Friday, July 3, 2015

Holidays in Fiction

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.

Happy birthday, America! Tomorrow we'll get to barbecue and swim and lay around in the heat and then finish it all off with fireworks. Today, I thought we'd talk about what a useful tool holidays can be in the hands of a writer. Not our holidays, specifically, but the unique days celebrated in our fictional story worlds.

Maybe your fictional world celebrates a sporting event like the Quidditch Word Cup or a barbaric exercise like the Hunger Games. Maybe, like in Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen, the lowly citizens have to gather once a week to watch the nobles show off their abilities. 

Or maybe, in a contemporary setting, friends and family gather together under a glistening tree and exchange presents. Maybe they dress up like ghouls and beg for candy. 

Whatever it is, holidays make a compelling element in works of fiction. Here's why: 

Holidays are fraught with emotion. We all want to feel. It's one of the primary reasons we pick up a book. Holidays give us a fabulous way to exploit that desire. Because memories are tied to the celebrations, it's pretty rare to feel absolutely nothing regarding a holiday. Maybe we love Christmas because it's the only day our family actually gets along. Maybe we dread it because that day was always spent with a friend who recently passed away. Whatever the case, most of us have deep-rooted feelings that begin to emerge as a holiday approaches. It is only right for your characters to experience this type of emotional upheaval as well. Whether it's excitement or angst or an equal helping of both, dropping a holiday into your story can up the drama. And that's always a good thing. 

Holidays are excellent moments to build toward. They can be that shining sun in the distance you're moving your character toward. Like the Northern Star, they can help you navigate your character's journey all while keeping sight of your goal. Your holiday certainly doesn't have to occur during the climax of your story, but it's a great moment to build to. The emotion growing inside your character as the decorations go up and the world around her readies, the major players gathering together to celebrate and setting the stage for the type of conflict or resolution that pushes your story forward. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling uses the Triwizard Tournament in this way. Brilliantly, I might add. 

Holidays reveal your characters' belief systems. Having your characters wrestle with an upcoming holiday is a great way to show their beliefs. Maybe they celebrate but don't embrace the reason for the celebration. Or maybe your character doesn't celebrate at all. Maybe the upcoming festival or event is abhorrent to him. What your character does or does not do in relation to a commonly celebrated moment in time says so much about who they are. Use it to put your character's heart on display. 

Holidays expose the values of your story world. Your characters aren't the only ones being exposed by the presence of a holiday. The values of your story world, real or imagined, are also being laid bare. What does this world hold in high esteem? What do these people value? Who established this celebration or festival? And why was it established? Does this holiday encourage the people or beat them down? Is it a source of unity or division? All very important things to consider and useful to a writer looking to add depth and color to a story world. 

Celebratory days can be used to such advantage in our writing and I urge you to explore all the ways they can help you show off your characters and the world around them. 

Tell me, who does this best? 
Which books use commonly celebrated days to move their stories forward with great success?

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

10 Tips For Tight Descriptions and a Cover Reveal


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

We missed you last week! Stephanie and I were both speakers and mentors at the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop in Olathe, Kansas. It's one of the highlights of my summer, and I'm always thrilled to be invited back. This year I taught five workshops and did a lot of mentor appointments. I taught some workshops that might be familiar to you such as writing great villains or creating fantasy creatures. In that last class, we created a beast as a group. It was called the wrok. It's a round, camouflaging mammal that has retractable limbs, razor-sharp teeth, skin like an armadillo, no eyes, and leaves a trail of sticky, poisonous drool in its wake. They travel in herds much like rolling pool balls, and they mate stacked up like a snowman. Here are some pictures drawn by some of the workshop attendees. I think the wrok works.

Below are some more pictures from the week. I always love seeing all the cosplay. I got to take a peek inside the wardrobe on stage, meet a girl with a crocheted Toothless, and was given a "Trust the Owl" T-shirt from Hannah McManus, who painted it for me. I love it! Thanks again, Hannah!

I also taught a workshop on description, and since a lot of that was new material for me, I've decided to do a four-part series here on the blog on description. We'll start today with the very end of my workshop, which was a list of 10 tips for tight descriptions. Then in the upcoming weeks, we'll go into some of these topics in depth.

1. Don’t stress over description until edits.
I rarely describe anything when writing my first draft. It's always my goal to write as fast as I can to get that first draft done. Description slows me down. It makes me stop and think. And when I'm writing a first draft, I don't want to stop and think. I want to write as fast as possible. So I give myself permission to ignore description. If some sneaks out quickly without slowing me down, it gets to stay. But the majority of my description happens during rewrites.

2. Give description when it is necessary.
If you have an important location in your story, you need to describe it. If your main character is holding a magical object of great importance, you need to describe it. If your character is crossing the street and waits for a car to pass by, you don't need to describe it---unless that is important to the story. Only you know what is important and what isn't. Since description often takes a lot of words, make sure that you are spending your words on things that matter.

3. Make description serve at least two purposes.
Whenever possible, make your description do multiple things. Perhaps it describes and characterizes. Or describes and shows emotion. Or it describes and gives a clue. You don't have to do this every time, but when you do, you will add depth to your story.

4. Keep description active and moving.
Pacing is important in storytelling. You want to be careful not to stop moving every time you describe something. Now, if your character pauses at the top of a staircase, looks over the banister, and describes the scene below, then it's okay to give a static description. But more often than not, try to keep moving while you describe. Maybe your character is running. Maybe he is looking for something, so you can describe the desk, dresser, and closet as he ransacks the place. Perhaps your character is getting a tour of a building. Maybe he is driving through town. No matter what, try to make sure that your description fits to pacing of the scene. If things are happening quickly, give us a quick description. A long description fits better in a slower scene.

5. Make description memorable.
Give us fewer words that are more specific. Words that will stick in our memory. A room coated in dust that makes the character sneeze. We will remember that room. An apartment that is filled with so much trash that your character's foot sticks to something on the floor. Eww. The reader won't forget that. Looks for simple ways to describe things that readers will remember.

6. When describing, choose specific words.
Choose words that tell the reader as much as possible. Words that provide memorable details that the reader can picture in his mind. Like leather the color of cinnamon rather than brown. Slimy rags rather than merely wet ones.

7. When describing, use the five senses.
Space them out, but try to use each one at least once per chapter, maybe more depending on how long your chapters are. Writers tend to describe lots of what the characters can see and forget to mention smell, sound, taste, and touch. Be sure to add these in when it feels natural.

8. Description should fit the POV character’s voice, personality, etc.
Are you describing the scene through the eyes, voice, and personality of your main character? Use words he would use. Focus on things that interest him. Don't use words he wouldn't know. Spencer from my Mission League books would say that a doctor "took his blood pressure," while Mason from my Safe Lands books would say "the doctor used the sphygmomanometer to measure his blood pressure." Spencer would NEVER IN HIS LIFE remember a word as long as sphygmomanometer. He just wouldn't care.

9. Description should convey emotion.
When possible and natural, work emotion into your descriptions through your point of view character. How is your character feeling? Jealous? Happy? Angry? These feelings might affect the way he sees things as he moves through the scene. What if he is describing a person he likes vs. one he hates or is mad at or has a crush on? These things should have an impact on your character's word choice.

10. Description should leave room for the imagination.
You don't have to describe everything. Leave some room for your reader's imagination to create the characters and places in his or her mind. That's part of the fun of reading. If you describe too much, your reader will get annoyed. Description is a fine balance that takes a lot of hard work and tweaking during edits to get just right. Any questions about description? What comes easiest to you when describing things? What is hardest? Share in the comments.

Cover Reveal!
One other thing that happened at this year's OYAN conference was that I gave the OYANers a first look at the book cover for my upcoming epic fantasy novel King's Folly. It was fun to reveal it in front of a live audience. If you haven't seen it floating around cyberspace, here it is. What do you think? To learn more about King's Folly and when it releases, click here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Tips for Writers Who Don't Work Well With Outlines

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Birch House Press). 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.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Jill and I had an awesome time last week at the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop in Olathe, Kansas.
I've adored this T-shirt for a few years, but this is the first time I was able to snag it in my size before they sold out.

The auditorium where we did a lot of our talks.

Jill, me, and the DeGisi sisters.

I chased Emily down for a picture since last year she had Jill sign one of my books using my head on a stick. (See last Monday's post for clarity.)

Catsi and me!

It's always so fun to be around young writers, who are so full of creativity and passion. I spent more time on stage than I was comfortable with (of course any stage time falls into that category for me), and I enjoyed interacting with the writers after my classes and during one-on-one mentoring appointments. It was fun to meet so many writers who I know from the Go Teen Writers community.

One of my favorite things about gatherings like this is learning about all the different ways writers go about writing their novels. The One Year Adventure Novel curriculum (which is designed to be used in a home school settings, but there are kids from public and private schools who do the course as well) is very structured. So structured, that I wonder how I would have done with it as a teen.

As a teenager and in my early twenties, I was a hardcore pantser. (Meaning I didn't outline my stories but instead just wrote it as it came to me.) I had tried plotting my stories a time or two, but inevitably I went a totally different direction than I had intended, so I stopped trying to figure out ahead of time how it was all going to work out.

If by nature you work best with no outline, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Sometimes as a pantser, I felt like I should have more of a plan if I wanted my book to be any good. That's really not true at all. So don't feel like you need to become more of an outliner if you want to write a well-thought out novel.

There are, however, some unique struggles to being a discovery writer. Here are some thoughts on how to deal with them:

Be ready for edits.

This is a huge one. When you discovery write, or write by the seat of your pants, your story tends to flow a very organic way. This is awesome. But it will often leave you with a meandering first draft with a variety of plot holes and aimless characters.

You will find sections that don't seem very well thought out (if you're like me, it's because they weren't!) or massive plot holes. Sometimes you'll find that characters are inconsistent from page to page because you hadn't figured them out until you finished the story. You also might come upon random tangents that never went anywhere and need to be cut.

Another thing to watch for is that your ending might be TOO much of a surprise. By which I mean, you didn't know what it would be, so you weren't able to lay the proper groundwork throughout the book to set up your awesome surprise.

Turning out a first draft that requires a lot of edits doesn't mean you did a bad job or that you needed to plan more. It only means that it's a first draft. They're supposed to be like that!

Beware of the never ending rewrite.

This was a huge struggle for me, particularly in my early days. I would write the first few chapters of a book, not quite knowing where the story would head. And then when I stalled out, instead of pushing forward I would instead rewrite the chapters I had already written, positive that I could make them "perfect" this time.

Don't let yourself fall into this pattern or you'll be stuck in a never ending rewrite. It's important to press on with the rest of the story.

Watch out for back story. 

Because I was discovering the back story of these characters as I wrote, it all worked its way into the narrative. But you really don't need that much, so keep an eye on that in edits. A character's background is a great thing for you to know as the writer, but a little goes a long way with the audience. Critique partners are great at noticing back story that goes on for a bit too long.

Wait ... it's missing something.

My discovery written novels have always been the ones where I have to go back and add an entire character or a story line. In a different blog post, I've talked about my process for adding a subplot or plot layer after a first draft is written.

Double check your calendar.

Another issue I always ran into with my discovery written novels was that the chronological order of my story was way off. Mostly because I just didn't want to take the time to think through what day of the week it now should be if it's "three days later." So it's a good idea to fill in a calendar of some sort when you're done with your first draft or as you write.

Understand story structure.

We naturally absorb story structure by reading and watching stories, but it's still a good idea to at least be aware of the basics. This way if something isn't working with your plot, you're better equipped to identify what you might be missing. I blew off story structure for a long time, and my stories suffered for it.

If you write without an outline (or even without much of an outline), I'd love to hear your thoughts on the process. What have you found works for you? Where do you struggle?

Monday, June 22, 2015

We're closed this week!


This week Jill and I have the privilege of teaching at the One Year Adventure Novel summer workshop in Olathe, Kansas.

Jill signs more than just books.

Last year I was gone. Not my best idea. Here "I" am signing a book.
With all the travel (for Jill, I'll be traveling all of 10 minutes each day) and class prep, we're taking the week away from the blog.

I'll be back next Monday talking about the ups and downs of writing by the seat of your pants (also known as "pantsers" or discovery writers) rather than using an outline. Happy writing!

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Writer's Legacy

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.

The word legacy isn't a word most of us think about on a daily basis. Writers are a little different in that regard. We think about these things more often. We want to leave something behind. We want to be remembered. We want to leave the world better than we found it. But even for the creative soul, legacy often floats on the edges of our day-to-day life. There but in a very ethereal, hard to touch kind of way.

Most of the time, we're just trying to get through the Friday before us. Survive our schedule. Mold life into something we can live with. Be productive. Be happy. Enjoy the journey. Maybe just get through the stack of homework languishing in our bags. 

But every now and then something happens and the word legacy feels closer than it did the day before. At least that's how it works with me.

This week one of my heroes passed away. I'd never met Elisabeth Elliot, but her life touched mine in a profound way. When I was a teenager--your age, probably--I read her book, Through Gates of Splendor. It's the true story of her experiences reaching out to the Auca Indians of Ecuador. Experiences that included the brutal death of her husband and four others. 

When I opened the book, I thought I knew what I was going to read. A true account, sure, but one that would inspire me to do as she had done. I so wanted to mirror her legacy.

But the pages of her writing brought me something else. They brought me reality. This woman's life was not easy. It wasn't some fairy tale experience in another country. It was bloody and lonely and full of the kind of sacrifice I can't even force myself to consider. And instead of being inspired to live like she did, I found myself honestly counting the cost of leaving behind such a legacy.

It was a surreal experience. But one that has never left me. And though my life has not taken me where hers took her, the journey she walked continues to inspire mine. Because even if I'll never be as brave as she was, I want to be. I want to live with that kind of passion. She and I have many, many differences, but we do have something in common. 

We're both writers. By my count, Elisabeth Elliot penned more than twenty books in her lifetime. Just this week I read that she toyed around with poetry as well. She was a writer, like you and me, but that's not what we remember most about her. We remember that she lived. She fought. She suffered. She inspired. She took very seriously the path that was laid before her. And because she did, her life left behind ripples that will continue into eternity.

That's what I want. I want to write stories. I want those to matter. But our legacies should be about more than what we put on the page. It should be about how we lived, who we touched. And when a person of such passion leaves this world, we're reminded that this life is a temporal one. If we live it the way it's meant to be lived, if we tackle the journey before us, maybe, just maybe, our lives will leave the kind of ripples Elisabeth Elliot's did.

Have you thought about your legacy? What is it you want to leave behind? 
Do you have any heroes who inspire you like Elisabeth inspires me?