Balancing Luck and Ability–Guest Post

Posted in for writers

Several moons ago, I was invited by the great Dan Koboldt to post an article on his blog. With his permission, I’ve pasted the contents below. Hope you enjoy!

This article’s going to be a bit different. Most scientists visit Dan’s blog with pet peeves about scientific blunders committed in fiction. The truth is, there’s nothing about statistics that’s interesting enough that folks would want to even attempt to write about it. Alas, statistics myths are confined to the media (where they tend to do the most damage). But, we can use some principals from stats (and a special flavor of statistics called Quantitative Psychology) to shed some light on how best to portray the people that populate our prose.

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How to inject voice into a query letter

Posted in for writers

Alright, friends. It’s time. We’re going to Ray Charles-ify our query–give it some voice, give it some pizzazz, give it some personality. What I don’t mean is to turn it into first-person–that’s a big no-no. But we’re going to transport our main character’s voice from the novel into the query. Now, I’m going to assume that whatever voice you use in your novel, you will use in your query. Using a Schwarzenegger-like voice in a query while you’ve got a Ben Stein-like voice in your novel–that’s kinda like false advertising, dude.

I’m not going to talk about how to do it here. I have already talked about it and so has Elana Johnson. Instead, I’m going to talk about my query (well…er…query for a book I haven’t written, and don’t intend to write).

So let’s continue with the query we started. Remember Tommy? What do we know about him? He’s a runt who’s more meek than scrappy. Let’s think about some film-star we know who’s like that. The first person that comes to mind is Marshal Flinkman from Alias. Let’s watch a video!

Got the voice yet? Can you feel yourself becoming Marshal Flinkman? Cuz that’s our Tommy right there.

On first pass, I’m going to go totally overboard with his voice, then I’ll tone it back a bit.

Tommy’s kinda sorta the youngest of three brothers. Well, maybe not kinda sorta. Cuz, well, cuz he is the youngest. But it seems maturity happened to them, b-but not him. He’s, well, he’s still the same size he was in junior high. Hasn’t grown an inch. Anyway. Somehow, for some crazy reason, he stumbled upon a girl who’d marry him. Now he’s a daddy. It’s pretty cool. The kid’s super cute and all.

But then Bibledy-Basty McFladigan had to come along and incinerate their meadow. Yeah, what a jerk. It was kind of not cool. Okay, so really not cool because now his family and village might starve. And die. Yeah, it sucks.

But there’s a new meadow. Okay, so it’s pretty far away, and you have to cross mountains and snake-filled rivers and barren landscapes. Oh, and his brother’s refuse to help. But it’s gotta be done, so Tommy inspires his older brothers and his village to follow him. And just as they scale the bridge, Bibbledy-Basty arrives with Tommy’s wife bound and gagged. Totally not cool. So now, Tommy must forfeit the green meadows. Oh, and his wife. Or else he’s going to have to fight that big, rather terrifying, creepy, green-tinted troll dude to the death.

Tough choice.

Tommy the goat, played by Marshal Flinkman


Nice! That there gives a lot of insight into Tommy’s personality (and a good preview for the book). Now, I’m going to tone it back a bit. And here’s our query!

Tommy’s the youngest of three brothers. And the smallest. And the weakest. It seems maturity happened to them, but not him. He’s about the same size he was in junior high. Anyway. Somehow, for some crazy reason, he stumbled upon a girl who’d marry him. Now he’s a daddy. It’s pretty cool. The kid’s super cute and all.

But then Bibledy-Basty McFladigan had to come along and incinerate their meadow. Yeah, what a jerk. It was kind of not cool. Okay, so really not cool because now his family and village might starve. And die. Lame.

But there’s another meadow. Okay, so it’s pretty far away, and you have to cross mountains and snake-filled rivers and barren landscapes. Oh, and his brother’s refuse to help. But it’s gotta be done, so Tommy inspires his older brothers and his village to follow him. Just as they scale the bridge, Bibbledy-Basty arrives with Tommy’s wife, bound and gagged. Totally not cool. So now, Tommy may have to forfeit the green meadows. Oh, and his wife. Or else he’s going to have to fight that big, rather terrifying, creepy, green-tinted troll dude to the death.

Tough choice.


After doing this, we may have to revisit the post on punchifying our verbs, but that’s okay.

Now you’re turn! Go–spend countless hours on youtube pegging your character and run with it!

Injecting voice into fiction

Posted in for writers, Writing

I had to interrupt my series on query writing, just for one post. And lemme just take a break from talking ’bout writing for a few minutes. Everyone grab your chair, turn up the background saxa-ma-phone music, rest your feet on the ottoman, and close your eyes. (Okay….so maybe keep them open so you can read). I’m gonna tell a little story.

About six years ago, I began voice lessons with the lovely Tara B. I was singing Endless Nigh from The Lion King. And that baby goes high, much higher than my baritone/bass voice wants to go. Each attempt, my vocal cords protested with a squeal and a crack, like a car crashing into a glass factory.

Over and over and over and over.

Squeal. Crack. Squeal. Crack.

I was-a getting frustrated, that’s fer shure. Finally, Tara B says, “Alright Dustin. For just one minute, forget about technique. Forget about pitch. Forget about breath support and soft pallets and hard pallets. Forget it all.”


I try again.

Epic failure.

“No, Dustin. You’re not forgetting. Just…forget.”

Squeal crack, crash and burn.

Finally, she said, “Alright, stop.” She handed me a pair of sunglasses, a black jacket, and a bow tie. “Put these on.”

I complied.

“Alright,” she said. “You’re not Dustin Fife.”


“You’re Ray Charles.”

I raised an eyebrow.

She started snapping her fingers, closing her eyes, swaying with the music. She sang–and beautifully–a sound so sweet it woulda made the hulk weep.

“Now you try,” she says.

I started snapping my fingers. I closed my eyes, feeling the music pulse through my blood–soft and soothing like climbing into a warm bed on a cold night. I swayed with the beat, allowing my shoulders to relax.

And I sang. “You promised you’d be there, whenever I needed you, whenever I call your name.”

I soared right past the high parts as if I’d never struggled. Dustin Fife struggled with that part.

But not Ray Charles.

Likewise, there comes a time when we’re writing when we need to drop the rules–forget about fragments, forget about pernicious adverbs, forget about sentence cadence, showing not telling, word repetition, balancing description, injecting characterization, try/fails, and Deus ex Machine.

We come to a point where we need to don a costume and let the character speak.

Let’s have a look at the opening lines of The Book Thief

First the colors.

Then the humans.

That’s usually how I see things.

Or at least, how I try.

***Here is a small fact*** You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

***Reaction to the aforementioned fact***

Does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.

The Book Thief

Fragments fill the text, crazy formatting, overuse of adjectives, blah blah freaking blah.

But it works. That narration has voice–it has personality. You feel as if Death (the narrator) is having a conversation with you–a conversation that invites you inside the book for tea and freshly baked cookies.

Sometimes you just gotta let go.

Sometimes you gotta let the character do the talking, not the writer.

So let’s play with this a bit. Suppose we’re trying to inject some voice into this simple paragraph

I entered the store and bought a milkshake. It was the only thing my six week pregnant wife wanted. Upon checking out, a man entered carrying a gun. He demanded all the cash in the drawer then swiped my milkshake.

Completely devoid of personality. Now let’s try playing with the narration, using several different characters’ voices.

First, let’s don our wacky bright-colored clothes, tangle our long hair, and become a male version of Luna Lovegood (the movie version).

Hmm. Another day, another craving from the misses. Very well. I supposed it has been some time since I studied the oak leafs and dandelions. Ah yes, this might be quite an adventure. After a pleasant stroll filled with the scent of daffodils, freshly baked bread, and nardgrass, I arrived at the quaint little gas station on the corner of main and price…[probably more details here]…Huh. That man had a gun. Interesting. He didn’t seem the threatening sort. But you never could tell, these days. The man swiped my milkshake. How rude. Oh well. Perhaps the man needed it more than I.

Now let’s sport a different costume: dark sunglasses, military boots, and a gun in our back pocket and become an angry Sylvester Stallone-like character (then again, aren’t all his characters angry?)

The misses is pissed. Again. The misses has a craving. Again. Fine. Go to the store, get a milkshake, home in ten. Got it. Anything else, dear? So I pay the cashier and some jerk comes in holding a gun. He demands my milkshake. Really man? Truth is, I’d rather be shot than return and face the wife’s empty craving, know what I mean?

And just for fun, let’s do a snarky teenager (dressed as a man with a pregnant wife)

“Go to the store,” she says. “Get me a milkshake,” she says. “Be back in five,” she says. “I’m growin’ a liver,” she says. “What are you growing?” Tired of your attitude, that’s what I’m growing! But whatever. So I’m buying the milkshake, and some jerk barges in like he owns the place…holding a freaking gun. Seriously? Could this day get any worse? Why yes–yes it can, cuz the dude totally stole my shake! The nerve.

Is it any wonder that, among agents, voice is the most talked about trait of a writer?

How do we do it?

Simple answer: I have no idea how you’ll do it. Everybody’s different. But I’ll share what I do.

First, I find a character from a movie that best fits the personality I’m trying to convey. Next, I watch that movie. Like a practiced impersonator, I study her or his mannerisms, accent, gait, word choice. Once I’ve pegged that character, I start playing conversations in my head.

And then I write.

What about you? How do you immerse yourself in your characters’ voices?

Characterization: It’s all about the Deets

Posted in for writers, Writing

How does one breathe life into a character? Well, I’ve talked about four things that every character needs, and I’ve talked about deepening motivation. But one of my favorite methods to characterize people is through details (or Deets).

Example: Beef swaggered into the bar. [already we have some idea about his character, do we not?]. Sweat discolored his red bandana, which had faded creases near the seams. His long pony-trail trailed behind, black mingling with streaks of gray. His sleeveless shirt hung loose over his bulbous belly, revealing a skull for a tattoo on his shoulder and a deep scar on the underside of his flabby arms. Smoke lingered in the dark room, but still, Beef wore his shades. Even through his lengthy beard, his frown was still visible.

So what sort of impression do you get of Beef? What do these details tell you about his character? Let’s start at the beginning. The dude swaggers into a bar. Okay, so he’s probably pretty confident. He wears a bandana and has a pony tail and his name is Beef–so maybe he’s a biker dude. But his bandana is discolored with sweat and faded at the seams. Okay…so maybe he’s had it a long time. Or maybe he hasn’t but just doesn’t take care of his stuff. Maybe we could add that he always smells like body odor–now the picture becomes clearer. He’s a man that doesn’t care much for personal hygiene. He’s got a skull for a tattoo, so he’s probably pretty tough (or at least tries to convey he’s tough). He wears shades when he clearly doesn’t need them. So he’s a man more concerned with giving an impression than practicality. Yet he keeps that faded bandana. Interesting–simultaneously caring about the impression he gives off, but also unconcerned with hygiene.

Notice we’re not giving a police sketch of the man (e.g., He’s about 5’9”, 250 lbs with a beard and a ponytail….BORING!). We’re only giving details that give insight into his character. Also notice that we’re not flat-out telling people what he is (Biker Dude)–we’re showing it and letting people form their own impression.

Now let’s break from the stereotype a bit, eh? Let’s keep going with the story: (And I’m totally pantsing this, by the way)

With trembling hands, he reaches for his breast pocket, past his pack of cigarettes and grabs a photograph–a child, no more than three years old, sitting on a plastic tricycle, sporting a black sleeveless shirt, wearing sunglasses and the Spiderman helmut Beef had given him. The child in the image frowns, a mirror image of Beef’s own image. The boy forms two fingers into the universal sign for peace. Beef looked up from the picture and glared at the man in the bar–the boy’s father.

Okay…so what do we have now? Despite the rough and tough exterior, he’s got a soft spot for this kid. Where do you expect the scene to go now? It seems there will be some confrontation (he is glaring at the boy’s father, after all). But notice how the details have kept us guessing–yeah this man is probably capable of doing some damage, but he’s also got a soft spot for what is presumably his grandson.

I remember when I first started novel-writing, I filled out a character sheet for my main players. I couldn’t figure out why in the world I’d need to know what sort of clothes my MC is dressed in, or what their room looks like, or what their most prized possession is. Now I know–these tidbits of information reveal information about your character.

So…how are details revealing information about your characters?

Photo courtesy of Fife Photography

Photo courtesy of Fife Photography

Photo courtesy of Fife Photography

The character travelbag

Posted in for writers, Writing

Photo courtesy of Fife Photography

Have you ever started packing your bags while sitting comfortably on the flight? How about after you arrive? Perhaps when you come home from your vacation?

Of course not! We pack before we leave.

Yet how many of us “pack our characters’ bags” post-hoc? Or after we’re 40K words in? Did you take half the book to decide your character mumbled to himself? Or that she has a deathly fear of pink orangutangs? Or maybe after we finish, someone says, “Halt, ye prolific penman! I’ve finished your novel and still couldn’t identify your MC out of an occupied phone booth!”

No matter how carefully the plot is woven, the characters need to hold their own. So, here’s four questions to ask of your MC to determine whether they have the necessary travel-gear to carry the plot to its destination:

1. What is my MC’s dominating characteristic? Is she shy? Is he extroverted? Is he insanely curious or a bumbling dolt? All MCs must have a defining characteristic and the more unique, the better!

2. What is the MC good at? (i.e., what are the MC’s resources?) Again, the more unique, the better. Is she strong? Is he good at reading emotions? Is he a talented Bassist? Can she break glass with her voice? Does he (as in Ready Player One) have an uncanny ability to remember obscure 80s references?

3. What is the MC’s weakness? Does she lose her temper? Does he have depression? Is she incapacitated by her fear of cold weather?

4. What does the character want? This, my friends, it what propels the plot forward. It is the character’s driving desire that alters the course of events. In The Maze Runner, it is Thomas’s yearning to figure out what is going on that leads to the trail of breadcrumbs that solves the mystery of the maze.

Let’s do an example. I like to start with #4 because it tends to make it easier to answer the first three. Suppose our MC is John and he really wants (#4) to build a Kite that will fly in the Kite Olympics (though explaining why he wants this always helps deepen character motivation). Alas, John cannot read so well (#3)–he tends to forget the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, which means he can’t scour the internet for tips and suggestions like his competitors can. But, John can think in multiple dimensions better than anyone else (#2). He can even think in five or six dimensions! Also he’s got the persistence of a toad crossing the Sahara (#1)–not only does he not get discouraged about obstacles, but they actually make him laugh. Now the plot can move forward with the MC at the focus. In the end, John overcomes his inability to read by coming up with a three-dimensional design that revolutionizing kite flying.

Notice how we’ve also made these traits unique. Lots of people can’t read, but John’s reading problem is unique (he forgets the beginning of the sentence before he gets to the end). Also, his strength is very unique (Ronald Fisher aside, can you think of anyone else who can think in 5+ dimensions?). And his persistence too is unique.

Hope this helps!