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1. Device-Free Day. You In?

I returned from the inspiring Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College yesterday to this tweet from Elizabeth Law, reader and editor extraordinaire:

If I could blush, I would have.

In an age of digital hullabaloo, one of my life goals is to avoid screens and plugs from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday. Apparently, I've discoursed about that publicly. The problem was that I was reading the tweet first thing Sunday morning.

At the Festival, I was reminded again that maintaining a 24/7 digital connection can suck the storytelling right out of you. Creative work flourishes with the age-old practice of a weekly day of rest, during which we enjoy a five-senses attentive delight in the present.

That's why I am going to renew my device-free habit from sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday.

But this time, I don't want to do it just for me and my stories. I want to invite you into this practice with me (not exactly with my rules and schedule—feel free to make up your own), so that many, many good stories might emerge.

If you want to join me in taking a one-day-a-week break from email, social media, and internet browsing, and/or refraining from screens and plugs altogether, I invite you to use #devicefreeday to begin your 24-hour hiatus. During your digital break, rest, play, and be present in your place with your people. Let the stories come!

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2. Introverted: The Writer’s Power and Downfall

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Vagabonds by Darcy Pattison


by Darcy Pattison

Giveaway ends May 09, 2014.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Do you love to go to your writing cave and spend hours? Do you hate marketing, which means getting out in front of people? Why is is so easy to be alone for hours at a time while working on a project and so hard to be out among the crowds?

You’re an introvert. Of course.

I’ve been reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Wow, I’m so there. Here’s a TedTalk she did on the subject.

(See the TED Talk transcript here.)

Our society encourages and rewards the extrovert in unique ways: leadership roles, better sales, more opportunities. Writers, on the other hand, are the people you overlook at a social gathering. And put a group of writers in the same room and it’s, well, quiet.

Cain says,

“. . . Extroverts are sociable because their brains are good at handling competing demands on their attention—which is just what dinner-party conversation involves. In contrast, introverts often feel repelled by social events that force them to attend to many people at once.”

In other words, as I tell my husband, I think slowly. It takes me a while to understand a joke, to catch an implied compliment or threat or insult.
While society rewards the extrovert, though, they need the introvert. We are the ones who think deeply about situations, who have insights into potential pitfalls (if they would only listen!), who can produce more verbiage than you ever wanted if you just leave us alone for a while.

I recently read a college entrance essay for a high school senior who bemoaned his social skills. Immediately, I told him to go and read this book because he needs to know that he is an introvert—and that’s a good thing. I’m telling my writer friends the same thing today: you’re an introvert, and that’s a good thing.

Strengths of Introverted Writers

Don’t rely on approval of others. Do you agonize over what someone thinks of your writing? Well, yes and no. While you’re writing that first draft, there’s only you to please. The only time we worry about others’ opinions is when it comes to publishing. Mostly, I work alone and I do what I like. I choose the projects; I choose the way I work with those projects; I decide what to send out. This is good. Writing shouldn’t be a committee affair, but the storytelling or insights of one person.

Able to spend large chunks of time with just yourself. Writing a novel or a long nonfiction project demands time, and that’s time spent largely alone. Even when my friend, Carla McClafferty goes to Mount Vernon for a week to research George Washington, that’s only a fraction other time spent on THE MANY FACES OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: REMAKING A PRESIDENTIAL ICON. Personally, I couldn’t write that book because it would require me to go to Mount Vernon and actually tell people that I plan to write a book about Washington. Carla can do that and then come home and spend the time alone needed to actually write the project. And she’s doing it all over again, as she researches a future book on Martha Washington.

Concentrate on a long, detailed project. Books have been called the archive of our culture. They include information that needs long-term storage, as opposed to a daily newspaper, which is just a short-term conversation about events. Books are long, detailed, intricate pieces of writing that take a large chunk of time. The details of such a project can be overwhelming: organization of information, drafting multiple times, proofreading, fact-checking, etc. Do you think an extravert could manage something that unwieldy? Maybe. But it’s a natural fit for the introvert.

Think long and hard about something. Is it any surprise that introverts often come up with innovative ideas,whether that’s an invention or a fresh, new way of storytelling? A story that takes a year or two to tell—that’s a lot of thought.

Weaknesses of Introverted Writers

Please yourself first, and others only secondarily. Sometimes introverts stumble onto something so odd and idiosyncratic that only they will like it. Being out of society’s main stream can mean that your writing won’t find a ready audience. No one will buy your book because you’re just so weird. (Just saying.)

Marketing is HARD. Yes, introverts CAN teach and some do well on stage—but every public event takes extra energy and produces greater stress. My introvert daughter teaches high school math, where she is literally on stage every hour of a school day. It’s not that we can’t do this; it’s that it takes its toll. When I have days and days of just teaching and marketing, I get cranky. I actually love to teach and talk to groups of people (not so great one-on-one). But I need to gear up and for a couple days after, I’m more depressed until I get my equilibrium back.

The hardest thing I do is stand up and say, “See my book.” Well, no. The hardest thing is, “Buy my book.”

I can teach, speak to crowds, entertain 1000 kids at a time. But holding up my book means holding up a piece of myself that I care about so much that I can’t stand the possible criticism. Oh, I do it. You have to just get over it and do it. But it’s never easy.

Hard to open up and discuss your ideas and emotions. Communication is hard, but it’s the business of writers. We communicate through our written words, where we can carefully control the emotional content of what we say. That’s important.

When I first met the woman who would be my future mother-in-law, I was overwhelmed. She was an extrovert, who never met a stranger. Furthermore, nothing in her life was secret and she told the whole world about anything and everything. To my great dismay. I am still a very private person (read: introvert) and had never had such a person in my personal sphere. I never got used to her open attitude, though I did learn to appreciate it.

I’m an introvert and a writer. My emotional struggles will come out eventually. When I’ve had a long time to think about what happened and what I felt about that event of my life. And only disguised as a novel. I am learning to be more open, to imbue story events with emotional power. But it’s hard.

But that’s the struggle of an introverted writer.

Do you feel me?

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3. Art Speaks

Writing Life Banner

Kat Zhang

(I found an old post in my files and found it to still ring very much true. So I edited it a bit and posted. Hope it rings true for you guys, as well!)

Kat ZhangLet’s talk about art.

Anything? Anyone want to go first?
Okay, I’ll go first.
I love art. Really, really, love it. I’m the girl who almost cries at the opera and stares giddy at the ballet and can spend hours going on and on about how beautiful a shot is framed in a movie. I have to put down books sometimes because I’m so overwhelmed by someone’s writing — or just by the feel of the story. Once, while reading someone’s ARC, I scribbled the margins full of “OMG MY FEELINGS. MY FEELINGS.”
The thing I’ve come to realize about art is that the more I “get” it, the more I love it.
I’ll try to explain, since I know that doesn’t make a ton of sense.
I used to not be a huge film buff. I watched movies, of course, and television, but I preferred my books. Film, I thought, all high-and-mighty. They just…show you everything. And those weird indy films? So boring.
Then one day, I watched a director’s commentary for a film. I can’t even remember which film it was, but the director kept talking about how he’d chosen this one shot for this reason—emotional, thematic, etc, etc — and that shot for another, and how the costume designer had picked these clothes for this character because…and so on. I was utterly captivated.
Suddenly — just a tiny, tiny bit — I got film. I saw beyond the “product” to the “meaning” behind the product. I’m now super into film, and cinematography, and yes, if I think you’ll stand for it, I’ll pause a movie and rhapsodize about the framing of a shot.
There’s always danger in discussing what an artist is trying to say with a piece of work. For many people, art should stand on its own. For them, a book, a film, a painting “says” things all by itself, and what the creator meant doesn’t matter. In large part, I agree with this, which is why whenever I’m asked in an interview about messages I want people to take away from What’s Left of Me or Once We Were, I always say that messages are up to the reader to figure out for themselves, not for the author to broadcast. I think that’s part of the brilliance of art—different people come to a piece of work and leave with something completely unique.
Art speaks on its own. Sometimes, it says things to certain people that the author never meant to say. I’ve  stopped reading reviews, but back when I did, I discovered people who saw things in What’s Left of Me I never imagined anyone would ever see. Some of these things are in accordance with my world views—things I would proudly say in real life. Some are the very opposite of what I actually believe, and initially, I was horrified that anyone would think I ever meant to imply such a thing through my story.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Stories speak. Art speaks. On purpose. By accident. That’s why it can be so powerful. Personally, I believe that as writers/artists/whatever, we do have a responsibility to be careful about what we say—even accidentally. I do spend time thinking, “What sort of message am I sending by having this character do this? Or by having this happen?”
But on the other hand, I will never catch everything. And sometimes things just need to happen. Sometimes the yellow curtains are just yellow because I happened to sit on a yellow crayon while writing, not because of some deep psychological meaning I’m trying to get across.
Somebody (probably many somebodies) will always find some part of my story/characterization and construct it to mean something I never wanted it to mean. But you know what? That’s fine. That’s more than fine. That’s great. Because every time that happens, I learn a little more. I get to see the world through a fresh pair of eyes. I am more careful the next time.
Art speaks, and not only to the audience, but to the creator, as well.
Do you pay attention to your themes and possible messages when you write?

Kat Zhang loves traveling to places both real and fictional–the former allows for better souvenirs, but the latter allows for dragons, so it’s a tough pick. Her novel WHAT’S LEFT OF ME is about a girl struggling to survive in an alternate universe where people are born with two souls, and one is doomed to disappear. It is the first book in a trilogy and was published by HarperCollins in September of 2012.  Book 2, ONCE WE WERE, released September 2013, and Book 3, ECHOES OF US, will come out September 16, 2014. You can learn all about Kat at her site, or listen to her ramblings on twitter.

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4. Creating Your Own Flourish List

Now that I’ve outed myself as the secret author of books by Elizabeth Ruston, I can freely talk about one of the concepts in the book Love Proof.

We writers always hear “Write what you know!” Well, I’ve known many of the things I wrote about in Love Proof, including the life of a striving law student, the beginning uncertain years of practicing law, the sometimes disgusting personalities of some of the lawyers you have to deal with, and yes, even the unexpected excitement of accidentally falling in love with your opposing counsel. Yeah, that happens.

But I’ve also known the kind of poverty Sarah Henley experiences in the book. And that was really interesting for me to write about, because I know I still have some vestiges of that poverty mentality deep inside my brain. And I have to actively make choices to move myself past that way of thinking.

One of the things Sarah does in the book to deal with her own poverty mentality is to create a Flourish List. It’s an idea that came to me a few years ago, and something I tried for myself before ever putting it into my fiction.

The name comes from both definitions of flourish: “an extraneous florid embellishment” (or as Sarah puts it, “something I want, but don’t actually need”), and “a period of thriving.”

I don’t know about you, but at times I am MUCH too stingy with myself. I call it frugality, but sometimes it’s just being harsh for no great reason. Perfect example from last night: I was down to maybe the last half-squeeze on my toothpaste tube, and I could have forced out that last little bit, but I decided to make a grand gesture of actually throwing it away–that’s right, without it being fully empty (call the frugality police, go ahead)–and treated myself to a brand new tube. I’ve had to give myself that same permission with bars of soap that have already broken into multiple parts that I have to gather together in a little pile in my palm just to work up a decent sud. Lately, out they go, fresh bar, and if I feel guilty, I know it will pass.

So where did this new radical attitude come from? A few summers ago while I was backpacking in a beautiful section of the South San Juan mountain range in Colorado, I had an afternoon to myself when I sat out in a meadow, my faithful backpacking dog at my side, while my husband took off to fish. And as Bear and I sat there looking at the small white butterflies flitting over the meadow flowers, the thought occurred to me that those butterflies were not strictly necessary. Not in their dainty, pretty form. They could have been ugly and still done the job. Or they could have left their work to the yellow and brown butterflies–why do we need the extra? But having pretty white butterflies is a form of nature’s flourish.

And that led to the companion idea that if flourish is allowed in nature, wouldn’t it be all right to have some of it in my own life?

So right then and there I pulled out pen and paper and started making my Flourish List. Spent an hour writing down all the things I’d wanted for years and years, but never allowed myself to have. I’m not talking about extravagances like a private jet or a personal chef, I’m talking about small pleasures like new, pretty sheets (even though the current ones were still in perfectly good shape); new long underwear that fit better; a new bra; high-quality lotion from one of the bath and body shops; fancy bubble bath. The most expensive item on my list was a pillow-top mattress to replace the plain old Costco mattress we’d been sleeping on for the past twenty years.

I gave myself the chance to write down everything, large or small, just to see it all on paper. And you know what? It wasn’t that much. I had maybe fifteen items. Then, still sitting out in that meadow, I did a tally of what I thought it would all cost. I knew the mattress would probably be very expensive, so I estimated high (no internet connection out there in the wilderness, otherwise I could have researched actual numbers). I think I ended up estimating about $3,000 for the whole list. And that sounded pretty expensive to me. So I just put the list away and promised myself I’d start buying some of the cheaper items when we got home.

And I did. New underwear. Vanilla lotions and bubble baths. New sheets. And finally, a few months later, a pillow-top mattress, on sale, less than $400. By the time I checked off the last item on my list last fall, I had spent less than $1,000. That might still sound like a lot, but in the greater scheme I felt like it was too small an amount to have denied myself all those little pleasures all those many years. Especially if I had bought myself one of those items every year–I know I never would have noticed the cost.

So that’s my suggestion for today: Create your own Flourish List, just like Sarah and I have, and give yourself the pleasure of writing down every small or large thing you want for yourself right now. All the little treats. Maybe they’re not so little–maybe this is the year you need a new car or some other big-ticket item. But that’s a “Need” list. This is your Flourish List–everything you want but don’t necessarily need.

And then? Treat yourself. Choose one item every week or every month, and give it to yourself. And if you feel strange about replacing something you don’t like with something you know you will, then remember to pass on that other item to someone else who might love it more than you did. I’ve done that with clothes, kitchenware, books: it feels so good to take everything you don’t want and give it to a thrift store where someone else can be happy to have found it, and found it so cheaply. Maybe there’s someone out there with a Flourish List that includes a pair of boots like the ones that have just been gathering dust in your closet. Stop hoarding them. Move them on to their new, appreciative owner.

And by doing that, you make room in your own life for things you’ll appreciate and enjoy. It’s hard to invite abundance when you’re chock full of clutter. Make some room. Make your list. And then start treating yourself the way you deserve by no longer withholding those little items that you know will make you smile.

I felt pretty great throwing out that nearly-empty tube of toothpaste last night. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. But I didn’t really realize that until I sat in a meadow and enjoyed the simple sight of some unnecessary butterflies.

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5. Pressures of Publishing part two


Jodi Meadows

Last month I posted part one of the Pressures of Publishing. That post has a bunch of caveats and reminders that I know how lucky I am to be able write books that other people can read. So this time, I’ll just jump right in with a list. Obviously experiences will vary, but I did a super unscientific poll on Twitter.

And if you are feeling any of these things, know this: you are not alone. I repeat: you are not alone.

It might be easiest to organize these by type (sort of), so we’ll start with . . .

1. Vulnerability

Writing is a pretty personal thing. Especially when my stories are new and shiny, I love them so much. Little pieces of myself get stuck to them — hopes, dreams, fears, ideas, passions — and letting other people read that can be like letting them peek between my ribs to see my heart. (Sorry, that’s kind of gross sounding.) Even when I know the person reading it — like a critique partner or friend — it’s still a very vulnerable feeling.

You know the saying “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”? Yes. That feels very very true. And then you give your blood-spattered pages to other people. (Gross again. Sorry.) Sometimes they love it. Sometimes they hate it. Sometimes they are apathetic about it. It’s hard not to worry about what other people think of your story, not even on a career level, but a personal, emotional level.

2. Fear of disappointing others

One of the things about publishing is how many people take a chance on you. They take risks for you, for your book, for your career — all because they believe in a story you made up. I know so many authors who worry about disappointing their agents, editors, and other publishing people. They want their book to do well so these people they admire so much will feel that it was worth all the time, money, and effort they put into it.

And it’s not just the professionals authors worry about. We worry about disappointing readers who thought the book looked good and then spent money on it, and time reading it. And when more books come out, we worry about disappointing established readers. What if they don’t like the new one? What if we’ve lost them forever?

3. Writing as a job

Writing at any stage isn’t easy, but once writing also becomes a job, it seems to become even more difficult. Suddenly, there are deadlines to meet, promotion and marketing to take care of, and all the other things authors have to do that Aren’t Writing. Once the first book is turned in, we start thinking about the next one, and whether the publisher will believe in the first enough to take on the second. That next book needs to get out fast enough so that readers don’t forget about us, but not so quickly that we saturate our own market. A lot of writers feel like their process doesn’t conform to what publishing needs, usually in a time-related way, which makes those deadlines and regular release dates tricky.

There’s also the branding issue. If your first book is a light-hearted romance about a fairy and a giraffe, is that what’s expected of you for the rest of your career? What if you want to expand? What if publishers or readers only want the one thing from you? It’s pretty scary to think that the first subgenre you publish might be the only thing anyone ever wants you to write again.

And then, because writing is a job, it must be done. Even when it isn’t fun, contracted books must be written or there will be consequences. Because writing is a job, not something you do simply because you love telling stories.

4. Anxiety and other black holes

This whole blog post has been anxiety-inducing, but yes, there’s more. Lots of writers feel unqualified to talk about writing, do school events, talk about anything with any sort of authority. Plus, getting up to speak in front of people can be just plain scary.

There’s a lot to be afraid of: hoping the next book will do better than the first (and being afraid it won’t), worrying you’ll get no marketing for the book (or you’ll get a ton and the book will flop anyway), and a hundred other things I’m running out of room to name.

But I don’t want to forget the green-eyed monster, jealousy of other authors (and knowing that jealousy accomplishes nothing but gray hairs). It’s so freaking easy to assume what other authors are putting out into the world is the only thing that’s happening to them. Lots of marketing, ridiculously high sales numbers, and adoration from readers everywhere. Even though most of us know others share only the good things, it’s easy to forget that.

The truth is, every author struggles with some sort of pressure. Some of them are mentioned in this post. Lots probably aren’t. There are days I have to remind myself that I write books because I love telling stories — because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. And like any job, there is stress involved.

What helps me? (Besides cookies, of course, which don’t help my pants.) Remembering the book love. Reading happy reader mail. Taking regular breaks. Acknowledging that there are some things I can’t change. Try to cut out whatever frustrating/upsetting/jealous-making things I can — which sometimes means ignoring various parts of the internet when I’m feeling particularly susceptible to negative feelings. And above all, I remember that there’s one thing I can control.

My writing.

Jodi Meadows lives and writes in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, with her husband, a Kippy*, and an alarming number of ferrets. She is a confessed book addict, and has wanted to be a writer ever since she decided against becoming an astronaut. She is the author of the INCARNATE Trilogy and the forthcoming THE ORPHAN QUEEN Duology (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen).
*A Kippy is a cat.

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6. Do You Want Writers (Including Me) To Show Our Work?

I read this really intriguing book last night and this morning: Show Your Work by Austin Kleon.

Here’s his premise: Artists would do well to talk about their work as they work. It helps get their audience more involved and is basically just a friendly thing to do. Which sounds right to me–especially the second part.

I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on this: Do you want to look behind the curtain of a writer’s process? Some of the time, at least? Or would you rather just see the finished product and never really know how a book and all its characters and plot came to be?

For me, if someone like JK Rowling wanted to tell me every week what she did to write that current volume of Harry Potter, I’d be ALL OVER IT. But she’s JK Rowling. There might be other writers whose process wouldn’t thrill me at all. Hard to say.

It’s also hard for me to say whether any of you would be interested in hearing about that process from me. My creative mind sucks up all sorts of influences from all over the place, including a lot of non-fiction sources that I enjoy bringing to new readers via my fiction. Would you be interested in seeing that trail of breadcrumbs from initial idea, through research and writing, to final production? Or would you, honestly, not?

I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this! Thanks!

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7. Taking the Risk of Trying Something New

I recently discovered this wonderful website by artist and writer Stephen McCranie. You could spend hours clicking on every one of his comics/lessons. Here’s a good place to start, with his lesson on why we should be happy to make friends with failure.

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8. Character Movement & Characterization

Writing Life Banner

by Kat Zhang

Kat ZhangWhen coming up with a new character, or trying to introduce him (or her) to the reader, writers often focus on what he looks like, or perhaps how he talks. What color hair does he have? What color eyes? (fiction, as a whole, is very obsessed with eyes, and I totally fall prey to this, as well) What kind of clothes does he wear? When he speaks, is his voice loud or quiet, slow or fast?

Less frequently, I think, writers talk about how a character moves. And yet there’s so much information that can be gleaned from this. I notice this most often through watching actors on TV and in movies–of course, those are more visual media than literature, but while writers can’t “show” a character the same way a TV screen can, we can describe him.

There are so many things to consider when sketching out a character in a scene, or in general. His clothing might tell us a little about him. His hair color and eye color tell us even less. But how does he stand? How does he walk? Does he hunch and look up at people, even those actually shorter than him? Are his hands constantly fiddling with things, or are they straight by his sides, or jammed in his pockets?

When he sits, is he slumped in his chair, or straight-backed? If slumped, how so? In a wide, casual way, as if completely comfortable, or as if he’s so exhausted he can’t manage anything else? Or is he slumped because it makes him seem smaller, less threatening?


I sort of love the way this scene in Hannibal is shot in general, but the way the characters move (or don’t move) in it do so much to characterize them.

Even if we want to talk about eyes, there’s much more interesting things to talk about than color, which is pretty much something we’re born with and tells us very little about who we are. More reveling is how our character’s eyes react. Does he stare? If so, how so? In a threatening way? In a creepy way? Do his eyes twitch? Does he blink more often than normal–less often than normal?

Of course, you can’t overload a scene with every single little tic. That would quickly get excessive and boring. But too little of these physical descriptions, and characters start feeling less like actual human beings and more like chess pieces.

Next time you watch TV, study the way a good actor/actress embodies their character, telling us things about him or her with the way they move or stand.

Have any recommendations for good shows/really fantastic actors? Personally, I love the way Natalie Dormer plays her role (it’s a tad spoiler-y, so I won’t say which role) in “Elementary,” and I’ve only just started “Hannibal,” but Hugh Dancy is pretty brilliant as Will Graham.

Kat Zhang loves traveling to places both real and fictional–the former allows for better souvenirs, but the latter allows for dragons, so it’s a tough pick. Her novel WHAT’S LEFT OF ME is about a girl struggling to survive in an alternate universe where people are born with two souls, and one is doomed to disappear. It is the first book in a trilogy and was published by HarperCollins in September of 2012.  Book 2, ONCE WE WERE, released September 2013, and Book 3, ECHOES OF US, will come out September 16, 2014. You can learn all about Kat at her site, or listen to her ramblings on twitter.

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9. In which I speak of Razorhurst in front of a Camera

As I may have mentioned once or twice I have a new book, Razorhurst, set on the seedy streets of Sydney in 1932 and packed with deliciously dangerous dames and brutal, bloodthirsty blokes. It’ll be published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen and Unwin in July and in the USA by Soho Teen in March 2015.1

The good people at Allen and Unwin made this vid in which I answer some questions about the book:

Very happy to answer any other questions you might have about it. Yes, it will be available as an ebook. No, I don’t use product to get my hair to do that.

  1. Which may I point out is less than a year away!

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10. A Small Exercise that Will Improve your Word Choice

by Julie Eshbaugh


JulieRegular readers of this blog know that I generally write posts about the craft of writing. This post will be a little bit different. Yes, it’s about how to improve your writing, but today I’d like to focus on a single, simple change you can make that will increase your language creativity and force you to think about the specificity and clarity of words several times a day.

I would like to challenge you to remove the words “awesome,” and “amazing” from your vocabulary, and replace them with words that offer more precision (depending on the use.) Try this exercise for a month, a week – even just a day. If you are like me, what you learn will surprise you.

A few months ago I found a list of words that can be substituted for “awesome” on the web (I’m no longer certain where I saw this list, but similar lists can be found with simple web searches. You can also search for words that can be used in place of “amazing” and “cool.”)

Once I found this list (it was at least 25 words long) I started brainstorming words of my own. At this point, I was just playing around, since I really didn’t realize how frequently I went to the word “awesome” as a shortcut word.

Of course, the next time I turned to Twitter, email, texting, or tried to draft a comment on a blog post, I was horrified to discover how these two words – awesome and amazing – had become my go-to words to describe everything from good news about a friend’s new job to a video of a cat. Surely these two things weren’t so similar that they merited the same word to describe them!

So I gave myself a challenge – I wouldn’t use the words “awesome” or “amazing” (in writing – I’m sure I still let them slip in conversation from time to time,) as long as I could find a more specific, fresh, appropriate word.

I have been fairly successful, and I’ve learned a few things about myself, about the people I communicate with, and about the power of words along the way.

I learned that it can take a few long seconds to find the best word when you take “awesome” out of your vocabulary. It can take even longer if you force yourself to find a word that actually describes your thoughts precisely (that is, not just turning to “fantastic” or “great,” though I did fall back on those from time to time.) However, over time, I learned to say something was “inspiring” or “thought-provoking” or “game-changing” or even “I’m so proud of you” instead of “that’s awesome.” I hope this has made my interpersonal communication more meaningful.

I learned that people expect shortcut words. The first time I told a coworker that her presentation was “aces” instead of “awesome” it got a big reaction. It also started a discussion about word use, (and probably confirmed some suspicions that I am the weird word girl in the office.)

I’ve learned that words are ours to use, and we neglect the strength of our communication and our own breadth of vocabulary when we fall back on the same words again and again. After a few weeks of taking on this challenge, I noticed my personal vocabulary gaining a lot more strength. I saw much bigger rewards than you would expect from such a simple exercise.

I do want to be clear that I’m not advocating that we all drop the words “awesome,” “cool,” or “amazing” from our vocabularies forever. I firmly believe that shortcuts in communication have their place and can be very appropriate. However, if you find that you are over-generalizing in your own word use, you may want to drop your “pet words” for a while and see what happens.

Have you ever caught yourself falling back on the same few words as shortcuts in your own communication? Are they words other than “awesome” or “amazing?” Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is represented by Adams Literary. You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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11. Asking the Right Questions

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JJCritiquing, like editing, is somewhat of a subjective business. What floats your boat may sink someone else’s ship, so to speak, but the thing I’ve found in common in all great critique partners and editors is the ability to ask the right questions.

The one thing you never want to do when critiquing or editing is to impose your vision on someone else’s work. You are not the writer; if you were, you would be reading an entirely different story. So what’s the point of critiquing or editing in the first place, you might ask? As a beta reader or critique partner or editor, you have been bestowed a lot of trust by the writer, and you are sort of honour-bound to provide the best feedback possible.

What does that feedback entail? In my case, it’s 85% questions, 15% opinions. It’s crucial that the writer and the critique partner/editor are in sync with each other in terms of where the story is headed; when I was working as an editor, I’ve had writers down my offers because our visions didn’t align. In the end, we weren’t well-suited because our ideas for where the story ought to go were different and I don’t begrudge them for signing with another publisher.

Those who have been on the receiving end of my editorial eye will note that I tend to ask a barrage of questions, the most common of which begin with Why? Why does the character do this if the text has shown him to be like this? Why does this thing happen when three chapters before it wasn’t possible? Why does this event occur even though the implicit rules of the world you have built state otherwise? Why is the most important question to ask as an analytical reader. Not what or how. Why is also the most important question for the writer to answer because the string of answers you get from all the why questions thread together the emotional logic of a work.

What and how are easy questions to answer: they are logistics, facts, incontrovertible things that must happen because plot. BUT. The critique partner or editor’s job is to find the narrative thread that links two plot pieces together. For example, say a character is on the run from the government. She’s just broken out of a high-security prison and her first act of freedom is to walk up to an old man and shoot him in the head. At first glance, those two events might seem related—there is bound to be some sort of body count in a high-stakes escape. And yet, there is nothing connecting those two events emotionally. This is where a good critique partner would ask whyWhy did your character shoot the old man in the head? Was it because she was so hyped up on adrenaline she couldn’t see straight and didn’t know what she was doing? Or was it a case of revenge? If it was a case of revenge, how does the old man’s death affect her emotionally? Is she regretful? Grateful? In shock? Disbelief? We need to see how the old man affects her emotionally before she shoots him in the head so we have a better sense of context, and so we can better understand her character. Etc.

Questions are good at opening up discussion. There are no right or wrong answers; questions are there to get the writer to think, and to come up with answers that fit with what they are trying to write. At first, it may seem like a good critique partner or editor has all the best comments, but if you take a second look, you’ll find that most of the comments come from the writer, lead there by the excellent questions asked. ;-)

What do you think? What do you value in a good critique partner?


S. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is a writer, artist, and adrenaline junkie. Before moving down to grits country, she was an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York City, where she read and acquired YA. When not obsessing over books, she can be found rock climbing, skydiving, or taking her dog on ridiculously long hikes. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina with her doctor Bear, a stuffed baby harp seal named White-Harp, and a husky-dog called Bentley. Other places to find JJ include TwitterTumblr, and her blog.


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12. Reconnecting with Characters

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Susan Dennard


Last week, I got another great question in the Misfits & Daydreamers forum (ask your own questions if you have any!):

See, I move around / travel quite a bit…[and] something happens while I’m traveling that breaks / weakens my connection with the characters… I end up writing absolute rubbish, just forcing my characters — these strangers — down plots and crossroads.

SO, my question is: How did you reconnect with your characters?

Okay. Awesome question because losing touch with characters happens to me–and other authors–all the time. Any instance in which you step away from a project for a while, you run this risk. Or, if you’re starting up a sequel after being away from the previous book for a long bit, you might find reconnecting to your cast a bit tricky. (Uh, this was me every time I started a new SS&D book).

I’ll be honest, it will often happen that I don’t even realize I’ve lost touch. I’ll hand off a chunk of pages to a CP, and the CP will be like, “Erm…who is this character? What happened to the character I was reading about ?”

Or, I’ll be in a situation where I’m all, “I’ve been away so long, who are these people and what are they doing with their lives?!?!”

When I come against this wall (or once I realize I’m against this wall), I  do 2 things:

1. Recreate the Original Mood

First, I listen to the music that I associate with that character/story. So, for example, I’ve been (as mentioned in my Monday blog post) having one heck of a time rewriting my ending for Truthwitch. Even once I’d found my characters, I STILL wasn’t totally sure what they’d do in certain situations.

When faced with the “how the heck will Safi react here?” question, I put on the music that I associate with her character.

I literally listened to that song 6 times in a row and became Safi. I saw the situation through her eyes and tried to feel my way through it as if I were her. By the sixth round of the song, I had my scene figured out (roughly, at least). I was back in her head and I knew who she was.

A friend of mine takes a similar approach before she writes a scene–she’ll silence the world, close her eyes, and spend a few minutes settling into her character. She refers to it as a sort of meditation, and once she opens her eyes she’s ready to write.

But even still, sinking into our characters doesn’t always work. We might still write something out-of-whack, or we not even be able to sink into the character! He/she might be so foreign to us, we don’t know who he/she is anymore.

When that happens, I…

2. Ask for Help (or line up your dominoes!)

If you’ve followed me for very long, then you know how close I am with Sarah J. Maas. In addition to being best friends, we do most of our writing in a very collaborative way. In fact, last week, we talked every single day for several hours (each day). Not about life or gossip or anything like that but about our characters.

We’re both struggling with this problem right now–we’ve lost touch with our characters and how they act. This problem happens; we both know it happens; and we both know that there’s no reason to pretend we don’t need help.

So when Sarah writes a scene, I read it and tell her if it rings true. If it doesn’t ring true, I tell her how I think the character would react. Sometimes my ideas are exactly what she needs, and other times my ideas will help spark the right ideas for her.

When I write a scene, Sarah reads it and tells me if it rings true. If it doesn’t, she tells me what she thinks the character would react. Sometimes her ideas are exactly what I need, and other times her ideas will help spark the right ideas for me.

I realize not everyone is blessed with a soul-twin/critique partner who can intuitively see what you were trying to do. (We’re lucky; trust us: we know.) But I think you can recreate what a critique partner does in this situation. First, though, let me explain WHY a CP can spot what we, the authors, cannot…

Critique partners are able to intuitively see things we can’t because they aren’t as deeply mired in the story. They are outsiders to our stories, so they have a much clearer vision of how what’s written on this page connects connects to what they read before.  That’s all the CP (or reader) has to keep track of. A single linear progression of stuff.

We (the authors), however, have to keep track of the 25 plot threads (in this book…and the 47 in the other books), the 207 character arcs, the 506 settings, and how it ALL weaves together to interact and tie up. It’s easy to get buried beneath all that stuff your brain has to consider. And because it’s so easy to get bogged down, we lose track of the characters’ personalities and growth (which is, I think, the most complex and difficult part of any story).

Notice I said CPs keep track of “a single linear progression of stuff.” You know what sounds like? YEP. Dominoes. By evaluating your dominoes, you can recreate what a CP does.

Now, I know I keep talking about dominoes lately, but seriously! Your ability to understand your story will transform when you pull things apart and look at them in order–especially if you’re dealing with multiple POVs.

When we pull out our characters and look at their individual dominoes, we can hone in on ONE THING AT A TIME. Clear out the noise and see what a CP sees naturally. Oh, Eleanor acts X way here, then x way here, then x way here. Ahhhh, I think I see who she is again…More importantly, based on her choices/reactions earlier in the book, this is how she will choose/react in the next scene.

I realize it’s easier said than done to take apart the dominoes, but scene cards or Scrivener can greatly help with that task. I like to also write up a summary sentence of the character’s emotions in each scene so I can get an easy, bird’s-eye-view of the whole arc.

Okay, so I realize that might have only confused you all more, so feel free to ask questions in the comments or forum. :)

Also, don’t forget to sign up for the Misfits & Daydreamers where I also answer questions about writing.

Now you tell me: How do YOU reconnect with characters?

If you like what you read here, consider signing up for Susan’s newsletter, the Misfits & Daydreamers.

SusanDennardSusan Dennard is a reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of (now gluten-free) cookies. You can learn more about her crazy thoughts and crippling cookie-addiction on her blogtwitter, or pinterest. Her Something Strange and Deadly series is now available from HarperTeen, and the Truthwitch series will launch from Tor in fall 2015.

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13. Motives

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Biljana Likic

biljana new picI used to do a lot of acting. I went to an arts high school, my major being drama. Acting isn’t a very big part of my life anymore, but the things I learned in drama class were a massive influence on my development as a writer. Writing is similar to acting, in that you have to connect to the characters you’re creating and that usually involves putting yourself in their shoes. This can be difficult. Motives aren’t always easy to decipher, and I there are times where I just plain don’t know why a character is doing something. Times like these, I remember drama class.

My teacher had this method. It was an all-encompassing method that she gave to us in answer to any issue we had with motives or tactics. What was it?

Find the love in the scene.

The man loves the woman, and the woman is indifferent. Why is she indifferent? She doesn’t love him back.

Boring! Negation doesn’t leave a very good impression compared to agreement. In acting, the first rule of improvisation is that you’re not allowed to negate what your partner says. Granted, a woman’s love isn’t improv, but the point here is that negation isn’t very interesting. It can’t go anywhere. If she doesn’t love him, then who does she love? Someone else? Her work? Her independence? A flat no, without reason, will stagnate. Find the love in her life, and suddenly her reasons for not loving him are clear, and they create deeper conflict that you can develop.

Since conflict makes the story-world go round, it’s fortunate that love is the kind of emotion that is strong enough to start wars. Somebody flying in the face of your love is a serious offense and if it’s bad enough, it will move you to defend your love with everything you have. Characters in a novel are no different. If you find yourself struggling with a plot hole made from a character’s lack of reasons for action, find the love in the scene. If they’re reacting with an anger or hate you can’t explain, all you have to do is consider why they might be angry or have hate. Which is so obvious, I know, but the simplest way of doing that is having the characters love the opposite of what they hate and building the scene around that. If you have a girl glaring at a guy for tossing her a wolf whistle, don’t make it about how she hates bigotry. Make it about how much she loves equality and respect. After that, the hate comes naturally, and its depth is exponential.

Another reason love is so damn important is because from love you can create nearly every kind of relationship or reaction possible. There are three big questions when it comes to acting that you have to ask yourself while developing your character: What does the character want? Why did the character move? Why did the character say that? It’s not a coincidence that those are the exact same questions that I ask myself when I’m struggling with a scene. In the end, the most effective method of answering them is by figuring out what they love. Their loves can be numerous. They can extend away from people and reach into the realm of both abstract and concrete concepts: I love humour, I love music, I love freedom. Take those away from me, and I will fight you. Give them to me and I will appreciate you. Tease me with them, string me along, and I’ll follow, because just the glimpse of those things, just the possibility of possessing them to a greater extent, will seduce me into a state of obedience.

Suddenly, I have three relationships, all three extremely different, all built around what I love, all with perfectly explicable motives that are true to myself and make me consistent about being who I am.

Consider this with your characters, and clarity will follow.

Find the love in the scene.

Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and in her fourth year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.

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14. How to Turn That Shiny New Idea Into a Novel

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By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Janice Hardy RGB 72There’s nothing quite like a shiny new idea. It’s filled with hope, promise, the potential to be the best thing we’ve ever written, and maybe be the book that makes our dreams come true.

Which is why it’s both exciting and terrifying.

Ideas can come to us as nuggets of inspiration or full-fledged books complete with character arcs and plots. Obviously, if we’re lucky enough to get a full-blow idea we just dive right in and start writing, but those nuggets take more work to turn into a novel.

A great place to start is by asking a few basic questions to pinpoint the critical elements of both the plot and the characters.

1. Who wants what and why? 

This will help you find your protagonist and determine what his or her goals are, as well as the motivations for those goals. All novels need a plot, and understanding who is driving that plot will help you figure out what kinds of things need to happen in the novel.

Perhaps it’s a man who wants to save his wife from kidnappers before she’s killed, or a girl who wants to find the monster that murdered her father and avenge his death. Or it’s a woman who wants to find love and prove she’s not unlovable like her cruel mother always told her. Whoever your book is about will want something for some reason.

2. Who would be against this goal and why? 

Heroes have villains, and this will help you determine who (or what) your antagonist is. The protagonist can’t just waltz up and get the goal, she has to earn it, and to do so, she needs to struggle against forces trying to keep her from it.

The antagonist might be someone deliberately trying to foil the protagonist, or it might be a society that makes what the protagonist wants impossible to achieve. It could even be the protagonist herself who’s getting in her own way, and she needs to learn how to overcome that flaw. It might not even be personal, but a force or nature in the way of what the protagonist wants.

3. Is there one major conflict or problem that needs solving?

It doesn’t matter if your book is a quiet character journey or a action-packed thriller, there will be a conflict and a problem that must be resolved in order for the book to end. Even if you have no idea what that ending will be when you start, try to determine the basic problem the protagonist is facing and where that first step might be to resolving it.

Also look at both your potential external conflicts (the conflicts that will help drive the plot) and the internal conflicts (the conflicts that will help create the character arc). The more these two conflicts tug the protagonist in opposite directions, the more unpredictable (and compelling) your story can be.

4. Who is the most likely person (or people) to be involved in this problem on a personal level?

You might know what the situation is and how it’s bad, but not know who’s caught up in the middle of it (possible if you’re a plot first, character second kind of writer). This can help you figure out who your protagonist and antagonist might be. Try looking at the types of people associated in this problem and see if any of them have more at stake that might make them good characters.

It can also help you find supporting characters to flesh out your cast. Try looking at the various people this problem might affect, from those directly involved with it, to those affected by the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) involvement. The unaware daughter of the shifty bad guy might just make the perfect love interest, or the person the protagonist needs to sway to her side during a critical plot point.

5. Where might the problem be made worse and how?

While you don’t always need to know how a plot will unfold (this is part of the fun for many writers) it can be helpful to look for places in your idea where things can go wrong or become very complicated for your protagonist. If you can’t think of any escalating problems, that’s a big red flag that the idea doesn’t have the legs yet to become a whole novel.

Aim for three situations where the stakes might be raised and the problems worsened. That could give you a beginning problem, a middle problem, and an end problem to work toward as you write the first draft or outline the entire story.

6. What situations would lend themselves well to the growth of a character? 

Do the same thing for your character arc to determine how the protagonist might grow and what lessons you might want her to learn over the course of the novel. If she’s the same person at the end as the beginning, that’s a red flag that she might just be acting out plot, and doesn’t really have anything to gain (or risk) by going through this experience.

If you can connect the character arc with the escalating plot problems, even better, as that creates a plot and character arc that will braid together for a well-rounded story. If you can’t connect them at this stage don’t worry, that might be something you look for as you write the first draft. But try at least to see how the experience might change the protagonist to give you something to aim for.

You can flesh out these questions as much or as little as you’d like depending on the type of writer you are. Pantsers might do nothing more than think about them before starting a novel, while outliners might use them as the skeleton of the book and build scenes from there. Use them however they inspire you to make the most of that shiny new idea.

How do your ideas usually come to you? What do you do next?

PYN_Ideas and Structure Cover.inddLooking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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15. Choosing Your Own Adventures

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E.C. Myers

EC MyersOne of my favorite parts of writing happens when I’m not writing. You know, those moments during the day when you’re thinking about, maybe even dreaming about, the story or the characters in your work in progress. I love brainstorming, whether it’s my own book or someone else’s work, because there’s a sense of play to it; you aren’t committing anything to paper yet, so it doesn’t take much work. (It also may not feel like work, so you might worry you’re just procrastinating, but trust me, it’s useful.) You can feel free to be as goofy or wild as you want–you’re just throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. And it’s cool because you’re working on your book anywhere and everywhere: in the shower, walking your dog, on line at the bank, riding the train, reading other books, watching TV, in meetings at work. A little part of my brain never stops thinking about my novel.


I can’t speak to every writer’s experience, but this is how my imagination works. The more I think about the story, the more ideas I have. Often, my subconscious mind makes connections that needed days, weeks, or months to develop. Initially, I avoided outlining because I wanted to give myself as much of that flexibility as possible to discover the story and let it develop organically, but I’ve since realized that outlining can also get you thinking about the whole thing much earlier, and there’s nothing limiting about it–it’s just one path, and you can take the story in different directions any time a better idea presents itself. I like research for the same reason; all that reading feeds me more ideas and opens up new possibilities.

So this book I’m working on… It started with a lot of brainstorming and outlining, then I started drafting it and inevitably veered off from the outline a bit. I got some great notes from my editors, and I just completed the first major revision—a few hours ago. As I tried to re-imagine the plot and characters and come up with a better ending, the whole process reminded me of something very old, something from my childhood: Choose Your Own Adventure.

20140324_221124You’ve probably seen a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book at some point, or one of the many similar series borrowing the concept. They’re basically stories that present many decisions for the reader, allowing you to have some control over the story. “If you decide to start back home, turn to page 4. If you decide to wait, turn to page 5.” There are usually only a few “good” endings and many bad, boring, or mediocre ones. When I read them as a kid, I always wanted to make sure I had taken every choice, explored every path, seen every ending. And I realized recently that all those CYOA books had been training me from early on to be a creative writer.

The way I plot out a book is really similar to how these books are set up. At each major plot point, I have to decide what the characters are going to do next, and what impact that will have on the story farther down the line. I’m constantly coming up with various scenarios and playing them out, discarding them, picking up another thread, trying something else. Working with Scrivener makes it even easier, and more fluid, because I can rewrite a scene several different ways, then revert to a previous version if none of them fit. I can move the scene or cut it entirely. I’m trying to see every path, and test every ending—all in search of the one “good” ending for the book. Of course, it’s preferable if I don’t have to actually write every alternative first.

20140324_224453It’s probably no wonder that I like stories about parallel universes so much. In some ways, each draft of my book is an alternate version of itself. (Sometimes I can’t even keep them straight anymore. Was that in the final draft, or did I cut it?) Fun fact: In the original ending of Fair Coin, Ephraim stops Nate from using the coin to facilitate a shooting spree at their high school. What?! Yeah. It was super dark, and very wrong for the book, and I knew it while I was writing it. (On the other hand, it was also my first novel, so.) But I often have to take some of those wrong turns and try out the “bad” endings — sometimes just to get to the end — before I can figure out what the real ending is supposed to be. Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad writer, it just means you have to turn to a new page and try again. Revision is like getting to erase those unsuccessful outcomes and make a better decision.

Did you read Choose Your Own Adventure? Which was your favorite? And how do you plot out your endings?

The End

E.C. Myers was assembled in the U.S. from Korean and German parts and raised by a single mother and a public library in Yonkers, New York. He is the author of the Andre Norton Award–winning young adult novel FAIR COIN and its sequel, QUANTUM COIN, as well as numerous short stories in anthologies and magazines. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at his blogTwitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

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16. In Which I Am Lost For Words - Tamsyn Murray

I'm not often lost for words (obviously a jolly good thing in a writer) but tonight I was asked a question about writing I didn't know how to answer. As you might already know, I teach Writing For Children at City University and we're approaching the end of the course, where the students are preparing to submit a piece of writing to me for feedback. And this evening, one of my students told me he had been reading a how to write book and one of the things it had apparently advised was to avoid 'friendly uncle' type characters in your stories as these could be perceived as immunising children against the risks of potential child abuse. Should he cut the mad professor character he had in his story, my student wanted to know, in case it was taken the wrong way and it went against him when being read by agents and editors?

My first reaction (after a startled, 'What?') was disbelief that any writing book would advise this. Then I started to think about it and I could kind of see what the book was getting at but still found it mind-boggling that anyone would come away from any of the children's book I've read with that thought uppermost in their mind. There are hundreds (thousands) of innocent characters in books whose actions could be misconstrued if you chose to see them in that light - does that mean that they shouldn't exist? Or is it offensive to friendly uncles and men in books everywhere to tar them with this horrible brush?

I failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, partly because I was struggling to get my head around the idea. I advised the student not to get too bogged down in that kind of advice - to write the story and the characters the way he sees them in his head and not allow them to be subject to the projected interpretations of adults. I also said it might be a nice idea to make his nutty professor a woman, since it's a reasonable subversion of a well-used trope and side-steps the whole issue. But I walked away uneasy. Obviously, we have a responsibility to our young audience when we write. How far should we take that responsibility?

0 Comments on In Which I Am Lost For Words - Tamsyn Murray as of 3/25/2014 2:13:00 AM
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17. Crafting an Ending that Sings

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Susan Dennard


Last week, I got a tough  question in the Misfits & Daydreamers forum:

I usually have a beginning and middle, but endings are torture for me. I can never ever find one that lives up to my standards or really fits with my vision. Some writers just have an ending in mind and I don’t understand that T_T. How do you choose your endings and how do you know it won’t disappoint your reader?

That’s hard for me to answer for 2 reasons:

  1. Everyone is different and what works for me might not work for you.
  2. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I DO. Ahem. Which meant I needed to sit down and figure out my process.

Fortunately, I am in the middle or rewriting an ending that sucked. So analyzing my method couldn’t have come at a more convenient time. (Thanks Sue! ;))

An Anecdote on Messing Up (we all do it!)

See, I decided to completely gut the last 1/3 pages of Truthwitch. Yep. You read that right. 300 of 465 pages were polished and ready for my editor. I was just awaiting feedback from a CP (critique partner) on the last chunk of the book.

Well, when I got her notes on a Friday afternoon, they were not as positive as I’d hoped. Plot-wise and setting-wise? Great! Character arc and romance? Pfffffftttt….*

(*She didn’t say it like that. She is much too nice and supportive for that. But that’s what my heart felt like hearing her criticisms.)

For those of you who are writers, you know how much it sucks to get less-than-positive feedback. Especially because endings are the easiest and most incredible writing experience for me. I LOVE endings. The momentum of drafting hits its stride right before the climax, and suddenly I’ll just SEE how all the plot threads and character arcs are going to gel together.

To find out that this ending, which I’d also written in a flurry of joy, lacked a HUGE component of that (emotional resolution and power)…I was, well…I was crushed. And very angry with myself for not seeing what my CP so easily noticed.

But part of being a writer is always striving to make the best book you can, right? So I hunkered at my usual 5AM work time on Saturday…and realized that simply addressing comments scene-by-scene wasn’t going to cut it.

It turns out that in the course of writing the book, I had lost touch with my characters. In my defense, I took a looooong break while the first 150 pages were on submissions (many months of breaj). When I tried to wade back  into the book once it had sold, I was disconnected from the characters. Totally disconnected–which has NEVER happened to me before. But I muddled onward anyway, finished the book, revised it thoroughly, and sent it off to my dear CPs. First 300 pages? Great! But the rest? Oh boy, there was something missing. It all worked on a plot level, but the story could be so much deeper and have so much more KAPOW.

But since I’d lost touch with the characters, I needed to go allllll the way back to the beginning of the book. Then  I needed to separate out each POV (of which there are 4)…and then I needed to reacquaint myself with each character and make sure all of their dominoes were falling in the simplest, most logical way. More importantly, I needed to ensure those dominoes toppled and fell toward an ending of sheer awesome.

Dominoes, whaaaa?

Look at Your Dominoes

Remember when I talked about the Domino Effect here? Well, in that post, I said:

 I once heard someone compare the scenes in a book to dominoes–our inciting incident sets off the domino chain, and each scene is a direct result of the scene before…[but] the dominoes don’t represent specific events so much as our protagonist’s emotional journey through the events, and the dominoes also represent how events shape/affect the primary goal.

Each new scene will show our character reacting in some way to what happened before.

Because I’d been away from Truthwitch for so long, I didn’t have a handle on my dominoes anymore. Character reactions were falling flat, characters were acting out of character, and there was no emotional resonance at the book’s close.

But when I went back to the beginning, separated out each POV, and looked at individual dominoes, I was able to see how things should’ve fallen. I was able to rediscover the 4 POV’s voices and make sure that each step they took was a direct result of what they’d done/felt in the previous scene.

Then I rewrote the ending. Yep. Threw out >150 revised pages and rewrote them completely–new dialogue, new setting backdrops, new trajectory and choices. And AHHHHH, it felt good. The words poured like they normally do! More importantly, I sent the new ending to my dear CP, she flailed exactly as I’d hoped she would. I’d nailed it–thank goodness!

SO, all of that anectdote was to simply show you what I mean when I say: look at your dominoes before you write an ending. Look at the plot events–see how each domino hits the next until the climax. What event would need to come next based on all that has come before?

More importantly, make sure that your characters’ emotional dominoes fall in a logical, ever-growing way. Characters change, right? They start out one way and by the end of the book, they’re someone new (and hopefully someone better too). When the character reaches there “new self”, if all the emotions have been leading up to that, then your story will SING.

It’s just like watching a super-satisfying domino display–it all fell where it was supposed to fall, even if we couldn’t quite see that ending from the beginning.

You tell me: how do YOU write endings that sing?

SusanDennardSusan Dennard is a reader, writer, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. She used to be a marine biologist, but now she writes novels–and not novels about fish, but novels about kick-butt heroines and swoon-worthy rogues. You can learn more about her crazy thoughts and crippling cookie-addiction on her blogtwitter, or pinterest. Her debut series, Something Strange and Deadly, is now available from HarperTeen, and her new series–Truthwitch–will launch from Tor in fall 2015.

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18. Getting Away

One of the things I need most as a writer is a routine. For me that’s not as much about what time of day I write, that varies, but about where I write. When I sit at my ergonomically gorgeous desk and writing set up I write because it is the place of writing.

Unlike many other writers I don’t have a specific moment that signals writing will commence. I don’t drink coffee so that’s not how I start my day. Some days I write for a bit before breakfast. Some days not till after brekkie, going to the gym, and doing various chores. I do have a broad time for writing: daylight. I almost never write at night. When the sun is down I take a break from writing. That’s when I get to socialise and to absorb other people’s narratives via conversation, TV, books etc.

I have found, however, that I can’t write every single day. I need at least one day off a week. And I can’t go months and months and months without a holiday from writing.

Getting away from my ergonomic set up and the various novels I’m writing turns out to be as important to me as my writing routine. Time off helps my brain. Who’d have thunk it? Um, other than pretty much everyone ever.

I spent the last few days in the Blue Mountains. Me and Scott finally managed to walk all the way to the Ruined Castle. We saw loads of gorgeous wildlife, especially lyrebirds. There was no one on the path but us. Oh and this freaking HUGE goanna (lace monitor). I swear it was getting on for 2 metres from end of tail to tongue:

Photo taken by me from the rock I leapt on to get out of its way.

Photo taken by me from the rock I jumped on to get out of its way.

This particular lace monitor was in quite a hurry. Given that they have mouths full of bacteria (they eat carrion) and they’re possibly venomous getting out of its way is imperative. It seemed completely oblivious of me and Scott. Which, was a very good thing.

Watching it motor past us was amazing. All the while the bellbirds sang. Right then I wasn’t thinking about anything but that goanna.

Which is why getting away is so important. Clears your mind. Helps your muscles unknot.1 Lets you realise that finishing your novel is not, in fact, a matter of life and death.

At the same time two days into the little mini-holiday I realised what the novel I’m writing is missing. The answer popped into my brain as I tromped along the forest floor past tree ferns and gum trees breathing in the clean, clean air, listening to those unmistakeable Blue Mountain sounds2:


And it was good. Really good.

TL:DR: Writing routine good; getting away from writing routine also good.

  1. After their relieved that the goanna has gone away.
  2. Did I mention the bellbirds? I love them

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19. Walking the High Wire: The Art of Writing Tension

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Un paso mas  by Beatriz Pitarch

Un paso mas by Beatriz Pitarch

What is it that makes a “page-turner”? What indefinable, shivery quality does a book possess that makes you unable to put it down? 

On a personal, subjective level, that “it” quality differs from reader to reader. But I would argue that on an objective, craft-oriented level, all page-turners have one quality in common: narrative tension.

What is narrative tension? I personally define it as the unbearable need to know what happens next. Some of the best works of commercial fiction are rife with narrative tension, which I believe contributes to their commercial status. For works in the thriller or suspense category, pinpointing the source of narrative tension is relatively easy: Whodunnit? Will the protagonist survive? Will s/he save the day? But what about books that fall outside that genre?

Any book, regardless of genre, can have narrative tension. How? When the stakes are clearly defined, but their outcome is left uncertain. For example, let us discuss Harry Potter. Earlier books in the series were finely crafted middle-grade mysteries within a fantasy framework (The Prisoner of Azkaban is one of the finest examples of a mystery, full stop), but as the books progressed, they still retained narrative tension. How? Because we know the stakes (Harry must defeat Voldemort) and are unsure of the outcome (how he will do it). But each book itself also contained micro-environments of narrative tension: how will the Trio get out of their scrapes this time? or when will Ron and Hermione finally get together? In my opinion, all of these elements combined contributed to the series’ popularity; so many of my fondest memories from high school are me sitting with a circle of friends on the terrace during lunch, passionately discussing and speculating what would happen in the next book. Tension breeds anticipation, and commercial works like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, The Da Vinci Code, The Lovely Bones et al are examples of how that can drive success.

So how to craft narrative tension in our own work? By posing story questions. I’ve mentioned story questions before, and I think they are fundamental to crafting a book you don’t want to put down. Most often, the story question can be boiled down to What does the protagonist stand to lose?–on both an intimate and a broader scale. What does the protagonist stand to lose if s/he _____ in this scene and how does that contribute to what s/he stands to lose overall? 

Any time the reader is left wondering or asking questions, narrative tension is created, which leads to anticipation and unease, for which the only solution is to read on. ;-) There are many ways to leave the reader wondering: by ending all the chapters on cliffhangers (The Da Vinci Code), by slowly layering secrets and deceptions that are begging to be answered by the book’s end, (Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn), by calling into question whether or not a killer will be brought to justice (The Lovely Bones), etc.

Is there a trick to writing commercial fiction? Personally, I don’t think so. But I think you’ll find that most bestselling books are masters of walking the high wire of tension, whether the book is literary or YA or romance.

What do you guys think? Do you think narrative tension is a thing? Let us know in the comments below!


JJS. Jae-Jones (called JJ) is a writer, artist, and adrenaline junkie. Before moving down to grits country, she was an editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York City, where she read and acquired YA. When not obsessing over books, she can be found rock climbing, skydiving, or taking her dog on ridiculously long hikes. A southern California native, she now lives in North Carolina with her doctor Bear, a stuffed baby harp seal named White-Harp, and a husky-dog called Bentley. Other places to find JJ include TwitterTumblr, and her blog.

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20. Creating Characters Readers Care About

by Julie Eshbaugh


JulieWe all want to write vibrant, lively, realistic characters that leap to life from the page. We want our characters well-rounded and interesting. We want our characters to each have their own “voice.”

In pursuit of this worthy goal of creating a realistic character, we write lengthy character histories, we write journal entries from the point of view of our character, and we fill in character worksheets.

Yet sometimes we do all of these things – we endow our character with personality, background, depth, and breadth – and still, our beta readers say they just don’t “connect” with the character.

In other words, they didn’t care about the character.

How do you take your well-rounded character and carry him over that giant chasm that separates “realistic” from “relatable”? How do you give him the traits that will make a reader stay up all night with him, anxiously turning page after page just to know if he achieves his goal?

The answer is simple:

To be relatable, a character needs to be vulnerable.

Obviously, the concept of creating vulnerability isn’t a well-guarded secret in the writing world. If you’ve watched your share of Disney animated features, you know that almost no Disney character is entitled to grow up with both parents. (Of course, this truism isn’t limited to Disney – Harry Potter, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen have all lost at least one parent.)

Vulnerability gives a reader something to root for. Vulnerability opens a character up to empathy.

So if this rule of endowing a character with vulnerability is so simple, why aren’t all of our characters sympathetic, relatable heroes?

The reason may be that – like many concepts in writing – creating vulnerability in a character is much easier to understand than it is to execute. Here are a few things to consider when thinking about your character’s weaknesses:

Vulnerabilities should directly relate to your character’s goal and motivation. In the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss’s loss of her father is more than just a personal loss – it sets in motion her strong desire to protect her family. It also influences the actions she is willing to take to obtain her goals. Having lost her father in a mining accident, setting off an explosion in a mine is not a tactic she can endorse.

Your reader will relate more to a character’s fears if they share those fears themselves. Harry Potter is thrown into an unfamiliar world and learns immediately that someone very powerful and evil wants to destroy him. Part of why readers find him so relatable is that we all fear the monster under the bed – the unseen thing that wants to harm us – and Voldemort embodies that perfectly.

A loss that creates both a weakness and a strength can be especially compelling. Luke Skywalker learns that his father was a great Jedi. Knowing this makes the fact that he never knew his father all the more painful. Yet Luke has this incredible legacy that empowers him. (And when Luke ultimately learns that his greatest nemesis is actually his father, this vulnerability gains a whole new level of uniqueness and complexity.)

What do you think about creating relatable characters? Do you have an approach to ensure that your characters have a balance of strengths and weaknesses? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


Julie Eshbaugh writes fiction for young adults. She is represented by Adams Literary. You can add Julie on Goodreads and follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.


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21. My Writing Rituals

Confession time: I'm the one who suggested we do a series about writing rituals. So I've read my fellow TeachingAuthors' posts with great interest. I didn't know that JoAnn likes to start her day writing in longhand before turning on her computer. Or that Jill tries to exercise first thing, even before breakfast. (Now that's what I call discipline!) Or that Laura, our newest TeachingAuthor, works best when she writes in short, intense bursts. But I was especially surprised to learn that none of them practice what they consider to be true writing rituals.

I'm surprised for two reasons:
1) I've read so many articles about the quirky rituals practiced by writers, such as those mentioned in Debra Eve's article that inspired this series, that I assumed nearly all writers had some sort of ritual.
2) I have several rituals of my own.

There. I've said it. I may turn out to be the only TeachingAuthor with regular writing rituals. If that's the case, so be it. Since I'm the one who suggested the topic, I feel obligated to be honest. Even if it means confessing that my ritual includes prayer, something I don't typically talk about on this blog.

I still remember the first time I heard an author admit that prayer was part of her daily routine/ritual. It was at one of our Vermont College residencies, and someone asked a highly-acclaimed visiting author about her writing routine. I was floored when she told the crowded room that she started every day with prayer. I'd been doing the same for years, but I'd never dreamed of admitting it in public, or hearing a fellow writer admit it. I guess I'd been raised to believe prayer a private matter. Even now, I feel a bit uncomfortable discussing hear. Oh well.

My writing ritual, which has evolved over the years, currently goes something like this:

  • I light a candle and say several short prayers, including one that my work will be a blessing on the world.
  • I pull up the music files on my computer and play some classical music to drown out other sounds/conversations going on in the house.  
  • I open my Daily Tracking Log file on my computer and record my start time.
  • I set a timer for however long I want the current writing session to last.
  • I write until the timer goes off.
courtesy of ferguweb at morgueFile
I recently added another step to this opening ritual after starting a 100-day, one hundred words a day (OHWAD) writing challenge. I read about OHWAD on a friend's Facebook page. The challenge is to write at least 100 words every day for 100 straight days--I'm currently on Day 36. If you miss a day, you have to start back at Day 1. So I've added a step to my writing ritual that includes looking at my previous day's ending word count in my Project Log and calculating my goal for today's writing session. (While my minimum is 100 words, my goal is often for 200-300 words/day, or more.) 

My closing ritual includes recording my ending word count in my Project Log, noting my end time in my Daily Tracking Log, and blowing out the candle, if I haven't already done so earlier. (Don't want my office to get smoky.) 

Interestingly, I don't close with a prayer. However, I might add one now after reading about this closing ritual in Eve's article:
"J.D. Moyer jots down ideas for the next day’s session and says a prayer of thanks (even though he’s an atheist)." 
If an atheist is willing to publicly admit that he prays as part of his writing ritual, I guess I have no reason to feel embarrassed. J

Happy Writing!

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22. Writing and Editing Workspaces!

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Jordan Hamessley London

and the Pub(lishing) Crawl Gang!

Jordan Hamessley LondonAbout three months ago, I had a life change. I left my job at Grosset & Dunlap at Penguin to become an Editor at Egmont USA. It was a very exciting move for me, if a bit scary. Grosset had been my first publishing job and my first “real job” out of college. I had a ton of memories there and it felt like my second home.

When I arrived at Egmont in December, I was thrilled to begin working on a new list and with a new team, but I realized something was missing. Now, this may sound crazy, but hear me out.

My desk at Grosset had been very lived over the course of my five years there, I had acquired numerous action figures, plush toys, photos, and trinkets from my authors. When I got home from my first day at Egmont, I knew I needed to bring in the little things that would make my desk feel like “home” again. What are those things?

Well, my Benjamin Linus bobblehead, of course.

 Ben Linus doll

And my paper machete, inspired by an amazing typo written by one of authors (attempting to spell papier mâché) and what I use on particularly intense edits!

paper machete


At last, my workspace was complete!

Jordan Workspace

My journey to complete my new workspace made me wonder where all of the other Pub(lishing) Crawl members do their work. Here’s a sneak peek at where they write/agent/and sell their books!

Erin workspace

Erin Bowman’s amazing workspace

Susan Dennard's desk

Susan Dennard’s desk

Writing Space - Julie Eshbaugh

Julie Eshbaugh’s writing space

JJ's workspace

JJ’s workspace

Amie Kaufman - I usually work in my study, but I love to move around as well -- this is the view of my writing spot at one of my favourite bars in Melbourne, where I can sit right on the river and watch the world go by!

Amie Kaufman – I usually work in my study, but I love to move around as well — this is the view of my writing spot at one of my favourite bars in Melbourne, where I can sit right on the river and watch the world go by!

Biljana Likic's workspace

Biljana Likic’s workspace

Jodi Meadows - You might think there's a lot of yarn on this desk. You'd be right. You're probably also overlooking some. There's more than you think. No, another one besides those.

Jodi Meadows – You might think there’s a lot of yarn on this desk. You’d be right. You’re probably also overlooking some. There’s more than you think. No, another one besides those.

E.C. Myers - Basically, I write 95% of the time on my netbook, even when I'm at home, and I mostly use my larger laptop and keyboard for other work — graphics, video editing, e-mail — and blogging. I work best outside of my apartment. :-/

E.C. Myers – Basically, I write 95% of the time on my netbook, even when I’m at home, and I mostly use my larger laptop and keyboard for other work — graphics, video editing, e-mail — and blogging. I work best outside of my apartment.

Adam Silvera's desk at work

Adam Silvera’s desk at work

Adam's workspace for writing

Adam Silvera’s workspace for writing

Joanna Volpe's desk

Joanna Volpe’s desk

Joanna Volpe's bookshelf

Joanna Volpe’s bookshelf

Kat Zhang - Here's where I'm writing right now (local B&N). Only add in half a dozen toddlers running around.

Kat Zhang – Here’s where I’m writing right now (local B&N). Only add in half a dozen toddlers running around.

 The Pub(lishing) Crawl team is a great example of how everyone has a different place where they work. What makes your workspace unique and special to you? 

Jordan Hamessley London is an Editor at Egmont USA, where she edits middle grade and YA. Her current titles include Isla J. Bick’s new series, The Dark Passages (#1 White Space), Bree DeSpain’s new series Into the Dark (#1 The Shadow Prince), and more. Prior to Egmont, Jordan worked at  Grosset and Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers where she edited Adam-Troy Castro’s middle grade horror series Gustav Gloom, Ben H. Winters and Adam F. Watkin’s series of horror poetry Literally Disturbed, Michelle Schusterman’s I Heart Band series, Adam F. Watkins’s alphabet picture book R is for Robot and more. When not editing, Jordan can be found on twitter talking about books, scary movies, and musical theater.

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23. How Festivals and Conferences Can Make You a Better Author

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Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72I go to a lot of book related events, both as an attendee and as a presenter. Over the last year, I’ve been paying just as much attention to the audiences as I have the panels. Some authors capture attention, while others cause audience members to check their watches or phones.

What does this have to do with being an author?

Part of an author’s job is to capture and hold attention, and that applies to the events they do as well as the books they write. An off-putting author is one who probably isn’t going to see a long line at the after-event signing, while the author who engaged the audience and made them laugh probably will. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve purchased that I normally wouldn’t have, just because I liked the author during their panel.

Even if you’re an aspiring or first-time author there’s plenty to learn. One day you’ll be up there, and you’ll want to know the best way to present yourself and your books. Pay attention to how different authors interact with the audience and how the audience responds to them.

You can also learn a lot about summarizing your book by watching skilled authors present. Every panel opens with the authors saying a little about themselves and their books. Those who give a short, yet compelling pitch stand out from those who ramble and make their books sound generic or even boring. Hearing (and seeing) what works and what doesn’t is a great way to help you hone your own pitch.

Here are some common panel types and what they can teach you:

The Wallflower

This author might be brand new or just painfully shy, but she practically disappears on stage. She speaks so softly no one but the front row can hear her, and she doesn’t join in the panel discussions or have much to say when the questions fall to her. This is an author who might have a great book, but no one remembers (or hears) anything about it. She’s forgotten as soon as the panel is over.

Lesson Learned: People came to hear you speak, so speak up and be heard. Even if you’re shy and don’t feel comfortable engaging in a panel discussion, you’ll have a chance to answer the moderator’s direct questions. Make the most of them, even if you’re succinct in your answers.

The Attention Hog

This author is the opposite of shy, butting in while others are speaking and drawing all the attention back to herself. She acts like everyone came to see her, even if she’s the small fish on the panel. She answers every question (even ones not aimed at her) yet very little of what she says holds any value. This is an author who turns everyone off, and likely loses sales due to her personality.

Lesson Learned: Share your panel time and don’t be rude. People notice when you’re being a jerk, and even if your book sounded interesting, odds are they’ll skip it in favor of someone else they liked better.

The “Let Me Tell You About My Book”

This author just wants to tell you about her book. The whole time. Whether it’s appropriate to the question or not. She also frequently refers to her other books, even though no one asked her about them. This is an author who is so focused on selling you what she wrote she doesn’t notice the uncomfortable looks and people inching away.

Lesson Learned: There’s a fine balance between mentioning your book in context and intriguing the audience, and verbally spamming them. Try to talk about your book in a way that answers the questions and helps create a good panel discussion.

The Rambler

This author never gets to the point. She goes off on tangents, refers to vague details as if everyone knows what she’s talking about, and doesn’t come anywhere near answering the question. Even worse, she frequently drones on in the same monotone voice that puts people to sleep. This is an author who makes the audience wonder why she’s even there and they groan every time she opens her mouth.

Lesson Learned: Right or wrong, people often assume how you present yourself is similar to how you write. If you bore them while answering a basic question, they’ll assume your book is equally boring. Be interesting in both what you say and how you say it. Modulate your tone as if telling a story–pitch and inflection work like pacing when you’re speaking.

The “But I Wanted to Know More”

This author gives great answers, but she forgets to tell people about her book. Maybe she gives the title or genre, but no other details that would encourage people to buy it. This is an author who gets the audience’s attention, then fails to take advantage of it.

Lesson Learned: Don’t forget to tell people about your book. This is easily done during the introduction when people actually want to know a little bit about who you are and what you write.

The Huge Personality

This author has the audience’s attention right off the bat. She’s bold, personable, extremely likable and people just want to hang out with her. She often makes both the audience and the other panelists laugh, and spurs additional conversations through her comments. This is an author who sells books to people who never would have picked up the book otherwise.

Lesson Learned: Not everyone is blessed with a big personality, but everyone can learn from those who are. Be yourself and share some of who you are with the audience. They want to get to know you and the more they like you, the more apt they’ll be to try your book.

The Professional Author

This author engages the audience, makes them laugh, and teaches them something–either about her book or whatever the panel topic is on. She’s not afraid to disagree, but always does so in a way that’s respectful to the other panelists and offers a different view, not a criticism. This is an author who already has fans in the audience and will likely make new ones based on this event.

Lesson Learned: Being personable and professional is always a winning combination. Panels are lots of fun, but you’re also there to work, so treat your fellow panelists, hosts, and audience members with respect.

With authors responsible for so much of their own marketing these days, events are becoming more and more common. Every event is a chance to grow your readership and network with fellow authors and readers, so use the opportunity wisely.

Have you ever bought a book based on an author’s personality at an event? What made you try it? Has an author even made you not buy their book? (be kind–no names on these poor souls)

Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy.

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24. My (NON) Writing Ritual: For Times When I'm Lost

I’m here to report:
there are those times when even though I’ve ritualistically readied myself to write, I am unable to move forward with my story.

I lose my way somehow.
My fingers freeze.
My North Star is elsewhere playing Hide-and-Seek.

The Good News, however?
Like that wondrous woman who lives inside our cars’ or devices’ GPS,
the one who expertly and melodically repositions our course when we turn left instead of right or bypass our designated Exit or come to a grinding halt at the wrong destination,
I know how to RECALCULATE!

Here’s my 3-Step Easy Ritual for finding my way back.

I take myself away from my writing space, sit still and quietly re-read the encouraging hope-filled greeting cards I’ve mailed myself the past 37 years (!) while out-and-about on my Writer’s Journey.

Next I re-read and think on the inspirational quotes I’ve tucked away inside my treasured Hansel and Gretl box.

#3Finally I empty my beautiful one-of-a-kind carpet bag of its contents - the notes, letters and Thank You’s I’ve received, and read my way through, savoring the words,

especiallyand always those penned long-ago by my fellow TeachingAuthor Carmela Martino when I sold, at long last, my very first picture book.

Before I know it,
I’ve recalibrated my compass, refueled my heart and found my way home to my keyboard and story.

Happy Writing – and – Recalculating (if and when needed)!

Esther Hershenhorn

The above Rx is a true-blue twofer; the 3-step ritual helps me REBOOT too!

Let’s hear it for that hard-working second-chance prefix RE! Where would we be without it?

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25. When to Show, When to Tell, and When to Do a Bit of Both

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by Kat Zhang

One of the first things young writers get told is “Show, don’t tell.” Show us Tommy is angry, don’t just say “Thomas was mad.” Show us the school play was a disaster, don’t just say it was.

This is just what I got when I googled “school play.” Seems like better costumes than my school plays… ;)

In general, this is great advice. Showing is often how a reader starts believing and living a story, instead of just feeling like it’s being related to her. But the advice can be taken too far. Writers start feeling like they have to show everything. And of course, showing takes up far more room than telling (usually), and then we run into all sorts of problems like lagging pacing and a general lack of interest because no matter how vividly you show someone brushing their teeth, if there’s nothing else going on, people are going to get bored.

Sometimes, telling is just better. The trick is to tell in an interesting way. There’s also the mixing of the two—we don’t come right out and tell something, but we don’t go into a long scene, either. A lot of things can be summarized neatly this way—arguments that need to happen (but where what they’re arguing about isn’t particularly important), dinners that need to be eaten, etc.

For example: 

Purely telling: The school play was a disaster.

Purely showing: [long scene where we actually see the entire play, and how everyone messed up, etc, etc, etc.]

Mix: The audience started filing in by 7pm. By 7:50—twenty minutes later than planned—the curtain rose. By 8:15, four children had forgotten their lines, one seem to have forgotten he was in a play at all, and Billy Johnson had knocked a hole in the scenery. By 9pm, it was all, blessedly, over.

Another example:

Purely telling: John and Molly had a terrible fight in the alleyway behind the restaurant.

Purely showing: [long scene full of actual lines of dialogue]

Mix: Halfway through dinner, both John and Molly excused themselves from the table, assured everyone that everything was fine, just fine, don’t worry—and went to shout at each other in the restaurant’s back alley, the air thick with the stench of garbage. Between the kitchen noises of pots scraping against burners and waitresses calling out orders, Molly told John absolutely everything she’d ever hated about him, past, present, and future. He responded in kind. They were halfway through screaming about the time he’d lost her dog when they were both, suddenly, absolutely, exhausted by it all.

“We need to get through the rest of dinner,” Molly said, her shoulders slumped.

John nodded. Without either saying it, it was understood that this dinner was the last thing they’d need to get through together.

Of course, the two examples I gave were both slightly humorous/tongue-in-cheek in tone. They needn’t be, though. What do you think? Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out just how much “showing” you should do in a scene, and what can just be summarized?

Kat Zhang loves traveling to places both real and fictional–the former allows for better souvenirs, but the latter allows for dragons, so it’s a tough pick. Her novel WHAT’S LEFT OF ME is about a girl struggling to survive in an alternate universe where people are born with two souls, and one is doomed to disappear. It is the first book in a trilogy and was published by HarperCollins in September of 2012.  Book 2, ONCE WE WERE, released September 2013, and Book 3, ECHOES OF US, will come out September 16, 2014. You can learn all about Kat at her site, or listen to her ramblings on twitter.

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