in your own path to a publishing career.

If you’re a publishing professional interested in contributing to the blog series, feel free to contact me at HannahKJones10@yahoo.com.

Name: Andrea Modica
Current Title: Editorial Assistant
Hometown: Langhorne, Pennsylvania
Graduated from: Saint Joseph’s University ’11
Where I currently work and live: Currently work at John Wiley & Sons in Hoboken, New Jersey while still living at home in Pennsylvania

Your path to publishing: Look up English major in the dictionary, and chances are you’ll see my face. I was one of those college rarities where I declared my major before I graduated high school and kept that major all throughout college. I loved reading and writing—I just didn’t know how to put the two together and create my perfect career. Then a professor mentioned book publishing, and the light bulb went off. How had I not thought of that sooner? I spent eight months interning for Running Press Book Publishers in Philadelphia, and I loved every minute of it. After that, I knew publishing was the right path for me. One of the editors I worked for had gone to NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute, and encouraged me to apply. I did, and spent six weeks in the publishing hub of New York City. I’d recommend this experience to anyone who wants to work in publishing. It was easily one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, but it was also one of the most rewarding. I made invaluable connections, learned crazy-amounts of inside information, and formed friendships stronger than the ones it took me four years in college to create. Publishing is not an easy business to break into—even with an English degree and NYU certificate under my belt, many online applications seemed to vanish into thin air and interview results went untold. But I’ve known since the very beginning that I belonged in publishing, so I refused to settle for a job outside the business. I checked job postings daily, updated my resume weekly, and commiserated with my NYU friends who also struggled to find their footing after our six weeks in the big city ended.  I pulled my hair out for six months before finally landing a job.

How did you find out about your first publishing job: I had an odd path to the job I currently hold today. Originally, I heard about an opening at Wiley from a fellow NYU grad who posted a link on Facebook. She had been recently hired by the company and passed along the information for the open position. I interviewed for the job, but found out I’d come in second. No matter, said the friendly HR rep, there was another position available, and it was mine if I wanted it. I didn’t hesitate, regardless of the fact that my insane passion for books has been put on hold indefinitely while I work at Wiley-Blackwell, which only publishes scientific journals. In the end, networking with fellow NYU students who’d landed publishing jobs proved more valuable than the stack of business cards I’d collected from publishing professionals. When HR reps don’t return emails, and job applications go by unnoticed, don’t forget about your peers.

What does your typical day look like: There is no such thing as a “typical” day in publishing. One of the things I love best about this business is that every day brings something different. There are a few constants, like answering emails and returning phone calls. On any given day, I can juggle projects from my supervisor and process anywhere from one to six manuscripts. Since I don’t edit for content, there’s not much reading involved in my position, but there’s plenty of information gathering and report generating. I’ve never used Microsoft Office so much in my life! I’m in charge of uploading videos to YouTube, making changes to the website, and ensuring that everything is turned in, edited, and sent to production on time. I’m a tedious and organized person, so this position fits me perfectly. And while I still sometimes yearn to edit YA novels, I remember that my career is young, and I’m starting off at a fantastic company with co-workers I genuinely enjoy spending time with. There’s no such thing as a bad job in publishing—only jobs, and if it’s truly your passion, then in the end, it’s all the same.

Connect: You can find me on twitter @aleemodica or on my book blog, The Book Nook.

So, You Want to Work in Publishing

Publishing exists outside NYC! Get a hands-on internship at a local publisher near you!

I got my dream job pretty much right out of college: an editor at a book publishing company. But as those of you who have broken into the publishing industry know–and as those who haven’t broken in yet, probably suspect–it wasn’t easy to get a job in publishing.

When I went to The Susquehanna Review launch party a few weeks ago, I had a lovely conversation over dinner with a university poetry professor. When she heard I worked in publishing, she started peppering me with questions. “Most of my students want to know what they should do to get a job in publishing,” she explained. “What should I tell them?”

I remember, not too long ago, being the same desperately uniformed student. I went to a good state university with a wonderful creative writing program, but we didn’t have any fancy publishing classes like a lot of universities apparently do, no connections in the publishing industry to secure internships, and pretty much zilch guidance for how to break into publishing. If you majored in English at my school, it was assumed you were also majoring in Eduction. Everyone in turn assumed that every English major had a pretty standard, prearranged teaching career ahead of them. Though there were classes dedicated to technical writing and other practical skills that could translate into a book-loving writing-enthusiastic career other than teaching, little effort was dedicated to preparing English students for those alternate careers outside the classroom. If a student wanted a publishing internship, for example, they needed to do the research, find the opportunity, and arrange for it themselves. It was a daunting and, as I found out, often fruitless task.

When I attended the NYU Publishing Institute and started meeting other publishing enthusiasts, and even when I secured my current job, I started hearing about all sorts of internship opportunities I WISH I had known about beforehand.

So in memory of my own desperate and unguided attempts to break into publishing, I’ve decided to start a weekly guest blog series, “So, You Want to Work in Publishing.” A bunch of publishing professionals I know have agreed to participate–people who work at the big names like HarperCollins, Wiley, and Hachette and others who work in equally awesome, but less known companies outside of NYC (for those of us who don’t dream about living in the city).

Every Thursday, from now on, you can look forward to the personal stories of how someone else broke into publishing. The guest bloggers and I hope that you find our stories encouraging, informative, and helpful in your own path to a publishing career. I’ll update the new So, You Want to Work in Publishing page every week so that you can easily find the links to each guest blog post. I’m going to organize them by position (editorial, production/design, marketing, etc.) so that you can specifically read about the type of publishing experience you’re dreaming of.

Today, I’m going to kick off the blogging series with the story of my own path to publishing:

Name: Hannah Karena Jones
Current Title: Assistant Editor
Hometown: Langhorne, Pennsylvania
Graduated from: Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, May 2011
Where I currently work and live: I live in Monmouth Junction, NJ and work about a half hour away in Piscataway, NJ

My Path to Publishing: Since I was in elementary school, I knew I wanted to be an author. I was that kid who brought books out to the playground at recess and preferred reading to the monkey bars (I always fell off them! Every time. I was completely athletically challenged). But I was told by everyone that it wasn’t a “real job.” It was an “and” job. I’d say, “I want to be a writer,” and my teacher, girl scout leader, etc. would say, “That’s nice. What else are you going to do? You’re going to be a writer and . . .” and then stare at me expectantly. (Even when I was in elementary school, they wouldn’t let me just write “author” down as what I wanted to be when I grew up. So I also put down veterinarian.) I can’t remember the moment, exactly, that I decided I wanted to be a writer and editor–I suppose it was a natural thought process to want to read and work with books all the time–but I remember my mom and I doing research and discovering the Columbia Publishing Course and the New York University Summer Publishing Institute when I was  freshman in college. Because both courses are designed for recent graduates or young professionals trying to switch careers, I had to count down the years until I could apply. Thankfully, NYU accepted me. More on that later.

Before I graduated, I managed to cram in a lot of experiences. I served on the Warren Literary Art Journal prose and poetry review boards for two years and then I served as the co-chief editor of the publication for two more years. I fell in love with reading short fiction, memoir, and poetry and actually really enjoyed the production process, once I figured out how to use Quark and InDesign software, and was dedicated to finding a job at a literary journal–until I realized that there basically isn’t a paid literary journal position in existence anywhere in the world, except for maybe The Paris Review.

So I putted around and did an online editorial internship with Philadelphia Stories, where I read and critiqued submissions, sent out rejection and/or acceptance letters, and organized electronic files. I also job shadowed a literary agent for a few days, to get an idea of what an agent actually did (a lot of legal contract stuff and a lot of rejecting query letters who ignored her submission guidelines). One of the most valuable experiences I had was designing the website for Watershed: The Journal of the Susquehanna, a fabulous publication Professor Jerry Wemple had founded a few years before, for a class. That in turn lead to an opportunity to serve as the managing editor of the journal, where I was chiefly responsible for designing the page and cover layout.

I think the best way to put it is that I thought I wanted to work in publishing before the NYU program; I thought I wanted to work in magazines (literary journals, specifically) and I thought I wanted to be an editor. But after the six-week intense crash course in all things magazine, book, and digital publishing, I knew I wanted to work in book publishing and I knew I wanted to be an editor (I was also open to subrights positions because they get to travel all the time!) The six-week institute dedicated three weeks to the magazine industry and three weeks to the book industry. Digital publishing and discussions on the rise and importance of e-readers were emphasized throughout the program.

Students were divided into groups for hands-on projects; first they had to launch their own magazine–complete with a business plan and cover designs–and then they had to launch their own book publishing imprint. From beginning to end, the program offered daily lectures and panel discussions totaling in over 150 editors, publishers, content directors, web editors, marketers, publicity directors, art directors, literary agents, production managers, professional bloggers, booksellers, and authors, exposing students to the wide landscape of publishing and the various jobs within it, while at the same time offering the opportunity to forge invaluable professional contacts.

I learned a lot at the program, both about publishing and where exactly my niche in publishing was. Because I was exposed to pretty much every kind of publication and publisher, and every type of person involved with the industry, I learned exactly what positions and what kind of companies I would be interested in working for. I was able to hold my own in interviews; instead of saying I wanted to be an editor simply because I love reading, I was able to cognitively have discussions about the publishing industry, developments in ebook technology, and ask informed questions. The program was great for me, as a last-ditch effort to dive into the publishing industry (and it’s one of the best ways to break into the NYC publishing scene, if that’s your goal).

Opportunities I wish I knew about when I was still a student:

All the publishers in the Philadelphia area who offer internship opportunities! I honestly believed that the only publishing internships available were in NYC, so every summer I would apply for the super competitive spots at the HarperCollins Summer Internship Program, the Penguin Internship Program, and the Scholastic Summer Internship. I thought I had “failed” every summer when I didn’t get one. If only someone had told me that there were so many quality internship opportunities right here in the Philadelphia area! Running Press, Quirk Books, Princeton University Press, and the Internship Program at Penn Press all offer internships in multiple departments.

How did you find out about your first publishing job?

Indeed.com, specifically looking for “assistant editor” job openings. But I found out about a majority of the jobs I applied for on the Publishers Lunch Job Board, the job board for publishing positions. Also, I’d recommend signing up for the Publishers Lunch and Shelf Awareness newsletters. They’re a great daily read and a great way to stay updated about the publishing industry (and any position openings).

What does your typical day look like?

I work 9-5 and spend a good chunk of the morning responding to emails from authors, and other people involved in our publication process. Some days I read a lot, some days I don’t read/edit anything besides the promotional copy in our book catalogs. My job is predominately about organization and keeping a slew of books (about forty-five titles a year) on schedule; I need to make sure the copyediting is done on time so that typesetting can begin on time so that the book comes out on time. I create page estimates and P&L’s*, present books at cover meetings, do book checks to identify and eliminate errors, and edit the content on our website. Every day is a different mixture of these responsibilities.

Connect with her: As you all know, you can follow my blog, follow me on twitter (@HannahKarena10), friend me on goodreads, and, if you’re interested, add me as a professional connection on LinkedIn.

If you’re a publishing professional interested in contributing to the blog series, feel free to contact me at HannahKJones10@yahoo.com.

*Profit and Loss statements compare the forthcoming book you’re working on to other comparable titles–for example, sales of book #1 of The Hunger Games are a good indication of how many books the second volume in the series will sell–with the chief goal to decide how much the book should cost and how many copies should be ordered.

How to Edit Out the “Boring” in your Writing

I wrote a particular short story (fiction) two summers ago and was pretty proud of it. I did everything you’re supposed to do–give it to other people to critique, let it sit untouched in a drawer for a couple weeks before reading it again–and after several rounds of editing over the course of a few months, I felt good enough about it to submit it to a slew of literary journals.

It slowly got rejected, one at a time, and has been waiting for a response at one hold-out journal for over a year. This week, I decided it was time to dust it off and submit it for another round of publications. To refresh myself on the story and get a good idea of what journals might be interest, I reread the story.

And I was horrified by the writing.

It wasn’t bad, exactly. I still loved the story idea, but the thing that really nagged me was that there were clunky stage directions everywhere that were:

  1. Boring;
  2. Dragging down the pace of the plot; and
  3. Unnecessary boring details.

What do I mean by stage directions exactly?

Well, here is an example of some of the original sentences:

George clicked the garage door opener. He scurried under the lifting door to lean over and sniff the tuna fish cans he had prepared the night before.

George put down the platter and ran back to the house. He returned with a gallon of bleach.

He dropped the empty bottle next to the platter, grabbed hold of the rope ladder, climbed up, and squeezed through the tree house’s child-sized doorway.

And here’s what they ended up being after some very necessary cutting:

The cans of tuna fish were artfully arranged on an antique silver platter, its surface etched with delicate curlicues, which he had polished for the occasion. George sniffed the food and smiled.

Grinding his teeth, George ran back to the house to fetch a gallon of bleach.

Feeling light-headed, he clung first to the rope ladder as it swayed with each step and then to the tree house’s child-sized doorway as he squeezed through.

There’s less “he did this here and then he moved this way and put this thing down and picked this thing up.” I don’t need to say he opened the garage door. The reader doesn’t care if he opened the garage door. If they know he’s in the garage, they can assume the first part. The reader doesn’t care if he put something down first before leaving. And the reader certainly doesn’t need to have it spelled out for them that the character climbed the rope ladder. In the original I was telling stage directions rather than showing what the character was up to.

I feel better about the story, now, and more confident that future editors will enjoy the piece more/give it the time of day. And the editing was easy, in a way, because the stage directions were glaring at me, begging to be sliced, while the rest of the prose was able to stand pretty much unscathed. But I’m rather upset that I wasted time submitting a sub-par story and even more upset that even though I certainly didn’t rush through the rewriting and editing stages, I didn’t notice that it needed work.

Have you ever had this happen to you before? Long after you’ve submitted some writing, you realize that it needs a ton more work? What sort of boring stuff do you tend to include in your writing, but edit out later?

(Image, No Copyright, National Media Museum)

Writing is Like Digging for Diamonds

I was once told that writing is like excavating diamonds. Raw diamonds are naturally stuck in big chunks of worthless rock that is in turn buried deep in the mud. Stories, similar to diamonds, have an essentially perfect, natural form and the writer’s job is to chip away all the rock and crud until the pure diamond is exposed.

I’ve been toying with this idea for a long time and I like it, in theory. It makes the purpose of editing rather clear: all the superfluous descriptions, dialogue, and scenes that add no real value to your writing is the worthless crud you need to scrape off the diamond. Story therefore already exists, lurking beneath the surface, perfectly formed. It’s just waiting for the right person with the right excavation tools and skill set. This doesn’t mean that everyone can succeed if they start digging. Even if the diamond already exists, the writer could leave too much “in the rough,” or could possibly dig up only a portion of the story, thereby reducing its ultimate value. A one-caret diamond might be great, but not compared to the ten-caret diamond you might have just broke it off of.

I’m not sure if this is true for fiction writing, because when I write fiction the story is always evolving and I don’t think I ever end up writing–or excavating, as the metaphor would say–the original gem that I expected to dig up out of my imagination. But I do believe this metaphor is true when it comes to creative non-fiction, or memoir.

Like most writers, I normally go through drafts and drafts and more drafts when I’m writing a fiction story. But when I’m writing a piece of memoir, I have to stew on the moment, the specific memory or event that I want to write about. Because to me, it really only happened one way. There is only one way to tell it. And I have to wait for the correct sentences to float to the surface of my imagination:

  • Using a metal detector, I search over wide areas looking for the hidden treasure. I dig up a lot of worthless dirty pennies along the way.
  • Once I’ve located a diamond, it’s time for the careful process of chipping away the crud still clinging to it.

When I wrote my most recent memoir piece, “What to Expect While Grieving for Your Father,” I only wrote it once. In fact, it was already completely written in my head before I wrote it down.

I used to drive 2.5 hours from university back home for occasional weekend visits and holidays. I like to drive late at night when it’s dark and nobody else is on the road to cause traffic congestion or stress. Free of distractions, the title popped into my head first. Then the first line, “Usually, the first question people ask is how long it’s going to take before you ‘get over it.'” Then the whole first paragraph and then the entire story gurgled up out of my subconscious, bursting with the desire to be written down in its pure unadulterated form before I dropped it back in the mud. For the rest of the ride, I repeated those sentences over and over to myself so I wouldn’t forget them. When I snuck into my mom’s house at 1 AM, I wrote the whole story down, as fast as I could, before falling asleep.

Honestly, I don’t think I altered more than a few words here and there, to avoid repetition, when I edited that story the next morning. To me, then, memoir is already written. It’s just a matter of mining out the perfect gem.

What do you think? Do you agree with the diamond-digging metaphor?

(Image, Creative Commons, The National Archives)