Friday, January 31, 2014

Ten Reasons You Should Take Journalism Classes, and Lots of Them

Nicole Quigley is the author of Like Moonlight at Low Tide (Blink / Zondervan), winner of the ACFW Carol Award for young adult fiction. You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out her writing playlist on her author website. It is sure to make you want to fall in love (or become a surfer) on the Gulf of Mexico. 

For those who love creative writing, the idea of studying journalism may seem like a dose of bad medicine. News writing is fact-based and objective. Fiction writers like to invent their own facts and then take a side! That’s probably why so many aspiring writers prefer to take classes like Screenwriting 101 rather than Media Ethics.

But learning how to find and write news stories may be among the greatest foundational skills a fiction writer can obtain.

After working with the media for more than a dozen years in the field of public relations (and having worked for two newspapers, myself), I have learned an important lesson: reporters make for tremendous storytellers. Many reporters working in newsrooms around the world are among the best writers of our day, even though they may never write a bestselling novel.  

It’s no accident that so many of the most influential fiction writers of the last 100 years all have a background in newswriting. Do the hard work of learning how to be a reporter, and you’ll be following in the footsteps of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Mitchell, Francine Rivers, and Nora Ephron, just to name a few.

With today’s more highly specialized high school programs and college majors, it may well be possible to obtain a degree in English or Creative Writing and never really learn the technique of newswriting. True journalism is both a skill and art that one masters over the course of a long career, but even learning basic techniques can vastly help your fiction writing.  

Here are ten reasons you should take journalism classes and gain newsroom experience whenever you can:

1. Your writing will get tighter. You’ll write shorter sentences that pack a punch. (When you choose to wax poetic in your fiction work, you’ll have greater control and purpose. Even fiction readers have very little tolerance for fatty writing.)

2. You’ll get more chances at bat. News pieces are shorter, typically not exceeding 800 words. That means you’ll write more stories, and submit them more frequently, for editing. (For writers of any kind, editing = growth.)

3. You’ll learn how to identify and assemble the parts of a news story like pieces in a puzzle, and you’ll learn how to cut the pieces that don’t matter. The essential parts of every news article are “The Five Ws” of who, what, when, where, and why. (In fiction, we use these same pieces, but we call them characters, conflict and plot, setting, and motivation. When you know how to assemble a news story, you’ll be better able to plot your fiction manuscript.)

4. You’ll write under breaking deadlines in real time. If the sheer pressure doesn’t throw you into a caffeine binge coma, you’ll come through it being a faster and more effective writer. (Finding time to complete your fiction manuscript will be among your greatest challenges. Knowing how to use your time efficiently is an asset.)

5. You’ll learn how to truly copyedit your work masterpiece. (Odds are your fiction editor will use many copyediting terms borrowed from the newsroom, and you’ll need to understand them.)

6. You’ll become an expert story pitcher. When you talk to your newsroom editors, they’ll ask, “What’s your story about?” The next question they’ll ask: “Why should I care?” (When you try to land your first agent or book deal, they’ll ask the same thing.) 

7. You’ll interview people and learn how to get great quotes. (Many fiction writers consider writing dialogue one of the most difficult parts of the craft.)  

8. You’ll learn how to research, how to source, and how to distill complex issues into digestible, but still accurate, information. (In fiction writing, you’ll seek experts and information to make your story believable. Masters of this skill include David Baldacci and Tom Clancy.)   

9. You’ll be more employable, which you’ll need before writing that bestseller. (True journalists love reporting and do it well because it is a great passion. But even if you don’t want to be a reporter, understanding the basics of journalism is a practical skill that offers applications for many professions, even if you never step foot in a newsroom. Just ask anyone in marketing, politics, or law.)

10. Journalists like to comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable. Journalists write stories that take their readers into new worlds to meet new people. (Fiction writers are no different. Any experience you can obtain in a newsroom will broaden your understanding of the human experience and fuel your imagination for years to come.)  

What do you think? Does newswriting appeal to you? Was your favorite author ever a journalist? How has your experience in journalism classes or working in a newsroom impacted your fiction writing?

We're giving away a copy of Nicole's book Like Moonlight at Low Tide. Enter on the form below. International entries welcome.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Two Ingredients for a Great First Chapter

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Last week I talked about different ways to start a story---that first paragraph that hooks your reader. Today I want to talk about two things you can do in your first chapter to keep that reader hooked.

1. A character you can connect with.

The reader needs a person of interest to follow, which means this person must be interesting in some way. Maybe the reader can relate, so they read on because they've been through something similar. Or maybe the main character's situation is sympathetic, so the reader continues to read with the hope that things will work out. Maybe the main character is funny, and the reader keeps reading for pure laughs. However you do it, you need to give us a character that the reader connects with.

2. Inciting incident with high stakes.

I read a lot of people's manuscripts, and too many have nothing happen in chapter one. A story begins when a match strikes, not when you lay out the kindling. The sooner you get to the inciting incident, the better. "The cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of the plot. The cat sat on the dog's mat is." -- John Lecarre

The inciting incident can happen in the first paragraph of your book, though it usually comes later. In most books, we get to meet our hero, see his life, see his problems, then---bam!---he is faced with an inciting incident. This doesn't always happen in chapter one, but it will help you if it does. And I say that to myself as well. If you give your reader an inciting incident in chapter one, you can avoid the "it took me a while to get into the story" comment and have an easier time hooking your reader for the entire book.

Consider the pitch statement:

When   (inciting incident)   happens to   (hero)  , he must   (live through the plot)   or face   (failure of story goal)  .

So the inciting incident is that first blank. It's the "something" that happens that sets off the story. And it needs to have high stakes or lead to a plot that has high stakes. It needs to matter to the main character and the reader. It could have/lead to personal stakes: revenge, saving a loved one, proving oneself, love, overcoming guilt, acceptance, etc. Or it could have/lead to public stakes: saving the world, stopping mass murder, providing justice, ending slavery, etc.

Here are some examples of different types of inciting incidents or situations that set up inciting incidents. Whatever you choose, it's what your hero does as a result of this incident that "incites" your plot.

-A disturbance or change (A tornado sweeps away Dorothy's house. Eragon finds the dragon egg. A new "doctor" arrives at Jason Farms. Luke stumbles onto the recording of Princess Leia when cleaning R2D2.)
-Faced with a choice (Prim's name is drawn in the reaping and Katniss chooses to take her place in The Hunger Games. Hazel decides to attend Support Group where she meets Augustus in The Fault of Our Stars.)
-A mistake (It could be a mistake that the main character makes that changes everything: In Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, it's finding out that they're failing history class that sends Rufus back in time to help. Or it could be a mistake that someone else makes that changes things for the main character: Lucinda casting her spell on Ella in Ella Enchanted.)
-An objective (A quest of some kind like Bilbo being asked to be a burglar. A detective arrives at a crime scene like any episode of Castle.)
-A meeting (A new friend like in Stargirl. Love interests meet for the first time---any romance novel. A meeting between an employee and his boss in which an assignment is given.)
-A loss (Of someone or something. In Legally Blonde, Warner dumps Elle. In She's the Man, girls soccer is cancelled. In Taken, Liam Neeson's daughter is kidnapped.)
-A revelation (Your hero learns the truth about something that changes his life.)

What do you think? Does your first chapter have these two elements?

Monday, January 27, 2014

How to Write Good Bad Guys

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you go about writing bad guys? I know that they need to have a goal, but I don't know how to show them taking steps to achieve it when they're always off somewhere plotting and my main character is off doing their own good guy thing. Do you have any ideas on how to fix it?"

Writing bad guys can be tricky for lots of writers, so you're certainly not alone. First let's clear up a couple of common questions about villains:

Can I have more than one bad guy in my story?

Sure. In the Harry Potter series, Harry has Voldemort, but he also has Snape, Draco, Dudley, all of Slytherin. Often the bad guys are in cahoots with each other, but not always.

In a book that doesn't have bad guys in the traditional sense of the word, we still often see multiple characters working against the main character. Like in a romance novel where the heroine is the main character, the hero may often play the antagonist role at times, along with the heroine's mother and a jealous friend or two.

Can my bad guy be an idea or a force rather than a person?

Technically, yes.

In 11/22/63, which tells the story of a man from 2011 travelling back in time to stop the assassination of JFK, you can make the argument that the villain is the past. When Jake tries to change things, he always senses a force working against him. While there are several antagonists (characters who work against the main character) in the book, they’re usually only around for a brief period of time, whereas Jake is always working against the stubborn past.

But here’s what I would say about that—it was written by Stephen King. The guy knows what he's doing. I think it’s harder than it looks to make a faceless force as scary or intimidating as a person. (In the TV series Lost you’ll notice they finally gave us a person to root against [Benjamin Linus] instead of continually asking the audience to fear the island itself.)

But how do you go about creating an villain audiences will love to hate?

Start by spending time with them.

You spend most your time with your main character, so of course they have your allegiance. In order to understand your villain, you must spend time with them too. Like in Ender's Game when Ender expresses, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.” 

How do you do this? For me, it happens on the page. I can do lots of exercises for developing characters, and those are helpful, but nothing replaces time on the page. When I read through my first draft, most of my characterization edits ("Hey, that doesn't sound like something Bob would say") happen in the first half of the book, because when I wrote it, I was still figuring out these people and their motives.

While I recognize that writing a first draft is a very time consuming way to get to know your characters, in my opinion it's still the best way to understand your villain and how he or she ticks. 

James Scott Bell is who introduced me to the idea of
character journals, one of my favorite character devel-
opment exercises.
If your books don't have scenes that are told from the villains POV, then I would strongly encourage you to do a character journal. This is where you just let the character talk in their "I" voice. I try to give them a starting place ("Did you have a happy childhood?") and then they take off for a few pages.

Here's a quick example.

My childhood was a very happy one. The house often smelled of my mother's famous sunflower seed bread, which she baked several times a week so we could have fresh bread for lunch. Sometimes she would let me help her. But I haven't been able to stand the smell of fresh bread since that day when I came home from school and found her...

It's crazy, but the characters really take over and seem to tell you their story.

But why are you so evil?

I've only seen "evil for the sake of evil" done well once and that's in The Dark Knight with the Joker. And while great writing certainly helped, I think Heath Ledger's brilliant acting sold the character. I'm not convinced you could get away with it in a novel. (Though if someone wants to suggest a book where evil for evil's sake is done well, I'd love to hear.)

Even in The Dark Knight you'll notice that twice (if I'm remembering correctly) the Joker tells stories for an audience about how he got his scars/why he's evil. And then both times he laughs and says he made those stories up. The audience wants to know why, and the Joker understanding that his audience wanted to know why and playing on that makes him all the more creepy.

But for most villains, you'll need to at least hint at a root cause for why they do what they do, same as your fears and decisions and ambitions tend to have a root.  Like I have trouble trusting friendships because I've been burned several times times by girls who I thought were my best friend. And I have a phobia about public bathrooms with those push-button locks because of an embarrassing I-thought-the-door-was-locked-but-it-wasn't moment in my life. Not sure, exactly, where my irrational fear of spiders comes from, but your villain's backstory is critical to breathing life into them.

Why me?

Make sure you know why your bad guy has engaged in battle with your hero. Bad guys tend to be busy people and they don’t want to waste their time with those who are beneath them, so you need to make sure they have a reason to take notice. 

Like in The Hunger Games, you'll notice President Snow doesn’t pay extra attention to Katniss until her defiance becomes a threat to his way of life.

If you're having trouble creating active bad guys, this might be the first thing you check, if you've made your hero enough of a threat.

Your bad guy should be active

A great example of active antagonists is in Divergent by Veronica Roth. The bad guys are so active the reader can hardly take a breath. You’re too worried that Tris’s eye is going to get stabbed out. The bad guys in that book seem to be constantly scheming and waiting for a moment of weakness, but like we just talked about, they don't target Tris with serious danger until they perceive her as a threat.

Let's briefly look at a book that isn't high action, just to get a peek at how this can be done in a more character-driven story. The "bad guy" in Pride and Prejudice is Caroline Bingley. She wants to become Mrs. Darcy, and once she's discovered that Mr. Darcy has a bit of a crush on Elizabeth, Caroline tries to make Elizabeth look bad whenever she can. She mocks Elizabeth's family and points out flaws that she knows Mr. Darcy can't deny. 

Consider showing the hero and villain as two sides of the same coin.

The best example I can think of is the Harry Potter series. As the series goes on, Harry realizes that he and Voldemort are extremely similar. They even look alike. 

Another example of this is Lightning McQueen and Chick from Cars. They're enemies because they want the same thing and only one of them can get it. At the end with Chick, we see what Lightning could have become had he stayed on the same trajectory.  

Having your hero recognize the villain within themselves is a great way to make both characters more real to the reader.

Just like your main character shouldn’t always be right, your bad guy shouldn’t always be wrong.

Have you ever done something good but for the wrong reason? Well your bad guy can be doing wrong things, but for good reasons.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy advises Bingley against pursuing Jane Bennett because he doesn’t think Jane loves him. He's wrong, but in his heart he’s trying to do a good thing by preventing his friend from a difficult marriage.

Something else that can be effective is when an antagonist calls your hero out on something. In The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, Ellie is told by the antagonist that she's difficult to be friends with. It hurts Ellie's feelings, but she also knows it's true. And the message wouldn't have been as effective, wouldn't have hurt as much, had it come from another character.

How do you feel about the antagonists in your novel? Do you feel like you've done a good job with them?

FYI, Stephanie is at her grandmother's funeral today and will respond to comments when she can. -Jill

Friday, January 24, 2014

Winning Entries from the "Every word he spoke was a lie" contest

Congratulations to the winners of our last contest!

First place: Anastasia Knudsen
Second place: Lani Southern
Third place: Emma V.
Fourth place: Anonymous Etcetera
Fifth place: Carissa B.

Honorable mentions:
Meghan Gorecki
C. Everett
Corwynne Forsyth
TW Wright
Cathy Baker
Leanna Logan

The winners were kind enough to let us publish their entries below:

By Anastasia Knudsen:

Every word he spoke was a lie.
And I suppose words in and of themselves aren't lies; each word is neutral until it is beaded against another. Each syllable cocks itself until all at once it has meaning and meaning slams you full.
"You think too much," she had told me, tugging my ear. "Too much and too hard."
I'm not thinking right now. I don't want to think, let alone comprehend.
Eloise. A noun, not a lie. She was never a lie.
Is. A verb.
Dead. A truth? A lie? A fleeing heart, a fluttering eye, a wandering soul?

I don't know, but consider me hit.

Why this entry rocks: The language of this is beautiful and poetic. Despite how short it is, the storyworld feels very full. And I love the concept of words working together to make lies.

By Lani Southern:

Every word he spoke was a lie. Everyone knew. How could he be such a terrible liar?
The boy's story came out faster and faster, false and desperate. As if by speaking so quickly, he could hide the insincerity with which he spoke the words.
A crack like a breaking bone. Suffocating silence. No words, just the signal, and then two men came to lead the boy away. The boy's fingers flitted up to his neck, touching the skin for perhaps the last time before the noose was placed there.

I stood. My turn. And my lies had better be good.

Why this entry rocks: The surprise upon discovering what's actually happening in this scene, is amazing. So creative and well written.

By Emma V.:

Every word he spoke was a lie. The truth resounded with a tremor throughout my entire body. I shuddered. To think I had once loved him, let him love me back. The thought was inconceivable.

“Irene! Where did you disappear to?”

A voice jutted into my thoughts. His voice.

My eyes darted around the room like a frightened animal’s. Footsteps were audible down the hall. There was no time. As much as I’d like to avoid it, I knew I’d have to face him.

The door slammed open before I even had time to collect my thoughts. I gulped.
He stepped into the room.

“There you are.”

Why this entry rocks: This entry has wonderful pacing and does a great job hinting at a bigger story.

By Anonymous Etcetera:

Every word he spoke was a lie.

She knew that now.

The girl's eyes fluttered and a tear rolled slowly down her cheek. She rested her head against the taxi window. Her hands closed around the familiar sweatshirt sleeves.

The same oversized sweatshirt. It used to be soft- but the softness had worn off and was hanging on in resilient, sad clumps.

 It smelled of boy.
Barely, though. But it was there.
There were some things you can't wash out.

There were many things you can’t forget.

Why this entry rocks: I really love the mood of this one. I was hooked with the description of the sweatshirt.

By Carissa B.:

Every word he spoke was a lie. The deceit curled up from my enemy’s lips in tangible wisps, inky tendrils no-one else could see. I’d have to be careful getting close. The last time those tendrils touched me, the rash burned for days. Truth struck out like lightning, shocked people into clarity. Empty words and frivolities fell to the ground with little effect.
But lies… lies burned. And if allowed to spread, they would take this city to the ground.
With luck, the fire wouldn’t spread too quickly. If it did, I would be the only one stopping it.

What fun.

Why this entry rocks: Not only is the premise intriguing, but I love the word choice and the hint of a sarcastic narrator.

Great job, everyone!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Ten Ways to Start a Novel

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

The first sentence or paragraph of your novel is very important. It should hook your reader, pull them into the character's mind and situation, set the pace for the story, establish voice, or more. There are many ways to do this. Many more than I've listed below. But here are ten to get you thinking. And keep in mind, you can combine these methods too. The more you can do with one sentence, the better.

1. In Medias Res
In medias res is Latin for “in the midst of things. Many films begin this way, bringing the audience into the story by plopping them in the middle of life as the main character knows it. This is a great way to start fantasy stories since the storyworld is often vastly different from ours. Starting in medias res gives the reader a chance to see what's normal in this place. Here are some examples:
On Friday, Mr. Lynch walked around the classroom making sure everybody had written down the due date in their assignment books. Luckily, he started at the far side, giving Mitty Blake time to whisper to his best friend, Due date for what? ---Code Orange by Caroline B. Cooney
I like this beginning because we see where we are. In class. And then we see our character, on the far side of the room. But the word “luckily” tips us off to the fact that he's unprepared. Then we hear him as his friend “Due date for what?” and we get an idea of what kind of guy he is.

In my intro to By Darkness Hid, I wanted to show Achan's day-to-day life so that, as the story went on, the reader would know how drastically is was changing.
Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way. ---By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson

2. Zoom In
The zoom in is a great way to start a story. This is also done in many movies. Start far away and slowly zoom in to the character. The Wizard of Oz is a perfect example of this.
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole. ---The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum 
And here is another example that works well:
There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland. ---Holes by Louis Sachar

3. Dialogue
Dialogue is a great way to start a book, especially if that dialogue is interesting. Here are two very different examples of starting a book with dialogue:
Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ---Little Women by Louisa May Alcott 
I've watched through his eyes, I've listened through his ears, and I tell you he's the one. Or at least as close as we're going to get. ---Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

4. In the Middle of Action, Suspense, or Tension
Starting with something mysterious or in the middle of action helps avoid the boring beginning. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini gives us a windy night, a foreboding statement, and a mysterious creature. It makes us want to read more.
Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world. A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes. ---Eragon by Christopher Paolini

And Rick Riordan uses the sarcastic voice of Percy Jackson to plop us right into the middle of action.
The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car. ---The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan

5. Surprise or Intrigue the Reader
Using a line that piques the reader's curiosity is a clever way of hooking the reader into the story. I've always loved this opening line from the first Alex Rider book.
When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it's never good news. ---Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
And this line from Failstate sets up the story perfectly in an intriguing way.
Being a superhero was hard enough. Being one on reality television . . . Why had I thought this was a good idea? ---Failstate by John Otte

6. Speak to the Reader
If you're writing in first person or in a diary form, you can speak directly to the reader.
Congratulations. The fact that you're reading this means you've taken one giant step closer to surviving till your next birthday. Yes, you, standing there leafing through these pages. Do not put this book down. I'm dead serious-your life could depend on it. ---Maximum Ride by James Patterson
Sometimes it seems like all I ever do is lie. ---Princess Diaries by Meg Cabot
I am not a good person. Oh, I know what the stories say about me. They call me Oculator Dramatus, Hero, Savior of the Twelve Kingdoms. . . . Those, however, are just rumors. Some are exaggerations; many are outright lies. The truth is far less impressive. ---Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson 

7. Start with a quote
Many books have quotes at the start of each chapter. And many readers skip them. So keep that in mind. But a quote can do a great job of foreshadow what's to come. It can be a quote from fictional characters or a quote from a real person. Both of these quotes set up the books they are in.
A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct. This every sister of the Bene Gesserit knows. To begin your study of the life of Muad'Dib, then take care that you first place him in his time: born in the 57th year of the Padishah Emperor, Shaddam IV. And take the most special care that you locate Muad'Dib in his place: the planet Arrakis. Do not be deceived by the fact that he was born on Caladan and lived his first fifteen years there. Arrakis, the planet known as Dune, is forever his place. ---from Manual of Muad'Dib by the Princess Irulan
---Dune by Frank Herbert
If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation . . . it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the deaths of millions of people.” ---W. M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News, Dec. 22, 1947
---Earth Abides by George R. Stewart 

8. Give the Facts
I pulled dozens of books off my shelf, and a statement about something that happened is one of the most popular ways to start a book. Here are two examples:
My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog. This is what happened: I walked into the produce section of the Winn-Dixie grocery store to pick out my two tomatoes and I almost bumped right into the store manager. He was standing there all red-faced, screaming and waving his arms around. ---Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift. When I cried inconsolably through my first hour of life, my tears were her inspiration. Shaking her head sympathetically at Mother, the fairy touched my nose. My gift is obedience. Ella will always be obedient. Now stop crying, child. 
I stopped. ---Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
On a wet Tuesday morning in December, Ernesto Bonilla, twenty-eight, shot his twenty-three-year-old wife, Alejandra, in the back yard of their West 45th Street home in South Los Angeles. As Alejandra lay bleeding to death, Ernesto proceeded to drive their Ford Explorer to the westbound Century Freeway connector where it crossed over the Harbor Freeway and pulled to a stop on the shoulder. ---Try Dying by James Scott Bell 

9. Make a Statement About Your Plot or Theme
This is a great way to start a story because you are foreshadowing either the plot or the theme of what the book will be about.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. ---Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen 
It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful. ---Matilda by Roald Dahl
I never had a brain until Freak came along and let me borrow his for a while, and that's the truth, the whole truth. The unvanquished truth, is how Freak would say it, and for a long time it was him who did the talking. Except I had a way of saying things with my fists and my feet even before we became Freak the Mighty, slaying dragons and fools and walking high above the world. ---Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick

10. Foreshadow What Will Change
You can also start by giving readers a statement that foreshadows or symbolizes what will change in the book. In Maria V. Snyder's Inside Out, she starts the story with her main character asleep inside a pipe. By the end of the story we will see this character lead a group of people to get out of their captivity.
A vibration rippled through my body. I awoke in semi-darkness, unsure of my location. Reaching out with my hands, I felt smooth sides arching up and in. My fingers touched overhead. Pipe.---Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder
And in Melody Carlson's The Jerk Magnet, she starts with a statement that shows her main character as a shy girl, but by the end of the story that will change.
Sometimes the best way to handle rejection is to simply expect it. Just accept that antagonism is coming your way and get beyond it as quickly and quietly as possible. At least that was what Chelsea Martin had been telling herself since hitting adolescence. But with two more years of high school lurking ahead, her resolve, not to mention her patience, had worn thin. And she wondered . . . just how old did her peers have to become before they eventually grew up? Forty-eight, perhaps? Maybe by their thirtieth class reunion they would treat people humanely and with an iota of respect.---The Jerk Magnet by Melody Carlson

Some other things to remember:
As I said at the beginning of this post, the more you can do in that one sentence or paragraph, the better. Look at the first paragraph of your WIP and see if you give the reader one or more of the following: characterization, character voice, author voice, story style, mood, suspense, a question, familiarity, humor, action, description, the plot set up, the setting, foreshadowing. Which of the examples that I used in this post do the most of these?

What other ways could you start a story besides my list of ten ways?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Why should I not use adverbs?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Almost every writer uses too many adverbs in their early manuscripts. Adverbs are not evil, nor should you set out to remove all -ly words from your manuscript. What adverbs tend to be, however, is a cover-up for a weak verb choice. A specific, strong verb will always beat the verb + adverb combo:

She walked quickly down the hall.
She raced down the hall.

He moved gracefully across the dance floor.
He glided across the dance floor.

I whispered quietly to my sister.
I whispered to my sister.

In these situations, the adverb isn't the best choice. (In the third, it's redundant.) 

For the fiction writer, however, I think there needs to be wiggle room for characters and their voices, as well as your own personal style. So if you have a character who wants to describe a fella as "dashingly handsome," then I say go for it. In that situation, the adverb is actually modifying the adjective. (Insert me mentally checking out of my own blog post. Now we're getting too technical.) But if you describe the man as walking dashingly into the room, I would consider having him stride or stroll instead.

Another type of word writers tend to overuse is qualifiers. Words like rather, little, a bit, very. Even quite can be used in such a way. (He's quite handsome.)

I'm a little tired.
I'm drowsy.

She's rather tall for her age.
She's tall for her age.

He's very hungry.
He's starving.

Again, I don't think all uses of these words need to be eradicated from your stories, but they do need to be used sparingly.

And here are a few words and phrases you can almost always delete:

Suddenly: This frequently gets overused at the start of a sentence. It can feel like you need it to show that the action is, well, sudden. Often you don't, though. "Suddenly the clock struck midnight" can be written as "The clock struck midnight" and nothing is lost. Likewise, "Suddenly he appeared in the doorway" can be, "He appeared in the doorway."

Not to mention: This is a strange phrase that gets used out of habit, I think. Because you say not to mention...and then you do just that. "Not to mention that she already has a boyfriend." For dialogue it's fine, because it's one of those phrases people use. In your prose, I'd be wary.

The fact is/the fact of the matter is: In prose, you typically can omit this phrase and just state whatever the fact actually is. In dialogue, however, you might choose differently. "The fact of the matter is, I love you," might win out over plain ol' "I love you."

Began to/started to: This is something I frequently see misused. Because if Jane began to put on her purse or started to stir the soup, the phrase implies that she gets interrupted. If your character actually does the thing, then you want to say Jane slung her purse over her shoulder or Jane stirred the soup.

For fun, consider opening your manuscript and searching for either an adverb, qualifying word, or one of the words/phrases on the above list. If you want, post in the comments what your sentence is and if you decided to keep it or not.

Since I'm in the middle of editing a novella (a companion to The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series) I decided to play to.

When I ran a search for -ly words. I found this adverb:
Skylar takes a deep breath, clearly trying to keep her tone under control as well. 
I'm choosing to leave it because the story is told in Abbie's POV and that "clearly" marks that this is Abbie's interpretation of why Skylar is taking a deep breath. That adverb prevents me from head hopping, which is yet another writing no-no.

When I searched for qualifying words, I found this:
Owen gave a little whimper in my arms and I realized I had been squeezing him too tight.
A whimper, by nature, is a little noise, so I'll cut that qualifier.

Of those other words and phrases I listed, the only one I had used in the novella was "suddenly":
There’s that word again. Suddenly everyone seems very concerned with my social life.
I even started a sentence with it, as you can see. But I like it, and I'll leave it. These are Abbie's thoughts, and she's miffed. I feel the use of suddenly contributes to her snarky voice.

So as you can see, these are guidelines for word choices rather than hard and fast rules. Weighing whether you've selected the right word or phrase can feel nitpicky, but it's the difference between flowing and clunky prose.

Friday, January 17, 2014

RELAX! And enjoy being a writer

Ellen Coatney is a YA writer from the Chicago area, although she currently attends Carroll University outside of Milwaukee. Ellen has been writing since childhood and also enjoys baking, traveling, and binge-watching "Psych."

Hi, everyone! I’m excited to join Go Teen Writers today because, until recently, I was a teen writer myself. (I even won one of the GTW first-line contests a couple of years ago!) So, in writing this post, I am confronted with the question, what would I have wanted to know during my teen writing years? Now, looking back on middle school and high school, my answer is…RELAX! I spent my teenage years writing two novels, researching agents, reading industry blogs, and worrying about my future as a writer. All of these activities proved extremely helpful—except the worrying. Instead of wasting my energy on anxiety, I should’ve tried to enjoy the process more. After all, being a writer is entirely about the process, not the result.

By the time I turned 18, I was having a life crisis, as melodramatic as that sounds. It seemed that my writing, researching, and planning wasn’t getting me anywhere, and I was about to start college. Under the (mistaken) impression that college is where people get their lives together, I decided it was time to let go of my childhood ambition of publishing a novel and choose a more “practical” career path. Just as I decided to give up, a couple of incredible things happened. First, I was awarded a full scholarship to attend a writing conference five minutes from my house. Next, at that conference, the first chapter of one of my novels ended up in the hands of Amanda Luedeke, literary agent extraordinaire. The final incredible occurrence? She loved it. So I went from giving up on my future as a writer to working with an inspiring, thoughtful, and hilarious agent. If I could go back, I would tell myself to stop worrying so much. Show up, give it your best, and things will happen or they won’t. You’ll end up a New York Times best seller, or you won’t. Either way, you will be happy doing what you love.

Now I’m curious to hear from you guys! Have you experienced a writer crisis like mine? What did you do to move past your doubts and keep moving forward?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Finalists and news about Go Teen Writers Rewards

Congratulations to the finalists in our 100-word contest, "Every word he spoke was a lie." (Listed in alphabetical order):

Alexa Skrywer
Allison E
Alyson Schroll
Anastasia Knudsen
Anonymous Etcetera
Bethany Baldwin
Britt M.
C. Everett
Caitlin Hensley
Carissa B.
Cathy Baker
Corwynne Forsyth
Emma V.
Emmi Lynn
Hadley Grace
Heather Hufford
Jacinta S.
Jazmine Ortiz
Jessica Staricka
Kate Pankratz
Katelyn Shear
Katie R.
Lani Southern
Leanna Logan
Lily Jenness
Lydia H. D.
M.P. Reed
Maya V.
Meghan Gorecki
Morgan N. J.
Rachel A. K.
Reilly Zink
Sam Whitehouse
Sara Morgan
TW Wright
Victoria Grace Howell
Whitney Stephens

Congratulations on being a finalist! Winners will be announced next week. If your name isn't on the list, you'll be receiving an email from me in the next couple days with your feedback. We had 204 entries to this contest, so please be patient. That's a lot of emails to send!

Also, the Go Teen Writers Rewards store will be open through February 28th and then will close temporarily. That means if you want to earn points for critiques or video calls, you have this month and next month to Tweet, review, subscribe, and promote. You'll still be able to redeem points after February 28th, but you won't be able to earn more for a while.

For a refresher on what can earn you points, or if you've never heard about our rewards store, you can find out more here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Using Italics to Stress the Correct Word

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

When you're writing fiction, italics are handy in emphasizing a word for the reader. When I first started writing, I had trouble with this. I was always italicizing the wrong word.

Take this example:

“I never said he stole my iPod.”

Depending on which word is italicized, you can offer your reader seven different meanings.

I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that someone else said it.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---The speaker did not say Mark stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that the speaker only insinuated that Mark stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that someone else stole the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that the listener misunderstood, and that Mark, perhaps, only borrowed the iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that Mark stole someone else's iPod.

“I never said Mark stole my iPod.” ---Implying that Mark stole something else.

Isn't that wild? Italics have a lot of power!

Try the same exercise with this sentence: “What is she doing here?” Do you see all the variables?

Now look at the places you've used italics in your manuscript. Are you sure you have them in the right place? Or am I the only one who has trouble with this? 

Monday, January 13, 2014

How to know if you've done a good job with character development

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

We are so excited to share that there were 204 entries to the 100-word contest that closed on Friday! Finalists should be announced later this week.

A writer emailed me with a great editing question. She wanted to know how to judge if her character had developed well over the course of the story.

Even when you enjoy the editing process (which is an acquired taste, in my opinion) there's always the possibility that you're so close to your novel that you can't see the flaws. This happens to novices and seasoned writers alike. That's one of the reasons why it's helpful to know about story structure even if you never fill out a plotting spreadsheet in your life; you can use it after you've written the book to be sure the building blocks for a strong story are there.

A faulty character arc is, in my opinion, one of the easiest things to accidentally overlook. Maybe it's like how mother's don't always see their kids with the clearest eye. (In the Harry Potter books, the way that the parents fawn over Dudley is hilarious because we all know parents who look at their super bratty kids and somehow think they're wonderful.) We love our main characters, and it can be hard to see them clearly.

Here are a few questions you can ponder as you try to determine if you've done your work with character development: (Warning: I use Cars and Pride and Prejudice as examples of character development so if you haven't seen Cars or experienced Pride and Prejudice and don't want to spoil it for yourself, I wouldn't read on!)

What can your character do at the end of the novel that they couldn't do at the beginning?

My favorite scene in Cars is that last one, where Lightning McQueen sacrifices winning first place in order to push The King across the finish line. The first few times I watched that movie, I actually got teary at that scene. (Now that I've seen it approximately 100 times, I just get goosebumps.)

That scene is so powerful because it's the fruit of the journey that Lightning McQueen has been on. When we met him, all he cared about was winning the Piston cup and landing Dinoco as his sponsor. He never would have sacrificed those two things. But by the end of the movie, we see him do something both sacrificial and heroic.

Once you've figured out what your character can do at the end that they couldn't do in the beginning, you need to make sure the scenes are in place that will make that moment plausible. First Lightning learned how to accept racing wisdom from somebody else. Then other characters speak truth into his life - like Sally saying that she used to be rich and live a faster pace life but that she was never really happy. And then Doc asking Lightning when the last time was that he did something for somebody else. Both those statements strike a chord with Lightning and set change in motion. We also have the scene at the end of the second act where Lightning buys something from every store in town before he leaves. That gives the viewer a glimpse of how much change has taken place, and it sets us up for his heroic finish.

Does your character have a lie they believe at the beginning, and how have they been set free?

A great example of this is Pride and Prejudice. Lizzy believes Mr. Darcy is nothing more than a proud, rich dude and that he would prefer to not spend time with her. There's a reason she believes these things and at times there are shades of truth to them. (Which is a great quality in a story lie.)

By the end of the book, Lizzy has not only learned the truth about Mr. Darcy and his feelings for her, she has seen her own errors. Like how she was too quick to believe Mr. Wickham and the lies he spread about the Darcy family.

Your character's lie needs to be chipped away. Yes, it's great to have that big scene where the lie is obliterated, but you should have several scenes that have prepared your main character and your reader.

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy is offered several reasons to doubt what she believes about Mr. Darcy. For one thing, he proposed to her. She now can no longer fully believe that the only thing Darcy cares about is his social status, because he never would have proposed to her otherwise. When she sees him so attentive with his sister, she can no longer think him cold and unfeeling. The lie is chipped away until it's obliterated by the measures Darcy goes to when he redeems the reputation of the Bennet family.

Is your character's dream tested multiple times?

In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy intends to marry only for love, which in the time the book was set, was a very courageous goal. She is proposed to by Mr. Collins, whom she doesn't even like, but who is to inherit the house they live in when her father dies. Marrying him would ensure security not just for herself but for her mother and four sisters as well. Saying no to him takes a lot of bravery.

Again, Lizzy is proposed to. This time by Mr. Darcy, who is considered the most eligible bachelor of all. This is another opportunity to save her family, but Lizzy detests the man, and turns him down. 

Whatever your character's dream is, make sure you've found several places in the story to test their resolve. This deepens their internal growth and may teach them something about what motivates them. Marrying for love is a noble goal, but Lightning McQueen dreams of being the first rookie to win the Piston Cup due to his desire for fame. During his journey, he's forced to acknowledge that his fame isn't as important as having friends.

What happened in your character's past that they need to get over?

Many main characters have a dark wound - something that happened in their past that damaged them. Figuring out your character's journey for breaking free of a dark wound can do amazing things for their development.

Jill Williamson does a wonderful job of this with Captives. There's a collective dark wound for the
brothers - a friend who died in an accidental shooting - plus each brother enters the story with his own dark wound. Omar and Mason have been run down by their father for years because they're not hunters. And Levi has been haunted by a mistake he made with a girl from another tribe.

Recovering from the dark wound is a process, and often the dark wound is wrapped in a lie, so your character first has to dig through the lie to find the dark wound before they can start their recovery.

These are not mandatory elements of a story, just a few tools you can use to help determine the growth of your characters over the course of the story.

Without giving away endings, what are some of your favorite character arcs?

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Five: 5 Great Questions to Ask Your Character

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to refer to characters with female pronouns. I just don't want to do the whole "he or she" thing all the way through.

These are five questions you can ask your character that will help deepen your understanding of them. Don't limit yourself to your main character; those other characters have opinions too!

1. What object does your character value that she would never willingly give up? (Story bonus points: How can you make her give it up?)

2. When she wakes up in the morning or falls asleep at night, what does she dream about? Worry about? What's always on the back of her mind?

3. What is her biggest weakness? How can she face that in the story?

4. What is her happiest childhood memory?

5. What can your character do at the end of the book that she couldn't do at the beginning?

If you'd like, post one of your answers below!

Don't forget, today's the last day to enter the "Every word he spoke was a lie" 100-word contest.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

My New Workstation

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

So far I've started out the new year with a great To Do list and a sweet phone call with my agent, who helped me get some focus on that To Do list. But there was one other thing I've done to start out 2014 in a strong way.

I updated my treadmill desk.

I don't know if I told you all, but I have a lot of pain in my shoulders and hands from typing all day. A few years back I set up a bunch of things to help me get up out of my chair and move around. See this post for all the things I did. But it wasn't long before I was ignoring those things. I tried hard not to ignore the treadmill, but the thing is . . . it was a pain. I'd have everything open on my desktop computer. My story, Google, the online thesaurus, my book guide, the map from my book, etc. And I'd have to save and shut it all down, pull out my flash drive, then pull it all up again on my laptop. No, it really wasn't that difficult, but it was a pain. And that meant that I didn't do it. I just kept sitting at that desk and ignoring the treadmill desk I'd spent so much time making!

But this year I had an idea. And I put it into action. Here's what I did. I bought a second monitor---a little bigger that the first. I bought a wall mount for it. I bought a wireless keyboard. And I bought a twenty-five-foot montior cord and a VGA splitter cable. My husband mounted the monitor on the wall for me. I hooked everything up. And it worked. My desktop computer now has two screens, and one is mounted on the wall over my treadmill. Now I can walk and work and I don't have to close down my files to do it.

I'm so happy!

As the years have gone by and you continue writing on a regular basis, what things have you changed about your workstation? What works great? What needs an adjustment? Be proactive about it. If you can get your workstation to be a location that helps you be productive, that is ideal.

And don't forget to get up out of that chair, take breaks, and stretch. You don't want to end up like me someday with lots of pain. Take care of yourself!

It's a mess, but it works!

Oh, and I almost forgot! Outcasts released yesterday, and in case you didn't see my posts about it, Omar created a comic book to give you all for free. Visit this link to see it.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Teen Writing Contest: Every word he spoke was a lie.

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

We thought it'd be fun to start 2014 with a classic, 100 word Go Teen Writers contest!

Your prompt sentence is: Every word he spoke was a lie.

Here's how the game is played:

1. The prompt sentence must be the first sentence of your paragraph. It cannot be altered. You cannot insert words or change the punctuation.

2. Your paragraph must be NO MORE THAN 107 words (the prompt sentence + 100 words.) That means your entry can be 105 words or 99 words or 87 words, but not 108 or more.

3. Your paragraph should read like the opening of a story, which means it should do the same things you want the first paragraph of a novel to do.

4. You must be 21 or younger to enter. One entry per person.

5. Your paragraph must be turned in by Friday , January 10th. That's THIS Friday.

Entries are judged using this form.

Finalists will be announced the following week, and then the three winners will be announced several days after that. Those in the top three will receive Go Teen Writers rewards points as their prize.

You enter by using the below form. Important: Entries are anonymous. The judge will not see names on any of the entries they read. We only use your name and email address to return your feedback to you and, if you final, to list your name on the website.