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We are incredibly pleased and tickled pink to have Victoria Strauss on the blog today discussing some amazing writing techniques. Victoria is the widely acclaimed author of many young adult and adult novels and her advice is something to watch out for.
From Pantser To Planner: How I Changed My Writing Style by Victoria Strauss
I'm the original pantser. I hate planning and preparing. I'd rather just dive into whatever it is and learn as I go. This has gotten me into some messes, as you can imagine. Deciding to refinish a table and realizing halfway through that you really ought to know how to work with furniture stripper is not a recipe for a happy outcome.
Once upon a time, that was also how I wrote.
Nearly all my books require some degree of preliminary research. But after investing that initial effort, I just want to get on with the actual creation. When I first began writing, I'd start out with a premise, a setting, a compelling image for the beginning, and a definite plan for the end. The rest was a blank canvas that I couldn't wait to fill, discovering the bones of the story as I wrote it.
The problem was that the story never fell organically into place. I'd get interesting ideas for characters and scenes and plot points that sometimes worked, but often took me down irrelevant byways or banged me up against dead ends. Somewhere around the middle of the book (which never turned out to match any of the hazy ideas I might have had at the outset), I would realize that I’d gotten to a place that didn't fit either my planned ending or my already-written beginning, and be faced with the choice of throwing out a lot of material or making major changes to my basic concept. You'd think, since my concept was so nebulous, I wouldn't have a problem tossing it; but those strong beginning and ending images were (and still are) the essence of the book for me, what made me want to write it in the first place. I could never bring myself to abandon them.
In the end I always managed to pull it together. But it was exhausting and frustrating to do so much backtracking and re-writing, and with each book the process seemed to become messier. By my third novel, I felt that I was doing more fixing than creating--and if you do too much fixing, the seams start to show. Writing by the seat of my pants clearly wasn't working for me. I realized that if I wanted to continue with my writing career, something had to change.
So I decided to turn myself into a planner. No more pantsing. No more blank canvas. I'd discipline myself to craft my plot in advance, creating a road map to guide me all the way from A to Z.
to plan, exactly? Books on how to write offer a plethora of methods. Index cards. Whiteboards. Timelines. Checklists. Worksheets. Character questionnaires. Three-act structure. The Snowflake Method. Yikes.
Outlining (the kind of conventional I.A.1.a. outlining I learned in school) seemed most familiar. So for my fourth novel, that's what I decided to try. It totally did not work for me. It was too terse, too cold, too structured. Too boring.
Next I attempted a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. But that felt too arbitrary--how could I lock myself into a chapter structure before I knew the rhythm of the narrative?--and too choppy. I didn't want to jump from chapter to chapter like hopping across a series of rocks. I wanted the story to be all of a piece: to simply flow.
So I decided just to tell
the story from start to finish, imagining myself speaking to a rapt audience in the warm glow of a blazing campfire, with darkness pressing all around. This approach fit me much better. It felt creative; it had flow. I still took wrong turns and stumbled down blind alleys--but it's a lot easier to fix those in a synopsis than in a manuscript. And when I was done, I had a clear path from my blazing beginning image to the ending I was dying to write.
For reasons that had nothing to do with planning, I never did finish that fourth novel. But I've used this basic method ever since. First I figure out the core of the book: premise, setting, opening and conclusion. Then I build a bare-bones road map in my head, establishing the story arc and the main characters, making sure I can travel all the way to the end without getting lost in the middle. Then I write a synopsis, fleshing out the story bones and adding detail to plot and characters, but not drilling down to the level of individual scenes (unless an image really grabs me). For a 100,000-word book, my synopses generally run about 10-12 single-spaced pages. I also do brief character sketches as I go along.*
Once I'm done with all this preparation, I file it away and never look at it again. This may seem like a waste of effort. But writing from memory, without paying slavish attention to a plan, gives my pantser's soul the flexibility it needs, allowing room for change and inspiration, for those "aha" moments that, for me, are the most exciting part of writing. Because I do have a plan, however--because I've fallen into most of the holes and backtracked out of most of the dead ends in advance--I don't veer off track the way I used to; and where I do diverge, it's productive rather than destructive. My finished books nearly always differ in significant ways from my initial road map. But the important plot turns don't change.
This melding of planning and improvisation is the best balance I've found between the creative license I crave and the structure I need.
Changing my approach to writing has also taught me something important about writing itself: there is no "correct" or "best" way of doing things--only what's best for you
. I can't count the number of times I've heard that planning destroys inspiration, or that only hack writers plan, or that real
creativity is letting the story find you, not the other way around. Conversely, most of the highly-recommended planning techniques I tried felt too constraining or too boring.
Trial and error is the key. Don't be afraid to experiment. If something isn't working for you, don't be afraid to abandon it and try something new. It took me a long time, and many mistakes, to figure out my ideal method. But eventually I found my way.
You will too.
* If worldbuilding is needed, as with my fantasy novels, I work that out in between the in-my-head planning and the written synopsis (I've written about my worldbuilding method here: http://www.victoriastrauss.com/advice/world-building/).
About The Author
Victoria is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the Stone fantasy duology (The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone) and Passion Blue and Color Song, a pair of historical novels for teens. In addition, she has written a handful of short stories, hundreds of book reviews, and a number of articles on writing and publishing that have appeared in Writer’s Digest, among others. In 2006, Victoria served as a judge for the World Fantasy Awards.
Victoria is the co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009 for my work with Writer Beware.
Victoria lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.Website
ABOUT THE BOOKColor Songby Victoria StraussHardcoverSkyscapeReleased 9/16/2014
By the author of the acclaimed "Passion Blue," a "Kirkus Reviews" Best Teen Book of 2012 and "a rare, rewarding, sumptuous exploration of artistic passion," comes a fascinating companion novel.
Artistically brilliant, Giulia is blessed?or cursed?with a spirit's gift: she can hear the mysterious singing of the colors as she creates them in the convent workshop of Maestra Humilit?. It's here that Giulia, forced into the convent against her will, has found unexpected happiness and rekindled her passion to become a painter?an impossible dream for any woman in 15th century Italy.
But when a dying Humilit? bequeaths Giulia her most prized possession?the secret formula for the luminously beautiful paint called Passion blue?Giulia realizes she's in danger from those who have long coveted the famous color. Faced with the prospect of a life in the convent barred from painting as punishment for keeping Humilit s secret, Giulia is struck by a desperate idea: What if she disguises herself as a boy? Could she make her way to Venice and find work as an artist's apprentice?
Along with the truth of who she is, Giulia carries more dangerous secrets: the exquisite voices of her paint colors and the formula for Humilit s Passion blue. And Venice, she discovers, with its gilded palazzos and masked balls, has secrets of its own. Trapped in her false identity in this dream-like place where reality and reflection are easily confused, and where art and ambition, love and deception hover like dense fog, can Giulia find her way?
This stunning, compelling novel explores timeless themes of love and illusion, gender and identity as it asks the question: what does it mean to risk everything to pursue your passion?Purchase Color Song at AmazonPurchase Color Song at IndieBoundView Color Song on Goodreads
Kiki Sullivan is the brand new debut author of THE DOLLS, a fantastically creepy thriller that just came out in August. Although Kiki is a debut author, her knowledge and tips on writing rival any well established author.
The Craft of Outlining by Kiki Sullivan
In real life, I'm not always one for planning ahead. I like to see where the day will take me, what adventures will come my way.
But when it comes to the page, things are entirely different. Not only do I prefer to know where I'm going, but it's vital to me to be able to see the road to the end of each story I write before I write the first word of chapter one.
That's why I outline. Some writers swear by the technique. Others prefer to let their characters guide the story. I do a little of both; I outline very thoroughly, but I never stick to the blueprint entirely, because it's impossible to know before you begin writing exactly what your characters will do once you set them in motion. It's like having a roadmap, or a set of Mapquest directions, that show you exactly how to get to where you want to go. But once you're on the road, detouring off the main path a few times is always fine, as long as you eventually keep heading toward your destination.
In fact, sometimes it's the detours that make the journey so memorable.
So why outline? For me, there are several reasons. First, outlining makes writer's block virtually impossible. Sure, you'll still have unproductive writing sessions or days when your head's not in the game, but you'll never be defeated by your story because you'll always know where to go next.
Second, an outline is a way to try your story out before you begin writing the chapters. Why is this so important? It's simple; wouldn't you rather know you're going down the wrong path on page 20 of a 30-page outline instead of on page 200 of a 300-page book? Not only will you have spent far less time traveling down the wrong road, but it's also a whole lot easier to go back and tweak a plot thread in outline form. This saves you both time and wasted energy.
Third, an outline is a bit like a safety blanket. It gives you comfort on the hardest of days and keeps you safe and protected from your own self-doubt in a way. As long as you've found the way to the end of your outline, you can find your way to the end of your book too -- as long as you're willing to work hard.
Fourth, an outline helps you to summarize the story in your own mind. It sounds like an obvious point, but knowing exactly what your story is about -- in as few words as possible -- helps you to write it better. An outline helps crystallize your themes, your characters' goals, attributes and shortcomings, and the obstacles standing in their way. Being able to easily put a finger on these things lets you write your first draft much more efficiently.
So how do you outline? Different people do it different ways. Some prefer bulleted outlines. Some like to write scenes down on index cards so that they're easily rearrangeable (although I find that's handier in screenwriting, where scene placement tends to be a little more fluid). And some -- like me -- prefer to write outlines in an almost book report-like style. In other words, you're essentially writing a summary of your book before you even begin writing the book itself. Personally, I've always found that this helps the words and ideas to flow a little more freely, because you can also include dialogue, descriptions and other notes that bring the scene to life the moment they first appear in your head.
I wrote my first novel in 2003, and I did it using an outline technique that I taught myself -- and that has been my specialty since then. Here's how to get started:
First, choose a book that's similar in tone, length and style to the book you plan to write. It shouldn't be about the same topic -- for instance, if you're writing a vampire love story, don't choose Twilight -- but the target audience and genre should be the same. Now, sit down with that book and with either a notebook or your computer. Read chapter one. Now, summarize chapter one in one to three paragraphs, noting such things as when characters are introduced, how much background the author has included, how much dialogue is included, etc. Summarizing the story presented in that chapter should be your primary mission, but also keep an eye out for the writer's technique.
Now, do the same with chapter two. And chapter three. And so on, until you've reached the end of the book.
Now, you should have a solid outline of a single published book. Put it aside for a day, and then pick it back up again. Read it in one sitting. Here, condensed, is the framework for a book that works, a book that's been published, a book that's successful. You'll use this as a blueprint for writing your own outline.
Your scenes shouldn't follow the scenes of the model novel exactly. Simply use them as a guideline. Get a sense of the model author's flow. When does he or she introduce main characters? When do conflicts crop up? When are problems solved? How do the stakes get higher for the main character as the first half of the book progresses?
Now, sit down at your computer, open a new document and type, "CHAPTER ONE." Skip a few lines and begin your own outline. Take a look at the outline of the published book you've already developed. How did that author start his or her story with a bang? How are you introduced to the main character's world?
Essentially (and you'll find this advice on www.kikisullivan.com/writing-tips too), you'll want to begin with a scene that centers around your main character, gives us a chance to get to know her and her life situation, and gives us a good idea of her personality and lifestyle through dialogue, action and interaction. This scene should be fast-paced and take place before the main storyline of the book really kicks off, because you want the reader to be fully on board with your character and in her corner before anything very important happens. Follow that scene with a second scene, moving your main character to another location to show us a different aspect of her life. Bam – you have a chapter one.
Now, read chapter two in the outline you've produced for the already-published book. Use it as a rough model for your chapter two. And so on.
In general (this is also from www.kikisullivan.com/writing-tips):
• The beginning of your book should start with a bang and introduce us to your main character. By the end of chapter 1, the reader should feel drawn into the story. By the end of chapter 2, the reader should be fully on board with your main character. Don’t weigh the first and second chapters down with background. Only give us the essential parts of the backstory, and save the rest for later. We should arrive, relatively soon, at a dramatic plot twist that kicks off the main action of the book.
• The middle of the book will deal with a big challenge (and smaller associated challenges) your main character is facing and how she deals with them and learn something in the process. It should include a sort-of up and down pattern, where she solves some problems while trying to work through the main conflict, but she also runs into other problems along the way, many of which are of her own making or stem from the main issue at hand. The conflict should keep getting more complicated until the middle section of your book concludes in a climax that leads us to the end.
• The end of the book is where things get resolved and where the questions you’ve laid out throughout the book get answered. Your character should have grown and changed by now, as a result of what she’s gone through, and her responses to situations will show that change. This is your chance to conclude storylines and tie up loose plot threads. And remember, a satisfying ending doesn’t always have to include all the characters living happily ever after. But your main character, at least, should be better off at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, as a result of the way she has grown and changed throughout.
Hope this helps a bit. To some, outlining sounds tedious. To me, it's the most creative part of the writing process. It's your chance to begin getting to know your characters and to see them interacting with each other on the page. It's your chance to test out plotlines you're not entirely sure about. And it's an opportunity to see where your imagination takes you without having to take the time to make sure your words are pretty and perfect yet.
Good luck, and happy outlining!
About The Author
Kiki Sullivan is the author of The Dolls series. Like the main character Eveny Cheval, Kiki used to live in New York and now calls the American South home. Unlike Eveny, she finds it impossible to keep her rose garden alive and has been singlehandedly responsible for the unfortunate demise of countless herbs. She may or may not have hung out with queens of the dark arts, strolled through creepy New Orleans cemeteries at night, or written the first book of this series with a red-headed Louisiana voodoo doll beside her computer. Website
About The Book
Eveny Cheval just moved back to Louisiana after spending her childhood in New York with her aunt Bea. Eveny hasn’t seen her hometown since her mother’s suicide fourteen years ago, and her memories couldn’t have prepared her for what she encounters. Because pristine, perfectly manicured Carrefour has a dark side full of intrigue, betrayal, and lies—and Eveny quickly finds herself at the center of it all.
Enter Peregrine Marceau, Chloe St. Pierre, and their group of rich, sexy friends known as the Dolls. From sipping champagne at lunch to hooking up with the hottest boys, Peregrine and Chloe have everything—including an explanation for what’s going on in Carrefour. And Eveny doesn’t trust them one bit.
But after murder strikes and Eveny discovers that everything she believes about herself, her family, and her life is a lie, she must turn to the Dolls for answers. Something’s wrong in paradise, and it’s up to Eveny, Chloe, and Peregrine to save Carrefour and make it right.Amazon
One mistaken assumption that I've noticed some newbie writers making: Sending out their writing too soon, assuming that the editor who buys their short story (or novel, etc.) is going to be helping them polish the piece anyway.
DO NOT DO THIS.
Never, ever send an mss out just after you've finished it. Put it away for a few days (a few weeks at least, for a novel). That way you'll be able to reread more objectively, without the rosy glow of "omigosh this is brilliant just wait until publishers see this."
I'm a foodie, so often think in terms of food analogies. In this case, it would be sort of like a first-time restauranteur opening before they've perfected their dishes. Turn off the restaurant critics early on, and you make it tougher for yourself longterm.
If you're a new picture book writer, this is even MORE vital. Why? Because I've noticed that many non-pb writers assume that writing a picture book is easy because there are fewer words, that it's something they can do on the side for extra money while they work on their "real" books.
Vaguely related side note:
Others may differ, but I also advise NOT giving it to your critique group to read too soon. Why? Because there is a real value in getting feedback from someone who is reading the piece for the first time. Yes, there's a value in getting feedback for a rough version so you can polish it before sending it out to an editor. Be aware, however, that after the first critique, your crit partners will likely be giving feedback on your revisions rather than an overall first-time impression.
Respect your readers, before and after publication.
What The Hale! By Elizabeth Langston and Lisa AmowitzElizabeth:
Last winter, my editor sent me a suggestion that has since changed my life. I had three books releasing in 2014 and no book covers. The publisher, Spencer Hill Press, had another author—Lisa Amowitz—who also designed books covers. Did I have time to work with her?
I couldn’t say “yes” quickly enough. I’d seen other covers that she’d designed and coveted them! Within days, Lisa and I were messaging feverishly, tossing out ideas, zeroing in on concepts, agreeing (and disagreeing) in a burst of creative energy that felt amazingly natural.Lisa:
First let me say that working for a small publisher, I often get the chance to work directly with authors. Elizabeth and I clicked immediately and what started as a professional relationship quickly evolved into a friendship. We found that despite being polar opposites in temperament and background, we somehow connected on a deeper level. Elizabeth:
Unexpected but true! Even though we’d ended our collaboration with the book covers, Lisa and I enjoyed our budding friendship so much that we just had to stay in touch.
Fast forward to March. After I’d spent a long weekend doing historical research in Williamsburg, Virginia, I came home and messaged to Lisa that I’d visited one of the film locations for the TV series TURN. Immediately, she started gushing about Revolutionary War spies and, in particular, Nathan Hale. Yeah, yeah, whatever. I love history, but I rarely obsess over guys who’ve been dead since the 1700s. (I reserve my obsessions for alive-but-inaccessible guys, like Michael Fassbender.)Lisa:
I also shared my (then secret but now totally out in the open) insane and immature crush for actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and after a conversation about the show TURN, I was amazed when Elizabeth did not laugh about my odd fascination for Nathan Hale. (Yes--between Cumberbatch and Hale, I’m used to plenty of eyerolls and blank stares from friends and family--though more with Nathan. Benedict seems to be quite popular these days.) When Elizabeth did not laugh in my face, I popped the question: “Do you want to co-write a YA story about Nathan Hale?”
I’d already read her writing and knew our styles would mesh beautifully. But the main thing is that I knew that Elizabeth had something important that I lacked—Elizabeth knew how to do historical research, something I’d tried, but had only gotten so far with before I’d given up in despair.
Given the complete lack of enthusiasm for my Nathan Hale fixation from everyone but my mother, I was stunned by her answer.
Yes, she, said--when do we start?Elizabeth:
I was really excited about the idea. Although I’d never vacationed before with a friend, here I was, agreeing to fly up to New York for five days to hang out with Lisa and see if this passionate interest in colonial history and Nathan Hale could result in a book. Even more, we had to discover if we had the personalities, skills, and time to make this project happen.
We held our writing retreat in July—and here are three of the lessons we learned.Process.
Your writing processes can be different—but you have to respect that and find a way to make them compatible. Lisa likes to write in chronological order. I like to jump around. At our retreat, we created a detailed synopsis of the whole book. Lisa uses it to write in order. I can still jump around.Contribution.
You both have to feel like you can contribute some unique and important to the project. For me, it’s my understanding of the colonial American world. For Lisa, it’s her deep knowledge of Nathan Hale and New York.Voice.
Your voices have to complement each other. I have a lighter voice with an old-fashioned feel. I’ll be writing mostly in the POV of our colonial heroine, a girl who begins our story at age 16. Lisa has the darker, edgier voice. She’ll channel Nathan Hale—a guy who always suspected that his life would be short—although maybe not even he would’ve guessed it would end at age 21.Lisa:
I’ll wrap this up by saying that the thing I feared most about our visit would be that I would prove to be “too much” for Elizabeth. At Spencer Hill Press, my nickname is The Squirrel on Crack, given my extroverted New Yorkie personality, my tendency to talk very fast and a LOT, and my frenetic multi-tasking. I was nervous. I thought Elizabeth would have the need to hide from me for many hours out of the day.
What I found instead, was that while she’s a more laid back and soft spoken Southern lady, her energy level is just as intense and hard-driving as mine. We worked relentlessly for ten to twelve hours a day, like two bloodhounds tracking down a trail. We had to make a special time each day for “playtime” in which we ended up plotting each other’s OTHER books (and drinking some very sweet wine).
In short, like in a good relationship, opposites attract. We have found that our opposite temperaments and capabilities are actually our strengths, and that the one area in which we are similar--DRIVE, PASSION and COMMITMENT (and love of a good yarn) was just the impetus we’ll rely upon to bring this project to its completion.
Here I am with the plot map we produced on one of our more intense worksessions.
What the Hale!
Elizabeth: Last winter, my editor sent me a suggestion that has since changed my life. I had three books releasing in 2014 and no book covers. The publisher, Spencer Hill Press, had another author—Lisa Amowitz—who also designed books covers. Did I have time to work with her?
I couldn’t say “yes” quickly enough. I’d seen other covers that she’d designed and coveted them! Within days, Lisa and I were messaging feverishly, tossing out ideas, zeroing in on concepts, agreeing (and disagreeing) in a burst of creative energy that felt amazingly natural.
Lisa: First let me say that working for a small publisher, I often get the chance to work directly with authors. Elizabeth and I clicked immediately and what started as a professional relationship quickly evolved into a friendship. We found that despite being polar opposites in temperament and background, we somehow connected on a deeper level.
Elizabeth: Unexpected but true! Even though we’d ended our collaboration with the book covers, Lisa and I enjoyed our budding friendship so much that we just had to stay in touch.
Fast forward to March. After I’d spent a long weekend doing historical research in Williamsburg, Virginia, I came home and messaged to Lisa that I’d visited one of the film locations for the TV series TURN. Immediately, she started gushing about Revolutionary War spies and, in particular, Nathan Hale. Yeah, yeah, whatever. I love history, but I rarely obsess over guys who’ve been dead since the 1700s. (I reserve my obsessions for alive-but-inaccessible guys, like Michael Fassbender.)
Lisa: I also shared my (then secret but now totally out in the open) insane and immature crush for actor Benedict Cumberbatch, and after a conversation about the show TURN, I was amazed when Elizabeth did not laugh about my odd fascination for Nathan Hale. (Yes--between Cumberbatch and Hale, I’m used to plenty of eyerolls and blank stares from friends and family--though more with Nathan. Benedict seems to be quite popular these days.) When Elizabeth did not laugh in my face, I popped the question: “Do you want to co-write a YA story about Nathan Hale?”
I’d already read her writing and knew our styles would mesh beautifully. But the main thing is that I knew that Elizabeth had something important that I lacked—Elizabeth knew how to do historical research, something I’d tried, but had only gotten so far with before I’d given up in despair.
Given the complete lack of enthusiasm for my Nathan Hale fixation from everyone but my mother, I was stunned by her answer.
Yes, she, said--when do we start?
Elizabeth: I was really excited about the idea. Although I’d never vacationed before with a friend, here I was, agreeing to fly up to New York for five days to hang out with Lisa and see if this passionate interest in colonial history and Nathan Hale could result in a book. Even more, we had to discover if we had the personalities, skills, and time to make this project happen.
We held our writing retreat in July—and here are three of the lessons we learned.
Process. Your writing processes can be different—but you have to respect that and find a way to make them compatible. Lisa likes to write in chronological order. I like to jump around. At our retreat, we created a detailed synopsis of the whole book. Lisa uses it to write in order. I can still jump around.
Contribution. You both have to feel like you can contribute some unique and important to the project. For me, it’s my understanding of the colonial American world. For Lisa, it’s her deep knowledge of Nathan Hale and New York.
Voice. Your voices have to complement each other. I have a lighter voice with an old-fashioned feel. I’ll be writing mostly in the POV of our colonial heroine, a girl who begins our story at age 16. Lisa has the darker, edgier voice. She’ll channel Nathan Hale—a guy who always suspected that his life would be short—although maybe not even he would’ve guessed it would end at age 21.
Lisa: I’ll wrap this up by saying that the thing I feared most about our visit would be that I would prove to be “too much” for Elizabeth. At Spencer Hill Press, my nickname is The Squirrel on Crack, given my extroverted New Yorkie personality, my tendency to talk very fast and a LOT, and my frenetic multi-tasking. I was nervous. I thought Elizabeth would have the need to hide from me for many hours out of the day.
What I found instead, was that while she’s a more laid back and soft spoken Southern lady, her energy level is just as intense and hard-driving as mine. We worked relentlessly for ten to twelve hours a day, like two bloodhounds tracking down a trail. We had to make a special time each day for “playtime” in which we ended up plotting each other’s OTHER books (and drinking some very sweet wine).
In short, like in a good relationship, opposites attract. We have found that our opposite temperaments and capabilities are actually our strengths, and that the one area in which we are similar--DRIVE, PASSION and COMMITMENT (and love of a good yarn) was just the impetus we’ll rely upon to bring this project to its completion.
Here I am with the plot map we produced on one of our more intense worksessions.
About The Authors
Elizabeth Langston lives in North Carolina, halfway between the beaches and the mountains. She has two daughters in college and one husband at home. When she's not writing software or stories, Elizabeth loves to travel with her family, watch shows on dance or Sherlock, and dream about which restaurant ought to get her business that night.
WHISPERS FROM THE PAST, the 3rd book in Elizabeth's WHISPER FALLS YA time travel series, releases in October. I WISH, the 1st book in her new YA magical realism series, releases in November. Learn more about Elizabeth at http://www.elizabethLangston.net .blog
| websiteAbout Her Book
Lacey Linden is hiding the truth of her life—a depressed mom, a crumbling house, and bills too big to pay. While her high school classmates see a girl with a ready smile and good grades, Lacey spends her evenings seeking ways to save her family. On a get-cash-quick trip to the flea market, Lacey stumbles over a music box that seemingly begs her to take it home. She does, only to find it is inhabited by a gorgeous "genie." He offers her a month of wishes, one per day, but there's a catch. Each wish must be humanly possible.
Grant belongs to a league of supernatural beings, dedicated to serving humans in need. After two years of fulfilling the boring wishes of conventional teens, he is one assignment away from promotion to a challenging new role with more daring cases. Yet his month with Lacey is everything that he expects and nothing like he imagines. Lacey and Grant soon discover that the most difficult task of all might be saying goodbye.Amazon
LISA AMOWITZ was born in Queens and raised in the wilds of Long Island, New York where she climbed trees, thought small creatures lived under rocks and studied ant hills. And drew. A lot. She is a professor of Graphic Design at her beloved Bronx Community College where she has been tormenting and cajoling students for nearly seventeen years. She started writing eight years ago because she wanted something to illustrate, but somehow, instead ended up writing YA–probably because her mind is too dark and twisted for small children.
Her first book, Breaking Glass, was released by Spencer Hill Press in 2013, and she has three more novels scheduled for release: Vision, the first of the Finder series in May 2014, its unnamed sequel in 2015, and Until Beth in Spring of 2015.blog
| facebook About Her Book
The light is darker than you think…
High school student Bobby Pendell already has his hands full—he works almost every night to support his disabled-vet father and gifted little brother. Then he meets the beautiful new girl in town, who just happens to be his boss’s daughter. Bobby has rules about that kind of thing. Nothing matters more than keeping his job.
When Bobby starts to get blinding migraines that come with scary, violent hallucinations, his livelihood is on the line. Soon, he must face the stunning possibility that the visions of murder are actually real. With his world going dark, Bobby is set on the trail of the serial killer terrorizing his small town. With everyone else convinced he’s the prime suspect, Bobby realizes that he, or the girl he loves, might be killer's next victim.Amazon
I met Cheryl Rainfield through the Toronto Area Middle Grade/YA Author Group (also known as Torkidlit) and am a big fan of her work (especially SCARS and HUNTED in the past). A survivor of abuse, Cheryl often draws upon her own experience in her intense and highly charged fiction. I love Cheryl's enthusiasm for kidlit/YA as well as her positive outlook and support of others in the community.
STAINED was named one of Bank Street College's Best Books Of The Year (2014) for ages 14 and up, and was a SCBWI Crystal Kite Finalist.
For those in the Toronto area: Cheryl will be speaking about STAINED and signing copies (as well as of SCARS and HUNTED) at Chapters Scarborough at 2 pm on Saturday, Sept. 13th, 2014.
Where you can find Cheryl Rainfield: Website - Blog - Twitter - Facebook Personal/Pro - Tumblr - Instagram - Pinterest
Q. What’s your writing process? Or What was your writing process for STAINED?
A. I write and edit my manuscripts by hand. Longhand writing feels more connected to my inner voice, my creativity, and more alive. And then I type the writing into MS Word. At various points, I also send out my manuscript to other writers to get feedback, and then I revise again. For STAINED, I did about thirteen drafts before it sold to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and then multiple drafts before it was published. At one point my editor Karen Grove asked me to try writing some scenes from the abductor’s point of view. I tried, but I think because what I wrote about was so personal—I was drawing on my own trauma and abuse experience—and because I can’t bear to be in the head of an abuser, especially an abuser character based on my own abuser—I found it painful and I struggled writing those scenes. Ultimately I took those scenes out; the book worked better, the way I could write it, with just Sarah and Nick’s alternating viewpoints.
STAINED was the first book I’ve written where I used two different perspectives, and I really enjoyed the process. I put a lot of myself into both Sarah and Nick. I think the alternate points of view helped fill in the gaps in Sarah’s story that she couldn’t know about from her perspective, gave the reader a small breather, and sometimes worked to increase the tension. I also used them to gradually develop the relationship between Sarah and Nick, and the awareness that they really loved each other.
I typically write a lot of drafts quickly, always trying to make the writing and story better, stronger, more powerful, and often doing drafts focused on different things each time. In early drafts, I tend to write the conflicts and tension, the emotion in the characters, the action and plot, and tend to leave out description and setting—I think because as a person and an abuse survivor that’s what I notice most in the world: tension, body language, emotion. So then I have to go back in and layer those things in, as well as symbols and metaphors if I’ve left them out.
I also usually have to go back in and intentionally add lightness and breathing room for the reader. I'm so used to tension and fear and and pain—it's what I lived most of my life and know inside out—that putting in happier moments has to be very intentional on my part. I also think tension and conflict helps make a book a page turner—but readers need breathing room, too. I had a lot of fun giving Sarah and Nick a love of comics and superheroes in STAINED, since I also love and read them, and I also enjoyed making Nick draw (I do, too), giving him geeky technological savviness (also my love), and giving Sarah the strength and courage to stand up to bullies who were harassing other kids (also part of myself). And I managed, probably for my first book ever, to give my main character two really good parents--something that comes from my finally having some loving, safe people in my life, and especially my therapist. I think I'm getting better at adding in lightness in my early drafts.
I used to be a pantser writer, not wanting to feel confined by outlines, but I now do outlines with the knowledge that I can change them—and they help me write a lot better, faster. With every book I write, I use THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby to help guide my initial focus, character and plot building, and outline, and also at least my first draft. I’ve found that book incredibly helpful and valuable, as well as a lecture I attended by Donald Maass where I learned a lot more about symbols, parallels, and reversals, which I also add in. And I always, always get feedback from other writers and polish my work before sending it on to my agent. I want my writing to be as polished as it can be before I submit it, so that it’s more likely to get published.
Q. How did STAINED get published?
A. My agent at the time—Andrea Somberg at Harvey Klinger—submitted my manuscript to editors and found a home for STAINED at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This was a relief to me, since WestSide, the publisher who’d published SCARS and HUNTED, had closed just before HUNTED came out, and I needed a new, stable, and good publishing home. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has been fantastic with me and STAINED, releasing STAINED in the US, Canada, and the UK, in print, ebook, and audiobook formats. It’ll also be coming out in a cheaper paperback format mid-2015; I’m excited about that!
I think having a good agent vastly improves a writer’s chances of getting a manuscript published; an agent can submit work to publishers who are closed to writers without agents, and that includes most of the big publishing houses. Although you can get published without an agent, it’s a lot harder. I also learned when I attended college for an editing certificate that publishers generally have two standard contracts—one for authors without an agent, and one for authors with an agent. And the contract for authors with an agent automatically starts at higher royalty rates and better clauses and options. And a good agent knows editors personally and can figure out what manuscript to place with what editor, and also help guide a writer’s career. So I knew I needed an agent.
I actually got my first contract by myself—through the slushpile with WestSide Books—but after years of research, reading writing technique books, publishing industry books, and articles, I knew I needed an agent to negotiate the contract for me, and to help advance my career. I’d initially queried Andrea with HUNTED, which she’d rejected, but her rejection letter was one of the nicest and longest I’d received, and she mentioned hoping to work with me on another book. Her letter stood out to me. So when I got an offer for SCARS (two offers, actually, almost at the same time), I contacted her and asked if she’d represent me, and she did. She also sold HUNTED, and of course STAINED, and I’m grateful for all her help.
Traditional publishing can be slow. I signed the final contract for STAINED in February 2012; I think we got the offer in late 2011, worked on the edits in 2012 (and waited for feedback in between), and then STAINED was published in October 2013. But there’s so much that goes into producing a book—not just the content editing, but also copyediting, proofreading, cover design, interior design and layout, jacket copy, and then also promotion and distribution.
I love what Houghton Mifflin Harcourt did with STAINED—the designer did an incredible, tasteful job with the final cover, pulling a rich, deep purple into the title (because Sarah has a purpleish port-wine stain on her cheek that she obsesses about) and also into the endpapers, and black vertical streaks reminiscent of the cabin Sarah was locked in; the gorgeous texture to the matte jacket; featuring the tagline on the cover: “Sometimes you have to be your own hero;” picking a worn, broken-looking font for the chapter heads with the name and time stamps and initial first words in the first paragraph; using nicely textured cream paper; the readable typeset; and the tiny visual surprise on the hardcover along the spine beneath the book jacket—the title, my name, and publisher info in a gorgeous iridescent purple. I love how a book looks, as you may be able to tell (laughing) so it was a delight to have such care taken with STAINED. Holding a finished book that you wrote for the first time is such a joy.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring YA writers?
A. First—if your dream is to get published, don’t give up.
You may face a lot of rejection over time, but if you persist I think you’ll eventually get published. It took me more than ten years and hundreds of rejections from both editors and agents before I got SCARS published. If I’d given up before then—and in the last few years I was very despairing—then I might never have been published.
Edit your work over and over until it sounds right. One trick I use for some drafts is to read my manuscript aloud. I can hear what works and what doesn’t better that way. It also helps to put your manuscript away for at least a week (I often do two to even four weeks) between drafts before editing again, so that you have as clear a read as possible and can see what’s really working and what really isn’t.
Make sure to get honest feedback from other writers; that can help you advance so much as a writer. Don’t change everything based on what others say, though; make sure to listen to your gut, and to change what feels right. Let the manuscript and feedback sit for a week or more before acting on it unless you’re absolutely sure. I found that joining a critique group of other writers who wrote in the same genre I did helped me immensely; I not only got great feedback, but I also got to hear what worked and what didn’t in others’ writing, and learn from that.
Learn the craft of writing—attend conferences and professional talks, read articles online such as K.M. Weiland’s Helping Writers Become Authors and in magazines such as Writer’s Digest, and most especially read books on writing technique (if you can learn that way) or take some classes.
Writing technique books have really helped me; I’ve read (and bought) more than a hundred books on technique, and I go back and reread some of them and glean new things as I progress as a writer.
If you can't afford to buy them, don't forget about your library! I list a lot of writing technique books I recommend on my blog and website. Two of the most helpful books I read when starting out are Self-Editing For Fiction Writers: How To Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Brown and Dave King, and Live Writing: Breathing Life Into Your Words by Ralph Fletcher. Later, when I’d learned a lot more about writing technique, some books that really helped me a lot are Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, and Bestseller: Secrets of Successful Writing by Celia Brayfield. And right now, my top three current favorites are The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps To Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby, Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Time Shares His Craft Techniques and Secrets by Sol Stein, and Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide To Using Brain Science To Hook Readers From The Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron. I also highly recommend The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.
Learn from them, take what works for you, and discard the rest.
Read. Read as much as you can—for pleasure and for craft. Read in the genre you write in (and hopefully love to read); you’ll learn from it, and you’ll also fill your own creative well. And write about what you care deeply about. Your readers will sense your passion and respond to it.
For other helpful interviews, please visit the Inkygirl Interview Archives.
Being book pregnant and having another in the over leaves you with little time to focus on learning new craft techniques. Or so I told myself.'
The truth was, I was cheating myself out of a wellspring of motivation and cheating my manuscript out of shortcuts to becoming a better manuscript. Are you doing the same thing? Telling yourself you have no time to focus
on writing because you're writing
On the surface, it sounds like a valid excuse. But when we break it down, there's no excuse not to read a blog post or two a day, or a chapter or even a few pages of a craft post. We can all find the few minutes it takes to do that. We should do that. The moment I went back to doing that, my creativity and productivity exploded.
Reading about craft:
- Activates our inner editor. Both on a conscious and subconscious level, we compare the techniques discussed to our work, which allows us to find solutions to problems we hadn't even identified yet.
- Forges new connections and primes the pump for new ideas. As we read, we are holding up our WIP as the test-case, and reading about generalities or reading examples from other work encourages our minds to find new possibilities in what we've written.
- Reminds us that the WIP is not the only Work-in-Progress. We are all still learning. But we don't learn without examining what we've done and comparing it to what others have done or are doing. Reading about craft stretches our minds and our skills.
- Reinvigorates the enthusiasm for the current project. Because our minds are more likely to see the good in our WIP as we begin to compare and examine it, we have the opportunity to fall in love again and remember why we fell in love with the story and the characters. We start to look forward to working on the WIP instead of regarding it as a chore.
So what are you waiting for? Run, don't walk, to dig out your favorite craft book for fifteen minutes a day, or find some great articles or blog posts and at least skim through them. Take a few moments to think about how you write in general.
Where can you find such blog posts or articles, you ask? Remember way back when I used to do a big round-up every Friday with all the best offerings I'd found that week? Then Google decided to eliminate Google Reader, and it became too time consuming to do that.
But . . .
Now I've found a way to hook Mr. Reader to Google+ via Bufferapp!
If you're looking for cart articles, publishing news, inspiration, or current affairs of interest, check out my Google+ page:
Here's what's in the current Prize Vault:a Rafflecopter giveaway
What About You?
How much time do you spend reading about craft? Reading in your genre?
Creating a character readers with whom readers connect is tricky. It takes more than creating a heroic or sexy character. It takes more than creating a well-rounded character with quirks and flaws. There are plenty of deep, fascinating characters with whom readers don't connect. Just as we take an instinctive like or dislike to real people, we also engage more with certain protagonists on the page.
What is it that makes a character likable? Some of the common denominators in likable characters include making sure that she (or he):
- has something she loves.
- has something she fights for.
- is willing to sacrifice for something.
- has some special skill or ability.
- has some handicap or hardship that makes her an underdog.
- has a flaw that readers can relate to and forgive.
- operates from motivation the readers can see and understand.
- has wit, spunk, or a sense of humor.
But that's not the end of the story. Just sprinkling one or two of the above items into a story can make the plot and character feel cardboard and a bit cliche. Most of those "fixes" have been used so often they've led to a whole class of character called a Mary Sue, a figure so romanticized or perfect he or she doesn't come across as believable. Here, by the way, is THE definitive quiz on Mary Sues:http://www.unc.edu/~jemarti/marysuetest/
But okay, say a character isn't a Mary Sue. Say she (or he) has one or more of the traits that should make her likeable. She's flawed and complex, and better yet, her flaws and strengths directly drive the plot and make the outcome of the story unpredictable. But still the 'unlikeable' word rears it's ugly head.
Time for tougher questions.
Especially when it comes to the strong female protagonist that so many of us are trying to do justice to lately, how tough is too tough? How much vulnerability do we need to show? How much emotion does a character need to express, and how often? How many hard, confusing, or unlikeable decisions can she make?
As a point of discussion, let's take Katniss Everdeen. There is no question that the whole HUNGER GAMES trilogy is beyond successful, and Katniss is an unforgetable character. But she is one of the recent characters I've seen most often described as "unlikeable." Do you agree? Disagree?
THE HUNGER GAMES is dark and the books get progressively darker. It's tough to be inside that world, and even tougher to be inside Katniss's head. I know for me, I fell in love with Katniss when I saw her willingness to sacrifice for Prim, and she had me hooked with her tenderness to Rue. Her concern for Rue's family, too, made me love her, as did her self-doubt, her willingness to acknowledge and dislike her own questionable motives. I believed in Katniss, hook, line and bow string. In CATCHING FIRE, Katniss was just as real. But Prim was stronger. There was no Rue character. Her situation was much harder, more ambiguous. She was tougher. Did that make her less likeable? I've certainly read that people believe that was the case. What about her depression in MOCKINGJAY? Was that too much?
And here's a better question. Would we be having the same conversation about likeability if Katniss had been a male protagonist?
At the NoVA Teen Book Festival this year, Meagan Spooner mentioned that she got all kinds of hate mail about Lilac, the main female character in THESE BROKEN STARS. That book is wonderful. And Lilac is a terrific character with a huge character ARC. She begins as a spoiled and bitchy rich girl--but even in the darkest early moments of bitchiness, Meagan and her co-author, Amie Kaufman, were careful to lay the foundations that let readers see that there was more going on than met the eye. That was one of the the things that drew me into the book so quickly. Why was Lilac behaving the way she was toward Tarver? Why was she making
herself behave that way toward him? Finding out kept me turning pages until I discovered the reason, and by that time, Lilac had already started her transformation into a character I could
I can't help wondering if there would have been any complaints at all if the shoe had been on the other foot. Had Tarver been the pampered, beautiful playboy and Lilac the intelligent and hardworking hero, would there have been any hate mail at all? I kind of doubt it, given that that's the cast of the majority of commercial fiction.
I'd love to hear your thoughts. Have you read THESE BROKEN STARS and THE HUNGER GAMES? Would character likeability have been a question at all if the genders of Lilac and Katniss had been reversed?
Katrina Leno is the debut author of The Half Life of Molly Pierce, which hit the shelves on July 8th! We are super excited to have her on the blog today sharing with us some of her experiences on her road to becoming a published author!
How To Write When You Really, Really Don't Want To by Katrina Leno
Let me first say: I love writing.
I love when I want to write. I love when it’s easy. I love when the words pour out from the tips of my fingers and onto the proverbial blank notebook page or Word document.
Writing is great! Writing makes me feel normal. I push all the weird thoughts, all the non-PC thoughts, all the scary or different or offbeat thoughts out of me and then I feel centered. I feel peaceful, even. I feel like the best possible version of myself.
I’m my best when I am writing.
Except when I’m not.
Except when it isn’t easy and it isn’t fun and it isn’t so much like a gift but a curse, one handed down to you from an evil witch with no regard for your well-being or sanity or long-forgotten desire to have a social life.
Like today, coincidentally.
Today, writing sucked.
Today, every word was pulled from the depths of the stickiest, murkiest swamp. Like—the swamp where Artax dies. Like I literally got down on my hands and knees and bare-handedly pulled words up from the mud of this swamp, hoping beyond hope I would not pull up any horse bones with them.
So what do you do when writing sucks? What do you do when you really, really don’t want to write? How do you still feel productive or happy with yourself when every single word you put down is forced or cliché or—ugh, like today—boring?
I’m sure everyone who has ever studied writing or read a book about writing or talked to people about writing has come across this idea that you must write EVERY DAY in order to be a writer. I’ve blogged about this before and yeah, sure, it’s mostly right (except when it isn’t) but let’s just put that aside for now and assume that, even though you don’t WANT to write, you have to write. Or, you don’t want to write but you WANT to write (that’s a thing). Or, you don’t want to write, but you don’t want to go to bed without writing.
That was me all day today.
It came after two 5k-word days, so I wasn’t particularly hard on myself. But still, I’d set a goal for myself and it was clear I wasn’t going to make my goal. And that was irritating. So I decided to make at least half my goal. And then I decided to write this, a little list for what I do when things aren’t working. Sometimes the things on this list work for me. And sometimes they don’t. Because the funny, annoying, great thing about writing is that it is always, always different. Have you ever heard that OTHER saying, you don’t learn how to write novels, you learn how to write the novel you’re writing? Yup. That is the truest of the true. So take the following with a grain of salt. Try things out. Scrap the things that don’t work. Keep coming back to the things that do work. Push yourself to write when you don’t want to write. You may be surprised with what comes out of your brain when you least expect it.
—Find something you don’t want to do. And then find something you do want to do. And then do each, right after another. Today, I cleaned the bathroom. And then I watched one episode of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. And then, having exhausted my options, I started to write.
—Shut off your internet if you don’t have the self-control to not go on your internet. Don’t worry. Your internet will be there when you need it again. But, while you write, you definitely don’t need to also be frantically refreshing your Twitter account. Your mentions can wait. Your blog can wait. Your online identity can wait.
—Set a timer. Keep your phone in another room, but set the timer for fifteen or twenty minutes. Do a half an hour if you’re feeling brave, an hour if you’re feeling REALLY brave. You are going to write for this amount of time, or you are going to stare at your blank computer screen while the minutes tick by.
—Establish a routine. Always write in this one particular corner/chair/café. NEVER GO THERE WHEN YOU’RE NOT WRITING. Train your brain to connect that spot to productivity and words. BUT—also write in other places. Don’t box yourself into a corner with your routine. Routines are GOOD but they also (I strongly believe!) need to be shake up every once in a while.
—Read a chapter of your favorite book. You know, the book that always inspires you, that always reminds you of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place, the book that makes you feel like you’ve been picked up out of your bedroom and deposited in another world, another life. Read a chapter of that book. Then write.
—Write badly! On purpose. Bad writing has its merits, too. You can always edit later.
—Write from a prompt. Almost without fail, this helps me get out of whatever slump I’m in. You can look up prompts online, you can buy a book of prompts, you can even text your friends bizarre questions and see what they write back and take it from there. Not everybody likes writing prompts, and I get that. But they definitely have their place and their purpose.
—Freewrite. This is a huge one for me. HUGE. I came up with the premise for one of my novels by setting an alarm for fifteen minutes, putting pen to paper, and not letting that pen leave the paper until the alarm sounded. Let me just tell you, though: freewriting takes A LOT of practice. You won’t be immediately good at it. It will take weeks. It is a learned skill. But once you reach that zen-like place where the words are spilling out of you more quickly than you can even think them (or spell them correctly), you will understand how important a good freewriting session is.
Voila! You’re writing now, right?
If no—that’s okay. The important thing is that you want to write. The important thing is that you keep trying.
Writing is hard. Some days it will be easier. Some days it will be harder. Sometimes it will occupy this fuzzy, grey area. Some days it will be swamp. Some days it will be rainbows and magic and butterflies.
Keep pushing yourself. Figure out what works for you. Jump in.
About The Author
Katrina Leno is a writer from the East Coast, who is currently living in Los Angeles.Website
About The Book
You take it for granted. Waking up. Going to school, talking to your friends. Watching a show on television or reading a book or going out to lunch.
You take for granted going to sleep at night, getting up the next day, and remembering everything that happened to you before you closed your eyes.
You live and you remember.
Me, I live and I forget.
But now—now I am remembering.
For all of her seventeen years, Molly feels like she’s missed bits and pieces of her life. Now, she’s figuring out why. Now, she’s remembering her own secrets. And in doing so, Molly uncovers the separate life she seems to have led…and the love that she can’t let go.
The Half Life of Molly Pierce is a suspenseful, evocative psychological mystery about uncovering the secrets of our pasts, facing the unknowns of our futures, and accepting our whole selves.Amazon
We know we're supposed to show and not tell. As beginning writers, we hurl this advice at each other in critique groups and workshops with self-satisfied little smirks, happy to have learned something, anything, to help us improve our manuscripts. Rules are good, right? They give us structure in this magical world of fiction that inherently stretches the boundaries of our imagination.
|Beethoven’s Trumpet (With Ear) By John Baldessari, at the Saatchi Gallery.Photo by Jim Linwood, on Flickr, CC-BY|
But sometimes we use these rules as crutches, and rely on them until we forget the joy of walking on our own two feet.
Sometimes, we forget that writing is about saying something only we can express.
Sometimes, we edit the joy and individuality and voice
out of our manuscripts. We play it safe.
What is voice? Like pornography, we know it when we see it, but it's hard to define. And it's different for every writer and every book. Often it's easier to recognize when voice is missing than to identify what makes it unique when it is there. No matter how great the plot, how skillfully the writer shows
us the action unfolding and the emotion being experienced, if a novel could have been written by anyone, do we love it as much as those books in which the voice speaks clearly enough to be remembered?
Look at the following examples:
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. (Anthony Horowitz, Stormbreaker)
Long ago, on the wild and windy isle of Berk, a smallish Viking with a longish name stood up to his ankles in snow. (Cressida Cowell, How to Train Your Dragon)
One afternoon, when Bruno came home from school, he was surprised to find Maria, the family’s maid — who always kept her head bowed and never looked up from the carpet — standing in his bedroom, pulling all his belongings out of the wardrobe and packing them in four large wooden crates, even the things he’d hidden at the back that belonged to him and were nobody else’s business. (John Boyne, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas)
The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. (Libba Bray, Going Bovine)
I'm dreaming of the boy in the tree and at the exact moment I'm about to hear the answer I've been waiting for, the flashlights yank me out of what could have been one of those moments of perfect clarity people talk about for the rest of their lives. (Melina Marchetta, Jellicoe Road)
You can hear the voice in every one of those opening sentences. The authora aren't showing us action; they are telling us something only they or the characters could know.
For me, voice is telling. To be true and genuine, voice has to take us by the hand and lead us into the magical world of the character, or the narrator. But beyond the facts or emotion that the words convey, voice is about the selection of the words themselves. It's that indefinable quality of rhythm and sentence structure and elegance of expression that elevates writing above the ordinary.
Not every book has that kind of voice. The great ones do. As Truman Capote put it, "the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it's about, but the music the words make." Michener, on the other hand, defined voice more broadly as "the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions."
According to Patricia Lee Gauch, voice comes from within the writer. "A writer's voice like the stroke of an artists brush-is the thumbprint of her whole person-her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms."
Do you have a favorite author whose voice you love? Or an example of voice from your own work? How do you define the indefinable?
Note: This is a repost. We're on limited hiatus through the end of July, with a mix of reprise and new posts coming all month.
I turned in my draft of the sequel to Compulsion a couple of weeks ago, and we finally have a name for the book.
Are you ready?
What do you think? I loooooove it.
And I have an AMAZINGLY gorgeous cover design by the fabulous Regina Flath. I think it's even better than Compulsion's cover, and I can't wait to share it with you.
While I'm waiting for my editorial letter from my lovely editor, Sara Sargent, I'm going through the manuscript and making notes for myself. Most of that involves checking to make sure I've done everything I can structure-wise, because we're not at the stage of worrying about words quite yet.
For me, thinking about structure begins with character. I'm asking myself some tough questions, and I thought I'd share them with you as an info graphic:
CHARACTER CHECKLIST INFOGRAPHIC
Hexedby Michelle KrysHardcoverDelacorte PressReleased 6/10/2014
|Character Checklist Infographic by Martina Boone (@MartinaABoone)|
YA GIVEAWAY THIS WEEK
If high school is all about social status, Indigo Blackwood has it made. Sure, her quirky mom owns an occult shop, and a nerd just won’t stop trying to be her friend, but Indie is a popular cheerleader with a football-star boyfriend and a social circle powerful enough to ruin everyone at school. Who wouldn’t want to be her?
Then a guy dies right before her eyes. And the dusty old family Bible her mom is freakishly possessive of is stolen. But it’s when a frustratingly sexy stranger named Bishop enters Indie’s world that she learns her destiny involves a lot more than pom-poms and parties. If she doesn’t get the Bible back, every witch on the planet will die. And that’s seriously bad news for Indie, because according to Bishop, she’s a witch too.
Suddenly forced into a centuries-old war between witches and sorcerers, Indie’s about to uncover the many dark truths about her life—and a future unlike any she ever imagined on top of the cheer pyramid.
Author Question: What is your favorite thing about Hexed?
I love the humor. Indie’s sarcastic commentary and Bishop’s cheeky banter adds some levity to the novel that breaks up some of the heavier, darker paranormal elements of the book. Purchase Hexed at AmazonPurchase Hexed at IndieBoundView Hexed on Goodreads
Fill out the Rafflecopter to win, and don't forget to check the sidebar for more great giveaways!
That's it for me this week! What's going on with you? Read anything good? Are you managing to get any writing done this summer?
Happy reading and writing, everyone!
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Today, I’d like to make an introduction. Friends, meet the brand-new COMPULSION microsite. Do you love it like I do? Like the cover, it’s atmospheric, magical, and a bit surreal, not your usual Southern Gothic, but still subtly so.
COMPULSION, on the other hand, is not subtly Southern Gothic. I went
there. I embraced my favorite over-the-top Southern Gothic elements and then I twisted them. So what makes a Southern Gothic?
Well, the famed Southern author Pat Conroy, who I’m suddenly reminded once offered to read back when it never occurred to me that I would ever write a Southern book, provided my favorite definition of the genre. “My mother, Southern to the bone,” he said in a speech to the American Booksellers Association, “once told me, “All Southern literature can be summed up in these words: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mama died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister.”
Got all that? :) That definition gives you almost all the elements: setting, eccentric characters, grotesquerie, and a voice that seeks a bit of light amid the darkness.
Let’s break it down a little more. The elements of a Southern Gothic include:A Southern setting that becomes a character in the book.
That takes more than looming cypress trees hung with Spanish moss, decaying mansions, and seemingly friendly neighbors who aren’t what they seem. A great setting in any book has to show us somewhere new and unique, or something familiar from a fresh perspective. That place must contain specific values and characteristics that impact the people who live there and change them for better or for worse. Most importantly, the setting in a Southern Gothic creates the plot by forcing change upon the characters. Deeply flawed, damaged, bigger-than-life characters with a heaping dose of crazy.
The purpose of these characters isn’t simply to create sympathy for the innocent heroine who has to live with their misdeeds. Nor is it just because nearly every Southern family has a crazy uncle Bobby Joe in the woodpile or the county jail. These characters are broken, and for the most part, they’re finding their way through their lives and navigating among the people around them as best they can. Their flaws and poor choices serve to highlight questions of morality, gender roles, inequality, corruption, violence, racism, poverty versus wealth, and other weaknesses in society.An innocent plunged into the mix
. Because the genre derives from the pure gothic genre, there is usually an innocent: a young woman, young man, child, or outsider who serves to examine, heal, and redeem.Powerful family histories, traditions, myths, folklore, and magic that serve up unique, supernatural, or ironic events.
These derive from the setting and the deeply torn history of the South itself, the push and pull of pride and shame, of love for the past and the need to escape it. This in turn created the characters, which in turn feeds the process of change. Narrative choices that add humor, lightness, or irony to play against the darkness.
I went with swoony romance and a dramatic style, and I love the freedom within this genre that lets me play with extremes. But the range of options writers choose for this element of the Southern Gothic is among the widest. You get gorgeous writing, or very sparse prose. There's the tongue-in-cheek narrator, or one with a subtle hint of humor. There's the gamut from Poe, to Faulkner, to Conroy, to Eudora Welty.
I love that a wealth of Southern Gothic tradition is developing in young adult literature. And just as young adult authors have stretched the boundaries with every other genre, there are many different flavors of Southern Gothic evolving.
, I lean toward a star-crossed romance with a mix of magical realism and outright fantasy. Maggie Stiefvater expertly blended Southern Gothic elements with Welsh mythology and romanticism to create a complex examination of friendship, wealth, and poverty. Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl build an elaborate paranormal world and a memorable romance in their BEAUTIFUL CREATURES
series. Melissa Marr created a heart-pounding Southern Gothic thriller in her upcoming MADE FOR YOU, and Delilah S. Dawson and Natalie S. Parker are leaning toward chilling horror in SERVANTS OF THE STORM and BEWARE THE WILD.
It’s a fabulous fall y’all. Are you looking forward to heading down South?
PREVIOUS GIVEAWAY WINNER
Congrats to Debra Chavana for winning HEXED by Michelle Krys
I promised I'd brought some great things back from ALA, right? Well here's the first of many giveaways featuring my finds. Click the links to get instructions for how to enter (it's SUPER easy this time around!), and if you'd like, leave a comment below and share what you like!
Here's the thing about writing horror: it's all about the set up.
We're all scared of different things.
For some people, the idea of a giant spider lurking under the bed, is enough to paralyze them with fear. For others, it's the idea of being buried alive in a close, black coffin, utterly sightless in the dark. Still others fear the darkness. Or heights. Or being abandoned in the middle of nowhere.
So many different kinds of scary. The things we fear most come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from the physical – like spiders and sharks – to the esoteric – like claustrophobia and paranoia – to the otherworldly – like demons and vampires and witches (oh my!). What scares one person might be unicorns and rainbows to someone else. But set up properly, even unicorns and rainbows can scare the crap out of you.
To me, conveying fear isn't just about describing a situation, object, or person that someone might find scary, but giving a blow-by-blow of the event and actually detailing the fear reaction in the characters.
We all know exactly what it feels like to be scared. First you have the anticipation: What's behind that closed door? What's making that scratching noise in the attic? What's lurking in the deep, dark waters? It's the tensing of muscles like you're expecting a blow, that stretching of all your senses, trying to see/feel/hear/smell danger before it pounces on you. The higher the tension is pitched, the bigger the wallop.
Next, the reveal. The door opens to expose a dead body that spills out on top of our poor heroine the moment she turns the doorknob. The scratching noise in the attic inexplicably moves through the ceiling, down the stairs and manifests in a dark, demonic entity. The dorsal fin of a great white shark breaks the surface of the water in which you're swimming. The terror has been revealed in one jarring, scream-inducing moment!
But that's not scary enough, not for the expectant reader. You need the next step in the process – experiencing the fear through the eyes of the main character. We need to feel their bodies tremble as they break out into a cold sweat. We need to hear the blood-curdling scream that explodes from their mouths. We need to internalize the sick, sinking feeling in their stomachs as death closes in around them.
And lastly, the action. Our heroine's panicked flee from the house, our hero's desperate attempt to out maneuver a man-eating shark. Will they survive? Will they escape? Hearts pound in anticipation with every turn of the page!!!!
Broken down, none of these steps in the process seems particularly scream-worthy, but strung together with pacing and tension? WHAM. Horror show.
* * * About the Author
Gretchen McNeil's YA horror POSSESS about a teen exorcist debuted with Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins in 2011. Her follow up TEN – YA horror/suspense about ten teens trapped on a remote island with a serial killer – was a 2013 YALSA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, a Romantic Times Top Pick, a Booklist Top Ten Horror Fiction for Youth, and was nominated for "Best Young Adult Contemporary Novel of 2012" by Romantic Times. Gretchen's 2013 release is 3:59, a sci-fi doppelganger horror about two girls who are the same girl in parallel dimensions who decide to switch places.
In 2014, Gretchen debuts her first series, Don't Get Mad (pitched as "John Hughes with a body count") about four very different girls who form a secret society where they get revenge on bullies and mean girls at their elite prep school. The Don't Get Mad series begins Fall 2014 with GET EVEN, followed by the sequel GET DIRTY in 2015, also with Balzer + Bray. Gretchen also contributed an essay to the Dear Teen Me anthology from Zest Books.
Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4's Code Monkeys and she sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. In her spare time, she blogs with The Enchanted Inkpot and she was a founding member of the vlog group the YARebels.
Gretchen is repped by the incomparable Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd.Website
| FacebookAbout the Book
Follows the secretive exploits of four high school juniors - Kitty, Olivia, Margot and Bree - at an exclusive Catholic prep school.
To all outward appearances, the girls barely know each other. At best, they don't move in the same social circles; at worst, they're overtly hostile.
Margot Mejia – academically ranked number two in her class, Margot is a focused overachiever bound for the Ivy League.
Kitty Wei – captain of the California state and national champion varsity girls' volleyball team, she's been recruited by a dozen colleges and has dreams of winning an Olympic gold medal.
Olivia Hayes – popular star of the drama program, she's been voted "most eligible bachelorette" two years running in the high school yearbook and has an almost lethal combination of beauty and charm.
Bree Deringer – outcast, misfit and the kind of girl you don't want to meet in a dark alley, the stop sign red-haired punk is a constant thorn in the side of teachers and school administrators alike.
Different goals, different friends, different lives, but the girls share a secret no one would ever guess. They are members of Don't Get Mad, a society specializing in seeking revenge for fellow students who have been silently victimized by their peers. Each girl has her own reason for joining the group, her own set of demons to assuage by evening the score for someone else. And though school administration is desperate to find out who is behind the DGM "events", the girls have managed to keep their secret well hidden.
That is until one of their targets – a douchebag senior who took advantage of a drunk underclassman during a house party, videotaped it on his phone, and posted it on YouTube – turns up dead, and DGM is implicated in the murder.
Now the girls don't know who to trust, and as their tenuous alliance begins to crumble, the secrets they've hidden for so long might be their ultimate undoing.Preorder Get Even on AmazonFind Get Even on Goodreads** Please note: This is an updated repost. AYAP is on limited hiatus until August, with a mixture of old favorites, new posts, and new giveaways.
Jen Longo makes her YA debut this month with SIX FEET OVER IT, a story about a fourteen year old girl who works in her family run cemetery and funeral home. The book is said to be incredibly funny but deeply moving as well. As a debut author, Jen's post is brilliantly insightful.
A Diatribe on Dialogue by Jennifer Longo“Words don’t deserve that kind of malarkey. They’re innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they’re no good anymore…I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
That’s a bit of Tom Stoppard from his beautiful play The Real Thing, a script about a playwright name Henri who is much like Stoppard himself. Here, he is being cranky about some terrible dialogue written by a lazy pretend-writer. My own education and background as a writer is in Playwriting which, when you get down to it, is essentially story telling primarily through dialogue. Well, and stage directions, but unless you’re Shaw or Shakespeare some theatre directors tend to get their back up when the writer tries to “Boss me around, don’t tell me to tell anyone to cross left behind the sofa! I’m not your puppet!”
But to the point – Dialogue. I don’t know about you, but as a reader and now a first-time novelist, I can forgive a lot of things if the dialogue is good, whereas books (and films) can get yelled at and abandoned when I hate the dialogue. Which sounds super judge-y, and yes taste is subjective but I think we all know there are times when dialogue has made us absolutely cringe. Especially when we’ve written it ourselves. *Slinks sheepishly away* And the thing is, it’s not that hard to write effective, beautiful, active dialogue. People, trust me. We can work together and figure it out. We can listen to our editors, get readers we trust, (No real friend would have let George Lucas get away with “Hold me, Like you did by the lake on Naboo.” My God. No actor could have worked with that. No one
Plus, remember our readers are our actors, and obviously not everyone is Laurence Olivier, so we must give dialogue that even we regular people can hear in our heads in a real way, the way the writer intends. It must be evident, not left to chance.
One of the biggest roadblocks I struggle with – and really, I think most writers do – is Ye Olde exposition. Good lord, what a mess it can make of perfectly crafted conversation. I actually remember the first time terrible exposition-laden dialogue turned me from a regular person into a twelve-year-old dialogue snob, and it wasn’t a book. In the mid 80’s there was this show on T.V. called first, I think, Valerie. It was about Valerie Harper and her family, her oldest son was played by Jason Bateman. Somewhere in the second season there were contract negotiation problems and Valerie was killed off, Sandy Duncan and her glass eye came in to be the Aunt and take over the family, and the show was re-named Valerie’s Family. Snap. So, the first episode without Valerie, Jason Bateman is walking among the crumbling ruins of the family house which has clearly burned down, and he finds a photograph of Valerie (ooh, double snap!) and he says, “Remember when mom died in that car crash?” and then he huddles over the frame and starts sobbing. My youthful sensibilities were rattled to the core, absolutely stunned that such a stupid, clunky line could make it’s way onto a show as masterful and socially relevant as Valerie’s Family. Which later was called, simply, The Hogans, and then it got cancelled. Probably for having such horrible dialogue.
But then not long after, I begged my mom to drive me to the Placerville Cinema 4 again and again so I could pay to see Terms Of Endearment a dozen times. I could not get enough of that thing. Oh God, Debra Winger grabbing her errant son’s face from her death bed to tell him, “Tommy be sweet. Be sweet.” Ahrghgh! All the times they didn’t speak, right when they shouldn’t. Perfect. No big goodbye, no big last speech of wisdom, none of that – just “Be sweet.”
The thing I think is so delicious about writing books is that we’ve got the luxury of being in character’s heads, we can write all the Stage Directions we want, because we are in charge. Playwriting is like being an architect, the play is the blueprint and the director is the general contractor actually bringing the thing to life. As authors, we get to be everyone – and must be. It’s a great responsibility to carefully choose what our characters will say, and maybe even more importantly, what they don’t say
. I love, love as a reader, being trusted and not having things spelled out. When someone responds not with words, but with pointed action, that is so often the best. I absolutely die every time I read the Half Blood Prince scene (Spoiler Alert! Wait. Screw that. If this spoils anything for you you’re living in a cave and you won’t be reading a craft blog post anyway.) right after the Gryffindors win the Quidditch Cup, and Ginny’s just staring at him, and he at her, and Ron’s face is all, “Whatev!” and none of them says anything but then They Kiss. Love. It. (Harry and Ginny, not Harry and Ron. That’s a different book.)
In E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars
The most beautiful dialogue mirrors of the mystery of the unfolding story, so simply, not at all heavy handed, and in only a few lines: He picks a second peony and hands it to me. “For forgiveness, my dear.” I pat him on his hunched back. “Don’t pick any more, okay?”…. “Three flowers for you. You should have three.” He looks pitiful. He looks powerful.
Kills me. You get there’s something he knows, and wants to tell her, and she hears it really, but only through a fog still too thick to decipher but there’s something there inching toward her understanding…Agh! I love it so much! So subtle, so magical, no “Let me tell you the symbolism of some native plant species, Darling…”
Okay. So here are some tips I picked up in grad school and from my agent and editor and trusted readers and amazing speakers at conferences and books on writing…these are some of my favorite gems:
1. Listen. Listen, listen when we’re out in the world, in line for coffee, at dinner with our in-laws. Listen and take surreptitious notes. We all do it even when we don’t want to these days, what with people on their cell phones shouting about their recent colonoscopy or their cousin’s messy divorce; instead of getting annoyed, take out your little notebook or your phone voice recorder, lean close to the person, and whisper, “Sorry, could you repeat the part about the laxative not fully cleaning you out and they had to vacuum parts of your anal cavity? Thanks, just right into the mic…” People are awesome. They will spout out some gems, and you’ve got to collect them all. Even if it’s nothing relevant to your current project, you’ll use it eventually. Trust me!
2. Read play scripts. Remember, plays are almost all dialogue. Not film scripts, watching and reading those are totally different experiences, there’s nothing but stage direction in a film script and very little dialogue, despite my film examples. The plays the thing. Heh. If you’ve never read a play and Shakespeare or Marlowe aren’t your jam (though you may love it and no one writes better dialogue than those guys) there are a million amazing contemporary playwrights (Mary Zimmerman or Sam Shepard, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, John Patrick Shanley to name just the big ones) who all write dialogue that will set your brain on fire. Feel the rhythms, feel how the conversations make the story unwind and let tension grow, feel the quiet moments and the fighting, it’s a really unique experience. Full-length plays, when read straight through, can be consumed in like, an hour. Your local library has a ton. Or should unless they want a letter of complaint from Jenny.
3. The wonderful author Laini Taylor says, “Once you have a fully realized character with genuine motivation, plot happens naturally…and when your characters have actual things to talk about, dialogue comes naturally, easily.”
Laini’s not saying writing is easy, she’s saying when things are at stake, or one character is trying to get/give something from/to another character (even if it’s just information, the time of day, or something we don’t even know yet as in the E. Lockhart example) then yes, the dialogue can and will flow naturally. And when each character is fully realized and motivated, oh my gosh…each voice takes on a life of it’s own, and writing conversations becomes the super fun psychologically iffy game of Writer As Everyone. Which don’t deny it, we’ve all done in the shower when rehearing just how we’re going to argue with some jackass who has wronged us, or how we’ll ask someone to marry us or whatever. When we’re doing it well, and effectively, writing dialogue is fun.
So go forth, Writers! Be brave, let other people you trust read your stuff and listen to their comments, sift out the useful ones and don’t let your characters say dumb things. Writing is so hard. And also it is simple. And complicated. And easy. And impossible. And fun. And agonizing. It is Work, like anything else worth doing. And like words themselves, like the reader who will spend hours and hours with your story, the work deserves respect.
Hey. Remember that time you read a really long blog post instead of working on your book?
About The Author
Jennifer Longo’s debut novel Six Feet Over It will be in book stores, libraries, and your hands August 26th 2014 courtesy of Random House Books, Edited by Chelsea Eberly and represented by Melissa Sarver White at Folio Literary. A California native, Jennifer holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Acting from San Francisco State University and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing For Theatre from Humboldt State University.
She is a two-time Irene Ryan Best Actor award recipient and a Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival Best Full Length Script honoree for her play, Frozen. After years of acting, playwriting, working as a literary assistant at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, then as an elementary school librarian, Jennifer told the occasional story at San Francisco’s Porch Light Storytelling Series and decided at last to face her fear of prose and actually write some. A recent San Francisco transplant, Jennifer lives with her husband and daughter on an island near Seattle, Washington and her every hour is consumed by writing, running marathons, walking her kid to ballet class eleven thousand times each week and reading every book she can get her hands on. Website
About The BookHome is where the bodies are buried.Darkly humorous and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, Jennifer Longo’s YA debut about a girl stuck living in a cemetery will change the way you look at life, death, and love.
Leigh sells graves for her family-owned cemetery because her father is too lazy to look farther than the dinner table when searching for employees. Working the literal graveyard shift, she meets two kinds of customers:Pre-Need:
They know what’s up. They bought their graves a long time ago, before they needed them.At Need:
They are in shock, mourning a loved one’s unexpected death. Leigh avoids sponging their agony by focusing on things like guessing the headstone choice (mostly granite).
Sarcastic and smart, Leigh should be able to stand up to her family and quit. But her world’s been turned upside down by the sudden loss of her best friend and the appearance of Dario, the slightly-too-old-for-her grave digger. Surrounded by death, can Leigh move on, if moving on means it’s time to get a life?Amazon
Love this quote.
Jane Nickerson is known for her gothic settings, eerie writing and ability to retell a story brilliantly. Her first novel, STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD, came out last year, with the follow up, THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR being released in March. The third and final book in the 'Strands" world is called A PLACE OF STONE AND SHADOW and comes out next year! Jane's post is incredibly interesting, so read on!
People are More Human than Anybody by Jane Nickerson
Last weekend I was on a tour of a gorgeous antebellum mansion in Louisiana. The teenage tour guide played her part well. She wore a hoop petticoat and a calico dress rather than the polyester prom gown that some guides sport. She had a wealth of memorized information. Most of what she said about the house was factual—how many windows, the costs of the ornamental plasterwork, etc. It was when she strayed into the area of humanity that she messed up. As she showed us the library, she said, “Of course women would not have been allowed in here. But they didn’t mind; females in those days weren’t interested in politics or business dealings or war or anything intellectual that the men might be discussing in here.” And I thought, Hogwash. Tons of women would have been interested. It would all depend on the particular women and men and subject and library.
This same tour guide also stated, “There are two staircases outside—one for men and one for women. Because, if a man in those days saw a lady’s ankle, when walking behind her on a stairway, he would be honor bound to marry her.” The fact is that I have worn hoopskirts and they’re terribly swingy; ankles had to have been constantly seen, and I have never heard of a single 1800’s engagement occurring because of a random ankle-sighting.
Validity is vital for a writer if they want their settings and characters to be believable. When authors are writing about other time periods, geological locations, worlds, ethnic groups, castes, and religions, they need to take into consideration how that situation would affect people, but they can’t let it rob their characters of normal human reactions and emotions, which would exist, lurking beneath, in spite of the differences.
Wrong assumptions are often made about all other cultures stretching back through time and across the glove. I have read passages in university history textbooks that I know are wrong, which makes me aware that there must be plenty of mistakes in most history books. For a writer, if it’s at all possible, it’s important to read whatever you can from the horse’s mouth—what was actually written by people of that time period or that culture—if you want your character’s outlook to be as valid as possible.
We can’t step back into the past. We can’t live as a native in every place and every situation. We can’t actually experience life in an imaginary world. But what authors can remember, if they want their readers to really “get” their characters, is that people—basic, humanoid homo sapiens—are basically people. Even if social mores and manners, attitudes, laws, values, amusements, fashions, tastes, and ideas of beauty are will-o’-the-wisp-y.
There are many misconceptions about the Victorian era, which is a time period I’m familiar with. The 1800’s is nearly universally considered binding and oppressive to females when viewed from our modern sensibilities. But, from my research on the period, I’ve seen that many girls and women found ways to express themselves and to live educated, happy, fulfilling lives, and didn’t consider themselves in the least inferior to, or oppressed by, men. In reading period journals I would say that among the general population, their manners were more formal, they were more religious and more moral, their humor and outlooks were more innocent, and they were better educated in spite of fewer years of formal instruction. And they were not at all mindless sheep. Women’s magazines printed jokes about the silliness of the opposite sex. Women who wanted to be widely read usually managed to be widely read (even if they were called a “bluestocking.”) Their journals are sprinkled with allusions to literature and quotes from the Bible. The word “henpecked” has been around since the 1600’s. Because we’re people.
In creating the character of Sophie, the protagonist in my novel, STRANDS OF BRONZE AND GOLD, I had to decide how the personality of a particular sheltered seventeen-year-old girl in 1855 would differ from the same girl in this century. In the beginning of the book, Sophie is curious, high-spirited, intelligent but not a deep-thinker, casually kind, and rather shallow and vain (in a charming way). Some readers felt that she was too naïve. I disagree. Aside from the fact that Sophie needed to be somewhat naïve in order for the plot to unfold, a girl raised in a protective family in that time period would simply not have exactly the same reactions as that girl nowadays. Sophie, of course grows up a great deal in the course of the book.
In a recent criticism of my new book, THE MIRK AND MIDNIGHT HOUR, a blogger stated that it was “unconscionable” for me to portray a true friendship between a girl in slavery and the girl who “owned” her. Maybe the blogger meant that to her it’s morally wrong to write about such a thing. She’s entitled to her opinion. Personally I think it’s healthier to occasionally depict unlikely friendships than to always focus on past hatred. But if the blogger means that it’s impossible for such a friendship to have existed under those circumstances, in my study of narratives related by former slaves themselves, I’ve read of many such friendships. Of course, in every one of its manifestations, the institution of slavery is a vile thing, but positive relationships were sometimes bound to happen when people were brought up together. And, even if more rare, they were just as real as the negative relationships. Good-hearted, intelligent white Southern individuals would occasionally question the morality of slavery even if they were raised in that culture and continued to accept it. And guess what? Sometimes people in bondage laughed and smiled and joked around. Because we’re people.
Oft-related and unfounded rumors and hearsay about persons in the past abound. I’m not sure why they do, but it seems as if folks really want to believe that individuals in the old days were made of different stuff. As if they were a different species. Possibly reptilian. Maybe it makes the rumormonger feel more enlightened and sophisticated than those who are dead and gone. Maybe they feel hopeful that certain horrible things could never be perpetrated again because we aren’t the same species we were in the past. Or possibly it makes the days of yore more quaint and entrancing and mysterious.
It’s also true that the ways of many cultures that have existed right here on the earth have customs and accepted ideas so outlandish to our modern western sensibilities that those people may almost seem to be bug-eyed-monster aliens. However, even with them, our humanity must remain.
The “sameness” can run the gamut of personalities, so there’s tons of variety and possibilities in your characters. Yes, there are truly evil, unredeemable people, but somewhere in them still lurks some faint spark of humanity, even if it’s deeply buried and rarely shown. That’s why creators of all villains, if their villains are to be of the finest caliber, should plant in them a soft spot. Even zombies have the pathos of their former humanity, which is what makes us feel for them, at least a little bit. There are also truly wonderful people. But all truly wonderful people still have their imperfections. Even Mother Teresa had her flaws. Also, wonderful people can become so used to ghastly situations that they become calloused and don’t realize the ghastliness anymore. In your writing, this can be an especially strong moment—has the hero lost his humanity? However, never fear. Those proper, noble emotions are still there, even if they’re sporadic and wavering. It is a touching moment when they are brought out again.
As you craft your characters, whatever the setting, bring out their humanity. Ask yourself how you (or your character’s particular personality type) would feel and react in this setting and situation. What would make you kill a person? Under what circumstances would you steal? Turn cannibal? Incite a rebellion? What restrictions would you chafe against? What might you find strangely pleasing?
Even in fantasy and science fiction, when all kinds of oddities are encouraged, a touch of humanity even in the most alien of aliens is pleasing. In fact, that has been the subject of many classics, such as ENEMY MINE, by Barry B. Longyear. A character with no humanity can make no impact on the reader.
My favorite classic literature is the kind where you can recognize similar character traits in people you know today. Jane Austen was a master at this and it’s why her books are still loved today. Nearly two hundred years later, we feel as if we really know the Bennett family.
If you want your characters to be memorable, write them so they’ll bring out the yes-that’s-exactly-how-I-would-feel/react/think reaction in readers.
We like that. Because we’re people.
About The Author
For many years Jane Nickerson and her family lived in a big old house in Aberdeen, Mississippi, where she was also the children’s librarian. She has always loved the South, “the olden days,” gothic tales, houses, kids, writing, and interesting villains. After five great years living in Ontario, Canada, Jane and her husband have returned to Aberdeen where they live in a lovely little old house that is a television star.Website
About The Book
A Southern girl. A wounded soldier. A chilling force deep in the forest.
All collide at night’s darkest hour.
Seventeen-year-old Violet Dancey has been left at home in Mississippi with a laudanum-addicted stepmother and love-crazed stepsister while her father fights in the war—a war that has already claimed her twin brother.
When she comes across a severely injured Union soldier lying in an abandoned lodge deep in the woods, things begin to change. Thomas is the enemy—one of the men who might have killed her own brother—and yet she's drawn to him. But Violet isn't Thomas's only visitor; someone has been tending to his wounds—keeping him alive—and it becomes chillingly clear that this care hasn't been out of compassion.
Against the dangers of war and ominous powers of voodoo, Violet must fight to protect her home and the people she loves.
From the author of Strands of Bronze and Gold comes a haunting love story and suspenseful thriller based on the ancient fairy tale of “Tam Lin.”Amazon
An inspiration to many authors out there, Hugh Howey is a powerhouse author who’s out of the box thinking, diligence, and kindness has made him someone I admire greatly. Hugh delivered the lunch keynote at the recent PubSmart conference giving us all tips to publish smarter.
If you are new to this PubSmart
series please take a minute to check out the first parts of the series; IBPA’s Mini Publishing University
, Social Savvy & Media Mastery
, and What Does It Mean to Publish? by Jane Friedman
. All are filled with information to help you publish smarter. Keynote
Insights from Bestselling Author Hugh Howey
- “Don’t follow me because I don’t know what I’m doing.” – Hugh (He is very humble.)
- Experts are the people looking at yesterday trying to tell you what will work tomorrow. Instead of looking at the big name experts we should look at those who are making a living writing that no one has ever heard of.
- We are experiencing the digitization of entertainment.
- The publishing industry is based on psychology. For this reason Hugh does not add sample chapters to the back of his book for fear of taking away a readers thought of “I finished this” after reading his books.
- Hugh also added a Q&A between the last chapter and the epilogue in his book to give readers a sense of discovery as they found the epilogue they were looking for. He also asked for readers to leave a review in this section, when lots of readers were upset at the ending until they found the epilogue.
- The best writers are the ones who have the highest standard in what they read and the most self-doubt. (They know they are not at their best yet.)
- Quality is important, but we must be careful of who we are speaking to. Often when we tell writers not to publish too soon, the ones who are ready (the ones with self-doubt) are discouraged while those who are not ready publish anyway.
- Backlist and free books are something we should embrace. The potential is endless for backlists now, and although there are enough free books for a person to read for the rest of their lives in classics alone, readers are still looking for new work.
- To blame a company such as Amazon for providing what we want as consumers is silly. If it isn’t Amazon it would be another company. It is possible that Amazon is the best thing that has happened to indie bookstores. (Hugh has a fabulous article on this point here.)
- Plot is more important than prose. Hugh has met professors of writing who write perfect prose, but without a good plot their writing is boring and goes unread. Reading is meant to entertain.
- DRM punishes paying readers and does not stop piracy. If the words are out there someone can steal them. The best way to prevent piracy is to create high quality and affordable books.
Hugh has inspired me to work harder as an individual. To give back more and do more. I hope these insights from his keynote will inspire you too. And as always if you have any questions about this article, publishing, or social media I would love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below or connect with me on my website, katetilton.com
About Hugh Howey:
Hugh Howey is the author of the award-winning Molly Fyde Saga and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling WOOL series. The WOOL OMNIBUS won Kindle Book Review's 2012 Indie Book of the Year Award -- it has been as high as #1 in the Kindle store -- and 17 countries have picked up the work for translation. Look for WOOL in hardback in 2013 from Random House UK and keep your fingers crossed that Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian will do something exciting with the film rights!
Hugh lives in Jupiter, FL with his wife Amber and their dog Bella. When he isn't writing, he's reading or taking a photograph.
Related Articles:Charleston: A Place for a Fresh Start with Hugh HoweyWhat is a Bestseller? With Best-Selling Author CJ LyonsThe Secret to Following SomeoneGoals vs. Dreams
About Kate Tilton:
Kate Tilton has been in love with books for as long as she can remember. Kate believes books saved her life and strives to repay authors for bringing books into the world by serving as a dependable author assistant. A cat-lover and fan of many geeky things, Kate can likely be found curled up with the latest Doctor Who episode, plotting world takeover, or assisting authors and readers in any way she can. Kate is also a self-proclaimed Twitter addict. You will find her hosting #K8chat, her own creation, every Thursday night on Twitter from 9-10pm Eastern.Website
Julie Williams' new book, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE came out on March 25th and is the perfect book for the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag that has been going around twitter and the blogosphere for a while now. With an LGBT POC protagonist, Drama Queen should satisfy everything you want.
Thinking With Your Hands by Julie Williams
Much has been said about the need to show up at the blank page with some kind of regularity whether you feel like writing or not. Different writers offer different suggestions for the hows and whys of honoring this aspect of the writing process. Some focus on the need for a routine schedule. Some share about magical writing appearing out of the void. Others talk about how even if what they write constitutes what writer Anne Lamott calls a “shitty first draft” it’s better than not showing up and it’s something you can work with. I get it.
In my own writing practice, I experience this in my first-thing-in-the-morning journaling. I do it no matter what. It’s an act of meditation, one where I try not to edit my thoughts or the words that flow onto the page. Sometimes it’s a jump-start on the novel I’m working on. A scene might emerge fully formed in the journal. Often I write pages and pages of back story that helps me to flesh out the characters and trim and hone the action. And I try to draft one poem each morning.
My journaling takes between one and two hours. Afterwards I eat breakfast and go to my computer for email and a glance at the news online. And then, depending on how I feel (yes . . . I admit it . . . on HOW I FEEL) I either open up a document and go to work on my current writing project OR . . . I go to my art table.
When I first started doing mixed media artwork I had a tendency to over-think the process so much that I could often get stalled before I even made a mark on the page. That doesn’t happen as much now that I have an art journal practice that’s nearly as regular as my writing journal. But when it does, I always find myself thinking about what my friend, Linda Townsdin (an author and visual artist
) told me years ago when I was first dabbling in paint and markers and pencils and gel medium. “When I do artwork,” she said, “I think with my hands.”
At first I had no idea what she meant. Think with your hands? Then I began to experience it. My mind would go blank or fill with thoughts that had nothing to do with the canvas I was working on. And I would somehow know to add a dash of red over there, or glue down a bit of a map or a piece of vintage book in that corner. They weren’t decisions I made by thinking about composition or color balance or any rules I had learned. They just happened because I was relaxed and allowing myself to be in the creative flow.
Director’s notebook for DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE, Character “Chart” for the Jumbles, collage map of the setting/place
Okay, sure, that’s a great experience — but what does it have to do with writing? I mean, come on, you have to think with your mind in order to write, don’t you? Well, now that I know what it feels like to think with my hands I sometimes make the choice to let my mind and hands join forces in a way that’s different from typing or writing longhand in a notebook. In the novel-writing process (which, as you know, can be long and complicated and often frustrating), I intentionally stop writing to create visual objects that further the storytelling process. I keep what I call a “Director’s Book,” that is modeled after the notebooks I keep when I’m directing a theatrical production. This is filled with character notes, backstory jottings, plot points, descriptions of place. The notebook fills up with images that conjure emotions and inform my decisions about character and place and story action. Any time I’m stuck in the writing, I can open up the Director’s Book and absorb what I’ve already entered there and add to it as I like. I try to keep it playful, grabbing images from my image box, doodling, adding colorful bits of ephemera. There’s never any question here of whether it’s right or wrong. It’s about process and about visual stimulation. I also like to draw or paint or collage maps of the action or setting. And I sometimes draw character charts like the one in the above photograph of Jessie’s large and nontraditional extended family from my recently released novel, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE.
There are other ways of thinking with our hands, too. All those times when we walk away from our computer or notebook and do something we consider mindless (we wash the dishes, we go pull weeds in the garden, we stitch something, we knit or crochet, we clean out a hall closet or reorganize a drawer, add some pieces to an ongoing jigsaw puzzle, give the dog a bath) we are thinking with our hands. I’d go so far as to venture that we are actually still writing. Something different is happening than when I go watch a TV show, pick up a book to read, get lost in email, or talk to my husband. Those activities can be refreshing and necessary. But I’m not writing while they’re happening.
Of course each of us has to find the manner of working that suits us best. For some people, staring at the blank computer screen for a set period of time does the trick. But we’ve all got closets that need cleaning out and weeds that need pulling. Pay attention to what happens to your writing after you’ve been absorbed in that kind of work. When you go to your computer again and the writing is now effortless, probably you’ve been thinking with your hands. Maybe you find a solution to a problem that had you stuck. Maybe it’s a brand new scene. What’s happened is that the creative force that works to tell that story was working somewhere outside of your conscious thought and the work of your hands helps it along.
Give it a try. And let me know what happens, won’t you? Happy thinking with your hands!
About The Author
Julie Williams is the author of the young adult novel, DRAMA QUEENS IN THE HOUSE (Roaring Brook/Macmillan 2014) and ESCAPING TORNADO SEASON: A Novel in Poems (HarperCollins 2004). She has published in many small press journals and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. For twenty years she was an adjunct professor at California State University, Northridge teaching for the communication studies and theater departments and retiring in 2003 as the Assistant Director of CSUN’s Educational Opportunity Program. She and her husband live in Minnesota. Website
About The Book
All of Jessie's world is a stage, and she's determined to become a player, in Drama Queens in the House by Julie Williams.
Sixteen-year-old Jessie Jasper Lewis doesn’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t surrounded by method actors, bright spotlights, and feather boas. Her parents started the Jumble Players Theater together, and theater is the glue that holds her crazy family together. But when she discovers that her father’s cheating on her mother with a man, Jessie feels like her world is toppling over. And on top of everything else, she has to deal with a delusional aunt who is predicting the end of the world. Jessie certainly doesn’t feel ready to be center stage in the production that is her family. But where does she belong in all of this chaos?Amazon
Kimberley Griffiths Little is definitely best known for her middle grade novels, of which she has written seven. She makes her Young Adult debut this September with FORBIDDEn and I personally cannot wait to get my hands on this beautiful book. Her advice is brilliant and I have a personal favourite part (that i'm sure you all will know as soon as you come to it) but read on to find out!
Crash Course from a Middle Grade Novelist by Kimberley Griffiths Little
I've been reading and writing middle-grade novels for years and years. My seventh middle-grade book, The Time of the Fireflies
, will be published by Scholastic August 1, and I’m breathing a sigh of relief that terrific reviews are beginning to trickle in from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. I’ve always adored middle-grade books. The years between 7-12 have often been called The Magical Years of Reading; kid characters and kid readers in the middle of childhood and making that transition from elementary school into their teen years . . . which leads us straight into Young Adult novels. And I love
Young Adult novels! I actually read more YA titles these days than MG.
Young Adult novels are very different beasts. Despite having similar characteristics (a young main character, great plots, exciting adventures) YA definitely ramps things up. And—in the last 10 years, more adults are reading YA than ever before because it’s just so good
. Spectacular writing combined with delicious and compelling plots and characters.
When planning your Young Adult novel – no matter the genre – here are a few things to think about:Age of Characters
: Of course, your YA novel is generally going to have a Main Character between 14-18 years of age. Readers who are 12-14 years of age want to read about characters who are older than they are. Today, the majority of characters are in the 16-18 age range. Some YA novels are listed as 12 years and up, while others are 14 years and up. The age range is a publisher/marketing decision, not something you, as the writer, need to worry about, but if you explore more adult themes as well as explicit sexual relations and, perhaps, include language such as the "F" word, your book will more likely be listed as 14 and up. If in doubt about how the age group you are writing about talks, go stalk your local high school, Community center or even Mall to see what the "cool" things to say are now.Themes & Issues
: In YA, you can write about anything these days. No subject is taboo. Sexuality, Incest, Rape, Death, Suicide, Murder, Drugs, Runaways, Illegitimacy, Poverty, etc. Write about something that is important to you. Don’t be afraid or censor yourself. Write the story you are drawn to and compelled to write.
***A short time-out for some YA Publishing History Perspective: Over the past decade, the esteemed author Richard Peck has become better known for his MG Newbery winning books, but the first dozen books he published were Young Adult novels—the first in 1985. Remembering the Good Times
is about the friendship of two boys and a girl who have been childhood friends. In high school, one of the boys commits suicide. The other two friends are left devastated and wondering how they never saw the signs and the guilt they feel wondering what they could have done to prevent their friend’s death. Richard Peck was also one of the first writers to publish YA novels about rape and teen pregnancy in the late 1980s. Are You in the House Alone? Don’t Look and it Won’t Hurt
, respectively. So for those new to the YA literature scene, John Green did not create the serious literary problem novel for young adults. He's just continuing a long tradition started by brilliant writers back in the 1970s and 1980s. Relationships
: In your YA novel, there must be peer friendships that are important and impact your main characters. Often witty friends and classmates or neighbors will bring in compelling subplots, which intersect with the main plot of your novel. Also, parents often come and go, leave the country for jobs, get divorced, remarry, abandon their children, etc., but the break-down of those familial relationships with its accompanying angst and craziness can often be a major plot or subplot of your story. School/College
: High School is usually a strong aspect of the YA novel and teachers and classmates can bring important elements as well as provide interesting characters and conflict. If not public high school, then private schools, boarding schools, homeschools. Even in fantasy or sci fi novels, the characters usually go to a futuristic type of schooling. Bringing your high school alive
can be a challenge to build, but a lot of fun and intriguing angles to your story. Like adding vampires to the high school. It worked for Bella but not so much for other High School Vampire stories. Setting
: Settings need to be well developed and the MC needs to interact in meaningful ways with the setting. Make your setting specific and interesting, not a bland backdrop of Anywhere, Any City, USA. I personally love using setting to bring out characteristics or hobbies or the culture of my MC as well as develop the plot and conflict.Love Interest
: There must
be a love interest in a Young Adult novel. Think of this word: longing. There might be multiple love interests. Think Team Edward or Jacob. Team Gale or Peeta. Although I caution about using the traditional love triangle. Readers appear to be rebelling against love triangles and want a fresh take on the romance aspect of YA novels. Maybe a love square - or try an octagon.Kissing
: There must be kissing! There can often be sex, but the parameters and boundaries will depend on the type of book you’re writing as well as how far you
personally want to go with your characters. But I find that a more literary, serious novel, whether it’s contemporary or historical or fantasy, will have more sexual scenes. But be careful when pushing the sexual acene envelope. If your scenes are TOO graphic then you start venturing more into the New Adult book genre, which may be too mature for 12-16 year olds. More "she was thrilled by his touch" rather than "he grabbed her *Beep* with his hand." Voice
: Today, most YA novels are written in First Person Point of View. If you’re writing in Third Person, be careful that you go Deep Point of View so that your reader feels like they are right in the head/mind/thoughts of your protagonist. Readers of any age want to feel like they’re right inside the story living it for themselves. You want the reader to feel like they are the Good or Bad angel sitting on the MC's shoulder.Language/Tone/Mood
: The language in your YA novel can change depending on the type of story. If you’re writing a thriller or mystery, the pacing and language will be faster, perhaps more spare; there might be more dialogue and not as much description, narration, or inner thoughts. Check out Don’t Turn Around
by Michelle Gagnon, Starter
by Lissa Price, or Killer Instinct
by S. E. Green. If you’re writing a more literary novel the use of language and tone and mood will change drastically. Samples: Novels by Maggie Steifvater like The Scorpio Races
or Dreams of Gods and Monsters
by Laini Taylor.
Did I mention kissing??? And HEAT? And longing
. Yeah, those elements make your novel a Young Adult – and keep your reader turning the pages. Will Peeta ever get Katniss to love him? Will Edward finally give in and eat Bella if she kisses him? etc. (Admit it, by book 4 you were kinda hoping she would get eaten ;) )
I’ve been working on my upcoming novel, Forbidden
(Harpercollins, November 2014) for many years in between the middle-grade novels. It’s taken a lot
of practice to get the voice, tone, language, and relationships right (and now Harpercollins is marketing the novel as a cross-over because of the sophisticated themes and plot).
I often feared that MG was my "true" voice. But just like becoming a good writer in any genre, I kept practicing and revising endlessly. All the hard work finally paid off when my agent sold the entire trilogy to a major publisher—just when I thought the project would never sell and I might have to shelve it forever.
Don’t give up. Study the best YA novels out there. Practice your craft. Believe in your story. Love
your story. Immerse yourself. Or if you're desperate go watch some of those sappy romance movies and just imagine it with teenagers, in high school. And add zombies for good measure. Who can resist zombies?
Now Kimberley has VERY graciously offered up an amazing
giveaway and we are SO excited to share it with you today! Enter below for a chance to win an ARC of FORBIDDEN!
About The Author
When she was a kid Kimberley Griffiths Little read a book a day, scribbled stories, and dreamed about having her very own book on the library shelf. She adores the mysterious swamps of Louisiana, Paris, England, Scotland, Jordan, and anything old and musty with a secret story to tell.
Kimberley was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, but now lives in an adobe house on the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico with her husband and three sons. She’s fairly certain that after drinking so much Land of Enchantment water, some of that ancient magic got into her blood and now spurts out her pencil—um, ergonomic keyboard.
Kimberley is the author of seven award-winning middle-grade novels, the last four titles with Scholastic, which sell hundreds of thousands in the Book Fairs.
Her Young Adult debut trilogy, FORBIDDEN, an exotic thriller in the ancient mysterious lands of Mesopotamia with roots in belly dance and goddess temples, has been 10 years in the making. It launches in November with Harpercollins.
She makes way too many cookies when writing or revising—and the best book trailers filmed on location with voiceovers and original music. For reals. Check them out here: www.kimberleygriffithslittle.com
. Find her on Facebook
, and Youtube
About The Book
A sweeping, epic saga of romance and hardship, set against the dramatic backdrop of ancient Mesopotamia—perfect for fans of Cleopatra's Moon or the adult bestseller The Red Tent.
In the unforgiving Mesopotamian desert where Jayden’s tribe lives, betrothal celebrations abound, and tonight it is Jayden’s turn to be honored. But while this union with Horeb, the son of her tribe’s leader, will bring a life of riches and restore her family’s position within the tribe, it will come at the price of Jayden’s heart.
Then a shadowy boy from the Southern Lands appears. Handsome and mysterious, Kadesh fills Jayden’s heart with a passion she never knew possible. But with Horeb’s increasingly violent threats haunting Jayden’s every move, she knows she must find a way to escape—or die trying.
With a forbidden romance blossoming in her heart and her family’s survival on the line, Jayden must embark on a deadly journey to save the ones she loves—and find a true love for herself.
Set against the brilliant backdrop of the sprawling desert, the story of Jayden and Kadesh will leave readers absolutely breathless as they defy the odds and risk it all to be together.Amazon
Sit down, and put down everything that comes into your head and then you're a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff's worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.
Building a Better Novel Premise
Last week while I was writing my list of Forty Questions for a Stronger Manuscript
, I mentioned that I had written my elevator pitch and logline before I even started plotting my new novel. That may seem strange, but I wish I'd caught onto that process sooner. I would have saved myself, and my critique partners, soooooo much grief. It's a lot easier to tweak a pitch than it is to change an 80,000 word novel. Seriously.
And there are reasons to tweak the premise. However well we write, however creatively we move our characters across the storyboard, if the basic idea we want to convey isn't worth reading about, we're facing too much competition from other authors and entertainment options to hold a reader's attention.
Before I started my current manuscript, I wanted to be absolutely sure I'd made the premise as strong as possible. I've read dozens of posts and books on that elusive "high concept" beast we've all heard so much about lately, and I started thinking through how what the experts said related to my favorite books. Basically, what I've gleaned is that for me, there's a difference between gimmick and high concept. And there's a BIG difference between high concept and well-executed concept.
A gimmick is something with a WOW factor, but once I've heard the WOW, I'm done. It loses its appeal because after I unwrap the shiny packaging, there's nothing much inside. It's like the wizard standing behind the screen in Oz. Once he's visible, all the magic fades.
With a great concept, there's a great wrapper, a WOW factor, but there's layer after layer of solid goodness underneath. And isn't that the key to any great piece of literature? Layers? Depth? Great characters? Beautiful writing? Universal appeal? Connection?
Yes, a great concept has to contain a "hook," but that's just the ending point. To make the hook resonate, the premise also has to have:
- At least one fascinating character: Someone bigger than life, who cares very deeply about someone or something and is willing to fight for it.
- An interesting setting: A location or world where readers have never been but want to visit either in our dreams or in our nightmares.
- An inherent conflict: The situation that pits the fascinating character against someone or something that is going to keep her from getting what she wants--while keeping readers at the edge of our seats unable to guess the outcome.
- An emotional appeal: The reason readers understand the stakes, care about them, and connect to the events and characters on a personal, heart-deep level.
- A universal or familiar idea: The connection to something we already know something about or have previously wondered about.
- An original twist: The aspect of the story that makes it different from any other story--the way ordinary things are combined, slanted, spun, and stacked to take the universal or familiar idea and warp it into something unique and unexpected.
- A piece of coolness: A tool, ability, artifact, or something in the character, setting, or situation that makes our jaws drop.
- A high-impact inciting incident: The situation that catapults us all into the story with no way back.
- High stakes: The reason it matters if the fascinating character loses, not just to her but to other people. The actual consequences of failure that the reader can't bear to contemplate.
- A great title: A word or two or three that intrigue and sum up the book.
Notice, there's no "hook" in that list. For me, the hook is the innate simplicity of the premise--something that lets us take all those things I've just listed and sum them up in one or two easily-understood sentences.
Beyond that, if the premise hits at least one or two of the following "it" factors, so much the better:
- A topical or current subject or event.
- A controversial, sensational, or heretical topic or subject.
- An alternate view or explanation for a known person, event or potential event.
- A mythological connection.
- A primal fear.
Simple, right? Let's all jump get on it and come up with some best-selling ideas.
But one more thing--and this one's critical: I think the best-selling idea, your
best-selling idea, has to make you
care. It has to have elements you
want to explore, characters you
absolutely love. Otherwise, the heart will be missing from your writing. For me, that's just as important as concept, and a lot harder to define.
So what do you think? Is high concept or a hot premise important to you? Can you think of any other way to beef yours up? What do you ask yourself before you sit down to write a new idea?
Are your favorite books high concept? What "high concept" books do you want to read over and over again?
Jill Corcoran blogged about ways to activate your story
, using Gayle Forman's novel, If I Stay
, as an example of a great beginning. She wrote:Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:
Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.
But the reason that sentence works, really works, is a tiny little piece left out of the quote. Here's how the novel really starts:
Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.
Do you see it? It's there in big bold letters. The ticking clock.
Because that clock is there, we know to combine "it" with a timeline. We know something is going to happen soon. We know "it" is bad, because why bother with a clock that precise if it isn't a countdown of sorts. And we know it has to do with the snow. Sort of. So now, we're hooked. We have to know what "it" is, and why it wasn't completely to do with the snow. And we have an implied promise that it isn't going to take the author long to get there.
As readers, we haven't thought through any of this. It's simply there, in the back kitchen of our consciousness, if I may borrow the phrase from Kipling. And once it's there, it has a hold on us.
Even a reader who wouldn't normally read a book about bow-tie-wearing dads, or little brothers who let out war whoops, or mothers who work in travel agent's offices--who cares about all that stuff at the beginning of a book, right?--is going to be curious enough to read a little further. Sure enough, Forman delivers on the promise. At 8:17 a.m., a dad who isn't great at driving gets behind the wheel of a rusting buick and.... Well, we know we only have a few more pages.
Even after the accident, the clock doesn't stop. It continues until 7:16 the next morning, because Mia is trying to make her decision, and all along, all through the twists and turns and intricately woven scraps of memory and medical magic, that clock keeps us focused on the fact that something life-changing is going to happen. Soon. Soon. So you can't stop reading.Building Suspense with a Ticking Clock
Having an actual Jack Bauer 24-style ticking clock only works if something momentous is going to happen:
- An event, accident, or necessary meeting
- A deadline given to prevent consequences
- An opportunity that can, but shouldn't, be missed
- Elapsed time from a precipitating event
Jenn Johansson knows how to turn up the creep factor in her books. With the sequel to her 2013 Paranormal Thriller INSOMNIA coming out on the 8th of June, advanced reviews of PARANOIA are saying it's even better than the first! I personally can't wait to get my hands on the book.
The Art of Saying No by Jenn Johansson
I’m not one of those many authors who seems like they were born with a pen in one hand and a manuscript in the other. In fact, I never even thought I wanted to write. I’ve always loved reading, but the few times I’ve been given writing assignments throughout school, I pretty much did what I had to do to earn the grade and then moved on.
At my university, I was supposed to complete two required semesters for the school newspaper. I hated my first semester with such a fiery passion that I actually made arrangements with my school counselor to do a substitute course (re: AND clean his office on weekends) to get out of taking the second semester.
This is how much I did not believe I enjoyed writing.
This is all to say that I spent a lot of time doing other things before I got around to my writing journey. Any and all of my writing related experience prior to actually becoming an author was in the avenue of marketing. While these paths are definitely intertwined, I think most authors would agree that the two areas of focus are often at odds once you become published.
Much of the time that an author spends on writing is time that they are not spending on marketing efforts and vice versa. Although it definitely can (and should) be argued that any time spent improving your craft will improve your marketability and draw in more readers…but that is a different discussion for an entirely different post.
As I am a still fairly new author with a background in marketing, one of the hardest things that I still struggle with on a regular basis is learning to say no. Every time I get a request for an interview, an invitation to a conference, or I stumble across a marketing idea that I hadn’t come up with before, everything in my training and background screams, “YES! Do it! You might reach new readers! You can find a new audience!”
And as I’ve discovered going into the release of Book #2, these opportunities do not slow down the further you get into your career, they just become more plentiful—which is both fabulous…and also exacerbates my difficulty.
Let me clarify: the problem isn’t that my instinct wants to do these things. This is a very good thing. Most authors wish their instincts wanted to do marketing. I’m sincerely grateful that my background is in this area and it has absolutely benefitted my career on many occasions. My problem is that my instinct wants to do ALL the things.
No one should do ALL the things. Doing ALL the things is bad.
If you try to do ALL the things, you end up being able to do NONE of the things very well…and while that list will include many very important things, one of those is definitely going to be writing. As you all probably know, if you don’t do the writing well, then you won’t be doing it for very long.
One of my goals for my writing has always been for it to be a career. I don’t want this to be short-lived. I’ve sold 5 books so far and if I have my way this is just the very beginning. I am far from hitting my stride and I want to be doing this for the rest of my life…or until I can buy a small island, whichever comes first.
To this end, I work daily on prioritizing and practicing the art of saying no. Not all of my marketing ideas are created equal. I pay close attention to which things work and which things don’t. I am willing to try new ideas, but I only try them if I feel like I’ve given them the best chance I can at succeeding, and then I learn from whether they were a success or not. If they weren’t, I try to decide if I know what I could have done differently to achieve different results. Until I feel like I have a good plan for that, then I don’t pursue that avenue again because it is no longer worth the time that I invested in it.
I’m not a marketer first anymore, I’m an author first. I try to remember that and make sure I say no to enough marketing things that I always leave time for the most important thing I can do to help my career move forward, which is to keep writing.
This entire post applies to many other jobs if you substitute a few key words, the point is, we all have things we have to say no to in order to focus on our writing. Make sure you’re saying no (and yes) to the right things for you to find success in your career. Take yourself seriously or no one else will either.
About The Author
Jenn Johansson is a young adult thriller author represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Her debut novel, INSOMNIA was released in Spring/Summer 2013 with Flux.
She loves reading, playing board games, and sitting in her hot tub. Jenn's dream is that someday she can do all three at the same time.Website
About The Book
In the aftermath of the events that nearly killed him, Parker Chipp is trying to learn to cope better with life as a Watcher. And it seems to be working...until he wakes up in jail with a hangover and 12 hours of missing time. Darkness has somehow taken control and Parker doesn't have a clue how to stop him. He finds an unlikely ally in Jack, the mysterious guy in the motorcycle jacket who offers to help Parker master his abilities as a Watcher. But even as they practice, the darkness inside Parker is getting more and more powerful, taking over Parker’s body and doing everything he can to destroy Parker's life.
When Jack reveals that there is another kind of Night Walker, known as a Taker, Parker starts to wonder if the strange things happening in Oakville are more than just a coincidence. After all, people are more than just sleepwalking. They're emptying their savings accounts with no memory of doing so, wandering into strange parts of town and disappearing, they're even killing other people--all in their sleep. If Parker wants to find out what's happening or have any hope of seeing his father again, he’ll have to defy Jack and put his own life in danger...because the more he learns about these other Night Walkers, the more certain he becomes that his life isn't the only one that could be lost.Amazon
I've been reading each of my #BookADay picture books out loud in my office. I've read some before, and some I haven't. Reading them out loud emphasizes even more how IMPORTANT it is for aspiring picture writers to read their stories out loud.
If you find yourself stumbling over awkward phrasing or dull prose, then you know it's time to revise. Yes, the illustrations are going to add a lot to your story but if it's not an enjoyable readaloud, then it's going to be tougher to find a publisher.
I also encourage you to read other people's picture books out loud. If you're in a public place like a library or bookstore and don't want to disturb other people, then read silently. But HEAR the words in your head.
Also advised: be aware of pacing and page turns. More on this in a future post.
Katherine Longshore has been a regular author we've had on the blog for a few years now. She's full of brilliant advice, and is unbelievably sweet. Her last post with us was around the release of MANOR OF SECRETS
and has talked about her creativity drug
. Today she is here for the release of BRAZEN, which hit shelves on the 12th!
Write What You Love and Stay True To Your Passion by Katherine Longshore
One of the questions I get most frequently is, “What advice do you have for other writers?”
I think the implication behind the question is “What advice do you have for unpublished writers?” Writers who are looking for agents, looking for publishers, looking for the name on the bookstore shelf. But my answer—I hope—applies to all writers.
Write what you love.
I know it sounds facile, and it’s so easy to argue with. I love vampires and no one is buying vampire books anymore. But that doesn’t mean they never will. In 2008, everywhere I looked in the industry, I saw someone saying, “Historicals don’t sell.” In 2009, I attended a conference where an editor said, “Don’t send me any historical fiction.” In 2010, GILT sold at auction in a three-book (all historical) deal to that editor.
This taught me two things: Never say never. And it can pay off to write what you love.
You see, I think that love shows through. If the writer is passionate about his work, the reader will usually be, too. But over the years of uttering that compact little phrase, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t offer much in terms of actual craft—functional, applicable reference points. I recently had a crisis of confidence during which I wondered if I would ever come up with another idea for a book. Everything I mulled over felt a little flat. So I started thinking about what goes into fiction—the pieces that make up a novel—and came up with the following things that might help:
- Character. For me, character comes first. I’m not going to get into a debate of plot-driven vs. character-driven novels, because plot doesn’t work without character (and vice versa). It feels like a chicken vs. egg argument, and I just want to get down to what’s important—the writing. One way to write what you love is to identify and create a character you can love—your readers will likely follow suit. What kind of character do you fall in love with? Perfect? Handsome? Heroic? Great. All inspiring things. But what else? The craft books all tell us to give the protagonist a flaw. What flaws do you find compelling? Perfectionism? Vanity? Rebelliousness? Write those in, too. Then find other things—tiny details that maybe only you will notice. In BRAZEN, Mary Howard gets claustrophobic in crowds. Not an easy thing to deal with in the Tudor court, which was notoriously overpopulated. What else can be compelling? A desire to try every kind of ice cream? The need to visit the beach once a day? Neatness in all things except the school locker? These little details will help you fall in love with your characters, but also add depth and dimensionality that your readers will fall in love with as well.
- Plot. What do you love about your story? The premise? The major climactic turning point? The end? Great. You need to find something to love about it—something that will carry you and your readers all the way through. Writing a book is a massive time commitment, and you have to love your story before your readers can. And for longer. But what if you’re like me? I often don’t know what my story is until I write it. How can I sustain the love of a story for eighty thousand words when I don’t even really know what it’s about? I find the one thing. In TARNISH, it was the final image. I wanted to get Anne Boleyn to the point where she would choose Henry VIII rather than the man that she loved—and walk from light into blinding darkness. In BRAZEN, my desire was a little less tangible. I wanted to follow the story of Mary Howard as she fell in love—discovering along the way the subtle little shifts in emotion and relationship that lead a person to that discovery. Find the one thing. And follow it through. If you make that one thing shine with the love you have for it, it will become the thing your readers focus on, too.
- Setting. I fell in love with my setting long before I even considered writing a novel. I read many histories of Henry VIII and his wives, visited the palaces and watched biographical documentaries. I loved not just the costumes and lavish places, but the very atmosphere of it. One of fear and extravagance and Machiavellian machinations. What is it about your setting that you love? The beauty of it? The horror? The vibrancy? Let that be seen through your characters’ eyes. What if you have two narrating characters and they each see it differently? How can you make the setting almost become a character?
- Theme. One of the reasons I was not an English major was because I never wanted to answer questions about theme in relation to a work of literature. The very question, What is the theme of this work? seized my heart in fear. But theme is important when writing. It can be one of the things that puts the most passion into your work. What is it you are really trying to say with this book? You don’t have to know before you start writing. Heck, you don’t even have to know while doing the first revision. But as you go over your manuscript again—and again—you will see things popping out at you. Tell the truth. Dreams matter. Work together. Listen to your own heart. Those are the things that make us fall in love with literature. Once you begin to notice these repetitions (or if you know what you want to say from the start) the real fun begins, because you begin to see all kinds of beautiful ways to make it evident. Symbolism and dialogue and imagery. Even the story itself. I am definitely not advocating getting onto a soapbox and cramming propaganda down your readers’ throats. What I am saying is what do you love about what your story means? How can you highlight that? How do you make that love evident? The best way, of course, is through what your characters say and do. But there are other ways as well. You’ll find them.
- Voice. One of the hardest aspects of fiction to pin down. But one of the first things agents and editors mention when asked what they’re looking for. A great voice. But they can’t fall in love with it until you have. Writing is easier if you have the voice in your head (and your writing) from the very beginning. But sometimes you have to work it in with revision (I did with BRAZEN). Find the things you love in the voice—attitude, perception, diction. Play with them. Write a scene that takes that particular aspect to extreme. You can always bring it back down again if you need to, but you probably won’t.
I know it’s all very well and good talking about writing what you love—even after breaking it down. Many of us keep asking the question, “Yes, but will it sell?” “What if I write an entire novel and love every minute of it but no one wants it? What if I don’t get an agent? What if I don’t get a contract?” Or even harder, “I already wrote a book I love and it didn’t go anywhere. Now I just want to write a book someone will buy.”
I’ve said all of those things. And yes, I’m lucky. I didn’t know anything about the market when I started writing GILT. It was only after I fell in love and couldn’t not write it that I heard that “historicals don’t sell.” But when I finished my contract, I struggled with a proposal for the next book. Because I’m a pantser, I don’t have a clear idea of the story before I write it. It was only when I “met” a group of characters in a setting I already found intriguing that I discovered another book that I couldn’t not write. I don’t know if it will sell. I don’t know that it matters.
Because there are a lot of other jobs out there that you can do without loving them. We’ve all done a few of them. I haven’t ever hated any of my jobs, but I’ve never had another job that woke me up in the middle of the night with inspiration. That I thought about constantly during a six-hour drive—having to stop frequently to write down ideas. That I wanted to do on days off and weekends and even Christmas. That I love, even when it’s so difficult it makes me cry.
Find something to love that will keep you going, even with those multiple little disappointments. Plot, character, theme, whatever. Even if it doesn’t sell, it will make your work—and your life—so much richer.
About The Author
Katherine Longshore is the author of several historical novels for teens, including Gilt, Tarnish, and the upcoming Brazen, three interconnected stories set in the court of Henry VIII, as well as the YA Downton Abbey-esqu Manor of Secrets.Website
About The Book
Mary Howard has always lived in the shadow of her powerful family. But when she’s married off to Henry Fitzroy, King Henry VIII’s illegitimate son, she rockets into the Tudor court’s inner circle. Mary and “Fitz” join a tight clique of rebels who test the boundaries of court’s strict rules with their games, dares, and flirtations. The more Mary gets to know Fitz, the harder she falls for him, but is forbidden from seeing him alone. The rules of court were made to be pushed…but pushing them too far means certain death. Is true love worth dying for?Amazon
Allen Zadoff is the bestselling YA author of a lot of books. His debut FOOD, GIRLS AND OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and was a YALSA selection for Most Popular Paperbacks of 2012. His newest series, previously titled Boy Nobody has a revamped name and look. It is now called The Unknown Assasin, the first book of which is called I AM THE WEAPON and the newest I AM THE MISSION, which came out June 17th!
How to Write a Bestselling YA Novel by Allen Zadoff
This is my best advice. If you want to write a bestselling young adult novel, stop trying to write one. Don’t follow trends, don’t do what others think you should do, don’t emulate what’s already successful, don’t even write what you think you should write.
Write the other story, the one you must write, the one that scares you.
Understand what I mean when I say “scares you”. I don’t mean you have to write a gut-wrenching novel of terror. I mean you should write the story that scares you personally. The one where you say, “I want to write a comedy, but I’m afraid I’m not funny enough. I want to tell the truth, but I’m not sure I have the guts to do it. I want to talk about real life as I experience it, but I’m afraid people won’t be interested. Or I want to write a vampire book, but there are already twelve billion vampire books.”
That last one is tricky because there really are twelve billion vampire books, and it’s tough to sell a vampire book. But remember what I said earlier. Write the one you must write.
If you have an absolutely personal and unusual idea for a vampire novel that you must write and you’re sure you can’t move forward in life without writing it, then I support you in doing it. But if you’re writing it because you know the genre is popular, because you hope to catch the trend, because you think you’re guaranteed to have a hit book, then I suggest you dump it.
Go deeper. Write the one you must write.
Three years ago, I was known as a funny, contemporary fiction writer. I’d written three YA novels, all in a similar style. My debut, FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE, won a number of awards, received fantastic reviews, and was widely read. But after three books with quirky, neurotic, and all-too-human protagonists, I was inspired to write something different. One day I heard the voice of new kind of hero in my head, a sixteen-year-old assassin for the government whose job was to befriend the children of his targets so he could get close to and assassinate their parents. I knew it was a thriller, and I had a very strong sense that it was going to be more than one book.
I wasn’t trying to write a bestseller. I was simply writing the next one, the one that scared me. I risked it all, betting on my inspiration rather than my reputation, doing what I was moved to do rather than what I thought I should do or what people were expecting from me.
It was the birth of THE UNKNOWN ASSASSIN series.
And guess what? It’s been my most successful work by far. The first book, I AM THE WEAPON, earned starred reviews, has been translated into over a dozen languages, and was optioned by a major movie studio. Now it’s a finalist for best YA novel in the International Thriller Awards.
All great stuff. And all more or less beside the point.
More important is the fact that I did what scared me, and I’m a better writer for it. I grew, I stretched, and now I get to do it again.
There are no guarantees of success. I can’t promise you that if you go deeper, write what you must, and write what scares you that you will have a bestseller at the end of the day. But I promise you this. You will feel like a real writer. You will get better every time you do it. And eventually you will find your voice, and your audience will find you.
That’s my wish for us both.
About The Author
Allen Zadoff is the author of the THE UNKNOWN ASSASSIN series as well as several acclaimed novels including FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE, winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and a YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults. Allen's action-packed series debut, I AM THE WEAPON (formerly BOY NOBODY), is a page-turning thriller about a teenage assassin that has already been optioned for film by Sony Pictures & Overbrook Entertainment. The book was featured in the Los Angeles Times' Summer Reading guide and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and VOYA. Kirkus Reviews called I AM THE WEAPON "fast, furious, and fun." Look for the sequel, I AM THE MISSION, beginning in June 2014. Allen is a graduate of Cornell University and the Harvard University Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. His training as a super spy, however, has yet to be verified.Website
About The Book
He was the perfect assassin. No name. No past. No remorse. Perfect, that is, until he began to ask questions and challenge his orders. Now The Program is worried that their valuable soldier has become a liability.
And so Boy Nobody is given a new mission. A test of sorts. A chance to prove his loyalty.
His objective: Take out Eugene Moore, the owner of an extremist military training camp for teenagers. It sounds like a simple task, but a previous operative couldn't do it. He lost the mission and is presumed dead. Now Boy Nobody is confident he can finish the job. Quickly.
But when things go awry, Boy Nobody finds himself lost in a mission where nothing is as it seems: not The Program, his allegiances, nor the truth.
The riveting second book in Allen Zadoff's Boy Nobody series delivers heart-pounding action and a shocking new twist that makes Boy Nobody question everything he has believed.Amazon
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When I especially enjoy reading a book or fall in love with a particular illustration, it’s usually because the author or illustrator manages to convey an emotion, scene or story in an unusual way, that spurs me to look at the world a little differently.
I try to remember this when writing and illustrating. It's one of my goals when I create found object art, trying to avoid the obvious.