Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 9: Adding a Theme


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


This is week nine of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 7 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.

  

Recap

In case you're just joining us, or if you missed a week or two, here is a recap of what we've done so far:

Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:

A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.


Week three was Storyworld. Week four: maps and floorplans. Week five: protagonists and main characters. Week six: side characters. Week seven: prewriting. Week eight: plot structures.

Today's topic: Adding a theme

Simply put, theme is what your story says about life and the human condition. It's what your story means to the reader. It can be powerful and life-changing or just plain fun. There are many different ways theme can be used in a novel. It can be obvious or subtle, leave readers with a question or some kind of feeling, reveal a universal truth, or inspire readers to a higher level of humanity.

Theme is a tricky beast. A lot of people will tell you that you can't choose your theme before your write your book or it will come off as preachy. And while I'll agree that it certainly could come through as too preachy, that's not always the case. I think it's a good idea to at least have some sort of plan as to what you're trying to say in your story. You might know exactly. Or you might think you don't have a theme because you are just trying to write an entertaining story. But even in the most entertaining blockbuster story, the hero has an inner need, a lie he or she believes. And that in itself can be a theme. Here are some other ways theme can rise out of a story:

1. Reveals the human condition: Themes show people as they are. Real people. Flawed people. Stuck in the trenches and doing life as best they can. Think of the cast of Les Miserables, A Christmas Carol, or Sense and Sensibility, all classics that are still popular today. These are books that reveal the human condition at its best and worst.

2. Illustrates a universal truth: Themes can be presented as adages or proverbs. For example: "After sunshine comes the storm," "a man is known by the company he keeps," or "what goes around, comes around."

3. Inspires readers to a higher level of humanity: In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean continually does more and more to help everyone he meets. At the end of A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge wants to make the most of his life. And in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood's brush with death helped her understand much about life and her sister Elinor's behavior as she admits in this scene from the movie:

MARIANNE: [Speaking of Willoughby] If his present regrets are half as painful as mine, he will suffer enough.
ELINOR: Do you compare your conduct with his?
MARIANNE: No. I compare it with what it ought to have been. I compare it with yours.

4. Allegory: An allegory is a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning. Many themes can be found in allegories. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is one of the most well-known allegories in fiction. It tells the biblical story of creation, Christ's crucifixion, and his resurrection all in the character of Aslan and how he interacts with the children in the story.

5. Issues-based: I meet a lot of writers who tell me they are writing a novel about ________. (Fill in the blank with any hot button issue.) This is one of the more dangerous ways to go about theme because authors who write these types of stories are setting out (usually passionately) to give their argument on this chosen "theme." And that argument can often come across as preachy. Still, this can be a great way to start a story. Just make sure that you work extra hard to weave this theme in organically with the plot and character arcs so that it feels natural. This is the difference between making your reader cry and making your reader throw the book across the room. One is good. One is not.

6. Asks a question: A theme can simply pose a question to the reader, for example: "Are angels real?" Then, through the story, that very question is explored. These types of stories work best when the author doesn't answer the question but gets the reader thinking about what the answer might be.


Ways to Work in Theme

When you have an idea of what your theme is, how do you work it into your story? My short answer is: don't. Have it simmering in the back of your mind. And you might also have a few scenes in which the theme will be discussed of faced. But theme works best when it happens naturally through the actions of the character. Write your story and see what your character does. Here are some ways themes might manifest:

1. Plot: Your theme can come out in the action of the story. In The Hunger Games, the plot forces Katniss to fight and kill. Killing and war are not her ideas. The plot forces her into those events.

2. Character Growth: Every character should have a lie he or she believes. Helping your character get past that lie is a great way of working in a theme. You can also use Blake Snyder's Six Things That Need Fixing to show your character grow and change. Going back to Katniss in The Hunger Games, themes rise naturally out of how she responds to the action of the story. She sacrifices herself to protect her sister Rue. She wears the mockingjay pin, which the viewers turn into a symbol of opposition against the government.

3. Symbolism: This is when you use symbols to represent your theme. Symbolism can be shown in word choice, description (colors, light and darkness, temperature, size, etc), animals, broken things, letters, characters, nature, or whatever you choose to fashion into a symbol. In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a symbol of independence, of something that has broken free from the control of the Capitol. When Katniss wears the mockingjay pin, she is saying without words that she is all about the things that the bird symbolizes.

4. Title: Pride and Prejudice says it all. Working your theme into your title can be a clever way to make it plain to the reader.

5. Wait and see: I've often been surprised to finish a story and be able to see a theme that has come out in the pages. A theme I didn't plan. No matter what themes I might set out to get the reader thinking about, when I write the actual story, they change, morph. Sometimes totally new themes emerge. So don't stress too much about nailing down one strong theme for your story. It will come.

Archived posts related to theme
Here are some posts I found in the Go Teen Writers archives that might help you as you consider potential themes for your story:

36 Plot Ideas for Your Novel (If you chose a plot from this list, that plot type can help you with your theme. But keep in mind. A theme is not one word. (My meme below is a bad example!) A theme says something about that word. "War" is not a theme. "War is bad" is a theme. Or "war is a necessary evil," etc. What are you trying to say in your story?)


My initial thoughts on the theme of THIRST

This is what I planned out for the themes in THIRST back when I was in the brainstorming stages. It's not much, but it's a start. And as I write, I will continually be watching for other themes to emerge.

In matters of life or death, what do you thirst for? Survival? Freedom? Water? 
Water makes life possible. People can't live without it. But is water a right or a possession?
When Eli and his friends reach The Safe Lands compound, the landowners make a list of rules, withholding water for disobedience. Eli feels strongly that withholding water violates people's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and that thirsty people will never be peaceful.


Assignment time

Think about the theme of your story. Do you know it right away? What are you trying to say in your novel? Can you find a subject that shows up again and again? Does your character face a particular evil?

Once you’ve figured out the theme, ask yourself the following questions:

Does your theme mesh well with your plot and character arcs?

Is your theme the best fit for the story you're trying to tell?

Is there any way you could tweak the theme, plot, or character arcs to strengthen the impact of your theme?


A Warning

Whatever you plan in advance before you write your story should be kept in the back of your mind. Don't force it into the story where it doesn't fit. Don't force it into your character's journey. To write a good story, you have to stay true to your characters and let the story's action unfold organically. There will be plenty of time to tweak your theme during the rewrite stage so that it becomes more prominent. One of the biggest problems in storytelling is lack of subtlety, so don't forget that less is always more.

Also note, I try to keep up with all the questions in the comments section of each week's blog post, but I sometimes get behind and miss some, and I don't want to! If you've asked me a question over a week ago and I still haven't answered, please email me your question at jill@jillwilliamson.com so I can answer it.







Monday, March 28, 2016

April's Monthly Challenge: Choose Your Own Writing Adventure

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. 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.


Just two more days until the March challenge is over! How are my 300 for 30 writers doing? I'll be sending out an email soon to prompt you to tell me about your challenge experience.

This month, you can name your own writing challenge!

Some of you are doing Camp NaNoWriMo this month, so we thought it would be fun to pick something that allows you to participate in both the monthly challenge here and that very cool event.

Others of you are pre-writing for Jill's #wewritebooks and a know a number of you are working on edits. Whatever it is you're hoping to make progress on, we'd love to encourage you through it this month!

Here are a few ideas of what your monthly goal might look like:

1. To write the first three chapters and a detailed summary of my novel.
2. To edit five chapters a week.
3. To write 10,000 words a week.
4. To write the history and create the map of my storyworld.
5. To write 100 words a day.

Be as creative with your personal goal as you like but your goal must be for a personal piece of writing. Whatever genre you write is finenon-fiction, fiction, screenplaysbut no college essays, school papers, etc.

How to take part:

If you want to participate in the challenge, you need to fill out the form below. When the month is over, I'll ask you to send me an email telling me how the challenge went and what you worked on. 

Those who sign up for the challenge AND send me the email at the end of the month will be put in a drawing for a $20 Amazon.com gift card!

This challenge is for writers of all ages in all countries.
 You'll be able to sign up until the end of April 1st and then the form will close.

p.s. For a peek at May's challenge and special events this summer, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter! 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Creating Tension: Change It Up

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.

The other day, I had a writer friend ask for help. She'd reached the middle of her novel and had no idea where to go next.

If you've written anything longer than three pages, you may well understand this moment.

Soggy middles are real. They happen to the best of us. But there is good news. There are so many great tools out there for propping up those weak moments and perhaps even using the threat of a soggy middle to throw your readers for a immensely satisfying loop.

Those of you who plot out every detail of your stories may not fully appreciate what I have to say, but I bet if you give it a go, you'll be happily surprised by where your own words lead you.

Today's tip: CHANGE SOMETHING CRUCIAL

Back to my friend. My snarky first suggestion was to blow something up. A bomb adds all sorts of tension, yes? But you don't need to actually blow up a set piece to generate fireworks in your story.

For example, what happens to your story if a good guy suddenly becomes a bad guy? What if your lead's loyal sidekick isn't so loyal after all? What if he's been reporting to the villain throughout the entire journey? And what if you revealed this fact to the reader several chapters before your naive little hero figured it out? What then? 

Tension. That's what!

And what happens if the princess your hero has been trying to rescue, is actually the mastermind behind all the villain's schemes?

What if the hero you've worked so hard to put on the throne, turns out to have no legitimate claim to the crown? Are his friends still friendly or does he have to watch his back?

What if the child your hero lost an arm rescuing is actually the shape-shifting dragon that must be slain in order to free the kingdom from the fiery terror? 

What if, right?

Introducing a dramatic change into the course of your story adds tension. And not just for the characters.

Reaching the point in a story where you've exhausted all your planning and it's led you to a slow, soggy place, can actually be a good thing for a writer working on an early draft. 

Use this moment to surprise yourself. Consciously choose to change something you once considered vital. Something you were counting on. Something you were writing toward.

It can be a brutal decision to make, but I bet it'll lift you over that soggy middle and bring the kind of tension that keeps readers turning the pages.

Tell me, have you ever written yourself to a soggy middle? If so, have you considered changing something crucial in order to move the story forward?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 8: Choosing a Plot Structure


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


Welcome to week eight of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 6 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.

  

Recap

Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.


Week three was Storyworld. Week four: maps and floorplans. Week five: protagonists and main characters. Week six: side characters. Week seven: prewriting.

Today's Topic: Choosing a Plot Structure

Plot is the series of events that take your character from the beginning of the story to the end as he chases after his story goal. We've blogged about plot often on Go Teen Writers, but rather than giving you a list of archived posts, I've divided them up among the following breakdown of plot structures:

1. The Three-Act Structure: This divides a story into three parts: setup, confrontation, and resolution. This is by far the most popular plot structure. It's been around a really long time, too. Greek philosopher Aristotle gets credit for the idea since he said in his Poetics, "A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end." Hollywood has perfected this structure, as have novelists. The thing works. Readers and viewers like it. If you want to learn more about the three-act structure, read this post: Understanding the Three-Act Structure. And if you want to plot out a more in-depth outline, you might also want to download my Story Brainstorming Sheets.




2. Blake Snyder's 10 Story Models: In Blake Snyder's book Save the Cat, he explains how he came to realize that there were really only ten basic movie types out there. Whether or not you agree with him, the concept is intriguing. In his book he suggests that if you can figure out which type of story you have, you'll be well on your way to figuring out what the plot structure might look like. Read 10 Story Models That Will Change the Way You Brainstorm to learn more.



3. Georges Polti's Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations: The book, Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations by Georges Polti, gives thirty-six basic plots for all stories. According to Wikipedia, "The original French-language book was written in the 19th century. An English translation was published in 1916 and continues to be reprinted to this day." If you've got an idea for a story but are stuck on how to include a strong plot, perhaps reading these 36 Plot Ideas for Your Novel will inspire you.



4. Alternative Plot Structures: Dr. Charles Ramírez Berg has written numerous articles on film and is currently a professor of film history, screenwriting, and criticism. He created a list of alternative plot types for filmmakers, but I think that novelists can learn much from his analysis. I've described several of his alternative plot structures including the Puzzle Plot, the Ensemble Plot, the Chainlink Plot, and the Repeat Plot in this post called Is There More Than One Plot Type?


5. The Hero's Journey: The Hero’s Journey is a plot structure discovered by Joseph Campbell. It describes a typical adventure of the The Hero, as the main character in a story who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of the people he represents. Stephanie broke down The Hero's Journey in this post. And if you're interested, here is her part two of that post. And here is a site that lists an explanation of each step in the Hero's Journey.



6. Follow the Map: This is a common plot method for a story. The hero starts at one place on the map and must travel across it to achieve something. The Hobbit is the perfect example of a Follow the Map story. For fun, I once wrote a blog post called Plotting the Quest Novel, Dora the Explorer Style, since Dora so loves her maps. And while I loosely plotted Dora's map plot around the three-act structure, you don't have to. The whole point of the Follow the Map plot is that the map leads the Hero from one point to the next as he gets closer to his goal.



7. "Yes, but" or "No, and"---Also called Try-Fail Cycles: This is a simple plotting method of writing a scene, then asking a question at the end that determines what the hero will do next. Did the hero succeed in his goal for the scene? The answer can be:

Yes, but then this happened, or
No, and he went on to do this next.

It's that simple. To read more about this, check out my post called The "Yes, but" or "No, and" Method to Creating a Plot and Shannon Dittemore's post called Try/Fail Cycles.


8. List Weaving: This is where you create a list of important scenes you want to have happen in your story and organize them by topic. For example, in my novel King's Folly, I created lists of situations/scenes/clues/etc that I wanted to have happen for each of my point of view characters, for each major story line (the murder, the prophecies, the magic, the disasters, etc), and for each subplot. Then I combined one-to-four items from each list into scenes to make my way through the story. List Weaving works well for complex, epic plots. Plus it's always good to have more than one thing happening in a scene.



9. Retellings: This is when you take the plot structure from a well-known story and use that to tell another story about the same characters or to tell your own version of the same story. Fairytales are the biggest examples of this type of storytelling. Readers love them because they're familiar and bring about nostalgia. An author can only use another story for the basis of his own if the original story is in the public domain. Besides fairytales by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grim, and the retellings of mythologies, some other authors that have had their stories retold over and over are Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare. Click here to read my post on Retellings: Why Do It and How?
 


As Stephanie says in her excellent post---What's the Best Way to Plot a Novel?---there is no one way to plot. So take your time to think it through. Or, if you're a seat of the pants writer, just write and see where the muse takes you! Though keep in mind, most pantsers do need to come back later and add scenes to create a solid plot structure.

Assignment Time

Choose one or more plot types that intrigue you and that you think would work well for your novel. Remember, there are no rules here. Mix and match, combine, do whatever works best for your story. Share in the comments what you're going to do. For THIRST, I'm doing a combination of: Follow the Map, "Yes, but" or "No, and," Snyder's "Dude With A Problem" model, and Polti's "Disaster" plot.






Monday, March 21, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should You Write What You Know?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. 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.


If you've heard any piece of writing advice in your lifetime, I'm guessing it's this one. Maybe like me you can't think of a single time outside of a classroom door when you were given this advice in a serious context. I certainly don't know any creative writers who do anything but scoff at the idea that writers should stick to what we know.

But I think it's good advice. Whether you write science fiction or contemporaries or poetry, I think the answer is yes, you should write what you know.




Here's what I mean:

Write what [emotions] you know:

The emotions of characters are what draw most people into a story. Maybe it's an emotion that we wish we had, like when Frodo is brave and says he'll return the ring. Or sometimes it's experiencing someone's heartbreak that draws us to them, like with Peter in the opening of Guardians of the Galaxy

You can create that for your readers too, even if you've never mustered the bravery to go on a long, perilous journey or watched your mother die as a young child. By tapping into the emotional experiences you've hadbravely walking into a new school, having a friend move away, watching your parents go through a divorceyou can apply those to the situations your characters are in. That's how writers who have never been abducted by aliens/been a pregnant teenager/been falsely accused of murder can write those situations in a way that feels emotionally accurate. Jill wrote a great post about that here.

Write what [facts] you know:

Several years ago, I had a friend who was reworking a historical novel of hers that she'd written early in her writing years. She complained about how she was having to research and fix a bunch of things because her young self hadn't bothered to research thoroughly. "Why did I think I could just make up history?" she said to me.

I'm sure she thought she could make it up because she was writing fiction, so what did it matter if a few details aren't exactly right?

This is a tough balance. Yes, we're writing fiction. But part of the magic of creating a storyworld is making it feel like a real, logical place. The ways you do that vary based on genre. For example, if you wrote a contemporary novel and your character didn't have a cell phone, you would need to explain why. But wouldn't it feel strange for Harry Potter to pull out his iPhone and call Dumbledore? Even though it's set in contemporary times, wizards using cell phones would somehow violate the storyworld.

While we never want our research to trump the story (by which I mean writing passages that show off how much research you did on a certain topic) getting our facts right help the readers escape to the world we've created.

Write what [stories] you know:

This part gets a bit touchy-feely.

When I first started to pursue publication, I decided to write serious literature. The kind packed with symbolism that you would study in your English class. The problem was I didn't have ideas for serious literature type novels. Every idea I had was for young adult novels, even before I really knew that was a genre.

Can you imagine how frustrated a person I would be if I had decided I wasn't going to write the kind of stories I wanted, but rather the kind of stories I thought I should want to write?

I wanted to write serious literature because I wanted others to be impressed with me. But when I've written YA stories, it's been because those stories felt like they were a part of me. Like they were an outpouring of my heart. They were stories that I felt like I'd been given, that I felt like I knew.

Stephen King puts it this way: "I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that's all. If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It's what I have."

That quote sends a resounding yes through my writer's heart, how about you?

At it's core, writing what you know is really about telling the truth. Digging deep into emotions and daring to put them on the page, embracing the research process instead of shrugging it off, and being true to the stories you're naturally drawn to, even if they don't seem like the "right" kind.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Creating Tension: Raise the Stakes

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.

Hello everyone! Friday is doughnut day at our house and, if I could, I'd pass the box around so we could all be chewing on sugary goodness while we chat writing. Alas! You'll have to track down your own munchies while we dive in.

Last week we started a new Friday series on creating tension in our stories. Today, we're continuing on by discussing the stakes.

In Jeff Gerke's book, The First Fifty Pages, he says, "There’s a very simple formula for creating the stakes (and thus suspense) in your story: Show your reader something she wants, and then threaten it."

This is a fantastic way to approach creating tension in your story. And if we dissect the thought a little bit, there are a couple questions we, as writers, must ask ourselves.

First, what does my character want? 

We've talked about this again and again here at Go Teen Writers, so forgive me if I'm beating a dead horse. BUT! It's that important. Your character must want something. And that something needs to be driving her forward. It's why she does what she does. 

I know, I know--you know this part already. But have you stopped to consider this:

What happens if she fails?

This is where that fancy word comes in: stakes. What are the stakes? What are the consequences of not reaching that end goal? If you don't know the answer to that question, my guess is your story is lacking tension. 

The stakes are usually set toward the beginning of the story. Novels aren't novels if there isn't an inciting incident, a point of no return. At this moment, the initial stakes are set and the main character cannot turn back. She will lose something important if she does. 

But it's not enough to set the stakes that one time. You must continually raise them as the story moves forward. The cost of failure must climb throughout the course of your novel. 

Shall we use Katniss as an example? Spoiler alert, guys.

In the Hunger Games, the stakes are laid out for us in the form of internal monologue. Katniss tells the reader all about the Hunger Games and the reaping, and she discusses the odds of her own name being drawn. By the time the children of District 12 are all lined up, we understand how desperate her family will be if they lose her to the games. At this point, the reader wants what Katniss wants: for her name not to be drawn. If it is, the consequences likely include death.

But when Prim's name is drawn, the unthinkable happens and Katniss willingly accepts those consequences if it keeps her sister safe. The reader understands that for the story to move forward, Katniss must go off to the games, but we're sent reeling once again when we find out just who will be accompanying our hero. Peeta, a boy Katniss feels indebted to. 

The stakes have gone from horrifying to unimaginable because only one victor can survive the games. Will Katniss, who has already proven herself a willing sacrifice, die so Peeta can live?

As the story plunges forward, much to Katniss's chagrin, she makes friends with kids from other districts and the idea of killing them as part of a game makes the desperate task before her unendurable, and we, the readers, continue to feel the impossibility of her situation. 

Author Suzanne Collins creates tension by continually telling Katniss, "No."

"I know you want to live peacefully, Katniss, but no. You have to fight."

"I know you want to keep everyone alive, Katniss, but no. You're going to have to choose."

"I know you'd rather die than kill a friend, but no. If you refuse to play the Capital's game, your sister and your mother will starve."

So, while there is THAT THING your character wants more than anything else, it can absolutely change as the story progresses. Other wants might creep in to--temporarily or permanently--trump that desire. We call that character growth. And it is a result of your character's adaptation to the obstacles thrown at her.

As the author of page-turning stories, you must get into the habit of telling your characters "No." Any little "yes" you hand out, must cost them something. I won't rehash try/fail cycles, but keep Jeff Gerke's advice in mind as you write. 

Give your character and your readers something worth wanting, and then do your best to take it away. If your hero wants it bad enough, she'll fight you for it and your audience will thank you for writing a story chock-full of tension.

Think about the story you're working on now. How many times do you raise the stakes on your main characters? Are the consequences truly dire if they fail?

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 7: 10 Types of Prewriting


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


Welcome to week seven of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I posted Chapter 5 of THIRST yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read it.

 
 
 

Recap

Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's my premise:
 
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.


Week three was Storyworld. Week four: maps and floorplans. Week five: protagonists and main characters. Week six: side characters.
 

Today's Topic: Prewriting

Prewriting is different for everyone. Some authors use it a lot. Some rarely do. And there are lots of different types of prewriting. Steph, Shannon, and I haven't talked a whole lot about actual prewriting here on Go Teen Writers. Here are some helpful posts I found that you can take a look at:

Archived posts for prewriting:
Planning a Novel a guest post from Rebecca Luella Miller
James Scott Bell Shares His Process For Brainstorming a New Novel
Help! My Character is Perfect! Developing Backstory
Creating a Historical Timeline for Your Novel
Story Brainstorming Questions
How To Have An Effective Brainstorming Session (with others)


10 Types of Prewriting

As I said, there are lots of types of prewriting. Here is a quick list:

1. Brainstorming: This is when you sit down and make a list of all kinds of things for your story. It could be a list on a specific topic like your main character or storyworld. Or it could be a list of ideas for scenes. If you find yourself stuck in a certain area, it might be a good idea to sit down and brainstorm a list of things that could get you unstuck.

2. Mind-mapping: This is when you start with one word and draw spokes for words that come off that first one, creating a diagram of thoughts inspired by that central word or idea. I've always used this for plotting, but it can be interesting to do this for your characters. Or even to put all your character names on that same sheet of paper and draw lines back and forth to represent ways they interact in the story. If you don't have many lines in a certain area, this could be a sign that you could do a little more brainstorming to add a connection there.

3. Freewriting: This is when you sit down and start writing about your story. Let the muse whisk you away. You could write this from one character's POV or your own, as a narrator explaining the story to another person. Whatever works to get the ideas flowing.

4. Backstory: This is when you write out the backstory for your world or your characters. When I write backstories, I tend to do them one at a time. So I'll write one for my storyworld. Then I might write another for a specific nation or city. I wrote a historical backstory for The Mission League organization that my Mission League books are based upon. It was strictly to help me know where the organization came from and how it works so that my characters could discuss it now and then. I've also written character backstories. These would start out as if I was writing about my own life history. Something like: I was born in Michigan. My parents moved to Alaska when I was five. I'm the oldest of five kids. I grew up in a house with no electricity or running water. Etc... Then I'd get more specific as the backstory relates to the story. Writing character backstories can be helpful because it provides a way for you to get to know your characters better and sometimes inspires you with new ideas.

5. Talk Show Host: This is when you act as though you are interviewing your character(s). Pretend you're Dr. Phil and start out with just the facts: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How? Once you know what happened, you can dig deeper to learn more. What your character says might surprise you. Here are a list of questions I adapted from Stephanie's Story Brainstorming Questions sheet. (Click here to print it.) But as the Talk Show Host, you can ask your characters anything that you think your audience wants to know.

If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
What’s your family like?
What do you value?
What lie do you believe?
Why do you believe that lie? What happened in your past that caused you to believe that?
What's the most important thing in your life?
Why do you care so much about that?
What is your goal in this story?
Why is that goal important?
What are you prepared to sacrifice to achieve that goal?
What happens if you don’t reach that goal?
Who are your allies and who are your enemies?
Is there a part of your past that can come back to haunt you?
What is your greatest fear?

6. Story Synopsis: This is a one- to two-page, single spaced document that tells an overview of your story and usually accompanies a submission to an agent or editor. In the prewriting process, though, it doesn't have to be perfect, single-spaced, or one- to two-pages. Writing out the play-by-play of what happens in your story can help you see where there are holes, and help you stay on track as you write. Here are two posts on writing synopses:

Organizing a Synopsis
Writing Your Synopsis

7. Research: I talked about research a little already on the storyworld building week. But I sometimes like to prewrite a page or two when I have something I want to understand better. For example, in THIRST, I have some prewriting I did on my disease and on how my Comet Pulon worked. And for my book The New Recruit, I did a lot of research about Moscow, so I did some prewriting on that to get a feel for what it was like to visit that place.

8. Helps Lists: These are simply lists of things you'll want to have handy as you write. This could be things you researched, like smells and sights one might see often when driving in the city of Moscow. In THIRST, I have a SURVIVAL acronym that Eli uses throughout the story to help him stay focused, so I have that handy in case I can't remember it. I also have a page that lists the gun types the boys have, because I can never remember them. I have a page on the symptoms of the hydro-flu, that way when my characters come upon an infected person and I need to describe them, I have my handy cheat-sheet close by. For my Blood of Kings books, I had a list of healing herbs and what they were used for to help me remember what Vrell had in her satchel. I also had a list of my made-up language, complete with translations, so when it came time to write more magic spells, I was ready.

9. Maps: We talked about maps in Week 4, but maps and floorplans are a type of prewriting. So are timelines and calendars and cross-sections for boats or buildings. Anything that helps you visually see a place or time.

10. Brainstorming with Others: This is when you gather with one or more people and ask them to help you brainstorm something. This could be brainstorming a story from scratch. Or it could be brainstorming your way through a problem in the story. It's helpful if you designate another person to be the note taker so that you can focus completely on the discussion without having to worry about writing everything down. Steph wrote a great post on this called: How To Have An Effective Brainstorming Session (with others).

The point of prewriting is to help you prepare to start writing the book, so that you will be able to forge ahead without needing to stop to look things up. You might still have to do that, but if you can prewrite a little and prepare, you won't likely need to stop nearly as much.


Assignment Time

Create a list things you have prewritten/created or that you need to prewrite/create. Share your list in the comments. I'm curious what you guys will choose (have chosen) to spend extra time preparing.



 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Writing Advice Examined: Should You Write Every Day?


by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series and the Ellie Sweet books. 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.

My senior year of high school—which is when I started getting serious about writing professionally—I came across an idea about how one should approach writing that seemed revolutionary: Writers should write everyday. And not just that, but they should have a daily word goal. 

Up until then, I had been more of a seasonal writer. If I felt like writing, I did it a lot. If I didn't, I didn't. When I was in a groove with a story, I would get up before school or scribble away when I should have been paying attention in class. But I would also go months at a time without writing anything besides school papers or emails.

To learn that many professional writers pushed themselves to write daily was amazing to me. Is it something you should or must do if you want to write novels for a living?



The advice of "write every day" is out there because most artists struggle with discipline. You've probably experienced for yourself that some days are good writing days and others are not-so-good.

Being a professional writer means you're self-employed. That comes with a lot of freedom, and to be successful, you have to develop the discipline to manage that freedom. Sometimes that means pushing through the not-so-good writing days. When you've already been practicing the discipline of daily writing, that gets easier.

But the advice to "write every day" assumes certain things that may not be true for you:

1. That you are in a season of life where you can prioritize your writing. When you're in finals week, about to graduate, settling into college, or traveling it likely isn't the best time to write every day. Taking time away from writing for times like that shouldn't make us feel less-than.

Sometimes even when writing is your job, you go through seasons where you can't prioritize writing new words. Especially if you're working on edits or have a book releasing, but also when you have life stuff going on. 

2. That writing is more than a hobby. If writing is your hobby right now rather than something you're seriously pursuing, there's no reason why you should push yourself to write daily. Hobbies should cultivate joy, not stress.

3. That "writing a book" involves only the physical writing of words. Even outside of editing, there are times when I'm working on a book and not actually writing words. Like when I'm researching a subject or when I'm letting a book idea simmer. Should I feel bad about myself if I didn't write a thousand words today even if I spent several hours researching or developing characters? Writing goals should be about motivating yourself, not legalism.

With all that said, here's why a daily writing goal can make a big difference:

1. It's an efficient way to write. When you aren't taking big breaks between writing days, it's easier to stay mindful of the story. So when you sit down to write, you're not going to have to spend so much time reacquainting yourself with where you are and what's going on.

2. It helps you draw a boundary. When you're setting aside a regular time to write each day, it says to those around you and yourself, "This is my writing time. It's important to me." When you respect your writing time and your writing goals, not only does it boost your confidence but it can also cause others to respect what you're doing.

3. It helps you push through dry spells. If you're pursuing any kind of creative profession, sometimes you will have to produce even if you're not feeling like it. If you've been in the habit of writing every day, you're going to find it's much easier to do this. Same as if you're in the routine of doing anything that requires discipline—running, eating healthy, studying—it's easier to push yourself to do it despite a lack of motivation because you know how good you're going to feel on the other side.

Here are some ideas for alternative goals if writing a certain amount of words every day just doesn't jive with your season of life:

1. Set weekly or monthly goals.

I do this because with a baby in the house, my days are not as predictable as I would like! This way if I have a lousy Tuesday, I can make it up later in the week.

2. Set time goals.

The key to this one is not letting yourself fritter away time that you've set aside specifically for writing. What works for me is to set a timer, and if I think of something else I need to do ("I need to text my friend about dinner this weekend!") I jot a note on a pad of paper and press on with writing.

3. Setting a daily "do something" goal.

In extremely busy or stressful seasons of life, this can work well to keep you from losing all your momentum. The last time my son was in the hospital due to his epilepsy, I listened to writing podcasts during my drives. That was what I could manage. If you're in a crazy time, or if you're just getting serious about writing, maybe this is a goal that can help you make progress without adding a lot of stress.

Do you write every day? I would especially love to hear from you if you're doing the Go Teen Writers 300 words for 30 days challenge! How's it going?




Friday, March 11, 2016

Creating Tension: Clock Starts Now!

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.

My munchkins are obsessed with the Kid's Baking Championship. It is THE SHOW to watch if you're hoping to feel completely inadequate in the kitchen. It boggles my mind the things these kids do. Seriously. I spend half the show googling their food vocabulary.

But I digress.

The point: My children cannot watch this show without becoming fully invested. They cheer when their favorites excel and they argue with each other over the merits of each junior baker. If the kids they're rooting for don't win, life's a little rough on all of us. For an hour or two my house is filled with angry tears and droopy Eeyore moments.

Sure, my kids need to buck up a bit, but the truth is, they're responding just as the showrunners hope they'll respond. The creators of the series want my kids dashing back to the television after each commercial potty break and they want them talking about it with their friends at school and more than anything else, they want my kids to tune in for the next installment.

And HOW do they do that? By turning a game show into a story.

At the outset of the show, the stakes are clearly outlined, "Only one of you will be crowned the winner, and today, someone's going home." Dun, dun, duuuuuunnn!

But knowing what the contestants are playing for is just the start. It's a necessary, fantastic place to start, but it's not enough to get an audience full of twitchy couch-sitters to watch kids cook for an hour.

This story must be filled with tension.

Over the next few Fridays, I thought we'd discuss some killer ways to up the tension in your story. That sound good? I hope so, cause I've got a good one for you. And it's a tool I used when I wrote Broken Wings

Today's tip: PUT YOUR CHARACTERS ON THE CLOCK

I knew I wanted to start Broken Wings in the depths of hell and I knew that I wanted the Prince of Darkness to set the stakes, but after reading the initial draft, the whole thing was missing urgency. It was sort of like, "Okay, all these things are going to happen, obstacles, problems, feelings, blah, blah, blah, and it'll just end when it ends?"

And then I realized what I needed to do--or rather, what the Prince needed to do. After a rewrite, the Prince demanded that a main character be captured and delivered to him within two weeks time. The fiery pit awaited if the antagonist failed.

By putting my bad guy on the clock, I put my good guys on the clock as well. I put the entire plot of the story into a state of "hurry up!" with the intention of dragging my readers, breathless, through to the conclusion.

Now, back to the Kid's Baking Championship. Once the kids are reminded of the stakes, the host yells something like, "And the clock starts . . . NOW!"

Off the kids scamper, running into one another in their efforts, sliding into counters and doing everything they can to finish on time. Inevitably things go wrong. The blender doesn't work. The blond kid stole all the apples. The teeny tiny baker sliced her finger with a knife bigger than her arm.

All of these obstacles are exacerbated by that ticking clock. My kids are bouncing in their seats screaming, "YOU DON'T HAVE TIME! Just duct tape your thumb!"

We call that tension.

Some of your favorite stories employ this strategy:

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by JK Rowling: The second task in the TriWizard tournament requires the Champions to find what's been stolen from them in one hour.

The Winner's Curse by Marie Rutkoski: When Kestrel comes of age, she must choose: marry or join her father's war-mongering army.

Wither by Lauren DeStefano: Because of a botched genetic experiment, Rhine is living in a world where the females only live until they reach 20 years of age. She has four years left.

These were just the first three novels to flit across my mind, but all kinds of storytelling employs this strategy. Any story where a bomb must be deactivated before it explodes or a character dies if they don't get medication on time, any story that involves characters being rescued from a rapidly filling pool of water. Or toxic fumes. Or sand. Any story with a limited number of oxygen tanks.

Think of Star Wars: A New Hope. Han and Leia and Luke and Chewbacca are all trapped in the trash compactor and it's getting smaller and smaller and smaller! I remember the anxiety in my little heart the first time I saw it. Hurry up! Do something or you'll be squashed!

That's what you want from a reader. Investment. Regardless of the genre, you must build tension into your story. And a ticking time bomb just might help.

Can you think of a story with time acting as a motivator?
And tell me, how would your story change if YOUR characters were on the clock?

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

#WeWriteBooks, Post 6: Side Characters


Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). She's currently writing a post-apocalyptic book with all of you called THIRST in conjunction with the #WeWriteBooks series. 

Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website, where you can read THIRST. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.


Welcome to week six of #WeWriteBooks Wednesdays, where we are writing books together. I'm plugging along with THIRST. I posted Chapter 4 yesterday over on my author website. Click here to read another cliffhanger chapter ending. Mwa ha ha!




Today's Topic: Side Characters

To recap. Week one was genre (THIRST is post-apocalyptic YA). Week two was premise. Here's mine:
A waterborne disease has sprung up in every corner of the globe, decimating the human race. Young survivors Eli McShane and his friends journey toward Colorado and the rumored location of a safe water source.


Week three was Storyworld. Week four, maps and floorplans. Week five, protagonists and main characters. Today we're going to get to know our side characters.

Side characters are important to a story. Not all side characters are portrayed in the same way. Some side characters will be more important than others. And some might not even have names! I've put together a few things that I think are important to consider when creating side characters. But first, here are some archived posts that might help you.

Archived posts for creating characters:
How To Create A Strong Cast Of Characters
How To Populate Your Story With The Right Cast
What Every Character Needs
How To Make The Most Of Your Character’s Best Friend
7 Ways To Grow Your Character’s Relationships
How To Build Unique Character Voices

Archived posts for naming characters:
7 Tips For Naming Characters (for contemporary and historical writers)
Choosing Names For Your Characters (for spec fiction writers) 

Archived posts for brainstorming character traits:
Character Hobby And Skills Brainstorming List 
Character’s Merits, Flaws, Or Fears Brainstorming Lists
How To Develop Your Character’s Skills Into Talent

Side Character Roles

When I started writing my first book, I wanted to have two side characters because I was copying Harry Potter. On my third book, I had way too many side characters because I was trying to be "realistic" and that's how many friends/enemies I'd had in high school.

Neither of those reasons are good reasons for creating side characters. Every side character should have a purpose in the story. This might mean they are the best friend or the annoying teacher. This might mean they're people who never get names like a bus driver or an expendable Redshirt from Star Trek. The level to which you develop each side character depends on how important their role in in your story.

I once wrote a blog post on Dramatica. This is a computer program that helps you build a story to a certain model. I found their breakdown of character interactions fascinating. Using Dramatica's "tags" for example, in Star Wars, Luke is our Protagonist, the empire is the Antagonist, Obi Wan is the Guardian, Darth Vader is the Contagonist, R2D2 and C3PO are the Sidekicks, Chewbaca is Emotion, Leia is Reason, and Han is the Skeptic. Click the link to read my Go Teen Writers blog post on Character Roles From Dramatica.

The point is that characters should have a role that interacts with the main character. So take some time to think about side characters you have or might need to create. What relationship does each have to the protagonist? What role do they fill in the story?

You can also take a look at A List of Character Archetypes, but try to avoid character clichés. Treat these archetypes more like small character traits in a much more complex characater or roles that a much more complex character fills in the story.


Logan
In THIRST, so far, I have the following side characters: Zaq, Logan, Jaylee, and Riggs. Another important side character that will be appearing soon is Lizzie. Here is how I have defined each role in respect to Eli:

Zaq- Best friend. Eli looks up to Zaq.
Lizzie- Eli's little sister. They're really close. Lizzie teaches Eli about girls without really meaning to.
Logan- Another good friend. Eli looks out for Logan.
Jaylee- Eli's love interest.
Riggs- Jaylee's love interest. Riggs also causes drama for Eli and repeatedly hinders Eli's goals.
Plague- Antagonist (Though other people fill this role scene-by-scene, and eventually one woman will when my characters reach the settlement of survivors.)

I'd like to add that there are other important side characters in every story. Some fill a role temporarily, like Pete, the grizzly gas station attendant in THIRST. His role was strictly informational. My characters needed to learn a few hints as to what was going on, and they needed gas. Pete filled both those roles in an interesting way.


Side Character Tags

Character tags are defining characteristic words. These help characterize over time as you repeat them (hopefully not too much) in your story. They help the reader see and remember your characters. Here are some examples J. K. Rowling used in her Harry Potter books:

Harry Potter: lightning-shaped scar, broken glasses, messy hair, clothes that are too big (because they're Dudley's hand-me-downs), looks just like his father but for his mother's green eyes.

Ron Weasley: red hair, freckles, poor, uses a hand-me-down wand, wears shabby clothing, has a shabby pet rat... everything he owns is shabby.

Hermione Granger: buck teeth, bushy hair, clever, often carries a book or seven, has a pet cat.

Lizzie

Rubeus Hagrid: half-giant, eyes like black beetles, has a wild beard and hair, loves animals, probably has some animal food or an actual animal in his pocket at all times. Is a terrible cook.

Draco Malfoy: blond, pale and pointed face, wealthy, arrogant pure-blood, has two minion-like friends who follow him everywhere.

Click this link to read more about Character Tags and Titles.

Here is my quick list from THIRST. These are mostly generic descriptions. I think I will need to work on them some more...

Zaq- athletic, swimmer, wears flip flops, shaggy black hair, sugar addict
Lizzie- Eli's little sister, long brown hair, baseball cap, thin and small (size 2)
Logan- Braces, blond afro, loves quoting facts, worrier
Jaylee- Reddish-brown hair (often in pigtails), freckles, big brown eyes
Riggs- puka shell necklace, drives a Range Rover, dresses trendy and expensive



Zaq

Side Character Backstory


Everyone has a past. You might spend a lot of time on this with your protagonist and main characters, but with side characters, you don't need much to make it seem like you know everything there is to know about them. Oftentimes this can be a secret that no one knows. Or maybe the protagonist knows it, but no one else does. This might also be a skill or a code a character lives by. Here is an example from THIRST:

Zaq- He trained all his life as a swimmer. He was planning to try out for this year's Olympic team, and stood a great chance of making it until the Great Pandemic came.


Side Character Arc/Arc Illusion

Jaylee
It's important for your protagonist(s) to have a solid character arc, but other characters should grow and change too. Try to give important characters a character arc, or at least the illusion of one. You can do that by stating something they will learn over the course of the story or how they will change. Here is an example from THIRST:

Jaylee- Jaylee lives life to have fun, no matter what her mother, teachers, or anyone else says. In a world where a disease has ravaged the world's population, such reckless living comes with a price. Jaylee will learn that sometimes a little moral caution in life can be a good thing.



Assignment Time

Create a list of important side characters, then answer the following for each:

1. Role each character plays in the story in relation to the main character.
2. List descriptive tags for each side character.
3. Give each important side character an interesting backstory or secret that might make the story more interesting.
4. How will each character grow or change during the course of the story, for good or evil?

*Bonus- If it helps you, you can also create a character board to look at as you write. Here is my post on the subject: Creating A Character Board.

Post your answers in the comments for at least one of your side characters. I'm curious to see what you all come up with!