Someone once asked me, "What's the best bit of advice you've ever received from a publisher?"
I figured that person was thinking along the lines of publishing advice. However, the best advice I received from a publisher was not about publishing, but about writing. It came while trying to publish my first full length novel. I had submitted it to just about every literary agent I could think of. In each case I got the same generic rejection form letter. Of course I was disheartened. It did not even get past the query letter and synopsis.
But as a credit to my own conceit, I did not give up. I extended my submission to publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts, and submitted a query letter and first fifty pages. It took a while before I got an email response from one of them. Instead of the form letter, it was a detailed critique of the work. I was so elated that someone at least took the time to read my work that even though it was rejected, I emailed her back a heartfelt thank you. She responded to my email with pleasant surprise stating that most authors she dealt with were more offended by a critique of their work than grateful.
So what was her advice? "Get to know your main characters and let that be your guide to their actions."
Of course I re-read the manuscript bearing that in mind. Indeed I found so much inconsistency in the actions and the dialog of the main character, that I realized I would have to rewrite too many scenes.
By the time I decided to re-write the story, I was already imbued with a new story that just had to be written. The first thing I did was to write a character sketch for each of the main characters. The story flowed from there. It took only a few months to complete and the story sold in less than a year. That was my debut novel: "A marriage of Convenience."
Since then I learned to appreciate the importance of character sketches in writing. Recently I was reminded once again of the importance of knowing your characters. I resumed work on one of my many incomplete manuscripts filed away in my "to be completed" file. I got to the middle of the book and took a few weeks break (ok more like months). When I resumed writing, I couldn't think of where to go with the story. As I read it from the beginning, I found the story boring, the characters not striking and their actions and dialog inconsistent. I could not feel the characters. The problem: I never got to know the characters; I never did a character sketch.
I refiled it in the "I'll get back to you someday" part of my brain and began to work on another manuscript. This time I did a character sketch and I am much farther along than I was on the previous one and I'm really feeling the characters.
So to reiterate the sound bit of advice given to me by that publisher: "Know your characters and let that guide their actions."