Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Craft of Characterizing on the Page

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books in lots of weird genres like fantasy (Blood of Kings and Kinsman Chronicles), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website. You can also try two of her fantasy novels for free here and here.

On Monday, Stephanie talked about how to write characters who are different from each other. Today, I want to show you how that looks on the page. The best way to do that, in my opinion, is to take a look at examples from books. What it all comes down to, though, is knowing your characters so well that you can write dialogue, actions, and thoughts that show who they are. It also helps a great deal if you set them up to shine. Rather than have two characters standing around talking about a football game, invent scenes in which you can place characters so they will conflict with each other in some interesting way.

Let's look at some examples of characterizing on the page. In the first few examples, I put my observations in brackets beside bits that characterize, then gave a summary after each section.

Characterizing in Dialogue

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J. K. Rowling
        A lamp flickered on. It was Hermione Granger, wearing a pink bathrobe and a frown. [It's the frown that is so much her character. She disapproves of their actions.]
        “You!” said Ron furiously. “Go back to bed!” [Hermione rubs Ron the wrong way. He loses his temper with her a lot.]
        “I almost told your brother,” Hermione snapped, “Percy—he’s a prefect, he’d put a stop to this.” [She's throwing around threats. She does that a lot.]
        Harry couldn’t believe anyone could be so interfering.
        “Come on,” he said to Ron. He pushed open the portrait of the Fat Lady and climbed through the hole. [As usual, Harry is all about the job. He's got important things to do.]
        Hermione wasn’t going to give up that easily. She followed Ron through the portrait hole, hissing at them like an angry goose.
        “Don’t you care about Gryffindor, do you only care about yourselves, I don’t want Slytherin to win the house cup, and you’ll lose all the points I got from Professor McGonagall for knowing about Switching Spells.” [She wants them to behave. She wants to beat Slytherin. And she's even more annoyed that these boys might lose the points she earned, undoing the reward she deserves!]
        “Go away.”
        “All right, but I warned you, you just remember what I said when you’re on the train home tomorrow, you’re so—” [More threats.]
        But what they were, they didn’t find out. Hermione had turned to the portrait of the Fat Lady to get back inside and found herself facing an empty painting. The Fat Lady had gone on a nighttime visit and Hermione was locked out of Gryffindor tower.
        “Now what am I going to do?” she asked shrilly. [Hermione freaks out because she doesn't like the idea of getting into trouble. At this point in the series, she's a perfect person who can do no wrong--or so she thinks, anyway.]
        “That’s your problem,” said Ron. “We’ve got to go, we’re going to be late.” [Ron tells it like it is. Bluntly.]
        They hadn’t even reached the end of the corridor when Hermione caught up with them.
        “I’m coming with you,” she said.
        “You are not.”
        “D’you think I’m going to stand out here and wait for Filch to catch me? If he finds all three of us I’ll tell him the truth, that I was trying to stop you, and you can back me up.” [She's still thinking about herself and the rules and that's all that matters. Classically legalistic.]
        “You’ve got some nerve—” said Ron loudly. [Again Ron, loudly, points out the obvious.]
        “Shut up, both of you!” said Harry sharply. “I heard something.” [Harry, all about the job, still.]
        It was a sort of snuffling.
        “Mrs. Norris?” breathed Ron, squinting through the dark. [Ron is often terrified by lots of things.]
        It wasn’t Mrs. Norris. It was Neville. He was curled up on the floor, fast asleep, but jerked suddenly awake as they crept nearer.
        “Thank goodness you found me! I’ve been out here for hours, I couldn’t remember the new password to get in to bed.” [Classic Neville. Forced to sleep in the hall because he forgot the password. Didn't occur to him to go for help. He just makes the best of it.]
        “Keep your voice down, Neville. The password’s ‘Pig snout’ but it won’t help you now, the Fat Lady’s gone off somewhere.” [There is no "said tag" to prove this is Hermione, but we can tell by her instructive dialogue.]
        “How’s your arm?” said Harry. [Harry is often thoughtful, especially to unpopular people.]
        “Fine,” said Neville, showing them. “Madam Pomfrey mended it in about a minute.”
        “Good—well, look, Neville, we’ve got to be somewhere, we’ll see you later—” [Harry, all about the job.]
        “Don’t leave me!” said Neville, scrambling to his feet, “I don’t want to stay here alone, the Bloody Baron’s been past twice already.” [Neville might be the only person more terrified by lots of thing than Ron.]
        Ron looked at his watch and then glared furiously at Hermione and Neville. [Ron is easily annoyed and bluntly rude about it.]
        “If either of you get us caught, I’ll never rest until I’ve learned that Curse of the Bogies Quirrell told us about, and used it on you.” [Ron also likes gross threats.]
        Hermione opened her mouth, perhaps to tell Ron exactly how to use the Curse of the Bogies, but Harry hissed at her to be quiet and beckoned them all forward. [Harry's being all about the job cut off Hermione's attempt to be bossy.]
        They flitted along corridors striped with bars of moonlight from the high windows. At every turn Harry expected to run into Filch or Mrs. Norris, but they were lucky. They sped up a staircase to the third floor and tiptoed toward the trophy room.
        Malfoy and Crabbe weren’t there yet. The crystal trophy cases glimmered where the moonlight caught them. Cups, shields, plates, and statues winked silver and gold in the darkness. They edged along the walls, keeping their eyes on the doors at either end of the room. Harry took out his wand in case Malfoy leapt in and started at once. The minutes crept by.
        “He’s late, maybe he’s chickened out,” Ron whispered. [Ron likes to jump to dramatic conclusions.]
        Then a noise in the next room made them jump. Harry had only just raised his wand when they heard someone speak and it wasn’t Malfoy.
        “Sniff around, my sweet, they might be lurking in a corner.” [Filtch, talking to his cat, as always.]

So, with a lot of dialogue and very little action--they got locked out of the tower, walked a little, Harry pulled out his wand--there was a lot of characterizing in this scene. Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, and even Filtch's personalities all came through really well.

Characterizing with Dialogue in Different Eras

Shades of Milk and Honey 
by Mary Robinette Kowal

        "Did you see him, Jane?"
        "Who?" Jane said, as she drew Melody to the side of the floor, though she knew well who Melody meant. [Jane is taking care that her little sister is out of the way of the dancers.]
        "Captain Livingston! If there is a more handsome, graceful man, I know not where to find him. He is all that is courtesy. And wit! La! Such which he has, and his tales of his work with the Navy are fascinating. He has made a fortune for himself with his captures, and at so young in age." [We can see how excited Melody is by this man. She is exuberant and long-winded. And what she likes characterizes her. She likes his wit, his manners, his compliments, his youth, and his fortune.]
        "I am certain you did not think so highly of him when he left a frog in your sewing kit." [Jane reminds her sister that he was a pest when they were children.]
        Melody laughed. "Indeed. He reminded me of that as we were dancing. So droll. He said that had he known what a beauty I would become, he would have left roses for me instead." [Oh, yes. She likes the guy.]
        "I am certain he would have still left frogs. Boys at that age do not think of girls and roses in the same thought." [Ever the practical big sister. She is not about to get over-excited over the flattery of a man.]
        "You are cruel, Jane. He is so noble and gracious." [This shows a little conflict between them. Melody doesn't like how Jane makes light of her big moment, so she takes a stab at Jane's character.]
        "Were he truly gracious, he would not keep your hand through three sets of dance. Truly Melody, I thought you knew better." [Jane counters with a stab at the captain's character, then takes a stab at Melody as well, scolding like a true big sister who thinks she must mother her younger siblings. She might be right, but her delivery baits her sister and therefore nulls any wisdom she had in her words.]
        Melody stopped and tossed her head, eyes sparkling. "And I thought better of you. Jealousy is unbecoming on you, dear sister. It is not my fault he finds me beautiful." [Melody jumps to the conclusion that her sister's comments are all due to jealousy. It sure feels like they've had similar fights like this before.]

This dialogue gives us a clear picture of two sisters with a little rivalry between them. Jane is a great deal older and still unmarried. The setting is Regency England, which makes Jane's unmarried status a bit of a blight and therefore makes Melody feel superior, with all her handsome suitors.

Characterizing with Narrative

Characterizing in Narrative isn't as popular in books today as it was in the past since it is telling rather than showing. Still, it can be a powerfully effective way of characterizing from the start.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

"Fifteen- year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. She had a decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes, which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful. Her long, thick hair was her one beauty, but it was usually bundled into a net, to be out of her way. Round shoulders had Jo, big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it."
This paragraph tells us much about Jo March. We see her as an awkward adolescent, all hands and feet. She is very much a tomboy. I love visuals of "colt" and "flyaway look." And the way she bundles her "one beauty" into a net tells us that she couldn't care less about being pretty.  The paragraph ends by letting us know that Jo is not pleased about growing up, and this is an important clue to many of Jo's trials to come.

A more recent example of characterizing with narrative would be how Markus Zuzak describes Liesel's adoptive parents in The Book Thief.

Characterizing with Reflection

Readers can learn a lot from how a character reflects on something that has happened, especially in first person stories. While the following excerpt comes late in the story, it shows us a lot about Mia's character. She is outraged here, but we also see that she is hard on herself--calls herself a stupid sap. She tends to be dramatic and overreacts, always expecting the worst. She has an active imagination that she uses to entertain herself and make her worrisome personality a little lighter. But she usually always ends with a doomsday tone.

The Princess Diaries
by Meg Cabot

        How could I have ever liked him? He's such a user. He totally used me! He purposefully hurt Lana and then tried to use me. And I played right into his hands like the stupid sap that I am.
        What am I going to do? When my dad sees that photograph, he is going to FLIP OUT. There is no way I will ever be able to explain that it wasn't my fault. Maybe if I'd punched Josh in the stomach in front of all those cameras, maybe then my dad would believe I was an innocent bystander….
        But probably not.
        I will never be allowed out of the house with a boy again, ever, for the rest of my natural life.

Characterizing with Action/Reaction

We can learn a lot about characters based on the things they do, by what captures their interest (also what they describe), and how they react to others. From this excerpt from my book, The New Recruit, we learn that Spencer has been arrested before--more than once. And we also learn that he is tall based on how he describes himself.

        A dozen knots formed in my stomach. I’d been in a squad car only twice before. And even though I’d been arrested those other times, I’d never been as freaked out as I was now. Because I hadn’t done anything this time.
        I slouched back on the seat as far as I could and adjusted my legs, trying to fit in the small space. I felt like a pipe cleaner inside a Hot Wheels car.

In the following excerpt from my book, Captives, we see Mason's interaction with a woman from the Safe Lands. Their dialogue characterizes them as quite different from one another, but also take note of Mason's politeness and his reaction, not when the woman touches him, but after she comments on his skin.

        “I’m here to task with Ciddah Rourke. The task director general sent me. Are you Miss Rourke?”
        The woman cackled, her mouth so wide Mason could see her the back of her throat. “I’m Rimola. I task in reception. I’m so glad you’re here. Not only are you yummy to look at, now I won’t have rotate to a task where I need to take vitals or stock the rooms with— You’re going to be here every week for six months, right?”
        Mason fumbled for the sheet of paper Dallin had given him. “I suspect that is the Registration Department’s intention for me.” Though Mason planned to be back in Glenrock long before then.
        Rimola gasped. “Are you an outsider?”
        “I’m not from the Safe Lands, no.”
        She reached out. “Can I shake your hand?”
        Mason extended his arm, and Rimola pulled him toward her, rubbing her thumb over the back of his hand. “Fortune be praised, you’re soft! I heard all outsiders were rough and leathery.”
        Mason pulled free and stepped back from the desk. “Miss Rimola, I .. well … Please let Ciddah Rourke know that I’ve arrived.” He walked to the farthest chair from the desk and sat down.

Characterizing with Description

What a character describes and how a character describes are two ways to show who they are. Achan was raised in a kitchen, so he sometimes describes things in a culinary way, as we see in this excerpt from By Darkness Hid.

Outside the manor, dozens of tents and pavilions had popped up like tarts in the northern field, each waving colorful banners and crests.

Achan is a simple guy who lives in a medieval world, so he thinks of things in regards to the world around him, and he doesn't beat around the bush. Here are a few descriptions from To Darkness Fled, in which Achan describes people he is meeting for the first time.

●A thin man with a face like a possum slouched on a throne-like chair opposite the door. He had fine grey hair, a large nose, and beady black eyes.
●Achan recognized the young man’s pale, freckled face and shock of orange hair immediately. Sir Septon Eli himself. A man barely older than Achan.
●The dirty-faced tot was no more than seven. He had a thatch of blond hair over big brown eyes.

For contrast, take note how Vrell describes Achan in the same novel. From her description we can see that she clearly likes clothing and details.
[Achan] stood with Lord Eli at the entrance to the great hall, looking every bit like a rich, exotic prince. He wore a black leather doublet over a royal blue tunic embroidered with silver thread. The sleeves dangled past his fingertips. Silver buckles cinched black trousers below his knees where they met shiny black boots. His black hair slicked back into a braided tail, held in place by a sparkling jewel. No bandage covered his scruffy cheeks, but his facial hair had been trimmed into the start of a beard that would eventually hide his scars.

Here are some other posts about characterizing that you might find helpful:

Can you share in the comments an example from your writing using one of these methods of characterizing?

Monday, January 16, 2017

How To Write Characters Who Are Different From Each Other

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

My first few complete manuscripts featured me as the main character. 

Not that I realized it at the time, but it's pretty easy to see now. Me ... if I had pursued writing for TV. Me ... if I had been from Connecticut. Me ... if I had red hair. And I surrounded my Me character with characters who agreed with me. Or if they didn't, it's because they were terrible people who just didn't "get it."

I think this is a very common starting place for writers. Especially if you begin writing in your teens, like I did. I was still figuring out who I wanted to be, and writing helped me dream.

But eventually you get to a place where you realize all your characters are sounding the same. How can you fix that when you've never been anybody but yourself?

Work to develop empathy in your real life.

Just last week, I was telling a friend how I failed my kids by dropping the ball on a few of their school things. While encouraging me, my friend shared how when she was an elementary school teacher, she used to be very judgmental of the parents who didn't do what she asked. Then she laughed and said, "Now I have a kid in school, and I'm the parent who forgets the show-and-tell item and doesn't fill the estimation jar."

Now, because of her life experiences, she has empathy for others.

When you practice empathy for others in your life, it will translate to writing better characters. When friends are sharing with you, or the news is on, or you're exposed to an opinion different than your own, try to put yourself in their shoes. What's their story? Why might they feel the way they do?

Or if you don't know them, create your own story. What kind of life experience might lead them down this path? What kind of home life? What kind of social barriers?

For the most part, a person's choices or feelings make sense to them. That doesn't mean they are in a healthy place when making those choices or feeling those feelings, just that it is logical to them.There's great valuefor writing and livingto practicing empathy instead of leaping into judgment.

Expose yourself to different cultures and ways of thinking.

We live in an amazing era of being able to share from our own worldview.

If you want to write a character who has skin that's a different color than your own, who grew up in a different era than you, or who has different social, political, or religious beliefs than yours, with a few clicks you can find blogs, books, and articles written by people in those situations. 

Likely this will mean having our own worldview poked, prodded, and maybe even broken in places. But we shouldn't fear that.

Reflect on why you are who you are.

We are all dealt certain cards in life. What are the things in your life that you had no control over but have shaped you? Here are some ideas to get you started:
  • Birth order: Are you an only child? The oldest of two? The seventh of nine? A twin? Adopted?
  • Your parents: Divorced? Happily married? Married, but not happily? Out of the picture completely?
  • Location: Where were you born and raised? What kind of neighborhood did you grow up in? What kind of people are/were in your community?
  • Money: Was there money for extras like piano lessons and ordering pizza? Could you sense financial strain in the family? 
You can dig into religion, or your parents' strategies and thoughts about raising children, or tragedies that happened. I bet you can come up with a lot!

And depending on how old you are, there are likely things you've chosen that have shaped you and had lingering effects. Choices about how to express yourself, what to do with your body, how to spend your money, how to prioritize your time, and so forth. 

When you've thought through all the ways your life has been influenced, it makes it easier to... 

Use this knowledge to give characters diverse backstories.

Don't freak out, but I'm going to suggest you make a spreadsheet. Just real quick. Just to prove a point. I promise there won't be any math, okay?

Put a character name at the top of each column, and then for each row, assign a component of their backstory. You can use the bulleted list above as a starting place. This is just for you, it doesn't have to be perfect.

I talk about this in my Story Workbook Tutorial, but as you start to fill this out, it's going to become very obvious to you if many of your characters have similar family circumstances, skin colors, religions, etc.

This is going to give you a great overview of your cast, and you can easily identify why so many of your characters are sounding the same.

Spend some time writing about that character in their own voice.

But these will all just feel like labels ("the Jewish character" or "the adopted character") if you don't spend time in that character's head. 

James Scott Bell calls these character journals, where you free-write as that character in first person. It's not stuff that's going to necessarily be in the story. You're just digging in and getting a feel for them and their history so that you can write them in a more distinct way. All it takes is asking them a question, and then seeing where the free-write takes you. 

Now that you have a bit of information about your character, you can even pick something from your list and explore that. For example, if you have a character who excels at sports, yet is being raised by two very bookish professors, you could start with the question, "What has it been like to have a passion for something that your parents don't value?"

And then you're going to write in an "I" voice. As in, "I was nine when my parents finally said it would be okay for me to play on a baseball team." From there, just have fun with it and see where it leads!

I hope this has been helpful!

What's something about your main character that is different than you?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Writing Exercise #1: Suspense in Dialogue

Shannon Dittemore is the author of the Angel Eyes trilogy. She has an overactive imagination and a passion for truth. Her lifelong journey to combine the two is responsible for a stint at Portland Bible College, performances with local theater companies, and a love of all things literary. When she isn’t writing, she spends her days with her husband, Matt, imagining things unseen and chasing their two children around their home in Northern California. To connect with Shan, check out her website, FB, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest.

It's Friday, friends! We have so many exciting things happening in 2017 and today I'd like to tell you about one of them.

As Jill mentioned last week, we're going to be experimenting with video blogging this year--primarily recording panels in which the three of us share our thoughts on writing by answering YOUR questions. As hard as we try, we simply cannot get to every email that drops into our inbox, but we do love being helpful and we'd like to give you a chance to ask us those burning questions.

But you're going to have to earn the opportunity! 

Here's how it'll work. Most Fridays, I'll post a writing exercise here on Go Teen Writers. When you participate, leaving your work in the comments section, your name will be entered into a drawing. Every quarter (or thereabout) we'll draw names and each winner will get to submit one writing-related question for the three of us to answer. Steph, Jill and I will then stage a panel and film our answers and post the video here on the blog!

You're cheering, right? Right? Come on, wave those pom pons! This is exciting! Because, seriously, if compelling the three of us to brush our hair and put on makeup in the middle of a writing day isn't incentive enough for you, I promise to do everything in my power to see that Jill's parasol makes an appearance, okay? Okay.

There's an added benefit to this whole thing, you know? It's not just that you might have your name drawn, that you might get to pose a question--it's more than that because you'll be refining your technique by participating in exercises meant to stretch you and get you writing. 

Because here's the thing. The only way to get better at writing, is to write. And we want to do a better job of giving you exercises that will teach you technique as you put pen to the page. 

My goal on most weeks will be to match the Friday exercise with the topics Steph and Jill (and our guests) are blogging about, but I reserve the right to veer off and take you adventuring with me. Like today. Today, we're heading into the choppy waters of conflict and dialogue.

So, let's get started!

Consider: Is Character One nervous? Overly confident? Chatty? Quiet? Which emotional response would generate more suspense in the mind of the reader?

Give your mind a moment to color the scene and then put your fingers on that keyboard and practice writing conflict in conversation. If your word count starts to skyrocket, please choose your favorite chunk and leave that for us. We'll have quite a lot to read and want to make sure we get to everyone's.

Leave your work in the comments section below and be sure to come back throughout the weekend to encourage your friends. Remember, everyone who submits a response will be entered to win a chance to ask us (almost) anything!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How to Question Your Story’s Logic, a guest post from Alyssa Hollingsworth

Jill here. Today's guest post comes from Alyssa Hollingsworth. This is such a great topic, and I really think you'll enjoy how it is presented. Please welcome, Alyssa!

Alyssa was born in small-town Milton, Florida, but life as a roving military kid soon mellowed her (unintelligibly strong) Southern accent. Wanderlust is in her blood, and she’s always waiting for the wind to change. Stories remain her constant. Alyssa received her BA in English from Berry College and her MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She is represented by the fabulous Amber Caraveo at Skylark Literary. Follow her adventures on her blog, on twitter, or join in yourself at WriteOnCon--an online kidlit writing conference!

I started writing down my stories when I turned twelve, and throughout my teen years I became thoroughly obsessed.

But one tiny, slightly important point has always been a struggle to me: Logic.

It isn’t just in my stories, either. Famously, as a small child just learning to swim I decided to see if I could jump through my circular floatie… in the deep end. Yeah, that went well.

Logic is like acting: Easy to notice when someone else is doing it wrong, but hard to evaluate on your own.

So, how can you check the logic in your story and make sure it’s working well?


When your character comes to a crossroads or an important decision, take a second to really think about the options. How would you react in their shoes? How would a friend or family member react differently? Which reaction is most true to this character?

Some writers (like Marissa Meyer) will actually map out the different options before deciding on a route. While you don’t have to go that in-depth if you don’t want to, you should take a moment to really settle into the tension and think through what should come next.

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote when I was younger (with corrected grammar, etc):
“Mommy, may I take care of Thunder [colt]?” Tom asked.
“No, Christy [mom horse] can take care of Thunder just fine,” Mom said.
Quickly Tom told of Christy's death. “So can I take care of Thunder? Please!”
“I suppose.”

As you can see, this situation is resolved far too quickly and doesn’t quite feel right. It’s not logical. But I can explore this scene by asking my characters some questions, like:

Questions Tom’s mom might want to consider:
     Why doesn’t Mom already know about Christy’s death?
     Whose horses are these? Do they belong to Tom’s family or someone else?
     Can an eight-year-old boy take care of a newborn colt by himself?
     How is Tom going to get schoolwork done?
     Who is going to teach Tom how to take care of the colt?


The best way to make sure your story’s logic makes sense is to spend time learning how people work.

     Read. A lot. And not just in one genre. Try to expound into non-fiction books about historical figures. (They aren’t all dull!)
     Journal. Keep a journal for your own thoughts and feelings. Use it to process what’s happening in your own life. Not only will this help you understand yourself better, you can also refer to your notes for ideas.
     Spend time with people. I know we writers tend to be introverts, but spending time with actual alive human beings is important.
     Eavesdrop and take notes. Carry a little journal with you and take notes on interesting interactions you overhear. Go people-watching frequently and make up stories for the people you see.

Here is another example from a story I wrote as a child in which I could have benefited from doing some research:
After he told [the policeman] he had no license and had killed the buck with a spear, the man clamped metal around his wrists and made him get into the car.
[A bit later, after Arthur challenges the policeman to a duel]
“Hey, okay, you’re free to go,” Josh said, edging around Arthur and making a dash for the car.

You would think that as a teen I would have known you can’t get out of an arrest by challenging a police officer to a duel. Apparently, common sense was not my strongest attribute. I should have done some research on hunting laws and what can happen to a person caught breaking them.


No matter how much you study and teach yourself, you will always have blind spots when it comes to your writing. By reaching out to others, you can minimize problems and maximize awesomeness in your story.

     Find writing partners. These can be friends online or in person. Swap stories with them and ask them to look for logical problems. Bonus points if you get some partners who are different from you (younger, older, diverse, math-brained...).
     If appropriate, put (some of it) online. While publishing original fiction on Wattpad or Figment might not be the best plan for long term publication prospects, it can be a great way to get feedback from others around the web. Be open to critique (ask for it!), especially when a plot hole or logic error crops up.
     Write fanfiction. Fanfiction is great because it gives you all the practice for writing fabulous stories, but you don’t have to worry so much about being a Very Serious, Very Secretive Author. It can be a great option as you stretch your logic skills.
     Seek out literal thinkers. For me, it’s my military dad, Spock-like brother, and hypercritical sister. For you, it might be friends who don’t write but love to analyze stories.

Here is something I wrote when I was younger and shared with some readers:

“Another morning,” Cedrin said to himself as he pulled on his tunic. “Another day filled with reading and—oh joy—flower exploration.”

The Literal Thinkers I found to read this story were quick to point out that having my hero study flowers out of sheer boredom was:


Finally, the best way to become aware of logical problems in your writing is to step away from the story. Take a month off (or six, or twelve) and work on another project. Do everything you can to not even think about that story, so you’ll forget the little details.

Return with fresh eyes and read the book like it isn’t your own. You’ll be surprised when what seemed to make perfect sense the first time around now seems entirely impractical, like in the following example.

Robert (teen): By—by the way, I sort of—crashed an airplane in your barn. My co-pilot got shot by the woman with us, then she shot herself. I'm not good at landing.
Benjamin (an adult): I hope it was not the barn where my animals are kept.

Now that I’ve had some time away from that story, I can clearly see these other responses that might have made more sense:

Have you ever caught a logical error in your story? How did you spot it, and how did you change it? Leave a comment below!

Monday, January 9, 2017

What To Do When Your Manuscript Is Too Short Or Too Long

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street, which releases in February 2017. Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for monthly updates on her authorwebsite.

If you're writing a book for publication, whether you're planning to self-publish or submit to traditional houses, you probably know that your book needs to be a certain length. The ideal word count for a book varies depending on genre, and while there are always exceptions (books that sell well despite being shorter or longer than normal) if you want your book to find its happy place in the market, you don't want to count on being an exception.

While each genre has its own ideal length, generally speaking, if you're a new writer trying to get published or get readers to take a chance on you, it's best to not go over 100,000 words. 

If you're anything like I was as a young writer, you're thinking, "That is no problem at all! Really, my issue is trying to keep my book from being a novella!"

Or you might be like the sweet girl I met at a writer's workshop a week ago, who was in tears because her book is over 200,000 words long and she doesn't know what to do.

So what do you do if your books aren't magically the length they should be? Here are some ideas.

If your books are too short:

I have been there. With basically every book I've ever written.

First, consider your draft style. Are you a bare bones type of writer? I am. My first drafts are scrawny, with lots of dialogue and hardly any description at all. So I've learned that when I start working on edits, I'm going to add thousands of words just with description. If I'm trying to write an 80,000 word novel, I don't panic if my first draft finishes at 65,000 words because that tends to work out okay.

But if I was aiming for an 80,000 word novel and my draft came in at 40,000 then I would know I had a problem. So what do you do if your book comes in way too short?

First, resist the urge to throw in some "extra stuff." You don't want to just add more words. You want to add more story, and that takes being intentional.

It's possible you have plenty of story to work with, but you haven't mined the idea for all it's worth. This has frequently happened to me when I've read my first drafts. I often see all kinds of potential that I didn't initially dig into. Other times, I've brainstormed with writer friends, and they spotted missed opportunities.

Or it's possible that you don't have enough story for the length that you hoped it would be. I've had that happen too. What I've done in those situations is add a subplot. This gets tricky, because you don't want it to sound like you just added a subplot at the end. I wrote a post a few years ago on How To Add To Your Plot After You've Finished Your First Draft, and that can help guide you through the weaving-it-in process. Another post you might find helpful is this one on combining story ideas.

As I've written more complete manuscripts, I've developed a feel for how much story I need to sustain the word count I'm targeting. The same will be true for you too, I bet! The more you write, the better you'll get at pacing a story for the length you want.

If your books are too long:

If you write epic fantasy, congratulations! Longer books are part of the drill. But if your contemporary romance manuscript is clocking in at 175,000 words ... that's a problem.

First, I know it's not fun to hear, but it's possible not all those words are absolutely necessary. If you're just 5k or 10k over where you want to be, you can borrow a trick from my friend Roseanna White. If she is 10,000 words over her word count, and her book is 300 pages long, she divides 10k by 300, which is 33ish. Then she tries to cut 33 words on every page. The result is a leaner, clearer story.

But if a bit of word trimming doesn't get you where you need to be, consider:
  • Cutting a character or two: Is it possible you could combine a few characters? That can be painful, but you could always save them for a later novel.
  • Squashing the timeline: This is something I frequently get wrong in my first drafts. I tend to have my story take place over too long of a stretch of time, and it drags down the tension. What happens if you accelerate your timeline?
  • Cut a red herring or twist: A red herring is a clue that your main character follows that ends up going nowhere. Could you cut one of those? What about a twist or two that you have in the plot?
But if you decide to make cuts, don't delete those passages! You can save them and turn them into behind-the-scenes extras for readers to enjoy on your website, or as something special for those who sign up for your author newsletter.

Maybe you're more like 50k to 75k over. Or more. Here are some ideas for that:
  • Reconsider all your POV characters. Do all of them tell a unique perspective of the story? If not, maybe you could cut one of them or change them into a non-POV character. Or would this character be better served by having their story told in a separate book?
  • Is there a natural place where you could cut this book in half? Or, depending on how big it is, into thirds?
  • Are there too many subplots? If it doesn't serve the main story, could you cut it or move it to a different book? Are there any trails your character takes that ultimately lead nowhere?
The answer might not be obvious to you on how to cut down your massive manuscript that you love and have labored over, but I bet if a writer friend read your story (or even a 5 to 10 page synopsis) they could spot some potential places for trimming. It's always easier when you're not the one who has to do all the work!

Do your first drafts tend to be shorter or longer than what you targeted?