Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teen Writing Contest - Waking Up

One of my favorite openings to a TV series is the opening to Lost. My husband and I had been watching the  promo commercials for the new series with great interest. (My interest was mostly, "How do they plan on making a years long show out of a plane crash?")

My assumption was the show would open with everyone on the plane or boarding the plane, that we'd have 10 or so minutes of establishing the characters, and then we'd get to the crash.

But the writers didn't do that. The first thing you see is the main character's eyes popping open, then you see what he sees - the canopy of the trees. The confusion all over his face - What just happened? Why am I here?

You spend 2 and 1/2 minutes alone with the main character before he puts together that he's just survived a plane crash. I think it's the most creative opening to a show I've ever seen.

(This is the video for the opening scene, in case you haven't seen it before.)

During every round of Go Teen Writers contests, we have a handful of entries that end with the POV character blacking out. This round your challenge is to write a scene from the point of view of a character who has just woken up. It can be from sleep, from being unconscious, whatever.

Your word limit this round is 125 words. Think of your 125 words as the opening of a story. Your goal is to draw the reader in, same as you would want to be drawn in if you were picking up a book.

Your entries are due on Thursday, June 7th by 11:59pm Kansas City time. You may email it to me by clicking here or at Stephanie(at) - no attachments please! Include your name as you would like it to appear on the website.

I always send confirmation emails, so if it's been 48 hours and you haven't heard from me, please check back.

The contest is for those age 21 and under. One entry per person please.

This is the second contest that we'll be using the new "judging chart" for the feedback, so if you'd like to get an idea of what your feedback will look like, check that out here. For more details about Go Teen Writers' contests and samples of  winning entries, click here.

Many thanks to our judges Melanie Dickerson and Dina Sleiman. Without these lovely ladies giving up their time, there's no way these contests could happen. Thank you Melanie and Dina!

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.

Dina Sleiman writes lyrical stories that dance with light. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. She was the Overall Winner in the 2009 Touched by Love contest for unpublished authors. Her first novel, Dance of the Dandelion, will release with Whitefire Publishing in 2011. Dina is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. She has recently become an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire as well. Join her as she discovers the unforced rhythms of grace. For more info visit her at

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What does an editor do anyhow?

by Roseanna M. White
WhiteFire Publishing

Ask an Editor 

So What Is It You Do?

On my last post, someone asked a really great question--what is it, exactly, an editor at a publishing house does? There's a whole slew of things, so I figured it would make a great post. =)

For starters, there are a few different kind of editors, and different publishing houses handle them in different ways. I work for a small house, so the roles get combined. But here's the general breakdown of what all the different editing roles are and who does them.

Acquisitions Editor

This is the person who reads queries and asks for proposals; who reads proposals and asks for full manuscripts; who reads the full manuscripts and decides if they're worth taking to committee. The ack-editor is the first person you have to win over at a publishing house. If they decide your book isn't right for the house or not quite up to par, then that manuscript is done there. 

But if you have them firmly in your court, then they're going to fight for you when the marketing dude on the committee says, "I don't know if we can sell that" and the publisher says, "More fiction? Really? I think we need to grow the non-fiction line instead . . ." The ack-editor, once won over, is your champion. Will they always prevail? Absolutely not, LOL. There are others on the committee for a very good reason! But if you've got them on your side, it's a good start.

Once a book has been bought by the publisher, the acquisitions editors have one more major job--the macro edit. This is where they read through your final manuscript and say, "Your ending is weak--they would never believe the heroine if she did it, it needs to come from the hero. And your beginning is unbelievable--try changing the parents' responses. You use this word far too many times. I found this part to simple. This over here--culturally inaccurate. And while you're at it, rewrite this scene, this part here, and don't forget that big section there--writing gets sloppy."
These notes can range from notes-in-the-margin and the occasional "no major changes!" to twelve pages of notes. This is where the acquisitions editor really shows their worth--where they take the chunk of rock you've given them and chisel at it until the gemstone is revealed. A good acquisitions editor will find the heart of your story and show you how to set it free. (Conversely, a bad one will totally miss your voice and want you to change the heart--but bad ones are rare, rest assured.)

Granted, we're all attached to our stories, so this first macro-edit can really grate on an author. But the job of the author is to digest it; to let it simmer; to review it carefully; and to decide where to say, "No, this has to stay the same" and "yes, it's better for these changes."

Once the author makes those big revisions, they turn the manuscript back in to their acquisitions editor, who then forwards it to the content editor.

Content Editor

The content editor is the one who goes through it line by line--she'll recommend a reword where necessary, change where you have names and where you use pronouns, tell you when something is unclear, find all your typos and grammatical errors, recommend specific changes to scenes or themes or ideas, rearrange paragraphs . . . the detail work.

A content editor is also usually the last one to recommend any bigger changes, like a theme or action that doesn't make sense. At this point you're usually still working from a Word document with tracked changes and comments in the margins. The content editor will have sent her tracked, marked-up doc to the author, and the author will add any comments or disputes or rewrites that are asked for. This is the smoothing out, so to speak.

Once that edit is done, back it goes to the acquisitions editor again, who gets to approve all changes before sending a clean document to the proofreader.

Proofreader / Copy editor

The proofreader (aka copy editor)'s primary job is to catch mistakes. In all the content editing, inevitably words are left hanging, commas misplaced, double periods . . . that sort of thing. The proofreader finds all the boo-boos and typos, the goofs and oopsies. This doesn't (usually) require any rewriting, so no author-approval is necessary. After the proofreader finishes up, it goes straight back to the acquisitions editor.

At this point in the game, all major changes have been accomplished. Depending on the house, some will put out galleys earlier in the process (somewhere between macro and copy edits), and some will just do ARCs (advance reader copy) at this stage. Which leads directly to the final call.

Final Edits

WhiteFire's next release which just went to press
At this point, no big changes that affect page flow can be made, just small tweaks and typo catching. The author gets to do this, along with a final proofreader and, depending on the house, the ack-editor. This is the last call, the final chance to catch anything that has slipped through. As soon as these edits are turned in, the book goes to press--which means only a few weeks until you get to hold it in your hands!

At which point the editor sits back, kicks up her heels, and goes "Phew!" For about five seconds, before she has to start organizing bookmarks and postcards for the author, acting as liaison between author and marketing, gathering reviews, and all that fun stuff. All, of course, while doing the same process for countless other books.

An editor's hat has many plumes, that's for sure! And FYI, this process usually takes 6-9 months.

I'll be stopping by to reply to comments and questions. And if you have a question you'd like to ask for a future post, either leave a comment with it or email me at roseanna [at] roseannawhite [dot] com.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writing Alternate History

By Jill Williamson

Since today is John F. Kennedy’s birthday, in which he would have turned ninety-five years old, and since Stephen King recently released 11/22/63, a novel about a man who travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, it got me thinking about alternate history as a genre.

Alternate history is defined as a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome or purpose than it really had.

Take Doc Brown’s explanation from Back to the Future II. When they were in the future, old Biff had stolen the Sports Almanac, taken the time machine back to 1955, given it to his teenage self, the act which created an alternate reality in where Bill used the Almanac to become a billionaire, kill Marty’s father, and marry Marty’s mother. Eww.

Have you ever read an alternate history novels? Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a great one the uses an alternate World War I story. I highly recommend it and its sequels. It’s also steampunk, which is so cool, but that’s beside the point.

Probably the most famous alternate history story—in my opinion—is It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey gets to see, for a short time, a world without himself in it, to see what a difference one life can have on the world.

Groundhog’s Day, starring Bill Murray, is a comedy about a man who wakes up again and again on the same day and lives it differently each time.

Sliding Doors, a movie starring Gweneth Paltrow, tells how a young woman's love life and career both hinge—unknown to her—on whether or not she catches a morning train.

And many movies and books have used history as a plot device, to infer than things that happened throughout history happened in a different way that meets the need of the story. The Percy Jackson books are a great example of this.

In movies, X-men: First Class presented the Cuban Missile Crisis as being part of a top secret feud between mutant factions.

In Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the only reason America sought to land on the moon was not to be the first, but to investigate the crash landing of spaceship, which held Transformers.

And the BBC show Doctor Who does a ton of alternate history as the Doctor and his companions come into contact with various historical figures. There were writers like Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, and William Shakespeare, political leaders like Queen Victoria, Adolf Hitler, Madame De Pompadour, Richard Nixon, and the Doctor’s pals Winston Churchill, the former prime minister of Britain during World War two. Also, the doctor and Amy did all they could to keep Vincent Van Gogh from committing suicide.

So, just for fun today, if you had an assignment to write an alternate history story, which era would you choose and how would you alter history to create your new, alternate world?

Monday, May 28, 2012

How to Write a Novel

by Stephanie Morrill

Okay. I'm leaving on vacation today and therefore decided you all needed a 2,000 word blog post from me to tide you over.

Kidding. What really happened is that I became frustrated with the "Steps to Writing a Novel" page that I had posted from when we started our Write Now program in 2011. It began to feel very inadequate to me, though I was regularly receiving emails from writers who said they were using it.

So I decided to improve upon it. Below is the result. You can easily find it up top there by clicking that handy "How to Write a Novel" tab:

The good news is that every writer is different. I began my writing journey as a "pantser." A writer who writes by the seat of her pants without an outline. I wanted to be an outline type girl (After all, I love everything to be neat and orderly) but it just didn't work for me.

The pluses of writing as a pantser, I've found, is the creativity. The story can wander as you see fit that day.

The bad thing is ... the story can wander. Which means a lot of tightening up, trashing, and rewriting during the revision process.

After 11 years of pursuing publication, 8 years of doing it full time, and 4 years of being a published author, I've developed into a hybrid of pantser and plotter. I'm a plantser, you could say.

With every book I write, I learn more about the craft and more about what works for me as an author. It's hard to write a solid "Step by Step" guide for writing a novel, but this is my process more or less. Hopefully you find it helpful:

Before I Write Anything

• I might brainstorm with some writing friends and talk the idea over with my agent (who's amazing about dropping what she's doing to help me brainstorm ways to make the idea bigger).

• I write back cover copy, though at this stage I don't worry yet about making it quippy. Really, it's more of a "blurby thing" than it is back cover copy.

• I begin work on a one liner, which is my story boiled down to a sentence or two. They always take me forever, and I can never figure out the right balance.

Getting Started

• When I know my opening line and opening scene, I begin writing.
Related Posts: Writing a good first paragraphWriting a good first chapterHow to end a chapterWriting Chapter Two
• I write the first couple chapters. Typically three. Because I'm published, I can sell a manuscript before I've written the entire thing.

• After I've written my three chapters, I have a decent idea of who my characters are, what they want, and how they interact with each other. So I pause my first draft to make a book proposal. That way my agent can be shopping the idea while I keep writing. A book proposal involves:
  • A title. For a series this also means a title for the series and the other books.
  • My estimated word count
  • My target audience
  • My one-line, or "The hook" as we list it in the proposal.
  • Comparitive titles, which I possibly hate even more than the one-liner. This is a handful of titles that's similar to your book. The point is for the publishing house to get an idea of similar titles that are already on the market and how they're selling. It's tricky stuff because you want to show that your book will be successful, but I've also heard agents say to not put down books that are phenomenal best sellers. Like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. is a good resource for these, but I've actually found that my library's website is even better.
  • My author bio and a picture of me looking cute and likable and, "Don't I look like a professional, fun person to work with?"
  • Sales Hooks/Author Promotion, which is anything that will say to publishers, "I can sell some books for you!" I put endorsements here, awards my books have won, and stuff like being featured on the cover of The Kansas City Star. 
  • Marketing Strategies, which is what it sounds like. It's all the fun marketing stuff I've come up with for this particular book or series. 
  • Book summaries for all books being pitched.
  • Sample chapters
  • Synopsis, typically 2 to 3 pages.

Writing the first draft

• Once I've gotten the book proposal turned into my agent, I get back to writing my first draft. For me it works best to write without editing. It means my first drafts are lousy, but they're for my eyes only, so it's okay. I've learned to turn off my internal editor, and it's transformed the way I write. (And while many other writers are supporters of writing bad first drafts, many others like to edit as they go. Roseanna M. White wrote a guest post about that on here.)

Because of all the work I put into the book proposal, particularly with writing the synopsis, I now have a decent idea of what will be going on in my story. I've found this provides just enough structure for me that I know where the book is headed,  but I still have the "pantser" freedom to figure out how to get there.

The combination of composting and writing my synopsis has helped me determine all these things before I get into the meat of my story:
The first draft process will deepen all these things, of course. Some things that get deepened during the first draft are:

Even though I allow myself to write "bad first drafts" it's important that the structure of the story is solid. This means it's important for me to have:
If this is early in your writing journey, you might have some unique questions and struggles with the first draft. Such as:
• Because I'm more of a bare bones writer, I aim for about 10k less then I want the book to wind up being. That gives me plenty of room for all the adding I'll need.

• When I finish a first draft, I take a 6 week break before editing.

During my time off

After I've caught up on laundry and email, all of which were likely ignored as I finished my first draft, I often have a couple story-related things I want to do.

• Sometimes I'll do some general research. Like if my character is really into, say, trees, then I'll spend some time perusing books about trees just to build up my knowledge base.

• I often use this time to make a marketing calendar, listing all the things I plan to do to promote my book and when I intend to do them. If I don't have a release date yet, then I make the dates generic.

Editing the first draft

• The first thing I do is read through my manuscript in as few sitting as possible. I keep a notebook next to me so I can keep a list of things I notice that need to be changed.

Editing the second draft

Now that the big stuff has been taken care of, I zoom in and start working on my scenes. The first thing I examine is if the scene even matters. Then I can move onto:
Within each scene, I'll examine the following:
Editing the third draft

Now is when I make it sparkle. The big story stuff - predictable plot twists or flat characters - have all been fixed, so now I get super picky about word choices and grammar.
Related Posts: Some lessons on commas, CAPS, "Quotes" (and parentheses too)
Finishing up

• After I've done my best with it, I send it to my writing partner to get her input. She points out all my comma mistakes and also draws attention to anything that doesn't feel quite right to her. ("Why does your main character say this?")

• When I've input her edits and suggestions, I often read over the manuscript one more time before declaring it done and ready for an editor's desk.

• There are a couple spreadsheets that are helpful for editors. (Or so mine have told me.) If you're more of a plotter, it might benefit you to make these before you start. Sometimes I make mine while writing the first draft, but more often than not they happen after I'm done editing:
• And then the process begins all over again with another spark...

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Five Stages of Grief

By Jill Williamson

I’m currently working on a dystopian novel in which the village my main characters live in was attacked and all of my characters lost loved ones.

I know that this is a big deal, so I’ve been studying grief and how it affects people so that I can accurately portray that in my different characters.

In her book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross proposed that there are five stages in the grieving process that people go through in reaction to the pain of loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. And people can grieve all types of things: the death of a loved one or pet, a divorce, the loss of a life dream, coping with a terminal illness, a major break-up, going to prison, and even the withdrawal of addictive substances.

Not everyone grieves in the same way, nor do these stages always come in order. Some people might progress straight through the stages. Some might bounce between them, going from anger to bargaining to depression and back to anger and so on. And some people might skip whole stages and not experience every single stage. And according to Kubler-Ross, women are more likely than men to experience all five stages.

There also isn’t a set time frame for people to heal. Some might go through the stages of grief quickly. Some may never get over it until they die, stuck forever in the denial stage.

The stages, commonly known by the acronym DABDA, are:

1. DENIAL- Numb with disbelief, your character might deny the loss in order to avoid the pain and protect himself from becoming completely overwhelmed. Life is meaningless. Nothing matters anymore. He may become isolated. Or he may go on as if nothing has happened.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might believe his parents will change their mind and reconcile. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might be unable to concede that the relationship is really over. A guy whose father died might expect him home at the same time each day. And an addict might say, “I don’t have a problem. I can stop when I want.”

2. ANGER - As reality sets in and your character accepts the devastation has occurred, he is likely to get angry. He may lash out at everyone. He may look to blame someone: himself, another person, the deceased person, God. He may unintentionally or intentionally hurt people he loves to make himself feel better.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might pick a parent to hate. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might send hate emails or phone calls, demanding to know why. A guy whose father died might accuse his mother of killing his dad, then feel guilty for saying such a thing and hate himself. And an addict might be angry they have this problem and look to blame someone who got them started.

3. BARGAINING – A million “if onlys” and “what ifs” will start running through your character’s head. He will want to go back in time and rewrite history. “If only I had been there. If only I hadn’t gone to that party. What if he would have stayed home that day? If only I hadn’t complained so much.” He might also try to bargain with God. “If you will bring him back, I’ll be a better son. I’ll dedicate my life to working with the elderly.

Examples: A child grieving a divorce might pitch in more at home in hopes that being perfect will mend what’s wrong. A girl whose fiancé left her at the altar might say, “Can we still be friends?” or “I can change!” A guy whose father died might wish he’d taken his father to a different doctor or done it earlier. And an addict might think, “God, I promise to never use again if you’ll only help me out of this trouble.”

4. DEPRESSION – About the time when most friends and family think your character should be over this already, he’ll be consumed with intense sadness. The magnitude of his loss is overwhelmingly depressing, and he feels as though it will last forever. He may isolate himself. Cry. He may reflect on all the bad times, wishing he could go back and do it differently. He may feel empty. Despair. There is no point in going on. He will not be talked out of his depression. He cannot snap out of it. Encouragement from others doesn't help. Nothing does.

5. ACCEPTANCE – This stage doesn’t mean your character is all better. He has just learned to accept and deal with the reality of his situation. It is permanent. And he will never be the same again. Sometimes the goal is to have more good days than bad. Happy moments might cause him to cycle back to guilt, thinking, “Why should I get to be happy when he is gone?” But he will learn to adjust his life to this new normal and get on with his life.

Sorry this is a depressing topic! But if you were to write about someone who is grieving a major loss, it’s important to understand these steps.

What do you think would be the most challenging thing in writing about grief?

And in case you missed it yesterday, we're running a contest to thank all of our followers. One of four awesome prize packs could be yours! To enter, click here and leave a comment as per the instructions on the post! 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Giveaway - writing books, critiques, and great fiction!

What an honor to have reached 400 followers! 

We wish we could give thank you presents to each and every one of you. We obviously can't, but we can give away 4 awesome prize packs!

From Jill Williamson:
  • a 4-page critique
  • 1 copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King
  • 1 copy of Plot vs Character by Jeff Gerke
  • 1 Brainstorming notebook and pens
  • Assorted brainstorming snacks
  • 1 copy of Replication

From Rachel Coker:
  • a 4-page critique
  • a copy of her debut novel Interrupted

From Roseanna White:
  • a 4-page critique
  • a complete set of The Charmed Life series by Jenny B. Jones
  • an MP3-CD of Donita K. Paul's Dragonlight and one of her "Dragons are HOT!" coffee mugs
  • The Mirror N'De by L.K. Malone

From Me (Stephanie):
  • a 4-page critique
  • a copy of The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell, which is one of my all-time favorite craft books
  • your choice of either Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell or Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
  • The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series

How to hook yourself up:

Leave a comment below telling us what genre(s) you write and/or what genres you like to read. Make sure to include your contact information! If we can no-contact you, we can no-send you your stuff.

Additional info: One entry per person please. This contest is mostly open to U.S. and non-U.S. residents. A few items (Interrupted, The Charmed Life series, Dragonlight and coffee mug, and The Mirror N'De, and others) are available to US residents only due to the sad realities of pricey international shipping.

This contest is open through Thursday, May 31st.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Winning Entries from last round

Congratulations to the writers who placed in last round's contest:

First Place
Laurie J. Curtis (received two votes)

Second Place
Karina Vieyra
Rayna Huffman

Third Place
Sarah O.
Jessica Staricka

Honorable Mentions
Jessica Zelli (two votes for HM)
MacKenzie Pauline
Jenna Blake Morris
Kayla Anne CP
Sian Marshall
Abigail Hassett
Emii Krivan

Next round's contest will be posted on Thursday, May 31st, so be sure to check back!

For your reading pleasure, here are some of the winning entries:

By Laurie J. Curtis, two votes for 1st

Five days since my Reassurer quit. Unfamiliar ripples of fear wrinkling my thoughts. Blurred memories sharpening, pricking like needles.
They aren’t real.
Are they? 
I press my fingertips together, studying the applicant. “You have experience in Reassuring?”
The girl smiles. “Aye.”
That’s promising. I reach up and finger my long, graceful earring. “Your employer was pleased?”
"Excellent.” I close my eyes. “Now. The details of this position. I’d want you to constantly assure me of my beauty, prestige, intelligence, and unselfishness. And I would want to be told. . .” My muscles tighten, fragile images dancing through my mind. Don’t believe them. “. . .that my daughter is alive."

The judges say: I absolutely loved this entry. It reminded me a bit of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, in that there’s heartbreak just under the surface. In just a few words, the writer was able to create a world that made me curious while giving me reasons to both like and dislike the narrator. The idea is original and the characterization is solid. Great use of subtlety and understatement, two things that take years of practice to perfect. Well done! /Wow! I’m hooked. Great writing, good pacing, excellented internal thoughts, and strong ending hook. Nice job. Such an interesting premise. I definitely want to read more!

By Rayna Huffman, second place

The lightning-bolt scar between my father’s eyes does not intimidate me. He slouches on the royal chair, velvet robes encircling him, but his nonchalant expression isn‘t deceiving.
I brush my hair from my face, “You’re worried, Sovereign?”
He scowls. Drains his drinking horn, eyes flashing.
I scan the room quickly--everything is in place. The tip of Marcel’s sword is peaking from the drapery. “If I were you, I would worry. And if I heard that my daughter was taking my throne I would want to be told if it were true.”
Father glares at me.
I curse my trembling voice, “Well, my Sovereign, it is true.”

The judge says: Chilling beginning to a story that turns the usual patriarchal royal society on its head. The daughter is the aggressor! The writer is able to make us dislike the King and root for his usurper with subtle touches, like the father’s threatening scar, flashing eyes, and scowls. The daughter—I love her because she’s nervous and careful, but ultimately brave. Great entry!

By Karina Vieyra, second place

“I mean, I would want to be told if I was morphing.” Mai shrugged her shoulders and bit into her sandwich.
I kept replaying Alec’s morphing in my mind. Bones snapping, howls of agony, his choked speech…
I flinched at her bark, “Sorry, what?”
Mai glared, her eyes changing from blue to yellow, “I said, when is your meeting with the Council? I can practically smell the desperation of your wolf.”
“Full moon.”
“Perfect, can’t wait until you’re in the pack.” Mai smiled and walked away.
Alek’s words rang in my ears: New Moon wolf, the Goddess of us all…

I’m  the New Moon wolf…

The judge says: Super cool! Love the first person voice, and the opening lines. I love the contrast of the serious, heavy-topic dialogue with the act of eating a sandwich. Awesome! One grammatical note – put a period instead of a comma after the word “bark”. I definitely would want to know what happens next, and this coming from someone who doesn’t typically read fantasy/paranormal.

By Jessica Staricka, third place

“Hey, Guy. I have a moral question for you.” Wallace snatches my menu and slides into the booth across the table from me. His face vanishes behind a blown-up photo of French Silk pie. “You heard about my new job?”
“You're Death's new messenger, right?”
“Indeed I am. But I gotta wonder—if you were going to kick the bucket...?”
I shove his hand away from my glass of Pepsi. “If I were dying, I would want to be told.”
“Oh.” The menu falls to the table. “Then I guess I have some bad news for you.”

The judge says: Ha! I actually laughed out loud. I love the seriousness of the convo paired with the casual air of the diner setting. Love the detail of the French Silk pie. Great writing, great dialogue, very nice job. Strong ending hook, too - obviously.

By Sarah O., third place

“Your ship is taken, Captain.” My enemy pushed his gun’s muzzle against my chest. “You will die like your crew.”
 I could feel the warmth of a fallen torch by my feet. If I am going to die now, I will go down honorably and bring this enemy of England with me.
“If I lived, I would want to be told by the Queen that I am a hero. But if I didn’t die, I wouldn’t be a hero. Long live the Queen, pirate.”
       I kicked the torch into the barrels of gunpowder filling the room. I never felt the explosion when the ship blew apart.

The judge says: I love the first line of this entry because it pushes the reader off the cliff with the narrator. I was especially impressed with the use of the prompt. The writer decided not to make it a simple, “I’d want to be told if I was going to die.” Instead, a twist that makes all the difference. “I’d want to be told by the Queen that I am a hero.” And right up front, we have the narrator’s motivation and we know he’s willing to take the stakes higher than his enemy ever imagined. He’s willing to die. The best part, though, is the last line. Leaves us with a lot of questions! Great job!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Describing Characters Through Characters

By Jill Williamson

How you describe your characters depends on who your point of view character is. If you're writing a female, she might describe clothing, give fabric and designer details, or compare herself to the person she’s looking at. A male point of view character might just think: A chick in a dress walked into the gym.

When describing, always think about who your point of view character is and bring that personality into his or her descriptions.

For example, in my Blood of Kings series, Achan is a simple guy who lives in a medieval world. So he thinks of things in regards to the world around him. Here are a few descriptions from Achan’s POV from my book, To Darkness Fled:

A thin man with a face like a possum slouched on a throne-like chair opposite the door. He had fine grey hair, a large nose, and beady black eyes.

Achan recognized the young man’s pale, freckled face and shock of orange hair immediately. Sir Septon Eli himself. A man barely older than Achan.

The dirty-faced tot was no more than seven. He had a thatch of blond hair over big brown eyes.

But look how Vrell describes Achan and Lady Jaira in the same novel. The description inspired the a lovely drawing of Lady Jaira from a girl named Ember.

[Achan] stood with Lord Eli at the entrance to the great hall, looking every bit like a rich, exotic prince. He wore a black leather doublet over a royal blue tunic embroidered with silver thread. The sleeves dangled past his fingertips. Silver buckles cinched black trousers below his knees where they met shiny black boots. His black hair slicked back into a braided tail, held in place by a sparkling jewel. No bandage covered his scruffy cheeks, but his facial hair had been trimmed into the start of a beard that would eventually hide his scars.

But nothing could hide his sour expression. Such chagrin could be due to the fact he had been dressed like Esek, yet Vrell bet Lady Jaira Hamartano’s presence was the likely cause. She stood with her mother, sister, and Lord Eli’s wife at the bottom of the stairs.

Vrell paused beside Sir Gavin and frowned. Jaira’s blue dress suspiciously matched Achan’s ensemble. The gown clung to her every curve as if painted onto her skin. It had a wide, revealing neckline with little cap sleeves that dripped black beads down her slender arms. She wore black satin gloves to her elbows. The slender skirt fanned out from her knees like the tail of a fish. A silver chain draped around her narrow waist with a matching blue reticule attached.

Jaira’s dozens of fine black braids were piled atop her head like an ebony crown, baring her long neck and shoulders. Shiny obsidian teardrops dangled from her ears. A third larger stone hung from a thin cord around her neck and plunged toward her low neckline. Her olive skin looked bronze under the flickering candelabras and sparkled as if she had bathed in mineral dust. Paint reddened her cheeks, outlined her eyes in black, and dusted each eyelid blue.

Vrell had never seen such repulsive beauty. She could hardly bear to see Jaira standing with Achan in such a way. Lord Eli had plotted these matching ensembles, she had no doubt. Vrell took a deep breath and tried to create a neutral expression, but a sudden thought stole her breath. She had been dressed to match Achan as well.

As his squire.

See the difference?

These books are medieval fantasy, and oftentimes, the fantasy genre requires more description than another setting might. But Vrell is a girl who likes details.

Here is an example from Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins of when Katniss describes Peeta. Notice that she makes a hunting connection because she's a hunter.

Medium height, stocky build, ashy blond hair that falls in waves over his forehead. The shock of the moment is registering on his face, you can see his struggle to remain emotionless, but his blue eyes show the alarm I’ve seen so often in prey.

And here is an example for Solitary by Travis Thrasher. This book has a romance as a key plot point. When romance it a huge part of the story, the descriptions of the main character’s love interest sometimes go on and on throughout the book. And if a male POV character likes a girl, he's likely to describe her in more detail. See how Chris' descriptions of the three girls differ here?

She’s beautiful.

She stands behind two other girls, one a goth coated in black and the other a blonde with wild hair and an even wilder smile. She’s waiting, looking off the other way, but I’ve already memorized her face.

I’ve never seen such a gorgeous girl in my life.

“You really like them?”

The goth girl is the one talking: maybe she’s the leader of their pack. I’ve noticed them twice already today because of her, the one standing behind. The beautiful girl from my second-period English class, the one with the short skirt and long legs and endless brown hair, the one I can’t stop thinking about. She’s hard not to notice.

Consider your POV character when describing setting and action as well. In my book, Achan was raised in a kitchen, so he sometimes describes things in a culinary way.

Outside the manor, dozens of tents and pavilions had popped up like tarts in the northern field, each waving colorful banners and crests.

As far as describing your main character, believe it or not, less is more. Try to get creative here. Mirrors are cliché. Avoid them, if you can. This said by the woman who used a mirror to describe both her main characters in By Darkness Hid! (Bad, Jill!) 

Here are those descriptions. Here Achan’s is longer because he has never seen himself, whereas Vrell, a noblewoman, has been groomed and pampered in front of mirrors her whole life.

She walked to the mirrorglass that stood in the far corner of the bedchamber.
At seventeen, Vrell was fully grown, but because of her small frame, Mother had suggested her boy persona be fourteen. Vrell examined her short black hair and fair skin in the mirrorglass. She wrinkled her nose and gave her round cheeks a pinch.

Wils held up a mirrorglass. Achan stared at it, glanced at Wils, then leaned forward. He’d never seen a mirrorglass. He’d never seen his face at all, except in the river or the moat or the dishwater. He studied his reflection, pleased he didn’t find himself ugly. His skin was tan like the shell of a walnut. Black hair was pulled back into the braided tail, straight and smooth. Did that make his heritage kinsman?

He had a good face, he thought. A bit square, but not long and oval like Noam’s or fat and round like Riga’s. Wils had even shaved him, something Achan had never done despite the few wisps of hair on his chin. His cheeks and neck still tingled from the razor’s edge.

Achan leaned closer to the mirrorglass. His eyes were blue. He hadn’t known that about himself. Blue eyes were also a kinsman trait. He leaned back and nodded to Wils, who set the mirrorglass on a shelf over the fire. Achan smiled. He was kinsman.

Most of the time it works to say little or nothing about how your main character looks, sneaking in a detail here and there. Ex: She pulled her curly red hair into a ponytail.

Again, this is something that is perfected in your rewrites. Don’t get frustrated if you don’t like how your descriptions are in your first drafts. You can always go back and spend time on them later, once the full novel is complete. 

What are some interesting ways your point of view character describes people or things?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Making Your Characters Matter

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer emailed me to ask, "I struggle with the amount of characters I have in my plot. Most of the time, I end up with too many. It makes it difficult to bring new important characters into the scenes. Is there a limit for the amount of characters in novels? If you had to work with a large amount, how would you write it? How would you bring them into the scene? Define relationships?"

This is something I used to really struggle with. (Several characters got cut from my debut novel, Me, Just Different. First by me, and then an additional one by my agent.)

There's no real official limit, and it just kinda depends on the story. Helpful, right? Since that's probably not, hopefully this will be:

It's not real life

My temptation to put too many characters in comes from my drive to want to make it real. In real life, my Starbucks barista is just the person who makes me coffee one night a week. My daughter's preschool teacher is someone I see once a week when I drop McKenna off at school. But in a book, it's best to combine roles whenever you can. If it's a novel, then the preschool teacher works a second job at Starbucks ... and has to work that job because the main character's husband fired her husband, so, by the way, she's the villain too.

You see what I mean? It gives the story a wonderfully tangled feel. 

For Me, Just Different, my original thought was that Skylar, who was the queen of the popular kids, needed tons of friends. After all, in real life, the popular kids always had tons of friends. She started with 7, which even I realized by the end was way too many. I whittled it down to 4, and then when I signed with my agent, she was like, "One of these friends has got to go." So Skylar wound up with 3 girlfriends and it works just fine.

So how do you decide who to cut? You ask:

If I cut this character, would anything change?

And if your answer is "No" or, "Well, I'd have to tweak this line and that line, but otherwise, not really," then they are cuttable.

If they're cuttable BUT you really, really love that character then you have a couple options:

  • Cut them anyway and rejoice that you're a real writer who can do the hard work
  • Transfer them for another manuscript
  • FIND a way to make them matter

If you're looking for a way to make them matter, spend some time brainstorming and fleshing them out like you might your main character. What are their goals? How do they need to change? What are some ways they can oppose the main character? What are some ways they can encourage them?

Do you find yourself having too many characters in your manuscript? How do you deal with it?

Other posts that might interest you:
Developing secondary characters
Researching your characters

Friday, May 18, 2012

Character Merits, Flaws, or Fears

By Jill Williamson

In case you haven't noticed... I like lists. But I promise these will be my last lists for a while. *grin*

As with my post on hobbies and skills, I also like to think about my characters' traits, both positive and negative. In fact, each item on my list of character traits could be thought of as a positive or negative attribute. Take "annoyed," for example. It sounds like a flaw, but maybe your character is annoyed with people who are unfair, which spurs him into action. Or a "loyal" person might be loyal to the wrong cause, so his good trait isn't so good after all.

The traits can also be used for good or evil. For example, I'm an observant and sneaky person. Always have been. And when I was a kid, I used to steal stuff. I almost never got caught, either. Along my life journey, however, I've learned things that removed the habit of stealing from my life. But I'm still observant and sneaky. And I use those traits in many positive ways.

It can also be interesting to think of what truly frightens your characters. Now, most of us might be afraid of spiders but not to the point of needing professional help. I'm not suggesting that you give any of your characters a real, debilitating phobia, though it might be fun to do every once in a while.

It's good for your character to grow through your story, for you to find something about them that is a flaw, fear, or unknown and teach them how to conquer that along their journey. But you don't want to completely remove all their character traits. Because those make them who they are.

Click here to read, download, and/or print the file: Character Traits Brainstorming List.

And click here to read, download, and/or print the file: Character Phobias Brainstorming List.

What merits, flaws, or fears are a part of your main character?

Also, I'm hosting a contest over on my blog. I'm giving away a Kindle and lots of books (including Replication, the entire Blood of Kings trilogy, and Stephanie's Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt trilogy)! So if you haven't entered yet, go and enter. It's free!

Click here to see the contest.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

3 ways to bust writer's block

 by Rachel Coker

Writer’s block. I still find it interesting how much fear and terror can be induced into a budding author by those two words. Even just looking at them typed up on my computer gives me the shudders. Because, honestly, writer’s block is every writer’s worst nightmare.

Just picture it: You’re halfway into a new book. Everything was going so smoothly not too long ago. You had a great, action-packed beginning. You introduced half a dozen funny, engaging characters. Your writing just sparkles with wit and humor.

But then—it all stops. Somewhere around page 110, you get stuck. No more words come to mind. No more interesting scenarios, or conflicts, or conversations. You’re trapped somewhere between a great beginning and a promising ending, with no idea how to bridge the gap in between.

I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the amount of times this has happened to me. And, judging by the complaints of fellow authors, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who faces this problem. It’s actually really common for writers to feel stuck and discouraged in the middle of a story, and not know how to overcome that block. However, just because it’s common, doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable. And nothing feels better than being able to plow through writer’s block and get back to crafting that fabulous story.

So, after being asked time after time about overcoming writer’s block, I finally came up with a list of ways to stay creative. When everything else fails, here are some ideas of how to bust up the blankness in your head and get your creative juices flowing again:

Step away from your computer.

Sometimes, when we’re looking at a story too closely, we lose sight of the overall picture. We get so caught up obsessing over the little details that we forget what the story is about as a whole. It’s crazy when I think about all the times that I have gotten unnecessarily frustrated with myself over little things like scenes, dialogs, or descriptions. If things don’t go one hundred percent smoothly, I want to throw in the towel and give up completely.

But you know what I’ve forgotten? I’ve forgotten what my story is about. I’ve forgotten what I love about it. All that original giddiness and excitement and anticipation that crowded my mind when I started out writing that book has completely vanished, and I feel washed-up and depressed over something as silly as an awkward dialog. And just because I can’t get that dialog to read smoothly, I want to give up all together.

You can probably tell by now that this is a really stupid way to think. And sometimes, the only way to cure myself of thinking that way is to shut my computer and take a step back. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, then just take a break from writing for a little while and think about your story as a whole. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in all the technicalities of writing. Think back to what you loved about the story, and let yourself get caught up all over again in excitement about that. By the time you’ve re-fallen in love with your story, it’ll be much easier to plow through those rough spots so that you can let that story shine. Trust me.

Try something different.

I have something embarrassing to confess. For about three years, I ate the same exact breakfast every morning. A bowl of Quaker instant maple-and-brown-sugar oatmeal, and a glass of cranberry juice. Every single morning. I was obsessive about it. If we were out of cranberry juice, I would freak out. And when Quaker changed their oatmeal recipe, it just about killed me. You can label me a freak or a loser or whatever you want, but that was me. The obsessive oatmeal-eater girl.

Then, one day, I tried something else. It wasn’t by choice. We were out of oatmeal, and my mom still forced me to eat breakfast. So I had scrambled eggs. They were surprisingly good. The next morning I had a bagel. Even better. Anyway, long and obnoxious story short, I stopped eating oatmeal every morning. I expanded my horizons. And you know what? I feel a lot better in the mornings. It’s exciting to have new breakfast foods and try new recipes. It stimulates my brain cells and makes me feel more awake and happy to be anticipating something new.

In a weird, roundabout way, the same can be said for writing. After a while, even the best writers get stuck in a rut of sameness. Their books get so predictable that people lose interest in reading them. Why read yet another book where the parent dies of cancer and the mortal enemies fall in love? Learn to shake it up.

If you always write sentimental, sappy-sweet love stories, try writing something a little more snarky. If medieval quests are your forte, why not try your hand at a contemporary thriller? Switch from third person to first person, past tense to present tense, prose to poetry—anything that will put your out of your comfort zone and make you think creatively.

Look for inspiration in unlikely places.

I once read a quote from author Stephen King talking about where he finds his inspiration. I wish I could find the exact quote to share with you, but it was along the lines of “between aisles three and four at the grocery store.” I just think that is so cool! One of the most successful authors of the twentieth century found his greatest inspiration just watching the everyday interactions between people at his local grocers.

I’ve found that the same is true for me. Things like movies, books, and pictures can be great for drawing inspiration, but so can conversations between friends in the booth next to you at the diner. Or the crazy antics of those adorable kids you babysit on Fridays. Or the way your grandfather holds your grandma’s hand when they cross the street together. Believe it or not, the idea for my second novel was entirely derived from a drawing a boy showed me when I was teaching his Sunday school class one week. Who would’ve thought, right? Sometimes, all you need to get out of a creative rut is a little unexpected inspiration. So keep your eyes open to the people and places around you, and remember that even seemingly mundane things can be interesting if you view them in the right light!


For those of you who are interested in more writing tips and advice, I would encourage you to check out my blog and vlog videos! And don't forget to order your copy of my debut novel Interrupted. :)