Thursday, January 12, 2017

Image: https://morguefile.com/creative/EsquadrilhadaFumaa
I've enjoyed Sarah Dessen's YA contemporary novels for many years now, and her most recent, Saint Anything, did not disappoint.

Dessen carved out a niche for herself when YA was still a fairly new genre, prior to the early 2000s, when the Twilight phenomenon took the publishing world by storm. Despite the proliferation of paranormal romances that followed--and a number of other trends that have come along, from boarding school stories to dystopian--Dessen has stayed the course. Realistic fiction all the way.

Her books remain top sellers, and some have garnered awards from the ALA and the School Library Journal. There are a number of things Dessen does well--and frankly quite differently from many others in the genre--that are worth studying and perhaps even emulating.

Good kids have stories worth telling


Some critics consistently ding Dessen's books for focusing on a "passive" protagonist. Indeed, her heroines are not the kind to deliberately seek out trouble. They'd knock politely, not kick open your door with their biker boots and attack you with nunchuks. They resemble kids you're likely to actually meet in real life, rather than a comic book.

What makes her good-kid stories worth reading are the very real dilemmas they face because they're good kids--striving to succeed academically, navigate friendships and dating, be a good daughter and sister, hold a part time job, and somehow figure out where they're going in life. You know, the kinds of problems most every teen has, not just the ones who own nunchucks and biker boots.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to call her heroines role models--each has flaws, especially a tendency to be less than truthful with adults in their lives. But these girls have strong consciences--they strive to do the right thing, even when it hurts. How they navigate the good girl way when life keeps throwing them curveballs is where the drama happens, which brings me to point 2.

Inner arcs are where it's at


Dessen's books tend to be lighter on plot, or what you might call surface problems. In Saint Anything, the biggest problem occurred in the narrative past. Sydney's older brother morphed into party-boy in recent years, went on to drive drunk, and permanently disabled another kid. The story begins at his sentencing hearing. It explores the aftermath, especially how his sin affects the family dynamic. Their varied responses to the crisis put them at cross purposes, and also expose deep problems with how each character copes.

What Dessen especially does well is showing how strengths and weaknesses can often be two sides of the same coin. The always-agreeable character can be cowardly in the face of conflict; the super-organized person can become frenetically controlling when hardship hits.


Let the judgement commence


Developmental psychologists say that a key task of the teen years is "individuation"--that is, building a unique identity. Part of this process involves evaluating everything and determining whether it's something to embrace or reject.

In Dessen's books nearly everything is fodder for evaluation, including one's socioeconomic status. Most kids become aware of income disparity in their community if they have occasion to leave the bubble of their comfort zone. Dessen's heroines always rub up against this reality, whether going from rags to riches, as in Lock and Key, or being rejected by the "haves" and choosing to align themselves with the "have-nots," like in Just Listen.  Contact with other classes opens critical evaluation of everything the heroines have considered normal, and they each begin to consider which pieces of life as they knew it they want to hang onto or jettison.

Family matters


While most adventure stories for younger readers have the heroes striking out on their own and leaving family, Dessen's stories always involve family conflicts in the main plotline or as a subplot. Because the reality is, most people under 18 can't --and won't-- simply take off on their own.

Rather than chafe against reality or create nothing but dead or absentee parents, Dessen sees dramatic potential. Because a big piece of the individuation process I mentioned above involves beginning to see parents as people instead of functional roles. People with flaws, yes, but also people with histories and hurts and loves and aspirations and even wisdom. Peer relationships can certainly push teens away from family, but family continues to have a strong pull on their self-concept. That tug-of-war plays out differently for each teen, and it's a rather gripping process to watch.


The importance of extracurricular world


Teens spend most of their day in school--it's equivalent to a full-time job. So the last thing they want in pleasure reading is for it to feel like they're having to sit through classes all over again with a fictional person. And yet, kids also gravitate toward spaces where they can have quality time with peers. In Dessen's books, there are always non-school spaces where much of the story action takes place. In What Happened to Goodbye and Keeping the Moon, it's a restaurant where the heroine works part time; in Saint Anything and Just Listen, a lunchtime hangout spot. In The Truth About Forever, it's the local library.

Quirks make the character


Dessen especially makes her secondary characters memorable by giving them particular quirks--often funny likes or dislikes--that appear again and again, like a running gag in a comedy film. In Saint Anything, the heroine's BFF Layla is obsessed with finding the perfect French fry and has some peculiar rituals around eating them. The quirk becomes a way for others to connect with her, and even rebuild the friendship after a falling out.

In Along for the Ride, the heroine's father named her Auden, after the poet, and his new baby Thisbe, after a minor Shakespeare character. That he is often absorbed in his own fiction writing isn't surprising, considering this quirky penchant for obscure literary references.

Forsake not the symbol(ism)


Dessen doesn't shy away from the occasional literary fiction technique, like using symbolism to undergird her themes, often using everyday objects to carry an important meaning for the heroine. In Along for the Ride, Auden's desire to master riding a bike symbolizes not only a sense of rebuilding a stunted childhood, but also learning to balance herself and become self-propelling. In Lock and Key, the recurring motif of doors, keys, fences, houses are used to examine what makes a place home, and people around us family.

Bibliography


Here's a list of Dessen's titles to date, for further reading.

1996 – That Summer
1998 – Someone Like You
1999 – Keeping the Moon
1999 - Last Chance
2000 – Dreamland
2002 – This Lullaby
2004 – The Truth About Forever
2006 – Just Listen
2008 – Lock and Key
2009 – Along for the Ride
2010 - Infinity (novella)
2011 – What Happened to Goodbye
2013 – The Moon and More
2015 – Saint Anything

Have you read any of Dessen's books? Have a favorite? 
What author's works have been influential for you and how?
Thursday, January 12, 2017 Laurel Garver
Image: https://morguefile.com/creative/EsquadrilhadaFumaa
I've enjoyed Sarah Dessen's YA contemporary novels for many years now, and her most recent, Saint Anything, did not disappoint.

Dessen carved out a niche for herself when YA was still a fairly new genre, prior to the early 2000s, when the Twilight phenomenon took the publishing world by storm. Despite the proliferation of paranormal romances that followed--and a number of other trends that have come along, from boarding school stories to dystopian--Dessen has stayed the course. Realistic fiction all the way.

Her books remain top sellers, and some have garnered awards from the ALA and the School Library Journal. There are a number of things Dessen does well--and frankly quite differently from many others in the genre--that are worth studying and perhaps even emulating.

Good kids have stories worth telling


Some critics consistently ding Dessen's books for focusing on a "passive" protagonist. Indeed, her heroines are not the kind to deliberately seek out trouble. They'd knock politely, not kick open your door with their biker boots and attack you with nunchuks. They resemble kids you're likely to actually meet in real life, rather than a comic book.

What makes her good-kid stories worth reading are the very real dilemmas they face because they're good kids--striving to succeed academically, navigate friendships and dating, be a good daughter and sister, hold a part time job, and somehow figure out where they're going in life. You know, the kinds of problems most every teen has, not just the ones who own nunchucks and biker boots.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to call her heroines role models--each has flaws, especially a tendency to be less than truthful with adults in their lives. But these girls have strong consciences--they strive to do the right thing, even when it hurts. How they navigate the good girl way when life keeps throwing them curveballs is where the drama happens, which brings me to point 2.

Inner arcs are where it's at


Dessen's books tend to be lighter on plot, or what you might call surface problems. In Saint Anything, the biggest problem occurred in the narrative past. Sydney's older brother morphed into party-boy in recent years, went on to drive drunk, and permanently disabled another kid. The story begins at his sentencing hearing. It explores the aftermath, especially how his sin affects the family dynamic. Their varied responses to the crisis put them at cross purposes, and also expose deep problems with how each character copes.

What Dessen especially does well is showing how strengths and weaknesses can often be two sides of the same coin. The always-agreeable character can be cowardly in the face of conflict; the super-organized person can become frenetically controlling when hardship hits.


Let the judgement commence


Developmental psychologists say that a key task of the teen years is "individuation"--that is, building a unique identity. Part of this process involves evaluating everything and determining whether it's something to embrace or reject.

In Dessen's books nearly everything is fodder for evaluation, including one's socioeconomic status. Most kids become aware of income disparity in their community if they have occasion to leave the bubble of their comfort zone. Dessen's heroines always rub up against this reality, whether going from rags to riches, as in Lock and Key, or being rejected by the "haves" and choosing to align themselves with the "have-nots," like in Just Listen.  Contact with other classes opens critical evaluation of everything the heroines have considered normal, and they each begin to consider which pieces of life as they knew it they want to hang onto or jettison.

Family matters


While most adventure stories for younger readers have the heroes striking out on their own and leaving family, Dessen's stories always involve family conflicts in the main plotline or as a subplot. Because the reality is, most people under 18 can't --and won't-- simply take off on their own.

Rather than chafe against reality or create nothing but dead or absentee parents, Dessen sees dramatic potential. Because a big piece of the individuation process I mentioned above involves beginning to see parents as people instead of functional roles. People with flaws, yes, but also people with histories and hurts and loves and aspirations and even wisdom. Peer relationships can certainly push teens away from family, but family continues to have a strong pull on their self-concept. That tug-of-war plays out differently for each teen, and it's a rather gripping process to watch.


The importance of extracurricular world


Teens spend most of their day in school--it's equivalent to a full-time job. So the last thing they want in pleasure reading is for it to feel like they're having to sit through classes all over again with a fictional person. And yet, kids also gravitate toward spaces where they can have quality time with peers. In Dessen's books, there are always non-school spaces where much of the story action takes place. In What Happened to Goodbye and Keeping the Moon, it's a restaurant where the heroine works part time; in Saint Anything and Just Listen, a lunchtime hangout spot. In The Truth About Forever, it's the local library.

Quirks make the character


Dessen especially makes her secondary characters memorable by giving them particular quirks--often funny likes or dislikes--that appear again and again, like a running gag in a comedy film. In Saint Anything, the heroine's BFF Layla is obsessed with finding the perfect French fry and has some peculiar rituals around eating them. The quirk becomes a way for others to connect with her, and even rebuild the friendship after a falling out.

In Along for the Ride, the heroine's father named her Auden, after the poet, and his new baby Thisbe, after a minor Shakespeare character. That he is often absorbed in his own fiction writing isn't surprising, considering this quirky penchant for obscure literary references.

Forsake not the symbol(ism)


Dessen doesn't shy away from the occasional literary fiction technique, like using symbolism to undergird her themes, often using everyday objects to carry an important meaning for the heroine. In Along for the Ride, Auden's desire to master riding a bike symbolizes not only a sense of rebuilding a stunted childhood, but also learning to balance herself and become self-propelling. In Lock and Key, the recurring motif of doors, keys, fences, houses are used to examine what makes a place home, and people around us family.

Bibliography


Here's a list of Dessen's titles to date, for further reading.

1996 – That Summer
1998 – Someone Like You
1999 – Keeping the Moon
1999 - Last Chance
2000 – Dreamland
2002 – This Lullaby
2004 – The Truth About Forever
2006 – Just Listen
2008 – Lock and Key
2009 – Along for the Ride
2010 - Infinity (novella)
2011 – What Happened to Goodbye
2013 – The Moon and More
2015 – Saint Anything

Have you read any of Dessen's books? Have a favorite? 
What author's works have been influential for you and how?

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Today's guest Rachel Rossano has taken her love of history to a whole new level--creating an alt-history world that resembles Renaissance Europe, with some unique twists in how she brings faith elements to bear. She especially has wonderful tips on world building and peopling a fantasy world.

Let's give her a hearty Laurel's Leaves welcome!

Tell us a little about the culture/world in which your story is set. What sort of research was required to create it?

Image credit: https://morguefile.com/creative/Shenzi
The world of the Theodoric Saga is very loosely based on 1400s to 1500s Europe. Most of the nations are ruled by monarchs and ordered on various renditions of feudal societies. There are clear differences between the nations, as you can experience by reading some of my other books based in the same world, but they all are historically inspired.

The nation of Anavrea is mostly inspired by early-to-mid-1500s England. The rough edges of the upper crust of the court have been smoothed a bit. Knowledge and learning are beginning to be appreciated, but there are still those nobles far from court who are barbaric in their behavior and sensibilities.

I did little research specifically for this book. Only a few forays into exploring general midwifery practices of the period were necessary. My heroine takes a very practical, unsuperstitious approach, which was not common but is very in keeping with her personality and background. For the rest, I drew on my life-long research of history and the people who came before us.

How do you approach faith-oriented content in your work? 

The world of the series is very similar to ours. They have a Bible, though they don’t call it that. They believe in God and His Son, Jesus, but they refer to them by different names. Salvation comes by grace through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The most common word used to refer to Jesus is Kurios, which is a transliteration of the Greek word for Lord. I think of it as somewhere between the writing of the Bible and the founding of the church something changed the course of history enough to take this pretend part of the world on a very different path.

What special challenges did you face writing this book? What surprised you as you wrote?

I have a confession to make. I wrote the first draft of this novel a very long time ago, perhaps twelve years or so ago. My memories of my challenges are a bit faded with time, but I do recall being very frustrated with Jayne for most of the writing of the rough draft. She is a stubborn character which made convincing her to trust Liam so much harder.

What advice would you give other writers interested in creating a historical/fantasy setting for their stories?

Draw on history. Read history, research history, and delve into the mundane and profound of past events and people. Focus on the people, why they did what they did and how they interacted with each other and how they reacted to outside forces. Ask yourself questions. Even when creating a sci-fi setting, history gives us insight into how societies of people react and interact.

Although little of it might reach the actual pages of the novel or short story, make sure you, the author, know the governments involved, the economics, the weather, the seasons, the climate, the kind of food they eat, the monetary system, and the country’s history. Make sure they all make sense together.  They will come into play in subtle ways and it is better to have thought it all through before beginning than to accidentally make a bad choice that will come back to bite you later.

Put yourself in the world and consider how you would function in everyday life there. How would your character find food? How would they earn money? The more realistic the setting is to you, the more realistic it will be for your character and your reader.

In general, everyone has friends, acquaintances, and people they meet only to forget. Your character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Part of establishing a setting is populating it with secondary, tertiary, and throw away characters.  Each of these characters have lives, motivations, and a story of their own. That doesn’t mean you need to tell them in the current book, but you need to give the reader the impression that they are glimpsing into other people’s lives beyond the main character.

About the Author

Rachel Rossano is a happily married mother of three children. She spends her days teaching, mothering, and keeping the chaos at bay. After the little ones are in bed, she immerses herself in the fantasy worlds of her books. Tales of romance, adventure, and virtue set in a medieval fantasy world are her preference, but she also writes speculative fantasy and a
bit of science fiction.


About the Book


She couldn’t hide forever.

A hard life taught Jayne to avoid men, powerful men most of
all. When a new nobleman arrives to take over the vargar, she takes her family and hides. But the new baron seeks her out and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: protection. However, once they were sheltered behind the dark stone walls of the vargar, who would protect her from the new master?

His reward isn’t what it seems.

King Ireic of Anavrea charges Liam, a former bodyguard, with the task of retaking and taming a corner of the northern wilds. Upon arrival at Ashwyn Vargar, Liam finds challenges beyond his military experience. The keys to the vargar are missing and so are the field hands who should be harvesting the fields. Once he finds the keeper of the keys, she raises more questions than answers.

Available from Amazon


Giveaway



Rachel is giving away one of her favorite CDs to listen to while she writes. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of music she likes to listen to, you can check out the CD on Amazon and then come back here and enter the giveaway. https://www.amazon.com/Piano-Guys/dp/B009EAO38C/
 


a Rafflecopter giveaway





Tour Schedule


January 2
Bookish Orchestrations-Tour Intro and Book Review
Bokerah-Guest Post

January 3
Queen of Random-Book Spotlight
Rachel Rossano's Words-Book Spotlight

January 4
Stephany Tullis-Book Spotlight
Ember's Reviews-Author Interview and Review

January 5
Frances Hoelsema-Book Spotlight
Laurel's Leaves-Author Interview

January 6
Shout outs-Guest Post
Rebekah Lyn Book-Character Spotlight

January 7
Bookish Orchestrations-Giveaway Winner

 If you were to write about a historic era and tweak it a bit, which would you choose? Any questions for Rachel?
Thursday, January 05, 2017 Laurel Garver
Today's guest Rachel Rossano has taken her love of history to a whole new level--creating an alt-history world that resembles Renaissance Europe, with some unique twists in how she brings faith elements to bear. She especially has wonderful tips on world building and peopling a fantasy world.

Let's give her a hearty Laurel's Leaves welcome!

Tell us a little about the culture/world in which your story is set. What sort of research was required to create it?

Image credit: https://morguefile.com/creative/Shenzi
The world of the Theodoric Saga is very loosely based on 1400s to 1500s Europe. Most of the nations are ruled by monarchs and ordered on various renditions of feudal societies. There are clear differences between the nations, as you can experience by reading some of my other books based in the same world, but they all are historically inspired.

The nation of Anavrea is mostly inspired by early-to-mid-1500s England. The rough edges of the upper crust of the court have been smoothed a bit. Knowledge and learning are beginning to be appreciated, but there are still those nobles far from court who are barbaric in their behavior and sensibilities.

I did little research specifically for this book. Only a few forays into exploring general midwifery practices of the period were necessary. My heroine takes a very practical, unsuperstitious approach, which was not common but is very in keeping with her personality and background. For the rest, I drew on my life-long research of history and the people who came before us.

How do you approach faith-oriented content in your work? 

The world of the series is very similar to ours. They have a Bible, though they don’t call it that. They believe in God and His Son, Jesus, but they refer to them by different names. Salvation comes by grace through faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The most common word used to refer to Jesus is Kurios, which is a transliteration of the Greek word for Lord. I think of it as somewhere between the writing of the Bible and the founding of the church something changed the course of history enough to take this pretend part of the world on a very different path.

What special challenges did you face writing this book? What surprised you as you wrote?

I have a confession to make. I wrote the first draft of this novel a very long time ago, perhaps twelve years or so ago. My memories of my challenges are a bit faded with time, but I do recall being very frustrated with Jayne for most of the writing of the rough draft. She is a stubborn character which made convincing her to trust Liam so much harder.

What advice would you give other writers interested in creating a historical/fantasy setting for their stories?

Draw on history. Read history, research history, and delve into the mundane and profound of past events and people. Focus on the people, why they did what they did and how they interacted with each other and how they reacted to outside forces. Ask yourself questions. Even when creating a sci-fi setting, history gives us insight into how societies of people react and interact.

Although little of it might reach the actual pages of the novel or short story, make sure you, the author, know the governments involved, the economics, the weather, the seasons, the climate, the kind of food they eat, the monetary system, and the country’s history. Make sure they all make sense together.  They will come into play in subtle ways and it is better to have thought it all through before beginning than to accidentally make a bad choice that will come back to bite you later.

Put yourself in the world and consider how you would function in everyday life there. How would your character find food? How would they earn money? The more realistic the setting is to you, the more realistic it will be for your character and your reader.

In general, everyone has friends, acquaintances, and people they meet only to forget. Your character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Part of establishing a setting is populating it with secondary, tertiary, and throw away characters.  Each of these characters have lives, motivations, and a story of their own. That doesn’t mean you need to tell them in the current book, but you need to give the reader the impression that they are glimpsing into other people’s lives beyond the main character.

About the Author

Rachel Rossano is a happily married mother of three children. She spends her days teaching, mothering, and keeping the chaos at bay. After the little ones are in bed, she immerses herself in the fantasy worlds of her books. Tales of romance, adventure, and virtue set in a medieval fantasy world are her preference, but she also writes speculative fantasy and a
bit of science fiction.


About the Book


She couldn’t hide forever.

A hard life taught Jayne to avoid men, powerful men most of
all. When a new nobleman arrives to take over the vargar, she takes her family and hides. But the new baron seeks her out and makes her an offer she can’t refuse: protection. However, once they were sheltered behind the dark stone walls of the vargar, who would protect her from the new master?

His reward isn’t what it seems.

King Ireic of Anavrea charges Liam, a former bodyguard, with the task of retaking and taming a corner of the northern wilds. Upon arrival at Ashwyn Vargar, Liam finds challenges beyond his military experience. The keys to the vargar are missing and so are the field hands who should be harvesting the fields. Once he finds the keeper of the keys, she raises more questions than answers.

Available from Amazon


Giveaway



Rachel is giving away one of her favorite CDs to listen to while she writes. If you’ve ever wondered what kind of music she likes to listen to, you can check out the CD on Amazon and then come back here and enter the giveaway. https://www.amazon.com/Piano-Guys/dp/B009EAO38C/
 


a Rafflecopter giveaway





Tour Schedule


January 2
Bookish Orchestrations-Tour Intro and Book Review
Bokerah-Guest Post

January 3
Queen of Random-Book Spotlight
Rachel Rossano's Words-Book Spotlight

January 4
Stephany Tullis-Book Spotlight
Ember's Reviews-Author Interview and Review

January 5
Frances Hoelsema-Book Spotlight
Laurel's Leaves-Author Interview

January 6
Shout outs-Guest Post
Rebekah Lyn Book-Character Spotlight

January 7
Bookish Orchestrations-Giveaway Winner

 If you were to write about a historic era and tweak it a bit, which would you choose? Any questions for Rachel?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

In my previous post in this series, "Fleshing out a thin story: thin characterization," I discussed the ways in which manuscripts drafted hastily, such as during NaNoWriMo, can have some areas of underwriting that need to be fleshed out in revision.

Today's post on underwritten conflict is related, because you first need to have developed characters before you can fully suss out the many potential forms of conflict in your story.  Conflict in fiction involves more than just the surface problem that drives the plot. It also involves interpersonal conflict between characters, not only the hero and antagonist, but also the hero and other often well-meaning allies who block him/her in some way. And further, to develop the hero's inner arc, your story must also involve internal conflict between some of the hero's own desires, be they aspriational, like a desire to love and be loved, or protective, such as a desire to never be made to look a fool. (Both are typically tied in some way to the hero's wound.)

I would argue that to have a compelling plot--that is, a surface problem that appropriately fits these characters, that challenges their particular moral and psychological issues--it's helpful to approach conflict from the inside out. That is, you first develop the hero's internal conflict, then from there it will be clearer what kinds of other conflicts s/he'd naturally get into. Who would push her buttons? How would he respond to the antagonist's goading or to sudden perilous circumstances? I cover this idea pretty extensively in that previous post on thin characterization, so I'll merely point you there once again.

Plot conflicts


Once you've got your hero's inner world established, consider how to bring to the fore the inner arc. What kinds of annoying people and circumstances will most challenge the hero's key weakness?

Another key question: how can I make things worse for my hero? Be wary, however, of just throwing random problems at your characters, or your story will become unintentionally comical. (Farce is the resulting genre when every possible thing that could ever go wrong does...and then gets worse and worse and worse, essentially to make the point that life is a big joke. Ha.)

So how can you make things worse in a way that enhances the story?
  • Block the hero's progress toward a goal with small inconveniences that would naturally happen in his/her environment: weather changes, injuries, illness. equipment failure, uncooperative underlings, punishing authority figures, family crises, work deadlines 
  • Add a "ticking clock"--some sort of deadline that adds urgency.
  • Undermine the hero by shaking his/her confidence or applying pressures that will make him/her behave badly--make a mistake, do something mean, defy his/her own inner rules.
  • Create a hardship that forces the hero to learn a new skill or build relationships that will be needed later.
  • Add complications to an existing problem, or raise the stakes of failing to solve it.

Interpersonal conflict


Many underwritten stories limit the interpersonal conflict to an antagonist character or two, while everyone else seems to get along pretty well. This is not only unrealistic, it's also a hugely missed opportunity to portray the rich depths of your characters and their relationships.

Because no matter how loving and dedicated people are to one another, they will come into conflict about little irritating habits, differences in taste or opinion, and personal goals. Two wholly good characters can easily squabble about the best method of doing good and when and for whom. How they squabble reveals a great deal about them.

In addition to allies who scuffle with the hero, consider adding in other characters who act as forces of antagonism in addition to, or even in place of a single arch-villain. I describe eight different kinds of "everyday antagonists" who can join your story, or perhaps be recruited from your existing ranks of characters.

Perhaps you have some interpersonal conflict, but it isn't quite well working yet. Many underwritten stories suffer from "jumping conflict" in which characters are calm or simpatico one moment, then inexplicably shouting at each other the next.

Granted, there are some people with extremely short fuses. They're perpetually angry and fly into a rage with little provocation. But those types are usually pretty easy to spot. They exhibit signs of being short fused in how they carry themselves and their tone of voice. If such a character exists in your fictional world, be sure to make those warning signs clear from the moment you introduce the character. Otherwise, his fits of rage will seem simply melodramatic, and he'll be a caricature rather than a character.

Most characters have longer fuses. They shift from calm to angry in gradual stages--slow burn. Negotiation or conflict avoidance should be more common than out-and-out fights. And when those fights do occur, they need to be appropriately paced. How?


  • Have the characters in conflict chip away at one another.
  • Have one try to back off or refuse to rise to the bait.
  • Repeatedly provoke a character with other, exterior conflicts so that she's ripe to burst with a little more pressure. 
  • Establish a trait such as worry or paranoia, so that his response to this trigger seems reasonable.

Most of all, try to think creatively about complex emotional responses. Straight-up anger is easy to write, and we can get lazy. In most conflicts, several emotions are at war. The mom who has to pick up her drunk teenager from a party can be as much worried and afraid as angry. The bullied nerd desires acceptance as much as revenge.

Explore those layers of emotion, and conflicts will become more interesting and more tense.

In every instance where characters get into conflict, stop and consider the mixed emotions that might reasonably be in play. Remember that not every character is prone to fist-fights or verbal sparring. Some people, when at cross-purposes with others, use soft, more positive tools to achieve their aims--they  might flatter, plead, or joke. This, too, is dramatic. Story-moving.

In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield uses the term "negotiation" to describe how most characters experience conflict. She defines it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

I find this a helpful concept, because "conflict" is a pretty wholly negative term, whereas negotiations are often a mixed bag, and frankly, mixed bags offer more interest and diversity. Instead of one-note characters in one-note plots, negotiation helps you build character complexity and plots with organic twists and turns.

The power plays of negotiation depend first on the kind of relationship characters have--whether based on hierarchy, intimacy and equality, or a mix--and second, with the way each character tends to relate to and use power. Some will approach wresting power using negative tools like attacking, blame-shifting, lying or threatening. Others will use positive tools like begging, making promises, or truth-telling. (For an deeper look at the tools of negotation, see "The Secret to Complex, Compelling Conflict")

Interior conflict in underwritten stories often goes hand in hand with an overall thinness of the character's inner world and representations of interiority, so I will tackle this issue in a future post.

Which area is trickier for you to write, plot conflicts or interpersonal conflicts?


Thursday, December 15, 2016 Laurel Garver
In my previous post in this series, "Fleshing out a thin story: thin characterization," I discussed the ways in which manuscripts drafted hastily, such as during NaNoWriMo, can have some areas of underwriting that need to be fleshed out in revision.

Today's post on underwritten conflict is related, because you first need to have developed characters before you can fully suss out the many potential forms of conflict in your story.  Conflict in fiction involves more than just the surface problem that drives the plot. It also involves interpersonal conflict between characters, not only the hero and antagonist, but also the hero and other often well-meaning allies who block him/her in some way. And further, to develop the hero's inner arc, your story must also involve internal conflict between some of the hero's own desires, be they aspriational, like a desire to love and be loved, or protective, such as a desire to never be made to look a fool. (Both are typically tied in some way to the hero's wound.)

I would argue that to have a compelling plot--that is, a surface problem that appropriately fits these characters, that challenges their particular moral and psychological issues--it's helpful to approach conflict from the inside out. That is, you first develop the hero's internal conflict, then from there it will be clearer what kinds of other conflicts s/he'd naturally get into. Who would push her buttons? How would he respond to the antagonist's goading or to sudden perilous circumstances? I cover this idea pretty extensively in that previous post on thin characterization, so I'll merely point you there once again.

Plot conflicts


Once you've got your hero's inner world established, consider how to bring to the fore the inner arc. What kinds of annoying people and circumstances will most challenge the hero's key weakness?

Another key question: how can I make things worse for my hero? Be wary, however, of just throwing random problems at your characters, or your story will become unintentionally comical. (Farce is the resulting genre when every possible thing that could ever go wrong does...and then gets worse and worse and worse, essentially to make the point that life is a big joke. Ha.)

So how can you make things worse in a way that enhances the story?
  • Block the hero's progress toward a goal with small inconveniences that would naturally happen in his/her environment: weather changes, injuries, illness. equipment failure, uncooperative underlings, punishing authority figures, family crises, work deadlines 
  • Add a "ticking clock"--some sort of deadline that adds urgency.
  • Undermine the hero by shaking his/her confidence or applying pressures that will make him/her behave badly--make a mistake, do something mean, defy his/her own inner rules.
  • Create a hardship that forces the hero to learn a new skill or build relationships that will be needed later.
  • Add complications to an existing problem, or raise the stakes of failing to solve it.

Interpersonal conflict


Many underwritten stories limit the interpersonal conflict to an antagonist character or two, while everyone else seems to get along pretty well. This is not only unrealistic, it's also a hugely missed opportunity to portray the rich depths of your characters and their relationships.

Because no matter how loving and dedicated people are to one another, they will come into conflict about little irritating habits, differences in taste or opinion, and personal goals. Two wholly good characters can easily squabble about the best method of doing good and when and for whom. How they squabble reveals a great deal about them.

In addition to allies who scuffle with the hero, consider adding in other characters who act as forces of antagonism in addition to, or even in place of a single arch-villain. I describe eight different kinds of "everyday antagonists" who can join your story, or perhaps be recruited from your existing ranks of characters.

Perhaps you have some interpersonal conflict, but it isn't quite well working yet. Many underwritten stories suffer from "jumping conflict" in which characters are calm or simpatico one moment, then inexplicably shouting at each other the next.

Granted, there are some people with extremely short fuses. They're perpetually angry and fly into a rage with little provocation. But those types are usually pretty easy to spot. They exhibit signs of being short fused in how they carry themselves and their tone of voice. If such a character exists in your fictional world, be sure to make those warning signs clear from the moment you introduce the character. Otherwise, his fits of rage will seem simply melodramatic, and he'll be a caricature rather than a character.

Most characters have longer fuses. They shift from calm to angry in gradual stages--slow burn. Negotiation or conflict avoidance should be more common than out-and-out fights. And when those fights do occur, they need to be appropriately paced. How?


  • Have the characters in conflict chip away at one another.
  • Have one try to back off or refuse to rise to the bait.
  • Repeatedly provoke a character with other, exterior conflicts so that she's ripe to burst with a little more pressure. 
  • Establish a trait such as worry or paranoia, so that his response to this trigger seems reasonable.

Most of all, try to think creatively about complex emotional responses. Straight-up anger is easy to write, and we can get lazy. In most conflicts, several emotions are at war. The mom who has to pick up her drunk teenager from a party can be as much worried and afraid as angry. The bullied nerd desires acceptance as much as revenge.

Explore those layers of emotion, and conflicts will become more interesting and more tense.

In every instance where characters get into conflict, stop and consider the mixed emotions that might reasonably be in play. Remember that not every character is prone to fist-fights or verbal sparring. Some people, when at cross-purposes with others, use soft, more positive tools to achieve their aims--they  might flatter, plead, or joke. This, too, is dramatic. Story-moving.

In The Scene Book, Sandra Scofield uses the term "negotiation" to describe how most characters experience conflict. She defines it as "an exchange of character desires and denials and relenting, until some sort of peace is carved out, or else the interaction falls apart."

Negotiation is a way of approaching conflict as power plays, in which each character tries to get what he or she wants.

I find this a helpful concept, because "conflict" is a pretty wholly negative term, whereas negotiations are often a mixed bag, and frankly, mixed bags offer more interest and diversity. Instead of one-note characters in one-note plots, negotiation helps you build character complexity and plots with organic twists and turns.

The power plays of negotiation depend first on the kind of relationship characters have--whether based on hierarchy, intimacy and equality, or a mix--and second, with the way each character tends to relate to and use power. Some will approach wresting power using negative tools like attacking, blame-shifting, lying or threatening. Others will use positive tools like begging, making promises, or truth-telling. (For an deeper look at the tools of negotation, see "The Secret to Complex, Compelling Conflict")

Interior conflict in underwritten stories often goes hand in hand with an overall thinness of the character's inner world and representations of interiority, so I will tackle this issue in a future post.

Which area is trickier for you to write, plot conflicts or interpersonal conflicts?


Thursday, December 08, 2016

I hope to return to my series on expanding underwritten manuscripts in the coming weeks. But since I'm sick, and my family is as well (on and off for about seven weeks now. Not kidding.), I thought I'd address the problem at hand: writing when ill.
Photo by barterville on Morguefile

The idea of "touch it every day" when it comes to large writing projects seems sensible and exciting when you're in the bloom of health. When you have a pounding sinus headache, a fever and chills, it sounds like yet another source of unneeded guilt.

But when you get hit with one of these long, lingering illnesses that can wax and wane repeatedly over months, you can end up kissing goodbye a wonderful project that just totally stalls waiting you to be well enough to return to it.

So how do you keep up with writing when you really, in all honesty, CAN'T write?

1. Refill


I'd heard author Veronica Roth on her author blog compare a writer's mind to an ice cream maker. If you want to produce interesting flavors, you have to pour interesting ingredients into your vat. In other words, times of illness are times to sack out on the couch filling up with creative works--be they TV shows, films, YouTube videos, magazines, novels, reference works, or audio books.

Soak up settings that excite you or intrigue you with travel shows, foreign films, or back issues of National Geographic. If you're able, jot some notes on what strikes you about the setting and make a list of some aspects you could research further.

Hang out in the genre world you are writing, by watching TV shows and films or reading books in the genre. This will help you become more familiar with the tropes (expected elements) as well as cliches (overdone elements) in your genre, so that you can make your works stronger players in your genre.

Get some emotional comfort by returning to old familiar favorites. This can be a tremendous morale boost when you feel most down and discouraged about your poor health. Let these stories restore your faith in yourself and the world.

2. Analyze


While on the couch soaking in all these stories in films, TV shows and books, you can also learn quite a lot if you put on your analytical thinking cap.

Watch for instances of great pacing, plot, or characterization and consider what makes them work well. Ponder how you might make use of these observations to improve your own work.

Watch for instances of terrible pacing, rotten plots and unappealing characters. Consider why they don't work and consider how you can use this insight to avoid--or edit out--similar problems in your own work.

If you're able, jot down these observations, or leave yourself a short audio message to transcribe when you're feeling better.

3. Brainstorm


Many forms of brainstorming don't require quite as much mental or physical energy as drafting and revising do.

Jot quick notes on any of the following things: character traits, plot ideas, possible settings, cool details you could add, relationships and potential causes of tension. These could be electronic jots in a document that you can copy and paste into order later, note cards or post-its or pages in a journal.

Use the "reel it" method to visualize multiple ways a scene might play out.

Make messy mind maps--diagrams in which you jot words and draw connections using bubbles and arrows.

Make lists: of character's fears and pet peeves, of locales where scenes could take place, of possible false clues to plant in your mystery, of tech to research for your space-age setting, of songs to add to your prom-scene playlist. You get the idea.

Are you able to be creative when ill? Which of these ideas might you try?
Thursday, December 08, 2016 Laurel Garver
I hope to return to my series on expanding underwritten manuscripts in the coming weeks. But since I'm sick, and my family is as well (on and off for about seven weeks now. Not kidding.), I thought I'd address the problem at hand: writing when ill.
Photo by barterville on Morguefile

The idea of "touch it every day" when it comes to large writing projects seems sensible and exciting when you're in the bloom of health. When you have a pounding sinus headache, a fever and chills, it sounds like yet another source of unneeded guilt.

But when you get hit with one of these long, lingering illnesses that can wax and wane repeatedly over months, you can end up kissing goodbye a wonderful project that just totally stalls waiting you to be well enough to return to it.

So how do you keep up with writing when you really, in all honesty, CAN'T write?

1. Refill


I'd heard author Veronica Roth on her author blog compare a writer's mind to an ice cream maker. If you want to produce interesting flavors, you have to pour interesting ingredients into your vat. In other words, times of illness are times to sack out on the couch filling up with creative works--be they TV shows, films, YouTube videos, magazines, novels, reference works, or audio books.

Soak up settings that excite you or intrigue you with travel shows, foreign films, or back issues of National Geographic. If you're able, jot some notes on what strikes you about the setting and make a list of some aspects you could research further.

Hang out in the genre world you are writing, by watching TV shows and films or reading books in the genre. This will help you become more familiar with the tropes (expected elements) as well as cliches (overdone elements) in your genre, so that you can make your works stronger players in your genre.

Get some emotional comfort by returning to old familiar favorites. This can be a tremendous morale boost when you feel most down and discouraged about your poor health. Let these stories restore your faith in yourself and the world.

2. Analyze


While on the couch soaking in all these stories in films, TV shows and books, you can also learn quite a lot if you put on your analytical thinking cap.

Watch for instances of great pacing, plot, or characterization and consider what makes them work well. Ponder how you might make use of these observations to improve your own work.

Watch for instances of terrible pacing, rotten plots and unappealing characters. Consider why they don't work and consider how you can use this insight to avoid--or edit out--similar problems in your own work.

If you're able, jot down these observations, or leave yourself a short audio message to transcribe when you're feeling better.

3. Brainstorm


Many forms of brainstorming don't require quite as much mental or physical energy as drafting and revising do.

Jot quick notes on any of the following things: character traits, plot ideas, possible settings, cool details you could add, relationships and potential causes of tension. These could be electronic jots in a document that you can copy and paste into order later, note cards or post-its or pages in a journal.

Use the "reel it" method to visualize multiple ways a scene might play out.

Make messy mind maps--diagrams in which you jot words and draw connections using bubbles and arrows.

Make lists: of character's fears and pet peeves, of locales where scenes could take place, of possible false clues to plant in your mystery, of tech to research for your space-age setting, of songs to add to your prom-scene playlist. You get the idea.

Are you able to be creative when ill? Which of these ideas might you try?

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Photo by  jackileigh at morguefile.com
NaNoWriMonth has wrapped up for 2016, a time when many writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. On question that often pops up on Twitter near the end of November is whether "winning" NaNo (hitting the 50K goal) means you have a complete book.

Unless you write middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) or novellas, then likely, no you do not. You have either a very bloated beginning of a story, or you have a skeleton of a story that hits all the plot points you outlined, but lacks the musculature to stand on its own.

I've addressed a number of issues related to "overwriting" in a series of posts, so I will simply link them here:  (Part 1) Reining in tangents, (Part 2) Reducing grammatical bloat, (Part 3) Streamlining dialogue, (Part 4) Finding and eliminating "purple prose."

Today I'm going to begin a new series to address the second issue--the under-developed story, and how to begin better developing it.

Character underdevelopment


This is probably the chief problem with quickly written pieces--the characters don't yet feel real. The author hasn't yet spent enough time with them to have developed strong instincts about when they would impulsively act (and how) and when they'd pause and reflect (and upon what), The good news is, you can always fix this in revision. In fact, it very well may be best to wait until draft 2 to go deeper with your characters. Having the bones of the plot in place is like having a musical score calling for improvisation--you know the tempo and key, so you have some framework for riffing.

Even in published books,  I've seen some particular character under-development sins that need to be addressed in revision. If you want your NaNo project to succeed, here are some key characterization areas to tackle in your next draft.

Inner world

In underwritten stories, the character often has only one backstory wound that gets hammered on ad nauseum as the root of every problem. In revision, seek to develop other weaknesses, overreaching strengths, driving needs. You must connect with this inner world of your character in order to know what motivates their actions, and thus make their actions align with who they are and who they will become. I recommend Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters as a helpful resource to do this. I also have a lengthy character questionnaire that can help you better develop your characters' inner worlds. (My forthcoming book 1001 Evocative Prompts will have nearly double this number of character development questions. Stay tuned!)

Many underwritten stories focus only on a surface problem--some dilemma that gets the plot going-- and never address what Les Edgerton in Hooked calls a "story-worthy problem." By that he means the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. For example, the need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. For more on emotional arcs, see "Don't forget the other journey, the other arc."

Keep in mind that inner drives, when matched well with the surface problem, will make your story far more compelling. It's somewhat an issue of putting the right character in a situation, and letting their inner world crash up against or be goaded by the surface problem. For more on this match-up, see "Compelling compulsions."

Voice

It takes time to get to know someone's speech patterns well enough to, say, predict their responses on quizzes or surveys. But to write convincing dialogue and inner monologues, you must know this about your character.

Character voice has three main elements:

Diction: How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament.

Associations: These “tip of the mind” thoughts tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. They can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. (See also "An Iceberg Approach to Demonstrating Character.")

Attitudes: These are value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected.

For more on character voice, see my guest post for C.M. Keller, "Elements of Voice."

Choices and changes


Related to those inner drives I'd mentioned above is how a character makes choices, how he or she behaves and reacts to certain events. In other words, the way character drives plot.

Choices must make sense to who a character is, both his temperament and aspirations, as well as his weaknesses and wounds. Too often, underwritten stories neglect to weave the character's emotional and moral inner world into the plot. Whenever your plot calls for your character to make a decision, consider how you can make implicit (through subtle hints) or explicit (in thought or speech) how s/he arrived at the decision based on upholding values, avoiding feared things, or succumbing to weaknesses.

Choices are also informed by the character's capacity. You will have a Mary Sue/Gary Stu if characters choose only to do what comes easily, and a "too stupid to live" character if his/her choices are illogical and go against the law of self-preservation for no reason (versus choosing to do something risky to help others  live and thrive). For more on capacity, see "A key question to keep character and plot in synch."

Change can often happen too quickly in an underwritten manuscript. It's helpful to become acquainted with some basic aspects of psychology to write convincing change.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one.

One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Rituals and community support are essential, as has been shown with 12-step programs.

Coming to a moment of realization, or "epiphany" is not enough to be convincing to readers; that never creates change in real life. Characters must go on to test and perfect what they've learned through some representative action at the story's end. See "Beyond closure: the key to creating satisfying story endings."

For more on creating convincing character change, see "Thoughts on motivation and change arcs."

Reactions and Pacing


This is one of the subtler aspects of characterization and storytelling--knowing when and how to have characters react to story events. When would they speak? What thoughts and feelings would be provoked by the event, and how would this person express them--in a bodily sensation, a thought, or a combination?

Underwritten stories almost always skip these moments altogether in order to keep a grip on the main plot thread. So in revision, you must step back and consider when your characters would naturally react, and at what length. The development work you did in the inner world and voice sections above should be a guide. And when anything new comes at your character, ask this essential question as an emotional pulse-check.

Underwritten stories also tend to have too-small emotional arcs. You begin with the character too far along in an arc or skip over steps, causing jumping conflict. I call this "the teaspoon problem" after Hermione Granger's comment that Ron Weasley has "the emotional range of a teaspoon." For more on expanding the range of your emotional arcs, see "Emotional arcs: the teaspoon problem."

If your characters are on the run, you must include scenes in which they rest, recuperate, and consider their ongoing strategy. No one believably goes and goes like the Energizer Bunny. Humans have human weaknesses. Capitalize on them in these moments to make your heroic characters relatable. They still get stiff muscles and hunger pangs, still need bloody wounds to be re-dressed, still need a few hours of sleep to avoid sleep-deprivation psychosis.

Which of these areas do you struggle with most?
Thursday, December 01, 2016 Laurel Garver
Photo by  jackileigh at morguefile.com
NaNoWriMonth has wrapped up for 2016, a time when many writers challenge themselves to write 50,000 words in 30 days. On question that often pops up on Twitter near the end of November is whether "winning" NaNo (hitting the 50K goal) means you have a complete book.

Unless you write middle grade fiction (ages 8-12) or novellas, then likely, no you do not. You have either a very bloated beginning of a story, or you have a skeleton of a story that hits all the plot points you outlined, but lacks the musculature to stand on its own.

I've addressed a number of issues related to "overwriting" in a series of posts, so I will simply link them here:  (Part 1) Reining in tangents, (Part 2) Reducing grammatical bloat, (Part 3) Streamlining dialogue, (Part 4) Finding and eliminating "purple prose."

Today I'm going to begin a new series to address the second issue--the under-developed story, and how to begin better developing it.

Character underdevelopment


This is probably the chief problem with quickly written pieces--the characters don't yet feel real. The author hasn't yet spent enough time with them to have developed strong instincts about when they would impulsively act (and how) and when they'd pause and reflect (and upon what), The good news is, you can always fix this in revision. In fact, it very well may be best to wait until draft 2 to go deeper with your characters. Having the bones of the plot in place is like having a musical score calling for improvisation--you know the tempo and key, so you have some framework for riffing.

Even in published books,  I've seen some particular character under-development sins that need to be addressed in revision. If you want your NaNo project to succeed, here are some key characterization areas to tackle in your next draft.

Inner world

In underwritten stories, the character often has only one backstory wound that gets hammered on ad nauseum as the root of every problem. In revision, seek to develop other weaknesses, overreaching strengths, driving needs. You must connect with this inner world of your character in order to know what motivates their actions, and thus make their actions align with who they are and who they will become. I recommend Nancy Kress's Dynamic Characters as a helpful resource to do this. I also have a lengthy character questionnaire that can help you better develop your characters' inner worlds. (My forthcoming book 1001 Evocative Prompts will have nearly double this number of character development questions. Stay tuned!)

Many underwritten stories focus only on a surface problem--some dilemma that gets the plot going-- and never address what Les Edgerton in Hooked calls a "story-worthy problem." By that he means the deeper psychological need that is challenged by the surface problem. For example, the need to feel competent. Worthy of love. Generous rather than grasping, or confident instead of fearful.

The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply. If you only work on the level of surface problem, you'll have a surface story. For more on emotional arcs, see "Don't forget the other journey, the other arc."

Keep in mind that inner drives, when matched well with the surface problem, will make your story far more compelling. It's somewhat an issue of putting the right character in a situation, and letting their inner world crash up against or be goaded by the surface problem. For more on this match-up, see "Compelling compulsions."

Voice

It takes time to get to know someone's speech patterns well enough to, say, predict their responses on quizzes or surveys. But to write convincing dialogue and inner monologues, you must know this about your character.

Character voice has three main elements:

Diction: How do the characters say what they say? This will reflect their levels of education, local dialect and to a degree their temperament.

Associations: These “tip of the mind” thoughts tell a tremendous amount about a person in just a few words. They can be a shorthand way of showing what kind of past experiences the character has gone through, what he values, and what forms of culture shape him. (See also "An Iceberg Approach to Demonstrating Character.")

Attitudes: These are value judgments made about elements of the world around us--what is good or bad, valuable or worthless. Attitudes most often come out when a character is confronted with something new, unusual or unexpected.

For more on character voice, see my guest post for C.M. Keller, "Elements of Voice."

Choices and changes


Related to those inner drives I'd mentioned above is how a character makes choices, how he or she behaves and reacts to certain events. In other words, the way character drives plot.

Choices must make sense to who a character is, both his temperament and aspirations, as well as his weaknesses and wounds. Too often, underwritten stories neglect to weave the character's emotional and moral inner world into the plot. Whenever your plot calls for your character to make a decision, consider how you can make implicit (through subtle hints) or explicit (in thought or speech) how s/he arrived at the decision based on upholding values, avoiding feared things, or succumbing to weaknesses.

Choices are also informed by the character's capacity. You will have a Mary Sue/Gary Stu if characters choose only to do what comes easily, and a "too stupid to live" character if his/her choices are illogical and go against the law of self-preservation for no reason (versus choosing to do something risky to help others  live and thrive). For more on capacity, see "A key question to keep character and plot in synch."

Change can often happen too quickly in an underwritten manuscript. It's helpful to become acquainted with some basic aspects of psychology to write convincing change.

Change involves replacing one behavior or habit with another one.

One commits to change when staying the same becomes uncomfortable and when those with whom we have important relationships require it.

Willpower alone is usually inadequate for lasting change to happen. Rituals and community support are essential, as has been shown with 12-step programs.

Coming to a moment of realization, or "epiphany" is not enough to be convincing to readers; that never creates change in real life. Characters must go on to test and perfect what they've learned through some representative action at the story's end. See "Beyond closure: the key to creating satisfying story endings."

For more on creating convincing character change, see "Thoughts on motivation and change arcs."

Reactions and Pacing


This is one of the subtler aspects of characterization and storytelling--knowing when and how to have characters react to story events. When would they speak? What thoughts and feelings would be provoked by the event, and how would this person express them--in a bodily sensation, a thought, or a combination?

Underwritten stories almost always skip these moments altogether in order to keep a grip on the main plot thread. So in revision, you must step back and consider when your characters would naturally react, and at what length. The development work you did in the inner world and voice sections above should be a guide. And when anything new comes at your character, ask this essential question as an emotional pulse-check.

Underwritten stories also tend to have too-small emotional arcs. You begin with the character too far along in an arc or skip over steps, causing jumping conflict. I call this "the teaspoon problem" after Hermione Granger's comment that Ron Weasley has "the emotional range of a teaspoon." For more on expanding the range of your emotional arcs, see "Emotional arcs: the teaspoon problem."

If your characters are on the run, you must include scenes in which they rest, recuperate, and consider their ongoing strategy. No one believably goes and goes like the Energizer Bunny. Humans have human weaknesses. Capitalize on them in these moments to make your heroic characters relatable. They still get stiff muscles and hunger pangs, still need bloody wounds to be re-dressed, still need a few hours of sleep to avoid sleep-deprivation psychosis.

Which of these areas do you struggle with most?

Thursday, November 03, 2016

By guest author Marianne Sciucco

Image credit: https://morguefile.com/creative/rikahi
My daughter had been swimming for five years when I came up with the idea to write a novel about girls’ varsity swimming that would become my latest book Swim Season. Sitting on those cold, hard bleachers season after season gave me more than a sore you-know-what. It sparked my imagination, creating a story line and cast of characters that would show in written form what high school swimming is like for these girls. As I wrote the story, they were always at the heart of it. I wrote it for them. And I wanted it to be as accurate and realistic as possible.

Observation

In many ways, writing Swim Season was natural and easy. Through many autumns, I’d watched my daughter and her team swim their hearts out, beside parents rooting for their own swimmers. In the beginning, I knew next to nothing about the sport, about swim meets. But as the years went on, I learned.

I learned simple things, like the order of events. Try finding your kid on a pool deck swarming with dozens of young swimmers in caps and goggles when you’re not sure which event it is, or whether your child is swimming in it or not. Impossible.

Immersion

My involvement with swim culture soon expanded beyond sitting in the bleachers. I also chaperoned the waiting rooms where dozens of youngsters waited for their next event. Try to keep all that adrenaline in check.

I volunteered to time the races, and stood at the blocks, race after race, helping to make things run smoothly, making sure the right kid was in the right lane.

I helped out at the concession stand, serving up bagels and cream cheese. I was involved with the fundraising activities, Picture Day, and put together the program for Senior Night for a number of years. I went to 99 percent of the meets with my husband (we missed one when it was an hour away from our home on a week night.)

Conversations and interviews 

Most of my daughters’ friends were swimmers, so I got to know several of them up close and personal. They were an intelligent, ambitious, fantastic set of young women. When my book was criticized by a critique partner because the characters seemed “too smart,” I responded with, “Well, those are the girls I know.” The team had the highest GPA of all athletic teams at the high school year after year. Yes, swimmers are smart.

I took advantage of coaches I knew personally (and some I didn’t) to pick their brains, try out the story’s premise for believability, and tweak the details. Many thanks go to the following New York State coaches: Frank Woodward, Middletown High School; Justin Wright, Monroe-Woodbury High School; Jeremy Cuebas, Minisink Valley High School; and Danielle Lindner, former coach for Mount Saint Mary College, in Newburgh.

Social media

Early in the process, I sent out a tweet on Twitter, asking swimmers to complete a questionnaire for a new book about varsity swimming. Almost a dozen young swimmers – girls and boys – responded, and we started dialogues that provided great background for my story. Some of them went on to become beta readers. All of them were thrilled at the idea of a book about them, about their sport.

Books

As a reader, when the answers weren’t so simple I resorted to books. Michael Phelps’s biography No Limits: The Will to Succeed, with Alan Abrahamson, was more than worth its cost. Likewise, Amanda Beard’s memoir In the Water They Can't See You Cry gave me insight into how to build an Olympic silver medalist. Instruction books, such as Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion, with John Delves, and Tracey McFarlane’s Mirande’s Championship Swimming with Kathlene Bissell, taught me the fine-tuning of technique. The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD, was instrumental in creating Aerin’s mental game. For inspiration I turned to Swimmers: Courage and Triumph by Larry Thomson.

Parallel experience

Then there was the time when I decided to swim the race at the heart of my story. For a while I was taking Aquasize classes at my local YMCA. One day I got the idea to try to swim 500 yards. I wanted to see if I could do it, how long it would take, and how I would feel during and afterwards. I have never swum competitively, although I have always loved to swim and am capable of doing the freestyle. My first 500 clocked in at 30 minutes. I stopped after every length to catch my breath and chat with the other ladies in the Aquasize class. I kept at it, though, and after a few weeks managed to complete the 500 in 16 minutes, which was phenomenal for me. Of course, the time to beat in Swim Season is 4:52.50, which, for me, was in never never land. But, as a middle-aged woman with below-average fitness, I was proud of my achievement. In the end, unfortunately, it exacerbated my repetitive strain injuries and I had to give it up.

Writing Swim Season was an endeavor born of many resources, personal and professional. It’s recommended that we write what we know. I knew a lot about competitive swimming as a Swim Mom, but that was not enough to compose this story. I needed to reach out to many others – swimmers, coaches, parents, Olympians, and a psychologist – to nail the details. All of this, I believe, leads to a more credible, believable story with depth.

About the Author

During swim season, you can find Marianne Sciucco, a dedicated Swim Mom for ten years, at one of many Skyline Conference swim meets, cheering for her daughter Allison and the Mount Saint Mary College Knights.

Sciucco is not a nurse who writes but a writer who happens to be a nurse. A lover of words and books, she dreamed of becoming an author when she grew up but became a nurse to avoid poverty. She later brought her two passions together and writes about the intricate lives of people struggling with health and family issues.

Her debut novel Blue Hydrangeas, an Alzheimer’s love story, is a Kindle bestseller; IndieReader Approved; a BookWorks featured book; and a Library Journal Self-e Selection. She also has two short stories available on Kindle, Ino's Love and Collection.

A native Bostonian, Marianne lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, and when not writing works as a campus nurse at a community college.

Connect with Marianne: Website / Facebook / Twitter

About the book

Swim Season
Genre: young adult

Sometimes winning is everything.

Champion swimmer Aerin Keane is ready to give up her dreams of college swimming and a shot at the Olympics. As she starts senior year in her third high school, Aerin's determined to leave her family troubles behind and be like all the other girls at Two Rivers. She's got a new image and a new attitude. She doesn’t want to win anymore. She's swimming for fun, no longer the freak who wins every race, every title, only to find herself alone.

But when her desire to be just one of the girls collides with her desire to be the best Two Rivers has ever seen, will Aerin sacrifice her new friendships to break a longstanding school record that comes with a $50,000 scholarship?

Swim Season is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.

What are your favorite research methods? Which of Marianne's research methods would you like to try?
Thursday, November 03, 2016 Laurel Garver
By guest author Marianne Sciucco

Image credit: https://morguefile.com/creative/rikahi
My daughter had been swimming for five years when I came up with the idea to write a novel about girls’ varsity swimming that would become my latest book Swim Season. Sitting on those cold, hard bleachers season after season gave me more than a sore you-know-what. It sparked my imagination, creating a story line and cast of characters that would show in written form what high school swimming is like for these girls. As I wrote the story, they were always at the heart of it. I wrote it for them. And I wanted it to be as accurate and realistic as possible.

Observation

In many ways, writing Swim Season was natural and easy. Through many autumns, I’d watched my daughter and her team swim their hearts out, beside parents rooting for their own swimmers. In the beginning, I knew next to nothing about the sport, about swim meets. But as the years went on, I learned.

I learned simple things, like the order of events. Try finding your kid on a pool deck swarming with dozens of young swimmers in caps and goggles when you’re not sure which event it is, or whether your child is swimming in it or not. Impossible.

Immersion

My involvement with swim culture soon expanded beyond sitting in the bleachers. I also chaperoned the waiting rooms where dozens of youngsters waited for their next event. Try to keep all that adrenaline in check.

I volunteered to time the races, and stood at the blocks, race after race, helping to make things run smoothly, making sure the right kid was in the right lane.

I helped out at the concession stand, serving up bagels and cream cheese. I was involved with the fundraising activities, Picture Day, and put together the program for Senior Night for a number of years. I went to 99 percent of the meets with my husband (we missed one when it was an hour away from our home on a week night.)

Conversations and interviews 

Most of my daughters’ friends were swimmers, so I got to know several of them up close and personal. They were an intelligent, ambitious, fantastic set of young women. When my book was criticized by a critique partner because the characters seemed “too smart,” I responded with, “Well, those are the girls I know.” The team had the highest GPA of all athletic teams at the high school year after year. Yes, swimmers are smart.

I took advantage of coaches I knew personally (and some I didn’t) to pick their brains, try out the story’s premise for believability, and tweak the details. Many thanks go to the following New York State coaches: Frank Woodward, Middletown High School; Justin Wright, Monroe-Woodbury High School; Jeremy Cuebas, Minisink Valley High School; and Danielle Lindner, former coach for Mount Saint Mary College, in Newburgh.

Social media

Early in the process, I sent out a tweet on Twitter, asking swimmers to complete a questionnaire for a new book about varsity swimming. Almost a dozen young swimmers – girls and boys – responded, and we started dialogues that provided great background for my story. Some of them went on to become beta readers. All of them were thrilled at the idea of a book about them, about their sport.

Books

As a reader, when the answers weren’t so simple I resorted to books. Michael Phelps’s biography No Limits: The Will to Succeed, with Alan Abrahamson, was more than worth its cost. Likewise, Amanda Beard’s memoir In the Water They Can't See You Cry gave me insight into how to build an Olympic silver medalist. Instruction books, such as Terry Laughlin’s Total Immersion, with John Delves, and Tracey McFarlane’s Mirande’s Championship Swimming with Kathlene Bissell, taught me the fine-tuning of technique. The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD, was instrumental in creating Aerin’s mental game. For inspiration I turned to Swimmers: Courage and Triumph by Larry Thomson.

Parallel experience

Then there was the time when I decided to swim the race at the heart of my story. For a while I was taking Aquasize classes at my local YMCA. One day I got the idea to try to swim 500 yards. I wanted to see if I could do it, how long it would take, and how I would feel during and afterwards. I have never swum competitively, although I have always loved to swim and am capable of doing the freestyle. My first 500 clocked in at 30 minutes. I stopped after every length to catch my breath and chat with the other ladies in the Aquasize class. I kept at it, though, and after a few weeks managed to complete the 500 in 16 minutes, which was phenomenal for me. Of course, the time to beat in Swim Season is 4:52.50, which, for me, was in never never land. But, as a middle-aged woman with below-average fitness, I was proud of my achievement. In the end, unfortunately, it exacerbated my repetitive strain injuries and I had to give it up.

Writing Swim Season was an endeavor born of many resources, personal and professional. It’s recommended that we write what we know. I knew a lot about competitive swimming as a Swim Mom, but that was not enough to compose this story. I needed to reach out to many others – swimmers, coaches, parents, Olympians, and a psychologist – to nail the details. All of this, I believe, leads to a more credible, believable story with depth.

About the Author

During swim season, you can find Marianne Sciucco, a dedicated Swim Mom for ten years, at one of many Skyline Conference swim meets, cheering for her daughter Allison and the Mount Saint Mary College Knights.

Sciucco is not a nurse who writes but a writer who happens to be a nurse. A lover of words and books, she dreamed of becoming an author when she grew up but became a nurse to avoid poverty. She later brought her two passions together and writes about the intricate lives of people struggling with health and family issues.

Her debut novel Blue Hydrangeas, an Alzheimer’s love story, is a Kindle bestseller; IndieReader Approved; a BookWorks featured book; and a Library Journal Self-e Selection. She also has two short stories available on Kindle, Ino's Love and Collection.

A native Bostonian, Marianne lives in New York’s Hudson Valley, and when not writing works as a campus nurse at a community college.

Connect with Marianne: Website / Facebook / Twitter

About the book

Swim Season
Genre: young adult

Sometimes winning is everything.

Champion swimmer Aerin Keane is ready to give up her dreams of college swimming and a shot at the Olympics. As she starts senior year in her third high school, Aerin's determined to leave her family troubles behind and be like all the other girls at Two Rivers. She's got a new image and a new attitude. She doesn’t want to win anymore. She's swimming for fun, no longer the freak who wins every race, every title, only to find herself alone.

But when her desire to be just one of the girls collides with her desire to be the best Two Rivers has ever seen, will Aerin sacrifice her new friendships to break a longstanding school record that comes with a $50,000 scholarship?

Swim Season is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.

What are your favorite research methods? Which of Marianne's research methods would you like to try?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Some writers are just the nicest people. So nice, in fact, that they write fiction that bores you to tears. Why is it that all nice all the time makes such terrible fiction?

Readers don't worry about the characters, aren't curious about what will happen to them.

Think about the cars  you see pulled over on the highway. If you slow and see they've stopped for something innocuous-- to walk the dog or switch drivers--you'll speed up and go along your merry way. Nothing to see here.

If the pulled-over car has smoke billowing out of the engine and little kids howling in fear in the back seat, you'll slow down. Maybe even stop. Trouble! Will they be okay? Do they need help? Should the kids be taken a safe distance away?

Adversity, loss, mistakes, arguments, fights, dilemmas--these are the pieces of life that actually make it interesting. A healthy dose of each of these things added to every story will make for a gripping reading experience. Diffuse or remove every one, and you'll have a yawn-fest.

So how do you overcome a bad case of Nice Writer Syndrome?

Understand that running from conflict has serious drawbacks


Painful rejections and traumas from the past that bleed through into the present can become emotionally immobilizing. You might believe you're safer to clam up when others hurt you, or to flee when the going gets tough, but in the long run, these habits increase one's isolation and can simply reinforce a shaky sense of self worth.

In the Psychology Today article, "The Perils and Advantages of Being Conflict-Avoidant," Dr. John Amodeo notes:

There are notable pitfalls to avoiding potential conflict. We may conceal our genuine feelings, desires, and viewpoints because we’re afraid of how we’ll be seen or received by others. We shut down rather than take the risk to show our real self. Rather than be courageously authentic, we might cling to lies, deceptions, and omissions that make it difficult for people to trust us. We may withdraw emotionally or change the subject, fearing that if we reveal our honest feelings or wants, we’ll be rejected or shamed.
Consider also this perspective for getting resolution (instead of the endless push/pull cycle): Stop Avoiding It: Why conflict is good for you.

Determine the source of the nice-at-all-costs message you have internalized


Was there an influential person in your life who demanded complete compliance with rules and suppression of negative emotions? Rewarded only angelic behavior? Or conversely, was your childhood filled with such toxic people, you've walled off anything that reminds you of that time?

Perhaps it was an influential event in your life that cemented the idea that you must be sweetness and light all the time or something truly terrible will happen. Are you compensating for some past mistake or loss that threatens to overwhelm you with guilt or shame?

Perhaps you simply had poor role models of engaging in normal conflict and resolving it. Your family  members might have stuffed their feelings until someone exploded--then everyone pretended nothing was happening. Or perhaps one family member with poor personal boundaries--or even a narcissistic, borderline or histrionic personality disorder--manipulated and emotionally blackmailed everyone in order to feel okay themselves, making authentic relationships impossible.

Get appropriate help


Not every conflict-avoidant person has a borderline personality parent who manipulated and emotionally blackmailed them to such a degree they'd rather throw themselves in front of a train than argue with someone. Extreme cases like this--and ones involving ongoing abuse--do call for professional help.

Others simply grew up with an authoritarian parent, and must re-parent themselves to a degree--gradually introducing themselves to freedoms that had been curtailed in childhood, and working to grow in self confidence.

Perhaps simply reading and doing exercises from a self-help book or joining an online forum will be enough to address some of the underlying issues.

Become a student of conflict


Obviously, you'll be most easily able to study conflict at a remove, in fictional settings. Taking forays into viewing films you wouldn't normally watch because of the interpersonal conflict squirm factor can be a way to do "exposure therapy" like phobia patients often do--having small, controlled experiences getting close to the feared thing.

Start with comic conflicts, as found in films for the younger set, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Freaky Friday and Mean Girls.

Move up to dramas with low-simmer conflict like The Spectacular Now, Metropolitan, and Persuasion

As you get more comfortable, take on films with explosive interpersonal conflict, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closer, and The Celebration/Festen (Danish with subtitles).

As you watch each film, consider what each character wants and why. Note also what each character values, and how those values clash with others and within itself.

Begin building conflicts


All conflict has one of two positive roots: a desire or a value.

Before you consider any of the nasty stuff that scares you, answer these happier questions:

  • What does your protagonist want, crave, or long for?
  • What does your protagonist value?

Chances are, too-nice writer, you do know these things about your character. After all, you like everyone to be happy.

Now comes the tough part--consider how these positives might be harmed, thwarted, or cause problems. Here are some helpful questions to do that:

  • What are some reasons your protagonist does not yet have what he/she desires?
  • What are some ways your protagonist might try to gain the desired thing that will fail?
  • How does pursuing this desired thing thwart the desires of other story characters?
  • How could satiating this desire have unintended negative consequences?
  • In what way might his/her desire conflict with important values s/he holds?
  • Do any of your protagonist's values potentially clash? How can you reveal it?
  • How can you delve into the complications or clashes within one of his/her values?
  • How might these values clash with the values of other characters?


Don't settle for easy answers here. See if you can come up with three to eight answers for each question. The longer you consider each question, the better the chance that you'll move past the cliches and tropes and come up with fresher, more interesting ideas.

Congratulations! You're on your way toward bravely tackling character conflicts.

Further reading:
James Scott Bell's Conflict and Suspense
Cheryl St. John's Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict

Do you struggle with Nice Writer Syndrome? What steps will you take to tackle your conflict aversion?
Thursday, October 27, 2016 Laurel Garver
Some writers are just the nicest people. So nice, in fact, that they write fiction that bores you to tears. Why is it that all nice all the time makes such terrible fiction?

Readers don't worry about the characters, aren't curious about what will happen to them.

Think about the cars  you see pulled over on the highway. If you slow and see they've stopped for something innocuous-- to walk the dog or switch drivers--you'll speed up and go along your merry way. Nothing to see here.

If the pulled-over car has smoke billowing out of the engine and little kids howling in fear in the back seat, you'll slow down. Maybe even stop. Trouble! Will they be okay? Do they need help? Should the kids be taken a safe distance away?

Adversity, loss, mistakes, arguments, fights, dilemmas--these are the pieces of life that actually make it interesting. A healthy dose of each of these things added to every story will make for a gripping reading experience. Diffuse or remove every one, and you'll have a yawn-fest.

So how do you overcome a bad case of Nice Writer Syndrome?

Understand that running from conflict has serious drawbacks


Painful rejections and traumas from the past that bleed through into the present can become emotionally immobilizing. You might believe you're safer to clam up when others hurt you, or to flee when the going gets tough, but in the long run, these habits increase one's isolation and can simply reinforce a shaky sense of self worth.

In the Psychology Today article, "The Perils and Advantages of Being Conflict-Avoidant," Dr. John Amodeo notes:

There are notable pitfalls to avoiding potential conflict. We may conceal our genuine feelings, desires, and viewpoints because we’re afraid of how we’ll be seen or received by others. We shut down rather than take the risk to show our real self. Rather than be courageously authentic, we might cling to lies, deceptions, and omissions that make it difficult for people to trust us. We may withdraw emotionally or change the subject, fearing that if we reveal our honest feelings or wants, we’ll be rejected or shamed.
Consider also this perspective for getting resolution (instead of the endless push/pull cycle): Stop Avoiding It: Why conflict is good for you.

Determine the source of the nice-at-all-costs message you have internalized


Was there an influential person in your life who demanded complete compliance with rules and suppression of negative emotions? Rewarded only angelic behavior? Or conversely, was your childhood filled with such toxic people, you've walled off anything that reminds you of that time?

Perhaps it was an influential event in your life that cemented the idea that you must be sweetness and light all the time or something truly terrible will happen. Are you compensating for some past mistake or loss that threatens to overwhelm you with guilt or shame?

Perhaps you simply had poor role models of engaging in normal conflict and resolving it. Your family  members might have stuffed their feelings until someone exploded--then everyone pretended nothing was happening. Or perhaps one family member with poor personal boundaries--or even a narcissistic, borderline or histrionic personality disorder--manipulated and emotionally blackmailed everyone in order to feel okay themselves, making authentic relationships impossible.

Get appropriate help


Not every conflict-avoidant person has a borderline personality parent who manipulated and emotionally blackmailed them to such a degree they'd rather throw themselves in front of a train than argue with someone. Extreme cases like this--and ones involving ongoing abuse--do call for professional help.

Others simply grew up with an authoritarian parent, and must re-parent themselves to a degree--gradually introducing themselves to freedoms that had been curtailed in childhood, and working to grow in self confidence.

Perhaps simply reading and doing exercises from a self-help book or joining an online forum will be enough to address some of the underlying issues.

Become a student of conflict


Obviously, you'll be most easily able to study conflict at a remove, in fictional settings. Taking forays into viewing films you wouldn't normally watch because of the interpersonal conflict squirm factor can be a way to do "exposure therapy" like phobia patients often do--having small, controlled experiences getting close to the feared thing.

Start with comic conflicts, as found in films for the younger set, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Freaky Friday and Mean Girls.

Move up to dramas with low-simmer conflict like The Spectacular Now, Metropolitan, and Persuasion

As you get more comfortable, take on films with explosive interpersonal conflict, like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closer, and The Celebration/Festen (Danish with subtitles).

As you watch each film, consider what each character wants and why. Note also what each character values, and how those values clash with others and within itself.

Begin building conflicts


All conflict has one of two positive roots: a desire or a value.

Before you consider any of the nasty stuff that scares you, answer these happier questions:

  • What does your protagonist want, crave, or long for?
  • What does your protagonist value?

Chances are, too-nice writer, you do know these things about your character. After all, you like everyone to be happy.

Now comes the tough part--consider how these positives might be harmed, thwarted, or cause problems. Here are some helpful questions to do that:

  • What are some reasons your protagonist does not yet have what he/she desires?
  • What are some ways your protagonist might try to gain the desired thing that will fail?
  • How does pursuing this desired thing thwart the desires of other story characters?
  • How could satiating this desire have unintended negative consequences?
  • In what way might his/her desire conflict with important values s/he holds?
  • Do any of your protagonist's values potentially clash? How can you reveal it?
  • How can you delve into the complications or clashes within one of his/her values?
  • How might these values clash with the values of other characters?


Don't settle for easy answers here. See if you can come up with three to eight answers for each question. The longer you consider each question, the better the chance that you'll move past the cliches and tropes and come up with fresher, more interesting ideas.

Congratulations! You're on your way toward bravely tackling character conflicts.

Further reading:
James Scott Bell's Conflict and Suspense
Cheryl St. John's Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict

Do you struggle with Nice Writer Syndrome? What steps will you take to tackle your conflict aversion?