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Monday, November 12, 2012

Tightening Your Plot (Part 2): Unintended Consequences

As a teenager I frequently heard the repeated words "You can make your choices, but you can't choose your consequences."  Being a teenager and knowing everything, I assumed whatever I wanted was right, so I didn't worry too much about consequences.  I eventually learned, (often in painful ways) that even seemingly correct choices sometimes lead to consequences you don't like.

From an author's point of view, this is an intriguing concept.  It provides yet another useful tool for creating hardship, plot twists, and timely escapes for your protagonist.
  
Philip Reeve, author of the Predator Cities quartet, gets good mileage out of his protagonists' good and bad choices.  Inconsequential actions lead to life-changing plot twists.

 At the beginning of Mortal Engines, the first in Reeve's four novel series, a desire to do something heroic quickly lands fifteen year-old Tom Natsworthy in trouble.  After saving Thaddeus Valentine, London's favorite son, from a would-be assassin, Tom makes a split second decision.  He will gain the great man's favor by single-handedly capturing the fleeing girl.

Tom catches up with her, grabs her pack, and, when she turns, he sees her hideously scarred face.  Before she jumps down one of the traction city's waste chutes, she blames Valentine for her deformities and gives Tom her name -- Hester Shaw.

A split second decision.  A glimpse of a girl's face and the knowledge of her name.  It's not much, but it's enough to convince Valentine to pitch Tom down the waste chute after her.

In Predator's Gold, unintended consequences work the other way for Tom.  Trapped in an air hanger with a brutal Stalker -- a resurrected killing machine that was once his and Hester's friend -- Tom and Hester are saved by the glimmer of a memory from the Stalker's former life.  Stalker Fang remembers Tom kneeling over it, grieving when its original self, Anna Fang, died.  The Stalker spares the young duo's lives and allows them to escape. 

Think of your character's decisions as stepping stones to future events.  A delayed unintended consequence can eventually save your protagonist or plunge him into deeper troubles.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Tightening Your Plot

Events follow logical sequences.  Motives lead to choices and choices bring consequences.  Even seemingly random acts of nature make logical sense when the scientific factors behind them are understood.  If you've ever hit a place in a novel where the scene seems awkward and contrived, the problem can often be traced to a missing piece of the action-obstacle-reaction cycle.

Action takes place when a character does something to obtain his main objective.  Maybe he wants to win the girl's heart.  Maybe he wants to humiliate his competition.  This motive is going to inspire a choice which will lead the protagonist's story to an inevitable -- if not immediately foreseeable -- conclusion.

To add tension and advance plot, you should never give the protagonist what she wants too soon or too easily.  Is she in love?  Put the object of her affection in a preexisting relationship with an extremely jealous, possessive girlfriend.  When she comes up against this obstacle, Miss Protagonist should experience some kind of emotional reaction.  This reaction will lead to a decision -- conscious or otherwise -- that will move her to new action.

WARNING:  I'm about to give a very strange example.  For any straight-laced, humorless types, you've been notified before reading on.

Let's assume our protagonist is Puffy the Marshmallow Boy.  He's rotund, squishy, creamy white, and has little black eyes.  Puffy possesses an all-consuming desire to become a s'more, and his first action is to search the Chocolate Forest for a cocoa tree.  (You might be losing brain cells at this moment.  Remember, I warned you.  Now. . .where were we?  Oh, yeah!  Puffy trying to become a s'more!)

In the forest, Puffy runs up against his first big obstacle.  Not being too bright, he didn't realize cocoa trees grow beans, not chocolate bars.  Puffy is frustrated (REACTION!), and decides to try something different.  He's heard rumors about an old woman who lives in a gingerbread house where the living room walls are decorated in chocolate panels.  Maybe he can talk her into giving him a square or two.

Puffy finds the house.  Unfortunately, the old woman is a witch with extremely bad vision, and she thinks Puffy is a chubby German boy.  She locks him in a cage so she can cook him for dinner (BIG OBSTACLE!), and Puffy's tragic story progresses.

Before I risk further offending your intelligence, here's a skillful example of an action-obstacle-reaction sequence from bestselling author Rick Riordan's The Titan's Curse

ACTION:

"I have to go," I said.  "I need to be on this quest."

"Why?" Zoe asked.  "Because of thy friend Annabeth?"

I felt myself blushing.  I hated that everyone was looking at me.  "No!  I mean, partly.  I just feel like I'm supposed to go!"

OBSTACLE:

Nobody rose to my defense.  Mr. D looked bored, still reading his magazine.  Silena, the Stoll brothers, and Beckendorf were staring at the table.  Bianca gave me a look of pity.

"No," Zoe said flatly.  "I insist upon this.  I will take a satyr if I must, but not a male hero."

Chiron sighed.  "The quest is for Artemis.  The Hunters should be allowed to approve their companions."

REACTION:

My ears were ringing as I sat down.  I knew Grover and some of the others were looking at me sympathetically, but I couldn't meet their eyes.  I just sat there as Chiron concluded the council.

By the time your protagonist has reached the story's finish line, readers should be able to connect the resolution to a satisfying sequence of actions that logically and inevitably carried the protagonist to his fate. Whether you write organically or carefully plot every twist and turn like an architect with OCD, this pattern works because it mirrors real life.  It's something to consider when looking to tighten your plot.

     

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Interview with Bethany Wiggins



It's a great honor to host an interview with Bethany Wiggins.  Bethany is the author of the exciting young adult novel, SHIFTING, and a forthcoming novel, STUNG.  For this interview, questions were solicited from several junior high English and Creative Writing classes.

Even after paring down the list and removing questions like "What is your blood type?" (Must have been a Stephenie Meyer fan!) the list was still more than forty questions long.  Bethany graciously answered every question submitted to her.

Thank you, Bethany, for taking time out of your busy schedule to tell us about your writing! 



Questions from 7th Grade English Classes:

1.  Is it hard to be an author?

Yes! Being an author is a lot of work. Plus, you don't have a boss breathing down your neck, or a supervisor keeping you on your toes.  You have to be your own boss and supervisor, and find the self-discipline to work hard every single day.

2. How long did it take you to write your first novel?

It took me about ten months to write my first novel.  That being said, it was ridiculously long (nearly 800 pages) and I never edited it.

3. What made you decide to write about Skinwalkers?

I wrote about Skinwalkers because I had heard so many real-life stories about them, and thought they were fascinating.  I also wanted to write a book that had to do with magic and mysticism.

4. How does it feel to shapeshift?

I can only imagine!  When Maggie Mae shape shifts into a dog, she has the overwhelming desire to start eating rotting food out of the school's dumpster.  That particular idea came from watching my mom's dog sneak into the kitchen and eat trash like it was the best thing in the world.  I can only guess how it feels.

5. Do you have any hobbies?

Yes, I do.  Aside from writing, I like to run on the treadmill while listening to good music, I bake lots of cookies and bread, but my favorite thing to do is take my kids swimming or to the library.

6. What is the most inspirational book you've ever read?

Aside from religious books, To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind.

7. Do you live another life through your stories?

Yes!  That is the beauty of writing.  You live through every character you write about.  I have been hundreds of people--albeit fictional people--and done all sorts of things, like crossing shark-infested waters on a raft, turning into a cheetah and running 60 miles per hour through the desert, and being chased by a pack of Skinwalkers.

8. How many books do you want to write?

I don't know.  I'll write something and then think maybe I'll take a little break from writing, but a new story always seems to jump into my head right then, and I start writing another book.

9. Did you write stories when you were little?

No, I did not!  I know so many writers who have been writing since they were in kindergarten, but not me.  All of my life I loved to read, and loved to tell stories, and listen to other people's stories--especially ghost stories.

10. How do you come up with ideas for books?

I have these weird, crazy thoughts come into my head sometimes, like when the swine flu was on the news all the time, and people swarmed clinics for vaccines issued by the government, I thought to myself, "What if there really isn't any swine flu and the government just made it up so that they can give everyone these vaccines that are going to turn them into zombies or something?"  That is how my latest book, STUNG, came about.  That, and a nightmare that woke me up at 5 a.m.

11. What do you think your next book will be about?

LOL.  I just answered that.  BUT the next book I plan on writing, after STUNG 2 is done (my current work-in-progress), is STUNG 3.  Here is the actual book blurb for Stung:

There is no cure for being stung.

Fiona doesn't remember going to sleep.  But when she opens her eyes, she discovers her entire world has been altered--her house is abandoned and broken, and the entire neighborhood is barren and dead.  Even stranger is the tattoo on her right hand--a black oval with five marks on either side--that she doesn't remember getting but somehow knows she must cover at any cost.  She's right.

Those bearing the tattoo have turned into mindless, violent beasts that roam the streets and sewers, preying upon the unbranded while a select few live protected inside a fortress-like wall, their lives devoted to rebuilding society and killing all who bear the mark.

Now Fiona has awakened, branded, alone--and on the wrong side of the wall.

12.  What made you want to be an author?

That's a funny story.  I never really WANTED to be an author, but one day I was at my sister's house and she said, "I just watched the movie HOLES, and the man who wrote the book it is based on says, all it takes to write a book is an hour of writing a day for one year.  And then you have a book.  I'm going to do it.  Do you want to do it too?"  I figured why not.  Because of that, I discovered that I love writing.

13.  What's your favorite food?

I love all food.  I have several favorites.  Dove chocolate with caramel in the center, pizza, Taffy Town brand taffy, and baklava are some of my favorites.

14.  Do authors need a backup job?

Typically, yes!  I actually do not have a backup job, but I have a very hard-working husband who supports me as a stay-at-home mom by day, and a writer by night.  Being a published author does not mean you're a millionaire.

15.  What is your favorite genre?

Young adult!  I typically like a little magic or science fiction in my books, but I read anything YA.

16.  Do you believe in Skinwalkers?

I believe my neighbors have really, truly seen something out in the desert that they call Skinwalkers.  I have heard some pretty scary stories!  That being said, I don't think it is possible for a person to put on an animal skin and turn into an animal.

17.  When did you know you wanted to be an author?

I knew I wanted to be an author when I was twenty-eight years old--one year after my sister convinced me to try writing.

18.  Would you like to be a character from one of your books?  If so, which character would you be?

Yes!  I would LOVE to be Maggie Mae, and have the ability to turn into any animal I wanted.  How cool would it be to turn into a falcon and fly to school?

19.  What's your favorite thing about writing novels?

My favorite thing about writing novels is getting to live the story through my characters.  Every time one of my characters falls in love for the first time, it is like I get to fall in love for the first time . . . again.  When they finally beat the bad guys, it is like I am beating the bad guys.  Writing novels is the coolest job EVER.  Who else gets to be a ninja one night, a shapeshifter the next night, a princess the next night, and a magician the next night?

20.  Besides yourself, who is your favorite author?

I am actually not my favorite author.  I'll read other people's books, like Veronica Roth's DIVERGENT, or Frannie Billingsley's CHIME, and wish I had thought of that story.  I am a longtime fan of Robert Jordan and Tad Williams.

21.  When did you first get hooked on writing?

I think I was really "hooked" on writing about a month or two after I started writing an hour a day.  At first writing was really hard.  To put my thoughts down on paper, and make them sound just how they looked in my mind, was a lot of work.  But after tow months of just doing it, it started getting fun and I was hooked.

22.  What do you do when you're in the middle of a book, get stuck, and can't think of anything else to write?

I beat my head against a wall.  Just kidding.  I start talking to my husband about my book and running different ideas off of him, while he gives me new, fresh ideas that could work.  Talking through the plot with another creative person has saved several of my stories.

Questions from 7th/8th Grade Creative Writing classes:

23.  How long did it take to write Shifting?

Shifting only took me about six weeks to write, which is insanely fast for me.  But, when I wrote Shifting, I only had two children.  Now it takes me about a year to write a book, but I have four children!

24.  Where did you get the idea for Shifting?

I wanted to write a young adult book with a supernatural/magical twist.  i had lived in Silver City,
New Mexico as a teenager and heard all the spooky stories of Skinwalkers, so I decided to write about the good force that would counter-balance the evil Skinwalkers, and Shifting was born.

25. Why did you choose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift?

I chose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift because I think it would be so cool to be a shape shifter!  It also made her life really difficult, which makes for a sympathetic character.

26.  How many rough drafts / rewrites did it take before you were happy with Shifting?
I chose shapeshifting as Maggie's gift because I think it would be so cool to be a shape shifter! It also made her life really difficult, which makes for a sympathetic character.

27.  Did you choose the title Shifting, or was it suggested to you?

I did not choose the title Shifting.  Shifting was originally called The Hunted, but that title wouldn't work because P.C. Cast had a book out with the same title.  My editor, Emily Easton, sent me an email and asked what I thought of the title Shifting (I loved it) and so that's how it came to be.

28.  Other Native American groups have shapeshifter stories and legends.  Why did you choose the Navajo skinwalker legend?

I chose to write about the Navajo culture because I had been around it and experienced it first hand.  one of my best friends is actually Navajo.  A funny thing--she is the only person who WILL NOT talk about Skinwalkers because the Navajo believe that if you talk about Skinwalkers, it calls their attention to you.

29.  Most authors base their characters and stories on people and incidents from their own lives.  How much of you, the people you know, and your personal life are in the book?

My books are filled with personal experience.  Everything I experience in life adds to my understanding of what a character is going through.  Take Maggie Mae's not fitting in, for example.  I didn't fit in.  in high school, my only friend decided she didn't want to eat lunch with me anymore, but instead of telling me this, she would run away from me if I tried to sit by her until i got the point--she didn't like me anymore.  So, I know how it feels to eat alone at lunch, I know how it feels to be picked on, I know how it feels to wear the wrong things to school.  As for the characters in my book, most of them are based loosely on several people i know or have known throughout my life.  Bridger like to mountain bike--my cousin liked to mountain bike.  Mrs. Carpenter is a lot like my mother.

30. Which of your characters do you most identify with?

Maggie and Mrs. Carpenter.   Maggie is a lot like me as a kid, like how she's sort of an outcast.  As an adult, I TRY to be like Mrs. Carpenter--I'm sort of a no-nonsense mom, while at the same time, I really love and adore and nurture my kids.

31.  What are some of your favorite books?

I grew up reading massive fantasy series by authors like Robert Jordan and Tad Williams.  They will always be some of my favorites.  I also loved Patricia McKillip, Robyn McKinnley, and Cynthia Voight.  As an adult I love Scott Westerfeld's Uglies series, anything by Janette Rallison (she is hilarious), and Divergent by Veronica Roth. 

32.  What is your process like?  Do you use outlines?

My process is a little different from book to book.  Sometimes I try to outline, and it works until about half way through the book, at which time the story completely changes course without me meaning to change it.  Other times I know the beginning and the end, and then just fill in the middle.  It sort of depends on the book.  But I have never sat down and plotted out an entire book, and then written it according to the pre-plotted plot line.

33.  Did you ever change your mind about a story once you'd gotten partway through?  What made you change it?

Yes, yes, YES!  I think I have done this with every single thing I have ever written.  I will get half way through and then realize I had things all wrong, and so go back and rewrite the first half of it.  I don't know what makes me change the plot, or why this happens, but for me, writing is like going on a hike.  I don't know what is around the next bend in the trail until I get to it, and sometimes it is a total surprise.  And when I get to the end of the hike, the view is never quite what I thought it would be when I started out.

34.  Now that you're published, would you go back and change any part of Shifting?  If so, why?

I would not change a single thing in Shifting.  I have come to the conclusion that no book is ever perfect.  You just have to work hard until you reach a point where you are happy with the end product, and then let yourself move on to something else.

35.  Do you have any other books planned around Navajo legends?

I do not, but that doesn't mean I won't write about Navajo legends in the future.

36.  Do you set aside time to write every day?  What time is that, and do you have a daily goal to shoot for?

I write Monday through Saturday, from the time I put my kids to bed until I can't keep my eyes open.  I used to have the goal of writing 1,000 words per day, but decided that sometimes it is better for me to slow my writing down and focus on the plot a little bit more than the word count.  Sometimes (rarely) I write 2,000 words a night, sometimes (typically) I write 300.  But as long as I do it six days a week, my words slowly grow into sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters, and finally a novel.

37.  Have you ever fallen asleep while writing?

Yes I have.  But only twice.  I jerk back awake when my head bobs forward and I think, for a split second, that I am walking down a flight of stairs and have tripped.

38.  How do you choose your plotlines?

Every book is different, but I have these weird, crazy thoughts come into my head sometimes, like when the swine flu was on the news all the time, and people swarmed clinics for vaccines issued by the government, I thought to myself, "What if there really isn't any swine flu and the government just made it up so that they can give everyone these vaccines that are going to turn them into zombies or something?"  That is how my latest book, STUNG, came about.  That and a nightmare, which I will tell you about a little further on.

39.  Did you ever write a character whose life was your personal dream?

If you mean a personal dream, as in I dreamed all my life of being a movie star, so I want to write about a movie star, then no.  But if you mean have I ever had a dream, and then written that dream into a book, then yes.  But it wasn't a dream.  it was a nightmare.  The book based on that nightmare, Stung, comes out this April.

40.  When you were little, did you want to be an author when you grew up?

Actually, no!  To be honest with you guys, I never thought I was smart enough to be an author.  Being a book lover, I idolized authors.  I did always love hearing and telling stories, though.  my favorite thing as a kid, when we had cousins sleep over, was to lay awake way past midnight and tell ghost stories.  Or skinwalker stories.

41.  How crazy did you feel when you found out your book was accepted by a publisher?

So crazy I can't even describe it.  Just imagine a grown woman laughing, screaming, crying and jumping up and down for a really long time, while her kids stood and watched her with wide, scared eyes.  That sort of sums it up.  That being said, you must understand that Shifting was the fifth book I wrote, and I had been trying for years to get published, and had gotten nearly two hundred rejections on three separate books.  So, after years of trying, to finally make it was feaking AWESOME!

42.  How long did it take for a publisher to accept Shifting?

From the time I started writing Shifting, until the time it was accepted for publication by Walker books, was over TWO YEARS!

43.  How did you decide to make Maggie a child who had been bounced from foster home to foster home?

It just fit with her situation, so I really didn't decide to do it that way--that's just how it happened.  She was a shifter, so her parents were hunted down and killed, making her an orphan.  And then, with the problems that arose from her shape shifting, no one would want her around because they didn't understand the reason behind her seeming rebelliousness.

44.  What's your favorite genre to read when you read for pleasure?

Young adult!  There is nothing better.

45.  What's your favorite genre to write?

I write what I love to read, so young adult.

46.  How many books do you plan to write?  How many do you have planned right now?

I have already written ten books.  Shifting was my fifth book, Stung is my ninth.  I plan to write as many books as I have time to write, so long as the stories keep coming to me.  As of now, I only have one book "planned."

47.  How did you become interested in Navajo folklore?

I became interested in Navajo folklore because so much of their religion and folklore seem like "magic" to me.  Also, the hair-raising tales of Skinwalkers as my friends and neighbors have told me made me want to write about them.  Here is a quick story from a neighbor.  He was in his mid-twenties, and a big, tough, tattooed and bearded guy that no one in his right mind would pick a fight with.  He pulled me aside at a Christmas party and said he'd seen a Skinwalker before.  His voice trembled as he told me, "One night after midnight, my cousin and I were out driving on a deserted road on the Indian reservation (he was on the Ute reservation), when the two of us looked at each other.  The hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and my cousin said he felt like something was wrong.  When we looked back at the road, a man was crouched on the side of it.  He wasn't wearing a shirt--only a pair of cut-off shorts.  No shoes.  And he had stringy blond hair.  He watched our car approach, and when we were beside him, he jumped to his feet and started running alongside us.  My cousin screamed for me to go faster--we were going 30 mph--so I floored it, but the man started running on all fours, staring into the car window.  We started screaming.  It wasn't until we were going 55 mph that we pulled ahead of him.  He was a Skinwalker.  I will never drive on the Indian reservation after sunset again in my life!"




Get your copy of Shifting today!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Character Delineation

People's personalities are as unique as their fingerprints.  They react to the same situations differently, they express themselves in distinctive ways.  An author's great challenge is to make his fictional characters as refreshingly individual as real people.  Some writers refer to this challenge as character delineation.

To help my students better delineate their characters, I have them fill in a table with rows of attributes on one side and columns for their characters' names at the top.  Attributes include such things as physical differences (like hair and eye color), dialogue differences (distinctive words and phrases they use), and emotional reactions.  I've found it effective to use the Hogwarts Express scene from the first Harry Potter movie to allow students to identify differences between Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  It helps any author to do a little "people watching" like this.

One of the things my students usually notice while watching this scene is that Ron and Hermione use different phrases to show strong emotion.  Ron chooses the word "Wicked!" when expressing his surprise whereas Hermione exclaims "Holy cricket!"

I refer to characters' unique speech patterns as "dialogue fingerprints."  If you're delineating dialogue well enough, readers know who a character is without needing the speaker tag to reveal it to them.  A young person I'm acquainted with likes to say "Oh, Mylanta!" if something surprises her.  Comedians are masters at picking up on and imitating dialogue fingerprints.  Quiz:  Which U.S. president did Dana Carvey often impersonate using the phrase "That wouldn't be prudent"?

I've pondered using the Mylanta example in a novel, but also wondered if I ought to use a registered trademark symbol with it.  ("Oh, Mylanta®!"  Or how about this instead?  "Oh, my Tylenol®!"  Nope.  Just doesn't have the same ring to it.)

Authors should also give attention to gender differences when delineating their characters.  A criticism I often hear about romance novels is that romance authors make their male characters speak, think, and act too much like women.  I have a problem with male characters who think and act too much like a woman.  (Chiefly because my wife thinks if a fictional man can think and behave like she wants him to, I should, too.)

To make a point about gender delineation, one of my college professors asked several male students what color of blouse an attractive co-ed was wearing.  "Blue!" they all agreed.  When asked if the men had answered correctly, the women in the class disagreed and named the specific shade of blue.  (You can tell I'm not female, because I don't remember the shade.  Indigo?  Cobalt?  Baby blue?  Aw, who cares!  Blue is blue!)

Early in my writing career, I learned how easy it is to make mistakes when differentiating males from females. I know how men react, but my wife had to kindly point out to me that most women don't punch walls when they're angry.  (Maybe their idiot husband's arm, but never the wall.)

There are also regional differences, educational differences, and age differences in speech and behavior.  If you're thirty or forty-something try using a lot of teen slang in your next conversation.  If you're an English teacher, wait for your next parent-teacher conference and say "ain't" and "we was" as many times as possible.  Watch what happens when you've gotten your real-life delineations wrong. 


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Top 10 Signs You've Spent Too Much Time Revising

Revision.  For any author, it's an inescapable part of life; but sometimes there's such a thing as too much revising.  Here's a list of possible signs you've been at it too long:

You know you might be revising too much if. . .

1.  the backspace button has worn out and constantly pops off your keyboard.  

2.  everything you've written seems perfect.

3.  everything you've written seems so horrible you want to crawl under a rock and hide your face.

4. there are no adverbs anywhere in your manuscript.

5.  if you have to think of another way to show a scene instead of telling it, you're going to put your head through the computer screen.

6.  the only descriptive words you can think of are four-letter expletives.

7.  you've given up on removing overused words and now, with wild abandon, you're sprinkling your favorites everywhere.

8.  your proofreaders have a bi-weekly subscription to your updated revisions.

9.  your 80,000 word novel has become a 10,000 word novella.

10.  you wake up before the alarm clock goes off because your manuscript is "calling" to you.

This list isn't entirely tongue in cheek.  Six of the ten signs are symptoms I've suffered.  One is the broken backspace button.  I'll leave it up to you to guess the other five.

Too much revision can be as bad as too little revision.  Among other things, it destroys the voice and flow of your story.  So what's the magic cut-off point?  When do you say "enough is enough"?  I'll get back to you with an intelligent answer if I ever figure one out.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Assertive vs. Aggressive Female Characters (continued)


 A big thanks to Lynne H. for this latest installment in her characterization guest blogs.  To view more of her insightful writing, follow my "Writing Blogs" link to Lynne's Word Nerdy Site.



So. . Word Nerd, you got all meta on us in that last post.  Now that we know why it’s sometimes so difficult to create strong female characters, are you going to actually give us pointers on how to do it?

I’ll try. Some credit goes to a psychologist friend and a friend who worked at a shelter for battered women.  Conversations with both contributed some of the information and insights in this post.

Create female characters who’ve given themselves permission to have a voice.  The usual character-building advice applies:  Give them layers, weaknesses, flaws.  Perfect goddesses and gorgeous princesses and the prettiest, most popular girls in school are boring.  Make them work for their happy endings, like Terisa Morgan from Stephen R. Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need, (warning:  not a YA series) or Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series, Leviathan’s Deryn Sharp, Harry Potter’’s Hermione Granger and Ginny Weasley, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett or Emma Woodhouse, or any other girls/women who take chances, screw up, learn and grow from their mistakes, move on. They will experience pain, love, and loss in the process, but emerge better and stronger for their experiences.  Any of the above-mentioned characters deserve an entire post of their own, but I will instead encourage you to read the books that feature them. As I’ve advised before, read them as a writer, not as a reader.

In giving your female characters permission to have a voice, please be certain you understand the difference between assertive and aggressive.  An assertive person knows who she is and what she wants.  She stands up for herself and others but does not force her ideas or desires on somebody else. She can still be proud or stubborn, prickly or cynical, but be careful that it is not at others’ expense.  If at any time she has to pay for a mistake, she shoulders that responsibility and does the best she can to make amends, without claiming victimhood or blaming others. Also, she doesn’t need to have magical powers or mad martial arts skills. What is much more important is how she evolves as a person and meets her challenges.

An assertive character doesn’t need to be completely self-assured, either.  Give her moments of uncertainty, regret, or doubt. She can even carry some bitterness or anger, as long as those are not her defining characteristics. Moments of bitterness or anger are human, so let the bitterness or anger be over some specific event in her life. Seriana, the main character in Carol Berg’s Bridge of D’Arnath series, is carrying some emotional baggage because her husband has been put to death for sorcery and her estate forfeited to the crown. Seri at first comes across as somewhat unpleasant, but when a disoriented young warrior shows up on her doorstep, Seri takes him in, cares for him and embarks on a perilous journey to help him discover who he is--or was. An aggressive type, by contrast, would have been so swallowed up in her bitterness over her own troubles that she would never have stepped outside herself to help a stranger, unless she stood to gain personally from doing so.
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A fully-realized heroine doesn’t need a love interest in her life, so when she finds love, it is contentment and fulfillment and partnership, not the missing piece to a puzzle. I know it’s a favored trope in romance, but the problem I have personally with the notion that everybody has a “soul mate”  or that one person can be another’s “destiny” is that free will takes a back seat. Nobody should be “irretrievably and irrevocably” in love with anybody else, nor should any female character identify herself by her relationships.  Girls and women so portrayed can suffer physical or emotional abuse at the hands of the “irrevocable” partner, and it allows the author an easy “out” --portraying controlling, possessive behavior as protective, romantic, even loving.

You knew there would be feminist rantiness here. 

Aggressive women are the (you know the word--it begins with “B”) of literature. She says, “I want what I want,” her attitudes and actions say “it’s all about me,”  with little to no regard for what effect her words or actions  will have on others. Some consider the courage and tenacity of Scarlett O’Hara of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone WIth the Wind admirable.  She saves her father’s plantation from being taken over by Carpetbaggers and bravely changes with the changing times in the post-Civil-War South.  However, Scarlett also steals her sister’s fiance, leases a gang of convicts for cheap labor at her sawmills and hires a ruthless supervisor to oversee them, knowing her charges will be underfed and brutalized but ignoring the fact. For some, her greed and unscrupulousness outweigh her courage and strength. The aggressive character will always stand up for herself but will also demand respect whether she deserves it or not. The assertive character earns our respect and gets ahead on courage and hard work and, sometimes, with a little help from her friends.  The aggressive one reaches the top by climbing, literally or figuratively, onto dead bodies.

If your heroine is a character from a time or a place where women have few options, you’ll have to remember that she is a product of her time.  Elizabeth Bennett from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice refuses to marry without affection even if it means an uncertain future for herself and her sisters. This typically modern mindset brings applause for its proto-feminist stance. On the other hand, it doesn’t even dawn on Lizzy to try to get admitted to Oxford, or to open a shop in the village so she can take care of herself.  Women weren’t admitted to Oxford in 1810, and there was strong social stigma attached to people in trade.  If she doesn’t marry, she will have to be at the mercy of male relatives, something we would not find at all admirable for a female character in a modern setting. Yet Lizzy follows her heart and speaks her mind, even to the wealthy and powerful Mr. Darcy and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and we all love her for her wit, intelligence, and courage despite an admittedly narrow worldview.

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island.”  There are plenty of Christic figures in literature, and sometimes it’s a cop-out for an author to create such a protagonist so he or she doesn’t have to work on development of supporting characters.  I challenge you to give your female protagonist some friends. Don’t worry about your heroine looking bad by comparison if she has friends of whatever gender who are prettier or better at math or sports or magic. The fact that she is not insecure because she has diversity in her social circle makes her all the more appealing as a person. Develop the supporting cast, and develop her through their eyes.

Finally, as stated in the previous posts about creating characters, don’t try to create a character who will win a popularity contest. Girls and women are often known to set impossibly high standards for themselves at times; the last thing we need is to feel inferior to a character in a book. Your readers should be frustrated with her choices or actions at times, just like we all are with our real-life friends.  *broken record alert!* Again, the key to character creation lies in creating somebody with whom your readers are willing to make the journey.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Power of Setting

Nothing creates atmosphere and mood faster than a carefully-crafted setting.  Judiciously selected words can be powerfully evocative.  If you're not convinced, you should sit by my sister the next time she attends a hypnotism show.  Watch how her face goes blank and how her eyes grow glassy when the hypnotist speaks in a deep, soothing voice to his on-stage volunteers.

Cotton candy. . .rumbling roller coaster wheels. . .an icy lime-green snow cone. . .the smell of vomit near an overflowing trash can. . .  Look into my eyes.  Look deep into my eyes.  You are at an amusement park. You are enjoying the sweet cinnamony flavor of a warm, golden-brown churro.  You feel happy and relaxed.  (My spell-checker just informed me "cinnamony" isn't a word.  I'm leaving it.  I like the way it sounds.)

Nouns, adjectives, verbs.  Sprinkle them like pixie-dust across your setting to mesmerize readers and whisk them without warning into your make-believe world.

Consider the following dark gem from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

One may guess the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. . .

How does Ms. Brontë SHOW her setting?  Which words create the gloomy, foreboding feeling woven throughout the scene?

When I show this passage to 7th graders, they rarely know the meanings of the words "gaunt" and "craving," but they FEEL the dark energy crackling around them.  "North wind," "excessive slant," "stunted firs". . .  These are some of the other words they like to point out.

I will now return you to the present.  When I snap my fingers, you will awaken and successfully add atmosphere and mood to your key settings. . .   

Monday, April 16, 2012

People Watching

Not long ago while working through some difficult revisions, I noticed I was slacking in a certain area.  Over and over again, I avoided giving descriptors (other than names) to my secondary characters. 

With some flat characters this is okay.  Brief mention of a name might be all you need.  But if a character will be interacting more than once with your protagonist, you probably owe your reader more.  In my case, I avoided "showing" my characters because I'd run out of ideas for making them look, act, and speak differently from each other.

What can an author do when the characterization well runs dry?  A possible answer: People Watching.

"People watching" is one of my teenage daughter's favorite past times.  She shamelessly peeps at other drivers while they pick their noses, flirt with dates, and sing along with the radio.  (Next time you think you're safe in the privacy of your own vehicle, you might want to think again!)

It isn't just bored teenagers who can capitalize on other people's quirky behaviors.  Authors benefit from engaging in this activity by coming home with varied and vivid descriptions for their characters.  The woman at the corner table in Starbucks might lend unusual hand gestures to your new protagonist.  The unshaven man at the bus stop who hunches his shoulders while shoving his hands deep into his pockets might become the homeless man who witnessed the crime.
 
I decided to do a little people watching of my own, and, after giving several individuals a crawling sensation on the backs of their necks (You know the feeling.  You experienced it in junior high school when that creepy kid on the back row kept staring at you.), I came home with a helpful list of descriptions to flesh out my description-starved characters.

The intimidating character on page 150 inherited a cataract-scarred eye from the scruffy fellow at church who kept watching me. (If I find my doppelganger in your bestselling novel, you owe me a thank-you letter, buddy!)  The scholarly council member who makes his appearance a few pages later can thank a slender orthopedic surgeon for his height, build, and curly hair.  I added a few details of my own, of course, but those first visual impressions are what got the creative juices flowing.

If you decide to dive into people watching, here are a few friendly suggestions:

Suggestion Number 1:  Wear a pair of mirrored sunglasses.  You can stare a little longer without getting dirty looks.

Suggestion Number 2:  Take a small notebook to record your impressions.  You can also use it to write down those priceless phrases you overhear like, "Take a picture, Loser!  It will last longer!"

Good luck and happy watching!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Untold Secret of Great Dystopian Fiction

There's a secret to writing great dystopian fiction.  They don't tell you about it in writer's books, but someone needs to spill the beans.  Are you ready for it?  All right.  Here it is:  The crucial ingredient for dystopia is a society populated with weird and unusually named occupations.

You don't believe me?  Let's take a look at a best-selling novel or two.  We'll start with The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

Track-Hoe, Med-jack, Blood Houser, Slopper, Runner, Bagger.  Ever heard of these?  (Okay, for that last one you might be mentally picturing the friendly boy at the grocery store checkout; but, trust me, you're wrong!)  In the Glade -- the isolated society where Dashner's characters reside -- a Track-Hoe is a trench digger and garden weeder.  Med-jacks are teenage kids who work as paramedics without medical licensing.  A Blood Houser slaughters the other Gladers' evening meal, and a Slopper is the "shank" who cleans toilets and scrubs down the slaughter house at the end of kill day.  (I've had that last job.  Believe me, kill day is a sight better left unseen.)

Where were we?  Oh, yeah!  Runner!  These boys run around a giant maze all day trying to avoid "Grievers."  And don't forget the Bagger.  This has nothing to do with groceries.  He's the creepy dystopian version of a teenage undertaker.

Here are a few more strange jobs from Allie Condie's Matched, Philip Reeve's Fever Crumb, and Lois Lowry's The Giver:  Sorter, Skinner, Giver, Receiver.  You won't find these listed at Work Force Services, but they might pop up in a government-controlled future near you.

To practice, I've decided to predict a few dystopian occupations from the year 2113.  Check out my top five picks for the weird jobs of our great-grandchildren's dystopian future:

  1. Mediocrity Monitor:  This will be the government official responsible for making sure no self-motivated individual rises above the norm.  It's kind of like the "bucket full of crabs" philosophy.  Any time one crab gets too close to the bucket's top, the other crabs take the wind out of its sails by quickly pulling it back.
  2. Opinion Setter:  If you want to keep people in line, it's always good to remind them about what they're allowed and not allowed to think.  After all, dystopia can't afford to have an opinionated and potentially rebellious citizenry.  The Opinion Setter will be the official liaison between the government's Department of Belief and Thought Control and the general public.
  3. Problem Adjuster:  There are bound to be a few people who slip through the cracks and manage to spread dangerous ideas.  The Problem Adjuster will "adjust" these misguided people to help them repent of their erroneous ways.
  4. Genetic Match-Maker:  Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, this official will ensure no bad genes slip into the genetic pool.  "Big Brother" will carefully screen and select marriage partners in an ongoing effort to eliminate disease, French mimes, beatnik poetry, and other "undesirable" outcomes.
  5. Education Officer:  The youth of today are tomorrow's leaders.  Any dystopian government worth its salt needs a zealous individual who spends all day (even on holidays) ensuring the "proper" government agenda filters into young people's brains.  As you can see, it takes hard work and dedication to keep a dystopian society truly dystopian.
There you have it.  The secret to an excellent dystopian novel!  (Bonus points if you can say how many times "dystopian" or any other form of the word was used in this post.)    

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Know What You Fear: Using Phobias to Characterize

Fear is a motivator.  It motivates us to action and, just as often, to inaction.  Either way, the resulting choices have consequences, and consequences are integral to plot.

Think about your protagonist.  What is she afraid of?  Why does she fear it?  Knowing what she fears can give you ideas for backstory, help you define motives, and -- most importantly -- provide opportunities to give your protagonist inner conflict.

Conflicted characters are interesting.  We want to know what they'll do when confronted with fear and worry about whether they'll survive that confrontation.  You want to make your readers worry.  That means you've done your job right and awakened sympathy for your character.

Fear can also be used to create irony.  For instance, what if your protagonist has peladophobia -- an irrational fear of bald people?  Any ideas about what your antagonist should look like?  Here are a few hints: Lex Luthor.  Patrick Stewart.  Kojak.  All right, you're smart enough that you already got my dumb point.

The history behind your protagonist's fear can add interest to your story.  Consider this example from someone's very nonfictional life.  A young girl was walking down her neighborhood street when a large truck pulled up next to her and its bearded occupants tried to get her in the cab.  Years later she still suffers from pogonophobia -- a fear of beards -- and won't let her husband grow facial hair. 

I have several phobias of my own.  Some can be traced to specific events (Like that vicious spider attack!) while others seem to have come with me as an unfortunate package deal.  Regardless of their origins, they affect my choices.  In many instances, they also define my personality.

You don't have to name your character's phobia.  In fact, unless it's a very common one like claustrophobia, it's probably better if you don't.  The important thing is to show it through events and reactions.  Let it lurk inside your protagonist, paralyzing him at the worst possible moments.  What do you have to be afraid of?  Give it a try.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Plot Points and Pacing and Getting Unstuck: A Guest Blog from the Word Nerd

So, Word Nerd, I'm on the fourth chapter / the middle / near the end of my project.  My main characters have been introduced, as has (have) the conflict (conflicts).  I had a great hook and started out with action; I threw in some tension, but now I'm trying to figure out where my characters go from here.

First of all *smacks you upside the head* why didn't you begin with some sort of outline, timeline, pace chart, or any other kind of meta-document?  And how many other unfinished projects do you have lying around because you didn't really plan?  Don't you see how you're shooting yourself in the foot?  Even if you've got 65,ooo of your targeted 80,000 words written, sit down and work up some sort of outline or timeline.  This will also help you with problems of continuity and logic your story may present.

Second:  Finish something.  Please.  Even if it absolutely sucks and will never see the light of day, finish something.  Proving to yourself that you have it in you to finish a project may just be the thing that spurs you on and leads to other successes.

If you began with an outline of some sort, are you "stuck" because you suddenly realized you wanted to take your story in an entirely new direction?  Go and create a new outline / timeline / meta-doc.

Have you given your characters enough to do?  Do they escape too easily from the dungeon, or does the Big Bad Evil send his mionions after them because they've stolen the Magic Thingie?  Make them work for their happy endings.

How's your pacing?  Good pacing consists of scenes where there will be action, tension, and even not much happening.  Action consist of, naturally, battles or pursuit.  Tension is where things or people are hiding or being hidden.  A girl disguised as a boy, a person in the wrong place at the wrong time witnessing a murder.  Don't discount the not much happening scenes and chapters, either.  This is where you do your world building and character development.  Make certain that you balance these.  You don't necessarily have to have an action chapter followed by a not-much-chapter followed by a tension chapter.  That would make your writing formulaic.  Do what the story calls for, but keep your audience in mind too.

For example:  We find out in the first chapter that a character's mother is dead.  There are brief mentions of her in subsequent chapters, but not big "reveals" until Chapter 8, when the character is in a tense situation and remembers her mother had diabetes and had to stick herself with lancets and give herself insulin injections.  Our protagonist remembers how frightening it was to see her mother do this, and she draws upon her mother's example of courage to bolster her own.  So we readers wonder if the mother's illness might have been the cause of her death.  Then it's not till Chapter 11 that we find out that the mother was actually killed in an auto accident by a drunk driver.  Don't "info-dump" or "frontload" on your readers.  give out the information a little at a time and in relevant situations.  This will help you avoid the "soggy middle."

Try stepping away (briefly!) from your project.  Go do something physical for awhile, watch a couple of "Bones" episodes or a soccer match.  Read something that makes you laugh--or cry.  Or just step away from the computer and do some writing by hand for awhile to break your normal routine.

Switch genres.  If your previous story was urban fantasy, try some historical fiction.

Some authors simply "write through" the block.  Use square brackets and tell your manuscript [I have no idea what happens here] and work on a scene where you do know what happens.

Take one of the characters and write a separate story or scene for them.  Even if it doesn't fit in your current project (and sometimes especially then), this will help develop them or give you new ideas for other stories.

And. . .save everything.  When you rewrite, squeezing the prose or removing irrelevant bits, place deleted scenes, characters or ideas in a "Rejects" or "Backburners" folder.  you never know when a deleted scene or character will suddenly come to life and either fit perfectly in your current creation or demand to be in its own story.

Visit the Word Nerd's blog at http://askthewordnerd.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Writerly Virtues Part 3

The road to publication (to use a very tired cliche) isn't a sprint -- it's a grueling marathon.  For every endorphin high you briefly experience along the way, there will be miles and miles of discouragement.  If you're normal, you'll have recurring moments when you're tempted to call it quits.  The important thing is to make sure those moments don't turn into something more permanent.

How many times have you heard someone say "I tried to write a book once"?  Or how about "When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a writer!"  Somewhere along the path, there's a place where the pack thins out.  Somewhere farther ahead, more would-be writers will quietly drop out of the race.

This being said, one of the most vital virtues any writer can possess is the quality of perseverance.  Doors will be slammed in your face.  Some might even hit you squarely in the nose.  If you're a true writer, you'll pick yourself up, wipe off the blood, and start writing again.

It helps if you're stubborn.  Every writer should mix a little mule DNA in with the rest of his genes.  Creativity alone isn't enough to keep you in the race.

Did I say it's a marathon?  Think of how long it takes to write a manuscript.  Add a few months away from it to give yourself creative distance.  After four months away from one of my projects, I've started some polishing and "minor" revisions.  I've now spent approximately thirty hours on thirty pages.  I still have 280 pages left to go.

Perseverance is what really tired, really determined authors eat at the end of a long day. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writerly Virtues Part 2

If I could give one piece of advice to young writers (crusty older ones like me, too), it would be this:  Never stop learning!

Not all of us have the time or money to attend writer's conferences or work on MFAs; but, like any professional, writers should be constantly studying and improving their craft.

The day I made up my mind to seriously pursue publication was the day I planned a trip to the public library.  I don't recall the titles of the books I checked out, but I invested a good deal of time reading about plot, characterization, and setting.

One early title I still remember is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  If you read only two books, I recommend theirs and Donald Maas's gem, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.  Writers Digest's Write Great Fiction collection is another excellent resource, and, for teen writers, I suggest Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter.

The next step is to study the writing of authors who've demonstrated their mastery of technique.  During the Middle Ages, aspiring young artists sought apprenticeships with master sculptors and painters.  You can't become your favorite author's apprentice.  (All right.  You can try, but I doubt she'll go for it.)  But you can analyze writing technique and personal style as you read her novels.

While reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, I found myself marveling at her enviable ability to create unusual details.  I particularly loved the following descriptions:

While describing a visit to a seaside pub:  I could eat my shame for dinner, it's so thick, but I take the back door and leave Brian Carroll behind.

Describing a bathroom:  It's a tiny room, just big enough for a tub and a toilet and a washbasin if they're very good friends and don't mind rubbing shoulders. . .

During a trip to confession:  I wipe a tear off my cheek.  It's a very cunning tear, because I didn't even feel it coming.

Not only are these details out of the ordinary, they also create a distinctive voice for the story's feisty heroine, Puck.

From Allie Condie's Crossed,  I learned a few things about using irony to heighten tension.  Even before Ky and Vick realize the new "villagers" will be girls, a reader can anticipate that Ky will escape the village shortly before Cassia's arrival.  The stage is set for Cassia's disappointment and the inevitability that she'll attempt to follow Ky into the Carving.

The third stop along a writer's educational path is potentially the hardest.  In fact, some of the most successful authors find it impossible.  This is the kind of improvement that comes from listening to the suggestions of your agent, your beta readers, or an editor.  It involves swallowing your pride and seriously considering the merit of their criticisms.  If you're fortunate enough to be published, it might also involve learning from reader reviews -- the positive and the negative.

Anna DeStefano calls writing a "hard-working, digging-deeper-until-you-get-it-right, you're-going-to-need-to-learn-how-to-work-with-a-team, job."  (Click here to read her full article.)  In other words, no writer is an island.  If you want to write something that will sell, you're going to need the input of others.

Hopefully, no one reading this will ever become so sure of her or his abilities that she or he can't continue to learn from others.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Female Characters and the Readers Who Love Them

A characterization guest blog from the Word Nerd. . .

After sending them for A.C. to use in his blog, I realized that my posts about characterizations featured only males as examples of multifaceted, interesting, complex characters.  Surely there are some female characters out there that can be held up to similar scrutiny.  I'd like to think that the difficulty in creating complex female characters lies in how complex women are in real life, but I'm afraid it's due more to misunderstanding and even misogyny on the part of society.  In fact, it's a sad commentary that, here in the early 21st century, this even has to be an issue.

Women are pulled in so many directions and sent mixed signals by modern society regarding career, children, education, appearances, aging, and even personality.  Assertive, opinionated women in politics or on television are often vilified.  (You know the word they use.  It starts with a "B".)  Thirty years ago, a TV news anchor named Christine Craft was fired from her job for being "too old, too unattractive and wouldn't defer to men."  She was 37 years old at the time.  I don't know what's more horrific here -- that a person in her 30's is compelled to file an age-discrimination lawsuit or the idea that a female news and sports reporter had to be deferential to men in order to appeal to the viewing public.

Go to your newsstand and count how many men's fashion magazines are on the racks.  Then count the ones aimed at women.  There are far fewer magazines for men, and even they don't simply deal with skin care and accessorizing.  I remember when I was a teen and my dad subscribed to Esquire.  It wasn't uncommon to find featured articles by Kurt Vonnegut or Norman Mailer or one of Lloyd George's grandsons.  I haven't seen anything by Anne Tyler or Amy Goodman showing up in Glamour or Good Housekeeping.  Once in awhile, we're thrown a bone with a two-page article on health care or reproductive issues, but those are rare and, though relevant, keep the worldview pretty narrow.  Don't look for a meaty article on foreign policy or history because you won't find it.

Instead, women in America are bombarded with images of size-0 airbrushed plastic figures, gooey romances, celebrity gossip, and cake recipes.  Of course I like cooking and make-up and shoes, but I feel insulted that these editors and publishers believe that's all there is to me.  American pre-teen and teen girls are glutted with princess and "damsel-in-distress" stories and told "boys won't like you if you. . . (get good grades, kick a soccer ball better, have your own opinions)"  As a teacher, I see it every day:  girls who dumb themselves down because they don't want to intimidate their friends or alienate boys.  Suddenly, what they think of themselves takes a back seat to what their peers think of them.

I am seeing eight-year-old girls who should be riding bikes and getting dirty sitting in the nail salon having a set of acrylic nails put onto their fingers.  Once I saw a little girl in Target who couldn't have been older than four with expensive salon streaks in her hair.  When we begin at such an early age teaching little girls that nails and hair are more important than brains and hearts, it makes it difficult for them to identify true role models when they read or create them when they attempt to write fiction of their own.

Literary archetypes are another problem.  Female archetypes generally fall into three categories:  The Good Mother, The Bad Mother, The Soul Mate.  Women are defined by their relationships, by whether or not there are children or a man in their lives.  One thousand years of Roman rule where women were chattel and a thousand more of Roman influence on government and society haven't helped the situation any.  There are thousands of examples in mythology and folklore that present women as conniving and vindictive.

How to create a female character who isn't conniving and selfish, a princess, or a Mary Sue?

Stay tuned.

(See Lynne's blog at askthewordnerd@blogspot.com.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Writerly Virtues

Yeah, I know.  'Writerly' isn't a real word; but it got stuck in my head, and I couldn't get it out.  There are, however, certain virtues every writer needs to adopt.  One of these is patience.

I don't say this because I'm patient.  On the contrary, I struggle with it like a man in a python's coils; but every time I get in a hurry, I receive a painful wake up call.

Consider the revision process.  I've read somewhere (and somewhere else and somewhere else again) how important it is to let a manuscript simmer on the back burner a few months before starting the final revision.  I hate this!  The moment I've typed the last period, I'm itching to sprint for the finish line.  This is always a big mistake.  A project's baby scent needs time to fade.

But my story is beautiful!  It's the best novel ever written!  How could any agent or editor not fall in love with it?

After endless months of focusing on one project, writer's myopia sets in.  The only cure for this is time and distance.  After a painful two or three month separation some of my manuscript's perfection always seems to mysteriously drain away.  A simile I couldn't part with now sounds cheesy.  What at first felt like a wonderfully intense, pulse-pounding scene now reveals itself as lackluster and sluggish.

Even with the help of a topnotch beta reader (Thanks, Lynne!), I still need time to distance myself from a project.  Why am I lecturing about this?  Because, yet again, the wake up call has come.  With a little nudging from an excellent agent, I've found that a supposedly 'finished' project could be far more than it already is.

There's an upside.  After a two or three month hiatus, it's always a joy to rediscover a story and see it with new eyes.  If history repeats itself, the new way will be far better than the original. 
    

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Antagonist or Protagonist?

Whenever I see or hear the word "villain," I immediately picture a sneering man in a top hat, looking evil as he twists the waxed end of his pencil-thin mustache.  This particular foil worked well for the silent films of the early 20th Century, but today's antagonist needs to be something more than an over-the-top caricature.

Analyze iconic antagonists of film and print and you'll probably find they share many of the following characteristics:
  • No matter how evil their actions seem to others, they don't believe they're wrong.
  • In their own minds, their actions are justifiable.
  • They are driven by deep emotions a reader can understand even if not wholly agree with.
  • They often possess one or more redeeming attributes.
  • Despite how convinced they are of their 'rightness,' they occasionally experience moments of self-doubt.
As Hugo Award-winning author Ben Bova so aptly puts it:  "There are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds.  There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.  As your protagonist is struggling to solve her problems, your antagonist is struggling to solve his.  It's all a matter of viewpoint" (http://www.benbova.com/tips2.html).

Bagman Creech, an antagonist from Philip Reeve's novel Fever Crumb illustrates this concept well.  Creech doesn't see himself as evil.  In fact, he's considered a hero by many of London's paranoid inhabitants.  Creech was part of the uprising that "rid London of the Scriven tyrants," and he still dedicates himself to finding and eliminating every last remnant of their arrogant race.

Creech isn't an unkind man.  When the abusive Ted Swiney thrusts Charley, a shy eleven year old, into the old Skinner's service, Creech treats Charley with great compassion.  Unlike his fellow Londoners, he also isn't quick to make a judgment about Fever.  To avoid mistakenly killing a fellow 'human,' he goes to great lengths to assure himself her murder is justified.

"Killing a Scriven isn't like killing a human being," Creech tells Charley.  "They aren't made like us and they don't think like us, and if you let them live and breed there might come a time when it will be them hunting us, and our kind hiding in the dark."

Like Mr. Bova says -- protagonist or antagonist, it's all a matter of viewpoint. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Interview with Literary Agent Marlene Stringer

A big thanks to Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency who agreed to this interview.  Thank you also to the aspiring 7th and 8th grader writers from Lynne H.'s Creative Writing class who submitted these questions.

1. Approximately how many queries do you get per day?

I receive somewhere around 50 queries per day.

2. Do you negotiate what goes into a movie version?  Why are there sometimes so many changes?

I don't negotiate movie contracts.  I have sub-agents who do that.  Once a literary property is sold to the movies, it's their (the movie-maker's) vision, not the author's.

3. What's trending right now?  What genres might be more likely to be accepted by a publishing company?  (For example, are vampires completely tapped out?)  Is everybody trying dystopia because of the success of The Hunger Games?

What makes a story special is not the story, but how the writer tells the story.  So even vampires might be salable if the story is told well.

4.  Do adults have a better chance of being signed than kids?  What legal problems are there for authors under 18?

No.  The writing is what does it, no matter the age.  A person under 18 cannot legally sign a contract without the consent of the parent or guardian.

5. Most YA fiction is romance, action, fantasy, or sci-fi.  What "unusual" genres would you recommend, and what do you represent most?

I like steampunk and historicals for something different than the usual fare.  I represent all different kinds of stories.  It's the story, not the genre.

6. What genres do you see most?

In YA I'm still seeing mostly paranormal, but in other genres it's more of a mix.

7. What do you read for pleasure?

My clients' manuscripts!  When I have time, I read thrillers, fantasy, historicals, and non-fiction.

8.  How often do you get a manuscript that just makes you go, "Wow!"?

Perhaps a dozen times per year.

9. How young was the youngest writer you've ever represented?

I don't know.  I've never repped someone under 18, so age has not been a factor.  I do represent some young authors, but I've never asked them their age.

10.  How many books/authors can you represent at a time?

Probably about six on active submission at a time, which means it always changes as you wait to hear back.  I represent about 30 authors in all.

11.  Have you ever received a book about some unusual mythical creatures?  For example, Fearies (from Paranormalcy).

Absolutely.

12.  What makes you turn a book or an author down?

Poor writing, cliche stories and/or characters, unprofessional attitude.

13. Would you recommend your job?  Did you like working for an agency, or is it better owning your own?

I love my job.  I work with wonderful authors who write great stories -- and I get to see them first!  I recommend my job for people who love to work with writers, are prepared to survive for at least five years before they are successful (it takes that long to build a network of editors), and are not put off by people telling them "no."

14.  Which YA books have you represented that you would recommend to kids ages 12 to 16?

There are too many to list them all, but SHIFTING by Bethany Wiggins, THE DRAKE CHRONICLES by Alyxandra Harvey, and SAVING ZASHA by Randi Barrow are among them.

15.  Have you ever written a book?

Yes.

16.  Have you turned down a famous author and kicked yourself later?

I have turned down several authors who were successful later.  I don't kick myself because the stories weren't right for me.  If something isn't right for the agent, it might not become the success it is with another agent.

17.  What makes a strong character, in your opinion?

The strongest characters have the strongest internal conflicts.

18. What specific qualities must a book have for you to choose to represent it?

It must be too good a story for me to put down.

19. How do you feel about representing a book only because you know it will make a lot of money?

You never know when a book will make a lot of money, so there's no point in taking on something you don't love for that reason.

20. Do you feel bad rejecting something that's actually good just because it probably won't sell?

Of course.

21. Are there more male or female authors coming to you for representation?

Probably equally split.

22. Do you have children, and if so, what were/are their favorite books?  Did you / Do you let them choose their own books?

I have four children.  They are adults now, but we went to the library once a week, and a trip to a bookstore was a very big deal.  They learned it was a good idea to have something they enjoyed reading with them all the time.

I recall the books we read out loud when they were very little the best, and on of their favorites was James Stevenson.  He wrote wonderful picture books.  Later on, we went through Ender and other fantasy.  Now all my children pretty much prefer non-fiction.

23.  Do you have a favorite book or author?  Do you represent any of your favorites?

My contemporary favorites are always changing, and I represent many of my favorites.  As for books I return to again and again, I love Jane Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy.

Again, thank you, Marlene, for taking the time to answer these questions.  To learn more about Marlene and the books and authors she represents, please visit her website at www.stringerlit.com.