Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
I wonder if my skin will tingle as the wind brushes against it.
I wonder if my eyes will sting as I catch a glimpse of my blindingly white teeth in the rearview mirror.
Wait a second. Reality check.
Fuel is expensive. And my teeth are not blindingly white. Both good reasons to stay home. Or worse yet… plan my destination. (Dentist, anyone?)
You probably see where I’m headed with this. Many of us start down
About 30,000 miles down the road we wake up broke, tired, alone, and worse yet – with our coffee-stained teeth smiling back at us in the rearview mirror.
Nothing’s changed… except the scenery. We ended up in
The adventurers out there are angry with me right now. What’s wrong with a good road trip? they ask. Don’t you know that planning takes all the fun out of it?
I’m not asking you to plan every detail of your writing-trip. In fact, I’m not even asking you to take the GPS. I’m only asking you to glance at the map. Because whether or not you know it, you have a destination in mind:
You want to be the crazy-best writer you can be.
So whaddya say? You can wind your way aimlessly around the continental writing world and hope that maybe – just maybe – you’ll arrive at that place.
Or you can use the tools of people who have already traveled this road. (I’ll post several of my favorite "maps" for non-fiction writing at the end of this post.)
Come on. Grab your passions.
And your map.
We’re going on a road trip.
Oh… and don’t forget the Crest white strips.
Writing "maps" that have put me somewhere between Plano and the Rocky Mountains:
Monday, September 28, 2009
I'm SO excited about the blog topic this week and last week! I loved seeing everyone's favorite books - it appears that I'm overdue for a trip to the bookstore!
This week, we wanted to share a few of our favorite writing tools. Be it a blog (umm...hint, hint :) ), a book, a reference guide or a website. Maybe even a laptop or a computer program or whatever. For example, I have always wanted to know if those plot creator programs are actually helpful. I always see them when I'm in Best Buy (this makes it sound like I'm in Best Buy a lot. Okay, I've seen the program the three times I've been in there).
So, without further delay, here are my bestest friends when it comes to writing!
When it comes to naming characters:
The Name Book by Dorothy Astoria - This book is so great - my copy is ragged from so many years of usage. If you read my personal blog, you know already know about this book. It's amazing. I get inspired for stories by just reading some of the names in it!
SSA.gov - This website has a list of all of the most popular baby names by each year. So, say you have a character who was born in 1930 and you need a name that would have been common back then? Type 1930 in the year box and there you have it - the top twenty names (Mary is #1, in case you were curious!).
When it comes to learning the ins and outs of writing:
Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins - Awesome, awesome reference on how to add layers and personality to your characters. If you're having problems giving your characters depth, check out this book.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell - I have had the ultimate privilege of sitting in on several of James Scott Bell's workshops and he definitely knows his way around a plot! His way of explaining how to craft a storyline is both complex and simple to understand. If you want to write well, this is a must-have in your bookshelf.
Guide to Getting Published by Sally Stuart - This book gives you the details on how to write a proposal, how to find a good agent, how to find a publisher to propose your story to and what happens behind closed doors. Fabulous reference!
And my #1 resource?
My mom and my sister. Never underestimate the power of having someone to tell you whether an idea is dumb or not! :) These two have talked through storylines with me, planned plots and helped climb over the incredible hurdle called "Writer's Block". Pretty much, they are awesome!
How about you guys? Any helpful resources you wouldn't mind sharing? :)
Have a great Monday!
Friday, September 25, 2009
Piercing the Darkness
by Frank Peretti
I first read this novel when I was twelve or thirteen, and I was blown away. I'd never read anything like it. I credit Piercing the Darkness for inspiring me to write Christian fiction. I loved how Peretti created a compelling, suspenseful story ... and yet wasn't afraid to shine the light of truth. He wasn't ashamed to share the gospel in his novels either. I really admire that.
The main character in Piercing is Sally Beth Roe, an imperfect woman who's running for her life. Oh, and did I mention that angels and demons spend the book fighting over her (and others)?
I have read Piercing the Darkness at least five times, maybe more. It's probably time for me to pick it up again! If you haven't read it, you might consider reading the first book in the series This Present Darkness first. They can be read separately (I read Piercing first not knowing there was a book before it), but it's best to read them in order.
The Rivers Run Dry
by Sibella Giorello
Sibella is a new favorite author of mine. She was a reporter before turning to fiction, and she's even been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her first novel The Stones Cry Out won the Christy award for first novel.
The Rivers Run Dry is her second published novel, and it's been one of my favorite books to recommend these days. I love how she writes suspense that's character driven. The main character, Raleigh Harmon, is a woman who's strong but not to a fault. I wrote a book review of this novel that says in part:
The Rivers Run Dry is a rare gem in the suspense genre, paying as much attention to character development as to plot twists. Even minor characters are created with Giorello’s trademark attention to detail. Read the full review here.
Here's how much I enjoyed it. I read the book on a road trip, then as soon as I finished it I turned right around and read it out loud to my family. You can't read just any novel twice in a row and enjoy both times!
by Jenny B. Jones
I picked up this book and found myself laughing out loud (and I don't normally do that!) almost every chapter. It's that funny. And yet it isn't one of those fluffy YA novels you could take or leave. This one has depth and deals with some tough subjects.
Main character Katie Parker is a sixteen-year-old girl in foster care who's just been sent to live with a pastor and his wife in small town In Between. Her mom's in prison, and she's never really had parents who loved her. She's not all that sure about this God thing, either.
Every year my dad and sister take a camping trip to some remote area of the country where we can just veg out and not think about technology, work, or anything. All we do is sit around the campfire, eat and read. Lately our tradition has been to bring along a novel and read it out loud to each other. In Between was elected on our Idaho trip. I think the squirrels started wondering about us. We were all laughing really loud at times.
And the cool thing is, if you like In Between, it's the first book in the Katie Parker Production series. On the Loose and The Big Picture follow (and are also terrific).
by Renee Riva
Here's another one that came with us camping that we also loved. The main character's a ten-year-old, quirky girl who's kinda like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird. She's an animal lover to a fault (her parents won't let her visit the pound ever again), has an animal cemetery where she gives proper burial to the various creatures she finds on her Idaho island home.
Her Italian family is also really quirky, but that's what makes us like them. They're eccentric yet love each other deeply.
I was so glad when Renee wrote a sequel to Saving Sailor in Taking Tuscany because I had fallen in love with the characters. I highly recommend both!
Well, you know I could go on and on talking about novels, so I better sign off now!
Thursday, September 24, 2009
In fact, my perfect day always involves a trip to the bookstore. Rain or shine, summer or winter, I absolutely love perusing the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble, Borders or Indie shop and finding something new to read—even if I don't end up buying it right away.
While I'd like to think my taste in books is more sophisticated and refined now that I'm all grown up, my choice of reading material, not to mention my list of favorites, is still all over the map. And that's exactly how I like it.
But instead of anything by Judy Blume, Robin Jones Gunn's "The Christy Miller series" and Dave Drevecky's sports memoir Comeback, my favorite, go-to books of my younger years, I've adopted a few new must-reads. So with no further adieu, here are five of them (in no particular order)...
Can You Keep a Secret? by Sophie Kinsella—Yes, like many gals, I adore chick lit. Or most of it, anyway. And yes, I'm fully aware it's not exactly rocket science or all deep and mysterious. But sometimes a girl needs a good laugh—and this book delivers them in spades as Emma Corrigan navigates those tricky waters between what's truth and, well, what's fantasy. If you haven't read anything by Kinsella, you'll adore her easy-breezy, witty style.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway—I have my hubby to thank for this particular introduction. Before reading A Moveable Feast, I wasn't necessarily a fan of Hemingway's often-depressing prose. Given all that he'd been through in his life, I really shouldn't have expected more, but it still wasn't easy plowing through The Sun Also Rises or The Old Man and the Sea. But A Moveable Feast? Well, that's a different matter entirely. From start to finish, the book is an absolute joy to read. Set in Paris (and trust me, Hemingway does such a great job of capturing all the sights, smells and stellar people watching), it's a moving (no pun intended) memoir of his time there with his first wife, his famous literary friends (F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, etc.) and his pen.
U2: At the End of the World by Bill Flanagan—I love U2's music and a really good biography, so this book was definitely a highly anticipated read for me. And thanks to great storytelling, it didn't disappoint in the least. While some biographers fall in love with their subjects to the point where they can't write objectively about them, Flanagan never surrenders to this temptation. Instead, he writes about Bono and Co. in a warts-and-all way that makes you feel like you're really getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse, not the puff piece the band's publicist really wanted.
The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs—Answering the question of "What if someone decided to follow the commands and customs of The Bible to the letter?" A.J. Jacobs' book has some intriguing insights about faith, even though he doesn't consider himself a Christian. Plus, it's laugh-out-loud funny from the first page. When my hubby was wrapping up his Master's degree and studying his theology in the other room, I remember routinely bursting out in giggles on several occasions (especially when Jacobs tried stoning someone in Central Park) and having to interrupt him, just so I could read him the funny parts. Needless to say, Will didn't get much work done, but I sure had fun reading.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser—Such fabulous insights on writing in an unpretentious package. I've read this on several occasions (especially in those moments when I really needed inspiration).
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
When Erynn suggested a week of featuring our favorite novels, I gulped, nodded bravely, and thought, surely I can narrow it down. And I have!
From 1,000 to 100.
Unfortunately, because I have other pressing needs (like book deadlines - yikes!) that don't apply to blogging, I can't list them all. Plus, you'd probably grow bored and start surfing. (web surfing, that is. Though if you're in Cali or somewhere else on the coast, then hey, go for the real thing. I'll interview you later if I ever write a surfing novel!)
So, I'll stick to two, and seriously, these are off the top of my head, as books that made an impression on me in some form.
First of all, is THE SHAPE OF MERCY by Susan Meissner. I agree with what Erynn said about her books and I hate to repeat an author this week, but maybe that just goes to show you how amazing a writer she truly is. I also enjoyed BLUE HEART BLESSED but this novel is different. This novel resonates for literally a year after you read it. It's been that long and I can't forget. I can't move on. That novel inspired me on so many levels, and I can't stop the ache inside that cries out for release to write my own story that is stuck inside. It's brewing, and it'll come out one day.
Be prepared =) And when it does, I'll probably have to thank Susan in the acknowledgments, even though I've never met her, for just doing what she does.
From Publishers WeeklyStarred Review: Meissner's newest novel is potentially life-changing, the kind of inspirational fiction that prompts readers to call up old friends, lost loves or fallen-away family members to tell them that all is forgiven and that life is too short for holding grudges. Achingly romantic, the novel features the legacy of Mercy Hayworth—a young woman convicted during the Salem witch trials—whose words reach out from the past to forever transform the lives of two present-day women. These book lovers—Abigail Boyles, elderly, bitter and frail, and Lauren Lars Durough, wealthy, earnest and young—become unlikely friends, drawn together over the untimely death of Mercy, whose precious diary is all that remains of her too short life. And what a diary! Mercy's words not only beguile but help Abigail and Lars together face life's hardest struggles about where true meaning is found, which dreams are worth chasing and which only lead to emptiness, and why faith and hope are essential on life's difficult path. Meissner's prose is exquisite and she is a stunning storyteller. This is a novel to be shared with friends. (Sept. 16) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Secondly in a totally different way, is LEAPER by Geoffrey Woods. It's unique. It's hilarious - seriously, I don't know when I've giggled more over a novel. If you don't laugh out loud, truly out loud, every ten pages or so, something is just wrong with your eyes =) This novel is just GOOD.
From Publishers Weekly: It's a bird...it's a plane...no, it's.... Leaper-man? In this quirky, kooky debut novel, Wood (himself a barista at Starbucks) imagines what it might be like if a 30-year-old, divorced, over-caffeinated coffeehouse barista were suddenly endowed with a superpower that allows him to leap through space. ("Like a butterfly in a bad breeze, I'm all over the place.") Narrated by "James" in first person, the story is littered with oddball behavior, hyper-anxiety ("you can never worry too soon"), and random musings, including a funny back-and-forth with a 911 operator. So, what's a superhero supposed to do? Does he need a costume? What about good deeds? A relationship with a fellow barista, Monica Oates, throws James into her family life, which resembles a sitcom. But even the sweet, longsuffering barista Monica finds a relationship with him difficult. Soon, James's bizarre power has cost him his job, his apartment, a potential love interest, and earned him some jail time. As James grapples with his God-given superpower, he decides he wants out. Wood is a funny, talented writer with a welcome, albeit unusual, voice in faith fiction. Readers will hope to hear more from him in the future. Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
It didn't change my life or speak to me deeply or anything else dramatic like Susan's novel did, but when people ask me for book recommedations, I immediately suggest LEAPER. It's right there in the front of my head and ready on my lips as a book I think everyone would like, especially male readers. (and my new neighbor down the street agreed after I lent him my copy!)
So what are your favorites and why? I know we've been discussing that through comments on the other Chick's posts, but is there anything else you forgot to say? For me, discussing favorite books is like revealing a part of your soul. You're recommending someone else's work for evaluation and discussion, yet, a part of yourself is included in that because for you to recommend it is for you to say it meant something to you. That could be interpreted on many different levels. It's a pretty deep thing.
Now off to eat more candy corn and celebrate Fall and the early mail-in of my line edits. Take that, deadlines! haha. =)
Monday, September 21, 2009
Every once in a while, however, I get duped into trying something that's a little less... hmm... how shall we say it... potty humoresque?
Here are a few of my favorite reads from the past several years:
Watching the Tree Limbs by Mary E. DeMuth
An acquaintance recommended this book and I thought I would read it a little at a time. (Haha.)
Unfortunately for me, I had dinner company the day I started reading it. So after 6 hours of reading and 3 hours of entertaining, I had to try to figure out a way to get the guests out the door.
(Was feigning the flu such a terrible thing? OK... I didn't. But I thought about it.)
When the company was finally gone, I stayed up until the early hours reading. There's a reason the pages were water-damaged when I was finished. (No -- it had nothing to do with the fact I couldn't take a bathroom break.)
I wept at Mara's story in relation to my own. That night, I started down the path toward healing from my own similar experiences. Mara gave me the courage to take that first step. Three years later, I'm so grateful for an author who was willing to write about the truly raw stuff.
Escape from Fred, by Brad Whittington
Escape from Fred started out as an escape from math class for me. I ended up passing the class... barely. Good thing for Brad Whittington, or I'd have had to sue him for keeping me awake with his dialogue.
(To me, that's the mark of a good book... it won't let me rest until I've devoured every bit. You may not accomplish anything else in life, but at least you've finished that book...)
Some day I want write like Mary DeMuth. I want to tell a story with such power and conviction and feeling that someone's heart is urged to do something life-altering.
Some day I want to write like Brad Whittington. I want to draw the reader in with such wonder and excitement they can't put the book down. (Oh, and sounding like PG Wodehouse doesn't hurt either.)
But for now, I guess I have to stick with the potty humor writing. I should master one thing before I try to move onto another...
BJ Hamrick is a proud Scribble chick and the editor of Real Teen Faith.
But I digress. :)
So, without further ado, here are my current favorites!
A Voice In The Wind, by Francine Rivers
Not many people can do historical fiction and make it seem like it's happening right now. Francine Rivers is arguably the best fiction writer on the market right now and this book only solidifies that for me. It's romantic without being cheesy, suspenseful without being dramatic, character-driven while still possessing a great plot. And it's one that consistently, every time I read it, makes me fall deeper in love with Jesus. That makes it a great book for me!
Francine Rivers excells at description. She gives you just enough that your imagination kicks in and supplies the rest of it. Descriptions are probably my weakest point - so reading her work is inspiring to me.
Blue Heart Blessed, by Susan Meissner
I read this book a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it! The writing style is cute and quirky. I think I finished this in one marathon reading session - it's that good. A sweet story and a happy ending peppered with lots of fun characters - this one gets my vote. :)
Susan Meissner is fabulous at creating lovable, albeit flawed, characters (which, honestly, just makes me love them that much more!). When I read this book I remember that characters, like people, need to be real. They need goals, lives, friends, failures and vices.
And finally, A Ship Possessed, by Alton Gansky.
There aren't a lot of books that can scare me to death every time I read them, but this is definitely one of them. Alton Gansky writes plot-driven fiction so well that I always cringe whenever I think of my nearly plot-less books. If you want a great read (keep the lights on), then definitely check out this book!
Alton Gansky is so good at plotting. And it shows in his work. This is one of those books that you have to read once to find out the ending and then read again to find out how he wrote it. Note the transitions. He's excellent with plot transitions!
So, why are these favorites important to our writing? Because finding out why you like a particular book is probably going to be more useful than half a dozen writing classes. If you can read a book, love it and go back through it to nail down the reason why, you are teaching yourself writing as you go. Alton Gansky pushes me to write better plots. Susan Meissner makes me remember to flesh-out my characters. And Francine Rivers reminds me that there is a poetry and a rhythm to a story that can't be read as much as felt.
Good reading inspires good writing.
Now it's your turn! What are your favorite books? And why? :)
Have a fun day!
Friday, September 18, 2009
Think about it. If there was no Mr. D'Arcy, there would be no Pride and Prejudice. If Scarlet and Rhett met, fell in love and lived happily ever after there would be no Gone with the Wind. It's opposition to your main characters that creates compelling fiction.
I've heard it said that story = conflict. I think that's true. Not that conflict has to always be in the form of another character. Sometimes the conflict comes from inside your character. Or maybe it's Mother Nature (think Twister).
When you're writing fiction, this is not the time to be nice to your characters. This is when you get the chance to let it all out. Slap 'em around! LOL It's because our fictional people become so real to us that it's hard sometimes for writers to throw their "babies" into the fire. But we must. We really must.
What is conflict exactly? It can be as small as a husband and wife disagreeing over where to go for dinner (well, maybe that's not small ...), or a duel between two warring knights. Throw two people of opposing beliefs in the same room together, and you're bound to have an interesting scene.
Those are the sort of opportunities we should look for in our fiction. Purposely put your protagonist into situations that make her/him uncomfortable, that stretch them. Don't go easy on them. These aren't real people, it's okay to be mean.
When was the last time you read a novel or watched a movie where the lead walked into a room and ran into her worst enemy? I bet you were waiting on the edge of your seat to see what would happen. Come on, admit it. You wanted to read/watch them fight! If they'd pulled each other into a hug and everything was hunky dory, that would've made for boring fiction. They can make up at the end of your story. But in the middle we have to remember to think of worst case scenarios for our characters. And then make them worse!
Someone once described the structure of fiction as getting your protagonist up a tree, throwing rocks at him, then getting him down. So ... what rocks are you going to throw at your character today?
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Like my fellow Scribble Chicks, I'm also not a big fan of confrontation. In fact, I'll do just about anything it takes not to ruffle any of those proverbial feathers. Well, unless it's with my characters, of course, then it's GAME ON!
Sydney Alexander, the leading lady of my last two novels, is quite a drama queen to say the least (albeit a well-intentioned one). So I have to admit that it's pretty fun writing those truly cringe-worthy moments that would absolutely terrify me because, well, it's not happening to me.
However, because Sydney is my protagonist, and I sooo wanted her to be likeable, I did find myself very protective of her from time to time. Sometimes I found myself actually scaling back on the conflict because I didn't want her to look bad, which I know is a bit crazy considering she isn't even a real person, but there you go.
In defense of my sanity, I'll say that when you're writing these characters, they are very real to you (after all, you're probably spending more time with them than actual living, breathing people when you're smack dab in the middle of a novel deadline)—and it's important to be true to who they really are. Yes, even warts and all.
And like the other ladies mentioned earlier this week, there is an art to this. All the drama that you stir up must ring true to the nature of that particular character and the integrity of the story. Basically, you can't have someone start acting all crazy with a proper precedent set in the first place...
So when you're dreaming up ways to trip up your characters, it's important to consider if what's happening (not to mention how he/she responds) feels authentic. Anything less will feel phony and will have your readers scratching their heads (or worse, deciding to opt out before your perfectly crafted ending).
While character development is an absolute must in novels, it's conflict that ultimately keeps the story steadily moving along. Without it, there's nothing at stake, meaning no one cares. But too much of it can also leave the reader feeling like he/she is actively part of a three-ring circus, so this is where the input of your editor/trusted friends/writing group will be crucial to the success of your story.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
I think I might be the opposite of Erynn. While she loves to avoid conflict, I love to indulge in it. But ONLY in my writing. In real life, personally, I'm the one dodging the topic to avoid a fight. I'll happily sit with an elephant in the room between me and said conflicting person and be just fine. Conflict makes me hurt. And while in marriage, I do believe that most things are better off being discussed and dealt with, sometimes, there really is something to say for letting things just blow over. Some conflicts get to the point where there truly is no compromise, no way to gloss over or fix things or talk it out - and in those times, its best to just remember you love the other person and let it go. Change the subject. Move on until the dangerous emotions reside. Then talk it out or reach a solution later when feelings aren't like a tidal wave. You could save a lot of hurt this way.
But this isn't a marriage counseling post. lol I digress.
Back to writing.
I think maybe the reason I enjoy writing conflict is because I don't like real life conflict. Its a safe way to vent in my stories, and to let my characters say the things I've always wanted to but never had the nerve to. (which is probably for the best. lol) So for me, its sort of fun!
Do you enjoy writing conflict? Do you struggle with it? Or is the easiest part of writing to you?
There's so many varieties of conflict in writing. You have inner conflict within the character, which I really like to write. This is like a character feeling extreme guilt for something in the past, or struggling to keep a secret, or having feelings for someone but trying to deny them, etc. This is deep, layering stuff. The real grit of who the character is.
Then you have outer conflicts between characters, like arguing or disagreeing on a matter. This can be shown verbally through yelling or physically in an actual fight. Or could be shown through mean looks, sarcastic comments, etc. It could be blatant or subtle.
And you also have situational conflict - and there's probably a better term for that but I'm writing this post while my daughter destroys a muffin in the chair next to me, and need to hurry. lol Situational conflict, as I call it, is when the characters aren't necessarily in conflict with each other but with their circumstances. Maybe a storm is on the way and they're in danger. Maybe a bad guy is out to get them. Maybe they have a certain amount of time in which to raise money before their favorite shop or charity closes. You get the idea.
I do want to give a warning, because I've seen this done in books before and it makes me SO upset. Erynn mentioned this too - staying true to character. I want to expound on it, because its so important to keep the realistic factor in your story. If your character is a shy, meek, humble, conservative chick, more than likely, she is not going to randomly spout off and yell and fight. That's not who she is. That's not to say, however, that she can't grow as a character throughout the story and have a liberating moment of finally getting to say what she always wanted to say. But you have to show that character arch (growth) throughout the book until that moment in the story. Otherwise its contrived. Does that make sense?
And vice versa. If your heroine is honest to a fault, loud, abrasive, open, blunt, etc. then it would be very unlikely that she would hold her tongue 24/7 around her family and friends and coworkers and be the perfect angel verbally.
You can make opposites work for your character but it has to be done in their growth through the story. Not in Chapter 4!
Okay, now to vacuum up the muffin...
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Be careful what you ask yourself.
Suddenly I hear an angry voice from the other side of the room. An old man has listened to 2 teens talk loudly for the past 5 minutes. He is no longer hunched over his newspaper, bearing it.
He has had enough.
"You know something?" he shouts. "This is the place for peace and quiet! If you've gotta talk -- go sit on the jon or something!"
The teens turn red and begin to whisper. Meanwhile the rest of us are thankful the old man just did what we've all wanted to do: cause a conflict for the sake of peace.
That is, after all, why most conflicts start.
We just can't handle it anymore. SOMETHING has to change. We can't handle the person who skipped us in line. We can't handle the lazy attitude of our coworker. We can't handle the jerk who shouts at his wife in the store. Suddenly we snap.
Conflict comes from pressure. It's hard to have one without the other. The pressure can be internal, external, or both. But there has to be pressure to have conflict.
That's exactly what we want to do to our characters. We want to put so much pressure on them that they finally do the one thing we thought they'd never do. Something that is so insane and completely out-of-character that we know we've reached the crisis-point for the character.
The Crisis Point
I had a crisis point last Fall. I'm generally a nice person. Like Erynn, I avoid conflict at all costs.
I hadn't even seen him in 4 years. So when he showed up at my writers' workshop, I thought -- Are you serious? Out of the 800 people at this seminar, with 50 people in my class, you have to be here?
The conflict had started 4 years prior. He read my short story and sat me down to tell me what he really thought. Contrary to the other editorial feedback I received that week, he thought my piece was [I'm not allowed to say this word here].
I cried. Like a little baby. In front of him. Because I thought, THIS MAN IS RIGHT. HE KNOWS WHAT HE'S TALKING ABOUT. HE'S AN EXPERT.
Later, an agent gave me a contract based on those same writing samples. Hmm, I said to myself. (Yes, I talk to myself a lot.) Something's fishy about the guy who said these were [still can't use that word] samples.
Fast-forward to last Fall. I bump into Mr. Meanie-Head again. I'm fine until the final day of class, when I'm giving a presentation. He stops me mid-sentence and says, "I have no idea what you're talking about. You're making absolutely no sense."
Bling. Bling. Bling. Alarm going off. Bells screaming, THAT IS ENOUGH! YOU WILL NEVER TO DO THIS TO ME AGAIN!
To put it kindly: I became posessed. There is no other explanation for what I said next.
"Sir," I said, "You're entitled to your opinion. But you can keep it to yourself."
The man blubbered. The class sat there in shock. They had never seen this side of me. I had never seen this side of me.
And suddenly I realized... the workshop was being taped. People were buying copies. And I'd just told off one of the students.
So go ahead. When you get to that part of your book -- you know, the climax -- go push your character over the edge. Leave a little thread for her to hang onto. But don't let her climb back up that cliff with ANY dignity or grace.
After all, I didn't get to.
Monday, September 14, 2009
I hate it. If there's even a hint of an argument or a fight or someone being offended, my stomach cramps up, my hands get shaky and tears hover right near the corners of my eyes, just waiting to spill out.
As much as I hate it, conflict is a part of life. Which means conflict needs to be a part of our stories. Without conflict, we lose the realistic tone we want our writing to have. But there is a balance - too much conflict and we risk sounding like a cheesy soap opera.
Conflict can be as simple as two characters having a fight and as complex as two characters being thrust in a situation where one ultimately has to kill the other one. It can be as easy as a quick fight over a mustard bottle and as hard as someone dying of a horrific disease.
Characters + Conflict = Plot.
You could have the best, most memorable, wittiest, most insightful character in the entirety of fiction, but if you don't have conflict in their life, you don't have a plot. Which means there is no story.
I would never in a zillion years tell you to come to me with questions about conflict. Like I said earlier, I hate it. I hate experiencing it and I hate writing it. Writing scenes teeming with conflict is about as much fun for me as getting an ugly case of tonsillitis.
So, the fact that I'm writing a post for Scribble Chicks about this is just kind of funny.
How do you react when you're faced with a huge conflict?
I remember one of the worst fights my husband and I ever got into. I was so mad, I couldn't even speak, much less look at him. I just sat there on the couch, tears brimming in my eyes, my hands, arms and legs felt unstable like one of those Fruit Gusher snacks, and my stomach was twisted up so tightly I couldn't swallow. I was staring at the TV, but I wasn't focusing on anything on the screen. My head felt too heavy for my body. And I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and just cry.
This is how we pump conflict into our stories. We make our characters feel in hopes that our readers will experience that same emotion. We make our characters suffer, hoping that our readers will cry for them. And, we make our characters face decisions they never thought they'd have to make so that our readers will identify and feel even more.
Conflict doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing, either. Right before Jon and I got engaged, I was sitting in the chair in my pastor's office, bawling my eyes out. I knew I'd fallen in love with Jon, but I also knew that if things progressed like I thought they were going to, I wasn't going to be living with my family anymore. It was sad, but it wasn't. It was scary, but it was exciting. It was confusing my heart, so on came the tears.
And the emotional conflict.
Next time you watch a movie, try to keep a running list of every conflict in it - both physical and emotional. Notice how the two lists intersect (unless you're watching something like James Bond. Pick a different movie). Keep notes on how each of those scenes made you feel.
Now look at your work-in-progress. Is the conflict real or does it feel forced? Does the conflict stay true to the characters? To the story?
Here's a few things I look for as I'm writing conflict into a story:
* Why does this affect my main character?
* Staying true to their personality, how do they handle it?
* How does this affect the other characters?
Personalities play into conflict scenes. I have two brothers and one sister. One of my brothers and I like to just avoid confrontations. We slink around hot button issues like butter sliding around in a hot skillet. Just don't say anything and the moment will pass!
My other brother and my sister, though, love conflict and they thrive off of a good long debate. They don't get emotionally attached and you can almost see the sheer giddiness in their expressions during the battle.
It's annoying. But it's true. Think about the personalities around you and then think about your character. How do you react? How would they react?
"Write what you know." I don't know who said this first, but I think they were on to something. I believe that it's when we really focus on what's around us and what God is teaching us in this moment that our most meaningful work is written.
How about you guys? How do you come up with conflict? How do you feel in the midst of it?
Friday, September 11, 2009
One thing I have found to be helpful before writing a story or novel is to really understand my characters before I actually begin. I didn't do this with my last novel, and it showed. When I went back and figured out my character's history I was able to write her a lot more effectively. Which isn't to say you have to do this or that to write great fiction.
Some writers enjoy creating long biographies of their characters, answering questions like:
etc., etc., etc. And if that's fun for you to do, I say go for it! Others will sit down with a piece of paper (or their laptop) and in their character's perspective write a journal entry. Or maybe they'll pretend their character is sitting across the table, and they'll interview them, recording it all as they imagine it. (You oughta know by now us writers are a little weird!)
Does it help you to know I haven't figured out yet what works best for me? I'm still discovering every day I write how to create believable characters. What usually happens is I'll have a tiny idea of the type of person I want to create. For example, with the last book I wrote, for years I wanted to write about someone who got to a desperate point in their life where they had nothing but the clothes on their back and maybe a backpack. And maybe they were running from someone or something. I started asking myself questions like, what would bring someone to that point, how would they react, where would they go? So the character was born out of a plot idea. That's usually the way it happens for me.
What I'd love to do is open the floor to all of you. How do you approach creating a character? Or maybe you could tell us how you actually went about creating one in your story. We're all ears!
Thursday, September 10, 2009
I'm mentioning this because we're talking about creating believable characters this week, something that particular movie didn't exactly have going for it.
I don't know if you've noticed this, but Hollywood screenwriters have a pretty hard time with coming up with believable characters. I mean, have you ever noticed that most of them are writers who do nothing but write the occasional op-ed piece and get paid piles and piles of money for doing so?
But whoever came up with Sandra Bullock's character in All About Steve really hit the unbelievability jackpot. After all, to get the idea that Mary Horowitz is "quirky" yet "comfortable in her own skin" across, that person really pulled out all the stops....
*Knee-high shiny red boots that Mary insists on wearing everywhere (even though she clearly should've left them in the Hot Topic window display where they belong)? Check.
*Bizarro-job, namely as the crossword constructor for the local Sacramento paper (hmmm, couldn't they simply recycle one of Will Shortz' masterpieces and save some precious money—they are a newspaper, a dying breed, after all) Check.
*No friends, but hamsters (yes, hamsters) that advise her on what to wear on her blind date with Steve? Check.
*Lame excuse for still living at home, namely that her place is being fumigated for a really, really long time? Check.
Ok, you get where I'm going with this, right?
Many writers, and you know when you've read them, create paint-by-numbers characters that feel straight out of a bad sitcom archetype. Sure, there's nothing wrong with quirkiness or having your particular creations break the mold, but it's still important to have something about them that resonates with your readers.
If they can't feel what your character is feeling and identify in some way, I'm thinking they won't venture beyond the first page, let alone the first chapter. I know I'm that way with books, and I have a high tolerance for cut-from-a-different-cloth people (yes, like Betsy, I can even figure out why everyone loves Twilight's Bella and Edward, and we're talking about a mortal being in love with a vampire here).
So if Stephanie Meyer can make that work, surely we can all create characters that have real staying power in our readers' minds. Since I tackled the ups and downs of falling in love in my novels, that was actually pretty easy to do because I sooo remember being there.
Even though I've been happily married for almost four years now, I can still remember the sting of unrequited love, the before-the-first-date butterflies, and if I ever forget, well, I have several obliging single girlfriends who'd gladly fill me in. When writing anything fictional that's going to connect, it's incredibly important to tackle universal themes like love with authenticity—and that can be as simple as taking a peek at your own life or doing a bit of people-watching.
In fact, it's my observations of human behavior (i.e. my college roommates, my former co-workers, those random types that frequent the local coffee shops) that have provided the best (and constant) inspiration for characters. When there's so much people-watching potential available at a variety of locales near you (I must say my recent 24 hours in Manhattan delivered in spades), there's really no excuse for unbelievable characters. If you're an observer of life and can somehow channel that into your writing, you'll win every single time whether you're writing about vampires or a girl who never seems to get the guy.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Our topic this week is creating believable characters, and how we as authors go about doing such. Here's a few thoughts from me...
It's been said that authors write one of two ways: either by character-driven novels, or plot-driven novels.
I humbly beg to differ! I believe every story is character driven, and if it's not, then it's not really that great. (ducking!)
Seriously, though, think about it. Some stories might be more high-paced, intense, full of twists and turns and mysteries and action. But those stories STILL have characters, and the reader still has to care about that character or else they get bored, regardless of how exciting the character's circumstances might be.
When I think of "character driven novels" of today's time (because 99% of the classics were very character-driven! Jane Austen's works, Dickens, etc.) I think of Susan May Warren's novels. Karen Kingsbury's. Dee Henderson's beloved "O'Malley Series". Even branching away from inspirational fiction, consider Harry Potter and Twilight.
If Edward wasn't so lovable and tormented, then Twilight would have been just another vampire story, just another quick read that was tossed aside before someone moved on to the next. Instead, because of Edward, and okay, because of Bella too, every teenager in America is saying things like "Forget a knight on a white horse. I'd rather have a vampire in a silver Volvo" and other crazy quotes. lol (yes, that one is really out there!)
Same thing with Harry Potter. Not every series in the world causes people to dress up as the characters and camp outside movie theaters for the earliest tickets or storm bookstores to celebrate sequel releases. Why did this series? Because of the CHARACTERS.
Here's why, I think:
“Flawed characters are the unforgettable ones.” Susan Shaughnessy
It all comes back to conflict conflict conflict. Many assume conflict plays more of a role in plot and circumstances than characters, but I disagree. The characters need outer conflict, yes, to keep the story rolling. But more important than that I believe, is the character's own internal conflict and the conflict between he/she and another character.
Take Edward and Bella. He's a vampire, she's got his favorite type of blood. Voila - conflict. But there are deeper levels than that. Edward is tormented inside because he doesn't WANT to be vampire. He doesn't WANT to be a monster or be bad or have to hold himself back from drinking people. (how noble!) Bella's conflict, on the other hand, is the opposite. She doesn't want to human and grow old and one day be without Edward. She WANTS to be a vampire, WANTS to be changed to be like him so they can be together. (also, pretty noble)
That's why it works. We have two characters, with opposite goals and conflicts, trying to be together in the name of love. Everything is against them, and because of that, the reader wants them to get together.
If there were no obstacles in their way, we'd have a fast, boring, forgettable read.
Think about this quote, too, for a minute:
“I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you.” Stephen King
I find this true of myself. A little part of me - whether it be backstory, childhood memories, favorite collectibles, unfulfilled dreams, hidden desires, bad habits or quirks - end up in my stories. Every single time. There is SOMETHING Betsy in every story, and I don't plan that. It just comes out of me and into my character. And I think as authors that's why we get so attached. Our characters become a representation of ourselves, even if only in shadow. We exist in them.
So, to wrap up, how we create believable characters as authors is to:
1. Realize the importance of the character to the story
2. Make sure the character has enough layers and various levels of conflict (inner, outer, etc.) and isn't perfect.
3. Put a little something personal into the characters to make them real to us. If they're not real to you, they won't be real to your reader!
Now, no more excuses. Get to writing! =)
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
The above sentence stirs my feelings… especially ones of nausea and panic. Because for one brief second every time I read it, I realize the sentence was written by a respected author and literary agent.
Then I am suddenly calmed when I remember the author created it in order to evoke strong negative emotions in the judges of the Bulwer-Lytton terrible first sentence contest. It worked. In 1999, she took home the worst first sentence prize.
Which ironically, was nothing.
Which ironically, is the same thing you and I take home when we are too quick to devour clumps of writing advice until our bellies groan with surfeit, then lumber back to our writing desks where we obligingly regurgitate the advice onto our computer screens.
To put it bluntly: formulaic writing lacks emotion. And as Erynn said in her post yesterday, we want to create emotion in our characters, which creates emotion in our readers.
Don’t get me wrong. We need formula. But there’s something scary out there that agents and editors are only whispering about. They’re calling it the “workshopped to death” syndrome. In fact, I talked with an agent about it not long ago. She told me the proposals she’s getting are alike… as if they’re cut out of the same pattern.
The writers have followed the formula perfectly – but they’ve still missed the target. The book just doesn’t connect on the heart level.
It’s kind of like the amazing musician who has an incredible debut record. Then he moves to
He’s lost touch with the heart of his music.
GETTING BACK TO THE HEART
What made you want to write in the first place? Was it to right an injustice? Was it to find healing? Was it to make people laugh? Was it to help others?
Come before God in this moment. Put away your workshop notes and books. Ask Him for HIS heart for this story and the people it will touch.
That emotion will now come out in your characters. That emotion in your characters will emote emotion in your readers.
Then creep through your computer files devouring clumps of formulaic writing until your belly groans with surfeit, and lumber back to the heart of the story and try not to obligingly regurgitate all the words you just deleted.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Believable characters and real emotion are the driving force behind everything that is written - whether it is fiction or nonfiction. If you don't care about the book/article/pamphlet that you're reading, odds are you aren't going to finish reading it.
Think for just a second about some of the books you've read. What are some of your favorite characters ever written about?
I'm immediately thinking about Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley was a character-and-a-half! She was impulsive, mischievous, nonsensical, brilliant and daydreamy all at the same time. She was such a sweet person that you couldn't help but like her and such an accident waiting to happen that you couldn't help but see what she'd get herself into next.
Or, what about Elizabeth Bennett? She was headstrong, self-reliant and logical in a society that bred flighty, irresponsible girls. She didn't want a marriage of convenience like was so popular back then, but to really fall in love.
I think we are instinctively drawn to characters that we find common interest. If you tend to be a scatterbrained person, you'll probably love scatterbrained characters. If you are a logical, calculated person, odds are that scatterbrained characters are going to drive you crazy!
So, how do we create characters that people empathize with?
Probably the best question you can ask about your character is "What do they want?"
Anne Shirley wanted to stay at Green Gables. Once she got that, she wanted everyone to be happy. She wanted things to never change and she didn't want people to grow up.
Elizabeth Bennett wanted to love someone - even if it meant living in the poor house. She wanted Jane to be happy. And she wanted her sisters to stop being so embarrassing.
What your character wants will be what drives the plot. If your character is a grouchy old man who just wants peace and quiet, what do you think the story will be about? The grouchy old man never getting peace and quiet... until the end of the story.
If you're working on a story and you've come to a screeching halt, check and see what it is your character wants. Is it believable? Is it plausible? Did they get all their desires fulfilled at the beginning of the story? Make their "Wish List" both complex and simple.
Think for a minute about what you want. Here's my list:
* Another bowl of cereal
* To have a four-day weekend instead of a three-day
* My family to be safe and happy
* To glorify God
What do you want? Now, look at your character. If your character only has simple desires, you're going to be missing that resonance in your story. If your character only has complex desires, you'll be missing the realistic essence to your story.
What does your character want? And how are they going to get it? And if you write character-driven fiction, you've just come up with your plot.
"Don't say the old lady screamed." Figure out the why. Figure out what it is she wants that she's not getting. And then, bring her on and let her wail away while you dangle that desire in front of her face.
Personally? I think that old lady just wanted Oreos for breakfast and someone told her she was old and needed to watch her cholesterol and that she should have Cheerios instead. But that's just my take on it. What's yours? :)
Friday, September 4, 2009
I'm convinced writers are wired differently than ordinary folks. Because of our tendency to feel deeply, we're able to create characters and feel their emotions. Not all writers are like this, but many are. And it's this same tendency toward strong emotional pulls that can create unhealthy attitudes in our psyches towards ourselves. Because let's face it. Our writing is an extension of us. Like a child, or a much-loved pet. Talk bad about our children/pets and you're talking bad about us.
This isn't limited to unpublished writers either. I used to think once I got a contract all of these doubts would fade away. Because someone saw merit in my work to publish it, that would be the confirmation I needed, right? Um, not so fast. We're always going to face doubts and insecurities. Knowing that kinda helps. Then we don't feel so weird when we constantly questions ourselves!
I remember one time a couple years ago feeling incredibly discouraged in my writing. I’d just read a novel that was everything I wanted my novels to be. The plot moved me, the characters became incredibly real, and the message was powerful. Every time I sat down to write my own fiction I would think about this other author. There was no way I was ever gonna write like that!
I asked for advice from author James Scott Bell. He’s been a writing mentor to me, and what he said hit home. He told me first of all I wasn’t alone in feeling the way I was feeling. All serious writers and artists have been there before, he said. Then he encouraged me with this bottom line: I needed to realize that no two writers are the same. I had MY story that no one could ever write like me.
Then he said something else I’ve never forgotten. He compared writing to what God does with spiritual gifts. Not everyone has the same gift, but when we develop our own gifts it contributes to the whole tapestry. I needed to be the best C.J. I could be. And if I gave my full attention to my own writing, not comparing myself to anyone but just digging deeper into my story, the concerns would go away. Jim said, “Writing itself is always the best antidote to the writing blues.”
So today if you're feeling like I did, know that you're not alone. All of us Scribble Chicks have totally been there (and might even be there as we speak!). I'd encourage you to try to disregard the doubts whenever you can. It's kinda what I wrote about last week, turning off your inner critic so you can actually get the words down.
God hasn't given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and a sound mind. When God speaks to you He's going to be the positive voice in your life. If he needs to convict you of something, He'll remind you quietly and gently---He's not going to condemn you. So you can know right now that all those insecurities aren't from Him.
What insecurities are you feeling this week about your writing? Do you think they're legit or are they just pulling you down? How could you take those insecure thoughts and turn them around for your good?
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Like that time a guy in my 4th grade creative writing class called me a "freak" (in front of my big crush, no less) after I bravely volunteered to read my story out loud.
Or when I first discovered alliteration in junior high and my English teacher wasn't nearly as impressed with my discovery as I was. She even dared to give me a "B+" on my profoundly poetic paper that I was sure was worth an A++++.
Or much later in my writing adventures when a book critic only gave me three stars because she was "confused" and "distracted" by my switching POVs in my debut novel. Hey, if it's good enough for Jodi Picoult...oh forget it.
Not long after that revelation, I suddenly remembered another shot to my frail writer's psyche when my hubby introduced me to Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. While I enjoyed each and every insight into Eggers' very bizarre mind, I was a little depressed and utterly deflated after finishing because there was no way I could ever conceive of something so unique, clever and creative.
So why even bother writing, right? Well, that's what I thought for about a week anyway. If I wasn't on Eggers' level, it didn't seem worth the trouble.
But the truth is there will always be someone who won't get what we do—or where we're coming from as a writer. And without a doubt, some of those people will just happen to be book critics. Furthermore, there will always be writers who deliver the goods with more panache, more style, more grace—and they'll instantly be christened Oprah's latest book club selection, top the New York Times' bestseller list and possibly even win a Pulitzer.
But after you've got all the self-doubt and complaining and crying (yes, I've shed tears over these trivial matters) out of your system, it's important (and best) to re-focus on the task at hand: writing. After all, you wouldn't get so worked up about it if you didn't love it so much, right?
So don't be afraid to own your writing style, whatever it is. Sure, we can all work on the mechanics, hone our style and edit it to perfection, but the way you say something, that's all you, and it's worth celebrating whether you're published, unpublished, successful or unsuccessful.
Next up: Even though I wasn't even talking about love, I must get Madonna's "Express Yourself" out of my head. (How's that for random?)
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
This week we've been talking about our insecurities as a writer. I started searching my heart when the subject came up, and once I realized what mine is, I wanted to skip this post! lol
My biggest insecurity as a writer is never being enough. Of being weighed and found wanting.
When I read the above line, I immediately know all the things to say to myself. "Don't be ridiculous." "That's silly." "Writers should never compare their works." "It doesn't matter what someone else does, do what you do". I've even said those same things to others! But deep down, sometimes, the insecurity flares.
I think it started when I published a suspense novel, Midnight Angel, with The Wild Rose Press. I knew they were a new small press, I knew it wasn't the same as publishing with a mainstream publisher, but they were legit. They had editors. They payed royalities if not advances. I thought it'd be a great stepping stone to my dreams. I researched them, developed a great relatioship with my editor, and did my best at the time.
But for many around me, that wasn't enough. People, acclaimed writers I admired, warned me not to. Told me it was settling. Told me to wait until a big wig publisher picked me up. Told me I would regret it, etc.
I stuck with it anyway, and published two short story e books with The Wild Rose Press after that. But the whole time, my bubble was somewhat burst. I kept doubting, thinking "what if the voices are right?" For some awful reason, it didn't matter that my family was thrilled for me and took me to dinner to celebrate. It didn't matter that I had a real book contract in my hands from my publisher or that my friends couldn't wait to read the book. I only heard the negative.
I attended a writer's conference that year after my release and didn't sign up to put my book in the conference bookstore. I was embarassed. Even though my church family raved over it. Even though readers seemed to love the story - I knew writers would see the flaws. I knew readers might love the suspense but writers would see the mistakes and holes. I kept my head down about my book.
After that, I continued writing and learning and attending conferences, growing in craft. I realized that I could have done a lot better with Midnight Angel but everyone has a "first book" and from what I hear, most authors would love to shove their first book in a drawer and hide from public view.
And that's the way its supposed to be! We're supposed to keep learning and growing. If we never got better than our first book, something is WRONG. You know what I mean?
There's no need for shame or embarassment in the process - a lesson I am still learning.
Later, I got an agent, who I admire and have a wonderful relationship with, and who has sold several Love Inspired stories for me with hope sfor more. My career with Steeple Hill is off to a wonderful start, and I am so thankful - but I also am thankful for my stepping step beginning with The Wild Rose Press.
Anyone out there relate? Am I alone in this insecurity? =)
If I am, it's okay. Because over the years since Midnight Angel, I've learned - and am still learning - that the only One I need to seek to please is God. My Heavenly Father. When the insecurities arise, all I need to do is stop and ask myself "who am I doing this for?" "whose opinion truly matters"?
Then the answer is clear. And I have the courage to keep writing. =)
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Across the parking lot, through the sliding glass doors, into the waiting room.
"WE'VE GOT A STAT!" someone yelled. "IT'S A LITTLE GIRL!"
I was 18 years old but it didn't matter. Small enough to be mistaken for a child, and large enough to break a grown man's heart.
How do you know when you have the strength to walk your readers through those emergency room doors?
You will know.
You will whisper in the darkness, "It will be OK. I promise. We're going to make it through this."