Friday, April 20, 2018

How to Identify and Correct Info Dumps

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.

For a writer, beginning a new story is magical. You have all these ideas assaulting your imagination. Ideas about the storyworld and this fantastic new magic system you're designing. Ideas about your characters, their personalities, and the events that happened long ago that have shaped who they are now.

At the beginning of the process, your energy is high and the information you have to share with your reader is plentiful. These are good things, but be careful.

Readers want a story that will whisk them away to another time and place. A story that will challenge them and entertain. Characters who will inspire and enrage. Readers are trusting you to be a skilled conductor, introducing new melodies at the appropriate time and weaving in depth and history and context with restraint. Readers do not want a bunch of information dumped onto their laps.

So, let's talk about it.



An info dump is a hefty dose of information presented to the reader all at once. Info dumps can show up in both narration and dialogue and are super easy to spot. Here, I'll show you:

Narration


Maxwell isn't an ordinary boy. He's seven feet tall and instead of the standard buck teeth most children his age have, he has a pair of neon green fangs. His favorite movie is the Goonies, which would be perfectly normal if he didn't prefer to watch it in reverse order. He cuts the toes off the front of his boots so his toes have room to breathe. It's a trick he learned from his father who is just an inch or two taller than Max but has red hair and gray eyes.


Dialogue


"This is Maxwell," Dad said, tousling his red hair as his gray eyes sparkled. "He likes the Goonies too, but it's the darndest thing. He likes to watch the movie in reverse order. And watch out for his feet. He wouldn't thank you for stepping on those bare toes of his. He has to cut the toes off his shoes to give his little piggies room to breathe."

Now, in certain contexts this information might be entertaining. It might even work in a middle grade novel where younger readers need a bit more telling to set the scene, but as a way to share information with a reader, it falls into the category of DUMPY.

Info dumps aren't entirely bad and they can be a handy tool in your tool box if you use them sparingly. But most of the time, they signify lazy writing. In the example above, wouldn't it be much more interesting to show the reader a scene with Maxwell cutting the toes off his new shoes? Maybe bumping his head on a doorway as he goes in search of the movie Goonies? Wouldn't it accomplish more to paint a picture of Maxwell as a scene moves the story forward?

Of course it would!

Here are some tips for weaving important information into your story:


1. Less is more. If you're looking to slip a little info to your reader, stick with just a sentence or two. Any more and you're venturing close to dumpy. Any more and you risk boring your reader.

2. Voice matters. Certain voices can get away with info dumps, especially if the info dump serves more than one purpose. If it reveals traits about your character that the reader desperately wants, you might have some leeway, but so much comes down to the voice of your narrator. Consider the nasally voice of Ben Stein. It's hilarious in small doses, but if we had to listen to him explain the politics of a storyworld, we might just fall asleep. That is NOT what we want readers to be doing when they open our books.

3. Spread things out. Just because you, the author, came up with all this information at the beginning of the writing process, does not mean your reader needs all of it at the beginning of his reading experience. Info dumps are particularly dangerous early on in your story. The reader is not invested in the characters or the adventure. You risk losing them before they get to the fun stuff if you're not careful.

4. Consider relevance. Ask yourself, "Does this bit of info matter?" And then ask yourself, "Does it matter right now?" We have a tendency to dump everything about a certain topic into one big paragraph or section. Instead, give the reader only what they need in order to make sense of the action. Information should almost always be learned as a scene plays itself out.

5. Embrace your art. Your goal shouldn't be to simply inform the reader. You are creating a piece of art. So, do it well. Work at your craft. Important details should be woven into scenes, one thread at a time. Don't just chuck the ball of yarn at your readers. They won't have a clue which threads are important or how they fit together. YOU ARE THIS STORY'S CREATOR. If there are important details that the reader must know, take the time to sculpt a scene to show off those vital facets of your world or character. Do the work of a committed artist.

TIP: Oftentimes when I'm participating in word sprints or simply writing to discover what my story's about, I end up with some sizeable info dumps. When I return to these sections, if I like the concepts presented, I use these very TELLING paragraphs as writing prompts. In early drafts, certainly in your first draft of a novel, info dumps are perfectly acceptable ways to tell yourself the story. But, upon reflection, you must find a way to integrate the ideas you've developed into scenes that move the story forward. That's what a reader will expect.

Tell me, do you struggle with info dumps? What kind of information to you have a tendency to dump on the reader? Have you come up with any fixes for this problem? Share them with us!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

How Do You Define Your Reader?

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 www.StoryworldFirst.com. 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.

Part of putting together a pitch for a story means knowing who that story is for. You can narrow this down by genre, age group, and sometimes even by gender. I'd like to recommend that you get even more specific.

When I write a book, there is usually at least one real person I'm writing it for--whether or not that person ever reads it. This is a person who might have inspired the story in some way or someone I think would really like it. Here is a Storyworld Short video I made to talk more about this topic.




The imaginary readers I talked about I also blogged about on Go Teen Writers several years ago in a post titled "Who is Your Target Reader?" Here is a link to that post if you want to take a closer look.

How about you? How do you define your target reader? Do you have a broad idea of who you are writing for or someone particular in mind?

Share in the comments.



Monday, April 16, 2018

How To Craft High Impact Scenes for Your Stories (Part One)



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s 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.


Two pieces of exciting news! The first is that Go Teen Writers was included in Writer's Digest's list of 101 Best Websites for Writers! 


This is the second year that we've made this list, and we are so delighted by that honor. We also know it's really YOU GUYS and the community that you've worked to build here and on Facebook that have made Go Teen Writers what it is. So, thank you!





The other exciting news is that in about a month (May 15th) we're going to hold another 100-for-100 writing challenge! Many of you have been asking for us to host another of these, and I wanted you to have time to put it on your calendar. If you're not familiar with it, the 100-for-100 is a challenge to write 100 words a day for 100 days. More details will be coming!

Let's get going on our topic of the day, which is scenes! (I'll try to stop speaking in exclamation marks now.)

When you write a novel, scenes are your building blocks. There is no one-size-fits-all for scenes. Some might be 500 words and others 2,500. You might have three scenes within a chapter. You might have one in a chapter.

Some writers like to start a scene in the present, jump back to the past for a bit to catch up the reader, and then return to the present. Sarah Dessen does this quite masterfully. Some start with dialogue, and others with description, almost like an establishing shot in a movie. You'll hear writing teachers say that all scenes need a beginning, middle, and ending, or that every scene needs a hook.

All these different styles and suggestions can make the question, "How do I write great scenes?" a bit confusing. 



I will go ahead and say now then I often write my scenes by instinct rather than planning out the structure ahead of time. Even so, I still make a lot of decisions about my scenes, whether I'm actively thinking about them or not. I bet you are too.

Let's examine what some of those decisions are. If you're the charting, outliney sort of writer, you can use this list to brainstorm scenes before you write them. Sometimes that's what I do. But you can also use this as a checklist of sorts when you are editing, which is what I more often do. A way to kick the tires and make sure everything is as it should be.

Often the misguided question we asked as writers is, "What is going to happen in this next scene?" 

Writing a story using this question will likely give you a book that feels more like a list of things that happen than an actual, cohesive story. Another symptom of asking this question is your characters decisions might feel "off" or mismatched from their motivations.

The question that I think is better is, "Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?"

If we want our characters to come across as thinking, feeling, logically motivated people, then this is the much better question. The story's progression will feel more organic when you use the, "Because of this, now that," approach to your scenes.

There is also an implied question here, of, "Whose point of view should this scene be told in?"

If you are writing a single point of view story, then this is an easy one! But if you are writing a story from multiple points of view, then this is a good one to ask.

Typically, we want to write our scenes from the perspective of the character who has the most at stake. Who is the most vulnerable in this scene? Who could lose the most? Who could gain the most? These are the kinds of questions you want to ask if you are trying to figure out who gets to tell this scene.

Going back to our, "Because of this, now that" question, in a multiple perspective book we may not be speaking literally about the last scene. If this point of view character knows nothing of what just happened, then we need to think from the perspective of the last scene this character was in.

The next question I think we should ask is, "What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene? What are they trying to make happen?"

It's possible they have a goal completely unrelated to what happens in the actual scene. Maybe their goal is to take their dog for a quick walk around the block, but then on the walk they are robbed at gunpoint.

But most of your scenes should have your point of view character who has something they want, and they are actively trying to obtain it, but then something gets in the way.

Let's look at an example from my World War II era historical, Within These Lines.

Early in the book, Evalina goes to the farmer's market to see Taichi. That is her goal in this scene, only when she arrives, he's not there.

This is the obstacle, which is your next question, "What obstacle stands in my character's way?" Or another helpful way to think of it can be, "How is my character's expectation foiled? What surprises them along the way?"

So now that Evalina has seen Taichi is not where she expected him to be, she gets to make a decision, which is my favorite question to answer. "What decision does my character make as a result?"

They can act, or they can choose to not act, but them making a decision is critical to your scene working. (For more on this, read my post 2 Ways To Be Sure Your Scene Really Matters)

Going back to my example from Within These Lines, Evalina could have chosen to not act in several ways. She could have just gone home. She could have complained to a friend. She could have decided that she would ask Taichi about it the next time they saw each other.

Likewise, there were many options for how she could act. She could find a phone booth and call him, or ask around the market to see if any mutual friends knew where he was.

But because Evalina is a bold sort, and because she is very afraid for Taichi, I felt she needed to make a big, showy decision. I decided that she would get on a ferry and go to his house. Not only does it fit her, which is important, but it feels interesting. Which is rather critical in writing a compelling story.

While there are no official rules for what kind of decision your character should make, having them make an interesting decision will go a long way toward crafting an interesting scene. The decision should still be logical, and it should make sense for who the character is and the circumstances around them, but it needs to be interesting.

Lastly (for today, anyway) we need to ask, "What is the outcome of my character's decision?"

Sometimes we don't fully explore the outcome until the following scene, so it might be that you close your scene by hinting at the outcome or resulting disaster, but with just a sentence or two. With the scene from Within These Lines, I ended the scene with Evalina's decision after she has talked to several others at the market and found they don't know where Taichi's family is:

Mrs. Ling holds out a beautiful naval orange, round and bold. “Share this with your friend. May it bring you both good luck.”
The market doesn’t officially open for a few more minutes, but San Franciscans already mill about the rows of tables, haggling over prices of the first spring vegetables. The men who stole the Hamasakis’ spot chat with customers, and the sight makes my chest burn.
I put the orange in my basket and pedal along the street. The fog has thinned, but my thoughts are hazy with anger. 
At the ferry ticket booth, I pull coins from my handbag and place them on the counter. “When does the boat leave for Alameda?”

I cut the scene off there, which makes for a very easy way for me to know what scene should come next. The question becomes, "Because of Evalina impulsively deciding to take a ferry to Taichi's hometown, what will she choose next?"

If you are looking for ways to surprise readers or add plot twists, try examining the way your characters expectations are foiled and the resulting decisions that they make. If your character is making logical but surprising decisions, and they are having logical but surprising outcomes, then your reader will be surprised ... but not in a way that makes them doubt the plausibility..

Next Monday, I'm going to talk about slowing down the action for moment's of reaction, and the questions we need to ask when writing those scenes.

Take a look at an active scene you've written recently, and apply the questions raised today:

Because of what happened in the previous scene, what will my character choose to do now?
What is this character's plan or goal coming into this scene?
What obstacle stands in my character's way? How is their expectation foiled?
What decision does my character make as a result?
What is the outcome of my character's decision?

Did your scene naturally have all those elements? What, if any, changes will you make?

Saturday, April 14, 2018

The Lost Girl of Astor Street ebook is just .99 today!

If you love books AND bargains, then today is a great day! My 1920s mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, is just .99! These flash sales never last long, so make sure to get your copy today.






and wherever else you can buy ebooks!

About The Lost Girl of Astor Street:

Lydia has vanished.

Lydia, who’s never broken any rules, except falling in love with the wrong boy. Lydia, who’s been Piper’s best friend since they were children. Lydia, who never even said good-bye.

Convinced the police are looking in all the wrong places, eighteen-year-old Piper Sail begins her own investigation in an attempt to solve the mystery of Lydia’s disappearance. With the reluctant help of a handsome young detective, Piper goes searching for answers in the dark underbelly of 1924 Chicago, determined to find Lydia at any cost.

When Piper discovers those answers might stem from the corruption strangling the city—and quite possibly lead back to the doors of her affluent neighborhood—she must decide how deep she’s willing to dig, how much she should reveal, and if she’s willing to risk her life of privilege for the sake of the truth.


From the glitzy homes of the elite to the mob-run streets of 1920s Chicago, Stephanie Morrill’s jazz-age mystery shows just how far a girl will go to save her friend.

Friday, April 13, 2018

How to Craft the Perfect Opening Scene

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.

Story openings are crucial! First chapters determine whether or not a reader will stick around for the meat of your stories. It's vital we get this first scene right, isn't it?

BUT HOW?

How do you create the perfect opening scene?

As part of our Grow An Author series, I've explained that once I've created a list of possible story elements, I simply choose one that might work as an opening and I begin my drafting from there. At some point though, a decision must be made about whether or not the scene is a good one. I usually make that call while writing my working synopsis. For me this document will act as my outline.

Because there are so many different plot types out there, you won't hear me say there's only one way to make an opening scene successful, but I'd like to take you through the things I look for when deciding if I've chosen the correct moment in which to start my story.



Ask yourself these questions:

Does this scene introduce my storyworld as compelling?

When selecting an opening scene, you're looking for a moment that will give the reader a compelling glimpse into your storyworld. Even if your storyworld is the contemporary world we inhabit, you need to find the perfect corner of it to share with the reader. It doesn't need to be the most important setting in the story or the most idyllic, but it should be a location that gives the reader an idea of what it is to live and breathe and move in this place.

Does this scene introduce a protagonist worth getting to know?

Openings are all about the protagonist. The first scene doesn't have to showcase your protagonist's finest moment, but it does need to introduce you to him or her in a way that has the reader excited or at least intensely curious about this character. Readers are not going to flip page after page to follow a flat protagonist. If your first scene leaves readers with that impression of him or her, you've likely lost them.

Does this scene give readers a hint of what's to come?

In the best openings, there is an almost prophetic quality to the words. In the first scene of Marie Rutkoski's The Winner's Curse, we're introduced to the female protagonist, Kestrel. She's the daughter of the General and part of the wealthy ruling class. We see her gambling at cards with a group of sailors and then we watch as her emotions get the best of her and she purchases a slave against her better judgment. She's won the auction, but lost in some way that she can't quite define. As readers, we are keen to wonder what the consequences of this action will be. Once you've read the book through to completion, you realize just how perfectly chosen this first moment was.

Does this scene have its own arc?

Like every other scene in your story, there should be a rise and fall to this introductory scene. It should, in a pace appropriate to your story, climb to a high point. This high point is the purpose of the entire scene. For example, if my scene is going to be about Bob having his phone stolen, that moment, that action, is the high point. If it's about him realizing his phone is stolen, the realization is the high point. So, you really need to know WHY this scene exists. It can't just be a fun, throwaway scene; it must advance the plot. The scene itself needs to climb to its purpose and then end with something to keep the reader coming back: perhaps a revelation, reversal or turning point.


Once you've decided that yes, this scene is THE PERFECT WAY to open your story, you have one more thing to ensure:


Does this scene start with a hook?

Your first sentence is one of the most important sentences of the entire story, if not THE most important sentence. It must hook the reader. Here are some fantastic ways to do that:

1. Make your readers curious. Prompt them with a question:

The first sentence of Nadine Brandes's A Time To Die
There was a time when only God knew the day you'd die.

This sentence makes me extremely curious! It makes me want to ask, "Well, who knows now?"

2. Show off the unique voice of your narrator.

The first sentence of Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go
The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk is that dogs aint got nothing much to say.

The first narrator in this book is an uneducated boy named Todd. His voice is strikingly different from the voice of Violet, the story's second narrator and this first sentence introduces him in a starkly compelling way.

3. Establish a tone.

The first two sentences of Janet Fitch's White Oleander
The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shriveling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders survived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves.

Sometimes your opening hook isn't a single sentence. Sometimes it takes two or three to accomplish what you intend and that's okay. These two sentences do a lot of heavy lifting, which is another sign of a great opening. Here we learn the narrator's location and the time of year. We are also drawn in immediately by the tone of the storyteller's voice. There's something dangerous about this story. We've only read a handful of words, but we can already tell.

4. Drop your readers into the middle of a scene.

The first two sentences of Marie Rutkostki's The Winner's Curse
 She shouldn't have been tempted. This is what Kestrel thought as she swept the sailors' silver off the impromptu gaming table set up in the corner of the market. 

Starting right in the middle of a character's thoughts and action is a great way to pull readers along with you. There's no lead-up; we're just there. We're involved. And while you don't need to start with a fight scene, even small actions beg to be watched. 

I've given you a lot to think about today and now I'm wondering your thoughts on story openings. Is there an opening scene that has stuck with you long after you closed the book? An opening scene that hooked you and had you dying to know what happened next?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writing a Synopsis- Jill's Method

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 www.StoryworldFirst.com. 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 know both Stephanie and Shannon have written posts on how to write a synopsis, but I'm now at the point in my drafting process when I do this for myself. So today I'm going to share with you my method for writing a synopsis, and perhaps some of you will glean something new from my approach.

I'm at the point in my author career that if I was hoping to sell Onyx Eyes to a publisher, I'd go ahead and pitch it. Since I'm a multi-published author, I have enough contacts within the industry to try and sell a story without actually writing the full story first. Most editors want to see a few sample chapters and a synopsis. That's usually enough for them to take the idea to their publishing board. Some might ask for a book proposal, which I'll talk about in a couple weeks. I've earned the chance to submit stories this way from nine years of publishing books consistently, having them sell well, and earning some awards.

I likely couldn't get away with this, though, if I didn't have an agent to pitch for me. And there is always the chance that I might approach a new publisher or editor I haven't worked with before who will want to read my full story before going to bat for me. So I never really know. Each situation is different. But for the sake of giving you my process, at this stage, if I wanted to work with a traditional publisher on Onyx Eyes, I might try and sell the story now. To do this I would need to give my agent a synopsis.

Now, I also want to point out that every agent is different, as is every publishing house. So while some might want a synopsis, others might now. When you're ready, be flexible and do what you need to do to get your work seen by editors.

I used to create synopses in an entirely different way (click here to read that method). That way still works, and I'm not opposed to using that method from time to time, especially if I need a synopsis in a hurry. Since I rarely have need to rush out a synopsis, I've come to use my new method because it's pretty much halfway done already. Allow me to explain.

First of all, for those of you who don't already know, a synopsis 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. Sometimes an agent will want only one page. Some might ask for a longer, five-page synopsis. Give them exactly what they want.


A synopsis should cover the main events and plot twists as they happen. It should also introduce the main characters and give the ending. It is very important to include the ending! This is not the time to be mysterious or worry about spoilers. The purpose of a synopsis is for an agent or editor to see that you can plot a compelling story from beginning to end. They don’t have time to request a manuscript they aren’t already convinced will be good. So you have to give the ending. That's just how this works.






My new method of plotting has streamlined my synopsis process. If you take a peek back at the post I wrote a few weeks back on How to Plot Your Story and Create a Loose Outline, you'll see that my outline  makes a decent rough draft of a synopsis. Here is a few paragraphs of how that looked:

Prologue - (KAITLYN POINT OF VIEW) - Sixteen-year-old Kaitlyn's best friend recently disappeared. Now her brother, Quinn, is acting CRAZY. She wants to figure out what is going on.
PART ONE: Glasderry
1 - Setup (Hero in his ordinary world, not yet living his dream) - (DRAKE POV) - Drake, a Grounder knight, has been engaged to Princess AyannaRynn for years, but when a royal contingent from the enemy Aerial kingdom comes to court, the Grounder king annouces that his daughter will marry the pompous Aerial prince SuelAlefric. Drake is furious. Later he visits Ayanna, but neither of them know what to do.
2 - Turning Point #1: Opportunity - (DRAKE POV) - That night, Princess Ayanna goes missing. Drake is accused, and the Grounder king gives him five days to find her or take the blame. Drake confronts the king about his promise to allow Drake and Ayanna to marry. The king says that peace is more important than promises made years ago. Drake starts his investigation. Clues lead to the Aerials, but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not a strong enough stonecaster to know such magic.
3 - Stage II: New Situation - (DRAKE POV) - Drake goes to visit Tulak, the Old One who took him in after his mother abandoned him as a child. Drake asks what spell might give him wings. Tulak says that only using onyx to bond with a winged creature could accomplish such a thing, but that is the darkest of magic and forbidden. Drake considers Tulak's warning, but his mind is made up. He would do anything to find the princess.


To turn this into a synopsis, I need to take out all the headings, add sentences for clarity, and streamline the prose so it flows like a story. Also, with synopses, here are a couple ground rules:

1. Synopses are always written in third person, present tense, even if the story is not. This is just how it's done. I'm not saying you can't try it a different way, but do so at your own risk.

2. It's customary to put a character's name in all caps the first time you use it in a synopsis.

3. Synopses are single spaced with 12-point font. Indent to 0.5.

3.  Use as few characters as possible. Just don't mention some of the side characters.

4. It's also helpful to leave out as much storyworld jargon as possible.

The point is to show you have an intriguing story without confusing the reader. Keeping things simple for the synopsis, even if your story is intensely complex, is the best way to do that. Here is the first part of my synopsis, edited from my outline:

          Sixteen-year-old KAITLYN PETERSON'S best friend recently disappeared. Vanished from her own bed without a trace. Now Kaitlyn's brother, QUINN, is acting crazy, and she doesn't know if he's on drugs or simply losing his mind. Though life in Meridian, Idaho seems to be falling apart, Kaitlyn will not rest until she figures out what is going on.
          In the Fae realm, DRAKE, the Grounder captain of the guard, is standing watch in the great hall when PRINCESS AYANNA enters. They share a secret smile. They are in love and hope to marry soon. The princess takes her seat just as the Aerial court arrives. Drake is nervous about this night. The Aerials and the Grounders have been enemies for centuries. There have been talks of peace between the kings of both realms, but Drake has his doubts it will work. The Aerials enter, including the pompous PRINCE SUEL. At the end of the meal, the Grounder king makes an announcement. To ensure peace between the Aerial and Grounder realms, the two kings have decided that Prince Suel and Princess Ayanna will marry. Drake is furious. Later that night he visits Ayanna, but neither of them know what to do.
          Drake is awakened in the night by men of his guard, who inform him that Princess Ayanna is missing. He rushes to investigate but finds no sign of a struggle. The Grounder king summons Drake and accuses him of helping Ayanna hide from a marriage to Prince Suel. Drake denies this. The king says that if Drake doesn't find Ayanna and bring her home before the blue moon, he will be arrested. Drake continues his investigation. Clues point to the Aerials, but Drake cannot go undercover in Aerial territory without wings, and he is not a strong enough stonecaster to know such magic.
          Drake goes to visit TULAK, the Old One who took him in after his mother abandoned him as a child. He hasn't been "home" in far too long, but Tulak greets him as if he had never left. Drake shares news of the missing princess and asks what spell might give him wings. Tulak informs Drake that only bonding with a winged creature could accomplish such a thing, but that it is the darkest kind of magic and forbidden. Drake considers Tulak's warning, but his mind is made up. He must find the princess, no matter the cost.

You get the idea.

I would continue, one paragraph at a time, to write out the full synopsis until I was happy with it, then I would work hard to pare it down so that it fit onto two pages--or one, if that was the request. That can be hard work. Focus on only what is necessary to the bare-bones story, and you'll be able to fit it all on one page. I promise. I know because I've done it many times (after hours of hard work). You can do it too!

A couple things to note:

Though my fairies have names like AlstonFoyledrake, AyannaRynn, and SuelAlefric, I chose to simplify their names for the synopsis. I kept the terms Grounder and Aerials, but I didn't give the name of Kaitlyn's friend, either king, or either kingdom. I had to add mention of Meridian, Idaho and the fae realm, so that the reader would understand that Kaitlyn was living in everyday earth and Drake was not. Also, in the prologue, Kaitlyn never really thinks her world is falling apart, but I needed a sentence that would neatly wrap up that paragraph. You can fudge details in a synopsis in order to smoothly tell the story. No one is going to call you on such things. But if you say that Kaitlyn falls in love with Drake in the synopsis, you'd better have that happen in the story. The point is to be aware that what you include in the synopsis sets up the correct expectations for your readers.

Any questions on writing a synopsis? Have you written many? What is your process?

Monday, April 9, 2018

How To Break Free Of A Writing Slump

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the 1920s 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.


It is inevitable, at least in my experience , that when I'mm working on the first draft, I'm bound to hit a slump.

Maybe you have had this experience too. The story is going swimmingly. For the first few chapters, you rollick through your story world with delight. You have just finished a scene, written the header for your next chapter, and then...

Nothing.

You feel absolutely blank. Maybe you know a few things that are going to happen eventually, but it's not time for those yet, and you feel lost about how to get there.

You drum your fingers on your desk. You peek at the vague outline or synopsis you made at the start of the process. There are no magical answers hidden in there.

You make coffee. You open the Pinterest board you created for this story, and you hunt for inspiration. Maybe you even pull out a piece of notebook paper and write out a few ideas for what the next scene could be, but none of them seem like they're quite it.

Maybe this last for 10 minutes. Maybe it last for 10 days.

Either way, it's 100% normal.

As a new writer, I often took these first draft slumps as a bad sign. A sign that there was something wrong with my book. A sign that the idea wasn't as good as I originally thought. A sign that I should find a different story idea to write about.

While sometimes a slump does indicate a story problem, a weakness in the idea, or that now isn't the right time for this particular book, there are all kinds of other reasons for these blips in creative energy. 



Let's explore some of them now:

Your personal life

Try as we might, we cannot entirely separate our writing from the rest of our life. This means that if you did not sleep well last night, if you are having a fight with a friend, if you are worried about a college essay, if you are plagued by self-doubt, those emotional effects will creep into your writing.

They may even cause you to stall out for a bit.

This is why, among other reasons, it is very important to take care of ourselves. Exercising, eating well, getting quality sleep, nourishing healthy relationships, and taking time for other hobbies we enjoy outside of writing.

But you only have control over so much. You can't help it if you are battling anxiety, depression, insomnia, chronic health issues, stress within your family, or many other things.

While I wrote The Lost Girl of Astor Street and Within These Lines, I had quite a bit of  stressful activity going on in my family. All stuff that was out of my control, like my son having epilepsy.

What I learned to dosince I had deadlines and not-writing was a not-optionis to sit in front of my computer with my eyes closed. I would give myself a little time to think about the things that were stressing me out. Then I would remind myself that those thingsthe laundry, Connor's seizureswould still be there when I was done with my writing. I could think about them again when I was done.

This didn't always work, but more times than not it helped me to push through and have a productive writing day.

Your uncertainty about how to get from where you in the story to where you want to go.

Or should I say, how to get your character from where they are to where you need them to go.

Sometimes, even if you spent a lot of time outlining, the story just doesn't work the way you thought it would. Often when this happens to me, it's because I don't yet have a firm grasp on who this character is.

This happened when I was trying to write my opening chapter for Taichi, my Japanese American character in Within These Lines. I felt very nervous about writing a male point of view character, and it didn't help that he is from a culture thatat the timeI was unfamiliar with. I rewrote his opening scene several times before feeling happy with the result.

In general, I am all for writing imperfect first drafts, but sometimes it's best to dig in your heels and get it right before moving forward. This was one of those times. I wanted to make sure that I started his story in the right place and with the right tone.

A trick I have used other times is to work backward. Like if you know in a few chapters your character will be making a difficult decision and you just aren't sure how to push them into a corner where they make that decision, instead of trying to work from where you are to where you need to go, try working from your end destination backward.

You can also jump to what you do know. This isn't a trick I use very often, but sometimes if I don't know what happens in the next scene or two, I jump forward several scenes. In general, I'm not a fan of writing out of order, but in this case it is better than not writing at all.

There is also something about focusing my attention on a different part of the story that can sometimes unlock the piece that I'm stuck on. As I'm writing, I can sense the holes between that last scene and the current scene, and my imagination will automatically begin to fill in the gaps.

Being alone

I have lost track of how many times I have struggled through a story problem on my own for days, only to have my critique partner, Roseanna White, fix it for me in about two seconds when I break down and ask her for ideas. And I've done the same thing for her.

There is something about being removed from the process of creating the story that can help unlock creativity. Obviously the person you're consulting with needs to know something about the story, but I'm routinely shocked by how little context Roseanna or I need before we can throw out about ten solutions.

For me, writing in isolation (by which I mean not letting anyone see my first drafts) is the only way for me to write authentically. But sometimes you just need to send out an S.O.S. to your writer friends.


Your Personal Writing Pothole

I almost always hit a slump somewhere between 60% and 75% of the way through the novel. That's when I have pushed through my big middle scene, and everyone has struggled with the fall out. Now I need to be gearing all my characters up for the climax of the novel. And... Now what?

This is my own personal writing pot hole. It's a place where I frequently stall out. I have come to expect this, and I can now say to myself that this is normal and it will pass. I have learned to trust the process.

But when you are writing your first, second, third, even fourth novel, you maybe don't know this yet about yourself.

Maybe this isn't the right book. At least not right now.

Just to muddy the waters, there have been times that I've hit a slump because this is not the book I should be writing. Or at least, it is not the book for me right now.

How do you know? There is no clear way. I've said this on the blog before, but putting away a book for a season does not mean putting it away forever. Several of my contemporary novels were put away multiple times before I eventually finished and published them.

I don't know about you, but  I nearly always know the difference between when I am truly blocked versus when I am being tired or lazy.

Remember our mantra for this year? You're not just writing a book, you're growing an author. When you're doing something hard, struggling is natural.

It's normal when you are working on a first draft to sometimes feel like writing is the easiest and most fun activity in the world. And then other days to feel as though each word costs you something.

Do you have tricks for getting yourself out of writing slumps? Do you have places where you routinely struggle during the first draft?



Friday, April 6, 2018

Drafting a Book One Scene at a Time

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 took a step back from our Grow An Author series to share a bit about my experience at Mount Hermon. Thank you for allowing me that freedom, but today we get back on track.

If you've been following my Friday blogs, you'll know that once I've got some idea of where I'm going with my story, I sit down and pen a working synopsis. This synopsis is used as a loose outline as I move through the drafting process.

Once the synopsis is written, I start to work my way through it. One paragraph at a time, I pick it apart and begin to come up with a list of scenes that will move me chronologically through the story. I keep this part of the process very bite-sized. I just want to be thinking four or five scenes ahead at any given time. Once I have those four or five scenes roughly sketched out, I settle in and I write.

And when I say "sketched out," it's a very rough idea I'm coming up with. Something like: Sarah steals Lenny's cell phone. 

Oftentimes, I use word sprints to turn these rough one-sentence ideas into a scene, but not always. Some scenes require a slower, more methodical pace of drafting, and some days I'm just not in the mood to hurry my way through. But the reality is there are many, many days that are only successful because I set a timer and force myself to write until it goes off. That's just how I'm wired.

Focusing on one scene at a time helps me ensure several things about my story.

Each scene:


1. Must move the plot forward.

2. Must increase either the stakes (what's at risk) or the tension (conflict, obstacles).

3. Should begin with a hook--something to grab the reader's attention.

4. Should end with a revelation, reversal, or turning point--something to keep readers flipping pages.

Focusing on one scene at a time as I draft has helped me more often than not, but it can also be a two-edged sword. The risk is that sometimes we try to cram all the THINGS into each scene and it's very easy to become an episodic writer.

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

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

Readers need to see change. It's real. We're either growing or regressing in life and you have to show that in your story. Good movies handle this well. When you're writing a novel its good to think movies, not sitcoms. It's not the first time I've said that, but it applies very specifically to drafting scene by scene. And it's a good motto to keep in the back of that very full head of yours.

When you think about the story you're working on, are you able to see it in scenes? Do you have a tendency to drift into episodic writing? And what advice would you give to a writer attempting to draft his or her novel one scene at a time?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Plot Out the Perfect Ending with Blake Snyder's Five-Step Finale

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 www.StoryworldFirst.com. 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.

As I’ve been plotting out the second half of Onyx Eyes, I’ve struggled a bit with act three. What needs to happen in that final act? How can I plot that in advance if I’m not really certain how act two is going to play out?

Well, I’ve found a trick that helped me make that plan. I might not fully stick to it. In fact, I’m sure I won’t. Things always change, either when I’m writing the first draft or editing. But this trick helped me plot out a series of events that I know will work—at least in theory. It was enough to help me finish storyboarding my novel to the end, which gave me a strong map to use when I write my first draft.

This little trick came from Blake Snyder—the genius who wrote Save the Cat, a screenwriting book I have raved about here on Go Teen Writers many times before. He suggests you think of your big act-three ending in the terms of your hero “storming the castle.” This might look a little different depending on your hero’s goal. Your hero might be “storming the castle” to rescue someone or to stop the bad guy. Either way, this trick can help you.





Here’s how it works:

1. You write a scene where the hero comes up with a plan (either on his own or with his cohorts) to “storm the castle” and rescue someone who’s trapped or stop the bad guy who’s in hiding or do whatever is necessary to complete the overarching story goal.

2. You write a scene where the hero begins his plan. He (maybe with the help of his team, maybe on his own) breaches the castle walls. All is going perfectly, according to the plan made in the previous scene.

3. You then write a scene where the hero (and company?) arrive in the place where their friend is being held or where the bad guy is hiding or wherever they need to be to enact their final plan, only to discover . . . their friend (or the bad guy) is not there! And that’s not all. It’s also a trap! Your readers believe the story is over. Your hero has lost. The bad guys have won.

4. But wait. You write another scene. In this scene, the hero comes up with a new plan. And you connect this plan to the hero’s emotional story. He has to dig down deep and believe in himself or in the impossible, or he will trust others—or whatever lie it is that he needs to overcome. He will overcome it. And in doing so he will find that last bit of strength that will fuel him in one more, heroic attempt to win or save the world or stop evil or make that rescue.

5. Finally, you write a scene in which your hero has discovered the truth and overcome the lie that once kept him paralyzed. Now, as his very best self, he is able to execute a new plan and win. His friend is rescued. The bad guy is defeated. The world has been saved. Your hero has triumphed.

The end.

And the reader is satisfied.

Hooray!

So I used these five steps to storyboard the ending of Onyx Eyes. It gave me a structure where I previously had very little. Now I’m excited to write it and see how much it changes and how much it remains true to Snyder's five scenes.

I’ll let you know once I write them. ;-)


How do you write your endings? I’m curious if you create them as you go, surprising yourself? Or if you plot them out in advance so that you know exactly where you're taking the story. Share in the comments.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Why It's Important to Understand How Stories Work



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com 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.


Thank you for all your encouragement last week when I shared that I was pushing my way through to the end of edits! My macro edits for Within These Lines were due on the 28th, and fortunately I turned them in on time. Usually after this many times reading my book, I feel kinda over it, but not this time! For whatever reason, I continue to feel so enthusiastic about this story.

As I looked back on my posts from the last few months, I saw that I skipped a part of my process. I forgot to talk about how I structure my story. Kind of a significant step to skip!

First, a bit about the tumultuous relationship between me and plotting:

As a teen writer, I loved the idea of planning out my novels. I would try to write an outline, but then when I wrote the book, nothing ever went like I thought it would, and I always abandoned my outline after a chapter or two. After several times, I concluded, "Plotting is stupid and it doesn't work for me." So, I decided I just wasn't going to do it.

I declared myself a seat-of-the-pants writer (sometimes called pantsers or discovery writers) in that moment and pressed on. Why waste time planning out books when I just threw the outline away during the drafting process?

The real issue was that I didn't understand how story worked and therefore didn't know how to plan one.



As a pantser, my strategy became to rewrite and revise stories until they eventually worked. Initially, this was fine. That's how I wrote the Skylar Hoyt series and the first Ellie Sweet book. You only learn how to write by writing, and I honed my craft with every draft of those books that I wrote.

But I kept finding myself drawn back to the idea of planning a story beforehand. I knew the way I "pantsed" my novels wasn't very efficient. I also knew that when I finally did get the story to work, I didn't really understand why it worked or how it worked, just that it did.

At first, I read a few books that helped me to understand story structure. If you haven't done
this yet, I highly recommend it. Even if you're committed to being a pantser, understanding story structure is only going to help you. Save the Cat by Blake Snyder and Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell are two books that I've read on the subject and recommend. I also really enjoyed Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge's The Hero's Two Journey class, which I bought through Audible for an extremely reasonable price. Now it's pretty pricey so maybe check your library to see if they have a copy.

All this studying I did was crazy helpful to me. I wrote a post a few years ago about turning your story idea into a list of key scenes. That post and the scene list I put together for it are a mashup of all the things I learned from my journey of trying to better understand story structure. Here are the posts if you're interested:

Key Scenes List Part One
How To Effectively Test Your Characters
Key Scenes List Part Two
Get the free printables on my author site

That key scenes concept worked for me for several books, but the one I prefer now is from K. M. Weiland's teaching on the subject. The way she talks about character, story structure, and theme just works for my brain. Her series on Structuring Your Novel and Character Arcs were both lifesavers (or "booksavers" in this case) when I got stuck on Within These Lines and couldn't figure out what was wrong with my first draft.

Here are those links for you:

The Secrets of Story Structure
Character Arcs

I love the books too, but you can start with the posts.

These were a present from my husband this Christmas!
So now that you've taken the time to study story structure, what do you do with it?

For me it works best to make this list of scenes that my story needs (doorway of no return, big midpoint scene, dark night of the soul, etc.) and then use the list to brainstorm scene ideas for each of those story beats. For other writers, storyboarding, notecards, or digital corkboards work, so if you're not a lists person, you could try that way too.

I'm not always able to fill in all of the scenes, and I usually don't go in order. Sometimes I know my "Doorway of no return" before I know my "inciting incident" for example.

Once I have my list put together, then I like to create my synopsis. After that, I dive into the first draft.

When I first started trying to plan novels and couldn't do it very effectively, it was because I didn't yet know how to do either very well. Planning a novel is a skill set that's different than actually writing a novel. Both require practice to get better. 

There's no reason you have to learn how to plan your novels, of course. If discovery writing works for you, you certainly don't need to mess with your process.

But if you find yourself interested in learning how to outline your stories better, then I encourage you to embrace the fact that planning a novel is a skill set of it's own. Try out some of those resources above and don't be afraid to practice!

All writers fall on a spectrum, but do you lean more toward outlining your stories ahead of time or discovering them as you write the first draft?