These are tough times. Not happy times. We worry for ourselves, our loved ones, the world.
It feels like yesterday, the anticipation of baseball. The blossoms on the cherry trees, the joy of being together outside, at parties.
It feels like a million years ago.
We are all trying to do our part, and I’ve never been prouder of my fellow authors. There are so many options of things for you and your kids to find on line, that it quickly becomes overwhelming. I do think about those who don’t have internet access (where I’m spending my “retreat”, access is spotty, so I can commiserate.)
But we’ll keep trying. I’m part of a collective of authors over on Twitter called Stuck at Home Book Chat (https://twitter.com/ArtistChat). It’s a series of short videos of authors answering frequently asked questions. It’s fun and you can pick your favorite authors to watch. And please ask us questions, too – we’ll answer.
Take care, be safe, stay distanced. Listen to the doctors. We’ll be back to normal one day and this will feel like a nightmare that is over.
There still are cherry trees.
In the next weeks I’ll go back to sharing writing craft tips because that’s what I love to do.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention that hidden away in my catalogue is a YA sci-fi novel that I wrote a few years back and published on line, just because. It describes a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by not a pandemic but close – an invasion of nanotech.
I’ll add that it has an optimistic, hopeful ending. And a love story.
Edited to add: check out the links in the comments. We’re updating regularly! And if you are an author or illustrator looking to add to this list, please do comment or contact me. Thanks!
Wow. What a world. I don’t know about you, but things are changing in my domain at a rapid clip.
With so many kids out of school, it’s got to be hard to find good entertainment (that might even sneak in a little education). And if you aren’t a kid, you may be finding your new “sheltering-in-place” way of life either anxiety-provoking (too much news!) or boring (even binge-watching gets old).
So I’ve put my craft posts on a brief hold for a week or two while I try to help you all find things to do, for yourselves and the ones you love.
For The Kiddos (And Young At Heart)
The inimitable author Kate Messner has created a special resource realm, Read, Wonder, and Learn, with authors reading from their books, suggesting writing prompts, giving mini-lectures on interesting topics, etc. A fun place to find treasures!
And the best suggestion of all is this one: bookstorelink. I’d never heard of it, but type in any book you’re searching for and it will connect you with a local indie that can, in many cases, hand-deliver books to your door, or your waiting car. Cool, huh?
(If you live in Bozeman Montana, my wonderful indie, Country Bookshelf, has confirmed that they will deliver prepaid books within city limits or curbside. Go for it!)
Librarians are awesome. Information at their fingertips, and they know how to use it. Here’s a link to everything you might need to get through the next few weeks.
I’ll be updating this site with new things I find and if you have anything appropriate to share, please share in the comments. Thanks and hang in there!
This is the fourth post in my series on character.
The External Goal
We need to see your character’s internal desire explicit on the page, but your character also needs something driving her forward in the plot, and this is her external goal.
The internal desire and external goal are related, of course, but they can be quite different. The external goal is what we see on the surface of the story. It’s the mystery of who-done-it. It’s the McGuffin. It’s the Lost Ark. It’s inherent in the story and set within your plot, and is set in motion in the inciting incident that starts your story.
This is in contrast to the internal desire, which has been within your character from long before your story began.
Let’s Compare Goal With Desire
In the previous post I used some examples of internal desire – let’s see how the same stories express the external goals.
Harry Potter’s external goal is to defeat Voldemort. It’s that simple. Voldemort is the antagonist, and he’s pretty awful not only to Harry but also to his friends, and by the end, to the entire world, magical and muggle.
Katniss Everdeen’s external goal is to defeat the hierarchy that created and supports the Hunger Games. She survives through force of will, primarily in order to bring down this terrible society.
Frodo Baggins’s external goal is to get rid of the ring of power by throwing it into Mount Doom, and thereby defeating Sauron.
All three of these external goals are pretty straightforward, right? They drive the protagonist’s actions and they account for the action in every scene in the story. You can see how markedly they differ from the protagonist’s internal desire. The latter is, again, the emotional arc; the external goal is a pure plot arc.
A Good Story Needs Both
We’ve all seen movies or read books in which things are all action, all the time. Pretty boring, in my view. Without the layer of internal desire, the external goal is pure entertainment without depth. But without a compelling external goal, a story can be equally boring – an inside-your-head ego trip.
One of the reasons I think the Avengers movie series is so successful is that, while there’s a ton of action, each of the characters also has emotional depth and an internal arc (from love story to filial responsibility to struggles with rage). The stories are kept in balance, and we keep watching.
Notice also how often a great story pits the external goal against the internal desire. Harry wants a family, but in his struggle against Voldemort he puts everyone he loves in danger – and he is internally conflicted, too, as is Frodo in his mission to destroy the ring. Katniss wants to protect Prim, but she antagonizes the “state” and threatens everyone and everything by doing so. When a character’s internal desire bumps up against the external goal the result is conflict, that essential element in great fiction.
My recommended reading for this aspect of craft is Debra Dixon’s GMC: Goal, Motivation, & Conflict.
Next week we’ll pull this all together with what we mean by the story’s stakes.
This post covers the third in my series on character.
That kinda grabs your attention, doesn’t it?
Back when I was an MFA student at Vermont College, faculty member and writer Louise Hawes gave a lecture with that title, and her evocative enunciation of the word desire sticks with me today. As does her point.
Which is: your main character must have an internal desire that drives her from the beginning to the end of her story arc. (Note that your character will also have an external goal, particular to your story, which I’ll discuss in the next blog post. This post speaks to that internal driving desire or yearning that your main character has held long before your story even begins.)
Your job as writer is to know and be able to articulate that desire and understand how it will drive every action your character takes as well as how it is realized by the end of your book.
Some Examples of Internal Desires
Let’s see what some novels contain for internal character desire, as a way to understanding what it means.
Harry Potter’s main desire is to “find” his “lost” parents. To have a family. It’s the only way he believes he’ll ever understand himself. He has many substitute parents throughout the stories (Dumbledore, Sirius, Hagrid to name a few) but in the end he finds solace with the large family of wizards and witches, and finds his community – which is what we all do when we become adults.
Katniss Everdeen’s main desire is to protect her sister Prim. It’s been her desire ever since their father died. That desire drives everything – her volunteering as tribute, her determination to live. She protects others (Peeta) when she can. And though Katniss’s desire is thwarted, it is reshaped into her desire for love.
Frodo Baggins’s main desire is to be something of a wanderer. He wants to explore, to be an adventurer. “He’s more of a Brandybuck,” some say disparagingly. He jumps at the chance to leave home (which makes a perfect contrast with his companion Sam, who’d rather stay home), and in the end Frodo gets what he desires, as he really never returns to Hobbiton.
What Connects All These Internal Desires?
You probably guessed the answer to that question already from what I’ve been saying in earlier posts. These characters’ internal desires are driven by their deep, sometimes not articulated or even recognized, emotions. Yearning is another word for this.
Harry yearns to belong. Katniss yearns to protect. Frodo yearns to adventure. Every emotion that surrounds these internal desires is fully expressed through the characters’ actions and reactions – in other words, through what they do, i.e., the plot.
This is how you tie together your character and your plot. Your main character’s internal desire is expressed through her emotional responses to what happens in your story. The craft book I recommend for understanding this aspect of character is Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story.
Understanding your main character’s internal desire is step one to a fully rounded story and a strong story arc. Step two is understanding your main character’s external goal, which I’ll cover in my next post.
The title of this post is a little deceptive. There is a musicality to great writing, isn’t there? Words that soar and sing. Sentences that ebb and flow. Paragraphs that lead you in one direction and then plop you down in a foreign land. A beautifully written book is “word music”.
But that’s not all.
Of all the things a writer needs to think about when crafting a story, voice is most closely tied to diction and syntax. Which means that beyond the musicality – the gorgeous words and lyrical writing – the writer has to be aware of what kind of word choices and sentence structure will convey the character’s “truth”: truth in who they are, and in what they feel.
Voice, in other words, stems directly from character. And character is driven by emotion.
Yup, there we are again – emotion.
What, Exactly, Is Voice?
Point of view (POV) is the way we describe who is telling the story. POV can be written in first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and rarely, second person. (Another discussion for another post.)
Voice, on the other hand, is a subtle combination of tone, character, and narrative style. It’s difficult to find a straightforward craft book guide to voice, but the closest I’ve seen is in Writing Fiction: A Guide To The Narrative Craft. I highly recommend this deep and intense book to the student of the craft – read it carefully and you’ll learn as much here as you would as you would in an entire MFA program.
I gave a presentation a while back in which I go into much more detail about voice, and you can download a copy of it here: Crafting Voice. There’s a lot more to digest on this subject than I have room for in this post, although I also wrote another post a while back that includes some exercises and you can find it here.
However, I can say that the narrative voice of a piece of writing should reflect three aspects of your work:
Who is my character? What kind of person is he or she? How does she talk, act, and think?
What is the tone or approach my book should take toward my subject matter? Am I trying to create a contemporary high school scene, or a historical drama, or a high fantasy?
What is the underlying theme of my novel and what impression do I want the reader to feel throughout the reading? What emotion do I want my reader to take away after finishing the book?
Voice Is All About Emotion – The Character’s and The Reader’s
Once again, we arrive back at what I think is the heart of great story-telling: knowing the emotional drivers for your characters, and knowing what emotions you hope to evoke in your readers. The way to channel character emotions and arouse emotions in your readers is partly through your choice of words – through the narrative voice. In addition, you must keep in mind the kind of story you’re trying to tell, to capture the right tone. And finally, your theme – the message you want to convey to your reader – also contributes to the emotional response you’ll create in your reader.
Whether you’re writing a serious futuristic novel or a contemporary rom-com, your word choice must reflect the emotional heart of your story, so that your reader will absorb and relate to it at a subconscious level. And your word choice will also be driven by how your character feels and what she knows about life.
Backstory. The first of five important character elements…
An Example of Backstory
When I was about five, my parents took me and my sister to Daytona Beach, Florida. Those were the days when you could drive a car right across the sand to the waterfront (I know, right?) It was, I’m pretty sure, my first beach experience, since we lived in the Midwest at the time. I had these beach toys I loved – a matching bucket, shovel, and fork in swirly pink and white vinyl.
Daytona Beach, back in the day
At some point, fetching water, I lost the bucket and was desolate, and then, wading out sobbing while trying to retrieve it, I was knocked flat by a wave. I was under water for no more than maybe thirty seconds, and, after dragging me sputtering from the ocean, my dad found the bucket, but that was all it took. I hated swimming from that moment, and am still terrified in water over my head.
This fear was exacerbated when I was twelve and my parents insisted on swimming lessons that were conducted in a public pool where we girls were all forced to strip naked and take a public shower together before putting on our swim suits – something that today would be or should be illegal and at the time was utterly humiliating to a girl on the edge of puberty.
Now, just to add to that emotional baggage, my mom later told me a story about how she almost drowned in the ocean as a young woman, and when she was pulled from the water the undertow had stripped off her bathing suit. My worst fears all in one place.
The Wound Leads To The Misbelief
My relationship to water/swimming/the ocean would be an example of what is called a “backstory wound”. Imagine, now, a character with that wound who must confront the water during an emotional high point in the arc of a story. Who must act against all instincts created by that wound.
Lisa Cron, in her incisive book Story Genius, suggests that we all suffer from our backstory wounds, but in a particular fashion. The wound sets up a belief in the mind of the character. But this belief is based on the false premises made by deep emotions (like fear), so Cron calls it the character’s misbelief, because our cognitive unconscious “often steers us in the wrong direction, all the while thinking it’s doing us a favor.” Saving us from fear or embarrassment or loss.
Cron states: “How your protagonist overcomes this misbelief is what your story is about.”
The Misbelief Directs The Story
A character’s story, then, is all about the how. In the case of my own backstory wound my misbelief could be any one of these:
Water is terrifying, a force beyond control
The ocean is a thief that will steal the things you love
I would never wear a bathing suit without a robe because I’m so embarrassed by my body
I would never learn to swim anyway because I might die
Each of these misbeliefs would lead to a different kind of story, with different incidents and actions. In other words, the backstory wound and the history of a character with this wound sets up any number of possible story lines.
Your job as a writer is to:
Determine your character’s backstory
Discover their wound
Uncover their misbelief
Construct your story around your character, in action, overcoming this misbelief
This is only one of the ways to deepen your character and create a richer and more emotionally compelling story, but it’s certainly one of my favorites. Cron offers a number of exercises that will help you enrich your character.
As I stated in my last post, I believe that all (good) stories are character-driven. Let’s discuss.
At The Heart of All Stories
When you pick up a novel, how long does it take before you commit to reading it all the way through? I’m no longer feeling that I have to slog through something that bores me, so for me, I give a novel about thirty pages. And in those thirty pages, what am I looking for?
Well, a number of things. I want to be drawn in to the concept. I easily tire of bad language/poorly written stories. I like to be able to picture the world, and I don’t want something to be paced either too slowly or too quickly. But for me, the essential element in a good story is – can I relate to the character?
How Do We Build Characters?
One of my story vision boards – the largest picture is my character.
There are as many ways for writers to build a character as there are ways to build a plot. Search the internet and you can find character questionnaires, character backstory builders, character psychological analyses, character dramatic studies, character emotional mind-maps. I’ve conducted day-long workshops on character, and I’ve probably tried every one of the possible architectures, including hands-on processes like crafting a character scrapbook and making a character vision board.
All this to say: characters should be as humanly-relatable as possible, and therefore are just as complex.
Of course, you and I and everyone on the planet develops our “character” with every passing second we’re on this earth. For a writer, it’s impossible to create that kind of complexity, so how in the world do we writers manage to create characters that most of us would recognize the instant we met them?
Jay Gatsby. But you already knew that, right?
If you don’t believe me, how about Jay Gatsby? Or Starr Carter? Katniss Everdeen? Harry Potter (or any one of the multitude of characters in his world)? Aria Stark? I could go on…
Back To The Heart, Again…
While there are many time-consuming exercises that writers can employ – and, trust me, I’ve done them all – I think great characters can be boiled down to a few key elements, all centered around a single, driving human concept: emotion. I talked a bit about this in a past post, but I’m going to talk a lot more about this emotional driver that I believe is at the heart of all good stories.
But let’s break the elements of the emotional driver down. Here are those that I think are crucial for writers to address when it comes to characters:
I’m going to discuss each of these over the next few posts, and each deserves its own moment in the spotlight. Indeed, each of these is so powerful a tool for writers to understand that you can find a craft book for every one, as you’ll see.
As promised in my last blog post, in this one I’m going to address the multiple ways you can look at plot, and how simplifying your approach may in fact help.
The Plot Paradigm
The earliest plot paradigm harks all the way back to Aristotle, who defined the three-act structure in his Poetics, as this: each story has a beginning, middle, and end. Since that time a number of authors have adapted this simple structure into a variety of more detailed formulae. I put together the following chart a while back in order to see all of my favorite plot paradigms in one place:
If you search the web you can find all sorts of other plots structures – some good, some wickedly complex – that purport to help a writer discover their plot. Some will take you scene-by-scene through a novel. Some hark to a screenplay structure. Some will help you with rising tension, some with the tentpole-middle moment, some through a hero’s journey, some by envisioning a snowflake, some pay attention to the middle muddle.
Just to help you feel better if you are struggling with plot, my friend the author Caroline Starr Rose recently posted about her own insecurities and attempts to find the “right” way to plot. And she’s written three compelling novels, so something must be working.
Here’s the bottom line: you need to find the paradigm that suits you. That suits your brain. The way you think and work.
Simplifying The Process
Having said that, I do believe that there are a couple of things you can do to find that perfect structure that fits your personality and writing style without losing your mind trying every single one.
First, I submit that all stories are really about one thing: a character with a desire. The arc of a story is determined by following the character’s desire to fruition – to her goal. The best stories place multiple obstacles (including an antagonist) in the path of the character so that she can learn and grow as she overcomes them to reach her goal.
Here’s what I do now, before I begin my “plantsing” routine:
Determine my character’s desire and goal.
Determine what obstacles (in general) will be placed between the character and her goal.
Determine how/whether she will reach her goal (happy versus sad ending).
Any one of these plot paths/outlines/strategies would accomplish the same outcome for the above three simple determinations. I’ve used each of these plot plans at least once, and some more. Now I think a simpler structure works for me. I gauge scenes the way I envision the entire novel – with rising and falling action. This is the “plotter” part of my work.
The key is that I have a trajectory – a desire line, with a desired outcome – and that allows me then to “pants”, or be an organic writer, as I like to do.
At The Scene Level
Now, there is one complication to such simplicity. At the scene level, the character must not only encounter obstacles in the face of rising and falling action – the character must have a reason to be in the scene, and there must be an outcome to the character’s actions. This “cause-and-effect” trajectory is what propels a story forward and why so many of these more complicated models are appealing, as they often address this second-level, scene-level, tension-building trajectory. So, if you need help finding that second-level arc, check out the various possibilities.
I think your instincts will guide you to the best fit for you.
One other caveat – I’ve discovered that my needs and issues have morphed over time and that each novel presents a new and unique challenge. In other words, there is no one right way to write.
In a future post I’m going to talk more about character, as I sincerely believe that all stories – all – are inherently character-driven.
How To Find Your Plot Model
Here are some (and only some!) of the models and craft books that will lead you to your “best fit” to see plot:
Martha Alderson: The Plot Whisperer Workbook
James Scott Bell: (anything of his but especially) Write Your Novel From the Middle
Lisa Cron: Story Genius
Christopher Vogler: The Writer’s Journey
Syd Field: (anything again but especially) The Screenwriter’s Workshop
Here’s the next in my series of blog posts on writing craft…
When I began writing fiction (a long time ago, now) I had no idea what I was doing. Really. Not a clue. Sure, I’d been an English major in college. Yes, I loved to read. And, of course, I’d messed around with words and writing all through my youth. You could call it, “random acts of bad poetry”.
But writing a book, a novel, from start to finish? How did that even happen? Magic? Throwing a dictionary at the wall and seeing where the words landed? I had no idea.
I bumbled around, trying to find my way. I wrote short stories, I sent them out, I accumulated rejections. I wrote three rather terrible novels for adults, and never bothered to send them out. So, I did what lots of people do.
I gave up.
I went back to school and got my MS in geology, then studied interior design, then moved to landscape architecture, then moved to working for a variety of nonprofits, then did a stint as a teacher of English. I was writing, but I was writing brochures and flyers and design proposals and lesson plans.
But writing – fiction writing – was still calling to me, and during a serious down time (a new baby) I went back to trying my hand at writing fiction. (Thank goodness, because I’d hate to be where I am today and never tried writing again. But I digress.)
How I Went Back to Writing
This time I found support through local writing groups run by authors. I sold a short story that won a local award. I sold a second short story to a prestigious journal. I discovered that writing for children was a thing, and that it really appealed to me and fit my voice, and I joined SCBWI. I wrote a short story that was published in Spider Magazine. I wrote a nonfiction self-help book for kids and sold it myself, a major event. But I still had no idea how to write a novel. I just wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
It still is a mystery as to how I finally wrote a novel that had some appeal, and after struggling with it for several years, found an agent through a bit of luck (another story for another time) who coached me through to a sale, and found an editor who coached me through to publication, and thus my first novel, FAITHFUL, was born.
As it turns out, I was pantsing all the way.
What Is Pantsing? And, Does It Work?
Pantsing is the act of writing organically, or “by the seat of your pants”. It sits in opposition to “plotting”, or designing a book from start to finish before writing.
Because I had success with this pantsing model, it stuck with me all the way up to nearly the present. I thought I had to write this way because it was the only way my mind would work. And after all, E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” So, writing is supposed to be like flying blind, right?
Now, as it turns out, I was – partly – wrong.
I’ve recently discovered that there are ways to design a book that are not constraining, that can still allow for that organic pantsing style I like, because I do like the serendipity of discovering a character or a plot turn while I’m in the creative flow. But now I realize that having certain direction, having a template or a path, helps me to write faster, more efficiently, with greater depth and clarity and much less confusion or exhaustion. My characters come to life more quickly, my plot unfolds with fewer mis-steps, and I feel easier in my work.
It’s still essential to revise, of course, and I’m not saying it’s all perfect, but this revelation has freed me in unexpected ways. I’m hoping that I might convince you to try moving more toward the middle, from whichever end of the spectrum you have started.
Because I now believe it’s possible to end the war between plotter and pantser. Should we call it “plantsing”?
In future posts – stayed tuned for the next post in which I give you specific techniques – I’m going to share some of the things, some of the things I’ve learned that may help you to design your book in a plotting way, yet allowing you to still enjoy the freedom that comes with pantsing, with generating that creative energy that we all love to feel.
Big Picture Story
As an aside, I’m studying to become a book coach. I hope to be open to take on clients by summer 2020. You’ll hear more about what I’ll be doing, right here, and later as I launch Big Picture Story Coaching for kidlit authors. Please stay tuned.
This is the next in my series of blog posts speaking to craft. Today, I’ll take a holistic approach to the work.
Maybe you’re writing your first (or third, or sixth) book. Maybe you’re still a beginner, hoping to write a book one day. You have the spark of an idea: a character, a concept, a paragraph. You’re nervous and anxious, because you’re sure that you don’t have what it takes to get it right when you’re translating this spark from your head to the page.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since I began pursuing this writing thing for real, it’s that there’s no one right way to write a book. But…there is one thing that will help you to write closer to your vision, and even feel satisfied along the way.
I want to encourage you to write from your heart, and write to the heart of the matter.
Find Your Emotional Driver
My first published book is a self-help nonfiction guide for kids. It rose out of my own frustrated attempts to help my learning-challenged son navigate middle school.
My first published novel is historical fiction about a girl trying to find her missing mother while living in (then still-wild) Yellowstone National Park. I wrote it while trying to cope with the sudden unexpected death of my own mother while visiting Yellowstone almost every summer with my son.
Both of these books rose from a deep emotional well. I wanted my son to succeed, so I researched and wrote a book that would help not only him but the many, many kids who struggle with organization and study skills. I wanted to reconnect with my lost mother, so I wrote a book about a teen girl who found her lost mother within herself. Though I wasn’t aware of these emotional drivers while I was writing, it is now clear to me that the deeply personal basis from which I was writing contributed to the books’ acceptance and success.
And even if they had never been published, they were both deeply satisfying for me to write.
All this to say: look at your current project, step back, and ask yourself what your emotional connection is to the work you’re contemplating or writing.
One exercise that might help take you to this deeper emotional level in your work is to sit quietly, eyes closed, take a few slow, deep breaths, and ask yourself the following:
What am I most anxious that the protagonist of my story should experience?
What am I most anxious that the protagonist of my story not experience?
In what way am I most like my protagonist?
What would I say, if I could go back in time, to my twelve-year-old self?
What would I say, if I could, to my twelve-year-old protagonist?
Connecting to Your Reader
These questions may spark some strong emotions in you. If they do, draw from that well. Put those feelings into your work. Let your character experience both the pain and the joy that you’ve uncovered.
Make that emotional connection between you and your work, whether it’s nonfiction self-help or historical fiction or fantasy or comedy… Your reader will make the emotional connection, too, and will thank you for putting words to something they may not be able to express.
For that’s the entire purpose of writing: making connections between you, the writer, and the reader you reach.