Ask the agent: “What if i don’t want to talk about money?”

August 25, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

A writer sent this: “I hate talking money when it comes to my writing. I wanted to do this for the art, not for money! How can I get over my reluctance to talk dollars?”

I realize some authors are reluctant to talk about money issues, but it’s necessary if you’re going to get to know the business. When I was a free-lance writer, I noticed that publishers (both magazine and book publishers) tended to put me on the bottom of the pay ladder because I was a small free-lancer. I once called a publisher to complain that I hadn’t been paid, and the response was, “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess we’ll get you next quarter.” To them, it was a measley $1500 they owed me. But to me, it was MY HOUSE PAYMENT that month. So, yeah, I eventually got over my reluctance to talk money with publishers.

That means you have to know what you’re worth (in terms of money-per-page or money-per-hour), and you have to be able to share that with others. The good news is that it gets easier to talk about when you have a pretty good feeling of your value. I mean, if you know you should be making $3000 per month, and the publisher asks you to work on a freelance project that will take two months, it’s much easier to say, “I’ll need to make about $6000 for that project” than to take a wild stab at a number. 

So let me suggest something… Figure out what you’d like to make from your writing in a year. (You need to be reasonable. Don’t say, “A million dollars” unless your name is James Patterson, Suzanne Collins, or George R.R. Martin.) Let’s say you think it’s reasonable for you to make $18,000 this year from writing part time. That means you need to make, on average, $1500 per month, or about $375 per week. If you start looking for ways to generate some income with your writing, that may not be so far-fetched. And if you land one book contract that pays an advance of  twelve thousand, the goal becomes much easier. But start by figuring out what “financial success” is to you, as a writer.  

Often writers act like they can’t talk about the money they make (“I signed a confidentiality agreement!”) — which may be true, but only in terms of sharing the wording or the deal you received. It’s usually not  a violation to talk honestly with friends about how much money you’re making with your work. That’s one of the reasons I encourage writers to make friends in the industry, attend conferences, and learn from other writers. It’s so much better to have some friends who understand how tough this industry can be, and talk with you openly about what they’re doing to earn income. (And by the way, when I was a freelance writer, I found one excellent way to feel better about my income, if I was sitting around with a bunch of people who intimidated me: Exaggerate. I found I just  felt better when I could look at someone at a conference and say, “Oh, yeah, I made $50,000 via my writing last year.” Okay, it wasn’t true, but for a moment I felt better… :o) 

Let’s face facts: If you’re uncomfortable talking about money, or you can’t be bothered nagging that publisher who keeps forgetting to pay you (and there are a some publishers who struggle with this), then you need to find an agent you’re comfortable with, who is competent with both numbers and negotiation, and talk to him or her about handling this for you. You’ll find it’s worth it to you.

But back to your question: If you’re uncomfortable talking about money, you probably either need to give that concern over to someone who isn’t,  OR you need to find a way to get comfortable with the topic by introducing it to other writers and starting to share your stories. 

Posted in Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 0 Comments »

Books about Books (a guest blog)

August 22, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Landscape, language, arts, culture, current events—these are some things a novelist must research before writing her novel. When I was researching my Ellis Island series, one thing I looked at was what people were reading at the turn of the twentieth century. You can discern a lot about a person by observing his/her reading choices, so why not do this for the characters in a novel?

 

It doesn’t matter if you are writing historical or contemporary, but books were far more valuable and treasured in years past, so I think historical novels ought to include them. It’s not only fun for the writer but also for the reader who most likely enjoys books as much as you do.

 

In my series I wanted to have my characters read L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz because it was taking the country by storm. Everyone was reading it. It’s no wonder because so many people related to Dorothy Gale—displaced in the strange new world that America was becoming. My Irish characters had be emerged in the storytelling tradition that the Irish are known for. My American characters had to be enthralled with the futuristic tales of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Public libraries were not as accessible back then so I imagined people traded books, talked about them, and looked forward to new ones coming out, perhaps even more than people do today.

 

My advice for novelists is to research what people were reading at the time of your setting, and also look at what the newspapers were saying about the books being released. I’ve been hearing how much my readers are enjoying learning about my characters’reading tastes.

 

___________________

 

Cindy Thomson’s newest novel is Annie’s Stories (Tyndale House Publishers, July 2014,) the second in her Ellis Island series. She is also the author of Brigid of Ireland, Celtic Wisdom: Treasures From Ireland, and co-author of a baseball hall of famer biography Three Finger: The Mordecai Brown Story. She has written numerous magazine articles mostly on Irish genealogy, and blogs at www.cindyswriting.com.

Posted in Books | 8 Comments »

Thursdays with Amanda: THE EXTROVERTED WRITER GIVEAWAY!

August 21, 2014 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

2013amanda2Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

I had a few guest posts hit the web this week.

I talked about FINDING TIME FOR BOOK MARKETING over at Routines for Writers.

And if you’ve ever wondered WHAT IS AN AUTHOR PLATFORM, then check out my post on SalomaFurlong.com.

AND while you’re at it, enter to win a FREE copy of The Extroverted Writer!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Extroverted Writer by Amanda Luedeke

The Extroverted Writer

by Amanda Luedeke

Giveaway ends August 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 0 Comments »

If you were building an e-bookstore…

August 20, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Recently some people in publishing got together for a weekend to discuss this question: “If you were going to create an online bookstore to compete with Amazon, what would it look like?” 

I think that’s a great topic to explore, since I love Amazon, love my Kindle, and regularly purchase books there. But even more than that, I love going into a great bookstore and wandering around. My office is over the Cloud & Leaf Bookstore — a small independent bookshop where Jodi features great reads, helps customers find exactly what they need, and regularly steers them toward interesting little finds. I love wandering around a Barnes & Noble, where I can get lost in the history section, finding fascinating titles the explore small pockets of time that only those of us with a nose for the past can appreciate. I love going into Powell’s City of Books, and wandering for hours through the stacks, looking at titles and covers. I’ll pull out one book, read the jacket copy, peruse the table of contents, then maybe set it down and move to another interesting title that catches my eye. That’s the joy of being in a bookstore, and like you I can sometimes be convinced that I’ve entered a time-warp, since three hours will have gone by, and I’m sure I was really only wandering the stacks for twenty minutes.

That experience — wandering the aisles and looking for great titles, hoping to find the next book for your nighttime reading stack? It’s what Amazon can’t replicate. We call it “discoverability” in publishing, and it’s the process of getting readers to know your book exists, get them interested, and encourage them to buy and read it. There was a workshop on discoverability lately hosted by Digital Book World, and they revealed a study that showed five years ago, 31% of all books purchased by regular readers were discovered by wandering around a bookstore, while only 11% were discovered by wandering around Amazon. Now we live in a world where more than half of all serious readers own a Kindle or Nook, and readers discovering titles in bookstores is down to 20%. BUT the discoverability on Amazon has actually declined. Think about that for a moment… more people than ever own an e-reader, but a smaller percentage are actually discovering their titles on the e-tail site. The vast majority of book buyers online (67%, according to the study cited) knew what they wanted before they went to Amazon or B&N.com.

So Amazon and B&N.com offer something great — ebooks that are easily accessible, at cheap prices. But they have the limitation of being just an okay shopping experience. With that in mind, a bunch of folks got together to try and replicate the joy of discoverability. There were writers, agents, editors, librarians, and booksellers, all pulled together to talk about how they would create a new site. According the Chris Kubica, who pulled everyone together, they spent their first day identifying what’s wrong with the current online shopping experience, then they were supposed to spend the second day creating solutions. They doubtless understood that this wouldn’t necessarily be something that competed with Amazon — they’re massive, well-funded, have great customer service. In other words, this wasn’t intended to be a time to bash the company that has reinvigorated the world of publishing.

Instead the goal was to create something different. Whether big or small, they intended to brainstorm something that would appeal to readers, share the joy of books and reading, but somehow replicate the notion of a bookstore. But the group faltered. The experiment didn’t come to any conclusions, though they did have a healthy dialogue and got people thinking about what the perfect online shopping experience could be. And that led me to ask you…

If you could design the perfect online shopping experience, what would it be like? How would it be different from Amazon? How could publishers and authors and booksellers do something to better reflect the experience of walking through a great bookstore and finding the joy that comes with discovering great books? 

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. If you were building an e-bookstore, what would you do to create a better experience? What would you do to foster discoverability?

Posted in Current Affairs | 25 Comments »

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 6, Accents and Dialect

August 20, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wToday’s post is dedicated to Lois Gladys Leppard, author of the Mandie books. If you weren’t a preteen girl in the 90s, you may not be familiar with the Mandie books, but they were a middle-grade series set at the turn of the century about a teenage girl living in North Carolina, and their chief charm, if I remember correctly, was that Mandie was rich and there were a lot of descriptions of her dresses. Yeah, they weren’t the deepest literature, but I DEVOURED them as an 8-or-9-year-old. Twenty years later, I couldn’t tell you much about what happened in the series (other than what her dress looked like for President McKinley’s inaugural ball), but one thing about the writing has stuck with me all this time.

 

The series is set in North Carolina, and various characters (the servants, in particular) were written as speaking with a strong southern accent. The way you knew they spoke with a strong southern accent was that practically EVERY line of dialogue spoken by those characters had the accent written into it phonetically, to the point that you sometimes had to sound it out to figure out what Liza was saying. “Yous sho’ did, Missy Manda! Now don’t yous go gittin’ that dirty, you heah?” This is a made-up line, but it’s representative of the way the “strong southern accent” was written into the dialogue. Did it clearly communicate the speech patterns/pronunciation of those characters? Mmmmyes, but was it also distracting and clunky? Also yes. I’m probably remembering the extreme examples, but the point is, if that method of conveying an accent/regional speech style was conspicuous enough that I picked up on it as a 9-year-old and remember it 20 years later, it was probably a bit overdone.

 

Now, Ms. Leppard is off the hook, both because in writing for children she probably felt she needed to be a bit more obvious than if she were writing for adults who had a better idea what a southern accent sounded like, and because Mandie’s clothes were pretty, but I’ve read too many manuscripts were the author didn’t have Ms. Leppard’s excuses and in which an overdone dialect or written-in accent completely overpowered what was actually being said in the dialogue. An author can convey a character’s style of speaking or an accent without using every cliche specific to that regional dialect or writing out every word phonetically by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

 

  • Use phonetic spellings sparingly. Ending just the occasional “-ing” word with an apostrophe will suffice to put that “darlin’” southern drawl in a reader’s ear, and will ensure that the reader does most of the work of “translating” that character’s speech into the right voice and accent.
  • Use regional vocabulary sparingly. There’s a big difference between how a British person actually talks and the American idea of how we THINK he talks– I once read a manuscript in which the dreamy main character from England spoke like the Monty Python caricature version of a British aristocrat– “What ho,” “right-o,” “spiffing,” and “cheerio” were sprinkled liberally through his dialogue, and made it impossible to take him seriously as a romantic lead. Don’t write in cliches; do your research, listen to or watch as much dialogue spoken by actual Irish or South African or Bostonian or New Jersey speakers as you can, and then let a few well-placed terms or words set the tone for the majority of the dialogue.
  • Describe a speaker’s style of speaking. Though it’s certainly possible to overdo this one, it’s perfectly legitimate to describe a speaker’s voice or style of speaking a little when he or she is first introduced. If you tell the reader that a character spoke “with a curious lilt to some of her words, and he remembered that she had lived the first half of her life in Ireland,” it lets the reader fill in this blank for himself without your messing with the spelling of any dialogue or throwing in conspicuous Irish slang just to make sure they know that this character’s speech sounds a little different.

 

If you’ve written a character who speaks with an accent or in a regional dialect, make a point of asking your beta readers how well you conveyed that style of speaking, and whether they were ever distracted by phonetic spelling or obviously regional slang. And if you write for children, I hope your work will be enjoyed half as much as I enjoyed reading those Mandie books from 1992-1994, overdone accents notwithstanding. Thanks, Lois Gladys, for inspiring today’s post, and for being my first “favorite author.”

 

I think this will be the last post in my series on dialogue; if you have any lingering questions or issues you wish I’d address, please leave a comment and let me know– I’m happy to extend my farewell tour if it turns out there’s more to say on the subject. Thanks for reading!

Posted in The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Ask the Agent: How does a book get selected by a publisher?

August 18, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Several people have written to ask, “What is the process of getting your proposal selected by a publishing house?”


Okay. First, think of a publishing house as being an actual building. Your proposal probably isn’t walking in the front door. More than likely it’s sliding into the building by way of a window known as an acquisitions editor (often an acquaintance of your agent, sometimes a person you met at a conference, or maybe a guy who lost a bet). He or she will read through it, make some suggestions, talk it over with your agent, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it’s worth pursuing.


Most publishers are relying on agents to do the initial filtering of junk, so the slush pile has sort of moved from the publishing house to the agent’s office…which means you’re probably going to have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.


Once it’s actually in the building, if the acquisitions editor likes it he or she will take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around grousing about their pay and making editorial jokes. (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s catch a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of humor. That’s why they’re editors and not writers.) Eventually they’ll run out of bad puns and be forced to discuss the merits of your proposal. If it’s a non-fiction book, is it unique? Does it answer a question people are asking? Is there a perceived market for it? Does the writing feel fresh and offer genuine solutions to the question that’s posed? If it’s a novel, does the story have a clear hook? Is there a well-defined audience for it? Does it feel new, or as though it’s a story that’s been told a million times? (The fact is, it probably HAS been told a million times. There are only so many stories. The question is really if the author can make it feel as though he or she has a fresh take on the story.) Most importantly does it have Amish people, zombies, or a spunky girl with a heart of gold? If the whole package passes muster, it moves to the next step…


The Publishing Committee, which is a group generally made up of folks from editorial, marketing, sales, accounting, and administration. They’ll meet somewhere between once a week to once a month, depending on the house, and they’ll have an agenda of books to talk through each time, with the various representatives offering their own perspectives — the editors will talk about the merits of the words; the accountants will figure out the costs and potential dollars in play; the sales guys will begin discussing who they can sell copies to; and the marketing people will sit around trying to think up reasons why they shouldn’t work on THIS one, since they’ve got so many OTHER things to do. The group will talk about the market for the book, if it fits with the rest of the books on their list, what the author’s platform offers, what it would cost to print the book, what the marketing costs would be, and how many sales they think they could generate. This is the group that will explore the feasibility of doing your book. They may send it back to the acquisitions editor to do some more work.


At that point, the editor has to run a Profit & Loss sheet or pro forma, in which they’ll take wild surmises as to how many copies they can expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink/paper/binding will be, what they’ll spend on marketing, and how much money they’ll have to throw at the money-grubbing author, who, if she really loved words, would write her damn books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the joy of reading and to serve humanity. The editor will take all this information back to the publishing committee, who by now has had all sorts of time to think up NEW reasons why they shouldn’t do the book. They’ll talk about it again, this time with hard numbers attached. Eventually the pub board will be forced to make an actual decision, so they’ll probably throw the Urim and Thummim, maybe pull out an Ouija board, and decide on your book.


I’ve heard people say there are a series of “sales” to get to this point. The author sells the agent. The agent sells the editor. The editor sells the editorial team. The editorial team sells the pub board. Once that group makes a decision to contract the book, they have to negotiate a deal, then put it on a list and make it part of the process — because the sales guys are going to have to sell it to retail accounts, who in turn will attempt to sell it to the reading public. It’s a lot of work. And all of that points to one thing: It’s tough to get published. Each step along the way is an investment, so even the books they say “no” to have had dollars spent on them.


A publishing house has all those filters in place so that they can do the easy thing and say “no” to you. (Really. That’s the reason they exist.) The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, if you want to be published, create proposals they can’t say “no” to. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but that’s the basic idea — work on your proposal so that it piques their interest, provides a clear hook, and answers any objections. If you do that, your proposal is much more apt to be selected by a publishing house.

Does that make sense to you? What question would YOU like to ask a literary agent? 

Posted in Current Affairs, Publishing, The Business of Writing | 16 Comments »

Dreams vs. Fears (a guest blog)

August 15, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

“You write a book and it’s like putting a message in a bottle and throwing it in the ocean. You don’t know if it will ever reach any shores.  And there, you see, sometimes it falls in the hands of the right person.”   ~ Isabelle Allende

 

The other day a woman at a party asked me how the writing was going. “I’m not sure how you writers do it but I do know that you have to deal with writers block,” she said.

I didn’t have five hours and neither did she for me to tell her how it really has been going for me.

I wish that ol’ proverbial writers block was all I had to fight.

The last two years haven’t been easy.  Currently, I’m not in a position of writing one book after the other in a niche market.  I guess I’m still trying to figure out what’s next.  With my first contracts, I thought I was sailing along.  Then the boat stopped. And the water was dark and cold.

It seems that non-writers have this notion that our lives are easy, luxurious even, as we run with one idea for a book, get it onto paper in a few days, and then create another work while we take long walks on California beaches with glasses of Napa Valley wine.  Non-writers think that we spend summers sitting on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for inspiration.

I know I’m not alone.  You might be on this same boat.  The wind is in your face and not in a good way because it hurts your skin; it blows so harshly. Or perhaps you’re on a sailboat and there is no wind.  You’re stuck.  No, not with writers block—you know how to be disciplined—but when you’re done with your story, who wants it?  You wonder why you are where you are.  At two a.m. you send messages to your agent, things that make him think you are desperate.

This was not how you thought it would be. You get jealous of other writers.  You wonder if you are a has-been.  You eat potato chips and the grease from your fingers stains the keyboard.

You are desperate.

You hope, you pray, you doubt, and you decide you’ll become a wood worker.  But you’re afraid of power tools.  And what you really want is to be that writer you dreamed of when you were seven because you can’t think of anything that makes you feel more alive than writing.

I’m convinced that not writing is not the answer.  Because if you don’t write then you have said to Defeat, “You win.  I was never meant to be successful anyway.”  You have to believe and believe that you do have valuable things to share in a way that only you can do.

On a good day, you think, “I will win this.  I’ll show them!”

Yet in reality, the real enemy you must conquer is your mind.  You are the one who needs to prove to yourself that you have what it takes.  To be able to show that you have the ability to stay focused, improve your craft, and that you can achieve that dream.  You realize that the fight is between your dream and your fear.

Sometimes anger and frustration can be just the drive you need to get to a better story, to more authentic words.  Suffering makes you real and the world needs writers who don’t give in to writing fluff. So while you wait for the wind to pick up, look up; be ready.

Of course, I want the wind to always be in your sail, but I know it won’t always happen, so when it’s not, remember:  When it comes to choosing dreams over fear, go for the dreams.

Your book just might fall into the hands of the right person.

=======================

Alice J. Wisler is the author of six novels, four self-published cookbooks and a writing journal.  She’s represented by MacGregor Literary.  Visit her author page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alice-J-Wisler/

Posted in Deep Thoughts | 23 Comments »

Thursdays with Amanda: Book Marketing Challenge, week 3

August 14, 2014 | Written by Amanda Luedeke

2013amanda2Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Last week, I invited all of you to participate in ANOTHER Book Marketing challenge! We did one the week before, and it was so much easier than I think any of us anticipated that I figured we should give it another go.

Truth be told, I’m just trying to get all of you into the habit of doing this :)

Okay, so the rules are that you challenge yourself to complete 5 marketing tasks for your book or author brand (or what-have-you). You then have one week to complete those tasks.

Here’s how I did this week:

5 MORE Marketing tasks for The Extroverted Writer

1. Comment on five blogs (oh yeah…you heard me! I’m upping my game). This was harder than I anticipated, so I ended up commenting on a few blogs and then taking to Twitter. Twitter is much easier to search and find conversations that you can infiltrate. I did this and had great results. My Twitter feed seemed to really be buzzing there for a bit.

2. Look into a Goodreads giveaway (and set one up if possible). Haha I did exactly this…I looked into it. I’m probably going to schedule one in the next week or so.

3. BUY MY WEB DOMAIN!! Time to stop relying on the agency site as my main hub…gonna get my own space. Ugh, I am at times a major deliberator. And I’ve been deliberating about my website for AGES. Who should host? Where should I buy my domain? What template should I use? I’m drowning in my own self-doubt and over-analyzation. Not good, people.

4. Find 2 writer blogs and see about guest posts. Yep, have this lined up. I have two confirmed and two that I sent out feelers for.

5. Post something on my Agent FB page EVERY DAY. I did this, and YOU GUYS, IT WAS AMAZING. Take a look:Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 1.23.10 PM

I also adjusted the price of the ebook version of The Extroverted Writer…I figured it was time to permanently drop it to $2.99!!

Which I think is a deal :)

Slide1

What about you? Did you get your five things done? Do you think you can make this a habit? 

Posted in Marketing and Platforms | 3 Comments »

Your last chance to join us!

August 13, 2014 | Written by Chip MacGregor

On SUNDAY, August 24, we’re going to host the MacGregor Marketing Seminar, a LIVE version of Amanda’s wonderful Thursday marketing blog, set into a seminar format. Amanda and I will be in Nashville, in a conference room at the Airport Embassy Suites, from 9 to 4, talking with authors about how to create a marketing plan for their books. We’re about ready to create the list of participants, so this is your last chance to join us. Here’s what the outline for our day looks like:

— The New World of Author Marketing — What’s Working (and not working) in Today’s Market
— Creating a Marketing Plan for Your Novel or Nonfiction Book
— Maximizing Your Marketing Reach
— Finding Your Audience and Reaching Your Readers
— Building Your Author Platform (we are bringing in a specialist to offer some advice and direction)
— Choosing the Tools You’ll Use to Promote Your Book
— Getting Recognized in Today’s Market
— The Traditional Marketer, the Freelance Marketer, and the Indie Marketer

We’ll also get into a bunch of discussions on related topics — one of the most fun aspects of doing this type of seminar is the chance to talk with other authors who are going through the marketing process. But that’s our basic outline for the day, and again, we’d love to have you join us.

The cost is just $149 for the entire day. The focus of this day will be on doing something PRACTICAL — not on theory or on promoting a product. We won’t be trying to sell you products or introduce you to some more expensive seminar. Instead, we just wanted to get authors together and have time to explore how a writer can create his or her own marketing plan by focusing on ideas that actually work. I hope you’ll join us. Please let me know if you plan to come by RSVPing me. Thanks, and I hope to see you in Nashville on August 24.

-Chip MacGregor
chip@macgregorliterary.com

Posted in Conferences, Marketing and Platforms | 0 Comments »

Writing Effective Dialogue: Part 5, Character Voice

August 12, 2014 | Written by Erin Buterbaugh

brick green no smile b:wI did a lot of theater in high school and college, and still act in local productions from time to time– I know some people would rather lick a battery than perform onstage, but I think it’s some of the most fun there is to put on a costume and pretend to be someone and somewhere else for a couple hours, and theater is one of the few socially acceptable ways to do this as an adult. Having spent so much time performing and teaching theater, I’ve played (or been forced to play) some pretty dumb games in the name of “character development,” many of which, I’m convinced, existed for no other purpose than to entertain the teacher who, bitter that his own acting career didn’t pan out, derived all his joy in life from watching teenagers pretend to be earthworms and vending machines. A couple of those theater exercises, however, bore a remarkable similarity to the kind of brainstorming that authors can do to fully flesh out their characters, and a fully fleshed-out character is going to have a more distinct voice on the page, and, by extension, will “speak” more compelling dialogue.

One of the theater exercises we’d do during high school was to interview each other in character using a list of biographical questions designed to make the interviewee put some thought into her character’s history and life. Answering these questions for your characters forces you to think about your character as a 3-dimensional person with a past instead of just a puppet in the scene you’re currently writing, and a 3-dimensional character is always going to have something more interesting to say than a puppet.

Consider answering the following questions for each of your main characters. You might be surprised how giving some thought to seemingly trivial information about a character’s past, even information that may never come to light in the novel, informs the way their dialogue develops.

Character Interview Reference Sheet

Name?
Age? This will inform the kind of slang the character uses, the references he makes, how he interacts with other characters of various ages, etc.
Where was he born? Where did he grow up? This information can help determine if a character speaks with any kind of an accent, what regional vocabulary he uses, what weather/landscape he grew up with and how he reacts to his current location, etc.
Where is he living now? Does he fit in with his current location, or is he a fish out of water? How does the way he speaks differ from the people around him? Does his vocabulary differ? (e.g., he says “soda,” everyone else says “pop.”)
Family? Did he grow up with educated parents? Brothers who taught him to cuss? Grandparents who spoke with an accent? Who taught him to talk and what kinds of habits might he have picked up from them?
Education? High school? College? Law school? A character’s education influences his vocabulary, his syntax, the references he makes, the references which go over his head, etc.
Economic status?
Religion? Might affect how a character speaks when he’s angry, how much he curses, how he responds to certain situations or topics of conversation.
What’s he passionate about/bored by? What topics will he turn to when making dinner conversation on a first date? Which subject will make him roll his eyes when his father-in-law broaches it? What is he excited to talk about? What conversation topics bore him to tears?

There is no minimum and no limit to the questions you can ask yourself about your characters. The point of this exercise isn’t to give you busywork or yet another way to procrastinate, and SHOULDN’T be used as a quick-reference sheet for creating cliche dialogue (e.g., “Let’s see, this character is from Georgia? I’ll make him talk like Foghorn Leghorn!”), but the better you know your characters, the more convincingly you can put their voices on the page (or stage).

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