How to Finish a Novel

       I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.

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Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

imagesStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.”  Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.Unknown-2

While writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before.  But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Just a few of my many craft books

Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses?   As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

Inspiration...So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!

 

 

 

 

Choices

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. 

-Eleanor Roosevelt

You write your life story by the choices you make. You never know if they have been a mistake. Those moments of decision are so difficult. 

-Helen Mirren

Dear Writers,

It’s time for me to say goodbye to posting on Through the Tollbooth. I’ve learned so much preparing posts for this amazing blog, but now that I write my own newsletter, it is time to make room on this site for other voices.

Like everybody else, I’m also really busy. I am always trying to create balance in my writing life and my real life! I need to give myself time to play—to experiment and explore writing—to write without expectations so that  later, I can revise with intention. I’ve also been teaching a lot. And this month I’ve been reading submissions for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. This has been an extraordinary honor. My first job is the hardest: to choose a writer to work with.

This week, I’ve been thinking almost about nothing else. This month, I read and thought about 36 submissions. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

This process has taught me about reading. Or maybe I should say: reading like an editor. Or maybe: what an editor must do on a regular basis. Or maybe the problem is I am wishy washy!! Every day, when I look at the manuscripts, I think of Laura and I wish I knew her. I feel her enthusiasm and heart every time I sit down to read. I feel the weight of the responsibility.

I did not totally expect this.

I am used to reading manuscripts and stories of writers who I’m already working with. I open the document and I read–the first time like a reader. Then like a writer. That hasn’t changed. After reading all 36 submissions, I see so much potential. So many interesting characters. So many stories I would LOVE to work on.

I thought the perfect story would jump out at me.

The problem is: it has. All 36 times.

So what have I learned? What can I say about this process that might give you some insight as you start to submit?

  1. The first line is so important. I cannot say that enough. The first line tells me so much about the writer and the story. It tells me if the writer is fearless or if she is still dipping her toe. If she knows her character or if she is still unsure. The first line prepares me for the POV. The genre. The tone of the story. Time. Space.

This is true for every chapter’s first line. And every chapter’s last line, too.

Great first and last lines tell me that the writer has thought about pacing. It tells me that the writer knows where her story is going. It makes me want to read the whole thing.

**One of the BEST TIPS I ever received was from writer, Barbara O’Connor. She makes a list of all the first and last lines in her draft. It’s a GREAT way to analyze your pacing and see if you are managing your storytelling in parts that make sense. 

  1. CHARACTER. CHARACTER. CHARACTER.

It is all about the characters!

The stories I can’t forget–that I’m grappling with–have interesting plots. But that’s because they already have distinct characters. Some are funny. Some are miserable. All are interesting. ALL YEARN FOR SOMETHING. There is some action early. Even if it comes too early, it is there.

  1. It’s about me, too. This is the hardest part for me to admit. The story has to appeal to me. The writing has to appeal to me. The writer’s topics must be interesting to me. I’m reading and wondering: who can I help the most? Will this story be fun to read five or six or ten times? (Sometimes a no really means no, not for me, but yes for someone else!)
  1. There can only be one. Oh, man. I hate saying no. I wake up thinking of ways I could say yes to at least six or seven or maybe all 36. I could start a class. Or a new workshop. I think about the story that will ultimately come in second and already, I feel awful!!! And I remember what that feels like–to come in second. And I think: how can I make this writer understand that her story has great, strong, amazing legs? And then I wonder if I’m making the wrong choice. I read the above quotes. Argh! I walk around the room second-guessing myself. I debate calling the organizers and asking if I can take two. Or three. Or four.

I remember when I was a young mother, I would take my kids into NYC for the day and tell them they could “beg” for one thing. (I really couldn’t say no to them either!!!) Most of the time, this worked. They waited until they saw something (a thing or an activity) they really wanted to do, and then the begging and giggling would commence. But a lot of the time, it meant, they never begged for anything. They held it in, waiting for something else to come along. Just in case. It gave me the opportunity to say no without saying no. It also gave me opportunities to surprise them with gifts and treats and celebration.

I also remember needing a “magic hat” to help me choose the advisors I wanted to work with during a semester at VCFA. My friends and I would write down all the names of the teachers we were considering. And then we would pull out names, one at a time. This was a sort of gut check. For me, if I felt great, I added the teacher to my list. It also relieved a lot of stress.

vermeer hat(Nice hat!)

Choices are hard. Making them is also essential–especially in the context of story. 

All our characters face choices. Really, those choices and actions are what keep the plot moving. They make our characters interesting. These moments are “show” moments. They change the vector of the protagonist’s journey. These are the moments that catch readers’ eyes and hook them. These are the moments that make our readers say YES.

Remember: Often, the plot starts turning when our characters do the wrong thing, even if they think it is right at the time.

Today, go to that first big choice in your WIP. Look at what your character does. Ask: could you make more conflict if your character did something else? Not sure? Ask yourself: who is this character? What does he/she want? What has happened in the past to get her/him to this moment? What are her controlling beliefs?

Does that first decision represent who your character is, including her/his flaws? Or are you being easy on your character. Or protecting her/him? OR are you expecting other characters to make the conflict happen? These moments make the difference between good and great stories and characters!

This post is also about the power of working together. About our writing community. About supporting each other. (An easy choice.)

This week, as I thought about how I wanted to say goodbye to The Tollbooth, I remembered a series of posts I did right at the beginning of this blog. They featured interviews with aspiring writers. Back then, we called the prepublished writers.

I have always hated that term.

Why? Because it means that becoming a “real writer” can only happen with a contract. It means our identities are tied to events we cannot control.

So this is what I say:

We are writers if we sit down and put words on paper. We are writers because we are committed to the craft. We should not wait for contracts to validate who we are and what we do and the power of story!

We are writers. Because we write. 

So back to those interviews. One of those writers was Elly Swartz.  She offered this advice:

Generally, my advice is to believe in yourself, stay dedicated to the story, and write, write, write! 

and

Don’t write for the market, write for yourself, the market will come. Eventually.

In the interview, she talked about a new manuscript. She talked about the need to have hope. And determination. She didn’t know when or if she would sell her book, but she believed in her story. When we had that chat, so long ago, we had just met. I hadn’t yet read her story about Molly. But now I have. And so will you. Finding Perfect is coming out October 18, 2016. It is a beautiful book. It is full of heart. It will make you laugh. And cry. It will change how you see kids who face internal obstacles that, at first, we do not see.

So…..now as I finish making my decision for the mentorship, I’m feeling a bit frustrated–I still want to work with them all–but I’m also feeling a bit sappy and grateful. I’m thinking a lot about all the writers I’ve worked with–in critique groups…at VCFA…at the VCFA Writing for Young People Retreat, in my writers.com classes and at Highlights. It’s such great work. Such great people. So many stories waiting to be shared.

The message I’d like to leave you with is this:

Work hard. Be true. Care deeply. Do not give up. Keep writing. Face your fears. Play, play, play, play, play. DO NOT GIVE UP!!! 

All of us have a story. Be a writer. Sit down and write it.

xo sarah

To sign up for Sarah Aronson’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, www.saraharonson.com. Look under tips. It’s there. All the way at the bottom!

 

 

Measuring Success: Renewed Adolescent Insecurities Brought on by an Impending High School Reunion and a Writing Career

My fortieth high school reunion is looming. I’ve been debating whether or not to go. On the one hand, it’s been forty years (which seems impossible to me) and I am curious. On the other hand, I hated high school. I could not wait to leave. I think the movie PeggySue Got Married is a horror film on par with The Shining. I cannot imagine anything worse than waking up and finding myself back in high school. I cannot blame my classmates for this loathing. I was not bullied, I had friends–good friends. I even had a boyfriend. I was an athlete. I wrote for the literary magazine. I was the school mascot  (but that was because I didn’t make the cheerleading squad and as a senior that was the consolation prize). My sense was that I never felt as if I fit. I was always on the outside, despite my friends and activities, trying to fit in. Trying to measure up. Trying to be better. I can’t firmly put my finger on why I hated high school, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that my father went to his first AA meeting on my seventeenth birthday. (In case you wondered why I write YA.)

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In the forty years since graduation, I have, thankfully, learned not to care if I fit in. Fitting in does not matter. Being myself, doing my best, and appreciating every single day and everyone in my life is what matters.

Over the years, I have lost touch with most of my high school friends, though I am Facebook friends with a few. They are not a real part of my life. I keep in touch, personal, regular touch with two people. Two. That’s fine. I like that.

So as my reunion approaches, I debate why am I even considering going? I see the list of classmates who are attending, and, honestly, I don’t remember who they are. And I am not even interested enough to pull out the yearbook and look them up. Chances are, the majority of my classmates don’t remember me, either. It’s been forty years! If we’d wanted to keep in touch, we would have. So, again, why am I even considering going?

Let’s face it, the purpose of reunions is to show off. Success. Rubbing it in the face of all those former classmates, Hey, look at me! I am successful!

But then I wonder, am I? And then, it’s like I am PeggySue and I am once again in high school, wondering if I’ll fit in.

On a personal level, I have a great life. I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but I have been happily married for nearly thirty four years. Both my husband and I are happy and healthy. I have two post graduate degrees from highly regarded institutions. I have two grown children who have successfully launched and are happy and healthy and are starting families of their own. I do not need affirmation from near strangers to acknowledge these successes.

Then there is my career. And this is where I falter. I’ve had a few careers, from the field of highway safety, to a long-term medical research study, to stay-at-home-mom. Now, writing is my career.

How do I measure success in my writing career? Am I successful because I have two published books? Yes. But no, because I have only two published books. Why don’t I have more? Am I successful because my books have received critical acclaim? Yes. But no, because the second one didn’t get any stars, and it really deserved at least one, from someone.  4stars1

Am I successful because both books have received awards? Yes. But no, because they’re not ALA awards.

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Do you see where I’m going? I am still struggling to measure up, to do better. Will I ever consider myself successful in my writing career? I have to remind myself, daily, that there are no guarantees in life. The one book was the cupcake and the second is icing. A third will put me over the moon. This is a tough career I’ve chosen. It is not for the faint of heart or thin skin. Isn’t it enough that I write? That I make it my job? I do the work. I learn the craft. I study. I read. I write. I am working at something I LOVE not only because I get to do it in my pajamas, but because it feeds my soul.

All of this reminds me of a lecture given by Amanda Jenkins at VCFA in January 2013 entitled “Publication Pressure: The Elephant in Brigadoon.” One of the things Amanda reminds us all to do is keep our eyes on our own paper. It doesn’t matter how many books we have in comparison to our friends. It doesn’t matter that we have fewer stars than someone we know, or that our awards are “lesser” than someone else’s. What matters is that we are writing. WRITING.

I refuse to return to my seventeen year old self. I refuse to believe that I’m not fitting in or am not good enough. I will keep my eyes on my own paper. I will stop belittling the success I have had. I will stop worrying about success all together and focus on writing, writing, writing.

And I think I’ll go to my high school reunion when I know there’ll be a portal, so I can go back and tell my seventeen year old self in that moldering, oversized panther costume, that our life turns out to be pretty friggin’ amazing.

SUMMERING

As someone whose life has always been governed by school schedules – first as a student and then an employee – summer is a big deal. It has its own sense of time and space. Life is a different in the summer months. When I was a child, my father spent each summer doing research. So, on the first day of our vacation from school, we packed up our car and headed to a remote lake in Maine. He’d work, and we’d spend three months swimming, exploring the woods, making things, alternating between getting bored and being thrilled and amazed.

This past school year has been particularly hectic and busy – I’ve been looking forward to summer vacation since about October. And wrapped up in that eager expectation, is my desire to have more time to write.

Now that I am in the final countdown for summer break (5 more days!); I’m starting to worry about the exact thing I’ve been anticipating: More time to write.

amazinghappyMy two projects are A) finish a novel and/or B) revise a novel

More and more, I’ve been feeling like I don’t know how to do either one.

But then, last weekend, at my daughter’s college graduation ceremony (yay!), the commencement speaker gave some brilliant bits of advice to the celebratory crowd.

I’m hanging tight to one particular pearl of wisdom: STAY IGNORANT: Expertise and creativity make poor roommates. 

When you have your MFA, and have a book published, and spend a lot of time teaching writing; it’s easy to feel like you know how to write. Or, that you should know how to write.

Fact is, I don’t know how to write and/or revise these novels. Not yet. But… apparently, we’re more creative when we’re lost and confused. Reassuring, right?

junkmanSo, instead of the big grandiose plans of strict daily word counts and milestone achievements to get me through the summer, I’m planning my summer playtime and explorations. I’m going back to my days of running wild outside combined with lazing about on the floor, reading and doodling. Going exploring. Trying to find more creativity and less expertise.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

A FEW IDEAS FOR CREATIVE PLAY

  • Walk somewhere new and/or at a different time. Evenings walks on the beach are completely different from those at noon.
  • eyeballSit. Force yourself to stay in one spot for longer than you want, longer than you are comfortable. Somewhere picturesque and quiet: in the woods, by a water, on a bench in an art museum. Or not: by a dumpster, on a busy street corner, in a barren lot. Be aware of all your senses. But stay still. You might even squirm.
  • Visit a museum.
  • Wander through a fabric store. Soak up the different colors, patterns, textures.
  • Collect. Rocks, seashells, pine cones, toys, anything.
  • Make something. Try using craft supplies from your childhood: paste and tape and scissors and paint.
  • youareniceKeep a doodle journal. I’m looking forward to exploring some of the exercises outlined in SYLLABUS by Lynda Barry.
  • Eat alone at a restaurant. You can even talk to yourself if you like.
  • Challenge yourself physically. Climb a mountain, swim laps, dig a hole. Get tired.
  • Listen. To music, is one possibility. Or try something new: listen to a favorite movie without seeing the pictures. Blindfold yourself and listen to your neighborhood. It’s okay if you fall asleep. Sleep is part of creativity as well!

What your favorite ways to boost creativity?

~Sarah Tomp

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Keeping Your Character in Character: 6 Tips

What the...?

What the…?

You’re reading along and a character makes a comment that jerks you out of the scene, because what they say or think doesn’t mesh with who they are.

Such as— poor, backwoods boy describes a girl wearing a “vintage sleeveless red gingham blouse with black, high waisted denim shorts and vintage cowboy boots.”

Since many, if not most,  guys are oblivious to the details of women’s clothing, and are more interested in what an outfit does or doesn’t reveal, this might make a reader wonder who is this guy.

He said she was taking him to buy school clothes because he has no idea what to wear, but now he sounds like a closet fashionista.

The point is small things can trip up writers trying to create realistic, flesh and blood characters. It’s especially true in first or limited third person where everything that’s said or observed comes from a character’s POV.

So how do we keep our characters in character? Here are six simple tips.

  1. Keep in mind what a character knows or doesn’t know. If the character has never left a poor village, they shouldn’t compare the forest to a cathedral.
  2. Define your character by personal strengths, interests and experiences. They might not be race car drivers or play in a band, but they might follow sports or music and have an encyclopedic knowledge that colors how they talk or the metaphors they use.
  3. If your character wouldn’t normally notice something (like fashion details), give that job to another character who would.
  4. Double-check that the character’s dialogue is consistent whether it’s sophisticated, naive or run of the mill. The Frenchman who speaks almost fluent English shouldn’t ask, “How do you say,” then throw out a common word or phrase.
  5. Let your character’s speech grow or devolve as they do. Characters can become more sophisticated and aware on their journey which means they earn the right to use words or phrases they wouldn’t have before. Or they might fall apart and lose their articulateness.
  6. If something a character says is inexplicably out of character, give the reader a reason. They are a fan of ______. Their mom forced them to do years of __________ lessons. Anticipate what could throw your reader and address it.

Now, back to keeping my characters in character.

Catherine Linka is the author of the series, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. Find more on writing at www.catherinelinka.com.

Your Brain on Story: A Survival Tale

Your Brain on Story: A Survival Tale
by Linden McNeilly

Why do we tell stories? Read them? Watch movies, or play video games with storylines embedded? Why do we gossip or read celebrity news?
The love of story. Or, according to some brain experts, the need for story.
It turns out that stories help us survive.
I’m reading a fantastic writer’s guide called Wired For Story (Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2012) about how the brain evolved to include a reward—in the form of dopamine—for satisfying stories. You know the cozy feeling you get when you’ve finished a wonderful book? That’s dopamine flooding your system. It’s no accident that picture books, which are short and pleasurable to the brain on a chemical level, are so often used to help put children to sleep.
But why are stories such a big part of the human experience? Some neuroscientists believe it’s because stories have been so useful in survival. Through stories, humans can learn from experiences they themselves did not have, passing on life-saving tips through verbal exchange instead of relying on instinct or direct experience. That plant is poisonous. When you hear a roar, run.
But writers take note. For a story to grab us—both as survivors and modern readers today—there must be something happening that matters, and we must be able to Cron_Wired-for-Storyanticipate consequences. Dopamine fuels the reader’s curiosity and anticipation, urging us onward, just as early human listeners must have been in thrall as a story teller related the saga of a saber cat’s attack. Stories with consequences that cannot, in part at least, be predicted are surprisingly less engaging for a reader than those that are. Just as a hiker may not wish to climb a path with no hope of a view, readers need a sense—even if they are incorrect in the end—of what could happen. This is similar to the idea of “stakes” in that readers need to know the price if the character doesn’t achieve his or her goal. But it’s more. Readers must be guided to imagine possible outcomes. Surprise endings (or middles, for that matter) are less satisfying than those a reader has the chance to anticipate or dread.
Wired For Story is a great resource for writers who want to know the brain-based ways to develop stories that engage and delight readers.

http://www.lindenmcneilly.com

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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|
noun
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?

A LIST OF LISTS

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. 

LISTS ADD (IN LIST FORM, OF COURSE):

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

A LIST OF A FEW BOOKS THAT USE LISTS EFFECTIVELY:

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?