Monday, February 27, 2012

How Charismatic Must Your Main Character Be?

How charismatic must your main character be to hold reader interest? I just reviewed Johnny Walker's Red where the main character journalist Julie McNamara must hold the attention of her readers while surviving several dire situations, all the time telling us how she feels, what she’s going to do next, and what she really thinks about life. No easy task, but because the main character is strong in herself and her choices, and because the authors clearly defined her from the start, we like her, we’re rooting for her, and we think she should get a job on Time Magazine.

The lesson to be learned from the adventures of our feisty heroine is this:
  • Your readers must like your main character, or at least like most of him or her.
  • They must either strongly root for or strongly disagree with the character’s choices.
  • They must want the character to win in the end.
This is even more pertinent where the main character is the start of a potential series. If you’re not interested in the main character and how their life/exploits will unfold, then why will you buy the next book? So while a great plot is essential, the actions and reactions of a well-defined lead character will determine whether your readers will stick around or close the book … forever.

I enjoyed meeting Julie McNamara in Red and since I am going to be reviewing her next adventure Johnny Walker Black, I am looking forward to finding out what she’ll get up to next.

Book Review: Just how much trouble can a gal get into by losing her job? With 26-year-old journalist Julie McNamara, plenty! Julie’s retrenchment from her job at Polaris magazine catapults her into the kind of seedy world one only reads about. From covering Hollywood A-listers’ glamorous and wealthy lifestyles, Julie ends up scraping the bottom of the career barrel somewhat. She is desperate for work and will do just about anything that pays. Her efforts at catching drugged-up rock stars in compromising situations fail miserably since Julie is incapable of working a camera properly. After two hilarious but disastrous attempts, Julie shelves any future plans involving photography. A surprise twist on an ordinary story she had begun prior to her retrenchment opens up a hotbed of scandal involving Maria Gonsalves, the young Latina running for district attorney and her affair with Johnny Walker, the star center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Her friendship with Johnny (who calls her ‘Red’) leads her into solving a blackmail scam, with surprising results. However, Julie’s big hot story comes when she stumbles upon irregularities in the Reverend Ben Bradford’s outreach ministries. It turns out that big bucks are changing hands over the Mexican border. Could the charismatic, straight-as-an-arrow reverend be up to no good? Things go downhill pretty fast and Julie ends up being locked in a truck with fifty illegal immigrants, then kidnapped and imprisoned in a padded cell. But come hell or high water, roll those presses because Julie gets scoop!

Julie is a truly likable character. Smart, sassy, and talented, she is also courageous and really good at her job as an investigative reporter. Her relationship with her widowed father, a retired cop, is outlined in simplest detail, but those pertinent points tell the reader so much about Julie. Julie’s backstory, her friendships and relationships are deftly slotted into the story without overwhelming the action because action is what carries the reader on a crazy roller-coaster of events. I found the characters believable, especially Julie. The authors portray the ups and downs, the passions and foolhardiness of a young determined journo in an authentic way. Julie’s mad journey unfolds in an easy-to-read style with the heroine’s dry understated viewpoint actually making many of the situations even more screamingly funny. This is the kind of read where one does not want to leave Julie hanging by a thread, or off a ledge, or anywhere she might need help. Real, funny, fresh and fast-paced, Julie’s story will keep readers turning those pages.

First reviewed for Readers Favorite

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rejection Letters? You're Not Alone!

Recently I sent a query letter to an agent in the United States. This was a big step for me. After all, my (now-famous) 35 rejection letters from British agents led to my self-publishing adventure. My book The Secret of the Sacred Scarab went on to win several (quite prestigious, I think) awards and I signed a movie option in 2011 with a British film company. Back to the US agent. He said no. That’s right. No. Actually it was a charming email saying the usual sugar-coated stuff that makes you want to go to hell with your eyes open and enjoy the trip, but it was still a no. How could that be, I wondered. I read very carefully the must-have list of requirements and I was positive my book fitted his bill exactly. Apparently not. So what, I wonder, do agents and publishers want? I was fortunate enough to win a signed copy of The Help by Kathryn Stockett through Penguin SA and it reminded me that the author had been rejected 60 times. Yet here she was, at last, published with her book turned into a film. I needn’t even cite JK Rowling and Harry Potter, except that (I hope this is not an urban legend) I read somewhere that the only reason Bloomsbury said yes was because the director’s 12-year-old child loved it and asked her father to publish it. It sounds true and it’s a sweet story anyway. Again, I ask myself, how did people miss the clues? How come agents and publishers are still missing the clues? Need I mention Amanda Hocking? I have decided that this is part of a process that will never be changed. A new writer is rejected; someone sees the light and publishes him/her; everyone throws up their hands and squeals, “How did we miss this gem?” Some happy thoughts below from Writer’s Relief, in case you think you’re the only one who has ever had a rejection letter. You’re in good company!

Many new or mid-level writers have received nasty or rude rejection letters. But when famous author rejection letters come to light, people laugh and say “What were those editors (or literary agents) thinking?” Many big names faced the same kind of adversity (and even hostility) in rejection letters that you may be facing now. Famous author rejection letters teach us a lot!

When you get a harsh rejection letter, keep these famous author rejections in mind.

Happens To the Best of Us: Famous Author Rejection Letters

Check out these excerpts from REAL famous author rejections:

1. Sylvia Plath: There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.

2. Rudyard Kipling: I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.

3. J. G. Ballard: The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.

4. Emily Dickinson: [Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.

5. Ernest Hemingway (regarding The Torrents of Spring): It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.

Obviously, these famous author rejection letter phrases have gone down in history for how outrageous they seem to us now. The comments probably had more to do with the mood of the person writing them than with the quality of work. It seems odd to us now that Plath, Kipling, Ballard, Dickinson, and Hemingway were rejected so cruelly. But these comments show us that famous author rejection letters are no different than not-so-famous author rejection letters! Thank goodness these authors kept writing and submitting. Ask yourself: Where would we be if they had given up? We would have missed a lot of important literature!

Famous Author Rejections: Hitting a Dry Spell

Feel glum over oodles of rejection letters? Please note that the examples below are often referenced and we’ve done quite a lot of research, but as with so many things, there’s always a chance for error. Do not cite this article for your academic thesis! Go to the original sources.

1. John Grisham’s first novel was rejected 25 times.

2. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (Chicken Soup for the Soul) received 134 rejections.

3. Beatrix Potter had so much trouble publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she initially had to self-publish it.

4. Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) received 121 rejections before it was published and went on to become a best seller.

5. Gertrude Stein spent 22 years submitting before getting a single poem accepted.

6. Judy Blume, beloved by children everywhere, received rejections for two straight years.

7. Madeline L’Engle received 26 rejections before getting A Wrinkle in Time published—which went on to win the Newberry Medal and become one of the best-selling children’s books of all time.

8. Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 20 times before being published and becoming a cult classic.

9. Stephen King received dozens of rejections for Carrie before it was published (and made into a movie!).

The Most Rejected Novelist in History?

Author Dick Wimmer passed away on May 18, 2011, at 74 years old. He received 160+ rejections over 25 years! He spent a quarter of a century being told “no.” He could have quit after 20 years, or 150 rejections, and no one would have blamed him. But he kept at it (maybe he had his own list of famous author rejection letters to keep him going!). Finally, his novel Irish Wine (Mercury House, 1989) was published to positive reviews. The New York Times called it a “taut, finely written, exhaustingly exuberant first novel.”

Assuming the author’s submissions were well-targeted, how could 160+ people have passed over Wimmer’s book? And what does that mean for YOUR writing career? Wimmer’s self-proclaimed legacy is of being the “most rejected novelist,” but we think his legacy is hope and persistence.

What’s Your Rejection Letter Threshold?

Famous author rejection letters teach us that there are lots of reasons why great works do not get chosen for publication right away (or after 25 years!). But there is only one way to get published: submit, submit, submit!

Writer’s Relief (est. 1994) is a highly recommended author submission service. Check out their free publishing leads, calls for submissions, and tips! This article was originally published at the following URL:

Monday, February 6, 2012

Writing Tips From Downton Abbey

Anyone who has not heard of Downton Abbey must be living in a cave. This is one of the most popular series ever filmed, or maybe it’s THE most popular series ever filmed. Wikipedia has this to say about it: “Reception of the programme was predominantly positive; ratings were extremely high for what is usually considered a "genre" show, and the first series picked up a number of awards and nominations after its initial run. It has subsequently become the most successful British costume drama since the 1981 television serial version of Brideshead Revisited, and in 2011 it entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most critically acclaimed English-language television show" for the year, becoming the first British show to be so recognised. A second series aired in autumn 2011. On 3 November 2011, ITV confirmed that a third series has been commissioned and will be broadcast from September 2012.”

Wow! Now that takes some beating! I am an ardent fan of the series, and having endured nine hours of viewing Series 2 over a weekend, where we languished behind drawn curtains and were sustained by lots of snacks, I was inspired to write a post about this world-wide phenomenon.

Downton Abbey has much to teach any author, the most important lesson being, how to grip the attention of your reader. Ask yourself three questions:

1. Is your story compelling and gripping?

2. Do your characters play out their lives against a backdrop that adds meaning?

3. Are your characters believable?

If all your answers are ‘yes’ then you have a winner. I asked myself why Downton Abbey enabled hard-to-please me to so easily suspend my disbelief. Aren’t the characters just typical soap-opera types dressed up in costumes of yester-year? Maybe, but something about the script and the actors’ interpretations renders most criticism invalid. There are examples of stereotypes and clichés in many books. However, not many books can draw a reader in the way viewers have fallen in love with Downton Abbey. I know, I know, the series appeals to our nostalgia for by-gone eras when things were supposedly better and people had more honour/morality/virtues etc. Somehow the tangle of lives and loves, set against the towering backdrop of war-torn Britain has a magical ‘Love Potion Number Nine’ aura. Irresistible!

In my (humble) opinion, the script delves brilliantly into the complications of a society in transition. I think only the Brits truly understand and appreciate the intricacies of the class system in their fair isle. The rest of the world must stand back and admire at a distance. Upstairs and downstairs remain firmly separated and never the twain shall meet, lest there be dire consequences. However, there's nothing as strange as the human heart. Lady Sybil, (sorry, my dear), will firmly close all doors to her once she marries beneath her in uniting with the ex-chauffeur Branson. Even the Earl of Grantham (feeling neglected by his beautiful wife Cora)  finds his eye straying to pretty and willing housemaid Jane. Relax, she resigns before any damage is done! Maggie Smith, who has all the best lines as the Dowager Countess, encapsulates the mind-set of the era, yet constantly surprises with her practical and sometimes unexpectedly modern outlook.

I think what appeals to me the most (apart from being raging jealous of anyone who lives in Highclere Castle, the setting for the series) is the intensity of the characters—when they love, they love; when they hate, they hate; when they wobble, they truly fall! And even in their fall from grace or their triumph over odds, the characters carry the viewer with them, right to the end. Of course, films triumph over books because actors can demonstrate in a simple glance, shrug, or expression what it might take the author a few words/lines to create for the reader. But, dear authors, press on, I say. The fact is that the look, sigh, expression, or derogatory snort is part and parcel of the silent inner workings of the characters. I think we forget how much need not be spoken, but simply indicated to ‘speak’ volumes.

The lesson to be gleaned from Downton Abbey is to create real, convincing characters that will imbue your story with a truth and authenticity that cannot be shaken; to have those characters truly believe in what they represent, want, or plan to do. In addition, make sure your background or backdrop action (Okay, I agree, a world war is a big thing to just whip up in a trice but make do with what you have) as integral as possible to the development of the characters’ lives and choices. In Downton Abbey the war in Europe changes British society forever. But that’s life: nothing remains static, life moves on… I cannot wait for Series 3!