14 Lessons from RWA14: #14, Final Words

I still have a long list of tips from RWA14, but I’m going to close off with a quote from Ally Carter. This was said to her by an experienced author when she was still new and green:

Welcome to the yard, Meat.

This job is hard. No question. But what I love most about Ally’s quote is that it shows that we are all in this together, and for me, that’s what makes the journey worth it! {group hug}

UPDATE: You can read the rest of Ally’s advice here.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #13, Conflict

I went to an amazing session on conflict by RITA-winner Sarah MacLean. She had a ton of tips on conflict, but this one was by far the best:

Conflict lives in the but (one T).

For example, Jane loves Peter BUT they can’t be together because he’s engaged to her sister. Lisa wants to be a doctor BUT she can’t afford medical school. Mary wants chicken for dinner BUT they only have fish.

Try this for the main goals of your story and even for the goals of each of your scenes. There should always be a But (one T) and the bigger the But (one T), the bigger the conflict.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #12, Slow Openings

James Scott Bell listed several things that might cause a story’s opening to fall flat:

  1. Happy people in Happy Land. Yes, your opening scene is before the inciting incident, but that doesn’t mean it should start with no conflict. Sometimes, the best way to get this conflict is to cut chapter one and go straight to two. Sometimes, it requires that you add an extra character (even if minor) to spice things up.
  2. Too much backstory. We’ve all heard this but “too much” according to James Scott Bell is anything over one sentence in the first chapter. He said, “Act first, explain later. Readers will wait for an explanation if they are intrigued.” Your job in chapter one is to intrigue, intrigue, intrigue.
  3. Main character too alone or too still. The result of this is similar to #1. You need to show some kind of conflict right from the beginning. Think of it this way: if your reader spent the first chapter copying the main character’s actions, how excited would they be if they were waking up from a nap or staring outside at a landscape? The first chapter is an invitation to a party. Don’t start with elevator music.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #9, Strong Heroines

This advice came from a panel with Kristan Higgins (although I heard the same thing repeated in two other sessions).

There’s a fine line between a character who’s strong and a character who’s nasty. Readers are much less forgiving of the latter when the character is female.

I don’t like that this is true, but I totally agree that it is, both in books and in life. We want to write strong, female characters, and yet if we make them too strong, they become unsympathetic.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #8, Show & Tell

This advice was probably the first I’ve ever heard that actually explained when we should show and when we should tell.

Show when the emotion or mood changes. Tell when it doesn’t.

What this means is that, when you need to build up a new emotion or mood in your novel, you need to show how this comes about so the reader is entrenched in the new mood. When you start the next scene in this same mood (and this is a must), it’s acceptable to drop a telling reminder such as, “I still felt like crying,” because the mood has already been established.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #7, Admirable Goals

This lesson is short but very important.

Your main character’s goal must be admirable or her journey will appear selfish.

Think about it. If your main character’s goal is to be Homecoming Queen, it’s hard for readers not to think she’s a little shallow and self-centered. But if her goal is to help her best friend be Homecoming Queen, it turns her into a nice person who really cares for her friend.

This goes well with Blake Snyder’s advice on making sympathetic characters. He said the character should Save the Cat, not Save Herself!

14 Lessons from RWA14: #6, Stakes

This lesson is also from the great James Scott Bell. According to him, if you want your novel to have high stakes, then death must be overhanging for your main character. Death can mean one of three things:

  1. Physical death
  2. Professional death
  3. Emotional death

The first one is obvious. Think Katniss, Harry Potter, or any other main character who might die if they fail.

For the second one, if you’re a YA writer, this can be interpreted as any kind of loss of stature (for example, place on basketball team/cheerleading squad/honor roll).

The third one–in my opinion–is the toughest to pull off as it requires a) that the reader believe the consequences, and b) that the reader believe winning is important enough to warrant the consequences. For example, if a character said, “I’ll never be happy again if Blake doesn’t ask me to the dance”, the reader would need to believe a) that this character will actually be miserable for the next 80 years if she doesn’t get asked to the dance, and b) that going to the dance with Blake is worthy of this eternal misery. I personally think these kinds of stakes add a great extra layer when combined with #1 or #2, but I don’t find they’re high enough when used alone.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #5, Gaps

This advice comes from Ally Carter who is funny and sweet and gracious (and yes, I’m a HUGE fan of her books and I may have acted all giggly the first time I met her!)

Leave gaps–such as open endings and unanswered questions–for your fans to fill in.*

This is great advice because we writers sometimes think we need to put everything on the page. But often (like with W. Hale’s first name) our readers would prefer we leave some things to their imaginations.

*Quote has been paraphrased.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #4, Romantic Pairs

This lesson came from Sarah MacLean, although she was quoting the great Linda Howard:

If your hero is a firefighter, your heroine better be an arsonist.

I’ve heard this said in other ways before, but the way Howard put it is a hundred kinds of brilliant. The best romantic couples are the ones who start off so different, you just can’t possibly imagine them ever getting together. But at the same time, they are so in dire need of each other, you also can’t imagine them ever being apart.

14 Lessons from RWA14: #3, Villains

I went to an amazing session on writing villains by Allison Brennan, and came home with a ton of tips. This is the first:

Your villain must be better than your hero, otherwise your hero will look stupid. At the same time, your hero must be worthy of your villain, otherwise it won’t make sense for the villain to oppose him.

For example, think about Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. There is no question that Voldemort is stronger, more powerful, and better at magic. Every time Harry faces him, the reader immediately wonders how Harry could possibly win. But at the same time, Harry did win once when he was a baby and that is what makes him worthy of Voldemort. It’s also what drives Voldemort to destroy Harry (because no one has beaten him before).