Tuesday, March 31, 2015

You Need The Struggle

Stephanie here.

Something I've noticed in my years of interacting with aspiring writers is that universally the process of getting published feels daunting. I've been in that place. It's normal to doubt that being published will ever happen for you. We all do that. And even once you're published, you might wonder if you'll ever be published again.

I've noticed, however, that aspiring writers tend to fall into two categories when they're asking me questions:

Category one:

Why can't I just send in my manuscript to publishers? That would be a lot easier.
Unless you're a personal friend of James Patterson, it's impossible to get published.
My friend self-published on Amazon, and it only took her a week. That's a lot better than putting up with all the waiting agents and editors make you do.

Category two:

What writers conferences are worth attending?
Here's the pitch I've prepare for my story. What do you think of it?
Do you think there's a market for a story about vampire clowns in the old west?
Edits are taking me forever. How long does it take you to edit a book?

Category one writers are all about finding an easier way because getting published just feels too hard. I certainly don't believe everyone needs to be pursuing publication, or that writing is only worthwhile if you sell your manuscript, or that you aren't a real writer unless a publishing house says you are. But I do think there's value in going all out when you're pursuing something hard. 

Which is why this quote stuck out to me:

"All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today." -Pope Paul VI

As a writer, you know that it would be a very boring story indeed if you simply handed your character everything they needed and wanted as soon as they asked for it. With the hard work you put into your stories, you're not only becoming a better writer, but a better person too.

Write on!

Monday, March 30, 2015

Three Ways To Build Characters That We Will Relate To, Love, and Cheer For

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. 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 including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

When Frozen was still in the theater, we took our kids. At age six, McKenna was the perfect age to fall in love with a story, and did she ever. McKenna was instantly obsessed to the point that we sometimes had to initiate rules like, "No talking about Frozen for the next fifteen minutes."

To understand how McKenna's obsession relates to today's topic of crafting characters we identify with, I need to tell you what was happening in our home at that time:

A few weeks before we saw the movie, we had learned that our (then) three-year-old son had epilepsy. One night, dinner was interrupted by Connorwho was sitting across the table from McKennastarting a seizure. We dropped everything to rush him to the hospital, where he had to be sedated before the seizure would stop. A nurse rushed McKenna to another room to distract her with TV, and then we had to call grandparents to come pick her up because Connor was admitted to the hospital for observation.

Over Christmas, we experienced long periods of time where Connor made strange vocal outbursts and didn't seem to know who we were. Once McKenna was supposed to have a friend over, but we ended up back in the ER instead. On Christmas day, present opening was interrupted by yet another seizure. I could go on with more examples, but I think you get the point. Life was confusing, and it revolved around Connor.

So while all her friends walked away from Frozen singing "Let it go" and pretending to have ice powers, McKenna connected deeply with Anna. And as I watch the movie again (and again, and again, and again) with her, it's easy to see why. The parents who are always hovering around Elsa? Anna, off playing by herself, and she doesn't totally understand why? All those closed doors? Of course McKenna related to Anna's character.

McKenna as "coronation day Anna" for Halloween.

How do we do the same thing in our stories? How do we create a character that our readers will recognize themselves in? How do we make those characters not just someone readers can relate to, but also someone from whom they can borrow strength?

Here are three ideas:

Sympathetic situations

I'll keep going with Frozen since most of you have probably seen it and because I feel they did this exceptionally well with the sisters. (If you haven't seen it, I'm going to spoil the ending, so...)

Anna is lonely and there are secrets being kept from her. We know what it's like to be lonely, right? Maybe we even know the hurt of having secrets kept from us. Because of Anna's sympathetic situation, we understand her lapses in judgment like getting engaged to a man she's only known one day.

But Elsa's situation is very sympathetic too. She's also lonely, and there's something about her body that she didn't choose and that she can't control. If Connor were a bit older, I think he would connect very strongly with Elsa because he would recognize the truths of her struggle in his own life.

To borrow from another movie that many of you have probably seen, Guardians of the Galaxy opens with a young boy, our main character, losing his mother to (I'm guessing) cancer. This is a remarkable way to open a sci-fi movie. Instead of just plopping us into the weird, we see something familiar to usif we haven't yet lost someone close to us, we dread the day we doand already we feel deeply connected to Peter. I've yet to make it through that scene without crying.

Apply it to your manuscript: What universal emotion is your character experiencing in the opening of the book? Don't be afraid to make that clear and strong.


A character who makes a sacrifice for someone else instantly wins a reader's love. You can use a character's sacrifice as a way to not only deepen your reader's affection for the character, but also as a way to encourage your reader to live a noble life.

Elsa chooses loneliness because of her love for Anna and her fear of hurting others. That's a great sacrifice for her. On the flip side, when Anna sees that Elsa is about to be killed, she chooses to save her sister instead of herself.

Jill did this beautifully in her medieval fantasy book By Darkness Hid with her main character, Achan. More than anything, Achan wants to marry Gren, but when Gren's safety is at stake, he sets aside his dream of being with her and instead convinces Gren's father to give her in marriage to someone else as a way of protecting her.

Apply it to your manuscript: Does your main character sacrifice something? If not, can they?


In real life, we admire people who work hard for something worthwhile and achieve their goal. We love that in stories too. A character's ability to stick-to-it creates a tight bond with the reader.

Anna sets out by herself to find Elsa. She doesn't let snow, strangers, wolves, cliffs, or even Elsa get in her way. McKenna once told me that she likes Anna because her super power is love, and we see that in the choices Anna makes to achieve her goal.

It's also why we love Samwise from Lord of the Rings, because not only does he stick with the difficult road, he encourages his friend along the way.

Apply it to your manuscript: Do you show your character sticking with something that's hard? Have you made their struggle difficult enough?

Think about one of your favorite characters. Do they have a sympathetic situation? Do they sacrifice something for something greater? When the going gets tough, do they stick with their goal? What's something else about that character that draws you to them?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Revise That Thing

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

A few of you have asked about edits and revisions. Before I get into what I do, I want to point you to Jill's and Stephanie's book, Go Teen Writers: How to turn your first draft into a published book. It's a phenomenal resource. In fact, I use it as my primary reference when I'm mentoring teen writers. I RARELY tell teens to go out and buy a writing book because there are so many free resources on the internet, but this one is worth it. Especially if you're ready to edit.

I won't be getting as detailed here as you can expect the Go Teen Writers book to be, but since I am currently working on revisions, I'm happy to walk you through my process. It's looked a little like this so far:

Using all the resources available to me, I made my book as good as I could make it. Oftentimes we think we're ready for outside feedback when the truth is, we haven't put forth our best effort. Now, feedback can be good at many stages, but for the purposes of editing and revision, you need to pass off your best work if you expect a helpful critique.

Again, this is where the Go Teen Writers book can help you. It will walk you through the basics including questions on point of view, plot, structure, novel tense, world building, theme, and character development. It's hugely beneficial to apply these things to your work BEFORE you ask readers for feedback.

I found educated readers. Note the word educated. I didn't just go out and troll the internet for possible readers. I asked four of my writing friends to read my manuscript and give me their thoughts. I did not want to be processing the thoughts of the masses; just the thoughts of a select few who understand the craft of writing and can help me get better.

If you don't have a writing friend you trust to give you solid feedback, I invite you to introduce yourself in the COMMENTS section of this post and throw out what you're looking for. The Go Teen Writers FB group is great for that sort of thing as well. Say something like, "I'm looking for a critique partner who can give me honest feedback on my first chapter." It's always best to start small and see how you gel as partners before you dump a 100k words on one another.

I processed the feedback I received. It took my beta readers about two weeks to get through my manuscript and get their thoughts to me. Once they did, I had a LOT of information to process. This is how I did it:
  • I made my own list. I read all four emails with a notebook and pen at the ready and I made a list of the things they'd like to see addressed. If more than one reader noted the same thing, I only listed it once. This is how I condense all my feedback into one document.
  • I eliminated some of the suggestions. Every now and then I'd get conflicting feedback. One reader liked something and another reader didn't. This is normal. I had to exercise my best judgment in these situations and that sometimes resulted in scratching off a suggested revision.
I started revising. EVERYONE does this differently. I revise in two layers: major revisions and minor revisions.
  • Major revisions: Based on the feedback of my readers, I had two or three scenes that needed to be reworked. I did those first. Changes like this--BIG CHANGES--always cause a ripple effect in your story. Fixing one scene will demand you adjust other things in your manuscript as well, but that's okay. There's another round of revisions coming.
  • Minor revisions: Next, I opened my manuscript on the computer and started at the very beginning. With my list at my elbow and my readers' feedback fresh in my mind, I moved slowly through my manuscript making the minor revisions as I went. I also paid close attention to the nitty gritty details. Every revision requires you to check your manuscript for continuity. This is a great time to do that.
Sometimes a minor revision turns major and I have to stop what I'm doing and focus more fully on that specific issue. Also, very normal.

Editing a novel is messy and hard to explain to someone who's never been in the thick of it. I'm always amazed when someone knows exactly how many drafts of a manuscript they've completed. Whenever I'm asked that question, I have to guess. I have no idea. After the first draft, subsequent versions of my stories are not counted. I simply do not work in complete drafts like that. I work in word chunks and scenes and things like counting are best left to the math folks.
Now, in my case, this manuscript was destined for my agent. After I finished my revisions, I sent it to her for feedback. And then, guess what? I processed her feedback in much the same way I processed the thoughts of my beta readers. I made a list, eliminating all her verbiage (her compliments, her suggestions, her pretty language) and making it simple for me to read. I am currently revising AGAIN using my two layer method.

So, that's me. That's how I do it. My process isn't the only RIGHT one, but it works for me. The only way you'll know what works for you is to give it a go and keep trying until the process clicks. It will be messy. Be okay with that.

Tell me, friends, where are you on your writing journey? Are you editing or drafting or giving others feedback? How's that going for you?

If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on editing, here you go.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Carl Sandburg on Advice

by Jill Williamson

There's a lot of writing advice out there. It can be confusing, and sometimes contradicting. How can you know what is good advice and what is bad?

When I first started writing, I drank advice like water. Any feedback I received, I obeyed. I was so eager to improve, I often edited my voice right out of my stories. Even today, it's sometimes a challenge not to fall back on that bad habit.

Sometimes you hear advice and you just know it's good. It's obvious. It gives you the "Well, duh!" moment. Other times, advice can leave you confused and conflicted. If you can relate to this, keep these things in mind.

1. Wait.
When you get advice on your writing, do nothing. Take a few days or weeks to think it over. Time will give you a better perspective.

2. Ask someone else.
You can't take a poll every time you receive advice you don't like, but asking your critique partners what they think can often give you a better perspective. If one person points out something you disagree with, so what? But if the vast majority of people point out that same thing, you'd be wise to listen.

3. Decide for yourself.
Sure, we all start out confused. And we struggle, learning to show and tell, and all the other writing "rules." But at some point, we've learned the rules. And once we've learned them, we're allowed to break them if we want. We get to the point where we have to trust our gut. That doesn't mean we won't make mistakes. That doesn't mean we no longer need critique partners or editors. And that definitely doesn't mean we should stop learning. I will always make errors and I must continue to learn more and better my craft. But I also trust that I can tell a story. I might not do it like the majority of writers. But I am Jill. And Jill must tell stories her way. So must you. So start trusting yourself!

Do you struggle with knowing which writing advice is correct? How do you deal with this?

(I'm still in Arizona. I likely won't be able to answer comments until the weekend, but please comment anyway!)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hello. My Name Is Jill, and I’m a Word-A-Holic

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 I talk, it’s more than a conversation. It’s a performance. The words are spilling out a mile a minute. People are laughing. (Not at me. Hopefully.) And when I walk away, I can’t remember half of what I just said.

For example:

I’m trying to explain to my child how to do a simple task. My explanation, however, makes things more complicated than building a skyscraper.

My husband comes home from work. I try to tell him about my day, but I'm getting the feeling that I lost him at "Hello."

Ever feel like you aren’t being heard? I have. I finally realized that part of the problem isn’t that I’m too quiet, or that I’m not being clear. It is that I, Jill Williamson, am a word-a-holic. I’m addicted to talking! The thrill of speech. Interacting with others. Communicating. Weaving a story. Telling every, juicy detail.

I am addicted to words.

Just as I can lose my husband when trying to thrill him with my adventures at the supermarket, I also, can lose my reader with my addiction to words.

As a writer, I love words, especially the ones I have put to paper. I fall in love with my sentences, phrases, descriptions, and dialogue.

But often, love is blind.

Extra words clutter our work. They cloud the real story in a mess of extra blather that help our readers fall asleep. We don't want that. Not at all.

Below are twelve steps to help you break your word addictions, and get to the real story, no ugly frills attached. These twelve steps, if mastered, will help any word-a-holic on his or her way to recovery.


Do what you can to get rid of:

1. Adverbs (especially the -ly variety): These words tend to tell emotion rather than show it.
2. Telling verbs: Felt, saw, heard, thought, looked, watched, tasted, wondered, decided, noticed, remembered, etc. These words tell rather than show. It's always better to say, "A bell rang nearby" than, "She heard a bell ring nearby."
3. Absolutes: Every, very, entire, everyone, everything, etc. These are often untrue in your sentence. Be careful not to exaggerate.
4. Passive verb forms: is (or) was going, was being done, was being written, are taught, etc. Better to write: went, did, wrote, teaches (Mr. Smith's classes are taught in the gym vs. Mr. Smith teaches his classes in the gym.)
5. Continuing action words: As, when, while, after, etc. It's better to show each action separately and in the order they happen.
6. Double verbs. They usually don't change the meaning of the sentence: Started to, began to, etc.
7. Repeating yourself. Reading your work out loud helps you find places of repetition.
8. Descriptions: These are necessary. Just make sure you aren't describing too many things for too long.
9. It: The word "it" can often be replaced with something more specific. "It" is especially bland at the start of a sentence. ;-)
10. Explanations: If you find yourself giving definitions or explaining backstory (especially within dialogue) stop! Stop the madness!
11. Overused words or phrases: was, just, like, he/she sighed/smiled/laughed, etc. Do a search for these, then make an extra effort to come up with something more creative.
12. Vague words: many, few, a lot, lots, a little, some, like, etc. These types of words often add no meaning to your prose and sometimes confuse the reader.

If you need more help on this or want to print a quick reference, click here to check out Stephanie & Jill's list of Weasel Words and Phrases.

*Please note: Sometimes your writing needs an -ly adverb, a continuing action verb, a double verb, or any of the things listed above. In these situations, use your best judgement. The point is to choose words intentionally and weed out words you use because of habit.

Are you a word-a-holic too? What words do you overuse?

(I'm on a trip to Arizona right now where WiFi is practically non-existent. Please feel free to comment, but I won't be home to answer until March 28. Thanks!)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What kind of writer do you want to be?

Stephanie here.

Back in October, I had the joy of going on a writing retreat with Jill Williamson and Shannon Dittemore.
Jill, me,and Shan out for a scenic lunch break
Shannon picked me up at the airport in Sacramento, and we enjoyed a few hours in the car as we drove to Lake Tahoe to meet Jill at the hotel. We talked about all kinds of things but predominately writing and the business and our "how I got published" stories. I shared some frustrations of mine and Shannon shared hers, and then she said something that's reverberated in my heart ever since.

After talking about friends who have churned out book after book or who are writing in genres they don't enjoy, Shan said, "I had to ask myself, 'What kind of writer do I want to be?'"

This is a brilliant question, friends. Because here's the thing about getting published—the desperation can make you nutty. That's why there are vanity presses out there who pretend to be real publishing houses and routinely talk writers into handing them thousands of dollars for nothing. Because the desire to get your hand stamped by a publisher, to be validated as a "real writer," can make a person do crazy things. Heck, it can (and has!) make me do crazy things.

I've asked myself Shannon's question a lot these last few months, and it's really helped me to sort through that sensation of, "I'm not doing enough!" or, "I'm not doing this the way that successful writer over there is." 

So I'll ask it of you today. What kind of writer do you want to be? What genre of books do you love to write? What age group? How many books do you want to write each year? What do you want your writing time to look like? Do you want writing to be your job? Your hobby? Your ministry?

To be sure, there are compromises worth making on the road to being published. But you'll do yourself a big favor if you figure out ahead of time what you're flexible on and what you're not.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Writing in Community and Writing Alone

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. 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 including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

The reason I wanted to create Go Teen Writers was because for years I was very alone as a writer. I had lots of supportive people in my life, thankfully, but they weren't people who had ever been in the trenches of story writing. They brought words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, or a sandwich, maybe, but I always went back to the trenches by myself.

Alone in your story can feel like a scary place at times. Not always, certainly. But on the days when the words don't seem quite right, the questions can come. Is this any good? Does it even matter? Will this ever amount to anything?

When I was in my season of being alone as a writer—which lasted during my teens and first few years of my twentiesI thought that once I had writing friends, I wouldn't have those questions anymore. I imagined that I would have my arms linked with my fellow writers buds, and with their help, I would be secure in my stories.

And if writing friends didn't help make those questions go away, then surely having an agent or an editor would do the trick. How could a writer be insecure if they had that kind of partnership?

But as you likely know, especially if you've spent much time hanging around writing blogs, all writers have insecurities. Even your mostest favoritest writer in the whole world doubted a time or two when they wrote that great book.

As I've thought about how I deal with insecurity and pushing through times of doubt, I've been surprised to find that it isn't so much my writing community—as amazing and dear as they are to me—that sees me through, but rather lessons I learned during my season of being alone.

Here are several things I learned while doing this writing thing alone:

I learned to not need immediate gratification.

Writing and selling a novel is a long process. Honestly, there's not a lot of celebrating along the way. Just a lot of chipping away at a big project. Because I didn't have much of a choice, I grew used to working without anybody asking me to or without needing regular rewards.

I learned to spot and push through difficult places in my manuscript.

Because it was just me and my craft books, I had to figure out how to recognize when something in my manuscript wasn't working. Often this took a frustrating amount of time and distance. Then I would have to try and brainstorm the solution. These days I always choose to turn to critique partners for help, but there's still a lot of valuable in being able to spot problem areas and possible solutions in your own stories.

I wrote what I loved.

And I had no idea that it wasn't selling.

When I went to a conference in Floridawhere I made my first writing friend, Erica Vetsch—I was at lunch when a writer asked me what I wrote. I told them, "Young adult fiction."

As I said this, a literary agent was just joining our table. He said, "Young adult fiction? Who's buying that?" He went on to tell how he had several clients with great YA books that he couldn't sell.

If I'd been paying attention to the market, I would have known that publishers weren't buying my type of YA books, and that they hadn't been for a few years. Because I didn't know this, I had several YA books written right as publishers decided they wanted to try reviving teen fiction. 

I developed my voice.

Because no one was reading my work or influencing it with suggestions of change, my writing voice had room to grow. I won't expand too much on this since I recently talked about how to develop your author's voice.

I learned how to be productive on my own.

Writing communities, blessings though they are, can be a serious distraction. (Last year several people gave up Go Teen Writers for lent, and while we missed having them around, I totally understood.)

I remember being at a conference where I overheard one writer say to another that she was guilty of "riding the conference high" from one conference to another without doing much writing in-between. 

In my alone season, I was never guilty of spending more time talking about writing than actually writing, because I had no one to talk about writing with. I spent my time writing or researching how to get published, and for a while, nothing else really entered the mix.

I have no desire to romanticize the time I spent alone. I was making a lot of mistakes that I didn't know about until I went to a writer's conference. When I finished a book, I had no other writers who could look at it critically and tell me that my main character was completely unsympathetic. Instead, I had to be told that by contest judges and the agent I pitched it to. My life is much happier, richer, and rewarding with my writing friends by my side.

I need my writing community, but I also needed my time of isolation to become who I am. And on a day-to-day basis, I still need to pull back from the community to spend my time alone with my story.

What's something about writing that you've learned either from writing on your own or from the writing community (including writing friends, blogs, podcasts, etc.)?

Friday, March 20, 2015

How You Say It

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

I was a mouthy teenager, constantly getting myself into trouble. In truth, I was a know-it-all, something my poor mother tired of quickly.

In turn, she threw a phrase at me:

And while I didn't appreciate the admonition at the time, I heard it so often the words sewed themselves onto my brain. Now, when I sit down to write, I feel the pull of those stitches and I remember: It's not just the story that matters, but the tone and the words and the tenacity with with I combine them all. 

It's my voice.

Stick around the writing world long enough and you'll hear more talks on VOICE than you will just about any other subject. You'll sit there with your notepad and your pen, with your ears pricked and your heart thundering, and your fingers will be aching to scratch down that one piece of magical advice that will turn your froggish manuscript into a princely thing worthy of publication.

You know what I've found in those sessions? The thing I've noticed? Within the tantalizing words and the killer advice, there is a void. An empty space on the canvas of my creativity that refuses to be colored in by the thoughts of someone else. That guy up there, the one with the microphone and the fancy client-list, he can point you in the right direction and he can tell you what's worked for others, but the crafting of your voice is something only you can do.

And if you're to be a writer, you must take this seriously. Your voice matters. How you say whatever it is you have to say, matters.

Voice, I think, is the result of how you see the world, the books you've ingested, the vocabulary you've acquired and that intangible thing inside of you. The thing that makes you uniquely you. Your soul? Sure, let's call it your soul.

And your soul must be fed.

Go outside. Look at the world. Watch people. Talk to yourself about what you see and hear. Sketch it, if you're so inclined. Retell yourself life events. Tell them from different perspectives. Then write them. Play with metaphors. Change them. Make them your own.

And read. Read a lot. 

One of the compliments I appreciate most as a writer is when someone says they love my voice. It's HUGE. It's that thing, you know? The thing no one else can take credit for. They can teach me to plot and to plan and to develop my story world and my characters, but no one can take credit for my voice. 

It's mine.

It is constantly developing, ever-changing, and yet often familiar to those who follow my career. It is uniquely me.

And your voice is uniquely you. 

So when you sit down to write, I hope you hear my mother's words and you remember: it's not what you say, it's how you say it.

My hope for you today is that you say it well.

There are far too many writers with amazing voices for me to name all my favorites, but today I was thumbing through my old copy of Memoirs of a Geisha and I was reminded just how beautiful Arthur Golden's voice is. No one could have told that story the way he did.

Whose voice do you love? Which authors are on your auto-buy list? You know, the authors whose books you'll read regardless of the plot. The authors you read because their voice makes any story worth your time.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Mark Twain on the Right Word

by Jill Williamson

I love this quote. It reminds me to slow down in my edits and, as I read, really question my word choice.

Random moment: This quote also reminds me of how people often misspell lightning as lightening. Those are two very different words. They do not mean the same thing. (Look them up, if you're curious.)

Words are powerful. We can use them to build each other up or tear each other down. We can use them in our writing to tell a wide range of genres, moods, slow or fast pacing, and different themes. We can make readers laugh, cry, or cheer.

I challenge you all today to slow down and seek out the right words. Whether you are writing or communicating out loud with people, take the time to choose your words carefully.

Do you ever struggle to find the right word? If so, how do you get through this?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

8 Tips for Creating a Pantheon for Your 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.

On my last book, I spent a lot of time working on the pantheon for my world. A pantheon is the collective sum of deities in a specific mythology. Some examples from our own world are the Norse, Celtic, and Greek pantheons.

Since King's Folly takes place on the same planet as the Blood of Kings books, I had already created some of my pantheon. This left me with the unique challenge of going back in time and trying to write the origins of these gods and goddesses and the myths that went along with them. I thought you might find my methods helpful, so here are 8 Tips for Creating a Pantheon for Your Novel.

1. Don't over-think it!
It helps to think of fictional gods and goddesses as characters in your story, whether or not you ever allow them to show up on the page and speak. If you can think of these deities as characters who once existed in your fantasy storyworld, then you can follow the same practice you would when creating any major or minor character, whether they be historical figures or still living when the story takes place.

2. Write an origin story/creation myth.
What does this particular culture believe about the beginning of the world? If you study the various cultures on earth that existed throughout history, you'll find that each has a story on how earth and people came to be. Study some of these to get ideas. Or work from scratch and invent your own origin story based on the people you've created.

3. Know your culture.
Mythological gods were created by humans to answer questions that were, at the time, unanswerable. These deities brought purpose to life. Faith was influenced by the culture of the people who believed. List needs, questions, fears, values, customs, and superstitions of your culture. This will help you know what it's like to live there. Having a well-developed culture will make creating a pantheon easier. Shallee McArthur wrote a wonderful guest post on developing your culture.

Make a list of what matters to your people, then incorporate that list into your pantheon. If your culture is made up of hunter/gatherers, they would value plants and animals. They might also revere the weather, since rain and snow could change the availability of those plants and animals. In King's Folly, I had several different cultures that, centuries ago, were the same culture. This enabled me to use the same pantheon in different ways. One culture valued men above all things. Another valued women. Yet another valued magic and the plant that made magic possible. They all feared earthquakes. And most of my cultures revered the number five to the point of superstition. All these things helped me choose which gods and goddesses each culture worshiped.

4. Decide how many you want.
Since the number five was sacred to most cultures in King's Folly, I started with five gods. But I figured that since my land was ancient, beliefs might have changed over the years for many people. So I came up with different belief systems for the same pantheon. Some people only worship the Five Gods, who they believe to be superior to all others. Then there are people who follow the practice of choosing their own five gods to follow, who aren't necessarily the official Five Gods. Then there are people who worship one of the gods almost exclusively. This might not mean they don't believe the other gods exist. It's just that they've sworn allegiance to one god in particular. And some do only believe in one god.

You might want to do things differently. Maybe you like the idea of having a fixed number of deities. Or maybe your number comes from something else, like the four seasons, the elements, emotions, or colors. Whatever you choose, choose it for a reason that fits your culture. It doesn't have to be terribly logical. But if it meets a felt need of the culture, it will make sense to the reader. This helps your storyworld feel more authentic.

5. Name them.
Naming your deities might be the hardest thing you do. I've received countless emails from authors, asking how to come up with names for characters and places. I wrote a blog post on the topic of choosing names, and I think it applies to naming deities as well. Click here to read that post. Stephanie also wrote a post on naming characters that you can read here.

6. Know how the gods interact with each other and the humans.
Is there a hierarchy in your pantheon? Does everyone get along? Or are some enemies? Has there been a war? If so, is it still going on? Do the gods speak to humans in your story? Do they have powers? How do they treat humans? If they appear to humans, what do they look like? Do they have corporeal form? Is it humanoid or something else? Can they be killed? If so, do they regenerate, are they stuck somewhere until rescued, or something else?

7. Other supernatural beings? 
Decide whether or not you will have other supernatural beings in your story, like demigods, angels, demons, etc. If so, you need to know how these beings interact with the gods. What's the hierarchy here? Do they only serve certain gods or must they answer to all gods? If you don't want to have other types of supernatural beings, don't create any. It's your world. Do what works best for your story.

8. Design symbols for each.
Symbols can help a storyworld feel more realistic. A culture might use a god's symbol on their flag, uniforms, shields, or jewelry. Think of Zeus's lightning bolt or Poseidon's trident.

Can you think of anything else that might be helpful in creating a pantheon? Also, for historical pantheons (Greek, Norse, etc), name something about one of them that has always stuck with you. For me, I've always liked the titans, who were the parents of the Greek gods. I found that concept interesting. My husband likes the story of Medusa, who turns people to stone with one look. She's one creepy monster.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Writers Are Found Artists

by Stephanie Morrill

I sometimes feel sad for non-writers. How do they survive the tedium frequently involved in social gatherings? In my 31 years, I've been trapped in so many conversations where the pointlessness would set my teeth on edge if I wasn't able to think to myself, "I can use this. This girl's ego apparently has no end, but I can use this."

For all the frustrating things about being a writer (I would love to be able to watch a bad movie and not grow angrier every second as I think about how easily it would have been to improve it. Anyone feeling me?) the ability to take the good and bad from life and re-purpose it is a lovely bonus. Same as a found artist turns trash into art, we're able to do the same with our experiences.

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. - Anne Lamott Bird by Bird
What's something from your real life that you've been able to re-purpose in a story?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Do you have a VAP?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. 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 including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

The book I just finished writing is the first (completed) manuscript of mine that has a true villain rather than the "she used to be my best friend but now we don't get along" type. Because of that, I was bound to make some mistakes along the way.

One big thing that I've taken away from the experience of writing this book is the need for a Villain Action Plan, or a VAP. When I first started working on my plot, I knew that theoretically my villain needed to be active and have motives and all that good stuff. But weaving that through the story was much harder than I thought it would be.

When I do it all over again (which I'm getting ready to as I'm in the early stages of a new book) this is how I'll do it:

I'll start by considering who my villain is apart from my main character.

This can be as simple as writing a paragraph or two about what my villain's goal is and how they intend to achieve it. My favorite exercise for deepening my villain is to use character journaling, but I don't usually do that until I'm well into the first draft.

It's very important to explore their plan apart from the main character, especially if they didn't expect the main character to interfere. Otherwise, they don't come across as very intelligent, which keeps them from seeming as formidable.

I'll look for points of intersection.

Now that I've taken the time to think through how my villain plans to meet his goal, it's time to look for where he and my main character will intersect. 

When I was working on my last book, basically all I did was figure out where Piper and my villain collided. The problem with that is it left big, unexplained, and unintelligent gaps in my timeline. Why would my villain take a random six weeks off while my main character grieved? Made no sense.

But if you've taken the time to figure out everything they're already doing, you've given yourself what you need to craft a thoguhtful villain. And a thoughtful villain is a dangerous one.

I'll lay their actions out on a timeline.

I shared this timeline tool back in October. This really is a handy little thing that can be very simple or as color-coded and info heavy as you want. 

If you're not a spreadsheet person, another way to do this is with sticky notes or index cards. You could use a plot line like this one:

Or you can just go crazy storyboard style:

Picking one color of index card/Post-it for your main character and another for your villain and using that to visualize how their story lines coincide can be very helpful. 

Not every story needs a mustache twirling type villain (The Fault In Our Stars and Stephen King's 11/22/63 are proof of that) but I intend to be smarter and more intentional the next time I throw one into a manuscript!

What kind of bad guys do you tend to write? 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Write The World Writing Contest - Deadline quickly approaching!

SELFIE-REFLECTION Writing Competition 

by Davina Dukuly, Write the World

Is the selfie a cry for attention or an empowering form of self-expression? Write the Worldwants to hear your thoughts! Our new writing competition for high school students is now open. Write a 750 -1,000 word op-ed about the phenomenon of the Selfie. You could write the piece for or against, or show both sides of the argument. And did we mention there will be cash prizes? Here’s what you can win:

-Best Entry: $100 (winning piece + author interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
-Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)
-Best Peer Review: $50 (reviewer interview will be featured on Write the World’s website and blog)

Become a a member of Write the World - the global platform for student writing. Sign up today at www.writetheworld.com.

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Friday, March 13, 2015

How To Know If You're Any Good

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a focus on youth and young adult ministry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Many of you have left me questions in the comments section of recent posts. I LOVE these. They are wonderful for prompting timely articles. Please keep leaving me your ideas. I go through them and make a list, so if I haven't gotten to your question yet, rest assured, I have it here and I'll do my best to get your questions answered.

Today, I thought I'd tackle several of them in one post. It's easy to do because many of you have asked variations of the same question:

Some of you were more specific than others. You asked, "How do I know if my climax is any good?" and "How do I know if my characters are strong enough?" and "How do I know if I'm a good writer?"

There's such an urgency in these questions, isn't there? Even when I ask them of myself. It's this deep, desperate, very basic, insanely difficult to pinpoint insecurity in our gut that bleeds the words: Do I have what it takes?

As I chewed on this question, my first thought was this: You won't know you're any good unless someone tells you.

And then I thought, what an awful thing to tell teenagers! We shouldn't ever base our pursuits on the fickle opinions of others, especially where art is concerned, especially when we're fifteen.

And yet, there is truth to it. Even if the SOMEONE you receive affirmation from is only ever you.

Answer these questions:

1. Who do you need accolades from?


2. If you don't EVER receive those accolades, are you happy writing for yourself?

If the person you want affirmation from is in your life, be brave, give them your work, ask them to read it. Ask them, "Is it any good?"

If you need accolades along with a paycheck and you're sincerely hoping to get both of those from a publishing house, you're going to have to do the hard work of getting your writing in front of an agent and then an editor. In doing so you're asking, again and again, "Is it any good?"

Before you get there, of course, before you reach your target audience, it is always a good idea to get feedback from others. Call it self-esteem practice, if you want. Email that poem of yours to a few writer pals and be brave. Ask them, "Is it any good?"

They may say, "No. It needs work." And your heart will deflate a bit, but YOU'RE A WRITER! Rejection in its many forms is just part of the gig. You keep moving forward and you learn after a while that some opinions are worth more than others. And some should never matter at all. And you don't need to please EVERY audience to be successful.

It's so hard.

And it's so simple.

And it never, ever, ever stops being both of those things.

True story: I just, today, like five hours ago, received an email from my agent. It was a good email. A glorious email. An email worth framing. She told me my manuscript was GOOD. And I nearly knocked my ten year old out of the way in my haste to read the note more fully.

I don't know a single writer who's ever conquered the mountain of self-doubt completely. And perhaps you can rest in that. That you're not alone in your wonderings. You're not alone in your need to know, in the hope of pleasing a rapt audience.

It is normal to hope you're good.

It is better to work toward that goal.

And it is sublime when you can find joy in writing for yourself.

So tell me, did I help at all or did I just muddle this whole thing for you?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Frank G. Wells on Humility

Jill here.

I recently returned from a family vacation to California. We lived there for nine years before moving to Oregon, so it's always nice to go back and see old friends. This time, my husband had earned a tour of Disney Studios. It's funny. Disney Studios is in Burbank, California, the same city we lived in for nine years. It's not that big of a place. Our kids were both born in the hospital across the street from Disney Studios, the same hospital Walt Disney died in. But in all the years we lived in Burbank, we had never been able to tour the studio, since it's a closed lot. So this was a treat for us.

I took over a hundred pictures, many more exciting than this one. (I got to hold a real Oscar!) But our fabulous tour guide, Lisa, who, by the way, sang in the Tangled choir (how cool is that?), told us about the Frank G. Wells building, which holds the Disney Archives. And she told us about Frank G. Wells himself. And I wanted to share a bit of that with you.

Frank G. Wells was the president of the Walt Disney Company for ten years, from from 1984 until his death in 1994. The Frank G. Wells building opened in 1998 and was dedicated in his memory. Beside the entrance to the building is a plaque with the quote that Frank carried on a slip of paper inside his pocket for thirty years: “Humility is the final achievement.” It was in his pocket the day he died.

I love that. Here is a successful businessman who understood the power of true humility. That success isn't about getting, it's about giving. Humility doesn't mean doubting your ability or worth. Be confident in your skills. But you need both. Confidence without humility is nothing but ego. And humility without confidence is, well, kind of sad.

And if you find success, that doesn't mean you get to throw out humility. We will always need this trait. Humility motivates us to keep learning. It teaches us to care about others, to look beyond ourselves and our own agendas. Humility keeps us human.

Any thoughts on this quote? Can you share an example of someone you know who practices humility?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Moral Premise by Stanley D. Williams

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.

A few months back, I read Stanley D. Williams's book The Moral Premise. This is primarily a book for screenwriters, but the concepts apply to all types of storytelling. What it comes down to is this: "A Moral Premise is the practical lesson of a story."

Williams shares that the great stories have at their core, a moral premise, which is a statement that shows two opposing values. This book is meaty reading at first, but Williams provides several examples from well-known films that make the concept easy to understand.

Take the Incredibles, for example. The movie is about a family of superheroes doing battle against a villain in order to save the world. But at its core, it's all about family. Williams's official Moral Premise example in the book is: "Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat; but battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory." And we see this in the story. Mr. Incredible sets off on his own, but only with the help of his family can they all overcome adversity.

Williams encourages writers to structure their stories around one Moral Premise. You can do this by using the following formula:

[Vice] leads to [defeat]; but
[Virtue] leads to [success].

Here is another example he gives from the movie Bruce Almighty:

Expecting a miracle leads to frustration; but
Being a miracle leads to peace.

I used this method for King's Folly. Originally, I felt like my book was all about "freedom." Few people in the story had true freedom. Too many were slaves or captives or suffering from their own bad choices or addictions or past. And some were being controlled by others and felt they were unable to make their own choices. So I took the concept of "freedom" and worked my way up to the following Moral Premise for the trilogy:

Carelessness leads to chaos and death; but
Wisdom leads to order and life.

"Carelessness" can mean many things. The king is careless about the lives of his people. He cares only about himself and his goals. And that leads to chaos and death. But those characters in the story who seek wisdom are able to find order and life.

Now that I had discovered a Moral Premise for King's Folly, I was able to make so many things shadow that premise. I suddenly saw careless characters everywhere, and their actions were creating death all around them. But for my characters who chose wisdom, things were going well.

Williams also walks the reader through charts for both a Good Guy and a Bad Guy character arc plot. I found these so helpful. Here you can brainstorm moments in the plot that take your character from the Vice and toward the Virtue (or to a greater vice in the case of the Bad Guy). Here is a sample of the chart I made for myself, inspired by Williams's examples in his book.

I'm going to use my Achan & Vrell novella as an example. My Moral Premise for that story is:

Relying on oneself leads to dissension; but
Working with others leads to harmony.

For column AList the types of goals the character will have throughout the story.

General Goal: Achan longs to find adventure again. He had SO MUCH adventure in the Blood of Kings books. But now he's king, and it's boring. And people criticize him for everything that goes wrong. And he and Vrell are having too many fights. So he figures, if he can find some adventure, that will make him happy. And it will distract him from his problems with Vrell.

Career Goal: To stop the Jaelport threat that is continually causing problems along the Gadowl Wall.

Family Goal: To have a son/heir.

Personal Goal: To be more organized.

Public Goal: To be able to protect his people and be valued by them. To be a hero again.

Now, I'm not going to show you what I have written in each column or it will spoil a lot of the story. But I'll give you my notes all the way through for the Personal Goal.

For column A, Achan's Personal Goal was to be more organized.

For column B (Vice practiced). This is an act one event where the reader gets to see the character stuck in his flaw and mirroring the Vice (of being completely unorganized and, to match my Moral Premise, relying on himself to cope with his organization and causing dissension as a result).
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan has misplaced a letter from the castle scribe. He thought nothing of it until the scribe was murdered. Now the letter is very important and it's lost.

For column C (the change event). This is an act two event that shows the reader that the character is making an effort to change.
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan asks a servant's advice on how to organize his office. The servant suggests he ask the queen. (This is a duh moment for Achan, as Vrell has offered to help him before, but he has been unwilling to ask her.)

For column D (Virtue practiced). This is an act three event that shows the reader that the character has changed. His Vice has become a Virtue.
Scene that fits the Personal Goal: Achan asks Vrell to help him organize his office. (Which is a nice moment because Achan has learned the Moral Premise of "Working with others leads to harmony."

This same progression of scenes applies to each of Achan's story goals (General, Career, Family, Personal, and Public). In act one he will practice the Vice. In act two he will be practicing change or learning something hard that will lead to change. And in act three he will be practicing the Virtue.

The Bad Guy chart looks exactly the same but for column D. There, instead of the Virtue Practiced, the chart would say "Greater Vice Practiced."

Having a Moral Premise for your story is similar to having a theme. And once you know it, you can structure your entire story around that one premise, whether that be with each character's growth or demise, or with your plot. It's pretty awesome. And in the end, you have a more cohesive story. Every character and scene plays toward the same theme. And the end result is powerful.

I highly recommend this book. Any ideas what the Moral Premise of your WIP (work in progress) might be? Share in the comments.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How to Craft a Strong Heroine

Dina Sleiman writes stories of passion and grace. Most of the time you will find this Virginia Beach resident reading, biking, dancing, or hanging out with her husband and three children, preferably at the oceanfront. Since finishing her Professional Writing MA in 1994, she has enjoyed many opportunities to teach literature, writing, and the arts. Her debut novel, Dance of the Dandelion with WhiteFire Publishing, won an Honorable Mention in the 2012 Selah Awards. Also look for her novels, Love in Three-Quarter Time, Dance from Deep Within, and her Valiant Hearts series with Bethany House Publishers. Dina serves as an acquisitions editor for WhiteFire Publishing as well, and she loves to teach at writers conferences throughout the US. For more info visit her at her primary website.

The strong and spunky heroine is a popular motif these days, especially in young adult fiction and the many movies being made from YA books. Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, and the list goes on. There’s something about a strong young woman that excites people. That makes them say, “If she can make a difference in this world, then so can I.” You can see this on television as well. I’m thinking Sidney Bristow on Alias, Olivia Pope on Scandal,  Nikita and The Legend of Korra, but I’m sure you can come up with plenty of your own examples.  .

Even if you are a guy who wants to write guy books, strong female sidekicks and minor characters
are hugely popular. If you do a good job with these characters, you will earn a faithful readership among women as well as men. And in case you didn’t know, women buy waaayyy more books than men.

My new YA adventure/romance series, Valiant Hearts with Bethany House Publishers, features strong young medieval women in legendary male roles—which means I’ve spent a lot of time over these last few years contemplating spunky females.  So how do you craft a strong heroine? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Give her admirable motivations

A woman who is tough merely for the sake of being tough can come off as cold or standoffish. Help us to understand the hardships that formed your character. Give her strong motivations like protecting the weak, standing up for justice, or seeking freedom. Let us see her making sacrifices and using her strength to help others.

Give her a special ability 

Most spunky female characters have some sort of special ability that allows them to stand above the crowd. For example, Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games is an excellent huntress. In my Dauntless, my heroine was trained by traveling acrobats, and in my next book Chivalrous, the heroine learned to fight like a knight alongside her brothers.  It could be intelligence or humor or people skills, but give your heroine some special ability that will allow her to take on the world and that will make her strength believable.

Surround her with characters who respect her

One of the important rules of good fiction writing is show don’t tell. Show us your heroine’s strength through the eyes of the people around her. How they treat her, respect her, and look up to her. Show us through dialogue and the inner thoughts of other characters. Make us believe that we should admire her strength as well.

Give her a formidable foe

Any hero is only as strong as their adversary. Don’t give us a wishy washy oppositional force just because your hero is a girl. Make your villain a worthy foe, and then allow your heroine (and/or her surrounding team) to overcome them anyway. Depending on your genre this might be a literal villain, or it might be a force of nature or even an internal adversary. But whatever it is, make it a true challenge.

Show us her soft side

The factor that makes a heroine strong and spunky rather than just tough and cold is her soft side. A woman should have a special sort of vulnerability which underlies and complements her strength. In addition to showing her strength, be sure to show this vulnerability as well.  A tear in her eye, a sentimental moment, a gentle stroke over the hair of a child, a brief cuddle with an animal or a beloved doll. Let us know her fears and hurts and weaknesses, and then let us see her overcome them anyway.

Leave room for transformation

Although your heroine should be strong, make sure she still has weaknesses to overcome. It is always important for any main character in your book to undergo a transformation. This is at the heart of good storytelling. Weave your plot in such a way that she has to overcome her weaknesses in order to overcome her foe. That is how a heroine becomes not only interesting and exciting, but inspirational as well.

I say, bring on the strong heroines. Personally, I can’t get enough of them.

Do you have any feisty females in the book you’re working on? Who are some of your favorite spunky heroines?

Stephanie here. If you like strong heroines, make sure to check out Dina's newly released Dauntless in which Lady Merry Ellison must fill a Robin Hood type role after the evil King John (Prince John of the Robin Hood legends) tries to kill her entire village. But she has to fight her tendency to become hard and bitter and learn that there is power in love as well.