The Magic of Friendship

I’m working on revising one novel and pre-writing another, and one thing keeps coming up with both projects: friendship.

I have two teen daughters, and I can tell you that EVERYTHING revolves around friends. And I remember that from my own teenage years – friendships were all-consuming, intense, up and down, and central to my daily life.

So as I’ve worked on these two projects, it has been especially important to me to make sure that the friendships in my stories are as vivid and central to my characters’ lives as they are in the lives of the teens I know.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if your story and its conflicts aren’t based on your main character’s relationship with his or her friends. How can you ensure that your character’s friendships always feel authentic, rich and real?

I recently attended a talk at my local SCBWI led by editor Abby Ranger. She called friendship a key entrance to your story. Whether you’re writing an epic fantasy set in a completely new world, or a contemporary set in a world that is familiar to nearly all of us, your character’s friendships give readers a view of the heart of your character and her journey.

And friendship is different than other relationships your character has in his life. For one, it’s completely voluntary – friends don’t have to love you like family does. And the relationship isn’t clouded by romantic feelings.

So friendship is important to get right in any story for middle grade or YA. But how?

Take a minute to think about your own friendships. What are they based on?

I have a few friends who have known me for more than 20 years. We share some things in common – kids in some cases, hobbies in others – but our primary bond is one of time and deep understanding. They know what skeletons I have in my closet, they remember when I was a vegetarian who refused to eat beans, and at least one of them was there to drive me home from work when I had a horrid case of the stomach flu.

I have other friendships that have grown from a common interest. My knitting friends know a bit about my life, but they are even more well versed in what yarn-based project I’ve got in my bag at the moment. And of course my Pennies know each and every up and down I have with my fiction writing.

Think about your character and his or her friends. How did they meet? What drew them together? How did they cross that threshold between acquaintances and friends? What keeps them coming back to each other?

What do they know about each other that other characters don’t know? What are their power dynamics – is one the bold go-getter, dragging the other along? Is there a protector and a protected?

As you sketch out this important relationship, consider these tips, loosely gathered from Abby Ranger’s fantastic talk (and with examples from Harry Potter, an epic fantasy series with friendship at its core), for creating authentic friendships that push your characters to grow over the course of the novel:

Lean into contrast/conflict. Friends don’t always get along, and they often grow in different directions at different times. Show those conflicts – big and small – and use them to challenge your main character’s inertia.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione and Ron begin to recognize their feelings for each other, they each approach those feelings in different ways. That conflict is amped up by the ball and the character of Viktor Krum and adds a great layer of complexity to the story.

Communication between friends often consists of their own language. Show that in both dialogue and in non-verbal communication. Our closest friends can often say a LOT with a tiny change in expression!

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: How many times do Ron and Harry crack each other up with just a glance?

There is an intimacy in details, so be specific. Use details to show your characters knowledge of each other and their expectations of their friends. HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: When Hermione explains Cho’s feelings of sadness, grief, guilt and confusion to Harry and Ron after Cedric’s death, she shows a relationship with Cho that we don’t see on the page, but that is clear from those few details she shares. And Harry’s and Ron’s responses show that they never expected such complexity from either Hermione or Cho.

Teen friendships have DRAMA. Emotions are bigger and more unwieldy when you’re a teenager, and most of the situations you face, you’re facing for the very first time. Let the drama out! And that drama can crop up in many different ways – does your character have to sacrifice something for his or her friend? How do your characters earn their relationship? Do they fight for it? Do they risk something – parental or societal disapproval, say – to keep the friendship?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Right at the beginning of the first book, Harry faces a choice between being friends with Draco (and joining ranks with the “right sort” of wizard) and being friends with Ron (the “wrong sort”). He chooses Ron. Later, the two friends together choose to befriend the unloved Hermione. Both times, Harry is risking his social capital for his friends – and that choice continues to create drama that resonates throughout the series.

Friendships, particularly groups of friends, have their own circuitry. How do your characters connect to each other in the world of your story? What are the layers of friendships, from inner circle, to outer ring? What role does each character play?

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: Harry, Ron and Hermione each have their own specific role to play in their trio. But they’re not an independent entity. They’re also influenced and influence Ginny and Neville and Fred and George and Luna. Their influence also spreads to enemies like Draco. The various connections between the characters come back over and over again throughout the series, and the picture that network forms is complex, dynamic and rich.

Friendship should have an arc throughout the book. Even if the friendship doesn’t supply the main core of conflict in your story, your character’s relationship with friends should still have some sort of beginning, middle and end related to the journey he or she takes in the book.

HARRY POTTER EXAMPLE: While the first book in the series is about Harry learning his true history and facing his greatest enemy for the first time, it is also about his journey from a lonely boy to a boy with friends. His friendships with Ron and Hermione wouldn’t be enough on their own to fuel a book about wizards, but they do give Harry a personal arc to go along with his hero arc, making him much more relatable in the process.

But perhaps the biggest clue that two (or more) characters are friends? Fun! Don’t be afraid to let your characters – even in the darkest and grittiest of dramas – have fun with their friends. That joy is the glue that has kept them together and that shows your reader the depth of your characters’ friendships.

Friendship is one of the most central relationships tweens and teens have. Whether you’re writing a space opera, a modern rom-com, a historical fantasy, or something else entirely, friendships are a great way to zero in on your novel’s heart.

 

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

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How to Survive Your Toughest Draft

For the last couple of years, every time one of my writer pals would ask me what I was working on, the answer was the same breezy, “Oh, I’m still plugging away on that rockstar mom book I told you about ages ago.”

I’m pretty sure that more than a few of them wondered if I shouldn’t just give it up and move on to something else. Something that would actually get written. And if they didn’t, they were stronger, better writers than me because that was something I wondered every time I sat down with my laptop.

But I persisted, mostly out of sheer stubbornness, and I completed a very, very messy first draft in April of last year. In November, I finally had it shaped into something resembling a novel.

FINALLY!

I’m not sure why this draft took so much longer than anything else I’ve ever written. I could cite a busier-than-ever family life, or a robust year of paid freelance work. Maybe it was because most days, I can be best described as a “ball of anxiety with fingers.”

But I can tell you how I got through an interminable draft (and managed to avoid quitting writing entirely!).

I Was Selfish. My mantra this past year has been “eyes on your own paper.” I withdrew from social media, avoided contests, and spent a lot less time engaging with other writers. It was difficult, and I felt like a jerk, but I knew that my top priority needed to be getting my work done. I am thrilled for my friends who have been out in the world this past year, but I knew I would not be with them. Not right now. Right now, my entire focus had to be a bit selfish. Eyes on my own work.

But Not Too Selfish. Instead of focusing on what *I* wanted – to finish the draft, to write a great book, to get an agent, to get a publishing contract – I made a choice instead to focus on service. We’re writing books for people, specifically children and/or teens, to read. So while I wanted to tell the story of my heart, I kept in mind that, ultimately, that heart-story needed to be in service of the teenage reader. That guiding star helped me re-focus when my way wandered and kept me writing when it seemed I would never get done.

I lowered my expectations. For years, I wrote 1,000 words a day, five days a week. I had reasonable expectations of finishing a draft in a couple of months, of being able to query a book every year, of catching the attention of an agent in the near future. But this year, I realized that wasn’t going to be possible. I spent some time looking over those expectations in a bright light, and I realized that they weren’t doing me any good. I’m a goal-setter and a rule-follower, but that doesn’t matter much in the wider world. No one is lining up to give me a cookie because I did things in the right order, in the right way, at the right time. So I made 2017 the year of NO expectations, other than that I would keep my head down and keep writing.

I used a timer. In order to take some pressure off but still keep getting words down, I started writing for 15 timed minutes each day. That was it. When the timer went off, I stopped. If it was the middle of a sentence, so much the better! That way I had a starting point for the next day. There were days when I only logged 5-10 words on a tricky scene. But I counted those as writing sessions and just kept going.

I relinquished control. Years ago, a colleague of mine listened to me rant about how other people were failing to do their jobs and it was ruining what I was doing. She said, “Well, you can’t control the outcome. You can only control what you put in to it.” That rattled through my head this year. I can’t control what happens with this or any piece of writing. All I can do is control what I put into it. So that is all I worried about.

I reached out. A few times over the course of the year, I did reach out to other writers to share what was going on with me and to reconnect with their work. Getting out of my head was important, but even better was the chance to share in others’ creative processes, successes and challenges. I went out and saw art and live music, too, feeding my own creativity. Writing is so solitary that it’s nice to remember there are other artists out there traveling a similar path.

I looked for joy, not results. I won’t sugarcoat it: for months I was pretty sure I was going to quit writing entirely. Writing for me is a singular joy. Word counts and pursuing publication and developing platform are not joyful. Letting go of the results side of writing for goal-oriented me was painful for my ego, but it was manna for the creative part of my soul, the part that just wants to play with words and stories and doesn’t actually care if anyone reads them. That play without pressure was revitalizing in a way that I desperately needed this year.

Some might call what I experienced this past year Writer’s Block. But I don’t think that’s what it was, even after taking two years to draft a novel. After all, I wrote all the time, and the words flowed fine, when I could find the time to let them flow.

But something happened with this year, with this manuscript that tested me – and I was reminded again that writing fiction is not for the faint-hearted!

If you find yourself facing a similar time of slow production mixed with a bit of despair and a burning desire to quit the game entirely, I have some advice:

Take a deep breath.

Then: Head down, do the work however you can, don’t worry about the mess, keep your eyes on your own paper.

Find your joy.

 

RICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon, often in the company of her husband and their three spirited children. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

December Four on 400 Contest is Here!


Q: What is Four on 400? 

A monthly contest that provides ONE LUCKY MG or YA WRITER with feedback on their opening 400 WORDS! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a MG or YA writer feedback on their work from four of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 4pm (EST) on the 5th of December, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening 400 WORDS. On the 14th of the month, the winner’s words, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from four of our members. Still have questions? See our Four on 400 page for additional details.

If you’re not sure how to leave a comment, check our FAQ page!

*Please check your email SPAM filter to make sure it will allow an email from info@thewingedpen.com

Want a chance to win an extra entry? Go to our Facebook page and find our post about the December Four on 400 contest. Then like and/or share our post. While you’re there, like our Facebook page if you haven’t already!

Remember, the contest window is only open until 4pm EST on December 5th, so don’t wait––enter now! Good Luck!

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Four on 400 November Contest Feedback!

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

MG Fantasy, JAMES RASH AND THE SEPTACULAR SEPTUPLETS

Copper coated James’ tongue as he bit into his lip and glanced over the first-floor balcony of the three-story castle. People danced, laughed, and ate in the lantern-strung courtyard below. He pulled at the collar of his shirt as two beads of sweat raced past his ear. It felt as if he were in the castle hot tub on extra high. He leaned his neck back to gaze at the pale moon sitting high in the endless black sky above; the stars scattered across like little shining sprinkles.

He closed his eyes. Stop worrying. Everything’s going to be fine. You’re going to get—

“There you are! What’re you doing?”

James’ tired body gave a slight shudder seconds before his head whipped around from the balcony. Grandpa towered over him, skinny arms folded. Gray eyes, the same as James’, stared down at him. The image of James’ face on Grandpa’s shirt mimicked him perfectly, from his curly brown hair to the front tooth he lost to a green apple. James licked the empty spot.

“Really?” Grandpa sighed. “Your life’s about to change forever and you’re hiding?”

James held his hands up innocently and shook his head. “I’m not hiding. I was … uh … going to the bathroom.”

The bathroom? That’s the best you could do?

“This doesn’t look much like the bathroom to me.” Grandpa peered over the balcony. “How about instead of watching the party, we join it? You haven’t forgotten it’s your seventh birthday, have you?”

He smiled and winked as he held out his right hand. James’ nerves kept him rooted to the spot, still as a statue.

I can’t face them … what if… what if …

“James?” Grandpa frowned and raised an eyebrow. “Come on, it’s almost midnight. What’re you … Oh. Please tell me you aren’t still worried about that, are you?”

He knows! Act calm! Lie! Do something!

“What?” James forced a laugh. “Ha. No, I—”

Grandpa snapped his fingers. James grabbed his throat as it closed up. He could still breathe fine, but if he tried to make a sound it would get pushed back down when it reached the top of his throat as if bouncing against a net.

“Didn’t you and your siblings learn you can’t lie to me and get away with it?” Grandpa chuckled and tapped his unwrinkled forehead. “Now, why are you afraid you aren’t magical?”

Gita: Thanks for being willing to share your opening pages with us! I love the idea of a protagonist who worries about not being magical. I’m also intrigued by the relationship between James and his grandfather. I wondered a bit about the age of your protagonist, though. Is James seven years old throughout the story, or is this a flashback? Usually, middle-grade readers are 8-12 years old, and at that age especially, kids like to “read up,” that is, read about protagonists who are slightly older than the readers themselves are. So if James is seven throughout the story, he’s too young for MG. At the same time, an MG protagonist’s concerns and behavior still need to be appropriate for readers on the younger end of the age range, say 8 or 9. Best wishes as you continue on with this project!

Jessica: There are a lot of fun elements in this story; thanks for sharing! By way of suggestions, I’d encourage you to flesh out the “world” this fantasy is set in. James is peering over a castle balcony, so I assumed it was a medieval setting, but then the reference to the hot tub and the modern usage of “Grandpa” tripped me up. I think you could clarify by expanding the description of “people” in the second sentence; what they are wearing, eating, etc. will give us a much better picture of the world we are dealing with. Good luck!

Michelle: Uh-oh. Looks like James is in a bit of a predicament. Great job building sympathy for him quickly, and your premise is intriguing! Your first sentence threw me off. I think you meant the coppery taste of blood coated his tongue instead of actual copper. I’m also wondering if he’d really be aware that there were “two” beads of sweat. Simply calling it “beads of sweat” gives us a great image of how much stress he feels. My only other suggestion is look for places to tighten. For example, “He leaned his neck back to gaze” could be “He gazed” because we already know the neck is involved in that action. Best of luck with your writing journey!

Halli: Congratulations on winning this month’s contest. I love stories about magic and I’m intrigued about this story and James, who may not have magic.  My fellow Pennies had some great comments already so I will focus on the beginning since that is what agents see first and base their requests on. The first page is typically 250 words, so we don’t get to issue of magic until halfway through the second page. That means the first page is full of worry without even a hint as to what is going on. I would not suggest giving away his fear of not having magic right away, but if the reader could get a little hint earlier on about his fear (for example, he would be letting his family down or be in grave danger) that would up the urgency and the desire to read on. Thank you so much for sharing!

 

 

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Four on 400 October Feedback

Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s Four on 400 contest!

Sharing your writing takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm for our contest.Below, we’ve posted the first 400 words from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least four of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and encouragement in the comments section below.

Camp Chrysalis (Middle Grade)

Baby carrots ruined Owen Fortner’s life.

Owen stood, braced against the door of the boys’ bathroom next to the kindergarten classroom. His safe haven during lunch for the last two weeks, it was about as far away from both his fifth-grade classroom and the lunch room as he could get. Only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.

Owen relaxed his mind, pushing his thoughts to his twin sister, Allie. They’d been able to talk to each other mentally since they learned to speak. They found me. I’m in the bathroom over by the kindergarten, and I won’t be able to hold them off for long.

His sister’s voice was only a mumble in his mind until Owen focused on it.

…help. Just hold them off for as long as you can.

He’d only redirected his concentration for a moment, but it was enough that his sneakers slid on the hard tile floor.

The door opened a few inches before Owen could stop it. Sensing weakness like the ruthless predators they were, Jerry and Chris gave a coordinated effort and slid through.

Although fellow fifth-graders, Chris and Jerry stood much taller than Owen. Of course, Owen reflected, so did everyone else, including his twin sister. Chris’s lips curled back, revealing teeth too big for his mouth and the gap where a canine tooth should be—and was, two weeks ago…before The Baby Carrot Incident.

“Got you,” Chris snarled.

Owen backed up against the side of the bathroom stalls, thinking a swirly wouldn’t be so bad. No… he’d much prefer a swirly to getting punched hard enough to lose a tooth. Chris had been preaching “a tooth for a tooth” for the last two weeks. Jerry leaned against the closed door, making it difficult for anyone to interrupt them.

Owen circled in front of the sinks, hoping he could make it back around to the door and possibly escape.

All this because of baby carrots… Those stupid little orange vegetables his mother stuffed into his lunch two weeks ago. If only the small bag hadn’t been so darn hard to open. If only the carrots hadn’t exploded out of the package. If only they hadn’t landed on the floor just as Chris stepped, and made him slip, hit the table, and knock out his tooth.

Halli: Thank you for sharing! The first sentence definitely hooked me! As did the overall theme. The pacing is great and I loved the paragraph describing Chris and keeping up the mystery of the baby carrot incident. I have two tiny comments to mention. First, the part about Owen talking to his sister pulled me out of the immediate action and danger. If it is crucial to the first few pages and first chapter, I would recommend moving it a little farther down. Second, I had a hard time grounding myself in the first full paragraph. I think because there is a lot happening – the actions of the boys as well as three different locations. Overall, great job! Good luck.

Julie: I agree with Halli–great first line! And I actually like getting the twins’ telepathy onto the first page, but think it could be integrated a little bit more into the action so that it doesn’t pull us out of the narrative. Could you cut the lines about relaxing his mind and talking mentally and just have him think “I’m in the boy’s bathroom. Need help fast” and then let Ally respond. Kids will pick up on what you’re talking about without disrupting the tension of the door slowly working its way open. I think the “Although fellow fifth-graders” paragraph could be cut or condensed too. Stick to the immediate danger Owen is in, and the actions he takes to protect himself, and I think this will be a winning opening.

Richelle: I’m with Halli and Julie — great first line and very fun, fast-paced opening. That promise of the first line is dulled a bit with the next few paragraphs. I struggled a little with that first full paragraph. Try shorter sentences, maybe? And I don’t think you need to specify there where he is since he tells his twin in the next paragraph. Really think about what we absolutely must know to get through the rest of the scene and get rid of the rest — the curiosity of baby carrots, telepathy and the “tooth for a tooth” bullies will keep kids reading! And I’m with Julie — I don’t think we need to understand any of the history of Owen communicating with Allie. You can just have them do it urgently in that moment, and then explain it later when you give your readers a “take a breath” moment. Thanks for sharing!

Karin: Nice job! You throw us immediately into a tense scene that has us asking: will Owen escape? I think the last sentence in paragraph two is a little confusing as he’s bracing against the door but this is safe haven away from the two boys. “Figures that only three days before summer vacation, Chris and Jerry had found his hiding spot and were beating and pushing on the door to get in.(you don’t need to tell this as the action shows it.)” And “relaxed his mind” is awkward, and in fact I would cut that whole sentence. Then shorten the rest. “He needed his sister. They could talk to each other mentally ever since they could speak. Allie, they found me…” I love “swirly” and “tooth for a tooth”! This sounds like a fun adventure! Good luck going forward!

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MYC: Writing “Other” with Sensitivity

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 talked about the Power of Metaphor. This week, we’ll discuss writing “other” characters.

What is writing “Other”?

It simply means writing characters that are not like yourself.

Some writers are terrified to try this. If you’ve ever witnessed arguments about writing diversely or seen Twitter posts “dragging” authors who make mistakes when they tried to do so, you probably understand why!

But, it’s important that the stories we craft represent the world we inhabit. This post at Lit Reactor by K. Tempest Bradford sums up the importance of diversity in our writing and our reading pretty well, especially this paragraph:

 

Seeing oneself reflected in fiction, even if partially, is important for people from marginalized communities and identities. It’s also important for people who align with the dominant paradigm as well. It allows them to see and understand that people who aren’t like them exist outside of narrow stereotypes and also outside of the confines of their own narrow understanding.

 

So hopefully, you’ve included an interesting variety of people from different cultures, beliefs, or abilities in your masterpiece. And if not, this is a great time to tweak a few characters to give your story depth and sparkle.

 

But…

And this is a REALLY BIG BUT

Don’t do it unless you’re invested in doing it well.  

There are a few steps to that process.

Ask Yourself Why????

Why are you writing this “other” character?

Maybe you have a unique perspective. For example, you may have adopted a child of a different ethnicity or maybe your child has a disability and you want the world to see life through her eyes. Maybe your nephew has recently “come out” and you want (with his permission) to use his experiences to help others. Having a personal connection to writing “other” automatically puts pressure on you to get it right.

But maybe your reason is just because you feel it’s important to show that a gay, black, hearing-impaired boy can have exciting adventures. That’s okay too. BUT, you’re going to have to work extra hard to make sure your character is authentic and realistic for your reader. Put yourself in the shoes of the gay, black, hearing-impaired boy who might be read your story. Will he like it? Will he relate to the character? Will he recommend it to his friends?

After you’ve answered why, the real work begins.

Research!

A lot of it. Thoroughly. Yes, it’s a lot of work. But if you care about your readers and you want to make fans, you’ll do it. If you don’t approach your characters thoughtfully, you may do more harm than good and lose readers in the process. One of the worse things you can do is to write stereotypical characters.

Examples: the blind person who can “see” visions, the crippled evil villain, the savage Native American, the gay male who loves theatre, the sassy black girl…

Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

As we mentioned in our post about Writing Cross-Culturally, not only are those stereotypes unrealistic, but––especially in kid lit––they do harm. Just like there are millions of different behaviors of a “typical” white girl, the same is true of every character regardless of religious beliefs, skin color, sexual orientation, bodily abilities…

Make all your characters real people. (For more details about how to do this see this post on character development and this one on supporting characters.) Understand what makes them tick, their beliefs, their concerns, their limitations, and their special abilities. This is important even if your “other” character isn’t the main character.

One great way to research is by reading books written by #ownvoices authors. Check out this Kirkus post by Cynthia Leitich Smith for more info.

See below for a list of resources about writing a variety of “other” characters.

Sensitivity Readers!

Yes, you’ll need them. Several in fact. If you don’t know what that is, read this or this. You may have a person in your life who can serve as a sensitivity reader for the “other” that is in your story, but I’d also suggest finding a reader that you don’t know. A reader who doesn’t know you personally will be more comfortable with being completely honest with you and will be able to provide a deeper insight to make your story more authentic. Heads up: If you haven’t employed a sensitivity reader before you submit to an agent, sometimes they will ask you to find one. Sometimes your editor will do that, but you should be prepared to pay a sensitivity reader for their time and experience. And here’s the most important part: LISTEN TO YOUR SENSITIVITY READERS!

One recent example of a book about “other” is Dusti Bowling’s Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus. The story is about a girl who was born without arms. But Dusti has arms. How could she possibly write this book? She did her homework and followed up by reaching out to someone who knew first-hand what it was like to live without arms. Check out this Publisher’s weekly post to find out what inspired Dusti to write this book and this interview for more info about her research and sensitivity reader.

Here’s a database for finding sensitivity readers: Writing In The Margins

Own Up to Your Mistakes!

This may be the most important step. Hopefully you’ve taken the first three steps very seriously and done all your homework. But no matter how hard you try, you will make mistakes because you are human. The best thing to do is to very clearly apologize to all those who you’ve offended. (Please note: True apologies do not contain the word “but”.) Accept your mistake(s) and learn from it. Do not blame anyone, not your friend readers, your betas, or your sensitivity readers. It’s yours. Own it. Move forward graciously.

General Resources:

Twitter Handles You Should Follow:

@writingtheother

@diversebooks

@disabilityInLit

Race and Ethnicity:

Gender:

Sexual Orientation:

Disability:

Be brave in your writing, but sensitive to your readers.

Let us know about other resources in the comments! Thanks for reading this week and come back next week to read our discussion about Writing Openings That Hook Readers and Endings That Turn Them Into Fans.

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a children/teens bookseller, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology go towards scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

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Pixar, CREATIVITY, INC., and Learning How to Fail

Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family’s favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar (with Amy Wallace), failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar’s success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do…which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter — and a significant portion of the book — talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a copywriter and in my second life as a fiction writer, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out writing, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep plots simple, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I relied on tropes because they had led to success for so many other writers – and success was something I wanted.

Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating. I know writers who have honed and polished their work for years, never querying for fear that they will be rejected. I know writers who send a few queries, get a few rejections, and abandon their project because they don’t want to know that the project of their heart has failed. And I know writers who refuse to budge from the plans they’ve laid out for their work or their career because they think to do so would mean they have failed.

At one time or another, I’ve been those writers, too.

But over the years I’ve learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle — when I risk trying something that might fail — I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As writers, we can’t control how our readers respond. Or whether an agent will resonate with our work. Or whether a publisher will choose to add it to their list.

Even once we get agents and publishing contracts and sales, our control is minimal, and failure is inevitable. How we respond can make all the difference between getting stuck and moving on.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us writers – I’d argue most of us people! – don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you’ll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, “I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum.”  And having support on your journey can make those failure moments sting a lot less.
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you become the best writer you can be.

And if you’re interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Two Opinions on Revising While Drafting

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 looked at the saggy middle. Today we’re tackling a somewhat controversial subject: revising while drafting.

Two of our Pennies sat down and discussed their different approaches to revising your manuscript while you’re still drafting it.

Richelle: When I say I revise while drafting, I don’t mean major revisions. Those I save for after I type “THE END”. But in an effort to ease myself back into my story world, I’ll often read over what I wrote before and do minor edits/cleanup on that section. I look for typos first and foremost, but also ways to make it voicier or fix pacing issues. I usually pace too quickly and have to find ways to slow down, which means I’ll sometimes expand setting or beef up emotional arcs. This usually takes up the first 10-15 minutes of my writing time, and after that, I dive into writing new. In essence, it’s like the warm-up song in spin class! Once I get my brain and fingers moving and coordinated, then I can get to the main workout.

I’m not alone in doing this! I’ve seen other writers talk about doing a light edit as a way to ease into their drafting sessions. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it, especially to newer writers. The temptation to polish and perfect is strong and can easily keep you from moving forward, particularly if you’re in a stuck spot. Plus, chances are you’ll end up throwing out at least some of your first draft, and having to throw out a scene you spent hours on hurts a lot more than one you only spent fifteen minutes scouring for typos and inconsistencies.

I do have one major exception to my don’t-make-big-revisions-while-drafting rule. Despite my best efforts to pre-plan and hash things out before I draft, more than once I’ve realized halfway through a manuscript that I’ve gone wrong somewhere. If it doesn’t change the entire plot, I can make a big note for myself (REMEMBER TO FIX FIRST HALF TO SAY HER DAD’S ACTUALLY ALIVE!). But if my wrong turn sends me off a cliff, I may have to go back and do a big revision before I can move on. That actually happened to me recently when I realized 30K into my WIP that I was writing the wrong story…UGH! That was painful! But in that case, I had to go back and work through the first half of the story so I could write the second half.

Julie: Although, like Richelle, I sometimes read over the previous scene as a warm-up for my next writing session, I am fairly militant about not revising while I write. I am a fast-drafter (often drafting during NaNoWriMo and CampNaNo because I love the rigor of the daily word count goal), so it doesn’t take much tinkering with what I’ve already written before I’m way behind on my goal. And my inner editor is brutal, so I need to keep her silent or I might never finish a story. This latest work-in-progress was particularly hard to draft because I’d just finished revising for the first time ever with my agent, so of course my finished manuscript was highly polished after rounds and rounds of beta reads and lots of great agent feedback. That made completing the draft, no matter how rough, an important emotional milestone for me too. Because the doubt demons were hard at work telling me that this piece of junk first draft was never going to measure up to my previous project.

So unlike Richelle, even if I make a major change to the story while I’m drafting, I don’t go back. Here’s an example. I fast-drafted my next project, a middle grade adventure, this past April and realized the last week of the month that I had missed an opportunity for a mystery element to the story that would tie in really well with the main character’s arc. I was 32,000 words in to a 38,000 word draft when I realized this and the change not only required a bunch of tinkering with little things, but a whole series of new really fun mystery/problem-solving scenes that didn’t exist in the draft I had nearly finished. I literally jotted the new mystery subplot down in my Messy Synopsis document and kept writing the final 6,000 words just like I’d already made the change. That allowed me to get to the end of the month/end of the story, and reach my goal without being sidetracked by what will be a lengthy revision. Since I typically spend about six months doing the prewriting exercises for a book, I was surprised that this fun subplot didn’t occur to me until I was writing. But hey, plot twists happen in real life too.

One technique that has worked really well for me as I fast-draft is a revision spreadsheet. My brain is constantly trying to sabotage me brainstorm new totally fabulous plot bunnies, and having a place to jot them down gets them off my mind so that I can focus on the task at hand–writing the draft. The great thing about this is that when I get to the end of the draft, I already know what I’m going to work on for my first pass revision. I group the items on the list by theme and sort them by size so that when I do start revising, I can tackle some easy fixes first until I get into the flow. Does it sound like I play a lot of mind games with myself while I write? Because I totally do.

The Bottom Line: Both Pennies agree that whichever way you choose to move through your first draft, make sure that you keep moving forward. After all, the most polished half a novel in the world is still only half a novel.

Tune in next week when we start to look at the long, exciting process of revising your novel!

MYC: Two Steps to Make the Saggy Middle Berry, Berry Good

Blackberries in a pottery colander

 

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 covered Facing the Blank Page. This week, I’ll discuss the “saggy middle”.

Note: Handy list of Master Your Craft topics so far.

The “saggy middle” happens to the unsuspecting at any time. Some are struck down during plotting or drafting, others during revising.

But if your story is suffering from a lack of baking powder, there’s hope!

Blackberries in a pottery colander
Fixing the saggy middle is as easy as picking blackberries. © Laurel Decher, 2017.

The middle doesn’t have to stay a muddle. Managing the middle is very much like blackberry picking. There are two basic rules.

A. Make decisions. The middle of any story can look like vast, uncharted territory, but there’s really only so much room. If you can’t tell how much, try fitting your scenes into a recipe–a story structure–that appeals to you. (See Resources below).

Choose dark, sweet-smelling blackberries that give to the touch. You want scenes that excite you and:

  1. develop the story you want to write,
  2. tie into your theme, and
  3. show your main character’s growth/failure.

That way your plot is always flavored with juicy goodness!

B. Keep on picking. Don’t get so caught up finding the perfect berry patch/story shape, that you stop putting scenes in your story. As long as you keep on, you’ll eventually get enough of the good stuff. When it’s early in the writing process, ripe scenes are mixed in with undeveloped, green “berries”. Leave them until later. When it’s late, watch out for old berries (read: dried-up story “darlings”) and wasps (apparently unsolvable barriers that yield only to patience and calm).

Don’t let the deciding make you stop picking. You don’t have to visit every blackberry bush in your neighborhood to get the overview. If it looks like a blackberry, (see short list above), put it in.

Resources:

Use these wisely, writer friends! If you find one that works, run away and WRITE. Reading about berry picking does not a berry cobbler make.

Darcy Pattison’s list of 23 ways to fix the saggy middle: draws from the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, A list of handy Act II “meta-metaphors” via Syd Field for the outline averse among you, and a quick refresher of Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure, a.k.a. what each Act in the story is for.

Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: helped me see the connection between the story, i.e. the character’s necessary growth to overcome a weakness or release themselves from a lie, and the plot, i.e. the series of events that happen in the book for the hero to achieve or fail at the physical/external goal. She shows how to draw from the “Story Core” to populate your plot.

James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle: the book on what to do when you get to your story’s exact middle and how it helps you shape the rest of your story. Most of my highlighting is from Chapter 5 “The Magical Midpoint Moment”.

Writing Excuses 15-minute podcast. Episodes related to the saggy middle for outliners, discovery writers, and some-of-eachers:

  • Q & A on Outlining and Discovery Writing talks about outlining scenes, index cards, when to stop outlining, and whether the writing process changes for every book
  • Creating Great Outlines covers a variety of outline techniques from a list of the “details you’re afraid you’re going to forget” to extensive outlines as long as a middle grade book, and outlining backwards.
  • Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft is about revising once you have a draft, but it’s also a handy list of things to do with the middle of your story to make it more fulfilling. Try/Fail cycles, fulfilling story promises, introducing new characters too late in the story.

Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Tricky Plot Bunnies.

photo of Laurel Decher

LAUREL DECHER writes stories for middle graders about things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany.

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