Wednesday, March 23, 2016

First Impressions of a Main Character

The moment the main character first crosses into the story.
The first time a reader meets the main character. It’s a great moment, as the reader first glances at who they’ll be following for the rest of the novel. As a writer, that can be an exciting moment to write, but it can also be intimidating. How does a writer give just enough information about the character, to get the reader interested, without slowing down the story?

Right now, I’m editing a novel written in first person. It was a new experience for me, as I tend to write in third person, but I really felt this character just needed to talk directly to the reader. As I dive into editing, (and try not to hyperventilate with all the comments I’m getting back from critique partners,) I started thinking about how the protagonist introduces himself/herself in first person. How does that brief impression start the reader out in different novels?

To look into this closer, I found several of my favorite first person middle grade novels to analyze the information given about the main character. There was another reason I wanted to look closer at this topic too. I’ve been getting some comments back about including more physical description of the main character and I wanted to see how other writers interwove that into the first chapter. The following is a couple of strategies that I noticed authors using in first person:

  1. Using other characters opinions to give a brief portrait of the protagonist- I saw this method a lot in first person books. Generally, it starts with the main character telling the reader that their father or mother says that they are <>. Katie Kelly uses this opening in Here’s the Thing About Me: Lucy Rose, when she notes that her dad says she’s a “smart cookie.” In Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, Jack Gantos gives a one second snapshot of his character using this method in the very first sentence. “At school, they say I’m wired bad, or wired mad, or wired sad or wired glad, depending on my mood and whatever teacher has ended up with me.”
  2. Explaining their name- I noticed a couple of first person stories that started with a brief explanation of where their name came from. In this method, the main character normally has an unusual name. In Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff, the beginning is dedicated to the mishap of how the character was named. In Lisa Yee’s Warp Speed, Marley the main character starts by telling us, “I share my name with a dog, a dead guy and a ghost. Is it any wonder my life sucks?”
  3. Comparing the character to the setting- I only saw this in one book, but I thought it was interesting enough to mention. In Polly Horvath’s Everything on a Waffle, the character compares her features to the landscape in her town on the coast of Canada with, “eyes like a summer storm.” It really sets the reader into the mood of the story and pulls them further into the setting, while developing the character.
  4. A situation that characterizes a yearning for the character- Some characters are too concerned about their current dire situation to tell us anything directly about themselves. But their situation tells a lot. For example, in Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, Nikki Maxwell tells us about her lack of a cell phone and how everyone else at school has a designer phone. She also further explains that she likes to draw and spends all her money on art supplies. This situation tells us that Nikki is embarrassed to be different from everyone else, that she likes art and it also tells us a bit about her personality in how she deals with the situation. Rather than be caught without the trending object, Nikki buys a used phone off Ebay and tries to pass it off as the designer item. Hilarity ensues.

I’m sure these aren’t the only ways to introduce a character in first person, and I’d love to hear about other methods or favorite first person books in the comments. What is your favorite thing to learn about a character in the first chapter?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Instead of a Resolution...

Dreaded Resolution Time!
I find that lots of resolutions have an expiration date. After a month or so those great lofty goals to eat healthier or go running more often, suffer a terrible death the first time I come across White Castle hamburgers or sucomb to my potato chip addiction... yet again.

So instead of writing about resolutions this year, I thought I'd make a list of new things to try. Feel your writing is in a rut? Rather than making uncharacteristic goals, it's better to simply add a new aspect to the experience.

  1. Write in long hand. I came across this in a BuzzFeed article about Neil Gaiman's writing process. The article notes that he feels writing in long hand allows him to process the writing in a more thoughtful manner, ending up with better draft in the end. I noticed he also leaves the left pages blank to jot notes. This is one of the things I'm trying this new year with a snazzy new blank Star Wars blank book and pen set my husband got me for christmas. (There's something so inspiring about having C3PO on your pen.)
  1. Start a writing schedule. While it's sometimes difficult to fit in, I love having a set time during the day to write. There can be a lot of creative ways to set this into a schedule, (although I'll admit sometimes it is pretty impossible.) But with writing longhand, a commute on a bus or metro can be writing time. I also find those long waits in bureaucratic lines to be really useful for plot points. For ideas on getting a writing routine, try out the amazing book, Rituals, which chronicles the work routines of different artists.

  1. Try a new planning structure. While sometimes planning structures work and then sometimes they just don't, try out a new plot structure. You never know what it could spark, and nothing says you have to stick to it rigidly. Some that I've found interesting are: The Snowflake Method, The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, The Three Act Structure.
  2. Try a new writing haunt. Write at home? Try a coffeehouse. Write at a desk? Try the couch with an afghan. Shaking things up a bit might also shake up your perspective.
  3. Take a walk. Don't worry, I'm not suggesting you start a new exercise regimen filled with crack of dawn sprints and raw eggs for protein afterwards. But taking a stroll could help loosen up some ideas that are stuck rattling around in your head. Or if you don't have time for that, fold laundry, do the dishes and keep a pad nearby for ideas.
Anyone else have new things they want to try in the New Year? I'm interested to hear. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tis the Season to be Editing

Ah, the holiday season. Stores have started hanging decorations and Starbucks has switched to their holiday cup design. And that makes me think... of editing. The time after NaNoWriMo when many writers start reworking manuscripts. Albeit, I'm not participating in National Novel Writing Month this year, but for anyone who is and is finding the prospect of editing daunting, I thought I'd write down some of my favorite methods of keeping editing interesting.

1. Read your manuscript out loud to your favorite stuffed animal. (To be fair, this one comes from my husband who thought my stuffed Darth Vader would be the perfect listening buddy. When it comes to editing, there will be no one to stop us this time.)

2. Cheryl Klein's Aristotle Plot Checklist. I love her thoughts on emotional plot and action plot. A completely fresh perspective to consider your novel from bird's eye view, particularly if you have a feeling that your plot is currently stuck together with duct tape.

3. For individual chapters, I know I mentioned this in a previous post way back, but I really find cutting a chapter apart into paragraphs and laying them out on the table useful. Obviously, this isn't necessary for every chapter or scene, but if I'm having trouble with a particular scene, I find it can jumpstart my brain.

4. Interviewing your character. This can be useful if you're stuck with a character's motivation or if the character really didn't take shape in the first draft. I've heard of people who do this verbally, but I prefer writing letters to my character and then switching ink color to have the character write me back. If your characters get terse with you, all the better, you're halfway to figuring out the problem.

5. Read the first couple of chapters and then the last couple of chapters. Blake Synder suggests this for scripts in his book, Save The Cat, but I think it's equally interesting for novels. Worried your character doesn't have a strong enough arc? Comparing the beginning to the end side by side can be a quick way to start examining this.

Obviously, these methods just scratch the surface when it comes to editing, but perhaps there's one or two that are useful. Anyone else have favorite editing methods that I didn't mention? I'd love to hear other's techniques!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Querying: The Epic Struggle

I've been querying for a couple months now after a fresh round of more edits. In addition to giving me time to consider all the reasons my manuscript could be rejected, it's also given me some time to step back from the query process and think about which strategies and resources have been the most helpful. For other writers who are also, #amquerying out there, I thought I'd share some of the things I found the most useful.


  1. Find books that you've loved in the past that are in the genre you're writing and use the acknowledgments or google to find out who represents those authors.
  2. Go to the #mswl feed on twitter to find what manuscripts agents are interested in right now. #agentwishlist also serves this purpose, but I haven't found it as useful. Plus if you go to the #mswl website, you can sort by genre, thus pulling up any agents that might be currently searching for something specific. Think of it as the personals ads for the publishing business. Maybe someday they'll even come out with a Missed Connections section. I would love to see what that would look like. (You: A well-edited sci-fi with steampunk accessories I noticed from across the room. I: An agent in search of well written steampunk adventure.) But I digress. I've had a lot of luck with this resource, I even got a full manuscript request and quickly from a posting, so this would be the number one resource I would suggest checking out. Lesser known is also, mswlparagraph, a more expanded version where you can peruse longer wishlists by agent.
  3. Publisher's Marketplace. I know, you have to pay a monthly fee. And that probably means you'll have to give up your sushi habit, or your potato chip habit, (don't judge me) to accommodate for it. But it's worth it. Publisher's Marketplace will list most deals for agents, (some aren't reported,) and this information gives you a much better idea if your book would be a fit for them than online interviews or agency websites because you can get a feel for the type of books they're interested in. For example, if they list middle grade on their website, PM can tell you if they've repped vampire trapeze artists or a story about a girl in drama club whose childhood best friend just betrayed her.

I'd love to hear about other resources and strategies others have used below in the comments. And good luck to anyone out there who is querying! 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Query Time

Yep. It's that time again. Querying time. I feel like I should be engaging in some type of superstitious activity to improve my chances,  i.e. surrounding myself in a four leaf clover made of lucky pennies. (Heads up of course.) Or maybe again, it could just be having a good story? To anyone else out there who's querying right now. Here's a wish to hang in there. You're not alone as you check your inbox every twenty seconds. The above image is meant to be inspirational and guide you to query glory. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Testing Your Characters: With the Myers Briggs Test

Photo by Brett Jordan licensed under Creative Commons
Attribution 2.0 Generic.
I have always loved personality tests. When I was younger, all I could find were those multiple choice quizzes in pop magazines, the ones that discovered deep secrets about you depending on if you selected all a's or all c's. I was always a “c” girl. But most of the topics of these quizzes weren't particularly interesting. I already knew I'm a bad kisser, and I was somewhat skeptical when I was told that my favorite date would be a romantic candlelit outing to an amusement park.

Luckily, when I was slightly older, I discovered the Myers Briggs test, which is like the mother load of personality tests, or possibly just a visit to one of my more clairvoyant Slovak relatives. This week, I started thinking about it again when I ran across some Myers Briggs posters that compare the personalities to characters in favorite shows/books like Firefly, Harry Potter and Dr. Who. I found these to be particularly accurate as I've always felt an affinity to River Tam and Professor Lupin anyways. So that got me thinking. Would Myers Briggs be useful for characters in stories?

I decided to try it out with the current WIP I'm working on. I didn't think it would be a good idea to take the test for every one of my main characters. Instead, I tried to look at each component and decide where my character would fall. Below are the steps I followed, in case anyone is interested in trying it out themselves. I can say I feel like it gave me a new perspective to view my characters.

  1. I looked at the wikipedia article on Myers Briggs, sliding down to the explanation of Introverted/Extraverted, Intuitive/Sensing, Feeling/ Thinking , Judging/Perceiving 
  2. For each character, I looked at the description and thought what my gut said about how they would react. (Can you tell I'm an Intuitive thinker?)
  3. For example, one of my characters, Anya, is a very quiet, logical thinker, highly observant and a good problem solver. Looking at each trait, I decided she must be an ISTJ, an Introverted, Sensory, Thinking Judger, or as this personality is traditionally given the name, “The Inspector.” I liked the names that come along with the results, it's almost like I'm setting up a game of Dungeons and Dragons and not a middle grade novel. Not that I would know about such things, other than what my parents told me and I learned from the Greenglass House by Kate Milford. One of my other characters, Isabel, is energetic, idealistic, and eager to help. For her, I ended up with ENFP, “The Champion” almost an opposite of Anya's personality, which is true from what I've written about them.
  1. You can find descriptions of each combination online. I like this site. Reading the descriptions, it made me think about my characters in new ways. I hadn't thought before about how Anya would probably want things in an organized manner, or Isabel might always try to reassure people rather then tell them the truth outright.

If you try this out, I'd love to hear about your results or anything new you learned about your character in the comments section!  

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Struggling with Slowing it Down? Some Thoughts On Pacing

If you're like me, and you're the type of person that scans twitter while cutting out polar bears for storytime and scribbles notes for stories on the scraps, you too may have pacing problems when you write. And maybe, what I'm about to say will be useful to you.

Specifically, I have a hard time slowing it down enough for readers to insert themselves comfortably into the story. (Unless your idea of comfortable is a crash landing like Luke Skywalker's landing on Dagobah.) In trying to slow it down, or at least not land in a swamp of words, I've come up with some ideas. I thought I'd share them for anyone else who's having problems out there. If you need to slow down a scene, if it's too speedy, try these on for size.
  1. Handwrite the Scene. I've found this to be extremely useful. My mom made me take typing classes during the summer back in the 1990's, (my mom, she was clairvoyant, she knew that whole computer thing was going to catch on,) so sometimes I type faster than I think. If your scene feels to fast, it might be worth it to try handwriting the scene from scratch on paper. Since you write slower than you can type, this method causes you to think more and get your head further into the scene as you're writing it than straight typing.
  1. Description. In general, description is the bane of my existence in writing. I tend to hate it as much as I hate those little cotton balls that they put in your mouth at the dentist's. But if your scene feels to fast, maybe it needs more description. As you're writing the scene, trying looking around at the setting, hearing sounds and noticing smells. What do the characters look like? All of these description based elements will slow down the pace a bit. They also help the reader get inside a story. So even though I struggle for two hours to produce lines like: “The slushie machine hummed in the silence.” In the end, those sentences are probably worth the extra time.
  1. Internal Dialogue. Bonus: this helps your reader connect with your character. And since it stops the clock on the action in the scene, it gives the reader a chance to adjust to events that are happening, process them and slow down the pace.
  1. Pause for tea. I am a huge advocate for tea. It has all those anti-oxidants in it, which I secretly think help with the writing process. Or maybe I just really like tea. Beyond that, stepping away for just a minute sometimes makes it easier to see details that can be added.
I hope, if you're having sprinting writing problems like me, these options will help slow it down. Let me know in the comments if you have your own thoughts or suggestions on pacing. I'd love to hear them.