Character or Plot: Which Comes First?

I’m a fan of the Marvel Universe.

I find the dialogue snappy, I love the embedded humor, I enjoy the ridiculous costumes and sets, and even the not terribly well-hidden messages.

But these mindless movies beg one serious writerly question: is the plot or the characters? Do we create plot-driven or character-driven stories and why? (For some of my earlier posts on this, see this one on character, and this one on plot, and then link through to other posts I’ve written on these topics.)

Plot-driven Stories

We know them when we see them. The plots are almost always the same.

  • Bad guy wants to take over the universe.
  • Good guys team up to defeat bad guy.
  • There might be a little spark of romance here and there.
  • There are amazing toys that do amazing/impossible things.
  • The good and bad guys do amazing/impossible things.
  • Usually only the bad guy dies. (If the good guy dies, he/she is resurrected in the next movie.)

These plots are formulaic, which is why I think they resonate – we don’t have to do much thinking to make sense of what’s going on. They are purely plot-driven stories. If we compare them to books, these are they murder mystery series, the spy series, the pulpy romances. They are the James Patterson clones. They often dominate the best-seller lists because they’re like candy – we can devour them happily, with a lasting sugar high. They make their authors a ton of money.

Marvel poster featuring characters

Notice the featuring of characters in these posters.

Character-driven Stories

Character-driven stories are more plot-complex. That’s because when we are really resonating with the character, we find those internal monologues, those changing and conflicting arcs, the nuances and mistakes and foibles of characters intriguing.

The complexity of character requires complexity of plot.

Now, I happen to think the Marvel Universe movies do a great job of character-building, too. Take Thor. He’s super-cute, but he’s super obnoxious (he really can’t die – he’s a god). He lords it over the other strong guys in the room in an offhand but irritating way. And when he falls apart (spoiler alert! – in Avengers: Endgame) Thor gains a ton of weight, drinks himself silly, gives up his throne, and generally feels so sorry for himself that he’s ridiculous but still loveable.

Or Tony Stark. Also obnoxious but that’s because he’s a genius and he knows it. He’s got snappy dialogue and a happy-sappy romance. He’s a hero because he comes up with the most brilliant solutions (in the most annoying ways). He rises to the occasion in monumental fashion in Endgame (no spoiler!)

There are lots of plot-driven movies out there that are just noisy trigger-happy drive-bys. I don’t find these very entertaining in the end. The Marvel movies, in my view, rise above because they have actiony plots but also employ great characters.

Take Lessons From Marvel: Write For Character

Whatever you are writing, you’ll have a protagonist and an antagonist, so even if it’s plot-driven, aspire to be like Marvel. Here is my checklist for your most important characters:

Protagonist:

  • Does your main character have true agency?
  • Are their actions driving the plot forward?
  • Do they make mistakes?
  • Do they make sacrifices?
  • Can you make them both larger-than-life and make their mistakes larger than their triumphs?
  • Can they struggle and suffer even as they aspire to be heroic?

Antagonist:

  • Does your antagonist look/act like a mindless rock monster, or do they believe they are the true hero of the story? (Think Thanos here – he really believes he’s saving the universe from overpopulation by eliminating half the beings in the universe. That is a noble idea, albeit warped.)
  • Can your antagonist outgun and outthink your protagonist until the bitter end?
  • Can we like your antagonist and/or feel sorry for them, even if it’s only for a moment?

Marvel does these character things so well that there are now (count ‘em!) 33 movies, many mega-hits, and still more to come. The next time you watch a plot-driven movie, look too at the characters. I’m betting the more complex the characters, the bigger your enjoyment.

Do you like Marvel movies?

KidLit Bundle Ends Tonight!

Kidlit Writers – ICYMI!

I contributed to this Infostack bundle because I think it’s an incredible deal. For $67, you have access to a wide assortment of inspiring materials, gathered from talented authors, to help you write your best book.

Now, to sweeten the pot I’m adding to the deal: if you have bought this bundle from my link, or buy it today, I’ll throw in my coaching on my Story Heart Workbook for free!

Yes, I want the KidLit 2.0 Bundle!

Today is your LAST DAY to get:

✔ Lifetime access to 10 comprehensive ecourses, ebooks, workbooks, and masterclasses designed to help you plan, write, illustrate, edit, and publish your kid’s book no matter your expertise or level. If you have a kid’s story you long to write, these top tools and resources will show you how to create the children’s book of your dreams with the know-how and confidence of a professional.

✔ Picture Book Manuscript Assessment Discount (plus a bonus course). Don’t let your story languish or get lost in the slush pile! Get an expert picture book manuscript assessment from internationally published author and professional editor Suzanne to learn the techniques and actionable insights you can apply right away to make your book the best it can be.

✔ 12 months access to Masterclass: How to get stunning book illustrations that tell your story for less. Discover how to get the best book for your budget with this insightful and savvy video masterclass complete with an action checklist created to assist both new and seasoned authors alike.

✔ Instant access to 15+ products including workshops, communities, templates, workbooks, coaching, and more worth over $2,000…

Take a sneak peek inside to see everything you get. So here’s the question:
Do you want to…

Gain the necessary skills to write a book children (and their carers) will love?

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Know exactly how to make your picture book shine, get noticed by publishers and engage your readers?

Then you absolutely don’t want to miss out on this bundle of tools and resources created by KidLit creators especially for KidLit creators!

Check out the full lineup here before it disappears, forever.

Yes! I want the Kidlit 2.0 Bundle!

P.S. Remember, this offer includes my fully endorsed support of Infostack’s products and their industry-leading, 60 day, 100% satisfaction guarantee.

That means you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Don’t miss out.
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Now Something For Writers

Teachers please note that my big giveaway of 3 classroom sets of my picture book Volcano Dreams is still running, until midnight April 8. Comment below or in the previous post to enter!!
 

For Writers: A Bundle of Tools

 
This week, for you writers I’m also participating in an Infostack.io bundle.
 
 
What they do is hand-curate fantastic collections of premium tools and resources valued at thousands of dollars, and they offer the whole package at a massively discounted price for a limited time.
 
And today, they’re rolling out their latest and greatest bundle for KidLit creators: KidLit Creators 2.0
 
KidLit Creators 2.0 is the ultimate collection of tools, training, and resources for authors who want to write and publish children’s books, for an insanely low price. Inside KidLit Creators 2.0, you’ll find chart-topping ebooks, full-length ecourses, A+ rated services, and more from KidLit pros.
 

My Contribution: Discover Your Story Heart Workbook

 
This Infostack includes my own workbook, Discover Your Story Heart.
 
I’ve spent many hours (years, really) culling what I see as the best prompts and exercises to getting to the heart of your story, fast, and compiling this information into one easy-to-use workbook.
 
Ordinarily you’d have to pay $310 to receive it but for the next few days you can find my entire workbook, plus many more great tools, in this Infostack for only $49. (*Note: On Friday April 8 at midnight this price increases to $67, so for the best discount, don’t wait!)
 
Here is the order link:

Volcano Dreams Book Giveaway

This week I’m featuring a giveaway to help our teachers, who are right now facing such difficulties across the board. This is the one thing I can do to say, “thanks for all you do”.

I have three (yes, three!) full classroom sets of paperbacks of my picture book Volcano Dreams to give away. That’s 25 copies of the book in each set. I’ll add copies up to 30 if you have more kiddos in your classroom.

 

Volcano Dreams: A Story of Yellowstone is my nonfiction picture book for ages 5-9, illustrated by Marlo Garnsworthy, published by Web of Life Children’s Books. It tells the story of the Yellowstone super volcano with scientific accuracy (I have a Master’s degree in geology) and is bookended by images of the myriad animals that live in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Here’s a short video about the book:

If you are a teacher with plans to teach earth sciences and/or natural history and/or western ecosystems, Volcano Dreams can form a part of your curriculum. I’m putting together a text set for the book, which should be available by mid-April, to help you create lesson plans. Additional ideas can be found here, in the exercises I’ve already developed for this book.

To enter the giveaway, please comment below with your name and school. You can also enter this giveaway on Twitter. Extra points for subscribing to my mailing list (where you’ll hear other teacher-friendly information; just click the link at the bottom of the page) and for Title 1 schools, so please let me know if that’s you. Giveaway ends April 8 at midnight.

A special note: my second picture book, Wintergarden, will be out from Neal Porter Books in the fall of 2023, illustrated by Jasu Hu.

And again – thanks for all YOU do.

Writers! Back Away Slowly…

I was listening to a writing discussion with Jennie Nash and Allison Williams the other night and Allison made a comment that the writers who succeed are the ones who can put the work down and come back to it with a fresh eye.

I know from personal experience how important that fresh eye can be. I’m working now on a book that I struggled with five years ago – and it broke my heart to put it aside when I couldn’t make it work. I’ve just picked it up again and – lo! – I’m loving every page, every sentence. Now I can see what the book means to me and what I want it to mean for the reader.

Neil Gaiman has said that when he first tried to write The Graveyard Book he struggled, and had to put it aside, and he did – for ten years. He admitted that he didn’t know how to write it, that he didn’t have the chops, until ten years later.

I’m not advocating for a ten year hiatus, or even five, but a break is essential to really get a grip on your work.

When To Take a Break

  • After that terrible first draft – and trust me, all first drafts are terrible, like it or not – is the first time to take that break.
  • Take a break whenever you stop truly loving the story. You’ll be fighting with your spirit if you try to muscle through.
  • Take a break as soon as you hit send to your critique partner, agent, editor, book coach. You’ll be better able to take their edits if you’ve stepped back.

And how long to take that break? I think three weeks minimum, six weeks maximum – unless like me and Neil you are just not ready to write that particular story. Some books are harder to master than others.

When To Find an Editor

If you feel that you can’t leave the story behind, and you know something isn’t working but you can’t put your finger on what it is, and if you don’t have a critique partner or you aren’t getting enough feedback or getting confusing/mixed feedback, that’s the time to find an outside editor.

An entire industry has grown up in the past three-four years around editing. I’ve got a book coaching business in which it’s my job to help a writer write, finish, and polish their book. There are dozens and dozens of fine book coaches and editors who will help you polish your work. I’ve hired one myself, so I truly know how invaluable a service it can be.

Here’s where you can start looking for that perfect-fit book coach (plus lots of writing support): Author Accelerator

What’s Happening on Page 50

Allison said something else that I found particularly interesting, and though it doesn’t bear directly on the subject of setting the work aside, it does bear on editing.

So many writers begin their story too early, with a lot of what we call “throat-clearing”. We writers think the reader needs to know all sorts of stuff so we pad it in there up front, in the opening pages.

Allison suggested that you hand your manuscript to a trusted reader and ask them to start reading on page 50. Are they confused? Are they lost? Is there information they need that they don’t have? If the answer to these questions is yes, then your earlier pages may be needed. But if not…

Revision is my favorite part of writing. Put your work aside, start something new, take a break, and come back fresh. You’ll be glad you did.

Yes! I’d like to learn about working with Janet Fox, Book Coach

Writing Lessons From an Illustrator

I listened to an excellent lecture today, and with acknowledgement to Eric Castleman, who gave the lecture, I’d love to share with you – reinterpreted for writers – his wise advice.

He didn’t know that he was an artist from the jump. He liked art and dove in – he is entirely self-taught. You can find his work here – and check it out because it’s wonderful, and he has a couple of lovely images available for sale. By being self-taught and deciding that this was his chosen path, he made his own plan for how to become a working artist/illustrator, so here are his reinterpreted “rules”.

By the way, Eric gave his permission for me to display his images – aren’t they amazing?

Eric’s Plan For Becoming a Pro (Reinterpreted for Writers)

  1. Write for one hour each day for a year.

That’s pretty reasonable, right? One hour, carved out of each day, is not a lot. But here’s the thing: I know from experience that if I set out to write for an hour, that (unless there are monumental things happening) that hour will turn in two or three or…

Courtesy Eric Castleman

And it’s the dedication to even an hour of working time that creates space for growth and inspiration.

  1. Share one thing you’ve written each week, with someone.

Critique partner. Teacher. Friend. Family member. If you know you’ll share it, you’ll work harder on it to avoid feeling embarrassed. In Eric’s case, he shared his art online (which I don’t recommend for writing), but find someone to share with. I have two critique partners I trust for feedback, and with them in mind, I keep my hand on the tiller.

  1. Study writing as if you know nothing about writing.

We can always learn something new, and if we have open minds about it, there’s always a craft technique or new approach that can blow our skillset wide open.

  1. Finish one full novel within one year.

Eric made himself finish 15 portfolio-ready illustrations in a year. Maybe you can write even more than one novel. Or finish and revise one novel. Or write ten short stories. Or 15 picture books. Challenge yourself. Make deadlines to keep yourself going.

  1. DO NOT QUIT.

    Courtesy Eric Castleman

More than talent, in my opinion, is staying with the work. Perseverance and persistence are the two qualities any artist needs in order to succeed.

Bonus Lesson(s)

Eric also said that he has tried to find his own style. Everyone’s style is unique. So Eric’s reinterpreted advice I would give to writers –

Lean into what you are good at. If you love romance, go all in for love. If science fiction, bring on the warp speed. Find your writing voice, and the subject matter that stirs your heart, and lean in.

And finally, Eric suggested that there is nothing new under the sun (so true) including no new stories, no new ideas. So go ahead – “steal”. No artist creates in a vacuum; we are all products of history. When I started out, I faithfully retyped full pages of other writers’ work. Not to steal it but to feel it – the cadence, the rhythm, the voice, the tone, the diction and syntax. Study the work of masters, see how they handle the difficult things. If you need writing inspiration or are feeling stuck, read someone else’s work.

So thanks, Eric, for letting me “steal” your terrific ideas.

How To Write Through Trauma

I think we can all agree that the times we are living in – really, for the past 6 years now – are traumatic. From polarization in politics, to the pandemic, to the increasing deleterious effects of climate change, and now to the very real threat of global war, we have the misfortune to be experiencing a unique set of stressors.

It’s hard to be creative when you wake up at 3 AM with the thought that the human race might realistically be facing extinction.

I believe that it is the role of the artist to crack open the barriers that create conflict. In order to get through these times we need to reinterpret them and express what is happening through a different lens, one that is accessible, one that may mirror events but with a flipped reflection.

To see a thing true, sometimes we need to see that thing from another direction.

By Example

[note: All the books I mention here, plus more, can be purchased at my Bookshop store here: https://bookshop.org/lists/books-for-tough-times You can read more about Bookshop here.]

Certain books have become classics precisely because they satirized or exaggerated the prevailing fears of the time: Fahrenheit 451 (book banning/burning); 1984 (brainwashing); Animal Farm (corruption in politics). Ironically, those books have themselves been subject repeatedly to book bans.

Other books have revealed the true horrors of war or of racial injustice (The Diary of Anne Frank; The Hate U Give – both also subject to book bans.)

Regardless of the controversy these books have engendered, they are much needed reflections of the terrible things, as well as the beautiful things, we humans can do to one another. They don’t preach, but show the reader how hatred, prejudice, and the lust for power all corrupt, while acceptance, openness, and knowledge elevate.

To Be an Artist

I believe that to be an artist is, at some level, to assume the responsibility of addressing the expressions of our human nature, bad and good. That by revealing both our beauty and our foibles we are honestly representing our need to listen to our “better angels”.

Try thinking about your work this way:

  • Metaphor. Removing the “thing” you want to say from direct expression can make it more accessible, especially to younger readers. (Animal Farm; Charlotte’s Web)
  • History. Historical perspectives shed light on today’s actions. (Between Shades of Gray; The Diary of Anne Frank)
  • Fantasy/science fiction/spec fiction. Fantasies can be relevant mirrors, albeit distorted. And science fiction and speculative fiction have long been the home for representation of human behavior, good and bad. (Lord of the Rings; The Broken Earth Series; Station Eleven)

Getting through traumatic times, for the artist, is a challenge. But if we think of ways to express the emotions that drive humans in ways both abhorrent and heroic we are not only shining a bright light into darkness, we are opening our own hearts to that light as well.

Publishing: Beyond the Traditional

Publishing. The ugly part of the writing life.

We writers love what we do. We sleep, eat, breathe our characters and plot lines, our worlds and our words. We spend years mastering craft, and more years digging deeper to try and tell the best possible story in the best possible way.

And then, of course, we want to see our work out in the world. We want to inspire and amaze and confound. We want our books in bookstores, in libraries, in reader’s hands. And we also would love to be rewarded for our efforts with a few nice (or glorious) reviews, maybe being on some lists, maybe even winning some awards.

Being a writer is great, until it comes to hawking our wares, because getting a book published through a traditional house at the moment is not easy. Not. At. All.

But I have some concrete suggestions for you, if you are an author frustrated by today’s industry.

Not Too Long Ago…

The way to get books into print was to find a publisher by submitting “over the transom” into a slush pile. When I started out, I attended conferences only to see editors posting pictures of themselves standing next to a pile of towering paper that made the editor look tiny. The deluge, spawned by the birth of the personal computer and the ease of printing multiple copies, had begun.

Soon after, publishers began to close their doors to unsolicited submissions and agents became the gatekeepers, until they, too, were overwhelmed with submissions and closed except to recommendations or requests.

At the Moment…

I’m hearing from industry experts that publishing is overwhelmed. A whole lot of people are writing, and a lot of those books are really good, and many are also justly serving under-represented voices, and many of these excellent books are getting published, and maybe everyone who wasn’t already writing wrote a pandemic book or two, and suddenly it’s really, really hard for a new author to break in. It’s even hard for a veteran author to sell a manuscript through their agent (take my word for it).

Further confounding new authors is the recent demise of #PitchWars and #PitMad, a Twitter forum allowing authors to pitch directly to agents, a practice that became a victim of its huge success.

What’s a New Author To Do?

First, persistence and determination are essential if you really want to land an agent and a major publisher. But there’s good news: the alternatives are actually getting better.

Again, when I started out, the only books being self-published were through “vanity presses” that charged an arm and a leg for a few copies that you might persuade your mom to buy, but they wouldn’t show up in libraries or bookstores. And usually those books were poorly written, badly edited, and sported icky covers.

Now self-publishing (“indie”) is not only acceptable, it’s a place where authors can find an audience and gain recognition. Companies have sprung up specializing in helping get books into the indie marketplace, do-it-yourself options are plentiful, and cover design has become very affordable.

And often overlooked smaller presses are still open to unsolicited submissions.

Here are some industry helpers that I can recommend:

If you have suggestions to add to my list, please let me know!

I’d like to discuss book coaching with Janet

A (Story) Heart for Your Valentine

If you are looking for a gift for the writer in your life – spouse, partner, dear friend, child, parent, or for yourself – I have a “gift” for you!

My targeted coaching package, Discover Your Story Heart, is already a sweet deal but I’m making it sweeter – for one week.

Discover Your Story Heart is a short but robust package designed to get you (or your Valentine) thinking about your story in a new way. Once you sign up, I’ll send you my unique Story Heart Workbook which poses a number of probing questions for you to answer about your work in progress. You’ll return the answers to those questions together with pages from your work. Then I’ll respond with a brief edit letter and we’ll have a 15 minute chat about where you hope to go next.

If you purchase the package as a gift, let me know and I’ll include a Happy Valentine’s Day ecard.

Whether you purchase it for yourself or for someone else, for one week only I am reducing the cost of the package from $220 to $190!

This price reduction expires at midnight, February 14. And the number of spots I hold for this package is limited, so when they fill up, the offer is gone.

If you’d like to take advantage of this special offer, please click the link below. There’s a place for you to let me know if this is a gift, and I’ll include the ecard when I send the instructions to your recipient.

Yes! I want to book your Story Heart Special Offer!

3 Exercises to Uncover Your Personal Life Theme

What the heck is a “personal life theme”? And why, you may ask, would I want to uncover mine? (Do note that this exercise is a bit of personal therapy.)

Aside from the general importance of self-knowledge, for a writer, understanding our life theme can guide us in choosing which books to write and how to write them. I’ve explored this before, but here’s another look at this important technique.

We all want to write books that resonate at a deep emotional level. Uncovering your personal life theme will almost certainly help you reach that level and provide the key to your next best book.

Let’s Define Personal Life Theme

We all (not only our characters) have a backstory. We all carry some baggage from our childhoods, informed by experiences we mostly would like to forget. These experiences may haunt us in the form of a wound, and Lisa Cron in STORY GENIUS has taken those human wounding experiences to character development in the form of a backstory wound. When we uncover our characters’ backstory wounds, we create characters that resonate.

Out of our personal childhood wound, we develop ideologies. For example, someone who has been brought up in a household where parents are absent physically or emotionally might deal with fears of abandonment. Someone who experienced death of a loved one at an early age may deal with fears of death and dying.

Using these ideologies in our characters creates rich characters. But finding our personal ideology – our “life theme” – will enrich all our story-crafting.

If your personal life theme involves “abandonment”, you can use that theme in different ways in each story you craft, whether it be in a story like THE RUNAWAY BUNNY or one like PAX, and it will resonate at a deep subconscious level to produce more deeply emotional stories.

3 Exercises

This exercise can be difficult and may open old wounds so please practice self-care as you delve in.

  1. In a meditative way, take yourself back to age 12. Think of a specific incident or emotional condition that you experienced or felt at that age.
  2. Write a letter to your 12-year-old self from where you are now, letting that self know that everything will be all right, and you are there to protect them.
  3. Take a break, and then come back to the triggering emotions you dealt with at that age in that moment. Those emotions will combine to show you your personal life theme.

Give yourself some peace and comfort. You’ve exposed a wound. But you’ve also given yourself a gift of self-knowledge that may guide you toward richer story-telling.

I’ll cover craft techniques like this and more in my upcoming Masterclass on Writing the Middle Grade Novel. If you are interested in learning more without committing, hit the button below.

Please keep me informed about your Masterclass!