MYC: Research – Make Your Story Believable

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Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series with a post on voice. This week, we’ll share our thoughts on research.

Research can mean different things depending on the type of book you’re writing. Rebecca writes science fiction based in contemporary settings. Gita writes historical fantasy. You can probably guess which of us spends more time doing research. Since we are critique partners with extremely different approaches to research, we thought a conversation might be fun. Here we go!

Rebecca: I love sci fi and action-adventure stories both in books and movies, and this drives what I write, but I can’t help thinking that my lack of excitement about research also drives my choice of genre. Don’t get me wrong, I know I’ll never write a manuscript without doing research. I’m all about filling in the gaps in my knowledge that will allow my stories to come to life, but I start with a story and let that drive the research agenda. I can’t imagine studying a time or place for the fun of it and then following the story that bubbles up.

I might dive into questions like:

  • How could I plausibly explain technology that teleports my character across the planet?
  • How could my protagonist disarm a gunman with nothing more than her bare hands?
  • Or, what relevance might Frankenstein have to my theme of a revolutionary technology that is turned against its designer?

Gita: I’ve always been that person who, while visiting an old French palace or a Viking grave site, turns to you and whispers: don’t you think this place is haunted? To me, the past is strange and mysterious, full of fascinating stories that might want telling. That said, while I’m a pretty omnivorous reader, I don’t consume many history books for fun; I’ll get the spark of an idea—what about something to do with the French Revolution?—and then start digging.

My research questions go something like this:

  • What did Paris look like—all the way down to the streets and bridges—in 1789?
  • Which factors contributed to the French Revolution? (HUGE topic.)
  • Why did people powder their hair—and how did women get theirs to be three feet tall?

Rebecca: Gita is much more serious about her research than I am, but that doesn’t mean I’m not organized. If I’ve used a source, I want to remember what it was so I can refer to it in revision. Much of my research is from the Internet and is organized there too. I use Pinterest to save pictures of people that have inspired my characters, locations I’ve used in settings, and objects that find their way into my stories. I use YouTube to save “How to” videos. I also save websites links and articles right into my project on Scrivener.

Gita: When I begin researching, I start with secondary sources, such as histories of the French Revolution or a cultural history of fashion at the end of the 18th century. In order to write these second-hand accounts, their authors rely in part on primary documents: letters, clothing, books, paintings, magazines, maps, newspapers, diaries, and more. This stuff is gold, because it was created by people who lived during the period—people just like my characters. With some detective work (try starting with the bibliography at the back of a secondary source) and the help of a librarian, I can gain access to many of these primary documents. But how much should one research? I want to be responsible, but at the same time I don’t want to squeeze the life out of my story for the sake of historical accuracy. I recognize that the Paris of 1789 I depict in my novel will be my Paris of 1789, not anyone else’s. Well researched historical novels, films, or series (I’m currently obsessed with “Harlots”) can also help provide texture and inspiration. I’m a hyper-visual person and maintain several Pinterest boards where I collect images of places, clothes, and objects that play a role in my current project. I’ll use my boards to double-check a detail on a dress or for inspiration.

Rebecca: Research, for me, is the stuff that makes story credible, taking it from creative to plausible. It’s the work that allows you to drop bits into description, action, dialogue and characters’ thoughts that breathes believability into an imaginary world. For the reader to trust a writer and feel a story, even a story set in a world very close to the one they live in, research is a must.

Gita: As a reader, I’m always looking for that incredible feeling of stepping through a door into another world. As a writer of historical fiction, I can’t bring a reader into that world unless I figure out for myself what it might have been like to live at that time—and in order to do that, I research. Then I try to dream myself back there. The truth is, I never really know what I’m going to find. That’s part of the fun.

Next week, Gita will be back to talk in more detail about her approach to research for historical fiction.

GITA TRELEASE writes YA fantasy. She was born in Sweden and has lived in France, Italy, and the United States. In her former life as a college professor, she taught classes on fairy tales, monsters, and Victorian criminals. Along with her artist husband, teenage son, and Maine Coon, Gita divides her time between a boarding school in Massachusetts and the wild Maine coast. Her current project takes place during the French Revolution: hot-air balloons and gambling, decadence and dark magic. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.

Photo by Pam Vaughan

REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult science fiction with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.

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MYC: Finding Your Voice

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a warning to not let our friends write bad books!!

This week we’ll tackle the ever-elusive craft of VOICE!

Some of you may ask: Why is voice part of character development?

Well, friend, I’m soooo glad you asked. I once put the question to my Winged Pen peeps: What comes first, voice or plot? I truly thought it was one or the other that came first to any and everyone. I was so surprised when only two of us chose voice as our starting point.

Regardless of how you tackle writing a story, I stand by developing your character’s voice early on in the process. A strong voice will draw your readers in and make your story memorable. Voice sets the tone and creates opportunities for your character to take on the plot headfirst.

Articles and books often portray voice in a vague you’ve-got-it-or-ya-don’t kind of element. Everyone has a voice, it’s a matter of uncovering yours. Here are a few pointers how:

 

Do: Don’t:
1. Know your character well. (age, worldview, family dynamics, academic abilities, etc.) Interviewing is very helpful!! 1. Stereotype
2. Monologue (either out loud or on paper) 2. Confuse accents or colloquialism with voice
3. Read & re-read books with voice you love—Hound Dog True by Linda Urban and The Tiger Rising by Kate Dicamillo are a few I turn to. Conversely, pinpoint books/paragraphs you find aren’t authentic in voice and discuss why. 3. Don’t use your character’s culture as a way to add flourishes to their voice (eg. confusing and outlandish metaphors)

Number 3 under Don’ts leads me to what voice is versus what it isn’t:

Voice Is: Voice Isn’t:
1. Compelling 1. Confusing
2. Specific 2. Generic
3. Unique 3. Bland
4. Purposeful 4. Passive
5. Revealing 5. Disjointed

Knowing your character is like having a black and white coloring sheet and voice is the color you add to the picture. Mood, attitudes, personality, worldview all play a part in the colors you choose.

As an author you also have a unique voice. Do you write short, simple sentences? Are you prone to purple prose? Either way, you need to refine your writing and ensure it meets the Do’s and Is’s above. Both forms of writing are effective. Pick up any of Kate Dicamillo books and be wowed by her strong, poignant writing. Then pick up Laini Taylor and fall in love with magically spooky, but oh-so beautiful descriptions.

Your plot may control your character and her voice, but do not underestimate voice. It has the power to drive your plot. When done well, both your plot and your voice will compete in creating a well-developed story.

 

USEFUL TIDBITS FROM THE PROS:

[Voice] can reflect region, ethnicity or historical era as well as character. However, with these variants, a little goes a long way.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress

Voice= Person + Tense + Prosody

+ (Diction + Syntax + Tone + Imagination + Details)

Second Sight by Cheryl B. Klein

Once you discover the authenticity within yourself, you can move into all the other voices that inhabit your imagination with an assurance you never before experienced.

The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children by Nancy Lamb

When you are at ease with family and friends, listen for the way you have of expressing ideas, your authentic voice.

The Writer’s Compass by Nancy Ellen Dodd

2 Voice Challenges:

  1. Your characters must have such distinct voices and speech patterns that if I were to take the dialogue tags out of your scenes, I could tell exactly who is speaking.
  2. When I pick up a book with the cover ripped off and no name on the pages, I should be able to read a paragraph and identify you as the author.

Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole

You’re after a particular, distinctive verbalization construct that perfectly conveys how he views the world and how his mind works.

Plot Versus Character by Jeff Gerke

Kristi is the author of KARMA KHULLAR’S MUSTACHE out with S&S BFYR August 2017. She is repped by Patricia Nelson at Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

MYC: Friends Don’t Let Friends Write Bad Books

Mug that reads "Friends don't let friends write bad books."Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a Pantser’s Guide to Character Development. This week, we’ll share a method of using a long-form, messy synopsis to get early feedback from your critique partners. Because friends don’t let friends write bad books, right?

First, let’s clarify something. This post is not about writing the type of synopsis, usually 500-750 words, that is sent out with a query, or, for agented authors, with a pitch package to editors. We’ll cover that type of synopsis later on in Master Your Craft. This is about a long-form, messy synopsis written as part of the prewriting process to capture the general story and character arcs.

Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery

Back in November 2015, in the super-secret Winged Pen Bat Cave (i.e. Facebook group), fellow Penny Kate Manning posted the transcript of a #mglitchat in which the amazing Jen Malone suggested sending out a rough-form synopsis like this to critique partners during planning stages so that they could ask 10-12 “what if” brainstorming questions. (Note: Someone storified it, but the Tweets about the synopsis happen earlier in the thread.) We all thought it was a fabulous idea, from a fabulous author, so a few of us tried it! The results were amazing–this tool is now a permanent part of my toolbox.

But Don’t Just Take My Word For It!

“I find the synopsis to be not only a great pre-writing tool, but also (especially when accompanied by a short writing sample) a great way to flesh out the story with critique partners and my agent.” — Jessica Vitalis

“I’ve found it really helpful to separate planning from writing. I use more of a chapter-by-chapter summary than a “synopsis” form. But I find in the midst of a drafting, I’m not as creative as when I’m just thinking big-picture. Drafting my WIP, there were several times I thought forward to the next chapter and was pretty ho-hum about what I thought would come next. Then I looked back at my outline and my reaction was “oh-yeah!” because what I’d planned was so much bigger/more fun than what was running through my mind at the moment. It’s like focusing on just the BIG things in each chapter helps me narrow in on the exciting and keep the story’s momentum moving fast.”– Rebecca J. Allen

“I used the messy synopsis trick with my latest WIP. I sent a six-page synopsis out to three of my writing buddies and asked them to have at it. They replied with questions and suggestions that helped me broaden the plot, flesh out my characters more deeply, and fix plot holes before I’d even dug them. AND thanks to doing the messy synopsis first, I didn’t need to write as many drafts to get my current WIP ready to query. I can’t imagine drafting without going through this step just prior to outlining chapters.” — Michelle Leonard

Master Your Craft

 

Details, Details, Details…

Unlike the tight, soul-less (oops, did I say that out loud?) synopsis that goes with pitch packages, this one is meant to be messy. It’s a dumping ground for all the things you’d like to work into your new story based on the prewriting you’ve already done on your concept and characters. It covers all the major characters, the main plot arc, but also the subplots, the twists, the unexpected turns. Put whatever you know about the story down on paper.

Whenever a group of writers get together to hash out a process, like we’ve done for Master Your Craft, there is bound to be some disagreement about the order of things. Some of the Pennies using this technique write the synopsis first before they do the character work outlined in the previous three Master Your Craft posts. Some do it after. I am somewhere in the middle–although I don’t send the synopsis to anyone until I’ve done the character work, I do work on them simultaneously. Do what works for you! But do this before you start to write.

So once you have around 5-7 pages that includes everything you think is going to happen during the story, send it off. Ask your most trusted critique partners, ones who already know your style and have critiqued for you before, and ask them to destroy it offer their feedback in the form of “what ifs” questions (What if that cat was really a magical jellyfish? What if that boy character was really a girl? What if the antagonist was also the love interest?),  comp titles that you should check out (oh, this reminds me of Goonies!), and any other thoughts they might have. The results are bound to jump-start your creativity and take your story to places it might not have gone without this technique.

 

Additional Resources:

A photo of author Julie Artz
Photo credit: Gail Werner

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

MYC: A Reformed Pantser’s Guide to Character Development

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on character development with a post on supporting characters. This week, I’ll share tips on fleshing out characters using my three favorite craft books.

A lot of writers start out writing by the seat of their pants (i.e. jumping in to drafting with no prior pre-writing/planning/outlining). After the painful process of seeing just how big of a dumpster fire my first drafts are when I don’t do any pre-writing, I moved toward the planning end of the spectrum and I called in the experts (in the form of craft books).

via GIPHY

I like to pre-write in a way that leaves my creativity room to change course and explore as I draft. So I spend the bulk of my pre-writing time working on character development. Because once that character starts talking to me, I know I can rely on her to tell me what needs to happen next in the story. Getting that character talking can be a challenge though. Here’s what I do…

I will admit up-front that I write character-driven stories, so you’re not going to get a lot of plot talk here. My what-if dreaming sometimes has a plot element to it, but it’s usually character-focused. Even if I start with a concept that is plot-based (for example, my work in progress right now started out as Goonies meets Hoot), the first thing I do is start thinking about who my main character is, what her interests are, how she interacts with her family and friends, and what’s going to make her the best heroine for this particular story. In this case, I knew I wanted the hero of the adventure to be a girl (don’t get me started on the problematic aspects of the girls in Goonies, that’s another blog post entirely), and not just any girl, but a tomboy who wanted, more than anything, to be an engineer so she could develop medical devices to help disabled people like her father.

At this stage I often make lists of hobbies, favorite books, what type of clothes she typically wears, what she loves, what she hates, what she’s most afraid of. I think about tropes and stereotypes and how I can turn them on their head here as I create this new person. This is where I do all the dreaming before I get down to the hard work of putting flesh and bone and soul into the character.

That hard work begins with Lisa Cron’s amazing Story Genius method. It focuses on what she calls the “Third Rail” or the combination of the character’s desire and the misbelief that keeps the character from achieving that desire. The book, and the Author Accelerator course that is based on it, takes you through the process of identifying that third rail and the pieces of the character’s backstory that led to the formation of the desire/misbelief combo. I also develop a third rail for my antagonist and any important secondary characters. [full disclosure: I work for Author Accelerator and help coach writers through Lisa’s Story Genius method, but I have also used it for my past two manuscripts. I promise, it works.]

Once I have an idea of what the character wants and what’s standing in her way, next I go back to my story structure favorite, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. My favorite thing about this book is that it ties a four-part character arc – Orphan/Wanderer/Hero/Martyr – to the four-act structure of a typical plot (click for more information on story structure). I use broad strokes to identify the main character’s mindset during each of these four acts, so that I have a very high-level view of the character arc.

All POV characters need an arc. Even if you’re writing the plottiest of plotty thrillers. I promise. A few supporting characters should have minor arcs to make the story emotionally satisfying as well. Extras (minor characters that would normally inhabit the main character’s world but who aren’t instrumental to moving the plot forward) don’t necessarily need arcs or they should be very minimal.

The next part is fun, especially if you enjoy torturing your characters. Because I then take my new character through Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. My biggest take-away from it is the idea of complicating the character’s desires and obstacles to inject more tension into the story. Coming up with ways to complicate/deepen the character is usually what helps me figure out what needs to happen in the major plot points.

So that sends me back to Story Engineering. I fill out a beat sheet with the major plot points and then I’m ready to move on next week’s topic, writing a long-form synopsis for brainstorming on plot and character. See you then!

JULIE ARTZ writes stories for children that feature the natural world, folklore, mythology, history, and all that is magical about those things. In addition to contributing to The Winged Pen, she works as a developmental editor for Author Accelerator, is a Pitch Wars mentor, and contributes regularly to From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors. She is represented by Jennie Dunham of Dunham Lit. You can also follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

My Month of Poetry

I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.

Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.

Huh, I thought. Poetry.

I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.

I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.

I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?

Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.

I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.

For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.

Katharine Manning blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She writes middle grade stories about strong, brave girls who sometimes make mistakes. She was thrilled to serve as a 2016 Cybils judge for poetry and novels in verse. You can find her online at www.katharinemanning.com, on Twitter, and on Instagram. Her book blog is KidBookList.