I am heavily into production mode these days, rewriting no less than four new projects – CITY OF PAIN, the apparently long-awaited sequel to CITY OF SIN and CITY OF WOE, two YA novels, GENIUS HIGH and PERFECT, and a social parody novella A SIMPLE REBELLION.
In addition, I recently finished co-publishing BLACKJACK:SHOOTERS with Blackjack creator Alex Simmons, and am currently cowriting BLACKJACK: SINS OF THE FATHER.
Yes, I know, this is an ambitious slate which is made bigger because I hope to finish and move forward on all of this before summer. The goal is to travel this summer promoting all my publications. And things were going really well …
… until the beta readers.
On two of the projects beta readers pointed out character needs that posed interesting challenges to the writing. My rules for listening to beta readers are these:
1) defend nothing
2) Listen with an open mind
3) STORY UBER ALLES! (story over all, so serve the story)
If, as a writer, these rules are embraced, the benefit is being able to see the project with fresh eyes. I always look forward to beta reader feedback because by that time I often cannot see the forest from the trees, meaning I either focus too much on proofreading instead of story, or I see characters and actions as they are in my mind rather than how they actually are on the page. Beta readers are fresh to the work, and if chosen well, they will often give surprisingly insightful views of what is actually there.
For this blog post, I want to focus on the feedback I received for my YA project, GENIUS HIGH, for which I learned there was a need for an additional character.
I find this an intriguing challenge. In essence, the question became how does a writer keep the organic feel of a work while inserting a new character?
Here are some suggestions for how to do it.
WHEN INSERTING A NEW CHARACTER:
1) First, review what you have compared with the beta feedback. In the case of GENIUS HIGH, the suggestion was that the lead protagonists needed someone close to them to go through the major problem of the story. I reread with an open mind, and, yes, they seemed protected from the main problem (Who me, overprotective of my characters? Never!).
2) Go for a walk, take a shower, do laundry, exercise, hang out with your “other” — do whatever you do while thinking about the story. Please note that this is a legitimate part of the writing process (yes, “laying around doing nothing” qualifies, as long as at least you subconscious is thinking about the story).
3) Open yourself to options with “What ifs?” In this case I asked myself, “What if there was another member of the core group? He or she? Brother? Sister? Girlfriend? Boyfriend? Or does it happen to one of the existing core members? Or should it happen to a second tier character?”
4) Keep notes. Index cards kick ass for doing so.
5) It may take days, but the possibilities will present themselves. What must be done with these possibilities is the writer must … play. Toy with various ideas, imagine, visualize, improv scenes in your head, just … play.
6) Allow the possibilities to “fight it out” in your imagination. Giving ideas space in your head may make it more challenging to interact with your Other (“What were you saying? I AM listening!”), but will help the correct choice rise above other possibilities.
7) Take that choice and let him/her hang out with your core characters, again, in your head. Ask your character questions (Who is s/he connected to? How are their back stories intertwined? How is s/he connected to other core characters? What are his/her loves/hates/desires/dreams as compared to the others?). Connect the new characters to the existing characters in as many ways as possible.
8) Torture your darlings. Remember the initial beta reader feedback, in this case, we as readers need someone close to the core characters to go through the major problem of the story. Push them to experience the pain/horror/danger of the central challenge of the novel as viscerally as possible. Make it real and alive in that world.
9) Take another pass through the entire novel, seeding the new character into every scene that is appropriate, adding new character-centric scenes as needed and tying together both edited scenes and brand new scenes so the style and feel is consistent throughout. Be aware new scenes may change the feel of other scenes, so a complete read-thru will help considerably.
10) If you are not emotionally drained by the time you finish inserting this character and taking all of your characters suffer through his/her arc, you aren’t finished. Go further.
11) (Bonus tip) If they are willing, have the beta readers read the rewritten draft. Repeat the process once more only if absolutely necessary.
I hope this helps fulfill the potential of your projects. I know I am thrilled with how this edit has turned out. I believe the additional effort makes the book much more inviting and enjoyable to readers.
Two of my favorite beta readers, Silvio and the goddess Tina. Also, special thanks to Steph Shaw and Cindi Ortiz.