Monthly Archives: June 2011

Chemically Balanced: building even characters

We have a pool.  It’s refreshing on hot days, fun when the kids want to hang and a great way to get exercise.  It’s also work.  We have to clean it (amazing how much dirt and leaves get in the water even with a cover) and maintain the chemical levels.

Chlorine is the biggy.  If this level is off, it doesn’t even pay to try to balance the ph.  Often, successfully perfecting the chlorine to water ratio is enough to pull the other levels into balance.  Yet Chlorine can’t keep the pool clean solo. 

Sounds a bit like our MCs, doesn’t it?

As writers, we must balance the development of our characters.  If the super fabulous MC ends up with a wimpy best friend or love interest, readers will mutiny.  As a whole, characters must be a good fit, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

They must complete each other like puzzle pieces. 

MC has an Achilles heel.  Counterpart must somehow make up for that.

Sounds easy, right?  Logically, yes.  Execution-wise?  Not so much.  Balancing our characters is a nuanced process.  Readers are tired of the cheerleader falling in love with the science geek because he treats her better than the quarterback.  That kind of nerd-gets-awesome mentality is so 80’s.

Get creative with your chemistry.

I recently beta read an amazing novel about two science geeks.  The MCs were balanced, yet complementary.  The power inequality wasn’t there, as is so often the case in work by aspiring writers.

In my opinion–whatever that’s worth–here’s a few common traps to avoid.

  • Poor meets rich and all is well.
  • Social geek woos social goddess.
  • Big and buff protects fragile flower.

I understand that readers need to root for their MCs, but I’m inclined to enjoy a more balanced union between characters that doesn’t feel so against-all-odds-underdog-comes-out-on-top just because it makes for good conflict. 

In real life, we don’t buy into these relationships.  Those that form because it’s cool and exciting usually fade to nothingness in a short time.  Unless, of course, there is something more.  Relationships must be realistic, even in fiction.  Each partner must give and take.  Each counterpart must fulfil a need for the other half.  And each need must be something more than having the rich dude, the super goddess or the quarterback.

Having a super strong MC who outshines all supporting characters is a bit like dumping a gallon of bleach into a pool when the ph level is off.  It is not refreshing, fun or helpful in any way.  It simply throws the balance so far out of whack, as to make the pool–our stories–unusable.

Readers, are you tired of one-sided relationships that feel more fantastical than a sci-fi novel?  What kinds of relationships do you like to read about?

Writers, how do you balance your characters to keep the end relationships realistic and satisfying?


Bad Innings vs Great Beginnings

Middle Son had baseball tourneys all weekend.  At ten, it’s his first year on the traveling league.  His team held its own, winning two of four games.

However, one game…yeah, that one…

After the first inning, the score was 12 – 0.  And we weren’t ahead.  We had some bad pitching and more than a handful of errors. 

Parents were crabby.  The kids were dejected and the coaches not thrilled.  Sports are as much a head game as they are a physical competition.  Psychologically we had already lost.

You won’t be surprised to learn that writing is exactly the same way.

A bad beginning leaves a bad taste in the mouth of our readers.  It can send them packing up their lawn chairs and sunflower seeds, already convinced there is nothing left to hold their interest. 

All too often, I’ve heard writers ask if they could send a random chapter for a submission.  Uhm, no.  Not unless you’re writing a nonfic.

Readers–of which agents and editors are–want to start with the scoreboard at 0-0.   If chapter one is not your strongest chapter, it shouldn’t set the tone of your entire novel.  You need a new beginning.  One that hits a homerun and keeps the crowd excited. 

Our little guys made quite the comeback in this game.  They didn’t win, but they made some great plays, hit some sticks and cut down on their error rate.  The next four innings were a blast to watch and not at all expected after the first bad inning.

But unlike spectators at a Little League game, agents and editors don’t have to stick around to see if you find our groove.  If we don’t throw a strike in the first inning, they’ll call us out and move on to the next promising team.

How important is your first page?  Your first paragraph?  First sentence?  Have you ever put a book back on the shelf when the first inning promised to be a wash? 

Curious minds want to know.

What Color Is Your Novel?

I planted my garden over the weekend.  This is no small feat, as I love flowers and designed a backyard with several flower beds.  Over the course of six hours, Dear Daughter and I picked out and planted more than 250 flowers.  Down from previous years.  Two summers ago, we planted well over 450 when all my beds were new and we hosted my in-laws 40th wedding anniversary party.

That year, I filled my gardens and pots with annuals.  Last year, I spaded in a few dozen perennials in addition to the annuals.  Other than rearranging a few of my flowers and bushes around the backyard, I figure 250 will be my yearly average from here on out.

I love gardening.  I love the feel of the dirt in my fingers–not so much under the fingernails–and the smell of it.  I love, love, love the end product, when color splashes across the landscape and sets the mood.

Personally, fiery red, dazzling oranges and brilliant yellow is my favorite color scheme.  Dear Hubby enjoys the calming blues and purples.  Dear Daughter picked pink for this summer’s theme. 

Color plays a huge role in how we feel and I enjoy the ever-changing emotions as my landscape blossoms from one year to the next. 

Our novels, too, evoke specific feelings.  Some are dark and angry while others are snuggly warm.  Some writing calms us, while other stories spark our imagination and ignite new passions.

I just finished my young adult novel.  It’s dark and dangerous.  It raises the hair on the back of my neck and makes my heart ache.  Yet I wouldn’t call it black.  Rather a deep purple.  Bruised, yet multi-faceted if you look close enough.  Iridescent like the breast of a hummingbird. 

When the light catches it just right, it should shimmer with hope.

What color is your novel?

In Which I Retire.

Thirty-nine might be a bit young to retire, but I kind of did that yesterday.

After much debating with my wonderful DH, I sold off my preschool and retired from real-life work.  Okay, I’ll still advocate for divorcing families and kids when the need arises, but for the most part, I’m now a full-time writer.

And to that end, I sat in my newly dusted office with my mug of hazelnut coffee and my net book for most of the day.  I got two chapters written on my WIP and all of my critiques completed for my crit partners.  I also coerced convinced a writer friend to beta for me and already got her amazing and helpful feedback. 

My YA is thisclose to getting sent off to Agent Awesome.  And my chapter book WIP is thisclose to being a complete first draft. 

Retirement couldn’t be better…well, not until DH retires, that is.  That is when we’ll tour the world on his golf cart while I pen amazing novels. 

Anybody else have retirement dreams?  Anyone living them?


Writer’s Training

Today Dear Daughter begins driver’s training.  She’s thrilled beyond words to start this part of her life’s journey.  For two weeks she’ll learn the basics in the classroom portion.  When to stop, when to yield, when to merge.  Upon her 15th birthday, she’ll have the pleasure of taking her written test.

A straight “A” student, she’s already passed the exam in her head.  She’s not worried about her ability to answer the questions correctly so she can receive her permit.  Then watch out world, she’ll be road-ready–with a parent–until she completes behind the wheel in another year and takes her actual test.

She’s five foot nothing and fearless.  To her, driving is coveted.  It’s something she looks forward to doing in a way Eldest never did.  For DD, her permit and license represent freedom and success.  For Eldest, it was simply a natural part of growing up.  Something you do so your parents don’t have to drive you to band practice. 

He’s conservative: DD is ready for a cross-country road trip–or cruising the square, at the very least.

Our writing journey is similar.  At some point in our lives, we look at books in a different way.  We see them as a vehicle to another future, and so we begin our own training.

Writer’s training.

Some of us are fearless and just know we’ll succeed.  We never doubt that our novels will take us on a cross-country trek, so we begin the journey with a grand road trip in mind.  Others fall into writing as a means to an end. 

Regardless, we all go through writer’s training. 

Do you remember the moment you decided to write?  How have you trained for your journey, both in the classroom and behind the wheel?  What kind of driver writer are you: fearless and bold or quietly clocking the miles to success?

Curious minds want to know.

What’s Your Writing Vision?

And no, I don’t mean hitting the best-seller list and appearing on Oprah.

Middle Son’s batting average this baseball season has been disappointing.  It was as if all his ball savvy had disappeared from one year to the  next.  He wasn’t aggressive when approaching a grounder and backed off pop flies.  He’d either under-throw, over-throw or just plain miss his mark.

Slow on the uptake, I said, “Self, maybe this kid can’t see.”

Sure enough a trip to the eye doctor proved the need for glasses.  They arrived two days ago.  When we walked out of the office and into the world, my heart broke.  Middle’s face lit up.  He slid his glasses down his nose and popped them back up–a huge grin lighting his face.

He could see.

His eyes are fairly bad, but until baseball, we didn’t have a clue that he was struggling.  He didn’t squint.  He never complained.  He lived a normal life.

But his normal was fuzzy and blurry and had quirky depth perception.  And nobody knew.  Not even he.  It hurts my heart to think of what he thought was normal. 

Writers, we’re guilty of this ourselves.  When we start out, we know nothing about the business.  Our vision is fuzzy and blurry and has quirky depth perception.  We have no freakin’ idea what the real world of writing is all about. 

Across the board, we just don’t understand that we truly cannot see.

Writing solo or hiding in the proverbial writer’s closet only enforces our skewed vision.  We have no way to gauge our perception from reality.  And this, my friends, is why I think it’s so important to step out of the closet and join a writing community.

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me which community you join as long as you feel comfortable within it and begin to participate.  I will, however, plug Agent QueryConnect as being THE TOP WRITING COMMUNITY on the net.  So does Writer’s Digest.  In their annual throw-down, Agent Query was listed as #7 for overall writing sites.  Pretty impressive, in my book.

Yet even more impressive is the quality of the community itself. 

Before joining AQ, I was a closet writer.  I had yet to wear my new frames.  Not that I didn’t get the industry.  I was actually fairly industry savvy by this point.  What I had missed in my fuzzy, messed-up world was that there is far more to writing than the basics. 

Writing is an emotional, social and mechanical journey.  There is craft and there is community.  Growth and development must occur across the board for a writer to be fully prepared for the biz. 

I’ve met some great crit partners via AQ.  And even though I’d published in the short market before joining, my writing is much better now than before I joined.  Yet I had no clue that my writing could be so much more.  I did, after all, have credits to my name.  I never dreamed this meant I still had a ton to learn.  I was blind to the quality of my work. 

Being on Agent Query Connect also taught me the value of relationships.  Not industry contacts, but honest to goodness friendships.  It has allowed me to feel comfortable with who I am as a writer and take pride in this fact.  When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a writer. 

A writing community is not another closet, one populated by like-minded individuals.  It’s a lifestyle.  Try on a few writing communities until you find a good fit.  Then participate.  When you do, you’ll be just like Middle.  You’ll slide your glasses down, then pop them back into place.  For the first time, you will honestly see.

I promise you won’t be disappointed.

How about you?  What is your go-to community?  Where did you find them, and how do we?  What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned from being a part of a good writing community?

Tell me, what is your writing vision?  Curious minds want to know.

Writing Across Age Groups: friend or foe?

“What do you write?”

The question is asked often and a confusing one to answer depending on the individual receiving the info. 

The short answer is that I write for kids.  The long answer is that I write for all ages of kids.  I have manuscripts floating around in my brain–and on paper–for cute board books, quiet picture books, whimsical chapter books, mysterious middle grades and dark young adult novels.   

The general feeling in writing circles is that what you first pub in is where you’ll continue pubbing.  This advice is fine for writers of adult fiction who write by genre.  “Love what you first pub, because that’s the genre you’ll stay in for a good long time.  An entire career, maybe.”

By professional standards, it typically takes about ten years to grow a writer.  While some writers blow the covers off this theory, the timeline holds true for the majority of authors.  Like all things, it takes time to build a brand–something that is hard to do if one genre-hops before being truly well-established.

My DH and I go through this every time we shop for bathroom supplies.  He grew up with one kind of toothpaste, I grew up with another.  We’re both loyal to our brands.  Yet I’m sure Crest didn’t come on the scene in one day and become the Chosen One.  Nor did Colgate. 

Even now, these nationally recognized brands vie for market share by adding new elements.  It’s the same brand, just in cinnamon or lemon.  It’s the same refreshing goodness, but this time with baking soda and whitener. 

Which leads me to my dilemma.  I don’t write Original Crest Paste.  I write all their off-shoots.  Combined, I’m a brand.  Just parceled out a bit to smaller pockets of users. 

Is this a good thing or bad thing?

I’m not sure.  In some ways, I think it’s awesome.  I get the freedom to write what strikes my fancy.  I get the freedom to explore all avenues of lit that I grew up loving.  But it can make branding a little more difficult. 

For instance, it will be a good fifteen years before my board book audience is ready to read my dark YA.  The loyalty will not carry over unless they literally go from cutting teeth on my first books to learning to read with my chapter books to hitting puberty with my older reads.  And this can happen.   Truth be told, I want it to.    

Yet, it also poses another question: should my middle grade audience (wherefore art thou, audience?) have access to my vastly different YA material? 

I’ll just go ahead and admit.  As a mom I would be mortified if my fourth-grader brought home a steamy YA.  But it can happen if authors build their brands right and kids want to read everything ever written by Author Awesome. 

I see this happening already as traditionally adult-pubbed authors cross over to the juvenile lit arena.  My Middle Son is enthralled by Patterson’s The Dangerous Days of Daniel X series.  When he reads through all of Patterson’s kid books, he’ll want to read some of his older material–stuff that’s totally inappropriate for a ten-year-old.  Wildly inappropriate. 

So, dear readers and parents of readers, what do you think about this?  How do you feel about authors who span age groups?  Are there certain lines that can be crossed, while other lines should be firmly drawn in the sand?

And writers, do you feel boxed in by the “pick a genre” adage or does it help you focus your creative energy?  Are you a genre/age group hopper?  If so, do you fear that this will limit your natural inclination and over-all success? 

Share your experiences, as curious minds want to know.


Ode To Rain

Enough Already.

Series Writing is Like an Umbrella

This post is inspired by a fellow scribe tagging me in a “Writing is like” challenge.  It’s also inspired by the crummy weather that continues to plague my little corner of the world.

It’s been pouring on our little prairie–again.  Over the past weeks, I’ve witnessed people pop open umbrellas while they go about their business.  The thin, waterproof fabric repels rain, keeping the user dry and happy.

Not a planner, I usually get caught without so much as a hood to cover my head.  By the time I reach my destination, I usually look like a hamster that fell in the toilet.

This non-planning/pantster mentality applies to my writing.  Outlines scare the bejeebies out of me and I don’t stick to them anyway.  But an umbrella, now that might work.  I’m still outside in the elements, trekking my merry way from point A to point B, but without contracting Drowned Rodent Syndrome. 

Since writing a series is much different from penning a single title, I knew I needed some sort of framework.  One massive story arc to cover the series and little story arcs to encompass each individual book.  You can read about it here if this is new to you.

I drew my big arc on the top of my page.  Along the bottom edge, I drew lacy arcs from the starting point to the end of my series.  Hmmm, it looked suspiciously like an umbrella.  To complete the effect, I sketched in spokes that radiated from each point to the middle of the top arc.

Yep, definitely an umbrella top.

Series Umbrella In Progress

On each spoke, I penned a key phrase summing up the resolution of each book.  I titled the mini-arcs with one word conflicts.  Everything tied nicely together.  Except…

…the handle. 

While my umbrella top summarized my over-all premise–inciting incident, MC’s progress and ultimate conclusion–it didn’t really address the antagonist.    My umbrella was incomplete, because even though I had an overarching premise, a physical antagonist was still necessary.  One central evil that propelled my MCs forward.  A villain to defeat, if you will.

This upped the stakes and gave me something to focus on.  Now when I write, I’ll be able to visualize exactly where each story must begin and end, how the conflict relates to the over-all arc and what central conflict my MCs are up against.

I’m still not writing to an outline.  Each chapter book within the series will be allowed to pants it’s way onto my keyboard.  But, thanks to my umbrella, I won’t get halfway through my journey and realize I started out for the grocery store when I really should have been on my way to a photo shoot. 

And we can all picture what that would look like if I got caught unaware in a storm. 

What tricks do you use to keep your writing focused? 

Reading Style Impacts Writing–at least for me.

Like all things in life, I’ve come to realize there is more than one way to skin a cat read a book.  Not that I ever…okay, yeah I have, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

I tend to read from first page to last page.  I skip description and passages of serious character introspection.  Don’t shoot me, but it’s true.  I think I read this way because my imagination is quite stubborn and requires very little outside direction.

Tell me there’s a garden and I immediately picture the entire thing, laid out and ready for use.  If the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush is integral to the story, drop it in there.  And nothing more.  When you do this, my brain files away the item that was special enough to be mentioned. 

When you fill in the garden with every single plant, every scent, every color and every texture, I’m guaranteed to skip over your words.  Then if there’s something important in the midst of all that detail, I’ll miss it and won’t be happy at the end of the book when the ornamental, miniature, purple-flowering hedge bush was the source of the poison. 

Why?  Because, in my mind, it got lost.  My attention, that is, not the bush.  That was always there waiting to be used during the “ah ha” moment. 

Ironically, Eldest just informed me he likes when authors fill in the voids of his imagination.  “I love when everything is described so I can see what people look like and what, exactly, is happening.”

He would hate me as a writer.  I don’t describe much at all.  Case in point, in my YA (that I just finished editing last night, go me!)  I barely describe my MC at all.  She has blonde hair–unlike her parents–and her eyes are the color of the sky just before it snows.  That’s it. 

Pretty ambiguous.  Yet, I visualize her perfectly.  Likewise, none of my critters have complained that they don’t know what she looks like.  Because of this, I assume they, too, have also visualized her based on her actions, emotions and carefully placed commentary along the way.

For instance, she pulls her hair back into a pony tail when she doesn’t have time to shower in chapter 2.  Her hair can be anywhere from a sleek, chin-length bob to a butt-brushing cascade of curls.  I never say. 

Personally, I don’t care–at least until they cast her for a movie.  My readers can see my MC any way they want to envision her.  She can have wide, child-bearing hips or be super slim.  Her skin can be pale as cream that rises to the top of the milk, mahogany brown or any shade in between.  It really doesn’t matter to me. 

Except the eyes and hair.  Those two details come into play waaaaaay at the end of the book.  Which is why I took the time to describe them.

Why do I hate long passages of inner musing?  Because I like to read between the lines.  I like to feel so connected to a character that I intuitively “get” them and why they do things.  When I am told, again and again, what the MC is thinking, deciding or feeling, I get bored with him.  He becomes less three-dimensional and morphs into a teacher. 

It’s as if the author is telling me to pay attention.  “Now, get ready, here comes something important.”  and “Oh yeah, in case you didn’t get it the last time around, here’s what is really happening now.”

And the villainous explanation at the end, when the MC is tied to the railroad tracks with a 9mm gun pointed at her head?  Those I skip on principle.  If a writer didn’t show me motives and opportunities along the way, I have no interest in getting them in dialogue just to wrap up the ending.

Because of my cosmic dislikes when I read, I’m uber careful not to pen them into my own novels. 

How about you?  How do your reading likes and dislikes affect the way you write?  Can writers become too stubborn in this mindset?  If so, how?

Curious minds want to know.