Combination lock with text: Tips to Stay Safe Online

If you’ve known me for a while, you probably already know that I love Twitter. If I’m online, I’m on Twitter because I live on Twitter. Twitter is my happy place. *smile*

So when my friend Marcy Kennedy offered to guest post about staying safe on Twitter, you better believe I jumped at the chance. I want Twitter to stay a happy place. I don’t want to deal with the hassle of hackers or other bad guys messing with my happiness.

Marcy’s here today to share seven tips for Twitter, but many of these tips apply to staying safe online—period. Not just for Twitter. And at the bottom of the post, I’ll share bonus tips for how we can implement some of her ideas throughout our online life.

Please welcome Marcy Kennedy!

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7 Essential Things to Know About
Staying Safe on Twitter

For all the wonderful things that technology provides us, it also comes with new risks. We need to be smart about our social media use because Twitter won’t be fun and our platform building won’t be sustainable if we don’t know how to stay safe.

So today I wanted to share seven tips for how to protect yourself and your information on Twitter so that you can make new friends, reach new readers, and grow as a writer.

Tip #1 – Change Your Passwords Regularly and Protect Them from Scam Artists

If you use a weak or easily guessable password, you make yourself an easy target for hackers.

  • Create a password that’s at least 10 characters long and includes a number.

Not all sites are case-sensitive, but for those that are, you’ll also want to include at least one uppercase letter. The strongest passwords will also include special characters, such as ! or @.

  • Change your password frequently.

You might not know if your account has been hacked, so by changing your password frequently, you basically wipe the slate clean.

  • Don’t use a password that you’re using anywhere else.

If your Twitter account or your email gets hacked, you don’t want a hacker going over to your website to try the same password and finding out it works, or vice-versa.

Tip #2 – When You Log In, Pay Attention

Most of us are super busy and log into accounts on autopilot, but this actually puts us at risk.

If you’re trying to log in to Twitter.com directly, check that you’re on their page. The simplest way to do this is to type www.twitter.com into your browser rather than allowing some secondary service to supposedly take you there.

For TweetDeck and Hootsuite users, if you ever receive a pop-up message or any other communication claiming to be from TweetDeck or Hootsuite and saying your account will be suspended unless you verify your password, this is a scam. Close the program and open it again to see what happens. Usually the message will be gone.

Tip #3 – Don’t Click Links in Direct Messages

One of the most common ways hackers get access to your Twitter account is through links in a direct message. You receive a message that says something like “Look at these funny pictures of you” or “Someone is saying really bad things about you” and they include a link. Your natural inclination is to click that link, but don’t. Once you click, you give them access to your account, and they’ll be using your account to send out these messages to other people.

(Note from Jami: This issue became so widespread that TweetDeck (and maybe Twitter itself) no longer allows users to send links in DMs, but corporate policies change, so it’s always good to be aware.)

Tip #4 – Contact Anyone Who May Have Been Hacked

If you get a direct message from someone and you suspect they didn’t send it, contact them to tell them their Twitter account might have been hacked, and suggest that they change their password. Unless you let the person who’s been hacked know, they’ll have no idea that someone has taken over their account and is using it to send out DMs with sketchy links in them.

Tip #5 – Report and Block Bad Accounts

I’m giving you this instruction with caution because not everyone understands what they should be reporting and what they shouldn’t.

Reporting is serious business and can get someone’s account suspended or deleted. Don’t report someone if you suspect their account has been hacked. Instead, let them know so they can change their password and free their account from the hacker. You also shouldn’t report someone just because you don’t like their tweets.

Here is how Twitter defines spam:

Here are some common tactics that spam accounts often use:

    • Posting harmful links (including links to phishing or malware sites)
    • Aggressive following behavior (mass following and mass un-following for attention)
    • Abusing the @reply or @mention function to post unwanted messages to users
    • Creating multiple accounts (either manually or using automated tools)
    • Posting repeatedly to trending topics to try to grab attention
    • Repeatedly posting duplicate updates
    • Posting links with unrelated tweets

Some of these are self-explanatory, but some of them need to be elaborated on.

Repeatedly posting duplicate updates.

This doesn’t mean that someone posted a link to their blog two, three, or even five times. This is talking about someone who posts the same handful of tweets over and over again without any variety.

Posting links with unrelated tweets.

This is when someone writes an innocent-looking tweet and then links to a harmful site. It can also be when someone writes something unrelated to get people’s interest and then links to their sales page. (It’s like false advertising of a product.)

When it comes to reporting people, first ask whether there could be an innocent explanation for their behavior. Only report people who are willfully spamming or engaging in other harmful behaviors.

Tip #6 – Check Your Twitter Apps Page Regularly

This is a housecleaning measure. About once a month or so, go to the part of your profile that lists all the apps you’ve given access to your account. Delete any you don’t recognize or aren’t using anymore.

Tip #7 – Don’t Tweet About Where You’re Going or When You’ll Be Away From Home

All your tweets are public. People don’t even have to be following you to see what you’re tweeting.

Tweeting that you’re away from home is a great way to advertise that your home is empty (and easy pickings for a break-in), but it’s also dangerous to let people know if you’re out alone (or if you might be imbibing alcohol).

I’m a big advocate of tweeting images, but some camera phones embed location information into the metadata of your pictures. It’s called geotagging, and anyone who wants to can easily figure out where you live or where you are at that moment. To be safe you should turn off the Geotagging feature on your phone or strip the information out. Both Facebook and Twitter say they will now be removing location information from photos, but you shouldn’t trust a social media site to do it for you because their policies are constantly changing. Be safe and do it yourself.

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Marcy KennedyMarcy Kennedy is a suspense and speculative fiction writer who believes fantasy is more real than you think. Alongside her own writing, Marcy works as a freelance fiction editor and teaches classes on craft and social media.

She’s also the author of the Busy Writer’s Guides series of books. You can find her blogging about writing and about the place where real life meets science fiction, fantasy, and myth at www.marcykennedy.com.

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Marcy’s latest entry in her Busy Writer’s Guide series is Twitter for Authors:

Twitter for Authors CoverBuilding a thriving social media platform doesn’t have to steal all your precious writing time or cut into your time with your family. Twitter for Authors is about building a successful Twitter platform that’s sustainable for busy people.

Twitter often gets a bad reputation from people who don’t understand it or don’t know how to use it to its full potential to build an author platform. When used correctly, Twitter can be one of the best tools for increasing traffic to your blog and gaining new readers for your books. And it’s fun!

Twitter for Authors contains helpful advice for both Twitter newbies and long-time Twitter users who want to take their platform to the next level.

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Thank you, Marcy! As I mentioned above, many of these tips apply to all of our online life:

  • We should always be smart with passwords and logging in to sites.
  • We should check for old or irrelevant apps on Facebook, Google, LinkedIn or other sites, just as we do for Twitter apps.
  • Most social media sites provide a method to block users and/or report spam.
  • We shouldn’t announce our location unless we’re trying to draw a crowd, like for a book signing.

Bonus Tip for Passwords: A Password Manager

One thing Marcy mentioned was using unique passwords for each site. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to dedicate the brainpower for remembering all those passwords. *smile*

Enter a password manager program, like KeePass or LastPass. These programs remember your passwords for you in encrypted form (unlike when we have our browser remember them). KeePass is more flexible for odd log-in requirements while LastPass is probably easier to use for non-techies.

Bonus Tip for Logging In: Two-Factor Authorization

LastPass, KeePass, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Hootsuite, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, OneDrive, PayPal, and WordPress.com (in other words, virtually all of our online life) all can be set up with Two-Factor Authorization (sometimes abbreviated 2FA). 2FA or two-step verification is a log-in process that requires us to verify our identity in two ways.

For example, the first time we log in from a new laptop, the service would send a code to our cell phone. If this new laptop is indeed ours—and not just the computer of someone who hacked our password—we would see the code on our phone and be able to copy it to our laptop to verify, “Yes, this is really me.”

No doubt there’s a pain-in-the-butt factor with 2FA, but many security experts say it’s the smartest thing we can do to prevent usage of any stolen passwords, because the password itself would not be enough. Here’s a list of the websites that support 2FA.

I don’t know about you, but I have a few more things on my list of stuff to do now. *sigh* Thanks again to Marcy for the reminders and information, and hopefully these tips will help us all. *smile*

How much do you worry about your online safety or security? Have you already implemented any of these tips? Do you have any other tips for online safety? Or do you have a warning story to share?

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Ask Jami: How Do We Describe Characters?

by Jami Gold on October 28, 2014

in Writing Stuff

High-heeled shoes with text: How Do We Describe Characters?

Today, I’m wrapping up questions about characters that have come in from some of my readers. Last week we covered the issues of how many characters our story should have and how to decide which character’s point of view to use in each scene.

Our question today is about how we should describe characters: how much, what methods, what details, etc. As we discussed last week, the answer to these questions often depends on our story’s genre and what we want to accomplish with our readers’ impressions.

When we’ve talked about descriptions here before, we focused on settings and how it’s important to describe our settings enough to anchor our readers. Our descriptions need to establish whether our characters are inside or outside, on a spaceship or a horse, or flying a military jet or a hot air balloon.

If we don’t anchor our characters within the setting, both with an overall description and with props (such as an umbrella for the rain or reins for the horse) that they interact with, our writing can fall victim to the “talking head syndrome.” Our characters can seem like they’re disembodied heads or voices just floating in empty space.

But do we have to describe our characters to the same extent? Will readers be similarly lost if we don’t provide details?

How Much Should We Describe Characters?

Killion asked:

“Would you … write about how to describe characters? I sometimes find it difficult to describe what my characters look like. Often times it’s because my scenes have action, and it is not relevant at any time to discuss what they are or are not wearing…”

Let’s start first by talking about how “character description” might refer to:

  • Physical appearance: height, hair color, eye color, scars, etc.
  • Clothing: Armani suit, leather pants, plaid jacket, etc.
  • Behavior: twitchy, quiet with a lowered gaze, shifty eyes, etc.
  • Attitude: “take no prisoners,” friendly, distracted, etc.
  • Impression: (i.e., How does a character make the point of view (POV) character feel?) scared, happy, attracted, etc.

When we look at that list, we can see that some types of description are more important for sharing insights into a character, and some are better at creating a visual image of a character.

Internal Character Insights:

Most stories would include behavior, attitude, and the impression of the POV character in their descriptions. All of those descriptive elements help our characters feel more three dimensional and add interest to our story.

Even so, we don’t need to add these details unless they’re relevant to the story. Readers don’t care if an “extra” is distracted unless it illuminates the story or the POV character in some way. If the distracted guy doesn’t affect the POV character or story, who cares?

External Character Appearance:

However, Killion is asking more about a character’s visual image, their physical appearance and clothing. And the answer to that question depends entirely on our genre and target audience. Some genres create a movie-like impression of the characters, and other stories take the attitude that a blank slate will allow readers to more easily step into a character’s shoes.

As Killion noted, for some stories, anything beyond basic descriptions can come across as irrelevant. So, just as I mentioned with character insights above, the key is to describe when it’s relevant to the:

  • story,
  • character, or
  • target audience.

If we want readers to get a chick-lit feel from our story, we do have to include clothing, car, and prop labels (i.e., relevant to the target audience). If we want readers to think our characters are prepared for the impending snowstorm, we do need to mention their hats, gloves, and jackets (i.e., relevant to the story). If we want readers to get a feel for a character’s quirky personality, we can mention their funky socks. Those details add to readers’ understanding of the story or characters.

On the other hand, if we don’t want readers distracted by irrelevant details of the character’s brand of underwear, we simply don’t mention it (i.e., irrelevant to the story or target audience). If the character wouldn’t pay attention to the color of their pants, we don’t have to mention a color (i.e., irrelevant to the character). Those details wouldn’t add anything, so it would be pointless (and slow down the story’s pace) to include them.

As with many elements of writing, we need to decide what impression we want readers to have. We get to choose, and there’s not an always-right answer. *smile*

How Can We Describe Our POV Character without the Mirror Cliché?

For descriptions of non-POV characters, we can—and should—use our POV character to share the details. Just as we make setting descriptions active by showing the details through our POV character’s view, we should do the same with character descriptions.

A heterosexual female POV character wouldn’t describe an attractive female the same way she’d describe an attractive male. One of the biggest faults of male authors who write female POV characters is when they describe other female characters with a “male gaze” instead of with their female character’s thoughts. (Trust me, guys, I don’t catalog other women’s chest size. *smile*) That’s a major groaner for many readers.

The difficulty comes when we have to describe our POV character. As I mentioned in my post about weak writing:

A lazy and cliché way to introduce a character is to have them look in a mirror. … Normal people don’t look at themselves in a mirror and think “Yep, that’s my x-colored eyes and my y-colored hair.””

So how do we let readers know what the POV character looks like?

The first thing we should recognize is that the physical appearance of our POV character is usually not that important. It’s certainly not important enough to rate space on our crucial first pages.

In other words, it’s okay if readers gather clues about their appearance over time. Readers might learn their hair color in one scene, eye color in another, etc. For most stories, the POV character’s appearance doesn’t affect the story, so readers don’t need to know the information right away.

That again brings us back to what’s relevant and what affects the story. And that’s how we sneak in references to their appearance—when the point isn’t only to bring up how they look.

When it’s relevant to the story, whatever method we choose to share the information is less prone to bad writing. Dialogue that would sound cheesy when out of the blue will make sense when it fits the story. Heck, even a scene with a mirror will work when it’s relevant to the story.

Potential methods to share clues to our character’s appearance include:

  • Dialogue: “Your hair looks great all the time. I don’t know how I’m going to wrangle my curls for the prom.”
  • Action: She pulled her fingers through the thick cloud-like mass on her head, demonstrating the difficulty in managing the chaos.
  • Reaction from other characters: The dress shop’s cashier stared at her a minute longer than was comfortable. It was the eyes. Her violet eyes never failed to attract notice. She was tempted to wear colored contacts just so she could blend in with the crowd.
  • Mirror: Her reflection on the mirror caught her eye, and she straightened, pulling in her stomach. She still looked short and dumpy. Ugh. Time to hit the gym before the big dance.
  • Other Senses: She stumbled in her heels, and the artfully arranged braid keeping her hair under control shifted dangerously on the crown of her head. (Read more about using other senses.)

As I mentioned, any of these methods could be cliché or cheesy if they seem to come out of nowhere or if their only point is to share descriptive information. However, in my no-context examples, I tried to show how if we include the how or why something is relevant, we can make any technique—even the mirror cliché—work for the story and the reader.

In those examples, why does her hair or eyes or height matter? Because she’s insecure about her appearance. The “how she feels about it” aspect makes the information relevant to the character, which in turn, makes it relevant to the story and the reader.

So in our story, we can look for places where appearance hints would be relevant to the character or story. But we also shouldn’t worry if it takes us several scenes or chapters to get the various descriptive elements on the page.

Do We Need to Describe Our Characters’ Clothing?

The answer to this question greatly depends on our genre and target readership. Many readers of the chick-lit genre (and some young adult and romance sub-genres) want to see the labels of the clothes, underwear, cars, etc. Whereas, in other genres, it would be silly—and more importantly, bad for pacing—to interrupt a fight scene to describe someone’s shirt or shoes.

But we also need to note that there’s a difference between referring to clothing items (i.e., mentioning it exists) and describing clothing items. “Referring” means that we mention clothing’s existence: He swung his fist so hard his shirt pulled out from his waistband.

Great. We know he has a shirt and something with a waistband. Do readers need to know more? Do we need to describe the shirt and not just refer to it? Maybe, maybe not.

Is the shirt’s color important to the story (he wore black to sneak into the house) or the character (he wore blue to match her dress)? Is the fabric or fit important to the story (the linen easily ripped in the fight) or the character (opening the buttons allowed him to catch a draft and cool off)? Does the genre or target audience want to know the brand?

Depending on our genre, we might refer to the POV character’s clothing once a story or once every couple of scenes. Or we might describe the POV’s character’s clothing in detail every time they change outfits.

For some genres, extreme details do advance the story or character development, and in other genres, they’d bring the pacing to a halt. So there’s no rule about the right amount. We have to read in our genre to know the expectations of the target audience and then pay attention to our story and characters.

How Much Do We Need to Repeat Descriptions in Sequels?

Killion also asked about sequels in book series:

“Do I have to rehash what each character looks like again?”

The answer here again is: It depends. *smile*

Some series want to pick up new readers with each book. Each one might have a standalone plot that’s wrapped up at the end of the story. For these sequels, yes, we’d want to include character descriptions in each book because we’re treating each one as separate, and we’d want to immerse new readers in this story with whatever descriptions are appropriate.

Other series are designed like serials with cliffhangers, and new readers would be lost anyway. For these sequels, a quick reminder description would usually be enough unless some aspect of their appearance is important to the story (like Harry Potter’s scar). In that case, we’d want to ensure that detail was fully included in each story, just to make sure readers remembered the significance from one book to the next.

So our decision would depend entirely on our goals for the series and on what we wanted to make sure readers understood. The more readers need to know, the more we need to describe.

As I mentioned at the top of this post, there’s not a single rule for how much to describe our characters because it all comes down to what impression we want readers to have. The best advice I have is to:

  • read in our genre so we know the expectations for how much, what method, what details, etc.
  • include only descriptions that are relevant and active for the POV character or story

Anything else is essentially an information dump, no better than static descriptions or pointless backstory. Even with character descriptions, we want to show rather than tell most of the time.

Personally, I rarely describe my character’s clothing beyond the basics. In my paranormal romance genre, clothing is often important only for how one character reacts to another (he loves her sexy dress) and whether their clothing impedes their actions, such as in fights or sex scenes. And as someone who doesn’t pay attention to clothing details in real life, I am so glad for that. *smile*

Do you struggle with how to describe your characters? What elements do you usually include? Do you have other tips to share? Have you noticed poor character descriptions in stories (irrelevant, cheesy, or…)? Do you have a pet peeve about writing or reading character descriptions?

P.S. Would you like to guest post on my blog? Now’s your chance!
To make my NaNo November easier, I’m taking proposals for guest posts to run during November. Fair warning: I’ll still be picky—I’m not that desperate. *smile* Interested? Submit a proposal here.

Last Chance! Starts Today!
Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:

Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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Ask Jami: Whose Point of View Should We Use?

by Jami Gold on October 23, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Two boys looking through binoculars with text: Whose Point of View Should We Use?

We have another post inspired by questions people have asked me. Last time, we talked about how to find the right balance of characters, not too few and not too many. Today we’re continuing the discussion about characters, specifically character point of view (POV). (And once again, this post turned out really long, so I’m going to save the question about character descriptions for next week.)

This post is yet more evidence for why I love my readers. *smile* Not only did they give me a topic to write about, but in the comments of Tuesday’s post, they also forced me to better explain a concept that ties into today’s post.

So there’s some overlap between these posts because many writing concepts affect each other, like literary puzzle pieces. If we have issues in one area, we’re likely weakening our writing in other areas too. On the other hand, when we fix those problems, we’re likely making our writing stronger across the board as well. Yay!

Who Gets the Point of View?

Ebony asked:

“How does one figure out which POVs to use and when? … How can I balance it out so that each character has their share of the novel without revealing too much or ruining the suspense?”

Another great question! See why I was so excited about this topic. *smile*

Okay, let’s take those questions one at a time. I’m going to first tackle the second part because it ties into Tuesday’s post so well.

Do We Need to Balance POV Scenes?

Ebony’s question starts with the assumption that we need to balance the number of POV scenes for our different main characters. Sometimes that assumption is true and sometimes it’s not. The answer depends on the genre and the characters.

Remember Tuesday’s discussion of how we can have major characters with POV scenes who are not protagonists? I pointed out that for most stories, no matter how many important characters we have, we’re likely to have one true protagonist:

“Certain genres like romance default to two. However, even in that case, one protagonist is usually primary. So if we have more than one protagonist, we want to answer the “whose story is this?” question.”

As I mentioned, we can make that determination by figuring out which character drives the story. This might mean that their arc is stronger or their goals are more directly tied to the plot and overall story than the other. Or as I later pointed out in the comments, I’ve seen cases where multiple protagonists share ownership, as one owns the external arc and one owns the internal arc.

Also in the comments, I gave a few more tips for figuring out our true protagonist(s) by elaborating on the concepts of ownership and stakes / consequences:

“We might be able to tell which protagonist “owns” the story by figuring out which character “owns” the final conflict. The climax of the story is the point of the story, so whichever character is central to that conflict is closer to the point of the story goals. … It’s central to her life and goals…”

“We’re talking about who has the most at stake to overcome the antagonistic forces. … For an internal arc, usually the person who changes the most (because they had the most consequences to avoid (stakes) forcing them to change) would be the one “driving” that part of the story. By “drive,” we’re using the term the way we do with the phrase “narrative drive.” Like, who’s keeping the story progressing because the consequences force them to not give up.”

Why do I bring all that up? Because while we should balance the number of scenes of our protagonists to some extent, we do not need to balance the number of scenes of our major-but-not-protagonist characters.

This is why it’s important to know who our true protagonist(s) is. In addition to ensuring that our story is focused enough on the main storyline and not getting too bogged down in tangents, we also want to know whether we need to give them a balanced number of scenes.

If we try to give roughly equal numbers of scenes to all our POV characters, regardless of whether they’re a protagonist or not, we’re likely to end up with a lot of scenes that distract from our core story. That will steal focus from the story we’re trying to tell.

On the other hand, if we really do have multiple protagonists, such as in romance, where it’s common to have a dual protagonist story, we usually do want to give roughly equal numbers of scenes to both protagonists. But if we find that a struggle, we want to ask ourselves if the missing character is truly a protagonist or not. And if we feel they should be a protagonist (like for a romance), maybe we need to look at further developing their arc, goals, and stakes.

How Do We Balance the Number of POV Scenes?

Okay, once we know we have two or more POV characters who really are protagonists, we should roughly balance their numbers of POV scenes, right? How do we do that?

In my experience as a romance author who regularly needs to do this with my stories, I’ve found three measurements helpful for checking balance:

  1. number of scenes
  2. overall word count
  3. number of consecutive non-POV scenes

Number of Scenes

For my romance stories, the scenes typically go back and forth between the hero and the heroine. There are a few exceptions with two heroine scenes in a row or vice versa, but this general back-and-forth approach keeps the number roughly balanced without too much effort. The number doesn’t need to be an exact match, but if one protagonist has 25 scenes and the other has 10, that’s probably indicative of a problem with the story structure, stakes, or arc.

Overall Word Count

One thing that makes me not as worried when I break that he-said-she-said pattern is if, say, the second heroine scene in a row is relatively short. For example, I wouldn’t be concerned if the heroine has two scenes in a row, but one is very short, and then the hero’s scene after that is very long. In other words, word count can help the balance so we don’t have to worry about exceptions to #1.

Number of Consecutive Non-POV Scenes

On the other hand, I do worry if I have too many scenes in a row with the same protagonist. For example, if we have two protagonists and one has five scenes in a row, that can lead readers to feel disconnected from the “missing” character. In some genres, this might not be a big deal.

However, in a romance, the story works best if readers are connected to both protagonists. (It’s hard to root for a couple to get together if we don’t care enough about one of them to think they deserve the other.) So we usually don’t want readers to lose their connection to one of the protagonists for too long.

Great! How Do We Track Those POV Measurements?

Personally, I use Scrivener (Windows and Mac) for drafting. Scrivener’s “meta data” fields can be set to whatever we want. In my Scrivener template, I set the Label field to flag for POV.

I label my hero’s scenes blue and my heroine’s scenes pink with that meta-data field, and this flag allows me to see at a glance how well I’ve balanced their scenes. I can check the back-and-forth in the Binder list (do most of my scenes follow a pink-blue-pink-blue pattern?). I can make sure I’ve avoided too many consecutive single POV scenes (how many pink scenes do I have in a row?).

I can even do a Search on POV (from the drop down search menu) and enter a character name to bring up all of one POV’s scenes. Select all those scenes in the Binder menu on the left, and the status bar on the bottom of the window will display the total word count for all those scenes so we can compare one POV’s word count to another. Ta-da! Easy. *smile*

If others have non-Scrivener tips for easy ways to keep track of POV scenes, feel free to share them in the comments. For me, Scrivener just makes this so easy that I can’t think of anything else that would compare.

But Whose POV Should We Use?

We now know that we only need to worry about balancing the number of POV scenes if we’re talking about multiple protagonists, and we know what “balance” means and how we can measure it. So that brings us back to the first part of the question: whose POV should we use for any one scene if we have multiple POVs in our story?

Just like how one protagonist might be primary in our story, one character might “own” a scene because they’re the central focus. The scene might be about their goals or actions. But sometimes, the answer is not so obvious.

There’s a lot of advice about this question, but I find most of the tips both too complicated and too simplistic. For me, because I write by the seat of my pants, I’m used to following the lead of my muse, so I usually “just know” whose POV a scene should be in (hence the “too complicated” label). But I also know that approach doesn’t always work (not even for me), and yet most advice gives a single guideline, which might not be best either (hence the “too simplistic” label).

So let’s see if we can break this question down further…

Guidelines for Deciding Whose POV to Use

We’d usually show the scene from the character’s POV that falls into one or more of these situations:

  • Higher Stakes: Which character has more at stake in the scene? Which one has more to lose or gain? Which one has more energy or passion about the events in the scene because the consequences mean more to them?
  • Higher Emotion: Which character has more emotional change in the scene? Which character has stronger emotions? Which one is falling the furthest or has the epiphany?
  • Which character has less obvious motivations or goals and readers would benefit from the insight of their POV?
  • Which character knows the least (or not too much) about something we want to keep hidden?
  • Which character knows the most about something we want to make clear?
  • Which character can act as a reader stand-in for learning lots of information (like worldbuilding rules) in a gradual or natural way?
  • Which character’s experience will be most compelling to readers? (Keep them immersed.)
  • Which character’s experience will be most relatable to readers? (Keep them interested.)
  • Which character’s experience will best maintain or increase story tension? (Keep them turning pages.)
  • Which character’s experience will best provide enlightenment for the story’s theme? (Think of stories like The Great Gatsby, where the central character is not the POV character.)

If you’re familiar with beat sheets or turning points, you probably recognized how some of those questions coincide with the turning points of our story, such as epiphanies, black moments, etc. For our turning point scenes, we want to maximize the emotional impact for the reader, so it’s important to choose the right character for those scences.

But in some turning point scenes, multiple characters might be going through upheaval at the same time. For those scenes, we might want to take a couple of minutes before drafting and think about the stakes and emotions for each POV of the scene’s main characters.

We can think about the motivations and what will be revealed with one character over another. And then we can think about which character’s situation feels more resonant to us. Hopefully those answers would help us make a choice.

From those questions above, you can also probably tell that high stakes and high emotion (the first two multi-part questions) are the most important considerations. But I included the other questions because sometimes we might really want to use a different character than those answers would lead us to, and the standard advice might make us doubt our decision. So I wanted to show why the exceptions might not be the wrong choice.

Sometimes it is most important for readers to understand motivations. Or sometimes it is most important to hide or reveal information. Or sometimes it is most important to keep the reader’s experience in mind.

The point is making sure we’ve thought it through enough that we have a reason, especially when our gut doesn’t give us an answer or when our instinct leads us away from the obvious answer. And the good news is that we don’t have to get this right in the first draft either.

After we finish our first draft, we might discover that a character was going through more internal upheaval in a scene than we thought or maybe their actions were more central to the plot than we realized. Revisions are the perfect place to do a sanity check on our POV choices because we can always fix it in rewrites. *smile*

If you use multiple POVs in your story, how much do you worry about balancing the number of scenes between them? Do you have other insights into how to keep POVs balanced? Do you ever struggle with knowing whose POV to use? How do you decide? Can you think of other reasons we might not want to go with the character with the highest stakes or emotions?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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Silhouette of a crowd with text: How Many Characters Do We Need?

This week I have more posts inspired by questions people asked me. Yay! I don’t have to think of topics. Love that. *smile*

Actually, this topic is interesting because I received three different questions within two weeks that were all related. All three readers had questions about characters, specifically about numbers, point of view, and descriptions.

So let’s start with today’s question about how we can find the Goldilocks number of characters for our story. Not too few and not too many…

What’s the “Right” Number of Characters?

Kim wants to know if there’s an optimal number of characters to include in a novel. That’s a great question because, as she says:

“It seems that one character is too limited; the novel can become claustrophobic, but too many characters can confuse things.”

The second part of Kim’s question brings up another issue, however. She says:

“I’m not talking about the extras, but characters who have character arcs and who we care about.”

Kim is right that there’s a balance between the claustrophobia of too few characters and the confusion of too many characters. She’s also right that there are different “levels” of characters. So before we talk numbers, let’s first define some of the terms.

The Different Types of Characters

We can label characters depending on whether they have an arc, whether scenes are shown from their point of view, how much they drive the story, and their story purpose.

Main Character(s)/Protagonist(s):

  • Protagonists usually have a full arc over the course of the story. They have goals and change in some way to overcome the obstacles.
  • They typically “make things happen” during the story, and their driving of the plot is often their purpose in the story (i.e., the protagonist’s purpose for being in the story is one and the same as the story goals).
  • Much (if not all) of the story is told from their point of view (POV).
  • Some genres (such as the romance genre) have two protagonists, but most have only one protagonist.

Secondary Characters with Point-of-View Scenes:

  • Some stories include scenes from multiple POVs.
  • A secondary character might not have what we’d typically call an “arc” (with a sense of change), but if they have a POV scene, we’d usually include at least a hint of their goals (even if they fail abruptly with their death at the end of the scene).
  • The arc of these non-protagonist characters might not continue throughout the entire story, but instead stop and start as needed for the plot.
  • These characters may or may not “make things happen” during the story. If they do make things happen, their actions often directly affect the protagonist.
  • The use of these other POVs often depends on the genre:
    • Mysteries or thrillers might include POV scenes from the villain or a victim.
    • Epics of different genres (from literary fiction to political or fantasy) might include scenes from five or more characters to increase the scope of the story world.
    • Some epics might not have a main protagonist driving the story at all, and instead gather the stories of several major POV characters between its covers.
    • The story purpose of these POV characters depends on the genre, but they typically fulfill a goal that’s smaller than the story at large.

Secondary Characters without Point-of-View Scenes:

  • With rare exceptions, all but the shortest stories include secondary characters.
  • Like above, these characters often have goals, but might not have a full sense of an arc, where they change over the course of the story.
  • When they make things happen, the underlying purpose is to move the story forward and affect the protagonist.
  • At their essence, these characters can be categorized by their function for the story:
    • mentor who teaches the protagonist an important lesson
    • best friend who forces the protagonist to look at the situation from a different perspective
    • antagonist who creates obstacles
    • bumbler who sets a plot event in motion, etc., etc.
  • It’s because of those clichéd categories that we try to round these characters out with their own goals, dreams, and changes, but we still wouldn’t include them in our story if they didn’t serve a story purpose.

Extras:

  • Extras are characters who exist only for their purpose to the story.
  • They may or may not have dialogue, but we give no sense of their own goals beyond their story purpose.

What Causes Us to Use the Wrong Number of Characters?

Now that we have all that defined, we can take a closer look at what Kim’s question really means. When it comes to too few or too many characters, not all of those labels are created equal.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of extras we use. No one cares about them, so it doesn’t matter if that restaurant scene in our story has 10 extras filling the other tables or 100 extras. We decide strictly by the needs of the story.

We’re not typically going to have issues with the number of protagonists we use simply because most stories include only one protagonist. Beyond the exceptions of sweeping epics or a dual protagonist story (such as a romance), we’d run into trouble only when we’re confused about the story we’re trying to tell.

However, where we often have issues is with secondary characters. As I mentioned, secondary characters can be major characters with lots of dialogue, POV scenes, goals, etc. If we do our job right, they’ll feel just as real to us as our protagonist. As authors or readers, we do care about these characters.

And that’s why we run into trouble. We can do such a good job of defining these charming, funny, interesting secondary characters beyond the clichés or their story purpose that they can multiply or take over too much of the story. We can care so much that we want to hang out more with them. Those issues can lead to a loss of focus, plot tangents, etc.

Arcs, Arcs, Does Everybody Arc?

This goes back to the second part of Kim’s question. I want to point out that not every secondary character needs an arc, complete with a sense of change, in order for us to care about them. We can care about secondary characters simply because of their humor, bantering skills, insights, etc.

In fact, we don’t want to give our secondary characters an arc with change if it would distract or steal focus from this story we’re trying to tell. For many of our secondary characters, any sense of change will be limited and might center only on the protagonist or main story (such as changing from disrespecting the protagonist to respecting them).

We do want our secondary characters to have goals and a purpose beyond this story so they don’t feel like cardboard puppets, but it’s okay if we only hint at those goals (such as with a disagreement with the protagonist, or even just a disagreeing tone of voice), and it’s okay if they don’t change much (or at all). If their story is that compelling, we can save it for the sequel. *smile*

How Can We Tell How Many Characters We Should Have?

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any “golden rule” to decide on the right number of characters because there are several variables:

  • Word Count:

Obviously, shorter works usually have fewer characters. A short story may have only one character. Novellas are likewise going to have fewer characters just because they have fewer subplots. But novels are big enough to support many characters if we wish.

  • Genre:

As I mentioned above, genre can affect our number of protagonists, POV characters, and other secondary characters. A sweeping family epic needs a lot of characters to create the sense of scope.

  • Style:

Similar to genre, some stories want a broad cast to create a far-ranging style. Other stories, like romances or cozy mysteries, might want a more intimate mood brought on by smaller-scale casts.

What’s the Right Number of Characters for Our Story?

Step One:

Determine the number of protagonists. In most cases, this would be “one.” Certain genres like romance default to two. However, even in that case, one protagonist is usually primary. So if we have more than one protagonist, we want to answer the “whose story is this?” question.

As a romance author, I can tell you that even in dual protagonist story lines, one protagonist typically drives the story more. One character’s arc might be stronger than the other, or one’s goals might be more directly tied to the plot and overall story than the other.

Keep that difference in mind when developing scenes. Too many scenes driven by the other protagonist, when they aren’t connected to the primary protagonist’s goals (i.e., the story goals), can slow the pace or cause the story to lose focus.

(Edited to add: Emerald’s comment below made me think of a way that multiple protagonists can share ownership, one for the external arc and one for the internal arc. So there are many ways to ensure that our story stays coherent, even with multiple protagonists. Read my reply to her for more details.)

Step Two:

Determine the number of “cast openings” based on the story. Remember that all secondary characters, with or without POV scenes, exist for a story purpose. Any character who doesn’t have a purpose in the story should be cut. Think about how each character moves the story forward, kicks off a plot event, or helps, hinders, enlightens, or confuses the protagonist.

Step Three:

Determine whether any character can overlap and fulfill multiple story purposes without breaking the story. Can our protagonist’s best friend also be their mentor? Or would it be better to keep those functions separate?

Step Four:

Determine whether we need more characters to evoke the proper style or scope. For some stories, where we want a large cast to create an epic feel, we might need to add subplots or twists to create more cast openings for secondary characters.

A good rule of thumb might be:

Include as many characters as needed to tell the story and evoke the proper style and scope—and no more.

For intimate novels, this number might be as small as 2-5 secondary characters, and for broader stories, this number might be 20-30. Obviously, the larger the number, the harder it might be for our readers to remember them all, which is why we want to make sure that every character is there for a reason.

If we have thirty major characters, twenty of them with POV scenes, it will be difficult for readers to pick up the book and re-immerse themselves in the story after a pause. Or we might need to include a “Cast of Characters” in the front or back of the book, which can make our story look intimidating to some readers.

On the other hand, if we need 20 or more characters to juggle all the pieces of a giant Game of Thrones chessboard plot, that’s what we need. The point is to determine the number the story needs for plot and style, while ensuring that we’re not allowing tangents or rambling events to steal the focus from the story we want to tell.

Step Five:

Ensure that all non-extra characters are the best, strongest, or most compelling we can make them. Our secondary characters need a primary purpose for existing in our story, but it shouldn’t feel that way to our readers. They should feel natural and organic to the story. Secondary characters can often be the glue that holds a story together, the comic relief creating a more entertaining read, or the spark that makes a story come alive.

Step Six:

Be smart about introducing characters to readers. This means that we should:

  • limit introductions to two (maybe three) characters a page
  • use varied names so we don’t have Joyce and Jane or Tom and Don, with similar initial letters or sounds
  • avoid using names for extras unless necessary
  • if appropriate, give characters a memorable feature, trait, mannerism, etc.

Thanks for the question, Kim! I’ve written stories with large casts and small casts, so hopefully these tips will help us all figure out the right number for our story. Everything we write is a choice, and how we populate our stories is no different. *smile*

What’s the smallest cast you’ve written? What’s the largest? Have you ever had to cut a character? How did you figure out they needed to go? Do you have other tips for knowing how many characters we need?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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NaNo Prep: Are You Ready to Start Drafting?

by Jami Gold on October 16, 2014

in Writing Stuff

Screenshot of a blank Scrivener project with text: Are You Ready to Start Drafting?

It’s almost time for NaNoWriMo, when thousands of writers will try to cram 50,000 words into a 30-day deadline. If you’re participating in NaNo and anything like me, you might be freaking out a little as November nears.

Yes, that’s right. I’m doing NaNo this year and feeling a little stressed. Although this is my third year with NaNo, this will be my first time doing it “for really-real.” *smile*

In 2012, I wrote 60K during November, but that was to draft Act Two and Three of a book I’d already started. In 2013, I only had 30K left to go on my work in progress, so I couldn’t even try for the 50K mark. But this year?

This year, I’m starting a new story from scratch on Day One of NaNo. Just the way we’re supposed to do it.

As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, this “from scratch” aspect is why I’m eager to explore my story idea through the method I’ll be teaching in my upcoming “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” workshop. This time, I need to get ready. *grin*

Of course I am a pantser, so what I do to get ready for drafting by the seat of my pants is different from what those who plot their stories in advance do to get ready. But I figured now would be a good time to review two different approaches for starting any draft—NaNo or not—pantser or plotter—and update one of my posts about knowing what to plan in advance.

The Two Types of Story Planning

Posts abound this time of year about planning for NaNo so your story will end up as a decent first draft. But do you know what kind of planning will help you the most?

At their essence, all stories are about change. Most stories consist of (at least) two arcs tracking that change: a story/plot arc and a character/emotion arc. They start at Point A and things happen in a cause-and-effect, action-reaction chain to end up at Point B.

Story/plot arcs are about the “what” or the “why.” What happens to make things change? Why is the story happening now and not a year ago?

Character/emotional arcs are about the “who” and the “how.” Who is facing the obstacles and has to change to succeed? How are they changing?

Most stories are a mix of those plot-driven and character-driven questions. But we might not need to plan ahead with both. Some of us can write by the seat of our pants (pantser) with one type of arc more than the other type.

We don’t want to spend hours working through a character background sheet if we’re good at winging the character aspect of our story. Alternately, we don’t want to waste time completing a story outline if we’re good at making up the plot turning points as we go. So we need to figure out what style of planning will work best for us.

The Basics of Planning for Plot

If we’re better at making up characters as we go along, we might want to focus our planning efforts on the main story turning points.

  • What drags the character into the story and forces them to make a choice to get involved?
  • What raises the stakes and tension during the middle of the story?
  • What’s going to make the character lose hope before the end?
  • What’s going to push the character to change and face the obstacles at the end?

We can plan a lot more, obviously, but that gives us a starting point and an ending point. That Point A and Point B will give us a direction as we write. And even if we’re the pants-iest pantser, that much planning is less likely to freak out our muse than doing a full story outline.

Plot Planning Resources:

The Basics of Planning for Character

On the other hand, if we’re better at making up scenes and plot points as we go along, we might want to focus our planning efforts on the character arc. That means we have to know the character’s Point A and Point B.

Some people find character arcs harder to “see” because they’re more mental than physical. But in character terms, Point A and Point B means we have to know their destination (what they want) and their beginning (what’s holding them back).

  • What does the character long for and desire? (story ending)
  • What choices are they making that keep them from their dream? (story beginning)
  • What do they learn? (how they change)
  • What are they willing to do at the end that they weren’t willing to do before? (story climax)

Character Planning Resources:

Worried about Getting Stuck?

If you’re worried about getting stuck midway through your story, my “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story” workshop shares additional planning layers we can use at any point in our drafting process.

Many of us who write by the seat of our pants can get through the first part of the story by winging it. But if you’re anything like me, sometime in the middle of the story, we might slow down and get stuck for what should happen next.

The tools I share in my workshop help with planning both the plot and character arc, as well as seeing the conflicts and obstacles we can use in the middle of our story to kick start our writing again. When we have to get in 50K words in 30 days, we need to quickly overcome those times we’re stuck. *smile*

And I just have to share this testimonial from two days ago because it made me squee and then blush and then squee some more:

“This is the BEST online workshop I’ve taken … Using this method, I was able to fast draft THREE 100k manuscripts in 2-months a piece (over only 8 months). RECOMMENDED!!” — Jennifer Rose

I’m offering my plotter and pantser-friendly workshop in two weeks (October 28th and 30th), just in time for NaNo. But if the days/times aren’t convenient for you, note that everyone who signs up receives a full recording of the class and a thorough handout. And if you’re doing NaNo, come buddy me so we can cheer each other on.

Hopefully, these tips will be enough to get us all started. My beta buddy Angela Quarles and I had a brainstorming session this past weekend, so I have the basics ready for NaNo. But with every story, I still freak out that I don’t know enough. Luckily by now, I’ve learned to trust my muse, so I’m trying to hold the freak out to a minimum. Good luck to us all! *smile*

Are you doing NaNo this year? Do you feel ready for November? What do you plan or prepare in advance? Do you have a harder time with plots or characters? Can you pants one of those but not the other?

Join Jami in her upcoming workshop:
Get ready for NaNo by learning how to do just enough story development to write faster with “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.”

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OnDemand Workshops & Blogging Basics

October 14, 2014 News
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On social media, I often encourage people to ask me questions. That’s not a superficial platitude. I am pathologically helpful, so when a reader asked for my advice about blogging, specifically how we would start and when we should get started, I decided to do a mega-link post with all my tips.

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Cause and Effect: Understanding Story Flow

October 9, 2014 Writing Stuff
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In the real world, the cause of something happens before the effect. But in writing, we can put words into any order we want, which might leave the reader confused. If they have to reverse events in their head, they’re probably no longer immersed in our story. Not good.

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Frustrated with Slow Progress? Join the Crowd

October 7, 2014 Over-Achieving Perfectionist
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We’ve probably all been frustrated with slow progress at some point in our writing career. Maybe we’re frustrated with the slow increase of our word count. Maybe we’re frustrated with an apparent lack of improvement in our writing. Or maybe we’re frustrated with our sales numbers. The point is that frustration happens to all of […]

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Writing Struggles: Waiting for News

October 2, 2014 Random Musings
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Most of yesterday was spent with me biting my nails while waiting for news on my brother’s brain surgery. But that brought to mind how hard waiting can be, so I want to take a minute to recognize all the ways we wait, as writers, and hope that things beyond our control go our way. Believe me, I feel your pain. *smile*

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Why No Advice Is Perfect: Character Emotions

September 30, 2014 Writing Stuff
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There’s never going to be a ‘one size fits all’ guideline for any aspect of writing. Every story is different, so some advice doesn’t apply to us. What’s right for one genre might not be right for another genre. Ditto for the point of view of the story. Or the characters. Or the plot.

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