Monday, April 30, 2012

How to Add Tension to Your Plot

by Stephanie Morrill


 
When I first heard the concept of the ticking clock, I thought it was just a cool technique for suspense authors to use. Like, "The ransom is due at midnight, and little Joey will die, but we've been trapped in this room by crazy Earl and can't get out!"

But the ticking clock, I've come to realize, can be used in all genres. Like in really well done regency romances:


In Julie Klassen's latest, Margaret is a young society lady in London, but unlike her peers has had no real interest in marrying - unless for love - because on her 21st birthday she will inherit a tremendous sum of money from her great aunt.

But while she's 20, her mother remarries. Her stepfather has somehow learned about her inheritance, and is forcing his charming but slimy nephew to court her. Margaret overhears a conversation between the two men, in which it's made clear that they intend to persuade her to marry the nephew by ... ahem ... ruining her reputation as a virtuous woman.

With 3 months until her birthday, Margaret flees from the dangerous situation with what teeny amount of pocket money she has and goes undercover as a maid. Only she gets hired by two former suitors of hers, who might see through her disguise if they look closely.

Did you catch the ticking clock element? Margaret has three months until she inherits the money - can she stay hidden and safe until then?


Even if you're not writing something in the suspense vein, a "ticking clock" element can really tighten up your plot.

The one I described above is a big ticking clock, something tied to the main character's big goal (avoiding marriage to anyone who wants her just for her fortune) but also, look for ways to add smaller ticking clocks. 


The show 24 was excellent at this. Not only did you have the big plot underfoot (terrorists who were trying to blow up Los Angeles) but there were also little ticking clocks along the way. The team is en route and we need that code broken now.

Are there ticking clocks in your manuscript? Or can your character take the scenic way to achieving their goals?



Saturday, April 28, 2012

Winning entries from, "This is not what I expected."

Many, many thanks to judges Laura L. Smith and Tiffany Rott for taking the time to select this round's winners. They were quite unanimous!

First Place
Gillian Adams - 2 votes

Second Place
Kayla Anne CP - 2 votes

Third Place
Clare Kolenda
Jordan Newhouse

Honorable Mentions
Paulina Czarnecki
Alison Schneider

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

By Gillian Adams, 2 votes for 1st

His eyes stare up at me. Pale blue like the arctic sky, but lifeless as the ice beneath my feet. Dead. A prickle creeps up my arms and the sword falls from my numb fingers, cleaving a bloodstained gash in the snow.

Grey frosts my vision. A crimson river mars the pure white surface of the earth. My blood. This is not what I expected. A victor cheated of victory. Revenge stolen by the one who had already stolen everything. My family, throne, honor – all gone.

The earth seems to tilt and I fall. Cold seeps into my heart.

He has stolen everything. Including my life.

The judges say: Your incredible descriptions give me goosebumps, literally and figuratively . I'm intrigued to see where you take the story from here. Beginning a novel with someone's, presumably the protagonist's death, is a great (and not what I expected ) lead.


The description pulled me into the story right away and the bold to the twist at the end made me desperate to know what happens next.  

By Kayla Anne CP, 2 votes for 2nd

My heart sank as the last arrow from my quiver sunk, just shy of the bulls-eye, into the target with a heartless thud. I knew I ought to keep practicing, but the pile of failed shots clumped below the target discouraged me.

"Well, well, well," said my best friend Michael, "This is not what I expected from The Amelie's daughter." He ran a finger dramatically through his short chestnut curls, accentuating my mother's name and reminding me it was her legacy, not my own, I served to prove.

"Lay off Micky! You know the sword is my thing."

"Of course. Pointy and very, very sharp."

The judges say: The banter between the characters shows their personalities and makes me want to read more about them.


You did an excellent job of presenting your characters with so few words. I feel I already know, and like, the heroine. I'd be excited to see where this novel takes her. 

By Clare Kolenda, 3rd Place

Skin so soft it is like satin. Angelic face and clear blue eyes just like mine. Cradling my daughter to my chest, I feel the deepest love that my teenage heart has ever felt. This is not what I expected.
The nurse comes in the room. “It’s time to let me take her now.”
Protectiveness rises in me and I turn as if I can see through the hospital’s pale blue walls, to where I know the adoptive parents must be waiting in anticipation.
Little Rose starts to cry, and my hear t writhes in pain.
I hold my baby tighter.  “I can’t give her up.”

The judge says: The emotions in this scene feel very real and natural and push the story forward.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Creating a Character Board

By Jill Williamson
When creating your characters, it helps to be able to look at them. This is why I create a character board for each novel I write. I like to have my characters out where I can see them. I have a sandwich board sign that I use for book signings, but the rest of the time, it’s covered with the characters from my recent work in progress.
You could also create a notebook for your characters or pin them up on the wall or a bulletin board.
Pictured is my character inspiration for Captives, the dystopian novel I’m writing for Zonderkidz. When I look for images of my characters, I have the tendency to pick famous people who pop into my head and are easy to find pictures for. Sometimes I spend a lot of time on iStockPhoto or Shutterstock looking for characters. FYI, you don’t have to pay for images you print out and look at in your home. You only have to pay for images you are going to put on a product and sell. You also have to be careful putting images on your blog.
So what do you think of my character board? Click here to view a bigger image that you can click on and zoom in to see and read.
I try to find a few pictures of each main character with different expressions. Have you ever made a character board? Do you find them helpful? If you have a blog, post a link to one of your characters.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ask an Editor: 6 Ways to Get a Request

by Roseanna White,
acquisitions editor WhiteFire Publishing



Last time I was on here we talked about the things that will get your query deleted faster than a con man can say, “It’ll make you millions!” This time, I figure we’ll look at the other side of the coin and focus on things that make editors and agents say, “Okay, let’s take a look!”

Now, in this world of social media, I have noticed something, so we’ll begin with that.

Doable # 1 - The Personal Touch

When you’re interested in a particular publisher or agent, a good first step is to get to know them. Frequent their blog. Stop by their pages on Facebook and Twitter. Leave comments now and then—not pointed toward your book, but just friendly. Relevant to their post.

I always felt a little weird doing this, like I was cyber-stalking or something. But now that I’m on the other side of the desk, let me assure you that it makes a difference. Name recognition counts, even when it’s something as small as this. But when I’ve gotten a couple funny comments from folks on Facebook on my blog, it makes me think twice about whatever query they might send me, and makes me far more likely to want to look at their proposal, even if the query doesn’t make it sound right up my alley.

Now, the most recent contract WhiteFire sent out was to an author who had indeed been commenting regularly on my Facebook page, but I didn’t realize it, LOL. See, another editor had acquired this one, I was just handling the technical side of the contract. So when I went to type in her name and realized it was Susie, there was a lightbulb moment—and suddenly I went from, “Yeah, okay, a contract” to “Yay! Susie! I can’t wait to work with her on this!!”

If you've met an editor or agent in person, remind them of that! Say where it was, what you talked about, or that you sat in on their class or have taken one of their online courses. Let them know you're familiar with what they're looking for.

Doable # 2 - Be the Authority

Young writers don't often have a platform. Editors understand that. But there's always a reason a writer is drawn to a particular subject, right? Play that up. If you're writing about a skateboarder, tell me up front that you won some skateboard exhibition that I've never heard of. It'll interest me. Are you writing about a foster child? Then please share that your family has taken them in, or that you have experience with the system. Is your heroine running a battered women's shelter? Then let me know you've volunteered at one for the last two years. Is it set in India, where you went on a mission trip last year? Let me know!

Even if you don't have firsthand experience, your research counts. I, for instance, have never been to Ancient Persia. (Shocker!! LOL) But I studied ancient cultures for two years, and I can say so. I can talk about it as if I have been.

See, most editors know a little bit about a lot of things but aren't expert in them. We know just enough to detect genuine knowledge in someone else. And that authority that comes with your knowledge comes through. So talk about a subject like you know it, like you mean it. Be the expert.

Doable # 3 - Be Excited

Even in a three-paragraph query, excitement comes through. And let me just tell you that if you aren't enthused about a project, no editor is going to be either. I've had a few discussions with folks who say, "Well, I guess I have this other project over here. I could send you that, if you think it might be more what you're looking for . . ." Um, gee. Thanks, but . . .

If, on the other hand, you use bold, punchy words to describe your story, words that prove you've put thought and energy into it, that goes far.

Doable # 4 - Professionalism and Confidence

It's really important when sending a query to follow all the "don't" rules and come off as a professional. While it came be a hard balance to strike, aim for confidence without pretension. Believe in what you're saying, but don't try to sound like the best thing since slathering peanut butter on an Oreo. And above all, make your query letter clean! I'm talking grammar. If a query letter is fluid and polished, clean and precise, you're more likely to get a request than if the editor can't read the first sentence without going, "Is a word missing here or something??"

That may sound like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised at how often I get query letters that are grammatically a mess. And so what am I to assume the book will be like? So have your friends read over it, a parent, critique partners if you have them, perhaps a teacher. Make that baby shine--it's the first impression, after all.

Doable # 5 - Be Ready!

Stephanie has touched on this before--don't send out queries until you're READY! If an editor comes back five minutes after you press "send" and says, "Sounds great, send me the first three chapters!" you'd better have those chapters ready to send! And if they come back a day later and say, "The chapters were awesome--you said the manuscript was finished, right? Let me at it!" Well, you'd better have that ready too, right?

Because editors have good memories but a lot filling them. Editors and agents at big houses or agencies often get hundreds of queries a day. So you have to be ready to pounce while their memories of you and your work are fresh. Because while it may take them three months to even open up your proposal, they may open it then and there and fall in love. (Trust me, I've had it happen, from both sides of the desk!)

So to sum it all up . . .

Doable # 6 - Stand Out as Yourself!

Be professional, know your stuff, but most of all, be you. If your personality comes through, you're more likely to be remembered. If you're meeting someone in person, let them see the real you. If it's all via email, inject your voice into your correspondence. That will set you apart. That will have editors friending you on Facebook or Twitter because they remember you fondly. That will make them sit up and take note when a proposal comes in.

And that, after all, is what we're going for. =)

Have a publishing question you think I could answer? Email me at Roseanna(at)Whitefireprinting.com

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Julie Klassen is here!

by Stephanie Morrill


What a treat it is to have Julie Klassen here with us today. JULIE KLASSEN!!!

I fell in love with Julie's writing when I read The Apothecary's Daughter, which I've mentioned pretty frequently on here.

At last September's American Christian Fiction Writer's conference, I spotted Julie and she graciously answered all my dorky writer questions. ("In The Apothecary's Daughter, when Lily said this..." "If Lily had money, do you think Marlowe would have...?")

Not only is she a talented writer, she's a sweet, wise woman. And today she's here! Yay!


Julie, all your current novels are set in the regency time period, plus I know you're a big fan of Jane Austen. If you had the chance to have tea with her and ask a couple questions, what would they be?

So...am I going back in time, or is this meeting in heaven? :)

Here are a few things I might ask Miss Austen:

1. Can you believe your books are more popular than ever 200 years after they were published?
2. If you have seen the movie versions of Pride and Prejudice, which actor best captured your image of Mr. Darcy?
3. If you could write one more book, what would it be?



Oooh, good ones! I've just finished your latest The Maid of Fairbourne Hall.


To escape the dangerous attention of her stepfather's nephew,  Margaret flees London society. She winds up working as a maid for two former suitors...
Margaret is a different type of heroine than your previous novels, and her goals in the first scene aren't exactly the type to win her admiration from the modern female. Yet I still felt drawn into the story and interested in what would happen to Margaret. What about her character do you think "works"?

I know what you mean. Margaret (a bit vain, self-centered, and scheming) doesn’t start out as a very likeable character. To counter this in early chapters, I gave her a younger brother and sister of whom she is very fond. While we may not approve of her actions, we understand that part of Margaret’s motivation is to protect and provide for her siblings. And of course, as the story progresses, Margaret changes quite a bit through the humbling circumstances she finds herself in, and having to work hard for the first time in her life. Along the way, she learns she has been wrong to judge people by appearances and becomes a kinder, more self-sacrificing person.

It's a really well done character arc. I enjoyed my time with her and watching her grow.


Many of the writers here at Go Teen Writers write historical fiction. What kind of resources do you use, and how did you go about finding them? 

Books: I have tubs of tabbed research books (hubby is building a big new bookcase for me as I type this). I locate and buy many used books through Amazon. A few I am able to find at local libraries or through Google books online.

Internet: There is so much good information on the web these days (though you have to be careful to verify what you find). There are also many helpful web sites that deal with different aspects of various time periods. For example, I visit specific sites to learn more about Regency clothes, carriages, customs, slang, etc. I also use etymonline.com to verify that words I write in dialogue were in use in my time period.

Loops/organizations: I belong to a loop of American Christian Fiction Writers who write historical novels set in non-American settings. I also belong to the Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America, which offers Regency classes, online newsletters, and an email loop where I can ask other members research questions.

Julie, something I love about your books is the peek into different roles during the regency period. Like in The Apothecary's Daughter, there was so much cool medicine history. In The Silent Governess, I learned a ton about the unique place a governess had in the household. How do you handle research as your writing? Do you do the bulk of it before? Do you research as you go?

Even though my books are fictional, many of my story ideas have their basis in historical reality, so I do find new research material for each new book/occupation/location before I begin writing. But I don’t read these books cover to cover before I begin--or I’d never get a book finished! I read some ahead of time to gather the basics, then I do spot-research later when I come across something I don’t know (which is often!), like: Did they have injections (shots) then? Did they use this word? How long would it take by carriage to get from point A to point B? How much money (pounds, shillings) would a certain item or service cost back then, etc., etc., etc. But eventually, you have to lay aside the research and write!

Is that the way you handled research in the beginning as well when, I assume, you were still learning about the general culture of the Regency era?

Yes. When I started writing, not only was less information readily available online, but I knew so little (and had never even been to England), so I had to check nearly everything (and still didn’t get it all right, no doubt). I have gained a more general knowledge of the time period, so yes the writing is somewhat easier. If only my memory were photographic (or I had thought to index/organize my research from the beginning), writing would be a LOT easier. As it is, I still find myself rechecking things. However, now I feel less “alone” in trying to figure things out. These days, I rely not only on books and the internet, but I also have several other author-friends who write Regency, and are happy to share their knowledge in a pinch. Plus, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to England twice now, which really helps me visualize and research the settings.

If you could send a message back in time to new-writer Julie, what are 3 pieces of advice you would offer her?

Great question! I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before. Let’s see:

1. You can’t--won’t!--please everyone. Make sure you concentrate on pleasing God with what you write.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. There will always be authors who write better and sell better. Do the best you can with the gifts God has given you.

3. Keep you rear in chair and write already. What are you waiting for? :)


Julie, it was such an honor to have you as a guest. And congratulations on your latest Christy award nomination!


If you want more information about Julie's books (and if you haven't read them yet, you definitely do!) you can read descriptions and excerpts on her website.

Julie said she'd try to pop in and say hello sometime today, so make sure you leave a comment welcoming her to Go Teen Writers. And if you had the chance to ask a favorite author one question, who would it be and what would you ask them?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Character Traits: Love Language


By Jill Williamson


The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman is a nonfiction book first published for married couples. I don’t remember when I first discovered it, but I found the concept fascinating. The five love languages work for every relationship. In fact, I asked my editor Jeff Gerke what his was, told him mine, and that helped us better understand each other.


I always like to know my characters’ love languages.


You don’t have to buy the book to understand how the five love languages work. Here's how it works. People tend to feel love in one of five ways: 


Words of affirmation
Acts of service
Gifts
Physical touch
Quality time


You might know in simply reading that list which is yours. Some people have more than one. I’m a service girl. I show people love by doing things for them. And I tend to feel loved when people do things for me. My husband is a words of affirmation guy. I can do nice things for him all day long and if I don’t say kind, affirming words to him, he doesn’t feel loved.


See how clever this is?


You can take the 5 Love languages quiz here: http://www.5lovelanguages.com/assessments/love/


So how about it? What’s your love language? Now think about your parents and see if you can figure out what theirs are. Then try and do their love language for them in some way.


What do you think? Do you see how it might be helpful to know your character’s love language?

Monday, April 23, 2012

A change in Go Teen Writers Contests

What a thrill it's been to watch the tremendous growth we've seen in Go Teen Writers writing contests. Last year, we were getting about 30-40 entries. The contests in 2012 have had between 80 and 95 entries.

The writers who judges contests here do it because they love pouring into the upcoming generation of writers. But as their own writing careers grow, so do the demands on their time. So we pow-wowed and tried to figure out a solution so they could keep judging, the contest could keep growing, and everyone could still receive feedback.

Here are the adjustments we've been able to agree upon for those that do not make the top twenty:

Many of the entries have the same technique issues. Instead of having to come up with new ways to say "your pacing is rushed" or "you're summarizing instead of showing the story" there will be a list of standard responses the judge can mark if they apply to the entry.

Ideally, we agreed, we would be able to provide tailored responses for everybody, but as the contest grows, it's clear we can't. Especially if we want to run the contests as frequently as we have been.

We're still tweaking this chart, but here's what it looks like so far:

__ This entry is highly creative – way to go!
__ Intriguing premise
__ Great dialogue
__ This is a character that I would enjoy reading about
__ Great hook!
__ Creative use of the prompt sentence.
__ Good conflict.
__ Strong voice.
__ Very clean, smooth writing.

__ Try being more specific in your descriptions. Many of your details are vague.
__ The pacing rushed – you’re telling the story too quickly.
__ This reads more like a summary of a story than it does the opening of a story.
__ You have repetitive thoughts and/or words in this entry.
__ You’re telling the story rather than showing it to us.
__ There are some POV inconsistencies in your entry.
__ Dialogue feels stiff and could use some smoothing.
__ Grammar/Spelling errors
__ Didn’t follow contest instructions
__ Too much backstory
__ The balance feels off, either too much description or too much dialogue

Again, those who make the top 20 will still receive the same style of feedback.

The only other options we came up with were reducing the number of contests per year or limiting the number of entries. We thought "more generic feedback" was a better alternative.

Thanks for all your hard work and creativity - that's what makes the contests so fun!


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Teen Writing Contest Announcement


The lovely people at Zondervan thought you guys would be interested in this writing contest for those ages 16 and under, and I completely agree!

Naomi Kinsman, author of the From Sadie's Sketchbook series, and the award winning Spilled Ink: A Handbook for Young Writers, is setting off on a blog tour to celebrate the arrival of her newest release, Waves of Light (in stores in May 2012).



In conjunction with the new release, she is hosting a writing contest for young writers, and the grand prize winner receives a Kindle Fire. (Sa-weet!) For more about this teen writing contest, head over to Ms. Kinsman's site.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Help! My Character is Perfect! Character Motivation

By Jill Williamson

Now that you know what kind of background your characters came from, it’s time to focus on the story. Motivation is the most important thing to know about your characters when telling a story. What your character wants drives his or her actions. And you should know the internal and external motivation for every major character in your story.

Internal Motivation
This is what your character wants out of life. Something that is behind almost every decision he makes, even when he doesn’t realize it.

External Motivation Internal motivation usually stems from life experience. It grows out of your character’s past, his childhood. Let’s use Garrett Thomas as an example. Garrett was raised in an affluent home. His father was a senator, his mother a lawyer. Both parents took pride in their country. Garrett’s grandfather died in Vietnam and Garrett considers him a hero. He wants to make a difference in the world in the way his relatives have. He wants to be a part of patriotism. His internal motivation is serving his country.

This is your character’s goal. External motivation stems out of the present. What does your character want out of the situation before him? This brings in your story’s premise—what your story is about. The external motivation needs to be something that matches your character’s internal motivation. If it doesn’t match, it goes against who your character is. Make sense? Let’s use Garrett again. There could be a number of external goals that identify with his desire to serve his country. Let’s say that he wants to be president. So now we know that Garrett loves his country and wants to serve it, and the external way he hopes to fulfill that internal motivation is to run for president.

Everyone Has Motivation
It’s important to remember that every character in your novel should have both motivations. The fact that motivations differ and clash is what causes conflict in your novel and what makes a novel interesting.

The Protagonist’s Motivation?
We know what Garrett wants. He wants to serve his country by running for president.

The Antagonist’s Motivation?
Every story needs an antagonist. This is technically the “bad guy” but he or she need not be evil. The point of an antagonist is simply to stand opposed to the protagonist’s motivations.
Treat your antagonist the same way you treat your protagonist. Take the time to get to know this person, their childhood, and their goals for the future. Develop how this antagonist will stand against your protagonist.

Whoever the antagonist is, he or she shapes the plot. In Garrett’s situation, the antagonist could be many different people: Garrett’s opponent for president, a girlfriend from his past who knows a secret that could destroy his campaign, an activist who threatens Garrett’s loved ones if he doesn’t back out of the election, a man from the future who tells Garrett that if he wins Garrett will inadvertently destroy the country. As long as this antagonist has strong internal and external motivations for stopping Garrett from running for president, the conflict will work.

Everybody Else
Many of your minor characters also need motivations that will come into play. Maybe Garrett’s wife secretly wants him to lose and helps the antagonist. Maybe Garrett’s father wants him to win so bad, that even when Garrett decides to back out of the election, his father, who perhaps was in charge of the campaign, tells the press that Garrett will not drop out. Minor characters are capable of setting the whole story on a different spin. Don’t neglect them.

Think about your main characters and come up with an internal and external motivation for each of them. Do some of the motivations conflict with each other? I hope so! Share your character’s motivations in the comments, if you’d like. And feel free to ask questions too.

Also, congratulations to those who made the top 20 in last round's contest. (Listed in alpha order):


Giselle Abreu
Gillian Adams
Kayla Anne CP
Rachel Crew
Paulina Cza
Lydia D.
Micah Eaton
Leah Good
Rayna Huffman
Clare Kolenda
Michelle L.
Rachel Leila
Taylor Lynn
Jenna Blake Morris
Jordan Newhouse
Rachelle Rea
Gretchen S.
Alison Schneider
Jessica Vieira
Rose Williams
Allison Young

Thursday, April 19, 2012

When You Can’t Find a Time Machine: How to Approach Historical Fiction


by Rachel Coker

I write historical fiction. I’m pretty sure it’s the one genre I’ll always come back to. Even if I take a break from time to time and dip my toes in the world of sci-fi, fantasy, or contemporary fiction, there’s something about a trip to the past that will work for me every time.

I love immersing myself in another time and culture. Filling my story with glimpses into life in foreign eras, whether it’s music, movies, fashion, or books. It’s interesting and exciting.

That being said, it is also hard. Why? Because I have yet to find a working time machine that operates outside of a cheesy teen movie. I haven’t spent a single breathing moment in the 1940’s, or Ancient Egypt, or the Wild West. So, obviously, it requires some work to create a realistic story in those settings. Work and research.

Ugh, now I’ve done it. I’ve made you think of school, which you were trying to forget about in your anticipation of a fun-filled weekend. But research is something that most definitely exists out of school, and is especially important if you want to be a successful writer.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are writing this wonderful, thrilling, touching novel set in the 1960’s. Everything is good and fine. You have a great plot line, charismatic characters, and a fantastic ending. But what about all the filler details? When your main character wakes up in the morning, would she reach for blue jeans or a dress? If she started her car, would it have a radio in it? Would her windows have screens, or would she sit on the sill with them flung wide open? If someone called her on the telephone, could she take it in her bedroom, or would she have to stand there wrapping the cord around her finger?

Every time you start a story set in another time period, there are so many little details to think about. And honestly, it can really make your head spin. That’s why I suggest research. But not just the boring school type! Sure, it’s important to know who was president at the time and what was going on in the world, but it’s equally important to understand what kind of shows were playing on T.V. and what kind of cereal was most popular at the breakfast table.

Those are the details that make or break a book. They ground us and make us feel like part of the story. Immersed in that culture. And they are the kind of details that can’t be found in a history textbook. So this is where the interesting part comes in, okay? You get to do fun research. For me, research means watching black-and-white movies, listening to old music, picking up vintage magazines at thrift stores, and talking to my grandparents and their friends about life when they were kids. I have gotten some of my best information about life in the 40’s, 60’s, and other eras by just talking to people who have lived through it. Asking them what it was like to walk to school or sew their own prom dresses.

The same thing could also work for the nineteenth century or earlier, though! Just look for journals kept by adventurers or preachers or pioneers to discover what life was like in their world. Look for old Sears catalogs to discover what toys kids might have enjoyed and what technologies would have been available in that time period.

When it comes to historical writing, there is no one-size-fits-all mold. The research that works for me may or may not work for you. But I’d like to encourage you to think about the smaller details of your character’s life and discover what that would have been like. Look to magazines, movies, journals, and newspapers published in that time period and lose yourself in that culture. You may have never stepped into the 1930’s, but after a while, you’ll start feeling like you know it so well that Fred and Ginger might as well step in for tea sometime! ;)

Just to get your imagination rolling, I thought I’d list some things to think about and research for your historical novel:
  • Where does your character shop? At a big department store? At a milliners? Does her mother make her clothes? Would she have modern conveniences like zippers and denim, or is she laced into a corset and all buttoned up?
  • How many vehicles would a typical American household have during this time? Would your characters parents each own separate cars? Would walking or biking be more common than driving? What kind of cars would they own at their price range?
  • Think about the technology. Would they have running water? Heated showers? Cordless telephones? Televisions or radios?
  • What kind of cereals would be popular at that time? Would your character be more likely to reach for Cracker Jacks or Fruit Loops?
  • Fast food chains may or may not have been around in your story. Where would your character go if she wants to grab a bite to eat? A drive-in diner? A café? A home-style family restaurant?
  • What would homes do in the winter? Was there indoor heating, or would they have to rely in fireplaces, heavy blankest, and wool socks to keep warm? What about in the summer?
  • Who were the key movie stars of the time? What dreamy star would make your character’s knees go weak? Whose hair did she try to emulate? What movie would she want to watch over and over again?
  • What kinds of things did kids do for fun? Before video games and shopping malls, how would teens have spent their time? From drive-in movies, ice skating rinks, state fairs, and tractor rides, what would your character do on the weekend?
  • What was the role of women in that era? Would your character’s mother be more likely to work in an office, or stay at home? Would girls be encouraged to go to college and pursue careers, or marry young and have children?
  • Does your character go to church? What are some hymns she would have known? Would she be expected to sit rigidly still, or would she enjoy a more laid-back atmosphere?
I’m sure you can think of many more examples to explore and think about, but that was just a little glimpse some of the things to consider when writing historical fiction. It may seem like tedious, hard work, but trust me—it really can be fun! :)


By the way, thanks to everyone who ordered my book last month! It was so much fun to hear back from everyone who enjoyed reading Interrupted, and hear your opinions of it! If you haven’t yet, I would encourage you to check out my blog, or like me on Facebook!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

3 Reasons Why That Idea Isn't Working

by Stephanie Morrill

When I talked on Monday about the difference between the spark of an idea and developing a strong idea, someone asked a wonderful question:

What happens when you get a spark and you put forth the effort to write the book, but then it just...fades away? You lose your interest.

This has happened to me as well, and I'm guessing it's fairly common for writers. I've noticed that, sadly, some ideas work better in my head than on paper. Sometimes ideas just aren't as good as I originally thought, but sometimes the ideas are good and it still doesn't work. When that happens, it falls into three categories:

1. Sometimes the idea is too personal

I have a story I regularly get an itch to write. Nine years ago (this week, actually) my father went through an extremely nasty, extremely bizarre situation with his business partner. I won't go into all the details, but in summary they had a disagreement and it was clear they could no longer work together. When my father left the office that day, his 50/50 business partner had the locks changed and then proceeded to ... well, do crazy stuff that drove away clients. The kind of stuff where you're like, "Is he on something?"

My point is it's a story that has everything. Mystery. High stakes. Jealousy. People taking sides. Money. Gossip. Greed. Heartache. Love triangle. That whole mystique of, "Who's telling the truth? Who knows the real story?"

Because I was working there at the time and, unfortunately, had a front row seat of the company's implosion, this is a story embedded on my heart, but even nine years later, it's still too raw for me to tell. I want to, and I've tried, but it just doesn't work yet.

And when I first tried to write it, it was clearly just too big a project for me. Which leads to my next category:

2. Sometimes my skill level is not ready for the idea.

We are constantly (or should be constantly) growing as storytellers. It's a story that, for whatever reason, is beyond my writing abilities. There are too many point of view characters, or I can't get the tension quite right, or I never can get the story started in the right spot. It can feel like this:


Like I'm a little kid who's just pretending the letters she's typing make sense.

We learn by writing, writing, and then writing some more. There's nothing wrong with setting aside an idea that's too complex and coming back to it later.

3. I don't have a story - I have a premise

A couple years ago I had a book idea that I was extremely excited about. I talked to my critique partner about it, I did some research, I spent a bunch of time on the social security website hunting up names. Finally I decided that I must begin writing or I would go crazy.

I eked out 7 (double spaced) pages before calling it quits. I couldn't even make it through the opening scene! Where was this story headed? What was going to happen? Did my character have a goal?

No, I had nothing. Except a premise that I found exciting.

Now when I come across something like this, I choose from the following three options:

I try to pinpoint what about the story has me disinterested. Sometimes that's easy (there's no romance!) and sometimes I'm in such a funk, I can't think straight - It's just a bad story, that's why it feels boring! It'll never work! I'll never have a good idea again! (Don't I sound fun to live with?)

If I'm just stuck on something and starting to feel bored, I'll either schedule a chat with my critique partner, or I'll pull out Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass or Deep and Wide by Susan May Warren, both of which have a lot of writing exercises meant to deepen your manuscript.

If I have the luxury (like if I'm not on a deadline or if no one is expecting the story from me) then I put it away for awhile. And you never know when a new idea spark will fit perfectly with an old story, when you'll find a way to make it work.

Tomorrow, teen author Rachel Coker will be here talking about historical fiction and the research process. Don't miss it!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Help! My Character is Perfect! Developing Backstory

By Jill Williamson

I notice a lot of perfect characters in novels, especially male heroes in romance novels written by women…

Those authors might argue, “He’s not perfect! He has a scar.” Or “He’s not perfect! He refuses to forgive his brother for stealing his fiancé.”

Well, normal people have more than one imperfection. And real people tend to have a few more flaws than justifiable bitterness or a facial flaw.

To start, I want to talk about backstory. That’s kind of a bad word for new writers. I was always being told to cut out my backstory.So I’ve decided to do a series of posts on characterization. We’re going to explore different ways to make our characters feel three dimensional, alive, and real. And we’re not just going to look at imperfections. We’re going to look at good things too.

But I’m not talking about writing each character’s backstory into your novel. I’m talking about brainstorming it for yourself, to get to know your characters.

People develop personality through life experience. The first and most powerful influencers of a person’s personality are the parents. Think about each major character in your novel. What kind of parents do they have? Did these parents love by hugs, gifts, service? Did they criticize? Did they have addictions? Were they leaders in their community? Did they favor one child over another? Did they neglect all or one of their kids?

These childhood experiences tend to create very different people. A child who had lots of hugs and kisses from their parents generally feels secure and self-confident. A child loved by gifts could turn out a bit materialistic, or he just might appreciate nice things, or he might strive for a good job so that he can give his loved ones nice things too.

Whether or not your character has siblings affect his life experience. And his birth order is also a very important factor. I recommend that every writer own a book on birth order. It’s fascinating.A person who was loved by service could be a doer who takes care of people in a similar manner by cooking or cleaning, or he might be totally lazy, expecting that someone will do these things for him. A person with critical parents may think she can’t do anything right. It’s all how the child interpreted the actions of his parents that first shaped his personality. So take some time to think of each main character’s childhood and the people and events that shaped him.

Some other backstory elements to consider:
-Major life crisis (Deaths in the family, divorce, job losses, moving, abuse)
-Race and ethnicity
-Looks (Attractive people have different life experiences than unattractive ones. Also, if you consider a scar or birth defect, brainstorm where it came from and how your character feels about it.)
-Affluence or poverty

Take some time and think about your main characters. Choose one and write up a full backstory. Make sure to list names of family members that live close, and come up with some general descriptors for these people that will help you start to define who your character is. Share what you discovered in the comments.

Monday, April 16, 2012

What if I never have another good idea?

by Stephanie Morrill

On the Go Teen Writers Facebook page, when we were talking about writing fears, someone said, "I worry that I'll never have another good idea."

This is something that's crossed my mind from time to time. I think the best way to combat this fear is to break down the mystique of ideas and where they come from.

At every school visit I've ever done, I always get asked, "Where do you get your ideas?" And even though I've answered it dozens of times, I always fumble my way through.

Because the real answer is that I don't know. They just happen as I go about my day, and I'm guessing that may be the same for you as well.

I'll be doing dishes and hear an unfamiliar sound outside. What's that? I'll think. Probably nothing. But what if it were someone running from the police? What if they were innocent? What if...


Or I'll be enjoying some time with my kids when I'll think something awful like, What if I never had kids? What if nobody had kids?


When I'm describing this phenomenon to nonwriters, I refer to this as "the spark." It's not really a story idea yet, but it's where I begin.

And then I spend time thinking about it, or "composting" as my darling friend Erica Vetsch refers to it. I may compost an idea for as long as a couple months. I'm working on making the idea bigger, deeper, and richer. I'm teasing out the idea the way we used to tease our bangs in the early 90s.

From Saved by the Bell. Oh, the bangs and the high waist pants...

When I'm composting, these are the kinds of questions I'm thinking:


  • Who is my main character and what is her situation? (Often this is the spark, since I tend to come up with character first rather than plot.)
  • What's her family like?
  • What lie does she believe?
  • What makes her the right person for the journey I'm going to put her on, and what makes her the wrong person?
  • Where's the best place to start this story?
  • How do I think it will end?
  • What are some turning points that will happen?
  • What's my theme?
  • Who opposes my character?
  • What if so-and-so died? What if such-and-such bad thing happened?

Now, typically I'm not directly asking myself these questions. It's not like I'm sitting down with a checklist. (Though that wouldn't be a bad idea...) Usually it's more organic. Like I'm running around the house in search of my keys thinking What is wrong with me? Why don't I just put them back where they belong? That would avoid this whole mess! It's like in that story I've been thinking about, where my main character knows she should be doing such-and-such, but still she doesn't.

Great story ideas - ones that are big enough to sustain a novel - take work. In my early days, I thought good ideas just kinda happened. I thought the spark was enough. As I've moved along in my writing journey, I've recognized the benefits of brainstorming. Especially with others.

Recently I went to my agent with a story idea. As I typed up the email, I was so excited about it, I could barely sit in my seat. I knew it was the best book idea I'd ever had. Her (wise) response was: "I think you can go bigger with the stakes. What if..." and then she proceeded to brainstorm with me and we made the idea even better.

Going through that helped squelch my fear of never again having a good idea. Because what I had actually been afraid of during those times was that I would never have another spark. That's the part of the process that's mysterious, but it's also something that happens to me - and most writers, I would guess - naturally.

As vital as the spark is, the composting and the brainstorming is where the idea is really made. And that just takes hard work and patience.

Okay, so now that I"ve made that partial list up there, I'm intrigued by the idea of creating a "to think about while composting" list. What questions do you think about while you're brainstorming that could/should be on there?


Don't forget your prompts are due tonight! Haven't started yours yet? Don't worry - it's just 100 words. Details here.


Also, for the five of you out there who like seeing cute pictures of my kids, Angela Bell had me on her blog over the weekend. Click here to read about my experience of getting engaged at 17 and how so far it's been a pretty sweet deal.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Writing the Great War

By Jill Williamson

Really, a full-scale battle is no different from the one-on-one fight scene. Because if you’re writing one point of view at a time, all you can show at a time is one battle. Unless you are writing from the point of view of an onlooker on a hill. In that case, just describe one thing at a time. It’s how you coordinate all the little fight scenes that will help you show your great war.

As I was working though my edits with my super cool editor Jeff Gerke, he said, “Why are all these people traipsing through the woods when they don’t know what’s ahead? They should send out some scouts. And what about the rearguards?”

And I was like, “What’s a rearguard?”

This made me realize I knew nothing about war and full scale battles. Another example of how necessary research is to storytelling. Armies move slowly, and they don’t just wander around, hoping to stumble upon their enemy. Commanders send scouts out ahead to see where the enemy is and check the lay of the land. This helps the commander decide where to move his group of several hundred—or thousand—men.

Even now, I’m far from an expert, and to tell a fun story, you don’t have to learn everything. I did learn the basic layout of an army and what each part does. I made a little diagram to give you an idea of how an army might look.

Who your character is will determine where he is in such a processional march. Here are the vital areas:

Scouts- these fellows ride ahead to locate the enemy. As they do, they consider the terrain to determine the best route for the army to take whether on foot or if vehicles are involved. Engineers might help scouts decide how to bypass major obstacles.

Security Guard- These men operate 2 to 6 miles in front of the advance guard. Once they find the enemy, the security force keeps watch on them.

Advance Guard- These soldiers stay about 1 to 2 miles ahead of the main army to protect the main army from surprise and to cover the main body if it becomes engaged in battle.

Main Army- This is the main body of the army. Units in the main body should know the situation at all times.

Flank Guard- Flank guards operate between the rear of the advance guard and the front of the rear guard to protect the sides of the main body. The flank guard is responsible for reconnaissance along the main body to make sure the enemy doesn’t attack from the sides. Flank guards also help with communication between the advance guard and the main army.

Rear Guard- Rear guards operate along the back of the main army and the flank guards. The rear guard must make sure no one sneaks up on the army from the back.

Commander- The commander positions himself in the main body so he can receive information, see the ground, and plan ahead for the deployment of troops. After the enemy is located, the commander should be far enough forward to influence the battle but not so far forward that he loses control of his troops.

Jeff recommended a book, which I found intriguing. It’s out of print, but I was able to find a used copy. It’s called Battles of the Medieval World 1000 – 1500. It goes into detail about many historical battles and includes tactical illustrations of the battles. Those were invaluable for me, since I’m a visual learner. So I drew out tactical battle plans for my story and it really helped me see how things might work. Here is my battle plan for the battle of Reshon Gate from the third novel in my trilogy, From Darkness Won.

I confess, I’m addicted to Photoshop. So here is my first sketch of the battle. As you can see, it’s pretty much the same, just not so pretty.

Planning out the general layouts of the terrain and your two army sizes will help you. You also want to know how the battle is going to end. This should give you enough information to brainstorm different ways the battle could go.

But here’s the deal: You don’t have to tell the reader everything.

Hopefully, you are writing from one point of view at a time. If this is the case, you only need to show the reader what is happening with that character’s part of the battle. If you have multiple points of view, you can place your characters in a way that lets the reader know what’s going on where. Tolkien did this in the Return of the King. We were in the main battle with Eowyn and Merry when they slayed the Witch King. And Aragorn and his crew traveled over to the Black Gates.

So think through your plot and what needs to happen. Then deal with each part as you would a single scene. Your main character should fight one battle at a time, then find out when he gets a breather who else was injured and how they’re doing.

Any questions about the full scale battle?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Active and Passive Writing

by Stephanie Morrill


Let's establish straight away that I'm no expert on active or passive writing. Or anything grammar related, really.

But once upon a time, I wrote with a lot of passive sentences until a literary agent told me she liked my story, but that my sentence structure was way too passive. "If you can fix that, I'll take another look," she said.

"Sure!" I told her. "I'll revise and get it right back to you!"

And then I set about trying to figure out what in the heck she was talking about. Passive writing?!?!

I sat at my desk with Garner's Modern American Usage, The Elements of Style, and The Chicago Manual of Style. I read about using an "active voice." And I reread. And then I reread again. Then I studied my manuscript. Then I turned to the books again and tried reading the material out loud.

After awhile, I thought I maybe-kinda-sorta knew what the style guides were talking about and I could possibly fix it.

I can't explain why writers seem to have a natural leaning toward the passive voice, but I find it to be a common problem among new writers, and I often see it in my early manuscripts.

First, what do I mean by all this active and passive jibberish? The word "was" is a good clue that you're speaking in a passive voice, or "is" if you're writing is present tense. Like in these examples ripped straight out of an old manuscript of mine:

Paige was scanning the room for him.

Carter was there before she could do or say anything.

It was Carter's best friend Matt who asked the question.

In an active voice those would read:

Paige scanned the room for him.

Carter arrived before she could do or say anything.

Matt, Carter's best friend, asked the question.

This is the version I have. It was a Christmas gift
my junior year of high school from my friend Eliese.
She called it, "The Writer's Bible" and said
"remember me when you're famous!"

Eliese, this is likely the closest I'll get. And
thanks for providing me with a tool that helped me
get published!

To quote the wisdom of William Strunk Jr., author of The Elements of Style, "The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive." Which I think is displayed well in the sentences above. The ones written in an active voice are just better sentences.

But was (or "is") is not an evil word. It can also be used to describe something ongoing. Like:

When I entered, Jane was stirring the soup.

James was a handsome boy.

The room was decorated in mauve and blue.

I was scrubbing the floors when Lara walked in.

All fine uses. Because if you changed one to something like, "When I entered, Jane stirred the soup," it would take on a different meaning. It would sound like Jane saw you enter, and then she stirred the soup. Instead the author means that is the ongoing action.

So don't cut every was from your story, but do examine them.

I hope this is somewhat helpful to those of you who might be trying to fix passive sentences. Or for those who maybe didn't even know they existed until they saw this post that they should be fixed.

Learning to write in an active voice was a hard challenge to overcome, but teaching myself how to do it is literally what got me my first agent. If you have questions about specific sentences, leave them in the comments below, and I'll offer my thoughts. Again, I'm no expert, but I'll share what I know!

Don't forget, a new writing contest opened on Monday, so make sure you check that out. And Cara Putman (spelled it right again - score!) was here yesterday sharing advice on picking careers for your characters. She's also giving away a copy of her latest release, so get thyself entered.

The überwise Jill Williamson will be here tomorrow talking about the challenges of writing a full-scale war scene. Have a great Thursday everyone!