Friday, May 29, 2015

Think Movies, Not Sitcoms

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 love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, or Pinterest.

I'm stealing advice again, you guys. Stealing it and passing it along. To be honest, I can't remember where I read it first, but Missy Tippens over at Seekerville, has a great post on the topic.

There's a lot of great stuff out there--on the internet and in craft books--about writing a novel one scene at a time. The idea is that by focusing on individual scenes, you can ensure that each begins with a hook--something to snag the reader's attention--and that it ends with something to keep the reader flipping the pages--maybe a revelation, reversal or turning point. 

There are huge advantages to drafting a novel this way. Scene by scene by scene. Among other benefits, you can even write your novel in whatever order you feel inspired to. You can start at the end if you want. Or in the middle if that's what grabs you. And you don't have to worry about how you move from one scene to another. Just get them drafted and connect them all later. Takes a lot of the pressure off and oftentimes words just flow.

Writing this way has helped me more often than not, but it can also be a two-edged sword. The downside, is that sometimes when we try to cram all the THINGS into each scene, it's very easy to become an episodic writer.

Have you heard that phrase before? It means you're taking your characters through problem after problem, but not really showing much forward movement, in either the character or the plot. It is especially easy to fall into this trap if you're a character-driven novelist. You have a character you love, so you play with them, torture them, solve their problem and then start all over again. That might make a great sitcom, but it's not going to cut it as a full-length feature film.

To avoid episodic writing, you must quench the desire to solve your character's problem in every scene. In situational comedies like The Big Bang Theory or (a favorite in our household) Everybody Loves Raymond, a problem is presented, squabbled over, and solved in thirty minutes, but when the next episode airs, very little has changed. God bless Raymond Barone, but the dude is the same slacker in the finale that he is in the pilot. Life has not transformed him.

Readers need to see change. It's real. We're either growing or regressing in life and you have to show that in your story. Good movies handle this well. 

Take Space Camp, for example. Have you guys seen Space Camp? You should TOTALLY watch it this summer. Anyway, at the beginning of the story, Kevin is lazy and spoiled and flat out refuses to take responsibility for anyone but himself. Even when he's made Shuttle Commander. But when the shuttle is accidentally shot into space, and they almost run out of oxygen, and Andie is hurt, and Kathryn is scared, Kevin grows. He has to. He is forced to be the leader they need.

But it takes an entire movie to show that. A little bit of growth or regression in each scene is real. Transforming a character over the course of a single scene, is not. And that's why you should remind yourself of this tidbit every now and then. 

Think movies. Not sitcoms. 

Name a novel in which a character's growth either surprised you or inspired you. Tell me why.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Chapters - Beginnings and Ending that Work

Roseanna M. White pens her novels beneath her Betsy Ross flag, with her Jane Austen action figure watching over her. When not writing fiction, she’s homeschooling her two children, editing and designing, and pretending her house will clean itself. Her novels range from biblical fiction to American-set romances to her new British series. She lives with her family in West Virginia. Learn more at 


Stephanie has blogged before about the importance of arriving late and leaving early in a scene or chapter of your novel. This is awesome advice, and a turn of phrase that has certainly stuck with me. But sometimes we know where to begin or end and still fumble a bit on how.

We've all been there: we're reading a book, totally caught up. We're chanting one more chapter in our heads. The action is going swimmingly, we turn another page, and....wha??? That was a chapter ending? But it didn't sound like it. It took us totally off guard. We flip back, reread that last line, and while we can kinda see where it's a hook, it still just didn't sound right.

Or that time when we pick a book up again after not having time to read for a few days, and it's one of those times when we did actually stop at a chapter break (I have this lovely habit of getting hooked by the end-of-chapter hook, so flipping the page and reading the first bit of the next chapter...and then putting my bookmark in at a random paragraph...). We start reading and can't for the life of us remember what was going on, and the opening paragraphs don't tell us much. Or maybe time has passed in the story, and we have no clue how much. Or where we are now.

Beginning and ending chapters isn't just about hooking the reader--they're also about grounding them. And this, I've found, helps me with that how.

I've done things my own way for pretty much ever, and I didn't honestly know if that way was okay until my editor drew my attention to it. It was during the edits for Circle of Spies, my final Culper Ring Series book that came out last April. This was the part she drew my attention to--the previous chapter had ended with my hero and heroine in a train car, headed into Western Maryland's mountains:

     With the mountains came darkness, more from the moaning clouds than the descent of the sun. Thunder had been rolling for the past twenty minutes, and flashes of lightning danced around the hilltops.

     Marietta scooted closer and closer to his side, which Slade accepted with nary a complaint. He may only have another hour with her, so he would savor every moment.

When I wrote this, I wasn't really thinking too much about it. But my editor raved about this chapter opening, saying that authors seem to spend so much time crafting that perfect end-of-chapter hook, but they rarely pay attention to how they start a chapter.

A good point, but one I think a lot of writers ignore at first because they're so determined to show-not-tell that they don't want to fall for even a moment into narration. Sometimes, though, it's necessary. Here's another example, from Susan Meissner's Shape of Mercy (an absolutely breath-taking book, if you haven't read it!):

     I was alone in Abigail's house when I completed the diary. It was early Sunday, between two and three in the morning. I had finished reading the diary well before then, but my mind refused to be a dictation machine and simply decipher and type. I read, digested, pondered, and then typed.
     It was the only way to get through it.
     I read the final three words a dozen times before committing them to the digitized image.
     I am ready.
     I am ready.
     Ready for what?

Now, the style of this book involves having these diary entries in the text. The last chapter ended with said diary entry, with those three words. This new chapter, if we avoided all telling, could have just begun with "Ready for what?"

Instead, Susan takes a few paragraphs to ground us. To put us back into the character's head, draw us out of the diary entry, and give us a glimpse of her emotions as she put those words onto the page. She's still following Stephanie's "arrive late" advice--we don't go all the way back to her transcribing the entry. We're instead put in the scene after she's finished, then brought up to date on those emotions. This is one of those times when telling is brilliant, and used correctly.

This sort of chapter opening isn't always called for. If you're in a high action scene and you end the previous chapter with a high action hook, then you can just keep plunging on. But if you're:

  • Changing locations
  • Skipping time
  • Switching POVs

then it might be an occasion to break out your narration skills and flex those prose muscles. Use imagery. Paint a word picture. You're still showing us what happened, but you're doing it from a bit of a distance before swooping down into the character's thoughts of that minute. This can be an incredibly effective tool. To use it, those paragraphs need to establish:

  • Where we are
  • When we are
  • Whose head we're in

Meissner's book is in first person, so aside from the diary entries, it's always the same POV. That's easy. =) But she quickly establishes the (1) where: Abigail's house and (2) when: two or three in the morning.

In the example from Circle of Spies, I did switch POVs, so I cover (1) where: the mountains, (2) when: at least twenty minutes after the last chapter ended, toward evening, and (3) who: Slade's POV.

Simple guidelines, but they can make a big difference in your writing...and give you some time to use those word-images that might be too much when the action's pulsing strong later in a scene.

Now, chapter endings get a lot of discussion. Because they're important--that's what keeps a reader reading, so it's important to keep them interested. But there are different ways to implement this. Another of my editors made mention of my chapter endings in The Lost Heiress (coming September), liking how sometimes I end with a question, but sometimes it's with a truth to ponder. Chapter 2 ends like this:

     But the servant looked to him. “Excusez-moi, Lord Harlow. Forgive me for bringing such news, my lord, but—your father. There has been an accident on the mountain road.”

     His fingers went lax within Brook’s tightened grip. Clouds gathered before his eyes. “What kind of accident?”

This is a rather typical hook, one that makes the reader ask, "What happened to his father? What's he going to do about it? How is this going to affect the path he just started out on?"

But that's doesn't always work for a chapter ending. Sometimes the tension doesn't come from the action...sometimes it comes from the inner journey. Chapter 3 ends like this:

     The crinkling of paper drew her eyes open again, and Deirdre saw a bank note dangling before her.

     Eyes wide, she looked past the note and to him. “Why is it more than we agreed?”

     “Incentive.” He reached over the pew back and slid it into the handbag she’d set at her side.
     There was nothing she could do but say thank you. Even though she knew the devil never made a gift without demanding something in return.
It isn't an action hook--we don't wonder what happens in the very next moment. The scene is finished, and it will come as no surprise when the next chapter opens a week later, in a different POV. But it does make us ask what this character is going to do in the future, and what the consequences will be. And it hammers home that the man she's meeting with isn't a nice guy, and that she fears him, even as she does his bidding. This is, in fact, our first introduction to one of the villains of the story, and he's clearly set up as such.

I tend toward this type of hook more than some authors do...and have even occasionally seen reviewers mention it (back before I stopped reading my reviews). One reader mentioned that (I'm paraphrasing) I don't end my chapters with everything up in the air, like so many suspense books do [insert Roseanna groaning, "Oh, I'm doing it wrong! Why did my editors not make me work on that?"]...and that she appreciated that, because sometimes those feel so contrived, like they just randomly end a chapter in the middle of an action scene, when the next chapter begins with the very next sentence in said scene. [Insert Roseanna going, "Oh. That's okay then."]

The takeaway? There's more than one way to provide a hook. Yes, it can be to leave that chapter so early that readers literally have to keep reading or the heroine is still leaping through air and hasn't even hit the floor yet. That works.

But not every book has exploding cars that send us leaping. For stories that don't, we can still end a chapter with tension and a question--or a truth--even if our next chapter skips an hour or a day or a week or a year. This is also an effective hook. One that makes the reader ask what's going to happen next, but doesn't leave the chapter unfinished.

A few tips for crafting these hooks:
  • End with a literal question, i.e. "What kind of accident?" or "He said what?"
  • End with a statement that harkens to something from the scene. From The Shape of Mercy, we get "Abigail lied to me." and "That night I dreamed I was eating yellow peas." Not action-hooks, but readers will identify that something has shifted for the character, and it's vital.
  • End with a truth the character is just realizing, i.e. "One small hint to make her wonder at all the blank spaces."
  • End with action that grabs the attention and prepares the reader for a POV shift, i.e. "The unmistakable sound of breaking china came from the other side of the room, breaking the mood as surely as it had the plate." The next chapter opens with the character who broke the plate and shattered the mood.

Which one you choose depends on the point you are in the book--and it can also be helpful to remember that tension can come not only from something shifting or changing or going wrong for your main character, but with something going right for a villain. All of these things propel the story forward and make the reader want to keep reading--and that's what it's all about, not making sure they fit a specific formula.

Has a chapter ending or beginning jumped out at you recently as being great, either from your book or one you're reading? Share in the comments!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Setting Summer Goals

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 (Birch House Press). 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.

Summer vacation arrived last Friday in the Morrill house.

Connor - who hates having his picture taken - absolutely loves photobombing.
In addition to the joys of getting to sleep in a bit and enjoy relaxed time with my kids, this also means my beautiful work structure of writing during the days they're both in school has completely vanished. Long stretches of having the house to myself and getting lost in the 1920s? All but gone.

But if I look for them, there will be snippets of time that are mine for the taking. Times when grandparents want to have the kids over for the afternoon or when they're cuddled on the couch watching Jake and the Neverland Pirates. If I have the eyes to see it, I can snatch those moments up for a vacation to Chicago in 1926.

Don't get me wrong, I also plan to have a lot of fun with my kids, especially since this is my last summer with just the two of them. With Baby #3 due to arrive in October, I know this summer is a unique opportunity to enjoy my two big kids, and I don't want to miss out on that.

So as I look ahead to summer, this quote from Muse keeps turning over in my head:

"Don't waste your time or time will waste you." - "Knights of Cydonia" by Muse.

When I come out on the other side of this summer, I want to be able to say two things:

1. I finished the first draft of my book.
2. I was intentional about how I spent my time with my kids, and we had a blast.

What about you? Do you have goals for the summer? Be thinking, because we're planning a summer challenge that'll kick off on June 8th!

Also, we are switching to our summer schedule of posting just on Monday, Wednesday, and Fridays only. This will last until after Labor Day weekend.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Happy Friday, all! Shannon here to announce the winners of the Show Me Exhaustion contest. We were so impressed with each of the entries and I thought I'd share a fun fact with you. 

From our 30 finalists, a group of teen writers chose the winners. They used a numbered scoring system and at the end, each judge went back and starred their favorites. Here's the cool part: nearly every single finalist entry was chosen, at least once, as a favorite. That tells us something, doesn't it? It tells us that while our stories may not resonate with everyone, they will likely be someone's favorite. I hope that encourages you. It encourages the socks off of me!
We've chosen three winners and two honorable mentions. Here they are:

Alexa T - Winner
Darkness is my subtle captor. It latches onto me, weighing me down, and gradually it convinces me that standing is too much effort. My feet—inch out from under me. The wall—claws my back. I'm slumping down, and shouldn't the stinging bother me? The bleeding? Sitting is a sip of paradise. How can I care? Though paradise, like always, is fleeting. Night—sinking its hands into my shoulders, suffocating me with the yearning to close my eyes. I obey, briefly, almost . . . losing . . . myself in that moment. And that, I can't afford. My eyelids lift with the agony of Atlas shouldering the world. The too-yellow streetlight—plunging viciously into my eyes, a sharp command to let my eyelids fall. My muscles are tangible as phantoms. Only willpower—my friends' desperate battle cries—keeps me from surrendering to nothingness. Then my blood, throbbing like war drums, nearly swamps their familiar voices.

Elizabeth L - Tied for Second Place
The shovel dropped from her hands, but her arm weighed a thousand pounds as she brought her forearm up to wipe away the sticky droplets of sweat that clung to her face. Her heart slammed against her ribcage, pounding out an erratic rhythm in her ears that drowned out every other sound. Quivering with tension, her legs finally buckled beneath her, and she collapsed against the hard dirt. The sun beat down on her, baking her skin, mocking her.

She sucked in ragged breaths, cherishing each lungful of air. She tried to speak, to call out for help, but her dry throat screamed with pain at every gasp of air. Besides, no help would come.
She had been fighting her whole life. But nothing had ever been as hard as digging her own grave in the middle of the desert.

Jillian Haggard - Tied for Second Place
Most people run away *to* the circus, but I'd been running *from* the circus for almost three weeks. I stumbled into the abandoned apartment that had recently become my sanctuary, nearly collapsing against the pile of dirty dishes stacked in the sink. I brought the styrofoam coffee cup to my lips and gulped down the now-cold liquid, hoping the caffeine would kick in soon. My knees trembled, yet I still managed to saunter to a chair.

The mirror on the wall captured my odious appearance: bloodshot eyes, dark circles, a tangled bird's nest of hair. A throbbing pain assaulted my forehead. Although I longed to curl up on my mattress and rest my eyes, haunting memories of the circus threatened to return in my dreams.

So, as I had done consecutively for several nights, I stared at the wall with bloodshot eyes, unmoving, as the clock ticked by.

Maddy J - Honorable Mention
My movements lag behind the music's rhythm. By their weight, my feet are surely stone, but the harsh rock underfoot still bites my flesh. Breath whistles in my throat.
A crescendo, then the music ends. I fall to my knees, chest heaving.
'Take her away.'
'No. I will dance another.' The moment of rest makes rising so hard.
The emperor lifts an eyebrow and gestures; the musicians start a cruel, lively high-step. 'As you wish, slave girl.'
I gather my will-power's remnants and begin, breath rasping. My head, light as air, is floating from my body.
'You delay the inevitable.' His voice, distant, mocks me. I cannot disagree. Five bars of music more, and my body crumples.
I am only conscious enough to know what my fate will be.

Kay L. - Honorable Mention
Three hours ago, her eyes stung.

That same pain had since stained the whites of her eyes a dreary pink, and set a loose border of angry crimson capillaries into full bloom within their meat. Three hours ago, her eyes were slipping shut on their own accord--now they were frozen open by a lining of crud that jabbed at her tear ducts and sliced along her waterline whenever her lashes began to drift downward. She was still holding her book, her fingertips turned violet between the pages, but she hadn't read a word from it in over an hour. A foggy disconnect had settled between her mind and the outside world around three o'clock, and anything that attempted to permeate that membrane, got lost in the haze, including whole chapters of books. All she could do now was wait, eyes red and neck aching, for another hour to pass.

Congratulations to these five and to everyone else who entered! I hope you enjoyed the contest and found the feedback helpful. I do beg your apologies if I've stilted the process in any way. This was my first Go Teen Writers contest and I'm learning. I'll be sending out the finalists' feedback this weekend. Thank so much. You guys inspire me.