Sunday, November 11, 2012

Building Character (for Writers)

Productive young writer with human companion
Years ago, when I was teaching English to Japanese English teachers (you had to be there), one of my teacher/students informed me that, in her school, the students did all the clean-up. “All?” I asked. "Oh, yes," she informed me. They wiped the blackboards, swept and mopped the floors, washed the windows. “It builds character,” she said.

Basically, things that build character are comprised of anything that is disagreeable. For some strange Calvinistic and/or Japanese reason, character cannot be built by winning a prize, taking a swim, or eating my delicious apple streusel cake.

One must suffer to have character.

I doubt that this is true in general, but in specific, as it applies to writers, it is definitely a fact. It is not necessary for you to fulfill the Romantic ideal: a sensitive, unshaven (women too), starving creature agonizing in a garret. Yes, you will eventually get to do all that. But the real suffering, the real character building comes not in the process of writing - which is sheer fun and therefore useless for building character - but in the process of sharing what you've written.

These are the writer's steps to building character:

Step 1: Don't publish too early. You have written a book. Don't get it out there. Instead, get it critiqued, as harshly as possible. You must bleed.

Step 2: When you have bled enough, still don't try to publish. Write another book. Yes, that's what I said. Write ANOTHER BOOK. What kind of writer do you expect to be if you can only write one book? Then go back to your first book and revise it.

Step 3: Write short stories and articles. Get them critiqued. Bleed some more.

Step 4: Submit your short stories and articles to top-ranking magazines and ezines. You will be rejected. Bleed and revise. Submit again. Each time you get a rejection, re-read your work and revise.

Step 5: AGH! Somebody published your story! Your character is destroyed! Sadly, no. Read the published version. It's amazing how many mistakes you can catch after your story has been published. Ouch.

Step 6: At this point you have so much character you need a transfusion. Start submitting your book to agents. They will reject you. Each time you get a rejection, look at your query letter and revise it. Submit again.

Step 7: AGGHHH! An agent wants to represent you! Now, you're cooked. Don't get too comfy. She or he will want to confiscate your manuscript and change everything in it. You have to decide what to change and what not to change. You are faced with killing your darlings.Your character is firming up nicely.

Step 8: You have followed your agent's suggestions - or not, as the case may be. And NOTHING happens! Not one single publisher is interested in your book. They say awful things about it. You have to decide if some of these awful things are true. They might be. Great character-building technique.

Step 9: AAAGGGGHHH!!! Someone wants to publish your book!! You are fried!! You thought the agent was harsh. Wait until you see what an EDITOR does to your manuscript!! It will be drawn and quartered before your very eyes. They will change your title. They will slap on a dreadful cover. You will want to die.

Step 10: You now have character. Write another book. This time it had better be good.

(Repeat steps 1 through 10 as often as necessary.)

Building Character (for Writers) was originally published on Blogging Authors 


  1. Possibly the most awesome article I've read in AGES - okay, well, today anyway. I am in the process of working with an editor towards publishing a novella (novelette, depending on your definition). Bled lots, learned much. Expect more of both. Thanks so much for the laugh.

  2. I don't know if I can afford to lose enough blood to try writing a book. I'm glad you can look at the process and the critics with a sense of humor.

  3. Yes indeed, or... use and spare some blood.

  4. I am sure this is true and yet even so, funny. You have to laugh or you would cry! Mind you, practise is vital.

  5. I love this. I wish I found your blog sooner.

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