Perfect Characters as Default: Why this is problematic

Once Upon A Time pencilThe number of pitches, synopses or opening lines I’ve seen like this is outstanding:

[Your character’s] life was simple, quiet and perfect…until it wasn’t.

I’m being dramatic, but perfection as a default is firstly boring, and secondly I want to know where the humanity is, not the godliness.

Think about these tips instead:

  • I assume that we’re meeting your character at an interesting time in their life (or why else would you be starting the book here?): so get to telling us about it! Cut your opening line about perfection and ask yourself the tough questions: what is it the deep-rooted source of conflict for your troubled character.
  • Instead of your character being perfect (because no one is!) tell me about their background in struggle. For example: what made them blind to asking questions about their life or blind to the conflict that’s about to come in the next 80k words? What makes THIS moment the moment when things changed?
  • Just like people, we can’t assume characters had no life before we meet them. Your characters should feel so rich that they had lives before we start to read about them on the page.
  • If you think your character’s life was perfect before the (real or metaphorical) asteroid hit their world then I don’t believe you’re thinking deeply enough about their backstory.
  • Challenge yourself to think about your characters as living before and after the book is done. If you need help, use this blog post: 30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character. Or this funny one.

Workshop: Literary and Upmarket Commercial Fiction

Backspace is hosting great workshops this fall! Check out my multi-agent workshop on literary and upmarket commercial fiction October 19 to 23.

This week-long conference session includes:

  • A query letter workshop with 6-10 students and 2 literary agents
  • An opening 2 pages workshop with the same 6-10 students and 2 different literary agents
  • A 2-day interactive panel discussion and Q&A with all 4 agents
  • Full access to the Backspace Writers Conference video archives
  • A PDF copy of The Science of Rejection Letters: A Step-By-Step Guide to Analyze Rejection Letters in Order to Improve Your Writing & Get Published by Jeff Kleinman

Don’t miss this great event!

Sign up today!

How it works:

Monday: Students post introductions to their workshop group in a private discussion forum.

“I always feel that authors are so focused on the editor-agent thing that they forget about the people sitting right next to them, the other writers who could actually be of huge assistance to them. Your business is writing, so make a connection with the writers.” — Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management

Tuesday 2:00 P.M. EST: Query letter workshop with 6-10 students and 2 literary agents held via conference call. (Approximately 2 hours)

Wednesday 2:00 P.M. EST: Opening 2 pages workshop with same 6-10 students and 2 different agents held via conference call. (Approximately 3 hours)

“Everybody who does these conferences is a pretty nice person, so just talk. Know what your book is about, be able to discuss it concisely and passionately. And then be ready to listen, to hear the questions the agent asks, be ready to respond concisely and passionately.”Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management

PLEASE NOTE: Conference calls are recorded. If a student is unable to join the call at the scheduled time, a literary agent’s intern or assistant will read the student’s pages for them, and the student can listen to the discussion later. Alternatively, if a student can attend only a portion of the call, let us know and we’ll make sure your pages are scheduled to be read while you’re in attendance.

Thursday-Friday: Interactive panel discussion in which agents answer questions from students in the private discussion forum. Students also discuss among themselves what they’ve learned throughout the week by posting questions and comments to the group, or by private message.

Questions? Check our FAQ for students or the FAQ for faculty members, or contact conference organizers Christopher Graham or Karen Dionne at You may also telephone Chris at 732-267-6449.

Workshop: Selling Your Children’s Book


How to Write and Pitch Novels & Picture Books for Kids Boot Camp

Includes: webinars, 2 days of Q&A, a critique, plus a copy of my ebook “Getting Published in the 21st Century”

Read more:

Children’s books—young adult, middle grade, and picture books—have taken over the publishing industry (in a good way). Readers of all ages are devouring the books that used to only take up space in libraries, children’s bookshelves, or school classrooms. Now, children’s books are celebrated for their enchanting prose, their relatable characters, their beautiful illustrations, and their fantastic stories that transcend age category. The growth of the children’s book sector has been unprecedented this past decade—so how can you make your manuscript stand out in these crowded categories and genres?

In this Writer’s Digest Boot Camp starting September 28, the agents of P.S. Literary Agency will show you how to make your submission stand out. How do you write a children’s book with commercial appeal? How do you decide what category and genre your book belongs in? How do you find agents and publishers to submit your manuscript to? How can you attract both child and adult readers (and buyers)?

The agent instructors will answer these questions—and more! They will also critique your work and answer any questions you have about writing and selling books for children. As a registrant, you can choose to hear a tutorial on how to craft an amazing picture book, and then have your picture book critiqued—or you can choose to hear a different tutorial on writing middle grade and young adult fiction, and then have the first five pages of your YA/MG manuscript critiqued.

This program will show writers of Young Adult and Middle Grade the following:

  • What the difference is between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction
  • How to create engaging characters that agents, editors, and readers will love
  • Where (and where not) in the your story to start the manuscript
  • How to avoid the most common mistakes found in Young Adult and Middle Grade manuscripts, such as talking down to your audience
  • How to use common Middle Grade and Young Adult tropes
  • What the biggest genres are in Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction right now—and how to decide where your manuscript fits in
  • What to highlight in your pitch to sell your book to agents and publishers
  • What you can learn from your favorite Young Adult and Middle Grade novels

This program will show writers of Picture Books the following:

  • What the state of the market looks like for picture books
  • How to learn from previous bestsellers
  • How to come up with a great story that’s character- and plot-driven
  • How to create a page-turning arc that will keep kids coming back
  • Why rhythm, not rhyming, is the key to success
  • How to think visually and how to work with illustrators
  • How to avoid the “don’ts” in writing for children
  • How to inspire kids without writing heavy morals

Here’s how it works:

On September 28, you will gain access to one of two special 60-minute online tutorials (or you can watch both, if you choose) presented by literary agents from the P.S. Literary Agency. You can choose to listen to agent Carly Watters’s tutorial on writing and selling picture books, or you can choose to listen to agent Maria Vicente’s tutorial on writing and selling Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction.

After listening to your choice of presentations, attendees will spend the next two days revising materials as necessary. Also following the tutorial, writers will have two days in which to log onto the course website and ask Carly Watters and Maria Vicente questions related to revising your materials. The agents will be available on the course website from 1-3 p.m. (ET) on both Tuesday, September 29 and Wednesday, September 30. No later than Thursday, October 1, attendees will submit either their completed picture book text (1,000 words or fewer) or the first 5 double-spaced pages of their middle grade / young adult manuscript (only one submission is permitted). The submissions will receive feedback directly from the literary agents of P.S. Literary Agency.

The agents will spend up to two and a half weeks days reviewing all assigned critiques and provide feedback to help attendees. (The agents reserve the right to request more materials if they feel a strong connection to the work and want to read more; note that multiple agents have signed writers before from WD boot camps.) No later than October 19, agents will send their feedback to writer attendees.

Only registered students can access the discussion boards. You’ll also be able to ask questions of your fellow students. Feel free to share your work and gain support from your peers.

Please note that any one of the agents may ask for additional pages if the initial submission shows serious promise.

In addition to feedback from agents, attendees will also receive Getting Published in the 21st Century: Advice from a Literary Agent, an ebook by Carly Watters.

Writing Diversity: campaigns, resources, terms and how you can help to read between your own lines

IS09AL15JThere are so many great campaigns going around the internet about diversity in publishing and books. This is my attempt to share that wisdom and it is not an exhaustive or complete list. Diversity is a word for the growing awareness (not a trend) that all types of people should honestly and accurately be represented in literature. Learning where we’re starting from and questioning our assumptions is how we begin to grow as an industry.

Get in the know about the movements and if you’re writing fiction learn some new resources to better support your work.

Firstly, let’s get on the same page:

  • Bad representation is worse than no representation.
  • Check your privilege and your biases. Question your assumptions. Change doesn’t happen unless we ask the right questions.
  • If you’re not sure this post is for you, you’re wrong. We can all learn something. Open your mind to new ways of thinking about your work and how it reaches people.
  • Diversity is more than race. It’s socioeconomic, it’s (dis)ability, it’s religion, it’s gender, it’s sexuality, or it’s age. Most importantly, it’s about intersectional equality.




What can you do?

  • Share what you’ve learned with your critique partner or writing group.
  • Write real people honestly. And if you don’t know how, then do research–don’t guess or rely on secondary resources.
  • Speak up when other writers make you uncomfortable.
  • Organizing a conference, speaking event or blog tour? Think about diversity and inclusivity.
  • When in doubt, find the honesty and the truth by listening.
  • Learn how to describe characters’ physical attributes respectfully and naturally. (Try this character development master list.)
  • What you’re not saying is as important as what you do say: All white cast? Nuclear family? Stereotypes of poverty or sexuality? Are you truly representing the real world?
  • Try getting your news from diverse sources like The Root or The New Civil Rights Movement.
  • No one can change where they are from or how they were raised, but you can choose how to live your life as an educated adult.
  • I don’t believe anyone sets out to offend others. I think some writers just haven’t questioned their biases or world view. Set out to educate others with facts and resources like this. Read between your own lines.

Q: What are your favourite writing diversity resources? What did I miss?