Get to Know Your Character

Is staring with a bank robbery a good idea?
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Read, read, read, read, read. In addition to listening to audiobooks while I do things around the house, I’ve been reading for a flash fiction contest. As a result, I’ve been noodling over how to create a strong opening and a plot that works throughout the length of the book.

Before we discuss this, we have to agree on what a plot is. For the sake of this discussion, let’s call it a series of events that tell a story.

Most of us have heard the advice that we need to start our story with something big and exciting. We do this to create tension because if we keep the reader on the edge of their seat, they will keep reading. Right?




I waffle because here’s the problem. We often confuse BIG ACTION with tension. We start with bank heists and natural disasters and alien invasions. But the problem is that the reader doesn’t yet know the character. So they care in that they don’t want to see anyone caught in a bank robbery, a hurricane, or The War of the Worlds. But your character? They don’t know this character enough to identify the individual. This means that you would be better off showing the reader a problem designed specifically for your character.

I’m serious. Don’t just plop my down in the middle of some sort of Xipe Totec, skin walker story. First things first, it isn’t original. Nope. I’ve read it before. Make me care about your character.

In “The Secret Ingredient of Successful Openings” on Jane Friedman’s on blog, Susan DeFreitas talks about how to show the reader that the character is getting herself into trouble. Perhaps she does it by ignoring her inner voice that is trying to tell her that her new boyfriend isn’t to be trusted. Or she is pre-occupied with the nasty text she just got from said boyfriend and walks into the middle of the bank robbery. Or, the boyfriend really isn’t bad news, even if everyone around her says that he is and this is a story about overcoming societal prejudice. So you open with her meeting him after school in defiance of her sister’s warnings.

The tension needs to fit your character and their situation. This means that you need to know your character to create the tension. You need to know the character to string together the plot that tells her story.

Get it?


The Perfection Trap

Don’t get snagged in the Perfection Trap.
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Recently I suggested that one of my students move part of her manuscript from the body of the text to the back matter. She would actually be using it to create the back matter which was, up until then, nonexistent.

“But what would I call it?”

I shrugged as I so often do, but then I realized that since we were emailing she wouldn’t see my shrug. Her quandry is part of what I call the perfection trap. The thinking goes something like this – if I don’t call this exactly the right thing, the editor/agent will hate it and reject me.

And to some extent this may be true. An agent who hates creepy crawly pets would be sure to reject my chapter book manuscript Bugs Baker. A cat person who loathes all-things-dog might immediately say no to Wolf Guilt. And a clausterphobic editor? My book on caves may not stand a chance.

But we writers obsess over some pretty silly things. Should I write “Chapter 1” or “Chapter One”? Do my chapters need titles or is it enough to number them? Is it “page 1,” “pg. 1” or just “1”? I know writers who still won’t italicize anything because back in the day we underlined instead because we were using typewriters.

Publishing professionals are looking for great manuscripts. They want to create exceptional books. This means that they aren’t looking for reasons to say NO so much as they are looking for reasons to say YES.

This doesn’t mean that you should submit your picture book manuscript to an editor that only works on novels. And it isn’t an excuse to send off a manuscript that is full of errors. You should submit the best manuscript that you can produce.

You will still get rejections when you were sure you would be getting acceptance letters. And some of these rejections will be strange. But if an editor loves your manuscript and it is a perfect fit for their magazine or their list, except for one little thing, they are likely to send you a qualified yes. It will be qualified because they will ask you to make changes.

Some may be large such as combining chapters. But others? Others will be minute.

Perhaps you called it an author’s note but the editor thinks that “A Note to My Readers” has a better ring to it. It really isn’t the kind of problem that will spoil what would otherwise have been a sale.


Certain Dark Things: Telling the Story No One Else Can Tell

Every now and again I read a book that makes me think that only this author, this one right here, could have told this story. That is that case with Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I have to admit, that as much as I enjoyed her other books that I’ve read, I put off reading Certain Dark Things. Why?

It’s a vampire story. Ugh. Another vampire story.

Domingo is mesmerized by the beautiful vampire girl. Ugh. Another mortal loves the vampire romance.

Sigh. But it’s Moreno-Garcia. Maybe just maybe . . .

I finished listening to it yesterday after lunch. I have a book deadline this week but I had ten minutes to go after I finished washing the lunch dishes so I sat and listened. I just had to know how it ended. That, my friends, is a great book.

How did Moreno-Garcia do it? She told a story that only she could tell. The book is set in Mexico City. The vampire is descended from Aztec vampires. Don’t panic! I’m not going to reveal anything that you can’t get from the book description. Anyway, back to the book.

This could tempt you to think that the solution to your ho hum plot is to chose a setting in another country with a tie-in to a past culture. Maybe. But you have to be able to do it with knowledge and heart. Moreno-Garcia lives in Canada but she was born in Mexico. This is a place and culture to which she has ties. It isn’t like she decided to set a book in Jerusalem and pull in ancient Babylonian culture.

Her story is neo-noir, dark, atmospheric and moody. Perfect for a vampire story. And just look at all those layers! Vampires, Mexican culture, history, alternate history, noir, romance, and action. Each one adds a tone to create a marvelously complex tale.

So you’ve got a story that is just . . . generic. I hate to say it but if it feels generic to you, it probably is generic. What can you do to make it uniquely your own? What do you know? Maybe you grew up on the Gulf Coast. Or in a small Midwestern town. No, they aren’t exotic until you start to delve into the details that could occur nowhere else. Maybe it is the rivers that flow slowly by with tug boats and barges carrying cargoes to New Orleans. New Orleans! Or the summer storms, coupled with humidity, that shoot lightening across the sky and into the ground.

It won’t be one thing and one thing alone that makes your story uniquely your own. It will be the multiple things that you pull together, things that no one else could have chosen, combined in a way that no one else would have considered.

Yours and yours alone.


Why Do You Write?

Just as we don’t all write the same things, we don’t write for the same reasons. Me? I’m curious and I ask questions. Why is this the way that something is? When did something happen. What led to something else. Honestly, it is constant. My Dad was the same way and I know we aggravated my mom who had no qualms about throwing us together to get us out of her hair. Writing is often my way of exploring and finding answers.

I also come from a long line of Southern storytellers. When we were at my grandparent’s house, I’d sit outside with my dad, uncle and grandad. Periodically a cousin or two would stop over or it might be someone who had been in highschool with Dad. From noon until dusk there were stories about cattle and coyotes, digging a fort in the backyard, heading overseas as a Navy photographer and so much more. I could sit and listen for hours.

I’m also a teaching writer. This doesn’t mean that I’m big into lessons of the “now listen to me, youngens” variety. But I loved writing crafts and activities and how-tos. Teaching a new skill is so much fun and I even loved taking the photos. Okay, it could be a bit much when the cat was helping me. I’d snap a photo and move back to my computer to edit it only to discover a black tail or a reaching paw.

But this isn’t the only type of teaching I love. I love sharing a topic that excites me with young readers. Whether it is sharing the world of the Ancient Maya or exploring the many theories, and the actual facts, concerning the assassination of John F. Kennedy, helping young readers experience a larger world is an amazing thing.

And sometimes, when someone asks me what I do, I tell them that I convert caffeine into text. Of course, after reading Sagan’s definition of what a book is, I need to change this. I am a worker of magic fueled by caffeine.


How Writing Is Like Jelly Bellies

Eating Jelly Bellies is a lot like writing. All you can do is give it a try and see if it turns out as expected.

The reality is that no two projects work out quite the same way. I’m working on the first book in a two book contract. Both books are for the same series. I would love to say that everything that works for Book 1 will work for Book 2.

But that is never the way it works. At some point, I will have to try something new. It is a bit of a gamble, just like eating Jelly Bellies.

I opened this enormous bag of Jelly Bellies the other day. My husband eyed them skeptically. These are the imperfect ones, two more more jelly beans stuck together. He picked up a pair of dark Jelly Bellies. “Hold on. I think these are licorice.” He passed them over to me. Yum.

Then I popped something light green with dark green speckles in my mouth. It was vaguely fruity. I thought they were less than amazing until the lovely ivory pair turned out to be buttered popcorn. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE popcorn. Love. It. But there is something about a savory jelly bean that my brain cannot compute. But the bright red that turned out to be cinnamon? Amazing! The green he sampled? He swore it was grass but it was probably tea which he dislikes as a beverage or a Jelly Belly.

Writing and Jelly Bellies have a lot in common. You think you know what your’re doing. You may even be working from an outline. But then you come to a stop. No. No way. This just isn’t right. It may be a little wrong or it could be plain nasty.

Yet, somehow you’re tempted to try it again. Because you never know. That beatiful orange could be creamsicle.




Revision Requires New Vision

This week I’m revising a book manuscript that is due Friday. Because I’m used to writing 15,000 words in 9 chapters, I can hit the chapter word cound with little or no effort. This time around the books are 8 chapters long and I can’t seem to hit the chapter word count. One chapter is 150 words short. The next is 650 words too long.

The tempation for each chapter would be to focus on only that word count, adding a sentence here and there or creating only one tight paragraph where I had two longer ones. But to truly improve the chapter, I need to re-vision as I work.

Here are six questions that I ask myself as I work:

-Is this the best possible example?

-Do I need an example here to clarify a point?

-Do I need to reorder sentences in this paragraph to better guide the reader?

-Can I use a stronger verb to discard the adverb?

-Am I using two words where one would do?

-What else can I cut?

I do at least one revision on paper. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I tend to skim past repeatition on screen. This week while reading a print out I realized that after I had listed 6 organisms that live in a biome, I think repeated numbers 4 through 6. It looked like a 9 item list but it was only 6.

Revision is also where I have learned to truly appreciate my editors. It helps to have a new set of eyes. The sidebar that I thought worked perfectly in chapter 3 gets moved to chapter 6 where it is a much better fit. Then there are those places where my explanation was clunky and inelegant but my editors rewords it into something that sings.

If you are only making small changes, correcting typos and moving commas, you aren’t revising. You are copy editing. Revising often requires a whole new vision. Sometimes the answer is putting the piece aside so you can visit it with new eyes. Sometimes the answer is a new set of eyes in the form of my editor.

I love watching a piece come together as my vision comes into focus. Don’t you?


When You Encounter the Unknown

Recently I got an e-mail from a fellow writer. The editor who had asked for her work told her that two specific file formats were acceptable. She didn’t recognize either extension and asked if the file type she normally worked with would be acceptable.

“Is it on the list?” I asked.


I hated to have to tell her but then the answer is NO. Give the editor what she asked for.

Then another writer I know was attempting a Twitter pitch. The jargon was new and unfamiliar to her but she took a stab at it anyway.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, sooner or later you are going to come upon a term you don’t know. A publisher wants Y as part of the nonfiction book proposal or the editor gives you an outline for the lesson plan you need to create and it includes Z.

No one likes to look clueless so sometimes we’re tempted just to fake it. Please don’t. Because if you get it wrong it may be really obvioius. Instead there are three things you can do.


Google is your friend. This week I’ve used it to look up what yabbies are as well as three or four acronyms. I also use Google to check spellings and so much more. It isn’t foolproof but it often helps me find what I need to know to proceed. It is especially important when I’m finishing up an educational project. There are always new buzzwords that I’m unfamiliar with until I look them up.

Ask a Fellow Writer

If you don’t know what a file extension means or you are unsure about the requirement for a project, ask a writing friend. Maybe you know someone else working on the project. Ask someone who has worked with this company for a while. They are going to be ahead of you on the learning curve.

Ask Your Publisher or Editor

If all else fails, ask your company contact. While this shouldn’t be your first choice, if you can’t find the information any other way, it can keep you from turning in an incomplete or incorrect assignment. Your question may help your editor realize that something was left off the instructions. But this should be your last resort.

The parameters that you’re given are generally what the customer, editor or publisher wants. It may take a bit of effort to deliver it if you don’t know a term but it will be worth it if you don’t have to rework something you didn’t do right.


Picture Book Inspiration

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I’m an idea person. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that I’m someone who finds ideas everywhere – when I go for walks, when I read, when I watch a movie, at the museum, and more. But recently I attended a webinar with picture book author Minh Le. He spoke about finding inspiration in the work of the illustrators that he loves.

Who are your favorite illustrators? I adored the detailed cut-paper collage that Steve Jenkins made depicting the natural world. The incredible detail in David Wisniewski’s collage drew my eye and made me forget to read the story. Then there are the vibrant colors in Lois Ehlert’s work. Hmm. It is pretty obvious that I have a thing for collage. And color. And exquisite detail.

So what would these illustrators inspire me to write?

For Wisniewski I would be tempted to write a book about the systems of the human body. I would love to see what he would do with the details of cell structure or the intricate web of the nervous system.

Steve Jenkins would be required to tackle something animal related, naturally. I just wrote about giant clams and I would love to see what he could do to show the movement and life in these animals that, at first glance, look like stone.

I have to admit that I’m less sure what I would drop in Ehlert’s lap. Maybe a story told in quilt squares or stained glass.

Maybe your favorite illustrators are great at capturing facial expressions or depicting movement. Maybe with just a few lines they can create vibrant, living characters. Or it could be about texture or depth of color.

Take a look at your favorite illustrated works. Then think about what it is you would like to see the artists depict. You may end up with a new idea or seven.


Warning: The Danger of Comparison

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Every once in a while, a fellow writer will comment about finding a book that is similar in topic to their own. Or it is a cozy and they are writing a cozy. Somehow, some way, their manuscript and the published book are similar.

And the published book is so much better.

I get the tempation, I really do. But comparing your manuscript to a published book can be self-defeating especially when you are comparing your book to a New York Times bestseller or a Newbury winner or . . . you get the idea.

The problem with such a comparison is that there has been a team behind the production of this book. The author wrote the manuscript. It has been critiqued. It was quite possible taken on by an agent who then worked with the writer to make it even better. Then an editor acquired it and it when through another round of rewrites.

It’s like comparing a piece of chocolate cake to a cake mix. One is amazing and the other is not at least not yet.

Instead of being discouraged, let these amazing books inspired you and learn from the books that you love. You can do this by using them as mentor texts. If you have an author who writes amazing opening scenes, take a good hard look at how they do this. What is the tone? How does it compare to the tone of the rest of the novel? When does the action start? How is the character introduced?

Or maybe this book has an amazing setting. Or characters. Or pacing. Whatever it is that attracted you, study what it is that you love. Will a similar technique work in your own story? If so, maybe you’ve got something to learn. If not, don’t worry. You’ve still found a book to love and who knows how many more you will find looking for the mentor texts that you need to take the next step in your writing journey.


5 Minutes A Day: Catching Up on E-mail

Recently, I saw a productivity post that advised writers to only check their e-mail 3 times a day. Check it in the morning, when you come back from lunch, and right before you clock out for dinner. The way it was spaced on the overall calendar, it was fairly clear that it was intended to be an hour first thing in the day, an hour in the middle of the day, and an hour before you clock out.

Yes, I sometimes check my e-mail when I should be writing. But more often than not, I’m behind in responding to people. If I was willing to do e-mail for three hours a day, this would not be a problem and I doubt that it is a problem for the many people I know who comment on their too-full inboxes.

Instead of trying to catch up working with big blocks of time, work on your e-mail for five minutes. Here are several ways you can do this.

  • Scan things you’ve read but not dealt with. Are there three or four that require only a quick answer? I hate telling people no and will sometimes put off having to do so. Find several things that will only require a sentence or two, respond and delete.
  • Sometimes I find myself simply deleting all the sales from X, Y and Z companies. Instead of doing that, unsubscribe. If I want art supplies, I know where I’m going to go. I don’t need to be reminded who sells the products I love.
  • Reverse the order in your e-mail box. You want to look at the oldest items first. It is surprising how easy it is to delete messages that are old and no longer pertinent.
  • Set a goal. Get rid of 5 read but not dealt with e-mails every day. Or 10. It depends what they are and how quickly they can be dealt with. It may take a month, but if you could drop your in-box by 100 messages/month, isn’t it worth 5 minutes?

You don’t have to find huge blocks of time to reduce your inbox. And getting a few done here and there may encourage you to spend 10 minutes a day instead of 5. If you want to spend three hours a day on it, go ahead. I’d rather find ways to do it in less.