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The death of a villain can inspire a wide range of emotions, from happiness and gratitude, to sorrow and remorse. I love me a good villain, and some of my favourite story moments are the amazing death scenes some villains are granted. That is, of course, assuming the death is indeed amazing and not an affront to their character arc. I am so in love with the closure of a good villain death that a bad one can ruin the entire story for me.
So without further ado, here are some pet peeves of mine: cheap villain death tropes I’d love to see gone forever, and how they can maybe be flipped around.
Oftentimes a cheap villain death is the result of a deus ex machina: the hero doesn’t actually have the means to kill the villain because they’re too damn awesome, so the villain accidentally dies when they slip and fall off a cliff during the final fight. Unless the hero has actual control over how the villain dies, such as a clever plan to lure them to the edge, this is the cheapest of cheap deaths.
Accidental death can only work if the villain is immediately replaced by an even greater threat to the hero that has somehow been vaguely hinted at or foreshadowed beforehand so it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Perhaps they’re fighting on an active volcano that suddenly explodes and kills the villain. The foreshadowing is in the fact that it’s active, and the bigger threat is the indiscriminate firebombing and hot ash the hero now has to escape—bigger, because volcanoes don’t think, so the hero can’t guess what its next move might be. This will still feel a little cheap if it’s not well done, however, because as it’s your story, you can choose when the volcano blows, and choosing to kill an antagonist with a natural disaster over which the hero has no control is underwhelming. The other problem in this kind of scenario is that as soon as the hero is out of the volcano’s range, safety is within reach even if the volcano hasn’t been destroyed, compared to the hero still being in constant potential danger if the villain were still alive.
The only good kind of accidental death is when the new threat is worse than the old, it has an active agenda, and it’s not directly connected to the villain. In fact, in these situations, this big annoyance of mine can be totally turned around into something brilliant. If the new threat is something which even the old villain had no concept of, you’re not only effectively upping the ante by making the old villain look like a schoolyard bully, you’re also vastly expanding your universe. If you set up your story well, dropping hints here and there of all the possible people (or monsters) in such a way that a new threat is plausible, you can follow up the old villain with a new, terrifying and vast enemy that will make your hero feel incredibly small and will eventually make the victory that much sweeter. But in this case, the old villain isn’t the true villain of the story; they’re more of a stepping stone. And since stepping stones are not an ending but part of the journey, the old villain’s accidental death won’t feel cheap: it’ll lead to something bigger.
Death is also cheap when the villain’s intelligence is insulted. More than any, I hate this kind of death the most. If the villain is really smart, the hero’s going to have a hell of a time luring them to a cliff. Unless they have no choice, the odds that smart characters would willingly put themselves in dangerous positions are very low. There is nothing more frustrating than watching an otherwise remarkable and cerebral villain suddenly become a half-wit so that the hero can defeat them. Not to mention it makes the hero’s victory completely hollow. The most satisfying time to defeat an enemy is when their faculties are at full power, anyway. Why blunt their intellect if you’ve worked so hard to write them as smart, effectively making the reader anticipate an ending where they’re finally outsmarted?
The only time this convenient stupidity can be forgiven is in comedy. This kind of thing can make for a good punchline. However, it also relies on your story being a parody. Otherwise, it’s a glaring continuity error and an unfair way of treating both your villain and hero, because following the kill, the hero will develop a reputation of only being able to defeat enemies when they mysteriously become very weak.
My final pet peeve is a classic villain trait: arrogance. It’s a frustrating reason for a villain’s death, mostly because it isn’t very original, but also because I have a personal bias toward villains that don’t think of themselves as unbeatable, since people act in more interesting ways if they think they’re being threatened. If we revisit the accidental death scenario, and consider again why it’s better for the new, bigger threat to have little to no connection to the old villain, another reason would be that if the new threat were the villain’s fault, their character becomes an archetype for hubris: “His ego made him blind,” “He thought he could control the strain.” This isn’t a terrible thing, but if manmade threats are the worst possible ones in your world, you could argue that you’re restricting yourself.
They also make for really annoying characters. The ones that yell “I’m invincible!” as they’re dying are pathetic, and I always thought they cast a shadow over the hero’s victory. Not to mention, defeating a villain whose fatal flaw is hubris tends to involve a formulaic take-down by people who ultimately come across as preachy and say things like “You can’t play God,” or “He flew too close to the sun.”
However, hubris can be a genuinely interesting character trait. And there are times when I really enjoy it. But I’ve noticed that every single one of those times, the hubris was something I discovered afterwards upon reflection; something that wasn’t told to me, but that I began to understand as I considered the story from start to finish. In other words, if you’re going to give your villain a god complex, no need to shout it from the hills. Subtlety is a pretty nice touch.
So there they are. Three massive and common villain death pet peeves of my very own. Obviously, they are tailored to my personal tastes. I’d love to hear yours.
LEE & LOW BOOKS has two writing contests for unpublished authors of color: the New Voices Award, for picture book manuscripts, and the New Visions Award, for middle grade and young adult manuscripts.Both contests, which are now open for submissions aim to recognize the diverse voices and talent among new authors of color who might otherwise remain under the radar of mainstream publishing.
In this guest post, we wanted to highlight another groundbreaking writing contest that’s bringing attention to marginalized voices and fostering a love of writing in students: the Celebrate America Writing Contest run by the American Immigration Council. Coming into its 19th year, the Celebrate America Writing Contest for fifth graders has been bringing attention to the contributions of immigrants in America through the eyes and pens of our youngest writers.
In this guest post, Claire Tesh, Senior Manager of Education at the American Immigration Council, discusses the mission of the Celebrate America Writing Contest and how it has helped to shape the immigration narrative.
It is impossible to escape the negative vitriol and hateful rhetoric around the issue of immigration that dominates the headlines, talk radio, popular culture, and in some cases the dinner table. In an effort to educate children and communities about the value of immigration to our society The American Immigration Council teams up with schools and community groups to provide young people the resources and information necessary to think critically about immigration from both a historical and contemporary perspective, while working collaboratively and learning about themselves and their communities.
The American Immigration Council developed “Celebrate America,” an annual national creative writing contest for fifth graders, because they are at the age where they are discovering their place in the world both locally and globally. They are also finding their own voice, opinions and ideas through writing, creating and sharing. Students at this age start making sense of current events; they have a better working knowledge of basic history, and have a sense of global awareness.
Thousands of Entries
“Celebrate America” began 19 years ago with just a couple dozen entries. Today it has grown to over 5,000 entries annually! Since 1997 a total of close to 75,000 students have participated in two dozen cities, in nearly 750 schools and community centers across the nation.
As the lead on the contest since 2006, I have read thousands of entries and have attended numerous events featuring the writers. It is difficult to pick just one example, but in 2008 the winning entry America is a Refuge really showed how much a 10-12 year old can comprehend about the issue. That year, the winner, Cameron Busby, explained to a reporter from the Tucson Citizen that “I want to be a horror writer when I grow up,” and in order to tell the story of America being a place people come to be safe and thrive, he used bits and pieces of some of his classmate’s true horror stories of their own or their family member’s immigration journeys. This excerpt shows the young writer’s entry and how he made sense of injustice and how America has always been a nation symbolic as a beacon for hope:
A small child holds out a hoping
a crumb of bread,
or even a penny just to be fed
Hoping America is a refuge. A
child weeps over her mother’s
the tears streaming down her
Praying America is a refuge.
Part of the reason why it’s a popular contest is because it fits neatly with the fifth grade curriculum and it is easy for teachers to implement by offering timely lessons and expository learning opportunities from classroom visits by experts to interactive web-based games. The contest is unique in that it allows for any written work that captures the essence of why the writer is proud that America is a nation of immigrants and students can express themselves through narrative, descriptive, expository, or persuasive writings, poetry, and other forms of written expressions. The teaching and learning opportunities the contest brings to both the classroom and the community has made it very popular and most teachers who participate do so year after year.In the Classroom
Monica Chun, a teacher from Seattle who has participated in the contest for several years and whose student, Erin Stark, was a national winner in 2013, starts the assignment by asking students to ask their relatives at home a question: “Who was the first person in our family to come to America?” No matter what ethnicity or how recent or distant a family’s arrival be, every student is going to have a unique answer to this question.
Involving the Community
”Celebrate America” encourages youth, families and surrounding communities to evaluate and appreciate the effects of immigration in their own lives. The unique contest includes the following components:
Immigration attorneys or trained volunteers visit classrooms, whether in person or virtually. The visitors give short presentations about the history of American immigration and the contributions immigrants have made over the years;
Teachers complement the contest by implementing lessons about immigration, social justice and diversity into their curriculum;
The American Immigration Council provides classrooms with innovative, relevant, and interactive lessons and resources;
Communities organize events, naturalization ceremonies and other celebrations to showcase the local winners;
The winning entry from each locale is sent to the national office and judged by well-known journalists, immigration judges and award winning authors;
The winning entry is read into the Congressional record, a flag is flown over the Capitol in the winner’s honor and the winner reads their entry at a 700+ person event that celebrates immigration; and
In the submissions the youth voice brings hope that there will be solutions to the immigration debate.
The American Immigration Council believes that teachers, parents, and students are essential to building a collective movement toward a better future: in our classrooms, in our schools, and in the larger society. With the community’s engagement, educators, parents and students can help bridge this divide and approach the issue of immigration with intelligence and empathy.
The contest has an impact not only in the schools and communities that participate, but also in the halls of Congress. Each year when the winning entry is read into the Congressional Record, it is rewarding to know that our leaders are hearing words of wisdom from a young person who has big ideas and who has chosen to use their voice to invite others to learn about immigration and to celebrate America’s diversity.
When the winning entries are read to new citizens at naturalization ceremonies or at dinner galas in communities of all sizes, almost every attendee has tears in their eyes because the young readers are speaking from their hearts and they represent the future. Each and every year the young writers continue to surprise us with the depth and empathy in their writings whether it is their common sense solutions to an immigration system or the story of their own immigrant background. Any writer, no matter how old and how experienced, should look at these entries to get a sense for authentic voice and various styles of writing. The thousands of students who submit to the contest get recognized in their communities and the affect is exponential because students start in the classroom and their voice continues to be shared within their schools, within their communities and beyond.
The students participating in “Celebrate America” are America’s future citizens, voters, educators and activists and it is truly an honor to shape the contest so that it provides some of the tools to think critically about immigration and to learn to explore the economic and moral effects of immigration policy as they engage in the public debates. But, today as we try to navigate the complicated maze that is immigration law and policy, it is through their incredible choice of words, that they are our guides, our teachers, and our voices of reason.
For further information on eligibility and submission process:
When I say that, I'm not saying that you won't experience a feeling of idea-lessness or that life circumstances will never get in the way of your writing. Lots of people go through stretches where it is legitimately impossible to write.
What I mean is that most commonly, that feeling of writer's block is just a feeling that you can actually power through.
When you head down that path, the absolute most helpful thing to do is to figure out the problem. Figure out why you can't think of an idea. What is it that you're trying to solve in the book?
Here's what I mean. I'm at a stage in writing my new novel where I legitimately don't know what's going to happen next. And I got stuck. I seriously couldn't think of what to write next. But rather than stare at the blinking cursor of doom, I started creating structure around the problem.
I know that the main character is currently at Point A, and eventually she'll need to get to Point B. So I started cataloguing some of the things that need to happen before Point B. Then I broke it up still further into a series of chapters. I started writing out some of the feelings I want her to experience before Point B, plotting out the ups and downs. I wrote down some of the bigger things I hadn't yet tackled in the narrative but wanted to, such as showing something happening in the broader world.
And I figured out the problem. I need to set a new plot line in motion, and I needed to do more work to get a sense of where she's going before I figure out the next step.
I still don't know precisely is going to happen, but this is the first step toward being unstuck.
Sometimes it doesn't work to confront a lack of ideas head on. It can be far more effective to create some structure around it, figure out what you need to figure out, and then power on through.
This year marks our sixteenth annual New Voices Award, Lee & Low’s writing contest for unpublished writers of color.
In this blog series, past New Voices winners gather to give advice for aspiring writers. This month, we’re talking about what “voice” means to an author.
When discussing the various elements of writing craft, “voice” seems to be the most difficult to pin down. You can’t plot it on a chart or even clearly define what the word means, and yet it is one of the most important elements of a story. Editors (and readers) are always looking for strong, distinct voices. It is an invisible string that echoes throughout a story and pulls the reader in. And when an author or character’s voice is nonexistent or inconsistent, it is the first thing we notice.
Voice builds trust between the author, characters, and readers. To develop a strong voice that will ring true, an author needs to understand both the story and him/herself as a writer. What is the tone of the story? Who are your characters? If a key feature—gender, age, cultural background—of the main character changes, would the voice change? It should! There are many ways to approach “voice,” and below, Linda Boyden and Paula Yoo share their techniques.
The Blue Roses was my first published book. I had written many picture book manuscripts prior to it, most of which are still gathering dust and mold, but now I see how that process was vital for me to evolve as a writer. I developed the voice of this main character, Rosalie, by experimenting.
I wrote many versions of the book. I considered writing it inthird person, having one of the adult
characters do the narrating for about a nano-second; in my heart I knew this was Rosalie’s story and no one else’s, but that didn’t stop me from more experimenting. I tried having her voice be that of a child, but Papa’s death would have been too harsh an experience for a child to deal with objectively. Instead, Rosalie narrates as her adult self, after having had enough time to smooth the edges of her loss. So experiment until you understand the heart of your character; that’s where you’ll find their true voice.
For me, voice comes out of nowhere. I can’t predict when I will find the “voice” of my story. Voice is not only the way my main character narrates the story (his/her style of speaking, their point of view, their personality) but also in the tone of the entire story (humorous, tragic, touching). Sometimes I find my “voice” AFTER I do a ton of research and preparation, such as figuring out the story beats and plot twists and the character’s emotional journey/arc. Sometimes the voice finds ME first—I’ll just start writing a story from the point of view of a character that has taken over me because he/she has something important and unique to say. Ultimately, I think “voice” for me comes from my heart. What moves me emotionally when I write? What about a story or character makes me laugh or cry? For me, “Voice” is the heart of my story—what emotions do I want to bring out in not only in my readers but also in myself? You can write a book that has the most original and surprising plot, the most compelling and fascinating characters, and a unique setting. But if there is no EMOTION, then that book falls flat. That’s where “Voice” comes in—“Voice” determines the emotion behind the story. I wish I could give a more specific answer with facts and evidence, but when it comes to writing from the heart, there is no formula.
Recently, I have been contemplating what it means to serialize a novel. We wouldn’t have Charles Dickens without serial publishing – nearly all of his novels were serialized back in the day, when magazines published a chapter from stories like A Tale of Two Cities or Bleak House every week or month. Though we moved away from that form of novel publishing, websites like Wattpad have created a resurgence, particularly with YA stories. Writers are able to publish one chapter or segment at a time and obtain reader input as the story progresses, quite possibly changing what the narrative may have otherwise been in a traditionally published format.
I was lucky enough to have Heather Demetrios, author of Something Real and I’ll Meet You There to name a few, answer some of my questions regarding her experiences with this form of publishing, based on her serialized novel, The Lexie Project. If you’ve read Something Real by Heather then you’ll recognize some of the characters in The Lexie Project. Anyone considering launching a serialized or multi-platform project should take Heather’s answers to heart – she has put a lot of work and thought into the story and the social platform, and is ready and willing to share her lessons and expertise. Check out her interview below!
Me: First, tell us about The Lexie Project!
Heather: The Lexie Project is a young/new adult multi-platform story that is being written in real time with crowd sourcing. It’s a satirical look at reality TV and fame: think The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets Clueless and Keeping Up With The Kardashians. My readers send me comments about what they hope Lexie will do in the future and I take that into consideration as I write. I also incorporate real life current events into the narrative, which takes it to unexpected and interesting places! I’m posting a chapter a week on Wattpad and on The Lexie Project website in addition to blogging as Lexie, tweeting as Lexie, and engaging with readers on Lexie’s other social media sites. I’ve hired an actress to play Lexie in videos and on Instagram. Lexie’s roommate is a YouTube star and so I’ve also hired another actress to play her and post videos. There’s even a podcast interview series with Lexie and “famed” celeb podcaster T.J. Maxxx. As you can see, the story very much incorporates our real life connection to social media and other forms of online media. All the social media and blogging is extra—the story reads as a complete novel on Wattpad itself, so for readers who don’t want to be online too much, they can still have full access to Lexie’s narrative.
Me: Something Real was traditionally published. The Lexie Project is a serialized web novel. What was it about a serial web platform that allowed you to tell this story in a way you couldn’t with traditional publishing?
Heather: I wanted the narrative to have the feel of reality TV and reflect the real-time life of a young celebrity. A novel takes lots of time to write and at least eighteen months between the time it sells and appears on bookshelves. Lexie is nineteen, very much enmeshed in our world of instant gratification fame. I wanted readers to get a sense of what her life is like, how she responds as things happen, whether that be an angry tweet using a hastag that is trending right now (like #SingleBecause) or selfie posted on Instagram. Lexie isn’t going to wait two or more years to tell you how she feels about something—she isn’t even going to wait an hour. In a way, we’ve all become our own biographers, curating our life story as we live it via our social media. Lexie’s doing the same.
Me: What should writers consider before choosing to serialize their own novels on a forum like Wattpad, versus attempting traditional or even self-publishing?
Heather: The first thing is that you don’t get paid writing a story this way and there’s no guarantee it will get picked up by a publisher down the road. Macmillan (my publisher for Lexie’s companion novel, Something Real) has been super supportive, but this project is not under contract with them—and I don’t know if it ever will be. I’m taking a risk here. Of course, I want the book to be published traditionally after I complete the online aspect of it. I think it has potential to do really well in that arena, as well. Not all readers are going to want to access Lexie’s story online. Plus, there’s the benefit of fun extras and editing and the other important things that go into a traditionally published, vetted book that readers who’ve already accessed Lexie online would like to have, as well. But I also see multi-platform storytelling as a part of publishing’s future and I want to get in on the ground level, be a maven of sorts.
Another major consideration writers should think about is the time a multi-platform project takes. Spoiler alert: it’s taking over my life. I currently have five books under traditional publishing contracts for which I receive advances to live off of. If I didn’t have those, I wouldn’t be doing this right now. Having those and Lexie…well, you can imagine how much sleep and free time I get.
Finally, your story has to work for a multi-platform project. Some stories aren’t best told this way. I mean, would you want to read M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing this way? No. But you might want to read Feed like this. I have plans for a multi-platform sci-fi, but it’s going to look very different from Lexie. And I have plans for other novels—both adult and young adult—that are only going to be found in book form. You’ve got to do right by your story and characters first and foremost. The rest is gravy.
Me:Do you think the fact that you have been traditionally published provided the foundation for this project? Or is this something you could have done without first being traditionally published?
Heather: Frankly, I think starting this way would be a waste of time for any writer who hopes to be traditionally published and make a living off of their words. You do hear stories about publishers picking up books by Wattpad writers with a huge following, but the return on that investment—from what I’ve heard—isn’t always paying off for the publisher. That’s not to say you can’t break into publishing this way—I just wouldn’t bank on it. I think the fact that I’m traditionally published gives me an immediate fan base and readership. But even for me, it’s slow going. That’s part of why you can access the story both on Wattpad and Lexie’s website (which is a Tumblr platform). I knew my adult readers weren’t really on Wattpad and wouldn’t be super keen on learning how to navigate yet another social media site.
Me: What is the most important thing you have learned from this process? The biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
Heather: I’ve actually started a blog series called Lessons From Lexie, because I’m really interested in tracking this experience. It’s, as I often say, both the Wild West of storytelling and YA on crack. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s going to take five times as long to do it as you think it would. You have to be on point like nobody’s business. There are so many things outside the story to keep track of, so if you’re not careful, it can be very easy to let the writing get lazy or to just go with the easiest or most sensational plot choices. My biggest challenge, then, has been not losing sight of crafting Lexie with the same care and attention on all story levels as I do with my other books. So far, so good—but it’s a lot of work.
Me: Finally, If you could give a writer planning to serialize his/her novel one piece of advice, what would it be?
Heather: Plan as much as you can and never put any writing out there that isn’t stellar. Usually, my readers don’t get to see my work until it’s been looked at by loads of readers, copy-edited, and vetted by gate keepers and my agent. My books go through a writing and editorial process that takes years. The chapters I post for Lexie—since I’m crowd sourcing and incorporating current events—get less than seven days. When you work this way, you’re putting your first draft out there, no matter how many betas you have or how much you revise your weekly installment. That takes a lot of hubris. You need strong, solid craft and experience. You also need to be deeply grounded in your story and characters. I had a whole novel—Something Real—to get me to where I needed to be with Lexie. So there’s a lot that has to happen behind the scenes before you get online. Multi-platform storytelling is not for the faint of heart or anyone who isn’t a perfectionist—so be warned.
All of Heather’s advice and wisdom is spot-on, so I want to thank Heather for taking the time to talk to our readers about serial publishing and The Lexie Project! You can find more information about Heather and her books on her website, listed below, or read The Lexie Project on Wattpad. Let me know your thoughts below!
About Heather: When she’s not traipsing around the world or spending time in imaginary places, Heather Demetrios lives with her husband in New York City. Originally from Los Angeles, she now calls the East Coast home. Heather has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a recipient of the PEN New England Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award for her debut novel, Something Real. Her other novels include Exquisite Captive, the first in the Dark Caravan Cycle fantasy series, I’ll Meet You There and the multi-platform serial novel, The Lexie Project. She is the founder of Live Your What, a project dedicated to creating writing opportunities for underserved youth. Find out more about Heather and her books at www.heatherdemetrios.com, or come hang out with her on Twitter (@HDemetrios) and any number of social media sites.
I've traveled a rough rough creative year. I found out pouring out my soul is not enough for success. That left me leaning against the walls, sobbing (I know, embarrassing but nevertheless true). I ache inside to write something that actually means something to a multitude of people. I still ache for this, but at to this point I don't really know what words will do that.
Publishing work is a tough thing. A writer scrapes down to the bone, and then goes even further, like stripping pieces of your soul and then handing it out. This is a difficult thing to face: a monumental creative effort of mine was like passing out flyers on the corner of some nameless city and, while a few people went into the show, most just tossed the flyers on the ground and moved on.
Very few care. Not an easy answer for an artist. My first reaction was childish. How dare the folks not love my work. How dare they! There are no gimmicks or tricks in my bag. I have no pile of money to lean on, no celebrity to tap into. I have to rise up on the merits of my words alone. Blue collar girl here, and few of us really get a chance to say anything.
There is more to my story. I have integrity. I didn't just slap some stupid and uncomfortable sex on a page. I didn't try to titillate, seduce or toss on some bondage. I went with the stuff that means a lot to me: honesty, humanity, and small town values -- the golden rule, love your neighbors, and be yourself. Surely this will rise. Surely!
I am really embarrassed right now. Have you ever boasted? I have. I thought for sure I was going to be a player in the writing world. Do you know how painful it is to rejected by an agent because you are just "a midlist author and never are going to be more than that." To be told by really successful editors that your writing is fantastic but it's not likely to connect. I blindly believed they were crazy. Then I put the work out there and find out that those voices were not messing with me. They were trying to be helpful. Why did humility have to be such a hard lesson?
I am pretty sure there must be more truth that no one wants to tell me. They probably think I can't take it, and they are probably right. I read Charlotte's Web, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Book of Three as a kid and thought surely I will find this magic too. People are going to read my books just like those. Now I am beyond 50 years old, and, guess what? Yet, I am still writing, but I have taken a paring knife and cut the strings to success--this kind of success: the attainment of popularity, profit or both.
And here I am living the Blue Bird of happiness story. I found the magic of the stories. What I need is the golden rule, to love my neighbor, and to be myself. I am some pig. I am terrific. I am radiant. I am humble. Love really does take the day and save those I love. And assistant pig farmers find out that that is really what they are and that isn't something to be ashamed of. Everything shines.
When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me. Fred Rogers
Eighth-graders frequently seem confused about how grown up they are. And do you blame them? Not me. Twelve to fourteen-year-olds pay adult admission, and are about to make the giant leap into high school, yet they’re not allowed to drive or work. Bummer. Girls, already on the road in developing the forms and functions of grown women, deal with parents who one moment scold, “You’re practically grown up!” and then awhile later become hysterical when their princess ASKS about the ins and outs of dating. Boys, with their physical and sexual maturity just beginning to awaken, are suddenly surrounded by a horde of newly attractive and unnervingly gigantic girls. Yikes!
Most eighth-graders concerns are related to friends, family, and school. Honestly, it’s a social media nightmare at times. Are they going to be embarrassed? Will their BFF still be their friend tomorrow? Does he like me like me, or just like me? You get the drift.
So as a writer, how do you connect with such a tough audience, who’s not quite grown up, yet feel that all systems are go and are ready to wear bigger shoes? One way is to hook into their characteristics, and extract a much needed trait or a combination of traits to make your characters feel authentic to your readers. In order to do this, we need to take a look at what makes an eighth-grader tick.
Here are Eight 8th Grader Characteristics:
1. Can be touchy, and express anger easily.
2. Music is increasingly important to them, as is technology and the latest got-to-have gadget.
3. Sarcasm is a prevalent quality. (I use that one a lot!)
4. As their self-concept develops, they can be withdrawn or prone to challenging others. They struggle with a sense of identity.
5. Abstract reasoning skills are strengthening and expanding.
6. May test limits and rules, but also develop ideals and choose role models.
7. Skin problems may be emerging, boys’ voices are changing, and girls are menstruating. Personal hygiene and self-confidence become issues.
8. May begin to experiment with sex and substances.
Remember, readers this age are looking for escape, to experience things they can’t in their own lives. Being attuned to how they think, and what they’re feeling is a step in the right direction to creating a story that will keep this age group turning page after page of your latest tween read!
“What is one man’s colon is another man’s comma.” ~ Mark Twain
As a writing teacher, and a working writer, I found the greatest challenge is learning the fine art of punctuation. The secret, I discovered, is writing for the reader's eye. Understanding how the reader approaches text offers you key insight into how to write with clarity and grace.
Readers approach the text by moving left to right. Readers interpret information by this forward projection. Readers expect subject-verb-object structures in sentences. They tend to focus on the verb that resolves the sentence's syntax, and in so doing, tend to resist information until after the verb is identified. This is why concrete subjects and action-oriented verbs carry the weight of the sentence. If the subject is vague or nonexistent, or the verb is passive, the sentence often falls apart.
Because readers project forward, they intuitively search for the subject, skimming over qualifying clauses or phrases that precede the subject. This becomes important in longer sentences, when the subject does not debut until mid-way or beyond. This is why subjects placed as close to the opening of the sentence as possible make for stronger sentences.
Active voice maintains this forward process. It originates with the grammatical subject, flows through the verb, and results in an outcome. Some research suggests that readers understand and remember information more readily when structure corresponds to this cause-effect sequence. Passive structure forces this action in reverse: a subject is either implied or supplied in a subordinate phrase, and the outcome becomes the grammatical subject.
The rhythm of a narrative is found in its punctuation. As sentences crash and fall “like the waves of the sea,” punctuation becomes the music of the language, says Noah Lukeman, in one of my favorite reads, A Dash of Style (2006).
Periods are the stop signs, says Lukeman, and hold the most power in the punctuation universe.
All other marks – the comma, the dash, the colon and semi-colon, and so on – serve only to modify what lies between the periods. Sometimes a usurper, like the exclamation point or the question mark, intervenes, but its control is temporary. Imagine a book without periods, or a book that has periods after every word, and you begin to understand its supreme power.
A well-placed period, especially in battle with one of its usurpers, helps pacing and adds emphasis. It speeds the narrative up in an action-sequence, heightening the drama. For example, can you hear the drum beat in this passage from my book, Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, 2014)?
Bayonets glistening in the hot sun, the wall of men stepped off the rise in perfect order. The cannoneers cheered as the soldiers moved through the artillery line, into the open fields.
The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the Federals sent shell after shall howling into their midst.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
The shells exploded, leaving holes where the earth had been. Shells pummeled the marching men. As one man fell in the front of the line, another stepped up to take his place. Smoke billowed into a curtain of white, thick and heavy as fog, stalking them across the field.
Still they marched on. They held their fire, waiting for the order.
Boom! A riderless horse, wide-eyed and bloodied, emerged from the cloud of smoke. It screamed in panic as another shell exploded.
Boom! All around lay the dead and dying. There seemed more dead than living now. Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood.
Boom! They very earth shook with the terrible hellfire.
Still they marched on.
Long sentences can be very effective to heighten emotional drama even as it slows the action down. In another example from Girls of Gettysburg: “Dawn broke still as pond water, and the army was already on the march, moving east along the Pike. As the bloody sun broke free of the horizon, the mist rose, too. The air heated steadily, another hellfire day.”
But, as the cliché reminds us, there can be too much of a good thing (except chocolate, of course). A string of short sentences can become a choppy ride. Like riding in a Model T Ford. Stuck in the wrong gear. Chug! Chug! Chug! Going over a rutted road. It bounces. And bounces. And bounces. My head hurts. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! Stop. This. Car. And. Let. Me. Out.
And no one wants to read a sentence that never ends, one that goes on and on and on and on, in some stream-of-consciousness rambling of fanciful swooping and looping and drooping that serves no purpose other than to satisfy the writer’s ego.
If the period is the stop sign, then the comma is the speed bump, says Lukeman. It controls the ebb and flow of the sentence’s rhythm. A comma connects and divides. In fact, as Lukeman warns, it’s downright schizophrenic. It divides the sentences into parts, clarifying its meaning, or in some cases, changing its meaning. Consider this favorite Facebook meme: A woman, without her man, is nothing. But, with a wave of the magic punctuation wand, it changes to this: A woman: without her, man is nothing.
A comma connects smaller ideas to create a more powerful idea: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Everyone has heard the saying, placing a comma is like taking a breath in a sentence. But a sentence with too many commas sends the reader into hyperventilation. And one with not enough commas forces the reader to hold her breath unto she turns blue. So, where do you place your comma?
There are a thousand handbooks on punctuation, each offering a thousand rules on where and when to place a comma, and each rule has a thousand exceptions. Perhaps the better question is: what is your purpose in using the comma? As a stylistic devise, I offer that it’s one of the most emotive punctuation marks because it mimics the character’s state of mind. For example, from my Girls of Gettysburg, you know this poor character is frightened: “Weezy sang, quiet as a cricket’s whisper. But in the tiny room, in the dark, it seemed loud enough.”
Somewhere between the period and the comma is the semi-colon. This is the mediator, says Lukeman, and “a bridge between the two worlds.” With a style all its own, the semi-colon connects two thematically-related ideas while maintaining the independence of both.
It can be used to smooth out the choppy ride found in a string of short sentences, or give a breath of air in a long-winded sentence.
However, the semi-colon doesn’t always play well with others. It competes for attention with the comma. Because a semi-colon slows the action down, the effect of a comma and, most especially the period, is minimized.
And then there are colons. Colons are just plain bossy. They don't like to share. They especially don’t like semi-colons, despite the similar names. With a flair for the dramatic, colons are the master magicians: they reveal. (<See what I did there?) Colons hold the audience in suspense, says Lukeman. Then, at the right moment, the writer pulls the curtain back to reveal some fundamental truth of the narrative. Remember the Facebook meme example? A woman: without her, man is nothing.
But too often misunderstood and underappreciated, the colon tends to be reduced to mundane tasks, like signaling lists and offering summaries.
Then, of course, there are the dashes, ellipses, slashes and myriad of other punctuation marks. Alas, I’ve run out of space. In the end, as Noah Lukeman says, punctuation is organic, a complex universe subject to the writer’s purpose and personal tastes. What works in one narrative doesn’t work in every narrative. And for every rule, there is an exception. At its core, however, punctuation is a journey of self-awareness and reveals as much about the writer as it does about the writing.
For more information, you might find these useful:
Boyle, Toni and K.D. Sullivan. The Gremlins of Grammar. NY: McGraw-Hill, 2006.
Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style. NY: WW Norton, 2006.
“Punctuation in skilled hands is a remarkably subtle system of signals, signs, symbols and winks that keep readers on the smoothest road. Too subtle, perhaps: Has any critic or reviewer ever praised an author for being a master of punctuation, a virtuoso of commas? Has anyone every won a Pulitzer, much less a Nobel, for elegant distinctions between dash and colon, semi-colon and comma? ~ Rene J. Cappon, Associated Press Guide to Punctuation
Prompts are all around us. When I do school visits, I refer to the place where our imaginations live as the “Cosmic Goo,” and urge them to wander outside looking and listening to the wonders that spark our imaginations to awake. Nature is a never-ending source of writing inspirations. Because I am a voracious reader, I glean phrases from the books I devour. Since the end of 2011, I have written a poem a day as the means to jump-start my prose writing. I use many of the phrases I’ve underlined in the books I own for my daily poetry prompt.
My favorite writing prompt is to write from the point of view of an animal. It’s a writing exercise I teach in my writing classes as well. I love this writing exercise not only because I’m an animal lover and Crazy Cat Lady (ha) but because it forces you to think from the point of view of someone who is definitely NOT YOU. You have to know and embody the nature and physicality of the animal character, and it forces you to look at story and emotion with a new perspective. It’s a great exercise for point of view writing, and it helps me when I do write another children’s book because I am very conscious of writing from a child’s perspective, which is so different from mine as an adult.
I don’t really write from prompts, but what I try to use as a guideline for all my writing is the use of sensory details: Seeing, Hearing, Feeling, Smelling and Tasting. It’s not always relevant to include all of these details, but it’s good to include at least 3 within a scene. If I feel that I can’t move forward in a story, I’ll “step inside” my character and try to figure out what “I” am seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling or tasting at that point. If my character is neutral, then it’s time to rewrite the scene.
I enjoy finding and thinking about interesting writing prompts, but I don’t have a favorite. I have to confess, when it comes to writing prompts, I usually don’t get past the “thinking about it” stage. However, I used to work for a daily newspaper, and I learned from that experience how valuable it can be to cultivate a habit of writing – in a structured way – every day. And I turn to newspapers, sometimes, when I’m stuck or need a place to start. Headlines can make for some pretty great prompts. Direct quotes are even better – like an overheard piece of conversation. Here’s one that helped me pull FINDING THE MUSIC into focus: “He wanted to rest in peace, but with music.”
You've probably heard the old writing adage "kill your darlings." What this means, essentially, is that you shouldn't be so attached to something in your novel, whether it's a passage of beautiful prose or a whole plotline, that you wouldn't kill it if it would be an improvement.
And it's right. It's so important to do whatever it takes to make your novel better, and even more importantly, to avoid stuffing your novel with every good idea you've ever had or beautiful sentence you've written.
But there's more to leaving things out of your novel than that.
You shouldn't even plan to include all the ideas you have in your drafts. As I alluded to in last week's post on fleshing out characters, there is a ton you should know about your characters and setting that probably won't ever make it into the novel. You should be thinking of some of these ideas with no plans whatsoever to include them unless you really need to.
As the painting atop this post alludes, a novel should be a tip of the iceberg above a much larger base. That base is everything you know about your characters' back stories, the history of your setting and your characters' forefathers, the technology, the government, etc. etc. etc. Chances are only a fraction of this knowledge will ever come into play, because the key to exposition is to only tell the reader what they actually need to know to understand the events of the novel. (I talk much more about exposition in How to Write a Novel). George R.R. Martin is both an exemplar of this rule and a bit of a cautionary tale. Reading the Song of Ice and Fire novels (better known as Game of Thrones), you have an incredible sense of a rich thousand-plus year history of a land where Martin seems to know every speck of dirt. You really have the sense that Martin could, given enough time, write the entire history with as much detail as he has written in the five novels and that he has already invented it all. On the other hand, sometimes it can be confusing and interminable in those novels when this knowledge creeps in arbitrarily.
Know the history of your settings and characters. Use the knowledge well. Just don't use it all.
I’m so excited by these books, I have to pass them along.
First of all, right now you can get for the incredibly low price of $20 this entire story bundle of writing books. I would have bought just one of the books on my own–the horse one by Judith Tarr, since I’m writing a lot of horse scenes these days for The Bradamante Saga and yes, I’d like to make sure I get them right–but then once I saw all the other awesome craft books in this bundle: SOLD. Because every writer can get better, and it’s such a pleasure to read a great craft book by authors who are experts in their field.
And speaking of authors who are experts in their field, the great young adult author Tom Leveen now has a new book out on writing dialogue. Before turning to novels, Tom spent many years in the theater as both an actor and director. I’ve taught writing workshops with him, and his tips for writing great dialogue are always FANTASTIC. Treat yourself to this book. You’ll learn a ton.
Great characters leap off the page and take up residence in our brains. Every quirk, every bit of dialogue, every small detail just reinforces their realness.
But anyone who has written a novel knows that creating characters like that is really, really hard.
Many times characters start off, well, flat. They are plugging a necessary hole in the plot, and you may struggle to breathe life into them. Or they might feel like any other generic character, or, worse, the feel like you're imitating a character from another book or movie.
How do you transform a two-dimensional character into three? How do you perform CPR on a lifeless character?
Here are some tips:
Know what your characters want
This is by far the most important element in bringing a character to life. Every character must want something, and they should be actively trying to get that thing, in such a way that brings them into conflict with other characters and the setting.
We learn a ton about characters by knowing what they value and how they go about trying to get the things they want, especially when they're faced with tradeoffs. Are they in it for themselves or will they do the right thing? Are they ingenious or will they use brute force? Will they give up or persevere?
But whenever you have a lifeless character, you probably have a character who is just going through the motions instead of trying to make their own reality.
Imagine your character going through an average day This is some of the best writing advice I've ever received, courtesy of A Suitable Boy author Vikram Seth: just imagine your character going through their day.
It's so simple, and yet so very effective.
Imagine this character waking up. Where are they? Are they in a bed? Are they in a cave in the woods? What's around them when they wake up? Are there posters on the walls? Are there paintings? What do they look like?
What do they do after they wake up? Do they shower? Do they shave? If they shave, how do they shave? Do they put on makeup? Are they in a rush? Do they take forever? What does their hair look like?
What do they eat for breakfast? Do they start by hunting for food? How do they do that? Is it prepared for them?
Who else is there? Does the character live with their parents? With a clan?
And so on and so on. By the time you're done, you'll know a remarkable amount about your character. This will also help with...
Know your characters' history This may never even enter into the novel, and unless it's relevant to the plot, it shouldn't make it into the novel. (More on this in a subsequent post).
But you should know the basic history of every single one of your characters. Where were they born? Who were their parents? What was the arc of their life? How did they arrive at such a place in life that they're making it into the events of the novel?
The more important the character, the more you should know about their history. Catalog all of this in your series bible.
From there, you should have a reasonably three-dimensional character, and then it's a matter of making them come alive for your reader through good description and dialogue.
But that will be easy. At that point, your character will be fighting their way onto the page.
Art: Portrait of a Woman, Female Figure by Georges BraqueAdd a Comment
Nathan here! My friend Melissa Grey's new novel The Girl at Midnightwill be published on April 28th, and it's already received starred reviews from Kirkus and Booklist. I invited her to write a guest post on her experiences writing her debut novel. Enjoy!
Writing and then subsequently publishing a book is a long, alternately torturous and rewarding experience that teaches you things about yourself you'd never realized before. Here are a few lessons I picked up during the life-affirming, humbling process of writing my first published novel. 1. Having the power of life and death over fictional characters does not make you a god There's something about writing that makes you feel invincible -- when it's going well, at least. The act of creation is startlingly addictive and deliciously empowering. But being the supreme overlord of a fictional world doesn't mean you don't need things like food and sleep. One cannot function on coffee and dreams alone. You have to take care of yourself, even when the muses are clamoring for your attention. 2. Your inner perfectionist might just be your worst enemy Imagine the sounds of nails scraping along a chalkboard. Sometimes writing a first draft feels a lot like that. You look at the drivel you've plopped on the page and your teeth hurt because it's so bad. That's okay. It’s allowed to be bad. I had to learn to give myself permission to be downright awful no matter how badly I wanted to get things right on the first try. Revision is your friend. Revision will save you. But it can't if you never finish the first draft. 3. The shower is an incubator for good ideas Foiled by writer’s block? Hop in the shower. Hit a plot snag? Hop in the shower. Words won't come out right? Hop in the shower. Starting to smell because you've done nothing but write and eat Cheetos for 4 days? Hop in the shower. 4. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not write When I was struggling with a pivotal scene in The Girl at Midnight that takes place in the Fifth Avenue branch of the New York Public Library, I put down my pen and went to the actual building I was writing about. I didn't write. I had my emergency notebook just in case but I spent my time really experiencing the building's beautiful architecture and watching the wild assortment of people who visit it. And then I went home and started that tricky scene anew and it clicked into place. Sometimes, you just need a break to jump start your mind. 5. Accepting criticism doesn't mean applying every bit you receive to your work While writing TGaM I had two critique partners. One of them hated my prologue. The other loved it. One of them adored the first chapter in which we see Ivy’s POV narration (she's the best friend of Echo, the book’s chief protagonist). The other detested it. One of them approves of Caius’ hair style (a little shaggy but still sexy). The other insisted he needed a haircut. You will never please everyone. There will be times when criticisms you receive from trusted sources are in direct opposition to one another. And that's okay. Learning to accept these opposing points of view gracefully while still trusting your gut is a vital skill to develop. There are other things I leaned during the writing process (lactose-free milk is a touch too sweet for blueberry tea, eating a burrito while crying over your manuscript at 4 o'clock in the morning is a decision you'll later regret, you can't listen to the evil Smurf that lives inside your heard that insists you'll be a failure because that Smurf is wrong and can go to hell), but these are the lessons I know I'll hold closest to my heart as I wrap up this trilogy (it's a trilogy!) and go forth into the wild blue yonder.
Melissa Grey was born and raised in New York City. She wrote her first short story at the age of twelve and hasn't stopped writing since. After earning a degree in fine arts at Yale University, she traveled the world, then returned to New York City where she currently works as a freelance journalist. To learn more about Melissa, visit melissa-grey.com and follow @meligrey on Twitter.
Note from Erin: I’m thrilled to welcome New York Times bestselling author Linda Goodnight to PubCrawl today. Her forthcoming novel, The Memory House doesn’t fall within kidlit (our typical focus here on the blog), but Linda’s post touches on something universal to writers: finishing that novel. Her advice is smart and timeless. I’ll let her take it from here…
Even after nearly fifty books, I still don’t feel like an expert, but I have learned a few things on this journey. Let’s face it, writing a book is daunting. Even an old dog like me feels as if I’m about to bungee jump from Mt. Everest every time I start a new book.
The beginning is exciting and words flow with passion, but soon passion becomes plain hard work and a finished product seems impossible. You stall out. You want to quit. In fact, another idea is pushing inside your head to be written. Why not jump ship and go where the excitement is?
I can give you a dozen reasons, but one should suffice-the simple truth that if you don’t trudge on through the not-so-fun mud and finish this book, you likely will never finish any book. Painful but true.
So how do I do it? How do I get from those first thrilling, passionate pages through the boggy, sloggy muddle and to the end?
My advice isn’t anything special, but these are some things that keep me writing whether I’m working on a short romance for Love Inspired or long women’s fiction like my current release, The Memory House.
Set daily goals and keep them. Start small. Writing one page per day will give you a nice fat novel at the end of the year. Each day, five days a week, I tell myself I have to write five pages. If I surpass that goal, and I often do, I’m super pumped. If not, no guilt involved. Either way, I’m moving forward on the manuscript.
Discipline. Allow yourself no excuses. If you truly desire to be a writer, you will sit down and write. People find time for what really matters to them. I’m amazed at the number of people who tell me “someday” they’ll write a book. Someday is now.
Spend a few minutes visualizing the scene and feeling the character’s emotion about the scene before you begin. You’ll be amazed at how fast and how much you can write when you allow your subconscious those few moments to warm up.
Let the story out without censor or editing. Yes, this is hard. Shut off the part of your brain that says the writing stinks and allow yourself to write badly. Vomit the story onto the page and clean up the mess later. First drafts are never the finished product anyway.
Each day, begin 10-15 pages back, lightly editing as you move up to the blank page. By the time you get there, you should be back in the flow of the story.
Stop writing in the middle of the action. Tomorrow, it will be easy to pick up there and keep going.
Have a set time and place to write. As with any habit, the subconscious mind responds to triggers. Once you establish a routine of sitting down at the computer at a certain time and in a certain place, the writing machine in your head will know to turn on.
Limit distractions. This may mean turning off the television, the internet, your phone, and even arranging with your family to give you this quiet time. Protect the work from life’s interruptions.
Know the end of the book and write toward it. Better yet, use an outline. Even if you don’t plot, you need to know at least two or three big turning points in your novel. Write in to and out of those major events. This gives your writing direction and will keep you moving when the way grows weary.
Plan to reward yourself when the book is finished. Promise yourself anything you can afford that you would really enjoy. A new pair of shoes, a day off, dinner and movie, a weekend away. A friend of mine buys herself a piece of jewelry, her passion, after every book is sent to her editor. Find a computer photo of whatever it is and hang it over your work space. Look at it when the going gets tough. Use whatever dangling carrot will keep you motivated.
And there you have them, ten tips to keep you moving and motivated toward that final page. You have a marvelous story inside you, so stay the course, be strong and fight through to the end. The reward of a finished manuscript is a powerful feeling that many aspire to and few accomplish. Be the exception.
New York Times and USA Today bestseller, Linda Goodnight, writes novels to touch the heart as well as to entertain. Her stories of hope have won the RITA , the Carol, the Reviewer’s Choice, and numerous other industry awards.
A small town girl, Linda remains close to her roots, making her home in rural Oklahoma. She and husband have a blended family of eight, including two teenagers recently adopted from Ukraine. Many of her books are about family and children and rightly so, as she draws her emotional stories from her surroundings, her great love of family, and from personal experiences as a nurse and teacher. For more, visit www.LindaGoodnight.com
The setting is often referred to as a novel's canvas, but that's not right at all.
A canvas is blank. It's white. It's unchanging.
If you think of your characters acting within a blank world, no matter how interesting they are it will feel like there's something missing.
Instead, it's crucial to think about what's happening in the broader world of your novel, what is changing, and how these larger forces are impacting your characters. When you do, your novel will feel like more than just an interesting series of events, it will feel deeper, richer, and more meaningful.
One of the (many) elements that elevated Gone Girl above a regular suspense novel was the creeping ways the economic downturn affected the lives of the main characters, from having to move to the Midwest, to the abandoned mall, to Amy's feeling that she couldn't escape her parents' shadow. The characters are acting within a world where they don't have limitless control over their lives.
Or think about the way Sauron is ascendent in The Lord of the Rings, how racial turmoil is a backdrop for To Kill a Mockingbird, how even an apocalyptic setting like Station Eleven is made more interesting by a sense of progress.
The thing about all of this change is that it's feels truer than a static world. We area all living in a world that keeps changing around us, that constrains our choices, that opens up new possibilities, and where new things are invented that alter everything around us.
Map out what's changing in your world just as surely as you map out what your characters do and how they change. Think about your world's government, its moral standards, its religion, its wars, its culture. Find a way to shake things up where it makes sense, and make sure it impacts your characters and plot.
Set that canvas in motion and your characters will feel more alive.
One of the biggest challenges with third person narratives is how to balance multiple perspectives.
This isn't always something beginning writers give much thought. Third person is third person, right? Can't you just jump from one character to another as you need to? Aren't all-seeing perspectives essentially the same?
Head jumping can be really confusing for a reader. It can be wildly disorienting to see three, four, five characters' inner thoughts in succession. You stop feeling anchored in a scene and instead feel like you're swimming through a thought explosion.
There are two main ways to solve this: sticking to third person limited (anchored to one character's perspective) or third person omniscient (Gods-eye). But most novels deviate slightly from these strict categories and cheat from time to time.
Rather than telling you "rules" about omniscient vs. limited vs. hybrid, here are some directional tips that will hopefully help you keep the reader feeling anchored in a scene:
1) Consider separating a shift in perspective with chapter or scene breaks
This is the most straightforward approach to multiple perspectives in a third person limited narrative. Pick a character and stick with their perspective through a cohesive chapter or scene. This is how George R.R. Martin handles the Song of Fire and Ice books (aka Game of Thrones). The novels are anchored by several key characters per novel, and we see what is happening through their eyes.
2) If you're going to break perspective within a scene, think of it as keeping a "camera" in place
Occasionally you might want to remove the narrating character and show something that is happening out of their view, whether in order to show the reader something the main character can't see or because it just makes sense for them to bounce for a second.
If you're going to do this, I compare this to keeping a "camera" in place in the scene. Remove the main character, but keep the narrative going with the other characters who remain. Don't suddenly shift deeply into someone else's thoughts and feelings, but it's okay to linger a bit and show something the anchoring character shouldn't be able to see.
When/if the character returns, you can slide back into showing their thoughts.
3) If you're using a more omniscient third person perspective, imagine the narrator as a fully-fledged character
Third person omniscient allows more head-jumping and more flexibility in showing various thoughts and motivations. But it's tricky to keep things consistent and avoid disorientation.
Rather than thinking of the narrative jumping from one character to the next, imagine that there is an unseen narrator who is observing the action.
This does two crucial things. One, it smooths things out for the reader, because rather than taking into account multiple perspectives and biases, you're seeing things essentially from one point of view. The other is that it stops you from diving so deeply into one character that it's jarring to shift to another character's thoughts.
This omniscient narrator doesn't have to actually be a real, named character, but it's helpful to think of them this way so you tell the narrative through a consistent perspective.
4) The more the perspective is limited, the deeper the inner thoughts. The more omniscient the perspective, the shallower the thoughts
This isn't a hard and fast rule, but generally, if you have tied the perspective very closely to one character you can go as deep as you want into what they're thinking. It won't be jarring for the reader to see inner monologues, straightforward thoughts, etc.
If you have a more omniscient perspective that includes multiple characters, you may want to stick more to observing outside, physical actions and general, apparent emotions rather than diving too deeply into what multiple characters are thinking. This way we're seeing what's happening on the outside rather than having to wonder how it is that we're jumping around to what everyone is thinking.
Have you tried balancing multiple perspectives in a novel? How did you handle it?
Over the weekend (Feb. 7), I taught a breakout session at the Annual Winter Conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators here in New York, NY. We were discussing how to write for a diverse audience. My main focus was on helping the audience to remember that no matter what you’re writing, your audience will always be diverse. Too often, writers think that there’s a dichotomy–that there are “multicultural books” that are read by kids of color, and that “everyone else” (meaning, white kids) read “mainstream” (meaning, white) books.
This just isn’t the case. Readers tend to read widely, and kids of color are just like their white peers, reading the most popular books, the books assigned to them in schools, and whatever else they happen to come across that sounds interesting to them.
Below are the links and a few notes from the handout I gave to writers at the conference, with a few annotations to clarify what we were talking about. I hope it is a useful resource when you’re thinking of writing for a diverse audience (i.e., when you’re thinking of writing–period!). If you have any further ideas–or links where writers can go further in depth–please add them in the comments.
Seven Essentials You Need to Know about Writing for a Diverse Audience
Don’t feel “forced” to write diversity, but remember your readers are diverse
If your real-life world isn’t diverse, if you don’t know any people of color, if you don’t know how to write diverse characters without relying on stereotypes, you don’t have to feel pressured to do so.
And don’t feel like you need to come in and “save” anyone—come in from a position of equality and seeking equity.
However, your world is likely more diverse than you think.
Writing across POC cultures—what is the individual dynamic?
Expand your definition of “diversity.”
Diversity is not just about race, religion, class, etc. It is often about how many different identity markers come together to create a specific experience. Here’s a basic definition of intersectionality. Think about how it affects your characters.
the most important thing about a diverse book is the same thing as for all books. What matters most:
Age-appropriate content (though not shying away from edgy topics)
Contextual clues are better than exposition of culture.
Show, don’t tell!
Remember that your audience includes cultural insiders and outsiders. Balance enough information for outsiders with the possibility of boring insiders with too much basic everyday information.
School visits are a great way to reach diverse students.
At the beginning of your career, be willing to do school visits or Skype visits for a low honorarium, until you can build up your resume and network with more teachers.
Keep in mind that schools with a high percentage of diverse students are often the most underfunded. They may not have a budget for an honorarium, but may be able to purchase books for students to compensate.
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.
The Chinese have a theory that there are five different tastes in food— sweet, spicy, bitter, salty, and sour— and if you have each of these five elements in a meal, then food will be more satisfying. You won’t be searching in the fridge 30 minutes later for that something you can’t quite put your finger on that you are missing.
It’s the same thing for writing books. There are five elements that every book needs to make it every bit as satisfying.
Scientists say that laughing does two things: it helps us to bond with people, and it lessens tension and anxiety. Both are VERY important in fiction. We want our readers to bond with our characters. (As an added bonus, it’ll help the reader bond with you as the author!) And at key points, like right after an intense scene or even during a stressful scene, we can use it to lessen tension and anxiety.
2. Horror / Scariness
Even if horror isn’t your main genre, there are plenty of ways to occasionally frighten your reader. Even things as simple as having your character walk through a creepy setting or leaving a chapter at a cliffhanger will go a long way in adding horror to your book. The big key is to make your reader afraid: they don’t want to know what will happen; they want to worry about what might happen.
A mystery in a book, such as information the character wants to find out, can keep a reader glued to the story. So build curiosity— even if it’s something like whether a character is a friend or foe, or what the key that they found goes to. Hint about things— like a monster, a treasure, or what’s around the next corner. But NEVER try to build a mystery by making things unclear. That’s confusion, not a mystery.
4. Action / Adventure
It’s a good idea to not go too long without action in your books. I’m not saying your characters have to run for their lives or jump off a cliff (although I am quite fond of characters jumping off a cliff :)). Action can be things as simple as running to make the train. Sneaking around somewhere they shouldn’t be. Being caught in a rainstorm. Something that gets the characters moving. Preferably fast.
5. A Sense of Wonder
Some genres— fantasy and scifi, especially— evoke a sense of wonder quite strongly. But it can be added in any genre through fascinating characters, looking at an everyday something very differently than you’ve looked at it before, or with an interesting setting. Think of where you’d love to go on vacation the most. You want to go there because of the sense of wonder that setting will evoke, right? Whenever you can, think about putting your characters in a more interesting setting. Why have a conversation happen in a boring kitchen, when it can happen in the woods, at a construction site, in a museum? Use things that will get the reader to stop and think about what is possible. To stop and look at something closely. The wonder they’ll create themselves.
If you put some of each of those 5 things in your book, when a reader finishes, they won’t be searching their Kindle for the something they’re missing that they can’t quite put their finger on. They’ll be texting all their friends about how they have to read your book.
Peggy grew up in an area filled with untamed places to explore, with parents who allowed her to be daring, and with resourceful siblings, which combined to make her middle grade years one giant action / adventure story. The magic of those years has never truly left Peggy, and she can’t help but tap into them as she writes books like Sky Jumpers and The Forbidden Flats. Today, Peggy lives at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Utah, and hangs out online at her website, blog, Twitter, and Facebook.
"In his 47 brilliant rules, Nathan Bransford has nailed everything I've always wanted to tell people about writing a book but never knew how. Wonderfully thought out with lots of practical examples, this is a must-read for anyone brave enough to try their hand at a novel. It's also a great review for experienced writers. Highly recommended."
Ghost stories are an unusual taste for a six year old, but by this age Joan Aiken was relishing them: I had already read Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James, and nearly died of delicious terror at “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You”. Searching for more fodder of a similar kind – […]
This is an excerpt from a work in progress called How to Write YA. It’s a companion to my current book, Afterworlds, about a young novelist living in NYC. (More on this page.) You can also listen to me talking about Afterworlds and about NaNoWriMo here on Wisconsin Public Radio, or join me for a NaNoWriMo chat on Tuesday, Nov 4 at 5:30PM EST on Spreecast.
Point of View
Point of view is hard. It’s complicated, subtle, and confusing, and POV failure is one of the most common reasons why agents and publishers cast aside submissions half read.
To make things worse, a lot of the writing advice on the subject is unhelpful or downright wrong. Much of the terminology is broken. (“Limited omniscience” makes about as much sense as “casual nuclear attack.”) And, as I spent the previous post pointing out, POV is at the core of the novel’s primary affordance—getting us into someone else’s head.
So I’m going to talk about POV first, and at length. I’m going to invent some of my own terminology and use some old terms in new ways. (If you hate that sort of thing, go away.)
To start with the obvious: point of view isn’t one thing; it’s a toolbox. The tools inside this box can be combined in many ways, and the tools themselves are like adjustable wrenches—each possesses its own continuum of settings.
So let’s break POV into four basic elements:
1) Viewpoint (where the information of the narrative comes from)
2) Person and tense (the grammar of the narration)
3) Distance (the immediacy of the narration to the events of the story)
4) Voice (the personality of the narration, especially its attitude toward the reader).
I’m not saying that this schema is the One True Way to discuss POV. In fact, I intend these categories to be a bit weird and vexatious, as a way to break up your assumptions about how POV works. Because bad assumptions are everywhere.
For example, I frequently see people saying, “First person present tense is a very immediate way to tell a story!” Which is crap. The grammar of a narrative and its distance are two different things.
Take this story opening:
The summer has been long and boiling, my body changing in ways I don’t understand yet, my mind tangling in those changes’ wake. So it’s a mystery how I first get the idea to set fire to the home of the only girl I’ve ever loved.
Yes, it’s in present tense and first person, but there’s an elegiac lilt to the language, a sense that everything has already taken place. The grammar doesn’t change that.
But let’s say you started the story this way:
It was a hot day, and Roger was bored and itchy.
“Let’s set fire to Cindy’s house,” he said.
This is in the past tense and third person, but it’s way more immediate, with the story happening in real time before our eyes. In other words, the grammar doesn’t determine distance. Far more important is the way the story is told.
Some of you might be saying, “But wouldn’t it be more immediate in present tense?” To which I say, Maybe a little, but please note that every single other difference between the two passages is more important.
My division of POV into four elements is a way to remind you of this fact, that there are no shortcuts to getting the right voice or distance or viewpoint. You never get to say, “I picked present tense, so my novel is awesome and intense!”
Over the next few weeks, I’ll go through each of the four elements in detail: viewpoint, grammar (person and tense), distance, and finally voice. For now, let’s start with viewpoint in its most basic form.
Single Limited Viewpoint
As I said above, viewpoint simply means where the information in a novel comes from.
Does it come from one character? From many? From an invisible camera that sees all (but doesn’t know what anyone’s thinking)? Is the narrator a bodiless entity of great wisdom who knows the future and the past? Or is the novel simply a compilation of documents found in an abandoned vault? (If so, who wrote them? Who compiled them?) Is the narrator a trickster, a liar, a mad person? Or a writer at a desk talking directly to you, the reader?
Or is the universe itself talking to you?
Over centuries of writing, writers have experimented with a dizzying range of viewpoints, allowing the novel to reinvent itself time and again. If you never experiment with viewpoint in your writing life, you will be a very boring writer indeed.
But let’s start simply, with single limited viewpoint.
In this mode, all the reader can ever learn is what one character experiences. You’ve read tons of books like this. My own Uglies series is one example. From the early twentieth century, SLV has become perhaps the dominant mode of the novel. Indeed, there are people out there who will tell you that this is the Only Correct Viewpoint. (They are benighted, tiny people. But they exist.)
Why is it so popular? Here’s my guess:
In the single limited viewpoint, readers bond very closely with one narrator. All we ever find out is what that person sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes, thinks, believes, and knows. We’re living inside their head, so we can’t help but start to identify with their desires, needs, and opinions. This bonding process is what makes reading so immersive and transformative. It turns us into another person.
This is what keeps us up at night with a flashlight.
So how does it work?
I’m about to show you lots of examples. Unless otherwise noted, I’m just making these up on the fly. They aren’t great literature, but they’re not meant to be. They’re more like those plastic models of flowers at the science museum—they aren’t as lovely as real flowers, but they’re useful for showing you how stuff works.
Here we go:
Arnold frowned. “I’m not quite sure what you’re asking me.”
Behind him, a group of sailboats were gliding past on the bay. Maria watched their sails flutter and fill, trying to ignore the way his eyes flashed when he teased her.
“I was asking, um, if you wanted to get coffee?” A cool droplet of sweat crept down the inside of her arm.
After a long moment, the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face. It felt like daybreak.
“I like coffee,” he said.
Clearly, we are in Maria’s viewpoint here, not Arnold’s. We can see Arnold’s facial expressions and the boats behind him (which he presumably can’t see). We feel Maria’s sweat on her skin, and her emotions as well. When Arnold’s smile is “like daybreak,” that’s what it feels like to Maria, not to Arnold.
Importantly, we can’t see Maria. Unless she looks in a mirror (argh!) she’s mostly invisible to us.
But even invisible, she does know things about herself. Let’s continue a bit:
“I like coffee,” he said.
Maria smiled, straightening the cambric shirt she’d worn especially for Arnold. He’d said he liked the shirt—a month ago?—and she’d worn it often since. “Glad to hear that. I like coffee too.”
Maria doesn’t need a mirror to know she’s smiling, or what clothes she put on this morning. That information is in her head, so it’s available to us in single limited viewpoint. More important, we also know why she put on that shirt, because Maria knows why, and she’s just had a moment of self-consciousness about it.
Facial expressions can be tricky, because they can be sensed from the inside or seen from the outside. In first passage, I wrote, “the barest hint of a smile crossed Arnold’s face.” That wouldn’t work for Maria, because a “hint of a smile” is something perceived at from the outside. For a hinted smile in her own viewpoint, I might try something like: “Maria felt a smile playing at her lips, and swallowed it.”
See the difference?
When you’re writing in limited single viewpoint, every piece of information you put into the text—physical details, actions, mood, even the simplest background knowledge about the world—has to pass these tests: Does your viewpoint character know about this? Would your viewpoint character notice this? Does you viewpoint character have the capacity to understand this?
If you can’t answer yes to all those questions, then you have to leave that detail out.
In a way, the text of your novel becomes the viewpoint character. When they think or feel something, the reader doesn’t have to be told it’s the character thinking or feeling it; the character’s mind simply imbues the text. This is why we talk about limited viewpoint as “being in a character’s head.”
Let’s look at another example:
Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
If this were the first paragraph of a novel, we’d know right away that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint. This fact affects everything about the text. For example:
Billy stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green . . .
The nasty color of the wall is Billy’s opinion, not objective reality. Also, the foulness of the green probably reflects his current mood more than any permanent opinion about the wall. (Some of you may recall how the protagonist’s bad mood informs the color of sky at the start of Uglies.)
And check this out:
[The wall] had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings.
Billy probably wasn’t there when the wall was painted. If he had been, the lazy painter would be a specific person, not “someone.” This laziness is Billy’s assumption, based on his observations in the present. But here’s the important part: even though Billy lives in this house, he’s noticing the sloppy paint job at this exact moment. His sulky mood has infected every detail of the room (and every detail of the text).
At this point, the reader might already be wondering why this guy is in such a crappy mood. And the text answers:
Behind [the wall], Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something.
Let’s assume Billy can’t see through walls, but he can recognize his parents’ voices. Note that the argument is “about something,” without specifics, which probably means the words are muffled. (It’s also possible that Billy doesn’t care about his parents’ arguments anymore, and so isn’t listening particularly hard.)
Also, notice that it’s just “Mom and Dad,” not “Billy’s mom and dad.” Even though this is third-person, it’s as if Billy is talking to us. We’re inside his brain, where Mom and Dad are pretty much their names.
Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
This prediction about the coming car trip is Billy’s best guess, based on his past experiences and his current crappy mood.
The cool thing is, the writer doesn’t have to explain that these are Billy’s observations and guesses and assumptions. Readers already know the conventions of limited viewpoint and understand that character and text are extensions of each other.
Look at what happens if we get rid of these assumptions:
Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a color of green that he found foul, apparently by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. From behind it came the muffled sounds of Billy’s mother and father screaming at each other. He sighed, guessing that it was going to be another dismal drive to his grandmother’s place.
This passage spells out the machinery of limited viewpoint, rather than just letting it happen. It makes for clumsy prose. Ironically, by constantly reminding us that we’re in Billy’s viewpoint, this language forces us out of Billy’s viewpoint.
Of course, the writer might not want to be so closely in Billy’s head, because he’s a minor character who’s about to die, or because it makes this scene too depressing. But you have to admit that second version is clunkier.
Let’s see what happens to the passage if Billy is a different sort of person. What he sees and hears may be exactly the same, and yet everything changes:
Billy stared at the wall. It had been painted a mismatched forest green (Pantone 363?) by someone too barbaric to tape the moldings. Through the thin drywall came muffled screaming—the lord and lady of the house had been at it all morning. “Customers,” Billy sighed. It was going to be another tense morning of arguments over carpet samples and color swatches.
Meet Billy 2, an interior decorator. He’s more aware of color than Billy 1. For him, people who paint sloppily are demoted from “lazy” down to “barbaric.” Billy 2 casually identifies details of the wall’s construction. (Billy 1 might know what drywall is, but he probably wouldn’t think it.) Also note that Billy 2 isn’t as depressed as Billy 1. Your own parents fighting may be “dismal,” but your customers arguing is merely “tense.”
This is what makes limited viewpoints so powerful: everything changes when the observer changes. This means that we learn as much about a character by how they see reality as by their actions and choices. You don’t have to make your narrator look in an actual mirror, because the whole world becomes their mirror.
(Protip: never make your character look in an actual mirror.)
And now for an important aside. As I was so strenuously pointing out above, viewpoint is separate from person. In other words, all this stuff works exactly the same way in first-person as it does in third-person. Check this out:
I stared at the wall. It was dirty, and had been painted a foul color of green by someone too lazy to tape the moldings. Behind it, Mom and Dad were screaming at each other about something. Which meant it was going to be another dismal Sunday drive to Grandma’s place.
That’s right. I change one word and this passage goes from third-person to first, from Billy’s viewpoint to “mine.” That’s what I meant about POV tools being interchangeable. (I’ll get back to first- and third-person in a later chapter. Just wanted to point out again that person is separate from viewpoint. I like repeating things. Repeating things is good. We learn through repetition!)
Let’s look at some more examples of how viewpoint informs text. Here’s the first of three characters witnessing a fighter jet fly past:
An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single engine, which threw those tons of metal up into the sky like so much thistledown.
Okay. What do we know about this character? They know a lot about fighter jets, clearly. In fact, one might say they love military aircraft, because the language of the passage reflects that affection.
Now let’s see the same event through the eyes of a non-enthusiast:
The fighter plane shot past, furiously loud and low to the ground, its metal skin mottled with gray and green. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, and a moment later it was gone.
See how all that technical info about engines and afterburners disappeared? Those facts are outside the knowledge base of the narrator. They can’t show up in this story without another character filling them in.
More important, the love is gone. This character has no great affection for fighter jets, so the poetry of the passage fades into more mere observation. So does that mean the first narrator is better, because they allow access to all the writer’s lovingly researched details?
Maybe not. As a reader opening a novel to that first passage, I’d be pretty certain that many cool airplane facts were in my future. This will thrill some readers; others will put the book down. In some ways that enthusiastic first character is also limited by their knowledge, because they can’t look at a jet plane without thinking of its technical specifications. Which might get old after a few hundred pages.
Also, sometimes a character who doesn’t know things is more interesting than one who does. Check out this version:
The sky was splitting, tearing open along the red horizon. The hills around Hera roared and shrieked, the earth itself shuddering in terror. A shape caught her nervous eyes for a moment—a knife hurtling through the air. But then with a furious bellow, it disappeared into the sky, leaving only a sharp scent behind, like the tar pits when lightning had set them burning.
This passage is clearly describing the same event, but there’s nothing about airplanes. That’s weird.
If this were the first paragraph of a novel, the reader might not even realize what was going on. But Hera isn’t stupid or unobservant. In fact, she noticed something the other narrators missed: the lingering scent of expended jet fuel, which smells like . . . a tar pit?
Of course! This is one of those books where a stone-age woman travels through time and sees a jet fighter. (Or maybe the jets have gone back to hunt mastodons. Yeah, I’m going with that.) As such, Hera lacks any frame of reference for what a jet is. She barely understands that all this sound and fury is caused by a flying object. To her, it’s more like the sky is shaking itself apart. It might take a few scenes for the reader to grasp what these noisy sky-things are. (Of course, the cover would probably show jets shooting at mastodons. But let’s just ignore that.)
Having a viewpoint character who’s thrown out of their usual frame of reference can be a glorious thing. In speculative fiction, characters often find themselves in other eras, on other planets, or facing revelations of magic hidden beneath the surface of the everyday world. The narrator who steps through a portal and doesn’t know what’s going on is a great stand-in for the reader, because everything is new and shiny to them. They’re being introduced to the novel’s alternate world at the same time the reader is.
So which do you choose? A narrator who knows a little? A lot? Nothing at all?
Partly it depends on how much of your story depends on technical details. If you’re telling a story about someone stealing a stealth fighter, an expert narrator is probably the way to go. If you’re making the point that modern technology has godlike potential to do damage to the world, maybe it’s better to show it from a stone-age hunter’s perspective than a jet pilot’s.
Repeat this before bed each night in November: The meaning of a story is molded by the eyes we show it through.
Another key is consistency. In other words, don’t cheat. You have to stick with what your character knows, or have them learn new things in a reasonable time frame. If you have a narrator suddenly remember the dragon-slaying class they took in high school or that time they learned ancient Greek, you bounce your reader out of the protagonist’s head.
And a broken viewpoint is a broken novel. (< -Also repeat this daily.)
Of course, knowledge isn't the only thing that makes people who they are. Characters are also their beliefs, assumptions, and politics. In other words, their worldview.
Let's go back to the non-expert character watching the jet, with some edits:
The fighter plane shot past, its metal skin mottled gray and green, so furiously loud and low to the ground that I feared it would crash. Then it tipped sideways, a sudden black triangle against the dawn, its roar redoubling, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.
The big change here isn’t knowledge, it’s attitude. For this character, contour-hugging maneuvers are unfamiliar and scary, which makes them nervous for the safety of the pilot. And they can’t watch a display of military hardware without thinking of the social costs. The poetry of the aircraft enthusiast has been replaced by an acid tone.
Our beliefs—political, religious, and ethical—are the lenses through which we see the world. These parts of a character’s personality inform the text just as much as their knowledge, mood, and senses.
On top of which, people are complicated. One last jet flyover:
An F-104 Starfighter in camouflage livery shot past, hugging the contours of the land, drenching the valley with sound and fury. It tipped sideways, silhouetting its trapezoidal wings against the dawn, then let tear with the afterburner of its single J79 engine. Those tons of metal were thrown up into the sky like so much thistledown, no doubt expending enough fuel to have heated my humble schoolhouse for a whole winter.
Plot twist! This character both loves the charismatic fury of military aircraft and hates their social and economic costs. (Urban legend: The conflict is coming from inside the house!) This is why single limited can be so powerful, because a character’s inner struggle can imbue the language of the novel itself.
It’s up to the writer to put all this together. With every sentence, you have to remember the constraints of your character’s senses, the colors of their mood, the extent and zeal of their knowledge base, and the repercussions of their beliefs and principles.
It’s not easy. But if you do your job well, readers don’t just bond with your narrator, they become them. They start noticing the same details, feeling the same anxieties, and even dreaming the same dreams.
That’s how novels change the way that people see the world.
So why don’t we write every novel in single limited viewpoint? Given that YA lit is so concerned with the teenage experience, surely this kind of immersive storytelling is what we should be aiming for.
Here’s the problem: The greatest strength of single limited viewpoint is also its greatest drawback. Because we’re so closely aligned with one character, our experiences are limited to theirs. As a writer, you’re trapped with one pair of eyes. This limits how many events the reader can witness first-hand, and how much you can reveal of the world you’ve created.
If you want to show how the awesome plumbing system of Dwarf Castle works, you’ll have to make your narrator a dwarven plumbing expert. (Um, yay.) If there are exciting things happening in two places at the same time, your reader only gets to witness one of them. If a serial killer is secretly stalking the narrator, the reader won’t know this—and will feel zero suspense—until the narrator finds out about it. (And then it’s not secret stalking anymore, is it?)
But the biggest constraint of the single limited viewpoint is not of senses or knowledge, but of belief. Your text is trapped within a single set of assumptions, a single ethical framework. A character’s beliefs may change over time, but you can’t show both sides of an issue at once.
Those of you who’ve read my Leviathan books, try to imagine them with only a Clanker perspective, and no Darwinist characters, or vice versa. The whole point of the series would vanish. With single limited viewpoint, you never get a first-hand look at what it’s like to be the bad guy. You may never discover that from a different perspective, all that badness was completely justified. And don’t forget that about half the YA audience is teenagers, who have been known to question authority. They are open to the idea that truth doesn’t flow from single well.
So sometimes you have to bust out of this single-character thing.
In the next post, I’ll talk about multiple-character viewpoints.
In addition to discussing Shark Vs. Train and Attack! Boss! Cheat Code!, Katie and I talked quite a bit about my email newsletter, Bartography Express, which I wrote about earlier this year for Cynsations. And in fact, while I was listening to our interview, I was actually putting the finishing touches on this month’s edition.
The November edition includes, among other things, a Q&A with K.A. Holt and a giveaway of her new book, Rhyme Schemer. If you want to receive this issue in your very own inbox and get in the running for the giveaway, you can sign up on my home page.
This year is already 1/26th over! I swear 2013 ended five minutes ago. I'm going to blink and it'll be 2016, and then I'll nap for a bit and it'll be the year 3016 and all of our consciousnesses will be uploaded to the cloud and easily downloaded into teeny-tiny robots that can roam outer space and the bottom of the ocean. It'll be grand. In the meantime: a very belated New Year post!
Speaking of time being weird, I forget how long I have been keeping this blog for. I have five years worth of New Year posts (here they are, in reverse chronological order: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010) and I had to write a sixth or it would ruin the continuity. Blogs are like funny little personal time machines that anyone can access. This time last year I was binge-watching The Walking Dead; this year it's Game of Thrones and Supernatural. I've totally evolved as a person, clearly.
My 2014 highlights: All This Could End was longlisted for the Gold Inky. I taught a workshop for young writers at QWC for a week, and had lots of other lovely school and library visits. I finished writing a manuscript and worked on two others. I graduated from one course I was studying and started a double degree. There are probably a lot of other things I'm forgetting.
My 2015 goals: write every day (so many novel ideas!), blog more, study smarter (less binge-studying at the last minute! Why do I do this to myself?), have more fun and adventures and stop stressing quite so much. It's all very unnecessary. (My goals are not all that different from when I was fifteen.)
I don't have any big scary goals this year, more habits I want to put in place, but I've had big goals in the past that I managed to achieve and big goals that I sort of... forgot about. So: maybe you want to write or publish a book in 2015. Which can seem like a very intimidating goal, but it's very possible. Here are the best ways I know to make big scary goals way more likely to be achieved (obviously with reference to writing books, because that's what I know. But I think you can apply these to anything):
Make yourself accountable to someone. Tell people about your goals! People who will ask how everything is going later in the year - make sure you get some work done so that you can answer truthfully rather than vaguely. Promise a friend that you'll send them the next chapter of your novel every Friday at lunchtime. Preferably the sort of friend who will come over in the afternoon if you fail to do so and take away your modem and uninstall all the programs on your computer except Word. Join online forums or enter in challenges or writing sprints (this is why NaNoWriMo is so great: community! time limits! pressure!). If you do not have deadlines from an external source, create them, and make sure someone will hassle you if you miss them. If you don't tell anyone and no-one's checking up on you, it's really easy to just let things fall by the wayside and wait till next year and have the same goals again. Which we don't want! You can do it! You just need someone to yell at you! Or, be supportive and encouraging. Either, both. It all works.
Make a daily habit of it. Everyone is different, but I do think that the best way to get work done is to work consistently, a little bit every day. I tend more towards binge-writing sporadically and then stewing on ideas but not actually writing for a few weeks, and then it's always harder to get back into it. If it's something that's really important to you, and you don't want to forget about it, make it a daily habit. Tell everyone that you write from 7:00p.m. until 7:30p.m., and then write. Put it in your day-planner/Filofax/Google Calendar/iPhone/scheduler of choice. Make it an important and immovable commitment. You wouldn't miss an appointment with your hairdresser (I hope you wouldn't), so you shouldn't miss an appointment with... yourself, I guess? And your goals? (Talking to yourself is optional. I enjoy it, it contributes to my writing process.)
Make sure your goal really means something to you. It's much easier to motivate yourself to work towards something you want more than anything else in the world. There are a lot of people I know who say that they would like to write a book, but for whom writing is not of central importance in their life. It is incredibly difficult to put work into something day after day unless it's something about which you're passionate (or something for which you're being paid or there's some other obligation). Big important difficult goals that involve a lot of work over a long period of time (like, writing and publishing a book) are challenging to achieve, but borderline impossible if you don't have really strong motivation. Don't set goals that aren't really important to you, personally - there's not enough new years for resolutions that are really from other people/society (for example, weight loss).
Take small steps. The other day I went on a big walk over a big hill. My life is incredibly thrilling. If I thought about the entire trip at once it seemed overwhelming. So I told myself I only had to walk to the next tree. That was manageable. So I walked to the next tree. Super cool. Walked to the next tree. Eventually got over the hill. No big deal. Manageable steps. I thought to myself, this'll be a great metaphor for my blog. I didn't really. It's a terrible metaphor. At one point I thought I was going to faint and I realised hiking at midday in Queensland in the summer was a bad idea. Not really relevant. What I'm saying is: don't think about the whole thing at once. You don't have to write a whole novel. You just have to write a hundred words. How manageable is that? Then you write another hundred. Repeat until book reaches desired length. That's how books get written.
Enjoy the journey. I don't want to sound like a hippy guru yogini, but I think a lot of the time people want to achieve something because they perceive that they'll feel different once they've achieved that thing: happy, or confident, or cool, or proud. I know this is true for me, and it's definitely true for goals related to weight loss - people believe they'll be happier when they're thinner. Unfortunately the reality of things is often very different to what we fantasise about. Once you achieve something, you will just aspire towards something else. It's absolutely worth aspiring to be your 'best self' or whatever else, but enjoy the process of working towards your goals, because you likely won't feel hugely different once you achieve them. (I still fully expect I will reach a certain level of success as a writer and suddenly become a Glamorous Novelist. Delusional, I know.)
I hope you are having a most splendid 2015 so far, and you manage to achieve everything you set out to achieve this year. Don't stress if your resolutions don't work out. You're probably pretty awesome already. I wish you a year of good reading, good writing, good fun, lots of lovely people to be with and lots of lovely places to go and just lots of magic, generally.
P.S. Here are my five favourite blog posts from last year:
You bet they do! Authors know what buttons to push.
By ‘what buttons to push’ I mean what buttons do authors use to manipulate (yep, being honest) their readers’ emotions, to get them on side with the characters in their books. For example, perhaps the author creates unlikeable, evil antagonists and emphasizes the sterling qualities of his protagonists.
The most obvious ploy is the ticking clock. It not only lends urgency but it yanks the reader along at a rush, keeping him intrigued.
Then there’s characterization. Of course in this dynamic world, what worked ten years ago may not have the same appeal in 2014. The innocent 1960s virgin, so prevalent in romances of that time, would drive a reader from 2014 to drink. We are much more cynical, well-informed and downright demanding than we were then. Historically though, some classics retain their appeal because they are much more than the sum of their characters’ emotions. To Kill A Mockingbird’s racial tensions are still not outmoded today, and that lazy description of the syrupy south’s inbred attitudes is not far from the truth in some out-of-the-way places. And that is why books like these are classics. They endure not just because of the characters in the books but because of the settings and historical attitudes. And Harper Lee manipulated the readers’ emotions. Think of the way she pushes Scout’s lack of desire to be a ‘lady’ so that the reader is on Scout’s side.
Perhaps today’s writers manipulate the readers in more subtle ways. What of Dick Francis’s heroes who are often of the working class up against a criminal upper class or just up against class bigotry where he is on the outside looking in? Dick Francis does that so well that even if the protagonist is not your usual Everyman, the reader is still very much on his side. That’s right. The modern protagonist need not be a perfect hero as he has been in novels and movies of the past. Some have patchy backgrounds and they’ve made mistakes.
There’s Lee Child’s Jack Reacher who thrums a string in every male heart. They all want to be Jack with his freedom and lack of possessions but with an innate sense of responsibility. And of course Jack has been in the military and knows how to handle himself in vicious situations. Every man’s dream. There are a lot of wannabe Jacks out there. And Lee knows how to manipulate those readers.
Tami Hoag’s heroines are believably imperfect. They make mistakes and have hang-ups that readers can empathise with and they frequently have to form alliances with people they don’t trust. There’s that little brush of reality that lends credence to the stories.
So…empathy and sympathy are the buttons. And the harder those buttons are pushed by authors and movie makers, the more a reader/viewer becomes invested in the characters. We need to see how the protagonists get themselves out of a bind, or if the evil antagonists get their come-uppance. And the best books of all are where you know darned well that the author is pushing your buttons, but you just don’t care. The book is so good! ~Vonnie
Vonnie Hughes is a multi-published author in both Regency books and contemporary suspense. She loves the intricacies of the social rules of the Regency period and the far-ranging consequences of the Napoleonic Code. And with suspense she has free rein to explore forensic matters and the strong convolutions of the human mind. Like many writers, some days she hates the whole process, but somehow she just cannot let it go.
Vonnie was born in New Zealand, but she and her husband now live happily in Australia. If you visit Hamilton Gardens in New Zealand be sure to stroll through the Japanese Garden. These is a bronze plaque engraved with a haiku describing the peacefulness of that environment. The poem was written by Vonnie.
Recently, my son-in-law (SIL) told me about this documentary he watched in his university course about the penal system in the 1950s. He’s studying law enforcement and this documentary was a case study where they took students to live in a prison-like setting. Half the students were told that they were the prisoners and the other half were the guards. The take home message from this case study was that ALL the students fell into their roles and didn’t veer from them. If they were prisoners, then they were stuck in character. If guards, that’s who they became. This got me thinking. Our thoughts are so powerful. If we BELIEVE we’re writers, and practice this ROLE, then by God, we begin to FEEL like writers.
Sometimes it’s a matter of unplugging from the hard-wiring we’ve had growing up. As children, we fall into roles quite easily and sometimes are stuck in these roles for the rest of our lives. An ‘A’ student will always be the smart one. The ‘C’ student won’t. When I began the journey to be a published author, at first I thought only teachers or people with masters in English or in creative writing were good enough to be authors. It was a huge obstacle to overcome for me mentally, but overcome I did. I broke the mold that I was stuck in for years.
Once I retrained my mind, I developed a positive mental attitude, and I found that I started to feel free from the limitations I grew up with. It really didn’t matter if I didn’t possess an English degree or MFA, I knew I could learn to become a published author by sheer determination, perseverance, patience, and practice. I had the time to invest in following my heart, and I did.
I made a commitment. I scheduled my time. And I asked for support from my family or friends when I needed it. Remember the only thing holding you back from your writing aspirations is YOU. Break out of the role that’s keeping you from your dreams. You’ll be happier and healthier in the long run.
Thanks a heap for reading my blog. If you have time, please leave a comment and share what YOU do to create the role of writer for yourself. Cheers!