Emotional Extremes & You (Us, actually. All of us.)

Happy Friday, writers! As the Christmas season rolls in, time seems to creep along in preparation for what’s just over the horizon. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, you have my sincerest wishes that it went well–if you met your word count, congratulations! If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.

Speaking of overused phrases used to address emotions, that’s what this week’s post is about; I’d like to briefly discuss the fine line between truly conveying the subtle way any specific emotion overtakes a character, and the flipside, what happens when you smear it on thick as molasses in winter. (Forgive me, I just finished reading Saving Wonder by Mary Knight and the beautiful idioms are feeding my chicken-fried heart. The wheel’s spinning but the hamster’s dead. Brilliant.)

For my own NaNoWriMo novel, the interpersonal and internal conflict for the protagonist is very emotion-heavy, and the story is told in first-person present tense–a self-imposed reckoning of my own abilities, since evidently I hate myself. We’re talking long-term conflict that’s carried with the MC over the course of the novel, issues that are looming and essential to the story. No one tells you exactly how hard it is to write present tense emotions like that without sounding like you’re giving stage notes for an actor:

Anger boils inside of me. I dig my nails into my palms, biting back the things I want to say, but shouldn’t.

Chills run up my back and arms. The unknown is what frightens me–too easily can I envision those beady eyes in the darkness, watching my every move.

Moments like these… aren’t very good. Or, at least, they translate from the page weaker than we’d like them to, and I’m not happy with the way these moments continually unfold in my first draft. Not for a narrative running over 50k words. It’s undeniably difficult to restrain from using phrases that we tend to see assigned in third person stories–it makes my hair stand on end–but no one, realistically, speaks like that. Given, it would sound more casual if it were owned by the narrator, for example that gives me chills, but even then, the sentiment is tired by stating the emotion in first-person.

After taking reading and writing seriously over the past few years–as a craft to be consumed and regurgitated–I’ve found a pattern in first-person books that handle emotion really well. My favorite example of how sustained extreme emotional turmoil can see a story through from beginning to end is, without contest, Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner. It’s a nightmare-come-true story about a young man named Carver Briggs who loses all three of his best friends due to a car accident he may have inadvertently caused via texting.

(If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s my favorite YA novel and offers a visceral, cathartic experience. But I’m easy to make cry, so take that last bit with a grain of salt.)

In a flashback scene, Carver relives the moment in middle school when he met one of his now-deceased friends, Blake. As the heartfelt dip into the past ends, Zentner gives us this:

We go and eat lunch. He shows me his YouTube page. I tell him about my stories. We laugh.
We laugh a lot, actually.

And that, right there, is just one minuscule example of how Zentner manages to show Carver’s mourning, regret, longing, indescribable grief–deftly, through a freaking flashback. The accident has already happened, his friends are already dead, yet he’s remembering their good times through the lens of someone who already knows how that story ends. It’s brilliant, and seems effortless when read, but is difficult (for myself, at least) to put into practice.

That’s part of why Goodbye Days so successfully manages to marry the emotions of the story’s events to the character: being human isn’t an experience that happens to you, it is you. When you feel mad, or guilty, or happy, it affects every other part of your life–you take on life as a series of reactions, viewing everything that happens to you through that lens. Overwhelming emotions aren’t typically something you slip into for one scene, and then from which you become a blank slate the next minute.

I’m guilty of this. It’s hard to remedy, easier to take those throes in the moment and let it fluctuate like a roller coaster. But if we can keep that tapestry woven–let every. single. action. of our characters reflect their headspace and serve as gentle reminders of where they came from, and where they’re going…? Well. I find it hard to believe our stories wouldn’t be stronger.

I worked one of Zentner’s signings for the release of this book, before I even read it. Was just then trying to become a writer. He signed, Tell a good story.

How to Write a Sensitive Book Review

If you’ve ever been to Goodreads–or, failing that, Amazon–to check out reviews for a book, you already know how hyperbolic and cruel some of the so-called “feedback” can be. Here, let me go to a book and pull some excerpts (if you think I need to make this part up, hi! Welcome to the world of online reviews):

“This has to be the worst pile of crap I’ve EVER had the displeasure of reading. I honestly don’t know how this shit even got bought by a publisher!”

“Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

“This was an absolute trainwreck. Not even fun, just… bad.”

No, I’m not going to tell you which book they’re talking about, because that’s not the point.

Now, it would be a lie to say that I’ve loved every book I’ve ever read, or even that I haven’t had thoughts like these about stories I’ve read. But if there’s one thing that’s true about the anonymity keyboards grant you, it’s that you lose empathy for those whom your words affect. I know that most of these people leaving these comments, if they were actually acquainted with the author, would not say these things to their face. The cult of online bullying and bandwagoning doesn’t stop in gradeschool–it just takes on a different name.

black and white hands mask bussinesman
“How DARE you try your hardest and breach 70k and get an agent and get published and EXPOSE ME TO THAT SHIT.”

Good or bad, novels are artistic expression, and acknowledging that I’m not referring to books that are bigoted or problematic in one way or another, I think book review etiquette needs to take a good, hard look at itself. It’s easy to attack someone’s efforts if you think poorly of their work–but that effort came from someone, and that person might not be in the best headspace when they happen to read a review that says “Do not waste your life on this horrible book.”

However! Reviews are incredibly necessary and valuable in our industry. Some authors genuinely want constructive feedback about their work from readers, and will understand their pitfalls in stride. That’s why I’ve created an easy 3-step guide for critically reviewing ANY book, regardless of how much you enjoyed it.

How to Write a Sensitive Review

  1. State what the author did well. Acknowledgments are incredibly important to start with–the author needs to know what their strong points were. Perhaps the dialogue was pretty punchy? Maybe the imagery shined, or the pacing was really good? If you make it clear that you’re being reasonable and fair in your feedback, people will take the rest of your review to heart, including the author. This is a great way to slip in compliments and gush about stuff that resonated with you. 
  2. State what needed work, or what bothered you. Once you’ve pointed out the things that were done well, now you can mention things that didn’t meet your expectations. This is where you can mention that you thought that one subplot was unnecessary, or that you didn’t like the way the story seemed to spoon-feed the reader things that they’d already found out 50 pages ago. Be honest with your criticisms, but also be kind. How would you want someone to say this to you if it were about your work?
  3. Re-state the positives, and potentially mention who should read this book while keeping in mind your criticisms. I usually end my reviews on recommendations, and it’s perfectly fine to add qualifiers like “if you aren’t bothered by [criticism], this is for you!” Because everyone is different, and someone out there will enjoy it.

“But Verb,” you say, scoffing, “who made you the monarch of critique etiquette?”
I DID. BY GOING THROUGH FIVE YEARS OF ART SCHOOL WITH NEAR-DAILY IN-PERSON CLASS CRITIQUES. There’s a pattern to this–there’s a way to say what you need to without harming the person behind the work, and I think everyone who likes to review should try it.

“Fuck you Verb,” I hope none of you say, flipping me off, “I just really enjoy being abrasive and blunt! The author got paid one way or another, so I’m just being honest–it’s fun!”
Oh, cool then! Thanks for reading, Regina George.

The Honorific “Writer”

Content warning: depression.

Writing doesn’t always wear the same hat.

Steaming mugs, sweaters, an open window with the scent of leaves, your pet warming a part of you. Coffee shops, libraries, bookstores. The sound of music–wordless, to help you focus–and the steady thrum of keys hammering as you slip into the moment. The familiar unease of the first draft as threads of dislike and effort weave themselves into faltering scenes that never translate onto the page as seamlessly as you’d like. But it’s a foundation; you can work with it.

The coziness is part of the appeal of what it means to be a writer. To curl up with a book, with your laptop, with your phone. It’s the artist’s charcoal-smudged hands, the chef’s slip-ups that ruin the dish but make for a good story. It’s what we send out to the world–hey, look, writing is how you imagine! I’m a writer.

That’s the narrative we tell on Twitter. The act of writing is solitary by nature, so these are the scenes we use to know one another. “My cat’s on my keyboard, guys.” “I can’t function without coffee!” “Just renamed my inbox ‘the endless void my queries seem to disappear into.’” It’s comforting, to recognize yourself in others living all around the world.

As with any hobby or profession, however, we only put the alluring parts on social media. The stigma of mental illness and value centric to monetary gain corrals us into keeping our fingers still whenever writing changes its hat.

The room is dark because you forgot to turn on the lamp when the sun set. Shit, were your glasses always this dirty? Rolling clicks of the fridge in the kitchen. The opening and re-opening of documents, the buzzing in your head that you have to do something, you can’t just sit here and feel like a wet parking lot cigarette butt. You’ve made a list (to-do, for your manuscripts), but you’d rather volunteer yourself into a coma than do them, without exaggeration, and that’s not trying to be funny, it’s just the level of dissociation you’re experiencing. The relief that hits when you realize you can edit a friend’s work instead is nice–but that dies, too, because you end up reading the same paragraph over and over. Some critique partner you are.

Did your eyes always hurt this much? Maybe you should turn down the brightness on your screen… oh. It won’t go any lower. You must not be sleeping well, which is crazy, because you got 10 hours last night. Just drink some coffee–after all, that’s aesthetic. If you act the part, it’ll happen! But now you’re mentally exhausted and quivering with caffeine, and your word count is still zero. Your word count is still zero. Your word count is still zero. What the fuck, you aren’t even distracted.

What do you do? Even sitting at a desk seems to take more from you than you initially had to offer, so you move to the couch. Two hours have passed since you sat down to write. Blankets and Netflix and an up-in-years laptop burning your legs. Your mouth has an unpleasant taste from the coffee. Query. Edit. Write. Do something. Your pet joins you, but you’re too much in your own headspace to give them a scratch–it’s okay, they understand. Not like some others you know. What a cruel joke (oh, don’t be so melodramatic), that the activity that gives you the most joy in life also triggers depression, feelings of uselessness, irritability–excuse me, I ordered mania on this?

To other writers who’ve been in this fugue lately, I see you. I know how transparent the glamour feels, how rutted out and cauterized this shit show is sometimes. Waltzing for an invisible audience. Form-fitting silks to a dress form replica of your insecurities, barely keeping up with some fucking wikiHow instructions. I see you. I’m tired, too.

Sam Speaks a Sentence

Get it? It’s like Horton Hears a Who, but with my name instead? And it’s not nonsensical because this post is kind of relevant to the famous line of the aforementioned book, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” and how it can relate to writing? I know, I can hear you right now, “Wow, Sam, you’re great at introductions that also serve as segues,” to which I shall say, thank you, that’s really very kind.

When we writers… err, write fiction, we tend to constantly worry about whether we sound lyrical enough to pass for more than a boring play-by-play of characters jangling around like marionettes. Every sentence is scrutinized and we perhaps spend more time than we should looking for where to slip in more imagery, more metaphors, more patterns, MORE. There’s something insatiable about writing; no matter how pleased we might be with one particular sentence or scene, the next line is sure to pop our giant egos–or, hell, even deserved fulfillment–and fill our heads with dissatisfaction again.

And this is a dangerous dance; not only are we giving a disproportionate amount of our already tightly-allotted creative time, but if we jam-pack every inch of our works in progress full of lyricism like some poorly cooked Tolkien-esque sausage link (I’m so sorry I made your eyes read that phrase), the result might end up sounding ridiculous. It’s like when someone uses a thesaurus too much: I bedeck you in adulations, mine swain. Sprint yonder alongside me.

woman working girl sitting
“Wh-…what.”

Whenever this happens to me and I catch myself sitting at my desk, staring at the document and willing the words to continue–but, like, in a pretty way–I force myself to take a second and accept the fact that sometimes, the best way to say something is just to say it. No one is going to think less of your story because you couldn’t think of a more emotional way to state “Jimothy frowned.” Jimothy can frown! It’s fine! His feelings are valid! And simplistic writing styles are valid too. In the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan, most of the storytelling is done in simple writing, and it’s one of my favorites. So even if some of us feel this weird lingering, phantom pressure to turn into a specific kind of writer for others’ approval, you don’t have to. I’d argue it’s better to be true to yourself. Just say the thing if you’re struggling.

For those writers where ornate and overflowing poeticism comes naturally and they don’t feel any pressure when attempting flourishing language, it’s probably not a problem. Congratulations on the flowers that spurt from your fingertips when you sit down to write! I’m not bitter at all! But for those of us who constantly struggle to reach that peak, I’m here to remind myself, and you, that it’s okay to be proud of every foothold you manage, even if the next part in your story feels like you’re falling back down a ways. Highs and lows are natural, and without the lows, we wouldn’t appreciate the highs quite as deeply.

Note, from Herb:
I think there’s an argument to be made that modern writing styles tend towards a trend that wants word economy to be the priority, i.e., if a word does not serve to further the plot, it has no use, which undermines words for aesthetic purposes or words for enlightenment of a theme, etc. So I think in a lot of ways we’ve moved past an age of flowery language.

Minutes vs Moments: When Measurements Can Damage Your Storytelling

WHO’S READY FOR ANOTHER PASSIONATE AND NITPICKY POST?

This entire post–the whole freaking thing–is sponsored by the word: minutes.

I’m not going to give specific titles, as I don’t like being in the business of shaming authors, but there have been more than a few instances where I will be reading a scene and something like the following sentence happens:

He picked up the stone and was silent for a few minutes as he looked at it.

Okay. So, on its face, this is a fine sentence. It gets the point across–there is a pause while the character observes something. The issue I take with it, is that “a few minutes” is a staggeringly long time compared to what the author was likely going for (perhaps a few moments?). Let’s assume “a few” could even be interpreted as being as short as two minutes–120 seconds.

Now, feel free to listen to this video I found (which, yes, I did search “annoying 2 minute video” to make you see my point, sorry) and you let me know if you think 120 seconds is an appropriate amount of time for a character to exist in liminal space while they think of how to respond to another character. If you were talking to someone, and they abruptly stopped talking, after probably around 15 seconds you’d try to engage them again. Unless our character is looking at something of great detail or intricacy, I highly doubt he needs minutes to come to a general conclusion.

woman and man wearing brown jackets standing near tree
“You’ve been watching that bird for the past two Hozier songs, Elena. If you’re still not done, would you mind if I at least make a phone call?”

Exception! If a sentiment like this is followed by non-dialogue descriptors of the environment, or thoughts going through a character’s head, this is likely fine. It’s when it happens in the middle of an otherwise fast-paced scene or dialogue that it’s jarring and distracts readers (or maybe just me, pedantic asshole that I am).

Phew. Let me take a deep breath as I segue into the bigger point I’m building to, which is that exact measurements rarely add anything to the story, unless you are able to pull it off tone-wise (a la Dahl). Allow me to defend my claim.

Say we have this sentence in a book:

The corrugated metal sign was only two feet tall.

I see why the author has chosen this wording; they have a very precise estimation in their head of what said sign looks like and wish to project it exactly. But I would argue that this is almost never more powerful than other methods of description they could use:

The metal sign was low to the ground, and easy to miss.
The sign barely came above her knee, its serrated edges threatening to add more holes to her jeans.
Tall grass obscured the writing on the reflective sign, and bugs crawled freely on its face.

Not only do these convey the same idea, but they help set the scene more effectively than giving exact measurements. Instead of forcing numbers and estimations into the readers’ heads, instead find other ways to say what you will. Be wary when you fall back onto using units of measurement in your writing: feet, miles, cups, kilometers, pounds, cents– these words can act as red flags and give you an opportunity to be more lyrical.

P.S. As much as I just railed against these words, there is obviously never a set way to write. If you insist on writing with exact measurements, or it fits your tone better, or you just want to keep writing this way out of spite for me, then please do! I just wanted to address this topic for those who might be interested in observing their own writing style in a way they might not have considered before.

Let’s talk about fonts, baby/Let’s talk about ABC…

Preface: this is an introductory post to the world of typefaces and how it affects what we read. If you’re already decently versed, it may not be as in-depth as you’re looking for. Regardless, I hope you enjoy!

Let’s talk about something that will not affect you in the slightest as a writer, but that’s fun to talk about anyway because I think we can all appreciate being superfluous sometimes: fonts. As you all know because I won’t shut the fuck up about it, I’m a graphic designer by education. And if you were anything like I was as a child, you spent as much time in a word document choosing a font that was fun and had a lot of personality as you did writing any actual story. Papyrus, Joker, Curlicue, Chiller–anything that didn’t look like it came from a newspaper your parents were reading.

Let’s get down and dirty with fonts. Now, as a writer, the only times you might care about what font you choose are when

  1. You prefer to have a specific kind of font in your writing program.
  2. You write for a blog and need to ensure readability for your audience.
  3. You have some say in designing your cover, and need the typeface to match your genre/tone and the cover art.

Now, as for the first one in the list, I’m going to disregard that. How you prefer to write in your own time is absolutely none of my business–you want to write purple text on a bright orange background in size 60 Pacifico? Have fun! I wish you a high daily word count!

adult alone anxious black and white
MY EYES!

Let’s move on to the second one: ensuring readability for your blog. Please forgive me if the next few sentences seem condescending; I just want to make sure everyone’s on a level playing field when I introduce some vocabulary. Serif fonts are fonts that have tiny ornamental accents on them, like Times New Roman, Courier, or Georgia. They look older, a bit more archaic and proper in the sense that they appear to have been designed for a printing press.

 

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Times New Roman.


Sans-serif fonts
, on the other hand, do not have the fancy extra bits. Helvetica, Futura, and Verdana are some popular examples. These fonts usually look sleek and contemporary in comparison.

 

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Verdana.


So, let’s imagine you’re selecting a font for your self-published book. You find a sans-serif font you like the look of ’cause it’s cool. Before you pick that one for certain
, though, you might be interested to know–there’s some research that indicates that swathes of serif type are easier for our brains to read in large chunks when printed. I’m honestly not sure why; my professors theorized that the ligatures (read: little doodads) on the letters of serifed fonts help us register the word as a whole instead of as individual letters. Either way though, if you don’t want to intimidate or fatigue your readers, picking a serif font might help in readability.

And while you might read that last paragraph and think, “Well, that’s easy then, I’ll just put my book and my blog in a serif font,” I’m going to frustrate you a little by adding that design is rarely so straightforward; it’s become a sort of unspoken norm to have text that’s read on a computer be in a sans-serif font. Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia–all are sans-serif.

Ultimately, it’s up to you. You can write your novels in sans-serif and blogs in serif but the choice should be made in consideration of what tone you’re trying to achieve. Tone is everything when it comes to design. You can have a printed book of poetry in sans-serif, but maybe the forceful hand of Impact isn’t what you’re looking for unless they’re poems about memes? Feel free to use serif fonts on your websites (as we do; hello!), but make sure the content of your site is appropriate for the feeling of serif. I probably wouldn’t make a DIY site using a serif font, for example.

Moving on!

It wouldn’t be a real blog post about fonts without a mention of Comic Sans, but before you rush to find the freshest memes bashing the font (trust me, design school gave me plenty of those), consider for a moment that there is actually some anecdotal evidence suggesting that Comic Sans is useful in helping those with dyslexia read (especially children). Ugly font or not, that’s objectively awesome!

If most serif and sans-serif fonts are considered “body fonts,” in that they are typically used for copy writing, then let’s talk about display fonts. They’re just what they sound like: the big, busy fonts with tons of personality–Lobster, Trajan, Joker would fall into this category. These fonts are usually not intended for a lot of characters at once, which is why they’re good for book covers and logos and website headers.

 

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Pacifico.


Writing a steamy romance? Zapfino might work well.

 

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Middle grade sci-fi thriller? Blackout is a personal favorite.

 

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Historical nonfiction? Give Copperplate a spin and see what you think.

 

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Whatever you end up choosing,
make sure you’ve purchased the correct license to use it. Designers use a lot of time and labor creating fonts, and they need to be paid for their efforts. A quick search should show you who licenses it, and the purchasing packages for commercial use.

Phew! I think those are the very basics I can pass along for what I know of fonts and writing. I hope something in here was helpful, and if not, then I at least hope you learned something interesting!

“Yeah, that’s what [INSERT AUTHOR] said, too.”

I have a fine arts degree in communication design. I fought tooth and nail in a class of 40 to win one of 15 spots for it. I’d fall asleep studying in the library. I managed to scrape by my final semester in the worst throes of depression that I’ve experienced in my life. This is to say, I didn’t take my college grades lightly.

Even though my education was deathly serious to me and I sat through enough philosophy lectures for a small mammal to die of old age, ultimately I realized I didn’t want to use my degree. As you might have guessed, creative writing is not something I ever took higher education courses in—I wrote when I was a child, I wrote throughout grade school, and then I studied the structure of visual storytelling and tone for four years in university.

As someone who lived their life missing what some people might consider a necessary fundament in the creative writing process (and as someone who felt deathly dependent on knowing all of “the answers”), this realization left me feeling dangerously unprepared once I decided I wanted to write books. A lot of these insecurities I still grapple with: how am I ever going to land an agent, what if I can’t afford to attend writers’ workshops, my writing is likely terrible in comparison to others’, will anyone in this industry even take me seriously if I don’t have a masters degree in writing? That’s a lot of “what if’s” to entertain on top of the stress of writing, but that’s where I started–back before I’d drafted my kids series, back before I had any picture books written, way back before I even realized my first picture book about a caterpillar was essentially garbage.

So, what do you do? If you’re anything like I was, you assume everyone else who’s “made it,” who seems even remotely approachable has the answers for you. You keep your eyes peeled for Q&As on Goodreads and Reddit, you occasionally tweet at them in the hopes that your question is interesting enough to grab their attention, and if you’re really lucky, you attend author signings and ask them in person when the floor opens up to questions. After all, whatever they did worked, thus inherently they have some insight into what might work for you, too.

adult alone black and white blur
“I just want my first draft of my first book to be flawless.”

And this is true… to an extent. I was fortunate enough to work specifically on author signings at my local bookstore for a year, and I had the opportunity to speak with a variety of authors coming through as I helped host their events: Crystal Wilkinson, Isaac Marion, Jan Brett, John Scalzi, Greg Iles, Jeff Zentner, Kevin Sherry. Not only did I ask them if they had any tips for writers trying to get published, but without fail, whenever it was Q&A time some hopefuls in the audience would as well. And that’s great! If you love an author, you probably want to know how they got to where they stand now.

But I’m gonna let you in on a secret, friends: I didn’t love all of those authors. I loved a few of them (omg Marion), but most were just people promoting their careers, and we only saw each other as polite faces in a work setting. The benefit of talking to lots of authors about their “secrets” indiscriminately—even ones I felt no butterflies over—is that I can deliver this kernel of truth that I learned to others, this granule of experience.

They all said the exact same thing, once boiled down.

Thus, I have created an untouchable formula for how to be a Successful Writer:

 

Success = finding what works for you + lots of effort + reading + creative partnership

 

That’s it. No tricks, no big secret. Just finding your own rhythm, sticking with it, consuming other stories, and getting feedback on your own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s going to take a lot of patience; the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace in itself, but all of these things are going to take time from you, as well. A metric fuck-ton of it.

The point of this post is to say that if you’re anything like I was when I started writing, you might be inadvertently wasting time by collecting knowledge from those who came before you instead of actually applying yourself. Don’t get bogged down in the preparation stages. As my own CP and co-contributor Herb might agree, preparation is a slippery slope—it’s easy to find yourself feeling endlessly shorthanded, when in reality your toolbox has been full for months. So next time you feel like you need answers from someone more experienced, pause–open a word processor–and try writing instead. You’re good to go, friends.

For All the Books I’ve Loved Before

If there is one thing I learned about being a bookseller, it’s that there is nothing more difficult than getting people to branch outside of their preferred genre. And dear reader, let me preface this post by saying that I empathize, I really do; whenever I pick up a biography or a romance novel (it happens, believe it or not), there’s this moment where I have to brace myself for a new kind of story, a new type of content. However, even when you breach genres, you’re likely to choose a read that’s still relevant to your interests, right? If you dislike historical fiction but consider yourself a buff on 1920 women’s fashion, you’d probably decide on something tangentially related to that.

But what happens when we gleam over books with low marketability? When the genre marries the topic in a way that will fail to appeal to tons of people? As someone who worked in the fray of selling new releases, it was (and still is) disheartening to see so many good titles cast aside on the fly simply because the reader assumes they won’t connect with the story.

On a whim last year, I picked up Waiting for Augusta, a middle grade novel by Jessica Lawson. It’s a story where one of the large themes… is golf. Do I like golf? No.
Do I know absolutely anything
about golf? Also no. (I know that people yell “fore” sometimes.) Did I really and truly enjoy that book, and was I surprised to find themes about diversity that resonated with me? Absolutely. 
Yet, as a bookseller, this pleasant surprise meant nothing to anyone but myself since it did not translate into sales.

When you pitch a book to a customer, there are only so many ways to wrap it before they find out the hard details like the last nail in the coffin. Despite being a wonderful book, the fact that Waiting for Augusta wasn’t just a middle grade historical fiction novel, but a middle grade historical fiction novel involving golf seemed to be a magical combination of words that evaporated people’s interest in the title before I was even done telling them about the supernatural elements, the mysteries woven through the story, or the sense of freedom and adventure that would resonate with young readers. After going through this process repeatedly, it got discouraging when a book I was excited about got tossed aside flippantly over and over.

And so, I have a confession, dear reader.

I was never able to handsell a copy of Waiting for Augusta. Not one. I pitched it daily, I carried it around the store with me, I even made it my staff pick, but not a single person would take a chance on this book.

Now, I know that the people reading this aren’t the people who wouldn’t be risk-takers in the first place; you’re not your Aunt Molly shopping for a birthday book for your princess-loving niece (aside: we loved those customers, too). But if you’re reading this right now, you probably have an interest in books and writing, in which case there’s a chance–a tiny chance–that I could convince you to pick up something that was a marketing flop. Because those authors deserve love and recognition for misfit stories, too.

Just because something is hard to excite others about doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

Here are a few hard-to-sell books from my bookseller days. All of these titles are tried and true Good Books. Give one of them a chance, for yourself or a family member. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Waiting for Augusta by Jessica Lawson (check it out!)

Fish Girl by Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner (classic-style illustrated fantasy MG GN)

My Name’s Not Friday by Jon Walter (YA historical fiction focused on slavery)

Mister Monkey by Francine Prose (absurdist dark comedy about a failing theater production)

The Green Bicycle by Haifaa al Mansour (MG about a young girl in Saudi Arabia who wants things the circumstances of her birth can’t give her)

Demon Dentist by David Walliams (absurdist humor MG novel, very Dahl-esque)

Gertie’s Leap to Greatness by Kate Beasley (contemporary MG about a fifth grader trying to win her estranged mother’s love)

Frogkisser! by Garth Nix (a classic Nix fantasy geared for a MG audience)

Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan (MG historical fiction about Hispanic labor camps in the US)

Character Games 101: Dice Games

Welcome back to the final installment in a series entitled Character Games 101!

Our first week we talked about learning more about your character through role-playing games, and last week we used Akinator to find out parallels between our characters and well-known ones in pop culture. This final type of game I’d like to explore in terms of its usefulness to characterization might feel similar to the first post in this series, if you play tabletop games. This game, however, isn’t aimed at helping you polish off your character–its goal is to help you create one to begin with.

Character Games #3: Dice Games

Wait! Please don’t leave. I know that at its face, a “dice game” sounds like the least amount of fun even someone in the 15th century would have. But before you click away, allow me to remind you that these dice exist (not a sponsor). If you consider yourself a storyteller yet you’ve never had an opportunity to play with storytelling dice, you should seriously consider remedying that. And you might think that having dice structure a story for you takes the fun out of the process, but I’ve found that it actually makes things more challenging; when you’re forced to fit two events or characters together, your brain has to do gymnastics to make that happen.

I’m not here to pitch those dice to you, though. I’m here to help you create a new character using a method that tabletop players will be familiar with already. We’re gonna roll a character.

Now, in RPGs “rolling” a character helps you determine stats for that character such as strength, dexterity, and charisma. But that’s narrow thinking.

Let me put that line of thought on pause while I talk about numbers. Personally, I hate numbers. They’ve never clicked with me; I don’t much care for mathematics. Just about the only thing I can find redeeming about numbers is their roles as symbols. For example, I bet off the top of your head you can list some significance of the number seven? There are the seven deadly sins, seven days of the week, seven colors in the rainbow.

So what? These concepts on their own are totally inane until you apply meaning to them. That’s where the fun is. By assigning meaning to the numbers on a die, you can create a character totally by chance. Here, let me give an example: ever seen a character alignment chart?

Hunger-Games-alignments
The real chaotic evil is that Cinna died. Totally unnecessary. 

Well, guess what? There are nine options there. Label ‘em, roll a nine-sided die, bam. Your character has an alignment. Sure, you’ll need to figure out why, but even then you can roll for an interesting backstory. Going back to the seven deadly sins: assign them to numbers, roll. Bam. Your character has a fatal flaw. What month were they born in? 12-sided die. For yes/no questions, substitute a quick coin flip. You can even use tracks from an album, or numbered pages from a book, or those horrifically addicting “what would your rapper name be?” posts floating around. It doesn’t matter! Because as more and more questions are answered, you’ll begin to see someone new take shape.

Just for fun, I’ll roll an example character. Since my dice are all still in storage somewhere, I’m going to be using this website to roll. You’ll note that it allows you to pick however many sides you like on a die, so there are no limits to your questions. Here I go…

My character hails from the southern-most part of their world. They are down-to-earth. They are chaotic evil, which makes their no-nonsense attitude even more terrifying. Their downfall is their hubris, befitting someone calm and collected, yet twisted. They have natural red hair and are non-binary. My character likes sour food, and is sensitive to smells; they are easily nauseated by foul odors. Their favorite season is autumn due to the decay (plus that’s when tangy tangerines in season, they always keep one in their pocket, dropping the peels wherever they please). They are a Capricorn, which lends the traits of patience, ambition, and fatalism to their personality. Their evil conquest is to spread a brain-controlling parasite everywhere they go, amassing followers that appear normal to the naked eye. Alas, they cannot get too close to their loyal minions, as the stench of the parasitic fungus is too pungent.

Wow. See? I have an underworld-born tangerine-loving demon who forcefully inducts people into a cult of his own worship by using fungus. And a few minutes ago I had nothing.

The beautiful part of this process of character creation is that it’s totally up to you how to structure it. Don’t like one of the options in your list of ideas? Strike it out. Feel no inspiration about the result you got, no matter how hard you brainstorm? Roll again. You’re still in control. This is simply a tool to help you get the story juices flowing.

A word of warning: know when enough inane detail is enough. Having quirks for your character is fun, but if your character is so unique that they begin to sound more like something a child would dream up while rambling, maybe back off a little.

Thanks for joining me in this series of Character Games 101! I hope you had fun, or at the very least, I hope you got some good ideas. And who knows? Characterization is a love of mine, so maybe this series will rear its head again in the future. Until then, keep writing!