Thursday, June 30, 2011

Top 20 finalists from "No one wanted to be here"

In no particular order:

Talia DeAndrea
Faye Rhys
Carilyn Everett
Nicki Taylor
Alyssa Liljequist
Cosette Russell
Monica Burke
Rebekah Hart
Courtney Calvert
Esther Wong
Sammie Weiss
Jenna Blake Morris
Ellyn Gibbs
Isla Patterson
Jordan Newhouse
Joe Duncko
Katy McCurdy
Rayna Huffman
Kait Culbertson
Rye Mason

Congratulations to all the finalists! Your entries have all been sent on to the other judges. If you didn't final, I'll be emailing your feedback sometime today, hopefully.

Tomorrow we're going to talk about flashbacks and why they should be used and when they shouldn't. (I know you thought I forgot your question, Rachelle, but I didn't!)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The invisible said

For those who entered the writing prompt contest, we had 38 entries this round. Right now they're with the judge who will pick the top 20. I should be able to post the top 20 tomorrow, so stay tuned for that.

Also, I would like to state for the record that you guys are welcome to call me Stephanie. I must say, I'm very impressed by the overall politeness I've encountered on Go Teen Writers. It's good to call industry professionals Mister or Missus until given permission otherwise. This is me giving permission otherwise. You can call me Stephanie.

On Monday, I posted about how words matter and that we should pick interesting nouns and verbs when telling our story. As I mentioned there, the exception to this rule is the word "said."

In my early writing days, I loved getting creative with my dialogue tags. My characters rarely said anything. Instead they stated, retorted, shouted, queried, hissed, and so forth. I also liked to mix up the order. Instead of, "Do this," Tina said. I would often write, "Do this," said Tina.

You may think this is dumb. You may want to argue about this with me. Fine. If you're writing something just for you, your characters can retort and exclaim all they want. And you can write "exclaimed Tina" until your pen runs out of ink.

But if it's something you're wanting to publish, wanting agents/editors to take seriously, then you will have to stop spicing up "said" and you'll need to write it "Joe said" rather than "said Joe."

The idea is that "said" is an invisible word to a reader. All they're looking for is who is saying it. They see Joe's name and they move on to the next line. So even if you try to sneak in "proclaimed" or "screamed," your editor will change it. If your agent hasn't already.

But how will my reader know the tone of my character? you might be asking yourself.

This comes back to the concept of, "Show, don't tell."

This is telling:

"Why can't you just say you're sorry?" Joe shouted.
This is even worse telling:

"Why can't you just say you're sorry?" Joe shouted angrily.

This is showing:

The vase Joe threw shattered on the concrete floor. "Why can't you just say you're sorry?"

If any object is being thrown, the reader gets that Joe is not a happy guy. Even without the throwing of the vase, from the context of the conversation, we could probably pick up on Joe's tone.

You'll notice in that last example, there's no dialogue tag at all. Instead there's what is called a "beat." It's an action that shows who's talking and what's going on. Here are some other options for beats. (This isn't a conversation, these are individual lines.)

Marin swallowed. "That's not how I meant it."

"Are you sure?" I couldn't believe he really thought that.

With a wink, Tom passed the butter. "You really think that's a good idea?"

I'll confess, I still struggle with using action beats versus "said." This has been one of the hardest habits for me to let go of.

A few other questions you might have:

Can I use "asked"?

Yes. You may occasionally use asked, although many feel the question mark at the end of the sentence makes "asked" redundant. Same as an exclamation point makes the word "shouted" rather redundant.

Can I use "whispered"?

Again, yeah. Sparingly.

Why does it need to be "Joe said" instead of "said Joe"?

I don't know. That's just the industry standard. I had a few "said so-and-so" in my manuscripts, and my editor changed them.

But in Twilight/The Shack/Hunger Games...

Yes, I know.

I think the worst was in The Shack when it was "Whatever he said!" Jesus whispered. I gaped at that line thinking Seriously? Nobody thought to change this? I mean, did he shout it - like the exclamation point shows - or did he whisper - like the author says? Sheesh.

Roseanna White has said it best - Yes, you might be the exception ... but don't count on it. The above are the current standards for dialogue, and you'll save yourself a lot of time and energy if you just embrace it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NextGen Writer's Conference and a Poetry Contest

Couple opportunities to pass onto you this morning.

One is everyone ages 20 and under should register for NextGen Writer's Conference. Here's why:

1. It's free.

2. It's on-line. You can do it in your jammies.

3. Cool people will be there. Like Jill Williamson, Roseanna White, MaryLu Tyndall, Nicole O'Dell. (For a fullish list, click here.)

4. There will be an "elevator pitch" contest, so you can get feedback from pubbed writers on your one-line. And we all need feedback on our one-lines. If I wasn't 27 (and if I wasn't running the contest) I'd totally enter.

So, yeah. Make Shellie's life easier and register today.

Also, for you poets. Starsongs magazine, a publication of Written World Communications, has extended its tritina contest deadline to August 01, 2011.

Starsongs is a magazine "for kids by kids" ages 9-19. All entrants must be younger than age 20 as of December 31, 2011.

Contest rules are:

Contest: Write a Tritina!

What is a Tritina?

A tritina is a special kind of non-rhyming poem that has ten lines. The lines are grouped into three three-line stanzas called “tercets,” and a concluding line.

The thing that makes a tritina unique is repetition. The last word of each line in the first stanza is repeated as the last word in each line of the next two stanzas, only in a different order. The last line of the poem has those three words in it, in their original order.

The Order of a Tritina

First Stanza 1
Second Stanza 3
Third Stanza 2
Final Line 1-2-3

All of our entries will appear on our web site and the winning poem will also appear in an upcoming issue of Starsongs, along with a prize of $15.00 for the author! The deadline date for this contest is August 1, 2011. Winner will be notified no later than August 31, 2011. Please send entries to Patti Shene at starsongs.mag(at) with Tritina Contest in the subject line.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Words Matter

In the third draft - the sparkle draft -the time has come to be anal about your word choices. You want to tighten up your writing, and you want each word to be doing its job. This means writing in powerful verbs and nouns.

Yes, I could tell you that "Tracy walked stiffly into my office." But it carries more visual power to say, "Tracy stalked into my office." Or, I prefer, "Tracy invaded my office." That verb cuts my sentence down to 4 words, and not only does it tell you something about how Tracy entered, it clues you in to how the narrator feels about Tracy's entering.

The following statement might make you groan, but during the third draft, you should inspect every word of your manuscript. I spend a lot of time on verifying that I've used a word correctly, that it doesn't carry any connotations I'm unaware of, that there isn't a better word to use. Don't be afraid to look things up.

In a class I took from Susan May Warren, she shared a tip for picking the right words. I think she called them word pools. She thinks about the emotion she's wanting to convey in the scene, and writes down verbs that correspond. So if your emotion is "scared" you might pick scream, flail, thrust, jab and so forth.

It's important to pick the right nouns too, the right items to point out. Nouns that communicate your character's state of mind. Let's go back to that scene I set up earlier.

Tracy invaded my office. His steel-colored eyes matched his suit, one of the "power ensembles" he mentioned in last weekend's article.

He thrust a scrap of paper at me. "Stop what you're doing and cut a check for this amount, to this person. Don't make me ask twice."

I could tell you simply that Tracy is wearing a nice suit, but it says so much more to have the character quoting Tracy and mentioning an article. The way this is set up, I don't have tell you that the narrator has issues with her boss.

The big exception to spicing up verbs is "said." Which we'll talk about on Wednesday.

Don't forget prompt entries are due tonight at 11:59pm. I always send email confirmations, so if you've sent yours and haven't heard back from me, please check today. Don't wait for tomorrow.

Hope everyone's week is starting off well!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Adding Sensory Details

Happy Friday everyone! Don't forget writing prompts are due on Monday. Click here for details about this round's prompt. Also, there's still time to get yourself entered to win K. Dawn Byrd's latest release.

So. Editing.

You're in your third draft, you've evaluated your scene, and you've decided it should stay. It advances the plot, your character grows, you need this scene. Now what?

Now is a good time to evaluate description.

Your manuscript likely falls into one of two categories:

1. You're like me, and there's basically no description. Your character's are just talking heads with a green screen behind them.

2. You've got tons and tons of description and you need to decide what to keep and what to toss. If you're suffering from too much description, click here to read Erica Vetsch's wisdom about how to decide what to keep and what to chuck.

If you fall into category 1, you can stick around here. (If you're in category 2, it's okay if you eavesdrop!)

A good place to start is with the 5 senses. We tend to naturally describe what our character's see, but don't forget about those other senses - what can they taste, touch, smell, and hear?

Let's try a little hands on example and see how it goes. I've opened up the first draft of my WIP, Lost or Found. Here are the first 148 words of the prologue in their rough form:

It would have been an ordinary evening, forgettable even, had the phone not rang later that night.

Elise and I had spent our afternoon at orientation at The Learning Center, where we’d taken summer jobs tutoring kids. While we wouldn’t return to school bronze like those who lifeguarded, we also wouldn’t be stuck serving French fries to harried families. And it was the kind of job that looked good to Columbia. That’s all that mattered to us back then.

“I’m dumping Kenny,” Elise said to me as I made us iced tea. It was yet another one of our similarities, our love for iced tea.

I stopped mid-pour and looked at her. “Oh, Elise. He’s going to cry. You know that, right?”

Elise sighed. “I know. But I just don’t know what else to do. He’s talking about applying to Columbia too.”

I bit my lip. “Hmm.”
There are practically no sensory details in this. So I'm going to close my eyes for a second and think about Piper and Elise. I'll make a list in my head that looks like this. (Note: This isn't a comprehensive list because that would be insane, but it's enough to get my head in the scene.)

LOCATION: Piper's kitchen

WHEN: Around dinner time.

WHO IS THERE?: Just Piper and Elise.

What can Piper SEE: Elise's red shirt, the kitchen counter's that are clean from lack of use, her report card stuck on the fridge

What can Piper HEAR: The quiet of the house at an hour that most families are eating dinner together, kids outside playing in the summer evening

What can Piper SMELL: The brewing tea

What can Piper FEEL: The pitcher, the countertop, the steam of the fresh tea

What can Piper TASTE: The remnants of the cough drop she's been sucking on

The other thing that's important is this is a memory of Piper's, so it will be tainted with a bit of nostalgia. She won't just say Elise is wearing a red shirt, she'll remember other details. Like:

Elise had on her favorite red shirt, the one she wore for good luck on tests. Later that night, when I watched the wreckage on the evening news, I would think of the shirt and how her token of luck had failed her.

This is just the first 150 words of the book, so I'm not going to panic about cramming in all the senses, but it definitely needs more: (Additions/changes are bold.)

It would have been an ordinary evening, forgettable even, had the phone not rang later that night.

Elise and I had spent our afternoon in orientation at The Learning Center, where we’d taken summer jobs tutoring kids. We wouldn’t return to school bronze like those who lifeguarded, but we also wouldn’t be stuck serving French fries to harried families. And, even though the classrooms smelled like gym socks, tutoring was the kind of job that looked good to Columbia. That’s all that mattered to us back then.

“I’m dumping Kenny,” Elise said to me as I made us iced tea. It was yet another one of our similarities, our love for iced tea.

I stopped mid-pour and looked at her through the sticky steam of the freshly brewed pitcher. She had on her favorite red shirt, the one she wore for good luck on tests. Later that night, when I watched the wreckage on the evening news, I would think of the shirt and how her token of luck had failed her.“Oh, Elise. He’s going to cry. You know that, right?”

Elise sighed. “I know. But I just don’t know what else to do. He’s talking about applying to Columbia too.”

I bit my lip. “Hmm.”

So by my count, that's three senses I added - smell (the classroom smelled like gym socks), sight (the steam, the red shirt), and I think the steam also counts for feel, since she describes it as being sticky. Three senses in 150 words is plenty, I think. There's no magic ratio or anything, but I'm pleased with how these details punch up my scene.

What's the sense you find yourself forgetting about? Mine is taste.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Making it sparkle

When I originally posted about the second draft, I mentioned four areas to keep an eye on as you did your read-through: Plot, Characters, Pacing, Theme/Symbolism. I originally thought I would need to do more in-depth posts on all those subjects. But I don't have much else to say about theme/symbolism and I found this excellent article on pacing here. Any thoughts I added to Myra Johnson's would be mere fluff.

So instead I'm going to move on to the third draft, to the draft I looooove. Because the story part is basically done. Now I'm just making it sparkle.

During the third draft, I hardly ever leave a sentence untouched. This is likely because my first drafts are so sloppy, but I really do tweak just about every line.

When I'm working on a scene in my first draft, I will sometimes close my eyes and imagine what's going on around my character. But not often. Especially if I already know what's going to happen in the scene; then I'm just plowing through the set up so I can get to the yummy dialogue stuff that I really like to write. Which means - for me - the most exciting scenes in my novel are usually in the worst shape.

I'm not saying my way is right or good, but it's usually not until the third draft that I close my eyes and try to picture the scene around my character. Um, confession: sometimes I don't even do much thinking about what my characters look like until the third draft. I have an idea of what my main character and her fella look like, and maybe a couple other key characters, but in general those details don't feel important to me until the sparkle draft.

So while you spent your second draft getting a feel for the "forest" (click here if that's confusing), now you're heading back to your trees. You are scrutinizing each tree - each scene - and asking yourself this question:

Would anything be affected if I removed this scene? If the answer is no you have two choices - cut it, or make it matter.

Donald Maass's advice is if your character is sitting around drinking tea, you can probably cut it. Or - if there's good stuff in there - make a more interesting choice for what your character could be doing. One of my early manuscripts opens with the main character and her best friend sitting in Starbucks for, like, 10 pages. Boring. The conflict is great, but if I ever return to that manuscript, they are definitely going to need to move around.

If you're willing to share, I'd love to hear some interesting activities you've had your characters engaged in while carrying on a conversation. Some "Starbucks alternatives," if you will.

Have a great Wednesday everyone!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

K. Dawn Byrd is here with a giveaway!

I'm so excited to feature author K. Dawn Byrd today! K. Dawn Byrd is the author of several novels, including Mistaken Identity, Killing Time, and Queen of Hearts. In addition to sharing her wisdom about the writing process, she's also giving away a gift certificate for a free download. Which means this giveaway is not restricted to US residents - yay!

To get yourself entered, leave a comment below either answering Ms. Byrd's question or asking her one of your own. Contest closes Tuesday, June 28th.

From K. Dawn Byrd:

Some writers start with a character. The character enters their mind and they can't rest until they're written their story. Most of my novels start with a plot. Yes, I'm a plotter. For example, in my new young adult romance, the thought entered my mind, "What would happen if a Christian teenager and her non-Christian best friend fell in love with the same guy?" Would the good girl get the guy or would he be attracted to the girl who wore the skimpiest clothes and would do whatever he asked?

I then took it a step further by thinking about the characters. What would the Christian girl be like? What would her best friend be like? I found some character worksheets on-line and filled them out and Eden (the Christian) and Lexi (the non-Christian) were born.

As I filled out the worksheets, I began to wonder what they looked like. To add to the excitement, I made Lexi drop-dead gorgeous and Eden kind of plain. I then began to think about what effect this would have on Eden? Of course, she'd feel like she didn't have a chance because Lexi was popular with the guys and always got her man.

I then began to sketch out scenes by writing topics, such as 1) first meeting, 2) first date, 3) first kiss, etc. You get the picture. I normally write suspense, so I had to throw in a few things to get the plot moving such as an alcoholic mother who ends up in rehab and a classmate who is injured while car surfing.

I'm not the greatest in the world at writing description. Having a photograph to look at helps. For example, I scoured the internet for the perfect prom dress and then wrote about it what it looked like. Sometimes, I'll dig through magazines until I find photos of how my characters look in my mind and then I'll place them on a cork board so I can view at them when I write.

After the story is finished, I put it away for a while and then approach it with a fresh perspective. I usually do this twice and then it goes through two edits at my publishing house.

That's how I write. It's important that you find what works for you and stick with it. What have you found that works for you or what would you like to try?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Writing Prompt: No one wanted to be here.

Writing prompts return today - yay!

This round's prompt is, No one wanted to be here.

Here's a reminder about how writing prompts work, since it feels like forever since we last did one:

Your job is to write the next 100 words as if this was the opening of a novel. This means your total entry will be 106 words or less (prompt sentence+your words).

Your 100 words are due by 11:59pm Kansas City time (also known as central time) on June 27th. You can email them to me at Stephanie(at)GoTeenWriters(dot)com, or by clicking here.

One entry per person per round. This contest is for writers ages 25 and under.

And now a nice list of clicking options:

Click here for sample prompts
Click here for more details and a list of FAQs
Click here for a blog post about writing good entries
Click here to see the list of past winners
Click here to see a list of very nice people who are dedicating their time to help young writers grow.
And click here to see a picture of my kids that's just way too cute not to share.

A quick word about how judging works. One judge will select the top 20 entries. From those 20, the other judges will select their three favorites. This round is being judged by the lovely and talented trio below:

Roseanna M. White, author of two Biblical love stories and LOVE FINDS YOU IN ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND (December 2011) 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. 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, Biblical Fiction Writers, and HEWN Marketing.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog. For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.

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.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Editing the big stuff: Plot

The second draft is the ideal time to scrutinize your plot and make necessary changes.

I find this to be the toughest part of editing because it often involves cutting huge chunks and rewriting. Rewrites are necessary to the process of crafting a good book, so grumble if you must, but find a way to get over it and do the work.

Now is the time to ask yourself questions like this:

What if instead of accomplishing his/her goal, my main character fails. Can I find any kind of happiness in this ending? A problem with many books is that the endings are too predictable. Failure must be an option if you want to keep your readers guessing.

Is life too easy for my main character? Can you make your character's journey worse? If so - do it. Take away friends, health, money, any kind of advantage.

Can my main character face additional problems? Your character might not have enough to do. If the overall problem is solving a mystery, great. They need other things pressing on their time. Maybe they have an ailing parent or friend who they're helping. Maybe they're doing a community service project. Maybe they have a car that's giving them troubles. Don't be afraid to create extra plot lines and weave them in.

Can I make unexpected connections? I talked about this in May's newsletter (click here to sign up for the Go Teen Writers monthly(ish) newsletter). One of the best experiences when you're reading is a plot twist that throws you for a loop. One of the ways you can create this in your manuscripts is to create an unexpected connection between two characters, or a character and a setting, or a setting and a situation. Here's a way to achieve this:

Get some index cards. Write down 10 or so characters from your novel, a handful of settings, and a few situations or plot lines from your novel. One per index card. For example, one card might say "Jamie" another card "Jamie's work" and a situation "Rose's birthday party."

Mix them all up, then lay them writing-side down on the floor, like you're playing a memory game. Then pick up two or three cards. They will likely have very little or possibly nothing to do with each other ... but ask yourself if there's a way to connect these things. Can you connect Jamie's old boyfriend to Rose's party somehow? Maybe she meets someone who once dated him. Or maybe when she's there, she finds out he's getting married. When I do this exercise, I always walk away with a handful of plot twists to implement. (This is adapted from Donald Maass's fabulous book, Writing the Breakout Novel workbook.)

During first drafts, we tend to make obvious choices. Or at least I do. That's fine, but don't let yourself settle for an okay story when you could instead write a great story.

Have a wonderful weekend everyone!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Call for judges

I'm rounding up judges for future writing prompts. Someone suggested having those in the Go Teen Writers community who are older than 25 (and therefore ineligible for the contests) judge. I think this is a wonderful idea. If you're interested in being a judge, please email me.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Internal and External Motivations

I received this question from a writer, "It's difficult for me to find what my main character wants... I only know what she wants internally, but I can't figure out what she wants externally, and I've heard from many different sources that your main character's external and internal wants are what drives the story. How do you come up with one when the story you want to write is more about her main character's journey to achieve her inner goal rather than her outer goal?"

This is a wonderful question, and it's something I struggle with as well. I'm really struggling with it at the moment, because the idea I'm currently composting is about a girl who's determined to always live in the moment and not worry about the future. So ... her goal is basically to not have goals. When I realized that, I kinda stared at the page, thinking, "Uh...."

Sometimes what happens for me is I try to make the external goal too complicated. I've
found that my character's internal goal is often something they don't realize they want and the external goal is something they do know they want. Not always, of course, but frequently.

Susan May Warren does a wonderful job with external goals. In her book Happily Ever After, the main character is opening up a book store. Her external goal is to get the building ready to open by the start of summer, when tourists flock to their town.

Often, external and internal goals work together. In So Over It, Skylar's external goal is to figure out what really happened on the night she was nearly date-raped. Her internal goal is to forgive herself for bad choices she once made.

So start by looking at your story and determining what it is your character knows he or she is working toward. If your character doesn't have a goal they know about, find one for them.

It can work well to have the external and internal goals work together, like in my example of So Over It, but it can also work to have the external and internal goals battling each other. Like to have a character whose internal goal is to live a simpler life ... but whose external goal is to run a boutique gift shop. Boutique gift shops sell things luxury items, so that would really battle with the character's desire to live simpler.

I hope this helps a little. Take comfort in the fact that you're not alone!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Day for Sharing

I'm sharing two things today:

Item number one:

So back when I was gathering "question ideas" for career day, someone anonymously asked me if I always enjoy writing or if there are days I want to throw my computer against the wall. I love how questions often share so much insight to the person who's asking them. But that's another topic altogether.

The truth is that the writing is sometimes sluggish and dull for me, but more often it's the writing business that's brings me down. To the point where on Saturday I actually said to my husband, "I'm thinking about giving up writing." Followed by a complete breakdown that involved those big, hot, embarrassing tears that aren't becoming at all.

He receives major husband points for not saying a single thing when Sunday morning I bounced downstairs for breakfast and asked, "Hey, what do you think of 'Playing Kitchen' for a title?" He also kept quiet when that afternoon found me plotting out a new story idea.

So while I do on occasion want to throw my computer against the wall on the days the words aren't magically flowing from my fingers ... I more often consider throwing my business cards in the trash and declaring myself done with the business.

Item number two:

A few of you have asked me about writing short stories or novellas, neither of which I have any experience with. I thought of y'all yesterday when I came across this blog post on Seekerville that talked about writing novellas.

Anything you'd like to share? A handy link you've come across? Some writer-doubts? Writing tips you've come across that have revolutionized the way you write?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Revealing too much of your characters too fast

Last Friday we talked about making sure your characters are accurate, and some general things to look for with your characters.

The temptation is to take all your wonderful research, all the cool knowledge you have about your characters, and work it in as quickly as you can so that your reader will fully understand your characters. Because once they fully understand them, then they'll be able to fully sympathize with them. Right? Right?!


In her book Deep and Wide, Susan May Warren gives a great explanation for why this doesn't work:

Think back-if you knew everything about your spouse or significant other when you met them, would you still go forward? Perhaps it's best if we fall in love layer by layer.

...your reader wants to dive into the story, and too much too soon just bogs it down. If you dump your hero's entire bio onto the page, not only will it seem forced, but it will also lack impact. The fun of getting to know a character is discovering who they are and what makes them tic. The best part of a book is discovering the dark secret, or desperate motivation behind their actions. If you reveal it all at once it lacks punch, and you've stolen the emotional impact of the story from the reader.
That's such a clear explanation of why we need to reveal our characters bit by bit rather than all at once. Even if you're not married, I think we all get her point. If on the day my best friend and I met I dumped all my inner junk on her ("Hey, nice bag. I'm Stephanie. So, I tend to be pretty controlling in relationships, and sometimes I'll totally flake out on you....") she probably would not have emailed me after we got home from the conference.

So now that you've taken the time to develop your characters, look at your manuscript and make sure you're not guilty of dumping character bios into the first couple chapters. Mark places where you have, and be on the lookout for spots where you can do a better job of weaving in that information.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Editing the big stuff: Characters

On Wednesday we talked about fixing the big things first. One of the big things we want to make sure we get right is our characters. We want to make sure they sound fresh and original, that they're responding in ways that make sense given their background, and that they don't all sound the same.

Jeannie Campbell runs an amazing site that can help with this, called The Character Therapist. She just gave her site a face lift, and boy, does it look good.

Jeannie is a licensed therapist and writes wonderful blog posts that can help you give your characters a little "couch time." It's critical that you nail your characters, because if they're off, the plot will be too.

Here's a couple reasons why Jeannie's blog is worth stalking:

The obvious, of course - You can write more realistic characters.
You can use a search engine to find out information about a mental disorder, but those results will be very different than the information you'll find on Jeannie's site. She's treated those same problems in real life, so you're not getting a list of stale facts.

It will help you avoid clichéd or incorrect depictions of mental disorders.
This is a huge one. Jeannie's passionate about helping those not afflicted with mental disorders understand those who are. You want every nuance to ring true about the character, not feel cardboard cutout or stereotyped. The same goes for "types" of people who pop up in stories, like the playboy character. Jeannie wrote a wonderful article on that.

Will enhances your plot
It's important to understand your character’s internal conflict and motivations, because that's what causes tension on every page and helps you to create a journey that will challenge them the way they need to be challenged.

If you sign up for Jeannie's newsletter (which you do by going to her site and scrolling to the very bottom), she sends you a free copy of The Writer's Guide to Character Motivation, which is 28 pages long. Excellent stuff.

So when you're doing your read-through, keep your eyes open for common first draft character errors:

Places where your characters all sound the same. (It's possible you haven't fleshed out their backgrounds enough.)
Times your character's reactions seem "off."
Medical or family dynamic issues that you haven't fully researched
Quirks you gave your character in the beginning ... then forgot about somewhere after the midpoint.
Or, um, character's who play a big role in the first few chapters, then never ever show their faces again. (Not that this ever happens to a professional like me...)
Characters who all look the same
Characters who all have the same mannerisms. (Is everyone running their hands through their hair when nervous? Are they all rolling their eyes?)

Can you think of any other common character errors you should look for?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Winning Entries from the free write

Okay, and when I say "I'll be posting them within the next couple days," I apparently meant later on today. Below are wonderful opening paragraphs to novels that I definitely want to read!

By Heidi Vanderveen (First and Third Place)

I wrote letters to my dad every week, but they always came back unopened. I started when I was five, after I stole a piece of paper from the stack Mom used to roll her joints. Later, I wrote on scraps of construction paper, borrowed sheets of notebook paper with the edges ragged like poor man’s confetti, and ripped out pages from school textbooks that didn’t have much on them. Each time, I folded the paper three times and then once more in half and put it in the envelope. I licked the stamp and pasted it on the corner of the envelope, and I wrote my return address in the corner so he would know where to find me, and then I wrote SIMONE’S DAD in big letters so the postman would know who to give it to.

The judges' comments: Strength of this piece is that the writer "gets" the showing vs. telling. The joint paper, the construction paper, so dad would know where to find her.../Oh, I love this! I love the surprises you pulled over on me, like “the paper was from the stack Mom used to roll her joints.” The description (in detail) of the paper says so much to the reader. We know just how important these letters are. Really wonderful job!

By Ellyn Gibbs (First Place)

The swan rosette embroidered on Ren’s sleeve represented beauty and power, but she felt anything but beautiful and powerful as she scrubbed slime off the underbelly of the Indigo.

Beauty and power weren’t necessary for that job, Ren knew. She sat back on her knees and rested her hand on the wooden hull, feeling water rumbling in agreement on the other side. Then, she picked up her scrub brush and went to her hard task again. Captain Ajax insisted on keeping his ship the cleanest of all of the border guard fleet and it cost all of the crew a little extra time.

Ren didn’t mind. Even though she had missed breakfast and was down in the hull by herself because she had slept late, she’d follow Captain Ajax to the world’s end if he wanted her as a companion.
The judge's comments: A nice job of setting the stage: In a few sentences, we’re introduced to the protagonist, we’re provided a clear mental image of the first scene, we know this is going to be a seafaring story—an adventure with a bit of romance, and there’s a curious juxtaposition of Ren’s apparent status as an aristocrat with the very unglamorous job she’s doing. It makes me want to read more. That simple gesture of Ren feeling the water through the hull of the ship is pure genius. It shows her profound connection with the sea in a way that is both gentle and sincere.

By Korie Mulholland (First Place)

OBJECT OF THE GAME: Don’t get yelled at by Mom when she gets home from work
1. Clean up any mess.
2. Pause all arguments (but feel free to resume later).
3. Make sure all homework is done
4. Stay away from other people in case she gets mad at them and wants to keep yelling.
5. Smile and answer any questions that she asks.
WHO WINS: Mom always wins, but we play anyways
We play games in my family. Now, if you are imagining four shining faces around a monopoly board, forget it. We don’t play real games like the families on the television commercials, but we always seem to follow some demented set of rules. The kicker? It's set up in some way so that I always, ALWAYS lose.
The judge's comments: I thought the writer used the perfect structure for this piece about family dynamics. Haven't we all, at some point, encountered "THE LIST"?!

By Joshua Hildebrandt (Second Place)

Stockard Cole was tired, tired of this social farce called life. He stared through the windows of his limousine, not really seeing anything.

“It’s bothering you isn’t it?” The female voice broke through his thoughts.

“What is?” He turned to his companion.

“My ultimatum.” Marlee Karev shifted subtly in the seat opposite him, her scarlet silk gown sliding provocatively over her long legs. She wouldn’t meet his gaze.

“What if it is?”

“Stockard, I want a life. I can’t sit around in your empty house waiting for you to come home all the time. I want to be someone again.”

“So be someone.” He turned back to the window. Couldn’t they pretend to be happy for one night? Did she always have to mess things up? Marlee always had big dreams, big plans. Too bad her dreams were as plastic as her smile. Among other things.

The judge's comments: Wow! I’m so into this so fast. Great job. First, I love your names. I can just imagine what a Stockard Cole would look like. J And I love his response, “So be someone.” It says so much with such few words. I also loved the comment on plastic. Great dialog, too.

By Imogen Elvis (Two votes for Second Place)

The wild wind whipped Indigo’s hair into waves, sending its cold fingers into her very core. She gasped at its coldness but couldn’t help smiling. The wind seemed to take her troubles and dance away with them. Up here there were no duties, no bodyguards, no lessons. There was only her and the breeze.

She perched herself on the top of the wall and closed her eyes, enjoying her stolen freedom. Suddenly a huge gust of wind bashed into her, pushing her over the edge of the tower.

Indigo opened her mouth, a scream ready on the tip of her tongue. This is it, she thought through the rushing of wind in her ears. This time I’m actually going to die.

Hands grabbed the back of her dress, halting her fall. As she was dragged back to safety a familiar voice said, “Not again, princess. That’s three times this week.”

The judge's comments: Some pretty imagery in the first paragraph, and it quickly diverges from the conventional “princess in an ivory tower” to something more unusual—what’s drawing Indigo into this dangerous action? She doesn’t seem at all suicidal, but her motivation is powerful enough to pull her to the edge of the wall despite knowing she’ll probably fall. I’m intrigued. I want to find out more about her.

By Katy McCurdy (Third Place)

Trinovia, in the year 685

Obscurity means security.

Steel lived by those three words. Breathed it. In this occupation, ensuring that he lived to see another day relied on his ability to stay in the background. People couldn’t blame him if they didn’t know he existed—he’d learned that the hard way. Of course, he did have to take a few risks when looking for his next job, but that was unavoidable. Even so, he was always alert. He hadn’t lived this long by being careless.

Nor foolish. Steel flicked his gaze to his sword, now in the hands of one of his escorts. Stupid guards. After taking his sword they’d done a pathetic job of checking for other weapons. He wasn’t unarmed. Far from it. The small arsenal of weapons he’d hid on his person that morning would still ensure he was prepared for anything.

The judge's comments: You’re so brave for tackling writing something from the year 685. I love the rhythm of your sentences. Some short—some long. And “flicked” is such a good verb. “Stupid guards” is such a great sentence.

By Rebekah Hart (Third Place)

Saudi Arabia 1804

Pounding feet sent a jolt of alarm up Judah's spine. He silently pulled his donkey Kellup into an abandoned side-road. Each creak of the cart's wheels made him cringe. He'd waited too long in setting out for home. After sunset the streets of Durma became dangerous, especially for him.

A muffled scream stopped Judah in his tracks.

“Keep her quiet!” a voice demanded.

Judah followed the sound and barely slipped behind a dilapidated building before two men came into view dragging a struggling girl.

“It's a good thing I'm so even-tempered,” one growled, “A lesser man would've killed you by now. But... if your father doesn't follow through, maybe such self-restraint will be unnecessary.” His chuckle died midway when Kellup ambled into the street.

Judah held his breath, the sound of crunching stones growing near. A gun cocked and he knew he was dead.

The judge's comments: Plunges immediately into the action, which is a good way to catch and hold the reader’s attention. “Donkey-cart boy discovers kidnapped girl” is a nice setup for an adventure, and the time and place are unusual.

Winner's from the free write

First Place
Heidi Vanderveen
Ellyn Gibbs
Korie Mulholland

Second Place
Imogen Elvis (received two votes)
Joshua Hildebrandt

Third Place
Heidi Vanderveen (also received a vote for first)
Katy McCurdy
Rebekah Hart

Honorable Mention (no points, just bragging rights)
Ellyn Gibbs (also received a vote for first)
Emii Krivan
Alyssa Liljequist
Kait Culbertson
Jenna Blake Morris

Because I sent TWO incorrect emails this round (as in, I initially sent feedback to the wrong individual), I'm now completely paranoid. So in the future when I send an email with your feedback, I'll include your entry. I'm a one girl operation over here so mistakes happen, but boy, is that embarrassing.

Just a reminder, next writing prompt will go live June 20th.

Congratulations to all the winners! I'll post the winning entries in the next couple days.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Time for the forest

Alright, so we've covered the process for writing the first draft and now we're diving into editing. (For a list of posts in the writing process series, click on the Steps for Writing a Novel tab up top.)

I always dive into the second draft wanting to fix everything right away. I want to nail down every comma, every word choice, and every character trait during my first read through. In short, I want to make everything perfect as quick as I can.

RESIST THE TEMPTATION. It's really overwhelming when you're trying to fix everything from facts to deleting adverbs to deepening your characters to smoothing out transitions. The easier way to do this is to fix the big stuff first. Focus on the forest.

Remember how we talked about writing in scenes is like paying attention to each tree in the forest? In your second draft, you're going to widen your scope so you're studying the forest - the overall story.

It's best if you can read your manuscript in as few sittings as possible. Ideally one. I haven't been able to do that in years, though, and I've still survived, so just do the best you can. Here is what you're examining and taking notes on as you read:


How's their growth throughout the story? Take notes about which characters need more fleshing out or where characters do something that doesn't settle right. Are characters agreeing too much with each other? Much of your conflict comes from the relationships in the story, so it's important for your characters to not see eye-to-eye on everything.


Is anything predictable or cliché? What happens too fast and what happens too slow? What research still needs to be done? And - this is something I do all the time - is there foreshadowing early on that GOES NOWHERE. I can't even count the amount of times I've foreshadowed something in the first half of the book, then completely spaced that plotline in the second half.


How's the pacing? Are you too dialogue heavy or too narrative heavy? Mark places that will need to be balanced. Is your opening too sluggish with back story? Is your middle sagging with unimportant details? Is your ending rushed?

Theme and Symbolism

Sometimes we have a theme in mind, and other times (the best times, often) the theme arises naturally out of the story. Are there places where you can do better at drawing out the theme? Likewise (and this is common especially if you write for the Christian market) are there places where you've fallen into preaching? Nobody bought your book to be preached at - they bought it for a good story. Make sure you're delivering.

Also, is there anything that has risen organically from the story that can be used as a symbol? I watched a commentary on the movie The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan said in scenes right before the kid (I can only think of his real-life name, not his movie name) encounters trouble, they slipped in something colored red. Like when he's at the party, he follows a red balloon upstairs. (Seems like his sweater is red too, but maybe I'm wrong. It's been awhile.)

By breaking it up this way - focusing on big stuff, then delving into the details - you're going to save yourself a lot of time. Because who wants to spend an hour perfecting a scene ... only to have to do a major revision on it later because you realize this plot line isn't working?

I'm curious, are you intentional about theme and/or symbolism, or do you find it just somehow happens? One time in high school, a friend read one of my manuscripts and was so impressed with me because the main character's first love was named Bradley Carver. His initials were "B.C." She thought I was being all awesome and signalling to the reader that he belonged in her past, not her future. I was like, "Oh, yeah ... didn't even notice that..."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cynthia Hickey's writing process and a giveaway

Cynthia Hickey is here today!

I've loved having such a variety of writers on here to talk about their process for writing a novel. Something that's fascinated me is how I appear to be the last writer on the planet who does not go looking for pictures of her characters.

Cynthia Hickey has been making up stories since she was a child. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two of their seven children plus a dog, two cats, two birds, and a snake named Flash. Fudge-Laced Felonies and Candy-Coated Secrets are now available in retail stores and online.

Cynthia has offered to give away a copy of Fudge-Laced Felonies to one lucky commenter. Details below.

Step one: An idea comes to me out of the blue. I hear something, see something, read something that sets my imagination spinning. Then I come up with my characters names and search the internet for pictures of them.

Step two: Sometimes my stories involve research. If so, I browse the internet and read a lot of books that pertain to my story. If I have no research, I skip this step.
Step three: A rough, and I mean very rough, usually written on post-it notes, outline and list of chapter ideas. I'm what you call a seat of the pants writer, so these notes can change at a moment's notice.

During all of these steps, I'm writing the story. I usually have two screens up on my laptop. One for the story, one for the synopsis. They are written at the same time. The title usually comes somewhere around the middle of the book. I find the title and the synopsis to be the hardest things to write.

Oh, man. I have troubles with titles too. I'm within 10,000 words of finishing my current manuscript, and I'm still calling this thing by my main character's first name. Crossing my fingers that brilliance will strike...

To get entered to win Fudge-Laced Felonies, you can leave a comment either asking Cynthia a question, or tell us how YOU feel about coming up with titles. (US Residents only, Winner will be drawn Tuesday, June 14th.)

Monday, June 6, 2011

A post about why there was no post

Sorry there was no post today, guys. We were out of town all weekend, basking in the early summer delights of Omaha, Nebraska.

And then this morning, after an exhausting weekend, I woke up to a baby covered in.... Well. Something you do not want to wake up and find your baby covered in. He then proceeded to - within 30 minutes of getting cleaned up - break my diamond necklace and eat some of his sister's chalk.

So. It was "one of those days" around here.

It's a good thing he's cute.

Tomorrow, the lovely and talented Cynthia Hickey will be here. She's talking about her novel writing process and giving away a copy of Fudge-Laced Felonies. Who doesn't love a good mystery, right?

We'll start talking about the editing process this week, which I'm super excited about. And I should be announcing winner's from the 150 word free write either Thursday or Friday.

Hope you guys had a great Monday!

Friday, June 3, 2011

You've typed "The End." Now what?

Congratulations! You've finished your first draft! After months (maybe years) you've finally typed THE END.

So. Now what?

Do you dive into editing? Start a new project? Do you start looking up literary agents? Do you click print and send the whole 400 pages to every publishing house in the country?

The answers to some of those questions (like the last one) should be obvious. But others probably aren't.

While it can be super tempting to immediately dive into editing, I think taking a breather is wise.

Stephen King suggests "at least 6 weeks." When I can (read: when I'm not on a fast-approaching deadline) that's advice to which I pay serious attention.

Giving yourself 6 weeks away from your manuscript enhances your ability to edit. By the time 6 weeks is up, I find I've nearly forgotten everything this story is supposed to be about. Which is good, because that means the blinders have fallen away, and I can read the story for what it is.

It's HARD to wait 6 weeks, and it's good if you can have someone keep you accountable. 7 years ago, I finished a manuscript and put it away. My friend Lindsey asked me what my next step was going to be.

"Stephen King says to put manuscripts away for 6 weeks, so that's what I'm doing!" I told her, super excited to feel like such a real writer. I marked the date on my calendar for 6 weeks later - Start edits on Clarity! - and went on my way.

A week later, I couldn't take it any more. I opened the file and began to read.

Lindsey called me that night and could tell I was down. "What's wrong?" she said.

"I read the first couple chapters of my book. They're horrible!"

"Stephanie - you said 6 weeks. Put it away!"

She was right. Five weeks later when I opened it up, the writing still sucked, but it wasn't nearly as troubling to me. Why? Because I'd had some separation from all the hard work. I wasn't sitting there dwelling on how I'd slaved away at this manuscript for over 6 months and it was garbage.

I'd had 6 weeks off, which meant I was rejuvenated and could edit more effectively.

Should you work on another project during your time off? Sure! If it sounds fun, go for it. Stephen King says he writes short stories during his 6 weeks. I'm not a short story girl, so I usually put together a book proposal for some other book idea that's been wiggling around in my brain.

Take time to replenish your inner-artist. Reread your favorite book. Walk around an art museum. Watch good movies. You'll reap the rewards big time when you launch into your edits.

Which we'll discuss next week. Have a great weekend everyone!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Finalists from the Free Write

Okay, I know I said there would only be 15 finalists this time, but... Well, our first round judges had a really tough time, so we wound up with 16 finalists. Here they are in no particular order:

Heidi Vanderveen
Emii Krivan
Rachelle Rea
Ellyn Gibbs
Alyssa Liljequist
Rebekah Hart
Rayna Huffman
Kait Culbertson
Joshua Hildebrandt
Katy McCurdy
Imogen Elvis
Sarah Faulkner
Sammie Weiss
Korie Mulholland
Jenna Blake Morris
Moriah Newhouse

Congratulations, everyone! Your entries have been sent on to the final round judges. If your name isn't on the above list, I'll be emailing you your feedback in the next day or two.

Next week would normally be another writing prompt week, but we're going to take this round off. There's a couple reasons for this, one of the biggest being I need some time to line up more judges. But also, while I love the writing prompt contests, I need a break from the thousands of emails it requires.

So consider this a mid-year intermission. The next writing prompt will be June 20th. If you have any thoughts on authors who you'd like to see judging, please send me an email with your suggestion, and I'll see what I can do.

See you back here tomorrow where we'll be talking about what to do after you've typed THE END.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Writing Conclusions: The final scene

Typically after I've written the final battle, all that remains is a scene or two before I get to type those beautiful words, THE END.

Writing a satisfying conclusion is a real "gut" thing, I think. Many factors play into what makes an ending satisfying. The theme, the tone, the character's needs. Also, if it's a series or stand-alone. A conclusion for book two of a trilogy has different needs than book three.

Last year, I finished reading the final book in a series of 6 or 7. The series was about a group of friends, teenage girls. But the final scene of the series was between a character and her new boyfriend. It was a fine scene and all, but the series was rooted in the friendships of the girls. I think it would have been a much stronger ending had we finished with all of them together.

Like Gilmore Girls. The series needed to end with just Lorelai and Rory. It wouldn't have been at all satisfying if the final scene had been, say, Rory and Dean.

So as you're winding down to your last scene, it's good to ask who should be there? Who have you asked the reader to invest in? Because if you've done your job, that is who your reader is going to care about seeing in the final scene.

The next thing you should ask is how can I show my main character's growth and the change in their circumstances? That is, after all, why we've gone on this journey. If your main character needed to learn that love is worth investment and risk, then your final scene should do something that shows them invested and risking for love's sake. (The conclusion of This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen is a great example of this.) Or if your main character went on their journey to learn how to live in the moment, show them throwing caution to the wind and living in the moment.

But sometimes endings feel a little too tidy, don't they? The way to avoid this is to make it clear that things aren't perfect, just better. At the end of Me, Just Different, Skylar is walking down the hall and gets teased by her friends. She ignores them and keeps walking. Things aren't perfect, but she's learned how to better handle her situation.

At the end of Gilmore Girls, Rory is getting ready to leave, which is sad, but we see that no matter what happens, this mom and daughter will always have each other. And a great cup of coffee.

And after you've nailed down the perfect conclusion, work hard for the right final thought, and the right final sentence. Again, what makes something right has to do with the tone of the book. If your book is humorous, then something funny is appropriate. If your book is poignant, however, then you might not want to go out on a knock-knock joke. Pull a few books off your shelf - books you've read, ideally - and read the last paragraph and the last line. Do they work for the story? Why or why not?

When I was in 8th grade, I went to see the movie Ever After in theaters. It's a retelling of Cinderella. Wonderful movie. Anyway. I've always loved the last line, where the narrator says (something like) "And while Cinderella and her prince did live happily ever after, the important thing was they lived." Much of the movie had focused on living life with passion and seizing the moment, so it was a wonderful twist on the classic line.

I turned to my "favorites" shelf just now and pulled a few last lines for your reading pleasure:

"It's not a French kiss, or a slow dance, or even an admission he's the author of that anonymous letter. But it's a start."
Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot

"In my dream, in my arms, my baby opened his eyes and smiled."
Little Earthquakes, Jennifer Weiner

"He had never expected to recognize such a thing if ever he found it."
A Stray Drop of Blood, Roseanna M. White

"I would always know what time it was in California."
White Oleander, Janet Fitch

"She couldn't wait to see what would happen next."
Gossip Girl, by Cecily von Ziegesar

"So I lay back, closing my eyes, and let them fill my mind, new and familiar all at once, rising and falling with my very breath, steady, as they sang me to sleep."
This Lullaby, Sarah Dessen

"And I've never been one to turn a gift away."
So Over My Head, Jenny B. Jones

Anyone else want to play? Feel free to share some of the last lines from your favorite books.

Quick contest update. We had 44 entries to the 150 word free write - woo, woo! By tomorrow, I'll have the list of the top 15 entries from last round's writing prompt. Yes, usually it's the "Top 20," but because we allowed 150 words this round, we did just 15 so we could keep the word count pretty similar for our judges.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone!