Friday, July 31, 2015

The Dramatic Question

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, Instagram, or Pinterest.

WELL! Clearly I would not do well in summer school. I now have TWO tardy slips for late posts and I have no one to blame but myself. I'm sorry, friends. Summer is definitely beating me. But I do have something to discuss, something I've been chewing on this week. 

The dramatic question is a very simple, yes or no question that the writer promises to answer by the end of the story. It is THE QUESTION. It's the WHY behind the writing and it acts as a handshake between the reader and writer. A bond. A contract. If you, as the writer, do not answer the major dramatic question you have posed, you will leave your reader unsatisfied. And, honestly, you probably belong in writer jail. 

The dramatic question is not something you actually write into your story. It's not, say, the first sentence of chapter two or even slipped discretely into the title. It is the rope tying the reader to yourself. The rope they use to follow you through all the description, all the prose, all the internal pondering and it is the rope that you will use to lead them to the conclusion of your carefully crafted tale. 

You're wanting examples now, right? Dramatic questions we can pull from books so that we can all discuss this more fully. Let's use my Angel Eyes trilogy. 

In Angel Eyes, the dramatic question is this: Will Brielle believe what she sees?

Simple. Straightforward. The answer is either a YES or NO.

In Broken Wings, the dramatic question is this: Will Brielle rise above tragedy and brokenness and fight, even if she has to do it alone?

A little more wordy, but still easily answerable, still easily understood.

In Dark Halo, the final book of the trilogy, things come full circle and the dramatic question reflects that: Will Brielle choose to see the world as it really is, even when it hurts?

These questions are a piece of cake to write now, but there's a good reason for that. The stories are already written. They've been drafted and edited and edited and edited and proofread and I even have a couple years of distance between myself and the writing. Those things make asking the dramatic question easy. When you're in the thick of it though, it can be very difficult to KNOW what you're actually writing about, especially if you write by the seat of your pants.

But knowing (or at least, suspecting) that there is a question out there you're writing to answer, brings a sort of focus in the chaos of words and can settle you into your chair when the story seems to have developed a life of its own.

One of the reasons we often get lost in the tangle of our own words is that we haven't stopped to consider what it is we're writing toward. We are writing toward the answer to this one question. We are writing to KNOW something about our main character. And that brings me to the "how-to" portion of today's post. 

HOW do we craft a dramatic question for our stories? Focusing on three things will help:

Your Protagonist: Who are you writing about? This person's name should probably be in the dramatic question. Very simply, "Will Susie find her blue hair ribbon?" "Will Mikey beat his nemesis in the big school race?" If you cannot identify who your protagonist is, if you have too many characters and too little focus, you may want to think this through a bit. Focus. We need a hero to follow.

His or Her Goal: What does your main character want? Susie wants to find her blue hair ribbon. Mikey wants to win the race. In the Angel Eyes trilogy, Brielle wants to know what the heck she's supposed to do with what she sees. These things must somehow be reflected in the question you're asking.

Obstacles: What is keeping your main character from reaching her destination? Brielle isn't big on believing in the invisible. She doesn't want to believe there is more to life than what can be reasonably seen. Once she can see the invisible world, this built-in, rooted emotion doesn't stop being an obstacle to her. It is a problem. Her belief will not change reality, but it will change her actions. This problem must be overcome and that should be reflected in the dramatic question.

I've given you some things to think about and play around with, but if I'm honest, the dramatic question is almost always easier to craft after the story is written. I bet you can hone in on dramatic questions from all your favorite books. In fact, take a minute and do that. Think of your favorite story and stew on it for a bit. What ONE question does the author answer for you at the end. Focus, now. Hone in. What is it?

Now, do it for the story you're currently drafting.

See, it's easier to do when the book is already written. And that brings me to my final tip and trick for the day. Knowing what it is you're asking and answering can be incredibly helpful, but it will require some thought. In my experience, taking the time to write up a quick synopsis or story summary could go a long way in helping you discover what it is you're really writing about. 

I know. Writing a summary is not easy and it takes all sorts of time and effort, but at this point, it doesn't have to be perfect. It just has to help you flesh out that question. And the irony is that once you know what your dramatic question is, writing a synopsis gets much easier. And suddenly you'll have focus and a sturdy rope to lead your reader with.

Tell me, have you ever written a dramatic question for your stories before? Give it a try. If you're brave, share with us.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How To Describe A Voice

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.

We have reached Part Four of my four-part series on description. I hope I've given you some good tips for describing things in a fresh way. To recap, here are the links to the first three parts:

-10 Tips for Tight Descriptions
-How to Describe a Place
-How to Describe People

Today I want to talk about different ways to describe a voice. This is something I've rarely done in my books but find very powerful. Remember how we discussed using description flags/tags for characters to alert the reader to something unique about that person? A unique voice can be a great character flag.

Here are some different ways you could describe a character's voice:

What does the voice sound like? Is it high, low, soft, loud, gravely, musical? Does it give people chills or make them wince? Does the speaker have a lisp or a lilt to his or her voice? Perhaps the character is always yelling in an encouraging, coach-like way. Or maybe the character is a low-talker like Lilly Okanakamura in Pitch Perfect.

Here is a list of words you can use to describe your character's voice:

Angry, appealing, baritone, booming, breathy, casual, child-like, confident, creepy, croaking, direct, disembodied, dulcet, eerie, flat, formal, friendly, gentle, grating, gravelly, gruff, guttural, high-pitched, hoarse, humorous, husky, intelligent, laid-back, low, matter-of-fact, monotone, musical, nasal, quavering, quiet, raucous, rough, severe, sexy, shrill, singsong, smoky, smooth, soft-spoken, strangled, thick, thin, throaty, toneless, to-the-point, tremulous, warm, wheezy, and whiny.

Gender and Age
Is the speaker male or female? Young or old? If you have a different species in a fantasy novel, give us a clue as to how they sound compared to humans.

You can give characters accents to depict their coming from different geographic locations by having other characters notice said accents and by tweaking the character's dialogue. You don't have to do it often, but you do need to be consistent. Play with spelling, word choice, or syntax to create different dialects. If your accent is a real one from planet earth, study accents online to get it right. If you're making up a dialect for a fantasy world, keep a record of your words as sort of a quick-reference so you can remember what you did. Last year I wrote a blog post on how to write character dialects. Click here to read it.

Pet Words and Slang
Perhaps your character has a pet word or talks using slang. This can set a character's voice apart from others so long as you don't give every character a pet word or slang. In my Blood of Kings books, Achan was the only character to say "Pig Snout!" as an oath.

The dialogue you use for each character can sound different to the reader if you take care to choose carefully the word choice, sentence structure and length, punctuation, and accompanying dialogue and action tags. Is your character a gentle person? Or is he brusque, formal, or bossy? Check out these examples of very strong personalities. When they are speaking, the reader usually knows it!

A person who always seems angry in Markus Zusak's The Book Thief:

          "Well, I'm Mama Number Two, then." She looked over at her husband. "And him over there." She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table. "That Saukerl, that filthy pig—you call him Papa, verstehst? Understand?"

The funny guy in my book The New Recruit:

          I looked at Isaac until the cool air forced me to blink. He may as well have been speaking Russian. “What’s a field office?”
          “It’s just like a regular office, but in a field,” Isaac said. “They sit in a shack on some hay bales.” Then he cracked a smile. “Naw, I’m just messing with you, newb."

The jerk in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:

"Ah, look, boys, it's the champion," [Malfoy] said to Crabbe and Goyle the moment he got within earshot of Harry. "Got your autograph books? Better get a signature now, because I doubt he's going to be around much longer... Half the Triwizard champions have died... how long d'you reckon you're going to last, Potter? Ten minutes into the first task's my bet."

One who talks to himself (and has a unique way of talking too) in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:

“Bless us and splash us, my precioussss! I guess it’s a choice feast; at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum!”

The same character might speak very differently when he is angry compared to when he is feeling nice. Don't forget to take his emotional state into consideration when you write his dialogue. If you're not sure how he'd respond, try and put yourself in his shoes and think through how you might reply in such a situation depending on the emotion you're looking to convey. Here is a list of emotions. How might your character respond differently in each mood?

Afraid, amazed, amused, angry, annoyed, anxious, bored, calm, cautious, concerned, confident, confused, curious, delighted, depressed, disappointed, disgusted, dismayed, disoriented, eager, elated, embarrassed, envious, exasperated, excited, exhausted, frustrated, grief-stricken, grumpy, guilty, happy, helpless, hesitant, hopeful, hopeless, humiliated, hurt, indifferent, infatuated, insecure, interested, intrigued, jealous, joyful, melancholy, nervous, optimistic, outraged, overwhelmed, panicked, proud, regretful, rejected, relieved, resentful, sad, satisfied, scared, scornful, shocked, suspicious, trusting, uncertain, uncomfortable, weary, worried.

What unique ways have you used a character's voice in your stories? Share in the comments.

Monday, July 27, 2015

How Should Chapter One END?

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.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

As writers, we talk a lot about how to start our book, and how to hook the reader with just the right opening to the story. But what about when you're figuring how to end your first chapter? What should that look like?

First, why does it even matter how you end chapter one? Ending scenes and chapters well is important overall, but your first chapter is special. For one thing, it's possible your reader still hasn't completely bought into reading this book. Ending your first chapter well is an opportunity to show a reader that they're in capable hands and you're going to tell them a good story.

Also, when you're published, it's common to put the first chapter of your book on your website. In that situation, you definitely want to end in a way that encourages a reader to wish for chapter two.

But what does it mean to end your chapter well?

Like we talked about last week with story openings having a mood that reflects the mood of the story, I prefer to end chapter one with the same mood. I also like to end with a moment or reflection that points to something important to the character's journey.

I accomplished both of those in The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet with this close to chapter one:
I watch his car fade from sight. Yes, I definitely prefer the worlds I create. I like it better when everyone plays by my rules. 
This is a reflective moment that comes on the tail of a confrontation, and it's something that Ellie will have to acknowledge over and over throughout the bookthat the people in her life aren't behaving the way she wishes they would.

Here's another example from Out with the In Crowd (book two in The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series)
Somehow, her saying this made me want to to tell her, but I bit back the answer. Too many people had burned me recently. I'd lost interest in trusting anyone.
Trust—specifically how to trust when you've been deeply hurtis a big issue of Skylar's in the second installment of her story.

Endings like this work for coming-of-age stories like Ellie's and Skylar's, but if you definitely want to consider your genre. For an adventure, suspense, or humor novel, a reflective ending likely won't feel as though it fits.

With my historical suspense novel, I reworked the ending of chapter one several times to get it to close on a suspenseful note:
But my gaze catches on something strange ahead on the sidewalk. A crumpled girl with long flames of hair who’s wearing a uniform identical to mine. A scream rips through the bright blue afternoon—my own.
A chapter ending of this nature would seem very out of place in my contemporary novels, so be sure you're thinking about your genre and the mood of your story as you close chapter one.

Examine the ending to your first chapter. How well do you think you've done at capturing the mood of the story? Try pulling a book or two off your shelf that you've read and liked; how does the author finish chapter one? Does it make you want to read on?

(I'm traveling today so I won't be able to interact in the comments like I normally do, but I'll still be able to read them!)

Friday, July 24, 2015

How Titles Can Shape Your Story

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, Instagram, or Pinterest.

While one book is out on submission, I've been working on another--totally unrelated--story. For drafting purposes (and because Microsoft Word forces you to come up with a file name) it's been saved on my computer as Homeless in Hawaii.

Pretty blah title, right? And I'm sort of at the place in the drafting process where having a killer working title could help by bringing a little focus to my writing. I thought it might be beneficial to you to see just how a title can pull things together for an author.

This made itself clear to me when I was drafting my third novel in the Angel Eyes trilogy. I was marketing my first book, editing my second and drafting my third. In the thick of things, I received an email from my editor asking for a synopsis of my third book to take to a titling meeting set for the next day.

Yeah. The next day. Nothing like a little pressure to get you cooking.

For the uninitiated, a titling meeting is when folks from different departments--Editorial, Marketing, Publicity, Sales--toss around ideas for book titles. See, just because YOU come up with a title for your book does not mean your publisher will stamp it on the cover. All sorts of folks are involved at this stage and even though I had little notice, I did not want to disappoint them.

Of course I didn't have a synopsis for book three. Book one had just come out, for crying out loud. All I had were some ideas and a vague sense of direction. I was still playing with character development and voice and trying to decide who got to live and who wouldn't make it through. The idea of sitting down to sum up the conclusion of a trilogy with only 24 hours notice was daunting.

You know what I did? I loaded up my littlest rugrat in the stroller and I bought myself a Mexican Mocha and I walked the mall until I knew that I knew that I knew what I was writing about.

And then I went home and scratched it out. I wrote a synopsis. A short one, mind you. Very short. One page, actually. But it was the one page that changed everything for me.

This barely adequate synopsis brought my writing into focus. All the OTHER STUFF that I would need to later sort out, fell by the wayside, and I focused only on Brielle's journey and on the things that would prevent her from reaching her destination. And by the time I finished that single page, I KNEW what my title should be. What it had to be, really.

I sent my editor the synopsis and a handful of title options--because I'm a good little soldier--but I put a big fat star by my favorite. And when my editor emailed me to say that the titling committee agreed wholeheartedly with my first choice, I was not surprised. I was ecstatic but not surprised. It was the RIGHT title. It was the ONLY title, really. And when I see Dark Halo ghosting across the cover, I can't help but remember that day and a frantically scribbled synopsis that shaped an entire trilogy.

Now. It's not always that simple. But, even if my publisher had vetoed my title idea, the time I spent working on that synopsis and the time I spent thinking about my story would not have been in vain. I needed to think about my title far more than my publisher did and their quickie deadline forced me to do it at just the right moment.

Today, I was flipping through Betsy's Lerner's writing book, The Forest for the Trees, and I came across a passage I'd forgotten about. Lerner tells the story of how Amy Tan changed the title of her first book from Wind and Water to The Joy Luck Club. Here's what Tan said about it:

Lerner says that after Tan settled on The Joy Luck Club, "the club and its members became increasingly vivid to her." The title pulled the story together.

A good title will do that. Even if it's only your title. Even if, down the road, a publisher changes it. A good working title can focus you and shape your story and while it is perfectly normal to not have a title when you start drafting, I wonder if, like me, there will come a point when your story could benefit from some hard thinking and some title pondering.

Tell me, have you thought about titling your story? At what point in the process do you do that? Do you change your title often? And have you found that titling your tale helps pull your plot together?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

How To Describe People

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.

Today brings us to Part Three of my four-part series on description. We are looking at how to describe people today. I have been guilty of finding somewhat common ways to describe my main character such as describing them in a mirror or remarking on the color of their hair when they are brushing it. If you've done this, don't panic. We will discuss several other ways of describing people that might inspire you to do something different.

As with last week's post on describing places, you might find it helpful to keep a description sheet on each character to refer to. Since I always have so many characters, I often find such notes helpful when I can't remember a detail, such as the color of a character's eyes. Here is a link to my character chart. You can see how I have listed some physical attributes at the top. I also will turn the sheet over and write any other notes to help me. I also sometimes tape a printed picture of a celebrity who looks like my character. This often helps me see my character face to face, so to speak.

Also on my character chart are many character traits. Things people do and how they speak are part of how they are described. Description of people isn't only physical. So be sure to write down things like skills, flaws, hobbies, quirks, personality type, and mantra they live by. All these details, when sprinkled throughout your story, will combine to show your reader what your character looks like.

Let's look a bit more closely at some of these:

Physical attributes
You could spend hours listing every detail about what your character looks like from head shape, the body size, to finger width and length. Guess what: your reader doesn't care. BUT--if you can choose one or two physical attributes to assign to each character, and vary them between your characters, this will help your reader. I call this flagging or tagging characters. I blogged about this here. The gist is that you pick one or two things about each character to be flags (tags) to the reader to help them remember who each character is. J. K. Rowling does this well in the Harry Potter books. We know Harry is dark-haired, wears broken glasses, and has a lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. We know Ron Weasley is red-haired and wears shabby, hand-me-down clothing. Hermione has bushy hair, buck teeth, and is usually carrying a book. The Weasley Twins finish each others sentences. Hagrid is huge, has bushy hair and beard, and loves exotic animals. Malfoy is pale, richly dressed, and is often flanked by two cronies.

We don't need to know whether Malfoy has a birthmark, since Harry has a scar. Those are too similar and might confuse the reader. And while Hermione and Hagrid both have bushy hair, they are different enough in their other flags that the reader doesn't confuse them. This also doesn't mean you never mention other details about these characters. It simply means that whatever flags you choose, you repeat more often than the others so that the reader learns these as identifiers.

So look at your characters and pick and choose attributes to turn into character flags. You might describe one girl as having a small, round face. A boy as being tall, almost skeletal with overly long arms. Perhaps you describe one person's white gold hair. Another person's squinty green eyes.

Everything Else: Traits, skills, hobbies, quirks, and personality type
Knowing these types of things about your characters will also help you describe them. Take Harry Potter, for instance. He is quiet (at first). He is a quick learner. He tends to jump to conclusions, especially in regards to people he dislikes. This gets him into trouble time and again. He likes quidditch. His hair does not lie flat. And he is courageous and self-sacrificing. J. K. Rowling continually presents this information to the reader. She plants it here and there so that we learn to know who Harry is. We come to expect how he will react to certain things.

Write a short personality/motivation description
It may help you to write a short paragraph describing your character to yourself. Write down what he looks like, what his interests are, what his home life is like and why. Tell us what matters to him and what he wants out of life. All this will help you as you present who he is to the reader.

Describing People Through the Point of View Character’s Voice
In my opinion, the best way to describe people is through other point of view characters. All this depends on that point of view character's voice. Who is he? How does he talk? Male POV characters will sound different than female ones. And different female characters will also sound different. All this is based on each character's background, their knowledge, what interests them, and their emotional state, which might change based on their circumstances in each scene. Let's look at each one in detail. I will use my own characters as examples.

Life experience
If we compare Spencer from the Mission League books to, say, Achan, from the Blood of Kings books, we will see two very different people.

Spencer lives in the Los Angeles area in current day. He attends a private Christian high school (much to his chagrin), is six foot four, lives with his grandma, has been arrested before for vandilism (tagging) and minor drugs, has been in his share of fights, has been to Moscow and Japan, has a fairly poor track record with girls, and wants to play college basketball. That's Spencer's life.

Achan lives in the medieval-like land of Er'Rets, specifically in Sitna Manor, which is run by Lord Nathak, the guardian to Prince Gidon. Achan is a slave (a stray), branded by his owners. He wears an orange tunic, which marks him a stray to any who would see him. He works in the kitchens and is also in charge of milking the goats each morning and bringing the milk to the cook. He doesn't remember either parent. The cook beats him, which isn't all that odd for the world in which Achan lives. He sleeps in the cellar under the ale casks. He has two close friends who try to help him and who have taught him compassion when he could have been bitter. He would like to be free. He would like to marry Gren. That is Achan's life.

What they know
Spencer knows video games. He knows popular music. He is obsessed with basketball, both playing it and watching it. Spencer is a hometown fan. His favorite teams are the L.A. Lakers and the UCLA Bruins. He knows about being in trouble with the police. He is quite street smart. He knows about sewing, specifically quilting, since his Grandma hosts a quilt club in her home and has forced Spencer to help since he was very little. He knows about Christianity from being forced to go to church. That is all head knowledge. He doesn't really know what he believes about any of that.

Achan knows about cooking and herbs and taking care of goats. He knows his place in the world. He knows how it feels to have no one care if he lives or dies. He knows what it's like to be abused. He has a sense of what is right and wrong and often decides to enforce it when he sees others being mistreated, even at his own risk. He knows a little about weaving and dying fabric, things he learned from Gren. He cannot read or write, more than making sense of the cook's lists of ingredients.

What interests them
This might be similar to the "what they know" section above, but it's the differences that you'll want to recognize. Spencer knows about quilting and the Bible, but he has no interest in those things. He is interested in basketball, video games, Brittney Holmes movies, girls, and trying to earn money to buy things related to basketball, video games, Brittney Holmes movies, and impressing girls. As he grows through the books, his interests change some.

Achan is interested in Gren and how he might change his life station to be worthy of her, though he knows it's futile. He likes watching tournaments. He finds swordplay fascinating. And Achan does rather enjoy spending time with the goats: Dilly and Peg.

(The first Spencer and Achan books are free on Kindle and iTunes, so if you want to take a look at their voices, click here to learn more.)

This is something that changes in your story scene by scene. If your character is happy, angry, or jealous, that mood should come through in how he describes things.

Let's look at some examples of describing people through a POV character.

Here is a description from Replication in Martyr's point of view. Martyr is a clone. He has never been outdoors, has never seen girls. In this scene, he is sitting in a lab room with Dr. Goyer, who is a new employee to Jason Farms (the cloning lab). They were discussing the fact that Dr. Goyer has a daughter, which fascinated Martyr. In this scene Martyr's emotion is curious.

       “What does she look like?” Martyr asked.
       Dr. Goyer reached into his back pocket. He unfolded black fabric and showed Martyr a colored picture. The doctors sometimes showed them pictures, but never in color. Martyr had never seen so many colors in one place. He stared at the face and exhaled a long breath. The daughter had orange hair! And it was long, past her shoulders, and very curly, like spiral pasta. His eyes were the color of peas.
       “He is very colorful.” Martyr’s eyes did not leave the picture when he asked, “What are the colors of peas?”
       Martyr stared at the daughter’s eyes. “His eyes are green.”
       “Her eyes.”
       Martyr glanced at Dr. Goyer. “Her?”

As you can see, Martyr's voice is very unique. He has been raised in an underground lab and has a limited vocabulary. He compares everything to what he knows from his world. He knows black and white. He knows the food served in the cafeteria. And he doesn't understand gender specific pronouns. Here the reader gets a description of Abby, the second POV character in this book, through Martyr's eyes.

Here is an example of Achan's point of view from By Darkness Hid when he first goes to peek at the tournament and first sees, and describes, Lady Tara and a few of her friends. I'll highlight his descriptions of Tara in yellow so you can see how description can be all at once and added in here and there as well. I'll highlight my own thoughts in blue.

          A group of squires and maidens about his age ran about laughing and shrieking, playing hoodman’s blind.
          Achan shouldn’t linger. Despite his armor and jerkin, he was a stray, and he doubted very much—judging by the lavish attire—that these people were. (Here Achan's character comes through. He knows his place, and this isn't it. He doesn't want to get caught and get in trouble. I don't say that outright, but the reader gets a sense of that through Achan's thoughts.) But their game migrated closer, and soon Achan stood in the midst of it. He quickly spotted the hoodman: a maiden with long curls so golden they were almost white, and tiny braids in a crown around her head. She wore a blue embroidered dress with layers of skirt. A grey blindfold covered her eyes. (Here we see she is wealthy and young.)
          The sunburned squire from Carmine who’d been defeated in the short sword pen bumped into Achan and laughed. The maiden came closer, the hem of her dress swishing in the grass, her arms outstretched, feeling the air. (This reminds the reader of her long gown and her actions.) An olive-skinned maiden with dozens of oily black braids tipped with wooden beads, snuck up, whispered in the hoodman’s ear, then darted behind a poplar.
          The hoodman spoke, her voice filled with spunk. “I’ll get you, Jaira, you wicked!” (Here we hear that she is playful.)
          The hoodman backed against Achan’s chest. Her wild curls smelled like jasmine. (It's good to try and pull in one of the five senses when you can.) Before he could remember the rules of the game, she whirled around and grabbed him in a hug. (We see the girl is bold and completely at ease with her friends, though she doesn't yet realize she doesn't know the person she has grabbed.)
          “Got you!”
          Achan jerked back in surprise and pulled free, causing the maiden to trip on her skirt. She screamed, (Tara is a screamer, a little overly dramatic most times.) and he reached out and caught her under the arms.
          She giggled madly, gripped his forearms until she was steady, and tore off the blindfold. “What hero saved me from that fall?” (She is having fun. She is a happy person, sheltered from the world of hardships that Achan lives in. And her dialogue shows her flair for dramatics.)
          Achan blinked. The maiden was Cetheria in human form. The goddess protector, beautiful and golden. Her eyes were blue crystals that sparkled as she studied him. (Achan thinks she's pretty. Cetheria is the goddess of protection. A statue of her is in the temple in Sitna, so this metaphor works well for Achan's voice. He instantly sees this Tara as beautiful and strong.) He stepped back, her scrutiny bringing a wave of uncomfortable heat. (Note Achan's behavior describes who he is. He has manners. He is embarrassed by her beauty and that she is so forward and comfortable talking with him.) A crowd clustered around, waiting to see who the next hoodman would be.
          “Well, who are you, hero?” the maiden asked. (Tara is still flirting a bit with Achan. She is a boldly friendly person and always speaks this way. Achan doesn't know that yet, so he walks away thinking more of their interaction than she did.)
          “Just Achan?” Her lips parted in a teasing smile. “What knight do you serve?” (Still flirty. Still teasing. Life is a game to Tara, and she likes to play along.)
          “Sir Gavin Lukos,” Achan said.

The scene goes on, but you get the idea. Achan describes Tara quite a bit here, and I did that on purpose so that the reader can see Achan's character in how he reacts to her. If you go back to my list, you can see how I brought in some of Achan's life experience and interests. We see him as timid (he knows he doesn't belong with these nobles), and his emotion is tentative and a little embarrassed. He is out of his comfort zone and isn't sure how to behave. But he is polite. Until provoked, anyway, which happens later on.

Another example for you to ponder is how Elizabeth Bennet is described in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. There is never a paragraph where we get a clear description of Jane. Instead, we are given hints through the eyes and comments of others. We hear that she is pretty. Has dark eyes. And many characters disparage her looks altogether. She is the second-prettiest of the Bennet sisters. Caroline Bingley says she is no beauty. The reader gathers that she is fairly plain.

Later on, we get this from Mr. Darcy. I've highlighted that which describes Elizabeth in yellow and my observations in blue.

Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley's attentions to her sister, (Elizabeth's primary concern is always for Jane.) Elizabeth was far from suspecting (She would never think that any man might be admiring her.) that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. (He did not find her attractive at first. Once he realized she had a brain in her head, he looked again. This says something about Mr. Darcy as well. He is weary of silly women.) To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, (Mr. Darcy's voice here is very strong. He is mortified to be looking at this country girl at all! What is the matter with him? She is clearly imperfect.) he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing (That's all we get. Elizabeth's figure is light and pleasing.); and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. Of this she was perfectly unaware (He recognizes that she hasn't been trained in fashionable manners, but he likes that she enjoys herself. She has fun. Darcy has little fun in life, so it's unsurprising that he would notice a woman who enjoys life.); -- to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with. (And here we see that Darcy is well aware that he messed up and she despises him. Not exactly an ideal place to begin a romance, is it?)
So you don't need to go overboard. In Pride and Prejudice, the reader only needs to know what attracts the characters to each other. Austen points out the dark eyes, which allude to Elizabeth's sense of humor and teasing. And that Elizabeth is witty, laughs, and is fun to be around. We don't need to know more than that. We see how that would attract Mr. Darcy to her.

I hope you see how powerful it is to describe people through your POV character's voice. And for those of you writing in first person, take note of how Martyr, Achan, and Mr. Darcy were described through their own thoughts and actions. We don't see how they look, except that Achan was dressed like a noble. Need some other tips for describing your POV character in a first person story?

Tips for describing your protagonist in a first person story
Spencer is the only character I've written in first person, so I'll use examples of how I showed his looks below.

Avoid the...
-Describing your character in a mirror.
-Slipping in a clue: "I brushed my long brown hair."
-The self introduction: "I'm fifteen, five foot eight, brown hair, brown eyes, and have pale skin."

Instead, try:

Show through character dialogue. I did this with Spencer's height in The New Recruit. He met a sarcastic character who instantly made a tall joke. Spencer's reply reinforced the fact that he is VERY tall. And in Ambushed, Grace says to him: “Why are you always worried about me? I might not be able to bench my own body weight like you, but do I look like an invalid?” So the reader knows he is muscular.

Show through important scenes that require dress codes like interviews, formal dances, height requirements at a theme park, or perhaps, like with Spencer in The New Recruit, he needs to hide his orange hair under a baseball cap since it's a beacon to anyone looking for him. A scene in Project Gemini has Spencer needing to repel down a cliff, holding two people. He shares his (high) weight and adds it to the others as he tries to decide whether or not the rope can hold them all.

Compare and contrast. Maybe your character looks at her mother and notes that they have the same hair. Maybe Spencer looks at new recruit Luke Williamson, a somewhat (*winks*) scrawny guy, and thinks that he looked the same when he was Luke's age. Maybe your character admires another girl's gorgeous hair, then disparages her own.

Show your character through action. In The New Recruit, Spencer gets into a car: "I slouched back on the seat as far as I could and adjusted my legs, trying to fit in the small space. I felt like a pipe cleaner inside a Hot Wheels car."

Spencer is tall enough to reach something. Grace is small enough to climb under the bed. Gabe can't see to read without his glasses. Wally gets winded climbing a flight of stairs. Abby puts on a brown sweater to bring out the color of her eyes. When Grace stood next to Spencer, her head came up to his chest. And Spencer, being a big, strong guy, is often brave enough to be the hero, to talk big, to stick up for others, to take on a fight. If your character isn't, you'd show that in his action and thoughts in similar types of scenes.

Through voice. This depends on your character, but Spencer is often describing himself in little ways. Things like this from Broken Trust: "Don’t get me wrong, my body is a temple. But if a girl is going to see me in my underwear, I’d rather it not be in a 16 degree snow cave." And here from Project Gemini: "But I didn’t put my shirt back on. I thought about it, but the twins arrived then. And I’d spent all year lifting—I was proud of my muscles. And now that I was all lotioned up, I was happy to display my awesomeness for all to see."

Also, if your character has an insecurity, he or she might think about it a lot. Think of a girl with an overly large chest for her age who doesn't really like that about herself. It's embarrassing! People are always staring. She might make sure that her shirt wasn't too tight. Wear baggy clothing or a jacket, even when it's hot. And it might be something that people point out or tease her about, and something that embarrass or angers her when someone does.

Have a description you are proud of? Share it in the comments. Have one you need help with? Share that too. And if you have any questions about this, let me have them!

Also, for those of you artists out there who were thinking about entering my RoboTales art contest, there are less than two weeks left to enter! Several of you have told me you were drawing something, so be sure to actually enter it or else I won't be able to consider it for the book. For more information on the contest, click here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Three Keys To A Successful Story Opening

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.

(This post is part of the Writing A Novel From Beginning to End series. You can find other posts from this series on the Looking For Something Specific? tab.)

Last time I talked about how to write a great first scene. Today it'll feel like I'm backing up because I'm going to talk specifics about first lines/first paragraphs of your story. But most of the time, I have to have an idea of what my first scene is going to look like and where I'm starting the book before I can think of the best way to open.

Same as with opening scenes, there are lots of great ways to structure the first sentence, or first few sentences, of your novel. Whatever you choose, you want to make sure that you're promising the right thing to your reader. That means you don't want to start off with a funny opening if your book isn't humorous. Or something deep and poignant if your book is meant to be a lighthearted adventure story. You want to find an opening that fits the mood of your story, whatever that may be.

Let's examine a few story openings and see what it is they do so well:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortunate, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
This is one of the most famous openings of a novel. What's so great about it? (It's much more fun to ask such questions when you're studying the craft of writing rather than trying to get an A on an English essay!)
  • The tone: With its touch of humor, we get a distinct feeling that we will be smiling frequently throughout this story. That we'll be absorbing this story through a lens of one who is amused by the society they are showing to us.
  • The focus: Miss Austen leaves no doubt as to what the focus of the book will be: marriage. Specifically the marriage of a man with a good fortune who moves into a new neighborhood. The story is in the first line.
  • The perspective: This opening line works because the story is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. This enables Miss Austen to give us a broad, sweeping view of the set-up.
Let's look at another story with a very different tone:

Broken Wings by Shannon Dittemore
Hell is loud.
Talons scratch at the stone floor and clack against the pillars circling the chamber as the great hall fills. Hisses and snarls sound all around, but the noise doesn't unsettle the Cherub.
She's been here before.
Why does this story opening work so well?
  • The tone: Shannon uses smart word choices to hint at the tone. Words like "hisses" and "snarls" and "clack." This is a dark place, and she paints that for us with her words. There's darkness in this story, but she also makes it clear that the character who's relaying this to us is not normally here with that punch of an opener, "Hell is loud." 
  • The focus: Shannon's series is a book about angels, about a spiritual battle between heaven and hell. You could guess that from this opening even if you hadn't read the back cover copy.
  • The perspective: Same as Pride and Prejudice, we're not opening with the focus on our main character, but Shannon shows the scene through one set of eyes. Therefor we know we're seeing this from the perspective of one character rather than an omniscient narrator.
Let's take a look at a story that does this in first person, with the main character:

This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen
The name of the song is "This Lullaby." At this point, I've probably heard it, oh, about a million times. Approximately.
All my life I've been told how my father wrote it the day I was born. He was on the road somewhere in Texas, already split from my mom. The story goes that he got word of my birth, sat down with his guitar, and just came up with it, right there in a room at a Motel 6.
Why is Sarah Dessen's opening so great?
  • The tone: We know almost immediately that we're in the head of a jaded main character. Not dark and brooding, though. Her voice is sarcastic and playful enough that we don't get weighed down by her baggage. Rather, like her, we can almost laugh at it. Which is what the main character is doing as she recounts the story she's been toldthe story that she clearly doesn't quite buy intoabout her father and the song.
  • The focus: While the story isn't about the song in the same sense that Miss Austen's book is about marriage or Shannon's book is about angels, the song is used as a representation throughout the story of why our main character struggles to be close to anybody. Knowing the way she feels about the song unlocks for us the struggle she feels in relationship with others.
  • The perspective: We are in Remy's sarcastic head from beginning to end, and that's clear from the moment we start.
Pull out your manuscript and take a look. How have you done with your tone, your focus, and your POV? Do you feel like you're doing a good job of accurately portraying the mood of your story? Feel free to share your story opening below!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Gone Camping

Hey all! Shannon here. But just briefly. 

We're all closed up today. I've been camping this week and decided to give my brain one more day of vacation time. I hope you're enjoying your summer, being adventurous and giving yourself lots of things to write about. 

Talk soon, friends. And keep an eye out for bears! 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How to Describe a Place

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.

Welcome to Part Two of my four-part series on description. Today we are going to talk about describing places. But first, let's ponder why we should even bother writing out descriptions. Wouldn't it be better to leave all this up to the reader's imagination?

Why Bother Describing Things?
Editors and writing instructors vary on their insistence that setting and characters be fully described. Some say to leave it out so that the reader can imagine everything. Others say you need to paint the scene for the reader because if you describe nothing, you have what's commonly referred to as "talking heads." The reader sees faces floating in space, uttering strings of dialogue. On the other hand, if you describe too much you can pull the reader right out of the story.

I think somewhere in the middle is best. Give your reader enough details so that they know where the characters are and who is in the scene, then let them fill in the other details however their imagination sees fit to do so.

List the Facts
Consider creating a checklist for each scene you need to describe. This will help you remember things when it's time to go back to that location. You don't need to create such a list for every location in your story. But I find it helpful to know this for places that my characters spend a lot of time.

The LOCATION is: Use simple words: alley, classroom, gym, bedroom or a specific place if that is important like the great hall at Hampton Court.

TIME of day: Morning, afternoon, night---especially if the scene takes place outdoors.

WEATHER/TEMPERATURE: You really only need to share this if it is abnormal or important to the scene. People will assume that the temperature is average and the weather is nice unless you tell them differently.

WHO is present? Early on in the scene, list the important characters who are present, especially any who will have dialogue so that they don't seem to appear from nowhere.

The FIVE SENSES: Be aware of all the things your character might experience with his or her senses in each location. You don't have to type them out every time you are in the scene, and you don't always have to use all five, but keep them in mind and try to work them in here and there. It will give your reader more unique things to remember.
-What can the POV character SEE?
-What can the POV character SMELL?
-What can the POV character HEAR?
-What can the POV character TASTE?
-What can the POV character FEEL?

Any important objects or features to PLANT for later? Do you plan to have one character throw a pillow at another? If so, it's important to mention pillows in your initial description of the room. That way they won't become what Jeff Gerke calls "magically appearing" pillows.

Describing Places
Now that you have your list, here are some tips as to how to use it.

-First time: Describe important places early on in depth. You don't have to go on and on for paragraphs, but make sure that your description is thorough.

-Start big and zoom in: It helps readers if you start the description with big information, then get smaller. For example: The Dayville Middle School "gymnasium" was a half-court slab of pavement out back of the cafeteria. One basketball hoop stood at an eighty-five degree angle on one end. What remained of the net looked more like two shoelaces tied together. (We start with the gymnasium, which is biggest, mention that its outside, mention the hoop, then the net, which is smallest.)

-Repeat important details throughout story. Next time the characters travel to that "gymnasium," you can repeat important details like the fact that it's outside and only has a half court. The net isn't really important to repeat. And you could always add a different detail, like a three-row set of wooden bleachers or that the concrete got puddles when it rained.

-In each new scene, give location, time of day, and characters present. When you move between scenes, the reader needs to know that. Tell them that Mark drove home from school. Don't have him magically appearing at home without having traveled there. Now, if you're starting with a scene break, you can skip telling us how he got home. But you still need to tell us where he is. So you'd say that Mark entered his house or that he was in his living room after school. Give us the time if it has changed drastically. And always be sure to tell us what important characters are present. If it's just Mark and his dad in the living room, make sure we know it. But if Mark was in a class at school, you don't need to name every kid in the class. The reader will assume there are other kids in the class. Just make sure to describe those who speak. (We'll talk about ways to describe people next week.)

-Plant important objects or features. As mentioned above, be sure to plant any important objects or features in advance of them being useful. If you write that your character is freezing from the cold, but you didn't mention the cold until three pages into the chapter, that's confusing to the reader. Make sure the reader knows it's cold early on.

Editor Jeff Gerke taught me to imagine my scene taking place on a stage and to think about what necessary set design, props, and actors need to be out on the stage before the scene begins. This always helped me avoid "magically appearing" things when setting up my scenes.

-Use specific words. Always use the most specific word. Specific words in description really help paint a picture in the reader's mind. You want them to see things in as few of words as possible, so make every word count! For example: oily asphalt, rocky cape, rusty iron bars, freshly mowed grass, a cluttered desk, colossal pillars, etc. All these phrases paint pictures in your mind.

-Avoid too many “ly” adverbs. If you need an -ly word in your description, use it. Just be careful not to rely too heavily on them because it's cheating. Work hard to find specific words to show your reader the scene.

-Use metaphors and similes. Use these whenever possible. They provide your reader with an instant visual. For example: An impressive stone building loomed over ten stories high. The top tapered into a point, tier upon tier like a square wedding cake. A large staircase marked the entrance. (Can you picture the top of the building?)

-Always bring in the POV character's voice. The description should sound like your point of view character. That means using the types of words he or she would use.

Here are a few different examples of descriptions:

          "You're just not imagining it right," Joel said, walking up and resting one hand on his friend's shoulder. He held his other hand in front of him, panning it as if to wipe away their surroundings---the green lawns of Armedius Academy---and replace them with the dueling arena.
          --The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson
In this example, "green lawns of Armedius Academy" say all we need to know. We've all seen school campuses. We can imagine green lawns and sidewalks and buildings and lampposts. And when we need to know more, the author will give us that information.

"No, the Seahawk was a ship like countless others I had seen before or for that matter have seen since. Oh, perhaps she was smaller and older than I had anticipated, but nothing else. Moored to the dock, she rode the swell easily. Her standard rigging, tarred black for protection against the salt sea, rose above me, dark ladders to an in­creasingly dark sky, and indeed, her royal yard seemed lost in the lowering night. Her sails, tied up, that is, reefed, looked like sleeves of new-fallen snow on lofty trees." --The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Here we get a nice description of the ship in the voice of our POV character, Charlotte, who clearly knows some things about boats. We also get a nice metaphor at the end.

And finally I have a longer description from Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson that really makes you feel like you're there. And it's deliberate that the authors took longer on on this scene since many things will take place there later. They need the reader to see this place well.
          Not far from where Peter lay unconscious, a lagoon connected to the sea. It was, in good weather, a beautiful place—a near-perfect semicircle of flawless white sand, perhaps a mile across, bordered by a curtain of tall, graceful palms. In the center of the curved beach lay two dozen or so massive, sea-smoothed boulders, some of them the size of a sailing ship, forming a hulking jumble of rock that stretched from the trees into the blue-green water. Behind the beach the island rose steeply to a ridge several hundred feet high, jungle-thick with vegetation, forming a curved green wall that cut the lagoon off from the rest of the island.
          The lagoon teemed with life—turtles, jellyfish, crabs, and vast schools of lavishly multihued fish. Normally these creatures were sheltered from the surge of the sea by a coral reef; it ran across the mouth of the lagoon from one side to the other, with only a small break in the center, through which the tide flowed in and out.
          But the low reef was no match for the waves churned up by this storm. Every few seconds, a towering wall of wind-driven water rose high over the reef and broke upon it with a thunderous crash, sending a surge of churning, foaming water rushing high onto the beach, then back toward the sea, leaving the surf-scrubbed beach empty for a few seconds, awaiting the next incoming surge.

How are your descriptions of places? What do you do well and what do you need to work on? Share in the comments below.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Get The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet for FREE in the Kindle Store!

I'm super excited to share that The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet is free in the Kindle store now through Saturday!

Click here for your free copy!

The book is about a teenage girl who uses writing as an escape from her ordinary life. It's hard to believe that it was about four years ago that several of you guys (the blog was a lot smaller then! helped me brainstorm what kind of story a girl like Ellie Sweet would write.

And it's FREE, so download your copy now!

Also. my friend Laura L. Smith's contemporary YA title Skinny is a free download too!

Monday, July 13, 2015

Last day of the July word war!

Stephanie here. In just a few hours, I'm setting off for the airport with a completed first draft checked off my to-do list!

After a summer of very little writing time, it was a relief to get into my story and find that I still loved it and that I still knew how to put words on a page. I wrote 33,614 words between Thursday and Sunday and will return home a very happy writer.

Roseanna had some record breaking days during our time at the cabin. Yesterday she was charging toward the finish line too and wrote 18,700 words to hit the end. It was pretty epic.

We celebrated our finished manuscripts with delicious ice cream and sleep:

Today is the last day of the word war, and I wish you all a very happy writing day!

Also, tomorrow The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet will be available for FREE in the Kindle store. If you haven't already downloaded the ebook, tomorrow will be a great time to do so.

What it is: A word war is when you and another writer (or in this case, lots of other writers!) compete to see who can write the most words in a designated period of time. 

This word war began Wednesday and will end today. It's a come-and-go, write-when-you-can style of war, so it's never too late to join!

The goal is to buckle down and focus on our manuscripts whenever we can, make good use of our writing time, and encourage each other as we do. Hopefully you'll be meeting new writers and deepening friendships as the war goes on!

Here's how you can connect with each other:

1. In the comments section of the blog. Something as simple as "Just wrote 1,000 words in the last hour!" is fine. Or you can challenge each other to word wars. There is strength in being able to encourage each other and in knowing that others are hard at work too.

2. On Twitter, using the hashtag #GTWwordwar, or on the Go Teen Writers Community Facebook Group. (This is a closed group, so if you're not a member, you can apply to join by clicking here. You'll also need to email the moderators: goteenwriterscommunity(at)

Good luck today!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

July Word War: Day 5

Stephanie here.

Yesterday, we woke up to a foggy morning in the mountains of western Maryland. What writer doesn't feel inspired by a foggy morning?

While I struggled through some funky plot issues and pregnancy-induced fatigue, Roseanna galloped her way to over 13,000 words by the end of day. (She might phrase this differently, but that's what it seemed like to me as I kept staring at my scene thinking, "Okay ... so ... now what?")

I still finished the day with 10,000 words and a plot twist that I really liked, but I did more of an army crawl to the 10k mark as opposed to a sprint.

Both of us are getting pretty close to typing "The end" over here, which is always exciting. And it's fun knowing that so many of you are writing together as well.

It's not too late to join in! If you haven't been around for one of our word wars, here's how it works:

What it is: A word war is when you and another writer (or in this case, lots of other writers!) compete to see who can write the most words in a designated period of time. 

This word war began Wednesday and will end tomorrow night. It's a come-and-go, write-when-you-can style of war, so it's never too late to join!

The goal is to buckle down and focus on our manuscripts whenever we can, make good use of our writing time, and encourage each other as we do. Hopefully you'll be meeting new writers and deepening friendships as the war goes on!

Here's how you can connect with each other:

1. In the comments section of the blog. Something as simple as "Just wrote 1,000 words in the last hour!" is fine. Or you can challenge each other to word wars. There is strength in being able to encourage each other and in knowing that others are hard at work too.

2. On Twitter, using the hashtag #GTWwordwar, or on the Go Teen Writers Community Facebook Group. (This is a closed group, so if you're not a member, you can apply to join by clicking here.
To get in, you'll need to email goteenwriterscommunity(at)

Happy writing!