Friday, November 30, 2012

How to Write What You've Never Experienced

by Jill Williamson

In her book, Getting into Character, Brandilyn Collins has a chapter on what she calls emotional memory. This concept will help you learn to write emotions for your character that you've never actually experienced by using a combination of acting techniques and comparisons from your own life.

Director Richard Boleslavsky suggests that "anyone who has lived a normal existence has experienced to some extent all the emotions of mankind."

That's a pretty bold statement. I decided to give it a try.

I've never been threatened at gunpoint. But as I search for a similar emotionfear for my lifeI've had a few moments on the road where I thought I'd crash. One time our tires hydroplaned on the freeway and we slid into the grassy median at 65 miles an hour. It was a good three seconds of horrifying fear. I recall the heat that flashed through me, how my breathing seemed to stop, how I screamed (I'm not a screamer), and how, once the tires got traction again, the amazing relief that this wasn't the end of my life.

Interesting. I could use that.

My husband has never cheated on me. But there was this woman at exercise class who flirted with him. And, I'm ashamed to say, I hated that woman. Every time she looked at my husband or made a joke with him or smiled at him, I wanted to break her face. (I am not a violent person.) I became an insecure creature when she was in the room, questioning everything, completely irrational, daydreaming the worst. I knew where she lived. I knew what kind of car she drove. Every time we drove into the parking lot at exercise class, I'd be on high alert for that car. If it wasn't there, I was happy. Content. Worry free. If it was, look out world.

Yeah... I could totally use that.

No one has ever broken into my home. But I heard a noise once. We all have. But this time I stopped moving, held my breath and listened. I was imagining it, of course, I always was. Until I heard the front screen door wheeze shut and slam.

I vaulted off my bed and sprinted to the kitchen, slowing just before the door to peek. No one. My heart felt like it was a pinball in my chest, desperate to get out of my body. I grabbed a knife from the kitchen, figuring that someone was either in the house or they'd just left. Either way, I wasn't going to torture myself by waiting around to find out. I glided into the living room on noiseless feet, holding my breath the whole way, praying God was watching and would keep me safe.

Then the screen door banged again, I lifted the knife, staring at the entrance way...

And my son came running inside the house. At midnight! He's eleven!

"Daddy's home!" he said, smiling.

"You scared me half to death," I told him. "Look, I have a knife in my hand to kill you with."

He laughed, thinking that was pretty funny. Little punk, anyway. :-)

So, clearly I could use that.

But it can't work for everything, right? I mean, most of us have never committed murder.

Well, I have.

I entered the bathroom. I shut the door and revealed the most massive spider you've ever seen. (What is it about spiders, anyway? They're little. We're big. I just don't get why they freak me out so much.)

This beast attacked, I tell you. And I was barefoot. I was NOT going to step on it without a shoe. So I grabbed a bottle of shampoo, I think, because the creature was between me and the door. I went after it. And as I bludgeoned the creature to death, I let out the most horrifying, fearful scream I'd ever heard myself utter. I remember thinking, "What on earth was that noise? My husband is going to think I'm being murdered."

Sadly, no one heard me. I was on the other side of the house, and to them, it was a mere mumble. Good think no one was really trying to kill me... But I experienced it all. I saw the creature. The fear and revolt overwhelmed. I never once considered letting it live. No, it needed to die. It had to. And when I hit it, it was with the intent to get it hard enough so that I wouldn't have to hit it twice. Laugh, if you want, but there was a lot of emotion there. And whenever I see that shampoo bottle, I think if that creature.

I wanted it dead, and I can use that.

Need to portray first love? Think back to your first crush, or a time when a cute person spoke to you or got close enough for your stomach to flip. And if that's never happened, surely you've read a book or seen a movie that gave you such an emotion. Use it.

And from now on, when you experience life, remember. Take note of the feelings in your body, the smells, the sounds, what does it look like? What do you notice? When I came into the living room with the knife, it was dark out the front window and raining. The streetlamp made a glare on the road out front. I couldn't see anything.

The spider was big, its legs continually sprawling toward me faster than I wanted it to. I was defenseless, I tell you. It was him or me!

That woman. The smell of her perfume, the way she did her hair, that car. When I smell or see things that remind me of her, the emotion all comes back at once.

So put on an actor's hat when you come to a troublesome scene. Search your life for the closest thing you've got and remember. Write out what you felt, saw, smelled, tasted, heard. Then put yourself in your character's shoes and life through his situation and see what you come up with.

Think I've missed an important one? Let me know and I'll give it my best shot in finding a comparison.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Writing Routines - What's Yours?

by Stephanie Morrill

I have always been fascinated by writers and their routines and how they split up their time. I don't expect to unlock some trinket of time management that will magically fix my frustrations (though that would be nice), but I'm intrigued by the seemingly endless ways there are to go about spending your time as a novelist.

This is a link to an article that talks about various writing routines of famous authors like Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, and Jack Kerouac.

I was fascinated by this quote in Ray Bradbury's interview. He says:

"I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time."
He was a teen writer! Just like many of you carry your notepads or laptops around the house, he was doing the same thing with his typewriter. I find that thrilling to think about.

A few of the others worked through chaos as well, including E.B. White:

"...the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man—they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

Isn't that so true? I could always find something else to do besides write, especially now that I have marketing responsibilities on my shoulders. When I get to write, it's because I'm making the choice to protect it, and to respect my dream enough to fight for it.

hat was one of the key themes Jill and I ended up with for the Go Teen Writers book that'll be releasing this March. That writers who succeed do so because they respected their dream and didn't wait for ideal conditions.

What's something you're doing to respect your writing time? And do you write better in chaos or quiet?

And don't forget your writing contest entries are due on Monday!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How to keep your rewrite organized

by Stephanie Morrill

I have a deep love for all things that involve organization. I use my label maker frequently, I like my spices lined up alphabetically, and Container Store catalogs make me swoon.

So it's somewhat maddening to me that rewrites always feel like chaos.

In the Go Teen Writers Facebook group, a writer confessed she was feeling overwhelmed by her rewrite, and asked how we keep ourselves organized. Here's what I've done:

First I made a reluctant peace with the facts that rewrites are inherently messy. I still fume over it from time to time, or feel a wave of despair (This is such a mess right now. Is it ever going to come together?) but most of the time I'm able to remind myself that it's a normal part of the process, that I just need to press on.

The first thing I do is save my first draft as its own file. The book I'm working on now is called The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet. So I would save my first draft as something like "Ellie Sweet First Draft" Doing that makes me feel freer to hack into the regular Ellie Sweet document, because I know I can always go back.

If I'm doing a big rewrite, it's helpful to me to track the current story in two ways. 

One is on a blank calendar: 

It helps me to catch errors in my timeline, but it also helps me get a feel of how fast my story is unfolding. You could of course do this digitally too, but I find I need the paper.

And then something both Jill and I do is make a list of scenes in our story. You could do this in a spreadsheet or word document, but I really like using index cards and Post-its.

I've talked about this before, but this time I'll walk through a bit more of my process.

The index cards are the scenes as is. If it's a scene I think I'll be deleting, I put an X on it:

If it's a scene that will need tweaks to fit in with the rewrites, I stick a Post-it on there with what I think the edits will involve:

If a scene needs to be added, then I do only a Post-it note, and if I get to a section where I have big rewrites, I just don't know what yet, then I leave gaps when I tack them all up:

And when I'm all done, I begin rewrites and refer to my board often.

There are a couple ways you could go about the actual rewriting. If you have a bunch of scenes you know you want to add, you might begin by writing those and inserting them, then going back through the entire book and doing a line edit and adding those other little things to your other scenes.

What I've found I prefer is to just start editing the whole book. Which sometimes means I'm line editing for a day or two, and then writing and editing a 1,500 word scene that I want to add. I really like this for two reasons:

  • I'm able to keep a pretty clear idea of what has happened and what hasn't yet as far as big scenes that I intend to add. That means I don't accidentally foreshadow a scene that I inserted 25 pages ago.
  • It breaks up the line editing and the writing, which makes both feel fun. The days where I'm just changing words here and there feel restful, and it's fun to watch the page numbers flip by. But the days when I get to write are a fun change of pace.
Also, sometimes I find scenes or chunks of dialogue that I like, but don't fit now because of the rewrites. I copy and paste them into a file called "Ellie Sweet Outtakes." Occasionally they get a new home in the story, but most of the time they're permanently cut. It takes some of the sting away to know they're saved somewhere, though.

After I'm done with the whole book, I'll save it as "Ellie Sweet Second Draft." I usually take a week off before I start on draft number three, which is more of a tweaking and smoothing draft than it is a rewrite.

Anyone have questions? Or tips they'd like to share?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Plotting the Quest Novel, Dora Style

by Jill Williamson

Like it or not, formulas can work very well. The trick is to know how to twist the plot so that the formula’s cliché isn't recognizable. That’s not the case with the children’s cartoon Dora the Explorer. My kids both loved watching Dora, so I've seen dozens of episodes, and it’s the same thing every time.
But it has a lesson to offer writers, and I wanted to share it with you. The plot of each Dora the Explorer episode offers the perfect quest formula. Let’s take a look and see why in this episode called Treasure Island.

Beginning: Meet the cast
At the start of every episode, we meet Dora and her friend Boots the Monkey, who is her trusty sidekick. We also meet another guest character, a different one each time. In this example, we meet Pirate Parrot.

Inciting incident
In meeting the guest character, Dora encounters a problem or opportunity—a quest which requires her to travel to a location to meet her new goal. In the Treasure Island episode, Pirate Parrot asks Dora if she’s heard of the blue key. Dora and Boots decide to look for the blue key, which happens to be in a tree branch above their heads. Now that they have the key, they’re ready for adventure!
The map 
The map lays out the journey
In every episode of Dora the Explorer, before they start their adventure, Dora calls for her map. Her words to the viewer? “Who do we ask for help when we don’t know which way to go? The map. That’s right.”

The map states the story goal: find the treasure chest, which is on Treasure Island. The map also tells the viewer how to get there: First you have to go past the lookout tree, then across Crocodile Lake, then you’ll get to Treasure Island. The actual map is on the screen and shows each location clearly. This sets out the coming journey clearly for the viewer. We know what we’re in for!

Dora and Boots repeat the quest agenda: “Tree, lake, Treasure Island!” And off they go. And this is the Climax of act one. Dora makes her choice to accept the quest and the journey begins. As they go, they sing a song that repeats the quest agenda: “Tree, lake, Treasure Island! Where are we going? Treasure Island!”


The first obstacle in any Dora episode is Swiper the Fox. He always tries to steal whatever object Dora needs for the end of her journey. In this case, it’s the blue key. But Swiper always fails his first attempt.

Dora and Boots make it to their first map destination, Lookout Tree, but they've got to get past the icky sticky mud. They use the plank and succeed. Then they make it to their second destination, Crocodile Lake, but how with they get across? Their old friend Pirate Parrot shows up with a boat. Sweet!

Midpoint and a big twist
But as they’re going across Crocodile Lake on the boat, here come the crocodiles. Dora, who always knows what to do, tells the viewer that they need to sing to the crocodiles. They sing. But one Is getting closer. So they sing louder. And now the crocs are dancing. Excellent. Dora, Boots, and the Pirate Parrot get away. Whew! That was a close one.

Another obstacle
Now they've made it to the third destination on their map: Treasure Island. But Pirate Parrot tells them that only Pirate Pig knows where the treasure is. So off they go on a search for Pirate Pig.

Swiper steals the key!
They find Pirate Pig and give him the key. They are so close to achieving their goal! But guess who shows up? Swiper the Fox. And he steals the key and hides it.

Climax of act two
Dora, Boots, Pirate Parrot, and Pirate Pig work together to find the key in the village.

Climax of act three
Pirate Pig tells them where he buried the treasure, but he needs help to find it. Dora and Boots help dig. They find the treasure and sing, “We did it!” Go team.

Wrap-up and end
Our heroes enjoy contents of treasure chest. They reminisce over the long journey it took to get to this place. Dora and Boots each recount their favorite part of the adventure.

And that’s that.

Things to note
Dora always reviews
1. Dora always states her story goal/agenda from the start of each episode.
2. Dora always gives us (the viewer) the map, so we know where we’re going.
3. Dora reviews her goals and the next step throughout the story, which gives us (the viewer) a sense of how far Dora has come and how much farther she has to go.
4. All of this together gives us (the viewer) a sense of adventure and movement.

Types of quests
There are a few reoccurring types of quests that we see again and again in stories.
1. Finding something (stolen, lost, necessary, or valuable—check character motive as to why he or she is setting out to find this thing. Is he looking to save his people? Get rich? Earn honor? Save his land?)
2. Rescuing those who were lost or taken
3. Capturing a foe
4. Conquering an opposition

Well, we got to the end of this blog post. We did it! Hooray! *Jill sings and dances* LOL

Thoughts on this concept? Do you see how you could pull out the formula elements and plug in a National Treasure or Lord of the Rings-type plot? Try it.

Next time you get stuck babysitting and have to watch a children’s show, look at it as an assignment from me. See if you can find it’s formula and recognize why it works so well. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Teen Writing Contest: Why did we come here?

by Stephanie Morrill

It's time for a new writing contest! Here are the details for this round:

Your prompt is: Why did we come here? 

Your word limit this round is 110 words. (100 words + the prompt sentence + 5 bonus words just for the heck of it.)  You can use the prompt sentence anywhere in your 110 word entry. First line, last line, third line, whatever, but it must be a question.

Think of your 110 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 Monday, December 3rd (2012) by 11:59pm Kansas City time.

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

*NEW THIS ROUND* Instead of emailing your entries to me, you'll be submitting them on the form below. This will not only reduce the time I spend registering entries, it will reduce opportunities for human error, which is always nice. Please let me know if you're having problems with the form, or if you have any questions about this. My email address is Stephanie(at)
View Around the World in 80 Dates on

Our wonderful and gracious judges this round are Christa Banister and Carla Stewart:

Christa Banister

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

View Stardust on

Carla Stewart
Carla Stewart is the award-winning author of three novels. Her newest one, Stardust, is the story of a young mom in the 1950s who must make a new life for herself and her daughters when her unfaithful husband drowns in the bayou. Carla’s writing reflects her passion for times gone by as she endeavors to take readers to that place in their hearts called “home.” Carla loves to connect with readers at

Curious about how the judges work their magic? Here's a copy of the feedback form our judges receive.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Thanksgiving Break

Go Teen Writers is taking a few days off for Thanksgiving. When we come back on Monday, we'll have a classic Go Teen Writers 100 word contest for you all!

I hope everyone gets some extra writing time during the Thanksgiving holiday, and bonus time with people they love. I'll be spending mine with these little cuties:

See you  back here on Monday!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mystery Suspense Sub-genres

by Jill Williamson & Mindy Starns Clark

Since I've been talking about mystery and suspense in my last few posts, I thought you all might find this list helpful. Like many other genres (fantasy, romance), there are many sub-genres that fall under the mystery/suspense heading. This is not my area of expertise, so I've consulted an expert.

Mindy Starns Clark is the bestselling author of 20 books, including the "Million Dollar Mysteries" series and the "Smart Chick Mystery" series, as well as the nonfiction how-to guide The House That Cleans Itself. A singer and former stand-up comedian, Mindy is also a popular inspirational speaker and playwright. Born and raised in Louisiana, Mindy now lives near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two daughters. For more information, visit her website at

Thanks Jill, I’m happy to help out. In general, I like to differentiate the genres this way:
• In a mystery, you don’t know who the killer is until the end; though mysteries can be very exciting, the primary focus is on solving the puzzle and figuring out whodunit.
• In suspense, you may know who the killer is—or at least experience the killer’s point of view—but the goal is the “emotional roller coaster” of watching the hero’s struggle to escape great danger.
• A thriller can be suspense or mystery, except that the stakes are higher—i.e., the entire town/country/ world is in danger, not just one person.

Under these primary definitions, there are also numerous sub-genres. Here is a list of some of the most common mystery/suspense/thriller subgenres and their definitions:

Amateur Sleuth – the person solving the mystery is not a professional crime solver

Amish-Related – the mystery or suspense is set in or near an Amish community and features at least some Amish characters

Caper/humorous – involves witty narration, scrambling action, and bumbling but lovable characters

Cat/Dog – features a canine or feline primary sleuth

Classic whodunit – has a plot with a strong puzzle element

Closed-room mystery – has a specific, limited number of suspects, usually all of whom are called together at the end when the killer’s identity is revealed.

Cozy – a mystery with no excessive violence or offensive material, usually solved by an amateur sleuth; the tone generally has a “cozy” feel and focuses on the family, friends, community, profession, hobby, or some other defining niche element of the main character

Crime – set among criminals rather than crime fighters; concerns revenge, vigilante justice, or the successful commission (rather than detection) of a crime

Culinary – set primarily in the “foodie” world, usually with a professional chef or similar as the protagonist

Espionage – deals with the world of spies and spying

Forensic – focuses on the post-mortem sciences such as pathology and entomology

Gothic – dark in tone and plot, usually involving a large, creepy house in a secluded location and hidden family secrets

Hard Boiled – features a weathered, cynical private investigator in a dark and corrupt urban setting

Historical – set in an era substantially prior to the date the book was first published

Legal – features a lawyer as the protagonist and usually includes a number of courtroom scenes as the drama unfolds

Medical – involves a hospital or other medical setting and features a medical professional, such as a doctor or nurse, as the protagonist

Police Procedural – told from the point of view of a law enforcement officer, with a realistic depiction of an official investigation

Private Eye – features a non-police detective, usually a paid professional investigator

Serial killer – typically has a higher level of random violence, explicit gore, and serious mental illness than other genres

SF mystery – conforms to the standards of both crime fiction and science/speculative fiction

Supernatural suspense – same as suspense, but with a supernatural element (such as time travel or magical powers)

Woman in Jeopardy – suspense based on a female protagonist who must defend herself from increasing danger

Did you know there were so many sub-genres that fell under mystery/suspense/thriller? If you're writing one, which sub-genre is your story? If you're not writing one, which sounds the most interesting to you?

Also, we're giving away a copy of Mindy's Beauty to Die For. Enter on the Rafflecopter form below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, November 19, 2012

How to Write About Your Real Life

by Stephanie Morrill

Last week, I received news that threw me into a frenzy of rewrites on a contemporary YA manuscript of mine. That means on Saturday, I made this:

The white cards are the current scenes. The Post-it notes are changes or additions to accommodate a new, stronger climax. And that row on the bottom is all spaced out because I know I'll need additions there, I just don't know what all it'll be.

It's been a year since I've spent much time with this project, so I have lots of tweaks and such that I'm making, but I've also noticed a few scenes that are falling flatter than I would like. And do you know what they have in common?

They all happened to me.

They're the scenes I borrowed from my real life, including the first scene of the book.

One of my most embarrassing moments in middle school happened to me in math class. It was right before class started, and I was chatting with my best friend about her dog, Buttons. So Jodi and I were having a very normal conversation when out of nowhere, the guy sitting next to me calls out, "What, Stephanie? You're in love with Palmer Freeman?!"

Totally and completely out of nowhere, and he clearly intended everybody to hear it. Including Palmer, who was standing in the doorway of the class. I remember looking at Brian and saying, "We're talking about Jodi's dog, Brian," as if there really was a chance that he'd misheard us, and he would now readdress the class and clear up this misunderstanding. Palmer was incredibly popular, and I definitely wasn't, which made it a 7th grade social nightmare.

I don't remember if Brian ever answered me, because Palmer (whose assigned seat was in the desk behind me) swaggered across the classroom with a loud, "Hello, sweetheart." I kept sinking lower in my seat. I was so mortified, I couldn't even speak, plus I was afraid I might cry from all the attention. I kept thinking my best friend was going to back up my story and say to Brian or Palmer that we had been talking about her dog, not Palmer, but instead she was watching Palmer and laughing along with everybody else.

When I originally started writing this book, which involves a nobody girl secretly dating the school's golden boy, I knew I wanted to open with something similar happening to my main character, Ellie. After all, I had lived it, and it was humiliating. Especially when you really DID have (what you thought was) a secret crush on the guy.

I wrote the scene exactly as it had happened to me. I kept the name Palmer, because it's such a cool name, and I left Brian as Brian, because it was the only scene he had in the whole story, so who cared if his name was cool or not?

I wrote the book - drama, drama, drama, secret relationship, more drama, secret revealed, Ellie and Palmer end up together. The End.

I loved the book, and I began to edit it.

When I started in on edits for that first scene, you know what hit me right away? Why did Brian do that? 

I had written the scene exactly as it happened to me, and in my real life, I had no idea why Brian did what he did. It's not like it was a crazy thing to have a crush on Palmer (almost all us girls did), and Brian and I hadn't spoken to each other in a year. And I don't remember ever talking to him again after that moment.

But Ellie could. So I wrote a scene where Ellie confronted Brian about why he had done what he'd done. And I liked it. It had great tension. But Brian wouldn't tell Ellie why he'd done it, so I had to write another scene. By that point, it was occurring to me that Brian might have some kind of crush on Ellie. And that maybe he could threaten the Ellie and Palmer relationship. Though not with a name like Brian. If you're reading a book and one of the guys has a cool, unique name, and the other has a common name, it's rarely a mystery who's going to get the girl. (Plus I had used Brian as the father in the Skylar Hoyt series.)

I renamed him Chase, and from that moment on, he completely took over the story. It was actually a little scary, and I remember emailing Roseanna and saying, "He wasn't even supposed to be in the book, and now I think he might be a better fit for Ellie! Now I can't figure out why she's dating Palmer!"

I wound up doing two more sets of revisions after that, and then I had to put the manuscript aside for awhile. Yet when I pulled it back out last week, I still wasn't satisfied with the first scene. Chase's reactions fell flat. And so did the best friend's. And so did Palmer's. The only character who seemed well thought out in that scene was Ellie.

Because I had taken it straight from my middle school nightmares, I hadn't given a single thought to why the other characters did what they did. Why did Chase pick that moment to humiliate Ellie? And why was Lucy laughing instead of defending her best friend? And why did Palmer inflame Chase's joke instead of all the other reactions he could have had?

And this is why writing from our real life can be a trap to our creativity. If this event hadn't actually happened to me, those are things I would have thought through as I wrote it.

If you've taken something from your real life and written it into your book, ask yourself, "How would the same scene feel if I wrote it from the perspective of another character?" Before I redid the scene this last time, I took time to think through what was going on in Lucy's head while everything unfolded. And then in Chase's. And then in Palmer's. The result was much richer.

Do you ever borrow things from your real life and plug them in your story? Characters? Scenes? Jokes?

Friday, November 16, 2012

7 Ways to Add Mystery to Your Plot

by Jill Williamson
When I wrote my mystery vs. suspense post on Tuesday, I tried to link to this post. Then I discovered that I never posted this post on Go Teen Writes. This was one of my last posts on my old Teenage Authors blog. So I decided to post it here for those of you who've never seen it. I think it's helpful when writing a mystery.
The strength of a plot depends on how the writer reveals information to the reader. If you have nothing going on in the middle of your book, try some of these mystery tips to see if you can add some intrigue. And if you don’t have enough characters for intrigue, maybe you need to add some minor characters.
1. Know the ending
When writing a strong plot, it’s important to have some idea of how you want the story to end. This usually results in your main character achieving his goal. In a mystery novel, that means figuring out who done it. If your mystery is a subplot, you still need to reveal the answer to that mystery. Once you know your ending, it will be easier for you to plant clues and red herrings for the reader along the way.
2. Avoid luck
Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than a story in which the main character succeeds by a string of good luck. Do not allow luck or other heroic characters to sweep in and steal the spotlight from your main character. Your hero needs to solve the mystery!
3. Backstory
Know the backstory of all your main and minor characters. Do not put all that you know into the book! You need to know it to understand each character’s motivation for doing what they do in the story. Murder requires motive. So does every other action. Once you know each character well, it will be easier to plant clues and red herrings for the reader. 
4. Introduce the culprit early on

Make sure the reader gets to see that bad guy/traitor/guilty party early on in the book. It’s frustrating to be reading a story and think you know who may have done it only to discover it was a character who just entered the story in chapter 28! Give the reader a glimpse early on. JK Rowling does a great job with this. If you've read or seen the first Harry Potter, remember that we first saw Professor Quirrell at the Leaky Cauldron when Harry was first headed to school.
Keep in mind, the culprit shouldn't always be the least likely person. Mix it up. Keep your reader guessing.
5. Clues
A clue is: anything that serves to guide or direct in the solution of a problem or mystery.
Plant clues as the story moves along. Things that may seem significant or completely ordinary. Harry Potter’s meeting a new teacher seemed like no big deal at the time.
Clues can be observations. Perhaps your character notices a tattoo on a friend. He doesn't think much of it until later in the book when he sees a villain with the same tattoo. Then there is a connection that raises suspicion of the friend. 
Clues can be relationships: relatives who hate each other, a boyfriends who was cheated on, a couple in love, a mentor…
Clues can be evidence like fingerprints, hair color, footprints, license plate numbers, etc.
Clues can be dialogue. Keri told me she loved snowboarding. Then why did she tell me she hated it?
Depending on the type of writer you are, you might plan these clues before you write the book or write the whole book then go back in and plant clues. Both ways work.
Use clues sparingly. You don’t need them for every character in every scene. You just need a few here and there.
6. Red herrings
A red herring is something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.
Plant red herrings as the story moves along. Things that may seem significant or completely ordinary. Professor Snape’s apparent hatred of Harry seemed like a very big motive for villainy, even though it wasn't.
Red herrings can be observations, relationships, evidence, and dialogue too. Reveal them in the same manner as you do clues. You goal is to throw your reader off track.
Depending on the type of writer you are, you might plan out these red herrings before you write the book or write the whole book then go back in and plant red herrings. Both ways work.  ;-)
Use red herrings sparingly too. 
7. Wait as long as possible for the big reveal
If the mystery subplot is integral to the overall plot of your story, don’t reveal your culprit in the middle of the book. Wait until the last possible moment for your main character to figure it all out.
The idea is to create a trail of puzzle pieces for your character to find and put together until it’s time to be revealed. So if your story is stuck, I suggest you plant some more puzzle pieces. Any questions?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

When to Give Up on A Story

by Rachel Coker

Rachel Coker resides in Lanexa, Virginia with her parents, who’ve homeschooled her since she was a child, and two sisters. She is the author of 2012’s Interrupted: A Life Beyond Words. Coker has a passion for great books and has been surrounded by them all her life. Her gift for writing became apparent at the age of eleven, at which time her parents, who owned a Christian bookstore, signed her up for a year of lessons with a professional writing coach.

So this is a very sad topic to talk about when you’re an author, because in a way it’s almost as depressing as discussing giving up a child for adoption. We writers beat ourselves up and agonize over this question all the time, and we just never feel satisfied with our answers. And that is the question, when is it okay to give up on a story?

When is it time to take a story that just isn’t working out and sit back and say, “You know what? This is it. I’m just going to give up on it and I’m not going to work on it anymore and it’s never going to get published and I’m just going to figure out something new.”

This is an extremely hard thing to do. Because, as an author, you have such an emotional attachment to your stories. They’re like your little babies that you birthed and cleaned up and spent countless hours lying awake and thinking about. You watched them grow, change, and mature. You love those stories like they were your children and if faced with the heartbreak of ever parting from them, you’d probably swim all the way to Sydney, Australia with a half-crazy blue tang fish and even face a dentist to reclaim them back. Yeah, we’re talking strong emotional attachment here.

But sometimes, a story just doesn’t work out and it’s just not happening. And you realize that the only thing to do is to give up on it. Even if it’s really great writing or amazing characters, you just have to come to the realization that what you’re envisioning is never going to happen. You’re stuck, and there’s no real way or motivation to move forward.

I can think of two specific examples, personally, of two different stories that I loved and spent so much time on, but ended up abandoning. I spent so much time on them, and wrote over one hundred pages for each story, and I really planned on one day publishing them both.

But something never really felt right. There was always something holding me back and making me question both stories. And it got to the point where I finally just had to realize that they weren’t publishable books or stories that I really believed in. So I stopped writing them. And it’s sad because they involved great writing and amazing characters and lots of humor and interesting plot twists, but at the end of the day my heart just wasn’t in it. So when do you get to that point? What does it take to finally quit a story and realize it’s just not going to happen anymore?

I think there’s a couple different things you want to consider. The question to ask yourself would be:

Is this story still going somewhere? 

Sometimes you start off with this great big jumpstart and you dive right in with so much excitement about characters and settings and plots. But then, after a while, it gets to where you’re just trying to push forward and move on but nothing’s happening. It’s as if you’ve hit a wall. And while sometimes you can get over that wall by thinking creatively, brainstorming, and remembering what it was that made you love that story so much when you first started out.

But sometimes you just can’t move on. You’re just stuck and you can’t see the story going anywhere. That’s such a difficult conclusion to come to, but it’s when you have to realize that maybe it isn’t a story that’s worth putting that much effort into. If it’s not something that you can still feel passion for, it’s not something you can continue to write.

Sometimes stories are just too depressing to continue. One of the stories that I mentioned earlier was beautiful and poetic and consisted of some of my favorite writing that I’ve ever done, but the plot line was just gloomy. I was so emotionally invested in the story that I couldn’t find any humor whatsoever in what was going on. And that’s definitely not a good place to be. There always has to be something light or sarcastic or witty to balance out the sad tones in a book and I couldn’t come up with anything! That’s how wrapped up in the story I was. And even though that book was really special to me and I might someday be able to revisit it and make it work, but at the time it was just too depressing and really made me feel sad when I was working on it. So I just had to come to the conclusion that nothing was going to come of it and move on.

Of course, that’s when I got the idea for “Chasing Jupiter”, so I’d say things worked out nicely in the end, but it was still a tough decision.

And the last example I’ll give of when it it’s probably time to stop working on a book is when you have something new and exciting in the back of your mind. And the new idea is so exciting that you literally can’t wait to start working on it. Personally, I plan my books in advance. So when I’m working on my third book, I’m already planning out my fourth one and I know that as soon as I’m finished, I’ll be jumping into that new story and really fleshing it out. So I know I have to wait on that next idea until the time comes for me to work on it.

But sometimes, you just can’t wait. And if what you’re working on right now doesn’t really seem important enough to keep putting energy into because of something else you’re dying to do, then maybe that’s a sign that you need to let it go and work on something that you’re passionate about. You just need to go for it! The first story isn’t going to go anywhere. If you give it up now, you can always come back to it later. No problem.

If you’re passionate about a story and you love it enough to be able to push through the hard times, then it’s worth writing. It’s worth the time and the energy and the sleepless nights to try and get that story published. No question about it. But if it’s just not happening for you, then you don’t need to feel bad about letting it go. You can set it aside and realize that whether or not you ever go back to it, you’re going to be okay. There are better things in life that you can be spending your time on than difficult stories that your heart just isn’t in. Sometimes it is okay to just stop working on a book and find something new. It’s hard, but it’s okay.

So hopefully I’ve either made you feel better if you’ve been thinking about calling it quits on an unexciting story, or else I’ve fueled your passion to really stick with a story you love and make it through those hard times! Just remember to keep writing and keep doing what you love. If you follow that advice, you’ll always make it out okay. As always, I’d love it if you followed my blog and liked me on Facebook! And don’t forget to pre-order your copy of my next book, Chasing Jupiter, due to be released next month!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How to Begin A Story

by Stephanie Morrill

A writer asked me, "I always know exactly how I want the story to play out, but I never know how to begin. I always get stuck with how to introduce the topic to the reader. Do you have any tips for me?"

Great question, because if the opening of your novel stinks, it's doubtful that many will make it to the wonderful middle and end that you've written. But what makes for an effective opening to a story?

Here are some guidelines:

Begin with your main character and tell the scene from their point of view.

I'm sure we all have books we love that don't do this, but especially if this is early in your writing journey, I encourage you to start with your main character. Readers want to bond with your main character right away.

Start with your main character being active

They don't have to be saving the world or anything, but starting with them in motion can make a big difference. Here's how these great books did it:

Hunger Games starts with Katniss sneaking out to hunt.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen starts with Macy at her boyfriend's house, helping him pack up for Brain Camp.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld begins with Tally sneaking out to New Pretty Town.

Start with them in their homeworld ... with a twist

You'll notice in those examples that these main characters are all doing something familiar to them. Katniss regularly goes hunting. Macy is assisting her longtime boyfriend. Tally has been sneaking out at night, we're told, since she was 12. 

But also there's something unique about this time. Either they know something is about to happen - Katniss knows the reaping is that night and Macy's boyfriend is about to leave for the summer - or something has just happened. Tally's best friend has just been made "pretty" so he's been taken to live in New Pretty Town, and for the first time she's alone.

Pick a moment that exposes their longings...

Your novel is about your character's growth. If they didn't need to change, we wouldn't care about their journey. In Tangled, before we can appreciate Rapunzel's freedom, we need to see her in captivity, longing to be free. In Cinderella, before we can appreciate her riches, we need to see her in rags, dreaming of a better life.

So when you're figuring out the best starting place, you'll want to consider what kind of goals your characters have and how you can give your readers some context for them.

...and shows their strength

You also need to give us a reason to want to spend the next 80,000 words with this character. I love the start of Cinderella because of how beautifully it showcases Cinderella's strengths - despite being oppressed and living in a home full of cruel, selfish women, Cinderella still has joy. She wakes up singing in the mornings! Her joy makes us feel the stepmother's cruelty all the more acutely, I think.

Figure out what disturbs your character's world, then back the story up slightly

Writers tend to fall into two categories with beginnings - either they take their sweet time getting to the real action of the story, or they plop us down right after the main character's world has been rocked and they don't give the reader enough context.

If you're the first type or writer, it's possible you'll write your book, then cut the first two chapters. If you're the other, you might need to add a couple chapters to the first part of your manuscript. There's nothing wrong with finding your real beginning after you've written the end.

I find it helpful to think through what disturbs my character's homeworld, what invites her to change. In the book I'm working on now, my main character's world is disturbed when her best friend finds out she's moving. It packs a punch for the main character, Ellie, because her entire social life is tied to this one friend. I knew I needed to establish the dynamics of their group and friendships before the reader could grasp why Lucy moving was such a big deal.

What about you? How do you feel about the beginning of your story? Do you have a favorite opening scene, either in a book or movie?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mystery vs. Suspense: What’s the Difference?

by Jill Williamson

I've done some research these past few weeks on this topic, and here’s what I found: Mystery novels make you think. Suspense novels make you sweat.

But let’s look a bit closer at each.

The Mystery Novel
A mystery is a secret. A puzzle to be solved. It makes the reader curious. It causes the reader to make guesses as to the outcome. It hooks the reader because the mystery is baffling, unsettling, and begs a resolution.

In a mystery novel, the crime usually happens off stage, and it cannot be solved until the end of the story.

These types of stories tend to have a large cast because the reader needs many suspects. The murderer could be anyone! And as each character is introduced into the story, the reader develops a sense of whether or not each might be guilty or innocent. Clues and red herrings are planted.

The protagonist may be a detective or an amateur sleuth, who gathers the clues or pieces to the puzzle and assembles them in order to find the truth of what happened. In real life, in order to convince a grand jury to indict someone of a crime, there must be probable cause that the suspect committed a crime. The detective or sleuth in a mystery novel must do this as well.

Probable cause states that this person probably committed this particular crime at this place and at this time. And there must be evidence for each of these things to make an arrest. Proof that who did what and where. Just like in the board game Clue (the weapon goes with the “what”). Check out t
he movie Clue, starring Tim Curry sometime. Another great example of mysteries are the Sherlock Holmes books or movies.

In a mystery, the reader discovers the clue or red herring at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader becomes the investigator too. 
Mystery novels tend to be slower paced. They’re an unwinding a spool of thread. They challenge the reader’s smarts. They explore the criminal’s mind and motives. Why would a sane person commit a heinous crime? Or how could an insane criminal so perfectly cover his tracks? A mystery is intellectually satisfying to the reader.

The Suspense Novel
Suspense is a condition of mental uncertainty. Like a mystery, it makes the reader curious, but it also makes the reader anxious and excited as he waits for all to be revealed. It plants questions in the reader’s mind. Will the criminal get away with this? Will the hero figure it out in time?

In a suspense novel, the crime often happens on the page, the reader may or may not know who committed the crime, but the reader is waiting to discover how the hero is going to put it all together and how it might impact his life.

The hero is often thrust into the role. He might be a police officer, but he might be a regular guy without any skills or training to face such criminals. He would rather be coaching little league, but he’s been forced by someone or something to step up and protect his loved ones from danger. The stakes are high.

He must keep the terrorists from obtaining their objective, stop the bomb from exploding, keep the zombies away from the kids. The reader lives vicariously through the hero, experiencing a thrill as he faces danger and tries to save the day. A great example is the movie Speed, in which a young cop must prevent a bomb exploding aboard a city bus by keeping its speed above 50 mph.

Alfred Hitchcock explained suspense as, “A state of waiting for something to happen.” If a mystery is an unwinding a spool of thread, a suspense novel is jumping from an airplane and waiting to hit the ground. The excitement should build and build until the ending. It’s not about fear, it’s about waiting for something to happen.

In a suspense novel, the reader sees what’s going to happen before the hero does. This creates that feeling of danger in the reader. He wants to scream, “No! Don’t trust that guy!” or “Don’t get in the car!” 

Hitchcock uses the example of a bomb to explain the difference between mystery and suspense. In a mystery, two people might be eating lunch in a restaurant, talking, and a bomb suddenly explodes. Then the story would be: Who did it?

In a suspense novel, the reader would see the criminal come in and plant the bomb. The patrons in the restaurant wouldn't see him. But the reader would know. He would listen to the patron’s conversation, on the edge of his seat, knowing that an explosion was imminent. The clock is tick-tick-ticking, just like the reader’s heartbeat. A suspense novel is emotionally satisfying to the reader.

What are some of your favorite mystery or suspense novels, movies, or TV programs?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ask an Editor: The Right Publishing House for You

by Roseanna White, editor for WhiteFire Publishing

Ask an Editor

Not long ago, Stephanie blogged on finding the literary agent that's right for you. I'd already known I would be writing about finding the publishing house that's right for you, so this post of hers got me really excited for the subject. In a lot of ways, it's a similar process. And in some very interesting ones, it's a whole new game.

I know a lot of authors, and I can honestly say that I've never talked to any who said, "I want Big Press as my publisher, and no one else. If they won't give me a contract, then I'm done." Usually it's more like, "I have this list of ten thousand publishers, and I'm sending to them all. Whichever one bites is the one I'm going with."

As with most things in life, a middle ground must be found. ;-)

So how do you even compile your list of dream publishers? I daresay most of you have one already. It's the list of publishers who have put out books you love. Publishers with visions you think are awesome. Publishers with an editor you'd just adore the chance to work with. This list is a great thing to have, especially if you've really studied the industry. If you know that Big House specializes in steampunk and Big Press is futuristic science fiction, though both merely say "speculative" on their website. It's handy to have an idea of what each publisher might mean by "historical" (prairie? biblical? western? Gilded Age? Regency?) or "contemporary" (lighthearted? romantic? dramatic?).

But realistically, when you have an agent, they present your book to a whole slew of publishers at once. There is always a criteria, a system, and often your agent will talk about pros and cons: "Big House is starting a new line, and the editor is really excited about it. Your book would be perfect--but before we'd even consider signing with them, I want to talk to Ms. Editor about their marketing plans, because if they don't launch big, it could flop, and you don't want to be caught up in that. Now Big Press over here--this is their specialty, and you're a great match. But they would want you solely to support Star Writer, and she'd be the one getting the big push from them, you'd just be singing backup."

And even once you land that first contract, you still often have a dilemma. Your new publisher only wants your historicals, for instance, and not your science fiction. Your fantasy series is a good match, but they have no interest in that other idea you've been working on for five years. Or even if it all fits, they only want  one title per year from you, and you churn out four. what?

This, my friends, is why a lot of authors work with more than publisher. Either to diversify or to try to match their writing output with their publishing output. Or, occasionally, because that dream contract they landed turned out to be not so perfect after all. Maybe they clashed with their editor or marketing team...maybe the publisher is cutting back...maybe they didn't get the support they were hoping for. So there they are again, back to hunting up a deal.

A lot of times, it's a matter of finding the perfect match for a particular project. A perfect example of this is WhiteFire's latest release. Trapped: The Adulterous Woman is the first in a series of biblical novellas about the unnamed women in the gospels by well-established author Golden Keyes Parsons. Golden's debut novel was a historical fiction set in the court of King Louis XVI of France, in the days when the Huguenots had to flee for their lives. Thomas Nelson picked up this series and has published four of her historicals, which take the readers from France to America, all the way up through the Civil War. Golden has really enjoyed working with them.

But all these years, she's had a novella series close to her heart--and Thomas Nelson wasn't interested in novellas, nor in biblical fiction. They passed on it and gave her permission to seek publication for it elsewhere. Now, round about the time she started thinking about this, WhiteFire put out two biblicals by yours truly. Golden read them, thought, "Wow, they would be a great match for my novellas!" and submitted it to us.

The result is, as they say, history. WhiteFire had the joy of adding a well-established author to the line, and Golden got to see this series of her heart see publication. A win for all involved! 

Now, there is still a give-and-take--WhiteFire, for instance, can't offer the huge marketing push and distribution that Thomas Nelson can. On the other hand, we give a more personal touch--Golden had a lot of input on cover design, she knows she can ask me anything and I'll get back to her pronto, and we have a very tight-knit community of authors and editors that support, encourage, and promote one another.

Sometimes an author will find a publisher that fits them beautifully, that all their projects work for, and who propels them to greatness that makes them never want to leave. And that is awesome. But for most of us, it's a matter of finding the right for us as people, and for our particular stories at particular times.

Have questions about how to know if a publisher is right for you? Or another question that's been on your mind? I'll be here to answer them!

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Merits of Hiring a Freelance Editor

By Jill Williamson

I started writing my novel The New Recruit in 2004. I attended my first writer's conference in 2005, where I learned that my writing needed a lot of work. Near the end of 2006, I was preparing to attend a large writer's conference in the spring 2007. And I was at the point where I just didn't know if my writing was good enough. How was I supposed to find out? Sure, I had critique partners who'd read my story. But none of them were published. How could I ensure that my manuscript was the best it could be before I went to this expensive conference?

I decided to pay a freelance editor to do a critique on my first three chapters. I was severely disappointed in what I received for my $75. The editor made some good points, but she didn't seem to understand my audience. She chastised me for writing a book with a main character who was so flawed. She said it was horrible to read about a teen who told lies and got into fights. My gut told me she was wrong about that.

So I ended up attending that big writer's conference no closer to knowing whether I had a clue what I was doing. I signed up for the mentoring clinic with James Scott Bell. In this class we each sent in one chapter of our story to all ten class participants and to the instructor. We had to critique them before the conference, then we'd spend time during the conference going over them.

This was awesome. In this group of writers I learned that I did have some talent. I also pitched The New Recruit at the conference and got two requests from agents. I had a good premise! I was so excited, but I still didn't know if my story was good all the way through. I had met Becky Miller at the conference. And she did freelance editing. So I paid Becky to read my whole book. It wasn't cheap, but it was more affordable than some. She gave me pages of notes, marked up my manuscript, and a very kind letter listing my strengths and what I needed to work on. She also volunteered to recommend that her publisher friend take a look at my manuscript once I cleaned it up.

So I got to work. But the publisher connection didn't pan out. And later, when both agents from the big conference rejected The New Recruit, I figured something major must be wrong. I had met Jeff Gerke at that big writer's conference, and he had told me he did freelance editing on some very well-known novelists. Novelists who were weird, like me.

I saved up and paid Jeff to read The New Recruit. His feedback changed everything. But by then I had written a few more books, and I was completed obsessed with my new fantasy novel, the book that became By Darkness Hid. So I waited until I finished the fantasy novel, then I went in and rewrote The New Recruit. Again.

That next summer I attended another big conference. But only one house (AMG) was looking for YA stories. I submitted a mini proposal for The New Recruit and my fantasy novel. And I submitted my fantasy proposal to Jeff, since I so admired his editorial feedback.

AMG asked for the full on The New Recruit! Turned down the fantasy novel. And Jeff asked for the full on the fantasy novel. Jeff published my fantasy novel, By Darkness Hid, which went on to win several awards. AMG had The New Recruit for over a year, going back and forth with it. They eventually turned it down and published Wayne Batson's The Sword in the Stars. I found out later that they could only publish one book at the time and Wayne had a bigger platform and following. I got to sit with the editor for AMG at a conference this past summer, and it was fun to talk about how his house rejected both The New Recruit and By Darkness Hid.

That's how it works in publishing. Sometimes you get rejected because of craft. Sometimes you get rejected because there is only one slot and the other author had more experience than you. Sometimes a publisher will take a chance on you anyway. And eventually you get to make friends with everyone and have a good laugh.

My point is, good things come to those who work hard, are patient, persistent, and willing to invest in their own careers.

Are you ready to pay someone for a critique of your work? Ask yourself:
-Is the book done? 
-Have you been critiqued by your peers first? 
-Have you rewritten the book until you are satisfied? 
-Have you done your research to find the right freelance editor who will understand your genre?
-Have you considered paying someone to read your first three chapters and synopsis first? That could point out some good stuff and save you a lot of money in paying for a full novel edit.

Keep in Mind
1. You might find out that your writing isn't quite there yet
And that's okay. 

2. You might waste your money.
Hopefully not. But 

3. You might get lots of praise and still get rejected.

4. You might get a referral or request for your manuscript.

Here is a list of Freelance Editors I recommend:

BONUS! Write Now Relief
Today, I (Jill) am participating in a critique auction in an effort to raise money for victims of Sandy. This might not be the best way to get a bargain on a critique, but if you're ready to have a partial critique done, check out which authors are participating. It's for a good cause.

WHAT: Bid on a 50-page critique of your novel by a published novelist! Highest bidder will send their amount to Samaritans Purse for their relief efforts for the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

WHEN: Begins Friday, November 9, ends Friday midnight EST November 16.

HOW: Head to the blog of the author you’d like to have critique your 50 pages. Find their Write Now Relief blog post and place your bid in the comments section of that post. Monitor it closely so that you can re-bid! Check back on this Facebook page for updates on all the bids. If you are the high bidder at the end of the week, make your donation and email a copy of your receipt to the author with your 50 pages. It’s that easy.

How much is a 50-page critique worth?
Most authors and editors can easily charge $35 an hour and a fifty-page critique is well over three hours of labor. But this labor of love is for victims who have lost everything. Their need is huge. One blogger who hosted a similar campaign last week had a top donation bid of $1,000 for a 50-page critique!

What will the critique entail?
The author you choose will read your fifty pages with an eye to giving you insights and feedback on all aspects of your story excerpt, including plot, character, story arc, mechanics, pacing, and reader appeal.

How do I start?
You can check Susan Meissner’s blog for the full list of participating authors and their blog addresses. Pick an author, head to their blog on Friday, November 9, and make your opening bid.

Any questions about how freelance editing works? Have any of you ever paid a professional for freelance editing? What was your experience?