Want to Finish Your Book? Focus on Fascination.

Friends, I am in the process of trying to finish my second book, and let me tell you, it is a difficult task. When I first began my book, I loved it. Words flew from my fingertips. My characters were quirky, weird, and felt just so juicy. I could hardly wait to sit at my computer and write because I was completely immersed in the world I had created. The story held me by my tippy toes and I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

In my case, this fascination lasted about 80 pages, before I started to get overwhelmed with the mechanics of writing—were the characters well rounded? Where was the story arc? What were the internal and external conflicts? Was I telling too much? Not enough? Was the problem compelling? Were the characters annoying? Did this book even matter? At the end of the day, ugh! Writing is hard.

That’s when I stumbled across a podcast on The Unmistakable Creative. The guest was Sally Hogshead, a creative author, speaker and marketing expert. (Go check it out, yo.) She talks about the concept of fascination. Fascination is different than interest or just paying attention. Fascination is when you are at your creative best—or for lack of better words—when you are in a pure creative flow. You are in the zone, completely absorbed, and focused on whatever it is that you’re trying to do.

Neuroscientists say when the brain is in a state of fascination, it has the same brain pattern as being in love. This makes complete sense. I have been fascinated, or in love with, people, books, ideas, paintings, cookies, places, music, TV shows and friends. You all know that feeling. It is bliss. Whatever you are fascinated by, is completely engaging and intriguing.

That’s why a brand new idea is wonderful. We are essentially in love with our creation—it’s original, fresh, and intriguing. We can’t stop thinking about it. By the way, if you are a fascinated person, you communicate better, connect better, and love the world better. All cylinders firing—you are your best self. It’s like that movie with Bradley Cooper, LIMITLESS, where he takes the pill that makes him his best self by 1000%. (Man, I really wish there was a pill like that. Come on, Bradley, help a girl out.)

The attention span of the average human being is 9 seconds. And with instant everything, available 24 hours a day, it is getting harder and harder to stay fascinated. Want to hear something fascinating? Only 7% of workers think their bosses are fascinating. We are all walking around, bored out of our minds. There is also a direct correlation between income and fascination of work (not necessarily your job, but whatever you spend most of your time doing.) The more fascinated you are, the higher your income (according to studies), which makes sense. If you’re fascinated by your life/work, the easier it is to make a living.

That’s great, you say. But what if I’m just bored with my project? What if I’m stuck in the middle and can’t find my way out?

Here’s how you can return fascination to your creative writing project:

1. Muscle Memory: Muscles remember stuff, and so does your brain. For example, maybe you’re an excellent athlete. My husband is a great surfer. I hoped that he could teach me to surf so we could surf together. But here’s the thing, he paddles through the waves like butter. He can expertly eye the perfect wave, with just enough shape and force, to get him on his feet, within 0.7 seconds. He rides his surfboard like it’s attached to his body. He hardly has to think about it because he’s done it so many times. When I surf, its laborious. I have to think about every move I make and then my body doesn’t obey, because I haven’t practiced.

The same is true with writing. If you only write sporadically—let’s say every few days or every few weeks—it takes your mind so much longer to get back into the groove of writing. Writing requires muscle memory. People who spend 2-4 hours each day on a consistent project or endeavor are much more successful, than those who don’t.

2. Writing Rituals: Even with muscle memory practice, writing can still feel like dragging your fingernails across a chalk board. Writing rituals can help you harness the original fascination you had at the beginning of your project. Only you know what motivates you to finish your creative project, but many writers have specific rituals they follow to get them in the zone before they write. I listen to the same play list when I write. I also listen to a favorite book on audible, or a favorite inspiring podcast before I write.

Some people read poetry, some writers hand-write a page from an author they admire, before they begin to write their own project. Other authors go on a walk, run a mile, do the dishes, drink a specific cup of tea, or talk to a creative mentor. Whatever it is that inspires you to sit down and get to work, figure it out, and do that. Sometimes before writing, I tell myself that I only have to write 100 words. More often than not, it only takes me 100 clunky words to get in flow of my project.

3. Mechanics: When I become frustrated with a project, I know I need to change my perspective. It could be tweaks with my characters, plot, or tension, but when I’m bored, I know I need to change my view. Deconstruct what it was that drew you to your creative piece. That may mean further research—a field trip, a new hobby to understand a character better, or an interview with an expert.

Are your characters stagnating? Peel back each person piece by piece. What makes them fascinating? Are they their truest self, without a facade? Is your language helping your piece or is it filled with clunky phrases, words or cliches?  If the mechanics of your writing are on point, it can help improve it’s fascination level.

By tapping into what inspired your art, you and your writing will be more successful. Fascination is what inspired you to write in the first place, right?  So let’s finish that book!

I hope these suggestions help. Happy writing!

xo,
Jen

www.jewhitebooks.com

 

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.

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.

 

 

5 Tips for No Fail Author Visits

Young people at music festival

This week, I spoke to three very different audiences: college students in a creative writing class, public high school students in LA, and elementary and middle school kids and their parents at a Barnes & Noble book fair. I slammed it out of the park with two of those talks and bunted with the other.

Why the fail? Because I didn’t follow my own advice for author visits. It’s a short list, five points, but addresses the biggest reasons a visit falls flat.

1.Size up the audience.

I usually contact my host before my visit, and ask questions about the audience. The more I know, the better I can tailor my talk to them. College students who choose to take a creative writing class are nothing like high school students herded into a library by their English teacher.

2.  Size up my host.

Often I’m invited to speak by teachers, librarians, school administrators or bookstore staff. Sometimes my hosts want me to inspire kids to read, or to understand the importance of revision. One asked me to talk about how I write scenes in longhand first to let my creativity flow, because she wanted parents to hear that cursive is still important. And bookstore staff always want me to remind listeners that they can buy my books here.

3. Get my host’s support.

Just as I want to support my host, I want the host to support me. If I’m working with a library or a bookstore, I want to know they have copies of my books on the shelf. If my host is a teacher, I encourage him or her to assign students to read the free sample chapters from my book before I arrive.

4. Determine what will interest THIS audience.

Unhappy boy in art class

I can talk about writing my books in many ways, but I need to find the one that connects with the audience in front of me. I’ve spoken in prep schools about girl’s rights around the globe, talked to foster kids about surviving publishing rejection, and talked to writers about writing and the realities of publishing. While I always talk about my books, I try to imagine what these listeners care about.

My fail this week? I didn’t sex it up. These teens needed more drama,  and I didn’t make my book intriguing enough. Looking back, I should have read a high action scene, and talked about firing an M-4 semi-automatic during my research. That would have caught their attention.

5. Partner with my partner.

This week, I partnered with other writers for two of the events. Fortunately, I knew both writers, and we laid out in advance what we wanted to cover. But advance planning can’t eliminate all the differences in speaking styles or personal agendas.

While I’m fine with letting another person take the lead, I was reminded that I am responsible to myself for making sure I get to talk about what is important to me and my book. And that might mean politely and assertively redirecting the discussion. It’s not my partner’s fault if I don’t get to cover all my points, it’s mine.

Now I’m getting ready for the next round of visits and you can bet, I’m looking for the heart-pounding scene that will get a teenage boy’s attention.

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can read her novella, Sparrow’s Story: A Girl Defiant for free on wattpad.com.  https://www.wattpad.com/story/28382310-sparrow%27s-story-a-girl-defiant

Anonymous Author Confessions

Being an author is weird. Here are a few anonymous quotes that I gathered from a variety of YA, MG, and PB writers on publishing, life, writing, etc.

WRITING

I don’t write every day. I’d be a better writer if I did, and it’s what I aspire to, but I don’t actually manage to write every day. And I don’t feel guilty about it. Being a writer is not always a straight line process.

I’m 100% certain I’d be much less moodier and a lot nicer to people in general if I gave up the stress-filled writing life, but I can’t possibly stop. Does that make me an addict? I’m pretty sure it does.

Most times, I’m afraid my writing is bad. Other times, I’m afraid my writing is great. The second fear is the one that blocks me.

REVISING

Why is it that polishing silver looks so exciting when I reach act 2 in revision?

There are certain bits of writing advice that I’ve heard bandied about by so many people so often that they make me want to scream. “Show don’t tell,” “Kill your darlings,” and “Butt in chair” come to mind. I think at this point one should have to pay $5 into the Overused Adage Retirement Trust Fund prior to invoking any of these.

WORKING WITH AN EDITOR

90% of the time I’m convinced my editor hates me, even when she’s writing totally innocuous or even positive emails. The compliments are just an elaborate cover for her searing rage at everything I’m doing wrong!

I stalk my editor’s Twitter feed. That’s horrible, isn’t it? I mean, I think I could say I just “check” her Twitter feed a lot, but for whatever reason it feels like stalking.

LIFE

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “Fast, Cheap, or Well-Made: Pick Two.” Well, I have a writer’s equivalent. “Writing, Family, or Self-Care: Pick Two.” On any given day, I can only attend to two out of these three things.

The week before my deadline, no one gets a bath in my house. No one gets dinner either.

I was folding laundry and remembered that I just sold a book, so now I can buy new underwear! Triumph!”

CASH FLOW

I thought royalty checks would trickle in, but no. Even though my debut novel is selling fine (according to my publisher), it might be years before I earn back the advance — an amount that was less than a public school teacher makes in a year. (No matter that it took me two years to write the book.) Now I fully understand the advice, ‘Don’t quit the day job.’

Did you know you can sell a book to a publisher and actually lose money? Unless you’re with a big publisher and with support from their marketing team, you may have to hire your own publicist and attend conferences at your expense–or else nobody hears about your book. At this point, I have to wait for my finances to recover from my last book before I let my agent submit a new one.

ARE YOU THE NEXT J.K. ROWLING?

I cringe at the way people seem to automatically put the words “famous” and “author” together; there are a lot of us authors who aren’t the least bit famous. It embarrasses me for some reason when I get introduced by friends and acquaintances as a “famous author.”

You know darn well my name is not John Green or Veronica Roth, so please don’t ask if you’d have heard of my book before.

At least once a month, someone says, “So you’re an author. Where can I find your books?” And I inwardly chant, “Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’ Don’t snarkily say ‘a bookstore.’” It then tends to come out as: “A bookstore…?”

I learned the hard way…so much of our publishing fates are pre-destined the second our deals inked. Every season, publishers pick their horses, the favored titles that are slated to finish first. If you’re lucky, you’ll be one of them, and get incredible marketing, a huge print run and lots of support. If you’re not, you won’t. It’s not fair, but give it everything you’ve got, regardless. Just run like hell, race after race, against all odds. One day, you may win.

AUTHOR EVENTS

Nothing like not remembering the name of a friend of some twenty years when she comes up for a signing. And she is one of three people buying your book.

A customer admiring one of my picture books said with enthusiasm, “The illustrations are really great!” Pause. “Too!” she added, suddenly remembering that I was the author, not the illustrator.

If you’re ever wondering if authors are still fans at heart–I once found myself on a panel with one of my favorite authors, speaking about one of my favorite subjects. On the panel, I easily made the room laugh. Afterwards, I wanted to tell the author how much her books meant to me, and was completely tongue-tied. After a few highly uncomfortable seconds, I mumbled something unintelligible and beelined… straight for the bar.

At a group book signing, there is nothing more humbling than having so few people line up for your autograph that your “signing assistant” gets bored and wanders away to buy the other authors’ books. (She doesn’t want to buy your book, but could she have a copy for free?)

REVIEWS

I don’t read my reviews, but sometimes my family tells me about them anyway. My cousin once called to read me my one-star review on Amazon. He thought it would be hilarious. Still not laughing, cuz.

I refer to Kirkus as Jerkus.

I claim not to read my Amazon reviews, but I can’t help myself: I read all my bad reviews.

 

 

6 Ideas for Creative Inspiration

Nileometer

Interior of Nileometer (measures the Nile level) Photo by Sarah Johnson

What is your creativity metaphor?

A whispering muse?

A well of water? A waterfall?

Forest trails?

What does a writer (or artist) do when the muse hides, the well freezes, or the trails fade or are overgrown? Ideally the well always is overflowing, the muse is always whispering in our ear, the trail is easy and clear and the words flow. But when words seem flat on the page, here are a few ideas that can help get creativity flowing again.

Write. Write and write and write. Write until the words flow. National Novel Writing Month taps into this approach.

Don’t write. A walk always helps me when I need inspiration. Kate Messner recently found a solution to a plot problem while hiking. Her post is an insightful read.  When Tim Wynne-Jones’ well ran dry, he stepped away from the computer and traveled for a year. Check out his great post.

Read. Read. Read more. Jane Smiley, when not satisfied with the way her writing was moving forward, decided to read 100 novels. She describes her journey in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

A class or program. Take a writing class, online or in your community. Or get a copy of The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This is a wonderful book that assists artists after a “creative injury” or artists who are looking for more inspiration in their creative path.

Writer’s groups or online writing communities. This is a great way to connect with other writers.

Live life fully. Susanne Langer wrote, “Imagination must be fed from the world: by new sights and sounds, actions and events and the artist’s interest in ways of human feeling must be kept up by actual living and feeling.”

What other activities do you suggest when creativity is having a slow day or a slow month? We’d love to hear your ideas.

What The #$&@ Does My Character Want Anyway?

questioning girl

When I showed up for my first MFA residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I was surprised at how many discussions centered around “what does the main character want?”

Why is that so important, I wondered. What if the character doesn’t know what she wants at the beginning? She’s a teenager. How is she supposed to know? And even if she does know, that doesn’t mean that what she wants now won’t change.

My first epiphany came during a lecture about how a writer can get to the essence of their story by summarizing it this way:

My character (insert name)

wants (person/place/thing)

but when (event) happens

he/she must choose between (option one) and (option two).

My protagonist will struggle to get what he/she wants, because of his/her (character flaw or weakness.)

Suddenly, I saw that want was the driver that sent the character on their journey. Every choice, every decision the character made had to tie back to getting what the character wanted.

Identifying what my character wanted was easy when it involved goals like winning the race or getting the guy, but I struggled when faced with a character who didn’t have a conscious desire or goal.

day dreaming girl

I floundered about until I discovered FROM WHERE YOU DREAM by Robert Olen Butler. In his chapter called “Yearning,” I experienced my second epiphany.

“We are the yearning creatures of this planet. There are superficial yearnings, and there are truly deep ones always pulsing beneath, but every second we yearn for something.”

Yearning or hungering for something–even if the character wasn’t capable of verbalizing  their feelings–now that made sense. All those unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged dreams–the feelings we are only half-conscious of, the flutters we try to ignore–they can change the course of our lives even if we don’t fully understand them.

And Butler crystalized the power of yearning when he said “plot represents the dynamics of desire.” Plot is how the character satisfies their desires.

Now I could identify what was underneath my character’s skin and what my protagonist knew they wanted, as well as what they might not admit they wanted, but which drove them nonetheless.

But I still felt uneasy when my character’s desire changed.

My most recent epiphany came when I was struggling to write the sequel to A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS, because my character was no longer the girl she was when the story began. Avie wasn’t innocent or naive anymore. On the run from a planned marriage, and hoping for freedom in Canada, Avie’s future was now complicated with an important, but unwanted mission that might kill her.

At a retreat with Martha Alderson, the “Plot Whisperer”, Martha emphasized the parallel between the character’s emotional development and the plot’s story action, and I realized that even though my protagonist still longed for love and freedom, she would struggle in the sequel with a growing sense that she needed to serve a greater purpose.

It was now clear to me that our characters evolve through their stories, and so what they want must also evolve. As writers we have to allow our characters to abandon what they first thought they wanted and let them hunger for something even greater.

IMG_0724

Catherine Linka is the author of the duology, A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS and A GIRL UNDONE. You can connect with her on twitter @cblinka or www.catherinelinka.com.

 

The art of feeling successful

successSuccess is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
-Winston Churchill

Hi Writers,

Recently, I posted my 100th newsletter. 100 Mondays in a row. I spent some time writing and thinking about success. And a lot of people wrote back. As writers, we have a tenuous (at best) relationship with success. 

Here’s what people said:

“I never feel successful. Someone is always doing better than I’m doing.”

“I read every bad review. What’s wrong with me?”

“I am so sick of calling myself pre-published. I get great rejections. Why am I doing this?”


For me, when I rely on the extrinsic milestones–the money–the fame–I’m SUNK. For me, success has to come from within. It comes more from how I’m feeling creatively. This might be TMI, but I need to feel safe and secure to write. But when I do, I (almost) like writing. 

As all my friends know, I also like to reward myself. 


My most famous rule: When I hit page 100 of a manuscript, I always make Thai seafood soup. (You can find the recipe here!)  Why? I celebrate because 100 is cool! More important, I know if I can get to page 100, it also means I’m going to be able to finish the draft. (That’s party because at page 70, I usually get a big dose of writer’s panic and block!)

For me, 100 is a symbol of success.

But there are a lot of other successes along the way.

Like a new idea.

Or a new chapter.

Or a day off from writing with a good friend.

Tackling a challenge I was afraid to try before. 


And don’t we all write better when we embrace these successes?  When we feel successful, we feel excited. We look forward to the work. The bumps along the way stop being obstacles and feel like opportunities. 

Feeling successful allows us the confidence to find our voices.

Ask Diane von Furstenberg.

dress(Wouldn’t that dress look great on me? Sorry!!!)

Anyway, SHE SAYS that to find success, we must first trust ourselves!

(I love her.)

“I think the relationship you have with yourself is everywhere, every moment of the day — to be able to be alone, to be able to think, to be able to count on yourself, to be able to console yourself, to be able to inspire yourself, to be able to give yourself advice. You are your best friend.”

YES.

Finding success is motivating–and in lieu of the usual barometers of success (i.e.: money), celebrating milestones along the journey of writing–is essential! We all know–it’s very easy to get discouraged before that first big YES arrives. But there are a million successes before that first YES.

There is the idea.
There is every good line that you write down.
There is every failure that you accept.
There is every day you sit down again to get that story RIGHT.

One of the reasons I started this newsletter was to offer other writers a little hope and strength as they make their ways from one success to another. It’s what I like about this blog, too. Because we ALL need support. Community. Cheers. We all need TIPS. We all need MOTIVATION. We all need new ways to approach the work in a fresh and different way.

Can you count your successes today? This week? Every week? You don’t have to brag. But you do have to pat yourself on the back! Writing is a journey–one that goes faster when we recognize each positive step.

Cheers!!!!

You can sign up for Sarah’s newsletter, Monday Motivation, on her website, www.saraharonson.com. Under TIPS.

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. 

Soon to Be Seen: Lindsey Lane’s Debut Novel

I am delighted to bring my classmate from Vermont College of Fine Arts, the talented Lindsey Lane, MFA to the Tollbooth in anticipation of her gorgeous debut novel, Evidence of Things Not Seen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) to be released on September 16th. The story tells of what happens in a small Texas town when 16-year-old Tommy Smythe goes missing.

DW: In the fabulous interview on your website, you say that this story woke you up from a dream in which you saw a boy standing in a roadway pull-out. This image got you out of bed and you started to write. Have dreams often been a part of your writing? Or were the dreamtime origins of this story a unique experience?

LL: Actually dreams are not usually a part of my writing process. What’s important about this dream event for me was taking the leap and trusting the process of writing into an image or idea. The dream became the first section I wrote in the novel. I saw this small Mexican child in the pull-out, his chubby legs dusty with caliche dirt. He looked lonely and forlorn. I wondered what he was doing there. Gradually, I saw Maricela trudging up the side of a road to meet the other migrant workers who were waiting for the van to take them to the next field. A comic book she’d found in the migrant housing the night before was stuffed in her back pack. All she wants to do is get on the van and read her comic book and then something else happens. That sectionComic Bookled to others, each of them occurring in the pull-out, that strange disconnected place by the side of the road. It wasn’t until later that I found Tommy Smythe and discovered that he had gone missing from the pull-out, and that his disappearance weaves in and out of every story. So to answer your question, dreams are not a part of my writing process but I will say that drafting a story is a very dreamy otherworldly process. I will often get up from a first draft writing session and be very disoriented. Does that happen to you?

DW: Yes! As though we’re inhabiting other worlds. You have said you took risks with the form of Evidence of Things Not Seen, using multiple points of view, chapters as unique episodes that come together to build a whole, bringing in journals, and shifting between first and third person. These risks let storytelling magic happen. What was the hardest risk for you? From our time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I know that you have written wonderful short stories. Have you ever thought of this book as a secret short story cycle? Does that make it feel more or less risky?

LL: Originally the book was a linked short story cycle. I was interested in seeing how a place like the pull-out could be the setting for a series of epiphanies for characters who came there. Unfortunately, short story cycles are a tough sell and I needed to find a way to weave these stories together more tightly and make the book as a whole more compelling for the reader. I think the biggest risk I took was after I had sent the manuscript out to several agents and I realized I’d written an ending with a big fat bow. I pulled the manuscript from the agents, wrote myself a three page editorial letter and did a floor to ceiling kind of revision. That was the revision when I sharpened the first person sections and wove Tommy’s disappearance into all the stories. I worried a little bit about all these multiple perspectives but I feel that young adult readers are really sophisticated. They can hold multiple story lines in their head and are willing to accept ‘outside the norm’ storytelling.

DW: The gorgeous cover of Evidence of Things Not Seen picks up both the mysticism and physics that weave through your story. Can you tell us first about the journey for the cover creation—always exciting for a first novel—and also how you discovered that physics was such an integral part of Tommy’s character? Were there specific characters who brought in mysticism and faith, or do you see physics as naturally containing both those elements?

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LL: The cover was created by Elizabeth Clark, associate art director at MacMillan. She is remarkable. I happened to see a few of the covers that the design team ‘rejected’ when I went to New York last year and I have to say the folks at MacMillan completely understood the content of EVIDENCE. I love the boy standing on this big landscape, slightly ghosted to suggest his disappearance. I love the symbols around him which hint at the connections within the book as well as Tommy’s fascination with physics. And then, of course, the wide open space of the Texas landscape which holds the story is perfect. As for your question about mysticism, faith and physics, I think that physics is kind of a mind blow. Let’s just start with the big bang versus creationism. Physics calls into question our very existence. I think these ideas light kids’ brains on fire. It did for Tommy. And because Tommy was obsessed with these ideas, it touched everyone’s lives. I mean, if a brilliant kid, who thought time travel was possible, goes missing, would you consider the possibility? Or would you think he was dead in a ditch? Would you have faith that the unknown universe works in mysterious ways? All the characters touch upon faith in some way: from Tommy’s disappearance to the unknowability of what will happen tomorrow.

DW: I love that Alexander Calder’s mobiles are part of your inspiration and indeed can see how his fractured spare shapes that move and float in space and yet create a unified whole, mirror the form of your book. What’s the story of how and when you discovered his work, and when you realized that these sculptures were connected to your writing?

LL: I have loved Alexander Calder’s work for forever. I love the way the elements (wind and light) interact with his sculptures. The moment he intersected my work as a writer was at Vermont College of Fine Arts. My advisor was the poet Julie Larios. I was attempting my first long work and I described my novel to her as lumps of clay, very unformed. She disagreed with me. She said that the way I wrote was like Alexander Calder’s mobiles. “I would say they are more like pieces of a mobile – light enough to catch a current of air, but well-balanced, forming a whole structure. That’s what your writing is like. Playful, artful, throwing a lovely shadow on the wall, moving together gracefully.” I hope that readers of EVIDENCE will be able to see the whole as well as the pieces and how they interact with each other. I hope they will be struck by the notion of how light and shadow live next to each other.

DW: Over on Emu’s Debuts, I loved reading about your childhood closet filled with books and a pillowy place to read them, and was touched to learn that Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty especially spoke to you because it “told the truth about love and cruelty—two impossible roommates in the human heart.” This is a book that I missed as a kid and only just read it about five or six years ago. When I read it, I was also struck by Black Beauty’s struggles to be good. The stereotypical bookish kid tends to be well behaved and not to be a rabble rouser. Because your work takes on tough topics and emotions with such insight I have the sense that for you, like Black, childhood was a time of struggling with complexity and struggling to be good. You have explained beautifully why you write edgy YA (link), but could you also speak more about the role of books in your life as a younger kid: Did books save you? Does your relationship with books when you were young play a role in how you write for young people today?

LL: Books held me. My world was pretty safe and middle class. Still, I think every kid in the world goes through moments, short or extended, where they feel at odds with their surroundings and pretty much at the effect of the adults in their lives. It’s part of growing up. During those times I folded myself into the pages of a book. I lost my awkwardness in those pages. I grew through the awkwardness.

You know, one of my characters in EVIDENCE says that treating other people like you like to be treated is ingrained in our collective cells (aka the golden rule). She believes Tommy will be found and nothing bad has happened. In other words, I think we all strive to goodness. Really. I think that’s the miracle and wonder of books. We can open the pages of a book and see characters struggle to hold on to their goodness. That’s why I opened books. I wanted to see the characters fall in love, get lost, get hurt, survive, overcome the odds. I wanted to experience how they wrestled with their problems. As a teen, I read way ahead of my age level, trying to grow up as fast as I could. I think it satisfied a curiosity but kept me safely on the sidelines. We may want our sixteen year olds to have sugarplums dancing in their heads forever but chances are pretty good they won’t. As I said in my blog, I think edgy YA addresses a need for kids who want to look over the edge but not jump.

I do want to be clear about something, though. I don’t write edgy just to write edgy. It has to come from the heart of the characters. It has to make sense in the context of the story. It can’t be gratuitous. It can’t distract from the plot. For example, in the section of EVIDENCE called The Proposal, Marshall takes Leann out to the pull-out to tell her he likes her and wants to be with her but Leann freezes up and asks to go home. The reader knows the disconnection comes from Leann’s history of incest. Her intimacy meter was broken years before but Marshall has no idea. I didn’t want to write about incest. I wanted to write about the unseen cost of incest in this one moment in time. Will readers get a flashback glimpse of incest? Yes. Will it be gratuitous? I sure hope not.

DW: In your terrific post “Debut Author To Do List”  writing the next book is one of your key items. Can you tell us anything about what you are working on next?

LL: I don’t want to say too much because it dilutes my energy of working on it. The working title is Inside the Notes. Here is the inciting incident: A young girl arrives in Boston. First time away from home. She is staying with a couple near the music conservatory where she is studying for four weeks. As she is unpacking, the clock radio in her room clicks on and she hears men’s voices reading poetry and letters. It is a prison radio show. The girl knows her father is in prison for killing her mother when she was two years old. It is the first time she has considered he might be real and have a voice.

DW: This sounds fantastic! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and process with us. I can’t wait to hold my copy of Evidence of Things Not Seen in my hands on September 16th!