Writers: What’s Your Core Value?

While I was earning my MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Marion Dane Bauer was on the faculty, and she gave a lecture on finding the heart of your work by finding the heart of what moves you. It often comes from your past, and is an issue that you deal with or have dealt with most of your life.

This lecture struck me back then, but not until recently did I realize just how important this idea is for any writer.

Backstory Wounds

If you’ve ever been in therapy, you’re probably familiar with the concept of the “wounded child” and the wound that you carry through life. The wound comes from an experience or set of experiences that you suffered and that you still deal with, and that can negatively affect your adult interactions and behaviors. Some examples of wounds include bullying, abuse, neglect, poverty.

In her book Story Genius, Lisa Cron (in one of my favorite craft books) took the concept of the wounded child and applied it to characters. Characters, like the rest of us, have what she terms “backstory wounds” that then influence their behavior in story.

book cover

Core Value

When Marion described the wound that became a large influence in her life she told the audience that hers was wrapped around the concept of abandonment. In her writing, she discovered that every one of her characters at some level deals with the same wound – feeling abandoned or abandoning someone else.

I’ve decided to call this wound, for the writer, our “core value”. Like the backstory wound, it influences us, but it also influences our writing, and in particular the emotional core of our writing and of our characters.

If we can uncover our core value, we can use it to develop deeper characters and richer emotional experiences for our readers.

Finding Core Values

Marion admitted her core value was around the issue of abandonment. A writer friend who often writes about death and loss recently identified hers as “death”, and I would suggest, knowing her work, the fear of death or loss. After some soul searching I discovered that my own core value is wrapped around the issue of “identity” – “who am I/what will I be”.

This is the question my characters ask constantly in my books. Kat in The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle asks herself whether she believes in magic enough to save her family and friends (and also confronts her inner dark side). Lulu in my forthcoming Carry Me Home asks herself whether she has the strength to carry on in the face of the loss of all comfort and protection (and confronts her mistaken belief that she has to go it alone).

An Exercise For Writers

To explore your core value find a time in your young life when you felt the most vulnerable. Write a letter to yourself from where you are now, telling that inner child that it will be okay. As you write, you won’t be able to really keep the wound in mind but when you step away, the wound will emerge and with it your core value.

Do some self-care as you explore this, as it can be difficult.

Once you’ve discovered your core value, see how it applies to your work in progress. Make it the core value of your protagonist, and of all your protagonists to come.

Remember that emotion on the page comes from the emotion in your heart.

I’d love to hear what you come up with.

Wintergarden and Neal Porter Books

I’m thrilled to be able to share this news!

Wintergarden was written during the pandemic, as I was growing my own microgreens and herbs and flowers indoors during the winter. I hope it will inspire young readers and gardeners everywhere!orchid in greenhouse

“Neal Porter at Holiday House/Neal Porter Books has signed Wintergarden by Janet Fox, about a child’s experience growing an indoor garden in the winter months, illustrated by Jasu Hu. Publication is scheduled for fall 2023; Erin Murphy at Erin Murphy Literary represented the author, and Marzena Torzecka at the Marlena Agency represented the illustrator in the deal for world rights.”

Stay tuned for sneak peeks and indoor gardening tips!

 

 

 

A Writing Prompt For Young Writers

Simon and Schuster, publishers of Carry Me Home (coming August 24) invited me to make a short video with a writing prompt inspired by the novel. I chose to focus on the wish that my main character, Lulu, makes and how she uses the ancient Japanese art of origami to help with that wish.

Here’s the video – suitable for ages 7 and up (and for any kids who love to write, or need a little encouragement) – with the explanation and prompt:


Since wishing is a common device in story-crafting, here’s a way to turn that prompt on its head. Thinking of the adage “be careful what you wish for” craft a story with a wish that goes wrong. You wish for a puppy, but you get a wolf; you wish for a handsome prince, but you have to kiss a frog; you wish for eternal life, but you have to sell your soul – you get the idea. This would make a fun writing exercise for older writers.

Have fun with it, and do share your stories!

Kirkus gave Carry Me Home a nice review: “Fox offers a message via Jack when he learns about Lulu’s life: “No one should have to live in a car.” Cranes—paper ones that Lulu and Selena fold, inspired by both the story of Hiroshima survivor Sadako Sasaki and the sandhill cranes migration—represent wishes granted and a kind of grace, leading to a satisfying, redemptive conclusion nicely pitched to a young audience.”

You can pre-order a signed copy of Carry Me Home here.

Theme, or More To the Point

Confession: I think theme is the hardest thing to define when writing a story.

Often I don’t know the true story theme until I’m well into revision. What’s that you say? How can I write a novel without knowing what I’m writing about?

Great question.

Starting With Character

Honestly, I think all great stories are about the main character, their external and internal arcs, their emotional trajectory in particular (for more on that, see this post). Without seeing emotion on the page, without an understanding of what the character wants and how they set about getting it, most of us will not read on.

But every story must have a point, and as the author it’s incumbent upon me to find it, define it, and make it clear.pencil point

A few weeks ago I talked about the “Beat Sheet” in Save The Cat. Number 2 on the Beat Sheet list is “theme stated”, and it occurs on page 5 of a screenplay, which equates roughly to page 10-15 of a novel. So, if I don’t know what my story is about, how can I place that all-important theme or point on the page?

The good news is, that can come with revision. The bad news is – it must be found.

Defining the Point

I will need to know what I’m trying to say when I write a new novel, but for me, for my process, that often means getting something on the page first. Many (not all) of my ideas come from an image or a scene that pops into my head and resonates. A lot of those images arise from my subconscious and usually that means in dreams. That was true for The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, which was formed around the image of the chatelaine, and children in magical jeopardy during World War 2. It wasn’t until I was well into writing that I recognized the theme, which is “The power is within you”.

And I will say this: themes can usually be expressed very simply, and often by cliché – such as “There’s no place like home”, or “You can’t judge a book by its cover”.

My newest work in progress just gained its theme, which is “Be the one who stands in the way of evil.” I found it while trying to summarize the story in a short 50 word paragraph (as in book jacket content) – a great exercise I highly recommend.

Hopefully you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether I’ve made that point.

How about you? When and how do you discover your story’s theme?

Dystopia or Utopia?

Today in the news: I heard an interesting report about a gene editing technique that has allowed scientists to alter retinal cells in nearly blind volunteers, with the hope that those altered cells will reverse the genetically induced blindness.

Like you are probably thinking now, I thought, wow. Cool. A little freaky, but cool.

A few weeks ago I had my second Pfizer vaccine jab for Covid-19, which uses an mRNA gene to create antibodies to the virus, and has been shown to be over 90% effective in preventing the disease.

The Dystopian Idea

Gene altering technology is both fascinating and frightening, especially if you have an active imagination. At its best, this technology could reduce or eliminate genetically and environmentally induced illnesses. At its worst, we can imagine using gene editing for socially destructive purposes (eliminating “certain types” of genes that are “undesirable”, for example.)ARK book cover

Several years ago I wrote a YA science fiction novel about using nanotechnology to serve a similar purpose. It was super fun to write, and I decided to simply launch it on Amazon myself, since it was slightly out of my usual genre. You can find it here. While nanotech and mRNA tech are quite different, they both operate at microscopic levels. We can’t see it with the naked eye; could it be safe?

The thing is, we humans can imagine both the worst and the best outcomes of scientific breakthroughs, because we’ve seen other humans act at both extremes. But as a former scientist, married to a scientist, I truly believe that science used responsibly will save us. Take the Covid vaccine as an example, and its mRNA technology.

The Scientific Imagination

From an article in The Atlantic: “For more than 40 years, synthetic RNA couldn’t do anything useful. In 1978, Katalin Karikó was a young scientist at the Biological Research Centre in Szeged, Hungary, when she started working on the idea that it could.” Now that technology may be used to treat malaria, cancer, and multiple sclerosis, in addition to producing a life-saving vaccine against the SARS-Co-V2.

My novel ARK is, yes, dystopian, and explores the ways in which these technologies could be distorted for the worst. But I also tried to weave into the story the ways in which these technologies can save the planet, and us. I believe in science. I also believe that we must be sure it is used with oversight.

Have fun reading my dystopian novel – a pure product of imagination – while celebrating the genius of real-life science used responsibly. And let me know what you think!

A Paper Folding Project For Everyone

In my upcoming novel Carry Me Home (August 24, Simon & Schuster) my main character, Lulu, and her sister Serena and their dad live in a car. When dad disappears Lulu feels the pressure of taking care of herself and Serena, while keeping their predicament hidden.

book cover

Lulu wants her dad to return, and she wants a home, and she had just begun to find her own gifts in a new school with new friends, but things look bleak. When she learns about the Japanese belief that by making 1000 origami paper cranes a wish will come true, Lulu begins to make paper cranes, hoping for any and all of these wishes – for a home, for her dad, for a stable life in their new town – to come true.

Although China, among other cultures, also developed paper folding, it was Japan that took paper folding to the level of an art form and gave it the name “origami”. I discovered origami as a child and fell in love with it. Origami can be tricky, and takes some practice, but it’s also satisfying.

You can make all sorts of animals and objects with origami, and origami kits are available an most indie booksellers.

You can download these instructions that I pulled together from several sources – including photographs of the paper crane I made – to make your own origami crane.

I’d love to see yours if you want to share!

Guest Post: K. MacCabe on John Scalzi’s HEAD ON

When my son (pen name K. MacCabe) was very young, Star Trek, Next Generation was in syndication and playing every night right at dinner prep time. That one-hour show became his thing, and I had the peace and quiet to get ready for the evening.

Little did I know that by doing so I was raising not only a Trekkie but a devoted fan of science fiction.

Today he is my writing buddy, with a serious talent for writing, among other genres, science fiction. He’s currently on track to carve out a career as a writer, and for my part, he is a fantastic second reader and a partner in my coaching business.

I’ve invited him to come on my blog from time to time, and today he wanted to share a book review, so here he is, writing about Head On, by John Scalzi.

A science fiction thriller set in a not-so-distant future, draped in a murder mystery and confronting social issues that add to the depth of the novel overall. The book itself is straightforward in its narrative construction, but that is by no means a weakness. In fact, it uses its simplicity beautifully to tackle social issues in a manner in which sci-fi truly excels.book cover

The by-proxy technique that sci-fi is famous for allows Scalzi to discuss subjects of disenfranchisement and prejudice through Hadens, a group of people whose bodies have been damaged beyond repair by an illness that leaves their brains mostly untouched. They connect to our world through Threeps – androids, which they pilot through an internet that we can only dream of having today.

The main character is one such Haden and an FBI agent named Chris Shane, who has a tight relationship with his partner Vann (it is also a source of comic relief many a time). The dynamic adds to the entertainment and pleasure of the read and is one of the strongest points of the novel.

Head On touches on light cyberpunk and science fiction themes, though the extremes of both genres are left by the wayside. The book very much feels like a near future cop procedural that uses its light themology to enhance the elements which Scalzi wishes to discuss within its pages. For those who enjoy procedurals, cyberpunk or science fiction, this book is for you, and it should be a treat to read, even if you did not pick up its predecessor Lock In.

It should be noted, however, the book deals with adult themes such as sex and drugs: though not graphicly and does so with tact. I would not qualify Head On as YA safe, so keep it on the grownup shelf.

 

Writing Craft: Saving That Darn Cat

The other night I watched a movie I would never have watched, generally speaking. It was the original Fast and Furious. I’m not into cars, or gangs, or racing, or…any of that stuff. But I am into story-telling, and I was curious as to why this movie has spawned a franchise that has lasted even beyond the tragic loss of its main actor. And it led me to saving the cat.*

I’ve done a deep dive into Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat books, both the original and Save the Cat Goes to the Movies.** I’d read the original a long time ago, but have a new appreciation for Snyder’s wisdom, however formulaic it may seem at first blush.

And F&F was the perfect vehicle (ha!) for me to test this. In fact, it was rather exciting to see how well Snyder’s beats work.

Save That Cat

If you haven’t read Save the Cat, Snyder was a screenwriter (also, tragically, no longer with us) who analyzed movies and determined that every good story can be defined by “beats”. He goes way beyond the traditional three-act structure, with 15 separate beats dividing the story line.

While watching F&F, I almost jumped out of my chair when I recognized several of these beats. The Theme was Stated (beat #2) when our young hero Brian claims that he only wants to win “respect”, not money or a car or even the girl. The B Story (beat #7) shows up right on time when Brian woos the girl by taking her to dinner. The All is Lost moment (beat #11) arrives when Brian reveals to the rest of the crew that he’s really an undercover cop, and the theme of respect shows up again in the Finale (beat #14) when Brian races Dominic in a heart-pounding near-death duel, with Brian letting Dominic off the hook for his illegal activities, while Dominic shows his respect for Brian’s integrity.

Now what does this have to do with novel-writing?

You may know that I’m a proponent of a new planning method called the Inside Outline, which I’ve used and taught and coached. While I’m normally a pantser*** when it comes to drafting my novels, the Inside Outline allows me to give a general structure to my nascent story, by developing my own “beats” that are linked by cause and effect.

But I think Snyder was really onto something, even if he applied it only to screenplays, and I will suggest that adding Snyder’s beats to an Inside Outline may help novelists visualize their story. The “beats” of Save the Cat are shorthand for the way all stories are structured, from way back to Aristotle.

Plot Paradigms

Take a look at the novel plot paradigm here. (You can download this as a pdf.) Compare the beats of the plot paradigm to Snyder’s beats and you can see that, really, these are labels for the same crucial moments that must appear in any story. For example, “refusal of the call” = “argument opposed to transformation” = “debate”, right?

A plot paradigm compilation

Let me repeat that thought. The Save the Cat beats are, as are all plot points in all the old paradigms, crucial moments that must appear in any story.

I’ll be using Snyder’s beats as I develop my current work in progress. And I’ll let you know what I discover as I marry the cause and effect structure of the Inside Outline with the beat structure of Save the Cat.

Again, you can find Snyder’s two books here at my Bookshop affiliate link. Let me know if you, too, try using his beats to help structure your stories.

*”Saving the cat” is what Snyder believes a character must do at the beginning of a story in order to be “likable”. Not an actual cat, but a metaphoric cat.

**You can buy copies on Bookshop here; this is an affiliate link that benefits me, but also benefits indie booksellers.

***See more on “pantser” here.

The 1 Superpower All Writers Possess: Authenticity

I’ve been seeing the word “authenticity” everywhere lately. In webinars geared to writers, in blog posts geared to entrepreneurs, in ads for almost anything. (“Try our authentic Mexican food!”) We seem to be craving authenticity.

This isn’t surprising, really, after several years in which rumors, falsehoods, and crazy conspiracy theories dominated the airwaves, and we were all isolated from genuine social interactions.

Like almost everyone I know, except for the fact that it keeps me connected to people, I have strong negative feelings about social media. In particular, I hate thinking that I have to use social media platforms as a way to promote my work. And that every five minutes there’s a new platform that I need to join or must learn how to manipulate. Hey, let’s meet on Clubhouse! Have you made a TikTok video yet? Where’s your Instagram story? And the worst: You don’t have 10,000 followers on x. Sorry, but we’re not interested in you. The problem is, we now have a way to share, share, share, but what, exactly are we sharing?

"authentic" sign

I’ve been thinking about authenticity as it pertains to my work and life, and the writing of those I coach. What is my authentic view of the world and how does it inform the things I do every day – writing, and coaching writers? And how do we accept ourselves as we truly are, and others as they truly are, and can we be authentic without even that becoming a trite cliché?

What Is Success?

I’m a big fan of Dan Blank. He works with artists on promotion and writes often about how to market art with authenticity. In a recent blog post he discussed “that space that I think so many writers and creators get lost: that line between what we create and our identity.” Sometimes we writers feel that we have to write to the market to be successful. That romance is where to break in. That science fiction is too niche. That every YA novel must be dystopian, or feature a teen with hidden powers. Worst of all, that the writing world is some kind of competition, and that to break in means breaking someone else’s dream.

I don’t believe that success depends on following trends. True success comes from following your heart.

I’ve said this before. The best stories dig deep. Our strongest main characters are those who feel the full range of emotions, including those of failure and loss. The most compelling plots are not necessarily full of action but are most definitely full of emotional truth. The only formula for writing a successful book is writing a fully emotionally realized book, because true success in the marketplace can never be guaranteed, but true success for us as writers is when we feel the satisfaction of writing from the heart.

My Coaching Advice

Here’s my free advice to you writers, and to those of you who teach young writers: write what you feel compelled to write. Write what is in your heart. Speak your truth. Write in the genre you love, with characters who feel what you feel most strongly. Don’t worry about the latest fads, about what others are doing, about what might resonate on social media. This doesn’t mean spilling sordid details or revealing private tabloid-style trivia. It does mean giving your readers authentic characters who come alive through your honest representation of fundamental humanity. Oh, and kindness, in your characters and in your approach to your readers, is (as everywhere in life) always advised.

Be authentically you, and your readers will follow.

5 More Favorite Writing Craft Books – The Classics

Last post I featured 5 favorite writing craft books, some old and some quite new. Today I have a pile of classics. Once again, you can order from my Bookshop store through my affiliate link (I do benefit from orders through this link).

Here are five of the best:

  1. Story, by Robert McKee.

Why I love it: Comprehensive, often out-of-the-box, this book is probably on every writer’s bookshelf for the best of reasons. It contains so much information and analyzes so many aspects of storytelling that you could study it for a year.

Caveats: Story began life through the aspects of screenwriting, so sometimes McKee’s advice doesn’t seem quite pertinent to novelists. Nevertheless, highly recommended.

  1. The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Why I love it: If you’ve read Campbell’s classic The Hero’s Journey you already know the archetypes and mythic structures. But Vogler applies Campbell’s sometimes erudite musings to practical applications with great examples.

Caveats: Some authors get so caught up in the archetypes and mythos that they lose sight of their story. Apply this, but not too firmly.

  1. On Writing Well, by William Zinsser

Why I love it: This is an English teacher talking. Plus, my copy belonged to my mom before I inherited it, and her margin notes run through the book. That’s a classic, and nostalgic.

Caveats: Who doesn’t want to write well? Seriously, this book is for nonfiction writers, yet it contains such basic good writing principles that you should check it out.

cover of Stephen King book
  1. On Writing, by Stephen King

Why I love it: It’s Stephen King. He’s as wise about writing as he is about the creepier aspects of life.

Caveats: None.

  1. From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler

Why I love it: Butler takes dreaming to another level, encouraging writers to tap the subconscious. That’s important.

Caveats: Not a lot of meaty advice, but just read King’s book for that.

Bonus Book: Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder. I’ve recently rediscovered this gem – yes, it’s written from a screenwriter’s perspective, but it’s so darn fun to read. And I love his follow-up and the templates he provides (as with Vogler, don’t get too carried away making your stories fit a model.)

There are tons of others out there, and I’ll cover them from time to time. I always like to hear your favs!!