A Setting’s Many Jobs: Multitasking with the Objective Correlative

Eliza picture

My daughter’s picture of our backyard

A story always needs a setting, no matter what it’s about. Because “Nothing happens nowhere,” as the saying goes. Setting is about so much more than place though. It can be used to reveal character and mood, foreshadow what’s to come, or show not tell. How? By using one of my favorite literary devices: the objective correlative.

I’m not a particularly observant person, especially when it comes to visual cues. My kids make fun of me, because I don’t notice what people are wearing, what kind of cars they drive, or even the color of their hair. My default mode has always been to live in my head. That’s where I make up stories, create character conversations, write to do lists, and wonder things like how many people are actually going to read this blog.

As a writer, it’s good to have an active inner life, but you need to notice what’s going on outside of you too. But even when I remember to be consciously aware of my surroundings, I still agonize over which setting details to describe. Thanks to our brain’s “sensual selectivity,” only a small number of the sensory impressions that inundate us will register in our consciousness at any given moment. What makes that selection for us? The answer is, our emotions do.Inside-Out copy

The act of linking setting description to character emotion is one way to use the objective correlative, also known as telling it slant. Tell it/slant is all about focusing on details that help the reader understand what you’re trying to convey—like insight into the narrator’s emotional state or a foreshadowing of what’s to come. “The trick is not to find a fresh setting or a unique way to portray a familiar place,” explains writer Donald Maass, “rather, it is to discover in your setting what is unique for your characters, if not for you.” Thus, a fictional environment comes alive partly in its details and partly in the way that characters experience those details.

In order to tell it/slant, you’ll need to identify your scene objective. If your goal is to shed light on a teenage girl, you might choose to describe her room. The objects we surround ourselves with reveal much about our personalities. Is she into books or computer games? Do we see volleyball posters and muddy cleats or a shelf filled with art supplies? Stuffed animals or a bathroom counter filled with makeup and six different kinds of lip-gloss? Every object in the room should tell a story.

2-nyc-empire-nina-papiorek copy

I love New York!

Next, how does your character react to the setting?  In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole cites New York City, for instance, as a place that stirs strong, often contrasting emotions in people.

“I love New York City,” she admits. “I love the burning grease smell from the halal carts and the sticky sweet aroma of roasting peanuts that seems to hit me on every corner. My heart swells at the dank wind that a speeding subway train churns up as it pulls out of a station.”

But for the folks who hate New York, Kole says, “All the people on the sidewalks might have shifty eyes, rats might lurk in every sewer grate and everything would seem astronomically expensive, especially the closet-sized hotel rooms.”


I hate New York!

Same city, different perspective.

A character’s mood determines how she’ll react to and interact with her surroundings as well. A bedroom can be a safe haven, or it can feel like a prison if a teenager’s been banished there after being grounded by angry parents. Our state of mind colors how we perceive our surroundings. In this way, our settings can multitask.

Try the following exercise. Pick a place like a kitchen. Write a paragraph describing that kitchen from the point of view of a character who’s in a happy, relaxed, and positive mood–but don’t mention how the character is feeling. Then flip it and describe the same kitchen, but this time, put your character in an angry, fearful or negative frame of mind. Then compare the passages. Details like chicken noodle soup simmering on the stovetop and a cat purring on your lap vs. a sticky floor littered with dog hair, a sink filled with dirty dishes, and a spider crawling up a cracked window beautifully illustrate how different states of mind can impact what we notice. It’s all about showing, not telling.


Teaching a workshop on the objective correlative

A student of mine, 14-year-old Luna Patience, did a great job with this exercise in a workshop I taught last fall at the TeenSpeak Novel Workshop and Retreat. With her permission, I’m quoting from two passages she wrote using a graveyard setting. Note her use of imagery and strong verbs:

(Negative mood) “The sky overhead grumbles with oncoming clouds, and the freshly turned earth smells of mold and petrichor. As rain begins to spit from the sky, the thin coat that Leonard loaned me… is immediately soaked. Rainwater streams into my boots…pooling around my toes; filling in rivulets over the headstones…”

(Positive mood) “The cold morning air is playful, wind whipping about me like fingers, bringing in the exhilarating smell of autumn and rust. Father’s headstone shines in the first rays of early yellow sunlight, settling into its new home among the maze of grass and shade. I take a great breath and kneel to place a marigold on his grave, my knees sinking into the freshly turned earth.”

The objective correlative can also foreshadow.  If something bad is about to happen to an unsuspecting character, and you want your setting to be a harbinger of things to come, describe it in a way that creates anxiety or fear or discomfort. Throw in a few similes and metaphors or anthropomorphic references, as Maggie Stiefvater does so brilliantly in The Scorpio Races—““Below us and beyond us, the sea is whitecaps and foam and black rocks like teeth”—and your reader will feel instantly anxious.

So remember to focus on what your character feels and your setting details will surface. It’s all thanks to the magic of the objective correlative!


Insecurity v Humility


insecurity |ˌinsəˈkyo͝orədē|
noun (pl. insecurities)
1 uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence: she had a deep sense of insecurity | he’s plagued with insecurities.

humility |(h)yo͞oˈmilədē|
a modest or low view of one’s own importance; humbleness.

Most writers joke (is it a joke?) about our insecurities. Our writing sucks, our books suck, our ideas suck, we suck. But would we really spend hours, days, months, years working on a project that truly sucked? In the deep dark corners of night when we’re tossing and turning in bed we might think the project stinks, but in the light of day, right before we push “send” and whoosh the manuscript off to our beta readers, agents, editors, aren’t we darn sure that the project doesn’t really suck, that it’s really pretty awesome?

Two weekends ago I attended the Writing Novels for Young People’s Retreat at VCFA organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The theme of insecurity ran through the entire weekend and we propped each other up with Micol Ostow‘s rallying cry, “Whatever…You’re awesome!” It was a wonderful, inspiring, supportive weekend–a group of amazing writers who critiqued each other’s work, probed, asked questions, encouraged, ate a lot of chocolate and drank a lot of wine (and some awesome margaritas). During the Saturday night readings (despite the awesome margaritas, or perhaps because of them) I was struck with a sense of insecurity. Who was I to think my story was as good as all these others?

In the days since the Retreat, I’ve had time reflect on my emotions. And as I prepare to speak before a classroom of middle schoolers at the New Voices School on writing poetry as part of the VCFA young Writers Network, organized by Katie Bayerl and Danielle Pignataro. I am near frozen with thoughts of insecurities: I am a fraud, I am not a poet. I struggle to push those thoughts away. I am not a fraud; I have a published book to prove it! And while claiming to be a “poet” might be a bit of a stretch, my published book is a novel in verse – so at least I can claim that I write poetically.

I’m not willing to say that I am “awesome” with anything less than a sarcastic tone, yet I refuse to believe that I suck. Instead, I am going to believe that I am humble — for aren’t insecurity and humility opposite sides of the same coin?



I tried a new exercise with my writing class recently. They each wrote a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, showing character change – using only 3 lists. The lists could be seemingly mundane – shopping lists before, during and after a vacation – or more profound – lists of things I wish I could say or do. Any kind of list has the potential to connect with a reader, and make a story more interactive as it requires the reader to fill in the blanks.

I was delighted with the results! It loosened them up, and gave them the freedom to dig a little deeper, to reveal the underlying emotions. And, they were almost completely across the board, both poignant and funny. 

It makes me want to try it, too!

Lists within a story can be extremely powerful and effective. Because they are short, and non-narrative, they demand the reader’s attention in a different way. The white space around the list leaves room for the reader to add his/her own conclusions. When incorporated throughout a story, the evolution of these lists shows character shifts and change. 


  1. Focus
  2. Intensity
  3. Emotional impact
  4. Humor
  5. Voice


survival strategies of the almost brave1. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE by (Fellow-Tollboother) Jen White

Billie, the main character of this middle grade novel – an emotionally powerful adventure story – keeps a notebook close by, at all times. She logs her observations about various living creatures, and the world in general. These lists and notes give us a peek into her inner turmoil – and even teach readers about the world. They’re a lovely mix of fact and heart. 

mayday by karen harrington2. MAYDAY by Karen Harrington

This middle grade novel, to be released in May, is the story of Wayne Kovoc, a survivor of a plane crash. He has always loved facts, and shares them with others as a kind of emotional shield. Having lost his voice in the accident, he is unable to share these facts – which leaves him on emotionally unsteady ground. Throughout the novel, he is determined to find his uncle’s memorial flag that disappeared in the crash. He creates Data Reports to track the plane crash investigation and recovery progress – which also, for the reader, tracks Wayne’s own recovery in a subtle and effective way. 

kissingtedcallahan_RGB3. KISSING TED CALLAHAN (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding

This hilarious YA novel is told in alternating viewpoints by Riley, and her best friend, Reid, as they document their victories and mishaps, in pursuit of romance and all that involves. The dual views – female and male – of the same topics are especially humorous and shows their differences, as well as their similarities. We also see their priorities and understandings shift and change as they gain experience – and real feelings – with their various kissing partners. 

weight of a human heart coverTHE WEIGHT OF A HUMAN HEART by Ryan O’Neill

Written for adults, this collection of short stories includes incredibly inventive storytelling. One story uses only lists, charts, and diagrams to reveal the progression of a relationship and marriage. Highly recommended to explore unusual writing conventions. And, with an powerful emotional punch. 

Even if your lists don’t make it into a final draft, I think the process of honing in what exactly you want to say, or what your character is feeling and doing at different parts of your story could add refreshing insights. Humor and voice, too! 

What other books use lists? Are you tempted to give it a try?

~Sarah Tomp

On Acceptance



I am not a fast drafter. I’d like to be one, but I’m not, just like I’m not the sort of person who can get out of bed before 7:30 am on a regular basis, or the sort of person who can run a mile and enjoy it. My drafts take a while. They’re generally in pretty decent shape when they’re done. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to be the sort of writer who has a knack for delving deep into characters’ emotions. I am really, really not that sort of writer, especially in my early drafts. I always have to focus on my main characters’ emotions in revision, no matter how much I try to get them on the page the first time around. Even after I’ve done my best, I know there are other writers who could have done it better. That’s just the kind of writer I am.

I’d like to write a Very Serious Book one day, the sort of book that will make Serious People have Serious Conversations about Serious Topics. This is never going to happen.

I’d like to write an entire book without worrying for a minute about what other people will think of it. That’s never going to happen, either.

Here’s what might happen, though: I can accept my writing self–my strengths and my weaknesses. I can accept the books I write, and I can feel proud of them. And I can encourage my writer friends to embrace their own stories and their own processes without measuring them against their own ideas of what the writing life should be like.

So, dear readers, I’d like to know: what kind of writer are you? What parts of your writing life have you decided to accept?

Say It Without Saying It: Thoughts on Subtext

pear behind back
I’ve been thinking about how to write better dialogue a lot lately, and looking for insight, I turned to Deborah Tannen who writes popular books on linguistics. She claims that in every conversation two people try to balance their need for connection against maintaining their power in the relationship. As Tannen says, it’s all about intimacy versus control.
When writers craft characters, we use dialogue to reveal who they are, and to build or break their relationships with other characters. And our characters use dialogue to get what they want or need. Again, intimacy versus control.
As people juggle intimacy and control in real life conversations, they often avoid being direct. They speak indirectly so they can say what they want to say, but dodge conflict and hopefully, keep their relationships intact.
So it makes sense that dialogue engages us through subtext or “the conversation beneath the conversation.”
The idea of subtext sounds intimidating and abstract, but we use it every day when we inject humor to deflect or redirect a conversation we’d rather not have, or to approach someone when we’re afraid we’ll be rejected.
Through sarcasm we can assert power or express our unwillingness to go down without a fight.
We use metaphor or story-telling to tell someone a truth they need to hear, but to try to minimize the pain.
We forge connection through in jokes or a shared language (think “Okay.” “Okay.” in The Fault in Our Stars.)
And linked to that, we try to build or reconstruct bonds with remembrances of a shared experience.
We hold onto control when we change the subject or answer a different question than what we were asked.
And subtext is present when we attack something unrelated to the real reason we’re angry.
Silence gives us the power to reveal acquiescence or disagreement, while innuendo expresses truths we don’t dare say directly.
man hiding face
And gesture is our truest form of speech, especially when it contradicts what is said.
I offer up these examples to spark your thinking about subtext, and the push-pull between intimacy and control. If our goal is to write dialogue that is unexpected, subtext is a great place to explore.
Catherine Linka is the author of the two book series, A Girl Called Fearless. For more of her thoughts on writing, visit catherinelinka.com

The Surprising Joy of Writing a Novel for Hire



This week I pressed send on a novel that I started, on contract, in December.
It was the most fun I’ve had writing a novel in, well, forever.

It was not the novel of my heart, though it has—I think—heart in it. I didn’t choose the age of my protagonist, or the fact that she was immersed in a real-life event from the Vietnam Era. But it had realistic characters, conflict, an emotional resolution, and was historically accurate. I had to keep the novel under 13K words, which sounds like it wasn’t a novel at all.

Which is what I thought when I contemplated writing this as part of a historical fiction series published by an educational media company. The constraints, the length, and the deadline intimidated me. But I thought I might learn something about writing quicker and cleaner, so I took the job.

They don’t tell you when you are doing your MFA that writing and selling a novel may take years, or decades. When you graduate you think your journey to a finished book on the shelf will be short and satisfying. For some, that’s true. But for most, it’s a long, slow slog that threatens to choke the life out of you before you ever see that ISBN number on the back cover of your very own book.

Enter Writing for Hire, a way many writers get books out quickly and with relatively less pain. I imagine that every contract is different, but mine was specific in some areas but open in others. The length was predetermined, as was the final trim size, the possible eras in which I could set my story, and the age of the protagonist. I had to include actual history—so I had to do research to maintain accuracy. I had a strict deadline. I had to write back matter so the book could be used in a classroom. Otherwise, I was free to make the plot up, provided it moved quickly.

After coming up with a possible plot and some characters, I read other books of that (short) length to see how to organize my chapters. I knew how often I needed beats and chapter endings. When I started drafting, I set the margins way in on my computer so that I could see how small the page would be. This led to the realization that everything had to be smaller. Like the builders of those tiny homes, I had to construct an efficient story. The sentences needed to be short, the dialog frequent. It would need brief, laden scenes with little description. I had to show and never tell. I had to move the characters through their difficulties quickly, with natural consequences coming up as rapidly as bumps in a freeway lane.

Operating within constraints worked for me. I felt happier, lighter and more motivated because I made fewer decisions. I felt no pressure to make it perfect, no need to explore every nuance or every possible motivation. I didn’t have the time to consider and reconsider. I just told myself to write quickly, stick to my outline (which I changed twice) and meet the deadline. Admittedly, there are not very many layers in my story, and there’s pretty much no set up for a sequel. I get a single payment but no royalties. My name is on the cover and so is my bio. I don’t have to promote the book, so I am free to move on to other things.

Within a year, kids in classrooms across the country will read this book, and that makes me very happy.

Best of all, I didn’t have time to build up doubt, that great crippler of writers. I hope that I can transfer that lightness, that optimism, as I return to my own works in progress.

Vicki Wittenstein Writes Non-fiction That Counts


This week we’re lucky to welcome my good friend and VCFA classmate Vicki Wittenstein to the Tollbooth.

profileVicki is an author whose passion has lead her to write brave and amazing books. I’m proud to call Vicki a dear friend and Vermont College classmate. But more than that, I’m grateful to consider Vicki a mentor, an example on how to approach topics that matter and to create great books that will make young people think… and maybe even change lives. Vicki’s newest book, Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? will be in bookstores everywhere on March 1, next week.

Like her earlier non-fiction, For the Good of Mankind? The Shameful History of Human Medical Experimentation and her first book Planet Hunter, this new book is destined for great things- I foresee many accolades and awards. Well, it’s not a stretch. The book is already wracking up fabulous reviews, including a starred review from Booklist who said “Though slim, this volume packs a wallop.”  And School Library Journal who said “Well written and impeccably researched, this volume will appeal to budding activists and feminists and to those concerned about human rights.” They’re the experts, but take it from me– this is an important and exceptionally well researched and written book that really makes a difference.

Without further ado let’s talk to Vicki! Tell me a little about your progression as an author?

Even as a young girl, I loved to read and write. But in my family of lawyers and doctors, academics were stressed rather than creativity, so I never seriously considered becoming a writer. The political activism I experienced in college in the 1970s inspired me to take a hard look at a variety of issues, including civil liberties, individual rights, racism and sexism. I decided to attend law school in large part to learn how to advocate for these rights. Years later, when I was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan and a young mother, I began to think about writing for children, mostly as a way to connect with my own kids. I wrote short stories, enrolled in a writing seminar, and joined a writer’s group. Everything changed in 1998 with a newspaper headline about Shannon Lucid, the astronaut who broke records by spending six months in space on board the international space station Mir. I was telling my young son about Lucid’s accomplishment when I thought, Hey, shouldn’t all kids know about Lucid? Why not write about her? Lucid became the subject of my first published article for children, “Dr. Shannon Lucid: Space Pioneer,” in Highlights for Children. I continued to submit articles to magazines, went back to school to obtain my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published my first book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths (Boyds Mills Press 2010). I still write fiction, but for the moment I am challenged by the research and writing of nonfiction.

ReproductiveRightsSo you’ve published books about undiscovered planets, medical testing and now reproductive rights. What is it about cutting edge topics that attract you?

I want to impact teens as much as possible. And cutting edge topics—particularly the societal issues discussed in Reproductive Rights and For the Good of Mankind?—force teens to confront important subjects facing Americans today. The need to understand these issues through an historical lens grows even more critical against the backdrop of political campaign rhetoric, media hype, and frequently false information, generated in the news. For example, in the area of reproductive rights, history can provide a roadmap for students to compare the struggle to fight for birth control centuries ago with the legislative restrictions on reproductive rights today. With a view to the past, students can discuss the roles political leaders, social norms, and economic issues play in determining how women and their families think and act on birth control issues. Historical data can help teens analyze this information and formulate their own opinions about availability of, access to, and funding for contraception, sex education, and abortion, as well as the new frontier of genetic and reproductive technologies. These issues are even more critical in light of the campaign for president and the opportunity to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. And as the next generation of parents and leaders, teens are the group who will be most affected by the laws our governments adopt and the individuals we choose to lead. I hope my book helps empower them to stand up for what they believe in and to protect reproductive freedom.

Have you encountered resistance from gatekeepers? Do you think there are more or less barriers to “edgy” topics in YA nonfiction than fiction? Have you encountered any resistance and if so how have you addressed it?

So far I haven’t encountered strong resistance from gatekeepers. One blogger did write that she was reluctant to buy the book for her middle school library (but called it “essential” for high school) because sex education was not discussed at her school. I expect some educators, fearful of parent reactions (particularly in more religious and/or politically conservative communities) may shy away from recommending the book. But I hope not. The hot-button issues surrounding abortion overshadow some of the central reasons why reproductive rights are so important, such as contraception, pregnancy and childbirth care, family planning, cancer screenings, and the like. I do think that gatekeepers seem to more readily accept edgy YA fiction than nonfiction. Perhaps this reflects the very nature of fiction itself—that the fictitious events and people are portrayed through the eyes of an imagined main character—whereas nonfiction, in its exploration of real life events and people, reveals factual truths that people may be uncomfortable with.

How did your background prepare (or not prepare) you for writing about science topics?

My legal background is a tremendous help in writing about science topics and nonfiction in general. In law school and in legal practice, I learned to back up information with several references, analyze both sides of an issue, and write clearly and concisely. I also learned that original or primary sources are always the most accurate, and that a phone call or an interview with an expert nearly always points you in the right direction and clarifies what you are most confused about. I am not a scientist (I majored in American Civilization in college), so for both Planet Hunter and For the Good of Mankind? speaking to scientists was vital to my understanding of astronomy and human medical experimentation.

What tips do you have for aspiring YA non-fiction writers?

Stick to the facts and don’t introduce your opinion, particularly when you are writing about an edgy topic. If you inject a bias, you will turn off readers who may share a different opinion, which defeats the purpose of letting students analyze and critique the issues for themselves. For example, in writing the chapters on abortion, I always stated both the pro-choice and the pro-life positions on various legal restrictions, such as laws mandating pre-abortion counseling, ultrasounds and waiting periods from the time a woman first meets an abortion provider and has the procedure. I was careful to define what it meant to be either pro-choice or pro-life, and to describe the political tactics on each side. The bottom line: it takes a lot of work to be impartial and unbiased, but it’s also essential.

How inspiring, Vicki. You’ve given us a lot to think about– just like your books! Thanks so much for visiting the Tollbooth, Vicki.

Thanks for having me, Tami!

You can read much more about Vicki and her books on her website at http://vickiwittenstein.com/.  She has lots of downloadable materials, too- teachers guides, videos, articles on similar topics, you name it! And you can catch Vicki the rest of the week all over the net. Read more at tomorrow at Unleashing Readers,  Thursday at The Pirate Tree and on Friday at Teach Mentor Texts.

Do you have questions about non-fiction for young people, edgy issues or anything else? Ask them in the comments here and Vicki will give you answers!

~tami lewis brown

The Unlikeable Girl Narrator 101


607graceling“I hate them.”

“I love them.”

I write unlikeable girl narrators,* and neither of these previous sentences trouble me. But I can’t help thinking every time this comes up (which is a lot) that there is no phrase for unlikeable boy narrators. This is a gender bias, plain and simple. I’m therefore tempted to punt the phrase out the window, but something holds me back, and here’s why.

There is a THREATENING POWER in the unlikeable girl narrator [UGN]. She wears a crown that’s been sharpened into a blade. She even has the potential to change the way readers view a whole group of people. And although UGNs appear in every genre and in a variety of forms, every single one of them has something in common:

She doesn’t give a damn what you think about her.

So let’s look at these characters that rub us the wrong way or steal our hearts, and then decide whether or not your UGN is making your story stronger or less appealing. Because—and I speak from experience—some UGNs will make readers throw the book across the room. Like I said, she’s powerful, ain’t she?


gilly-hopkinsSo, who is she?

She swears. She probably does the things that the boys do or she kisses said boys and doesn’t call them back (the nerve!). She might put herself before her mom, sister, best friend, dog, etc. She might care more about her own problems than the problems of others. She probably has a bleeding heart that she works HARD to hide, and she undoubtedly flicks off everyone, crying in secret when they’re gone (plus some more cursing—and possibly NO crying. Some girls don’t cry. Seriously.). In short, she is the girl that gets labeled a Tomboy or Feminazi or the Mean Girl or the Type A nightmare. She punches first and asks questions later. Or she doesn’t ask those questions at all, and instead hides her regret within deliberate layers of crafted callousness.

Now, two things might have happened while I described the UGN. Either you pictured one girl. One very specific girl/character. Or you pictured just about every girl you’ve ever met. Because let’s be honest, we’re not talking about one type of girl. We’re talking about GIRLS. Stuffed into corsets and high heels and marriages and babies and gender expectations for the length of history, the UGN is a reaction to the fact that girls are demanded to be likeable. To grin and bear it, no matter what.

Boys are not required to be likeable. In fact, we’re so damn pro-Bad Boy that that has probably scarred them in equally debilitating ways. But whatever. I only care about girls at the moment. *UGN fist bump*

So if girls MUST be appealing in order to succeed, the UGN is a girl who does well while simultaneously not appealing to the sympathies and opinions of others. How dare she? Oh, she dares. She does.


hqdefaultOkay, give me some examples…

She is Katniss Everdeen who cares about survival. She’s not in it for the beauty contest, the attention, the love story, or the hero worship. In fact, she hates all of those things sincerely. (Let’s not forget how many delightful jokes there are in The Hunger Games movies about how no one actually likes Katniss…)

She’s also Gilly Hopkins. Katsa from Graceling. Mary Lennox. Ada from The War That Saved My Life. Leah from Walk on Earth A Stranger. Lisa Praytor from Highly Illogical Behavior. I’ll add three of my girls: Chase (Breaking Sky),and Jaycee & Natalie from You Were Here—That’s right; you get two sass-attacks in my new book! And you know who else has got two intensely wonderful UGNs? The Walls All Around Us. And how about my all-time favorite novel and favorite heroine? Taylor from Jellicoe Road.**


Who is she NOT?

A girl who cares about nothing. I mean, she can say that she cares about nothing but that can’t be true. No one cares about nothing.*** If this is a problem you’re running into with your UGN, I highly suggest checking out discussions on internal and external motivation.


So You’ve Been Told You Have A UGN in Your Manuscript. Now what?

Well, it’s important to figure out whether or not you really do have a UGN or if the reader told you this because your protagonist is not crafted thoroughly. It’s important to remember that the UGN is NEVER an underdeveloped character, i.e. her likeability issue is not the writer’s fault. Her likeability issue is the reader’s fault. Hands down. How dare I say that, you ask? Well, I’ll put my ovaries to the wall and use an example from one of my worst reviews of Breaking Sky.**** The reviewer nailed my UGN, Chase, for being a “paint-by-numbers Military Maverick archetype” and then followed up by thinking about Chase’s role a little more closely:

“It made me realize two things: 1) that we very rarely see female characters take on a true Maverick role (Starbuck in the BSG reboot is one of the few), and 2) that when female characters DO take on that role, we often criticize them for exhibiting the very self-absorbed, dangerous, costly behavior that we expect from male Mavericks, the very behavior that, in male Mavericks, is so often lauded as ‘independent.’

I’m a proud feminist, and I had an extremely uncomfortable moment when I realized I was holding Chase to a higher moral standard than I ever had James Bond, John McClane, or Martin Riggs. Breaking Sky may not break any new ground literarily, but it made me consider my own hidden assumptions and deep-seated sexism.”

BOOM. That there is the power of the UGN. To re-think the established order and gender expectations. Don’t knock it. Just know that it often comes with scathing reviews (re-read the first sentence of this article). But as my favorite writer, Amy Rose Capetta, just told me, “One of the prime things literature does is push at people’s boundaries. That’s going to cause some discomfort, but that discomfort is important.”

The term “unlikeable girl” is bound to get some people’s backs up for great reason. It’s sexist. It’s ridiculous. It’s infuriating. But if we’re paving new ground for character tropes, this is one that I’m going to embrace and never apologize for. And I’ll end with one more quote:

“I really liked your book,” my brother said. “But I hated Chase.”

“Thanks,” I said. “And don’t worry. She doesn’t care if you like her. That’s not her story.”


*Yeah, I know. You use “unlikable” instead of “unlikeable”. I get in a lot of trouble for using British spellings from my copyeditor, but I’m not going to change. Also, I’m using narrator and protagonist fairly interchangeably here, which isn’t exact, but again, I’m the boss. :-)

**Thank you to Tirzah Price and Amy Rose Capetta for helping me nail down this list of delightful give-no-fucks ladies! If you’d like to add a lady that I missed, please leave her name in the comments!

***I knew a boy in college who professed to care about nothing so profusely that he ended up caring deeply about the fact that people knew him as such. See? It’s impossible. Everyone cares.

**** You can read the rest of the well-written article here, but I’ll warn you; she hated Breaking Sky. She did like The Color of Rain though! Huzzah!


CoriCori McCarthy is the author of The Color of Rain, Breaking Sky, and You Were Here. She’s also an editor with Yellow Bird Editors. You can reach her on Twitter @CoriMcCarthy or check out her website CoriMcCarthy.com



The Writer, The Reader, and Mirror Neurons


Imagine that you are hiking and you trip on a slick section of the trail, Cactus detail and a cactus spine pierces your palm—the sharp, focused pain spreads through the muscle and nerves, and the end catches inside your skin as you work to remove it.

Sometimes when one of my kids has had a shot, I flinch and the skin in my upper arm tingles, even though I’m not the one getting the shot.

Why and how do we have physical and emotional responses to what we see and what we read?

The answer may be mirror neurons.

Current theory states that the mirror neurons in our brain mirrors the actions, goals, intentions, thoughts, and emotions of another person’s actions, etc.

Our neurons fire in the same location in our brain when we move and when we observe the same movement by someone else. (Note: additional research shows that we do distinguish the difference between our own action versus someone else’s action.)  Neuroscientist, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, found that the brain shows the same activity with observing an action or reading words describing an action.

Perhaps mirror neurons are how readers can feel as if they have literally entered the story. “The discovery of mirror neurons explains why we respond to fictional characters as real even though we know they are not. It explains our emotional responses to scary movies or action movies even though we know ‘it’s just a movie,'” said Normal N. Holland, PhD.

Vittorio Gallese, one of the discoverers of mirror neurons, suggested that theater events “are more powerful than real life events.” This may be because we can “fully simulate them.” In essence we mirror more effectively because we feel safe, therefore “our emotional involvement may be greater.” (The Mirror Neuron Mechanism and Literary Studies: Interview with Vittorio Gallese)

One could theorize that stories and literature create greater emotional impact if we fully can connect with readers and directly access their brains (mirror neurons).

So what does this research mean to a writer?

  • Our writing needs to be specific and sensory filled.
  • Characters need to be well rounded and believable.
  • The plot needs to be well crafted and correctly paced.
  • The setting needs to be realistically described.

Good writing means readers’ mirror neurons will fire up and they will physically and emotionally experience the story along with the character. As they read, they will experience an illusion of reality.

Sarah Blake Johnson

Fear, Creativity, and Courage…in Front of People


The first time I remember feeling a paralyzing, shameful kind of fear, was when I was twelve.  I had dreams and even bigger plans (as most twelve-year-olds do) to become famous. Well, if not famous, at least I wanted to be seen. I had my eye on an acting class at what I considered to be a prestigious community theater, but instruction was expensive. Really, really expensive. I begged, pleaded, and somehow managed to convince my parents to sign me up. I waited for the first day of class with bated breath. I imagined all of the wonderful things that would follow once I stepped foot on stage.  As I sat in cushy theater seats and waited for class to begin, I practically closed my eyes and wished for my fairy godmother to make me special.theater-seats

But what unfolded was not at all what I had imagined. An hour later I huddled in the back of our family car in tears, begging my dad to never make me return. I couldn’t bear to tell him what had happened. It was too awful. Too embarrassing. Too…revealing. In one hour I had learned this: I had nothing important to say. How could this happen in a short sixty minutes? I’ll give you a hint: improv. The class was working on improvisation, which essentially means, “winging it.” We were supposed to get on stage (in front of people!) and act out whatever the instructor desired, with other students I had never laid eyes on, or let alone had spoken to (in front of people!). In my whole “become famous” plan I had forgotten one small fact. If I wanted to act, I must get up and act (in front of people!). Almost famous

I wouldn’t call myself a shy kid. But at age twelve, I had already cultivated a healthy fear of looking stupid. I watched the other students get up on stage and easily make the audience laugh. They were clever. They were funny. And they were smart. In my twelve-year-old eyes, I was absolutely none of these things. When my turn came, I blurted out some sort of incoherent sentence and then bolted behind the piano and waited for the torture to stop. Afterwards, I slunk to the darkest section of the cushy theater seats and cried. It turned out, I wasn’t special at all. I had nothing to contribute. Fear had got a hold of who I thought I was. My dad, bless his fatherly heart, didn’t make me go back.

FearNow, thinking about it, I wonder what could have happened if I had faced my fear and tried again? As I got older I pushed back at fear in other ways….learning new skills, public speaking, writing, but I never ventured out onto the acting stage again. Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art, “Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do.” It is in our human nature to face our fears. He goes on to say, “Mental toughness is a skill and like any skill it can be developed. Learning how to overcome fear is just like building a new habit.” Humans want control. Humans want to conquer and that includes taming ourselves. Some of us have had more practice at facing our fears than others. But I love what Pressfield says. Overcoming fear is creating a new habit; a habit of courage.

A few months ago I had the chance to rewrite my only “acting class” story. My eight-year-old daughters’ theater school sent out an email inviting parents to attend an open acting class reserved for adults. Even as I read the email my heart rate increased. For a moment I thought, just delete it. No one will ever know that you saw it. But, I couldn’t. The twelve-year-old in me whispered, “Come on. You can do it.”courage

Seth Godin says we need to practice overcoming our fears, even in inconsequential ways. He says, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people…?” This acting prospect seemed to fulfill the above requirements. I was determined to put my dramatic and traumatic childhood improv story to rest. I emailed a small group of friends and said, “Look at this opportunity! Doesn’t it sound fun?” I hoped they couldn’t sense my fear in the email. Luckily, I have very courageous friends. We went to acting class. And lo and behold, it was an improv class. We had to act stupid, and silly, and make people laugh…and we did it all (in front of people!). Let me add, it helped enormously to have friends who were by my side.

I'm clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’m clearly super excited to face my fear.

I’ve learned that fear and creativity are forever linked. What makes you afraid in your creative life is something that you must face and conquer in your real life. Years ago, the thought of writing a novel made me want to vomit. I hardly whispered it aloud. But that fear underscored what I had to accomplish. The more we practice facing our fears the braver we become. Surround yourself with people who inspire you and demand that you face your creative goals with zeal. And when you can’t muster zeal, surround yourself with people who have compassion but also tenacity. It is brave to live our creative life out loud. There is courage in choosing creativity, but we must surround ourselves with only the most honest, and bravest of innovative allies who help us, succeed or fail, in front of people.

(Additional sources: http://jamesclear.com/overcome-fear)


Jen White has a degree in English teaching and also earned her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing for children and young adults. SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE is her debut novel and was born from the real experience of Jen being accidentally forgotten at a gas station with her younger sister and cousin.  Jen currently tries not to boss around her five children and husband in San Clemente, California.