What scares you more than anything-- and how can you use it to enhance your writing?

Sep 30, 2011

I'm now happily hacking away at a fourth draft of TUGL. Sometimes, though, when my mind wanders, there's another story in the background that wants to be played with. Two of them, actually. I have vague ideas for them, but no real plot or character arcs. It usually takes me a lot of musing to come up with the plot that works with the idea I want.

I play the "what if" game to help me, but I also do something else: I remind myself of all the things I'm afraid of in life. When I come up with a plot that addresses my own fears, it tends to be a stronger story. 

Even little fears can help me come up with something. For example, I'm terrified of ants (I know, lame-- but they attacked me as a kid, so it's a psychological thing). Writing a story about killer ants sounds like a SyFy channel special, though. 

So I dig deeper. Seeing a single ant on the sidewalk doesn't faze me. It's the swarm that gets me. The writhing mass of tiny bodies that move as a single organism, crawling up my legs, biting me everywhere...I'm literally cringing as I write this.

Basically, behind my simple fear of ants is a fear of thousands of malevolent creatures acting as one for their own nefarious purposes. How do you defeat a swarm like that??

And voila. That's a fear I can use in my writing.

So, my friends, what are you scared of? What's the real fear behind the simple object? Have you written a story that involves one of your fears?

What if your book shares a title with another book?

Sep 28, 2011

So while I was on my little break last week, my friend Reece interviewed me! You can check out the interview here.

Also last week, I got an email from a crit partner, and it brought up something that was a recent frustration for me. The problem? Titles. Not coming up with titles. (That's a pain in the rear in its own right.) But what happens when you find a perfect title, and then it turns out another book has the same one, or a similar one?

With my current WIP, I found a quote that fits the book PERFECTLY. And from that quote, I got the perfect title: The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. I came up with it months ago, right at the beginning of my planning process, and got a little giddy about it. Then someone burst my bubble.

Literally two days after I picked it, I heard about a new book coming out (in fact, it came out yesterday!). You may have heard of it too. The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer. Argh! The titles aren't the same, not exactly. And there are plenty of books that are "The ___ of ___." But the similarity of Unbecoming/Unhappening made me very pouty. (Not that I'm dissing Michelle Hodkin. The book sounds awesome, and I can't wait to read it.)

Her book is published. Mine is not. What's a girl to do?

Not worry about it, that's what.

I'm not saying to give your book a generic title that twelve other books share, and if your title is similar to too many others, maybe you should change it. But when you find the title that expresses your book, that hints at tension, that asks a question, that makes people want to read more-- keep it. If it ever gets published, it could likely change anyway, but you can still use a catchy title to get an agent's attention.

Some books have similar titles, there's no getting around it. In fact, Aprilynne Pike just announced the fourth book in her series that shares a title with another book-- also very popular-- that's coming out around the same time. The books are different enough, and Aprilynne says the title fits so perfectly, that it can work.

So, my friends, has this ever happened to you? Did you change the title, or keep it? How do you come up with your titles?

Teen Tales Guest Post: Jenny Morris on Unrequited Love

Sep 26, 2011

Teen Tales is a weekly feature connecting the YA experience with YA literature. Today, we've got a guest post from Jenny Morris! Here's a little about her before we get started:

I am 6 of 7 children and have lived in 3 of the 4 A’s states, but I currently call Oregon my home. In an alternate reality, I would have been a totally cool Rock Star or a Ninja with Wings, who saved the day. But, in this reality I put pen to paper and I pretend. I am a wife, mother, and I hope one day, a published author.

Now to the post!

It was my sophomore year in high school, and I’d just started my first job. He was tall, with feathery brown hair. His hazel green eyes popped, because of his naturally tan skin, and he had WAY kissable plump limps. We made pizzas together, and he had my heart. Too bad his heart wasn’t available.

During the 9 months I worked with him, I analyzed every detail of our interaction with one another. I made excuses to stay late, if he had the late shift. Every glance or smile confirmed that he really wanted to be with me, he just couldn’t bring himself to hurt his girlfriend.

Then one glorious night, my co-worker and co-crusher, (I didn’t know that part until just a few weeks ago) told me that he broke up with his girlfriend. Finally, my guy with kissable lips was free. So, the next time we worked together, I made sure I stayed late. And we sat in his baby blue VW bug, and talked. What did we say? I have NO idea, but it ended in a kiss.

There is much argument as to who initiated this kiss. He swears that sweet little Jenny Sue, attacked him and made him kiss her. It was all a haze though, so I can’t argue with him. I just remember leaning in, and bam, we were kissing.

Why the argument? He only broke up with his girlfriend for a day. They were already back together. Oh, poor little Jenny Sue.

In my teenage girl mind, little things added up to so much. Each smile, conversation, that deep look he gave me with those hazel eyes. The way he laughed at my silly jokes, as he touched my arm. They all added up to mean he liked me.

Did this guy ever like me? Or did he just like to flirt? I wanted him to like me. So, that’s what I believed. I wanted him to kiss me, and that’s what happened. But, he stayed with his girlfriend. So, I guess he didn’t really like me, did he?

How do I apply this to my writing?

All the little things people do add up and become the story. When I’m reading a book, I love when the author allows the little things to tell the love story. You can use your MC’s perception of an event, as an amazing tool. Sometimes perception is EVERYTHING.

*I e-mailed my co-worker/co-crusher to ask what color this guy’s eyes were, and she informed me that she ran into him a few weeks ago. Guess what? I totally dodged a bullet with that one.


Sep 19, 2011

In June and early July, I wrote between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day and had a finished first draft in 7 weeks.

In July, August, and September, I have worked for 2 to 4 hours a day and completed three revisions of that first draft.

I'm a little tired.

So, my friends, there will be no writing--and no blogging--for me this week. I'm burned out, and ready to recharge my batteries.

I'm planning to try a few new recipes, clean my house thoroughly, take my son to the aquarium, and dig through ancient photographs and family trees to work on a family history project. I'm pretty excited about all of it-- even the cleaning.

I hope you all have a great week, and I'll see you next Monday!

Have you ever lost your writing document?

Sep 14, 2011

I backup my writing ALL. THE. TIME. I'm completely paranoid that the evil hard drive demons are going to eat my story and I'll go to pull it up and it won't be there. So for backup, I have a thumb drive, an external hard drive, and I email myself copies frequently. I don't want to lose my story.

I think the paranoia stems back to an experience I had when I was eleven. Back then, I wrote my stories in notebooks with pictures of unicorns or kittens on the cover. I was in sixth grade, and sixth graders (being oh-so-responsible) got to work in the school store during lunch if they wanted. I thought it was awesome. I got to be all professional and sell pencils, erasers, and candy to other kids for 25 cents.

And I got to work on my story when nobody came in.

But I didn't work in the school store alone. There were always two of us, and one day the boy I was working with STOLE my story. Okay, so I'm still not entirely sure of this. But I ran an errand to a teacher, and when I came back, the boy was gone and so was my notebook. I was in a complete panic. I tore apart the store, and cried when I got home. How could he be so mean?

Two days later, when I was working with the same boy again, I showed up to find my story notebook sitting in plain sight. The boy didn't even look at me, but I gathered the story gratefully in my arms and didn't put it down the rest of the day.

I like to think he started reading the story while I was out of the room and loved it so much he had to take it home to finish it. Most likely it was just a prank. But after that, I started writing on the computer and backing up everything on floppy disks.

So, my friends, have you ever lost your story to hard drive demons or mean sixth-grade boys? Did you get it back? How do you backup your own writing?

How to create a character's personality

One of the hardest things for me in writing is character development. I write a lot of blog posts about it, probably because I'm constantly trying to learn more about it so I can improve my characters. Today, I wanted to share something I do at the very beginning of character creation to come up with a starting point for my character's personality.

Keep in mind this is only a baseline. It's two small parts of my character worksheet, which is like ten pages long. And I've gradually discovered that the best way to find out who my characters are is to write about them. Still, these two tips help me a lot, especially when I have NO IDEA who the heck these people are before I write about them.

One of my first baselines is the color code. Basically, it's a personality theory that breaks people down into four colors: red (the power-wielders), blue (the do-gooders), white (the peace-keepers), and yellow (the fun-lovers). It sounds a bit Divergent-esque, but it's actually quite helpful. The point is that people have traits of all of these colors, and usually are stronger in one or two of them. If you go here, you can see the full breakdown of what each color means.

I start by deciding what two colors are strongest for a particular character, and list what particular traits from a color they have. Then I pull a few traits from the other colors. This gives me a quick list of personality traits that are both complimentary and contradictory, so my character starts out just a little bit complicated.

My next baseline is the Meyers-Briggs personality indicators. There are 16 "types" of people, according to this personality test, all of them listed at the link. I do MB second because once I have the color code basics, it can give me enough of a hint of my character to guide my choice in their MB test. I pick one of the MB types and highlight certain traits within that type that stand out in my character.

And voila! My character is no longer a complete blank face to me. With these two (very) basic points as a foundation, I can build the rest of my character until they drip with tree-dimensionality.

So, my friends, what are your preferred character-building techniques? How do you create characters from the early beginnings of the story when you don't know much about them?

Teen Tales: The Fear and Strength We Take from Tragedies

Sep 12, 2011

On September 11, 2001, I was a 17-year-old senior in high school. When I got to school that day, friends asked if I had heard about the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. What a tragic accident, I thought.

For my first class of the day, I tutored students with special needs. When the teacher turned on the TV in the corner, all work was forgotten. I still remember the fear that tightened my stomach when the words "terrorist attack" were mentioned. Someone had done this on purpose. I could hardly understand how anyone could be so evil.

Jacob, the student I was tutoring, started fidgeting, confused by the changes to his schedule and the images on TV. I explained that bad people had crashed airplanes into buildings in New York. He cocked his head, a puzzled look on his face.

"Why?" he asked.

Why indeed.

In my journal a few days later, terrified of the just-announced "war on terror," I wrote, "This is not pretend. This is not a game. This is not something that will end quickly. This is not a movie. This is my life. It is fear, and anger, and grief. But most of all, it is real. And now, all I can do is be American, be brave, be strong, and always, always be close to God."

Yes, I was afraid, like so many people. I was only 17, and I lived a happy, simple life untouched by tragedy before that day. September 11th taught me what fear meant. But it also taught me to be strong in the face of it. It taught me that the only thing I can do when fear strikes is to fall to it or fight it.

So, my friends, in life and in literature, let tragedy teach us to take be brave in the face of fear. May God bless America, and the victims and families affected by the attacks of September 11, 2001.

What is your favorite word?

Sep 9, 2011

I have a kind of love affair with words. Obviously. I'm a writer, aren't I? My husband teases me sometimes when I use a word he doesn't know, or just one that isn't commonly used in conversation. I love learning new words, and along with that, I love learning languages. Here are my favorite words in all the languages I know (or have attempted to learn):

Spelunking: the exploration of caves

This word just feels cool on the tongue. Plus, I have gone spelunking several times, and there is something amazing, creepy, and just plain adventurous about being buried in a mountain/underground.
Spelunking with the hubs and some friends.

Lavabo: sink

I took French all through high school, and had nearly enough classes in college for a French minor. Sadly, my French skills have dwindled quite a bit in the four years since I last took a class, but I still love the way ANYTHING sounds gorgeous in French. This words is one of the earliest in my vocabulary, and is still a favorite.
Not in France. (San Francisco-- a tale I shall have to tell sometime)

Ketseketse: small-small/very small

I took lessons in this Ghanaian language from an amazing teacher. Even though many people in Ghana speak English, it helped so much to know Fante, especially in teaching. The kids also loved it when I read Fante-- it's very simple to pronounce all the words, but most of the time I had no idea what I was saying. I love this word because it's just fun to say (kitsee-kitsee, said very fast), and people laughed when I used it to explain how much Fante I could speak.
3 ketseketse students who fell asleep on me mid-lesson. I promise, this wasn't staged.

Utsukushii: beautiful

My husband first said this word to me when we were dating (he lived in Japan for 2 years and speaks Japanese fluently). I managed to tease the meaning out of him before I attempted learning Japanese myself. It makes me smile every time.
Me and the hubs. Love.

I took two semester of Swahili in college, but I'm going to bow out of that one. I don't remember a single word except for "Jambo," hello.

So, my friends, what about you? What is your favorite word in any (or many!) language(s)?

How to write emotions so the reader cares: Lessons from 13 Reasons Why

Sep 7, 2011

Since I talked about the importance of showing authentic emotions on Monday, I wanted to talk about how to actually do that in your writing. I'm by no means an expert on this; I'm still learning a lot about how to not only portray the emotions your character is feeling, but how to get the reader to feel them too. We all know the rule of not telling: "I was sad" just doesn't cut it.

So what do we do, then? I recently read 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and it packed an emotional wallop I won't soon forget. I figured we could do some analyzation today. So, first step: read the first chapter here (click "Look Inside" over the graphic). It's only four pages, and it'll help the analysis below make sense.

Now, let's take a look at the techniques Asher uses to get the emotional ball rolling right from the get-go.

Have other characters react to your character, or show their actions in contrast to your character's

Let's look at the first line:

"Sir?" she repeats. "How soon do you want it to get there?"

The simple use of the word "repeats" is brilliant. It implies that Clay, the main character, was not listening. His mind was distracted enough that he didn't answer a direct question. Immediately, before we even know what's happening or even the main character's name, we know that something isn't right.

Through the first few pages, the contrast between the clerk's cheerful obliviousness is a stark contrast to Clay's own actions. She jokes about him not having enough coffee while he thinks despondently that maybe not drinking the coffee would be better, so he doesn't have to wake up. Notice he doesn't say something like, "it would hurt too much to wake up." He says, "maybe it's the only way to get through the day." This thought implies his hurt using the next technique:


A character's internal thoughts are one of the biggest and most helpful things for portraying their emotions. This is also a big place for reader's to connect to those emotions.

Most of the time when we think, it's not in blatant terms. For example, where Clay could have been thinking, "I hope Jenny gets this and it hurts her as bad as it did me," we get instead a few lines of him wishing he had waited to send the package so Jenny could have another day of peace-- though she doesn't deserve it.

This train of thought is natural, and it does several things at once. We understand Clay himself is not at peace because he knows Jenny won't be at peace either. And we feel the bitterness in the final line. She doesn't deserve peace. Does he? Guilt and sorrow well up from those lines, even though the words themselves are never mentioned.

Physical beats

This is the most common way for most writers to show their character's emotions. Are the shocked? Let their mouth drop open. Are they irritated? They cross their arms and tap a finger on their elbow. The problem with this is overdoing it. I use it like crazy in my first drafts, and have to go back and do a lot of revising. Because if you use these too much, they become cliche.

But you can't deny that emotions do have a physical effect on us, which is why physical beats are still an effective tool. In Clay's case, he has a headache. And again, the author doesn't just say, "his head pounded with the pain." In the second line, Clay rubs his forehead and comments that "the throbbing has become intense." We know he hurts physically, and it mirrors how he hurts emotionally.


This is another powerful tool. Don't let the name deceive you, though; it's about more than just what you see. An image can involve many senses-- in fact, it works well if it uses more than one. But images also work best if they're fairly simple, so don't overcomplicate things by throwing in too many sensory details unless the situation calls for it.

In the last few paragraphs of chapter 1, Clay imagines the path he feels he can barely walk that leads to school. It zips past like a camera zooming in on something, until at last we see the object: the empty desk of Hannah baker. Because of the technique used, and the building of emotions up to this point, the image of the empty desk is haunting to the reader, because we know it is what haunts Clay. It's the focus of his pain, the reason behind this mysterious package he has sent. One simple image clarifies the situation behind his pain, just a bit, so the reader can empathize. We understand.

And once we understand, that's when we hurt, too. This is the last key to getting your reader to invest in your character's emotions. They have to understand. They need information on WHY your character feels this way, even if they barely have a glimpse.

So, my friends, what techniques to you use to show character's emotions and get readers to care? Have you read 13 Reasons Why (you really, really should)? What books do you love that helped you feel the character's emotions?

Teen Tales: The emotional firestorm of developing an identity

Sep 5, 2011

Teen Tales is a weekly feature connecting the YA experience with YA literature.

What is it about being a teen that makes EVERY. SINGLE. THING. exaggeratedly more excruciating? A snide comment at school made me cry later that night. A second glance from a cute boy sent me into ecstasy. Failing to complete a math problem elicited tears of agonized frustration.

A lot of people roll their eyes and blame hormones. Which, I grant you, probably play a part. But I think there's more to it than that. Teens are at a point in life where they're developing their sense of identity. We looked at the world, and ourselves, with more open eyes. So of course, we took everything around us personally, because our focus was ourselves.

That snide comment didn't just mean that girl was mean or in a bad mood, it meant I might be the person she accused me of being. The glance from the cute boy must mean he was in love with me, and therefore I should be in love with him. The failed math problem meant I was a failure. At the time, those things struck right to the heart of the fragile self I was trying to create.

And because I was so deep in developing that self, it was hard to see anyone else-- which led to the "no one understands" syndrome. In fact, as a teenage poet, I once vented my anguish on paper. Behold:

Loneliness do not depart, stay another day.
Loneliness my only friend, do not go away.

No one understands me, nor do they even try.
They just leave me all alone, even if I were to cry.

So all alone I'll sit, until my days will end.
Loneliness do not depart, loneliness my only friend.

I smile a little when I read this now, because it expresses a slightly ridiculous concept. I was not alone; I had an incredibly supportive system of family and friends.

But the thing is, I remember writing that poem. I remember sitting on my bed with the pink blanket and feeling so desperately sad and lonely that I cried onto the paper as I wrote. It seems overly emotional now, but at the moment, it was very real. And for that reason, I find it hard to laugh at myself.

Literature in general is meant to be a vicarious, cathartic experience, allowing us to feel things we wouldn't normally feel in the course of everyday life. In YA fiction, with YA protagonists who feel everything so keenly, there is more opportunity to take the reader along for a torturous, heart-wrenching, and hopefully soul-healing ride. That is, as long as we authors both remember those emotions, and do our best at expressing them in our fiction.

So, my friends, what are your most emotional teen memories? What YA books have you read that took you through emotional hell and back out again? What emotional firestorms do the characters in your own writing have to deal with, and how do you get those emotions across?

What are your favorite childhood movies?

Sep 2, 2011

So I have an almost two-year-old son. He's a wacky ball of fun who is starting to throw tantrums express preferences for certain things. Some of those preferences are coming out in the shows he likes to watch, and I love laying out a line of movies on the carpet and watching him decide if he'd rather watch Cars or How to Train your Dragon.

Neither of those is his favorite movie, though. When my mom gave us The Goonies a few months ago, the Kiddo caught a glimpse of it and was hooked. He requests it all the time now. I feel kind of guilty letting him watch it (the kids on that show swear a lot more than I remembered...), but he loves the adventure, the music, and especially the character Sloth.

I love it for all those things, too. It's a movie I grew up on, and it's one of my favorites from my childhood. (So is the original Ninja Turtles, the Kiddo's other favorite movie.)

So, my friends, what movie(s) do you love that were a part of your childhood?

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