Wednesday, February 10, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 2: Premise
Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 
Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Welcome to week two of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays. In case you haven't heard, I am taking you all through my process of writing a book, one week at a time. I'll be posting my book over on my author website (click here to subscribe to chapters), so you can read along, if you'd like. This series will end in a BIG contest, opening at the end of August. For information on the contest, see #WeWriteBooks Post 1.

Today's Topic: Premise

Last week we picked a genre. THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA. Today we are going to talk about premise. When I start thinking about a new story idea, it's usually the premise that draws me in, even more than the genre. If you remember, I first brainstormed what became By Darkness Hid in a science fiction storyworld. At the time, it didn't ultimately matter to me where I set the story. It was the premise that had captured my creative juices. I really wanted to write about Amnesia Guy!

As I mentioned in the first post, the Go Teen Writers archives are extensive. We have talked about premise many times before on this blog. One of the best posts overall I found on this topic is one Stephanie wrote called 4 Questions To Ask Before You Write That Story. I highly recommend you look it over. Also, below is a list of several more posts on the topic of premise that might help you if you're stuck. If you don't want to look at all those links right now, skip over them and come back to read some later.

Posts on coming up with new ideas:
4 Questions To Ask Before You Write That Story (Steph's awesome post I mentioned above.)
How To Come Up With A High Concept Pitch
What Is A Logline And How Do You Write One?
10 Story Models That Will Change The Way Your Brainstorm
James Scott Bell Shares His Process For Brainstorming A New Story
5 Places Ideas Come From
What Do I Write Next?

Posts on troubleshooting new ideas:
How Do I Make Sure I'm Being Original In My Writing?
3 Reasons Why That Idea Isn't Working
How Do You Know If Your Story idea is THE IDEA?
How To Get In The Way Of Good Ideas

When I'm brainstorming a new book, I look for a premise that excites me. For something I could build a cool storyworld around. But ultimately, the most important thing I need to know is: WHAT happens to WHO and WHY does the reader care?

The premise for THIRST came to me while brainstorming and plotting out The Safe Lands series. Originally, The Safe Lands was going to be a fantasy series about a land with a disease, but since dystopian was popular, and my publisher wanted to see dystopian stories, I played around with putting The Safe Lands on earth. And as I set about building the storyworld for that future dystopia, I kept coming up against questions as to what happened "way back when" that caused this bad future. Since the story was now bordering on science fiction, I needed the science to be plausible (which always hurts my brain). So I took some time to research and ask science-minded people for help. I discovered that if I wanted a disease as my problem, the fastest way to spread it around the world would be through drinking water. That got me thinking about the ancestors of my dystopian heroes. Who were they? How did they end up living outside the Safe Lands walls? (Click here to see the map from my dystopian story.)

The next thing I knew, I started writing THIRST, just to understand what happened in the past so I could better set up my future dystopia. It was a strange experience, especially when my agent told me that my publisher wanted to see sample chapters from both. In one book I was writing about a teenage Eli. In the other book, Eli was over ninety years old!

All this to explain that sometimes a premise comes about in an unconventional way. I wasn't sitting around watching the rain, thinking, "What if a disease in the water mostly wiped out the population of earth?" Instead, THIRST came out of my seeking the origins of another world. (Incidentally, the premise for The Kinsman Chronicles also began that way. Perhaps I'm starting a trend for myself...)

Regardless of where your idea came from, you need to refine it before you're ready for the next step. You need to be able to say: WHAT happens to WHO and WHY does the reader care? For THIRST I started out with:

An apocalypse happens to teenage Eli McShane.

That was okay to start, but I needed to know more to have enough to build a story. I like to build on an idea by asking questions. Some natural questions that arose when looking at the above premise were:

-What kind of apocalypse?
-How does Eli manage to live through it?
-(Because I'm setting up the dystopian Safe Lands world) How does Eli end up in Colorado?

With that in mind, I put in more time brainstorming the premise, and I came up with this. (I color-coded it as: WHAT happens to WHO and WHY does the reader care?)

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.

It's no stellar back cover copy, but I now have my WHAT, my WHO, and my WHY does the reader care? (And the reader cares because the reader wants the hero to survive!)

Assignment Time

Today's assignment is to answer this for your story: WHAT happens to WHO and WHY does the reader care? Post your answer in the comment section, and if you're stuck, ask for help and I'll brainstorm with you and maybe ask you some questions that could help you narrow things down a bit.

Also, last week I got so excited about the start of #WeWriteBooks that I forgot to announce that The Heir War released! If you've read Darkness Reigns, be sure to check out part two. And if you haven't read Darkness Reigns, check it out. It's free.

Monday, February 8, 2016

5 Tips to Successful Self-Publishing

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Her novels range from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her new British series. She lives with her family in West Virginia. Learn more at

There's no denying that self-publishing is here to stay, and it's changing the shape of the publishing industry. As someone who has tried absolutely every kind of publishing known to man, including self-publishing, Stephanie asked if I'd talk to you guys a bit about what made my self-pub venture ultimately successful. Naturally, I'm happy to oblige. ;-)

First off, I have to tell you a little about how I ended up where I am in the industry. Growing up as the internet age was just getting its feet wet, my teen years were spent trying to learn the industry through those old-fashioned things called books. And messing up a lot. There were no writers groups online yet. No forums. Certainly no Go Teen Writers. But I had stories and I had determination and I wasn't afraid to try new things.

When print-on-demand technology first appeared on the market, my husband and I gave it a try with a series of short-stories. I think we sold, oh, about fifteen copies. Maybe. ;-) But did that daunt us?

Um, yeah. Kind of. I became pretty determined to be published by a regular, big publisher. Preferably one who would offer me a million dollar advance (ahem). My husband, on the other hand, became determined to become a publisher.

Many of you know me as an editor for WhiteFire Publishing. WhiteFire is the company my husband began, and at the time when we were starting it, we were basically self-publishing, given that my titles were our only titles. And way back in 2005, self-publishing came with a stigma. It was what you did when you weren't good enough to cut it with a real publishing house. The still-new POD technology meant high prices for each book, and most self-pubbers decided they'd just pass that cost along to the consumer...and thereby not sell many copies. Press runs were expensive up front, and you had to warehouse all the books. Ebooks weren't really a thing yet.

My husband was interested in the physical production of books, so we did the unthinkable--we bought printers, ink, paper, book board, cover stock, a gold-foil stamper, other things whose name I don't even remember, and we created our own hardback version of my debut book, A Stray Drop of Blood. Printed and bound in-house. Literally. In my house. At my kitchen table.

We made a set number of them--about 250, I think. And we just sold them until we ran out.

Is that a huge number of books? Um, no. But while that original version was out there, I was learning a lot about writing in the modern world. I joined ACFW and quickly realized all the many things I was doing wrong. Like, all of it. I was head-hopping, I was telling rather than showing, I didn't always start with action.

So I put aside Stray Drop. I wrote other books. I went to a conference. I gave very little thought to WhiteFire and self-publishing. My focus was, again, on those big contracts.

Then a funny thing happened. I sold out of my hardbacks of A Stray Drop of Blood. And people were asking me about paperbacks. My husband and I sat down one day on our porch, and we evaluated. We had two choices: to let it die or to do it all again. And I loved that story too much to let it die. I said I'd like to rewrite the book (without the headhopping, etc) and re-release as a paperback. New cover. New ISBN. New everything. I felt like I could make a better go of it at that point in time, in 2009. I had 4 years of learning under my belt.

So that's what we did. Self-publishing was still looked down on at that point in history, and I knew well that plenty of people would advise me against it. But I had quite literally nothing to lose. The story was already self-published--all I'd be doing was making it better. So I rewrote. We hired a professional cover designer. I lined up influencers and blog tours and got endorsements from author friends I had made through ACFW. I contacted each and every person who commented on those blog posts afterward and offered them a 20% coupon code for the book from my personal store.

Right about that time Amazon launched KDP, so we signed up for that and got the ebook out there--and priced it low. At a time when all the big presses were pricing ebooks and paperbacks at the same price point, and when few indies were out there yet, we set our digital prices at $3.99

And books started selling. Slowly at first. That first year, I might have sold 100 books. But my agent gave me some sound advice--follow it up with another in the same genre. While A Stray Drop of Blood was gaining its traction, I was working away on Jewel of Persia, which came out a year later. It started off a little stronger right out of the gate, though by no means set the world on fire. I finally landed contracts with other publishers, but I continue to write biblical fiction for WhiteFire, because each one I put out increases the sales on all of them--they build upon each other. Even though I now have 7 books out with other companies (it'll be 8 in April), I have a new bib-fic coming out from WhiteFire this fall too. Because it's important to me to maintain and feed that readership. A readership that has grown over the years into something pretty impressive. Excluding my recent series with Bethany House (I don't have sales numbers on that yet), my biblical fiction has out-sold any other books I've written.

What made it work? In part, these things will always be a mystery. But there are a few things I know for a fact set my titles apart.

Always, always story. I had unique story lines that pushed some boundaries but always brought the reader a message of hope. They tackled familiar stories through fresh eyes and brought readers a new perspective on things they thought they knew about (the crucifixion/resurrection and the Esther story). I loved these stories. I felt they approached things that mattered to me in ways that hadn't been done. I felt like I grew as I wrote them. I felt that the stories were worth it, apart from whether I ever made a dime from them. They needed to be written. When you carry that kind of passion into your work, it comes through. And that matters.

I know that in this day and age, it's so tempting to write The End one day and push Publish the next...or the next week or month. DON'T. Edit. Revise. Then have someone else edit and revise it too, because you will NEVER catch all your own mistakes. Please, please take this necessary time to polish your book! It makes a huge difference in whether readers talk about you to all their friends or...don't. And word of mouth will always be the best sales tool. A critique partner is great, but you really, really need an actual editor. There are a ton of freelance editors out there, and though their prices might cause you some sticker-shock at first, they're worth every penny.

I know, we shouldn't judge books by their covers.. But we do. We so, so do. One of the best investments I made was a $600 cover for A Stray Drop of Blood, and another for Jewel of Persia. It seemed ridiculous at the time. But I know for a fact those covers have sold copies--people told me so.

Our covers are the first impression our books make, and when you self-publish, you have full control over what that cover looks like. Take advantage of that. Don't just slap some text on a stock photo and call it good (well, I mean, there are some really awesome stock photos that would work with, but in general...). Make your book stand out. And be glad that cover designing has come way, way down since my first covers! What I paid $600 for seven years ago would only cost me about half that now. And other options are even less. (As a side note, I'm now a pro cover designer myself...but I wasn't at the time, and I'm the first to admit it. I actually learned a ton about the process by seeing what the designer I hired came up with and studying those covers in depth.)

It doesn't matter if you're 15 or 50--if you're publishing a book, you need to treat it like a professional decision. Approach bloggers and reviewers with decorum and respect. Be friendly but don't come off as begging. Show them your passion for your story, but always remember that your job is not to defend your book. As Glennon Melton says in this awesome article, you are not your art's lawyer. Your job is to create, call it good (after putting in the hard work to make it so), and then to rest. Getting defensive about others' opinions of your work is a fast way to burn out--or worse, to get the cyber-circles up in arms against you. 

That said--part of being a profession is selling your work. I mentioned above that I contacted every person who commented on a blog post. Every. Single. One. I thanked them for taking time to visit with me. I offered them a coupon code. I invited them to other online events. I was on a different blog every week, at least, for two months. I made friends. I made connections. And I didn't rely on selling only to my friends and family this time around--I worked for each and every sale at the beginning, until those people started talking about my books and the snowball effect took over.

Successful self-publishing fills a niche market. The kind that doesn't pay for big publishers, but which still has a dedicated readership. You need to know who that readership is...and it is never "people from 9 to 90, male and female, from all walks of life." It's just not. A few books transcend all boundaries and do appeal to almost everyone, but no one ever knows when they have that book in their computer. Have a specific market in mind. Connect with that market--with other writers of it and with readers of it. Let those people know where your book is like the ones they already love, and what sets it apart. Using my books as an example--in 2009, no big publisher was looking for biblical fiction, but I knew it had sold well in the past. I knew there were readers for it--and that I just had to find them. This is the great thing about genre readers--they will give any new author a try if it's in a genre they love. Take advantage of that.

So there you go. You've followed the rules, and you've put your work out there. But what then? How do you know if you should concentrate just on your own books or if you should become a publisher yourself and take on other titles?

Well...that's a topic for another post, so stay tuned. ;-)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Writer Super Power #2: Smelling

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

Last Friday we started a new series focusing on our writerly super powers. Just as our favorite super heroes have heightened senses, writers often interact with the world on a hyper-sensitive level. We listen and we smell and we watch and we touch--we experience--all while doing our darndest to connect these sensations to words. Because words are our artistic medium.

For those playing catch-up, here's last week's post on Super Hearing. This week, we're sniffing our way to super hero status. Let's look at smelling, as it relates to writing, from three different angles.

1. What the WRITER smells
Last year, my son joined a junior football team. The practices and games were hosted at my old high school, a place I hadn't been back to since the day I graduated.

They'd repainted the school, upped their landscaping game, added a gym and a technology building. They made some upgrades to the existing facilities after a rainstorm a few years back, so in a lot of ways, it wasn't the same school any more.

I was not prepared for the wave of nostalgia that hit me like a Mack truck the moment I stepped onto campus. Redwood trees and ruddy brown earth baking in the sun, damp cement walls that had recently been power washed, the air gritty with dust kicked up by cleated football players. Football players who wreaked of unwashed gear and lucky socks. The smells of my high school experience.

Even more bizarre than the nostalgia, was the first memory this convocation of smells threw me into. It wasn't of my senior year as you might expect. Those memories should have been freshest in my mind. Instead, I was dropped cheer-sneaker first into my freshman year.

Pent-up excitement and anxiety warred in my gut as I lingered between the locker rooms waiting for dreamy boy of the month to maybe, accidentally, wander by. The laughter of my girlfriends as we circled up, commenting on new outfits and hair cuts, and the football game on Friday, and "Oh-my-gosh, do you think he'll be there?"

One sniff of the campus and I swear my gut filled with butterflies and I was fourteen again. I texted my old childhood friend just to see if she remembered the smell of the dirt. It was that powerful an experience for me.

Each sense has a way of taking us back in time, but smell is sneaky about it. It creeps up on us and brings back things we didn't know we even knew. When you have one of these moments, savor it. Whether the memory is a lush, fragrant one or rotten and fetid, engage your spidey-sense and see if you can get the world around you to slow down a bit. Long enough for you to think about the moment, to appreciate it, to tuck away a few words that might help you recall the experience later.

Free write about the smells that move you. Do you know what free writing is? Free writing is when you give yourself a set period of time--say five minutes--and you just write. You forget about all the rules, the grammar and the typos, and you just scribble the first things that spring to mind. Start simply: The smell of chocolate cake reminds me of . . .

You may never, every use what you pen in your free writing time, but it is an excellent way to get your words flowing and to tap into wells of thought deep in your soul. It's great practice for writers of every level.

2. What the CHARACTERS smell
Like you, your fictional characters are absorbing the smells of the world around them with every breath they take. Imagine that! Every life-giving inhalation brings with it a variety of fragrances. When you think about it that way, you realize that smell just might be underused in our stories.

It's not hard to understand why. Smell can be a difficult thing to describe. Unlike sound where we can engage with the reader using onomatopoeia (ding, sizzle, snap, hiss), with smell, we depend heavily on the other senses to get our point across. "His skin smelled like coffee," we might say, invoking a beverage we both smell and taste. "Her perfume was rose and light," we might describe, leaning on a comparison and the sense of sight.

But however you do it, don't neglect to engage your character's sense of smell. Stinky garbage or that poopy diaper smell you can't ever purge from your nose, cloying honeysuckle or bright citrus fruits--describing these very normal, very extraordinary things from your character's point of view will help you find their voice.

3. What the READER smells
Your reader's brain is an amazing thing. It has assigned memories to every fragrance it's ever smelled. Making a concerted effort to tap into that, just might give your audience the kind of sensory experience that keeps them turning pages. Every one of your readers will have smells they associate with life events, with seasons, with people, with places. My Nana's house smells like sandalwood soap and fresh baked bread. When I read the word sandalwood, I do not think of exotic locales or sandalwood's medicinal and religious value; I think of Nana and how I couldn't wait to wash my hands before dinner.

You can't know with any certainty just which smells will trigger something in your reader's mind, but choosing to describe scent and engage with his or her sense of smell can deepen the experience and make the story a personal one.

Today, let's give free writing another go. If you would rather do the exercise on your own, I completely understand. But I want to give you the opportunity to participate in the comments section below, if you'd like. It's healthy to share unstructured, unedited writing with others, so if you're feeling brave, I'd love to see what you come up with.

Write for five minutes--letting your thought process take you where it will--starting with:

The zoo smells like . . .

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 1: Genre Review and Genre Mashing --- Plus the #WeWriteBooks plan and contest info

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. And try her books for free here and here.

The #WeWriteBooks series starts today. I'm pretty excited about it. A few things before we get started:

1. There are already lots of posts on the Go Teen Writers blog. Like, five years' worth of posts. Much of what I'll be talking about will be review. So rather than repeat what's already been blogged about, I'm going to give my take on it as it relates to me writing a new book, then I'll post links to related posts that will help you. Use those links because there are so many helpful posts in our archives.

2. We're going to go slowly at first. And then, a few months from now, it will seem like I'm going too fast. That's because I won't be writing a post for every chapter in a twenty-chapter book. There will be lots of planning posts, several posts about different aspects of writing, and some posts on editing. And you'll be like, "But I'm not done with my whole book!" But that's okay. Just go with it and keep on working toward your goal, whatever that is.

3. Speaking of which, set some goals! I have planned this series to last 31 weeks. We will be on the 13th post (that's week 13) before I blog about, "Where to start your book." You might want to start before then. I'll will. But you don't have to start before then. Do what works best for you. This is all for fun and learning. Start today by jotting down some goals. The contest will open on August 31. You need to move at your own pace, but keep in mind that the first phase of the contest will be one chapter (a maximum of 3000 words), and the second round will be the first three chapters (a maximum of 10,000 words). Should you final, you won't have a long time to prepare those three chapters, so you'll need to have them ready. Take those word counts and the weeks you have until the deadline of August 31, and figure out how much you'll need to write each day (or week or whatever measurement works best for you) to get it done with some time to rewrite and edit it too. 

4. I will be posting my book as I write it over on my author blog. I've been neglecting my blog lately, so it will be nice to have something to post. I'm going to start posting material on February 15. I will keep you all posted on how to follow/subscribe.

5. What will I be writing, you ask? Because of my crazy deadlines, I couldn't choose a story that was totally new because it would have taken away too much of my creative brain and time. So I took a look at several stories I've started writing and never finished and I chose one. This book is called Thirst. I wrote a good portion of it already by mistake when Zondervan/Blink almost bought it. Then they decided not to buy it. (Long story.) Basically, Thirst is a stand-alone prequel to The Safe Lands series (Captives, Outcasts, and Rebels). This is the story of a teenage Papa Eli when the Great Pandemic happens. I chose this story because 1) I've already done a lot of work, so that will save me time as I blog about it, 2) It's a stand-alone, so I don't have to stress out about planting things that will pay off in subsequent books because I've already written those! 3) It's a contemporary setting, which, hopefully, will engage a wider audience. (Since I know not all of you like weird fantasy novels with massive magic systems. This one has regular people in it, even though the world is going to almost end--I've got to fit my "weird" in somewhere...) 4) This book has one point of view! (The book I'm writing now has, like, ten points of view. It's a LOT of extra work.) So writing in one point of view will be so nice. 5) Because this meme.

The Contest

We will get more detailed on the contest specifics when the contest opens on August 31. For now, here are some things you'll need to know:

1. This will be a contest that helps you get together material to submit your book to an agent or editor. It will have two rounds. The first round will ask for your first chapter (a maximum of 3000 words) and a one-to-two-page synopsis (both due August 31). In the second round, finalists will be asked to submit their first three chapters (a maximum of 10,000 words) and the synopsis (due date TBA). We will be judging your premise, your writing, and your overall ability to plot. (Which is where the synopsis comes in. Stephanie plans to do a post to help you all tackle synopsis writing.) These criteria are the same things an agent or editor looks for when reviewing submissions.

2. Anyone can write along with the group (we love you, alumni!), but the contest will be open to writers who are 21 or under, since we are a blog geared toward teen writers. Otherwise we will simply have too many entries to judge.

3. You can enter anything you've written. It does not have to be a new story that you started to write along with me and my blog posts.

4. Only one entry per person.

5. Everything must be formatted for industry standards. I created a YouTube video about this. Here is a link to it:

Today's Topic: Genre and Genre Mashing

You'll start your new book by choosing a genre. A genre is simply the category your story fits into. There have been SO MANY POSTS related to genre on Go Teen Writers. I have listed them here.

Posts on defining different genres:
What genre do you write? (Includes a long list of genre categories)
What am I writing, anyway?
Speculative fiction subgenres
Mystery Genres
Study your genre
Genre conventions (What are some elements that your genre must have?)

Posts on specific genres/types of books:
Beginning chapter books for children
Writing for kids, word counts
Middle Grade or YA?
Contemporary YA
A beginner's guide to mystery writing
New Adult fiction
Writing historicals

Did you know that you don't have to pick just one genre? Genre mashing is something we've never talked much about on Go Teen Writers, so as you consider your new story, I want to throw this out to you as an option. In my experience, genre mashing is done in one of two ways:

1) Genre + Genre = Coolness
I've been DYING to write a Regency fantasy novel. Seriously, I've been talking about it for years. I even told Julie Klassen about it, since I love her books. My book would be me mashing, or combining, fantasy and historial (specifically the Regency era). It's that simple. So think about some of your ideas, then play around with mashing them with another genre. You can worry about how it will work later. For now, just think, "What would equal EPIC COOLNESS?"

2) Next book in a series + new genre = interesting twist on original genre and coolness.
Say you wrote a romance novel and now you need to write a book two. Well, if you are going to keep the same characters, a nifty idea is to throw your characters into another genre. Maybe your characters stumble onto a mystery. (Mystery genre) Or perhaps an ex-boyfriend shows up to stalk your female lead! (Thriller genre) Or maybe your hero's grandfather passes away and leaves him a WWII journal and the story drifts back in time as we learn something intriguing about why your hero is the way he is. (Historical genre) Or maybe your characters got married, but now they're struggling with something big. (Women's fiction genre) You get the idea. I did this a little with my Kinsman Chronicles since they're a prequel to my Blood of Kings trilogy, which is fantasy. So rather than just have another fantasy story set in the same world, I decided to add a different world and destroy it. (Apocalyptic/Post Apocalyptic genres) For you, the same rule applies here as did in number one. Just think, "What would add an interesting twist to my world that would be EPIC COOLNESS?"

Assignment Time

Each week during the #WeWriteBooks series, I'll give you an assignment. This week we're going easy. Two easy peasy things. You can do it!

1. Set goals. Set at least a word-count goal and a story start date goal. Because if you're starting a brand-new story, you might not be ready to start writing today. And that's okay.

2. Genre. Pick your genre and, if applicable, subgenre. Or if you're genre mashing, decide on those.

That's all I'm asking of you for this week. If you're feeling saucy, maybe read a book in your chosen genre to get you excited. But if that only drives you crazy, don't do it!

Any questions? Share your goals in the comments when you know the answers. And spread the word about this series. The more the merrier. It's always fun to write with friends.

Monday, February 1, 2016

How to Create A Strong Cast of Characters

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Today we're kicking off the first of our monthly challenges! I'm keeping my notebook close at all times, how about you? You can still get signed up to participate here, but I'll be closing the sign-up sheet soon.

One of the ideas I had recently came after listening to a podcast about Sir Isaac Newton, who I knew about in a vague kind of way but I couldn't have told you much. Turns out, he was a really quirky guy, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be fun to create a character inspired by him?"

Really quirky characters are fun to write, but they can often be too difficult for an audience to relate to if you cast them as a main character. (Yes, main characters should have quirks, and yes there are many successful stories that have very quirky main characters. So this is just an observation, not a rule.) But I love off-beat side characters like Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter or Noah from The Raven Boys.

Many writers love creating characters, so it's no surprise that I'm frequently asked this question:

How many characters should a book have?

This question doesn't have a simple answer because every story is different and some genres require more characters (epic fantasy springs to mind) than others.

The temptation to add superfluous characters is pretty common. For me, I rarely plan out characters before my first draft. While writing, I add them as I feel the need, and I always tend to add a few too many and have to cut back in edits. Here's how I make each character matter:

Strive for balance.

Sometimes I've read stories where it doesn't feel like there are too many characters to keep track of ... yet it still feels like there are too many characters. A lot of times that happens because the cast lacks diversity. I'm not talking just about race or heritage, but rather opinions, backstory, and purpose.

Opinions: The main character should be surrounded by people who have different opinions. Using Harry Potter as an example, Harry, Ron, and Hermione often disagree on how to go about things. This makes their conversations more robust and builds tension.

In backstory: I love how J. K. Rowling gave Harry, Ron, and Hermione such diverse backgrounds. Ron is from an old wizarding family, which means he can help explain to Harry (and the readers) how everything works. Hermione comes from a non-magical family and is discriminated against by some of the other students. These are both a good balance to Harry who has wizard parents but wasn't raised in the wizarding world.

Giving your characters different backstories will automatically help diversify their voices and perspectives.

In purpose: We'll talk about this more in the next point, but characters should fill unique roles and serve the story in different ways. This isn't about filling in all the right spots (the best friend, the love interest, the mentor, etc.) but rather making sure that each character is pulling their own weight.

While there are a variety of antagonists in the Harry Potter books, they antagonize him in different ways and from different social situations. We don't need two teachers or scads of Hogwarts students antagonizing Harry—Snape and Draco Malfoy do their jobs nicely.

One way to make sure you're not cluttering up the story with too many characters who have the same purpose is this:

Give every important character a goal.

I'm not talking about the barista character who's in one coffee house scene and is never mentioned by name. I'm talking about the characters who have a stake in what's going on. 

When my agent read my latest book, she said, "You have a lot of characters, and it's tough to keep track of them all. I want you to go back through your story and figure out what each character's primary goal is. Why are they doing what they're doing? What is motivating them?"

I did this, and then did one more round of edits before we started shopping the book.

Recently, I received my content edits from my editor. I beamed when I saw, "Even your more minor characters show a great deal of depth. It can be challenging to have a large cast of characters, but you handle them deftly and make sure that they stay true to their natures while still growing as the novel progresses."

I immediately emailed my agent to thank her for her advice.

Taking time to consider the each character's goal and primary motivator makes for a smart and purposeful cast of characters.

Combine where you can

In real life, we know lots and lots of people. We have teachers and hair dressers and pharmacists and neighbors and band friends and church friends and theater friends and so forth. 

In a book, that's just way too many characters. Try to combine where you can. The barista can also the best friend's boyfriend. The neighbor friend is also in band, the school play, and youth group. Maybe that's not very "real" but it means your reader will be able to keep up.

Who are some of your favorite side characters?