Monday, January 31, 2011

This week's prompt - The moment I stepped off the bus...

The moment I stepped off the bus, I thought,

That's our writing prompt for this round.

Again, think of this as the opening line of a novel. Your job is to write the next 100 words as if they're the opening paragraph. It's not a short story, it's the next 100 words. And he prompt sentence never counts toward your word count.

After you've written your 100 words, please e-mail them to me. Make sure to include your full name and e-mail address. Send me your prompt by Monday, February 7th at 11:59 pm Kansas City time.

For a longer explanation and a list of answered questions, click here.

This rounds judges are:

Julie Garmon is a Southern author who’s not afraid to write real-life dirt, always with a nugget of redemption tucked in the corner. She’s been a regular contributor to Daily Guideposts since 2003, and writes on assignment for Guideposts magazine. She’s published with Sweet 16, PLUS, Angels on Earth, Homelife, Today’s Christian, Today’s Christian Woman,,, and Julie won a coveted spot to the Guideposts’ writers contest in 2004, and was chosen to attend subsequent Guideposts’ workshops based on winning entries. She blogs weekly along with her mother for Guideposts at Woman-to-Woman here and for Girls, God, Goodlife here

Roseanna M. White, author of A Stray Drop of Blood, makes her home in the mountains of Western Maryland with her husband, two small children, and the colony of dust bunnies living under her couch. Her second biblical fiction, Jewel of Persia, just released. After graduating from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, she and her husband founded the Christian Review of Books, where she is the editor. She is a member of ACFW, HisWriters, and HEWN Marketing.

Deborah Anderson is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. She has written for Focus on the Family, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and published in numerous other publications. Deborah is also a monthly columnist for Christian Fiction Online Magazine. Married 29 years, Deborah and her husband enjoy country living in the Midwest. She also spends her time rescuing cats, reading novels, and taking nature walks. She is working on her first novel.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Your main character has a goal, and now you need to find someone who's going to keep them from achieving that goal. An antagonist, a villain.

Now, it's possible that all your secondary characters will play the antagonist role at some point in the story. That they'll somehow mess things up for your MC (main character). But you should have one or two in particular who's really trying to get in the way.

Like if you're writing a book about an investigator tracking down a serial killer, your main villain would be the killer. (Generally speaking, anyway.) But there also might be another antagonist on the police force. Someone who's on the same side of the law as your MC, but who isn't listening to his or her ideas, who's slowing down the investigation. Does that make sense?

Developing your antagonist or your villain requires as much care as developing your main character. I hear lots of agents and editors talk about 1-dimensional villains. Don't let them say this about yours.

The exercises we talked about for secondary characters can go a long way in developing your villain. Give them a back story, find those personality traits that seem to be in conflict with each other, and make sure they have their own goal.

The biggest thing, I think, is make your villain active. It's not enough for them to simply sit in the corner, twirl their mustache, and give the occasional evil laugh. They need to be doing things. They need to be taking matters into their own hands and working to take down your MC.

And I'm not just talking about villains like The Joker. Often the most powerful villain is someone your MC considers to be a close friend. In Me, Just Different, the villain is Skylar's best friend. Jodi works hard to take Skylar out of the picture. (Of their social circle, that is.)

Next Monday there'll be a new writing prompt (yay!) and then on Wednesday we'll start talking about settings.

Oooh, one more thing. Huge thanks to Nicole McLaughlin for designing a beautiful new banner for Go Teen Writers! It looks so chic, as my 3-year-old would say.

Have a great weekend guys!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Secondary Characters

It occurred to me that I should be more specific about what part of the novel writing process we're in right now.

We've spent the last couple weeks talking about our main character. This is a part of the process I refer to as composting. Which is a term I stole from my writer friend, Erica Vetsch, and which I'm pretty sure she stole from Randy Ingermanson, aka The Snowflake Guy. I don't know if Randy's the originator or not.

Regardless, composting is that time when the story is starting to gel in your head, when you're working out who these people are and what's going to happen to them.

I think composting is one of my favorite parts of the process ... but I'll likely say that about everything on here. I like all of it.

Let's talk for a bit about secondary characters.

How many characters are too many? Too few? There's no industry standard for this. It's just a feel. And sometimes you "feel" wrong. (When my original agent read Me, Just Different, the first thing she said was "lose one of the friends. I can't keep them all straight." I didn't tell her I'd already cut three from my cast.)

Here are some good traits of secondary characters:

  • They have potential to create friction for your main character, to complicate things.
  • They've got a life of their own going on.
  • They disagree with decisions your MC (main character) is making, or your MC disagrees with them. Or both.

The easiest way to do this is to give your secondary characters stories of their own. We talked about your main character needing to change, finding extraordinary qualities, and digging out personality facets. Try doing the same for your secondary characters, developing subplots for them. This is especially important if you plan on telling scenes from their POV. If you're talking in someone's voice, they better have a life of their own going on, or your reader will lose interest fast.

As you think through your secondary characters, ask yourself Is this person necessary, or can I combine them with someone else? In real life, we know tons and tons of people, but it's impossible to write a novel like that without confusing the reader. So while it's true that in high school I hung out with about 10 girls, in a book I would condense it to three. While you might go to Starbucks with a friend of yours and become chummy with the barista, in a book, you should consider making that barista someone. A friend's boyfriend. Your MC's nemesis. Whatever.

One last thing before I close this out - there were 31 entries to January 17th's writing prompt. Which is amazing. I sent everything to the judges yesterday and hope to e-mail the winners next Monday.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Personality facets

Real quick, today's the last day to enter the writing prompt contest. (Click here if you're not sure what I'm talking about.) When you send me your 100 words, I always send you an e-mail letting you know I received your entry. If you've submitted to me but haven't received one of those e-mails, let me know.

I'm telling you guys, I have no idea how the judges are going to pick just three. The entries have been awesome. There was even a whole group of sisters who entered, which just thrilled me! Jordan Newhouse and her younger sisters, Moriah and Bethany. I love it.

Still a few more hours to get your entry in too.

Down to business.

In regards to our main characters, we've talked about how they need to change and how we need to unearth their extraordinary qualities. Something else we need to do is show their inner conflict. And I'm not talking about their conflict in regards to what's going on all around them, I mean those facets of their personality that sometimes run contradictory.

Like does your character embrace life with gusto? Does she leap into everything with enthusiasm? Well, find something she maybe isn't so enthusiastic about. Like that interpretive dance class she's being forced to take. Or the job where she gets paid minimum wage to scrub Backstreet Boys stickers off toilets. (Yes. I've had that job. It included delivering cheeseburgers to people's cars. The BSB sticker-scrubbing was just a perk.)

Maybe your character has a smart remark for everything. Put him in a situation that ties his tongue.

Or maybe a career woman who loves to go-go-go all the time ... but savors the time she gets to spend rocking her baby to sleep at night. Or atightwad who has a soft spot for the homeless guy who begs on his street corner.

Because we all have our inconsistencies, don't we? Make sure your main character does too. It makes them real.

What works best is if it's part of their story. Let's go with that last example for a second, the tightwad. Maybe he's a tightwad because he grew up in a family with an iffy housing situation. Maybe the guy on the corner kinda looks like his deadbeat dad, and he gives money to this guy because he thinks about that man's children.

Or maybe that career woman was raised by a mom who never wanted kids, and so even though her own children were a surprise, she's careful to never make them feel unwanted the way she did as a child.

It's amazing what kind of subplots this exercise can build. Have fun with it!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Finding the Extraordinary

For those who missed it yesterday - since I normally don't post on Thursdays - we had a guest. The lovely and generous Christine Sunderland shared with us a bit about her writing process. She's also giving away free copies of her books, so click here to learn about how she writes a novel and get yourself (potentially) hooked up.

Let's talk more about main characters today. More specifically, let's talk about how to connect our readers to our main characters.

We make them extraordinary.

"I believe it is possible to fashion breakout novels from the stuff of actual human experience. It just requires identifying what is extraordinary in people who are otherwise ordinary." - Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel.

That "extraordinary" word seems a bit daunting, doesn't it? Particularly if you write the more "quiet" kinds of stories like I do. ("What's my book about? Um, well there's this girl ... and she's in high school ... and life is kinda rough for her, because ... well, there's this guy...")

But what makes someone extraordinary doesn't have to be tremendous wealth or an unbeatable right hook. They could have an extraordinary passion for life. Or be extraordinarily generous. Or have an extraordinary sense of adventure. Or blow everyone away with their smarts and wit.

So take a look at your main character and figure out an extraordinary quality of theirs. In the project I'm editing, my main character has extraordinary skills with words. She's a writer. In the project I'm writing/plotting, my main character is extraordinarily comfortable with who she is.

If you're working with a finished manuscript, flip through and see if you can find places to highlight your main character's extraordinary quality. Especially in the opening, since you're hoping to attach your reader to your protagonist as quickly as possible.

Think of ways your main character can display this quality even in opposition. Is your main character a super generous person? Have her give at a time where she's feeling financial strain. Is your main character extraordinarily honest? Have him be honest at a time where it really costs him something.

And this is a great thing to do with your secondary characters as well. Beefs up their personality.

Are you completely stumped for extraordinary qualities you can give your main character? I had the privilege of taking a class from Donald Maass, and he suggested we think of someone in our life whom we admired, in whom we recognized and extraordinary quality, and try applying that to our main character. So give that a shot.

Hope everyone has a wonderful weekend. Just a few more days to get your writing prompts in!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A glimpse of another author's process

I've invited some authors to come on here throughout the year and talk about their writing process. We've talked a couple times on here about how no two writers are the same, so they'll offer you perspective that I simply can't. And some of them, like today's author, are handing out free books, which is a nice bonus!

Today's guest is Christine Sunderland. She's the author of four novels, Pilgrimage, Offerings, Inheritance, and Hana-Lani.

Here's a bit on my writing process in the construction of a novel:

1. I first choose a theme/problem/conflict.

How does one deal with grief and loss? What is love? What is marriage? What is friendship? Is there right and wrong? If there is, how do we know what is right and wrong? Does God care what we do with our lives? Is premarital sex wrong? Is my body connected to my spirit?

2. Then I choose a main character that will have to deal with this theme/problem/conflict in some way.

The character will be a mix of people I know - their appearance, their quirks, their likes, their dislikes, their fears, their desires. I will have the character want something, then throw obstacles in his or her way to achieve what he or she wants. What she wants will reflect the theme chosen. I will make the main character sympathetic, that is, a person the reader will like, so that the reader cares what happens to the character and turns the page to find out.

3. I will complicate the plot which has already begun in #2.

Things will get worse and worse for my main character until she reaches a crisis. At this point she will be forced to make a choice. Things will then change for the better, both inside her (her feelings about her life) and outside her. These changes and choices will reflect the main theme.

I will add subplots that kind of weave in and out of the main plot. Each of those will have a character who wants something and is trying to achieve it and who has obstacles as well. They too will reflect the main theme.

In the story I will use characters I know and settings I have experienced. If my character eats pizza, I think about the flavors and feel of the warm spicy cheese in my mouth and the thin crust - but maybe she likes the thick crust. I use sensory details to describe what she hears, sees, tastes, touches, smells. If there is a waterfall in the story, I will have seen, heard, experienced the waterfall (I'm told YouTube is a good substitute).

I keep a notebook and write descriptions of people I have met, and sometimes I refer to these when creating characters. The same for settings. I notice news stories and see what makes people jealous, envious, angry, and some of the choices they make and what happens to them. I look for common emotions so that my readers will identify with the character's feelings. Grief is a universal one, whether losing a parent, a sibling, or even a pet. It is a type of loss. Losing a friend is another kind of grief, of loss.

My first novel, Pilgrimage, is about grief and how God helps us deal with it. My second novel, Offerings, is about illness and trusting God. My third novel, Inheritance, is about the preciousness of life and how we must protect all human life, from the unborn to the very old. My fourth novel, Hana-lani, is about our bodies and the definition of love. In each of these stories, I created problems that had to be solved. My main characters all want something and the plot pulls them to the point where they might just find it.

Christine has been generous enough to offer to give away each one of her novels. Isn't that sweet? To get entered to win, leave a comment either asking Christine a question, or commenting on something about her process. (Like, how fascinating that you know even what kind of pizza your character enjoys!) And make sure you leave your e-mail address so I can contact you when you win.

Christine, thank you so much for being with us today!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Main characters need to change

First of all, this is a link to examples of last round's writing prompt finalists. So if you're interested in entering this round's writing prompt contest, check that out to get a feel for what the judges are looking for.

Moving on.

Let's take a look at your main character.

We've already talked about that there should be only one main character. Yes, we can probably find books that break this rule well, maybe there are even plots that require an ensemble cast. For our interests, though, we won't look at exceptions. We'll just assume one main character.

For me, my main character is the first part of the story to arrive in my head, but that might not be the case for you. You might be having trouble determining which character would make the best protagonist.

A good way to determine this is to ask which character has the biggest change to go through.

Your main character cannot, I repeat cannot be perfect. Your main character needs to change, and your story is largely about how that change takes place. It make the book satisfying.

First, determine what change needs to take place. Maybe it's something your character is aware of, or maybe it's not. And maybe there's a couple changes taking place; an outer change (like a need to live a healthier lifestyle) and an inner change (a need to be comfortable with the body they were born with).

Next, brainstorm how they can be tested. These will develop into major plot points for you. Say your character has diabetes and needs to develop healthier habits or he'll die. Will he over indulge on sweets at Christmas time? Fall in love with a pastry chef? Hate his personal trainer?

Some tests they should emerge from triumphant, and others they should fall on their faces. Which leads into the next point:

Utilize the pendulum. Ever watched an action movie where the hero is too slick? Every shot he fires hits his mark. He emerges unharmed from every fight scene. Doesn't feel real, does it? Avoid this by balancing the good and bad.

Like in Me, Just Different, Skylar nearly gets raped at a party - that's bad.

But it leads her to decide to be safer in her lifestyle - that's good.

But Eli rescuing her at the party makes her feel obligated to date him - that's bad.

But he agrees to support her new lifestyle - that's good.

And so on.

Determine a "black moment." This is a moment where your character has lost everything, including the desire to change. They're not sure if it's worth it, and even if it was, they know they aren't capable of doing it.

But then during one final test, they somehow (often with the help of others) summon the strength and emerge triumphant from the final battle. They are stronger than they were at the beginning of the book, and while it wasn't always pleasant, the journey they just took was necessary.

This will make your reader sigh with satisfaction when they close your book.

Have writing questions? Email me.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Some thoughts about writing contests

Yesterday I had the privilege of e-mailing the winners from January 3rd's writing prompt contest. While I've judged quite a few contests, I've never been the one in charge of notifying people. I loved it, yet also felt mindful of everyone who wouldn't be receiving an e-mail. Probably because I've never won or placed or done anything great in a writing contest.

So I have some thoughts to share.

Writing is not math or science
There's no perfect answer, and every reader feels differently about what's on the page. That's why I read reviews for my books that say they suck, yet receive e-mails from readers saying they loved them and had a life-changing experience. It's why my husband and I can read the same Jodi Picoult book and have completely different reactions. (We're eye-to-eye on Pride and Prejudice though, and that's what really counts.)

Not winning doesn't mean you lost
Which kinda sounds like a slogan on some motivational poster, but I think it's valid. Everybody is receiving feedback from the judges as soon as I pull it all together today. That's worth something. Maybe you didn't place, but you'll learn something.

Good for you for even entering
Because it's scary to have someone read your work. Even for those of us who do this for a career. I'm proud of everyone who entered, and when you receive your feedback, you'll find the judges were honest but encouraging.

Off to get e-mails ready. Have a wonderful Tuesday, guys. Be back here tomorrow to talk about creating a main character.

Monday, January 17, 2011

With a name like his...

With a name like his, there was no hope of going unnoticed.

That's our writing prompt for this round.

Again, think of this as the opening line of a novel. Your job is to write the next 100 words as if they're the opening paragraph. And it's the next 100 words. The prompt sentence never counts toward your word count.

After you've written your 100 words, please e-mail them to me. Make sure to include your full name and e-mail address. Send me your prompt by Monday, January 24th at 11:59 pm Kansas City time.

For a longer explanation and a list of answered questions, click here.

The winners from last time are now up under the "2011 Contest Winners" tabby thing. They've been wonderful about sharing their 100 words, so take a look at those when you get a chance.

This round's judges are:

Christa's debut novel, WALKING ON BROKEN GLASS, released in February 2010 from Abingdon Press. She's also contributed to Chicken Soup for the Coffee Lover's Soul, Chicken Soup for the Recovering and Divorced Soul, The Ultimate Teacher, and Cup of Comfort for Special Needs. She writes a monthly column for two ezines: Afictionado, the ezine for American Christian Fiction Writers, and for Exemplify.

Diana Sharples is the former editor of an online speculative fiction magazine, Electric Wine, (no longer in publication) and currently moderates a critique group for Christian YA authors. She was a double-finalist in the 2009 ACFW Genesis competition, and won the 2010 MORWA Gateway award for her Contemporary YA novel, Running Lean. Diana lives in Georgia with her husband and daughter and a house full of rescued pets, and can often be found riding her motorcycle around the north Georgia mountains.

Rosemarie DiCristo
Rosemarie DiCristo writes fiction for children and teens and is currently working on a girls' mystery novel. She's had short stories and recipes published in magazines like Pockets, Encounter, Shine Brightly, and Brio.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Getting those plot lines to behave

A writer e-mailed me to ask, "Do you think the first ever novel is the hardest to write? Feels like that may be because it's overwhelming and can be frustrating."

This is a great question.

Several of you have talked to me about organizing a novel and being overwhelmed. This is completely normal. In every project I work on, somewhere around the 75% mark, I think to myself, "Yikes! How can I wrap all this up in a satisfying way??? There's too much going on!!!" I'll frantically scroll through some pages and realize I completely dropped a plot line, or that I've forgotten about a character, or that I foreshadow something in the opening, and nothing has ever happened with it.

My first published novel, Me, Just Different, was the third novel I'd written. And I rewrote it about four times before it turned into a sell-able piece of fiction. That took me four years.

Out with the In Crowd and So Over It each took about four months and nobody has ever said to me, "Me Just Different was my favorite in the series." Usually people like one of the other two the best.

While all novels have their own unique challenges and complications, I still think Me, Just Different will always be the hardest book I ever had to write. I didn't know my genre, I didn't know what word count I was aiming for, and I was fuzzier on what kind of character traits worked and didn't, what kind of plot lines worked and didn't.

So, yes. Writing a novel is like anything else. The more you do it, the easier it gets. (Though certain dangers come with this comfort, but that's another discussion for another time.)

If you're feeling overwhelmed by all your ideas, here are a couple suggestions for chilling yourself out:

1. Stop worrying.

Okay, that's today's lesson. Hope it helped.

Just kidding. But that is a technique, particularly in the first draft. When I hit my 75%-done panic, I indulge for a minute or two, and then I just dive back in. I tell myself, "I can fix it in the second draft, let's just get this sucker done," and then I do it. If I forgot a plot line back at the 25% mark, I make a note to myself to fix it, and then write the rest of the book like I already did. Did that make sense? I don't go back through and weave in that plot - I wait until I do my second draft - but I write my ending with it included. Same with a forgotten character. I just bring 'em back like they've been there the whole time, and make a note to myself.

2. Make a list, then plot it out.

I've never been super-plotter-girl, so I can't really say this for a fact, but I think it's easier to get overwhelmed by plot lines when you're a seat-of-the-pants writer. If you feel you've lost a handle on your story, pull out a stack of index cards, and on each one write something that needs to happen between now and typing The End. If you've got multiple characters telling the story (also known as multiple POVs) you might consider using cards in a couple different colors.

Then either tack the cards up on a bulletin board in order, or you can arrange them in a stack.

3. Remember you don't have to write the whole novel right now, you just have to write the next sentence.

I love Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. It's the first writing book I ever read, and it's proven to be an excellent stick against which all other craft books are measured. Ms. Lamott talks about the concept of short assignments. And I can't say it any better than her, so I'll just quote it:

Often when you sit down to write, what you have in mind is an autobiographical novel about your childhood, or a play about the immigrant experience, or a history of - oh, say - women. But this is like trying to scale a glacier. It's hard to get your footing, and your fingertips get all red and frozen and torn up....

Then there's like a page of really hilarious stuff she thinks about during her panic moments, like finding a boyfriend and orthodontia. Then she gets into solving the problem:

...and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame ... all I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown in the late fifties when the trains were still running.

These words are a great comfort to me when I'm feeling overwhelmed. I don't have to wrap everything up right now. All I have to do is write the next paragraph, the next scene.

Have a great weekend everybody! On Monday we'll have a new writing prompt, and the winners from last week's will be announced very soon!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creating The Bulletin Board

The bulletin board is a semi-new tool for me in my writing.

Typically, once I've written the blurby thing and figured out my basics, I have a couple items for my bulletin board. Sometimes it's a picture from a magazine that looks like one of my characters. Often it's notes I've hastily scribbled, nuggets of ideas that somehow fit into the story, but I'm just not quite sure where.

Having a bulletin board gives me some place to gather these items, something to gaze at when I'm stuck in a scene. It's also a way to keep notes handy, yet not cluttering up my work space.

Until Saturday, my writing bulletin board looked like this:

In the top left corner, that's a map of my main character's high school. Go Trojans.

The bottom left is a calendar I've filled out.

All those sticky notes are random plot ideas. That scrap of paper in the top right is a note I made about the lie my character believes. (And on the reverse is a quote from my daily Office calendar.

The picture is a character who I actually just cut, which is sad. She sure had some pretty red hair.

I like my bulletin board a lot. The only thing I didn't like was that sometimes I have to work on a couple projects at a time, and it was a pain to switch out items.

Well, now I don't have to. This is what my bulletin board looks like as of Saturday:

The lovely piece of 4x6 cork was sitting under the Christmas tree for me this year. Thank you, Nana.

As was a fan. Thanks, Mom and Dad.:

Complete with one of these babies:

And curtains. Thank you, in-laws:

It was a good Christmas. And we're all grateful that the office renovation is over, but I'm pretty sure my husband feels the most relief of all.

But back to the bulletin board.

I find it's a easy way to keep all those notes, articles, pictures, and charts handy. And that it works as a great motivator when I'm stuck. Or when I'm forced to take time away from a project, it helps me get back in the frame of mind pretty easily. If a bulletin board isn't an option, you can always have a folder or a binder or something. Get creative with it and find what works best for you!

Have a great Wednesday, guys!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Announcement about Writing Prompts

Several of you have e-mailed me with questions about the writing prompts, so I thought I would just post here in case others are wondering:

We had 29 entries. Which is 19 more than I thought we would have. And even with my guess of "10," I thought I might be fooling myself. I'm thrilled, guys.

And since we had nearly three times the amount of entries I thought we would, there's been a change to the scoring process. Instead of the judges just telling me which entry they felt was best, they will now each be telling me which entry they felt was first, second, and third.

You can expect to know results sometime around Tuesday, January 18th. I've asked the judges to get the results back to me by Monday the 17th, but sometimes life happens and they may not be able to. Frustrating as that might feel, that's life in the publishing biz.

When they return their results, I will e-mail everyone who placed. I'll be asking if it's okay to post your entry on the blog. This is completely up to you, so you shouldn't feel pressured to say yes.

Some of you have asked if you'll be getting feedback, and the answer is yes. I've also been asked how often I'll be doing writing prompts. The answer is every other Monday. So the next one is scheduled for the 17th.

I think those were all the questions I received. Please feel free to ask any others you may have.

One final note. Something that shocked my socks off was how many of you have thanked me for doing this. I knew I had wonderful readers, I just didn't realize you guys are so darn polite. As stupid as it sounds, thanks for thanking me. I'm having a blast.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Elements of a Story

Hope everyone had a great weekend!

So far this year we've talked about gathering your ideas and determining if your idea is big enough. Today we're going to get basic and make sure we have the five essential elements of a story. This can also be considered an overview of what we'll spend the next couple months delving into:

Back in October, when I asked you guys what you were most interested in talking about, many of you had questions about characters. Which is great, because the importance of crafting good characters really can't be overstated. Last week I was talking to my mom and she shared that she was reading a book she didn't like. "You know what I finally decided?" she said. "I don't like any of the characters. I think I'm just going to stop reading it."

Every book should have one main character. That's right - one. As in uno. As in lone. As in the only main character. Your main character determines the way the plot will develop and is (usually) the person who will solve the problem the story centers around. But it's also very important to have a great cast of secondary characters as they supply additional details, explanations, conflict, and so forth. A couple things we'll cover are making your characters necessary to the story, how to name your characters, combining roles, how to make them sound different, and so on.

The setting is, obviously, the location of the action. And some are more unique and memorable than others. Like an enormous chocolate factory or a giant peach. I adore Roald Dahl. We'll also talk about historical settings, research, etc.

A plot has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Many newbie writers develop only their main character's plot, but every character in your novel should have their own plot and we're going to talk about it. (Okay, don't take that to the extreme. Like the teacher who has one line doesn't need a plot, but your antagonist and secondary characters need to have things happening as well.)

James Scott Bell (I like his books, so you'll be hearing his name a lot on here) says Concept + Character x Conflict = a Novel. Without conflict, you have no story.

The solution to the problem the main character has been trying to solve. A satisfying ending takes work, care, and patience. Ever read a book with an unsatisfying ending? Yeah. Annoying, isn't it? We'll talk about happily ever afters and mostly-happily ever afters and maybe even some not-so-happily ever afters.

So as you're looking at your idea, make sure you've covered your basics.

See y'all back here on Wednesday!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Making sure your idea is big enough

First of all, today's the last day to enter the writing prompt contest. Entries need to be e-mailed to me by 11:59pm Kansas City time. Click here for more details on the writing prompt contest.

I talked on Wednesday about gathering ideas for your novel. One last thought I had was listening to music. When I listen to songs, I try to come up with a story that makes sense with the lyrics. I think Muse and Foo Fighters have particularly good songs for this exercise, but I'm biased by my excellent taste in music.

Today let's talk about how to weed out novel-worthy ideas from not-novel-worthy ideas.

Honestly, sometimes this just takes trial and error. Frustrating as that may be. Sometimes you gotta write 50 pages before you realize, "Huh ... not gonna make it..." All novelists started there. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

Many of you have talked about having too many ideas, that you don't know which to pick or how to focus.

So say you've got your idea binder or folder or document open. A good place to start is by looking for the biggest idea. The one that has potential for a range of emotions, good conflict with other characters, and strong consequences (by which I mean if the main character doesn't solve the problem, bad things will happen).

Maybe a few of your ideas can be combined into something novel-worthy.

Before I wrote Me, Just Different, I'd written several drafts of a novel that explored teen pregnancy. I was completely obsessed with the subject, yet I could not get my novel to work. I wound up trashing it and moving on. (A wise move.) Then, a year or two later, when I started working on what became Me, Just Different, I saw a way to work in the teen pregnancy thing, and it really filled out Skylar's family story.

So don't be afraid to pull a couple random ideas from your file and brainstorm how they could work together.

Once I've picked an idea, the next thing I do is write what I call the blurby thing. The blurby thing is similar to back cover copy, only it's ... more experimental, I guess. Messier. It's me testing out my main character, her back story, and the journey she's about to embark on. It's usually 2 or 3 paragraphs and starts with something like this:

Madeline Mackenzie has been raised in wine country by two foodie parents. Her mother is Deb Layton-Mackenzie, daughter of Charles Layton, who owned several restaurants in San Francisco. While in the restaurant business, Deb discovered O'Neil Mackenzie, who was passionate about Mexican food after growing up in a Latino neighborhood in the California valley. Together they started "Macks" where they serve...

You get the picture. The blurby thing is not meant to be pretty or even enticing. It's just something for me to get a feel for my story, to see if it's something that's going to "flesh out" the way I'm hoping. Some of that might not even make it into the book, but that's okay. This is like the early part of shopping for jeans. Right now you're pulling every brand and every wash in your size off the rack and carrying it back to the dressing room. You'll make decisions later, but first you need to try a bunch on.

After the back story, I move onto what the character's current world looks like:

Madeline has always loved food and has never thought of doing anything outside of cooking. She enjoys doing the show, but would like to do something besides her dad's recipes.

And then I set up what launches us into the meat of the story:

Her best friend, Macy, encourages her to express this to her father. Mack surprises Madeline by being excited by her idea and he encourages her to spend time in the kitchen working on recipes.

Then I try to list out some of hurdles my main character is going to experience. Try to find at least three:

Then Madeline realizes she has no idea how to create a recipe...
Then Madeline discovers she doesn't have a good enough pallet to be a food critic...
Now food has turned into such a job, Madeline doesn't enjoy it the way she used to...

And finally I write a sentence or two that sums up what it is my character learned, what she went on this journey for in the first place:

Finally, Madeline decides to just be content with where she is and what she's doing.

I've found doing this is a great way to test out an idea, a character, a plot twist before I even write "Chapter One."

When you're done with that, here's a list of questions suggested in James Scott Bell's Revision and Self-Editing that might help:

  • What could make the situation worse for my Lead?
  • How can I take that beyond worse and make it worse than that?
  • What part of my concept is familiar? Has it been done before? How can I freshen it?
  • What if I tried a completely different setting?
  • What trait could my Lead possess that hurts her?
  • How can I make the characters in conflict hate each other?
  • How can I make the characters who love each other have to be on opposite sides?
  • Are there relationships I can create that up the ante for each character?

Happy blurby thing writing, guys. As always, if you have writing questions, e-mail me.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gathering Your Ideas

Today is the first official day of our "Write Now" program. For those who are just joining us, in 2011, I'm detailing the steps of writing a novel. As much as they can be detailed, anyway. Writing a novel isn't a science, and every writer's process is different. I'll go in order as best I can, but keep in mind that steps vary from writer to writer. And that what may be invaluable to some writers - character profiles, maps of settings - may do nothing for another.

But I encourage you to be open to each step, and to tweak it and make it yours. Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. But it's good to stretch yourself.

One thing we all need is ideas. One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Stephen King. When talking about why writers enjoy hanging out with each other, he says, "We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we know we don't know." (On Writing)

For me, and I'm guessing for you too, the ideas just show up. Often when I'm in the shower or washing dishes or cooking.

It's never a full idea, mind you. Just a nugget that will work its way into a manuscript somehow. I write it down and stick it in a binder I keep in my office. The binder is labeled "Ideas and Inspiration." Or, if I already know what project it's going to attach itself to, then I stick it with its file in the cabinet.

I used to rely on my good memory, but then kids happened, and I learned to write stuff down. I've been watching an old season of Mad Men, and one of the creatives lost one of his ideas because he forgot to write it down before he passed out from drinking too much. He quoted a Chinese proverb that said something like, "The faintest of ink is better than the best memory."

Get in the practice of writing down ideas that come to you. Find a place to gather them. The binder works for me because when I'm stuck, I like leafing through it for inspiration. But something else may work better for you.

But it's also a good idea to put yourself in the way of ideas. Same as if you wanted to get hit by a car, you'd have a better chance if you went and stood out in the street. One way you help encourage ideas is by reading news stories. I'm completely addicted to the NPR app on my phone. They cover such a variety of topics. They even have a section of "Strange stories." I'm regularly e-mailing myself articles that I think might be fodder for a novel, or at least a piece of one. Or in our local newspaper about a month ago was a story of these three waspy guys who tried to rob a bank. The youngest of them was 19, and my thoughts immediately went to, "Okay - he's totally going to be a boyfriend of one of the girls in my books."

Develop a habit of reading (or watching) the news with the question, "Why?" in the back of your mind.

Another way to put yourself in the way of ideas is to eavesdrop on conversations. I write YA novels, so if we're at a movie theater or the mall or other places where there are large groups of teenagers, I keep my ears tuned in. Sometimes I even purposefully move to where I can hear.

Also, hang out with interesting people, and - er - "borrow" their stories. Like I remember a story my brother-in-law told me once about one of his friends saying he'd been to a rave in high school. Chris didn't think his friend seemed like the "Rave" type, so he was like, "What do you mean?" So his friend said, "You know, a big party in a field. A rave." And Chris said, "That's not a rave. That's getting drunk in a field with your friends."

Which struck me as funny, so I worked it into a story of mine. It looks like this:


“So then I say to him, ‘That’s not a rave.’ And he says, ‘It’s not? What is it?’ And I say, ‘That’s getting drunk in a field with all your friends!’” Josh laughed, one hand slapping the table, the other firm on Izzy’s back.

“Josh, that’s hilarious,” Leigh said.

“You should have seen his face when I explained what a rave actually is.” He looked at Izzy. “It was priceless, wasn’t it, Izzy?”

“Priceless,” she validated. He rewarded her with a wink.

Write down anything that strikes you, and find a place to store your ideas, because there are definitely dry periods in writing. Periods where you think, "Am I ever going to have another idea? Am I done for?" And it's wonderful to have that big binder, or that big document, or that big box full of thoughts you've saved.

If you've got thoughts about other ways to gather and store ideas, please share! Or if you have writing questions, e-mail me.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Writing Prompts

Today is our first ever writing prompt!

During 2011, every other Monday I'll be posting a writing prompt. Think of the prompt as an opening line to a novel. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write the next 100 words.

After you've written your 100 words, send me an e-mail with the following information:

Your full name
Your e-mail address
Your 100 words

I will then send your prompt on to our judges (more about them in a bit). You'll have one week to send me your prompt, then our judges will have a week to judge (unless there's way more entries than I anticipate, in which case, I'll give them longer). Each judge gets a vote on who the think wrote the best entry. Some weeks they might be unanimous, other weeks they won't.

I will post the winner(s) name on the site and keep a running tally through the year. Our first, second, and third place winners will all get some kind of writer's prize pack. And bragging rights. Bragging rights are good.

Here are some questions you might have:

1. Does it have to be exactly 100 words?

No. It can't be any more than 100 words, but it can be less.

2. How do I tally word count?

Type your entry in a word document, and it will tally it for you. My version of Word keeps a running total at the bottom left hand corner. Previous versions I've had required that I select "Word count" from the Tools menu.

3. Will you ever judge?

No, because I've developed relationships with many of you, and I don't want to be swayed at all. And when I e-mail your entries to the judges, none of them will see your names either.

4. How old do I have to be?

Anyone under 25 is welcome to participate. Feel free to tell your friends.

If you have any other questions or comments, please post them, but DON'T POST YOUR 100 WORDS TO THE BLOG, okay? E-mail those to me.

Now that we've got all that out of the way...

This week's prompt is: We knew one thing for sure - Jamie's dad would kill us.

Send me your 100 words by Monday, January 10th.

This week's judges are:

Roseanna M. White, author of A Stray Drop of Blood, makes her home in the mountains of Western Maryland with her husband, two small children, and the colony of dust bunnies living under her couch. Her second biblical fiction, Jewel of Persia, just released. After graduating from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD, she and her husband founded the Christian Review of Books, where she is the editor. She is a member of ACFW, HisWriters, and HEWN Marketing.

Melanie Dickerson is an award-winning author who earned her bachelor’s degree in special education from The University of Alabama. She has taught in Georgia, Tennessee, Germany and the Eastern European country of Ukraine. A member of American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) and Romance Writers of America (RWA), she now spends her time writing and taking care of her husband and two daughters near Huntsville, Alabama.

Betsy St. Amant lives in Louisiana and is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers . Betsy is multi-published through Steeple Hill and has been published in Christian Communicator magazine and Praise Reports: Inspiring Real Life Stories of How God Answers Prayer. One of her short stories appears in a Tyndale compilation book, and she is also multi-published through The Wild Rose Press. She has a BA in Christian Communications and regularly freelances for her local newspaper. Betsy is a fireman’s wife, a mommy to a busy toddler, a chocolate-loving author and an avid reader who enjoys sharing the wonders of God’s grace through her stories. Look for her recently contracted YA novel in January 2012!