Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting to Know Your Characters

Another thing I learned at WIFYR (again, from Kathleen Duey) is how to get into your character's head.
Good stories come from the main character's voice and thoughts NOT from the writer.
Here are a few things you can do to find out who your character really is and to get them talking.

Start with an interview.
Not the kind where you've got a list of questions you want answered. Just sit down with your character as though they're a stranger on the bus. Just chat. Ask them about the Spiderman tattoo on their arm. Or start with something simple, ask where they're headed. Let them talk. Don't force anything, and don't be too intrusive.

If your character doesn't want to talk to you, then approach her in a different way. Maybe your character will talk to her grandmother. Or her best friend. Or her stuffed animal. Maybe she'll talk to herself in the mirror, and you can hide out in the bathtub behind the curtain listening in and jotting down notes. (Does that sound creepy?) Do what you have to do to write your story. But get it from your character's point of view. Nobody wants to listen to you tell as story about some character.

Sometimes our characters have things that are none of our business. And maybe they'll tell us that. Just let is slip. If you want to know something and they aren't talking, then move on. Get the story that they do want to tell.

Keep writing :)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Synopsis Hints

Okay. I'm not quite to the point of being ready to write a synopsis. But for the WIFYR conference last week I had to submit a synopsis of my novel along with my first ten pages. I can write a story. I cannot write a synopsis.

If you're finished with your novel and ready to start sending out submissions to agents and editors then it's time to get cracking on that synopsis.

So, here are a few tips that Kathleen Duey shared with my class during the morning session of WIFYR. Hopefully, one day I will learn to write a good synopsis, because good writing doesn't just sell itself.

Bring your character in for the first paragraph. (Don't double back). Remember your story is your character and your events are the challenges your character faces.
Example: Candace lived with her father all her life, and the amazing thing is she's still alive.

Give a backdrop while writing the tour-guide version of your story, and leave out the connective tissue.
Example: Candace has lived in Ohio all her life. It was never where she wanted to be.

Here's a breakdown of what your synopsis should look like:
1. Character
2. Challenges
3. Precipitating moment
4. Quick world description
5. Secondary characters
NEVER mention any names other than the main character. Introduce them only by their relationship to the protagonist.
6. Consequence of what happens. The low point.

The important thing to remember is that this is a showcase for your main character.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

WIFYR: Kathleen Duey

I wanted to sign up with a different author for my morning sessions, but the slots were all filled.
Instead, I signed up with Kathleen Duey.
Her book list scared me.
I didn't think our styles would work well for critique sessions together.
Because she writes fantasy.
And I write contemporary.

After two days with Kathleen Duey I felt anxious about the end of the conference.
The end of critiques and question/answer sessions.
I didn't want to go home at the end of the day because I wanted the conference (and especially the morning sessions) to last forever.

For those of you who don't know what WIFYR is, see the post before this one. The best part about the conference is the morning session where you meet with a published author and a group of other writers to critique each others' manuscripts.

Kathleen set such a good tone for our critique sessions. She made it easy to get to know each other and to be open and honest. She established a conversational tone, and gave us very good advice on writing.

Here are a few great things she said in our sessions:

"The truth about writing is you write one page a day, you will have a book in a year."

"Whatever gets you over the finish line is a good thing."

"Tell a few truths that matter."

"Women are the only people who went from not having a vote to having a vote without shedding blood."

"Use your ink for where you want your reader's attention, because where you spend your ink is where your readers spend their time."

"Interview your character as if they're a stranger on a bus."

"Don't describe what the reader will see without your description."

"One of the strongest tools we have is punctuation."

"Interesting people write interesting stories."

"Take the risk. Write what you want, what you're passionate about."

And this one sums up her personality as far as I can tell: "If I didn't say it how it is I'd have to make it up, and I only do that if someone pays me."

I'm so glad that I ended up in Kathleen's class. I'm glad I was wrong about my initial worries over genres. I learned so much from her. I think I had a far better experience in her class than I would have had with the other author I thought I wanted for the morning session. Some things happen for a reason :)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference

Okay. I have too much to say about this because the conference lasted an entire WEEK. I had a great critique group and an awesome author-mentor. If you are not familiar with WIFYR then go here and remember to sign up at the beginning of the year for the best conference of your life.

I promise more details to come.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Critique Groups: Where?

Wherever you want!

My new group meets at a public library. I've had a couple other groups before that met at public or university libraries.
They make good meeting places because there are books all around. It's good to have an atmosphere of books when working on your own manuscripts. Also, most libraries have little rooms you can reserve just for little group meetings.

But, there are other places, too. Personal homes (great for including snacks--like fresh cookies). Parks (probably only in the summertime...depending on your location).
Other public buildings...
Online. Email groups. Chat groups. Skype. (my group right now meets in person once a month and does online critiquing once or twice a month).

The key to picking a place is making sure that it's accessible to everyone and that each member agrees on the place. It's important that each group member feels comfortable in whatever location you choose.

Where do you critique?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Critique Groups: How? (pt. 2 nitty gritty details)

After taking a couple classes from Carol Lynch Williams ( up at the BYU, I've learned a few things about what makes good writing. Carol is the best trainer anyone could have, and here's what she taught me.

Pay close attention to -ly words (ie adverbs).
You could actually use many beautiful and extravagant words to caringly describe things.
Or, you can cut to the chase.
I'm not good at using adverbs anymore so forgive my sad attempts.
Whenever I'm critiquing someone's manuscript I circle all the -ly words.
Sometimes it's okay to use a good adverb. But, it's important to be aware of what you're writing and how you want it to sound. Toy around with words and see if you can write the same thing in a different way (only without the adverbs).

Watch adjectives too.
The big, ugly, hairy, scary monsters will eat you before you get the chance to describe them when you have too many adjectives. Keep it simple.
Let your verbs and nouns speak for themselves, and your writing will be much stronger.

Avoid using was -ing.
I was typing. (Now I'm not.) Gotcha! I'm still typing.
I was going to see a movie. (But someone died.)
He was talking. She was eating. They were throwing up.
First of all, if you use the was -ing you are using too many words and your writing is weak. Second, people might think something that isn't what you intended.
Instead say, I typed. I watched a movie. He talked. She ate. They threw up.

Show. Don't Tell.
This one is tricky. Because how do you show something in words?
The best way that I've found is to put it into scene.
Let us see it as it happens in the NOW.
Use tiny details. Someone shuffles their feet back and forth as they try to ask someone on a date. Someone tears at the hang nails on their fingers when they're nervous or bored.
Let the voice tell the story.
Here are some examples.
Tell: Hank is ten years old.
Show: Hank is such a ten-year-old boy. I've been here for a total of five minutes and he burps in my face.

Let the reader make the connections. Not everything has to be spelled out.
Tell: My little sister's name is Angie.
Show: They separated me and Angie.... I miss my little sister.
Tell: My mom didn't do it.
Show: "It's traumatic for anyone at any age have their mother go to prison," I say. Especially for something their mother didn't even do.

As you critique others, keep an eye out for some of these things and make comments.
One big thing to keep in mind is you don't have to tell a writer how to fix their problems. Just point out the places that need work. Maybe tell them that there are too many adverbs or they need to show this part rather than tell. Once they're aware of what needs attention they can go through and figure out how to re-write it.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Critique Groups: How? (pt. 1 overall structure)

I decided that the "How" will need two posts because there's the overall structure, and then there's the little details on how to make strong writing. So, here's Pt.1 the over all structure.

There are a lot of ways to go about critiquing. I know I haven't done the "where" section yet, so for this blog I will focus mainly on the hows of critiquing in person. Since I just met with my own new critique group this week, I'll share how we decided to do things.
Once we got together we laid out some ground rules.
  • Cell phones off (or at least on vibrate, so it's not distracting)
  • Meet on time
  • Talk about anything that's bothersome so we can make things work

We decided that we can always change or add to the basic rules as needed. I especially liked that we established an atmosphere of open communication.

The next step is to decide the process.
Establish an amount of writing to bring to each group. It could be 5 pages. Or, if you write like I do sometimes (in verse with a lot of white space) then it might make more sense to go by word count and say 2500 words. Make sure it's doable and that whatever amount you choose will work with whatever time constraints you have. Which leads me to the next issue of time. Maybe you have a lot of time, or you have a short amount of time. There are a few ways to work with either option.

If it's possible to send out manuscripts before meeting in person so everyone has a chance to read them then it will save time on reading it out-loud to the group. It will also allow for group members to jot down notes and come prepared to critique, making the process faster.

Something that helps keep things on time is to set a specific amount of time for each person. Say you're critiquing 5 pages (or 1250 words) then you might want to give each person 15 minutes. At that rate 4 writers would have the chance to be critiqued within an hour.
Designate a time-keeper, someone to set a timer or to watch and make sure that the exchanges are all on time.

Once that's all decided then you have to jump into the actual process.
Even if you send out manuscripts before hand so everyone can read them and be ready to comment, I suggest at least reading the first page or so when beginning. And of course it's an option to read the entire 5 pages (or whatever you decide) when you're all together.
I like to have someone else read my writing so I can see how someone else takes my writing. I know what I mean and I know what words to emphasize when I read aloud, but that doesn't always help my writing.

After reading the manuscript (or a segment) then I like to use this format:
  1. Compliments/good things/what works, etc.
  2. Constructive Criticism/Helps/what doesn't work/what's confusing, etc.
  3. Encourage writer to keep working/remind them of the good things

Just one last bit that I find absolutely critical to the process is that the person being critiqued must remain SILENT during the critique. This session is about listening to what others think and learning from them. It is not a time to get defensive or to explain what your intentions were--if you have to explain it then your writing isn't doing its job, and there's room for improvement.