No Pain, No Gain: Are You Making Your Characters Suffer?

Think about all the things you don’t like in real life. Sharks. Spiders. Earthquakes. Bullies. Public speaking. Chances are, if you expose your characters to what you fear, your fiction will flourish because of it. Writers can’t afford to be nice. We’ve got to throw rocks at our characters, as Nabokov famously said. Get them into terrible trouble and hold them there, feet to the fire, until the very end of the story.

Why? Because witnessing other people’s pain and observing how they deal with it keeps readers turning pages. Hopefully, it teaches us something too.

I don’t mean that we should create unrelenting misery; our characters need to experience both ups and downs. I’m no masochist, but since it’s January, I thought the topic of pain was appropriate. For many, this is a month of deprivation and dieting after the holiday excesses. Or a time to force ourselves (again) to start working out at the gym. Just attempting to carry out our new year’s resolutions—and the guilt we feel if we don’t—can cause angst.

Given that this past year has been a challenging one for my family, it helps me to remember that hardship can actually benefit us in the long run. Light can’t exist without darkness. We must experience sorrow to truly feel joy.  So in fiction, a dearth of pain can be a problem. When tension fades, so does reader interest. One of my students has a tendency to protect her protagonists, just as she’d do for the people she loves in real life.  Her instinct is to keep them happy and safe from harm. Boring. “Stop mothering your main characters,” I tell her, but she still finds it hard to hurt them. She’s not the only writer who struggles with this.

It may be helpful to think of it in exercise terms. Physical pain, the kind we feel when we push ourselves playing sports or working out, is a necessary part of getting stronger. Athletes can’t get to the next level without it. Tearing microscopic muscle fibers helps the fibers rebuild more densely into bigger muscles—scientific evidence that discomfort can be beneficial (as long as we don’t overdo it).  I’ve always found it ironic, of course, that in order to flood my system with those bliss-producing endorphins, I have to embrace pain first. But every time, the aches and agony lead me to the ecstasy.

Emotional pain can strengthen us in the same way. Writer Jeanne Weierheiser calls “embracing pain the gateway to growth.” How can you not gift your characters this kind of opportunity? I’m exploring what it means to be a hero in the book I’m writing.  To do this, I’m forcing my characters to make mistakes and endure some really bad things. That’s because their journey to transformation is not based on success. Winning isn’t always the best teacher. Setbacks are what make us stronger. Think about your own experiences. Isn’t positive change more likely to occur after periods of heartache and despair? In the end, my protagonist comes to see that she’s learned more from her missteps than her triumphs. It’s through struggle that she discovers who she is.

The hazards writers create don’t have to be huge and life-threatening. But there should be plenty of small stuff for characters to sweat. Even minor pain can cause emotional upheaval and growth. Things like—

  • Change. This is something people tend to be wary of. As Sol Stein writes in Stein on Writing, “Changes in life are fraught with peril. If the perils of major change happen within the covers of a book, the reader will be absorbed.”
  • Surprises. There are good and bad surprises. Bad ones in life bring “hurt, sadness, misfortune,” says Stein. “But in books readers thrill to the unexpected. A new obstacle, an unexpected confrontation by an enemy, or a sudden twist of circumstance all start adrenaline pumping and pages turning.”
  • Embarrassment. Even in humorous fiction, characters should experience some suffering. Embarrassing situations are a perfect vehicle for this, and they will almost always create interesting plot developments.

Failure is also a reliable source of pain. Most of us have experienced some incidents of failure in real life. When I think of all my unfinished stories and abandoned novels, for instance, I tend to start feeling bad… And yet, my advisors at VCFA taught me that nothing is wasted, every word we write (good or bad) prepares us for what comes next. So, I try to remember that perfection is the enemy of progress, and that Jane Fonda was right when she brought the phrase, “No pain, no gain,” into prominence to promote her exercise videos.

A protagonist in pain can help us answer the following key story questions: Does this person have a goal? What is the purpose of this scene? If your character isn’t suffering, trying to keep from suffering, or trying to make someone else suffer, scenes can start to drag. In fiction, too much happiness can become humdrum.

So, embrace the pain when it comes knocking at your door. Learn from your fiascos and flops. And do something nice for your characters—inflict some misery on them. One day, they’ll thank you for it.

 

 

Research That Rocks

What would a mountain lion do with human remains? Is it possible to murder someone with a proton beam? How fast can a knife wound across the chest bleed out? If your phone’s been hacked and someone’s spying on you, how would you know?

unknown-3These are just a few of the miscellaneous topics that writer colleagues and I have been researching. Interesting subject matter, yes, but time-consuming work to sift through the ocean of material out there to find the best answers. Which is why I’m trying to sharpen my search engine skills and get up to speed on things like cold calling experts. If you’ve ever wondered where to find information for your book, check out these tips from authors who’ve mastered the art of research. Effective techniques can boost writer productivity, add to story authenticity, and inspire the kind of arresting details that are, as John Gardner said, “the lifeblood of fiction.”

Research 101: Where does a writer begin?

Most writers begin with online research, because it’s convenient, free, and available 24/7. Sheryl Scarborough, whose YA mystery/thriller series debuts in February with the title, To Catch a Thief, uses the Internet to find “high quality, professional descriptions, images and videos for the settings and situations I’m writing about.” This includes everything from high school forensic classes to information on lifting and comparing fingerprints. The challenge is sorting through the surplus of data, so finding reliable websites is key. Here are five that Sheryl recommends:

unknown-2

  • YouTube – If you want to learn how to do something, check YouTube. Most people don’t know that it’s actually the second largest online search engine, Google being the first. On YouTube, you can watch babies being born, surgery on almost everything, plumbing, dry wall installation, toy making, lock picking and cow milking. Seriously, there’s almost nothing you can’t find on the site.
  • Google Maps– You can customize a map to a particular area, put pins in multiple locations, compute distances, AND you can look at an actual corner or front of a building on Google Street View.
  • Zillow—This online real estate database is a great tool for writers who want to describe houses and neighborhoods in actual locations.
  • eBay—It’s not just for shopping. If you’re looking for the real McCoy, use it to browse for pictures of things from the past.
  • Central Intelligence Agency— https://www.cia.gov/library/publications. According to Sheryl, it’s a great tool for learning about a foreign country!

 Don’t forget about librarians; they are a tremendous resource.  “If you’ve got a good librarian,” Sheryl says, “you’ve struck GOLD!” 51vfdcq7jml-_sy412_bo1204203200_

It was research librarians who helped Meg Wiviott, author of the picture book, Benno and the Night of Broken Glass, and the YA novel, Paper Hearts, with one of her greatest challenges—finding a German map from 1938 that could provide her with the name of a street in Berlin in the vicinity of the Neue Synagogue. This was “not something that could be googled,” Meg explains, “because Berlin was heavily bombed and damaged at the end of [WWII] and modern day streets might not have existed back in [the year the story was set].”

Keith Raffel, best-selling author of five adult thrillers, says he does a lot of his research in libraries. In fact, he’s even traveled across the country to work at specialty libraries.

cover_temple_mount_medcover_fine_dangerous_season_med_02For his fourth book, A Fine and Dangerous Season, Raffel spent time at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, where he “used a bunch of memoirs, a book of transcripts from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and a book showing what the White House looked like in the Kennedy years.” He also travels to foreign cities to do research first-hand as well.

In addition to working with libraries, Meg contacts universities, museums and historical societies to research her historical fiction. The artifact at the heart of Paper Hearts, for example, is held in permanent collection by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. After traveling to Montreal to see the heart and talk to filmmakers, Meg “read broadly on the Holocaust, the Final Solution, and the Nazi death camps,” before narrowing her focus “to Auschwitz, the work kommandos, the companies who contracted with the Nazis to use prisoners as slave laborers, and survivor stories…” Finally she interviewed the surviving daughter of her novel’s real life main character.

unknown-1 Her only problem was knowing when to stop. “Research,” Meg says, “is an addictive pit I can easily fall into.”

 How can a writer find the sources she needs? Are there interviewing do’s and don’ts?

Most of the books I’ve worked on have required some form of outside research. As a result, I’m always looking for professionals to interview. I’ve talked with surgeons, EMTs, firemen, plumbers, electricians, pharmacists, trainers, venture capitalists, hackers and cyber security sleuths for my writing projects. While there’s no one right way to find an expert, it’s a good idea to cast a wide net, because you never know who’s going to deliver.

Post what you’re looking for on Facebook.  “I needed a very specific genetic marker for To Catch a Killer,” Sheryl explains. “I didn’t even know if [what I wanted] was possible, but if I could find it, it would completely tie my story together. I put up a request on Facebook for a referral to a geneticist and within a short period of time, I heard from a VCFA friend with the name of her friend who was a student studying genetics AND she gave me the perfect [genetic] anomaly. It was amazing.”

Approach people with confidence. After all, you are a professional too. “You can just walk into a police station and ask to talk to someone on staff,” Keith explains. He did this while writing his first book, and immediately they “sent someone out who explained how the department was organized, where they hold prisoners, etc.” When Keith needed help on what a mountain lion would do with human remains, he cold-called “a state expert in Sacramento who, while initially skeptical, was in the end terrifically helpful.” And when he needed help figuring out how to commit murder with a proton beam, he “finagled an introduction to a Stanford physics professor who’d worked at SLAC back in the 60s,” and emailed the professor questions about how that might work.

Fortunately, people tend to get genuinely excited and want to be helpful when you tell them you’re writing a book. You can interview people by email, by phone or in-person—but research your topic beforehand so you’ll sound intelligent and prepared when you talk.

Writer research can require a thick skin and sometimes a sense of humor. I’ll never forget the strange looks an electrician and his crew gave me when I plied them with questions about death by electrocution. Or the day I was online researching hidden cameras, and a chat window popped up with a smarmy salesman who began detailing the different ways I could watch other people in secret. It was creepy, but I stuck with it and got some helpful information. (Of course, you may want to delete the digital cookies that some of these sites leave on your browser. You never know what kinds of ads may start popping up!)

How should a writer thank her sources? Is payment ever required?

Payment is usually not necessary. The best way to thank people is to mention them in the Acknowledgments Page and send them signed copies of your book.  “Of course, when I met people for a meal or drinks, I picked up the check,” Keith adds. “I always followed up with a thank you email or note… asked them how they wanted to be acknowledged… invited them to the publication party and called them out there if they came.”

Realize and accept that most of what you learn will never make it into your story. But in the process, you may discover the subject for your next book!

unknown

 

 

EAT, PRAY…SCHOOL VISITS!

When my book first came out in June 2015 I knew I wanted to do school visits.  The only problem was, I had no idea how.  To be honest, I was a little scared of the idea.  On paper, it sounded great.  In real time, it sounded like a panic attack–me in an auditorium with 300 elementary school students?  The prospect sounded daunting.

Soon I received my first invite from a friend who taught 6th grade to come and do presentations for his students (four classes in total, around 120 kids).  Now I had a deadline and I had to deliver.  I needed to create content, craft a presentation, and make sure that I could speak in front of a crowd. I immediately scoured the internet to see what information could be found on school visits.  I don’t know if you know this, but there is very little on the internet regarding school visits for children’s authors.  I was surprised, and then worried, because I needed help, and fast.

Here are a few things I learned in my “Year of School Visits”.

IMG_2441

Jen and Bookseller, Alexandra Uhl—The Whale of a Tale Bookshoppe

Ask for Advice from a Seasoned School Presenter: After my internet search fail, I reached out to talented author, presenter, and friend, Julie Berry.  (Hi, Julie!)  She is amazing.  For the price of a delicious bowl of ramen she walked me through her awesome presentation, told me how to talk to schools about author and administration expectations, and opportunities for book sales.  Julie was a gem and helped me see in a very real fashion the logistics of creating a great school visit that would be beneficial to me, the students, and to the school.  From her example I was able to tailor a presentation fit to my needs.  At the end of our chat, she also gave me a great bit of advice: Do as many school visits as possible in my first year to gain experience.  So that is what I did.  I presented to whole schools, small classrooms, book fairs, book expos, book clubs, writing groups, elementary schools, middle schools, and to teachers.  It has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

(Best advice, Julie!  Thank you again.)

Julie Berry

Jen and Julie Berry

Look-Act-Be Professional: Of course as authors, we want to look the part and like we know what we’re talking about.  So shower, wear clean clothes, perform basic hygiene, and don’t forget to smile.  Looking professional seems pretty straightforward. But something I hadn’t really thought of was if my presentation looked professional.  In my case, I created a PowerPoint presentation, with various pictures and videos, along with written content. Think of yourself as a logo or trademark.  What do you want to convey?  What kinds of books do you write?  What images or ideas do you gravitate towards?  Whatever it is, make it visual and place it throughout your PowerPoint so it looks cohesive.  In my opinion, a well-placed theme makes you, as the author, more professional.  Another important point is to create a document that outlines what you present and for how long, so the school can get an idea of what to expect.  You want to inspire the students, but that won’t happen until you get past the gate keepers (teachers and school administrators) and show the school how valuable you can be as an inspiration and a teaching tool.

IMG_4852

Lone Peak Elementary

Think Like a Kid: As authors for children and young adults, this probably isn’t very hard. But it goes without saying, that whatever your younger self would find interesting, would now interest your younger audience.  In my case, I wanted to show videos of various animals in their natural habitats and talk with my listeners about how to survive. (After all, my book is SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE.)  The videos were a huge hit and a favorite of both teachers and students.  I loved talking with the students about survival strategies, Darwin, how humans have their own survival skills.  I also talked about the writing process, creativity, reading, my book, and my journey as an author.  Which brings me to my next thought….  think like a kid

 

1985_The_Monticello_4Corners_Trip_DSC6944

Jen with her sisters when she was young. Grand Canyon.

Get Personal…But Not Too Much: Of course you want to tell the audience about yourself.  They are interested in you as an author— what you were like as a kid, what books you liked then, what you like now, and maybe an embarrassing author photo or two, but don’t make the mistake of top loading your presentation with ME, ME, ME.   The students want to relate to you, but they also want to learn something about reading, writing, and your book.  If you’re too busy telling stories about yourself, you can’t convey the rest…which is really important, too.

 

IMG_4857

Indian Hills Middle School

Expect the Unexpected: In my “Year of School Visits” I learned that what can go wrong, probably will.  Sometimes you plan, prepare, check and double check, and things still go wrong.  All you can do in these circumstances is smile and work through it.   To help with any technology glitches, makes sure you carry whatever you need on an extra thumb drive.  Also, I always brought my own computer and ran my presentation through it.  This was helpful because the software I needed to run my presentation was already there.  One time the presentation on my computer wasn’t translating well into the school’s media and speakers, so I did the presentation without sound, but we rolled with it.  Be prepared for your media not to work.  What will you do then?  Do you need handouts?  An activity where the kids can get up and help you?  A game?  A writing prompt? Are you going to read from your book(s)?  I always suggest doing a short reading, it makes everyone in the room your instant fan.

 

Over Prepare: Sometimes you think you have your presentation planned out perfectly and then you end twenty minutes early.  Now what?  I always over prepare.  Before your visit ask the teachers to read a chapter of your book to the kids, or have your books on hand in the classroom and the library.  Kids and teachers who have read your work, are generally more excited to have you there.  Place your first chapter on your website so everyone has an opportunity to sample your work.  Also, plan extra content.  In my PowerPoint presentation I have extra quotes, writing activities, a game, and sections of my presentation that mostly go unused, unless, SURPRISE, I have more time than needed.  After presenting at a middle school and an elementary school, I now have two PowerPoint presentations:  one for elementary, and one for 7th, 8th, and 9th  You can tailor the same content for different ages.  You must have a bag of tricks to pull out when things don’t go as expected.  Consider it your SURVIVAL BAG.Felix

 

If You’re Not Having Fun, You’re Doing It Wrong: Have fun! If you don’t look like you’re having fun, the audience will feel it. Act like you’re speaking to some of your closest friends—they like you, you like them, and it is fun to be together.  A school visit should be the same kind of experience.  If you hate getting up in front of an audience, but love to talk about writing, maybe a smaller group is your best choice.  Figure out what works for you and then do that.

IMG_5571

Rancho Canada Elementary

 

IMG_3280

Vista Verde Elementary

I have to say, after I got over my initial nervousness, and built a great presentation with fab content, doing school visits is one of my most favorite things.  The kids are awesome!  How often can you interact with kids who have read your book, or who want to read your book, or who are just plain happy to see you?  I have made great friends– especially lovely librarians and booksellers who have, and still continue, to give me their best help and advice.  So get out there, people!  Share your genius.  School visits are a very good thing.

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.

Poetry Invites Prose by zu vincent

balloon jpeg
Last summer a friend and I began exchanging a poem a week. She’s a visual artist and I’m a writer, but neither of us consider ourselves poets. We just love poems and wanted to grow a few between us. At first, we used the works of established poets to plant the seeds, poems we liked that made us feel we had something of our own to say on the subject. But we soon found we didn’t need the prompt and began writing simply from the stuff of life. We wrote narrative poems, three line poems, silly poems, serious poems, poems that tackled the biggies such as joy, love and grief, and poems that seemed to bubble up from the unconscious with no warning at all. For me, the resulting harvest is rich with story ideas and language I might not have tilled any other way.

Poetry, as Newbery author Karen Hesse says, is addicting. “It’s like chocolate, once you start eating it you can’t stop” It’s also a great way to see more deeply into your prose, which is why poetry is at the heart of the VCFAWC residency this summer. For starters, each faculty lecture includes a poem or poetic reference. Visiting author Karen Hesse http://us.macmillan.com/author/karenhesse wowed folks with her twelve inch thick (at least!) binder of her poetry output for a year. And a faculty panel discussion featuring Tom Birdseye, Amanda Jenkins, Louise Hawes and Sharon Darrow dissected what poetry means to each of the panelists on a personal and professional level.


paracheute jpegWhile some of these distinguished writers don’t mind calling themselves poets, others shy away from the term. But they all read, respect and love poetry. That’s the beauty of what they had to say, which is that poetry is not scary or inaccessible or meant only for the erudite few. Poetry is for everyone. And poetic language is everywhere, as familiar as our heartbeat. From ads, to nursery rhymes, to popular songs, to prose lines to daily free poems on Writer’s Almanac.  http://writersalmanac.org/ And for writers, reading and practicing poetry can enhance your prose and narrative non-fiction in several ways.

 

Here are a few suggestions:

Try rewording your paragraphs sentence by sentence with an eye to word choice and poetic line breaks, this can be a revelation when it comes to cutting unnecessary words and phrases, and in general sharpens your voice.

Write a poem from each of your character’s points of view to help you discover motivation and voice.

colorful balloon jpegAnd as Louise Hawes suggests, write a poem for each scene or chapter of your novel as a way to uncover the main emotion you need to convey in that scene or chapter. When seen in poetic form, you can more easily note any gaps in your narrative arc, or missing elements from your beginning, middle or end. (Lou as she’s affectionately known, holds word play workshops she calls Play Shops around the globe).  http://www.louisehawes.com/bio.html

In his lecture on metaphor, VCFA faculty and author Mark Karlins notes that metaphor “can’t be translated.” Rather, you must intuit your way in. Because metaphor goes “deeper than thought, and is rooted in the human soul. That place where the inner self and the world merge.” That place is the stuff of poetry. Poetry distills. Poetry re-sees. Poetry provides a metaphorical lens that isn’t about thinking, but about intuiting. And it does this most often by capturing a moment that speaks to what is larger than that moment, and larger than ourselves. The world in a grain of sand.

Often these grains of sand can add up to larger works. You might find your next book in your poetry, as Karen Hesse did. Or that, like author Pam Houston (whom I spoke with last spring and whose process seems to me so like poetry writing that I wanted to mention her here), you are developing your own poetic form. Houston’s novel, Contents May Have Shifted, while not written in verse, is a series of short chapters that hover between genres and flash off the page in a form she calls “glimmer writing.” Glimmer writing, Houston explains, http://lehab.org/2015/04/09/pam-houston-glimmers/ is about opening yourself to the world each day, and recording what sticks, what sparks insight and holds richness, much like the contents of a poem.  What says, in her words, “Hey writer, over here, pay attention.”  In encouraging writers to capture their own glimmers, Houston believes that what sticks, what coalesces on the page, will provide the themes and storylines you’re meant to tell.

Reach for the poetic in your writing. Find those glimmers and keep them as a poem or a paragraph, because in the very act of giving a moment attention, it becomes a habit of deep listening, both to the outer world and your own inner experience of it. That’s were words resonate. In that space beneath and beyond the self that lives for the reader. That space between the marks on the page and the life created as one reads them.

The Heavy Lifting of Revision

weights

I don’t like to exercise. I never get an endorphin high. EVER. All I ever get is tired and achy. But it might not be my fault! Scientists have identified a couch potato gene! 

Still, despite being able to blame my parents for my laziness, I know that exercise is important to my health. So I do it. I drag my lazy, endorphin-deprived butt to the gym at least twice a week to work out with a trainer. He pushes me. He increases the weight and makes me do extra reps, when all I want to do is curl up in the fetal position and cry. Then I stagger home, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My abs are far from rock-hard, but I’ve got muscles.

For the last few months I’ve been struggling with another task I dislike–Revision. I know, I know, most of you are saying, But I love revision. Well, I don’t. I’m waiting for scientists to report some genetic malfunction that will help me explain this away too. It’s not that I dislike all revision. The first revisions after the shitty first draft are exciting. But somehow that doesn’t seem like revision to me, that’s all part of writing the story. It is often when I find a nugget in my writing that makes me believe I’m a genius. The revision I dislike are the ones in-between the full rewrites (where you know that pretty much everything in your story sucks and you chuck the entire thing and start over from scratch) and the ones where you’re tweaking–adding a bit more to this character, pulling a thread all the way through the story, cutting out the number of times you used the word “just” or “like” or how many times your character’s smile looked like the rising sun.

IMG_0985

What I’m struggling with now is an old, old, old story that I pull out of the drawer every year or so, fiddle with and then stick back in the drawer. I love the story. I love the characters. I love their journey. And, I’m told by readers and my agent that it is worth working on, but somehow I’m not getting it right. I’ve been working on this story now for about a year and am about a third of the way through yet another significant revision and I’m not sure I can face it. I’d really rather sit on the couch and read or work on that shiny new idea that is twinkling in the back of my head.

This kind of revision hurts. It makes my muscles and my head ache. I want to curl into a fetal position and cry. So, I have a small team of “trainers” who check in with me–sometimes weekly, sometimes daily, sometimes hourly. They encourage me to write just one more scene, and make me do the heavy lifting of revision. Then I stagger down the hall from my office to my bathroom, strip off my sweaty clothes, turn on the shower, and allow my tears to mingle with the water that courses over my aching muscles. But, despite all my pissing and moaning, I love the results. My story is still far from rock-hard, but it’s got muscles.

 

 

 

No wimps! A Checklist for Writing Active Characters

lounging women
At one point or another, most of us writers will be told that our character feels passive in a certain scene, and this can happen even in an action adventure story where our character is being chased or shot at.

So what exactly does it mean when our character appears “passive,” and how do we remedy that? Here’s a checklist that can help you identify problem spots in your story and how to fix them.

  1. Is your character silent during an argument or throwing back retorts in their head? An active character will voice their opinions, concerns and desires rather than glare silently, roll their eyes or mutter “whatever.” And the scene will be more interesting if the person they’re arguing with hears what the main character thinks.
  2. Does your character walk away when he or she is embarrassed, angry, or confused? Weak characters leave instead of engaging in an attempt to resolve or clarify a situation, while active characters dare to engage.
  3. Is your character letting someone else make decisions for them? An active character is in charge of decisions that affect them, or at least involved in the discussion of which direction to choose. This doesn’t mean that your character must dominate every decision in a story, but to be active, they must have a voice.
  4. Is your character letting things happen to them? When your character is active, things happen because of your character. Their choices and actions propel the story action forward.
  5. Is your character gazing at the ocean, binge watching television, or waiting for something to happen? Scenes in which a character is physically inactive can make the character feel passive, but no amount of physical activity can fix a character who always does what others think he or she should do.
  6. Does your character act to satisfy their wants and needs? Active characters are driven to get what they need. They will create a plan, try and fail, often more than once, on their journey.
  7. Does a teacher or ally appear and insist on teaching your character the skills they need to overcome the antagonist? Active characters search out people to give them the knowledge they need to prevail. They work hard to acquire new skills, and even fight for the right to obtain the knowledge they desperately need.
  8. Does your character allow another person to save them? Active characters are in the fight and their actions contribute to the successful downfall of the antagonist. Think of the latest generation of Disney heroines who aren’t waiting around for a prince to slay a dragon or release them from a spell. These girls make their own happy endings.

Good luck and happy writing!

Catherine Linka is the author of A Girl Called Fearless. The sequel and conclusion, A Girl Undone will be released by St. Martin’s Press on June 23, 2015. 

Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t going to read your novel (or How To Give A Great Author Reading)

This is Benedict Cumberbatch reading Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately you did not write Little Red Hen.

Unfortunately Benedict Cumberbatch is very unlikely to attend your next book event.

Unfortunately you’re going to have to do the reading yourself.

30903760.thb

But fortunately, even though you aren’t Benedict Cumberbatch (if you are Benedict Cumberbatch please leave me a comment) you can give a great author reading.

But.. but… but… many author readings aren’t great. Some stink. Forget that. Your reading can be wonderful. It isn’t hard. It just takes thought, preparation, and practice. Without further ado here are my tips for a successful author reading:

1)   There’s really only one hard and fast rule.  HONOR YOUR WORDS.

36847587.thb

Be proud of your accomplishment and share your pride with your audience.

How? Speak loud. Speak slow. Lift your chin and occasionally establish occasional eye contact with your audience. Enunciate. Read like you mean it.

While you’re at it, ham it up a little. Ordinary gestures look small when viewed from the audience. Ordinary enunciation sounds a little flat. Pump everything up, a little or a lot. Perform. You won’t seem ridiculous. You’ll be enchanting.

Don’t believe me? Video yourself reading with every day mannerisms, then repeat with a bit of exaggeration. The more flamboyant one is way better, isn’t it?

2)   But Also Chill

You aren’t giving the soliloquy in Hamlet. Just be you.

Watch J.K. Rowling read from her first Harry Potter book, H.P. and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s a great reading but she’s not doing anything crazy. She’s just reading calmly, with color and enthusiasm, honoring her story (even when little kids run around, ignoring her.)

Some people calm down by imagining their audience in underwear (EEEWWWWW) Some people take a stiff drink (tempting but not recommended) Do whatever you need to do to settle down, whether it’s deep breathing or running in circles or shouting at the top of your lungs. Of course the best way to stay calm is to be very very very very well prepared.

3) Chose your text wisely.

Pick a lively section of your work- a section where interesting characters are doing interesting things. Make sure the scene you read is a grabber.

And here’s a secret. You can edit what you read. You can cut and paste. You can skip bits- words, sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters-  to create the ideal read-aloud portion. A story read on the page is different from one read out loud. When you read aloud your voice supplies the white space and transitions. If you need to make alterations to deliver the best reading possible go for it. Nobody’s going to sit in the audience with your book on their lap checking for deviations… and if they do you’re giving them a little “insider” thrill.

3) Two Words (okay three) Short And Sweet. Many excellent authors read WAY too many pages in the mistaken idea that they’ll impress an audience with a heaping load of steamy words. It does not work that way!

Keep them begging for more. Chances are you’re hoping to sell books, either at this event or somehow, some day, somewhere. If your audience feels stuffed and exhausted by your reading they won’t want to read the rest. Keep them hungry for more by serving a tempting morsel of your delicious work. They’ll clamor for the whole thing.

19164702.thb

4)   Practice. Read aloud. Read aloud in front of a person. Or a dog. Or a person with a dog. Get your mouth around multisyllabic words. Test pauses and pace changes. Consider when to raise and lower your voice.

When you’re practicing time yourself. Make sure your reading fits comfortably into the time allotted. Then cut the amount you’re reading by about a quarter so you have no reason to feel rushed at the actual reading. The more you practice the better you’ll feel when all eyes and ears are on you and your book.

5)   For goodness sakes PLEASE don’t read with a dialect. Ever. Assuming you’re not Meryl Streep (who, like Benedict Cumberbatch, is not going to read your book) any accent you try is more likely to offend or, at least, distract your audience than enhance your reading.  No exceptions for dialog by hillbillies, people of color, elves, or anyone else. Do Not Do This. REALLY. DON’T READ IN DIALECT IT’S ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS WITHOUT EXCEPTION AWFUL I mean you, sort of famous author. Stop it!

6)   Don’t let other authors get to you. If you’re reading in a group some writers before you will tuck their chins to their chests and speak in nervous whispers, and for a minute you’ll be tempted to copy them. Because standing proud with your eyes on your audience and your voice raised high is….. showing off! Isn’t it? No. It’s honoring your work and your words. Even more it’s honoring your audience with the reading they deserve. Don’t cheat the people who’ve come to support you. Read it like you mean it.

37698593.thb

7) Which brings me to my final point. Shy has nothing to do with a good reading. Good public readings are orchestrated. You don’t have to make spontaneous small talk. You don’t have to be cool. You read words off a page… and they are words you already know- you wrote them!

Practice until reading your passage feels like second nature, then pretend you’re happy to be reading in a room with a dozen or a hundred people. Or pretend you’re all alone in your bathrobe at home. After you leave the podium you can run out the back door.

Which authors do you think do a great job reading their work?

~tami lewis brown

A Mentor Talks About Mentoring: Kathryn Fitzmaurice

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s keynote at the Women’s National Book Association Writers Conference. Kathryn spoke eloquently about her mentor, her grandmother, science fiction writer Eleanor Robinson.

At lunch, Kathryn and I talked about how after becoming the successful author of several award winning/starred middle grade novels including The Year the Swallows Came Early, Diamond in the Dust, and Destiny Rewritten, she is now mentoring an aspiring writer.  I asked Kathryn if I could share her experience.

Imported Photos 00073

Tell, me who are you mentoring and what are you working on together?

KF:  Her name is PB Rippey and she’s a member of  SCBWI in Northern California.  The title of her work in progress is “Trouble Beneath the Waves,” a wonderful story about a young girl with special powers.  I won’t say any more!

How were you two connected?

 KF: We were connected when I received an invitation from Catherine Meyers, who is the ARA to Patricia Newman, the RA for the Northern California SCBWI chapter.

 I understand this is a new program that the chapter is trying out and that you are one of several published writers who are mentors in this “digital mentorship” program. What are you expected to do?

 KF:  I am expected to stand along side her and do everything I can to help her bring her work-in-progress to a place where it is publishable.  I would like to see her obtain an agent and have the agent sell this story.

DestinyRewritten hc c

You wrote in a blog post that there are several mentors in the program that you would have liked to have been paired with as a young writer. Who among your fellow writers would have been your dream mentor? 

KF: I would have loved to have been paired with someone like Gary D. Schmidt, who is my very favorite middle grade author.  I was able to meet him last year at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival, where I was on a middle grade panel with him, and Katherine Applegate, and Linda Urban.  Mr. Schmidt is so talented as an author, with one of his novels winning a Newbery Honor Medal, (The Wednesday Wars).  My favorite book he has written is Okay For Now.  Every time I read it, I find some genius page where Mr. Schmidt has made me cry, or laugh.   But even more, he is very nice.  In addition to writing, he teaches English at a college in Michigan.

 The aspiring writers had to submit several pages of a manuscript and a synopsis, and then the mentors chose their mentees based on the work. Can you remember what about PB’s story resonated with you? 

 KF: I remember when I read her pages, I thought to myself, I can see what might be missing, (it wasn’t much really), and I think I can help her bring the manuscript around to a place where we can cut some of the things that don’t need to be there, and bring in some things that will move the story forward faster.  PB is really quite lovely, she wants her story to be published and I believe it will be.  She is a hard worker.  She’s also a poet and has published a few poems.  Not every one can be a poet.  You have to understand rhythm and how words work together in a sentence.  It’s complicated to see this sometimes.  But she sees these connections.  She understands how words can be written to make the reader fall in love.

This is a one year program  in which the mentor is expected to read the writer’s entire manuscript between November and January, then do a video chat and provide a first round of editorial notes. The writer is supposed to have a rewrite by the end of March,  which the mentor then reads, and does a second video chat and editorial notes. 

Is this how the program is actually working for you and PB?

KF: After I go through her manuscript, I send my notes, (using track changes on word), to her and she reads through them.  Then we make an appointment for a Skype call and go through everything together.  We probably speak a lot more, though, than the rules say, because I have told her that she may contact me whenever she needs to.  I want her to know that I am available to her any time of day, for whatever reason she may want to discuss.  Because sometimes every author has, (including me), times when we need to discuss a very important idea.

 What do you find yourselves talking about during those Skype calls?

KF: We really discuss her main character and how she is growing, what she has learned, and how she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  Together, we do everything we can to cut out the things that aren’t working, and keep the things that are working in her story.  But honestly, her story is really very good.

What is the best part of being a mentor?

 KF: It’s always nice to help other people realize their own dreams.  I remember when my agent, Jen Rofe, of Andrea Brown Literary Agency, called to tell me she had sold my first book.  I want PB to have that same feeling.  I want her to be able to jump up and down and say she sold her novel.  That would be so wonderful!

 Lastly, I understand you’re working on a book that’s very different from your other novels. Can you give us a peek into what you’re writing now?

 KF: I’m on my third revision of a novel that I will continue to write until it is good enough to sell.  I keep going back and fixing it.  Everyday, I revise the story, so that my main character is growing, so she sees the world differently than she did at the beginning of the story.  I am using a bit a magical realism, which I have never done before.  This is the part that is testing me.  I keep coming back to these sections and reworking them.

 Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your mentoring experience. We look forward to watching PB on her journey. 

 To read Kathryn’s moving blog post about her relationship with her own mentor:

http://kathrynfitzmaurice.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2013-10-26T10:53:00-07:00&max-results=7

Conveying Emotion Through a Powerful Object

 Today the Tollbooth welcomes writer Mary Cronin who posts about the emotional significance that two objects possess for the main character of her work-in-progress. 

“What if there’s no novel yet?” That was my main question when I won November’s “Fantastic Tollbooth  Contest” hosted by VCFA faculty member Garret Freymann-Wehr. Garret had asked for entries about an object of emotional significance to a character. My entry, about a boy named Tom and some of his beautiful treasures, was chosen as the winner.

But there’s no novel. Yet. A title, yes. Tomfoolery. And a notebook.

I’m a huge fan of pre-writing. So I have a notebook filled with character sketches and maps and anecdotes and family trees. About Tom, his best friends, his feisty grandmother, his itinerant musician mother, his job in a vintage clothing store. Most importantly, I know what Tom lacks.

Some of the college courses I teach in Early Childhood Education feed directly into my writing.

Maslow

So I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to figure out what assets my character has in his life, and what he lacks. Maslow’s Hierarchy serves as an inventory of sorts, about areas of strength in a character’s life, but especially about areas of need—what I think of as the “pot holes” in a character’s life. Using this tool, I can pinpoint those pot holes (basic needs like shelter?  A sense of belonging?), and how my protagonist has attempted to fill those pot holes. Have the “patches” been successful, or not?

Once I truly understand these things about my character,  I have compassion for him. And when I write from a place of compassion, the words flow.

swizzle

I picked up a swizzle stick a few years ago when I had the best gin and tonic ever at Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. Some time last year, I stuck that swizzle stick in my pencil case. I knew it was important to Tom, just like the tea tin with the picture of Princess Kate on it that sits in my kitchen cabinet.

tea tin

I knew this because Tom lacks his mother, and Tom longs for beauty in the way a young artistic soul thirsts for it when he is deprived of loveliness. The beauty, the glamour, the royalty: these are the patches he has used to try and fill the empty place his mother left behind, the “pot hole” in his sense of security. Once I know what my character longs for, I begin to understand what objects might have almost magical meaning for him. And there was that lovely swizzle stick.

I encourage all the writers I work with to use Maslow’s Hierarchy to understand their characters, just as I advise my teachers-in-training to use it as a tool to understand the needs and motivations of their young students.

Thanks to Through the Tollbooth, and Garrett, a little bit of fairy dust was sprinkled on my Tomfoolery notebook, which will indeed grow into a novel.

I think Tom would approve.

Mary E. Cronin

 

Mary E. Cronin graduated from VCFA in January 2011. A resident of Cape Cod, she teaches Early Childhood Ed. and English at two Massachusetts colleges. Mary is currently revising her middle-grade time travel novel and polishing a few picture book manuscripts; Tomfoolery is waiting in the wings.