Category Archives: Characters

Wreck-It Ralph and Character Jobs, Part I

Although I haven’t watched “Wreck-It Ralph,” I have read the (highly recommended) screenplay, and it sparked some musings about characters and their jobs.

“I gotta say, it becomes kinda hard to love your job… when no one else seems to like you for doing it.”

–Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph, as an anti-hero and video-game villain in his day job, is in fine company. In his book What Foreigners Need To Know About America From A To Z, Lance Johnson provides surveys that list some of the service industries and related jobs Americans rank as lowest and complain about the most:

  • Oil companies
  • Real estate agents
  • HMOs
  • Tobacco companies
  • Auto dealers
  • Cell phone companies (contracts)
  • Collection agencies
  • Banks
  • Auto repair
  • Mortgage brokers

If your characters hold a profession everybody hates, that makes your job as a writer more challenging, but in the case of Wreck-It Ralph, it can also be a rewarding journey.  Everyone (including, ahem, writers) can relate to days in which no one appreciates what you do. Yes, Wreck-It Ralph is about Generation X, the video game and most maligned recent generation, but it is also about our jobs and our livelihoods.

Does the job define the character? 

Does the job define the person? In our society, yes, it does.

Does the job define the character?  In the case of cop dramas, legal dramas, political dramas, hard-boiled police procedurals, stories about sex workers, stories set in the entertainment industry, stories about teachers, even family dramas in which Mom and Dad are the (toughest of all) job titles (what parent hasn’t felt unappreciated at some point?), the answer is yes.

Whether it’s Detective Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” who lives for the job, Sherlock Holmes, Captain Kirk (when the movies prompted him to admiral and took him away from the Enterprise, that sparked major character conflict and a four-movie arc), there are many examples in which the job defines the character. But it’s also the character’s relationship to the job that creates drama and conflict.

FREE help to describe your characters!

In Wreck-It-Ralphs’s case, he just wants to be a part of society and be valued. His external goal is to get a medal, but in the course of “going turbo” and leaving his game, he develops other relationships.

This works for true stories, too: If your client has a job that the public has preconceptions, especially negative, about, such as the mortgage industry (Confessions of a Subprime Lender), IRS agents, Hollywood agents (sorry), salespeople, or politicians (if you land such a gig), your job is to make the case as to why the reader should care:  Is it a tell-all?  A personal struggle with illness?  A friendship or love story that changes lives? A how-to book on consumer advice?  A cause that’s bigger than the job?

Yes, it is hard to separate people from their jobs, because one of the first questions we ask is, “What do you do?” Why would your characters, including in nonfiction, be any different?  Also, other than their stated job title, characters have different jobs to do in your story.  Hero, comic relief, best friend, messenger, shapeshifter, mentor, sidekick…

Don’t knock the villains (even though we all love to). In my follow-up post, I’ll give some love to the antagonist/villain’s job and why, in Ralph’s words, “I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.”

Back to the job!

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How to Describe Characters in Children’s Books

It seems like just yesterday (but it was actually in December) that I announced the Character Description Cheat Sheet in a post about how to describe hair. Of course that post was about how to describe hair to an adult audience, which is not the same thing as describing to a young reader audience (who are much less interested in the smell of the hair, and much more interested in whether there are ribbons in it, for example).

And the Character Description Cheat Sheet I announced then was, not surprisingly, also aimed at an adult audience.

But what about if you are preparing a manuscript for a children’s book?

No problem – we have now developed the (equally free) Character Description Cheat Sheet for Children’s Books.  Here is a snapshot of what it looks like, and you can download it for free (well, for the price of a tweet or a share on FaceBook).

The two tools are really quite similar in most ways, but there are some important distinctions, and this special shortcut just for children’s writers should help you more easily prepare your manuscript.  One example of a distinction is that a child’s life often revolves around school, so everything the reader sees through the main characters’ eyes is colored by the school experience: things that happen in the schoolyard and the classroom, homework schedule, teachers they like or that give them a hard time, etc.

Pick up our free cheat sheet to help describe children’s book characters.
Pick up our free cheat sheet to help describe your characters for adults.

I would like to thank children’s author Janet Smart for assisting with this special edition for children’s authors.  She was helpful in reminding me of a number of points that I had overlooked.

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What writing services do people want?

Every now and then, I get asked this question: “What do people want written?” And I usually answer that people come to us for a lot of biographies and fiction manuscripts. But is that the most accurate answer?

I decided to do some number-crunching. And I cam up with three sets of data. First, here are the types of services people seek…


As you can see, biographies are the most popular project people seek.  Everybody has a story to tell.  Yes, most “biographies” are in fact autobiographies.

There are a lot of people who come to us with manuscripts – including websites and marketing materials, but mostly books – to edit.  These include biographies, as well as every other genre.

The three other popular genres are business manuscripts, online writing and fiction manuscripts.


Breaking it down a different way, 46 percent of people come looking for some form of book to be written.  Twenty percent of people seek some form of editing and 12 percent seek copy for use online.  Everything else is pretty minor.

Breaking down the books into the various types, you can see just how important biographies are – how many people have a story to tell.


If you have a story to tell or a book you want to help promote your business or career, we’ll be happy to help you.

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Your career as a slave writer

Rant time! Every day – yeah, pretty much every day – I get an email from somebody seeking to hire a slave. In my mind’s eye, I see them standing there with a whip and an evil laughter. “Muuaahhahahhahahaaaaa!

Here is one of those emails I just received.

I am looking for an article writer who can write quality articles for the keyword and the special instruction that i provide. I need 500 words and 700 words articles meeting the deadline. I give $1.20 for 500 words article and $2.40 for 700 words article. You can take a keyword after submitting an article. Time frame to complete 500 word article is 2hrs and 4 hrs for 700 words article. Let me know if you have any questions.

I was tempted to respond…

“Yeah, and I give $5.40 for a quality transatlantic flight. However, I got tired of the “comfortable” seating in the catapult, and the landing is usually quite rough – especially since I always hit the office tower across the street. But, “Hey”, you can’t beat the price, tight?

I didn’t send that email – what’s the point of arguing with an $%#@%! and starting a flame war with someone whose intelligence level makes him a threat to anybody standing close enough when he sets himself on fire?

A much better way to handle such things is…

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18 Tips to Save Money on Ghostwriting Fees

Everybody has a book inside them just screaming to get out. Some books are for personal pleasure, some are for business promotion, some are to sell as a product. Everybody has a book inside them, but not everybody knows how to set it free.

That’s where ghostwriters come in. But ghostwriters are expensive. Let’s face it, you are hiring a skilled professional for several months, and the costs can add up. But there are ways to keep costs from spiraling out of control, and below are 18 tips to save money without skimping on quality. In fact, some of these tips will virtually ensure a better quality manuscript, regardless of the quality of the writer.

Some ghostwriters charge by the hour, others by the project. We always provide a project price (and you will soon discover why that makes more sense for ghostwriting clients) but the list below covers tips that help lower hourly ghostwriting costs.

Be prepared to save on ghostwriter fees

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: Know what type of audience you’re aiming for; this helps to shape the material and save time on discussions beforehand or rewrites later on. If this is something you can’t do yourself, that’s OK; that might be one of the reasons to hire a ghostwriter in the first place, so make sure this is one of the first things you discuss with her.

GET A STYLE: Have an idea of the genre and style you want to use. There are just so many to choose from, and it really pays to get this right from the start. This is especially true if you are paying by the hour; you don’t want the writer to have to needlessly rewrite whole chapters because you had not carefully thought it through.

DON’T RUSH: You will have to decide when you want the manuscript to be completed. Ideally, you want to give the writer enough time to do a proper job without rushing. For books of 50,000 to 100,000 words, this is typically 4-6 months. A shorter deadline could be more expensive (if it is a “rush” job) and might even compromise the quality of the manuscript.

DO YOUR RESEARCH: Have all the details ready. This is especially crucial for non-fiction, where facts must be accurate. You can always ask the writer to do the research for you, but that can really sink you in the hole. I mentioned before that we charge on a project basis, but we make an exception for the research. This can be a bottomless pit of work for the writer, so we charge by the hour; don’t let is become a bottomless pit of costs for you.

BE ORGANIZED: This is the single most important factor in keeping down the costs of ghostwriting. It’s one thing to have done all the research, but if you provide a box of papers and news clippings, even with information highlighted or underlined, the writer still has hours of sorting and weeding to do – hours that will cost you money. Yes, we take that into account when finalizing the project price. Best to organize information by date (especially for biographies and true stories, by character (especially for fiction), by location, etc. If using research or interviews, double-check and correctly cite your sources so the writer doesn’t have to. This can get expensive if you are paying by the hour, and if paying by the project, the writer might leave it up to you to do anyway (and that information might have been useful to include in the text itself.

WRITE IT DOWN: What is in writing can be easily reviewed, saving countless hours of work. Nevertheless, lots of people offer us video or audio recordings. Can you imagine the pure torture a writer would have to go through, spending hours winding, rewinding, searching for a certain reference? Well, ghostwriters can imagine it, and if you provide audio or video information, we will tell you what the transcription fees will be. To avoid those fees, provide written notes.

GO ELECTRONIC: Electronic (Microsoft Word is the standard in the publishing industry) offers two major benefits over sending paper notes. The writer can easily search the documents much faster than by flipping pages. And often there is material that can be cut and pasted, such as quotations, long names of places or documents or diseases or Latin names of animals or…well, you get the idea. That saves time writing and it also saves time editing. Electronic is also instantaneous and easily shared, cutting down on distracting delays that ultimately can affect the quality of the writing.

GIVE CLEAR OBJECTIVES: If you make it very clear from the outset what you want, the writer won’t have to keep asking questions. Fewer questions, less back-and-forth and the less-frustrated, more-inspired writer (hint, hint – higher quality manuscript) will charge fewer hours. And for companies like us that charge by the project, we can tell pretty quickly if we need to factor teeth pulling hours into our price.

KICKSTART THE PROCESS:Create an outline or do a draft (if you can). This is a great way to make sure that not just your information is organized. It can save a few hours of back-and-forth with the writer. If this is something you can’t do yourself, that’s OK; that might be one of the reasons to hire a ghostwriter in the first place, in which case the money for this is well-spent.

Negotiating the ghostwriter contract

HIRE ON A PROJECT BASIS:That is the only way we operate. There are two benefits to hiring on a project basis, and both have to do with the tedious and time-consuming process of accounting. If a writer has to spend time and effort keeping track of hours, you pay first for the time she spend on “accounting” matters and then in the inevitably lower quality manuscript from a writer distracted. When we negotiate a contract with a client, all the accounting for hours is removed from the equation. Our writers focus on writers. They don’t have to spend their time accounting. Or marketing. Or networking. They focus on writing, and that’s what you want them to focus on.

ASK FOR THE BEST PRICE:This is pretty obvious, and you may already be getting the quoted price, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. If a ghostwriter is able to give you a better price, you’ll know right away. If she says the quote is final, don’t become a pest; the price won’t change. If the price is really too high for your budget, the writer might suggest reviewing some of the items on this list.

SHORTEN UP:The single most effective way to reduce the price is to reduce the word count. In some instances, this makes sense. In others, it does not. Ultimately, there is an ideal size for almost every book, and you don’t want to skimp. However, I have seen times when reducing the length of the book by as much as a third from the original intentions could save money without compromising effectiveness.

GET A FINAL EDIT: Make sure to ask if the manuscript will be in publishable form or will it still need to be edited. We always deliver publish-quality manuscripts. One big caveat: any editor will be able to take any manuscript, no matter how polished, and edit it further. And most publishing houses will want to edit whatever you present them to meet their own criteria. So “final” edits don’t really exist. But you don’t want to end up with a manuscript that still needs serious editing.

ASK FOR A BONUS: We are happy to provide free synopsis and query letter for any book-length manuscript. This saves time, headaches and costs for our clients who decide to approach publishers and agents. Obviously, this won’t work when hiring on an hourly basis, nor for clients who plan to self-publish, but many of our clients appreciate it. If you plan to self publish, you might ask for back-cover text as a bonus.

NEGOTIATE A FLEXIBLE PAYMENT PLAN:I should not that this won’t reduce your overall costs, and in some cases it might increase costs (like leasing a car costs more than buying it, even though monthly payments are less). But if cash flow is an issue, if you have only a certain amount of funds available each month, this might be for you. We usually request payment in thirds, but we have put clients on a monthly payment plan when asked. Our golden rule is that until we receive payment, the writer does not begin work. So when payment comes in monthly, it means the work flow follows the same schedule. I personally believe this is disruptive to the creative process, as the writer must stop and hold back at times when she is on a roll. But if your cash flow is limited, this might make sense.

Communicating with your ghostwriter

BE EMAIL ACCESSIBLE:Ghostwriters frequently have questions for clients. It saves a lot of disruptions if the writer can fire off a quick email and have it answered in a timely manner. Email saves a lot of time , because phone calls inevitably take longer and they often take time to set up, not to mention the distraction of trying to set up phone meetings. There is a cost to using the phone, and that cost is paid in both time (money) and distraction (manuscript quality).

BE PHONE ACCESSABLE: Yes, this contradicts what I said in the point above. Except that some question just are not simple enough to answer by email; sometimes the writer will have to probe. If you are easy to access by phone, you can cut down on telephone tag (and if you are email accessible, it is much easier to set up phone meetings).

LISTEN: Listen to your ghostwriter when she suggests a new story direction…it may cost you less in revision in the long run! You might have a good reason to go in another direction, but a professional ghostwriter also has a pretty good pulse on what publishers are looking for.

Many thanks to Debra, Heather, Kristin and Kathryn, four of our senior writers, for their assistance in putting this list together.

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In teaching a virtual seminar for the Muse Online Writers’ Conference about “Writing the Short Screenplay from Concept to ‘Fade Out,’” I’ve read the following comment in online forums: “I wrote this as a short story/novel, but I think it would be better as a screenplay.”

I’ll talk about adaptations of books to movies in another blog post. Everyone out there has an opinion of books on film. Sometimes the movie actually improves on the book, or at least offers a true translation–by that I mean it keeps to the essence of the book without reproducing it word for word (the “Harry Potter” films, especially the last one, “Order of the Phoenix, accomplished this magic.)

What about the reverse—the novelization of a screenplay? It’s a growing business. “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization (with curious academic-like footnotes) of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” from 1979, the one every critic has panned. Studios hire writers to novelize popular movies such as the “Batman” franchise. Then there are all those kids’ adaptations of kids’ movies such as “The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Underdog” and ”Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the movie that launched the new animated series on Cartoon Network.

 It’s difficult enough to transmute a publicly beloved property into fiction. For a ghostwriter, the pay may be great and the challenge satisfying, especially if you happen to be a fan of the franchise, because after all, the characters are the stars. Nobody cares who transcribes the words of Anakin Skywalker (or his feisty female apprentice Ahsoka Tano), Lightning McQueen or Captain Kirk.

However, when the script in question is personal, when a ghostwriting client hopes to have both a book and movie based on characters he or she has created, the challenge is greater, and in many respects even more rewarding despite the long hours at the computer.

David Leonhardt made the announcement last week about our client Alan Truax’s novel Mercedes being published. Alan has been a delight to work with. I rarely meet ghostwriting clients, but I had the privilege of dining with Alan and his wife last December. It was a wonderful evening. Alan is a remarkable man who believed in his story enough to condense a 300-page screenplay trilogy to a two-hour movie and to transform it into a novel.

As both a screenwriter and a novel writer who has adapted my own novel to a screenplay (and award-winning short story to a play), I understood the specific demands of the project. I understood that:

  1.  Not everyone enjoys reading screenplays—especially not producers and agents. This is because they usually have a stack of scripts to read and each year 50,000 scripts are registered with the WGA (Writers’ Guild of America). I do enjoy reading screenplays.
  2. Screenplays have to be minimalistic. Emotion has to be conveyed through dialogue and action, unless you have voiceover. Plot is sometimes conveyed through details—a sign, a phone call, a UFO suddenly descending. In that respect, writing a screenplay teaches you how to write fiction: show, don’t tell. However, novels can have diversions, side trips, and moments that, because of tiem constraints, wouldn’t make the cut.
  3. There are many times when telling/painting what a character is feeling and thinking is important. Example: Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City”. What would the TV show and movie be without Carrie’s voiceover columns dishing about her friends’ adventures? In a novel, you can be Carrie Bradshaw. Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling convey characters’ interior emotions and thoughts—in J.K. Rowling’s case, usually all Harry Potter’s.
  4. A novel gives you the opportunity to explore characters beyond the confines of a movie frame. In the case of MERCEDES, we could explore the thoughts and motives of some unsympathetic characters such as the title heroine’s first husband Dirk or another character named Helga, a Nazi supporter in 1930s Germany. We could add chapters and scenes in a point of view other than the heroine’s. A screenplay is told chiefly through the protagonist’s POV. By that I mean everything revolves around the protagonist. The screenplay is about the main character wanting something and achieving or failing to achieve it. The antagonist (not necessarily a villain) or group of antagonists (in Mercedes’ case, her ex-husband and the Nazis) acts against the protagonist, but is not the star of the story—even though the antagonist must be compelling, such as the shark in “Jaws” or Major Strasser in “Casablanca” (although you could argue Rick Blaine is his own antagonist), or even, in a comedic sense, Robert De Niro in “Meet the Parents”. Robert De Niro, as the father of the woman Ben Stiller loves, is the antagonist who threatens to keep them apart. In a novel, you can explore other POVs. Fantasy epics such as the Wheel of Time series by the late Robert Jordan excel at this.
  5. A novel allows you to “connect the dots” and talk about what a screenplay doesn’t express—within reason. After all, “Chinatown” says plenty when Jake Gittes confronts Evelyn Mulwray and produces the explosive revelation, “She’s my sister and my daughter!” However, many people get frustrated and think, “What was he thinking? Why did she do that? They never explored this, they never explained that,” and so on. Having sat through many movies with some of my friends, these are the questions I frequently have asked and heard. We don’t need to be spoon-fed, but some movies just defy understanding. Much of that may not be the scriptwriter’s fault. The editing and directing play a huge role. The studio certainly plays a role. In a novel, you are the producer and director—even though you may have to answer to a publisher and certainly you follow the client’s wishes. In MERCEDES, we could explore the relationship between the heroine’s father and his best friend. We could get into the head of Rick Willson, the man who wants to interview Mercedes for (surprise) a screenplay, and learn why he is doing what he’s doing.
  6. With freedom comes challenges. For example, we decided against a passage I had written regarding one of the characters’ experiences as a driver in post-WWII London. I spent too much time on incidental background that didn’t ehance character or story. It’s easy to get sidetracked, although explorations can sometimes yield different possibilities that a ghostwriter might pose to the client. However, the client is, as always, the one who has final say.

In a future blog post I’ll talk about “Identity Crisis: Helping the Client Decide If It’s a Novel or a Screenplay”.

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What’s your story?

You want to write a book and you have a great story running around your head, but writing it is not as easy as you thought. You need a professional to prepare your manuscript. So what’s your story?

For any book to be interesting, it needs a good plot. Plot is what gets the reader’s attention … what’s it all about? And plot is what keeps it … what happens next?

The following is true, unbelievable but true. I once had a would-be client contact me with an idea for a children’s book – and that was all he had.

“What is your book about?” I asked him.

“These children run away and save the world from itself.” He replied.

“Okay, so what’s the plot?”

“They run away and save the world from itself.”

“That’s your idea. Why do they run away? Why do they need to save the world? What do they do?”

“Er … what do you think?” He asked.

“There a few things you have to before you employ a writer.” We chatted for a while of his need to think about the action he wanted in his book. I gave him a few tips about how to proceed and added,

“ … and while you’re at it, you also need to think about the children’s characters.”

“Character? What character?”

So we went through the notion of character.

“Well what do you think they should be?” He asked.

“This is your book. Therefore you have to know what you want in it.” I added as gently as I could. “If I conceive of and develop your plot, characters, location and everything you wish me to, it would be my book. Now why would I write a book of my own and give it to you?”

Finally we agreed that while he would think of some of the children’s characteristics (one of whom was the son of the king), I would help him to develop them as the plot itself developed.

“So where does this action take place?” I asked.

“Erm … they run away to the snowfields so it has to be somewhere with lots of snow.”

I suggested a few countries.

“It has to be a republic and the …”

I interrupted him. “This country is a republic with a monarchy?”

“Yes, and I have an idea for one of the children who all go to the same private school. He is the hero of the book. He is the white adopted son of a black woman, who works at someplace like McDonalds.”

Needless to say, this story had no chance for I was left with a group of children who have to save the world from some unknown calamity. In addition, a black waitress at a fast food outlet, whose son was white could afford to send him to an expensive private school attended by royalty. This boy and a group of his chums, including a prince used only to the lap of luxury, run away to the ‘snowfields’ in a republican monarchy, where they presumably manage not to freeze to death while finding nourishment in all the snow and ice around them. Perhaps they might find a polar bear to hunt and eat, or catch a whale through a hole in the ice. (I didn’t suggest that to the young man).

He had no idea of how to move his vague idea forward. He couldn’t develop his characters or his story because he had no plot. The very least a ghostwriter needs is an idea of the nature of the book (for example is it a mystery, comedy, etc.), a believable plot written in outlines (starting from the beginning of the story and proceeding in an orderly fashion to the end), some idea of the characters, and location. This applies whether you wish to write fiction or non-fiction. It is then up to the ghostwriter to craft the manuscript, moving the reader fluidly from one chapter to the next.

So what your story?

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What’s in a Character?

Character development is a critical part of any story. When a book is being written by a ghostwriter, it is especially important for the client to transmit a clear and concise picture of those individuals they have worked so hard to develop in their mind. Otherwise when the ghost writes the story, the characters may not quite measure up to what the author has envisioned. As the originator of the manuscript, a client usually has a picture in mind of the various people for the story, what they do for a living, what type of person they are, and what is going to happen along the way.  

One of the best ways to transmit this to the ghost is to write a couple of paragraphs about each of the main characters that will be featured in the book. These should include physical characteristics like eye color, hair color, length, and style, height, build, any scars or deformities, and style of clothing worn. This is especially critical in period and fantasy or science fiction manuscripts. 

But don’t stop there. Now that the ghost writer knows what a character looks like physically, he or she is going to need to know some facts about other attributes. Smart or dumb? Brilliant, genius, average intellect, clever, street smart, stupid, dumb-witted, or lacking in common sense? Mean, nice, good natured, funny, stubborn, or evil? What is the relationship to other characters? What about social status? Is the person rich, poor, middle-class? Sometimes it is also important to include where the person is from, birthplace, or connections to other locales. Race, ethnicity, gender, and religious beliefs are more considerations to keep in mind, as these are traits that fascinate many readers.  

 In the case of science fiction/fantasy or horror, the writer also needs to know if the person is human. Various individuals can be anything from a demon, god, or an angel to an alien, elf, dwarf, dragon, gryphon, orc, or even a ghost. An author also has been known to make up an entirely new species previously unknown to any reader. In that case, the writer is going to need a lot more information that not only describes this new species but also gives an excellent frame of reference about how the species accomplishes the tasks set before it and how it thinks and acts. For example, if the new species does not have ears, how does it hear or determine sounds? Does it pick up vibrations that can be translated into meaning? Or maybe it has a squiggly little appendage on top of its head that enables its brain to receive the information and process it into words and actions.  

A ghostwriter needs to know what makes the character unique. Armed with this information, the writer has a much better chance of making the client happy when reading the finished manuscript. Added to that is the goal of catching and holding a readers’ undivided attention in meeting “people of the book.” 

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