Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creating emotional depth

To the very few people who read this blog--apologies for the long gap in updates. Since I last posted I had a baby (#5) and moved from Germany back to the United States. I've also been deep in revisions (finished, at least for now), and I am only beginning to come up for air.

One of the things I love reading but is hard to pull off is emotional depth. I think that there are some key elements we need to know for this to work:

What the MC wants most
What they fear most
What their safety nets are

And then, as authors, we need to rip away that safety net so that they can't just act on a surface level--they have to be desperate enough to do more than they thought they could do, sacrifice enough to earn what they deep down most want.

I don't think this is enough, though. I think to reinforce this we need to look at the details. No doubt you've read books that have a cool concept but come off sort of soulless, even if the characters supposedly have these things. I'm still thinking about this problem, but I believe that the reader isn't shown convincing evidence that these wants and fears really matter. I think you do that by building in small details into the story and letting them take on larger significance. The details need to be personal. I can't explain without major spoilers, but read Wendelin van Draanen's Flipped. Look how that boy solves his problem at the end. His actions mean something because of the details we already know about himself and Julianna. (Flipped is a great example of any number of things going right--you really don't need an excuse to go read it right now!)

I think sometimes authors get headed in the right direction, but don't pull hard enough, don't devastate their characters enough. It's okay to be nice in real life, to not react, to calm one's emotions--but in a book, it has to be larger than life. Be cruel. Let your character fall. Let him face his worst demons. Make her sacrifice more than she thought she'd have to, more that she thinks she can. Then any victory they have will be sweet.

For more on this discussion, see Verla Kay's board.

Monday, August 4, 2008

If you are writing a series...

...please try to make the books related. Make the action rise. I know, not all series start out as such. But if you plan to write sequels, try, try not to make it look like you've pulled random plot elements from your Great-Uncle-Fred's magic top hat.

Also, I know subsequent books need a bit of a summary to help readers remember the first book, but don't overdo it with the telling. If you need more than a few lines here and there, maybe readers would be better served by going back and rereading the preceding book.

Friday, June 6, 2008

More on plot--making it GO

I've been busy working on a revision this long time, but while I haven't been posting, I hope I've been learning. A few more ideas to add to the plot development theme:

1. Your characters need to come to conclusions as they go to help guide the reader and show that things are moving along. They also need to have a plan for what next. But, even more important than them planning to do things is to actually show them doing them! Instead of having your character's action be, make a plan to do X, let them be impulsive and just jump in and DO X.

2. Don't be afraid to reveal and resolve. Each time you do this, instead of bursting the bubble of tension you've created, you should actually be opening the way to further tension and complications from the results of the revelation. This should go until the climax, which should result in ultimately solving the problem of the novel. The middle is where mini-resolutions or mini-climaxes stack on top of each other until you can't go anywhere BUT to the climax. It's not a waiting room until the climax room is available.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Character ages

One of the things that pulls me out of a book faster than anything is when a character does not act his or her age. I admit I don't notice so much when a character acts a little older than stated, but it really bothers me when the author states that a character is say, 14, but actually he acts like a nine- or ten-year-old. I've read a number of books like this. Nearly all of them feature male main characters. I don't know it's the inability to get a male MC right, or unfamiliarity with children in that age range, or the author being afraid to write anything involving hormones, or what. But it destroys my ability to suspend disbelief when I read this.

I have a ten-year-old son. I also do volunteer work with youth ages 12-18. And there is a huge difference in the way a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old think, act, and react. In fact, I think the switch from 11 to 12 is a very dynamic time, especially for boys. And it's not just because suddenly they're getting hormones. (Although it IS highly unrealistic to expect to write a book about teens and with no romantic interest whatsoever.) There is a lot more to growing up than gaining another year and another inch. So these are some things that I've observed that set the two age groups apart. Feel free to correct or add to as you wish. Yes, these are generalities. Yes, every kid is different. Maybe your kid isn't like this. But these are general things to keep in mind while creating your fictional characters.

1. Both MG and YA aged kids want approval from the adults around them. However, the things they want approval for are different, or at least, to different degrees. The younger child (age 9-11) wants approval because s/he's met the requirements the adult has set, or is successfully following the rules. They're great kids in school because they follow the program. A teen, on the other hand, wants approval for his/her independent ideas. "I am not you," is the teen's message. "I can think independently." A teen might rebel from the establishment to assert his/her own right to make decisions. Alternately, a teen might choose to follow all the rules. BUT--it will be a considered, independent choice, NOT because someone else says so. A teen wants approval and recognition that his or her choices are valid.

2. Breaking rules--I think the younger group wants to avoid shame and getting in trouble. Teens do, too, but they have a growing ability to sense how their actions affect others. A great fictional example of this is Harry Potter's changing psychology as he matures. In the first book he just wants to avoid detention. Even if he chooses to do things that he knows will earn him an evening with Snape, he sees that as "the worst." In Chamber of Secrets, he still wants to avoid trouble, but when he hears that Mr. Weasley is in trouble because his enchanted car got discovered, he feels guilty because his actions have harmed someone else. And he feels it without someone coming to him to rub it in his face. That's the difference between a middle grader and a teen. Another good example in fiction is Nick Mann's Control-Shift (also called Operating Codes), where the main character is torn between different ideologies regarding defense weapons, and loyalty to the people he loves. He can see how his choices can affect others. He can see past the immediate hand slap.

3. Hormones. Not every YA book is going to have romance, or needs it. But 9-10-year-old boys mostly don't even notice girls. Or if they do, they're too terrified to admit it. If you give me a book with teens and they are supposedly operating in the real world but have this complete blindness to the opposite sex, I'm just not going to believe it. Probably most of these feelings are unreturned, or returned by the "wrong" person. But they are there! I shouldn't have to say that boys and girls view romance and their part in it differently. If you are unsure, follow some of them around at the mall sometime. Sit in the food court and listen. Volunteer to chaperone a school or church event. Take notes when they aren't looking. Watch how they interact.

I do think these things are important. Maybe not every book needs all of them (Control-Shift is very convincing without any romantic elements at all--and, it's very focused one one--or two--specific problems.) But you've got to get into the psychology of the characters or they won't carry enough weight to make them real.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A few comments on self-publishing

This blog is about traditional publishing. I don't know how to self-publish and I'm not really interested. I think in general, writers would do better to improve their craft, get and give critiques, and approach traditional publishers. That said, there are probably a few instances where self-publishing is warranted, for example, if you want to publish a family history. I think print on demand (POD) services like are probably the best way to go for that--you only pay for what you actually print, I believe, which would negate spending money for books you don't end up selling. But if you want to know more about self-publishing, you're going to have to look somewhere other than here.

What I DO want to say about it, however, is this: there are places where it's appropriate to advertise, and places where it's not. Places that are NOT:

1. Traditional editors. Publishers publish unpublished books. (Uh...say that ten times fast.) If it is already published, the job is done and there is nothing left for them to do. Got it? (And lest you bring up Paolini, let me dispell any misconceptions--if you have sold 10,000 copies on your own--that's TEN THOUSAND--then a traditional publisher might be interested. But twenty or even a hundred to your closest friends and relatives? Nope.) If you still doubt, read this:

2. Agents. Agents sell unpublished books to traditional publishers. If you send them your self-published book, there is nothing they can do with it. Of course, if you write a new book, then by all means query them. Just because you've had one self-published book (or ten) certainly doesn't bar you from traditionally publishing a new one. Just be aware that your self-published books won't count the way traditionally published books will. An agent can see that you can finish a book, sure, but the point of listing publications is to prove that an unbiased judge found merit in your writing. You publishing your own writing is NOT an example of an unbiased anything. (Ditto endorsements from your mother, your children's teacher, or a classful of children. Of course they are going to say nice things. They don't want to hurt your feelings.) If you don't have any publishing credentials other than that, it's okay. The main point is, can you write? Not, how impressive of a resume can you invent. To cite the late Miss Snark (may she rest in peace!), the writing is what counts.

3. Writer groups devoted to discussing and improving craft with the goal of traditional publishing. Um...I've seen self-published authors blitz a board with their wares, never to return again. That is not an effective use of networking. More likely, your post will be viewed as spam. Yep. s-p-a-m. If you go the self-publishing route and still want to join a writing group, great. Stick around. Participate in discussions. Make a meaningful contribution. Maybe even...learn something about craft. People are much more likely to take interest in your book if you refrain from shoving it down their throats. Especially if they are committed to the long way around in hopes of traditional publishing.

So--if you are equally committed to self-publishing, please do yourself a favor and find out where it IS appropriate to advertise (maybe a site devoted to reading, not writing? Reading groups? Places where people are looking to buy self-published books? Groups devoted to the specific topic your book is about?) And good luck!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Passive and Voice

I've been thinking about voice and word choice lately, and I just want to point out that one of the worst things you can do to alienate your reader and destroy voice is to cast your prose in the passive. By this I mean both the grammatical passive (X was done by Y) and the stylistic passive (Bread was eaten, stomachs were happy.) And now that I've said this I'm sure someone is going to protest that that's how that character expresses him/herself. Look, there are no hard and fast rules, but in general, passive = bad. It's like throwing up a wall between the reader and the character. It's telling, rather than letting us live the event along with the character. It prevents us from being in the character's head because in many cases, we don't even know who the character is who's doing it.

Take this example. Which version puts you into the scene more?

The princess stood in the kitchen and watched as the bread was made. The dough was rolled and twisted to form shapes. Then it was set carefully on a pan to rise. The formed, risen dough was then placed gently into the ovens. After fifteen minutes it was removed and shown to the princess. "Take it away!" she cried. "We don't like rolls formed in S-shapes!"


The princess stood in the kitchen and watched the bakers making bread. The largest baker rolled the dough with long, fat arms and twisted it with practiced fingers. He set each form carefully onto the waiting pan and pushed it aside to rise. Next to him, a smaller baker with her hair tied back lifted a pan of puffy rolls and slid it gently into the open oven. After fifteen minutes she hefted her spatula and lifted the pan out. "What do you think?" she asked the princess, holding the pan out for inspection.

"Take it away!" the princess cried. "You know we don't like S-shaped rolls!"

Okay, not spectacular writing, but still. We know who the actors are. And that makes all the difference.

If you would like to share an example, please do!

Friday, February 1, 2008

More on openings

I've been following agent Nathan Bransford's first page contest this week. The first thing I have to say is, I'm glad I'm not judging all 600+ entries!! I freely admit that I am not up to reading slush. There were a lot of entries where I couldn't get past the first few sentences. The good ones--well, they really leaped out. A few observations:

1. The MG/YA entries were, on the whole, better written. (Uh--not that I'm biased or anything :)
2. The best entries started with the actual story.

(And now for the negatives...)

3. Profanity in narrative does NOT equal "voice." More like a weak substitute for voice.
4. Starting with a violent act with no chance to get to know the characters means that aside from general shock effect, there's no reason for the reader to care.
5. Starting with a character waking up is sure to put your reader back to sleep.
6. A lot of entries (especially those in first person) started by telling the reader the ENTIRE BACKSTORY of a character(s). But, there was no sign of an actual story beginning anywhere. Begin at the beginning, folks.
7. Perhaps a fresher use of phrases would be good, too. A LOT of entries had the actual phrase, "It all started when/with..."
8. Watch the gerund phrases. This is a pet peeve of mine, but if you start a sentence with a gerund phrase you are saying that that action is happening simultaneously with another one. Sometimes this is possible (Wishing she'd never come, Chiara wrapped her arms around her legs and tried to ignore the fact that she was 30,000 feet in the air, hovering over the Arctic Ocean.) But more often than not, it isn't. (Pulling the door shut across the room, Georgie lay down on the bed. --Unless Georgie is related to Elastigirl, he just can't do this.)
9. Starting with a character who is angry, bitter, and determined to MAKE THEM PAY!, without any other redeeming characteristics, is a character who many readers will prefer not to hang around. Characters don't have to be perfect, but readers need a reason to like them and hang around for the rest of the book.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First chapters

I hope you have all had a chance to consider registering your bone marrow to help someone like Luise and Emil. For the curious, 3200 people showed up to be typed and the line was very, very, very long. So many good people in the world--it was very cheering to see how many people wanted to help. Now they're typing the samples. I hope there's a match in there. We find out in six weeks.

Aside from DNA matching I've been thinking a lot about first chapters. Here are two things that have been going through my mind lately that a first chapter needs to accomplish:

Set up the conflict/issues for the entire book.
2. Hook the reader on the character.

1. Setting up the conflict/issues for the whole book. By the end of the first chapter, you need to know a) what your main character wants, and b) his/her plan to get it. You also need to show c) obstacles against that plan. Of course, plans change and desires deepen. They should as the novel progresses. But the seeds should be sown now.

2. Hooking the reader on the character. It’s essential for your readers to form a quick and strong bond with your main character, or they won’t stick around to find out how your MC solves his/her problems. In general, MCs that are easy to bond with may be vulnerable or imperfect, but have at least some part of them that turns outward and wants to move/change/do something. A 15-year-old MC whose sole desire is to contemplate her navel and complain about how everyone is against her might be realistic, but who wants to spend time with her? Harry has a rotten life in the cupboard under the stairs, but he still finds things to be happy about, like getting an extra ice cream at the zoo. The heroine of Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days is about to be shut in a tower for seven years while her mentally ill mistress languishes on—but she’s excited at seven years of food! See, in a successful first chapter, there’s a silver lining in the problems, as opposed to a poor me attitude.

Another part of forming emotional bonds is to have appropriate stakes. This ties in with #1 of course. You can have a more global set of stakes, like saving the world, but you have to have personal stakes as well. Like Kristin Nelson said on her blog, conflict is personal. What does your MC stand to lose?

The other biggie, I think, is words. Are you using the right voice for your character? Are you close and personal? Introduce us quickly, and keep us right next to the MC. Avoid distancing terms like „the boy“ once we’re supposed to be in his head, and eliminate passive tense. Otherwise, it’s like watching a whole movie shot in wide angle. Without close-ups, it’s hard to get a sense of who is who, and why we should care. Use strong prose—exact nouns and verbs as opposed to weak ones propped up by adjectives or adverbs. Filter everything through your focal character—the setting, the weather, the interactions of others. A good voice is a biased voice. You’re telling your best friend your side of the story. You’re not a reporter trying to be impartial.

Assignment 1: read the first chapter of five different books in your genre, and identify what the character wants, what their plan is, and what stands to stop them. Then do this with your own first chapter.

Assignment 2: remove weak prose and distancing terms from your first chapter.