Friday, January 23, 2015

Does Plotting Have To Be Hard?

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.

One of the biggest problems I run into when I'm giving other writers advice is remembering just who I stole it from. I'd like to be an honest thief at least and give credit where it's due, but we hear things over and over again and from different folks and eventually the original source is forgotten entirely.

So, to whoever said this first, I apologize. But I know for certain that James Scott Bell has said it on multiple occasions and has included it in his book Plot & Structure. A book I absolutely recommend, by the way. All that said, take a look at this tid-bit and then let's talk about it.

I'm in the early stages of writing a shiny new story and as I sink into the process I've decided something. Sometimes I make the whole plotting thing so difficult. I have charts and scene breakdowns and reversals to work in. I have coded index cards and a series of multi-colored markers.

ALL GOOD THINGS, friends. Hear me, these are not bad tools. But if I'm honest, I can sit at my desk for eight hours, play with these tools, and get nowhere with my story.

I find I make the most important kind of progress when I keep it simple. And there's nothing more simple than this concept. Create a character. Give him a problem. Give him another one. And then when he can't possibly take anything else, resolve the thing.

It's so simple. And yet, we find variations of this model in every successful book.

Perhaps, during the writing of a story, we should free ourselves from the juggling act that is pinpointing each story element. Perhaps we should leave that to those who find joy in dissecting our stories.

I don't know. Am I oversimplifying things now?

It's possible.

But, I'll tell you this. Once I set my fancy plotting techniques aside and focused solely on the rocks I wanted to throw at my heroine, I plotted my entire story in less than a half hour.

Now, it's a story I've been thinking about and toying with for a while. The ideas were floating around in my noggin, but I had to abandon my own self-imposed process before I could lay the scenes out in a manner that made sense.

And I wonder if keeping it simple would help you too.

What do you think? Is your dependence on a certain process crippling you? Is it making the writing more difficult than it needs to be? How do you keep it simple?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Annie Dillard on Giving It All

by Jill Williamson

Have you ever done that thing where you have a cool idea, but you're saving it for the end of the book or for book two or three or some other sequel? I have. Too often. But as I was stuck on the ending of my most recent book, it became abundantly clear that I needed more coolness. I racked my brain trying to come up with ideas, and then it hit me. Oh yeah. Those cool ideas I was saving for book two. If I used them in book one, things would make a lot more sense.

Then, of course, I worried. But what will I do in book two?

But here's the thing... Who cares about book two? If book one isn't amazing, no one will read book two! Maybe I'm overreacting, but you get the point. This quote from Annie Dillard says it much better.

So I did this. I gave it all. Gave everything I had. And the book, I think, is better for it. Book two will take care of itself when the time comes. Thankfully, I have a few months to think up some good ideas.

Have you hoarded good stuff for the end of the book or for a sequel? Use your best stuff early, then stretch your creative brain to think up something new when you need it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Character Growth Words

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.

At the One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop two summers ago, Stephanie and I co-taught a class on editing. In that class, Stephanie shared that one of her tips for character building was to assign her main characters a word that summed up what they believed about themselves. If I remember rightly, her main character's word was "invisible." The antagonist's word was "second best." These words are great because they enabled Stephanie to put her characters into situations where they would feel exactly like that word. And it also gave her something to work towards as her characters overcame that word by growing and learning it was a lie all along.

I loved this exercise so much that I've used it ever since. But on the character sheets for my most recent project (King's Folly), I took it one step further. Since this is the first book in a trilogy, these characters need to grow in each book. So I decided to come up with a set of three words for each of my main characters. That way they grow in book one, but still have growing to do in book two, etc.

I haven't figured out all three words for everyone yet, since I've only written the first book, but I do know some of them. Here are two examples of how this might look.

Wilek is my protagonist. My first word for him is conflicted. He knows what is right, he wants to do it, but he doesn't know how. He makes small steps forward, only to get knocked back time and again. But he will rise up and find his way, which will give him so much confidence that his second word is certain. This new belief will permeate everything he does to the point of legalism. And that will lead him to his third word, humbled.

My second character is Charlon. She is one of my antagonists. Her first word is victim. She is afraid of so much. But she is given the opportunity to overcome her fear, to get strong. She gets greedy. The idea of power is intoxicating and she wants to become master, which is her second word. She will rule, but it will be too much for her, and it will lead to her to her third word, trapped.

Do you see the progression? Start out with a word that has a negative connotation. Then brainstorm ways your character might rise above that situation. Think it through and write down all the words that come to you. They might be complete opposites or extremes of the word you started with. For an example, let's use Stephanie's word "invisible."

Invisible could lead to: celebrity, hero, popular, antihero, infamous, content, leader, boss, favorite, accomplished, work-a-holic, etc.

Many of those words could be good things. But if you want your character to have a third growth area, he will have to take that second word to an extreme. So, say you chose invisible leading to hero, it could be that people get sick of his ego---or one important person in his life hates that he's out saving the day and is never there for her or his family or friends (think Will Stronghold from Sky High).

Now you're ready to brainstorm your third word, and this needs to get your character to where you want him in the end of the story (or series). Your third word needs to take into account both previous words, which encompass the journey he's been on so far. Maybe he needs a happy medium between the two words. Maybe he went too far with word number two, overcompensating for all of the negative emotions that came from that first word.

So if your first word was invisible, second word was hero, your third might be: content, average, healthy, loved, accepted, team leader, friend, etc.

See how that works? Obviously, a lot depends on the story you're telling and the journey you want your character to go on.

Also, this doesn't have to apply to a trilogy. You could choose three words per book, if you wanted to show a progression of growth. Or, if you were writing a longer series, this exercise could be prolonged. It would take careful planning, but you could come up with a different word for each book. There are no rules here. Play with it and see what works.

Can you think of a word or a progression of words for one of your characters? Share in the comments.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prose is a Window

Stephanie here. Jill Williamson talked to me so much about the podcast Writing Excuses that I was eager to check it out. During a conversation about point of view and tense, I was struck by Brandon Sanderson's description of what prose should do. Brandon said most writers are striving to write "Orwellian" style prose, in which:

"You don't see the prose, you see the story. The prose is a window, beyond which all these wonderful things are happening. If you start fiddling with tense, people pay attention to the window instead of what's happening beyond it."

Writers are creative people who enjoy experimenting with words and techniques. (I would guess most of us have an attempt of a second-person novel stashed in a drawer.) But we want to be careful that we're not so fresh and different that readers are unable to see the story.

Have you ever tried out a technique in a manuscript and later decided it distracted too much from the story?

Monday, January 19, 2015

9 Behaviors You Should Adopt If You Want to Grow As A Writer

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.

Something I both love and hate about writing is that it's an ongoing journey. I'm never going to be a perfect writer. There will always be ways I can grow and deepen my skills. There will always be more practicing to do.

Which is why it deeply saddens me on the occasion that I come across a know-it-all writer ... who has only been writing for a couple years. If that. They ask for advice, but they don't want advicethey want validation that they should totally be published by now. They want you to critique their work, but when you do, they argue with every issue you bring up. You recommend a craft book or an online class that you took and found helpful, and they tell you they don't need it; they're already exemplifying all that advice in their manuscripts. Sometimes, in extreme situations, they offer paid critiques or have a blog that hands out writing advice ... even though they've never even finished a story.

You don't want to be that person, do you? Neither do I. And anytime I notice myself slipping into unteachable behavior, I try hard to shift my perspective and think What can I learn from this?

These are 9 behaviors I've observed in writers who continue to grow both as a writer and as someone who contributes to the publishing industry:

They keep reading.
There's a sad amount of published writers who say writing makes them too busy to read, or that they just can't enjoy a book because of their inner editor. Not only is this just not a smart move professionally (you've got to keep tabs on what's going on in your genre) but it smacks of arrogance.

They keep learning about writing.
Even after being a professional for ten years, when I take writing classes, listen to podcasts, or read craft books, I almost always walk away with something I can apply. I've certainly sat through some writing classes that were so boring, basic, or biased, I walked out without having learned a thing, but that's rare.

They spend more time writing than they do talking about writing.
Building onto that last item, it's easy to slip into the trap of spending most your time learning about writing and talking about writing and thinking about writing without actually, you know, writing. I've definitely been guilty of this. When Jill and I were putting together Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Novel on top of maintaining the blog, I felt the balance tip too far away from writing. Maybe a season of life will look like that for you too, but don't make it a lifestyle. 

They don't compare.
I don't think we mean to do it, but us writers tend to group ourselves into different categories: Writers who haven't been writing long. Writers who have written a few books and seem close to getting an agent. Writers who are self-published. Writers who have an agent but no contract. Writers who have a contract. Writers who are multi-published. 

The danger with this comes when our perception of being "ahead" leads to us being jealous or angry when another writer who is "behind" us achieves something.

When Roseanna White and I met, we were in similar places in our writing journey. Both of us had loved writing for a long time, had written as teens, and we were both at the place where our writing was close to publishable. At the conference where we met, Roseanna walked away with an agent who was excited about her and an editor who loved her. I walked away with some mediocre leads and a very tired back. (I was quite pregnant.)

But in an odd turn of events, I wound up with a surprise agent and a three-book deal all within six months, while Roseanna had to bide her time for a few years while we waited for the first contract. Recently, contracts have been a struggle for me while they seem to tumble into her lap when she's not even looking. If we'd insisted on comparing ourselves to each other all these years, we would have become two bitter writer friends. That doesn't sound like much fun to me.

Nobody wins with the comparison game. We're all on our own unique writing journey, and it's best to embrace yours and learn from others when you can whether they seem to be ahead of you or behind.

They accept that all feedback is a gift.
At church a few weeks ago, my pastor talked about a time that he was deeply hurt by a critique. He went to his mentor, wanting what we would all want in that momentto be assured that the other person was a moron, and that he should just ignore the feedback. Instead his mentor told him, "All feedback is a gift."

That's rattled around inside my head these last few weeks as I go through the process of refining my manuscript with my agent. I don't like having my mistakes pointed out. (I'm much more fragile than I would like to be.) I want to have caught all my errors, and I want my manuscript to be perfect. I'm learning to embrace this idea, though, that all feedback is a gift. It all reveals somethingeven if it's just our heart or the character of the person who is critiquing for usand we're wise to be thankful for it even when it hurts.

They try something new with each book.
I used to think that as I wrote books, I would eventually land on My Perfect Book Writing System. A system that made my first drafts structurally sound and my edits organized and my hair from turning increasingly white. (When I picked McKenna up from school the other day, she had this huge grin on her face. "Mom! You have a white stripe in your hair just like Anna!" Why, thank you...)

But I think even if such a system existswhich I'm no longer convinced it does because book writing is just a messy, creative businessthere would be a danger in it. When we think we have it all figured out, that's when we stop considering how we can be better. I learned from bestselling novelist Angela Hunt to intentionally look for something new that I can try with each book. There are countless new things you could try. A character who's darker than you normally write. Writing in first person instead of third. A different method of plotting. Present tense instead of past. More (or less) point of view characters. The list of new things to try is as limitless as your creativity.

They shut down thoughts like, "I should be published by now."
I have been an impatient, pre-published writer. I would read published books that didn't seem nearly as good as mine. Or writers who had written only one book were getting published when I was on my fourth and didn't seem any closer. When is it ever going to be my turn? I should be published by now!

Have you felt this way before? Let's say you're right. Your writing is excellent and that editor truly just didn't "get it." But what do you gain from the mindset of, "I should be published by now"? Nothing. This thought—or variations of it like, "My book should be selling better!" or "I should have another contract by now!"—has never produced a single healthy thought or action.

What does produce something useful is the question of why am I not yet published? This question can actually produce answers that help you. Is your genre a tougher sell than others? Is the opening of your story not interesting enough? Or have you just not been able to access the right editor or agent? 

They don't tear down other writers.
As with the behavior above, it just doesn't do anything positive for you. Maybe the book really does have a sucky plot and bad characters and a predictable ending. But if it sold to a publisher, or if it's on bestseller charts, it's smart to ask why. What is it about this book that reaches people? What can you learn from it? 

They don't burn bridges.
If someone in the industryan agent, an editor, a published writer, or even an unpublished writer in your critique groupgives you a "gift of feedback" that you didn't want, the wise writer says something like, "Thank you. I'll think about that," and doesn't (publicly) get more emotional than that.

The people in the writing world are a very connected bunch. If you claim to my agent that I recommended she look at your stuff when I really didn't, that's not going to get you what you want. (Unless you wanted a sternly worded rejection from my agent. Then it will get you exactly what you wanted!) Writers, agents, editors, and everyone else who makes the book world go round talk to each other, so guard your reputation by being kind, honest, and considerate to all.

Even writers who are very careful with agents and editors often burn bridges with other writers. Sometimes they do it in the name of honesty. ("It just wouldn't be fair for me to write you anything more than a 1-star shredding review on Amazon. My integrity is at stake here!") We value honesty around here, but honesty spoken with kindness and grace will get you much farther.

What's something you've done that has helped you grow as a writer?

Friday, January 16, 2015

Why Hobbits Make Good Heroes

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.

Know who's smarter than I am? 


You were thinking I'd say YOU, right? While that very well may be the case, I've been thinking a lot about the genius of J.R.R Tolkien lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about his Hobbits.

Hobbits make fabulous heroes. You ever think about that? As writers, we hear much about the story arc of our characters. Our characters have to grow throughout the course of a book. They have to change somehow. Your lead, your hero, should have undergone some kind of transformation by the time the reader turns to the final page. Really, it's what makes a story a story. And yet, the tendency for many writers--especially young ones--is to start with a bright, shiny hero and try to tell a story about his heroics.

The problem, as I'm sure many of you have found, is that showing growth in a character who has it all together is a difficult thing to do. Giving your lead some deficiencies actually helps you. And in that vein, I think Tolkien is a mad genius. And the most amazing thing he did--no, it's not that whole elf language thing--is that he gave us stories about weak, cowardly, unwilling creatures who had no choice but to rise to the occasion.

Hobbits make awesome heroes because:

1. They are not at all interested in being heroes. With the exception of maybe Bilbo who has developed a taste for adventure, the other Hobbits we meet in the Lord of the Rings trilogy would rather stay close to home. They like The Shire. They like food and comfort and all the things we really like. There is no adventure to be had until Frodo realizes his beloved home will be destroyed if he doesn't destroy the One Ring. It's his drive to protect The Shire that propels him forward. Not any tendency toward heroics.

2. Conventional wisdom says they are less likely to be heroic than their companions. The Hobbits in the Fellowship of the Ring are flanked by a Wizard, a Ranger, a Warrior, a battleaxe-wielding Dwarf and an immortal Elf. All of whom would make fabulous heroes. The furry-footed Hobbit is an unlikely savior then and that makes his journey compelling. His growth is measurable and vast and important to the reader. 

3. They cannot succeed unless they change. If Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin had remained who they were at the outset of the story, Middle Earth would have had a very different fate. Throughout their individual journeys, each Hobbit had to battle all sorts of personal inadequacies and in every victory--big or small--their transformations pushed them closer and closer to the kind of heroes they needed to be to complete their tasks. If they hadn't changed, they would have failed and Tolkien knew that when he penned them. He wrote their inadequacies with great intention and then he placed obstacles before them that forced them to grow.

See, I told you. Tolkien was smarter than I am. He was also brave because it takes a certain measure of courage to start with a character who is prone to failure. I want to be brave like that.

What do you guys think? Have I missed anything? How else do Hobbits make great heroes? And what other unlikely heroes linger in the books you read?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Lloyd Alexander on Shoes... er... Writing Fantasy

by Jill Williamson

As I plow on toward the finish line of King's Folly, this quote makes me smile.

What kind of shoes are you wearing right now as you work on your book? Combat boots? High heels? Sneakers? Ballet shoes? Cleats? Cowboy boots?

Share in the comments. :-)