~ By Amanda Smith
Our final classroom take-over for the 2019/2020 school year comes from an amazing group of 7th and 8th graders. Back in the fall when I had asked them about their favorite books, none of us could have imagined the way this school year would end. Missing them as I work through their responses, I am reminded why I write for children. Our readers, these kids, draw hope and strength from our stories. They escape into fantasy worlds where they learn how to deal with reality. They gather compassion and empathy, grow strong and kind. And they become our heroes.
As I worked through the questionnaires, I found it interesting that the majority of 7th and 8th grade students focused their answers on characters and endings. So, as writers, we should make sure we listen and give them well rounded characters and satisfying endings. Let’s see what they have to say.
What kind of characters do you like?
Adrienne—I recently read the book WE ARE OKAY by Nina Lacour, where the main character is always there for her friends. I like this character because of the way she cares for and loves her friends. I would be friends with this character because she is sweet and loving, and matches my personality.
Avery – In MATCHED by Ally Condie, I like the main character, Cassie because she is relatable. I can connect to her and know what she feels when she doesn’t want to follow the rules.
Ella H. – In WINGS OF FIRE, Tui T. Sutherland creates a character named Sunny. Sunny is a small nightwing-sandwing hybrid and she is always happy and optimistic. I would be friends with her because she is basically the dragon version of me.
Ella K. – I look for depth in characters’ feelings, details of characters’ thoughts and an elaborate display of characters’ motives for the decisions they make. I look for these things, because it makes me feel connected to the main character and the people around them.
Claire – Glory is my favorite character form WINGS OF FIRE. She is a dragon who can change her color and spit venom with her fangs. She is not aggressive, but will fight when it is necessary. I think if she was real, we would be good friends.
Sebz -- Ben Ripley from SPY SCHOOL is a character I like, because he is sarcastic.
Marley – The character in JELLY BEAN SUMMER by Joyce Maghin is a young girl like me and I liked her so much, because her inner thoughts were very funny. I would be friends with her because she is kind and clever.
Elyssa – I would be friends with Frances from RADIO SILENCE by Alice Oseman, because she is relatable and headstrong.
Carolyn – I liked Raina in GUTS (Raina Telgemeier), because she is a good friend and sounds like she would be easy to get along with.
Caden – I think I would be friends with Oliver in THE UNEXPECTED LIFE OF OLIVER CRAMWELL PITTS (Avi) because he is nice and very kind.
Inspiring or brave characters:
Julia and Hannah B —I loved the character, Sara from WHITE BIRD. What I liked about her is that she almost gave her life just to save Julien, and her loyalty. She has courage, honesty and a kind heart.
Jonathan – I liked how Julien from WHITE BIRD (R.J. Palacio) overcame hardship and hid his friend. I like characters that are positive friends.
Georgia – In the book I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU by Ally Carter the main character is Cammie Morgan. She has a lot going on, but she seems to stay cool and she has two best friends. They stick together through everything.
Jake – Alex Rider us a teenage spy and goes on lots of intense missions. I like this character because there is always a surprise at the last second.
Damian – I like Harry Potter, because he is brave and adventurous, but I wouldn’t want to be his friend, because he can be selfish.
Makenna – Katniss Everdeen is from THE HUNGER GAMES. She doesn’t give up and will do anything to keep her family and friends safe.
Hayden – I liked Link from OCARINA OF TIME by Akira Himekawa, because he is fun-loving and mischievous, as well as courageous. I would like to be friends with him to have fun adventures.
Megan – Recently, I read A TALE OF MAGIC by Chris Colfer. The main character, Brystal Evergreen was a strong role model, because when her teacher was taken, Brystal gathered her friends and found her.
Kelsey – Auggie from WONDER (R.J. Palacio) is my favorite character, because he stayed positive and strong. I would want to be friends with him, because he would always be there for me.
Daniel – Cup from THE HOUSE OF ROBOTS by James Patterson is always loyal.
Brianna – I recently read ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY by Chris Grabenstein. I liked Kyle, because of his sense of adventure and team leadership.
Characters that provide deeper insight and personal growth:
Chloe – The book I’m currently reading, FORGET ME NOT by Ellie Terry, is about a girl with Tourette’s. I like reading books form the point of view of people with disabilities. I like these books, because it gives me insight.
Hannah – I like the characters Anya and Siobhan in ANYA’S GHOST by Vera Brosgol. I like how Anya grew to like herself for who she is and how Siobhan didn’t care what anyone thought of her.
Scarlett – In the book THE CUPCAKE QUEEN by Heather Hepler, I like the character Tally, because she accepts who she is. She isn’t afraid of anything, and she shows other people to stand up for themselves not matter what body-type they are.
Kaylin – In the book WAITING FOR SARAH by Bruce McBay, Mike has a very interesting personality. He was different from a standard character. He is angry at the world for what happened to him and blames everyone else.
Camdyn – Lizzie from LIZZIE FLYING SOLO by Nanci Turner Steveson is positive and never gives up. Maybe I would be friends with her because I sometimes need positivity.
Margaret – I liked Savannah in HIDEOUT (Gordon Korman), because she never gave up on Luthor. I would love to be friends with her, because she would push me to be better.
What kinds of endings do you like?
Just as with the 6th graders we hosted in March, these students appreciate a good cliff-hanger - provided a sequel is close at hand. But don’t leave them hanging with unresolved threads. Like Ella B. said, “You can’t just end a book with a major cliff hanger and never write another book explaining what happens.” What I have noticed, though, is that these discerning readers expect an ending to deliver more than just a neatly wrapped up story.
Take a look:
Rosemary – The ending of THE KINDOM (Jess Rothenberg) was great. It did not end with a “happily ever after.” It ended with a nice resolution to the plot, but left the rest to the readers’ imagination.
Erin – I liked the ending of THE OUTSIDERS (S.E. Hinton). The ending is similar to the beginning.
Grace – I liked the ending of WHITE BIRD, because it had a good message and made me think of what I can do to change the world.
Corbin – REBOUND by Kwame Alexander ended in a way that linked up well with the first book THE CROSSOVER.
Emelyn – The ending of AN INQUISITOR’S TALE (Adam Gidwitz) revealed identities of mysterious characters and tied the whole book together really well.
CJ – I liked the ending of TYRANT’S TOMB (Rick Riordan), because it ended with a battle. I don’t like books that end with “happily ever after,” because it makes it feel as if nothing had changed since the beginning.
Hannah – TO CATCH A KILLER by Sheryl Scarborough ended so nicely and all the pieces fit together. It made me feel like life could be like that someday.
Seventh and Eighth graders fall in that obscure place in the market – that crossover spot between upper middle grade and young YA, which can make finding the right book tricky. I doubt that they care much about marketing labels. However, they are clear about what they want: Adventure, escape, and hope. A call to action. Glimpses of who they are. Examples of who they aspire to be. And inspiration to be brave and be the very best version of themselves.
Other books and authors mentioned by these students:
AMULET SERIES by Kazu Kibushi
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys
BLINDSIDED by Priscilla Cummings
BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson
DEEP BLUE by Jennifer Donnelly
GEMINI SUMMER by Iain Lawrence
GIRL STOLEN by April Henry
GREYSON GRAY by B.C. Tweedt
GYM CANDY by Carl Denker
I WILL ALWAYS WRITE BACK by Martin Ganda
LAND OF STORIES by Chris Colfer
LOST IN THE SUN by Lisa Graff
MISSING by Margaret Peterson
PART OF YOUR WORLD by Elizabeth Braswell
PERCY JACKSON by Rick Riordan
SO B IT by Sarah Weeks
STORMRISE by Jillian Boehme
THE ABILITY by M.M. Vaughen
THE BILLIONAIRE’S CURSE by Richard Newsome
THE COMPOUND by S.A Boden
THE EXTRA YARD by Mike Lupica
THE FOURTH STALL by Chris Rylander
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY by Trenton Lee Steward
THE PERFECT SCORE by Bob Buyea
THE RED STAR OVER CHINA by Edgar Snow
THE SECRET KEEPER by Kate Messner
THE THIEF OF ALWAYS by Clive Barker
THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin
WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary Schmidt
WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS by Wilson Rawls
~Hosted by Amanda Smith
Welcome back to 24 Carrot Writing's Graphic Novel Month. Last week our panel discussed the unique strengths of graphic novels for readers, but also, for them as creatives. If you missed Part 1, you can find it here.
Lets join our panel of Graphic Novel authors for Part 2.
Often those opposed to graphic novels think about these books as shallow or “comic” books, yet today’s graphic novels deal with difficult subject matter such as addiction, racism, startling historical events, and peer pressure. Why are graphic novels such an effective medium for telling these kinds of stories?
Terri Libenson: I think a big part of it is because many kids love comics and/or illustrated stories; therefore, difficult subject matter won’t have to be forced on them -- they will automatically want to read about it in graphic novel form.
Examples of graphic novels dealing with heavier subjects
Many graphic novels have an autobiographical aspect. Why, do you think, does this format lend itself well to autobiographical storytelling?
Terri Libenson: Well, all kinds of books have an autobiographical element. But I think good artists have a gift for retelling their memories in a visual way that connects immediately with readers. It can also be fun to “see” the setting and clothing of a different era rather than just read about them.
Breena Bard: I’ve never thought about this before! I wonder if it’s because, just like our imaginations, our memories tend to exist in our minds largely as images. If a writer is able to put those remembered images on page as pictures, they can retain some of the vivid detail that might be lost if translated into words. There are some emotions and feelings that can be conveyed better by pictures, and when a picture won’t do, graphic novelists also have written words in their toolbox. It’s the best of both worlds, and for telling something so nuanced and complex as a personal story, I can see why writers would be drawn to a format that’s so flexible and accommodating.
Raina Telgemeier's series of graphic novel memoirs.
Graphic novel characters are often established fairly quickly and with few words (often one or two speech bubbles.) Please share with our readers some of your character development strategies. What happens behind the scenes, before the reader sees the character on the page for the first time?
Breena Bard: For me, characters emerge when I am playing in my sketchbook. The harder I try to “design” a character, the more wooden and forced they feel. But when I let my mind and my pen wander, I am often surprised by the different characters that emerge. I try to spend a lot of time on this earlier side of character development, doodling a new character in every possible facial expression, pose and setting. And if I’m lucky enough to have two characters come to life, I can play with putting them into a variety of vignettes, or mini-scenes. Sometimes these scenes make it into my eventual script, and when they do, they are some of my favorite scenes.
Kayla Miller: I think you can say a lot about a character's personality through their appearance and their actions. Every day we make choices about how to present ourselves to the world and comic artists make those decisions for their characters. Clothing, posture, facial expressions, and way of speaking do a lot of the work, but another great tool is drawing a character’s room (or other spaces they decorate and store things in, like a desk or locker). One panel of a character in their living space could be worth paragraphs of description about their personality and interests.
Terri Libenson: Well, I have an advantage, as my books are hybrids: part illustrated novel and part graphic novel. The illustrated novel portion contains much more text, so I can set up a character’s story in detailed prose. The GN portion is much more of a challenge, character-wise. One technique: I frequently have characters introduce themselves. And I think dialogue or inner monologue quickly establishes their personalities.
Behind the scenes, I try and get to know these characters well so that they seem convincing on paper. They usually have aspects of my personality and memories. Some are also inspired by people I’ve known – although they tend to develop differently as I write.
Tom Angleberger: For me it was the matter of redrawing a famous character, Geronimo Stilton, in my own style. And, since he narrates his novels, I had to pick and choose which words of his to use in my panels. But, I’ve been a Geronimo fan for so long that all of that came very naturally.
Thanks to our fabulous panel! Join us next week for the last of the panel discussion posts. We will be talking about the middle schooler's brain (ooohhh!) and gatekeepers!
A reading list for this week:
CLICK and CAMP by Kayla Miller
INVISIBLE EMMIE, POSITIVELY IZZY and JUST JAIME by Terri Libenson
NEW KID by Jerry Craft
HEY KIDDO by Jarrett Krosoczka
THE FAITHFUL SPY by John Hendrix
SMILE, SISTERS, and GUTS by Raina Telgemeier
AWKWARD, BRAVE & CRUSH by Svetlana Chmakove (great notes on characterization and setting in back matter)
~by Amanda Smith
I have always had a gut feeling that writing poetry is a precursor to writing well. Only recently, while preparing a poetry workshop for middle school students, did I realize how strongly I believe in the poetry connection.
During my kids’ baby and toddler years, I didn’t have the strength, time, or mental capacity (Mommy brain, anyone?) to write long pieces. I pushed writing to the very outer circle of my priorities, but somewhere in my youngest’s second year the need to write wiggled its way right into the center of my being. I jotted down ideas, struggles, joys, and observations in free verse. As I played with words, clapped rhythms, and rearranged sentences, within me, something awoke again. And it grew. It grew into picture books, and early readers, and novels.
Even all these years and manuscripts later, the poetry that called me from my writer’s slumber is still relevant. Because what we learn in writing and studying poetry, translates to every kind of writing.
What do we gain when we write poetry?
I spent a big part of Monday writing limericks. I can’t remember when last I had so much fun. The silliness of it all, within the seriousness of the form. The absolute thrill of finding just the right rhyming words to deliver that guffaw in the last line. Playfulness unlocking imagination and humor. Play, play, play.
South African poet Carina Stander challenged herself in high school to write a new poem every second Sunday. She still does that. Ame Dyckman regularly tweets haiku-like observations. Kate DiCamillo often posts lyrical reflections on social media. Jane Yolen starts every work day by writing a poem. Considering their careers, I have to believe they're onto something. We need to shake this pressure that everything we write has to be for the book, or go in the book.
Will you explore the poetry connection with me? I’m challenging myself to produce a poem a week. Come join me. Our play has purpose.
~ by Amanda Smith
Encore is a yearly event where some speakers from the NESCBWI Spring conference are invited to present their workshops. Two Encore events are offered to provide opportunity for more writers to learn from these excellent teachers. This year’s Encore II was held at Devens on Saturday, October 21. Because of the nature of Encore, the event is not themed, yet, somehow, every year, in the subtext of what the presenters are saying, a theme emerges. This year the common thread was PLAY.
Dana Meachan Rau, author of over 300 books, including Robot, Go Bot! and books in the Who Was? series, presented a workshop about injecting emotion in characters to encourage empathy from readers. She led us through writing exercises where we played around with writing a character’s emotion through a setting or an object. When we play to explore emotions, we connect deeper with our character’s emotion. “First we feel, then they [the readers] feel,” she said.
Molly Burnham, author of the Teddy Mars series and 2016 Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner, talked to us about humor and writing funny. She implored us to play for a minute, to horse around with ideas, to do seemingly silly three-minute writing exercises, like matching different animals with human actions, and finding the funny in it. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the work of it all. The deadlines, the goals, the next chapter. Playing is freeing for the exact reason that it is not a work in progress. And yet, playing accesses a different part of our brains, which sometimes leads to breakthroughs in our current work. She said, “It’s great just to play, we are artists after all.”
Under the direction of sticky-note queen and author AC Gaughen (Scarlet, Lady Thief, and Lion Heart) we played around with character traits. We scribbled pieces of identity on sticky notes. She then urged us to discarding the go-to traits, the comfort zone, and go with the unexpected, which leads to the development of more interesting characters. AC also had us play around with our character’s central traits. Through play we discovered how changing what is central to our character changes the conflict.
Chris Tebbetts, whose books include the Middle School series and Public School Superhero with James Patterson, as well as the Stranded series with Jeff Probst, presented on Improv and Play. He reminded us that “purpose should not be more important than play” and encouraged us to sometimes throw out the rules and just write. Write without thinking, don’t get logical, and see where it leads. “Improv helps limber up one’s creativity.” He also challenged us to sometimes “play with a limited set of tools.” Setting our own rules and staying within those rules help us think outside the box. Play off-screen, with visual techniques such as story-boarding and maps.
Erin Dionne (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, Ollie and Science of Treasure Hunting and more) rounded the day off with quirky revision techniques. Revision lends itself to play, as not one technique works for every project. The revising writer needs to play around with a variety of hands-on techniques including story-boarding, spiderwebs, grids, calendars and maps, until they find what works for that particular project. “Problem solving is an act of creativity,” she said.
The presenters reminded us that every activity connected to our characters and story is considered work. So even when you are playing, you are still working. Playing is just more fun! We are writing for children after all.
~ by Amanda Smith
Kate Messner is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books like Over and Under the Snow, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, and How to Read a Story; novels like Capture the Flag, Wake up Missing, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and Scholastic’s popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines. Follow her on Twitter @KateMessner and check out her website, www.katemessner.com.
We asked Kate about her new novel, THE SEVENTH WISH (Bloomsbury, 2016), her writing process, and her goals.
Charlie, the protagonist in THE SEVENTH WISH, is a well-rounded, fully developed character. Can you give us some insight into how you develop characters? What techniques do you use?
As human beings, we all play lots of different roles in the world. I’m Kate the writer, Kate the family member, Kate the hiker, Kate the child of two educators, Kate the traveler, and I could go on and on. All those elements meld together with all the people who have passed through my life and all the things that have happened in my life history (and the ways in which I’ve reacted to those things) to make me who I am. People are made of lots of complicated bits, and characters – good ones, at least – should be the same. Knowing a character means exploring all the different parts of that character’s life, so I spent time thinking not only about Charlie’s hobbies, her family, and her backstory, but also the things she wished for herself and for the world, and the things she feared.
I often use a character-building activity where I design my character’s bedroom, going into more and more detail. So what starts with a simple floor plan evolves into a description of every little detail. What color is the bedspread, and when was it purchased? Does she still like it? What’s displayed proudly on the bulletin board? What’s hidden under the bed or shoved in a box in the back of the closet, and who gets to see those things? You can learn a lot about a character that way.
I love how you have certain threads that run through the book, such as the word game, the ice, and the serenity prayer. I am always curious about a writer’s process. Were these threads mapped out from the beginning and or were they organic?
Mostly, those kinds of threads appear as I’m writing, and then I go back to strengthen them during the revision process.
What prompted you to write a MG novel that includes heroin addiction?
This element of the story was sparked by a personal experience. I was floored a few years ago when a neighborhood friend told me that her beautiful, smart, joyful daughter was hooked on heroin. My neighbor’s daughter got help and survived, and she’s doing well now, but I still struggle to understand how it could have happened. When I struggle – when something really scares me – I write. That’s where this theme in THE SEVENTH WISH came from.
What did you wish to accomplish with this book?
Before anything else, my goal is always to write a great story that kids will love and to create characters who feel real to them. But beyond that, I hope Charlie will be a particular comfort to families in situations similar to hers. Kids who have family members struggling with cancer or heart disease or diabetes get all kinds of support, but addiction is something many families still keep secret. We haven’t overcome that stigma yet, and as a result, the thousands of families affected by opioid addiction are often left feeling alone. They’re not, though, and I hope knowing Charlie helps kids to understand that.
Exactly. This novel is so timely. Substance abuse affects families on all levels and many young children carry hidden anger and shame because of a family member’s addiction. You addressed those feelings spot-on in Charlie. How did you conduct your research for such a sensitive subject?
I spent a lot of time talking with my neighbor’s daughter after she got clean. I was nervous to ask her for help at first. I didn’t know if she’d be open to talking about her experiences, but when I approached her, she said, “I’d LOVE to talk with you. We all need to talk more about this to help end the stigma.” And she told me everything – how it started, how she slipped further into addiction, how she lied to her family, and how she eventually told her mom the truth and asked for help. It was a sobering conversation for me, particularly when I asked her how she could have made that choice, knowing all that she must have learned about heroin addiction in health class at school. “All my friends were doing it,” she told me. “I know that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. They were all doing it, and they were fine.” Until they weren’t. And then it was too late.
I also spoke with an admissions counselor at a drug treatment center in Vermont. She talked me through the process of checking in to a rehab center and explained what that kind of help looks like for both the addict and the addict’s family. We talked about what might happen when a younger sibling came to visit, what questions kids often had about loved ones in recovery, and that was tremendously helpful as I wrote Charlie’s story.
The problem of substance abuse is a hard reality, and yet you included a fantasy aspect to the novel with the wishing fish. What was your motivation for the fantasy element?
Sometimes, I think fantasy gives us the distance we need to look at things that might be too scary or controversial without that lens of magic as a bit of a filter. We see this a lot in the Harry Potter series, which addresses all kinds of issues – from violence and hate in our world, to the persecution of groups of people based on their heritage. I feel like magical stories often give us a way in to explore those tougher issues in our real world – and a way to talk about them more openly.
Even as you deal with sensitive subjects, the information you share is age appropriate. I recognize an educator’s hand and heart in your novels. How did your background as a teacher influence your writing?
This was something my editor and I talked about a lot as I revised THE SEVENTH WISH. I wanted to tell this story in a way that was honest and true, without sugar coating the realities of opioid addiction, but also in a way that was age appropriate for readers aged 9-13. I think my roles as educator and parent both played into that. Kids can often handle so much more than we think. We knew that kids who had been through similar experiences might find a lifeline in this book, as it reflected back their emotions, but we also knew that the book would probably be a window for many other readers, giving them a glimpse at a family experiencing a crisis that might not be familiar. This is how we build empathy, how we think about what it might like to be someone else, and also how we might react if we were in a similar situation some day. Given all of that, my editor and I had to work hard to make sure the depiction of drug use wasn’t over-the-top scary. All of the heroin use, for example, takes place out of Charlie’s sight, and therefore, out of the reader’s sight as well. So the story really ends up being about the experience of a family member who loves and worries about an addict and has to deal with her own emotions swirling around the family crisis as well.
You use a traditional fairy tale device with the wishing fish. It works in this modern setting because, unlike old-time fairy tales, Charlie realizes the absurdity of it. She even refers to her English classes about wishing stories, and the difficulty in wishing right. If you should ever catch a wishing fish, what would your wish be?
I’d think long and hard before making any wishes. The temptation, of course, would be to find just the right words to wish for world peace, but like Charlie, I’ve read enough wishes-gone-wrong stories to know that even the most kind-hearted wishes can backfire.
At 24 Carrot Writing we are big on goal setting. Do you set detailed writing goals, broad yearly goals or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
I keep a bullet journal, so I have pretty detailed lists of my monthly writing goals as well as daily to-do lists. Also, I am geeky enough that I love talking & writing about how I organize my writing life, so if you’re interested, I have a whole blog post about my bullet journal here: http://www.katemessner.com/bullet-journaling-childrens-author-version/
You are such a prolific writer, yet you do school visits and many other public appearances as well. How do you structure your writing time? Do you write on specific days or do you write every day?
Hahahhaha!!!! Oh, sorry…. You’ve asked this question about balance on a day when I haven’t been home in three weeks and I’m staring down a full in-box as well as two manuscripts that need revising, and all of that is buried under two suitcases full of laundry. I hope you’ll forgive my maniacal laughter.
In a perfect world, I do try to keep some balance. Typically, I try not to travel more than a few days a month, and on the days that I’m home, I do write every weekday, usually from around 8am to noon. Then I take a break to work out and have lunch, and I’ll either deal with email and business things after that or get another hour or two in after lunch, before my daughter gets home from school. On my travel days, the writing is more sporadic and tends to come in quick bursts, over dinner at the airport, on the plane, or scribbled in a notebook in the car.
What is next?
Right now I’m working on a novel called BREAKOUT, about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the maximum security prison, launching a massive, two-week manhunt that changes life for everyone. It’s a thriller in some ways, but it’s also written in all different documents that show how everybody in town sees the situation a little differently. And I’m also working on the seventh book in my Ranger in Time chapter book series, about a time traveling search and rescue dog. This time, he’s going to Normandy during the D Day Invasion.
Thank you, Kate for giving us a peek into your fabulous writer's mind, and for being brave enough to write a book that provides support for children with family members caught in addiction.
For a review of THE SEVENTH WISH, click HERE or visit our Book Picks page.
by Francine Puckly
Much has been written on development of characters when setting out to write a novel, a short story, or even a picture book manuscript. Advice to complete character interviews, profiles and arcs abound. I’ve used them all to delineate the early aspects of my characters and note the differences between characters. Despite the use of all of these techniques and tools, I still came up short in a review of my latest novel.
In last month’s manuscript critique with Delacorte’s Kate Sullivan, we discussed the need to put the final polish and finesse on my characters, one in particular. Because I have alternating narrators, two distinct stories are being told. And while the stories intertwine, they must stand alone in detail and distinction. One protagonist is a quiet, introspective teen who picks up on a wealth of detail, while the other is a “quit-your-whining-and-get-on-with-it” personality. Each protagonist must be equally complex to the reader, even if the core of the character appears to be outwardly simple. And just as plots and subplots need to be tightened and mined for nuggets of gold, so must our characters. Everything our characters do must be deliberate and refined. I returned home after the critique, high on motivation and energy to make these changes. I quickly realized that my self-taught world of novel writing did not provide guidance to finesse and tweak a character in the final stages of revision. But I discovered two methods that have been invaluable.
Picking up what I had once believed to be my last draft, I combed through the manuscript scene by scene and made notes in the margins as to what each of my narrators might observe in that particular moment. This setting-specific questioning brought my characters into focus with what made them tick in very specific circumstances. What the character feels, says, and observes will differ from scene to scene. A character might be driven by odors and temperatures in one scene, and sights and feelings in another. Does tension get ratcheted up because the character is self-conscious about an outfit or sees a nemesis in the corner of the room? And what happened that day to drive the behavior in the character? This level of understanding my characters rarely came through in those beginning character profiles and explorations. Just as humans might react differently in any given situation on any given day (lack of sleep, hunger, fights with loved ones or the threat of a layoff at work will drive different behaviors than if we’re rested, fed and in our happy place), our characters will behave erratically at times as well. Each scene (and the details the narrator presents to the reader) must be thoughtful to that particular moment.
The second technique I’ve used is creating photo collages of the landscape, houses, schools, cars, clothing, décor, and character images. I had already completed this exercise for earlier drafts of the manuscript, but this time I faced off with my protagonists. I studied the collage through each of my narrator’s eyes and wrote down what each would see. My introspective narrator extracts entirely different details than my get-’er-done protagonist. And it is in these unique observations that the manuscript comes to life. By mining these rich nuggets of description, I have refined the voice of the story. And it is in the subtle detail of voice that we hook the reader.
So the next time you’re stuck trying to make the last draft or two of your manuscript pop into life, tackle a new photo collage and plow through your scenes with specific detail in mind. If you listen closely, your characters will show you what’s important at that moment in time.
~ by Amanda Smith
Last week we focused on using basic plotting techniques to help organize scenes that were random and unconnected, like a hand full of beads. If you missed last week's post, you can find it here. What if you're done drafting, though? Does that mean you have no more use for plotting techniques?
Writers often use note cards to block out scenes. For me the note card technique worked well after I finished my second draft. I combined the information from a mapping workshop, taught by Katie L. Caroll (Elixer Bound) and a workshop on non-sequential writing by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. (One for the Murphys, Fish in a Tree) to come up with a note card that served my purpose for revision.
These note cards against my wall helped me see the entire novel at one glance. I was able to check the balance and switch-off between narrators. Imagine my joy when I realized my main characters narrate exactly the same amount of scenes! These cards showcased the rising action, emotional arc, and the function of each scene. I could see where to change the order of scenes to build tension or give a breather. They showed where to add a scene or when a character fell out of the story. As I studied these cards, I was able to make subtle changes to strengthen the plot. I added bits of dialogue or "what ifs" on sticky notes. When I went back to my manuscript I could try out these new takes to see if they worked better. The note cards served as a place for ideas and thoughts to land when I couldn't get to my manuscript right that moment.
Revision time is also a good stage to implement character interviews, another plotting technique. There are multiple character interviews online that you can tweak to meet your needs. After filling out interview questions, add descriptors and specifics to enhance characters, and check for character consistency. I found it very enlightening to also interview all secondary characters. Going back and adding the smallest of details can enrich secondary characters and make them feel like real people.
Many authors have a treasure trove of plot development strategies on their websites. Don’t feel overwhelmed by them. Take these plotting devices and adapt them to work for you and your process. And it is a process! Use some before you start, some during drafting, and some during revisions until all your scenes are perfectly placed like beads on a string.
by Francine Puckly
I’ve been reminded recently (today, as a matter of fact) that I cut off people when they’re telling me stories. My active, fiction-writing mind, eager to fashion the ending of the tale, jumps ahead to guess what happened next. And my mouth goes right along with my brain. It is an incredibly annoying (and rude) habit, and it’s ruined many a good story.
My habit is worse for some people than it is for others. If I cut off my husband (and inevitably craft the wrong ending), he merely says, “No,” and continues the story. But for my teenage daughter, the interruption stops her in her tracks. No amount of encouragement will restart her tale, and it’s a double-lose for me. I feel badly I’ve cut her off, and I am robbed of hearing a good story.
This habit has played itself out in my writing as well, most notably a year ago as I wrote the conclusion of my novel. I knew what the outcome would be. I plodded along toward the manufactured ending no matter how much one of my characters nagged that he had a different one in mind. After weeks of his hounding, I finally surrendered. “Fine!” I thought. “I’ll write your stupid ending. And then I’m going to burn it, because that’s not what happens!”
I wrote his story. Clouds parted. Light blinded me. Angels began to sing. And I was forced to concede it was a far better conclusion than the one I had been planning for months.
Since then, I’ve practiced a couple techniques that have helped leave room for my characters to dictate their stories to me, rather than forcing my ideas upon them.
1. Visit more often.
The longer I am away from my work, the stronger the urge to control it. That’s one of the many reasons I write a minimum of 20 minutes a day, no matter what. Holidays and weekends included. When I write every day, it feels less like work and more like listening and recording. It’s a comforting ritual, and there’s no need to panic about getting a certain amount done or dictating the direction.
2. Take a physical break.
Pausing to get moving physically helps separate the left side of my brain (and the preconceived outline) from the story and allows the right side to mull over the plot twists while I walk, stack wood, vacuum the floor, or weed my garden. The character’s voice shines through when I’m not over-thinking the next move.
I’ve had great success with a 22-minutes on, 8-minutes off writing and resting cycle. Twenty-two minutes of timed writing followed by an eight-minute timed break in which I run around the house at warp speed trying to squeeze in the maximum amount of shoveling, vacuuming, stretching or paperwork I can before the timer dings and I must return to my desk. The story simmers in the background during these sprint-breaks because I’m more focused on ticking off a task rather than plotting the next move. But every time I return to my desk after these active breaks, the next phase floods out.
3. Close your eyes and listen.
I can’t assume to know someone else’s experience, including my character’s, and I can’t force my expectations into a situation the character is trying to explain. It must be the character’s story, and the best way to allow the character in is to sit and listen. I close my eyes and wait. I push my thoughts back and connect with the emotions the character is feeling.
I’m still learning to bite my tongue, and hold the pen steady, so that I don’t cut off my loved ones and my characters. It’s hard work to resist the urge to construct the outcome of a story or blurt out the answers to "what if" before anyone else gets the chance. I’m a work-in-progress, as are my stories and characters. But may I always remember to sit and listen, both in writing and in my relationships!
“It was as if the novel was already written, floating in the air on a network of electrons. I could hear it talking to itself. I sensed that if I would but sit and listen, it would come through, all ready.” - A. S. Byatt
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