Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What to Do When Your Ideas are in Someone Else's Book

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 has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

This past week, I read the first five chapters of Onyx Eyes that I wrote on my blog back in 2012. You can go read them too, if you'd like, but keep in mind, I will be making some changes. (Click here to see the chapter list.) 

Overall, I liked what I had of the story so far. I really like Drake, the side characters, and the feel of the story. I also read through the reader comments to familiarize myself with what had been working and what hadn't. Three problems arose from my read through.

1. Worldbuilding. I need more world building on the three races of fae people. They aren't feeling real and distinct enough for me. The physicality of wings/no wings/webbed fingers and toes set them apart, but I need it to go deeper. I want three distinct cultures with history and values and rituals and ways of life that are different for logical reasons that makes sense. This I will work on and discuss in next week's post.

2. Princess AyanaRynn and Drake's romance. It was a little odd for readers to read about Drake desperately searching for a kidnapped princess they had never met in the story. Because they liked Drake, the readers believed in his love and were rooting for him. But I didn't like the way the story was flowing without the princess "on screen," so to speak. My plan back then had been to rewrite Drake's first chapter so that the readers could meet Princess AyanaRynn and see how much she and Drake loved each other--before she was abducted.

Now, however, with my daughter's involvement in the story (ahem) my plans will have to change again. In the old story, the human Kaitlyn was NOT going to have a romantic subplot with Drake. Drake loved Princess AyanaRynn. But my daughter is opposed to this. She ships Drake and Kaitlyn. And since she is my child and since I stole her name for the story, I am prepared to let her have her way.

My first idea was the simplest. I would make AyannaRynn ten to twelve years old. She could still be in love with Drake, her handsome guardsman, but those feelings would be one-sided. I could even leave the chapters the way I had them and surprise both the human character Kaitlyn and the reader when Drake finally does find the princess and we see that she is still a child. My daughter approved of this plan. But when I read through the five chapters, it didn't fit. Those five chapters are designed around Drake's romantic love for the princess. Rewriting them would take more work than I want to do at the moment. (If I truly believed it was the right thing to do--the only way to fix things, then I would rewrite those chapters. But I didn't feel that way.)

So I thought about it for a while and came up with a secondary plan. One that was cruel to Drake, but one that I think will work, perhaps even better. In this story, the fae people can cast mask spells, which enable them to look like someone else. Drake does this when he goes into the Aerial kingdom to spy. And when his investigation leads him to Kaitlyn's home in the human realm, Drake instantly discovers that Kaitlyn's brother Quinn is a changeling wearing the mask of the human Quinn. Since I have set up this magic, why not make it (spoilers!) that Princess AyanaRynn is an impostor. She has been wearing the mask of the real AyanaRynn for several years, living in the Grounder kingdom, spying. And she started a romance with Drake because, hey. Who would know more about how things work in the kingdom than the captain of the guard?

This means I can leave most of the story as is, but I know that AyanaRynn is not AyanaRynn. Drake doesn't. He will discover the truth during the course of his investigation in the series and will become tragically heartbroken. And I'm thinking that when he does finally find AyanaRynn, she will not really know him, since she will have been imprisoned for so long.

Sad, huh?

But Kaitlyn will have been there for all of this. She will have become good friends with Drake, and once he learns the truth about AyanaRynn, his heart will be free.

So that is how I plan to deal with that problem, which brings me to the third problem I discovered while reading through my old chapters.

3. Ideas that are now in another published book. There were two things in my story that jumped out at me as similar to things in Sara Ella's Unblemished, which I read a few months ago. It's a funny thing about books. There are SO MANY out there. At some point, all writers come to realize that their ideas have been done already, in one way or another. It would be impossible to try and take out every idea that in any way mirrored another. Still, stumbling upon these two similarities was hard. I started writing this story back in 2010. By 2012 I'd published my five chapters on my blog. Sara's book was published in 2016.

None of that matters.

Sara's book was published. Mine is still unpublished. So now I must choose. Do I leave these two elements as they were and risk having people accuse me of copying her? Or do I change them?

That's a choice every author has to make for him or herself. Me, I'm going to change them. Kicking and screaming, a bit perhaps, but knowing that I'll feel better about it in the end.

What are the two elements that are so bothering me? I shall tell you.

First, when Drake casts his forbidden spell to bond with Tagboth the dragon and grow wings, he brings death upon himself. A slow death. From the inside. And since the theme of the story is black/sin, I had planned to show this with his blood turning darker until it was black. And that would show through his skin. Dark black veins. I thought this was cool.

So did Sara. She has a character whose veins turn black for a vaguely similar reason. So this felt too close.

Second, my fairies traveled through thin places. The Celts said that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter. I liked this idea of doorways the fae people could travel through. So in my story, I decided that magical doorways could be formed anytime there was a combination of magic and water. I loved this idea. I especially loved that Drake could look into a glass of water and talk to his Grounder soldiers back home. Alas, in Unblemished, one travels between the realms through bodies of water. They swim through it and come up on the other side. Still, it felt too similar. To leave that as is in my story felt like I was copying that element as well.

Now, if I was writing for the adult fantasy market, I might just leave it as is. But since Sara wrote for YA fantasy readers and I'm writing for YA fantasy readers, it's pretty much the same market. And so these two things need to change.

I imagine you all have experienced this somewhere in your own writing/brainstorming. And, to be honest, it stinks! It's hard when you have things just so and are forced to start over and brainstorm something new. I get it. This sometimes happens during the editing stage of the story as well. Your editor might point out that something isn't working. And you might agree. But you also know that to fix it will take SO MUCH WORK. And you just want to weep.

Thankfully, my problems are not that much work to fix, though I really, really liked both of those things. And so I emailed Stephanie and Shannon and whined a little and asked what I should do. Because we all need to commiserate sometimes. Stephanie suggested I ask myself what other things show death in a body? What if this dying showed itself more like leprosy or nerve damage?

And as to the thin places, she asked what about something like hot springs or geysers? Sinkholes or Yellowstone where the ground is so unsteady, they've had people fall through crumbling ground?

I'm not sure yet what to do. I need to brainstorm, that's for sure. And I might not find a satisfying answer for a very long time. In fact, I might have to write the story and leave holes where such things would be described. Once I figure out how to fix those things, then I can go back in and edit. But that's where I'm at today.

Have you ever found your ideas in another book? Did you leave them or change them? If you changed them, how did you come up with something new? Share in the comments.

And if anyone has ideas how to fix my problems, feel free to share that too! ;-) 

Monday, January 29, 2018

How To Effectively And Efficiently Do Research for Your Historical Novel

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Research is intimidating. Before I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I thought I would never write a historical novel, as stated here in Go Teen Writers: How To Turn Your First Draft Into A Published Book.

I remember thinking there was no way I could know everything I needed to know to feel confident that I had done a good job. How could I ever be expected to know what 1920s era Chicago was like? How do you find out details like what was served for school lunch? Or what was taught in science class? Since I write YA and the parents are still involved in shaping my main character, I thought I also needed to research and understand not just the generation of my character, but the generation before!

Not only that, but I knew from talking to historical writer friends that there are book reviewers who seem to delight in pointing out history-related errors that authors make. If I attempted to write a historical novel, I thought, it would surely be obvious that I'm not a real historical writer.

Have I talked you out of writing a historical yet? Here are a a few things I realized that helped me get over my fears, and I hope if you're feeling nervous this can help you too:

1. I realized I don't need to know everything from the moment I start. I learned how to research in phases. More on that in a bit.
2. I'm telling a story, not writing a textbook. Most readers of historical fiction care about the history, yes, but they mostly care about the story.
3. I'm not claiming to be a scholar. I'm a novelist. Someone is going to read my book who knows more about my subject than I do. Maybe they'll knock me down a star on Amazon if they notice a mistake, or maybe they won't. But it says there on the front that it's a NOVEL. I did my best, but mistakes happen.
4. What, exactly, do I think makes somebody a "real" historical writer? I never once worried that someone would think I wasn't a real contemporary YA author, so why did this mess with me so much? I think this is just a part of writing in a genre that wasn't your first love. Contemporary YA is what I grew up writing, what I wrote in my early days as a published author, and what I had self-identified as for a long time. That was more about me and my perception of myself.

(If you feel other barriers about writing historical fiction or historically-inspired fiction, I would love to interact with you about those in the comments section!)

Let's go back to number one on that list and talk about the research process. I'm often asked, "Should you research before you write your book? Or while you write it? Or at the end?"

The answer? YES!

I'll have more posts in the future about research, but today we're just going to talk about phase one of your research.

Like I talked about last week in my Story Spark to Story Blurb post, developing my idea into a sentence and a few paragraphs typically takes very minimal research. I needed to know the time and place of my story, so I had done a bit of research about that to identify some plausible locations, but that was it.

After writing my blurb, I like to write a chapter or two of my story so I can get a feel for my storyworld. For me, that's the most effective way to think through the rest of the story. I used to think this was weird, but now I've talked to more and more writers who are the same way. There's just something about mucking around in your character's heads and hearts that helps figure out where the rest of the story needs to go. (Shan talked about this some last Friday in her post Discovering My Protagonist.)

My research goal at this point is to know just enough to write those chapters and get a 2-3 page synopsis together. The more you understand about what you need to know the less time you'll waste researching stuff that never makes it into the book.

Reading through my story blurb, I identified a few questions I needed to answer and research:
  • Where did Italian American and Japanese American families live in San Francisco in 1941? How would Evalina and Taichi have met?
  • What did America's involvement look like in the war in 1942?
  • After the executive order was signed, how long was it before the Japanese American families were removed?
  • What did those removals look like? How did families know?
  • When the Japanese American families from San Francisco were evacuated, where were they sent?
    • After I discovered several options and settled on Manzanar in southern California, I also put "research life at Manzanar" on my list.
  • What did the average teenage girl do after she had graduated high school in 1942?
For a while, you will feel like every question you answer just leads to more questions. I promise that's normal.

In phase one of research, I try to do as much online and through the library as possible. I tend to be a bit of a binge shopper at my library. Here's a stack of books I picked up early in my research for Within These Lines:

That's a lot of books. But it's important to keep in mind that you don't have to read all of the research book, usually. Within These Lines takes place entirely in 1942, with a few flashbacks to 1941, so when I researched WWII and the evacuation and life at Manzanar, all I focused on was 1942. (I found, and you probably will too, that I was so naturally curious about how things turned out that I frequently read more than I really needed to just to find out what happened to certain people after the war.)

And I'm constantly amazed by what kind of information I can find on the internet. In The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I have a very important scene where Piper makes a long distance call, and I wanted to get it right. I was shocked to find video tutorials from the 1920s on how to place a long distance call. Who felt the need to upload these on the internet? I have no idea, but I'm sure grateful to them!

Some questions you'll be shocked to find answers to by simply Googling them. Others you'll have to dig a bit. Next week we'll talk about keeping all your research organized!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Discovering My Protagonist

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Happy Friday, you guys!

I'm learning so much from our Grow An Author series and I hope you are too. The truth is, when you set out to write a novel, you're doing so much more than just telling a story. You're growing an author.

Last Friday, I talked about The Value of First Thoughts. I broke down how I select my story's narrator and protagonist. Today, I'd like to talk about my protagonist's character development and how I approach this very important aspect of storytelling.

protagonist: the leading character, the main character, the hero

In my heart of hearts, I am a discovery writer. I write to discover everything from my setting to my characters, and over the next few Fridays, we'll discuss what I look for as I discovery draft my way through the story. I do take time to plot, but it's not something I do separate from my discovery writing. There is a lot of back and forth that happens between my notebook and my computer. My notebook, where I list questions and ideas, and my computer where I do my writing.

Now that I've selected my narrator and zeroed in on my hero, it's time to breathe some life into this girl. Based on my story idea, I know a few things about her, but I don't know much. I know what her BIG FAT story problem is going to be because this particular story idea came to me as a character and a problem, but I don't know how she talks to people or what she eats for breakfast. I don't know who her best friend is or what she wears to do her chores. I have no idea at all about her family life or her role in the community. And to be honest, I've been going back and forth about how old she will be when the story opens. There is a lot for me to discover about my hero.

Some people fill out character worksheets or charts. I do use Stephanie's story workbook (which you can get for free if you sign up for Go Teen Writers Notes), but not at this point. I don't know enough about my character to fill anything out just yet and I won't know near enough until I write a bit.

The first thing I do is decide which scene I want to use as my opening--this isn't a life or death decision, friends. I can change my mind later. But I do need a starting point. When I've got that selected, I make a chronological list of scenes that should follow the opening. Not every scene I've considered, but five or six. I do this so that I'm not writing blind. So that I have something to work toward.

Next, I climb inside my hero's head and I begin to write. As I do, my main character begins to take shape and the writing itself digs her from the dark, often muddy cave of my imagination.

Things I need to find out about my protagonist include:  

What does my hero want? This is a loaded question of course, because at any given time you and I want several things. But while I may discover some interesting tidbits as I write, there are two very important wants that I am keeping an eye out for.

What does my hero want more than anything? And, what does my hero want in relation to the story problem?

These two things will drive my hero and my readers from the very beginning of my story to the end. If I want to carry them all with me, it's important that I discover the answer to these two questions fairly early on in my drafting process.

Why isn't my hero equal to the task? The problem facing my main character must be large. Insurmountable even. Not only should the problem be a doozy, but my main character must somehow be unequal to the challenge.

I watched a video the other day featuring an inspiring little boy. He was at the park with his mother and sister and he wanted to climb up the stairs of a jungle gym and go down the slide. And, no, he didn't want his mama's help. Not a huge goal, not even all that admirable. Until you realize this little boy was born with no arms and no legs.

I'm a weeper and I had no desire to cry off my makeup that morning, but two things kept me watching the computer screen: the boy's determination and the impossibility of the task. I watched as this beautiful little boy used his entire body, face-included, to inch his way up the stairs and then roll to the slide where he victoriously slid down.

What an accomplishment! If we can pair a compelling hero with overwhelming odds, we just might have a story worth writing.

Is my hero relatable? Note that I didn't say likeable. Likeable isn't a must, but I certainly want a hero the reader will willingly root for. Some of the best protagonists are prickly characters, but they have attributes that we can all identify with and understand. I want my hero to be someone that is welcomed, not only into my head, but into the reader's. Her internal struggles, her words, her actions--they need to be authentic.

Where does my hero fit in the world around her? As I'm noodling away at scenes, other characters will inevitably crop up. Some of them aren't surprises; they're characters I've chewed on a bit, but many of them are new. With my current work in progress, I recently discovered that my hero has three brothers. Two of them are older and one is the baby of the family. I didn't plan that, but it begins to define my hero's place in her family and it gives me a dynamic I can work with. Similar developments will arrive when I place my hero into her friend group and into her classroom. Each scene that unfolds teaches me about my lead, and with every word I discovery write, I learn more and more about who my character is and who she isn't.

There are all sorts of details I'll pick up as I engage in these early writing sessions, but I'm not big on charting them just yet. Her favorite color may or may not matter, but I've no reason to commit myself one way or another until it does. There will come a time when I'll pull out my story workbook and mark some of these details down, but not yet. Not until my hero has some air in her lungs and a mission to accomplish. Not until I'm convinced my character is here to stay.

It'll happen. The more I write, the more I'll discover about the story as a whole and the closer I'll get to creating a hero worth following.

How about you? How does your hero take shape on the page?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Creating a Map for a New Storyworld

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 has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

I'm now at the point where I would start drawing a map for my storyworld. I did that years ago for the Belfaylinn story. Here it is.

Click here to see a larger version.

I've spent a lot of time looking at this map over the past few weeks. It's fun. I like it. But I'm not sure it fits the feel of my story, which is YA fantasy. This map looks to be for a younger age, like a children's chapter book or a middle grade book. So I'm toying around with the idea of re-drawing it. We'll see. What do you think?

Along with creating a map, I usually spend a lot of time world building the culture of each country, kingdom, or realm on the map. For the Belfaylinn stories, I have three kingdoms. The aerial fairies live in Tarafoyle, up on the top of the highest mountain. The grounders live in Glasderry, in the thickest forest in all of Belfaylinn. And the merrows live among the islands and rocks of the Glassloch Sea in the kingdom of Kenmare.

I spent a lot of time carefully naming the places on this map. I was trying to come up with quaint titles, and I'm happy with the way all of that turned out with places like Cloudbright, Petal Fog, Tarrelton, Ballinloch, and Novahorn.

I've spent a lot of time in my research and world lately, and I'm specifically trying to create unique culture for the fairy people as a whole and for each of the three races. Those are my biggest concerns for my storyworld and I think the map I have now shows the differences in each environment quite well.

I've written several thorough posts on the topic of creating a map for your storyworld, so I won't go over all of that again. If you need help creating the map itself, check out these posts: 

Map-Making 101: Drawing the Map
Map-Making 201: Naming Things
The Evolution of a Fantasy Map

A map a snapshot of your world, and you want that to be a good one. You want it to grab the reader's eye and keep them there, exploring. Here is a short list of questions to ask yourself or tasks to do before or while you are map-making.

1. What is the purpose of this map?
2. What do you want to show? (An entire world? One city? Something else?)
3. List some interesting places or landmarks you can add to your map.
4. Make a list of places mentioned in your story and make sure to put them all on your map.
5. Don't put very many other places on your map--places that your characters won't go. Such places will only clog up your map and make your reader wonder when the characters will go there. And then they never will.

Anyone map-making? Share a link to your map in the comments. And if you have map questions, ask away!

Monday, January 22, 2018

From Story Spark to Story Blurb

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Last March, my writing path took an unexpected turn.

The thing is, many historical writers "mine an era," as my agent put it, meaning most of their books are set in the same time/place. Medieval Germany, Edwardian England, Civil War in the South, etc. Because I loved all of the research I did for my 1920s era novel, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I anticipated hanging out in the Jazz age for the foreseeable future.

Early in March, as I was moving about my house, getting things together for our family's spring break trip, I was listening to a Stuff You Missed In History podcast. It was a two-part episode about Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. government to force Japanese Americans into concentration camps after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

I was fascinated by the history.

Every Story Begins With a Spark

You've probably experienced the same thing I did that afternoon. As I listened, I had a spark of a story idea flit through my head. "What if there was a teenage girl who was in love with a Japanese American boy, and he was taken away?"

I felt really excited about the idea, but I knew better (or rather, I "knew better") than to get too excited. 1920s was my era, and I had already pitched my next book to my editor, so as fun as this new idea was, I would have to wait a few years before I tackled it.

But barely two weeks later my agent sent me a text saying that my editor wondered if I had any WWII era story ideas.

I just stared at the message in disbelief. I mean, technically I had an idea, but...

I wrote back, "Kind of. I have a blip of an idea. But it's really not much. I listened to a podcast about the Japanese American experience during WWII, and I wanted to write a story about that."

She said, "Do some brainstorming and get back to me."

Good Ideas Are Sticky Ideas

The pattern I've noticed with story sparks that evolve into actual novels is they tend to be sticky in nature. They naturally attract other pieces of ideas that I've had before, or they gain momentum quickly when I press into them a bit.

While I used to insist on doing this part of the story creating process alone, in the last few years I've realized how helpful it is to brainstorm with a trusted writing friend. If you don't have writing friends, or you prefer to work out story ideas on your own, Shan wrote a great article last Friday about the way she works with ideas early on. If you're looking for writing friends and you're a teen writer considering joining the Go Teen Writers Community Facebook group. It's helpful to us if you also email us at GoTeenWritersCommunity(at) so that we know you're legit.

My trusted brainstorming friend is author Roseanna White. Once I caught her up on the odd turn of events, she said, "That's funny. I once had a blip of a WWII story idea, but I'll never use it." She proceeded to tell me about how she read that the U.S. government worked with imprisoned Italian mobsters to gain intelligence from them, and her idea was based on that.

I basically said, "If you're not going to use that, can I?"

We spent two-and-a-half hours bouncing ideas back and forth about how my original vision for the story of a Caucasian teenage girl in love with Japanese American boy would fit together with the Italian mafia plot. Whether you're brainstorming with a writer or two, or you're working on your own, this is the time to let ideas fly. Write it all down. I have several pages of half-baked thoughts and ramblings from that brainstorming session. You just never know what might be useful down the road.

All the Ideas Get Boiled Into A Sentence

The next step for me is taking what I have and creating a sentence or two.

Why just a sentence or two? If you're anything like I used to be, the thought might make you groan. There's a reason we write novels, after all. Here is why I make myself do this:

  • My agent needs it for pitching to my editor, and my editor needs it for pitching it to her publishing house. The sales team needs it for pitching it to bookstores. And I need it when people ask me, "What's your new book about?"
  • It helps to guide the rest of the story development process. Having the heart of the story documented somewhere is very useful as I move into developing the rest of the plot.
At the end of the morning's conversation, I sent my agent the following hook sentence:
When an Italian American girl's sweetheart is packed off to a Japanese internment camp in the early days of World War II, she decides to tap into her family's Mafia connection and venture to Alcatraz itself to try to bring the war to an end.
Not only was my agent excited about the idea, but my editor adored the concept and asked me to send her a blurb, a synopsis, and some sample chapters so she could show the others at Blink.

Growing the Sentence into a Blurb

Even when I haven't had a direct request for one, the blurb is the next step for me in the idea growing process. It's a great way to explore what I think the story is going to look like, even if I haven't yet done much research.

My early blurbs tend to be 2-3 paragraphs, though I don't worry too much about how long they are. Mostly it's about capturing the overall vision of the story. Here's the blurb I wrote for my WWII novel:

Evalina Cassano is a senior in high school when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. While she has always been tender-hearted, Evalina’s parents are surprised by how devastated she is over the attack and the Executive Order that soon follows. An order that makes it lawful to remove all Japanese Americans from the west coast and imprison them in concentration camps.
What Evalina’s parents don’t know is that over the last year, Evalina has fallen in love with Taichi Hamasaki, an American citizen of Japanese descent.
In a time when interracial marriage is illegal in California, Evalina and Taichi have always known that when their relationship became public, they would be fighting a battle. They just never realized that they would be divided in this fight, one of them free, and the other stuck inside the barbed wire fences of Manzanar Relocation Center.
This novel, tentatively titled Within These Lines, is a story about the gritty, exhausting side of love. The kind of love that seems to only invite heartbreak, but is tenacious and unrelenting all the same.
When I'm writing a historical novel, this is the point in the process where I have to stop for a chunk of research time. Next week, we'll talk about the research process!

Have you had any fun story sparks recently? Do you write them down anywhere?

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Value of First Thoughts

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

Last Friday I wrote about the importance of committing to an idea. Today, I'm  going to talk about my first thoughts on a project and why it's so important for me to get them onto the page. I want to make it clear though, that this isn't necessarily STEP #2 for me. As I mentioned in last week's post, committing to an idea isn't something I do lightly and it isn't something I ever do before squirreling around with my narrator's voice and a character or two on the page.

This is all part of STEP #1 for me and at this point I'm little more than a discovery writer. A discovery writer is someone who sits down to write with little or no idea of what they plan to do or where they want their story to go. Another term for a writer like this would be a pantser, so named because this writer writes by the seat of his or her pants.

Of late, I've started to pull away from the term pantser and lean into the term discovery writer. It feels like what I'm doing when I sit down to write. Author Joan Didion said this:

Me too, Joan. Me too. At this point in the process, when an idea seems to have merit, when it entices me, when it disturbs my sleep with unanswered questions, I need to sit down so I can discover what it is I think about the idea.

In many ways, Joan Didion was talking about the bigger picture. She was talking about writing to figure out what you think of the world, and society, and the human condition. But in every stage of writing a book, this quote rings true. If you're like me, you must sit down with your idea and you must write on it to figure out what you think.

At this early stage, the writing is all about my narrator and my protagonist.

The way it works is simple. I pull out my notes. Yes, I have notes. If you haven't read Jill's Wednesday post, you should do that. She talks about making lists for world-building and characterization. I do something similar in the early days of toying with an idea. I'll jot down every idea that pops into my head about a story concept and I'll keep it in a notebook that I haul with me when I run errands or sit in the school parking lot waiting for my kids. It's not fancy. It's just a cheap notebook from Target with ideas arranged in no particular order. But I make sure to keep it at my elbow when I'm sitting down to flesh out my first thoughts.

With that notebook nearby, I'll read through the list and choose some aspect of the story that can easily be translated into a moment. Truly, it does not matter which moment I choose, but I've noticed that I have a tendency to choose a point in time that could feasibly be worked into an opening chapter. Just the way I seem to work.

Once I have my moment selected, I give myself two maybe three minutes to think about it and then I set a timer for fifteen minutes and I don't stop writing until the timer goes off. We call these word sprints and they're immeasurably valuable. They can help you capture your first thoughts on any given subject, moment, or concept. After fifteen minutes of writing, I do one of two things. I either set the timer for another fifteen minutes and keep going, or I allow myself to read back what I've written, typos and all.

I do this as many times as I need to until I can answer these two questions:

Who is my narrator? And do I like my protagonist?

Things I want to discover about my narrator during these early writing sessions:

Point of view: Who is telling my story? Will there be one narrator or several? Is my narrator also the hero of the story (first person) or is someone else describing events as they happen (third person)? If so, is this someone else an all-knowing, all-seeing omniscient narrator? In any case, how much knowledge, experience, education does my narrator have?

Tense: When is my story taking place? Is my story taking place in the past? If so, is it the recent past or the distant past? Maybe my story is taking place in the present?

When I first did this exercise for the book I'm working on now, I hated the way my first thoughts fell onto the page. I didn't like the narrator (omniscent, btw) at all. But what I learned when I read my words back is that I really did like my protagonist (my hero). I liked her story as I was beginning to piece it together in my head, and I wanted to examine it further.

When I came back to the page, I chose a different moment from my notebook to zero in on and I began in first person, present tense. During this fifteen minute sprint, I didn't deviate from first person, present. I stayed with my hero in that moment until the fifteen minutes were up.

When I started the timer over again, I chose another moment from my notebook, an earlier moment in my hero's life, and though I stayed in first person, I switched to past tense.

After those fifteen minutes were up, I realized how much I liked this format, moving back and forth between my hero's current struggle and her past life. It was an eye-opening half hour for me, and though it took two different writing sessions to figure it out, I now know everything I need to know about the point of view and tense of my work-in-progress, and I've discovered that I do really like my protagonist. I want to know more about her. More than that, I think we'll get along well enough for me to allow her to rent space in my head for the better part of a year.

Things I want to discover about my protagonist during these early writing sessions:

Who is the best hero for this story? Sometimes my great story idea revolves around a concept or a set piece or high impact event and I'm not entirely sure who is best suited to tell the story. If you're in this place, you may have many options. If so, you may decide to devote a word sprint or two to each of these characters until you're able to zero in on a hero or two worth following. Yes, you can have multiple heroes, but no, we're not going to dig into that today.

Does my hero have an easily definable goal? My hero does. The story I'm working on is based loosely on a historical event, so I have some idea where my hero is heading. If you're using my word sprint/discovery writing method to flesh these things out, you don't need to focus on this goal during the free write, but having it in mind will help you. If you don't know what your hero's goal is, these word sprints might set you on the road to discovering it.

While these early writing sessions don't always leave me with words worth keeping, they do set the tone for every minute of writing time that will follow. They teach me about my own frame of mind when I enter this world and they begin to evoke emotions in me that will eventually make it onto the page. The story itself starts to take on a flavor, a vibe, a style. And whether or not that flavor, vibe, and style are appealing to me is very important. And with just a handful of writing sprints I'm able to discern if this idea is worth pouring time and creative energy into or if I would be better suited working with another idea altogether.

Tell me, do you use word sprints or free writes early in your writing process, or do you save that for later?

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Writing a New Story: Making Lists for Worldbuilding and Characterization

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 has a podcast/vlog at You can also find Jill on InstagramFacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. Tagboth (Tag for short) is a goldhorn dragon from Belfaylinn, a hidden fantasy realm on the western end of the Sargasso Sea. Jill is working on the first book of this tale for this year's Grow an Author series.

Last week I talked about where I start when writing a new story, which included how I choose between all of my ideas and trying to narrow down my vague concept to a concrete story idea. In case you missed it, this tear I decided to write Onyx Eyes, a story about a fairy guard who sets out to find and rescue a missing princess, only to fall under the control of a human girl, who is looking for her brother. 

You may have noticed that my story description has changed some since last week, in which I described my story like this: 

I came up with the idea of two nations at war. One kidnaps the other nation's princess, and my hero, her guard, must get her back. As I thought more about my fairies, I wanted them to be the size of humans. I pictured something more like Tolkein's Legolas than Disney's Tinkerbell. This led me to creating two races of fae, which I tentatively called aerials and grounders. (Still not sure I love those terms.) Aerials have wings. Grounders do not. My hero, a grounder, must sneak into the aerial kingdom to rescue the grounder princess. He believes he can only do this by impersonating an aerial, and since he does not have wings, he sets out into the mountains with the intent of wielding a forbidden bonding spell with a dragon (enter Tagboth), which will enable him to grow wings.
That was a long and rambling description. Necessary, since I was in the absolute early stage of planning a story, but not really the kind of thing I would say when someone asks what my story is about. So as this past week has gone by and I've thought more about it, I was able to narrow down my story idea to that one sentence. It's not exactly a logline, but it's tighter and adds some good conflict.

Now that I know what my story will be about, I need to know more about the characters and the world they live in. For me, these two go hand in hand. I mean, sure, I can think up a loose backstory for any character, family tree, childhood memories, lies formed that will shape the character's future, etc. But I can't do that well until I know where they're from. The environment in which a character grows up is significant. It has such a powerful impact on a person's life. So, before I can move on to drawing a map (which is one of my favorite parts!), I need to do some basic worldbuilding. And I start by making a list. 

For me, with worldbuilding, it's best to start with a list because it keeps me on track and away from the danger of thinking I need to worldbuild everything (a.k.a. Storyworld Builder's Disease). I don't need to know everything about a world to write a book or even a series. What I do need depends on the story I am writing. Below is a list I made for things I need to worldbuild, research, figure out, or just plain decide, for the story Onyx Eyes. This is only an initial list. As I work on the story, new things will come up that I will need to figure out. But for now, this list is a place to start. I added in parentheses why I needed those things to help you peer a little deeper into my head.

Onyx Eyes Worldbuilding To Do List

-Where are these magical, hidden islands? (I wanted my story to take place in a fantasy world that exists here, right now, on earth. I liked the idea of an island. I just needed to figure out where to put it.)
-How do the fae people travel? Portals? Research the mythology of "thin places." (Since their world is hidden from ours [kind of like Wonder Woman's Paradise Island], I needed a way that these magical fae people could travel between their world and ours.)
-I wanted their world to be medieval. They have rejected the rest of the world's technological advances. I needed to know why.
-How does their magic work? Research rocks and gemstones, their meanings.
-I will call my magic stonecasting. I need to make a list of stones for stonecasting and what each does.
-List my Fae types. I have grounders, aerials, and I decided to add merrows (mermaids of a sort). Figure out the major differences between the three.
-Research fairy changelings. (I wanted my human girl's brother to be acting weird. He is actually missing and a fae changeling has replaced him/is impersonating him.)
-Research bat wings and the logistics of a human with wings. Can they fly? How does that work? What are the physics and the problems with the physics? (If Drake is going to get wings and fly, I'm going to need to describe that, so I need some research there.)
-Research the tradition of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land once in a lifetime. Research Israeli tradition. (I had an idea brewing that there would be some sort of Mecca for the fae people, so I wanted to learn more about such things.)
-Choose a language for the fae language. (I chose Hebrew again [which I used in my Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles], though this time I will always use real Hebrew since part of my reveal [shhh] is that some of these "fae" are actually angels.)
-Brainstorm lists of places for my map. (I needed to choose some sort of method of naming places and start making lists of place names. Since most fae legends came from European folklore, I chose to start my research with the ancient roots of German, Celtic, Irish, and Scottish languages.)
-Brainstorm lists of fae names.
-Create a list of slang terms. (While I'm searching through old languages, looking for place names and character names, I will also keep my eyes peeled for potential slang words.)
-Research dragons. (Tagboth will be a big part of this story. I want him to be cool.)
-Research armor made from leather and stone and natural materials. (I want my fae people to use what is around them.)
-Research fairy lore and types. Incorporate these into my storyworld.
-Research the morphology of a butterfly for Aerial people. (I loved the idea that aerials are not born with wings, that wings develop in adolescence.)
-Research mermaids/merrows. (I didn't want tails. I wanted webbed fingers and toes.)
-Research the mythology of elves for my grounder people.
-Decide where these people came from. Were they always living in this place? Or did they come here. If so, when? How? Why? And why do the three people types hate each other? What are they fighting about? If they hate each other, why don't they go find some other magical place to live? Why do all three stay put in this place? Could this place be a Mecca of sorts?
-Research the Bermuda Triangle and the Sargasso Sea. (I decided to look into placing my island in this part of the world. It already has lots of myth and legend around it, so it seems like an ideal place. My concern is that it might seem cliche, though I think I might be able to use the cliche in my favor. Though if I'm going for some sort of Mecca-like place, this area seems too far from where the history of fairies and elves developed, so I will need to think on this more.)

That's a pretty good list to start with. That list will be a lot of work. I think I spent at least two weeks on it for years ago, and right now, I'm going to pour over all my notes again to refresh my memory as to what I chose and why. I might stick with what I had, but I might change my mind on a few things. But that list will keep me plenty busy. Once I get through it, I'll be ready to draw a map. (Woot! I can't wait!)

Do you make lists like this in the early stages of a new story? What things do you put on your list? If you don't make lists, how do you tackle worldbuilding? Share in the comments.

Also, I wanted to let you all know that Shannon Dittemore, Paul Regnier, and I are co-teaching a teen track at this year's Mount Hermon Christian Writers' Conference in San Jose, California the weekend of March 23, 2018. We are going to have so much fun. If you're at all interested, visit the Mount Hermon website for more information.

Monday, January 15, 2018

How To Create Space And Time For Writing

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

How do I make time to write? 

This was one of the most common write-in responses on the Go Teen Writers survey, and none of us were surprised. For nearly all of us, this is the first real test we'll face as a writer.

Sure, you also need an idea and all that jazz, but the story idea will remain just a piece of your imagination unless you somehow find room in your life to write it.

Even though I started writing stories in first grade, I was never very consistent about writing until my junior year of high school when I took a creative writing class. Then writing become homework and carving out the space and time to do it became mandatory.

I think that's what the majority of us want, whether we admit it or not. We want to have to write. But there will be very few timeseven when you become a published authorthat you have to write. No one will check to make sure you are, and no one will prioritize it for you. That has to start with you.

You have to value your writing first.

In Rising Strong, Brené Brown says, "I've learned...if you don't put value on your work, no one is going to do that for you."

As uncomfortable as it can feel at times, WE have to take the first steps in respecting our writing time. So often we want that respect and value to come from the outside, the way it did when our parents taught us to respect volleyball practice, to do homework, or to value attending church. But if you want to be a writer, and if you want people to respect the time you need to create and what you're creating, you will have to lead.

Stop waiting for ideal.

You want to write. You want to take responsibility. But you're so busy.

I know you are. I don't even know what your current season is, but I'm guessing that whether you're in middle school or college or a new parent, you feel too busy for writing consistently. Too busy for creative thinking.

And yes, there are some seasons where I think it's just not wise to push yourself to write. I have a friend who wants to write, but she works full time and has three children who don't like to let her sleep very much. I'm certainly not going to wag my finger at her and tell her, "If only you tried a little harder..." 

But there are other times (and you probably know instinctively if this is you) that the struggle is actually that the time available to you doesn't feel ideal.

My ideal writing happens first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee, a silent office, foggy weather, and empty hours stretching ahead of me. You know how many times I've experienced my ideal in the last 10 years? ZERO.

You have to look for time that's "good enough." Those fifteen minutes before school? Good enough. The twenty minutes in the doctor's waiting room? Good enough. The hour you have during your brother's math club competition? Bring your laptop or notebook, and that's good enough.

We have this perception that real writers get hours to write because it's their job. That's a myth. What I described up above is reality for most real writers.

Jill writes on her phone. She's a real writer.

Shan writes while she waits for her kids in the pick-up line at school. She's a real writer.

I write when my toddler naps. I'm a real writer.

That's what a real writer does. They don't wait for ideal, they just work the writing in around the rest of life.

Start with spacers, not pulling out teeth

I was at the orthodontist with my ten-year-old daughter last week. She has to have a pallet expander, and the first step of that is inserting spacers between her back two teeth. Look how tiny they are!

They're the round things. Four of them can fit on one finger. (And my office lamp needs to be dusted...)

Yet over a few days, having those tiny spacers between her teeth will create just enough space for something bigger. That's what you're looking forjust enough space in your schedule for writing that it can start to bloom into something bigger.

If you're like me, you suffer from wanting to do All The Things right now. I'm especially prone to this in January. But if you're not accustomed to writing regularly, then trying to make yourself write for hours everyday is only going to stress you out and set you up for failure. If you try to do that, writing is likely to feel like pulling teeth.

If you're not accustomed to writing for long periods every day, let yourself off the hook and try to find a "spacer" of space. Ten minutes before school? 100 words a day? Look for a small place to start, something to help you get momentum going.

Chunk Time and Crack Time

Writer Emily P. Freeman talks about chunk time versus crack time sometimes on the podcast HopeWriters. The majority of writers need "chunks" of time, like several uninterrupted hours, to make really good progress. We can get used to working without them, but it's better when we have chunks of time.

But there are also pieces of the writing life, especially as you move into publication, that you can take care of in the "cracks" of your time. I can respond to social media comments in the five minutes I'm waiting for my kids to be released from school. I can plan blog posts while I make dinner. I can design graphics while I watch a baseball game with my husband.

And sometimes I use crack time to prepare for chunk time. To write a blog post takes a chunk of time, but I use cracks of time to think about the post before I even start writing. Then I'm more efficient with my chunk of time.

But sometimes I've guilty of using my chunk time for activities that I can do during crack time. (And then whining later that I didn't get as much writing done as I wanted to...)

Is there anything keeping you from writing today? Are you waiting for permission? For ideal time? Something else? Or do you have the time, but you're choosing something else instead? 

What's something you can do to create a bit more space for writing?

(I'm in Orlando soaking up the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with McKenna, so it may be a few days before I'm able to respond to your comments!)

One last note from community members Naomi Downing and Taylor Bennett:

Are you the only writer in your family? Maybe you’d go so far as to say you’re the only writer in your group of friends.

But… what if there was a place you could go to bounce ideas off of other writers? Somewhere online, so you didn’t have to travel anywhere to participate…

That’s what Inkling Chats are all about! They’re an opportunity for writers, new and experienced, young and old, to come and chat about questions writers all face at some point during their journey.

Inkling Chats will be happening on Twitter at 4PM EST every last Sunday of the month, and they’re hosted by Taylor Bennett, author of Porch Swing Girl, and me—Naomi Downing. You can follow us, @writer_taylor and @Naomihdowning and use #InklingChats to keep up with the conversation. We’d love to have you join us as we offer advice on how to stay inspired, share what draws into a book, and more!

Friday, January 12, 2018

Committing to an Idea

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes novels. 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 an affinity for mentoring teen writers. Since 2013, Shannon has taught mentoring tracks at a local school where she provides junior high and high school students with an introduction to writing and the publishing industry. For more about Shan, check out her website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest

I'm so excited about 2018, you guys! This whole #GrowAnAuthor business is going be fun. If you haven't caught our first two posts of the new year introducing our plan, play a little catch up and read them both here and here.

Today, I'm going to give you all a peek inside my head. Because the first thing I have to do when starting a book is commit to an idea.

I'm very rarely writing more than one story at a time. In fact, I'm so bad at working on two projects simultaneously, that I do my very best to ignore any new story idea that comes knocking while I'm immersed in a manuscript that needs finishing. If an idea won't leave me alone, I allow myself a few minutes to dictate the idea into an email and then I save it in my 'Drafts' folder. Currently, there are sixteen ideas hanging out in my folder, waiting on me.

The simple act of saying or typing the idea out and tucking it away, frees me to focus on whatever it is that I'm supposed to be completing. Because here's the thing, friends. If we're going to grow an author, we really do have to finish what we start. Finishing is important.

When the time does come for me to select a new project, my 'Drafts' folder is the first place I look. At this point, I'm fairly void of ideas. I've emptied myself and all my words into my last project and am needing the energy of a bright, shiny idea to tempt me from my exhaustion.

And the honest truth is this: the answer is rarely in my 'Drafts' folder. I can't speak for every writer out there, but for me, those ideas that set about pestering me when I was working away were there for one reason: to distract me. To keep me from actually finishing what I set out to do. And while some of the ideas have promise, they've been hanging out in the back of my head so long they've lost their shine.

It's unfair to them, I'm sure, but I'm not the same writer I was when those ideas initially appealed to me. I've written myself into a new place. I've grown. And I'm ready for an idea that fits the new me.

In most cases, the idea I commit to comes while I'm taking time away from the keyboard. The idea usually arrives with a vivid image and a WHAT IF question that needs answering.

While the circumstances surrounding a first novel are always a little unique, I committed to my debut, Angel Eyes, only after the image of a halo captured my attention and refused to let go. And then the question: What if we could see the invisible?

And even then, even after I had the image and the question, I can't say I was completely sold on the idea. At that moment, I would have told you that, "Yes! This is it! This is my golden idea!" But, really, REALLY, one night's excitement about an idea is not commitment.

Commitment happens only after you've hit a few roadblocks and fought your way through. Like any marriage, pushing on despite adversity means you've landed on something that might be worth keeping.

I'm currently in this place with a fantastically tempting idea. I'm all in. At least I think I am. I WANT this to be the one. I've written a thousand words on it this project and though I'm not at all impressed, I'm not dissuaded. I haven't ruined the idea for myself. I still have a desire to puzzle my way through this question and I want to know more about the image haunting me.

And so, in a few days time, maybe a few weeks, I'll know. This idea and I will date. We'll dance a bit. We'll argue some too (because in every good marriage there are disagreements) and if, after all that, I am still excited about this idea, I will accept its proposal. I'll commit. And for as long as it takes me to complete it, I will do my very best to stay all in.

Because there will be hard times. There will be days when I get it wrong. When my characters talk back. When my story world folds in on itself. When my magic system backfires. There will be days when I want to give up and try out that striking new idea flashing across my mind.

That's why I take my time with an idea up front. I don't commit right away. I stew and I think and I scribble and when, at last, I know it's chosen me? That's the moment I'm all in.

How about you? How do you commit to an idea?