Behind the Story: Emotion Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion
Last week’s post was all about how a story has an action plot and an emotional plot.  To see last week’s post, click here.  This week’s post is about how I revised a draft to improve the emotional plot as well as a discussion of emotional filters.
Emotional Journey
So what’s the next step after identifying the emotional journey of your protagonist?  Conveying that journey.  As I said last post, I’d left myself some breadcrumbs.  Some clues.  But I had to hunt for those breadcrumbs, so surely my reader isn’t going to be able to follow me down that path.  I needed to construct a clearer path, so that my reader could see the journey or change that my main character went through.
In the case of revising “Rebel Angel,” I had to go back into the story and look at how Vera behaved and reacted to situations.  In the beginning of the story, I needed her to show off her rebellious and cavalier attitude, but hint at her own internal struggle with being a failure as an angel.  As I moved to the middle of the story, I had to continue her rebellious attitude, reveal frustration with her mission, and show moments where Vera revealed she cared about her job.  In the ending, I needed Vera to make a desperate shift as she becomes determined to do her job and embracing her role as a guardian angel.
Vera was a bland character in the first draft, so I had to go back and add lots of snarky dialogue, eye-rolling, and a devil-may-care attitude.  I decided that I needed a mentor figure for her to butt heads with, but also to give her that boost of confidence she needed when she became desperate.  Vera also became a more real character to me, flawed and fascinating.  The first draft was around 20 pages, and the second draft was 40 pages.  But the story felt so much more whole after that revision.  It had the action, but it was also an emotional journey.  And even my favorite action-packed novels have characters who grow and change over the course of the book.
Exercise #2

Outline general behaviors, attitudes, fears of your main character at different points in you story that will reveal a progression or growth in their emotional journey.  (Like I did above for Vera the Angel)

Again, I’m a fan of charts, so you might find this format helpful:
Emotional Filter
Here’s another tricky bit in conquering the emotional plot of your story: the emotional filter.  At least, I find it tricky.  Because as much as my characters feel like real people, I am not them.  When I write, I don’t suddenly inhabit their body and mind and let it take over me.  I don’t suddenly see the world as they live it.  Maybe some writers write this way, but I don’t.  I’m very much conscious of the desk, my computer, my cup of tea, and the words coming out of my fingertips.  I’m conscious of the fact that I’m writing, and I’m thinking about where I want the story to go and what words will get me there.
If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional filter is a writing term, especially important in first person but also close third, that is used in revising writing to remind a writer to see a scene from the character’s emotional perspective.  I tend to struggle with this because I’m not thinking as my main character as I write.
I usually have to go back after my initial drafting and insert emotions and inner monologue.  Sometimes I’ll have some breadcrumbs of emotions to work with, but usually it’s something I have to go back through and add.  As I’ve become aware of emotions being a weak point for me, I think I’ve gotten better at weaving them into my first drafts.  But I know that looking at my emotional plot is going to be one of the major points of my revision when I do finally have a complete first draft.
Three ways to convey what a character is feeling:
  1. Inner Monologue: Dive into what the character is thinking and give the reader direct thoughts.  This is also an excellent way to slow or freeze the narrative for dramatic effect if it is a particularly important or poignant moment.
  2. Dialogue: Convey the emotions through what that character says.  Could your character be confused?  Were they blindsided?  Have them stammer and ask questions.  Is your character angry?  Have them speak tersely or shout.
  3. Action: Little ticks and behaviors can convey emotions.  A clench of the fists, a gasp of breath, a twirl of the hair, a glance at the floor.  I would say that actions are best used in combination with dialogue or thoughts in order to give the reader a full picture of what the character is feeling.

Exercise #3

Write what might seem as a small/insignificant moment, but then convey that this moment has emotional weight for your character.

Exercise #4

Find a scene that is lacking an emotional filter and revise by adding emotions and inner monologue.  Show a before and after of that scene.

Return next week for what I found the experts had to say about emotion and some great writing resources!

Behind the Story: Emotion Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Emotion

I have strong tastes when it comes to what types of books I enjoy reading.  Note the word “enjoy.”  Reading is my form of escape, and as much as I can, I try to keep reading as something that I do for pleasure.  Due to my personal tastes, one of the biggest categories/genres of books I don’t enjoy is the problem novel.  Characters dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict aren’t fun for me to read.  They stress me out.  Reading about people with serious, real life problems is not how I choose to spend my evening curled up on the couch.  Have I still read some of these books?  Yes.  I’ve read works by Ellen Hopkins (Impulse) and Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak and Wintergirls).  Can these books be important?  Yes.  Do I know students who have loved these kinds of books?  Yes.  But novels dealing with emotional issues and internal conflict are not my cup of tea.

What I do enjoy: conflict, action, suspense, plots with twists and turns.  Give me a quest.  Give me a battle between good and evil.  Give me dire stakes to save the one you love.  That’s my kind of story.  And therefore, that’s what I tend to write.  I’m a conflict and plot driven writer.  I plan out my books by the obstacles and challenges I intend for my characters to face.  And I love writing this way.  It’s great.

However, the wisdom of one of my professors pointed out that a novel can’t be just action.  A novel has an action plot and an emotional plot.  Typically, in my first draft, I have the action plot down.  It’s my emotional plot that needs some help.

At first, this whole realization of an emotional plot kind of blew my mind.  I didn’t really know what to do about it.  It makes sense when you look at my reading preferences.  Was I a total failure at this emotional stuff?  But then I looked at the first drafts of my stories, and I realized that I’d left myself clues as to the emotional plot.  Like breadcrumbs I didn’t know I’d trailed behind me as I was munching my way through the forest.

My first step to remedying my weak emotional plot, was to gather the clues I left myself and piece together the emotional journey my character goes on over the course of the story.

I find it helpful to identify both the action plot and the emotional journey.  Sometimes it’s helpful to see how they fit together.  And if you’re someone who is good at the emotional stuff, then it might help you to outline your action plot.

For example, here is the action plot and emotional plot of my novella “Rebel Angel”:

The action plot is composed of events or challenges in the physical world, whereas the emotional plot should be showing how the character grows and changes over the course of the story.

Exercise #1

Identify the action plot and emotional plot of your novel.  I find the chart helpful, but you may use any format that works for you.

Return next week for more about emotional plots and more writing exercises!

Links to Previous ‘Behind the Story’ Posts:
Pacing and Description Part 1
Pacing and Description Part 2
Pacing and Description Part 3
Choosing Character Names

Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2013




Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. For more information about Top Ten Tuesday and a list of upcoming Top Ten Tuesday topics, click here.
Top Ten Bookish Goals for 2013

My goals are a mix of “personal bookish accomplishments” as well as how many books I want to read and where I want to purchase my books.

1. Finish novel and begin querying in Fall 2013.
I’m writing a steampunk novel for my Masters thesis.  It’s a retelling of a classic piece of literature, and I’m having a total blast writing it.  I’m setting aside the entire months of June and July for revisions (summer vacation from teaching), and August is my deadline for completion!  Wish me luck!

2. Graduate with my Masters in Children’s Literature.
Once I have my Masters in hand, my goal is to find a job in Children’s Publishing.  I would love to work with middle grade or YA in an editorial or marketing role.  I’m currently exploring different avenues and entry level positions.

3. Post at least one book review a week.
My schedule for January has me posting two to three book reviews a week because I’m trying to catch up from my hiatus.  Reviews are slated in my posting schedule for Mondays, occasional Wednesdays, and Saturdays.  I’d love to keep up a two a week schedule, but as it’s tough for me to READ two books a week (with teaching middle school and writing my thesis), I didn’t think that was a realistic goal for me to maintain.

4. Read 12 debut novels.
Last year was my first year attempting the Debut Author Challenge.  I purchased 12 debut novels… but didn’t get around to reading 12 debut novels.  This year I’m setting a goal to post a “Debut Review” on the last day of every month.  This is a way of setting a deadline for myself, and I work well with deadlines (even the self-imposed kind).

5. Read 3 Newbery books and 3 Printz books.
I took a graduate course in Newbery books as well as heard a guest speaker who served on the Newbery committee.  It gave me a real understanding and sense of honor for these awards.  I’m always excited to hear what books are awarded medals each year, and I want to continue reading Newbery and Printz award winners each year (not just when I’m taking a class!)  I also enjoy trying to figure out why this book was chosen/selected versus other books, and identifying the winner’s merits.  I’m a total nerd!

6. Read 7 steampunk novels.
I am likely going to be doing an independent study in the Spring on steampunk, and therefore know I will be reading a bunch of it.  I also want to read what is out there in terms of YA steampunk so as to place my own novel in context.  Is it similar to what’s already been published?  What does it have to offer that’s new?  I have some theories, but I really need to read more in order to prove my assumptions correct.  Some books on my list: The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, The Friday Society by Adrienne Kress, Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve, and The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann.

7. Read 3-5 contemporary novels.
This is a genre that I’m slowly growing to enjoy.  This year I read Anna and the French Kiss, Lola and the Boy Next Door, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight (review forthcoming).  All of which I enjoyed, despite not being an avid contemporary reader.  This year I will undoubtedly be reading Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen, and Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry.  I’ll be watching for a few more contemporary reads to add as well.

8. Read 3-5 historical fiction novels.
This is a genre that I used to love.  I totally grew up on the American Girl series. (Felicity was my favorite.) I’d love to renew my love of historical fiction because lately I’ve been reading a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  I’ve heard great things about Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly and Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.  But I’ll gladly take recommendations of great historical fiction.

9. Do majority of eBook purchasing from indie booksellers through Kobo.
I’m a little upset by what I’ve read about Amazon’s business practices and their interactions with publishers, authors, and booksellers.  Despite loving my Kindle Touch, I want to shift my book purchasing to support independent booksellers.  I got an iPad for Christmas and downloaded the Kobo app.  Through Kobo, I can purchase eBooks from my favorite indie stores, like Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, Delaware or Politics and Prose in Washington D.C.  I want to purchase eBooks from the stores that offer me great book events, opportunities to meet my favorite authors, and a great shopping experience.

10. Start novel #2.
I’m not even done with book one, and I’m already thinking ahead to book two!  That’s partially because book two was started before I even began book one.  But then there was the “Dystopian Boom” and I realized I had to figure out a way to make my dystopian trilogy different from all the others being offered.  I had a unique premise, but I needed a different ending.  Most dystopians end with either the protagonist running away from the dystopian society or rebelling against the dystopian society.  I wanted an ending that would be neither of those.  And I found one!  A fantastic twist!  I can’t wait to return to this project when I finish my steampunk novel.

Whew!  Does anyone else feel like they need to print out all their goals and resolutions and post them on the walls to keep them in sight?  I have a lot I want to get done this year!

What are your Bookish Goals?

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 3

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description
The past two weeks I’ve been discussing pacing and description as a writer.  For previous posts:
This week I’ll be giving you two more writing tips as well as two more exercises!
Pacing Tip #2: White Space and Description Between Dialogue
In terms of teens, white space is your friend.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve handed my classes a book or story or article and heard them groan when they are overwhelmed by the number of words on a page.  But you can have the opposite reaction if you pay attention to white space.  White space is the negative space where there are no words.  It’s an easy way to keep an eye on your pacing.  You can assume that readers move slowly through a page with little white space because they have a lot of words to read, but a page with a lot of white space will move much quicker.  The easiest way of increasing the amount of white space on a page is to add dialogue.  I’ve noticed that many of the more popular/mass market authors tend to not only write a lot of dialogue, but are also good at writing witty dialogue.  Bravo if that’s your strength!  But even if it’s not, a wisely placed bit of dialogue can break up the pacing of a slow scene.
Author, James Patterson and his Maximum Ride series has a ridiculous amount of white space in his books.  His books run roughly 400 pages, but I’d say at least a third to a half of the book is white space.  He uses an abundance of dialogue.  But what’s really sneaky is his chapters.  There are 134 chapters in the first book, and there are chapter breaks every 2-4 pages.  Picture the amount of white space that comes at the beginning and end of a chapter, and you can imagine how much white space a kid sees when flipping through his books when there’s 134 chapters. (I’ve also noticed that my students love the feeling of triumph in saying they read a 134 chapter book.)  I am not a fan of the Maximum Ride series and don’t find them to be especially well written.  But they are the most fast paced books I’ve seen out there, and I think it’s in large part due to James Patterson’s use of white space.
Writing Exercise #2
Look through your work in progress and see if you can find a section that is text heavy with very little white space.  See if you can insert a brief scene of dialogue to break up the text.

This may sound hard, but I did it for a scene I wrote on Monday!  I saw that I had a long paragraph, and figured out how to convey a lot of the same information through a conversation between two characters instead!
Pacing Tip #3: Sensory Details and Characters Interacting With the Setting
The easiest way to slip in setting without your reader noticing that you’re doing any description at all is by having you characters interact with the setting.  I added sensory details to this tip because those are easy ways to tell if you characters are interacting with the setting.  Does you character feel raindrops rolling down their face?  You just sneakily introduced that it was raining!  Does your character taste salt in the air?  You just told us we’re by the ocean!  Does your character hear the click-clacking of high heels on linoleum?  We must be inside a building, perhaps an official one where women where heels!  See how you can reveal setting through sensory details?  Below are some examples of characters interacting with the setting, often through sensory details.

Pressing her cheek to the warm, gritty pavement, she was able to make out three sets of yellow boots across the square.  An emergency crew. She peeled the door open farther and watched the men–all wearing gas masks–as they doused the interior of the booth with liquid from a yellow can.  Even across the square, Cinder wrinkled her nose at the stench.
Cinder, page 17

Here, the author, Marissa Meyer uses sensory details to show her character interacting with the setting.  You get an idea that this is an urban, secretive, and possibly dystopian setting from the sights, smells, and touch of the place through Cinder’s interactions.  (I absolutely love this sci-fi take on Cinderella and highly recommend it!)

But she was still five hundred feet up when the first sheets of rain arrived.  The cold drops fell diagonally, hitting her dangling feet even under the cover of the airbeast.  Its tentacles coiled tighter, and she wondered how long the medusa would take this pounding before it spilled its hydrogen, hurling itself to the ground.
Leviathan, Page 57

Here, author, Scott Westerfeld informs you of several setting details while maintaining an action-packed narrative.  You learn the setting is up in the sky, during a powerful storm.  I think the pacing and action is heightened by his strong verbs in this section as well: hitting, dangling, coiled, pounding, spilled, and hurling.  There are also sensory details: cold drops and hitting her dangling feet.
Exercise #3

Choose a setting and write a paragraph introducing details about that setting through how your character interacts with the place.  Try to include two or three of the senses in your paragraph.

Repeat for two more different settings!  Bonus points if you include all five senses for a single setting!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of posts on pacing and description!  Stay tuned next week for a post on emotion!

2012 Reflection and Looking Ahead

2012 Challenges


Goodreads Challenge
Goal 75 Books
Did Not Complete



2012 Debut Author Challenge
Goal 12 Books
Did Not Complete

Instead of recapping my failures (depressing) and making excuses (lame), I’m going to reflect on the things I did accomplish this year:

1) I wrote more blog posts in 2012 than I did in 2011 (despite taking a 3 month hiatus), and made lots of new friends along the way 🙂

2) I took 12 credits in graduate courses and now have 36 out of 48 credits towards my Masters degree. I have just one class and my thesis to go!

3) I wrote tens of thousands of words for my novel as well as researching topics that were completely unfamiliar to me like the history of metalworking and properties of metal. I will undoubtedly finish my first draft this winter and that makes me happy!

Goals for 2013

Goodreads Challenge: I’m going to set my goal lower than 2012 but higher than 2011. Hopefully, that middle ground will be the right number. My goal will be 60 books.

Debut Author Challenge: I really want to do a better job on this challenge. It turns out that I purchased a bunch of debut novels, but it was the reading them that got me in trouble. I’m going to have to schedule one book per month and set deadlines for myself. I work well that way, with a little more structure. So I’m going to set a goal of one book a month or 12 books total.

Reading Goals: I want to diversify my reading selections. I tend to read more fantasy and sci-fi, but would like to also read more historical fiction (which I enjoy), mysteries (which I loved as a kid), and contemporary (which is growing on me). I also want to pay more attention to publishers and diversify my reading in that way. I also will be reading as many steampunk books as possible, so if you see a good steampunk book, send it my way!

Writing Goals: I will be finishing my first draft of my steampunk novel this winter, which will be my thesis for my Masters. I will be revising over the Spring and Summer, and be done by August 2013. Hopefully, I can start the query process Fall of 2013. My next writing project (since this novel is a steampunk standalone) will likely be the dystopian trilogy that I put on hold. I had a major revelation while studying dystopians over the summer, and figured out how to break away from the typical dystopian format. I have a major twist that I’m really excited to explore, which should distract me from the nerves of querying.

Blogging Goals: I want to maintain an every-other-day posting schedule, with two-thirds of my posts being book posts and one-third being writing posts. I’d love to look into co-hosting an event or doing some giveaways, but that really depends on big changes in my real life and how they’ll impact me (jobs, moving, money, etc.)

2013 could have a lot of changes in store for me, especially as I’m completing my Masters and pursuing job/career changes. I hope these big changes won’t get in the way of my goals, but regardless, I’m optimistic that 2013 is going to be a fun year 🙂

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 2

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

Last week I discussed how I learned to pay attention to pacing and why I believe pacing is so important.  For last week’s post, click here.  This week I’ll get into tips and tricks writers can use to take control of their pacing.
Brushstrokes, You Don’t Have to Paint the Picture All at Once
Guess what?  Most of us are writing a whole entire book.  Some of us, that will be 80,000 words.  You don’t need to give your reader every single detail up front.  We are often tempted to, because as the author, we feel like everything in our story is important.  But that’s not the case.  We can reveal things over time.  Do we need to know that the main character has red frizzy hair, freckles, green eyes, small bones, knobby knees, tiny ears, pale skin, a birthmark on her elbow… all in the first chapter?  No.  We don’t.  You can paint her with brushstrokes a little bit at a time.  We have the whole book to get to know her.  Think of it as dating… We don’t need to know everything up front.  A first date where all is revealed doesn’t leave us with anything to wonder about, and that intrigue, that mystery is lost.  You’ll want to start with a basic picture, the essential details, but then let it grow, brushstroke by brushstroke, as the story continues.  Which brings us to Tip #1:
Pacing Tip #1: The Rule of Three
I honestly don’t remember where I heard this tip.  I looked on the internet for some hint as to who I learned it from, but all I could get was that it is general belief.  
Wikipedia states:

“The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things. The reader or audience of this form of text is also more likely to consume information if it is written in groups of threes.  Similarly, adjectives are often grouped in threes to emphasize an idea.  The Latin phrase, “omne trium perfectum” (everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete) conveys the same idea as the rule of three.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_three_(writing)

The way I’ve understood and employed the “rule of three” in terms of pacing and description: I don’t include more than three details about a person or place in my first description.  I think when I originally heard the “rule of three” I was told that a reader isn’t going to remember more than three details about a character.  Think of Harry Potter.  Three major physical details: Messy black hair, green eyes with glasses, lightning bolt scar.  Those are the three defining physical details everyone remembers.
Now, I’ll show you examples of the “Rule of Three” in action:
From my own WIP, a setting:

The first thing my aunt did upon returning from the funeral was take away my bedroom and force me into the small attic room above the boiler room.  The space could barely fit a bed, and there were crevices between the floorboards wide enough to stick your finger through.  The highlight of the room was a single grimy window.  

I only describe three things in Anne’s new bedroom: the small size, the floor, and the window.  All of which convey the sheer depressing nature of the room.  That’s all you need to know.  I definitely could have described more, but three things was enough.
From my WIP, a character:

“Oy!  Girlie!  You new?”  Pushing one of the screeching metal carts was a girl smaller than me.  Her brown hair was unbelievably short, cropped to her chin, but she wore a long gray skirt, so I knew she was a girl.

Again, I only describe three things: the girl’s small size, her short hair, and her skirt.  It’s enough for you to identify this girl in the future (the small girl with the cropped hair), you’ll remember it, and there’s plenty of space for her to grow as a character.
Here’s some examples from novels you might know:

“Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said.  She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, page 105

J.K. Rowling describes three things about Hermione (voice, hair, and teeth) when we first meet her (though we later learn a great deal more).

The girl was gorgeous, the kind of girl Clary would have liked to draw–tall and ribbon-slim, with a long spill of black hair.  Even at this distance Clary could see the red pendant around her throat.  It pulsed under the lights of the dance floor like a separate, disembodied heart.
City of Bones, page 6

Cassandra Clare gives us three details about the girl: her body type, her hair, and her necklace.

Her name was Shay. She had long dark hair in pigtails, and her eyes were too wide apart. Her lips were full enough, but she was even skinnier than a new pretty. She’d come over to New Pretty Town on her own expedition, and had been hiding here by the river for an hour.
Uglies, page 27

This example does not stick to the rule of three, but I think Westerfeld still limited himself in terms of description.  A reason why I think he used four descriptors here is because he uses pairs effectively.  Shay is described in pairs of traits: one that is adequate (almost pretty) and one that is ugly.  This is important to the premise of his book, where the characters desire physical perfection more than anything else.  So the pairs were necessary for him, and he limited himself to two pairs and not more than that.  Six traits would have been too much at once, but four traits or two pairs was enough.
When is it okay to use longer description?
I think there are cases that warrant more description than the “Rule of Three” I present here.  I think particularly important characters often warrant more description.  For example, Dumbledore is described in much more than three traits in his first description on page 8 of Sorcerer’s Stone.  He was an incredibly important character across the entire series.  I’ve heard the rule that the length of a description should match the importance of a character or place (longer description = more important).  I generally agree with this rule, but often an author can be a little blind and think every detail is a little more important than it actually is.
I also think unusual settings warrant more description, and readers will be more patient with lengthier description of a strange setting because the strangeness intrigues them.  Readers aren’t bothered by descriptive paragraphs of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory because a secret candy factory is an intriguing and fabulous setting to read about.  I also think a setting that acts as a character, like Hogwarts, warrants a lengthier description.  Hogwarts isn’t just a place.  It has undiscovered secrets, presents challenges to the characters, and aids the characters in times of trouble.  Hogwarts, in order to become the living place that it is, required that kind of description.  A place that is ordinary, like a classroom or a schoolbus or a grocery store, probably shouldn’t be described in great detail, and I’d recommend the rule of three.  I’ve found the rule of three helps keep me in check and keeps the pace quick.  I can always go back and add more description if I need to.
Writing Exercise #1
Choose three characters and identify the three dominating physical traits of each character.  Then write a brief paragraph for each of them that introduces each character and their three physical traits.
And also, do three settings in your novel.  Choose three settings and identify three defining traits of that setting and write a brief paragraph introducing that setting and the three traits.
Stay tuned next week for my second quick pacing writing tip and another writing exercise!

Behind the Story: Pacing & Description Part 1

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!
This week’s topic:
Pacing and Description

One thing I am acutely aware of is pacing.  It is one of the first things I notice in any book that I read.  This wasn’t always how I read, and I pinpoint the moment I began to read this way on the day I began teaching middle school.
Whether we like it or not, technology has had an impact on the attention spans of our child readers.  Some children have shorter attention spans than others, but I do believe that technology has affected the majority of children in this way.  From thirty second TV commercials to the brevity of tweets to the under eight minute Youtube video, our society feeds on things that are quick.  Children are experiencing the world at a different pace than human beings of the past.  
This phenomena, this shorter attention span, has turned teaching into a unique challenge.  I discovered rather quickly that I had to be just as much an entertainer as an educator in order to hold my students’ attention.  I couldn’t rely on them to do a single activity for a full hour.  My class period had to be broken up into short chunks of different activities.  And when I had to decide on what reading material to use in my class, I had to pay attention to the text’s pacing.  I was teaching in a Title I school filled with hormonal, thirteen year-olds and for the sake of my classroom management, I could not afford for these kids to get bored.
So how does this connect to writing?  I believe we writers have to understand how to grab a kid’s attention, how to pace a book, and how to be sneaky with our description.
Back in the days before photographs and television and internet, as well as cars and trains and airplanes, lengthy description was something that audiences needed.  They wanted to be able to see people, places, and objects that they would never see or travel to.  Description was a way to offer the reader a photograph or to transport them to exotic locales.  And while I don’t mean to say that audiences today don’t need setting, they don’t need the same lengthy descriptions as those from the dusty volumes of yore.  Our current readers want things to be happening in the book at all times.  A whole page of description, to them, means nothing is happening.  And that’s why we writers have to be sneaky with our description.  It still needs to be there in order to ground the reader in a place or to provide a reader with an image, but we need to slip description in between action and dialogue so that we don’t lose our readers because “nothing is happening.”
Some of you may be thinking, “But I love writing beautiful descriptions!” or “Kids need to learn to pay attention and slow down!”  And yes, lots of writers do enjoy writing lyrical, lovely descriptions.  And yes, maybe kids do need to slow it down.  But this is the world we live in.  And I want kids to read my books, not put them down.  
Though, I’ve seen writing at both ends of the spectrum be successful.  Maggie Stiefvater (Shiver, Scorpio Races) is what I would consider a description heavy author, but she has become extremely successful.  I also enjoy her books despite the fact that I have a low tolerance for heavy description.  (I do have to get myself in the right mood to pick up her books, but I still love them.)  On the other end of the spectrum is James Patterson, particularly his Maximum Ride series.  If you haven’t read these books, they move at a ridiculously breakneck pace.  I actually feel as if I’m being jerked around.  He achieves this with extremely short chapters (literally 2-4 pages each) and high conflict.  I actually couldn’t read more than the first book in this series because the jerky pacing was too much for me.  I’m hoping the tips that I offer will help you find a happy medium between the extremes and will help you achieve a pacing that will satisfy both you as a writer as well as our child readers.
I wouldn’t say this is a writing trait I’ve struggled with because I did not start writing seriously until I was already teaching (and acutely aware of pacing).  When I began writing, I’d already begun studying author’s pacing methods and paying attention to what made a text move quickly.  This isn’t to say that, in a rough draft, I’ve never written a paragraph that comes off as setting info dump.  I think it’s one of the common mistakes of a first draft, to do a description info dump, because we, the authors, are figuring things out ourselves as we write.  But in critiques, I’ve pretty consistently gotten feedback that my writing is paced well, and I wanted to share some of the observations I’ve made on pacing that has helped me develop this writing trait.  And in my observations, lengthy description is one of the biggest culprits in slowing a text down. (The other culprit of slow pacing is a lack of conflict, for more on that topic, see my post: Author Sadism)
What Others Have Said on the Topic of Description
In the book Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies (which is a fantastic resource, even for non-dummies) they use a water metaphor, sprinkling versus splashing, when talking about description.  They say it better than I could, so here you go: 

“Stopping your story to splash setting onto the page can be hazardous in teen fiction. Splashes can stop young readers cold.  Sometimes, yes, you may need to pause your plot work for some setting details — a little descriptive moment — either because it fits the overall style of your narrative voice or because, simply, it’s time for a breather. But in general, splashing means stopping, and stopping is rarely what writers want.  Instead, sprinkle.
Work in the setting here and there, as if flicking wet fingers at your pages instead of pouring water on them straight from the spout.  Even teens who aren’t intimidated by a few lines of description are likely to skip over big splashes in search of the story thread.  Providing details about time and place as you go keeps setting accessible and interesting to teen readers.”
Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, page 146

I think they make some great points, and I love the metaphor.  When it’s raining, you avoid going out in a downpour, but you’re likely to handle a light sprinkle.  I think it’s the same with readers.  Readers might avoid or skip a whole page of just description (or even put down the book), but they may not even notice description if you are able to embed it in action or keep description light.
So how do we do this thing called light description?  Next week I’ll share three tips and exercises that should lead the way to you becoming a description expert with no pacing problems.

Going on a Hiatus

This is something that I really did not want to have to do, but I have come to the realization that it is something I need to do.  I’m putting my blog on hiatus.

I sincerely love blogging.  I love sharing what I thought of books.  I love the blogging community.  I love discussing books with other bloggers.  I love hearing about new books coming out.

But there is one thing that’s more important to me right now, and that is writing my novel.  And because I love blogging so much, it is too easy for me to get caught up in writing blog posts and posting comments instead of the other kind of writing I should be doing.

Besides being a full time teacher, I’m taking a writing course this fall that is going to involve presentations, critiques, writing exercises, and regular submissions.  Just looking at the syllabus made me question whether I’d have much free time this fall.

And then I sat down and did some goal setting.  I have set a goal for myself to have a revised and finished novel ready to query by this time next year.  In order to do that, I need to have a finished first draft by January 1st.  Which is entirely doable if I stick to a writing goal of 3,000 words a week.  I’ve consistently met this goal in the past, and know that it is something I can accomplish.  But not if I have distractions.

And because I love blogging so much, it is a distraction.

I want to maintain the friendships I’ve started with fellow bloggers, so I’m going to set aside two hours a week to comment on my favorite blogs.  (I’m so dreadfully behind right now, but thanks to Labor Day, you may hear from me tomorrow morning.)  Know that I’m still reading your blogs, often from my iPhone as I sit in a dreadfully boring school meeting, and you’re making me smile.  But I may be a more silent, mysterious follower.

Much love, and hopefully you’ll hear from a very happy me on January 1st who is holding a complete 1st draft of a novel in her hands.

(I’ll still be on goodreads because I HAVE TO keep track of what I’m reading.  I won’t be posting extensive reviews, but if you want to see what I think of books I’m reading, here’s my goodreads profile.)

Behind the Story: Author Sadism

Owl & White/Red BookBehind the Story posts will be about what goes on behind the scenes as a writer creates their story.  I’ll be writing about my own writing process and sharing any tips or advice I’ve discovered on my own or gathered on the topic. Hopefully both readers and writers find these posts fascinating!

This week’s topic:
Being Evil to Your Characters


Why would you want to be evil to your own creations?

  • To provide challenges and conflict
  • To create compelling characters who grow over the course of the story through the challenges they face
  • For suspense and pacing
  • As a plotting tool

This is one of those pieces of advice or writing tips that I don’t remember where I heard it.  But it really resonated with me, and is one of the first things I do when plotting a section of a novel.  I think it is a really, really valuable technique if you struggle with pacing, plotting, or giving characters agency.

Quotes About Being Tough on Your Characters

Editor, Cheryl Klein, Arthur A. Levine Books

Ten Ways to Create Compelling Characters
#6 Put the character in pain, danger, or jeopardy (anticipated pain)

Author, Kurt Vonnegut

8 Basics of Creative Writing
#6: Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

Author, Maggie Stiefvater
Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist

“I have decided that in order to be a good writer, you have to be a sadist.”
“And that’s when I decided that I must have an inner sadist in there somewhere. Because although I love my characters dearly, I have to say, I also love to hurt them. I love to take away the stuff they need and the people they love and shove them outside their comfort zone without so much as a windbreaker. I like to make them uncomfortable, humiliate them, gun down their loved ones in cold blood, and give them pasts that will haunt them forever.”
“I think part of it is because of that saying: ‘Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they’re in hot water.’ Characters are like women which are like tea bags. You can learn a bit about them when things are going well, but it’s not until the proverbial poo hits the proverbial fan and plagues are raining down that you really see what sort of a person they are.”
“So I guess I figure that if a little pain and suffering will show me more about them, a lot of pain and suffering will do it even better. Basically, as soon as a character lets on what their worst fear is, it’s a pretty surefire sign that I am going to make them come face to face with it at some point in the novel. “
“I don’t think readers like it when you are nice to the characters. They think they want characters to be happy, but they don’t really. At least not until the characters have first been really miserable. I think a good writer finds their characters’ monsters and then resurrects them at the worst possible moment, and that we readers, like Jerry Springer audience members, love the angst and drama of it.”

Author, Janet Fitch

10 Rules for Writers
#10 Torture your protagonist.
 The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.

The 22 rules of storytelling, according to Pixar:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Ari Susu-Mago at blog “A Fuzzy Mango With Wings”
Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)

“He makes likable, interesting, flawed, human characters. And then he makes their lives suck.”
“Moreover, note that not only does he make problems for them right at the beginning of the story, but he makes things get worse all the time. Rarely, if ever, do things get better. Plans go awry. People turn traitor. People get angry and say things they shouldn’t. People get killed. In general, more problems crop up. The result? A 800+ page book that flies by.”

Examples of Author Sadism:

Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by JK Rowling
How bad did JK Rowling make Harry’s aunt and uncle?
Rowling made them about as terrible as aunts/uncles can get.
How did the Dursleys keep Harry from his Hogwarts’ letter?
Rowling didn’t just hold Harry back from reading the letter, she took it to extreme levels by the Dursleys trying to hide on a rock in the middle of the sea.  By throwing so many obstacles in Harry’s path to reading the letter, it made us more invested in the story and increases suspense and tension.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Everytime Ender became comfortable, Card threw him into a new challenge or worse situation.
Example:
Ender makes friends in his launch group and starts to be successful at the Battle School.
But then he is moved to Salamander Army where he is the smallest and most inexperienced, and Bonzo won’t even let him practice.

Downton Abbey
They make the audience care…
Then very briefly give them a glimpse of what they want…
Then they ruin or take it away…
(Examples: Anna/Bates or Matthew/Mary)

The Way I Incorporate this Technique in My Own Writing

Usually at the start of a work (or at the start of a new setting) I brainstorm a list of things that could go wrong either in the story or in that particular setting.

The list forces me to think of things that could go wrong and sets my brain thinking in that direction.  And I have a resource to refer to later if I need to.

When I sit down to start writing, I try to begin a chapter by resolving a previous problem or setting the stage for a new problem.

I try to always end a chapter in the midst of a low point for the protagonist.  It can be a physical low point or an emotional low point.

Writing Exercise:

Brainstorm a list:

  • Of things that could get in your protagonist’s way of their goal.
  • Of terrible things that could happen to your protagonist.
  • Of characters your protagonist needs in their life, and how they could disappear.

Don’t worry about how your character will get out of it, or how they’ll overcome it.
Don’t worry about how it will fit into your plot.
Don’t worry about how extreme it might be.

Links Quoted in this Post:

Maggie Stiefvater, Blog Post: Bringing Out Your Inner Sadist
http://m-stiefvater.livejournal.com/103969.html

Maggie Stiefvater, Collection of Posts on Writing
http://m-stiefvater.livejournal.com/214290.html

Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing
http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/538/

Janet Fitch’s 10 Rules for Writers
http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2010/07/janet-fitchs-10-rules-for-writers.html

The 22 Rules of Storytelling According to Pixar
http://io9.com/5916970/the-22-rules-of-storytelling-according-to-pixar

Blog Post: The Sadism of Fiction
(or, What Game of Thrones Can Teach Us About Writing)
http://fuzzymango.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/the-sadism-of-fiction-or-what-game-of-thrones-can-teach-us-about-writing/

Ava Jae, of “Writablity: Tips, Tricks and Thoughts from One Writer to Cyberspace”
http://avajae.blogspot.com/2012/01/every-writer-should-be-sadist.html

2012 Francelia Butler Conference Winner

Each year at my graduate program, a conference is held to honor the work of the graduate students.  Students may submit work in each of the following categories: critical papers, creative stories, and original artwork to win one of three awards presented at the conference.

This was the first time I’ve ever entered any sort of writing contest.  The past two years I’ve simply attended this conference as an observer, and I did not enter anything in any of the categories.

There were 24 creative submissions this year, all from Hollins University MFA graduate students in Children’s Literature.

Last week, I learned my entry was one of the creative submissions selected to be read at the conference, and that my piece would be one of five pieces to go on to be judged by outside judges for the final honor of Best Creative Submission.  The judges for this year’s FBC conference were: Ashley Wolff (children’s book author and illustrator), Bruce Coville (children’s and YA author), and Michele Ebersole (Professor of Children’s Literature at University of Hawaii).

And… as you may have guessed by the title of this post… I won!

I entered the first 12 pages (first 3,000 words) of a short story I wrote in my Fantasy Genre Study course last summer.  The current title is “Rebel Angel” and the story is about a rebellious guardian angel who is sent to Earth on her first mission where she must save a boy from being recruited by a gang.

Below are pictures of me reading my selection at the conference.  I was nervous to speak in front of a crowd of adults as opposed to 11-14 year olds.  But after a lot of practice, all went smoothly.  A few funny parts in my story even got some laughs from the audience!  🙂

I was extremely honored to be recognized, especially knowing what talented writers are in my classes here at Hollins.  I only have one more week of classes left, and I think I can say that this summer has exceeded my expectations in almost every way.