14 Lessons from RWA14: #2, Reactions

This lesson was probably the biggest eye-opener for me.

Whenever something important happens in your novel, your character’s reaction should happen in this order:

  1. Emotional reaction (often shown through physical change)
  2. Mental reaction (shown through thoughts or speech)
  3. Action

For example, your character comes home to find the door locked. He first scrunches up his face to show confusion. Then he thinks, “That’s weird. I thought Bob was home.” And finally, he goes to look in the window to see if there are lights on.


14 Lessons from RWA14: #1, Coincidences

My brain is full after 4 awesome days at RWA14, but I’m going to try to share the top 14 things I learned in 14 different posts. This is the first.

According to James Scott Bell (who is truly a master when it comes to craft), you should never use coincidences to help your main character. You should only use them to complicate his situation.

What does this mean? It is not okay for your main character to suddenly discover that the key he needs to save the universe just happens to be identical to one that is hanging by his back door. It is okay for him to discover that the key he needs to save the universe just happens to be identical to one that is usually hanging by his back door, but that his brother accidentally took this key with him. On an airplane. To a rainforest. In South America.

Why is this a problem? The first one makes the reader think you are being lazy, while the second makes them think, “What bad luck!”

Writing Process Blog Tour

I was tagged in the Writing Process Blog Tour by Kelly Jones, author of Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer (coming from Knopf in 2015).

Here are my answers:

What am I currently working on?

Hmmm. I’m currently working on a YA novel set in Norfolk, UK in 1936.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My debut novel, 5 TO 1, kind of crosses genres and this one does too. It is a lot like Historical Fiction, except that I’ve changed certain elements of history so I suppose that makes it Alternate History. With both of my books, I started with the idea of asking, “What if X changed?” For 5 TO 1, I wrote about how this would make the future of India different and for my current novel, I’m writing about how this would change the past.

Both of my novels are half verse, half prose told in two alternating POVs.

Why do I write what I write?

I wrote several novels of several different genres before I wrote and sold my debut novel. In the end, my debut ended up being a combination of them which turns out to be what works best for me. I love writing verse, but I also love writing prose, and so being able to do both in one story is perfect for me. Also, I’ve discovered that I like using settings that require a lot of research which is strange because that is kind of like saying you LIKE doing homework!

How does my individual writing process work?

I usually come up with the idea first, which for me, is often the concept plus setting. Once I have that, I write a full synopsis of the idea so I can see if it works. Then I break that synopsis up into chapters and start writing.

I rarely write in order. Sometimes, I write one whole POV first and then start the next. Sometimes, I write the beginnings of both and then the ends. Basically, I write whatever scene I am in the mood to write. My first drafts are crazy short so I do a lot of revising.

So that’s me. I’m tagging two more authors who’ll be sharing their answers with you next week, so be sure to visit their blogs!

authoress Authoress is the secret mastermind behind Miss Snark’s First Victim. She writes YA and MG science fiction and fantasy and is represented by the fabulous Josh Getzler of the Hannigan Salky Getzler Agency.
renee Renee Ahdieh is a writer of young adult books. Her life goals include becoming Twitter-verified and discovering what really matters. Her love for books, music, salsa dancing, and Sriracha knows no bounds, as does her passion for college basketball. She lives in North Carolina with her long-suffering husband and their tiny overlord of a dog. Her novel THE WRATH AND THE DAWN, a reimagining of The Arabian Nights, will be published by Penguin/Putnam in 2015.

The perils of aiming for quantity

Anyone who has participated in Nanowrimo knows how it feels to try to meet a word count goal each day, but the problem with aiming for quantity is that you often end up with a lot of filler. This is fine if you’re spending the next few months editing. It’s not if you think you have a completed book on December 1st.

As a verse writer, I must get the same message across in one sentence that a prose writer might take several sentences to accomplish. Because of this, I’ve become very attune to redundancy. For example, I recently read a sentence that went something like this:

The car lurched back and forth as it travelled across the many divots in the bumpy road.

There’s nothing wrong with the sentence except that it’s telling us the same thing three times:

  1. The car is lurching back and forth (so the road is either rough or the driver is drunk).
  2. There are many divots in the road (therefore the road is bumpy).
  3. The road is bumpy.

Additionally, we’re being told that the car is travelling which is already obvious from the previous lines that were discussing a character on a car ride.

When you aim for a high word count, a sentence like the one above is the kind of thing you may end up with. But what if you tried to say the same thing in the least possible number of words? What if you simply said:

The car lurched through the divots in the road.

Or, with a metaphor:

The car ping-ponged over the divots in the road.

This last line is 10 words instead of 17. This means that, if you had a 75,000-word book, you might be able to edit out 30,000 of these words. Think about it: 30,000 words of filler. That’s 30,000 opportunities for your reader to tune out because they’re not engaged. Is that what you want?

Weighing goals and stakes

scaleIn every story, the main character has something they want (goal) and something they have to lose if they don’t get it (stakes). These two things sit on a scale something like is shown on the left.

The number one rule when it comes to balancing these two is that the goal must outweigh the stakes. The reader will believe that the main character must risk his life in order to save the life of his father, but he will not believe that he must risk his life in order to get a ham sandwich.


The forgotten character

In the last couple of months, I’ve heard the same piece of advice from 3 reputable sources therefore I’ve decided there must be some truth to it. The advice is this:

Great books have intriguing settings

Think about it. How many of you read Harry Potter because you loved Hogwarts? How many of you watched the movies so you could see Hogwarts and then got on a plane and flew to Orlando so you could then STAND INSIDE a mock Hogwarts castle? Don’t get me wrong; the books are great too. But the setting of Hogwarts is as interesting as the characters and that adds a whole new level of awesome.

This same thing is true of many other great YA books. We love Anna and the French Kiss because it’s set in France and we love The Name of the Star because it’s set in London and we love The Hunger Games, not because we want to LIVE in the districts, but because we are fascinated by them and how they came to be.

I’m not saying that we can’t love a book that’s set is a regular town, but if you have the option, find a way to make your setting special. Make it unique and interesting and yet flawed in a fascinating way. Basically, treat it like a character.

Making it Harder and Worse

I was sitting in a workshop at RWA and suddenly… WAM! I was Gilligan getting hit in the head with a falling coconut. I knew all about making things worse for your main character but what hit me was this: what I’ve been doing was NOT making it worse. I was making it harder and this is not the same thing. Let me explain.

I thought making it worse meant adding extra obstacles on the path to the goal. So, if Mary needed to walk 5 miles to get milk from the store, I was adding snow and then a shorter deadline and then a broken leg and a heavy dog that needed to be carried along the way. These things all make Mary’s goal more difficult to reach and they’re all necessary and great, but they’re not making it worse. They’re simply making the journey harder. Making it worse means gradually increasing the stakes. When I heard this, I was like, what? Gradually? Increasing? En Inglés, por favor? I thought you were supposed to use your first act to lay it all on the table so that the inciting incident would seem like the WORST POSSIBLE THING THAT COULD HAPPEN and so the reader would think THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST WIN.

I was so wrong. It’s supposed to go something like this:

Part 1: Establish a good reason for the main character to need X. For example, Mary just loves milk and she needs it every day with dinner.

Part 2: Take away X so your character is incited to get X back. For example, Mary opens her fridge and the milk is all gone. <insert gasp here>

Part 3: Add an obstacle on the path. For example, Mary starts on her way to the store and it begins to snow. DON’T STOP THERE. You also need to increase the character’s motivation. For example, tell us that the reason Mary needs milk for dinner is because she has a calcium deficiency and her bones might spontaneously crumble if she doesn’t get it.

Part 4: Add more obstacles to the path. For example, Mary finds out there is only one store open today and it closes early. Then, she trips and hurts her leg. You must increase the motivation here too. For example, Mary wants to win the love of Dave and she can’t unless she can give him milk at dinner too. (Dave obviously has ties to the Milk Board!)

Part 5: As a final step, add the proverbial straw to the camel’s back. For example, Mary realizes she forgot her money so she must trade something for the milk but the only thing she can trade is a limp dog that she must carry all the way to the store. This is usually the part when Mary gives up. But it is also the part when you need to give her the one thing she needs to go on and that one thing is not a guy with a car: it’s the final piece of motivation that pushes her to limp the rest of the way with the dog on her back. For example, tell us that Mary was deprived of milk as a child and only by having milk can she feel like she has escaped the milk-less tyranny of her past and learn to love Dave the way she needs to love him.

And now, I have a sudden craving for cookies. With coconut.

Elements of a Great Story

I often find it easy to explain why I don’t like a story. Predictable plot. Annoying characters. Premise as interesting as sticky paint. You would think I would also find it easy to identify why I do like a story, but I don’t. My recommendations usually sound something like, “Oh, it’s really good. It’s about X and there’s this thing, and the middle was so surprising.” Yeah, helpful. And people wonder why I don’t write reviews on Goodreads!

Of course, as someone who tries to write great stories, I thought it was important that I learn to identify what makes me like a story. And so, in the Holly Bodger tradition, I bring you a list:

1. A premise that interests me.
The important part about this line is the “me”. I do not like snakes. I do not like flying or daredevil things that involve heights. So, if your story is about a girl who para-glides to the top of a cliff so she can find a new breed of snake, someone might love it but that someone will not be me. It does not matter how great the character is or how twisty the plot is. I cannot enjoy this story.

2. A flawed main character I can relate to
I do not aspire to be the main character in a story. Yes, there are many people who read for this reason, but I read because I want to relate to the main character and I cannot relate to someone who is perfect or who has the perfect life except for one tiny thing. I want flaws. Flaws make me feel like I could be the main character.

3. A goal with no clear path to it
I’m a plotter but this isn’t just a plot thing. I really need to feel, right from the first act, that the main character wants something. I cannot stand stories about characters just wandering through life, waiting to see what happens. Just as important as the goal is the fact that there can’t be an obvious path leading to it. Everyone knows that there is a 95% likelihood that the main character is going to reach his/her goal. The beauty of the story is in the how. I think this may be one of the reasons I like romantic sub-plots. Realistic romance is not predictable.

4. Stakes that are greater than “I”
I don’t mind stories where the main character’s goal is self-serving, but I prefer ones where it’s not. These kinds of goals make it harder for the main character to just walk away. They also show that they’re not just thinking about their own wants constantly. Characters who think about their own wants get on my nerves a little and I don’t like to devote 8 hours of my life to someone who is getting on my nerves.

5. An antagonist I sympathize with
Anyone can create a big bad wolf but what’s the point? The real evils in life don’t come in black and white. Antagonists need as many shades of grey as protagonists. I love an antagonist who is doing a bad thing for a good reason. You know you can’t support these characters but there is a small part of you that wants to put them in a time machine and take them back to when they used to be good. That means there’s a small part of you that wants them to win and that is tension.

6. Accuracy in detail
This is a big one for me. I can be totally loving a story but if the author makes factual mistakes, it feels like they’re saying that they didn’t bother to do research because their readers are too stupid to know the difference. And guess what? Most people don’t like being called stupid.

What about you? What makes you think a story is great?

Book Promotion “Do Nots”

I am not going to start by telling you that you should listen to what I’m about to say because, well, see #2. Instead, let’s just call these tips from someone who cares.

The Do Not List of Online Book Promotion

1) Do not use your Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr/Whatever account for nothing but your own book promotion because you wrote the darn thing so you’re unbaised as they come. Plus, on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is like a bee buzzing ten miles away, and 10 is watching My Little Pony for 17 hours straight, this is a 22.

2) If someone else on Twitter/Facebook/Whatever says something nice about your book, do not use your account just to quote them. This is pretty much the online equivalent of wearing a t-shirt that says I AM THE BEST! and it makes people want to punch you. Yes, you can thank them and you know what? That just might make people curious enough to see what you’re thanking Person X for. That’s okay because you didn’t shove it down their throats.

3) Do not ask people to buy your book. Ever. Tell them you released a book. If you’re smart, tell them something “hooky” about your book so they will make the decision to buy it.  When possible, tell them you’re giving away a copy or doing a book signing. These are all fine. But for the love of all things blue and fluffy, do NOT tell them to buy it. Do not email everyone you know or post messages on Twitter/Facebook/Whatever. With the exception of possibly your own mother, it won’t work because most people are not actually mindless robots. Also, see #1.

4a) Do not ask people to rate your book well on Amazon/Goodreads etc… so your ratings will go up. If they loved it, they will rate it well. If they didn’t, well then your request might just make them want to rate it even worse because you annoyed them.

4b) NEVER ask people who haven’t even read your book to do #4a. This is the book review equivalent of “stuffing the ballot box” and if you do it, you deserve a lifetime of nothing but My Little Pony shows.

4c) NEVER EVER EVER ask/encourage/allow your family/friends to do items 1-4 because a) like you, they are biased so we won’t believe them anyway, b) we will probably think you asked them to do so which is like buying yourself the t-shirt from #2 and then asking your brother to give it to you for Christmas, and c) see mindless robot comment from #3.

To sum up: don’t be an asswipe.

Passive Writing

I learned more things from Before You Hit Send than my brain can process and I’m not going to attempt to tell you what they all were because a) I won’t be able to do it as well as Angela James, and b) you really should spend the $55 and take the course yourself.  I will, of course, tell you about the one thing that hit me like a blunt snow shovel on a warm July day.

When Angela covered the horrors of passive writing, I thought, Oh, I would NEVER do that! Then she pointed out that, when body parts perform actions, this is passive writing. Although this was news to me, I still thought, Nope. Not me!

But then I searched my manuscript and found a slew of lines like this:

“His eyes travelled…”

“His gaze rested…”

“His hands moved…”

I closed my manuscript, slammed my forehead on my desk twelve times, and then took an Advil with a shot of whiskey. Okay, not really (it was only ten times. Eleven tops!)

In case it’s not clear, in the above examples, He is not performing the action; his body parts are. By definition, this makes the writing passive and according to Angela, this makes it less effective. (Footnote: Angela probably used a much better word than effective. To find out what is was, TAKE THE DAMN COURSE!)

This one is a relatively quick fix but then most of the tips from Before You Hit Send are easy. The beauty of these tips is that, if you make all the changes she suggests, you’ll end up with a more polished manuscript that doesn’t make a potential reader/agent/editor want to use your book as kindling. Or, worse, as lining for a litter tray.