Friday, February 27, 2015

Write Characters Worth Caring About

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 focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I finished reading a book recently. It was an exceptional book. Well-written. Clever. Unique.

From all appearances, the author accomplished what she set out to do, but you know what? I didn't really like it. And here's why:

I didn't care about a single character.

Not the protagonist. Not the antagonist. Not the sidekick.

It's certainly possible that other readers felt differently--likes and dislikes are a tricky thing--but this book forced me to think about why I fall in love with certain stories and why I don't.

While story worlds can make or break a tale, it's the characters that compel emotion from me. Either I connect or I don't.

In Blake Snyder's book, Save the Cat, he says this:

So how do we do that? How do we create characters that are worth caring about? A few ideas:

Show your character doing something noble. Snyder calls this the Save the Cat scene. Early on, you can pen a moment in which your character does something that endears him to the reader. He can save a cat from a tree or help an old lady carry in her groceries. She can stand up to a bully or rebuild something that was broken. Whatever it is, it must scream, THIS CHARACTER IS WORTH YOUR TIME!

Show your character struggling. We all struggle. Our characters should too. It helps readers connect when they can identify with the imperfections in your fictional people. It keeps the pretend real. But don't just tell us what your lead struggles with. SHOW us. Write that struggle in. How does she deal with it? Does she fail every time? Maybe the struggle is another person. Maybe it's internal. Show us.

Show your character is redeemable. This is especially important if you're going the antihero route. An antihero is a lead character who lacks conventional heroic attributes. Maybe your character is not brave or kind or noble or fearless, but you must show your character to be worthy of the fictional air you've pumped into his lungs. If your readers do not care whether your lead lives or dies, you've missed something somewhere.

Show your character is special. While there is a desperate need in all of us to be normal, there is also this warring notion that somehow, some way we must also be special. Where does your character find herself in relation to this? Does she feel TOO special? Is she attempting to hide her uniqueness? Or is she trying to find what makes her different from everyone else? Maybe she's trying to master her special gift? Like Spidey learning how to shoot webs. Opening up this struggle to the reader will endear us to your lead.

Now, it's not necessary to show ALL of these things about every character, but making the effort to endear your readers to the main characters will pay off in one simple way. They'll keep turning the pages. They'll HAVE TO KNOW what happens.

They'll care.

And in that way, you've spun a little magic.

Tell me, what makes you care about a character?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

We're Having a Linky Party: Post the link to one of your blog posts

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.

As my last act of love for Love an Author month, I'd like us to try having a Linky Party.

What is a Linky Party, you ask? I will tell you.

A Linky Party is when the author of a blog hosts an invite on that blog for the readers to link up blog posts. These are usually for posts on the same topic. I thought it would be fun for us to link a post from our own blogs. Whichever post you like. One that you are particularly proud of. Or one that you think might be helpful to the Go Teen Writers community.

Since this is a blog for teens, I set the system so that I will approve all links, just to make sure no one spams us. So you won't see your link appear until I approve it. You will have until 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, March 1, to enter your link. Then come back and click on each other's links and read each other's posts.

Have fun!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

4 Things You Can Do When Your Story Is Rejected. Again.

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.

Many of you have heard me talk about RoboTales, the children's chapter book series I wrote with my son. (I wrote a blog post on chapter books here.)

Since I would be pitching this to New York publishing houses in a genre I wasn't published in, my agent told me I needed to complete the first three books in the series.

So, Luke and I worked hard. We wrote the first three books, we wrote a book proposal, and we sent it off to my agent.

And it got rejected by everyone. Some of the rejections were random, like one editor who no longer worked at the publishing house. Some were downright lovely, like one woman who loved the idea but her house had moved away from publishing children's chapter books. For us, the reasons didn't matter. Not really. All that mattered was that the answer was no.

These things happen. Rejection was not new to me. It was new to Luke, and he was discouraged. I was too, but I had a lot of perspective to measure it against. Still, this was a pet project for me. It still is! It's more than just another book. All my books mean something to me, but this was something special I'd done with my boy. And we weren't finished yet.

Luke and I talked it over, and we decided to self-publish the first three books. We talked about what we wanted them to look like, and we researched until we found an artist we both thought was perfect.

She was too expensive, though.

Back to the drawing board. We decided to try a Kickstarter campaign. Now, let me just warn you, rejection is common to writers in many forms. Kickstarter can easily be just another form of rejection. And that is how I felt a few days ago. And, knowing me, I'll likely feel that way again before the whole thing is over. But Luke and I are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to pay our artist in advance. We look at it as a way readers can pre-order the books. You can see our Kickstarter project page here:

But here's the thing. We might not raise the money we need to pay our artist. We could fail. This would be, yet again, another form of rejection. What do we do then?

Well, we're thinking and planning and praying. If this door closes, that doesn't mean we can't publish these books. It just means that we need to go about it another way. So we will go back to the drawing board and make a new plan. Because we love our project. We love the story. We believe in it. And we're not giving up. Therefore, we've got to stay positive.

So today I'm giving you 4 things you can do when your story is rejected... again.

1. Consider the rejection(s).
What do they say? Many are simply form letters or words that give no clues as to why. But if there are some clues, it would be wise to consider what they are. If the editor or agent gives you any feedback, that is precious. Don't cast it off as nothing. Take time to think over that advice and how it might alter your story.

2. Submit elsewhere.
If you truly believe your story is ready to be published and the rejections offer no valuable clues as to problems with the writing, perhaps you simply haven't found the right publishing house yet. Take some time to research more publishers or agents and see who else is out there to submit to.

3. Take a break and let it sit.
Maybe you've realized that there are problems with your story. But maybe it's too overwhelming to think about editing it again right now. If you can't see anything wrong with it, setting it aside for a while can still be beneficial. Start a new story. Create from scratch again. By the time you come back to this rejected story, you will see everything with fresh eyes. And you might know exactly what needs tweaked.

Also, sometimes writers need periods of complete rest. Months where you don't write. Maybe you read a lot, just for fun. Or maybe you simply reflect on life, taking a break from the grind of striving so much. These periods of refreshing can be so helpful. And they can also give perspective when you come back to look at that story again.

4. Publish it yourself.
Maybe you've sent the story everywhere you could think to send it. Maybe you've taken time off, came back to it, and still felt it was the best it could be. If that's the case, and you still ache to get this story out to readers, it could be time to investigate self-publishing. I say "investigate" because it's so easy to rush into self-publishing these days, but the more time you take preparing and planning, the better you'll do. If you decide to self-publish, do your research and put out the very best product you can.

That's what my son and I are trying to do with RoboTales right now. And like I said before, we might not succeed in raising the funds to pay our artist. We're hoping we will, but we're already making a back-up plan should this door close. That's business, after all. And like it or not, publishing books is business.

Have you ever been rejected? Did you learn something? What did you do next? Share something positive that came about as a result of one of your stories being rejected.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Knowing Your Characters Can Take A While

by Stephanie Morrill

In my experience, I can do the character worksheets. I can daydream the character's backstory. I can pin images on my Pinterest boards. I can figure out my characters' strengths, weaknesses, one-word descriptors, and growth words. But no matter how many of these things I do, I still feel distant from my main character until I get all the way through the first draft.

I don't know why that is. The only theory I have is that it's like going through a hard time with someone, and how that shared experience brings you closer together. If you're doing the whole writing-a-book-thing right, your character is going through one of the biggest challenges of their life. Easing them through that situation is what makes you dig deep enough to figure out who this character truly is.

Regardless of why this is true, I was comforted to read these words from bestselling novelist Angela Hunt and learn that this is a common experience;

"I never feel that I know my characters until I've finished the first draft. We're like strangers mingling at a party, sharing a few whispers and hinting at buried secrets."
- Angela Hunt
Can you relate to this phenomenon? Are you similar in that you have to spend a certain amount of time writing a character before you really know them? Or does something else help you?

Monday, February 23, 2015

How To Build A Rich Setting For A Contemporary Story

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 (Playlist). 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.

Maybe, like I once did, you think of world building as being something only for fantasy or sci-fi writers. While the setting of a contemporary story may not require you to draw elaborate maps or create binders to keep track of it all, it's still a vital part of making your story believable.

After all, can you imagine Gilmore Girls with no Stars Hollow? Veronica Mars with no Neptune? Gossip Girl would be wildly different without it's NYC backdrop, as would The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. 

I think the first question to ask yourself when figuring out your contemporary novel is if  you should use a real place or make one up. This depends on the type of story you're telling.

If you use a real place, you better be sure you're getting your details right. Anticipate spending a lot of time on Google's street view and posting questions to Facebook like, "Anyone here live in Kauai who can answer a few questions for me?"

There are several big advantages to making up a place. One is that you're not going to get any town details wrong, because you're creating them . Another is that you're not going to offend any locals if you invent not-so-nice details about the town, like in Veronica Mars

Making up your own town, however, doesn't mean it's impossible to make a mistake. Once in an episode of Smallville, they showed a closeup of a Kansas license plate on the front of a parking car. Apparently nobody on their staff knew that we don't have license plates on the front of our cars in Kansas. 

You'll still want to do your research on the region, and I would suggest picking a town you can use as a pattern for your invented location. 

Also, if you're setting your story in a large city, I think going with a real one is less distracting. Metropolis is fine for Superman, but it would be distracting in a contemporary romance.

How should you pick where the story takes place?

Sometimes the story dictates it. Gone with the Wind (which, okay, wasn't exactly a contemporary in its day, but I think you'll see the point) mandates that the story take place on a southern plantation. A story about a girl trying to make it on Broadway will need to take place in New York City, same as a story about a man trying to make a living as a cowboy won't take place in NYC.

But sometimes the story doesn't suggest an obvious location. Jodi Picoult's books all (or all the ones I've read, at least) take place in the northeast, but they could have easily been set elsewhere if she'd decided to move them. Same with Stephen King. A ton of his books take place in Maine because that's where he lives. 

I chose to set the Skylar books in Kansas City because I lived in Orlando at the time and felt desperately homesick. If the story doesn't imply a location, feel free to set it wherever your writer's heart desires.

How do you make a place come alive on the page?

Now we get to the fun stuff, where you engage the senses and the emotions of your character to make the setting feel alive for your reader.

The emotion: I think this is perhaps the biggest part of "selling" your contemporary setting to a reader. Few people, if any, are indifferent about the place they live. How does your character feel about her city? Her neighborhood? Her school? Her place of work? Would she live somewhere else if she could? What does she love about this place? What would she change?

Those are questions that you could probably answer about where you live with very little thought, and you should know how your character feels too.

The people: What kind of people inhabit this place? In Veronica Mars, people tend to either be haves or have nots. In Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series, the other characters are mostly all spies or former spies. Having some common themes among the people as well as diversity will help sell the world to your reader.

The places: When you're away from home, what are the places you miss? When we lived in Orlando, there were times I would lay awake thinking about Sheridan's Frozen Custard or Jack Stack Barbecue. I wanted to be at the Plaza at Christmas time and go to baseball games at Kauffman stadium. What places are close to your character's heart?

The smells: Napa Valley smells very different than Dodge City, Kansas. Boston doesn't smell like Miami Beach. Smell and taste are two of the hardest senses to work into my writing, but they provide a great texture to the story.

The weather: I almost always forget weather until I'm in the edits stage, when I realize things like, "This takes place in downtown Chicago, and I haven't mentioned so much as a light breeze..." Weather Underground is a great place to learn about weather patterns in locations.

The heart: What kinds of issues matter to the characters in this location? The characters of Stars Hollow (Gilmore Girls) were always having town meetings and working to protect their small community. Characters who live in a bigger city might not have those kinds of concerns. Residents in states like Arizona or New Mexico are likely to care more about border issues than those who live in Virginia. Those on the gulf coast fear hurricane season while Midwesterners fear tornado season.

One last note about contemporary settings...

It can be easy to assume your readers know what you're talking about. After all, you don't need to explain what houses look like or what kind of vehicles people drive, unlike in an otherworlds story. But don't forget that readers will still experience your character's world through the tangible details that you provide them. The morning fog. The cry of cicadas. The smell of neighbors grilling. Making the setting vibrant will make it a place your reader longs to escape to.

Contemporaries are my first love If you've read a contemporary novel that you love and that you feel did a good job with setting, mention it in the comments!