Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Building An Empire

Synopsis Series: Part 6

Sorry about the missed posts! I was in hospital having a baby.

The Worst World Building Comes From Laziness

The worst books, the ones I put down right away, are the ones that basically have a historical earth setting, but the author has made no efforts to research and just calls it fantasy, so they don’t have to be historically accurate.

Admittedly, there are some readers that just don’t care about that sort of thing. However the truth is, there are too few people like that to make a book a best seller. Lazy world building will forever keep you in the realms of the mid-list author, and that is the very best you can aim for.

You might think this only affects speculative and historical fiction, but it is just as important in contemporary fiction. The under developed world building there tends to show itself in characters who are all from the same upbringing and location as the author. Not just main characters, but everyone. Its often a book full of white, middle class, lapsed Christians, as if no other people exist in the world. Maybe a few caricatures of billionaires thrown in too, but those billionaires don’t act or think like billionaires, they just act and think like the author with more money.

I honestly can’t be bothered reading books by lazy authors. If you didn’t care enough to do any research or put effort in to developing a rich, full world, why would I want to read it? I’m certainly not going to care about your book more than you do.

That said, world building doesn’t have to be a huge, month long nightmare. I know some writers who can get a bit bogged down in world building. They spend months, even years, focusing on world building and never write the book. Realistically, world building should probably take about a week. I highly suggest supplementing your world building with historical documentaries throughout the year. There are many fantastic British series on how things are made traditionally in tutor times, or Victorian times, everything from thatch roofs to food to pigstys. They’re very enjoyable too, so watch them instead of re-watching ‘the office’ and your evenings being comatose on the couch will be put to good use.


Your magic system needs rules. For all the pros, there has to be cons. Too many authors use magic to solve problems they are too lazy to find solutions for. However a good magic system creates problems and obstacles, not solutions. It should be a source of conflict. Either because of the toll it takes on the user, the social and political implications, or the imbalance of power created when the main character has much less than the villain they are facing.

If you only use magic to make things easier, either for you as a writer, or your characters within the plot, you are doing it wrong. It is also important that once you establish rules and boundaries, you work within them. Magic is not something you can make up on the fly, not if you want to do it well. However when it is done well, it can be one of the most appealing and interesting parts of your novel.

Faith, Religions and Power

Historically, power has always oscillated between the government or monarchy and the church—whatever church it may be. Even today, churches influences politics a lot more than politics influence churches.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, historically speaking, church and religion have always been the cornerstone in community. Most religions call for people to come together and worship regularly, but these sessions of worship also become community networking. And, often, a way of enforcing community standards and guidelines. You have to meet certain moral criteria to be accepted at the church and thus within the community.

The second reason, is that almost all religions promote the idea that life is short, but the soul is infinite. So what happens in life is less important than what happens to the soul after death. Since government and monarchy are often concerned with the here and now, many people can be convinced they are less important than the church, which decides and informs over the eons.

When considering the power structure of any society, religion should be taken into account. Both because of its ability to influence government and policy, and because of the networks it fosters within a community. In any fantasy or historical seeing, the church would almost definitely be the heart of community and socialization. With the rise of the Internet, improved transport and globalization, this has shifted somewhat. However even today, the only thing that influences governments more than religion is money. (And if you believe greed is the work of the devil, then money also falls under religious influence.)

Even if you ‘re not religious, its hard to ignore religion in world building, since I can guarantee every person on earth feels some concern about what happens after death. And this is the fundamental question that religion exists to answer. Thus, even if you are an atheist, it is the one thing all people have in common.

Politics, Social Classes and Commerce

Is your society controlled by government, military, monarchy or the church? Is it democratic? Is it patriarchal or matriarchal? What is the currency of power? Money? Faith? Bloodlines? Military force? What is the power structure of the different classes? How are the poor kept poor? Is it limited education? War? Resource shortages? Faith based manipulations?

Who controls the flow of money and commerce? Who controls resources? Is there room for lateral movement in classes? Is there room for forward movement? Can the lower class ever rise above their station? What keeps them from moving up? Money? Education? Blood? Titles?

Every society has a system of checks in place to control the flow of resources to certain groups, creating at least two classes (rich and poor). Since early times, it has often been as easy as racism. EG: These people are inferior to us, so it is okay for us to make them slaves.

These days, these systems still tend to focus on hate and shame. They usually target weaker, vulnerable groups, such as the sick, the less educated and people of colour. Take any of the following arguments, which I have heard on the news, spoken by politicians or experts:
‘Fat people shouldn’t receive welfare until they lose weight.’
‘People should be forced to take an IQ test before they have children.’
‘Refugees shouldn’t receive welfare, since they came illegally.’

Personal political opinions aside, if you want to make a setting realistic—be it past, present or future, you need to know which groups are being denied access to resources, by who and how.

Food and Waste

Food and waste are huge issues for cities, and place a lot of limits on societies. Just look at ye old London and the early days of New York. Usually government is in charge of sanitation, and if government is slack or non existent, so is sanitation. On average, everyone poops once a day, so multiply the poops by the number of people in the city. Ten thousand people, ten thousand poops on the street in day one. By the end of the week, the same city has 70, 000 poops on the street. Ten thousand people will produce 3, 650, 000 poops in a year. That is not including any livestock such as horses, pigs, chickens, sheep or cattle. Nor does it include cats and dogs. That doesn’t include food waste, or urine either.

And if you have shit, urine and food scraps from people and animals built up in drifts along the street, you also have disease. Its hard to keep hands and food uncontaminated. That poop becomes vomit and diarrhea. People can’t work. The city is full of flies, mice and rats, because rats and mice can eat maggots. Do you see where I am going with this?

Poop aside, you need enough food to feed people in your society. And if you were born in the city, you might think you stick a seed in soil, give it some light and water and a plant grows that people eat. You would be wrong. Plants need food too. Dead things and poop, mostly. But also other nutrients and some plants require soil to be alkaline or well drained or very wet and so on. Growing meat also requires food for the meat, along with water, space and breeding management.

Food and waste a complicated systems and without them, human society—from a family of three, to a huge mega city—can’t run. Too often I just see writers ‘assume it away’, without realizing these issues are constant and major, now, in the past and likely in the future.

In fact, food and sanitation, or lack thereof, have often been used to control populations… or start revolutions. A hungry man doesn’t care who is in charge, only where his next meal is coming from. A woman watching her child starve will do anything. Even march on the capital and eat the president.


Eco systems need to be balanced. If you have a lot of large predators, there needs to be a lot MORE things for those large predators to eat. A male African lion eats about 7kgs of meat a day and weighs about 190kgs. Scale that up to a three tonne dragon and you’re looking at over 100kgs of meat per day. Keep in mind, three tonnes equal to about three very large horses. If you want bigger dragons, dragons that are closer to thirty tonnes, they’re going to eat a tonne of food a day. However a large predator that has to eat every day or it will starve is going to struggle. So a thirty pound dragon might be looking for three tonne food every three days.

And whatever this prey is, there needs to be enough of them to support a breeding population of dragons, which means the prey needs enough food and space to grow and breed. And if you are talking about three tonne herbivores, suddenly that space and food is immense. Keep in mind most large herbivores bred once every year, or even once every two years, and the population to sustain your dragons just keeps growing and growing.

If you are doing a historical, fantasy or sci fi setting, do a rundown of the local ecosystem, the animals and plants, what preys on what and how they interact with your human population. A city of 10, 000 people can’t all be hunter gatherers. People can’t walk far enough and an environment can’t be dense enough in animals and plants for that to be possible. At a certain size, agriculture becomes a must for most of the population.

When your eco system is balanced and feels realistic, your book is more enjoyable for readers, so its worth taking the time to do your homework and math.

Birth, Death and Marriage

Birth, Death and Marriage are said to be the three more important moments of your life. Regardless of if that is true, all cultures have their own unique attitudes, rituals and beliefs regarding these three events. If you plan on just falling back on the ‘default’, then you are showing your own ignorance. Even today, even in a single suburb, the rituals and beliefs around these three occasions will vary greatly. Across history and location, the variations are startling, exciting and fascinating.

When developing a culture in fantasy or sci fi, give thought to how they treat these three events. Even if you are writing a contemporary novel, get out of your comfort zone. Learn about the people around you and how they celebrate, or mourn. The foods, the smells, the songs.

Assuming you are the default is deeply arrogant and narcissistic. If you are going to write about birth, death and marriage as it is in your family and culture, then at least do it the respect of honest and authentic details.

I, for example, will never forget my grandmother’s funeral where a great uncle suggest a cousin and I should go on a date, despite knowing we were cousins. There’s a raw, authentic and very unflattering detail.

Soon, I will get to learn some authentic details about what its like being a trans man giving birth in a major Australian hospital. And if I ever write that scene, I will be dispensing of the assumptions and ‘default’ birth cliches.

Variety In Culture

It annoys the crap out of me in sci fi were the main characters meet an alien race, which has a uniform culture across the entire planet. I can’t think of anything less realistic. Even within restricted, very close knit communities, there are small small differences. A traditional dish that has existed for thousands of years will be made differently by every family—a special family recipe.

Its also rare to find a community that is completely isolated. People have always traveled. No culture sat quietly, farming their land and living their lives. People moved, people explored the world. Travel took a lot longer and was much more dangerous, but it didn’t stop them. You would be surprised if you looked back through history and realized just how early different cultures were in contact.

So it doesn’t matter if you are working with accurate history, or present day, or creating your own culture, remember that isolated cultures are rare, almost non existent. And that truly isolated cultures are often extremely susceptible to disease from outsiders. Your main character who comes from some isolated village that hasn’t made contact with strangers for thousands of years would, realistically, die of the flu come winter.

Static culture is boring and unrealistic. Learn to interweave a realistic and vibrant setting, one influenced by a range of different cultures and people.

Researching Reality

Immersion is the best form of research. Even something as simple as standing on a stool or chair to see how taller people see the world can give you insight into a character. We can’t all afford to travel around the world, living in the cultures we want to write about. But we can go to museum exhibitions, art exhibitions, local import stores, culture clubs and so on. We can also watch documentaries and read books, either histories, or autobiographies, by the sort of people we want to write about.

Its important to look for authentic experiences. If you want to write about Africa, don’t read books by people who went on holiday there, or who are from another culture and lived there. Read books by people who were born and raised in Africa. Read about the cultures and places you want to learn about, as told by the actual people who live there.

And if you do get the chance to immerse yourself fully in a new culture or place, don’t just rely on your own experiences. Talk to people, learn about other people’s experiences. You’re not trying to learn about yourself and your own feelings and reactions, so don’t focus on them.

Of course, if you are writing about a cultural background, or minority, other than your own, its a good idea to get sensitivity readers (readers from that culture or minority who read your book looking for inaccuracies or unintentionally offensive material). Just like editors, sensitivity readers should be paid for their time. So factor that into your budget when costing/planning a novel.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.


1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Jake's 2018 Achievements


Small break in the synopsis series this week to look at my 2018 summary. It can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling like the year flew by too fast, and you got nothing done.

I certainly felt that way until I looked back through my bujo and marked off all the important milestones I reached in 2018. Looking back on this year, I can see it was actually a huge and fantastic year, and I am very proud of all the things I have achieved:


- Came out as transgender
- Fell pregnant with first child
- Wrote 600k+
- Read 27 books (Not counting Aurealis)
- Edited 650+ pages
- Changed Legal Name to Jake Corvus
- New personal best: 10, 500 words in a single day
- Paid off house mortgage in full
- Brought a new car (Suzuki Vitara)
- Judged Aurealis Awards (Fantasy Novel Category)
- Launched my newsletter and new Website
- Taken on new role as President of Vision Writers
- Found new medication that decreased my migraines by 3/4.
- Finished 10 first drafts.

Books I Read In 2018:

- The Cruel Prince – Holly Black
Enjoyed this immensely. It didn't really kick off for me until about half way through, but then it really kicked off. And what a title.

- Happiness By Design – Paul Dolan
            I highly recommend this for anyone who likes psychology, sociology or who wants to be happy.

- Your First 1000 Copies – Tim Grahl
            Lots of good information and got me fired up about self promotion.

- In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan
            Subversive and just plain awesome attack on YA genre fiction. Read it.

- The Happiness Project – Gretchen Ruben
            Ruben shares her experiences as she implements a 12 months 'be happier' plan in her life. A lot of useful insights, if a little self centered.

- The One Thing – Gary Keller
            I really enjoyed this book, but I don't like to bring it up, because inevitably someone who hasn't read it will say its stupid based on their incorrect understanding of the premise. If you want to be really awesome, read it. Don't listen to the people self-righteously bitching about it.

- Sick House – Jeff Strand
            I honestly hate Jeff Stand books. I buy them and read them and hate every moment of it, then buy more. He's fantastic at narrative traction, terrible at plot, characters, and everything else. I plan to buy more of his books and then bitch about how bad they are next year.

- Three Moments of An Explosion – China Mieville
            You either 'get' China Mieville or you don't. If you are going to read his stuff, start with 'Looking for Jake'. If you love it, go nuts with the rest of his novels. If you don't, just move on with your life. Personally, I idolise him with a passion that borders on blasphemy.

- 7 Steps to Wealth – John Fitzgerald
            Not as good as 'The Barefoot Investor by Scott Pape', but if you have read The Barefoot Investor and are still hungry for more, this is pretty good. I like books on personal finance.

- Nevermoor – Jessica Townsend
            A great example of working with tropes. Townsend uses tropes and clich├ęs as a form of literary shorthand to skip the 'boring bits' and focus on the more interesting parts. I enjoyed it as a learning/stylistic tool. The descriptions and language were gorgeous.

- Strangers to Superfans – David Gaughran
            Fantastic book for authors on self-promotion. Recommended.

- Gentleman's Guide To Vice and Virtue – MacKenzi Lee
            I wanted to love this, but the main character is so insufferably self-centred and selfish, I couldn't get into it. If you want to read a teen gay romance about a narcissist, this one is for you.

- The Death Collector – Jack Kerley
            Thriller novel that reveals more about the author's sexual fetishes than he probably intended. Every single woman in this book was described as looking EXACTLY THE SAME. I think I counted eight different tall red-heads by the end of the book. Come on, bro.

- The Kept Woman – Karin Slaughter
            I love all the Will Trend books. If you want to read Karin Slaughter, start with Triptych. Don't read the Grant Gounty books, Jeffery is human garbage.

- Rules and Regulations for Mediating Myth and Magic – F.T Lukes
            Worst title for a YA this year. Could never remember it, so I never recommended it to anyone. Pretty cute gay romance. Main character is a bit self-centred and oblivious, but I could get past it.

- The One Page Marketing Plan – Allan Dib
            Good book on marketing and self-promotion for authors. Recommended.

- The One Hour Content Plan – Meera Kothand
            Good book on generating content for your blog and newsletter. Recommended.

- Your First 100 Repeat Customers – Meera Kothand
            Almost identical content to Allan Dib's One Page Marketing plan. I prefer Dib's.

- Simplify – Joshua Becker
            Short and pointless guide to simplifying your life. Don't bother.

- Making Websites Win – Karl Blanks
            This beast is DENSE and targeted at big companies, not authors. However, if you enjoy this sort of thing, and are good at extrapolating, then I still recommend it. I learned a lot.

- Fence 1-12 – C.S Pacat
            Queer sports comic series. The first few are significantly better than the later editions. I will be using the first four to demonstrate various writing skills for many years to come. However, you can see where time pressures started to affect the quality of the story and art.

- Coffee Boy – Austin Chant
            Sweet transman/man office romance. I really liked it. If you like queer romance, you will also probably like it.

- Write and Grow Rich – Alinka Ruthowska
            A collection of interviews with best-selling authors, talking about how they became successful, what their biggest mistake was and what make the biggest impact on their career. Most of these authors are nonfiction, not fiction. I found it quite reassuring, since different people had different methods.

- Help! My Facebook Ads Suck – Micheal Cooper
            Good book on marketing and self-promotion on facebook for authors. Recommended.

- Barefoot Investor for Families – Scott Pape
            A must if you have kids or grandkids.

- Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
            Excellent collection of speculative fiction short stories. Highly recommend. Several of these stories still haunt me and I think about them regularly.

ROLL ON 2019

Obviously next year my biggest goal is having a healthy baby in February and looking after him. However, being a new, single dad hasn't prevented me from writing a pretty extensive list of goals I am hoping to achieve.

Primary Goals For 2019:

- Have a baby.
- Get back to my pre-pregnancy goal weight.
- Build house #2.
- Complete 2 solo first drafts.
- Have two new books edited and ready to pitch/sell.
- Build my newsletter to 500 subscribers.

I also have another 9 'optional' goals to work on. Overly ambitious? Always. To be honest, even though I have had an insanely productive year in 2018, I don't think I achieved any of my goals. This was because they were tied to specific projects—which I had to put aside for other things—and weight loss, and, unsurprisingly, at 8 months pregnant, I can't maintain my pre-pregnancy goal weight. In fact, I am about ten kilograms heavier, which is honestly not that bad.

I don't know how having a baby is going to affect my time, just that it will, and that I will need to reorganise my days around Esteban and his requirements. I know there is going to be a learning curve, but I am as prepared as I can be.

Roll on 2019!

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make

Synopsis Series: Part 5

Welcome back! This week we continue with character profiles and how to set them up so you create characters readers never forget. You can re-read last weeks post, with the full profile template here.

Starting With Your Villain

One of the most unforgivable mistakes I see amateur writers making is 1) not having a villain, 2) not having a well thought out villain or 3) having a villain who only appears at the end of the book.

Your villain is as, if not more, important than your hero. Why? Because your villain drives the action of the plot. And more importantly, your hero is only as brave as the conflicts they face. The more evil and dangerous your villain, the braver and more impressive your hero is. A villain we never see, and know nothing about, isn’t scary, so by contrast, your hero isn’t very impressive.

This is why I tell writers I am mentoring to start with their villain profile, not their main character. Your villain will be driving the plot, creating stakes and tension. So their motives, strengths, weaknesses, goals and growth arc all need to come first.

I will note, some novels do not have traditional villains. That is to say, the villain may not be a person. Villain is just anther word for antagonist though and every story has to have some form of antagonist. So look for yours and see how it can be expanded.

In romance, particularly short romances, the ‘villain’ is often the love interest themselves. They are the antagonists to the protagonist. However there should always be another conflict in romance that makes the love interest the antagonist. Some sort of conflicting interest or belief. Longer romance titles will often have another villain, or even two or three. Someone the couple must work together to overcome and defeat.

In The Grey (2011) starring Liam Neeson, there are three main antagonists. First, there is the weather, which brings down the plane and is a constant and unrelenting threat. There is the terrain itself, both an obstacle and a threat in its own right. And there is the pack of wolves, given a face in the form of the alpha wolf, which Neeson’s character develops deep hostile recognition with, as the movie progresses.

These antagonists are introduced early and in escalating conflicts. Talk of wolves and the storm happens before the plane takes off, we see the wolves before they attack and several times throughout the movie. If the only time we saw them was at the very end of the movie, in the final showdown, there would be no emotional tension in the viewer. Anticipation and development build to the climax, giving it impact.

Regardless of what your villain is, person, love interest or force of nature, they still need to be fully developed, introduced early and build up in escalating conflicts.

So as you go forward in this post, don’t think about filling in these sections of a profile for your main character, think about filling them in for your villain FIRST. Save that plucky little hero for second.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here’s a writing element that some people just understand innately, and some people never learn and just continue to fail at for years, never understanding why their work isn’t popular or doesn’t sell.

Characters need to have a strength and a weakness, and in the course of the novel, their weakness needs to cause them to fail, and then has to be overcome, and their strength has to be tested to breaking point.

These elements need to happen in critical turning points of your novel, such as the climax.

Now, you are either saying to yourself ‘that makes sense’ or ‘what the hell are you talking about, Jake?’. That will tell you which group of people you belong to.

So when you are listing your characters strengths and weaknesses, don’t just write an inert list. Write how they are critical to the plot. If your character’s strength is that they are brave, there must be a scene where you push them so hard that bravery cracks, and they are afraid. If their weakness is greed, there has to be a scene where they give into that greed and betray what matters to them. Then, later on, there must be a scene where they overcome that greed and make the right choice.

The exception here is villains and books with sad/bittersweet endings. What separates your hero from your villain is usually that second look at their weakness. Where your hero makes the right choice, and chooses love and equality and righteousness, your villain chooses power, and greed and selfishness. That is their downfall. Your villain should also easily overcome the testing of their strength.

Your villain must always be strong and powerful. Much, much more powerful than your hero. Otherwise, your hero is just a bully.

Desires and Barriers

Both your hero and your villain’s desires are the meat of the plot. So if you don’t know what they are, you don’t really have a plot. In Harry Potter, Tom Riddle and Harry Potter were both denied love, acceptance and a family. Tom Riddle became Voldemort, seeking power and revenge—a revenge he unfairly directed at a minority. Harry came to Hogwarts seeking the family he had lost, but takes a different route to Tom, choosing friends, protecting others and standing up for the weak. In the end Voledemort dies and Harry lives and gets his new family.

Your hero and villain’s desires have to be in conflict with each other. They don’t have to want the same thing, but their desires have to be incompatible. This is what puts them at odds with one and other, and forces them to confront each other.

It is important to remember your reader will always care less than your character. So your character has to care about their goal more than anything else. They have to be willing to sacrifice everything for it. There is nothing entertaining about a character who is too cool to care. Because if your character doesn’t care, why does the reader? What are they reading for, if it doesn’t even matter to the main character and its their life?

So your hero and villain both need to want something so badly they are willing to die for it. Or, at least, make big sacrifices. And their desires need to contradict one and other. It is okay if your character starts wanting one thing, and then switches to the main thing very early in the book.

For example, Katniss doesn’t want to be a part of the hunger games, but she wants her sister Prim to be safe even more. For the rest of the series she is torn between those two desires. Her desire to stay alive, and her even more pressing desire to keep those she loves alive.

Once you know what your hero and villain want, you need to know why they want it. What do they get? Why does it matter to them? The reason needs to be believable and understandable. Even if a reader doesn’t want that thing themselves, they have to understand why your characters would sacrifice their own lives to have it.

Next, you need clear and seemingly insurmountable barriers to having the thing. Again, this is where your hero and villain will tie together, they should, at least in part, be the barrier stopping each other from reaching their goal.

And finally, what is the cost if they fail? There should be an internal/personal cost, and an external/global cost. EG: If the main character can’t find the cure, his daughter will die (personal) and the disease will continue to kill millions (global). Global doesn’t have to mean ‘world wide’ by the way. It could just mean all the animals on the farm die, as long as that is a stake you can make the reader care about deeply.

Growth Arc

Now we scroll back up the profile template to the growth arc. If you have done your strengths and weaknesses, and your character motivation and goals properly, this should be a breeze. Where does your character start, emotionally and physically, and where do they end up? How have they changed? What have they sacrificed?

They have either risen and overcome their challenges (hero) or sunk to depths they swore never to delve into (villain). They end the novel having made a great sacrifice to have come out victorious (hero), or their vice proved to be their downfall and they were defeated (villain).

The point of a growth arc is not just to know its there and working (though that its important), it is a tool that shows you how hard you need to press the point at different stages in your novel. If your character is reckless at the beginning, and becomes responsible during the story, then you know you need to play up their recklessness at the start, so there is a huge contrast at the end.

Contrast is the key word here. The bigger and clearer that difference is, beginning to end, the greater the sense of reader satisfaction will be.

Room Description

Why does room description matter? I am guessing most of you don’t give a lot of thought to your character’s rooms. I am going to give you three room descriptions and I want you to read them carefully and think about what sort of people probably live in them.

The window was open, letting in sunlight and a sping breeze that billowed the lace curtains. The bed was old and iron, but painted white, the duvet was a patchwork of pink and cream roses. On the antique dresser, was a vase of cheery pink carnations, fresh from the garden and beside them, neatly placed hairbrushes and hand mirrors.

The stink of stale BO and dirty socks was oppressive. Dark posters of angry men with guitars were pealing off the walls, with one lone pin up model from a calender tacked to the wall beside the unmade bed. Clothes—mostly black—dominated the floor in uneven piles. A stack of CDs had cascaded off the messy desk and spilled across the floor, their prismatic, silver undersides the only source of color.

Toys. Toys everywhere. On the shelves, on the bed, spilling off the dresser onto the floor. The bedroom closet was open, stuffed to bursting with tiny, brightly colored clothes, and still more toys, leaking off the shelves and piled up under the clothes, making it impossible to close the closet door. In the middle of the room, a half empty sippy-cup of juice and the crusts of toast, cold and forgotten.

There is no trick here. I’m not going to say ‘Surprise! Room three belongs to a serial killer.’ Rather, I want you to see how you can tell readers about a character by showing them where and how they live. Giving characters a room that reflects their personality gives them an anchor in he reality you have created. It gives them a past. If there are toys on the floor, it implies in the past they were placed there, played with. Flowers were cut recently, outside, so the scene has a past, and expands beyond the room you see. Little details imply other details, and they give your writing a sense of realism. A good room description can do that for your character, as well as your writing.

Don’t ignore it. Just don’t make it too long either.

Twenty Facts Expanded

Twenty facts is more of a brainstorming process for me. If I am struggling to write a list of twenty facts about a character, I clearly don’t know them very well. So it would be hard to write them realistically, or convincingly. It also means they don’t have enough depth. Some characters I could write fifty facts without pause. Others, I may realize I am struggling to even write the first three or four facts.

Brainstorming facts about characters has often given me directions and ideas for the plot, or solved problems in the plot that I was struggling with before. At the very least, it gives me a few flavor elements to keep the characters feeling like people.

Which is more interesting?

1. “Do you want to get pizza?”

2. “Do you want to get pizza?”
“No anchovies, the smell makes me gag.” OR “No mushrooms, they give me the worst gas.”

Maybe this seems small, but perhaps later on, your main character is trying to stop their partner eating a poisoned dish, but can’t talk to them, so they put a little sign on it saying ‘contains mushrooms’.

Or maybe their partner accidentally eats mushrooms and the toxic smell gives them away, which is more interesting than having them just knock something over. Things that gives a sense of continuity through the plot are more satisfying than things that just happen in that scene.

Are You Ready To Rumble!?

I hope you understand not just what you need in a profile, but why. The why is more important. If you understand why, you can alter this character template to suit your own needs and the genre of your book. But if you don’t understand why, you’re going to struggle, even to use this template correctly.

I’m always happy to help though, so if you are struggling, hit me up at jakecorvus at gmail.com. And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.


1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Characters Readers Remember Forever

 Synopsis Series: Part 4

Characters Readers Remember Forever

Can you name five of your favorite characters from books? How about five of the best known ones? Have you heard of these characters? Harry Potter. Jon Snow. Katniss Everdeen. Bridget Jones. Bilbo Baggins.

The best characters are ones that never leave us. That become a part of popular culture. Writing a memorable character at that level without any planning or consideration is even rarer than winning the lottery. It would take one of a kind talent, paired with once in a lifetime luck. Do you really want to bet on either? Its a much better idea to learn about what makes a character memorable and lovable and fascinating before you begin writing the book, and plan to write those elements in from the beginning, so they are deeply intertwined with the narrative. Editing them in later, after all, will be almost impossible.

Laying A Foundation For Immortality

Character profiles are where you lay the foundation of what matters. Its not a place to record hair colour, eye colour, weight, height and freckle density. Though a few strong, defining physical features can make a character stand out in a reader’s mind, they aren’t what matters.

Did you like Harry Potter because he had green eyes? Or did you like him because he rose up from adversity to become a hero? Were you captivated by Katniss’ brown hair, or because she was willing to sacrifice her own life to save her little sister?

The important parts of a memorable character are not what they look like, but what they do. What they want. What they sacrifice. And its these elements that need to be at the core of your character profile. Not what they look like, but who they are, deep inside. What drives them. What are their limits? What makes them human? What makes them worthy of being a protagonist in a story?

As Always, Jake As A System For Everything

Over the years, I have developed an extensive character profile that I use to design characters prior to writing a novel. It makes my characters, and my plots, stronger, more lifelike and fills them with conflict and tension.

I am going to share it with you here, but don’t try and use it yet. This week I am discussing the layout, next week I will be discussing how to fill it in properly.


BOOK: (The working title of the book this character is in.)

Name: (Character name. First, last and any nick names.)
Age: (Character age at in chapter 1, though you might want to also include their age at the end of the last chapter, if it changes.)
Race: (This is more for fantasy and sci fi than contemporary fic. If I was doing contemp I would change this to ‘ethnic background’.)
Hair: (This is so you remember and keep it consistent but also, try to put a description here, not just a colour. EG: a loose black Grace Kelley bob. Salt and pepper, thinning on the top. Long, loose and gold, tangled and wild.)
Skin: (Skin tone, again, a description is better than a color. Remember not to describe dark skinned people as food. Its offensive. No coffee or chocolate, okay?)
Eyes: (Rather than color, try and focus on emotion with your eye description. Pale grey, with hard wrinkled lines from frowning. Wide, blue, bright and full of wonder.)
Magic: (Again, this is for fantasy/spec fic, not contemp. Depending on your setting, this could be extensive and cross into world building.)
Quirks/Turns of phrase: (If you see my post here on style: https://traditionalevolution.blogspot.com/2016/04/elements-to-better-writing-style.html you will see I recommend giving characters their own distinct ‘voice’. This is where you make notes about that. This section can end up being quite long and extensive!)

Personality: (A lot of people list character traits here. Eg: brave, shy, funny, outgoing, etc. Do that if you have to, to give yourself an outline, but then after each trait give an example of HOW they show that trait. Nothing is worse than a book that tells you character is brave, but we never get to see them being brave. You can’t tell your reader anything regarding personality, you can only SHOW them. So do yourself a favor and work out some ways to show that trait now, not when you’re writing your first draft.)
Growth Arc: (Every character has to go through a developmental arc throughout the story. Maybe they start out shy and grow in confidence. Maybe they start out carefree and have all their innocence stripped away. You need to know where they start and where they end, before you start planning the novel in full. This is so you can set up point A very strongly, so point B has more impact. I remember C.S Pacat talking about her character Laurent in Captive Prince. She said she knew people needed to hate him at the start, and he had to win them over slowly as the novel progressed. She was still devastated everyone hated him when they started reading! And boy did they hate him. But by the end of the series, no one saw him as a bad guy anymore, everyone loved him.)

Four Descriptions: (These are short, active descriptions of the character as they would appear in the text. Try and make them very different and set under very different circumstances. I try and do them from different POVs. EG: someone who hates them, someone who admires them, the character happy, and the character in the height of a conflict.)

Room/Home description: (I will expand on this a lot in the next blog post, but your characters room says a lot about them. It is a character in its own right, so you need to expand on that.)

Family: (List any family members this character has, and make some notes about their interpersonal relationships.)

Greatest Strength: (These next sections are going to be the focus of next week’s blog post.)
Tested By:
Greatest Weakness:

Most Desires: (These too.)
What do they Gain?:
Barriers to Goal:
Cost of Failure (internal/external):

20 Facts about the character: (This may seem a bit pointless, but it has actually proved to be a vital part of my character and plot development. It promotes brainstorming and forces you to flesh out the character in your mind. Childhood incidents, favorite food and colors, interesting likes and dislikes, etc can all go here. Read through your character profiles regularly, and you will be able to add a lot of life and a sense of history and depth to characters by using these notes.)


So there it is, Jake’s character profile sheet. Is it what you expected? How does it compare to character profiles you have used in the past? If you are feeling a bit lost, don’t worry, I am going to expand on it next week. The most important parts of this profile are not explained at all right now, you have to wait until for the real magic! See you then!

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.


1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Command Center of Your Novel

 Synopsis Series: Part 3

Writing an overview sounds ridiculously simple, maybe so simple you wonder why it needs its own blog post at all. Depending on your experience level, it may be a lot harder than you think. It may even be impossible for you to do properly when you are starting out.

That is because a functional overview means you have to be pretty good at estimating how long scenes are going to be, and how long a novel will be, based on the plot points you create. Not everyone is good at this. In fact, few people are good at this at all.

How Much Content Do You Need For Novel?

The most common mistake I see first time writers making, is they write down their scenes and they think they have enough material for a long novel. Maybe even a trilogy. However in truth, they barely have enough story for a novella.

To remind you, an overview is the basic details of your novel structure. It should contain information such as the target audience, the genre, the intended word count, the number of chapters and the goal word count per chapter based on those two numbers. EG: 80,000 words, divided by 25 chapters is 3200 words per chapter.

So lets start at the beginning and work through your overview.

How Do You Set Up An Overview?

Your genre and target audience is the first thing you should know. You can take the exact same plot, same characters, same ending—but end up with completely different books if you are writing for teenagers VS adults. The tone, themes and focus will be different, even though the plot and characters can be exactly the same.

Sometimes people come to me asking for feedback, but can’t tell me who the target audience is. I find it almost impossible to give them feedback under those circumstances, because without knowing the target audience, there is no way for me to know what the feedback should be.

So first, you decide who your target audience is, and your genre. Remember, genre is just the primary emotion your reader wants to feel when reading. Romance = love. Horror = fear. Fantasy = awe. And so on. Genre is also where your book will be shelved in the book store. You want to be shelved with similar authors, so you can be found by your target audience.

How Long Should My Novel Be?

When you know your target audience and genre, you can get a rough idea of what your word count can be. Particularly if you want to sell commercially, with a traditional publisher or through book stores, you will need to stick within the genre norms. This is very easy to find out, simply google: ‘Average word count for GENRE.’ Be very aware that niche genres can vary a lot. Particularly in romance. While a typical historical romance might be up around 120, 000 words, a contemporary erotica romance might only average 60, 000 words. KNOW YOUR GENRE.

When you know the average word count for your genre and target audience, you can divide that into chapters. Thrillers often have quite short chapters. Fantasy novels tend to have longer chapters. If you aren’t sure how long the average chapters are for a genre, grab five of them off the shelf at the library. Google their word counts, then check what number the last chapter is. Divide the total word count by the chapters, and, tada! You have the number of words per chapter. If you do five of these and average them out, you will have a good idea of what is normal, comfortable and commercial.

The Complete Overview

So now your overview should be laid out something like this:


When you have this information, it will help you when building your plot. Because you will know how much content you need to fill a novel. Most writers should assume scenes are going to be shorter than you think. If you really have NO IDEA how long a scene will be, I suggest this:

Look at your scene description, maybe it says something like: ‘Keith breaks into the sealed room in the basement and finds the evil shrine, he starts to feel sick and the scene ends with him being rushed to hospital in an ambulance.’

Now, estimate how long that scene will be. Lets say, 1500 words. Now, write the scene, but write it so you can’t see the word count. If that means putting a small sticky note over the corner of the screen to hide the word count, so be it. Don’t try and write it to any length, just write the best scene you can. Then when it is done, compare the word count you estimated to the word count you have. Turns out, it was only 900 words long. Oops!

Do the same thing next time, and the time after. Keep doing it until you find you have a more accurate grasp of how long scenes are. Just remember, your goal is to accurately try and gauge how long a scene will be if WRITTEN WELL. Your goal is NEVER to extend a minimal idea to fit a higher word count. That is bad writing and will ultimately lead to boring scenes that drag terribly.

When you get to writing your simple synopsis, you will need to make sure there are roughly enough scenes for the number of chapters you want. Even if you have reasonably short chapters, its a good idea to have two, or even three plot points per chapter. You also want to consider ending your chapters in the middle of scenes, on cliff-hangers, instead of ending them where the scene ends naturally. This entices readers to keep reading, instead of putting the book down and leaving to do other things.

Knowing how many chapters you will have, makes it easier to structure your novel to make it hard to put down.

What If I Can’t Stick To The Plan?

It DOES NOT MATTER if while writing the first draft, this initial plan goes out the window a bit. Maybe you add more chapters, maybe you cut some out. Maybe you end up with a word count that is a bit off what you thought it would be. As long as you aren’t under contract, there is no one to disappoint. However later in your career, when you are under contract, these things can cause big problems. So its a good idea to start practicing planning and estimating novel length early on.

This practice of planning a overview will also help you if you want to write for specific imprints of publishing houses. Many imprints, particularly in romance, have strict guidelines when it comes to word counts. If everything is planned out before you begin writing, then you don’t have to worry about vastly lengthening or shortening a novel that is the wrong length for the imprint you are writing for.

Stay tuned, because next week we’re going to start character profiles! And I bet you a dollar, everything you think you know about character profiles is wrong.

And don’t forget to sign up to my hilariously inappropriate newsletter at www.traditionalevolution.com. It contains book news, stories too personal for facebook, movie reviews and when you first sign up, you get the full, unabridged version of the chicken story.


1. Do You Struggle With What To Write Next?
2. The Five Core Parts Of A Good Synopsis
3. The Command Center of Your Novel
4. Characters Readers Remember Forever
5. Character Mistakes You Can't Afford To Make
6. Building An Empire