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: Developing Supporting Characters

Master Your Craft

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 Developing Main Characters. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Supporting Characters.

The Supporting Characters’ Job

The purpose of a supporting character is to add depth to the protagonist by helping the reader understand how the main character interacts with others and reacts to situations. Also, supporting characters help move the plot forward.

What types of supporting characters do you need for your story? Well, that really depends on the goal that your main character must achieve.

Types of Supporting Characters

The Villian/Antagonist: Every story needs one! Often, the antagonist is a person (but it can be a disaster, technology, society, or even a main character) who fuels the conflict that the main character must solve to achieve her/his goal.

The Love Interest: This character adds tension and may be directly involved in the conflict. It also can serve some of the same functions as the antagonist and the BFF.

The Mentor: This character encourages the main character to develop the skills she/he needs to achieve her/his goal.

The BFF/Sidekick: This character may be needed to help the main character achieve her/his goal or may be around to help us understand the main character and her/his motivations.

Extras: Characters who would normally inhabit the main character’s world or who are needed to complete scenes. You may need many of these or none depending on your story.

Examples of Extras:

1) A child main character would normally have parents/a guardian.

2) In a classroom setting, there would normally be a teacher.

3) In a fight scene, there would normally be many fighters.

Often, these EXTRA characters only need minimal development and a minimal/no arc. But the other characters in your story need much development!

Next Step

After you’ve chosen what types of characters you need, you’ll need to interview the most important ones (the ones who must move the plot forward) using a process like the one in our previous post about Building Main Characters.

It’s often useful for your secondary characters have strengths related to your main character’s flaw.

Examples:

1) Your main character may have a supportive family that they don’t appreciate. A supporting character who comes from a broken home can help the main character see the error in her/his thinking.

2) Your main character may be very popular, but has superficial friendships. A supporting character who is more introverted, but a true friend, can help the main character understand what’s missing in her/his life.

I highly recommend The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus for fleshing out the relationships between characters. The front matter in both thesauri is extremely helpful for developing good characters that work together to make the story come alive.

 

Tips for creating good supporting characters:

  • Give each supporting character a defining characteristic. (Appearance, skill, quirk)
  • Make sure their voice is distinctive from other characters.
  • Don’t give characters similar names and avoid names starting with the same letter.
  • Main supporting characters should be layered and detailed, but do not take too much attention away from your main character.
  • Focus your writing about supporting characters on how their actions, traits, and what role she/he plays helps or hinders the main character from achieving her/his goal.
  • Limit your characters to those who are necessary to move the story forward.
  • Please give careful consideration to race/skin color when you write supporting characters. Stories with white main characters and darker-skinned support characters who do all the work (or even worse who are villians/bad guys) are not representative of the real world. Please consider every reader who might read your story and avoid stereotypes. (More on this in the post on Building a Main Character.)

Come back next Wednesday where we’ll discuss using this character development to start working out plot!

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.

MYC: Build Your Main Character

Master Your Craft

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 the Big Idea and using Creativity to help you Create Loglines. This week, I’ll discuss Developing Main Characters.

Character development is critical to your story’s success and one of your most important pre-writing activities. You can probably begin writing your story with only a sketchy plot, but if you start writing without “knowing” your main character(s), it will be difficult to create a memorable story that connects with readers.

Task: Create a main character that readers are willing to root for throughout your story.

Within the first few pages, you must find a way to make the reader care about what happens to your main character. How do you do that? Develop deep, multilayered characters. Even if every detail doesn’t make it to the page, knowing your character as well as you know yourself will make your story stronger.

To create an interesting main character the reader will care about, you need to know the answers to these questions.

  • What makes your character special (talent, ability, difficulty)?
  • What’s your character’s weakness/flaw (what must she/he overcome for the conflict to be resolved)?

To answer those questions, consider the four main layers that make a character whole.

The Layers That Make Up a Character

Think through all the layers of your character before you begin to write. Often my main character comes to mind almost completely formed. Sometimes, it takes more effort. In both cases, I often fix a pot of tea and interview my main character(s) early in the prewriting process.

  • Outside identity:  age, name, gender, race, skin color, quirks, physical features [eye and hair color, birthmarks, teeth, height, body size, voice, teeth (crooked, missing, braces), health status, outstanding features (lazy eye, big nose, ears that stick out, mole, scar, birthmark, lost limb)]
  • Inside identity:  personality, traits, religion, values, sexuality, intellectual ability, gender, fears, mental health, beliefs
  • Frame (what makes up the character’s world):
    • family structure (parents happily married? birth order? dysfunctional family? traditions?)
    • house rules (no opposite sex in the bedroom? shoes off at door? anything goes in this house? strict parents?)
    • foods (ethnic? home-cooked meals? take-out? packaged foods?)
    • Economic status: rich, middle-class, poor
    • Social status: popular, community-minded, philanthropic, troublemakers, elitists, reclusive
  • Voice: How your character communicates the story. This will overlap with all the above and we’ll be focusing more on voice later in the series, but here are a few ideas to jumpstart your character into a bit of dialogue.
    • Consider these together:
      •  Age and birth order: these help shape personality which give your character a unique perspective
      •  Maturity: this will influence your character’s reactions and attitude
      •   Sense of humor: fart jokes or Shakespearean pun
    • Now, consider how your character communicates.
      • Writes notes, letters, poetry? texts? face to face? avoids others?
      • Type of words: short and to the point? flowery?
      •  How does your character convey their message: sarcasm? jokes? direct? indirect?

Final Important Tips About Your Main Character

1. Avoid Stereotypes!

If you chose to ignore this advice (don’t do it!!!), turn the stereotype on its ear or balance the stereotype out by adding many details to give your character depth.

Examples:

  • nerdy smart person (balance: very friendly and outgoing, loves riding dirtbikes)
  • troublemaking poor person (balance: who makes trouble for all the right reasons)
  • sassy black girl (balance: with high values that she’s willing to stand up for)

More tips for avoiding stereotypes: https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-ten-ways-to-avoid-cliches-and-stereotype

2. Show/Don’t Tell!

Page after page of descriptions is a sure way to turn off readers. You definitely will need some telling, but try to convey details about your character through action or comparison.

Examples:

1. Character is an atheist (using action instead of telling)

Tell: She’d been an atheist from the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

Show: Even though her family still said grace before dinner, she’d given up on God the minute she found out her Grandma left all her money to a televangelist.

2. Character is white and artistic (using comparison instead of telling)

Tell: She was a white girl who loved to draw.

Show: She peeked into the classroom door to check out the other students before she walked in. Was she going to be the only white girl in the drawing camp?

I’ll end this post with a few resources. Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Supporting Characters!

Resources: Tips and Worksheets on Building Character

https://www.writingclasses.com/toolbox/character-questionnaire/gotham

http://www.epiguide.com/ep101/writing/charchart.html

http://niemanstoryboard.org/stories/14-tips-for-building-character/

http://fuckyeahcharacterdevelopment.tumblr.com/post/50825149893/character-sheets-and-character-creation

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT will be published in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME releasing August 2017. Connect with her on Twitter.