Rounded Characters and Compelling Arcs

The success of a story often hangs on the presence of a compelling character.

When I first started writing fiction and submitting it to magazines, I was fortunate to receive feedback from editors (perhaps they recognized my newbie status) via rejection letters. In particular, Charles Ryan at Aboriginal Science Fiction used to send a checklist of reasons for his rejections, often with a little hand scrawled note of encouragement. My most often rejection reason from Mr. Ryan was a lack of character depth, or what is sometimes call “flat” characters. Basically, my characters weren’t compelling.

Over the years, I’ve worked hard to write stronger characters, and while I don’t think they are necessarily my greatest strength, I also don’t think my characters tend to hold back my stories anymore. Over time I believe I have developed a feel for what makes a compelling character. I’m not saying I have the all the answers, but I thought I’d share my process for character development. When developing a main character (as opposed to a supporting character), I consider four important facets:

their arc

their agency

their motivation

their stakes

If I can develop each of these well enough to engage a reader, then I likely have a compelling character on hands, and one that can support a short story.

I think the most important feature of a main character is that they undergo a “character arc” over the course of the story. This simply means that the events of the story should cause the main character to experience a change, either in their external or internal condition (or both). I believe the most compelling arcs include an internal transformation, usually a fundamental change in who the character is. It is this transformation that makes the events of the story meaningful. Basically, a character arc should tell what that character has learned and how they have chosen to use that information.

A main character must have agency, that is they must be the source of their own change. This usually happens through the character making a critical decision, usually at the climax of the story. The events of the story must drive the main character to this critical juncture, and once there, the main character must be the one who decides what they are going to do. This decision should not be made for them by another character. Sometimes this is referred to as having an “active” versus a “passive” main character. Main characters who are victims to the bitter end, or a tossed by events beyond their control, or are simple doormats for other characters are seldom compelling to read about. A main character must have the means to make choices and must make them.

In real life, people do things because they are motivated. The more motivated the individual, the more they apply themselves. Main characters should do the same. Characters should have reasons for doing what they do. In general, the more personal the motivation, the more compelling the character. For example, a character could have many reasons for robbing a bank, but it is generally more compelling to the reader if they are robbing the bank to get money to pay for their child’s life-saving cancer treatments, than if they simply want the money to buy a fancy car. Motivations matter, otherwise, characters appear to being doing thing for no reason, who in the real world does that?

Finally, a main character must face ramifications for their actions (or inactions). They must have something at stake, and like their motivation, I believe the more personal the stakes, the more compelling the character. The stakes should be meaningful, clearly at risk, and be as large as possible. Competing stakes should exist to make the character’s decision as difficult as possible. In my bank robbing example above, my main character risks losing their child if they are unable to raise the money. If they do not attempt to rob the bank, their child will most likely imminently die. However, if they decide to rob the bank, it introduces a different set of competing stakes. By deciding to rob the bank, my character risks incarceration if caught or perhaps even being killed during the robbery. These seems like high stakes to me, and this main character is in a real bind.

While I certainly don’t have the answers to character development, I have found that compelling main characters need to be well-developed, such they have arcs, agency, motivation, and stakes at risk. As every write is different, this approach may work for you or not. If you’ve found another way to create compelling characters, please drop me a comment. I am always looking for ways to improve my characters and may writing.

Posted in Inspiration, Writing | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“The Memory Plague” Available for Free Reading

My story, “The Memory Plague,” published in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is now available for free reading online. Please check it out if you haven’t already.

Or if you prefer, the story has also been recorded for the Lightspeed Magazine podcast, and you can listen to Stefan Rudnick’s reading of my story via their podcast page.

Finally, if you’ve ever wondered about the story behind a story, I’ve added some thoughts about “The Memory Plague” in series I call “Story Inspirations.” Pop over to here if you would like to what inspired this unusual alien first contact story.

Posted in Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Inspiration: “The Memory Plague”

Sometimes writing a story can be easy. An idea comes to you, and the words flow out like a river. Editing goes quickly, and if you’re fortunate, you sell it on your first try.

I’ve had that happen a few times, but for me, short story writing is usually a bit more of a process. My stories tend to take time to gel, the first drafts are often meandering and weak, and the editing process is agonizingly slow (but still my favorite part). Selling a story can take months or sometimes, years.

“The Memory Plague,” which is available in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine, is likely my most extreme example of this. “The Memory Plague” had its origins back around 2016, when the title just jumped into my head one day. I had no story to go with the title, but something about the juxtaposition of those two words made it stick in my head, and I knew I wanted to write a story that would fit it.

Around this same time, I learned that my mom had Alzheimer’s. This disease affected her memory, and over the next few years, I watched my mom slip away from me, piece by piece, as her memories were consumed. She became an entirely different person—she even took on a different appearance—and I realized that we are our memories, and it is that collective set of memories that makes us who we are. If those memories are lost or changed, we become fundamentally different people. This became the core of what would eventually become “The Memory Plague.”

Several months later, the first pieces of “The Memory Plague” started to coalesce. I decide I wanted this to be a different take on an alien first-contact story, but I just didn’t know what. I also decided that I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the aliens, and I wanted that perspective to be as strange as possible, while still allowing me to tell a very human story. I am often disappointed by the portrayal of aliens in science fiction because they simply aren’t that alien, so I wanted to challenge myself and this convention. The alien Vortive were born from this desire.

I don’t want to give away too much if you have yet to read “The Memory Plague,” so I won’t say more about story itself. Suffice to say, my first draft, completed near the end 2016, was not very good. The story was long and unfocused, and simply put, had no heart.

So, I put it away, and a short time later I stopped writing short stories to focus on my book series, The Calypto Cycle. That doesn’t mean I forgot about “The Memory Plague.” It stuck in my mind, like a musical earworm, and over the coming years I dusted it off several times and tried to re-work it. I must have failed a half dozen times, and after each failure, I would put it back on the shelf, only to be drawn back to it a few months later. In 2019, I again pulled the story out determined to finish it, and after many days of hard work, I knew I had something special. I knew I finally had it right.

“The Memory Plague” is very personal to me. It’s the hardest story I have ever written, and thus one of which I am very proud. I am saddened that my mom never got to see this one. She passed away several years ago to Alzheimer’s, but she still lives on in my collective memories. I guess I could say, “We are Audu.”

Posted in Inspiration, Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A Few Thoughts on Collaboration

Writing tends to be a solitary endeavor. Most stories and books are written by a single person during which they conceive, develop, plot, write, and edit in a near vacuum. While many writers may open their work to others for comment and discussion at various stages, they maintain full control over the process and decide what to do with any feedback they might receive.

I’ve written this way for my entire career, and it has produced result of which I am quite proud.

But last summer I had a conversation with a longtime friend of mine in which he revealed a wacky story idea he’d been developing during his daily jogs. Not being a writer, he wondered what I thought of it.

After musing over it for a time, I loved it, and thought he had premise that could be developed into a fun and engaging story, likely appropriate for a young adult audience. I sent him back my thoughts and an offer to write it as a collaborative project.

To my immense pleasure, he accepted, and off we forged into unexplored territory.

Since that day, I’ve thought often about the collaborative process and how it differs so much from the solo one. These differences have necessitated a change in how I think and conduct my writing because the process and the product are no longer mine, but ours. This means several things:

First, I need to have the confidence to respect other ideas, even when they may run counter to my own. This interchange of ideas can be exciting, and by being open to my co-author ideas, I have found that our story has gone in some unexpected, yet good, directions. The interplay of our creativity has benefited the story.

Second, I need to trust my co-author. This is critical because the writing process can become very personal and can reveal things that I ordinarily might not share with most other people. My writing process is messy, and I’ve always felt it is like making sausage: the end product is great, but getting there is something that is best left unwitnessed. I need to trust that my co-author won’t hold anything against me, so to speak.

Third, I need to be open to criticism. Sure every writer needs to have a thick skin, but this is more than just someone saying they thought your finished story was trash. Criticism is hard to take, but if I trust my co-author then I should know that any criticisms they raise are intended to improve our story and process, and not to tear me down. I must remember that we are both working toward a common goal

Finally, I think it is critical to be open and clear up front about the nature and goals of the partnership. One of the first things my co-author and I did was agree to the boundaries our collaboration. We agreed on what fell under this partnership, what did not, and how we intended to split everything from workload to potential profits. We also agreed on our end goal, including how we hoped to pursue publication. This might sound like a prenuptial agreement or a business contract, and in some ways, it is, but I think it necessary to establish clear expectations to avoid any misunderstanding or hard feelings later. Most importantly, we agreed to walk away from the project if it ever threatened our friendship.

I hope that following being mindful of these consideration will make for a positive collaborative experience and result it a book that is publishable, profitable, and most importantly, enjoyable to readers.

I’ve likely missed some other consideration, so please drop them in a comment if you have anything to add.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Winter Storms and Future Considerations

Winter Houses

I’m a marine biologist who lives in the mountains. I’m not sure how that happened, but I certainly have no regrets. This also means I’m used to water in all forms. While I’ve spent my career in liquid water, the frozen variety also hold a lot of sway over my life. Yesterday, a winter storm put out my power for about 14 hours. Power being out doesn’t particularly bother me; I’ve lived without power and running water for months following typhoons, so no lights and no internet aren’t foreign to me.

My internet is still down, and but the modern miracles of mobile hotspots and unlimited phone data have allowed me to get my laptop on line for at least a few minutes. When I checked my email, I found one from Apex magazines informing me that my story submission had made it past their first readers. For those not aware, lots of magazines with high submission rates use first readers to cull their slush piles and advance a smaller subset of stories to the editor(s) for final decision. Getting past the first reader does not guarantee a sale—the rejection rate at Apex is >99%—but it does mean I haven’t been rejected yet, and that much of the competition has been stripped away, leaving . . . well . . . the tough competition to content with. So, it’s sort of mixed bag, kind of like leveling up only to find that the bosses you have fight are just that much tougher. I still expect to receive a rejection in the end.

This story has been a bridesmaid several times already, which tells me one of two things: 1) it’s good enough to get through the first cuts, but might not be quite there for a sale in the end, or 2) it just hasn’t found the right editor or publication yet. I like to think it’s the latter.

Keep writing. Keep submitting. And good luck.

Posted in General News, Inspiration, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

Writing Update: Collaboration on the Clock

I thought I’d provide a quick writing update to set the stage for some future posts I want to make.

A few months ago, I finished revising the manuscript for Tiger Unbound, Book Five of the Calytpo Cycle. At this stage, the manuscript is essentially done. I say essentially because this when I send it to a handful of trusted first readers who give me feedback. This usually results in a few revisions and some line edits, but generally nothing substantial.

Last November, as my contribution to National Novel Writing Month, I wrote the entire first draft of Book Six of the Calypto Cycle. It doesn’t have a title yet, and as with all of my first drafts, it needs a significant amount of editing and revision, but overall, I’m pleased with how the story came out. This book concludes the middle third of the story, so unlike Books 4 and 5, Book 6 ends with a few loose ends that are intended to propel the reader in the final act of the entire cycle. It also has some of the biggest story reveals of any of the books so far, so I wonder how my readers will like it.

Since November I’ve turned my attention to a collaborative effort with a longtime friend. We’re working on a YA book series that combines progressive rock music and a story of the end-times, a sort of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief meets King Crimson meets Buddy Holly is Alive and Well and Living on Ganymede (if you are not familiar with all these references, make sure you find them and read or listen to them). After spending several months working out plot and scene details together, I’ve turned my attention the actual writing phase, and I’m about a quarter of the way into a first draft. I’ve never done a collaborative story before, so it’s been an interesting—and good—experience to this point, and I’ll plan to write about it in the future.

Finally, I’ve got several short stories making the rounds. After a stretch where all of my submissions seemed to be languishing in slush piles, at least a few of those piles seem to be moving again. One of my stories shook free a couple of days ago (a nice personal rejection from Andy Cox over at Interzone), and it is already off to another magazine for consideration. I hate rejections, but I hate not hearing anything at all even more, so here’s to more news, good or bad, arriving soon.

And with that, I wish good writing to everyone.

Posted in Inspiration, Writing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Tough Decision, Easy to Make

I decided yesterday not to renew my membership in the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). For those not familiar with the SFWA, it’s the preeminent professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers, and it’s not easy to qualify for membership. The SFWA does good things for writers, many of which should not be downplayed and are critical to artist who are often not businesspeople or lawyers.

But the SWFA is also more than a business organization. As a young writer, I viewed SFWA membership as a badge of accomplishment. I still do, which is one of the reasons this was a tough decision to make.

In reality, however, I knew I didn’t have many choices, and this decision really wasn’t a difficult one. My family simply could not afford the membership fee, and as a writer who does not make a living off his fiction, I could no longer justify the vanity rush of being able say I was a member of the SFWA.

Head over heart, I guess.

And, you know, I don’t need the badge to know I’m a good writer.

Posted in Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

What Have I Learned from My “Calypto” Experience

FireintheSnowKindleFinalA few years ago, I decided to write a series of books called The Calypto Cycle that I intended to self-publish. I decided to go the self-publish, or indie, route for a few reasons. First, and likely most importantly, I felt the books I wanted to write weren’t going to be viable for a traditional publisher. The story itself was an odd mashup of genres (I dubbed the stories coal-punk thrillers), and each story was meant to be relatively short and self-contained, but with a tread of a larger story arc extending through the volumes. Second, traditional publishing is a sloooooow process, and I wanted to get these books out there quickly. Third, I have friends who have had poor traditionally publishing experiences, and while that doesn’t guarantee I would have a bad experience, I wanted more control over my product. Finally, I wanted to the challenge and satisfaction of doing it myself.

After reading a whole bunch about the indie market, I decide the story I wanted to tell, The Calypto Cycle, could be a good fit. With each book clocking in at around 40,000 words, I could write them quickly and set a decent price point. I envisioned the series as having nine books, which if read in order would tell a large story, but which could also be read individually because each volume would have a more-or-less self-contained story. I decided to write the books in groups of three, with the third and sixth books end with a significant, hanging plot point, so that I could, if desired, combine each set of three into a moderately long (~120,000 word) single book and also sell the story as a trilogy of “omnibus” volumes. I felt these specific details would me give a decent shot at some indie success.

I’m now about halfway through my indie experience, and to be honest, it’s been a mixed bag, but still rewarding. I’ve published four Calypto books, have the fifth ready to go into production, and I have written the first draft of the sixth. Books seven through nine are plotted out and ready to be written over the next few years. The published books have sold moderately well, and have even managed to slightly exceed my expectations (which admittedly were low). I’ve learned the production side of book making, from how to format manuscripts, securing covers, opening online shops, etc. Where I have failed is marketing—I simple don’t toot my horn very well—but improving on this is one of my goals for the coming year.

So what I have learned? Like all “art,” indie publishing is hard, time-consuming, frustrating, and rewarding. It has a steep learning curve and requires a considerable investment in time just to get that first book out. After that, it requires constant effort to keep things moving forward, so you can’t just focus on writing. The market is very crowded, so the challenge is helping your audience find your work, and I believe this is where I have struggled most. Yet, even knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t change my decision. I still feel The Calypto Cycle was made for indie publishing, and I am proud of the product that I was able to assemble and market. I have learned a great deal about what goes into publishing and met incredible and talented people along the way. As my catalogue continues to expand, I am hopeful that sales will rise. I read somewhere (I think it was an interview with SF author Orson Scott Card) that most authors don’t earn a living until they have a about seven books in their back catalogue, so I still have a ways to go. As I continue along that road, I want to continue to learn and improve.

Shackles of Doubt ebook - D. Thomas Minton    Threads Unravel - D. Thomas Minton    Messages from the Sand - D. Thomas Minton

Continue reading

Posted in Goals, Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

New Projects (and Old)

I’ve been away from regular posting for quite some time, and the bug to ease back into it has bitten me. Tending my website is one of the many new/old projects I want to work on in 2021. As I find it is often helpful for me to state goals, here’s a quick rundown of what I hope to accomplish, at least in the first part of 2021.

Write, write, and write. This one seems straightforward for writer, and in 2020, I got back on track with daily writing. After getting away from daily writing in recent years, I buckled down and resurrected my daily writing target (at least 500 words a day),. In 2020, I have successfully met that target, and managed to re-establish a consistent writing habit. It felt great to crank out out that production, which resulted in me writing nearly a quarter of million words in 2020. That hasn’t yet translated into many published stories yet, but the first step it to write the work.

Finish what I have started. I’ve always struggled to finish things I start, and success as a writer (and really just in general) is linked to finishing. Several years ago I started down the road of writing long-form, i.e., novels, and have published fours books over the past few years. The books are all part of a series called The Calypto Cycle. The series was envisioned to be nine books. Four are complete and available through most online retailers, the fifth is in final manuscript form, and I competed a first draft of the sixth in November 2020. I want to finish and publish the rest of this series. I also have a novella length steampunk story, and a handful of short stories written last year that I want edit, finalize, and submit to publishers. Unfinished work doesn’t get me closer to my goal of publishing stories and maybe even making a living off my writing. I want to do better at this than I did in 2020.

Promote my work. I’m a terrible promoter or my own work because I don’t care to talk about myself. This year I want to promote my work better. I’m not sure how I intend to do that, but it will start here with some love and care on my website. My plan for now is to spend the first few months of 2021 trying to figure out how to build a platform and get news of my books and stories out there. I’ll then decide what to do from there. Any advice? Please leave a comment or drop me an email through my contact page.

Nurture my collaboration. I am very excited about my current writing project, which is a collaboration on a YA fantasy novel about progressive rock music and the end times. Last year, a long-time friend of mine told me about a “crazy” story idea he had. I thought the idea was fantastic, so I proposed we work on it together. Several months later, we have a solid book outline, and we’ve started to put words to paper (or computer, as the case may be). I’ve never collaborated on fiction before, so this has been a scary and exciting project, and so far, I love it. I’ll talk more about this collaborative process in some future posts.

Take care of myself. 2020 was a hard year for many reason—my life has changed a lot in the last two years. Fortunately most of those changes should eventually result in good things, but there is still a long road to travel before I get there. I need to remember to take care of myself and my family because we area all in this together.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“The Memory Plague” Is Here

I guess that might not be the best title for a post given the times, but believe it or not, my new story at Lightspeed Magazine was not inspired by COVID (I’ll have more on that in a later post).

“The Memory Plague,” my first short story in a long time is now available in the January 2021 issue of Lightspeed Magazine. This is the fourth story of mine to appear in Lightspeed, and while this might bias me a little toward it, Lightspeed Magazine is one of my favorite short stories publications.

This story has special meaning to me for a variety of reason. Several years ago, I took some time off from writing short stories to focus on my book series, The Calypto Cycle, but I decided in late 2019 to write more short fiction over the coming year. “The Memory Plague” was a short story that had been sitting my shelf for a loooong time because I had never been able to “get it right,” but after some tough revisions, I finished this unconventional, first-contact story, and was delighted when Lightspeed accepted it a few weeks later.

So please head over to Lightspeed Magazine and read it. While you’re there, be sure to check out the other science fiction stories by Anjali Sachdeva, An Owomoyela, and Greg van Eekhout. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Lightspeed Magazine can be purchased through online retailers, or if you wait until January 21st, “The Memory Plague” will be available for free reading on their website. Also, if you prefer, I recently learned that my story will be recorded for their podcast. I believe the release date for hte audio version is also January 21st, but I will update as I learn more.

Posted in Inspiration, Science Fiction, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment