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1. The Habit of Getting Ideas and Turning Them into Story

I no longer dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” That’s because I finally figured out the answer.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve answered it a million times over my more than ten year career as a writer. I’ve nattered on about brain monkeys, ends of rainbows, stealing ideas from Maureen Johnson, ideas not being that important, blah blah blah.

The actual answer does not involve light bulbs or muses or brain monkeys or Maureen Johnson. Well, not directly. My true answer involves lots of work. I apologise for the lack of glamour.

Here’s what I realised: I’ve been practising getting ideas and turning them into stories for most of my life. Just as an athlete develops the muscles and reflexes necessary to be able to play their sport by training and playing for many, many years, so do writers develop their story-creating muscles.

I started when I was little. As I suspect many novelists do. I was one of those kids who was forever coming up with whatif scenarios.

My Parents: “Don’t answer the door if we’re not home.”

Me: “What if it it’s someone saying the house is on fire?”

MP: “They’d shout through the door.”

Me: “What if they’re mute?”

MP: “Aaaaaarrrggghhh!”

As you can see I’m already building a story. There’s a child at home alone, there’s a fire, and the only one who can warn the child cannot speak. What happens next? Will the parents get home in time? Will the child survive?

MP: “Don’t hit your sister!”1

Me: “But what if hitting her is the only way to kill the tiny alien that’s attempting to crawl in through her pores?”

MP: “There is no excuse for violence under any circumstances.”

Me: “But what if . . . ”

MP: “What if we say no more books for you until you turn 30?”

Me: *side eyes parents*

Here we have a world in which there are nano-aliens who can get inside us through our pores but who can also be destroyed by squashing them. What happens if they get inside us? Do they eat us? Turn us into pod people? How did they get here? Have they been here all along? Are they only after little sisters?

I played at what ifs almost every day of my childhood. When I wasn’t tormenting my parents and teachers I was making up stories for my sister and then for my friends.

If I lost a book before I’d finished it I’d make up the ending. Ditto for movies and tv shows I didn’t get to watch all of.2

It becomes a habit to start extrapolating possible stories out of, well, pretty much anything. Why is that banana peel on the ground directly outside a jewellery store? Genetically enhanced monkey jewel thief. Obviously.

When I overhear odds snatches of conversation I extrapolate the rest of the conversation and the story it’s part of. It’s fun to imagine whole lives and adventures for the people I overhear on the tram.

Having done this every day for decades now it’s no surprise I get ideas for novels many times a day. I see a fantastic tweet like this one:

BwK_T5jCEAAo08X

And I start thinking about writing a novel where a kid does that on their first day of school: walks in dressed very fine, holding a big sign that says FEMINIST. The rest of the novel would be them slaying the evil trolls, defeating the misogynist school board and principal, and saving the world.

When you get a bunch of writers together they often do this, bounce ideas off each other, extend them into a story. Whatif-ing each other for hours. It’s how collaborations often begin. That’s how Sarah Rees Brennan and I wound up writing Team Human together.

Of course, I pretty much never write the novel if I’ve already figured out how it ends. When ideas really spark for me I have to start typing. But even then I have oodles of half sketched out beginnings of novels, sometimes several chapters, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes no more than a few lines. A very small percentage of these ever become novels. All that practise turning ideas into story pays off every time I finish another novel.

There is, alas, a huge distance between coming up with ideas, extrapolating a story, and turning them into a fully fledged novel. The first two are a matter of moments; the latter a matter of months, if not years. But without the ideas the novels never happen.

Finally, to tie this into Scott Westerfeld’s marvellous series on how to write YA, extrapolating about other people’s lives is a great way to build empathy, which Scott argues is one of the most important functions of a novel.

  1. I was a truly awful older sister. I’m not kidding. It speaks volumes as to what a fabulous sister I have that she forgives me.
  2. Punishment meted out by parents. Possibly for asking a few too many what ifs.

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2. Guest Post: Three tips to increase productivity when writing from home

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Michelle Krys

Here’s a story that might sound familiar. A few years ago, after I got a book deal, I dropped down from full-time work at my day job, to working just a few shifts every two weeks. I was ecstatic about all the writing I’d surely get done. But when I started writing every day, I made a disturbing discovery: I wasn’t getting any more work done in my eight new hours of free time than when I had to cram it all into the one free half hour I had all day. I would write 1000 words no matter how long I had to do it.

Last year, I blogged about some tricks I picked up to increase productivity when working from home (internet blocking apps and what have you), but since then, I’ve learned a few more helpful ways to kick my butt into gear when the pull of the internet is strong and another episode of Big Brother is on the PVR (don’t judge). And because I’m nice like that, I’ll share them with you.

1. Use a calendar system to record progress. (Red dot sticker for 1000 words, blue dot for 500, yellow for 250, etc). To give credit where credit’s due, I got the idea from Victoria Schwaab. It seems so juvenile, dare I say kindergarten-esque, to want to work hard for a sticker, but . . . I really want that sticker. A calendar with only a few pathetic red dots is so motivating. Conversely, a great week with many red dots is also motivating—I don’t want to sully my awesomely-full calendar with a bunch of yellow dots, or worse, no dots at all. It also doesn’t hurt that the calendar is in a prominent location in my home, there for all to see should I start slacking off.

2. Take more frequent breaks. It sounds counterintuitive, but there’s all sorts of research out there that says more frequent breaks improves the quality of work. I won’t bore you with that research, but basically: it’s a lot easier to focus on one thing when you’re only doing that thing for thirty minutes. Because I have epically horrible focus, I like to work for twenty minutes, then I’m “allowed” to take five minutes to unwind, check email, tweet, or what have you, before I start another twenty-minute session. After I reach 1000 words, I break for lunch, and then it’s back to work. Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in both my focus while writing and the quality of my work.

3. Push past “writer’s block”. When the words just aren’t coming, it’s easy to put it down to writer’s block and give up. And honestly? Sometimes I do that. Sometimes I just need a break. But since contracts and deadlines mean I don’t have the luxury of being able to take breaks every time I’m stuck, I’ve had to learn techniques to push forward. What I’ve learned is that most of the time, it’s just a matter of figuring out why the words aren’t coming. Maybe it’s that I don’t really know what I want to achieve with the scene, or maybe I’m not sure how I want to achieve it. Sometimes, it’s because I’m not sure where the scene will take the plot next, because even though I’ve outlined, my outlines are often written in broad strokes and finer details can cause major problems. Once I’ve figured out the reason I’m stuck, I can usually find my way back to the words. Laini Taylor says it best: “Never sit staring at a blank page or screen. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write. Writing about is easier than writing, and chances are, it will give you your way in.”

HExedMichelle Krys is the author of HEXED and the upcoming sequel CHARMED. She works part-time as a NICU nurse and spends her free time writing books for teens. Michelle is probably not a witch, though she did belong to a witchcraft club in the fifth grade and “levitated” people in her bedroom, so that may be up for debate. Visit her at michellekrys.com or follow @MichelleKrys on Twitter.

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3. How Going to Military School = Writing a Book

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Guest Post by Joy N. Hensley

Joy N Hensley Author Photo

Jodi Meadows, my fifth-cousin-by-marriage, asked me to write this. “It should be funny,” she said. Apparently, she doesn’t remember reading Rites of Passage or the fact that I don’t/can’t do funny. Just like I can’t write poetry. (She’s a lot like my mom that way—see told you we’re related.)  Anyway, here goes. Remember: it’s not funny. Sorry/not sorry.

How Going to Military School = Writing a Book

  • Do it for yourself first—Military school is hard. It’s grueling. It’s like boot camp on crack because you add classes on top of everything else. If you’re doing it to prove something to yourself, then you’re more likely to succeed. If you’re doing it to impress someone else, it’s going to be hard to make it. There’s a lot of talk about trend in writing. What’s selling, what’s going to sell next. If you focus on that part, writing is going to be hard. Here’s the thing—the publishing industry moves slow. So by the time you’ve gone through writing, revising, subbing, selling…the trend is over. At its essence, writing is about telling a story. A story you can tell that no one else can. If you’re writing the story of your heart, then you’re more likely to succeed. If you’re writing toward a trend, it’s going to be hard to make it. 
  • Determination—Military school ain’t no walk in the park. You get yelled at, woken up insanely early, yelled at more, forced to do millions of push-ups and other forms of physical torture, and then yelled at again. In the case of Sam, the main character in Rites of Passage, you might also get bullied and hazed. But if you (like Sam) have heart and can remember why you’re there, you’ll make it through.  The same thing goes with writing. Writing a book from start to finish requires a certain amount of…chutzpah.  There will be pages and pages of words you write/love/delete/rewrite/revise, etc. There will be rejection, bad reviews, and days you want to stick your head in the sand. But if you have heart and can remember why you’re writing, you’ll make it through. 
  • Use critique but don’t sell your soul—When you’re marching/shooting/running an obstacle course, everyone seems to have a tip for doing it better/faster/more efficiently. The problem is, those tips work for them—they may not work for you. The tip-giver might be taller/faster/stronger/more daring than you. But think about what they said—don’t just toss it away. See if you can find something in there, however small, that might help. If you take what they give you and make it your own, you’re golden. Don’t feel bad if you don’t use it—this is your life.  It’s a lot the same with writing. Everyone reads your book with their own background knowledge. They may want your character to do one thing while you don’t think it fits. It took me a long time to realize I didn’t have to please everyone when I write. As long as I stay true to the story and make it as strong as I can, I’ll be happy. Every critique helps in some way. If you can take what critique partners give you and use it to strengthen your story, you’re golden. Don’t feel bad if you don’t use their suggestions—in the end, this is your story. 
  • It’s not you, it’s you ALL—In military school, it feels like a lot of attention is on you as an individual. To an extent, it is. One cadet out of step in a platoon is really obvious and looks pretty bad. But your platoon, your company, your battalion, when everyone works together and helps each other, it looks amazing. All you can do is your best and hope everyone else does their best, too. It’s the same way with books.  At some point your book is out of your hand. Other people get input—your editor, your design team, your publicist—everyone looks at the book from a different angle, checking that it’s in-step, that the uniform is polished and looking its best. The goal is the same, though: to put out the best possible book. All you can do is write the best book you can. Then you hope that everyone else does their best, too.

RitesofPassage Final Cover

Sam McKenna has never turned down a dare. And she’s not going to start with the last one her brother gave her before he died.

So Sam joins the first-ever class of girls at the prestigious Denmark Military Academy. She’s expecting push-ups and long runs, rope climbing and mud crawling. As a military brat, she can handle an obstacle course just as well as the boys. She’s even expecting the hostility she gets from some of the cadets who don’t think girls belong there. What she’s not expecting is her fiery attraction to her drill sergeant. But dating is strictly forbidden and Sam won’t risk her future, or the dare, on something so trivial . . . no matter how much she wants him.

As Sam struggles to prove herself, she discovers that some of the boys don’t just want her gone—they won’t rest until she gives up. When their petty threats turn to brutal hazing, bleeding into every corner of her life, she realizes they are not acting alone. A decades-old secret society is alive and active . . . and determined to force her out.

At any cost.

Now time’s running short. Sam must decide who she can trust . . . and choosing the wrong person could have deadly consequences.

RITES OF PASSAGE is available at bookstores and is also available at:

Indiebound, Books-A-Million, iBooks, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Book Depository.

If you want an autographed copy of RITES OF PASSAGE, please e-mail or call Anna-Lisa at my local independent bookstore: Books & Co….Toys, too! Let them know if you want it personalized. They’ll even gift-wrap it for you for free if you ask nicely!

E-mail: orders (at) booksandtoys (dot) us
Phone: (540) 463-4647

Joy N. Hensley is a former middle school teacher. She used to spend her twenty-minute lunch breaks hosting author Skype chats for her students. Once upon a time she went to a military school on a dare. She lives in Virginia with her husband and two children, finding as many ways as she can to never do another push-up again.

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4. Momentum: Keep the Writing Coming


eBook Sale: August 26-31 only $0.99/regular $5.99

Available at these eBook stores Mims House eBookStore Nook Kindle Kobo iBookstore

AUDIO BOOK (Unabridged): Now Available!

Available at these Audio Book stores iTunes Store Amazon Audible

You’ve started! Hurrah!
Now, how do you keep going, especially when LIFE happens? As it invariably will!

Stop in the Middle

One strategy to keep momentum going is to stop in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or scene. Those who recommend this suggest that you stop at an exciting moment, at a place that will be easy and apparent on how to proceed when you come back to it.

This makes sense. Creative people stop working on their craft at a very specific moment: they fail to start again. It’s rare for an artist/writer to stop working on a project. Of course, we all have drawers full of half-finished manuscripts. But the fact that they are half-finished might even be encouraging. No, instead, a writer may accomplish a big goal, say publication of the novel of their dreams. And then–nothing. Once that goal is accomplished, they fail to start again.

Leaving a work in the middle of something interesting means that you have a chance of coming back to it and actually picking it up again.

Keep Score

I am motivated by numbers. Give me a running tally of something and it motivates me to see that number increase. Writing is especially suited to keeping score: keep track of how many words you write each day and a running total for the project. You can do this manually, or with programs such as Scrivener. Some writers like to do this in public with a widget on their website or by posting on Facebook.
Momentum

Know Where You Are Going

Whether you are a panster or outliner, it helps to keep in mind something about the coming story. For pansters, maybe it’s a vague idea of the ending of the story. For outliners, it’s the next chapter or scene. Either way, I find that looking forward helps me come back to the work fresh and ready to move on.

Dealing with Life

Your job, in the midst of everything that life throws at you, is to find a way to move forward. When I taught freshman composition, one semester, I had a student who had major life challenges. His wife was six months pregnant and on total bed rest or she might lose the baby. His daughter was autistic and each night he sat with her doing homework to keep her from literally banging her head against the wall. He worked full time. I suggested that maybe he should drop out a semester until life was calmer. But he said that his employment was contingent on him being in school and working toward a degree. He couldn’t quit school or he had no job.

“How do I find time to write an essay?” he asked.

The simple answer is, “I don’t know.”

All I could say to him was that I had great sympathy for his situation and would encourage him as much as I could. But in the end, if he didn’t turn in an essay, I couldn’t give him a grade.

And in the end, we all stand before the complications of Life and must find a way to deal with those Life issues and still do the work that we are given to do.

How do you find the time to write?
I don’t know. I have great sympathy for you and I’m cheering for you and hoping that you make the effort because the world needs to hear your voice.
But in the end, you must find the solution to your own Life issues.
When you do, send me your good news!

P.S. My student DID turn in essays and wound up with a B for the semester.

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5. How Do I Look?

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by

JJ

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JJThe other day, as I was catching up on my TBR pile, I found myself being repeatedly thrown out of book. It wasn’t for lack of pace, uninteresting premise, or dull characterization; it was for the constant physical description of the main character.

Description is a tricky thing to handle in books, especially if the narration is told from the first person (as was the book I was reading). Sometimes I notice the description, other times I do not. Why? What makes for a smooth, almost invisible description of a character’s looks, and what makes for a jarring one?

Some of this is a matter of personal taste, of course; I am someone who prefers physical description of character’s in books rather vague.* But there are some writers who are very particular about their characters’ looks, and whether or not their descriptions throw me out of a narrative come down to a few things:

1. The description feels shoehorned in.

Your mileage may vary on this one, but nothing is more distracting than reading a passage where plot is moving forward, only to have it interrupted with descriptions of the character’s hair or eye color. For example, a sentence like this would jar me: She packed her bags, determined to flee the country. Before shutting the suitcase, she made sure she had enough blue and green blouses, to set off her sea-green eyes. Just because she was a fugitive of the law didn’t mean she had to look like one. 

I feel there is a time and a place for descriptions. When characters meet for the first time. When characters are being compared (or comparing themselves) to others. When a character’s looks affects how others perceive him or her. Think of all times you think of the way someone “looks” in real life; a character should be thinking along similar lines. For instance, when I look in the mirror, I am not lingering on my dark eyes, strong jaw, and sharp chin. I am wondering whether or not I look tired, or if the spaghetti I had for dinner left any marinara on my face.

2. The description feels, for the lack of a better word, too “favourable”.

This…is tough. While I prefer showing over telling in prose, there are some times when telling actually trumps showing. I especially feel this way when it comes to describing someone attractive. What people find attractive varies from individual to individual, and a detailed description of a character’s physically appealing qualities makes me roll my eyes. Phrases like her long, slender legs or his well-muscled forearms are perfectly fine, but instead of being shown physically that a character is attractive, I’d rather been shown emotionally.

So how to write description in such a way that isn’t distracting? I think people, when they come across others they haven’t met before, will focus on one or two things that stand out. Race/ethnicity, an unusual birthmark, or perhaps a haircut. J.K. Rowling does this quite well; Harry’s lightning-shaped scar, his untidy hair, and spectacles; Hermione’s bushy hair and too-big front teeth; Ron’s red hair, freckles, and lanky height. These are distinguishing physical characteristics that help the reader recognize the character, both on the page, and in other mediums, like the screen or fanart.

Very few people will notice the dimple in someone’s cheek, or the relentless symmetry of his or features upon first sight. It is only after some time that we begin to build mental images of each other. It is the same with characters; when presented with a laundry list of characteristics, I will probably forget what the character is supposed to look like. But if we get the details bit by bit, they reinforce and solidify a mental image, similar to how we would create mental images of those we know best.

What do you think? Do you have pet peeves or quirks that distract you when it comes to physical descriptions of characters in books? Leave us a comment below!

* There is one, rather important exception to this rule: I would rather be told, upfront and as soon as possible, if a character is NOT WHITE. It is all-too-easy to erase a character’s ethnicity—think of people’s reactions to Rue being black in The Hunger Games—and I prefer direct, irrefutable textual evidence of a character’s not-whiteness.

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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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6. Book Recommendation: Jeff VanderMeer’s WONDERBOOK

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Susan Dennard

WonderbookI’m a HUGE fan of books on writing. Like, I probably have an addiction and I know my husband would be REALLY happy if I’d throw out some of these gazillion craft books hogging up the basement…

Recently and sort of on a whim, I picked up Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction. I am so, so, SO glad I did. Seriously guys, this is my new favorite book on writing craft. Not only does this book give beginners everything they need to know to start crafting stories, but it’s an incredibly helpful book for experienced writers too.

Here’s the trailer:

Not only does VanderMeer introduce some awesome concepts and prose possibilities that I’d never considered before, but he also shares tons of essays from other authors on how THEY do things.

Then there’s all the art to go along with it!! A few of the crazy diagrams left my Muse spinning in the best possible way. Like this Hero’s Journey as depicted with a Mexican Luchador:

Mexican-Wrestler-Mono-myth-VanderMeer-Zerfoss-Wonderbook-2013

On top of all the graphics, there’s an interactive website to go along with the text. SO. MUCH. INFORMATION. It took me weeks to get through this book, and I enjoyed/savored every sentence.

So watch the trailer below, read an excerpt or the web extras, and maybe pick a copy of your own. I promise: all artists can gain something from this fantastic guide.

Jeff VanderMeer is the author of more than 20 books and a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award. His books have made the year’s-best lists of Publishers Weekly, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, Amazon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He is the cofounder and codirector of Shared Worlds, a unique writing camp for teenagers, and has taught at Clarion, the world’s premiere fantasy/sci-fi workshop for adults. VanderMeer is based in Tallahassee, Florida.

SusanDennardBefore she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor, Susan Dennard traveled the world as marine biologist. She is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly series as well as the forthcoming Witchlands series (Tor, 2015), and when not writing, she can be found hiking with her dogs, exploring tidal pools, or practicing her tap dance shuffles. You can learn more about Susan on her blogTwitterFacebook, or Pinterest.

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7. What’s the One Thing Your Character Can’t Live Without?

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Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72There are a myriad of ways to create characters. Problem is, there are so many of them that we can spend all of our time creating characters and never actually write the novel those characters exist in.

I tend to be a minimalist when creating characters, because I like to learn who they are by tossing them into the plot and seeing what they do. But it helps to have a starting point for those characters, otherwise they develop willy nilly and feel completely inconsistent and at odds with themselves. They make decisions based on plot (what I want) and not what they want.

When I first create a character, I like to ask: What is the one thing this character can’t live without?

This pinpoints what matters most to this character, and suggests the type of person he or she might be. Some characters can’t live without an item, such as a prized possession from their dead spouse, others can’t live without something loftier, like the freedom to choose their own destiny. Both of these characters will have unique approaches to how they interact with the story world.

That’s why it’s important to ask next: Why?

People value things for very different reasons, which in turn makes them very different in both personality and motivations. Valuing a possession could suggest a materialistic nature, or profound sentimentality, or even a fear of loss. A desire for freedom at all costs could create an idealistic dreamer or someone who’s afraid to commit to anything that might tie her down.

Once we understand why that character values that “thing” we know more or less how she’ll react in a situation.

This can also lead to some other fun and useful questions to ask, such as:

If this character lost that thing, how would she react?

This can suggest how the character might react to adversity in general. The person who sits down and cries for a week is probably not going to be an in-your-face confrontational type, while the person who seeks revenge on whoever took what she values is likely to react in a much more aggressive fashion.

What would this character do to avoid losing this thing?

This can suggest the lines a character might cross, or how much she’ll endure for something important to her. Can she be pushed beyond her limits? Would she betray her own morals? How far is she willing to go? If she’s willing to break laws or vows for this thing, where else might she be flexible with ethics or morality?

What would this character sacrifice to protect this thing?

This is a great way to determine what choices to throw at the character by forcing her to make such a sacrifice. It also helps with developing what else might be in the character’s life, or what she might not value as much even if she does care about it. Willing to let a tyrant oppresses a village as long as her family is left alone? Willing to give up that family for the greater good if it stops the tyrant? Maybe she’s willing to sacrifice herself for what she values.

Some characters start as wispy outlines, while others leap fully formed from our heads. No matter how they make it to the page, they all care about something more than anything else in their lives. Knowing what matters to them will help us turn them into real and compelling people our readers will remember.

Where do you start when you create a character?

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.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

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8. Sherlock’s Approach to Research

EC MyersEarly this year, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts launched its interview series, In Conversation, with Benedict Cumberbatch. (Good choice!) Something he said about how he researches a new role struck a chord with me:

“[Research is] a security blanket. Not all of it — very little of it ends up on screen, often. And it’s just to take a little bit more possession of the extraordinariness of what I’m being asked to do. Because it’s so far removed from my experience. It just gets me a little bit more… It just gives me a little bit more courage to pretend to be something I’m so far from.”

cumberbatch[Watch the quoted clip, or the whole interview, here. Video will play automatically in a new window.]

I literally couldn’t have said it better, because I’m not Benedict Cumberbatch! But I feel the same way about novel research. Obviously, before you start writing about something you don’t know much about, like say computer hacking — the topic of my next book, The Silence of Six — you have to find out more about it. But the tricky thing about research is you don’t necessarily know what information you will need before you start outlining or writing the book. The natural solution is to learn everything you can, just like Sherlock, but as Cumberbatch said so sexily: most of that isn’t going to end up on the page, and it shouldn’t.

A “security blanket” is a perfect metaphor for the way I research, because I don’t feel comfortable enough to start a new project until I’ve read a bit about it — even if I’m just going to be making things up. Research also gives me a better idea of the kinds of things I’ll need to learn in more detail to make the book as authentic as possible, and the more I learn, the more ideas I have that will make the book even better.

My research usually starts off on the internet (where else?). I’ll probably start by visiting Wikipedia and various websites to get a basic introduction to a particular topic. This usually leads me to books and movies and documentaries that they’ve referenced, which soon become my primary sources, and I’ll start looking up fiction books on the same topic.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

Some of my research books for The Silence of Six.

I know a lot of writers don’t or can’t read books similar to what they’re writing, because they’re worried about being influenced by them too much, but I find it helpful to see what’s out there. They help me discover the right tone for my book. It’s good to know how other writers have approached the same ideas, so I can avoid duplicating them and, maybe so I can try to do better. For instance, many technothrillers in film and print treat hacking like magic; a few minutes in front of a keyboard, and a hacker is deep in the Pentagon’s most top secret files, when in reality, a hack of that magnitude would take months, or much longer. In fact, before many hackers try to break into a facility or system, they do research too!

Research is one of my favorite parts of writing. I love to learn new things, and since my school days are long behind
me, researching new stories introduces me to all sorts of topics I wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. Research can also be fun — it gives you “permission” to read a bunch of books and watch TV shows and movies, while still considering it a productive part of writing. I finally started watching the show Leverage as inspiration for some of the infiltration scenes in The Silence of Six. I got to read Michelle Gagnon’s PERSEF0NE series and Robin Benway’s Also Known As books for great examples of how to write computer scenes and tense, action-filled chases. I watched The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange (but sadly I can’t recommend it, for reasons that have nothing to do with his performance). I also probably ended up on some NSA and FBI watchlists for Googling things like “How to hack into a Macbook,” “How to hack a car,” and how to do Google searches like that anonymously.

Meet_linus_bigThe danger of research is you can get a little too attached to that security blanket. There’s so much to read and watch, you can feel like maybe you’ll never be ready to start writing that book. You cram too much of your research into the book, so your editor starts giving you notes like, “It feels like there’s a subplot about Wi-Fi.” (All I can say about that is Wi-Fi is fascinating! And there are lots of ways to exploit it.) When research turns into procrastination, it’s time to put those books aside and start writing, confident that you know enough to get through a first draft, and you can always do more focused research later when you need it. Just highlight the sections that need to be filled in on your manuscript (I like to mark them “TK”), and keep going. And try to avoid falling into another Wikipedia spiral as you look up those missing details!

I’m in this exciting research phase with my next project. All I’ll tell you about it is that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, and The Lost by Sarah Beth Durst are on my reading list. I actually think these books aren’t at all similar to what I want to write, and this project shouldn’t need much research, but they’re going to get my subconscious thinking about the story so when I do start writing, I’ll feel ready.

Do you like researching your stories? How do you go about it? Do you like Benedict Cumberbatch?

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9. Adding New Ideas vs. Knowing When to Streamline

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by

Susan Dennard

I received an awesome question post in my forum last week, and I thought I’d answer it today. :)

I thought my first novel was done except for proofreading, after being through many CPs and two passes with a professional editor I hired. Now that I’m about 25% into its sequel, I keep discovering new things about my characters that I’d like to go back and put in the first one as a connecting detail or foreshadowing. This is for characters, but for places too, because my trilogy is fantasy and I get more awesome ideas about the various cultures and places as I write more.

The problem is when can I “stop” world building? Should I write and edit the entire trilogy before self publishing the first one or just publish the first one now because it’s ready. When I’m working on the other two, I’ll just have to delete some of my new ideas I guess? Because the first one will already be out in the world, unchangeable.

How do you deal with this when you have a traditional contract for only one book, not knowing if your editor will want to buy or publish the rest of the series as you envision it?

Okay, let’s break this down into two separate questions.

When to Stop Adding Ideas

It’s funny that this question–When can I stop world-building?–came RIGHT at a time when I’m struggling with a similar issue. I have so many new ideas! I want to squeeze them all in HERE and NOW and into THIS WORLD…

Well, there is a breaking point and there is such a thing as too much. And in all honesty, a tight book that gets complex without getting unwieldy and that wraps up in a great big AHA! of meeting threads–those are the books that readers love most. (An excellent example is the Harry Potter series: lots of threads and characters and world details, but it never bogs down the reader. Best of all, everything comes together for a truly spectacular ending.)

So how do you know if you’re only complicating things by adding more?

For world-building: If you have extraneous details that don’t actually add to the story or need to be there for the plot’s sake, then you might want to cut out some histories and details. A few subtle elements can absolutely enhance the story–little details make a world feel real. But if you worry you have too many details or so many settings that the reader is getting whiplash…Well, you might want to take a look at the world-building.

For characters: If you’re having a hard time incorporating characters into a scene, then maybe they don’t need to be there. I totally made this mistake with Strange & Ever After–I wanted to have Laure join Eleanor and the Spirit-Hunters in Marseille and Egypt. But it got so unwieldy! Having to find ways/reasons for every character to speak and act in group scenes? I just kept forgetting characters were even there. Obviously, I solved this problem by leaving Laure in Paris and then trying to keep each scene focused on only a 1-3 characters at a time.

For plot threads: If, at any point, you have to start writing a really complicated, info-dumpy type scenes in order to wrap up and connect all the threads, then you might have too many plots twining through your book. I am SO guilty of this in Strange & Ever After, and I’ll talk more about that below. :)

The key is, in my opinion, to getting a streamlined book is to:

1. Work with what you already have when trying to connect scenes, characters, places, and events. Sometimes little throwaway comments from earlier chapters or books can become AWESOME plot points or props.

2. If you can’t work with what you already have, try to instead to TAKE AWAY. Maybe some detail or thread is actually clogging you up rather than giving you the freedom to move forward. Thought it sometimes requires rewriting, it’s often better to simplify than to complicate–unless, of course, the book is already super simple. Then you might want to…

3. Add in those new ideas and see/feel how it works. If you can tell that it’s just opening up too many new story questions or story directions, then maybe you shouldn’t add it. But you can always weave it in, try it out for a few chapters, and then decide.

Writing an Entire Series Upfront

Now, onto the other part of this question: If self-publishing, should you write and edit the entire trilogy before publishing the first? If traditional publishing, how do you deal with new ideas and being confined to what’s already in the world?

Goodness, I can tell you from experience that writing a sequel once the earlier books are published/unchangeable is REALLY HARD. Holy crow, it’s hard. You write yourself into unforeseen corners and you can’t go back to tweak things in earlier books.

Or, you’ll have the AWESOME ideas that you just love and that resonate so much with you…but that you can’t introduce because they really should have been introduced in the already-on-shelves book 1.

Or, if you’ll discover in your third book (as I did) that everything you’d kinda-sorta thought would tie up DOESN’T–at least not in a way that resonates with you. Now you’re stuck adding all sorts of little details and backstories that you really wish you’d dropped into earlier books. For example, in Strange & Ever After, I introduce the idea of gods and other creatures from the spirit realm. I REALLY wish I could go back to Something Strange & Deadly and weave in just a few hints that gods are coming up…But alas, the first books were already published.

So if you can (and if you intend to definitely self-publish the whole trilogy), I actually think you can benefit from writing all the books at once. Not only does this allow you to really build your story and streamline it, but it also allows you to publish the entire series at once (which works very well in the self-publishing world).

However, if you ARE confined to writing only one book at a time, I urge you to follow the steps I list above: work with what you already have, take away aspects, or add new ideas with heaps of caution. Will you be stuck scratching your head and screaming at the already-in-stores book for not being changeable? Probably, but that doesn’t mean writing sequels after earlier books are finished is impossible. (And perhaps my post on planning a series will help!)
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SusanDennardBefore she settled down as a full-time novelist and writing instructor, Susan Dennard traveled the world as marine biologist. She is the author of the Something Strange and Deadly series as well as the forthcoming Witchlands series (Tor, 2015), and when not writing, she can be found hiking with her dogs, exploring tidal pools, or practicing her tap dance shuffles. You can learn more about Susan on her blogTwitterFacebook, or Pinterest.

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10. The Post of General Advice

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Kat Zhang

Kat ZhangIt’s a little crazy to think that the last book in the Hybrid Chronicles will be releasing in less than a month. Has it really been that long since I was sending out queries for What’s Left of Me (then Hybrid) and refreshing my email every three seconds?

Sometimes, it honestly doesn’t feel like it was that long ago. I can’t even remember how I got started learning about the industry—probably the internet! I do recall reading a ton of writing books, and getting the print version of the guide to literary agents or whatever it was called, and writing down names that represented YA.

Back when I was querying my very first novel (the one I wrote before What’s Left of Me), I only sent queries by snail mail. I think there was something concrete and business-like about typing, printing, and addressing a letter that appealed to me. After all, I’d been chasing this publication dream since I was twelve, but it had always been an nebulous thing. Putting stamps on envelopes…sending them off to NYC…it felt legitimate. I think I probably queried about ten or twelve agents, which felt like a lot at the time!

Unfortunately, none of those SASEs included came back with a positive answer ;) Fortunately, I had read enough advice online (I think my main resources back then were QueryShark and Miss Snark) to know I should bunker down and write another book while waiting for query replies. That book was What’s Left of Me, and it all went on from there!

Publishing is a big world, and a lot of it really can only be learned through experience. There’s a wealth of information, to be sure, but some is outdated, and much is a matter of opinion. It was easy for me to get lost in the minutia (1-inch margins!) rather than try to figure out the whole beast of a thing. However, there’s something to be said for good advice, too.

I get a lot of emails asking for advice for just-starting-out-hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool-to-publish-a-book writers. Here’s a list of my tips. It will probably be too basic for a lot of you out there further along on the publishing road, but hey, we all started out in the same place! Hope it’s helpful for someone :)

Advice for Aspiring Writers

1. Finish the book. If you’ve already accomplished this, hooray! But if you haven’t, don’t underestimate the difference this makes. It’s one thing to write a lot of nice scenes. Another thing entirely to craft a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end.

2. Read in your genre.  I have to confess that while I was writing What’s Left of Me, I was too mired in high school reading to read for fun (sacrilege, I know), so I was really out of the YA-loop as well. But I’d lived YA books for all of middle school, so I suppose there was that :P

But seriously, in hindsight, I would tell myself to read more in the genre. Not only does it let you know if the “shiny, original” idea you have isn’t actually that shiny, it lets you know how other people have written stories similar to your own. I don’t believe that reading in a genre, knowing the “usual structure” (or, to be more blunt, “cliches/rules”) of a genre means you’re going to fall into the same. Know the rules so you can break them, right?

3. Set goals—but you-driven goals. That means, you don’t tell yourself “My goal is to get published in the next year.” Because honestly, that’s not something you can control. You might work really hard, and write a great book, but it doesn’t get in front of the right people, or does so at the wrong time. Rather, set goals that are under your own control: “I will finish my book this year” or “I will start querying in April.”

4. Know the industry…but try not to kill yourself stressing about it. I worked as an intern for a literary agent for about a year, and read a lot of both queries and manuscripts during that time. People give a lot of “rules” about queries, but honestly, as long as you’re sending a few paragraphs that make the reader want to read your story, you’ve accomplished the point of a query. There are guidelines, of course, to be more professional about it, and I recommend reading a lot of samples and then showing your query to people (both who have and haven’t read your story). But try not to freak out too much. (I know, easier said than done!)

I could go on, but I promised just the highlights!

How about you? Do you have any advice for just-starting-out writers? Things you wish you’d known?

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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11. Revealing Backstory while Avoiding the Info-dump

by Julie Eshbaugh

~~~

JulieInfo-dump. Just the name of this writing misstep telegraphs that it’s something to be avoided. For purposes of this post, “info-dump” refers to a section of narration inserted into a story that explains important backstory essential to understanding the current action. Here’s an example:

“Marie!” Peter held her at arm’s length so he could look into the face he had feared he would never see again. “I can’t believe it’s you! Where have you been?”

Marie told Peter how she had been captured by the Slugs, a society of subterranean warriors. She had stumbled upon their home while spelunking in the abandoned mines north of town. The Slugs had come closer to the surface than they usually dared in search of a missing key that they believed a renegade Slug had carried to the surface. The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories. In the end they’d let her go, but only after she’d agreed to search out the Slug with the stolen key and return it to its rightful place underground. Before they let her go, though, they’d implanted a tracking device in her brain.

“See the scar?” Marie asked, pulling the hair back from behind her left ear.

An info-dump dropped right in the middle of things can hurt your story in many ways:

It stops the forward momentum. When I’m caught up in the midst of a great story, I want to be carried along toward the climax. An info-dump can interrupt that progress and slow things to a crawl.

It removes the reader from the world of the story. In the example above, the reader is pulled from the reunion scene between Marie and Peter, which, without the interruption, has the potential to be an emotionally strong scene.

It’s boring. The narrator takes over and resorts to “telling,” so instead of experiencing what happened to Marie, the reader learns it in a mini history lesson.

What can be done in a situation like this? Sometimes it’s not possible to “show” all the backstory. In this example, Peter may be the POV character, so the reader wouldn’t be able to know what was happening to Marie while she was suffering through her underground captivity. Still, this information is necessary to the story. The writer needs to find a way to share it without an info-dump.

Here are some techniques to consider:

Find ways to show some of the information, either at this point in the story or later. “The Slugs had interrogated Marie, and they’d injected her with a drug that altered her perceptions and memories.” This is the kind of information that could be shown in a multitude of dynamic ways. It could be shown right here through her interactions with Peter, or it could be woven in a bit at a time, until the characters and readers come to understand what has happened to Marie. This would also work with the tracking device in Marie’s brain. A headache could introduce this information, integrating it into the current action.

Dialogue can be used to convey backstory. All the information in the info-dump paragraph above could be shared by Marie through dialogue, while the story continues. Imagine that, just as Peter encountered Marie at the start of this scene, he was hurrying to get to a meeting with a reclusive scientist, who, before his abrupt retirement a year ago, was the country’s foremost expert on subterranean societies. Peter’s need to hear Marie’s story while simultaneously needing to hurry to his meeting would add action to the scene, as he drags her to his car, blurts out a quick explanation of where they’re going, and tries to concentrate on Marie’s harrowing story while speeding through yellow stoplights and weaving through traffic to meet the professor in time.

Tell the backstory in one big chunk, but weave it into the narrative in a way that interests the characters and the reader. In this example, Marie could tell Peter and the other characters her story as they sit around a campfire at night, or as they hike through the woods toward the very same mines where she was captured. With this treatment, the backstory becomes a story-within-the-story, allowing the writer to build suspense and tension so that the backstory maintains the same level of complexity and interest as the current events that surround it. A story-within-a-story can also help with world-building, if the culture of your story has traditions in place for passing down history or sharing myths and legends, such as through sonnets or songs.

What are your thoughts on these techniques? Do you have any other methods for sharing important backstory? 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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12. “Stealing” Careers

by

Alex Bracken

Alexandra Bracken

A few weeks ago, while bumming around on Tumblr, I came across a GIF set of Natalie Dormer (she of Tudors and Game of Thrones fame) answering the question: If you could steal someone else’s career, who would it be and why? I immediately searched on Youtube until I found the original video. Her answer is at the 0:15 second mark.

I’m including the video because I love her/she’s brilliant/she reminds me of a cat that lovingly leaves you murder presents, but for those of you who can’t watch, her answer is: “Never steal anyone else’s career. Want your own. Everything for a reason.” Her answer, though simple, has really stuck with me and has gone a long way in adjusting my thinking about my own writing career.

The most obvious application: I would like to step into this author’s shoes because they make a lot of money/win awards/can publish whatever they feel like. But we all know that appearances are deceiving and there’s generally a lot happening–both bad and good–behind the curtain we never get to see.

Another obvious application: career comparison. Thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to see how other books and authors are being marketed, what kind of “treatment” that they’re getting from their publisher, and how readers are responding to their book(s)–and, of course, since we’re human, it takes an iron will not to try to line up what your career and see how it stacks up. I’ve known from a young age that I have a competitive streak in me (for everything but sports, apparently–I quickly accepted I would Rather Not when it came to athletic activity), and it’s something I’ve worked on over the years to find a more zen center. And by that I mean seeing firsthand how a rising tide lifts all boats and redefining the “competition” to be a competition to push myself, to continually write better books, find that balance on social media, and so on.

But I boiled the question down in another context, too. Recently, one of my critique partners and I were having lunch and got around to discussing an author whose books we both love; the conversation turned to analyzing that author’s career–how many books s/he puts out a year, the content, the storytelling “formula” they seemed to love, and the seemingly rabid reader response. It was the first time in years that I felt a queasy sense of “Am I doing this wrong?” Am I writing the wrong kind of books? Should I adjust my writing style? Do I need to include more romance/more grit/more of xyz? Do I need to be cranking out more books each year? Should I be self-publishing some stories? Do I need to experiment with writing for a new age level?

Basically: is the way to achieve that author’s level of success to try to mimic their career?

On one hand, it sounds sort of terrible, right? Like you’re trying to Single White Female them a bit. I’m not talking general feelings of admiration and generally aspiring to be like an author whose work you love. I’m talkin’ stone cold analysis that involves actual research. As I was walking home, I realized one of the reasons why my brain got started on that loop was because of my marketing background. When a marketing department is given a new title to brainstorm and market, one of the very first things they do is “position” it within the marketplace. This is where all of those “It’s Downton Abbey meets Star Wars!” type statements come from. They’re zeroing in on a target audience to try to streamline outreach and identifying “comp titles” that are already out in the world. And, yes, they research and study the successes and failures of their competition’s marketing plans to see what works, what doesn’t, and how they can adapt it to suit their needs.

There’s certainly an element of being business savvy in studying other author’s careers, but to Natalie Dormer’s point, I think there’s always going to be something inherently poisonous in doing it. It’s one thing to hear about something they do for their readers and replicate it because you love it and think your readers will, too. (For instance, one of my favorite stories I’ve heard about a Big Time Author is that s/he keeps all fan mail, organizes it by city, and before going out on tour/doing an event, will re-read the mail from that city in case one of those readers come so they can talk on a more personal level.) When it comes to storytelling itself, though, it’s tempting to feel like you could recreate a formula and find that same success–but the truth of the matter is, for the truly successful authors, there always seems to be a bit of a “lightning” element. A little bit of luck. The right timing. Something in their writing voice/plotting/characters that’s just impossible for anyone else to reproduce. And, even if you could put your own small spin on it, are you depriving readers of something that’s uniquely you?

I feel like I’m talking in circles now, so I’ll turn it over to you guys–what do you think? Would you “steal” someone else’s career if you could?

Alex lives in New York City where she writes like a fiend and lives in a charming apartment overflowing with books. She is the New York Times bestselling author of The Darkest Minds and Never Fade. You can visit her online at her website, Tumblr, or Twitter.

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13. Dealing With Multiple Drafts During Revisions

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By

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72Sometimes a story goes through several drafts before you figure out the best way to tell it. Problem is, you often end up with multiple drafts, and there’s good writing in every one. Finding a way to piece together all the best parts and still make the story feel cohesive can be a challenge.

Here are some common trouble spots when dealing with multiple revisions, and some tips on how to handle them:

Your Darlings: Those Scenes You Love, but no Longer Work

In multiple drafts, it’s easy to have favorite moments you want to include, and you’ll probably work hard to get them to fit. But just because it’s a great scene doesn’t mean it’s great for the final draft. When I’m trying to fit a favorite bit into something I’m writing, the difficulty fitting it is a big red flag that it might not be the right scene for the book. Forcing a scene almost always ends with a big stumbling block for the reader as soon as they hit it. It doesn’t flow, it doesn’t quite make sense, it doesn’t really advance the story.

This doesn’t hold true for every tough bit to fit, and once in a while, I come up with a seriously cool way to make it work that I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. But I’ll be honest and say this is rare. If you find yourself beating your head against a scene, it might be time to file it away and save it for another story.

  • Does it advance the core conflict or character arc in some way?
  • Does it offer new and relevant information?

That Looks Right, But: Leftover Information That’s no Longer Relevant

Another common snag in piecing together drafts is what I like to call revision smudge. Those bits that get left behind that reference something no longer in the novel. For example, you changed which character was in the scene with your protagonist, you changed the location, the goal shifted slightly or the stakes altered. Reading these scenes feel “right,” but when you look closely, you realize that part of the story is no longer there. That reference was cut, or changed, or was even moved to a new location.

  • Are there any leftover names or details that don’t belong?
  • Is anything referenced that is no longer there, or has changed?
  • Does the protagonist still want the same thing?
  • Are the stakes the same?
  • Does the antagonist still want the same things? Has their plan changed?
  • Are there extra characters that aren’t anywhere else now?
  • Is the information revealed new, or has it been added elsewhere?

Didn’t They Say That?: Information States in Multiple Scenes

Description and backstory are two more spots that can cause trouble. A scene that introduced a character in chapter one might now be in chapter five, and readers already know who they are. Do a search for each character’s name (or a key detail of backstory) and see what information you reveal first, then every other time that name/detail is mentioned. This can be time consuming, but you’ll know exactly where you say what about a character, and I’ve caught many a repetition this way.

  • Does anything sound familiar as your read? Has it been said elsewhere?
  • When is background information revealed?
  • Do readers have what they need when a character is first introduced?
  • Will readers understand early scenes based on the details revealed in those scenes?

Dress Rehearsal: Revise Chronologically to Ensure Everything Tracks

Revising chronologically also helps see the story as it unfolds, since you can easily flip back and double check details. And just having read it, the actual text will be fresh in your mind. This can also be helpful to find places where too much is happening on a single day, or what starts out at night ends up finishing in the early afternoon. Make an easy-to-check list of things you changed that need to be edited overall.

  • When is the first time critical information is revealed or stated?
  • When do important plot events happen?
  • How much time do scenes and actions take?
  • Is the timetable working and plausible?

Piecing together multiple drafts can be tricky, but a little pre-planning can save you a lot of time and effort.

Have you ever pieced together several drafts? Or tried to combine two story ideas into one? What pitfalls did you stumble into?

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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14. What Ferrets Taught Me About Being a Writer

by

Jodi Meadows

I’ve been thinking about how much I admire ferrets and how much they’ve taught me about being a writer.

Now, before you think I’ve finally lost my mind, hear me out. Ferrets have some great qualities we can all learn lessons from.

1. Be okay with going the long way around.

One of the funniest things about ferrets is how, rather than make a straight line from one point to another, they will almost always veer off and take the long way around. They’ll go under something, through something, and really make you wait for them to reach you even when you’re just trying to give them a treat. But ferrets like the scenic route, even when it’s less convenient.

Ferrets are not known for their efficiency, and they’re totally cool with that.

Writers are kind of impatient. We want to finish our manuscript now. We want to have the revisions yesterday. And when we send out queries, we hit refresh on our inboxes like no one’s business. We want that full manuscript request now. But things don’t always (haha, ever) happen on our schedule. We get rejections, a revision and resubmit request, or whatever. It feels like the long way around. It’s frustrating, but it builds character. (And, ideally, leads to a better book in the end.)

2. Sometimes you will poop on the floor and your editor will have to help you clean it up. She won’t like it, but she will still like you. Probably.

Poop story: ferrets are sassy little things. Some ferrets (*cough*Todd*cough*) like to, ah, relieve themselves right next to the litter box. What? It’s close! It only takes a moment to clean up! (Todd has no idea how frustrating this habit is for me. Or maybe he does.)

The truth is, we’re not going to write perfect first drafts. Or perfect second drafts. And when we hand something off to our crit partner/agent/editor, it might look pretty bad, even if you didn’t realize that when you finished. Sometimes, it’s going to look like you got it close . . . but didn’t hit the box. Maybe you gave up early, or you just didn’t notice. Either way, your crit partner/agent/editor will see it and help you clean it up. It’s not always the most fun job (my draft = poop comparison is kind of falling apart, because I like doing crits for friends, but I don’t like cleaning poop), but your people will still like you afterwards.

Alternately: sometimes great things will happen to you and you will get all proud and thinking you’re Big Stuff . . . and then someone will come along and poop on the floor just to keep you humble.

3. Accept all treats offered.

Ferrets, like small children, will keep accepting treats until they explode. (I’ve never seen one explode, but I’m sure it could happen.)

As writers, we aren’t given many treats. Most of the time it seems like we get poop on the floor. (See above about humility.) So when you’re offered a treat, take it. And don’t forget about it. (Unlike a ferret, who, having devoured a treat in .3 seconds flat, will look at you like they’ve never had a treat ever, the poor thing.) Whether your treat is a book deal, a fantastic critique or review, or even someone tweeting that they loved your book — don’t forget about it. Those treats are important. Accept all of them.

4. If you’re going to nip at someone, do something ridiculously cute after so they’ll still like you.

We all have bad days. Sometimes we take out our frustration and anger on the people who love us (or love our books). But if you’re going to nip someone, apologize. Maybe do something nice for them.

But really, try not to bite.

5. Don’t be afraid to fall in love with Kippy.

I’ve now had two ferrets fall in love with Kippy . . . who is a cat. You might think this inter-species adoration is odd, but ferrets are totally cool with it. (You might have noticed they’re pretty laid back about weird things.)

Sometimes, writers fall in love with ideas or books other people say we shouldn’t. Maybe the idea isn’t marketable or it’s already been done a thousand times. Maybe the idea is outside of your normal genre. You know what? Go for it. Follow your writerly heart. It may not work out in the end (so far it hasn’t worked out for Todd and Kippy, but I will keep you updated), but go ahead and take the chance. You never know. It might work out perfectly.

6. Don’t give up!

Todd has this trash habit. He looooves old plastic water bottles, pill bottles, bubble envelopes, plastic bags . . . You know what he loves doing with his trash? He loves stashing it. Inside his Big Box, inside the cage, under the cage — wherever he feels is safe. But sometimes his pieces of trash are bigger than he is, or won’t fit when he’s trying to take them up to his cage. Or sometimes he grabs an envelope or something and . . . keeps stepping on it. This, of course, makes taking the envelope somewhere very difficult. Because he’s standing on it. But Todd doesn’t give up. He keeps trying to take his trash where it belongs, no matter how difficult it is. Even if the trash is bigger than he is! Sometimes he fails or needs help, but usually if he keeps trying, he succeeds.

(I really do wish I had a video of this, but I haven’t been able to get a decent one yet. Sorry. You’ll just have to take my word for it: it’s adorable.)

As writers, sometimes we see something we want and it’s just so, so big. Maybe you want to write a story that seems too huge and daunting for you to handle. Maybe you want an agent or publishing contract. Or whatever. Lots of times, the challenge seems too big and writers give up. But if you give up, you’ve already failed. You never know what you might accomplish if you just keep trying.


Yes, I know I said poop and trash like fifty times, but that’s beside the point. Ferrets! There’s a lot to admire there, don’t you think?

*wanders off to have more coffee for ferret bouncing practice*

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 ORPHAN QUEEN duology (HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen).
*A Kippy is a cat.

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15. On Ideas and Plots and Their Mutability

Sometimes I get asked questions on twitter that cannot be answered in 140 characters. Candanosa asked one such yesterday:

Do you ever get amazing ideas for your books and then realize it was just something you read in someone else’s?

I couldn’t answer this in a tweet because being inspired by other books is at the heart of most writers’ work. It’s a feature, not a bug.

My book Razorhurst wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Larry Writer’s non-fiction account of the same period, Razor. Now most people see no problem with that: a novel being inspired by a non-fiction book. It happens all the time.

However, Razorhurst also wouldn’t be what it is without Ruth Park’s Harp in the South and Kylie Tennant’s Foveaux. Those books, Razor included, inspired and in some ways, shaped every sentence I wrote.

I couldn’t answer Candanosa’s question in a tweet because it expresses as a problem what I see to be a feature of being a writer. Every one of my novels has to some extent been inspired by, influenced by, made possible by, other novels.

My first three books, the Magic or Madness trilogy, was inspired by a popular series in which magic solved all the problems and had no negative consequences. I was annoyed me. Greatly. So much that I wrote three novels in which magic was more a curse than a gift and had grave consequences.

If I get an amazing idea and then realise that it’s similar to a book by someone else I start to think about how I would do it differently. For instance Hunger Games is not an original idea. You can trace its origins all the way back to the gladiators. The idea of people fighting to the death as entertainment for the masses has been used in The Running Man as well as Battle Royale to name two of the more famous examples. Hunger Games is not a rip off of either of these.

These three books are not identical. That central plot is mutable. Read them side by side, look at how differently they treat the similar set up. They’re in conversation with each other and their differences are far more telling than their superficial similarities.

I know many writers who when talking about the novel they’re currently writing say things like: “It’s Jane Eyre as if it were a thriller, and Rochester a psychopath,1 set on an isolated satellite.” Or “It’s a YA version of Gone Girl but set in a fantasy kingdom ruled by pterodactyls.” You get the idea. Pretty much every writer I know does some version of this.

It’s not plagiarism, it’s not cheating, it’s not lazy. It’s how creativity works in every field. We are inspired by what went before us.

Most people reading those Jane Eyre or Gone Girl reworkings would be unlikely to spot that that’s how they began life. Two writer with the same starting idea, or even with the same plot, will write different books. That’s how fiction works. Hell, that’s how non-fiction works. I’ve read several biographies of Virginia Woolf and they’re all different.

Getting an idea, coming up with a plot, are not the key to novel writing. I come up with millions every day. I do not write millions of novels every day. The heart of novel writing is actually writing the novel; it’s breathing life into characters and settings and situations. Plots are easy. Someone goes on a journey, a stranger comes to town, blah blah blah. All writers steal plots even when they don’t think they that’s what they’re doing. Just look at Shakespeare!

What makes a novel work is so complicated, there are so many moving parts, that declaring a book is merely its central idea, merely its plot, is ludicrous.2 If that were true why would we bother reading the novel? We might as well read the Cliff Notes version. Same thing, right? WRONG!

Next time you have an amazing idea and realise you read it in someone else’s novel. Relax. That’s a good thing. Your brain is in story-making mode. Treasure it, think about how you would do that particular idea differently, tell that story differently. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to something awesome.

  1. Not a big stretch given that Rochester is TOTALLY a pyschopath.
  2. For starters most novels are inspired by more than one idea.

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16. Writers Write: Banish Discouragement


COMING: March, 2015


Today, I am discouraged.

My trusty friend, ART AND FEAR, says this:

“. . .artmaking can be a rather lonely, thankless affair. Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists spend virtually all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about. . . The sobering truth is that the disinterest of others hardly ever reflects a gulf in vision. In fact there’s generally no good reason why others should care about most of any one artist’s work.”

Yes. that’s how I feel today, that no one is much interested in any of my work.
Ho, hum.
So, what?

Fortunately, ART AND FEAR goes on:

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.”

On those discouraging days, these are words to cling to!

ARTWORKSoars

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17. Adding Depth With Secondary Characters

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by

Amie Kaufman

amie165c-twitterI want you to imagine something for me. Let’s say that last year I stepped through a magical door and went missing for a month. Let’s say I was in a fantasy world, where I became embroiled in a fight for justice, only to find myself yanked back to reality without the chance to find out how the battle ended. Let’s say I’m desperate to get back there to the cause that’s become my own, and the friends I left behind. (What’s that? Of course I made this up, hush….)

Since I returned, I’ve taken up archery, in case I can get back. I’ve learned to use a compass, worked on my first aid, and taken up as many practical skills as I can. School’s not as important to me anymore, though I used to be a dedicated student. Now, I just need to get back to the people and places I grew to love.

Now, let’s say I’m the main character in a novel. And let’s say my best friend is a secondary character.

From her point of view, I vanished for a month, and refuse to talk about why. I don’t care about school, I’ve dropped my friends and hobbies. I’m not the same girl who’s been friends with her for years. She’s worried, she’s frustrated and she’s hurt.

An author tackling our relationship has a range of choices. If she doesn’t think about things from my best friend’s point of view, she risks making her a pushover — no difficult questions, no challenges. Just a couple of token protests. Boring!

If she thinks about my best friend’s point of view carefully and makes her the heroine of her own story, she’ll be in a position to weave a more complex and satisfying storyline. Conflict with my best friend brings in new plot threads and challenges to overcome, will tug at my conflicting loyalties, and show me in a different light to the reader.

To make sure your story has that depth, consider sitting down and writing a paragraph — or a page — summarising the plot from your secondary characters’ points of view. Ask what they’d think, feel and want, then check they’re acting in accordance with those needs. Your story will be richer for it!

Do you have any advice to share, or a favourite secondary character in a book you love?

Amie Kaufman is the co-author of THESE BROKEN STARS, a YA sci-fi novel out now from Disney-Hyperion (US) and Allen & Unwin (Australia). Book two, THIS SHATTERED WORLD, is coming soon, and her new trilogy will start with ILLUMINAE, coming from Random House/Knopf in 2015. She is represented by Tracey Adams of Adams Literary. You can find her on Twitter or on Facebook, or visit the These Broken Stars website for exclusive sneak-peeks and contests. Amie lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband and rescue dog.

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18. Writing 3-Dimensional Characters

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by

Susan Dennard

Character3DRecently, I received this question from Kaila in my inbox:

I was wondering, could you please do a post on your “For Writer’s” page about creating 3-dimensional characters?

At first, I was totally afraid to even TRY to tackle this question. I mean…gosh, are my characters 3D? Am I even talented enough or aware enough to talk about something so important?

But then I wrote in my newsletter last week about motivations and consequences, and I realized that–at least for ME–there are 3 things that make a character feel REAL when I’m reading.

#1: Motivation

Character motivation is the WHY of a character’s actions. It’s the WHY behind her goal, the WHY behind her inner and outer needs, and it’s even the WHY behind her short temper and her inability to commit.

But no, you say, that’s backstory! Backstory and history explain her short temper and inability to commit.

Ah, but not entirely. Yes, she’s been burned by men before, so it’s left her wary. But WHY does she  use sarcasm and shouts to make her point? She could just as easily be closed-off and cold. What motivates her to behave the way she does? What does she subconsciously (or in full awareness) hope to achieve by behaving the way that she does?

If you don’t understand these WHYS, then you’ll have characters do things for the sake of the plot…Which means characters will act out of character–and readers will spot that stuff. I promise.

An example: In Truthwitch (which comes out next fall from Tor), I had one of my heroines keep a giant secret from her best friend. I mean, for the plot’s sake, it worked to have her stay quiet, but on a motivation level, it just didn’t make sense. These girls are the CLOSEST FRIENDS you can ever imagine–why would Noelle EVER keep a secret from Safi? Well, a few savvy critique partners asked that very question, and so I finally examined Noe’s motivation for silence…

And it turned out she didn’t have one. I was making Noe stay silent for the sake of the plot. And although changing the story so that there was no secret would require major revisions, I realized that it had to be done. Otherwise, there would always be that lingering question in the reader’s mind of why Noelle did what she did. There would always be the nagging awareness that the character wasn’t behaving quite right.

#2: Emotional Dominoes

In order for me to revise the book with this new awareness–the awareness that Noe wasn’t motivated to keep secrets from Safi–I had to go back to the book’s very first scene and work through every emotional beat in the book. All over again.

Now, I’ve talked about emotional dominoes before, and I will often write in my notes, What are my emotional dominoes?, and then go through each emotion scene by scene. I find this method is incredibly helpful for unsticking my plot, and I also find it INVALUABLE for revising my characters and building real people.

In the Truthwitch example, I had to look at what it meant for Noelle to have told Safi her secret. If Safi knows this bit of history about Noelle, how does it change their interactions? How does it change how they view each other? How they behave in each scene?

And, once I had adjusted one scene to reflect this “new normal”, how did that effect the emotions in the next scene…and the next and the next?

Remember: every scene is linked. What happened before affects what’s happening now, and it will also dictate what happens next. If you try to force emotions to fit a plot, well…You end up with a book that feels forced! And as I mentioned above: readers WILL notice!

#3: Consequences

Consequences are hard. These are very much linked to emotional dominoes–in fact, you could say that “consequences” are just a form of emotional domino. Cause and effect, right?

But what I mean when I say “consequences” is going all the way. I mean digging deep into emotions that scare you and writing raw, honest stuff.

There is nothing I hate more than a character dying and then everyone just sort of moving on! Or a character who commits a truly horrible act (perhaps the heroine keeps a secret which thereby causes the death of her love interest’s family) and everyone just glosses over it–or worse, forgives her right away!

If an act is irredeemable in real life, it will also be irredeemable in fiction.

And if an act causes deep emotional response in real life, then it needs to cause deep emotional response in fiction.

So, as frightening as it may be to face the dark stuff in your heart, you’ve got to if you want your consequences to feel REAL.

If I return once more to the Truthwitch example, I realized as I was revising the book to incorporate Noe’s secret that the reason I’d failed to have it in the first place was because I’d been scared of facing the consequences. I hadn’t wanted to “go there” because “there” was a very scary place, and now that I had Noe’s traumatic childhood secret out in the open, I was going to have to build those consequences and emotions into every single scene.

It wasn’t easy, and I’m still not sure I got it right (thank goodness for multiple rounds of revision!). But I now understand Noelle’s–and Safi’s–characters so much better. I feel way more connected to them as people, and that in turn makes me care about and love the story even more.

Now, obviously we aren’t ALL writing dark characters with twisted backstories. But even books that are funny and “fluffy” have loads of heart and can hit us right in the gut. I remember reading Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married as a teenager and suddenly bursting into tears at the airport. I felt what Lucy felt (oh, Gus! You bastard!), and she was as real to me as if she were sitting next to me, waiting for her flight too.

The reason I connected to Lucy–the reason she felt 3-dimensional–was because I understood WHY she wanted love in her life. I understood why she made the often hilarious and often DUMB choices that she did. I totally understood why her failures brought her low, and every scene toppled neatly into the next. And, above all, when Lucy was faced with the final, really tough decisions, I FELT all the emotional weight that those decisions were due. (If you haven’t read that book, I highly recommend it!! Romantic comedy at its finest!)

So there you have it: motivation, emotional dominoes, and consequences. Those are the 3 dimensions that make a real character for me.

What about you? How do you write 3-D characters?

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19. Logistics

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By

Biljana Likic

biljana new picStories often begin with a lone kernel of an idea. Mine tend to begin when a few characters appear in my mind and don’t want to leave me alone. A single interaction between them can cause an entire book to be built around it. Generally, that’s how I plot, too. My process is basically just me figuring out how to construct a story around scenes that must happen.

But when I first started writing seriously, it would trip me up. I’d be writing the scene I’d been waiting a year to write, and all would be great. I’d create a setting in which the interaction would take place and go nuts pounding out the words that had been living in my head for so long. It’d be done before I knew it and after a night of sleep and letting it rest I would come back to it and realize I’d made a grave, grave error.

My characters would be so influenced by my neurotic imaginings of their interaction that they wouldn’t at all be influenced by the actual environment in which they were. Outside the sky would be heavy with clouds but they would still squint against the sun to see things better. Loud music would be playing but soft conversations from across the room would still be overheard. The room would be so dark only silhouettes should’ve been clear but for some reason the colour of the wallpaper would be discernable.

It was a result of the scene not evolving in my mind along with the rest of the story. I would have strong plot reasons for it to be a very cloudy day, but because the scene in my mind had always been an arbitrarily sunny one, I would subconsciously impose a completely different kind of weather. It was an issue of continuity.

Since becoming aware of the issue, I came up with a way to resolve it. It’s juvenile in its simplicity.

Keep a list of logistics. These can include light quality, temperature, weather, sound, and architecture.

Here’s an example. First, the wrong way to do it.

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. He heard her approach quietly behind him.

“Are you alright?” she whispered. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

She hurried to him and helped him up before he could stop her. Prompted by an ingrained memory of his strict mother, he automatically brushed dirt off his knees.

“Leave,” he said.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. His breath caught at her beauty. Tears streaked down her flushed cheeks, and her dark hair billowed and flowed in the breeze. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

There are a number of problems here. Taking the first paragraph where I describe the environment, these are our logistics: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. So how does he hear her approach quietly? How does he hear her whisper when she’s nowhere near close enough to be heard through the storm? How can he brush dirt off his knees when he was soaked in seconds? It’d be mud and it would seep into his clothing. When he sees her beauty, how can he see? He’s blinded by darkness. On that note, how does she even see him fall? And why is her hair billowing and flowing when it should be slick against her head? How does he know those are tears on her face when it could just be rain?

These are the kinds of continuity errors that come up very often in first drafts, but they’re easily avoidable. All you have to do is keep in mind the main aspects of the environment. It’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. Add occasional lightning to the storm and suddenly you have a source of light. It does nothing to change your actual story; the weather’s already bad. If she approaches him quietly, have her surprise him with a hand on his shoulder while he’s still on the ground. Now she’s close to him, which means he’d be able to hear her even if her voice isn’t very loud. When she helps him up, have him wipe his muddy hands on his pants and cringe at his mother’s memory instead of trying to respect it.

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.

He felt a hand on his shoulder and jerked away. He stilled at the familiar voice by his ear.

“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said.

She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. He wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent apology to his mother.

“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

Fundamentally, the scene hasn’t changed. All I did was tweak a few actions to make it plausible. But another thing you’ll notice is that the scene was actually made more intimate. He heard her whisper above the rain because she was so close to him, which wouldn’t have had to be true if it hadn’t been raining or if, as in the first attempt, I hadn’t followed the rules of the logistics I’d set. What I’m left with is a scene that not only takes into account the environment so it can play out naturally, but also gave me an opportunity to flesh out a more meaningful interaction.

And it doesn’t stop there. This scene could be even more tellingly intimate. Again, it comes down to logistics.

The rain is cold. She puts a hand on his shoulder. Her hand is warm. Instant awareness. Even if he jerks away, maybe the warmth could be familiar. Of course, warmth in and of itself isn’t only applicable to humans, but having him think of a certain someone in the moment of that warmth tells quite a bit about his psychological state of mind. When she’s that close to him, does he really want to run? What is he remembering when her breath is puffing into his ear? When she hooks an arm under his to help him, that human contact in a time of desperation would maybe be comforting. When she tugs at his sleeve, do her fingers graze the skin of his wrist?

We know how the environment affects him. How does she affect him? How do her actions impact his state of mind?

Cold rain came down in sheets, gathering on the leaves above and falling in big fat splotches onto his head. He was soaked in seconds. He fled, deafened by the sound of the storm around him and blinded by the darkness. He tripped and tumbled to the ground with a grunt of surprise. Lightning flashed weakly and the forest floor glowed, tangles of vines and roots glistening.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was nearly hot in contrast to the rain. In the split second before he instinctively jerked away, he thought of her. He froze when she spoke into his ear.

“Are you alright?” she whispered, voice carrying over the din of the rain, her warm breath puffing against his skin. She was probably afraid they’d hear her. She’d always been afraid they would hear. He shivered when she spoke again and blamed it on the wind. “Are you hurt?”

“I’m fine,” he said and quickly bowed his head away from her.

She hooked an arm under his and helped him up before he could stop her. The contact made his knees weak with longing. He needed comfort, wanted heat, and at that moment he felt she was the only thing that could banish the damp from his bones. He stepped away and wiped his muddy hands on his wet pants with a grimace and a silent, desperately out-of-place apology to his mother for dirtying his clothes.

“Leave,” he said, raising his voice to make sure she could hear. He hoped she hadn’t heard it crack, too.

He went to keep going but was stopped by her tugging on his sleeve. Lightning forked across the sky and his breath caught. Even with her hair plastered to her head, cheeks wet with what he told himself was only rain, she was beautiful.

The night succumbed to darkness once more and his only awareness of her became the brands that were her fingers brushing against the skin of his wrist. Before he could change his mind, he shook off her grip, and ran.

The people around your main character are also part of the environment. So now, your new logistics are: it’s a dark forest, it’s wet, and the pouring rain is loud and cold. He is greatly in love with the woman, and she keeps touching him.

Keeping all this in mind is how you go from point A to point B. What was at first a rough draft passage, a bare-bones scene, has turned into a psychologically important event necessary for the growth of the main character. All just by considering where things are, why they’re there, what the weather’s like, and how he feels about it.

Biljana Likic is working on her fantasy WIPs and just completed her BA, soon to be starting her MA in September, where she can’t wait till she’s done so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can follow her on Twitter.

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20. Guest Interview: Heather Marie

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Kat Zhang

(featuring Heather Marie)

Kat Zhang

 Heather-AuthorPhotos-3-WEBSIZEHey guys! Kat here today with Heather Marie, author of the upcoming YA book THE GATEWAY THROUGH WHICH THEY CAME. It’s her debut, and it’s releasing on August 25th with Curiosity Quills, so I invited her on Pub Crawl to chat with us a little about her publishing journey :)

Before we begin in earnest, I asked Heather to summarize GATEWAY for me in one sentence, and she said:

Seventeen-year-old Aiden Ortiz is a Gateway for the dead, who discovers that sending the dead away can be easy—but stopping them from coming back is a whole other story.

Read until the end for the book’s full summary, as well as a chance to win a copy!

So, Heather, tell us a little about your writing/publishing process with GATEWAY!

Where do I start? Well, I wrote Gateway during NaNoWriMo in November of 2012. At that time I was on submission with another YA supernatural about a girl haunted by the ghost of her half-sister. After only a few months, I pulled that manuscript and parted ways with my agent for personal reasons. This happens more often than you think, but it really leaves you feeling pretty jaded about publishing.

It was a rough road picking myself back up from there. I went through a lot of ups and downs, but eventually I pushed myself to finish Gateway, which was my sixth manuscript. (The one that went on submission was my fourth.) I honestly didn’t know if I’d ever get back on track. After you go from having an agent to not, you start to question your writing and publishing in general, because so much changes at once.

But I’ve dreamed of being an author since I was a kid—books have been a huge part of my life—and I just couldn’t allow myself to give up that easily. So after going through querying, and several revisions with Gateway, I was ecstatic to find out that Curiosity Quills Press wanted to sign me. As they say, it was a dream come true.

That’s really great! The road to finally getting a book published can definitely be rough, and I always love a happy ending :) What has working with Curiosity Quills been like? Any challenges you’ve faced as a debut author?

As a writer, I think we all know how important it is to market ourselves. Even those with Big 5 publishers have to get themselves out there, because no one is gonna do the work for you. However, having a big name backing your book is definitely a huge help. Going into my contract, I realized that it would mean working a little harder on the marketing front for myself. I’d like to think I’m okay as far as that goes, but I always worry that I’m pushing it too much. Maybe we all feel that way, because it’s weird to talk about yourself all the time, or to try and promote something without being pushy. That has been my biggest challenge.

When it comes to CQ as a whole, I have nothing but good things to say. They have been incredibly supportive and easy to work with. I love that I can go to them with questions or concerns or pretty much anything. I’m one of those writers that tends to need a little more attention because I’m constantly worrying, or I have some new idea that I want to share, and they always back me up. My experience with them has been wonderful.

I’d have to say what I find most unique about working with a small publisher is the time and attention they provide. From what I hear, I’m pretty lucky when it comes to this, because I’m more in-the-know than most writers with their publishers.

I think marketing as a writer is always tricky. That line between “I feel like I’m talking about myself all the time!!!” and “No one even knows I write books” is oddly weird to walk sometimes.  But the most important part of being a writer, of course, is the actual writing! What’s your process like? Panster or Plotter? (or, as GRR Martin said once: “Architect” or “Gardener”)

I rarely ever outline. In fact, if I do outline it’s usually when I’m halfway through the story. Even if this happens, I only write about a page or two of random notes that bring the story together. Ideally I prefer the pantser method. I enjoy learning along with my characters what’s going to happen next.
With that being said, I tend to write the first draft fairly quick. I work on this with my critique partners for a while and rarely ever start a new draft with all the changes. The only time I start collecting more and more drafts is during the editing phase with my publisher. I can’t even tell you how many drafts I have of Gateway. My “Gateway” folder is a train wreck.
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Sounds like my folders for the Hybrid Chronicles, lol. I literally had files titled “Hybrid 1″ through something like “Hybrid 8″ before I even sold the trilogy! 
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Thanks for coming on Pub Crawl to chat with us today, Heather :) Before you leave, tell us:  What are your future writing plans?
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I keep setting the bar higher and higher for myself with each manuscript. To keep writing Young Adult is definitely my main plan—I love it too much to write anything else. My biggest thing is hopefully finding another agent with my next manuscript. I miss the security of having someone on my side that is experienced in the publishing world. People keep telling me I’m doing great without one, but I don’t want to limit myself as a writer. Agents are there to help us grow in our craft and in publishing—I’d hate to deprive myself of that experience and knowledge.
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That sounds fantastic :) Everyone should check out GATEWAY when it releases, and in fact we’re giving out an ARC today! 
gateway
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To seventeen-year-old Aiden Ortiz, letting the dead walk through his body to reach the other side comes with the territory. Being a Gateway isn’t an easy job, but someone’s gotta send Bleeders where they belong. Heaven. Salvation. Call it whatever you want. Dead is dead. But when his search for Koren Banks––the girl who went mysteriously missing seven months ago––leaves him with more questions than answers, he finds himself involved in something far more sinister and beyond his control. With the threat of the Dark Priest’s resurrection, and his plan to summon his demon brothers from hell, Aiden is left to discover his identity before the Dark Priest’s curse infecting his blood consumes him, and before the world as he knows it succumbs to the darkness of hell on earth.
(Sorry international readers, the giveaway is US only!)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Heather Marie lives in Northern California with her husband, and spends the majority of her time at home reading. Before she followed her dreams of becoming a writer, Heather worked as a hairstylist and makeup artist for several years. Although she enjoyed the artistic aspect of it all, nothing quite quenched her creative side like the telling of a good story. When the day had come for her to make a choice, she left behind her promising career to start another, and never looked back.

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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21. Are Your Scenes Causing an Effect?

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By

Janice Hardy

Janice Hardy small RGB 72Last month I shared a tip on how to keep your scenes moving. This month, I’d like to take a step back and look at the bigger picture aspect of scenes and plotting. Once you know what’s moving your scenes forward from a plot perspective, consider how that scene affects your entire novel.

What is the cause and effect in your scenes?

No matter how well written a scene might be, if it isn’t doing anything to make the story happen it probably doesn’t belong in the story. Scenes happen for a reason, and a good scene will cause an effect that changes the story in some way.

Take a look at one of your scenes–either a finished scene or a rough outline if you’re still in the planning stage. What’s the point of that scene? Why is it in the story? You’ll probably have two answers to this:

  • The goal of the protagonist
  • The goal of the author

The protagonist will be driving the scene, either trying to achieve something or trying to avoid something–sometimes both.

The author will have a reason for writing this scene that relates to the overall story or plot. She chose this scene to dramatize at this point in the story for this reason.

Next, ask: what effect does this scene cause? How does it change something in the story?

Whatever happens in this scene, no matter how big or how small, should effect what comes next. It might be a direct result, such as breaking into a house (cause) and getting caught by the antagonist (effect), or it could be indirect, such as breaking into a house (cause) and leaving behind a clue that will alert the antagonist the protagonist was there and make him retaliate at the worst possible moment (effect).

In essence, it’s “When protagonist does X, Y happens.” If you describe your scene and all you have is, “Protagonist does X,” that’s a red flag that your scene isn’t moving the story forward. Try looking for the Y (the effect) to get that scene back on track.

If that effect eludes you, pull back and consider why you as the author put that scene in the book. What’s your reason for it being there?

Be wary if that reason is of the “to show X” variety, such as “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” Showing an aspect of a character is great, but on its own it doesn’t cause an effect. Instead look for ways to make that character aspect cause something to happen, or be the result of something happening. “To show the protagonist’s fear of commitment by having her start a fight with her new boyfriend so she doesn’t have to go meet his parents later at breakfast, which causes things to be strained between them at breakfast and this makes his parents decide they don’t like her.”

A little convoluted, sure (sometimes that’s just how scene summaries are), but basically, this boils down to, “When the protagonist has a fight with her boyfriend, it causes tension between them that makes his parents not like her.” That cause leads easily into the next effect, “When the boyfriend’s parents decide they don’t like her, they start trying to convince the boyfriend to dump her, putting a strain on their relationship.”

Actions cause reactions, which cause more actions, which cause more reactions, and so on and so on.

One trick to test the effect of a scene, is to look at the story without it. What changes? What can’t happen without this scene to trigger it? If nothing does, odds are there’s a problem and it’s not serving the story.

Let’s look back at our couple:

Say the reason for the fight scene really is just “to show that the protagonist is afraid of commitment.” The protagonist has a goal of not going to breakfast because meeting the parents is a big step she’s not sure she’s ready for. You write a fun scene with them arguing over something inconsequential, exchanging witty banter, poignant observations, showing great characterization. By the end of the scene, boyfriend calms her down and they go to breakfast (because you need that to happen for the plot). The scene works as a scene.

Next scene, the couple has breakfast with the parents. The protagonist tries to win them over and fails. They don’t like her (which was always the plan for that scene).

What does the fight scene have to do with that breakfast scene? If you cut it, would it have changed the breakfast scene at all? Probably not.

Will it kill your novel to leave it in? Honestly? Probably not. But it’s a missed opportunity to strengthen the overall story, and that opportunity could make the difference between a happy reader gushing about your book to all her friends, and one who forgets about it a week later. If there are a lot of scenes like this, then the odds of the novel feeling pointless increase, and that can kill your novel.

It would take very little effort to make the fight scene affect the breakfast scene and cause the parents to not like her. That way, it becomes a result of something the protagonist does, not random chance that has little to do with her and is only happening because plot says so. It also forces her to work harder to win them over when she realizes she does want to commit to this particular guy, and now she’s screwed it all up. She has to fix her own mistakes–commit to making things right–which can work as a great thematic mirror to committing on a larger scale. Suddenly this little nothing scene has deep roots and will resonate on a much bigger level.

Cause and effect is a simple tool that can help you craft stronger scenes and tighter plots, whether it’s planning a first draft or polishing an almost-finished draft. No matter what stage you’re on, think about what you want your scenes to accomplish on both a character level and an author level. What do your scenes cause to happen in your story? How are they interconnected? A story that holds together well on multiple levels is a story readers remember.

Do you ever think about how your scenes affect the whole 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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22. Take a Creative Risk – You Might Surprise Yourself


The ALIENS have landed!

"amusing. . .engaging, accessible," says Publisher's Weekly


I’ve been writing for years. (Let’s not discuss how many exactly!) It’s easy to fall into habits and to think about stories in certain ways. The best creative people, though, insist that they are constantly learning and to do that, they try something different. They take risks.

Let me suggest some risks you might want to take:

Take a creative risk today! Try a new format, genre, audience, or marketing strategy.

Take a creative risk today! Try a new format, genre, audience, or marketing strategy.


Try a different genre. If you’ve only written nonfiction, try a novel. Love writing picturebooks? Try a webpost. Good writing is good writing is good writing. But platforms DO make a difference in length, diction (your choice of vocabulary to include/exclude), voice and more. Why not try writing a sonnet?

Try for a different audience. Stretch your genre tastes and try a different one. Write a romance for YAs. Or a mystery for first graders. Are all of your protagonists female? Then try writing from a male’s POV and try to capture a male audience.

Try a different process or word processing program. I took a class on Scrivener this spring and am continuing to explore what this amazing program can and can’t do. I’m also learning Dragon Dictate to lessen the ergonomic strain on my hands. I know that these programs have potential to change not just my writing process, but also the output. I’m just not sure HOW they will affect it. It’s a risk.

Market to different places. While we often separate the writing from the marketing–especially when we think about the creative process–I think you can still take creative risks with marketing. For example, identify a market FIRST, and write specifically for that market. In this case, you are letting the market sculpt your creative output. If you write a short story for Highlights Magazine for Kids, it’s got to be 600 words or less. If you write an op-ed piece for the Huffington Post, everything is different in your creative output. If you decide to self-publish, you may find yourself suddenly taking the question of commercial viability much more seriously.

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23. An Intro to The Art of Revision: Part 2

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Kat Zhang

Kat ZhangSo, a couple of weeks ago, I posted “An Intro to The Art of Revision,” and promised more to come. Here’s the more to come ;) (which will, in time, be followed by yet another “more to come,” I’m sure)

Again, I start with a disclaimer about how revision (and writing, in general) is different for everyone, yadda yadda yadda, and how you should totally ignore me if the following doesn’t appeal to you.

Last time, I focused on how you should see your first draft as malleable, and how you’re using it to figure out What Is My Story About (and What Is My Story NOT About). Here’s a little more explanation on that.

At the heart of every story, there is Want and there is Conflict. Your characters are driven to action because they want something. The rest of the story exists because there’s conflict that prevents your characters from just getting what they want. This Want and Conflict (which can then split into many Wants and Conflicts) can differ wildly in complexity and subtly from story to story.

You can think about it this way (and I’m generalizing/stereotyping here): a summer blockbuster action movie is gonna have a pretty simple main Want and Conflict—Villain wants to destroy the world (mwauhaha!); Hero wants to save it. An “art-house” indie film might have something less outwardly dramatic: young woman wants to get into college and escape her little town; her emotionally needy mother wants her to stay.

But either way, there’s always a main Want and Conflict. Many times, there are sub-Wants and Conflicts as well (Hero in action movie also wants to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend, who doesn’t understand why he’s always off saving the world and not watching police procedurals with her; she threatens to break up with him if he keeps skipping date night). But the main thing in your revision is to make sure that your main character(s)’s major Want and Conflict are established as early as possible, and as clearly as possible. Without this, readers find it much harder to care. After all, this juxtaposition of “want” and “conflict” is your book’s plot.

This is what people are talking about when they say beginner writers often start a book “too early” in the story. If your story is about a boy whose sister gets kidnapped and he has to go after her, it’s an issue if the girl doesn’t actually get kidnapped until chapter 10. You might protest that the first 10 chapters are necessary to explain why the girl would get kidnapped, and to develop the characters, and the setting, and so on. Yes, those things are important, but not as important as kick-starting your plot.

I’ll wrap up here for today. Go check your WIPs! Are you setting up “Want” and “Conflict” as early as possible?

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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24. Space Camp: The Final Frontier

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by

E.C. Myers

20140714_213020A couple of weeks ago, I was thrilled to participate in one of the most exciting and memorable things I’ve ever done: the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop. Dubbed a “space camp for writers,” it brings together established writers, editors, and creators for an intensive, week-long crash course in astronomy: basically a semester’s worth of Astronomy 101 classes in  seven days. It was breathtaking (literally—it takes place in Laramie, Wyoming, about 7,100 feet above sea level), mind-blowing, and, most of all, inspiring.

It was inspiring not only because of all the story ideas it generated and the opportunity to learn more about our incredible, mysterious universe, but because there’s nothing like meeting and spending time with other writers and creative professionals. The 2014 class included authors, reviewers, editors, and television and film writers: Amy Sterling CasilGeetanjali DigheDoug Farren,Susan ForestMarc HalseyGabrielle HarbowyMeg HowreyAnn LeckieWilliam LedbetterAndrew LiptakMalinda LoSarah McCarryJames L. Sutter, Anne TooleTodd Vandemark, and Lisa Yee. Our intrepid instructors were Mike Brotherton, Christian Ready, and Andria Schwortz, whose enthusiasm for their field was apparent and contagious.

We were in class almost every day from 10 a.m. until well after 5 p.m., with some lab sessions and outings thrown in. So what sort of things did we learn? Just as an example, our Monday lectures included the Scales of the Universe, Units, the Solar System, Seasons and Lunar Phases, and Misconceptions about Astronomy. By Friday and Saturday we were discussing galaxies, quasars, and cosmology (including dark matter and dark energy). That’s quite the learning curve! Most of us felt like our heads were full by the end, yet we were always eager to hear more.

Yup. That is totally an exoplanet.

Yup. That is totally an exoplanet.

I know I must have learned some of this stuff in elementary school (and forgotten most of it), but there have also been so many breakthroughs in astronomy since I was a kid (sorry, Pluto!), I was learning much of this for the first time — and I also had a new appreciation for the topic. Every class was a revelation. What made it even better was having the opportunity to see the science we were learning at work: analyzing the emission spectrum of different elements in the lab, searching for exoplanets at planethunters.org (warning — that site is addictive!), learning how those famous images of space are put together for the public, and visiting the University of Wyoming Infrared Observatory to photograph stars with a giant telescope. It was there, at the top of Jelm Mt., that I experienced the highlight of my week: viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye in a clear night sky. (It also looks very impressive in expensive night vision binoculars.) Returning home and looking up at night was depressing; the city lights blot out all but the brightest stars, and I can imagine that some people go their whole lives without seeing a sight like that.

Copyright Todd Vandemark

© 2014 Todd Vandemark

People always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Look up. Look around you. Ideas are all around us! As a science fiction author who doesn’t have a background in science, all too often I get distracted by fun concepts like time travel and parallel universes and faster-than-light space travel. It’s so easy to forget just how fascinating and exciting actual science is and skimp on it in stories. Why make everything up when we have a whole galaxy to play with, and an even bigger universe full of weird and mind-boggling things?

I’ve always enjoyed doing research for stories, but from now on I’m going to pay more attention to what’s happening in astronomy and physics and the world and universe we live in — and hopefully the things I learn will inspire new stories, instead of the other way around. (Added bonus of the workshop: Now I actually understand those astronomy articles in Scientific American!)

We also stopped by the Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming. I love dinosaurs. Meet Dracorex hogwartsia, "Dragon King of Hogwarts"!

We also stopped by the Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming. I love dinosaurs. Meet Dracorex hogwartsia, “Dragon King of Hogwarts”!

I want to continue learning about astronomy, and work real science into more of my fiction. It’s important to keep “refilling your creative well,” and Launch Pad was a great way to do that. If you’re a science fiction writer, I encourage you to apply to next year’s workshop, and I also encourage you to donate to keep the program going. It’s a wonderful resource that is helping to get more people interested in science, and helping we writers to make our stories as scientifically plausible and accurate as we can.

For other perspectives on this year’s Launch Pad experience, read accounts from my awesome classmates and instructor:

Gabrielle Harbowy
Andrew Liptak
Sarah McCarry
Christian Ready
Jenn Reese

How about you? Would you go to Launch Pad? How do you refill your creative well?

LaunchPad

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; his next YA novel, THE SILENCE OF SIX, will be published by Adaptive in November 2014. You can find traces of him all over the internet, but especially at his blogTwitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.

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25. Who is My Audience?

On Twitter ages ago N. K. Jemisin asked “*do* white writers want only white readers?”

The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.

But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?

In order to respond I need to break it down:

Whiteness

I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.

What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.

Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.

Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.

When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.

For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.

I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”

I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.

All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”

White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.

Audience

When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.

I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.

All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.

However.

That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.

When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.

When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.

That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.

As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.

Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.

Addressing a White Audience

There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.

Writing to an Audience

But white people who are ignorant about racism is never whom I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.

Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.

It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.

My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.

Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.

I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.

  1. When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference.
  2. Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist.
  3. First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003.
  4. Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published.

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