Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Helping Your Characters Make a Great First Impression, a guest post from Colin Cannici

Jill here! Today's we have a guest post from author Colin Cannici. I really love the concepts he presents in this post and have been thinking a lot about them as I have been writing these past few weeks. I hope you all enjoy this as much as I did.

Colin Cannici is a homeschooled, self-proclaimed genius who doesn't like ice cream. He does, however, have an unstoppable obsession with creating things, particularly stories. That might be why he writes epic fantasy, swashbuckling sea adventures, and superhero stories all at the same time, because he's pretty sure anybody else would have to be crazy to do that. Besides writing, Colin likes to read, eat peanut butter, play tennis, and think. He lives in Colorado with his parents and two siblings who have to listen to him blabber about this new story idea or that best idea ever at all hours of the day.

Characters are vital tools for storytelling. To some of us writers, their “lives” are just as real as our own. We love our characters and strive to make them the best they possibly can be.

But characters, like the stories they inhabit, rest on one crucial thing: their beginnings. First impressions matter. A good character introduction rests on two things: When the character is introduced (plot timing) and How they are introduced (characterization).

When in the story does this character appear? You want to bring them in at the time when they will affect the immediate story the most. While it may not be possible to have a unique When moment for every character, you can still pick the right one. Major characters will likely appear early on in the story in a common place with the protagonist. In this case, you will need to make each introduction unique to show their different personalities—more on that in How. 

Most minor characters will not be introduced until your main character happens upon the right location, like meeting a clerk character at a shop where your main character goes to buy something. Minor characters are best introduced when they are most needed, not before. Otherwise they will clutter up the story and be generally useless until they impact the plot. Then there are important characters who come into a story late. For these characters, buildup is needed, and you must introduce them at a time when they impact the story the most. Because nearly everyone has read it, consider the introduction of Gollum in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. We’ve heard of Gollum before, and we expect him to come in. He does so when he really impacts the immediate story: Frodo and Sam are lost and need a guide, and Gollum acts as one for them. At the same time, Frodo and Sam are more vulnerable than they were seeing as they’ve left the Fellowship, which means that now is the perfect time for Gollum to try to take the Ring. This adds the possibility of conflict where there might not have been any before.

How is about what the character is doing when they first appear and why they are doing it. You want your introduction to show the personality and motivations of the character so that the readers get a good grasp of character depth right off the bat. Once again, this differs for every character. Minor characters don’t necessarily need reasons as to why they are doing something as long as it isn’t enormously impactful to the main character and the story as a whole. Characters that you want to keep mysterious might not have their motivations revealed right away. But if it’s your main character or important supporting cast, you’re going to need to show them being their best selves (or worst, if it’s an antagonist) the first time they appear in the story. Reveal them in a way that perfectly embodies their personality.

Take, for example, the introduction of Professor Lupin in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:

          “Quiet!” said a hoarse voice suddenly. 
          Professor Lupin appeared to have woken up at last. Harry could hear movements in his corner. None of them spoke.
          There was a soft, crackling noise, and a shivering light filled the compartment. Professor Lupin appeared to be holding a handful of flames. They illuminated his tired, gray face, but his eyes looked alert and wary.
          “Stay where you are,” he said in the same hoarse voice, and he got slowly to his feet with his handful of fire held out in front of him.

Lupin goes on to drive away the dementor on the Hogwarts Express. Lupin is an important character in the rest of the series, and his introduction shows him doing what he does best: fighting the Dark Arts. Besides that it also mentions what I think is his most defining quality—that is, looking tired and gray, which we later find out is because he is a werewolf. His description embodies his personality, which gives readers a great first impression.

The How for minor character introductions differs slightly, because they don’t impact the story as much and thus don’t need to be seen at their very best. Think of how the dwarves of Thorin’s Company come in The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. None of the dwarves are major characters at that point. Still, their introduction epitomizes the queer nature of their group and also affects the main character a whole lot (a good example of When, also, because their appearance at that time drives Bilbo to start his quest).

When you blend When and How, things come together for a great first impression of your awesome characters. With the right first impression, the reader will follow your characters anywhere.

Do you have some character introductions that need work? How can you maximize When and How to fix them?

Monday, December 5, 2016

One Thing No One Told Me About Being My Own Boss

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her author website.

Most people are smart enough to know that if you work for yourself, you need to be self-motivated and disciplined. Even when you have an agent or editor, there's nobody telling you to write your book instead of binge watching Gilmore Girls. For better and worse, you are your own boss.

My husband is a boss in the corporate world. He's in charge of a team of 16 people. While on the surface his job is to keep an eye on what the engineers are designing, help problem solve, and make sure everyone has what they need, one of his biggest responsibilities is to care for the mental state of his team.

If you've ever had a boss, you've likely experienced firsthand how their attitude impacts the mood of the entire staff. A good boss nudges employees when he or she knows they can do better, but offers grace at the right moments too. A good boss may need to push a team through a season of hard work, but then knows to offer rest on the other side. A good boss knows how to reward and recognize employees in a way that's meaningful to them.

And as I thought about that, it struck me:

When you are your own boss, you are in charge of your own morale. 

Yes, I need to be self-motivated, disciplined, organized, and all those other things that are important when you are self-employed. But I'm also in charge of my emotional and mental conditions.

And if you're like memeaning nobody asks you to write, but you do it because you love it and want to get better at itthen you are also your own boss of your writing, and you also will thrive if you learn how to keep your morale high.

Here are 5 things I do to keep myself mentally healthy and happy:

1. I reward myself for milestones.

There are precious few really big moments in a book's life. You can only get The Call from an agent or raving feedback from a critique partner so many times, right? So it's up to me to recognize that I've made progress.

For me it's been as dorkily simple as noting how many words I wrote that day. I do this in a spreadsheet because I'm cool like that, and it gives me the same boost as when I mark an item off my to-do list.

My spreadsheet looks like this:

If you want other ideas for how to reward yourself for hitting milestones, I'll be compiling a list to go out with the next edition of Go Teen Writers Notes.

2. I connect with my peers.

You know how when you struggle through a situationtaking an awful class, babysitting a difficult child, can instantly bond with someone else who has done the same thing? That feeling is why my writing friends are so important to me.

Connecting with them energizes me. Not just when we help each other through plot troubles (though I need that too!) but when I'm feeling bummed out about a story or missed opportunity. They're amazing about saying, "Hey, I've been there too. It's tough. You'll get through it."

3. I value rest time.

Sometimes when people work from home, they struggle with frittering away time because there's no one holding you accountable.

But many struggle with the opposite issue. Sometimes my inner boss has a hard time granting me vacation.

Like last Thursday night. I often work at night, but by the time I got the kids in bed and the house somewhat picked up, I was tired. So instead of answering a few emails or finishing that scene I started earlier in the day, I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls.

And then I spent the rest of the night feeling horribly guilty over my choice to rest instead of work. That's not okay. Having time away from work is a really healthy thing, even when you love what you do.

I've also noticed how much more creative and happy I feel when I'm getting 8 hours of sleep at night. I know lots of people cut sleep when they need to get things done, but that's just not a good long term solution for me.

4. I own my priorities.

If you don't take the time to set your priorities, somebody else will.

I become a very frustrated writer on days when I accidentally let others influence my priorities too much.

Mostly my priorities get attacked in my email inbox. I have one sitting in there right now that is an email from a writer I don't know, and the subject line is "Please Read And Respond!!!!" Inside the email is a lot of lingo about getting back to them ASAP. I care about this email and this writer, but it isn't as high on my priority list as they want it to be.

There have been times when I've let somebody else's urgency dictate how I spend my time, but I'm getting a lot better at standing by the priorities I've set.

5. I only take responsibility for what actually is my responsibility.

There are lots of things that I have control over. Writing the best story I possibly can. Creating the most interesting blog posts or social media updates that I'm capable of.

But I can't control if somebody chooses to buy my book or RT my post, right? I can do my best to influence it, of course, but I can't make them do it.

When I'm obsessing over something (why were there not more likes? how come they got a contract, and I didn't?) I have to ask myself if this is something I can control, something I can influence, or something that's completely out of my hands. Identifying which category it belongs in often brings peace to the situation.

What do you do to keep yourself happy and healthy in times of stress?

Friday, December 2, 2016

Writing Small

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.

I'm neck deep in an edit right now, so I've been thinking a lot about the concept of writing small. Writing small, as Richard Price defines it up there, is hard to do when you're drafting, especially if you have some idea of where your plot is headed. In the drafting phase, our focus is on getting there, to the end, to the action, perhaps, and we often forget that it's often the smallest moments our characters navigate that will resonate most fully with our readers.

In all fairness to the drafting process, it would be very difficult to get all our big ideas on the page if we kept stopping for each small moment. That's what editing is for, right? One of the many tasks we accomplish as we edit is penciling in detail where our writing has left only giant swathes of color and feeling.

Perhaps it was the references to "burnt socks" and "the horrors of war" in Mr. Price's quote that reminded me, but Marcus Zusak is brilliant at writing small in his masterpiece The Book Thief. Here's an excerpt that shouldn't give too much of the story away. Read it with an eye to see exactly what Liesel is seeing in this small, quiet moment.

Papa's bread and jam would be half eaten on his plate, curled in the shape of bite marks, and the music would look Liesel in the face. I know it sounds strange but that's how it felt to her. Papa's right hand strolled the tooth-colored keys. His left hit the buttons. (She especially loved to see him hit the silver, sparkled button--the C major.) The accordion's scratched yet shiny black exterior came back and forth as his arms squeezed the dusty bellows, making it suck in the air and throw it back out. In the kitchen on those mornings, Papa made the accordion live. I guess it makes sense, when you really think about it.

How do you tell if something's alive?
You check for breathing.
Isn't it beautiful? It reminds me of the accordion my mother kept at the back of our hall closet when I was a kid. It was such an alien thing--green, if I remember correctly. Mom only played it once in my hearing. We thought it was a silly looking contraption, my sisters and I. I don't know if we shamed it back into hiding or if Mom simply didn't like to play it, but I understand Liesel's awe here. And Zusak's writing about this small manageable thing, is both fresh and resounding.

Some thoughts on writing small:

A little goes a long way. It can be overwhelming to feel you have to be so detailed with every aspect of an 80k word manuscript. That kind of writing is likely to overwhelm the reader as well, but taking time to expound on small moments here and there, will do a lot of good and the payoff will be felt in the reader's connection to the story.

It helps to put on your director's hat. Sometimes it's helpful to view your story as a movie instead of a two dimensional story, flat on the page. Allow yourself to be the director, zooming in on intricate details and whispered conversations and then widening the shot again when you're ready to move forward on your timeline.

Specific stories have the widest appeal. When you take the time to give your characters specific, authentic moments, your story suddenly becomes universally appealing.

My daughter, for example, has a sparkly stuffed octopus named Dazzle. Well, really, she has a fleet of them. There's Mommy Dazzle and Daddy Dazzle and Brother Dazzle and a slightly different version named Dizzle.

Her favorite, though, is Mommy Dazzle. When she's tired, Jazlyn rubs her index finger and thumb--and sometimes even the tip of her nose--over Mommy Dazzle's eyes. The purple octopus has fuzzy eyelids and the texture variation between the glossy marble eye and the material holds some kind of magical power that lulls my munchkin to sleep. God bless magical cephalopods!

Now, this is a very specific, very particular memory I've shared with you. It's not likely you know a little girl named Jazlyn with a fleet of stuffed octopuses graced with magical eyes. But I'd bet big money that you know a child who is deeply attached to a stuffed animal or snuggly blanket and because that's true, you can understand just how precious this memory is to me. My small moment likely resonates with you.

And the small details you color your story with have that same kind of power. The power to connect readers and story. The power to connect your voice and their heart.

Tell me, have you ever thought about writing small? Is it something that comes naturally to you or do you have to work at it? If you have an example of writing small from your own work that you'd like to share, please do so in the comments here and be sure to encourage one another. 

ALSO! Check this out! 

For a limited time you can snag Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book for just .99! 

This is the writing book I recommend more frequently than any other book. If you don't have a copy, snag the ebook now. You'll be glad you did.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Go Teen Writers Ebook is on Sale!

For a limited time, you can grab Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book for just .99! 

Jill Williamson and I wrote this book because the editing process is daunting, especially that first time. We hope you find it useful!

Grab your copy on:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

NaNo Recap And A Christmas Party Invite

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. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

Today is the last day of NaNoWriMo, so if you're close to reaching 50K, keep at it! You're almost there. You are such hard workers and we believe in you!

I did technically "win" NaNo, even though my book is not yet complete. I logged in 76,901 words so far and I'm still going to write some today when I get home from my side job. (Yes, I have a side job watching a darling three-year-old boy.) But since I came into NaNo with a bit of a head start on this book, and since it is likely going to be closer to 200K when I finish, I still have a little bit further to go.

*crackes knuckles and moves smoothly into December Novel Writing Month to keep the words flowing fast* Whoo!

For those writers who reach at least 50K, NaNoWriMo will send you this nifty badge to display wherever you like. Here is mine:

If you didn't reach 50K, that's okay. Life happens. And we are proud of you for giving this a try. I don't know about you, but in the words of Robert H. Schuller, “I'd rather attempt to do something great and fail than to attempt to do nothing and succeed.” But remember, NaNo is not really about "winning" anything. The whole point is to get you writing and to teach you that it's okay to write messy, ugly, show-no-one rough drafts. Giving yourself permission to stink as you write your rough drafts can be one of the most freeing lessons you can learn as a writer. NaNo taught me that, and I hope participating in NaNo taught you something about your own writing.

What to do now that NaNo is over?

If you haven't finished your book, I say keep on going! But if you did complete your NaNo draft, here are some ideas of what you can do next:

-Take a break. After an intense time of writing, it's nice to rest your brain. When I'm not writing, I like to read. I have so little free time these days, that reading whatever I want is a rare treat. Whatever it is that will rest your brain, decide how long you're going to rest, then rest. You need it.

-Edit. If you finished your book, you might want to dive right in and start editing. If that is you and you need some help, check out these two posts: The Macro Edit and The Micro Edit.

-Join a writing group—if you're not already in one. Besides actually writing, there is no better method to improve beyond getting feedback from others. Being a part of a close-knit group of writers is a great way to grow and give back. Check out these posts for ideas about writing groups:
Suggestions For Writing Groups, Part One
Suggestions For Writing Groups, Part Two
11 Things To Do In Your Writing Group

-Continue to set writing goals. Whether they be word-count goals, chapter goals, or word sprints with friends, goals help you get your writing done in a timely manner.

-Celebrate. No matter how many words you logged during the month of November, your worked hard and should celebrate that. Maybe that looks like buying yourself a treat at Dutch Brothers, a banana split, or a box of chocolates. Or maybe that means buying yourself that book you've been dying to read or going to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Whatever it is, enjoy, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. One way you can celebrate is by coming to my Christmas Facebook party this Friday! Enjoy some random silliness and a chance to win a Kindle, a book, or a gift card. It's going to be a time of joyous merriment.

Here is an official invitation:

So... share in the comments:
1. What did you learn from NaNo this year?
2. What do you plan to do now that NaNo is over?