Wednesday, October 31, 2012

When you can't get past the beginning

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer emailed me to ask, "I've stopped writing for about four months now because my story ideas just keep getting bigger and better and more and more exciting ... but I can't seem to get past the first three pages. Is there something that I should be (or not be) doing?"

It sounds to me like you suffer from what I often do: I don't have a story idea, I have a story premise.

What I mean by that is I usually have an idea for a character who has had this and this and this happen to them, and they now must overcome these atrocities. But ... I'm not exactly sure what that looks like yet. So I can write a chapter or two, maybe. But after that I get stuck.

We talked about story structure in the October newsletter, October is the month for good story bones ... and yes, it was intended to be a Halloween reference. (I'm pushing 30 - I'm allowed to be cheesy!) So there could be some helpful stuff for you in there.

The first thing that made me better at developing my story ideas was figuring out my character's goal. Because once I figure out the goal, I can brainstorm the hurdles.

Does my character want to go to a prestigious university? Let's take away her straight As, let's give her something that would distract her from school.

Does my character want to climb Everest? Maybe she gets sick. Maybe she can't scrape up the money.

Doing this can help you brainstorm a few turning points in the story. During my brainstorming, I'm a (recent) fan of using this lovely visual aid from The Plot Whisper:

It reminds me what my plot needs to be doing. The tension needs to climb until the end of act two, release for just a bit while the main character organizes for the final battle/climax, peak for the climax, and then release again so we can have a resolution.

The author of The Plot Whisperer, Martha Alderson, suggests using Post-its for plotting, which I like a lot. I also followed her suggestion to pick several key moments to determine: the end of act one, the midpoint, the end of act two, and the climax.

I don't like having a real detailed outline to follow, but plotting out some basic turning points in the story not only saves me lots of time in rewrites, it gives me something to do with my characters after chapter two.

A couple of other thoughts:

  • Flitting from idea to idea can also happen when you're in a season of intense growth. When I first started going to conferences and reading craft books, I had a really hard time getting myself to focus on one idea because every idea I came up with was even better. But you won't get better at writing complete stories until you push yourself to do so. You might need to start giving yourself a little time to write down everything about the new story idea, then pushing it aside and focusing on the book you're committed to.
  • On Go Teen Writers awhile back, we came up with a list of questions that can help flesh out a story premise. Here's the link to those.
I hope this is helpful!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

How to Format a Fiction Manuscript

by Jill Williamson

This past summer I created a video on the topic of how to format a manuscript. I know that some of you participated in the Next Gen Writers Conference, but for those who weren't able to, here is my class. And for those who've already seen it, it never hurts to review, right?

If you can't see it very well, click through to YouTube and watch it there. And please keep in mind, the contest I ran for this video is over. But just for fun, you're welcome to post the answers in the comment section. *grin*

Do you have any questions on manuscript format? Is there something that I didn't cover that you've always wondered about?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Day 50!

by Stephanie Morrill

If you've joined us for the 100 for 100 writing challenge, I want to make sure you know today is day 50! That means you're halfway through, that you've written at least 5,000 words in the last 50 days. Congratulations!

It also means it's time for me to look over the spreadsheet and clean it up a bit. So if you are participating in the 100 for 100 but you haven't logged your words at all yet, please do so today because I'm going to go in and remove the names that have no words logged.

If you weren't able to join us for the 100 for 100 contest this winter, we're planning another one that'll start in January.

Many of you will be kicking off National Novel Writing Month over at I'm so jealous! I'm hoping to participate in 2015 when both my kids will be in school.

Who's doing NaNo for the first time this year? If you've done it before, what tips do you have to offer?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Publishing Industry and Writing Terms

by Jill Williamson

Go Teen Writers has really been growing. And since there are many new readers here, I thought it might be nice to post some definitions. 


ABA: American Booksellers Association
ARC: Advance reading copy
BCC: Back cover copy
BEA: BookExpo America
CBA: Christian Booksellers Association
FMC: Female main character
GTW: Go Teen Writers
ISBN: International Standard Book Number
K: Thousand, as in an 80,000-word novel or 80K novel
MC: Main character
MMC: Male main character
MS: Manuscript or Microsoft (as in MS Word)
NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month
OP: Out of print
POV: Point of view
SASE: Self-addressed stamped envelope
SCBWI: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators
WC: Word count
WIP: Work in progress

Publishing Industry Terms

Acquisitions editor: A publishing house employee who reads incoming manuscripts to seek out publishable material.
Advance: A sum of money paid to the author in anticipation of royalty earnings, often pain in increments.
Agent: A person that represents an author’s work and tries to sell it to editors.
Content editor (also known as a developmental or substantive editor): A person who edits a book for overall plot issues, character development, and continuity of the story.
Cover letter: A letter sent with a manuscript or proposal to introduce the author and his project to an editor or agent.
Fiction: Works of the imagination, made-up stories.
Independent (Indie) publisher: A small publisher. Some pay an advance, some don’t. Many are too small to get into bookstores, though some can.
Line editor: A person who goes over every sentence in a manuscript to make sure there are no errors.
Manuscript: A typed out story, article, or novel.
National Novel Writing Month: An organization that encourages participants to write at least 50,000 words in one month.
Nonfiction: Works that are not fictional.
Proofreader: A person who reads a final manuscript for errors.
Proposal: A thorough presentation of an author’s book to an editor or agent for publication.
Query letter: A letter an author writes to propose his project to an editor or agent. Usually one page long.
Self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE): An envelope that an author addresses to himself with sufficient postage that he sends along with his query letter or manuscript so that the editor or agent can mail the decision back to the author.
Self-publishing: And author pays to have his ebook or paperback book published. 
Slush pile: The imaginary and sometimes literal “pile” of manuscripts that have been sent to an agent or editor without an invitation. (You don’t want your manuscript here.)
Synopsis: A one to two page summary of the plot of a novel.
Traditional publishing: This is the standard way an author gets a book published that should get his books into bookstores. In this type of publishing, the publisher pays the author for his book.
Unsolicited: When an author sends in her work to an editor or agent without permission to do so.

Writing Craft Terms

Action tag: Action used to identify the speaker of words spoken in quotes. Ex: “Fine!” Sherry slammed the door.
Backdrop: The setting of your story.
Backstory: What happened to your characters before your story began.
Conflict: That which causes your character to struggle.
Flashback: Inserting an earlier event into the chronological structure of a story.
Narrative: When the story moves into narration, or telling, to explain what’s happening outside a character point of view.
Point of view (POV): The position of the narrator who’s telling the story at that moment.
Said tag: Used to identify the speaker of words spoken in quotes. Ex: “Do what you want,” Sherry said.
Scene: A section of a story that represents a single episode or event.

Stephanie and I will add to these over time, so let us know if we missed anything.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Writing about Real Historical Characters

by Alexa Schnee

Alexa Schnee has always wanted to be a writer. She loves the smell of the bookstore, because nothing in the world smells exactly like it. When she isn’t writing, she’s murdering some musical instrument or hitting the road. She will never, ever like math and will always love dancing in the Montana rain. She is currently attending Sarah Lawrence College near New York City.

Hey, everyone! My name is Alexa and I’m going to talk about the difficulties you can sometimes face when writing about real historical characters. It may seem daunting at first when you’re taking on writing about a real historical figure, but if you know what you are getting into, it doesn’t seem nearly so bad once you are writing.

Getting your facts straight. When writing historical fiction, especially when you are going to include real people, you should always make sure you do the most research possibly you can. You want to make sure that you have most everything correct, including the dates when these characters were born, died, how many children they had, etc. It’s extremely important that you know all these things so when you sit down to write you aren’t playing with historical fact unwillingly.

But you can play with it willingly. One of the fantastic things about writing historical fiction is that is fiction. Think of Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The author took the well-known facts about Lincoln and twisted them so they fit the story that he wanted to tell. All the major important dates and instances in Abraham Lincoln’s life were there, but we also had them told to us in a new (and quirky) way.

Stay true to fact, or not? When you’ve run into a problem (the dates don’t fit in with the story you’re trying to tell, the actual historical character did something in the past you don’t want your character to do), I would recommend that you always stick with what truly happened. It may not be easy to craft the story you want to tell around actual historical fact, but your readers will appreciate the effort you put toward upholding the memory of the real historical character.

Lastly, have fun. Honestly, writing historical fiction can be so much fun. You are completely transported to another world and are allowed to hang with some of the greatest people who ever lived. Also remember, these characters are a part of you. Though they may have been real people in the past, and as long as you respect them by acknowledging the major facts and events in their life, these are now your characters—and feel free to get to know them as well as any other character you may have created.

Learn more about Alexa's recent release:

For centuries, readers have debated the identity of the mysterious Dark Lady in William Shakespeare's sonnets. Emilia Bassano -- lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth and one of the first women poets in England -- could be the answer.

In Shakespeare's Lady, Emilia Bassano is one of the most dazzling ladies at court when she meets the little-known playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare sees the world like no one ever has before, and despite everything -- his wife in Stratford-Avon, Emilia's husband and young son, and the will of the fiery and unpredictable queen -- they fall in love. But the course of true love never did run smooth, and the Virgin Queen does not take lightly to her ladies straying. These star-crossed lovers must fight for their love -- and, eventually, their lives. Meanwhile, William, courting the queen's favor for his new theater.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How do you know when your manuscript is ready ?

by Stephanie Morrill

This is a question that was asked on the Go Teen Writers Facebook group, and it's a tricky one to answer. Especially when you're still early in your writing journey and it seems you learn more about writing and storytelling everyday. How do you know when to stop fussing with your manuscript, take the plunge, and send out queries to agents?

I would start by asking yourself if you've done your best. Your book isn't perfect, of course, but did you do your best with the knowledge and skills you have? Or were you being lazy with character development? Is that plot twist at the end really more of a plot pivot? Did you have an idea for how to improve it ... but you're not in the mood for yet another rewrite?

If you've written and rewritten and revised and edited and rewritten and revised again, and you feel this is the best story you can produce at this point in your journey, I say go for it. Send out the queries. See what happens. 

I honestly didn't know if my writing was "there" or not, until an agent said, "I'm so excited about this project. Can you send me the rest right now?"

And I didn't dare say it out loud, but I had this moment of, "Really? I did it? It's good enough now?"

While I had been pitching projects for a few years at that point, I never really knew. I always just did my best with where my skill level was, put it out there, and braced myself for the feedback.

This is a rather uncomfortable way to determine the quality of your writing abilities, but it's about the truest mirror you'll find. Not to say that agents and editors don't make judgments in error or guess wrongly about what will sell and what the public wants (all big authors and books have received at least a handful of rejections) but typically I knew in my gut if they were right or not.

Like on the first book I sent out. Hardly any editors bothered to read it (no surprise, since I printed out all 90 pages of it and mailed it to anyone who accepted unsolicited manuscripts) but one did and they told me my ending lacked oomph. And you know ... that sounded right. Now that I considered it, I didn't have much of an ending, did I?

By now, I have a definite procedure I follow before I declare myself done with a book. Even then I still get feedback from my agent or an editor on things that need to be changed. But before it lands on their desk, I always:
  1. Write a bare bones first draft
  2. Let my draft sit for 6 weeks
  3. Read through and edit the big problems (plot problems, character flatness, etc.)
  4. Read through and edit smaller stuff (raising tension in scenes, correcting passive sentences, etc.)
  5. Do a final edit in which I get really super fussy about word choice and sentence structure.
  6. Send to my critique partner and wait for her thoughts.
  7. Make her changes. Send to agent or editor, whoever is waiting for it.
And to be honest, even now when weeks go by and I haven't heard back from my agent, I slide into a pit of thoughts like, "She hates it. She's wondering why she ever took me on as a client." Every time the phone rings, I'm thinking, "It's her. She's calling to say she hates it."

And most my writer friends do the same thing. Those who don't ... I can't prove it, but I'm pretty sure they're lying.

While I've gained confidence in my ability to know if my story is a good idea or not, and while I'm mostly confident in my writing style and voice, I still tremble a bit before I send my stuff out. For whatever's that worth.

What about you? Is there anything you always do or always check for before someone looks at your work?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Movie Options: My Experience So Far…

by Jill Williamson

Shortly after my first book came out, an actor friend of mine contacted me to talk about the movie option for my project. He seemed excited about the idea of getting the books made into a movie and wanted to pitch the project to Walden Media.

This got me excited too.

I mean, I was published with a very small house, so I knew the odds of anyone in the movie industry even knowing my books existed were beyond slim.

And I had an inside man.

My friend is Jade Carter, and he’s an awesome actor. Check out his IMDB page. He’s done some sweet guest starring roles and starred in some Broadway shows too.

So Jade and I had a series of phone calls. I showed him my contract for By Darkness Hid, in which I’d signed the movie option over to Marcher Lord Press. In order to do this Jade’s way, I needed those rights. Jeff was all for it, so we did an addendum to the contract to see where this might lead. Jade hired a lawyer to make sure he did everything right. It was a neat learning experience.

There was a ton I didn't understand and still don’t, but basically, I signed over all the rights to my trilogy, storyworld, characters, and even merchandising to Jade. Why? Since I’m not a famous, Suzanne Collins-like author, we needed to make the option a sweet deal. And to Hollywood, than means no strings attached.

Including me not writing my own screenplay.

Hollywood doesn't like sticky projects. If they see that an author has demanded a lot of input on the project or wants to be the screenwriter (and has no screenwriting experience) it’s a red flag. It will be a headache to the people trying to make movies.

Jade and I wanted to create a non-headache movie option. It was our best bet for success. Yes, there was the chance that someone could purchase the option and make Achan a buffoon with a talking pet monkey, but since Jade was going to be responsible for selling the project, it was a chance I decided to take. I trusted that Jade would pitch the movie only to family friendly projection companies.

One of the things that Jade needed was a character breakdown for my books that he could give a screenwriter or casting director. This is a tool used to help people see the author’s depiction of the characters. I listed out all my characters—main characters first, then secondary, then minor—and I assigned them a function. Being the author, it was easy for me to do this. But it was different from anything I’d ever done in the fiction writing realm. Here is a link to it: Jill's Character Breakdown for By Darkness Hid.

When all was said and done, I had a 30-page option agreement! Cool. The option had clauses for: exactly when and how much I'd be paid for the first, second, and third picture (a little more for each); what I'd make for each movie in every movie type (should the movie be a theatrical motion picture, a DVD-only film, or a made for TV movie); sequel rights; merchandising rights (Achan dolls, anyone?); how involved I got to be in the process (I got to give my feedback on the first draft of the screenplay and that was it. And no one had to make use of my feedback.); my screen credit;  details for adaptations, translations, and theatrical versions; agreements on DVD and TV rights; the rights to my characters (I signed away the trilogy rights but kept the right to create more stories using them.); music, stage, and radio rights; and the right to sell my books with special movie covers.

That’s a whole lot of rights to consider, most of which made my head spin.

And here’s the most important thing to note: just because you sell the option to your story, doesn't mean it will ever get made into a movie. My contract gave Jade five years after the release of book three to sell it to a producer. After that the rights will revert back to me. And once I have the rights again, I can try to sell them to someone else, if I want to.

Some things to remember:
-Movie option contracts have nothing to do with book publishing contracts.
-Some agents try and sell movie options. Some don’t. It’s something to ask your agent.
-The “bigger” the author, the more control you can negotiate. The “smaller” the author, the less control you’ll have. It’s a numbers thing.
-Some production companies will purchase rights and continue to renew them forever, keeping anyone else from making the movie.
-There are production companies out there who watch the Publisher’s Marketplace (a place where agents announce deals). They're on the lookout for deals. If an employee sees something that might interest the producer he works for, he contacts the literary agent, inquires about the movie option rights, and often requests a copy of the book to investigate further. My agent received a couple of these types of inquiries about my upcoming project Captives. My guess? If these employees can grab a movie option early, before a book becomes as popular as The Hunger Games, it could save the producer millions of dollars.

If you’re interested in writing a book that movie producers might come after, I suggest reading a book by screenwriter Blake Snyder called Save the Cat. This is a book that talks about how to write screenplays, but you can apply the same principals to fiction. And if you do, your book will be easily adaptable for a screenplay, which makes screenwriters happy.

In this book, Snyder tells the story of how he sold an option for one of his screenplays to Stephen Spielberg for a million dollars in a bidding war, and the movie still hasn't been made. Isn't that interesting? Though it's very rare, you could make a million dollars and still have no movie. It's just the way the industry works.

Thoughts on all this? I’m far from an expert, but I’ll try to answer your questions.

1. October is International giveaway month on my author website. If you live outside the USA, this is your chance to win a free copy of one of my books. Details here.
2. There are only a few more days to enter the Go Undercover Scavenger Hunt. It's silly fun. The winner gets $100 Barnes and Noble gift card. Details here.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't forget to enjoy the journey

by Stephanie Morrill

Jill and I just finished finalizing the content for our upcoming release, Go Teen Writers: How to Turn Your First Draft into a Published Book. I was revising my final paragraphs, in which I talk about how you never really "arrive" in writing. There's always someplace higher to go in your career, there's always another story to write, etc. And that's why, I had said, it's important to enjoy the journey.

And then I laughed out loud because I could imagine my husband snorting when he read it. He's too kind to ever call me a hypocrite out loud, but I was reminded of how much griping, whining, and crying I've done to him over the last few months. Writing frustrations, business frustrations, a lack of control over my time, the list goes on.

I haven't been very good recently about enjoying this particular bend in my journey. And it's something I need to work on.

I also had a tough time appreciating the journey in my unpublished days. And while there are many awesome things about being published, there are a few things I wish I had enjoyed more during my unpublished days. Like:

The freedom to write whatever I wanted. 

I was a serious story drifter in my early days. And even after I got the hang of writing full manuscripts, I would sometimes write half of one, switch to a new exciting idea and write a third of it, then go back and finish the other manuscript. And it didn't matter!

But once you're contracted and you've agreed to a deadline, you don't get to chase those enticing new-idea bunny trails. You remind yourself that you're glad someone is expecting your manuscript by a particular date, and you press on.

Getting to write books, not just book proposals

Some seasons have been book writing seasons for me. Like between the summer of 2008 and the summer of 2009, when I edited one manuscript, and wrote and revised three other complete novels.  But other seasons, especially recently, have been book proposal writing seasons. Where it feels like my career is I'm cranking out three chapters, a synopsis, and some marketing ideas time after time.

No one asking for anything

Before I was agented or published, nobody ever need anything writing-related from me. When you move onto the next stage, you get requests like, "I have an editor who's looking for this type of book. Can you work up a proposal for something this week and get it back to me?" Or, "Here are your content edits for your book. Can you make the changes within two weeks so we can stay on schedule?"

And because you love being a published writer and you want to remain a published writer, you drop the story you're working on (and you were inevitably in the groove, with characters who are just about to face-off with the villain...) and do what they ask.

Writing without feeling like, "I should probably be doing marketing stuff right now..."

When I first got my contract and discovered I was going to have to, like, market the thing, I was wondering, "Where do I learn what kind of marketing stuff I can do?" And then a year later I was thinking, "There's so much! How do I know when I can stop?!"

With so many avenues for marketing, it could be your full time job. But I'm the type of writer who needs a writing project going all the time or she gets cranky. Which means even in a marketing season, I'm trying to write at least 100 words a day so that I can be a bearable person to live with.

And sometimes I spend those 100 words thinking things like, "I haven't been on Twitter yet today ... I should call our indie bookstore about a book signing ... I should send out emails to the local schools letting them know I'm available for career day ... maybe I should work up some curriculum I could teach at the local library."

Nothing like allowing yourself 10 minutes a day for writing but feeling guilty the whole time that you're not doing more marketing stuff.

With marketing expectations, you either go crazy or you learn to do your best, then let go of the guilt of not doing more.

Zero or low expectations from others.

Of course there are things about this that totally suck, but there are some perks as well. You're unproven, and while that can work against you, it can also work in your favor.

Because publishers aren't looking at your sales numbers from the last book and thinking, "Do we or do we not want to invest more money in this writer?"

And they're not looking at the other books you wrote and saying, "We don't want to publish his Sci-Fi book, everything he's written so far has been historical."

Nobody knowing you is it's own unique hurdle, but it also means that no one is assigning incapabilities to you yet.

While I'm not about to complain about being a published writer, I wish I had been better about recognizing the joys of being pre-published. So let's practice - what's some great about being where you are now in your writing journey?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Characterization: The Susie May Way

by Jill Williamson

One of my favorites!
I hope you enjoyed Susie May Warren's guest post on Tuesday. The woman knows how to characterize. And plot. And write books. And teach people how to write books. She runs My Book Therapy, a website that teaches writing and coaches people too. Check out her website and her writing books. Good stuff. And here is a link to her bookstore page where you can buy all kinds of amazing tools. I own some of them myself. *grin*

You've likely heard people teach that you should consider interviewing your main characters to get to know them. And on Tuesday, Susie talked about throwing out that long list of character facts: height, eye color, likes, and dislikes, etc.

Here are a few key questions that Susie suggests you ask each of your main characters. I've allowed my character Mason from Captives to answer each. And all of these answers aren't necessarily in the book. But these answers help me know who Mason is and why he does the things he does. Also, your character might tell you these things even if he would NEVER say them out loud. Your character trusts you with his darkest secrets, okay? :-)

What was the darkest moment of your childhood that shaped your past?
When my best friend Joel was killed on a hunting trip. He'd wanted me to come along, but I don't like to hunt. I lent him my gun, though, because mine was better than his. But while they were gone, the gun misfired. My gun killed Joel.

What kind of a person are you today because of that?
I'm very cautious. I'm obsessed with becoming the best doctor I can. And I hate hunting more than ever. I'm also a vegetarian.

What lie do you believe?
That I'm a little off. Backwards. I believe no girl will ever want to marry me because I value smarts more than hunting or strength. Our village is all about how strong a man is. And the village doctor has always been a woman, so the men don't like the fact that I'm learning that trade from my mother. I just don't fit in anywhere.

Nicholas Braun is my picture of Mason.
What emotional wound do you carry?
That I'm unlovable.

What's your greatest fear?
That I'll lose another loved one and won't be able to save him.

What are your motivations and values?
I value knowledge, wisdom, caution, health, my family. I want to make the world a better place by being a good doctor and learning new ways of helping people.

What would you die for?
My family and friends. A noble cause. To protect knowledge for future generations.

What are you good at?
I'm good at helping the wounded and sick get well. I value plants. They have so many uses: food and medicinal. I'm a descent gardener. I like to solve puzzles, fix problems. I enjoy debate. I like to analyze complex problems, explore all options. I love to read Old books of knowledge. The past was a fascinating age.

When the going gets tough, what do you do?
I read. Medical books. Textbooks of Old. I like to fill my head with knowledge. Knowledge will never leave you.

What was the happiest moment of his past?
We were out hunting--my father had insisted I go along. But Father fell and broke his leg. It was pretty bad. But I knew what to do. Father didn't want my help at first. But he had to give in. And I helped him. And he knew it. And he told me that I did good.

What's your character's greatest dream?
That my dad would accept me for who I am. That he'd recognize that being a doctor is not easy, and that it's a worthy calling for a man as much as a woman.

What truth will set you free?
Knowing that I am valued as I am. That there is a purpose for me in this world. That I can do good. Make a contribution. Hearing my father say it.

What was a black moment in your past/childhood? (The black moment has to do with romance. If you're not writing a romance or at least including it in your book, you don't need this question.)
When Eliza chose to marry Mark over me. She said she liked me best--and I was way too young to get married--but I don't understand why she said what she did. Was she lying? It probably came down to my refusal to hunt. No woman wants a husband who won't hunt. It just proves that no one will ever love me.

Ask you character some of these questions. Did you find out anything interesting?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

In Defense of Description

by Rachel Coker

Rachel Coker is a homeschool student who lives in Virginia with her parents and two sisters. She has a passion for great books and has been surrounded by them all her life. When she is not writing or playing the piano, Rachel enjoys spending time with her family and friends. Interrupted is her first novel.

You've all heard the old adage. "Show, don't tell." And as a reader, I totally get where this is coming from. Nothing annoys me more than reading a great book and getting to an extremely boring (and usually obnoxiously lengthy) section of pure narrative. The sarcastic voice in my head immediately questions why on earth the author thought it was important for me to know that the main character had "huge, doe-shaped eyes" or "long, tangled flaming auburn curls". The words "large eyes" and "red hair" would be more than enough to satisfy me in most instances.

Same goes with authors who have to specify that their characters "shouted angrily", as if I might for some reason imagine they were shouting delicately. It just blows my mind sometimes.

HOWEVER, there has been a recent trend in writing that is really, really disturbing me. And that is the idea that descriptions don't matter.

That the soul of the book should rely purely on dialog and abrupt, short pacing. I picked up a book the other day and found one page to be almost nothing but back and forth dialog, with few speech tags, and virtually no descriptions of what was going on between the characters. I may be one of the few authors still saying this these days, but descriptions can be very important. But they must be used properly.

If you're anything like me, you may be a very visual person. A lot of people find that hard to believe, since I'm obviously a writer and can express what I'm feeling pretty well through my words. But, believe it or not, I don't love a lot of dialog in a book. I'm one of the few writers that thinks that more can be expressed in a short description of a glance, or a tiny gesture, than a conversation.

I tend to pick up motions and movements more in real life than I do words. I read a lot into the way someone looks about something, and I tend to lean toward making judgments based on first impressions. More authors need to learn how to use descriptions, and how to use them properly. While I don't want you to go add an extra ten thousand words of pointless descriptive narrative to your books, I would encourage you to think outside the box a bit and add a few enhancing descriptions when necessary. Here are a few ideas:
  • Describe your character's bedroom
This is a short, interesting description that a lot of writers tend to leave out. But think about it. What can a person's bedroom really say about who they are. Adding something like, "My mom refused to come inside and see the mounds of old VBS shirts and dog-eared paperback novels lying on the ground," might show that your character is sentimental but messy. While something like, "I neatly folded my cardigan and placed it on my closet shelf. All my sweaters sat neatly in a large stack, arranged in order of color. Little things like that just kept me happy," would show that your character is a bit obsessive, but cheerful. See what an influence a small description like a bedroom can have to a story?
  • Describe body language during a discussion
Have you ever noticed how sometimes, even when you and your friend are having a casual discussion about something totally meaningless, you can just sense that something's wrong. Like how he may be saying, "Yeah, I'm sure my parents will be okay with that. It won't be a problem," but he's scratching the back of his neck and glancing at the clock on the wall above your head every two seconds? Or how your best friend can say, "Yeah, I love that sweater. It's totally your color," while pressing her lips together and biting the inside of her cheek. Little things like that can be much bigger indicators to what someone is feeling than the words that actually come out of their mouths.
  • Describe smells, both good and bad
Some books only ever mention scents if they're as obvious as a baking pie or rotting corpse. I beg you to help me break the mold on that. Our noses never turn off, so you shouldn't just ignore that sense in your characters. Think about the smells that we often take for granted that could be noted in your book. The earthy scent of fresh-cut grass, the musty leaves after a soaking rain, the gassy fumes of an old pick-up truck driving by... Just noting one of these things every now and then will help ground the reader into the scene and make him feel like he's really there, experiencing it with every one of his senses.
  • Describe someone's voice
And don't use the words "tough", "whiney," or "soft". Those are overused. (I'm mostly saying that to keep everyone else from using them, so I can keep them all to myself.) Try thinking outside of the box. Maybe someone's voice could be described as "gravely," or "lilting", or "breathy". I love getting a sense for how a character sounds, because it really helps me as the reader hear it in my head. Make sense?

So there you have it folks. Don't go complaining that you can't think of any ways to add descriptions to your books, because I've just given you four idea starters!

Now it's your turn. How are you going to add descriptions sparsely but creatively, and help enhance your stories and characters? Good luck!

As always, please check out my blog, and like me on Facebook! I promise to do my best to remain helpful, interesting, and semi-sarcastic. ;)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Planting the solution early

by Stephanie Morrill

Jill blogged months ago about writing fight scenes and how if you have a character throwing a vase, you should be sure earlier to "show" that the vase is there.

The same principle applies to preparing your reader for the "aha!" moment in the story.

As a reader, it's great when the character puts together the answer for his or her problems, and we're surprised by it ... yet we had the information we needed to put it together for ourselves. But this is a tricky thing to accomplish as a writer. If the author hints at the solution too much, we spend part of the book feeling angry with the character for being so stinkin' stupid. But if the author doesn't hint at all, the surprise lacks oomph. It feels like there's no way we could have figured it out before the character, and that's oddly frustrating.

All this came to mind because of last week's episode of 30 Rock. (Just to prepare you all, this is the last season of 30 Rock, and I will likely go into mourning at the end of it. Consider yourself warned.)

In the episode, Liz (Tina Fey) has lost the romantic spark in her relationship with her boyfriend Kriss (played by James Marsden, and I'm pretty sure that's how his name is spelled because it's mentioned in an episode...but online everything says Criss.)

She's yelling at him all the time, even when he's trying to do romantic stuff like surprise her by showing up at work. She freaks because he knocks stuff off her desk, which totally messes up her organizational system.

Later, she's overloaded with work, but stops feeling stressed out when she gets to organize and color-code her time on a spreadsheet. And it clicks in her head that this is what's missing in her relationship with Kriss - organization!

(Side note: This was definitely a PG-13 rated episode, so don't automatically go watch it on Hulu...)

Did you catch the seed the writer planted? When Kriss surprised her at work, Liz got mad about it disrupting her organization. But because she gets mad at him for a variety of things right around that time, including him writing a song for her on his guitar, it blends in with what's going on. There's no extra attention drawn to it, which is what tends to create that, "Hey, notice me, because I'll be important later!" sensation that leaves us feeling cheated.

A good way to think of it is like planting a bulb in the soil.

I realize she isn't planing a bulb. But she IS planting. And she's awful cute...
You often plant bulbs 6 months to 9 months before they come up. (I think - I'm not a gardener.) If you're me, you forget you did it until the tulip pops up in the spring. But even if you remember that you planted the tulip bulb, the way it looks is a surprise. "I didn't know it was going to be that shade of pink," you might say.

And with some careful clue planting, you can make that happen for your readers as well. Even if they notice the clue you plant, they won't know how it's going to bloom until your character gets there.

In your stories, do you think you tend to make your solutions too obvious, unguessable, or is it a happy balance?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The non-list-making, non-threatening, let’s-have-a-cup-of-coffee-and-chat method of creating living breathing characters.

Guest blog by Susie May Warren

There you are, you’ve got a blank computer screen, and the smallest tickle of an idea, something you’ve read, or seen, some question you think might be interesting tackled in a book.  But where do you go from there?  How do you turn a blip of an idea into a full novel, one that will resonate with readers?

Jack Ryan
Regardless of the genre -- suspense, romance, historical, or chick lit -- stories can touch our lives, even change us.  And, while plot lines are important…it is characters that drive stories.  When we think of The Hunt for Red October, we think of Jack Ryan.  When we think of The Fugitive, we think of Dr. Richard Kimball.  Characters drive the plot.  So, how do we create characters that live and breathe and drive a story into our hearts?

Throw away the list!
When I began writing, I did what seemed logical – I filled out character lists.  Answered hundreds of questions.  But my characters still felt flat, and more than that, their actions, dialogue and conflict didn’t seem to connect.  At the time, I was home schooling, and as I looked at developing my children’s self-esteem, it hit me.  People reveal themselves from the inside out, based on how they see themselves, or want others to see them.  And discovering how a character defines himself is the key to making them come alive.   

Susie May Warren
Who am I? 
I have an identity – as a wife, a mother, an author, and by those three words, I’ve given you a glimpse into who I am, based on your understanding of what those words mean to you.  Everyone has an identity, a way they describe themselves.  Knowing how our character defines him or herself will help us understand his/her motivations and values.  And knowing those will help us figure out what their greatest fear and dreams are, and help us craft internal and external conflict. 

Let’s take the characters I mentioned above:
Jack Ryan – a CIA analyst, rising in the ranks who hasn’t had much field action. He’s a family man who wants to keep the world safe.   His greatest fear in this movie is misinterpreting the actions of a Russian sub that has gone AWOL and accidentally igniting WW3.  His greatest dream is to be right…and gain access to this sub.  His motivation is his family…keeping them safe.

Dr. Richard Kimball
Dr. Richard Kimball in the Fugitive.  He’s a doctor who has been wrongly accused of murdering his wife.  His greatest fear is never having her murder solved.  His greatest dream for the purpose of this movie, is apprehending her killers.  His motivation is his love for his wife, and his freedom.

Knowing a person’s identity makes their actions believable.  So, how do we discover our characters?  

First, as you create a character, ask how he defines himself.  For example, I’ll create Joe, who calls himself a drifter.  Why does he call himself that?  Because he has been on his own for year.  Why?  Because he left home as a teen.  Why?  Because it hurt too much to stay there.  Why?  Because his father left them after his little brother was born with Down Syndrome.  Why?  Because he’d been close to his father and his heart was broken. 

See the pattern?  Start with an identity and start asking WHY.  The key is to keep asking until you get to the underlying motivations behind your character’s identity.  Once you’re there, it’s not too hard to discover the three things that will give your character resonance:
1.      Your character’s values
2.      Your character’s greatest fears
3.      Your character’s greatest dream
Values drive actions. 
We do things because we believe in them.  For example, if my character has a broken past, maybe he values trust and family.  And maybe he’ll do anything to protect the ones he loves – i.e., his brother and mother.  But maybe he also values his privacy?  One way to create internal conflict in a story is to pit a character’s values against each other.  What if this character has to sacrifice his privacy to earn someone’s trust?  Or sacrifice his family to keep his privacy?

A person’s values also lead to mannerisms and ancillary information. For example, my character might carry a picture of his family in his glove compartment. 

Make them suffer:
While you’re asking your character the whys, also ask him about his greatest fear, and greatest dream.  Because, your goal is to make him suffer.  For example, if my hero loves family, maybe his greatest fear would be to lose the family he has left.  And maybe his greatest dream is having a family of his own?  By asking these questions, you’ll then learn how to torment them.  (And authors are all about the torment, aren't we?).

What about the extras?  
Oh, you mean the kind of car he drives?  The clothes he wears?  Your character’s identity, motivations and values will make them reveal the “list” questions.  My character might drive an old pickup…maybe unconsciously the same kind his dad did.  Or maybe he’d drive something completely opposite.  Maybe his hobby is fishing…reminiscent of the old trips with his father.  Once you know your character’s identity, he’ll fill in the gaps. Your job is to listen. 

Creating a character doesn't have to be about mining your brain for interesting quirks.  Simply sit down with your hero/heroine and have a little chat.  (Preferably in a room with a closed door where no one can hear you.)  Hopefully you’ll discover a character who leaps from the page and into your reader’s hearts. 

Susan May Warren is the award-winning, best-selling author of over 40 novels and the founder of My Book Therapy, a craft and coaching community for novelists. She likes to call it the coffee shop inside the Walmart world of publishing. With a community of over 1300 writers, a premium membership for advanced writers, video classes, online chats, writing products, retreats, contest and an annual pizza party, her goal is to help everyone find their voice in the publishing world. Check out the daily blog on writing at

Monday, October 15, 2012

Writing Spaces

by Stephanie Morrill

There are some things about my writing space that are nice-to-haves. Like my worn copy of Writing the Breakout Novel or a thousand pictures of my kids.

But there are some things that I just have to have in my writing space or it wouldn't feel right:

1. My desk

My desk ... and my dog, KC. I was standing in his bed to take the picture :)

I have a serious emotional attachment to my desk. The moment I saw it at Pottery Barn 10 years ago and realized it was somewhat in my price range, I had a serious furniture crush. It's the first piece of quality furniture I ever bought for myself, and I really can't imagine me ever parting with it. We've just been through too much together.

2. A honkin' bulletin board

Before the bulletin board, I would take the framed posters off my wall and tape my sticky notes to them, until one day when my mom came down to my office for something, saw what I was doing, and informed me that I would be getting a huge corkboard for Christmas. It's actually a roll of cork that my husband and father screwed into the wall. Amazing for storyboarding, keeping track of notes, or organizing pictures and stuff for my current work in progress.

3. A timer

She's nothing fancy, but this timer has seen me through some tough times. Typically I keep it set for 25 minutes, and when I'm having trouble staying on task with writing, I tell myself I can't get up from my chair or do anything else until I've written for 25 minutes. I'm amazed at how well this pushes me through those times when I'm feeling too lazy to write.

4. Lots and lots of shelves

What's not to love about having a ridiculous amount of shelves in your office?

5. My aunt's writing books

My aunt passed away 2 years ago. She had always been very encouraging of my writing and even made a special trip up here for my first book signing despite being crazy sick at the time. (That's what the framed picture is of.) She had told me once when I was in middle school that she also liked to write, though she wrote creative nonfiction type stuff and never talked much about it.

After her funeral, we were back at her house, and I needed a quiet room for feeding Connor (he was 2 months old at the time) before we drove back to Kansas City. My uncle offered their bedroom, so I went in there. It was very emotional to be in a room so full of her, having just watched her casket be lowered into the ground. Close by was a cabinet with glass doors on it full of pretty decor type things, and then those tattered writing books pictured above. Even though she never published anything, even though she never even tried from what I know, she had clearly worked hard to improve her craft. I hadn't realized until I saw those how precious writing had been to her.

Weeks later, when my uncle asked if there was anything I wanted of hers, I knew exactly what would mean the most to me.

6. My cup

My parents travel quite a bit. When they were in Switzerland a few year ago, they saw this cup and saucer in a store and thought of me. I adore it. And if they're not going to take me with them to all these cool places, at least they bring back amazing stuff, right?

7. Giraffes
Bronte, Hemingway, and Zora
I almost didn't include my giraffes because I'm so used to them. To me it feels as obvious as saying, "My office must have a computer." My brother-in-law gave me my first giraffe for Christmas the first year that I was officially his sister. Around its neck he'd hung a tag that read, "Hemingway." Otherwise I don't know if I would have thought to put him on my desk.

I have quite a few now, and my office wouldn't feel the same without.

What's in your writing space that makes it uniquely yours?