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The Big Damn Writer Advice Column

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It’s Thursday! Time to answer some questions from the Big Damn Writer’s Question Box!

Q: How do you make sure your characters are developing the way you want them to? What do you do to make sure that the characters you are writing are not two-dimensional, or flat?

A: A really good way to make sure your characters are well-rounded is to make up a life for them that includes details that might not be pertinent to the book. If you’re writing a spy thriller set in Cold War Russia, we might not need to know that your American double agent was a Boy Scout growing up. But if you know that, then you’re aware that he has memories and experiences that exist outside of the slice of his life you’re writing. Maybe the scientist curing the virus in you Sci-Fi novel won’t ever have an opportunity to tell us about how her wild partying almost got her kicked out of college, but it will certainly shape her personality. People are like icebergs: you see about a tenth of what’s below the surface. Build that for your character, and they won’t be two-dimensional. And do it for all your characters; most of my side characters have elaborate backstories because even if they never get their own books, they’re the protagonist of their own stories.


Q: Tell us about what happens when you get an idea for a new piece of fiction. Before you start writing, do you need to know how the story will end, or do you sometimes just start with a character or a concept and see where it takes you? Are you a copious outliner? Do you chart each scene that needs to happen in advance and then work from that? Or do you just sit down and write and see what end up on the page?

A: When I get an idea, the first step is usually to let it sit in my brain for twenty-four hours. I figure if I can remember it twenty-four hours later, it’s worth paying attention to. The only exception is if I’m high (which is often). Then, all bets on my memory are off. In that case, I tell Bronwyn Green and she writes it in a file she keeps of all the ideas I’ve had that I might want later. I almost never want them later, but she humors me.

My ideas start out fairly nebulous. My first novel started out as “Why does everyone write about women falling in love with vampires? Why don’t they write about what happens after she becomes a vampire?” and grew from there. Other times, it will be just a character or setting. I have an entire fantasy series that existed in my head as just a setting for years. The test to see if stuff like that will actually work is sitting down and thinking out the story. It doesn’t have to be a full outline, just enough to see if I can actually get a story out of it. From there, I might outline it more or just start writing a little and then finish a full outline a few chapters in, to make sure I’m staying on track.

I would love to be able to sit down and just start writing and see what happens, and in the past, that was my strategy. But the writer brain seems to be constantly evolving, and something that worked five years ago, ten years ago might not work anymore now.


Bonus Question: Do you have any tips regarding gaining a following?

A: Honestly, I have no idea how I ended up with as many readers as I have. I think the only thing you can really do is create content you want to see, make connections with people in a way you like to connect, and don’t worry about making people like you if they don’t. That’s really all the advice I’ve got, because that’s how it went for me and it seemed to work out okay.


Wanna see your questions get answered (or just wanna air a grievance?) Put it in the box!

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