Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Character outside of plot

I think plot is something that springs from character, and that the two are pretty much inseparable. So perhaps this isn't the most accurate title. But there's something I see occasionally (probably because I'm guilty of the same thing), and that is when a main character is not a complete, breathing person but an empty set of eyes to see the plot by. And this ties into how to make your reader identify with the character and feeeeel.

We want to make the main character sympathetic, right? One way to do that is to show them being nice to someone weaker than themselves. Another way is to show how other characters are worse than the MC. But it's not enough to feel sorry for your MC. Pity isn't the same thing as love, you know. Nor is an empty set of eyes. It's hard to love a character who just records events without being personally involved. The big question you have to settle for the reader first of all is, why would they want to hang around this character for 200+ pages? And to help answer that, you need to show who this character is. So imagine your character outside of the plot of this particular story. Who are they? What are they like when the bullies AREN'T around? What do they dream of, what do they want, what are their aspirations for when things go right? What makes them the most happy, the most relaxed, the most themselves? How are they good? You need to know (and show) those things so that when the plot happens, we have someone to love and cheer for. Of course you aren't going to want to explain all this before the plot starts--you need action and choices right up front, too. But it's important to weave in this sense of character early on so that you give your reader someone--a real someone--to cheer for.

More on character

Just a couple of small writing ideas/observations before starting the craziness of Thanksgiving. Maybe someday I'll come back and develop them some more. For the moment, I just don't want to forget them.

1. Finding your way into a character's head/voice: set up a scenario (a waiting room, a park, a train station, etc.) and have two different characters write how they would see the place. The details they notice and the mood they feel and what the setting makes them want to do should be distinct from character to character.

I think, to make this a more meaningful activity, it would be best to do this with two characters who are more or less foils to each other. This might be your hero and your antagonist--or it might be two characters who have to work together but who are very--perhaps abrasively--different. (So--not just Harry vs. Voldemort, but maybe Hermione vs. Luna.) Doing this will help you figure out what is the same (ie how they connect) and what is different (ie where the tension comes from) between these two characters.

2. Making your reader feeeel. This is just one of my weaknesses, so I'm always trying to notice why a scene works in a book for me. Or in this case, a movie. One of the best scenes I've seen in a while is the one of Neville's speech in the last Harry Potter film. Just excellently done. In that scene, the audience knows something the characters do not, and yet, when you watch it, you feel extremely sad right along with them. Why? Because the camera doesn't just show you a tragic scene; it shows the characters' reactions to what they are confronting. Ginny's scream, for example. What Neville says and does, even though he doesn't have all the facts, sets the emotion for the audience as well. And, the best moment of all--the surprise (to the characters). The camera gives you both emotions--those of the good guys and those of the bad. They could have stopped with Voldemort's reaction, but they didn't--what carries the scene and makes it even stronger is the fact that they show Hermione's reaction as well. Just stating the facts of the case isn't enough if you want your reader to feel. When you know what your character is feeling, you cease to be an outside observer, and that character's reaction can pull you along so that you are inside the story. Then you as the reader will feel--which is what an author wants, right?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making a character sympathetic

The other night I picked up an old mystery to reread. Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey. She's not Dorothy Sayers, but I do like some of her books, and this one is my favorite. It's a cool setup that would make a good movie. Or remake. Or something. The premise is this: Brat Farrar, backgroundless orphan, returns from America to England and an actor spots him and is astonished at how much he resembles one Patrick Ashby of the horse farm Latchetts. One Patrick Ashby who supposedly threw himself off a cliff years ago because he couldn't deal with his parent's death. One Patrick Ashby who would be coming into his inheritance on his 21st birthday--in just a few weeks. Instead, his twin brother Simon will be filling that place. The actor proposes Brat return as Patrick, say he'd just run away that night (they never found the body, after all), and share the inheritance with him in return for some coaching. It sounds despicable--and yet, as a reader you find yourself cheering for Brat and not Simon.

1. Brat's got a conscience. He knows it's wrong, and it bothers him.
2. Yet he's got a deep, elemental love for horses, and the temptation to even just see Latchetts is strong.
3. When "his" aunt meets to identify him, he's exactly everything she ever wanted Patrick to be. And Brat, who's never had anyone like a true parent, can't help but love her. It's not money he wants--it's a desperate longing for a place and a family that's truly his.
4. We don't like Simon once we meet him! Brat loves Latchetts like Simon never will. He belongs there.
5. Brat's smart, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. But his longing for something he'd never considered comes through. Sometimes it's not what you say, but what you don't say, that reveals character.

And it goes on (in a spoilerish way, so I'll stop with that.) So interesting, though, how a good author can take even someone in a not very likable situation and make them sympathetic.

Monday, October 24, 2011

On dealing with managed creativity

One thing creative people have to learn to deal with is pressure. Sometimes it can be a good thing, that extra edge of adrenaline that forces you to do more than you thought you were capable of. But sometimes it can cut creativity, and make you feel like Professor Trelawney, on being asked to produce a prediction on demand for Professor Umbridge. If you are in the arts professionally, this becomes quite a bit more of a concern, as you will have deadlines (sometimes unreasonably short!), and you will have to stick to them. For me, I know that I can be creative when I'm angry, when I'm sad, when I'm hurt, when I'm ecstatic, when I'm excited, etc. But the one situation I find it hard to be creative under is when I'm worried. Somehow, worry captures my subconscious mind and holds it hostage. I can see how, if I were caring for a family member in need, if I was facing serious financial issues and/or unemployment, if there was sudden illness or tragedy, and I had a sudden, short deadline looming--I might feel like my head was about to explode. I don't have a lot of answers here, but it's something I want to think about before it happens to me, since, by looking at others, it seems it does eventually happen to most people.

The one thing I know is that for me anyway, creativity comes from the subconscious. That's where all of the things that collect in my mind go to mix and simmer. It's when I'm relaxed and not quite looking straight at it that the ideas come to the surface. I can work with and idea forcibly once it does come, but that initial spark has to be there. So--I think that finding ways to relax, even in the midst of a crisis, has to be key. Maybe it's physically changing scenes. Going for a drive to look at fall leaves, visiting a city different from your own. Maybe it's doing something physical, like exercising. Maybe it's drinking in other kinds of arts--if you write, go to an art museum or concert. Read a ton of books, all on different topics. Remodel your house. Or maybe service is the answer--sometimes being stuck in your own head too long can be boring. Doing something for someone else and forgetting about yourself can remind you how people--how the world--works.

What about you? When you find yourself stressed and feel your creativity slipping away because of it--what do you do to get it back?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A postscript on feeeeeling

The most important job--perhaps the whole goal of storytelling--is to make the recipient feel. No matter what other goals you may have--to instruct, to subvert, to convert, even to merely relate an event--if you don't make the reader/listener/viewer feel, you will never capture that person's attention enough for them to pay attention enough to your story. If they feel, your story will live. If they don't, your story is just a dry husk.

Just something to keep in mind.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Books I love and why they make me FEEL

Continuing with the last post, I thought I'd take a look around at my bookshelves and note what it is about them that makes me love them. This is certainly not an all-inclusive list! But it does hit on some key things.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle. One of the first books to impact me emotionally. Meg feels unlovable, yet it's the fact that she loves her brother that ultimately saves them both.

Scumble, Ingrid Law. The twisty feeling of wanting something so big and right, and yet, your own weaknesses are what stand in your way.

The Perilous Gard, Elizabeth Marie Pope. Kate's unflagging integrity really appeals to me--she's determined to look truth in the eye, no matter how painful it is. And the fact that sometimes, she thinks she sees the truth, when she really doesn't (ie how Christopher feels about her).

Crossing to Paradise, Kevin Crossley-Holland. Gatty has such a big heart, and she is so loyal--and yet, people don't see that. They just see a dirty servant. The contrast between what people see and what she is inside--and the fact that she tries so hard to do the right thing when no one else cares--really hits me in the heart. It makes me want to cheer her on. When injustice happens to her, I feel hit in the gut. When she gets what she deserves, it brings tears to my eyes.

The Dreamer, Lora Innes. This is actually a web comic, but the first volume is out in print, and the second one will be soon. It's very YA. Bea, the main character, shares her feelings rather dramatically, but what anchors the story is the bravery in the face of losing a lot that the 18th century characters show--Alan posing as a British soldier to steal her off a British ship, Knowlton leading his intelligence troops despite the danger that it might (and did!) pose to him.

The House of the Scorpion, Nancy Farmer. I'm starting to see a pattern here--this is another book with an underdog, a kid whose worth nobody sees. But he desperately WANTS to be worth something, and to be loved. He treats people the way he wishes they'd treat him. There are a few layers of innocence that come off, and it hurts, and you feel it as a reader. Which makes you love his triumphs all the more when they do happen.

So, things like self-worth, justice, loyalty, integrity, and courage seem to be important draws for me. I think this is why agents and editors sometimes either decline to name a genre they are looking for, or name one and then reject mss as not being what they're looking for. Because I think what anyone is looking for in a book is beyond mere genre. It's something at the heart of a book, regardless of whether it's contemporary or historical or full of zombie aardvarks. It's not always easy to define, but you know it when you see it, because it makes you fall in love.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Making the reader feel

I stayed up late to finish Maggie Stiefvater's final wolves book (Forever), and because she does such a lovely job of making the reader feel for her world and characters, it made me want to analyze the whole feeeeeeling thing in books. I think many times you can have a book that has an interesting plot and you can have good prose--but still get the response from readers/agents/editors that "I don't love it enough." Obviously, some of this is subjective--I can think of well-written books that other people love that I find repellent, and vice-versa. But I do think there are elements that can help a reader feel more, and therefore love the book more. I don't think every element applies to all books simultaneously, but here are a few things I can think of:

1. Be inside the character. Like the character lets you be privy to intimate information s/he doesn't share with just anybody. (Think DJ Schwenk of Dairy Queen, who can't string two words together to anyone, yet we get to see all the depth of feeling she has inside her head.)

2. Be inside a character who is likable. A book may be interesting with an unpleasant narrator--but a book I LOVE has a character I love and want to have as a friend. Flawed, vulnerable, but with heroic potential. Obviously, what appeals to each person is slightly different.

3. Be inside a character who yearns for a basic, primal need. The thing that's at stake MATTERS. You could say that this just means high stakes (plot), but I think it's more a choice of how personal that stake is, AND how deep it is. I've been reading the screenwriting book Save the Cat! as well, and that's a point the author makes, too--what's at stake is a need on a gut level. Life. True Love. Etc.

4. One True Thing. Just knowing One True Thing might be enough for a highly literary book that kids have to read in school. But for a kid to LOVE that book, I think the character has to not just know, but GET--against impossible odds--that One True Thing. Like the notion of love and family in Harry Potter. It's not enough to see that there is life after death ("those who love us never really leave us"). What makes us feel is the fact that those dead love Harry enough to come back and protect him. The love Harry has for his friends/adopted family drive him to sacrifice everything to protect them, just as his own family did for him.

One more thought--in the midst of all this feeeeeeling, you have to vary things up a bit. You have to have plot happening. Sam and Grace have two primal problems, actually--both staying human so they can be together, and keeping the pack safe and alive from the likes of wolf hunters. So part of the story is having them on either side of a divide from each other, and the other part puts them together on the same side against a different problem. Having both of these issues going on keeps tension up, yet at the same time, gives the reader an emotional rest once they start feeling saturated. And, it's true to life. When is the last time you had one and ONLY one issue to deal with at a time? It makes the book feel more well-grounded in reality, which makes it more believable, which makes it easy to suspend disbelief and feel for your characters.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

More on middle grade

I was just rereading Eva Ibbotson's fabulous MG novel Journey to the River Sea this month, and noticed another element of many beloved MG books: justice. In this book, the main character is likable, interesting, positive--and meets with very nasty people who aren't any of those things, who she has to live with and deal with. Because Ibbotson makes you like her, you feel rather incensed at the way her distant relations treat her, and so when they get their comeuppance at the end, you feel the satisfaction of absolute justice. Same in James and the Giant Peach. James's aunts are cruel and abusive--and what is their reward? Why, they get run over flat by the giant peach as it rolls down the hill into the sea. As an adult, you may look at that and go, ew. But as a kid, let me tell you, you are CHEERING. Even Harry Potter, which from Goblet of Fire onward is, IMO, very firmly YA, there is a wonderful sense of justice. Gilderoy Lockhart getting "impaled on his own sword," as Dumbledore observes. And of course, Harry knowing things at the end that Voldemort doesn't about wands, and all of Voldemort's evil plans backfiring on him. Gordon Korman's Schooled (which takes place in high school but which is definitely readable by middle grade kids) has this happen again and again, as kids try to trip up the main character, bizarro Capricorn Anderson--and fail. There are a ton of great books out there that do this, and it is very satisfying.

I don't think it's because kids are bloodthirsty--exactly--but rather that they are often the victim of injustice because they are small. They have less power. They don't know how to point out the injustice. And, they see things more black and white. You can be more ambiguous in YA and adult, but MG is all about straightforward justice!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What writers can learn from film

Like lots of other people, we've been on a Harry Potter film (and book) marathon at our house in anticipation of the final film. You should be able to guess from this blog that I'm a Potter fan, and I've just been fascinated by all the tidbits out there on the making of the films. I don't want to write screenplays and I don't have particular dreams of a book of mine ever being adapted for film. (Uh, if someday that happens, I'm not against it! But I don't think I've written a book that must become a film to this point, and really, books are my one true love.) However. Watching and reading about this stuff really sets off creative sparks in my brain. So here are some semi-random thoughts about writing that I've had from learning about film:

1. On adaptations. It's easy to get tied up in one and only one version. But it's actually possible to rearrange events and combine characters and still bulls-eye the heart of the story. Doubtful? See The Prisoner of Azkaban, book and film.

2. Atmosphere can change everything! Ever see the B version of a film? I don't just mean the basic acting on a green screen, where the background will be filled in via computer later. I was amazed to learn that you could film a scene and then change things like color and lighting afterwards. Remember the scene in Deathly Hallows part 1 where they're running through the forest and the chasers are after them? It's all very light in the original take. It's only afterwards that they darkened it and made it ominous. In writing, I think this whole coloration thing is voice. You can have the same plot events take place, but tell a very different story depending on your word choice or voice. The nice thing is, you can keep the basic events and try out different voices and tones and then pick the most effective one.

3. Likewise, editing. I'm fascinated by the fact that a person can be the principal actor in a film, yet have no idea what it's going to look like in the end. That's due to editing. Editing in film is I think a lot more of a creative process than in writing, where the editor is more of a guide and the author carries the bulk of the creative responsibility. In writing, the author does most of that. In both cases, a number of scenes are created, but in the editing process, you get to pick which ones need to stay in the final version, and in which order. Depending on what you show your audience, you can still tell very different stories. There's a lovely scene in Half Blood Prince that was cut (parts of it appear in the final film, but abbreviated) that would have revealed more about Snape than perhaps would be wise at this point of the story. Other times, a scene might be informationally or even emotionally nice (the exchange between Harry and Dudley in DH1), but a competing scene gets even stronger emotion across that has a longer-term effect for the whole story (the opening sequence as it stands in the final, with Hermione erasing her parents' memories). Those are hard choices, deciding which of two strong scenes to keep in. But getting them right can make all the difference in the world.

4. Feeling, believability, and loyalty. Rupert Grint is really an excellent actor, you know? He comes across as just a regular guy you might know from anywhere in real life, but he's really good at getting a range of emotions across in a way that you believe instantly and that you feel. As a result, you totally believe what's going on. You find yourself inside the characters' heads, wanting them to succeed. Obviously a lot of his method is film-specific; voice tone, facial expression, etc. In writing, you can't describe each tic of each facial muscle, or drip your dialogue tags with adverbs. What you've got to do, though, is somehow get inside your character's head and feelings to that same degree, so that when your MC is jealous, or depairing, or wildly in love, your reader feels that along with your character. It's a matter of interiority and voice and point of view. The way you do it in writing is different than in film, but in both, it's absolutely essential that you do it if you want your story to carry any sort of resonance with your reader/viewer.

What about you? Have you learned anything from film that translates to novel writing?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Books then and now

I've noticed a funny thing while browsing YA at my local library (new to me for the past 11 months). It's a rural area and a lot of the books are a) old or b) self-published/from a small press. Also, the whole thing skews rather young, with books I'd definitely put in MG shelved as YA (and a few books that really are adult stuck in YA as well, for some reason). There's a new children's/YA librarian and the library's just had an addition put on, with more room to look for new YA and MG. So there's hope for change. But it does give me insight into how much it's all changed since pre-Harry Potter days. And just how writing styles and techniques can go out of style in general.

1. Length. Whoa. 200 pages used to be normal for YA. Now it feels like a taste. It's not that the stories themselves are any longer. But the old ones feel waaaaay summarized.

2. Which brings us to show, don't tell. Some authors have always been this way. But a lot of the quick reads from pre-HP days are really bad about this. Today, after HP and Twilight and the like, kids want to feel like they're really there--they want to feel that the story is immediate and all around them, not summarized from a remote position. They want to be inside the characters' heads, not observing from the outside. Point of view is really important in YA especially!! There are still authors who write the old way, who have been publishing for a long time and just have kept on doing the same old thing. But if you compare what is "hot" today with what was "hot" in 1990, it's not the same thing.

3. Please pick names that aren't dated--especially when it's supposed to be contemporary and you're using names from your childhood. For example, Will is a great name for a boy today. Bill, a little 1950s/60s? I know, Bill Weasley! But they specifically have old-fashioned names. If you don't have a good reason like that...maybe check out the latest Social Security names list.

And finally, re: then vs. now: I recently ran across a post from a home schooler who seemed proud of never reading modern children's literature with her kids, only classics. I realize most people who stumble across this blog already love (current) books, and I also realize that schools are just as guilty of classics overkill. But you do realize this is the golden age of children's literature, don't you? That there are more high quality books on more varied subjects out there for kids now than EVER BEFORE? That many of these books ARE classics, and will be read many years from now? Has there EVER been a plot genius like Rowling? Would you really deprive your kid from the heart and wisdom of Kate DiCamillo or Ingrid Law or Cynthia Lord? Effortless Greek myths come back to life with Rick Riordan? The funny and frightening aspects of childhood and first love as seen by Wendelin van Draanen? Meeting tragedy with humor with Lindsey Leavitt? Meeting real kids from very different cultures through Trent Reedy? I could write pages and pages about all the wonderful books that have been published since you were a child that are filled with humor, wisdom, courage, heart, insights into other people, etc. Charlotte's Web is a wonderful book, but if you haven't read anything since then, then get thee to the new book shelf at your library. Talk to a librarian. Maybe let your kid pick something out that looks interesting instead of only letting them pick something off your classics list. Who knows? Maybe you'll find a favorite new author, too.

Friday, June 10, 2011

On being ready

My children are taking swimming lessons at the moment. My husband is an academic, and we often move in the summers, and swimming is one of those things we’re a bit behind in. We’re finally in a place with a) a pool and b) an affordable swim lesson schedule and c) we are not currently moving. So we are jumping in with full force. They are all at the same pool at the same time, and I watch them every day as they struggle to learn what their teachers have planned for their particular groups each day. And it makes me think of writing.

The younger kids are in the more beginning levels, but they are more likely to listen to their teachers, more likely to jump in without fear, and less likely to worry about consequences. I was excited to see one of my younger kids throw her head and shoulders all the way in and really swim today—as opposed to the jerky, gasping, one-move-at-a-time action she’s done until now. That struck me as significant—if you’re going to swim—or write—you have to throw yourself all the way in. You have to immerse yourself in the story, and you can’t be self-conscious or worry about failure or things not working. You have to be all the way inside.

The older kids are having to play catch up, which isn’t easy. They are more conscious of their shortfallings, and it’s harder for them to throw themselves all the way in. They want to, but letting go and submersing themselves completely, letting go of some control, letting the water take them—those are hard things. They’re old enough to know that water can hurt you. They’ve had longer to learn and practice bad habits. They’re less likely to really internalize what the teacher says. Even as they desperately want to follow the instructions, their bodies have a harder time mimicking the right steps. Their minds want to take shortcuts, fill in things they know from past experience, instead of really looking at what they’re doing.

On the first day, my oldest woke up a little cranky, and said something like, “Mom, I already know all the swimming strokes. I just need to go to a pool and practice. I don’t need lessons.” While I agree that they all need more practice time, I don’t agree that he already knows everything. But don’t we feel that way as writers sometimes? We’ve been writing for so long. We KNOW to “show, don’t tell.” We KNOW to ditch the adverbial dialogue tags. We KNOW how a plot works. And yet…we get in the pool, and all the million things we know still don’t add up to effective swimming. Despite all our work and knowledge, it’s like we’re treading water. The individual parts of the writing are nice, but as a whole, they still don’t add up. Something is missing. Meanwhile, other writers swim right on past. I watched my older kids’ class spend two solid hours on surface dives. Two hours of belly flops. Thank goodness for patient teachers, because I would have been very frustrated after all that, and no change.

But here’s a beautiful thing. After all of that knowing and trying and failing, my oldest finally leaned over today and dove in perfectly. Somehow, all that knowing finally meshed inside him. All of those loose bits of knowledge finally connected, and he dove. It worked. And it will work with your writing, too, if you just keep at it.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Last day to enter

Short notice, but there's a great interview up on Cynsations between editor Elizabeth Law of Egmont and author Allen Zadoff. Check it out here (and win a 30-page critique as well!).

My favorite books

I just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my girls, and afterwards we talked a little about favorite books and what makes them our favorite. My all-time favorite books would be A Wrinkle in Time, Narnia, and Harry Potter. My younger daughter (who is only six) says she likes realistic stories best—Penderwicks, Little House on the Prairie, etc. She likes stories where the people could really exist. While my taste runs more to the fantastical, I do agree with her on that point—I want characters I could almost believe are alive. So I started thinking about what else makes these particular books my favorites. A lot of books resonate with me, but these are ones I’ve read too many times to count, so they’re sort of a part of me now. And I think the common themes are

1. loyalty and love—of family, friends, etc.
2. personal sacrifice for others and/or things that are right
3. deep spiritual themes
4. magic/miracles
5. read-aloud-ability, and
6. a strong plot/storyline.

I’d add one two more things that make a book resonate with me as well: emotional honesty of the main character (this is what I like about DJ Schwenk in Dairy Queen--I find myself thinking about her as if she was one of the teens I've worked with in the past) and immediacy (this is what I like about Hex Hall). I don’t connect as well to books that draw too much attention to their structure, whether it’s so much attention to prose that it strangles the story, or a style of telling that keeps reminding the reader that it’s only a story, and I am the Narrator, so listen up, missy!

I don't know that my own writing lines up exactly with all of this--after all, most people read much more widely than they write, for practical time reasons if nothing else. But I do notice--after the fact--that a lot of things I write center around loyalty, moral choices, and family relationships of all kinds.

What about you? What makes a book your favorite to read? And how closely do the books you write come close to that?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Mulling over queries

I think queries are about a hundred times harder than novels to write. First there's just boiling down your story to a few sentences. But then there's the spin you put on it. It's like having a loom with threads strung from one end to another. Each thread has a weight on it that you can move up and down. Or, if you like, it's like guitar strings depressed at different frets. All the same strings, but changing this changes the pattern, changes the tune, gives you a different impression of what it's all about. And I'm convinced that every single person you ask to read it will want a slightly different tune. Sometimes this is to your advantage, because you can stress slightly different aspects of your book to appeal more to different people you may be querying. Sometimes it's frustrating, like if critique suggestions turn it into an entirely different story than you ever meant to tell, or if they strip out all the voice you wrote into it, or substitute the critiquer's own voice. That's the hard part about queries (and about critiques in general)--sussing out the things that will make your writing stronger versus the things that will just make your writing different.

But aside from that issue is the issue of getting the right information into your query. I used to think that a query should be mysterious, not give away too much, and therefore make an editor/agent HAVE to request to read on. Well, you do want that response, but a vague, mysterious query won't do it. You have to give away some of what happens in the book. Not the ending, no--but you HAVE to specifically talk about something that happens on screen, in the active running action of the book. Miss Snark had one model of the query on her blog (she said there were many ways of writing one, and this was just ONE way--so don't get tied into fitting it exactly):

X is the main guy;
Y is the bad guy;
they meet at Z and all L breaks loose.
If they don't solve Q, then R starts and if they do it's L squared.

So basically, the first two lines are about defining your main character, what s/he wants, and what the opposition (human or otherwise) is about. People usually do pretty well here. At least, I find this part a little easier to write. How much attention you put on this depends on the kind of book you have (slice of life vs. high action, etc.). But all this is setup/backstory. It is not enough to end your query here. You can't just include this and then a mysterious line about the genre or danger or whatever.

The part that gets harder, though, are the last two lines. I think what line 3 means is that you have to actually reveal the specific action your character takes that starts to complicate things. Maybe that could be the inciting incident, what sets of the motion of this story (as opposed to the backstory/setup). And the last line? That would be the complications of taking that action, the next choice/situation it forces on the MC, and the possible complications resulting from that second action.

See? No spoilers--we aren't anywhere near the end of the book yet--but there's still an open-ended situation to intrigue a potential reader. It lets you know the genre and the specific plot of this book--as opposed to all the other books in this genre. So if you can figure this out, I think your query will be ever so much stronger.

Then you can send it to your critiquers, who will all have a different take on the tune, and worry about the first part all over again.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Voice workshop parts 3 & 4

Day 3: Emblanding

We each picked a passage and rewrote it to remove the voice. That was interesting. We noticed that a good deal of our emblanding had to do with removing the show and sticking in a telly summary, instead. Also, it involved taking out all the interesting phrases a character might say and using generic language in its place.

Day 4: Rewriting our own stuff

This was by FAR the hardest part of the week. We had to take one of our own passages and rewrite it to jack up the voice. Very hard! I think it would almost be easier to start over from scratch and write something new and voicey than to fix something that’s not there. Which is probably why editors say they can work with an author on plot, but not on weak writing.

Overall it was a really good experience. I think with something like this, it's not enough to just sit in rapture at the feet of an expert. This is the kind of thing you really only learn by discussing and doing.

See other takes on the workshop from other members of the group:

Sandy Carlson (starting with her introduction)

Voice workshop part 2

Day 2: Samples

We each found passages from published books and analyzed them for what made them voicey. For copyright reasons I won’t post all the passages here, but we had selections from the following fabulous books:

Wicked Lovely, Melissa Marr
Junie B. Jones is (Almost) a Flower Girl, Barbara Park
The Tale of Desperaux, Kate DiCamillo
Sharp’s Rifles, Bernard Cornwell
The Midwife’s Apprentice, Karen Cushman
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling
Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Just Take My Heart, Mary Higgins Clark
The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex
Scumble, Ingrid Law
Crossing to Paradise, Kevin Crossley-Holland
London Calling, Edward Bloor
The Star of Kazan, Eva Ibbotson
A Curse Dark as Gold, Elizabeth C. Bunce
Rules, Cynthia Lord
Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens, Brandon Sanderson
Palace Beautiful, Sarah DeFord Williams

And a couple more we didn’t discuss but which have strong voice:

Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock
I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett
Flipped, Wendelin van Draanen
The Underneath, Kathi Appelt

What I learned from these—ie, what gives them voice:

--specificity of language

--language that that character would know

--concerns that character specifically would have

--sometimes, what is NOT said as well as what IS said

--sometimes, the dialogue/interaction between two characters

--sometimes, the irony of the real situation and what the character believes is reality, causing humor or a surge of pity on the reader’s part


--turning a known story or phrase inside out

--depending on tone of story, making narrative sound more like dialogue (specifically, how a certain character would talk, even if it’s rambling)

--tells you something about your POV character, even if it’s technically while advancing plot or describing setting

--uses strong, exact, meaningful language, with a preference for nouns and verbs over flabby modifiers. (Some modifiers okay, of course—but used in moderation)

--more attention paid to the right words for the right character/situation than to a prescriptive set of rules (ie you can see things like “a bit” and other “weak” modifiers in some of these examples—but for this specific setting/character, they are the RIGHT words to lend character)

--Rhythm can be important, showing how quickly time seems to flow for the character (whether they want it or not). It can make you HAVE to read a book out loud. It adds to mood and character.

--Sometimes books stick very close to the characters' voices so that you are in their heads, as if it is really happening. Other times, the voice is more of a whole-book emphasis (like the Appelt or DiCamillo examples), where the point is to gather you up and tell you a story, as if someone is orally relating this to you, and the whole experience--storyteller plus story plus listener--is what's important, not *just* the story.

Voice workshop! Part 1

My critique group has spent the past week doing a workshop on voice. At first we were hesitant to do this, as none of us feel particularly expert. But we decided to forge ahead, and I think we’ve all learned a lot. I have, anyhow! Here’s an overview of what we did, and some of the things I learned in the process.

Day 1: Definitions.

Read and discuss articles that ARE written by experts on what voice is and how you develop it. Here are links to the articles we read:

Editor Caroline Meckler on voice: (EXCELLENT, clear definition of voice and its aspects--read this first)

Editor Martha Mihalick on voice:

Verla Kay discussion:

Margot Finke on character voice:

Cheryl Klein on voice: (and read the comments, too, because there are some good ideas down there)

And an interesting writer's take on critiquing voice:

We concluded that there was such a thing as author voice, and also such a thing as character voice. Author voice is like your face. It’s YOU. The YOU-ist You you can write. Character voice (or even different kinds of voice for different books) is like different clothing or hairstyles. People will react to you differently and expect different things from you based on how you look, or what kind of voice your book has. It’s important for your characters to all have their own voice.

Strong, exact nouns and verbs tend to be important for voice.

Voice is rooted in character.

You can have such a thing as strong voice and yet not everyone will like it. Voice subject to taste.

Voice helps you get inside a character’s head. The more in a character’s head you are, the more you feel, which usually affects how much you like a book. (Of course, if you find the character annoying, you might not want to stick around. Like I said, it’s subjective.)

To see what others in my group have to say about it all, check out the following blog:

Sandy Carlson, starting with this post.
Jaclyn McMahon's take here.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Prime Real Estate

Here we go--an agent's discussion of Prime Real Estate in your novel, by Mary Kole! READ THIS.

The most important point in here is this: The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Emotional impact and prime real estate

Serenissima over at Verla Kay’s boards came up with a really great way of thinking about what you should and should not put in your first chapter. She calls certain places “prime real estate,” ie, places your reader expects certain key information to appear. The things you put on that prime real estate—the characters, problems, settings you choose to introduce here—become a sort of promise from the author of what to expect in this book. This means that if you put it there, it had better be important over the course of your novel. If you point out a gun on the fireplace, it had better go off in your story. If you devote five pages to a character who only disappears, never to be mentioned again, your readers will feel you have broken trust. If you don’t hint at (or blatantly plant) your main concept there, the reader will be confused as to what the main plot is. Things like that. I love that phrase, “prime real estate,” because it really highlights how to set up your key parts of the story right from the beginning.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what makes a book beloved. Is it because it’s well written? Certainly. Is it because the plot is thrilling? To be sure. But I don’t think those are the most important reasons a book becomes beloved. I think it’s because of how it makes you feel. It’s the soul of the book. And most people want a book with a soul they can identify with, a character to be their friend as they navigate all the emotions that come over the course of the story.

Here’s the thing: different kinds of book souls appeal to different kinds of people. You’re not going to write one that will universally appeal to everyone.

However, I do think it’s reasonable to say that readers want to feel sympathetic toward the main character. You might be fascinated by a cruel or insane character and feel compelled to read on, but I’m not convinced that people reread say, Crime and Punishment as lovingly as a book like A Wrinkle in Time. People love Tolstoy’s Levin (shy, somewhat bumbling, but searching for answers), but er, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (a deluded axe murderer) not so much. What exactly makes a character sympathetic varies a bit—believability with regards to the reader’s experience, someone who doesn’t lie to the reader, someone who is vulnerable yet acts—those are all things that generally tend to appeal to readers.

Once readers bond with that main character, they want to feel right along with him/her. They want to feel the bite of disappointment, the sting of betrayal, and the victory of rising above challenge. They want to live through that character for just a little while. People don’t care much about a book if they don’t feel much. You’ve got to make them feel. I think that’s why some books, even if they break down in other technical areas, can still be beloved if they succeed in this one area. (Cheryl Klein talks about this a bit.)

Back to the idea of prime real estate. What, then, do you want to do in that all-important first chapter? You want to make your reader bond with your character, right? So think about this. What kind of emotional impact are you greeting your reader with? What emotions are you putting in that spot of prime real estate? If you are getting responses that people are not connecting with your book, take apart your first chapter. For every scene, write down the emotional impact you are trying to achieve. Anger? Resentment? Pity party? Are you trying to create fear or disgust?

Does your reader know your character enough to begin with to take your MC’s side in this?

If you met a person or came upon a situation charged with this emotion, without knowing anything about him/her/it beforehand, would you want to stick around? Or would you decide it was none of your business, and leave?

Think about how you lay in your emotional impact over that first chapter. Spend your real estate investment wisely.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Show vs. tell

I really enjoy critiquing. Yes, it's work, and I can't always do it--I have to weave it around my own writing, not to mention my Real Life. But I always learn something from doing it, and I always love seeing glimpses into such different worlds. I've just done three crits outside of my normal crit group rotation, and once again, I'm struck by how different and unique each person's writing is.

One thing the crits made me think through was when it's appropriate to tell, and when it's better to show. I think sometimes writers get a little too uptight about The Rules, as if they can NEVER be broken, ever. Eradication of adverbs! No dialogue tags except for "said"! Never tell, always show! In general, most of the time, those are good things. But I don't think it's 100% bad to use an adverb! Or to, once in a book or so, let someone snarl instead of say a line. The telling-showing thing is most on my mind right now. Here are the kinds of things you should probably show in your writing:

--key plot movements
--key emotional points
--scenes that show decisions, changes, or character growth
--scenes that show important aspects of the relationship between characters

This is what I think telling is good for:


As for the passing of time in a book, I think you need a mix. A small, specific, showing instance to sort of stand for all the other instances you aren't going to show. Besides, text on the page = passing of time in the text world.

Something that really helps necessary telling go down well is voice. If you can "tell" in the voice of your POV character, it just slides down like syrup. Rachel Hawkins's book Hex Hall did a good job with this, I thought. The voice let her tell the transitions and skip ahead to all the interesting parts she wanted to show us. And of course, JK Rowling is brilliant at balancing the two as well.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Second Sight, by Cheryl Klein (review)

Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, Editing, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults
By Cheryl B. Klein
Asterisk Books, New York, 2011

A review by Rose Green

Second Sight is a collection of talks and workshops and blog posts on writing by Cheryl Klein, editor at Arthur A. Levine, an imprint of Scholastic. Some of these talks have appeared on her web site, and others not. Here they are all collected into one handy resource. If I was leaving the country and could only take a handful of books with me, I would include this one. It’s the single most practical writing book I’ve read.

What this book is not: an introduction to writing and/or children’s publishing. It will not tell you the standard format for manuscripts, nor will it tell you how to write a bestseller. It will not tell you how to get rich “like that woman from England who wrote a book” or how to get on Oprah. It has very few examples from adult books--with the exception of Aristotle’s writings, which should tell you something about the depth and seriousness with which Cheryl regards children’s literature.

Who this book is for: the intermediate to advanced writer, preferably someone who has already completed (or at least is deeply into) a first draft. There is definitely a hole in the market for books for intermediate writers, the ones who are past the introductory stages of how a book is put together but who don’t yet have an agent or editor of their own to guide them. It’s full of practical suggestions for deep revision, for finding those “electric fence emotions” (as she describes the raw feelings of middle school) and pulling them forward to connect with readers in a real, believable way. The book itself is written with authority; not just because of Klein’s editor hat, but because she herself is an excellent writer, particularly gifted at pinpointing and expressing plot structure, voice, characterization—in short, the underpinnings of a novel.

Some topics covered in the book: The Annotated Query Letter from Hell, back to back with an example and discussion of a good (real) query and why it works. Deep discussions of character, plot, theme, and voice. An excellent tutorial on how a picture book is put together, complete with a sample storyboard (which my daughter had me read to her--twice). An entire chapter detailing the editing process of one of her author’s books. (Note: if you think all the revision is over once you sign a contract, this chapter will be very eye-opening!) A revision checklist for writers. And more. If you are most concerned with getting the emotional heart of a book right, whether serious or funny or whatever, this is the book for you.

The only warning I need to give is that you may find yourself stopping often to put the book into practice. As I was reading it, I also happened to be revising a first draft of a book of my own, and found myself diving back and forth between my draft and this book, making notes and thinking through character arcs. So, bring a pencil when you sit down to read!

Second Sight will be available in February 2011 and further information about ordering can be found at Cheryl’s web site,

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Writing bad guys

Just something I tried out this time. Think of a person or a kind of person who is a good guy for you. Someone you'd really trust and who you look up to. Now imagine that person gone bad. Everyone has choices, you know? And just because you start out as a good person doesn't mean you can't mess up. We all do--but of course, some people decide to fix their messups, and some don't. So imagine that good person, only soured, and you'll get a great bad guy.