Phonics stuff with regard to children’s books

This post was inspired by a masterclass I attended – held by the wonderful Dawn Meredith (you can find her at – where she addressed some of the generalities and nuances of writing books for kids. Dawn has been a slush reader for Scholastic, has had some of her own children’s books published and is a teacher specialising in children with reading difficulties. She’s also a fantastic, generous person to boot and kindly let me post some of the notes I made.

During her talk on children’s books, Dawn made mention of phonics and the developmental stages of reading education and how knowledge of how children are taught to read can impact upon the choice of words used in children’s books – particularly the more junior-level books like board books and also some picture books. They are not hard and fast rules (all reading levels can be present in any one age-group of kids), but I found them fascinating as a potential guideline for authors looking to pair appropriate word choices to particular reading ages and so thought I’d share.

Disclaimer – I am not a teacher. These notes are based on a lecture I attended and may not be applicable to all primary school learning modalities. Methods of teaching reading can vary from state to state and according to new theories of teaching and with changing school curriculums. I would welcome feedback and comments from teachers if this post has missed something crucial.

1 Single Sounds

When children first start school (kindergarten to year 1), they are taught the ‘sounds’ of the individual letters of the alphabet. These sounds are frequently taught using common words that start with the letter in question, paired with a picture of something the child can recognise – as in “A” is for “ant”, “B” is for “bird” and so on.

2 Blends

By the end of year 1, the students are generally learning the sounds created when two letters (initially a consonant with a vowel) combine. These are generally blends whereby the student can figure out the sound of the pairing by sounding out each individual letter in the pairing (contrast point 8 – more advanced – where the sounds are not able to be determined just by individually sounding out the letters).

For example, “ha” as in “hat” or “po” as in “pop”.

3 Consonant Vowel Consonant (CVC) Words

These are simple three-letter words, generally a combination of the single sounds and blends of levels 1 and 2. These also start to appear during year 1.

Examples include: “cat” – combination of the “c” for cat and “at” blend. “Dog” – combination of the “d” for dog sound and the “og” blend.

4 Initial Consonant Blends

After year 1, blends of paired consonants get placed on the front of words, similar to the CVC words, to create slightly more complex words and sounds. “Frog” – which is a pairing of the blend sound “fr” and the vowel-consonant blend “og”.


Board books generally do not go above the level of complexity seen in phonics points 1-4.


5 Final Consonant Blends

By year 2, the students are generally starting to learn words where paired consonant blends come at the end of words. For example – “nd” as in “hand” and “lt” as in “salt”.

6 Double consonant blend words

In year 2, ‘initial consonant blend’ principles and ‘final consonant blend’ principles are combined to tackle words with paired consonant blends on each end. For example “stalk” and “truck”.

7 Long vowels (CVC words with an ‘e’ on the end)

These generally start in year 3. Here the child learns to transform a short CVC vowel sound into a longer vowel sound with the addition of an ‘e’ on the end. For example, the short-vowel word “hop” (an ‘o’ sound) becomes the longer sound “hope” (an ‘oh’ sound).

8 Consonant digraphs

These blends generally start in year 3 and are pairs of consonants that generally cannot be sounded out by sounding the individual letters. They are truly unique sounds made by particular pairings, for example “ch” as in “chicken” and “th” and “ph” (a ‘fff’ sound as in “phone”) and “wh”.

9 Vowel combinations

Double vowel sounds (“oo”, “oi”, “oa” “ou” “ai” “ee”) and certain vowel-consonant combinations (“ey”, “oy” “or”) also begin to be commonplace here.

10 Complex combinations

By the end of year 3 and onward, children should generally be able to recognise the sounds and appearance of certain complex ‘sight’ combinations. These include but are not limited to: “ould”, “ough”, “aught”, “eight”, “igh”, “ight”, “dge”, “oor”, “mb” and “air”.


Picture books (except those intended for very early grade-school) generally involve words falling in the entire spectrum – from 1-10.


Again, these phonics guides should not be considered as hard-and-fast rules for writing picture books or children’s books. Part of the fun of reading is for children to encounter and learn new and more advanced words and ‘dumbing’ down a book to suit a certain level may not ultimately be helpful. At the same time, knowing a little about how the process of learning reading in Australian schools works can help you to guide your individual word choices more effectively towards the age group you are writing for.


Volume 30 of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future is now available for Pre-order.

My short story – Beneath the Surface of Two Kills – will be out in April with the release of Volume 30 of L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future. It’s the story of a hunter searching for the ‘last meal’ of a convicted murderer and how he deals with the moral conundrum of killing for a killer.

Each L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future anthology pairs the winning stories from each year’s Writers of the Future Contest with illustrations by the winners of its sister contest: Illustrators of the Future. The contests are a fantastic way for up-and-coming writers and illustrators to get their work out there and receive mentoring by some of the best writers and artists in the speculative fiction community and the anthologies are where you, the reader and fan, can experience all of their great work in one place!

You can pre-order Volume 30 from Amazon here.


Be Professional, Writer.

I was listening to an editor friend describe the dramas (no names mentioned – this person is a consummate professional) he’s been having with ‘diva’ writers during the creation of a small-press speculative fiction anthology and how he would think twice before ‘subjecting’ himself to some of those individuals again and the conversation inspired me to write this general post about the importance of professionalism and being a reasonable human being if you want to last in this industry.

Disclaimer – In no way should this post be taken to suggest that writers should shut-up and set aside their rights in order to get ahead in this industry. Writers can and should demand that any agreements made with their publisher or agent be met (e.g. copyright licensing, return of copyright ownership, agreed payment and so on) and that they be treated with respect. This post is just a reminder to wannabe writers (myself included) that they too have responsibilities and expectations to meet if they want to go far in this industry.

Agree to do what you say you will.

This not only good business, but common courtesy. If you say you will have your biography to your anthology editor or your comments in on any edits they’ve made by a certain time, then DO! The same goes for having a book due. If you tell your publisher that you will have the third book in the series written by such-and-such date, then you should really endeavour to meet this commitment and, if you can’t (if disaster happened in the interim), let your publisher know well in advance so he can begin damage-control and rearranging book release schedules and promotions and whatnot to fit the change in plan.

If at all possible, submit your work or fulfill your contract/agreement in less than the time allowed – provided doing so is not achieved through a drop in quality. Publishing is all about deadlines and time is money. Getting projects completed early allows a publishing house or editor to move onto the next money-making thing more swiftly, so they like it if you can have your work submitted ahead of schedule. It also gives them and you more time to make corrections/edits.

Do your best work every time.

It does not matter if the work you are doing is worth $20 for a small anthology or a big advance in a big house – do your best work. No reader knows how much you were paid for anything. All they or anyone else knows is the quality you turned out. You can’t go and argue, “well, the job was only paying $20 so I only gave $20 worth of work” because it doesn’t work like that in writing – the final product is the final product. If you don’t want to work for $20, then don’t submit to the place only offering that.

It’s also professional courtesy to do your best work. A book is a collaborative effort, even if you are the author, and a lot of people have vested interest, passion and pride and, in the case of the publishing house, money, in the outcome. You don’t get to ‘phone it in’ because other people are relying on you to play your part in the overall success. Think how you’d feel if the cover artist did a crappy job decorating a novel you were proud of …

Once you have made an agreement and signed a contract, then that is what you have agreed to so don’t moan about it.

If you agreed to sell your short story for $20, then that’s what you are getting, unless you have something in place guaranteeing you royalties or whatnot. Don’t go on Facebook and tell everyone how you were diddled by your publisher. It’s unprofessional and if the publisher finds out (which he probably will), you can be darn sure he’s going to remember you next time you’re wanting some work.

Don’t be a dick.

Publishers, agents, editors, critics, reviewers and fellow authors are human too and deserve to be treated with respect. Being rude in person or over email/social media or excessively demanding of their time and effort or just vastly inappropriate not only makes them feel uncomfortable and resentful of having to deal with you, but unless you are some Booker Prize winning superstar author (and even if you are …) they will probably avoid you in the future, making it difficult for you to get more work or make certain contacts.

If the offense you’ve committed (even if it’s just a social offense and not a criminal one) is big enough or you’ve just picked the wrong person on the wrong day to get offside, the person you have offended may even tweet or blog about it. They will certainly tell their mates who, like any business community, will most likely be other people in the profession. That means that, not only will you have blown it with the first publisher/agent/editor, but all the others will soon know to avoid you too. So, it’s reeeeeally important not to be a dick.

Don’t get so drunk that you become inappropriate at writer gatherings or business functions. Everyone remembers the half-dressed woman dancing on the tabletop … and everyone takes pictures. Agents and publishing houses have an image to maintain and limited ‘stables’ of authors and, therefore, if they are forced to choose between someone whose Facebook images suggest respectability and professionalism and your photos of a drunken night out, they will probably go with the former.

Don’t air offensive or prejudicial views in the media (including on your own Twitter and Facebook and email accounts and on what you think are ‘private forums’). Better yet, don’t have offensive or prejudicial views in the first place (work on some self-improvement). The writing community is a vast melting pot of every nationality and gender combination and sexual preference and physical and mental ability and everyone has the right to feel comfortable and included in the creative space. The culture of writing communities and conventions is fast becoming one of inclusion for all and intolerance of prejudice and bigotry and, with the internet being what it is, those holding fast to intolerant and discriminatory views and practises tend to find themselves outed very rapidly.

Pick the right moment to engage your heroes or prospective business partners.

This falls under the ‘don’t be a dick’ heading, but is particularly pertinent to writers just starting out.

I often go to writer-focused conventions where there is frequently a smattering of ‘industry people’ – editors of publishing houses, agents and successful authors – schmoozing and catching up. Sometimes these events are the only times these people get to see each other in person.

More often than not, however, these industry-insider gatherings are swiftly surrounded by a corona of hovering students and wannabe writers all waiting to pounce on individuals with requests for publishing tips and pleas to ‘read their work’ and requests for meetings and interviews and business cards and autographs and so on.

Sometimes the individuals being thus-targeted don’t like this (and the last thing your budding career needs is the head of a major publishing house thinking you are an impolite, pushy twit). They just want a quiet drink and catch-up with their buddies. They are not interested in small talk with you. If that is the case (or even just the vibe you are getting from the position of their eyebrows and their fixed avoiding-eye-contact stare) then leave them alone for ‘their time’.

They may well be approachable later and better disposed to meeting ‘you’ if you were polite before. Many a publishing relationship has started following a random meeting in a bar. It’s just that you need to be mindful of the situation and the company. If people are engaged in a conversation, it is impertinent to bust into their conversation with your pitch. If, however, the person you are interested in is sitting alone in public or you’ve found yourself next to them at dinner, then it might be perfectly appropriate to ask if you can join them or even ask if they will hear your pitch or your idea for a story.

But always give them an out – offer to make your pitch at a time convenient to them if they would prefer not to be engaged at the present moment.

If they are not interested in your company at all – now or in the future – then remain polite and respectful and thank them for their time anyway.

Don’t disrespect or dismiss the little guys

This follows on from the above point. Often new writers hover around the so-called ‘big players’, totally ignoring smaller agents and publishers who might be more than willing to hear about your work.

Take time to build relationships with lesser-known publishing houses and new writers and agents. They might turn out to be bigger than you think. The writing community is small and you have no idea who knows who nor how many hands in how many pies a person you think is ‘just a small player’ has. A small-press editor might well be the best friend of a Harper Voyager editor for all you know and quite happy to tell their friend all about this ‘great new writer’ he met at a convention.

Make friends first before asking for favours

Whilst writers and publishing houses and agents are often on Twitter and Facebook and on forums, that does not mean they are fully ‘accessible’ or that they want every unknown on the planet asking them ‘how to get published’ and ‘to read their work.’ They simply don’t have time.

You can, however, get to be genuine friends with these people by reading and discussing their stuff, by attending their writing classes and visiting them at conventions and having coffee with them and so on. Sometimes that even turns into something more and you get invited into the writing community whole-heartedly (this is particularly so when you’ve had some things published and demonstrated that you are seriously committed to the art and that you can work well with other members of the community).

Only once you’ve established yourself as a friend or colleague or ‘student’ of some of these people is it appropriate to make requests of them for tips and Beta-reading so on. Even then, don’t forget to keep everything professional. You might be friends, but you are also work-friends and what you are requesting should never be so much that it interferes with the other writer’s/publisher’s/agent’s own work and professional integrity.

Do not bitch about other people in the industry

There is no such thing as a private forum or a private setting. Even if you are in the midst of a group of writer friends in your own home, it is always unwise to engage in a bitch-session or gossip-session about other writers or publishing-houses or agents or people otherwise engaged in the community (e.g. fans). You certainly would not want to post such things on the internet.

Firstly – whatever you write or say may get back to them. They may have some choice things to reveal about you, in turn. At the very least, you could have lost a good friend or colleague or alienated someone you might have need of one day.

Secondly – you can get sued. Reputations are big in this game and a lot of money can be at stake.

Just be friendly, be respectful and do your best work and you should get on fine.

First, Second or Third – Character Point-of-view (POV).

This continues on from my Feb 16-17 blog posts about creating believable characters and the influences affecting character.

First person

A first person POV presents the entire story from one character’s perspective. As such, everything that happens in the story is filtered through one person and is, as such, interpreted and skewed by that character according to their world-view and who they are – their thoughts and emotions.

To do this right you really need to know your character well – what he notices, what his values are, his personality, what his commentary would be about the events taking place.If you were then to describe or interpret the same room or situation using a different character, then this new character would be expected to notice different things and interpret the situation differently to the first – if you, as long as you as a writer know each of them well enough.

How your first person POV character talks about another character says much about the POV person and the one being talked about. For example, an insecure, catty POV character may refer to a pretty cheer-leader type character as a ‘bitch’ and even skew the story to highlight moments of described prissiness or bitchiness by the other girl when this may not actually be the case (i.e. an unreliable narrator). The novel, “Hating Alison Ashley” uses this exact scenario, eventually revealing, as the POV character’s own disposition towards the ‘pretty’ Alison become favourable, that the girl being judged (Alison) is not at all what the POV character originally lead us, the reader, to believe.

With sufficient skill, it is possible to create deliciously unreliable first person narrators with great gulfs between their thoughts and how they perceive themselves versus what they actually say and do and present of themselves to the world around them.

You can have several first person POV characters in a novel and have your story follow different people at different times, but each has to sound unique. They cannot sound like each other. Everything must change – the things you describe/what they notice, the way they are described, the language used, what makes them weep or become enraged, the tone of voice, the life experience brought to the interpretation (e.g. a child character will interpret a scene differently to an adult).

For example, a woman might regard a comment by a co-worker as sexist, when a man in the same office might not.

Don’t describe things the character would not know. You can’t describe a woman as having “a mellifluous voice” if the character wouldn’t actually know what the word meant. You can’t describe an animal as “doglike” if your world is an alien world with no experience of dogs. Nor can your POV character comment on what is happening to a character across the country, if the character has no way of knowing this.

As a personal observation, I find that stories told from first person POV do not seem to translate into movies all that well or easily, probably because so much of the conflict and drama is in the protagonist’s own head and only given meaning and tension by the protagonist’s interpretation of events taking place. Those that have worked for me – “The Hunger Games”, “Tomorrow When the War Began” – seem to have done so because the setting and scenario the protagonist is in contains a lot of action and conflict that is irrespective and standalone from the drama and conflict created purely by the protagonist’s own mind.

Second person

Not many writers, particularly beginners, use second person POV and so I won’t dwell on it here. This POV relies on the author referring to ‘you’ and addressing his comments and story directly to the reader. It’s an intimate style, but difficult to pull off.

Third person

Third person can be a ‘close’ point of view, where the story at any one time follows a particular character very closely, filtering each scene through that character’s thoughts, eyes and life-experience. It is similar to first person in that, were the same scene to be depicted following a different character, the scene and events would be essentially the same, but different elements, scenery and so on would be emphasized and commented upon in keeping with that particular character’s personality.

Third person is really good for big, epic stories where major protagonists are in all manner of places and environments and the writer needs to be able to switch locations to tell the reader what’s going on in each of them. “Game of Thrones” uses this POV – going from characters on The Wall and beyond all the way through Winterfell to King’s Landing and the lands and islands beyond the seas. It is a multiple, limited third person POV and each different character’s story is written according to the personality of that character and his life-experience and aims and so on.

Third person can also be an ‘omniscient’ POV where all characters are equal in a scene, no-one is weighted over anyone else and everything is described more-or-less impersonally. A strong ‘authorial’ voice is often present in these, which can overwhelm the story. Omniscient third person POV is not often done.

Often the only time omniscience happens in third person POV stories is at the start of scenes when describing where the character is, but once the scene has been set, the ‘camera’ hones in pretty quickly to the character being followed.

Practice exercise: Try rewriting a scene you are unsure of from the POV of all major characters present. Use different words according to how each sees the world. The aim is to not have characters sound like each other.

Same with dialogue. If dialogue is good enough, there should be no need to end all speaking parts with who actually said it.

On a final note, the POV character is not always the protagonist. The protagonist is the character the story is about and the one who drives the action, but the story is not always from his POV and nor is the POV character always the driver of the action. Sometimes the protagonist is merely viewed at a distance (often through a first person prism) by a POV narrator.

A good example of this is “The Great Gatsby.” The driver of the action and drama is Jay Gatsby and everything he goes through (deceptions and misrepresentations of himself notwithstanding) in an ultimately tragic attempt to win back the hand of an old flame, Daisy Buchanan, who got married, had a child and moved forward with life while Gatsby was in the process of turning himself into the kind of man he believed worthy of her. The story is, however, told from the POV of the nice, but rather insipid, Nick Carraway. It is not told from Gatsby’s POV (not even in third person) and this is deliberate for, by telling the story from Nick’s view, the character of Gatsby is set up from the outset as a soaring creature of wealth and generosity and success and mystery (Carraway doesn’t know who he is when he meets him) only to ultimately shatter this illusion and produce a massive emotional punch near the end when the reality of the man’s origins and obsession is revealed and everything turns horribly wrong.

Influences on Character

This continues on from my February 16 post about creating believable characters. There are many factors, both internal and external, which can influence a character’s development and personality, thus altering the way in which that character thinks, speaks and acts, what his wants and needs are, what his vulnerabilities are, what his strengths are and so forth (i.e. the things discussed in my last post).

Physical appearance

A character’s appearance can affect not only his view of himself and his confidence levels, but the way other characters see and treat him and how they make use of him.

Physical appearance does not imply only the grotesque or the extreme. Physical appearance includes many things: skin colour or texture (remember, alien races can have other differences in skin besides the hue), disfigurement and deformity, scarring, blemishes, tattoos or sacred/meaningful marks, height (giant or small), weight (from skeletal through to obese), exaggerated or extreme features (e.g. a big nose), beauty, ugliness, use of make-up, hair colour, clothing, the presence/degree of a physical disability (deafness, blindness, muteness, loss of limbs, ambulatory ability, lack of pain or touch senses, no sense of smell or taste), gender and also gender appearance (e.g. masculine-looking women and effeminate men).

Whether a physical attribute is valued or denigrated or even noticed or commented upon by other characters or the character himself in your story depends very much on the cultural norms/expectations of the world you have invented and also cultural history of that world. For example – a society made up completely of dark skinned races probably would not comment much upon skin colour (unless there is status or conflict associated with ‘degrees of darkness or paleness in the skin tone’ or the society had some historical or current association – good or bad – with other-skinned races).

Some cultures place huge importance on beauty and thus ugliness becomes a significant impediment to such things as ambition, advancement, self-esteem and finding love.

Also, cultural norms can change. Beauty, for example, is very subjective from culture to culture and also between different generations and years and also the sexes. In future societies, the loss of a limb (so debilitating currently) may end up being so easily compensated for by artificial limb technology it will barely be noted as an impediment.

Physical features may also be valued or devalued depending on the situation at hand. For example, in a freedom-fighting or war situation, a woman willing to get down and dirty and fight is likely to be better regarded and sought out than a beautifully coiffed princess unwilling to break a nail, yet in a peacetime, the opposite might hold true.


The hobbits in “Lord of the Rings” do not see themselves as short-statured in their own villages – their houses and gardens are scaled to fit them – but do experience difficulties imposed by scale when they enter the lands of taller peoples.

In “Game of Thrones”, Tyrion Lannister is an ugly dwarf (in the HBO show, he is played by the good-looking and well-spoken Peter Dinklage, but in the source novel, his visage is not nearly so pleasant), who happens to have been born into one of the more physically gifted and militarily-talented ‘royal’ families of Westeros. The culture of the writer’s world is such that Tyrion is seen as ugly by other characters and regularly ridiculed and, had he not been born of high-status, with access to considerable wealth (i.e. the option to pay for allies and protectors), it is probable a character like him would have died in this harsh world at an early age. The effect of his physical form on his character is that he has chosen to build his intellect and knowledge of history and military tactics, instead of pursuing the more physical talents of his brother Jaime. He guards himself with an ascerbic and self-deprecating wit and is wary of letting people in. He is insecure around his family, yearning to be loved by his Lord father as his siblings are, even though his father cannot forgive him for his dwarfism and the fact his birth killed his mother. At the same time, having been treated badly, he tends to be kinder and more forgiving of others failings than the rest of the family, having a soft-spot for those who are also unwanted (e.g. the bastard, Jon Snow). Those few friends he does make, he hangs onto and his loyalty to them is absolute.

Another example where physicality plays a role in character and status in “Game of Thrones” is the Clegane brothers – both brutal, war-like men whose immense size and ferocity sees them well-suited as the guards and minders of kings. They see themselves as untouchable and show arrogance and disregard of lesser men as a result, reveling in war and bloodshed. Sandor, the younger, however, has a badly burned face and this manifests as a phobia in battles where fire is involved – thus setting this character up to experience failure and injured pride when he finds he cannot perform his duties.

In “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” the mouse captain, Reepicheep, loses his tail in battle. Far from this disfigurement being a hindrance or regarded as a loss of status, the other mice offer to cut off their tails too as a sign of deference and high-regard for their captain.

Family status

The status of one’s family can have huge bearing on a character, from how he speaks, to how he dresses, holds himself, his education level, the way he thinks, his regard for others, whether he can get away with having issues (e.g. a physical deformity as seen in Tyrion Lannister) and so on.

Status does not only relate to how the character’s family is seen from the outside world and with regard to other families, but also to where the character fits WITHIN his family. For example, a character could have high status within his family or clan, but the family or clan is small overall in the greater scheme of clans and families.

A character of low-status within a big, powerful family may have fierce ambitions to climb the ladder and seize overall power. Petyr Baelish in “Game of Thrones” is such a character and his low-status childhood in the presence of the powerful Tully family has fed a hunger to be more, be better, regardless of the means. Having no familial status, however, has meant he has had no powerful family backing him and, working alone in the treacherous kingdom, he has had to become adept at cultivating allies, playing his cards close, scheming and strategic betrayal to move his plans forward.

Note that “repressed” is different to “placid.” Repressed characters (e.g. like Baelish) hold their feelings of anger or resentment in, but their frustration is always bubbling away beneath the surface, creating internal conflict and tension in the character and a reader desire to find out if and how the character is finally going to blow his top.

Order of birth

Only-children tend to be more conservative and achievement-driven because all the family’s prospects and hopes for the future hang from that one child’s shoulders.

This also goes for first children, who tend to have more responsibility placed on them (including expectations to care for younger children) and more expectations. This holds even more if the first child in a culture is the one who inherits the family assets and/or business. Sometimes the older children will resent the later children who have less expectation placed on them and more freedom in the way they act, dress or chose careers.

Parents tend to be more relaxed and less demanding and controlling by the time they get to the second child and beyond. This results in less-stressed personalities in the younger kids, but also the potential for resentment by the first child, who sees the younger sibling/s getting more freedom and less responsibility.

If the first child is the inheritor, however, the younger children may resent the older for this. This can also happen if one or both the parents die when the smaller children are young, leaving them with less knowledge of their parents and the sense of lost time. They may resent their older siblings for the time had with their parent/s.


Some people change character and personality depending on those around them. A woman could be a tough boss in the workplace where she is confident, knows her stuff and is supported by her staff, but be a complete doormat at home. There are just some places/situations where people feel more empowered.

Life experience and history

What the character has gone through in life (including things taught by his parents and teachers growing up) before the reader/writer meets him also affects the way the character behaves. We do not meet Harry Potter himself at the moment his parents are killed, however this loss infuses the whole adventure we follow him along and is present in his character from the first moment we meet him, right down to the living circumstances with the Dursleys he is forced to endure.

What the character goes through ‘during’ the adventure also affects the character and how he develops through the story.

The company he keeps/associates with

A lot can be said about a character by the company he keeps and the quality of his enemies.

Who does your character give his time to? If they are low-born or of low-status (in the context of status in your world), this can say something about the compassion or lack of conceit of the character we are following or, in turn, something about the quality or value of the low-born/status individual. If the company is high-born or popular and your character is very lowly or unpopular, then you need to address what it is about your character or his value that makes the high-born or popular seek him.

Who hates or fears your character? If he is hated or feared by good people, it says something about him, likewise if he is hated or feared by the wicked and powerful.

If other characters are indifferent to your character, that says something about him too.

If news came that your character died, would this be greeted by celebration or sadness in your world? Your character might even be the type scheming and insecure enough to fake his own death just to see who reacts and remains loyal.

The company a character keeps can also influence what he knows or is told and the way he thinks and acts in future (i.e. character growth). A character can learn a different world view and way of acting by associating with people who would be his examples and teachers.

Fears and phobias

Fears and phobias in characters can create opportunities for plot development or drama. For example, a group of characters might have to cross a river to escape an enemy force. If one of those characters cannot or will not swim and at the same time cannot be left behind, this will create conflict for the entire group.

This then becomes either a “character reveal moment” for the reader, where the reader, who until now had thought a cocky character fearless, now realises that how the character had presented himself to the world was not real OR it becomes a moment of delicious tension for the reader, if the reader already knew that the character was scared of water (particularly so if the other members of the group of characters did not know) and is now watching to see how the group will react and solve the situation. Are the group desperate enough and of a disposition to leave him behind? If they can’t leave him (perhaps he is vital to future parts of the mission) what will they do and say to him to make him swim and will he in turn bow to the pressure?

Random cool tip I got from Karen Miller – it is often much more interesting for the reader and the conflict/tension of a situation if a point of narrative hinges on or is decided by a “human element.” It is not interesting if a group of friends are walking along a mountain trail and there is a random rock-fall. It is very interesting, however, if one of the friends was accidentally responsible for the rock-fall (this inserts guilt, regret, resentment) or if, worse, one of the group was not a friend at all and deliberately caused it.

Next post – Point of View.

Writing Believable, Credible Characters – notes from various panels/lectures

Continuing on with my summary of the things learned from various Conflux panels, this entry is influenced by notes taken during a masterclass held by the highly successful Karen Miller (, as well as notes taken during story-writing sessions held by the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild (CSFG), in particular, fellow Writer’s of the Future winner, Ian McHugh, who is a font of writerly knowledge and most generous fellow to boot (

Given a post on character has the potential to be enormous, I have broken it up into a number of smaller posts, which I’ll put up over the coming days. Note – I have used the term “he” as short-hand when discussing character, but do not intend it to mean ‘male-only’ characters.

Characters are not ‘real people’, but heightened versions of ‘real people’. As such, they need to be a little gooder-than-good or a little badder-than-bad to inhabit the larger-than-life world you’ve created for them, whilst at the same time still remaining believable and credible to the reader.

How do you make them believable and credible?

You start by knowing them intimately. Before you’ve even written a word of your story, you should have figured out who your characters are. What is their background? What do they want? What’s their goals? How do they think? How do they speak?

And then, you make them consistent. This does not mean that a character cannot change, but if he does, then there needs to be a good reason for this change or growth. You’ve often heard readers gripe that a character they love, “would never act like that,” because the character is suddenly ruthless for no reason or mushy for no reason and so on. This happens when the writer does not know them well enough.

What they say and also ‘how’ they say it:

Once you know the character, the sorts of things your character will say and thus the dialogue will automatically begin to alter and tailor itself to each specific character. A character that is very pedantic or intelligent will probably make use of a greater, more-precise vocabulary than one who is less educated or picky about his words.

Does your character swear a lot? Does he blaspheme? Is he abrupt? Is he long-winded? Does he apologise his way through life? What is the character’s vocabulary, speech cadence?

If he was in a restaurant, would he be the one snapping his fingers and demanding immediate service or would he wait until he was noticed? Would he order based on price? Would he buy for everyone on the table? Would he ask about every item on the menu and what would he want to know? Would he be interested in country-of-origin or would he be more concerned about whether the eggs were free-range or the vegetables organic?

Do men and women and transgenders speak differently in your world (consider Orson Scott Card’s “Speaker for the Dead” where the alien ‘piggies’ have women’s language and men’s language)?

Children generally speak differently to adults and they also speak and think about different things to adults. How differently do the children of your world speak? Has there been a generational shift so that older generations who have perhaps known war and starvation speak of safety and squirreling away savings and mistrust of others when their children, who have known only plenty and integration, do not?

Does your character even speak? Does he even have a tongue to speak (this may be vital consideration in an alien or animal race) or does he communicate another way? Telepathically, perhaps? By clicking his fingers, drawing, morse-code …

Does your character come from a different culture so that he speaks not only with a mishmash of terms, but comes to the table with a mishmash of ideas from both cultures? For example, first generation migrants whose parents come from another country frequently carry hybrid ideas from both the parents’ culture and the culture they have grown up in.

Does speech reflect class or education-level in your world? Could a character be ‘labelled’ as being from a certain area or social strata the second he opens his mouth and what would this mean to your story or the drama of a situation. Are certain classes frowned upon, elevated, dismissed completely, thought backward or stupid?

What they think (including internal dialogue):

Thoughts can often mirror the character’s speech, but sometimes thoughts can run counter to what the character is saying and this too reveals something about what is going on in the world at large and about the character himself. It reveals that the character is capable of deception and/or that the situation requires it. Perhaps it reveals something about another character that this one feels a need to guard his thoughts. Perhaps the other character is very dangerous or untrustworthy or easily-hurt or the character having the thoughts is naturally polite or cautious. An example of an unfettered, unaware character who voices all her thoughts, regardless of the hurt caused, is the girl, Charyn, in “Quintana of Charyn” – so much so that it is a habit frequently addressed by other characters in the story (which says something about the culture at large and what is acceptable). Is your character more apt to voice his thoughts when he is tired, grumpy, drunk or drugged?

Are the character’s thinking processes, obsessions or anxieties (internal dialogue) so rampant and overpowering (like a madness) that they actually stop the character functioning or remembering things?  Is your character mentally stable?

Is your character self-aware? What are his opinions of himself? Is he ever-mindful of how he is being perceived (which will affect how he dresses, acts and speaks) or is he oblivious or unconcerned by the way others regard him?

If he sees a problem, does he get involved? Does he always have an opinion? Does he attempt to right wrongs?

Is your character rash? Prone to action without thinking?

Do the thoughts of the character mirror the actions of that same character? For example, a character might think/believe he keeps to himself, when in fact he inserts himself into everything going on around him. In such a case, his self-view is deluded. Does the character believe that something in society needs to change, but is too lazy/fearful to enact the change he wants? Conflict happens when such a character then gets thrown in the deep end and forced to be the power for change (e.g. Frodo, who would prefer to stay in his comfortable home, being tasked with the job of destroying the one ring).

What’s their belief system? Do they have Gods? Do they believe in spirits? Is religion and so on important to them or do they simply give their Gods lip-service to impress/placate their societal circle, culture, parents, spouse? Does a character have to take up a faith or lose one to be married?

What are the beliefs imposed on him by his culture or family growing up. Children in particular can become very entrenched in beliefs and prejudices instilled in them by their parents. Conflict occurs when that child grows up and enters the real world only to find his ‘inner truths’ run counter to what is acceptable in society. Growth (good or bad) occurs in the character if he decides he needs to change to fit the societal norm, however, this might also increase conflict with the family. A good example of this is the character, Boyd Crowder, in season 1 of “Justified.” Having experienced what he sees as a ‘religious correction’ (he gets shot while committing a crime), he becomes a Christian vigilante against the criminal activities of his own father and family, in a culture where loyalty to family and kin are everything and retribution is often savage.

Are a character’s thoughts and motives ones the human sensibility – what we would consider common-decency – can understand? Alien races and animals may well think and logic much differently to humans and the author has to be aware of this if he wants to avoid writing ‘forehead aliens’.

What do they want?

When a character in a story wants something he must want it big-time. It must be important to them. He must be willing to crawl over burning coals to get it. This could be anything – an object (e.g. the character is on a quest), a mission, an ideal, a way of living, freedom, the overthrow of a tyrant, revenge. How badly they want something and how far they will go will also be determined by their personality, their past and also by their culture. For example, a young man trying to prove himself in mafia, gang or samurai culture may have immense pride and reputation staked in getting revenge and so pursue it harder.

What do they need?

Again, it must be an essential need. You want cake but you need vegetables.

When wants and needs differ from one another, this can create conflict in the character’s mind. It can also force the character to come up with unique solutions for achieving both.

What would your character do or not do?

Thinking about wants and needs, what would your character do to get them? What would he never do? Perhaps your character cannot kill? Perhaps he can’t lie? Perhaps he cannot set aside pride? Perhaps he can’t get dirty. Perhaps he won’t beg or debase himself.

Is he devious? Would he pursue a need front on or would he come at a problem from the side? Would he insinuate and ingratiate his way to what he desired or needed, currying favours and debts along the way? This difference in approach can be seen comparing Ned Stark and Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones. The former is direct and honour-bound, but, unfortunately for him, not living in a kingdom where such virtues win many friends. Some characters – usually the intelligent ones – can play at both, choosing whether it is safe to be direct or whether subtlety is needed depending on the situation. Tyrion Lannister has this ability. Is your character one who gets his payback up front or will he remember a slight and save his vengeance for a later time?

What do others say/think about them?

Other characters will comment on this character or perhaps act in certain ways around him. Some of this will depend on what the relationship between the characters is (an oppressed villager is unlikely to admire a ruthless king, but his knights and queen may well adore him), but it will also reveal something about him too.

If people need to skulk around him and whisper about him quietly in corners, then the reader will get the feeling he is ruthless and possibly of unpredictable temperament. If, however, others can speak to him and even criticise him loudly and directly, this might imply he is even-tempered and fair, but it could also suggest he is weak and a bit of a push-over.

Is the character safe for others to give praise to? The character might be one of the ‘good rebels’ fighting an oppressive regime (maybe he is secretly plotting an overthrow of the regime), but the oppressed citizens cannot be seen to openly praise his goodness or mercy for fear of him being assassinated.

Is a character ‘able’ to be mentioned at all by name? Voldemort in the “Harry Potter” series was known as “he who cannot be named” for good reason. In some cultures, the dead may not be able to be named or certain prophets and Gods.

What can hurt your character?

This ties in with wants and needs and the character’s self-image. There are loads of ways to hurt a character by depriving him of his wants or needs or reputation or making him question his values and who he is or making him go against his core beliefs. Hurt can also be physical – injury, blindness, crippling.

For example – if your character needs his lover to be complete, he will be badly hurt if she dies or leaves him or leaves his love unrequited. A character might be hurt if he prides himself on his honour, truth and steadfastness and discovers that everyone else thinks him untrustworthy.

What has he got to lose?

This can be an object, wealth, land, country, a person, family-member, child, lover, the character’s own life, his freedom, but it can also be such things as mental stability (his mind), intellect, reputation, God, status and friendship.

Does the character change through the story?

Does the character start off speaking and acting in one way and then change through the course of the story to be another way entirely? Or does the main character stay the same while everyone around him changes? It could well end up that this character’s steadfastness in the face of turmoil and change is what holds everyone and everything together or it could well be that this character’s inflexibility and inability to change is what drives everyone else away. How resistant is the character to change?

Next post will be – Influences on character.

Self-publishing – Notes from a Panel:

When it comes to the ins and outs of the publishing world, I am more or less a newbie (which is why I go to lots of conventions and attend panels to learn more about the trade). Sure, I have had a couple short stories published, but this is not quite the same as ascending the dizzying heights of having a novel come out.

Now, when I say, ‘having a novel come out’ I always thought that meant having it published by one of the big houses as an actual, physical book. I never even considered self-publishing online.

In the last ten or so years, however, self-publishing has really come into its own. While it used to be looked down on by the publishing fraternity as just another version of the vanity press, some very well-received writers have made their careers in the self-publishing world.

Self-publishing can also be a good way of getting edgy or different works out that the big publishing houses and bookshops do not know how to market or position (e.g. slipstream stuff, cross-genre stuff, stories with LGBT flavouring).

But just because you ‘can’ get your work out this way does not mean you necessarily should or that you are ready to go it alone. Self-publishing is not a license to bring ‘less skill’ or ‘less editing’ to bear and nor is it an ‘easy’ road. You have to put in just as much (if not more) work to get your stories noticed online because you will be making all of the marketing decisions on your own without a publishing house and because the online market is so crowded with ‘stuff’ already.

In April 2013, I attended a panel on “Self-Publishing” at the 52nd Natcon Convention in Canberra. The following contains some of the tips I gleaned and thought relevant to share.

1) Self-publishing is not the place to dump your ‘first draft’. Your work still has to be good.

– Have your work Beta-read by people with writing experience (i.e. other authors who are selling well and getting good reviews) whose opinions will be of value to you in the revision process (i.e. not your mum).
– If need be, pay for someone to edit your work (bad grammar and spelling will put off online readers just as much as slush readers).
– It does not hurt to get a manuscript assessment done.

2) ‘Make good art’ as Neil Gaiman would say. Work hard and gain skills as a writer before putting your stuff up. Your opening needs to be good, your characters need to be well-crafted and your plot needs to have loads of stuff happening and move at a good pace to entice the reader along to the end. If you can’t do this yet, don’t self-publish.

One recommendation from the panel was to make sure you have achieved: at least the three professional publications required to qualify as a member of SFWA and that you are at least getting ‘good rejections’ (“I love this, but … the work doesn’t fit our stable, we are over our budget for the year” and so on) from the publishing houses and/or genuine expressions of interest from agents and that you have done extra training like Clarion Workshops and courses and mentorships before considering yourself ‘ready’ to go it alone. Getting into SFWA at the very least provides some independent indication that you ‘can write’ for the market.

3) Make sure your product looks good and will catch the market’s eye.

– COVERS ARE VITAL, especially in the teen market.
– Covers must be professional and eye-catching and stand out in thumb-nail format.
– Covers must indicate the genre.
– E-covers tend to have bigger title fonts so they can be read even at thumbnail size.
– If you have a popular blog, a good tip might be to put up a couple of cover options for your online community and let them give you feedback on which cover they prefer.
– Make sure you format the book properly or get it formatted for ebook reading.
– The blurb must be enticing.

4) Get your work out there – let the market know you exist.

– Have an active blog. Be there. Be accessible. Be genuine.
– Have a website (often the website and blog are one – e.g. my WordPress site which you are now reading).
– Be contactable on Facebook.
– Consider Twitter.
– But if you use these so-called ‘marketing tools’ be a social contributor and a real person – don’t just use your accounts to sell at people. Don’t spam.
– Get your books onto other writer’s sites. If you can get your book onto E-reader News Today or Pixel of Ink or another such site with massive following, you can really increase your readership.
– Have deals (e.g. free offers) going on your blog from time to time.

5) E-publishing is really useful for books in a series. If you have a series, you can put out the first book (e.g. offer it on your blog) for free in order to gain sales for the second and third books.

6) Be aware that Amazon has a program called “KDP Select” where they reward you for giving Amazon exclusivity (higher % of the sales go to you). Here you can do ‘free book’ offers. This can be useful because the rush of downloads you get in that period help to get your book ‘ratings’ and also get you listed on the “people who bought this also bought …” which can last for many months after the free book deal, improving your sales down the track.

7) Learn from the online, self-publishing community. Kindleboards is an open forum about everything to do with self-publishing.

8) Amazon is not the only online market for e-books. Make sure your book goes up on all the online sellers who do not charge you a fee for the pleasure – e.g. Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes and Noble (note – Smashwords apparently gets you into Barnes and Noble), Apple (ibookstore), Kindlebooks.

– “Create-space” is part of Amazon. It offers paperbacks as well as ebooks. It apparently also sells to Book Depository.
– Be aware that Amazon has a program called “KDP Select” where they reward you for giving Amazon exclusivity (higher % of the sales go to you). Here you can do ‘free book’ offers. This can be useful because the rush of downloads you get in that period help get your book ‘ratings’ and also get you listed on the “people who bought this also bought …” which can last for many months after the free book deal, improving your sales down the track.

9) Never forget that you are ‘running a business’.

– Make sure you budget. If it’s going to cost you $1000 for a manuscript assessment and then another $300 for a cover, you need to question whether your final product and your marketing plan will make you at least that much back (if not in direct revenue, but at least in readership and sales for the ‘next volume’ of the book).
– Be aware of your tax obligations. Once your work is on Amazon, you are dealing with the US tax department and you need to know how much and who you are supposed to be paying. Amazon withholds tax that you have to get back if you are not a US citizen.
– Note: Kobo just deposits your money into your account which makes the tax stuff simpler.
– Find out if you need a business number (e.g. an ABN in Australia).
– If you have an ABN, you can claim a business EIN which makes the US tax stuff a lot more straight-forward (easier, apparently, than getting a US tax number).

10) Do not take advice from anyone. This is sort of a disclaimer, but it is also correct. E-publishing is in a state of flux and what is current now may not be in a mere 6 months. Keep researching your market and keep up to date with online trends to stay ahead of the curve.

11) Be aware that while online successes can translate into official publishing deals ala ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the opposite can be true of short stories. Self-publishing is considered ‘publishing’ and most of the short story markets will not take work that has already appeared online. Be aware of this before just putting your new story up ‘on your blog’.

12) Also be aware of some of the e-publishing, “digital first” deals the big houses are offering. Some of these houses want the rights for as ‘long as a book is in print’, which in e-publishing could mean that the book is technically never out of print and that, even if the book is doing badly, you never get your rights returned to you. Make sure there is an expiry date on such international rights if you are going with a digital first imprint. Make sure you have a legal person (e.g. an agent if you have one) look over any deals when it comes to the publishing houses, large or small.

Thanks for reading – Shauna O’Meara.

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