The Recipe for Powerful Stories: Writing What Scares You

Feb 28, 2012

I have a large and rather irrational fear of something a bit laughable-- ants. It's a psychological thing, stemming from a vivid and horrifying experience of falling into an ant pile when I was about five. If I see a pile of ants, I have a knee-jerk reaction and instant panic/anxiety.

This proved to be a problem when hiking the rainforest in Ghana.

The hike was fun-- until the ants showed up at the end. They were migrating or something, and a massive, ten-foot-wide trail of ants covered our path. There was no way to go around. If we wanted to get back home, we had to run across them. And these were BIG ants.

It was the most terrifying thing I've ever done in my life. I ran as fast as possible, praying the ants wouldn't surge up my legs and eat me alive. (Why, yes, I DO get melodramatic in tense situations, why do you ask?) This didn't cure me of my fear of ants, but I do admit I have a certain amount of pride knowing I conquered my fear enough to take on those ants.

There really is a point to this, I promise.

Is there something that you're afraid to write? An "ant" in your brain that scares the crap out of you? Face that fear-- write it. Sometimes we're afraid to write something because it unsettles us. Maybe we feel it's too controversial, or that we personally are ashamed of it in our own lives. Whatever the reason, writing the things we're afraid of usually ends up being a powerful experience not just for us, but for readers.

I faced that fear in writing TUGL. I was terrified of forgetting certain things-- afraid of what it meant that my memories of certain things had faded. I was ashamed that things I'd vowed always to remember had become less of a focus for me. How did that change me? Who did that make me? So I wrote a story about who we become when memories are literally taken from us-- or at least, who one girl became. It was incredibly cathartic, and even helped me learn things about myself. With any luck, because of the strong emotions I had for this story, it will inspire similar emotions and experiences in readers.

So, my friends, what are you afraid of? Have you written a story that ended up being very powerful because of your fears? 

A Fun Friday Announcement!

Feb 24, 2012

Still not feeling top notch, but I've got great (non-writing-related) news.

Today we learned we're adding a little girl to our family!

We told the Kiddo he was getting a baby sister. He just stared at us and went on playing-- I don't think he has a clue what's coming. :)

Hubby claims he has the perfect name for what he has previously referred to as our "baby beluga"-- Beatrice. Not gonna happen.

I'll see ya'll around next week, and in the meantime, I'm going shopping for cute baby girl clothes!

Writing Compelling Characters: The 3-2-5 Rule

Feb 21, 2012

I'm battling a cold today, so I thought I'd repost one of my favorite posts from a few years ago. Characterization is something I'm constantly striving to improve, and this post goes into a process that helps me a great deal when I create characters. Hope you enjoy it, and I'll see you around when I'm feeling better!

When I took Brandon Sanderson's Awesomest Writing Class Ever, I learned that I sucked at creating characters.

I thought back through my previous books and stories, and saw flat, boring, uncomplicated, and uncompelling characters. I reread my notes from that particular class multiple times, and distilled the character section down to what I'm going to call the 3-2-5 rule of characters. Basically, it's a simple formula for creating forceful, convincing characters that demand investment from a reader.

There are 3 things you need to think about when creating your characters:

Who are they, who are they becoming, and what stands in their way?

This is the vital first step; you can't have a character at all, let alone a compelling one, without it. It can be as simple as a few sentences.

Let's use Harry Potter as an example since practically everyone knows it. Harry is a beaten-down, skinny orphan who will become a powerful, confident wizard-- if Voldemort doesn't kill him first.

There are 2 ways characters should connect with a reader:

1. We are like them. We can identify with this character. We get something about them. I think most people can identify with Harry's unfortunate circumstance of being picked on by somebody bigger than him.
2. We want to be like them. They have some quirk, power, or characteristic we admire and would like to have. Harry's a freakin' wizard. If I'd been younger when the books came out, I'd have sneaked down to my room and concocted fake potions and waved around a twig yelling Expelliarmus!

There are 5 things every character should have:

1. Flaws- A flaw is something that is wrong with the character that is THEIR FAULT that prevents them from reaching their goal. Think of Harry Potter: he doesn't tend to plan ahead very well (Goblet of Fire, anyone?).
2. Handicaps- A handicap is something that ISN'T the character's fault that prevents them from reaching their goal. Harry has a connection to Voldemort because of Voldemort's attempt to kill him that actually helps bring a more powerful Voldemort back to life.
3. Strengths- Basically, things the character rocks at. Harry has an amazing knack for defense against the dark arts (quite a necessary skill for him!) and Quidditch.
4. Quirks- This doesn't mean your character has to be a Looney Lovegood. A quirk is a unique way your character sees the world, or something particularly distinctive about them. Harry's scar is a "quirk"-- something unique to him that stands out.
5. Motivation- Your character has to WANT SOMETHING. They have to be driven to achieve their goal. This motivation makes your character get up and do things instead of just sitting around, getting on with life. Harry wants to avenge his parents-- and prevent Voldemort from killing Harry and his friends.

So, my friends, what are your tips and tricks for creating characters? Who is your favorite character you've ever written? What about your favorite character in a book someone else wrote?

Clarity, your Potential, the Future of Books, and Other Random Highlights from LTUE

Feb 16, 2012

So it's been a bit of a crazy week, and I have yet to post about the LTUE conference last weekend (and I haven't dropped by your blogs for a while-- but I'll be seeing ya'll soon!). Without further ado, I give you the highlights of the Life, the Universe, and Everything Conference!

1. Friends! I made a bunch of new friends, made contact with some old ones, and got to have lunch with some blogger-buddies-turned-real-life-friends. (Below: Erin Summerill, Melanie Fowler, Chantele Sedgwick, Ruth Josse, Katie Dodge, Pat Dodge, me, and Peggy Eddleman. There were other awesome people too, including Shelly Brown who took the photo, but I didn't get pictures. Sad.)

2. At Dan and Robison Wells' story structure presentation, Dan pulled me up to the front before things got started (he was my instructor for a conference critique session a few years ago, so we know each other a bit). They were going to be asking the audience for story ideas to fit into the structure, but he said they wanted to start with a solid idea. Then he asked me what I was working on. I gave him my logline for TUGL and he said, "That's awesome! Can we use it?" So the brothers pared down the idea to its most basic and threw it out there to the audience. It was SO COOL to hear all the different ideas that came up from the simple "people store memories in external objects" part of my own story. (Plus, I'm excited that Dan Wells thought my basic story idea was awesome.)

3. Learning awesomeness about writing from the pros. Here are a few snippets:

  • L.E. Modesitt on clarity: "If it doesn't the hell say it, it doesn't the hell say it." Write what you want to say, don't write around it.
  • Brandon Sanderson on dealing with shiny new ideas: Write the idea as short fiction so you can get the buzz out, then go back to your current project. (I'd never thought of that, but it's a fun idea!)
  • Tracy Hickman on your potential: "You have not yet written your best work." Maybe that's depressing to some, considering all that you've written, but it makes me excited. We have so much ahead of us!
  • Dave Farland (I think) on the future of books: Your future is in your audience, your challenge is to connect with them, and your solution is to write quality books.
So, my friends, there you are! Two days of exhaustion, motivation, and inspiration shortened into one blog post. :) Now, tell me-- how has your week been? What new writing achievements have you made? How are you folks in general?

Origins-- Where did your writing dream begin?

Feb 13, 2012

Today is the Origins blogfest hosted by DL Hammons, Alex J. Cavanaugh, Katie Mills, and Matthew MacNish. I'm always fascinated by how writers got their start in writing, so I'm joining the fun! (I hope you find it fun, and not completely boring...I'll do my best not to be boring.)

Though I've been writing since I was a wee one, a few moments stick out as driving me along the writing path. In fifth grade, we read the book The Giver by Lois Lowry. That book completely blew my little eleven-year-old mind. It was set in the future. Characters I thought were good did bad things. And it didn't end all tied up and happy! I couldn't get the story, its characters, or the questions it made me ask out of my head.

For the first time in my life, I realized that life itself was full of ambiguity (yeah, I totally used that word as a fifth grader. Or not.). And I decided I wanted to write books just like The Giver, ones that made people think, that made people stay up at night trying to decide what the book meant to them, and wonder what had happened to the characters you loved so much that were left hanging at the end.

So for the next fourteen years, I feverishly wrote short stories, novellas, and one smashtastically horrible novel. I gravitated toward sci fi, and toward stories that addressed questions I had about life. Then, a few months after my son was born, my intuitive hubby gave me a signed Brandon Sanderson book for Christmas, 2009. Better than that, he passed along Brandon's open invitation to attend his science fiction and fantasy writing class.

That class was where I finally put together everything I'd learned from my English lit degree and creative writing classes. I learned what tools I needed to create a story and get it published. It led to my critique group. It led to writing half a novel, trashing it, and writing another in just over a year. Most importantly, it led me to decide that I was going to learn and do everything I could possibly need to write the stories I wanted to tell, and share them with an audience.

And so, two years later, here I am! Still working toward that dream.

So, my friends, where did your writing dream begin? We all started somewhere, and I'd love to know where that somewhere was for you!

Getting the benefits of a writing conference when you can't attend

Feb 9, 2012

I'm off to the Life, the Universe and Everything conference tomorrow, and I can't wait! Several of my favorite authors will be there, the classes look fabulous, and I'm super excited to meet blogging buddies in real life. I've gone to this one twice now, and I'm lucky enough to have another conference within driving distance this May.

Unfortunately, many of us are not so lucky (when my hubby graduates and we move, I'll be joining those ranks). So what's a writer to do if we want the benefits of going to a conference, but can't get to one? Let's take a look at my favorite benefits-- and see if there are possibilities to get them elsewhere.

One of my favorite things about conferences is that you can learn the tools of the writing trade from people who really know what they're doing. There's nothing quite like being there in person, but there are a lot of great substitutes on the internet! One of my personal favorites is the Writing Excuses podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal. Not only are they BRILLIANT writers (and teachers), they're absolutely hilarious. It's like a whole writing conference just listening to them.

There's also, of course, the awesome blogs around the internet by writers, and incredible books to help you learn the craft. Here are a few great ones: Story Engineering, Writing the Breakout Novel, The First Five Pages, Characters and Viewpoint...and there's hundreds more!

Meeting Fellow Writers
Face-to-face networking is hard to duplicate through the internet. I love making friends with all you blogging buddies, but I get extra excited to MEET you in person! At a conference it's wonderful to meet fellow writers, big-time authors, and agents and editors. There are a few ways you can meet people in your area, though. Keep an eye on your local bookstores for signings, readings, and other events where you might be able to meet authors. And talk to people if you're waiting in line or standing around! You'd be surprised who you'll meet (that's how I met the awesome David Powers King). Watch your local library, too-- they may have events for writers and readers as well.

Even if you think there might not be other writers in your area, you never know! One of the most helpful places I found for finding writers in your area is actually the forums at NaNoWriMo. They have local forums when you sign in. Even if no one is active on the forum, you might be able to find blogs or Twitter accounts for fellow writers you can meet up with!

And if all else fails, there's always the wonderful world of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Chatting online is almost as good as face-to-face!

Meeting agents and editors
There really is no substitute for a conference when it comes to meeting industry pros. You can't exactly call them up to chat if you can't go to a conference, or pitch your novel at their office. But there IS a wonderful place called Twitter that many agents frequent, and many agents blog. Don't be afraid to interact with them! This doesn't mean pitch your novel on Twitter (PLEASE never pitch to an agent/editor online), but they're on social media to be SOCIAL. Respond to their tweets. Comment on their blogs. Don't badger, but interact-- that's what's great about the internet.

And if that doesn't work, there's always the free, online conference WriteOnCon! If you've never participated, that's the closest you'll get to a conference without leaving your house-- they even keep all the classes up online all year.

So, my friends, even though there really is no substitute for an amazing conference and I think everybody should try to go to one, you can still get a lot of the same great stuff right from your home. Have you been to a conference before? What do you love most? What conferences would you love to go to if you've never had a chance to go?


What's your progress on the writing front?

Feb 7, 2012

Today I have about twelve different things calling my name: the dishes piled up by the sink, the work project I need to finish, revisions on TUGL, a floor that hasn't been vacuumed in ages, cub scouts, a writing conference this weekend to prep for, and a Star-Wars-obsessed toddler in desperate need of a light saber battle with his mom. Therefore, today's blog is going to be short and possibly boring.

I hereby announce that last night I started the 7th revision of The Unhappening of Genesis Lee! On Saturday, my critique group held a full novel review. We spent the last several weeks reading each other's entire novels, rather than just the chapters we normally do, and turned Saturday into a party/group critique. IT WAS SO AWESOME.

My husband thinks it's a little funny that I enjoy sitting for an hour and having four people tell me what's wrong with my book. But it's not hearing what's wrong with the book-- it's hearing what I can fix about my book! I got so excited about all the ways I can make my book better.

Of course, when I turned all my notes into two pages of actionable bullet points last night, I got a little overwhelmed. But I'll be taking it a bullet at a time, hopefully finishing this draft by the end of February. Then, off to beta readers in March!

So, my friends, how is your writing going? What are you working on right now? Any goals you've recently reached or will reach soon?


Have Confidence in Your Ability to be Amazing

Feb 2, 2012

I think it's somehow a curse of creative people that we tend to be a bit insecure. Maybe it's part of the creative nature; maybe it's due to the fact that we submit ourselves to constant criticism in the name of improving our craft.

We've probably all experienced those moments when you look at something you've written and thought, "This sucks. I suck. My writing will never go anywhere." While I do think it's important to be aware of our weaknesses so we can improve, that kind of thinking never did anyone any good.

In moments like those-- and in our writing in general-- we need more confidence. We need a firm trust in ourselves and our abilities, a belief that we can actually achieve what we're working for. It can be hard to dig up that confidence, especially when we see our weaknesses and constantly have them pointed out to us. How can we believe in ourselves if we still have so far to go?

We can believe in our ability to improve.
We can believe in our strength to deal with criticism and apply it to our work.
We can believe that, even with mistakes, the fact that we have written anything at all is a triumph.
We can believe that our hard work will pay off-- and is paying off even now.
We can believe in the validations of our work, in addition to the criticisms.
We can believe that our accomplishments, no matter how small, are worthwhile.

So, my friends, have confidence in yourselves as writers. Allow yourself to look back on all the good things you've done and find value in them. We're all works-in-progress, but that doesn't mean we can't acknowledge all we've achieved so far. Go forth and believe in your ability to be amazing.

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