Do Your Characters Have Quirks?

It’s been many years since I’ve seen this character on television, yet I can still hear his voice when I’m walking through the dessert section of the grocery store, “COOKIES!” Why? There were no expensive CGI effects on Sesame Street. You remember the Cookie Monster, because no other character is quite like him, he’s one of a kind. You can see a reflection of yourself in the Cookie Monster, because he’s obsessed with cookies, and everyone is obsessed with something.

When Arnold Schwarzenegger says, “I’ll be back,” in The Terminator (1984) you’re anticipating his next move. It’s an action movie, so you know that someone’s going to get killed, or something is going to be blown up. If you’ve watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Askaban (2004), you remember Professor Snape saying, “Turn to page 394,” despite the fact he didn’t say it during an exciting scene. Allan Rickman developed a cadence for his character’s speech that was so unique, you can’t forget what he says.

Watching a B movie, the first thing you’ll notice, is there’s nothing about the characters that you can relate to, they’re just cardboard cutouts; constructed from layers of cliches. They don’t feel “real.” One science fiction movie I started to watch, began with a soldier who has gone rogue, he’s ignoring his commander’s orders to stand down. How many times have you seen that happen in a movie? A maniac has kidnapped a woman, and he’s acting exactly as you’d expect a maniac to behave, wild eyes, screaming, making threats, etc. What’s unusual, or memorable about these characters? Nothing.

As you’re writing, think about whether the movie that’s showing on the movie screen in your head is a B movie. Do your characters have any traits that will make them memorable? Consider Saving Private Ryan (1998); all the characters are wearing uniforms, so they aren’t distinguished by their clothing. but each one has a distinct personality that makes them feel like real individuals. And that’s what draws you in, it allows you to wonder what it would be like, to be in their situation. Likewise, if Captain Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) feels like a real person, then you can imagine what it might be like commanding a starship.

There are endless options when developing characters; age, gender, height, clothing, speech (cadence, accent, slang), occupation, food preferences, where they were born, where they’ve lived, there hopes and dreams, who they’ve loved, how they voted…. Throw in time travel and things get really interesting; he was born in 21st Century, but has been sent back to live in the 17th Century. If you’re writing science fiction, you’ll have to stretch your imagination to make an alien character stand out from other aliens!

The reason you can create unique characters, is because you are a unique human being with a unique imagination. You hear people say, there was only one Steve Jobs, or there was only one Jimmy Hendrix, and that’s true, but there is also, only one you. Keep writing!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper


Who Knows You’re A Writer?

Since you talk about it, your friends, family, and co-workers know that you’re a writer. If someone asked any of them, they’d say it’s your hobby. For many writers, however, it’s more than a hobby, it’s a passion, it’s who they are. So, how do you make the point that you’re serious about the craft of writing, and reach people that can help you develop a career?

Submit Your Work: This may seem like an obvious step to take, but it can be frightening, especially for beginning writers. You may have written a literary masterpiece, but no one will know will recognize your talent, unless they can read it. It’s possible to spend years on a novel, constantly making changes, and never submit it to a publisher, or self-publish it. It’s true that if you never make your writing public, no one can criticize it, but it also means no one can appreciate it.

Join A Writing Organization: Many writing organizations have member pages, where you can include a photo, a brief bio, items that you’ve had published (or self-published), and information about the types of writing you’re interested in. Recently, after someone saw my profile on a writing organization’s website, I was invited to be a guest author on a television show about writing. It will be aired later this fall on a community television station; so only few people will see it, but it does demonstrate how having a profile can be effective.

Look For Unusual Opportunities: Two of the most unique writing opportunities I’ve come across have involved coffee and beer. The first involved short stories being published on cardboard coffee cup sleeves, the ones they put on cups to protect your hands from the heat. The second one involved a brewing company, they were looking for short plays (54 words) to print on their beer cans. In both cases, the author’s name was included, so potentially thousands of people would see the names of the winning writers.

Start Blogging: If you’ve been reading blogs by writers, now’s the time to join us, and share your passion for, and knowledge of writing with everyone. You’ll never know what your potential is, or who will read your blogs, until you get started.

Note: I was profiled in the “A Day in the Life” section of the Calgary Guardian ( on October 26th. I also finished writing a feature-length screenplay and entered it in a competition.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

A Player at the Literary Casino

If you’re a writer, you’re a gambler, even if you’ve never played blackjack or roulette. You make bets at the literary casino with the most valuable, irreplaceable resource – time.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is deciding how much time you’re prepared to wager on a single bet. You start writing a short story, but soon realise that fully developing the concept will require a much larger project. You were prepared to gamble a few hours on a short story, but are you willing to go all in with several months or a year on a novel?                                                 

When you’re a player at the literary casino, you must be flexible, ready to change the game. You have a great story idea which you plan to write as a novel, but then you find out a local theatre company is looking for new plays. Why not roll the dice, and write one based on your story idea? If your play is chosen, your name will appear in the program; an excellent opportunity to raise your public profile. A good review mentioning your name in a newspaper or magazine would be even better     

Playing at the literary casino requires strategy. Once you’ve finished writing a book, do you send the manuscript to a traditional publisher, or do you self-publish? It could take months or years to find a traditional publisher willing to print your book, but it’s more likely to be placed in physical bookstores and libraries, than self-published books.

If you want to keep costs down and publish your book immediately, you can self-publish an eBook. The downside is that, if it’s only available as an eBook, it won’t be as visible as physical books on shelves and display tables.

Due to the popularity of self-published eBooks, a new industry has developed: pre-made eBook covers. Although it’s convenient, you have to be careful, because some of the eBook cover designers offer the same cover for multiple sales. In other words, you could end up buying a cover that has already been used for another writer’s eBook.

Especially for writers without an agent, trying to sell feature length screenplays is probably the most challenging game at the literary casino. It’s a high-risk gamble with time, because many film and television companies won’t read a screenplay unless it’s submitted by an agent, and some agents won’t take you on as a client, until you’ve already sold a screenplay, or at least had one optioned.

Fortunately, there are still some film companies willing to accept unsolicited screenplays from writers without agents. Before they read your screenplay, however, you’ll have to sign a release agreement, acknowledging that they may have already received screenplays with concepts similar to the one you’re submitting. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to take legal action if they produce a film with a concept similar to the one you’ve submitted. Despite the potential risk, I’ve submitted screenplays to numerous film and television companies, after signing release agreements. If you want to play this game, you better have steady nerves.   

Imagine that you’ve just had a screenplay accepted by a film company. If they’re willing to pay you up front, that’s great, but you might be asked to make a wager on the film itself. An independent film company with limited resources might offer you a deferred payment option, promising you a portion of the film’s profit. Although it’s possible the film won’t make any money, and therefore you won’t get paid, don’t walk away from the table yet; there’s still the onscreen credit to consider. The cold, hard reality is that until you have an onscreen credit, the film and television industry doesn’t know you exist. Even if the deferred payment option doesn’t put any cash in your bank account, you should make sure you get an onscreen credit for your efforts.   

Consulting with a lawyer is always a wise decision before signing contracts. As with agents, lawyers know what has to be included in contracts,mmn to protect your interests.  

What’s exciting about the literary casino is that once you learn the basics, there’s no limit to the games you can play. The writing skills you acquire in high school and university are the building blocks you need to write blogs, articles, essays, short stories, plays, novels, non-fiction books, and screenplays. Once you decide to play, the only question is how much time you’re willing to wager. The stakes get higher, the more hours you spend working on a project, but so do the potential rewards.

A warning to anyone interested in betting their time at the literary casino; writing is addictive. There are novelists and screenwriters who’ve earned millions through their craft and could retire at any time, but continue to create new material. They can’t stop, because they love the game.   

It’s In The Bag

It’s a very simple, but effective premise; your character finds something he wasn’t expecting to find, and is faced with a moral dilemma. The 2007 movie, No Country For Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, and A Simple Plan (1998) adapted from the novel by Scott B. Smith are both based on this simple concept. In both cases the main character finds a bag full of cash. These are excellent examples of beginning with the question “What if?” and then thinking about the worst possible outcomes. You’re basically giving yourself the freedom to be paranoid.

Starting with this one idea, finding something unexpected in a bag, has immense potential. What if the coach of a professional soccer team is organising the team’s equipment before a game and finds a severed head in one of the equipment bags? Who put it there? How did that bag get mixed with the team’s equipment? Was it there to send a message to someone on the soccer team, who owes serious money to a very aggressive loan shark and/or the mafia?

Is your novel or short story a Western? A bag full of cash could fall off a wagon, or stagecoach. Are you writing a science fiction screenplay? An extra crate could be found in the hold of a deep space cargo vessel, containing an unusual device. What happens when a member of the crew tries to activate it, and is successful? Does she find herself in another galaxy or dimension?

To ratchet up the tension, you can have your character do the right thing and still end up in a life threatening situation. He finds a large cache of cocaine and calls the police. Unfortunately for your character, a crooked cop takes the cocaine, but doesn’t drive it to the station or record that he’s taken custody of the illegal drugs. A short time later, members of a drug cartel, who owned the warehouse where the drugs were found, arrive in the city. Now, the corrupt police officer needs to kill your character, before the cartel members talk to him.

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. The next time you’re not sure where to go with a story, try asking these questions: What could my character find, that would complicate her life? What could my character find, that might get him killed? What could one of my characters find, that would send the story in an unexpected direction?

Keep writing, there’s still time to tell great stories in 2022!

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Just One Idea….

You never know where inspiration will come from, or whether you’ll have the same idea twice. It’s essential, therefore, to get into the habit of recording your creative ideas and make sure you don’t forget them. Every scene you imagine, every character that pops into your head, has the potential to be developed into a complete story.

A few years ago I was walking to church when the final action scene for a Police Thriller filled my mind. (You’re a writer, you know what it’s like, that mini-theatre in your head!) From that one scene I started wondering how the cop got herself into such an unusual situation, and it eventually became a feature-length screenplay that I’ve submitted to several film and television companies.

The good news is you don’t have to worry if your schedule prevents you from immediately focusing all your time and energy on writing. It seems that once you’ve taken the step of writing an idea down, your subconscious takes over, filling in all the details. And, as more of the story unfolds in your mind, you’ll become eager to start writing, get into the flow, and immerse yourself in the world you’re creating.

When you have a creative mind, it feels like you never seem to have enough time to write, especially if you have a full-time job. (And regardless of how it may be treated by society, being a stay-at-home parent is a full-time job too!) You can, however, consider it a good sign that you aren’t running out of ideas; that just proves that you have a healthy, active imagination.

It doesn’t really matter where the original idea may fit into the story, or whether it will eventually become a play, a novel, a screenplay, or a short story, since a good story idea can be adapted for just about any format. The short story you’re writing can be expanded to become a novel, or you can adapt the novel you’re writing as the basis of a screenplay.

You can start immediately, by recording your ideas in a journal, sending yourself an e-mail, or writing a note and sticking it in your purse or wallet. One great idea can change a writer’s life.

Copyright © 2022 by J. Paul Cooper

Sixty or Six

According to, author Ben Mezrich has a net worth of approximately eight million dollars. That’s not surprising, when you consider how many of his books have either been adapted for movies or are in development. The same is true for Michael Lewis, who (from the same source) has an estimated net worth of twenty-five millions dollars. They can afford to travel around the world to do extensive research and conduct interviews for their narrative non-fiction books.

I recently listened to Nomadland by Jessica Bruder. She spent months at a time on the road, living among Americans forced by economic hardship to live in vans and camping trailers. She was able to do that, because she’s a professional journalist and was being paid to write about her experiences. And when the book was adapted into a film in 2020, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Perhaps this is why so many part-time writers tend to write fiction. If you work in a warehouse or office to pay the bills, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to leave your job for several months, and pay for airline tickets, car rentals, hotel rooms and meals as you travel to do research and conduct interviews. I’m not suggesting it’s impossible, but it is beyond the reach of many writers.

I know several writers who would list themselves as full-time writers, but that isn’t an accurate description, because their income is a patchwork of various sources. They’re freelance editors, they teach seminars and courses, they coach writers, they create digital covers for eBooks, and they’re writers-in-residence for libraries and universities. Some writers are constantly applying for various government grants, but that isn’t a stable income, because grants only last for a limited time. One playwright I interviewed for a magazine worked as the director of a drama ministry at a large church, taught a course at a bible college and had a small theatre company.

I’ve often fallen into the trap of thinking I’m not a real writer, because I don’t spend the majority of my time writing. But, as I’ve learned over time, that’s the case for most writers. What if you never make a living as a writer, is that a valid reason to stop doing what you have passion for? If that’s the case, then the golf courses would be empty, and no one would be playing hockey, baseball, basketball, or football unless they had pro-sport contracts.

There’s nothing wrong with hoping that someday you’ll write a bestselling novel or an award-winning screenplay, but even if that never happens, you can continue to enjoy the creative process. It doesn’t matter whether you have sixty hours a week or six hours a week to dedicate to your craft; if you love to write, you’re a writer.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

Pain Now, Rewards Later

Isn’t it ironic? The harder you work, the closer you come to reaching your dream, the more it hurts when the dream doesn’t come true. The next time you drive past a baseball diamond, consider how many of those players will start when they’re five or six, continue through high school and college, but never play in the Major Leagues. The same is true for all those students who dream of becoming doctors; even if you have scholarships and don’t finish university with a huge debt load, if your application to Medical School is rejected, it’s going to be devastating.

My dream was to become a lawyer, so the year I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Political Science), I submitted applications to thirteen Canadian Law Schools. The summer of 1987 was a long one, because I received thirteen rejection letters.

Here’s a question to consider: Do you think that all of the men and women who write the scripts for Medical Dramas are doctors? It would certainly make sense to have surgeons as consultants, to make sure they get the facts right, but the writers aren’t all graduates of Medical School. Another question: If you had the opportunity to work as a writer on a Medical Drama, wouldn’t it be helpful to have some basic understanding of Biology? Of course! The knowledge you gained following your dream to become a doctor, could be very useful for a writing career.

Just image that one day a great idea for a murder mystery, that takes place in a baseball stadium, comes to mind. If you’ve played baseball, you already have useful knowledge. All those hours spent on the baseball diamond learning the rules of the game, watching how coaches interact with players, and experiencing the fear of letting down your team, will help you develop believable characters.

Being rejected by Law School has inspired me to write a feature-length screenplay and a short story. I haven’t sold the screenplay, but the short story, “An Appointment With Life,” was published. You can find the link in the Published Writing section.

I hope that you’ll find some time to write today. The world becomes a more interesting place, when creative minds are at work.

Copyright © 2021 by J. Paul Cooper

The Procrastination Deception

One of the reasons you may be having difficulty with procrastination, is because you’re not aware that you’re procrastinating. Here are some ways that writers procrastinate. I know, since I have mastered several procrastination techniques.

PERFECTIONISM This trap has the potential to prevent you from ever getting your writing published, including self-published work. The only solution is to accept that what you write will never be flawless. No matter how many times you read through a manuscript, or how many beta readers you use, there’s always the possibility that you won’t notice a grammatical error, or a misspelled word. So what? I’ve noticed spelling and grammar errors in books that have been reviewed by professional editors before publication. I still enjoyed the books, and I’d read other book by the same authors.

NEVER ENDING PREPARATION By this I’m referring to all the things you can do that are related to writing, without actually writing. You can attend (in-person or online) writing groups, watch interviews with your favourite authors, read blogs about writing, read or listen to books about writing, go to conferences, and listen to seminars, but never make a serious effort to write. That’s a waste. What’s the point of accumulating all that knowledge, if you never apply it?

FEAR A hard, cold reality of being author, is that some people will not like what you’ve written. I recently noticed that someone had given my eBook, What If? A Collection of Short Fiction by J. Paul Cooper one star, out of a possible five stars. I also had someone who hated one of my short stories that was published by an online literary journal. Was the criticism justified? I don’t know, but it won’t stop me from writing.

Procrastination robs you of your most precious resource: time. If you’re serious about being a writer, you have to focus on doing the work. I recently had one of my short stories, “Just A Toonie” (A Toonie is a two dollar Canadian coin.) published on The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature website. The only reason that happened was because I wrote the story, and keep on submitting it, until I found an editor willing to publish it. Last weekend I self-published a young reader’s eBook, Jack: A Lady’s Cat through Draft2Digital. Will it be popular? I have no idea. Will readers find glaring errors? Possibly. What I do know is that I love writing, and it’s worth the risk.

Copyright © 2020 by J. Paul Cooper

Writing Requires….

COURAGE: There’s no guarantee that your work will be accepted, so every time you send your work to an editor, you risk the disappointment of rejection. If you want to succeed as a writer, you have to strap yourself into the emotional roller coaster and go from the anticipation of seeing your work published, to the reality of reading rejection e-mails over and over again.

PATIENCE: One of the first lessons you learn through experience, is that if you want to be a published writer, you must be willing to wait. If you send a short story to a literary journal that’s printed four times a year, hoping that it will be published in the winter edition, but it’s accepted for the spring edition, you’ll have to wait an additional three months to see your story in print.

PERSEVERANCE: What happens if the first editor you send your story to rejects it? It’s going to hurt, because you’ve poured your heart and soul into that story. Unfortunately, editors receive many more manuscripts than they can actually publish, and therefore, they’re forced to reject some well-written stories. The best option is to search for another market for your story, and submit again.

DECISIVENESS: Only you know when a manuscript it ready to either submit it to an editor, or self-publish. Only you know whether your story will work best as a novel, screenplay, or a play for live theatre. Only you can decide whether it will benefit you enough, to allow your work to be published without receiving any payment. Some literary journals are staffed entirely by volunteers, and their limited budget does not include any money for writers, but the prestige you receive having your short story or essay included in their publication, will help your career. Note: Many editors will not accept previously published material, including self-published material. Having a short story or essay published for free, may mean you’ll never be paid for it.

Only writers knows how much time, effort and emotional cost is involved in the stories we create, and yet, we keep writing….

Copyright © 2020 by J. Paul Cooper