Cutting Your Characters

No characters were harmed in the writing of this article, though a few may be eliminated, as this Friday I’m talking about when and how to use fewer characters.

Too Many Characters?

We’ve all read books where we felt we needed a list of the characters to keep them straight.

Reader expectations about the number of characters in a book vary from genre to genre. There's a lot more leeway for a giant cast in fantasy or literary fiction than in romance, for example.

Also, generally, some readers will make their own list of characters. Others will simply stop reading.

The best analogy I’ve heard (from story expert Lani Diane Rich, though probably other writers have said it) is that each named character you introduce is like placing another brick in you reader’s backpack. You need the bricks to build the story, but if you make it too heavy to carry, your reader will give up.

This factor also relates to reader comprehension.

Even if someone keeps reading, it’s less than ideal if halfway through your novel the reader must pause to struggle to remember a character last mentioned in Chapter 1.

Returning to the brick analogy, some readers will sort through all those bricks in the backpack to find the right one. Others will move on, hoping it all becomes clear. If doesn’t, they’ll be confused and unsatisfied.

A third issue is pace.

Each time you introduce a named character, you need a line or at least a few words of description or back story for that person. That takes up the reader's time and mental capacity and slows the action.

Dropping Characters

When narrowing my cast of characters, I look for two or more who serve the same purpose or play the same role.

If your protagonist has two best friends, for instance, both of whom offer a sympathetic ear, join the protagonist on risky adventures, and/or argue with your protagonist about her choices, consider combining the two.

If you find yourself mixing up two characters as you write or you can interchange one character for another without the overall story or emotional arcs changing, that’s also a sign that you don’t need both.

On a scene level, watch for multiple characters who do or say the same types of things. I particularly struggle with this problem as I tend to want to write scenes as I think they would happen in real life.

For example, I’ve been revising my new mystery novel, The Worried Man. The protagonist’s boyfriend dies (not a real spoiler, as the death is foreshadowed in the novel’s first paragraph).

I had a scene at the wake where she interacted with several characters.

The conversations included conflict, including over whether each believed the boyfriend could have committed suicide or had started drinking again. Yet the scene as a whole dragged.

I finally realized that while in real life many people would attend the wake and Quille (my protagonist) would talk about those things with a lot of them, the reader didn’t need to see it. I narrowed the wake down to two scenes where Quille talks separately with two people about two different issues.

The Character With No Name

Sometimes you can solve the problem of too many bricks by avoiding naming a character.

Using unnamed characters is a good option when you need a character briefly and there’s no reason for the reader to know specifics.

“The waiter” doesn’t need backstory and may not need a physical description. “Henry” probably does.

Unnamed waiters, store clerks, co-workers, and even family members can help create atmosphere, move the plot, and convey information. By omitting their names, though, you limit the bricks in your readers’ backpacks and keep the story moving.

Caveat: If it becomes awkward using an unnamed character (for example, you’re repeatedly writing “Jacinda’s friend’s brother”), it’s probably a sign that the character needs a name.

That’s all for now.

Until next Friday —

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on characters, download your Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Getting Leverage On Yourself Can Help You Finish Your Novel

The other day I talked with a friend who fell on the ice, her second fall this winter. She’s always had trouble with balance, and she’s worried because this time her injuries were more serious.

I asked if her doctor suggested anything to  prevent falling. She said oh, yes, she has 10 minutes of balance exercises to do each day but she never does them.

Most of us have things that, if we did them regularly, would help us reach our goals. We know what they are, yet often it's hard to follow through.

The challenge of following  through day after day and week after week to reach a long-term goal is something novelists grapple with all the time.

No matter how fast you write, it’s impossible to finish a novel in one sitting. You need a long-term habit of writing in smaller chunks over many days, weeks, or months to reach (on average) about 80,000 words.

So how can you make it more likely you'll do that?

A Tale Of Two Friends

When I attended the Oregon Coast writers workshop last fall, Dean Wesley Smith talked about when he was a college student taking a writing class.

He and his friend both wanted to write a story every week and submit it to a magazine or other publication.

They agreed to meet for dinner once a week. Whoever had failed to  complete a new story and mail it (this was back when you had to actually print and mail your manuscripts) would buy dinner.

As both were students and neither had much money, the fear of needing to pay for dinner got both of them to finish and submit stories weekly.

The agreement between these two friends is a great example of using leverage and accountability to meet writing goals.

Leverage And Accountability

You probably first heard of leverage in connection with moving physical objects. It literally means exerting force by means of a lever. It also means to support or strengthen.

When it comes to personal habits, to get leverage on yourself means to use a consequence or outside force to exert more pressure on yourself.

In the story above, the consequence of paying for dinner on a tight budget created pressure to accomplish the weekly task of writing, finishing, and submitting a story.

Accountability also can be used to get leverage on yourself.

Dictionaries define accountability as an obligation or the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own actions. That’s why corporations are talked about as being accountable to shareholders.

On a personal level, by telling someone you trust your goals and setting a schedule for reporting your progress (or lack of it) you become accountable to that person.

It’s much harder to skip doing something if you not only must admit it to yourself but to someone else.

Dean Wesley Smith’s story includes accountability.

In addition to the cost of a meal, he’d need to admit to his friend that he’d failed to do something he'd said he would or, on the flipside, he’d get to enjoy reporting that he’d accomplished his weekly goal.

Getting The Leverage To Finish Your Novel

The One-Year Novelist (my latest release) includes within its week-by-week plan specific ways to get leverage on yourself to finish your novel. You can adapt the methods, though, to fit your own schedule.

Here are a few options:

  • Tell three people that you will finish your novel by this time next year. (Or by whatever date you choose, just be sure to set a particular date.)

Ask each person if you can check in (via email, text, or some other type of message) every so many weeks to share an update on your progress.

If one or more of those people is willing, have a phone conversation where the person asks how you’re doing. But even if you simply report without getting a response, having to tell someone else will help you stick to your goal.

Caveat: I don’t suggest relying on posting on social media.

While it’s true that many people may see your goal and your periodic progress posts, there’s no guarantee that the same people will see them each time. Having to tell specific people who will follow your progress creates a lot more pressure and accountability.

  • Write down why you want to write and finish your novel. Be specific.

Do you love immersing yourself in a fictional world? Is it relaxing to get away from real life and write fiction?

Will you feel proud of yourself? Will you be fulfilling a lifelong dream?

Putting your feelings about finishing your book into words on a page will get you in touch with how wonderful you’ll feel if you achieve your goal, and you can look back at it when you need inspiration.

  • Now do the opposite and write how you’ll feel a year from now (or whatever timeframe you choose) if you haven’t finished your novel.

Be just as specific here.

The idea is to clearly identify and feel what it will be like if the time passes and you didn't reach your goal. Look at these written feelings to spur you on as you write or when you're tempted not to write.

If you want to add accountability, share both of the pieces of writing you’ve done with a trusted friend.

  • Close your eyes and imagine the moment you finish your novel.

If you like to type The End, see those words on the screen.

If, like me, you like to print out your manuscript to review, envision the printer shooting out the pages.

Get in touch with the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel.

  • Plan a reward for when you finish your novel.

It could be a weekend away, a longer vacation, or something as simple as a fancy latte at Starbucks. Whatever it is, though, it's something you vow you won't do until you finish your novel.

(I did this when I started my own law firm by skipping my favorite Chai Latte until I got my first check from a client. That was the best Starbucks drink I ever tasted.)

That’s all for this week, though you can always follow me on Twitter for other writing tips and ideas.

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly

P.S. If you'd like help fitting in the time to write your novel, you might find The One-Year Novelist: A Week-By-Week Guide To Writing Your Novel In One Year helpful. It's available in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Dialogue and Character: Tricks, Tropes, and Twitter

The dialogue you write can enhance or hinder your story.

Using some famous (or some might say infamous) tweets as examples, today I’ll talk about how a few lines of dialogue can get across volumes about a character.

Strong dialogue builds and reveals a character in two ways:

(1) through what is said

(2) through how it’s said

Twitter and Trump

All politics aside (really), because he tweets in the same way he talks, the current United States President’s tweets are great way to learn more about dialogue and character.

The tweets – much like lines of strong dialogue – are instantly recognizable as coming from President Trump. They also evoke strong emotions about him and convey how he sees himself and/or how he wants others to see him.

If we could all write dialogue as well as President Trump tweets, our worries about characters sounding too much like one another or slowing the story  would be over.

What He Said

Most people, and so most characters, return often–whether deliberately or unconsciously–to favorite subjects and themes.

In one tweet, Trump wrote:

“… Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.”

Later in the tweet and in a second continued tweet, he listed accomplishments, including businessman, TV star, and President.

These two tweets (along with others) show one subject Trump likes to speak about – himself. Specifically, great things about himself.

His words are also efficient.

In one line, he fits in a lot about his resume. Plus we learn he's proud of having been a TV star and he doesn’t worry that this background will keep him from being taken seriously.

This pride reflects both the man and the times we live in.

When Ronald Reagan ran for President, many viewed his “B movie” actor background as a liability. Had there been such a thing as a reality TV star at the time, that would have no doubt taken him down a few more notches.

The content of these tweets also shows a man who believes in tooting his own horn and suggests he grew up and/or worked in a world where bragging was rewarded rather than being seen as tacky or a sign of insecurity.

The topics Trump chose also suggest a concern that his actions appear unstable or unintelligent.

A character who is for the most part forthright and honest rarely says “to be honest” or “I’m a really honest person.” He's confident people will draw that conclusion on their own, or it never crosses his mind that there would be a question.

In contrast, a character who stresses in dialogue that she's honest either has inner doubts or is responding to real or imagined attacks.

With Trump, these particular tweets came in response to attacks on his stability and intelligence in a recent book. If you didn't already know that, though, you might guess it by his words.

Finally, what Trump tweeted shows he cares deeply about what others think of him.

A character unconcerned about the opinions of others wouldn’t devote time or energy to stating accomplishments that are already well known or responding to attacks.

How It’s Said

The wording of President Trump's tweets also tells us a lot about him and is part of why his way of speaking is instantly recognizable.

For example, saying he is “like, really smart” shows he knows his audience.

Most public speakers and professionals do their best to avoid interspersing words such as “like” or phrases such as “you know” that make a speaker sound less polished. But Trump knows his supporters like that he speaks plainly and doesn’t sound like a professor addressing a class of college students.

Further, he has no doubt about his position and place in the world. Only someone who never questions his own authority and position is free to speak in a manner that others would consider far too casual for the situation.

In contrast, when I was a young lawyer (and because I'm female in a profession that still includes more male trial lawyers than female ones), I always needed to speak well so as not to raise questions about whether I was experienced enough or had enough authority to accurately present the law.

Trump's word choice also shows how much it matters to him to be seen as top dog.

When he lists his accomplishments, he doesn’t say he is a “successful businessman” but a “VERY successful business person” (all caps on VERY are his, not added by me). He’s not just a “T.V. star” but a “top T.V. star.” And he didn’t just become president, he became “president (on my first try).”

Someone less concerned with beating others or being seen as at the top of the heap would be satisfied to list the accomplishments and stop at that.


In storytelling, a trope usually refers to particular and expected plot developments, such as an HEA–a Happily Ever After ending in a romance.

But tropes also occur in dialogue.

Turning back to the President’s tweets, using repeated superlatives such as everything being “great” or “the best” or “the worst” is a trope. It’s one of the ways we know immediately who is speaking.

Another trope is his use of negative nicknames.

The two tweets we’ve been talking about referenced “Crooked Hillary.” Trump’s use of nicknames like that one, Little Marco, or Sloppy Steve sum up in two words strong pictures and emotions about his opponents that resonate with many voters. Few  people match his skill in coining these types of labels.

This, too, is another way we immediately recognize who is speaking.

Your Characters' Dialogue

So what can you learn about dialogue from this analysis?

When you write your dialogue, consider how your character’s background, self-image, fears, and aspirations affect the way the character speaks and what the character chooses to talk about.

Keep in mind that, as the President’s tweets show, the most effective dialogue goes beyond the obvious.

For example, President Trump is college educated, but he speaks in a way that deemphasizes that, either by choice to appeal to a certain audience or because that's simply how he’s comfortable speaking.

Consider also what sorts of tropes or verbal tics might be part of your character's speech patterns. Not everyone has the ability to come up with colorful nicknames for others, and some who might be good at it might  choose not to do so.

You might write a character who quickly sees the flaws of others but chooses words carefully to avoid pointing them out. Another might prefer to demonstrate linguistic ability and cleverness by skewering opponents with apparent praise that hides veiled insults.

Finally, think about what themes and subjects your character might work into almost every conversation.

Someone recently divorced, for instance, might compare a new boss’s challenging behavior to an ex-spouse even if no one else in the workplace sees any similarity between the two.

Someone who compulsively overate as a child might always use metaphors that involve food or dieting.

A strong believer in astrology might link any good or bad development in life to the position of the stars or might ask a person's birthdate within moments of being introduced.

That's all for this week. I hope this article has given you food for thought the next time you’re writing dialogue—or visiting Twitter.

Until next Friday—

L.M. Lilly

P.S. For more on characters, check out my Free Character Creation Tip Sheet.

Reaching More Readers

This Friday, I recommend checking out PublishDrive if you're selling your books in ebook format or plan to.

Part of my PublishDrive dashboard after uploading The Awakening books.
Selling In Multiple Stores And Countries

PublishDrive offers a way to upload an ebook once and sell it in over 400 stores worldwide.

The stores includes ones you've likely heard of, like Apple iBooks, Kobo, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, and also hundreds of others.

What I like about PublishDrive is that chance to reach readers–many outside the U.S. and Canada–who might not have access to Amazon, Kobo, or other well-known companies, and to do it without needing to upload separately in hundreds of stores.

Books Already Published Elsewhere

If you've already published your books on other platforms, you can still use PublishDrive.

I recently listed all four books in my Awakening supernatural thriller series. Because those are already available on Kobo and other platforms, I simply unchecked those boxes, targeting only stores I hadn't already published in.

I don't know how much I'll get in sales as I haven't yet figured out how to advertise for all the stores, but I didn't see any downside to making the books available through more sites.

The Price

There were no upfront costs to publish. As of right now (January 2018), PublishDrive gets 10% of the digital list price.

Again, this seems like a no-brainer. If there are zero sales, it costs me no money out of pocket. I spent time setting up the books to publish, which is a cost, but it was only a few hours. That seems worth it for the chance of future sales.

Caveat – Book Descriptions

I hope to write more about PublishDrive down the road once I've had my books published there for some time.

So far I've found one downside.

The book description section appears to allow using basic html codes (such as for bold, italics, headlines, etc.) to make the description look appealing, which I wrote more about here.

At least one platform, though, dropped all formatting, including headers and paragraph spacing, resulting in this run-together, awkward-looking sales copy:

To deal with this, I revamped all my descriptions into simple paragraphs that I feel more confident will be readable on all platforms.

And now a word about Writing As A Second Career:

A Change Going Forward

Last Sunday I wrote an article More Than Writing a/k/a Goals For The New Year.

After writing it, I created my author business goals and started scheduling the next few months' time to pursue them. In the process, I discovered I have far less time than tasks to do.

One of my major goals is to write a series of articles on my author website answering questions about what is truth and what is fiction in the background mythology of my Awakening series. Ultimately, I hope to compile the articles with additional material into a Readers' Guide.

Going forward, to make room in my schedule to do that, I'll be skipping Sundays and limiting my writing on this site to every Friday.

I hope you'll stay with me!

If there area any particular topics you'd like me to address please post them in the comments or email me [email protected]

Until next Friday–

L.M. Lilly